Philosophers and physicists duke it out


Update: omigod – tricked again. I so nearly missed it…you just can’t ever be careful enough.

I nearly missed it, and didn’t because one of the comments on An Explanation From Nothing? quoted Krauss saying “the nasty review in the Times by the templeton funded philosopher is bringing more people out of the woodwork…”

Oh? thought I, so naturally I googled, and yes David Albert is Templeton funded, and furthermore, the Explanation From Nothing blog is part of the project, so it too is Templeton funded. I had no clue. I thought it was just a blog like any other blog.

I’m not saying the people in the project are corrupted by Templeton, but I do think the Templeton role should be very visible. It shows if you get there via the project but it doesn’t if you don’t. That’s…dubious.

Naïve pre-update post

Here’s a change of pace for you – the relationship between physics and philosophy. Something you can get your teeth into.

It’s a follow-up to An Explanation From Nothing? which was about David Albert’s review of Laurence Krauss’ A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something rather than Nothing and drew comments from David Albert himself and from Sean Carroll and Lee Smolin.

Meanwhile in another part of the forest Krauss said in an interview that philosophers are big poopyheads who don’t know squat, and a number of philosophers disputed that claim, including Massimo Pigliucci and Brian Leiter.

I’ll give Leiter the last word, because I can.

My best guess is that the culture so celebrates physics, that physicists have come to believe the “PR” about them. Very good physicists tend to be very good at physics, and I, at least, am inclined to the view that if you want to know what really exists, it’s better to ask a scientist than a philosopher. But it’s not obvious that even talented physicsts are very smart about other matters, such as those that require conceptual clarity, subtle distinctions, reflectiveness about presuppositions, and the appreciation of logical and inferential entailments of particular propositions. More than anything, I hope Krauss’s tantrum and its aftermath will help disabuse the culture of the myth that being good at physics means being good at thought.

Comments

  1. Brian says

    Richard Carrier said something a propos in his Sense and Goodness (I think that’s the title), both atheists and religious propose something eternal at the bottom of everything. Atheists, the universe and religious an eternal god who created the universe. Krauss’ work equally fits into an eternal or created quantum vacuum I think. To me, positing an eternal god offers nothing to the explanation over an eternal universe, whatever its properties.

  2. 'Tis Himself says

    Krauss said in an interview that philosophers are big poopyheads who don’t know squat, and a number of philosophers disputed that claim, including Massimo Pigliucci and Brian Leiter.

    So Pigliucci and Leiter think philosophers are big poopyheads who do know squat. That must be encouraging to the other philosophers.

  3. Brian says

    So Pigliucci and Leiter think philosophers are big poopyheads who do know squat.
    I got the opposite out of Ophelia’s sentence. I got that they disputed that claim. In fact, I think the word dispute was in the sentence. But I suck at comprehension.

  4. Brother Yam says

    I got the opposite out of Ophelia’s sentence. I got that they disputed that claim. In fact, I think the word dispute was in the sentence. But I suck at comprehension.

    Actually, I believe she means that Philosophers aren’t big poopyheads and they don’t know squat.

  5. Lyanna says

    This isn’t duking it out. This is Krauss getting clobbered. Embarrassingly.

    Maybe the Templeton connection should be visible. Disclosure is always good, though it’s hard to see the value added here (does it clarify anything about David Albert’s argument? Not really–at best it MAY suggest he has pro-religious or pro-metaphysical motives for making it, which is neither here nor there).

    But Krauss is using the Templeton connection to get away with talking nonsense. He shoots his mouth off. David Albert critiques him. And then Krauss says the critique doesn’t count because, um, Templeton. That’s childish. If Templeton scholars produce bad reasoning, Krauss should be able to point to what in Albert’s critique is bad, rather than just saying “oohhh, Templeton.”

  6. Fred Nurke says

    I rather thought Krauss’s response to Albert, ad hom aside, was reasonable. That is, I thought he addressed the issue nicely. He clarified his definition of “nothing” which takes away Albert’s objection.

  7. Brian says

    Actually, I believe she means that Philosophers aren’t big poopyheads and they don’t know squat.
    Yeah, that. :)
    I do suck at comprehension.

  8. Robert B. says

    Can we please get some philosophers involved in physics? I would love, dearly love, for a big stack of epistemologists and metaphysicists to become calculus-literate so they can read up and develop informed opinions on string theory, the various interpretations of quantum mechanics, cosmology, and so on. Alternately, we could also teach physicists what words like “ontology” mean so they can have informed opinions on the problem of first cause etc. Whichever way we want to go. But dear Athe do we need this interdisciplinary competence to happen.

    The Albert review makes some good points – the analogy particles:fields::fist:fingers, for example, was very apt. But someone needs to explain to both Krauss and Albert that “why did the universe come to be?” is a wrong question. Causality is not, can’t be, an absolute law: it’s contingent, a consequence of the fact that we live in a region of continuous spacetime. In the neighborhood of a singularity (that’s “neighborhood” in its strict mathematical sense) it is not sensical to talk about “why.” And the Big Bang was a singularity.

    You can’t answer “why does the universe exist?” because “why” is itself a part of the universe. The urge to ask that question is just the bias of a brain built for continuous time.

    The fact that credentialed people are asking this addlepated question is evidence that there aren’t enough people who have the technical literacies to read both metaphysics and general relativity. Anyone who knows the technical definitions of both “why” and “universe” can figure this out pretty quick.

  9. Ant Allan says

    I don’t think that the Templeton connection makes Krauss look any less naïve about philosophy, although it might explain his ire at Albert.

    Tallis makes a veiled dig at Krauss (or maybe Hawking and Mlodinow) in the introduction to his latest book, In Defence of Wonder:

    Do not be deceived by the claims of scientists … that they are now able to say why the universe came into being. The explanations – disturbances in the quantum vacuum and that sort of stuff – are as flawed and unhelpful as the theological stories they aspire to replace. Anyone who feels that suns and stars and galaxies could have been spawned out of the mathematically demonstrated instabilities in Nothing hasn’t understood the question.

    Yet I haven’t yet seen a philosopher compellingly argue why there must have been a Nothing “before” there was something. But perhaps I just haven’t read widely enough. I’m a(n ex-)physicist after all… 

    /@

  10. Rudi says

    “I’m not saying the people in the project are corrupted by Templeton.”

    I am. Pretty much by definition if you accept templeton money, you have compromised the purity of the scientific enterprise, and we have a right to question your motives (which may, indeed, be pure, but you have forfeited the right to be considered automatically trustworthy).

  11. Dr_Enzyme says

    Pigliucci’s response struck me as being very good, and definitely worth reading.

