Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Three Words That Materialists Find It So Hard To Say "I Don't Know"

After giving quite a long, rambling,  somewhat snarky, and quite typically materialist debunking of the idea of free will, in which he makes any number of quite firm, quite definite, definitive, statements about the nature of consciousness and the origins of our thoughts,  Jerry Coyne did something rather weird and clueless.  He put up a slide of his proposal for a replacement for the idea of free will.

Modest Proposal

Replace notion of free will with this statement:

“My decision was caused by internal forces I do not understand”

Having suffered through his presentation, over a number of slides containing both logical errors and some pretty unfounded assumptions to back up his very definite claims about free will* being a delusion, Coyne's insistence that everyone else admit that they don't know where their decisions come from is way past the limit.   Apparently Coyne and his fellow "incompatiblists" know where peoples' thinking comes from but other people can't possibly know anything about the experience that they have.   Considering that everything that anyone can know about someone else's experience of their minds comes from their articulation of it,  if you begin by impeaching their reliability, your entire effort is short-circuited.   Coyne's proposal makes everything else said in the discussion rather ridiculous.  In the end, his big fight with Dennett and other "compatibilists" at the end of three and a half hours of talk boils down to whether or not they're going to tell a useful lie about free will which none of them really believes is possible, because people will be inclined to act badly if they believe they don't have free will.

One of the remarkable things about the situation I just described was that not one of the other materialist big thinkers seems to notice that basic and fatal incoherence of Coyne's presentation.  I would find it hard to imagine the same number of elite lawyers getting together to contentiously discuss something in which at least one of them wouldn't almost immediately jump on that point  to draw attention to the incoherence of that conclusion with the case that was just made and to blow it out of the water.   But these academics apparently didn't even notice the problem that was basic to all of what they said.

Which only goes to support my contention that materialists are like all other fundamentalists, true believers who mistake what they believe for knowledge.  And, as all materialists do, they exempt their ideas and their beliefs and their own minds from the effects of their ideology.

Their ideology is entirely founded in and dependent on the network of causality we all believe in, based on our observations of the physical world and, most importantly, comprise the total subject matter of science and on which all assertions of science, those which stand as reliably true and those discarded as mistaken are based in.  Considering how much of the materialist assertion on this topic is based on the least reliable or extremely young and largely untested areas called science, psychology, neuroscience,  considering the once accepted logical validity of that discarded science would seem to be wise.   I think the basic difference between materialists and most of humanity is in the ability to consider there might be more than the product of that analysis.  I think that is an ability which is trained out of us through the basic aspects of academic culture and, especially these days, the derisive coercion practiced by materialists.

After making several attempts to address the rest of what these materialists said, I'm going to take a different way, considering the excerpt from Eddington posted yesterday.   By free will, I mean free will is an aspect of our minds that operates free of a network of causation but which is able to have effects that we would analyze as a network of physical causation.   To use Eddington's analogy of a fish net that can't catch fishes less than two inches long,  the materialists' frame of reference,  consisting of a rigid network of causal relations and admitting only things conceivable in those terms,  it couldn't contain the consideration of such an entity.

Like  Biblical fundamentalists who begins by choosing their own mechanism for catching what is possible - their imagined perfect original text of The Bible which contains God's blueprint for reality - materialists merely replace that with their own imaginary mechanism, the perfect net of causality which holds together and contains all of reality.  In neither case does what they imagine is so comprehensive in its ability actually exist even as a single definable, coherent idea among fundamentalists or materialists.  There is no perfect original text of The Bible, there is no perfect all encompassing and totally comprehended scheme of causation.

Given the little that is definitely known about questions of free will and consciousness, what these materialists have to say on the topic is almost entirely speculations based on their assumptions, not on evidence.  I'm sure that many if not all of them would mock what their ideological opponents said out of other assumptions as being "theology", misapplying the word as atheists will at least nineteen out of twenty times.  But their common practice of doing exactly the same thing is held to be "different".  It generally is with fundamentalist ideologues.

What I am talking about when I talk about free will can only be imperfectly defined or described because our language is caught up in our observation of the physical universe which we have been thoroughly trained to see and analyze in terms of causation.  Every single metaphor I've tried to apply to it is deceptive because it is of a physical entity or force that is deemed to be part of a causal network.

For these materialists who claim to believe that people are no different from other animals to believe that human minds are capable of understanding their own nature in terms of human language is a rather interesting phenomenon.   So much of their creed is based in people not understanding the nature of their own experience and their own thinking,  at least when it suits them to say that.   If the strangeness of a person's own experience to themselves is assumed it is a rather large leap for them to then assert an understanding of the minds of other people, only that is a power they have no problem with assuming they have by virtue of their higher erudition.

The existence of free will might be just a hard fact of human consciousness.  I believe it is.  We might be able to analyze those physical effects in the usual way because we can see them, either with our eyes or with the secondary analytic tools of mathematics, physics and other sciences.  But as to the connection between those physical acts and the mind that produced the decision to act in a way to cause those effects,  that is entirely invisible and the products of speculation.   If you have the predisposition, through your personal preference and academic training, to refuse to consider the possibility of anything other than through finding - or, I would assert, making up - causal relationships, you couldn't possibly find anything that can't be.   Your chosen net can't contain them.

Materialism, even in its latter day guises as "naturalism" or "physicalism" is a fundamentalist faith in the entirely human and, especially, the academically cultivated habits of considering all of reality as part of a causal network.  Pretending that mathematics, with its descriptive and abstract graphs and statistics, are a reproduction of all possibility is one of the most ingrained habits among scientists and the academics who aspire to scientific reliability.   Leaving aside the social and professional status one can gain from pretending this and the motives that generates,  it is an extremely bad idea to ignore that fact.

This topic is unusually productive of ironies and there is none so certain as that ignoring the very platform from which the discussion of consciousness  and our minds is made, confidently excluding ideas and  reported experiences as you go, making definite statements in the way that was done by those materialists makes the results less likely to be accurate.   As Eddington said, in the next section of that chapter "Generalisations that can be reached epistemologically have a security which is denied to those that can only be reached empirically   Ignoring that even the most detailed and enduring uses of causality couldn't address the idea of free will might make your statements about it accepted by those who agree with you, they can't do much more than that.

I didn't find much of anything to agree with in the many hours of  repeatedly going over these discussions, other than the idea that people who are relieved of believing that they are morally obligated will be prone to being selfish and depraved  will be more inclined to do what they want to do not caring about their results and that the Libet experiments don't show what the popular atheists claim they do.  And I knew the second of those long ago.  Even Libet doesn't claim what can be read about his experiments all over the place.  And that his methodology is as flawed as every other experimental attempt in this area I'm aware of has been.  I'm unaware of Libet agreeing with that observation.

* Not to mention Coyne's straw man presentation of what "religious" people think on these topics, not that he was alone in doing that.  The entire series of discussions was haunted by the need to  turn an enormously complicated body of thought by religious thinkers into a parody created for the purpose of being dismissed.   That is a practice I associate with people having a bad argument that needs that kind of thing.

Note:  Coyne seems to have had  secondary agendas based in his CV and his side in extraneous issues.

Being a Darwinist as well as a materialist fundamentalist, Coyne resorts to the belief that our minds are the product of natural selection, something which is, as well, based in faith instead of science.   He shares that with at least two others at the table, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. It is a conjecture based on the belief that everything about us is the result of natural selection, though he gives himself a bit of an out by mentioning the possibility that aspects of our minds might be spandrels.   I suspect that he said that, as he did so much of what he said, to mock and provoke Dennett and possibly Dawkins.  I'd love to have known what went through their minds.  Richard Lewontin, who co-authored The Spandrels of San Marcos with Stephen J. Gould was Coyne's teacher, it is a direct challenge to the ultra adaptationist ideology championed by Dawkins and Dennett.   H. Allen Orr, one of Coyne's students wrote a major criticism of Dennett in which spandrels figured prominently and led to a rather heated and enlightening exchange  with Dennett which is well worth reading.  I will point out that Coyne doesn't match either his teacher or his student in maturity or intellectual rigor, both of whom are far more reasonable and modest in their thinking and discourse.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Every So Often You Just Have To Hear Hard Hearted Hannah

Belle Baker

From The Philosophy of Physical Science by Arthur Stanley Eddington: Chapter II Selective Subjectivism

Let us suppose that an ichthyologist is exploring the life of the ocean.  He casts a net into the water and brings up a fishy assortment.   Surveying his catch, he proceeds in the usual manner of a scientist to systematize what it reveals.  He arrives at two generalizations

(1)   No sea-creature is less than two inches long. 
(2)   All sea-creatures have gills.

