Monday, October 10, 2016

Why I went vegan, and why you should as well

I've eaten a standard Western American diet for all twenty-six years of my life. Eggs, dairy, meat? You betcha, all day every day. But a couple of months ago in mid July I decided to go vegan cold-turkey (no pun intended)--that is, no more eggs, dairy, or meat. My reasons for this life-altering decision will be articulated below, but let the reader be aware that this is not something I had ever considered--it's not something that I mulled over in my mind and went back and forth on. A vegan lifestyle was the furthest thing from my mind. In fact, the words "vegan" and "vegetarian" always elicited pejorative reactions from me. These lifestyles were always seen by me to to be less masculine and unnecessary. In fact, I bet many of you, upon reading the title, prematurely rolled your eyes and muttered something under your breath--I was that guy too. But, I was wrong.

So, why did I go vegan? Well, to be honest, I really just watched one documentary. That's it, just one. It wasn't Earthlings, though everyone should watch it. And it wasn't Forks over Knives, though everyone should watch it as well--if they care at all about their health. No, the documentary I watched was Cowspiracy, which, sorry to be redundant, you should definitely watch. I watched Cowspiracy and walked away a vegan, it's as simple as that.

Moreover, as I subsequently began to research more and more about veganism, it wasn't the statistics in Cowspiracy that kept me motivated and drew me towards a vegan diet, it was the health benefits. So now my main reason for being vegan is that I want to live as healthy a life as possible while simultaneously doing all I can to help the environment. And to be honest, nothing has been so easy. Despite what you might think, it is not hard to go vegan, and no, I don't at all miss meat, cheese, milk or eggs.

So, that's why I went vegan--nothing too interesting. The more pertinent question, though, is why you should go vegan.

Health, Wealth, and Prosperity
When I used to picture a vegan, antecedent to going vegan, I would picture a scrawny, wimpy, pale little weakling who was most likely nutrient deficient. That couldn't be farther from the truth. It turns out that a vegan lifestyle is the healthiest lifestyle for a human being. According to this study from the National Institutes of Health, which studied the nutritional quality of vegan, vegetarian, and different varieties of omnivorous diets, the results, "indicated consistently the vegan diet as the most healthy one."

Also, the demographics with the highest life expectancies (called blue zones) tend to be societies where meat and animal products are rarely consumed. For example, in 1949 the people of Okinawa, Japan--the historical demographic with one of the highest number of centenarians--ate virtually no meat. Their greatest consumption of meat was fish, yet their dietary intake of fish constituted only one percent of their overall dietary intake, and their overall consumption of animal products constituted less than four percent their total dietary intake (see here) [1].  Currently, the demographic with the highest life expectancy are the Adventist vegetarians in Loma Linda, California. Being vegetarians, they obviously don't consume meat and yet they have the greatest longevity of any demographic recorded to date.

So, if populations that eat little to no animal products have better health and longevity, does this imply that the more animal products you eat the less healthy you are? Well, that's what the data show.  Populations that eat a westernized diet tend to have more incidences of cancer and circulatory diseases, than those that don't.

But, why is this the case? Well, it's because many of the contents in animal products are carcinogenic, and the dietary cholesterol--only found in animal products--and trans fatty acids contribute to atherosclerosis--the number one killer in America. The latter should be uncontroversial, so let's survey the former.

Scientific studies have found many things that feed cancer, and many of these these are either found exclusively in animal products, or are found in the highest amount in said products.First, it was recently discovered that cancer cells feed off of cholesterol (see here and here). High LDL cholesterol levels are produced from high dietary cholesterol intake, which only comes from animal products--our bodies already produce all the cholesterol we need, and we actually have no need for dietary cholesterol. Second, cancer also feeds off of the amino acid methionine. This has actually been known since the 1970's. See, methionine is actually necessary for humans, but large quantities of methionine can actually feed cancer cells and help them metastasize. And what foods tend to have the highest levels of methionine? Animal products. Third, estrogen has been found to be carcinogenic, and has been linked to breast and prostate cancer. In fact, the American Cancer Society has labeled estrogen a type I carcinogen--which means it's known to cause cancer. Obviously, cow's milk contains incredible amount of estrogen, but it turns out that there's also excess estrogen in meat and eggs. [2] Fourth, high levels of a growth factor in our bodies called IGF-1 are also responsible, and necessary, for helping cancer metastasize and spread. And where can these dangerously high levels of IGF-1 come from? Well, not only is IGF-1 present in animal products, but consuming animal protein causes our liver to secrete a bunch of IGF-1(see here and here).

So the point here is that eating animal products makes you much, much more susceptible to cancer and other diseases. This is why the more plant-based a population's diet is the less their incidence of cancer and circulatory diseases. (Heck, even going vegan for only two weeks can significantly reduce and reverse cancer cell growth, see here.) And this is why this study states that, "vegan diets seem to confer lower risk for overall and female-specific cancer than other dietary patterns." Thus, it seems that if one desires to be healthy and flourish, then going vegan is the way to go.

Eating meat is destroying the environment
The other main reason that should persuade the rational individual to go vegan is regarding how animal agriculture is negatively affecting the environment. To list a few figures:

  • Animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than the exhaust emissions from all human transportation combined, which is 13 percent (see here). 
  • Animal agriculture is responsible for at least 80 percent of US water consumption (see here). 
  • 2,500 gallons of water are needed to produce one pound of beef (see here, here and here). 
  • Animal agriculture is the leading cause of species extinction, ocean dead zones, water pollution, and habitat destruction (see here, here and here). 
  • A farm with 2,500 dairy cows generates as much waste as a city of 411,000 people (see here). 
  • We could see fishless oceans by 2048 due to overfishing (see here). 
  • For every pound of fish caught, up to five pounds of unintended marine species are caught and killed as by-kill (see here). 
  • Animal agriculture is responsible for up to 91 percent of rainforest deforestation (see here).
  • One to two acres of rainforest are cleared every second (see here).  
  • Each day a person who eats vegan saves 1,100 gallons of water, 45 pounds of grain, 30 square feet of forested land, the equivalent of 20 pounds of CO2, and one animals life (see here and here).
There are many other daunting statistics that could be listed here. The point is that eating meat and consuming animal products is literally destroying the environment we live in, and you can't call yourself an environmentalist and consume animal products at the same time. You can literally make an impact on the environment right now by going vegan.

"But, like, where do you get your protein, dude?"
When people think about vegans, or going vegan, usually their first thought centers around nutrient deficiencies, such as protein. However, it turns out that vegans and vegetarians have about the same amount of protein intake as omnivores. It's said that male adults (like myself, I think) only need around 60 grams of protein per day. Speaking from  experience, I get in about 110 grams of protein without even trying to. It's really not that hard--plant protein is everywhere--just ask vegan Torre Washington (left).

[1] In fact, since 1949 Okinawa has begun to eat more of a westernized diet--i.e. more animal products--and as a result their longevity has decreased and their circulatory diseases have increased.
[2] This might be one reason why, on average, vegan men have higher testosterone levels than omnivores.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

A treatise on brute facts

Two years ago I wrote a post geared towards a refutation of the existence of brute facts and what this entailed for naturalism. Since this time I have engaged in many discussions with naturalists regarding this very topic, and as a result of those discussions I have (slightly) altered and polished my argument. And because of this I have, for a while now, wanted to write up another, more systematic, post which attempted to demonstrate the impossibility of brute facts. So, here goes.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines a brute fact as synonymous with an unexplainable fact. [1] In the same vein, Wikipedia states, "a brute fact is a fact that has no explanation. More narrowly, brute facts may instead be defined as those facts which cannot be explained (as opposed to simply having no explanation). " Right away we see that we can distinguish between two types of brute facts--those in practice (extrinsic), and those in principle (intrinsic). An extrinsic brute fact is a fact that we currently do not have an explanation for. An example of this would be the origin of life. We believe that the fact of life's origination has an explanation, we simply do not know currently what that explanation is. On the other hand, an intrinsic brute fact is a fact that has no explanation, at all, in principle. Considering an intrinsic brute fact, it's not that we don't know the explanation for X, but that X doesn't have an explanation to be known in the first place.

Now, nobody disputes the existence of extrinsic brute facts; we all agree that there are things we don't know. The point of contention, and our domain of focus in our discussion of brute facts, is whether or not intrinsic brute facts actually exist or whether they are even possible. This is what is to be considered presently.

What should be noteworthy at this point is the notion of a brute fact is defined in terms of explanation. And, as we'll see below, the concept of explanation, and what it entails, is crucial in determining whether or not brute facts are possible. So, what constitutes an explanation? Well, the problem with defining this term is that an explanation can be given in many different domains and contexts. Take these different cases of explanations: the teacher explains the lesson; Susan explains what she meant; the nail explains why the tire is flat; the nonzero net force explains the change in velocity; the premises explain the conclusion etc. Notice that in each of these cases the presence of something--e.g. someone doing the explaining, an object, a force, an abstract concept or proposition--is the reason for, and clarifies, that which, in the absence of that something, would be unclear--the lesson, the meaning, the flat tire, the change in velocity, the conclusion.

