Unification and the trans-human limit of knowing

Here’s a unification:

Acceleration and slowing down are both possible values of F=ma


Acceleration and slowing down are the same thing.


Uniform motion and rest give the same result to the equation F=ma


uniform motion and rest are the same.

We can fill out these ideas in various ways, e.g. by the various thought experiments pointing to inertia, or by pointing to the fact that we can’t detect or feel a difference between uniform motion and rest or between A accelerating into B or B decelerating into A. But everything hangs on the equation. Without the equation, both conclusions are mere esoteric philosophical opinions.

1.) Note that the argument rests on seeing the symbol as the proper expression of reality. The word “motion” obviously means something different than rest, but the symbol “a” unifies them as identical values (zero).

2.) A grand unified theory would be a unification of being and nothingness; or at least of the physical and non-physical. The model of all model would be its own anti-model. It might even predict “anti-being”, whatever this would…

3.) The simplest account here is that unified contraries are the same qua symbolized, and the attempt to identify reality with its symbol collapses us into an anti-scientific world where everything is everything is nothing is something. “Scientific metaphysics” is a contradiction.

4.) But to leave it at this would not explain why the symbolic unification works. The gibberish one hits with the thought of scientific metaphysics – with equations having being as a symbolic value – captures something real. We understand motion in its identity with rest or acceleration in its identity with gravity.

5.) The simplest account here is that we’re working from an idea that we know things to the extent that we transcend the differences among them while still preserving them. We want models and math not because they are symbolic or even because we understand math well but because the math transcends, or at least can be understood as transcending. But this universalizes the problem to apply to knowledge as such – which means that perfect knowledge is either a contradiction or achieved by a mind in another state.

6.) But increase in qualitative magnitude (better and worse, truer and more false, more and less square, etc.) differs from increase in quantitative magnitude (numbers, lengths) because the former exists relative to some maximum (cf. the first two axioms of Leibniz’s Metaphysics). A number can become bigger without ever approaching a biggest but a surface can’t become bluer except by approaching the bluest (say, by a paint approaching the color you’re mixing into it.) But no qualitative maximum is contradictory, therefore, etc.

7.) This mind in another state is either potentially human or not. If not, the natural desire for perfect knowledge is impossible. My suspicion is that this violates (6) as well.

The sense that only the universe acts

The familiar argument against free will really proves that only the universe acts – the attempt to isolate any smaller system as a source of action would, so the argument goes, would remove it from the laws of nature. But what would it mean to say that only the universe acts? Leaving aside the implausible idea that the universe is an organism, all this could mean is that it acts because there is nothing else to act upon it. But this is no more reason to act than not to act; and to get action out of this would be to try to get something out of nothing.

We can make the universe infinite in time and so deny that there was ever a set of initial conditions with nothing before it. But all this would be is to respond to the question “what does it mean to say the universe acts?” by saying that it has always done so.

This is not a critique but an argument that we seem to have reasons to think that the universe both must act and that there can be no coherent account of what it would mean for it to do so.


The denial of free will and omne quod movetur

The contemporary argument against free will given by Harris, Gazzaninga and many others (and found ad litteram from Lucretius to Einstein) makes an appeal to the major premise of the classical theistic argument that everything in motion is moved by another. After reducing reality to fundamental inert particles, motion can only be initiated from another. To initiate motion would mean to have no need of some energy source, but no motion is of this sort.

That said, omne quod is broader than the modern version of it used in the free will argument. St. Thomas, for example, reduces the truth of the premise to material causality, or to the fact that mobiles need parts forming a larger whole. This reminds one of the modern form of the argument, where nothing in motion can be isolated from a larger system. Either way, the premise deserves a larger hearing in philosophy of science.

The claim that abstractions are non-causal

- From the moment I heard it, I’ve had an allergy to the claim that abstract differs from the concrete by being non-causal.

- This means either that speech is being left out or that speech is non-causal, and both options seem ridiculous. Either way, the very axiom we use to express the idea (i.e. the abstractions we use in the hope of causing knowledge) is left out of what the axiom is supposed to capture.

-As a consequence, we deny the I-thou relation any causal power.

