Saturday, November 17, 2012

Nagel and his critics, Part III


In the previous installment in this series of posts on Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, I looked at some objections to Nagel raised by Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg.  I want now to turn to Elliot Sober’s review in Boston Review.  To his credit, and unlike Leiter and Weisberg, Sober is careful to acknowledge that:

Nagel’s main goal in this book is not to argue against materialistic reductionism, but to explore the consequences of its being false.  He has argued against the -ism elsewhere, and those who know their Nagel will be able to fill in the details.

Sober then goes on to offer a brief summary of the relevant positions Nagel has defended in earlier works like his articles “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” and “The Psychophysical Nexus.”  As I emphasized in my previous post, keeping these earlier arguments in mind is crucial to giving the position Nagel develops in Mind and Cosmos a fair reading.  Unfortunately, however, having reminded his readers of these earlier arguments of Nagel’s, Sober immediately goes on to ignore them.

Sober on Nagel and evolution

In the first half of his review, Sober focuses on Nagel’s criticisms of evolutionary theory.  Summarizing the first of these criticisms, Sober writes:

Nagel thinks that adequate explanations of the origins of life, intelligence, and consciousness must show that those events had a “significant likelihood” of occurring: these origins must be shown to be “unsurprising if not inevitable.”  A complete account of consciousness must show that consciousness was “something to be expected.”  Nagel thinks that evolutionary theory as we now have it fails in this regard, so it needs to be supplemented.

Sober then goes on to complain:

Nagel doesn’t impose this condition of adequate explanation on all the events that science might address.  He is prepared to live with the fact that some events are just flukes or accidents or improbable coincidences.  For example, it may just be an improbable coincidence that in the mid-1980s Evelyn Marie Adams won the New Jersey lottery twice in the span of four months.  But the existence of life, intelligence, and consciousness are not in the same category.  Why do Nagel’s standards go up when he contemplates facts that he deems “remarkable”?  Maybe the answer falls under what Nagel refers to, in a different context, as his “ungrounded intellectual preference.”  It isn’t theistic conviction that is doing the work here, but rather Nagel’s faith that the remarkable facts he mentions must be “intelligible,” where intelligibility requires that these facts had a significant probability of being true.

End quote. The trouble, though, is that Sober is here just making the same mistake which, as we saw in my previous post, Leiter and Weisberg make in their review.  Nagel’s point has nothing to do with “ungrounded intellectual preferences” nor even with mere improbability as such, at least not on a charitable interpretation of his position.  Start with consciousness.  As I noted in response to Leiter and Weisberg:

If the argument of “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” is correct, then it is not merely improbable that what Nagel there calls “objective” facts should by themselves give rise to [the] “subjective” facts [of consciousness], but impossible, for they differ qualitatively rather than merely quantitatively.  To borrow an example used by the Thomist William A. Wallace in another context, a polygon is just a different sort of thing from a circle, no matter how closely you approximate a circle by adding sides to a polygon.  And that a circle might arise from nothing more than the successive addition of sides to a polygon is therefore not merely improbable or unpredictable; it is impossible in principle.  Similarly, given the difference between “objective” and “subjective” facts as Nagel characterizes them, you are simply not going to get the latter from the former alone even in principle.  At any rate, if Nagel is wrong about this, Leiter and Weisberg haven’t done anything to show that he is, but have merely implicitly assumed that he is.

Similarly, Nagel holds that it is in principle impossible to understand rationality in purely evolutionary terms -- that the reliability of our rational faculties is never going to be entirely explicable merely in terms of the selective advantage they may have conferred on us -- for reasons spelled out in his book The Last Word and sketched out more briefly in the current book.  

Now Sober might respond that this objection of mine presupposes Nagel’s critique of materialistic reductionism and some of his other philosophical arguments, whereas what he (Sober) is concerned to respond to is a separate, distinct criticism of evolutionary theory that does not presuppose these particular philosophical arguments of Nagel’s.  For Sober writes:

Nagel believes that evolutionary biology is in trouble, but what sort of trouble is it in? There are two possibilities. Evolutionary theory could be in trouble just because it is committed to materialistic reductionism; if so, the theory would be perfectly okay if it dropped that commitment.  Understood in this way, it’s the philosophy that has gone wrong, not the biology.  But much of what Nagel says is not in this vein. He thinks that the biology itself is flawed. Even without a commitment to materialistic reductionism, the theory would be in bad shape. For Nagel, the combination of evolutionary theory and materialistic reductionism is false, while evolutionary theory taken on its own (without the philosophical add-on) is incomplete. Incompleteness means that the theory cannot fully explain important biological events.

End quote.  It seems to me, though, that Sober is in this case responding to an argument that Nagel does not in fact give in the first place, at least not with respect to consciousness and rationality.  That is to say, Nagel’s reason for saying that consciousness and rationality cannot be explained in evolutionary terms just is that such an evolutionary explanation (as evolution is typically understood today, anyway) would be a materialistic explanation, and no such explanation can succeed.  Nagel doesn’t have some separate argument to the effect that consciousness and rationality are evolutionarily improbable even apart from their being inexplicable in materialistic terms.  The reason he thinks current evolutionary theory is “incomplete” just is that it limits itself to materialistic explanations; it’s not that there is some other respect in which it is incomplete that makes consciousness and rationality improbable even apart from the issue of materialism.  What would “complete” it is precisely a non-materialistic underlying metaphysics.

Nagel’s views on the origin of life do seem, I acknowledge, to be of a different sort.  Here I think his objections do amount at least in part to the claim that life is improbable for reasons that are not essentially connected to the arguments of earlier works like “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” or The Last Word.  They appear to have instead to do with considerations of the sort that “Intelligent Design” theorists have put forward.  But Sober should not run what Nagel says about consciousness and rationality together with what he says about the origin of life.  In Mind and Cosmos, Nagel explicitly contrasts the kind of difficulty he thinks faces an explanation of the origin of life with the kind he thinks faces an explanation of consciousness, writing: “But to explain consciousness, as well as biological complexity, as a consequence of the natural order adds a whole new dimension of difficulty” that requires that something be “added to the physical story” (pp. 49-50, emphasis added).

But even if Nagel did have a separate, non-philosophical argument against the adequacy of an evolutionary account of consciousness and rationality, it would odd for Sober to put so much emphasis on it, because the philosophical, anti-materialist argument from the inexplicability of “subjective” facts in terms of “objective” facts is (as Sober’s earlier remarks implicitly acknowledge) a distinctively Nagelian sort of argument, and a more philosophically interesting line of argument.  By neglecting to respond to it, Sober is failing to take Nagel on at his strongest point -- never a good thing in philosophy, and especially not when one is purporting to show that “Nagel has not made a convincing case.”

To be sure, Sober himself may be hinting at the way of interpreting Nagel that I have been suggesting when he writes:

What makes more sense than Nagel’s probability requirement is one about possibility—that an adequate theory must allow that the origin of life, mind, and consciousness all were possible, given the initial state of the universe. If this were all that Nagel meant by his claim that “the propensity for the development of organisms with a subjective point of view must have been there from the beginning,” I would have no quarrel.  But then there would be no objection to the sciences we now have.

But it is not clear what Sober intends to concede here.  Is he acknowledging that Nagel is right to hold that you are never going to get what he calls “subjective” facts from “objective” ones alone (in Nagel’s technical senses of those terms), so that physical science should not confine itself to the latter?  If so, then it is hardly plausible to say that that is “no objection to the sciences we now have,” at least given the way philosophical naturalists (including many scientists themselves) typically interpret the sciences.  Or is Sober agreeing with Nagel that these naturalists are just mistaken in thinking that science ought to proceed in a materialist fashion?  If so (though I doubt it), then good for Sober, but this is hardly a minor or non-controversial point!

Sober also takes issue with Nagel’s claim that objective moral value cannot be explained in evolutionary terms.  As with Leiter and Weisberg’s treatment of this subject, I’m going to refrain from commenting since my meta-ethical views differ from Nagel’s to such an extent that saying what I would want to say would require too lengthy a digression into moral theory.

Sober on Nagel on teleology

Even apart from what has already been said, Sober’s point about probabilities is mistaken.  For the example of someone winning the lottery twice is simply not relevantly comparable to the existence of consciousness and rationality.  The former is a one-off event, or at most the sort of thing that happens very sporadically and unpredictably.  But the latter are ordinary features of the biological realm at least at its higher levels, occurring with regularity and predictability. The former would be a paradigm case of what Aristotelians would consider a chance event, whereas the latter would be instances of what Aristotelians would consider paradigmatic regularities.  

This brings us to Sober’s remarks on teleology.  For the Aristotelian, chance presupposes regularity.  To take a stock example, when a farmer plows his field and comes across buried treasure, that is a chance event.  But it occurred only because of two non-chance events -- someone deciding to bury treasure at that spot, and the farmer deciding to plow the field on that day.  In general, chance occurrences involve the convergence of causal factors that are instances of regularity rather than chance, as when a piece of toast burns in such a way that it looks vaguely as if there is a face on it (chance) but only because someone had put the toast in the toaster, the toaster was operating as it always does, etc. (regularity).  

Now as the Aristotelian conception of causality was developed within the Scholastic tradition, all efficient-causal regularities presuppose final causality or teleology in the sense that unless an efficient cause A were inherently or of its nature “directed toward” the generation of some effect or range of effects B, specifically, there would be no reason why it does in fact generate B specifically rather than some random effect or no effect at all.  (Whether this final causality or teleology in turn requires a divine cause is a separate question, which need not be settled for the purposes at hand; and of course, Nagel wants to affirm teleology without a divine source.)  So, for the Aristotelian, chance presupposes regularity, and regularity in turn presupposes teleology.  Hence even chance occurrences like winning the lottery twice ultimately presuppose teleology.  Hence they can hardly coherently be appealed to in an argument against an Aristotelian teleological conception of the world.

Now Sober writes:

According to Nagel a teleological theory says that things tend to change in the direction of certain types of outcome. This is right, but, as Nagel realizes, it isn’t sufficient for a theory to be teleological. 

