Book review: The Fragmentation of Being

The Fragmentation of Being
by Kris McDaniel (2017)

McDaniel is a contemporary philosopher versed in his field’s arts of analytical hair-splitting who has taken upon himself to resurrect the scholastic doctrine of the analogy of being.  Substances, properties, events, abstractions, possible beings, and propositions clearly don’t all exist in the same way, but calling their different manners of existence by the same word “existence” is equally clearly no mere equivocation.

Being is only one possible instance of analogy.  In general, suppose we have a case of property X that extends across classes A, B, C.  Under what circumstances does X apply analogously (as opposed to univocally) to A vs B vs C?  McDaniel would say that in this case, there are more fundamentally three properties X_A, X_B, and X_C.  Of course, one could for any X just define X_A to be the property of X AND being an A, but for analogous properties, X_A is supposed to be more primitive, so it is preferable to say X = X_A OR X_B OR X_C is the derived property.  McDaniel sometimes formulates this in terms or restricted quantifiers, which I didn’t think really adds any clarity.  More helpfully, he suggests tests for recognizing metaphysical analogy.  For example, an analogous property or relation may require different numbers of terms to be fully specified (“saturated”).  Thus, for concrete objects–but not abstractions–existence might be relative to spacetime region, and for accidents–but not substances–existence is always inherence in a subject.

One way that McDaniel argues for the legitimacy of an analogy of being, and especially related ideas such as degrees or levels of being, is to show that contemporary philosophers are already implicitly using these ideas when they make claims about something being more fundamental or natural than something else, or about something grounding something else.  Armed with gradations of being, he returns to the question of the reality of persons/selves without requiring an all-or-nothing answer.  McDaniel would like to believe that we exist in the most fundamental sense but admits that the question remains open.

The final chapter, on being and essence, has some interesting discussion of the ontological argument.  Interpreting a being’s essence being identical with its existence (as they are said by various philosophers to be for God or Dasein) with its essence being identical with its way of being, McDaniel finds nothing unintelligible in the possibility, although by thus moving “existence” from the act to something more on the essence side, such an identification suffice for an ontological argument for the thing’s existence.  He also makes some points about the possibility of objects having existence claims in their essence.  Clearly, we should not be able to create necessary beings by tacking on “existing” to objects’ essential descriptions.

McDaniel is more interested in recommending the analogy of being broadly conceived than in any specific version of it, so he presents many versions without endorsing any.  In fact, much of the book consists of thinking through the consequences of various metaphysical options, in the end not clearly endorsing any.  I find this a lot in contemporary philosophers.  On the one hand, there is something admirably humble about not pretending to say the last word on any topic.  On the other hand, after a while it leaves me frustrated and despairing of anyone ever reaching any conclusions.

Book review: What makes time special?

What makes time special?
by Craig Callender (2017)

This book was a joy to read.  Its question can be formulated as follows.  All peoples share a conceptualization of time (as distinguished from our direct sensory experience) that Callender calls “manifest time”–of time “flowing” with a special time “now”, etc.  None of these features appear in physics–Aristotelian, Newtonian, relativistic, or quantum–so where does our sense of manifest time come from?  This question is broken down into parts.

