Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Quote of the Day

Sexual eros points to something deeper in a second way. As we have just seen, it is a sign or type of a deeper reality, a kind of love for God of which we now just have hints and intimations. It is also a sign, symbol, or type of God's love -- not just of the love God's children will someday have for him but of the love he also has for them. As we noted above (p. 312), Scripture regularly compares God's love for his people and Christ's love for his church to the love of a groom for his new bride. Now a widely shared traditional view of God has been that he is impassible, without desire or feeling or passion, unable to feel sorrow at the sad condition of his world and the suffering of his children, and equally unable to feel joy, delight, longing, or yearning. The reason for so thinking, roughly, is that in the tradition originating in Greek philosophy, passions were thought of (naturally enough) as passive, something that happens to you, something you undergo, rather than something you actively do. You are subject to anger, love, joy, and all the rest. God, however, is pure act; he doesn't 'undergo' anything at all; he acts, and is never merely passive; and he isn't subject to anything. As far as eros is concerned, furthermore, there is an additional reason for thinking that it isn't part of God's life: longing and yearning signify need and incompleteness. One who yearns for something doesn't yet have it, and needs it, or at any rate thinks he needs it; God is of course paradigmatically complete and needs nothing beyond himself. How, then, could he be subject to eros? God's love, according to this tradition, is exclusively agape, benevolence, a completely other-regarding, magnanimous love in which there is mercy but no element of desire. God loves us, but there is nothing we can do for him; he wishes nothing from us.

On this particular point I think we must take leave of the tradition; this is one of those places where it has paid too much attention to Greek philosophy and too little to the Bible. I believe God can and does suffer; his capacity for suffering exceeds ours in the same measure that his knowledge exceeds ours. Christ's suffering was no charade; he was prepared to endure the agonies of the cross and of hell itself ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"). God the Father was prepared to endure the anguish of seeing his Son, the second person of the trinity, consigned to the bitterly cruel and shameful death of the cross. And isn't the same true for other passions? "There is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent" (Luke 15:7); is God himself to be excluded from this rejoicing?

Similarly for eros: "As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you" (Isaiah 62:5). The bridegroom rejoicing over his bride doesn't love her with a merely agapeic love. He isn't like her benevolent elder brother (although Christ is also said to be our elder brother). He desires and longs for something outside himself, namely union with his beloved. The church is the bride of Christ, not his little sister. He is not her benevolent elder brother, but her husband, lover. These scriptural images imply that God isn't impassive, and that his love for us is not exclusively agapeic. They suggest that God's love for his people involves an erotic element of desire: he desires the right kind of response from us, and union with us, just as we desire union with him.

We can take this one step further (and here we may be crossing the boundary into groundless speculation). According to Jonathan Edwards, "The infinite happiness of the Father consists in the enjoyment of His Son." This presumably isn't agape. It doesn't involve an element of mercy, as in his love for us. It is, instead, a matter of God's taking enormous pleasure, enjoyment, delight, happiness, delectation in the Son. Given the necessary existence of the Father and the Son, and their having their most important properties essentially, there is no way in which God could be deprived of the Son; but if (per impossible) he were, it would occasion inconceivable sadness. The love in question is eros, not agape. It is a desire for union that is continually, eternally, and joyfully satisfied. And our being created in his image involves our capacity for eros and for love of what is genuinely lovable, as well as knowledge and agenthood.

Accordingly, the eros in our lives is a sign or a symbol of God's erotic love as well. Human erotic love is a sign of something deeper, something so deep that it is uncreated, an original and permanent and necessarily present feature of the universe. Eros undoubtedly characterizes many creatures other than human beings; no doubt much of the living universe shares this characteristic. More important, all of us creatures with eros reflect and partake in this profound divine property. So the most fundamental reality here is the love displayed by and in God: love within the trinity. This love is erotic. It is a matter of perceiving and desiring and enjoying union with something valuable, in this case, Someone of supreme value. And God's love for us is manifested in his generously inviting us into this charmed circle (though not, of course, to ontological equality), thus satisfying the deepest longings of our souls. Within this circle, there is mercy, self-sacrifice, overflowing agape; there is also that longing and delight, that yearning and joy that make up eros.

