Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Answers for im-skeptical and Hugo

In response to I'm-Skeptical's blog post, I want to take a moment to apologize to both Hugo and im-skeptical in my discussions with them on cosmological arguments, and especially on the concept of essentially-ordered series. I see that my previous explanations of them could be capable of causing confusion. I also want to apologize for deleting all of Hugos comments a long time ago (although the primary reason for that was not anger so much as I just wanted the blog for notes and outlines and not any actual opinions; since rectified by keeping my outlines in my private Google drive instead). And I want to apologize for calling im-skeptical “stupid” and for psychologizing about him (“He just believes that because he’s...etc”). I would like to clear the air and complete this discussion to all of our satisfaction.

Essentially-Ordered Series Explained

First, I’ll start with an explanation of the difference between accidentally-ordered and essentially-ordered series. There is a lot of confusion layered on here even though the concepts are really quite simple. The analogies given to explain the difference are quite well-known. In an accidentally-ordered series, each element causes the next element in the chain, and the common analogy used is that of a man who has a son, who grows up, has his own son, and so on. Each man in the chain (along with a woman, obviously) is the cause of the next man in the chain. In an essentially-ordered series, by contrast, the effect is just being “passed along.” A common example is a hand moving a stick moving a rock. The stick isn’t doing the work of moving the rock; the hand is, and the stick is just passing the motion from the hand to the rock. The point being that in the first case, you cannot reason from the existence of a man to the existence of a first man: the chain of men may have been happening for eternity. But in the second case, you can reason from the motion of the rock to the existence of a hand because we know that the stick doesn’t have any power of motion on its own; if it’s to push something, like a stone, it must be because something is pushing it. One of the core points here is that in an essentially-ordered series, the middle element (or elements) are acting as sort of "instruments." They derive their power to cause a certain effect, and since that power is derivative, there must be something it derives from. The stick derives its power to push the stone from the hand. The power lines derive their power to light the lamp from the power plant. The gears derive their power to turn the clock hands from the mainspring.

But really, even this may be too complicated for what is really a simple concept. As Caleb Cohoe argues (1), the concept of an essentially-ordered series can be described like this:

“For any given effect, insofar as it is an effect, there must be a cause capable of producing it”

So really all we’re doing with essentially-ordered series is simply reasoning from an observed effect to an unseen but inferred cause. So for example we can observe the clock hands on Big Ben and infer that there must be a motor or some kind of power source inside the clock. Why? Because we know that clock hands cannot move themselves. We could take any other example of inferring a cause from an effect. The astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky, in 1933, observed the motions of galaxies in the Coma Cluster were moving too fast based on what could be seen and inferred that the presence of “dark matter.” His inference is similar to what we would make in the case of Big Ben and to the case in cosmological arguments. Finally, to take an analogy that was used by Scholastic thinkers, a stone being pushed (as opposed to rolling down a hill) is an observed effect, and from it we can infer that there must be something doing the pushing, because we know that stones cannot push themselves or otherwise have the power of locomotion.

Another way of understanding essentially-ordered series is that they are a version of the homunculus fallacy. This is the fallacy in using the explanandum (the thing demanding an explanation) as the explanation. The classic example of the homunculus fallacy involves explaining vision in humans as a result of a “little man” (i.e. a subsystem) inside our brains that looks at the image coming in through our eyes. The fallacy here is that we’ve explained vision by referencing something with vision, and so haven’t explained vision at all. We’ve used the explanandum (vision) as the explanation for vision, and so we are just going around in a circle. Now notice that it may actually be true that a “little man” or subsystem may be in our brains looking at a screen, but in that case we can lump it in with our primary vision and rather than explain this or that particular vision system we explain “things with vision” in general. Interestingly, Richard Dawkins makes use of this very principle in his objection to theism in his book The God Delusion. He responds to the argument for theism that the complexity of the universe demands a designer by arguing that the designer, in being capable of creating the complexity in the universe, would be even more complex than the universe itself and would require an even greater designer, and so on ad infinitum. Thus the complexity argument for theism is not a good argument since it just goes around in circles, explaining complexity with more complexity.

To see how the concept of essentially-ordered series are a flavor of the homunculus argument, let’s look at the original analogy of a hand pushing a stick pushing a stone. In reasoning from stone to hand, what we are doing is observing that the stone does not have its own power of locomotion and so we need to explain it. However, our explanation cannot be the explanandum. That is, we are trying to explain the movement of things that cannot move themselves. So we need to turn to something that is not a thing that cannot move itself. I.e., something that can move itself.

