Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Forgetting nothing, learning nothing


Lawrence Krauss’s book A Universe from Nothing managed something few thought possible -- to outdo Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion in sheer intellectual frivolousness.  Nor was my First Things review of the book by any means the only one to call attention to its painfully evident foibles.  Many commentators with no theological ax to grind -- such as David Albert, Massimo Pigliucci, Brian Leiter, and even New Atheist featherweight Jerry Coyne -- slammed Krauss’s amateurish foray into philosophy.  Here’s some take-to-the-bank advice to would-be atheist provocateurs: When even Jerry Coyne thinks your attempt at atheist apologetics “mediocre,” it’s time to throw in the towel.  Causa finita est.  Game over.  Shut the hell up already

But Krauss likes nothing so much as the sound of his own voice, even when he’s got nothing of interest to say.  A friend calls my attention to a recent Australian television appearance in which Krauss, his arrogance as undiminished as his cluelessness, commits the same puerile fallacies friends and enemies alike have been calling him out on for over a year now.  Is there any point in flogging a horse by now so far past dead that even the Brits wouldn’t make a lasagna out of him?  There is, so long as there’s still even one hapless reader who somehow mistakes this wan ghost for Bucephalus.
 
Those looking for an extra Lenten penance might consider watching the whole broadcast.  The rest of us can skip ahead to about 27 minutes in, where a questioner asks Krauss to explain how the universe could arise from nothing.  Krauss answers:

[E]mpty space, which for many people is a good first example of nothing, is actually unstable.  Quantum mechanics will allow particles to suddenly pop out of nothing and it doesn't violate any laws of physics.  Just the known laws of quantum mechanics and relativity can produce 400 billion galaxies each containing 100 billion stars and then beyond that it turns out when you apply quantum mechanics to gravity, space itself can arise from nothing, as can time.  It seems impossible but it’s completely possible and what is amazing to me is to be asked what would be the characteristics of a universe that came from nothing by laws of physics.  It would be precisely the characteristics of the universe we measure.

This is, of course, a summary of the argument of Krauss’s book.   And the problem with it, as everybody on the planet knows except for Krauss himself and the very hackiest of his fellow New Atheist hacks, is that empty space governed by quantum mechanics (or any other laws of physics, or even just the laws of physics by themselves) is not nothing, and not even an “example” of nothing (whatever an “example of nothing” means), but something.  And it remains something rather than nothing even if it is a “good first approximation” to nothing (which is what Krauss presumably meant by “good first example”).  When people ask how something could arise from nothing, they don’t mean “How could something arise from almost nothing?”   They mean “How could something arise from nothing?”  That is to say, from the absence of anything whatsoever -- including the absence of space (empty or otherwise), laws of physics, or anything else.  And Krauss has absolutely nothing to say about that, despite it’s being, you know, the question he was asked, and the question he pretended to be answering in his book.  (Krauss has the brass later in the show to accuse a fellow panelist of a “bait and switch”!)

When another questioner calls Krauss out on this subtle-as-a-sledgehammer sleight of hand, he smugly answers: “Science changes the meaning of things.  It’s called learning.”  Well, no, actually it’s called the fallacy of equivocation, and it isn’t “science” that is committing it, but just some guy who’s written a lame pop science book.  Krauss continues:

[Y]ou may have said that nothing was an infinite empty void like the Bible would have said.  Well, that would be empty space, okay?  We’ve learned that that kind of nothing is much more complicated than you thought.  There’s nothing in it.  There’s no real particles but it actually has properties but the point is that you can go much further and say there’s no space, no time, no universe and not even any fundamental laws and it could all spontaneously arise and it seems to me if you have no laws, no space, no time, no particles, no radiation, it is a pretty good approximation of nothing…

[B]ecause of discovering that empty space has energy, it seems quite plausible that our universe may be just one universe in what could be almost an infinite number of universes and in every universe the laws of physics are different and they come into existence when the universe comes into existence.

End quote.  Now, leave aside the dubious biblical exegesis.  Ignore the questionable multiverse stuff.  Just savor the crystalline purity of Krauss’s irrationality.  In answer to the charge that he has merely changed the subject rather than addressed the question, Krauss’s response is… once again to change the subject (talking about “space,” “properties,” an “approximation of nothing,” “energy,” “infinite number of universes,” etc., which of course are not nothing but something) while continuing to insinuate that he is somehow addressing the original question (which had to do with how something could come from nothing, not from something).   As if repeating the fallacy makes it less of a fallacy.  Again, for over a year now this objection has been raised against Krauss by all and sundry, including by people who know the relevant physics as well as he does and logic and philosophy far better than he does.  He’s had ample time to consider the objection and try to formulate a response.  And that’s the best he can do.

A physicist friend of mine and I once sat out on the back porch talking as a moth circled the light above us, repeatedly banging into it.  He interrupted our conversation to note that he’d always found this typical bit of moth behavior annoyingly contemptible for its sheer stupidity -- for the stubborn pointlessness of the moth’s behavior, incapable though it was of acting any differently.  When I think of Krauss I think of that moth.

Let’s watch the moth finally crash and burn, shall we?   Krauss doesn’t actually shut up for another half hour or so, and a whole series of posts could be devoted to the various silly and uninformed things he says.  But he reaches something like a crescendo of incoherence a little past halfway through the show.  Here it is:

I would argue that nothing is a physical quantity.  It’s the absence of something.  Okay.  So to understand what nothing is, you have to think carefully about what something is and that's what science tells us.  So we’re trying to - we’re trying to take an empirical approach to try and understand what the absence of something is and I think there are deep philosophical issues that we’re not going to resolve in this program…

So, “nothing,” Krauss finally acknowledges, is “the absence of something.”  So far so good.  He’s acquired some knowledge of English over the last few months.  Unfortunately, he still hasn’t taken that remedial logic course.  For we are also told that nothing is a “physical quantity” which can be studied through “empirical” means.   All of which entails that the absence of something is a physical quantity which can be studied through empirical means.  Wrap your mind around that.  Your couch has length, width, depth, mass, etc. and can be seen and touched.  And it turns out that the absence of your couch has length, width, depth, mass, etc. and can be seen and touched.  Does the absence of a couch look different from the absence of a cat?  Do they weigh the same?  And how many absences can you fit in one room?  Don’t scoff!  It’s sciiieeeeence!

Or maybe it isn’t, since Krauss casually allows that “there are deep philosophical issues” that he doesn’t pretend to have resolved.  And why should he be expected to resolve them?  After all, they’re only what the question he pretends to have answered was always about in the first place.

Wait… what’s that smell?  Oh, right…

[I’ve addressed Krauss-like pseudo-scientific nonsense about something coming from nothing in earlier posts, here, here, here, and here.  For discussion of the larger issues underlying these debates, see the posts collected here.]

90 comments:

seanrobsville said...

The empty set may be the closest approximation to 'nothing' that we are capable of conceiving. It doesn't produce anything physical, but it does give rise to the integers, though it needs a mind to bootstrap them. http://www.mathpath.org/concepts/number.htm

Hans Coessens said...

Krauss once interviewed on radio claimed that philosophers know nothing. Similarly the universe, according to him came from nothing. I think we have a nice syllogism here:

1 - The universe came from nothing
2 - Philosophers know nothing
3 - Therefore philosophers know what the universe came from.

This is a valid modus ponens. Check mate Krauss!

Curmudgeon said...

Very nice remark by seanrobsville. But, if I understand correctly, the empty set is still a set, so it is not (an immaterial) nothing. I surmise that a mathematician thinking about nothing just doesn't think about anything.

Anonymous said...

The empty set doesn't 'give rise' to the integers. The von Neumann construction represents ordinals as collections of collections of empty sets (which may as well be unitary markers within the representation). It also presupposes the ability to make a coherent collection, comparison and combination; all things that the empty set didn't give rise to either.

Anonymous said...

