Reasoning and faith (2)

Reasoning doesn’t rest on faith because it stands in need of some fundamental assumption, or because we exist in time and have to start our thinking somewhere. It rests on faith in its being a development or working out of our absolute and unconditioned commitments: the hypothesis, experiment, publication, fidelity to the argument, Scholastic arrangement of authorities, etc. are all developments of our dogmatic commitment not to be deceived.

Faith and rationality

Locke denies toleration to atheists since

Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all.

Promises, covenants and vows are all acts of faith, i.e. pledges of categorical or absolute fidelity to another person. Such fidelity can only be reasonable for one who judges that there is no possible future circumstance or fact about the world that could make it unreasonable, and human beings are not in a position to make such a judgment. As Nietzsche put it:

What do you know of the character of existence in all its phases to be able to decide whether the greater advantage is on the side of absolute distrust, or of absolute trustfulness?

The “so help me God” proviso at the end of an oath is not hollow formality, it’s a recognition that fidelity is only reasonable by participation. Unless God co-signs on an oath it is unreasonable to take one.

Nietzsche recognized that the claim Locke made about oaths was nested in a larger reality of faith, or the absolute commitment that human reason demands in order to be moral at all. Even if we make a “provisional oath”, the provision itself can only be made relative to some value taken as absolute, like a commitment to truth over self-deception (the oath of the scientist) or to the living and sublime over the stale and quotidian (the romantic oath) or to the advance of freedom over oppression, etc.

This is not a hypothesis that predicts that those who take oaths will be any more successful in keeping faith then those who don’t. It’s a development of Nietzsche’s claims that fidelity makes it “necessary that there should already be a conviction, and in fact one so imperative and absolute, that it makes a sacrifice of all other convictions” and that  everything rational demands such fidelity. The rationality of science is just as implicated in a participation with divine judgment as oath taking. Whether we recognize this participation for what it is or keep our oaths once we take them is irrelevant to the rational and ontological dependence we have on an act of judgment that transcends our own.

A Nietzschean übermensch might be rational with no such dependence or might be able to live without being rational (even Nietzsche couldn’t resolve what the new man would look like). We, like Raskolnikov, can’t experience life like an übermensch but only as persons who need to make absolute commitments, and can get these commitments wrong.

The Gay Science ¶344

Nietzsche argues that while contemporary persons see the science as a substitute or replacement or fulfillment of Christianity it is in fact a continuation of it. While Nietzsche resists logical schematization the root of his argument (The Gay Science, ¶344seems to be that science sets itself up as a realm where all claims are provisional and open to refutation but all claims cannot be of this kind. The scientific enterprise is one of many human commitments, all of which rest on faith in the sense of dedicating ourselves to a path without knowing if future evidence would have convinced us to never so dedicate ourselves. We can only take everything as a hypothesis within science only if our dedication to science itself is not hypothetical. If it is, then science itself turns out to be only a contingent extension of whatever project we have dedicated ourselves to absolutely.

In fact, Nietzsche thinks that the sciences could only be this sort of contingent extension of moral commitment. Science rests on an unwillingness  be deceived – to see existence as it is, no matter what cost with no illusions or blinders…

but – there is no other alternative – “I will not deceive, not even myself”: [means] we have reached the realm of morality.

Though science is a development of a moral stance, given the death of God the basis of morality is very unclear, and the sciences themselves exacerbate this problem by insisting that we describe a universe and historical process that follows no moral plan or providential order to some moral good.

Thus the question, Why is there science? leads back to the moral problem: What in general is the purpose of morality, if life, nature, and history are “non-moral”?

Root claim of the Five Ways (2)

Causal chains are finite as causal and infinite as chains. Chains of causes are identified by their homogeneity with the effect, e.g. X moves and makes Y move, X is hot and makes Y hot, X is an animal and generates an animal. The cause-effect homogeneity is what makes an indefinite causal chain possible, since if the cause and effect are homogenous we can repeat them indefinitely.

The causal chain is finite because homogenous causes depend on equivocal causes, where “equivocal” means only “non-homogenous”. The Liber de Causis calls these equivocal causes “primary” and there is a long tradition of calling them “universal”. The root claim of the Five Ways is therefore simply the first causal axiom of the Liber de Causis that the primary cause more inflows into the effect than the secondary cause, e.g. principal agents are more responsible for an action than the instruments they use.

