Friday, April 1, 2016

A note on falsification


Antony Flew’s famous 1950 article “Theology and Falsification” posed what came to be known as the “falsificationist challenge” to theology.  A claim is falsifiable when it is empirically testable -- that is to say, when it makes predictions about what will be observed under such-and-such circumstances such that, if the predictions don’t pan out, the claim is thereby shown to be false.  The idea that a genuinely scientific claim must be falsifiable had already been given currency by Karl Popper.  Flew’s aim was to apply it to a critique of such theological claims as the thesis that God loves us.  No matter what sorts of evil and suffering occur in the world, the theologian does not give up the claim that God loves us.  But then, what, in that case, does the claim actually amount to?  And why should we accept the claim?  Flew’s challenge was to get the theologian to specify exactly what would have to happen in order for the theologian to give up the claim that God loves us, or the claim that God exists.

Now, there are several problems with Flew’s challenge.  Some of them have to do with specifically theological matters, such as the analogical use of the term “good” when applied to God, the role that divine permission of evil plays in the realization of a greater good, and so forth.  Some of the problems have to do with the idea of falsification itself.  As Popper himself emphasized, it is simply an error to suppose that all rationally justifiable claims have to be empirically falsifiable.  Popper intended falsificationism merely as a theory about what makes a claim scientific, and not every rationally acceptable claim is or ought to be a scientific claim.  Hence not every rationally acceptable claim is or ought to be empirically falsifiable.

For example, the thesis of falsificationism itself is, as Popper realized, not empirically falsifiable.  This does not make Popper’s falsificationist theory of science self-refuting, because, again, he does not say in the first place that every claim has to be empirically falsifiable.  Falsificationism is a claim about science but it is not itself a scientific claim, but rather a philosophical claim (what Popper called a claim of “meta-science”).  It is subject to potential criticism -- by way of philosophical analysis and argument, say -- but not by way of empirical testing, specifically.  

Claims of mathematics and logic are like this too.  We can analyze and argue about them philosophically, but they are not plausibly subject to empirical refutation, specifically.  And metaphysical claims are like that as well.  With at least the most general sorts of metaphysical claims (e.g. about the nature of causality as such, or substance as such, or what have you), it is a sheer category mistake to suppose that they do, or ought to, entail specific empirical predictions.  The reason is that the claims are too general for that.  They are claims about (among other things) what any possible empirically observable phenomena must necessarily presuppose (and any possible non-empirical realities too, if there are any).  Naturally, then, they are not going to be undermined by any specific empirical observation.  By no means does that make them immune from rational evaluation.  They can still be analyzed, and argued for or against, by way of philosophical analysis and argumentation.  But as with claims of meta-science, or claims of mathematics and logic, so too with claims of metaphysics, it is a mistake to suppose that they stand or fall with empirical falsifiability.

Now, the fundamental claims and arguments of theology -- for example, the most important arguments for the existence and attributes of God (such as Aquinas’s arguments, or Leibniz’s arguments) -- are a species of metaphysical claim.  Hence it is simply a category mistake to demand of them, as Flew did, that they be empirically falsifiable.  To dismiss theology on falsificationist grounds, one would, to be consistent, also have to dismiss mathematics, logic, meta-science, and metaphysics in general.  Which would be, not only absurd, but self-defeating, since the claim that only scientific claims are rationally justifiable is itself not a scientific claim but a metaphysical claim, and any argument for this claim would presuppose standards of logic.

There is also the problem that, as philosophers of science had already begun to see at the time Flew wrote, it turns out that even scientific claims are not as crisply falsifiable as Popper initially thought.  Indeed, the problem was known even before Popper’s time, and famously raised by Pierre Duhem.  A scientific theory is always tested in conjunction with various assumptions about background conditions obtaining at the time an experiment is performed, assumptions about the experimental set-up itself, and auxiliary scientific hypotheses about the phenomena being studied.  If the outcome of an experiment is not as predicted, one could give up the theory being tested, but one might also consider giving up one or more of the auxiliary hypotheses instead, or check to see if the background conditions or experimental set-up were really as one had supposed.  That does not mean that scientific theories are not empirically falsifiable after all, but it does mean that falsifying a theory is a much messier and more tentative affair than readers of pop science and pop philosophy books might suppose.

Then there are claims that are empirical and not metaphysical in the strictest sense, but still so extremely general that any possible natural science would have to take them for granted -- in which case they are really presuppositions of natural science rather than propositions of natural science.  For example, the proposition that change occurs is like this.  We know from experience that change occurs, but it is not something falsifiable by experience, because any possible experience by which we might test it itself presupposes that change occurs.  In particular, in order to test a proposition via observation or experiment, you need to see whether or not your current experience is followed by the predicted experience, which involves one experience succeeding another, which entails change.  Natural science itself, then, which involves attempting to falsify theories (even if it involves more than this) presupposes something which cannot be falsified.

Necessary presuppositions of natural science like the one just described are the subject matter of that branch of philosophy known as the philosophy of nature (which, though more fundamental than natural science, is less fundamental than metaphysics as Thomists understand “metaphysics,” and is thus something of a middle-ground discipline between them).  For example, the Aristotelian theory of actuality and potentiality (which is the core of the Aristotelian philosophy of nature) is grounded in an analysis of what change must involve, where the existence of change is presupposed by natural science.  Hence the theory of actuality and potentiality is grounded in what is presupposed by natural science.  That is why even natural science cannot overthrow it.  But the characteristically Aristotelian argument for God’s existence -- the argument from change to the existence of an unchanging changer of things (or, more precisely, of a purely actual actualizer of things) is grounded in the theory of actuality and potentiality, and thus in what natural science itself must take for granted.  And thus it too cannot be overturned even by natural science.  This “empirical unfalsifiability” is no more a weakness of the Aristotelian argument for God’s existence than the “empirical unfalsifiability” of the existence of change, including the existence of experience itself, is a weakness.  It makes the arguments in question (if they are otherwise unproblematic) more rationally secure than empirical science, not less. 

Lazy shouts of “unfalisfiability!” against theological claims just ignore all this complexity -- the distinctions that have to be drawn between empirical claims on the one hand and claims of mathematics, logic, and metaphysics on the other; between extremely general empirical claims and more specific ones; between philosophy of nature (which studies the philosophical presuppositions of natural science) and natural science itself; and between the testing of a thesis and the testing of the auxiliary assumptions we generally take for granted but conjoin with the thesis when drawing predictions from it. 

So, falsificationism is a rather feeble instrument to wield against theology.  And in fact, atheist philosophers have known this for decades, even if New Atheist combox commandos are still catching up. 

All the same, where we are evaluating a specific empirical claim -- rather than a claim of mathematics, logic, or metaphysics, or an extremely general empirical claim like “change occurs” -- falsifiability is an important consideration, even if not as decisive as Popper supposed.  Take an extremely specific and straightforward empirical claim, e.g. the claim that a large, yellowish triangular shape will suddenly appear in the center of my field of vision within the next few seconds.  If no such shape actually appears in the next few seconds, it would be pretty hard to deny that the claim has been falsified.  For example, I couldn’t say “Maybe the shape was there in the room, but I didn’t see it because it was behind a bookshelf.”  I intentionally phrased the claim so that it was about what I would experience, not about what would be in the room, so appealing to the idea that some physical object stood in the way of my seeing it won’t help avoid falsification.  Nor would it help to say “Maybe it will appear an hour from now, or tomorrow,” since the claim referred specifically to the next few seconds.

Of course, that’s not a very interesting empirical claim.  Most interesting empirical claims are far less specific than that, even though they are nowhere near as general as the claim that change occurs.  There is, needless to say, a large range of cases, some of which are more toward the general end of things, some of them more toward the specific, and the latter are easier to falsify than the former.  But even if the more general ones aren’t as crisply falsifiable as a more simplistic application of the Popperian model would imply, they are still far from unfalsifiable.

For example, take the claim that heavy smoking over a long period of time has a strong tendency to cause cancer.  Obviously this is not falsified by the fact that some heavy smokers never develop cancer, because the claim has been phrased in a way that takes account of that.  It speaks only of a strong tendency, and even a strong tendency needn’t always be realized.  But neither is the claim made vacuous by that qualification.  If it turned out that only five percent of people who smoke heavily over the course of many years ended up getting cancer, we could reasonably say that the claim had been falsified.  Whereas if it turned out that sixty percent of those who smoke heavily over the course of many years end up getting cancer, we would say that the claim had survived falsification, even though sixty percent is well short of one hundred percent.  Indeed, even if the percentage were much lower than that -- suppose it were forty percent, for example -- it would not necessarily follow that the claim had been falsified.

Nor need there be anything like even that strong a link between two phenomena for us reasonably to posit a causal correlation.  Take an example often discussed in philosophy of science, viz. the relationship between syphilis and paresis.  If syphilis is untreated, it can lead to paresis, though this is rare.  But it would be absurd, not to mention medically irresponsible, to conclude that the claim of a causal correlation between syphilis and paresis is falsified by the fact that actually developing paresis is rare.  All the same, if there were on record only one or two cases, out of millions, of paresis following upon syphilis, it would -- especially if no mechanism by which the one might lead to the other were proposed -- be hard in that case to resist the conclusion that the claim of a causal correlation had been falsified.

So, an empirical claim concerning a causal link between two phenomena can be substantive rather than vacuous, and also empirically very well-supported, even if there are many cases in which the one phenomenon is not in fact followed by the other.  Considerations about falsifiability, properly understood, do not undermine the point.  Indeed, someone who resists such a claim might himself be subject to criticism on the grounds that he has made his position unfalsifiable.

For example, suppose a heavy smoker said, in reply to those who implored him to cut back: “Oh come on, lots of people smoke heavily and don’t get cancer!  So how can you maintain your claim that there is a causal link, in the face of all that evidence?  Don’t you know that a serious scientific claim should be falsifiable?”  In fact, of course, it is the heavy smoker in question who is more plausibly accused of being insufficiently respectful of falsifiability.  For there is a very strong link between heavy smoking and cancer, even if the former doesn’t always lead to the latter.  And the empirical evidence for that link is so strong that it is those who deny it who are refusing to let their position be falsified by the evidence.

More could be said, but in fact these reflections on falsification are intended merely as a preamble to an application of the idea to a domain very different from the examples considered so far -- namely, an example concerning politics and current events.  I’ll get to that in another post.

92 comments:

Thursday said...

This may or may not be directly on point, but when DB Hart (correctly) defended the absolute necessity of the classical theist God, I remember thinking that his arguments proved the existence of a God who was the ground of being but still left open the question of whether there was a God, like the God of the Bible, who acts in history though such things as miracles.

Is a God who acts in history, doing miracles and such, falsifiable?

(BTW, this is a serious question, and, as a Christian, I'm not trying to debunk the Biblical God.)

Thursday said...

Perhaps the question could be divided up too, between:

a. a God who is capable of acting in history, through miracles and such; and
b. a God who has acted in history, through miracles and such.

Gottfried said...

It seems like you don't see the "unfalsifiable" charge levelled against theology as much as you used to. Perhaps the folks who used to toss it out have been brought around to the fact that it was always pretty lame.

Or, perhaps the broadening of the definition of "science" to include things like multiverse theories and evolutionary psychology has meant that "unfalsifiable" is no longer such a dirty word to the advocates of scientism.

Craig Payne said...

Dear Thursday: I do not think the God who acts in history and performs miracles is falsifiable. The problem lies in the word "miracles." The word "miracle" does not seem to me to describe a PHYSICAL event, strictly speaking. For example, suppose you pray for a blind person and the blind person immediately receives sight. What we actually would SEE and HEAR is you praying, your prayer, and the blind man then being able to see. What we would INFER is that a miracle took place; in fact, we would say, "I saw a miracle happen." However, a spiritually blinded person (one who has read way too much Hume) would say, "No, what you saw was a series of events leading to a highly unusual, but coincidental, occurrence."

