Saturday, December 4, 2010

The dreaded causa sui

There is no case known (neither is it, indeed, possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible.

Summa Theologiae I.2.3

If, then, something were its own cause of being, it would be understood to be before it had being – which is impossible…

Summa Contra Gentiles I.22.6

Was Aquinas mistaken? Could something be its own cause? Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow seem to think so. In their recent book The Grand Design, they tell us that “we create [the universe’s] history by our observation, rather than history creating us” and that since we are part of the universe, it follows that “the universe… create[d] itself from nothing.”

I examine their position (and the many things that are wrong with it) in my review of the book for National Review. What is of interest for present purposes is their suggestion that future events can bring about past ones. Could this be a way of making plausible “the dreaded causa sui” (as I seem to recall John Searle once referring to the idea in a lecture)? That is to say, might a thing A possibly cause itself as long as it does so indirectly, by causing some other thing B to exist or occur in the past which in turn causes A?

To be sure, Hawking and Mlodinow provide only the murkiest account of how their self-causation scenario is supposed to work, and do not even acknowledge, much less attempt to answer, the obvious objections one might raise against it. But one can imagine ways in which such a scenario might be developed. Suppose for the sake of argument that the doctrine of temporal parts is true. And suppose we consider various examples from science fiction of one temporal part or stage of an individual playing a role in bringing about earlier parts or stages of the same individual.

In his 1941 short story “By His Bootstraps,” Robert Heinlein presents a tightly worked out scenario in which his protagonist Bob Wilson is manipulated by time-traveling future versions of himself into carrying out actions that put him into a series of situations in which he has to manipulate his past self in just the way he remembers having been manipulated. That is to say, temporal stage Z of Wilson causes temporal stage A of Wilson to initiate a transition through various intermediate Wilson stages which eventually loop back around to Z. In the 1952 E.C. Comics story “Why Papa Left Home” (from Weird Science #11), a time-traveling scientist stranded several decades in the past settles down to marry (and later impregnate) a girl who reminds him of the single mother who raised him, only to discover, after his abrupt and unexpected return to the present and to his horror, that she actually was his mother and that he is his own father. Doubling down on this Oedipal theme in what is probably the mother of all time travel paradoxes, Heinlein’s ingenious 1959 short story “– All You Zombies – ” features a sex-changing time-traveler (“Jane”) who turns out to be his own father and his own mother. (Don’t ask, just read it.)

Now, if we think of each of these characters as a series of discrete temporal parts – again labeled A through Z for simplicity’s sake – then we might say that each part has a kind of independent existence. A, B, C, D, and on through Z are like the wires making up a cable, in which each wire can be individuated without reference to the others even though they also all make up the whole. The difference would be that while the wires are arranged spatially so as to make up the cable, the stages in question are arranged temporally so as to make up a person. And what we have in the science-fiction scenarios in question is just the unusual sort of case wherein some of the stages loop back on the others, just as some of the wires in a cable might loop back and be wound around the others.

Mind you, I do not in fact think any of this is right. I do not accept the doctrine of temporal parts, and I do not think that such time travel scenarios really are possible even in principle given a sound metaphysics. (I’ll have reason to address these issues in detail in forthcoming writing projects, so stay tuned.) But as I say, we’re just granting all this for the sake of argument. And if we do, it might seem that we are describing a kind of self-causation.

In fact we are not, at least not in the sense of “self-causation” that Aquinas is ruling out as impossible in principle. For notice that in order to make sense of the scenarios in question, we have had to treat each of the stages of the persons involved as distinct, independent existences. For instance, in “– All You Zombies –“ it is, strictly speaking, not that Jane causes herself/himself to exist so much as that the later stages of Jane cause earlier stages of Jane to exist. And since each stage is distinct from the others, we don’t really have a case of self-causation in the strict sense. For none of the stages causes itself – each is caused by other stages. The situation is analogous to the “self-motion” of animals, which Aristotle and Aquinas point out is not really inconsistent with their principle that whatever is moved is moved by another, since such “self-motion” really involves one part of an animal moving another part.

We might also compare these scenarios to the kinds of causal series ordered per accidens that Aquinas is happy to allow might in principle regress to infinity. The stock example is a father who begets a son who in turn begets another. Each has a causal power to beget further sons that is independent of the continued activity or inactivity of any previous begetter. Contrast a causal series ordered per se, the stock example of which is a hand moving a stone with a stick. Here the stick’s power to move the stone derives from the hand, and would disappear if the hand were to stop moving. In the strictest sense, it is not the stick which moves the stone, but the hand which moves it, by means of the stick. By contrast, if Al begets Bob and Bob begets Chuck, it is Bob who begets Chuck, and in no sense Al who does it. The reason the latter, per accidens sort of causal series might in principle regress to infinity, then, is that the activity of any member does not of necessity trace to the activity of an earlier member which uses it as an instrument. But things are different with a per se casual series, in which no member other than the first could operate at all were the first not working through it. (I had reason to say more about the difference between these sorts of causal series, and about what is meant by “first” in the expression “first cause,” in this recent post.)

Aquinas allows for the sake of argument that the universe might have had no beginning, given that the series of causes extending backward in time is ordered per accidens. When he argues for God as first cause of the world, then, he does not mean “first” in a temporal sense. His argument is rather that the universe could exist here and now, and at any particular moment, only if God is conserving it in existence, for anything less than that which is Pure Act or Being Itself could not in his view persist for an instant unless it were caused to do so by that which is Pure Act or Being Itself, to which it is related in a per se rather than per accidens way. In particular, anything which is in any way a compound of act and potency (as all compounds of form and matter are, and, more generally, as all compounds of existence and essence are) must be continually actualized by that which need not itself be actualized insofar as it is “already” Pure Actuality. (See Aquinas for the details.)

Now every temporal part of the characters in our hypothetical science-fiction examples is relevantly like the particular moments in the history of the universe. Even if the universe had no beginning but regressed back in time to infinity, it would still have to be sustained in being at any particular moment by God. It could not at any particular moment be causing itself. And even if the temporal parts of the characters in question looped around back on themselves, they would still at any particular moment have to be sustained in being by God. They too could not at any particular moment be causing themselves. In short, the theoretical possibility of a circular temporal series would be as irrelevant to Aquinas’s point as the theoretical possibility of an infinite temporal series is. When Aquinas denies that anything can cause itself given the absurdity of a cause preceding itself, what he is most concerned to deny is, not that a cause can be prior to itself temporally (though he would deny that too), but that it can be prior to itself ontologically, that it could be more fundamental than itself in the order of what exists at any given moment, as it would have to be if it were sustaining itself in being. (And again, in any event no cause strictly exists prior to itself even temporally in the scenarios we’ve been describing; for each temporal part of the characters in question is caused by a distinct temporal part, not by itself.)