Now, hopefully this is a good description that will not cause too much confusion. Again, the core point of essentially-ordered series is simply that of an inferred cause from an observed effect. Anything else, such as whether such a series can be infinitely long, or whether such a series is simultaneous, is secondary and can be discarded without affecting the point.

I'm-Skeptical's Objections

Now let’s look at im-skeptical’s objections. First, he begins with a description of what he takes the two types of series to be, based on what he’s read me say about them. These will not be exact quotes but will be paraphrases, and I invite him to correct me if I got them wrong:

Essentially-ordered series are concurrent, and accidentally-ordered series are sequential

Admittedly, some explanations of it including my own can give this impression, but this isn’t quite right. Even if I’ve used the word “concurrent” before, I’ve seen how much confusion this can create and I’ve since discarded it. As you can see above, the key point really has nothing to do with how concurrent a cause and an effect are. The key point, to reiterate, is simply that in an essentially-ordered series a cause can be inferred from an observed effect.

Causes are a complex interacting web, and there is not any single “first” cause in an essentially-ordered series, but rather a multitude of causes

This is absolutely true, and Scholastic thinkers like Thomas Aquinas would not have disagreed with this. Nor is this built into the concept of an essentially ordered series. While we can infer a hand from observing a pushed stone, this is not to say that that is the end of our explanation nor that there isn’t some other explanation of the hand’s motion as well, and in fact there is: the hand pushed by muscles, the muscles triggered by motor neurons, and so forth. The point is simply that from a pushed stone we can infer at least something else in addition to the stone, whether that additional thing is simple, complex, or multiple.

There is no such thing as concurrent causation; in examples of essentially-ordered series, such as a power plant powering a lamp, if the power plant disappeared the lamp would stay lit for a time

This is also absolutely true, and it is unfortunate that I’ve given the impression that the entire series must be simultaneous. As Edward Feser illustrates2, consider the hand pushing a stick through a time portal (as seen in science fiction) and out the other side of the portal 10,000 years in the future, where the stick pushes a rock. In this case there is a time lag of 10,000 years between the motion of the hand and the pushing of the stone. Nonetheless, the motion of the stone still points to the existence of a cause capable of producing it, since, again, we know that stones cannot push themselves. Even if an effect lingers for a time after its cause has disappeared, we can still infer the cause from the effect. Would we, for example, be justified in rejecting the hypothesis of a burglar from the observance of a broken window and a missing TV set just because the burglar is long gone? Clearly not. We observed an effect, and even if the cause is no longer around we can still infer that it exists or once existed.

Essentially-ordered series have been disproved by modern science

If you’ve been paying attention, there isn’t anything in modern science that has refuted these concepts of inferring a cause from an effect, or that explanations cannot be circular.

Quantum events are uncaused and spontaneous

This objection illustrates a more fundamental point about two views of causation. A modern popular view of causation is Humean: a cause is an event, and an effect is an event that follows the cause. In contrast, the Aristotelian view of causation is that causes are things, not events, and that causes are simultaneous with their effects. Let’s look at an example. A cue ball striking a billiard ball causing it to move quickly away. On the Humean view, this consists of two events: the event of the cue ball striking the billiard, and the event of the billiard ball moving away from the cue ball. On the Aristotelian view this situation consists of the cue ball striking the billiard ball and the billiard ball being struck by the cue ball. The cause is the cue ball pushing into the billiard and the effect is the billiard being pushed by the cue. The cause and effect are simultaneous on this view, and instead of two events are rather two distinct descriptions of a single event. On the Aristotelian view, it wouldn’t make sense for the cause to be prior to, and therefore separate from, the effect, as a cause is only a cause insofar as it is having some effect. If it isn’t having an effect, then it just isn’t a cause by definition.

Now, in the case of beta decay, on the Humean view we may very well say that there is no cause because there is no preceding event. However, on the Aristotelian view, there is a cause: a preceding object. Namely, the nucleus of the atom that has an unequal number of protons and neutrons. It is the cause of the decay. If there were no unequal number of protons and neutrons, there would be no decay.