Alvin Plantinga
Warranted Christian Belief

Monday, September 26, 2011

Pessimism and Aphorism

Maverick Philosopher analyzes some aphorisms of Emil Cioran. I would offer Cioran more grace with regards to their consistency: to be consistent is to be systematic and to demand that aphorisms be systematic is to demand a standard they are not usually trying to meet. It's hard enough to be systematic when you're writing a systematic work. Plus, if you're trying to point to the absurdity of life, as Cioran is, consistency may not be a high priority. Nevertheless, I agree that you can point to the inconsistencies and recognize them as such, I just don't think it makes him "an unserious literary scribbler".

I'm very glad I encountered God before I encountered Cioran (or Schopenhauer). I'm naturally pessimistic, so philosophical pessimism would have ensnared me. My soul yearns, my heart cries out ... for non-existence. As Cioran puts it, "Is it possible that existence is our exile and nothingness our home?" An image I've carried with me since I was a teenager is that I want to vomit myself up. I want to vomit until there's nothing and no one left. Of course, this is contradictory (thank God): I have to exist to vomit, so there would always be a core being that remains.

I doubt I would have realized this if I had encountered philosophical pessimism before Christ. But Christianity explains it perfectly. "So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God -- through Jesus Christ our Lord!" A part of me wants to say I don't want to do good, that's the problem -- but then why is it a problem? There's a part of me, however small you want to make it, that recognizes it's a problem, that wants to do good; and it is this part of me that rebels against who I am and what I do and wants to vomit it up, exterminate it. That part of me wants to do good, wants to be holy. Pessimism says that since a part of me -- perhaps a large part of me -- is enmired in sin, evil, absurdity, that all of me must be. But if all of me is so enmired, what's the part of me that recognizes it for what it is and rebels against it? As Maverick Philosopher writes, "Cioran's thought undermines the very possibility of its own expression. That can't be good."

Pessimism is too simple; it views the situation as univocal when it is really a duality. But that shouldn't be too surprising: reality is often more complicated than how we would like it to be.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Site Seeing

I've decided to combine three elements of my sidebar into one, and economize them a bit, under the title Site Seeing. These are simply websites and blogs that I find interesting. Some of the sites, blogs in particular, cover politics, but the fact that I'm linking to them should not be taken as an endorsement or agreement.

First are several philosophy websites and blogs. Dallas Willard is a professor at USC, and is an expert on the philosophy of Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology. His site includes most of his philosophical essays. But Willard has made a name for himself in the Christian community by writing some incredibly insightful books on spirituality and Christian living (I wrote about one here), and his site also includes a large collection of his essays on these subjects as well. If you're a Christian, I can't recommend strongly enough that you get to know his writings. Victor Reppert's blog, Dangerous Idea (derived from his book C. S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea, which defends the argument from reason) is where he writes about philosophy, theology, C. S. Lewis, politics, etc. Dangerous Idea 2 is dedicated exclusively to the argument from reason. Just Thomism is an absolutely outstanding philosophy blog, one of the best around. It's written by James Chastek. Bill Vallicella's blog, Maverick Philosopher is equally outstanding in this regard. The Prosblogion is a group blog written by numerous philosophers of religion and very interesting. Another link is to William Lane Craig's site Reasonable Faith, although you have to have a username and password to access much of it. If you don't want to do that, his old site is still up, and has most of the stuff available from the new site. Craig's contribution to academia is primarily in defending Christianity. He has written numerous articles on philosophical proofs for and against the existence of God, as well as issues regarding the historical Jesus. I also link to a site on his debates. I'm also including the Philosophers' Carnival which links to various philosophical blogposts every three weeks, but is hosted by a different blog each time.

Next are some sites dealing with Christianity and culture that are definitely worth your time. Books and Culture is an online magazine, although its most recent articles are usually only available in print. Yet it's still very much worth checking out. Another excellent online magazine is First Things. Next is a purely online resource called Leadership U. They have plenty of articles on religion and culture, philosophy, science, etc. An excellent blog on contemporary culture is The Anchoress, written by Elizabeth Scalia, who also writes at First Things.

