The Promissory Note of Physics

Materialists often make the logically unwarranted (not to mention presumptuous, paradoxical and preposterous) claim to the effect that the physical sciences can and will some day be able to quantify and weigh the qualitative and imponderable aspects of human consciousness, and that the mere happenstance that science has no means, tools, powers, methods or ability to do so is a temporary accident.

The physical sciences are not competent to make any statements at all about non-physical things at all, not even to make the rather modest statement that non-physical things exist or do not exist. When asked why he concludes otherwise, the materialist will say that science (or, rather SCIENCE!) has proven that non-physical things do not exist, or, if they exist, they can be reduced to physical things.

When asked for the name and date of the peer reviewed experiment or observation that affirms this theory, the materialist blinks in astonishment, or when asked for details on how to perform the experiment or observation for oneself which affirms the theory, the materialist becomes surprised and belligerent (well, more belligerent) and tells you that the scientific method does not rest on repeatable experiment or observation, but instead rest on the firm foundation of some opinions he picked up in casual conversation  and/or woolgathering somewhere he cannot quite recall, but perhaps it involved reading a book, or the first part of it anyway, by Isaac Asimov or Carl Sagan or perhaps an article on Wikipedia.

I am frequently awed by the logic, clarity, rigor, and apodictic and indubitable nature of this new method of scientific procedure, one unknown to any scientists. And by “awed” I mean the argument is awful. It is an argumentum ad populum without any people.

The materialist has an arguable philosophical position which he could, if he were bright, defend with some rational arguments, or, at least, sober arguments. But his conclusion that only empirical knowledge is real knowledge precludes him from arguing the point on philosophical grounds: philosophy is a lesser discipline to these morons, whereas science is SCIENCE! an idol more potent than Dagon. A materialist is not a scientist, and when even a professional scientists steps into the arena to discuss materialism, he is no longer doing science, he is doing amateur philosophy. Hilarity ensues.

Just listen to Carl Sagan, for example, holding forth on how it is that the Cosmos is all that is and all that ever will be. If this were a scientific, that is, empirical statement, it would be supported by the necessary observation: Mr Sagan could fly in some faster than light “starship of the imagination” and examine the entirety of the sidereal cosmos, from Big Bang to Heat Death (or whatever fate holds in store), and then, in the interests of thoroughness, bypass the bounds of spacetime to enter the unimaginable conditions outside the Cosmos, and having gone over every cubic angstrom of the Cosmos inside and out, he could then affirm without fear of contradiction that the Cosmos is all there is.

However,  the starship of the imagination is imaginary. No one has studied every cubic angstrom of Weehawken, New Jersey, much less the Cosmic All of timespace (including hypothetical hyperspace).  So whatever Mr Sagan’s confident statement means when he rules that nothing exists outside his idea of the Cosmos, it cannot be taken as a conclusion of science, nor as an empirical statement. It may be a statement of metaphysics, it may be a dogma of faith, or it may be a tautology (if “Cosmos” means “That of which nothing is or can be outside”).

It might even be SCIENCE! But it cannot be science.

It is amateur philosophy, the type that carries on without defining one’s terms, answering the objections of previous philosophers (some of them thousands of years old, yet still fresh) and without drawing conclusions using logic, or identifying and overcoming objections.

But the most awful aspect of all this amateur philosophy is the utterly unscientific method of assuming one knows beforehand what the physical sciences will discover. No one who has read Ptolemy and Galileo and Newton and Einstein will rest comfortably on the notion, even when restricting the notion to the physical nature studied by physical sciences, that the physical sciences will someday confirm our preconceptions of how the universe should or must behave.

No one who lives in an age where the physical sciences confront the paradoxes of special relativity and quantum weirdness — an age where it is an act of faith even to say that the two branches of physics will and must one day yield to a universal field theory –  should be so insouciant about making bets on the future of science.

The materialist is willing to bet the farm that someday physical sciences will solve the Mind-Body Problem, when  the physical sciences so far have not solved the Three Body Problem.

The added hubris of asserting that the Mind-Body Problem can be solved by the method that deliberately ignores all data about the mind merely adds stature to the folly.

The theologian David Bentley Hart aptly and adroitly sums up the problem:

I have, rather, a very simple worry to confess about the competence of method—any method—to recognize its own boundaries. All method, after all, as the etymology of the word exquisitely shows, is an elective practice of cleaving to a particular path (met’-hodos), a labor of limiting oneself to a particular approach to a problem in order to achieve as precise an understanding of that problem as may be achieved from one perspective. But that means that method always remains only a perspective, however powerful it may be: a willful blindness to many things for the sake of seeing a few things with a special clarity. A man peering into a microscope has been vouchsafed a glimpse into realities that the naked eye could never see, but he may also fail to notice the large fire that has just started on the far side of his laboratory, near the only exit.

Modern experimental science began to coalesce into a general method with the rise of the mechanical philosophy and the shattering of the old Aristotelian fourfold structure of causality. That may be only an accident of history, in long retrospect; but, whatever the case, the magnificent force and fecundity of modern scientific method is in part the consequence of a conscious decision to eschew any explanation for any physical phenomenon that requires the invocation of final or formal causes. By thus prescinding from teleology and causative morphology, experimental science was allowed to devote itself unwaveringly to those material and efficient processes at work within any physical event (though here “material” and “efficient” no longer have the meaning they had in Aristotelian thought). In Daniel Dennett’s language, science learned to think in terms of “cranes” only, and entirely to discount the possibility of “sky-hooks.”

Even so, it would be worse than naïve to imagine that the sciences have thereby proved the nonexistence of final and formal causes. In fact, by bracketing such causes out of consideration, scientific method also rendered itself incapable of pronouncing upon any reality such causes might or might not explain. Now, of course, the typical reply to this observation (from the aforementioned Daniel Dennett, for instance) is to say, with some indignation, that modern science has in fact demonstrated the utter superfluity of final and formal causal explanations, because the sciences have shown that they do not need finality or formality to understand the processes they investigate.

That, however, is an empty tautology: Of course modern scientific method discovers the kind of reality it is specifically designed to discover; and even in cases where it finds its explanatory reserves overly taxed, it must presume that in future some sort of “mechanical” cause will be found to restore the balance, and so issue itself a promissory note to that effect.

But, again, this may mean that it must also overlook realities that actually lie very near at hand, either quite open to investigation if another method could be found, or so obviously beyond investigation as to mark out the limits of scientific method with particular clarity.

 

About John C Wright

John C. Wright is a practicing philosopher, a retired attorney, newspaperman, and newspaper editor, and a published author of science fiction. Once a Houyhnhnm, he was expelled from the august ranks of purely rational beings when he fell in love; but retains an honorary title.
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68 Responses to The Promissory Note of Physics

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  2. David_Ellis says:

    “The physical sciences are not competent to make any statements at all about non-physical things at all, not even to make the rather modest statement that non-physical things exist or do not exist.”

    That doesn’t seem correct. For example, the physical sciences have told us a lot about what parts of the brain are active during particular mental states. Surely that qualifies as statements about non-physical things….and pretty informative ones at that.

    I’m not a materialist, by the way. Just disagreeing with a particular statement.

    • Andrew Brew says:

      On observing that Thought A corresponds in time with Change of Blood Pressure B, you might assume with Dr. Andreassen that, since only physical things are being observed by your physical instruments, there is nothing non-physical to observe. Or you might, if you think that a thought is a non-physical thing, think further that physical and non-physical things are related, and affect each other.

      Which of these conclusions regarding the non-physical you could reach on the basis of the fact of the measurement of blood pressure (or some other surrogate in the brain for thought in the mind) I cannot see. You come to the problem with a belief, formed on other grounds, that physics is everything (in which case there is nothing non-physical for physics to make statements about) or that physics is not everything (in which case other entities must be addressed with the tools of metaphysics, and the relationship between the two with the tools of ontology).

