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If conceptually coherent

Dan Fincke takes issue with dismissiveness toward philosophy, and I agree with him about that, but I’m not sure about the particular example he’s chosen. That could well be just because I’m not a philosopher, so I’m not understanding.

The example is a postdoc fellowship in philosophy funded (lavishly) by the Templeton Foundation.

The fellowship enables young scholars to use contemporary analytic methods to pursue independent research in the fields of divine and human agency, such as moral responsibility and freedom of will; or philosophy of mind and its theological implications, such as the presence of the divine in a natural world and the emergence of consciousness.

[The] postdoctoral research project, “Divine Foreknowledge, the Philosophy of Time, and the Metaphysics of Dependence: Some New Approaches to an Old Problem,” assesses a core Ockhamist thesis about foreknowledge. William of Ockham was a 13th century philosopher.

“The central contention of the Ockhamist concerns a point about the order of explanation. According to the Ockhamist, it is because of what we do that God long ago believed that we would do these things. That is, God’s past beliefs depend in an important sense on what we do, and thus, says the Ockhamist, we can sometimes have a choice about God’s past beliefs,” he explained. “The overarching goal of this project is to develop and assess this core Ockhamist thesis along two underexplored dimensions: the philosophy of time, and the metaphysics of dependence – both of which have seen an explosion of recent interest.”

Dan wrote:

…it does not matter whether there actually is a God. There is still philosophical illumination from exploring the implications of a hypothetical omniscient knower for our understanding of things like the connections between belief, causation, and time.

That’s the part that I don’t get, that maybe I would get if I were a philosopher. I have a hard time seeing how there can be illumination from exploring the implications of a hypothetical omniscient knower when an omniscient knower is, as far as we know, in the world we inhabit, in the conditions we understand, etc, so impossible. All it seems to generate is absurdity. Then if you have to reconcile it with the inviolability of free will, it generates absurdity squared. Dan quotes Verbose Stoic doing just that (reconciling it with free will):

Ockham likely argued that if we have an omniscient being — God — then that God would know what we’re doing right now. But that could mean that God knows that and can know that because He determined it, which would violate free will. So, then, if it is not pre-determined then God’s belief about what we will do must be formed as we do it right now. But God has always known it, which would mean that our decisions now have an impact on beliefs formed in the past. If conceptually coherent, this has major implications for the conceptions of time and of dependence — ie what it means for one fact or truth or action to depend on another — both of which are currently of interest in philosophical circles.

But does it? If it starts with impossibilities, does it have implications for anything? This is what I don’t get.

Comments

  1. unbound says

    I’m with you Ophelia.

    Philosophy is, at its very core and by definition, “The study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence”.

    When a key premise that is provided for an argument is questionable at best, and likely just plain nonsense, how is what remains supposed to be useful?

    In fact, with my rudimentary training in philosophy (i.e. a few college classes), I was under the impression that when key premises are shown to be false, you were supposed to throw the rest of it out.

  2. Kiwi Sauce says

    I think it will be interesting; my reading in this area limited to New Scientist snippets is that there is at least one neuroscience experiment that suggests an absence of free will. A philosophical debate about the implications of this, particularly as it applies to morality, would give us some ways of interpreting how such experimental findings should impact on the way society treats people such as criminals.

    As for impossibilities, economics has often started with the basis of rational economic man and then proceeded with analysis, followed by policy recommendations. At least this study won’t have major repercussions for government expenditure.

  3. Jason Dick says

    Yeah. It seems to me that there is useful and relevant philosophy, but this sure as hell isn’t it.

  4. Scote says

    “…it does not matter whether there actually is a God. There is still philosophical illumination from exploring the implications of a hypothetical omniscient knower for our understanding of things like the connections between belief, causation, and time.”

    Right, right. And it doesn’t matter if there are angels, but there is still a physical illumination from exploring the implications of angels who could travel faster than light. It would revolutionize our understanding of physics and faster than light travel!! We can all just posit things that would have hypothetical significance (aka making **** up), but that doesn’t mean that such practices are really material to anyone but philosophers and people BSing at bars (or blogs or comment threads).

    I think Dan is just proving Jerry Coyne’s point. Dan is siding with what is the philosophical equivalent of tooth fairy science, where people wax on about the properties, techniques and significance of the tooth fairy without first establishing that such a creature actually exists.

