Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Incongruities of Act and Potency


Thomism is based on a system of metaphysics that Thomas Aquinas adapted from Aristotle.  Aristotle posited the existence of act and potency as a means of explaining phenomena observed in the natural world.  It was said that movement (which can be any of a variety of types of change) is explained as the actualization of a potency.  Actualization was thought to be the fulfillment of an end or goal.  Movement occurs when an object that has the property of potential with respect to a certain kind of actualization is acted upon by another object that has that actualization.  Take, for example, a cold stone.  It has the potential to become warm, and will do so when placed in contact with a hot stone.  The movement (becoming warm) is the actualization of the potential (to become warm), and is caused by the hot stone (which is warm).

In keeping with this metaphysical system, God is said to be pure actualization (or act).  God is the ultimate cause of all movement, but God himself is not moved by anything.  The reason is that movement requires some potential that must be actualized.  But God has no potential - he is pure act, he is perfectly fulfilled.  But this belief leads to some problems, as we shall see.

In the real world, anything that moves or changes something else is itself moved or changed in the process.  To realize this, note that the laws of physics absolutely require it.  There is conservation of energy, which implies that energy being imparted to some object must be lost from something else.  A hot stone is cooled when its heat is transferred to a cold stone.  There is conservation of momentum, which implies that the movement of an object is balanced by the "equal and opposite reaction" of another object.  In fact, any kind of caused change is the result mutual interaction between objects, and affects all of the involved objects.  It is impossible for something that is completely immobile and immutable to cause any change at all in some other object.  The idea of an unmoved mover is contradicted by the laws of physics.

One might argue that God isn't subject to the laws of physics.  But what reason do we have to suppose that this kind of causation (pure act) exists at all?  Aquinas claimed to be an empiricist, and that his explanation of the causes of motion are based on observation.  He even claimed that belief in God can be based on a posteriori argument.  Aquinas' Argument from Motion specifically claims to be based on the observation.  It says: "Whatever is moved is moved by something else.  Potentiality is only moved by actuality."  But modern empirical observation tells us that motion is mutually caused.  It is not the case that something causes motion without also being moved.  So there is no empirical basis to conclude that there must be an unmoved mover, but there is good reason based in science to think that the idea of an unmoved mover is false.

Another aspect of modern physics that was unknown to Aristotle and Aquinas is the concept of inertia.  To them, movement had to be sustained by a mover.  Aristotle postulated a number of prime movers who were responsible for the rotation of the celestial spheres.  Without their continuous efforts, that movement would stop.  But science tells us that an object placed into motion will remain in motion as long as nothing else acts upon it.  The idea that an object in motion must be continuously actualized raises the question: "actualized toward what end?"  A planet in orbit around the sun can make billions of revolutions, and after all that, it is still in exactly the same state.  What kind of actualization or fulfillment is that?  It might make more sense to say that placing it in motion in the first place was the actualization, with the end being the achievement of orbit, but that would be a violation of the concept of movement.  So the Thomist seems to be in a quandary.  Either something is wrong with his concept of movement, or something is wrong with his concept of actualization.

Thermodynamics also refutes the idea of actualization, in the sense that the universe is destined by physics to end up in a state of "heat death".  Heat death can best be described in terms of Thomistic metaphysics as the loss of all actuality.  There is no form or function.  But thermodynamics is not something that Aristotle or Aquinas knew about, and so they have no explanation for it.  They defined movement as actualization, which is seen as the fulfillment of some end.  God is pure act, and as such, he is completely fulfilled.  The movement of the universe caused by God is seen as movement toward the kind of fulfillment that God provides.  In the long run, the universe being moved by God must move toward an end that is actualized in God.  But heat death is the opposite of that.  It is the complete loss of actualization.  The whole universe is in motion, to be sure.  But is is moving away from actualization.  Therefore, modern physics repudiates the idea that movement is actualization.

