Monday, May 23, 2022

The hollow universe of modern physics

To say that the material world alone exists is not terribly informative unless we have some account of what matter is.  Those who are most tempted to materialism are also inclined to answer that matter is whatever physics says it is.  The trouble with that is that physics tells us less than meets the eye about the nature of matter.  As Poincar√©, Duhem, Russell, Eddington, and other late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century philosophers and scientists were keen to emphasize, what physics gives us is the abstract mathematical structure of the material world, but not the entire nature of the concrete entities that have that structure.  It no more captures all of physical reality than a blueprint captures everything there is to a house.  This is, of course, a drum I’ve long banged on (for example, in Aristotle’s Revenge).

The methods of physics as they’ve been understood since the time of Galileo make this limitation inevitable.  As philosopher of physics Roberto Torretti writes:

While Aristotelian science favored loving attention to detail, through which alone one could succeed in conceiving the real in its full concreteness, Galileo and his followers conducted their research with scissors and blinkers… The natural processes and states of affairs under study were represented by simplified models, manageable instances of definite mathematical structures.  The inevitable discrepancies between the predicted behavior of such models and the observed behavior of the objects they stood for were ascribed to “perturbations” and observation errors. (The Philosophy of Physics, pp. 431-32)

The “scissors and blinkers” have to do with the way that Galileo and his successors ignored or cut away from their representation of the physical world anything that cannot be captured mathematically – secondary qualities (colors, sounds, etc.), teleology or final causes, moral and aesthetic value, and so on.  Thus, as Torretti writes, “modern mathematical physics began in open defiance of common sense” (p. 398).  Galileo expressed admiration for those who, applying this method in astronomy, had “through sheer force of intellect done such violence to their own senses as to prefer what reason told them over that which sensible experience plainly showed them to the contrary” (quoted at p. 398).

The point isn’t that this is necessarily bad.  On the contrary, it made it possible for physics to become an exact science.  But physics did so precisely by deliberately confining its attention to those aspects of nature susceptible of an exact mathematical treatment.  This is like a student who ensures that he’ll get A’s in all his classes simply by avoiding any class he knows he’s not likely to get an A in.  There may be perfectly good reasons for doing this.  But it would be fallacious for such a student to conclude from his GPA that the classes he took taught him everything there is to know about the world, or everything worth knowing, so that the classes he avoided were without value.  And it is no less fallacious to infer from the success of physics that there is nothing more to material reality, or at least nothing more worth knowing, than what physics has to say about it (even if a lot of people who like to think of themselves as pretty smart are guilty of this fallacy).

Moreover, to take modern physics’ mathematical description of matter to be an exhaustive description would, as it happens, more plausibly undermine materialism altogether rather than give content to it.  In particular, it arguably leads to idealism.  I briefly noted in Aristotle’s Revenge (at pp. 176-77) how twentieth-century physicists Eddington and James Jeans drew this conclusion.  Torretti (at pp. 98-104) notes that Leibniz and Berkeley did the same.

Here’s one way to understand Leibniz’s argument (which Torretti finds in some of Leibniz’s letters).  Every geometry student knows that perfect lines, perfect circles, and the like cannot be found in the world of everyday experience.  Concrete empirical geometrical properties are at best mere approximations to the idealizations that exist only in thought.  But the mathematical description of the material world afforded by physics is also an abstract idealization.  As such, it too can exist only in thought, and not in mind-independent reality.  Of course, Leibniz’s theory of monads already purports to establish that there is no mind-independent reality, so that perception no more gives us access to such a reality than physics does.  The point of the argument of the letters (as I am interpreting it) is to note that the abstractions of physics cannot be said to give us a better foundation for conceiving of the physical world as mind-independent.  On the contrary, qua abstractions they are even less promising candidates for mind-independence than the ordinary perceptual world is.

Berkeley adds the consideration that systems of signs, such as the mathematics in which modern physical theory is expressed, can be useful in calculations even though some of the signs do not correspond to anything.  As it happens, I discussed this theme from Berkeley in an earlier post.  The utility of a system of signs in part derives from the conventions and rules of the system, rather than from any correspondence to the reality represented by the system.  This conventional element in physics’ mathematical representation of the material world reinforces, for Berkeley, that representation’s mind-dependence.

To try to give content to materialism by identifying matter with whatever physics says about matter would, if this is right, essentially be to transform materialism into idealism – that is to say, to give up materialism for its ancient rival.  To avoid this, the materialist could, of course, appeal to some philosophical theory about the nature of matter that recognized that physics tells us only part of the story.  But this would be to acknowledge that materialism is, after all, itself really just one philosophical theory among others, no better supported by science than its rivals are.  It would be to see through the illusion that metaphysical conclusions can be read off from the findings of modern science.

The picture of nature provided by modern physics is in fact highly indeterminate between different possible metaphysical interpretations – materialist, idealist, dualist, panpsychist, or (the correct interpretation, in my view) Aristotelian.  It is (to borrow from Charles De Koninck) a hollow vessel into which metaphysical water, wine, or for that matter gasoline might be poured.  But it doesn’t by itself tell us which of these to pour.

Again, see Aristotle’s Revenge for more, or, for instant gratification, the posts linked to below.

Related posts:

Meta-abstraction in the physical and social sciences

Make-believe matter

The particle collection that fancied itself a physicist

Metaphysical taxidermy

Materialism subverts itself

Concretizing the abstract

Cundy on relativity and the A-theory of time

David Foster Wallace on abstraction

68 comments:

  1. Seems matter is also made of multitudes.

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  2. I was missing this kind of post. Keep it up, Ed!

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  3. "The point isn’t that this is necessarily bad. On the contrary, it made it possible for physics to become an exact science."

