• A question on the meaning of existence
    Atheists believe in and use abstractions.fishfry

    Hence, the requirement for an argument for the indispensability of mathematics, required because, according to it, ‘our best epistemic theories seem to debar any knowledge of mathematical objects.‘
  • The Sins of Leon Wieseltier
    No, hadn’t heard that, although in the current climate, the question ‘who is next’ certainly looms large.


    I don’t believe I do [misrepresent Richard Dawkins' position]

    — Wayfarer

    You don't believe you consistently misrepresent his position, or that you don't misrepresent it simpliciter?

    Dawkins is known for, not only being critical of religion, but also being deliberately insulting about it, by way of making the point that the reverence with which it is treated is unjustified. As Nagel says in his review of TGD, 'one of Dawkins’s aims is to overturn the convention of respect toward religion that belongs to the etiquette of modern civilization. He does this by persistently violating the convention, and being as offensive as possible.' He has now extended that behaviour to other targets, earning him approbation even from some earlier admirers.

    So the fact that he is so routinely hostile about his targets, does provide a certain latitude to return serve in kind, I would have thought. But the really grave error that Dawkins makes is a much more serious matter. In that same panel discussion with Pell (incidentally, I thought Bishop Pell's performance on that occasion, as a representative of the Church, was lamentably poor), Dawkins is asked the question:

    REBEKAH RAY: Okay, my question for you today is: without religion, where is the basis of our values and in time, will we perhaps revert back to Darwin's idea of survival of the fittest?


    RICHARD DAWKINS: I very much hope that we don't revert to the idea of survival of the fittest in planning our politics and our values and our way of life. I have often said that I am a passionate Darwinian when it comes to explaining why we exist. It’s undoubtedly the reason why we're here and why all living things are here. But to live our lives in a Darwinian way, to make a society a Darwinian society, that would be a very unpleasant sort of society in which to live. It would be a sort of Thatcherite society and we want to - I mean, in a way, I feel that one of the reasons for learning about Darwinian evolution is as an object lesson in how not to set up our values and social lives.

    Of course I perfectly agree with that statement, and believe it's commendable of him to say so. But the point which Dawkins doesn't seem to grasp is that, whilst he might agree that 'Darwinism is an appalling basis for a social philosophy', he has devoted enormous effort to methodically undermining the philosophical and spiritual foundations of Western culture, which might provide an alternative. I mean, I have seen nothing from Dawkins about a real alternative philosophy, save for a kind of starry-eyed wonder at the 'marvels of science' (and also, I have to say, at a sense of his own cleverness for being so very good at it.) Dawkins is a textbook case of scientism.

    Furthermore, whereas the likes of Camus, Sartre, and Nietzsche - convinced atheists all - grappled with the implications of 'the death of God', Dawkins seems to show no awareness of its implications. As David Bentley Hart said in one of his OP's on 'the new atheism':

    Nietzsche understood how immense the consequences of the rise of Christianity had been, and how immense the consequences of its decline would be as well, and had the intelligence to know he could not fall back on polite moral certitudes to which he no longer had any right. Just as the Christian revolution created a new sensibility by inverting many of the highest values of the pagan past, so the decline of Christianity, Nietzsche knew, portends another, perhaps equally catastrophic shift in moral and cultural consciousness. His famous fable in The Gay Science of the madman who announces God’s death is anything but a hymn of atheist triumphalism. In fact, the madman despairs of the mere atheists—those who merely do not believe—to whom he addresses his terrible proclamation. In their moral contentment, their ease of conscience, he sees an essential oafishness; they do not dread the death of God because they do not grasp that humanity’s heroic and insane act of repudiation has sponged away the horizon, torn down the heavens, left us with only the uncertain resources of our will with which to combat the infinity of meaninglessness that the universe now threatens to become.

    Dennett, on the other hand, does at least acknowledge this. In a conference called Moving Naturalism Forward, the sense in which the 'acid of Darwin's dangerous idea' really is a threat to the social order was discussed:

    Some of the biologists [on the panel] thought the materialist view of the world should be taught and explained to the wider public in its true, high-octane, Crickian form [a reference to Francis Crick, discoverer of DNA and author of The Astonishing Hypothesis, another materialist manifesto]. Then common, non-intellectual people might see that a purely random universe without purpose or free will or spiritual life of any kind isn’t as bad as some superstitious people—that is, religious people—have led them to believe.