  5. Lyanna says

    Scote, philosophy isn’t science. It’s about concepts, and deductions about concepts, not empiricism.

    I don’t see why you COULDN’T get philosophical insights from thinking about impossibilities. Why not? Philosophy doesn’t have to concern itself solely with what actually exists–that’s science’s job, isn’t it? Philosophy can play with what-ifs and hypotheticals, even if those are not empirically grounded, or even if they generate logical paradoxes.

    Is this type of philosophy practical? No. But then, neither is much of science, or art, or music.

  6. Scote says

    “Scote, philosophy isn’t science. It’s about concepts, and deductions about concepts, not empiricism. ”

    No, it isn’t science. Which is why it is so silly of Dan to criticize Coyne’s dismissal of “sophisticated” philosophy. Coyne is a **scientist**, who deals with the real world and constantly battles with religionists who claim that only by understanding the obfuscatory twaddle known as “sophisticated” theology can he make any valid comment on religion vis-a-vis science. Now Dan seems to be saying much the same thing about philosophy.

    To a certain degree I think that philosophy, like theology, is about explaining ordinary things in extremely hard to follow ways that disguise the vacuity of the arguments. I’m not saying all philosophy is that way, of course, but certainly some of it.

  7. Aquaria says

    Is this type of philosophy practical? No. But then, neither is much of science

    Science is about studying the real world, not about studying imaginary scumbags in the sky. That puts it ahead of this lying bullshit.

    or art, or music.

    Nearly all art or music has an idea it’s trying to communicate. This crap doesn’t even manage that.

    It’s throwing bad money after worse.

  8. Ewan Macdonald says

    Is this type of philosophy practical? No. But then, neither is much of science, or art, or music.

    Right – but generally (with the exception of things like Soviet Realism) art isn’t put out there to be practical. It’s put out there to illuminate, excite, intrigue, nourish etc. All of which are excellent properties in their own right.

    Similarly, philosophers and ethicists can sometimes reach illuminating, educational outcomes by positing thought experiments: the train heading towards five people with a branch line to a sixth, and the lever to change its course, doesn’t exist, but that doesn’t by itself make this a useless premise for a question.

    But to me the important distinction about the above two examples is this: their advocates do not claim them to be any more than they are. People aren’t taken to buildings from a young age to be indoctrinated in the way of Jay-Z. It isn’t a barrier to jobs in some countries to profess disbelief in the Order of the Disaster-Bound Train. But theism does carry this baggage – and thus it is of practical importance when we use it as a premise in an argument. God isn’t just another hypothetical and I think it’s dishonest of people to claim that he/she/it is.

    That’s aside from the original point that philosophers* seem to want their bellies tickled for having these ideas in the first place. Like most things that consenting adults do, it doesn’t concern me in the least if people want to reconcile free will with a deity. But if someone’s going to argue that this is *as useful as* the scientific method to determine the relationship between belief, causation, and time, then I think that they absolutely need to be challenged on this. There is a huge amount of work to be done on understanding the mental (physical?) nature of belief, and I don’t think inserting a sky-fairy and a bunch of what-ifs is nearly as useful as tackling these issues head-on.

  9. sailor1031 says

    Apart from the fact that this particular endeavour is theological and not philosophical, if successful (however that might be defined) would it be of interest to anyone other than another theologian or philosopher? I think not. I’m with Jerry Coyne on this one. Waste of time.

  10. says

    I don’t understand those of my colleagues who choose to go about projects without first motivating them.

    I think Ockham was a wonderful philosopher and I would love to learn more about his way of thinking. But I don’t see any hope for the argument given above, because it seemingly involves a contradiction and a non-sequitur.

    You can’t expect the conditional expression, “if [what we're doing right now] is not pre-determined, then God’s belief about what we will do must be formed as we do it right now”, to have true antecedent so long as you assert that “God has always known [what we're going to do]“. If God knows what you’re going to do, then what we’re doing right now is pre-determined. Hence, just looking at things from the POV of logical validity, there’s no reason to have any opinion whatsoever about the consequent, i.e., whether or not God’s beliefs are formed real-time. Nothing is gained from those sentences except the acceptance of a vacuous conditional.