    Interestingly enough an argument can be made that abstractness also has the feature of making the scope of the knowledge more broad (able to apply to more facts about the world), in being a generality.

    Great timing by the way, I am just reading Aristotle's Revenge. And it has given me quite a lot to think about.

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  4. Stanley Jaki was a priest with doctorates in theology and physics. His " God and the Cosmologists" is excellent. Stephen Barr is a retired professor of physics and a member of the Academy of Catholic Theology. His "Modern Physics and Ancient Faith" is also an excellent book.

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  5. "The inevitable discrepancies between the predicted behavior of such models and the observed behavior of the objects they stood for were ascribed to “perturbations” and observation errors."

    I'm not sure Torretti knows what a "perturbation" is. The fact that physicists discuss perturbations does nothing to support his point. Perturbations are a purely practical calculating device. And observational errors are both inevitable and objective - they can't just be invented to cover any disagreement between theory and experiment.

    Your argument in the rest of the post is fine. Torretti need to rethink his terms.

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    1. @lukebarnes,

      Perturbation theorists don't own the word "perturbation". In fact, if Galileo et al did use the word (in a Latin form), they would have used it long before the advent of perturbation theory. In Ed's quotation from Torretti, "perturbations" is in quotations, indicating (to me at least) that it is not Torretti who chose to use the word, but that it is the word chosen by the people Torretti is talking about.

      Tom Cohoe

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    2. @lukebarnes,

      In addition, if Torretti, instead of putting "perturbations" in quotations, had said something like, "and this was the beginning of perturbation theory", your point would be correct.

      Tom Cohoe

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  6. By the way, Ed, you could link that post about the Democritus paradox in the part of the related posts since it is somewhat relatable. May God bless you! (https://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2009/09/schrodinger-democritus-and-paradox-of.html)

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  7. By abstracting to quantity for so long, most physicists have forgotten that’s what they are doing. Nonetheless, they have got to the point where both space and time are ‘emergent’, and all physical properties are relative. This is significant because once all physical properties are relative to an observer, the only way ‘things’ exist is as a web of relations to each other, which ultimately leads to a ‘nothing exists’ nihilism. So physics has gone the same route as modern philosophy, without god as the absolute, sustaining both being and truth, everything disintegrates. This is the real hollowness of modern thinking.

    The other key aspect is that by abstracting to quantity, you are driven to reductionism, and so you loose form and telos which do not exist in the aggregate parts. Thus you only have horizontal causation, and there is no space for free will. So you have perfectly sane physicists denying free will, and choosing to argue with you about it as if they have any reason to believe they are correct - despite the ‘fact’ that all their opinions are simply the result of electrical and chemical reactions in their brain.

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  8. Hi, nice book ad. One of the problems with your approach is that QM is epistemic and not ontic: there are *not* hidden local variables corresponding to some sort of tiny dust particles! Rather, particles make choices. In a particular sense, it *does not matter* whether there is more to reality than QM, because QM is the boundary at which we can make coherent observations.

    In order to go beyond QM, we need observations which we can't explain. You might not like Carroll, but they explain in (https://arxiv.org/abs/2101.07884) that we are running out of unexplained natural phenomena, and that QFT may be the final form of our physical theories. This isn't a bad thing; while it might be putting you out of a job, it's also destroying churches and other harmful dens of metaphysics.

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    1. I'm quite confident Ed is not advocating for a particular metaphysic or philosophy of nature such that the main players in such a metaphysic act as hidden variables, local or otherwise. Indeed, hidden variables are rather beside the point since any sufficiently rigorous definition of a hidden variable is going to be in mathematical terms anyway, and is thus going to be subject to his very point that the math does not and cannot capture all of reality.

      Also, Ed may well agree, at least for the sake of argument, that "QM is the boundary at which we can make coherent observations." He would just go on to say that we need to go beyond mere observation and that there needs to be some metaphysical foundation for the observed phenomena that we see. That physics might be getting to the point that it has said all it is capable of saying is not the same thing as proposing that what physics talks about is all there is to talk about, full stop. These are entirely separate theses, and metaphysicians will be "out of a job," only if the latter is true.

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    2. “But lord, we reduced reality down to the smallest parts, and there was no consciousness, no free will, no soul - there were just reduced parts. We valued certainty above all, and there was certainly no god or even goodness in the parts. Just blind parts. So we were certain that there was no place for you, for if you were not in the parts, how could you be? All things are made of parts! This was our assumption that gave us computers and fast cars, and got us to the moon. We could not conceive of you as you are.”

      “But look, this child with no education understood that her choices were real, that trees and animals and people are real as wholes beyond their parts. She saw that such beauty in the world could not be grounded in blind forces alone. She saw the waves in the sea, the sun and moon in the sky, rain for the plants and air to breathe. In simple humility she respected her limits, embraced the great mysteries thankfully, whilst you confidently believed yourself to be like me. That is why you cannot stand before me now. All your understanding is mere dust. Be gone, I do not know you.”

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    3. Of course we're running out of unexplained natural phenomena. New phenomena requires much much higher energy than civilization is capable of producing. But the next big leap in physics will be the reinterpretation of existing physics (Bell's inequality is garbage).

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    4. Dude, none of what you're saying here leads to the conclusion that the claims of metaphysics are false.

      Thanks for the long inchoherent tirade, but all you've really managed to convey here is that you have some weird thing for Caroll, some kind of foaming at the mouth hate of churches, an insane belief that subatomic particles make decisions, and no clue what you're talking about.

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    5. If QM is what it is by epistemic limitations we have them Ed whole point of trying to reduce anything to physics being dumb just get stronger.

      I mean, not only the cientists only deal with abstractions but they can't even go abstract beyond a certain level. What dork them looks at their work and say "yea, there is nothing more to reality"? A dumb one, i say.