    Daniel Dennett took a different view. While it is true that materialism tells us a human being is nothing more than a “moist robot”—a phrase Dennett took from a Dilbert comic—we run a risk when we let this cat, or robot, out of the bag. If we repeatedly tell folks that their sense of free will or belief in objective morality is essentially an illusion, such knowledge has the potential to undermine civilization itself, Dennett believes. Civil order requires the general acceptance of personal responsibility, which is closely linked to the notion of free will. Better, said Dennett, if the public were told that “for general purposes” the self and free will and objective morality do indeed exist—that colors and sounds exist, too—“just not in the way they think.” They “exist in a special way" - which is to say, ultimately, not at all.

    (The author of that review says 'I was reminded of the debate among British censors over the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover half a century ago. “Fine for you or me,” one prosecutor is said to have remarked, “but is this the sort of thing you would leave lying about for your wife or servant to read?”)

    So, these two really don't seem to understand that they are actually blowing up the ethical foundations of Western culture, even though Dawkins freely admits that Darwinian theory is 'an appalling basis for a social theory'. At least Sam Harris has recognised this, by venturing a warmed-over utilitarianism based on neuroscience. Personally I don’t think highly of it, but at least it's an effort.
  • Is 'information' physical?
    You stated the terms 'blueprint' and 'eternal' in the same sentence.Samuel Lacrampe

    Actually that was in reference to the Timaeus, particularly in this section. Plato speaks of a ‘craftsman’ or demiurge who ‘fashions’ the Universe from ‘an eternal model’. So only ‘what does not become’ is what is ‘eternal’ whereas those things that are becoming (that is, sensible objects) are not the objects of knowledge. Knowledge is only possible with respect to the Forms, because they’re eternal, i.e. ‘always are’, by virtue of which they’re intelligible in a way that sensible objects cannot be.

    However, when you equate ‘forms’ and ‘necessary truths’, I don’t know if that is made explicit here, nor in the later, Aristotelian account - I haven’t studied it enough to know. But I think you’re surmising that the Forms amount to the justification of ‘necessary truths’ - and i suppose that may be so, but I don’t know if that is explicit at the early stage of Platonism. (It sounds like an essay question).

    I urge you to have a look at this passage, on Augustine’s presentation of ‘the nature of intelligible objects’ (from the Cambridge Companion to Augustine). I have often presented and discussed this passage on forums, and I find it is of the utmost importance, particularly the way in which he uses it to demonstrate the reality of incorporeal forms. I think this is one of the keys to understanding how Platonism influenced first Augustine, and then indeed the whole development of Christian theology.

    One question I have about it is - what exactly is meant by the term ‘intelligible object?’ An example is given, namely, that of prime numbers. But there must be others. I interpret that like you are also doing - that it’s a reference to universal abstract truths that are in some sense embedded in the fabric of the cosmos but are transcendent in nature - reason can glimpse them, but they’re above it.
  • Is 'information' physical?
    Well, thank you, but not at all persuaded. However, pleased to have reached a civil disagreement over such a momentous issue.
  • The Sins of Leon Wieseltier
    Is there any reason that you consistently mischaracterize Dawkins's position, then?Arkady

    I don’t believe I do.

    I see no reason at all that abiogenesis or the evolution of intelligence are not scientific matters. The evolution of, say, feathers, is a matter for science, is it not? Why should intelligence not be?Arkady

    Well, back to the Wieseltier review that started this thread:

    It will be plain that Dennett's approach to religion is contrived to evade religion's substance. He thinks that an inquiry into belief is made superfluous by an inquiry into the belief in belief. This is a very revealing mistake. You cannot disprove a belief unless you disprove its content. If you believe that you can disprove it any other way, by describing its origins or by describing its consequences, then you do not believe in reason. In this profound sense, Dennett does not believe in reason. He will be outraged to hear this, since he regards himself as a giant of rationalism. But the reason he imputes to the human creatures depicted in his book is merely a creaturely reason. Dennett's natural history does not deny reason, it animalizes reason. It portrays reason in service to natural selection, and as a product of natural selection. But if reason is a product of natural selection, then how much confidence can we have in a rational argument for natural selection? The power of reason is owed to the independence of reason, and to nothing else. (In this respect, rationalism is closer to mysticism than it is to materialism.) Evolutionary biology cannot invoke the power of reason even as it destroys it.

