Miracles and Scientific Naturalism

I’m fiddling around with this argument:

The sciences seek hidden explanations from manifest phenomena. We don’t need science to explain what we know from the beginning. But a miracle is a manifest phenomenon as opposed to one that needs to be ferreted out from things already known. And so the nature of miracles is opposed to their being scientific conclusions.

-Problem: not every divine intervention in the world need be called a miracle. There are at least three or four possibilities for divine intervention that are not considered miraculous: (a.) God’s tinkering with things quietly (b) doctrines like the special creation of the human soul; and (c) sacramental or moral transformation of things by grace.

My suspicion is that the divine action in the world will either be manifest or hidden in a way that we won’t be able to crack by systematic analysis. True, we can give some account of the need for special creation of the soul, and perhaps even for the moral transformation of that soul, but the concrete account of how this happens, i.e. our ability to cash out the doctrine in a physical theory, will prove elusive.

Here’s my argument: to cash out a doctrine in a physical theory we need to assume that our manipulation of the phenomena does not make a difference to what they would do of themselves, that is, that there is no already existent intention in the phenomena themselves that might conflict with our intentional manipulation of things so as to obtain an experimental finding. But divine intervention is of itself just such a pre-existent intention. And so special action in the world must either be manifest or prove elusive to our attempts to fit something into a physical theory.


Note on the critique of the reality of existence

Kant’s critique of existence, as it filtered through Analytic philosophy, became an argument like this:

Any real predicate (a predicate said of individuals) must be able to be both affirmed and denied of individuals.

Existence cannot be affirmed and denied of individuals.

Therefore existence is not a real predicate.

I see the force of the argument but it seems like it works better as a reductio ad absurdum against the major premise. “Exists” and “real” are more or less equivalent predicates, and it would be very odd to demand that “real” and “unreal” both be real. It would be like demanding that there were no real places on maps because “not a place on the map” does not show up on GPS. In other words, we can just say (with Barry Miller) that existence is a real predicate and non-existence isn’t; or that the whole problem is in assuming that non existence must be a real predicate, not in assuming that existence is one.


The fallacy of conspiracy theory

Informal fallacies get thrown about a lot, but it’s not always clear how they are corruptions of reasoning. But conspiracy theories do seem to be a real corruptions of reasoning.

Conspiracy theory requires something more than a secret plan to do something unlawful or deceptive. Any group of drug dealers or petty criminals does this, and there are certainly more glamorous spy-movie style historical conspiracies, like the burning of the Reichstag. But the recognition that there are such things does not usually get called a conspiracy, and believing in such things is not the sort of thing that makes for conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theory only seems to kick in when there is a substantial body of patent evidence against the conspiracy: The Warren Commission report, the consensus among specialists for Stratfordianism or climate change, the NTSB incident report of TWA flight 800, the 9-11 commission report, a pile of evidence for Obama’s native birth, extensive studies showing no link between vaccines and autism, O.J.’s blood at the crime scene with a single glove seen by 14 cops and an eyewitness who saw him fleeing the area, etc.*

The fallacy of conspiracy thinking can be seen from the fact that it is a way of reasoning that has never borne fruit. None of its gun show, “shocking truth of the real story” narratives has ever set out a case that came to be seen as true.   I stress that it is a false belief in logic, i.e. about the way to the truth and about the nature of truth itself. It is a sad thing to watch those who suffer from it.


*I leave aside the various economic conspiracy theories since they all seem to be based on a much simpler mistake of assuming that the economy is the sort of thing that can be controlled in any sort of precise, function-machine like way.

Mechanism and life

It’s non-controversial to call living things “machines” if you use the term in its literal sense of devices that change the direction and magnitude of a force: a jaws and elbows are obvious levers, ball sockets work like wheels and axles, etc. This is how Newton saw them (see the end of cor. 2 in the section of the laws of motion) and Descartes need not mean anything more by his physical mechanism (famously applied to animals).

One overlooked element in the scientific revolution is that it begins with motion already as given, and is only interested in the structures or rules that govern motion’s transference -i.e. things like machines. Newton’s first law,  for example, doesn’t explain motion as such but says that if there is motion it will continue indefinitely; and his second law describes changes of motions, i.e. exactly what machines do. The question of the origin or character of the motion simply cannot arise, and so the relevant difference between the living and the mechanical cannot arise. Modern physics is not the tool one uses for capturing the distinction between life and machines in the same way that a scale is not the tool one uses to capture the distinction between ten pounds of potatoes and ten pounds of steel.