Hence, even if the universe were (as it is not) as Robert Heinlein or Stephen Hawking describes it, it would require at any particular instant a cause distinct from it in order for it to exist at that instant. (The same would be true if we consider the universe as a single four-dimensional object. It would still be a composite of form and matter and essence and existence, and thus of act and potency, and could therefore not in principle exist were it not caused by that which is not composite in any of these ways but just is Pure Act and Being Itself.) When we carefully unpack what the scenarios would have to involve, we can see that they do not entail any sort of causa sui, nor anything that could in principle exist apart from a divine first cause.

61 comments:

George R. said...

In their recent book The Grand Design, they tell us that “we create [the universe’s] history by our observation, rather than history creating us” and that since we are part of the universe, it follows that “the universe… create[d] itself from nothing.”


I don't know what these guys are smoking, but it must be some good sh*t.

Edward Feser said...

I think it was rolled up copies of The God Delusion.

Crude said...

Ed, what do you think of the claim that Hawking's proposal basically reduces to Platonism? One way I've heard it put is that in Hawking's view, laws of nature pre-existed the physical universe and thus led to its creation. Which I admit, to my amateur understanding, does sound like neoplatonism.

Anonymous said...

Ed, I recommend the 2007 Spanish thriller "The Time Crimes" (Los Cronocrimenes). It deals with a scenario similar to Heinlein's in "By His Bootstraps", where a man must manipulate himself into performing actions to bring about his travelling back in time. It's very tightly worked out and satisfying.

just thinking said...

What came first, the egg or the chicken?

Maolsheachlann said...

Time travel paradoxes are the bane of science-fiction-- especially since the writers invariably think they are being clever and original.

Edward Feser said...

Hi Crude,

Yes, anyone who appeals to "laws" as if by themselves they explained anything all is deceiving himself. "Law" talk is either (a) shorthand for talk about the causal powers of things, (b) shorthand for talk about the way God makes things happen, (c) an appeal to some kind of Platonic entities, or (d) the mere assertion of brute, inexplicable regularities.

(a) is the option an Aristotelian would take, and it is not open to Hawking because for an Aristotelian "laws" depend on the existence of the things that follow them, and thus are not the ultimate explanation of those things or of anything else.

(b) is what early moderns like Descartes and Newton had in mind when they made the notion of "laws" central to the new mecahnistic philosophy of nature. Obviously it is not open to Hawking either since he wants an atheistic universe.

When one rejects both (a) and (b) -- as contemporary philosophers tend to do -- "laws" talk becomes completely mysterious. (Some philosophers argue, quite rightly in my view, that it really makes no sense at all if one rejects both (a) and (b), and even that (a) would at most make "laws" talk redundant -- see e.g. Nancy Cartwright's essay "No God, no Laws" and Stephen Mumford's book Laws in Nature.)

(c) is all that's left if laws are to do any explanatory work, but it makes things more mysterious rather than less. Laws are said to be contingent, so what sort of Platonic entities are they? (Possibilities, presumably. But then why is it these possibilities rather than those ones that actually govern the world?) How exactly do these abstract entities have the influence on the world they are supposed to? And so forth.

Of course, one could opt instead for a David Lewis style Humeanism. But the idea that that "explains" anything is IMO even more laughable than the Platonic interpretation. Like all forms of Humeanism, it really reduces to (d), which is by definition no explanation at all but an embrace of the view that the world is unintelligible, in which case one has really given up on science as an objective enterprise.

Hawking, Dawkins, and pop atheists in general are of course completely clueless with respect to these serious (and I would say insuperable) difficulties facing the kind of scientism they represent.

Edward Feser said...

Anonymous,

Sounds great, I will definitely look for it.

JT,

The chicken.

Maolsheachlann,

Hey, man, I love time travel paradoxes! Too bad they aren't really possible even in principle, though, even though some ingenious metaphysical models for them have been developed. (Which is one reason they are philosophically important.)

And while Heinlein and some others did in fact do some original things with the idea, you're right that it is very hard to come up with anything original now. The theme's probably been played out. (Science fiction editors notoriously roll their eyes every time another "new" time travel story comes over the transom...)

Maolsheachlann said...

Well, I have to admit I like some time-travel paradox stories-- All Good Things (the last episode of Star Trek: Next Generation) and, um, Back to the Future...

And a little-known early story by Greg Bear called Thrice Upon a Time. (Actually, I just made that one up because I was embarrassed at the plebbiness of my examples.)

They just don't make any sense to me...

Crude said...

Ed,

Thanks for the reply. One reason I asked is that it's fairly typical to hear "The laws of nature explain (x) just fine, we don't need to posit God", but then that leaves me wondering about the laws. (Someone could say "Well, I mean for the purposes of explanation. I don't need to bring God into the equation to explain why an acorn becomes a tree." But oddly enough, I take Aquinas to be saying the same thing, at least in some sense!)

I also recalled your helpful post on Neoplatonism, where eventually everything folds back into the One, which made me think Hawking - if he really meant that laws pre-existed (or even 'came before' in another sequential sense) the universe - was stumbling down the Neoplatonist path.

Then again, I still have to read your review.

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

Once upon a time, SF writers aimed to show scientists they weren't being as creative as possible, but now popular science writers seek to shame SF authors on that same score!

Anonymous said...

Off topic, but it's been on my mind the last couple of days.


How does the Aristotelian/Thomistic conception of the soul and the body and their relation to each other resolve the problem of free will and determinism? How does the Thomistic soul/"form" redirect certain neuroparticles and thus intervene in the otherwise completely deterministic neurological pathways in order to produce the desired response?

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

I posted this link at a friend's Facebook and here is his reply:

"Don't mean to spoil Mr. Feser's fun, but science is not a game of deductive reasoning. If it were so, it would've got us nowhere, wouldn't it? Not to mention how much "knowledge" Thomas Aquinas' reasoning has introduced and contributed to the scientific world.

"There is no case known (neither is it, indeed, possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible."

I think through the advancement in modern physics ever since the 20th century, there has been a lot of "impossibles" that we've not yet fully understood. The so-called impossibility is overrated in the face of the physical laws hidden from plain sight.

"It's not fair for a religious/philosophical idealist like Mr. Feser to indulge himself in what seems to be a series of successful challenges against a physicist like Hawking who painstakingly endeavors to translate what laymen and non-professionals won't be able to comprehend such complex and advanced mathematics into METAPHORS in hopes of possibly sharing his understanding with guys like you, me and Mr. Feser.

"Since this is a scientific discourse, not that of theology or religious beliefs, I think it's only fair if we talk purely of science instead of having a debate over different religious ideologies."

Have at it!

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

I linked to this post, incidentally, upon seeing my friend's link for Paul Davies's recent rebuttal to Hawking: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/sep/04/stephen-hawking-big-bang-gap

Crude said...

Codg,

Well, one major flaw in your friend's reasoning is this: He seems to think that whatever Hawking talks about is "science", whatever Feser talks about is "philosophy", and therefore any criticism of Hawking by Ed must be misplaced.

But despite saying "philosophy is dead", Hawking is engaging in philosophy and even theology - I think this has been obvious to just about every reviewer of Hawking's book. And the moment Hawking starts to engage in those things, he opens himself right up to responses on those terms - so it makes little sense to complain that what Ed is doing "isn't fair".