These are both true of his catch, and he assumes tentatively that they will remain true however often he repeats it.

In applying this analogy,  the catch stands for the body of knowledge which constitutes physical science, and the net for the sensory and intellectual equipment which we use in obtaining it.  The casting of the net corresponds to observation;  for knowledge which has not been or could not be obtained by observation is not admitted into physical science.

An onlooker may object that the first generalization is wrong.  "There are plenty of sea-creatures under two inches long, only your net is not adapted to catch them."  The ichthyologist dismisses this objection contemptuously.  "Anything uncatchable by my net is ipso facto outside the scope of ichthyological knowledge, and is not part of the kingdom of fishes which has been defined as the theme of ichthyological knowledge.  In short, what my net can't catch isn't a fish."  Or- to translate the analogy - "If your are not simply guessing, you are claiming a knowledge of the physical universe discovered in some other way than by the methods of physical science  and admittedly unverifiable by such methods.  You are a metaphysician.  Bah!"  

The dispute arises, as many disputes do, because the protagonists are talking about different things. The onlooker has in mind an objective kingdom of fishes.  The ichthyologist is not concerned as to whether the fishes he is talking about form an objective or subjective class;  the property that matters is that they are catchable.  His generalization is perfectly true of the class of creatures he is talking about - a selected class perhaps, but he would not be interested in making generalizations about any other class.  Dropping analogy,  if we take observation as the basis of physical science, and insist that its assertions must be verifiable by observation, we impose a selective test on the knowledge which is admitted as physical.   The selection is subjective, because it depends on the sensory and intellectual equipment which is our means of acquiring observational knowledge.  It is to such subjectively-selected knowledge and to the universe which it is formulated to describe that the generalizations of physics - the so-called laws of nature - apply.  

It is only with the recent development of epistemological methods in physics that we have come to realize the far reaching effect of this subjective selection of its subject matter.  We may at first, like the onlooker, be inclined to think that physics has missed its way, and has not reached the purely objective world which, we take it for granted, it was trying to describe.  Its generalizations  if they refer to an objective world, are or may be rendered fallacious through the selection.  But that amounts to condemning observationally grounded science as a failure because a purely objective world is not reached by observation.  

Clearly an abandonment of the observational method of physical science is out of the question.  Observationally grounded science has been by no means a failure;  though we may have misunderstood the precise nature of its success.  Those who are dissatisfied with anything but a purely objective universe may turn to the metaphysicians, who are not cramped by the self-imposed ordinance that every assertion must be capable of submission to observation as the final Court of Appeal.  But we, as physicists, shall continue to study the universe revealed by observation and to make our generalizations about it; although we now know that the universe so reached cannot be wholly objective. Of course the great mass of physicists, who pay no attention to epistemology, would have gone on doing this in any case. 

Should we then ignore the onlooker with his suggestion of selection?  I think not;  though we cannot accept his remedy.  Suppose that a more tactful onlooker makes a rather different suggestion:  "I realize that you are right in refusing our friend's hypothesis of uncatchable fish, which cannot be verified by any tests you and I would consider valid.  By keeping to your own method of study,  you have reached a generalization of the highest importance - to fishmonger's who would not be interested in generalizations about uncatchable fish.  Since these generalizations are so important   I would like to help you.  You arrived at your generalizations by examining the net and the method of using it?"  

The first onlooker is a metaphysician who despises physics on account of its limitations; the second onlooker is an epistmologist who can help physics because of its limitations.  It is just because of the limited - some might say, the perverted - aim of physics that such help is possible.  The traditional method of systematic examinations of the data furnished by observation is not the only way of reaching the generalizations valued by physical science.  Some at least of these generalizations can also be found by examining the sensory and intellectual equipment used in observation. Epistemology thus presents physics with a new method of achieving its aims.  The development of relativity theory, and the transformation of quantum theory from an empirical to a rational theory are the outcome of the new method;  and in it is our great hope of further fundamental advances.  

Eddington was a bit overly idealistic in his description of scientists and the onlookers they so often reject a lot more rudely than that.  It's been my experience that it is a very rare scientist who has such a clear understanding of science and its inescapable limits, not to mention the humility to accept that their product is subjective and limited.  Most of the scientists I've read or encountered maintain an unbounded and all encompassing faith in the objective truth of what is presented as science by those people and institutions that they approve of, and their rejection of the idea that anything else could possibly "exist".  "Existence" in general use seems to mean "that which it is respectable to believe and which will not invoke our scorn".   Later in the book Eddington says some interesting things about the vaugery of the idea of "existence", maintaining that it is an obsession of philosophy but which doesn't have any real place or purpose in science.  Try telling that to the science blogging community.

Eddington was an idealist.  He had enormously important things to say about science and scientists but his ideal, while it might have applied to some, hardly applies to many of even the most august physical scientists today.  The culture of science has not kept up with the discoveries of physics in his generation.  I would point out that it certainly doesn't apply to those alleged sciences that you might expect would be most closely allied to epistemology.  Perhaps I'll get around to relating the story of the dead salmon whose brain activity showed up on an fMRI picture.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

About People Being Special and Thinking As Just Another Chemical Reaction

There is something so weird about listening to a bunch of university professors, active and retired, who have chosen to fly in from all over the country if not all over the world to attend a meeting  they've chosen to attend so they can assert that consciousness and free will are illusions.   It is especially funny when one of the great points they assert supports that is that people are no different from other animals, though I wonder why plants and members of other kingdoms are not included.  If consciousness and free will are the mere products of molecular actions then what makes what people do different from what coleus plants or viruses do?  I'd think it rather animalist to pretend that the chemical reactions in our brains are any different from the chemical reactions in plants that have far more observable effects.

And it's so funny to hear these great thinkers saying that what they're doing is no different from what animals do, when they have heard nothing of the POV of any species of animal on the topics that were chosen for the discussion from the people who chose to call the meeting and chose the cosy Inn in Western Massachusetts to hold the meeting  in.   I would imagine that they would chuckle and scoff at the passage in 2nd Timothy 1:9

He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time.

But what's the difference between that and what they believe about their own meeting?  I'd guess their gathering and meeting, the topics, the order of speaking, the things they said and even the words they would say them in would have been determined from the first conceivable moment of the Big Bang (that is until that cosmological idea is set aside for the next big thing).   But, then, so would some meeting of the Foot Washing Baptists in which they discussed that passage, only in the KJV, just as ordained by the same physical forces from the beginning of time. If all of what we do is predetermined, why is it wrong for the Baptists to do what comes Naturalistically any more than it does for the "Naturalists" do do what they are compelled by physics and chemistry to do.   It puts me in mind of something I once heard on a You Tube:

I've been to a skeptics convention and an exorcism and the exorcism was way more fun. 
John Safran

Listening to the "Moving Naturalism" sessions to report on them is painful.  I think I'm going to go look for a Santeria practitioner for relief.