But for the Aristotelian-Scholastic philosopher, “that things tend to change in the direction of certain types of outcome” is indeed “sufficient for… teleolog[y],” at least a very simple kind of teleology.  It might be that Sober does not see the possibility of such a view because, like so many contemporary philosophers, he may be thinking of teleology in essentially biological and/or artifactual terms, and thus assumes that to attribute teleology to something necessarily involves attributing to it something like a function of the kind served by a bodily organ or the component of a mechanical device.  But for the Scholastic tradition, that is only one kind of teleology among others.  Mere directedness to a certain outcome of the sort manifest in even the simplest inorganic causal processes involves a very rudimentary sort of finality or teleology.  And one needn’t be a Scholastic to take such a view; as I have noted many times, contemporary “new essentialist” and “dispositional essentialist” metaphysicians and philosophers of science (George Molnar, C. B. Martin, John Heil, et al.) are committed to something like it insofar as they regard the directedness of causal powers toward their effects or the directedness of dispositions toward their manifestations as instances of “physical intentionality” or “natural intentionality.”  

Hence, while Sober says that he “do[es] not reject teleology wholesale” as long as there are “causal underpinnings for… teleological statements” -- that is to say, as long as claims about teleology or final causality can be cashed out in terms of claims about patterns of efficient causation -- what he does not see is that the whole point, from the Aristotelian-Scholastic point of view, is that the latter sort of claim, claims about efficient causation, themselves presuppose finality or teleology.  For without finality or teleology there is no way for there to be efficient causal regularities in the first place.  Reducing some instance of teleology to efficient causality, then, merely puts off the inevitable, because the efficient causality will itself have to be explained in teleological terms.

In fairness to Sober, Nagel himself does not say all this; his own appeal to Aristotelian teleology is very sketchy, and (as I complained in an earlier post) he does not make use of or even refer to the work of “new essentialist” and other contemporary neo-Aristotelian writers -- many of whom are, like Nagel, writing from a secular point of view -- who have developed the relevant ideas in more systematic detail.

Still, the existence of this body of largely secular neo-Aristotelian work within contemporary mainstream academic philosophy only reinforces Nagel’s main point that philosophers in general need to take non-materialist views more seriously than they do.  And that Sober does not consider these existing alternative views only reinforces Nagel’s complaint about the narrowness of the “right-thinking consensus” within academic philosophy that he is trying to challenge.  Even the difficulties with the consensus tend to get interpreted a way that is claimed somehow to favor the consensus.  So beholden are so many philosophers to it that they cannot even see when their position has essentially been undermined.  Hence Sober writes:

Nagel is hardly unique in being an anti-reductionist. Most philosophers nowadays would probably say that they are against reductionism.

What sets Nagel apart is his idea that current biological and physical theories need to be fundamentally overhauled. Why do other anti-reductionists decline to take this radical step? It is not that they are faint of heart. Mostly they decline because they endorse the following picture. When an organism has a new visual experience, the physical state of the organism has changed. And when an economy goes into recession, the physical state of that social object also has changed. These examples obey the slogan I mentioned before: no difference without a physical difference. 

However, when it comes to understanding visual perception and economic change, the best explanations are not to be found in relativity theory or quantum mechanics. Sciences outside of physics can explain things that physics is not equipped to explain. But this doesn’t mean that physics needs to be revised. The philosophers and scientists I am describing disagree with Nagel’s claim that evolution is more than a physical process, though they agree that physics is not the best tool to use in understanding evolution.

End quote.  What Sober does not see is that the picture of the natural world implicit in these remarks is itself an essentially anti-materialist one insofar as it acknowledges that there are higher-level features of material objects that cannot be captured entirely by a description of their micro-level parts.  It constitutes an implicit abandonment of the mechanistic conception of matter we’ve inherited from Galileo, Descartes, Boyle, and Co., which was inherited by them in turn from the ancient atomists, and which has always been implicit in the materialist tradition.  To be sure, one could take this anti-reductionism in one of two directions -- either in the direction of post-Cartesian forms of dualism, whether substance dualism or property dualism (which more or less preserves the mechanistic conception but adds a further layer of reality to it), or in the direction of hylemorphism (which abandons the mechanistic conception altogether in favor of a conception of material substances as composites of substantial form and prime matter).  

The first option is the one taken by Cartesian dualists and by “naturalistic” property dualists like David Chalmers; the second option is the one taken by neo-Aristotelians.  Either one involves just the sort of radical overhaul of the naturalistic conception of the world that Nagel is calling for, but which Sober, like Leiter and Weisberg, think is unnecessary.  They think this in part because they do not see that an “anti-reductionistic materialism” is indeterminate, and when made more precise either collapses back into reductionistic materialism or amounts to property dualism or hylemorphism rather than materialism; and in part because (as Sober’s remarks indicate) they suppose that the supervenience thesis that there is “no difference without a physical difference” somehow entails an essentially materialist position.  But it does not.  For that there is no difference without a physical difference would show only that the micro-level physical facts are necessary for the higher-level facts, not that they are sufficient.  And that is something either a property dualist or an Aristotelian could accept.  The Aristotelian, after all, regards a natural substance’s material cause as no less an irreducible constituent of it as its formal cause.  

(To be sure, a qualification to the supervenience thesis would be required in the case of strictly intellectual activity, which -- unlike sensation, imagination, digestion, locomotion, etc. -- is, for the Aristotelian, a partially immaterial operation of the human organism.  But that is irrelevant to the point at hand, which is that even in the case of entirely material substances and operations, supervenience does not entail materialism.)

But I don’t mean to be too hard on Sober, who is a serious thinker and who, both in the present review and elsewhere, has shown himself to be fair-minded.  Indeed, at the end of his review of Nagel, he writes:

I realize that Nagel is trying to point the way to a scientific revolution and that my reactions may be mired in presuppositions that Nagel is trying to transcend. If Nagel is right, our descendants will look back on him as a prophet—a prophet whom naysayers such as me were unable to recognize.

That, I think, is precisely what is going on -- the “presuppositions that Nagel is trying to transcend” run so deep in contemporary academic philosophical culture that it is difficult for most philosophers to get any critical distance on them.  They lack, as Nietzsche might have said, the courage for an attack on their own convictions.  And yet the evidence that there is something deeply wrong with the naturalistic consensus is all around them even in “mainstream” academic philosophy -- in the work of renegade naturalists like Nagel, Searle, Fodor, McGinn, et al.; dualists like Chalmers, Brie Gertler, Howard Robinson, John Foster, et al.; and neo-Aristotelians like the “new essentialist” metaphysicians and philosophers of science (Cartwright, Ellis, Martin, Heil, Mumford, et al.) and the analytical Thomists (Oderberg, Klima, Haldane, et al.).  It’s psychologically easy (even if philosophically sleazy) to dismiss one or two of these thinkers as outliers who needn’t be taken seriously.  But as their ranks slowly grow, it will be, and ought to be, harder both psychologically and philosophically to dismiss them.

Which is no doubt why the more ideological naturalists would very dearly like to strangle this growing challenge to the consensus while it is still in its crib -- hence the un-philosophical nastiness with which Nagel’s views have been greeted in some quarters.  But Sober, to his credit, is not an ideologue, and is sober enough to acknowledge at least the possibility that Nagel is on to something.  As I have tried to show, his reasons for demurring fail to get to the heart of Nagel’s critique.

So, Nagel passes this particular “sober test.”  Good thing he didn’t get the one Steve Martin got in The Man With Two Brains

92 comments:

Tony said...

Wow, 3500 words in the third of a series of critiques, for the sheer fun of it. All from the the guy who has NO TIME. Makes the rest of us look like we're standing still.

Eduardo said...

Well he has already revealed that he is the MULTI-MAN FESER!

Eduardo said...

Great Post Doctor Feser, I am still having a hard time to outline what metaphysics is, but overall I much like Arthur see the importance of metaphysics in intelectual inquiry as a whole, and in the issue that I thnk Nagel is raising.

Awais Aftab said...

I find your series of posts on Nagel very illuminating. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

The basic problem with Nagel’s book –a point that Leiter & Weisberg and Dupre point out, though Feser repeats Nagel’s error — is that Nagel just assumes that science is committed to “materialism” and to “reductionism”. In 1974, when Nagel wrote the famous bat essay, it was easy to assume that those were basic features of science. That’s just not the case anymore. Philosophy of science has come a long way since then — in large part because philosophers of science have started paying a lot closer attention to how scientists actually reason in the lab and field.

http://www.uncommondescent.com/evolution/the-unreasonableness-of-naturalism/#comment-439195

philoandrew said...

Another review of Thomas Nagel´s book. I found it interesting and it also includes some references.

http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/35163-mind-and-cosmos-why-the-materialist-neo-darwinian-conception-of-nature-is-almost-certainly-false/

Edward Feser said...

The basic problem with Nagel’s book –a point that Leiter & Weisberg and Dupre point out, though Feser repeats Nagel’s error — is that Nagel just assumes that science is committed to “materialism” and to “reductionism”.

I don't assume any such thing. In fact, in TLS and elsewhere I've noted respects in which science points away from reductionism.

What is at issue, as I made clear above, is whether one can avoid abandoning materialism in light of the falsity of reductionism, in favor of either some kind of dualism or of Aristotelianism.

D Foster said...

As one who knows far to little about the Aristotelian-Scholastic views (and how they differ from the preconceptions I was given in school), the posts here have been tremendously helpful.

Thank you.

Mr. Green said...

Sober: The philosophers and scientists I am describing disagree with Nagel’s claim that evolution is more than a physical process, though they agree that physics is not the best tool to use in understanding evolution.

The Profeser: What Sober does not see is that the picture of the natural world implicit in these remarks is itself an essentially anti-materialist one insofar as it acknowledges that there are higher-level features of material objects that cannot be captured entirely by a description of their micro-level parts.

Is that was Sober is acknowledging, or does he mean that physics isn't the best tool because it's too fine-grained? (I.e. the way a nail-gun is a better tool in degree than a hammer, not better in kind than a screwdriver.) Certainly there are people who think we could calculate the formula for a hedgehog in terms of fundamental particles, but it would simply be too unwieldy to do biology that way in practice.

Interestingly, this suggests an area where Intelligent Design ideas can play a role: the Fifth Way doesn't show that biology works on a "higher level" than physics; even if it didn't, physics itself is teleological. But if science in practice requires biology to be teleologically distinct from physics, then the essentially anti-materialist picture must be accepted regardless (and of course that opens an avenue to show how physics itself is directed, in the Aristotelian sense).

Crude said...

Mr. Green,

I think Ed's interpretation may be correct here, since Sober is A) singling out anti-reductionists, and B) he says physics 'is not equipped' to explain these things, according to the people in question. Your reply seems to suggest that physics IS equipped to explain these things, it's just too unwieldy - and it would be reductionists saying that, not anti-reductionists.

Confusing statement from Sober, but given the context I can see Ed's reading of it.