In other words, the falsifiable part is that this guy was formerly blind and now he's not. The fact of a "miracle," however, would not be falsifiable. It is a theological category of description, not a physical, though it has physical effects for those who can see them. The same is true of any answered prayer.

The same is also true of God acting in history, or beginning history, as in the creation of the universe. What an observer would SEE is a physical occurrence. "Creation" as such, on the other hand, is a theological category of description. The Creator is revealed in the creation--but seemingly not for everyone.

Vincent Torley said...

Hi Ed,

I'm afraid I have to disagree with your argument that because metaphysical claims describe what any possible empirical observation necessarily presupposes, they are therefore incapable of being falsified by a particular empirical observation. I would say that metaphysical claims describe what any possible scientific observation necessarily presupposes. Science is (broadly speaking) systematized knowledge. If we lived in a very chaotic world where systematized knowledge was unattainable, or if we lived in a world where it suddenly became impossible for us to acquire any more systematized knowledge about the world, then the metaphysical claims supporting our science would collapse.

To illustrate my point, let's look at three very broad metaphysical claims.

1. "Substances exist." In other words, things have well-defined characteristic properties which persist over time. This claim would be falsified in a Heraclitean world in which reidentification of any given object proved to be impossible. However, science would be impossible in such a world; indeed, conversation would be impossible, as we couldn't tell whether we were still talking to the same person. On the other hand, one could imagine a world with a totally crazy patch (say, a naked singularity), in which reidentification of objects proved to be impossible. Science could still be done outside the crazy patch. In other words, substances might not exist at all locations.

2. "Things have essences." This claim is subtly different from the first claim. It not only asserts that things have well-defined characteristic properties, but it also says that there are different types of things (natural kinds), and that each type of thing is distinguished from other types of things by its unique set of characteristic properties. Furthermore, it says that everything that exists can be categorized as belonging to at least one natural kind, with its own set of characteristic properties. Finally, it says that scientists are capable of identifying natural kinds. This claim would be falsified in we lived in a world where one type of thing always graded insensibly into another - a world where there were no black-and-white divisions, but only shades of gray. Darwinists would say that's the case in the biological realm, because of common descent. Now try and imagine a world where the lines between chemical elements, as well as between different elementary particles and between different types of fields, were all blurred. It would make no sense to speak of essences in such a world. It would be very difficult, but perhaps not impossible, to do science in such a world.

3. "Physical change is objectively real." Please note my wording. I didn't say: "Change occurs." That's a cheat claim: it conflates physical change and psychological change, and it doesn't address the question of whether change if objectively real, subjectively real, or both. The claim that physical change is objectively real asserts that the characteristic properties of things are not all static properties; at least some of these characteristic properties are dynamic properties, which describe how a thing of one kind can alter the properties of a thing of another kind, by acting on it. Additionally, it asserts that there is no way in which scientists can reduce all dynamic properties to static properties. Dynamic properties are an ineliminable feature of the natural world. It is easy to conceive of a world in which the last statement proved to be false; nor is it obvious that science would grind to a halt if it were. (As it happens, however, I think it's true, as the second law of thermodynamics cannot be rephrased in terms of static properties.)

So, are metaphysical claims falsifiable? I think they are. The falsification of some, but not all, metaphysical claims would be fatal to science. One could argue, however, that The falsification of any metaphysical claim would be fatal to science as we know it.

Thoughts?

Craig Payne said...

P.S. Of course, as Edward Feser points out in the article, to say that miracles, creation, answered prayer, and so on, are perhaps not falsifiable, is not at all to say that they are not rational topics of discussion or belief.

Thursday said...

Craig:

But those are really different questions from the existence or even attributes of God.

Brian said...

Craig, I think that your first comment regarding how to define 'miracles' in terms of actual observation quite fortuitously follows Gottfried's comment on the relationship of modern science to more esoteric subjects of study. When looking at, for example, the relationship of the-observer-broadly-or-narrowly-defined to quantum phenomenon or questions of "spooky action" in entanglement, we get some of the deep sense of mystery from Creation that falls into those questions. That's certainly another issue versus falsifiability, but the two comments right 'next to' each other did make me chuckle to see...

(I've actually used the letters between Schrödinger and Einstein on quantum entanglement and non-linearity in time as itself a sort of parable in coming to closer terms with the mysteries of transubstantiation when discussing the subject with other Lay Dominicans!)

Kyle said...

@Thursday,

I'd say the answer to both is no. Taking them in reverse order:

Proposition b. (or, strictly, the proposition implied by your point b.) -- "There exists a God who has acted in history, through miracles and such" -- is not falsifiable, because we don't have a decision procedure that will tell us if any given event was not an action of God[1] (what would that even look like?), nor could we apply such a procedure to all past events even if we had it.[2]

Proposition a. -- "There exists a God who is capable of acting in history, through miracles and such" -- is also a no on falsifiability. If God is capable of acting but doesn't, then by definition he hasn't provided us with any empirical evidence to test at all. So no falsifiability there. But even if he is capable of acting and does so, we're back to point b. where we can't tell, and so its still not falsifiable.

So, as I say, no on both counts. But it's probably worth mentioning that lack of falsifiability doesn't necessarily mean lack of meaning or sense etc and I think that applies here. Proposition b, despite not being falsifiable, is almost certainly provably true, using the usual A-T arguments you'll see Ed using here and elsewhere[3]. And then if we removed one of the two problems faced by Proposition a, namely the lack of decision procedure, that proposition, while remaining unfalsifiable, does becomes at least verifiable.

Kyle

[1] I'm ignoring, for argument's sake, the fact that it can be argued logically that God is behind *all* events. If that's the case, then the whole question is moot since we've left falsifiability behind and are back into the same realm of the a priori and necessity in which Hart argues the necessity of God. So I'm assuming the usual everyday distinction between the "God did it" miraculous on the one hand, and the "just the normal laws of physics" mundane.

[2] I guess that might be vulnerable to a fallacy of composition, since I'm suggesting the only way to check is event-by-event. But I don't think it would be hard to show that testing in groups, or overall, doesn't help.

[3] He gives a good overview on YouTube:
- From the start
- Picking up at something like where you said DB Hart's argument left off
- Specifically on omnipotence which I think speaks directly to the question of God being capable of acting (regardless of whether he does).

Anonymous said...

Theological claims are verifiable, the problem is that you have to be death to be able to verify them. And by then it is too late to do something about it.

RG said...

Theologies and scientific theories are similar in that they are both models, and so have limitations. The question for a particular theology then is what its limits are -- where do its metaphors break down, its analogies fail. Note these are not limits on God but on a particular explanation of God.

Tomislav Ostojich said...

One of the problems that I have with falsification is that it seems to be based on an outdated interpretation of statistics called the frequentist interpretation. In frequentism, statistics operates like a courtroom: there's a "null hypothesis" (corresponding to innocent) and it's up to the scientist (corresponding to the trial lawyer) to persuade a perfectly objective judge that the null hypothesis is false (corresponding to proving guilt). In this kind of interpretation, falsifiability is essential to science, because without there being a notion of some kind of standard with which the judge can proclaim a judgement, the trial cannot proceed.

In real statistics and real science, however, there isn't just one unique "null hypothesis" which is the "default" position that you should hold. There's typically an uncountable infinite range of possible hypothesis, and the observed evidence merely "redraws the graph" of weight of the likelihood of these possible hypothesis.

moduspownens said...

I got to say about that teaser at the end, Professor Feser, I'm intrigued at how what's argued in this post applies to a topic of recent political importance. Is it too greedy to ask what that topic may be? The suspense is killing me.

laubadetriste said...

For those interested, a better version of Flew's "Theology and Falsification" is here--better because it includes also the brief but superlative *other* contributions to that symposium, by R.M. Hare and Basil Mitchell, as well as Flew's own postscript.

@Dr. Feser:

I notice you moved from acknowledging Flew's original purpose as "a critique of such theological claims as the thesis that God loves us" to discussing the category mistake of thinking that "the most general sorts of metaphysical claims (e.g. about the nature of causality as such, or substance as such, or what have you)...entail specific empirical predictions." You mentioned analogy in passing. I've stated before my hope that you find the time one day in your very busy schedule to address the doctrine of analogy at length. But could you say more about what you think of the application of those parables (Flew's, etc.) to the theological claims (such as "the thesis that God loves us") that are *not* "the most general sorts of metaphysical claims"?

@Gottfried: "It seems like you don't see the 'unfalsifiable' charge levelled against theology as much as you used to. Perhaps the folks who used to toss it out have been brought around to the fact that it was always pretty lame. / Or, perhaps the broadening of the definition of 'science' to include things like multiverse theories and evolutionary psychology has meant that 'unfalsifiable' is no longer such a dirty word to the advocates of scientism. Or, perhaps the broadening of the definition of 'science' to include things like multiverse theories and evolutionary psychology has meant that 'unfalsifiable' is no longer such a dirty word to the advocates of scientism."

I suppose I don't know just how far back you mean by "used to," but of course both Michael Martin and Kai Nielsen got some good mileage out of it.

Nielsen used to mention Axel Hägerström in that connection. It's true that you don't seem to hear much about falsification these days, but I suspect that's due also to a sort of parochialism in time. For those symposium essays can be read--have been read--to be a part, not only of that broadly positivist current of thought that includes Ayer and some epigones of Popper, but also such other (and in my opinion, more interesting) currents as the Christian debate over *Honest to God*, or the older debate about the Absolute, or the still older reactions to earlier empiricisms, or the ancient via negativa. Who now reads about them? It's like the contemporary forgetting of classical theism that we all talk about, recapitulated several times in miniature.

(BTW, if any of the more theologically-minded folks would care to chime in here about pseudo-Dionysius or Scotus Eriugena, I would find that very cool.)

@Tomislav Ostojich: "One of the problems that I have with falsification is that it seems to be based on an outdated interpretation of statistics called the frequentist interpretation."

Could you please say more about why you think it so based? I confess, as someone sympathetic to the tendency of the symposium essays, it has never once occurred to me to connect them to statistics.

I believe TheOFloinn is a statistician. Maybe he knows more.

Thursday said...

a God who is capable of acting in history, through miracles and such

This would seem to be amenable to strictly philosophical analysis. Even if God has not acted in history, he could still be capable of acting in history, and that question could be decided by philosophical means.

a God who has acted in history, through miracles and such

I agree that this doesn't seem to be something amenable to falsification either.

However, establishing God's existence and attributes doesn't necessarily establish his acting in history, through miracles etc. And the question of whether there is any empirical evidence for God acting in history through miracles etc. is not, I don't think, a philosophical question.

E. Seigner said...

Thursday, And the question of whether there is any empirical evidence for God acting in history through miracles etc. is not, I don't think, a philosophical question.

Actually, it is. Before empirically establishing whether God worked any miracles, one must philosophically or logically (definitely unempirically) determine what it means for God to work miracles and in what way this concerns the empirical realm. If this philosophical work is not done, you are not really looking for/at empirical evidence for miracles.

Themistogenes said...

I am curious to read the follow-up post concerning politics and current events. Particularly, in what spirit would a Thomistic philosopher approach the claims of modern social science disciplines, such as economics and sociology?

For Aristotle, these are unambiguously non-sciences, for his definition of science is knowledge of things which necessarily, or for the most part, come to be in the same way. This is true only of the natural sciences (and the philosophy of nature), of mathematics and of first philosophy.

But there can be no such science of the things which the modern social sciences treat, because they involve people, who by virtue of being rational, are capable of deliberation and choice, and thus are not subject to necessity in everything. The “science” of ethics and politics is science only in a loose and quite different, prescriptive sense, i.e. in investigating what the human good that is the measure of choice, is. This follows directly from what a human being is, i.e. from philosophical psychology, which itself is part of the philosophy of nature. So knowledge if natural law is certain and perhaps scientific, but the particulars being almost infinitely many, ethics and politics are less precise than the other three branches of theory.