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    6. @Corbin

      Not sure what kind of dens YOU frequent, but they are not where smart people go. You clearly do not understand what you are talking about.

      First hidden variable theories, either local or non local, are STILL materialism and a mathematical abstraction, so it's clearly not what Feser is talking about. People who advocate hidden variables do so to salvage determinism, not reject materialism.

      The point is that physics has some limitations at defining reality and that materialism is an exercise in circular reasoning.

      Second, particles do not make choices, unless you claim they have consciousness. Clearly your understanding of QM is fuzzy.

      Third it does matter if there is more reality that we can observe through physics as a tool. Why wouldn't it matter? That's an asinine and anti-rational take. That's just trying to sweep uncomfortable truths under the rug and not honest intectual endeavor.
      Also plenty of physicists invoke theories based on things we cannot observe at all, coherently or otherwise, like strings ot multiverses, so your point would be really moot even if it made sense.

      Fourth, QM might be ontic. There is a LOT of discussion in science regarding the interpretation of QM and its one problem that many scientists are pondering about. Clearly you are 30 years out of date and still think the Copenhagen interpretation is the o ly game in town, in spite of its problems.

      I don't think Feser or philosophers in general will be out of a job any time soon... nor is physics destroying churches. Sorry to spoil your delusions.

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    7. Good luck making any sense of physics as saying anything truthful about the natural world without metaphysics.

      Anyone who thinks they can simply doesn't know what metaphysics even is.

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    8. Slavo Zizek talks about the "ontological catastrophe" by which he means as I get it so far -- that there is a break between the reality of the hard sciences and consciousness--that slicing and dicing QEM will not get anywhere further. The bottom has been reached by physics as far as explanation of the total reality is concerned. You might look it up for your own take.

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  9. The fact that physics "confines its attention to those aspects of nature susceptible of an exact mathematical treatment" is what makes it possible to discern opinions from reproducible facts.

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    1. Aside from the obvious fact that your statement is not a "reproducible fact" either, Ed isn't saying that physics shouldn't confine itself to those aspects. He is saying that from the fact it does, it doesn't follow that all the other fields of knowledge have to do so as well.

      In fact they shouldn't. Just like you did when you are made - unconsciously, but that's your issue- a philosophical argument, namely that the distinction you mentioned is what separates fact from opinion, or the necessarily logically prior claim you have to make that we should care about such a difference, etc, all of which are not "reproducible facts" subject to mathematical treatment.

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    2. You use "The fact that..." then proceed to say something that isn't a "reproducible fact", proving that what isn't "susceptible of an exact mathematical treatment" doesn't mean it is mere opinion.

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  10. Isn't this just squeezing mysticism into the gaps of physics where we don't yet know the answers?

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    1. Not really. Ed is saying that the scientific method deal with abstractions with only quantitative content, so while it make it very sucessful in doing what it does the method is by itself incapable of adressing all of reality, meaning that the materialist who defend that the results of physics describe reality completely are mistaken. In really, the materialist need to add several metaphysical pressupositions in order for the method to say anything metaphysical, one can't pretend that science is saying what the materialism is saying.

      So the whole idea that whatever mysticism means it is something smuggled in into physics while materialism is a honest interpretation is by itself just a superstition, every interpretation will add to the results of physics assumptions that can't be given by the scientific method.

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    2. I suppose it could be taken like that, but I'm not sure if it's entirely accurate. I think if Dr. Feser were arguing that things that could, in theory, be explained by physics could also (or only) be explained by mysticism, then that argument might hold some water. But, as far as I take it, that is not what Dr. Feser is arguing. His point, as illustrated in the example about the perfect geometric circles, is that while physics does an excellent job describing in mathematical terms phenomena of the physical world, it neither perfectly explains them nor (except in more recent times) has ever claimed to perfectly predict events, only provide a model for what should happen. Hence, deviations from the model can occur, as I think we would both agree, even though we would also agree that, in general, the models can also be accurate to an extraordinary degree. So to conclude, I think what Dr. Feser is saying is that even physics, if it could talk, would agree that the mathematical model doesn't always fully explain events, indicating that it does not fully encapsulate reality (as in the case of the perfect geometric circle, which exists only in the metaphysical (or mystical) realm). If physics isn't addressed at finding out whether material reality as all that exists, why should we take the word of physicists who claim that material reality *is* all that exists, given that their subject material does not even begin to enter that wheelhouse?

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    3. Nope, its that physics can't tell us the answers. Metaphysics is not mysticism, otherwise you'd have to claim that physics being able to tell us truths about the natural world is grounded in mysticism.

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  11. The founders of modern physics, especially Heisenberg and Bohr, would agree:

    “...the natural laws formulated mathematically in quantum theory no longer deal with the elementary particles themselves but with our knowledge about them. Nor is it any longer possible to ask whether or not these particles exist in space and time objectively, since the only processes we can refer to as taking place are those which represent the interplay of particles with some other physical system, e.g., a measuring instrument. Thus, the objective reality of the elementary particles has been strangely dispersed, not into the fog of some new ill-defined or still unexplained conception of reality, but into the transparent clarity of a mathematics that no longer describes the behavior of the elementary particles but only our knowledge of this behavior. The atomic physicist has had to resign himself to the fact that his science is but a link in the infinite chain of man's argument with nature, and that it cannot simply speak of nature "in itself". Science always presupposes the existence of man and, as Bohr has said, we must become conscious of the fact that we are not merely observers but also actors on the stage of life…”

    Werner Heisenberg, The Physicist’s Conception of Nature (London, 1958)

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  12. Dr. Feser, I am curious what you make of recent attempts to revive dialectical materialism and achieve a type of “anti-reductive materialism.” Adrian Johnston is one such philosopher who has openly stated his project draws on Aristotelian hylomorphism while rejecting a return to teleology and making sure to maintaining an Hegelian-Marxist brand of materialism. (https://www.amazon.com/Prolegomena-Any-Future-Materialism-Diaeresis/dp/0810140624/ref=nodl_). How should we go about challenging this more nuanced type of materialism?

