Poorly defined

Sean Carroll: The idea of God is poorly defined. One never knows what to verify, and it seems to be compatible with all outcomes.

Response: Try being a philosopher trying to get a definition out a physicist! Consider just energy: is it a mathematical convenience or a real mover of things? Is it a cause of motion or an effect of it? Is it a mere ability to do something or the actual doing of it? Does it require that ability to act and action be identical? If energy changes states, is there something other than energy responsible for this change? Is it one thing that changes states or a whole class of different things, which doesn’t so much change as cause something in another? When you say energy is the same as mass or the same as momentum times velocity or work or a unit like joules/ watts, etc…. does this mean it is nothing other than these things, or that you can use one to get the other, or that one causes the other, or that they are some higher, transcendent thing above all these finite conceptualizations? Is energy basically just kinetic and potential or is it the never ending list of different states? Just what are these “states” anyway?

No matter how you answer any of these questions, I have a long series of follow-ups along with demands that you refute a set of claims from those who think your answer is demonstrably wrong. I have a longer list of questions about many other physical concepts. And just wait till we get out of physics and start talking about chemistry, biology, psychology…

Bottom line: Carroll is right only in a way that makes his point irrelevant: all things are defined relative to the sorts of arguments and discourses we want to have, and there is a large, irreducible variety of these. At the moment, energy is defined inside of a discourse that has no interest in the sort of questions I just raised and God is defined in a domain that has a great deal of interest in these sorts of questions. Notice I don’t try to make some neat divide between the domains as “science” and “ontology” or anything like this, since these words are only opposed to one another when they are used as taboos to stigmatize supposedly legitimate and illegitimate domains. I think the above questions are the sorts that scientists should be interested in but which they show little interest in because of societal taboo, self-selection, educational history, the establishment pressure coming from grants and employment and prestige, and yes, because of at least a few rational desires. The scientists are not unique in this as there are certainly similar constraints on those who talk about God.

Being outside the Porphyrian tree

One of the first things we figured out about being/the real/ a thing was that it is transcategorical, which is easiest to visualize by saying that it can never be a node or a branch on a Porphyrian tree. So long as you are trying to grasp it by the rules of definition you will never locate all that you mean by it. That cluster of ideas that the Greeks tried to catch with on or the Latinate with ens is just as appropriate to the top of the tree as to the bottom, since only the lowest level of the tree escapes logical existence and only the highest level of the tree can be said of all things. There is even a reason to put it somewhere midstream in the tree, as when philosophers divide “being” into “real being” and “mental being”.

Some responses and corollaries that have been drawn from this:

1.) We can see “the one” as both the one in number and what includes all things, and all that arises between as our concepts. So taken, The One is beyond all conceptualization. The One bookends conceptualization and allows it to progress from some point and terminate at some point. But the “generalization” we depart from is not continuous with the conceptualizations that it gives rise to, neither is the “particular” we converge on. The scare quotes are to recognize that being is neither general nor particular, and there is an important sense in which nothing is in such categories.

2.) Being is most known to us, both because it is whatever is concrete taken in its concreteness, and whatever could be intelligible and therefore abstract. Man is a mind-body or soul-matter composite, but such a being would be a contradiction if the concrete and abstract had no nexus in reality.

3.) Critical philosophy cannot be an attempt to bracket possible knowables, since being is known and it cannot be bracketed. We have a chance at a critical philosophy from a claim about what sort of concepts cannot be linked together, since concepts need to be capable of being conduits from being to being, form the “general” or the “particular”.

4.) The Phaedo account of causality gives a crucial role of abstractions/ things in themselves in causing the concrete or particular actions, e.g. nothing is living except by the presence of life. This leaves open the possibility of further refinement while still insisting that no further refinement eliminates the character of the abstract that causes. We eventually range all actions under the causality of the good, which, like one and being, is beyond both ends of the Porphyrian tree.