I've also listed several sites that deal chiefly with religion and science. Bede's Library is the apologetics site of James Hannam, a philosopher and historian of science, and the author of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (US title: The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution. James's website explodes many of the myths surrounding the alleged conflict between science and Christianity, and I'm very pleased that he invited me, and a few others, to join him on his blog Quodlibeta (formerly Bede's Journal). The Counterbalance Interactive Library has a bunch of lectures and articles by leading scientists and philosophers of science, arguing most points of view. It really is an excellent resource. Another site is Reasons to Believe, a Christian ministry. I've belonged to a local chapter of it, and they also do an excellent job. However, they are critical of evolution, something I find unnecessary. Nevertheless, that is pretty much the only point where they conflict with contemporary science; most of the site demonstrates how modern physics, astronomy, and cosmology not only fit within the Christian worldview, but support it, often to the exclusion of other worldviews.

As for science simpliciter, I link to the Carnival of Space, which updates interesting stories and facets of space travel every week. Cosmic Log is a blog written by Alan Boyle and focuses on science, especially space science (something I'm very interested in), but also comments on other issues. It's a good starting place for scientific news and discoveries. A few sites that promote space exploration and getting permanent human colonies on other solar system bodies besides the earth are the Mars Society and the Moon Society. You can probably guess which bodies they have in mind. They are actually in slight conflict, since the Mars Society advocates their Mars Direct program to go directly to Mars without first setting up stations on the Moon. Two more sites along these lines are the National Space Society and the Planetary Society. Finally is Vintage Space, an excellent blog dealing with the history of space exploration.

Now for miscellanea: First is Homestar Runner. If you don't already understand why I'm linking to them, any argument would be futile. It's the source of my (former) nom de cyber, Tragic Clown Dog. Actually, it was a toss-up between that and Mushy Chamberpot, but my wife nixed the latter. Next, Things of Interest. I discovered this right before I started writing this blog. This guy writes all kinds of stuff, but the most interesting are his short stories. He is reminiscent, to my mind, of Fredric Brown, who I consider one of the better SF writers around in terms of short stories. I write short fiction too, and frankly I was starting to get a little impressed with myself before I read this guy's stuff. Some of the blogs from my old blogroll that successfully made the transfer include: Raskolnikov, Lost in the Cosmos, which I originally found by doing a Technorati search to see if anyone linked to my first blog. After reading him a few times, I was hooked. Besides, how can you not like a guy who names himself after a Dostoyevsky character? Wayfaring Stranger is written by Tyson, who I met him online a few years ago, after he linked to me. He's a father and a pastor, and has prayed for me during some hard times. Very nice guy. His blog is mostly concerned with religious issues from a specifically Christian perspective. Jacob Longshore writes the Wordverter blog. We know each other face to face, because we studied at the same school. Also a very nice guy, and an expert on C. S. Peirce (pronounced "purse").

Saturday, September 17, 2011

A Breath of Fresh Aire

When I was a kid my sister had the early Mannheim Steamroller albums and I just went rummaging through YouTube to find one particular tune from them that I've always found just haunting. When I get back to the States and my piano I'm going to get the sheet music to it. Here it is: Amber

While I was at it, I found a few more that I remember that are a little more, shall we say, jaunty. For example, The Cricket:

And The Third Door:

The first two are from Fresh Aire III and the third is from Fresh Aire II.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Quote of the Day

We must also recall that the whole scheme, the whole radical subpicture, seems incoherent in a familiar way. One who states and proposes this scheme makes several claims about the Dinge: that they are not in space and time, for example, and more poignantly, that our concepts don't apply to them (applying only to the phenomena), so that we cannot refer to or think about them. But if we really can't think the Dinge, then we can't think them (and can't whistle them either); if we can't think about them, we can't so much as entertain the thought that there are such things. The incoherence is patent.

