Fundamental Reality VIII: The Hard Problem of Consciousness

To my mind, the true implications of Philosophy of Mind, far from being an argument against Theism, are actually an argument for Theism.  To see this, we must start, not with God's mind, but our own.

It is indisputable that Consciousness exists.  Or rather, it has been disputed, but it ought never to have been.  However many fallacies Descartes may have committed later in his arguments, I think therefore I am has always seemed perfectly sound to me.  It is in fact more certain than anything else.  To say that I am wrong that I am self-aware, just is to say that I am aware of some perceptions or arguments that make me think I have no awareness or thinking, but in fact I am wrong because I only think I think.  This is manifestly absurd and self-contradictory.

In the case of other people, or certain animals, we assume they have conscious self-awareness because of their similarity to us.  This is an argument by analogy which (even though it is very reasonable) could potentially be mistaken.  But in the case of our own conscious self-awareness, there can be no doubt.  This consciousness includes specific qualia or experiences such as blueness or sounds, as well as many other things.

Now this is a very interesting fact, primarily because, as far as I can see, there is no way you could possibly logically deduce it even if you knew all the Laws of Physics, and everything about Neurology which one could possibly learn from external observation alone.  It is quite inexplicable, if all you know are the physical Laws of Nature.  Physicists mostly don't think about this issue since it's not our specialty, but when asked most of us would probably admit that there's a deep mystery here.  This mystery is known in Philosophy circles as the “hard problem of consciousness” (a term coined by David Chalmers).

Please don't think I'm saying more than I am.  I'm not talking about the question of why our material brains are arranged in the complex pattern that they are, as one might in an Argument from Design.  Presumably Darwinian evolution is at least a large part of the answer to that question.  I am asking why, once they are arranged into these patterns, they experience self-awareness.

Nor does this argument imply that there has to exist a detachable “soul”, which is separate from our bodies, and survives death.  I'm not denying that the brain has a lot to do with our minds, or even that the brain and mind are in one-to-one correspondence (or more likely, many-to-one).  I am only saying that we could not possibly deduce this correspondence from the Laws of Physics plus Logic alone.  It might even be metaphysically necessary that living brains (and maybe artificial intelligences if we ever make them) have minds.  But if so, we've just learned something about Metaphysics!

That Consciousness tells a story against Naturalism can be seen by the great efforts which many Naturalists take to resist the unavoidable conclusion.  The first main counterattack is to try to deny the existence of the problem at all, through some type of “eliminative” or “reductionist” materialism.  Maybe Consciousness is just another name for certain kinds of information processing which happen to occur in the brain.  As in the Sondheim musical: “The woods are just trees, the trees are just wood!”

As much as I respect philosophers like Daniel Dennett for trying to make this idea precise, I just don't think it can work.  Self-awareness might well turn out to be related to certain types of causal events in the brain, but we knew that we were self-aware long before we knew anything about neuroscience.  So we cannot say that self-awareness is by definition a certain pattern of neurons.  If folks like Dennett are right that there's no hard problem to explain, then their position has to be true by logical necessity.  And it just isn't, because no matter what you tell me about the physics, I could assert without contradiction that nothing in it is self-aware.

The second main counterattack is to say: “We may not know the answer now, but Science will discover it one day!  Once upon a time, some people used to think that biological life was due to some inexplicable élan vital, but now we know that it can be explained entirely through ordinary chemical processes.  The same will one day be true of Consciousness.”

It's a little presumptuous to appeal to future scientific discoveries as an argument for any position, since by definition those discoveries haven't happened yet.  That is why these people instead make an inductive argument, based on imagined triumphs of Science over Mysticism in the past.

But there is a key dis-analogy between Life and Consciousness: we are directly aware of the latter but not of the former (except insofar as it includes the latter).  And the argument that Physics cannot explain Consciousness is not based on the detailed form of the Laws of Physics.  So long as they consist of formal mathematical equations which merely describe the spatio-temporal patterns of material entities, it seems that the problem remains insoluble.  At the very least, a radical change in how we even do Physics would be necessary.  And as for neurological studies, surely brain researchers could go on and on making lists of which neural processes correspond to which conscious sensations, and classifying them into patterns, without ever explaining from the basic Laws of Physics why that particular set of correspondences should hold (or any set).

I said earlier that I am going to confine myself to plausibility arguments, but in this stage of the argument I think strict demonstration is possible: to deny that we are conscious clearly contradicts experience; but to say that our consciousness follows logically from the known Laws of Physics is also manifestly false when consciousness is properly defined.  So it appears that our description of the Universe in terms of physical laws is incomplete.

This is why many of the early Enlightenment philosophers and scientists were Dualists.  Because they assigned all conscious, sensory, and “secondary” qualities to mind rather than matter, they were free to construct scientific descriptions of matter which made reference only to their “primary” qualities, those capable of mathematical modeling.  Having assigned these quantities to the “soul”, they were free to do quantitative physics on the rest.  To go one step further and also banish these secondary qualities from the mind, was for them obviously inconsistent. As the philosopher St. Ed Feser says:

...the reductive method in question is like the method of getting rid of all the dirt in the house by sweeping it under a certain rug.  While this is a very effective way of getting rid of the dirt everywhere else, it is not a strategy that could possibly be used to get rid of the dirt under the rug itself.  On the contrary, it only makes the problem of getting rid of that dirt even worse.  And that is exactly why the mind-body problem as it is understood today essentially came into existence with Galileo, Descartes, and Co. and has remained unsolved to the present day.  What these early modern thinkers wanted (for certain practical and political ends) was a completely quantitative, mathematical description of the world.  Irreducibly qualitative features—secondary qualities, final causes, and the like—since they would not fit this model, were thus essentially defined away as mere projections, “swept under the rug” of the mind as it were. But that only makes the idea of dealing with the mind itself in the same manner even more hopeless.  For these early moderns, the mind just is, you might say, the holding tank for everything that doesn’t fit their quantitative method.  Naturally, then, that method cannot coherently be applied to the mind itself.

