Pandemic without Panic (a meditation for Holy Tuesday)

A couple of readers have asked for my take on the Pandemic.

1. First of all, practical matters: If you haven't already been told a hundred times already, you should try to avoid going to places with people in them, besides members of your own household (assuming none of them are sick yet!).  This is our way of protecting, not only ourselves, but elderly and sick people.

Some have questioned whether shutting down the economy will lead to even worse consequences than the disease itself.  Certainly, this is going to lead to suffering for many poor people and small business owners and workers.  But while nobody knows all of the effects of such decisions, in the short run suspending the inessential parts of the economy probably actually saves lives on net (even before taking into account stopping the disease!), what with less driving cars, and less pollution.

Maybe we can take this opportunity to remind ourselves that what we call the "economy" often reflects priorities that are not completely healthy and beneficial?  Just as an individual can benefit from a period of fasting from inessential luxuries, to learn what is more important, a whole society can benefit from a fast as well.

These days there are services in most places to order groceries online and have them delivered to your door.  If you can still find time slots available, that is much safer than going to the grocery store yourself.  (There is some chance of getting exposed to the virus from touching surfaces, e.g. food packaging, but people breathing droplets is thought to be the main way it spreads.  If you are concerned about viruses on surfaces you can wash the outer packaging in soapy water, as we have been doing.)

If you have frozen or imperishable food stored up, you can also eat that.

You can also order delivery from restaurants, if needed.  This is less ideal, but at least this way at most 1 person from outside breathes on you per meal.

If none of those strategies works for you, then you might still have to go to the store, but please do so as infrequently as you can (which means you should try to make each trip count, by buying enough food for say 2 weeks if possible).  Wear a mask if you can, or at least cloth over your face.

If you are in a vulnerable demographic, maybe you could get somebody else to go to the store for you?  If you are healthy, perhaps you could provide this service for someone who is not?

If you are living in a house with a sick person, of course make sure their needs are met, but do your best to try to minimize your exposure to their germs.  Infection is not just a yes/no thing—it turns out that the quantities of virus you are exposed to matter.  If you are exposed to only a small number, it takes the viruses longer to reproduce to dangerous numbers, giving your immune system more time to crack their code and build up antibodies.

2.  But what about the theological significance?  In each generation, there is a temptation for Christians to read too much into the disasters of that time as if they were some unique sign, rather than the way life is in general.

Is the Pandemic a sign of the End Times?  Should we expect Jesus to be coming back any moment now?  Well, it seems like the Black Death (which killed a lot more people) would have been an even stronger sign, and we know that Jesus didn't come back in the 1300's.  Even the Spanish Flu probably killed more people per capita than Covid-19 will.

Let's see what Jesus says, in the beginning of his discourse to his disciples about the End Times, which—going by the chronology of Holy Week in the Gospel of Mark—he probably preached on the Tuesday before he was crucified (so this blog post is 1 day late, sorry!).

From Matthew 24 [with the two words in brackets taken from the parallel passage in Luke 21]

While He was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples approached Him privately and said, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what is the sign of Your coming and of the end of the age?”

Then Jesus replied to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you.  For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and they will deceive many: You are going to hear of wars and rumors of wars.  See that you are not alarmed, because these things must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.  There will be famines and earthquakes [and plagues] in various places.   All these events are the beginning of birth pains.  Then they will hand you over for persecution, and they will kill you.  You will be hated by all nations because of My name.”

Note the words I have highlighted here.  The words in red involve various types of human conflicts (often leading to bloodshed), the words in blue involve natural disasters (including plagues like Covid-19), and the words in black indicate what Jesus says about both of these categories: Don't panic, this is what happens in each generation, it is not any kind of indicator that you live in the last generation.  It is not the end, it is just the beginning.

Jesus does, however, refer to these signs (which manifest to different degrees in every generation of human history), as the "birth pains", so he doesn't entirely reject the idea of looking at them as some sort of "sign".