Seen from this angle, Descartes’s “dualism” is just this: some systems consist only in activities where the relevant changes are just changes in the direction and magnitude of force and other systems involve activities where the relevant changes are not of this kind, sc. changes like the move from premises to the conclusion, from a function to its values, or from a goal or value to a choice. The first sort of system, however,  includes both a seesaw and an elbow joint, a wheel and a ball-socket, the living and non-living. We are not demoting animals, only giving a more helpful or useful way of articulating the Aristotelian difference of souls that cannot subsist without matter and souls that can. It’s not a repudiation of Aristotle’s idea but a way to open it up to a larger and more exact analysis.

Notes on an objection to Platonism

This whole article was good, even this objection, though I strongly disagree with it:

Still, despite its clean lines and long history, Platonism [about numbers and universals- ed.] cannot be right either. Since the time of Plato himself, nominalists have been urging very convincing objections. Here’s one: if abstracta float somewhere outside our own universe of space and time, it’s hard to imagine how can we see them or have any other perceptual contact with them. So how do we know they’re there?

-Plato himself gives a clear answer to this in the Phaedo, sc. because we saw them before we had bodies. This might, however, be taken as proving the point – if our epistemology calls for pre-existence, it will certainly have a hard time convincing almost everybody nowadays.

-That said, Plato proves the pre-existence of soul from our intuition of abstract objects. The intuition itself is manifested from other sources. As odd as it seems to talk about “manifesting an intuition” (since intuitions must be, if anything, seen in themselves) it nevertheless has a clear sense in Plato. The sensible world is a cause of remembrance, but it is still a necessary cause. Plato’s theory of knowledge requires that knowledge begin with sensation, but this sensation is a principle of recalling, not of abstracting.

-In a word: Plato denies that we now know universals and ideas by direct intuition of another world. We now depend on sensation, and know by sensation first. Plato does not have a theory of intuition of universals, but of recollecting them.

-So if Plato, just like the Nominalists, agree that the sensible world is the given starting point, how do we decide between abstraction and recollection? Plato’s answer in Phaedo seems to be that abstraction requires that the thing we abstract the form from be like the form abstracted, but we do not always form ideas from things that are like the idea. We sometimes get a very clear idea of justice by witnessing at a flagrant injustice, a clear idea of the infinite from the finite, or of eternal things from contingent things. For that matter, we get an idea of the abstract from the concrete.

-Again, abstraction is, at the same time, an end result of a group of particulars and the governing concept that causes them to be grouped together in the first place. So is the universal initially just formed by chance? Is it implicit in sense knowledge alone? Even if the latter is true (and even animals have some rudimentary universals from sense alone) is it always so implicit?

-Plato’s argument, considered formally, does not require the pre-existence of the soul but any transempirical intuition (though this intuition, as we now exist, is knowable only by recollection). It is extraordinarily hard to avoid these all such intuitions. At the bare minimum, it’s hard to avoid them with respect our knowledge of our own selves, and if of ourselves, we have some knowledge of all that belongs essentially to the self- being, goodness, freedom, contingency, etc.


-Even if we pre-existed, this pre-existence does not account for transempirical intuition. The sense is that, without a body, mind would know in the way proper to it, as opposed to having to recollect.

-”Recollection” for Plato is just when, seeing one thing (whether alike or similar to another) we are caused to know that other. The parenthetical makes the difference between recollection and abstraction.

-I try to correct my students when they speak of “abstractions”. This is a theoretical account of the genesis of ideas or universals.


A deductive account of the multiple soul question

Aristotle defines a soul as a thing that makes things potentially alive actually alive. But this description is applies has three or four distinct instances:

1.) Physical assimilationSoul is what can turn calcium in the environment into actual bones, or protein in the environment into muscle, or oxygen in the air into something in blood cells. The “physical” here involves addition of mass and the change of place of things so that they enter into an already existing individual. This is Aristotle’s “nutritive” soul, though it has to include respiration and any other mode of physical assimilation. The preservation of the individual by fighting off disease or fixing injuries is included here as well so far as things are activated to preserve the integrity and wholeness of the already existing individual.

