Mind, Energy, and Spacetime

This blog will serve as a space where I can put down all my thoughts concerning philosophy, physics, and the intersections of the two.

Anti-representationalism and Theology

Next question…

Is it possible to be both an anti-representationalist and a theist? Yes.

To refresh your memory (and mine) an anti-representationalist is someone who believes that it is inappropriate to measure the truth or correctness of a belief on the basis whether or not the picture of the world created by the belief accurately represents reality (what is “out there”). This extends to all beliefs whether they be religious, scientific, poetic, political, etc. For the anti-representationalist beliefs are not about painting the ‘correct’ picture of reality rather they are about creating habits of action which allow one to interact with the world in a ‘useful’ way.

Let’s examine the question: “Does God exist?”. To the anti-representationalist whether or not one says “yes” or “no” will depend on whether or not by saying “yes” the individual will be able to form habits of action which benefit him or her in some way. Someone would then answer “no” if the individual would not form beneficial habits of action. This has nothing to do with whether or not there is some person or otherwise that the term ‘God’ refers to in the world (or outside of it). Another analogy would be that of the “electron”. For the anti-representationalist to say that “an electron exists” or “that is an electron” is true just insomuch as belief in electrons allows one to form habits of action which allow one and one’s community to live more successfully (for instance, build computers). To ask a question as to whether or not it actually exists in the world apart from our experience of it and our habits is par for the course. 

Paul Tillich, the mid-twentieth century theologian, in The Courage to Be states that to ever ask the question of whether or not God exists is inappropriate. This is because, according to Tillich, God is “that which all being [(existence)] flows from”. Tillich believes that since God is the source of all existence there is no proper way to talk of God as existing or not. Tillich believes that God transcends these types of questions. In this limited sense I believe Tillich may be called an anti-representationalist. Although, for the anti-representationalist this kind of “inappropriateness” extends to all objects (e.g. trees, other people, stars, the Moon, dirt, tables, chairs).

Because of people’s qualms about using language as though it strongly refers to objects in the world Tillich was often characterized as an atheist because he could not say that God exists. This, given the exposition above, is obviously not the case.

Anti-representationalism may strike many people as downright crazy: “What do you mean when I talk about chairs and tables I am actually not talking about them!”. A simple question to ask in response to this objection is whether or not you would act differently if I provided a ‘knock-down argument’ as to the truth that actually chairs and tables never existed and never will exist? If you would not act differently in light of this, this is a passive affirmation of the truth of anti-representationalism. Namely, you will still act as if they existed not because they really do but because you have very successful habits of action formed by the employment of the concepts of ‘chair’ and ‘table’.

If I am right there is no problem with being an anti-representationalist and living a strongly theologically based life.

 

Suggested further reading:

The Courage to Be, Paul Tillich

Philosophy as Cutural Politics, Philosophical Papers vol. 4: Ch 1 The Cutural Politics and the Question of the Existence of God, Richard Rorty

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Theological Pragmatism

I believe that the overarching philosophic paradigm which has of late been called “pragmatism” or “neo-pragmatism” can be properly formulated into a wide encompassing theology. Some remarks on William James’ views concerning religion will be of much use here. William James held the view that a man’s religion is valuable just as much as it brings him human flourishing. This can be extended to include a persons community as well. We could say theological traditions are as valuable as they promote human flourishing. That still leaves us with the question as to why human flourishing is valuable. One may be able to ground “human flourishing is valuable” by an appeal to a transcendent God (whatever you believe the nature of it is). Namely, if God created the world in such a way such that the establishment of human flourishing was so to say “written in the heavens”. When I read about ethics from the pragmatists one gets a sense that they elevate ‘human flourishing’ as the absolute and one true value. To be far I do believe that at least one of them (Rorty) would say that this is not the case. In Rorty’s view we have arbitrary decided that human flourishing is what should be valued because we are human. There is something mysterious that goes on when one decides to invokes the pragmatic maxim here. If what is justified just happens to be whatever is the most useful as a whole and in the long run then how are we supposed to understand the epistemic force that ‘use’ has? And furthermore how do we know that this definition of ‘use’ is useful? We don’t although for all appearances it is. What I wish to conjecture is that the reason why ‘use’ makes certain beliefs justified is the fact that God created a world and our minds in such a way that they could casually influence each other (or at least in the direction of objects to the mind for you causal determinists out there). Now what constitutes as useful for some will not be useful for others. But for someone like myself the idea that the Divine grounds this causal relationship between the world and us is extremely useful. In the sense that it gives us “cognitive confidence” concerning how we go in the world.