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  13. Very uneducated post, you assume that there are others subject where it didn't get As now, when we observe that such subjects simply disappear (vitalism...) Quite sad.

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    1. Very educated post, Anon! Thanks for your contribution!

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  14. Very cool post. On the other day i read a post from a philosopher about Descartes and his view of physics. The father of modern philosophy was pretty disturbed by the disagreements that keep appearing on scholastic philosophy so he looked up to mathematics to create a diferent way of studying physics that would generate simple and certain truths about nature by using few assumptions, just like mathematics.

    As is argued on the post, Descartes idea ignored that mathematics is so sucessful because it never deals with reality but only with a feel abstracted characteristics it has. The mathematician created his certitude, so to speak*. Descartes tried to do the same with physics but his method also only deal with abstractions, even if less that math, and so he also could not give a complete description of reality by studying physics.

    In fact, as also explained, Descartes dreadful res cogita and his view of God were not things he placed there just to avoid censorship or because he was a dumb catholic, his system created questions that could not be explained by his method so his aim of a complete picture of reality needed also certain philosophical assumptions.

    *not that math is necessarily just convention, of course

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  15. (Cont)
    Except that Descartes was explicity that his view of matter was drawn not by physics but by his philosophical especulation, so he never tried to pretend that he was not doing metaphysics before interpreting physics, so he was better that our average materialist.

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  16. Read this this morning.

    "The pope went on to suggest that the exclusive pursuit of scientific knowledge without a corresponding search for meaning and contemplation of deeper truths leaves a void easily filled by superstition."

    Sounds like the The Last Superstition...just saying.

    Cheers.

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  17. John Digregorio May 24, 2022 at 8:17 AM

    "The founders of modern physics, especially Heisenberg and Bohr, would agree:

    '...the natural laws formulated mathematically in quantum theory no longer deal with the elementary particles themselves but with our knowledge about them. Nor is it any longer possible to ask whether or not these particles exist in space and time objectively, since the only processes we can refer to as taking place are those which represent the interplay of particles with some other physical system, e.g., a measuring instrument. ...' "


    That is a quote that deserves all the attention it has gotten, and deserves periodic re-presentation.

    Atoms at least, however, seem to have a rather substantial reality, as we all recall from seeing this famous video. If any rear-guard argument were to be made in an attempt to salvage some aspect of the billiard ball materialism model of reality, this old video would deserve inclusion for its polemical utility if for no other reason.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oSCX78-8-q0

    What exact form the elementary constituents that make up the atom have "when no one is looking" is another matter ... no pun intended. And I guess electrons don't really spin according to the latest YouTube contributions. And electricity does not really "flow".

    So, I'm adrift. Everything I was taught with such assurance in high school and college those decades ago ...

    I guess that goes for almost any subject; including, my childhood favorite, the archeology of the earliest settled communities and civilizations.

    Great post. Great comments. Real philosophy.

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  18. DNW,
    That IBM video is not "showing" atoms in the conventional sense of the word "show". It's showing current density variations (clicks in a detector) that correlate to applied voltages in the tip of a scanning tunneling microscope. Any "thing" that exhibits an interference pattern in a double slit experiment is by definition quantum mechanical and non-visualizable (not accessible to the senses, even enhanced senses through an optical microscope, because they're not "there" in the conventional sense). Photons, electrons, atoms and even molecules fall into this category.

    Another part of the quote that's important is "...Science always presupposes the existence of man..." Science does not explain existence; existence is a precondition of science. To "explain" existence you got to go to theology.

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    1. Interference patterns may be what are being pictured, but something is producing the interference, and in the years since that particular video was released, many others showing individual atoms being relocated on a surface using the same device have appeared. Unfortunately, the classic video of them being dragged across a surface, replete with sound effects, did not appear during my cursory search. There is however something moving, being dragged, "mechanically" by electromagnetic means across a flat grid-like structure: from one surface field location to another, by all appearances.

      It seems that something is there: something tangible and with enough internal integrity to resist disintegrating as it is dragged from one location to another.

      Frankly, I guess I'm going to have to take yet another dive into what is at least standard current introductory physics. Can't say I'm particularly looking forward to it.

      I still have not come to terms with action at a distance, the observer effect, or any of the paradoxes. I have never been able to escape the feeling that despite all the genius brought to bear, and all the manifest utility of the science, these paradoxes are nonetheless the result of some problematical initial framing or modelling that radically misconstrues the nature of "the thing" being considered.

      I'd much rather - I admit- think that we are getting only a puzzling and misleading, however useful, slice of the overall picture; than to have to accept a brute fact ultimate weirdness.

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    2. By the way: going into my old files I found a download of the specific video I had in mind, and then tracked it by title to YouTube.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQ0NLL_b0RQ

      It makes clear - at least in one description of the two given - that in accordance with your general point regarding the system used, the sound they are relying in order to help find the "happy spot" is generated by a change in the electrical current they are using to move the atoms; and not from some amplified or computer interpreted scraping or tearing noise generated by the actual movement of the atoms across the atomic surface.

      Of course, then, at 50 seconds of the same video, a tech goes on to describe the sound as if it is generated by the molecule dragging along the surface, and not - again as your general point suggested - as an artifact produced by the very system used to perform the operation.

