Tag Archives: supernatural

Curse You Peter Higgs

“Mass was so simple before you. Mass was just a property. Actually it was just a property of having another property: inertia. Inertia was so simple, though. It was just the property of resisting changes in motion.

Of course, we all know what ‘resisting’ means. And, we all know what motion is: d/t. If anyone must ask what distance and time are…well, there is little hope for someone so dim. At least, there is little hope for such a dimwit in physics. Hah! It looks like someone needs a metaphysician!”

The line of thought is a big hit with dualists. Actually, it is the best thing about mind/body dualism, and is why it’s good to have mind/body dualists around. Without them, physicalism grows too complacent.

The physicalist can be forgiven. It seems so obvious what we mean when we say that something is physical. But what does that mean? Is it simply anything that’s the proper business of physics? Is physics itself the proper business of physics?

The question of what makes something physical is actually difficult, even within physics. Take the Higgs field. It is not a ‘thing’; it is not even a ‘property’ of a ‘thing’. It is a property of space. It is a phenomenon which physics considers, but it is really weird, from the perspective of the old extended/unextended divide which Descartes proposed.

Yet we are prepared to accept the Higgs field as something physical, along with apples and atoms. That’s because we have been prepared to accept the physicality of the Higgs field by accepting  the physicality of things like d and t in the Newtonian scheme, as physical. Time and distance are not any less weird – they are strangely malleable, for instance – but they are more easily recognizable as our own phenomena. We experience time and distance, and we are comfortable with the idea that physics is a phenomenology of time and distance.

If we have drilled down to the notion of physics as phenomenology, and understand phenomena as our experience, then the remaining question is: What is our experience? I am not sure there is an all-encompassing answer to that question. Yet I think we can say a few things around the question which are instructive as to the notion of physicality.

At base, our experience is identity, and identity is interdependence. If I am watching an egg roll off the counter and hit the floor, I am the one watching that egg. The rolling egg, among other things, is making me, me. The memories of eggs, dependent upon the shape, color, texture and historical context of my current experience, shape my thoughts and expectations regarding the egg, just as the color, shape and texture of the egg depend upon the impression that the kitchen light delivers to my eyes after it bounces off the rolling egg. That is what the notion of supervenience is getting at: identity is fixed by spatial and temporal history.

And such a thing cannot be ‘transcendent’. It comes with the here and now; (physical) existence has a tense. ‘Tenseless’ existence is a product of reflection and not what we directly experience. Transcendence, in other words, occurs in the storybook, not in the story (else we would never read a story twice).

The trouble with this whole picture is that it looks like a truism. If physicality consists of an interdependent identity which avoids transcendence, then what is left? Ghosts are live possibilities; so are Higgs fields. Of course, that is the point of physicalism. When we look at our experience in total, physicality seems to exhaust all the explanatory possibilities, or at least the ones we could hope to know.



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Coffee Enema? No, I Said Causal Enema.

I hate  baseball. I hate the bleachers, the standing around, the hide-bound rules, the pastoral sublimation of aggressive behavior which breaks down in fights from time to time. Most of all though, I hate the crack of the ball off the bat. It is a false promise of wind in the doldrums, and a bitter return to cud-chewing calm always follows.

I always feel a little guilty about my baseball hating ways, because the crack of the ball off the bat seems so innocent. After all, it is simply the elastic properties of wood, leather and air interacting. Of course, those properties of the materials are in turn determined by the molecular structure of the materials. There can be little doubt about it; flip the bits around in the bat’s cellulose and you have a starch, and subsequently, no crack. And of course, the properties of the atoms in the molecules cause the molecular structure to hold together and behave as it does. Oh, and I can’t forget the quantum properties of the atoms’ particles, which, arranged as they are, cause the atoms to behave as they do, and therefore cause the molecules to behave as they do, and thus the materials’ behavior, etc.