Note that modern science has not refuted Aristotelian causation in favor of Humean; it simply isn't asking questions like that. The atom decays and science explains it. Is this a case of being caused by an unequal nucleus, or an example of something uncaused because it has no prior event? We step beyond science and into more abstract and general reasoning to explore this issue. In fact, there has been somewhat of a move away from Humean causation and back to Aristotelian views, and from people fully versed in modern science and (to sweeten the well) atheists, such as Stephen Mumford in his book Getting Causes from Powers.

Hugo’s Objections

Hugo’s main objection not already covered by im-skeptical above is this:
The existence of everything can be traced to the stars, and ultimately the universe itself, and we can’t really know anything about the cause of the universe’s existence or even if it needs one
Now, there are a few things to address here, so it will take some teasing apart.

First, to properly understand the argument for an unmoved mover, we need to stick with the terminology introduced by them. The argument is that all potencies being actualized must ultimately trace to something that is already actual, without any potencies. This again is due to the fact that explanations cannot be circular. So to take Hugo’s objection, that everything can be traced to stars, the universe, etc, we need to first translate it to the language of act and potency. The question central to the unmoved mover argument is this: what is most fundamental? Something that is in act, or something that is in potency? Something in act is just something that is actual, or real/existent. Something that is in potency is something that is potentially existent, but not. So the question Hugo should be asking is not "whether everything can be traced to stars, the universe" but rather "can actualized potencies be traced to something in act, or something in potency?" The answer I'll leave aside for now, as it's not relevant to my point, which is only this: by tracing the existence of earth to stars, and stars to the universe, and universe perhaps to a quantum event, one isn't engaging with the unmoved mover argument as written. All these things need to be translated into either act or potency (or act and potency), if one wishes to engage with them.

In other words, let's take the concept from above, that explanations cannot be circular. The explanation for "actualized potencies" can only be something that is not that. In other words, it can only be something that is not an actualized potency, or in other words something that is already actual.

Another problem with Hugo's objection is that Aquinas is in no way arguing for the cause of the universe. He is simply arguing that any given actualized potency must be traced to something that is already actual. Not that the universe as a whole needs a cause. You can pick any actualized potency you like to follow along with Aquinas. I often take the example of a tree growing. It's a potency actualized by the Sun, oxygen, rain water, and so on. But each of these things are also actualized potencies. For example, the Sun's power to generate light and heat is a potency actualized by gravity pulling the Sun in on itself. But gravity is also an actualized potency: mass causes gravity. And mass is actualized by the Higgs particle. Like the homunculus fallacy, in order to explain actualized potencies we need to appeal to something that is not an actualized potency, not in the past (or not only in the past), but now, in the present, at the fundamental aspect of reality.

Hopefully, this fully apologizes to Hugo and im-skeptical, answers what an essentially ordered series is, and successfully answers both their objections.

1. Cohoe, Caleb, There Must Be First: Why Thomas Aquinas Rejects Infinite, Essentially Ordered, Causal Series (British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 2013)

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A Close Look at a Cosmological Argument: Aquinas

