Concession to Naturalism

There is an important sense in which it’s true that to posit any immaterial reality as a source of existence or action- God, angels, human intellects, even forms –  means introducing something whose action is unknown to us. We don’t know what we are positing or how it works. If what Dawkins means by saying “god explains nothing” is that he does not add to our stock of explanations of how things work then I won’t object to his inference but to the fact that his theory of explanation is too narrow.

Explaining how something works means specifying some interactive system or model that lays out the paths followed by energy or force.  This sort of explanation reduces things to some conserved quantity taken as given. No argument for immaterial causality is doing this.

Explaining what something is means taking at least the first step in defining it, which is specifying its genus. But to describe something with a genus presupposes that there is something intrinsically undetermined about the substance of the thing, i.e. matter.

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Emergent causing the emergent

 

(1) Naturalism means that all mental acts emerge out of non-mental acts, but

(2) Reasoning is mental act, so

(3) Reasoning emerges.

But reasoning involves knowledge causing other knowledge, which is exactly how we got (3). Therefore, the emergent causes the emergent.

But the emergent can’t cause the emergent per se since “emergence” is formally a way of relating to the non-emergent. Given that reasoning is essentially a mental act, we have two options:

(A) Reasoning is only emergent per accidens.

(B) The premises of a syllogism cause the conclusion per accidens.

Since (B) is hopeless, Naturalism’s account of mental acts cannot be true per se.

(N.B: A similar argument arises from noticing that human knowledge is self-reflective or aware of itself, and would probably arise from any formal characteristic of intellectual knowledge.)

Preferring the real to the artificial-illusory

The Catechism concludes its description of pornography with the claim that [i]t immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world. Though this seemed like exaggeration when written (@1992) it has proved to be an insight that was a generation before its time. We can now simply notice that pornography makes one lose interest in actual women, whom the porn user increasingly relates to as ersatz versions of virtual women (or, increasingly, as ersatz robots).

The problem here is an ancient one about why one should prefer reality in the face of pleasant illusions. The question is raised first in the Odyssey’s myth of the gates of horn and ivory and gets its most celebrated treatment in Aeneid VI 893–898. The preference for the real over the apparent is canonical in  philosophy after Plato at least until Nietzsche, who raises the question why one should prefer truth to deception.

So why prefer reality?

In one sense, the question gets answered before it’s asked, since raising the question requires looking for the answer among things that really are and not among things that are merely apparent but convincing.

But what if the merely apparent fits more of our criteria for what is fulfilling? Fulfillment is roughly indexed by enjoyment, so isn’t a pleasant appearance more preferable than a painful reality? If all our questioning seeks reality, but reality is less fulfilling, then why not just give up on the questioning? Within the artificially constructed pleasure-matrix we will dogmatically declare philosophy pointless and out of bounds, and then stop worrying and enjoy our lives.

The question therefore shifts to whether a natural desire is of itself a source of fulfillment, or whether at least some natural desires are without fulfillment or, in the earlier way of putting it, whether natural desire is in vain. We can’t help but want to live according to how things really are, but what assurance do we have that it will be fulfilling? If artificially constructed worlds are more fulfilling, why not live in them?

The decisive difference is in the infinite gulf between the natural and the artificial object, which gives rise to an order of art to nature. Natural objects always have more reality than is specified while artificial things do not. No matter how complex we make an artificial world it is given all at once, and there can be no logical connection to anything not given. For example, there is no fact of the matter about whether Hamlet is right or left handed since the play tells us nothing. But the real world is not like this: Newtonian physics, for example, is logically connected to Relativity so far as the latter is a limitation or critique of the former, and this occurs precisely because any artificial construction in them is only a tool for understanding the way things are.

And so even if natural desires were in vain we could not use artificial constructions as substitutes for them since art is a tool that reason uses to discover the way things are. Seen from this angle the matrix would have a fundamental aesthetic problem. It would be bad art.

The enjoyment of art is fundamentally the enjoyment of insight, which is why only rational beings create it. This is not some stupid claim that art is a tool of science or a handmaid to formal logic, but rather the claim that we can only see how things are with a plurality tools, and the scientific-logical ones constitute one dimension of the approach and art constitutes another. We should throw out a pleasant artistic representation that takes us further from reality for exactly the same reason that we would throw out a pleasant theory that did the same thing. Any enjoyment we take in it would make us even more wary of it.

Christianity and religion

13 Whom do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?

14 And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets.

Mt. 16 : 13-14

The apostles are clearly smitten, leaving off the far more common opinions that Christ is Beelzebub (Mt. 9:34, 12 : 24), a mere carpenter’s son (Mt. 13 : 55, Jn 6 : 42), and a blasphemer deserving to be stoned to death (Lk 4 : 29). So what we have are the most glowing and positive appraisals of Christ from those who have given up more than any others to follow him.