There are other problems (re: our inability to rule anything out as an explanation due to "physical laws being hidden from plain sight", or the problem of the science Hawking speaks of supposedly being beyond all of us and forcing him to speak in metaphors), but that's the one I'd focus on. The moment he recognizes that Hawking isn't (to borrow a Vox Day line) some golem whose very existence is powered by the indiluted spirit of the scientific method - and that Hawking is, in fact, not only capable of leaving behind science to speak of metaphysics, philosophy and theology, but he did this in his own book - then his objections are done with.

Daniel Smith said...

I would add that "pure science" is the gathering of empirical data through experimentation, testing, survey and the like. The instant that data gets interpreted it becomes part of a metaphysical argument.

The data is one thing, what it means is another.

E.R. Bourne said...

Notice, though, the striking words within the comment of Codgitator's friend. We only say that something cannot be the cause of itself because we have not encountered any evidence to the contrary. This impossibility is merely apparent and can be overcome with advancements in empirical science.

This is simply another way of saying that something can both be and not be, a denial of the principle of contradiction. Denials like this are increasingly popular, at least on the internet, and the implications of such assertions are quite disturbing. Without some form of fundamental agreement between two people, dialogue and thus rational discourse is simply impossible.

Aristotle, while realizing that no syllogism can demonstrate the principle of contradiction without assuming it first, is at pains to show that no one can rationally or consistently deny it. He addresses it quite early in the Metaphysics, and if someone is unable to admit the truth of this principle, it would probably be better for him to shut the book at that point. In denying this principle, we only achieve the destruction of our own thought and render the art of reasoning, a divine gift, fruitless and barren.

If a man needs to be persuaded that something cannot both be and not be, or that no part can be grater than the whole, or that nothing can be the cause of itself, attempting to argue with him is the ultimate Sisyphean task.

jt said...

"JT,

The chicken."

Are you absolutely sure?

BenYachov said...

Jt,

Obviously Feser is using the term "Chicken" to refer to a mature/adult Gallus gallus domesticus whose existence by definition has to proceed that of an egg which is by definition an immature/fetal Gallus gallus domesticus.

Maybe you should rephrase the question?

Cheers.

BenYachov said...

I should qualify an adult female Gallus gallus domesticus is the proper definition of a "chicken".

jt said...

You know, a chicken that lays a fertilized egg which becomes a chicken.

That chicken.

Maolsheachlann said...

I appeal to the words of Chesterton in his famous book on Aquinas, "The Dumb Ox":

"The philosophy of St. Thomas stands founded on the universal common conviction that eggs are eggs. The Hegelian may say that an egg is really a hen, because it is a part of an endless process of Becoming; the Berkeleian may hold that poached eggs only exist as a dream exists; since it is quite as easy to call the dream the cause of the eggs as the eggs the cause of the dream; the Pragmatist may believe that we get the best out of scrambled eggs by forgetting that they ever were eggs, and only remembering the scramble. But no pupil of St. Thomas needs to addle his brains in order adequately to addle his eggs; to put his head at any peculiar angle in looking at eggs, or squinting at eggs, or winking the other eye in order to see a new simplification of eggs."

No mention of chicken, you see. From this we may safely deduce that eggs are ontologically prior to chickens, pace Professor Feser.

Brandon said...

Ah, but since ens is Latin for being, for anythin' to exist there must be 'ens. Therefore eggs can't exist 'less there are 'ens; so to 'ave eggs you must 'ave 'ens. But 'ens are chickens, as any farmer can tell you. Therefore, etc., QED.

jt said...

As much as I hate to admit it, I was being convinced of my error with you guys' humorous arguments. But this one cinched the deal:

A chicken and an egg are lying in bed. The chicken is leaning against the headboard smoking a cigarette with a satisfied smile on its face. The egg, looking a bit ticked off, grabs the sheet, rolls over and says ... Well, I guess we finally answered "THAT question!"

jt said...

But, sorry, guys

The correct answer is the egg. Just as some argued a fetus is loaded w/ all that is needed DNA wise to become a human, go back before chickens evolved completely to find two chicken like birds mating to bring forth the 1st chicken in an egg.

Franly, I had hoped the humorous proofs would win the day.

Daniel Smith said...

I'm guessing that no one here has read John Davison's "Semi-Meiosis As An Evolutionary Mechanism" which essentially postulates the "virgin birth method of evolution".

jt said...

*The correct answer is the egg. Just as some argued a fetus is loaded w/ all that is needed DNA wise to become a human, go back before chickens evolved completely to find two chicken like birds mating to bring forth the 1st chicken in an egg.*

Any counter views?

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

With what did the hatchling of that egg mate?

http://scggloss.blogspot.com/2010/12/scg-book-i-chapter-28.html

Cf. ~the middle of the post for my recent grappling with this issue.

Of course, for a Wittgenstieinian, it may not even be an "issue".

jt said...

Irrelevant, Codge - we are asking about chicken #1.

However, there were other eggs laid on that momentous day, and one may have produced rooster #1.

E.R. Bourne said...

I think Codgitator had a mostly accurate take on this "issue" in his linked website.

The egg is in development, the end of which is a fully mature chicken. In this way, the chicken is the end or final cause of the egg and thus comes first. We have to be careful here, it is very easy to confuse ontological priority with temporal or chronological priority. As an end, even a final cause is a way of coming before.

Brandon said...

I had a comment on this, but it seems to have been eaten.

In any case, the short version: evolutionarily speaking, there is no "chicken #1"; for that to be the case chickens would have to be serious one-generation saltations, for which there is no evidence whatsoever as far as I am aware. Rather, there's just a lineage in which, the further one goes back, the more loosely we have to apply the word 'chicken', and there is no sharp cut-off between the birds that are definitely chickens and the birds that are definitely not chickens. So jt's evolutionary argument for eggs just won't work; it requires an evolutionary history for chickens that is almost certainly false.

Of course, when Ed said 'chickens' he was giving the Aristotelian answer, since the problem is really just a cutesy way of asking whether actuality or potentiality has priority.

jt said...

My answer comes from a recent science study into the question.

Ed is wrong.

Brandon said...

As I already noted, when Ed said 'chickens', he was pretty clearly taking it, as reasonable people who aren't joking do, in a metaphorical sense; he was not actually talking about chickens, so the natural history of chickens is not relevant.

But as I noted, your answer is scientifically inaccurate; it involves a very common mistake people make about speciation in evolution, and one that's often found in badly writtin pop-sci articles, but it is a mistake. Except in very unusual cases, biological species don't have historical first members: that's almost the first implication Darwin recognized to follow from his theory of natural selection (and bells and whistles since then, like random drift, simply reaffirm the implication). Rather, species shade imperceptibly into other species. Unless chickens were 'hopeful monsters', there's necessarily a gray area of literally centuries and probably millenia of bird-generations that are in that transition, which makes it impossible for there to be an actual first chicken. Of course, if you have actual good evidence that chickens are saltations, I'd be interested in hearing it.

Edward Feser said...