I don't think donkeys like krauss even deserve the attention given to them. I think it's time Feser started ignoring the army of new atheist ignoramus. Refuting them gives them status, ridiculing them makes them somewhat relevant.

I'd much rather see posts addressing serious issues in philosophy not the stupidity of a nerd who deludes himself into thinking that his new found religion of scientism is anything to be taken seriously.

MarcAnthony said...

"The empty set may be the closest approximation to 'nothing' that we are capable of conceiving."

Which, of course, makes it not "nothing", as you yourself admitted (interesting, though).

Dr. Feser, what do you think of the objection that the laws of physics don't actually exist, but they're just descriptions of observable phenomena in the universe?

For example, the advocate of scientism might say that the law of gravity is simply the observation that, to ultra-simplify it, things fall. Or that "physical laws" that exist in "quantum nothingness" merely means that things occur in quantum nothingness just like they would anywhere else-but there's nothing there where something could occur.

I'm not a philosopher, but to me the error here is that we can still conceive of this place. This immediately makes it not nothing in the philosophical sense. Am I onto something?

Anonymous said...

Krauss says space came from the quantum field. But dont you need space for the quantum field to exist in the first place. Like an EM field. Its a field which permeates through space. I cant imagine how a field can exist without space.

Anonymous said...

Virtual particle are short-lived disturbances in quantum fields. They are so short lived that we cannot observe them in a direct manner, but we can measure the effects of these virtual particle (Casimir effect). The point is though, that virtual particles don't come from nothing. Try making a ripple in some water, without the water.

Scott said...

@Anon:

"I cant imagine how a field can exist without space."

And even if it could, it would still be a field and not just "nothing."

seanrobsville said...

@ Curmudgeon and Anon
The empty set seems to be an 'encapsulation' of nothing, which renders it logically manipulable. It is not to be confused with zero. I can have zero oranges and still have 20 apples, but an empty set has zero of all kinds of fruit.

One of the interesting aspects of von Neuman's method of generating the integers is that they are produced by the manipulations of the mind in the complete absence of any physical objects to be counted. "God gave us the integers, all else is the work of man" - So can all of mathematics be generated by the mind in the absence of any physical referents? And if so, why is mathematics so unreasonably effective in modelling physical systems?

BLS said...

Aren't zero apples indistinguishable from zero oranges?

JD said...

I have been thinking a lot lately about the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. Some say it is not biblical. Some say it has to do with the way God created the world without the use of pre-existent matter, but I think this misses the point. Others say the doctrine is the result of Hellenisitc philosophy rather than ancient Judaeo-Christian thinking. Could I kindly ask you to follow this post up with another on the meaning of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, and why it is so essential for our understanding of God and the world, and why it might be wrong for some Christians to reject it?

Aloysius said...

Hans:

It seems to me that I've seen that particular syllogism somewhere on the Thomism Discussion Group on Facebook...

I still get a chuckle out of it.

Roger Wasson said...

"Dr. Feser, what do you think of the objection that the laws of physics don't actually exist, but they're just descriptions of observable phenomena in the universe?

For example, the advocate of scientism might say that the law of gravity is simply the observation that, to ultra-simplify it, things fall. Or that "physical laws" that exist in "quantum nothingness" merely means that things occur in quantum nothingness just like they would anywhere else-but there's nothing there where something could occur."


You still must have universals. That things fall is still a universal. Statements about physical laws in quantum nothingness are universals. Any analysis of these notions---except of course for physicists and philosophers who live self-referentially sheltered lives---already requires universals that exist in some sense in order to adjudicate universals and the existence issues about them.

So universals do exist, on pain of necessarily giving the same existence status to their denials and the arguments for them that are necessarily assumed to have decisive authority over such existence questions in the first place.

It's like Ed said about nominalism in The Last Superstition, whatever the nominalist reduces universals to, is itself necessarily held to be an even higher level universal.

And to try to avoid THAT universal using the same objection, merely raises the same problem again at yet a higher supervisory level, resulting in an infinite regress of higher and higher levels of universals: universals about universals, universals about universals about universals, and so on.

To formulate and defend nominalist, psychologistic, or conceptualist claims, one needs to appeal to certain universals like mind, standards of logic, and so on---which contradicts the very point of those views.
(pages 44-45)

Similarly, any means of getting rid of God is always just another God.

Roger Wasson said...

"Dr. Feser, what do you think of the objection that the laws of physics don't actually exist, but they're just descriptions of observable phenomena in the universe?

For example, the advocate of scientism might say that the law of gravity is simply the observation that, to ultra-simplify it, things fall. Or that "physical laws" that exist in "quantum nothingness" merely means that things occur in quantum nothingness just like they would anywhere else-but there's nothing there where something could occur."


You still must have universals. That things fall is still a universal. Statements about physical laws in quantum nothingness are universals. Any analysis of these notions---except of course for physicists and philosophers who live self-referentially sheltered lives---already requires universals that exist in some sense in order to adjudicate universals and the existence issues about them.

So universals do exist, on pain of necessarily giving the same existence status to their denials and the arguments for them that are necessarily assumed to have decisive authority over such existence questions in the first place.

It's like Ed said about nominalism in The Last Superstition, whatever the nominalist reduces universals to, is itself necessarily held to be an even higher level universal.

And to try to avoid THAT universal using the same objection, merely raises the same problem again at yet a higher supervisory level, resulting in an infinite regress of higher and higher levels of universals: universals about universals, universals about universals about universals, and so on.

To formulate and defend nominalist, psychologistic, or conceptualist claims, one needs to appeal to certain universals like mind, standards of logic, and so on---which contradicts the very point of those views.
(pages 44-45)

Similarly, any means of getting rid of God is always just another God.

Scott said...

@seanrobsville:

"So can all of mathematics be generated by the mind in the absence of any physical referents?"

I'd say yes.

"And if so, why is mathematics so unreasonably effective in modelling physical systems?"

I'd say it's because the same Mind that gave us mathematics also gave us the physical universe.

That's one respect in which I'm more Platonic than Aristotelian.

Syphax said...

I don't understand what Krauss means when he says: "Quantum mechanics will allow particles to suddenly pop out of nothing and it doesn't violate any laws of physics." If "laws of physics" are just descriptions of patterns we observe in nature, how could anything ever violate the laws of physics?

Glenn said...

Hans wrote: Krauss once interviewed on radio claimed that philosophers know nothing. Similarly the universe, according to him came from nothing. I think we have a nice syllogism here:

1 - The universe came from nothing
2 - Philosophers know nothing
3 - Therefore philosophers know what the universe came from.

This is a valid modus ponens. Check mate Krauss!


Forgive my saying so, but this triumph seems to be a modest one.

Let us instead be modest, and thereby truly triumph:

(1) Philosophers know nothing.
(2) The universe came from nothing.
(3) Ergo, the universe came from what philosophers know.

- - - - -

In other news...

Not surly re Krauss
but if he's going to write
he should do haikus

A base haiku for
all those reductionists who
must equivocate

Pardon the ego
But I am compelled to soar
the world into parts

For if without parts
interactions in the world
have no simple ground

- - - - -

Btw, were Billy Preston still alive, presumably he too would be flogging Krauss:

Somethin' from nothin' ain' quantum
You gotta have somethin'
If you wanna start with nothin'

- - - - -

My apologies (sort of), but this was a lot more fun than debugging write-only assembler code. Oh well, back to the grind...

Scott said...

@Roger Wasson:

"You still must have universals. That things fall is still a universal. Statements about physical laws in quantum nothingness are universals."

Those aren't (quite) examples of what philosophers generally mean by universals. A universal is supposed to be a property, character, or quality that particular things literally have in common—e.g. (adapting your examples), a tendency to fall or a tendency to obey physical laws.

I'm not saying you're wrong, just clarifying your point. I agree that there's no escape from the reality of universals.

BLS said...

"I don't understand what Krauss means when he says: "Quantum mechanics will allow particles to suddenly pop out of nothing and it doesn't violate any laws of physics." If "laws of physics" are just descriptions of patterns we observe in nature, how could anything ever violate the laws of physics?"

