Mania and metaphysics

Religious experience demands not just a super-physical or supernatural subject but also a mode of consciousness that transcends the mundane and everyday. To see what is above nature requires a different sort of experience than the one that evolved to know nature and is proportioned to it. This is why hallucinogens play such a large part in so many forms of religious experience, even if they ape the real thing. There is no mundane consciousness of the gods, as though they could show up as guests on Crossfire or take audience questions, a la Kirk’s “what does God need of a starship?” at 1:40 here.  Our experience of the divine involves the mania that Plato describes in Phaedrus.* 

Most theistic proofs are faithful to this so far as they all terminate in an object which we fail to understand through mundane experience. A first Mover is not the first element of a physical system, and though we manifest him by sensation he is not experienced by mundane sensations or brain states; the God of the Ontological Argument is understood by a sort of failure of thought, i.e. an in-principle inability on our own part to think of something greater. It’s harder to see how consensus gentium** arguments or the (to my mind hopeless) fine-tuning arguments present us with anything demanding mania, but maybe someone could figure out a way.

Like all experiences of a soul-in-a-body, these have a physical component, and so their value is not given by the experience alone. There are spiritual critiques of religious experience (see St. John of the Cross and Jonathan Edward’s critique of enthusiasm) just as there are secular critiques of it. All the same, there is no metaphysics apart from allowing the rational character of mania. No supermundane objectivity, no supermundane objects.

*Apologies for the aesthetic whiplash involved in back-to-back sentences shifting from Star Trek V to Plato’s Phaedrus. 

**Consensus gentium does not claim to establish much of anything about God but only that there must be something reasonable about the human practices that acknowledge him, and mania is a clear element in these practices. Still, the whole affair is Bayesian and extrinsic, and it’s very difficult to separate it from the way in which human beings reasonably anthropomorphize things (i.e. as a first attempt to understand them).



  1. Johan said,

    August 14, 2016 at 12:34 pm

    Why are fine-tuning arguments hopeless? (and why can these not be seen as adding additional proof for God? )

    • August 15, 2016 at 3:21 pm

      I can’t think of an argument more suited to the charge of being god-in-the-gaps. Rational theology demands a recognition within physical data of a science that is not physics, but fine tuning not only fails to be such data, it seems to be exactly the sort of problem that people should focus on to advance physics.

      A cosmological argument should not arise as a problem for natural science or a frustration of its desire to know the physical world. God is not a wall that understanding hits but an intelligible limit that draws knowledge forward even as something unattainable. For example, in the progression from force to energy to mass-energy to information we can see physical explanation become more and more like an unmoved mover even while we recognize that it is an unreachable limit.

      • Johan said,

        August 15, 2016 at 3:57 pm

        //exactly the sort of problem that people should focus on to advance physics//

        “..the anthropic coincidences are not like, say, the coincidence between inertial mass and gravitational mass in Newtonian gravity,
        which is a coincidence between two seemingly independent physical quantities. Anthropic coincidences, on the other hand, involve a happy consonance between a physical quantity and the requirements of complex, embodied intelligent life. The anthropic coincidences are so arresting because we are accustomed to thinking of physical laws and initial conditions as being unconcerned with how things turn out. Physical laws are material and efficient causes, not final causes. There is, then, no reason to think that future progress in physics will render a life-permitting universe inevitable. When physics is finished, when the equation is written on the blackboard and fundamental physics has gone as deep as it can go, fine-tuning may remain, basic and irreducible.” ~ Luke Barnes

        Fine-tuning makes for a powerful cumulative case for theism, once we factor in (1) the beauty and elegance of the laws of nature (not needed for intelligent life, (2) the-over-the-top cases of over-tuning, such as the low entropy state of the early universe (none of which are needed or follow from a multiverse)

      • August 15, 2016 at 4:24 pm

        Physical laws are material and efficient causes, not final causes.

        This is an extremely strange thing to say about a mathematical formalism or set of algebraic relations, much less of something that, in its physical component, often seems to reduce to purely formal relations of information. IOW, it looks much more like formal causality is what does all the work in natural science, even if we have to call on observation every now and then to keep our formalisms in line. If this is true, we could follow Aristotle’s idea that there is only a notional difference between formal and final causality.

        I think you’re right that embodied intelligence – whether in our species or any other that might be out there – is the goal of the universe and that physics might even get some hints of this. But the argument you’re giving demands that any teleology is extrinsic to the universe, which strikes me as obviously false.

  2. Johan said,

    August 16, 2016 at 1:34 am

    To be fair to Luke, he is a cosmologist, not an expert on Aristotelian philosophy, so I wouldn’t place too much emphasis on his formal final causation distinction, but I do think he makes a valid point regarding the nature of this problem of fine-tuning and why this is no ordinary problem (as it concerns the very structure of the laws itself), this is more akin to the mathematical applicability problem say, than it is to any phenomenon of physics itself. That is to say, a problem for metaphysics or metascience, not the applicable (at least historically) domain for the typical god-of-the-gap charge.

    I am inclined to think that laws were or chosen or set by God, does this make the teleology extrinsic? (also do you believe that laws of physics and chemistry are sufficient to account for the origin of life?)