    The non-sequitur comes from the idea that our non-determinist determinism implies that our decisions now affect our beliefs in the past. At the very least, more needs to be said to connect up this conclusion to the argument. I can imagine all kinds of dumb ways of making that connection — you might introduce it through logical explosion, entailed by the introduction of a contradiction, but that’s not going to impress anyone. Or you might say that the real-time God is somehow sending messages back in time to the original God, who then designs things in such a way that you do what you ended up doing; but that’s creating a heirarchy of Gods, a future God who is in charge of his past versions, which is a dumb conclusion, and (perhaps worse, for the Abrahamics) it turns monotheism into polytheism. (…which is kind of an awesome conclusion, admittedly.)

  11. says

    If God knows what you’re going to do, then what we’re doing right now is pre-determined.

    Well that’s certainly how I was looking at it, and where I stuck. If God’s omniscience means that God knows what’s going to happen, then what’s going to happen is pre-determined. It seems just hopeless to say “but that can’t be right because it violates free will therefore something else.” So it seems like not testing concepts but just bending them.

  12. says

    I don’t see why you COULDN’T get philosophical insights from thinking about impossibilities. Why not? Philosophy doesn’t have to concern itself solely with what actually exists–that’s science’s job, isn’t it?

    But what’s being described here is not something that doesn’t actually exist but something that (given everything we know) couldn’t exist – something that makes no sense – an omniscient god that knows the future, which is not determined because free will says it can’t be. If god knows the future, it’s determined. If it’s not determined, then god doesn’t know it. Gotta pick one; can’t have both. Both in combination are just contradictory.

  13. says

    So it can’t be a useful thought experiment because it just collapses. It’s as if the trolley problem said “and the fat guy both stops the train with his body and stays on the bridge.” What you got there is a useless thought experiment.

  14. RJW says

    Agreed. The project is total waste of neurones, like all theology and probably most philosophy.

    As long as taxpayers’ money isn’t involved, let the philosophers and theologians have their fun.

  15. JennieL says

    There is still philosophical illumination from exploring the implications of a hypothetical omniscient knower for our understanding of things like the connections between belief, causation, and time.

    Yeah, no, I don’t think so.

    <checks to see if Official Philosopher Hat is on head>

    I don’t have much time for this stuff, and I don’t think there is anything useful to be gained. Of course you can learn useful things by considering what would be the case if certain things were true, even though they in fact aren’t. For example you can test the limits of certain concepts or intuitions and find inconsistencies or tensions you hadn’t noticed before.

    But what we have here is a straightforward nonsense. The notion of omniscience is just not consistent with our concepts of belief, causation and time, and moreover it appears to be an internally incoherent concept (much like omnipotence). We can ask ourselves ‘what if’ type questions, but that’s not going to lead us anywhere.

    If we’re going to reexamine our everyday notions of causation, time etc. on the basis of one impossibility, why that one rather than another one? Why would we revise our notion of causation on the basis that God formed beliefs in the past about our actions now, and not on the basis that, e.g. God is ‘eternal’ or ‘outside time’ and so never formed the beliefs but rather always had them? Or why not say that God formed the beliefs in the future but that his future is our past? Why not say that God is a square circle and square circles can do, like, literally, anything?

    And then if we try to draw conclusions about causation, belief, or time, from examining impossibilities, why would we have any reason to believe those conclusions?

  16. Matt Penfold says

    I don’t see why you COULDN’T get philosophical insights from thinking about impossibilities. Why not? Philosophy doesn’t have to concern itself solely with what actually exists–that’s science’s job, isn’t it? Philosophy can play with what-ifs and hypotheticals, even if those are not empirically grounded, or even if they generate logical paradoxes.

    The problem with this is that you will not be able to know whether you have gained any philosophical insights. True you might find something you think is insightful, but if that insight applied to a make-believe world then how will you know it has any validity in reality ? Essential by going down this route philosophy ends up with the same problem the rheologists have, in that they have no means of knowing which of their ideas are valid and which are not. Worse, it would be impossible to tell philosophy apart from theology.

  17. JennieL says

    Matt Penfold:

    The problem with this is that you will not be able to know whether you have gained any philosophical insights. True you might find something you think is insightful, but if that insight applied to a make-believe world then how will you know it has any validity in reality ?

    That’s it exactly.

    I mean, the method here is basically: hey, let’s take this fiction which is explicitly contradictory to a bunch of our concepts, and see what this can tell us about our concepts!

    All we’re going to learn is that we can’t reconcile the fiction with our concepts, which, well, we kind of already knew. Is that any reason to conclude that our everyday concepts need revision or modification, still less that we ought to revise them in this particular way?