Mr. Green said...

Crude: I think Ed's interpretation may be correct here, since Sober is A) singling out anti-reductionists, and B) he says physics 'is not equipped' to explain these things

Oh, sure; it's just not clear to me how far any of them really want to push "not equipped" (and Ed already noted that Sober seems possibly confused in some places). I suppose it really comes down to the old issue of "materialism" or "naturalism" meaning whatever you want, as long as it doesn't include God (and even God is negotiable, as long as He isn't going to tell you to quit engaging in your favourite bad behaviour).

JesseM said...

To be sure, one could take this anti-reductionism in one of two directions -- either in the direction of post-Cartesian forms of dualism, whether substance dualism or property dualism (which more or less preserves the mechanistic conception but adds a further layer of reality to it), or in the direction of hylemorphism (which abandons the mechanistic conception altogether in favor of a conception of material substances as composites of substantial form and prime matter). The first option is the one taken by Cartesian dualists and by “naturalistic” property dualists like David Chalmers; the second option is the one taken by neo-Aristotelians.

Does this imply the neo-Aristotelians see their position as non-dualistic? If so, how would a neo-Aristotelian reply to Chalmer's "zombie universe" thought-experiment? Would it really not be within the power of an omnipotent God to create a universe that was physically identical to our own, but where none of the teleological, directed movements of living beings were associated with any inner qualia? If this is logically or metaphysically possible, it implies the physical and mental realms are logically or metaphysically capable of existing independently, and are thus separate substances.

Also, I don't think the only option open to a naturalist who accepts the distinct reality of qualia is dualism. Spinoza saw consciousness and matter as distinct "modes" of a single necessary substance (God), with all of them being absolutely necessary aspects of God so that there would be no possibility of one mode existing distinct from the others (so the "zombie universe" would not be possible). And although Chalmers generally identifies himself as a dualist, he does sometimes suggest the possibility of a "dual-aspect" version of neutral monism, where all of reality is a type of mind-like substance but this substance has two aspects, an objective "informational" side along with subjective qualia (this really only makes sense if one accepts the panpsychist implication that all informational structures have some sort of qualia, a position Chalmers considers plausible). One could then posit that it is a sort of matter of metaphysical necessity that you can't have one side without the other, making the "zombie universe" a metaphysical impossibility (philosophers do sometimes talk about aspects of reality being "necessary truths" in a sense that goes beyond mere logical necessity--for example, most who think God is a necessarily existing being do not think God's existence can be proven using formal logic alone. So even if the zombie universe is a logical possibility, it might be a metaphysical impossibility.)

This is basically my view--I think panpsychism is the most plausible way to avoid dualism, but I also lean towards pantheism (or panentheism) in which all of reality is unified as parts of a single infinite mind or experience. In this context, my take on mathematical platonism is that mathematical structures exist as perfect ideas in this divine mind, so in a sense they are just another type of qualia, and I see the objective, "physical" side of reality (the "informational" side in Chalmers' terms) as being defined entirely in terms of mathematical structure.

Scott said...

@JesseM: Your view (which I generally share) is essentially that of Timothy Sprigge. Are you familiar with his work? If not, I highly recommend him (more on metaphysics than on ethics; he has interesting things to say about the latter as well, but I disagree with him a lot more often).

Eduardo said...

Jesse

Apparently Aristoteleans are dualists just NOT substance dualists.

Yep, there different flavors of dualism.

JesseM said...

Scott, thanks, I'm familiar with Timothy Sprigge and from what I've read in summaries (like the one at http://www.the-philosopher.co.uk/mchenry.htm ) I think his views on panpsychism/pantheism are similar to mine, though I'm not sure if he ever expressed views on mathematical platonism or why nature seems to have an objective, mathematical side. I have his books "The Vindication of Absolute Idealism" and "The God of Metaphysics" but haven't yet gotten around to reading them, though I've read a few sections.

Eduardo, do you know of any posts where Dr. Feser explained the distinction between Aristotelian dualism and substance dualism? (or any other links/books discussing it?) I understand different "substances" to mean (or at least include as part of the definition) entities that have the logical or metaphysical potential to exist on their own even if the other substances did not, so denying substance dualism about mind/matter would seem to mean the view that Chalmers' "zombie universe" is logically or metaphysically impossible (so even God could not create such a universe), I wonder if neo-Aristotelians would indeed argue that it's impossible in this way.

Eduardo said...

Look at the old Posts Jesse... I remember reading about philosophy of mind in the VERY beginning of this blog.

You see... I don't remember the name of posts exactly XD... But he does mention it here in the blog I am certain of that.

Eduardo said...

I think you could mix them both, but Aristoteleans come to dualism from a different place.

Scott said...

@JesseM: "I'm not sure if he ever expressed views on mathematical platonism or why nature seems to have an objective, mathematical side."

He has in effect, though not in that language. He's echoed Bertrand Russell's point (though I don't recall offhand whether he quotes Russell or not) that physics tells us the structure of what there is but doesn't tell us what it is that has or fills out that structure. His basic idea here is that physics shows us how things look phenomenally but it's panpsychism that tells about its "noumenal backing."

His most essential argument is one with which, I think, Prof. Feser will disagree: he argues that if we want to have a positive grasp of what, metaphysically, there is, we should take our cue from the one and only example we have, and that, he says, is experience. His argument is basically that we can't imagine anything as existing that positively lacks certain features that are clearly associated with experience. (Where I expect Prof. Feser to disagree is in how he reaches this conclusion: he argues (I think correctly) that we can't imagine anything else, and I expect that Prof. Feser would take him to task for relying on imagination rather than conception.)

But that's enough from me; I don't want to take the thread off-topic.

Scott said...

(Other than to add that there are quite a lot of excellent short works in The Importance of Subjectivity, and that Vindication, while probably his strongest work, is probably also his least well-written, with the effect that his main points are much better explicated and easier to follow in his other writings.)

Radik said...

JesseM said...

"If so, how would a neo-Aristotelian reply to Chalmer's "zombie universe" thought-experiment? Would it really not be within the power of an omnipotent God to create a universe that was physically identical to our own, but where none of the teleological, directed movements of living beings were associated with any inner qualia?"

Define what you mean by physical.

An Aristotelian includes teleology in his natural philosophy. So, if the physical is concerned with nature as a whole, then a universe that lacks teleology cannot in principle be identical to a universe that has teleology.

But maybe you mean by "universe that [is] physically identical to our own" a universe that has structurally the same quantitative characteristics as ours (to be more precise: there is some isomorphism between the quantities of both universes that respects some special quantitative relations) or loosily speaking: it is described by the same formulas.

But then this alone does not prove anything about dualism. There are many phenomena in our own universe that are described by the same formulas. E.g. the same differential equations describe natural growth processes, atomic decay, and the cooling or heating of a body.

I think, one cannot draw any metaphysical conclusions from purely quantitative considerations, since quantity is a property of substances, and it is possible that different substances have exactly the same quantitative properties.

(Infact, this happens every sunday in a Catholic Mass, where bread and whine are changed to the Flesh and Blood of Jesus Christ, while still retaining all accidents, even the quantitative ones.)

JesseM said...

But nothing in Aristotelian philosophy requires that teleology is always associated with qualia, does it? For example, plants behave teleologically (growth, turning to face the sun) but are not assumed to have any inner experience. Would it not be within God's power to create a teleological organism that was similiarly devoid of qualia but which behaved more like an animal, or even one able to manipulate concepts?

Also, I'm not clear what you mean by "described by the same formulas"--Chalmers' zombie universe thought experiment assumes a universe where every physical motion is completely identical to our universe, including things like speech and writing by humans. Is that included under what you meant by "same formulas"?

Don Jindra said...

Ed,

"a polygon is just a different sort of thing from a circle, no matter how closely you approximate a circle by adding sides to a polygon. And that a circle might arise from nothing more than the successive addition of sides to a polygon is therefore not merely improbable or unpredictable; it is impossible in principle."

I like this very much, but you're not going to like why.

If a billion sided polygon is "in principle" different than a circle, I have to ask: Why can't I distinguish between the two? If a very precise machine were to draw that polygon, why does it look so much like a circle? In this context what does it mean to tell me polygon X and circle Y are "in principle" different? If we apply these forms to the material world, the billion sided polygon wheel behaves exactly like the "perfect" circle wheel. Is it really "just a different sort of thing?"

In fact, "in reality," we can make neither a perfect circle nor a perfect polygon. The "in principle" difference seems to be a theoretical one that resides solely in our minds.

As this example demonstrates, sometimes this "in principle" difference is merely descriptive. How we choose to describe something (in this case mathematically or geometrically) may have no real application outside the mind. It can ignore how a thing exists.

Scott said...

Don Jindra: "If a billion sided polygon is 'in principle' different than a circle, I have to ask: Why can't I distinguish between the two?"

Which I think raises a question even on strictly Aristotelian terms.

I sit down at my computer and try, within the limits of my graphics program, to draw a regular chiliagon. At my screen resolution, the resulting image is exactly the same one that would have resulted if I had tried to draw a perfect circle.

Yet it seems that one is a(n imperfect) chiliagon, and the other is a(n imperfect) circle.

Why? Physically, surely the two figures are completely identical. Has my intent in generating them caused them to instantiate two different forms?

Papalinton said...

Meanwhile, science quietly goes about its business exploring the cosmos adding to the commonwealth of humanity's knowledge base as philosophers complete the picture taking potshots at each other from their reductionist, classical theist, metaphysic, Aristotelian-Thomist, materialist and teleological foxholes.

At base, one not forget there are but two forms of philosophy - scientifically informed philosophy and scientifically uninformed philosophy. Philosophy uninformed by the sciences is .. well, theology.

It would seem Nagel has opted for second option philosophy and has been lured to the dark side of 'gap-ian-ism', akin to, if not subscribing to, the ubiquitous and primitive 'God of the gaps' default in the absence of a neatly packaged absolute. [Said with soft persiflage.]

Finally, "Which is no doubt why the more ideological naturalists would very dearly like to strangle this growing challenge to the consensus while it is still in its crib -- hence the un-philosophical nastiness with which Nagel’s views have been greeted in some quarters."

Yes, from a supernaturalist's POV, robust criticism of Nagel's perspective would seem an 'un-philosophical nasty', but I do note the jibe, 'ideological naturalists' - is that the supernaturalist's retaliatory riposte for 'Fundie Thomists"?