Against Sociobiology 1975

This was a letter published in the New York Review of Books on November 13, 1975.  I was reminded of it, yet again, while reading about what might, at first, seem to be an unrelated slander against Gabby Giffords by the vile James Taranto.   A lot of what the signers of the letter warned of has come to be an article of faith, especially among the writers for the corporate media.  Only it is the successor of Sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, that is the form that this latest incarnation of eugenics and Social Darwinism takes today.  In that form eugenics is still alive and damaging lives today and the same lapses of scientific methods and requirements listed are, if anything, more widely accepted as "science" today.   Wilson has, in recent years, become something of an apostate from the "science" he helped found.  Richard Dawkins' books, especially The Selfish Gene, would probably be far more widely known and cited than Wilson's far more technical and difficult book.  I doubt many of the newspaper scribblers would have read it.

To the Editors:

Beginning with Darwin’s theories of natural selection 125 years ago, new biological and genetic information has played a significant role in the development of social and political policy. From Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” to Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey, and now E. O. Wilson, we have seen proclaimed the primacy of natural selection in determining most important characteristics of human behavior. These theories have resulted in a deterministic view of human societies and human action. Another form of this “biological determinism” appears in the claim that genetic theory and data can explain the origin of certain social problems, e.g., the suggestion by eugenicists such as Davenport in the early twentieth century that a host of examples of “deviant” behavior—criminality, alcoholism, etc.—are genetically based; or the more recent claims for a genetic basis of racial differences in intelligence by Arthur Jensen, William Shockley and others.

Each time these ideas have resurfaced the claim has been made that they were based on new scientific information. Yet each time, even though strong scientific arguments have been presented to show the absurdity of these theories, they have not died. The reason for the survival of these recurrent determinist theories is that they consistently tend to provide a genetic justification of the status quo and of existing privileges for certain groups according to class, race or sex. Historically, powerful countries or ruling groups within them have drawn support for the maintenance or extension of their power from these products of the scientific community. For example, John D. Rockefeller, Sr. said.

The growth of a large business is merely a survival of the fittest…. It is merely the working out of a law of nature and a law of God.

These theories provided an important basis for the enactment of sterilization laws and restrictive immigration laws by the United States between 1910 and 1930 and also for the eugenics policies which led to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazi Germany.

The latest attempt to reinvigorate these tired theories comes with the alleged creation of a new discipline, sociobiology. This past summer we have been treated to a wave of publicity and laudatory reviews of E. O. Wilson’s book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, including that of C. H. Waddington [NYR, August 7]. The praise included a front page New York Times article which contained the following statement

Sociobiology carries with it the revolutionary implication that much of man’s behavior toward his fellows…may be as much a product of evolution as is the structure of the hand or the size of the brain. [New York Times, May 28]

Such publicity lends credence to the assertion that “we are on the verge of breakthroughs in the effort to understand our place in the scheme of things” (New York Times Book Review, June 27). Like others before him, Wilson’s “breakthrough” is an attempt to introduce rigor and scope into the scientific study of society. However, Wilson dissociates himself from earlier biological determinists by accusing them of employing an “advocacy method” (deliberately selecting facts to support preconceived notions) generating unfalsifiable hypotheses. He purports to take a more solidly scientific approach using a wealth of new information. We think that this information has little relevance to human behavior, and the supposedly objective, scientific approach in reality conceals political assumptions. Thus, we are presented with yet another defense of the status quo as an inevitable consequence of “human nature.”

In his attempt to graft speculation about human behavior onto a biological core, Wilson uses a number of strategies and sleights of hand which dispel any claim for logical or factual continuity. Of the twenty-seven chapters of Sociobiology, the middle twenty-five deal largely with animals, especially insects, while only the first and last chapters focus on humans. Thus, Wilson places 500 pages of double column biology between his first chapter on “The Morality of the Gene” and the last chapter, “From Sociobiology to Sociology.” But Wilson’s claim for objectivity rests entirely upon, the extent to which his last chapter follows logically and inevitably from the fact and theory that come before. Many readers of Sociobiology, we fear, will be persuaded that this is the case. However, Wilson’s claim to continuity fails for the following reasons:

1) Wilson sees “behavior and social structure as ‘organs,’—extensions of the genes that exist because of their superior adaptive value.” In speaking of indoctrinability, for example, he asserts that “humans are absurdly easy to indoctrinate” and therefore “conformer genes” must exist. Likewise, Wilson speaks of the “genes favoring spite” and asserts that spite occurs because humans are intelligent and can fathom its selective advantages. Similar arguments apply to “homosexuality genes” and genes for “creativity, entrepreneurship, drive and mental stamina.” But there is no evidence for the existence of such genes. Thus, for Wilson, what exists is adaptive, what is adaptive is good, therefore what exists is good. However, when Wilson is forced to deal with phenomena such as social unrest, his explanatory framework becomes amazingly elastic. Such behavior is capriciously dismissed with the explanation that it is maladaptive, and therefore has simply failed to evolve. Hence, social unrest may be due to the obsolescence of our moral codes, for as Wilson sees it we still operate with a “formalized code” as simple as that of “members of hunter-gatherer societies.” Xenophobia represents a corresponding failure to keep pace with social evolution, our “intergroup responses…still crude and primitive.”

This approach allows Wilson to confirm selectively certain contemporary behavior as adaptive and “natural” and thereby justify the present social order. The only basis for Wilson’s definition of adaptive and maladaptive, however, is his own preferences. While he rejects the “advocacy approach” and claims scientific objectivity, Wilson reinforces his own speculations about a “human nature,” i.e., that a great variety of human behavior is genetically determined, a position which does not follow from his evidence.

2) Another of Wilson’s strategies involves a leap of faith from what might be to “what is.” For example, as Wilson attempts to shift his arguments smoothly from the nonhuman to human behavior, he encounters a factor which differentiates the two: cultural transmission. Of course, Wilson is not unaware of the problem. He presents (p. 550) Dobzhansky’s “extreme orthodox view of environmentalism”:

Culture is not inherited through genes; it is acquired by learning from other human beings…. In a sense human genes have surrendered their primacy in human evolution to an entirely new non-biological or superorganic agent, culture.

But he ends the paragraph saying “the very opposite could be true.” And suddenly, in the next sentence, the opposite does become true as Wilson calls for “the necessity of anthropological genetics.” In other words, we must study the process by which culture is inherited through genes. Thus, it is Wilson’s own preference for genetic explanations which is used to persuade the reader to make this jump.

3) Does Wilson’s analysis of studies in nonhuman behavior provide him with a basis for understanding human behavior? An appeal to the “continuity of nature” based on evolutionary theory will not suffice. While evolutionary analysis provides a model for interpreting animal behavior, it does not establish any logical connection between behavior patterns in animal and human societies. But Wilson requires such a connection in order to use the vast amounts of animal evidence he has collected. One subtle way in which Wilson attempts to link animals and humans is to use metaphors from human societies to describe characteristics of animal societies.

For instance, in insect populations, Wilson applies the traditional metaphors of “slavery” and “caste,” “specialists” and “generalists” in order to establish a descriptive framework. Thus, he promotes the analogy between human and animal societies and leads one to believe that behavior patterns in the two have the same basis. Also, institutions such as slavery are made to seem natural in human societies because of their “universal” existence in the biological kingdom. But metaphor and presumed analogy cannot be allowed to mask the absence of evidence.

4) Another way Wilson confronts the difficulties in making the jump from non-human to human societies is by the use of ad hoc arguments. For example, a major problem exists in Wilson’s emphasis on innate biology: how can genetic factors control behavior if social structure within a group can change rapidly over the course of just a few generations? Wilson, of course, does not deny the enormous flexibility and rapid change in human action. But Wilson admits that according to standard population genetics, this period is far too short for the changes observed. He turns instead to the “multiplier effect,” which is a concept borrowed from economics. He uses this “effect” in an attempt to show how small genetic changes can be amplified enormously in a limited time span. But nowhere does Wilson present any basis for introducing the multiplier. A crucial point in Wilson’s explanation remains purely speculative. Further he relies on the unproven assumption that genes for behavior exist.