    Bolds added.
  • Is 'information' physical?
    The thermodynamic imperative is not pointing towards anything particularly grand. Just a Cosmic heat death.apokrisis

    Well, this is where I think your appeal to the Aristotelian notion of 'final cause' doesn't really stack up. In Aristotle's scheme, final causes work on various levels - even mundane creatures have a final cause or 'telos'. But there's also a sense of an ultimate end, to which all the particular causes are directed. Of course that is then interpreted by later theistic philosophers in their terms, although Aristotle himself was not 'theistic' in their sense. But in any case, the salient point is that it is not simply non-existence or nothingness; so I think there's a problem with appropriating the notion of a 'final cause' but then adopting the 'thermodynamic imperative' in place of that.
  • Is 'information' physical?
    I can't recall what you said in this particular matter, it would be helpful if you could provide some indication.
  • The Sins of Leon Wieseltier
    I didn't say anything about the Bible or the Judeo-Christian tradition; I was asking about the existence of God.Arkady

    To what does one refer in relation to the nature of God, if not that? It is the background of this entire debate.

    For the umpteenth time, evolutionary biologists do not regard life or the adaptive features thereof as an "accident." Dawkins goes positively apeshit when anyone characterizes his position thus; he does not believe that.Arkady

    I've read Dawkins' characterisation of chance in evolution, and I accept it. He says, iit is chance constrained by many other factors, so that in the context of evolutionary adaption, it's not simply random. I get that. But why living things exist in the first place, and why intelligent, self-aware beings evolve, is a different kind of question altogether. It's much more a question about telos, about whether there is a reason for living things, in a general sense, that is assumed by, for example, Aristotelian philosophy.

    The book that spells out the viewpoint of evolutionary materialism is Jacques Monod's Chance and Necessity. He follows the implications of the non-intentional or non-purposive nature of life to its logical conclusion and in rigorous detail:

    “It necessarily follows that chance alone is at the source of every innovation, and of all creation in the biosphere. Pure chance, absolutely free but blind, at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution: this central concept of modern biology is no longer one among many other possible or even conceivable hypotheses. It is today the sole conceivable hypothesis, the only one that squares with observed and tested fact. And nothing warrants the supposition - or the hope - that on this score our position is ever likely to be revised. There is no scientific concept, in any of the sciences, more destructive of anthropocentrism than this one.” — Monod

    And, as far as that question of final causes is concerned, materialism must deny that there is anything of that kind, or any type of cause beyond the purely chemical or physical. So asking 'why' life exists in the first place, is a meaningless question, when looked at that way. And Dawkins definitely does believe that. The following is an excerpt from an exchange between a Bishop, George Pell, and Dawkins on a televised debate:

    PELL: It’s part of being human to ask why we exist. Questioning distinguishes us from the animals. To ask why we're here, I repeat and this is a commonplace in science, science has nothing to say about that. …

    RICHARD DAWKINS: The question why is not necessarily a question that deserves to be answered. There are all sorts of questions that people can ask like “What is the colour of jealousy?” That’s a silly question.

    GEORGE PELL: Exactly.

    RICHARD DAWKINS: “Why?” is a silly question. “Why?” is a silly question. You can ask, “What are the factors that led to something coming into existence?” That’s a sensible question. But “What is the purpose [of the] universe?” is a silly question. It has no meaning.

