Monthly Archives: November 2012

Believe It or Not

In the November 16, 2012 edition of the New Republic, Alvin Plantinga reviews Thomas Nagel’s book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly Wrong. It isn’t so much a review as it is an editorial on the incoherence of monist naturalism and the shining clarity of theism. I understand; I can’t pass up an opportunity to go on about pet subjects either. In the middle of his exposition, Plantinga makes a very interesting statement.

Is the idea that the world is intelligible only if there is some important property that houses, horses, hawks, and handsaws all share? What kind of property?

Second, how much plausibility is there to the claim that this sort of unity is required for intelligibility? Clearly, we cannot claim that Descartes’ dualism is literally unintelligible – after all even if you reject it, you can understand it. (How else could you reject it?)

As usual, Jaegwon Kim is way ahead of the game. He anticipated these very questions in his paper, “Lonely Souls: Causality and Substance Dualism”.

But does this conception of a person, as something made up of two radically diverse components, a body and an immaterial soul, make sense, whether the body is made up of ordinary matter or some mysterious ethereal stuff? One contention of this paper is that there is reason to think that such a conception of a person is ultimately unintelligible. My arguments will be principally based on considerations of causation – specifically, I will try to undermine the idea that immaterial souls can causally interact with material bodies, therefore forming a “union” with them. If I am right, it is an idea that we cannot make intelligible.

He is right. Even Descartes could not make sense of it in the end. The alert reader of Descartes’ works may have already suspected as much when Descartes turned his discourse from the nature of consciousness and perception to the activities of the pineal gland.

Supporters of substance dualism raise several objections to Kim’s argument. He anticipates a couple of these, the best being:

…some people say that we could simply take the concept of the mind’s “union” with the body as a primitive, and that it is simply a brute, unexplainable fact, perhaps divinely ordained, that this mind and this body are integrated into a proper union that is a person.

This is not a bad point and it is interesting for a reason beyond its specific content. The structure of the objection exemplifies the creeping realism in regard to concepts present in so many supporting arguments for substance dualism. Some concepts do seem to be basic, our ideas of color being the most famous (and least controversial) examples. However, these basic concepts can be located in context. They enter into dependency relationships with other parts of our interdependent world and that is why we ascribe some reality to them even though they defy analysis. For supernatural objects, the method is to say what they do not depend upon. This appears to let their advocates locate supernatural concepts in context. As the negatives build up, the supernatural object appears to creep into reality. In reality, the creep represents the photo negative of the trouble with verification in logical positivism ( if you are going to say that all swans are white because all the swans we see are white you’d better have taken a look at all swans – those that are, were and will be).

Kim says it better than I ever could:

But I find such an approach unhelpful. For it seems to concede that the notion of “union” of minds and bodies, and hence the notion of a person, are unintelligible. If God chose to unite my body with my mind, just what is it that he did? I am not asking why he chose to unite this particular mind with this particular body, or why he decided to engage in such activities as uniting minds and bodies at all, or whether he, or anyone else, could have the powers to do things like that. If God united my mind and my body, there must be a relationship R such that a mind stands in relation R to a body if and only if that mind and body constitute a unitary person. Unless we know what R is, we do not know what God did. Again, we are not asking how God managed to establish R between a mind and a body – as far as we are concerned, that can remain a mystery forever. We only want to know what God did.

Not how but what. Dr. Kim wants to know if the relationship in question is describable and thus knowable to us as we know other things. He frames his question in terms of a “pairing problem” to lay out how we think of causation. We must somehow be able to “locate” or identify events and objects in relationship to each other to establish a cause and effect relationship between them. He concludes that our understanding of causation requires some shared context. Space-time provides such a relational context for physical objects, but what of the immaterial, wholly separate divine substance? It cannot be preserved as such while functioning as a cause as we understand causes. Again, Kim says it better than I ever could:

I have tried to explore considerations that seem to show that the causal relation indeed exerts a strong, perhaps irresistible, pressure toward a degree of homogeneity over its domain, and, moreover, that the kind of homogeneity it requires probably includes, at a minimum, spatiotemporality, which arguably entails physicality. The more we think about causation, the clearer becomes our realization that the possibility of causation between distinct objects depends on a shared spacelike coordinate system in which these objects are located, a scheme that individuates objects by their “locations”. Are there such schemes other than the scheme of physical space? I don’t believe we know of any. This alone makes trouble for serious substance dualisms and dualist conceptions of personhood – unless, like Leibniz, you are prepared to give up causal relations of substances altogether. Malebranche denied causal relations between all finite substances, reserving causal powers exclusively for God, the only genuine causal agent that there is.