5) Many of Wilson’s claims about human nature do not arise from objective observation (either of universals in human behavior or of generalities throughout animal societies), but from a speculative reconstruction of human prehistory. This reconstruction includes the familiar themes of territoriality, big-game hunting with females at home minding the kids and gathering vegetables (“many of the peculiar details of human sexual behavior and domestic life flow easily from this basic division of labor”—p. 568), and a particular emphasis on warfare between bands and the salutary advantages of genocide. But these arguments have arisen before and have been strongly rebutted both on the basis of historical and anthropological studies. (See, for instance, A. Alland, The Human Imperative or M. F. A. Montagu, Man and Aggression.)

What we are left with then is a particular theory about human nature, which has no scientific support, and which upholds the concept of a world with social arrangements remarkably similar to the world which E. O. Wilson inhabits. We are not denying that there are genetic components to human behavior. But we suspect that human biological universals are to be discovered more in the generalities of eating, excreting and sleeping than in such specific and highly variable habits as warfare, sexual exploitation of women and the use of money as a medium of exchange. What Wilson’s book illustrates to us is the enormous difficulty in separating out not only the effects of environment (e.g., cultural transmission) but also the personal and social class prejudice of the researcher. Wilson joins the long parade of biological determinists whose work has served to buttress the institutions of their society by exonerating them from responsibility for social problems.

From what we have seen of the social and political impact of such theories in the past, we feel strongly that we should speak out against them. We must take “Sociobiology” seriously, then, not because we feel that it provides a scientific basis for its discussion of human behavior, but because it appears to signal a new wave of biological determinist theories.

Elizabeth Allen, pre-medical student, Brandeis University; Barbara Beckwith, teacher, Watertown Public High School; Jon Beckwith, professor, Harvard Medical School; Steven Chorover, professor of psychology, MIT; David Culver, visiting professor of biology, Harvard School of Public Health, professor of biology, Northwestern; Margaret Duncan, research assistant, Harvard Medical School; Steven Gould, professor in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University; Ruth Hubbard, professor of biology, Harvard University; Hiroshi Inouye, resident fellow, Harvard Medical School; Anthony Leeds, professor of anthropology, Boston University; Richard Lewontin, professor of biology, Harvard University; Chuck Madansky, graduate student in microbiology, Harvard Medical School; Larry Miller, student, Harvard Medical School; Reed Pyeritz, doctor, Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, Boston; Miriam Rosenthal, research associate, Harvard School of Public Health; Herb Schreier, psy chiatrist, Massachusetts General Hospital. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Waist Deep: Wading Through Sludge of "Free Will" According to The "Free Thinkers"

I told you that I would write about the "Moving Naturalism Forward" discussions about free will and consciousness later this week and I still would like to go through it, thought the actual discussions aren't that interesting.  I've listened to them in total once and parts of them many times and am finding it hard going.  Not due to the complexity and originality of any arguments put forward but due to them being predictable, dogmatic and, I'm sorry, but rather thoroughly banal.  It's remarkably like listening to Biblical fundamentalists discussing evolution.   The central issue in seriously discussing evolution involves the fact that the account in Genesis can't be literally true without extensive redefinition of terms.  That is something that even serious thinkers among fundamentalists cannot do without purposely taking a devil's advocate role.  Though, I will have to say, I've seen more of a willingness to address the opposition on the part of some Biblical fundamentalists*.  

It is interesting that in having to deal with the necessarily deterministic consequences of their materialism, of having to face that many of the most important aspects of modern thought and life, not to mention traditional morality, are fatally damaged by that, they cover some ground that looks mightily like that covered by the earlier battles over predestination.  Though I'd expect they'd just hate that idea.

In listening to these materialists discussing free will and consciousness, there is another possibility and it is exactly on the definition of free will.  Since several of them give their definition of free will in the arguments, I'm going to start, not exactly with a definition but with a point.  Free will, in order to be free, cannot be the product of causality because causality would render it determined and not free.  Free will can't be addressed within the context of causality.   My conception of free will, incomplete and contingent, would hold that science cannot address it because the entire methodology of science is to find causal relationships and to place phenomena within them.   None of these materialists could discuss what I would hold is the only meaningful definition of free will within their ideological boundaries.  As such, everything they say about it begins by being rather beside the point and I'm left with attacking their ideas of a substitute "free will" created out of their particular backgrounds and preferences.   In retrospect, I think I could have predicted what some of those who I had never read on the subject would say.  The physicists seem to be far less inclined to find the biologists ideas convincing, though I was surprised to find some were inclined to agree with some of what the philosophers said**.   Though they don't seem to have anything that is really any better.

All of these people, who I would guess might welcome the designation of "free thinkers" come to the discussion denying that real free thought is even possible.  Which, I hold, is a pretty good indication of the banality of thought that materialism has on this subject.  As with Biblical or any other kind of fundamentalist creed will have whenever the subject falls outside of what they can believe is possible.

Daniel Dennett is first, presenting the most sophisticated arguments given and they're really not very good ones.  Dennett wants to change the meaning of "free will" to a merely transactional analysis in which what one intends can be hidden while still placing that intention at the end point of a deterministic web of causation.

All you have to be is unpredictable to the agents you encounter.  So let me sum up as a challenge. If you think indeterminism is required for free will,  I think you're wrong.  With one exception and one exception only.   If you anticipate a future in which you think you're going to be playing rock, paper, sissors for big stakes with God then you better hope for quantum indeterminacy to play a role.  Because otherwise it doesn't matter.  A deterministic world is as good as an indeterministic world you have just as much free will in a deterministic world as in an undetermined world as long as you keep your list to yourself.

At one point one of the women, I can't tell which of the three in the discussion, seems to object that his reduction leaves out quite a bit of important stuff about free will, though that gets dropped immediately and isn't developed.   Dennett does what is always done by ideologues having to deal with an idea they can't within their ideological framing, they reduce it to something they can, declaring a fuller definition of the concept to be "meaningless" or "incoherent" or using some other such pat dismissal   It is typical of materialists dealing with questions of consciousness and thought that they diminish it to something that can fit into a mere form so they can present an academic statement about it.  That they damage or destroy the idea in that attempt is  not to be held to be important.

Dennett seems to think that replacing the "folk idea" of free will with the idea of a "poker face" (he uses the term several times) is sufficient to dispose of the truly difficult and perplexing questions around it.  At no time does he deal with the idea of free will as a truly free act uncontrolled by physical determinism because that idea is repugnant to his ideological foundations.

But, having done that, Dennett is in a rather hard place because he is convinced that if people believe they are the "moist robots" as he asserts, they won't act as if they were morally obligated to not be totally depraved.  What Dennett does is to deny the reality of free will as a truly free and non-determined act while presenting a substitute idea he calls "free will" because of experimental evidence that when people don't believe in free will, as debunked by Francis Crick, then they are more inclined to cheat than someone who hasn't been exposed to Crick's erudition.  He presents free will as a beneficial lie because people who believe their choices are free will take responsibility for them***.

At several points during Dennett's presentation he seems to show his hand in repeating a warning that anything but a deterministic definition of "free will" opens the door for religion.  He isn't alone in that.   It's remarkable how often that clear obsession of this gathering comes out.   The motive behind the poker-faced scholarly presentation is the denial of anything that could possibly lead to a consideration that God might be real, that religion might have some intellectual validity.  

That, as anyone familiar with his frequently erratic and always antagonistically theophobic writing could guess, becomes quite clear when Jerry Coyne quite impatiently presents his arguments in the area.  Those are the typical biologically based determinism, though pretending to an ultimateSean Carroll, though it's clear Carroll has an affinity for some of it.  I suspect that is a difference in culture between two different generations of physicists and atheists.  I will address that later.

As I started out saying, nothing that any of these materialists say really addresses free will because their ideological foundation denies that is possibly real.  The interest in the discussion is in how they deal with the consequences of that position and they don't even consider a number of those consequences, some of them quite serious ones.  More of that later.