Evidence and metaphysics

In contemporary English usage, the word “evidence” is much narrower than “what makes something known” or “what makes something true”. We don’t tend to talk about the evidence for the rules of logical inference, mathematical theorems or postulates (like systems of numbers or the divisibility of lines), or truths that we have some reason to take for granted (fidelity of spouses, equality of the races, the value of democracy or peer review). While we can ask for evidence of truths that arise from practice, experience, and the testimony of experts, we usually don’t see the need, and it is not always possible.

Demands for evidence therefore involve both a restriction of an object to a domain that is more narrow than what is true, and is conditioned by a large background of things already evident. Asking about the value of free inquiry in an Aristocracy (where the proper place of everyone and orders of subordination are taken for granted) is a very different thing than asking about the transcendence of God in a democracy (where inequality is seen as the primary obstacle to overcome). Even under this restriction, evidence is widely varied and, if we want it to have the sort of clarity that it has in the courts, we need to rely on a good deal of positive law and judicial fiat. Even then, ambiguities will remain: were Fuhrman’s comments about blacks evidence for the defense? Were they exculpatory or simply inflammatory? Were they the heart of the trial or a distraction from it?

The application to arguments about God or the spirituality of mind is clear: it’s not clear whether “evidence” in our contemporary sense is relevant or a distraction. Assume it’s true: is the Ontological Argument evidence that God exists? It’s not an exhibit entered into evidence or Eddington measuring the bending of light in an eclipse or some fact that is a sign of something other than itself (the bloody glove behind Kato’s bungalow). Metaphysics simply doesn’t work like that. If we had a good argument why all truths needed to be based on evidence (like my friend’s argument that all reasoning is Bayesian) we might conclude that metaphysics was pseudo-knowledge; if we had a good argument why proving “God exists” is methodologically identical to proving that dark matter exists we might also prove the same thing. But it’s hard to see how a proof for God’s existence would work if we were asked to make “God” be a value that was operationally defined in terms of meters, seconds, or grams.

Given the restricted domain of evidence among things that we can know to be true, a complaint about the absence of evidence for God and the soul or a desire to offer such evidence is either a non sequitur or a failure to get the point. My suspicion is that this is true even where some religions make historical or factual claims.  Evidence against Mohammed flying on a horse is just as much evidence that the tale ought to be read in a spiritual sense as proof that the religion itself contains falsities, and willingness to posit a spiritual sense is a more honest approach than other worldviews allow. There is certainly nothing like the spiritual sense to deal with the paradoxes and less-than-perfectly-empirical claims of, say, secular or communist morality.


From physical to metaphysical

-Metaphysics claims to be structural to physics and the natural sciences.

-The first argument for metaphysics is that science itself is nothing like the things any science studies: it develops logically, and therefore by non-physically reversible or blockable processes; it’s progressions have logical necessity even when they are falsifiable; it s built up from observation, abstraction, propositions, judgments, and group consensus; it is an action with a social dimension and structure (science is “the scientific establishment” – no other methodological unity is plausible). Nothing in nature is like this.

-“We know the same theorem because out brains fired in relevantly similar ways”. But then why aren’t all the similar actions of our bodies leading to this? You can make your process of digestion as relevantly similar to mine as you like, why is believing the same theorem a possibility while digesting the same hot dog isn’t?

-Either the theorem in your head is numerically the same as mine, or we share something that is not one in number. Either way, it’s hard to see how this is anything recognizably natural.

William James: thought is a process of the brain, but it is separable, and this because even physical processes are manifold: (a) Lifting proceeds from a crane, (b) a shot proceeds from pulling the trigger, (c) burning proceeds from orienting the magnifying glass in the right position. Naturalism rests on the illicit assumption that thought only proceeds from the brain in the first sense.

-But (a) is the simplest assumption and so is preferable to the others. Even if this were true, one could not point to the track record of taking it as true to prove that it is the simplest assumption. It is arguably the most complex assumption since the more complex the assumption the more it rules out, and (a) rules out many more possibilities than the others. B and C allow for all the truths of science to be true and the subsistence of mind and of spiritual beings also.