Would it be possible to induce coherence by refusing to make the distinction between phenomena and noumena, speaking only of what, if we did make that distinction, would be the phenomena, and claiming that whatever there is, is either a bit of experience or an object constructed by us from bits of experience by way of concepts (i.e., rules for constructing things from experience)? That is extremely hard to believe: are the stars, for example, which, as far as we can tell, existed long before we did, either bits of human experience or objects constructed by us from bits of human experience? How are we supposed to make sense of that? On this view, furthermore, the objection to Christian belief would not be that serious Christians improperly take it that they can refer to God; the objection would be that there is no God. If there were such a person, he certainly wouldn't be either a bit of human experience or something we have constructed from it. Still further, on this picture we ourselves (because we are among the things there are) would either have constructed ourselves from bits of experience or we would just be bits of experience; but of course we couldn't have constructed ourselves before we existed, so we must have started off, at least, as bits of experience with the power to construct things. Not a pretty picture. And even if we could somehow induce coherence here, why should we feel obliged to believe it? What possible claim could such a bizarre scheme have on us?

By way of conclusion then: it doesn't look as if there is good reason in Kant or in the neighborhood of Kant for the conclusion that our concepts do not apply to God, so that we cannot think about him. Contemporary theologians and others sometimes complain that contemporary philosophers of religion often write as if they have never read their Kant. Perhaps the reason they write that way, however, is not that they have never read their Kant but rather that they have read him and remain unconvinced. They may be unconvinced that Kant actually claimed that our concepts do not apply to God. Alternatively, they may concede that Kant did claim this, but remain unconvinced that he was right; after all, it is not just a given of the intellectual life that Kant is right. Either way, they don't think Kant gives us reason to hold that we cannot think about God.

Alvin Plantinga
Warranted Christian Belief

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Images of Evil

(Update, June 14 2017: I've updated this post by substituting some videos that are clearer and altering some text that described the particular videos that were replaced.)

I suspect that as everyone from an older generation remembered where they were when they heard that President Kennedy had been shot, everyone from my generation will remember how they heard about 9/11. It's been ten years since those terrorist attacks, and it's far too easy to not think about the events of that day. I believe that these attacks were blatantly evil, and we have to remind ourselves of this in order to combat further atrocities from being committed in the future. So in order to recall that there is real evil in the world, here are the videos of the various plane strikes from 9/11. Bear in mind as you watch these that I'm not posting them to satiate anyone's morbid curiosity. You're watching hundreds of people, in the planes and in the buildings, being murdered. So consider that your content warning. Also, if you want to leave a comment espousing some conspiracy theory nonsense, find another website.

American Airlines flight 11
This is the famous and clearest shot of the first plane, filmed by the Naudet brothers, two French documentarians who were filming a documentary on New York firefighters. They completed it, although it became a documentary of 9/11. You can see part 1 here and then follow the links to part 2, 3, etc. The following video shows the plane hit then shows it again in slow motion.

This next one is much more difficult to see so I chose a video that stabilizes it, plays it several times, and slows it down. The guy who took this, Pavel Hlava, didn't even realize he had caught the first plane striking the twin towers until months later. After filming this part, he went through a tunnel, and upon emerging he filmed the second plane hitting the towers.

The next one is a collection of photographs from a webcam that was part of a video art project by Wolfgang Staehle, that took a picture of the Manhattan skyline every four seconds or so from the rooftop of another building. It has a picture of the plane approaching and then immediately after it hit. I had a video that showed the photos but it's no longer available, so here are the pictures. For some reason, in most collections of these photos, the middle one, right after the plane hits, is excluded.

The next one doesn't show the plane hitting the tower, but you hear it, and then the cameraman shows one of the towers and the smoke plume. It was filmed by a news crew from WNYW in New York.

United Airlines flight 175
After the first plane strike, everyone and their dog were looking up at the twin towers, and those who had video cameras were filming it. Thus the second plane strike was caught by multiple people from multiple angles, and millions of people saw it live on TV. Here's a compilation of 30 of the clearest shots.

And here's a collection that alleges to be all of the videos made public of the second plane strike, although the clips are shorter than the previous one.

American Airlines flight 77
There is very little video showing the plane that hit the Pentagon, although it was witnessed by hundreds of people. This shows the video taken from a security check-point. Like the Staehle webcam, you only see a snapshot of the plane on the right side of the video at 0:25 and then the explosion.

This next one shows only the relevant portion of the previous video.

And this one shows the same thing from the security check-point one lane over.

This video shows a computer reconstruction of the Pentagon plane strike, which then interposes it on the security video above to show how they match.

