Thursday, March 09, 2006

Thoughtful Leads from George Ellis

Ran across an interesting lead in a (response) letter by George Ellis in Physics Today:

[The original letter writer] says that no experimental evidence has established a boundary beyond which reductionism fails. Yes, there is evidence for such a boundary: As pointed out by Jean-Marie Lehn,[1] it is the level of supramolecular chemistry. At and above that level, history and context become as important as physics; a reductionist account cannot, for example, predict the sequence of bases in the DNA of wheat, or what gene will be read next in a cell in a bee as it dances to convey information.

The footnote references J.-M. Lehn, Supramolecular Chemistry: Concepts and Perspectives, VCH Verlag, New York (1995). (The second part of Ellis's response is less than inspiring: it seems to rationalize free will with quantum indeterminacy—an error I will explore here soon, I hope.)

While rooting around the web, I ran across another interesting piece by Ellis in Nature. A jewel of a paragraph:

A simple statement of fact: there is no physics theory that explains the nature of, or even the existence of, football matches, teapots, or jumbo-jet aircraft. The human mind is physically based, but there is no hope whatever of predicting the behaviour it controls from the underlying physical laws. Even if we had a satisfactory fundamental physics 'theory of everything', this situation would remain unchanged: physics would still fail to explain the outcomes of human purpose, and so would provide an incomplete description of the real world around us.

He traces the putative line of cosmic causality back to flutuations of the cosmic background radiation, whose placement is supposed to be precisely that required to bring about all the human achievements of our civilization. "Those fluctuations are supposed to have been random, which by definition means without purpose or meaning.... However, such meaning did indeed come into being."

Most notably, the advocacy of determinism is intended by its adherents to be meaningful (intended), but it couldn't be meaningful if it were completely determined by the physical laws of the universe. (Ellis's letter: "if free will does not exist in a meaningful sense, the process of scientific investigation cannot take place; scientific procedure assumes we are able to make conscious choices about what is a sound theory and what is not." No physical law can explain the existence of physical theories.)

Ellis goes on to say that physical laws are necessary for the context for intelligent human activities to occur, but aren't sufficient to explain them: "It is possible that what actually happened was the contextual emergence of complexity: the existence of human beings and their creations was not uniquely implied by the initial data in the early Universe; rather the underlying physics together with that initial data created a context that made the existence of human beings possible."

Moles are blind but have their acute sense of smell enables them to discover many amazing things we humans are oblivious to. It is no surprise that they cannot see. But no reasonable person would use their blindness as evidence against the existence of light.1

Modern science excludes finality (a.k.a, intentionality, purpose) by assumption; it is no surprise that the natural laws it discovers omit finality. It is a wonder that supposedly rational people interpret this blindness as indicative of reality.


I was much more critical of Ellis here:
The ME Project's Contained Kenosis


Notes

1. Yes, thank you: moles aren't actually blind. "Proverbial moles," if you will.


George Ellis, (letter) "Physics, Reductionism, and the Real World," Physics Today (March 2006), 12.

George F. R. Ellis, "Physics, complexity and causality," Nature 435, 743 (9 June 2005).

18 comments:

Doctor Logic said...

Most notably, the advocacy of determinism is intended by its adherents to be meaningful (intended), but it couldn't be meaningful if it were completely determined by the physical laws of the universe.

I'm afraid I don't understand this claim. Whether or not the universe is deterministic has no bearing on our perception of its emotional content or on our perception of consciousness.

Ellis's letter: "if free will does not exist in a meaningful sense, the process of scientific investigation cannot take place; scientific procedure assumes we are able to make conscious choices about what is a sound theory and what is not."

Consciousness and determinism are not mutually exclusive. There's no reason why a machine could not do science as well as humans. Indeed, such a machine might be a better scientist than a modern human.

Ellis goes on to say that physical laws are necessary for the context for intelligent human activities to occur, but aren't sufficient to explain them.

An explanation is a set of facts and rules under which observed events must occur. There may be many possible explanations, but every one of them specifies a natural law. That's why every explanation is predictive.

If I tell you that "event X occurred due to some unobservable cause acting according to some unknown rules," I have not given you an explanation of X. I have merely restated the question "what is the cause of X?"

For example, if I tell you that the Sun burns due to some naturalistic process, but I fail to give you any details of that process, then I haven't explained anything. I have only explained it when I provide you with observable facts and rules that dictate that the Sun must produce the radiation that it does.

It is certainly possible that some things will never be explained. However, in that case, they remain unexplained. We cannot say that those phenomena are explained by the magic eightball or somesuch, when the eightball is just a symbol for the unknown.

