Cosmological arguments as features of necessary explanation

Cosmological arguments become very forceful when seen as arising from intractable features of unavoidable explanations.

1.) We can’t avoid giving broadly causal explanations for things that come to be.  By “broadly causal” I mean to include accounts that are determined, probabilistic, freely willed, or any combination of the three. In the face of the question whether there is a cause in the broad sense of something that comes to be, the answer is (necessarily) “yes”. Otherwise there is no reason whatsoever – neither necessary, statistical, or willed – why something non-actual becomes actual, which is exactly the position one is in if he says there can be becoming without a pure actuality. The denial the principle extends far wider than just the theistic proof – in fact, it leads us to a sort of philosophical comedy – a detective who could stare at the knife stuck in a corpse’ s back and wonder if there was no cause whatsoever for it: not a murderer, not an accident, not anything. So what if the victim was walking around healthy just yesterday? The knife is just a brute fact, and that’s all there is to it.

2.) We can’t avoid taking what is per se and primo as the explanation for what is not such. Leaving aside the explanation of particular events as particular, explanation involves finding a predicate that is said of something both necessarily, convertibly, and at exactly the right level of universality (what Aristotle calls kath’ auto and katholou in c. 4-6 of the Book I A.Po.). The explanation of heat has to be something that necessarily hot (coffee or ice won’t work) convertible with heat, and also at the proper level of universality (to use Aristotle’s example from geometry, you don’t explain what the “figure with angles equal to two right angles” is if you say it is “isosceles”  – since this is too particular – or “Euclidean”, since this is too general. You need to say “triangle”). But in light of this it becomes impossible to explain any transcendental quality without an appeal to something anyone can recognize as God. What else would necessarily exist, be the unlimited source of any finite good or truth, have an infinite dignity with respect to anything that has dignity, etc.? But this would all be tied up in being per se and primo existent, good, true, dignified, or any other transcendental quality of this sort.

This reduction of all things to the per se and primo is exactly the premise St. Thomas is assuming in the Fourth Way. One can deny this premise too, though to deny it universally would lead one to saying that, for all we know, the scientific explanation of heat might be coffee, the Persian Empire, or Mickey Mouse.

Notes on the sexual revolution

-First of all, it’s happening. It’s not a bunch of hippies dancing on the Berkeley college lawn in the summer of ’68.

-Forty years later, still going strong. Considering the number of people still wedded to various parts of the ancien régime, like spousal fidelity, anti-pederasty, the exclusion of sexual cruelty from the public sphere, age of consent rules, taboos on molestation, the unwillingness to let violence express itself in gladiatorial combat, etc. there is still a great deal left to the logical progression.

-(Like all revolutions?), it is both utterly predictable and yet takes everyone by surprise (the moral life is rigorously logical within indefinite possibilities).

-That various events are not announced as “victories in the sexual revolution” is propaganda, sc. a propaganda of silence – it’s understandable that the winning side would not want to raise the question: “which side are you on?”

So where is it all going? 

Robin Lane Fox’s Pagans and Christians paints the picture of a pagan sexual ethic that was in some ways very stern (condemning uxorial adultery and passive homosexuality, for example) but it was always extrinsic. No sexual activity that was wrong as such, it was only wrong when it distracted someone from something they should be doing, harmed his reputation in the community, or depleted his finances. Parents would critique the sexual actions of their children only in the way that modern parents might critique gambling.

Theory on cause. 

The causes most immediately at hand are material and even hedonistic: we got the pill, penicillin etc.. This is to see the revolution as an outgrowth of technological power. But there is another cause that is both more causative and more sympathetic.

Start from the consensus that the public mood/philosophy that served as the engine of the revolution was principally informed by the atrocities of the two wars, holocaust, atomic bomb, etc. and that the consensus was/is that these were caused by the folly of certain absolute ideals (utopian ideologies, racial purity schemes, commitment to the Enlightenment value of rational control through science, etc.) This gave rise to a post modern age that views all these things with irony, and advocates not universal unity but plurality and diversity.

But the most manifest expression and consequence of this rejection of absolute ideals is the refusal to sublimate erotic desire to anything. It thus now exists wholly for itself. The mass outpouring and release of sexual energy is the creative destruction of the old structures and conduits for erotic desire. The “cult of the self” is fundamentally a critique of the “cult of the state” or the cult of ideolology/personality. Who couldn’t sympathize with that?

-The only effective roll-back to the sexual revolution would be a common good that people would be willing to sublimate erotic desire to. Seen from this angle, its progression seems as inevitable as a syllogism. At the same time, though the revolution is fundamentally a critique of the horrors of the cult of state and personality, it is not yet obvious that it will be any better at avoiding its own horrors. Seen from this angle, a backlash and reversal seems just as inevitable, though we can only see it on the far side of a sea of blood.