I lol'ed. I think if someone sat down with him and explained what a mathematical abstraction is, he might be a little more careful.

Scott said...

@Syphax:

"If 'laws of physics' are just descriptions of patterns we observe in nature, how could anything ever violate the laws of physics?"

Exactly. If anything ever violated such a "law," then the law would simply turn out not to be a law.

Untenured said...

I actually think that you can rationalize Krauss's argument using Quinean theses about language and knowledge. The fact that you can do this should serve only to embarass the Quineans.

So, following our boy WVO:

There is no standpoint prior to science, and no distinction between observational terms and theoretical terms. Thus, every term is theory-laden. And, additionally, theoretical terms acquire their cognitive significance from the role that they play within the "web of belief". And since there are no philosophical truths independent of science, all of our terms acquire their cognitive significance from the role that they play within our "web of belief" which consists mainly of our "best theory of the world".

And since physics is our best "theory of the world", then the fact that physicists use the word "nothing" to refer to a quantum vacuum means that the word "nothing" really does refer to a quantum vacuum. Thus, something really can come from nothing because our theory-laden definition of "nothing" refers to a quantum vacuum and nothing else.

I think that this actually follows from a full endorsement of Quine's philosophy of science.

And yet the conclusion, that something can come from nothing, is risible.

It follows that Krauss has inadvertently illustrated how silly the Quinean naturalist position that dominates analytic philosophy really is.

Roger Wasson said...

"A universal is supposed to be a property, character, or quality that particular things literally have in common—e.g. (adapting your examples), a tendency to fall or a tendency to obey physical laws."

Their unavoidable necessity for any possible thought is precisely a property, character, or quality of all predicable things. Particulars cannot be thought at all except by being instances of universals.

The rationally necessary is---necessarily---the existentially real. The vantage point from which these things are decided must have an enduring and recalcitrant reality in order to authoritatively arbitrate the status of those things as real or not.

I don't see what more one could want in order to establish that universals are properties, qualities, or characteristics of all predicable things. In fact, the taxonomy of the very structure of our conceptualizing seems to require this in advance.

Scott said...

@Roger Wasson:

As I said, I agree that there's no escaping universals. My point was that Statements about physical laws in quantum nothingness are universals isn't quite what you meant to say. The statement of such a law isn't the universal in question; the property (of following a law) is.

tazmic said...

"So can all of mathematics be generated by the mind in the absence of any physical referents?"

It might struggle with geometry.

"why is mathematics so unreasonably effective in modelling physical systems?"

Because physical systems are doing the same thing as mathematicians - exploring the envelope of possibility over the fundamental logic of necessity.

"God gave us the integers, all else is the work of man"

Mathematicians, just as Inventors, discover their creations.

Roger Wasson said...

Right, universal predications or statements or propositions is what I should have said.

Scott said...

@Roger Wasson:

"Right, universal predications or statements or propositions is what I should have said."

And with that I entirely agree. The denial (or even doubt) of real universals can't even be stated coherently.

Anonymous said...

It's not really a comment on Dr. Feser's post topic but what the hell!

I'm wondering if anyone can point me in the direction of a light introduction to empiricism and critiques of empiricism or even has any thoughts on it. I know somebody who claims that empiricism is the only way to knowledge (Krauss might himself fall into this category) and that strikes me as a self-refuting statement.

BLS said...

"It's not really a comment on Dr. Feser's post topic but what the hell!

I'm wondering if anyone can point me in the direction of a light introduction to empiricism and critiques of empiricism or even has any thoughts on it. I know somebody who claims that empiricism is the only way to knowledge (Krauss might himself fall into this category) and that strikes me as a self-refuting statement."

Where's rank sophist when you need him. Anyways anon, have you checked out Feser's "Rosenberg Roundup" on this blog? The links in that roundup might help somewhat.

Eduardo said...

Roger Wasson knows a bit about Empiricism...

Krauss is more the Scientism class, which is a even more hardcore form of empiricism... sort of

rank sophist said...

I think it's well past time that Krauss faded out of the New Atheist limelight. Seeing Prof. Feser attack him almost feels pointless, like a pope taking time out of his day to correct Jimmy Swaggart.

BLS,

Where's rank sophist when you need him.

Present!

Anon at 1:41 PM,

I'm wondering if anyone can point me in the direction of a light introduction to empiricism and critiques of empiricism or even has any thoughts on it. I know somebody who claims that empiricism is the only way to knowledge (Krauss might himself fall into this category) and that strikes me as a self-refuting statement.

I'll just give you a few starting points, since I don't want to hijack one of Prof. Feser's serious posts with one of my long-winded rants.

http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2009/06/empiricism-versus-aristotelianism.html

http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2009/06/hume-science-and-religion.html

http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2012/08/think-mcfly-think.html

http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2012/05/natural-theology-natural-science-and.html

MarcAnthony said...

Interesting responses guys. So what do you mean by "universals"?

MarcAnthony said...

"If 'laws of physics' are just descriptions of patterns we observe in nature, how could anything ever violate the laws of physics?"

Wouldn't the answer given by the Scientism advocate be, "Good point, nothing can violate the laws of physics!"

And if something DID violate it, that means they got the law wrong, and the parameters are different than they thought.

Scott said...

@MarcAnthony:

"Interesting responses guys. So what do you mean by 'universals'?"

I'll speak only for myself here, but I think my meaning is common to most philosophers who take an interest in the subject: what I mean by a universal is any character, property, attribute, quality, relation, or "feature of reality" that can be literally present in more than one context or that several particulars can literally have in common.

Anonymous said...

BLS and rank sophist, thanks for your responses. I'll check out those links.

Anonymous said...

@Roger and Scott

What is the mode of existence of universals? Are they in the thing or do they have a mode of being apart from the thing itself?

rank sophist said...

Anon at 3:54 PM,

I hope the other guys don't mind, but I've been doing some reading and thinking on this subject lately, so I'd like to answer. Only individual things exist under a Thomist model. However, individual things always contain universals within themselves. It is impossible for a universal to exist unless it is inside of an individual. As Aquinas says, even if there was a universal that existed apart from an individual, that universal would itself become an individual.

DNW said...

" ... what do you mean by 'universals'?"

Let's try and remember ... that "Medieval philosophy: Boethius to Ockham" class ...

A universal was "That which is predicable of the many", I think is how the formulation went.

I can't remember the five or whatever questions concerning the nature of universals were, but the list included something like ...

Do they exist only mentally or extra-mentally?
Are they corporeal or incorporeal?
Are they subsistent or existent?

Well, let someone who has had the class in the last 20 years, or a text handy answer ...

dd said...

Anon @ 3:54 and Glenn,

"Do they exist only mentally or extra-mentally?"

the answer to this question, i believe, is the one Avicenna (d.1037) gave viz., universals considered in themselves exist in neither mode, but can come to exist in one mode or the other.

MarcAnthony said...

R.S.:

"As Aquinas says, even if there was a universal that existed apart from an individual, that universal would itself become an individual."

So, wait-what does it mean then when we say even a space with nothing physical in it has universals?

Roger Wasson said...

Universals are both instantiated in the thing and exist in and of themselves. The discussion of universals shows this clearly, since any such discussion presupposes non-controversial universal forms through which the issue itself must be processed in thought.

The forms of predication in Kant's preformation system is a good example of this. Any possible predication is necessarily going to take one of those forms. It doesn't just happen to take one of those forms after the fact of its occurrence. To question them is to already assume them, and so on.

In fact, you could probably construct a complete exposition of universals merely by thoroughly scrutinizing the questioning of their existence, nature, and justification.

DNW said...

Looks as though my recollection was somewhat faulty and I separated one question and its subsidiary consideration into two, and left the "In or apart" question out.

Perhaps I multiplied the total number of questions by the same process - recalling an implied consequence mentioned in my class notes as an independent question. I can almost see the page...