  18. Matt Penfold says

    Err, that should be theologists.

    Rheology is a perfectly respectable and worthwhile scientific discipline.

  19. says

    Rheas are quite interesting! Not as interesting as ostriches, and nowhere near as interesting as emus, but still quite interesting.

    Emus are too big. They’re scary, man. Rheas are more manageable.

  20. says

    Back to seriosity. Thank you, Jennie L – that’s how it struck me but I thought perhaps that was just philosophical illiteracy.

    It seems to me the idea of omniscience about the future is just a non-starter. It doesn’t work even as something to imagine – you hit brick walls of absurdity almost at once.

  21. Matt Penfold says

    It seems to me the idea of omniscience about the future is just a non-starter. It doesn’t work even as something to imagine – you hit brick walls of absurdity almost at once.

    Maybe that is the insight. When you make shit up don’t be surprised if it does not make sense.

  22. reighley says

    If it is of any help in this situation, I once attended a lecture by Daniel Dennett on a very similar subject in which he used the idea of God in this way. Of course the idea was only introduced to be quickly disposed of and shown to be of no consequence but it does not change the fact that for all of one sentence Dr. Dennett used the word “god” as though it had a referent. I think this is because when dealing with problems of free will and determinism, the possibility that someone will know ahead of time what you will do is important to consider. It doesn’t have to be God, and whoever doesn’t have to know Everything, but traditionally we assign this task of prophecy to some divine person.

    I have also read a valuable exposition on quantum field theory which assumed, purely for the sake of doing a calculation that the photon has a rest mass. Which is supposed to be false. In this case it so happened that the calculation involved division by the rest mass at some point along the way but by the end it is possible to allow the variable representing the photon mass to vanish. Then of course you test it in a particle accelerator to make sure the numbers are right.

    In the first case God is not being used as a counterfactual at all, simply as the customary placeholder for the idea of foreknowledge. In the second case the counterfactual turns out to be a healthy exercise in which the truth is reached as the limiting case of a series of falsehoods. I do not find either of these cases particularly objectionable.

    Therefore starting from an impossibility does sometimes produce valuable results.

  23. Matt Penfold says

    In the second case the counterfactual turns out to be a healthy exercise in which the truth is reached as the limiting case of a series of falsehoods. I do not find either of these cases particularly objectionable.

    I’m not sure how this differs from the mathematical concept of proof by contradiction in which you start by assuming a premise is true and by a series of logical steps arrive at a logical contradiction, thus proving the initial premise must be false.

    Scientist use the same concept. Assume a hypothesis is true, examine what must follow as the result of that hypothesis being true and if what follows does not accord with reality then reject the hypothesis.

  24. Egbert says

    “…it does not matter whether there actually is a God.”

    Actually it does, but I guess that is why I tend to reject the absurdities of analytic philosophy.

    I actually think that there is a role for philosophy, but philosophy is not restricted to the analytic tradition, which is now the dominant and self-described authority in philosophy.

    Philosophy is either serious or not. Philosophers have to have some interest toward truth, and if some philosophers are prepared to play God games with concepts, it goes to show that they’re not doing serious work.

  25. Snoof says

    …is it just me, or is this just the Principle of Explosion writ large? When you start from a contradiction you can derive anything you like.

  26. RJW says

    Ophelia,

    Cassowarries are heavier and much scarier than emus and very dangerous, if they’re in a bad mood.

    BTW, the correct pronounciation is ‘eem-you’,not ‘e-moo’.

  27. says

    “If god knows the future, it’s determined. If it’s not determined, then god doesn’t know it. Gotta pick one; can’t have both. Both in combination are just contradictory.”

    Ophelia, I think what you’re doing here is simply entering into a debate, not swiftly settling that there can be no debate. This is your position, and maybe you’re right, but an interesting and worthy opponent could argue against you. The argument would have to be super tricky and subtle, and therefore interesting and great fun … from the point of view of philosophers who like this kind of thing. Your opponent would have to say some tricky things about the nature of knowledge, the nature of causation, the direction of time, whether there can be backward causation, the meaning of “free” and “determined” … all sorts of difficult stuff. It’s basically metaphysics and epistemology, but played with an extra piece. If you don’t like the extra piece, you still get to explore clearly worthwhile topics.

  28. says

    an interesting and worthy opponent could argue against you.