  1. Since “now” would be a special spacelike hypersurface of spacetime, it is established that the laws of physics do not justify singling out any particular foliation of spacetime.  This might seem obvious, but Callender wants to show that proposals to inject features of manifest time into physics fail in their goal.  One example is causal set theory.  Callender argues against the theory’s own founder–and I found the argument entirely convincing–that the flowing now in causal set theory is a gauge freedom with no physical significance.  Callender actually gives slightly  more credit that I do to arguments from quantum nonlocality.  He does show that there is only an issue here if one adopts the Copenhagen interpretation and insist within it that there must be some some fact of the matter about which of two spacelike observesrs collapses a wavefunction.  I would not be inclined to grant either premiss.  Even if one does and makes of it an argument for Lorentz’s interpretation of relativity as opposed to Einstein’s, Callender makes an important point.  Lorentz’s preferred frame is completely unobservable and so can’t have anything to do with our experience of time.
  2. Physics does indeed give a reason to favor foliations of spacetime into spacelike hypersurfaces, a reason of “narrative”:  the world is more intelligible when cut up this way.  From other hypersurfaces (e.g. a plane extending in t, y, and z representing a “moment” of x), one could constrain the rest of spacetime, but only spacelike hypersurfaces provide initial data for a well-posed Cauchy problem:  the data on the initial slice is unconstrained, and the subsequent (and past) evolution is a continuous function of the initial data.  Ultimately, this comes down to the spacetime metric, which I would say expresses the causal structure of spacetime.  Callender mostly agrees, but his empiricism sometimes leads him to formulate things in (what seems to me) odd ways–that what’s real is observable events, which data can be compressed by fundamental laws of physics which happen to be hyperbolic equations with the same characteristic speeds, which makes it handy to speak of a causal structure of spacetime.
  3. The explanation of manifest time must therefore be sought in human psychology.  There is a brief discursion into the argument over indexicals which all philosophy of time works address:  that our statements no more prove that there is metaphysically privileged “now” than that there is a privileged “here” or “me”.  I am skeptical of attempts to tease out metaphysics from grammar, but since it keeps coming up, I guess Callender had to address it.  More substantially, Callender argues against the intuitive belief that we have a direct experience of the present.  We are used to similar arguments from empiricists, e.g. “I have no particular experience of myself; therefore selves don’t exist.”  This argument isn’t quite that bad.  Callender has already given independent arguments that the now of manifest time is an illusion, so all he needs to do here is neutralize the counter-argument that we directly experience this putatively non-existent thing.  One might wonder (although the book doesn’t do so explicitly) if “now” is like the self in that, while not directly experienced, it must be posited to explain a perceived unity of experiences.  In fact, what is needed for this is just an experience of simultaneity, which seems to me rather unthreatening from a physicist’s point of view.  Nevertheless, Callender recounts experiments showing a degree of haziness in perceived simultaneity.  Some of it is interesting–I learned that we process sound faster than sight and that it’s possible to recognize that two stimuli are slightly non-simultaneous without being able to say which came first–but I don’t think it’s necessary for the main argument, which doesn’t hinge on how sharp our sense of simultaneity is.  There follows discussions of IGUS and evolutionary pressures to explain our experience of motion and greater concern over future vs. past pains.  In some ways, this is the most important part of the book, because it is here that manifest time is supposed to actually appear, but given my lack of interest in psychology I didn’t give it as much attention as the rest of the book.

Callender concludes with a criticism of what he sees as the philosophy of time’s disengagement from science and retreat into metaphysics.  In some ways, this complements my criticism of neo-Thomism’s retreat into metaphysics, but Callender drives home a point specific to the philosophy of time.  The point of this branch of philosophy is to explain our experience of time, but it is hard to see how metaphysical constructs that leave no trace on physics could be much use to phenomenology.  For example, even if there is an unobservable preferred frame, how could this have anything to do with how we experience time?

Now THAT’S survival optimization

Laurent Guyenot at The Unz Review writes

The American rabbi Harry Waton had a theory to explain the organic unity, persistence and progress of the Jews. He wrote in his Program for the Jews, published in 1939: “Hebrew religion, in fact, was intensely materialistic and it is precisely this that gave it persistent and effective reality.”

“Jehovah differs from all other gods. All other gods dwell in heaven. For this reason, all other religions are concerned about heaven, and they promise all reward in heaven after death. For this reason, all other religions negate the earth and the material world and are indifferent to the well-being and progress of mankind on this earth. But Jehovah comes down from heaven to dwell on this earth and to embody himself in mankind. For this reason, Judaism concerns itself only about this earth and promises all reward right here on this earth.”

“The Jews that have a deeper understanding of Judaism know that the only immortality there is for the Jew is the immortality in the Jewish people. Each Jew continues to live in the Jewish people, and he will continue to live so long as the Jewish people will live.”

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the suicidal skepticism of counter-reformation Catholicism

From a comment at What’s Wrong with the World, I was led to this fascinating study of 16th and 17th-century French counter-reformation polemics.  This was when Catholics first embraced skepticism of the ability of human reason to interpret texts as a defense against Protestantism, with predictable long-term effects for the faith itself.

A sample follows.  Famous figures like Montaigne, Descartes, and Richard Simon appear in a rather new light.  The arguments of the Catholic skeptics and the objections to them will be familiar to those who follow today’s religious polemics on the internet, at this site and elsewhere.

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Book review: The Mind of God

The Mind of God:  The Scientific Basis for a Rational World

by Paul Davies (1992)

Davies articulates well several positions which I have also long held

  • It is the universe’s combination of orderliness and contingency that metaphysics must explain.
  • Multiverses and many-world versions of quantum mechanics won’t resolve the contingency issue, because the laws of physics themselves remain clearly contingent.  (To really get around contingency, you need to embrace full modal realism of the sort defended by philosopher David Lewis.  Surprisingly, some scientists, such as Frank Tipler, are willing to do this, making bizarre claims such as that the universe is a simulation and that mathematical consistency gives an ontological argument for everything.  Neither Davies nor I find this line of thought very credible.)
  • The idea that the laws of physics can explain how the universe appeared from “nothing” assumes that these laws have some existence that transcends the natural world they describe, a truly perverse assumption.
  • The principle of sufficient reason needs to be qualified to accommodate a contingent but orderly universe.  Some things but not others require explanation.