The whole situation looks to be a rabbit hole, with no bottom to the causal drop. But the appearance of interminable reduction is illusory. When we speak of the kind of analytic reduction which says that what is really happening when the bat flexes is that the molecular bonds in the cellulose are flexing, and what is really happening when the molecular bonds are flexing is a shifting probability gradient in a quantum field, etc., we are describing the applicability of a method.

The bat, the ball, and their interaction can be represented by reduction. There is a web of dependencies which can be mapped out within the bat and ball phenomena. The map tells us that if we see a flexing bat, we can look in the chemical vicinity and find cellulose, or the particle physics vicinity and find electrons, or in the quantum mechanical vicinity and find orbitals. Reductive representation gives us a means of identification rather than a mechanism of cause. It is not the case that the quantum probabilities change, which induces bonds to flex, which causes the ball to spring off the bat. All these occurrences are coincident in space and time.

We should be dismayed to find a bottomless pit of causes. Even in the awful dolbrums of the baseball diamond, we see things happening, rather than standing eternally on hold while the micro-physical structure tries to get it together. So, the representational reduction of baseball is about as compelling as the game itself.

My hatred of baseball seems a little different, at least at first glance. It resists representational reduction. There is no baseball-hating mechanism. No set of laws seems to predict my hatred of baseball in the way that the laws of physics predict the flexing of the bat and the ball. After all, some apparently reasonable, emotionally balanced people, of similar background to my own, profess a love of baseball.

Nor can I quantify my hatred of baseball. It does not contain a certain number of carbon and oxygen atoms. It has no temperature. And yet, my hatred of baseball also seems to depend on those little atoms, as much as the specific bats and balls do – actually, insofar as the bats and balls do. For I would not know about baseball if it were not for all those cracking bats and balls which built my awareness of the game and engendered my hatred. Because, my hatred was not some metaphysical lurker, waiting like an emotional lamprey to latch onto baseball.

Though it is private, and so cannot be quantified, I know just where my hatred of baseball resides. It lives right in the snug space between my dislike of basketball and my despite of opera. It stems from my propensity to do rather than observe. It relates to my aversion to uniforms and my natural incomprehension of any activity built around catching a projectile. In other words, my hatred of baseball is reducible, even though there is no chemistry of it as there is of bats and balls.

And actually, bats and balls are reducible in the same way. A particular bat is swinging at a particular ball at a moment in a particular stifling, unbearable inning, because we can say that its particular particles stand as they do on the global stage. And, here is the point of metaphysical interest. The identity of the bat and the ball, my hatred of baseball, and even my own identity,  depend strictly  upon their susceptibility to this latter sort of reduction. It is what makes them physical. The susceptibility of my experience to reductive explanation causes me to say that I am at a baseball game, that I hate baseball, and that, at any moment in an inning, I am hating this stifling, unbearable, cracking false promise as an instantion and a progression of my baseball hate.


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Dreams in the Witch House

Though it is not one of H.P. Lovecraft’s best stories, Dreams in the Witch House is one of his creepiest. The creep factor mostly emanates from the witch’s  familiar, Brown Jenkin. Jenkin is an intermediary from the netherworld, enticing the unwary to enter. A rat/human hybrid, Jenkin eventually dispatches the protagonist by emerging from the wall (which is actually a partition between alternate planes of existence as well as one between indoors and outdoors) and chewing through the man’s body while he sleeps.
Tunneling through a person in his sleep is chilling enough, but what makes Jenkin really creepy is what it represents: shadowy possibilities which gnaw away at us to our demise.

H. P. was a big believer in the old aphorism, “curiosity killed the cat”, (I’m sure he pictured the inquisitive animal sniffing too close to a questing tentacle). He was leery of natural philosophy run amok, based on what happened to the fabled cat. Science, he felt, risked exposing our dearly held beliefs as a mere façade, laid over an alien, chaotic, deeper reality. H. P. was a little odd, but he has never been alone in his fear of hidden truth – or in his attraction to it.

The fear of a hidden truth appears to drive quite a bit of discussion surrounding the philosophy of mind. The fear manifests in varieties dependent upon the school of thought involved. For some positions, the fear of hidden truth appears to be their primary impetus.