What Brandon said. Plus it was a flip "Here's what I can say in the10 seconds I've got" sort of answer. Never dreamed it would spawn a learned debate on the natural history of the chicken!

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

Shucks, jt, pahdon us filosofee types, as we jes' cain't keep up with all this advanced sci-yence talk goin' on roun' here.

But seriously, the riddle is a metaphor for the actuality/potentiality issue. Hawking and Mlodinow enshrined a howler in their book and this post highlights it.

In any event, so much for scientific consensus: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/38238685/ns/technology_and_science-science/

Ismael said...

Hi Edward, great post!

I have a few questions. Looking at the wiki page on the 'Cosmological Argument' there are some critiques I'd like to know your opinion about.

The first is de doubt is causality always applies:
"Even though causality applies to the known world, it does not necessarily apply to the universe at large. In other words, it is unwise to draw conclusions from an extrapolation of causality beyond experience."

(also they affirm that quantum mechanics somewhat weaken the principle of causality although it does not make it vanish)

The second implies the 'Timeless Universe':

"It is argued that a challenge to the cosmological argument is the nature of time, "One finds that time just disappears from the Wheeler–DeWitt equation"."

This idea is expanded further in Julian Barbour's book, 'The End of Time: The Next Revolution in Our Understanding of the Universe, ' (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_End_of_Time_(book))


What is your comment on such ideas? What impact do these ideas have on Aquinas argument (assuming these ideas were true).

Would a static, timeless universe as Julian Barbour theorizes invalidate Aquinas argument, or would a static timeless universe still be a contingent being, hence in need of a creator?

Crude said...

Ismael,

Ed's linked this before, but I think it's appropriate again.

jt said...

My initial post was meant to point to the nature of the blog post, of course.

But curiosity got the better of me, so I googled up a very non-commital wiki post, then found this.

http://articles.cnn.com/2006-05-26/tech/chicken.egg_1_chicken-eggs-first-egg-first-chicken?_s=PM:TECH

Since you guys seem to see no distinction between acorns and trees, I thought you'd be on board with this little ditty.

Crude said...

The scientists found that a protein found only in a chicken's ovaries is necessary for the formation of the egg, according to the paper Wednesday. The egg can therefore only exist if it has been created inside a chicken.

The protein speeds up the development of the hard shell, which is essential in protecting the delicate yolk and fluids while the chick grows inside the egg, the report said.

"It had long been suspected that the egg came first but now we have the scientific proof that shows that in fact the chicken came first," said Dr. Colin Freeman, from Sheffield University's Department of Engineering Materials, according to the Mail.


But which is more delicious? The answer, of course, is obvious.

Dog. :9

George R. said...

“Rather, species shade imperceptibly into other species.”

Brandon, if what you mean by species is a subset of a certain type of thing, then I don’t really have a problem with what you’re saying. But if, on the other hand, you are identifying species with essence or substance, then what you are saying is completely unacceptable. Substances, insofar as they are substances, can never change. They are only in potency to being and not being. Other than that they are pure act. They are indivisible and ontologically prior to quantity and all accidental affections thereof. Therefore, they are neither subject to motion, change, “shading,” evolution, or any amendment whatsoever. If you claim that a chicken evolved into a chicken, you are in effect saying that a chicken is not essentially a chicken, which is fine -- but it must be essentially something, and what that something is cannot have evolved.

Ismael said...

@ Crude

The comic is funny and makes a good point, but is some scientists claim the theory of a 'timeless static universe' there must be some logic begind it, and this theory must have at leas some kind of reconciliaction with our perception of time (e.g. time as an emergent rather than fundamental property of the universe).

These thories (which are actually getting pretty popular these days) of course might complete 'bull' (they are based on the interpretation of an equation in General Relativity, not data... so it's more metafisical cosmology rather than physics).

Crude said...

Ismael,

The comic is funny and makes a good point, but is some scientists claim the theory of a 'timeless static universe' there must be some logic begind it, and this theory must have at leas some kind of reconciliaction with our perception of time (e.g. time as an emergent rather than fundamental property of the universe).

Well, I wasn't linking that comic thinking it would be a decisive refutation of the subject. I just thought it was apt and funny, and it's been here before, so there you go. :)

That said though, this worries me: Are you saying that the proposal of a 'static timeless universe' must be reasonable, simply because some scientists advocate it? That reminds me of a post Ed made about certain problems in philosophy, where it's insisted that this or that idea can't be mistaken on such an obvious point on the grounds that a very well-known philosopher advocates the idea - and they can't be making such a fundamental mistake, can they? And in the case of physicists, I sometimes wonder if even they believe what they're saying, in some of the 'wilder claims' situations.

In fact, let me ask you this - inspired by Scott Adams' (half-joking) response. Let's say it's right: There is no change. No becoming, only being. Do you know of any advocates of this theory of time who also are willing to take the step and say "And therefore evolution is false"? I mean, if there is no time (and if I'm taking this idea correctly), there is no selection - there isn't even any evolution. (Not just 'no Darwinian evolution', but no evolution, period.)

I ask this because it seems to me that'd make a good test on whether someone is really taking the 'there is no time' thing seriously. Flat out deny qualia and you'll be celebrated for your original, thought-provoking views in many intellectual circles nowadays. Deny intentionality, the existence of a self, and the same occurs. Question a fundamental commitment of evolution, though (I say this as someone who accepts evolution), and that's that - you're done. This theory seems to require that, and if no advocate is willing to deal with that problem, then I wonder if they think the idea is true or are just enjoying defending something so counter-intuitive.

Ismael said...

@ Crude


Scientists who sustain the 'timeless universe' hypothesis are not claiming there is no change, but that change (and time) is an illusion of perceiving two different timeless eternal realities.

This part of an abstract for example says:
Clocks measure a numerical order of change. The time obtained by clocks is information about changes. Changes do not occur in time, changes occur in space only. Time is not a part of space, space itself is timeless. For some changes time is zero, they are immediate. In the timeless space there is no past and no future. The only existing physical reality is in the present moment. Past and future belong to the inner time that is a result of neuronal activity of the brain.

(http://www.fqxi.org/data/forum-attachments/1_TIME_IS_INFORMATION_ABOUT_CHANGE_IN_TIMELESS_UNIVERSE.pdf)

This person, thus, claims time is not a fundamental property of our universe and that change occur in space and that time is only a illusory perception of our mind.

For this person “Time is a scientific tool for measuring numerical order of change.”

There is no doubt that the experience of time is relative (to our frame of reference, as Einstein’s Special Relativity shows, an is experimentally confirmed) and subjective (we experience time differently in different situation, e.g. a party or a boring lecture).

However there are some considerations:

1- Can change truly happen without time?
2- Does our subjective experience of time mean time is an illusion?

1: maybe, although counter-intuitive (but some things in nature are counter-intuitive)
2: Not necessarily.

This video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WKsNraFxPwk) explains Barbour’s ideas.

According to Barbour, ‘we experience eternal moments in a flash receiving the illusion that there is a passage of time’.