*  Consider the anecdote from Richard Lewontin about when he and a young Carl Sagan were sent by Hermann Muller to debate creationists in Little Rock, including a PhD in biology who was well versed in orthodox Darwinian evolutionary theory.

** One suppressed guffaw from Steven Weinberg seemed to be particularly suggestive.  It came when Owen Flanagan pointed out that the Libet experiments that are almost universally cited by biologically inclined atheists these days, was fatally flawed by the fact that the subjects were paid and so could be reasonably expected to have a motive to try to please the researchers who were paying them.   Which is a rather definitive and fatal defect in the experiment.   I can well imagine that the physicists might not be terribly impressed with the experimental methods of the neuro-scientists and their allies in other behavioral sciences.   Daniel Dennett rather sensibly pointed out that the "free choice" within the experiment was an absurdly artificial one that might well tell us nothing about choices made in real life.   Why he doesn't consider that a problem when he likes the experiments and what he can be made to do is worth considering.

From what I understand, Benjamin Libet doesn't make the same claims that his experiments debunk free will that atheists have been using it for.

*** I don't find the study by Kathleen Vohs and Johnathan Schooler he cites any more convincing than the one by Libet that he rejects, though I would say that the suspicion that people who believe what they want to do is the product of biological and physical determinism are liable to act as if they weren't moral agents is hardly surprising.   That it is more pleasant and easier to do what we want to do or which we suspect we will be rewarded to do when it harms other people is a rather common observation.  When it's merely a question of violating an arbitrary rule, it will be even less likely that a belief in determinism will inhibit selfishness.  In the end it is a belief that moral obligations are real and consequential that is the only effective inhibition of depravity and it isn't entirely effective in preventing it.  In a world,  where  in those places and in those people who have biological determinism is their controlling faith, the results have been some of the most horrific atrocities in the history of our species.

Update:  My allergy to red maple pollen is particularly bad this week and I'll blame the horrible editing to the Benadryl speaking.  I will revise later, when I can believe a better result will happen.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Arthur Stanley Eddington: Science and the Unseen World Parts 8 and 9

Note:  I'm posting the last two sections of Eddington's essay for those who want to finish it.  

I have said that the science of the visible universe starts with a determination to use our eyes; but that does not mean that the primary use of the eye is for advancing science. If in a community of the blind one man suddenly received the gift of sight, he would have much to tell which would not be at all scientific. Can we imagine him attempting to convey to his neighbours the significance of the new revelation by talking about the so-called physical “realities”? We know through science that the differences of colour in the external world – red, green, blue — are simply differences of electromagnetic wave-length; and the existence of colour-blindness shows how subjective the effects of the waves on our senses may be. But to a man who has received the revelation of sight the significant fact is not so much the truth about wave-length as the amazing transformation into a world of colour under the vivifying power of the mind. I need not stress the bearing of this when the eye of the soul is opened to the apprehension of the unseen world. The need of expression will not satisfy itself in preaching a scientific sermon. In the world, seen or unseen, there is place for adventure as well as for triangulation. It is right that we should, as far as may be, systematise and criticise the inferences that may be drawn as to the nature of the spiritual world beyond our consciousness; but whatever its abstract frame may be, it is transformed into different significance when it comes into relation with our consciousness – even as the skeleton frame of scientific truth is transformed into the colour and activity and substance of our familiar environment.

It seems right at this point to say a few words in relation to the question of a Personal God. I suppose every serious thinker is rather afraid of this term which might seem to imply that he pictures the deity on a throne in the sky after the manner of medieval painters. There is a tendency to substitute such terms as “omnipotent force” or even a “fourth dimension.” If the idea is merely to find a wording which shall be sufficiently vague, it is somewhat unsuitable for the scientist to whom the words “force” and “dimension” convey something entirely precise and defined. On the other hand, my impression of psychology suggests that the word “person” might be considered vague enough as it stands. But leaving aside verbal questions, I believe that the thought that lies behind this reaction is unsound. It is, I think, of the very essence of the unseen world that the conception of personality should dominate it. Force, energy, dimensions belong to the world of symbols; it is out of such conceptions that we have built up the external world of physics. What other conceptions have we? After exhausting physical methods we returned to the inmost recesses of consciousness, to the voice that proclaims our personality; and from there we entered on a new outlook. We have to build the spiritual world out of symbols taken from our own personality. As we build the scientific world out of the symbols of the mathematician. I think therefore we are not wrong in embodying the significance of the spiritual world to ourselves in the feeling of a personal relationship, for our whole approach to it is bound up with those aspects of consciousness in which personality is centred. 

It is difficult to adjust the claims of naive impressionism and scientific analysis of the spiritual realm without seeming to disparage one or the other; but I think it only requires the same commonsense that we apply to the affairs of ordinary life. Science has an important part to play in our everyday existence, and there is far too much neglect of science; but its intention is to supplement not to supplant the familiar outlook. The biochemist can teach us about the proteins and carbohydrates that make up a suitable diet, and we may profit by his knowledge; but it is not fitting that a man should be looked upon entirely from the standpoint of absorbing a specified quantity of calories and food-values. It would be still more absurd for a man to refuse food, because he was sceptical as to the certainty of the theories of biochemists. Likewise it is well that there should be some to advise us whether our spiritual bread contains the right kind of vitamins; but for the most part it is the object of our teaching and our meetings to stimulate the spiritual appetite rather than to conduct this kind of research.

If the kind of controversy which so often springs up between modernism and traditionalism in religion were applied to more commonplace affairs of life we might see some strange results. Would it be altogether unfair to imagine something liked the following series of letters in our correspondence columns? It arises, let us say, from a passage in an obituary notice which mentions that the deceased had loved to watch the sunsets from his peaceful country home. A. writes deploring that in this progressive age few of the younger generation ever notice a sunset; perhaps this is due to the pernicious influence of the teaching of Copernicus who maintains that the sun is really stationary. This rouses B* to reply that nowadays every reasonable person accepts Copernicus’s doctrine. C is positive that he has many times seen the sun set, and Copernicus must be wrong. D calls for a restatement of belief, so that we may know just how much modern science has left of the sunset, and appreciated the remnant without disloyalty to truth. E (perhaps significantly my own initial) in a misguided effort for peace points out that on the most modern scientific theory there is no absolute distinction between the heavens revolving around the earth and the earth revolving under the heavens; both parties are (relatively) right. F regards this as a most dangerous sophistry, which insinuates that there is no essential difference between truth and untruth. G thinks that we ought now to admit frankly that the revolution of the heavens is a myth; nevertheless such myths have still a practical teaching for us in the present day. H produces an obscure passage in the Almagest, which he interprets as showing that the philosophy of the ancients was not really opposed to the Copernican view. And so it goes on. And the simple reader feels himself in an age of disquiet, insecurity and dissension, all because it is forgotten that what the deceased man looked out for each evening was an experience and not a creed.


In its early days our Society owed much to a people who called themselves Seekers; they joined us in great numbers and were prominent in the spread of Quakerism. It is a name which must appeal strongly to the scientific temperament. The name has died out, but I think that the spirit of seeking is still the prevailing one in our faith, which for that reason is not embodied in any creed or formula. It is Perhaps difficult sufficiently to emphasise Seeking without disparaging its correlative Finding. But I must risk this, for Finding has a clamorous voice which proclaims its own importance; it is definite and assured, something that we can hold — of that is what we want, or think we want. Yet how transitory it proves. The finding of one generation will not serve for the next. It tarnishes rapidly except it be preserved with an ever-renewed spirit of seeking. It is the same too in science. How easy in a popular lecture to tell of the findings, the new discoveries which will be amended, contradicted, superseded in the next fifty years ! How difficult to convey the scientific spirit of seeking which fulfils itself in the tortuous course of progress towards truth! You will understand the true spirit neither of science nor of religion unless seeking is placed in the forefront.