This does not mean that a Cartesian mind-body Dualism is the only or best way of describing our situation—I think it isn't—but at least it recognizes explicitly some of the problems at stake.  (There are several other options which recognize the objective reality of the mind, which go by names such as “Property Dualism”, “Hylomorphic Dualism”, “Epiphenomenalism”, “Idealism”, etc.)  But any view which says that all mental quantities can in principle be derived from a purely physical description of the brain, is necessarily incoherent and wrong on philosophical grounds.   And no amount of progress in empirical Science can ever prove that which is logically impossible.

Note that the logical contradiction lies in a reductionistic form of materialism which claims that all of our mental properties can be derived from external, physically measurable properties.  On a non-reductionistic definition of "matter", to mean "that mysterious thing which we are made of, which may have additional properties besides those which can be externally measured", it would not necessarily be a contradiction to say that we are entirely made out of matter.  Such a viewpoint would be a type of Property Dualism, which asserts that that we are one type of entity which has both physical and mental properties.

My arguments should stand on their own apart from any suspicions about my motivations.  But since this term “soul” has popped up, let me add that for many years, I thought it was possible to reconcile Christian theology with the view that the human mind is identical to the material brain.  I thought then, and I still think now, that the reason we will live forever is because of God's promises and his faithfulness, and not because of what we are “made out of”.  It was not my interest in Theology, but trying to make sense out of the Philosophy of Mind, which led me to see the contradiction in a purely materialistic conception of human beings: that we are solely what can be physically measured about the brain.

Next: Stories and Atoms

[Next-to-last paragraph added later.]

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Fundamental Reality VII: Does God Need a Brain?

One possible objection to Theism is this: in the case of human or animal minds, we think using our brains.  This is a rather complicated chunk of matter, that has—at the very least—a rather large amount to do with determining what our thoughts are.  Assuming that there is a divinity which transcends the material world, and everything else, it wouldn't and couldn't have anything like a brain.  So how could God possibly think?

The problem is aggravated all the more if we decide that the fundamental reality should be simple in the sense of not being composed of any kind of parts (this is a technical term in theology, not to be confused with "simple" in the sense of easy to understand or unsophisticated).  Since if it were composed of separable parts, it would be natural to seek some explanation further back about how these parts got to be stuck together.

Recall, however, that I only proposed that God is like a mind, not that his mind works in the exact same way that ours does.  Because we have brains, our knowledge is necessarily limited (because there's a limit to the information capacity and reliability of a finite piece of matter) and also indirect (because we experience things in the outside world by representing them as particular patterns of firing neurons).

If God does not have a brain, then there is no physical mechanism to determine which things he knows and which he doesn't know.  So it seems likely he would have to know either nothing or everything.  (Aristotle stands up to propose the compromise that God knows only his own act of thinking, but let's ignore him.)  Since our original motivation for Theism was that God is like a mathematician who can appreciate the mathematical elegance of the physical world, it seems only the omniscience option will do.

Unlike us, God knows things directly, rather than by the mediation of a perceptual apparatus and neural processing.  For if an omniscient being knew things by representation, then he would need an exact identical copy of the entire Universe in his brain.  If he is omniscient, the copy would be exactly like the original, which seems absurd on grounds of redundancy: everything in the world would exist twice, once in reality and once exactly the same in God's mind.  Better to say that God just knows whatever is true, or rather that God is such that his knowledge and Truth are one and the same thing!  (This, incidentally, also provides a general recipe for dispelling almost any supposed logical paradox about omniscience.  Just replace all instances of “God knows X” with “X is true”, and then you will have a new paradox which must have a solution, even if you are an atheist.  That solution is then also available to the theist.)

Some readers may think that this view of God is a form of Pantheism, because in some sense the world is a part of God's thoughts.  But I don't think this is true.  The views which I am articulating here are a form of Classical Theism, which has historically been the most important view of God in the philosophy of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.  This view might come a little closer to Pantheism than people think, but it differs in some essential details.

If God is the fundamental reality, then he exists quite apart from the world and does not depend on it for his existence.  His wisdom and power are eternal, and eternally he knows himself.  Because he is omniscient, and does not need representations, what he knows about a tree must be exactly the same as that tree (together with its context), but that is not to say that his pre-existing ability to know is identical to the tree, still less that he himself is made out of wood, like the idols that have no understanding.

A brief digression:  In Christian theology, there is one possible exception to my argument here, namely that God's knowledge of himself might well still be representational.  We believe that there is also a Divine Son who is the Word and Wisdom of God, that he eternally pre-existed with his Father before all Creation.  “Word” (λογος) is a metaphor for an expression of some idea, and this suggests that in some sense the Son is involved in God's act of knowing himself.  So, although this is getting into very deep waters here, maybe even God can't fully understand himself without recourse to a representation.  Since God is omniscient, this representation is in some sense an exact copy; fully accurate to who he is, yet distinguishable by the fact that it is the copy, not the original.