      In any case, physics can only make statements about physical things. That is why it is called what it is.

      • David_Ellis says:

        The brain, a physical thing, is related to qualia (subjective mental states). The investigation of the brain tells us things about how mental events and brain events are related. The observation that “X region of the brain is highly active when we experience pain” or “damage to X region of the brain is associated with the complete inability to experience pain” tells us something we didn’t previously know about pain—a non-physical thing.

        I don’t think there’s any reasonable way of avoiding that conclusion.

        • Photios says:

          A materialist would argue that there are no non-physical things.

          • David_Ellis says:

            Yeah, and I’ll leave him to it. Though I think it should be pointed out that this is true of only the more extreme versions of materialism (like eliminative materialism). There is more than one school of materialism. Some only claim that mind supervenes on matter (meaning, for example, that minds depend for their existence on physical brains of some sort—not that minds don’t exist).

        • The observation that “X region of the brain is highly active when we experience pain” assumes a fact not in evidence: that subjective experience exists and has a relationship to reality. I submit that the question “if a man hallucinates that he is being stuck with a pin, is the pain real?” is not a question empiricism can solve.

          You seem to think that any discipline which gathers testimony or facts about people or living things is doing physics. Neither psychology nor anthropology nor history are branches of physics, nor is economics, nor politics, nor ethics, nor law, nor medicine, even though (obviously) all these are disciplined branches of learning and practice.

          It’s not physics, not a physical science, not based solely on empiricism.

          • David_Ellis says:

            “The observation that “X region of the brain is highly active when we experience pain” assumes a fact not in evidence: that subjective experience exists and has a relationship to reality.”

            The existence of subjective experience is known by every investigator of the relationship of qualia to brain activity because they’ve had subjective experiences. And the subjects are describing their subjective experiences while being scanned. So I don’t see how that’s a problem. I never claimed that science only deals with observables. Nor do I think any such thing. It can quite handily deal with subjective experiences because subjects can tell us about their experiences.

            Language—such a useful invention.

            • I claim it. The physical science only deals with observables. The physical sciences are limited to empiricism.

              Disciplines dealing with non-observables are not empirical, but rest on a different epistemological basis, such as, for example, metaphysics or economics or law.

              If you want to call these other disciplines sciences, feel free. I do not object. But I do object to anyone who attributes to disciplines other than physics the rigor or the methods of physics.

              The examples I used before were BF Skinner and Karl Marx, but other mountebanks who successfully deceived multitudes into thinking their conclusions had the rigor or credibility of empirical fact do exist.

              Carl Sagan is such a mountebank when he uses his prestige as an astronomer to make a claim of metaphysical philosophy — a field anyone can tell he has not studied even slightly. He is claiming that he knows nothing exists outside the ‘cosmos’ by which he means the material universe: this claim is a statement of faith. He is uttering an axiom, or, if you prefer a clearer word (and modern people hate clear words) he is uttering a dogma.

              An axiom is not the same as a definition.

    • The physical sciences can tell us physical facts about the brain. Anything beyond that is another discipline, not a physical science. Making judgments based on the testimony of witnesses is a legal discipline, not an empirical one.

      • David_Ellis says:

        Scientists make use of the reports of subject regarding their subjective experience quite a lot in some disciplines. You may argue that this isn’t real science if you like. I doubt you’ll convince me. Must less many scientists themselves.

        • Once again, I was careful enough to define my terms, and limit my comments to the topic at hand: this is why I spoke of ‘physical sciences’ as opposed to other sciences: I meant physics. This is also why I listed several other disciplines, such as anthropology and economics, which are ‘sciences’ in the technical meaning of the word, but not physical sciences, not physics, and which therefore do not limit themselves to empirical results.

          Bastardized attempts to treat non-physical sciences as if they are physical sciences, i.e. Marxism for economics, Behaviorism for psychology, can be argued successfully to be not “real sciences.”

    • deiseach says:

      Those kinds of experiments get adduced to show that there aren’t any non-physical things. If a part of my brain lights up on a scan while I’m thinking about how I hate it when Aunt Jane comes to visit because she’s a cranky old bat, then that ‘proves’ that my feelings about Aunt Jane are all material in origin, arising from a stimulus to this part of my brain, and if an electrode zapped me there, I would experience the same emotions regardless of whether or not I had an Aunt Jane in the first place. Nobody ever seems to think you could ‘prove’ the same thing about, say, oranges; if an electrode evokes the scent or taste of an orange, this does not make anyone leap up and down and go “Aha! Oranges are only a phantasm of your imagination and do not exist in objective reality!”

      They’re usually trotted out to explain how religious experiences (and therefore God/gods/spirits/ghosts/what have you) are all explainable as material occurences, and therefore have no objective, exterior reality. Nobody ever seems to think you could ‘prove’ the same thing about, say, oranges; if an electrode evokes the scent or taste of an orange, this does not make anyone leap up and down and go “Aha! Oranges are only a phantasm of your imagination and do not exist in objective reality!”, rather they satisfy themselves that this is where the memory of oranges is stored. In other words, the cause (I ate an orange and the memory of the sense-experience was stored in this part of my brain) precedes the effect (by an electrical stimulus of this part of my brain, the memory gets re-played).

      Yet I’ve seen several casually tossed-off references that science (or I should say, SCIENCE!!!!) has proved that we have no freewill, all down to one neurological experiment where volunteers were wired up to imaging equipment and told they were going to be asked to make a decision, and ten seconds (or whatever interval of time elapsed; I’ve seen different figures quoted) before they ‘consciously’ made that decision, a part of their brain ‘lit up’ indicating activity.

      I do not see that this necessarily proves that unconscious processes make decisions before we consciously are aware of making a choice, but rather that before we make a decision, our brain gets ‘warmed up’ to do so. However, whatever the results may be, it’s surely too early and needs more research before we can say one way or the other – yet I’ve seen atheist sites of a scientific bent happily trotting out this ONE experiment as if it’s a done and dusted complete proof of no free will/no consciousness.

      All of which means, I’m not sanguine about physical measurements of non-physical states.

  3. David_Ellis says:

    “Just listen to Carl Sagan, for example, holding forth on how it is that the Cosmos is all that is and all that ever will be. If this were a scientific, that is, empirical statement, it would be supported by the necessary observation….”

    It wasn’t an empirical statement. It was Sagan’s definition of cosmos.

    • CPE Gaebler says:

      That’s fine then, as long as that definition of cosmos is not equated with ANOTHER definition of cosmos, which can happen with materialists.

      Argument goes like this:
      The Cosmos is defined to be all that is and all that will ever be.
      God is not part of the Cosmos, because the Cosmos is defined to be the physical universe.
      Therefore, God is not part of all that is and all that will ever be, thus there is no God.

      It’s terrible.

      • David_Ellis says:

        Yes, that would be a blatantly stupid argument. So what? No one in this discussion nor any of the skeptics mentioned in the essay above have used it so far as I’m aware.

    • “It wasn’t an empirical statement. It was Sagan’s definition of cosmos.”

      I can only answer this with a peal of laughter. If it is not an empirical statement, then it is a metaphysical conclusion, in which case, Mr Sagan is not teaching or talking about science, a field I assume he has studied, he is teaching and talking about philosophy, a field he disdains as unworthy of study.

      Definitions are needed when an ambiguity might exist, in case by using one word with two meaning, we take amiss what the speaking might mean. In this case, the word ‘Cosmos’ has two meanings: (1) the orderly world created by God, including both the seen (physical world) and the unseen (angelic world) or (2) the physical world only.

      In this case, Mr Sagan offered the “definition” of Cosmos as #2 i.e. “cosmos means physical creation only” and then drew the (logically unwarranted) conclusion that “nothing exists outside physical creation — there is no creator and no unseen or supernatural order.”