-Naturalism identifies possible truths with possible brain structures. This clearly won’t work since it would mean that one could wire a brain any way he likes and preserve truth detection. You might as well say you could wire a radio any way you like and preserve signal detection, or program a translation program any way you like and preserve accuracy. First epicycle: the brain structure must be adaptive. Problem 1. 100,000 years of human evolution is a blink of the eye in terms of the evolutionary histories that we understand best, and so it’s hard to appeal to the better evidence in evolution to prove adaptability. Problem 2. to say the brain is adapted means it is attuned to some feature of reality. Returning to James’s metaphors, which is most apt to a system that is being understood as attuned to some exterior reality? Steam isn’t attuned to boiling, but a radio is attuned to signal detection. If the mind arises from body, it arises more like a song from the radio than like steam from a kettle.


Politics is intoxicant from our sense that it could provide us the society we want, or at least from the sense that if it is not done right we’d get a society that would be unlivable. So much is at stake!

Maybe. My suspicion is that politicians are more like managers of grocery stores: most of the products and prices are determined in advance and are out of their control. Thinking that electing the right politician will give us the country we want is like thinking that the right grocery store manager will give us the diet we want. Hey, he’s in charge of stocking the food we buy, isn’t he?

I’ve spent most of my life listening to promises of reform and a better tomorrow that are indistinguishable from ads for diet plans. I don’t doubt that there is political justice and the opportunity for genuine reform any more than I doubt that there is a healthy body and the possibility of shifting to a healthier life, but the election rhetoric we have such a hard time not getting drawn into has the same relation to the former that a diet fad has to the latter. Both offer the promise of improvement for nothing, of becoming good without the sort of renunciations, faithfulness in small things, dedication to detail, knowledge of our limitations, and long-term commitment that real goodness demands.


Change of place v. telos

Natural motion does not seem to have a telos, at least if it is fundamentally change of place. Falling arises from a force that remains the same at arriving, changing with respect to a background is not something that can be frustrated or done well, excitement of molecules is not the goal of ones in a rest state. There is something like an operatio, and there is an actualization of some potency, but even the loosest sense of “pointed to” or “directed at” is a poor fit for the paradigm case of a chuck of ice in space. Aristotle ultimately had to give this sort of motion an end as being the cause of generation and corruption, but this seems to require a far more localized and earth-centered system than the one we actually have.

Maybe it would be better to divide motion from activity, or the pure transitivity of changing place from the kinesis that attends life, and is really just an auxiliary to its immanent activity. Generation is a motion only as an auxiliary to life as an immanent operation. Nature provides life with an undifferentiated palate so that the goals of life need not conflict with it. Natural motion lacks any Aristotelian place of repose because this would not be a sort of material that life could work with.

This would seem to be hard to square with any sense of nature having agency, though, and so calls for a more radical critique if it is to go through.

Plato and Nagel contra Naturalism

In Plato’s day, naturalism about the mind-body problem was called the harmony account of the soul, i.e. mind arises from body like a melody from a string. Plato’s most striking argument against this is his last argument in the Phaedo: 

And is the soul in agreement with the affections of the body? or is she at variance with them? For example, when the body is hot and thirsty, does not the soul incline us against drinking? and when the body is hungry, against eating? And this is only one instance out of ten thousand of the opposition of the soul to the things of the body.

Very true.

But we have already acknowledged that the soul, being a harmony, can never utter a note at variance with the tensions and relaxations and vibrations and other affections of the strings out of which she is composed; she can only follow, she cannot lead them?

It must be so, he replied.

