Tag Archives: dualism

What Dies on the Sharp End

As children, many of us were cautioned not to judge another person until we had walked a mile in their shoes. This simple aphorism is meant, and taken, in two ways. For those with a literal bent, it means that we should withhold judgment until we have the all the relevant information. For those with a more philosophical inclination, it means we should understand that our judgments about others are always bound to be a little off. The latter interpretation is more accurate, because we cannot walk in another’s shoes. Beside them or in their tracks we can experience their walk, but not in their shoes or their skin. To do so would demand abandoning our own identity. In light of the latter interpretation, the implication of Mom’s trite admonition becomes apparent. We aren’t limited by our subjectivity – the statement is nonsense – our subjectivity makes us. Like so many things which children must learn to get straight, it marks a snag in our understanding which trips the most carefully considered philosophies.
Let’s see how philosophical problems regarding mind fare under the heat of our kindergarten lesson. With no subjective experience of subjectivity, philosophical zombies – hypothetical creatures which exhibit behavior without experience – take a shot to the brain, not because we cannot conceive of behavior which does not entail qualitative experience, but because we cannot conceive of qualitative experience divorced from activity (after all shouldn’t something which is a property of experience rather than a product of it show some sign of life for itself?). Rigid designators – necessary identities – hold for representative entities in logic, but not for the objects from which the logical entities derive (would that it were otherwise; think of the savings on auto repairs and trade-ins alone, not to mention the safety benefits of “the red car turning left in front of me” being true in fact as well as in theory). Determinism becomes an analytical curiosity. There is no quantity of happiness, suffering, or human thriving calculable. There is nothing that it’s like to be a bat – or a human.
Philosophies stumble because most of them have not been field-tested. This state of affairs is understandable; field testing is a grim business. The best contrivances fail in unexpected ways, leaving us deflated and puzzled. Trying to break a precious invention in the course of it’s intended use admits to some basic pessimism, but it is vital. Yet how do we test an idea of how the mind works in the world? What we need is something other than the sort of post-game analysis which always concludes that the contest turned out as it did because one team managed to “execute” and one didn’t, that one managed to fit the criteria of our post-hoc definitions and one did not. We need to know what happens, what falls away, what persists and the shape of the relationship between the whole lot.
Fortunately, we don’t have to go to the trouble of designing a test for philosophies of mind. The sort of test in question happens naturally on the sharp end of a rope. Every rope in use has a sharp end, attached to the lead climber, and a loose end, secured by the belayer. As soon as the leader finishes his knot, things begin to fall away. The belayer is a person who pays attention or not, who arrests a fall or not. He may be a Saint, or he may have walked out of prison that morning; it doesn’t matter. Likewise, the leader is a person who falls or not, who puts the belayer at risk or not. The relationship is quite specific and pertains to the subjects and the salient features, the valuable points, of the situation, as do all the relations and values which fall away. But the test extends beyond the mind-to-mind relationship. In the leader’s experience our ideas about the nature of mind itself get tested, because the leader is the one who grasps the holds. Looking at a hold creates a shaped perception of it. The hold has size, conformation, anticipatory feel, relevance to body position, distance and even strategic utility. But that hold is not the hold which the finger touches, and the leader knows the hold in hand by a different means.
Here is where another important set of ideas breaks down. Contact with the hold demolishes the mental theater. The hand and mind know the hold by assimilation. They know the edge as a hold by becoming the hand and mind which grasp it. The meaning of the feature’s heat, slipperiness, sharpness and adequacy are immediately apparent, because all those remake the first person in the moment of contact. The hand and mind know the feature as a hold because that is how they are capable of knowing it and the situation could not be otherwise in the revised individual. The subject doesn’t transcend the moment by discovering some permanent and essential nature realized in the experience, but by diving in, taking in and being taken into the meaning of the hold.
So what dies on the sharp end is transcendence, permanence, and commitment in the abstract. But these are no losses at all, because we can see that, all along, those defunct ideas were merely mistaken shaped perceptions of engagement, persistence, and understanding of change. With the death of its bearers, on more thing must fall and break in our field-test: meaning as a graven image – of God’s will, nature, humanity or whatever other imagined necessity. Meaning is revealed as, like us, the property of the present moment. The edge on the face of the stone is many things, we think, possibly, but with fingers on it, it is a hold – and that fact accounts for all valuation, all confusion over minds and bats, and the limits of footwear exchanges. This is not mysticism; it is much, much smaller. It is just what we know.