Actually, Covid-19 is a sign of the End Times, but only in a certain sense.  It is not the sort of sign that silly prognosticators are looking for, who—in defiance of Jesus' statement that not even angels, or the Son with respect to his human knows the day or hour, but only the Father—try to predict the time of the End.  Rather, it is a sign for the wise, for those who know how to interpret events.

Let's compare it to tooth decay.  When I was 28, I had to get my wisdom teeth removed; they had actually grown in perfectly fine, but they were decaying since I hadn't kept them as clean as I should have.  The dentist said they'd need to be removed or else crowned, and even that would only hold for another decade or so.  So I had them taken out—but that's another story.

Covid-19 is a sign of the mortality of the human existence as a whole, in exactly the same way that tooth decay is a sign of your own mortality.  A wise man will learn from such experiences the frailty of his mortal condition, and will recognize from it the inevitability of his eventual physical demise.  But, that does not mean that you'll be hit by a bus the moment you walk out of the doctor's office on painkiller, nor does it mean that you can use cavities as a sort of guidepost to predict the year and manner of your death.  True, an untreated tooth abscess might well be the thing that kills you, but most likely you'll be done in by something completely different.

3. As I said, many Christians have a temptation to interpret recent historical events as if they were a lucid story where we can read off the plot and say what the moral is.  (Scholars sometimes call this sort of tendency, Historicism.)  We can be sure that historical events fulfill God's will, but it is hubris to think, in the absence of specific revelation about the matter, that we can give a detailed explanation of how or why they do so.

Let us turn to the favorite book of the prognosticators: the Book of Revelation.  Near the beginning of the book, John has a vision of God in heaven, and in that vision he sees a strange sight:

Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals.  And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?”  But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside itI wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside.  (Rev. 5:1-4)

The scroll that is full of writing represents the hidden meaning of God's creation.  If there is a Creator, and if he created human beings for a purpose, then this hidden significance has to exist!  But it turns out that nobody is worthy—smart enough or good enough or holy enough—to penetrate the depths of this mystery.

As Ecclesiastes says: "He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end."  This mystery, represented here by the "seven seals", is a problem for those who try to defend God by constructing plausible theodicies.

True, any idiot can see that it is sometimes true that suffering builds character, that freedom requires the possibility of bad choices, and that great good can sometimes come out of terrible evil.  And if there is an afterlife, we cannot expect that our final fulfillment will come in this life, but rather we are being prepared for another (and unimaginable) state of existence.

But for precisely this reason, those who seek to come up with facile philosophical explanations of exactly why God allowed this war or that disease, in a way that is supposed to be more satisfying then repeating such obvious platitudes, are fooling themselves.  As Housman wrote:

"Malt does more than Milton can
To justify God's ways to man."

Does that mean that there is no way to understand the purpose of Creation?  Not quite, since there is one who knows:

Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders.  The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.  He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne.  And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb.  Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people.    And they sang a new song, saying:

“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.” (v. 5:5-10)

The slain Lamb, of course, represents Jesus, and his sacrifice on the Cross.  At the Cross, and only at the Cross, God's hidden purpose for human suffering and agony become apparent.  Hence, only the risen Jesus is fully worthy to interpret the meaning of human history, and in particular whatever suffering the sick may be experiencing right now.

To the extent that we can have a glimmer of this now, as a person other than the Savior, it can only be to the extent that we meditate on the Cruciform love of God that was revealed there, and let it permeate our thoughts and character.  This is nothing more nor less nor other than the call to fully become a saint.  To become a saint is to have a satisfactory resolution to the Problem of Evil, in a particular life.  But the gate is open for that person only.  The next person to come along will not be able to grasp the explanation, unless they too are on the road to holiness.

As the Lamb begins to open the Seals one by one, John sees the famous "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse"—but originally the term "Apocalypse" just meant the four Horsemen that appear in the Apocalypse of John, i.e. the Book of Revelation.  (Although, they were first seen by the Prophet Zechariah.)    The woes they bring are the same as the ones that Jesus described at the start of the Olivet discourse, and which have characterized every era of human history: conquest, war, famine, and pestilence.