So there is no episteme, scientia (demonstrative knowledge) concerning the matters of social science (in the explanatory sense), yet there is phronesis, prudentia or prudence in its varieties—individual, political with its subspecies, economic and strategic.

If one accepts this account, then the modern social sciences’ explanations are by definition merely opinions, even if true opinions. And to form true opinions one needs to possess both prudence and prudence’s associated virtue of good judgment, which evaluates the strength of an argument. The strength of these arguments—both explanatory (‘positive’) and prescriptive (‘normative’) social scientific claims— in turn, depend both on the experience and ethos (moral habit) of the one making the claim. But can an academic social scientist claim experience? Does abstract economic data, for example, constitute experience? Isn’t it more prudent not to take counsel from academic researchers of finance, say, but to ask those who have experience of working in finance and are of good judgment and character, regarding something related to that field?

Ultimately, what kinds of generalisation, and according to what method, can be drawn about political and social matters? Do we dismiss modern disciplines such as economics (which, in the wake of the financial crisis, seems particularly to deserve blame for its claim to being knowledge), and treat the matter as historians would, paying attention to the particulars? Do the modern social scientists make the mistake which Aristotle warned against, of trying to be extremely precise about matters which don’t admit such precision?

scbrownlhrm said...



@ Vincent Torley,

On essence and species wrt vagueness, a primer is in David Oderberg's "Real Essentialism".

Chapter 8 looks at "Kinds of organisms" and Chapter 9 is sectioned as:

Species, biological and metaphysical:

9.1 Is biological essentialism dead?
9.2 Against the cladistic species concept
9.3 Vagueness
9.4 A plea for morphology

Gottfried said...

laubadetriste,

I read you as subtly insinuating that I was being glib with my blanket dismissal of falsification arguments as "lame." After following your leads, I concur, and will happily pay a small fine.

laubadetriste said...

@Gottfried:

Well, I don't believe I've ever been accused of being subtle... :)

I propose our medium of exchange for this new fine system to be bits of good, lesser-known poetry, small enough not to clog up the combox too much. With a nod to the survivalist vs. corruptionist dispute, like so:

My dearest dust, could not thy hasty day
Afford thy drowzy patience leave to stay
One hower longer: so that we might either
Sate up, or gone to bedd together?
But since thy finisht labor hath possest
Thy weary limbs with early rest,
Enjoy it sweetly: and thy widdowe bride
Shall soone repose her by thy slumbring side.
Whose business, now, is only to prepare
My nightly dress, and call to prayre:
Mine eyes wax heavy and ye day growes old.
The dew falls thick, my beloved growes cold.
Draw, draw ye closed curtaynes: and make room:
My dear, my dearest dust; I come, I come.
--Lady Catherine Dyer

POWilson said...

All of the arguments, above, that I have been able to get through, assume human thinking itself is a real and necessary part of the function of the world outside of that thinking. As both physics and archaeology show us however, the physical world was here for billions of years before, and without the need of human thinking. Things do not exist in accordance to a human way of thinking nor do they need to make sense to us in order to exist. The physical world exist independently and we then try to make sense of it with our thinking. This, then, falsifies the idea of the necessity of the human idea of a God. We imagine the world must have been made in the same way that we make things, which is that we have an idea and then try it out in the world to see if it works. There is though, nothing that says the Universe comes out of this sort of a process. There is instead every reason to think it comes out of a process that is completely independent of the abilities that have evolved here on earth; of which human thinking is one.

laubadetriste said...

@POWilson: "All of the arguments, above, that I have been able to get through, assume human thinking itself is a real and necessary part of the function of the world outside of that thinking."

That "human thinking" is a part of the "function" of "the world outside of that thinking" would seem, depending on what you mean by "world," either to be trivially true, or else self-contradictory, and in either case not assumed at all by several of the arguments above. (You did not say just which arguments you got through.) *Trivially true,* in one case, because if the "world" is defined to be synonymous with (say) "universe" or "cosmos" as *all that there is* or some such, than anything at all, including "human thinking, is a part of it. *Self-contradictory,* in another case, because by definition anything outside of something else is not a part of that something else. By using "function," do you meant to claim that someone here claimed that "the world outside of that thinking" (whatever that is) requires "human thinking" in order to accomplish something (where "something" I use as a less-technical guess at what you mean by "function")?

"As both physics and archaeology show us however, the physical world was here for billions of years before, and without the need of human thinking."

Do please be more specific about where someone claimed anything that would be contradicted by this.

"Things do not exist in accordance to a human way of thinking nor do they need to make sense to us in order to exist."

Ditto. (Although, to be fair, this might be relevant to some *other* post on this blog having to do with the PSR.)

"The physical world exist independently and we then try to make sense of it with our thinking."

Either trivially true or somewhat controversial but irrelevant to this post (given that what constitutes *the physical* and also *the world* have before before been up for grabs both on this blog and in philosophy and physics generally).

"This, then, falsifies the idea of the necessity of the human idea of a God."

I strongly suspect, first, that no one here will claim to know what "the human idea of" God is; and secondly, that no one here will claim that the *idea* of God is necessary in any other other than a Voltairean sense (as opposed to the necessity of God Himself, or necessary Being, or *a* necessary being, etc.).

"We imagine the world must have been made in the same way that we make things, which is that we have an idea and then try it out in the world to see if it works. There is though, nothing that says the Universe comes out of this sort of a process. There is instead every reason to think it comes out of a process that is completely independent of the abilities that have evolved here on earth; of which human thinking is one."

(Ahem.) Please see the blog archive, to the right of your screen.

POWilson said...

Thanks for the reply, laubadetriste.

To try and answer your question... the terms "physical" and "world", as used here, mean just exactly what they have always been thought to mean in the most mundane, trivial or most common way. Any dictionary I know of would offer a close enough description. Beyond that though, what I am asserting is that there are such things as "human thinking" and "human imagination" and that there is also an environment outside of these conditions that we call the "world" and that the first of these, thinking, is amenable to the second (or should be), but the second, all else that exist, is not a part of, nor is it amenable to the very particular condition that is our way of perceiving and thinking about the world.

For me then, when you say: "...given that what constitutes *the physical* and also *the world* have before before been up for grabs both on this blog and in philosophy and physics generally..." You are merely talking about speculative ideas about the world that may seem to be up for grabs as hypotheses, but the true physical nature of the world as it really is, has never really been up for grabs. It is only our understanding of where and what we really are, and the true nature of the world, that is in question.

As far as your charge of my comments being somehow irrelevant:

My point goes to what I see as a fundamental bias shown here in discussing whether or not the basic tenants of religion are, or are not, falsifiable in a Popper-ian sense of that term.

Gottfried said...

The Meaning of Existence

Everything except language
knows the meaning of existence.
Trees, planets, rivers, time
know nothing else. They express it
moment by moment as the universe.

Even this fool of a body
lives it in part, and would
have full dignity within it
but for the ignorant freedom
of my talking mind.

--Les Murray

Tomislav Ostojich said...

Could you please say more about why you think it so based? I confess, as someone sympathetic to the tendency of the symposium essays, it has never once occurred to me to connect them to statistics.

I would be happy to, but please forgive me if I'm a little vague in my reasoning. I am convinced that a good, formal philosophical argument is hidden, but I am deficient in knowledge to extract it. Perhaps it would be better to discuss the specific question that motivated me to conclude this.

Here is the question: does the universe look designed? The typical atheist talking point is that without specifying the properties of the designer, such a question is meaningless to ask. However, the problem is that "specific properties of the designer" is only necessary if you're going to formulate a null hypothesis, which is only meaningful in frequentism. How would a Bayesian formulate the cosmic designer question?

First of all, the Bayesian wouldn't care about the "specific properties of the designer" because he would recognize that there is a continuous range of possible designers, at one extreme consisting of a very specific designer who, say, forms living birds from clay, as in some of the infancy gospels, with the other extreme consisting of a completely apathetic designer whose design looks independent from random noise (according to Epicurean conceptions of God). This continuous range of possible designers would then be assigned an a priori distribution, which would be updated in accordance with observed evidence by means of Bayes' Theorem.

So we see from this example that the falsifiability of a hypothesis is not a problem under the Bayesian interpretation, because one can always assign a probability distribution over the entire range of possible hypotheses, as opposed to being committed to a singular, privileged "null hypothesis" (which actually does not exist in reality).

Thursday said...

Before empirically establishing whether God worked any miracles

You've just admitted that whether or not God has worked any miracles can't be established using philosophy.

TheOFloinn said...

I'm not sure falsification has anything to do with frequentism in statistics. This latter is essentially the attempt to estimate probabilities with relative frequencies, a project fraught with perils, though perhaps not so many perils as pulling the said probabilities out of one's butt.

Popper's falsification was the elevation of modus tollens to the status of Golden Calf in the course of his demolition of positivism. He rightly noted that no hypothesis can be definitely proven by any finite set of evidence.

Basically, natural science is based on the logical fallacy of asserting the consequence: If theory P, then consequence Q. I observe Q in my experiment. Therefore, P is true. Carnap thought to salvage this by adding multiple Qs and asserting that the greater the percentage of Qs that have been verified, the more probable that the theory is true. That is: If P, then Q1 and Q2 and... Qn. We observe Q1 and Q2 and...Qk, so P is probably true with probability k/n. There are obvious problems with this, not least of which that there may be other Ps that predict the same set of Qs.

Popper thought that certain knowledge might be had by taking the opposite tack: If P, then Q. But we observe not-Q. Therefore, P is false. This sounds okay. But consider the following falsified theories:
1. Heliocentrism: falsified by the lack of Coriolis effects and the lack of stellar parallax, both consequences of the theory.
2. Electromagnetism: falsified per Duhem by the existence of permanent magnets with no electric current. The hypothetical "electron" is an obvious epicycle thrown in to save the appearances.
3. Darwinian evolution: falsified by probability in that a new mutation would be diluted into nothing in a very few generations.

In each case, Duhem's own thesis showed the weakness in naive falsification. There is never only one P. In the case of heliocentrism, the visible stellar parallax was predicated not only on the earth's revolution around the sun, but also on the immense distances to the stars -- far more distant than anyone supposed based on their brightness and apparent diameters. The parallax was there, but needed more powerful telescopes to detect.

The critique of Darwinism assumed that inheritance was by a blending of blood. Hence, our talk of "bloodlines." But inheritance turned out to be digital, not analog; and a "gene" can lie doggo for a long time, passed along until it accumulates in sufficient quantity.

And of course, it appears that there really are electrons. Maybe.

In any case, as these examples show, scientists have been quite willing to ignore the falsification principle in favor of blind faith when the theory is Really Kool. Alas for both Carnap and Popper, there seems no One Right Way of doing natural science.

Craig Payne said...

Dear Thursday: Your original question was "Is a God who acts in history, doing miracles and such, falsifiable?"

I responded, "I do not think the God who acts in history and performs miracles is falsifiable." I then gave some reasons.

You then wrote, "But those are really different questions from the existence or even attributes of God."

Well, yes, because that's not what you asked for. You seem to be fishing for something. What is it?

Tomislav Ostojich said...

@TheOFlorinn

"I'm not sure falsification has anything to do with frequentism in statistics. This latter is essentially the attempt to estimate probabilities with relative frequencies, a project fraught with perils, though perhaps not so many perils as pulling the said probabilities out of one's butt. Popper's falsification was the elevation of modus tollens to the status of Golden Calf in the course of his demolition of positivism. He rightly noted that no hypothesis can be definitely proven by any finite set of evidence."

They're not mutually exclusive. Most philosophers of statistics believe that there is a very strong notion of continuity between Aristotelian logic and statistical inference.

TheOFloinn said...

Addendum:
That is, Duhem contended that
If P1 and P2 and...Pn, then Q.
Not Q is observed.
So either not-P1 or not-P2 etc. But which is falsified? Not always easy to say?

