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.


1 Comment

  1. July 30, 2016 at 2:16 pm

    While everything is vaguely defined, I think you’re omitting an aspect where Carroll is right about “God” in particular being poorly defined.

    That is, “God” is supposed to be someone’s name, and names in general are poorly defined. They are meant to point to something singular, something you already know about. They are not meant to have a definition.

    So if someone doesn’t know what or whom you are talking about when you say “God”, then you have to give some specific explanation, and it isn’t clear what that explanation is. For example, does it in fact signify a person? Or just the first cause, which you happen to believe to be a person?

    Of course there is nothing to prevent you from clarifying those issues. But people do not typically do so. They leave the name as a name, and thus poorly defined.

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