I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!”  I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.

In the 20th century alone, about 100-200 million people were killed as a more or less direct consequence of government policy (e.g. genocide and deliberate starvation), not counting military deaths.  (This is based on old notes for a Sunday school class; I'm not going to try to find all my sources again.)

When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people kill each other. To him was given a large sword.

About 40 million people were killed in battle in the 20th century.

When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand.  Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, “Two pounds of wheat for a day’s wages,and six pounds of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!”

Famine was responsible for the deaths of about 70 million in the 20th century.

When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!”  I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him.  They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.  (v. 6:1-7)

Death seems somewhat redundant with the effects of the previous Horsemen.  Indeed, Death seems to get pretty much everyone eventually.  Even if we only focus on the new element of infectious disease, this one is actually MUCH bigger than the other 3.  In the 20th century, around 200 million people were killed by smallpox alone, and that was just one of many deadly scourges.

Most of the deaths by plague in the 20th century came near the start.  As a result of vaccines and better medical care, death by infectious disease dropped in developed countries (e.g. the USA) to only about a 10% the rate it had before.  Even with the novel coronavirus running rampant, we live in very sheltered times compared to every other era in human history!

The 5th Seal is also something common through many eras:

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained.  They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers were killed just as they had been.

In the 20th century there were, depending on how you count, somewhere around 45 million Christian martyrs.

Only when we reach the 6th Seal to we seem to get imagery that corresponds to the actual End Times, and it seems to comes in a huge spectacle all at once:

I watched as he opened the sixth seal.  There was a great earthquake.  The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind.  The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.

Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains.  They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!  For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?”

I expect that this provides us with a picture of the Second Coming which is at least as literal as the Book's depiction of the body of Jesus (a Lamb with 7 eyes and 7 horns).   Yes, Christ will return to Earth just as he has promised, but John's vision was not given to him to satisfy all of our curiosity about exactly how it will happen.

In my opinion it is more profitable to meditate on the deep irony inherent in the strange and paradoxical phrase "Wrath of the Lamb".  This is a rather astonishing juxtaposition.  A lamb is not an animal that most people would associate with apocalyptic rage and judgement.  What can this mean?

It means that when God arrives to forcibly overthrow all the powers of the world, he will do so with the same body that suffered on Earth as a meek, innocent victim of torture and execution.  A person who—although he was very far from being a physical or verbal doormat—told his disciples not to resist their persecutors, and who willingly forgave his tormenters.  That person, and nobody else, is going to finally end all violence and disease, and economic exploitation, and religious oppression.  Not by beating them in a fair fight on their own terms, but rather by the sheer power and glory and worthiness of his unveiled and crucified divinity.

This blog post will not attempt to interpret the strange Sabbath rest of the 7th Seal.  Nor will I attempt to give an interpretation of the Trumpets and Bowls which follow the Seals in the text (although this does not necessarily imply anything about their chronological order) except to note the obvious fact, that depending on how the future unfolds, the human race could easily face severe ecological devastation as a result of human sin and mismanagement of the Earth.

The main purpose of these visions and teachings is not to show us what we have to suffer—there has always been plenty of that on Earth, even without special Tribulations and Persecutions—but rather to show us who suffered along side us.

Those of us who persist in reading the Scriptures, or the events of our lives, with the goal of finding Jesus there, will not I think find them to be without meaning.

About Aron Wall

I am a Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
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9 Responses to Pandemic without Panic (a meditation for Holy Tuesday)

  1. jt says:

    Dear Sir,

    I have read a number of Your writings and hate to admit I was somewhat disheartened when You took a break. Although I was raised in the Atheist religion, and now consider myself to be of the Agnostic religion, I just wanted to thank You for your cogent discussion on religion, physics, and everything else.

    Nothing else. Just thank You.

  2. Aron Wall says:

    Thanks for the kind words!

