Science

In my last post I argued that physicalism cannot be rejected simply because people assert there are nonphysical objects which are beyond specification. Some are, however, specifiable, and one commentator has identified the obvious ones: abstract objects like the rules of chess or numbers. I have dealt with these before in my “Pizza reductionism” post, which I invite you to go read.

Done? OK, then; let us proceed.

It is often asserted that there are obviously things that are not physical, such as ideas, numbers, concepts, etc., quite apart from qualia, I once sat with a distinguished philosopher, who I respect greatly and so shall not name, when he asserted that we can construct natural classifications because we can deal first with the natural numbers. I asked him “In what sense are numbers natural objects?”, meaning, why should we think numbers are entities in the natural world. He admitted that the question had not occurred to him (I doubt that – he is rather smart), but that it was simply an axiom of his philosophy. I do not think such abstract objects are natural.

This applies to anything that is “informational”, including all semantic entities like meanings, symbols, lexical objects, and so on. They only “exist” as functional modalities in our thoughts and language. I have also argued this before: information does not “exist”; it is a function of how we process signals. Mathematics is not a domain, it is a language, and the reason it works is because the bits that seriously do not work are not explored far[*] – not all of it has to work in a physical or natural sense, but much of it has to, or else it becomes a simple game that we would not play so much.

So the question of the incoherence of physicalism is based on the assumption (which runs contrary to physicalism, and is thus question begging) that abstract objects are natural things. I don’t believe they are, and I certainly do not think that a thought, or concept, for example, which can be had by many minds and is therefore supposed to be located in none of them (and thus transcendental), really is nonphysical. That is another case of nouning language. The thought “that is red” exists, for a physicalist, in all the heads that meet the functional social criteria for ascriptions of red. It exists nowhere else – it just is all those cognitive and social behaviours in biological heads.

I’m riding roughly over some fine grained philosophical issues here, I know; but we don’t need to resolve these yet. It’s enough to say that the abstraction objection (which deserves initial capitals: Abstraction Objection to Physicalism, or AOP, because philosophers love acronyms even though it impedes communication) simply fails on the face of it, and needs a whole lot more work to make a prima facie objection. But because we privilege the mental, linguistic and formal (as philosophers) over the physical, it appears to have some probative (i.e., evidentiary) force in the debate. But this has never to my mind been shown.

By the way, the view of abstract objects I prefer is that of Ed Zalta, who defines an abstract object as an object that is not located in space or time. If physicalism is true, abstract objects are only concrete objects without the location indices. And since everything has a location index under physicalism (even if vaguely), abstract objects are fictions we find useful. Much of the supposed counter instances to physicalism are useful fictions, like corporate personhood.

In the first post I dealt with the qualitative objection (sorry, Qualitative Objection), and now I have discussed the Abstraction Objection. Are there other objections to deal with? Our commentators have given us one, at least: the Purpose Objection. As Nagel (and Fodor) have argued, a naturalistic (that is, a physicalist) world view seems to have no place for irreducible purposes, and in a way that is true. The notion that purpose is a natural property of the universe is definitely not a physical notion. And yet, they say, living things have purposes, and without purpose there is no explanation of how the incredibly rare facets of life, and indeed life itself, could evolve.

But this is an asinine objection, again begging the question – since there is an assumption of purpose in the universe, the interlocutor has already rejected physicalism. Instead we should only ask if there is the appearance of this natural purpose, and there are satisfactory accounts of that. We might say that purposes are determined by functional success. But this is not the Nagel-Fodor objection as such. Instead they find the very existence of selection processes and their outcomes unlikely to the point of miracle. I can understand they find this unlikely. But their own incredulity about physical processes leading to functional life and selection processes is based upon ignorance, as it is for those of us who find life and its processes very likely given the right circumstances – we simply do not know enough to estimate the likelihoods. After the fact, if life arose naturally (that is, physically), then the likelihood is one. But if we presume the likelihood is low, then the existence of life is a problem.