The Five Ways can be read as proofs not just for God but for the dependence of homogeneous causes on equivocal ones. Just how many equivocal causes there are other than spiritual beings is a matter for physics to figure out. STA himself had conflicting beliefs about the matter, since on the one hand he was committed to Aristotle’s ideas that the heavenly spheres were universal causes, while on the other hand giving a proof that all equivocal causes are spiritual.

Root claim of the Five Ways

The central insight developed in the Five Ways is that causal chains are finite, where “chain” is a metaphor for any homogenous repetition of the same sort of thing. Like any homogeneous repetition there is no intrinsic limitation on the number of iterations that might be made, and so part of calling them “chains” is the recognition that we can imagine them going on forever.

So causal chains are on the one hand infinite since we can iterate homogeneous causes forever and they are finite since such iterations cannot explain the causal work being done. All the Five Ways turn on recognizing that causal chains are finite as causal and infinite as chains. “Infinite” means only that there is no intrinsic limitation on how many iterations of homogeneous causes one might make, not that the series necessarily goes on forever. There is no limit to how large you might make the Rube Goldberg machine that ends up accounting for some event or effect.

The central claim is not that the causal series has indeterminate length, but must be of some finite length, e.g. the Rube Goldberg Machine can get as big as you want but it must start somewhere. To understand the claim in this way requires more information than the claim itself can give. None of the Five ways specifies where or how the first cause effects the secondary causes, but only that there must be some primary cause whose activity is not and cannot be interactive.

In the Five Ways STA applies the root claim to the four genera of causality and claims that the first cause in each case deserves to be called deus. He orders the five arguments from more known to less known, starting with the causes easiest to understand (and least causal) and working upward to the hardest causes to understand (and most causal). The First Way starts with mobiles in potential, i.e. with material causality. The Second Way starts with agent causality.  The Third and Forth Way concern the two ways in which formal causality occurs: either intrinsically as a constitutive feature of things, and so making them generable or necessary, or extrinsically and so serving as a paradigm or measure of their being or activity. The Fifth Way appeals to final causality, which is hardest to understand and can only be discovered by a science when it is laying the finishing touches on its explanation of things.

Objectivity and emotion

The Black Mirror episode Fifteen Million Merits (season 1, ep. 2)….


tells the story of a man who goes from being aroused or bored by pornography to being horrified by it, the difference being that at the end of the episode he has to watch a woman he loves as a porn star.

So when did he see porn for what it is? Was he more objective at the beginning of the episode or the end?

The question can be asked in a different way if we compare porn stars who are indifferent about what they do understand their occupation to women who are disgusted and repulsed by pornography. Who sees the activity more clearly? We might need to make some sort of distinction in learning by experience, so that it only produces insight when one has the appropriate moral and emotional response to what they are doing.

I suppose one could say that everyone’s understanding stayed exactly the same and all that changes is an utterly extrinsic emotional reaction, but I find this response completely unbelievable. Having the wrong emotional responses to things is extrinsic to understanding them – it’s actually a failure to get what one is talking about, which is why even God has these emotional responses.



Interior dialogue on unmoved movers

A: So your claim is that God and human freedom are known in the same argument.

B: More or less. Both are unmoved movers, though God is one simply and the human will only in some way.

A: But all this means is that you believe in the independence of both the human will and God from causality. But everything is part and parcel of the universal web of cause and effect.

B: Whoa. I never thought I’d hear someone claim that.

A: What?

B: You’re claiming that everything has a cause, and I’ve only ever heard that in parodies of cosmological arguments. You never expect someone actually believes premises in parody arguments: it’s like I’ve just heard someone argue for the existence of a perfect island or something.

A: I didn’t say “Everything has a cause”.

B: What else could you have meant by saying that there was nothing exempt from the “universal web of cause and effect”? Let’s leave aside the well-trod problem of how one would ever get such a web at all – my claim is that some things are unmoved movers or uncaused causes, and you claim this is false. So every cause is an effect.

A: What’s wrong with that?

B: You can’t mean that “being a cause” means “being an effect”, right?

A: No. The connection between them isn’t analytic. Things that cause need energy and all energy comes from energy. It’s a conserved quantity.

B: When you agree that “The connection between them isn’t analytic” you mean it would be contradictory to say that causes are effects as though the two could mean the same thing, or that the same thing could be both cause and effect in the same respect?

A: Yes. Energy is a cause and an effect at different times, obviously.

B: So if any given moment of energy is an effect, say, then won’t all of it be an effect?

A: Yes, but all of it will be a cause too.

B: So all of it will be both cause an effect?

