If God’s a brute fact, why not the universe?

Objection: If you’re going to take God as a brute fact, why not just take the universe as one?

I hate the term “brute facts”, but why bother fighting over names? Let the term mean “a proposition for which there is no explanation, even in principle.”

NB it’s crucial to note that facts are propositional, by which I mean nothing more profound than that single terms like “Unicorn” or “first” are not facts. Neither is “God” or the “universe”. The point of the objection has to be about predicating existence, as in “If you are going to allow for no explanation for why there is a God, why not allow for there being no explanation for why the universe exists?”

The first response is that this is not how cosmological arguments work. We don’t start off with a single “Brute fact” post-it note that we can stick to any existence claim we want. We take explanations where we find them, and if we have one for the universe (i.e. the totality of space-time or motion or whatever) then we take it.

But given what brute facts are, some examples of them are  “Socrates is Socrates” or “man is human” or “A brute fact is a proposition for which…” at least when taken unqualifiedly and not in some exotic sense like “Why was that individual (Socrates) named what he was?” or “what is the principal of identity when applied to the teacher of Plato?” Notice that these exotic senses end up proving the rule, since the proposition only needs an explanation when we find a way in which the predicate is not immediate to the subject.

If this is right, then we have a very good reason to take “God exists” as a brute fact in a way the universe cannot be, since a brute fact is something about which we could know that it exists simply by knowing what one was. But what we mean by “the universe” (the solar system, galaxies, etc.) is not something that tells us that there is such a thing. We know that there is a universe by looking at it, not by defining it. We know what it is only after we see that there is something there.

God is not like this at all. We know only that there is such a thing, but we can’t even take the first step to knowing what God is since we cannot place him essentially within a genus of things that are the same as he. We know God only by his effects, in such a way as to know that there is nothing in his essence making him homogenous with the effects themselves.

Ur-axioms in Libet experiments.

I’d been wondering for a while why the Libet experiments would make a difference to free will arguments when I fell across Sam Harris arguing that any experimental outcome would have been consistent with the denial of free choice (see 6:40 here). The case against freedom can be made from the belief that the brain suffices to initiate behavior, which seems to be an ur-axiom that Libet himself is assuming. Even if Libet hadn’t found evidence of the brain preparing to move before the choice to move, and even if fMRI’s didn’t allow us to predict choices slightly better than chance, the choice itself is just another thing that happens to us. We simply find ourselves choosing or desiring something, and would find ourselves desiring something else if we had a brain tumor or different genes. What’s the difference between desiring something because brain structure demands it and desiring it because a mad scientist has found a way to manipulate us into desiring it, there being no freedom in either case?

True, cognitive science is assuming that the brain is in charge, but the hypothesis hasn’t crashed and burned yet, so the success of the cog-sci is evidence for the truth of the assumption, right? Well, no, not by the standard of proof that science holds itself to. We’d also need to see how successful the opposite hypothesis would be and then compare the outcomes. But this gives us a logical problem: if we think MN is necessary for science and want to prove it scientifically, we’d set up a science with MN and a science without one, which is to assume from the outset that our hypothesis is wrong. The problem generalizes to an incompleteness theorem: any attempt to prove what is necessary for science cannot be done scientifically since it requires begging the question. If you want to have the logical rigor of proving your case with control-experimental groups, you will need at least one foundational premise that cannot be proven in this way.

Harris recognizes that his argument against freedom goes through irrespective of experimental findings, but he’s resting his case on ur-axioms that ground science as such, namely (a) Every action is nothing but initial conditions and formal rules, and (b) all initial conditions (or at least all the ones after the Big Bang) arise from actions. Sean Carroll makes the same assumptions in his arguments against the existence of human souls.

What’s fascinating about (a) and (b) is that they are proposed as explanations of action which can’t account of the initiation or principle or arche of any action, since they give no account of how one could move from not acting to doing so. An initial condition is indifferent to action or stasis, and an abstract rule has no power to shove particles around. In fact, Harris and Carroll are both working from an ur-axiom that natural processes are not initiated* or, what is the same thing, any initiation of a natural process comes from outside nature. Alas for their arguments, this is the sort of belief that both allows for and is much more compatible with the existence of God and the freedom of intellectual substances. MN is better grounded by ~N than N.