Do you see the trick? Assume that some directive purpose is necessary and you will find the natural existence of life unlikely, which you can then use to deprecate natural accounts of life. Again, it depends upon privileging something human – in this case, intelligent purpose – in order to find processes that do not privilege the human somehow deficient. This, by the way, underpins (and the fallacy undercuts) the argument from design used by intelligent design advocates.

To summarise this already long post (sorry): if we assume that symbols are abstract then any statement of physics is a counter instance to physicalism; but if we are physicalists, then we do not assume that symbols are not physical. Physicalism is coherent, but you might need to revise some of your untested assumptions. And chance and necessity can deliver outcomes that we presume must be the result of design, since we are designing entities. Again, we beg our question.

One final point about design and directed purpose: the mere having of a purpose in no way guarantees that the outcomes will match it. As someone once noted, the lion intends to eat the gazelle and the gazelle intends not to be eaten, and yet the process that results is one of natural selection, which is an unsupervised process. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. The old saws cut best…

* Yes, I know mathematicians explore areas like group theory and spin glass and so on that later turn out to have practical implications. This should not surprise you. For a start, mathematics explores the implications of mathematics that does work, and also we mark it when bits of mathematics have applications. As Francis Bacon so rightly said, “Men mark it when they hit, but do not mark it when they miss”. In other words, the practicality of mathematics and all other logical formalisms is a Texas Target.

Every so often, we read about some philosopher or other form of public intellectual who makes the claim that a physicalist ontology – a world view in which only things that can be described in terms of physics are said to exist – is impoverished. That is, there are things whereof science cannot know, &c. A recent example is that made by Thomas Nagel [nicely eviscerated here by the physicist Sean Carroll], whose fame in philosophy rests with an influential 1974 paper that there is something like being a bat that no amount of physics, physiology or other objective science could account for.

Recent, Nagel has argued that the evolutionary view called (historically misleadingly) neo-Darwinism, is “almost certainly” false. One of the reasons is that “materialism” (which Nagel should know is an antiquated world view replaced by physicalism defined above; there are many non-material things in physics, not least fields of various kinds) does not permit a full account of consciousness; the subjective facts of being a particular individual organism. Another is that the chance that life would emerge from a lifeless universe is staggeringly unlikely. How this is calculated is somewhat mysterious, given that at best we only have (dare I say it?) subjective estimates anyway, but there it is.

But Nagel is not alone. Various nonreligious (apparently) thinkers have made similar assertions, although some, like Frank Jackson, who proposed the Knowledge Argument, have since backed down. What is it that physicalism must account for that these disputants and objectors say it cannot?

It almost entirely consists of consciousness, intentions, intelligence or some similar mental property which is entirely inexplicable by “reductionist” physicalism. [Reductionism is a term of abuse that means - so far as I can tell - solely that the person who makes such an accusation does not like the thing or persons being accused.] And that raises our question: is physicalism lacking something?

What I have been waiting for since I tricked independently upon a physicalist view aged 16 or so, is a reason to think that this is the case. What was once defined as irreducible (to physics), such as the fluidity or water or the ability to make abstract maps of the world and then to navigate it with some success, have been shown merely to be a matter of computational tractability, not logical or metaphysical impossibility.

Consciousness in particular strikes me as a ghostly strawperson. When one is asked to define consciousness, if it is done functionally, then we can understand that there are purely physical systems (including computers of some kind) that can replicate these functions. If it is done in terms of the subjective experience, then as I have argued before, even a digital camera has some degree of subjectivity. But if it is done in terms of ineffable experience, one has to ask why something that cannot be expressed clearly can act as a counterexample to states of affairs that can be expressed clearly and precisely.

Something that is inexpressible cannot exclude (or deny the completeness of) states of affairs that can be expressed. We may feel like there is a “what-it-is-like” to be conscious, but this alone doesn’t give us any reason to think that state is anything more than simply being conscious; in other words, of having a cognitive location, nature and capacity. What it is like to be a bat is just to be a bat; what it is like to be a human being is just to be a human being, and so on, right down to what it is like to be me (or any other individual) is simply to be that individual.

