Tag Archives: atheism

Things and Things

No thing can come from nothing. And so, the argument goes, things must have come from something, hence the Lord our God, who neatly avoids the initial difficulty by not being a thing.

But then the argument trips over that initial statement. Because the initial statement is one about the nature of things and how we know things.

Being a thing means existing in the context of other things. Even those poor, deluded Platonists cannot avoid that fate for their Ideals. The metaphysical ‘light (or is it shadow?) cone’ of the ideal circle is distinguishable from the realm of the square, and that is part of being a circle from our viewpoint.

So, when we begin to speak of things coming from God, we have already begun to speak of God as a thing. We can back up at this point, and say that we don’t really mean to say things ‘come from’ God in the way that things ‘come from’ – in other words, are known by their association with – other things.

It is only a loose analogy. The way in which things come from God is not, in itself, explicable. There is no possible mechanism of divine emanation.

But that position is just a special kind of Nihilism. It is a claim of revelation, which stands opposed to explanation, and marks the end of argumentation. If one ‘just knows’, then one ‘just knows’ and that’s the end of it.


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I Know What You Mean

There are two divine categories: the philosopher’s God and the popular God. The former is an organizing or rationalizing principle. The latter is a Guy in the Sky. There is a defensible position within the set of concepts which make up the philosopher’s God. It is a pretty narrow strip of intellectual territory to hold, and I don’t see that it matters much to claim it, but it is there.

As for the Guy in the Sky, the point of believing in the Guy is not even believing in the Guy. The point is social cohesion, and thus proselytization. It is very hard to ask others to rally around a set of vague principles, but it is easy to ask others to rally around a flag, or a God.

To the same end, various pundits try to reconcile the philosopher’s God with the popular God. Lectures and debates ad nauseum from learned believers like Zacharias, Lennox, Craig, etc. attempt the trick.  As a strategy (both offensive and defensive), the maneuver is completely consistent and coherent.

The actual arguments constituting the maneuver, however, are neither. Because, the Guy in the Sky is above all, a Guy, and the rationalizing principle is a rationalizing principle with a whole raft of properties which are inconsistent with our concept of a person. So, what comes out of these arguments, once all the threads are swept into a pile and sorted out, is just a jumble.

To the preachers and apologists out there: I know what you mean when you toss these arguments out into the ether. I know that you feel obligated to push your flag forward. But please understand why it is never going to work like you want it to (there are lots of flags, at the very least), and please understand why I might occasionally ask you to give it a rest and shut the fuck up.

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Buddy the Blastocyst’s Ensoulment Adventure

It’s the wildest yarn of them all. Be warned: you may not like the ending, but the thrill is worth it.

Let’s set the scene.

In the lead role, we have Buddy. He consists of a few hundred cells arranged in a hollow sphere. There is nothing too special about Buddy. He is not that far removed from the fused gametes which preceded him in that he is full of promise, yet without much substance or even a distinguishing feature. To be honest, he is a pretty passive character in his own tale.

As such, he is a perfect foil for the soul. The soul is no simpleton, and unlike Buddy, the soul is very difficult  to describe. Here we can turn to words from the wise philosophers and theologians who have previously contemplated the mystery of the soul. The wise have described the soul as the “I”-ness of experience or the proper subject of mental properties. The key point to take from such descriptions is: Don’t ask the wise for directions to the nearest coffee shop. Those directions are likely to lack substance.

Substance is exactly what we need in the case of the soul, to characterize it. Lucky for us, we need no more than substance, or at least the agreement that the soul is a substance distinct from the sphere of cells which is Buddy. Not everybody will agree. Some may contend that Buddy is simply the dawning realization of something which has always been, kind of like a Chrysler LeBaron. Let me try to clarify.

In a certain sense, one could contend that the specific turbulence pattern in the early universe, doomed us to the Chrysler LeBaron, because one could ostensibly track a chain of distinct events back from the structure of the LeBaron to the details of the turbulence pattern of the early universe. And by the same token, one could track the turbulence pattern back to a purported state of affairs before the early universe started doing anything. A claim of pre-existing potential opens up, of which the early turbulence pattern and the Lebaron are mere manifestations.

There are loads of problems with this account of history, but only a couple concern Buddy and his soul. First, we cannot do anything with this account. An auto designer in 1896 could not foresee the Lebaron in all it’s hideous detail. We can see the inevitable  manifestation of LeBaron essence in retrospect only. Think vitalism (and its discontents).

Second, the pre-existing potentials do not do anything for themselves. They are manifested, without occupying space or expending energy or participating in the manifestation process, other than as an additional explanation. Like solipsism, the tale of essences suffers from terminal irrelevance.

Therefore, Buddy shall receive soul-stuff rather than a post-hoc rationalization.

Now, what is the nature of Buddy’s relationship to his soul, and how does the soul adhere to that little, hollow sphere of cells? Maybe the second question is too ambitious. Yet at least there has to be a singular moment in which some sort of threshold for ensoulment is surpassed and the membranes which a moment ago contained only chemical elements now serve as vesicles for spirit.