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Who Are We to Believe, the Lion, the Scorpion or Circe?

People have been preoccupied with the nature of mind and personality at least since anyone realized that everyone’s first question is the same question – “Huh?”.

A slave named Androcles once escaped from his master and fled to the forest. As he was wandering about there he came upon a lion lying down moaning and groaning. At first he turned to flee, but finding that the lion did not pursue him, he turned back and went up to him. As he came near, the lion put out his paw, which was all swollen and bleeding, and Androcles found that a huge thorn had got into it, and was causing all the pain. He pulled out the thorn and bound up the paw of the lion, who was soon able to rise and lick the hand of Androcles like a dog. Then the lion took Androcles to his cave, and every day used to bring him meat from which to live.
But shortly afterwards both Androcles and the lion were captured, and the slave was sentenced to be thrown to the lion, after the latter had been kept without food for several days.

The emperor and all his court came to see the spectacle, and Androcles was led out into the middle of the arena. Soon the lion was let loose from his den, and rushed bounding and roaring towards his victim. But as soon as he came near to Androcles he recognized his friend, and fawned upon him, and licked his hands like a friendly dog.

The emperor, surprised at this, summoned Androcles to him, who told him the whole story. Whereupon the slave was pardoned and freed, and the lion let loose to his native forest.

•Source: The Fables of Æsop, selected, told anew, and their history traced by Joseph Jacobs (London: Macmillan and Company, 1902), no. 23, pp. 60-61. First published 1894.

In Androcles and the Lion, the lion represents a certain view of mind. When Androcles meets him, the lion is preoccupied with the thorn in his paw. Nothing else matters; the lion is an animal in pain, above all. After Androcles removes the thorn, the lion is an animal relieved of pain, above all. Henceforth, in Androcles’ presence, all that matters for the lion is the presence of Androcles. The mindfulness appears to be contagious too. The emperor is caught up in the fellowship and, cries for blood, bread and circuses be damned, he releases the slave and the lion. In this view of mind, what happens is what’s at work. The lion is still a lion. Androcles is right to fear the cat on sight. But the lion-ness is something of an accident of birth. The creature is mostly damp clay. It may start as a lion-shaped lump, but it is a natural born empiricist. It responds to stimuli as any set of enzymes and neurotransmitters would. Androcles’ mercy is the lion’s mercy is the emperor’s mercy because Androcles’ pain is the lion’s pain is the emperor’s pain. The story is lovely. No one really thinks the lion would have let Androcles approach, though. Nor does anyone reasonably expect a politician, even a despot, to disappoint his constituents for the sake of a slave and a predatory animal. So much for the sovereignty of current events. What else, then?

A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The frog asks, “How do I know you won’t sting me?” The scorpion says, “Because if I do, I will die too.” The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but in midstream, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown, but has just enough time to gasp “Why?” Replies the scorpion: “Its my nature…”

The scorpion cannot escape his nature. Neither can the frog, and his is the nature which cannot tell the difference between helping someone across the river and helping a deadly scorpion across the river. In either case, the creature’s transcendent essence trumps the matter at hand. Just as the lion is ruled by the insistent facts of the moment, the frog and the scorpion move to the tug of their respective natures, with the facts of the moment as props and extras on the stage, setting the scene but not truly affecting the action. The frog feels mortified as the truth is uncovered. But the scorpion goes down happily, for he has apparently learned to love his fate.
However, his fate is to sting, not to cross rivers, though he speaks of it all as one piece. By nature, the scorpion has much in common with the frog, except the scorpion’s nature is one which cannot tell the difference between loving its fate and hurtling headlong to its doom. Stinging isn’t the issue for the scorpion, wanting a ride across the river on a stingable boat is. Circumstances are not just window dressing, and the closer we examine essences, the more they look like they’re ruled by circumstances, and might even be made of circumstances themselves.
If there is no absolute power in mechanism and no absolute power in identity, then what do we make of ourselves?

