The Ecclesiastes Hypothesis

Progressivism about the future and nostalgia for the past are both coping mechanisms. The keep us from having to confront the horrible reality that things have always been this way, and they will always be this way.

Free will and electrodes

Hook a guy up to some device that monitors his brain activity, set him in front of a screen with images on it, and tell him to pick any one of the images and tell him to announce the moment he makes the decision. Turns out, you can tell better than chance which he will pick before he decides.

The interpretation of the results is that there is no “free will”. The experiment might very clearly disprove the existence of some meaning of free will, the question is, was it ever reasonable to believe in the sort of free will that is disproved in the experiment?

For St. Thomas, free will is presupposed in the instructions of the experiment: “choose one”. Note right away that the freedom is not implied in the word “choose”- this would be to beg the question- it’s implied in the word “one”. Of the objects on the screen, which one does “one” apply to? The question is absurd: it’s like asking, “Which dog is “dog”: Lassie or Fido?” “One” is indeterminate, and so there is a necessary indetermination in “choose one”.

That said, this sort of indetermination is utterly compatible with some ability to foresee the results someone’s action, especially when all one must do is foresee it in a way more accurate than sheer chance. My wife and my mother could probably foresee my choices before I make my decision more accurately than sheer chance. Even if they couldn’t, this would just show that brain scans could give more reliable information than familiarity.

Besides which, when someone tells yu to pick something more or less at random, don’t you go into a mode where you clearly feel more “moved” than “mover”? Don’t you actually try to surrender your faculty of choice? When someone says “pick something random” isn’t the experience something like this: you try to suppress any criteria and just “go with the flow” of your mental processes? Is it any shock that the brain forms some determination before we decide? Weren’t we trying to make it do this?

Ramble on free will

St. Thomas explains the freedom of the will though the indetermination of the intellect: we choose in virtue of some concept or idea, but our idea is not determined to some one particular, so neither is our choice. Whenever I read debates about “libertarian free will”- or scientific trials that hook up electrodes to a guys head to anticipate what he will decide when we tell him to make some random choice- I get the sense that the debaters have a much more elaborate notion of “free will” than St. Thomas had. Who can object to the idea that we act in virtue of concepts that are not sufficiently determined to one result, and so far as this is true, our action is not determined to a result? Do we really need to argue about this? There is mountain of after-market qualifications we can add to this rather weak account of free will. Habits (which for St. Thomas are any determination of a power, whether this arose from personal, cultural, or genetic origins) certainly play a role in fast-tracking our undetermined concepts to one deteminate thing.  A good deal of life needs to be simply executed automatically, and so much of our action- probably much more than is worth thinking about- is almost certainly “determined” in the sense of foreseeable by another. Do we really need a brain scan to tell us this? Can’t we figure this out by living with someone for a week?

Truth and “information”

The contemporary debate about “information” is really just a debate about truth. The question “is a transcendental mind required for there to be information in things (like tree rings)” is the same as St. Thomas’s question about what is required for the truth of things.

Information for us is what the Ancients and Medievals called truth: convenientia ad intellectum. We can either say that information is truth (a wonderful idea) or say that “information” is a transcendental like good, one, etc. (since being as such is ad intellectum).

Information, analogy, and participation

I’ve read a few posts on disputes about “information”. Apparently, this is a hot word among ID folks. I have no opinion or ability to talk about what “information” must mean in a scientific context (I assume it must have some sort of metrical value, or be related to one), but I do have a few thoughts about the problems of discussing “information” in a philosophical sense.

Some say it is obvious that only mind contains information. The immediate response to this is that all sorts of things contain information that are not intelligent: clouds contain information about approaching weather, tree rings contain information about the age of the tree, the brightness of a star contains information about its distance, etc. This claim and objection is exactly parallel to the following claims and objections:

1.) it is obvious that what is warm, has some heat
1a) Wool blankets are warm, but I left these ones in a freezing car, so what is warm need not have heat.

2.) It is obvious that only intelligent beings can be foolish
2a.) This opera is foolish, but an opera is not an intelligent being, so what is foolish need not be an intelligent being.

3.) It is obvious that only a qualified professional can help with a heart surgery
3a.) These fiber optic tools are a great help in heart surgery…etc.

The difficulty here is with our use of analogy to deal with various relations of participation in reality. Tools participate in the activity of agents, and the action is properly said of both; effects and conditions participate in the actions of causes, and so we use analogy to speak of both, etc. The debate about information, as far as I can tell, does into take participated relations into account, and so neither side of the debate is saying anything decisive. Both these affirmations are obviously true and obviously false: “only what has mind contains information” and “only what has heat is warm”. In order to speak one way or another, we have to at least start by parsing out the intentions of words.