      The statement “there is no creator” is a statement about creation, that is, a statement of true versus false about reality; a statement of fact. Are you contending that Mr Sagan was drawing a conclusion of fact from a tautological definition? If so, then this is not only bad science, it is an error in reasoning a bright schoolboy should be able to catch and correct.

      Or are you claiming that Mr Sagan is carefully agnostic about the nature and existence of supernatural things, and, as a scientist, will respect the limits of science, and make no comments about a question where the physical sciences have no authority? Mr Sagan is not an atheist and has not publicly preached and promoted the same?

      Or are you claiming his “definition” of cosmos is not deliberately meant to exclude the supernatural from consideration? When he says “Cosmos is all that is and all there ever will be — there is nothing outside it” what do you think his point is? What opinion is he challenging or error is he correcting?

      • David_Ellis says:

        “I can only answer this with a peal of laughter. If it is not an empirical statement, then it is a metaphysical conclusion…”

        No, it’s simply what Sagan means by the word “cosmos”: the totality of what exists. That’s not a metaphysical conclusion. It’s simply the meaning of a word. Granted, it’s a word that’s relevant to metaphysics and that will be used in that discipline. But not a metaphysical claim in and of itself.

        “In this case, Mr Sagan offered the “definition” of Cosmos as #2 i.e. “cosmos means physical creation only” and then drew the (logically unwarranted) conclusion that “nothing exists outside physical creation — there is no creator and no unseen or supernatural order.””

        He didn’t claim that cosmos means physical world only. I’ll grant that’s a common usage. But he stated a broader definition. He presented no argument for the nonexistence of a creator. That’s something YOU simply attributed to him—I’d like to see an actual quote where he makes any such argument. Sagan did not deny the existence of a creator—he was firmly agnostic.

        “The statement “there is no creator” is a statement about creation, that is, a statement of true versus false about reality; a statement of fact. Are you contending that Mr Sagan was drawing a conclusion of fact from a tautological definition?”

        No, I’m pointing out what you seem to have forgotten. That Sagan didn’t say this. You attribute to him the idea that the cosmos is all that ever was or will be and then put words into his mouth in the form of an argument that, therefore, there is no God.

        But he didn’t actually present this argument (at least you’ve yet to provide any quote or citation for the argument you’re attributing to him).

        “Mr Sagan is not an atheist and has not publicly preached and promoted the same?”

        No, not to my knowledge. Can you quote him doing so?

  4. David_Ellis says:

    ” A materialist is not a scientist, and when even a professional scientists steps into the arena to discuss materialism, he is no longer doing science, he is doing amateur philosophy. Hilarity ensues. Just listen to Carl Sagan, for example, holding forth on how it is that the Cosmos is all that is and all that ever will be.”

    Was Sagan even a materialist? I don’t recall him ever identifying as such.

  5. When asked for the name and date of the peer reviewed experiment or observation that affirms this theory, the materialist blinks in astonishment,

    You make a mysterious-phenomenon-of-the-gaps argument which ignores the long history of precisely such experiments. Consider elan vital, for example, which in the 1800s was held to be the non-material thing that explained the difference between organic and inorganic molecules. No amount of knowledge about inorganic chemistry, it was held, could possibly explain anything about the mysterious processes inside living beings, for the life-force was not amenable to experiments on mere material things. Then Wohler synthesized urea. Thus, one experiment of the kind you ask for is the one that synthesises urea, and the tests that demonstrate that this urea has precisely the same properties as urea produced by a living being.

    Similarly, in quantum mechanics, there was for a long time (and in popular depiction there remains) the idea that a conscious observer had a special effect, that of `collapsing the wavefunction’. This was attributed to the mysterious properties of consciousness, and it was held that no amount of experiment could yield any information about how the wavefunction collapsed, because that required a theory of how consciousness interacted with matter. Then someone noticed that brains are themselves quantum objects, which can become entangled with the wavefunctions even of single electrons; and it was understood that brains and rocks are on the same footing as far as collapsing wavefunctions go. The experiment in this case is the one that demonstrates entanglement of macroscopic objections with electrons.

    Once the movements of stars were held to be mysterious and unlike anything on Earth; their regularity was held as evidence of a perfection not attainable by any merely material creature, but available only to gods. Then Newton unified their motions with that of apples. The experiment in this case is to observe that the movements of stars and of apples are indeed both predicted by Newton’s gravity, or Einstein’s if your observations are precise enough.

    These are two examples of the general process: Any time something is said to be beyond the reach of material science, someone will come along and show that, nope, it’s actually a material process after all, and you can manipulate it with plain old atoms. I will admit that generalising from the many specific examples to the general rule that this will always happen is not, itself, justified by any experiment; but it’s a reasonable bet. The things that you hold up as impossible for science to learn about are the survivors of a much larger class of phenomena. That’s what causes a materialist’s confidence: We’ve been here before, and the mystics lost every time.

    To adopt a warlike metaphor: When an army has been beaten back from ninety percent of the ground it once held, but its propaganda department insists that the soil of the sacred homeland is different from the mere outer conquests and border marches, and that the levee en masse of the people in arms will hold the line against any amount of artillery… then a neutral party would be wise to consider whether the soil of the homeland is really so sacred that it will magically overcome the superiority in material and men that has conquered a thousand miles and a dozen rivers.

    • John Hutchins says:

      then a neutral party would be wise to consider whether the soil of the homeland is really so sacred that it will magically overcome the superiority in material and men that has conquered a thousand miles and a dozen rivers.

      Are you familiar with Isaiah 37 for instance? Or 2 Kings 6:16. When the believers are following true belief and acting rightly then they have nothing to fear no matter the material advantage of the other side.

      The things that you hold up as impossible for science to learn about are the survivors of a much larger class of phenomena. That’s what causes a materialist’s confidence: We’ve been here before, and the mystics lost every time.

      Science and religion are both quests for truth and the truth will endure. The theories of science may seem to contradict something that is held to be religious truth. If the religious truth is indeed truth though then either how it relates to the science is misunderstood or the science is incomplete and a better theory will end up not contradicting the religious truth. If the religious truth is not truth but instead the philosophies of man, perhaps mixed with scripture or not, then the religious idea will collapse without having any effect on any other part of true religion.

      • Are you familiar with Isaiah 37 for instance? Or 2 Kings 6:16. When the believers are following true belief and acting rightly then they have nothing to fear no matter the material advantage of the other side.

        The biblical accounts were written in retrospect, and explained every lost battle as the punishment of their god, and every won battle as being due to righteous action. If I flipped a coin a hundred times, and then said “On throws 4, 7-9, 12 [...] I was acting in my right mind and concentrating correctly, so I got heads; the tails are due to momentary glitches of my attention and lustful thoughts”, you would rightly laugh at me. Explanations in retrospect are worthless; we want something that can distinguish beforehand between a battle lost and a battle won – and we find that attention to who has the bigger battalions will do the trick to a much better accuracy than looking at who is in the right.

        But in any case, please notice that I was using only a metaphor of war. My point is not that materialists are at war with mystics, it is that many things have been declared “beyond the reach of science” that have later been found, oops, to be well within its reach after all. Mr Wright ignores these cases, and draws a line around the ones that have survived; “A-ha!”, he says. “These subjects are not fit for science; you will never, ever, cross this line with your materialism!” I suggest that a neutral party would be wise to look at the very similar pronunciations by previous generations of non-materialists, rather than considering this one in isolation. That was the purpose of my metaphor, not to demonstrate that logistics and numbers are always decisive in war. :)

    • Patrick says:

      “Once the movements of stars were held to be mysterious and unlike anything on Earth; their regularity was held as evidence of a perfection not attainable by any merely material creature, but available only to gods.”

      What religion are you thinking of when you say this?

    • lotdw says:

      I think your reasoning here is unsound for a few reasons.