Ways in which we can understand “Morality is not rational”

We’ll leave aside the ways which describe it as utterly irrational in any sense of the term and concentrate on those more restricted, but nevertheless true and valid senses of “rational”.

1.) The Aristotelian (I). If the rationality of morality is taken in a Platonic sense such that everyone who knows the right thing to do is ipso facto rational, and every immoral act is nothing but an ignorance that could be remedied by scholarly teaching, then Aristotle denies that morality is rational.

2.) The Aristotelian (II.) If rational is taken as “proceeding from generally known, publicly given facts” then prudence is non-rational. The truths of prudence can only be seen by those who habitually act in accordance with them, that is, to those who have already committed themselves to acting as though they were true. This commitment is not made blindly, but its initial basis might look pretty flimsy, e.g. “I started acting like this because I saw Joe doing it and it made sense.” This opens up another possibility:

3.) Irreducible dependence on concrete, interpersonal relationships. If “rational” means “reducible to propositions” then an account of morality that gives an irreducible place to role modeling or interpersonal relationships is non-rational. This is related to the account just given, but expands on it – perhaps moral knowledge and discernment presupposes in its very structure proper personal relationships (parent/child, friend to friend, role model to imitator) and any attempt to replace or substitute for these personal relationships is impossible. I wonder about this when I reflect on the fact that hagiographies are insipid in a way that the personal experience of a saint is not.

4.) If we can only get to the point of seeing that morality works. If rational means “to give a cause, and/or to see how something works”, then it’s possible that we can get to the point of seeing that certain actions make us happy and satisfy any reasonable desire to be a good person, but we cannot see how they do so. Moral action might ultimately be of analogous to David Foster Wallace’s account of AA in Infinite Jest: you perform certain actions and rituals that seem pointless, banal, and trite, but at the end of them you find you’re not drinking.

5.) If relevant diverse circumstances cannot be exhaustively enumerated. If “rational” is taken to mean “universally applicable in all cases” or “falling under universal laws”, then the variety and infinite circumstances relevant to moral action make them non-rational. This would not mean that there is a region of moral action where anything goes, but only that moral laws intrinsically presuppose a range of circumstances that are usually left out in any account of the law itself but which could never be exhaustively articulated. Assume that “to add” meant “to add in a concrete case”. Under such a definition, there could be no exhaustive account of adding, since one cannot enumerate all the concrete cases of addition. But something like this is the case of moral knowledge: for it is only of value if it can exercise itself in the concrete case.

Nature, the infinite machine

Okay, so thought or consciousness is just the action of neurons.

But why exactly does the neuron get to be the term of analysis? Why isn’t the ultimate level of analysis larger (“thought is nothing but the action brain regions / of bodily organs”) or smaller (the parts of the neuron, the chemicals that make it, the electrical charges that make the chemicals, etc.) Even if we can’t answer this, we know that the analysis is more perfect as we go in the downward direction that is, the more we approach some absolute part. This is because analysis just is breaking something apart, and so analysis by its nature sets us on the course for the ultimate part. But what is an ultimate part? Presumably, it is that which is not made from more fundamental parts; nothing of its behavior is explained in relation to the behavior of something more basic.

Now there will always be an epistemological benefit to breaking things apart to find a more basic level. We don’t need to justify the desire of the mind to find more basic parts: it simply enjoys doing so. But this does not resolve the ontological question whether there is in reality some fundamental level that is there to be reached. One response to the question would be to dismiss it as merely empirical: what can we do except look for the fundamental level and then announce when we’ve found it? But this claim, like all empirical claims, is still governed by more basic logical rules: inter alia, it has to be logically possible. Is it?

One impediment to a coherent account of an ultimate part in the physical order arises from the mechanical character of the physical. In physical analysis, we must compare physical behavior to a machine, but this very comparison makes it impossible to have a coherent account of a fundamental level. Machines are conduits: they convert some A into B and so take A for granted. But this prohibits us from having a coherent (i.e. non contradictory) account of an ultimate physical behavior. The mechanical character of the physical means that (as Leibniz already claimed) nature can only be an infinite machine. Physical analysis never reaches a point where we can reconstruct the whole from something that is not itself constructed. Mechanical analysis yields only machines ad infinitum. 

(N.B. I do not raise the question whether this requires matter to be infinitely divisible. For my own part, I don’t think it does. It is not necessary that more fundamental machines be “smaller”, e.g. if one reduced the atom to a field, it is not necessary to view fields as smaller than atoms. In fact, if the atom were a sort of “ripple” in a field, the more basic physical structure would be larger than its epiphenomenal manifestation; more likely though, the whole “smaller than/ larger than” distinction not applicable.)