Nonetheless I do see that there is all you could ever wish to read about the question of universals readily available.

For those interested in a discussion of the classical formulation, these links seem as good as any place to start:

http://pvspade.com/Logic/docs/boethius.pdf

http://www.granta.demon.co.uk/arsm/jg/boethius.html

http://faculty.fordham.edu/klima/Blackwell-proofs/

I suppose we could always look it up first, but that would be a kind of cheating, wouldn't it.

Scott said...

@Anon:

"What is the mode of existence of universals? Are they in the thing or do they have a mode of being apart from the thing itself?"

Aristotle would say the former, Plato the latter. My sympathies are generally with Plato but I think it depends on the universal.

(I've deleted a previous edition of this comment because I'd inverted Plato and Aristotle.)

Anonymous said...

Saw this today, bit of light relief

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=ur5fGSBsfq8

BenYachov said...

Well we are all sedevacantists now at lest for about a month or less.

May God bless & keep Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

Deus Vult said...

Yes, God bless the Pope Emeritus and may the Holy Spirit guide the Cardinals well in their deliberations. Here's hoping for Cardinal Ouellet to receive the Call.

Mark Szlazak said...

Did not know whether Noam Chomsky's video presentation has been seen by you all:

Noam Chomsky - "The machine, the ghost, and the limits of understanding"

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D5in5EdjhD0

Jon said...

Hi Dr. Feser,

I was wondering if you might dedicate a blog post to David Bently Hart's recent article on First Things: http://www.firstthings.com/article/2013/02/is-ought-and-natures-laws-1

I know you've covered this subject in TLS and a couple of blog posts, but can you perhaps take a look at and comment on his reasoning. Would greatly appreciate it!

seanrobsville said...

Came across this short New Scientist video (precededed by an even shorter sponsor's ad) illustrating the perils and pitfalls of reductionism:
http://www.newscientist.com/video/1872152752001-what-is-reality.html

The primacy it gives to consciousness is a change of direction for this normally physicalist publication, but in using Von Neuman's derivation to claim that everything is derived from mathematics, it seems to be confusing the map with the territory, leading to the 'everything is nothing' absurdity.

machinephilosophy said...

Scott

I did some thinking about the universal issue. I had for so long gotten in the habit of saying statements are universals, by which I simply meant they are universal statements. So by saying that's a universal (whatever it is), I'm saying that's a universally quantified statement, a statement made up of, and expressing, universals.

So basic universal statements are necessary in order to know universal forms, and those universal forms are necessary in order to construct and express those universal statements.

I'll have to read a lot more about this to make sure I'm not making a mistake here, but I'm now thinking that universal forms are just one type of universal, and there are formal, conceptual, and predicative universals. And if Boyle is right about performative consistency, then I suppose there must also be pragmatic universals as well.

Whatever is irreducibly basic and can't be gotten rid of seems to have a transcendental universal quality equal to all other necessary "peer" primitives, however equally cross-assumed they seem to necessarily be.

Scott said...

@machinephilosophy:

"I'll have to read a lot more about this to make sure I'm not making a mistake here . . . "

It's a fascinating subject. Let me know if you'd like any references.

Quire said...

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/10/can-physics-and-philosophy-get-along/

Wonder what everyone thought about this article? I think it's a pretty interesting - in particular, his response to the unintelligibility of the concept of "Absolute Nothing", which many of us here seem to be relying upon as an argument against Atheism.

Scott said...

@Quire:

"Wonder what everyone thought about this article? I think it's a pretty interesting - in particular, his response to the unintelligibility of the concept of 'Absolute Nothing', which many of us here seem to be relying upon as an argument against Atheism."

If "absolute nothing" is unintelligible, then nothing can come from it. That's not an argument for Krauss; it's an argument against him.

machinephilosophy said...

Yeah, I'd like to see a list of recommended tomes on universals. Metaphysics generally as well. Hadn't really formulated a list yet because of a heavy study schedule in other areas.

machinephilosophy said...

DNW

Thanks for those links. I'll check them out.

John Burford said...

Wow, Coyne really took Krauss to task in his review. I also agree with Coyne over that other reviewer that he quoted: the main issue isn't whether religion is intolerant/stifling/etc, it's whether or not it's TRUE. Feser is equally emphatic about this.

I wonder why the entire issue of whether God's existence can be proved doesn't receive more of the average person's attention than it does, considering that it's the main point of human existence.

G said...

Feser,
being the clueless waste of space that you are, you'll never get why people like Hawking and Krauss talk about a Universe form "nothing" (notice the parentheses, moron? get them into your brain, if you still got one), or argue that because there's such a thing as gravity, the universe can come from "nothing". it's only retards, clueless about physics, who can only quibble about the word "nothing", thinking that one-liners such as 'gravity is not nothing' or 'space is not nothing' overturns physics. (funny how those same retards never object to the idea that God created the Universe from "nothing", by saying 'hey, God is not nothing!')
I'd say, all your vitriol against Krauss comes form the fact that it's him, the renowned physicist, not you, the deluded religious nut, who is invited to speak on the subject. But then, who cares what an ignoramuses, whose hero is another ignoramuses from an ignorant age like Aquinas, has to say on matters of cosmology and physics? Instead of being so pathetic, go get a real education.

Not L. Krauss said...

Yeah you go G! Brilliant argumentation!

Anonymous said...

Dr. Feser, I know that G's comment is rather long-winded, but I really think you should consider adding it to the quotes at the top of your page. It strikes me as such a sublime distillation of new atheist argumentation!

Hallvard N. Jørgensen said...

Dear prof. Feser, I was just about to point to DB Hart's very interesting and provocative article in the recent issue of First Things, but then I saw that someone had already done it.

Well, it would be very interesting if you could find the time to give him a response.

http://www.firstthings.com/article/2013/02/is-ought-and-natures-laws-1

machinephilosophy said...

Hart is just plain wrong. It's not that an ought can be derived from an is, but that normativity and obligation are already embedded in what it means to be rational. The whole point of his own essay itself is that one OUGHT to construe things (including morality) in one way as opposed to some other.

If there's no obligation to follow reason prior to and apart from any supernatural belief, then how selectively we use reason is itself insulated from moral constraints, and Hart's banking on rational propriety to try to argue at a universal meta-ethical level against pre-theistic or non-theistic natural law is a self-trivializing sham.

Boru said...

Good article Dr Feser,

There's no good reason why Gypsy Rose Krauss should be allowed to get away with his magickal scientism nonsense, though he is such a dumb sitting-target that one feels a bit sorry for the clueless materialist buffoon.

And your justified polemic is beginning to get to them (see the "ignoramuses"[sic] G above).

Good.

Thus far they have been doing all of the bar-room beating, but now we're beginning to land a few good firm well-deserved jabs to the bridge of the new atheist nose - and my, do they not like the ensuing pain, and the taste of their own sneeringly contemptuous medicine.

Just wait till we start using bottles and pool-cues -then they'll really have something to whine about.

Scott said...

G wrote:

"nothing" (notice the parentheses, moron? . . . )

I see irony is not dead.

Jayson F. said...

I too am curious as to Feser's response to Hart's recent essay. I found the essay to be muddled and strange. Alas, I'm just a layman so it was probably just confusion on my part.

MarcAnthony said...

"...thinking that one-liners such as 'gravity is not nothing' or 'space is not nothing' overturns physics."

Because Dr. Feser's point was to overturn physics, right?

Joe K. said...

Not really the relevant post here, but did anyone happen to record Professor Feser's presentation in Lafayette yesterday? I was going to go, but I was pulled away by something else. I'd like to see what I missed!

rank sophist said...

machinephilosophy,

It's not that an ought can be derived from an is, but that normativity and obligation are already embedded in what it means to be rational. The whole point of his own essay itself is that one OUGHT to construe things (including morality) in one way as opposed to some other.