It is a wonder that supposedly rational people interpret this blindness as indicative of reality.

There is nothing more to "reality" than the patterns we observe. It is a misuse of the verb "to exist" to claim that something exists in the absence of any empirical attributes. And here, I use the term empirical to describe anything that is experienced mentally or physically.

A teacup does not exist in the absence of its topology, its size, its solidity, its appearance and its ability to hold tea. Take away all of these things and you're not left with "spirit of teacup which has no empirical attributes of teacup." You're left with nothing.

Indeed, the normal use of the verb is to declare that certain observations can be made. If I tell you that there is a teacup in the next room, I'm speaking about the way a shared mental model of a teacup correlates with our five senses. No correlation, no existence.

What I have said here applies equally well to mathematical structures. The claim that two matrices are noncommutative is an empirically verifiable one, as is the proof of Fermat's Last Theorem. There is no such thing as "spirit of noncommutative matrices" that has no mathematical properties of our two matrices.

In the end, you can decide to argue that some things can never be explained. However, this attitude is just a curiosity stopper.

We never know the value of information we don't have. That's probably why we evolved a sense curiosity in the first place. Yet, information is guaranteed to be useless when we decide not to seek predictive patterns (natural laws) in the data.

Mahndisa S. Rigmaiden said...

03 09 06

Interesting blog you have here and a stimulating post!

"We never know the value of information we don't have."
Doctor Logic you sound like a No Cloning Theorem kinda guy. Are you into quantum computing?

"That's why every explanation is predictive."

I don't know if I understand this. I always tend to think of everything being in a superposition of its eigenstates before we take a measurement, then once we do take a measurement, we have measured an eigenvalue of whatever observable.

However, I don't think that these observations and measurements are necessarily predictive. In fact, if we followed that logic we may not have fixed the ultraviolet catastrophe and physics wouldn't be what it is today. The thing I find interesting about qm is that so many things go against what is predictive, according to our common sense and the classical formalism.

Perhaps I have misunderstood the gist of your comment too. Either way, I am pleased to have found this blog.

Doctor Logic said...

mahndisa,

There are two kinds of value we can get from observation. First, we get data we can plug into known natural laws, e.g., observing the speed and position of an asteroid allows us to predict whether or not it will hit Earth. Second, and this is the main one I was referring to, is the potential to discover new laws of nature.

However, I don't think that these observations and measurements are necessarily predictive.

This is true, but observations are not explanations. Observations are the things we need to explain. An explanation consists of boundary conditions and natural laws that predict (or post-dict) observations.

For example, consider the double-slit experiment. Young's observations do not explain themselves. They are explained by a mathematical theory that predicts an interference pattern. If there were no predictive theory, then there would be no explanation of the pattern.

The same goes for the Hydrogen atom. The electron energy levels (spectra) were explained by predictive theories like Schrödinger's equation.

Since every explanation relies on natural laws, every explanation necessarily contains a predictive natural law. Schrödinger's explanation of Hydrogen spectra necessarily predicted spectra in other potentials.

Prediction is the difference between restating your observations and explaining them.

Lawrence Gage said...

Dear Doctor Logic,

Clearly consciousness is compatible with determinism. But we are not disembodied spirits with no meaningful relation with our bodies.

You have misunderstood me: I am not talking about consciousness, but about intentionality, meaning, and truth, all of which require free communication.

Truth is a correspondence between the reality and the mind. When I make an statement that I intend to be true, the implication is that the only thing determining my observation is the reality I am commenting upon.

For example, if I were in a gloomy mood you could legitimately doubt my observation that the sky is overcast: my mood can color my outlook on the world.

This is simply common human practice, e.g., we don't trust interested witnesses (including the defendant himself) to testify in court. We also don't trust people who testify under duress, or who are intoxicated.

A statement can only be true to the extent that nothing outside of the truth determines its content.

But you argue determinism is true. If determinism were true, then your acts are not free, so you could not make true observations: your statements would contain even less meaning than baby prattle, because at least babies aren't rejecting a reality in which they already live.

I have a better opionion of your statements than that!

Perhaps you will permit me to go a bit further: positivism is a self-defeating ideology. If only the empirical were real, then how could any philosophy be real, including that of positivism?

Might I suggest as an alternative what I call "enlightened empiricism"? In this view as in positivism, all knowledge is tied to our senses, but unlike positivism, the senses are only the beginning of our knowledge. We can reason to things that are invisible, e.g., atoms, quarks,... even (dare I say it?) God. Unlike positivism, enlightened empiricism is not closed to a larger picture of reality beyond our senses (indeed, as I've already pointed out, positivism is so restrictive that it is even closed to the possibility of its own truth).