A: Right, like I’ve said from the beginning. It’s like this: if you have all the integers then each one will be both greater and less than something, and so you could consider all of them either as a totality of “greater than” things or a totality of “less than” things, just like if you have all energy, then you can view the totality either as all causes or all effects.

B: But you also said it was obvious that energy is cause and effect at different times. How can the totality of energy be both cause and effect at different times?

A: Well, why can’t it be the same as the number example? If all integers can be considered as greater than, all energy can considered as earlier than, i.e. as a cause.

B: So “all energy is causal of something” in the same way that “every number is greater than another” and “all energy is an effect” in the same way that “every number is less than another”.

A: Right.

B: But how are we getting this idea of energy? You’d agree that by definition its some ability to do work, I suppose.

A: Sure. There are a lot of different things that could, say, lift a kilogram weight a meter off the ground, and I say that all of them have the same energy.

B: So energy is a cause by definition, but you wouldn’t say it is an effect by definition.

A: Not by definition, but there has to be some story of how the thing became able to lift something a meter off the ground. Maybe it had to be put in the right position first (potential energy) maybe it had to be put in motion first (kinetic energy) maybe it had to come together with the right structure of atomic bonds (chemical energy). All this stuff doesn’t just happen.

B: These don’t seem equal: energy is a cause by definition and so a priori, it’s an effect only by enumerating its types a posteriori. 

A: Sure, and if you come up with something else I’d be happy to hear about it.

B: Sure, but for the moment I just want to point out a way in which the energy-number analogy isn’t apt. Each number is necessarily greater and lesser than another, but energy is only necessarily a cause and not an effect. So energy doesn’t seem to work as a proof for why every cause is an effect.

A: Well, like I said, if you have any other sort of energy I’d be happy to hear about it.

B: My claim is that there is a logical impossibility in every cause being an effect, not that it contradicts experience. I think this is the only sort of argument I could give: uncaused causes can’t be experienced, we can only know that they are there without knowing what they are.

A: Nothing you said made much sense to me.

B: All right. So you say “you’d be happy to hear about” any energy source that wasn’t an effect. I assume that neither of us is open to hearing about an energy source that cannot do work, i.e. that is not a cause?

A: Right.

B: But this means that an analysis of energy as such allows for the possibility of an uncaused cause?

A: I guess, but why posit things that we have no experience of and which are unnecessary to explain what we’re looking at?

B: All sorts of things we don’t experience are necessary to explain things we are looking at! If we simply experienced the causes of everything that happened, who would need science?

A: That’s nit-picky. Sciences have to be about things we are able to experience.

B: Would a spiritual cause be experienced since we have some experience of causes, or not experienced because we have no possible sensation of a spirit?

A: Again, I don’t really know what you’re saying. If some spirit had an effect in the world then we could certainly sense and measure it.

B: Why? Measurements of the sensible world relate only to other things in the sensible world. We have no reason to suspect they could pick up on any other sort of cause.

A: Sure, you’d see things moving by magic with no reason at all.

B: That might be a possibility, but I don’t see why that would be the normal way of activity. If spirits want to use the world as a sort of instrumental cause then we’d expect them to want to preserve the integrity of the instrument they are working with. When I use a hammer, I want everything belonging to it as hammer to remain intact. If the sensible world works by laws, presumably anything using the sense world would want these laws to stay in place. It might even need them to stay in place.

A: Sure, It’s possible. But what is it beyond an unverifiable hypothesis?

B: Well, if it were impossible for all causes to be effects, then at least one uncaused cause would be necessary, right?

A: Sure. But so far all we have is that it’s not necessary that all causes are effects.

B: So whatever we’re doing has to be the sort of discourse that ca decide what is logically possible for impossible. It can’t just be a matter of the verifiable or non-verifiable.

A: I suppose, though again I’m not sure what you’re talking about.




Freedom and unmoved movers

Contemporary accounts of freedom understand it as self activity. Here’s why: all arguments against freedom would work just as well against the claim that anything moved itself. We would object just as much to a stone’s motion being insufficiently explained by its antecedent causal history as we would to a human choice.

This means our contemporary view of action and behavior is that everything in motion is moved by another. Given that Aristotle came up with this first, it seems to be in the running for one of the most certain axioms in physics. The possibility of self-activity (freedom) is therefore just what it has always been – it turns on the question of whether unmoved movers exist, and whether there can be more than one kind.