In the case of heliocentrism, the Aristotelians were thinking:
IF (heliocentrism), THEN (visible parallax)
But what they really had was
IF (heliocentrism) AND (stars <100xSaturn's distance), THEN (visible parallax)

The lack of visible parallax meant either
(the earth does not move) OR (the stars are much farther away)

Turned out it was the second item that was falsified.

Gyan said...

Craig Payne,
A miracle is NOT a merely "highly unusual, but coincidental, occurrence" but a violation or suspension of the laws of nature.
For instance, Virgin birth is not merely an unusual birth but violates the laws of human biology.

Irenist said...

@POWilson:

It sounds to me like you’re making an interesting, Kantian sort of claim. If I were going to try to argue for the claim I think you’re making, I might write something like this:
*
Everyone here is acting as though metaphysics establishes the boundaries of the possible, but actually, it only establishes the boundaries of the conceivable. This is because there’s no reason to expect that our minds evolved to be able to understand the cosmos as it actually is.

Two examples: Thomistic and Aristotelian metaphysics and philosophy of nature presume both classical logic and a non-Humean understanding of causality. However, things like wave/particle duality indicate that dialetheism might be the logic undergirding the cosmos. (See Putnam, Dummett). Likewise, quantum phenomena appear to exhibit acausality of a sort that seems to vindicate Humean skepticism. In both cases, we see that there is more to the actually real than is dreamt of in your philosophy.

Thus, any claims that metaphysics establishes the existence of God actually deflate to the weaker, Kantian claim that our monkey brains can’t coherently conceive of the cosmos without some Aristotelian pure actuality one could call God. So even leaving aside whether even that Kantian claim is itself defensible (and many atheists would say it’s not, because even us primates can coherently conceive of the cosmos just fine without positing any Aristotelian pure actuality), you should concede at the outset that such a weaker claim is the best armchair metaphysics can ever hope to establish.
*

So, POWilson, is what I wrote above more or less the claim you’re making? Because I’d actually be interested to see more learned Thomists than I take on that claim, since I think I’d learn a lot from their engagement with you on an issue like that. But first—is that what you’re asking us? Or did I totally misread you? (If the latter, my apologies.)

Irenist said...

@POWilson:

In my attempt to paraphrase what I take your claim to be, one of the sentences I wrote might have left the impression that I was saying that Kant believed in Aristotelian demonstrations of God. What I meant to say was that there's something arguably "Kantian" about the idea that it's not so much that God is real, but that we struggle to think coherently about either metaphysics or ethics without positing God, so while we can't know if there IS a God, we do know that we have to invent Him. And then I was saying that your argument seemed to be that what we Thomists take to be demonstrations that God exists are at most demonstrations that atheism isn't coherently thinkable--which is a weaker claim, because our monkey brains have no particular reason to be able coherently to think about how reality actually is at, say, the quantum or relativistic levels, as opposed to the realm of medium-sized objects following Newtonian rules on the ancestral savanna. Sorry for the sloppy sentence above.

James said...

@Craig Payne:

"In other words, the falsifiable part is that this guy was formerly blind and now he's not. The fact of a "miracle," however, would not be falsifiable."

If directly following the purported miracle you examined the man and determined that he remained in all respects blind, would that not falsify the claim of a miracle?

David said...

Dr. Feser, when I first read this, I thought for sure you were responding to https://youtu.be/-X8Xfl0JdTQ Crash Course philosophy. It's a pop-level educational youtube channel on mostly science and history. The philosophy series started off ok, but judging by the most recent one (linked), they seem to be heading straight for Flew's argument you mentioned.

Craig Payne said...

Dear James: My point was that if you examined the man and he was no longer blind, that still would not prove the idea of "miracle," which, again, is a theological category. As you say, on the other hand, if the claim of a miracle is based on the man's no longer being blind, yet he is still blind, then the claim of a miracle also would not hold up. An atheist would still be able to claim, in the first instance, that the man's sight was not due to a miracle; however, in the second instance, a believer would have to admit that a miracle did not take place.

If the man is prayed for and then sees, I still think, however, that a good philosophical case could be made that the improbability of it is so enormous, the inference to the best explanation would be God's direct action--i.e., a miracle.

Dear Gyan: You might notice that I myself did not classify a miracle as a "highly unusual, but coincidental, occurrence." I put those words into the mouth of a non-believer. Other miracles, such as the parting of the Red Sea, come to mind as examples of this type of miracle.

Irenist said...

@Thursday:
Your question was exactly the one I thought of myself reading this post. Here are my noodlings on it:

Because the Spirit bloweth where it listeth, and because thou shalt not put the Lord thy God to the test, we neither can nor should try to subject God to falsifiable quantitative prediction and control. (That last—“control”—gives an idea of why subjecting God to Baconian science would be Mephisophelean blasphemy.)

Now, God has on occasion condescended to allow His prophets to make falsifiable predictions—the classic case being the “experimental trial” of the power of the Prophet Elijah’s Lord vs. King Ahab’s priests’ god Baal in 1 Kings 18:16-40. But, as a general rule, He is very much a Deus absconditus when one starts wondering why He won’t just manifest Himself to the world on the TV news or something and put all doubts to rest. For whatever reason, He prefers we come to Him by faith rather than sight.

As to falsifiability, you’re quite right that since Thomist metaphysics establishes that there must be an omnipotent Pure Actuality (Whom we call God), all any dearth of miracles can demonstrate is that God hasn’t deigned to perform any (lately—or ever, depending on one’s religious views), not that He can’t.

Likewise, one can’t falsify miracles generally, because they are by definition violations of scientific law. And this goes very deep, in a Quinean sort of way—you can always adjust the rest of your web of believes to an arbitrary degree to fit in any miracle you like. E.g., I tend to think that when the Israelites saw the sun stand still over Gibeon, that it was a miraculous vision rather than the Earth actually pausing in its rotation. Likewise (mutatis mutandis) with the dancing sun at Fatima. In both cases, if the miracles had happened as described (rather than being miraculous mass visions—which is plenty miraculous for this Catholic), I assume the consequences of the implied anomalies in the Earth’s rotation would’ve been catastrophic—maybe boiling seas when the sun stood still, or something like that. (Or maybe not—but assume it arguendo.) Anyhow, the Quinean point is that if you really wanted to believe that the Earth stopped rotating at Joshua’s prayer, you could just further modify your belief web to include ancillary beliefs that the expected geophysical consequences were also miraculously suspended, that all the non-Hebrew human cultures that never recorded this happening on that day just had their memories miraculously erased, etc., ad infinitum. Particularly once one admits a category of miracle (i.e., a “magical” suspension of physical law), there is no principled stopping point to what a sufficiently determined believer might not choose to accept. Because of this, it seems to me, no physically lawfully expected consequence of a reported miracle (like those boiling oceans) can ever really be a falsifier for it. (This is sort of a charitable-to-us-Christians way of making a point loosely akin to Sagan’s “invisible, massless dragon in my garage” point.)

Irenist said...

@Thursday:

To continue--

I think there are some sort of informal expectations that skeptical arguments against Christian miracles seem to have, and they’re interesting. E.g., the atheist can say “if Christ rose from the dead, and appeared to the five thousand, I would expect to see a fuller notice of it in, say, Josephus, then we actually find.” And the Christian can in principle reply, as I’ve described above, that God is just as capable as making Roman historians miraculously obstinate about not recording such things as He is of resurrecting His Son in the first place. So the lack of non-Biblical corroboration doesn’t weigh toward falsifying the Resurrection. But however logically coherent such an argument might be, it’s unsatisfyingly like playing tennis without a net, and one instead wants to reply to an objection like that by saying that with all the alleged marvels in the likes of Herodotus, Pliny, and Livy, the likes of Tacitus or Josephus might have dismissed contemporary miracle rumors coming out of Judea as beneath respectable notice. In other words, one wants to meet the objection on its own grounds, instead of appealing to the “Get out of Jail free” card of miracle.

Likewise, I think much of the atheist objection to the Bible isn’t so much an objection to non-falsifiability (although there is some of that in scientism-besotted New Atheist precincts) as something more like a historian’s or defense attorney’s non-Popperian complaint about a dearth of verifiability: the complaint of St. Thomas the Apostle that the skeptic wants concrete evidence—preferably here and now, not thousands of years ago—of the foundational claims of Christian revelation. And while that’s hardly a defeater for Christianity (after all, I’m a Catholic myself), I can sympathize with the atheist who wishes that Christ would just appear over Times Square one day and make things easier on skeptics.

Irenist said...

@Thursday:

What I meant w/r/t classical historians and miracles is that more sober sorts (Tacitus, Josephus) might've taken miracle rumors as just more of the same old nonsense that more credulous sorts were forever babbling on about, and so beneath notice as just dime-a-dozen peasant rumor. (In case that passage was unclear.)

POWilson said...

@Irenist:
Your description is accurate as far as the context of what my claim is. The pedigree of it is clearly the early Greeks and then most importantly Hume and then Kant.
Here is (in part) where I differ from their views:

They thought their ideas about objects were necessary parts of the objects themselves and that these concepts existed outside of and before the objects did. In my thinking this is a personification in the same way the Hebrew’s human-like God was. It attributes characteristics to objects that are entirely dependent on a human being’s particular type of perception.

To use a simple rock as an example, an illusion is created that our concept of a rock is necessary to the rock's existence; as if the concept was in some way holding the rock in its current form. This, though, is an inversion of the order in which we actually experience things.

The way it really happens is: First, there is a rock. Then, there is an observer and last, the observer formulates a description of the rock that can either be accurate or inaccurate. Whatever description we come up with however, does not become a part of the object nor is the rock dependent on it in any way. The description is necessary to our understanding, but it is not necessary to the object.

It is a matter of seeing that there is, and must be, a clear separation between how we imagine things to be and what we then claim is ‘known’ to be true. This is to me is fundamental in making progress in figuring out how the world really works. Yet, these shared precepts of such a long past era persist; and this promotes a limited understanding of both nature and human nature, integral to what we think today.

Maybe even more in context of what I think is your apt characterization though, my view is that what Hume and Kant were seeing was the failure of Induction to establish human knowledge as absolutes, neither of them however, was able to differentiate this failure to the extent of seeing that though what we think is necessarily a reflection of reality, our very ability to imagine shows that our reflections are always pre-empted by our own prior approximations and miscalculations of reality and therefore always subject to error.

As I see it then, Hume basically took the problem of induction off a cliff… and then went back to religion for his own feeling of certainty (belief). Kant instead offered a kind of calculus for trying to justify a double standard for what we class as known or believable.
As far as the Physics arguments that come out of Heisenberg/Bell, etc. and the idea of non-local causality (entanglement) and such… I think this is used (not here but in general) as kind of a strawman to try and re-ingest spookiness into both a justification for religious-thinking and as a way to undermine the countless successes of the scientific approach. We really don’t know enough about any of that to figure it in. Though maybe CERN, will help to sort that out.

I appreciate the enquiry, Irenist.

POWilson said...

@Gottfried,

Love the poem!

James said...

@Craig Payne:

"My point was that if you examined the man and he was no longer blind, that still would not prove the idea of "miracle," which, again, is a theological category"

Well, I'm not sure how that relates to the falsifiability of miraculous occurrences. We don't have to be talking about miracles: if I claim P and P implies Q, and we observe Q, then P hasn't been falsified but neither has it been proven. It does not follow that P is unfalsifiable. But perhaps I miss your point entirely.

DDT said...

They thought their ideas about objects were necessary parts of the objects themselves and that these concepts existed outside of and before the objects did. In my thinking this is a personification in the same way the Hebrew’s human-like God was. It attributes characteristics to objects that are entirely dependent on a human being’s particular type of perception.

The words you're looking for, I think, is the universalism v nominalism debate.

Philip Alawonde said...

POWilson appears to be challenging the realist presuppositions in this blogpost (someone may want to direct him to any relevant place where Feser has defended realism). He does appear to favour a conceptualist position instead.

Anonymous said...

Humans realize values using a constellation of heuristic devices, which function using pragmatic principles of insufficient reason, which operate much more like set theories and fuzzy logics than algebraic formulae.