You might find this applicable, even helpful: Personal Exemption

LG

Doctor Logic said...

Hi LG,

Let's see if I understand what you're saying.

I agree that we often regard witnesses under duress or intoxication as unreliable guides to the truth. However, we have no objection to duress when imposed to increase fidelity to the truth (e.g., perjury laws). If I understand your claim, it is that, to the extent that determinism places every element of reason under the duress of the laws of nature, a deterministic mind is not free to speak truthfully. Yet, I have already provided the counterexample.

Your argument denies the possibility of having a deterministic machine that truthfully models its environment. Yet, this is precisely what evolution has rendered. That is, we are constrained by the laws of physics to accurately (if imprecisely) measure the physical world. In prehistory, perjury meant starvation, predation, disease, etc. We evolved to model reality with some accuracy.

Thus, the argument seems to fail before we even get to defining what the term "free" could possibly mean when "deterministic" and "random" appear to describe all logical alternatives.

As for logical positivism, it is not at all self-defeating. It holds only two assumptions: consistency and predictability (natural law). Further, the Principle of Verifiability is not a discovery about meaning (as if meaning was floating out there somewhere). Rather, it is a definition of meaning, namely, that you know the meaning of a proposition when you know what other propositions are implied (and what others are denied) by its truth.

That is, if I give you a proposition, you only know its meaning when you can say what its consequences would be if it were true. This simple definition sets the bar very low. I cannot imagine a proposition whose meaning I could claim to know, but whose consequences for other propositions would be nonexistent.

This simple principle cleaves the realm of consistent systems into two categories. Consistent systems of propositions whose truth values are determined wholly by axiomatic assumption are mathematical. Consistent systems of propositions whose truth values are determined by both mathematical axioms and empirical facts are called physical theories. Mathematics and science span all meaningful, consistent systems.

Consistency and natural law are themselves empirical. There are well defined experimental tests for consistency, and well defined tests for the existence of laws (i.e., prediction). [I consider all of experience to be empirical, including mental sensation.]

The idea of reasoning to things that are invisible is completely within the realm of logical positivism. Patterns in observation are explained by consistent sets of propositions in which measurements act like axioms. A prediction is a statement about what empirical axioms can be added to the system without rendering the system inconsistent. So, quarks fit into LP very nicely as long as they remain observable patterns, or at least predict observation.

On the other hand, God is very different from quarks. God is not part of a predictive theory because no empirical proposition renders Godly systems inconsistent (either that or consistency isn't important to them).

Now, if God has a naturalistic definition (e.g., God is Seti I), then we're speaking sensibly. Otherwise, statements about God are just mathematics with worldy symbols. You can claim that you know the meaning of "God is good" because it implies that "What he creates is good" or somesuch, but none of these propositions would be inconsistent with any potential empirical measurement.

So logical positivism can only be abandoned by dropping one of these three tenets:

1) The world is consistent.
2) The world obeys natural laws.
3) The meaning of a proposition is expressed by its consequences for other propositions.

Knowledge is impossible outside (1) and (2), and, as I said, I can't imagine setting the bar any lower for the definition of meaning. This is not to say that LP has proof that (1) and (2) are always true, only evidence that we cannot know anything where they do not hold.

Lawrence Gage said...

Doctor Logic,

Thank you for your very careful reply. A few comments:

As far as your three principles are concerned, it is impossible to deny a plain reading of any of them, that is to say, a reading given the normal defintions of the words. Problem is that you're smuggling in a truckload of assumptions by narrowly re-defining such words as "meaning" and "proposition."

However, we have no objection to duress when imposed to increase fidelity to the truth (e.g., perjury laws).

You might equally say that the mechanical laws governing the human vocal system determine the message, or that the syntactical rules of language determine it.

But as I specified, I meant determining the content of the message. Perjury laws do not determine the content, merely constrain the message to a (wide) range of possibilities consistent with reality, that is to say, they bloster a witness's resolve to tell truth, thereby increasing his freedom from outside influences. The fact that perjury penalties are so rarely enforced is ample evidence that they don't determine content.

Your argument denies the possibility of having a deterministic machine that truthfully models its environment.

Notice that such a machine has to be the creature of an intelligent and free agent. Evolution may create a context for purposeful (human) behavior, but it doesn't explain it.

As Ellis wrote, "A simple statement of fact: there is no physics theory that explains the nature of, or even the existence of, football matches, teapots, or jumbo-jet aircraft."

To claim the contrary is an act of faith.

In prehistory, perjury meant starvation, predation, disease, etc.

