Myth and sciences

Interpreting or explaining myths tends to make us raise the question whether the myth is superfluous. Why can’t we just extract the ethical kernel and throw the rest away? Once we learn, say, that curiosity that defies authority is dangerous but that it can be redeemed by hope, can’t we just forget the story of Pandora, or maybe keep her around as a useful didactic tool or memory aid?

What’s so interesting about this move is how utterly arbitrary it is. If myths and ethical precepts are equivalent in this way we might just as easily take the ethics as pre-mythical. Why can’t ethical imperatives be the primitive stages before embodiment in stories, epics, and liturgies? There’s no shortage of popular science media that seem aimed at making the sciences/ universe just such an object of devotion. Contrarily, it’s certainly a sign of the corruption of Christianity that its best work is now abstract and argumentative and not artistic, architectural, or expressed with decent poetry or hymns.

We might be busily deconstructing old myths and explaining their ethical kernel, but all this is autopsy. People want the sciences to be the embryo of a new humanist myth. As a Christian and a theist I’m horrified by this, and even see it as the staging ground for the Antichrist. But then again, God help me, I miss high culture, literature, art aiming at transcendence, and maybe even a public liturgy (though I’ve never seen one).

The great apostasy is not everyone becoming skeptical and enlightened, but in rediscovering the thrill of state liturgy, even if it’s the worship of the flesh.


Brute facts and Euclideanism

(N.B. What follows is a sort of cosmological argument that identifies an incoherence in Naturalism as a rejection of the supernatural.)

As an explanation, a brute fact has two components (a) it is what it is and (b) it should be accepted. It is a justified tautology, the justification for which is that physical laws only explain the actual world in conjunction with initial conditions, and these conditions are ultimately historical accidents.

The appeal to brute fact thus rests on a hylomorphic understanding of nature where laws : initial conditions :: form : matter. Since the actual world is a composite of intelligible forms and unintelligible matter it contains features about which one cannot say anything more than that “they are what they are”, where the point of the tautology is that the intelligibility of our explanation, and of nature itself, doesn’t reach to one of its essential parts, sc. matter/ initial conditions.

All sides therefore allow some unintelligibility in nature, but we disagree whether all explanations of nature are naturalist. In one sense, of course, it is self-evident that they must be, in exactly the same way that all explanations of Euclidean shapes must be Euclidean, i.e. so as long as we are building up Euclidean explanations we obviously have to stay within Euclid’s foundational axioms, definitions and postulates.

But it’s just this analogy between Euclideanism and Naturalism that rules out Naturalism in the sense of the rejection of supernaturalism. Remember that Euclideanism was superseded precisely at the moment we recognized that the fifth postulate was only a postulate and not axiomatic nor provable, and the presence of matter or initial conditions proves Naturalistic explanations are likewise only postulated and not axiomatic or provable.

In other words, the fifth postulate is a brute fact of Euclidianism. It is neither axiomatic nor provable, but simply (a) is what it is and (b) needs to be accepted (if one is going to give Euclidean explanations). Nevertheless, in geometry we draw a correct conclusion from this that we fail to draw so far as we are Naturalists that reject the supernatural. The demonstration of the brute facticity of nature is simultaneously the demonstration of a domain of natures of which the physical world is only a specialized instance that, like Euclideanism, we find easier to understand.

Notice that the brute facticity of both the fifth postulate and matter/ initial conditions prove the necessity of something beyond Euclid and nature for the same reason, namely that they prove something is possible which can be known to be necessary as soon as it is known to be possible. If we  distinguish possible from actual existence in either of these then for them to actually exist would be in some way or another a brute fact, in which case the supposed “thing other than a brute fact” that was just shown to be possible would not be other than a brute fact.

Aristotle’s argument for natural teleology

Aristotle argues that any natural action – falling, orbiting, raining, evaporation, etc – happens for some good.* His main argument is

What is not by chance is for a good.

Nature does not act by chance.

Second premise first.