- If you claim to see that Platonism is axiomatically wrong, you’ve made a wrong turn somewhere. It might be wrong, but you need to do a lot more work to prove it.

-If speech is left out of the causal picture, so (presumably) is all semantic information. So the axiom would rule out the possibility that all information is semantic.

-Making God concrete as opposed to abstract gives rise to the Euthyphro problem irresolvable. It also renders an account of divine simplicity impossible, and all denials of divine simplicity are pushed by force of logic to a god that is a material being.

-The concrete is particular, and no particular is formally causal. Causality formally transcends the genus of particular causes. It would be truer to say that the concrete is non causal.

- And no, it won’t do to say that the axiom arises from a more restricted view of Aristotle’s causes. Abstractions are efficient causes. An advisor is an efficient cause (he’s actually the example that Aristotle gives of efficient causality in Physics II. 3), which makes advice a cause of the same order.

What if Scriptural revelation started now?

The point of the question is to reconstruct revelation from the beginning with whatever is its analogous matter in our own time, with a hope of getting a clearer view of the sort of thing revelation is.

Notice first that revelation is not a genre of writing, still less a style or a form. “Writing revelation over again” is not the same sort of thing as writing in hexameters again, or writing long, Russian-style serialized novels, or haiku, or Ciceronean rhetoric. Revelation is not even necessarily writing – it includes all sorts of songs, descriptions of land divisions, legal codes, etc. and the people who write things like this are not writers in a straightforward sense.

For revelation to begin again would involve writings that constituted a nation; and it would not be some conspicuous hegemon or grand imperial power but a far more modest notion, say, Guatemala. Revelation would thus start with scandal and offense: one part of the world is giggling and groaning at the thought that Guatemala would be God’s chosen focus and the Guatemalans are offended at the giggles. The groans are coming from, for example, American political theorists who are wondering why God would choose Guatemalan political ideas and legal traditions as the documents that will live forever in a Scriptural canon; or from scientists at Caltech or CERN who are horrified by the idea that Guatemalan science will now be the backbone of the cosmological picture that will be used in the wisdom literature.

Over time, some sort of narrative would grow out of this scandal. Let’s assume it’s the same narrative that actually arose in Scripture itself: God chooses the weak and makes them strong. In light of what’s just been said, we must stress that the “weakness” we’re speaking of includes even the weakness of being less true. It would be pointless to argue against groaning American political theorists that Guatemalan political theory is secretly superior to all of their original ideas, and even more pointless to fantasize about Americans getting their ideas political  from the Mayans (the way that some people fantasized that the Greeks got monothestic ideas from Israel). Again,it would be pointless to argue with the physicists at CERN that they ought to revise their theories in light of  Tz’utujil mythology. All of this is a rejection of the scandal that God chooses the weak. He doesn’t choose them because they are adorable in their smallness (like baby seals) or somehow more spiritually pure. To reason like this is to reject revelation as decisively as someone who rejects its divine origin because of its condoning of geocentrism or genocide.

But it is also helpful to consider another possible narrative that Scripture decisively rejects, sc. the Socratic account of humility. Socrates also saw himself as chosen by God, and he also saw himself as humble and lacking the possession of truth, but he understood this to mean that God’s true message was that all human knowledge was not worth much. In the Socratic narrative, God chooses the weak to show the reality of human weakness. On a Socratic account, the whole point of using, say Tz’usujil mythology was to show the physicists at CERN that none of their findings are ultimately better than a pre-modern myth. But this is also not true: God does not choose the weak to prove that weakness is given by nature but in order to make the weak strong.  

Strength, however, is any sort of perfection, and God does not appear to be interested in all of them. He chose a people with a weak cosmology, but he did not empower them to deliver a true one; he chose a people with a very non-progressive and unenlightened morality but he did not give them the full bloom of an Enlightened one; he chose a people with a much more rudimentary and unpolished rhetoric but did not give them polished and refined one (this last point was a great scandal to a young Augustine). What he gave this nation was the full revelation of himself in the incarnation of his son, who in turn gave the Holy Spirit that all persons, in the fullness of time, might be made divine though conformity to the image of the Father. This is at once an obviously more perfect good and one that is much harder to verify – a perfect rhetoric or Enlightened morality would be a lot easier to provide evidence for. For that matter, it would be a lot easier to verify persons who were just made divine right now, and who walked about the earth with resurrected and glorified bodies.  The early Church, in fact, could not stand the idea that this final moment would be put off for very long – in fact, one might even read Christ himself as unable to bear that this moment would be put off too long. But here we are, almost two millennia later, in the tension that Christ’s revelation has neither gone away or been fulfilled.

