An account of the basis of Physicalism (III)

Suppose we tried using the principle of causal closure to critique a very basic non-naturalist claim:

1.) All physical effects can only have physical causes

2.) The motion of fundamental particles is a physical effect

3.) God is not a physical cause

4.) Therefore, God cannot move fundamental particles.

Here, it’s hard to give a briefer response than Plantinga’s: conservation laws presuppose closed systems, but if God acts on a system, it’s by definition not causally closed. If one is basing hos account of closure not on conservation laws but on Einstein’s solid block universe, that too presupposes that all agents are natural (i.e. unable to send information or move faster than light, etc.)

So what if we took this even more fundamental application of the principle of causal closure?

1.) All physical effects have physical causes.

2.) The existence of fundamental particles is a physical effect.

3.) God is not a physical cause.

4.) Therefore, God does not cause the existence of fundamental particles.

Voilà – physicalism proves creation is impossible. The problem is that 2.) is false by the very definition of causal closure. One cannot find existence treated in the enumeration of fundamental particles (for all the problems existence has caused metaphysics, the particle physicist ought to be happy he doesn’t study it). One can, of course, simply stipulate as an axiom that  only fundamental particles exist, but then the whole argument becomes question begging and superfluous.

But what if we ran the first argument through using soul instead of “God”? Here again, soul simply does not fall under the causal closure principle. Soul explains actions so far as a thing is responsible, is a self, can act in light of principles not given to it by nature etc..  Positing soul does not explain physical action in relation to another physical action, simply because any physical action is an object for soul and thus distinct from it.

An account of the basis of physicalism (pt. II)

Given Papineau’s own definition of the causal closure thesis, what we we to make of his various critiques of “non-physicalism”? His first critique G.E. Moore can serve as a paradigm. Here’s the objection and response:

G.E. Moore’s famous ‘open question’ argument is designed to show that moral facts cannot possibly be identical to natural facts. Suppose the natural properties of some situation are completely specified. It will always remain an open question, argued Moore, whether that situation is morally good or bad. (Moore 1903.)

Moore took this argument to show that moral facts comprise a distinct species of non-natural fact. However, any such non-naturalist view of morality faces immediate difficulties, deriving ultimately from the kind of causal closure thesis discussed above. If all physical effects are due to a limited range of natural causes, and if moral facts lie outside this range, then it follow (sic) that moral facts can never make any difference to what happens in the physical world (Harman, 1986)

But in order for the causal closure thesis to have any bite, Papineau has to claim that moral facts are found among the various effects on a list of physical forces – a claim which is both obviously false and, at any rate, begs the question.

An account of the basis of physicalism

David Papineau’s account of Naturalism in the SEP bases the whole doctrine on the “causal closure principle”, that is:

[A]ll physical effects can be accounted for by basic physical causes (where ‘physical’ can be understood as referring to some list of fundamental forces).

He further claims that “Scarcely any contemporary philosophers are prepared to query this thesis, even those who wish to resist the apparent physicalist consequences”.

One would certainly hope that no one doubts the thesis, since, when we substitute Papineau’s own definition of the physical, the principle is this:

All the effects found on some list of fundamental forces can be accounted for by causes found on a list of fundamental forces.

Further questions from Barr’s account of Scientific Materialism

Stephen Barr describes scientific materialism in a way that seems both obviously true and yet evokes several further questions (sentence numbering my own):

(1) Scientific materialism claims that everything that exists and everything that happens is ultimately reducible to the behavior of particles, fields, energy, forces, and the other kinds of entities posited by theoretical physics… (2) [Its] success has been based on a form of reductionism that explains physical systems by analyzing them in terms of their fundamental constituents and how those constituents are organized and interact with one another… (3) Most physicists (myself included) think it highly implausible that there is anything about the nature or properties of a chunk of iron, say, or a drop of water, or a star, or an atom that is not explicable in this way. (4) This kind of reductionism has been extended with increasing success to biology. Molecular biology and related disciplines are giving us an ever greater and more detailed understanding of the processes of life.

My note numbers refer to Barr’s sentences:

(1) On  this view of materialism, what place can we carve out for the mathematical quantities and relations that make “particles, fields, energy, forces,” intelligible? “E”, for example, is just as much a number of joules as a thing we reduce motion to, since without the number and the ability to enter into an algebraic relation, none of the things Barr mentions would be of any use to the physicist – they would not even be intelligible to him. The vague (but completely certain) awareness of force we have from carrying an anvil does not suffice to make anything intelligible in the way that makes for physics.