The ineffable states of consciousness, the qualia as they are called, strike me as a mistake of language. Once, Ludwig Wittgenstein noted that “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language.” (§ 109, Philosophical Investigations). Merely because we have such terms as “seems”, “feels” and phrases like “What-it-is-like” is no reason for us to conclude that there are seemings, (irreducible) feelings and qualia; to think so is to confuse verbs for nouns, or functional terms for ontologies. That we are conscious (that is, that we do things in a conscious fashion) is beyond reasonable doubt. That conscious behaviour implies Consciousness (the substance or ontologically irreducible state) is beyond credulity. We are being bewitched by our language.

Verbing

One major consequence of taking our verbing language as nounish is that we then tend to privilege our consciousness as the primary state of the world. I don’t mean panpsychism, although that seems to me a prime example of this mistake, but the idea that the world we experience is a mere construct of our [language | mind | worldview | etc.], as if we make the world in which we live. This mistake is rife in post-Idealist philosophy, and is perhaps an error assigned to the early empiricists, who asserted that all we know and experience is the evidence of our senses, making our senses primary to the world being sensed. This is akin to making the letter primary to the letter-writer, and even the postman. It appears in the claim that if two people have very different worldviews they literally live in different worlds (a view ascribed with varying justice to Thomas Kuhn, Immanuel Kant, and even Wittgenstein himself).

Where two principles really do meet which cannot be reconciled with one another, then each man declares the other a fool and a heretic. [On Certainty, §611]

Kuhn’s idea of paradigm includes this mistake, and generations of philosophers have repeated it, as if all that two different scientists who hold theories that are not reconcilable held in common was that they had theories, and not (as Wittgenstein noted) a form of human life, a shared culture and the rest. But anyway, back to physicalism.

One of the main criticisms of physicalism is that it leaves unspecified which physics is taken to be all there is. This depends upon the assumption, often repeated by philosophers, that what there is can best be derived from a formalisation of some theory in a domain, and as physics covers all domains, it must have all the objects. I do not think this. For a start, an ideal and final physics is very unlikely to be developed any time soon; each time we have declared that we now have the standard model of this or that we find things that undercut or extend our conceptions (dark matter, dark energy, etc.). But deeper than this, I think that no matter what we finally conceptualise the world to be, it is likely not to be the only formal theory that can do this.

Again, we verb our nounings.  If we have a descriptive model of the universe in some representation, it may be that we have cut nature at the joints that interest us, but that some other beings might find unintuitive and maybe even incomprehensible. So I cannot think that I must assume that what exists in the world are all and only the objects that have classifications in some theory, no matter how accurate, precise and universal that theory might be.

Instead, though I think that whatever does exist will be describable in a physics if we can only investigate it. For instance, were it the case that qualia existed, then I would expect them to have some physical, causal effect on other objects, in ways that were regular and manipulable. If there is no causal effect, then I cannot think that class of things is real. Any kind of coincidental parallelism between qualia and brain states, for example, strikes me as a scientific, not to mention a metaphysical, miracle, and miracles are the enemy of understanding. So I don’t exclude qualia because they are not physical, but because if they are physical, they are mysterious and miraculous and uncausal.

So, what ontology should we expect to get from a physicalism, and where might the gaps be? I might leave that until another post…

Adam Ford has added some more of the short videos he did with me a couple of weeks ago. I list them below. I might add that what missed the edit with respect to the Bayesianism versus frequentism video is that “This is not my field but I will give it my best shot”…

Bayesianism versus frequentism in epistemology

Scientific realism

Politics and Science

Maps and territories

Have fun. Criticisms welcomed, but understand I was doing all this ex tempore and without prior preparation.