Just as the advocates of verification are plagued by the mere possibility of a black swan, substance dualism is in trouble not if the substances in question must interact across all their properties, but across any of their properties. Then they share a property, enter into a dependency relation and, by our lights become a system, a unity. The point is that this is just how we understand ordinary objects, including ourselves. Philosophers like Dr. Kim are interested in establishing whether or not substance dualism is a fruitful philosophical enterprise. He wants to know if we can give a coherent, comprehensive account of human experience from a substance dualist standpoint. We cannot. It is a philosophical dead-end.

At this stage, if it is fair to ask what it is that god does it is also fair to ask what the philosophers do. Why bother with an account such as the one Kim seeks? Plantinga asks as much:

And third, suppose we concede that the world is genuinely intelligible only if it displays this sort of monistic unity: why should we think that the world really does display such a unity? We might hope that the world would display such unity, but is there any reason to think the world will cooperate? Suppose intelligibility requires that kind of unity: why should we think our world is intelligible in that sense? Is it reasonable to say to a theist, “Well, if theism were true, there would be two quite different sorts of things: God on the one hand, and the creatures he has created on the other. But that cannot really be true: for if it were, the world would not display the sort of unity required for intelligibility”? Won’t the theist be quite properly content to forgo that sort of intelligibility?

A reasonable position – depending on what one thinks the philosophers are about. I think they do two things at two levels. One thing and its level are more apparent: they tell stories that help us remember what we are about when we act, like every story every person has ever told. Like all utilitarian explanations, though, this explanation at this level begs the question of what their activity depends upon, of where it is located in context. On this second, murky level, what they do is genetic expression, by biological analogy and by the plain abstract meaning of those two words. At neither level is Plantinga’s conclusion satisfying. Satisfaction itself is antithetical to the entire project at any level.

But which dominates, the storyteller’s end or the thinker’s means? If it is the means, is it the only means? These are questions which Nietzsche asked. He concluded that philosophy was a means to an end – the definitive occupation of essential self-expression active at the murky level, which he termed “will to power” – and he concluded that it was but one of several means to that end. These conclusions lead him to a rather severe and chaotic viewpoint, but one that accommodates substance dualism as a potentially fruitful religious means rather than a philosophical one.

Is Malebranche’s concept any less wild? If we cannot know a separate substance as we know the familiar one, how could we, how must we, know it, if it were truly “there”?

I did not derive it from the senses, it did not at any time come to me unexpectedly, as normally happens with the ideas of sensible objects when those objects affect (or seem to affect) the external sense-organs; and it is not my own invention, for I can neither add anything to it nor subtract anything from it. So it can only be innate in me, just as the idea of myself is. – Descartes, 3rd Meditation.

I’d quibble with the last bit, but overall it turns out Descartes was doing pretty well just up to the point he decided to bring in the pineal gland.

For since he does not, as it were, produce himself or derive his concept of himself a priori but only empirically, it is natural that he obtains his knowledge of himself through inner sense and consequently only through the appearance of his nature and the way in which his own consciousness is affected. But beyond the characteristic of his own subject which is compounded of these mere appearances, he necessarily assumes something else as its basis, namely, his ego as it is in itself. Thus in respect to mere perception and receptivity to sensations, he must count himself as belonging to the world of sense; but in respect to that which may be pure activity in himself (i.e. in respect to that which reaches consciousness directly and not by affecting the senses) he must reckon himself as belonging to the intellectual world. But he has no further knowledge of that world. – Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, 3rd Section.

The knowledge of a separate substance could only be a direct knowledge. It must be a thing out of context, unextended. . Anything we can know about it is thus available only through “revelation”, “faith”, “intuition” – whatever you want to call pure, non-contingent experience, if such a thing exists, and so, as Kant says, our awareness of the other stuff’s existence must be the full extent of what we know about it. I don’t think we have a claim to such knowledge, but the reality of it does not matter for me or for those who believe they experience god’s presence. Real or not, as far as the pursuit of such a thing as a means goes, it works as well for all those snake handlers, dervishes and Zen practitioners. They all have it right,too. You can organize the world around the idea of such a thing, but you can’t understand the thing itself by the organization of the world. Because one can’t “make sense” of such knowledge, the outlook of those who pursue it must be personal and self-effacing in the most cruel sense. People who pursue it as a means must become either madmen or overmen, like Fred said. There are simply no other choices. This is the proper end of substance dualism; as a means.