Unmoved movers exist if it is impossible that all movers be moved, and if not, not. The Aristotelian tradition framed their solution in terms of the impossibility of infinite series, in the sense of in-finite that rules out an arche or principle of some ordered progression. It is simply not clear what we think about this sort of argument – on the one hand our own science can be tortured into seeming to say that there are ordered progressions without arche: we have waves though nothing is waving (no aether) we have work done though nothing is working (energy is not a substance or form) we posit explanations of effects that we insist cannot be causes (abstract laws). Nevertheless, even raising these sorts of questions demands an ontology that is totally out of place in the scientific discourse itself. What physics text would take a break from equations to ask if energy was substantial? So our own science seems either baffled about whether all movers are moved or incapable of raising the question.

Let’s take our condition seriously and insist that we have nothing at all to say about the possibility or impossibility of freedom. Attempts to parlay contemporary science for or against free choice are, on this analysis, as impossible as trying to prove it from a pancake recipe or from the number of Legos in my couch. For the same reason, the sciences are neither determinist nor indeterminist. We are not compatibilist because we cannot establish that the possibility of determinism, we are not Naturalists because of methodological naturalism since the latter, in sufficing to explain the sciences, cannot suffice to solve the question of unmoved movers.

Contingency and necessity in propositions

Are simple propositions fundamentally necessary or contingent? A priori or a posteriori?

Say I believe in free will and I claim that Jones is a murderer. So “Jones is a murderer” must be a contingent proposition. The claim is true, but it didn’t need to be true. I can give Leibniz’s account of this or Hume’s or the possible worlds analysis, but the general outlines should be clear to everyone.

On the other hand, the claim is clearly made by relating Jones to an unseen world of moral ideals, human obligations, truths about the value of life, appropriate emotional responses to seeing his face, etc. Seen from this angle, the proposition is generated by the relation of an individual in time to a timeless and unchanging world, in which the necessary is functioning as the light in which we are seeing the flux of contingent events or, said a la Plato, the reality of the contingent is constituted by its relationship to the necessary just as the necessary is recognized in (or triggered by) the concrete instance.

The moral world of the above example is just one region of a general timeless and invariant space that also includes the scientific, the beautiful, the rigorous, the mythical, and infinitely other unexplored ‘spaces’. There is no need for this invariant space to be all that distinctly developed: Humans don’t relate to the world as real without keeping one foot in the contingent and another in the necessary, and even toddlers sometimes relate to the world as real.

If we take the truth of the proposition modally,  necessity and contingency are fundamental, but if we take the truth of the proposition as its recording of reality then it is fundamentally a mix of the contingent and the necessary. But the second is more fundamental to the proposition.


On the Tower of Babel


And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.

And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.

And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

Gen. 11

“To reach for heaven” adopts the Jewish custom of replacing “heaven” for the name “God”. Since these people are coming off the memory of the great flood their motive is to use technology to escape the consequences of divine judgment. As we’d put it, they’ll science themselves out of their (moral and religious) problems.

“Let us make a name for ourselves” plays on the scriptural idiom of “making a name” which is a properly divine act (cf. Genesis 12: 2, 2. Samuel,  1 Chronicles 17: 21, Zephaniah 3: 20). The sense is therefore that we will constitute ourselves as a people and set our own destiny apart from, and even in opposition to a divine action.

Both of these are only means to avoid being scattered over all the earth, which is an admirable goal that is even recognized as a divine act.  The ur-thought motivating this whole tower episode is the builders seeing that the unity of the whole world is a divine act. To achieve it by themselves, the builders know they must appropriate divine power for themselves.

God’s response to the project is two-sided. On the one hand, as many commentators point out, God has to “come down” in order to see the tower, IOW, any attempt to build to the heavens falls laughably short. On the other hand, God describes the danger in the unity of all persons as their unlimited growth in power, and so even if all human self-appropriations of divine power fall infinitely short of the genuine article they can nevertheless extend without limit.

As the myth describes, human power extends without limit through the hands, the imagination, and above all in speech. Our skill in building and making things suggests infinite power to the imagination,  and we proceed to make ourselves divine beings within the world created by speech. Some things really do exist within speech, above all political order and its possibility of extending indefinitely. If everyone imagines and says you are king, it does not follow that you are an imaginary king existing only in speech. This is the sense of the unity in speech, together with some technological skill* as giving rise to as sense that humanity can achieve the divine act of unifying all nations.

Nevertheless, human words can’t speak things into existence, and even if real political power arises from opinion, opinion as such need not rest on anything, and the attempt to make a name for ourselves is just this sort of substanceless opinion.

*In Genesis 11, this consists in advanced brick-making and building materials technology referenced in v. 3 

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