"But Sober, to his credit, is not an ideologue, and is sober enough to acknowledge at least the possibility that Nagel is on to something. So, Nagel passes this particular “sober test.”
A big tick for the pun [x2] but it would be foolish to imagine Nagel's musings are a vindication of supernatural teleological intentionality. The theory of mind and the neurosciences are in its infancy.

Anonymous said...

Why? Physically, surely the two figures are completely identical. Has my intent in generating them caused them to instantiate two different forms?

No, you're just experiencing hardware/software limitations, and in practice a 1000-sided polygon can do the job of a circle.

And no, circles and 1000-sided polygons are not merely different in a descriptive sense, unless you're including their definitions and universals as part of their descriptions. Do that, and you're back to affirming the Aristotilean point.

seanrobsville said...

@ Radik
"Define what you mean by physical."

A physical system is one that can be modelled, understood and explained algorithmically.

Physics is the attempt to model systems using a small number algorithms that are simpler than the numerous systems to which they are applied.

Non-physical systems (eg mind) are non-algorithmic.

Eduardo said...

So Sean, are the algorithms the essence of reality of the chracteristic of the entities of reality???

By the way nice way to define Physics, pretty concise and apparently pretty accurate too.

Eduardo said...

Correction

So Sean, are the algorithms the essence of reality OR the characteristic of the entities of reality???

seanrobsville said...

@ Eduardo
Regarding algorithms being the essence of reality, this is the ongoing debate of Realism versus Instrumentalism, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_realism

Personally, I'm undecided on this issue.

Eduardo said...

lol, I know how it is debated, especially after Quantum Physics, but I want think about the consequences of both.

You as someone who stick that the mind is not algorithmical would tend to stick with option 2.

If the mind is part of reality, and reality has the following rule: Algorithmical. Then the mind must follow this rule because it is "imersed" in this rule.

Perhaps I wasn't too clear with my question, because I feel like we don't have the same idea in our minds.

seanrobsville said...

Some aspects of reality may be subject to algorithmic rules, others may not be.

All physicalist explanations are by their very nature algorithmic, so attempting a physical/computational/procedural/quantitative/Boolean explanation for non-algorithmic mind would be a category error.

Non-algorithmic phenomena (if they exist) present a profound challenge to scientism, because some/most/all of the basic algorithmic operations and data structures may not be relevant or applicable.

To see just how profound this challenge to physicalist/computationalist understanding might be, consider that...

AND may not be applicable

NOT may not be applicable

OR may not be applicable

IF... THEN... (and its reverse aspect 'because' ) may not be applicable

Numbers and logical states may not be applicable

TRUE and FALSE may not be applicable.

The great difficulty in talking about nonalgorithmic phenomena is that although we can say in general terms what they do, it is impossible by their very nature to describe how they do it. (If we could describe in a stepwise manner what was going on, then the phenomenon would be algorithmic!).

Likewise, we cannot understand the mechanism of non-algorithmic phenomena because there is no mechanism! This may be the reason for the 'explanatory gap' of the Hard Problem.

Eduardo said...

GGGG.... Go on tell the mathematician that a circle is just like a 1 billion sided polygon. He will say:"You absolutely mistaken my dear sir, the circle is the infinitely-sided polygon"

"Oh but it looks so much like a circle"

"Yes, 1 looks so much like 1,00000001, but it is not the same thing!"

If you just prefer to believe they are the same not because of their nature but because of your limitations to identify certain chracteristics, that is great...

*I see two identical images

*Identical is defined as something that looks enough like something else so pragmatically I can pretend they are the same and get acceptable results

* Acceptable is when an approximation works for my desired purposes

*Therefore taking this all consideration they are the same!

* The same in this case, is just the same for me since I can't guarantee they are the same in terms of nature.

Eduardo said...

That is great Sean, but totally irrelevant to what I was talking about ... or what we were trying to talk about... or what I thought we were talking about.

I don't even know where we anymore in this conversation...

Eduardo said...

By the way Sean, not disagreeing with you XD. I was sort of acid though.

Just that I was thinking about something else really.

Radik said...

JesseM said...

"Would it not be within God's power to create a teleological organism that was similiarly devoid of qualia but which behaved more like an animal, or even one able to manipulate concepts?"

I am not sure about the last one, since concepts do not inhere in matter, but are completely immaterial, therefore thought is an immaterial process.

Also I dont know whether it is possible to create a plant, i.e. a living being without sensations and self-movement, that behaves like an animal, which has self-movement, that reacts to sensations.

"Also, I'm not clear what you mean by "described by the same formulas"--Chalmers' zombie universe thought experiment assumes a universe where every physical motion is completely identical to our universe, including things like speech and writing by humans. Is that included under what you meant by "same formulas"?"

I suppose, he means this by physical. This means that the assumed universe equals ours in its quantitative aspects. What I ask myself is, whether this really says something about substances or not. The problem is, we dont know whether the elementary forces of physics are enough to account for all movement in the universe, or whether animals and plants are moved by other kinds of forces or powers (e.g. teleological ones).

In any case, there is no question that physicalism is false.

---

seanrobsville said...
"A physical system is one that can be modelled, understood and explained algorithmically."

So you would say that theoretical informatics is concerned with physical systems, since its subject matter are algorithms and systems that implement them? Or that a formal language, lets take a formalisation of first-order logic, is a physical system, since it is described and checked algorithmically?

But I dont want to quibble over definitions. You can of course define "physical" as you want, but that does not mean that this term is used in the same way as it is used in the social class of physicists. I think they understand by physical: everything that can somehow be described by the "International System of Units"

seanrobsville said...

@Radik
There may be other phenomena, not usually considered as physical,such as stock exchange crashes, that could be modelled, understood and explained algorithmically. However, the demonstration of a functioning phenomenon which produced real world effects and which could not in principle be modelled algorithmically (not even probabilistically) would present a serious challenge to naturalism/materialism/physicalism/computationalism/scientism.

Anonymous said...

"Also I dont know whether it is possible to create a plant, i.e. a living being without sensations and self-movement, that behaves like an animal, which has self-movement, that reacts to sensations."

A Venus flytrap perhaps? They do photosynthesize, but the need additional nutrients to survive, which is why they also need to consume insects. It does involve external stimuli though. According to Wikipedia the mechanism is not fully understood.

Anonymous said...

Is an observer necessary for logical and rational inferences? For example, say you had a computer which processed data according to logical rules. Is that computer "acting rationally" or is it just pushing electrons? To me, it seems like the latter until someone would walk by and say "this computer appears to simulate rational thought processes." Are syntax and semantics definable purely via physics?

Eduardo said...

Are you sure it is not a mechanism like those other carnivours plants?

Scott said...

Anonymous: "No, you're just experiencing hardware/software limitations, and in practice a 1000-sided polygon can do the job of a circle.

And no, circles and 1000-sided polygons are not merely different in a descriptive sense, unless you're including their definitions and universals as part of their descriptions. Do that, and you're back to affirming the Aristotilean point."

I don't think this addresses the point of my question, so let me clarify what I'm asking.

I sit down at my computer and use some graphics software to draw an image of (a) a circle, and (b) a chiliagon. Yes, of course these figures are in principle different, and the results of my attempts to draw them are therefore in some relevant sense different as well; one of them is either a representation of, or an imperfect attempt to create, a circle, and the other a chiliagon. On either interpretation, if someone asks me in turn what each of them is, I'll give two different answers, and I'll be entirely right to do so.

But at my screen resolution, the images themselves are exactly the same, down to the last pixel. So the two figures on the screen differ, but not in any physical way (in the modern sense of the word "physical"). Fine; with that much I agree.

My question is: on the Aristotelian account, presumably they differ in form, their formal causes (triangularity and chiliagonality, respectively) being obviously and in principle different. If so, then is it my intention in creating them that imparts those two different forms to them?

Eduardo said...

No I think it is their essence, and not really the viewers intentions... UNLESS ...

is part of the essence of an object to respond to your intention XD.

Eduardo said...

Well, if you were to analyse the raw computer Data you will know which is which...

Second, in your mind you know which is which, to blame solely on the pixels makes no sense because you know exactly what you were trying to do.

Actually in the screen everything is sort of squared (well actually they are dots) so both answers are absolutely wrong if you consider the form of the pixels alone.

You are asking just just: If I see two objects and they look the same then am I correct to say they are the same?

But doesn't it uses as rule of inference: it is what it looks!

reighley said...

@seanrobsville, @Eduardo, and others

Perhaps somebody could expand on a dissonance that always strikes me when physics and the mind comes up in this forum.

It strikes me that a popular image of the mind, here and elsewhere, is of an entity which (to take Sean out of context) "could not in principle be modeled algorithmically", in contrast to physics which can.

Yet I tend to exactly the opposite view. No theory of physics yet proposed has had anything less than a transfinite space of free parameters, from the continuous hyperplanes of Euclidean geometry to the Hilbert spaces of quantum field theory they are all of them infinite beasts and as such lend themselves to equations for which there is no procedural solution and only a crude approximation will do, typically so crude that it must be validated by building a working example.

The mind on the other hand is singular in that it is discrete and finite. Even at its most immediate and visceral my human experiences seem very noticeably bounded. I am well aware of the limited color depth and resolving power of my eyes. I am even more aware that things either happen or not and do not lie along a continuous spectrum between true and false. And all that happens as that first experience fades into the past is I further encode it in an ever dwindling language of symbols. Eventually I describe it to you with this scant 26 Latin letters.

So why this disconnect? Am I the only tragically finite person here? Is the universe you inhabit smaller than mine? Models of physics will always be imperfect approximations, but it seems like we should expect someday to be able to describe ourselves and our experiences quite perfectly. Barring some sort of Entscheidungsproblem type paradox.

Eduardo said...

Reighley

The idea is to talk about possibilities and arguments about our models XD.

Sometimes we go with just possibility and some other times we have to go with scientific research ... which is pretty damn boring but incredibly useful!!! Pretty much is like this: we have a MODEL, what can we say about it (you are also telling us your point). THen we g from there, I may sound disconnected XD, but is just I am not hardcore about my position so usually I go with the flow ahhahah.

reighley said...

@Eduardo,
I think everyone will agree that the models of reality must be finite. But I do not think it is the models that philosophers are given to arguing about. I think they wish to refer directly to the realities.

Eduardo said...

Reighley

Yeah that is the hot potato.

Is just that in the last 200 years our models of reality have BECOME the reality.

Get why we always talk of scientific models like they were the STARGATE or something. It is part of our intellectual social moment in History!!!!

Or maybe we are all wackos.