Religious creeds are a great obstacle to any full sympathy between the outlook of the scientist and the outlook which religion is so often supposed to require. I recognise that the practice of a religious community cannot be regulate solely in the interests of its scientifically-minded members and therefore I would not go so far as to urge that no kind of defence of creeds is possible. But I think it may be said that Quakerism in dispensing with creeds holds out a hand to the scientist. The scientific objection is not merely to particular creed which assert in outworn phraseology beliefs which are either no longer held or no longer convey inspiration to life. The spirit of seeking which animates us refuses to regard any kind of creed as its goal. It would be a shock to come across a university where it was the practice of the students to recite adherence to Newton’s laws of motion, to Maxwell’s equations and to the electromagnetic theory of light. We should not deplore it the less if our own pet theory happened to be included, of if the list were brought up to date every few years. We should say that the students cannot possibly realise the intention of scientific training if they are taught to look on these results as things to be recited and transcribed to. Science may fall short of its ideal, and although the peril scarcely takes this extreme form, it is not always easy, particularly in popular science to maintain our stand against creed and dogma. I would not be sorry to borrow for our scientific pronouncements the passage prefixed to the Advices of the Society of Friends in 1656 and repeated in the current General Advices:

“These things we do not lay upon you as a rule or form to walk by; but that all with a measure of the light, which is pure and holy, may be guided; and so in the light walking and abiding, these things may be fulfilled in the Spirit, not in the letter; for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.”

Rejection of creed is not inconsistent with being possessed by a living belief. We have no creed in science, but we are not lukewarm in our beliefs. The belief is not that all the knowledge of the universe that we hold so enthusiastically will survive in the letter; but a sureness that we are on the road. If our so-called facts are changing shadows, there are shadows cast by the light of constant truth. So too in religion we are repelled by that confident theological doctrine which has settled for all generations just how the spiritual world is worked; but we need not turn aside from the measure of light that comes from our experience showing us a Way through the unseen world.

Religion for the conscientious seeker is not all a matter of doubt and self-questionings. There is a kind of sureness which is very different from cocksureness.

* I think the passage might have been a subtle response to a bit of snark in Bertrand Russell's "The Twilight of Science".   "B" is for  Bertrand, afterall.

To begin with classical physics. Newton's law of gravitation, as every one knows, was somewhat modified by Einstein, and the modification was experimentally confirmed. But if Eddington's view is right, this experimental, confirmation does not have the signification that one would naturally attribute to it. After considering three possible views as to what the law of gravitation assert about the motion of the earth round the sun, Eddington plumps for a fourth, to the effect that " the earth goes anyhow it likes," that is to say, that the law of gravitation tells us absolutely nothing about the way the earth moves. He admits that this view is paradoxical, but he says: "The key to the paradox is that we ourselves, our conventions, the kind of thing that attracts our interest, are much more concerned than we realize in any account we give of how the objects of the physical world are behaving. And so an object which, viewed through our frame of conventions, may seem to be behaving in a very special and remarkable way may, viewed according to another set of conventions, be doing nothing to excite particular comment. " I must confess that I find this view a very difficult one; respect for Eddington prevents me from. saying that it is, untrue, but there are various points in his argument which I have difficulty in following. Of course all the practical consequences which we deduce from the abstract theory, as for example that we shall perceive daylight at certain times and not at certain other times, lie outside the scheme of official physics, which never reach our sensations at all. I cannot but suspect, however, that official physics is just a little bit too official in Eddington's hands, and that it would not be impossible to allow it a little more significance than it has in his interpretation. However that may be, it is an important sign of the times that one of the leading exponents of scientific theory should advance so modest an opinion. 

Russell was clearly disappointed with Eddington's "modesty" as compared to the dictatorial confidence that physicists used to assert for them.  You can compare Eddington to someone like Lord Kelvin many of whose definite statements, such as his famous declaration,  "There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now, All that remains is more and more precise measurement,"   which sound rather spectacularly over confident, today.

Arthur Stanley Eddington: Science And The Unseen World: part 7

We want an assurance that the soul in reaching out to the unseen world is not following an illusion. We want security that faith, and worship, and above all love, directed towards the environment of the spirit are not spent in vain. It is not sufficient to be told that it is good for us to believe this, that it will make better men and women of us. We do not want a religion that deceives us for our own good. There is a crucial question here; but before we can answer it, we must frame it.

The heart of the question is commonly put in the form “Does God really exist?” It is difficult to set aside this question without being suspected of quibbling. But I venture to put it aside because it raises so many unprofitable side issues, and at the end it scarcely reaches deep enough into religious experience. Among leading scientists to-day I think about half assert that the aether exists and the other half deny its existence; but as a matter of fact both parties mean exactly the same thing, and are divided only by words. Ninety-nine people out of a hundred have not seriously considered what they mean by the term “exist” nor how a thing qualifies itself to be labelled real. Dr. MacTaggart, wrote a two-volume treatise on “The Nature of Existence” which may possibly contain light on the problem, though I confess I doubt it. Theological or anti-theological argument to prove or disprove the existence of a deity seems to me to occupy itself largely with skating among the difficulties caused by our making a fetish of this word. It is all so irrelevant to the assurance for which we hunger. In the case of our human friends we take their existence for granted, not caring whether it is proven or not. Our relationship is such that we could read philosophical arguments designed to prove the non-existence of each other, and perhaps even be convinced by them – and then laugh together over so odd a conclusion. I think that it is something of the same kind of security we should seek in our relationship with God. The most flawless proof of the existence of God is no substitute for it; and if we have that relationship the most convincing disproof is turned harmlessly aside. If I may say it with reverence, the soul and God laugh together over so odd a conclusion.

For this reason I do not attach great importance to the academic type of argument between atheism and deism. At the most it may lead to a belief that behind the workings of the physical universe there is need to postulate a universal creative spirit, or it may be content with the admission that such an inference is not excluded. But there is little in this that can affect our human outlook. It scarcely amounts even to a personification of Nature; God is conceived as an all-pervading force, which for rather academic reasons is not to be counted among forces belonging to physics. Nor does this pantheism awake in us feelings essentially different from those inspired by the physical world – the majesty of the infinitely great, the marvel of the infinitely little. The same feeling of wonder and humility which we feel in the contemplation of the stars and nebulae is offered as before; only a new name is written up over the altar. Religion does not depend on the substitution of the word “God” for the word “Nature.”

The crucial point for us is not a conviction of the existence of a supreme God but a conviction of the revelation of a supreme God. I will not speak here of the revelation in a life that was lived nineteen hundred years ago, for that perhaps is more closely connected with the historical feeling which, equally with the scientific feeling, claims a place in most men’s outlook. I confine myself to the revelation implied in the indwelling of the divine spirit in the mind of man.

It is probably true that the recent changes of scientific thought remove some of the obstacles to a reconciliation of religion and science; but this must be carefully distinguished from any proposal to base religion on scientific discovery. For my own part I am wholly opposed to any such attempt. Briefly the position is this. We have learnt that the exploration of the external worked by the methods of physical science leads not to a concrete reality but to a shadow world of symbols, beneath which those methods are unadapted for penetrating. Feeling that there must be more behind, we return to our starting point in human consciousness – the one centre where more might become known. There we find other stirrings, other revelations (true or false) than those conditioned by the world of symbols. Are not these too of significance? We can only answer according to our conviction, for here reasoning fails us altogether. Reasoning leads us from premises to conclusions; it cannot start without premises.

The premises for our reasoning about the visible universe, as well as for our reasoning about the unseen world, are in the self-knowledge of mind. Obviously we cannot trust every whim and fancy of the mind as though it were indisputable revelation; we can and must believe that we have an inner sense of values which guides us to what is to be heeded, otherwise we cannot start on our survey even of the physical world. Consciousness alone can determine the validity of its convictions. “There shines no light save its own light to show itself unto itself.”