As part of the Science Week activities that informed the last few posts, I will be giving a brief introduction to philosophy of science as well as talking about the relation between science and religion shortly. The organiser of this event (on 23 August, at the East Melbourne Unitarian Church) is Adam Ford, who interviewed me for a few hours in freezing cold but picturesque surroundings in the Melbourne Royal Botanical Gardens last Sunday (it rained, which is why I’m wearing a waterproof coat. I’m not trying to look outdoorsy). Here is the first of these pieces as Adam edits them and puts them up on Youtube:

More to come unless the decency police object to an old Australian…

The Rev. Dr Stephen Ames completes the series on genes as the language of God:

Our theme is asking if genetics is the language of God. John Wilkins has discussed in what sense can we say that ‘genetics’ is a ‘language’. His main point is that it is an analogy but one that is not illuminating. It evokes the idea of intelligible patterns in the structure of genes and the way they interact with the organism and environment to eventually bring living things into existence. A drawback for John is that it gives too much away to proponents of Intelligent Design (ID). I am not a proponent of ID.

Recall how talk about this discussion of the idea of genes as the language of God came about. On 26 June 2000 at the White House Bill Clinton as the President of the United States pronounced the first survey of the human genome 90 per cent complete. ‘Today,’ said Clinton, ‘we are learning the language in which God created life.’ Standing beside him was Francis Collins the Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute in America and headed an international race against time and commercial interests to sequence the 3.1 billion letters of the human genome.

The question whether genetics is the language of God comes through the religious belief that God is the creator of the universe, who sustains the universe in existence. Evolutionary science provides our best scientific account of how live has evolved, which includes the many new forms of life that have thereby come into existence.

For those who believe the universe is created by God, this is the idea that God creates ex nihilo – not from any previously existing ‘stuff’ – and sustains it in existence. Evolution and particularly genetics is part of how life in all its forms has come into existence. From a theological standpoint this is part of how God has created the life producing universe in which we live. Hence Clinton’s words and Collin’s book The Language of God, A Scientist Presents Evidence For Belief, (New York, Free Press, 2006).

This already provokes many questions. For example, aren’t religion and science in fundamental conflict? See the trials of Galileo – “By stifling the truth that was there for all to see, the Church destroyed its credibility with science.” [David Griffith after playing the lead role in Brecht’s play Life of Galileo in 1994.] Secondly, why supposedly, would God use evolution to bring life into existence? Doesn’t the book of Genesis present God speaking ‘let there be light’ it is was so, and so on for the sun and moon and plants and animals. God speaks and it happens. Another question is, ‘if God created everything, what created God?’ I will say a little about those questions later. For the moment let’s keep with our theme.

Galileo has something relevant to say. In 1615 he was asked by the Grand Duchess Christina to explain how to reconcile his telescopic observations and Copernicus’ sun-centred view of the universe with the Bible’s teaching that the sun, moon moved around the earth. Galileo answered in terms of God being the author of ‘Two Books’: the book of Scripture written in human language, and the book of nature, which God created, written in the language of mathematics and geometry. Because God is the author of both Books they cannot be in fundamental contradiction, when both are read correctly. (Of course how to apply Galileo’s principle will take us into another set of questions.)

Following Galileo’s view, not just genetics but the whole universe (multiverse), with its many levels and forms of intelligibility, including mathematics, may also be thought of as the many ‘languages’ of God. Here ‘language’ is used to highlight an analogy between human language and other different forms of intelligibility needed to understand the natural universe.

A Christian theologian, Maximus the Confessor (b. 580CE), understood the universe to be created through the divine Logos (Word) and as a result all creatures are many different logoi (words). Maximus would probably enjoy an idea shared by Prof. Paul Davies’ and philosopher of science Susan Haack; that scientific theories are analogous to a vast crossword puzzle with the ‘words’ being different theories interlinking, and the ‘clues’ being the empirical data of sciences.