Anonymous said...

reighley,

And all that happens as that first experience fades into the past is I further encode it in an ever dwindling language of symbols. Eventually I describe it to you with this scant 26 Latin letters.

A few problems. A description of the sort you're speaking of is not a complete algorithmic model. In fact the way you describe it doesn't seem to be algorithmic at all. It also doesn't seem to be complete. To use a micro-example, "I'm thinking of the number four right now." That's a description of a thought I have at this moment. Is my description an exhaustive model of that thought? The answer seems to be, not at all. It's more of a reference to it.

Scott,

Maybe this will help. Something Ed said in a previous post.

Second, mental images are always to some extent vague or indeterminate, while concepts are at least often precise and determinate. To use Descartes’ famous example, a mental image of a chiliagon (a 1,000-sided figure) cannot be clearly distinguished from a mental image of a 1,002-sided figure, or even from a mental image of a circle. But the concept of a chiliagon is clearly distinct from the concept of a 1,002-sided figure or the concept of a circle. I cannot clearly differentiate a mental image of a crowd of one million people from a mental image of a crowd of 900,000 people. But the intellect easily understands the difference between the concept of a crowd of one million people and the concept of a crowd of 900,000 people. And so on.

I imagine in the case you're talking about, one could argue whether one form or the other is instantiated in the screen image, but that seems to have no bearing on the idea that it has some form.

grodrigues said...

@reighley:

"Eventually I describe it to you with this scant 26 Latin letters.

So why this disconnect?"

What disconnect? All the "infinite beasts" you mentioned are likewise defined in a finite alphabet. The fact that they are "infinite beasts", in whatever sense you take this to mean, is itself a sentence written in a finite alphabet.

Eduardo said...

I guessss.... after reading Reighley again, that maybe he is saying something like the algorithm for a certain phenomena IS the DESCRIPTION of that Phenomena.

At first I didn't noticed but I ended up reading him wrong XD sorry Reighley. (this ain't the first time I do this to you XD, but is just that while I am reading you I am also thinking of some stupid stuff I heard the other day... it gets in the way)

Now, don't know if I got you thinking about the whole Intellectual moment or not, but if not ... I CAN see why you didn't reply back XD

But I think Sean is not saying that we CAN'T decribe what goes in our mind but rather is that the mind doesn't follow a algorithm. Would be like this, in order to understand/describe what the mind is doing you can't write a series of commands and hit ENTER!

So perhaps people are saying that the mind is IMPOSSIBLE to model in any workable sense of the word, but rather is that the mind has extra features that lack in other places or that MIND is fundamentally different from other types of entities.



reighley said...

@grodrigues,

"All the "infinite beasts" you mentioned are likewise defined in a finite alphabet."

Well yes, because I'm the one talking about them and I am a very finite thing. The difficulty is that to all appearances no such encoding of the universe can be complete. We seem to be finite and it seems not to be. We might be encoded though, as finite things, our souls might be machines though nothing else really is.

@Eduardo,
Ask yourself this question. Is the space of internal states which your mind can take on finite or is it not. Now, I think that it is obviously finite. If you have any sense of human nature at all, you will recognize this as a symptom of my having spent too much time with computers. Regardless of the source, the idea is not obviously false and it is a very strong statement which if true would have a number of logical consequences for a theory of the mind. Just the proposition that the mind has internal states at all and that I might attempt to enumerate them (even if I should fail) is no small thing.

In particular if mind states are finite then the mind may be encoded in a computer program of length on order of the square of the number of mind states.

So anyhow, I feel that many questions about the mind and its relation to the physical world boil down to this one. Are we finite are aren't we?

Anonymous said...

Any "encoding" talk with relation to the mind is going to run into the very problems Searle, Ed and others have pointed out. The short version being that in order to make it work, you're going to have to end up with Aristotilean or something close to it anyway.

reighley said...

@Anonymous,
I don't have any problem committing to the reality of formal causes, or intentionality, or whatever.

The point is that many a complicated niggling detail about chinese boxes or grue vs bleen actually ends up being about whether or not it is possible to count (and thereby to name) internal states of the mind.

We don't have to talk about encodings or languages or the nature of physical laws in their relation to neuroscience. Most of the meat is actually (or so say I) in the cardinality question.

Are you finite, or aren't you?

Eduardo said...

Well ... Maybe, yeah I think my mind is finite.... I think, because infinite is sort of a concept of the mind XD so is hard to tell.

Anonymous said...

I think the problem here is that talk of 'finite' may not be appropriate in this context. Finite wouldn't automatically mean 'translateable into code'.

reighley said...

@Anonymous,
"I think the problem here is that talk of 'finite' may not be appropriate in this context. Finite wouldn't automatically mean 'translateable into code'."

It depends on how the term finite is employed. If we wanted to be really poetic about it we could just use it to mean "mortal". That's not what I wanted to express though.

What I am proposing is that the mind occasionally changes state, and that there is some natural number which describes the number of distinct states which the mind can take on.

This would automatically mean that the states could be encoded, because they could be counted. I could represent the nth mind state by the number n.

What exactly is meant for the mind to be "in a state", is not a small thing. As a rider on the proposition "the states of the mind are finite in number", I also suppose "there are states of the mind".

Anonymous said...

This would automatically mean that the states could be encoded, because they could be counted. I could represent the nth mind state by the number n.

I think maybe you mean representations of the state could be encoded. Not that the states themselves could be encoded.

Imagine: "There are 5 unencodeable states." Nothing seems contradictory there.

Eduardo said...

Oh well i thnk we can do that... Psychology does that don't they?

Without the numbers though.

seanrobsville said...

I don't think that the number of mind states, or whether they could be numerically encoded, is the issue here. The algorithmic 'problem' is what drives the transition between those states - in particular the explanatory gap between neural correlates and qualia. This constitutes the Hard Problem, first formulated by the physicist John Tyndall over 140 years ago:

"... the passage from the physics of the brain to the corresponding facts of consciousness is unthinkable. Granted that a definite thought, and a definite molecular action in the brain occur simultaneously; we do not possess the intellectual organ, nor apparently any rudiment of the organ, which would enable us to pass, by a process of reasoning, from the one to the other. They appear together, but we do not know why.

Were our minds and senses so expanded, strengthened, and illuminated, as to enable us to see and feel the very molecules of the brain; were we capable of following all their motions, all their groupings, all their electric discharges, if such there be; and were we intimately acquainted with the corresponding states of thought and feeling, we should be as far as ever from the solution of the problem, "How are these physical processes connected with the facts of consciousness?" The chasm between the two classes of phenomena would still remain intellectually impassable.

Let the consciousness of love, for example, be associated with a right-handed spiral motion of the molecules of the brain, and the consciousness of hate with a left-handed spiral motion. We should then know, when we love, that the motion is in one direction, and, when we hate, that the motion is in the other; but the "Why?" would remain as unanswerable as before."
http://transcribingtyndall.wordpress.com/2010/02/

So even if the mind had only two states - LOVE and HATE - which were encoded as 1 and 2, the problem of algorithmically modelling the causal chain between physical events in the brain and subjective experiences would still remain.

Scott said...

Anonymous: "Maybe this will help."

Thanks, but I'm not having any trouble seeing the difference between a circle and a chiliagon or differentiating between imagination and conception; I'm asking a fairly specific question about how a certain physical object comes to instantiate one of two different forms (if it does) and precisely how that process involves intentionality (if anything). I appreciate your response, though.

Scott said...

My own response, by the way, would be that strictly speaking the "physical object" itself does not instantiate either form; what we think of as the "physical object" is only an abstraction from a much fuller and "thicker" reality, which does instantiate one of the two forms but includes far more than just the physical structure of the screen image and takes account of its relations to our minds and intentions. And once the rest of the context is taken into account, the two images aren't identical even if their strictly "physical" aspects are the same, so there's no problem.

Really, I just want to know what answer an Aristotelian would give to the question.

reighley said...

@Anonymous,
"I think maybe you mean representations of the state could be encoded. Not that the states themselves could be encoded."

Yes, I suppose that is an abuse of notation there. Normally when I declare that I am going to encode a thing which is not already made of information, I mean that I am going to compose a representation of it as information. The question as to whether brain states are made of information has not been directly addressed.

But consider! If in fact the number of brain states is finite and discrete, then one has very strong reason to believe that mind states are information. Most of the rest of nature is infinite and continuous.

@seanrobsville,
If individual states could be given a number then each possible transition between them could be given a number too. An algorithm for expressing the detailed operation of the mind might still be impossible, if there were no causal relationship between the states of the mind and each other and the mind and the exterior world. That would be an unpopular postulate though.

I do think that it is true that if the number of states of the mind is finite and if there is a causal relationship between the interior condition of the mind and the surrounding universe then it follows that the causal relationship can be written down, expressed as a rule.

The hard problem is a slightly different thing. Even if I knew that there was a rule for how one brain state became the other, and could distinguish between the brain state "I am looking at a red thing" and "I am looking at a blue thing", I would probably only be able to tell by using the exterior red and blue things as reference and wouldn't have any idea why perception happened as it did.

I do think some headway would have been made on the problem though, because the finiteness of internal states and therefore of qualia would narrow dramatically the range of possibilities when one actually sat down and tried to bridge the gap between physical facts and mental ones.

seanrobsville said...

@reighley

"An algorithm for expressing the detailed operation of the mind might still be impossible, if there were no causal relationship between the states of the mind and each other and the mind and the exterior world."

It isn't that there is no causal relationship, it's just that we can't model the causality.

The Hard Problem is hard precisely because, as usually formulated, it tries to apply an algorithmic model of causality to a non-algorithmic process.

All algorithmic models of causality take the form of IF x THEN y ELSE z, where x,y and z are logical and arithmetic functions, assignments and values.

Thus all algorithmic models of causality can be reduced to the state transition table and one dimensional array comprising Turing's machine.

In contrast to the mechanistic materialists, the Nagarjunian view is that the mind is (i) Clear and Formless (ii) Cognizing and (iii) Devoid of 'inherent existence' (any defining essence).

In this view, because algorithms have form (Turing machine or equivalent) they are not attributes of the mind, though the mind may cognize algorithms.

Cognizing implies intentionality or 'aboutness'. Algorithms themselves are not 'about' anything (Chinese Room). The apparent 'aboutness' of an algorithm is projected onto it by the mind of its user.

The lack of inherent existence of the mind means that it has no defining essence, nothing to 'keep it as it is', so it can unobstructedly apprehend all objects including those of its own creation. The mind can be 'about' anything whatsoever. The lack of defining essence allows the mind to change, expand, have freewill, and be creative.