Neopragmatism and theology are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I believe they aid each other. Theology gives us a reason to believe that reality can casually influence us. Rather than just saying it does (like Rorty). Much of what I just said may be a different way of saying what Plantiaga and others say concerning “reformed epistemology”. For them to be justified in a belief is t0 1) have a mind which appropriately relates beliefs to the world and 2) to be a world which can be related; it is thought that both of these considerations are settled by given epistemic primacy to the existence of a God which grounds the two. The neopragmatist believes that non-linguistic objects in the world and linguistic objects are related only through causal relations and not epistemic ones. But how could we know that objects and words are related causally? At this question I believe many of the greatest pragmatists are mute. The best that they could say is that we don’t actually know that these relations hold but “something” must be shaping my beliefs and whatever that something is is in causal relations with our beliefs. To the anti-representationalist such as Rorty this is no issue. But a belief in transcendence can give a deeper meaning to these causal relations and furthermore give us confidence in believing that these causal relations hold. Namely, because our minds are situated in such and such a way by design such that these relations hold. It would minimally make the whole notion of ‘use’ more intelligible.

Typically (except for the great pragmatist William James), most pragmatists and neopragmatists have been contentious toward any form of religion. I hope the above at least gives a prima facie reason as to why this does not need to be the case. Rather than leaving the causal relations between us and the world mysterious a belief in the transcendent may help us ground neopragmatic thought. Left to our own devices I believe neo-pragmatist would lead us to also assert anti-representationalism but I do not believe that this is necessary. Because even after we admit the truth of anti-representationalism there seems to be a special intuition that tells many of us that the reason objects cause our perceptions to be a certain way are actually that way in reality. This does not mean that we should evaluate the truth or correctness of our beliefs on the basis of what is actually there because there is still a strong amount of skepticism involved in stating “what is there”. If we could state “what is there” there would not be any need for scientists. Because all science amounts to is building and throwing nice models at the world and seeing what sticks. The models stick due to being ‘useful’ in some way.

To be more clear the definition of ‘use’ that is being applied here is to be distinguished from its everyday usage in language. My employment ‘use’ denotes whatever would encourage human flourishing on the whole and in the long run. The definition still is not precise enough but it is a working prototype. Oftentimes, what one believes to promote human flourishing will be different than what someone else believes which is why (like Rorty) I believe the best way to live as a neo-pragmatist is to promote free, open, and respectful dialogue between people who have extremely different viewpoints and to see what sticks after the test of time. We will be naturally inclined to believe that our communities beliefs are the ‘correct’ ones but this should be avoided for progress. That is to say that our communities beliefs may be closer to the truth than others.

 

Suggest further reading:

The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James

 

A Pragmatist’s View of the Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics

The Everett Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics otherwise known as the many worlds interpretation takes the strangeness of quantum mechanics to an extreme level. That interpretation states that for every possible outcome of an experiment in the quantum realm a new universe is created. The standard interpretation (the Copenhagen) of the mathematics of quantum mechanics says that prior to the act of observation a quantum system’s properties are in a state of flux. Only during the act of observation does a property of the system become definite. What I mean by “in flux” is that the system is in a state of both “yes” and “no” to an observation. Take the Schoedinger’s cat thought experiment. There is a property of the electron called ‘spin’. For the electron this property can only be one of two possible states (spin up or spin down). In the cat paradox if the spin is up the cat dies and if the spin is down the cat lives. The standard interpretation of the mathematics of QM implies that until the act of observation is performed that cat is both dead and alive. The many worlds interpretation tries to mediate this weirdness by saying that if we were to observe the cat dead, in some other universe which was created by the act of observation the cat would be alive and, furthermore, in that universe our ‘counterpart selves’ observed that the cat was alive. (All possibilities occur somewhere.) On a quick side note the concept of ‘spin’ in QM has no analogous counterpart in the everyday world…it has nothing to with extension in space or rotation. Back on track…the thought that in the act of observation or during every quantum process a new universe is born strikes me as adding more craziness to an already non-intuitive scientific theory. I think it is a step in the wrong direction.