This conclusion is incoherent unless you already accept intellectualism, the four causes, essentialism, eudaimonistic ethics and other things. Today, we accept voluntarism, two causes, nominalism, relativistic ethics (or divine command theory) and other things. The conclusions of natural law are meaningless in that environment, as Hart states. Hart would make the further claim that logic alone cannot prove that intellectualism beats voluntarism, that four causes beat two, that essentialism beats nominalism or that eudaimonistic ethics beat modern ethics. In each of these cases, both positions have been seen as coherent at certain times and as incoherent at others, according to the historical circumstances.

If there's no obligation to follow reason prior to and apart from any supernatural belief, then how selectively we use reason is itself insulated from moral constraints, and Hart's banking on rational propriety to try to argue at a universal meta-ethical level against pre-theistic or non-theistic natural law is a self-trivializing sham.

Hart isn't criticizing reason itself--he's making the historicist claim that different historical eras reach different, logically coherent and yet incompatible conclusions. He's arguing that the modern natural law theorists are trying to import elements from a past historical era into a modern world in which they have lost all their relevance. The conclusions of natural law are only meaningful if one, as Hart says, has a "total spiritual conversion of his vision of reality". You can only apply natural law if you have already entered the tradition in which it was created.

Prof. Feser does an incredible job of converting people from one tradition to another. A common atheist response, though, is that he spends most of his time just explaining pre-modern tradition and showing that it is self-coherent. This is unfair in that it neglects his attacks on current thought, but it also has a grain of truth to it. It is impossible to wholly "disprove" the modern picture of reality. After a point, it's up to the individual to choose which tradition he is going to endorse. Despite the strange and counter-intuitive conclusions that modern thought can appear to reach, one man's reductio ad absurdum is another man's skeptical solution: as long as you don't endorse a blatantly contradictory position like materialism, you can always find a new way to defend your ideology.

Joe K. said...

Rank,

I just stopped by to see if anyone responded to my question, but I'm not totally sure this point is made as easily as you think it is. At a certain level it almost sounds like you're saying "bad explanation of existence" is as valid as "good explanation of existence" because someone might happen to choose "bad explanation of existence." It's almost like a backhanded way to give bad philosophy merit. (See below for a response for what I think your response will be.)

As you and I have already discussed, it's very true that the foundation of natural law is not "relevant" to the modern world, in the sense that the modern world doesn't understand it or is just ignorant of it. But this doesn't really have anything to do with whether that foundation (and the natural law consequences that follow) are correct.

This historicist issue is also an ultimately pointless discussion to have. If modern (that is, rejecting classical) arguments Are valid (which you seem to be implying that they are), then we should be discussing them, not whether people do or are willing to accept them (or their converse).

Which is why I don't totally understand your point here. If materialism is just not valid at all (which you say), then there must be modern conclusions that are to which you are appealing. As such, your beef is really with the natural law arguments Themselves, not whether people are able to accept them considering their historical context.

In other words, if you think it's not really "good explanation of existence" versus "bad explanation of existence," but is instead "good explanation of existence" versus "good explanation of existence," then it's the explanation itself that's in question. That is, if someone shows that the two causes just Don't work, then the response should be "well, actually the two causes Do work (with argument), and the four causes are wrong!" not "well, you can only understand why the two causes don't work considering the underlying classical background." The argument itself is About that background. There has to be a point where you can't hide behind a historicist shield.

Joe K. said...

In other words, I don't think the classicalist would Agree with you when you say "It is impossible to wholly "disprove" the modern picture of reality." Or, the classicalist would say that the modernist has to Rely on classical philosophy to even Get to a modernist picture of reality in a way that makes that modernist picture incoherent.

Again, That's what's at issue.

Mr. Green said...

At first, I thought Hart was simply addressing a practical matter: surely we have all come across people who argue some pet point of theirs by stipulating that it follows from Natural Law™ (much as some other folks try to appeal to Science!™). It's hard to draw black-and-white conclusions beyond broad principles, so in many detailed practical situations, natural law simply doesn't add much. (You'll never derive an incontrovertible proof of the ideal tax-code from natural law any more than Newtonian physics is in practice going to help you predict which balls will bounce out in tomorrow's lottery drawing).

But then he seems to make the mistake that Machine Philosophy criticises. Hart says, "the additional claim that we are morally obliged to act in accord with [our nature]", but of course there is nothing additional. To call for reasons why we "should" act in accord with reason is silly: if you don't accept reasons, then more reasons won't help. That's the key point behind natural law — having such-and-such a nature just is the reason to act that way; that's what it means to have a nature!

I was surprised to see Hart take that track, but perhaps he still meant that only from a practical perspective, because he goes on to note that someone who doesn't accept that we have natures is obviously not gong to be moved by any claims based on that. After all, that's why certain people are so desperate to avoid any direction or intent in evolution — if it's completely "random", then there is no such thing as human nature, only "human accidental coincidences" at most, and thus there is no way we should be, no behaviour we ought to follow. And given that starting point, which to be sure is in some sense culturally determined, then yes, arguing from natural law is pointless.

However, it can be shown by reason that the foundation on which natural law rests must be true. In practice, we will never convince everyone, nor can we evaluate precise moral details with mathematical rigour, but — since we're talking practically — that doesn't matter. You can defend the Decalogue naturally (give or take some variation in the first three laws), which is why they can be found in some form across all cultures. That's already a big improvement on what we have now. And most people are disposed to accept the background that leads to natural law — although currently we face many challenges in how philosophically misguided people generally are, most of them are not willing to be moral eliminativists. Rank Sophist is right that anyone can escape an argument from a natural law simply by denying there is such a thing as human nature, but the actual number of people who are willing to do so, once they see the resulting morality (or lack thereof!) is quite small... certainly too small to steer the culture as a whole.

In short, while Hart may be technically correct, I think he is too pessimistic. Maybe he thinks that it will be too hard to re-educate the populace in some decent fundamentals of philosophy — Feser's main project — but I'm not convinced of that. Getting people to the point where they can understand the moral problems of the general modern view is a challenge, but most people instinctively reason that way already (they just do it in a confused and ignorant way).

rank sophist said...

I just stopped by to see if anyone responded to my question, but I'm not totally sure this point is made as easily as you think it is. At a certain level it almost sounds like you're saying "bad explanation of existence" is as valid as "good explanation of existence" because someone might happen to choose "bad explanation of existence." It's almost like a backhanded way to give bad philosophy merit.

The response that a historicist like Hart would give--which I'm increasingly sympathetic with--is that you can only determine what a "bad explanation" or a "good explanation" is once you've entered history and taken a side. A bad explanation for a Christian is a good explanation for a Muslim, for instance. There is no way to make judgments like these via "a view from nowhere" (i.e. a totally impartial ground). However, reason obviously does tell us that certain things are off the table. A line of thinking that denies the possibility of thinking (like materialism) is self-refuting--neither a bad explanation nor a good explanation, but a non-explanation.

I am not saying that moral relativism, for example, has merit. It's a horrible ideology. But impartial logic alone cannot get me to that conclusion.

As you and I have already discussed, it's very true that the foundation of natural law is not "relevant" to the modern world, in the sense that the modern world doesn't understand it or is just ignorant of it. But this doesn't really have anything to do with whether that foundation (and the natural law consequences that follow) are correct.

It isn't just a matter of rediscovering the correct premises. Aristotelian thinkers like Scotus were the ones who undermined natural law in the first place, and they understood more about ancient philosophy than most philosophers today.

This historicist issue is also an ultimately pointless discussion to have. If modern (that is, rejecting classical) arguments Are valid (which you seem to be implying that they are), then we should be discussing them, not whether people do or are willing to accept them (or their converse).

Which is why I don't totally understand your point here. If materialism is just not valid at all (which you say), then there must be modern conclusions that are to which you are appealing. As such, your beef is really with the natural law arguments Themselves, not whether people are able to accept them considering their historical context.