    It's a clear indication that Dawkins' has no grasp of what is involved in the basic philosophical conundrum of 'why there is something rather than nothing'. He thinks it's a silly question.
  • The Sins of Leon Wieseltier
    Does empirical investigation provide evidence for or against the existence of God? Does it justify claims to the effect of "God [does/doesn't] exist"? If not, then what is the "suggestion" which you speak of here? If so, why do you have a bee in your bonnet about Dawkins and likeminded folks who also believe that empirical investigation can shed light on the existence of God (albeit coming at it from another angle)?Arkady

    I suppose it's a case of abductive inference - arguing from effect to cause. I prefer the traditional belief that 'the heavens bespeak the divine word' to the opposite. But I can't make the leap from there to 'therefore the Bible is the Revealed Word of God', as I am by no means exclusively attached to the JC tradition.

    But one thing I will say is that the belief that it is not God, or the requirement to exclude any such idea from consideration, has consequences. For example, there's the role attributed to chance - that living organisms are essentially the outcome of chance and physical necessity, that life is a cosmic accident. Scientists, generally, are concerned with disclosing causal relationships - yet curiously, when it comes to why evolution has produced intelligent self-aware beings capable of asking such questions, they are silent; we're simply the outcome of an algorithmic process rather like a chemical reaction, which in this case, has happened to result in h.sapiens . But in what other field of science would that be accepted as amounting to an hypothesis?

    Nevertheless, the question is beyond the scope of empiricism, by definition. Maybe if we found a bunch of other life-bearing planets, and found they were inhabited by beings somewhat like us, and not like the denizens of a Star Wars bar, then perhaps we'd be obliged to re-consider. But I don't see it happening in my lifetime.

    have a bee in your bonnetArkady

    I'm performing the modest public service of showing up the fallacies in Dawkins' anti-religious polemics.
  • Is 'information' physical?
    The animating purpose is the thermodynamic imperative - the general drive to self-organising simplification.apokrisis

    Perhaps you might spell out the end-point of the 'thermodynamic imperative' - what it is all heading towards. This, I presume, will be what you see as the 'final cause'.
  • Is 'information' physical?
    IN the context of a discussion about Platonic philosophy, the 'higher plane of being' is the domain of forms.
    — Wayfarer

    Hmm. I thought you were referring to a realm of meaning, value, wisdom and consciousness rather than a realm of mathematical abstracta.

    But the entire point is that Plato was concerned with a real basis for value, an objective 'domain of values'. That is the sense in which Platonist philosophy provides a dimension of a 'higher truth', which I know is a terribly non-PC thing to say. So you were challenging me - 'where is this higher truth? When? How' etc. That's why I brought it back to the Platonic intuition about numbers.

    But, you're still maintaining an essentially physicalist ontology. I think, perhaps, with semiotics, you're half-way between plain old-fashioned reductionism, and something else altogether - 'the old is dying, but the new is struggling to be born'. I'm with you on biosemiosis, but I loose you at pan-semiosis - in other words, I agree with you about the science, but not about the metaphysics.
  • The Sins of Leon Wieseltier
    Does supernature "contain its ground or explanation"? If so, what might that be?Arkady

    I recall many prior conversations with your good self about 'the ground of being', in terms of Paul Tillich, Pseudo-Dionysius, the Christian mystical tradition, and so on. Deep questions.

    The point about the naturalist approach, however, is that 'naturalism assumes nature'. That sounds obviously a truism, but here's what I mean. Natural philosophy, which is what science used to be called, observes the behaviours and entities and forces that are found in nature. Actually, borrowing a term from Francis Bacon, it does more than 'observe' - it puts nature 'on the rack' by way of such devices as the LHC. But always, it's us here, the scientist, examining that there, the animal, or the atom, or whatever. There's the entire vast domain of scientific analysis.

    But the philosophical quest for the understanding of the ground of being, is of a different order to that. It is concerned with understanding reality as lived. For instance, from the SEP entry on Schopenhauer:

    It is a perennial philosophical reflection that if one looks deeply enough into oneself, one will discover not only one’s own essence, but also the essence of the universe. For as one is a part of the universe as is everything else, the basic energies of the universe flow through oneself, as they flow through everything else. For that reason it is thought that one can come into contact with the nature of the universe if one comes into substantial contact with one’s ultimate inner being.