2.) Generation of the individual. Here again, things potentially alive are made actually alive, but they are not made alive within some already existing individual, but as an existing individual. The process will not always be the same: it differs for vegatables/dividing zygotes or asexual beings or sexual ones.

3.) Cognitive assimilation. Knowing is a vital activity, and so here again things potentially living are incorporated into something actually living. Unlike (1), the assimilated thing is preserved in its full alterity, even though the thing is assimilated to something already existing. So far as there is some presupposed subject, it is like physical assimilation; so far as the act of the act itself is something other than this subject it is like generation.

Cognitive assimilation itself must divide into an object that is partially constituted by the subject and those that are in no way constituted by the subject. Sensible objects are clearly of the first sort since they all involve some interaction with an organ. Other objects are not constituted in their first act by interacting with an organ – mathematical objects, or realities like cause, or idealizations or ideals as such. A purely interactive account of nature would have to simply deny that these things are objects of cognition at all, though this strikes me as a dead end.

Locomotion does not constitute a distinct aspect of soul, but is instrumental to the above three so far as we need to move around eat, reproduce, or some to know some things. Again, motion in animals does not seem to be essentially different from change of structure in plants – both are simply instrumental to the effective harvesting of energy or the detecting of environmental signals.

On this account, there are three or four accounts we can give of soul, each of which are really separable in one way or another. Each satisfies a different sense of a principle that makes something potentially alive to be actually alive.

Christianity as a morality as opposed to moral

I’ve developed a nausea for treating Christianity as a morality. I’ll be polite and not mention the sources of the nausea: the Christian papers and news outlets and blogs that relate one moral outrage after another.

I’m not talking about Christian morals but the idea that Christianity is a morality. A teaching can have a moral dimension – even a necessary moral dimension – without being an ethics.

I was reminded of this today by Christ’s dialogue with Martha in John 11. Christ here explicitly asks Martha for a profession of faith in the Resurrection, and Martha responds with an acknowledgement of his divinity. The parallel to Peter’s confession in unmistakable, but it is here seen as inseparable from a confession of the Resurrection of the body. The confession of Christ’s divinity – the decisive moment of creedal assent – is the answer to Christ asking if we believe he is the Resurrection.

All this will change how we act, to be sure, and it involves transformation. But to separate this transformation from Christ’s ontological transformation of the world renders the moral change itself unintelligible and without any dependence on Christ. Christ is a god who, in invading the world, does not leave it as it is. The gods are no longer just stories we have to tell to the people to keep them in line, entertain them, or soften the edge of their own moral failings (Hey, even Zeus screws up now and again). The gods are not even heroic and ennobling stories that can inspire men to die for the city or aspire to philosophical knowledge. God has invaded the “natural” world and given it an entirely new dimension. He does miracles not break natural laws but in order to show us his intention to divinize them.

Christianity becomes a morality only after we have ceased to believe it. It is a 19th century post-Kantian idea that saw Christianity as so much mythology and any ontological transformation of things as unknowable, but which thought it could save a place for Christianity as some sort of divine guarantor of human freedom and underwriter of duty.  This was in some ways a sublime vision, and I would never deny that Christian morality is sublime, but when compared to what it threw out it all seems as tasteless as hay.


Saints as intercessors vs. saints as ideals

Catholics views saints formally as intercessors. The canonization process is simply a test to see whether a person can be appealed to as an intercessor within the liturgy.

In the middle ages this role as intercessor was much broader and more urgent, but it was based on superstition and false theology. Saints had a special urgency for the Medieval persons so far as they saw God as essentially filled with wrath that needed to be placated. This idea of divine wrath was supported by the superstition that sickness and other physical privations were punishments for the personal sins of the person. The saint, however, was “one of us” who was close to God and could therefore not only speak on our behalf but was even necessary to heal our physical ailments and the privations we suffered. No saints, no health, no crops, no good luck, etc.

As soon as God was seen as a merciful Father and sickness as something that was more appropriate to treat with human art, we lost the unique and pressing urgency for the saint as intercessor. The necessity of the saint remains, but it needed to be re-visualized in a way that we have yet to adequately accomplish. One way to illustrate the problem is to notice the tension between being an intercessor and being a role model or ideal for action. An intercessor is sought chiefly for their ability to get things done, but a role model is sought in light of totally different criteria. Intercessors are in one sense replacements for role models – we are looking to use their power, not attain to it. They are already holy so we don’t need to be.