Modern-day substance dualists, for instance, fear scientific implications of an explanatory mechanism for activities which tradition ascribes to the soul. The idea that intentionality or qualitative experience may be dependent upon coarse, material goings-on horrifies them. Their revulsion is compelling enough to make arguments from incredulity seem plausible.

“How,” they ask, “can a thing be ‘about’ something?”

Yet, when one fires an arrow at a target, the arrow flies at the target. Something compels it to do so, rather than allowing it to appear suddenly on the moon. Likewise, it remains an arrow, which is a big part of why it flies at the target. The archer attending to the arrow’s flight maintains her identity and has determined her course as well. Even when she visualizes her shot before releasing the bowstring, her intention derives from the same set of considerations determining the shot, albeit in a roundabout way. Maybe she is just importing her perspective on the shot all long and it’s all happening in her (and everyone else’s) head, but that doesn’t matter. The outcome is the same, whether it is the mental substance or the physical substance which is reduced. Reduction is what the substance dualist really fears.

Monists are not so different. They have faced up to the implications of natural philosophy, yet they still fear the loss of mental causation in their schema. The feared outcome of reducing our mental activities to their base, physical mechanisms has been described most eloquently as a “Ghost in the Machine” scenario. In that case, our  consciousness is the ghost,  a mere byproduct with the mistaken impression that it is in charge of things while it is really  looking on impotently as all the little neurons in our brains respond to various stimuli.

The troublesome issue at work is ‘downward causation’. When the archer releases her arrow, do we think that her will causes the arrow to fly toward the target, or do we think that it is the action of her muscles, muscle fibers, the chemical bonds in the arms of the bow, and on down the line? Natural philosophy tells us that the little things add up to the big ones, in terms of how the arrow does what it does. The limbs of the bow springing back into shape do not cause the chemical bonds to behave as they do; it’s the other way around.

We readily accept that state of affairs when it comes to bows and arrows. But if brains and minds bear a similar relationship to their base constituents, then willing the arrow to fly fares no better than the bow’s springing back – it is caused by what’s going on in the neuronal circuitry rather than causing anything itself. The alternative to accepting this arrangement for brains and minds is to make a special exception for mental activities.

Yet it seems impossible to do so without undermining natural philosophy. We may wish to do so, to save mental activities as causes, but it is hard to see how we could avoid hypocrisy. We would still use our knowledge of chemical bonds to build better bows and devise more effective anti-depressants. We would still act as if the bottom-up story were true.

On the other hand, if we accept the bottom-up story for ourselves, what is the point in asking all these questions in the first place? The repercussion of our conclusion is that we are onlookers, like spectators at a sporting event whose critique of the game is utterly ineffectual. It’s hard to see how such knowledge means anything. Just as we risk hypocrisy if we veer away from natural philosophy when it comes to mind, we equally risk hypocrisy by accepting bottom-up explanations when it comes to mental phenomena – we will continue to behave as if our experiences, intentions and motivations make things happen. What to do?

Richard Feynman gave us a clue to the answer.

“If you think you understand quantum mechanics,” he said, “you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”

Quantum fields are not phenomena with which we are familiar, nor can they be. They may not even be ‘really real’. They may simply be the hooks upon which we hang our descriptions of broad regularities in the world of the very small. Furthermore, it doesn’t matter whether the entities to which quantum mechanics refers are real or not. The theory predicts the regularities of the Lilliputian realm – it works.

The thing is, do any of our theories, right down to everyday descriptions, bear a different sort of relationship to their subject matter? When Ernest Rutherford said, “All science is either physics or stamp collecting,” he meant that physics told the basic, really real story of what was going on in the world. Chemistry simplified physics and summarized the really real story of the microscopic world on a convenient level, and so on for biology, geology, meteorology, etc. But his analysis flips the relationship between the disciplines. If we say that Osmium is a metal which conducts electricity and heat at a certain efficiency, has a certain density, reacts with other elements with a certain propensity, then we need ‘bridge laws’ – extra rules – to relate those chemical properties to their associated quantum mechanical phenomena.

