Sunday, March 2, 2014

More on Materialism and "Aboutness"

Commenter BeingItself asks: "If I was to draw a picture of my girlfriend, would that drawing be about my girlfriend? Surely a drawing is material. What is it about brains such that their patterns cannot be about anything?"

Good question! I've examined the James Ross article on this blog a few times, but it's always good to revisit this basic idea from different angles. This problem is an interesting one that materialists ought to grapple with, but too often they misunderstand it or just wave it aside.

Think of the Big Dipper. In the West, it looks like, or represents, a soup ladle.



But does the Big Dipper itself, apart from our interpretations, have anything whatsoever to do with soup ladles? Is it really about soup ladles, outside of our interpretations that we apply to it? Of course not. Soup is a salty liquid food, and a ladle is a metal spoon for scooping it up. The stars that make up the Big Dipper are enormous balls of hydrogen gas. Nothing relating to soup or ladles at all. Hell, in other cultures the Big Dipper is supposed to look like a big bear, hence it's official name: Ursa Major.

But what if we had the technology to create and move stars around? And what if we filled in the details of the Big Dipper, complete with pouring soup, so that it looks even MORE like a soup ladle than it does now?



Is it really about soup now? No, still not. It's still just a bunch of balls of hydrogen gas arranged into a patter that we interpret as a soup ladle, but apart from us is not about soup ladles.

Now let's say that the technology is not there yet to move stars around, so instead we use some small clumps of glowing electrons on a glass screen. We arrange the glowing electrons the same as before, first like the Big Dipper, then fill in more details. Again, are the glowing electrons about a soup ladle? Again, apart from our ability to apply a pattern onto something, the electrons are not about soup ladles. They are just electrons that are glowing, that have certain charges, and that's it. We've just arranged them into a patter that we call "soup ladle."

Of course, what I'm talking about here is a computer screen. Materialists often think that an easy counter to dualist claims is to point to the existence of computers, saying that computers are about things and there's no problem there, so why should there be a problem with explaining the aboutness of our thoughts? But computer output is no different from the Big Dipper above: just arrangements of glowing electrons that we apply meaning to. Without us around to give meaning to the symbols, the output on a computer screen has no more aboutness than the Big Dipper does.

And the same goes for graphite marks on a piece of paper, as BeingItself's original question pertained to. The objective physical situation involves some carbon molecules sticking to wood molecules (which are also carbon), and that's it. The physical situation, apart from BeingItself's interpretation, has nothing whatsoever to do with "girlfriends", anymore than the Big Dipper has to do with soup ladles.

The problem could be phrased like this: for a symbol to have meaning, there must be two ingredients: the physical shape/structure of the symbol + something else.

In the case of BeingItself's drawing, the "something else" is his intentions applied to the otherwise meaningless bits of carbon. In the case of the Big Dipper, the "something else" is our interpretations of an otherwise meaningless grouping of stars.

But in the case of our thoughts, what is the "something else?"


Saturday, March 1, 2014

Christopher Martin's Examination of the Fifth Way #1

The Fifth Way of Thomas Aquinas is one of the most misunderstood arguments for the existence of God. Primarily because of the Intelligent Design movement making such a loud racket that nobody can really hear anything else. Fortunately, there is an excellent article by Christopher Martin that digs  deep into this argument and shows why it isn't anything like the argument from design.