    • August 16, 2016 at 8:40 am

      I wouldn’t place too much emphasis on his formal final causation distinction,

      But his account of causes was the middle term! I didn’t quote it to be nitpicky but because it was the basis of his whole argument. One doesn’t have to be an expert in Aristotelianism to get it. There are a lot of folks who say exactly what Luke says, but the charge has never made much sense to me. Physics has a clear impetus towards purely formal descriptions – many of which are now unfalsifiable – and purely formal descriptions are very far from being describable as appealing to only material and efficient causes.

      I am inclined to think that laws were or chosen or set by God, does this make the teleology extrinsic?

      If all you mean is “God chose the universe, laws and all”, then no. If you mean God created a vast material system that was unable to create life and then tuned it up so that it could do so, then yes. The claim might be read half a dozen other ways too, but in order for it to be a propos you’d need to specify a sense that involved fine tuning. My second scenario does this, but it paints the picture of a universe where, as Nagel puts it, the natural world no more fits in a causal description of the genesis of plants and animals than it does into a description of airplanes and computers. In fact, we would have no reason to describe plants and animals as natural unless the universe had the intrinsic power to make them – which is something we’re denying if it needs to be tuned-up in order to do so.

      If it is true that fine tuning presses the problem of teleology on us it would be quite a shock to most accounts of physics. I’m not convinced that it does so press us or if it is just the result of certain wrong assumptions that will be clarified with later theories. You mention, for example, the low entropy state of the early universe. But to describe it as “low” requires that the universe be finite in time. This follows from some accounts of the Big Bang, and it is certainly true of the visible universe, but we don’t need to identify the visible universe with the universe, or take model of the Big Bang with a finite T value. And all this is before we start digging into the deeper assumptions of low entropy (e.g. does it make sense to describe the universe as a system? This would be Smolin’s critique). Or start fiddling with the equations in search of a new physics (I’m thinking of Andreas Albrecht’s fiddling around with the idea of light-speed constancy to solve other fine-tuning problems in physics or Julian Barbour’s denial of the reality of time.)

      The standard model needs a good deal of fine tuning, to be sure, and fine tuning arises in many other places in physical models. But the models themselves seem to be at an impasse as not much new has been developed in the last 40 years from them, and there are other ways in which they seem overly complex and sterile (Feynman diagrams, the circularity of inflation, the wild proliferation of string theories, etc.). This argues that we need a new paradigm to throw more light on the problems we’ve gotten stuck in, and I cannot see any a priori reason why the new paradigm will not resolve the riddles of fine tuning, especially since many of the attempts to find this new paradigm start precisely from fine-tuning problems.

      • Timotheos said,

        August 17, 2016 at 9:03 pm

        I think have a suspicion that after a couple hundred years of Bacon and the British empiricists reigning supreme, we’re finally seeing the revenge of Descartes in physics; far too many Thomistic writers have taken it as a given that the scientific enterprise was founded on cataloging efficient and material causes, whist ignoring formal and final.

        Quite honestly though, Descartes always wanted to reduce everything to formal causes; a Universal Mathematics which could predict exactly where and when everything in the physical universe would be, and how it would move. Our latter-day physicists are finally starting to see, so they believe, how such an account might be attained, and are quite content with Russell to dispense with efficient causality in their theories altogether. This is not a new development however; it was always the goal.

      • August 17, 2016 at 9:13 pm

        I had lunch with Brandon a few months ago, and one of many great takeaways from it was his showing me how the great breakthroughs in physics were made by Rationalists while Empiricism mostly kept to the social sciences. Once someone points this out to you, it’s hard to unsee. Thinking that the success of physics was a triumph for Empiricism demands overlooking Descartes, Leibniz, Newton (his rejection of push-pull causality, his invoking of Absolute space and time, his mathematism) and large parts of Einstein’s intellectual development (he very clearly broke from and reversed Mach, and helped Heisenberg discover uncertainly by doing so). This deserves book-length treatment.

  3. Johan said,

    August 16, 2016 at 3:50 pm

    The key line from Barnes is this “..the anthropic coincidences are not like, say, the coincidence between inertial mass and gravitational mass in Newtonian gravity,”, And hence, it is not clear at all that we are dealing with ordinary gaps that must eventually yield to the progress of science.

    It seems you are pretty confident that more physics will eventually solve these problems if I understand you right, maybe, but as things stand at this moment, things are not looking that great, to quote Wilczek (who as you know is no friend of theism):

    “life appears to depend upon delicate coincidences that we have not been able to explain. The broad outlines of that situation have been apparent for many decades. When less was known, it seemed reasonable to hope that better understanding of symmetry and dynamics would clear things up. Now that hope seems much less reasonable. The happy coincidences between life’s requirements and nature’s choices of parameter values might be just a series of flukes, but one could be forgiven for beginning to suspect that something deeper is at work.”

    //requires that the universe be finite in time//

    Again, this is from leading cosmologists such as Vilenkin, again, maybe the physics is wrong, but according to world-class cosmologists, we have a proof in place to show that the universe cannot be past-eternal. I was pointing out the low-entropy state, because Sean Carroll actually used this as an argument against God (that is, the tuning is so over-the-top) far beyond what was needed for a universe hospital to life, but again, Carroll failed to realize that this would be a great sign for God to leave behind if God wanted to leave evidence behind of prior intelligent activity that would prove difficult to explain away with multiverse-type explanations.

    What would such a paradigm entail? (it seems to be, anything and everything is allowed except any conclusion of design)

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