So why does a certain brand of apologist continue to pursue the untenable project of substance dualism as a philosophical end? Maybe it is fear of snakes and the wild uncertainty that goes with pursuing the idea as a means, but maybe also a desire for control, for the perpetuation of religion as control. Back to Plantinga’s review:

Now you might think someone with Nagel’s views would be sympathetic to theism, the belief that there is such a person as the God of the Abrahamic religions. Materialist naturalism, says Nagel, cannot account for the appearance of life, or the variety we find in the living world, or consciousness, or cognition, or mind—but theism has no problem accounting for any of these. As for life, God himself is living, and in one way or another has created the biological life to be found on Earth (and perhaps elsewhere as well). As for the diversity of life: God has brought that about, whether through a guided process of evolution or in some other way. As for consciousness, again theism has no problem: according to theism the fundamental and basic reality is God, who is conscious. And what about the existence of creatures with cognition and reason, creatures who, like us, are capable of scientific investigation of our world? Well, according to theism, God has created us human beings in his image; part of being in the image of God (Aquinas thought it the most important part) is being able to know something about ourselves and our world and God himself, just as God does. Hence theism implies that the world is indeed intelligible to us, even if not quite intelligible in Nagel’s glorified sense. Indeed, modern empirical science was nurtured in the womb of Christian theism, which implies that there is a certain match or fit between the world and our cognitive faculties.

Abandon your exertions. Here is comfort and here are easy answers. No fasting or flagellation here, of the body or the soul. Cain made a similar mistake, didn’t he? This is the religion that Nietzsche hated. This is what killed that revelatory impulse that he saw as a manifestation of will to power. This is what his Madman meant when he said, “What are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”

But Fred was a pessimist on this account, both on the fact that he got it right about our expressive needs and on the ease with which they could be suppressed and their manifestations turned to the ends of social control and a destructive sort of self-control. Obviously, apologists feel the need to go on stabbing this particular means to our end, but I take that positively. To me it means not that the true idea is dead and some just want to make sure it doesn’t twitch and ruin the edifice they’ve built upon it, but that it is yet to be subjugated despite the wounds it has suffered.

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Weird Seasonal Activities

It’s time to be mixed up. A little good-humored anarchy prepares us for the fearful chaos of winter climbing.

This isn’t mixed climbing, where one foot is on rock and the other is on ice. This is climbing rock with ice tools.

Without crags developed for climbing with tools and crampons, it would be nearly impossible to be an ice climber living in the Black Hills. Being an alpine climber would  be entirely impossible. But with our specialized crags, when the waterfalls finally freeze in Cody and the faces and gullies ice up in the Big Horns, Tetons and Canadian Rockies, our strength and balance are tuned up and with a few swings of the ice tools to knock the rust off, we are back in the game.

Now,we just wait for the cold.


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Supervenience and Rambo (2)

Cardiopulmonary arrest is not a legitimate cause of death. This often comes as a surprise to the lay public since it is highly counter-intuitive. Nevertheless, if a doctor writes that on a death certificate, the vital statistics office will return the paper with a nasty-gram demanding clarification. The problem is not that cardiopulmonary arrest is not the cause of death, in a certain sense. The problem is that cardiopulmonary arrest is always the cause of death, in a certain sense.

Of course, the main reason for excluding it from the death certificate is justification for the epidemiologists’ jobs. They can’t very well have a single column of data year after year titled “Cardiopulmonary arrest” and hope to keep their line in the public health budget. Plus, they would be forced to repeatedly present to the public and government officials a mere dismal reminder that everybody dies and there really isn’t anything anybody can do about it. Beyond those practical motivations, though, they actually have got  it right in principle.

Cardiopulmonary arrest is an epiphenomenon. It is a summary  description of  a crucial juncture in a process, but it is not really part of that process. It is an epiphenomenal, or apparent, cause of death, but not the actual cause of death. At this point, some CPR survivors may be jumping up to disagree. Good for them, but those survivors represent the population of people with treatable heart rhythm problems and choking victims, not the population of cardiopulmonary arrest victims (though they will someday join that group, by whatever means). The state of pulselessness and apnea supervenes on an underlying pathological chain of events in every case. The precise sequence of events is unique to each individual, so it may seem incoherent, or at least superfluous, to even talk about cardiopulmonary arrest at all. That is a mistake as well.

The underlying process in each death, if traced back through the microscopic processes  determining the outcome, is so byzantine that it appears random. Though those processes are the really real truth of the pathologic mechanism in each case, such an explanation is not really available to us and so it fails just at the point where a person collapses in the shopping mall. Then the idea of cardiopulmonary arrest shines, for in a few, indiscernible cases, immediately replacing the function of the heart and lungs specifically by employing the techniques of CPR, will allow correction of the underlying process which set the person on their fatal trajectory.