      First, you’re falling into a number of logical fallacies, the primary one that you’re setting up tautologies. All you’ve shown is that science has investigated scientific things; there is and can be no opposing case which you can test or give as an example of science investigating non-scientific things (or, to put it another way, the reverse would be for science to test something in a non-scientific way: an impossibility). So of course the number of things that were said to be non-scientific but actually are scientific will shrink because the way you’ve set it up is unidirectional. You mire yourself as well in attempting to disprove a negative, and while I know the technique of attempting to show a tendency is popular among the LessWrongers, it’s still a principle of logic that cannot be contravened.

      The greater problem, though, is contained within that one – that science cannot show that it has accounted for everything even if it HAS accounted for everything. (This goes for ANY kind of investigative method, really.) Science by definition is only the sum total of scientific investigation, so it can’t say anything about non-scientific investigation. But this was already said in the OP.

      Also, your examples are all of people saying that this empirical thing will never be explained by science. None of them are of a non-empirical thing (meaning, or love, or justice) being explained by science. I happen to agree that many scientists have made fools of themselves (actually, Newton was one himself) by saying that this or that empirical thing will never be explained by science; but all those examples fall into a very specific category of thing that does not include all things under discussion.

      Yet the greatest problem is that science still falls into the is-ought divide. Wright only mentions consciousness & the Mind-Body Problem up above (though the Hart quote expands the scope), so I certainly grant that your response if specifically directed only there could be valid. But where materialism fails for me is that it cannot tell me roughly half of the important things I need to know in life, the “ought” parts, which for example include things like, is it good to help others, or should I be faithful to my girlfriend, or is there a greater purpose to my life. There’s a vast difference between “we’ll never know what the elan vital is” and “there is a philosophical proof that X is not scientific.” And if you try to disprove that with arguments rather that with a scientific experiment, you’ve already lost. Instead, in my personal experience and what I know of history, those “ought” questions have only ever been illuminated by mystics – philosophers, theologians, artists, poets. So to reverse your own formulation, when every single case of a meaningful question has been answered, partially or completely, by a “mystic” – I side with the mystics.

      • Are philosophers here being teamed with the mystics? I have nothing against mysticism myself, but I regard philosophers as paragon of rationality. If you are not reasoning, you are not doing philosophy. I make an exception for the myths of Socrates, which is merely the laudable humility of philosophers knowing the limitations of their discipline. There are some questions philosophy cannot answer.

        • lotdw says:

          I think they are, by Dr. A above, since he seems to have split the world into scientists and mystics, and since philosophers are plainly not scientists, I figured by his categorization they must be. Additionally, his examples suggest philosophers fall into this category, as he references Aristotle in the last one.

          I would not call philosophers mystics myself, of course, for the same reason you give. I reorganized the categorization loosely into those who talk about ought vs. is, though even that is itself only a loose framework.

          • Anyone who identifies Aristotle, the father of logic, as a mystic, is a Jacobin.

            It always amuses and saddens me to see how the Revolutionaries always chop off their own roots in their zeal to chop of their foe’s heads, and in so doing, chop away the branch on which they sit. If Aristotelianism is mysticism, then so is empiricism which springs from it, and if empiricism is mysticism, empirical science is a self contradiction.

            • I was using ‘mystic’ to oppose ‘materialist’, or possibly ‘reductionist’. On the strength of this you have, without asking what I meant, convicted me of committing plusungood crimethink about the sacred authority Aristotle, being a Jacobin, and believing a contradiction. All in two posts that did not respond to anything I said.

      • Also, your examples are all of people saying that this empirical thing will never be explained by science. None of them are of a non-empirical thing (meaning, or love, or justice) being explained by science.

        But here you are making just the same mistake as Mr Wright! The point is that life, to take the specific example of the elan vital, was once held to be non-empirical, just as meaning, love and justice are held now. (Indeed, if you check below, you’ll see O’Floinn making exactly this argument, 150 years too late.) Then it was found to be very empirical indeed… and now you remove it from your list of non-empirical things, and triumphantly declare, “Ah-hah! No non-empirical thing has ever been explained by science, for life is empirical and doesn’t count!” That is exactly the wrong procedure.

        • lotdw says:

          What is was taken to be is immaterial (heh, pun). It was material, even when it was considering by people who were bad at philosophy to be non-material (and was, in any case, just an example – phlogiston is another – of circular reasong: what causes X? Y. What is Y? That which causes X!). But it was on the level of material things because all it did was explain material things. To go to the Four Causes, it was on the level of material/efficient causes. The point is that justice and other such things as I mentioned are *metaphysical* *by nature,* not merely non-material because we say so. Note that you have to keep saying about elan vital that “it was held” – for what philosophical reason? If the answer is only, “Because we can’t find a physical reason,” that is no proof and thus insufficient to put it in the class of things which, as I said previously, are provably non-material. You need to connect the sentence you quoted to the rest of my post.

          To explain further, even were there (and to some extent there already are) a complete accounting of the physical causes and effects concerning the material signs of justice, it would not answer whether something is just. It is IMPOSSIBLE, because it requires interpretation, which is to say it is metaphysical (that is, it sits on top of physical things on another level). Elan vital was on the same level of physical things, and required no such interpretation (nor admits of any, really, like phlogiston).

          So no, no mistake at all. They are still completely different classes of non-material things, and dismissing one class (which was, philosophically speaking, always material) does not dismiss the others.

          Hopefully this makes more sense. You seem to have utterly missed my point in the last post.

          • If you have a look at the post below this one, you will see O’Floinn arguing that the difference between a living petunia and a dead one is not in the loss of any atom, but in the loss of the ability to replace that atom, because the petunia is no longer in motion. This is, exactly, a claim that the difference between living and dead is not a matter of matter, to be explained by empirical methods, but a question of form, to be investigated by looking at the non-efficient causes. In a dead petunia, any particular motion of an atom no longer has a for-the-sake-of-which, at least not one that relates to the petunia – presumably the bacteria involved in its decay still have final causes. This is, you should note, nonsense. The petunia cannot replace its atoms because too many other atoms have disappeared; there is no need to invoke final causes or in-motion-ness.

            It was material, even when it was considering by people who were bad at philosophy to be non-material (and was, in any case, just an example – phlogiston is another – of circular reasong: what causes X? Y. What is Y? That which causes X!). But it was on the level of material things because all it did was explain material things.

            First, you are un-necessarily down on phlogiston, which was a perfectly reasonable hypothesis that just had the misfortune of guessing wrongly as to which way the matter was flowing. If you do modern chemistry and think of phlogiston as “places where an oxygen atom could go”, you will get very reasonable answers. Which is not to say that no alchemist ever did bad philosophy around his misunderstanding of phlogiston, just as any number of quacks today offer quantum-energy ionic healing bracelets, or whatever; but this is not the standard by which quantum mechanics should be judged.

            However, that is tangential. The point is precisely that the advocates of elan vital did exactly what you are doing: They claimed that the difference between living and dead was not material, and could not possibly involve empirical matters, while any previous such claims that had been overturned were mere mistakes by bad philosophers. Now, apart from hindsight, what is the principle by which you can detect that they were mistaken and you are correct? We stand, it is true, on the shoudlers of giants; but usually we can give some account of how we clambered up here from the ground. What principled test, other than “it’s obvious [in hindsight]“, can you give to determine what is material and what isn’t?

            • Patrick says:

              ” The petunia cannot replace its atoms because too many other atoms have disappeared; there is no need to invoke final causes or in-motion-ness.”

              If you please, explain this one too?

              It seems to me that a petunia (living) is best described as an arrangement of matter of a certain description in a kind of summary reciprocity with its surroundings – a petunia (dead) is unable to sustain this reciprocity, and so other reciprocations with its surroundings take over – decay, and such.

              What’s wrong with this picture?