My argument is that due to the fact that any property of any universe outside of the one we inhabit is unobservable there no ‘use’ in us positing anything other than our Universe. And in fact it really seems to be a cop out from making new and more fruitful scientific theories concerning the realm of the most small. The impetus by physicists for accepting the Everett interpretation is that up to this point in time we have never taken part in an experiment where we perceived there to be a failure in the predictions of QM. So, rather than chalking up the strangeness of QM as being some kind of failure of the theory or their interpretation of it many physicists would rather throw that strangeness into other universes which we cannot perceive. It also has a really cool science fiction appeal to it. But since I am a pragmatist I do not like the interpretation on account of the fact that it would make no behavioral difference in my own life whether or not it be true or false. The only difference it would make to one’s life is how you would let it’s truth affect you. For some (especially some physicists), it may change how one lives their lives and if so it is of value (e.g. if they were paid well for researching that line of inquiry or found it intriguing). For others (like myself), the existence of universes outside my own makes no experiential consequences and is therefore outside of the realm of being true or false. I welcome those who believe it makes a difference to continue to act as they will due to the fact that I believe scientific progress occurs where there is a great amount of disagree between specialists. But as for myself I believe it would be more fruitful to pursue lines of inquiry which have the possibility of being investigated by us.

Nietzsche, Rorty, and Zen Pt. 2

Continuing on…

Reality is not without structure. But ‘structure’ and ‘ontology’ are two entirely different beasts. ‘Structure’ makes up the relations between things and ‘ontology’ are the things which are related. ‘Ontology’ is whatever objects could exist in the world. This brings to mind an article I recently read in the magazine “Scientific American”, August 2013. The article was written by a guy who had dual degrees in physics and philosophy. He is essentially doing now what I would like to be doing in ten years. His thesis was that the concepts “field” and “particle” in the science of quantum mechanics  were so unlike what we typically consider a field or a particle that they should be dispensed with entirely and instead we should begin to believe that (it would be most useful to believe that) the most fundamental ontology to reality would be that which dispensed of ontology entirely in order to let “relations with nothing related” take the place of particles, fields, and waves. This is another way of saying the structure is more fundamental than form. I mentioned in my former post that “the structure of reality remains stable” even if we play around with what we believe is represented by our theories about reality. In our experiments with the world we uncover this underlying structure even though we do not uncover the nature of things. We uncover the relations between things but not what is related. This means that scientific progress will be most likely to occur if we continuously challenge what we believe is to be ‘there’ and have fun devising novel ontologies concerning the world. Some ontologies will work better than others but we will not know which one’s work best until we have exhausted all of them. Good luck with that as there are perhaps an infinite number. Here it is where science and art converge. The fringes of scientific discovery is really just an art form. We are constantly trying to create more useful pictures of the world. The ‘electron’ for example should not be taken as a picture which mirrors some object in the world called an “electron” rather it should be viewed as a useful tool in devising new experiments. The concept of an electron has be constantly being revised. What was thought of as an electron fifty years ago is radically different than what we think of it now. So how can we believe that our current concepts of ‘electron’ will remain the same into the indefinite future?

The whole notion of an ‘electron’ as a ‘quantum particle’ is pretty meaningless. In quantum mechanics (more specifically, quantum field theory…you know the “cutting edge”) ‘particles’ like the electron have there existences spread out over the entirety of space-time. I am being as literally as a can be in the previous statement. The mathematics of quantum field theory says that an electron ‘bound’ to my body could be anywhere in the Universe (granted, there is an extremely small probability that it is not in the vicinity of the atom by which it is bound). Everything described by quantum mechanics is given in the form of a probability distribution. The idea of objects having a trajectory or a fixed position in quantum mechanics is meaningless. Even with all this strangeness the relations between ‘quantum particles’ and ‘quantum fields’ remain stable. So stable that the author of the article How Reality Gets Created decides that we should dispense with all talk concerning objects in the quantum realm and only talk of relations. I think that this may be appropriate for our everyday world as well. Relations all the way up.