For all that, they fall short of the truth because they see Christ as continuing all that was good before. True, he might be a fulfillment of what came before (by being, say, the return of Elias) but even this fulfillment occurs within and continues already established categories. The deeds of Christ are to be one more book of the prophets.

The modern equivalent of the verse 14 confession is to see Christianity as a religion. Obviously, even very committed Christians can relate to it this way. One can even see Christianity as the ideal religion without taking the decisive step beyond the apostolic confession of v. 14.

Religion is the exercise of the human desire for a spiritual something-or-other. At its heights it might be Buddhist mindfulness, Greek love of proportion, Romantic-era sublimity, the Arab warrior-spirit, Roman legal-rationality, Indian syncretism, the European drive-for-the-infinite and the Semitic God-in-the-desert sense of mystery, but all of these dimensions of human spirituality are orthogonal to elements that are stultifying and/or monstrous, and all of them are, by their opposition to the others, merely finite.

Christianity fulfills religious desire only in a sense of fulfillment that is difficult to distinguish from abrogation (cf. how Christ fulfills the law of Moses by abrogating divorce and dietary laws).  The opposition found in the pluralism of religious experience, along with the pluralism of nations and human erotic commitments, exists only in time and is destined to pass away/ be fulfilled. Christianity announces that the way in which one finite existence is closed to another is not a permanent state of affairs and has already been overcome by the resurrection of Christ, whose body exists trans-dimensionally or, in more familiar language, in eternity. Christ is the firstborn of many who will share in this existence along with all of creation that awaits in eager expectation for renewal through the sons of God. This renewal consists in creation being taken up into the trinitarian life where plurality is no longer concomitant with isolation from others.  At the moment this existence is sacramental, and so still contains an element finite opposition, but this too will be abrogated-fulfilled.

News notes

-Hard cases make good news.

-News thrives on novelty and therefore on exceptions. To treat news as calling for a law is to fundamentally misunderstand that news-stuff is contrary to law-stuff.

-We’d be closer to justice if we forbade any law to be passed in response to a news story.

-News trains us to only treat the dramatic as serious or worthy of reverence. Our “thoughts and prayers” must be directed at the screaming mother, lone survivor, deluged city, or chaos seen from a helicopter. Systemic problems must be either ignored or find a way to riot on film.

-Is there a grosser hypocrisy than the earnest somberness of the anchorman? I warn you: some of the images you’re about to see are disturbing… our thoughts are with the families. Ohc’mon. You live for this! Your thoughts and prayers are for another one just like it next week!

 

 

A critique of Chomsky on the mind-body problem

Chomsky claims the mind-body problem is incoherent since we have no idea what would count as a body and therefore no idea of how something could be different from it. He supports this by an appeal to the history of science. Among early-modern scientists before Newton, it was assumed that body meant mechanical system, i.e. that whose motions could be reduced to the simple machines. On this assumption, it was clear that mind was not a body, but after Newtonian gravity science gave up on the  idea that simple machines could adequately describe physical motions. Having no sense of what a physical activity was, we could not define mental activity in opposition to it.

Chomsky’s argument turns on the claim that describing the universe as a machine means that it must reduce to simple machines. While Newtonian gravity showed that nature was not a machine in this sense, it intensified the view of nature as an interactive system, and all interactive systems can be metaphorically described as machines.

We can see the advance in the view of nature as interactive from the beginning of physics. In Aristotle, the cosmos was interactive only at the lowest level. While things on earth would react on what acted on them, the earth didn’t act back on the heavenly spheres that were responsible for its activity.  In the earliest forms of mechanical philosophy the cosmos could be interactive but need not be – just because everything is a machine doesn’t require that the whole thing be a single machine. All the cars in the lot don’t form a single set of interactions. But in after Newton the whole visible universe is really an interactive system. A man waving his hand on earth can calculate how much he is pulling on Andromeda.

There was one exception to pan-interactionism in the Newtonian system: absolute space and time. Both had effects on the visible world (cf. Newton’s Bucket) though the visible world could not act upon either of them. All the events within the theater of the world were interactive, but they had no effect on the theater itself.* Relativity took the last step by making systems background dependent, i.e. matter and energy now interacted with the space in which they moved.

So while the advance of physics dropped the idea that the world was a machine in the sense of being reducible to simple machines, it has confirmed our sense that the world is a machine in the sense of being an interactive system. The safe place to bet on the next revolution in physics is on something that will make the universe even more interactive, e.g. Lee Smolin’s idea that even the laws of nature interact with nature itself and therefore change over time.