Chance. Chance events are those that occur outside of any necessary or probabilistic law. They are comparable to lucky events but happen for slightly different reasons. Assume that Bill wins a lottery in which 75% of the tickets were purchased by men. This can be described in three ways:

1.) That someone won the lottery. So taken, the event is necessary. We can know in advance that this will happen as soon as the lottery happens.

2.) That a man won the lottery. So taken, the event is probable. We have a probable knowledge that this would happen.

3.) That Bill won the lottery. So taken, the event is lucky. No necessary or probabilistic law could have led us to expect the event – taken precisely under this description – would happen.

The chanciness of Bill’s winning is probably due simply to limitations on human knowledge, but Aristotle thought that chance in nature existed even where ignorance was not a factor since a natural power was also, like intelligence, limited and therefore unable to assure infinitely precise and rule-governed outcomes. This is especially true in things that follow probabilistic law, which never allow us to rule out some outcome or set of outcomes that fall outside the margin of error.

Natural actions can’t be due to chance as Aristotle understands the term, and I’m not aware of anyone who ever suggested they were. Chance is by definition rare, unpredictable, improbable, unnecessary, unexpected, etc. and natural actions are nothing like this. If anything, the more common opinion is determinism, or the claim that chance as Aristotle understands it does not exist at all.

What is not by chance is for a good. The claim strikes everyone as strange and even self-evidently false, but it is only false if we can identify a tertium quid that rules out both chance and acting for goods, but none are on offer. Necessity rules out chance but it doesn’t rule out action for a good: all sorts of goods arise necessarily. Digestion necessarily assimilates calories but it’s good to do so. One might deny the goodness of the end by parsimony and say that the outcomes is simply a fact and not some additional value,  but to do so amounts to saying that whatever happens, happens. This isn’t parsimony – it’s the replacement of an explanation with a tautology.

*Stress on that. TO know that nature acts for a good is not to know what it is. It’s hard enough to figure out what humans are trying to do without asking them, and much harder to figure out what animals, plants, or natural objects are striving for, or what plan they fit into.

Puzzling over Leibniz’s substances

-Liebniz: a substance is that from which all true predicates can be deduced.


This is certainly true in mathematics. A circle is self-evidently that from which all true predicates of a circle can be deduced. What would one deduce properties from, if not their subject?

1.) A complete science is the complete deduction of properties of a subject.

2.) The complete science of individuals is possible.

3.) So it is possible to completely deduce the properties of some individual subject.

The complete science of Caesar would deduce that he would cross the Rubicon. A complete science of me would allow you to finish this post all by yourself without anyone having to go to the trouble of reading it.

Before Leibniz, the argument was a reductio ad absurdum showing the impossibility of (2), though Leibniz probably accepted it since (a) the PSR seems to demand a perfectly intelligible account of every individual as such (b) the perfection of the universe requires the complete intelligibility of the individuals composing it and, most importantly, (c) even though we have no science of individuals, God certainly does, and not just from his omniscience but because all is a procession from his own idea.

If we could deduce the whole universe from the creator’s idea of it, it seems like small potatoes to deduce the life of Alexander, and the basis for this deduction within nature seems to be simply Alexander himself.

Aristotle would respond that the substance of Alexander is not just intelligible, but is constituted by matter which is unintelligible to us. Leibniz might point out that what is intelligible to us is not the issue, and unless one is ready to deny that matter is intelligible even to God the response has no merit. Nevertheless, Aristotle can distinguish science into certain knowledge and the mode of certain knowledge which abstracts from the particular, and if we place deduction from concepts firmly on the side of science in the second sense, we are mistaken to think there is some possible deduction of Alexander’s properties. The price of this is to lose the divine ideas, or at least ideas understood as being ruled by laws of deduction. But can an idea be understood in this way?




Adlerian vs. Popular self-esteem

Adler agreed with Freud that childhood development was one of the main elements in formation of psychic life, but his account of this was much simpler: the child is surrounded by adults and wants to grow up and be like them. The basic desire is to be mature, self-sufficient, in charge of one’s life etc, or what Adler called self-actualization. The word became famous, but not as much as his name for the fruit of self-actualization: self esteem. 