I've written numerous interpretations of Aquinas' famous First Way of proving the existence of God on this blog, but I've never closely analyzed the argument in Aquinas' own words. So let's take a closer look at this argument as he actually writes it:
"The first and more manifest way is the argument from motion."
Now, caution must be exercised here with the word "motion." He uses words differently from how we use them today. What he is talking about here is not necessarily motion from place to place, but rather something more like "change." Specifically, he is talking about the actualization of a potential. Or to put it another way, the coming to be of an object or attribute of an object that has the ability to be. The banana that is turning black on top of your fridge would be considered "motion" in the sense Aquinas means here.
"It is certain, and evident to our senses, that in the world some things are in motion."
This is the empirical premise. Just look around you. Is there "motion" as meant above? Is the banana turning from yellow to black? Are trees outside swaying with the wind?  Birds flying? Cars driving? People walking? In short, are there things becoming? Becoming older, becoming bigger, smaller. Becoming pieces. Becoming whole. Change. This is evident to our senses, and we can see it all around us all the time.
"Now whatever is in motion is put in motion by another..."
Again we must be cautious. Let's rephrase it in modern terms: "whatever is changing is being changed by something else." But even more caution is warranted. What he means by "another" is not "something else" per se, but rather something that already exists. This could be a part of the thing that is changing, even an internal part. You may protest that you move yourself when you walk. That you are not moved by "another" at all. But think about what is being changed, here. Your upper body is being moved by your legs. Your upper body is not moving itself. It is being moved by something else. Something else that exists. If your legs didn't exist, they couldn't very well move your upper body.
"...for nothing can be in motion except it is in potentiality to that towards which it is in motion."
Another tricky term! The word "potentiality" could perhaps best be defined as "ability to be." An acorn has the ability to be an oak tree. It may be eaten by a squirrel or dry up, but as an acorn, it has the ability to be an oak tree. A yellow banana has the ability to be black, whether it actually ever turns black or not because you eat it. So change is only possible because something has the ability to be whatever it is becoming. If it doesn't have the ability to be whatever it is becoming, then it just wouldn't be changing into that thing.
"...whereas a thing moves inasmuch as it is in act."
Something can only cause change if it exists. If something doesn't exist, it can't cause change. Your upper body cannot be moved by non-existent legs. If you have no legs, either your upper body won't move, or something else is going to have to move it. If something is moving it, whatever that thing is must be something that actually exists.
"For motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality."
Remember that "motion" means "change," and that "potentiality" means "ability to be." So this could be translated as "change is when something actually becomes what it has the ability to be." The acorn has the ability to be an oak tree, and when it actually become that oak tree, a change has occurred. This is all pretty basic stuff once the terminology is understood, isn't it?
"But nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality."
This is the same principle that was highlighted above. A change in something can only be caused by something else that already exists. The change in your upper body can only be caused by existent legs, or an existent wheel chair. The change in color in a banana can only be caused by existent enzymes, not non-existent enzymes.
"Thus that which is actually hot, as fire, makes wood, which is potentially hot, to be actually hot, and thereby moves and changes it."
Here he gives an example, as I have already done a few times. Wood is potentially on fire, and if something comes along to set it on fire the wood becomes actually on fire. The potential becomes actual. One thing to note is that his example here might not be the best, since it gives the impression that whatever causes change in something must be in the same state, as when he says that something which is actually hot causes the wood to be actually hot. But this is not always the case. As I showed above enzymes cause bananas to turn black but may not actually be black themselves. They only have the ability to cause blackness in the banana.
"Now it is not possible that the same thing should be at once in actuality and potentiality in the same respect, but only in different respects. For what is actually hot cannot simultaneously be potentially hot; but it is simultaneously potentially cold."
The banana cannot be both actually black, and potentially black (that is, yellow with the ability to be black) at the same time in the same respect (color). For then the banana would be both black, and not black, which is a logical contradiction.
"It is therefore impossible that in the same respect and in the same way a thing should be both mover and moved, i.e. that it should move itself. Therefore, whatever is in motion must be put in motion by another."
Therefore, something (a single part) cannot be both the initiator of change and thing being changed, with respect to the same property, such as color. Another slightly different way of making this point is that a potential (a property that has the ability to be but does not yet exist) cannot make itself real, because a potential doesn't even exist yet and therefore cannot very well cause anything, such as bringing itself into existence.
"If that by which it is put in motion be itself put in motion, then this also must needs be put in motion by another, and that by another again."
Remember above, with the legs? The legs are moving your torso, but since they too are changing, they must be being changed by something else. Your legs are being moved by muscles. But the muscles are changing! And whatever is changing is being changed by something else. They are being changed by motorneurons. But wait! The motorneurons are changing! And so on. We have here a concurrent chain of changers. and this is vital to understand for the next point:
"But this cannot go on to infinity, because then there would be no first mover, and, consequently, no other mover, seeing that subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are put in motion by the first mover; as the staff moves only because it is put in motion by the hand."
Now, here is where most people REALLY mess up, and is by far the trickiest part of the argument. They see the premise that this cannot go on to infinity, and they usually imagine a chain stretching back in time to the first event, like the Big Bang.  But Aquinas explicitly allows this type of series to stretch on indefinitely. Elsewhere, he says that an artificer may act by means of an infinite number of hammers, as one after another may be broken. There is nothing in this series of broken hammers that demands there be a first.

But consider a different kind of chain. A concurrent chain. A chain where an effect is being transmitted from one end to another. For example, a power plant is generating electricity, which is being transmitted through power lines to the lamp in your living room. If there is no power plant (or other source of electricity), then there is no electricity and your lamp won't be lit. If there is an infinite string of power lines, then there is by definition no power plant and your lamp won't be lit. But your lamp is lit, so there must be a source of electricity, so there cannot be an infinite string of power lines.