              • You invoke the (in this context) unnecessary concept of reciprocity. This may be a convenient shorthand, but it is not necessary to tell the difference between a living and a dead petunia, which can be done purely in terms of the flows of matter and energy.

                This is not to say that reciprocity cannot exist, only that it is reducible to some largish category of atomic flows; no such large-scale concept appears in the fundamental laws of nature, any more than gliders appear in the fundamental laws of Conway’s Life, but if you run that program you will certainly see gliders and reciprocity absolutely does exist among the atoms. It’s just that it consists of atoms, just as gliders consist of cells.

            • lotdw says:

              I happen to disagree with O’Floinn on that point, and agree – at least on the scientific matters – with you.

              “However, that is tangential. The point is precisely that the advocates of elan vital did exactly what you are doing: They claimed that the difference between living and dead was not material, and could not possibly involve empirical matters, while any previous such claims that had been overturned were mere mistakes by bad philosophers. ”

              You have added something to your theory. Do you have any proof that supporters of elan vital said that “any previous such claims that had been overturned were mere mistakes by bad philosophers”?

              I also note that you provided none of the philosophical proofs for elan vital, which I asked for. You just keep saying that they claimed it. Good for them – my question is, what was their proof? Did they have any, other than “we can’t explain this yet”? If so, perhaps I could give a difference between mine and theirs; if not, then it’s phenomenally unfair to claim whatever you want about them, give no real information about their beliefs (as I can’t find anything more than “we say so” myself), and then say that I can’t differentiate between these beliefs or proofs for their beliefs. I can only say mine is not nothing, and be finished.

              “What principled test, other than “it’s obvious [in hindsight]“, can you give to determine what is material and what isn’t?”

              To reiterate from my post, which you seem not to have read…

              “But it was on the level of material things because all it did was explain material things. To go to the Four Causes, it was on the level of material/efficient causes. The point is that justice and other such things as I mentioned are *metaphysical* *by nature,* not merely non-material because we say so. … To explain further, even were there (and to some extent there already are) a complete accounting of the physical causes and effects concerning the material signs of justice, it would not answer whether something is just. It is IMPOSSIBLE, because it requires interpretation, which is to say it is metaphysical (that is, it sits on top of physical things on another level).”

              I said nothing about hindsight. I gave a reason other than hindsight (twice, actually, in two different ways). Since you like bringing up O’Floinn’s argument, you should note that I *right now* disagree with him on his *present* claim, both for the reasons you noted in your response to him and for the reason that, as I said, living vs. dead (at in the sense you mean it) is on the level of material things as all it does is explain material things – clearly, we BOTH have reasons other than hindsight. Justice, as I said, does not only explain material things – it requires a level of non-scientific interpretation to define and discuss. (At least as far as I am concerned, interpretation is always non-scientific, so the redundancy was for reasons of clarity.) Interpretation is the key word here.

              Justice might not exist – that is an entirely different argument – but if it does, it is not material.

              In fact, this entire discussion we have been having only proceeds because of metaphysical arguments and metaphysical “things.” As I said in my first post, this means you’ve already given up the battlefield.

              I’m not sure this has been helpful – we seem to be talking past each other, like we’re on two parallel planes. Now why does that remind me of something…

              • The OFloinn says:

                If you have a look at the post below this one, you will see O’Floinn arguing that the difference between a living petunia and a dead one is not in the loss of any atom, but in the loss of the ability to replace that atom, because the petunia is no longer in motion. This is, exactly, a claim that the difference between living and dead is not a matter of matter, to be explained by empirical methods, but a question of form, to be investigated by looking at the non-efficient causes.

                Keeping in mind that “motion” here is the Greek word κινεσις and might be better thought of as “changing, active, processing, working” or something of that sort.

                Why suppose that formal causes are any less “empirical” than efficient causes? After all, the formal cause of a basketball is (inter alia) sphericity, which can be empirically verified, even though sphericity is not itself a physical thing. The form of a thing is instantiated in its matter, and is not a separate substance like this elan vital that the scientists came up with.

                But “every thing is some thing.” So form exists and is “what makes a thing what it is.” It was abandoned by the Scientific Revolutionaries only because they had shifted focus from understanding nature to using nature to produce useful products for dominating the universe. For that, only efficient causes are needed.

                If there were no formal causes, there would be no “emergent properties.” And those who contend that a mind might be someday “downloaded” into a computer must implicitly accept the notion of formality. And when Hawking talks about the “laws of gravity” being the cause of the universe, he would be talking nonsense, since mathematical formulae are the ultimate in formal causes.

    • The OFloinn says:

      Consider elan vital, for example, which in the 1800s was held to be the non-material thing that explained the difference between organic and inorganic molecules. No amount of knowledge about inorganic chemistry, it was held, could possibly explain anything about the mysterious processes inside living beings, for the life-force was not amenable to experiments on mere material things. Then Wohler synthesized urea.

      Well, scientists always got these things bollixed up. Look at Descartes and how he messed up the mind-body thing and started several hundred years of philosophical squid ink. They thought molecules had something to do with it? They were already imprisoned by the dead matter of Cartesian thought.

      The distinction is between the living and the dead. It is what a petunia has when it is alive that it no longer has when it is dead. That is not any material thing, because the matter of a recently dead petunia is the same matter as the previously live petunia. All the same leaves, petals, stems, chemicals are present. But they are no longer “in motion,” no longer in a dynamic relationship one to another. The mass of organic matter that was once a petunia no longer has the complete form of a petunia. And formal causes, even when they are arrangements of matter, are not themselves material.

      Of course, Heisenberg famously said that even subatomic particles did not have objective existence.

      • Oh well, Heisenberg. Heisenberg was doing a bit of science that was completely new to him, and indeed to everyone; he was very confused, and unfortunately tended to embrace his confusion rather than notice it and try to clear it up. Those who have themselves broken an existing paradigm of physics and managed to come out the other side without saying anything silly may criticise him; the rest of us should be silent.

        To get back to your petunia, you are simply mistaken when you say that the matter is all the same between the living one and the dead one. First, there’s no such thing as “the same matter”, for atoms are quantum-mechanically indistinguishable. You speak as though one could look sufficiently closely at the petunia and say “Yep, it still consists of atom #223, atom #12220878943, atom #…” But this is not possible, for atoms do not have numbers. (Please observe: Physics would actually look different if they did. There are experiments whose outcome depends on whether atoms have an individual identity or not.) All you can say is “There is still a carbon atom with momentum P at position {X, Y, Z}, still a sulphur atom at…” And then you’ll find that the living and the dead petunia do in fact differ in many particulars, and that a dying one is intermediate between them.

        • The OFloinn says:

          Inanimate forms, per Aristotle, are not individuating, so it is no surprise that one carbon atom looks just like any other carbon atom. It is in this sense, in fact, that at the atomic level we can say that a being X is made of the same matter even though one carbon atom has been replaced with another. A difference that makes no difference is not a difference.

          But the matter in material causes is not the ultimate proto-matter or close approximation, but rather the stuff of which a thing is directly made. Bricks are the matter of a wall; but clay is the matter of a brick. A book, be it noted, is made of a subject matter.

          So in all its material aspects: stems, leaves, petals, etc. the dead petunia is comprised of the same parts as it was when recently alive. It is not the loss of atom #83764659 that makes it dead, but rather its now-inability to replace that atom with another: that is, it is no longer in motion.

          • If you like; but that inability is itself because other atoms have moved from their former positions. There’s no essence-of-life that was once there and is now gone, like a soul exiting the body; there’s just a lack of the atoms that made the energy flow this way and not that way.

            Inanimate forms, per Aristotle, are not individuating, so it is no surprise that one carbon atom looks just like any other carbon atom.

            I understand that you have great respect for Aristotle as a philosopher, but I suggest that you ought not to quote him in arguing quantum physics. It is not the case that one carbon atom looks like another; it is that there’s no such thing as an individual carbon atom, there is only the position of all carbon atoms in the world.