The mechanistic/algorithmic model of the mind breaks down beyond Tydall's molecular and neuronal states because this is the territory in which the formless mind operates, projecting meaning/semantics/intentionality onto what it cognizes. There is no algorithmic progression for information beyond neural states. All further mental activity comes 'from the other side'. The mind is drawn or driven, either voluntarily or involuntarily, to meet and apprehend its objects.

grodrigues said...

@reighley:

"The difficulty is that to all appearances no such encoding of the universe can be complete."

Difficulty? So assume we cannot attain a complete description of the universe. What "difficulty" exactly does this pose?

"The point is that many a complicated niggling detail about chinese boxes or grue vs bleen actually ends up being about whether or not it is possible to count (and thereby to name) internal states of the mind."

No, the grue vs. bleen or the Chinese room experiment have nothing to do with "counting" the internal states of the mind. Since even the measly Hydrogen atom has a separable infinite-dimensional state space, it is plausible to think the brain also has it. This is completely irrelevant to the nature of the arguments.

monk68 said...

Scott,

An Aristotelian clarification with respect to your current line of questioning. You wrote:

“Yes, of course these figures are in principle different, and the results of my attempts to draw them are therefore in some relevant sense different as well; one of them is either a representation of, or an imperfect attempt to create, a circle, and the other a chiliagon. On either interpretation, if someone asks me in turn what each of them is, I'll give two different answers, and I'll be entirely right to do so. . . But at my screen resolution, the images themselves are exactly the same, down to the last pixel. So the two figures on the screen differ, but not in any physical way”

From a Aristotelian perspective, you would not be *entirely* right to give two different answers when asked what each of them is - if, in fact, “the images themselves are exactly the same, down to the last pixel”. In such a case it would be true to say that your *intention* was indeed to produce, through art, two distinct things in reality; but as it turns out, you actually produced two *formally* (not physically) identical individual things, since they are the same “down to the last pixel”; and in the case of your screen generated image, “pixels” just are what the thing produced is made of. Hence, what each of the images really *are*, are “two computer generated screen images composed of precisely the same number and arrangements of pixels” – they are *formally* identical, though they are instantiated in two distinct sets of real pixels.

Hence, with respect to your intentions, you may say that two distinct things in reality constituted the *goal or finality* of your art, yet in reality (due in this case to the limitations of the physical media at hand), you actually produced two formally identical things. It is important to keep the distinction between natural things and art-ificial things in view here. In your example, your efforts would entail imposing an artificial form (electronic pixel-based screen images) upon things (computer electronic devices) whose forms are themselves the result of prior human artificial formal impositions. In all such artifice formation, human beings utilize natural things which possess their formal constitution through nature rather than human art. My point for now is simply this: the question as to whether one’s intentionality has anything to do with the formal structure of things in reality only pertains to artifices. Natural things come to us as they are, and therefore, the origin of their formal structure is more interesting philosophically.

Generally speaking, when human beings take over the formal structure of natural things in an effort to impose two distinct artifical forms upon them for some human purpose, they succeed in so doing. However, it may happen – as in your example – that the nature of the things put to the service of artistic formation, prevent the artisan from actually achieving two distinct *formal* works of art, though the two works will always be distinct with respect to individuation according to quantitative extension.

cntd . . .

monk68 said...

In the case of natural things, through a sensate-cum-intellective process, the human animal is uniquely equipped to form an “essential” *abstract* similitude (essential form) within its cognitive power, of the substantial nature (substantial form) of things as they exist in the environment - independent of the mind. The reality of these natural/substantial forms (whatever their precise ontological status may be) are necessary constituent principles of natural things which make intelligible the observed *coordinate* activity and unicity of natural existents throughout a delimited range of possible and actual physical changes across time (the form/matter, act/potency distinctions which alone resolve the Heraclitian-Parmenidean impass in either its ancient or modern incarnations).

Through repeated interaction with such external things, it becomes evident that many individual existents in our environment have similar “essential” or characteristic features-properties-activities, such that the essential form within the intellect can be both meaningfully and usefully predicated of many individual things (“horse” as said of many individual horses whether white or black, small or large, etc). This repeated experience gives rise to the very notion of a “uni-versal” essence (in the intellect, not in things themselves), because various essences abstracted through sensate-cum-intellective human cognitive activity can meaningfully gather many individual natural substances (the versatile or pertaining to the many) under the concept of one (uni) formal essence, thereby giving rise to genus and species in the philosophic sense. That is all that is meant by a “universal”. What this philosophical experience shows is that the external world is composed of individual existents which exhibit a range of relatively stable and similar *unicitly coordinated* properties-activities-characteristics whose explanation must lie in some manner of natural/formal constituent; and further that the stability and similarity of these formal constituents (substantial forms) are identifiable as such through uniquely human cognition. Such is all that is needed to defeat Ockhamist nominalism and its heir Humean empiricism, thereby enabling the launch of a legitimate philosophy of nature and metaphysics of the Aristotelian sort.

I hope that helps in some way, if only as a clarification with respect to the Aristotelian approach.

Pax

DavidM said...

JesseM wrote: "Does this imply the neo-Aristotelians see their position as non-dualistic? If so, how would a neo-Aristotelian reply to Chalmer's "zombie universe" thought-experiment? Would it really not be within the power of an omnipotent God to create a universe that was physically identical to our own, but where none of the teleological, directed movements of living beings were associated with any inner qualia? If this is logically or metaphysically possible, it implies the physical and mental realms are logically or metaphysically capable of existing independently, and are thus separate substances."

Interesting questions. An Aristotelian is not generally too interested by what counter-factual situations might be within the power of an omnipotent God. God is not thought of as a kind of mad scientist but as the completely self-sufficient activity of thought thinking itself (i.e., being qua being at its best and most noble) thinking (and thus comprehending in itself all of being).

In any case, aside from the issue of the compatibility of Chalmer's scenario with the 'omnipotence' of Aristotle's God, the scenario would simply seem ad hoc and methodologically unmotivated for an Aristotelian: we do not gain knowledge about reality by thinking about weird thought experiments but by abstracting from sense experience (which would obviously be impossible in a zombie-universe). An Aristotelian has a firm grasp of where his concepts originate so he is not tempted to turn his speculations in a direction that would vitiate his concepts at their source.

monk68 said...

DavidM,

"An Aristotelian is not generally too interested by what counter-factual situations might be within the power of an omnipotent God. . . An Aristotelian has a firm grasp of where his concepts originate so he is not tempted to turn his speculations in a direction that would vitiate his concepts at their source."

Indeed. It is a very great time saver.

Pax

grodrigues said...

@reighley:

I need to amend my previous post in two important ways. First, I do not mean to imply that quantum state spaces have any extra-mental real existence, possibly in some Platonic la-la land. They are an artifact of our operationally defined theories, so I should say instead that *if* we had a theory of the brain as a quantum system of such and such particles, given that the state space of nearly all all realistic quantum systems (e.g. Hydrogen system) are infinite-dimensional, so would this be.

You can then retort that the state space of the hydrogen is not "really" infinite dimensional since up from some energy threshold, the model breaks down and we do not really have an hydrogen but rather a free electron and single solitary proton (plus neutron(s) if we are dealing with isotopes). And thus the "effective" state space (whatever this means) is really finite-dimensional. And as a corollary, plausibly the same with the brain.

But the point still stands. These fun (but idle) speculations are irrelevant as far as the arguments cited go.

reighley said...

@seanrobsville,
"nothing to 'keep it as it is', so it can unobstructedly apprehend all objects including those of its own creation. The mind can be 'about' anything whatsoever."

This is why I think addressing the question of cardinality is important. If there actually is a bound on the number of internal conditions of the mind, then it can only be about a finite number of things. It could not be about anything whatsoever. It would have a certain form of its own. That would be a big deal.

@grodrigues,
"No, the grue vs. bleen or the Chinese room experiment have nothing to do with "counting" the internal states of the mind."

Well, I admit that I have not tried terribly hard to reduce the Chinese box to a question of the number of possible mental states because I never thought it that compelling. (a) the box itself is obviously finite and (b) the box itself obviously knows Chinese. So human nature never seemed to me to enter into the Chinese box problem at all. It only enters incidentally into the question of whether such a box could possibly be constructed. Which is no small thing, nothing bugs me like a totally counterfactual thought experiment. Whether such a box is even possible is just a question of how much paper would you have to stuff it with.

grue and bleen I think do end up involving a question about the size of the space of mental states. Having a finite space of mental states would mean that only a limited number of candidates for "the color of emeralds", and furthermore that the mind itself is destined to enter a steady state, so those ideas we can have about the possible color of emeralds which involve an absolute time will expire.
So it seems to me that a human being cannot actually think the predicates "grue" and "bleen", except in the form that Goodman gives them which insinuates an arbitrary time "t" which, by stipulation, has yet to pass. This isn't a real predicate, we must read Goodman's idea from steady state. t must always be yet to pass. Grue is Green, and nothing else. t can never arrive, if Goodman's paradox is actually to have a meaning.

But things might be different if Goodman and his readers were capable of thinking in continuous terms. Then the word "Grue" could mean many more things. Goodman would still be condemned to write it in finite terms, so on paper the paradox is still not very convincing. I don't think people can even think it though. Which makes it not so much of a paradox.

Scott said...

@monk68: That's a very helpful answer. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

(b) the box itself obviously knows Chinese.

That doesn't seem obvious at all, and I don't think the question has anything to do with practicality considerations about actually constructing such a box.

JesseM said...

DavidM wrote:
Interesting questions. An Aristotelian is not generally too interested by what counter-factual situations might be within the power of an omnipotent God. God is not thought of as a kind of mad scientist but as the completely self-sufficient activity of thought thinking itself (i.e., being qua being at its best and most noble) thinking (and thus comprehending in itself all of being).

Well, one of the more common philosophical definitions of a substance is something that is "capable of independent existence", i.e. it can exist in the absence of other substances--either in reality, or in a possible world where those other substances are absent. Are you saying either 1) neo-Aristotelians would not consider "the possibility of existing independently" to be part of the definition of "substance", or 2) they would only consider the question of whether a thing ever exists independently in reality, not whether there could be a possible world where it exists independently? If 1), that would seem to be contradicted by Dr. Feser's post at http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2011/08/vallicella-on-hylemorphic-dualism.html ...but if 2), it seems to me that one's metaphysics is not really very well-thought-out if one cannot even answer questions about what is possible except by looking at what actually occurs (the laws of physics may never be violated in reality, but surely they are more contingent in some sense than metaphysical "laws"). If Aristotle and Aquinas did not address such questions it's probably just because it didn't occur to them to do so (counterfactual questions didn't come to be seen as important in philosophy until later), not because they had well-thought-out reasons for thinking such questions don't have a definite truth-value. And in any case, didn't Aquinas once address the counterfactual question of whether God could change the laws of logic or mathematics, answering in the negative?

monk68 said...