    I've had to move 3 more times since we came to England 1 year ago, as a result of an attempted house purchase failing at the last minute. Hopefully I'll have more time in the year to come. I know everyone else is complaining about the pandemic, but I'm finally getting some things done!

  3. jt says:

    (Thank You for the thanks. ;)

    Sorry to here about your unbelievable bad luck. Hope You're at least enjoying Your work. Looking forward to future posts, if You can squeeze in the time. :)

  4. Andrew Lynch says:


    Thank you for this. I'm working as a nurse in Ireland on the front line. I'm also a physics grad and a recent convert. In the middle of this started I got very into cognitive science and was having (and still am having, if I'm honest) an existential crisis. Never got the chance to intellectually process what I was seeing. It means an awful lot to me to see something like this, right now.

    Thank you.

    - Andy

  5. It’s great to read your thoughtful words again, Aron. Thank you and have a blessed time.

  6. I was inspired to ask you some questions by contrasting your response to the pandemic with this post by Scott Alexander partially in response to the pandemic. That post as well uses the current crisis to remind us of the End Times, not in the Christian sense but no less seriously. Specifically, it is about existential risks, catastrophes that may wipe out the human race and how important it is to prevent them. I worry that a lot of people, to some extent even myself, don't take existential risks seriously enough just because it is hard to take seriously that humanity might really go extinct, that all this life and meaning can turn to nothing by accident, that there's nothing preventing this from occurring. Well, to a religious believer there does seem to be something that could prevent this from occurring.

    I'm glad you had to wisdom to notice that just as no God has prevented the previous plagues and catastrophes, neither should we expect one to poof away this one, but rather we should be prepared for the worst and act to mitigate it as though the entire weight rests on our shoulders. However, as long as you believe in a God that has a plan for the broad course of humanity, I worry that you will not take the same sensible attitude to the gravest dangers and highest opportunities that humanity may face. In light of these difficulties, I'd like to ask you two questions:

    1. In this universe, not whatever you believe comes after, do believe it is a matter of human actions and choices that will determine whether the nearby stars and galaxies will be colonized and filled with life for billions of years or whether it will all be snuffed out in a single planet? Or do you think God will guide our course in this, perhaps by reshaping our world entirely before either becomes an option?

    2. Do you agree with the arguments, laid out in the blog post, that among worldly disasters ones that lead to the complete extinction of humanity are much worse than ones that merely wipe out 90% or 99% of the population, and so it is especially important to try to mitigate true existential risks compared to non-existential global catastrophes?

  7. Aron Wall says:

    Dear Itai,
    Thanks for (as usual) your reflective and interesting reply. A few comments:

    A. Just because I wrote one particular, theologically motivated, reflection on the pandemic, doesn't mean that I necessarily disagree with another person's take on the pandemic. There are a lot of interesting things that can be said about everything, and there are many topics (like global warming) that I think very much warrent the attention of humanity, but which I don't blog about very often because I don't feel that I have much comparative advantage in discussing the subject (or more honestly, for whatever reason it doesn't push past the very high threshold necessary for this particular lazy yet busy academic to actually sit down and write something...).

    Sometimes I'm afraid people will assume my interests are more limited than they actually are just because there are only a small number of topics I bother to write about...

    B. While as you say it is obvious that God doesn't in general cause all of our problems to disappear (even his own Son experienced crucifixion), strictly speaking we don't actualy know how many disasters he has prevented. All we know is the ones that he lets through...

    C. My interpretation of the Bible is that God has promised that the Jews (and therefore humanity) will never go extinct. Therefore, there will not be an extinction level event prior to Jesus returning to our universe (which will trigger some "reshaping the world entirely", including the reversal of death and setting up God's eternal kingdom). However, we do not know how long it will be until Jesus returns (e.g. it could be before or after space colonization). It is also a very real possibility that Jesus might return just before the moment that we humans would otherwise annihilate ourselves. This suggests that it is at least possible, that human choices will affect how long humanity gets to last before God brings the current phase of his plan to an end.