    I’m not sure I agree with Leiter, though – would that he had comments open on that post. Maybe some of the problem is with physicists’ PR, but a huge amount of it is with philosophers’ poor PR. Philosophy, in the public imagination, is inseparable from the “Mind/ Body/ Spirit” section of bookshops. It’s contaminated by the idea that you can talk about “my philosophy”, usually in the context of some vague gibberish about god, or energy fields, or the memory of water.

    In other words, the popular view of the philosopher is a view of a wooly-minded idiot. And that’s why scientists sometimes feel entitled to very strange, disparaging views about philosophy and philosophers.

    And philosophers are very bad at countering this. Go to a philosophy department, and you’ll find it full of the least woo people on the planet; full of people who are at least more or less conversant with empirical science, and who worry about its limitations and its successes. The problem is that they – oh, all right: we – are very bad at getting the message across.

    Philosophy and science do very different things, for sure – but they’re complementary, and each can learn from the other.

  12. says

    I don’t think it’s fair to blame philosophers for the fact that bookstores shelve all the bullshit under “Philosophy”!

    My local neighborhood “independent” (read: has a high opinion of itself) bookstore does exactly that. I had a few idle minutes once so I told the people there that the stuff on the (diminutive) shelf labeled “philosophy” isn’t philosophy, and they laughed merrily and said a philosopher from the UW had once told them the same thing, but gee, it’s so hard to decide what is which, so.

    If I remember correctly the only actual philosophy on that shelf was a single Penguin Plato.

  13. says

    And I agree by the way that this is Krauss getting clobbered. Also that Templeton doesn’t necessarily make any difference…but I do think their role should be more visible. That blog is bizarre because the Templeton connection isn’t visible unless you start from the Rutgers project. I first got there via a link at Leiter’s and the Rutgers project was nowhere to be seen. Why hide it? Why is it invisible unless you already know about it?

  14. says

    My impression was a lot of philosophers don’t want to rock the boat, so to speak. My undergraduate philosophy of science professor Mario Bunge has been one of the ones calling out public BS all his (long) career, but this is unusual.

    I don’t understand the reluctance, myself (the heirs of Socrates not speaking out??), given that there are many other philosophers of physics who certainly know stuff. In fact, to get into the field one practically needs two advanced degrees.

  15. says

    Ant Allan,

    Yet I haven’t yet seen a philosopher compellingly argue why there must have been a Nothing “before” there was something. But perhaps I just haven’t read widely enough. I’m a(n ex-)physicist after all…

    I think the short form of current philosophical thinking on the matter is this:

    You can’t get something from nothing, meaning that you can’t get things that have existence from a starting point of completely and total non-existence. Thus, moves like this always involve starting from something that exists necessarily and so does not need to be caused to exist, which means that we never really did start with nothing. But then we have to figure out what that necessary something is, and that must be argued for … and is not something that you can prove by looking for it empirically, since necessary existence cannot be proven by looking at it.

    Thus, Krauss looks like he’s trying to refute the first sentence, but since he ends up positing what really is a something by that definition, he fails, as Albert points out. His next move to retreat to asking why the universe cannot be that thing simply gets philosophers rolling their eyes, not because he’s wrong but because a) yes, we’ve already thought of that one and are working on it and b) because he left out that whole “argument” part that’s kinda important.

    So, philosophers don’t give a compelling argument for there being nothing before there was something because that’s a highly problematic position. But rejecting that idea doesn’t, in fact, actually solve the origins problem.

  16. Robert B. says

    @ philosopher-animal:

    Don’t want to rock the boat? Seriously? There are professors of physics who think it doesn’t really matter whether you believe in Copenhagen or Many Worlds – or worse, that you have to believe in the older one – because they make the same predictions on the evidence. Falsifying the string theories is going to take a century at least – a century we haven’t started yet – unless we get lucky and a competing theory has some really remarkable successes. People are seriously wondering what caused time. What do these philosophers of physics think their job is?

  17. josh says

    Robert B.:
    The Big Bang as currently understood is not neccessarily a singularity (or even the beginning of the universe). Basically the Big Bang now refers to the rapid expansion of (our section of) the Universe roughly 13-14 billion years ago. If you naively trace that expansion backwards without limit you get a singularity, but there is every reason to think that we don’t fully understand the relevant physics at such high energies and densities. It’s like watching a ball thrown into the air slow down and reasoning that it must have been travelling infinitely fast in the past.

    I do think we need some critical thought about what a satisfactory answer to ultimate “why” questions would be, but I don’t think philosophers have any special talents to bring to the table, other than as generally intelligent and curious people. Adding “ontology” to the jargon really won’t advance our understanding.

  18. eric says

    VS @15:

    You can’t get something from nothing, meaning that you can’t get things that have existence from a starting point of completely and total non-existence.

    IIRC, Alberts’ complaint is that Krauss doesn’t address where the QM rules come from. The “something” of QM fluctuations is explained by the “something” of QM rules, so Krauss’ explanation does not demonstrate something from nothing. And I think this complaint is consistent with your ‘short form’ of current philosophical thought.

    But “you can’t get things that have existence from a starting point of completely and total non-existence” is a rule just like the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle is a rule. So its fair to ask: where did that rule come from? Are you assuming its necessary? If so, why? If not, doesn’t that imply that the initial state did not have that rule?

    I think we can rephrase the philosophical problem in a way that makes it a lot more tractable (and which, ironically, points to Krauss being right in a deeper sense than he knew): assuming an original state of no contingent rules at all, how could the current contingent rules set emerge?

    I say this is more tractable because there is an immediate answer that springs to mind: without the rule against something arising from nothing, there is no reason why it couldn’t. And Krauss’ comment ‘because nothing is unstable’ gets pretty close to the truth. An initial nothing-state of no rules is, IMO, much closer to the concept of chaos than it is the concept of emptiness. We would and should expect a ‘no rules’ initial state to be unstable precisely because there are no rules governing this state to prevent contingent rules from suddenly popping into existence.

  19. says

    eric,

    The problem with that translation is that you would have dropped all notion of “existence” from the problem, which is what the discussion is really about.

    As for the first rule … we don’t know that it’s true. But, again, if you want to argue that you can indeed get something from nothing — as I said Krauss was trying to do — you have to give an argument from that, and one that doesn’t start from what philosophically, in the problem, counts as “something”. If you start from something as defined in the problem, then as I said it turns out that you didn’t actually challenge that rule at all, but assumed it and are, at best, simply proposing a new thing to have necessary existence.

    But what I would also add is that that “rule” is not the same sort of rule as, say, a law of physics. Laws of physics — even QM rules — simply describe interactions among things, and so either you have to have things so that you can describe their interactions. Alternatively, you can make the laws of physics themselves have independent existence outside of the things whose interactions they describe … but then they are somethings as well. So when you use them to talk about “nothing”, you have things one way or another. Meanwhile, the “You cannot get something from nothing” is describing a logical, conceptual rule, and not simply describing how things interact. In short, that rule is like saying that you can’t have a square circle, which neither has existence in and of itself nor requires any real objects to exist at all.