JesseM,

You wrote:

"it seems to me that one's metaphysics is not really very well-thought-out if one cannot even answer questions about what is possible except by looking at what actually occurs"

Its not that an Aristotelian cannot consider counter-factuals, possible worlds, etc. - of course he *can* if he so wishes. However, someone trained in Aristotelian philosophy, especially as regards it epistemological foundations, recognizes:

a.)Answering questions about what is "possible" need not be (and should not be) the principle purpose of philosophy per se. Hypothetical postulates about the possible (the logically non-contradictory) move us not one step closer (as Gilson pointed out long ago in his seminal work "Being and Some Philosophers") to the way things actually *are* in reality - the penetration of which is the primary purpose of speculative philosophy from an Aristotelian - realist - POV. Hence, a failure to speculate about the possible is no sign that an Aristotelian's metaphysic is not well thought out. Aristotelian metaphysics is derived from and grounded in the real world, not possible worlds.

b.) The only way that anyone has ever come to formulate what may or may not be possible is through observation and experience with the real! Every concept and conceptual relation which has ever gone into the hypothetical construction of this or that possibility or possible world, was first drawn from this real world. Hence, to construct a metaphysics of posibility in order to inform a metaphysics of the real is simply bass-ackward and quite often a waste of time given the goal of philosophy per se within an Aristotelian context. Nothing is in the intellect [including the thoughts which modern philosophers use to construct possible scenarios, world or couterfactuals] that was not first in the sense.

Pax

JesseM said...

monk68 wrote:
a.)Answering questions about what is "possible" need not be (and should not be) the principle purpose of philosophy per se.

I didn't say anything about "the principle purpose of philosophy", I was talking about the understanding of the specific term "substance", which as I pointed out is usually defined in terms of possibility (namely the possibility to exist independently). Are you choosing option 2) from my previous comment, and saying that although it may be part of the definition of a "substance" that it has the "possibility of existing independently", this "possibility" refers solely to whether there are any real-world circumstances where the things exist independently?

b.) The only way that anyone has ever come to formulate what may or may not be possible is through observation and experience with the real! Every concept and conceptual relation which has ever gone into the hypothetical construction of this or that possibility or possible world, was first drawn from this real world.

Are you suggesting that there can be no basis for distinguishing between things that are "possible, but don't occur in reality" and "impossible"? That the laws of gravity working slightly differently is every bit as impossible as 1+1=3? A position like that might conceivably work for a non-Christian Aristotelian, but it's hard to understand how a Christian could coherently argue that way, since concepts like "free will" and "omniscience" seem to be defined in terms of unmanifested potentials and possibilities.

Scott said...

JesseM: "I didn't say anything about 'the [principal] purpose of philosophy', I was talking about the understanding of the specific term 'substance', which as I pointed out is usually defined in terms of possibility (namely the possibility to exist independently)."

Your original formulation, though, was that a substance is defined in terms of its capability to exist independently. I'm not at all sure that the sort of capability in question here can simply be equated with modal/logical "possibility," and I am sure that no Aristotelian would accept such an equation. That may be one source of confusion here.

As for finding out what's possible (in the Aristotelian sense) by observing what actually occurs: I'm not quite seeing the problem here. Aristotelianism is interested in a pretty specific sort of metaphysical "possibility" or potentiality involving causal powers, and not much in logical or modal possibility. And yes, for that sort of possibility, I'd have to say that observing what something does is a pretty good way to find out what it can do. What a thing does is what it's causally possible for it to do under its then-current conditions.

JesseM: "Are you suggesting that there can be no basis for distinguishing between things that are 'possible, but don't occur in reality' and 'impossible'?"

I do not of course speak for monk68, but I'm fairly sure he's saying that our ideas about what is or isn't possible come from our interactions with this world and that all talk of "possible worlds" is ultimately based on what is and isn't possible in the actual one.

That doesn't mean that we can't meaningfully ask whether God might have created a world with a slightly different gravitational constant. It just means the question may not be all that interesting to someone who regards knowledge of our world as the goal of philosophy.

Which brings us back to Chalmers's p-zombies. "Could God have created a world in which physical bodies existed without mentality?" The replies so far indicate that an Aristotelian answer might be along the following lines: "I don't know, and who cares? He didn't, and in our world, the physical and the mental are not capable of existing independently. Why should we care what might have been the case in some hypothetical scenario that tells us nothing about the reality we actually have?"

Scott said...

Elaborating on one point:

Suppose I have a ball. In Aristotelian terms, this ball has the potential to roll; that's part of the nature of a ball. It can't roll under its own power, but under the right circumstances, its potential to roll will be actualized and it will in fact roll.

Now, it's also possible that this particular ball never will in fact roll. (Maybe it's a special collector's item and I have it on a shelf for display.) That doesn't matter. I know that it's possible for it to roll whether or not it ever actually rolls. That "possibility" refers to a (real) potential that is part of the nature of the ball, and I don't need to wait to see what the ball "actually" does in order to know it.

I also learn nothing new by asking whether there's a "possible world" in which the ball actually does roll; I already know that this ball could roll, and so I already have the answer to the only question I could reasonably be posing.

The ball can't, however, speak, and this too I can know without either observing what the ball actually does or asking any questions about "possible worlds." We can say if we like that there's no "possible world" in which the ball speaks, but we know that only because we know that speech isn't in the nature of balls and so something that spoke would have to have a different nature.

So no, Aristotelianism doesn't reduce the possible to the actual, and it needn't invoke "possible worlds" (or modal possibility at all) in order to avoid doing so.

JesseM said...

Scott:
Now, it's also possible that this particular ball never will in fact roll. (Maybe it's a special collector's item and I have it on a shelf for display.) That doesn't matter. I know that it's possible for it to roll whether or not it ever actually rolls. That "possibility" refers to a (real) potential that is part of the nature of the ball, and I don't need to wait to see what the ball "actually" does in order to know it.

Well, does God have real potentials in the same sense? Isn't it part of His nature that He could create anything logically possible, including a talking ball or a universe with different laws of gravity or a zombie universe? I did some googling and found a section of Aquinas' Summa Theologica that seems to say something along these lines at http://books.google.com/books?id=nx9Oth-iC8UC&lpg=PP1&pg=PA163#v=onepage&q&f=false --see the paragraph starting with "According to Aristotle the possible can be taken in two senses, relative and absolute". He seems to define "relative" possibility in terms of the powers inherent in a thing, which I think corresponds to what you were discussing when you talked about the "potential" of a ball to roll. But then he talks about "absolute" possibility, by which he seems to mean logical possibility, and says that God's omnipotence means the power to do anything that is absolutely possible.

Of course even if one accepts that creating a zombie universe is one of the absolutely possible things, one might not choose to define "substance" in terms of what could exist independently in any of the universes God has the potential to create. But Aquinas' discussion at least indicates he thought it was meaningful to talk about "possibility" in a broader sense than just the potentials that exist in the real world. So, I would be curious if he, or any other prominent Thomistic-Aristotelian, ever stated clearly that if "substance" was to be defined in terms of the possibility of existing independently, they were specifically talking about relative possibility rather than absolute possibility.

Anonymous said...

The first option is the one taken by Cartesian dualists and by “naturalistic” property dualists like David Chalmers; the second option is the one taken by neo-Aristotelians. Either one involves just the sort of radical overhaul of the naturalistic conception of the world that Nagel is calling for, but which Sober, like Leiter and Weisberg, think is unnecessary. They think this in part because they do not see that an “anti-reductionistic materialism” is indeterminate, and when made more precise either collapses back into reductionistic materialism or amounts to property dualism or hylemorphism rather than materialism; and in part because (as Sober’s remarks indicate) they suppose that the supervenience thesis that there is “no difference without a physical difference” somehow entails an essentially materialist position. But it does not. For that there is no difference without a physical difference would show only that the micro-level physical facts are necessary for the higher-level facts, not that they are sufficient. And that is something either a property dualist or an Aristotelian could accept. The Aristotelian, after all, regards a natural substance’s material cause as no less an irreducible constituent of it as its formal cause.

Well said!

This pretty much captures the impossibility of materialism and its reliance on ignorance and/or rhetoric to establish itself in the philosophical realm. There simply are no good argument for materialism and every argument against it.

Scott said...

JesseM: "Well, does God have real potentials in the same sense?"

Not according to classical theism. God is actus purus: pure act, with no unrealized potentials.

Scott said...

JesseM: "Isn't it part of His nature that He could create anything logically possible, including a talking ball or a universe with different laws of gravity or a zombie universe?"

Perhaps, but we already know a "ball" that spoke would differ radically in nature from a ball (which doesn't), and a "human" that lacks consciousness would differ radically in nature from a human (which has it). Even if we called them by the same names, they would instantiate very different forms.

So -- and I think this is a key, if implicit, part of the point of the responses you've received from others -- even if zombies are on the list of noncontradictory things that God might have created (instead, or too, or in some other possible world), why would we expect that to tell us anything useful about the nature of our consciousness in our world?

JesseM said...

Scott:
Not according to classical theism. God is actus purus: pure act, with no unrealized potentials.

I don't understand how that fits with the Aquinas comments I linked to about absolute vs. relative possibility, with omnipotence being defined as the ability to do anything that possible in the absolute sense. Aren't there plenty of things that are possible in the absolute sense, and therefore things God had the "potential" to do, which He doesn't actually do in reality? (like creating a talking ball, or a universe with different laws of gravity...)

So -- and I think this is a key, if implicit, part of the point of the responses you've received from others -- even if zombies are on the list of noncontradictory things that God might have created (instead, or too, or in some other possible world), why would we expect that to tell us anything useful about the nature of our consciousness in our world?

My specific point was about what this tells us about whether qualia and matter are separate "substances". Again, if substance is defined in terms of the absolute possibility of existing independently, then it is obviously important to know whether there is an absolute possibility that every aspect of our physical world could exist in the absence of qualia. It may be that Thomistic philosophers actually conceived of a substance as something that has a relative possibility of existing independently in our world, but that's why I asked for a quote suggesting that Aquinas or other Thomistic philosophers conceived of substance this way, rather than in terms of the absolute or logical possibility of existing independently.