The history of physics therefore points to a notion of physical existence as interactive. In Aristotle’s terms, we have deepened our awareness of nature as a system of moved movers, or in Neoplatonic terms as a system of secondary or instrumental causes.

While we might continually treat natural things like energy or the laws of nature as unmoved movers, or even posit an unmoved mover like absolute space in our system, but physics advances by shoving unmoved movers out of the system of nature. Leibniz claims that physics might even be destined to purge unmoved movers from natural systems forever, or, said positively, to continually deepen its awareness of nature as a secondary cause.

On this account, mind or spirit is exactly what the ancients and Medievals said it was: a self-moving cause of motion which, qua self-moving, did not move by interaction. At the lowest level this spirit is simply life – even the life of plants. The mind-body opposition is just a level of separation that begins with the opposition between the animate and inanimate and intensifies to the level of the opposition between the unmoved mover and the total system of moved movers called the universe.


*Newton was the last physicist to see that this unmoved mover he placed at the foundation of his system could not be a natural being but would have to be divine. After him, we simply stopped asking the question, though if we took energy or the laws seriously as real causes we’d have to recognize that they were divine actions.

The interaction problem as a category mistake

 

Interaction is mutual action and therefore demands homogeneity. Wherever causes of motion are not homogenous with mobiles, there will therefore not be interaction. This is clear from diverse genera of causes: the arsonists intentions cause combustion without an interaction between the two; the shape of the molecule give its properties without the properties interacting with the shape. This is also true for agent causes so far as they are distinguished formally into agents and instruments: any force that a pilot exerts on his controls or the digestive tract exerts on food is exerted back on it, but the same cannot be said of the act of piloting or digestion, which describes the action precisely as primary and secondary cause.

 

 

Why can I know that a thing is w/o knowing what it is?

Thomism teaches that we can know that God is but not what he is. The same limitation characterizes anything not given in sense intuition, and so the whole of metaphysics as such, including substantial things like angels and soul and all else that can characterize them per se like causes, being, goodness, person, dignity, free choice, etc.

But how can I claim that I don’t know what God is when I say so many positive things about him like cause, person, good, etc? Don’t I have to know what I am talking about before I show you whether or not there is such a thing?

By “knowing what” Aristotle and STA mean defining or at least making the first move in defining, and the first move in defining is specifying a genus. Inability to know what something is therefore =  inability to locate it in a genus.

So if you wanted to claim this:

Everyone who knows that something is knows what it is

You’d have to claim this:

We can locate everything we know in some genus.

But the possibility of category errors make it clear that there are irreducible genera, and so we can recognize the likeness among things (genera) without reducing them to some genus. If all knowledge placed things in a genus we could not know distinct, irreducible genera at all. From this perspective, all knowledge of the homogenous is contextualized in knowledge of the non-homogenous.

If all likeness were homogenous then we would get a version of the third man argument, i.e. if A and B could only be alike in virtue of a genus C, then even to speak of a likeness between this genus and that one would require a third genus which, qua genus, would be itself like the other two and so  require a fourth and a fifth, a sixth and a seventh, and so on without ever explaining anything.

If not every likeness is homogenous, then likeness is not in a genus. Nevertheless, one can use the term genus to as describing any likeness, as when Aristotle says that the dispute over “whether pleasure is good” is a dispute about its genus. This use of the term is so loose as to be metaphorical.

We might visualize diverse genera as Venn circles in distinct spaces, but this is a metaphor for something far more interesting. The “space” of these circles is our knowledge that something is without knowing what it is, IOW, the space of these Venn circles is our knowledge of things like God, free choice, angels, persons and (of course) being. In the order of discovery, the knowledge of this common space comes only after our knowledge of things in genera, but as a structural or non-conscious possibility things are very different and our knowledge of things like God is the context in which sensible things can be known.

Sathya Sai Baba as Atheist argument trope

Both Sam Harris and Bart Ehrman use Sathya Sai Baba (SSB) to dispute the probative value of New Testament miracles. Many testify that SSB performed miracles, claimed to be the Son of God, and rose from the dead. What criteria for belief can a Christian give that wouldn’t apply to SSB?

Googling about for a few minutes gives one the sense that Harris is making too much of the story (as far as I can tell, the consensus is that he is a guru who might reincarnate in 2030, and the reports of his life paint the familiar picture of the gnostic-cult leader.) But let’s grant Harris and Ehrman that the testimony to his miracles and his claims to be divine deserves a look. What then?