Through various webs of coherence, which loosely hold together core and auxiliary hypotheses, we employ informal reasoning all the way up, all the way down and all across every domain of value-realization, even when provisionally stipulating the axioms of our formal systems, which involve --- not metaphysical necessities, but --- methodological commitments, which may be ontologically suggestive but certainly not decisive.

Epistemology is epistemology is epistemology, then, which is to say there's not one for physics, another for metaphysics, yet another for religion, as magisteria overlap. Falsification's just another heuristic in our fallibilistic epistemic toolbox, which we use to enhance our modeling power of reality.

How much normative impetus we attach to various descriptions, evaluations and interpretations derives from how much pragmatic value a given community of value-realizers has cashed out of its concepts, dispositions and models. The rules of evidence are the same for all, while the burdens of proof vary based on what one proposes to do with it, especially coercively, as the merely plausible, which informs religious stances, lacks the epistemic force of the robustly probable, which must inform moral and political norms, which, in turn, are justified by shared evaluative dispositions, common sensibilities and common sense and not by universally compelling foundationalist appeals.

Gyan said...

Craig Payne

"I put those words into the mouth of a non-believer."

Well, one should respond to such an atheist that he wrongly understands what a miracle is supposed to be.

laubadetriste said...

@POWilson:

"Thanks for the reply, laubadetriste."

You're welcome. Thank you for the occasion. :)

"To try and answer your question... the terms 'physical' and 'world', as used here, mean just exactly what they have always been thought to mean in the most mundane, trivial or most common way. Any dictionary I know of would offer a close enough description."

This hand-waving--like the employ of "the human idea of" (a) God--cries out for examination. It has a bold, pre-philosophical quality about it that smacks of nothing so much as Dr. Johnson kicking stones: putting the scandalous in terms of the banal! *Any* dictionary? (Do you mean to include *any entry* for those words in any dictionary?) *What they have always been thought to mean*? A few points:

1.a. You just finished saying, "As both physics and archaeology show us however, the physical world was here for billions of years before, and without the need of human thinking." The way you put that--"however"--implies that "both physics and archaeology" showed something that, at least on the scale of "billions of years," is new, or at least in contrast to something *not* of "both physics and archaeology," is different. If "both physics and archaeology" in *no* way altered the character of the use of "the terms 'physical' and 'world'," then what force has it to mention them? And if they did in fact in at least some way alter the character of the use of those terms, does that not mean that there are at least such differences of meaning worth distinguishing as make it worth your while to bring them up?

1.b. You added further that, "The pedigree of [my claim] is clearly the early Greeks and then most importantly Hume and then Kant. Here is (in part) where I differ from their views: / They thought their ideas about objects were necessary parts of the objects themselves and that these concepts existed outside of and before the objects did." Would it not be astonishing if "the early Greeks and then most importantly Hume and then Kant" held to thoughts distinguishable as the pedigree of your claim (distinguished, presumably, from the thoughts of some *other* people, perhaps the *late* Greeks, who hold no place in your pedigree); and yet the meanings they ascribe to such key words as put them in or out of your pedigree are insufficient to differentiate them at all from "the most mundane, trivial or most common" meanings?

2.a. The word "physical" has come down to us from the Greeks through the Latins (via Cicero, wasn't it?). You mentioned too in connection with your use of it an 18th-century Scotsman and an 18th-century German, as well as two disciplines ("both physics and archaeology") of notably recent development, in the grand scheme of things (since the "early Greeks," or perhaps over "billions of years"). The word "world" comes from Old English. Would it not be astonishing that two such terms as "physical" and "world" could be translated (pun intended) through at least four languages, over a combined stretch of perhaps thirty-five hundred years (2500 "physical" + 1000 "world"), by way of use in signally different world-historical (pun intended) cults and religions, as chosen by several of the philosophers widely acclaimed as the greatest and most original in history--and *not* carry with them *any* shades of meaning worth distinguishing from "the most mundane, trivial or most common"?

laubadetriste said...

2.b. If ↑that seems implausible to you, please see the many concrete examples collected by Lovejoy and Boas in their celebrated appendix to *Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity*, "Some Meanings of 'Nature'", minding of course the connection between "natura" and "phusis".

3. Pick some quotes that come to mind with the words "physical" or "world" in them. Ask yourself, *do they really seem so close in meaning as not to need distinguishing when making a substantive philosophical claim*? "The World, the Flesh, and the Devil"--"Had we but world enough, and time, / This coyness, Lady, were no crime"--"Let's get physical, physical / I wanna get physical"--"Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will."

4. Which dictionaries do you know of? Me, I'm fond of the OED. However, I do not find that using it aids your claim. For example, say I take the very first entry for "world": "The earth, together with all of its countries, peoples, and natural features." I take that first one because it might seem, being first, to be "the most mundane, trivial or most common" meaning. But if I then substitute it into one of your claims--"All of the arguments, above, that I have been able to get through, assume human thinking itself is a real and necessary part of the function of the the earth, together with all of its countries, peoples, and natural features, outside of that thinking"--I do not find that your meaning is made clearer. I find rather that it makes you sound like someone trying to summarize for Wikipedia the obscure work of a sociologist.

"...what I am asserting is that there are such things as 'human thinking' and 'human imagination'..."

No doubt. But what do you mean by asserting so? There is also human ping pong and human whistling. Are you attempting a contrast with *non*-human thinking (and ping pong)? Are you reifying some human activities ("there are such things"--of course, there are books about what things are)? In what way does your assertion differ from the true but uninteresting thesis that humans think and imagine?

"...and that there is also an environment outside of these conditions that we call the 'world' and that the first of these, thinking, is amenable to the second (or should be), but the second, all else that exist, is not a part of, nor is it amenable to the very particular condition that is our way of perceiving and thinking about the world."

"These conditions." By odd coincidence, before you posted, I myself had posted a link up ↑above to a review by John Stuart Mill of "The Philosophy of the Conditioned, as Applied by Mr. Mansel to the Limits of Religious Thought." You might want to scroll back and peruse that, as it is a more careful attempt (together with the book of which it is a part) to examine a "Kantian sort of claim," as Irenist described yours. Anyway--

laubadetriste said...

That "thinking" is "amenable" to "the world"--does this mean anything other than that we can think about the world?

"...all else that exist[s], is not a part of [?thinking and imagination?], nor is it amenable to the very particular condition that is our way of perceiving and thinking about the world."

That "all that exist[s]" is not "amenable" to "our way of perceiving and thinking" would seem to be a thought. If it is, you contradict yourself. If it isn't, why should anyone believe you?

That "all that exist[s]" is not "amenable" to "our way of perceiving and thinking"--does this mean anything other than that the cosmos is tough to understand, and requires the study by many people working together for a very long time?

(A number of your assertions seem more daring and persuasive if phrased in an odd manner, and less so if put into clear English.)

What makes our "condition" (the human condition?) "very" particular, as opposed to just plain particular? And isn't a "particular condition" pleonastic anyway?--aren't all conditions particular? Does this mean anything other than that, when we perceive and think about "the world," we perceive and think about it in the way which we perceive and think about it?

I am reminded of David Stove's sarcasm, that because we can eat oysters only insofar as they are brought under the physiological and chemical conditions which are the presuppositions of the possibility of being eaten, therefore we cannot eat oysters as they are in themselves.

"...You are merely talking about speculative ideas about the world that may seem to be up for grabs as hypotheses, but the true physical nature of the world as it really is, has never really been up for grabs. It is only our understanding of where and what we really are, and the true nature of the world, that is in question."

Tell me, where did you get this "true physical nature of the world as it really is"?--apart from "speculative ideas," I mean, which of course you are not at all using here... Is it something practical, perhaps?--maybe something you have in your pocket, along with keys and lint? Something you got but--sacre bleu!--not means of anything so airy as an idea or a speculation?

I kid. Of course, the "true physical nature of the world as it really is" is an abstraction as abstract as they come. Why, it's almost like "cause" that way, or "change," or (dare I say it?) "the human idea of a God"...

"As far as your charge of my comments being somehow irrelevant: / My point goes to what I see as a fundamental bias shown here in discussing whether or not the basic tenants of religion are, or are not, falsifiable in a Popper-ian sense of that term."

No no. My charge was that some of your comments were irrelevant because they did not seem to reply to anything that was said before. What was said before might be as biased as could be, and you still could miss it completely.

"...the early Greeks and then most importantly Hume and then Kant. Here is (in part) where I differ from their views: / They thought their ideas about objects were necessary parts of the objects themselves and that these concepts existed outside of and before the objects did. [...] As I see it then, Hume basically took the problem of induction off a cliff… and then went back to religion for his own feeling of certainty (belief). Kant instead offered a kind of calculus for trying to justify a double standard for what we class as known or believable."

↑That is confused. But my comment has grown long and dull, and I have grown sleepy, so perhaps I'll revisit this another time.

laubadetriste said...

@Gottfried:

Nice poem. :)

Doubter who doubts said...

As feeble as my opinion may be, to my mind, this was an excellent article (like lots of others on this blog, indeed).

I have a few problems understanding how the Unmoved Mover must be unchangeable, however (i know that this is
a bit off-topic, but you know how important the consequences are for the Unmoved Mover if He can be proved to
be unchangeable, considering the number of divine attributes one will inevitably deduce from an unchangeable nature...)

I have reached the conclusion that He needs not be changed by another in order for it change other things.

In other terms, that He needs not to have its potential to be actualized by anything else so it can change other things.

In yet other terms, that it can actualize itself its own potentials without needing anything else in order to do that.

But now, how do we go from "it needs not be changed", to "it is unchangeable" ? This i don't understand.

I have found the explanations given in Aquinas and TLS unconvincing - though it is perfectly possible that it is I,
who failed to understand them.

The result, whatever the cause, however remains the same : i do not understand how we can go from this, to that :
could someone explain it to me ? - Thanks a lot.

Gottfried said...

POWilson,

You seem to be denying, on the one hand, that any real understanding of the world is possible, while on the other, complaining that traditional concepts and precepts have prevented such an understanding.

Underlying this confusion, I think, is a desire to apprehend the world “as given,” without any conceptual remainder. I understand the feeling (as does Les Murray!), but as laubade explains, this is not really possible. We can’t stop being human, and so any picture of the world we attain will necessarily be a human one. And we should be especially suspicious of anything that purports to be something else.

Aristotle is a big help here. He wasn't particularly ambitious in the way of speculation or abstraction. The concepts of act and potency, fourfold causation, a modest essentialism, etc., are really just the bare minimum requirements for speaking coherently about the world, IMHO. And what a relief it is, after four or five centuries, to discover that things actually are what they are, and not something else!

laubadetriste said...

@POWilson: "My point goes to what I see as a fundamental bias shown here in discussing whether or not the basic tenants of religion are, or are not, falsifiable in a Popper-ian sense of that term."

Some of them are pretty basic, aren't they? Yes, I've been talking to the local zoning board about getting this blog demarcated for something more recherché...

But seriously, what bias here, more specifically?

@POWilson: "...the early Greeks and then most importantly Hume and then Kant..."

Tell me, *which* early Greeks had you in mind?

"...my view is that what Hume and Kant were seeing was the failure of Induction to establish human knowledge as absolutes, neither of them however, was able to differentiate this failure to the extent of seeing that though what we think is necessarily a reflection of reality, our very ability to imagine shows that our reflections are always pre-empted by our own prior approximations and miscalculations of reality and therefore always subject to error."

What is your view on Hume and Kant on non-inductive "human knowledge as absolutes"?

"...what we think is necessarily a reflection of reality..."

Careful: pck is listening. :)

"...our reflections are always pre-empted by our own prior approximations and miscalculations of reality and therefore always subject to error."

Hmn. Is *that* thought subject to error?

"As I see it then, Hume basically took the problem of induction off a cliff... and then went back to religion for his own feeling of certainty (belief)."

What do you mean, Hume went "back to religion"?