  20. Robert B. says

    @ josh:

    We have a reasonable account, with solid physics and evidence, that takes us almost all the way to a hypothesized Big Bang. There isn’t any well-developed theory positing a universe of infinite age, which is what you would need to avoid the first cause issue entirely. (It’s interesting that the Big Bang may not have been a singularity, but my argument still applies in the neighborhood of any point from which timelike paths only go in one direction.) The situation is more analogous to watching a cannonball fly through the air, observing its trajectory, and concluding it must have been launched from the ground by some sort of directed explosion or other large force. We don’t need a schematic of a cannon to make this a reasonable hypothesis.

    And really, physicists don’t need to know what ontology is? Because I had two separate QM profs, at two different schools, who told me not to worry about what a quantum wavefunction really is, because the math makes correct predictions and that’s all that matters. They didn’t present it as an open problem, or a matter of controversy, they said it didn’t matter.

  21. says

    There’s a good explanation of the various positions on Why Evolution is True. Basically, Krauss’s nothing means no matter, while Carrol says that to have existing fields and laws is not nothing.

    But the real argument between scientists and philosophers seems to lie in the fact that philosophers often demand certainty, and when they don’t get it, they may pout and say that nothing is true. Scientists take uncertainty as a given, realize that we are all prone to self-deception, and then take extraordinary measures to work around this: mathematical rigor, peer review, and empirical research.

    Philosophy, on the other hand, is conducted in natural language, collects no data, and peer review often consists of various schools waging wars of opinion. Thought experiments really don’t count; they usually smuggle their conclusion in as an assumption. The potential for self deception is obvious, and the means for resolving disputes is virtually non existent. It seems that every school of philosophy that has ever been proposed is still current in some corner of academia. In science, this would be like have Ptolomaic and Copernican astronomy, flat and round earth believers, creationists and evolutionists, all working within the field concurrently. In other words, philosophy does not advance unless it evolves into science, and scientists dabbling in philosophy don’t seem to help much.

    The situation with theology is much worse. Theology operates in a perfect blind spot, using social intuitions to arrive at statements about the physical world, actively despises evidence, nearly always embraces contradictions as premises (allowing for any conclusion you desire), and conducts peer review by military force. While valuable as an art form expressing subjective experiences, it is utterly worthless as a means to objective knowledge. Unfortunately there’s no hard line between philosophy and theology, and philosophers often take up residence in this blind spot.

    Krauss’s argument is relevant to arguments in theology, since all arguments for divine creation of the universe situate god in a context or existing situation (causality, time, intentionality, etc.) This is actually bad theology; Acquinas’ argument for the perfect freedom of god insists that if anything limits god (such as a context) it would be more powerful than god, and the limitation itself would be god. Krauss simply takes the context as a given and eliminates god as unnecessary.

  22. Robert B. says

    @ Verbose Stoic:

    Meanwhile, the “You cannot get something from nothing” is describing a logical, conceptual rule, and not simply describing how things interact.

    Not the case! That’s what I’ve been trying to say. Causality is just a description of how the universe changes continuously with time. It’s contingent, it’s local. If you try to say precisely what “why” or “cause” means, you have to use time in the definition. And spacetime is something, not nothing. (It even has energy, though fgwgaz if we know what that means.) To ask why there is something and not nothing is to use the rules of spacetime to talk about something that must have preceded spacetime (logically if not chronologically). It’s formally invalid. There’s no explanation there to get.

    Here’s something to think about: causality works in both directions. Mathematically, physically, an event that has no effect is exactly as strange as an event that has no cause. But one feels stranger than the other. Something that seems to have no cause “demands an explanation” in a way that something seeming to have no effect does not. “What would cause a Big Bang?” feels like a more important question than “What would be the result of a Big Crunch?” But in physics, these questions are symmetric, they concern equal anomalies.

    We seem to be looking at a cognitive bias here. Two things are objectively equal but we perceive a difference. Apparently humans tend to overemphasize the importance of “why?” questions, as compared to, say, “then what?” questions. This is exactly the sort of bias that would make us assume that “why?” or “what caused it?” is a sensible question to ask even in cases where it is not.

  23. says

    Ok now I’m really going to have to insist that no one write any more interesting blog posts on this subject. I’m writing about it for my Philosophers’ Mag column and I can’t keep up!

  24. Robert B. says

    Would we be able to read that article, Ophelia, when it’s published? Or is there a paywall or subscription or something?

  25. says

    Robert B.,

    Causality is just a description of how the universe changes continuously with time. It’s contingent, it’s local. If you try to say precisely what “why” or “cause” means, you have to use time in the definition.

    Well, that’s ONE conception of causation, and if you’re right then certain things follow. The real question, though, is over what reason you have to think yourself right and if we have reason to think you wrong. Causation as a concept is a heavily debated one in philosophy, with a long and storied history, and so it isn’t going to be that simple to simply define it the way you do.

    Take this way of looking at it, which I won’t say is entirely the standard concept of causation but is certainly one way that seems to capture some of the important things about it:

    When we say “C causes E”, what we really mean by this is that E is dependent on C. So, basically, E exists/happens because C does. Thus, in any causal chain, we say that A happens/exists because B does, and B happens/exists because C does, and so on and so forth. Note, however, that there’s no notion of time in there; it’s a strict dependence relation. So, translating it to the First Cause problem, we say that A cannot happen/exist without B happening/existing, and B cannot happen/exist without C happening, and so A also cannot happen/exist unless C happens, and so on. Now, talking about this often allows for a loose translation to “B must happen/exist before A does”, which seems to introduce a notion of time, and since so far we’ve only seen forwards causation it thus also seems valid empirically, but we can see that that’s only a loose translation of what it really means to be a cause. Thus, when time breaks down at the Big Bang it is a mistake to assume that causation also does, because it is a mistake to define causation in terms of time dependence. The loose way of talking has been misleading, and misleads us into thinking that time matters to causation when it likely doesn’t.

    If this conception is right — and there’s a lot to say in its favour — then your argument for time dependence seems undermined.

    Here’s something to think about: causality works in both directions. Mathematically, physically, an event that has no effect is exactly as strange as an event that has no cause.

    But whether the physical — assuming by that you mean the definition and physics and not the one derived from simply looking at everyday interactions — or mathematical definitions imply that doesn’t settle whether that is true by the actual concept of causation, and it seems patently false that this does apply to the actual concept of causation. Let’s look at the example of a pool shot. The cue stick strikes the cue ball, which strikes other cue balls and sets them in motion. Eventually, all the movement stops and nothing else is moving, and thus we can say that we have had a cause — the cue stick striking the cue ball — that produced effects — the balls moving — that eventually had no further effects. Thus, we can easily see how we can have effects with no further effect, and so events with no further effect. But if you take the cue stick event out and still start the causal chain, this is problematic. How did we get those effects without the starting cause? And so we have to ask what caused the cue ball to start moving, and so an effect without a cause really does seem far more problematic.