Notice that this ur-axiom leaves everything in science in place. There is no need to touch or modify the Dirac equation to allow for some sort of ridiculous souleons or freewilleons or self fields to shove matter around and create the initial conditions of freely chosen brain states. Energy as such is posterior to all initiation of action and so has no role to play in its initiation. It stays as conserved as it ever was, and follows all the rules we have discovered it to follow, only it does so now as a secondary cause, the way that torque explains the motion of the wheels in your car. You need nothing other than energy to cause a natural motion just as** you need nothing other than torque to turn a wheel. It suffices to explain why it’s rotating, doesn’t it? You can even talk about torque initiating the motion, and there is a perfectly acceptable sense in which it does. For all that, this doesn’t mean that it’s torque pushing pistons, and in this sense it does not initiate the motion.


*One could speak of an “initiation” that was arbitrary or for the same of experimental convenience, of course, but this is by definition not a feature of the natural world.

** the “just as” indicates being analogous or comparable, not being identical.

Nietzschean apologetics

Nietzsche condemns Christianity, dedication to art and dedication to science as abandonments of the fundamental imperative to reject all subordination of the self to anything above itself, and primarily to any  unseen worlds of superior reality like God or the ideal beauty or the laws of nature discovered through the objective beauty and simplicity.

That said, if Christianity as the ultimate wickedness when wickedness is measured by subordination, as Nietzsche says it is, then we can read him as arguing that Christianity is the truest way of life is subordination to the unseen is good, and it will turn out to be better both in its goal and its means.

Christianity and science both claim give an absolute value to the pursuit of truth, but only Christianity is willing to take this to the point of willingness to die for it. Science can boast of giving better accounts of how the world works (as though Christianity ever cared about that) but you’re never going to find it boasting about its martyrs. Christianity and human rationality don’t share a common goal of explaining the machinery of the world but they really do share a common goal of pursuing truth as the absolute value, and when measured by the number of persons willing to put there money where there mouths are when truth competes with life, religious faith has no serious competitors. Every other life hesitates before the absolute demand.

This same hesitancy and inconsistency applies to rivals to religious faith. All the rivals pitch a faith belief that the unseen world is in some crucial respects a personal world by being intelligible and knowable by its beauty and simplicity. But what they demand out of one side of the mouth they deny with the other: when challenged or when it is convenient the world can be ugly, monstrous and baffling and the beauty, the simplicity, or even the laws of nature themselves turn into mere subjective heuristics and constructions. Don’t confuse the map with the territory! We’re just making models here! Gotcha!  The rivals to religion want to have it both ways, assuming that the unseen world is a personal world until anyone calls them out on it, then hurrying to shove all of its personal characteristics back into the needs and hopes of human life. We’re engaged in an effort that demands both that we discover intelligibility, simplicity and beauty and that we are the source of it. The universe, work of the amnesiac god!


The abortion answer

Consider abortion as answering the question “I’m in no position to bring this baby to term: what should I do?” Looked at this way the answer seems cynical, morbid, and even absurdist. That said, were the pro-life position nothing more than “don’t kill it!” it would be equally morbid and absurdist, and in this case the charge of “being pro-life until birth” would hit the mark. The appropriate response, obviously, would not be to fight among ourselves over whether to kill a human life or not but to ask why the pregnant couple is in no position to bring one to term. The answers will be all over the place since it’s rare for us to know why we can or can’t do something, and any view of our reasons is seen through the distorting clouds of guilt or fear or embarrassment or of being of two minds about pregnancy, and even if this were not an issue our responses will be motivated by what we think we should say to get what we want. In the face of all this confusion, we might be tempted to throw up our hands and say “Well, just kill it then.” or maybe “God says you can’t and that’s it”.