            • Patrick says:

              “It is not the case that one carbon atom looks like another; it is that there’s no such thing as an individual carbon atom, there is only the position of all carbon atoms in the world.”

              I could use this restated.

              Carbon atoms are discreet things, aren’t they?

              • I suspect you mean ‘discrete’, although it is true that I’ve never had a carbon atom tell me any secrets. But to answer the question, well, yes and no. Carbon atoms are not, of course, fundamental particles; but the number of states they can be in is rather limited, so any two are quite likely to be quantum-mechanically indistinguishable, and therefore not discrete.

                Let me clarify with an example. Suppose you have a system of two particles, in positions p1 and p2. Now, if they are an electron and a positron, then we can distinguish between them; and the world is therefore not indifferent to whether we have the electron in p1 and the positron in p2, or vice-versa. Now suppose that they are both electrons, but that they are nevertheless distinsguishable, because one is labeled “Electron #783403″ and the other has a different number; in other words, they are discrete particles. There exist experiments whose outcome is different for this case, and for the case in which no possible test can tell the electrons apart; and we have done the experiment, and the second is the case. It is therefore meaningless to specify a physical system with “Electron #N1 is at position p1, #N2 at p2…”; you can only say “There is an electron at p1, another at p2″, and so on.

  6. Nostreculsus says:

    What a bonfire of the strawmen Mr Wright has given us! One striking feature of modern science is its careful recognition of its own limits. Competent scientists today understand the importance of the utmost caution in all questions of terminology and dialectic.

    Thus, scientists no longer think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is; physics concerns only what we can say about nature. We can find correlations between separate observations but there is a growing corpus of “no-go” theorems that show limits to our ability to ascribe definite properties to physical systems. Physics is no longer the study of an a priori given; it is merely a method for surveying and ordering human experience.

    Certainly, exaggerated claims were made in the past. Laplace wrote of “an intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items… for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.” But no modern scientist, aware of indeterminacy, would accept such a crude formulation.

    In mathematics too, Leibniz and Hilbert dreamed that all true propositions could be generated algorithmically, but mathematicians now map out the boundaries of their discipline due to unprovability and computational complexity. David Bentley Hart need not concern himself ; competent scientists are well aware of the poor predictions made by models of complex, inhomogeneous systems.

    Poor Carl Sagan! He need an intro to his popularizing book on the cosmos, so he feels the need to say a few nice words. “The cosmos”, he clears his throat, “Well, just about everything’s inside ‘er, innit?” Is this a materialist manifesto? You are over-thinking this.

    • Mary says:

      Ah, the No True Scotsman fallacy.

      “Competent scientists”. I hate to break it to you, but I have seen quite a bit of incompetent ones.

      And that Sagan automatically rather than willfully reaches for a materialist definition is not exactly exoneration.

    • “What a bonfire of the strawmen Mr Wright has given us! One striking feature of modern science is its careful recognition of its own limits.”

      I don’t understand the first sentence, or see how it relates to the second. I said the same thing that you said, namely, that science recognizes its limits. Professional scientists are at best amateur philosophers when they venture from science, which they have studied, and start teaching philosophy, which they have not.

      Dr Sagan’s argument — and I am referring to his television show COSMOS which I saw on PBS a while back, was where he gave his non-definition of the cosmos as everything that is and can be, and I did not think the interpretation of the point of his comment was in dispute. He was denouncing the supernatural, by defining it as that which did not by definition exist.

      Since both myself, and every atheist I have ever read uses either the same argument, or one very similar, I rather doubt that I mistook his point.

      On the other hand, it has been years since I saw the show, so I admit the possibility. In no case was he merely “defining his terms” not if we mean he was clarifying a possible ambiguity in words.

      “Is this a materialist manifesto? You are over-thinking this.”

      Is it your position that Dr Sagan is not an atheist, and did not promote the atheist viewpoint on that show, and perhaps elsewhere, using the means I just described? Perhaps you are unfamiliar with Dr Sagan and his lectures, and his viewpoint.

      Again, I admit the possibility that my memory is wrong, but I recall cheering for his atheist manifesto back when I was an atheist, and debating the matter hotly with my high school philosophy teacher, Mr Wytowich, who scorned Dr Sagan’s interpretation of Plato and Aristotle and Democritus as a misrepresentation — I will add that passing years and a greater familiarity with those philosophers convince me Mr Wytowich was right, and Dr Sagan was very badly misinformed.

      In any case, if I mistook the point of Dr Sagan’s comment, I can merely report that I am in good company, since everyone with whom I have previously discussed it took his comments the same way.

      Nobody until Mr Ellis proposed that Dr Sagan admits the possibility of non-physical or supernatural or extradimensional reality, and merely wants to use the word ‘Cosmos’ to refer the the segment of timespace actually or potentially within range of our empirical senses. Indeed, I am not sure if this is what Mr Ellis meant.

      For that matter, I am not sure I understand what you mean, and I think (as best I can tell) you misunderstood my meaning, since we seem to be agreeing on the limits of empirical science.

      • Nostreculsus says:

        I have, rather, a very simple worry to confess about the competence of method—any method—to recognize its own boundaries.

        My comments were a response to the remarks of David Bentley Hart, which you quote with approval. Yes, your essay makes a clear distinction between actual science and philosophical materialism, but Mr Hart does suggest that the scientific method fails to recognize its own boundaries. So, I gave several examples where great scientists of the past made sweeping claims, from which modern scientists have been forced to retreat. Thus, science does recognize its limitations (or, at least “competent science”: I don’t want to be accused again of being a Scotsman).

        As to Dr Sagan, I must confess, I wrote in almost complete ignorance of his genuine scientific accomplishments. I was only aware of his journalistic persona, which I find unappealing. He claimed to be a sort of Spinozist, identifying God with the Cosmos.

        • Again, I still do not understand where we disagree, nor what provoked your odd figure of speech — which seems to be an accusation, but of what, I know not. Mr Hart says science fails to recognize its boundaries; you give an example of such a failure, where later scientists retreated in the claim. That seems to confirm, rather than deny, his statement.

          Since I come across scientists doing amateur philosophy very frequently, and doing it badly, I will say that I support Mr Hart’s view of things, particularly his comment about promissory notes — but I will not go so far as to say it is universal rule.

          Indeed, I will retreat from my own over-broad statement and amend it: “popularizations of science” and “pro-science journalists” and “socialists seeking to usurp the prestige from science and bathe their crackpottery in it” and “intellectuals” frequently make broad and dramatic claims for the province of science and thereby make elementary errors in amateur philosophy. “Real scientists” in their capacity and role as scientists do not make any errors in philosophy at all, because philosophy is not a branch of physics and the topic would never come up.

          If you like, I will say that those who study science acknowledge that physics is not metaphysics, and is silent on metaphysical questions, whereas those who preach SCIENCE! do not acknowledge this boundary.

          • Nostreculsus says:

            We don’t seem to disagree at all on how those who study science should behave. But how do they actually behave? Mary claims to meet “quite a few” who use their work to spread materialism. You “come across scientists doing amateur philosophy very frequently.” Mr Hart worries that the scientific method systematically fails “to recognize its own boundaries”. I objected that this was a distorted picture of what actual scientists are doing and hence a “straw man”.

            If I ask an astronomer about his work, he generally does not tell me, “I have nearly completed a catalogue of all sectors of space, and nowhere do I see oversized white male with a flowing beard. Soon, my proof of God’s non-existence will be complete.” If I meet a geneticist, he usually does not whisper,”I am close, very close to finding the gene for altruism. Then I can show that morals are self- promoting genetic mechanisms.”