Listen with care to this now, and a god will arm your mind. Square in your ship’s path are Seirenes (Sirens), crying beauty to bewitch men coasting by; woe to the innocent who hears that sound! He will not see his lady nor his children in joy, crowding about him, home from sea; the Seirenes will sing his mind away on their sweet meadow lolling. There are bones of dead men rotting in a pile beside them and flayed skins shrivel around the spot. Steer wide; keep well to seaward; plug your oarsmen’s ears with beeswax kneaded soft; none of the rest should hear that song. But if you wish to listen, let the men tie you in the lugger, hand and foot, back to the mast, lashed to the mast, so you may hear those harpies’ thrilling voices; shout as you will, begging to be untied, your crew must only twist more line around you and keep their stroke up, till the singers fade.
– Translated by Robert Fitzgerald

The Seirenes will sing his mind away with a song based in a natural, essential property of man: to be motivated, and so ruled, by his desires. Circe advocates Amor Fati. Listen to the song; the desire it carries is an essential fact in you. No theory of desire will save you. But it is not a transcendent fact. It is a fact with an explanation. It is a fact made of things in history, the same as the joy of homecoming from the sea. Rooted as it is in history, it is a fact no more powerful than a column of cedar, beeswax and cords. Circe saw clearest when it came to mind and personality. Like, Odysseus, we’d be well advised to listen to her.

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Can I Have a Sunday School Lesson?

So, the weather crapped out and I’m sick besides. It’s a day indoors reading and training, mostly to avoid housework. This page is usually like a journal and sketch pad for me, and I don’t usually invite comment. But today is one for latent curiosities and nostalgia.
Most of my Sunday school lessons were pretty didactic. Only after I left religion did I realize anything else was possible. Even the world with God was weirder than I had ever been lead to believe. I’d like to ask some of the questions of any believers or non-believers out in the cyberether, the weird questions, that my Sunday school teachers never broached.
I’m interested in hearing what people think about these things, and how much. I don’t really expect to respond, so please just lay it out. That said, I’m not interested in appeals to authority. Not to denigrate those who answer any questions about God with “because scripture says so”, that is just a different issue, and one less interesting to me.
Without further preamble: Is it “like” anything to be God? That is to say, does god have any subjective experience, or any experience at all? If so, how does that work?
Does God have intentionality? Does he think about things and if so, how does that work?
Lastly, does God wish to be worshipped, and if so then how and why? Again, please show your work.
Obviously, the questions are related and may not require separate responses. Thanks in advance for any and all replies.

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Determinism and the Demon Experience -or- If You Say Free Will One More Time, I Won’t Be Held Responsible for What Happens Next

Well, after long deliberation, I finally did it. I sold my soul. It turned out to be more difficult than I anticipated, the thing put up – a struggle? I can’t call it a fight; it was more like an argument. It claimed it was a special substance and the only example of that substance which I’d ever hope to possess. When I told it that the fact just strengthened my position with the buyer, it began to claim it was an indispensable consequence of my existence and would carry on representing my self for all eternity if only I didn’t cut it loose. I’m not sure how that was supposed to motivate me in one direction or another, but it reminded me that my soul was putting up an argument because it couldn’t put up a fight. It couldn’t do anything, unless you call standing around acting as a rationalization for teleology doing something. It had me for a while, but it was just stalling. In the end, it needed me much more than I needed it. I could have kept it around for old times’ sake, but I guess I’m not that sentimental. Besides, even though what I could get for my soul couldn’t do anything more than the soul could, it turns out the demon whose consultation I purchased helps me keep me in perspective much better than the soul could. In retrospect, my soul was all about me, a bit of a selfish bastard, and I’m kind of glad to be rid of it, period.
Anyone who knows me, knows the demon to whom I refer: Laplace’s Demon. He is the perfect calculator, brought to life by an Ontological argument just like God:

P1) Numbers necessarily represent identity; the law-based relationships between numbers represent causation.
P2) It is possible for the relationships between numbers to be calculated (causation exists).
1) A complete representation and calculation of all causes over all time is conceivable.
2) There is some possible world in which a complete calculation has occurred.
3) If a complete calculation has occurred in one possible world, it encompassed conditions in all possible worlds.
4) A complete calculation has occurred for this world.
5) A calculation demands a calculator.
6) A universal calculator exists.