Here’s an opening move: Why not take SSB as evidence for Christianity against Harris’s and Ehrman’s atheism? If anything one would expect out of A and not out of B counts as evidence for A then the dead guru would count as evidence for Christianity over atheism, since Christianity requires its adherents to believe persons other than Christ will claim to do miracles and be divine, but nothing in atheism demands this. Atheism is just the absence of god-belief, right?

The atheist has a pretty quick fix for all this: add some theoretical component to his absence-of-belief that makes him expect that both Christian and SSB testimony is false or unbelievable. At this point, however, we Christians are waiting with bated breath over what this theoretical component is.

The options are limited: either we’ll get the pseudo-Hume a priori argument against miracle-testimony or be left with an inductive critique of each set of miracle claims, and if it is this latter then the atheist will be just as on the hook for his absence of SSB belief as the Christian is.

One suspects that the upshot of this is that both sides will quickly lose interest in making the inductive case either for or against SSB, whether to show that his case is just as good as the Christian one or nowhere near as solid. This might lead to a few entertaining minutes of, say, Bart Ehrman trying to defend the divinity of SSB against some other Christian’s conviction that he’s just another platitudinous gnostic cult leader, but I can’t see this line of argument getting very far. Better for both sides to admit that neither one of them is interested in diving into the nitty-gritty details of all the reports, testimonies, and miracle reports around SSB and so neither side is interested in making his inductive case, whether to show it’s just as strong or not as strong as the Christian case.

IOW, Sathya Sai Baba is a wash for both sides. Let’s drop him.

The astonishingness of Christ

It is obviously valid and even unavoidable to read the Sermon on the Mount as a set of distinctively Christian doctrinal teachings, in the same way that the Four Noble Truths are distinctively Buddhist or the Five Pillars are distinctively Islamic. But to read them in this way predicts a very different response to the one they received:

[W]hen Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine:

29 For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

Mt. 7 : 28-29

The Scribes point to the authority of the Law, but Christ is continually developing the Law by his own authority, i.e. “It was said of old _____ but I say to you _____”. Christ isn’t pointing to some new truth but to himself, and this is in fact a very astonishing thing.

All religious teaching is a witness to some higher truth, and this witness is often given by one who has lived the teaching to which he gives witness. Buddha teaches enlightenment, Moses teaches the law, Socrates-cum-Plato teaches the primacy of self-knowledge and the devotion to beauty and form, Islam teaches the final prophesy or witness to the sovereignty of God, etc. Jesus gives witness too: his life is to do the will of the Father. But what the crowds find so astonishing in Christ is that he goes beyond a witness who practices what he preaches by making himself the object of prophesy. He doesn’t just “come into the world to give testimony to the truth” he also insists that he is the truth. This is all said explicitly at the end, but everyone is picking up on it from the beginning.

How could Christ have gotten away with this? Imagine a pastor who went into an evangelical church and spoke analogously to him, viz. “Your Bible says that ____ but I say to you_____”. Imagine going into a Mosque and saying that he is the fulfillment of Mohammed’s prophesy. It’s hard to imagine the magnitude of the personality that would be required for the reaction to this to be astonishment and not ridicule, simple offense, or sheer embarrassment at the self-delusion of the speaker. What was it about Christ that kept the crowds from reacting to him with self-pity and eye-rolls? How could the Pharaisees have seen him as an offense and a diabolical threat and not a deluded narcissist?

Sure, the miracles were there, but this doesn’t seem to be in play in the response to the Sermon on the Mount. His hearers aren’t conflicted, thinking “I dunno, he sounds like a maniacal egoist, but what about the miracles?” Everyone is simply floored by the magnitude of authority on display. No one can get to the point of even feeling illuminated or offended or puzzled by what Christ says since they can’t seem to get past the uncanny fact of his presence which runs through every word of the Gospels. For example, one of the great puzzles of Christ is how decisively his words are taken by even hostile hearers, e.g. when he proves the resurrection of the body to a group of skeptics by appealing to nothing more than the words spoken at the burning bush he isn’t met by any follow-up questions. Why no follow-up to the parable of the unjust steward? His response to paying taxes?

Discipleship to Christ is not just fidelity to what he teaches but having Christ himself. The substantial existence of masters other than Christ does not enter into our discipleship: if someone other than Aristotle said the things that Aristotle said they would be just as true, but if Christ’s words are said by another they are not just as true, and no one takes them as such. In one sense all this is Christianity 101 – who could miss the crucial role played by one’s “personal relationship with Jesus”? What I want to stress is how astonishing this central Christian reality is, and how astonishing it has always been. Great religious personalities are rare but we can at least make sense of them, but Christ goes beyond any claim of a saint or a sage or prophet by insisting that the truth he gives witness to is himself. If we are honest with ourselves, we recognize that we don’t even know what this means to say this about a man.

 

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