(1) Again, the historical progression of physics begins with directly sensible things (Democritus thought the atoms of life were dust motes; Aristotle thought all elements were macro-sensible, etc.) it then moves on to things only perceivable by an abstraction of the imagination (like space, mathematical time, point particles) and now it seems to have pushed beyond even what can be an object of the imagination. Thus, the mathematical formalism becomes much more important to account for. 

(2) The assumption that the fundamental constituent of these sensible things is matter raises Berkeley’s questions, which are never quite taken seriously enough. What is the matter in material reductionism?  Do we know anything more about it than that it is some support system for the sensible that is utterly non-mental? But what evidence do we have that we are approaching the non-mental? The question of whether the substrate is mental or not does not seem to put old physics (Aristotle/Newton) in opposition to newer sorts,  it only puts materialism in opposition to Berkeley. But how, again, does the advance of the sciences show that  Berkeley is wrong?

(2-3) Given the progression of physics from the directly sensible to the internally sensible to the more or less purely mathematically formal, doesn’t the direction of physics point towards nature being something only knowable by supra-human or supernatural intelligence? Briefly, if the progression of physics has been away from the lower sense powers towards purely intelligible ones, isn’t a better account of the success of reductionism that we are approaching the moment when nature shows itself as a creature, i.e. something whose being is only intelligible in relation to supernatural mind?

(4) It’s absolutely explained a great deal about life, but not life as a source of responsibility or self-action. What the ancients and Medievals were trying to explain by soul is not of any interest to the biologist. Since I have no interest or ability to force people to take an interest in things, I clearly have no bone to pick with the modern biologist. But he isn’t replacing an idea of soul or even competing with it any more than an autopsy of a murder victim is replacing or competing with the legal definition of murder. We didn’t reduce souls to anything else, we simply lost interest in them, or (alternately) we decided we would rather consider the soul in its somatic presentation.

Natural selection as arising from eros

Plato makes the authorship of texts and the production of art a stage in erotic development, i.e. something that we human beings have in place of immortality, and which is therefore an approximation of immortality. We couldn’t write anything apart from a concomitant desire that it should at least deserve to survive, and so far as this is true we design anything with an eye that it should be adapted to survive in future conditions, at least so far as these are agreeable to the sort of beauty we are trying to bring forth.

This aspect of authorship or artistic production might serve as an analogue to an intention in universal nature within the process of natural selection. The authorship of any of the parts arises from a sort of eros – a seeking of immortality – that seeks to make something that will survive, but only so far as its survival is agreeable to the particular beauty that nature sought to bring forth. Selection negates whatever is no longer adapted to the environment – but the artist too would want his work to disappear when it could no longer speak to the environment. Just as we desire immortality through children, but not so far as the children would ruin our name, so too we want immortality through authorship and art, but not so far as it no longer has anything to say to the environment.

Natural selection is a purely instrumental or mediating mechanism: given something alive and reproducing, selection can do its work. biology will no doubt someday hit on some other process to account for the living thing as such. But at such a point, and at any other such point in the unfolding where something new arises, we can overlay a Platonic eros in universal nature analogous to the sort we experience in authorship and artistic production.


Trinitarian Image

St. Thomas, following Augustine, sees the Trinity as best modeled through a procession of the mind and the will. We should not understand the image as the Father being a subject (like a person or mind) and the Son being the activity of the subject, but as the Father being like the thought and the Son being like the perfect expression of the thought – everyone who’s tried to express himself on some important matter, which is somehow evident to him within but which he cannot find the adequate thoughts or interior expression for, knows the difference between the two, and yet can see the perfect and absolute unity between them on the rare occasions when thought finds perfect expression. There is likewise a perfect interior clarity of the will, namely when a person knows exactly what he must do and is conscious that all the impediments that once stood in his way have vanished. Thus the closest image that man can have for the nature of God would be a moment in which he gains perfect interior clarity of what he must do or what he must love, and knows exactly how to express or explain himself. The weakness of the intellect and the incontinence of the will make it obvious that all these things are distinct and need not happen together, and yet it is precisely in their perfect unity that we are most alive, and in which we find the most perfect expression of our existence.