And yet do we not now discover the soul to be doing the exact opposite—leading the elements of which she is believed to be composed; almost always opposing and coercing them in all sorts of ways throughout life, sometimes more violently with the pains of medicine and gymnastic; then again more gently; now threatening, now admonishing the desires, passions, fears, as if talking to a thing which is not herself, as Homer in the Odyssee represents Odysseus doing in the words—

‘He beat his breast, and thus reproached his heart: Endure, my heart; far worse hast thou endured!’

Do you think that Homer wrote this under the idea that the soul is a harmony capable of being led by the affections of the body, and not rather of a nature which should lead and master them—herself a far diviner thing than any harmony?

Nagel’s defense of cognition in Mind and Cosmos helps to draw out the sophistication of this sort of argument, by arguing that an action made according to insight, theory, or a sense that something is right differs from an action with a purely physical story. None of us are surprised that hunger, fear, anxiety, lusts for pleasure and revenge, and other experiences like this have a physical component and an evolutionary justification, but it’s precisely this awareness that they have a physical component that makes it reasonable to step back from them and ask what role we want them to play in our behavior. But the awareness that some behavior is right, whether this is a behavior of belief in a theory or of how we should act is not like this. Insight into what is right – even where that insight is in fact imperfect or mistaken – is not the sort of thing that we can step back from and ask what role it ought to play in behavior. We suffer equally the experience of fear and the experience of the truth of an inference, but the first leaves the question open of what ought to be done or believed and the second does not. Any further action in response to the first needs some additional justification, which is ultimately (and usually immediately) some truth of the second kind.

Finding a physical motivation for belief always triggers the awareness that it is judged by another. As soon as we finds some physical basis for the belief that, say, all physical actions are demand physical contact we ask whether this is in fact the case, in the same way that the brute physicality of lust makes us immediately question whether it should be acted on. It’s not that the physical account debunks the belief, it simply forces us to raise the question of whether the belief ought to be followed or resisted in light of some sort of experience that is justified in itself, which is what moral education largely consists in. I spend most of my day trying to get kids to recognize or at least act on the sorts of reasons that are justified in themselves and can serve as a basis to critique to purely physical impulse to punch your sister, give up or slam doors in frustration, or eat the whole box of Cap’n Crunch.

It’s perhaps in this sense that there can be some justification for the idea that naturalism must be essentially immoral. It’s not so much that we need some sooper-dooper authority to ground something as mysterious as a moral imperative but that recognizing a purely physical basis of an action requires us to look for some standard that will allow us to incorporate it it into action. The “Euthyphro Problem” never arises. Naturalism doesn’t so much do away with a law giver as with the basis of moral education, because it demands that all experience share exactly that feature of rage, frustration, hunger, lust for sugar, etc. that forces us to judge them by a different kind of experience. Naturalism demands that the feeling of logical consistency or moral honor be just as physically motivated as hunger, but it is impossible to experience them in this way, and even if we could it would simply leave us looking around for a reason to be reasonable or a moral motivation for morality. Naturalism seems committed to the idea that there can be no such justification, though this leaves the Naturalist having to explain just what sort of claim naturalism is making about the world and what sort of theoretical and practical behavior it could consistently justify.

A First Way variant

1.) Change is either the only thing we seek an explantion for, or at least the paradigm case of what we seek an explanation for.

Motion, change, kinesis, etc. is not just some feature of the world but the feature that makes us look for reasons and causes. The sciences that are most causal are those that are closes to explaining motion (meters, time, and mass are all defined though motions and all other units are complexes of these).

2.) But if change is your explanandum, your explanans can’t be something given as changing, since then it simply subsumed into the explanandum.

3.) It follows immediately that the unchanging cause is the explanans of what most of all needs explanation. Neither this explanans nor its activity can be described in meters, seconds, mass, or in any of the units built up from these. It cannot act by energy or by any other conserved quantity that transitions to cause change. It cannot begin to act at time t and so acts outside of any light cone and without needing to receive or convey information.

4.) The natural sciences are thus part of a larger project seeking the explanans of change, or the cause of what we most seek causes for. Any attempt to identify all causal explanations with natural science explains change only under some qualification and so as scattered into diverse causal domains.