One of John’s concerns is that speaking about genetics as the ‘language of God’ gives aid to the proponents of ID as they attempt to argue to God from the search for intelligent causes operating in nature. I am not a proponent of ID because I think it is a version of the ‘god of the gaps’ argument. By contrast it is quite possible to talk about the ‘fine tuning’ of the physical constants and laws of physics for the production of carbon based life, without presupposing or entailing a ‘Fine Tuner’.

Galileo is not doing this. He starts from the view that natural universe is like a book written by God (who created the universe), who as its ‘author’ has written it in the language of mathematics. This is a theology of nature. It seeks to interpret nature and mathematics in the light of a prior belief in God. It is not a natural theology, which attempts to prove the existence of God from using ordinary human reasoning about ordinary processes including all the natural processes that the natural sciences describe. This is what the ID movement is attempting to do. I think there are better alternatives. In any case, it is quite different from Galileo.

The idea of the ‘language of God’ or the ‘word of God’ meaning the language or word spoken by God is found in different religious traditions. For example for Hinduism Sanscrit is the language of the divine realm. In Islam Arabic is the language God chose to communicate the words of the Qur’an to the Prophet. In Judaism G-D gives speaks to Moses from the Burning Bush giving the divine name. Christianity believes that God has spoken in many different ways but now has spoken to us through his Son.

I have left some questions to be answered now. Let’s start with a very common question: if God created everything what created God? This is asked by Prof Dawkins and by Peter Adam and by students I meet. The answer is that if God created everything then any supposed ‘contender’ for the job of creating God has already been created by God. The atheist physicist Lawrence Krauss made this point in his book A Universe from Nothing, Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing, (New York, Free Press, 2012,p.173) made the point that if God is the cause of all causes, then you can’t ask what created God. People offer strong reasons for not accepting the idea of God – lack of evidence, the problem of natural evil, irrelevance, among others. But asking what created God is not a reason for rejecting the idea of God.

A second question: Isn’t there a ‘warfare’ or an inherent conflict between science and religion? This is known as the ‘conflict thesis’. It goes back to John W. Draper’s History of the Conflict of Science and Religion (1875) and Andrew D. White’s A History of Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). Historians of science since the 1960s have forced a profound rethink of this ‘conflict thesis’. Historical scholarship shows that deep theological commitments and motives underpinned the work of figures like Kepler, Descartes, Newton, Boyle who were the leading lights of the rise of early modern Science in Europe (16th–17th Century).

This brings us back to the Galileo Affair. It is very complex event set in the context of the Protestant Reformation and the Counter Reformation by the Catholic Church. When the Affair is used to promote the ‘conflict thesis’ a key point is the claim that Galileo showed us the truth about the solar system but the Church stifled this truth and destroyed its credibility with science. Galileo made stunning telescopic observations which certainly contradicted the old earth centred model of the heavens, with the sun and moon and planets circling the earth. However this didn’t prove the sun centred view of Copernicus. This is because all of Galileo’s telescopic observations could be explained by the famous Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601). In his model the sun circled the earth while all the planets circled the sun. The Jesuit astronomers of the day reproduced all of Galileo’s observations but espoused Tycho’s model. Galileo also supported his view with an explanation of the tides, which predicted a 24 hour cycle, not the observed 12 hour cycle. Galileo was alerted to this discrepancy but thought it could be explained by the odd shapes and varying depths of the ocean floor. The Galileo Affair does not support the ‘conflict thesis’.

Another question was why would God create a universe for some purpose and then use evolution to bring life into existence? For a fuller answer see my paper ‘Why Would God Use Evolution?’ in, J. Arnould OP, ed., Darwin and Evolution Interfaith Perspectives, (Adelaide, ATF Press, 2010), 105–128. Here are the ‘bare bones’. For some readers it may be the first time you have encountered theological reasoning. Here I am starting with a traditional idea of God that God is all powerful, all knowing and all good, who freely creates the universe ex nihilo and sustains it in existence. (This will be a theology of nature not a natural theology.) I am working towards understanding what kind of universe we might expect such a God to create (should such a God exist), by reasoning largely from the idea of God.