Some would say the demon is an aspect of God; it is certainly just as inscrutable. Anyway, the demon itself says there isn’t any difference. Why the demon might trade something for my soul remains a mystery, though I have my pet theory about its motive. I’m not even sure that what it has given me in exchange actually is anything. It can’t cause anything to happen anymore than my soul could.
What I got was a little voice in my head. I’m pretty sure it is different from the other voices which generate my internal dialog. The demon says it is. The demon says a lot of things, but as I’ve noted most of them are of little significance and none are of any consequence.
One of its favorites is, “If you could only look at this from an atemporal viewpoint…”. Whatever follows is moot. A viewpoint removed from time is, of course, its viewpoint. If its calculations occurred in context, it would still be calculating and would have gotten to just exactly this point by now. It could hardly be said to exist as an identifiable thing were that the case, even a proto-consciousness (a proto-proto-consciousness maybe?). No, it doesn’t mind time. That’s the problem, because since it doesn’t mind time it can’t convey any real information.
For example, here’s a conversation we had repeatedly early in our relationship: “What’s going to happen to me tomorrow?” I’d ask.
“It’s complicated,” it would reply.
“How complicated?” I’d persist.
“You don’t have the time.” it would answer.
I’ve found that I cannot ask it any questions about the future; they are just too confusing. If I ask it, for example, “Will I like this carnival ride?” it can give me a theoretical answer, based on the me of the current moment’s appreciation of what it knows will occur on the ride. But it can also give an instantaneous answer, to the me which experiences the ride and at once experiences the resolution of his expectations of the experience. Finally, it can answer the question for the me who will have completed the ride and has integrated the experience into the narrative of all his other experiences. We went round and round about these sorts of questions, but in the end I had to acknowledge that it was right; when I ask it, “Will I..?” it can’t know to whom the hell it should address the answer, and neither can I. Retrospective questions have proven more satisfying.
Questions about what happened didn’t excite me at first. We expect to be able to sort that out ourselves. Asking an all-knowing demon about the past is just indulging one’s own laziness, I thought. I’ve found that it is much more, though, because the demon’s view of history is incredibly complex – much more complex than we could ever hope to know. To a perfect calculator, all the little details matter. For example, when we look at a hydrogen atom, we see something pretty generic. We can’t tell one from another and why should we? To the demon, each one of those hydrogen atoms is there, now in a way that makes it (and its constituents) distinguishable from every other identifiable thing. That’s about as close as anything can get to being a universal truth, and it lends a certain weight to the demon’s pronouncements regarding past events.
Even the answer to the question, “Why did I do that?”, expressed as it is in the stock phrase, “It’s complicated.”, means something more. I always thought I had my reasons for the choices I made. I now have confirmation, not just for the choices which I can readily explain, but for the choices I make just because I feel like it. “Because I feel like it” is as much a gross approximation as the demon’s, “it’s complicated”, but just as true. My whim may not be a reason I pick the dark chocolate rather than milk chocolate in the same way that the dark chocolate’s higher phenol content is a reason for my choice. However, my whim contains such a reason, and in a unique, specific sense. My whim isn’t whimsical as much as it is complicated. My having it as a whim rather than as the demon’s analysis is why I can do something with it while the demon can’t.
I’ve found the demon’s gift of confirmation quite comforting. Everybody has this intuition that something causes decisions, for others as well as for themselves. It is at the core of our Theory of Mind – the notion that other people have their own whims and are not just zombies acting out a complex algorithm.