Are you actually listening to what you are writing? It's a silly assertion. Quite the contrary, lying and deceit are often beneficial to an individual's or a people's continued existence. (Not that I think they are good.) In case you need an example, take the Trojan Horse. On the other side, telling the truth is often hazardous to one's career, if not life; again in case you need an example, whistleblowers fired by their employers.

Thus, the argument seems to fail before we even get to defining what the term "free" could possibly mean when "deterministic" and "random" appear to describe all logical alternatives.

I don't follow you: I don't see why there should be only those two alternatives. Just because you can't imagine a term's meaning, doesn't make it meaningless; that seems rather an arrogant claim.

"Random" is not even a (causal) explanation, but only a description we resort to when we cannot adequately trace back to concrete causes.

Mathematics and science span all meaningful, consistent systems.

Can you verify that assertion?

What about consistent systems of propositions about propositions? Are those meaningful?

I'm not sure you are inadequately representing positivism, but as far as consistent axiomatic systems are concerned, Kurt Gödel showed quite handily that an axiomatic system as uncomplicated as arithmetic can't be both consistent and complete. So if your consistency criterion obtains, I'm afraid that you can't simultaneously claim your system to comprehend reality.

Consistency and natural law are themselves empirical. There are well defined experimental tests for consistency, and well defined tests for the existence of laws (i.e., prediction).

There may be empirical tests of consistency and natural law, but the act of performing such tests assumes their validity, and I'm afraid you can't prove something by assuming it to be true. Unless you're illogical.

Finally, define "good."

LG

Doctor Logic said...

LG,

You say:
You might equally say that the mechanical laws governing the human vocal system determine the message, or that the syntactical rules of language determine it.

Yes. And you can also say that the actuators on the fins of a missile determine its target. However, you can also say that the motions of the actuators are determined by the electric current controlled by the guidance system, and so on. Eventually, we get back to the fingers that typed in the target coordinates, the history of human migration, the evolution of man, the Cambrian Explosion and so on. What we regard as "target" (the "message" of the missile) is subjective, and whatever we choose as the meaning of "target," that target is determined by many causes tracing back through deep time. There's nothing missing in this formulation. What are you looking for?

Notice that such a machine has to be the creature of an intelligent and free agent. Evolution may create a context for purposeful (human) behavior, but it doesn't explain it.

I do not understand this claim. Rabbits truthfully model their environment, as do cockroaches and amoebas. Are you denying they evolved or saying something else?

Quite the contrary, lying and deceit are often beneficial to an individual's or a people's continued existence. (Not that I think they are good.)

Not when lying to oneself, which is precisely what your court analogy was all about in the first place.

Philosophy is primarily about how we each know reality, not how we all know about reality. Philosophy of consensus is a second order task that follows later, after we have established the philosophical status of other people.

"Random" is not even a (causal) explanation, but only a description we resort to when we cannot adequately trace back to concrete causes.

I'm hip to that. A random event is one for which no rule of causation can be found. But if an apparently random event is explicable in principle, then it is caused by discoverable natural laws, right?

If you want to introduce new categories, you must justify them and explain how we are to tell the categories apart. If you want to say that some in-principle random events are "free" instead of generically random, then you had better have a recipe for saying which are which. If you don't, then why not invent four billion different categories instead of just one? The burden is yours, not mine.

Occam's Razor works well here. Why introduce this "free" category if it serves no detectable or explanatory function?

The only function it serves is to sometimes alter the perceived moral consequences of materialism, which is not an explanatory function.

Kurt Gödel showed quite handily that an axiomatic system as uncomplicated as arithmetic can't be both consistent and complete.

Gödel's Theorem is irrelevant, since I do not claim that we can prove every true proposition. For example, the Goldbach Conjecture might be true, but unprovable. Would this be cause to abandon mathematics and arithmetic? Hardly.

There may be empirical tests of consistency and natural law, but the act of performing such tests assumes their validity, and I'm afraid you can't prove something by assuming it to be true.

As I said, I do not claim to prove that these two assumptions are true. That's why they are axioms (assumed truths).

In order to have any argument of any kind, you must assume consistency and natural law. So, it would appear that no one can prove their global validity. This does not prevent us from determining the effects of their local invalidity.

My purpose in stating that they are empirical is just to establish that they are scientific concepts.

Finally, define "good."

Sure. Good is something that I sense, much in the same way that I sense "sweetness" or "coldness," but a bit more complex. As with sweetness, my sense of what is good changes with time. My good is an aggregate sense of what has historically been pleasurable for me, and what actions typically have a pleasurable return. Since it is an integrative concept, it is possible for me to regard some actions as good (likely to induce pleasure), even when those actions would actually cause short term damage (or even death) to me.