And this is a video taken from a security camera at a Doubletree hotel that shows the explosion but does not capture the plane approaching because of the relative positions of the camera and the plane.

United Airlines flight 93
The fourth plane that crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania was not caught on film. Up until a few days ago, the photograph below was the only known photo of the smoke plume created when it crashed into a field. This is the plane the passengers tried to take back, and forced the terrorists to crash it before it reached its target (probably either the United States Capitol building or the White House). The passengers may have been able to get control of the cockpit in the last few moments, but they were unable to stop the plane from crashing.

However, just a few days ago a family released a video taken of the smoke plume after the plane crashed. The man who shot it has since passed away, and his family wants to remain anonymous.

While hundreds of people were killed when the planes struck the towers, most of the people who died there died in the subsequent fires, or when they fell or jumped from the towers, or when the buildings collapsed. These were also filmed by multiple cameras and multiple news crews. So the prolificity of such videos is one reason why I'm not going to try to collect them all here.

Another reason is that my point in showing the actual plane strikes (or the immediate aftermath in the case of United 93) is to show the evil of 9/11 and I think that is best exemplified by the free actions of the terrorists who committed it (even though Islamic theology generally denies human free will). The reason I want to show the evil is because I think it must be confronted and stopped rather than glossed over or accommodated, and for obvious reasons, we want to forget the horror of that day. While the videos of the people jumping and of the towers collapsing are horrific, they are results of the original act undertaken by people who chose to align themselves with evil.

The third reason I'm not going to show pictures of people jumping from the towers to their deaths and the towers collapsing is that, frankly, I'm morally exhausted by all of this.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Social issues

1. I've taken several tests to determine my political standing -- not being intelligent enough to simply know them -- and here are the results of the most recent:

I feel neutral, oh so neutral...

This isn't too surprising, since my political views are not systematic but eclectic. Many of my answers were almost contradictory to other answers. I'm posting this so that next time someone tries to pigeon-hole me as one thing or another, I can just send them here to show them that the political world really does revolve around me.

2. One of the questions is whether patriotism makes sense, since we don't have any control over the citizenships we receive upon birth. I strongly disagreed with that. I didn't have any control over who my parents are either, but to suggest that therefore I shouldn't love them deeply, that I shouldn't be willing to sacrifice anything, perhaps everything, on their behalf is not only false but immoral.

3. Some friends sent me a couple of links, and I feel the need to pass them on. One is that Americans are still perceived as the coolest people in the world. The subtitle points out that Belgians come in last, and they sent me a link that emphasizes that point here.

Now as one of the coolest people living among the least cool, let me just say this in defense of the Flemingos: they get crap from all sides. Everybody hates them. They're like Europe's New Jersey. I have found them to be wonderful people and I greatly respect them. They certainly have a tendency toward passivity, but if everyone hated you, you probably would too. They've been conquered so many times that they can't be expected to be standing tall. What impresses me about them is that they're still standing.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Quote of the Day

The first move: materialism as scientific hypothesis
U. T. Place argued that it is tenable to say that certain events and processes traditionally classified as mental (for example, sensation) are identical with events and processes in the brain. That this is indeed so he labelled as materialism, and argued that it is in fact a scientific hypothesis. In response to Smart he agreed further that the conditions required for the assertability of such a hypothesis -- conditions under which alone such an identity statement can be true -- are subject to philosophical debate rather than empirical testing. But once such conditions are specified, the remaining question is empirical. For the described 'mental' events and processes have a certain complexity, which brain events and processes may or may not have. The name "materialism" is also given to this or closely similar claims about the psychological e.g. by David Armstrong.

There are three preliminary questions to be raised. First of all, not every replacement for what I have called the Thesis can be accepted as the 'real' materialism -- can this one? Since the main question before us is what exactly the materialist's main thesis could be, we should perhaps accept any seriously offered contender. But if we could identify certain familiar psychological events and processes with physiological ones in some not too weak sense, we would hardly be finished with the traditional concerns of materialism. That a person has a purpose, for example, does not consist in any specific type of occurrent event or process; nor that her sins are forgiven, that she is in a state of grace, or that she is precious beyond rubies. And these are only examples about persons; what else may there not be between heaven and earth never dreamt of in materialist philosophy? I don't want to be fanciful, but merely establishing that sensations are brainstates seems hardly more than a drop in the bucket for the materialist. The virtue of such a ringing Thesis as "Matter is All" was to settle the hash of all such stuff once and for all.