"Kant instead offered a kind of calculus for trying to justify a double standard for what we class as known or believable."

What do you mean, "calculus?" And what do you mean, "double standard"? (Do you mean "the most mundane, trivial or most common" meaning listed first in the OED, "A rule or principle that is unfairly applied in different ways to different people or groups"?)

"I think [the Physics arguments that come out of Heisenberg/Bell, etc. and the idea of non-local causality (entanglement) and such are] used (not here but in general) as kind of a strawman to try and re-ingest spookiness into both a justification for religious-thinking and as a way to undermine the countless successes of the scientific approach."

Re-ingest spookiness, hmn?

What is "religious-thinking"? (Is this, like "human thinking", just a funny way of describing the thinking done by religious people?)

"...as a way to undermine the countless successes of the scientific approach."

Did you go back and look at the blog archive? Maybe start with a post from last month. It includes an analogy we here have heard before: "It’s like someone who has gotten rid of all the dirt in every room in the house by sweeping it under a particular rug, when asked how he’s now going to get rid of the dirt under the rug, responding: 'Why, I’ll get rid of it the same way I got rid of the dirt in all the rooms, of course! That method worked in all those other cases -- why wouldn’t it work in the one case of the dirt under the rug?' This only sounds plausible if you don’t think very carefully about what has just been said. The minute you do think about it, you see that in fact it’s absurd. Naturally, the past success of the sweep-it-under-the-rug method gives no reason whatsoever to think that that method offers hope of getting rid of the dirt under the rug itself."

Robert Byers said...

In figuring things out it seems strange that such a rule should be invented.
Why not and many things were figured out without testing.!
Its like saying at the end of a detective story with the room full of the suspects HE couldn't name and prove the murderer unless it was tested!! NAW.
it was always a clumsy rule about falsibility. Just another way of being careful about conclusions. Yet not a rule to rule.

Tony said...

"Substances exist."...This claim would be falsified in a Heraclitean world in which reidentification of any given object proved to be impossible.

"Things have essences."...This claim would be falsified in we lived in a world where one type of thing always graded insensibly into another - a world where there were no black-and-white divisions, but only shades of gray.

Vincent, for your cases, you would have to prove that the Heraclitean world, or the infinitely shaded world, are metaphysically possible (that they are not inherently self-contradictory or inconsistent with the necessary attributes of being). Maybe they are, but because the world we have is not Heraclitean nor infinitely shaded, the proof isn't going to be an easy one. Indeed, if is to be made at all, it would of necessity rely on some pretty strong metaphysical premises. And those metaphysical premises will have been derived from THIS world...I foresee an uphill battle of sisyphean proportions. (And, if St. Thomas is right about essences, almost certainly doomed to failure.)

In any case, I fear that your counter-examples are speaking to a different question than the point being made. Even if "substances exist" might be falsified in some other universe, in this universe, one in which our entire grasp of the intelligible order is through grasping substances, it cannot be falsified. It would be not terribly dissimilar to my being able to falsify "I exist". Sure, there COULD be a universe in which I do not exist, so someone who isn't me might be able to falsify statements about my existence. But there is no universe in which I can do it. Even if at some incredibly abstract level of metaphysics there could be a way to think about an Heraclitean world coherently and in that world "substances exist" would be untrue, (it might not be falsifiable, for in such a world nothing might be knowable at all), that doesn't speak to whether "substances exist" is falsifiable in this world.

Tony said...

All of the arguments, above, that I have been able to get through, assume human thinking itself is a real and necessary part of the function of the world outside of that thinking. As both physics and archaeology show us however, the physical world was here for billions of years before, and without the need of human thinking.

POWilson, did you stop to think for a moment that "physics and archaeology" are "human thinking" about that world that (according to them) has existed for billions of years? If that human thinking had never occurred, you would have been unable to rest your claim on them, would you? Can you please make your claims without resting on human thinking?

Oh, no, you can't. In fact, ALL of your claims are examples of human thinking, which the world can go on without. They all suffer from EXACTLY the same defects you notice in other thinking.

Things do not exist in accordance to a human way of thinking nor do they need to make sense to us in order to exist. The physical world exist independently and we then try to make sense of it with our thinking. This, then, falsifies the idea of the necessity of the human idea of a God.

By the way, when you say these things, you say them because you imagine that YOU know the sort of thinking that is "human". That is to say, you know what sorts of thinking goes on inside your head, and you imagine that similar sorts goes on in the similar-appearing "heads" of similar-appearing "other people". But that, of course, is simplistic human-type thinking. In reality, you can have no way of knowing this. It is just as possible that others (some? all? ) are FUNDAMENTALLY of a different sort of being than you, that their thinking is wholly unlike the sort of thinking that you have, and that THEIR thinking is related to reality in a way that your thinking is not. You, bound up in your hopelessly "human" sort of thinking, can have no sound reason for asserting that others are limited in the same ways you are limited. That's just more of that "human" type thinking.

Please feel free to respond when you can get over thinking in that human-bound way.

English Catholic said...

@ Doubter who doubts

One of the problems with blog threads is that they get old so quickly. I'm happy to have a go at answering your question -- with the caveat that I'm something of a beginner myself -- but I just wanted to check you're still reading the thread first?

I had this question myself for a couple of years after reading Aquinas and TLS, so would be happy to share my thoughts, for what they're worth.

Doubter who doubts said...

@ English Catholic


Hello friend !


Yes, I'd most definitely be very interested in the opinion of someone who's been thinking about it for years, like you have.

I really do think that this argument might work, given its logical nature... That's why I wish to (finally) understand it entirely.

That could absolutely change my whole worldview, and I find it rather stimulating.


So what is your take on that move : how do we go from the Unmoved Mover, to the Unmovable Mover ?

Timocrates said...


@ TOF,

There are indeed electrons. Maybe. Or maybe not.


.., Okay, certainly not, IMHO. But who will prove me wrong?

Mr. Green said...

Timocrates: Okay, certainly not [electrons], IMHO. But who will prove me wrong?

Aristotelianly speaking, electrons in [the atoms of] a substance are indeed only virtual. But what about free electrons? (And with the cost of electricity, who doesn't appreciate some free electrons?) What's your proposed explanation for an isolated trapped electron, or a beam of electrons travelling through a vacuum?

Of course, "proof" gets back to questions of "convincing". One can always argue that we are caught in a grand simulation, and the real world is completely different, and who can "prove" otherwise? But even though, as TOF rightly and frequently points out, reality is not required to agree with our models, nor is reality required to disagree with them. Sometimes a model works well because it truly does reflect (some part of) nature directly. I'd want an awfully good story before I considered writing off electrons entirely.

English Catholic said...

@ Doubter who doubts ,

Ok, here are my thoughts, for what they're worth.

I'll assume we're agreed on the following three points:

1. All change/motion is the reduction of potency to act;
2. Everything that is moved must be moved by something else;
3. Formal causes (aka essences or natures) are unchangeable – human nature, or the nature of granite, or triangularity, are the same things at all times and in all places.

And also that we're agreed on the principle of proportionate causality.

Ok:

Firstly, I think it's helpful not to think of any particular act of movement/change. I don't know if one can prove that any given act of movement is caused by an Unmoveable Mover. But I think it's logical that the existence of movement per se implies an Unmoved Mover. In general, I've found it helpful not to think in terms of particulars (and above all not to think visually!) when working through this stuff.

Now, the mere existence of potency implies that the actualisation of this potency is logically possible. Un-actualisable potency does not exist; that would be absurd. 'It' would not be potency in that case; 'it' would be mere non-existence.

Therefore, given assumption 2, the existence of potency implies the existence of something that can actualise that potency. Potency without something to actualise it can't be actualised and is therefore not potency.

So let's suppose that thing 'X' is move-able. It implies the existence of something that can move it -
let's call this Y. Why must Y be unmoveable? Couldn't we say that Y is also an admixture of potency and act?

No. Given assumption 3, above, X's nature exists unchangeably. By nature, and unchangeably, X has certain actualities and certain potentialities. (Indeed, it is X's particular admixture of act and potency that makes it X.)

But if Y is changeable, X's nature could lose potentialities, because the qualities of Y that allowed it to actualise given potentialities in X could go out of existence. Similarly, and for the same reasons, it could gain potentialities. But then X's nature is dependent on something changeable. Given assumption 3 above – that natures can't change - this is false. (You could have any number of move-able objects changing X, of course, but this wouldn't make the problem go away.)

Note that a given concrete example of X is not unchangeable; only X's nature is. An apple can be changed, but its nature can't be.

The unchangeability of X's nature must therefore be dependent on Y being unchangeable (unchangeable in its concrete existence, not just in its nature). And so the existence of anything that moves is contingent on the existence of Something that doesn't move.

Hopefully that makes some sense! I could say a lot more, but I'll try and answer any objections you may have as they come up, rather than attempt to anticipate them :)

English Catholic said...

"But I think it's logical that the existence of movement per se implies an Unmoved Mover."

I mean Unmoved and Unmoveable here!

Doubter who doubts said...

@ English Catholic,


I understand what you mean (I must say that you explain things pretty clearly), and can find no objection to the first part of your argument for an Unmovable Mover - that is, to everything you say until "No."

Seems to me to be as foolproof as can be.


Now, as for what you say essences' unchangeability must imply - that is, the existence of a thing completely unchangeable... ... This is the part I do not really understand as of today.

I'm gonna to have to ponder over that a little bit more, I guess.


In the meantime, what articles (or books) you've read on the matter, would you personally find advisable ?

Not understanding an argument after months of efforts is rapidly puzzling me.

How much time does it take to understand the First Way ? Is it not supposed to be the most accessible of the Quinque Viae ??


Thank you in advance,

TheOFloinn said...

I'd want an awfully good story before I considered writing off electrons entirely.

The oil drop experiment tells us that electronic charge increases in quantum steps. This either indicates electrons or that the method of measuring charge is discrete. The flow of electricity in a wire is opposite to the supposes flow of the electrons, so what exactly is the electricity? That's why Feynman referred to the electron (and the photon) as "screwy." They were screwy in the same way, he said, but screwy nonetheless. And Heisenberg went so far as to say that the objective existence of a subatomic particle is a gross oversimplification of what actually is happening.

So far: we can say the idea works. But we could have said the same about astronomical epicycles for more than a thousand years.
+++

Tony said...

So let's suppose that thing 'X' is move-able. It implies the existence of something that can move it -
let's call this Y. Why must Y be unmoveable? Couldn't we say that Y is also an admixture of potency and act?

No. Given assumption 3, above, X's nature exists unchangeably. By nature, and unchangeably, X has certain actualities and certain potentialities. (Indeed, it is X's particular admixture of act and potency that makes it X.)

But if Y is changeable, X's nature could lose potentialities, because the qualities of Y that allowed it to actualise given potentialities in X could go out of existence.


@English:

You are missing some steps in there, your argument has easy counter-examples. If X is a rock on my desk, and Y is my dog, then these satisfy the conditions you required: X is move-able, and my dog can actualize that potency. Bruno is of such a character as to be able to move it.

But Bruno can cease to exist, and if he does he ceases to be able to move X. The qualities of Y that allowed it to actualize that potency cease to exist. But my cat still exists and can move X. X remains movable.

That X is movable does imply a Y (a something ELSE) that can move it, but does not imply that Y is unmovable.

You would have to add in a series of additional premises / conclusions that get at "there is some Y' which is unmovable, even if other cases of Y are movable". The proof of there being one mover unmoved must tackle the great divide between "there are moved movers" and "that's not enough", but St. Thomas's proof does not run through considering the unchangeability of essences. St. Thomas says in his proof

Therefore, whatever is in motion must be put in motion by another. If that by which it is put in motion be itself put in motion, then this also must needs be put in motion by another, and that by another again. But this cannot go on to infinity, because then there would be no first mover, and, consequently, no other mover; seeing that subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are put in motion by the first mover; as the staff moves only because it is put in motion by the hand. Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.

