Tag Archives: realism

Simplicity Itself

Arguments about nature, gods, and human beliefs are often convoluted and massive. The central issue can be boiled down to a manageable residue.
The phrases “mental substance” and “independent identity” are incoherent. They are combinations of words which indicate nothing but the byproducts of speech. At best, their proposed subjects are things which we could not claim to know. That is why all arguments in their favor must finally deduce from analogy, if they hope to avoid fideism. All else follows.

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Speaking Essentially and the Root of the Problem

Let me tell you about unicorns. Unicorns are white-coated creatures, with bodies resembling those of horses. The unicorn’s hooves are cloven, and it has a single, spiral horn protruding from its forehead. The horn has a property which allows it to purify water and cure disease on contact. The animal itself has the ability to detect human female virginity and is highly attracted to the same, so much so that it exhibits a stereotypical set of behaviors in the presence of said females.

I can now make some meaningful statements about unicorns. I can say, for instance, “A unicorn is a unicorn if and only if it has one horn.”

I now say, “You should be able to recognize a unicorn if you see one.” Is that true? If it is true, what about it is true? That is to say: Does my statement reference a unicorn, the inherent possibility of a unicorn, or all that stuff I just said about unicorns? If it is the latter, does that necessitate anything beyond a bare, opaque unity?

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Finding True North

[Note: this post builds on 3 previous posts, Jesus Christ: Error Theorist, Men, Mores and Mimbos: The Strange Case of Moral Fact, and Chaos Theory]

People talk a lot about meaning and purpose. Most consider those two things quite important. But for concepts held so dear, most people have an ill-formed notion of meaning and purpose. That most hold the two ideas to be roughly equivalent is testament to the squishiness of the concepts. Meaning and purpose are quite different things overall, but they do have one thing in common, and their one commonality may account for much of the confusion between the two and otherwise.
The feature which they share is that each idea can be held as a tautology. Actually, that’s about it for purpose, because purpose is the action of an intent. Talk of purpose assumes intent. So, reasonable talk of purpose is local. It can’t fly far from the source of intention without losing its power. For example, if I give you a morphine tablet for your pain from a broken leg, the purpose of the morphine tablet leaves my hand with the pill. As the pill drops into your palm, your intention is imported and so is your purpose. It is entirely possible that you will save the tablet to get high when you’re feeling better. This importation of purpose is the source of much of our sense of agency. It is also a thready link to meaning.
Meaning can be taken as what can be represented – a tautology. That’s a little cheap. Meaning is locality. There, that’s better; it no longer begs the question. ‘The red book’ means paper, ink spots shaped by interlocking sets of purpose (the writer’s, the publisher’s, the printer’s), the space it occupies among colored books, books I know about, other red things, etc. on and on.
Here’s the meaning-purpose link. Meaning shapes our intention. Our location gives us the things to be about. Our location is what we are all about and is all about us.
So, the meanings are relative, but not free-floating. They are not unmoored from space, time or history. We can map them – represent them – like the North pole. In fact, true North is a perfect example of the relations in question.
True North is kind of a convention. We don’t need it, we have satellites and radio receivers. There’s no logical necessity to true North. True North has a meaning behind it though. It is located, and not just on the earth. Because it has location, it also has a vicinity – surroundings which create its boundary conditions. Considered in terms of the point where the axis of the earth’s rotation meets the planet’s surface, declination means something, as does Polaris – and vice versa. The specificity of meaning constrains the intention it shapes and the scope of action available to that intention. It’s subsequently tempting to see the representation of that meaning as independent and efficacious Form. But true North is finally a relative location, not a mark on a map. It is made of stuff as far down as we can dig, and in every direction. So are all our representations, down to our self-representation.
There is a final question which people like to ask of this state of affairs: Is the lattice-work self-supporting, or is there some truer North? Is all this in some way necessary? That’s something buried too deep for the tools with which we are equipped. The only answers we can give are a priori assumptions (not presuppositions) whose relevance is questionable to us dwellers in the world of representations. But believers in a truer North don’t want or need an answer, I think. The assumption serves well enough, and I have to agree with Dostoyevsky about what would happen should someone show up one day with an answer to put an end to all projection. The question for the believer is: do you think this is an indictment of your faith, or a good reason to hold it?