The important concepts just utilized are reasons and intelligibility. When some fact is explained, there is a reason, account, or justification--which can be grounded in many things, from an object to an abstract proposition, as we saw above--which imparts some form of clarity and intelligibility to the thing that was heretofore unclear. Therefore, I maintain that the proper definition of "explanation" that should be utilized is "a reason whereby something is rendered intelligible." [2]

Now, from this definition is entailed a crucial inference: something being explained is not the same thing as something actually having an explanation. The former is an action, dependent on minds doing the explaining, while the latter is not. Return to a couple of my examples above--namely, the teacher explaining the lesson, and the premises explaining the conclusion. The teacher explaining the lesson is an example of something actually being explained, and we could call this a case of explanation in practice (extrinsic). The premises explaining the conclusion is an example of something, the conclusion, having an explanation while not necessarily being explained to anyone currently, and we could call this a case of explanation in principle (intrinsic). (Note at this point that there is an identical differentiation here between the different types of explanation and brute facts.)

Not only are intrinsic explanations not equivalent to extrinsic explanations, but the latter actually presuppose the former. Intrinsic explanations are a necessary condition for extrinsic explanations. That is to say, in order for one to be able to explain something, there has to be an objective explanation available in the first place. It is incoherent to claim that something was explained that had no explanation. The teacher cannot give reasons that render a lesson intelligible if the lesson doesn't have a reason for its intelligibility. This is important because many of my interlocutors have claimed that explanation should only be focused on explanation in practice, yet this is nonsense, since, to reiterate my point, explanation in practice presupposes harboring an explanation in principle.

Another concept that is embedded in the notion of explanation is that of intelligibility, and just like explanation and brute facts, it comes in practice and in principle. For something to actually be made intelligible in practice means that someone has actually comprehended it. For something to be intelligible in principle means that it's possible that it could be comprehended, even if it never actually is. For example, the mechanism of gravity was unintelligible in practice for many decades, even though it was always intelligible in principle--that is, there always was an account for the mechanism of gravity. And once again, just like explanation, intelligibility in principle is a necessary condition for intelligibility in practice. For in order for someone to comprehend X, it is a necessity that its possible that X be comprehended in the first place.

Now, since we're currently interested in intrinsic brute facts, and not extrinsic brute facts, this entails that we are likewise interested in the nature of intrinsic explanation and intrinsic intelligibility, and not extrinsic explanation and extrinsic intelligibility. For since we're attempting to determine whether facts can be unexplainable in principle, we need to examine the nature of explanation in principle and see if this is something that can be done away with whilst a fact remains intelligible in itself. We will not go the way of the PSR and merely dogmatically assert that all things must have an explanation, rather we need only delve deeper into the nature of explanation and infer its entailments.

To begin, let us consider an example, similar to the example I utilized in my original post, of explanation in principle. In physics acceleration represents the rate of change of velocity with respect to time. Now, if we are curious as to the explanation of acceleration in principle, we can find this in the concept of velocity, since acceleration is literally defined in terms of velocity. And if we go further and ask for the explanation of velocity, we find this in the concept of the rate of change of position. Therefore, acceleration is explained by velocity which is in turn explained by position. What this means is that acceleration is granted intelligibility by the concept of velocity, which is granted intelligibility by position, so on and so forth.

This entails something very important: acceleration is ultimately explained by position. In the specific explanatory chain that we are considering, all the concepts that lead up to position are only ultimately imparted their intelligibility by position itself. If position is dropped, then so are all the subsequent concepts--if position is rendered unintelligible, then so is acceleration.

All of this entails something else that's even more important: explanatory chains are essentially ordered series. An essentially ordered series is a series wherein each member derives whatever efficacy it has from higher members--unless it is the highest member--such that if a member is lost, all the lower members will also be lost. This obviously fits like a glove with the example of position and acceleration above.

In any event, the notion that should be highlighted here when speaking of essentially ordered series is that of derivation or of "being imparted". That is, when A explains B, this means, per our definitions, that B is rendered or imparted intelligibility by A, that B would be unintelligible were it not for A. To return to our example, acceleration would be unintelligible were it not for velocity and thus acceleration derives its intelligibility from velocity. But, again, this is the case for any subsequent members of an explanatory chain with regards to a specific member. That is to say, if A explains B which explains C which explains D, then D ultimately derives its intelligibility from A, and only proximately derives its intelligibility from B and C.

What this likewise entails is that if A does not impart intelligibility to B, then B does not impart any to C, and likewise for D. And this is where consideration of brute facts come in. For where would a brute fact fit in such a chain of explanation? Surely it cannot be the highest member of an explanatory chain, because since a brute fact has no explanation then, by definition, it has no reason whereby it is rendered intelligible, and thus it would be unintelligible. But a reason needs to be intelligible itself if it is to render something else intelligible. (Again, consider acceleration and velocity, the latter has to be intelligible if it is to impart any intelligibility to acceleration.) Therefore, A being intelligible is a necessary condition for A to be an explanation for any B. Logically, this means that if A is unintelligible then it cannot be an explanation for any subsequent fact B. Thus, a brute fact cannot be the first member in an explanatory chain, for it would not explain anything while being itself unexplained. [3]

However, while a brute fact might not be the highest member in an explanatory chain, is it possible that it be a member somewhere in the middle? That is, can we have a chain A, B, C, D...wherein C is a brute fact? I don't see how, since, to reiterate the above point, C would not be able to explain D, and C could not be subsequent to B since B would then have to explain C--otherwise C wouldn't be in the chain to begin with--which would contradict our original premise for the nature of C--namely, its having no explanation. What we see, then, is that there is no place in an explanatory chain for a brute fact,  and if there is no place in an explanatory chain for a brute fact then it would seem that brute facts are impossible.

In addition to dispelling the notion of brute facts participating in the nature of explanation, we can add another argument--call it the argument from intelligibility. The argument can be formulated as follows: If a member F of an explanatory chain M is intelligible, then no members antecedent to F in M can be brute facts. Why can we deduce this? Well, if F is intelligible then it has a reason whereby it is rendered intelligible--otherwise it wouldn't be part of an explanatory chain, since it wouldn't have an explanation. And since intelligibility is imparted down through the members of  explanatory chains, we can say that for F to be intelligible, every member of M must also be intelligible--otherwise intelligibility is not imparted at some point in the chain. But if every member is intelligible, then every member must have a reason whereby it is rendered intelligible--again, otherwise it wouldn't have an explanation. And this means that every member does in fact have an explanation and cannot be a brute fact. Based on this line of argumentation, we can reach an interesting conclusion: if a fact is intelligible, then it cannot in any sense be linked to a brute fact, and thus we cannot posit a brute fact from anything that exists.

Now, attentive readers may have noticed something that it seems I have forgotten: namely, that there can be multiple explanations for something, and that these multiple explanations can form multiple explanatory chains that are interconnected, and thus, it would seem, my account of explanation and explanatory chains is too simplistic. I do agree that something can have multiple explanations and that there can be multiple interconnected explanatory chains that stretch across different domains. However, I maintain there is nothing about multiple explanatory chains that changes the nature of an explanatory chain in itself--and thus there is nothing that calls my conclusions into question.

To illustrate this, consider a case of combustion, perhaps a candle that is lit. What is the explanation for this lit candle? Well, we can think of a couple. One explanation is the fact that somebody actually lit the candle, from. Another explanation is an oxidizing agent and a chemical reaction. These are both genuine explanations since they are both reasons wherein the lit candle is rendered intelligible. And here we also have two explanatory chains that converge on a single state of affairs. So, we have a situation where one explanatory chain (...A, B, C) converges with another chain (...X, Y, C) at the fact of C--the lit candle.

The question that should be considered presently is whether or not the existence of C changes the nature of explanation considered above. It's difficult to see how it would change everything we've considered, since we still have something (C) which derives its intelligibility from antecedent members, such that, in the absence of such members, it would be rendered unintelligible. The only "new" notions that need be introduced are partial intelligibility and partial explanations. For if C is missing one explanation, out of two, then it is only partially intelligible, and thus the explanation it has is only a partial explanation. But notice that none of this changes the nature of explanation itself. It is still the case that in order for C to be intelligible in any sense, it needs to have at least one reason whereby it derives its intelligibility--even if this is only a partial intelligibility. And, more importantly, the fact that C derives its intelligibility from something else means it has to, at least, be a member of an essentially ordered explanatory series, which means that all our conclusions from above still hold true.