5.) The unification of physical theory therefore cannot be affected by any physical theory, in spite of being the primary motivation in the development of the theories themselves. Natural sciences are therefore also a part of a larger project of unification of physical theories.

Because physical theory is a part of a larger explanatory picture that does not require the units, tools, or theories of physical theory, as these theories advance they will realize more and more that nothing in the science is entirely necessary and that even the most “self-evident” truth that is proper to their domain can be done without. If contact were absolutly necessary for motion then the immobile mover could not move anything, and so we discover (in Newton’s theory of inertia or gravity) that contact is not necessary for continued motion. If time were absolutely necessary for activity on the world then the unchanging explanans could not act upon it, and so we discover in the block universe or Barbour’s “Platonia” that a timeless world allows for physical theory.

As physical science advances it will allow the possibility and plausibility of more and more theories, not fewer, and these theories will become more and more radically different – allowing now for infinite and now for finite world, making time both fundamental and impossible, being both rigidly determinist and purely statistical, with all events given from the beginning and being absolutely unpredictable.

6.) The demand that the unchanging explanans be given in physical theory is a failure to understand both the unchanging and physical theory. Appeals to “brute facts” are obviously consistent with, and in fact arise from, the structure of physical theory, whose existence depends on principles giving it a trajectory outside of itself (i.e. seeking  causes for change and seeking the unification of theories that do so.)

the two accounts of place

Aristotle hit on two principles of physics that are just as accepted today as when he found them:

1.) Physics is about motion

2.) All motions reduce to/ are based on change of place.

The disagreement occurs at the next step in trying to give an account of place. The history of physics can be told as the attempt to move from the idea of (a) place as a container to (b) place being a relation between bodies.

Both see place as arising from a body’s existence in a larger complex, and there is much to draw out of this, but for the moment I’ll follow the shift from (a) type to (b) type places.

1.) Aristotle and the Ancient-Medieval Cosmos. Since place is a container and all physics is about it, the physical world is a container. This container locates all, and all that moves is moving with respect to it. What is natural is a tendency for some location in the container. Motion is absolutely different from rest, and all suggestions that nature might treat them as equivalent under certain conditions is impossible.

2.) The Classical shift. The idea that the Cosmos was a place became hard to believe when its Crystalline walls were seen as impossible. Some motion had to now be perpetual without being pushed by a perpetual motor on a sphere, and so had to be perpetual from within. The simplest solution suggested itself by the feeling of stasis one can experience on a moving ship: uniform motions needed no more of an extrinsic account of its motion than rest needs an account of its rest. The question “how does that uniformly moving body manage such a uniform motion?”is seen as being just as ridiculous as asking, when you see a dead cat on the road, “how does it manage to keep so still?”

But a container still remained: absolute space. This was a mathematical (i.e. abstract) entity and so fell victim to an interaction problem. The postulate of aether was a way to solve the problem.

We ought not to pretend that it is an easy thing to do away with aether. Besides the (still outstanding) problem of Newton’s Bucket, aether was necessary to keep physics from falling into pure formalism and therefore into idealism. We can’t have something waving (the action) with nothing waving (like a hand). Absent aether, however, this is exactly what you are saying “light” is. Light becomes a sort of nothing that does stuff. Given aether, place is thus still ultimately a container, or a way in which all bodies can be located by touching something that is immobile.

There were problems with aether from the beginning. Wavelengths are inverse to the density of the medium, and so the tiny light wave required a medium 10,000 times denser than steel which, somehow, everything flowed through with no effort.

3.) The Relativist shift. Aether was dropped. There is now a body-space system. If this space is taken as mathematical it gives the same problems as absolute space. What “space” seems to be a shorthand for is a way to maintain the relationships between bodies, i.e. to have a purely (b) type place as mentioned above.