I will go through this article slowly; very slowly. Just a paragraph or two at a time. It is long, and sometimes technical. The article can be found here.
The Fifth Way, as often remarked, depends on final causality, explanation in terms of an end, of what is the point of things. The aim is to show that the world, like its parts, requires an explanation in terms of what it’s for, and what the world is for is set by God. It is a mistake to say that this argument is based on the world’s being for a purpose: it is rather based on the world’s having a point, which is at first sight quite another thing. The circulation of my blood has a point, but it does not have a purpose: nor do even I have a purpose in circulating my blood, since circulating my blood is not something in the strict sense which I do. I can’t help it. It is true that in order to reach God Aquinas has to argue that the point of the world has to be a purpose set for it by God, but that is a further step in the argument.
So explanation in terms of an "end" is different from explanation in terms of a "purpose." Martin's circulatory system has an explanation in terms of an "end", of "what it's for": to deliver oxygen throughout his body. But it does not have a purpose: it might have been created directly by God, or by blind evolutionary forces. Whether it is a part of something larger that has a purpose or not, considered as a part of the system of his body, Martin's circulatory system only has an end, not a purpose.
This is the briefest of all the Five Ways, and its structure is apparently clear.

1. We see that there are things that have no knowledge, like physical bodies, but which act for the sake of an end.

2. But things which have no knowledge do not have a tendency to an end unless they are directed by something that does have knowledge and understanding.

3. Therefore there is some being with understanding which directs all things to their end, and this, we say, is God.
This is his formalization of the Fifth Way.
But this simplicity is deceptive, and the history of natural theology and apologetics has made it yet more difficult for us to read this argument as we should. Most people would want nowadays to object to the first premiss, and to deny that we see that physical bodies act for the sake of an end. But they would grant that if we saw physical bodies acting for the sake of an end, we should conclude immediately to the existence of God. Aquinas does not agree, I think. He thinks that it is almost unquestionable that e.g. physical bodies act for the sake of an end: what is tricky is the step from the unconscious end-directedness which we see all around us to the conscious end-directedness which he needs to assert if he is to prove the existence of God. 
An important point. One of the key differences between Intelligent Design and the Fifth Way is that in the former, ends and goals are difficult to find but if they are, the existence of a Designer is immediately inferred. However, in Aquinas, it is obvious that physical systems act for the sake of an end; the harder part is getting from that fact to the existence of a Designer. This will become clearer as the article proceeds.

That's enough! I told you this would be short! Snippets. The blog is supposed to be digestible.

The take home points:
  • There is a difference between "end" and "purpose"; as Martin will make clear later, something can have an "end" relative to the system of which it is a part, even if that system does not have any overarching purpose.
  • In the Fifth Way, the existence of "ends" in the world is easy to find; it is the move from this fact to the existence of God that is difficult.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Carl Sagan: Where Did God Come From?

Watch this:



"Where did God come from?" This is a popular objection from atheists. Unfortunately, it's also completely misguided, and only exposes the atheist for being utterly unfamiliar with classic monotheism.

To explain…

Starting with Aristotle, which is where classic monotheism begins to really gel, the basic idea is that all changeable things (such as birds, people, planets, stars) cannot collectively be responsible for their own existence, because then they would be causing themselves to exist, and so would have to exist prior to them existing, which is a logical contradiction. To solve this, Aristotle hypothesizes that there must be something unchangeable which is responsible for the existence of changeable things. Because it is unchangeable, it cannot have a cause even in principle. A cause implies a change, so if something is unchangeable then it doesn't need nor can it even have a cause.

It must be emphasized that Aristotle is not speaking of the thing that triggered the Big Bang, but rather of a "substrate" that grounds the existence of changeable things, even if the universe is eternally old. Just like a room full of dancing people, even if infinitely old, still has to have a floor in order to hold the people up.

So now hopefully it is clear why Sagan's objection makes no sense, and is in fact complete gibberish. Asking where God came from is asking about a change in God, that he came from somewhere, or was caused by something. But the whole point of classic monotheism is that God is the unchangeable reality that grounds the existence of changeable things. So Sagan's objection translates as follows:

  • What changed the thing that is not changeable?

You can see that this is a nonsense question. It entails a contradiction. It's like asking:

  • Which mountain is higher than the highest mountain?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Alexander Pruss on the Principle of Sufficient Reason

A very brief rundown of some of the arguments Alexander Pruss has offered for accepting the principle of sufficient reason (the principle that for any state of affairs, there is some explanation for its existence).