    The issue here, I think, is that you are missing that while it is in the definition of cause that it has an effect — something cannot be called a cause if it doesn’t produce an effect — there is nothing in the definition of an effect that says that it must produce an effect. Any effect that produces an effect is not merely an effect, but is instead an effect that is also a cause. So, can we have effects that are not causes themselves? Yes, as being an effect and being a cause are two states that are not identical and yet are not incompatible either. But we can’t have a cause without an effect by definition. And therefore, it is also the case that by definition an effect must have a cause. Now, it may be possible to have events that have no cause, but then they can’t be effects, which means that they aren’t causal events and aren’t in any causal chain … and having things, then, outside of causal chains is likely to be … problematic, to say the least.

  26. Robert B. says

    @ Verbose Stoic:

    It is just a fact that there are a fundamental continuity laws over time. Without getting into the math, I can describe them in terms of conservation: certain quantities, like energy and momentum, are “conserved” or remain constant over time. Any change in a conserved quantity can be traced, along a time-like or light-like path, to another object in which that quantity has also changed, in such a way that the total of that quantity in the whole system is constant in time. (That bit about paths is important – it means that these interactions only happen in such a way that one end is unambiguously before the other in time.)

    That’s a back-of-the-envelope explanation of what physicists mean by causality. It is not controversial, or a matter for any serious debate. If there were a physicist who gave a different-sounding explanation of causality, they and I could talk math at each other for a while and prove that the two definitions were equivalent or that one implied the other. And this theory (even if you dispute its proper name) is not just an idea or a proposal but empirically verified fact. By the evidence of zillions of experiments, it really exists and must be accounted for.

    The best you can possibly do is show that there’s something about causality which is not explained by these physical laws. And then you would have to show that this extra something actually exists, rather than just speculating that it might or could exist.

    And btw, your example with the billiard balls is inaccurate. You say that “eventually all the movement stops” but this is not the case at all. Friction has taken the kinetic energy and the momentum and transferred them to the felt and the surfaces of the balls as heat. And heat is microscopic motion, so the same kinetic energy and the same net momentum – the same amount of movement, in any definable sense – is still there. And the heat is caused by the friction, which is caused by the rolling and bouncing balls, which is caused by the cue stick etc. And all those tiny untrackable heat movements continue to have tiny untrackable collisions with things and have tiny untrackable effects, forever. For the chain of causation to stop would break those conservation laws I mentioned earlier. There is no such thing, in continuous time, as an event without effects.

  27. says

    Robert B.,

    Well, it looks like we have philosophers and physicists duking it out here as well … at least a little bit [grin].

    It is just a fact that there are a fundamental continuity laws over time. Without getting into the math, I can describe them in terms of conservation: certain quantities, like energy and momentum, are “conserved” or remain constant over time.

    Well, sure, it’s a fact about this current universe … or, at least, we think it is. It’s quite possible we could be wrong about that, but let’s go with it for now. But if we talk about what happens before the Big Bang or multiverses, what we can clearly see is that those laws may not hold anywhere except in this specific instance of a universe. So, what we want is a concept of causality that is independent of any particular instantiations of causality, so that we can say what it would mean to be a cause in any of these cases. And we can see that even in the case of this universe we need that, because we need to have some way of identifying whether the physical concept of causation actually maps to anything like causation, or is just the same name being used for something completely different. Which is really important if you’re trying to answer the philosophical problem of First Cause, as Krauss and even Hawking seem to be doing.

    And we can see that when we get to the question of origins, that using the physcial definition runs into major problems because the point we’re talking about is, in fact, precisely the point where the physical laws we observe in this universe break down. We have no reason to think that any of that continuity of time or those conservation laws are in play before or even during the Big Bang, and so you end up with two choices. You can either declare those laws are necessary and so apply to all possible universe, but you can’t possibly justify that using empirical observation of this one. Alternatively, you can say that because the laws break down at that point, there just isn’t anything like causation anymore, but then you would clearly be using a definition of causation that is not the one being used in the actual problem, and so have no hope of solving it without proving that your definition of causation is the right one indepedently of how it is currently implemented in this universe. Thus, ultimately, you need that independent definition of causality to deal with this problem, even if it ends up being yours. But I see no reason to think that yours is right, based on the argument I gave before. And you can’t appeal to its empirical superiority for the reasons I just outlined.

    You say that “eventually all the movement stops” but this is not the case at all. Friction has taken the kinetic energy and the momentum and transferred them to the felt and the surfaces of the balls as heat.

    I just KNEW you were going to bring this up [grin]. But recall what you said that I was replying to:

    Mathematically, physically, an event that has no effect is exactly as strange as an event that has no cause. … We seem to be looking at a cognitive bias here. Two things are objectively equal but we perceive a difference.

    The answer is that they AREN’T objectively equal. Conceptually, we can easily conceive of an event that has no effect while an event that has no cause is a lot more problematic. In fact, in this world our quick and dirty view is that the latter happen all the time while the former never occur. That in most cases you can indeed say that in this world most effects are also causes doesn’t change the conceptual problem, and so we’re quite right to think that there is a bigger problem with an event not having a cause than with an event not having a further effect. The question is whether we are wrong about that, or whether or how events without causes can occur. And for that, we really do need to know in detail what we mean by “cause”. I argue that it is something like a dependence relation, and that is indeed how it is used in the “Something from nothing” debate. You may want to use the physical/mathematical definition, but you don’t get to simply say that that reflects the proper concept, especially when you know that philosophy is not using it that way. You must argue for it.

    The problem between science and philosophy, in my opinion, is that scientists too often think that looking at the instances tells them everything they need to know about the concepts, and philosophers too often think that looking at the concepts tells them everything they need to know about the instances. Neither are true.

  28. Robert B. says

    Verbose Stoic,

    Well, it looks like we have philosophers and physicists duking it out here as well … at least a little bit [grin].

    I minored in philosophy – that bit about interdisciplinary expertise wasn’t just a stray thought. How’s your science background?

    But if we talk about what happens before the Big Bang or multiverses, what we can clearly see is that those laws may not hold anywhere except in this specific instance of a universe.

    There’s no evidence that “before the Big Bang” is a sensible statement. I haven’t seen any math on the shape of the Big Bang, but it could easily be that it’s simply an extremum of the time dimension, that spacetime curves around so that, from the Big Bang, every direction is toward the future. It would be like saying “north of the North Pole” – there is no such place. And neither Many Worlds nor M-theory allows for the fundamental laws of physics to change in other parts of a multiverse, in their very different meanings of that term.