In fact, we believe that God is so full of life that there are actually two distinct self-expressions springing up out of the Father's being, namely the Son and the Holy Spirit.  When an artist paints a self-portrait, the image of himself is an expression of who he is, and in a different way his artistic style—the “spirit” of the work—is also an expression of who he is. Yet there is only one portrait, and there are not three artists but only one.  Since as Monotheists we believe that God is also One, we do not regard these as three parts of God but rather use the language of three persons within the unique divine Being.  (A person is something which can be in a loving relationship with another person.)

However, most Christian philosophers (e.g. St. Thomas Aquinas) have thought that the doctrine of the Trinity cannot be deduced from armchair reasoning alone!  (Though after we learn the fact, we can say something about how it might make sense given God's loving nature.)  Especially since it sits rather uncomfortably with the idea of divine unity; our theologians have their work cut out just explaining why the Trinity is consistent with the idea of Monotheism which we hold in common with Jews and Muslims, let alone demonstrating it from sound metaphysical reasoning.  Thus these last three paragraphs are NOT part of my main argument; I cite them only to avoid some confusions about how what I've said might fit in with what God has revealed about himself in the Bible.

Next: The Hard Problem of Consicousness

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St. Thomas on the Theological Method

An interesting quotation from St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica concerning what I am calling the Theological Method.  The quotation steers a middle road which avoids both fideism (the belief that faith involves the acceptance of propositions without evidence, and that this is somehow praiseworthy) and rationalism (the belief that the unaided human reason can reason its way into the correct views without help from above).  In the process, he has some interesting words about the degree of certainty attained from metaphysical reasoning.  Thomas believed that there were valid rational arguments for the existence of God that could be appreciated apart from divine revelation or even faith, but that a full knowledge of Christian doctrine requires placing one's trust in a divine revelation (although in this quotation, St. Thomas does not go into details about what criteria one would use to identify such a divine revelation).

Note that for St. Thomas, a "science" is any method of study capable of producing knowledge, while the modern definition is narrower.  Thus for him, Theology, Metaphysics, and History would all be sciences, which they are not according to the more modern definition.


I. Q1. Article 8. Whether sacred doctrine is a matter of argument?

Objection 1. It seems this doctrine is not a matter of argument. For Ambrose says (De Fide 1): "Put arguments aside where faith is sought." But in this doctrine, faith especially is sought: "But these things are written that you may believe" (John 20:31). Therefore sacred doctrine is not a matter of argument.

Objection 2. Further, if it is a matter of argument, the argument is either from authority or from reason. If it is from authority, it seems unbefitting its dignity, for the proof from authority is the weakest form of proof. But if it is from reason, this is unbefitting its end, because, according to Gregory (Hom. 26), "faith has no merit in those things of which human reason brings its own experience." Therefore sacred doctrine is not a matter of argument.

On the contrary, The Scripture says that a bishop should "embrace that faithful word which is according to doctrine, that he may be able to exhort in sound doctrine and to convince the gainsayers" (Titus 1:9).

I answer that, As other sciences do not argue in proof of their principles, but argue from their principles to demonstrate other truths in these sciences: so this doctrine does not argue in proof of its principles, which are the articles of faith, but from them it goes on to prove something else; as the Apostle from the resurrection of Christ argues in proof of the general resurrection (1 Corinthians 15). However, it is to be borne in mind, in regard to the philosophical sciences, that the inferior sciences neither prove their principles nor dispute with those who deny them, but leave this to a higher science; whereas the highest of them, viz. metaphysics, can dispute with one who denies its principles, if only the opponent will make some concession [emph. mine]; but if he concede nothing, it can have no dispute with him, though it can answer his objections. Hence Sacred Scripture, since it has no science above itself, can dispute with one who denies its principles only if the opponent admits some at least of the truths obtained through divine revelation; thus we can argue with heretics from texts in Holy Writ, and against those who deny one article of faith, we can argue from another. If our opponent believes nothing of divine revelation, there is no longer any means of proving the articles of faith by reasoning, but only of answering his objections — if he has any — against faith. Since faith rests upon infallible truth, and since the contrary of a truth can never be demonstrated, it is clear that the arguments brought against faith cannot be demonstrations, but are difficulties that can be answered.

Reply to Objection 1. Although arguments from human reason cannot avail to prove what must be received on faith, nevertheless, this doctrine argues from articles of faith to other truths.

Reply to Objection 2. This doctrine is especially based upon arguments from authority, inasmuch as its principles are obtained by revelation: thus we ought to believe on the authority of those to whom the revelation has been made. Nor does this take away from the dignity of this doctrine, for although the argument from authority based on human reason is the weakest, yet the argument from authority based on divine revelation is the strongest. But sacred doctrine makes use even of human reason, not, indeed, to prove faith (for thereby the merit of faith would come to an end), but to make clear other things that are put forward in this doctrine. Since therefore grace does not destroy nature but perfects it, natural reason should minister to faith as the natural bent of the will ministers to charity. Hence the Apostle says: "Bringing into captivity every understanding unto the obedience of Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5). Hence sacred doctrine makes use also of the authority of philosophers in those questions in which they were able to know the truth by natural reason, as Paul quotes a saying of Aratus: "As some also of your own poets said: For we are also His offspring" (Acts 17:28). Nevertheless, sacred doctrine makes use of these authorities as extrinsic and probable arguments; but properly uses the authority of the canonical Scriptures as an incontrovertible proof, and the authority of the doctors of the Church as one that may properly be used, yet merely as probable. For our faith rests upon the revelation made to the apostles and prophets who wrote the canonical books, and not on the revelations (if any such there are) made to other doctors. Hence Augustine says (Epis. ad Hieron. xix, 1): "Only those books of Scripture which are called canonical have I learned to hold in such honor as to believe their authors have not erred in any way in writing them. But other authors I so read as not to deem everything in their works to be true, merely on account of their having so thought and written, whatever may have been their holiness and learning."