The upshot is, only once we have found the Osmium can we find the particular arrangement of quarks, electrons, up-spins and down-spins without which there is no Osmium.

It is easy to turn around and say, “Oh, that’s just what Osmium is.”

But without Osmium and it’s chemical properties, where is our basic-physics explanation? The phenomena explained by the higher level theory permit an explanation in the lower level theory.

And isn’t that how we know about Osmium itself? It is something which responds to our poking and prodding with fire, pushes, and shocks with an elemental predictability. Once we have an atomic explanation for Osmium, we can use a mass spectrometer to find it more reliably, but our target is still the Osmium, not its counter-factual-supporting constituents.

This world of theoretical explanation is terribly confusing. It is confusing because theoretical explanations are not what we normally consider explanations at all. Theories are useful, but they are not true as we wish them to be true – precisely and thoroughly.

We expect our explanations to be more genealogical. Confronted with a piece of Osmium, we can’t be satisfied with atomic weight and number. Those qualities do not explain this piece of Osmium. Rather, we must know how (and so why) the Osmium is in this lump, now, in this place. Break it down to the sub-parts, the quarks, if you will, but the structure of the story does not change.

Where does that leave the Ghost? Where does that leave the mental substance? The Ghost haunts neurobiology, not a reductive explanation. We think our neurons and their activities are our own. We feel comfortable with the idea that we are not exactly the same person if one of the little guys stops working or grows a new dendrite in the course of learning about the atomic number of Osmium. We are comfortable with the change because it occurs within a historical framework, and that framework lends us a persistent identity.

The mental substance seems doomed to participate in some kind of reductive explanation as well. It’s hard to see how it pertains to us, personally, if it does not. If it does participate, then we can call it a substance, but not a separate one. If there are spirits and ectoplasm, then they are located in the same historical framework as the lump of Osmium, its electrons, its quarks, etc. and make their mark, at least upon our consciousness, within that framework.

There are no hidden truths, then. There isn’t some subtext where it all breaks down, as H.P feared. Or if there is, we can never find it.






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What Do You Really Fear?

If God has an explanation, how does It remain God? If God has no explanation, then why all the fuss?

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Experiencing Embodiment – with Extreme Prejudice