    D. Does that mean that Christians ought to work towards producing human extinction disasters, since that will bring Jesus back to Earth quicker? I say no: first because (leaving aside the incredible hubris of thinking we know enough about God's plans to trigger the Apocalypse) we are commanded to do good and not evil, and working to create existential threats (or not trying to prevent them, if that lies within the scope of our duties) would violate that command. Judas' betrayal was still an evil act, despite the fact that (in a way unknown to Judas) God used it to redeem the world. Secondly, even though (for those who love what is good) Phase 2 of God's plan will be so much better than Phase 1, Phase 2 is going to last forever anyway, so humanity has only a limited opportunity to get whatever benefits of maturity or repentance we can receive by living through Phase 1. (See 2 Peter chapter 3.) Third, because God is going to judge the world, so if think we are entitled to ruin God's earth and threaten humanity in Phase 1 we can expect Jesus to take a pretty dim view of that. Fourth, because most existential threats also leave open the possibility that humanity continues but under much more unpleasant or dystopian circumstances.

    Answer to #1: In light of the above, a qualified Yes/Maybe. It well could be that our actions will affect whether we go to space, and whether there will be many more humans than presently exist. (Of course we can never be certain our actions will make a difference to whether we acheive interstellar travel, because on any sane worldview this also depends on factors outside of our control).

    The way you phrased #1 raises some deeper questions about what is the relationship between human free will and God's plans which I'm not addressing here, but let me just say that I don't think the two are mutually exclusive; something can be both freely willed by a human (or accidentally caused by human negligence) and still be part of God's plan for humanity, as in the case of Genesis 50:20). Since God is omnipotent, if his plans preclude human beings from acheiving interstellar travel, he certainly has the power to prevent us. But I see no reason (apart from the fact that he has inconveniently placed the nearest stars lightyears away from our own solar system) to necessarily think that he would do so.

    Answer to #2. A qualified No.

    First the qualifications. Christians can and should work to prevent catastrophes that a secular person would consider to be X-risks, for the reasons I mentioned above, and obviously (all else being equal) preventing a greater disaster is more important then preventing a smaller one. Furthermore, Christianity is incompatible with any ethic where the immoderate consumption of present-day resources is regarded as more valuable than the health and safety of our great-great grandchildren (partly because of altruism, but also because excess indulgence is unwholesome for human beings, and badly damages our ability to regulate our minds and emotions). And since, for all we know, it might be a very long time before Jesus returns, we should also act in way that shows concern for very distant generations. (Given the usual arguments for division of labor, this implies that some fraction of intellectuals should make it their life's work to contemplate very long-range problems that might potentially arise.)

    HOWEVER, in light of the fact that, if Christianity is true, the worst-case scenario for X-risks still involves humanity living forever during Phase 2: I don't think that a person who has internalized a Christian worldview can reasonably consider the prevention of hypothetical X-risks to be the most supremely important factor in decision making. Certainly they can't assign it the same weight that an atheist utilitarian would. (Christians already know that humanity's time on this Earth is limited, it is just a question of how and when the end comes.) Thus, trying to influence tiny probabilities of extreme disasters can't trump our manifest obligation to show mercy and love to our present-day neighbors (whose existence is not a matter of speculation). Arguably this is necessary for moral balance: people who disregard present-day justice in order to try to produce a future utopia (or prevent a future dystopia) have a disturbing tendency to become persecutors and terrorists. Whether humanity survives for 10 more generations or 10,000 generations, the best way we can ensure that future generations will have lives that are worth living, and that they face future dangers with prudence and courage, is to model virtuous living today.

    E. You write: "I worry that you will not take the same sensible attitude to the gravest dangers and highest opportunities that humanity may face."
    Indeed, but this is just the banal observation that the actions people take depend on their beliefs. If somebody has incorrect beliefs about the universe, their attempts to make the world a better place will (all else being equal) be less effective since they are acting on false premises. This is one reason why it is important to try to have true and accurate beliefs. But since I believe my beliefs are actually TRUE (otherwise I wouldn't believe them) the fact that my beliefs could lead to bad consequences if I am wrong is not a persuasive reason not to act in accordance with them.