Second preliminary question: does the description of the 'mental' or the psychological in terms of which the replacement thesis is formulated, do justice to its intended concern? Armstrong was rather more conscious than Place of the second preliminary question when he was debating Malcolm, a Wittgensteinian. Today he would also have to contend with putative failures of functionalism, arguments that no computational theory of consciousness could even in principle be successful, and demonstrations that truth conditions for belief attributions must have historical and social parameters outside the believer.

But leave these debates aside. Third question: supposing the empirical claim is false, or is scientifically investigated and found wanting, will there or will there not be a fall-back position to call 'the real materialism after all'? It would be a poor game if after much scientific strife, the loser could say "that's not it at all, that is not what I meant at all." Well, what if we accept Place's or Armstrong's formulation, and their empirical claims are found wanting? Suppose, for example, that no neurological process can be identified which can even in principle predict human decisions reached simultaneously or at the exact end of that process. The next empirical question would be what probabilities can be assigned to the (neutrally described) actions being decided upon, conditional on the states of the central nervous system. If these probabilities cannot even in principle be made as near zero and one as we like, is that the end of materialism?

Think of the exact parallel: no quantum state will predict the exact time of radio-active decay. Is that the end of materialism? It is not; and neither would materialism come to an end if what humans do could be related only probabilistically to their brainstates. A favorite belief of the materialists would have to be relinquished, but they would all know how to retrench. For the spirit of materialism is never exhausted in piece-meal empirical claims.

The second move: whatever it takes
If you press a materialist, you quickly find that the most important constraint on the meaning of the Thesis is that it should be compatible with science, whatever science comes up with. This is contrary to what some of them say. If, they say, certain phenomena could not be explained purely in terms of material factors, then the scientific thing to do would be to give up materialism. But, holding the Thesis, they make the bold conjecture that this will never happen. That what would never happen?

If that question cannot be answered with a precise and independent account of what material factors are, there is still one option. That is to nail a completeness claim to science, or to a specific science such as physics. The instructive example here is J. J. C. Smart, who begins his essay "Materialism" with an offer to explain what he means:

By 'materialism' I mean the theory that there is nothing in the world over and above those entities which are postulated by physics (or, or course, those entities which will be postulated by future and more adequate physical theories).

He quickly discusses some older and more recent postulations in actual physics, which make that 'theory' look substantive. But of course the parenthetical qualification makes that discussion completely irrelevant!

Smart may believe, or think that he believes, the 'theory' here formulated; but if he does, he certainly does not know what he believes. For of course he has no more idea than you or I of what physics will postulate in the future. It is a truly courageous faith, that believes in an 'I know not what' -- isn't it?

Indeed, in believing this, Smart cannot be certain that he believes anything at all. Suppose science goes on forever, and every theory is eventually succeeded by a better one. That has certainly been the case so far, and always some accepted successor has implied that the previously postulated entities (known, after all, only by description) do not exist. If that is also how it will continue, world without end, then Smart's so-called theory -- as formulated above -- entails that there is nothing. Let's not be too quick to celebrate this demonstration of clear empirical content (about what the future of physics will not be like). Most likely Smart did not notice this implication and would have preferred to rephrase if he had.

In a clear indication that he is at least subliminally aware of the problem, Smart quickly adds some extra content. Not content with his initial formulation once he realizes that it is compatible with emergent properties, holism, and the irreducibility of biology to physics, he says

I wish to lay down that it is incompatible with materialism that there should be any irreducibly emergent laws or properties, say in biology or psychology.... I also want to deny any theory of 'emergent properties'.... (ibid. pp. 203-204)

We should read this as an amendment of the above definition of materialism, for the 'theory' formulated above does not fit this bill. We must wonder how Smart knows that it is not adequate. Is he perhaps telling us that either physics will forever eschew emergent properties, or else materialism is false? Since quantum physics provides, at this point, a clear example of holism, should we conclude that materialism has already come to an end?