The study of the visible universe may be said to start with the determination to use our eyes. At the very beginning there is something which might be described as an act of faith – a belief that what our eyes have to show us is significant. I think it can be maintained that it is by an analogous determination that the mystic recognises another faculty of consciousness, and accepts as significant the vista of a world outside space and time that it reveals. But if they start alike, the two outlets from consciousness are followed up by very different methods; and here we meet with a scientific criticism which seems to have considerable justification. It would be wrong to condemn alleged knowledge of the unseen world because it is unable to follow the lines of deduction laid down by science as appropriate to the seen world; but inevitably the two kinds of knowledge are compared, and I think the challenge to a comparison does not come wholly from the scientists. Reduced to precise terms, shorn of worlds that sound inspiring but mean nothing definite, is our scheme of knowledge of what lies in the unseen world, and of its mode of contact with us, at all to be compared with our knowledge (imperfect as it is) of the physical world and its interaction with us? Can we be surprised that the student of physical science ranks it rather with the vague unchecked conjectures in his own subject, on which he feels it his duty to frown? It may be that, in admitting that the comparison is unfavourable, I am doing an injustice to the progress made by systematic theologians and philosophers; but at any rate their defense had better be in other hands than mine.

Although I am rather in sympathy with this criticism of theology, I am not ready to press it to an extreme. In this lecture I have for the most part identified science with the physical science. This is not solely because it is the only side for which I can properly speak. But because it is generally agreed that physical science comes nearest to that complete system of exact knowledge which all sciences have before them as an ideal. Some fall far short of it. The physicist who inveighs against the lack of coherence and the indefiniteness of theological theories, will probably speak not much less harshly of the theories of biology and psychology. They also fail to come up to his standard of methodology. On the other side of him stands an even superior being – the pure mathematician – who has no high opinion of the methods of deduction used in physics, and does not hid his disapproval of the laxity of what is accepted as proof in physical science. And yet somehow knowledge grows in all of these branches. Wherever a way opens we are impelled to seek by the only methods that can be devised for that particular opening, not over-rating the security of our finding, but conscious that in this activity of mind we are obeying the light that is in our nature. 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Geri Allen Feed The Fire

Geri Allen - piano
Ron Carter - bass
Tony Williams - drums

Arthur Stanley Eddington: Science And The Unseen World: part 6

Let me play the role of materialist philosopher a few moments longer. The electric particles in obedience to the laws of physics have come together and built human brains. Still in obedience to those laws, they have by their evolutions brought about and stored in those brains the thoughts that make up the sum of human knowledge. Those unbreakable laws have decreed that to-night some of that accumulated knowledge is to be unloosed on you in the form of a lecture. I hope that you too will be good materialists and feel a due interest in the phenomenon that is proceeding, that observing the curious effects of Maxwell’s laws, the laws of thermodynamics and other physical causes that are leading to the emission of a modulated system of sound-waves.

But no; I was forgetting. That is how as materialists you ought to think of my lecture; but “ought” is outside natural law. I cannot expect more than that your brains will react towards the lecture in accordance with the unbreakable laws which govern them; and those who happen to fall asleep may claim that it was decreed by those laws.

This is, of course, a very old reductio ad absurdum; and he would be a very shallow materialist who has not appreciated the difficulty and persuaded himself that he has found an answer to it. I am not very curious as to how he surmounts the difficulty or whether his justification is valid. The upshot is that he connives at an attitude towards knowledge which does not treat it as something secreted in the brain by an operation of unbreakable laws of nature. It is to be judged in relation to its truth or untruth not in relation to any supposed theory of its origin.

Truth and untruth belong to the realm of significance and values. I am not able to agree entirely with the assertion commonly made in scientific philosophers that science, being solely concerned with correct and colourless description, has nothing to do with significances and values. If it were literally true, it would mean that, when the significance of our lives and of the universe around us is under discussion, science is altogether dumb. But there is this much truth in it. If we are to present science as a self-contained scheme, owing nothing to any judgments we may have formed by methods for which science does not take responsibility, then no doubt significances must be ruled outside its scope. This may be called the official attitude of science. Officially the scientist is just an adept at solving certain problems; he has no curiosity as to how these problems have come to be set; it is a complete surprise to him that mankind struggling after the eternal verities should take serious note of his pastime. But I think no one would venture to speak to a public audience on any scientific topic unless he were prepared to transgress beyond the official attitude. Imagine a speaker on evolution presenting a purely colourless description of the sequence of living forms and the struggle for existence, without ever hinting at an underlying significance for us of this change in our belief as to Man’s place in nature.

The religious seeker who pursues significances and values is often compared unfavourably with the scientists who pursues atoms and elections. The plain matter-of-fact person is disposed to think that the former are wandering amid shadow and illusion, whilst the latter is coming to grips with reality. I want therefore to give an illustration which will show that unless we pay attention to significances as well as to physical entities we may miss the essential part of experience.

Let us suppose that on November 11th a visitor from another planet comes to the Earth in order to observe scientifically the phenomena occurring here. He is especially interested in the phenomena of sound, and at the moment he is occupied in observing the rise and fall of the roar of the traffic in a great city. Suddenly the noise ceases, and for the space of two minutes there is the utmost stillness; then the roar begins again. Our visitor, seeking a scientific explanation of this, may perhaps recall that on another occasion he witnessed an apparently analogous phenomenon in the kindred study of light. It was full daylight, but there came a quick falling of darkness which lasted about two minutes, after which the light came back again. The latter occurrence ( a total eclipse of the sun) has a well-known scientific explanation and can indeed be predicted may years in advance. I am assuming that the visitor is a competent scientist; and though he might at first be misled by the resemblance, he would soon find that the cessation of sound was a much more complicated phenomenon than the cessation of light. But there is nothing to suggest that it is outside the operation of the same kind of natural forces. There was no supernatural hushing of the sound. The noise ceased because the traffic stopped; each car stopped because a brake applied the necessary friction; the brake was worked mechanically by a pedal; the pedal by a foot; the foot by a muscle; the muscle by mechanical or electrical impulses travelling along a nerve. The strange may well believe that each motion has its physical antecedent cause which can be carried back as far as we please; and if the prediction of the two-minute silence on Armistice Day is not predictable like an eclipse of the sun, it is only because of the difficulty of dealing with the configurations of millions of particles instead of with a configuration of three astronomical bodies. 

I do not myself think that the intermission of sound was predictable solely by physical laws. It might have been foreseen some days in advance if the visitor had access to the thought s floating in human minds, but not from any study however detailed of the physical constituents of human brains. I think I am right in saying that within the last two years there has been a change in scientific ideas which makes this more likely than the old deterministic view. But here I am going to grant our visitor his claim; to concede that even human actions are predicable by a –possibly enlarged – scheme for physical law. What then? Shall we let our visitor go away convinced that he has gotten to the bottom of the phenomenon of Armistice Day? He understands perfectly why there is a two-minute silence; it is a natural and calculable result of the motion of a number of atoms and electrons following Maxwell’s equations and the laws of conservation. It differs only from a similar optical event of a two-minute eclipse in being more complicated. Our visitor has apprehended the reality underlying the silence, so far as reality is a matter of atoms and electrons. But he is unaware that the silence has also a significance.

Often the best way to turn aside an attack is to conceded it. The more complete the scientific explanation of the silence the more irrelevant hat explanation becomes to our experience. When we assert that God is real, we are not restricted to a comparison with the reality of atoms and electrons. If God is as real as the shadow of the Great War on Armistice Day, need we seek further reason for making a place for God in our thoughts and lives: We shall not be concerned if the scientific explorer reports that he is perfectly satisfied that he has got to the bottom of things without having come across either.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Atheism As Ultimate Intellectual Decadence

I will be spending some time with questions of free will and consciousness as discussed at Moving Naturalism Forward later this week.   But before getting into that I'm going to say that in addressing those realities materialism achieves its ultimate decadence, its ultimate denial of reality, its most outrageously obvious yet so obviously and willfully ignored contradictions and absurdity.