The claim "this cannot go on to infinity" is central to the proof. It can be unpacked. For example, Feser says that it relies on distinguish[ing] between accidentally ordered and essentially ordered causal series. ...Now it is essentially ordered series rather than accidentally ordered series that necessarily have a first member. But “first” here doesn’t mean “the member that comes at the head of the line, before the second, third, fourth, etc.” Rather, “first” means “fundamental” or “underived.” The idea is that a series of instrumental causes – causes that have their causal power only derivatively, only insofar as they act as instruments of something else – must necessarily trace to something that has its causal power in a non-instrumental way, something which can cause without having to be made to cause by something else. And the argument from motion claims that only that which is pure actuality -- that which is, as it were, “already” fully actual and thus need not (indeed cannot) have been actualized by anything else -- can be causally fundamental or underived in an absolute sense.

Tony said...

The point is that you arrive at a mover whose "unmoved" is not accidental, but necessary. It not only is not moved with relation to causing X to move, it cannot be moved to cause X to move, and this holds for ALL X being moved, because it is pure actuality. And what is pure actuality has no potency yet to be fulfilled, it has nowhere to move TO. It cannot "be moved" because it has no room to become actual any respect, it is already fully actual. What cannot come to be more actual in any respect cannot be moved in any respect, for moving is the coming to be more actual.

Don Jindra said...

English Catholic,

"But I think it's logical that the existence of movement per se implies an Unmoved [and Unmoveable] Mover."

Actually, that's not logical. It's either a fact in the material world or it isn't. Logic has nothing to say on the matter. But it does defy observation. For every X that causes Y to move, Y also causes X to move -- that is, according to Newton's Third Law, whenever objects X and Y interact with each other, they each move each other. If this is a general law of nature, which apparently it is, we could construct a "logical" argument that goes like this: Whatever causes movement must also be moved. Therefore there is no Unmoved Mover.

TheOFloinn said...

For every X that causes Y to move, Y also causes X to move

So when sunlight in the 3,600 to 4,500 Å range moves the skin in an apple from green to red, the apple skin also moves the sun? Somehow, that doesn't seem quite right. What about when the acorn moves into oak? Inquiring minds want to know.

Doubter who doubts said...

So when sunlight in the 3,600 to 4,500 Å range moves the skin in an apple from green to red, the apple skin also moves the sun? Somehow, that doesn't seem quite right.


Touché.

English Catholic said...

@ Tony, Doubter,

Thanks for your reply. You may be right, let's see where this goes.

> But Bruno can cease to exist, and if he does he ceases to be able to move X. The qualities of Y that allowed it to actualize that potency cease to exist. But my cat still exists and can move X. X remains movable.

Surely, though, this strengthens my point rather than undermines it? You have illustrated that the stone's potency to be moved across the desk does not depend on any contingent thing like the dog. But this was my point. (Of course, the dog can actualise this potency, it just needn't.)

Since that which is moved must be moved by something already actual, and since the stone can be moved, and since its moveability doesn't depend on a dog, or a cat, or any other thing that could go out of existence or change, but is a feature of the stone itself, its moveability must imply something which can't go out of existence or change. Otherwise its potency to be moved could theoretically become un-actualisable (because that which used to be able to actualise it no longer can), and in this case would not be potency at all.

Why is this a problem? Why is it illogical to suggest that the stone's potency can cease to exist?

Because everything that's not Pure Act is a particular admixture of act and potency. To be a stone is to be a particular combination of the two. The stone's potential to be moved across the desk is inherent in its 'stone-ness' – ie in its form/nature/essence. This potential therefore can't cease to be a feature of the stone. (I mean essentially. Of course, the position in space of the stone could change so it couldn't happen under a particular set of circumstances – that is different.)

The potency is therefore dependent only on something that doesn't change.

In summary: Given that forms are unchangeable (why this is, is a discussion for another time), and given that the potential to be moved flows from the form of the stone, the potential to be moved is unchangeable, so it can't be dependent on anything changeable, so it must be dependent on something unchangeable. That doesn't mean that something changeable can't actualise the potency.

> “And the argument from motion claims that only that which is pure actuality -- that which is, as it were, “already” fully actual and thus need not (indeed cannot) have been actualized by anything else -- can be causally fundamental or underived in an absolute sense.”

But why must Pure Act be the cause of movement? Why can't movement not be ultimately caused by something(s) moveable? Unless we add 'that which moves something else, and is itself moveable, is moved[!]' as a premise, I don't see how we can arrive at that conclusion. Or not without some further work.

The passage from St Thomas is only a summary, so we shouldn't expect to find the full argument there.

Don Jindra said...

TheOFloinn,

"So when sunlight in the 3,600 to 4,500 Å range moves the skin in an apple from green to red, the apple skin also moves the sun?"

It may not seem right to you but until you disprove Newton's Third Law you're in quite a spot. Yes, the apple does move the sun. The apple also moves the light from the sun which hits its skin.

Glenn said...

The only rational explanation is that it must be that, once again, DJ is experiencing a temptation to take to the bottle.

- - - - -

Newton's Third Axiom of Motion is as follows: "To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction : or the mutual actions of two bodies upon each other are always equal, and directed to contrary parts."

According to DJ's understanding of this, an apple turning brown in the sun moves the sun. Following DJ's understanding -- WARNING: do not try that at home, without adult supervision or without a full complement of emergency service personnel standing by -- it would follow that were a baseball to be hurled thirty yards by me, I myself would be propelled backwards thirty yards by the baseball. I'm not against conducting experiments in order to see if what is thought to be true is indeed true. Yet in none of the experiments conducted has the baseball ever succeeded in propelling me backwards by more than 13 yards 2 feet and 6 3/16 inches (even though the baseball was successfully hurled thirty or more yards by me).

I have also hurled a baseball such that it made contact with and shattered DJ's living room window [1]. DJ will be shattered to know that I myself have not been shattered by his shattered living room window [2]. Oh well.

- - - - -

[1] Yes, DJ, that was me. And now that you know, you may send me the bill. But don't expect to collect. While I won't deny that I said it was me, I will deny I was giving voice to the literal truth when I said it was me, and you won't be able to prove otherwise. If you still want to send the bill, then send it to "Glenn, c/o Box 13".

[2] That's the least of what will shatter DJ. What will shatter him further -- or, more precisely, what will shatter the pieces of him that remain -- is that his Hero's Third Definition of Natural Philosophy has the vis insita, the innate force of matter, as a power of resisting, i.e., as an endeavor to persevere in its present state. Now, that could be interpreted as saying that, like DJ, matter tends to be obstinate (even if that tendency sometimes is frustrated in the realization of its corresponding end). But the important and more charitable point here is that, according to DJ-Says-He-Is-Not-Wrong Newton, there is an innate end in matter and to which matter endeavors.

laubadetriste said...

@Don Jindra: ""So when sunlight in the 3,600 to 4,500 Å range moves the skin in an apple from green to red, the apple skin also moves the sun?" / It may not seem right to you but until you disprove Newton's Third Law you're in quite a spot. Yes, the apple does move the sun. The apple also moves the light from the sun which hits its skin."

I think--and he can correct me here if I am mistaken--that TOF was using "move" in its Aristotelian sense. I think that because:

1. It makes sense in context.
2. It wouldn't be making the elementary error you credit him with (and he *does* tend to know his modern physics, so that would be only a charitable reading).
3. That's the denotation we've been talking about generally for years here, and specifically for a few days now.
4. That's the denotation which would serve as counterexample to your previous quasi-Newtonian generalization(and therefore, the one that he would have brought up had he wished to make a counterexample, which seemingly he did).

Mr. Green said...

TheOFloinn: we can say the idea works. But we could have said the same about astronomical epicycles for more than a thousand years.

Indeed; and it would have been reasonable for folks a thousand years ago to suppose that epicycles were literal, or at least it would have if epicycles had actually been intended to be interpreted that way and the interpretation fit. Electrons may be screwy, but physicists do tend to think of them as screwy realities (who said reality has to be unscrewy?); and an entirely plausible reason why we can successfully model electrons as real substances (in the Aristotelian sense) may be simply because they are real substances. (Our models may be gross oversimplifications, but they still have to be gross oversimplifications of something.) Of course, one might also not unreasonably remain agnostic about the whole matter; but one cannot reasonably suppose that electrons are explicitly not ever substances unless one has a working model to that effect. (Or some metaphysical argument that electrons are impossible. Since I'm not aware of any, I continue to believe that electrons are possible, whatever they are.)

machinephilosophy said...

The bottom line on positivism is that no possible statement of any version of verification, falsification, confirmation, or even translatability can survive itself.

And all the while, contemporary positivists continue their 90+ year hypocrisy and cheerleading by bragging about the precision, rigor, and self-questioning of science.

In actual scientific research, however, if you actually push for precision, rigor, and self-questioning---you might as well write out your own pink slip in advance, sucker.

Lingering questions are eventually going to make both positivism and academic philosophy, as well as Christian apologetics and most of theistic philosophy, disappear. Contact me for party details.

Retinanymous said...

Yikes! So much verbiage for so little value.
You say "GOD is GOOD"
I say "Prove it!". Said another way, "If God were not Good, how would I know it?"

You then launch into falsifiability and how Popper himself couldn't prove whether his notion of falsifiability is itself falsifiable!

Seriously?

Forget the mombojumbo that passes as philosophical discourse. Answer the question: If God were not good, how would we know it?

TheOFloinn said...

I am quite content with the electron; but I cannot help but recall that previous mathematici were content with epicycles, too. They explained quite well the fact that planets sometimes moved backward in their tracks and that they sometimes grew larger and brighter and smaller and dimmer. The electron was introduced in a similar fashion: to explain how permanent magnets did not violate Maxwell's equivalence of electricity and magnetism. There is an electrical potency within even permanent magnets. That is, the electron was introduced to "save the appearances" of Maxwell's theory, just as epicycles saved the appearances of planetary aspects -- and the inflaton field saved the appearances of the original Big Bang theory.

That doesn't mean that any of these were wrong: some of them might be inspired insights. It just means that there is something ad hoc-y about them. It is well known that through any finite collection of facts one may draw innumerable theories, so there is always more than one way to account for the known facts.

Newton's universal gravitation was so gosh-darn successful that scientists assumed that all physical relationships could be expressed as particles in space obeying inverse square laws. The discovery of Coulomb's Law a century later seemed a stunning confirmation, and the atom was duly imagined as a miniature solar system, a paradigm into which the idea of the electron nestled comfortably. However, the idea of little bee-bees whizzing around a nucleus like planets around a sun gave way to a "cloud of probabilities" (http://faculty.wcas.northwestern.edu/~infocom/The%20Website/plates/Plate%201.html) But one of the hallmarks of "objective" (vs. subjective) has always been location or position. The QM concept of the electron does not allow for it to have a specific position -- which is why Heisenberg said that its objective reality was a gross simplification. So we might conclude that something exists which we call an electron, but that it is not an actual objective particle. (Closer perhaps to a potency?)

TheOFloinn said...

If God were not good, how would we know it?

It would not be possible. God is not good in the same way that an apple is red. That is, "good" is not an accident appertaining to the substance "God." Rather, God is Good in the way that a triangle is three-sided. The Good does not exist outside of God as something he might [or might not] have. There is some commentary here: http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2010/09/classical-theism.html

Tony said...

It may not seem right to you but until you disprove Newton's Third Law you're in quite a spot. Yes, the apple does move the sun. The apple also moves the light from the sun which hits its skin.

@ DJ:

3rd Law is all fun until you realize that "to move" includes, under Aristotle's doctrine, material, formal and final causality, not just agent causality. When falcon swoops after a rabbit, the rabbit moves the falcon as final cause. The rabbit is not thereby moved. (It may, if the falcon doesn't miss, be moved later, but that's contingent.) Newton's 3rd law says nothing about the falcon having an equal and opposite reaction on the rabbit, because it says nothing about final causality.

Tony said...