Somewhere along the way self esteem went from being a fruit of achievement to a necessary condition for achievement. The argument seems to be that only those who already have self-esteem would bother to self-actualize. If you’re not worth the effort, why bother?

The difference seems to be that we’ve lost the conviction (or the awareness) that the desire to grow up is a given. We see youth or pre-adulthood as desirable as maturity, as Plato predicted would happen in democratic states.

The cost of making all ages equally desirable is that we can no longer order one to the other, and so life ceases to be a project. If life is not a project, however, what value is self esteem? Wasn’t the whole point of front-loading kids with self esteem to set them to improving themselves? If this isn’t the point, and if the point is instead to get people to feel accomplishment without accomplishing anything, then self esteem seems like part of a horrifying project of lobotomizing the desire for achievement. That the project is executed by persons with smiling, kindergarten-teacher smiles makes it all the more creepy.


The Fear of the Lord

Interpretations of fear of the Lord frequently distinguish a sinful fear of the slave from a salutary the fear of the son, but Scripture also gives warrant to distinguish what might be called the sinful fear of hiding from the illuminating fear of fascination.

The first instance of the fear of hiding is after the Fall:

God called to the man, “Where are you?” 10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

The parable of the talents concludes with the same sort of fear:

‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man… so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant!

or Isaiah 33:14 (quoted by Jonathan Edwards, natch)

The sinners in Zion are terrified; trembling grips the godless: “Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?”

In one sense, all these are describe servile fear, but the element I’m interested in is that it is a fear that causes one to shrink away, to lock himself in, to pull back and fortify his position. It’s the fear that makes us put deadbolts on doors or resent how bad the neighborhood has become. But the fear of fascination moves one in exactly the opposite direction. The sublime is fearful too, and its objects arrest attention as surely as those of the fear of hiding, but it is the arrested attention of stillness that both pulls one forward and tries to keep safe distance. It’s the fear of finding oneself alone in a field with a two-ton bull or of being uncomfortably close to a twenty-foot tall wave.

God as an object of the fear of fascination is the source or raw power like the God of Psalm 29:

Ascribe to the Lord, you heavenly beings,
    ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.

The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
    the God of glory thunders,
    the Lord thunders over the mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
    the voice of the Lord is majestic.
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
    the Lord breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon.

or again, in Revelation 14:

And I heard a sound from heaven like the roar of rushing waters and the loud rumbling of thunder.*

The fear of fascination does not quite give us an impersonal God, but  it is certainly one who is going to do what he does whether we cooperate with the project or get crushed by it. It is a power in the face of which we are simultaneously insignificant and ennobled.  I would be terrified to float alone through space with the earth below, but if I ever did it and lived to tell no one who knew me would ever stop hearing about it.

*Natural theology is better understood as giving us this sort of god. This is a far better view of Aristotle’s pure energia than the god of deism. Remember that Aristotle’s project concludes not to some first finger flicking motion into existence, but to an infinite source of energy which is spiritual only because its inherent power would obliterate any possible finite body.

Explaining what looks designed

A: So is it reasonable to assume that something looks designed but in fact is not?

B: I think so.

A: I don’t think so.

B: Why not? It seems like anything that is possible can be reasonably assumed.

A: That can’t be right. Things of vanishingly small probability are possible but could not be rationally assumed.

B: Sure, but all I mean is some things in fact look designed but aren’t.

A: Like what?

B: All organisms that profit by selection, right?  Animals look like they were intentionally fit into their ecosystem when in fact all that happened is that the adapted survive where they end up and and the ones that aren’t adapted die off.

A: But can we get from things being adapted or not adapted to their environment to their being not-designed? We make all sorts of artificial tools, and set up all sorts of artificial environments for separating wheat from chaff, ore from gangue, recycling from garbage, noodles (or alcohol) from water, water from brackish, etc.

B: Artificial selection doesn’t look like any of those, however. An ore separator is a really complicated machine and selection is just an animal with a slight advantage or disadvantage in its environment.

A: So selection does’t look designed, and and animal complexity is nothing beyond a sum of selections, so animal complexity doesn’t look designed.

B: Sure.