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Fundamental Reality VI: Comparison of the Finalists

For the reasons just given, I think the main choice is between Naturalism and Monotheism (which I will sometimes call Theism for short).

Before trying to decide between these two views, I think it is well worth emphasizing just how much they have in common.  Both of them agree that Nature is not a divine being, but instead a limited reality capable of being studied and explored—these metaphysical views are therefore the most compatible with Science, and it is not surprising that people of a scientific bent tend to adopt one of these two views.

We thus have to decide which conception to adopt of Ultimate Reality.  Is it more like a Law, or more like a Mind?

On the one hand, there is something strange about the concept of a “Law of Nature” as a fundamental entity, since as pointed out earlier, normally a law is something which is imposed by a Lawgiver.  Really it must be a metaphor for something stranger, more magical as St. Chesterton says.  Indeed, in so far as the Laws compel matter to behave in a particular, rationally comprehensible way, one can see that they are already, in certain respects, a bit more like a living mind than say a rock is.  Thus Naturalism itself borders on a form of Theism, to the extent that it implies that the Universe is governed by a rational ordering principle (λογος) similar to, but greater than, the rational ordering in the minds of the scientists who study it.  There is a risk here of introducing at least Einstein's “God”, if not the God of Religion.

But to be fair, no matter what conception of Ultimate Reality we adopt, it seems likely that we can only understand it with our limited human minds by employing some set of metaphors or analogies.  This applies to Theism at least as strongly as to Naturalism (though perhaps Theists are more often conscious of the fact that they are applying metaphors to God, than Naturalists are when they speak of Nature).  In that sense, we are all in the same boat.  If the Naturalist wishes to insist that they are using “Law of Nature” in a purely metaphorical way, which connotes order and rationality but excludes any hint of personality or mind, then I cannot say that they are employing a fundamentally illegitimate methodology.  Nearly all of our conceptions are metaphorical to some degree, even about lesser matters.

And if there are some deep questions about what the metaphysical meaning of the Laws are, at least their physical content can be precisely stated in precise mathematical terms.  Whereas anyone who has studied Theology knows that hashing out the meaning of a fundamental mind, and predicting its effects, is a far murkier subject.

For these reasons, I believe it is not possible on the basis of Cosmological Arguments alone to decide between Naturalism and Theism.  But the balance of probabilities is shifted by other types of arguments.

We might check to see if there is any credible evidence that some god has revealed himself to the world through explicit revelation, supported by manifestations such as miracles, prophecies, or visions.  In fact we should do this, but it is not something that can be done from our armchairs (not without the aid of books or the internet anyway!) so let's leave this aside for the time being.

Another set of considerations is Design Arguments.  These concern the question of whether the Universe is organized in a way that suggests the existence of an intelligent agent with particular goals.  One particular type of Design Argument was invalidated by Darwin, but there are other versions, such as the Fine-Tuning Argument, which I'll discuss in depth at a later time.  On the flip side are the Undesign Arguments that the Universe is not the way a divine being would organize it: the most convincing forms of these involve Arguments from Evil.  But I don't want to consider Design Arguments here.  Not because they are irrelevant, but because they don't have much to do with purely Cosmological considerations.

Instead let me consider what we can learn from the Philosophy of Mind and the Philosophy of Ethics.  There is a sense in which these give a continuation of the Cosmological Argument, namely that if we believe there is some Source responsible for everything else that is, then what attributes we should attribute to the source will depend on what kinds of things really exist and therefore proceed from that source.  (I say kinds of things, not arrangements of things into patterns; the latter would be more akin to a Design Argument).  We need to decide whether it would be possible in principle for those kinds of things to come from that proposed Source or not.

In the process, I will naturally have to make some rather controversial statements.  In other words, the plausibility of Theism depends on your background beliefs.  I hope that doesn't shock any of my readers too much!

Next: Does God Need a Brain?

Posted in Theological Method | 4 Comments

Fundamental Reality V: Some Candidates, and a Math Test

What are the possible candidates for the most fundamental principle of reality, which is to explain everything else?  Well, what do we know about the reality which it is supposed to explain?  One thing we know from the study of Physics, is that the world can be described (at least most of the time, to a high degree of precision) by a mathematical system of equations.

So the world is made of math!  (However, we should bear in mind here Bertrand Russell's observation that the fact that the constituents of the world are ordered in a particular pattern does not actually tell us what is the internal nature of those constituent parts...this will come back to bite us later.)  Here I am speaking loosely, in the same rough sense that I said earlier that things happen due to magic.

Well, what should we conclude from the mathematical nature of physics?  I can think of two obvious hypotheses.  Either (1) the fundamental reality is something a bit like an mathematical equation (yet not a mere abstraction, but something which actually makes the world go around), or (2) the fundamental reality is something a bit like a mathematician, i.e. a mind capable of appreciating mathematical relations.  (I don't mean either of these descriptions to be taken too literally here, obviously the fundamental entity cannot be exactly like a set of symbols on the blackboard, or a human mind, but the choice of analogy makes the difference to what effects seem likely to follow.)

If the former hypothesis is true, we would have Naturalism, a worldview which takes the universe as revealed by the Natural Sciences to be the ultimate reality, so that everything else must depend on that.  If the latter is true, we would have a Supernatural or Theistic view of reality.