The question to which abortion is one answer is unavoidably a philosophical question, which means that anyone who’s sat in a philosophy class has already seen the first few moves of the discussion. It will take about thirty seconds for some noticeable mass of vocal persons to get exasperated and give up on the problem in different ways. Some guy will tell the class that reasoning will get us no where and so all that is left is for everyone to do their own thing, someone else will defend a ready-made religious answer, some will stay silent out of genuine information overload, others will stay silent out out of contempt for the whole enterprise. I don’t take any of these responses lightly –  when reason fails, what is left to guide behavior except personal desire or higher authority?

Still, the point of putting a teacher in the class is to keep the students from giving up on reason in thirty seconds, and so the point of political leadership in the face of difficult questions should be the same. In this sense Plato did have a point, contra Chesterton, in insisting that kings should be philosophers.

The point of sexual desire

Aristotle’s theory of sexual desire, following Plato, made it a desire for the eternal. Animals could not be immortal as individuals and so reproduced. This presupposed that species were eternal and Aristotle indeed thought they were – his hypothesis was that going back in time simply gave one elephants, beetles, and cuttlefish on earth forever. St. Thomas preserved this in a theory of the universe where all levels of being, from angels to the atmosphere to ants,  were created at once and continued forever.

The hypothesis failed, so now what?

1.) Close enough. We can say that reproduction is near enough eternity. If the animal had some behavior that made it last another generation as an individual, it would be a life-preserving behavior, but reproduction guarantees that it will survive as a type for at least this long. So sexual desire gets a demotion to a desire for the continuation of life for an indefinite (though not eternal) span.

This is pretty thin beer and comes across as ad hoc. We can’t just substitute a big enough (and how big is that?) temporality for eternity. Even if we could, there is a conceptual incoherence in saying that all animals have the same desire to preserve their same type since, in fact, all animals share this same desire with ancestors of a different type.  This leads us to…

2.) The desire for life. Sexuality is not a desire to preserve life of our kind, for life as such. We’re all branches on the big tree and sexuality is our way of keeping the tree alive. There might be something to this, but without serious qualifications and demotions of the idea as it stands, the truth of the option would make my desire to preserve, say, ferrets equal to my sexual desire. Modus Tollens to the opinion.

3.) The Darwinian. Sexual desire exists because all animals without it aren’t among us. This is true of course but if given to the present question it confuses answers to existential questions with answers to essential ones.

Darwinian theory raises a question about the essence of sexual desire that it can’t answer. The problem is what we are desiring when the desire gives rise to beings of a different type as readily as to beings of the same type. Is this best viewed as a desire for continued existence or another mode of existence, or should we rather try to relate sexual desire to more immanent goals, like self-expression (which can be said in different ways of Playboy hedonism and the procession of the Son from the Father.)


Politics since the World Wars

The consensus among historians is that the World Wars accustomed populations to greater regimentation, control, and government involvement to achieve domestic policy objectives that were to be seen as the moral equivalent of war. And so while the ancient lit saw politics as the attempt to set up a shared life among persons, in the aftermath of the wars this was replaced by centralized control of populations for desirable ends.

This demanded first of all the loss of popular control or self-governance. Wartime populations are by necessity more regimented or, less charitably, more herd-like since in the face of immanent threat it is reasonable for everyone to fall into line and put all differences aside. Wartime centralized power achieves this by feeding populations a steady stream of propaganda or, to use its modern name, public relations.

If whatever policy you are trying to achieve is the moral equivalent of war, then much of the population is the moral equivalent of the enemy. Political issues therefore can no longer be openly or publicly deliberative but have to be done by experts out-of-view. The population will not be allowed to enter into deliberation and so will not be allowed to speak about concrete details of policy but instead will have only ideology, that is abstract, ready-made categories of political value that throw a vast amount of random, unrelated concerns into a single heartfelt party line. Popular protests are understood to give the concrete details of policy over to someone else, and to the extent that you are a popular movement pushing for definite goals you will be called a “special interest” or “lobbyist”, i.e. a non-political but merely self-serving entity.