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  19. When we talk about numbers we are discussing quantities. So if matter is described as quantities, then we should ask "quantities of what?" It is no good to answer "quantities of matter," because then we are saying that matter is quantities of quantities of quantities of quantities of quantities... ad infinitum

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  20. DNW,

    "...I still have not come to terms with action at a distance..." Good. You shouldn't. It's nonsense on stilts. What you have to come to terms with is that the clicks, and pattern of clicks, in the detector in a quantum mechanical experiment are not caused by classical particles or waves that have a trajectory, a "reality" between measurements. Nature just isn't so. If nature was classical the computer chips we're using to write comments on this blog wouldn't work at all! These papers are in this spirit.

    https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.205.5140&rep=rep1&type=pdf

    https://arxiv.org/pdf/1311.5253.pdf

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    1. We give an introduction to the QBist interpretation of quantum mechanics. We note that it removes the paradoxes, conundra, and pseudo-problems that have plagued quantum foundations for the past nine decades. As an example, we show in detail how it eliminates quantum "nonlocality".

      Well now. That ceratinly looks promising.
      Thanks.

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    2. Well, I started off with the shorter, second offering.

      And apart from the somewhat annoying pronoun gender convention shift undertaken for whatever reason, there was quite a bit of interest in it.

      Although I have no credentials for issuing this opinion, I would agree with the authors that Quantum Bayesianism is indeed probably a step too far and too big a price to pay for those who would go so far as, but not beyond, what they claim to be the hints left by the Copenhagen interpretation: That is to say, an explicit epistemic humility with regard to the subject under study - acknowledging the crucial role of apparatus, and the fact that what is being "read off", as Ed would say, is not nature in itself, but the gauges and the readers understanding of their meaning. In a rough manner of speaking.

      However, I think that there is a more classically philosophical issue which the authors will have to address. Meaning, an issue involving the critical analysis of predicate assumptions.

      One can accept, for the sake of argument, I suppose, what seems to be a radical subjectivity on the part of the observer. Especially if the observer is alone and we are just concerned with the stories the subject tells "herself". Which is not to deny whatever else they are trying to say; just to sidestep it for the moment.

      But given that premise of an agent dependent reality, how do we wind up here?

      "An agent-dependent reality is constrained by the fact that different agents can communicate their experience to each other, limited only by the extent that personal experience can be expressed in ordinary language. Bob’s verbal representation of his own experience can enter Alice’s, and vice-versa. In this way a common body of reality can be constructed, limited only by the inability of language to represent the full flavor — the “qualia” — of personal experience."

      "Constrained by"? There seems to be some pretty obvious question begging going on here which assumes that there is an objective and in-common field or venue in which these subjectivities [or agents] work, and about which, they can meaningfully communicate sense making propositions to one another. The term, "one another", itself, seemingly signifying an opening for the application of a universal term which itself presupposes an objective "out there" about which objectively like-kinds can in principle communicate..

      Now, I have just gone through this quickly and will have to read it more patiently. But that is what seemed to jump out at me.

      Perhaps, I missed something. As I have no ego investment at all in this to this point, I cannot say that I would be disturbed to find out that I had.

      If I had though, I would like the authors to be able to explain to me exactly what it was that I missed with regard to the implications of their assumption that a preexisting field in which these communications take place, is a [particular] subject-independent fact.

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    3. DNW,
      The context of these papers is using physics to explain the results of measurements. The "agent-dependent reality" does not mean the agent should walk around believing that the building that houses his apparatus isn't there when he's not looking at it; or that his wife doesn't exist when he's at work; or that the Trinitarian God of Christianity did not create all things ex-nihilo. It does mean that the results of the experiment he set up to measure only some values (eigenvalues) corresponding to only some properties of a system apply to that system only when the agent becomes aware of those results whether directly or through another agent he trusts (see Wigner's Friend). Physics is not and cannot be ontological. It can be very useful but it cannot be fundamental.

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    4. DNW,

      The "Anonymous" above is me..

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    5. John Digregorio on May 28, 2022 at 10:41 AM

      DNW,

      The "Anonymous" above is me.."


      Oh, OK. Hi.

      Yeah, so I reread what I wrote a couple of times; and then I reread what you as Anonymous had written. And I did not see that I had quite taken my objections to - i.e., my characterization of either the mental state or the world-domain/reality framing of - the Quantum Bayesian subject's reality so far as to precipitate the response in particular ... as opposed to, say, as a more general observation by someone on the matter which required no specific response.

      What I am getting at is that I did not think that with any of the propositions or descriptions I mooted, I was attributing a quasi-solipsistic reality to the Bayesian subject. Nor, necessarily, any form of idealism.

      What I did earlier see, and could not, and cannot yet see my way past, was that reality gap between the ostensibly communicating Quantum Bayesian subjects Alice and Bob (or whatever) that seemed to neither posit nor admit any mind independent reference point through which to ground the ostensive references between the subjects generating them, and who were reportedly as trusting each other as a condition for the success of this communication.

      Now, I can see some of what is being suggested there as fitting into a school of phenomenological anthropology; or, as being laid out as part of an epistemic theory.

      And of course the idea that our knowledge of the physical phenomena under scrutiny will be conditioned in whole or in part by the apparatus which we are using, is completely unobjectionable.

      What I don't see however, is how the Quantum Bayesian subjects in principle communicate, rather than in some sense simply "create", if incidentally, the reality to which they supposedly refer. Where is this reality about which Alice supposedly conveys information to Bob?

      Phenomenological bracketing is fine. And as a social theory of knowledge, as per, say for instance, Peter Berger's social construction of reality, that kind of stance is one thing.

      But as you are probably pounding the table and shouting, "that is not what this theory is about".

      Well, that is what I am asking of the author of the paper. What, is it, exactly, about?

      Where is this field in which Alice and Bob operate? Is it there as a mind-independent reality apart from either of them? If it comes into existence through their participation, by what means and by reference to what do they communicate their realities?

      And what is this business about "trust"?