To substantiate this even further, consider the question at the forefront of this post: can a brute fact be part of a convergence of multiple explanatory chains? This doesn't seem possible since, again, a brute fact cannot have an explanation, by definition, and therefore it cannot have antecedent explanatory members. That is to say, a brute fact cannot be reliant upon another fact for its intelligibility, much less multiple facts. Furthermore, based on our intelligibility argument above, what we can also say is that if C is intelligible, then, even if it is part of multiple interwoven explanatory chains, we can safely say that none of the antecedent members in these chains contains a brute fact.

In summarization we've concluded many things. First, because of the nature of explanation itself, as well as essentially ordered explanatory series, brute facts are simply impossible. There is, logically, nowhere they can fit in chains of explanation, and a chain of explanation is the only place they would go if they were possible, since brute facts are defined in terms of explanation. Second, because of the nature of explanatory chains, if a fact or state of affairs is intelligible, then it follows that it cannot be associated with a brute fact. Third, no matter how interconnected and interwoven multiple explanatory chains are, they still retain their nature as essentially ordered series and our notion of explanation--with which the whole post is founded on--and our conclusions regarding the impossibility of brute facts remain intact.
[1] See the article on the Principle of Sufficient Reason
[2] Let it be noted that this is one of the most crucial points in my argument. For everything from here on out follows from, and is entailed by, this definition.
[3] Note that neither can a brute fact be the lowest member in an explanatory chain, since in order to be the lowest member, some member would come before it and this member would have to explain it, which would contradict the definition of a brute fact. Yet I don't think anybody would entertain this idea since usually a brute fact is seen to occur at the beginning of a long line of explanations, and not at the end.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

A review of Sean Carroll's The Big Picture: Part III

Let us continue our review of physicist Sean Carroll's book The Big Picture. In this installment of the review I will be focusing mostly on the section of the book labeled Essence, however, let it be noted that I will also be surveying material from other sections as they seem to fit with many of the topics under discussion presently -- also some material from this section in the book will be held-over and reviewed in the subsequent installment -- mostly that which deals with the philosophy of mind.

In this section of the book Carroll delves into how he believes the world works according to Core Theory and quantum mechanics. He uses these determinations as a springboard into discussing why the universe exists, and how God fits into this picture, or doesn't, as well as the discussion regarding whether there is a soul, and whether or not life will continue after death.

Abducting or deducting God?
Carroll begins to consider worldviews that would oppose his "poetic naturalism" -- one such worldview being that of theism. And what happens when we are confronted with two opposing ontologies that are situated on the same domain? Well, for Carroll it's the method of Bayesian reasoning and abductive logic all the way:
[F]or purposes of this discussion let's imagine that the prior credences for theism and atheism are about equal. Then all the heavy lifting will be done by the likelihoods -- how well the two ideas do in accounting for the world we actually see. (p. 146)
So Carroll's plan is to look at the world and attempt to determine which ontology provides the best explanation for what we see, or don't see. We see evil in the world, then that scores points for atheism. We see consciousness in the world, chalk up a point for theism. Etc.

This might seem a good way to go about inferring which worldview is most reasonable to assume, but I maintain that's it's completely wrongheaded in this instance. First, as I mentioned in one of the previous reviews, abductive (Bayesian) reasoning is not the only kind of reasoning, and more importantly it's not the best kind of reasoning that should be utilized in this discussion. In everyday life and scientific reasoning, abduction is your best friend. If you're a scientist and you find that the liquid in a test tube has changed color, you use inference to the best explanation, plain and simple. But if you're attempting to determine whether the square root of two is a rational or an irrational number, abduction is the wrong tool to use -- you need deduction.

So, why then, should we use deduction when determining whether theism or atheism is true, and not pure abduction, as Carroll would have us do? Well, it comes down to who has the burden of proof: the theist. The theist is saying that there is in fact some positive reality that exists, and it is their burden to prove this. And how do they usually go about attempting to prove it? Through (mostly)logical deduction -- at least that's how the classical theists did it before Paley. [1] Thus, when weighing theism vs atheism, one needs to take the arguments that are being given by theists, which are deductive in nature, and determine whether they hold any merit. Appealing purely to abduction won't do any good, just like appealing to abduction to argue that the square root of two is rational will not be entertained by any mathematician. Contrary to Carroll, the heavy lifting is not done by likelihoods, but by deduction.

The point is that if theistic deductions are valid and sound then no amount of abductive inference will call this into question. And thus what needs to be determined is precisely the matter of if theistic deductions are indeed valid and sound or not -- which, again, is a job of deductive inference.

The more important point is that there are simply some beliefs that are so fundamental and metaphysical that a pragmatic method simply cannot comment on. Like it or not, abduction won't solve the realism/skepticism debate. It won't solve the free will/determinism debate. And it certainly will not solve the theism/atheism debate. Carroll wants to use a screwdriver for every job, when some jobs require a sledgehammer.

Whence the universe?
Carroll commits a whole chapter to exploring the question of why the universe exists, and why there is something rather than nothing. He begins by contemplating the answer of a necessary being in that of God but quickly casts it aside:
Poetic naturalists don't like to talk about necessities when it comes to the universe. They prefer to lay all the options out on the table, then try to figure out what our credences should be in each of them. (p. 196)
First, it's irrelevant that poetic naturalists like Carroll "don't like" to talk about necessities when it comes to the universe. The relevant question is whether talk of necessity is appropriate when it comes to questions of fundamental metaphysics -- of which existential questions like "why is there something rather than nothing?" are a subset -- and surely it is. So, the fact that Carroll is allergic to necessity/contingency talk is not sufficient to cast that talk aside as if it were irrelevant -- and neither has Carroll given any warrant for doing so.

Second, and more importantly, the question being dealt with here is, again, of a significant metaphysical stature, and I don't see that abduction is the right tool to use here. When asking why there is something rather than nothing, what's really being asked is why existence should ontologically precede a complete lack of existence, and this is a deeply metaphysical question in nature, which most likely will have to yield to some type of existential necessity or brute fact -- if you believe in such nonsense. And the fact of the matter is that delving into the nature of existence is commonly a deductive, and not an abductive, endeavor. Thus, the poetic naturalist way of going about answering this detective story is already wrong-headed to begin with.

Nevertheless, let's see the blueprints that Carroll lays out to proceed in answering this question:
Let's start with the relatively straightforward, science-oriented question: could the universe exist all by itself, or does it need something to bring it into existence? [...] All we want to know is "Is the existence of the universe compatible with unbroken laws of nature, or do we need to look beyond those laws in order to account for it?" (p. 196-197)
These are very relevant and important questions to our current inquiry. Carroll attempts to answer these questions by turning to science to settle the debate regarding whether or not the universe had a beginning -- his answer eventually terminating in a modest "we don't know."

The problem here, though, again stems from the fact that Carroll is ignorant to the fact that these are simply not the questions that science can answer in the first place -- "these" questions being the original questions he posed. For even if we could mathematically describe our universe as self-sustaining or existing by itself, this wouldn't actually make any progress in answering the existential question. For science only describes the behavior of that which already naturally exists, and it cannot tell you why the universe behaves in that way in the first place, or why it behaves this way as opposed to another way. To put it in a different vein, in order to have a behavior to describe you first need something which exists and does the behaving, and this means that existence is ontologically prior to behavior. Therefore, no description of behavior (which is all that science is) is sufficient to explain the existence of what does the behaving, and thus, science cannot in principle answer the question of why there is something rather than nothing. Sorry Carroll.

What this also entails, once again, is that Carroll is looking for an answer to the existential question utilizing the wrong tools. Since science cannot aid us in determining why something exists rather than nothing then it is irrelevant, to say the least, when it comes to this particular question -- sorry Lawrence Krauss.

However, Carroll is prepared (or so he thinks) to take on this line of thought:
For questions like this, however, the scientific answer doesn't always satisfy everyone. "Okay," they might say, "we understand that there can be a physical theory that describes a self-contained universe, without any external agent bringing it about or sustaining it. But that doesn't explain why it actually does exist. For that, we have to look outside science." (p. 201)
Yes, this is exactly what I would say. Let's see how Carroll is going to set me straight:
Sometimes this angle of attack appeals to fundamental metaphysical principles, which are purportedly more foundational even than the laws of physics, and cannot be sensibly denied. In particular, the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Parmenides put forward the famous maxim ex nihilo, nihil fit -- "out of nothing, nothing comes." [...] According to this line of thought, it doesn't matter if physicists can cook up self-contained theories in which the cosmos has a first moment of time; those theories must necessarily be incomplete since they violate this cherished principle.
 This is perhaps the most egregious example of begging the question in the history of the universe. We are asking whether the universe could come into existence without anything causing it. The response is "No, because nothing comes into existence without being caused." How do we know that? It can't be because we have never seen it happen; the universe is different from the various things inside the universe that we have actually experienced in our lives. And it can't be because we can't imagine it happening or because it's impossible to construct sensible models in which it happens, since both the imagining and the construction of models have manifestly happened.  (p. 201-202)
Alright, there's a lot to unpack here. First, notice that Carroll has actually side-stepped the original point that he was claiming to address -- namely, that talk of scientific models doesn't actually address the question of why something exists in the first place. (Note that he does later on say that we may never know why the universe exists, and that its existence might simply be a brute fact. You know what my response is.)