So cardiopulmonary arrest turns out to be an epiphenomenal cause and useful as such, but not as a truth. To prevent premature onset of cardiopulmonary arrest we need a more precise, truthful representation. Thus the epidemiologists demand a description of the fatal process more proximal in time and specific in detail. They need something closer to the bare truth, even though they must still deal in epiphenomena. Except perhaps in cases of  vaporization, the acceptable causes of death are still summary descriptions reducible to more basic causes, but they are all we need at the level of public health. The acceptable causes are real enough. This interplay of epiphenomena is how our understanding of the world works in general anyway. Just look at how we come to appreciate cloud elephants and Jesus toast.

When someone sees an elephant in a passing cloud or the figure of Jesus on a piece of toast, the image supervenes on their knowledge of elephants or Jesus in conjunction with some prosaic neurological mechanisms. The image is unique in each case and without prompting, an observer may not immediately identify a line-up of cloud elephants as belonging together. The grouping of shapes may seem irrational. Once cued to the basal relationship however, most will nod and can even start picking out details of trunks, ears, legs and tails. The images cause nothing other than amusement, and even then as epiphenomenal causes (the amusement comes from recognizing the image – the process of seeing it – subsequent viewings are less and less entertaining).

Now, some may claim that Jesus is on the toast on purpose. Nobody claims that the cloud is shaped like an elephant on purpose, and nobody claims that the shape on the toast gives them their primary idea of Jesus or that the shape of the cloud gives them their primary idea of elephants. Still, it is rational to see elephants in clouds and Jesus on breakfast foods. Though the various arrangements of contrasting shades that evoke the image are different (the figure of Jesus or an elephant is multiply realizable) they are related in their causes, they share a base, and so are not incoherent. The mental objects are the rationalizing story themselves.

These relationships between causes and their explanations, between reduced phenomena and what we experience, finally beg the question of the truth of our ideas about causation. We have good reason to doubt those ideas. We cannot understand very small things or very large things, though we can model them with mathematics. Therefore, somewhat predictable relations exist at these extreme scales; they may just defy our notions of causation. Too bad, we are stuck with the limits of our perception. Despite the potential limitations of the picture we derive from analysis, the story of the mental supervening on the physical is the best we’ve done so far and its consistency suggests that we’re headed in the right direction. Think of what lies in the other direction, where the physical begins to supervene on the  mental. Things quickly start to resemble the situation in the movie Rambo 2.

Actually, movies in general provide a case where the physical supervenes on the mental. The story that the director wishes to tell determines the objects and events on-screen. Rambo 2, particularly during the helicopter sequences at the end of the film, is just one of the best examples of what comes of this supervenience relation.

As the denouement begins, the bad guys prepare to drop a bomb on Rambo. The bomb has to be big and scary, so we fear for Rambo’s survival and so we understand what a superhuman feat his survival would represent. There must not be objects attached to the helicopter, like rocket-pods, that would detract from the visual impact of the bomb slung beneath the fuselage.  Once Rambo has dodged the explosion (and we are prepared to accept further superhuman acts from him, such as leaping from the water to commandeer the helicopter) he needs to kick ass. He can’t do that properly in a helicopter without rocket- pods, so rocket-pods appear just before he takes possession of the aircraft. He needs to wreak righteous vengeance on the POW camp where his comrades have been held and tormented, but if he wipes out the thirty or so guards that mustered out in an earlier scene, he might look like a bully and the quantity of  righteous vengeance delivered would be unsatisfying besides. He therefore kills three or four times that number, taking a massive amount of ground-fire all the while. The pattern continues as guns on the helicopter switch sides when needed, a rocket launcher acquires an emphatic handle and trigger, and a hole in the chopper’s windshield appears and disappears  as necessary.

These inconsistencies are called continuity errors. Sometimes that name fits, but often it does not. Often, the inconsistencies are there because the story demands it or the director thinks he can sneak them by the audience in scenes where consistency would be costly or inconvenient. This is the kind of thing we should expect with physical supervenience on the mental. These continuity errors reflect the “queerness of the mental” – the consequences of things like bias toward pattern recognition and inborn attentional preferences, the very things that allow directors to slip continuity errors by us. In real life we don’t see rocket-pods flickering in and out of existence or any other continuity errors of the sort we should expect with a “bare truth” variety of mental causation. Rather we see mental objects as causes like cardiopulmonary arrest is a cause of death or the scorch-marks on a piece of bread are a cause of an image of Jesus – just true enough for us to handle.

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