I’ll admit to having had doubts about my theory of mind. It should have been enough for me, as it is for most people, that I can communicate with others using natural language instead of something like binary code. The implication being that “whim”, for example, has content – all the demon’s complicated stuff – and isn’t just a representation of “emotional impulse”. Despite such logic, I always suspected that I was just projecting my ineffectual feelings onto an algorithm or acting out a psychotic delusion, with my theory of mind serving as a rationalization for discontinuous interactions. Having the demon confirm that the psychotic also had his reasons – that the basics of content remained intact even when the representations were disconnected – was a relief. My theory of mind would not crumble some day to reveal an uglier truth which it had been covering up all along.
The demon’s gift seems relatively cheap, but I don’t want to leave the impression that the gift was without complications of its own. I’ve had to accept some vulnerabilities and abandon some values which I’d prefer to deny and retain respectively. The psychotic does have his reasons, so the demon says. So does the heroin addict. In either case, the demonic complications mean that the person’s reasons may not be accessible or amenable to their consciousness in a way which we would like them to be. Worse, their intransigence may be the only essential difference between those reasons and the reasons which determine our volitions. I’d like to think that Thorazine and Methadone were not necessary. I’d like to think that volition is self-motivated, but the people who really think that are just the people who get the Thorazine prescriptions – in those cases to treat delusions of thought insertion. My motives and their volitions all have a basis, as do everyone’s, and they don’t so much determine my choices as resolve them. Sometimes, the will even requires some tangible adjuncts, like medications, to give it traction in its resolving. There is nothing about me which is truly self-contained and invulnerable.
I can accept being an open system, because I can do things. The demon can have its analysis. It’s frozen out by its status as a universal calculator. It can account for whims and hunger, but it will never have a whim or feel hungry because it cannot ever be there, now. Those identity-resolving phenomena are unnecessary for a thing outside the causal realm and inherently unavailable to it. I initially thought that the demon might have valued my soul because it was jealous of human experience and wished to possess a record of such or at least deprive another of some of that precious history. I no longer think that; the demon couldn’t know the difference. I think it saw the essential identity as a missing piece of its account, though per its method, the account was indeed complete. Judgments like the one I laid on the demon are a human by-product, and they are the last casualties of my association with the demon.
To have a qualitative experience is to be defined by it. Since it contains all the complicated stuff which the demon can’t explain to me (within my constraints), subjectivity is a powerful token in my resolutions. I can tell that my current hunger is like the hunger I have when I’m peckish, rather than the hunger I have when I’m starving. So, as an example of the efficacy of subjective qualities, I won’t try to chase the hyenas away from the food this time. But I can know what it’s like to have my hunger satisfied – to be ‘full’ – as well. That too is a powerful token. I find being full from eating a bowl of donuts to have a quality distinguishable from the quality of being full from eating a bowl of oatmeal. The distinction affects my resolutions as powerfully as the distinction between peckishness and starving hunger. Don’t get me wrong. What I’ve learned from the demon is not that we are automatons moving to the tick of our impressions, just that as creatures occurring in time, we have our limits and live and die by our history – it’s the cost of participation. However, I have therefore had to admit that the romantic and horrific world of tradition is a mistake. We are not heroes or villains, playing out our self-contained natures in some epic, teleological struggle. The demon is not jealous of my soul. Sure, such a model is shiny, well-defined, and action-packed, but it is mistaken. The simplistic evaluations of the traditional model ( the purpose-built, unitary self) don’t represent us well. We are – complicated.
To recap: I needn’t fear zombies or determinism; analysis may be accurate without being completely adequate; qualia have relevant content; identity accrues and so fixed evaluations are invalid. These are the things I have gained and lost by selling my soul to the perfect calculator. I still feel it was a decent bargain.