To taken, the Trinity dovetails perfectly with the idea of God as Pure Act, since act is identical with perfection and the highest perfection of creatures is the perfect operation of human persons. This perfect operation is (would be?) the perfect ecstasy of perfect loving, along with the perfect clarity to express it. True, in our present state we would perhaps fatigue from the continuous experience of it, but it is impossible to prefer any experience to that one.

Classical education and the math/science problem

Those who design systems of classical education (I’m one of them) tend to stand to math and science like a teacher who can’t get the video projector to work: all are aware that they have to do something but none are sure how to do it, and in the meantime they are painfully aware that they have a class to teach that isn’t being taught.  What to do?

1.) Towards a more classical science:

Classical education seeks to give the principles of things, but the principles of the sciences are primarily their experiments, and there are serious practical problems involved in doing these experiments.  First of all, there simply is no curriculum that teaches the sciences through their foundational experiments. Second, there are impediments to even making such a program: in contrast to the clean, universal, algebraic conclusions that we draw from experiments, the experiments themselves are incomparably more messy, particularized, and inexact; and it is rarely the case that the sort of person who is good at teaching “science” (i.e. the systematically developed set of conclusions) is good at doing science (i.e. showing people how to set up apparatus). Even if one found a good teaching experimentalist, the experiments themselves can be cost-prohibitive, and (on a theme to be repeated frequently) there simply isn’t enough time to do them. Consider what it took for the Mythbusters to experimentally prove something as seemingly evident as the cancellation of momentum.

That said, there is also a critique in all of this about how science is taught, and what a classical education could do to remedy it. We simply aren’t teaching science when all or most of what we present is the sanitized, algebraic, universal law. Natural science is the daughter of abstract theory and chaotic, statistical, and frequently abductive inference, and we too often treat science as though she sprouted fully formed from the head of the theoretical parent alone. One simply can’t deal with a bunch of experiments in a purely theoretical way – there is an irreducibly artistic and intuitive element to them. It is not per se irrational, for example, to run a hundred experiments, find one that agrees with the hypothesis, and then think that the hypothesis is proven (this is, in fact, exactly what the Mythbusters do in the above link).

Conclusion: classical teaching of science should strive to be more experiment based. Cost: less time to do theoretical things and to cover more advanced topics.

2.) Towards a more classical math: 

Classical education sees mathematics as the paradigm of systematic thought, but modern math curricula have only a very general systematic order. The typical math textbook, after a brief nod to number theory in Chapter 1 (natural, whole, integers, rationals, reals…) and some basic manipulation rules, (communitive properly, transitive property, etc.) follow up with something that is anyone’s guess, and that need not have any relation to what came before. Here again, part of the problem is that the math text is presenting material with an eye to preparing one for diverse fields: engineering, physics, chemistry, etc. and so it has less the look of a perfectly assembled engine and more the look of a well-stocked general use tool drawer. The goal in stocking a tool drawer is not the order in which you get the tools or the order you place them in, but simply to have what you need to do the job. The same would be true even for those of us who see algebra as part of a more general art of “problem solving” – it was originally thought up to solve geometric problems and gradually extended its use to the other sciences. But problem solving and systematic exposition are to some extent antithetical: the system treats the end as given while the problem solving art doesn’t. There is a certain logic in the more or less random exposition of topic in the typical algebra textbook – a problem is a situation where one does not know what should come next, and the typical textbook is laid out in exactly this way.

Conclusion: Rename algebra “problem solving” but keep it as its own class. Be clear about how, in its highest use, it is a tool for solving science problems. Teach only techniques relevant to solving scientific problems, in such a way as to make it obvious exactly what the class is good for. Teach another class called “Mathematics” where one gives a systematic account of mathematical things. Cost: You’ve effectively doubled the math load, though you could massage this by putting less in the problem solving class than in is presently taught in algebra. Still, this takes a bite out of the rest of the curriculum and leaves one with far less time to do other important things. But it would be worth it.

Aristotelian Eliminative Materialism

A: Well, you’re certainly a first. I can’t say I’ve ever met an Aristotelian Eliminative Materialist.