I don't mean to suggest that (1) and (2) are the only possible candidates for the fundamental entity, just the ones I find most plausible.  Some naturalists might instead propose that the ultimate thing that explains everything else is A) the entire Universe “taken as a whole”, B) the first moment of time, C) the most elementary constituents of matter (whatever they are), or D) some vague principle or force, not structured like an equation, “out of which” the Laws of Physics emerge for some unknown reason.  But I don't think these are quite as plausible as compared to (1).

I only have time to do a drive-by shooting of these proposals: (A) seems problematic as the unexplained source of everything, if we take the term “Universe” literally.  For the Universe (as defined by Naturalists) is just the collection of all the things which exist (e.g. my cat).  So if we say that the Universe as a whole just exists and has no explanation, that would imply that my cat, being one of the parts of the Universe, just exists and has no explanation.  We could try to clarify this hypothesis by saying that actually only certain necessary, eternal, basic features of the Universe that have no explanation.  But then it is no longer the world taken as a whole which is fundamental, but only some aspect thereof.  We are then obliged to give a more specific account of what we mean by that aspect, and this is tantamount to adopting one of the other hypotheses.

If we say (B)—which obviously only works if there is a first moment of time—it seems problematic that the fundamental nature of reality should pass out of existence, and odder still why it should result in consistent laws of physics at later moments of time.  (C) means that there are rather a lot of fundamental realities, and raises difficult questions about what makes them capable of interacting with each other, and how they can be limited to particular places or times.  Without more details (D) is too vague to really be criticized, but in any case it is starting to verge on a (rather murky) Supernaturalism.

Now let's do a survey of Supernaturalistic views, in which there's one or more divinities, conceived as capable of having some degree of understanding, power, and purpose, although it or they might not be very much like a human mind.  One could accept Pantheism and identify God with the Universe.  Or one could embrace Polytheism and believe in multiple gods who are collectively responsible for the Universe as we know it.  Finally, one could invest all of the responsibility in a single Deity who is the source of everything else, which is Monotheism.

Pantheism seems to be open to much the same types of objections as (A) above. (Many forms of Pantheism say that the universe of our senses is an illusion and all that really exists is God, but I have difficulties making logical sense of this position, so I won't consider it seriously.)  Also it is not entirely clear, if God is identified with the Universe, how this viewpoint can distinguish itself from Naturalism, although some Pantheists might have answers to this question.

Polytheism seems to me susceptible to fatal objections, at least if the gods are regarded as metaphysically fundamental.  It seems rather strange that a bunch of fundamental entities should coexist without there being any higher principle which determines why the Pantheon is related to each other in the way that they are.  What decides which god gets its way in the case of a disagreement?  (Or if they always agree, that would seem to suggest something deeper than any of them which causes them to agree.)

Indeed the actual historical Pagans, despite worshiping multiple gods, very seldom conceived of the vast panoply of gods as being fundamental aspects of reality.  Instead they usually invented elaborate theogenies explaining how the gods themselves came into being (by a variety of scandalous sexual or asexual means of reproduction) from pre-existing matter or divinities.  Often one has a henotheistic setup: worshipping one chief God who is regarded as the primary Creator, together with many lesser gods valued as mediators to the heavenly court.  Or else the different deities are regarded as modes or manifestations of a single one.  Thus, even in polytheistic cultures, the philosophers tend towards Naturalism, Pantheism, or Monotheism in their fundamental philosophy.  This is a tell-tale sign that a religious belief is philosophically untenable: if even the philosophers raised in a tradition cannot accept it.

Notwithstanding the platypus, it seems rather unlikely that Nature was designed by committee.  It has too much internal coherence for that.  Atheists are frequently heard saying that Modern Science is in conflict with Religion, and they are quite right, always assuming that by “Religion” they mean Paganism.  It is quite untenable in a Scientific Age to believe that there is one divinity responsible for lightning, another one responsible for erotic love, another for birds and so on.  The natural world isn't really divided along those lines.

As far as I know there are no polytheists who worship the actual forces of nature as four different gods.  The best I can do along these lines is to suggest that Thor = electromagnetism (obviously!), Odin = gravitation (he's the most subtle), Freyja = strong force (she who binds with ties of love), and Loki = weak force (too busy wreaking mischief to bother holding anything together).  But I think this new cult is unlikely to take off among any demographic group I can think of!

Next: Comparison of the Finalists

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Fundamental Reality IV: Necessity, Eternity, and Power

It is natural to suppose that these fundamental entities are in some sense necessary.  I don't mean this term to imply that they can be rigorously proven from pure logic (logical/conceptual necessity) or even that we personally can be sure that they exist.  What I mean is that they are necessary considered in themselves, that (regardless of what we think or know) if we could only understand the fundamental nature of reality, we would know that they had to exist.  They are metaphysically necessary.  (This is quite distinct from the sort of conceptual inevitability described in the Chesterton quote previously.)

The way I have stated things, this may seem almost like a tautology, since we have stipulated that these things are the fundamental entities which explain everything else.  Given that they are the nature of things, they cannot not exist given the fundamental rules of existence, which is themselves.

Some people, though, would argue for the exact opposite, and say that the fundamental nature of reality, because it cannot be explained in terms of anything else, is just the ultimate inexplicable “brute fact”.  They would conceive of it more along the lines of the most wildly contingent thing there is, since it has no particular reason to exist and yet it does.  But this way of looking at things doesn't make intuitive sense to me.

If the fundamental nature of existence just happens to exist, with no internal necessity, why should we suppose that it should be at all simple or rational in its effects?  If it is completely inexplicable, then there are no constraints.  And if it is contingent—meaning something which might either exist or not exist—then it seems strange that there would be no process controlling whether it or something else (or nothing at all) comes into being.  If there are brute facts, then the entire world rests on a fluke, and the ultimate nature of reality is completely arbitrary and irrational.