There are a few different ways to phrase this principle. Here is one: for any given effect, there must be some cause capable of producing it. The lamp being lit is the effect, and there must be some cause capable of producing that effect. But the power outlet is not capable of producing that effect, and neither is the power line by itself, and neither is an infinite number of power lines. An infinite number of powerless wires is just as powerless as a single set of wires.

This principle is often spoken of as a "vertical" causal series, moving down into the most fundamental aspects of reality in the present, as opposed to a "horizontal" causal series, moving back to earlier and earlier events.

Another way of understanding this point is to consider the cause of something becoming, vs the cause of something being. The cause of a lake's becoming would be the evaporation of water, which turns into clouds, then rain, which falls, collects in ground water, and becomes the lake. A series of events: event 1, then event 2, then event 3, and so on. But once a lake is in existence, it continues to exist from moment to moment due to factors other than the lake itself, and that is what Aquinas is getting at. The lake continues to exist from moment to moment because of warm air that keeps it from freezing, the warm air continues to exist because of the heat from the Sun, the heat from the Sun continues to exist from moment to moment because of nuclear reactions in the core, and so on. Notice how with this type of chain, we are moving "down" so to speak to more fundamental aspects of reality in the present, not in a chain of events stretching back in time.

You could think of each member of this chain as getting its realness, its existence, its actuality, from the next member in the chain, which in turns gets its actuality from the next member in the chain, and so on. And how I showed with the lamp and power plant, if there is no source of actuality (source of existence, or source of realness), then nothing would exist. But something does exist. So there is a source of existence, or source of actuality. Something that can cause existence without needing to be caused to exist. Or to put it another way, something that can actualize without needing to be actualized. And that is what Aquinas concludes next, in his own words:
"Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other..."
Note that the word "first" here does not mean first event, but rather it means something more like "source." Or "primary cause, rather than secondary cause." This follows from what I said above regarding a source of an effect. The Moon is the cause of light, but it is only a secondary cause, as it depends on the Sun for its light. The Sun is the source of light, and therefore "first" in the sense meant by Aquinas. And even if the Sun were infinitely old, it would still be the "first" cause of light, with the Moon the "second" cause of light.

And then:
"...and this everyone understands to be God."
Wait, wait, wait! What?! This everyone understands to be God?! Aquinas has not proven this thing to be intelligent, or good, or anything else. What's he talking about?

Well, for one thing, he is writing to other Catholic priests, not to atheists, so he is not really building a case for an unbeliever to read raw. For another thing, he retroactively justifies the use of the term "God" in later arguments, when he shows the unmoved mover to be intelligent, good, and all the rest. So you might accuse him of jumping the gun a bit, but it's only semantics at this point. Just a label. In the next article, he goes on to ask, "Is God a body?", showing that he is just slapping a label on the unmoved mover even though we don't know what it's like yet. What Aquinas has at this point is simply something that is unchangeable but that causes other things to change, and that's it.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Is There Knowledge in God?

I've written several articles on why the unmoved mover is intelligent, but I thought I would take a more in depth look at the exact words of Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica on this topic. I find this to be fascinating because it seems to be the primary thing that separates theists from atheists.

In God there exists the most perfect knowledge. 

That is to say, God knows everything there is to know.

To prove this, we must note that intelligent beings are distinguished from non-intelligent beings in that the latter possess only their own form...

First, it must be noted what "form" means here. It does not simply mean "shape." It means rather the structure and organization of a thing. A hunk of marble could be in the shape of an elephant, but it would not have the form of an elephant. In order to have the form of an elephant, a lump of matter must also have all the structure and organization that goes along with that, such as organs that take in nutrients, a trunk that spits water, and it must be caused by another elephant. The "form" of something means something like "what the thing is" or "the definition of a thing."

A non-intelligent thing then, like a rock, only has its own form. The form of a rock, in this case. A rock does not also have the form of a tree, otherwise it would be a tree. But if it were a tree, it wouldn't be a rock. A tree could die, become soil, and then become a rock over time. But being non-intelligent, it can only possess one form at a time. So non-intelligent things can only have one form at a time: whatever that thing currently is.

...whereas the intelligent being is naturally adapted to have also the form of some other thing, for the idea of the thing known is in the knower.