Modern and pre-modern arguments about morality are based on different starting premises. On one hand you have intellectualism, which Christian tradition embraced for a long time. On the other hand you have voluntarism, which Scotus created and which is still the basis of modern moral theory. Both of these are self-coherent. Voluntarism became popular because it was compatible with a certain interpretation of Scripture and the Church Fathers, just as intellectualism was compatible with a different interpretation. Which one is correct? Logic alone can't tell us. But you have to pick a side before you can say anything about natural law: there is no neutral ground between the two positions. That's Hart's point. Telling a world built on voluntarism that it should follow natural law is a bit like yelling in German at a man who only speaks French. Natural law is not a universal language that can bridge the gap between traditions.

rank sophist said...

That is, if someone shows that the two causes just Don't work, then the response should be "well, actually the two causes Do work (with argument), and the four causes are wrong!" not "well, you can only understand why the two causes don't work considering the underlying classical background." The argument itself is About that background. There has to be a point where you can't hide behind a historicist shield.

The question is whether or not such an argument can be presented. Is it really possible to show that mechanism contradicts itself? I don't think that it is. Certainly you can point to the various counter-intuitive conclusions that mechanism reaches, but, again, one could just accept skeptical solutions and keep going. Showing that it contradicts common sense is not enough. Showing that it makes science impossible is not enough. Showing that it leads to skepticism is not enough. Showing that it leads to nihilism is not enough. These arguments may convince some, but only because of prior commitments that are not purely logical. From a logical standpoint, one can accept all of the above conclusions without contradiction.

In other words, I don't think the classicalist would Agree with you when you say "It is impossible to wholly "disprove" the modern picture of reality." Or, the classicalist would say that the modernist has to Rely on classical philosophy to even Get to a modernist picture of reality in a way that makes that modernist picture incoherent.

Again, I don't think that such an argument could be presented. The premises of classical philosophy and modern philosophy are different, and so their conclusions will be different. Which premises are "correct"? That supposes a further neutral ground from which we can criticize them, which simply does not exist. Logic is the most neutral ground that we have, and it allows both to exist coherently.

Joe K. said...

I think then that we agree on the disagreement. It's merely a matter of whether the underlying philosophy is sufficient at convincing you (or anyone, whatever their historical context). You don't think it is. You just don't think someone Has presented an argument that shows mechanism to be false. Or, perhaps more extreme, that someone Can.

Which, of course, makes me ask you: why do you happen to pick natural law conclusions over other modern, mechanistic ones? It just feels right? Or, both arguments got you to a point where you had to take a leap at one? Why that one though? Is it even possible to give a Reason for this that could ever be convincing to another human being?

And what if someone presented arguments that undermined one of the things you, going in, assumed couldn't be undermined? Would you push the problem back a step, or would you accept it as sufficient?

Maybe you're playing devil's advocate a little for Hart, so I apologize for those type of questions if they really aren't appropriate, but it feels like there's something more there.

rank sophist said...

Joe,

It's perfectly okay for you to ask. I'm not really playing devil's advocate--Hart's thought has had a huge impact on me.

I picked natural law before I'd started to delve into Hart and historicism, but I can say that my decision was based on a couple of factors. At the time, despite being a nominal Christian, I had bought in to mechanism, scientism and the rest, and I'd realized that nihilism was the only possible result. I didn't even know that mechanism had a name--I thought it was just the way things were. I came across this blog around that time, which is where I was introduced to essentialism, the four causes, the Five Ways and natural law. When on put on those "glasses", so to speak, my view of the world totally changed. I realized that the same objective data--the natural world, etc.--could seem completely different depending on how you looked at it.

When I saw the world before, it was hostile, pointless, depressing and Godless. It made me feel empty. The new way changed everything. I was freer and happier than I'd felt in years. And natural law morality (at best, I'd subscribed to divine command theory in the past) had a beauty to it that really appealed to me. The notions of virtue, moderation and self-control had an aesthetic pull--and they made me feel better than I had in a long, long time.

Obviously, logic had a big role as well. I spent a significant amount of time reading Prof. Feser's work, so that I could be sure that it wasn't just self-delusion. Seeing him tear apart the logical contradictions I'd absorbed through the culture was huge. But I can safely say that it was the realization that the world differs based on how you see it that grabbed me, and that I would never have stuck with Thomism if it hadn't changed how I felt.

Hopefully that's not too long-winded. I think you can see where I'm going with this, though. As Hart says in The Beauty of the Infinite, you convert people through preaching, rhetoric and aesthetic appeal. If Thomism's arguments for God had led to the tyrant of Calvinism, I would have rejected them. I would have preferred the freedom of total liberal nihilism over that. I think a lot of people these days are the same way: they realize on an intuitive level that the slavery entailed by modern theology must be false. They just don't understand that traditional Christianity and its history of thought is the freedom they're all looking for.

In any case, if it could be shown that mechanism was a logical contradiction, then I'd be forced to admit that I was wrong on that point. That doesn't mean that the four causes are the only remaining option, though. Other systems can be and have been devised.

Anonymous said...

"Dr. Feser, what do you think of the objection that the laws of physics don't actually exist, but they're just descriptions of observable phenomena in the universe?"

I doubt that is a problem for a Tomist.

One could argue that the Laws of Physics do not exists, but TELEOLOGY exists and indeed that the 'Laws of Physics' are nothing more than the empirical observation of teleology of things.

Wether we can accept this or not, however, it's irrelevant to Krauss' book, since whatever the case you still need SOMETHING, either a law of physics or a 'quantum field'.

--

""And if so, why is mathematics so unreasonably effective in modelling physical systems?""

You must realize that mathematics is in essence a language that describes things.

A very peculiar form of language, of course, since it give quntitative description rather than a qualitative description as 'common' languages do.

Mathematics deals also with abstract entities and concepts, which might not be physical at all.

When we do physics we practically choese among these concepts (like a particular set of functions) that does indeed describe the physical system.

One might ask of course if the mathematical concepts are something akin to universals or not...

machinephilosophy said...

It's not that an ought can be derived from an is, but that normativity and obligation are already embedded in what it means to be rational. The whole point of his own essay itself is that one OUGHT to construe things (including morality) in one way as opposed to some other.

"This conclusion is incoherent unless you already accept intellectualism, the four causes, essentialism, eudaimonistic ethics and other things"

Uh, I just got through saying that rationality, which entails "A is B unless you already accept C" type reasoning has no obligating force unless obligation is already built into rationality itself.

You respond with just more of the same. My position doesn't require any of those things to be "coherent" (which just begs the same question once again), since such a requirement is already bogus if rational constraints are not already obligating to begin with.

To respond with "but p, q, and r! Therefore your position is incoherent!" is---aside from ignoring the alleged problems in ITSELF---just more of what I've pointed to, namely that reason is held to be universally obligating in any issue whatsoever, aside from and in advance of any moral or ethical theorizing.

Hence some core notion of natural law is already operative, even in arguments against it.

DNW said...

I know that professor Feser has requested that trolls be ignored, but I would like to recommend he retain "G's" hostile tirade as something of a memento, not to say trophy.

Quite possibly he might one day include a number of such remarks in a sidebar or a link: "Notes from our critics".

Now I say this not because I wish to defend a 5th century BC cosmology, or because I am myself a Thomist, but because G's rant so perfectly illustrates the mindset of those ideologically impelled militant materialists who, we are assured, no longer exist. A group, we are told which have moved on to much more philosophically sophisticated and physically nuanced understandings of reality than those possessed by their mechanism parading, social engineering, crank forebears.

The perfervid sputterings of half-educated ideologues leveraging off of the latest issue of some science quarterly are a thing of the past. Because, no reputable, practicing, peer reviewed, tenured scientist, (did I say from the best schools?) would ever engage in the kind of histrionic nonsense which retrograde types like Feser accuse them of. Nor, and this is important, would their followers and disciples.


There is therefore no reason for Feser to waste our time refuting billiard-ball materialism, or behaviorism, or inferences drawn from other historical curiosities; and, Feser should instead just shut up. Maybe register at a community college in Minnesota and take a biology class. The world is round you know!