And yet explanation remains a search for ultimates. Even if the earth rested on a turtle, you couldn’t explain its stability by invoking it. But the physical analysis of an infinite machine – i.e.the physical analysis of the physical – can only yield one turtle after another. The analogous physical process is more interesting, to be sure, but this is only a report on our own feelings toward it. More importantly, the advance to more and more profoundly embedded machines involves an increasing degree of control over the physical world, that is, it makes the physical more and more subordinate to human values.

But the fact that we can see this subordination to human values as a justification for physical analysis (a cure for cancer could justify just about any endeavor) opens the possibility that the very ontological explanation of the infinite machine might be its relation to a field of value, i.e. its relation to will as a power of intellect; with the infinite machine being the reflection of infinite will.

Notes on the paradox of fire

-Revolutionary destruction, cathartic orgies of death, or even the milder and more democratic desire to “throw the bastards out” etc. all testify to the same fundamental structure – that destruction is a new birth.

-Destruction being new birth is an instance of being as essentially good. Pan-destruction would be creation. To reduce everything to ashes would make it all clean.

-The symbol of all this is fire: chaotic, consuming, thrown down from the sky; and yet also leveling everything, clearing out the underbrush, and sending all back to the heavens.

-Hellfire is a perversion of fire: consumption and chaos without rebirth. This is not a critique of hellfire but an insight into the character of rebirth, which requires something being delivered up to the heavens.

-Smoke darkens, suffocates, blocks out the sun. The fire both returns it to the heavens and scatters it.

-The ambiguity that fire releases smoke. It both sets it loose upon the world and yet diffuses it.

-Hell has no chimney.



God in a meaningless universe

Say the universe is meaningless.

Problem: “Meaning” in the contemporary West is either a very rich or very muddled term- we’ve either put our finger on a very living, multifaceted and profound thing, or we’ve hopelessly conflated any number of very distinct ideas. The term first means “to signify” when said of words, which then stretches to include symbols, though it is not at all clear that symbols mean things (does the statue of liberty mean the welcoming of immigrants? Did a pre-Nixon dollar mean some amount of gold?)  The term then stretches to include purposes larger than signification, and can be watered down till the point where it is a synonym for “important”.

But this is the wrong line of analysis. The term can be viewed as the opposite of vanity as used in Ecclesiastes. Things are either meaningful or in vain. Meaningful things progress to some fixed goal/perfection/ point of rest; and it is the absence of this in the universe that so horrifies and bores Coheleth. The universe just goes on. Time passes without going getting further from or closer to anything. The rivers flow into the ocean and never fill it up. Any eschatology of “a last day” cannot be read off the days themselves.

Notice that it is precisely the regularity of nature that makes Coheleth call it vain. He is seeing things from a fundamentally scientific point of view – not in the sense that he is forming hypotheses and setting up experiments (these are only means, anyway) but because he sees all the acts of nature as mere repetitions and instances of eternal, regular laws.

So then, we have both a divine and existential warrant to viewing the universe as meaningless, based not only on theology but on the horror of seeing the algebra of the world. Once the splendor of the simple equation wears off, you realize the ontology of the equation is that time and history just roll on – they are, as Aristotle would put it without seeming to notice what he was saying, potentials without any corresponding act. In this sense, human beings have known for a very long time that science makes the world meaningless.

So there it is, a meaningless world. What now?

1.) The first response almost doesn’t need to be said. This isn’t the whole truth of the universe. Leaving aside the protests of scientific philistinism, there are obvious meanings in the human world which spill over into the larger animal and organic world (hunters chase deer because they want to kill them whether the hunters men or wolves; and anything that acts to hydrate itself can be seen as drinking, whether it is a man, a cow, or a shrub.) The fact that living beings incorporate (the putatively meaningless) elements and physical processes of the world into their being at the very least problematizes the meaninglessness of the universe.

The response to all of this is to say that the meaningless part of the universe, even if not the only part, is the fundamental part. Nature is whatever happens always or for the most part, and the universe for the most part is not living. Chalk the things that find meaning in the world up to a rounding error – nature is regularity, law, vanity. 

2.) So let’s say the fundamental story of the universe is meaningless. But we need to be more precise since meanings can be given to things which lack that meaning of themselves. We can all decide to stab Caesar when he turns down Tillius’s request, though not because there is an intrinsic connection between refusing him and being stabbed (in fact, the lack of any such intrinsic meaning in the act is one of the reasons why we choose it as the moment to stab him). But to draw this distinction between meaning intrinsically and just meaning problematizes the question. Meaning, after all, is usually imposed on something that does not have it of itself and thus presupposes a meaningless substrate. To take absence of intrinsic meaning as evidence of lack of meaning is the same as to say that a word is not in English because none of its letters necessarily spell an English word. The universe is intrinsically meaningless to the Creator in the same way that sound is intrinsically meaningless to a spoken word. Considered in this sense, the intrinsic meaninglessness of the universe was a prerequisite for its having a divine meaning.