Of course not. Faced with the consequences of the stance that materialism should be whatever it takes to be a completeness claim for physics, Smart started backpedalling. Everything that is "repugnant" to him (to use his phrase) may be incorporated in future physics. So he adds, in effect, that physics will be false if that happens. But faced with that consequence, no materialist will stick by him if he sticks by that. They'll point out, quite rightly, that he was of a 'classical' mind, and like so often happens with the older generation in physics itself, quite unable to assimilate new visions of the structure of the material world.

Materialism as false consciousness
So is it all just a matter of scientific reactionaries with their self-trivializing theses dressed up as uncompromising metaphysical constraints on science? No, it is not. For all this effort to codify materialism bespeaks something much more important: the spirit of materialism. Materialism is a hardy philosophical tradition, which appears differently substantiated in each philosophical era. Each instantiation has its empirical as well as its non-empirical claims, which interpret for that era, in its own terms, the invariant attitudes and convictions which I call here the 'spirit of materialism'.

How shall we identify what is really involved in materialism? Our great clue is the apparent ability of materialists to revise the content of their main thesis, as science changes. If we took literally the claim of a materialist that his position is simply belief in the claim that all is matter, as currently construed, we would be faced with an insoluble mystery. For how would such a materialist know how to retrench when his favorite scientific hypotheses fail? How did the 18th century materialists know that gravity, or forces in general, were material? How did they know in the 19th century that the electro-magnetic field was material, and persisted in this conviction after the aether had been sent packing?

Of course it is possible to measure certain quantities. But that cannot provide the criterion needed. Just think again of the transition from Cartesian to Newtonian physics. Newton identified forces as the causes of changes in states of motion. Accordingly, if you measure the direction and rate of change of momentum, you obtain a description of that cause in terms of its effects. (The recipe for measuring force direction and magnitude is exactly to measure those effects.) But it could be added consistently that these causes are immaterial, spiritual -- even mental, if Mind does not need to be someone's mind. If instead the forces are said to be material just like the extended bodies so classified before, the materialist must seemingly have some rather mysterious type of knowledge: a knowledge-that the newly introduced entities have the je ne sais quoi which makes for materiality.

But what is it then, in this metaphysical position, that guides the change in content, which it would be pedantic to signal with a change in name? If the "physicalist" or "naturalist" part of this philosophical position is not merely the desire or commitment to have metaphysics guided by physics -- i. e. something that cannot be captured in any thesis or factual belief -- then what is it? This knowledge of how to retrench cannot derive from the substantive belief currently identified as the view that all is physical. So what does it derive from? Whatever the answer is, that, and not the explicit thesis, is the real answer to what materialism is.

Hence I propose the following diagnosis of materialism: it is not identifiable with a theory about what there is, but only with an attitude or cluster of attitudes. These attitudes include strong deference to science in matters of opinion about what there is, and the inclination to accept (approximative) completeness claims for science as actually constituted at any given time. Given this diagnosis, the apparent knowledge of what is and what is not material among newly hypothesized entities is mere appearance. The ability to adjust the content of the thesis that all is matter again and again is then explained instead by a knowing-how to retrench which derives from invariant attitudes. This does not reflect badly on materialism; on the contrary, it gives materialism its due. But it does imply that only the confusion of theses held with attitudes expressed, which yields false consciousness, can account for the conviction that science requires presumptive materialism.

I mean this as a diagnosis of materialism, not a refutation. Its incarnation at any moment will be some position distinguished by certain empirical consequences, and these will either stand or fall as science evolves. But whether they stand or fall, materialism as general philosophical position, as historical tradition in philosophy, will survive. Given this, however, there can -- for that very reason -- be no question of regarding materialism as an assumption at the foundations of science. There is no 'presumptive materialism' which constrains scientific theories to consistency with certain determinate factual theses. For even materialism itself is not so constrained, and it survives by changing so as to accommodate the new sciences.

Bas C. van Fraassen
"Science, Materialism, and False Consciousness"
Warrant in Contemporary Epistemology: Essays in Honor of Plantinga's Theory of Knowledge

Monday, September 5, 2011

Thought of the Day

Jesus baptized death.