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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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Wu Wei and the No. 2 Pencil

My son zones out. Eighth grade is prime time for daydreaming, but he spends little of his own time escaping into fantasy. He goes blank during tests. He won’t say just what is happening during those spells, except to insist that he is still thinking about the test. Those of us charged with his education think he is thinking about his thinking. Metacognition is the term. But metacognition encompasses too much to accurately characterize what he seems to be doing in those silent intervals. What my son does is negative in context of the testing process. Metacognition need not be negative. A little strategic consideration of the thought process is often very helpful.
For example, suppose you are taking a test which contains the question “Nitrazine paper turns blue in the presence of a base,” as a true or false proposition. You have no idea what makes Nitrazine paper change color. You set the question aside without further thought, but keep it in mind, in the background, as you continue. After a bit, you come upon a multiple choice question: “Tests for rupture of membranes include all of the following except: a) ferning b) Nitrazine test c) ultrasonography d) Ham’s test”. There’s the word ‘Nitrazine’ again, with some associated information. You know from the previous question that Nitrazine paper undergoes some sort of color change when exposed to solutions of differing pH. If you know that ‘rupture of membranes’ refers to amniotic membranes, with leakage of amniotic fluid into the birth canal, then you can ask yourself whether or not a paper which detects pH differences is a good test for amniotic fluid. In other words, does the pH of amniotic fluid differ from the normal pH in the birth canal. Amniotic fluid is, of course, baby pee (where did you think it went?). Baby pee is pretty dilute, so it is pretty close to the pH of plain water. The pH of the birth canal is the preoccupation of a small, vinegar-based industry – the douche makers. So, there probably is a difference in pH between vaginal fluid and amniotic fluid. At this point, the first question has helped you include the Nitrazine test in the group of true tests for amniotic fluid leakage in the second question. Can the information you’ve uncovered help you determine whether it is likely that Nitrazine paper turns blue in contact with a base? If you remember anything about litmus paper, that knowledge might help you out, but let’s say you don’t. Premature rupture of membranes is a bad thing. You wouldn’t want to miss it. A false positive test is more acceptable than a false negative test. Now you just need to know what color wet paper turns, and whether blue is closer to that color than the alternatives. Wet paper tends to get darker, blue is a dark color, so blue is a likely color change for a paper used to test for leakage of amniotic fluid and amniotic fluid is at least a relatively basic solution. The conclusion is no slam-dunk, but it’s better than the coin-toss which you faced moments before.
This process – reference to more general knowledge in the absence of certainty about specific answers, consideration of the available information in total, cross reference of deductions with the specific knowledge available, acceptance of a more probable answer in lieu of a flat-out guess – all might occur during a reflective pause during the test. None of this is what my son is doing. As near as I can gather, his pause involves thoughts like: I don’t know the answer to this question. Why don’t I know the answer to this question? Am I stupid? What do they mean by asking me this question? Are they trying to find out if I’m stupid, or do they want to prove to me that I’m stupid? Why am I taking a test with this sort of question? What happens if I don’t answer the question? If I miss too many questions, will they make me take another test? What is the purpose of all this standardized testing anyway?
Both the former, strategic analysis and the latter, motivational analysis come under the heading of metacognition. They are of disparate utility for the test-taker, however. At first glance, it seems that we might fix the pairing of unlike processes by getting rid of the motivational analysis. Maybe it would be better classified as a kind of neurosis. But on closer examination, we cannot entirely excise it. There is an element of motivational analysis firmly lodged in the strategic analysis. To get started on the latter, we must first conclude that test-taking is worthy of a strategy. We must conclude that test-taking is not a comprehensive, critical assessment of competence or moral character which demands certain answers or none at all. We must also decide that it is worth doing well on tests, that the people administering the test are worthy of our best effort, and that the test-makers have our ultimate educational success in mind. In short, we must conclude that a test is the sort of thing which properly motivates us to adopt a strategy.
Metacognition may have trouble encompassing the relationship in question between motive and method, but there is a term in Chinese philosophy which captures it: Wu Wei. The words have been translated in various spooky ways, such as ‘non-action’ or ‘acting without acting’. Really, the meaning is not spooky. It looks that way because, like many concepts in Chinese philosophy, it contains the basic concept and the second-order concept. In this case, Wu Wei means to characterize both our actions themselves and the relationship between intentions and actions. A better translation might be, “When preparation is done, your problem is the problem before you.” or as a prescription, “Reflect upon your actions but don’t act upon your reflections”. To de-mystify things a little more, Wu Wei means action is primarily about what is acted upon, and only secondarily about our motives. We act upon our motives primarily when we direct ourselves to a certain action. In the case of test taking, we aim to take the test as a result of reflecting on the relevance of tests to our desire to learn, earn a living, or gain the approval of others. Once the test starts, if we subscribe to Wu Wei, we are about retrieving the information to answer question number one.
The concept of Wu Wei serves the test taker better than the concept of Metacognition. But Wu Wei is not true because it is useful, it is useful because it is true. It isn’t a theory of truth, but it contains a deflationary notion and an artist’s depiction of truth; in Blackburn’s words, it maintains that “the issue is the issue”. From a certain perspective, Wu Wei commits us to a pessimistic outlook. It is bowing to the inevitable and resembles the sentiment in aphorisms like, “Call out to the Gods, but row away from the rocks.” It sounds a little jaded, a little compromised. My son certainly sees test-taking Wu Wei in a pessimistic light. He resents being made to take tests and can’t see focused action as anything but capitulation. The test is, however, about the test, the questions about the items in question, and capitulation about him and his attitude. Likewise, rowing is about the position of the boat relative to the rocks and calling out to the Gods is about the supplicant and his desire to survive. Confusing the two is best for neither. Keeping these relationships straight is what makes best in the first place. I’ve yet to convince my son to adopt Wu Wei at test time. I’m not sure that I’m capable of the lesson; considered experience may be the only teacher for Wu Wei. Perhaps if he calls out to the Gods a few more times, he’ll understand why he should pay attention to his stroke as well.