The same can be said of concepts like "scary." Scary is an aggregate of experiences that have made me feel fear. Thinking "scary" triggers memories of things that have inspired fear. And that which is "scary" changes from time to time as I get new experiences.

BTW, the science of autoassociative neural memories provides an excellent explanation of all of these concepts.

Because every person has different experiences, our respective goods (or scaries) are all different. Yet, commonalities in our biology often lead to commonalities in our sense of good (and scary).

Good needn't be magic/unexplained.

Lawrence Gage said...

You never answered my question:

What about consistent systems of propositions about propositions? Are those meaningful?

LG

Mahndisa S. Rigmaiden said...

03 14 06

Hey LG: Thanks for asking the salient question on the blog. I responded by doing a post on the matter. Needless to say, forget about divergent p series and remember about geometric series. Can you smell Fermi Dirac distribution?!! ahhahahahahahha This is a wonderful experience and I am honored that you took the time to stop by and comment on my musings. Thanks a bunch.

Anonymous said...

03 14 06

Dr. Logic:
thanks for your response. I might take issue with the assertion that Young's work was predicted by the formalism of the day, however I generally agree with your other statements. This is an interesting blog.

Doctor Logic said...

LG,

What about consistent systems of propositions about propositions? Are those meaningful?

Sorry, I forgot to answer that question.

A proposition is meaningful when we know what it entails. In other words, if we have a recipe for determining the non-trivial consequences of the proposition, then we know what it means.

If I know how to compute the truth value of "this is a consistent and complete mathematical system," then I know its meaning.

This is not to say that the computation will necessarily terminate.

For example, I know the meaning of the following program:

a = 0;
do { a++; } while (true);
return a;

This is not to say that I know its return value.

The meaning of my program is in its method of execution.

What does my program say about the world beyond computation? Nothing, unless it is part of a physical theory with experimental (experiential) consequences (which would seem improbable).

Compare this with a proposition like "God is good." Certainly, we can cook up propositions that follow from this one, e.g., "God is not evil," "no act of God is evil," etc.

Can the proposition "God is good" have a more extended meaning? If "God is good" is about the world, then there must be empirical, experiential propositions that are implied or denied by its truth. I know of few theologians who would claim that the proposition "God is good" is scientifically testable (no matter how many innocent people die). Thus, the meaning of "God is good" remains confined to a bunch of similarly non-empirical propositions (like "no act of God is evil"), making them mathematical, and not about the non-mathematical world.

In summary, yes, there are propositions about propositions that are meaningful.

Can we always determine whether a given set of propositions is consistent? No. But we know what we mean when we ask the question.

Lawrence Gage said...

Please forgive my delay in replying. I was caught a little off-guard by your statement about theologians (to which I will return).

Sure. Good is something that I sense, much in the same way that I sense "sweetness" or "coldness," but a bit more complex. As with sweetness, my sense of what is good changes with time. My good is an aggregate sense of what has historically been pleasurable for me, and what actions typically have a pleasurable return. Since it is an integrative concept, it is possible for me to regard some actions as good (likely to induce pleasure), even when those actions would actually cause short term damage (or even death) to me.

It is a grand mistake to subjectivize goodness. On the contrary, goodness has an objective existence apart from human perceptions because nature has its own dynamics with their own fulfillment. The growth of a tree is good, for example. Even things that I take as bad have their own proper goodness, for example, the growth of fruitflies in my fruit bowl. Everything in the world strives for its own particular fulfillment, or good.

If we fail to recognize the natural goodness in the world, we are left with the fruits of only our own puny efforts--certainly a recipe for unhappiness and neuroses: as modern science has so famously shown us, we are only very small in a very big universe.

I know of few theologians who would claim that the proposition "God is good" is scientifically testable (no matter how many innocent people die).

You seem to be saying more about the ignorance of the theologians of your acquaintance than about the reality of the universe. There are many empirical ways that God's goodness is evident. The "big" cosmological controversy these days is over the source of anthropic coincidences: why do the fundamental physical constants (fine structure, gravitational constant, etc.) have the precise values that allow life not only to exist, but even to flourish? The best treatment I've seen of the subject is Stephen Barr's Modern Physics, Ancient Faith. It's become such an issue that more recently Leonard Susskind (The Cosmic Landscape) has tried to obviate the obvious embarrassment by proposing a multitude of universes (as if somehow intrinsically less incredible than a single Creator!) to span the infinity of possible parametric values.