Suggest further reading:

How Reality Gets Created, Meinard Kuhlmann, Scientific American, August 2013

Quantum Field Theory, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/quantum-field-theory/

Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science, Werner Heisenberg2007

Nietzsche, Rorty, and Zen

Friedrich Nietzsche writing in the Twilight of the Idols in the chapter “How the ‘Real World’ at Last Became a Myth” writes:

We have abolished the real world: what world is left? the apparent world perhaps?…But no! with the real world we have also abolished the apparent world!

Richard Rorty in his introduction to Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth (p.4) states that:

antirepresentationists typically do not think that, behind the true sentence S, there is a sentence-shaped piece of nonlinguistic reality called “the fact that S”- a set of relations between objects which hold independently of language – which makes ‘S’ true.

and out of “Inquiry as Recontextualization” in the same text (p. 97):

One way of formulating the [linguistic] pragmatist position is to say that the pragmatist recognizes relations of justification holding between beliefs and desires, and relations of causation holding between these beliefs and desires and other items in the universe, but no relations of representation.

400px-Rep-perception

I believe in the above quotes the two great philosophers were expressing one idea. The idea that our language does not and cannot generate a mirror-like picture of reality, that is, reality as it truly is apart from our perceptions of it. To even think this way betrays us at the onset. In Twilight of the Idols one of the tasks Nietzsche tries to accomplish is to show that most Western philosophy before him (especially thought inspired by Plato) has worshiped concepts which are thought to represent reality but in all actuality have only muddled the water between our minds and the real world. These concepts (cars, planes, trees, electrons, quarks, caloric) have created a barrier between our minds and reality. There is nothing we can know beyond our own perceptions and those perceptions are formulated in terms of the words and associated concepts that come to mind while reality is causing us to perceive it. Over the course of time some concepts become viewed of as being more ‘real’ than the reality in which they supposed to represent; hence, Nieztsche’s business about worshiping the ‘concept idols’. Diminishing our concepts concerning reality in other to understand it better is not something new to the Zen Buddhists.

In Zen Buddhism (according to my very minimal knowledge of it) the quest of the believer is to do away with all concepts, categories, and/or ideas we throw onto reality on a day to day basis in order to find the ‘true’ reality of things. Namely, that there is no barriers between the world and one’s mind. To the Zen follower mind and reality are continuous. Zen Buddhism and Western linguistic philosophy may be very different in methodology but much can be said by comparing the two ways of life. In fact, I believe that the best ways to further human knowledge and flourishing is to smash together as many different ways of living as possible and then seeing what falls out. Being open-minded pays for itself.

With all this in mind…the best way to uncover ‘truth’ would then be to continually challenge oneself intellectually with differing viewpoints and seeing what ends up being the most ‘useful’. As for ‘useful’ I would have to say it would be whatever would allow yourself and your community to flourish while simultaneously keeping a realistic idea of the world; for, if our conceptions of reality radically depart from ‘what is there’ then we will constantly be running into roadblocks. The structure of reality remains stable regardless of whatever ontologies we posit and we will run into this structure regardless if we want to or not. Therefore, let’s continue to put on concepts to work.

Suggested further reading:

Richard Rorty; Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth (1991)

—– Philosophy as Cutural Politics (2007)

Friedrich Nietzsche; Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ (2003)

Douglas R. Hofstadter; Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (1980)

Neopragmatism article on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neopragmatism

The Boston Marathon Bombings and Violence at Large

Since just about everyone else is writing about this, I thought I should put in my own two cents. 

To begin with I find that my previous post might be a good place to start as to how to interpret the moral attitudes of not only the perpetrator(s) of the bombings but also many people on the web who are responding to this with such indignation. The bombings were/are a disgusting and heinous act and my full compassion is with the victims (including not only those who were in the attack but also everyone who felt bad in response to the attacks) of the attack. 