Something of a container sense of place still remains in the claims of a block universe, but it might be possible to account for these as setting up a set of equivalences between any even in space-time and any other postulated event.

QM, however, is background dependent and so still preserves an (a) type notion of space. Smolin is right to see this as the most suspect element in the theory.





– If cosmological arguments establish the existence of something set apart from the existence of the sensible and finite things that the argument starts from, we should also expect any purported experience of the divine to be different in kind from sensible experience.

-We have a tendency to oppose religious-experience justifications and theistic-proof justification when, in fact, each one leads us to expect that the other must have the character it has.

– Try proving the existence of anything beyond integers or shapes-as-geometric (to say nothing of non-Euclidean ones) to someone with a motivation to deny them. If they grant you things in sensible experience (grant!) then your arguments or appeals to experience are attempts to establish something set apart from the experience that gives rise to them.

-For that matter, what would you do to someone tempted to deny physics? Show him the textbook? You could show him some experiments, but in real life these will be messy, suggestive, and filled with assumptions that your interlocutor will find incredible and will have little trouble finding other logical possibilities for. You could show him i-pods, GPS, and other feats of engineering, but this is the most ambiguous proof of all, since the use-value of anything is a function of the moral goodness of the user.

-To justify by usefulness is implicitly to justify in relation to the moral perfection of the user.

-We often think, like Polus, if both white and black magic justify that magic works then both prove that the magic is true. But this would require some truths to be evil, i.e. repugnant to intellect.

-Mathematics belies the opposition between the concrete and abstract (STA’s “intelligible matter”). Any one shape proves what is true of all.

-For Plato, intellection requires a divine world for its objectivity, for Aristotle it requires that one arise from the fullness of agent intellect. The puzzle arises because of our likeness to God: the logos must both exist from the beginning and arise from another. Eros proves the same thing – the other is given as “the one” and yet love exists as an immanent operation in us.

-Intellect unifies multitude, and so to explain the diffusion of all from intellect – creation – requires something more than the one and its logos.

-Nominalism is equivalent to the claim that all is absolutely unique. This is true, but it needs to be informed by the trinitarian mystery that, in the measure that something is absolutely unique it is capable of being communicated to another.

-Nominalism is either eliminitivism about universals (we can’t even think them : Hume following Berkeley) or a denial that two things share one real essence. Taken in this latter sense, Aristotle struggles with Nominalism and is constantly trying to slip out of it.

-Essence : exists :: goverment : governs. This is true if you just look at how the words were formed.

Dubarle: “Science is an attempt to present a world acceptable to intellect”. This is true of it so far as it is any investigation or discourse at all.

-Individuality can be taken either homogeneously or heterogeneously. As homogenous, we see the same thing merely repeated and so as undifferentiated. This arises from matter so far as no individual uses up the supply (we can make as many cakes as we have batter for). As heterogeneous, we see all things as unique, unrepeatable, or with personality, narrative, etc. This arises from essence so far as no individual exhausts its fullness.

-Simply by being finite, essence has incompossible perfections. No one car, for example, could have every possible perfection a car can have. Ditto with an island, as Anselm pointed out to Guanilo. This is why finite essence as such communicates itself to diverse individuals with heterogeneous individuality. No Haecceitas is required to account of this, only the axiom that goodness is diffusive.

-The engine of Darwinianism is supposedly the struggle for existence. But we desire existence not qua existence but qua good. This is evident both from the terms and from experience (suicide, sacrifice, martyrdom). But this requires that goodness be ecstatic or stand outside existence, i.e. what we struggle for is not what we have except so far as this is what we ought to be. What we are really struggling for is a good that, to the extent that we are less than all we ought to be, is outside of ourselves.

-“Struggle for existence” is the fallacy of the accident. It’s a struggle to attain to that paradigm in which the goodness of the one who struggles is pre-contained. God could “struggle to exist” since his being is his goodness, and the saints could struggle to exist since no further self-perfection is possible or desired.




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