Taking "empirical" in a broader sense, there are many other sensible (if not specifically quantifiable) signs of God's providence in the world: in the first place that the world exists at all (since none of its parts exist necessarily); in the second place that it is governed by regular laws. Both of these facts, like so much else in the modern, developed world, are often taken for granted.

Additionally, there are the historical signs of God's providence: the continued, recognizable existence of the Jewish people, the improbable endurance of the Catholic Church beyond anything that could be expected of a purely human institution, the unique birth of modern science in Western Christendom.

(My list of examples does not pretend to be exhaustive.)

As to the problem of evil to which you allude, the objection is certainly classic, but you need to realize that in focusing on the evil you are describing the proverbial glass as half empty instead half full; you're still left with explaining the world's goodness and existence--the prerequisite to evil's presence.

But how to explain evil? To my mind the Judeo-Christian belief that evil was brought into the world by the original human sin is more than adequate. (There are other explanations out there too.) The best thing to read on the subject is extended grand inquisitor exchange between Alexi and Ivan in Brothers Karamozov.

So whether or not you choose to see them, there are ample signs of God's goodness in the world: the sun shines even if we refuse to open our eyes.

LG

Doctor Logic said...

LG,

Please forgive my delay in replying.

Take your time. I know you have midterms.

On the contrary, goodness has an objective existence apart from human perceptions because nature has its own dynamics with their own fulfillment.

By this definition, everything is good. A tornado is good when it fulfills its "tornadoness." A cancer tumor is good when it fulfiles its "cancerness," etc.

Taking "empirical" in a broader sense, there are many other sensible (if not specifically quantifiable) signs of God's providence in the world: in the first place that the world exists at all (since none of its parts exist necessarily); in the second place that it is governed by regular laws.

I'm afraid this doesn't work. You cannot say that the source of all order is something orderly without going into an infinite regress. The ultimate source of order can never be explained, for to do so would require a deeper rule or order to imply it. If you claim that the deeper order "just is," then why not do the same for the universe itself?

the continued, recognizable existence of the Jewish people, the improbable endurance of the Catholic Church beyond anything that could be expected of a purely human institution, the unique birth of modern science in Western Christendom.

Are you being serious? How about the continued recognizable existence of Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism? There are lots of made-up religions, and they would all exist whether or not there were any non-physical foundation to them. Take Scientology and Mormonism - they're a little less real than pro-wrestling, and a lot more deceptive. The difference between a made-up cult and a mainstream religion is only about 100 years.

I see no reason why Christianity, Judaism, or any other faith should get a free pass. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It is a question of signal to noise.

To my mind the Judeo-Christian belief that evil was brought into the world by the original human sin is more than adequate.

So God brought us into existence knowing we would be evil, then punishes us for eternity anyway? Or rather, punishes our children forever? You have to have a very malleable definition of good to have any of this make any sense.

Besides, given your definition of good, what could possibly be evil?

Indeed, what could you observe that would reduce your confidence in God's goodness?

Lawrence Gage said...

Dr. Logic,

You are correct in understanding me to say that everything has its own proper goodness. Evil as such doesn't exist, because evil is a privation, that is, a lack of a due good that only "exists" in a real thing. For example, while a man missing a leg is not evil, his incompleteness is evil, a physical evil. Cancer is a physical evil and cannot be good. Similarly moral evil is disorder in a human act. There's nothing wrong per se with taking a stapler from the company's supply closet, but if I'm stealing the stapler for my own personal use at home, the act is evil. There's nothing wrong with eating a hearty dinner, but if I eat excessively, the act is disordered, evil.

Another point: there is a hierarchy of goods in the world, and whether something is good (or bad) in the absolute sense comes from its contributing to (or detracting from) the ultimate good of the world. By "ultimate good," I don't mean the product of some mystical revelation, but the proper ordering of the whole (world), discernable by human reason.

I'm afraid this [attributing order to God] doesn't work. You cannot say that the source of all order is something orderly without going into an infinite regress. The ultimate source of order can never be explained, for to do so would require a deeper rule or order to imply it. If you claim that the deeper order "just is," then why not do the same for the universe itself?

Do you believe that everything has a cause? If so, then all order must have a cause in order, no?

What you say is quite reasonable: infinite regress as an explanation (as the Mormons at least tacitly believe) is quite silly. I do think that you ultimately have to trace the cause of order back to something beyond our comprehension (that we can make great progress in understanding, but can never fully fathom because of limited existences), something that, as you say, "just is."

You argument would be correct, except that it clashes with empirical reality: the ultimate order cannot be the universe. To begin, nothing in the universe explains itself, and unless you'd like to posit (as an article of faith) that the universe is greater than the sum of its parts (i.e., pantheism), then the universe, as a collection of contingent parts (that is, parts that could just as easily not exist as exist), is also contingent. Besides, if the universe did explain itself, why would there be a need for this tremendous human enterprise we call science?