Basically, according to another scientist, Tegmark “All structures that exist mathematically also exist physically”

So we just perceive eternal changeless moments, with the illusion that there is passage of time….

In essence, according to Barbour: ‘everything exists’ and ‘passage of time is only our experience of different “platonia”’ (there is some level of Platonism in these ideas) were a single ‘platonium’ is what we can define a timeless configuration a “self-contained instant”. Some of these platonia we perceive as past moments, others will be in our ‘future experience’ others we will never experience.

The term ‘platonia’ reminds us clearly of Plato and I think that in Barbour and Tegmark ideas there is quite a bit of Platonism, like the theory of forms of Plato are "The only true being is founded upon the forms, the eternal, unchangeable, perfect types, of which particular objects of sense are imperfect copies.”

Ismael said...

"In fact, let me ask you this - inspired by Scott Adams' (half-joking) response. Let's say it's right: There is no change. No becoming, only being. Do you know of any advocates of this theory of time who also are willing to take the step and say "And therefore evolution is false"? I mean, if there is no time (and if I'm taking this idea correctly), there is no selection - there isn't even any evolution. (Not just 'no Darwinian evolution', but no evolution, period.)"


This is a good point.

Although Barbour and Tegmark ideas are provocative and seem sometime plausible… there are several questions that pose problems to the timeless universe idea

Why do we experience a linear time? Why does it never contradict itself?

Why does nature appear to be linear in time? Can evolution actually work in such a universe? Why do species not appear out of nothing and disappear again, Etc….

Why do we have a collective experience of time? After all if time is only an illusion of the brain, why do we experience independently the same flow of time.

Eg:

There are a number of observers O1, O2, O3… etc They are al in the same frame of reference (this is important due to special relativity)

They are all on different planets/ galaxies so independent of any direct communication between them.

They are observing point X in space. O1 will see X change as: A->B->C->D… all up to Z according to our alphabetilcal sequence.

Now we might ask: what do O2 and O3 see? The same as X? Or they see something like A Z T F N Q D…. ?

Of course, in physics, all will see the same ‘evolution’ from A to Z…. and I think this’d be the case even if the observers were not in the same frame of reference… (perhaps one will see the change happen faster or slower… but not in different order)

No matter in what frame of reference you are you’ll never see a chicken go back into an egg.


Also one might ask: why do we all see A, B, C, D,… Z and not something else?

Why do we experience change in a LOGICAL way?
Or is logic also just a construct and not real?

What determines the order we see things? (This is Alexander Vilenkin criticism on Tegmark theory for example)

Crude said...

Ismael,

Scientists who sustain the 'timeless universe' hypothesis are not claiming there is no change, but that change (and time) is an illusion of perceiving two different timeless eternal realities.

That's not parsing for me. How can they "not be claiming there is no change", then claiming that all change is an illusion brought on by timeless eternal realities? Those seem like mutually exclusive options - either they're saying "there is no change" or "there is change". Saying "there is change, but it's an illusion" collapses back into option one.

As I said, if there really is no change - if the universe is simply static - then evolution is false. Saying that "time is a scientific tool" when also saying "time is an illusion" means that any theory which relies on time actually existing - and I think it's clear evolution, particularly Darwinian evolution, requires that - is a false theory. It is, at best, a useful fiction.

But that aside, I think the obvious question is 'what room is there for consciousness or any subjective experience in a universe described like this?' You've already stated it, and I see no good answer. And that for me is enough to move on.

(Re: Tegmark, I think some evolution questions may apply to him too. I'm not sure Tegmark requires universes be 'timeless', but if every possible universe takes place, it seems like natural selection isn't what determines species after all. Instead, it's "which mathematical universe of Tegmark's is in force?".)

I focus on the evolution question because A) I think the problems of tying up the two theories are obvious, and B) If they aren't willing to uphold their theory over evolution, then to me it seems this is just a fun intellectual exercise meant to turn heads or inspire, but not offered seriously.

David said...

Ismael quotes: "Even though causality applies to the known world[...] it is unwise to draw conclusions from an extrapolation of causality beyond experience."

The problem with that is our "experience" is pretty limited, when you think about it. Does causality stop working when you turn your back? Science isn't gonna like that. You can't even say that causality must be working in between observations since the previous observations line up with later ones — because that would rely on your memory being causally efficacious. So really, the options are: accept causality everywhere, reject it everywhere, or appeal to it only when it supports your point of view.

As for quantum mechanics, the only thing weakening causality is faulty modernist metaphysics. If you stick will full-bodied Aristotelian causes, nothing about QM in any way contradicts or compromises them.

"One finds that time just disappears from the Wheeler–DeWitt equation".

I don't even know what that has to do with anything. The notion that time itself 'began' along with the rest of creation was for centuries a Judeo-Christian idea; that physicists finally scaled the peak where theologians had been waiting for them all along is hardly going to upset Aquinas's arguments. Perhaps the confusion is from thinking that "causes" have to precede "effects" temporally — which of course is not so (some causes must be simultaneous with their effects). Rather, a cause is always logically prior to its effect, even should they both occur at the same instant of time (or out of time).

If the point is that time neatly "wraps up" rather than starting abruptly (as though in mid-stream), then the ramifications are perhaps to put a bounded cosmos into the same metaphysical boat as one that always existed (a nice way to have your Big Bang and keep it 'unbegining' too). But since Aquinas specifically argues from a (hypothetically) infinite universe, that's hardly a problem for him.

David said...

Ismael: This idea is expanded further in [Barbour's book The End of Time]

I can't tell what the big deal is from the summary. But you're right, such a universe would still be contingent, and thus equally subject to Thomas's arguments. It sounds like Barbour is plugging some version of 4-D, which isn't that revolutionary any more; and there's nothing particularly platonic about it. Anyway, as you note, it doesn't explain our conscious experience of time. In fact, I have no problem with 4-D spacetime physically (I'm not sure if it's necessary, but it certainly works, because that's how physicists do it), but as much as it is utterly satisfactory for explaining matter, it is utterly unsatisfactory for explaining consciousness. That is, even if there really is no such thing as physical change (in the ordinary sense), and there are only temporal parts, that doesn't explain how we experience time as "changing". In fact, our direct experience of such directly disproves that time is "just space" (mentally; it still might be just funny space for matter... of course when we observe material objects, that subjective experience is always temporal even if the objective stuff wasn't).

Ismael said...

@ David

""One finds that time just disappears from the Wheeler–DeWitt equation".

I don't even know what that has to do with anything."


Well since in a (set of) equation(s) time appear to be irrelevant, some scientists conclude it is.

Sure many/most physicsal processes are fully reverseble (hence time-independent) but in reality, even quantum reality, things DO follow the arrow of time.

Besides Quantum Mechanics applies more on the argument from motion than the argument from casuality, since quntum mechanics is non-deterministic.

Although IMH it does not at all affect the argument from motion.

The idea is that if an electron or other particle can be in point A or point B stochastically and without a specific deterministic cause then the argument from motion fails…
In reality it is not so. In reality is MEASURING the electron that tells us where it is, the measurement itself affects the electron, making it “collapse” (ie ‘decide’ a position). There is no sense to say where the electron is prior to measurement (but only what the chances are that the electron is there).