      Isn't that precisely the opposite of what all communication in physics is supposed to be based on?: that skeptical reproducibility available to any observer?

      Again, I'll reread it after the holiday.

      But I thought the fact that you had troubled yourself to follow-up, deserved an acknowledgement.

      Have a good holiday.

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    6. DNW,
      "...What I don't see however, is how the Quantum Bayesian subjects in principle communicate, rather than in some sense simply "create", if incidentally, the reality to which they supposedly refer. Where is this reality about which Alice supposedly conveys information to Bob?..."

      "...A measurement does not, as the term unfortunately suggests, reveal a pre-existing state of affairs. It is an action on the world by an agent that results in the creation of an outcome— a new experience for that agent..."
      An Introduction to QBism with an Application to the Locality of Quantum Mechanics
      Christopher A. Fuchs, N. David Mermin, Ruediger Schack

      The reality Alice and Bob communicate is what their respective detectors did. That's it. Quantum mechanics resulted from Heisenberg intentionally dispensing with the "backstory" (what caused the click). The result of the experiment is all and if you take a "backstory" literally you don't get quantum mechanics and you can't coherently model the results of experiments. The quantum revolution is now 100 years old and has been 100% correct in modeling the results of experiments. No rival theory is even on the radar screen. Nevertheless, many, if not most, physicists are really uncomfortable with classical physics being totally unable to correctly model the results of all the experiments that need quantum mechanics. Perhaps it's because, as Heisenberg said, "...The atomic physicist has had to resign himself to the fact that his science is but a link in the infinite chain of man's argument with nature, and that it cannot simply speak of nature "in itself"..." Many, if not most, physicists consider themselves the high priests of the modern world. They don't like being relegated.

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    7. I should add that many "lay" people who consider physicists the high priests of the modern world don't want their high priests relegated either.

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  21. Hi Ed,

    I think you make a valid point when you argue that modern science, with its mathematical description of physical reality, omits something vital: it fails to explain the materiality of physical objects, and it is incapable of accounting for their subjective qualities. The limitations here are self-imposed: the very language which scientists use to describe the world is formal and objective.

    However, I don't think Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) philosophy gets us out of this mess. A-T analyzes physical entities into two components: prime matter and substantial form. The former is pure passive potency, and as such, utterly devoid of qualities of any sort; while the latter is said to be fully present in even the smallest part of a physical object: the hairs on my head are fully human, for instance. Neither component can account for the simple fact that bodies are extended in space and time. And neither matter nor form account for qualia: prime matter has no positive qualities whatsoever, while substantial form, insofar as it can be fully grasped by an immaterial intellect (in particular, by the intellect of God, Who is Pure Act) cannot contain any irreducibly subjective qualities - otherwise one could pose the dilemma, "Does God know what it is like to be a bat?" So it seems that according to A-T, substantial form must be capable of being grasped in third-person terms.

    One could of course argue that it is simply a basic fact (a brute fact?) about material objects that they have irreducibly subjective properties, but that's neutral monism, not A-T.

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    1. Well, you seem to have not bothered with accidental forms, of which Aristotle speaks plenty. Colors, tastes, etc imply such accidental forms.

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    2. Yes, and to add to the above comment, Aristotelian epistemology allows that the same species of accident is present both in the observer and the observed in the act of sensing.

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  22. It isn't that there is no mind-independent reality, it's that there are no reality-independent minds. As for the existence of a 'correct' metaphysical interpretation, the map isn't the territory.

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  23. Guys, can someone explain why people brag so much that 'evolutionary theory' ''refuted'' final causes in nature?

    I was hearing a podcast these days. An alleged philosophy student talked about the four causes and said that "medieval grind philosophers try the last efforts save final causes presenting it in a more humble way".

    Given that context, what I really want to know is why the heck people present this so vehemently? I mean, I never really believed - or cared - about that kind of allegations because to me they're simply ridiculous so I never really went beyond that.

    Can someone explain to me, sincerely, why people said that? What's the force of the argument? Because maybe I'm just too ignorant to understand it. But really, what's the force of the argument, and why do people affirm that so much?

    Like I've said, I never really even bothered to that claim - not only because these guys make teleological claims 24/7 or that it's hard enough to swallow the fact that natural selection is blind - but because, it seems ridiculous to affirm that because we get in here by pure randomness or whatever we don't have any teleology. To see that we have teleology, just a simple look at animals working - even unconsciously - to perform better and breed, and achieve the best they can do in their lives given their limitations. If this is not teleology, what is it?

    But like I've said, maybe I'm unaware of their arguments. So, honestly, can someone explain to me why people claim that evolution banishes final causes like it's some ultimate truth? Because to affirm something bold as that, they must have some really strong argument.

    May God bless us all!

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    1. @ Tadeo,

      "So, honestly, can someone explain to me why people claim that evolution banishes final causes like it's some ultimate truth?"

      My pride has taken a hit because I can't explain it, and I even like the theory of evolution.

      I wrote that with a smile, which, hopefully, let's me off the hook for making what could be seen as a prideful statement (according to C. S. Lewis who was only an Uncle of the Church).

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    2. The objection relies on a deficient understanding of "teleology." People have all kinds of weird ideas about teleology - that it implies that everything in the universe is designed by God to benefit humanity, that all beings in the universe relate to each other like different organs in a body, that everything consciously works towards some goal such that, and so on. When you think of teleology in these ways, it becomes easy to dismiss it as being "anti-science."