    Among the most frequently-identified principles that are introspectively brought forth — and one that was the standard for German Idealist philosophers such as Fichte, Schelling and Hegel who were philosophizing within the Cartesian tradition — is the principle of self-consciousness. With the belief that acts of self-consciousness exemplify a self-creative process akin to divine creation, and developing a logic that reflects the structure of self-consciousness, namely, the dialectical logic of position, opposition and reconciliation (sometimes described as the logic of thesis, antithesis and synthesis), the German Idealists maintained that dialectical logic mirrors the structure not only of human productions, both individual and social, but the structure of reality as a whole, conceived of as a thinking substance or conceptually-structured-and-constituted entity.

    (Actually I'm reading a study by Dermot Moran, on the influence of the monastic scholastic Eriugena on the origin of German idealism - will report back later.)

    And now you profess sympathy for natural theology...which purports to demonstrate God's existence on the basis of scientific grounds.Arkady

    Not demonstrate - only suggest.
  • The Sins of Leon Wieseltier
    Whitehead and Hartsthorne - I’ve read a little (mainly due to Prothero). I’ve given up on Spinoza - I did a semester on him in undergraduate studies but I’ve decided I’ll never understand him.

    But one reason I am not committed to naturalism is that I accept the theistic argument that ‘nature doesn’t contain its ground or explanation’. I think this is demonstrably the case, even with regard to current science. So I am inclined to favour the arguments of natural theology over their opponents. But, that said, I know that I don’t know, and that the argument can’t be settled one way or the other.

    Notice the definition in this post that I found on Maverick Philosopher’s blog. It gives what I consider a fair account; it’s what has always motivated my search, it even mentions my nickname! X-)
  • Is 'information' physical?
    The point of the above, is that the original conception behind the distinction of form and substance, was drawn from Plato’s conception of ‘the forms’ as kinds of ideals or blueprints for all existing things, existing eternally and unchangeably. So using the example of ‘a triangle’ to illustrate this principle, and also referring to numbers and geometric shapes as forms, are simply allegorical ways of presenting the basic idea. It’s not as if numbers or geometric shapes are themselves mystical or magical or floating around in “Platonia”. Rather they’re attributes of the structure of rational thought, they are how rational thought proceeds and operates, which is the sense in which I think the ‘intuition of the Forms’ is correct. I agree that this is a ‘revisionist’ interpretation, something which I have come to understand more clearly through this debate.
  • The Sins of Leon Wieseltier
    The claim that any naturalistic account of religion must also be reductionistic is the very claim I questioned you on in the other thread, by asking if you think this applies to so-called 'process theologies', since process theologies are not religion-as-belief-in-a-supernatural being at all.Janus

    If they’re not, then how are they theologies at all?

    Personally I think ‘supernatural’ gets a bad rap, it’s become a boo-word, something which no respectable person ought to believe or accept. We’ve drawn this tight boundary around ‘the natural’ as if ‘the natural’ is something self-contained, self-explanatory or thoroughly understood, when it’s clearly not.

    The non-reductionist theories about religion may examine various sociological or anthropological dimensions of religious cultures, without claiming to have explained the origin of those religions in sociological or naturalistic terms.
  • Is 'information' physical?
    Sorry, but my concept of triangle is not the same as thatMetaphysician Undercover

    This is where you keep getting unstuck. You keep arguing about whether ‘the same’ means ‘the same’, or whether it means something else. Whether your idea, and someone else’s idea, of ‘a triangle’, is the same or different. Whether the difference between two accidental objects (i.e. rocks) is intelligible. You are arguing here that because the way you describe ‘a triangle’ is different to the way another does, that this difference is significant. All I see in all of that is obfuscation.

    I have been reading up on Timeaus again, following your recommendation. The key idea that Timeaus introduces is between ‘that which always is’ and ‘that which becomes’ - being and becoming. The idea is that the Forms are ‘that which always are’, and actual things, particulars or individuals, are in the realm of ‘becoming’. Now at this stage, very little detail of how forms relate to particulars etc is left vague - it wasn’t until much later that the details were really considered.