Second, to appeal to fundamental metaphysical principles to call scientific models into question, or to highlight their incompleteness, is not to beg the question. For these principles are seen, by those promulgating them, as necessary conditions of reality; that is, they're seen as conditions that hold in any possible world and are the things that even make science possible in the first place. Thus, to claim that a scientific model cannot overthrow them is not to beg the question. It would beg the question if the individual promulgating said principles had no justification for their necessity. But this would have to be demonstrated by the likes of Carroll, which, to give him credit, he does attempt to do, which brings me to my next, and third, point.

Carroll asks a good question: how does one know that metaphysical principles like the law of causality are immutable? The answer is that we know this because those very propositions are formed through relations of concepts that we abstract from reality, which, as we saw in the last post, we must have objective knowledge of -- on pain of contradiction. Another way to put it is that our knowledge is dictated by reality, and not the other way around, and thus the reason why we know that principles like the law of causality are immutable is because these principles are themselves grounded in the objective nature of reality. [2]

Fourth, it is actually Carroll who begs the question here, though he does it so well that it's hard to catch. To revisit my first point above, he claims that to address the fact that scientific models don't answer the "Why?" of existence, individuals sometimes resort to metaphysical principles. But how does he argue against these principles? By appealing to the very physical models of the universe he already utilized and was questioned on! That is to say, based off of Carroll's argumentation, we could construct the following conversation:

Carroll: We can easily construct physical models of the universe which are self-sustaining.

Me: But those models are purely descriptive and incomplete, and don't answer why something exists in the first place.

Carroll: Where are we to look for this "Why?"

Me: To metaphysical principles like "that which is moved from potency to act is moved by that which is already actual."

Carroll: But this principle is false, since we have already constructed physical models which are self-sustaining.

Round and round we go. Hopefully the attentive reader notices that Carroll would simply keep begging the question regarding his self-sustaining physical models.

Furthermore, the more crucial point is that since science is only quantitatively based, it does not, in its equations, capture notions of causality -- something Carroll has articulated multiple times in the book. Therefore, even though we might be able to construct a model of reality that is self-sustaining, and self-contained, as far as physics is concerned, this does not actually equate to forming a model of the universe that is not contingent upon, and not caused by, anything else. Thus, Carroll's self-sustained models are actually completely irrelevant to the current discussion.

Carroll then briefly returns to the notion of God as an answer to the existential question:
Theists think they have a better answer: God exists, and the reason why the universe exists in this particular way is because that's how God wanted it to be. Naturalists tend to find this unpersuasive: Why does God exist? But there's an answer to that, or at least an attempted one, which we already alluded to at the beginning of this chapter. The universe, according to this line of reasoning, is contingent; it didn't have to exist, and it could have been otherwise, so its existence demands an explanation. But God is a necessary being; there is no optionality about his existence, so no further explanation is required. 
Except that God isn't a necessary being, because there are no such things as necessary beings. All sorts of versions of reality are possible, some of which have entities one would reasonably identify with God, and some of which don't. We can't short-circuit the difficult task of figuring out what kind of universe we live in by relying on a priori principles. (p. 203)
Again, there's a lot to unpack here. First, I want to focus on Carroll's comments on God as a necessary being, for he's only begging the question here. He literally gives absolutely no justification or substantiation for the claim that no necessary beings exist. He hasn't even come close to attempting to do the philosophical leg-work that would warrant him in making such an audacious claim.

Second, the only semblance of an argument Carroll does give in favor of God not being a necessary being is that of the fact that we can conceive of other possible worlds where there no such God. But again, Carroll hasn't done the leg-work to demonstrate this. For if we arrive at a logical deduction of what God is, as classical theists claim we can, then by "God" we literally mean "that whose essence is to exist," which means that by definition God cannot not exist. But this entails that there actually is no world of which we can conceive where God does not exist [3], and thus Carroll is wrong.

Third, Carroll actually refutes himself here when dismissing talk of a priori principles. Remember that Carroll is big on empiricism, and believes that the only way we can have genuine knowledge is to actually look at reality -- thus, a priori philosophy is moot in his eyes. However, Carroll's point in his latter paragraph is predicated on "all sorts of versions of reality" being ontologically possible -- that is, he's employing the notion of modal logic, an a priori endeavor. How does Carroll know that reality enjoys various ontological "possibilities"? He might say, "because of the fact we can imagine them" -- he seems to say as much on page 203. But that immediately commits one to the idea that possibility is grounded in the imagination; yet how would Carroll ground that idea? That is, why does Carroll believe that our imagination is capable of telling us anything true about the nature of reality? The point here that I'm trying to make is that any answers to these questions will necessarily be founded on a priori principles, the very thing Carroll is allergic to and vehemently opposes, as we saw last review. But, were he to give his beliefs a little more thought, he'd see that he ends up falling on his own sword, as it were.

In any event, Carroll conjures up no answer to the existential question of why the universe exists in the first place; though he should not be faulted for this. What he is to be faulted for is his sloppy logic utilized to throw opposing answers, like that of theism, under the bus. And thus it doesn't seem like his poetic naturalism is properly justified.

[1] Don't get me wrong. I know that many theists have attempted to persuade individuals that God exists by telling them to look at the stars, or the beauty that we perceive in the world etc., and this no doubt is done in the vein of abduction. But this is usually not done to satisfy one's burden of proof, at least in the sense of what we mean by "proof".

[2]Carroll also visits this idea earlier in his book on page 116 wherein he claims that "[beliefs] aren't (try as we may) founded on unimpeachable principles that can't be questioned." But this is false. If you push back on the justifications for propositions of knowledge further and further, you will arrive at a foundation of first principles that are axiomatic and, contrary to Carroll, cannot be questioned.

[3] Note that to imagine is not to conceive, in that I can conceive of something without imagining it and vice versa. Carroll constantly conflates the two throughout his book.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Where have I been?

My posting has been sparse as of late, to say the least, and this is due to a multitude of reasons. First, my mother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer a few weeks ago, and my wife has been taking it pretty hard, as would be expected. The good news is that her prognosis is extremely favorable, and most likely in a few weeks she'll be completely cancer free. The Lord is good, in his own analogous way.

Second, my wife and I have been doing some major landscaping to our house. We decided to install sod in our 2000 square foot backyard by ourselves, or should I say by myself. Anyway, the job was extremely stressful because our backyard soil needed to be tilled and sifted because of all the rock and debris due to the fact that we live by the mountains -- this is all incredibly fascinating, I know. And the sod had a deadline of when it was to be shipped so I needed to have it ready by that deadline -- no pressure. Oh yeah, and did I mention I was working in the 105 degree heat, to prepare said soil?Yay El Paso! But, the sod was delivered and installed this past week, and I'm freaking glad that's done with.

Third, I was barely informed a few weeks ago that I will also be teaching physics this upcoming year, which I was stoked about. However, that means that I have to prepare lessons, and labs, before school starts -- because I'm a good teacher, dammit.

Anyway, there's been plenty on my plate as of late, but I promise that I will start blogging more. In fact, I have the next installment of my review of Carroll's book coming out in just a few days, so stay tuned.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

I'm one step away from being an atheist

Readers of this blog know that I believe in God, and am, obviously, a theist. And most know that I also believe that God's existence can be rationally justified -- as I have attempted to demonstrate on this blog -- even if not everyone finds such justification to be overwhelmingly persuasive. I, thus, believe that my belief in God is rationally grounded.

So how, then, can it be the case that I am "one step away from being an atheist"? Is this an exaggeration? Well kind of, but...not exactly. Let me explain.

My daughter Norah is currently sixteen months old. She's the light of my life, and that which puts everything in perspective. She gives my life more meaning and joy than I ever thought was possible. My first twenty-four years of existence without her pales in comparison to the life that I now enjoy with her and my wife. The love that protrudes from my heart to her being is transcendent and unparalleled. She is my life.

And, unfortunately, as a normal parent, I constantly hear stories of the tragedies that befall parents with children. Heck, my wife works as a neonatal intensive care nurse, and comes home with horrific stories of infants dying and suffering every week, it seems. When I hear of these stories I am always grieved, and I immediately wonder what I would do in those situations. I mean, seriously, what would I do if something happened to my daughter?