Some spirit-permeable membrane channel opens or an angel-beacon gene gets transcribed, and the soul binds to Buddy irrevocably. This must be the case. We want an active soul for Buddy, so he cannot merely slip into it. In that case – where Buddy is the realization of some soul formula written into the cosmos – we are right back to the maximally inefficient essences.

Once he has his soul, Buddy begins to exist in two worlds at once. He takes in nutrients, builds membranes, and generally engages with events in the world. At the same time, he is moved by the spirit to do Good or Evil, and his soul bears the weight of his activities in the world.

At the end of it all for Buddy, he can stand in the court of the Lord and the Lord can say to his angel, “Bring me Buddy and I shall judge him, for he lusted after a Unicorn Frappe and was moved by the wickedness in his soul to purchase a Unicorn Frappe, and his soul was soiled by the act. ”

“Wait, who is this you bring before me? No, no, that’s Benny, who turned aside from his evil impulses and purchased a tall coffee. Now let Benny go and bring me Buddy, who smells of shame and sugar, not wholesome ground roast.”

How else does the Lord know who is Benny and who is Buddy?

And so we have arrived at the shocking dénouement: the story of Buddy’s spiritual existence and his physical existence are one and the same. His soul, however convoluted the mechanism, moves electrons, as much as a magnet moves electrons. His soul, as much as any magnet, is moved by electrons. In being so engaged, Buddy’s soul becomes part of the reductive explanations which constitute physicality.

Is this the end for Buddy’s soul?

For his soul as a supernatural substance, maybe it is. But the point of the story is: those supernatural substances can’t get going in the first place.

They just don’t hold together at all.

For Buddy’s soul as a strange appendage, who knows?

The world is a weird place.



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The Simple Life

Life? Don’t talk to me about Life.

– Marvin the Robot


Life, living matter and, as such, matter that shows certain attributes that include responsiveness, growth, metabolism, energy transformation, and reproduction.

– Encyclopedia Brittanica

The javelina was dead, no doubt about it. By the looks (and odor) of the ruin which lay in the ditch, it had been several days since the animal had lived, as such.

Most likely, it had been hit on the nearby road and dragged itself to the protection of the ditch before collapsing. ‘Collapsing’ means: it ceased to respond as a javelina. Certain nerve cells lost their flow of metabolic substrate, could no longer transform energy in covalent bonds into electrical potential across cell membranes, and so could no longer respond as nerve cells.

The javelina behaved as a javelina if and only if those nerve cells behaved as nerve cells: no more nerve behaviors, no more javelina behaviors. Yet the remainder of the organism ticked along for quite a while after its defining brain functions ceased. Less sensitive tissues took minutes, or even hours to stop responding, growing, reproducing, etc.

Even after the last of the body’s eukaryotic cells ceased to do all those life-defining things, the prokaryotic components of the javelina carried on. Many of the bacteria which had worked with its other cells to keep the animal alive and healthy before it came to lie still in the ditch, continued to grow, metabolize, reproduce, etc.

At the other end of the javelina’s timeline, we see a similar situation. Before its mother could conceive, the environmental circumstances had to be right for piglets. Furthermore, its mother and father had to be right for the circumstances. They had to have a set of characteristics which led to survival and relative prosperity in their particular living conditions.

Within those proper circumstances, gamete membranes met and fused, DNA recombined, placental syncytium formed, organogenesis took place, the piglet began to exhibit its own physiology, and the little  javelina emerged from the amnion to take its first breath.  From some fairly basic biochemical reactions to the defining processes of biology itself, the animal faded into life, much as it faded into death.

Many people find this picture disconcerting. They yearn for the simple life, where our definitions are definitive and what’s real is real in and of itself. But that’s not what we have. The simple life, and its decadent certainty, are not available to us.



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Can Demon Possession Make You a Better Ice Climber?

I’ve been wanting to sell my soul for a while now, but I just can’t find the right buyer. I’ll admit I didn’t think it through before I started looking, but who does? This sort of transaction has such a history, it’s hard not to slip into the ruts, and I did. The first buyer I considered was the Devil.

It turns out that he has already had a pretty extensive background check, and is not considered a good risk. Even though a seller knows that the Devil is the embodiment of dishonesty, it is almost impossible to devise an effective means to circumvent that fact. A whole lot of very smart people have evaluated deals with the Devil, and the consensus is that even if you get what you want, you won’t get it in the way you want, which, unfortunately, is crucial.