    This sentence is a demonstration of an informal fallacy of relevance which we might call “the appeal to indefinite authority”. Platitudes to the effect of “somebody smart might think otherwise” are only placeholders for arguments — they are not themselves arguments. Of course, something like this is appropriate when you’re breaking the news to freshman students that other people exist in the world besides them. But when you’re actually setting down to do philosophy with someone else, it’s a mark of respect for the other person’s intellectual dignity to engage their reasons with reasons, and not merely to allude to unnamed authorities who may or may not exist.

    The way of redressing this fallacy would be to produce some motivated arguments. It seems to me that competent philosophers who want to defend these things publicly ought to be willing to at least whet the rational appetite. For instance, you might explain why it is that people believe in backwards causation, and how it is rationally necessitated by the slim text quoted in the Templeton brief. I’m puzzled about that, since it seems like a non-sequitur, and I don’t think I’m alone in that.

    My two cents.

  29. bad Jim says

    Various sorts of god are plausible characters in science fiction, and I’ve sometimes engaged in speculation about what a god could know under various constraints, like the speed of light, without coming up with anything interesting.

    It did occur to me that a god who waits at the end of time would know everything that ever happened, and from that perspective free will and predetermination are practically indistinguishable. I wondered if this was what Calvin had in mind. (Vonnegut describes this view from a Tralfamadorian perspective in Slaughterhouse Five.)

  30. Bruce Gorton says

    One of the things you need to do when arguing philosophy properly is accept when your findings contradict your premise. This is one of the reasons why Kalam fails, the actual logical path should be:

    1: Everything that begins has a cause.
    2: The universe (space/time) began.
    3: Time is an inherent aspect of causality (If X leads to Y, X needs to have come before Y. Before is a concept based on timing, therefore causality requires time.)
    4: Because of the very nature of causality, time cannot have a cause.
    5: Therefore not everything that begins requires a cause.

    Kalam ignores the 3rd point because the logical path he wants to take is the logically contradictory one towards an uncaused cause, rather than deal with the uncomfortable implication that his premise is wrong.

    And this is why the Templeton grant is going to be a waste of time and money – it is an attempt to make sense of a premise which is self-refuting.

  31. says

    In the comic book series “Fallen Angel,” Angel gets to have a chat with God (appearing in the form of a little girl with tennis racket). At one point, God says she doesn’t know what’s going to happen in the future, because while she knows everything that is *knowable,* the future is unknowable. And a good thing too, because otherwise there would be no free will, and where’s the fun in that?

    Why do I mention this? Because the conversation reminded me of it, and I felt the need to share. I’ve always liked that series’s version of God.

  32. Bruce S. Springsteen says

    And now the Templeton folks can speculate on whether, by having this conversation, we all are making God have forekowledge (or, rather, making God formerly have foreknowledge) of the contents of our postings.

    Hey look, God! I’m making you previously know I would write this! Ha, ha! I’m controlling not just what I do, but what you knew. By Ockham, your omniscience doesn’t negate my free will, but it negates yours, you old irrelevant phony! I’m using your own omniscience to thwart your omnipotence. Holy crap. Maybe I’m God! Thanks, philosophy!

  33. says

    Jean – so you missed the second sentence in the post, that said “That could well be just because I’m not a philosopher, so I’m not understanding”? You missed the later sentence in the post, that said “That’s the part that I don’t get, that maybe I would get if I were a philosopher”? You missed the last para of the post? You missed the whole thing where I start from “I’m not a philosopher so maybe I’m missing something”?

    It’s true that I didn’t repeat that in every single comment later, but I assumed it was implicit.

  34. says

    Ophelia, I have no idea what made you think I missed your expressions of uncertainty. Far from missing them, I even talked about them in a post at my blog this morning.

  35. says

    “But does it? If it starts with impossibilities, does it have implications for anything? This is what I don’t get.”

    An exceptionally quick reply: The whole point of this and its philosophical interest, to me, is aimed at determining if it IS impossible. If it turns out not to be impossible — at least conceptually — then that’s an interesting result for philosophy.

  36. says

    Bruce, I don’t know about that. When I spin a wheel, the outer tire causes the spokes to turn. But the spinning of both the tire and the spokes occurs simultaneously. This appears to be a case where X causes Y, but X is not prior to Y.

  37. MH says

    I have to admit I’m not certain what the entire confusion here is, since the blog entry you’re quoting seemed pretty straightforward to me. The project seems valuable for two separate reasons.