    The basic flaw in this argument is that it assumes that if you go far enough away (through space, time, quantum decoherence, higher dimensions, what have you) that somehow the laws of physics might change. But it gives no reason to think that this might be so. For all we know, there are undiscovered principles in mathematics that make it logically impossible for the laws of physics to be other than they are. Which means there’s no reason to think there’s any validity to your claim that physics is insufficiently “independent.”

    Frankly I find this move of yours rather troubling. People who spend their time thinking of reasons why they don’t have to listen to evidence have a poor track record of accuracy.

    Conceptually, we can easily conceive of an event that has no effect while an event that has no cause is a lot more problematic.

    But it doesn’t actually matter what’s problematic conceptually. “Conceptually problematic” just means that human brains have a hard time thinking about it. But that’s not any kind of standard of truth – human brains have an easy time thinking about all sorts of egregiously false things, and a hard time thinking about plenty of demonstrably true ones. What we need to decide is whether an event with no effect is logically or physically problematic. And it is physically problematic, as I’ve explained, in exactly the same way that an event with no cause is physically problematic.

    You may want to use the physical/mathematical definition, but you don’t get to simply say that that reflects the proper concept, especially when you know that philosophy is not using it that way. You must argue for it.

    The universe has no need to respect our concepts, but rather the other way around. What could the “proper concept” of causality be, except the one that actually describes the way events follow from each other in the real world?

    In any case, a definition is not a complete description. Remember the ancient philosopher – I think Plato – who defined a human as a “featherless biped,” until some wag held up a plucked chicken? Our concepts and definitions are only a shorthand, a quick and easy way to put a hugely complex universe into simple categories. Plato didn’t know that a human body is composed of microscopic cells, and he didn’t need to know that to say correctly which objects were humans and which were not. But in fact it’s the case – being composed of cells is a necessary condition for being human.

    It might be that we can define causality as a dependence relation, and use that definition to correctly categorize every possible pair of events as either being or not being a cause-effect pair. And yet it might still be the case that temporality is a necessary condition for causality. The only way to know that, one way or another, is to do as you suggest and consider both instances and concepts – to look at all the instances of causality and generalize, not on what they just happen to have in common, but on what is always necessary for their nature and function.

  29. says

    Robert B.,

    I minored in philosophy – that bit about interdisciplinary expertise wasn’t just a stray thought. How’s your science background?

    My first degree was Computer Science, and I filled my Science and Science/Business requirements with physics and astrophysics specifically. I’m currently enrolled in Cognitive Science.

    The basic flaw in this argument is that it assumes that if you go far enough away (through space, time, quantum decoherence, higher dimensions, what have you) that somehow the laws of physics might change.

    Actually, no, it doesn’t. It simply makes the reasonable assumption that the laws of physics as we know them were essentially set when this particular universe came into existence, and could be completely different in other universes or outside of — to avoid the whole “before” snafu — the Big Bang. Thus, we can’t simply take the laws of physics as we see them in this universe and declare that they hold universally. As I said, if you want to use the laws of physics to make this sort of argument you’ll have to show that they apply universally, and that means doing far more than just looking at this universe and how they work in this one. Otherwise, all you have is a possible answer, no better motivated than any other, like God.

    For all we know, there are undiscovered principles in mathematics that make it logically impossible for the laws of physics to be other than they are.

    And when you find them, then we can talk. My argument is not that it is impossible for there to be such laws, but is merely that based on the current evidence all you have is exactly this: for all we know, there might be. Well, for all we know there might be a god-like entity that is responsible for the creation of the universe as well. Philosophy has long considered such possibilities when dealing with the Something from Nothing problem; what it wants now in purported solutions are more than mere possibilities.

    What we need to decide is whether an event with no effect is logically or physically problematic. And it is physically problematic, as I’ve explained, in exactly the same way that an event with no cause is physically problematic.

    Well, what I argued was that while an event that has no further effect — ie an effect that is not itself a cause — is neither logically nor physically problematic, and obviously so, an event that has no cause is in fact both more problematic logically and physically. Physically because we’ve never seen anything remotely like that in this world, and logically for all the reasons that are usually given saying that we need a first cause. Now, I don’t say impossible, but it is problematic, and it is the analysis of the concepts that tells us why.

    What could the “proper concept” of causality be, except the one that actually describes the way events follow from each other in the real world?

    And this is exactly the underlying issue that causes problems. For a concept, it has to track all possible instances, not just the ones that are actually implemented. So, a concept must be able to cover the ones that we know exist, but must cover the ones that don’t exist — or that we, at least, don’t think exist — as well. So you can’t easily claim that an instance in the real world is not an example of a concept merely to maintain conceptual purity. But by the same token, limiting the concept to only explaining the instances we have or claiming that exhausts it isn’t proper either.

    What’s important about this is that I cannot say that if the concept of causation allows for, say, time independent notions of cause that therefore in this universe either our instances must be time independent or that there must be time independent instances of causation in this world, which I am explicitly not saying. But, on the other hand, you cannot say that because the instances so far in this universe are time dependent that all instances of causation must be so and that thus contenders to your theory of origins must be dismissed, or that the problem of origins is no longer a problem, which I’m not sure if you’re arguing that or not.

    My objection to most of the responses to the origins problem is that they very much seem to do the latter.

    In any case, a definition is not a complete description.

    I argue that a concept is more than a mere definition, and so more than a mere description, which to me is what makes philosophy philosophy. But that’s a long discussion that’s a bit off-topic here.

    The only way to know that, one way or another, is to do as you suggest and consider both instances and concepts – to look at all the instances of causality and generalize, not on what they just happen to have in common, but on what is always necessary for their nature and function.

    I agree with this — obviously — but my objection is that it seems to me that in your argument you are focusing too much on the instances and what they happen to have in common, and not on what is necessary for their nature. Even your human example and claiming that humans must be made up of cells is a bit like that, depending on what you’re using it for. Sure, the biological definition of human includes that, and so as a simple classification it works, but it fails if we want to see if we need to apply, for example, “human rights” to things. The same thing applies here, it seems to me: when we are looking at places where these laws of physics may not apply, arguing that this universe’s instances include it doesn’t really do anything to the argument. And thus, as I said, an argument must be made for that.

  30. Robert B. says

    My first degree was Computer Science, and I filled my Science and Science/Business requirements with physics and astrophysics specifically. I’m currently enrolled in Cognitive Science.

    Excellent! Let’s get some work done.