Furthermore, if anything about the concrete physical world occurs necessarily, because it had to be that way (besides mere truths of logic) then a fortiori the fundamental nature of existence must be like that too.

If the fundamental entities are necessary, then it stands to reason that they are also eternal, since something that exists necessarily cannot come into being, or cease to be, or indeed change in any way.  They must just exist timelessly.  Besides which, if they explain what happens at all moments of time, it doesn't seem plausible that they should only exist for certain moments of time.  For similar reasons, one can argue that the fundamental entities can't be limited to just one region of space.  Their influence must be present everywhere.

It also seems that the fundamental entities (taken as a whole, if there is more than one of them) must be powerful, insofar as their existence is capable of explaining the existence of all other things.

Power here means causal efficacy (I obviously don't mean force times distance per time in this context!).  Earlier I tried to avoid making too many controversial assumptions about causality, but I also argued that the very concept of explanation or “because” involves a certain notion of causality, so if you like you may take the notion of power in this sense.  (One needs some concept of causation to say that anything is powerful.)

In fact, the fundamental principle(s), taken together, must be all-powerful, and that in two different senses: (1) all the other powers that may exist in the world are explained by reference to theirs, and (2) nothing outside of themselves can prevent them from doing things, because there IS nothing outside of them; only themselves and things whose natures are, by stipulation, subject to their dominion.

This does not, however, prevent there from being constraints on what these beings can do, based on them having some type of definite nature, which only does certain things.  And, since everything that exists obeys the rules of logic, it is clear they cannot do logically absurd things, such as causing themselves to never have existed.  So none of those silly logical puzzles about whether an omnipotent being can make stones too heavy to lift are relevant here.

All of the metaphysical reflections above, I would endorse whether or not I believed in God.  Nothing I have yet said is designed to discriminate between Naturalism and Supernaturalism.

Next: Some Candidates, and a Math Test

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Fundamental Reality III: Chains, Parsimony, and Magic

Some optimistic folks hope that Science will eventually explain everything about the world.  But this hope seems absurd in light of the fact that explanations always involve presuppositions.  The structure of explanation is always that we explain one thing A in terms of some set of other things B, C, D... which exist, or which have happened.  (Let's not be too particular about what we mean by “things” here, whether “objects”, “events” or what...)  One could then ask what is the explanation of B or C or D, and these things will in turn typically have explanations in terms of other things.  This gives us various types of explanatory series, and we can ask whether these terminate in some type of ultimate explanation.

So it seems that the best we could possibly do is to have one thing or principle whose existence is unexplained, and then use that to explain everything else.  That one thing would then have no other explanation outside of itself.  However, we can still evaluate how plausible it is that it should exist, based on various considerations of parsimony.  We can ask:

  1. Is this entity the type of thing where it would make sense for it to just exist on its own?  Or is it the sort of thing that would more naturally be explained by reference to something else?
  2. Is this the simplest conception of fundamental reality, or can we get away with a simpler one? (Here I am using simple in the sense of Occam's razor, although if there were really just one unexplained entity, not composed of parts, it would also be simple in the Medieval Scholastic sense of being non-composite.)

You might notice that the people of a scientific bent tend to focus exclusively on the second question, while traditional metaphysics focuses more on the first question.  In my view both questions are relevant.

I said that explaining everything in terms of one thing is the best we can do.  We might have to settle for less, such as a plurality (hopefully small) of unexplained fundamental principles.  However, that would not only be more complicated, it would also raise questions about what is it that joins these (supposedly separate) principles together.  We might therefore reasonably hope that the principles in question would at least have some type of internal unity, without being too dogmatic at this stage about what kind of unity we are looking for.

Some people might propose that the chain of explanations extends backwards forever in an infinite chain.  Thus nothing has any ultimate explanation, but rather each one is explained by the thing before it, and so on.  Alternatively one could have the explanations arranged in a circle, which is similar to the infinite regress for what I am about to say.

The chain of explanations wouldn't necessarily have to be embedded in any kind of temporal sequence, but if it were, one would have to have a universe which is eternal to the past.  Now there are physics problems with trying to make a compelling physical model along these lines, with neither a geometrical nor a thermodynamic type of beginning.  But here I'm trying to explore more general metaphysical considerations, of the sort that are accessible from the nearest armchair, so I'll try to appeal to intuition instead of esoteric quantum cosmology considerations, for which the evidence of a beginning is mixed.

Personally, I find an infinite regress, with nothing more behind it, rather unsatisfactory.  It is not that I think there is any logical inconsistency in a universe which extends backwards in time forever.  There isn't.  The universe might well work that way.  But I feel like such a chain of explanations wouldn't actually explain anything in the chain properly.  For example, in the “ekpyrotic” scenario where the universe involves an eternal bouncing back and forth of two membranes, it wouldn't tell us why there are two membranes rather than one or four.  It would just boil down to saying that: things just are the way they are because they are the way they are.  Of course, if there were some additional extra explanation outside of time which somehow determined that there had to be two membranes, that would be different, and would make me much more satisfied with a time that goes back forever.