Intelligent beings can have the forms of other things in their minds. When you think about rocks, the form of rock is in your mind. After you think about rocks, you can think about trees. Or you can think about trees and rocks at once. The form of rocks and trees can both be in your mind. The mind is unique in that it can, unlike non-intelligent things, possess more than one form at a time.

Hence it is manifest that the nature of a non-intelligent being is more contracted and limited...

This is essentially just a restatement of the above. Non-intelligent things can only have one form at a time, and are therefore limited in that sense.

...whereas the nature of intelligent beings has a greater amplitude and extension; therefore the Philosopher says (De Anima iii) that "the soul is in a sense all things." 

And intelligent beings are less limited, because they can have more than one form at a time in their minds and hence the mind is, in a sense, "all things", as Aristotle says.

Now the contraction of the form comes from the matter. Hence, as we have said above (Question 7, Article 1) forms according as they are the more immaterial, approach more nearly to a kind of infinity. 

Again, the reason a thing is limited in this sense is that it is material. If it is material, it can only be organized and structured one way, not multiple different ways simultaneously. But if something is free from matter, it is intelligent precisely because it can now have multiple forms simultaneously. The more free from matter something is, the more intelligent it is.

Therefore it is clear that the immateriality of a thing is the reason why it is cognitive

Being free from matter is the reason why something is intelligent. Because matter is by nature only able to have one form at a time, and a mind is able to have multiple forms at a time.

...and according to the mode of immateriality is the mode of knowledge. 

The more free from matter something is, the more forms it can have at once, and hence the more intelligent it is.

Hence it is said in De Anima ii that plants do not know, because they are wholly material. But sense is cognitive because it can receive images free from matter, and the intellect is still further cognitive, because it is more separated from matter and unmixed, as said in De Anima iii. 

So we have a gradation, from completely material things like plants that are non-intelligent, to things that have sensory apparatus, up to intelligent things that can have multiple forms at once and are therefore somewhat free of matter.

Since therefore God is in the highest degree of immateriality as stated above (Question 7, Article 1), it follows that He occupies the highest place in knowledge.

First, as proven earlier in the Summa, God is immaterial because he is the unchanging changer, and matter is changeable. So the unchanging changer (God) must be immaterial.

Since God is completely immaterial, he can therefore have multiple forms at once, indeed all forms at once, and is therefore completely intelligent.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

There are Two Sides in the God Debate

There are two kinds of people in this debate. Not Theists and Atheists, but Thinkers and Culture Warriors.

Thinkers interpret arguments charitably, and in fact strive for DH7 argumentation. Thinkers do not make assumptions, and they do not care which side "wins." They only seek to be the best critical thinker they can. Many professional philosophers are like this. As an example, in Howard Sobel's book Logic and Theism, Howard criticizes one version of Aquinas's Second Way, but then explains how a different interpretation is stronger. He then says something like, "What I'd like to do now is try to take the strongest points from the first interpretation, and the strongest points from the second interpretation, and make a better argument." He ultimately concludes it still doesn't work, but he assumes the best about an argument he disagrees with, not the worst. He doesn't prejudge it, or seem either relieved or joyful when an argument works or fails.

Culture Warriors, on the other hand, only care about making sure their team wins. There is Us, and Them, and Them is responsible for most ills in the world. If only Us could win, the world would be a much better place. I don't care much for Elizer Yudkowsky's Less Wrong, but I think his article here sums up the Culture Warrior quite well:  

Politics is an extension of war by other means. Arguments are soldiers. Once you know which side you're on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the enemy side; otherwise it's like stabbing your soldiers in the back—providing aid and comfort to the enemy. People who would be level-headed about evenhandedly weighing all sides of an issue in their professional life as scientists, can suddenly turn into slogan-chanting zombies when there's a Blue or Green position on an issue.

Examples of this type of person would be Bill O'Reilly and creationists. They do not interpret other arguments charitably, and in fact they begin with the assumption that they are wrong, and try to find ways to escape the argument (such as, for example, evolution) presented to them. Another example would be most residents of /r/atheism. Presenting something like the First Way to these people will get a guaranteed army of "slogan chanting zombies," trying to find the flaw in the argument they already know is flawed before I've even said a word. And when they think they've found a flaw, they act relieved ("Whew! Our Side wins!")

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?"