    I’m starting to get a grip on your position here. Let me lay out what I understand you to be saying:

    You intend to explore a more general concept of causality, one that is not limited just to the specific causes and effects that we’ve looked at. When you mention other universes, you don’t seem to be making an argument that requires such places to actually exist. Your point is, because they might exist, we can’t limit our concept of causality to just the physics we observe. We need the concept to include all sorts of causality, not just the ones we’ve found. For this reason, you hold that a proper concept of causality is not rooted in empiricism, but rather in logic – for example, the logic that tells us what the set of all possible universes might look like.

    Assuming I’m right about what you’re saying, here is the problem I see with it: How then do you know what you know about causality? If you don’t allow empiricism at all, then how do you decide what goes in the concept in the first place – i.e., how do you know that a dependence relation is important to causality, while, say, being colored red is not?

    And if we include empiricism but only trust it to a limited extent, how do we continue from there? When we observe instances of causality, every event we look at has a cause, and every cause-effect pair is situated and ordered in time. How, then, do we determine that “everything has a cause” is properly a part of the concept of causality, while “causation is temporal” is not?

    An exercise: suppose I didn’t believe in causality. It’s not part of my intuitions at all. If you said something like “the idea of an event without a cause is problematic,” I don’t just disagree, I have no idea why you would say that. I see things happening, of course, one after another, but I don’t realize I’m looking at cause-and-effect; it’s not clear to me that this kind of relationship exists in my everyday life. I’m still a reasonable person, though – I can be convinced of things and learn new ideas. How would you build your concept of causality for me? How would you show me that this concept contains things that are logically necessary? How would you convince me, for example, that all events really must have causes?

  31. says

    Robert B.,

    Well, my point on that is two-fold. I am saying that for conceptual work you have to work with all possible instances and not just the ones we’ve seen (ie that exist in this world) but am also pointing out that even by what we think about physics it is certainly not clear that the physical laws would apply to other universes or, in fact, to anything outside of this one, including the Big Bang. So, to me, there’s an issue on both counts.

    On the matter of the uncaused event/event that is not cause, recall that I am not, in fact, claiming that all events absolutely must have causes. I was reacting precisely to your claim that events without causes are exactly as strange as events without any further effect, and I pointed out that in our common experience events with no at least easily observable effect are frequent, while events without causes aren’t, which makes the latter more strange. So, in answer to your question, I’d start with the billiards example, and note how strange it would be to think that the cue ball just started moving for absolutely no reason, while we can imagine the balls eventually stopping moving and nothing else meaningful happening really easily.

    Now, I am of the firm belief that we do need some kind of First Cause that has necessary existence, although I think I can argue that that won’t be an event. To argue that, I’d simply point out that when we talk about events we generally talk about them as having demarcations: they have a beginning and an ending and effectively a “duration”. There is a point where the event is not happening and an event where it is. An infinite event would be problematic, especially if that included the “start”.

    On the other hand, an OBJECT with necessary existence doesn’t have that problem. If that object is also something that can start causal chains, then we can easily solve the origins problem by saying that it always existed, and it then caused the first event, thus leaving events to have demarcations while still having something that has necessary existence. now, of course, figuring out WHAT that thing is is the hard part.

    So, of course empirical instances of any concept count, because all instances are of interest in forming the concept, but the empirical instances are not, in fact, the be-all-and-end-all of a concept. And thus we use things like thought experiments to try to generate new instances that we can then either include or exclude from the concept, thus sharpening our view of what is really required by that concept and what isn’t.

  32. Robert B. says

    So, in answer to your question, I’d start with the billiards example, and note how strange it would be to think that the cue ball just started moving for absolutely no reason, while we can imagine the balls eventually stopping moving and nothing else meaningful happening really easily.

    So you’d teach me about causality by misleading me about physics? That’s… unpromising. I’ve explained to you how in fact everything (in our universe’s physics) does indeed have effects, and you haven’t offered a counterargument. In fact by using mitigating words like “meaningful” you admit that – you’re basically saying “yes there actually are effects but we’re not looking at them.” Just because we humans don’t care about some effects doesn’t mean they don’t exist or somehow don’t count as effects.

    (Not to mention, I stipulated that my causality-denying alter-ego doesn’t have causality intuitions. You can’t just say it’s “strange,” because it’s not strange to me, you have to give me reasons or evidence.)

    Now, I am of the firm belief that we do need some kind of First Cause that has necessary existence

    This is a flat-out contradiction in terms. Your concept of causality prominently features a dependence relation. In other words, what is necessary is the effect, and the cause is whatever is sufficient for the effect. What it means for a cause to be necessary, in your concept, is that it is also an effect of something else. Otherwise, what makes it necessary? But a “First Cause” is by assumption not an effect of anything.

    And thus we use things like thought experiments to try to generate new instances that we can then either include or exclude from the concept, thus sharpening our view of what is really required by that concept and what isn’t.

    The only thing thought experiments tell us about is thoughts. Specifically, our thoughts, human thoughts. (For example, the Chinese Room thought experiment tells us only what we mean by the word “understand.” It does not tell us, say, how understanding actually works, or whether a very good simulation of understanding could produce the same practical results as “real” understanding.) And if it’s wrong to generalize from our physics to the whole multiverse, surely it’s even more wrong to generalize from the human brain to the whole multiverse. Unless, of course, you can show that the thoughts in question are in fact necessary and universal – that’s what logic is. But I’ve never seen a thought experiment that could be recast as a valid logical proof.

  33. says

    Robert B.,

    So you’d teach me about causality by misleading me about physics? That’s… unpromising.

    And if I were trying to teach physics, it would be a problem. But I’m not. That example is merely an illustration of why events with no cause are more problematic than events with no further effect. Unless the person gets into nitpicking over the actual physics, it does that job wonderfully by showing that we can easily see and understand the balls no longer moving, but that thinking about the cue ball just suddenly starting to move for no reason causes issues.

    (Not to mention, I stipulated that my causality-denying alter-ego doesn’t have causality intuitions. You can’t just say it’s “strange,” because it’s not strange to me, you have to give me reasons or evidence.)

    Hence, the illustration, which relies not on intuitions about causality but on an understanding of common, everyday experience. If you want to take that away from your alter-ego as well, then there’s really nothing I can do except lecture to them.

    In other words, what is necessary is the effect, and the cause is whatever is sufficient for the effect. What it means for a cause to be necessary, in your concept, is that it is also an effect of something else.

    Um, no. For something to be a cause, it has to have an effect, or else it isn’t a cause, but that is not what I mean when I talk about something being “necessary” in the sense of it being a First Cause and having necessary existence. Hence, the discussion of how events likely need to have causes and so cannot be a First Cause, but an object that has causal powers can be necessary in the sense that it has necessary existence and then can cause the first causal chain and be, thus, a First Cause.

    The only thing thought experiments tell us about is thoughts. Specifically, our thoughts, human thoughts.