Obviously, if it comes to this we’ve reached a dead end. On the whole, it was good to lose the idea of personal sickness as personal judgment and of God as a vengeful accuser (The only one called “accuser” in Scripture is Satan). But one side effect of this was to lose a urgent, coherent justification for the communion of saints. But truth demanded the change. We might replace it with an idea of saint as hero- intercessor, though the intercessory role might be in need of an updated basis.

“Philosophy questions everything”

This doesn’t mean that philosophy robotically challenges every statement with “why” or that it sees every claim to truth as dubious and open to debunking. Both attitudes are immature – the first being childish and the second being juvenile.

Philosophy challenges everything as a side effect of philosophers wanting to see things for themselves. They are less willing than others to take a large, consensus-based stock of truth for granted and work from it. This is a good that comes at a cost. Philosophical progress can happen, but it is nowhere near as dramatic as the progress one finds in visual art, engineering, experimental science, etc. Even mathematics seems to have achieved progress by taking stocks of truth for granted – one does not get the sense that all that many people could know the supporting proofs for Wiles’s proof of Fermat’s last theorem.

Hypothesis: Philosophy historically separated itself from science around the time when it became clear that, in order to make any progress in a field of knowledge, we would have to take certain stores of knowledge for granted and work from them in order to get anywhere. Somewhere in the first half of the 19th century it became clear that the idea of the liberally educated man, who could see a whole system of knowledge all the way to the bottom, was becoming more and more of a practical impossibility. Before that, we only had “philosophy”, that is, a system that could go all the way from first principles of knowledge to the last things known. But at some point knowledge advanced to the point where this accomplishment, while always the province of a few, became impossible even for those few to accomplish. At this point “philosophy” had to become not a knowing of the whole of things, but only seeing the foundations of things for oneself. Others chose to take their foundations more or less for granted (leaving aside moments of scientific revolution), and to base their knowledge on a set of results achieved collectively and which each person would not even try to see for himself.

And so the old ideal of a liberally educated person became a practical impossibility, and we had to divide the whole of knowledge into philosophy and particular arts and sciences. We haven’t figured out how to re-build the old vision. The clearest proof of this is the utter bewilderment of all liberal-arts curricula in the face of math and science. It is only mildly cynical to see the modern division of “humanities” and “sciences” as a division into “things we can teach in a liberal arts curriculum” and “things we know have to be a part of the liberal arts, but which we have no idea how to incorporate”. Briefly, “humanities” is something with a known syllabus and “sciences” is everything else.

This radical division of the whole left philosophers as only able to question the whole – to question everything. It was the only appropriate response in the face of the magnitude of knowledge advancing beyond the point that a single mind could comprehend it. This is at the heart of the Postmodern sense of utter dissolution of things. It’s not that society is collapsing but something much worse. There will be no grand apocalypse to save us from this crisis, and from which we can start over from the beginning. We’ve discovered a problem in the attempt to know the whole, and that what was called philosophy from Aristotle to Aquinas to Descartes to Newton to Christian Wolfe and Kant was never possible, or that it was only possible because of our relative amount of ignorance. Something of the old liberal idea remains, to be sure, but no one is quite sure how to teach very large parts of the curriculum, or even if it is possible to do so.

The block universe, (II)

The simplest version of the argument is:

Things simultaneous to the same thing are equally real.

For any events A and B at different times, an event can be found that they are both simultaneous to.

Therefore, any events A and B at different times are equally real.

As a lifetime lover of Parmenides and Plato, I rejoice in the argument. The Aristotelian-Newtonian attempt to place the standard or intelligible principle for change in the universe failed, and so we are left seeing the universe as a participation in other.

That said, the block universe cannot mean that all events are simultaneous in time. Past, present and future or even earlier and later cannot be simultaneous. This is why the major premise spoke of things simultaneous to the same thing as equally real, though not necessarily as simultaneous to each other. This raises the question of just how temporal divisions can be allowed as equally real but not existing at the same time.

The simplest answer is just to say that the real is broader than the temporal. Without a realm transcending the temporal all times cannot coexist except at the same time, which is a contradiction. In this realm, time is whole, though it exists in its transcendent mode, and the time we know here is necessarily a broken image of this transcendent totality. There is no space-time loaf of the universe somewhere, starting at the big bang, with everything after it worming around. Such a loaf is not only unobserved but contradictory.  Better to replace it with something unobserved but at least possible.


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