Were You a Quembryo?

…given its implicit Aristotelianism, the computationalist approach provides Thomists and other Aristotelians and Scholastics with conceptual and terminological resources by which contemporary naturalists might be made to understand and see the power of Thomistic, Scholastic, and Aristotelian arguments in natural theology. It might help them to explain both how the conception of nature on which traditional Scholastic natural theology was built is no pre-modern relic but is still defensible today, and how radically it differs from the conception of Paley and “Intelligent Design” theorists, whose arguments naturalists understandably regard as weak.

…what Searle and the Aristotelian can agree on is that the computationalist conception of nature is far more metaphysically loaded than most of its defenders realize.

From Aristotle to John Searle and Back Again: Formal Causes, Teleology, and Computation in Nature

See also:

Information is the new Aristotelianism (and Dawkins is a hylomorphist)

Scientific Metaphysics & Its Consequences

In a recent comment, Fifthmonarchyman engaged with my accusation that his remarks on what brains can’t do is based on his ignorance of neuroscience. He responded by saying

it’s not about neuroscience it’s about ontology.

Brains don’t comprehend because they are not minds. I would think that someone so enamored with philosophy would have a handle on different categories of existence.

It is precisely as a philosopher that I want to express my complete rejection of the assumptions implicit in this remark.

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Thorp, Shannon: Inspiration for Alternative Perspectives on the ID vs. Naturalism Debate

The writings and life work of Ed Thorp, professor at MIT, influenced many of my notions of ID (though Thorp and Shannon are not ID proponents). I happened upon a forgotten mathematical paper by Ed Thorp in 1961 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that launched his stellar career into Wall Street. If the TSZ regulars are tired of talking and arguing ID, then I offer a link to Thorp’s landmark paper. That 1961 PNAS article consists of a mere three pages. It is terse, and almost shocking in its economy of words and straightforward English. The paper can be downloaded from:

A Favorable Strategy for Twenty One, Proceedings National Academy of Sciences.

Thorp was a colleague of Claude Shannon (founder of information theory, and inventor of the notion of “bit”) at MIT. Thorp managed to publish his theory about blackjack through the sponsorship of Shannon. He was able to scientifically prove his theories in the casinos and Wall Street and went on to make hundreds of millions of dollars through his scientific approach to estimating and profiting from expected value. Thorp was the central figure in the real life stories featured in the book
Fortune’s Formula: The Untold Story of the Scientific Betting System that Beat the Casino’s and Wall Street by William Poundstone.
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Galen Strawson’s Panpsychism

This Strawson piece just appeared in the NY Times.

It’s a position that I found attractive long ago.  FWIW, I preferred Strawson’s father as a philosopher but I give the son some credit for consistently pushing this position for years.  (IIRC, correctly, he also has no sympathy for compatibalism, and is an old-fashioned hard determinist.

What do y’all think?

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Radical Agnosticism

A few times I’ve referred to my view about “the God question” as “radical agnosticism.” I thought it might be fun to work through what this means.

For the purposes of this discussion, by “God” I shall mean follow Hart’s definition of God as “the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things” (The Experience of God, p. 30).

Next, I shall stipulate that our assertions about the world fall into two classes: those that take a truth-value in all possible worlds and those that take a truth-value only in the actual world. This is a contemporary version of “Hume’s Fork”: there are “relations of ideas”, “truths of reason”, analytic a priori claims and then there are “matters of fact”, “truths of fact,” synthetic a posteriori claims. (There are some reasons to be skeptical of this neat distinction but I’ll leave that aside for now.)

Whether or not God exists would therefore seem to be either a “truth of fact” or a “truth of reason”.  I shall therefore now argue that it cannot be either.

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Biology as viewed through 19th Century Lenses

Most modern readers have difficulty appreciating the resilience of spiritual or metaphysical overtones to 19th Century scientific thought, alternatively referred to as “vitalism” & “teleology”. At this point, a quick historical digression is in order.

What exactly is life?”! Traditional education systems were well-grounded in the classics, and many 19th Century naturalists could relate to an ancient Greek philosopher named Aristotle who was convinced no real boundary existed between “living” and “non-living”. According to Aristotle, non-living matter could give rise to living things because our universe possesses some vital life force or soul, “anima”, which could “animate” non-living matter. In Aristotle’s view: the universe, as a whole, had its own soul. In modern terms the universe could be considered as some giant fractal and we are all but elements therein. Even today, various mystical traditions hold similar ideas.