    I argue that good thought experiments generate instances for us to try to incorporate into our concepts, and also to test our concepts against, and so they tell us a bit more than that. I don’t think of them as merely intuition pumps, at least not in any sense stronger than actual instances from the world are when we’re talking about concepts.

    And if it’s wrong to generalize from our physics to the whole multiverse, surely it’s even more wrong to generalize from the human brain to the whole multiverse.

    But I don’t do that, as I’ve already said. I’m not saying that the concept we derive here is the case in any universe, this one or any other. All I argue is that one cannot say that we simply couldn’t talk about causation if it doesn’t match how the instances in THIS world work. As long as the alternatives match the concept, the issues raised by that concept hold unless we can demonstrate that the instances we are dealing with skirt that problem … which you cannot do once you get outside this universe for anything derived directly from physical observation, both conceptually and physically.

    In short, I’m not saying anything about how causation is IMPLEMENTED anywhere else. I’m simply saying that the implementation in this world is not the only one compatible with the concept, and that you have no reason to think that the implementation we see in THIS universe applies to any other case.

  34. Robert B. says

    But… wait. If the billiard ball illustration, as you present it, is counter to the physics – if it doesn’t really happen that way – then what is actually making events without effects unproblematic? Why is it valid to conclude that there’s no problem with that? If you can only demonstrate this concept to me by lying, what makes you think it’s any good? You’ve admitted that your concept of causality does have to be consistent with those instances we’re aware of, and frankly it just isn’t.

  35. says

    Robert B.,

    If you can only demonstrate this concept to me by lying, what makes you think it’s any good?

    Please don’t jump to accusations of “lying”, particularly in a case where you’re nitpicking over the physics and I’m essentially conceding that to you. It’s an illustration, and example, or, if you like, a thought experiment; it doesn’t need to represent the physics 100% accurately, and to insist on it being so is, in fact, generally used either as a dishonest tactic to avoid addressing the underlying point being illustrated or, I hope, as a sign that you really don’t get what’s being demonstrated and are focusing on niggling details instead of the actual point.

    Although the fact that you harped on this nitpick that I EXPLICITLY called a nitpick in my response instead of, oh,
    the entire rest of the response is not promising.

    To remind you of what I said it illustrated:

    …it does that job wonderfully by showing that we can easily see and understand the balls no longer moving, but that thinking about the cue ball just suddenly starting to move for no reason causes issues.

    You went on to say:

    You’ve admitted that your concept of causality does have to be consistent with those instances we’re aware of, and frankly it just isn’t.

    How? I’m not in any way arguing that you cannot have an infinite chain of effects. Never argued that at all. I argued that it is indeed stranger conceptually to think of events with no cause than of events with no further effect, and that does seem to match our actual experience even if the underlying physics — that we generally cannot observe through everyday reasoning — doesn’t work this way in this world. That difference out-and-out demonstrates that there is at least reason to think the one stranger than the other, and we can see why: an effect must have a cause by definition, but an effect need not itself be a cause.

    Now, there is no claim here that there absolutely positively cannot be events without a cause. I argued that separately, and you ignored that argument. So, instead of focusing on that nitpick could you please go and address that part of the argument that is indeed actually relevant to the discussion?

  36. socratus says

    God as a Scientist : Ten Scientific Commandments.
    ===.
    Can a Rational Individual believe in God ?
    In other words:
    Can God be atheist, governed by scientific laws?
    Of course
    Because if God exists, He/She/It would necessarily
    to work in an Absolute Reference Frame and had set of
    physical and mathematical laws to create everything
    in the Universe.
    If we find and understand this Absolute God’s House then
    is possible step by step to find and understand God’s Physics
    Laws, which Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, Maxwell, Planck,
    Einstein and many others scientists discovered.
    #
    Has God known the formula: E=Mc^2 ?
    If God has known the formula why HE / SHE /IT
    didn’t write it in His Bible?
    =========..
    The people created a God.
    No one knows what the external characteristics
    of this God are, a God who made himself known
    with the name ” I am who I am “.
    Is it enough for us in the XXIc ?
    Why wasn’t the formula E=Mc^2 written in the Bible?
    ===============. .
    Each religion uses a system of symbols
    (images, metaphors, ancient myths and legends ,
    beautiful stories) to explain its truth.
    But Bernard Shaw wisely remarked :
    “ There is only one religion,
    although there are a hundred versions of it.”
    It means that the source of all religion is one.
    And I try to prove this idea with the formulas and laws of
    physics. I don’t invent new formulas. I use simple formulas
    which ,maybe, every man knows from school.
    Is it possible? Is it enough?
    Yes. Because the evolution goes from simple to the complex.
    So, in the beginning we can use simple formulas and laws.
    For this purpose I explain what the first law of Universe is,
    and second law is and ………..etc.
    Step by step I create a logical system of the Universe.
    ============= . .
    How can God be Scientist?
    Scheme,
    Fundamental Theory of Existence: Ten Scientific Commandments.
    1 The infinite Vacuum T=0K, E= ∞ ,p= 0, t=∞ .
    2 The particle: C/D = pi, R/N= k, E = Mc^2 = kc^2, h = 0, c=0, i^2= -1
    3 The spins: h =E/t , h =kb, h* = h/2pi
    4 The photon, the inertia: h=1, c=1
    5 The electron: e^2 = h*ca, E = h*f , c>1 electromagnetic field
    6 The gravitation, the star, the time and space: h*f = kTlogW
    7 The Proton: (p)
    8
    The Evolution of interaction between Electron and Proton
    a) electromagnetic
    b) nuclear
    c) biological
    9
    The Laws
    a) The Law of conservation and transformation energy/mass
    b) The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle / Law
    c) The Pauli Exclusion Principle/ Law
    10
    The test.
    Every theory must be tested logically ( theoretical ) and practically
    a) Theory of brain: Dualism of Consciousness.
    b) Practice : Parapsychology. Meditation.
    ========.
    Best wishes
    Israel Sadovnik Socratus
    ============.
    #
    “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”
    It means:
    The secret of God and Existence is hidden
    in the ‘ Theory of Vacuum and Light Quanta ‘.
    #
    I want to know how God created this world
    I am not interested in this or that phenomenon,
    in the spectrum of this or that element
    I want to know His thoughts; the rest are details
    / Einstein /
    ==========.

  37. Robert B. says

    The specific billiard ball example doesn’t seem too important, but you’re really committed to the part of your concept where it’s much stranger for something to lack a cause than it is to lack an effect. You say this is supported by our everyday experience, but not by the underlying physics.

    But the underlying physics is what actually happens! If our experience is unsupported by the physics, then our experience is wrong. It’s like you’re basing your concept on an optical illusion. There’s no good reason to think lacking a cause is more strange than lacking an effect, because everywhere we’ve ever looked those two things happen with exactly the same frequency – namely, never.