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The Prelife

I have resigned myself to die many times over, but I have been lucky. I wasn’t shot in Paris. I didn’t fall off the North Ridge variation. I wasn’t killed by rock fall, or struck by the falling body. The avalanche didn’t push me over the cliff. I recovered from my pneumonia and I stopped rolling before I went under the car.

I have known others who had similar experiences and the same good fortune. One guy fell from the top of an ice climb and punctured his lung. When he got out of the hospital, he sold all his gear and quit climbing. Another locked the back brake on his motorcycle at 60 mph to slip behind the car he was passing. In doing so, he avoided a head-on collision with a truck, and barely kept his machine upright through the ensuing fishtail slide. After he pulled off the road and dismounted, he never climbed back on a bike again. On the other hand, another guy I know survived altitude sickness on Denali, came down and bought a para-glider  Then there was the friend who took fall after fall, and each time climbed farther from his protection than the last, until he began to eschew the rope altogether.

The first group, those who escaped a close call and chose to hoard the life that might remain to them, were wrong. Time kept in a vault sustains nothing in the end, it simply perishes. However, the second group, those who saw themselves as survivors specially blessed by fortune, were also wrong. No such privilege exists. Of all the people I’ve encountered who confronted death, the only ones who seemed to get it right every time were those who died.

I have seen a lot of people die. On the road, in the snow, in bed and on gurneys, the people I have seen die have done so in quiet, while the people around them wept and wailed. I think that arrangement reflects the truth more than any other set scene we might devise to frame the end of a life. Those remaining mourn for themselves; they are the ones who have lost something. The dying become quiet because they return to the prelife

The prelife is an individual’s condition before they come to be conscious, when their heritage and senses have yet to generate the identity necessary for experience. No one recalls the moment they pass from prelife to life any more than anyone recalls the exact moment that they fall asleep. No one fears or laments the time before they first woke any more than they fear the moment that they go to sleep, when they come to it (even if they are the worst insomniac existentialist).

It is easy for us to accept the necessity of our preconditions. It is more difficult for us to accept the necessity of our post-conditions, though they are actually much the same as the circumstances that conspired to bring us about, except of course, for the fact that we have been.

So, we make up bedtime stories for ourselves about afterlives. Stories of this kind are necessary to get us through the uncertainties of childhood when we lack the experience to allay our anxiety about the unknown. In those stories though, the dead are truly lost to us, as their lives become a token of their true existence at best. Worse, each person is lost to themselves from the start, as they are, in the end, separated from the determinants and contents of their lives as a whole and are left with a remnant, and a stagnant one at that, if we believe the claims of eternity in those yarns.

Read through from a mature perspective, the accounts of paradise sound more like dark, German fairy tales than lullabies. A ghost condemned to wander a pleasant meadow will be just as miserable as one who haunts a swamp. Lucky for us,  afterlife stories are only a class of fiction. We won’t be condemned to an endless disassociation. We may expect instead to return to the prelife when we die.

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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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Inverse Apologetics

My best friend from Medical School firmly believes that I’m going to hell. He is a brilliant and thoroughly decent person, and though I have only maintained a tenuous contact with him over the years, if he needed a kidney from me, I wouldn’t hesitate. It doesn’t trouble me that he thinks I’m going to hell. It doesn’t bother me that he believes there is a race of invisible creatures living alongside and sometimes interacting with us (the djinn). I do not think less of him for believing these things. I understand how and why he believes as he does, because I was raised a Southern Baptist, and I held many similar beliefs. I began to abandon those beliefs when I was 14 years old. It started with hell, and led on, via a process of inverse apologetics,  to where I am now – accepting of those beliefs in others, though I no longer subscribe to them myself.

I don’t know what got me started thinking critically about the concept of hell. Maybe it was too much Hesse, too early.  My first concerns did arise at about the same time I was reading Steppenwolf. Anyway, I one day realized that I could not personally condemn another creature to eternal suffering. Kill, torture for a bit maybe, if the transgressor had done something odious enough, but not watch another suffer interminably. If petty, finite me couldn’t do this, I didn’t see how a wiser, smarter, personality could.