Having rejected what the Devil had to offer, I next considered God. Dealing with an all-powerful, benevolent entity takes care of the reliability problems which confound deals with the Devil, but I had to reject a deal with God as well. As an all-powerful being, he can be very picky about what he offers, and as a benevolent being, he’s only going to offer what’s best for you. Trouble is, what’s best for you isn’t necessarily what’s good for you. He offers one package built around guarantees of immortality and eternal pats from the hand that holds it all, including ultimate reassurance. Your satisfaction is guaranteed, and there is the problem. If you make the sale on those terms you will be satisfied with what you get, and stop wanting whatever it was that prompted you sell in the first place. In that case, the crusaders had it right. Once you settle, it’s best to find some helpful fellow to kill you quick so you can get to the goods and avoid running afoul of  contractual conditions.

With the conventional choices eliminated, I decided to go with eccentric, so instead of scrolling through the Saints or Old Testament demons, I investigated Laplace’s Demon as a possible buyer. Laplace’s Demon is part of a thought experiment about determinism. The Demon is a perfect calculator who, knowing the initial conditions of the universe, can figure all future conditions. A critical few cast aspersions on my inquiry, saying that the Demon was a purely imaginary creature. However, during my background check of God I had encountered the Ontological Argument, which said that if I could imagine a perfect being, the only way it could really be perfect was if it was real as well as imaginary, so a perfect imaginary being must also be a real being. I had received a reassuring number of reassurances from the keepers of the Lord’s earthly franchise that this metaphysical maneuver actually detected a real  quality of the universe via an indirect examination of the nature of our minds and didn’t just ignore the dependency of imaginary objects. It seemed I was on the right track. Sadly, the complete examination of Laplace’s Demon ended in disappointment as well.

I have to back up for a moment here to clarify my motivation for marketing my soul in the first place. It is a modest ambition, really: I thought I might be able to trade my soul for something that would make me a better ice climber. You see, I am very dissatisfied with the method and means of improvement available to me currently. The method is learning through practice and progressive challenge. The means is critical appraisal of what it is ‘like’ to properly swing and weight an ice tool. The means part is the real problem; I could live with the method if I didn’t have to deal with the vagaries of the means.

Swinging an ice tool isn’t like juggling or jumping rope. Once you know the technique, you don’t just get better by repetition, up to your physical limits. You have to know what a good swing feels like so you can know whether the pick has set well in the ice, and if it hasn’t, just how badly it has set. Everything else – the energy you expend for each foot of upward progress, the security of the protection you place, the speed of your ascent – follows from what each swing is like. By the same token, the quality of a swing depends on a huge bundle of factors beyond the alignment of the elbow and timing of the wrist-flip. The quality of my swing follows from the appearance and feel of the ice, my level of mental focus, my level of physical responsiveness, the accuracy of my estimation of my physical responsiveness, etc..

It’s an impossible set of variables to track, but all together, they feel a certain way when they fall together right. To get better,  I can match every swing against the memory of that right swing until they begin to cluster closer and closer to that theme. There’s a hidden bonus in this means of progression, too. I can use the information I get from what a swing is like in combination with the same kinds of themes regarding body position, balance, and ice structure to sort out an entire climb, both before I start and as the climb unfolds. Though it’s a slippery and imprecise means, my mind, anybody’s mind,  can use it to manipulate otherwise intractable sets of details, albeit by proxy, which brings me back to why the Demon can’t help me.

To have the reductive knowledge that he does, the demon must rely on one simple trick: he ignores time. Since events are multiply contingent upon other events in an ultimate reduction (or even in an incomplete one) the resulting structure, with all events completed and with all the chaotic processes gamed out, is a web of converging and diverging causal chains. From the Demon’s viewpoint, it makes no sense in sequence, any more than it makes sense to say an unmarked map has a beginning or end rather than boundaries. Given his quirk, the Demon can help me in one of three ways. First, he can jump in and yell, “Stop!” when I approach a point where a bad swing exists. That may only make things worse. Second, he can take over and guide my arm, but to realize each step to a good swing in sequence is likely to take ages in lining up, or proceed in fits and starts as he makes adjustments to jump from path to path, neither of which I can afford. Third, he can show me where I am in the interlocking mass of causal connections relative to a good swing, but then the information is only approximate until I actually swing (or close enough) and that’s just the kind of situation I’m trying to escape.  Laplace’s Demon is no more helpful than the Devil himself. I can’t use either of them to cheat the world out of another degree of freedom. I’m stuck feeling my way through with qualities and beliefs about qualities.

The worst part is, I suspect I am taking advantage of the means I have about as well as I can, as is the rest of the species. Our brains are quality having, belief generating, story telling organs. The stories our brains make are good enough that we can’t say for sure where the stories end, and where their causes begin. I don’t think beliefs or qualities cause anything, but maybe they do capture something about the way the world works that reduction misses. They seem like way points on the Demon’s map of causal relations, marking time. Even so, I can’t say for sure that qualities and beliefs aren’t real things, determining the actions of their constituents. That would require an external perspective, like the kind a perfectly knowledgeable Demon could give me. Hmmm – What does the Ontological Argument say about contacting a perfect being, and whether or not I can get an hourly rate?

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