A: Even if I get past the composition fallacy here, it looks like what we’re saying is that some things look designed from one point of view but not from another.

B: Sure, but some of these points of view are more fundamental.

A: I think I could admit that, but my question is whether something can look designed but not be.

B: I don’t get the distinction you’re making.

A: I’m not asking whether we can be mistaken about what looks designed. I’m asking whether something can look designed and, while continuing to look this way, be known in fact not to be be so.

B: I don’t see why not. Maybe you see a find a computer in a parking lot and, when you look at the lot surveillance video you see that it just blew together in the middle of the night when a tornado went through.

A: So something could look designed but simply arise by chance.

B: Right.

A: But what if I tighten up my account and define looks designed as meaning we can’t accept that it came to be by chance. So this would define away your video-scenario. Can we still say that something looks designed but isn’t?

B: I suppose physicists do this with fine-tuning accounts of life. It sure looks like the laws of nature were designed to give rise to life, and no one assumes that this is a sheer fluke. But there must be some sort of physical law that accounts for all this.

A: Okay, I think that sort of thing is exactly what I want to ask about. Something looks like its origin cannot be a sheer fluke, but we think its explanation must be some natural law and not some decree of a mind.

B: What’s wrong with that? The sciences must go on, after all. Physics and biology can’t just throw in the towel.

A: But this assumes that it’s reasonable to take some natural process as tending towards what looks designed.

B: Why not? It has to tend to something, doesn’t it?

A: No, we’ve already ruled out that it happens by chance.

B: No, you forgot that I said the physical law had to tend to something.

A: But this is the same thing. Explaining X means giving an account that explains X as such. If all your “natural law explanation” amounts to is saying that X is on the menu of options and happened to be the one that arose, this is the same as saying it happened by chance.

B: Fine. There is some natural law that tends to designed-looking things as such.

A: But how is that possible? I have a pretty good idea of why minds tend toward designed-looking things, but why in the world would nature tend to designed-looking things?

B: Sounds like a great research program.

A: Not to me. Assuming that chance is off the table, it sounds like your research program is one that puts an end to the sciences.

B: No. Assuming that minds make things puts an end to sciences.

A: Sure, but so does anthropomorphizing nature, which is exactly what you’re doing if you say it has a per se tendency toward design-looking things.

B: No. It tends toward design-looking things which are in fact not designed at all.

A: So now you’re back to saying we’re mistaken. I already said I didn’t want to speak about that.

B: Fine, but that’s all there is. Whenever something looks designed, we are mistaken.

A: What? You’re really saying we should assume a priori that every judgment we make about some natural thing being designed is mistaken? Why assume that some domain of our cognitive power is perfectly fallible, and leads us unerringly to the wrong result?

B: I guess. Though it sounds like a caricature.

A: Maybe, but it seems like if we are willing to say there is any explanation for something designed-looking, then we either have to assume an unerringly-wrong judgment about natural things that look designed or we have to take it as more reasonable that they come from mind.

Science as a critique of Naturalism

Descartes is significantly responsible for the existence of science and so is not usually seen as a philosopher of science. That said, if your thought is responsible for the existence of some structure it can be presented as an account of that structure.

In a Cartesian Phil. Sci, science is a dualist scheme comprised of the mental world of secondary qualities (now called “qualia”) and an extra-subjective (or “real”) world of primary qualities described by quantitative laws. As Feser puts it, we sweep the secondary qualities of the world under the rug of the mind and are left with a purely extended, quantitative, geometrical room of algebraic natural law… and a rug.

Mind-rugs are negations of the geometric room and so are spiritual, non-temporal, without any finite structure, beyond place, beyond the determination of physical law, and act without interacting.*

Seen from this angle much of Philosophy of science completely reverses direction. Methodological Naturalism exists only within a structural dualism. The disenchantment and enlightenment of reason become the work of a spiritualist ontology. The success of science becomes a critique of Naturalism.

Go Science.

*While Descartes blinked in the face of the interaction problem, he should have held his ground and pointed out that the princess was conflating physical and mental action. If the mind acted by interacting it would be physical and not a mind.