A number of times, I've heard groups of materialists gathered together for the purpose of debunking, reducing, demoting and defining free will and consciousness out of existence.  There is something rather desperate  and even disgustingly pathetic in the attempts.  Hearing famous and august figures, who our academic culture set up as great thinkers using their ingenuity to its utmost to debunk their minds has to count as the ultimate in intellectual decadence.  It is the same kind of silly intellectual act of drawing up the chairs around a table to discuss the non-reality of the chairs and tables that the great minds have put their coffee cups and sugar dispensers and their very bottoms on, only it has a rather more ideologically exigent purpose.  It is a lot like the denial of the mental aspect of science which the same thinkers assert, the theme of yesterday's post.  Only it's far more obvious.  And yet such thinkers wonder why people, who they clearly and condescendingly consider to be naive and unsophisticated,  watching this kind of stuff, find it unconvincing.  

Just as the reality of generous, self-sacrificing acts present the greatest problem for the use of Darwinism, as a hard, universal and eternal Law of Nature,  in atheist ideological struggle, the very experience of consciousness, of free will, presents materialism with its biggest  and most unsolvable problem of all.

Atheism and materialism have no existence outside of the minds of people who hold those twin faiths, yet the minds that hold them are not, ultimately, explainable in material terms.   I'll go into some of that later.  Only I think it's necessary to admit one thing, the motivation of  most atheists doesn't seem, ultimately, to be upholding the integrity of materialism or Darwinism or even their general acceptance in the culture.  At its bottom, most of this stuff is said to gain some kind of intellectual support for their thoroughly emotional need to deny God, the spiritual nature of human beings and other living beings, to deny the reality that life is, at every level of experience, not the same thing as nonliving mater.  But it is definitely the support of the theophobia, the emotional comfort they get from pretending to know there isn't a God that is at the bottom of things.

Perhaps some of that can be seen in Sean Carroll's opening of the days of "workshops" as he rather snarkily and, one would think, irrelevantly, presents some "Wash Away Your Sins hand soap" that he bought at the giftshop of the Inn where he convened the "naturalists" to dispose of free will and consciousness as well as morality among other things.   Only the coercive effort to make atheism a requirement of academic repute is really based on that kind of thing, not just in the end, but also in the beginning.  The rest of the discussion are just intellectual trappings of that effort.


I'm going to post some of the sections of Arthur Stanley Eddington's Swathmore lecture, Science And The Unseen World, given in 1929.    I typed out the entire thing three years ago but never got around to proof reading what I posted online.  Any underlinings are mine, to call attention to passages that strike me as being especially important, as are any typos.  Please call those to my attention.


I have already said that science is no longer disposed to identify reality with concreteness. Materialism in its literal sense is long since dead. But its place has been taken by other philosophies which represent a virtually equivalent outlook. The tendency today is not to reduce everything to manifestations of matter – since matter now has only a minor place in the physical world – but to reduce it to manifestations of the operation of natural law. By “natural laws” is here meant laws of the type prevailing in geometry, mechanics, and physics which are found to have this common characteristic – that they are ultimately reducible to mathematical equations. They may also be defined by a less technical property, viz., they are laws which, unlike human law, are never broken. It is this belief in the universal dominance of scientific law which is nowadays generally meant by materialism. 

The harmony and simplicity of scientific law appeals strongly to our aesthetic feeling. It illustrates one kind of perfection, such as we might perhaps think worthy to be associated with the mind of God. One of the important questions that we have to face is whether the unseen world is governed by a like scheme of law. I am aware that many religious writers have felt no objection to, and even welcomed, the intrusion of natural law into the spiritual domain. (Probably, however, the are using the term “natural law” in a more elastic sense than that in which the materialist understands it.) Why (they ask) should we insist for ourselves on exemption from a kind of government which is displayed in inorganic nature might be hailed as a manifestation of divine perfection? But I am sure that those who take this view have never understood and faced the meaning of the ideal scheme of scientific law. What they would welcome is not science but pseudo-science. Analogies can be drawn between spiritual and natural phenomena which may serve to press home a moral lesson. For example, one of Kirchoff’s famous laws of radiation states that the absorbing power of substances is proportional to the emitting power, so that the best absorbers are also the best emitters. That might make a good text for a sermon. But if ever scientific law makes a serious inroad into the spiritual domain the consequences will not be limited to supplying texts for sermons. 

Natural law is not applicable to the unseen world behind the symbols, because it is unadapted to anything except symbols, and its perfection is a perfection of symbolic linkage. You cannot apply such a scheme to the parts of our personality which are not measurable by symbols any more than you can extract the square root of a sonnet. There is a kind of unity between the material and the spiritual world – between the symbols and their background – but it is not the scheme of natural law which will provide the cement.

In saying this I am not forgetting the likelihood of great future developments in science which may and indeed must bring to light types of natural law of which as yet we have no conception. Thus I do not judge the problem of life (in so far as it can be dissociated from consciousness) to be impregnable to the attack of physics. It is a matter of keen controversy among biochemists whether physics and chemistry as they stand are adequate to deal with the properties of living organisms. I express no opinion; but, in any case, whether they are adequate or not today, I cannot assume that future revolutions of science and the admission of new fundamental conceptions will not make them adequate. It is when life is associated with consciousness that we reach different ground altogether. To those who have any intimate acquaintance with the laws of chemistry and physics the suggestion that the spiritual world could be ruled by laws of allies character is as preposterous as the suggestion that a nation could be ruled by laws like the laws of grammar. The essential difference, which we meet in entering the realm of spirit and mind seems to hang round the word “Ought.”

This limitation of natural law to a special domain would be more obvious but for a confusion in our use of the word law. In human affairs it means a rule, fortified perhaps by incentives or penalties, which may be kept or broken. In science it means a rule which is never broken; we suppose that there is something in the constitution of things which makes its non-fulfilment an impossibility. Thus in the physical world what a body does and what a body ought to do are equivalent; but we are well aware of another domain in which they are anything but equivalent. We cannot get away from this distinction. Even if religion and morality are dismissed as illusion, the word”Ought” still has sway. The laws of logic do not prescribe the way our minds think; they prescribe the way our minds ought to think.

Suppose we concede the most extravagant claims that might be made for natural law, so that we allow that the processes of the mind are governed by it; the effect of this concession is merely to emphasise the fact that the mind has an outlook which transcends the natural law by which it functions. If, for example, we admit that every thought in the mind is represented in the brain by a characteristic configuration of atoms, then if natural law determines the way in which the configurations of atoms succeed one another it will simultaneously determine the way in which thoughts succeed one another in the mind. Now the thought of “7 times 9" in a boy’s mind is not seldom succeeded by the thought of “65.” What has gone wrong? In the intervening moments of cogitation everything has proceeded by natural laws which are unbreakable. Nevertheless we insist that something has gone wrong. However closely we may associate thought with the physical machinery of the brain, the connection is dropped as irrelevant as soon as we consider the fundamental property of thought – that it may be correct or incorrect. The machinery cannot be anything but correct. We say that the brain which produces “7 times 9 are 63" is better than a brain that produces “7 times 9 are 65"; but it is not as a servant of natural law that it is better. Our approval of the first brain has no connection with natural law; it is determined by the type of thought which it produces, and that involves recognising a domain of the other type of law – laws which ought to be kept, but may be broken. Dismiss the idea that natural laws may swallow up religion; it cannot even tackle the multiplication table single-handed.

I will add that I think Eddington was a bit too modest in his refusal to speculate on what science might achieve in that area in the future.  Most of the definitions of the relevant words in the discussion would have to undergo an enormous change in denotation in order to achieve what they can't today.   Any  science that could account for "ought" statements would have to be much different from the science of today.  Such a science would not count as science today.

UPDATE:  Due to family matters I will probably be posting pieces about once every other day for the time being.  I will try to find things to post in between, such as sections of Eddington's essay and links to other pieces, on the off days.   I hope you find reasons to check in.