Nor could I see how god, if he had the power to prevent it, could allow another to suffer eternally based on a mistake. Perhaps he didn’t have the power. If so, he was simply a grander creature beholden to a natural law beyond our ken; different from us in magnitude, but not in principle. If he chose to allow eternal suffering, it must be in pursuit of  justice for crimes against the eternal which our finite minds were not equipped to appreciate. I could not see how this last explanation was possible assuming his motive was justice through retribution. As finite creatures, we would never be able to appreciate eternal punishment either. If we did not go mad, we would always have some uncertain expectations of the future, some hope, even if it was only the hope to endure the next moment. Of course he could change us upon death to make us understand, but then he wouldn’t be punishing the same people. God as a personality was an inconsistent bully.

If the whole scheme were to hold up, I had to conclude that god was ineffable. All his thoughts and actions were beyond human understanding. Then, however, all scripture was erroneous, assuming it was given from god. He could not use words, symbolizing human experience, to convey an understanding of his intent. Knowledge of god was not truly possible. The whole scheme, with god as our template personality and hell and sin in the bargain, couldn’t hold up. If there was a god he was impersonal and we couldn’t be sure what he was about. From the human perspective, he was either a force like the weather and other natural phenomena, or a warm refuge after the grave. The warm refuge theory seemed attractive. It let god’s actions occur in the past and so covered up with changing circumstance the interaction problems with substance dualism. It also allowed him to be benevolence personified, so he could still be a guy, kind of, even if we only saw a slice of him, the way we might see a four-dimensional sphere.

Thomas Aquinas disabused me of the warm refuge or “guy in the sky with a pie where you fly when you die” option. This substance dualist view was already on shaky ground for me. No one could say how it was that god acted in the world, at whatever point, without being part of it, without time or space or quantum fields or some other, as yet unknown material property inhering in god. A god-matter system seemed necessary and god was thus relegated to the role of super-weather. The only alternative which preserved god as a truly separate substance and allowed him to thus retain his guy-with-pie-ness was an extreme form of idealism. The substance dualist view held up if it technically relinquished its dualism.  Then, we were all really brains in god’s vat and all our perceptions of material reality were an illusion. Of course, were that the situation,  we could never know about the vat or what was outside the vat. Even if god chose to tell us directly about the vat, there would be no way for us to distinguish that information from the information of our programmed illusion, and the information would be of questionable  relevance besides. Aquinas preserved some relevance and role for god by making him a sort of universal substrate.

Tom may have been onto something, because some other guys had come up with the same idea independently. The idea of a universal substrate, a kind of meta-property, is the basis of Taoist philosophy. The Taoists thought about this kind of property dualism a bit harder than Saint Tom, though. The Taoists realized that a truly universal substrate cannot have a hierarchical relationship with its constituents, since the one-way dependency put the system at risk of an infinite regression. If the sub-units rest on the substrate’s carapace, then the carapace must extend in some way. Otherwise one must say that events at once do (in the determined sub-units and in the causal determination of the sub-units) and do not (in the immutable substrate) occur in the context of the whole. Another contextual carapace is implied and bingo, it’s turtles all the way down. In the Taoist version  of the idea, the property and the objects which exemplify it mutually determine each other (the whole can be viewed as an event), and mutual determination is the closest one can ever get to describing such a property.

This is weird and seems to escape the regression problem on a technicality, which led many of the Taoist’s contemporaries to question the utility of this explanation of the world. It seemed to imply a lack of meaning in its rejection of conventional causal relationships. The Taoist response was that their description of the world questioned the validity of overall meaning or the lack thereof. They considered talk of purpose an error. “What is the meaning of life?”, is simply a wrong question, and moral discourse, a circular futility. This is the more likely destination for a property dualist description of the world. It shares common qualities with the endpoints of other approaches. The more consistent the picture, the less momentous the implications and the weirder the image. Tom turned off before he got to the end.

To be fair, the same road was never open to Aquinas in the first place. The Taoists were engaged in purely philosophical inquiry. They wanted to puzzle out a consistent description of the world to the extent that such a thing was verifiable. Aquinas was engaged in philosophical inquiry and apologetics at the same time, the latter being the rationalization of a given description. Being an apologist for the Middle-Eastern monotheistic religions ultimately demands rationalization of  guy in the sky, substance dualism.This given endpoint for all reasoning leads to a creeping realism when it comes to concepts.