So we might conclude that something exists which we call an electron, but that it is not an actual objective particle. (Closer perhaps to a potency?)

TheOFloinn, I have often wondered whether (a) the "reality" of smaller and smaller particles is an inherent problem for chemist/physicists, and (b) as we go further down, we ought to explicitly buy into Aristotelianism as the solution to their problem.

I have seen a chemistry text that explaining what something is consists in identifying what its parts are. Yes, I know that biologists and behaviorists might object, but let's stick to the fact that the chemist is trying to say "what it is" by reference to "underlying stuff". Which, in a manner of speaking, is something like saying that he is trying to account for the material cause. Sort of.

The inherent difficulty is this: either there is ALWAYS a real, existent, solid "lower level" beyond the most recently found one: molecules, then atoms, then protons, then quarks... Or, there is not. That's all the choices you get. If the former, then you can NEVER know the "bottom layer" of real existent parts, there isn't one. And so, by definition, you can't actually KNOW the other layers that are built up from them. Chemists would be in the position of saying that there cannot be true scientific demonstrative knowledge (in the Aristotelian sense) of things as made up of stuff, their science is a blighted undertaking.

If there is not an infinite regression of ongoing layers ever more refined than the one before, then there is SOME OTHER way of accounting for "what it is" than saying "what are its parts that sit in it making it up". That some other way than finding its parts is so foreign to chemists that it is hard to even get them to hear it, but it might be possible. For quarks pose so many problems in terms of "making up" matter that they really force us to ask the hard questions. Are quarks (and electrons) "real" in the sense that molecules, atoms, and even protons, are? Quarks have such tenuous reality that one is strongly tempted to delve into Aristotelian descriptors: potentiality. A potency to be X, rather than SIMPLE reality.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious as regards what one may give as a response to the particular application of the underdetermination thesis at the hands of Quine. Should the thomist welcome or reject Quine's analysis? What aspects of it are profitable and what aspects of it are better left unfollowed?

machinephilosophy said...

"If I weren't so completely fixated, haunted, and paranoid about the goodness of God, how would I face how oblivious I am to my implicit unargued assumptions?"

machinephilosophy said...

Good luck finding any Quine theory applied to itself. You don't seriously think "all statements" actually means all statements including Quine's theory?

After all, the evidence for the underdetermination theory itself, available to us at a given time, may be insufficient to determine what beliefs we should hold about underdetermination.

But, thank evolution, there's grade tyranny and plenty of graduate student suckups to prevent unfettered cross-examination by students.

How can colleges and universities continue their fine reputation of going over the same shit semester after semester, decade after decade, if we allow irresponsible questioning of the Holy Analytic Philosophy Boilerplate Gospel?

Similarly, the revisability principle of Quine's celebrated holism can't even survive a single revision of itself, so it never could actually function as an epistemic network-wide principle in the first place, except for Quine's fawning sycophants of course. And you too, if you know what's good for you in the philosophy department.

The main value of Quine is that his fandom influence has provided many social opportunities to "verify" the thinking of his snarky buzzword bingo followers in front of lots of people.

The only thing that's more fun than Quinean or positivist posers at a party are a postmodernist one.

Look's like the cash bar's open. Ready to file all the usual orthodox universal prohibitions and dismissals about knowledge, truth, and value? Ready to bum cognitive cigs off objectivist rationalism to do so? Then let's party!

Don Jindra said...

Glenn,

"According to DJ's understanding of this, an apple turning brown in the sun moves the sun."

Not quite. TheOFloinn implied it was the sun that turned an apple brown. But he was actually referring to light which came from the sun, not the sun. So I have to point out that the light -- the thing that interacts directly with the apple -- is changed by the apple. We see the apple, for example, because some of that light was reflected off the apple's skin. Other light was absorbed by the skin. Both of these are changes to the light.

"Following DJ's understanding...it would follow that were a baseball to be hurled thirty yards by me, I myself would be propelled backwards thirty yards by the baseball."

I applaud your recognition that we should ignore "understanding" (that is, human bias mixed with logical argument) and put this to an empirical test. In that test you'd find Newton is correct, but that distance is not the proper way to measure the equality. The equality involved will be force: Mass multiplied by acceleration (player) will be equal to mass multiplied by acceleration (baseball). We would see this mutual effect in space. It's why rocket engines work.

Btw, to suggest resistance to change is an innate end in matter and an end to which matter endeavors is to suggest nothing of importance. It's like saying the innate end of white is to remain white. There's no information there. There's nothing that can be used for any useful purpose, including explanation or understanding. Final cause used in this manner becomes irrelevant.

laubadetriste,

"I think--and he can correct me here if I am mistaken--that TOF was using 'move' in its Aristotelian sense."

I don't think the sun's light keeps the apple from evaporating into nothingness and I don't think that's what TOF meant -- especially because he was responding to my usage which was not about being itself. But it is possible I misunderstood his intent. To that I would say the sun and apple example is inappropriate as that response. There is no proper analogy between change in physical structure to "change" in being itself (non-being to being).

machinephilosophy said...

A positivist or logical empiricist (notice the need to pad status through nomenclature) is someone who spends their entire life avoiding verification procedures carried out on their own views and never offers empirical evidence for them, but is constantly talking about how all other views are unverifiable and lack empirical evidence.

All other aspects of the positivist's time are spent on accusing religious people of intellectual hypocrisy and bigotry.

TheOFloinn said...

Good luck finding any Quine theory applied to itself.

Quine-schmine. Think of Duhem.

Underdetermination does not apply to the Duhem-Quine theorem because a theorem in logic or mathematics is not established by connecting the dots of a finite set of empirical facts into a Big Picture physical theory. The Pythagorean Theorem is not underdetermined, either.

As we can see with relativity and with quantum mechanics, there are multiple theories to account for the same body of facts {X}. I can think of four quantum theories off the top of my head and I am told there are others. There are at least two or three relativity theories as well. Some theories have more fans than others, of course. It is easier to form a mind than to change it, so the first theory always has something of an advantage. Additional data, as it comes up, gets shoehorned into the favorite theory until something comes up that cannot possibly be fit in. (That's Kuhn, not Quine.) For example, stellar aberration, demonstrated by Bradley in 1725, could not possibly be accounted for by Tycho's geostationary model, so at that point it was empirically off the table. The Ursine model was not empirically deposed until the discovery of stellar parallax. Kepler's model had won the contest earlier simply because its use of elliptical orbits had simplified the calculations, compared to the cumbersome Ptolemaic and Copernican models, and it had fallen out from Newton's Universal Gravitation, demonstrated by Euclidean geometry (not by empirically measured facts!)

However, the new set of facts {X+x} now also can support more than one theory. Although Kuhn contended that new theories are no more "true" than the ones they replace, I'm pretty sure that successive theories do approach truth asymptotically. (Or cyclically: there are features of Einstein's gravitation that remind one of Aristotle.)

Anonymous said...

So is the fault of Quine's application of underdetermination mostly in his brand of empiricist insistence (such as his behaviorism)? Is there anything that Quine suggests in regards to underdetermination that is interesting in the sense that it doesn't simply assume a materialistic conception of meaning and belief (I take his behaviorism to be the reason Quine would ignore obvious examples of beliefs, such as those in mathematics and metaphysics, that seem certain in a way no empirical statement could be certain.)

Mr. Green said...

TheOFloinn: That is, the electron was introduced to "save the appearances" of Maxwell's theory[…] some of them might be inspired insights. It just means that there is something ad hoc-y about them.

Yes, although some insights are more inspired than others. What I’m trying to get at is a way to distinguish degrees of ad hockery. After all, there have been attempts to explain away the evidence of a round earth — to treat it as hypothetical epicycle — but there comes a point where the best explanation for why a round model works is simply because the earth really is round. You can, as you note, always come up with another explanation that passes through the same set of points, but at some point we enter the territory of philosophical conspiracy-theories.

So we might conclude that something exists which we call an electron, but that it is not an actual objective particle. (Closer perhaps to a potency?)

I think that “something” we can call an electron is probably good enough for all I want to claim. Whatever is causing those effects which we can model so well, has to be some thing — at the end of the day there has to be an Aristotelian substance that we’re modelling. I would be wary of calling it a potency simpliciter (since only actual substances can have potencies, of course), but I’d agree that there is a lot of potential involved in being an electron, whatever that may be. (Could a “beam of electrons” be a single substance? Maybe, that doesn’t seem too strange to me, given the strangeness any individual electron would have to have anyway. What else could they be? Ripples in the fabric of space-time? Possible, perhaps — that would make space-time itself be a substance, which it might be anyway; but that’s starting to get conspiratorial. It’s ad hoc in a way that’s unnecessary to explain the evidence; it’s not quite a matter of simplicity, but something along those lines, I guess.)

TheOFloinn said...

You can, as you note, always come up with another explanation that passes through the same set of points

But it is useful to distinguish between a fact (which we might call one of the points) and a theory. Theories can be falsified (because there is always more than one possible), but facts can only be incorrectly observed. The roundness of the Earth can be established by geometric proofs, not merely empirical evidences. It was a theoretical conjecture only as long as it could not be directly measured. Aristotle's proof that the Moon is a sphere is an example. He showed that no other solid shape could possibly account for the phenomena of the phases. In the older scientific method, one had to perform "the work of the intellect" by systematically considering each alternative explanation and showing why they would not work.

gnonanon said...

I had a bone to pick here with Tomislav Ostojich who sayid:
"One of the problems that I have with falsification is that it seems to be based on an outdated interpretation of statistics called the frequentist interpretation."

Outdated like a wedding dress, or outdated like al-gebra? I don't know much about frequentism until you mentioned it, so I looked and found an absolute wealth of information. This woman is a brilliant philosopher. For philosophy of science, she's head and shoulders above anyone I've run into for a long while. https://errorstatistics.com/

I'm not lambasting you, but when you say:

"In real statistics and real science, however, there isn't just one unique

"null hypothesis"

.... you're using "real statistics and real science" as terms of distinction in

reference to real statistics and real science. It's not fair for you to mock them as a students who have't studied for their introductory statistics exam. (Unless that's what you actually...) Look, it's fair to say that I'm not more knowledgeable than you are in this domain.

Perhaps a more characteristic statement about Frequentism: A school which takes particular interest in the distribution of events, not only those measured in the test statistic. I think the more substantial lines of division in the community involve the details of how responsibly data is gathered, how the tests are constructed and how responsible they are in their inferences.

The fact of the matter is that everybody uses many different forms of inference. It's part and parcel of intelligence. It doesn't make sense to categorically lobotomize our mathematical tools.

I am SO grateful that you pointed me in the right direction philosophically. Just one of those instances of co-incidence, isn't it? Below is a PDF documents which goes through some of the misconceptions about frequentism.

If anyone is interested the account of test "severity", a far more useful account of why it makes sense to include an analogue of falsification in our conceptual toolbox. (Although severity is a sufficiently concrete concept that it can be easily made part of our computational toolbox too.)

Anonymous said...

Anthony Flew, as far as I know, was a Dawkins/Voltaire of his age and peerage.
He secretly converted to Catholicism just before his death. A proper coward he appealed to the Establishment view as it was convenient to his social/academic status but never acknowledged that he was wrong in public and to his peers.

laubadetriste said...

@Anonymous April 24, 2016 at 1:07 AM: "Anthony Flew, as far as I know, was a Dawkins/Voltaire of his age and peerage. / He secretly converted to Catholicism just before his death. A proper coward he appealed to the Establishment view as it was convenient to his social/academic status but never acknowledged that he was wrong in public and to his peers."

Funny how you remain anonymous while accusing Flew of cowardice. Funny how you would assimilate Dawkins to Voltaire. Funny how you provide no references attesting to Flew's conversion to Catholicism (especially funny to those who followed that case, or to those aware of the long history of pious lies about infidel death-beds). Funny how you refer to "the" "Establishment" view. Funny how you employ Bulverism and class-based innuendo where Flew himself used decades worth of argument.