St. Thomas’s opinion would probably be something like this: information has a double participation- on the one hand there is a relation of cause to effect from nature to the human mind; on the other hand there is a relation of effect to cause (and instrument to agent) from nature to the divine mind. The first relation is (more or less) obvious (the information in things causes information in us), the second requires some amount of argument- perhaps not much argument, but a bit more than “information is only in minds”.

Ramble on art and logic

At the end of his list of various ways of proceeding rationally, St. Thomas notes:

At other times a mere fancy inclines one to one side of a contradiction because of some representation, much as a man turns in disgust from certain food if it is described to him in terms of something disgusting. And to this is ordained the Poetics. For the poet’s task is to lead us to something virtuous by some excellent description. And all these pertain to the philosophy of the reason, for it belongs to reason to pass from one thing to another.

The quotation is well known among Thomists, but it deserves to be brought out and defended more often when the question of “rational methods”or “logical methods” arises. The “philosophy of reason” that St. Thomas describes here is clearly one that gives us movies, novels, poems, TV shows, stained glass windows, music, dance, etc. Indeed, St. Thomas is claiming that the movie, the play, the concert, etc.  just is rational. As St. Thomas understands logic, the musician must be logical. This does not mean he must meditate like Spock while he strikes a chord: his very “self-expression” is something falling under the rules of logic.

It is a very old observation that human beings have both a rational part, and a part which is open to reason but in itself irrational. assume we all know what “rational part” means. What is a part open to reason but itself irrational? In the past, there is always the temptation to reduce this part to an appendage of reason, as though our goal is to make this part stop feeling and simply knock out syllogisms. This is, of course, to make this part all “openness to reason” and no “in itself irrational”, which is simply to pretend that it is not what, in fact, it is. This second part of man is not ruled by reason like an artisan rules a tool; it seems much more the case that the rational part and the irrational part must be integrated like a married couple is integrated. There are many pitfalls with this image, but one aspect that can’t be missed is that the irrational-part-open-to-reason has a contribution to make to the very function of the rational life as it exists in a human being. Anyone can see that moral life will involve some rule of the rational part, but a deeper look would show that there is also an interface and dialogue between the two parts, not such that the subrational part dominates, but nevertheless such that the subrational makes an invaluable and essential contribution to the rational.

Art- an in a special way images and music- strike immediately the irrational-part-open-to-reason. In so doing, they teach certain realities which, if they are lacking, will deeply harm our ability to reason. It is a very stunted kind of reasoner who has no awareness of the sublime or the mysterious, and both of these things are difficult to get apart from good art. The value of words is very difficult to cultivate in those who were never forced to interact with good literature. The sheer force of a word is difficult to understand to someone who does not love poetry. The length and simplicity that is required from an argument should really be modeled first from a melodic line, a sonata, a symphony, a concerto. It is very difficult to understand persons apart from idealisations of them in art, and we very often form very terrible ideas of what it is to be a human being by looking at art that shows them as they are not.

The Five Ways as manifesting nature

Since all of St. Thomas’s proofs for God’s existence speak of a finite causal sequence leading to the divine, then why not just take any causal sequence back a few steps until one hits God? It should be simple enough to do this, right?

In fact, it is. It is never too hard to analyze an action back till we see it proceeding from some nature, the next step back hits the divine. The trick is to see why nature is simply a way of being open to divine activity. St. Thomas argues that nature is a source of action that moves others only by being itself moved; causes only by itself being caused; is from another, even when it’s necessary; is finite though it manifests the reality of what is not finite; is directed by another.

Once one sees what nature means in the five ways, the conclusion to the supernatural and divine is immediate.

Metaphysics as an irreducible science, pt. II

Being is a different kind of thing from what one encounters in the physical or mathematical sciences, even though it is given in experience (it is even the first thing in experience). The objects of other sciences have genera, species, and individuals of a species; but there are no species or individuals of a species in being. Being has no species, even while remaining fully present in any individual. This utterly unique nature of the metaphysical subject is not limited to being simply as being, it radiates outward to raise questions about goodness truth, causality, etc, and then it radiates further to raise questions about these concepts when tey are intertwined: “the cause of goodness” or “being as person” ( so far as the metaphysician studies him the person is, in his own way, being as such).

Being is more different from mathematical and physical objects than either of these objects are from each other. If we know that a complete physics will not solve all the problems of, say, algebra, a fortiori it will not solve all the problems of metaphysics- indeed, it won’t even raise them.