Somebody might retort that explaining everything in terms of one unexplained thing is just as bad in that it also has something which “just is the way it is”.  But at least in that case it there's only one thing like that, not a whole chain of things.  I find in myself an intellectual preference for building explanations on a foundation.  Axiomatic reasoning usually regarded as more intellectually respectable than circular reasoning.  If we deduce things from axioms, those axioms can be appreciated and evaluated.  Whereas if we deduce things from a chain going back to infinity, I feel that the entire system is unsupported in a vicious way.  So I'm fine with time going back to infinity, but only if there is something which transcends time which makes time do that.  Of course, Nature does not necessarily have to correspond to my intuitions, but I don't think it's irrational to believe that at least some of our intuitions give us rational guidance about how the universe should work.  Without some rational intuitions leading us to seek explanations, Science couldn't even get off the ground.

Furthermore, there are chains of explanation which do not go further and further back into the past, and these chains cannot be accounted for simply by postulating an infinite past.  We might also try to explain why the present-day dynamical processes of nature occur in the way that they do.  For example, suppose I want to know why a balloon attracts hair.  So I say it is because they have opposite electrical charges, which are attracted to each other with an inverse square law.  Well, why is that?  Well, because each charge has electric field lines coming out of it.  Why is that?  Because Gauss's equation said it had to happen that way.  Why is that?  It seems the answer must eventually be: it happens by MAGIC.

Some would say that this is obscurantism and that things happen because of the Laws of Nature.  But we have to remember that the phrase “Laws of Nature” is really a stand-in for whatever mysterious aspect of reality causes things to obey these Laws of Nature. When the phrase was first coined, the word “law” was a metaphor which was taken to imply the presence of a Legislator.  St. Chesterton suggests that the rational agnostic should instead use a different type of terminology, borrowed from fairy tales:

In fairyland we avoid the word "law"; but in the land of science they are singularly fond of it.  Thus they will call some interesting conjecture about how forgotten folks pronounced the alphabet, Grimm's Law.  But Grimm's Law is far less intellectual than Grimm's Fairy Tales.  The tales are, at any rate, certainly tales; while the law is not a law.  A law implies that we know the nature of the generalization and enactment; not merely that we have noticed some of the effects.  If there is a law that pick-pockets shall go to prison, it implies that there is an imaginable mental connection between the idea of prison and the idea of picking pockets.  And we know what the idea is.  We can say why we take liberty from a man who takes liberties.  But we cannot say why an egg can turn into a chicken any more than we can say why a bear could turn into a fairy prince.  As ideas, the egg and the chicken are further off from each other than the bear and the prince; for no egg in itself suggests a chicken, whereas some princes do suggest bears.  Granted, then, that certain transformations do happen, it is essential that we should regard them in the philosophic manner of fairy tales, not in the unphilosophic manner of science and the "Laws of Nature."  When we are asked why eggs turn to birds or fruits fall in autumn, we must answer exactly as the fairy godmother would answer if Cinderella asked her why mice turned to horses or her clothes fell from her at twelve o'clock.  We must answer that it is magic.  It is not a "law," for we do not understand its general formula.  It is not a necessity, for though we can count on it happening practically, we have no right to say that it must always happen.  It is no argument for unalterable law (as Huxley fancied) that we count on the ordinary course of things.  We do not count on it; we bet on it.  We risk the remote possibility of a miracle as we do that of a poisoned pancake or a world-destroying comet.  We leave it out of account, not because it is a miracle, and therefore an impossibility, but because it is a miracle, and therefore an exception.  All the terms used in the science books, "law," "necessity," "order," "tendency," and so on, are really unintellectual, because they assume an inner synthesis, which we do not possess.  The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, "charm," "spell," "enchantment."  They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree.  Water runs downhill because it is bewitched.  The sun shines because it is bewitched.

I deny altogether that this is fantastic or even mystical.  We may have some mysticism later on; but this fairy-tale language about things is simply rational and agnostic.  It is the only way I can express in words my clear and definite perception that one thing is quite distinct from another; that there is no logical connection between flying and laying eggs.  It is the man who talks about "a law" that he has never seen who is the mystic.
(Orthodoxy, "The Ethics of Elfland").

Let no one think that St. Chesterton said this only because he did not understand the particular explanations given by Modern Science.  He didn't, but it doesn't make any difference, since you come to the same place in the end no matter what.  No matter how many mediators we put in between the hair and the balloon—even if there is a continuum of mediating entities—at some point we need to postulate some sort of fundamental interaction not explained through intermediaries.

If we ask why these direct interactions occur, we either have to say for no reason at all (in which case it is a puzzle why things happen so consistently, since every single instance of an interaction would be a quite separate unexplained occurrence) or else to say that there is some common force or principle: either God or else some other term more acceptable to atheists.  We can call the underlying principle a “Law” if we want to (for lack of better language) but we should be aware that the word doesn't really explain why things had to be this way.

So in what follows, let's suppose that the explanations terminate on one or more unexplained entities, whether laws of physics, divinities or something else.  Because of the uncertainty about what these things actually are, I am not going to impose a rigid grammar on them, but will freely alternative between different terms.  I don't mean to sneak in any substantive assumptions by calling them “things”, “entities”, “principles”, “rules”, “beings”, or whatever.

Still, they must in some sense exist, or they couldn't do any work explaining anything else.  They are not merely logical abstractions, since logical abstractions can't do anything, they can only describe things.  Some people would say that it's a category error to say that laws can do anything, that laws merely describe regularities in Nature, but don't cause them to exist.  Well, if that happens to be true, then (contra Hume) something else must cause those regularities to keep occurring, otherwise it would just be a mighty coincidence that the regularities keep on happening.