True, no Thomist is going to argue that the universe lacks intrinsic meanings altogether. But time and history can be vanities, and history is precisely the theater in which Judeo-Christian tradition sees God as working. 

Subjectivity as infinite

To clarify the infinitude of the subject, start with considering the finitude (or limitation) of the act of seeing.

Claim: The angle of binocular vision is about 120 degrees, of total peripheral vision is close to 180, and the range of focus is much smaller, around 5 degrees or so.

The claim is true and false:

True: Experiments establishing this and things like this are pretty easy to do, and they tend to show that the angle of vision is narrower than it would seem (peripheral vision is good at detecting motion, but not distance, color, etc. It usually just triggers us to turn our heads.)

False: To speak of an angle of vision at all is to visualize it as contained in a larger field, but our actual experience of seeing is not contained in a larger field. Speaking of any “the angle of vision” requires us to visualize what is outside that angle, but  it is a manifest contradiction to speak of visualizing what is outside of what one sees. Briefly, when we speak of an angle of vision we turn the field of vision into an object seen, but the visual field is not an object seen. We can visualize the angle of vision an object only by tacitly assuming a third, disembodied eye that can looks down on our angle of vision from above and places a protractor on it.

Considered in this sense, subjectivity is not the action of some homunculus sitting behind the eye, or a ghost making neurons fire in the brain, but a field of experience so far as it makes objects given without being one of the objects. And this is the best view of the  different ways that the field (i.e. the subject) and its objects are finite: the object is finite by being given as contained in a larger, homogeneous field, though there would be a contradiction in the subject field being given in this way. Moreover, there is no meaning to the finititude of the subject except by transposing it to the field of objects. The subject as such is non-finite and without anything bordering it.

General critique of mechanism (III)

The general critique of mechanism is that no machine can exist for itself, whereas both contemplative activity and life both exist for their own sake. This difference is manifested in the fact that a machine that truly modeled contemplative activity or life would be badly formed and even absurd.

The critique applies even in the case of a machine that might pass the Turing test, and even develops the idea of such a machine. Aristotle noted that if looms could run on their own, there would be no need for slaves. He was more right than he knew, since he isolated the upper limit of the possible development of a machine, namely as the ideal and perfect slave – a being that could execute all tasks we might put it to and yet would have no existence-for-itself. The Turing machine fitted with the requisite tools would not be human by a true application of the same logic that falsely proved Dred Scott was not human; and this is in part because it would not be conscious in the way our consciousness can act for its own sake or be alive in the way any living thing exists for itself.

Mechanism and the immanence of life (II)

Complex machines have keyboards, buttons, toggle switches, etc. which make their existence and operation relative to human hands and fingers. There wouldn’t be any point to the machine at all without such a thing or its equivalent. But this places a limit on the extent to which we can understand living things as machines. Living things don’t come with these sorts of organs or hard-wired structures, and there would be something superfluous or contrary to life in wiring one into them; but a computer, no matter how advanced, wouldn’t be very well designed if it lacked an on-off switch. I’d expect even a robot to have a master-switch, though canaries have never had them.

Notice that the machine’s existence for another, which is absent from the living thing, causes a radical shift in even the practical activity that a machine can have. Practical cognition makes cognition ordered to something else, but since the very being of the machine is ordered to something else, it cannot have practical cognition the way a living thing does. The bird that detects a trap will avoid it for its own sake, but a GPS satellite that detects a traffic jam will not avoid it or even perform the activity at all for its own sake. The practical activity of living organ is for the living thing whereas the practical activity of a machine organ is for something extrinsic.

Mechanism and theoretical knowledge (pt. I)

Cognitive powers have both a practical and a theoretical use, e.g. we not only use sight to avoid obstacles but also simply because we enjoy seeing; we taste things not only to see if they are rotten but also because we enjoy the taste. The comparison of our cognitive powers to machines is very apt to describe their practical use but it is inadequate and even ridiculous as an explanation of their theoretical use. As practical, the eye can be meaningfully compared to a camera – it takes in signals and then outputs information that is useful to the direction of the body; but as theoretical, we have to consider the camera as ceasing to have any output mechanism. It neither has a digital read-out nor records the experience to film, since ex hypothesi, the whole value of the input is the fact of input itself. Likewise, the brain can be meaningfully compared to a computer so far as it processes information that is useful for action, but the comparison becomes very strained as an account of contemplative action. So taken, we have to visualize a computer with no screen or outputs – which is certainly an odd contraption that has no clear motive for ever being built.

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