By the way thanks to Mark Szlazak for:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D5in5EdjhD0"

It contains much more than some rumination regarding a biological basis for a Kantian-like epistemology. The remarks regarding the concepts of matter and materialism are particularly interesting.

Whether as a matter of historical fact and development it is too much to root the current conceptual difficulties in certain problems regarding "occult" forces, and action at a distance, noticed by Galileo and Newton, and which have supposedly never been overcome (actually understood) I'll let someone else decide.

DNW said...

Blogger rank sophist said...

"In any case, if it could be shown that mechanism was a logical contradiction, then I'd be forced to admit that I was wrong on that point. That doesn't mean that the four causes are the only remaining option, though. Other systems can be and have been devised.

March 3, 2013 at 8:19 PM"

Yeah, this is probably one of those areas where painstaking - and a possibly dreary - analysis of the matter being mooted, is probably called for.

It's not so simple, as everyone here recognizes, as noticing a syllogistic fallacy of form, or some antinomy contained in a more lengthy argument.

rank sophist said...

machinephilosophy,

The idea that reason (i.e. the intellect) obligates the will to do this or that is called intellectualism. It isn't built in to logic itself--it's an added concept. One could accept voluntarism instead and deny that reason or teleology or human nature obligated them to do anything. The intellectualist could try to reframe the debate by saying that the voluntarist was still stuck using reason--just that his premises were emotional, impulsive or fideistic. The voluntarist could respond by accusing the intellectualist of begging the question: the idea that reason directs the will is presupposed in that argument. A counter-example that recast the system in voluntarist terms could then be presented. And on and on.

It isn't as easy as finding a fallacy. Both options are coherent and incompatible in strictly logical terms.

machinephilosophy said...

"The idea that reason (i.e. the intellect) obligates the will to do this or that is called intellectualism. It isn't built in to logic itself--it's an added concept. One could accept voluntarism instead and deny that reason or teleology or human nature obligated them to do anything. The intellectualist could try to reframe the debate by saying that the voluntarist was still stuck using reason--just that his premises were emotional, impulsive or fideistic. The voluntarist could respond by accusing the intellectualist of begging the question: the idea that reason directs the will is presupposed in that argument. A counter-example that recast the system in voluntarist terms could then be presented. And on and on."

The problem is that your position---or any position that opposes this---must bank on that same obligating force to make its own point. That obligation is not built into reason but added, and other similar points is simply more of the same obligation-to-construe principle all over again but at an even higher level of supervisory authority. Reason and logic already ARE systems of obligation in order to have any function or purpose at all in thought. Denials, reframing, arguments between various construances of reason etc. are simply repeats of my point. To deny in any argued way the obligating force of reason is to presuppose it in that very process. If it's all will-directed, so is the will-directed reduction that one ought to believe that voluntarism is the case.

Anonymous said...

seanrobsville said...
"... but in using Von Neuman's derivation to claim that everything is derived from mathematics, it seems to be confusing the map with the territory, leading to the 'everything is nothing' absurdity."

Indeed. But not everyone has read Korzybski, alas.

DNW said...

Anonymous said...

Dr. Feser, I know that G's comment is rather long-winded, but I really think you should consider adding it to the quotes at the top of your page. It strikes me as such a sublime distillation of new atheist argumentation!"

Rereading this thread through, I see that Anonymous made his suggestion a full day before I more long-windedly said almost the same thing.

The cranks deserve a wall of shame, even if it is in some back page corner or file. "Lest we forget", as they say.

rank sophist said...

machinephilosophy,

You have a point, to a large extent. I'm not entirely sure how a voluntarist would respond, but I'll give it my best guess.

We can certainly say that logic obligates us in the sense that it gives us one possible choice, but how are we going to say that our decision to follow logic is contained within logic itself? Why can't we do something irrational instead? Why do we accept the idea that no one willing acts against logic? I don't see how this is a logical deduction in itself. We can frame random-seeming decisions so that they are always seeking after some kind of good deduced by the intellect, but the same scenarios can be reframed in a voluntarist way as well.

An intellectualist interpretation of the decision to indulge in vice: a man deduces that vice is harmful, but he elevates its good qualities in his intellect to convince himself to do it.

A voluntarist interpretation of the decision to indulge in vice: a man deduces that vice is harmful, but then indulges in it simply because he wants to.

I see no contradiction in the voluntarist position here. Both options are valid. In response to the further claim that voluntarism is founded on logical obligation, a voluntarist can just ask why we should assume that there is actually such a thing. Why assume that logical deductions inherently carry obligations? After all, intellectualism must always be taken as axiomatic: it isn't itself a deduction. So why not choose voluntarism as your axiom instead? From that angle, the intellectualist who argues that voluntarism is contradictory merely begs the question.

This is also, I might add, the reason why the earliest voluntarists believed in divine command theory. They didn't think that logic in itself was binding: it had to be enforced by a command. Logic was only relevant to obligation if God's will was behind it, and so the human will was ultimately only obligated by an even higher will. Take God out of the equation and the voluntarist isn't obligated by deductions at all.

machinephilosophy said...

Don't understand the one possible choice thing.

Our decision to follow logic is not contained within logic, although if it is a argued decision it of course proceeds according to logic. That decision is merely what puts us in the operating system of obligations, if-then triggers in a preferential hierarchy of values and priorities. And our thinking according to rules is an approximation to a moral ideal of thought, because of the ought implied in the set of conditional preferences, and because of the abstract universal level and necessity of its application.

To want to see it as a logical deduction is a feature of the value hierarchy of reason, as is requesting valued logical reasoning for the ultimacy, adequacy, and efficacy of logic and reason.

I'm a voluntaristic empirical rationalist, but at the core of our thinking it's the principles and processes of reframing that there's no real choice about.

Yeah, it's a chosen system. It's only within that system that there's logical and rational obligation. All other obligation, propriety, normativity derive from basic universal principles and values merely held in an existential situated grasp.

But it's held as an integral system, and truth is necessarily what fits in that system.

Finite beings can only approximate the ideality of reason and logic because of finite resources and entropy.
So there's a general tendency toward self-contradiction in spite of the unavoidable ideal.

The obligation to supply reasons in relation to why type questions is already operative.

If you're playing the game, you're playing the game according to rules to some extent. Whether you play the game is not something I've addressed, but my above remarks should clarify this. The valuing of reason and logic is completely existential in a sense. But if you're signed on to them, then all obligation and an ideal of goodness proceed from their nature as idealities, which is an integrated purposive moral system.

"Why assume that logical deductions inherently carry obligations?"

That's a request for reasons. Is there any obligation to supply reasons?

Intellectualism is axiomatic. An existential "without which, nothing", but it's a system. There's no logical foundation for logical foundations. But that doesn't weaken logical foundations in the least, partly because we define them as the end of the logically justificatory line, and partly because they too have to have some justification, even though in the nature of the case there can be no logically prior justification, only an existential all-or-nothing grasp of the necessity for an ideal inexorable system.

Voluntarism is one of the basic assumptions that runs in parallel with other things, but your question is itself a request for reasons. So there's a truth-determining ideal, and one can and does constantly choose how closely one wants to approximate it.

You'll have to elaborate on the thing about the intellectualist begging the question in arguing that voluntarism is contradictory.

"This is also, I might add, the reason why the earliest voluntarists believed in divine command theory. They didn't think that logic in itself was binding: it had to be enforced by a command."

It's a wonder they thought that, since such thinking requires logic. Is there any evidence that any of them opted out as a general stance?

"Logic was only relevant to obligation if God's will was behind it, and so the human will was ultimately only obligated by an even higher will. Take God out of the equation and the voluntarist isn't obligated by deductions at all."

All that depends on logic in advance to be meaningful etc., and it assumes that one is obligated by the cited considerations to construe obligation that way.

Steffen Laursen said...

Maybe Krauss meant "non-being" and is in fact arguing for the existence of Aristotelian matter?

rank sophist said...

machinephilosophy,

I'm glad that we're mostly on the same page. I agree that intellectualism is ultimately existential.