I draw on the work of a theological ‘giant’ Thomas Aquinas from the 13th century (see his Summa Theologiae 1a,103.6; 1a, 105.5). Aquinas asked whether God would create a universe in which things had their own real powers or would God be the only power in the world? Would it be the fire that warmed you or God in the fire that warmed you? Aquinas’ view was that God is the primary cause, creating from nothing and (continually) sustaining in existence all the secondary causes we see operating in the world. For Aquinas, God is that than which there is none greater. Therefore we should prefer to say that God creates things, with real causal powers, rather than with no real powers. This is because it is a greater exercise of power, which creates things that are not only good in themselves but the cause of good in others.

For Aquinas, God creates things in such a way that things have the dignity of also being causes, rather than, so I would add, the indignity of also not being causes. In God’s creation there are no ‘wall flowers’ – everything has a part, everything is a ‘player’.

On similar reasoning I should say that God maximises these features of creation, rather than minimises them. I should therefore prefer to say that this God creates a life producing universe, which is better than only producing an inert universe, or a merely mechanically interactive universe. Therefore we should expect that things make other things and overall creation makes itself as much as possible as a life producing universe. Of course this is easily extended to a life producing universe that produces intelligent life. This understanding of God claims to express at least one thing that is of value to God as creator: creatures as co-creators and that God maximises the realisation of that value in a created universe.

Now let’s pause here and ask what this theoretical idea of the God created universe might look like in fact. Can theology take us that far? The answer is ‘no’. Here is why. On the idea of God we are working with, God freely creates the universe ex nihilo. Because it is freely created we cannot derive in detail what the creation will look like from the idea of God. We should expect it to be an intelligible universe and open to rational explanations because God is all knowing and all powerful. Because the universe is created ex nihilo it means there was no prior ‘stuff’ that God used, so we can’t figure out from the ‘stuff’ what the universe might look like since there was no ‘stuff’. How could we find out what this God created universe might look like in fact? We would have to go and look, use all our senses to gather data and use our reason to understand it in different ways.

If you think that our universe is created by such a God then this would be the way to find out what kind of universe it is. This could take at least three quite different forms. One is scientific, another is theological and the other poetic. For example Charles Darwin, naturalist extraordinaire, did go and look and after gathering lots of data and lots of hard thinking came up with the theory of evolution by natural selection about the evolution of life by natural selection. He showed we are living in life producing universe. Secondly, If we used the ideas drawn from Aquinas then we could say that God uses evolution because what is of value to God is creatures as co-creators, all the way from the simplest to the most complex creatures. Perhaps one or more of the exoplanets astronomers are finding will have the ‘signature’ of life. Thirdly, an example of a poet extraordinaire is Gerard Manley Hopkins (see for example his poems, God’s Grandeur, and, The Windhover).

Finally, we come back to the question about what the Bible says on God creating the world. Everyone quickly turns to Genesis chapters 1 and 2. (A helpful book is S. C. Barton, and D. Wilkinson, eds., Reading Genesis After Darwin, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009). The above discussion seems very different. There are three brief points to make.

Firstly, it is a question of how to understand the text. St. Augustine (354–450CE) in his On The Literal Meaning of Genesis interpreted Genesis as saying the earth received the causal power to bring forth plants and trees, not that plants and trees were specially created. The above account expands this idea.

Secondly, there are many other accounts of creation in the Bible. For example John’s Gospel (1:1–4) speaks about the divine Word through whom all things were created (this was mentioned above in the work of Maximus the Confessor.) The above discussion fits well within that account of creation.

Thirdly, Galileo’s ‘Two Books’ principle says that if we are confident of our scientific knowledge of some part of God’s creation we ought to allow that knowledge to inform biblical passages that are speaking about the same part of creation. Galileo’s principle calls all who accept it to seek the theological message that God give us through the biblical passage.