So, many of us in the states are very sympathetic to those who suffered in these attacks and today this was very evident on Facebook. But I ask this question not to downplay the suffering or the pain that people feel: why are we not as compassionate for those in the Middle East and elsewhere who deal with attacks like yesterdays bombing frequently?

There was an 8 year old boy killed in yesterday’s bombings and this is extremely sad, but why don’t we feel just as outraged when we hear the news of a young boy killed in the Middle East as a consequence of a drone strike? They are all children. This frustrates me to no end because I believe everyone should be dealt justly on equal terms regardless of whether or not they are labeled “terrorists”. If we choose to not deal with all people on the same terms of justice we are ultimately saying that justice and ethics in general are relative in some sense (possibly in the emotivist sense). I think that we are morally outraged more about the Boston bombings simply do to its proximity in the media of the United States.

My heart goes out to everyone who suffers injustice in all its forms. 

Emotivism in Contemporary Society

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This is the first time I have written on ethics explicitly in my blog and the first time I have ever inserted a picture. What a treat! The inspiration for this post can be found in “After Virtue” by Alasdair MacIntyre.

Emotivism is the meta-ethical belief that moral/ethical propositions express feelings of approval or disapproval and absolutely nothing else. In logical form: when someone utters “X is ethically right” or “X is good” these are equivalent to “I approve of X” or “X, yay!”. I believe that the influence this version of defining what is ‘good’ plays a key role in contemporary society. Let us consider contemporary political debates. Very rarely does a politician ever say the reasons why something is wrong; they just disapprove of it and the same goes for what they approve of. Further, it seems as though those who bark the loudest in society are the ones who get laws past or promote certain ethical views most successfully, even though, many times they are totally lax to give a justification for their ethical beliefs. Nietzsche’s will to power doctrine was a precursor to this. He in many ways is the reason why, as a culture, we are where we are. He thought that those who hold the most power not only create what is good and what is bad but they are the only ones who have the right to. If you have not already realized this is extremely dangerous because, given Nietzsche’s will to power doctrine, there was absolutely nothing wrong with anything that Stalin, Hitler, or any other despot did. They held the power so they had every right to legislate morality. Yet, in contemporary American society I believe that this is how we approach ethics. This in large part is due to the failure of the Enlightenment project which attempted to ground all of ethics in “rational principles” and their derivations. The problem with all rational principles was that they would posit some quality which makes something good or bad without questioning why that quality or some other quality does this.

A consequence of emotivist ethics in our society is that we no longer have the ability to properly argue moral positions because we are constantly approaching moral issues with different desires and it is whoever expresses their desires the loudest that gets to legislate them. We need the ability to say that certain things are right and wrong and further that we are obligated to do certain things in light of this. If not there will be certain people who will continue to commit moral atrocities because for a moment they are the ones who hold the power. And if all of society assumes without thinking about it a form of emotivist ethics how are we to say that they did anything objectively wrong. Sure, we can continue to disapproval of their actions and say that they are evil people but then we are just buying into emotivist ethics even more. We are not doing anything. We need the ability to say that certain things are right or wrong apart from any of our opinions and because of that you should live in a certain way rather than others for your own benefit and the benefit of society.

Logically, emotivism implies that ethics can never be objective, that is, they can never truly be ‘true’. We just define what is good on the fly. If you are an emotivist you state that your version of ethics is supported only your own subjective feelings. If you like me and find this extremely disturbing and have an inclination that ethics is something more than this, then please join me in rejecting emotivism and attempt to find a morality that is not based on your feelings, your country’s feelings, or the feelings of a large number of people. People’s feelings can change easily and we cannot afford to have a system of morality that does the same. I believe that most (at least I hope that most) people want to be able to say that murder is wrong not based on anyone’s feelings but that it is just wrong. I think there is (are) a solution(s) to the emotivist dilemma but we must be willing to criticize why we hold our moral positions and why our country does, otherwise, those with the most power will more than likely legislate morality.

As always I wish to hear your thoughts and I hope that maybe we can pin down a solution to the emotivist dilemma together. As a little bit of encouragement it seems to me that emotivism in philosophy departments has been on a slow  but steady scale down.