Rowan on McCarthy West Face, Hong Variation

Rowan on McCarthy West Face, Hong Variation

The edge was huge – at least half a finger-pad wide. But how to get there? The fingers of my right hand were crimped on the vertical edge of a slight irregularity at shoulder height. My thumb lay across the top of the same feature. My feet teetered on the corner of the column which bordered the little roof. My left hand gripped the corner of the neighboring column, thumb down, elbow up, in a maneuver called a ‘Gaston’.
My right hand needed to get to that good edge. That edge meant security, success, salvation from the tension of my current situation. I stretched for the hold, pushing down with the Gaston and straightening my knees. It was too much for the foot holds on the corner. They needed pressure to work.
I was off.
I prepared to drop into the corner below the roof. I had two small chocks above the feature. They looked set when I placed them, but the crack flared slightly, and small stuff had a tendency to shift. In the time dilation of the fall, I got another glimpse of blood and hair on the rock below, left by a fellow traveler the week before.
He had been climbing the standard variation on this route. His belayer had been standing on a comfortable patch of dirt about 50 feet below. He fell from about the same level as I had. With rope-stretch and slack in the system, he hit the ledge below the roof. He injured his leg in the initial impact, then flipped upside down and hit his head. He suffered a nasty scalp laceration, but fortunately no damage to the contents of his skull. We wore our helmets, and took the trouble to set the belay on the ledge below the roof. Never disregard a free lesson.
The little chocks held. I jerked to a stop just a few feet below the roof.
I looked down at my son. He looked bored. I couldn’t tell if the expression of ennui was a 15 year old boy’s affectation or actual lack of concern. I hoped it was the former.
“Lower me a little,” I asked him.
He complied, and I got back into the corner, a sporting distance below the difficulties. I moved back up to the overhang and inspected the chocks. They looked no worse for the wear. I grabbed the right hand crimp and set my feet on the corner. My left hand caught the Gaston.
This time, I ignored the edge. Keeping pressure on my feet, I reached up and pinched the corner with my right hand. I leaned back. Like so many things in climbing and outside it, the move felt precarious and it was committing – I would not be able to reverse it – but it was also the answer. My feet locked onto the small holds and I was able to step up. The right hand pinch turned into a good side-pull and my left hand swung up to a nice shelf. It was over. I plugged in a good cam and moved up to stand on the little ledge.
But, it wasn’t over. The corner above wasn’t as steep, but it was still thin and tricky. I got a short break. There was a section of crack climbing, with pretty good footholds. Then the crack closed up again. A bulge confronted me, with no obvious way past. I got a couple of small chocks in the corner formed by the intersecting columns, and took the most feasible path that I could see.
Once upon a time, my mother-in-law had an out-of-body experience. She was in labor with her second daughter, and things were not going well. As they prepared her for an emergency C-section, she floated above her body and looked down on the scene in the surgical suite. My dearest love relates this story in terms of wonder, as an example of the mysteries of the world beyond our limited comprehension. Her appreciation for such mysteries is one of the things I love most about her. But for me, astral transformation is not so mysterious, though it remains wonderful. It is a familiar experience, and I pursue it doggedly.
It happens on the hardest moves of a climb sometimes. I can break down the moves before and after, but during the movement, the analytic distance disappears and another distance replaces it. The real me is absorbed in action and no longer has time for silly self-awareness. But, the reflective consciousness is selfish. If it can’t do, it will watch. The phenomenon is weird – like a movie observed, but not experienced. Yet it is also wonderful, because for a moment, thought is banished and everything is aligned in its proper place.
That’s what happened at the little bulge. With the moves mapped out in my head, I took a deep breath and began. The fugue hit me. Afterwards I could recall images of small adjustments. I saw my right foot move up to a tenuous hold that I could not have seen at the time. I saw my left foot stick to a sloping hold in the face of counter-pressure from my right hand, which rested flat against the wall of the dihedral.
At the time, I snapped back to a brighter day above the bulge, not entirely sure of how I got there, but feeling wonderful, with the whole thing still catching up to me. Or maybe, it was vice versa.
No matter, I soon stood at the anchor belaying my son as he followed the route (with only one fall and one hanging rest). My motivation had never been higher. I was itching for another lap on the climb – or maybe, something harder.

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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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The Limit

My wife recently killed herself. Me and the boys are trying to cope with our new circumstance and the sympathy of the community. Much of the sympathy comes from Good Christian People, which is fine when the people are good and Christian. Some who count themselves in that group, however, are uncomfortable in their expression, as they are first a certain sort of Christian, and then good people. Their condolences are nuanced because they believe my wife still exists in Hell. In principle, their belief does not move me one way or the other. It concerns me as much as my grandmother’s warnings of impending apocalypse, resurrection and divine judgment, which is to say not at all.
The belief itself is mere human silliness – denial, magical thinking – whatever label best fits the realm of imagination in question. But the believer is another matter. The believer imagines an entity who would cast aside a thing of beauty, actively or passively, not in a fit of intoxication and despair, but soberly and in principle. Who would ally himself with such a being? What sum purchases such allegiance, in principle? Maybe the allegiance is also mere human silliness in the face of fear, without any principle behind it and bought with the psychological equivalent of poker chips. If so, I understand and allow; I am no less weak in spells. If not, then partisans of the doctrine in question merit pity, but no trust and no respect. They are traitors to their own kind.
I don’t begrudge people their religious beliefs, nor do I think religion is inherently destructive. Social organisms must struggle with destruction as part of their circumstance, God or no. I think most religious sentiments can be accommodated. There is a limit to everything, however.

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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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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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