And so there is a scandal of revelation at almost every turn. God chooses the weak, but not because the weak are secretly adorable or clever; and he chooses the weak not to show the rest of the world that they are nothing but that he might glorify the rest of the world with a better good than any of the ways in which they are better than the weak. This greater good, moreover, is not one given right away, but one requiring a gamble to be made in the face of a scandal.

And so if revelation were started now all the same objections to it would arise as have already arisen. It is pointless – or at least unnecessary – to try to hide or find some hidden good in Scripture’s erroneous cosmologies or glorified genocides or bad rhetoric or moral backwardness or misguided religious ideas. God chooses the weak, with all of their backward ideas, misguided zealotry, cultural prejudice, copyist mistakes, half-baked guesses about the future, ignorance, sloppy writing style, and all the rest of it. All the glories of the people come along too, but these are no more necessary to the revelation than the other stuff.

All this might be taken as degrading Scripture, but I insist that it isn’t. Scripture marks a unique moment where, as Dei Verbum puts it God chose men and… made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted. This does not mean God agreed with their intentions in writing the words, but he agrees to all the words all the same, in a way that he does not do in any other writing. We have what we are certain are divine words, but we are equally certain that there are times when these words must diverge from the intention of the human beings who wrote them down. Revelation will always be essentially an enterprise of starting from the effect of some intention, and trying to reason back to what the intention was, ever mindful that the intention of the human mind writing them might be a blind alley, a mistake, or perhaps even a monstrosity (unlike Islam, the Judeo-Christian tradition does not insist that prophecy or revelation must come through the saints. cf. John 11:51 And this spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation.) Seen from this angle, the errors of scripture are necessary guideposts and crucial reminders that we can’t just read off meaning from the sense of the words, whether we take the “the sense of the words” as fudamentalists do when they make their supposed “literal readings” or if we take it as Liberal theologians do when they make an exegesis of the original historical meaning of the text.

Scriptural revelation, whenever it would be given, requires a method of moving from a word to the divine intention of the word. It requires that the divinization promised in the revelation be already to some extent accomplished so that it might inform exegesis not by mere human science but by the very mind of the one who we desire to hear speaking in it. Scriptural exegesis is therefore by definition prayer as opposed to science, i.e. it is placing one’s mind in the domain of divine intentions. This is the way in which science and philosophy are considered as handmaids to theology, and apart from this ascent, theology is just more human reasoning that could be done better by the devil himself.

Metaphysics and method, ii

If by “method” all one means is a short or best way of discovering truth, and this truth rest primarily on vision and not on any ability to generate some product (like radar or an atomic explosion), then there are many good proposals for metaphysical method. Deciding between them is simply a matter of reading the arguments and thinking real hard.

But what gives scientific method such a forceful and unignorable claim to truth is its ability to inform modes of engineering (not just of mechanical engines but also biotech and information systems). The muscle of scientific method is its ability to engineer things, not just obvious consumables but, more essentially, the experiments that we can point to as real instances of the physical models we have conceived of and engineered. Metaphysics does not have an ability to inform a practical science corresponding to its object. To someone who sees the muscle of a method is its power to engineer, metaphysics will seem weak, ineffectual, and hopelessly lost in a diversity of unresolvable opinions.

But just as a complete engineering would be able to reproduce all possible physical systems, “metaphysical engineering” approach a state of being able to reproduce existence simply. It would model not just interactive systems governed by physical laws but all realized or even realizable modes of existence and action. Here’s the problem: some modes of existence are simply non-reproducible, e.g. anything unique considered in its uniqueness. This includes not just anything that had an identity of what it was and its singular existence but anything that must be related to personally – things that must be a “you”.