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What did Lamarck and Darwin really say?

Historically and conceptually, modern Genetics and modern Evolutionary Theory are closely intertwined. Mendel and Darwin both published their masterpieces in the mid-1800s and both were promptly misunderstood and discounted for half a century. Both theories required several more “kicks at the can” before final acceptance. Put simply: the Theory of Evolution itself evolved in response to an emerging understanding of Genetics.

Some quick questions:

Question: Name the scientist that first suggested “the effects of use and disuse” were passed from one generation to the next?

Answer: Charles Darwin and NOT Jean-Baptiste Lamarck who actually had a somewhat different theory.

Question: Name the scientist who first to employed the term evolve/evolution while also suggesting human beings had “evolved” from apes?

Answer: That would be Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. (Lamarck in fact invented the word “evolution”, a word which never appeared in Darwin’s Book “Origin of the Species”). Continue reading

The Disunity of Reason

Last night I was talking with an old friend of mine, an atheist Jew, who is now in the best relationship of her life with a devout Roman Catholic. We talked about the fact that she was more surprised than he was about the fact that their connection transcends their difference in metaphysics. He sees himself as a devout Roman Catholic; she sees him as a good human being.

This conversation reminded me of an older thought that’s been swirling around in my head for a few weeks: the disunity of reason.

It is widely held by philosophers (that peculiar sub-species!) that reason is unified: that the ideally rational person is one for whom there are no fissures, breaks, ruptures, or discontinuities anywhere in the inferential relations between semantic contents that comprise his or her cognitive grasp of the world (including himself or herself as part of that world).

This is particularly true when it comes to the distinction between “theoretical reason” and “practical reason”. By “theoretical reason” I mean one’s ability to conceptualize the world-as-experienced as more-or-less systematic, and by “practical reason” I mean one’s ability to act in the world according to judgments that are justified by agent-relative and also agent-indifferent reasons (“prudence” and “morality”, respectively).

The whole philosophical tradition from Plato onward assumes that reason is unified, and especially, that theoretical and practical reason are unified — different exercises of the same basic faculty. Some philosophers think of them as closer together than others — for example, Aristotle distinguishes between episteme (knowledge of general principles in science, mathematics, and metaphysics) and phronesis (knowledge of particular situations in virtuous action). But even Aristotle does not doubt that episteme and phronesis are exercises of a single capacity, reason (nous).

However, as we learn more about how our cognitive system is actually structured, we should consider the possibility that reason is not unified at all. If Horst’s Cognitive Pluralism is right, then we should expect that our minds are more like patchworks of domain-specific modules that can reason quite well within those domains but not so well across them.

To Horst’s model I’d add the further conjecture: that we have pretty good reason to associate our capacity for “theoretical reason” (abstract thinking and long-term planning) with the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and also pretty good reason to associate our capacity for “practical reason” (self-control and virtuous conduct) with the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (and especially in its dense interconnections with the limbic system).

But if that conjecture is on the right track, then we would expect to find consistency between theoretical reason and practical reason only to the extent that there are reciprocal interconnections between these regions of prefrontal cortex. And of course there are reciprocal interconnections — but (and this is the important point!) to the extent that these regions are also functionally distinct, then to that same extent reason is disunified. 

And as a consequence, metaphysics and ethics may have somewhat less to do with each other than previous philosophers have supposed.

 

 

Foundationalism and Anti-Foundationalism

There’s a deep and fascinating question about whether we need “foundations” in our philosophical system, and if so, why and what kind.

First question: is the foundationalism primarily epistemological (foundations of knowledge) or ontological (foundations of being)?*

Second question: insofar as foundationalism implies a hierarchy, is the grounding or fundamental principle at the top of the hierarchy or at the bottom?