            You can investigate this for yourself. Simply flip through the latest issue of any general science journal. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) is available online after a 6 month delay without a subscription. You will learn how miracle fruit affects taste sensation. You will learn how nematodes regulate their gait. But you will not find many materialist manifestos.

            In the spirit of goodwill created by your refinement of an over-broad critique, I wish to withdraw my defence of Carl Sagan. I have now seen some clips from his show. Dr Sagan travels about the globe, for reasons irrelevant to the point being made. The Upanishads are quoted over a film clip of Indian farmers; Democritus is discussed in a taverna full of dancing Greeks. I didn’t last long enough to be sure, but I presume Sagan quotes David Hume in front of bagpipers and Einstein in a beer garden, on the same principle.

            Dr Sagan intones facts about nature with very little explanation of how these conclusions were reached. Instead, he tells us we must feel great awe. For some reason, very large and very small numbers are to evoke particularly feelings of wonder and reverence. We are also expected to feel rather superior to people in the past, who were so much more ignorant than Dr Sagan. The show presents a sort of religion of science, and emotions, rather than evidence, are the primary means of exposition.

            • If I ask an astronomer about his work, he generally does not tell me, “I have nearly completed a catalogue of all sectors of space, and nowhere do I see oversized white male with a flowing beard. Soon, my proof of God’s non-existence will be complete.” If I meet a geneticist, he usually does not whisper,”I am close, very close to finding the gene for altruism. Then I can show that morals are self- promoting genetic mechanisms.”

              The astronomer is Carl Sagan. The physicist is Stephen Hawkings. The evolutionary biologist is Richard Dawkins. These are famous men, and they all use the prestige of science to spread materialism.

              I welcome your withdrawal of your defense of Sagan.

              I would also welcome your withdrawal of your accusation that I made a straw man argument. If you are perhaps familiar with the scientists and scientific popularizers of a previous generation, you are perhaps unaware of the antics of this generation, including men quite well respected in their fields, but, alas, sophomoric or even idiotic in the field of philosophy and theology.

              We are also expected to feel rather superior to people in the past, who were so much more ignorant than Dr Sagan. The show presents a sort of religion of science, and emotions, rather than evidence, are the primary means of exposition.

              Well said. You have grasped the very soul of Carl Sagan’s television program.

              That feeling of superiority is the essential property of the anti-philosophy which clogs the modern mind, which is sometimes called Liberalism or Leftism, and other times called Secularism or Progressivism. It is the attempt of people of modest accomplishment to attempt to feel superior to the rest of us, and people of rank immorality to seize the moral high ground.

      • David_Ellis says:

        “Nobody until Mr Ellis proposed that Dr Sagan admits the possibility of non-physical or supernatural or extradimensional reality, and merely wants to use the word ‘Cosmos’ to refer the the segment of timespace actually or potentially within range of our empirical senses. Indeed, I am not sure if this is what Mr Ellis meant.”

        I propose that Sagan meant precisely what he said: the cosmos is all that is or ever will be.

        That is, that the cosmos is, by definition, the totality of existence. If God exists, he’s part of the totality of existing things and therefore a part of the cosmos. Same for angels, or heaven, or the astral plane or psychics or unicorns.

        Here are some things Sagan actually said:

        “An atheist has to know a lot more than I know. An atheist is someone who knows there is no god. By some definitions atheism is very stupid.”

        “My view is that if there is no evidence for it, then forget about it,” he said. “An agnostic is somebody who doesn’t believe in something until there is evidence for it, so I’m agnostic.”

        “I have some discomfort with both believers and with nonbelievers when their opinions are not based on facts … If we don’t know the answer, why are we under so much pressure to make up our minds, to declare our allegiance to one hypothesis or the other?”

        Again I ask Mr. Wright: can you find any quotes from Sagan show he holds the views you attribute to him?

        • Photios says:

          Mr. Ellis

          I must be missing your point. Mr. Sagan was an agnostic in the sense that I was once an agnostic. I couldn’t find a way to prove that God was not real and so I had to grudgingly admit that God was at least possible. That said, I was a functional atheist. Just as most agnostics are functional atheists.

          Here are some Sagan quotes, which while they do not have him making some of the childish remarks of more militant atheists show fairly clearly that he was a functional atheist.

          The idea that God is an oversized white male with a flowing beard who sits in the sky and tallies the fall of every sparrow is ludicrous. But if by God one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God. This God is emotionally unsatisfying… it does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity. [Carl Sagan]

          I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking. The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides. [Carl Sagan, Billions and Billions]

          Life is but a momentary glimpse of the wonder of this astonishing universe, and it is sad to see so many dreaming it away on spiritual fantasy. [Carl Sagan]

          In many cultures it is customary to answer that God created the universe out of nothing. But this is mere temporizing. If we wish courageously to pursue the question, we must, of course ask next where God comes from? And if we decide this to be unanswerable, why not save a step and conclude that the universe has always existed? [Carl Sagan, Cosmos]

          One prominent American religion confidently predicted that the world would end in 1914. Well, 1914 has come and gone, and – whole the events of that year were certainly of some importance – the world did not, at least so far as I can see, seem to have ended. There are at least three responses that an organized religion can make in the face of such a failed and fundamental prophecy. They could have said, Oh, did we say ’1914′? So sorry, we meant ’2014′. A slight error in calculation. Hope you weren’t inconvinenced in any way. But they did not. They could have said, Well, the world would have ended, except we prayed very hard and interceded with God so He spared the Earth. But they did not. Instead, the did something much more ingenious. They announced that the world had in fact ended in 1914, and if the rest of us hadn’t noticed, that was our lookout. It is astonishing in the fact of such transparent evasions that this religion has any adherents at all. But religions are tough. Either they make no contentions which are subject to disproof or they quickly redesign doctrine after disproof. The fact that religions can be so shamelessly dishonest, so contemptuous of the intelligence of their adherents, and still flourish does not speak very well for the tough- mindedness of the believers. But it does indicate, if a demonstration was needed, that near the core of the religious experience is something remarkably resistant to rational inquiry. [Carl Sagan, Broca's Brain]

          If we’re capable of conjuring up terrifying monsters in childhood, why shouldn’t some of us, at least on occasion, be able to fantasize something similar, something truly horrifying, a shared delusion, as adults? [Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World]

          Think of how many religions attempt to validate themselves with prophecy. Think of how many people rely on these prophecies, however vague, however unfulfilled, to support or prop up their beliefs. Yet has there ever been a religion with the prophetic accuracy and reliability of science? [Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World]

      • David_Ellis says:

        “Dr Sagan’s argument — and I am referring to his television show COSMOS which I saw on PBS a while back, was where he gave his non-definition of the cosmos as everything that is and can be, and I did not think the interpretation of the point of his comment was in dispute. He was denouncing the supernatural, by defining it as that which did not by definition exist. Since both myself, and every atheist I have ever read uses either the same argument, or one very similar, I rather doubt that I mistook his point.”

        I would never use such an argument—it’s blatantly stupid. You can’t define things out of existence. Nor have I seen a single atheist using it. If it is, in fact, one you used when an atheist then all I can say is that I’m glad you decided to lend your argumentative….skills, let’s say, to the other side.

        • David_Ellis says:

          I suspect you’d have trouble finding any well-known atheist philosopher, writer or blogger who has defended an argument similar to the one you describe. Feel free to prove me wrong with actual quotes.

        • So your argument is that Sagan is not defining God out of existence by defining the Cosmos to be all that exists because no true atheist ever made this argument.

          I typed in the words “God, by definition, does not exist” and got 11,500 results. Its seems to be atheists repeating the same argument over and over again, rather than inventing new ones, but it is the same argument that Sagan uses.

          “Existence is a relatively simple concept — it is defined as that which consists of either matter or energy. Therefore if a god exists, it must be composed of either matter or energy. The opposite must also be true. If a god is not composed of matter or energy, then that god, by definition, does not exist. Thus to argue that a god exist, despite a total absence of matter or energy, is to argue, existence equals non-existence, which is a complete contradiction.”