    First, there is such a thing as history of philosophy, which is valuable for any number of reasons. At the very least, it’s useful to get a good grasp on what Ockham was up to because Ockham was a very, very bright person working very hard. But it’s also often true that there are still useful insights to be gained from examining carefully what historical philosophers had to say about things, even if they are starting from positions that are obviously false.

    Secondly, it doesn’t take someone fully invested in studying philosophy to realize that the nature of (1) time, (2) causation, and (3) beliefs are both significant problems, and also ones with interesting and serious consequences down the road, for other disciplines. (I’m not sure who would doubt this, but philosophy of time is a pretty big deal both to philosophers and to physicists as well – it’s one of the big areas of overlap between upper level physics and philosophy, though there are others. Similarly, the nature of causation is probably relevant to how we go about understanding scientific investigations.)

    In the specific case, it matters (for example) whether we could say that decisions made now could affect something in the past (through the medium of some sort of hypothetical omniscient thingy that Ockham thought actually existed). And I mean that pretty literally: it matters whether we could say this and have it mean anything. If this claim is false that means one thing for our accounts, and if it’s not capable of being true or false that means a different thing. (Which one it is is far from obvious. That’s why it takes a lot of careful teasing out of consequences, general accounts, and picky philosophical work that only philosophers would be interested in reading.)

    In other words, it actually does make a difference to our accounts of the nature of time, and of causation whether or not the sentence “God knows what action I will perform tomorrow morning because my choosing that action brought about his knowledge” is like “God helped the Packers win the super bowl” (which is at least concievable if deeply unlikely), or the famous “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”.

    The project that’s being pursued here seems to be basically (1) to do some serious history of philosophy with regards to Ockham, and (2) to see if what Ockham had to say is relevant to contemporary debates and what useful bits can be dragged out of his system (especially with regards to the above point). I don’t see what’s especially confusing about this project.

  38. says

    Jean, what made me think you had missed my expressions of uncertainty was what you said:

    Ophelia, I think what you’re doing here is simply entering into a debate, not swiftly settling that there can be no debate. This is your position, and maybe you’re right, but an interesting and worthy opponent could argue against you.

    That clearly implies that I think I’m swiftly settling that there can be no debate and that I think no one could argue against me. I naturally replied to what you said here, not what you said on your blog (which I hadn’t seen).

  39. says

    Ben: the wheel may appear to turn simultaneously, but this is an artifact of poor perception. The center of the wheel starts moving too soon for the delay to be easily measurable, but not immediately. When you move point X on a solid object, point Y doesn’t move until after (distance between X and Y) * (speed of sound in the material).

  40. MH says

    If it starts with impossibilities, does it have implications for anything? This is what I don’t get.

    One brief follow up: the answer to this question is that this is often the case in philosophy. Here’s an example of a philosopher (Aristotle, in this case, because he’s always a good choice if you want an example of a philosopher) talking about the implications of impossibilities, and drawing an important actual consequence from them.

    For if, supposing the triangle to have its angles equal to two right angles, the quadrilateral must have them equal to four right angles, it is clear that the property of the triangle is the cause of this last. And if the triangle should change, then so must the quadrilateral, having six right angles if the triangle has three, and eight if it has four: but if the former does not change but remains as it was before, so must the quadrilateral. Eudemian Ethics, 1223a

    So the reason that mathematical proofs are explanatory is that if the starting points were different the results would have to be different as well (despite the fact that the starting point in question is in fact a necessary truth).

    So this is an example where something impossible (triangles having angles equal to three right angles) has clear implications (quadrilaterals having angles equal to six). And it’s worth noting that while it’s true that if triangles had angles equal to three right angles then quadrilaterals would have angles equal to six right angles, it’s not the case that you can put any old thing there – that is, this isn’t explosion. It’s not true that if triangles had angles equal to three right angles quadrilaterals would have angles equal to seven right angles. And the upshot of all this is that we can see why a geometric proof counts as an explanation of a particular result, even though it’s at best awkward to refer to the result as having been brought about by anything (since there was no point at which it was not true).

  41. says

    I like what Nathan said @ 33

    At one point, God says she doesn’t know what’s going to happen in the future, because while she knows everything that is *knowable,* the future is unknowable.

    I’m probably just being unimaginative or lazy or both – too lazy to push my imagination past the “that makes no sense” point – but that’s the point where I seem to stick. The future is unknowable.