    But to try and get the dialogue back on track, here is one version of the original quote on the ‘concept of triangle’

    Consider that when you think about triangularity, as you might when proving a geometrical theorem, it is necessarily perfect triangularity that you are contemplating, not some mere approximation of it. Triangularity as your intellect grasps it is entirely determinate or exact; for example, what you grasp is the notion of a closed plane figure with three perfectly straight sides, rather than that of something which may or may not have straight sides or which may or may not be closed. Of course, your mental image of a triangle might not be exact, but rather indeterminate and fuzzy. But to grasp something with the intellect is not the same as to form a mental image of it. For any mental image of a triangle is necessarily going to be of an isosceles triangle specifically, or of a scalene one, or an equilateral one; but the concept of triangularity that your intellect grasps applies to all triangles alike. Any mental image of a triangle is going to have certain features, such as a particular color, that are no part of the concept of triangularity in general. A mental image is something private and subjective, while the concept of triangularity is objective and grasped by many minds at once.

    Feser, Some Brief Arguments for Dualism

    So I don’t have any confidence in the idea that ‘your idea’ and ‘my idea’ of ‘what constitutes a triangle’ means or amounts to anything.
  • The Sins of Leon Wieseltier
    Social factors in addition to’ a metaphysical basis would not be reductionist, but denying a metaphysical basis is reductionist.
    — Wayfarer

    Really? For all religions, or just some?

    What think you of the metaphysical basis for Scientology?

    Is a Christian that denies the metaphysical basis of Islam reductionist?

    My point is, to insist that religions can be explained naturalistically is obviously to deny their central claim of a reality ‘above nature’ (i.e. ‘supernatural’). A lot of people - hey, even Krishnamurti - say nowadays that ‘man invented God’, and I guess I can see some truth in it. But ultimately I think what is happening, is that religions are records of the human encounter with the sacred, which is not something explicable in naturalistic terms. If that makes me ‘a believer’, then so be it.

    The basis for the fake ‘religion’ of scientology is not metaphysical but sociological, but if the naturalistic accounts were correct, then so that would be so of all the spiritual traditions.

    In terms of a generalised account of the universal intuition of the sacred, Rudolf Otto’s book ‘The Idea of the Holy’, is a standard text.

    At the heart of this claim I suppose is the failure to make clear a distinction between being something and being a product of something.tim wood

    That is a fundamental point, and one that is mostly forgotten nowadays. In ancient philosophy, the basis of ontology was that the foundation or ground of reality was ‘the uncreated’. This intuition manifests in numerous forms, but the underlying idea is that ‘what is subject to change’ is of a lower order to what is not; which is the intuition of the ‘temporal’ as against ‘the eternal’. In many respects, ancient philosophy was the quest for the eternal, for the discovery of something beyond change and decay.

    One of the solutions to that problem was atomism. The atom - uncuttable, eternal and uncreated - was at the same time, at the heart of the world of change. This is what gave atomism such explanatory power which animated materialism. However with Einstein’s discovery of matter-energy equivalence, and also with the discovery of fields, the atomistic model has been superseded (notwithstanding that most people still think in terms of the Universe being ‘made of atoms’.)

    At any rate, the modern mind-body problem is mainly the consequence of Cartesian dualism, and reactions to it. But the archaic formulation of the relationship between ‘the unmade’ and ‘the manifest domain’ has generally been lost, except for in those remnants of traditionalist philosophy that still exist in the modern world, such as Thomism and some schools of Buddhism.
  • What will Mueller discover?
    what's the consequence in the US if a secretary of state or president lies to the house or senate?Benkei

    Trump lies continuously , but he’s very effective at using lies to distract from lies.
  • University marking philosophy essays harshly?
    Reasonable mark and comment in my view.
  • The Sins of Leon Wieseltier
    One can be the world's most spiritual person and yet regard all the world's organised religions as a load of bunk that gained currency through a combination of filling a psychological yearning and the exercise of temporal power.andrewk

    Beliefs get their validity because of personal prerogative - individuals deserve respect as they have a right to believe as they wish - but religion itself doesn’t. Similar point came up with our debate about Islam earlier this year.

    Suggesting that Christianity and Islam may have obtained their extraordinary spread and power because of psychological, sociological and geo-political factors rather than because they contain some deep metaphysical truth is not.andrewk

    ‘Social factors in addition to’ a metaphysical basis would not be reductionist, but denying a metaphysical basis is reductionist.