Well, many things would happen, and none of them good, I can tell you that. But one action that I genuinely think would be a strong possibility is that I would abandon all belief in a God. To lose the most precious thing I have ever laid eyes on, and have completely given my heart to, would destroy me, and it would annihilate any belief in a God that has even an ounce of love. If something happened to my daughter I would curse God forever, and lose any heart that any such maximally loving being existed at all. That's it, I would be an atheist at heart.

However, there's an inconsistency here that many attentive readers may have picked up on. As I just said, and as anyone would acknowledge, these events happen constantly every day -- children are dying needlessly every minute. How, then, can I sit here and say that one child's potential death would be a sufficient condition for my non-belief, and yet this potential is being realized in thousands of other families every day? That is, how can I consistently say that one turn of events is enough to convert me to atheism, when these very events are ubiquitous in the world we inhabit, and yet nevertheless continue to believe in God?

I think that the answer here is to be found in emotion. No matter how rationally justified and reasonably held our beliefs are, they are still, most likely, predicated on emotion, more than reason. In fact, this is already something that psychologists have inferred. So, even though I believe that the existence of God is rationally justified, it is the case that a flood of emotions so significant and so powerful can overthrow this belief. And it's important to note that this is the case with anyone -- emotion can easily overthrow anyone's reasonably held beliefs, especially if one does not realize that this is occurring. What this also means is that my reasons for believing in God are not purely rational either. They are most likely rooted in just as much emotion as they are reason. In fact, it means that most of our reasonably held beliefs are probably predicated more in emotion than in reason.

So, even though I do in fact have rational justifications for why a "good" God would allow suffering and evil, when this suffering and evil lands on my front door, my emotion is enough to supersede such justification. This isn't always a good thing, but it's the condition of human nature and thought nonetheless. However, though it might not always be a good thing -- when considered from a purely rational perspective -- this sway of emotion is a form of justification in itself, and by that I mean that if one's child unfortunately dies, they are indeed warranted in entailing atheism from this event. I mean, how can they not be warranted? Because they should know William Lane Craig's logical arguments against the problem of suffering? Come on. If God made us, then he made us with a rational faculty that is just as sensitive to emotion as it is to reason -- in fact, it may be even more sensitive to emotion. Therefore, I don't see how God can be upset that an individual infers atheism from tragic and sorrowful circumstances, since God's the one who arranged our cognitive faculties to be swayed in this way to begin with! But, I digress.

To come back to me personally, I'm not even sure if what I've said is correct. That is, I don't know for sure that if the aforementioned circumstances obtained, that I would abandon theism on emotional grounds. I say this because I used to think the same regarding my father. Three years ago my father was killed crossing the street in a residential area by an idiot going fifteen over the speed limit. I always thought that if something like this happened, then, it would drive me away from God. But, here's the thing, it actually brought me closer to God. Contrary to my thoughts, the pendulum swung the other way. So maybe I'm not as close to atheism as I thought. Who knows?

What I think is important here is that we need to be aware of how powerful our emotions are, and how fragile our "rationally justified" believes are. We tend to think that we're straight-shooting logicians, unaffected by the throws of emotion and sentiment, but chances are we're always a few emotional steps away from whatever belief we most oppose.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

A review of Sean Carroll's The Big Picture: Part II

We are continuing our survey of physicist Sean Carroll's book The Big Picture (Part I here) by moving on to his second section of the book entitled Understanding.

This part of the book is where Carroll puts forward his epistemology, which he calls "poetic naturalism." He does a great job of articulating his case, and is very thorough and covers many topics while not sacrificing depth. In fact, there were many times where I thought to myself "but what about X?" and, sure enough, that would be the very next topic Carroll addressed. Also, Carroll's first chapter in this section is a great primer on Bayesian Reasoning for laymen -- he explains it beautifully with simple and common-sense examples.

Contrary to what many might think, I actually agreed with Carroll on many aspects of his epistemology -- he does make some correct predications. But obviously I do not agree with it all, since it is, after all, a form of naturalism.

That being said, let us dive into the material and see what Carroll has to say.

Bayesian reasoning
Bayesian reasoning, based on Bayes' Theorem, is foundational to abductive reasoning. It gives you, in principle, a very logical and matter-of- fact way of forming beliefs and updating them in light of new observations and information. It is a way of making inferences to the best explanation -- the very type of inferences science is interested in.

I have no qualms about Bayesian reasoning itself, only about when it can, and cannot, be applied. Bayesian reasoning is useful for (and really is) abductive reasoning, however, it is irrelevant to deductive reasoning. For if a deductive argument is sound, then the truth of the conclusion is guaranteed, whereas nothing guarantees an inference predicated on abductive reasoning. On the contrary, abductive reasoning deals with probabilities, and this should make sense since Bayes' Theorem is itself a theorem dealing in probability.

Why is it important to contrast Bayesian inference with deduction here? Well, because Carroll seems to pay little attention to deduction and focuses mainly on abduction (for reasons we'll survey below). This isn't a problem in itself, but it becomes one when one realizes that many arguments that attempt to demonstrate the falsity of naturalism are deductive in nature.

In any event, Carroll also claims the following:
Each of us comes equipped with a rich variety of beliefs, for or against all sorts of proportions. Bayes teaches us (1) never to assign perfect certainty to any such belief; (2) always be prepared to update our credences when new evidence comes along; and (3) how exactly such evidence alters the credences we assign. It's a road map for coming closer and closer to the truth. (p. 82-83)

On first glance this seems like a great point, and I would, in most cases agree. Bayesian reasoning is indeed a fantastic "road map for coming closer and closer to truth." However, contrary to Carroll's claims here, there are beliefs that are (to borrow a phrase from the presuppositionalist camp) preconditions of intelligibility. That is to say, there are beliefs and propositions that are necessary conditions for any sort of intelligible epistemology, and because of this it follows that such beliefs must be certain and cannot be "updated" or revised pending any new evidence (again, see below). One such proposition is the law of noncontradiction. This is a belief that we can be absolutely certain about, especially since any denial of it, even in principle, requires that it be true.

Poetic naturalism
I briefly expounded PN in the last post, yet there wasn't much space devoted to it. That's because the current section is where Carroll largely unpacks this epistemology.
[O]ur best approach to describing the universe is not a single, unified story but an interconnected series of models appropriate at different levels. Each model has a domain in which it is applicable, and the ideas that appear as essential parts of each story have every right to be thought of as "real." Our task is to assemble an interlocking set of descriptions, based on some fundamental ideas, that fit together to form a stable planet of belief. (p. 4) 
This brings us to the "poetic" part of poetic naturalism. While there is one world, there are many ways of talking about it. We refer to those ways as "models" or "theories" or "stories"; it doesn't matter. (p. 94) 
[S]omething is "real" if it plays an essential role in some particular story of reality that, as far as we can tell, provides an accurate description of the world within its domain of applicability. (p. 111)
 Again, on first glance there isn't much to quibble with here. It is true that certain models and theories regarding parts of reality, with their respective vocabularies, only need to be utilized in their respective domains of inquiry. Talking about free will and volition on the macroscopic scale of human experience utilizes a different model, and different vocabulary, than the models utilized when inquiring into the nature of atoms, electrons, and other subatomic particles.

However, the pertinent questions that need to be posed regarding this epistemology are the following: (1) Carroll places a lot of weight on models being "useful," and this utility being the litmus test for labeling something as "real," but what determines whether a specific model is useful, and why is utility important for our epistemology in the first place? Also, why should the fact that it is useful to describe reality using different models at different levels dictate what the actual nature of reality is, in principle?  (2) Are there other ways of talking about or modeling the world, besides PN?

Note that Carroll attempts to answer (almost) all of these questions. So, it's not as if he hasn't thought this through, and he probably wouldn't at all be fazed by any of them. However, that doesn't mean that his answers are convincing.

(1) is a question, or set of questions, that Carroll attempts to answer:
The question, however, is whether a particular way of talking about the world is useful. And usefulness is always relative to some purpose [...] "useful" means "providing an accurate model of some aspect of reality." (p. 143)
It is important that our models are accurate representations of some aspect of reality, however, this is not the traditional meaning of usefulness. Something is not useful if it accurately reflects a part of reality, rather something is useful if it can serve a practical purpose. Now, it is true that models that accurately reflect reality tend to be more useful than models that do not, but this doesn't mean that the latter is defined in terms of the former. This might seem like a minor quibble, but one problem with Carroll's PN is that throughout the section he constantly equivocates between both of these definitions. Sometimes "useful" is used as "serving a practical purpose" and other times it's used as "provides an accurate model of a part of reality."