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    3. People have all kinds of weird ideas about teleology - that it implies that everything in the universe is designed by God to benefit humanity,...that everything consciously works towards some goal

      While their view of teleology is deficient, I don't think that saying so is adequate to the problem. If - as they claim - humans were not designed by an intelligent being to behave in certain kinds of behavior, and instead humans were "merely" the product of random chance events, (I know, the "merely" is itself problematic if God created the universe, that's why it's in quotes), that would seem to hold the consequence that EVEN IF there is a kind of teleology by which we can state what kinds of behavior will be more "successful" for humans in terms of nature (i.e. in terms of living long and passing on genes to offspring) can hold no moral imperative on us. If, for example, (under the random hypothesis) a person simply decide that he doesn't care to be successful in THAT sense, he could go about any or all sorts of bad behavior with no moral consequence, because there would BE nothing of moral consequence in humanity to begin with. It takes something more than nature with random action to generate moral obligation. The teleology that is involved in rocks falling, water evaporating, and plants striving toward the light are not moral demands on them, and if ALL teleology is like that, then there are no moral obligations on humans (not even ones they accept by consent, perhaps - for I don't see how one could argue each person "should" satisfy his promises if nothing underpins morality).

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    4. @ Tadeo,

      It seems as if you've answered your own question when you claim you find it "hard enough to swallow the fact that natural selection is blind". Whatever makes you think that is probably also the reason why evolution refutes teleology.

      Regarding "these guys make teleological claims 24/7", that is just because human minds find it convenient to refer to things using teleology-based language, not because scientists think teleology is a real thing.

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    5. @anonymous your contribution adds nothing to the discussion than just wandering the flag around the problem and pretending to answer it.

      What I really want to know is if there is some argument that really puts teleology in check rather than just an internal dogma - that's why I said it's hard to swallow because not even the people in biology accept that as a 100% sure thing.

      And I just can't see how appealing the 'useful fiction' trick can help you cast any doubt on it. It's not because some groups of people claim that it's this way that it really is this way.

      So, one more time, if there is some rational argument or a philosophical argument that - added to the fact of evolution - makes teleology suspect THAT'S what I want to learn - what claims or arguments makes this so granted. Because for people to really believe that there must be some strong argument.

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    6. I think most arguments about teleology boil down to disagreements about creation, especially if there is such a thing as creation. If one party believes our existence was created and the other party takes our existence as simple brute fact with no "explanation" allowed, then it's not likely there will be agreement on any fundamental issues.

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    7. @ Tadeo,

      "not even the people in biology accept that [natural selection is blind] as a 100% sure thing."

      Sure they do. (Assuming 100% sure means very, very sure indeed.)

      "if there is some rational argument or a philosophical argument that - added to the fact of evolution - makes teleology suspect THAT'S what I want to learn"

      This is a bit like asking why mechanical faults, bad weather, and pilot error make the idea that gremlins cause plane crashes suspect. 'Suspect' would be an understatement! You'd need very strong evidence *for* gremlins in order to get anyone to accept their existence.

      Anyway, I'm not an expert but I'd say it's simply that the mechanism of evolution by natural selection leaves no room in which teleology could operate. That is, if it's not operating on the mutations, and it's not operating on the selection, what is it doing?

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    8. @anonymous

      "Sure they do"

      Taking only the opinion of your ilk as valid is a sordid argument. And you know that's not true - you just need to read other work and there's at least some of them out there. Just a tip: if you just get a quick read in bibliographical reference of Ed's books, you will find some people (or they're not 'qualified' enough for you?)

      "This is a bit like asking why mechanical faults, bad weather, and pilot error make the idea that gremlins cause plane crashes suspect. 'Suspect' would be an understatement! You'd need very strong evidence *for* gremlins in order to get anyone to accept their existence."

      In the first place, you and everyone that's not a child know that gremlins are not real, so treating this comparison to final causes is just a feeble attempt to demoralize the idea - an idea that's certainly more rational and plausible than gremlins. So a little ground-foot rationale would be better than fabricating narrative examples that blur the point.

      "Anyway, I'm not an expert but I'd say it's simply that the mechanism of evolution by natural selection leaves no room in which teleology could operate. That is, if it's not operating on the mutations, and it's not operating on the selection, what is it doing?"

      So why do animals operate just the way they do in virtue of being the way that they are? Why do they have exactly these repertoires and characteristically ways of behavior? Even when they are small, they naturally grow to be this way - so if it is not something built-in them what is it? And to appeal to the fact of their origins, that's nothing to do and it really misses the point of the argument - for reasons that Ed addressed many times.

      The problem is you're focusing too much on the method and giving it almost invincible credibility- but that of course needs qualification.

      But I'm afraid this discussion will not lead anywhere but to disagreements and degradation of the comment section. So I will stop it here.

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    9. @ Tadeo

      "Taking only the opinion of your ilk as valid is a sordid argument. And you know that's not true - you just need to read other work and there's at least some of them out there. Just a tip: if you just get a quick read in bibliographical reference of Ed's books, you will find some people (or they're not 'qualified' enough for you?)"

      First of all, "your ilk" is unnecessary. I'm not citing opinion, I'm citing the current position of the field of evolutionary biology, which is based on evidence, not opinion. There may be a few individual biologists who disagree with this, but that is irrelevant, in the same way that the fact that there are a few geologists who are young Earth creationists does not alter the fact that the current position of the field of geology is that the Earth is billions of years old. If I said "even the people in geology don't accept the Earth is billions of years old as 100% true", that would be misleading.

      As for looking up references in Ed's books, it seems like that would be your job, not mine.

      "So why do animals operate just the way they do in virtue of being the way that they are? Why do they have exactly these repertoires and characteristically ways of behavior? Even when they are small, they naturally grow to be this way - so if it is not something built-in them what is it?

      It is something built-in, namely DNA. Life is just chemistry, which is in turn physics. It's all bottom-up processes, not top-down.

      "And to appeal to the fact of their origins, that's nothing to do and it really misses the point of the argument - for reasons that Ed addressed many times."

      In that case, I don't understand the argument. If life can be explained as a series of chemical processes, then I don't see the point of invoking superflous teleological explanations. And the logic of this is the same as the gremlins analogy.