So really, the options are: accept causality everywhere, reject it everywhere, or appeal to it only when it supports your point of view.

If I am not mistaken it was Hume that proposed such doubt on the universality of causality.

BTW I’d say that taking such position also invalidate science’s reliability. Cosmology and Astronomy observe things at huge distances (both in space and time)… but if causality does not apply universally how can we claim that out interpretation of our observations. Then one could argue we could really say nothing beyond a directly observable local (in space and time) set of objects.

----

@ Crude

Indeed one of the major criticism of Tegmark (who indeed does not necessarily implies timelessness) and also Barbour ideas is how they can be reconciled with ‘Classical Reality’.

In the end everything must lead the ‘classical physics world’ we directly experience, such as the ‘great number of particles’ limit leads back to classical Newtonian physics in quantum mechanics. If QM would predict that a baseball has a significant ‘wave behavior’, it’d be wrong (a baseball has wave behavior, but such effect is so small it can not even be observed).

Many papers have proposed to prove a timeless physics, often starting from one or two equation and a few assumptions… but none of them focuses on the (metaphysical) consequences of a possibly timeless universe.

----

ALSO:

even if the universe is built out of an ensemble of eternal (timeless) "moments" they still would be contingent objects, I think, since they are not 'existence in themselves, but part of existence in its totality. There still be the question WHY they exist at all, why does our 'multiverse' allow on this particular ensemble (and not a different one), how is this ensemble ordered... etc...

David said...

[Darnit, Blogspot is eating comments again]

Crude: Saying "there is change, but it's an illusion" collapses back into option one.

Well, if I say "mirages aren't real", I mean they aren't really the thing you think they are (e.g. you think you see water when actually there's nothing there); but they really are something else (some kind of illusion or hallucination, which is real, or you wouldn't be seeing a mirage). There is change when you mean it in the perdurantist sense, and there isn't when you mean it in the endurantist sense.

It's a bit ironic that in the paper on temporal parts linked to in the other post, Oderberg keeps pointing out that something can be different from itself in a different way/at a different time, but apparently doesn't apply that to the use of the word "change" that he's criticising. (I daresay there's some confusion on both sides.) Ultimately though, Oderberg doesn't say anything that convinces me that some sort of 4-Dism won't work for material objects, and his opponents don't even seem to address how it could apply to consciousness. (Not surprising, since I think it's clear it cannot; perhaps the thinking goes, "We know mind reduces to matter; and 4-D works for matter; thus it works for mind.")

Saying that "time is a scientific tool" when also saying "time is an illusion" means that any theory which relies on time actually existing - and I think it's clear evolution, particularly Darwinian evolution, requires that - is a false theory. It is, at best, a useful fiction.

I like that as a rhetorical move, at least for someone who's just saying "time is illusory" for rhetorical effect. But if someone is proposing that seriously, that's OK. It's like saying "solid" matter is really mostly empty space: that doesn't make me a fraud for saying that ice is "solid water", it just means I believe that ice is really mostly empty space. Similarly, if I believe that change is really "just" 4-D slices, then I can still use the word when it comes to discussing when dinner will be ready or how species evolve. Sure, that's just a way of speaking, but as you say, it's a useful one. Language is full of useful fictions.

Crude said...

David,

Well, if I say "mirages aren't real", I mean they aren't really the thing you think they are (e.g. you think you see water when actually there's nothing there); but they really are something else (some kind of illusion or hallucination, which is real, or you wouldn't be seeing a mirage).

Yes, but I was being told that it's not that scientists are claiming there is no change, but that change is an illusion. And that's just another way of saying "there is no change".

As I said, I just couldn't parse that. If people of the "there is no time" view "really mean" something else, and that there is in fact change (but it's unlike 'normal change', whatever that would mean), I'm open to hearing it. But I've not heard it yet. And it seems like what's being claimed here by Julian Barbour is that no, there is no change, there is no time.

Similarly, if I believe that change is really "just" 4-D slices, then I can still use the word when it comes to discussing when dinner will be ready or how species evolve. Sure, that's just a way of speaking, but as you say, it's a useful one. Language is full of useful fictions.

Well, that's pretty much the problem here. Now, I personally would have little problem with Darwinism or evolution becoming a "useful fiction". But I think I'm in a minority on that view, at least when it comes to academics. And "fiction" is exactly what Darwinian evolution seems to become on the theory that there is no time or change. That's a very interesting bullet to bite.

You give the example of saying "solid ice" doesn't make you a fraud, because it's just a figure of speech and science now says that matter is mostly empty space. That's fine, but I'm not gunning for figures of speech here - you'd have to agree that finding out matter is mostly empty space was a surprise to some people previously, and some scientific theories (which viewed matter is being mostly filled with tight, compact atoms all bunched together side by side) turned out to be wrong when that was learned.

Well, the same goes here. If someone is arguing there actually isn't any time or change after all - everything is static - then theories which relied on there being time and change turned out to be incorrect. Darwinian evolution is one of those theories.

I want to stress - it's not that I'm saying "Well, clearly evolution IS true, not a fiction, so this 'timeless, changeless' view must be false." Instead I'm saying, "If you're serious about there being neither time nor change, here's a consequence of your idea. Still want to embrace it?" Call it a signal that the idea is worth taking seriously, rather than one mostly being offered up because it's shocking (but shocking to the right people, in the right ways.)

David said...

Ismael: Well since in a (set of) equation(s) time appear to be irrelevant, some scientists conclude it is.

Sure, and that's very interesting for the science of cosmology. But it's not relevant to the question about what time or change really is according to our experience. (It's not even relevant, perhaps, to more modest subsets of physics: certainly if you want to calculate where your rocket is going to land, you need some variable to stand for time, whatever time "really" is!) I think you're right about QM not affecting the argument from motion. (Plus, of course, when Aristotelians talk about "motion" they just mean "change". "Locomotion", i.e. change in position, is but one particular kind of "motion" to them.)

If I am not mistaken it was Hume that proposed such doubt on the universality of causality.

Eh, Hume proposed lots of stuff he didn't really understand. Of course, he was starting from a stunted view of causality to begin with, but even so the most he could hope to be showing is that maybe we can't really do physics. Oddly enough, people who try to follow his proposal always seem to end up claiming that we can do science, but we can't do the philosophical stuff that his arguments never touched....


BTW I’d say that taking such position also invalidate science’s reliability. [...] Then one could argue we could really say nothing beyond a directly observable local (in space and time) set of objects.

Yes, but I argue it's worse than that: if cause and effect are suspect, why should you believe direct local observations either? Maybe the light you think was reflected off something in front of your nose actually spontaneously sprouted into existence uncaused right in front of your retina? Maybe some electrons in your brain just started sending a signal for no reason at all? You can't draw any non-arbitrary line between "stuff that gets caused" and "stuff that doesn't" — after all, what would be the cause of some things being caused and others not? If there's something causing other things to be uncaused, then are they really uncaused??