    I have to say I think a lot of commenters here and elsewhere are being way too unsympathetic to the whole enterprise. Philosophy is not a big time-wasting fraud.

  42. Bruce S. Springsteen says

    Benjamin @38 –

    Who’s the spinner? If I have freedom to act, that makes me the spinner, but if I don’t, and I’m the wheel and Mr. God is the hub, who be the spinner?

    If I’m the one initiating the spinnin’ I’m winnin’, not God, whether my part of the wheel moves prior to the hub or not. True? If the hub is the source of the spinnin’ then I haven’t free wheel – er, will – at the rim? Seems you have introduced a meta cause outside the wheel…

    I still say God doesn’t know so much in any scenario.

  43. says

    Nathaniel, that’s fair. Here’s a possible rebuttal: at a micro-level, at any given place, there might be a slight lag between movements. But then we’re not talking about the tire anymore, we’re talking about the incremental parts that make up the wheel and the spokes. Since the question is posed in terms of the tire as a whole and the spokes taken as wholes — that is, as medium sized objects — the idea of simultaneous causation is still there.

    Admittedly, this may not seem very satisfying as an answer, because you’ve already put your finger on the punchline. It just appears this way to us so long as we insist on talking about medium-sized objects; that’s a fact about our perceptions, not reality. Hence, it’s not clear how we can take this example and apply it to (say) the origins of the universe.

    But if it seems initially plausible, then that ought to tell us something about what we’d be willing to say using the concept of ‘causation’ if a suitable cosmological story were to be crafted that was analogous. And, as it turns out, peculiar accounts of physical phenomena have been suggested by physicists which use the notion of causation in a bizarre but intuitive way.

    Take, for instance, the downwards causation thesis. This is essentially the idea that the makeup of the whole can (in some sense) determine the behavior of the parts; by analogy, that the behavior of the wheel can cause the behavior of the spokes. If our minds are willing to bend the concept of ‘causation’ in this way, then all we need is for the universe to actually make it useful for us to get away with using the concept.

    Here’s one possibility of that happening. Paul Davies argues against the “God vs. Multiverse (vs. Mere Chance)” argument. Davies argues that downwards causation might be a genuine third alternative as an explanation of how the universe began. This is, of course, a contentious thesis (which Davies himself refers to as a ‘woolly idea’). And granted, Davies has said some dodgy things in the recent past, particularly dodgy things outside of his field (e.g., about biology and faith) which I wouldn’t want to defend unless at gunpoint. But even so, it doesn’t follow that downwards causation is a piece of unmotivated and irrelevant metaphysics.

  44. quantheory says

    I actually would side with Dan over Ophelia here.

    Firstly, whether or not we are talking about “God” is sort of irrelevant. Any oracle or being with foreknowledge of the future could be substituted in (it’s not out of the question that you could make a similar argument with respect to a time traveler who claims to know about your future actions). God is a conveniently recognizable

    Secondly, there are some sizable questions about the nature of causality in philosophy. In physics, the difference between past and future that’s most relevant to causality is that “towards the future” is the direction in which entropy increases. But the question of what it is in nature (if anything) that corresponds to our intuitive conception of causality bit fuzzy. Whether causes can follow effects in time is an open question, and one that may eventually be scientifically soluble. But it’s also useful to ask whether one can philosophically give an account of causation in which causes do not always precede effects.

  45. quantheory says

    Oops. That sentence was supposed to read “God is just the most conveniently recognizable oracle.”

  46. says

    I’ve sort of come around to agreeing with Dan over me, too. I sad that on his follow-up post. I get that god isn’t needed – it was Verbose stoic’s goddy combination of foreknowledge with free will I was initially reacting to. I’ve decided I’m just being too lazy or unimaginative to try to get past the brick wall of knowing the future.

    Plus I find it distressing to read all the know-nothing comments about philosophy generated by this.

    This no doubt is how gnu atheists sound to critics on the subject of theology. But here’s what I think is the difference: if there were really good arguments for the existence of a god, they wouldn’t stay in theology departments and journals. That’s because all clerics everywhere would seize them and use them, and they would become universal among theists. People like John Haught and Alister McGrath would say more convincing things than they do.

    Tell me why that’s wrong.

  47. quantheory says

    I agree with you, but I think there’s a little bit more going on than the gnus sounding ignorant with respect to theology; theologians often come across as equally ignorant with respect to science (or even not-theology in general). As an example, the most common response I’ve seen to Dawkins’ “Ultimate 747 argument” is that most theologians think that God is “simple”, and therefore not vulnerable to arguments about its complexity.