What's the problem though (as if equivocation is not bad enough)? The problem is that the two definitions utilized by Carroll are sometimes mutually exclusive -- that is, there are times when a "model" or "story" can be useful even though it fails to accurately reflect reality. Carroll actually demonstrates such with his own example: he highlights the phenomena of transgender individuals -- people whose gender identity is different than the gender they were assigned at birth. Carroll says that if someone born male identifies as a female, then if this identification is "useful and meaningful" (p. 142) then why not identify them as a female? The problem here is that no matter how "useful" it is to identify someone as a female, this doesn't entail the fact that they are, in reality, a female.

Carroll doesn't see this as problem since he believes that classifications like male, female, and even human, are "human inventions." (p. 142) He claims these categorizations are not illusions because they are useful and meaningful in the contexts that we apply them. But again, something being useful does not necessitate that it accurately reflects an aspect of reality, and therefore it is possible that something be useful, yet be illusory.

And even worse for Carroll, the claim that a classification like "human" is a human invention is actually self-defeating. For to say that something is a cognitive construct of the human mind, one needs a nature of  "humanity" to objectively obtain. That is to say, for one to assert that something is a human invention necessitates that "human" be an objective referent, and not just a construct. So the proposition that the concept human is a human invention literally contradicts itself.

While Carroll doesn't comment on question (2) directly, he does make the following comment:
Poetic naturalism is at least consistent with its own standards: it tries to provide the most useful way of talking about the world we have. (p. 112)
Carroll is correct that PN is prima facie consistent with itself, but what about when we delve a bit deeper and consider the implications of question (2)? That is, is PN the only, or even the most useful, model, or story, of reality?  Well, surely it's not the only model of reality: there are a multitude of different ontologies. Ok. So then how do we determine which model is most useful? Well again, it depends on how Carroll is using the word useful.

If by "useful" Carroll means "serves a practical purpose," then it's not clear that PN is the most useful way of talking about the world. Moreover, how, on PN, do we even determine the most useful, or practical, way of talking about reality? It seems that we would need some idea regarding the fundamental nature of reality to be able to say model X is more useful than model Y. But then, is this "idea" about the fundamental nature of reality itself merely another "story" or "way of talking about the world" on some narrow domain? If so, then we're right back to the problem at hand wherein we need to determine how we know that this "model" or idea is "useful." What this means is that you can't have an ontology founded on nothing but "stories" and "ways of talking about the world." At some point you need a concrete ontology that describes how nature objectively operates, and this entails that you can't have an ontology that is purely "poetic", as Carroll uses the term here.

Moreover, if by "useful" Carroll instead means "providing an accurate model of some aspect of reality," then we run into the same problems. For, again, in order to know that a model is an accurate model of reality, we need to know something objective about the behavior and nature of reality that is not just another "way of talking about it" -- otherwise we go round and round in a circle again.

Carroll then promulgates an emergentist ontology to make sense of different models of the world at different levels:
One pivotal word enables [the] reconciliation between all the different stories: emergence [...] A property of a system is "emergent" if it is not part of a detailed "fundamental" description of the system, but it becomes useful or even inevitable when we look at the system more broadly. (p. 94)
I do agree with Carroll that there are "emergent" phenomena. There are many such examples one could give of such phenomena, and Carroll gives a good explication using his own examples. But how does emergentism help PN? Carroll explains:
[E]mergence is about different theories speaking different languages, but offering compatible descriptions of the same underlying phenomena in their respective domain of applicability. (p. 100)
So emergence is a way to continue talking about the world at different levels, wherein the higher levels usually "emerge" from the lower levels.  This is all well and good, and so far I have no bone to pick with Carroll here, in principle. Where I might begin to disagree is if Carroll, later on in the book, tries to explain away something like consciousness as merely a "model" or "way of talking about" human experience that only applies at higher levels. (I haven't read the whole book yet, so if he does argue this then we can cross that bridge when we get there. )

Rationalism vs. empiricism
Since Carroll's epistemology is heavy on science and Bayesian reasoning, it should come as no surprise that he advocates a form of empiricism. That is, he believes that we can only know things about reality by looking at it and observing it. He contrasts this with rationalism wherein it is believed that knowledge comes intuitively without any need for empirical observation.

Carroll surveys the case usually given in justification of rationalism wherein the proponents appeal to the domains of mathematics and logic. Carroll argues against such an appeal by claiming that in both math and logic we simply derive consequences from differing axioms. This is, in a sense, correct, at least for math. For example, Euclidean consequences follow from Euclidean axioms, and non-Euclidean consequences follow from non-Euclidean axioms. But we need to actually look at the world to be able to determine whether it can be described by Euclidean or non-Euclidean geometry. No problem there.

However, there are those, like myself, who claim that there are axioms and necessary truths that must hold in any possible world at all. One example of this, as was already mentioned above, is the law of noncontradiction. This is not an axiom that might only hold in certain worlds, but might possibly fail to hold in others -- as in the case of Euclidean geometry. Rather, it is a necessary feature of having any kind of a reality at all. There is no axiom of non-contradiction and axiom of non-noncontradiction; there is only the former.

There are other propositions that are also claimed to be axiomatic and necessary -- e.g. law of identity, PSR, principle of causality etc. -- but I need not defend them presently. The point is that there are indeed things that we can know a priori, that is, without having to actually look at the world to justify them.

Carroll considers this point (briefly), and claims the following:
If we were thinking deductively, like a mathematician or logician, we would say that no collection of particular facts suffices to derive a general principle, since the very next fact might contradict the principle. (p. 135)
This seems to be quite absurd. For according to Carroll's reasoning, for instance, we cannot say the law of identity is an immutable principle, because we might one day come across something which is not identical to itself. This seems silly, and it should, because we already know intuitively that identity is a precondition of intelligibility of any thing that will ever exist. And so it goes with all other necessary truths. Now, there may not be many necessary truths with which we can know a priori, but there are a few, and they are a very crucial aspect of one's metaphysic.

All of this is important because it goes against Carroll's PN, as well as his form of empiricism. For if there are propositions that are necessary truths, then these truths aren't merely "models", "stories", or "ways of talking about reality." Rather, they are immutable principles that hold throughout any domain and any level, and cannot be shoved aside by the thought that one day we could discover them false. This is like saying that one day we might find someone who is successfully married and a bachelor.

Part III

Saturday, May 14, 2016

A review of Sean Carroll's The Big Picture: Part I

Physicist Sean Carroll's new book The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself was released this past Tuesday (yay!). I, as well as many others, have been greatly anticipating the release of this book ever since Carroll announced it himself, and it's a pleasure to finally have it in my possession, and to be reviewing it.

I pretty much figured, before the book was released, that I would take up the task of writing a review. I felt this way because Carroll is an extremely articulate and modest philosophical naturalist and has been securing more of a secular following as of late--especially since he debated William Lane Craig, and, in my opinion, won--and I was very curious as to how he would make a cumulative case for a coherent naturalist metaphysic. And after beginning to read the book I do in fact feel that there are many things to comment on, as I had hoped. Though I obviously disagree with Carroll on many of his positions, Carroll's humble and unboastful attitude coupled with his articulate writing make this a great read.

So, on with the review, then. Carroll's book is split into six sections: Cosmos, Understanding, Essence, Complexity, Thinking, and Caring. I am, so far, planning to write a review on each section individually, though it might be the case that I don't have many comments to make on a particular section, and thus I might not review all of them. This Part I review will focus on the section labeled Cosmos.


 Carroll begins the book by asking some important questions about the fundamental nature of reality, and stressing the importance of thinking about ontology. It is among this discussion of ontology that he begins advocating for philosophical naturalism. But Carroll's naturalism does not merely claim that all that exists is the natural world exhibiting patterns. Rather, Carroll introduces what he calls poetic naturalism. The "poetic" aspect of poetic naturalism (PN) is constituted by how we talk about, model, and interpret reality. Carroll describes this view:
[O]ur best approach to describing the universe is not a single, unified story but an interconnected series of models appropriate at different levels. Each model has a domain in which it is applicable, and the ideas that appear as essential parts of each story have every right to be thought of as "real." Our task is to assemble an interlocking set of descriptions, based on some fundamental ideas, that fit together to form a stable planet of belief. (p. 4)
This explication of poetic naturalism is very similar to two theories I've surveyed in the past, namely Model-Dependent Realism, as promulgated by Hawking, and Embodied realism, as promulgated by Lakoff. The key aspects of this philosophy are that we, as humans, talk about and describe different aspects or "levels" of the world using different models and different vocabularies, and that, as long as these models are consistent and coherent, they can overlap and reconcile with one another.

Unfortunately, Carroll doesn't delve too deep into this philosophy in the first section. Rather, he spends more space expounding this perspective in his second section Understanding--which should make sense since the "poetic" aspect of this philosophy is mostly epistemic. Therefore, I will save my comments on poetic naturalism until the next installment of the review.