Thomistic metaphysics seems appealing to someone who wants to justify his belief in God.  But don't think about it too much, because it will lead to contradictions.  And while the Thomist might insist that it is completely compatible with science, he can only make that claim by ignoring the glaring inconsistencies between them.  Thomists claim that their metaphysics is based on empirical observation, but science actually is based on empirical observation, and the two don't see eye to eye.


62 comments:

  1. that's pretty sho9rt sighted to think that all of theism is based upon Aristotle. Christianity alone existed for a thousand years before Aquinas came along.

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    1. Honestly, Joe - you claim to be quite the scholar, but you make no effort to understand what is written. I didn't say anything that approximates "all of theism is based upon Aristotle". This article discusses one aspect of a particular brand of theism. In retrospect, I should have said Thomism or scholastic theism in the first sentence, but even the broader term classical theism does not apply to all Christians. Given your scholarly background, you should be well aware of this. Why, then, do you make a comment like that?


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    2. well I am almost blind and I have dyslexia you said Thomism and it looked like theism when I read it. sorry.

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    3. PS I have never said "I am quite the scholar." I worked on a PhD and I know I don't claim to know it all.

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    4. I initially said classic theism, but I realized that's not what I meant, so I changed the first sentence to say Thomism.

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    5. So just to be clear @im-skeptical.

      You began with a false claim.

      Joe merely noted its falseness, sure perhaps being overly loose in how he did it, but no more so than you were in the first place. And in fact it's perfectly plausible he actually meant "all of classical theism" when he said "all of theism", relying on context and not precision. By contrast, your error, saying "classical theism" when you actually meant "scholastic theism" or, as it ended up, "Thomism" isn't amenable to such a innocent explanation. So where Joe's statement was perhaps merely imprecise, yours was just plain wrong. (Although perhaps you have a New Atheist Spell Checker, which saw "scholastic" and auto-corrected to "classical". Is that what happened?)

      And then despite your gaff, for some reason you felt it appropriate to criticize Joe for not making an effort to understand what you had written. You chastised the poor guy so much you embarrassed him into offering you an undeserved apology via recourse to his poor sight and dyslexia when not only is it not clear he didn't understand you, its absolutely clear that *you* didn't understand you!

      And all of that from the guy (oh, you're a dude; for sure you're a dude) who complains "If you want to discuss these issues, you could start by trying to get a better sense of what I understand and what I don't, rather than making the assumptions you have made about me." Did it occur to you to apply that to Joe?

      So are you planning to apologize to Joe at all?

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    6. I think it's pretty clear that Joe intended to say "all of theism", based on the remainder of his comment.

      As for my post, it's also clear that I was talking about Thomism, given all the rest of the post that refers to it. The only change I made was the first word.

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    7. Yeah, your "Classical theism" clearly meant "Thomism", while there's no way that Joe's "all of theism" meant anything other than how you personally interpret that precise string of 16 characters. Sigh. You religious types, with your apologetics, and your defense of your faith. Such a shame.

      Here, go read yourself some Dennett on Rapoport. He's in the same church as you I suspect, so maybe *his* words will penetrate a bit further than your pericranium. As I said elsewhere, I don't speak wombat.

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    1. There is a difference between observed regularities of nature (or physical laws), and man-made laws. The laws of physics, as far as we can see, have NO exceptions in all of history. Tax laws can change.

      Of course, Aquinas did not argue that the prime mover was physical. But he claimed that his argument was based on observation. He saw movement as being a one-way causal process. Actuality causes movement in the potential. There was no hint of mutual causation in his arguments, that I'm aware of. That's how he could conclude that there is an unmoved mover.

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    3. Kyle,

      It's a little difficult to respond to the issues you bring up if you don't tell me what they are. You say I have made errors. You may be right, but I still don't know what you are referring to. Could you be more specific?

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    6. Kyle,

      You seem to have a problem with the fact that our scientific knowledge of nature is based on observation. Yes, I understand that inductive reasoning is subject to the possibility that the apparent regularity of the past might not continue in the future. Until those regularities prove to be false, we have pretty good justification in thinking that they're not false. And without that, we wouldn't have science at all. As someone who has doctorate-level education in science, you should understand this.

      As for my failure to grok Aquinas, what makes you think that I am unaware of the four causes, or the fact that his concept of movement encompasses more than "stuff bumping into other stuff"? What you don't seem to grok is the argument I was making - an argument based on physics, which would entail that I discuss things that are subject to physical laws. Those things are certainly part of the movement that Aquinas describes. Did you hear me say that there is no other kind of movement? Did you hear me say that Aquinas was stupid? If not, then why are you assuming that I'm mistaken in my understanding of what he means?

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  3. It's amazing that a blogger in the 21st century is capable of thinking they've uncovered a fatal flaw no one else noticed in the Aristotelian understanding of motion... without having first sought to understand the Aristotelian understanding of motion.

    You allege "In the real world, anything that moves or changes something else is itself moved or changed in the process."

    I recommend reading Glen Coughlin's translation of Aristotle's Physics. The whole thing - if you want to understand it. It's a notoriously difficult text but Coughlin provides footnotes and appendices that not only provide excellent exegesis but also provide valuable insight into the relationship between Aristotelian natural philosophy and modern physics. Coughlin argues that mathematical physics *presupposes* something like an Aristotelian natural philosophy and argues cogently for this thesis in his introduction. Worth every penny, this is the text that sold me on the relevance and importance of Aristotelian philosophy.

    http://www.amazon.com/Physics-Natural-Hearing-Moerbeke-Translation/dp/1587316293

    For a shorter write up about motion and why there may be cases where the mover is not moved in the process of moving, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-natphil/#3
    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-natphil/#5

    For some of the best philosophical interpretations of mathematical physics from an Aristotelian lens, you could do no better than to read Charles de Koninck. A giant of 20th century Thomistic philosophy who wrote on everything from quantum physics to biological evolution. His dissertation "The Philosophy of Sir Arthur Eddington" is a great place to start.

    http://undpress.nd.edu/books/P01230

    - Curio

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    1. OK, thanks. I'll start by looking at the SEP articles.

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    2. I once heard someone explain the unmoved mover's type of motion by way of analogy. These analogies are always imperfect but take this as a starting point maybe?

      The UM moves by way of pull more than push. Consider the way the Mona Lisa, a stationary painting in the Louvre, draws visitors from all around the world. In a real (though not complete) sense, the Mona Lisa is the cause of the motion of many of the museum's visitors. And yet, it sits there motionless.

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    3. Chris,

      I get what you are saying, but I doubt that the Mona Lisa actually causes movement as you describe. This probably gets into the different kinds of causality, which I don't buy at all. Any kind of causation we can observe is due to physical forces and processes, which can best be described as efficient causes. The rest are only imagined as being efficacious.

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    4. curiomt,

      Causal synonymy appears to be irrelevant to the point I made. It talks about reactive influence, but it still posits unmoved movers. So Aristotle could explain some mutual interactions as multiple instances of act/potency, but not all. Any metaphysical system that is not consistent with science must be regarded with extreme suspicion.

      The pure act of the unmoved mover is an exception to the rule of causal synonymy. So we see that Aristotle had to concoct a complex way of explaining things that don't seem to fit with his system. It's like the planetary models that had epicycles and strange ways of explaining the apparent motion of planets. The scientific explanation proved to be simpler and more correct.

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    5. I am Chris, we are the same. I had to make an account to post here and you'd think I'd be better at it given how much time I spend on the web.

      1) With respect to Mona Lisa, I appreciate your reply. You seem to hold something like a Humean view of causality. Which is fine as far as it goes (I think it's false and so do a lot of ancient and contemporary causation theorists) but you need to realize that attacking Aristotelian metaphysics while presupposing a Humean view of causality is a bit like attacking Darwinian evolution while first having committed oneself to YEC.

      By the way, this book is essentially one argument for why something like the Aristotelian (or neo-Aristotelian, whatever) view of causation must be true.

      http://www.amazon.com/Causation-Very-Short-Introduction-Introductions/dp/019968443X

      2) The second of those two SEP links is the really relevant one, but you touch on issues related to causal synonymy in your review so I figured I'd post it as well. Should have done so in the reverse order.

      If you read Aristotle's Physics, Book 8, you get the remarkable impression that he is literally trying to find every possible way out of accepting the UM. What isn't well known is that Aristotle *gives* the principle that would later be known as Ockham's Razor in this very book. He doesn't want to multiply causes beyond what is necessary. After having examined every alternative and found them wanting, he admits there must be an UM for there to be subsequent motion. He argues that motion need not always require a mover long before he argues for the UM. I think book 4 or 5 goes into this. It's been a while since I read Physics.

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    6. "Any metaphysical system that is not consistent with science must be regarded with extreme suspicion."

      With huge caveats, mostly related to a critical and informed understanding of what "science" even is, yes I agree. This is why I admire Laval Thomism and generally don't read the other stuff. If you want to do natural philosophy or metaphysics in the 21st century you need to know your science. Period.

      Having accepted your injunction, I raise you one better with a paraphrased quote from E.A Burtt

      "the most dangerous metaphysician is the one blissfully unaware of his own metaphysic"

      Curio

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  4. "In fact, any kind of caused change is the result mutual interaction between objects, and affects all of the involved objects. It is impossible for something that is completely immobile and immutable to cause any change at all in some other object. The idea of an unmoved mover is contradicted by the laws of physics."

    You first claim cannot be confirmed. The best that can be given is that some kinds of caused changes are the result of mutual interaction and affects all objects. But even so, it is completely irrelevant. Whether an interaction affects both A and B holds no bearing on the unmoved mover argument's validity or soundness. The one thing you are assuming (which probably applies to your comments on inertia also), is that objects A and B (that interact) are able to interact as a matter of an inherent power to do so, which is false. They have no inherent power to move themselves or anything else. If they did, we would see stones levitating possibly, or just randomly heating up, but they don't. This is the reason for the unmoved mover. Without an unmoved mover, nothing moves, and so nothing interacts. We know that movement happens, so there has to be an unmoved mover.

    As for the other two claims, the first is not certain, so the second isn't, plus the unmoved mover argument gives a reason for there needing to be something that immovable but can move things, un UNmoved Mover. The third I will address with inertia.

    "Without their continuous efforts, that movement would stop. But science tells us that an object placed into motion will remain in motion as long as nothing else acts upon it.

    The most obvious problem you have here is that Newton's principle of inertia is descriptive. It describes how objects behave. In no way is it giving an explanation as to why it behaves this way. That is what Aristotle is addressing. Remember, an object has no inherent power of movement. If it did, even if it were acted upon externally, it could just stay in the same motion, which would violate the principle of inertia. So, why do objects in motion remain in motion (until acted upon externally)? The unmoved mover is an explanation.

    "The idea that an object in motion must be continuously actualized raises the question: "actualized toward what end?" A planet in orbit around the sun can make billions of revolutions, and after all that, it is still in exactly the same state. What kind of actualization or fulfillment is that? "

    Actualisations do not need to be something outside of the causal link itself. The star actualizes the planets ability to change motion. You may be thinking of actualization here in terms of A causing B to actualize end C. But its more that A actualizes B, and that's it.

    Here is a work by Dr. Feser that goes in to great depth regarding inertia. http://faculty.fordham.edu/klima/SMLM/PSMLM10/PSMLM10.pdf

    "Thermodynamics also refutes the idea of actualization, in the sense that the universe is destined by physics to end up in a state of "heat death". Heat death can best be described in terms of Thomistic metaphysics as the loss of all actuality."

    This is just silly. The heat death is not the end of actualisation. The physical universe will still be physically here, be actual, but there won't be much else.

    "In the long run, the universe being moved by God must move toward an end that is actualized in God. But heat death is the opposite of that."

    Actualization does not have to be permanent, and they don't have to actualize. Lions are actualizing all sorts of your natural ends right now, but eventually they will die and no longer be actual. Also, if the heat death is, as a result of causal regularities, the natural end for the universe as a whole, then that only supports that it is the natural of the universe for this to happen. It may not be, I'm just speculating. The point is that it holds no sway against the idea of actualization.

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    1. Billy,

      You first claim cannot be confirmed.
      - Are you saying that physical laws can't be confirmed? As soon as you can show me an example where they don't hold, I'll believe that.

      It describes how objects behave. In no way is it giving an explanation as to why it behaves this way. That is what Aristotle is addressing.
      - Sorry. Science does not address the question of "why?". I am simple relating these principles to what we know about how things behave through the practice of science. To the extent they are inconsistent, you have a problem.

      You may be thinking of actualization here in terms of A causing B to actualize end C. But its more that A actualizes B, and that's it.
      - If B is actualized, then B is the end, and my objection remains unanswered.

      The heat death is not the end of actualisation. The physical universe will still be physically here, be actual, but there won't be much else.
      - So the ultimate goal of God's actualization of the universe is formless, functionless oblivion. This is just silly.

      The point is that it holds no sway against the idea of actualization.
      - I think Aristotle would have been very uncomfortable with this idea. What you are doing here is rationalizing in the face of new knowledge that doesn't seem fit with his concept.

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  5. Sorry, kinda wrote that in a rush. Some grammatical errors and spelling errors. My apologies.

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  6. metacrock's blog my answer to the brain structure argument on religious experience
    http://metacrock.blogspot.com/2016/04/brain-structure-objection-to-uiversal.html

    come over to CADRE and argue about resurrection

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    1. Whoa! Can someone tell him (you?) to bump up the font size by, like, five points at least? Browsers have zooms, but you don't really expect to have to use 'em!

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  7. I'll be away for the better part of the day. Feel free to comment, and I'll get to it when I can. I hope I won't be so rushed then.

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  8. Here's a question: If a metaphysics is inconsistent with actual physics does that imply that the metaphysics is wrong?

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    1. I think it does. Metaphysics is about ontology. It's about what exits, which may be in part beyond the reach of scientific investigation. Aristotle postulated that act and potency are things that have the ontological status of existence. Modern science has pretty much ruled them out, since they no longer have the explanatory power the once did. Metaphysics must be in sync with what is observable. That was the case for Aristotle, but it hasn't kept in sync since the advent of modern science that has made much of it obsolete.

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  9. "In the real world, anything that moves or changes something else is itself moved or changed in the process. To realize this, note that the laws of physics absolutely require it. There is conservation of energy, which implies that energy being imparted to some object must be lost from something else. A hot stone is cooled when its heat is transferred to a cold stone. There is conservation of momentum, which implies that the movement of an object is balanced by the "equal and opposite reaction" of another object. In fact, any kind of caused change is the result mutual interaction between objects, and affects all of the involved objects. It is impossible for something that is completely immobile and immutable to cause any change at all in some other object. The idea of an unmoved mover is contradicted by the laws of physics."
    As far as I can tell this is a reasonable statement reflecting the best model we have of how the universe works. It was a model established more than 3 centuries ago by Isaac Newton (Einstein,of course, refined it). The philosophical gobbledygook should be a dim and distant memory. It's a failed model. A model that has no correspondence with how the universe actually works. Is this all religion has left? How do you know it wont all change tomorrow? How do you know you're real? How do you know that snail in the garden isn't god? Pathetic obfuscation. What is the point of all this tiresome nonsense. A desperate attempt to resurrect a long dead god.

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    1. I think it seems reasonable to anyone who isn't invested in the ancient beliefs. Thomists (a subset of Catholics) base their religion on the ancient metaphysics of Aristotle, as adapted for Christianity by Thomas Aquinas. They have a large body of apologetic literature, much of it written by Aquinas, that lays out the logical basis of their theism, all based on this. But if the metaphysics isn't valid, then their whole basis of theistic belief falls apart. That's why they are so adamant about it, and so ready to heap scorn upon anyone who tries to poke holes in it. To be sure, they have heard objections like what I have raised before, and they have come up with ways to answer most of it. But those answers fail to satisfy the skeptical intellect. There's a reason the scientific community pays no heed to Thomistic metaphysics.

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    4. I find it difficult to understand how someone who is educated in science can fail to see that the old model is inconsistent with modern scientific knowledge. It is a failed model. As far as I know, the only people who buy it are theists.

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    5. OK. Looks like we're speaking in entirely different languages then. I doubt there's anything more useful I can say.

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    6. Skep: I think it seems reasonable to anyone who isn't invested in the ancient beliefs. Thomists (a subset of Catholics) base their religion on the ancient metaphysics of Aristotle, as adapted for Christianity by Thomas Aquinas.

      Feser who champions Aristotelian-Thomist scholasticism for the Catholic cause, has caught the attention of philosophy professor Aaron Boyden, Rhode Island College> Prof Boyden critically reviews Feser's book "The Last Superstition", HEREincluding many of his defences of Aquinas. Not to put too fine a point on it, it seems whatever the influence and impact of Feser's contribution to contemporary mainstream philosophy remains marginal or peripheral at best.


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    7. This review is something that Feser and his followers might want to give some consideration. But I doubt that will happen. It seems that any criticism of Feser's views are met with a rigid unwillingness to listen. As is the case with science, philosophy has developed other ways of approaching reality. But as we see with Kyle here, they tend to take a hubristic stance. If you disagree, it is assumed that you just don't understand it. Surely, if someone like me just made the effort to learn more about it, I couldn't fail to see how it all makes sense.

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    8. Kyle,

      It does seem as if we're speaking different languages. If you want to discuss these issues, you could start by trying to get a better sense of what I understand and what I don't, rather than making the assumptions you have made about me. And you need to realize that understanding something does not equate to agreeing. I don't claim to be an expert in scholastic metaphysics, but I probably know enough to be able to make some judgments about it. Maybe even enough to hold a discussion with someone like you.

      It's a shame you decided to withdraw all your comments. Perhaps it would be more fruitful to drop the attitude. You can still change your mind.

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    9. It's probably worth noting that Prof. Boyden subsequently conceded that his review of Feser's book was "philosophically completely worthless".

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    10. Boyden (speaking to Feser):

      "Let's see, "gratuitously nasty, intellectually dishonest, and philosophically completely worthless." Sounds like a description of your book. As for my review, it was I suppose philosophically completely worthless (as I said, I plan to attend to specific arguments in future blog posts), but it was hardly intellectually dishonest and any nastiness was far from gratuitous. Do you not remember what you wrote in your book?"

      He's saying that he didn't give proper philosophical rebuttals in the review, not that it is wrong.

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  10. But what about Consciousness and Light, which is the Energy of Consciousness?
    None of the dreadfully sane Thomists ever talk or write Consciousness and/or the intrinsically paradoxical nature of Quantum Reality - as described in these references:
    www.dabase.org/Reality_Itself_Is_Not_In_The_Middle.htm

    http://spiralledlight.wordpress.com

    www.beezone.com/AdiDa/EWB/lastwords.html

    www.beezone.com/AdiDa/Aletheon/ancient_walkabout_way_2.html

    Plus the share the same self-referring (and reinforcing) presumptions about the nature of Reality as everyone else, whether they be atheists, the ordinary man or woman in the street, or the seemingly most brilliant secular philosophers.

    www.beezone.com/AdiDa/Aletheon/three_great_myths.html

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    1. I think the best we can ever hope for is to have a model of reality that is consistent with what is observable. Anyone who thinks he knows the ultimate truth is probably wrong.

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  11. Peter Unger (Professor of Philosophy, NYU) seems a bit disillusioned by the philosophical approach.
    "What philosophers are in search of — and they don’t realize this — is generalizations that aren’t open to any conceivable possible counterexample, however far-fetched. These counter-instances don’t have to be at all realistic. So they put forth these offerings. Almost always, these offerings fail, and colleagues come up with counter-instances.

    When they don’t fail, they turn out to be trivial. Virtually all of them are analytically correct, though philosophers don’t realize it. Generally, though, they’re mostly incorrect offerings, with counterexamples, and it keeps changing and keeps changing, until everyone becomes bored with the topic, and then they go on to something else.

    It’s not as though anything ever gets established, except for very trivial things, nor is it that anything ever gets refuted. Rather, things become old hat and fashions change. But this general way of doing things hasn’t changed. In about seventy or eighty years, as far as I can tell, in terms of mainstream English-speaking philosophy."

    He then goes on to explain that, in his view, it's only a handful of philosophers doing anything worthwhile. They're actually doing more science than philosophy.
    "Tim Maudlin’s already done a similar sort of thing within himself, so that most of the time when he’s doing philosophy, he’s also doing theoretical physics. So he has a chance to do something like an amalgam of physics and metaphysics. It’s not pure philosophy, it’s very adulterated philosophy. It’s not the sort of thing where you make claims of the sort where any imaginable far-fetched scenario would count as a counterexample against it. Rather, if it’s too far-fetched, it’s irrelevant to what they’re doing.
    As I say in Empty Ideas, there are very few people capable of doing work like that, at the level Tim Maudlin does it. Maybe — at any given time — five or four in the world. To do it at an adequate level, maybe another fifteen, and it’s quite a step down for the other fifteen. That’s about it. Slow but humdrum."

    Full interview here: http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2014/06/philosophy-is-a-bunch-of-empty-ideas-interview-with-peter-unger.html

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    1. I agree with Unger that philosophy in the absence of science is mostly useless. You have to have a foundation of empirical knowledge before you can do much thinking about it. Pure a priori reasoning doesn't provide that foundation.

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    2. "You have to have a foundation of empirical knowledge before you can do much thinking about it."

      So, there's *not* an infinitude of primes then?
      What about the Cartesian cogito? Waste of space too?

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    3. Without your experience of counting objects, you would have no concept of what numbers are. With that experience, you have something you can think about.

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    4. I think the "science of mind" is a good example of the progress that science can make whereas pure philosophical inquiry is pretty hopeless. The philosophers have tried and failed. They can now sit on the sidelines and watch how science does it. If we ever solve the problem of consciousness my money will be on an "Einstein of the mind" rather than a Descatres.

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    5. Yes Robert. When one appreciates that the neurosciences are very much still in infancy the progress that has been made is simply remarkable. The line in many respects has been drawn in the sand; philosophers that are science savvy, that is, those that prosecute scientifically-informed philosophical inquiry are simply outstripping their scientifically-uninformed analog.

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    6. It's a matter of time before someone creates a computer simulation of conscious intellect that is impossible to distinguish from the real thing. At that point, the last and greatest refuge for the God of the gaps and its attendant dualistic philosophy of mind will have been illuminated.

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  12. Kyle's point, I think, is that we aren't exactly using empirical knowledge when we talk about infinite sets. The set of natural numbers, or real numbers, are infinite in size, with the latter having a greater cardinality than the former. How exactly could we learn about infinite sets from an empirical starting point? For large but finite sets we have easy answers: we can see that many things in the world. But for infinite sets we are in a different situation, and that is a problem since infinite sets, or something like them, seem indispensable to mathematics which seem indispensable to science.

    I personally don't think empiricism in epistemology is threatened by infinite sets, nor do I think physicalism is threatened by our use of infinites.

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    1. The conception of infinite sets is a logical extension of what we know. Yes, that's where philosophy comes into play (and I think it's correct to say that mathematics is a kind of philosophy). Of course we don't observe infinite sets, because they don't exist. They are purely conceptual. If Kyle thinks he knows that these things have some kind of independent existence, I would point out that he can't possibly show me one.

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    2. @Ryan M, my first reaction to your comment was "Who the hell does this Ryan person think he is, with his reasonableness, and his politeness, and his apparent willingness to assume the best of the other's position so as to engage in good, mutually-beneficial debate?" So I went via your Blogger profile to discover more (a.k.a. stalk :-) ) and found myself on http://rhetorical-bullshit.blogspot.com and just found more of the same.

      It's hard to say for sure (which I take as a good sign) whether you are an atheist or theist (or whatever), but if I had to bet, I'd go for the former. However, what seemed clearer was that you are far less concerned about which of those is correct qua correctness, and much more concerned about making sure that no matter which you eventually decide is true, you reach that decision via solid reasoning, and healthy skepticism[1]. And that's more than can be said for many -- not all -- of the "New"-er atheist type bloggers, some not a stone's throw from this comment.

      Bottom line -- that's good stuff you were writing over there! Why did you stop?

      Oh, and the brain-punching? Mmhmm. I get it.

      --

      [1] If I'm right, then I share your view, since I reckon that a good pragmatic notion of what is true Just Is that which we reach via solid reason, skeptically applied, (and, in the case of propositions concerning physical phenomena, in the context of precise, thorough, and relevant observation). That's why I personally dislike apologetics, where the apologist seems to *start* with what he already holds to be true, and then proceeds to defend it against attack. I prefer to start with something that is amenable to *attack* and try to break it. Popper, an' stuff. Of course such apologetics is not restricted to the theistically religious. Religiously-minded atheists do seem to exist, and they'll defend, defend, defend, just as ardently as Johnnie Cochran defended O.J. You probably know the kind of atheist I mean -- they're the kind who might announce their glorious apologetic crusade, their righteous defense of what they Just Know to be true, their aversion for falsification and affinity for anything that allows them to feel safe in their faith for another day, with a headline such as "Speaking out against bullshit".

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    3. And what is it that you are defending, Kyle? Your comments here have been pretty belligerent. If you care to "engage in good, mutually-beneficial debate", then why don't you act like it? We don't have to agree on things, but I'm willing to discuss it. Are you?

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    4. @im-skeptical: "Your comments here have been pretty belligerent."

      To paraphrase Dick Winters in Band of Brothers:

      My comments "here" have not been belligerent; just my comments to you.

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    5. You didn't answer my question. Are you willing to discuss your issues in a civil manner? If not, then piss off.

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  13. I think the best we can ever hope for is to have a model of reality that is consistent with what is observable.

    I guess I am very confused. Can someone point me to the empirical tests and experiments and observations that led us to understand that logic can be used to draw valid conclusions from observations and experiments? I just don't recall experiments whose end result was "logic" or "validity". Help!

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    1. Tony,
      I replied to you here. If this doesn't help, maybe I need to understand more of what you are asking.

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    2. Realistically, logic comes prior to model selection. Whatever models and methods we use to understand reality are going to be limited by whatever languages we use to describe those models with, so the languages essentially come first rather than being derived from the models/methods.

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    4. "I guess I am very confused. Can someone point me to the empirical tests and experiments and observations that led us to understand that logic can be used to draw valid conclusions from observations and experiments?"
      "Science works ... bitch" Dawkins

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O3v2m4_NHhA

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