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The Word from the Land of Absolute Relativism

“Look at all this shit!”
He waved the stack of envelopes at me.
“Look at this one.”
He held up the letter on top. It was from another hospital and marked, ‘Important: Do Not Discard’.
“These are the ones you have to be careful to discard.”
He threw it in the wastebasket, and followed it with the rest of the unexamined mail. I was far enough into my training not to be shocked by this sort of thing. I’d weathered surgeon’s tirades and soaked up jaded, callous humor in the emergency room. Still, my experience with this psychiatrist had me believing for years afterwards that, in his specialty, like sought like.
“This kind of clutter is the enemy,” he continued, opening the top drawer in his desk.
He scooped out a handful of keys.
“Look at these! I don’t know what this is for,” he said, holding up a sturdy door key. Into the bin it went.
He tossed a few more, then dumped the remainder back in the drawer with an expression of disgust.
“We’ve wasted enough time,” he declared, “better show me the case.”
I handed him the chart, with my history on top. He lingered on the assessment at the bottom of the page. Residents sometimes began to sweat when attending physicians paused too long in their documentation review. I did not in this case, because the assessment was not mine in the first place; the patient brought her diagnosis with her from the last admission. He grunted and moved on to the ancillary notes, containing the comments from psychiatric nurses who had evaluated the patient.
“Jesus Christ! Did you read this?”
Now I began to sweat. I hadn’t read the nurse’s notes. He handed me the chart with a shake of his head. I’d gotten lucky; the question was rhetorical. Curiosity displaced my anxiety and I began to read with interest. Immediately, I realized what he was on about.
At the bottom of the page, several of the nurses (a cabal?) postulated that dark forces were at work in the patient’s life. The assessment dwelt upon the young lady’s practice of witchcraft, not as an expression of alienation in a personality dangerously adrift, but as an activity with sinister efficacy. I looked up at him as I finished reading.
“How can we hope to do anything for the patients when we’re up against this kind of stupidity from the staff? Borderline,” he stated, returning to my assessment, “Do you really believe that?”
I shrugged. She had the black nail-polish sign, which every trainee knew was pathognomonic for borderline personality disorder.
“There are some people that fit the bill, but mostly the term is an epithet applied to people who we don’t like because they are frustrating. It’s the DSM used as a cudgel, and it justifies our bringing these people into the institution when their community becomes too frustrated with their behaviors. They come in for a few days or a few weeks until they’ve cooled off, then they go back out with the same problems, to the same problems. So this kind of inpatient treatment is like firing into the tree line: it’s good for keeping the enemy’s head down, but it’s not good for hitting anything.”
His words were familiar in structure and reference. At home that evening, I poured through my memory and my boxes of books, and I eventually placed them. They recalled an image from Heart of Darkness.

Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn’t even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign dropped limp like a rag; the muzzles of the long six-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech – and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives – he called them enemies! – hidden out of sight somewhere.

The image stuck and grew stronger over the years until I ceased to see my preceptor as chief among madmen and came to see him as Marlow on the boat. He was the lone relativist in a wilderness of absolutists who considered borderline personality more than a label on a charge sheet (it is that at least, for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual which codified the term is a tool intended to itemize mental illness for billing). For his fellow wardens of the institution, there existed a borderline personality fact about certain people, caused by borderline personality pathologies and amenable, potentially, to borderline personality treatments. He saw them firing into a continent. He did not, of course, live in the land of absolute relativism, where everything is an onion made of layer upon layer of motives and relations with no pertinent core. He believed in borderline personality as a country over yonder. It recognized certain commonalities, but those commonalities arose in the villages. They accrued; they did not come down from on high.
He cared about how seriously the nurses, psychologists and patients took diagnoses, not because relativism was true. He cared because absolutes did not obtain. Worse, absolutes destroyed. On occasion, bullets fired into the tree line did hit something, and that something was an enemy by definition. Over his career, he’d seen victory declared over schizophrenia and the state institutions emptied onto the street. He’d seen the profession take a pass on intractable diagnoses, like personality disorders. He’d heard from his predecessors about neurosurgical solutions considered quite successful in their time. It wasn’t that relativism was true, it was just that truth didn’t work that way. It wasn’t diagnosis-friendly, and the truth about psychology all the less so.

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Being and Waspishness

In the Fall, our crags are swarming with wasps. Their source is a mystery. It is rare to see wasp nests in the cracks and pockets in the limestone, and when found, the nests are no bigger than a newborn’s clenched fist. The volume of the Fall swarms doesn’t comport with the numbers seen over the Summer. The wasps in Fall also differ in quality from the busy, irritable creatures encountered in Summer. The Autumn wasps are less likely to sting, but they are also harder to shoo away. When threatened, they flare their wings and wave their antennae.
A bunker mentality seems to have taken hold of them, perhaps as a consequence of excessive introspection, depression even. In flight, they behave with no less aimlessness than when clinging to the stone. They waft from perch to perch in short hops, always staying within a few feet of the crag, extending the arc of their flight only if they encounter another intransigent insect where they would land. They are not hunting, and do not appear to engage in courtship or any other purposeful behavior in the course of their days.
To the climbers who persist at the crags through the cooling season, the wasps look a feckless lot. Some observers go so far as to advocate swatting the insects on principle, as the wasps have lost their purpose and are simply waiting to die. Why let them suffer?