Wartime populations, or any system of centralized power, demands technological advances since they demand all possible extensions of the hands, feet, and nervous system. The bottom line will always be to increase the ratio of output to labor and to make sure that the centralized power gets the first dibs on the whatever does this. This exalts engineering and its handmaiden, science, while leaving humane letters to puzzle over why it should continue to exist. Religion continues to have value, but only as giving a divine imprimatur to ideology. It must become social to be relevant. Sooner or later the humane letters gets in on the same racket.

But – and do we really need to say this – there’s no war. Our efficiency, centralization, and demands for pan-technological solutions is no longer a rational, right? If we really wanted to permanently and fundamentally manage populations in a herd-like fashion then… then what? First off, you’d have far fewer bulls in the field or, what amounts to the same thing, you’d have (a) far fewer reproducing males; whom you’d (b) breed for a stable population of desirable traits. We’ve got the first part of this down through birth control, video games, porn, and more abortion centers in poorer neighborhoods, but we have no idea how to deliver on the second. This indirect mass-neutering policy not only makes the whole population drop below replacement levels but a large part of it continues to be made of surplus males with nothing to do. We deal with the bottom quintile through the prison system or a toleration for cannabis or opioid abuse, but this is a stand-in until we find some way to bend ideology into supporting a more cost-effective way of ensuring their death.

The logic of human management we’ve taken since the World Wars points to the centralized control of life, death, and breeding, along with everything connected to this. Some bull gets to decide who’s a bull and who’s a steer, and then gets to decide who’s going to be in love with whom (if “love” continues to be seen as an adjunct of breeding, anyway). In this world the ultimate unintelligible and/or revolutionary claim is that the human individual exists for himself in a way that is not just some part of a whole, i.e. he is a person. Still, to leave it at this would make it just another piece of ideology and so unopposed to the system of centralized postwar population management. What cannot be made amenable to such a system is a concrete policy that would treat, say, the bottom quintile as persons, as opposed to seeing them as either lacking moral agency or being culpably lazy and unwilling to better themselves.


Sophistical or Socratic

Judged by numinous power the word “justice” is close to “God” and so appeals to it have a  corresponding ability to influence behavior and inflame passions. The appellants, however, have fallen into two camps for as long as they have been making their cases: the Socratic and the Sophistical.

As a term chanted by protesters JUSTICE! rarely suggests the Socratic ideal. One telling point is that it has no relation to procedure or law. JUSTICE DENIED! Okay, but what exactly I should be outraged about? Was the prosecutor negligent? Was the defendant charged under an inappropriate statute? Is the law badly written? Oh, IT’S THE SYSTEM! What about it? Jury trials? Rules of evidence? Presumption of innocence?

“Blaming the system” charges it as sophistical in the sense we’re invoking now, that is, it is at bottom just an exercise of prejudice, irrational desire and raw power. But our protests against this can only call for one of two things: either we want to make the system more dispassionate, tied to law, dedicated to clearly defined procedure and, in general, more dedicated to a rational ideal or we want to replace their prejudices with ours

Describing this last sort of justice as sophistical is accurate but prejudicial. As experienced, this sort of justice stirs both your own blood and many others’. It has much more of a no-nonsense realist feel to it since it sees with angelic clarity that so-called justice systems are really just systems of prejudice and power. It appeals to rational desires for certitude and clarity in the face of the messy, dialectical, permissive and slow systems that aim at Socratic justice. After all, we know justice on the basis of seeing a news report, or even less! No need to hear both sides of a story and consider how they measure up against a pre-written text of law – our vision and our passion sing in perfect concert to a single, obvious conclusion!

Socratic and sophistical justice have substantial overlap: they agree that a perfect person would have a perfect unity of reason, spirit, and emotional responses to the world; they agree that the raw infliction of power upon (at least some) persons is always wrong; they agree that justice is the will of the rightly disposed and just person. But in the details they completely diverge – the Sophist thinks he has perfect unity of reason and emotion right now, before any training or painful, years-long rewiring of the brain; he divides the world up into those who deserve protection from raw power and those who don’t; and he never questions that his own heart is already perfectly aligned and well-disposed to decide on justice.