To have a metaphysical engineering would require a mind that, in bringing something forth, could bring forth something essentially unique, that is, a mind that could bring forth what was truly unrepeatable. The generation of the trinitarian persons would be the (logically) highest such instance of this, but any generation of an individual in its individuality – what is usually just called a thing that actually exists – would require a degraded form of this same generation.

But then if all knowledge is complete only when there is some supposed engineering behind it, and generation is always essentially of the unique, then complete knowledge of generation, if possible, requires a mind that can conceptualize the unrepeatable. Such a knowledge is divided irreducibly from the experimental, which demands repeatability; and it would not fall under a law, which is defined by its being repeated.

The case against metaphysics having a method

1.) The inductive case: we haven’t found one in spite of doing it by name since Aristotle.

2.) Methods belong within specialized experience; metaphysics does not appeal to specialized experience.

3.) Methods in speculative science lead to transliterated terms. We don’t translate “hydrogen” or “Hilbert space”, and there is no need to. We don’t even translate “circle” as mathematics defines either, in spite of having many words for it. It’s not translated for the same reason “docecahedron” wasn’t translated in the older mathematics. The reality one was speaking about is not given outside the theory or conceptual structure in which we came to understand it. But metaphysics does not have transliterated terms of this sort.

4.) I’m appealing to Davidson’s marvelous argument against conceptual schemes and doing some violence to it. I think his argument really comes to that there is no scheme of all schemes, or that “a scheme” really only exists in a limited domain of specialized experience. I’m driving at the idea that Davidson is giving us a way to understand being as being, and, by implication, a way to understand the infinity of mind. So in response to Kant’s objection that, say, causality cannot have a transcendental value, we could say “yes it does, because causality is not given within a conceptual scheme, for there are no such things (at least outside of specialized experience)”.

5.) Conceptual structures are limits of what can be known. Being is not a limitation on what can be known.

6.) Method makes various thing unintelligible or meaningless. There is, for example, no meaning to four-dimensional quantity in Euclidean Geometry. It is not in a position to judge four-dimensionality as wrong or ridiculous, it is simply non-cognizant of it. Like dividing by zero, it’s simply non-defined. But in metaphysics things are not meaningless but only wrong or ridiculous. This is one of the deep errors in the modern drift toward wanting to say things are “meaningless” or “unintellgible” when in fact we see, or think we see, that they are ridiculous or absurd. Note that this arose out of the desire to have a bona fide method for metaphysics, or to dismiss it for not having one. Here I’m thinking of John Oesterle’s two-part argument against meaninglessness in one of the old editions of The Thomist. 

7.) The name “metaphysics” indicates some desire to transcend categories – to go from physics to something else – which involves a heterogeneity of objects under consideration. The role of analogy in metaphysics points to a renunciation of domain. But method consists precisely in a limited and specified domain.

8.) Terms that drift away from experience make metaphysics loathsome and decadent. The same such terms in other sciences are crucial to their advance.

We’ve drifted away from defining discourses by their objects and have tended to define the objects themselves by their methods (e,g, the universe is whatever can be physically modeled, weight is whatever causes numbers on scales). So taken, metaphysics will seem ridiculous, and certainly unscientific.

Metaphysics, self-refection, and certitude

Theism or atheism or agnosticism arise when we take the physical sciences themselves as an object of discourse. This, at least, has been a consistent feature of physical science from the first moment it existed until now. The science itself, that is, its method and conceptual scheme, are taken as material or as objects that fall under and are contextualized by some other discourse.

But if science itself has become an object of science, we have reached a final level of discourse. To introduce a supposed meta-level to this discourse would be simply to posit it again.

Nevertheless, physical science is still a material component to this last science, and matter forms an essential part of whatever it enters into. Thus, to the extent that physical science changes there will be essential changes in this self-reflective science.

But in order for there to be change at all there must be some reference to a stable background. But here we’re speaking about a science as a science, and so there must be something unchanging within it. The problem of certitude therefore arises again as a necessary component of our desire to reach to theism or atheism or agnosticism from a reflection on physical science.