          Stefan Molyneux, http://www.strike-the-root.com/71/molyneux/molyneux1.html

          “If it can be shown that Jesus was not God, or that God is not omniscient or restrained by logical bounds, then the Christian god, by definition, does not exist. If this is not part of your definition of the Christian god, then the following argument is irrelevant. ”
          –Jason Hatherly http://mwillett.org/atheism/oolon1.htm

          Just in case you think I am cherry picking examples, here is a quote from THE THREE IMPOSTORS, which is the most clear and antique expression of the atheist philosophy extant. I assume you are familiar with it. The current thinking is that is was written by Voltaire.

          “Until now we have fought the popular idea concerning the Divinity, but we have not yet said what God is, and if we were asked, we should say that the word represents to us an Infinite Being, of whom one of his attributes is to be a substance of extent and consequently eternal and infinite. The extent or the quantity not being finite or divisible, it may be imagined that the matter was everywhere the same, our understanding not distinguishing parts. For example, water, as much as water is imagined, is divisible, and its parts separable from one another, though as much as a corporeal substance it is nether separable nor divisible. Thus neither matter or quantity have anything unworthy of God, for if all is God, and all comes surely from his essence, it follows quite absolutely that He is all that he contains, since it is incomprehensible that Beings quite material should be contained in a Being who is not. That we may not think that this is a new opinion, Terlullian, one of the foremost men among the Christians, has pronounced against Apelles, that, “that which is not matter is nothing,” and against Praxias, that “all substance is matter,” without having this doctrine condemned in the four first Councils of the Christian Church, ecumenical and general.”

          The passage defines God as being infinite and deduces Him therefore to be made of matter, on that ground that all substance is matter: the treatise goes on at some length to assert that the soul and all spiritual things, including the conception of a non-material God,being immaterial are impossible, are popular superstitions, and base frauds.

          So while all who argue thus are indeed making an error, it is erroneous to claim that true atheists do not make it, and circular to claim that Carl Sagan did not make it.

          • John Hutchins says:

            “Existence is a relatively simple concept — it is defined as that which consists of either matter or energy. Therefore if a god exists, it must be composed of either matter or energy. The opposite must also be true. If a god is not composed of matter or energy, then that god, by definition, does not exist. Thus to argue that a god exist, despite a total absence of matter or energy, is to argue, existence equals non-existence, which is a complete contradiction.”

            As a potential counterpoint that may or may not change your view of Dr. Sagan, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints agrees with the above statement, see D&C 131:7 and these quotes.

            • Be that as it may, if the Church of Latter-Day Saints decreed that the Cosmos was all there is and all there ever will be, they would not then be using the prestige of science to lob a point of amateur philosophy across to an unsuspecting audience. In other words, they would not be pretending it was ‘scientific’ to claim that science knows that the things I makes no attempt to investigate have been investigated and shown not to exist.

            • lotdw says:

              Do Mormons get attacked (by atheists or otherwise) on the reverse side of the argument, then, that a material God would be limited or subject to physical laws (hence not omnipotent/omnipresent/omniscient)? If so, what’s the Mormon church’s response?

          • David_Ellis says:

            “I typed in the words “God, by definition, does not exist” and got 11,500 results.”

            There’s a vast difference between a stupidly circular argument and an argument from incoherence. What you described originally as something common to nearly all atheists is the former.

            Anyway, I probably won’t be commenting much on the rest of this conversation. I’m in the middle of moving and don’t have the time right now.

            • There is indeed a vast difference between arguing that another man’s definition of God must contradict itself therefore that other man’s idea of God is self-contradictory and arguing that since by definition nothing exists but matter and energy, therefore God is either non-existent or made of matter.

              I was once again careful enough quote the exact argument, and in all three cases what I quoted was the second not the first.

              The argument, or, rather, the unspoken assumption that Dr Sagan attempted to put across when he speaks of the Cosmos as being all that there is, is, unfortunately, the second, not the first.

              So the distinction you draw, far from excuse the atheists for making a circular argument, condemns their arguments. You can say you have never made such an argument, but to claim that many (or even most) atheist have not made such dogmatic statements or circular arguments is simply false.

              I will expect no reply from you, if duties call you away.

    • The OFloinn says:

      Thus, scientists no longer think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is; physics concerns only what we can say about nature. We can find correlations between separate observations but there is a growing corpus of “no-go” theorems that show limits to our ability to ascribe definite properties to physical systems. Physics is no longer the study of an a priori given; it is merely a method for surveying and ordering human experience.

      Yes, indeed. Heisenberg said that physics was no longer about the real world but about physicists perceptions of the real world. It is all part and parcel of the collapse of the Modern Ages, including Modern Science. Soon it will be followed by a denial of the real world as such, and the slippage into the science-less pool of the Tao or the endless cycles of the Yugas will resume. Too bad. I’ll miss it when it’s gone; though I might be gone myself before the destruction runs to completion.

  7. Mary says:

    Of course, professional philosophers can also play the silly goose.

    The Logical Positivists with their axiom, “Unless a sensory observation could falsify a statement, the statement is neither true nor false but merely nonsense.”

    When someone pointed out that obvious — that no sensory observation could falsify that axiom — some of them actually claimed that sure it was nonsense, but it was important nonsense.

    • Mrmandias says:

      This was more or less the response of a Mormon logical positivist I talked to one time. He said that the idea of ‘God’ was nonsensical and I pointed out, uhm, dude, and he conceded that while God was nonsense, he was in fact life-changing, world-creating nonsense.

  8. Nostreculsus says:

    So, I finally watched some clips from “Cosmos”.

    The Carl Sagan experience.

  9. The OFloinn says:

    The Greek word κοσμος refers not only to existing stuff but to ordered existing stuff. Our word “cosmetic” comes from the same root and preserves the meaning of “artfully arranged to best effect.”
    + + +
    The Aristo-Thomist position always recognized that rational animals were, inter alia, animals and hence possessed of a sensitive soul. This includes sensation, memory, and imagination, all of which are tied to matter. (And so, Thomas thought, would perish with the body.) Since when a rational being conceives a concept, say triangularity (which has no physical existence as such) he also forms at the same time an ymago in the imagination, say of a green felt scalene triangle or perhaps an aural ymago of the sound of the word “triangle,” it is no surprise at all that an immaterial act of conception will coincide with a material act of imagination and show up in the brain.
    + + +
    The Scientific Revolution re-imagined science from a contemplation of nature’s beauty to a binding of science to produce useful (and profitable) products. Since the former was essentially a study of the formal and final causes while the latter focused on the efficient and material causes, the first two were jettisoned. Francis Bacon, a smidgen wiser than he fellow revolutionaries, admitted that final causes were really in nature, but he simply felt they were useless in pursuing the goal of man’s domination of the universe. After all, to understand that a bird’s wing, in the common course, is “for” flying doesn’t lead to any engineering or industrial output; but to understand how a bird’s wing enables it to fly and, who knows, one say we may build airplanes, carry out strategic bombing campaigns, and do all sorts of useful things.

    Of course, nothing is new: This was just what Empedocles had contended – efficient causes über alles – to which Aristotle replied that a full understanding required both a knowledge of formal/final and material/efficient causes. In particular, efficient causes are incoherent in the absence of final causes. That is, there is no reason why A would cause B “always or for the most part” unless there was something in A that “pointed toward” B. Otherwise, why might it not cause C or D or nothing at all? Hume saw this and denied causation rather than admit to finality, replacing causation with correlation and an al-Ghazali-like occasionalism.

    In any case, crypto-Aristotelian scientists today will do science for the joy of knowing nature, but they have had their philosophical legs cut out from under them under the vague presumption that formal and final causes have been “disproven,” when they had only been denied.

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