These two questions give us four positions:

top-down epistemological foundationalism: rationalism
bottom-up epistemological foundationalism: empiricism
top-down ontological foundationalism: theism/idealism
bottom-up ontological foundationalism: materialism

The ontological foundationalism can be reductive or non-reductive. Hence:
reductive top-down ontological foundationalism: idealism
non-reductive top-down ontological foundationalism: emanationism
reductive bottom-up ontological foundationalism: physicalism
non-reductive bottom-up ontological foundationalism: emergentism

Likewise, anti-foundationalism can also be epistemological or ontological:

epistemological anti-foundationalism: pragmatism (or: the good parts of Hegel/Peirce/Sellars)*
ontological anti-foundationalism: process ontology (or: the good parts of Spinoza/Whitehead/Deleuze)*

The main reason why I have resisted efforts to interpret me as an empiricist or materialist is that both empiricism and materialism are forms of foundationalism. Since I am an anti-foundationalist (both in epistemology and in ontology) I am as opposed to empiricism as I am to rationalism, and as opposed to materialism as I am to theism. My views might look like those of an empiricist/physicalist, but only if one insists on interpreting those views through the lens of the foundationalism that I reject.

As time permits I’ll explore the arguments for epistemological anti-foundationalism and ontological anti-foundationalism. For now I just wanted to get the conversation started.

*I’m leaving aside ethical and political versions of foundationalism and anti-foundationalism, though I think that’s where the philosophical action is really at.

** I’m only citing philosophers in the Western canon here, but Nagarjuna in the Madhyamika tradition of Tibetan Buddhism developed a consistently anti-foundationalist epistemology and ontology one and a half millennia  before it was even conceived of in the West. Within the West, probably Nietzsche and Dewey would be the first consistently anti-foundationalist philosophers.

Intention, Intelligence and Teleology

On the left is a photograph of a real snowflake.  Most people would agree that it was not created intentionally, except possibly in the rather esoteric sense of being the foreseen result of the properties of water atoms in an intentionally designed universe in which water atoms were designed to have those properties.  But I think most people here, ID proponents and ID critics alike, would consider that the “design” (in the sense of “pattern”) of this snowflake is neither random nor teleological.  Nor, however, is it predictable in detail.  Famously “no two snowflakes are alike”, yet all snowflakes have six-fold rotational symmetry.  They are, to put it another way, the products of both “law” (the natural law that governs the crystalisation of water molecules) and “chance” (stochastic variation in humidity and temperature that affect the rate of growth of each arm of the crystal as it grows). We need not, to continue in Dembski’s “Explanatory Filter” framework, infer “Design”.

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Unyielding Despair

Gregory has made the connection more than once between atheism and despair. But he wasn’t the first.

That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

– Bertrand Russell. A Free Man’s Worship

I’m thankful that my foundation is not one of unyielding despair.

The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with with a problem of pure metaphysics; he is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do, or why his friends should not seize political power and govern in the way that they find most advantageous to themselves.

– Aldous Huxley. Ends and Means

I am also thankful that I do not believe that there is no valid reason why I personally should not do as I want to do, and that my friends have no desire to seize political power and govern in the way that they find most advantageous to themselves.

Dictionary halting problem makes A=A fallible

It would seem superficially this is correct

A=A, necessarily and infallibly true

but it is false for non-trivial A and where the EQUAL SIGN means equal in essence, not just equal in description. This is a consequence of the dictionary and halting problem that has been well demonstrated by first rate mathematical logicians and computer scientists (like Alonzo Church who was a devout Christian) who actually work with formal languages vs. people clinging to antiquated and non-rigorous theological notions.
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Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR)

The Principle of Sufficient Reason is a powerful and controversial philosophical principle stipulating that everything must have a reason or cause. This simple demand for thoroughgoing intelligibility yields some of the boldest and most challenging theses in the history of metaphysics and epistemology. In this entry we begin with explaining the Principle, and then turn to the history of the debates around it.

Principle of Sufficient Reason

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Materialism

n a piece posted on the Discovery Institute website, responding to bad publicity surrounding the Wedge Document , the author or authors write:

Far from attacking science (as has been claimed), we are instead challenging scientific materialism –  the simplistic philosophy or world-view that claims that all of reality can be reduced to, or derived from, matter and energy alone. We believe that this is a defense of sound science.

So there we have a one definition of “scientific” materialism: “the world-view that claims that all of reality can be reduced to, or derived from, matter and energy alone”.

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