The Grand Auger, who sacrificed the swine and read omens in the sacrifice, came dressed in his long dark robes to the pig pen and spoke to the pigs as follows: “Here is my counsel to you. Do not complain about having to die. Set your objections aside, please. Realize that I shall now feed you on choice grain for three months. I myself will have to observe strict discipline for ten days and fast for three. Then I will lay out grass mats and offer your hams and shoulders upon delicately carved platters with great ceremony. What more do you want?”
Then, reflecting, he considered the question from the pigs’ point of view: “Of course, I suppose you would prefer to be fed with ordinary coarse feed and be left alone in your pen.”
But again, seeing it once more from his own viewpoint, he replied: “No, definitely there is a nobler kind of existence! To live in honors, to receive the best treatment, to ride in a carriage with fine clothes, even though at any moment one may be disgraced and executed, that is the noble, though uncertain destiny that I have chosen for myself.”
So he decided against the pigs’ point of view and adopted his own point of view, both for himself and for the pigs also.
How fortunate, those swine, whose existence was thus ennobled by one who was at once an officer of the state and a minister of religion.
– Zhuang Zi as translated by Thomas Merton

The same sentiment applies to the wasps. Trivially, some of the wasps which a climber sees in Fall are foundresses of next Spring’s colonies. No one would question their having a meaningful existence, in wasp terms. They represent the sisters passed, of the colony that bore them and back down the line. When we say ‘meaning’ in regard to a creature’s existence, we imply just such a representation on the creature’s part. After all, meanings don’t have meanings, symbols do. When we speak of purpose in the same context, we refer to the relationship between the representation and the meaning behind it, with the purpose of the representation being to signify the meaning.
Next Spring’s founding females have a purpose: to represent their colonies of origin and so on, in the genes they express, the ova they carry, and the smells they remember. The colony is gone but the intention of the colony remains, represented by the heiress.
People are no different. We represent our backgrounds and their intentions. We try to live up to our potential, what we are born with and what we acquire by learning. For us, as for the wasps, this representation is always in the present, pulling at the intention groping behind it. The colony’s heiress begins her own take on her mother’s colony. Her ownership changes the intention a bit. Her smell is a little bit different. Depending on what confronts her in the Spring, she may recruit the help of her fellow survivors to start her nest or usurp another’s. No matter, the next generation will recall a different ideal in its turn. We too, will try to live up to the tales of the deeds of our ancestors (by blood or tradition), rather than the deeds themselves, and the tales of the tales and so on.
But where does all this leave the true left-overs, the workers who will soon die in the cold? For them, the colony is lost forever. They represent the end. No one could blame the human observer for imagining these insects as little Macbeths, with their petulant defense of limestone cubby-holes and their swarming a soliloquy pleading for release from the futile farce which their lives have become, maybe which their lives have been from the start.
Still, they fly. They utilize the behaviors passed to them as social insects in their new context. They sting if pressed. They taste the air for familiar scents. They seek the light and shade with the progression of heat through the day. For their part, they signify the heritage of social insects as much as the females who will survive the Winter. If they have lost anything by losing the meaning and purpose of their role in the nest, it wasn’t much.
All representations work this way and the losses associated with any loss of significance are no more than the losses a cipher suffers in moving from one equation to another. When we pose the question, “Why should we let them suffer?”, the wasps might answer us like little Mallorys rather than little Macbeths: “Because I’m here.” That is exactly what they are saying when they wave their antennae at an approaching hand.

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You Can’t Have Your Pie and … You Just Can’t Have Your Pie

The ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter is 3.14…
The rationalist proposes that the “…” is there because there is something wrong with the world. The empiricist proposes that the “…” is there because there is something wrong with mathematics. If there is something wrong with the world, we are in trouble. If there is something wrong with mathematics, we are in trouble. Either way we are in trouble. Kneel and pray; your trouble will not change. Sit and drink; your trouble will not change. Go and do; your trouble will not change, but that is the only truth you’ve got. And, at least you’ll be doing something.

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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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