Notice- and this is important- metaphysics is not separate and irreducible because it deals with abstract things or general concepts. Metaphysics deals with something extremely concrete: being is just there. You can touch it, move it around, etc. It just isn’t limited to that. Again, the abstract, as such, is not found concretely except in a species or individual of a species, but being is not like this.

Metaphysics as an irreducible science

It is relatively easy to recognize that geometry and arithmetic are different kinds of science than biology and physics. There are plenty of people who think that a complete physics would explain everything in chemistry and biology and psychology; there are far fewer (none?) who think it will explain all the difficulties in mathematics. The one body of knowledge cannot be reduced to the other. For Aristotle and St. Thomas, there is a third body of knowledge that is just as irreducible as mathematics and physical science: metaphysics. “Irreducible” does not mean “unrelated”- just as there have always been important, unavoidable, and essential points of intersection between mathematics and physical science, there has always been intersections between metaphysics and other doctrines. But the irreducible and autonomous character of each of these sciences limits what we could assume could be given by a complete science.

The distinctive note of metaphysics is that it deals with what is not limited to material or mobile existence, where “motion” is understood as any imperfect state between two contraries (irrespective of whether there is rest at one of the contraries) and “material” is understood in relation to the activity of sensation (that whose existence and activity is proportionate to a corporeal organ). We do not know the things of metaphysics simultaneously or before we know the physical world, but we do know them in such a simultaneous fashion hypothetically. By “hypothetically” I mean by an “if..then” consequence.  We know, simultaneous with our experience of the mobile and material world, that if a metaphysical entity exists, then it could be described positively by certain notions we gather from experience. Chief among these notions is the notion of “being”. It is not that we look at being and see its division into the physical and the trans-physical, rather we look at being and see that it is intrinsically incapable of being limited either to any kind of existence, even if the only kind of existence we happen to know is corporeal.  Our notion of being is not such that it allows us to rule out the possibility of the trans physical. Such a judgment would require that being be a genus, which it is not.

Even after we set forth a proof that divides being into the corporeal and the incorporeal (and the reason why we call these two different “beings” is not made immediately clear at the moment) it is not the case that we can say “X percentage of the group ‘being’ is corporeal, 100-x percentage is incorporeal”. Being is not a collective whole like this. Collective wholes require homogeneity, and one of the first things that we can know about being is that it is not the name of a genus. “Being” not a logical whole like “animal” which contains vertebrates or invertebrates, or like “number” that contains both the even and the odd. There is no existent animal or number that is not some species of animal or number; but every existent being is not some species of being, since there are no species of being. Being could only have species if it was itself a genus, but it is not.

This character of being as non-generic requires as much expertise to understand as any other science. Who would expect a mathematician or physical scientist to have cultivated the sort of experience that helps him deal with being? How many people recognize that being is not a genus? After getting this, do they see its significance? What is there in physical or mathematical science that illuminates you to speak properly of the transcendence of being? Can anyone actually believe that a complete physics will solve the problem of the transcendence of being? Can anyone even believe that a complete physics would even raise the question? After you figure out these basic problems in metaphysics, you can move on to some really hard ones.

Two accounts of methodological naturalism, II

Alejandro Jenkins explains the rise of the “multiverse” hypothesis:

[The laws of physics] seem finely tuned to make our existence possible. Short of invoking a supernatural explanation, which would be by definition outside the scope of science, a number of physicists and cosmologists began in the 1970s to try solving the puzzle by hypothesizing that our universe is just one of many existing universes, each with its own laws.

This is a perfect example of the “incompetence” account of methodological naturalism: choose a hypothesis which falls within your competence, and supernatural causes fall outside of it. If the multiverse hypothesis fails,  simply try another hypothesis that does not invoke supernatural causes.

But if the multiverse hypothesis bears fruit, isn’t this some sort of confirmation that invoking supernatural causes is a mistake? We explained the phenomenon without the supernatural! Supernatural 0, Atheism, 1, right?  This is a ridiculous way of seeing the facts: all the success of the multiverse proves is that physics can take one more step within its domain of competence. It is not the refutation of something outside your path, it is simply a confirmation that you can take one more step on your own path.

But what about Aristotle’s Physics? How can I claim that it is both physics in a sense univocal with contemporary physics, and yet terminates in a supernatural cause? This peculiar character is because it less relies on hypothesis to understand the physical world. The hypothesis always gives one a choice which side of a contradiction he wants to choose. Aristotle, on the other hand, starts with certain basic observed truths about the natural world and derives conclusions from them, and so he is inevitably forced into “following the argument where it goes”, even if it leads him to a sphere outside of his competence as a student of physics.

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