Epistemological Argument: Once we accept that the PSR is false, and hence some contingent facts have no explanation, then skepticism results: a demon may not be deceiving you, but your perceptions might be happening for no reason at all. Thus if the PSR is false, then we cannot know empirical truths. But we do know empirical truths. Therefore, the PSR is true.

Evolution: The confidence of the theory of evolution is strong argument for the PSR. We presuppose the PSR when examining evolution, otherwise we could conclude that there are some facts with no explanation, and thus that a monkey just appeared out of nowhere and evolved into people.

Inference to the Best Explanation: For a particular phenomenon, we look at all the possible explanations and infer that the best one is the most likely. But we never think to include “no explanation” as a possibility.

No Widespread Violations of the PSR: Why aren’t there violations of the PSR all around us, if it is false? Why aren’t strange things popping into existence all over the place with no explanation? If the PSR is false, then we should think that a brick popping into existence in mid-air is perfectly possible. But we already discount that from having a high probability, so perhaps the PSR is a priori.

Philosophical argumentation: If the PSR is false, then we could just claim brute fact whenever we do philosophical arguments. Why is it true that it is morally right to switch the trolley car to kill one person instead of five? Who cares. It’s just a brute fact.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Al Farabi and Avicenna's Cosmological Argument

Although they were not together, the cosmological argument of Al Farabi and Avicenna is close enough that there is no need for a separate post for each one.

I. "What it is" vs "That it is"

Consider the definition of something. A dog. A dog is a carnivorous mammal with four legs, a tail, and a snout. But just from knowing what it is, we cannot tell that it is. I.e., that it exists. We have to go out into the world to see if dogs actually exist:


Or consider the Higgs boson. This is the elusive particle that physicists were looking for using large particle accelerators or "atom smashers." They knew that the Higgs boson had certain properties, such as a specific charge and spin. But they did not know whether it existed, and for this reason built atom smashers such as the Large Hadron Collider. Again, we could know what a Higgs boson is but just from that not know that it exists.


So for most objects of our experience, their definition, or essence, does not entail their existence. In other words, these objects are not the source of their own ongoing existence. So since their ongoing existence does not come from themselves, it must come from outside them. In other words, they must be dependent on other factors for their existence. For example, a lake does not entail its own existence; its existence is maintained by warm air, gravity, and so forth. But these factors also do not entail their own existence, and we see that warm air depends on a source of heat, and gravity depends on mass, and a source of heat depends on nuclear reactions, and so on.

This leads into a regress…



II. Dependent Objects Imply an Independent Object

What kind of regress are we talking about, here? We don't mean a regress stretching back in time, but rather a hierarchical regress of dependent members here and now:


If object A does not entail its own, ongoing, existence, then it must depend on other factors for its own ongoing existence, as we saw. But the same applies to those other factors. Now consider a chain of clamps that only stay closed if held by another clamp:


The only way this chain of clamps will stay closed if there is at least one "permanent" clamp holding shut one of the clamps, which then in turn holds together the rest of the clamps. One clamp must be "independent": not held shut by any further clamps:


Similarly, if object A is receiving or dependent on further factors for its ongoing existence, and those factors are themselves dependent upon further factors, then this must terminate in something not dependent upon any further factors:


To put it another way, all these objects whose essence (what it is) is separate from their existence (that it is) must trace to something whose essence is its own existence. That is to say, existence itself.

III. Existence Itself = God?

Now that we have arrived at the conclusion, existence itself, what must this thing be like? It must be eternal, as existence cannot not exist. It must be immutable, as nothing cannot exist and so existence must always exist. It must be unchangeable, because change entails a gain of something that was lacking, and a lack of something is the non-existence of something, and existence itself cannot have non-existence. It cannot be material, or have spacial location, or exist in time, because all these things entail change. It must have all positive properties to a maximum degree, because anything less than maximum would entail a lack of something, which is non existence. This would entail such properties as maximum power, maximum knowledge, and maximum goodness: