I have been preparing for a conference on Consilience that will be held at the University of Missouri-St. Louis on April 26-28, while at the same time — and for entirely independent reasons — I have been reading and discussing with some graduate students a book by James Ladyman and Don Ross, Everything Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized.
The conference will be a discussion of E.O. Wilson’s idea of consilience as the unity of knowledge, and Wilson will be opening the proceedings. Looking at the fields of interest and the names of most of the other speakers, I suspect I will be the token skeptic there. Wilson has (mis-) appropriated the word consilience — which was coined by philosopher William Whewell in the 19th century to indicate a particular type of inductive reasoning (known also as inference to the best explanation, or “abduction”) — to advance his own notions of reduction of the humanities to science, and particularly to biology. I think Wilson was way off the mark on this, and I’ll explain why at the conference (I will post my presentation for download soon over at my professional site). Meanwhile, look at this devastating review of the original book by evolutionary biologist Allen Orr.
Ladyman and Ross’s book is a highly technical take down of much of what goes on in the field of metaphysics these days, where the authors start from the (very reasonable, I think) point that any respectable metaphysics ought to take seriously the latest news from physics (a position apparently shared by only a minority of metaphysicians). The book goes on to propose a particular version of a philosophy of science position known as structural realism, according to which scientific theories neither track objective reality in a straightforward sense (the so-called realist position), nor do they simply provide us with theoretical conceptions that “work” but whose closeness to truth cannot be assessed (the so-called anti-realist position). Rather, structural realism posits that when scientists abandon one theory for another one (say, Newtonian mechanics in favor of General Relativity) what is retained in the new theory from the old one is a set of mathematical relationships (describing the underlying “structure” of reality).
I don’t want to get into the details of this particular debate in philosophy of science — which is very interesting but also gets highly technical pretty quickly — but rather point out the similarity between Ladyman and Ross’s attitude and that of Wilson, as well as that of other people whom I more than occasionally criticize here (the list includes, naturally, Jerry Coyne, Sam Harris, and Alex Rosenberg, all for slightly different but related reasons). That similarity consists in a type of stance (as philosophers say) that I am going to dub “fundamentalist reductionism.” Let me elaborate. [Full disclosure: James Ladyman is a contributor to a book I have been editing for Chicago Press, on the philosophy of pseudoscience, and I have repeatedly used his excellent textbook on philosophy of science for my classes.]
One of the crucial arguments Ladyman and Ross advance in defense of their version of structural realism is that, at bottom, modern physics tells us that there are no things, just structures (or, to be more precise, that structures are ontologically prior to what we call things). They interpret modern quantum mechanics — particularly because of concepts like quantum entanglement — as telling us that individual objects, including you and me, planets, galaxies and so on, do not reflect the fundamental structure of the universe. Indeed, that when we get to the foundations of it all, not even sub-atomic particles are real in the sense of which most people understand that word. The foundation of life, the universe and everything is made of structures that describe phenomena (even causality goes out of the window, ultimately). At some point Ladyman and Ross admit that their position is compatible with some version of mathematical Platonism, though they stop shy of a full endorsement of that view. (I’m actually somewhat sympathetic to mathematical Platonism, but that’s another story.)
Let us assume for the sake of argument that the latest 21st century physics really is best interpreted the way Ladyman and Ross do interpret it: at the bottom of the fabric of reality there are structures that can be described mathematically, and that these structures are somehow prior to the things that we normally count as constituting the universe. It does not seem to follow from this that the existence of individual objects is thereby an “illusion” (and hence, that any type of metaphysics that talks about the properties of individual objects is nonsense). To reach that conclusion one must take the additional step of assuming a form of greedy reductionism, where the lowest level is the only one that matters, everything above it being somehow illusory or misleading. That position is what I take to be an instance of fundamentalist reductionism. (Other partial examples include Harris’ and Coyne’s claim that consciousness is an illusion; Rosenberg’s repeated assertions that pretty much everything is an illusion; and Wilson’s more modest claim that biology is sufficient for an account of all things human — though one would really want to ask Wilson why he stopped at biology: shouldn’t quantum mechanics suffice?)
Now, Ladyman and Ross are more sophisticated thinkers than most of the bunch I have been criticizing, and they do realize that their position faces an obvious problem: if all is (mathematical) structure, then how do we explain the existence of “apparently” individual objects like you and me, planets and galaxies? They say that any good fundamental physics, as well as any good naturalistic metaphysics, has to somehow “recover” micro-, meso- and macro-cosmic realities from whatever nano-cosmic level it takes off from. One of the best known of these attempts at “recovery” is the claim that quantum mechanical effects rarely bubble up to higher levels of complexity because of the collapse of the wave function (which, Ladyman and Ross point out, is a probabilistic-mathematical construct, not a physical “thing”). Okay, but I think it is fair to expect a bit more than quasi-magical words in order to bridge not just QM and classical physics, but also physics with biology, and eventually biology with the social sciences (the latter two being Wilson’s projects, of course).
More to the point, I don’t think it makes much sense to claim that higher level objects do not “really” exist just because their lower level nature is different. Imagine a biologist who said that ecosystems don’t “really” exist because living organisms are actually made up of cells. Yes, they are, but there are emergent properties (*) and interactions that make it impossible to understand ecosystems as a function of cell structure, and any serious ecologist better acknowledge that and get down to work. Similarly, above-fundamental levels objects are not illusions or a metaphysical afterthought, they are just as much part of reality as the mathematical structures inherent in string theory or loop quantum gravity.
Lee Smolin (whose The Trouble with Physics is an excellent critical take on string theory and the state of contemporary physics) is approvingly cited by Ladyman and Ross as saying “The universe is made of processes, not things.” But that is a categorial mistake. The universe is most definitely made of both processes and things, and the task of physics (and metaphysics) isn’t to tell us to forget about things because the processes may be ontologically prior. It is to tell us what it means for processes to have that function, and how do we get the very real things that these processes produce and connect to each other. How do we get, for instance, individual beings, planets and galaxies out of an underlying non-local mathematical structure? Accordingly, a comprehensive metaphysics and philosophy of science cannot be achieved simply by taking what physicists tell us about the fine structure of reality and be happy with some vague handwaving to the effect that the rest of it can be “recovered.” Objects and individuals are here to stay, regardless of whether they are the product of smaller objects or of mathematical relationships.
* I am agnostic about whether emergent properties are such epistemically or ontologically. That is, I do not know — nobody does, really — whether emergent behaviors are such in the sense that they could in principle be derived from complete knowledge of fundamental states or whether there really are properties that come into being only under certain conditions of complexity. The point is, emergent properties, even in the weak epistemic form, exist, and serious science and metaphysics simply cannot brush them aside.
"Wilson has (mis-) appropriated the word consilience — which was coined by philosopher William Whewell in the 19th century to indicate a particular type of inductive reasoning (known also as inference to the best explanation, or “abduction”)"ReplyDelete
I thought abduction (inference to the best explanation) was from Peirce and involved:
Some phenomenon C is observed, and that's a surprise.
But if A was true, C would be a matter of course.
Hence A is a good hypothesis to be tested.
Consilience, on the other hand, implies the confluence of evidence as, for example, patters in the fossil record, in traits of extant species, in biogeographic distributions, and in the genetic code all pointing towards evolution.
No such confluence of evidence needed in abduction.
I understood Wilson's book Consilience as rather being about synthesis, but reading that was a long time ago.
Hi Joachim D.,Delete
Whewell's concept of consilience was expanded by Peirce (and Ernst Mach) in the latter's work on abduction and can itself be seen as a species of abduction.
So, roughly, there are four parts to Whewell's scientific methodology: (1) the formulation of an explanatory hypothesis (in Whewell's terms: a 'colligation' or way of seeing given data in a 'new light'); (2) the hypothesis must be empirically adequate; (3) the hypothesis must predict novel observations; (4) the hypothesis should 'bring together' heretofore previously considered unrelated observations in all the appropriate ways a fruitful scientific research program (a series of logically connected hypotheses) should, that is, by evincing certain epistemic virtues, viz., simplicity, conservativeness, unifying force, etc.
Technically, (4) is what Whewell meant by consilience, though now often (1) - (4) is coined consilience. So, I think one can see how one might term consilience a form of inference to the best explanation.
Thanks, I see the connection now.Delete
I don't really get the difference between "recover" and "get the very real things that these processes produce and connect to each other" -- especially without appealing to a problematic "strong emergence".ReplyDelete
I wish that Rosenberg would give me some of thatReplyDelete
illusory money that he carries in his illusory
To be fair, when *doesn't* causality go out the window? Despite being such an "intuitive" concept, it can be so very, very hard to make sense of physically.ReplyDelete
The illusion is that nothing (i.e. "no thing") has independent existence. Everything is relational and interdependent on everything else. (Buddhists call this "dependent co-arising" or "mutual causality.") So, as I see it, "structural realism" is not only reductionistic, but also holistic.ReplyDelete
Also, why are you characterizing the "collapse of the wave function" as quasi-magical?
I agree with Alastair Paisley that the collapse of the wave function ought not to be regarded as "quasi-magical".Delete
Saying that it is only a probabilistic-mathematical construct, and not a physical “thing”, is akin to saying that "the cat is on the mat" is only a subject-object construction and not a physical "thing". In the case of both the cat and the wave function, our constructs describe the reality that is before us. In the case of the wave function, it is not the simplistic reality that the "causality kings" would prefer: "B" is not absolutely determined to follow from "A"; we may get "B prime" and we CANNOT determine which until after the event happens. A bit magical in the context of our usual experiences, but none the less "real" as anything else is -- unless you reject a priori that such a reality can, or ought to exist.
As long as we're on the side topic of Buddhism, I'll toss impermanence (annica) and not-self (anatta, to use the Pali terms) into the metaphysical mix.Delete
Philosopher Owen Flanagan, analyzing these (and other Buddhist) concepts in his book, The Bodhisvatta's Brain: Buddhism Naturalized, described them as "something that would make contemporary scientific reductionists and eliminativists proud."
In any case, I think the best (or most charitable) interpretation here is that every "thing" (including our selves) is in flux, or that no "thing" is indefinitely stable (particularly our selves), such that the practice of describing fundamental reality in terms of processes is apt - indeed, plausible (which, according to Flanagan, is also "why A.N. Whitehead at the dawn of elementary particle physics endorsed 'process philosophy'").
"...above-fundamental levels objects are not illusions or a metaphysical afterthought, they are just as much part of reality as the mathematical structures inherent in string theory or loop quantum gravity."ReplyDelete
Thanks for making this point. Ontologies are a matter of what ends up as ineliminable in perspicacious explanations that permit prediction and control, at whatever level we're communicating about, whether physical, chemical, biological, psychological, historical, etc. Greedy fundamentalist physicalist reductionists such as Rosenberg, if they actually limited themselves in their discourse and explanations to only what they claim is truly real (e.g., fermions and bosons), would have little to say.
But things are made of processes is the important claim, right? Aren't there many scientists working precisely on how emerging phenomena can come from "lower" levels of reality?ReplyDelete
Okay, but I think it is fair to expect a bit more than quasi-magical words in order to bridge not just QM and classical physics, but also physics with biology, and eventually biology with the social sciences (the latter two being Wilson’s projects, of course).
More to the point, I don’t think it makes much sense to claim that higher level objects do not “really” exist just because their lower level nature is different.
My perspective is of one of the "fundamentalist reductionists"; the higher-level phenomena we take for granted are simply patterns and processes expressed by aggregations of the lowest level entities. Illusion is a fine word to describe these higher-level collections: a misperception by the human brain obscuring the true representation of an object.
That is, I do not know — nobody does, really — whether emergent behaviors are such in the sense that they could in principle be derived from complete knowledge of fundamental states or whether there really are properties that come into being only under certain conditions of complexity.
Properties of the lowest level are inherent in the processes possible in the higher levels. However, we take them for granted and don't feel the need to comment upon them specifically. For instance, we don't need to mention that two social societies could never occupy the exact same region of space-time, overlapping in all aspects but not interfering. We assume this to be the case due to the Pauli exclusionary principle of the fundamental "building blocks"; this principle bubbles up from physics thru biology into social science due to the consilience property. However, this assumption is based on physics; if we were bosonic beings, we wouldn't make such an assumption.
Allow me to ask:
So, the higher-level phenomena, such as macro-physical objects like microscopes, cloud chambers, high-energy particle accelerators, etc., via which we detect / discover / infer / manipulate (whatever) these so-called 'more fundamental' micro-physical entities, are misperceptions or constructions of the brain?
Doesn't this strike you as odd: We are to believe the electrons 'observed' in apparatus like cloud chambers are real but not the apparatus itself? If not, I wonder in what sense can you say that we observe micro-physical particles? Don't we rather infer their existence via experimental procedures and manipulations in light of a theoretical framework which entails the existence of macro-physical objects? Don't we postulate micro-physical objects in order to explain macro-physical systems, say, the phenomena of heat transfer between your cup of coffee and its ambient environment?
If it is a "misperception", what then would the true perception be?Delete
We are to believe the electrons 'observed' in apparatus like cloud chambers are real
Highlighted is your misconception of "misperception". Our brain is full of heuristics that get us through the day. One of the heuristics is to see collections of particles as a single entity. The misperception is to assume that higher-level objects are objects in their own right, rather than complicated aggregates of lower-level phenomena.
Don't brush this aside as obvious. For much of human history it was anything but obvious, and even for most humans living today it is less than obvious.
Nowhere did I say these illusions aren't "real". It's just that our common descriptions aren't appropriate when talking about the true nature of the object under study. This include consciousness, Massimo's Platonic mathematical objects, etc. The properties of the lowest-level inform the interactions we have with higher-level constructs. That's how we inferred the processes of the lowest levels, by how they interact with objects our heuristically-driven brain can deal with.
I no longer understand what your claim is. So, let's clarify.
Is your claim that composite physical objects do not exist?
Is your claim that, if they exist, composite physical objects are less 'fundamental' than their micro-physical constituents?
If so, what, precisely, do you mean by 'fundamental'?
My position on perception, which I base entirely on my understanding of the relevant neuroscience, is this:
Humans receive sensory stimuli from their environment (reception) and brains add vast amounts of information, from which we employ background knowledge, the heuristics you mention, and other strategies in order to make effective use of the limited sensory information. So, in this way, we infer to (perceive) a world populated by composite physical objects. But the inference to composite physical objects does not entail that they (1) do not exist independently of human brains and (2) are misperceptions or less fundamental (whatever that term means) or than micro-physical particles. (I could continue to argue that micro-physical particles are themselves hypothetical entities deemed to be 'real' only insofar as they economize our theoretical efforts.)
I don't claim that composite physical objects don't exist; rather, it's that everything is expressible via composition of physical objects, terminating in the fundamental physical objects (Standard Model entities, strings, whatever). This includes consciousness, mathematical entities, computational processes, ideas, etc. The illusion is that we perceive composite objects as disconnected from underlying physics.
Massimo seems to imply that entities exist that do not derive from physical underpinnings, including consciousness and mathematical entities. I disagree. Even mathematical processes (addition, for instance) are a reflection of fundamental physical properties specific to our universe, which the human brain has determined via observation and inference.
Are symbolic algorithmic strategies, that we inherit and continually update from experience, physical objects?Delete
Thank you for clarifying. We agree in most everything then (except for your take on mathematical objects). I am also a reductionist, I just found your choice of words unfortunate.
Yes, symbolic algorithmic strategies that are inherited and updated continually are physical objects. They are either combinations of neurons (and neurotransmitters, and hormones, etc) interacting via the physical processes, or algorithms executed on computers, themselves combinations of silicon transistors, memory buses, RAM modules, etc, interacting via the same physical processes, or sequences of DNA, amino acids, chemicals, etc, interacting via the same physical processes.
It's all physical, operating according to those physical processes. Larger compositions can have larger interactions and feedback loops, but underlying these higher-level properties is the fundamental physical entities and processes.
But then you have physical objects that not only change through experience but get completely wiped out with no remaining residue. And you have similar directions operating to regulate all systems in the universe that we've never been able to find the physical elements or aspects of. So wouldn't it be at least a bit more convenient to loosen up that definition of physical a bit? Such as making a distinction between mind and the brain that it's dependent on, for example. Or is the mind as much a physical substance as the algorithms that allow it to emerge?Delete
And what would you call it if you painted a black barn white and the black paint completely disappeared? (Which makes me wonder if a chameleon changing colors is exercising a mental rather than physical process, but I digress.)Delete
I've been trying to convince Massimo of the reliance of mathematical entities on underlying physics for a little while, but I haven't been successful, likely due to my poor choice of words. My main thesis is that mathematics (and logic) is the study of consistent processes, of which our universe is the fundamental object of study. Mathematical objects are discovered by applying the rules of mathematics consistently, starting from some basic axioms (usually ZFC). These axioms reflect the properties of the fundamental physical objects that comprise most of the physical objects we deal with daily.
Upon first blush your thesis does not strike me as tenable, though by all means advance it and see where you can get. I can't imagine you will meet with much success, however. That said, if you are interested, look up Hartry Field's John Locke lecture at Oxford on iTunes. He might have some stuff of interest to you.
Thanks for the reference, looks interesting.
Why do you exempt mathematical objects from reductionism? Why do you consider the idea untenable? Admittedly, I haven't made much of a positive case in general, but I also haven't received much of an argument against my position. What is untenable about the idea that all mathematical objects are reducible to patterns of neuron firings in our brains (or computers, or other processing substrate following consistent rules)? What mathematical objects are not reducible in such a manner?
Two reasons why I think your thesis is not tenable come to mind immediately.
First, just because we can locate and associate certain brain activity with mathematical reasoning processes does not entail -- indeed, it does not even begin to show -- that said brain activity constitutes mathematical reasoning. Off the top of my head I can think of a counterexample: my computer performs various mathematical and logical functions (e.g. DeMorgan's rule, NAND operations, etc.), and so do I; they correspond. However, there are entirely different operations being performed in me (the brain) and in the silicon-based logic board (the computer). Also, I can imagine alien lifeforms performing mathematical and logical operations without brains or even neurons.
Second, the supermajority of logicians, mathematicians, scientists, philosophers of mathematics, and epistemologists (have I missed a relevant profession?) hold that mathematical and logical objects exist independently of brains. So, even though I am a logician, why should I think that I am right and they are wrong?
Regarding your first case, computers perform mathematical and logical functions in a different way than your brain; no one denies that. However, just because they differ does not imply they differ significantly. If they differ but are isomorphic, then they form an equivalence class. They can be considered identical, for a slightly weaker form of equivalence than is typically considered. And each of those entities (humans, computers, and presumably the aliens) are performing mathematical and logical operations using physical processing mechanisms, which follow and reflect the laws of fundamental physics.
Second, argumentum ad populum. It doesn't matter how many believe the idea. What is the reason they believe that mathematical objects exist outside the brain, and is it supported by evidence and argument?
Re: However, just because they differ does not imply they differ significantly.
I just do not see how they are sufficiently similar so as to establish equivalency classes; (2) equivalency classes are themselves abstract objects and on pain of consistency you cannot call upon them to explicate your thesis; (3) equivalency between the two distinct types of processes will not help you: insofar as they are distinct, but are equivalent in form and function, we identify mathematical operations with the form, not the particular neurons, etc., just in the same way we identify the number '2' whether it is represented via chalk or tempera; (4) just like when one refers to peaches and cherries one is not referring to patterns of neurons, when one performs mathematical operations such as addition or when one expresses mathematical propositions one ostensibly does not refer to patterns of neurons.
Re: My second point.
I made no argumentum ad populum. I did not argue because most relevant experts do not share your view therefore your position is not true. Rather, I made an inference to the most epistemically prudent explanation, which is this: Someone is right and somebody is wrong and there are a whole bunch of considerations to take into account. So, given that, I find it more prudent to go with the relevant experts on this matter because it is more likely that they are right (or approximately right) than is the minority. For this same reason theist philosophers are placed in a difficult epistemic position when it comes to belief in a deity: The vast majority of their colleagues disagree with them.
P.S. You might also want to look into the literature on the 'Is logic empirical' debate.
Thanks for the comments, I'll assume from your comment to Alastair you'll be moving on from this thread.
My responses: equivalence classes themselves have a root in physical systems and process (ie, Galilean relativity implies that physical processes will occur similarly regardless of orientation, position, etc; Einsteinian relativity is an extension of that property, while certain quantum theory results describes how fundamental particles interact without reference to position, orientation, etc).
"2 on a chalk board" or "2 the sequence of electronic bits" is only "2 the mathematical object" when processed by a brain (or computer). Just because English has trouble with identifying "2" doesn't mean there is a true distinction. Further, remove all the human, computer and alien brains from the universe, and all mathematical objects cease to exist.
The only way to change the opinion of the experts is to argue and request evidence to support their beliefs. Philosophers had to remove support for an intangible and unsupported abstract object known as God. They just have to keep going...
Yes, I will be moving on from this thread. Thank you for the exchange.
I will say the following and leave the last words (if you wish to have them) with you: Setting aside the other bit, of course the supermajority opinion is open to revision-- which is why I counseled to advance your thesis and see where you can get. However, arguments for the existence of mathematical objects are ***much*** better than arguments for the existence of a god (whatever 'god' means). I take your point, but bad analogy :-P
Thanks Eamon, it was a pleasure. I've been thinking about this issue for a while, but I need to broaden my background research a bit. My background is comp.sci, logic/AI and a bit of quantum information processing, so I'm a bit biased. Biased in the right direction, I hope :)Delete
Just for future readers (unlikely that anyone is still following this thread), Feng Ye is attempting to "port" classical mathematics into a strictly finite setting; see https://sites.google.com/site/fengye63/ and especially https://sites.google.com/site/fengye63/strictlyfinitisticsystemforappliedmath. His project is in support of a naturalistic interpretation of mathematics, similar to what I've described above. The progress he's made is quite impressive, including an finite interpretation of integration and other "infinitary" concepts.Delete
I learn things all the time here about things I already knew, but in a different way. Existence would be formal (space & time, cause & effect) as a framework for measurement of substantnces (rest & energy delineated by space & time - distribution, electro. & grav. delineated by cause and effect for equal and opposite exchanges- interaction).Delete
Substances exist and are delineated by their forms, which as their properties, in the commonsense way, nothing special except that they display substances in a framework first identified by Newton (S&T, C&E as laws of motion for resting & energetic, electro. & grav. substances) and continued by Einstein into a self contained relative view.
This would be universal in physics, and there is a comparable structure in biology. In physics, the issue is that there may be a continuum of pure form complementing all substances and their forms, as one universe. It would be a void of space & time, and a neutralizing coordinate of action & reaction at the Big Bang.
Being continuous, they apply to all substantive particles & fields as a collective, favoring none as a void or an event of interactive neutrality (or neutrlization - as our universe currently experiences).
Thus we have a multitude of repeated examples of discrete particles and fields as substances with regular forms, and a complementing formal continuum for them to literally exist, and move, and change in one neutralizing event around the formal neutrality of a sheer coordinate.
> I understood Wilson's book Consilience as rather being about synthesis, but reading that was a long time ago. <
Well, he calls it consilience, and yes it does mean synthesis. But I actually think it's a straightforward attempt at reduction.
> I don't really get the difference between "recover" and "get the very real things that these processes produce and connect to each other" -- especially without appealing to a problematic "strong emergence". <
There is no difference, except that at the moment both of them are more vague gestures then actual scientific proposals. I'm not at all sure that recovering macroscopic objects in a sensible way would necessarily imply strong emergence, but I don't have any temperamental objection to it, if that turns out to be the case.
> To be fair, when *doesn't* causality go out the window? Despite being such an "intuitive" concept, it can be so very, very hard to make sense of physically. <
Indeed, but a series metaphysics (and, frankly, physics) better make sense of it, one way or another...
> I agree with Alastair Paisley that the collapse of the wave function ought not to be regarded as "quasi-magical". <
Yes, I didn't mean that the concept of collapse is quasi-magical, I meant that there is a large gap in going from there to the meso- and macro-worlds, and that we better no brush the problem aside, like a magician would do...
> it is not the simplistic reality that the "causality kings" would prefer: "B" is not absolutely determined to follow from "A"; we may get "B prime" and we CANNOT determine which until after the event happens. <
I get all that, but the contention of Ladyman and Ross here is that meso- and macro-realities aren't built up from things (particles, etc.) but rather from (mathematical) structures, and that therefore the fundamental ontology is one based on such structures. That needs to be fleshed out quite a bit more in order to make sense of our reality and not relegate it to an imaginary afterthought.
> Illusion is a fine word to describe these higher-level collections: a misperception by the human brain obscuring the true representation of an object. <
Sorry, I find that bizarre, for reasons similar to those expressed by Eamon and chbleck.
> we don't need to mention that two societies could never occupy the exact same region of space-time, overlapping in all aspects but not interfering. We assume this to be the case due to the Pauli exclusionary principle of the fundamental "building blocks" <
This is a perfect example of what I object to: the Pauli principle does explain why objects occupy space. It has absolutely nothing whatsoever to say about societies and their structure.
"It has absolutely nothing whatsoever to say about societies and their structure."
It absolutely has something to say about societies and their structure. It's just that your brain assumes the Pauli exclusion principle at such a fundamental level that you can't even see that you have used it as an assumption.
As a philosopher, I expect you to be aware of the hidden assumptions of an argument. The properties of fundamental physics provides the grounding for all further arguments made about physical objects and their interactions.
Your agnosticism about the linkages between levels of physical objects is not supported; in fact, you rely upon those linkages in every argument you make. Instead, you simply don't acknowledge your implicit assumptions, and assume they aren't required.
This comment has been removed by the author.Delete
Massimo holds that if there's no reason that lower levels would aspire to attain complexity, there'd be no purpose for their evolution to be reasonable.Delete
The problem here is that contemporary physics (relativity theory and quantum mechanics) does not fit into a strictly materialistic paradigm.
Materialism is based on reductionism. Invoking "emergence" (strong) and "complexity" is simply tantamount to invoking "magic" and does nothing to help your cause (metaphysical naturalism).
I thought you might be the same Paisley who made these same claims here last year (or was it two years ago already?).Delete
Anyway, my lay person's understanding is that the situation hasn't really changed: Contemporary physics is still the outcome of that metaphysically agnostic, yet methodologically naturalistic, social process that we call "science", which is to say that its observations are compatible with numerous philosophical interpretations and doctrines (including, though not exclusively, those we associate with materialism/physicalism), although some doctrines are more parsimonious than others, relative to the methodological assumptions of science.
Do any of you professional philosophers out there (e.g. Massimo or Eamon) agree or disagree with me?
"Consilience" is based on "scientific realism" (as opposed to "instrumentalism.") Be that as it may, a metaphysical stance is being taken here. So, if you are going to employ "methodological naturalism" to support "metapysical naturalism," then you will have to address the issues that I have raised.Delete
Does parsimony qualify as "support" in metaphysics? Or is that an illegal import from one domain into another. I dunno. I'll leave that question to the pros.Delete
But I think it's fair to say that metaphysical naturalism sticks pretty closely to the evidence, as presented by methodological naturalism (a.k.a. science). In that sense, I think of the former as a minimalist complement to the latter.
That doesn't mean any of this is true - just good enough for minimalist (or pragmatic) folks like me.
No thanks. I think you're capable of googling the term yourself.Delete
I'm more than capable. But that's not the point. My understanding of the term may differ from yours. I understand "naturalism" to be interchangeable with "materialism" or "physicalism." The "natural sciences" are the "physical sciences" and vice versa. A "natural" explanation is a "physical" explanation. Therefore, defining the term is paramount in order to rationally discuss "methodological naturalism" and "metaphysical naturalism."Delete
In certain contexts, naturalism is often used interchangeably with physicalism, though, in a strict sense, the two are not synonymous.
Crudely defined, physicalism is the thesis that the world is populated solely by physical entities, whether composite or simple. Naturalism, on the other hand, is roughly defined as: the view that the world is populated solely by those entities studied in the sciences or those objects necessary for the execution of scientific research, that is, mathematical objects such as tensors, fields, functions, relations, inference rules, numbers, etc.
Science employs mathematics. But mathematics itself is NOT a natural or physical science (not anymore than philosophy is). And the idea that mathematical abstractions exist independently of a mind that abstracts is...well...irrational.Delete
Re: "Does parsimony qualify as 'support' in metaphysics?"
Yes, it does.
Re: "Consilience" is based on "scientific realism"
Actually, consilience is viewed as a strong argument for scientific realism. Thus, most would hold that (in an important sense) scientific realism is one big ole inference to the best explanation, that is, based on consilience.
Naturalism comes in many varieties, but the entry-level union card - David Hume is our hero - expresses solidarity with this motto: "Just say no to the supernatural." Rebirths, heavens, hells, creator gods, teams of gods, village demons, miracles, divine retributions in the form of plagues, earthquakes, tsunamis are things naturalists don't believe in. What there is, and all there is, is natural stuff, and everything that happens has some set of natural causes that produce it-although we may not be able to figure out what these causes are or were. Why be a naturalist? World historical evidence suggests that naturalism, vague as it is, keeps being vindicated, while the zones of "explained" by the supernatural get smaller everyday. Naturalism is a good bet.ReplyDelete
- Owen Flanagan (same reference as in my earlier comment)
The quotation above may or may not be metaphysical (or ontological) in nature. It might just be a hat that one wears as part of his/her day job, or a game that one is willing to play on a provisional basis (or at least pretend to), while bracketing an X-of-the-gaps belief in the supernatural.
In any case, it's as apt an explanation of "naturalism" as I can muster on short notice.
As for whether "naturalism" is synonymous with "materialism" or "physicalism", I seem to recall that Massimo has disputed that claim here recently. At the very least, I think we can agree that they are logically compatible ideas.
"Imagine Buddhism without rebirth and without a karmic system that guarantees justice ultimately will be served, without nirvana, without bodhisattvas flying on lotus leaves, without Buddha worlds, without nonphysical states of mind, without any deities, without heaven and hell realms, without oracles, and without lamas who are reincarnations of lamas. What would be left?" - Owen Flanagan, "The Bodhisattva's Brain: Buddhism Naturalized"Delete
What would be left? Answer: Atheistic materialism. Certainly, there would be nothing left remotely resembling Buddhism as it is actually understood and practiced by its adherents.
Who cares? Not Flanagan and not I.Delete
That's not to suggest that Buddhism, once rid of its supernatural content, has nothing to offer naturalists like us - but that's neither here nor there.
More to the point, you seem attached to the idea that naturalism necessarily entails materialism (a.k.a. physicalism). You said yourself: "mathematics itself is NOT a natural or physical science." I agree, yet physicists (and scientists in general) depend on mathematics, which (as Eamon suggested) renders mathematical objects natural candidates for ontological status.
I'm agnostic about such matters, but them's the facts.
"What there is, and all there is, is NATURAL STUFF, and everything that happens has some set of NATURAL CAUSES produce it-although we may not be able to figure out what these causes are or were." - Owen FlanaganDelete
Mathematical functions are NOT causative agents.
There are two things to say here.
First, many naturalists (e.g. Willard van Orman Quine) hold that science is a broad term which describes not only physical sciences but also abstract pursuits such as mathematics, logic, and philosophy and practical pursuits such as engineering, computer science, and architecture.
Second, naturalists are not committed to nominalism or mathematical intuitionism, so a naturalist can hold to the existence of brain-independent mathematical objects. In addition, the issue is about ontological commitments: If one cannot do science without mathematical objects, and one believes one's ontology ought to be populated solely by the objects which science investigate / uncover / invent (whatever), it follows that one must include in one's ontology the existence of mathematical objects.
For anyone interested, check out an interview with W.V.O Quine wherein he describes in accurate detail his idea of naturalism: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1iZvycU3I9w
(Note: The interview is in the form of six parts [I believe] but the links directs to only the first one.)
1) If you're going to define "naturalism" as anything that is studied in the "sciences" (broadly defined), then theism based on philosophical theology would qualify as a form of naturalism. Right?
2) It does not follow because science employs mathematics that mathematical functions themselves have some kind of ontological status or act as some kind of causal agent.
Re: ... then theism based on philosophical theology would qualify as a form of naturalism. Right?
Probably not. Why would you think that it is?
Also, the definition of "naturalism" I proffered is not my own; it is a standard definition found in the literature (cf. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy).
No, you are right, it does not follow necessarily. However, the naturalist can make a good case for why, along with physical objects, she ought to populate her ontology with mathematical objects. See, for example, Quine's interview, or read up on his indispensability:
Mathematics is indispensable as a method through which humans (and some others) can measure and describe the physical universe. It is however not a physical property of anything except itself.Delete
While your statement is true, it is off the mark. Recollect that the naturalist proper does not necessarily argue that only physical objects exist. He often argues that various abstract objects exist such as mathematical objects or logical inferences, etc.
Why would I think that? Because it is in response to your argument.
Previously, you stated: "Naturalism, on the other hand, is roughly defined as: the view that the world is populated solely by those ENTITIES studied in the SCIENCES."
You also stated: "Science is a BROAD term which describes NOT ONLY physical sciences BUT ALSO abstract pursuits such as mathematics, logic, and PHILOSOPHY."
God is an entity studied by the abstract pursuit of philosophical theology (which is a sub-discipline of philosphy). Therefore, it follows that God (employing your argument) qualifies as a natural entity.
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Eamon, Why would my statement be off the mark if it's a response to the SEP article cited re indispensability. In which mathematical objects would appear to have physical properties. (Assuming I read it correctly, that is.)Delete
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The "indispensability argument" holds that we should ascribe ontological status to mathematical sets, numbers, and functions. Why? Because they are indispensable to the the scientific enterprise. But this argument is obviously irrational for reasons that should be immediately self-evident to anyone with a modicum of rational sense. Mathematical sets, numbers, and functions are abstractions or ideas that cannot possibly exist apart from a mind that abstracts, or conceives or employs such ideas. The "indispensability argument" is simply an underhanded attempt to remove the "subjective" aspect from "subjective idealism."Delete
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Re: But this argument is obviously irrational for reasons that should be immediately self-evident to anyone with a modicum of rational sense. Mathematical sets, numbers, and functions are abstractions or ideas that cannot possibly exist apart from a mind that abstracts, or conceives or employs such ideas.
In nuce, what you have done is beg the question. The issue under examination is whether mathematical objects exist independently of epistemic agents. The indispensability argument purports to give good reason why we should think mathematical objects exist independently of epistemic agents. But you assert that the indispensability argument fails because mathematical objects “are abstractions or ideas that cannot possibly exist apart from a mind that abstracts, or conceives or employs such ideas.”
First, I implore you to watch the Quine interview. (Actually, I implore everyone to watch the interview.) Second, if one is a naturalist, one is committed to populating one's ontology only with those objects science authorizes. So, we populate our world with electrons, positrons, gravitational fields, non-baryonic matter, DNA, proteins, genes, etc. We do so for reasons relating directly to scientific methodology (e.g., consilience), that is, postulating such entities economizes our theoretical models, leads to fruitful research programmes, and in general provides a coherent picture of the external world. Now, science is not simply the end product; it is a systematic empirical investigation into the external world, and as such employs multitudinous means, everything from apparatus, experimental procedures, social practices (e.g., peer-review, learned societies, funding agencies), and logical and mathematical techniques. The naturalist contends that just in the same way postulating electrons, positrons, etc., economize our theoretical models, etc., and thus including such entities into our ontology is mandatory, mathematical objects (numbers, functions, tensors, ensembles, sets, equivalency classes, etc.) economize our theoretical models, and thus we must include such entities into our ontology. In fact, the naturalist pace Quine would argue that certain mathematical objects are closer to the center of our scientific models and thus are less immune to revision (or exclusion from our ontology) than, say, even electrons.
Mathematical sets, numbers, and functions are descriptive or predictive, not causative. Therefore, there is no reason to ascribe them with any kind of independent existence or ontological status apart form that which they may have within the minds of those individuals who employ them. That being said, there is a reason to posit the primacy of consciousness due to the causative role it plays in physics. This is made evident by the "observer effect" or "measurement problem."Delete
Actually all elements of predictive functions are causative - take the math away and you have at best less accurate predictions, and the effects that result from reliance on such predictions have been caused by lack of math to be less accurate.Delete
Any last words I leave with you. Though I will read them, I will not respond. Thank you for the exchange.
For whatever it's worth (which, as a lay person, isn't much), intuitionism (as well as nominalism) are more appealing to me - perhaps for the same reasons that physicalism is appealing to me.ReplyDelete
But that's beside the point, which is that naturalism is bigger than physicalism (a.k.a. materialism).
Naturalism (thus redefined) posits the existence of nonphysical entities (primariy, mathematical abstractions and information) that transcend the physical domain. Moreover, these nonphysical entities apparently exert some kind of causal efficacy. This form of naturalism qualifies as something "metaphysical" (in the literally meaning of this term) in the sense that it posits something that is literally "beyond the physical."Delete
Except that physicalism is a naturalistic view, as well. It's just not the only naturalistic view.Delete
Massimo, I think your diagnosis of Fundamental Reductionism is very, very important. And I suspect you are only agnostic about the ontology of emergent properties out of prudence, not preference.ReplyDelete
I have a hunch that there is a reductionism that happens at the opposite end of the scale. Call it "Bigductionism." Just as we aught to be very cautious in claiming that things are "really" made out of "x-particles" we should be careful about statements about the "universe." The Big Bang means as much to us as quantum weirdness, not just practically speaking, but philosophically.
For some reason, we want our lives to be about really big things or really small things. Silly, since our entire nervous system is tuned to mammal-sized particles..