Davies’ own speculations force him most of the way through the classical cosmological argument for a necessary transcendent God, but he cannot fully accept classical theism because he sees strong, probably insurmountable, difficulties explaining how a simple, necessary God could interact with a contingent, complex universe.  (He is fair enough to point out that many other metaphysical positions, including versions of belief in transcendent laws of physics, have analogous interaction problems.)  He tentatively proposes a model, inspired by process theology, in which God establishes necessary probabalistic laws and potentialities but creatures/events decide by chance/”freedom” what is actualized.  I don’t think this will work, since the laws themselves are non-necessary.

There is an interesting attempt to apply ideas from information theory to give some precision to statements that the universe is “complex” but its laws are “simple”.  Since I don’t know anything about information theory, I enjoyed these parts of the book.

The Mind of God is intended for readers with no physics or philosophy background, but missing information is filled in succinctly enough to avoid boring other readers.

Book review: The Dappled World

The Dappled World:  A Study of the Boundaries of Science
by Nancy Cartwright (1999)

Cartwright proposes that we are led astray by our expectation that the world is united under a small number of laws.  She thinks it more likely that the world is a patchwork of distinct natures, each with its own regularities.  Predictive laws can only be applied when one has a “nomological machine”, meaning (so far as I can tell) an isolated system where all forces take one of the expected forms.  If one takes seriously the Aristotelian claim that the world is governed by natures rather than a fundamental law, arguably this is what one would expect.

Usually, when one imagines laws of physics breaking down, the idea is that they fail in some untested regime, such as very high energy.  Cartwright appears to be more interested in the idea that they would fail for untested functional forms.  For example, one’s dynamical laws may work for a quadratic but not a quartic potential.  It would be hard to rule out such a possibility, but none of the cases considered in the book pose particular difficulty for the “fundamentalist”, as Cartwright calls believers in unified laws.  Take her example of predicting where a thousand dollar bill carried by the wind will land.  Because we don’t know the exact initial conditions of bill or air, we should consider our initial state as a distribution in some vast state space evolving according to a sort of Liouville equation.  Such a calculation would correctly predict that the bill may fall anywhere in a wide area.  (A full calculation of this sort would be unfeasible, but a sense of the range of possible behavior could easily be gotten by numerically evolving the fluid+bill surface equations for, say, a dozen initial states within the range of uncertainty.)  Just because Newtonian mechanics is uninformative in such cases doesn’t make it wrong.  A more central example in the book is the BCS theory of superconductivity.  Cartwright makes a great deal of the the fact that the BCS Hamiltonian operator is a combination of what one might call “stock components”.  I agree that this illustrates well something about how modeling really works in physics, that in practice one does not start with the most general, fundamental action principle and then start approximating or dropping terms to get to one’s desired system.  However, the message is not that quantum mechanics has some problem with more general Hamiltonians, but that the goal is to capture the essence of superconductivity, so inessential and particularizing details have been dropped.  And it’s easy to see why certain components (esp. quadratic potentials) would be expected to appear in many contexts, as Cartwright acknowledges.  None of this is to say that she is wrong, but the fundamentalist position remains viable.  (Making it explicit and putting it into question, though, can only be good.)qw

Cartwright argues that the way scientists go about their business assumes an Aristotelian multitude of natural capacities and does not fit with Hume’s model of laws as a summary of observed regularities.  She points out that charges moving according to, say, the Coulomb electrostatic force never exactly happens.  The electrostatic force rather describes a tendency, a “what would have happened” if other effects had not been present.  The book then gives an intriguing discussion of Goethe’s criticisms of Newton, arguing that the success of Newton’s optical experiments is more consistent with an Aristotelian world of discrete natures than with Goethe’s more holistic world.

The book ends with some speculations on the relation between classical and quantum mechanics.  Cartwright proposes a sort of property dualism for the physical world, in which systems might have both quantum and classical properties, which presumably would have to interact somehow.


A world of prophets

Any of us could be destroyed by a social media mob.  Someone takes a picture of you that, without context, gives the impression that you’re being mean or negligent.  They post it on twitter or facebook and a day later a hundred thousand people regard you as the quintessence of evil and want you dead.  When I was a kid, “it’s a free country” was still a common expression; now there are Stasi agents with smartphones everywhere.  How the hell did we let this happen to us?

When I was a kid, you could have an organization devoted just to hiking or wine tasting or space exploration.  Now everybody and everything has to have promoting designated victims as its primary goal.

Two types of religious figure:  the prophet and the priest.  The prophet proclaims God’s wrath, the priest God’s forgiveness.  The prophet condemns social order; the priest consecrates it.  The people admire the prophet who hates them just as they despise the priest who pities them.  For men know that they are wicked, that the whole world of men is wicked, and the priest who offers reconciliation so cheaply seems an agent of corruption.

A priest’s job is to mitigate the cruelty of the moral and religious impulses.

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