But perhaps you can point me to your empirical evidence that the universe explains itself?

Are you being serious? How about the continued recognizable existence of Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism?

Ceratinly the more venerable creeds, like Hinduism and Buddhism, present an apparent obstacle to my argument. While I can't pretend expertise on those cultures, I would like to emphasize that in a reference to the Church I specified "purely human institution"; as far as my admittedly limited knowledge goes, Hinduism and Buddhism aren't institutions as such. In reference to the Jews, I meant as a people, not a religion. One might argue that the Hindus are a people (the Brits made up the word to categorize the adherents to the native pagan religions--plural--of India), but it's difficult to see how such a large population could fail to exist, whereas the Jews are numerically microscopic, and always have been. Ever meet a Hittite?

I'm having trouble in descerning your point in bringing up Mormonism and Scientology. There's a bit of a gap between even a few hundred years and thousands of years. Both examples are better categorized as businesses than religions in the traditional mold. Were I more sensitive, I'd be insulted by your parallel.

And of course, I forgot the obvious historical example: the Resurrection, especially as witnessed by so many Christian martyrs.

Or perhaps you can give me an example of a single cohesive delusion for which miriads of people over the course of centuries have willingly surrendered their earthly lives?

Of course, you haven't touched the historical reality of the unique birth of science in Christian Europe. But I suppose it's just as difficult to admit that science has a cause as it is to admit that the universe has a Cause.

So God brought us into existence knowing we would be evil, then punishes us for eternity anyway?

This is certainly an obstacle for a determinist like yourself, but if, like me, you believed that we are truly free, then God isn't obliged to save us from the consequences of our free choices. To many Jews, the problem of evil has indeed become an obstacle to their traditional belief in an all-powerful, all-loving God. Catholic Christians, on the other hand, sing at Easter, "O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, that gained for us so great a Redeemer!"

Indeed, what could you observe that would reduce your confidence in God's goodness?

Great question! Certainly, but answer me this first: is there anything you could observe that would reduce your confidence in positivism?

LG

Doctor Logic said...

LG,

I still don't quite understand your definitions of good and evil.

1) What sets the baseline for goodness? If we genetically enhance ourselves to have better vision, higher intelligence and long lifespans, does that redefine good? Or is too much life/intelligence evil? Is the good that which is natural? I don't see any effective recipe for saying what good is under this definition.

2) Is lightning good or evil?

Do you believe that everything has a cause? If so, then all order must have a cause in order, no?

Actually, I don't believe that everything has a cause. If the universe began with a single initial event, then no rules of physics are violated (not even conservation of energy). Furthermore, one could claim that certain aspects of quantum events are truly random, and therefore uncaused.

A theory of everything might explain every predictable observation. However, there cannot be a law that is an explanation of the sum of all laws. That would be inconsistent. Neither will it help to posit that the ToE is there "because of magic." Magic is a lack of explanations, not an explanation.

IOW, I fail to see what you are buying with your God hypothesis. God is just a label for unanswered questions.

You argument would be correct, except that it clashes with empirical reality: the ultimate order cannot be the universe.

I think you misunderstand me. I'm saying that the question cannot be answered. Not that I know the answer.

but it's difficult to see how such a large population could fail to exist, whereas the Jews are numerically microscopic, and always have been. Ever meet a Hittite?

Religion has had a survival advantage for most of past history. If you wanted to convince your fellow villagers to fight off invaders (or invade a nearby village), it would have been helpful to tell them that they weren't going to die in the process. So, religions were going to be around just by virtue of natural selection. Of course, some sects would be larger and more dominant than others.

In this case, one of the largest and most dominant religions, Christianity, was allegedly founded by a Jew, and its gospel preaches that Jews should be protected. Still surprised? I'm not.

Do you think God intervened to keep them around? Don't you think the surviving religion will always think this?

I think the cosmological principle applies here. Otherwise, we should ask why we're so special that the entire universe is expanding away from Earth.

I'm having trouble in descerning your point in bringing up Mormonism and Scientology. There's a bit of a gap between even a few hundred years and thousands of years. Both examples are better categorized as businesses than religions in the traditional mold. Were I more sensitive, I'd be insulted by your parallel.

And if you were a scientologist, would you not be offended by your own words? Why does Christianity get a pass where other faiths do not?

And of course, I forgot the obvious historical example: the Resurrection, especially as witnessed by so many Christian martyrs.