The Second Amendment and popular sovereignty

I don’t own guns and have no interest in doing so but I very much value the Second Amendment. This makes me a poor fit for the Second- Amendment-defender-stereotype, I suppose, but I’m just as baffled by most of the popular arguments over gun rights.

First, my argument: The heart of the American project is popular sovereignty, and no sovereign needs anyone’s permission to be armed. I don’t have a follow-up argument and I don’t take myself to need one. The Second Amendment doesn’t need a careful, balanced, cumulative-case justification that weighs both sides of the issue. It falls out of the basic facts of the American project and the reality of sovereign power with demonstrative rigor.

This argument shows up in garbled form in the argument that the point of the amendment is “to protect ourselves from government.” No matter how historically plausible this is, it’s certainly not a very pressing fear, even if I limit myself to fears of what my government might do. The problem with the argument isn’t its reliance on paranoid and unlikely power-grabs but its assumption that the government needs no justification to own weapons, but need some special permission to own them as a defense against what the government might do. This gets things exactly backwards. If I’m the sovereign it should be taken for granted that I can be armed, and the “government” should be the one who begs permission.

The Second Amendment is not fundamentally a claim about guns or militias but about free states. A well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state because the free state is one where the people are sovereign and are therefore already armed in a common cause. The amendment is not a security measure tailored to 17th Century modes of protecting frontier cities, even if this were a dimension of its historical genesis. The “militia” the amendment speaks of isn’t formed because the raiders are at the gate and we need to make due until the government gets here to save us, but because every sovereign is armed, and an armed people is a militia.

What about the parody argument: “If the people are sovereign, then how armed can they be? Guided missiles? Nuclear warheads?” The argument is silly, and is equivalent to saying that if I am for nuclear disarmament I must also be open to the idea of taking guns away from soldiers. There will always be prudential concerns about limits to the ownership of deadly things, whether they are weapons, cars, or anything else. But to take these sorts of arguments as even suggesting that total (or even significant) popular disarmament was a viable option is to totally abandon the idea of popular sovereignty.

As long as I’m being strident, I might as well mention my disgust with the sobbing Greek chorus of voices that demands I renounce  sovereignty in the face of their wailing over dead children. The point of all your hysterics is for me to be brow-beaten into selling my birthright to a new sovereign who will rule me for my own good. With a gun on his hip, of course.

Life’s self-motion

1.) Determinism does not arise from the perfection of natural motion but from its poverty. Nature is not moving with precise, perfect, ironclad and exceptionless law but is a network of moved movers whose actions are nothing but the manifestation of earlier states of affairs. Natural action stretches infinitely in both directions because of its inability to self-initiate.

2.) Say life self-initiates, and physical life does so by acting with and/or upon physical causes, so that the action of the living is other than what would happen by physical law and initial conditions alone. What then?

Objection: You’re claiming that physics is incomplete. What’s your evidence?

 Response: Physics itself gives it. Natural laws only explain the actual world together with initial conditions. Now either initial condition X has some condition before it or not. If so, it does not suffice to explain since it is explained by the one before; and if not it does not suffice to explain since all we can say* is that “it is what it is” – which, if valid, is something we could have said about the actual world without having to bother about physics. Laws + initial conditions already require something else to explain the actual world.

Briefly, physical causes are moved movers, and these explain the continuance of a determinate action, but not its determinacy.

Objection: Conservation laws require that outcomes be already determined. By your own admission, life has to be able to “alter what would happen by physical causes alone” and therefore violates conservation laws.

Response: Again, laws and initial conditions do not suffice to explain the actual world. Life only “alters” physical causes under the counterfactual supposition that physical causes could act alone, i.e. in a way that could suffice to explain outcomes in the actual world.

Objection: It is meaningless to describe life acting on physical laws and conditions when we can’t detect this. Life-actions are vacuous entities about which we can say nothing at all. What’s their Hamiltonian?

Response: Physical laws and conditions as physical are instrumental or partial accounts of the actual world. The interactive mechanisms and measurement devices appropriate to establishing the existence of physical causes are not appropriate tools for describing all causes of the actual world.

*By appealing to the resources of physics, that is.

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