In the following reflections I will try to say more about what this “something” might be.  I'm not trying to force a prematurely theological conclusion here.  I'm reasonably confident that any rational, complete worldview must have some set of fundamental entities or explanations which play the explanatory role that God does in Theism, but it is a quite separate question whether the thing(s) that fill that role have to be at all like the traditional conception of God.  This is a question which we will eventually need to face square-on, but first let's try to figure out some properties that any fundamental entities would have to have, no matter whether they are conceived of along Naturalist or Supernaturalist lines.

Next: Necessity, Eternity, and Power

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Fundamental Reality II: Causes and Explanations

With sufficiently robust assumptions about how causation works, it is possible to formulate various Cosmological Arguments (there's more than one) in a strictly deductive way.  But in our age there isn't enough of a consensus about how causation works, or even whether it really exists, to create an argument with broad popular appeal.  Some people even say that Science has refuted the idea of causality and replaced it with other concepts.

Instead I'm going to go the long way around and focus on the concept of explanations.  It seems utterly clear to me that Science is in the business of finding explanations for certain phenomena.  If it can't do that, it loses any claim to make sense out of the world.  If you want your theory to explain even one single thing about the world, then that requires you to give an account of what circumstances explain that thing.  Then we say that the thing happened because of those circumstances.  And as you can see, that word “because” has the word cause sitting inside of it.  Grammar itself teaches us that Science requires some notion of causation.

For example, we say things like “the planets all rotate around the sun in the same direction because the solar system formed from a rotating disk of gas”, or “the heat capacity of matter is finite because it is made out of atoms”, or “electrons attract protons because they have negative charge”, or “energy is conserved because the laws of nature are invariant under time translation.”  It is not obvious that these various senses of “because” all correspond to the exact same concept, but we can take almost any of them as examples for what I am going to say.  (Except perhaps for the “because” of pure logical deduction from definitions, i.e. “cold is the absence of heat because that is what the word cold means; 2+2 = 4 because 4 is twice two.  But pure logic is not enough to explain everything that happens, since avoidance of strict logical inconsistency is a rather weak constraint.)

Aristotle famously said that there are four different types of causes: material, formal, efficient, and final.  As a classification of the types of "because" answers we give to various questions, this seems fairly reasonable.  But some people would argue that the physical sciences only use some of these types of explanations.  In particular, it is disputed whether final causes, which express purposes—e.g. that the sun exists in order to produce light, or that the animals eat in order to receive nourishment—really exist in reality outside of our own minds.  This question will pop up later when we discuss Ethics, not to mention the Fine-Tuning Argument.  For the time being, let's consider less controversial notions of causation, without assuming Aristotle’s division to be correct.

In order to side-step some possible misunderstandings about what I mean by an explanation, let me make it clear that I am using the term explanation in a broad sense, so that:

A. Explanations can be Nondeterministic.   An explanation does not need to be deterministic, in the sense that the effect invariably follows from the cause.  It is enough if the explanation produces a framework, in which it makes sense that the cause might be produced.  For example, Quantum Mechanics is a nondeterministic theory, in the sense that if you start with a given initial condition, and you know the laws of physics, there is generally more than one possible final outcome, and you can only predict their probabilities.  So long as the probability of what happens is not so low as to indicate that the theory is probably wrong, I'm going to count this type of thing as an explanation of the experimental outcome.  That's because it seems that the universe is not deterministic, and if it isn't, then probabilistic explanation is the best that we can do.

For example, if a radioactive atom decays, you can't predict exactly when it will decay, but you can still explain why it can decay with reference to the forces and particles in the nucleus.  It's not like the decay occurs in an explanatory void.  So I think in a quantum mechanical theory, we need to generalize our notions of "explanation" and/or "causation" to allow for such nondeterministic explanations.  Just because you can't predict exactly what happens, doesn't mean there isn't a set of circumstances which causes whatever does happens to happen.  It's just that there's more than one possible outcome that set of circumstances could have produced.  That's different from something happening without any causes at all.

B. Explanations can be Unknown.  Similarly, there obviously exist some phenomena which do have an explanation, but we don't know what it is yet.  In that case, I want the term “explanation” to refer to the actual reason why the thing occurs, and not merely to those explanations which are currently known to our limited human minds.  Maybe we will never find out the full explanation for something, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.  This point is important because Cosmological Reasoning, as I understand it, involves the attempt to push back the concept of explanation back to its ultimate fundamentals, to see what a fundamental explanation would have to look like in principle.  For example, a Naturalist doesn't necessarily need to know what the most fundamental theory of physics should look like, to propose that if we did know it fully, it would then explain everything else.

On the other hand:

C. Explanations are not just Regularities.  I reject the Humean view that causality is just a name for the constant conjunction of events.  In the end, I think this boils down to a renunciation of the possibility of explaining anything.  “Rocks have always fallen down before” is simply not an explanation for why the next rock falls down.  It doesn't have the right form to be an explanation.  It may make it rational to believe that the next rock will fall down, but the reason it does so is that we believe that there are underlying causes (in this case, gravitational attraction to the Earth) which remain roughly the same for each rock.  Conversely, there are many types of regularities (e.g. as of 2014, a woman has never been U.S. President) which may be unbroken in our experience, but that doesn't make those recurrences Laws of Nature.  Hence, when we seek to explain things, we ought to demand more than just the occurrence of regularities.

This seems to me to be elementary common sense, and I don't think the mathematization of physics (which merely describes these regularities, in increasing generality and detail) should change this conclusion.  But even if you accept the Regularity View, you still can't do Science at all unless you try to figure out how to describe these regularities with the most fundamental and deep laws possible.  On any reasonable view of causation, we can ask whether this process of explaining things finally terminates; and that will be the topic of the next section.

Next: Chains, Parsimony, and Magic

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