Can you understand why I don't find this convincing? You have suspended normal standards of doubt and skepticism in accepting this position. You would not give credence to flying saucers or Bigfoot claims, and they have film. Apart from the Bible itself (a political document), there isn't even any evidence that Jesus existed.

Of course, you haven't touched the historical reality of the unique birth of science in Christian Europe.

Science was born in ancient Greece and smothered by religion in the Dark Ages. In Europe, science was reborn in spite of religious efforts to kill it or control it.

This is certainly an obstacle for a determinist like yourself, but if, like me, you believed that we are truly free, then God isn't obliged to save us from the consequences of our free choices.

What is freedom in this context?

Either an event depends on prior causes, or it doesn't. If it does depend on them, then it must depend on them in a specific way (by natural law). Determinacy is a question of dependency. If a human decision is not determinstic, then it must be a function of something other than past history. Either it is a function of the future (in which case, the future is determined), or it is random. There are no other options.

Great question! Certainly, but answer me this first: is there anything you could observe that would reduce your confidence in positivism?

LP is founded on the assumption that at least part of the world is logically consistent and subject to natural law. This has been verified in the main. If our verification was made in error (hey, it's possible), then the world would begin to appear unpredictable, and we would have conflicting facts and memories of supposedly unique events. In the event of total breakdown, we would not have the faculties to know anything at all. The axioms of LP are those that permit knowledge itself.

I expect you accept these axioms, too. Without them, you could not have knowledge, nor trust rational thought.

Deuce said...

Good post, Lawrence. Ellis is quite right later on when he says that if free will doesn't exist, then science is invalidated. However, I think there's a bit of contradiction when he says this:

The human mind is physically based, but there is no hope whatever of predicting the behaviour it controls from the underlying physical laws. Even if we had a satisfactory fundamental physics 'theory of everything', this situation would remain unchanged: physics would still fail to explain the outcomes of human purpose, and so would provide an incomplete description of the real world around us.

Now, if the mind's action cannot be predicted from physical laws, but also requires another form of causation (reason), then how is it physically based? He should say, rather, that it's partly physically based. And from his own statement he should conclude that there couldn't possibly be a "physical theory of everything" because by his own accounting everything is not physical. A "theory of everything" that didn't account for everything wouldn't actually be a theory of everything. He seems to realize that physicalism contradicts rationality, but he seems to kind of want to have his cake and eat it too.

Btw, you wondered how far doctor(logic) would take his positivism. I invite you to read the comments in this post and the ones leading up to it. You'll see some classic statements from him in there. A couple of us pointed out that reason and objective truth were incompatible with materialism. He wasn't able to argue this point, and in his extreme and contradictory attempts to get around it, he ended up saying, quite forthrightly, that truth is a relative, subjective construction defined by the individual, and that rationality is an illusion. Of course, me telling you about it isn't half as good as reading it for yourself. You'll laugh, you'll cry, but mostly you'll laugh :-). That should give you an idea how far he'll take his positivism. When the incoherence of his position is inescapably pinned by force of logic, he'll just declare a pox on logic itself.

Doctor Logic said...

LG,

Yes, please do read my comments in Tom Gilson's thread.

Deuce,

Your statement is poor reflection of your own understanding of philosophy.

What we know (our starting point) is our experience of the world and our experience of our own reason. The goal is to explain and understand the processes that account for those experiences. You (and others) have declared that if human reason turns out to be due to deterministic (or deterministic + random) processes, then it isn't reason anymore. This blatantly contradicts the original definition of what we're trying to explain.

Lawrence Gage said...

Dear Dr. Logic,

I must yield to you, sir. I now see the great vanity of my effort to persuade or even to explain to you. Your ramparts are beyond my skills of explanation, or indeed I estimate, those of anyone who would take the time to attempt to communicate with you.

(I don't address the content of your posts here. Such discussion is one of the main points of business of this forum and will happen by and by in the posts; but even more I doubt the efficacy of discussing with you.)

Historically, the most successful way to win a discussion is to listen to the other person, try to picture the world from his point of view, and then argue based on premises he accepts. You defy this model. It is now clear to me that you use the phrase "I don't understand," not to seek understanding, but as a defense against understanding. Your invincible technique is simply to declare anything disagreable to you as apodictically unreasonable and thus a priori out of court. From this point of view, talking to you is very like talking to (religious) fundamentalists: the fall-back position is always simply "I don't buy it."

But perhaps your future comments will prove me wrong. Perhaps you will acquire a new attitude of engagement, or at least respect for your interlocutors' points of view. I can only hope so, because it is clear to me that you have many valuable things to contribute, if you can only channel your energies to engage discussion civilly.

The ball's in your court.

LG