-David said...

Crude: And it seems like what's being claimed here by Julian Barbour is that no, there is no change, there is no time.

I'm no expert in the literature, or Barbour in particular, so it's possible they're all just out to lunch. However, I understand the impulse (from relativity, etc.) to view time objectively as a fourth dimension of space, so I try to give such a view the maximum possible benefit of the doubt. The best way such a view could be presented seems to me to be as follows: there is a strong intuition to think of time as "passing" — the past is gone, not real, no longer exists, while the future is likewise not real, does not exist yet (endurantism). On the other hand, (even long before Einstein) we have also though of time as a landscape spread out where the past is "behind" us (somewhere, somehow, but still "real"), and the future "ahead" of us (perdurantism).

Now, is there such a thing as "change"? Well, sure, everyone agrees that there are certain phenomena involving "differences" across "time", and this all men call Change. But is the undisputed phenomenon of observed change — call it change-O — an instance of "change by the past going out of existence and the future coming into existence", aka change-E? Or is it an instance of "change by positional difference along the linear dimension of time", aka change-P?

By way of illustration, consider a motion picture. When a film is playing, it isn't just that the pictures appear to move on-screen; the actual film itself moves, at high speed, through the projector: the "time" in the movie really is space, frames of film that do not change, but that are moving through space. (More appropriately to our 4-D hypothesis might be to imagine the film unrolled and the viewer running past the frames rather than the frames running past the viewer, but I'm ignoring the subjective/experiential side of the equation for now.) Now consider a television screen: nothing moves past or along the screen, but rather the phosphorescent pixels on the screen change how they glow without going anywhere. Thought of in this way, TV is more like change-E, while film is more like change-P.

(Again, this is just a superficial illustration, and I am of course ignoring that both TV and films need time/change to be perceived by the viewer. However, the film itself is clearly "static" in a way that the TV isn't: you can lay out the film and see all its time at once, spread out in front of you, just as in 4-Dism the past and future are all "there" in one long chain. But no matter how you lay out the television, you can never see the previous or later images — they just aren't there to be seen.)

[cont'd]

–David said...

The fourth-dimensionalist then claims (or ought to, if he isn't confusing himself) that change-O is real, and really is entirely change-P. What isn't real is change-E, although we may sometimes use change-E language if it's convenient or comfortable. (Just as we talk about solid(-O) objects, and even talk using the language of solid-P (packed-togetherness) although we know that really objects are solid-E (mostly-empty).)

How does this apply to evolution? Well, evolution (and I don't think it matters much whether by "Darwinism" you're referring to supposedly "completely random" evolution or not) does depend on change, that is to say, change-O. Since evolution is not itself a theory about time or the nature of time or temporal consciousness or anything, all it cares about is being able to describe differences for different values of t. You start with organism A, some time passes (or gets passed over!), and then presto-change-O, you've got a different organism. Whether such "changes" are really to be explained in terms of change-E or change-P isn't relevant; either one will do.

I'm sure that Barbour would say that the earth goes around the sun (though perhaps to avoid any possible confusion he ought to say that the earth-O goes-O around-O the sun-O (hey-nonny-non!)). If you think that means the earth-E goes-E around the sun-E, then he would say you're wrong, there is no such change(-E) occurring (it's really earth-P going-P around the sun-P). Similarly, if he wants to promote Darwinism-O, he would insist that of course Darwinism-E doesn't really happen, but any story about Darwinism-E can be translated into an equivalent story about Darwinism-P, which is real. In fact, because change-P is a theory that's by its nature entirely change-O-compatible with change-E, it won't overturn any scientific theories the way solid-E vs. solid-P did. (That is, it's not a physical theory at all, it's metaphysical, and as long as it agrees on the empirical observations, it will be neutral to any truly scientific theory. (Which maybe lets Darwinism out after all!))

Crude said...

David,

You seem to be interpreting Barbour's views as the perdurantism to someone else's endurantism - but it's not clear to me that that's what Barbour is doing. Perdurantism/endurantism seem to still rely on there actually being some time (or at least, neither needs to claim there is no time), and some change to take place in time. Barbour, meanwhile, is claiming there is no change, and there is no time. He's pretty bold about that, and I can see why (since otherwise, what's so striking about his idea?)

One reason I keep specifying 'Darwinian' evolution is to avoid doing what I think you're doing - 'translating' the relevant terms and ideas given in a theory which depended on the existence of time, and showing what it would all "really mean" in a different theory that doesn't. But I'm not concerned with the idea that, if the claim is that neither time nor change exists, we can somehow make up a story that generally touches on similar explanations that one would expect from an evolutionary theory. I'm sure you can - it's just going to be a different theory. And it needs to be different, because the old theory relied crucially on ideas and premises that turned out to be false. (Likewise, I don't think it matters that Darwinism isn't directly 'about' theories of time, etc. It's enough that the theory crucially depends on certain other ideas. It's like kicking out the legs of a table - sure, I wasn't aiming for the tabletop, but the damn thing's smashing against the ground anyway.)

Further, sure, Barbour may say 'the earth goes around the sun'. But again: I'm not interested here in figures of speech, and to say what amounts to (as I think Barbour would need to, if he's serious about the lack of time/change) "well, the earth going around the sun is a useful fiction", or "the origin of species by natural selection is a useful fiction" would just be to say what I'm saying, perhaps more delicately.

David said...

I know Barbour only from that summary, so I may very well be misunderstanding his position. The impression it left me was that it was some kind of perdurantism with an excess of rhetoric thrown in, but even if his proposal is something else — change-B? — I think it would have to follow the same pattern. (Change-O is real, as far as it goes; as for the details, change-B would be the real deal, and change-E/change-P are just wrong, though possibly useful as figures of speech.) If he's actually, literally denying change-O, then he must just be nuts. (Or some kind of artificial intelligence, which, lacking a soul, wouldn't have any experience of real change [=change-O], and thus would be correct that change didn't exist… for it!)

And it needs to be different, because the old theory relied crucially on ideas and premises that turned out to be false.

I don't follow how Darwinism depends on the details of a metaphysical theory of change/time. It depends on whatever it is that happens when we see movement, growth, etc. — i.e. what I've called change-O; but not on the details beyond that. Similarly, it depends on there being "space", but is unaffected by whether space turns out to be Euclidean or curved; or by whether solid water is solid-E or solid-P. Saying that ice or the tabletop is "solid" is not a fiction (useful or otherwise); it's quite correct. It's saying that "solid" means "atoms packed tightly together" that is the fiction (though if you're not doing atomic physics, it may be a useful one).

Crude said...

David,

The impression it left me was that it was some kind of perdurantism with an excess of rhetoric thrown in, but even if his proposal is something else — change-B? — I think it would have to follow the same pattern.

If Barbour really means "another kind of change", then his rhetoric is making him communicate his position terribly. Always possible. But until I see a clarification from either Barbour or someone more experienced with what he's saying, I have to take him at his word - he's saying there is no change, there is no time. Not "change is really change-(whatever)" or "time is actually time-(whatever)" - no change, no time, nada, zero, zip. In the summaries and interviews I've seen, he's very explicit about this. So any take of "the kind of change Barbour really means" just isn't my focus - I don't see him talking about "what change is" anymore than "what time is" aside from, bluntly, "illusions". Things that don't exist.