B: I get that a lot. I didn’t find the Churchlands or Feyerabend all that convincing initially, but I’ve felt forced towards EM by Aristotle for a few years now, so now I read them as supporting arguments for the more fundamental Aristotelian one. Obviously, Aristotle himself wasn’t a Materialist of any sort, but he raised a problem that can only be resolved by EM.

A: This was the problem you were talking about earlier? The one about the agent intellect?

B: “The agent intellect”? You must be a Medievalist – which is fine, I am too. But no one calls it that any more.

A: So what is the problem then?

B: Let me set it up: you understand the difference between the intentional and the physical?

A: Sure. No one who’s heard anything about contemporary philosophy hasn’t heard of that distinction.

B: And that the whole question about them is whether the intentional reduces to the physical or not?

A: Sure – though the distinction might be a bit quick. What about supervenience?

B: I don’t mean to overlook it but only to use a sense of reduction that includes it, namely, we can reduce anything whose existence depends on a more basic level of existence.  In this sense supervenient properties are still causally dependent on the deeper, physical level of existence.

A: Okay. Get it.

B: So lets take as a  first hypothesis that the intentional does not reduce to the physical.

A: Right, but where does Aristotle come into this?

B: Pretty much immediately. You’d agree that, in Aristotle, the human person generates intentional things, right? After all, he’s not Plato, who insisted that there was a separate world of ideas. For Aristotle, we make intelligible ideas. Persons make thoughts, they don’t take them pre-fabricated from some some Platonic warehouse.

A: Right.

B: But that’s the whole problem: how can a person generate an idea, if the idea is irreducible? If the intentional is really irreducible, then there must have always been ideas, or, if you want to posit a finite universe, there must have been ideas as long as there has been time. Remember how “the reducible” is anything whose existence can arise out of something more fundamental?

A: That’s what we said, more or less.

B: But then the irreducible can’t arise out of anything more fundamental, but is simply given. But Aristotle thinks that persons make thoughts.

A: Where’s the problem?

B: How can a thing that has existed for a finite amount of time make something irreducible? Take anything really irreducible in the here and now, like, say, mass-energy or energy or something. The whole point of calling it irreducible is that it doesn’t come to be or disappear but is always conserved. You see? You can’t say both a.)  the intentional is irreducible, and b.) that an individual person makes intentional things, i.e.  a person thinks. You’ve got to pick one or the other. But I wasn’t about to deny that persons think (whatever this means) and so I had to deny that intentional things are irreducible. And so I’m an Aristotelian EMist. Q.E.D.


Either love or experiment

The Boomers divorced like mad and my generation grew up in the ruins. One response to the wreckage was a fear of marriage which made it seem reasonable to try a trial marriage first. What one called the trial marriage was unimportant (“moving in with each other”, “test drive” etc.) the logic of the relationship was trial marriage. But logic also decrees “trial marriage” a contradiction in terms: trials are incompatible with oaths and while marriage consists in an oath. Still, the desire “to know if it will work out” still remains. We want to be sure – why not do some research?

It’s one thing to figure out someone and get to know them, but what we’re talking about here crosses over a line into running trials and experiments. But the realities in question here – eros and/or friendship between persons – don’t respond well to experiments. There are very old stories* about the man who contrives a test of fidelity, but from the minute the story begins the audience or the reader can see the inevitable catastrophe. An experiment with the fidelity of another is itself an act of infidelity, since it requires making provision to deny exclusivity. The very act of trying to gain certainty about love by experimental trial negates the very love that the experiment seeks to be certain about.

What is here true on the natural level carries over into the supernatural, and has its supreme expression in the drama of Christ being tempted at the parapet of the temple. The devil is quite literally tempting Christ to confirm a hypothesis about God’s providence for his creatures, and Christ’s response to deny that the relationship between God and creatures is the sort of thing one tests. This is simply a corollary to the first commandment – for it is precisely because our relationship to God is to someone loved that it wholly excludes the sort of relationship we have to something we are experimenting on.


*My favorite version of the story is the one told in Don Quixote and Cosi Fan Tutte, though the story itself might be taken from Decameron. 

Verbs as potentials

Aristotle supports his claim that states of being are both actual and potential by saying that “is” is not always said in the same way. His claim is easier to see if we start with other verbs: “runs”, “works” or “gets”  are present tense verbs just like “is” but they often mean “able to run” or “able to work” as in “the car runs fine” or “John’s method gets results”.

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