When I mentioned "one possible choice", I meant that the intellect could come to logical deductions that the will could then accept or not. Here's an example that I used in the most recent combox:

1. Intellectualism is axiomatic.
2. I reached logical deduction X.
3. Therefore, I must accept the truth of logical deduction X.

1. Voluntarism is axiomatic.
2. I reached logical deduction X.
3. Therefore, I may accept or reject the truth of logical deduction X.

As you said, if we play the game, then we must follow the rules of logical obligation. I agree that using voluntarism as a reason in a sense puts us into that game. It's impossible to escape axioms of one kind or another. But, in the case of voluntarism, the obligation stops at the axiomatic level. Once we have a reason to believe that deductions are not binding on the will, that we can accept or reject any and all deductions without thereby engaging in a deduction, then every deduction that we make is called into question.

At first glance, this might seem to result in a contradiction: if voluntarism means that our deductions are called into question, then even the deduction that deductions are called into question can be called into question. The intellectualist would take this as patent self-refutation. It isn't, though. Because voluntarism is just as existential (or reflexive) as intellectualism--it's an axiom that we have to presuppose before any deductions can take place--, it doesn't lead us to the contradiction of accepting a position that relativizes itself. The voluntarist always has a solid (and non-deductive) reason to reject deductions--a reason that is prior to deductions and untouchable by deductions.

When I mentioned reframing, the above is kind of what I had in mind. If the intellectualist accuses the voluntarist of contradicting himself, then the voluntarist can accuse the intellectualist of begging the question: one has to presuppose that intellectualism is axiomatic and that voluntarism is a deduction for the voluntarist's logical mess to be a true contradiction. If we take voluntarism to be prior to intellectualism, then the logical mess is simply the way things are, and intellectualism is just another ideology to be questioned. Essentially, intellectualists and voluntarists are incapable of communicating with each other, because each side is necessarily false from the point of view of the other.

Because there is no middle ground between voluntarism and intellectualism, it becomes impossible for logic to mediate between the two positions. The best you can hope for is that one side gets dissatisfied with its own system and converts to the other. This is what Hart means when he says that no one is obliged to follow natural law unless his worldview has already been reshaped prior to logic.

machinephilosophy said...

"one has to presuppose that intellectualism is axiomatic"

You're really into the ism thing, but you're better off talking about the specific issues involved, especially when making claims about things being axiomatic.

Experiential knowledge is made up of empirical and rational elements that must be assumed as a universal set (empirical mind-object elements) and a universal system (logic and general reason). Even the statement that experiential knowledge is made up of empirical and rational elements is a blend of both, precisely because, aside from being a rational statement, it pertains to, or is about, or refers to, the empirical, in what it predicates.

As far as voluntarism goes, the will cannot be in any way superior to reason, since if it were, that fact could not be known except by submission to the principles of reason. Will itself exists only as an essential element of the self-presumption of being an evaluative reflective vantage point of thought. But that's all that the existence of will needs for will to be what it is.

So the buck stops there with a necessary self-determining will that is the source---and evaluator and decider of last resort---of the analysis itself.

Hence both will and reason are equally necessary presuppositions, but reason is the arbitration processing system partly made up of the most basic standards, standards even of statements about that system itself and its relation to will.

In a sense, will is on its own, but being on its own requires reason to be operative. The independence of will is actually proportionate to how much of the system is assimilated and applied. The more one conforms to that system, the freer one's will due to the increase in intellectual power over one's situation caused by the increased understanding from more knowledge of that system and its relation to the world.

Walker Wright said...

From the Amazon review of behavioral scientist and economist Herbert Gintis, entitled "Excellent Exposition of Modern Cosmology, Questionable Metaphysics":

"Here is Krauss's main point: "Including the effects of gravity in thinking about the universe allows objects to have... "negative" as well as "positive" engery....gravity can start out with an empty universe---and end up with a filled one." (p.99) This is because the conservation of energy allows for offsetting positive and negative energy. This seems like nothing new to me, and hardly a revelation. Electron-positron pairs are created from nothing and can go their own ways, so matter can be created from nothing.

This is where Krauss's theology/metaphysics comes in. Because the universe could have been created from nothing (quantum fluctuation, empty space),there is no need to posit a Creator. But, the theologian will ask, who created the rules according to which the Big Bang was regulated? Krauss has no answer, except to say (a) there might be lots of different rules for different universes, and (b) if you are going to posit an eternal preexisting Creator, you are no better off that simply positing the eternal and preexisting laws of physics. But Krauss is wrong. When one posits a Creator, one is admitting that one's knowledge has limits, and there are higher orders of knowledge that are inaccessible to mere human intellect. We do not know anything about the realms of being of the Creator or Creators, but we believe they must exist beyond the limits of our understanding. Our reason for believing this is that we experience possessing forms of knowledge inaccessible to other species (amoebae, mushrooms,field mice, Capuchin monkeys, German Shepards, chimpanzees, and such). It would be completely arbitrary to claim there is no realm of intellect beyond ourse. Simply positing the eternality of the laws of physics is, in comparison, an unsatisfying alternative.

Here is Krauss's faith: "Without science, everything is a miracle. With science, there remains the possibility that nothing is." (p. 183) I maintain that this is very likely incorrect, and hardly the basis for a firm metaphysics."

William Maximilien Dunkirk said...

@ dd said...
Anon @ 3:54 and Glenn,

"Do [universals] exist only mentally or extra-mentally?"

the answer to this question, i believe, is the one Avicenna (d.1037) gave viz., universals considered in themselves exist in neither mode, but can come to exist in one mode or the other."

That can't be correct because the second we say that "universals... EXIST" then they must be real; if real, then they would necessarily have to fall into the categories of either the mental or the extra-mental, which means "in the mind" or "[anywhere] outside the mind", with the second category being a catch-all that would include everything and anything that could possibly be said to actually exist. Otherwise, I think, you'd necessarily have to (at least effectively) assert that they exist in nothing, which is impossible.


@ Quire said...
"http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/10/can-physics-and-philosophy-get-along/

Wonder what everyone thought about this article? I think it's a pretty interesting - in particular, his response to the unintelligibility of the concept of "Absolute Nothing", which many of us here seem to be relying upon as an argument against Atheism."

Of course absolute nothing would be unintelligible. That's the point: There is nothing to tell about it.



@ "G"

Ps 14:1 comes to mind.


@rank sophist

rank sophist said...

"This conclusion is incoherent unless you already accept intellectualism, the four causes, essentialism, eudaimonistic ethics and other things."

Which objection is incoherent unless you already accept the intellctual concept of coherency, which is just logic, which is the basis of the Aristotelian tradition beginning, basically, with the Principle of Non-Contradiction, which of course was just a cultural product of the Greeks that could only make sense to them. Greek math, too, is essentially different from modern English math, which is essentially different from 18th century Geran math and even contemporary Japanese math; but for the classical Greeks, one and one obviously made three; for other cultures it added up to four hundred; and for yet others (e.g., the Hebrews) it added up to rank sophist's mom, who was worshipped as a goddess for giving birth to the demi-god Self-Contradiction, who in turn the Hebrew Prophets prophesied would Enlighten the modern age with the mental Tranquility of rank Scepticism (otherwise known as being a dunce).

@ Dr. Feser:

Still waiting for a defense of marriage.

Samuel said...

Re: A physicist friend of mine and I ...He interrupted our conversation to note that he’d always found this typical bit of moth behavior annoyingly contemptible for its sheer stupidity -- for the stubborn pointlessness of the moth’s behavior, ...

Your friend is not thinking intelligently. A moth is not a human, nor is its "idea" or final cause anthropomorphic. It is doing what it is supposed to do, it is the lightbulb that is "anti-natural," as it were. And how does your friend not know that perhaps in its desire for union with the light it does not participate in an ecstasy that God alone knows, and certainly not the purely profane mentality of your friend.