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  24. This is from a good answer about evolution and the Fifth Way of St Thomashttps://www.hprweb.com/2015/02/reclaiming-the-fifth-way/

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  25. 1. On the contrary, qua abstractions they [the abstractions of physics] are even less promising candidates for mind-independence than the ordinary perceptual world is.

    My apologies to Leibniz, but this strikes me as confusing the abstraction with the abstracted from. I don't think science's formulation in terms of idealisations and abstractions makes the objects of science any more mind-dependent than our ordinary talk of dogs as instances of the abstraction dog makes dogs mind-dependent.

    2. It would be to see through the illusion that metaphysical conclusions can be read off from the findings of modern science.

    Possibly. But to write off said findings---they, or at least their experimental results, are now among the appearances---is to ignore certain aspects of nature just as much as Galileo and his followers are said to have done. Galileo no doubt believed that mathematics was a firmer foundation for his investigations than the metaphysical thought of his time. The quality of proof was better. I guess it's a matter of upbringing and taste.

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  26. "This is like a student who ensures that he’ll get A’s in all his classes simply by avoiding any class he knows he’s not likely to get an A in."

    This is a good analogy, but it seems to be ripped out of its proper historical context. The student avoided those classes not because there was anything wrong with him. He was capable of getting a good grade. He avoided those classes because an A was worthless in those subjects. The grades were assigned arbitrarily. There was no basis for a right or wrong answer. It boiled down to either dogma or cultural acquiescence. The teachers were not actually interested in truth but in intellectual subservience. So yes, those classes are to be avoided except for fun and relaxation.

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  27. I think it is a given that materialism is one metaphysical theory among others. After all, all the data we have (including the qualitative ones) are compatible with Berkeley's subjective idealism or with, say, the computer simulation hypothesis.

    Now I tend to agree that the mathematical structure of physics makes anti-materialism (slightly) more plausible. What I don't understand is why a theist should believe in materialism. God's perfection entails economy in the sense of not making useless stuff. So, I argue, theism implies that God would not have created a material world as a medium to realise his will, simply because his will can be directly realised.

    If the reader is a theistic materialist, I would very much wish to know why God would choose to create a material world ontologically apart from our experience of it. I notice that the very notion of "mind-independence" makes no sense in theism: Even if materialism is true the material world is not mind-independent, because it is wholly grounded in God's mind.

    - Dianelos

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    1. @ Dianelos

      "God's perfection entails economy in the sense of not making useless stuff."

      If perfection entails not making useless stuff, then it must all the more entail not making imperfect stuff. The fact that the world is imperfect thus seems to rule out it being created by a perfect God. Also, isn't the overwhelming majority of the universe "useless stuff" in the sense of being useless to human life?

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    2. @Dianelos

      It sorta depends on the view of matter that one has. If it is closer to the modern view of it as a type of bunch of little particles
      with quantitative properties only that are arranged in ways that make they look like diferent objects and beings(think on the average reducionist materialist), them yea, it seems kinda useless on theism to have it. Of course, one could argue that we tend to think that matter exists, so God should create it to not deceive us or that the Incarnation seems to make less sense on idealism, but this is probably not enough to justify it. The fact that our cognition works as it does instead of bring like what angels have also seems weird to me on idealism, thought.

      But if one understand matter as understood by the, as Ed says, ur-platonists, as a sorta of pure potentiality that is combined with forms to individualize and limit these forms into concrete(but still dependent on God) particulars, them it seems to me that matter is necessary. Of course, since on this view pure matter is just a useful fiction, it can only exists along with form, them it is closer to idealism that one usually grant.

      @Anon

      Imperfect things reflect the perfection of God, so they, while not very useful(He is still happy alone), they are cool, so they are not useless.

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    3. @ Talmid

      Isn't an imperfect world better evidence for an imperfect God than for a perfect God? The only thing on God's CV is 'created an imperfect world'. 'Imperfect' means things like cancer, dementia and malaria, not just unreachable but cool-looking distant galaxies. I think most people would happily lose some uninhabited distant galaxies in exchange for a cure for cancer.

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    4. Actually, it is precisely a imperfect God that would tend to look at this more antropocentric way and try to eliminate suffering and that is it. It is what a all-powerful good human would try to do. I mean, do you really think that the galaxies are worthless because we can't use they? Have you ever looked at the pictures or studied a few of the facts about they?

      If we look instead to the One whose "thoughts are not your thoughts" and who we have to admit that even terms like "loving" and "kind" can only describe in a analogical way, to this cosmic artist that see things so radically diferent from us, them things look kinda diferent. It takes some time to explain the thomistic defense of the old augustinian thesis that "God only alows a evil so He can take from it a greater good", so look up something like Dr. Feser article "The Thomistic Dissolution of the Logical Problem of Evil" or really most of the great classical theists treatment of the problem of evil for details.

      Notice that understanding this is diferent than accepting it, who knows if i could do it if i did not believe in Christ!

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    5. @ Talmid

      "Actually, it is precisely a imperfect God that would tend to look at this more antropocentric way and try to eliminate suffering and that is it."

      It seems to me to be an open-and-shut case that 'perfect' and 'creates world full of suffering' are incompatible. But maybe that's just because I'm an imperfect human.

      "God only alows a evil so He can take from it a greater good"

      I'm not convinced that anyone really believes this - how is the greater good served by parasitic worms which cause blindness? But anyway, if evil is there to bring about a greater good, shouldn't we praise evil people for helping to bring about this greater good? Unless, that is, the greater good consists of our efforts in trying to prevent evil? But surely, the evil then exists only in order for us to try and prevent it, which seems completely pointless and gratuitous. Not what I'd expect from a perfect God.

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