And if that's his tack, he's got the problems I'm pointing out. Does perdurantism have those problems? I don't know for sure - never followed that discussion much. Apparently not, or not obviously, since you say perdurantism has change and I assume time.

I don't follow how Darwinism depends on the details of a metaphysical theory of change/time.

Because it depends on change/time actually existing, for one thing. If there is no change, particularly if there is no 'natural selection' acting on 'random variation' because both of these require change and time as Darwin understood them, then Barbour's theory is anti-Darwinian. It's like finding out that evolution is guided at each and every instance, with all the variation and outcomes of selection decided in advance - I'm sure something approximating an evolutionary theory can be worked out of those details, but 'Darwinian Evolution' it ain't gonna be.

To go back to an example you used, if what we think of as "time" is actually strongly analogous to the frames in a movie - such that the events we see when they are 'played out' is not dependent on the acts of anyone 'in the film', but instead by whoever created, arranged and organized those frames - then to see birds pick off the least-camouflaged moths in the forest, thus leading to an abundance of better-camouflaged moths, is not 'witnessing natural selection'. It may look like it, for the people in the film it may be a useful fiction, a neat rule of thumb, but 'natural selection' is no longer doing anything there. It's whoever, or whatever, is actually responsible for creating and organizing the frames.

David said...

I think I see better what you're getting at with the idea of nothing that's in the "frames" being responsible for the contents, it's the work of whoever is assembling the film. Except that in an actual film, it really is the actors who cause the contents of each frame and not the editor or film-developer. Of course a real film is just a kind of copy or representation of real actors, and in our analogy, the real actors are inside the "frames", but they are still responsible. (Similarly, we can't say there's no causality in the TV-like world, even though the pixels on a real TV screen don't push each other about.)

It is weird, because as soon as we start looking at it from the outside, 4-D perspective, we lose that conscious experience of time, and so we start visualising this wormy-block as a solid lump that is progressing in time and not changing. But that's a limitation of our imagination. We actually imagine the 4-D blocks in 3-D, because we can't literally envision four dimensions, either, but we know that's just a stand-in for the four entirely mathematically possible dimensions a shape could have. So when we imagine a block that is in-time-and-static, we have to remind ourselves that that's just a stand-in for something that does look and feel like it's changing from the inside.

I still don't think this is any more or less of a problem for Darwinists than any other scientist. (Other than, as you point out, being an excellent way to flush out politically-correct posers!) A 4-D physicist still wants to say that one billiard ball hitting another will "change" its momentum, transferring energy from one to the other. And I agree that this is a problem given the usual half-baked modern philosophy of science as it is typically (mis)understood. But then that philosophy (i.e. that it's billiard balls all the way down!) doesn't work anyway... and for the same or similar reasons. Without a proper understanding of formal and final causes, science can't make sense in 3 or 4 dimensions.

Perhaps it will help to think of an example of a cause that doesn't work across time, such as one object holding up another. The object may or may not continue to hold up the other one for an extended period of time, but the causation isn't the first object at time t-1 causes the second object to be held up at time t-2. The cause is simultaneous, and if you were looking a single frame (or paused your TV picture), it would be correct to say that the first object's being in position p-1 is the cause of the second object's remaining in position p-2 instead of falling down. In the 4-D world, everything can be seen as positional causes if you like, but where some of the positions lie along the temporal axis.

(This suggests a very interesting idea I've been pondering lately: that final causes are analogous to formal causes across time. I'm not sure I can say formal and final causes are exactly the same thing, one viewed across space and the across time, because as mentioned, conscious experience of change cannot be simply reduced to four-dimensionalism. As well, perhaps the way you're thinking about it is a clue to a line of reasoning like Aquinas's Fifth Way. Even acknowledging causes "inside" the frames, does the 4-D view make it more obvious that there must be an outside cause(r) too? It also raises the possibility of a new opportunity to show 4-D folks how the modern story of push-pull-efficient-causes doesn't work, and lead them a better philosophy — but then again, if quantum mechanics (which is scarcely weird at all on an A-T view) doesn't make them question it, probably nothing will.)

-David said...

As for Barbour, maybe he is just nuts. Saying "change doesn't exist" to mean "...the way you think it does" makes (rhetorical) sense, but to say "change-O doesn't exist" is trivially refutable. You might say, "there's no such thing as solid matter", not to mean "there's no such thing as solid-P but there is such a thing as solid-E", but honestly to mean, "there's no such thing as solid-O, not only is your hypothesis of what makes things solid wrong, but your very awareness of solidity is an illusion!" Of course to mean that genuinely, you would be committed to claiming that we are all in fact thinking puddles, or something of the sort, and that our experiences of solidity are all false. That at least is possible, insofar as a hallucination is not a solid object, and thus replacing those experiences with hallucinations does not involve a contradiction.

But to say that our experience of change is an illusion will not do, because those very illusions "change"! That would be like denying the sensation of solidity — I may be mistaken about thinking there is such a thing as a solid object that I am feeling, but I cannot be mistaken about the feeling itself. If I feel "solidness", then I feel solidness. If I perceive redness, then "redness" must exist, even if the red object I infer does not. So change in some sense has to exist, I most definitely agree.

Crude said...

Except that in an actual film, it really is the actors who cause the contents of each frame and not the editor or film-developer.

Depends on the nature of the film. If it's an animation, etc. It's just an analogy either way - how strong of one depends on the view in question. Even in the case of actors, the actors you're thinking of would be responsible for that only insofar as they aren't 'the actors in the film.' If a surveillance camera records me stealing, it doesn't (or at least shouldn't) end up with the particular segments of information on a DVD-R being charged with theft.

As for Barbour, maybe he is just nuts. Saying "change doesn't exist" to mean "...the way you think it does" makes (rhetorical) sense, but to say "change-O doesn't exist" is trivially refutable.

Yeah, but come on. How many times have you run into a person taking a trivially refutable stance? How many times have you seen a professional philosopher do it? I gave up the "he can't be saying that, he must really be saying (some other, more sensible thing, strained though the interpretation is)" move long ago. Ran into too many people taking too many crazy positions.

David said...

If a surveillance camera records me stealing, it doesn't (or at least shouldn't) end up with the particular segments of information on a DVD-R being charged with theft.

Except that in this analogy, the data on the DVD is your "body", being directly animated by your soul, so (together) that's what constitutes you. Speaking of animation, I was going to mention cartoons, because that raises some interesting thoughts about how God continually "creates" and sustains each instant of the cosmos.

How many times have you seen a professional philosopher do it?

Heh, all right, I can't argue with that!

Keener said...

The link to the National Review article appears to be broken. I think it is broken at the source. I finally searched for Edward Feser in the Review's search box, and it linked to the article, but when I clicked it, it appeared to be a home page (gives the same result as the link within this article: no actual article).