Scott said...

JesseM: "I don't understand how that fits with the Aquinas comments I linked to about absolute vs. relative possibility, with omnipotence being defined as the ability to do anything that possible in the absolute sense."

I suspect that's because you're not distinguishing carefully between the two senses of "possible" yourself. No one in this thread, of course, has denied that there is such a thing as absolute possibility; we're just telling you that in Aristotelian thought, it isn't the only kind. The kind relevant to understanding how our world works is a sort of "causal possibility" understood in terms of potentialities and actualities. That does not mean that every sort of "possibility" is somehow an unrealized potentiality in that sense, and in particular it does not mean that just because something is "logically possible" and God doesn't do it, there's some sort of unrealized potential in God.

JesseM: "My specific point was about what this tells us about whether qualia and matter are separate 'substances'."

And mine (and I emphasize that I'm speaking only for myself and not claiming my opinion is in any way authoritiative) is that, on the Aristotelian outlook you're specifically asking about, it tells us nothing whatsoever about whether qualia and matter are separate substances. At most it could perhaps show that, in some other world very unlike our own, there might be a different range of "substances." But so far as I can tell, it says nothing about what does or doesn't constitute a substance in our world.

JesseM: "It may be that Thomistic philosophers actually conceived of a substance as something that has a relative possibility of existing independently in our world, but that's why I asked for a quote suggesting that Aquinas or other Thomistic philosophers conceived of substance this way, rather than in terms of the absolute or logical possibility of existing independently."

Perhaps you should first produce a quote suggesting that Aquinas or any other Thomistic philosopher has ever conceived "substance" in terms of any sort of "possibility." So far as I know, for Aquinas a "substance" is what it was for Aristotle: an entity that exists per se, independently and not in a subject; there's nothing hypothetical about it. You seem to me to be importing an alien definition and then expecting Thomism to conform to it.

I, for example, am a primary substance according to Aquinas. My parts are not. Even if, somehow, there were a (logically) "possible world" in which (things that resembled) parts of me were themselves primary substances, that fact would have no bearing at all on whether parts of me are substances in this world. They're not.

Scott said...

[Removed and reposted with minor edits.]

@JesseM: On further reflection I think the word "potential" may be giving you some trouble here. We use it casually to refer to any sort of possibility, but in Aristotle and Aquinas it refers to something pretty specific -- an actual potency or power in something, to do something.

Our ball, you'll recall, has a "potential" to roll. That means that rolling is something that is actually within its power to do -- although it can't make itself do so (otherwise the "potential" would be actual and the ball would already be rolling). If an entity has such a potentiality, it has to be realized or actualized by some external agency.

That's why it doesn't make sense to describe God as having any unactualized potential. He does everything under His own steam, so to speak; He needn't wait for anything outside Him to get Him rolling, and in the relevant sense there isn't anything outside Him.

JesseM said...

Scott:
No one in this thread, of course, has denied that there is such a thing as absolute possibility; we're just telling you that in Aristotelian thought, it isn't the only kind. The kind relevant to understanding how our world works is a sort of "causal possibility" understood in terms of potentialities and actualities.

But I have already clearly indicated that I understand that in the Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy there is a difference between relative and absolute possibility, that was the focus of the quote I spent all that time discussing! Did you read the quote I linked to, and if so is there any difference between the "relative possibility" Aquinas was discussing there and what you mean by "causal possibility" above? If this is the same concept, then clearly whatever the source of my misunderstanding, it's not just a failure to understand that relative possibility is different from absolute possibility.

That does not mean that every sort of "possibility" is somehow an unrealized potentiality in that sense, and in particular it does not mean that just because something is "logically possible" and God doesn't do it, there's some sort of unrealized potential in God.

Perhaps there is some technical definition of "unrealized potentiality" that I am not aware of? If Aquinas says that God has the capability to do everything that is absolutely possible, then under the ordinary meaning of "potential" I would say this means God has the potential to do anything that's absolutely possible, and therefore if there is some absolutely possible thing He doesn't in fact do, that's an "unrealized potential". But if this ordinary understanding of a "potential" action as "an action which an entity has the capability to do" does not correspond to the Thomistic-Aristotelian definition of "potential", then perhaps it would clear up my confusion if you could explain how "potential" is defined in this context.

(incidentally, do you think it's fair to say that in terms of the distinction between relative and absolute possibility, it would be meaningless to talk about something being "possible" for God in a purely relative sense, that absolute possibility is the only kind of possibility applicable to God?)

JesseM said...

Scott:
Perhaps you should first produce a quote suggesting that Aquinas or any other Thomistic philosopher has ever conceived "substance" in terms of any sort of "possibility." So far as I know, for Aquinas a "substance" is what it was for Aristotle: an entity that exists per se, independently and not in a subject; there's nothing hypothetical about it.

Can't find any quotes on this from Aquinas, but looking at secondary sources I had gotten the idea that at least part of the Aristotelian-Thomistic notion of "substance" was that something had the capability to exist independently (regardless of whether it actually does at any point in its history). Looking at the "Body and Soul" section of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Aquinas at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aquinas/#BodSou it looks like this is the criteria for something to be "subsistent", but that there are additional criteria beyond subsistence for something to be a "substance":

"The soul is indeed capable of existence apart from the body death. This capacity is because the actualities of understanding and willing are not the actualities of any bodily organ, but of the human animal as such distinguished by the rational form. However, Aquinas merely concludes from this that the soul is a subsistent after the death of the body. A subsistent is something capable of existing on its own, not in another. But that capacity to exist own its own is not distinctive of a substance. A chair subsists. But on Aquinas' account, it is not a substance. A hand that has been detached from a living body is also a subsistent. (Summa Theologiae Ia75.2 ad1) It is not properly speaking a human hand any longer, because it cannot do the sorts of things that human hands do. Whatever it is, it can exist apart from the substance of which it was formerly a part. A substance, on the other hand, is something that is both subsistent and complete in a nature—a nature being an intrinsic principle of movement and change in the subject. A detached human hand, while subsistent, is not a substance because it is not complete in a nature."

So I guess what I was missing in my discussion of mind and body being different "substances" is that unlike with some later philosophers, Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophers wouldn't see the capability of existing independently as the complete definition of a substance, even if it was a part of the definition. But perhaps the zombie universe thought-experiment would still be relevant to judging whether a living human body "subsists" independently of consciousness.

JesseM said...

Scott:
Our ball, you'll recall, has a "potential" to roll. That means that rolling is something that is actually within its power to do -- although it can't make itself do so (otherwise the "potential" would be actual and the ball would already be rolling). If an entity has such a potentiality, it has to be realized or actualized by some external agency.

Ah, thanks--as I guessed in my second-to-last comment, it sounds like "potential" is understood differently than the typical modern usage. If part of the definition of "potential" is that it can only be actualized by external agency, that suggests God has no "potentials" whatsoever. How would that definition apply to choices made by rational beings, though? If I decide to get up and pour a glass of water, was that choice actualized by an "external agency", and if not would that mean that various possible actions I might choose to take cannot be called "potentials" in me?

Scott said...

JesseM: "[I]s there any difference between the 'relative possibility' Aquinas was discussing there and what you mean by 'causal possibility' above?"

Nope, we're talking about the same thing. "The first" -- relative possibility, that is -- "is with respect to some particular power."

JesseM: "(incidentally, do you think it's fair to say that in terms of the distinction between relative and absolute possibility, it would be meaningless to talk about something being 'possible' for God in a purely relative sense, that absolute possibility is the only kind of possibility applicable to God?)"

Hmm, I think I'd have to say no. As the passage to which you linked acknowledges, God obviously can do everything that created natures do; if not, we wouldn't be doing them ourselves. And obviously, if He can do "everything that is absolutely possible," He can do everything that is relatively possible as well, since whatever is relatively possible is of course also absolutely possible. I think I'd say that whatever is absolutely possible is also relatively possible for God, "relatively" here meaning with respect to His powers.

JesseM: "If part of the definition of 'potential' is that it can only be actualized by external agency, that suggests God has no 'potentials' whatsoever."

Well, it's more that for Aquinas, what's potential isn't actual and vice versa; when the ball is actually rolling, it's "potential" to roll has been actualized. But the fact that its potential isn't always actualized (that is, the ball isn't always rolling) tells us that its potential needs to be actualized by an external agency. It's because this can't be the case with the Prime Mover that we know God has no unactualized potentials.

But yeah, I think you've gotten the key point (as I understand it).

JesseM: "If I decide to get up and pour a glass of water, was that choice actualized by an 'external agency' . . . ?"

It means parts of you move other parts of you. In the relevant sense, your nerves are "external" to the muscles in your leg, for example.

Scott said...

" . . . it's 'potential' to roll has been actualized."

Aaaugh. Of course I meant its here.

DavidM said...

JesseM,
IIRC, Aquinas distinguishes between A) what is possible from the side of divine omnipotence; and B) what is possible from the side of the object being considered as the possible effect of divine omnipotence. According to a consideration of A), I think Chalmer's zombie-world would be possible, but probably not according to a consideration of B), for reasons which Scott has alluded to, namely that zombies would seem to be incomplete substances and would seem to be defective in terms of the final causality which is determinative of the inherent being of persons. IOW, it seems hard to answer the question 'why?' in regard to a zombie universe, and as Aristotle puts it, nature does nothing in vain.

DavidM said...

...As for the implication from possible separate existence (or self-subsistence) to substance-hood, this implication does not hold for Aquinas - for example, he believes that the accidents of the Eucharist subsist apart from a subject, but that they are still just accidents, not substance. [Also, in regard to the claim that a chair is not a substance: I think it is, although it is not a paradigm case of a substance, as organisms are.]

Scott said...

DavidM: " According to a consideration of A), I think Chalmer's zombie-world would be possible, but probably not according to a consideration of B) . . ."

I agree, and I think that, in a nutshell, constitutes the answer to JesseM's question about how an Aristotelian would respond to Chalmers's thought experiment.

In general, the metaphysically/logically/absolutely possible is much broader than the causally/relatively possible. It might be metaphysically possible (because conceivable) for horses to have six legs, but that means only that horses could have had six legs, not that horses in our world can have six legs. We couldn't deduce anything important about the capabilities of horses in our world from a thought experiment about a possible world of six-legged horses.

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