Minimally, this certitude would be the mind’s own reflection on itself, that is, the cogito or something like it. Here we might reconnect with the Augustinian tradition or the post-Kantian idealists.

Cosmology and theism: a follow up

Theism can never be a conclusion within cosmology. Here’s an analogy: let E be whatever theory you give to explain the existence of mathematical things: maybe it’s Abstractionism, maybe it’s a consistency theory of quantitative relations, maybe it’s a Platonic theory of separated forms. Arguendo, let’s assume Abstractionism. Therefore the human mind in conjunction with the imagination is the universal cause of mathematical things as such. Now, make the human mind in conjunction with the imagination a conclusion of a geometrical or arithmetic theorem. This has certainly never been done, and the very idea of such a thing seems pretty ridiculous. Where would the terms of the conclusion even come from?

Thus, the universal cause of things falling under some description cannot be discovered by the science of the things falling under that description. But God is the universal cause of the cosmos, therefore, etc.

Sean Carroll’s refutation of William Lane Craig- UPDATED (and heavily revised)

Although originally set forth as a refutation of a Kalam argument proposed by WLC, Sean Carroll gives a refutation of any attempt to found a cosmological argument on the findings of modern cosmology:

Why should we expect that there are causes or explanations or a reason why in the universe in which we live? It’s because the physical world inside of which we’re embedded has two important features. There are unbreakable patterns, laws of physics—things don’t just happen, they obey the laws—and there is an arrow of time stretching from the past to the future…. But crucially, both of these features of the universe that allow us to speak the language of causes and effects are completely absent when we talk about the universe as a whole. We don’t think that our universe is part of a bigger ensemble that obeys laws. Even if it’s part of the multiverse, the multiverse is not part of a bigger ensemble that obeys laws. Therefore, nothing gives us the right to demand some kind of external cause.

Carroll wins this debate decisively, and while he may not always respond to Craig formally (which might lead some to think he isn’t responding to him) he clearly refutes the arguments against him. For example, he gives very good reasons why fine tuning can’t be designed, and so must either be a stroke of good luck or follow from some law. Since he sees fine tuning arguments as the best Craig has to offer (and he’s right in this) nothing I say after this, which will be critical of Carroll, need bother him all that much. I concede his refutation of what is, to him, the best argument against him. But I disagree with the universality of the account of cause that Carroll is working from.

Carroll’s argument turns on what can count as a cause, and for him this is an entity that is prior in time (and so in the general procession of entropy) and which is co-ordinated with its effect under some general law. First, my suspicion is that it is impossible to restrict the meaning of “cause” to this, even in cosmology, for two reasons: (I) At some point cosmologists will appeal to a cause and effect happening at the same time, and so the arrow of time will become superfluous, but this is the only connection that Carroll’s account of cause has to concrete objects in the universe (one can sense time and disorder but not “laws”). (II) cosmologists will have to make some use of statistical laws, but a statistical law cannot predict a particular as particular (e.g. the likelihood that I will have a car accident can’t explain my having this accident here and now.) But so far as this is the case, Carroll’s account of a cause can only be exhaustive if  either i.) There is no cause at all of particulars. or ii.) Particular things are not real. Both alternatives commit him to idealism, just as Berkeley proved they would; and “idealist naturalism” is almost certainly an oxymoron.

But the deeper problem with Carroll’s attempt to universalize his account of cause is that if all he means is that there can be no intrinsic argument within cosmology that concludes to God, then it’s not even clear if Craig himself needs to dispute this. If all Carroll means is that theology is not included as a subtopic in cosmology, and so can’t be concluded to by methods that Cosmologists use, then its hard to see what objection Craig would have. But if what Carroll wants to deny that cosmology can provide various data points that provide evidence for God when viewed in light of an account of cause that is broader than the one used by Cosmologists, then he is ipso facto working from the wrong account of a cause. After all, he’s giving an account of cause that is tailored to cosmology, or at least to the science of natural objects.

To his credit, Carroll does offer some dialectical arguments for Naturalism too, which I’ll have to deal with later.

« Older entries Newer entries »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 154 other followers