    But there’s a very good reason why Dawkins shouldn’t take this seriously, beyond mere ignorance, which is that the idea of a “simple” person(/mind/consciousness) is itself absurd to a sufficiently scientifically literate person. Once one understands how complex the mind of a human being is, and how many parts are involved, the idea that something could be “simple” and yet still qualify as a person/mind/consciousness begins to seem wildly implausible.

    Perhaps scientists and philosophers of mind should know about such apologetic arguments, but at the same time they probably have good reasons to ignore this sort of argument. We can note that theologians find God’s simplicity plausible, whereas many secular philosophers and scientists do not seriously consider that there is a simple God. But that doesn’t tell us whether the problem is that the secular side is ignorant of or dismissive toward theology, or whether the problem is that theologians are ignorant of or dismissive toward modern discussions of the nature of consciousness and the mind.

  48. says

    “I get that god isn’t needed – it was Verbose stoic’s goddy combination of foreknowledge with free will I was initially reacting to.”

    Ophelia, could you please stop stating this as if that was my argument, as opposed to my summarizing what I thought Ockham’s argument was?

  49. says

    VS – well I didn’t know it was. It’s not clear where Ockham leaves off and you begin, especially since you’re guessing at what Ockham said in the first place. But sure, I’ll stop.

  50. Lyanna says

    Aquaria at Oct 28 at 12:40 pm: studying the real world is sometimes no more practical, or useful or concrete than the study of logical deductions. And yes, people who analyze god-hypotheticals are trying to communicate an idea! Why on earth would you think otherwise? I suppose some of them might be engaging in deliberate mendacity or resume-puffery, but I would not assume it of all or most of them without actual evidence of such.

    Ewan Macdonald: are you arguing that you can’t use a deity as part of a hypothetical because some people are forced to profess belief in certain deities? That’s unnecessarily constrictive, in my opinion. I’m not going to say that politics should have NOTHING to do with the hypotheticals that academics play with, but really, I think the connection between an ivory-tower philosopher playing with ancient medieval theist ideas and present-day impositions of religion on the unwilling is EXTREMELY tenuous.

    Matt Penfold: how do you know if you have an insight? Through deductive logic. That’s a different type of insight than that which comes through empirical study, and sometimes it’s much less valuable, but I’m not ready to dismiss it entirely.

    Ophelia Benson: your argument that the clerics would seize on theological arguments if those were powerful is wrong, I think, because much of academic theology is just not useful for the social agendas of these clerics. I am no expert on academic theology. But I think much if not most of it is socially liberal, and also somewhat abstract, and does not argue for a stern father-figure issuing unpleasant commands that MUST be obeyed. So it would be of no use to someone with a socially rigid and conservative agenda, which most clerics are.

    I suspect academic theology is also rather boring and dry and no one wants to read it, so the clerics haven’t.

    I am not making the argument that academic theology is intelligent because I don’t know if it is. But I wouldn’t infer that it’s not intelligent from the fact that clerics don’t use it. I have read “liberation theology” that strikes me as intelligent, but that’s a very political brand of theology that focuses on social justice rather than on arguments for a deity’s existence.

  51. says

    Lyanna, but I wasn’t arguing that academic theology isn’t intelligent. My point was that I don’t think it has good (convincing) arguments for the existence of god, on the grounds that if they did the arguments would be common currency. Your reply doesn’t really address that.

  52. Lyanna says

    I think it does. I said those arguments aren’t common currency because they mostly don’t help the social agendas of most clerics, who are the loudest religionists.

    They may or may not be intelligent. I don’t have an opinion on that.

  53. quantheory says

    @Lyanna:

    Arguments such as the cosmological and ontological arguments are neither very persuasive nor support a conservative social agenda, yet variants of them are at least moderately well-known. One wonders why one should expect that there’s a much better argument that is not more well-known, especially since conservative clerics, while common, do not have a monopoly on preaching.

    Also, “intelligence” is the wrong standard. The ontological argument probably did take at least some modest cleverness to come up with the first time. But it’s not a good argument because it seems like transparent cheating to anyone who does not already accept its conclusions. A “good” argument is one that is likely to convince a reasonable outsider who understands it. The apparent intelligence required to invent it makes no difference at all.

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