One way that Carroll attempts to demonstrate the "layered" models of reality we conceptualize, as predicated by PN, is with Aristotle's notions of natures and causes. For Aristotle famously promulgated the principle of causality, which stated that something can only be "moved" if it was caused to do so by something else in motion. (Of course, by "motion" Aristotle really meant change, and by change he really meant something which is being reduced from potency to act.) But Carroll claims that the conservation of momentum has relegated such notions to mere useful macroscopic descriptions and constructions:

[T]he whole structure of Aristotle's argument for an unmoved mover rests on his idea that motions require causes. Once we know about conservation of momentum, that idea loses its steam. [...] What matters is that the new physics of Galileo and his friends implied an entirely new ontology, a deep shift in how we thought about the nature of reality. "Causes" didn't have the central role that they once did. The universe doesn't need a push; it can just keep going. [...] Of course, even today, we talk about causes and effects all the time. But if you open the contemporary equivalent of Aristotle's Physics--a textbook on quantum field theory, for example--words like that are nowhere to be found. We, still, with good reason, talk about causes in everyday speech, but they're no longer part of our best fundamental ontology. (p. 28-29)
I have a couple comments at this point. First, the conservation of momentum--which is embedded in Newton's law of inertia--doesn't, at all, call Aristotle's idea of motion into question. For, again, Aristotle said that when something changed, this required something responsible for that change. But uniform inertial motion is seen, as explicated by physicists, as a state in itself, and not a change per se. That is, the state of motion of an object is its velocity, and thus an object with a uniform state of motion is an object that is moving at a constant velocity--as long as it is not being acted upon by an unbalanced force--and thus is not changing, according to physics. Therefore, the conservation of momentum does not at all run counter to Aristotle's metaphysical principle, in fact, it is completely irrelevant to the principle.

Second, it is simply not true that talk of causality, at least efficient causality, is absent from contemporary scientific textbooks. In fact, it's ironic that Carroll specifically mentions quantum field theory textbooks since in An Introduction to Quantum Field Theory the authors write the following: The necessity of having a multiparticle theory also arises in a less obvious way, from considerations of causality[...] In a relativistic theory, this conclusion would signal a violation of causality. (p. 14)

These points may seem peripheral, but I believe they are important for a couple of reasons. First, the unmoved mover argument of Aristotle, if valid, would defeat a naturalist ontology, which Carroll holds. Yet, Carroll quickly dismisses Aristotle's unmoved mover argument, in light of the supposed irrelevance of concepts of causality, yet he does so fallaciously. Again, this isn't that big a deal since Carroll's thesis is not predicated on discussing Aristotle's proofs for God. Nevertheless, his fallaciously swift dismissal of the efficacy of causality is still a strike against his case.

Second, Carroll is trying to score a point for poetic naturalism by claiming that the language of causality is only a folk theory constructed from interactions at the macroscopic level, and isn't part of our "fundamental ontology" and has no utility in the domain of physics. Yet the fact that this has been demonstrated to be false with the quote above (one of many) already begins to poke holes in Carroll's form of naturalism. That is, we see that a concept like causality is not simply a model that only applies in one limited domain. Rather, it in itself should be part of one's fundamental ontology.

Carroll also makes much of the fact that causality is nowhere to be found in the laws of physics, and claims that such concepts are "emergent":
We look at the world around us and describe it in terms of causes and effects, reasons why, purposes and goals. None of those concepts exists as part of the fundamental furniture of reality at its deepest. They emerge as we zoom out from the microscopic level to the level of the everyday. (p. 54)
This is not correct, though. While it is true that causality is not palpable in the mathematical equations of physics and quantum physics--though we shouldn't expect it to be, since causality is not quantitative--this does not mean that causality is not operative and efficacious as it pertains to "reality at its deepest." I maintain that causality is ubiquitous at every turn, in the microscopic and macroscopic levels of reality.

To see this, consider the famous experiment conducted by physicist Hendrick Casimir in 1948. Casimir placed two metal plates one ten-thousandth of a centimeter apart in a quantum vacuum. As one might logically theorize, these plates would stay put, since the space is empty and thus there are no forces to affect the plates. But they didn't stay put, rather they were driven towards each other! And the first question that should come to one's mind is "Well, what was the cause of this effect?" It turns out that the cause is that there is an imbalance between the quantum fluctuations in between and outside the plates, and this imbalance yields a pressure imbalance, which pushes the plates together.

The point here is that, contra Carroll, causality is no less efficacious in a quantum vacuum than in our familiar everyday lives, and causality does simply emerge as we "zoom out" from the microscopic to the macroscopic.

Reasons Why
Carroll also spends a good amount of the first section discussing our constant search for "reasons why" things happen or why facts obtain. He agrees that the search for explanations is extremely rational and makes sense in our everyday lives. Where Carroll draws the line is when one makes this search for explanation a metaphysical principle (e.g. the Principle of Sufficient Reason) that pronounces that everything must admit of explanation, or a "reason why." This is, no doubt, a very modest and logical position to take. Carroll is not committing one way or another to whether all things and facts admit of explanation. He humbly claims that they might or might not, and leaves the door open to the possibility of brute facts.

However, as one who does in fact believe that all things and facts must necessarily and logically admit of explanation, I do not agree with Carroll here. And I find that his arguments against the PSR to be rather weak. Carroll claims that "[o]ur standards for promoting a commonsensical observation to a 'metaphysical principle' should be very high indeed. "(p. 41) Now, I would agree here, but Carroll really doesn't survey any concrete arguments actually given (besides Leibniz's Principle of the Best) that would attempt to demonstrate why the PSR should be taken as a metaphysical principle. He merely says the following:
[F]or every fact we notice about the universe: as soon as we apprehend it, we think there must be a reason behind it. This isn't an argument that the Principle of Sufficient Reason is logically incontrovertible; it only implies that we often act as if something like it were true. If we're honest, it's an empirical, evidence-based argument, not an a priori one. (p. 42)
I agree with Carroll that this argument he has articulated is not a priori, and is not logically incontrovertible. The problem is that no (logical) person attempting to establish the PSR as a metaphysical principle would use this argument, especially since it's just an inductive argument which cannot form an immutable principle at all.

The type of arguments that are given in favor of the PSR (and that are a priori) consider the nature of epistemic chains of explanation themselves. And they argue that explanation forms an instrumental and transitive chain, so that if even one member of a chain is unexplained (i.e. is a brute fact) then the chain as a whole loses efficacy. (Indeed, I have argued that very thing here, though I don't expect Carroll to have read my own specific post.) The point is that Carroll has not done the appropriate philosophical leg-work to dismiss the PSR as casually as he has done. And again this is important because the PSR puts a wrench in the works of his poetic naturalism, and also calls into question many other pronouncements he makes in the book, as we'll see in subsequent reviews.

The arrow of time
More importantly, in Carroll's eyes, the denial of the immutability of causality and explanation, as well as the displacement  of their existence as a mere human convention of utility, is ultimately illuminated by the increase in entropy and the arrow of time:

"Memories" and "causes" aren't pieces of our fundamental ontology describing our world that we discover through careful research. They are concepts that we invent in order to provide useful descriptions of the macroscopic world. The arrow of time plays a crucial role in how those contexts relate to the underlying time-symmetric laws of physics. (p. 66)
Carroll's point is that we only utilize concepts like causality and explanation because events progress from past to future, due to the arrow of time. This is to say that such concepts are contingent upon the direction of time, which is itself a contingent fact of the universe and could have been otherwise. But the laws of physics, on the other hand, do not have an arrow of time imprinted into them, and thus, as Carroll claims, concepts like causality and explanation are not carving reality at its joints, but are only concepts that humans constructed in order to make sense of the world as we interpret it. For had the arrow of time been in the opposite direction, things would be very different, as would our concepts and models.

Now, while it is true that if the arrow of time were pointing in the reverse direction, from future to past, events in the world would unfold in a completely counterintuitive and foreign manner, this would still not remove the necessity for concepts like causality and explanation. For explanation and causality are always present wherever things exist and behave, and wherever events and processes occur. And even in a universe where the arrow of time were reversed, you would still have things which exist and events which transpire; and as long as you have that, you have causes and effects, as well as explanations.

So I maintain that Carroll has not demonstrated how humans "invent" these concepts, and again,  this is important, because Carroll's poetic naturalism in founded on the idea that these concepts are human constructs and models, invented through our interaction with the world on the macroscopic level due to utility. However, if these concepts are not cognitive constructs but are immutable principles embedded in the fabric of reality, then Carroll's form of naturalism loses ground.