And, obviously, if I claimed that these sorts of justice divided persons neatly into two identifiable, stable, ideological groups it would just be more sophistry.

Brains changing themselves

The belief that the brain never changed and was hard-wired early in life was universal dogma until pretty recently. Some part of this was probably a coarse-grained analysis that saw the brains of adolescent rats as observably the same as adult rats, but there was also a strong a priori reason: if brain structure controlled activity then it could not control its structure. Mad scientists might manipulate the brains of others but this was the only sort of “overbrain” that could manipulate brain structure.

For all that, brain structure can be changed by choices and so we were left either having to posit overbrains or speak of “brains changing themselves”. Obviously, the last option won out. The claim was unobjectionable when we understood it as the brain adapting to changing event, like re-allocating resources when we lost a sense power or a limb, but it was more puzzling as a rewiring that overcame ataraxia, like quitting addiction, moral improvement, or following through on a long-term plan to achieve something good. We could speak of one part of the brain forcing another to rewire, but the word “force” is ambiguous since the moral component of the change requires the force to be other-than-natural. That part A modified part B, even if it led to a morally beneficial result and even if A were conscious of what it was doing, would not give the change a moral character. Natural changes that the consciousness of A just went along with and neither initiated nor prohibited would not occasion praise.

Now there is a venerable tradition of believing that the person actually cannot change themselves morally. The first step of any 12-step program is to admit one’s powerlessness in the face of moral demands, which is part of a larger belief system that reframes quondam moral disorders as physical disorders, i.e. diseases. If change occurs it is, so far as it is in us, a natural change lacking any component for which we should be praised. The critique of such a position is familiar, though it’s curious that the believer in “a higher power” is defending the position that is closer to Naturalism about human beings while his (perhaps Naturalist) opponent argues for a force that is nowhere in the catalogue of natural forces. Both determinists and some sorts of Christians agree that only a god could save us; both Christians and Nietzcheans agree that there is some willing component of the self that is not powerless in the face of some the infinite chain of natural causes being pushed a tergo. 


God is not the only thing whose existence is proved through his effects. Proving there are electrons or conducting forensic examinations occur in the same way. But physical argument needs to show the existence of homogeneous things e.g. the electron you blast through foil has to be equivalent to all of them, and the more a murder investigation advances the more the case approaches actually seeing the event. Theistic argument never assimilates God into some genus and the more it advances the more we realize that we don’t see God himself.

Three ambivalences in existence as standing

Existence is a primitive notion but one that the West has a long history of relating to the primitive notion of standing. Its IE root sta cultivates a line of analogues from the concrete referent of the characteristic upright posture of the human person. Any symbolic representation of the person (think of bathroom signs or stick men or the picture of man on the Voyager record) is shown standing, i.e. as performing the primal act that one does independently and of himself, both in defiance of and in unity with the natural, non-human forces that of themselves would make the body collapse and fall.  Because of this, standing is both an action and a readiness for action,  both a primal and  a pre-action, a fundamental doing and yet doing nothing. Call this the first ambivalence of standing.

Standing is status, that is, both a report of whatever you happen to be and a degree of dignity. On the one hand your status might be deplorable, degraded, or anywhere above this; on the other hand to have status is always a dignity, which is why it makes sense to speak of status-seeking. The second ambivalence.

We modify the standing with ex- to have it be out or apart. Verbally, existence is what stands out or is  outstanding. This places the existent relative to the indifferent, the undifferentiated, the mediocre, the homogenous. Existence is the foregrounded in opposition to the background. The background is both context (or even world) while at the same time being the irrelevant, the edited-out, and the sum of all invisible gorillas.  Existence is therefore both what all things have and yet a foregrounding that sets one thing apart from the whole universe. The third ambivalence.

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