    Indeed, I could turn things around and worry that you will not take a "sensible attitude to the gravest dangers and highest opportunities that humanity may face". The gravest danger we face is eternal damnation, while the highest opportunity is eternal bliss seeing the light of the glory of God (who is the fullness of all Truth and Beauty, of which all goods we receive on earth are but a distant and dim shadow).

    You ask me to consider the question of humanity's fate without regard to "whatever you believe comes after"; but considering that I really do believe in my religion, asking me to disregard the afterlife is just as short-sighted as if I asked you to disregard the consequeces of your action on future generations. There is no reason why a person who believes in God, should regard speculative future scenarios inspired by science fiction, as somehow more solid and real than future scenarios based on what God has said he is going to do. (Unless you think that deep down I don't really believe in the reality of the resurrection of the dead, so that maybe if you ask the question in the right way I can candidly acknowledge the importance of acting on secular premises. But you won't get me to inadvertantly deny my faith so easily as all that.)

    F. Nothing I've said so far is an actual argument for the existence of God, but since you're here let me push back a little bit on your worldview. Presumably the reason you think that "all this life and meaning" arose by accident and could also disappear by accident, is that you think that the material universe is all there is, and that the closest we get to a guiding providence, is the impersonal laws of physics which happened to permit complex structures to evolve.

    But, what this fails to notice is that a materialistic view of the world is only possible in the first place if we start with the world we experience (which includes experiences of meaning and goodness) and then perform an act of abstraction, by choosing to disregard all aspects of reality except those which can be described in purely quantitative terms. This is a legitimate perspective and the foundation of all physical science, but it is still an abstraction, meaning that it throws away a great deal of our experiences of the world. To use a metaphor, it's a little like making a black-and-white movie of an event, and then thinking that this film is identical to the reality itself, so that any talk of "color" or "three dimensions" or something "outside the frame" has to be either eliminated or re-expressed in terms of things that can be seen on the film. (Even though we can only watch the film in the first place because we have a sense of vision, which can be used to verify the existence of colors etc.)

    I think there is good reason to believe that phsyics is a "leaky" abstraction which (despite its impressive range of validity) throws away some critically important clues about what the universe is like. In particular, I think that if we start with only the laws of physics, and a purely physical description of the measured state of the world, we could never prove that any physical system is conscious, or indeed that any propositional "meaning" or "thoughts" can be attributed to any dynamical system, aside perhaps from its conformity to the laws of physics. (I'm not talking about whether such "meanings" are vain or futile or evenescent or correct, but whether they can be objectively attributed to physical systems at all in a way that doesn't presuppose the existence of a perceiving mind.)

    Another way of putting this point, is that if you took a dictionary and restrict yourself only to a minimal subset of English words that are sufficient to formulate the Standard Model of particle physics, then in general I don't think it is possible to give a satisfactory definition of the remaining words in the dictionary in terms of this "physical" subset of words. (This illustration is somewhat imprecise, given that the semantic range of word-meanings in a natural language is always somewhat vague, but I don't think that this invalidates the point I'm making.) If I am right about this, then Materialism (in the sense of disbelief in any properties of entities not reducible to physics) is not only wrong, but is wrong a priori, and quite regardless of the outcome of any experiments whatsoever.

    This doesn't tell you what precisely you should believe in which transcends physics, but you gotta have something, and it has to be something that is in some way related to concepts like "meaning" and "significance" and "goodness", if you want to avoid the nihilistic implication that these concepts have no valid referent, and need to be eliminated to form an accurate representation of reality (despite the consitutive role they play in our own thought processes).

  8. Raphael says:

    Hi Aron! Could you please email me i wanted to ask you something privately

    Thank you!

  9. David D. says:

    Hey Raphael,

    I don't know if Aron has contacted you yet, but you can find his email address at the bottom of his homepage.

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