    I’m not trying to nitpick, I’m trying to get at your epistemological methods. I want to know where this concept of yours comes from. It’s been your position all along that you’re using a certain concept of causality, but you haven’t shown me any support for that concept except appeals to common sense and philosophical tradition, neither of which are valid. When I tried to pin you down on how you would explain and support this concept to someone who’d never seen it before, you said that you’d illustrate it with a false physical example, and that’s worse than invalid.

    Since the whole conversation is about our contrasting concepts of causality, the justification for your concept is not nitpicky, it’s central. We can’t just skip this. You have all these ideas about causality, but why do you believe what you believe?

  38. says

    Robert B.,

    Um, we’re still talking about concepts here, and so saying this:

    But the underlying physics is what actually happens! If our experience is unsupported by the physics, then our experience is wrong. It’s like you’re basing your concept on an optical illusion.

    Completely misses the whole point and the whole discussion. So, let’s look at an optical illusion. Is it conceptually possible that a stick could bend when we push it into water? Yes. Absolutely. We don’t doubt that the stick bends in water because there’s something about the concepts of sticks or water that says that this is simply logically impossible and so there’s no conceptual way that that could happen. We doubt it because as we look at the instance properties of sticks and water in this world it doesn’t seem like it could happen. That’s a completely different problem than, say, asking if a stick could be hard and soft at the same time (outside of perceptual differences). So, again, looking only at the concepts we don’t drive our examinations of them by what happens to happen.

    The same thing applies to the billiards example. I use it merely as an illustration, and note that we can easily see and conceive of and have no problems conceiving of the balls all simply stopping and there being no further effect even if that isn’t really what happens/. But when we try to think about the cue ball just starting to move for absolutely no reason, that seems very strange, and we can’t grasp that. Thus, immediately we get to the point that it is indeed much stranger at least in common experience for there to be an effect with no further effect than an effect with no cause.

    Of course, we could be having a “conceptual illusion”, in the sense that it only SEEMS that way to us because of our common experience, while the concepts themselves are as strange as each other. So, we need to go further. And we note — as I pointed out earlier — that when we look in detail on effects and effects that have further effects, we can see that there is in fact no reason conceptually to think that an effect has further effects, because by definition causes have effects. Thus, conceptually, an effect with further effects is an effect that is also cause, but there is nothing in the concept of an effect that insists that all effects must also be causes. Thus, an effect may well also be a cause, but it need not be conceptually. Thus, it is easy to see why there is no conceptual problem with an effect not having further effects.

    Now, what about an effect that doesn’t have a cause? Well, we think that all effects are produced by causes, and we don’t think there’s anything else that can do this. So, then, to have an effect that is no cause you’d either have to saying that that isn’t an effect — ruled out here by definition — or that there is something other than causes that produces effects, which we have no examples of and no reason to think. So, then, an effect without a cause is massively problematic conceptually, if not conceptually impossible.

    So, then, we look at an event, and ask the question about it. And then we can see that if we want an event without a cause, we either have to make it not be an effect or have something other than causes produce events. We still have absolutely no conceptual reason or even ability to think of the latter, while the former is, here, more promising. But then what does it mean for an event to not be an effect? Well, perhaps it’s a necessary event. But because events have demarcations, this seems rather odd, as necessity seems to imply that at least a “beginning” demarcation doesn’t make sense. So, we have major concpetual problems with a necessary event.

    Which, then, is why I went for a necessary object with causal powers. We don’t have demarcations for objects conceptually, and so we can avoid all of the problems with events in that regard, and if it has causal powers it can indeed produce all other effects, and so all possible events. This isn’t, of course, a slam dunk, and the idea of a necessary event is still interesting, but it is indeed still problematic. Maybe it is what happens … but we’d need more evidence to setle that.

    So, does that clear things up, and help explain why I considered the physics line nitpicking, even if it wasn’t that to you?

  39. Robert B. says

    I’m noticing that I’m confused, so I’m going to switch to asking straight-out questions.

    1) What’s the difference between “conceptually possible” and “logically possible”?

    2) Your concept has this asymmetry between causes and effects. For example, when you examine the idea of an effect that is not a cause, you conclude that there’s no a priori reason why it couldn’t happen, and move on. When you examine the idea of a cause that is not an effect, you stop and wonder if this is a “necessary cause,” which you find odd and problematic. What makes the difference? Why isn’t the effect without a cause something equally odd, a “sufficient effect” as it were? Why don’t you wonder what it means for an event to not be a cause?

    3) How do you know that your concept of causality describes any empirical case? Some philosophical concepts, like “Platonic form” and “soul,” are logically self-consistent and conceivable but don’t point to any real-world phenomena. How do you rule that possibility out?

  40. Robert B. says

    Urk, terminology error. Correction:

    Why isn’t the effect event without a cause something equally odd, a “sufficient effect event” as it were?

  41. says

    Robert B.,

    1) What’s the difference between “conceptually possible” and “logically possible”?

    There may or may not be one; I’m talking, though, about possible as per the concept we have defined, meaning that something can be an instance of that concept and have that property. So it’s at least a subset. I don’t see the distinction as being that important to the discussion, but would prefer to focus on “conceptually possible”.

    2) Your concept has this asymmetry between causes and effects. For example, when you examine the idea of an effect that is not a cause, you conclude that there’s no a priori reason why it couldn’t happen, and move on. When you examine the idea of a cause that is not an effect, you stop and wonder if this is a “necessary cause,” which you find odd and problematic. What makes the difference? Why isn’t the effect without a cause something equally odd, a “sufficient effect” as it were? Why don’t you wonder what it means for an event to not be a cause?

    Even with your clarification, I think you’re a bit confused here. After all, you seem to talk about there being a distinction between a cause that is not an effect and an event that does not have a cause, and so talk about distinguishing “necessary” events from “sufficient” events. But, for me, it seems that those ARE the same thing, except that the first case is explicit that it is talking about something — an event, an object, whatever — that starts causal chains while the latter doesn’t make that point clear. For me, the reason that an event being necessary — ie being uncaused — is problematic is because events seem to have demarcations, and that seems to be problematic. The only distinction I make is that for objects, that problem goes away; it is not part of the concept of object that it has a demarcation.

    Of course, this isn’t an absolute proof … but I wasn’t trying for that anyway.

    3) How do you know that your concept of causality describes any empirical case?

    Well, it’s consistent with the empirical cases we have now — since it does not insist that there be no time ordering of cause and effect nor that there can’t be infinite causal chains — and seems to fit well with the problems and thought experiment examples generated. That’s enough for conceptual analysis. I make no claims that this is the way things work, but only trot it out against claims like the one you made that effects without further effects are no less strange than effects without causes.

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