An innocuous example of a concept is in order before observing the creep. Consider “blueness”, the belief about certain objects: that they are blue. A host of constituent factors determine how we experience blueness, from the make-up of the spectrum, to our genetic heritage, to the color’s cultural and personal associations. These things that make up our experience of blue may be the whole story. In that case blue is just a good description of that whole bundle of stuff; there is nothing inevitable about blueness. Or blue could be made of the things it’s made of because some properties inherent in the constituents of blueness cause them to fall together that way. Here, blue may not be inevitable, but it is an arrangement the universe likes, so it may make sense to speak of it as a proper thing, even though it doesn’t really do anything. Finally, blueness could be a property inherent in the underlying condition of everything, which causes the constituents, in conjunction with their own properties or not, to fall into line. In that case, blueness is inevitable.

For someone bent on establishing substance dualism, this last bit is irresistible. Logic, reduction and a little bit of acceptable evidence from experience can get a person there. With one more little step –  moving all properties out of the constituents – the path can lead back to substance dualism. However, the situation is now no different from strict idealism once again, where we are brains in god’s vat, living out his virtual reality experiment. Analysis, in this scenario, yields no information. Parts of concepts may seem to cause things to happen to other parts, but the truth is that the parts must behave as the law of the concept dictates, all else is mere appearance. “Things are as they are” is all we can rightly say.

The various forms of the question “Why is there Something rather than Nothing?” help illustrate this sort of thinking. Nothing, taken as a real thing, is an error of language, an equivocation of the customary meaning with a concept that is inexplicable and has no explanatory power. Nothing customarily means zero or the null set. With that meaning in place, the correct phrasing would be, “Why are things the way they are and not some other way?”, or more succinctly, “Is all this in any way necessary?”.  The question in this form is probably not answerable, but worth considering, since it offers two potential viewpoints without compelling reasons to prefer one over the other and with slightly different implications depending on the choice. In other words, the question demands some humility, which helps us avoid errors that stunt us.

The questioners set on blazing a trail to substance dualism mean to persist in the error. They wish to discuss a real nothing. Not zero as defined by the absence of any number, or the null set, bounded by all other sets, but an absence of all including potentiality. Unfortunately for them, that would include the potential of absence. To get around the error, they claim that if some concepts may be a bit more than just descriptive, then we may allow that we think about things that we can’t fully explain, and so why can’t we just as reasonably talk about something we have no explanation for at all. Of course, this maneuver is why they wish to persist in the error in the first place. In a grand equivocation, they make room for all sorts of claims, from a working understanding of the nature of singularities (to paraphrase a couple of renowned physicists – saying that you understand singularities is the best indication that you do not understand singularities) to the guy with the pie.

The larger error in insisting on speaking of  a real nothing is that all the other things – qualities, beliefs, properties – which lead to the proper version of the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, at least have some explanatory power, if only as effective labels. All sorts of concepts are possible without that minimum requirement, but taken as real, they amount to the assertion, “Things are as they are”, stated in a more sophisticated way. Maybe that is true; it certainly looks like an endpoint description. If it is, then there is no room for further statements – not descriptive and certainly not prescriptive.

My friend chooses to stick with the simple statement, “Things are as they are”, in regards to cosmology and takes the consistent approach to it. He eschews apologetics. Things like god and god’s reasons for sending me to hell are not comprehensible to my friend or anyone, and that’s the end of my friend’s business with those given facts. He feels that the assertion is true and knows he must live with the fact that it can never be verified, especially if it really is true.

For the available knowledge, he answers the question “Is all this in any way necessary?” with an affirmation. I’m prone to say, “probably not”, based merely on parsimony. Though the source differs, we share an underlying appreciation of our limited understanding and live by Edward Whymper’s admonition to climbers, “Do nothing in haste, look to each step, and from the beginning think of what may be the end.”. Hopefully, we thereby keep from falling into error and suffering its limitations. This is what philosophy, as opposed to apologetics, is good for, no matter your conclusions.

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