Part II

Monday, May 2, 2016

Consciousness and emergence

Let me preface this post by articulating the fact that I don't view my following comments as a rigorous philosophical treatise on the topics of consciousness or emergentism. Rather, this post is more in the form of a random collection of my thoughts, which may or may not be right, on said topics.

Consciousness continues to present problems for any physicalist or materialist philosophy of mind. Theories like eliminative materialism, functionalism, and identity theory seem, by some, to fall short of accounting for the peculiarities of consciousness such as intentionality, qualia, and the "illusion" of free will. Some of these problems and difficulties have caused a preemptive adherence of materialists to another philosophy of mind: that of emergentism.

Emergentism, as a philosophy of mind, holds that properties, patterns, or realities of consciousness are novel qualities that emerge from the interaction and configuration of their constituents. These qualities are called "novel" because they do not exist--either in the same degree or even in the same kind--at the substrate level of their aggregate parts. An example of this emergence is given by the quality of solidity. That is, the table I'm currently typing at is solid and firm, yet this quality is not found, and least not at all in the same sense, in the particles and atoms that make up this table. In fact, it is said, the atoms are mostly empty space, and "solid" is one of the last adjectives we would use to describe them. Thus, the solidity of the table would seem to emerge upon the configuration of the constituents.

How does this help physicalism/materialism? Well materialists famously have trouble accounting for how compositions of particles, atoms, and neurons which are not intentional and conscious can produce qualities antithetical to those very parts. However, we see cases all around us, evident in the table example, of component parts generating emergent properties that the parts did not themselves possess. So, it is said, it might very well be the same with regards to the brain and consciousness. For if a set of aggregate parts X1 can produce an emergent quality Q in light of the fact that each element in X1 does not possess Q then it is at least in theory possible that consciousness and the qualities therein can emerge from mere particles and neurons.

Now while I admit the possibility of emergentism as a philosophy of mind, I don't at all find it to be persuasive, nor do I believe anyone has come close to demonstrating its validity. Let me articulate my reasons for the former. First, we've only discovered two reasons that a quality might emerge from certain constituents: 1) emergence from mere structure, or 2) proto-emergence. In 1) a quality is generated strictly from the arrangement or structural relation of its constituents. An example of structural emergence is a box that has the property of "containment". The pieces that makes up the box do not harbor this property, but when these pieces are arranged a certain way, we see the emergence of the ability to contain--and it is the structural relation that grounds this emergence. In 2) the qualities of the component parts produce the same quality, but to a higher degree, in the emergent property. An example of this proto-emergence is a magnetic field emerging from charged iron atoms. This is proto-emergence, and not structural emergence, since each iron atom is itself a little bit magnetic, and thus all of these magnetic iron atoms together generate a magnetic field.

So, why is the distinction above important? Well, it seems that if the qualities of consciousness are emergent then they would need to be either structurally emergent, or proto-emergent. But, and here's where the problem arises, we know that consciousness cannot be the result of proto-emergence, since particles, atoms, and neurons are not themselves conscious, or intentional, and do not exhibit qualia, and no amalgam of non-conscious constituents can generate a conscious property through proto-emergence. Thus, proto-emergence is not a possibility for the materialist. But what about structural emergence? This seems to be a dead end as well. For while there are many mysteries yet to be uncovered about the brain, it's structural physical arrangement and components are quite well known. Neurologists know all about the mechanics of neurons, axons, dendrites, synapses, and the like--the building blocks of the brain. And yet, there is nothing about the arrangement, structure, and pathways between these components that would yield the properties of consciousness.

Again, I don't want to stretch this too far as if what I've said is a knock-down argument against emergentism--it's not. But what we've surveyed so far does paint emergentism in an unfavorable light, and puts a burden on the one who wants to claim that the ontology of emergence can adequately account for the most pervasive human experience--consciousness. I'll end on a note from philosopher James Madden:
[T]here is absolutely nothing about the chemical processes occurring within neurons with which we are remotely acquainted that in any way explains the fact of consciousness. Of course ignorance of an explanation does not entail that there is no such explanation, but we should ask ourselves how likely such an explanation is given our general understanding of the world. The probability, as far as we can tell, seems to be exceedingly low.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Is John Loftus still relevant?

The first book I read that aggressively argued against Christianity and theism, and made a subsequent case for atheism, was John Loftus' Why I Became an Atheist. To this day I still believe that it's a great book, and should be read by any believer (and non-believer) who actually wants to confront the opposition and survey the case for atheism. It is this book, along with Loftus' patented Outsider Test for Faith contained therein, that elevated Loftus to the forefront of the New Atheist movement. And while Loftus was never considered one of the "Four Horsemen of the apocalypse," he was nevertheless one of the most famous up and coming skeptics just a few years ago. At the height of his relevance he was printing  atheist anthologies left and right, debating the likes of Dinesh D'Souza, and enjoying a major following on his blog Debunking Christianity.

But these days are long gone, and for some reason Loftus seems, at least to me, to have faded away from being relevant. While he's still writing and editing many books and anthologies, they don't seem to be garnering much interest or mention--at least not as much as his first books. And while he's still debating, his debates, likewise, have failed to gather much interest from those involved in religion debates. Even more, his blog has taken a nose dive, and seems to have lost whatever prominence it used to have.

What are the reasons for Loftus' fall from grace? Well it seems that there might be a couple reasons. First, Loftus' seems to have overdone the whole anthology/book thing. That is to say, he's printing too many books. You see, it was actually quite interesting when Loftus first came out with The Christian Delusion and The End of Christianity--anthologies arguing against Christianity from a myriad of perspectives. Yet his continued push in this vein, with subsequent anthologies and books, appears to have been too much of a "good" thing. In other words, this constant inflow of books seems to have actually reduced the value that each book has. Heck, Loftus already has another anthology set for release later this year, and is already writing another book about the end of philosophy of religion. And I think I speak for a lot of skeptics and believers when I say: who cares?

Secondly, Loftus is not much of a speaker, and this has no doubt affected his publicity as a "freethinker". I remember watching him in his D'Souza debate, and wondering how someone who was so articulate in print could be so incoherent in person. This train-wreck reached its culmination when Loftus debated David Wood last year, for the second time (see here). This was probably the worst I've ever seen him perform. He was inarticulate, bumbling, his arguments were poor (even coming from him), and his presentation was simply terrible overall. Performances like these seem to be a huge contributing factor in explaining Loftus' descent into irrelevance. (I mean, just think of the publicity Loftus would have received if, on the contrary, he displayed a performance like that of physicist Sean Carroll. )

Thirdly, Loftus' blog, his primary medium, has become a wasteland relegated to dense, unsubstantiated, arrogant, and unreasonable dialogue saturated with ridicule--both from him and many of his commenters. This is why you rarely see theists or Christians comment there, because the blog is not conducive to fruitful dialogue. Moreover, Loftus' current posts tend to be low on substance, and continually regurgitate the same notions over and over.

Moreover, as of late Loftus has been fond of unjustly and consistently attacking fellow atheists like Jeff Lowder and Keith Parsons, on various topics, ad nauseum--going so far as calling Parsons ignorant and arrogant (see here) , and calling Lowder stupid, and a hypocrite. The problem is not that Loftus disagrees with them, for he is surely entitled to his own opinion. Rather, the problem is with how Loftus goes about engaging in dialogue with his interlocutors. He's arrogant, uncharitable, obstinate, and downright petulant--in fact he even banned his own friend and frequent poster Harry McCall over a minor dispute regarding the scholarship of Bart Ehrman. Furthermore, when this type of unreasonable behavior is brought to Loftus' attention, he fails to take heed and only digs himself further in his hole of close-mindedness and conceit. Just survey these recent comments by Loftus in a post of his:

I think Coyne's comments [on some atheist's disdain of the New Atheism] also explain why some small-minded atheists don't like me as well. This is something that has only recently dawned on me, since I have not thought of myself as having much fame or being that important. These misinformed and jealous atheists "perceive" me to have achieved a certain amount of fame they can only dream of having. So they attack. This should encourage me, or something.

How can one expect to have a fruitful dialogue with Loftus when this kind of misplaced vanity is rattling around in his head? You can't. 

Now, couple all this with the fact that Loftus has repeatedly made claims to be hanging it up, as it were, though he always changes his mind and returns. In 2012 he said that, "[i]t’s time to move on[…]I see no reason to waste large chunks of my time on this delusion anymore," and yet a couple of months later he was back blogging and writing full-time. And recently he has commented in a similar vein. It seems that Loftus' continued and constant hiatuses might have contributed to many being indifferent to what he subsequently has to say--at least I know I've felt this way. 

In light of all these factors it seems to me that Loftus has faded away from relevancy in the secular community. Most theists don't see the need to address him any longer, and many secularists don't seem to bother much with what's going on in his little world. Maybe it's time for Loftus to actually follow through with his own instincts, and hang up his hat.