Saturday, April 5, 2014

Are Any of These More or Less Rational Than the Others?

Is any member of this set of cosmological positions any more or less rational/hard to believe than any other? How would you go about ranking them as to plausibility?

[Where: A = Matter/energy (and unguided physical processes) are all there is (biological life being the one exception to the ‘unguided’ bit); B = Fine tuning leading to; C = origin of the aforementioned Life and (some of ) its; D = subjectivity, consciousness, cognition and rationality; E = Aesthetic, moral and other Values; F = Freedom; T= teleology.]

Group I. Stand-alone universes (monistic/material universes)

Position 1:  One contingently existing universe (something) comes into being from nothing + A, B, C, D, E, F,T.

P2: Contingent multi-universe comes into being from nothing + A,B,C,D,E,F,T in some number of universes.

P3:  Eternally and necessarily existing single universe + ABCDEFT.

P4: Eternally and necessarily existing multi-universe + ABCDEFT in some number of universes.

P5: Eternally and contingently existing single universe + ABCDEFT

P6: Eternally and contingently existing multi-verse + ABCDEFT

Group II. Not quite so stand-alone universes- (depart from (A) to various degrees):

Group IIA. Non-Stand Alone, monist/material models (Created universes, creator ‘outside’), Monism still holds.

       i. WUWU (wind it up and watch it work) Universes:

      P7-8: Same as P1-2 except: an external cause(s) of the ‘big –whole-lot-o-something’ coming into being. This/these external cause(s) only operate(s) as to generate the universe(s) and does/do not dabble, once the universe is created.

       ii. (Outside Creator Violatin’ the Prime Directive) Universes

      P9-10 Same as P7-8, but the being(s) does/ do dabble. (‘can’t leave well enough alone’ universes.)

Group IIB, IIC. SDU (substance dualist versions of the above 2 universes)

iii. (SD internal universes)

P11-12: Same as P1-2, except: substance dualism is true inside universe(s).

P13-14: same as P3-4 with substance dualism & etc.

P15-16: same as P5-6 with substance dualism etc.

iv. (SD internal/external universes)

P17-18: Same as P7-10, combine with substance dualism inside and outside the universe.

I don’t know if this is an exhaustive list of the possibilities, but I think so. Some quick hitter thoughts, not necessarily in any particular order, and not necessarily fully formulated:

1 and 2 violate the principle of sufficient reason. Any positions that rely on them do as well.

3 and 4 posit the universe as being something that cannot fail to exist; in other words; it is impossible for there not to be a universe. Speaking in terms of conception, the lack of a universe seems easy enough to comprehend as a possibility. So, insofar as 3 and 4 posit this, we have to say, at least from our present epistemological standpoint, the notion needs further backing. We do not yet understand that ‘necessity.’ That does not necessarily mean we never will. But, how exactly would we go about understanding it? How would we go about determining whether or not the universe is a necessarily existing thing? How would we know when we stumbled upon proof of this? There are old arguments concerning a necessary being (see below). They are contested.

5 and 6 posit that the universe is something that can fail to exist, could have failed to exist. Yet these positions do not stop there. They say this: Not only is it the case that the universe does exist, it is also a thing that exists eternally. It has always existed, exists right now, and will continue to exist forever. Yet, because, on these views, it is contingent, the universe has a nature that renders it possible that it stop existing at any time. One is led to the obvious question: Why is it that it never stops existing?

Regarding the alleged contingency of the universe: These two positions have the virtue of fitting the ‘present epistemological standpoint’ referenced just above re; 3 and 4, but do not have the virtue of plausibility with regard to the eternal abeyance of the contingent nature of that eternally existing thing (if ya know what I mean). We are just supposed to accept that the universe was and always will be, that it will never wink out of existence, even though it is was and always will be in its nature that it could freakin’ wink out. We are to swallow that whole. But, come on: We’re pretty damn lucky the whole blame thing don’t just wink out of existence ain’t we?

1-6 must account for ABCDEFT via statistically very unlikely means.

7-10 posit being(s) external to the universe(s) that cause them to be. This leads to questions regarding the creator(s): Are they contingent or necessary beings? These alternatives bring with them questions similar to those just above with regard to the universes’ possible contingency/necessity.

The history of philosophy has certainly shown that we can explore the notion of necessary being, expanding and examining the concept, but have we actually done anything like detecting such a thing when we do that? Another question arises between the contrasts in the members of this subset: Are the creators material or not? Denizens of other universes or not?  The possible answers to these questions are reflected in P17-18.

7-8 do not have to account for the origins of life (ABCDEFT) exclusively via internal operations of A because they posit intelligent beings that created the universes, beings who could have set initial conditions, then wound the clock. They could have judiciously set those initial conditions with ends in mind.

9-10 can account for the origins of life via a combination of internal operations of A and creators tinkering as the clock unwinds.

Proposals that posit the necessary existence of universes may have the ability to explain the origins of life, etc., as being inevitable in some way, a subtle necessary consequence of the nature of the universe.

They also have the virtue of not having to make recourse to extra entities in order to explain the existence of the universe(s).  The creators would be superfluous.

Proposals that posit creators may also have this ‘inevitability of life’ feature, but only if the creators have necessary existence which in some way entails that eventuality. If the creators are contingent, a regress of explanation begins. If the life is not some subtle inevitability, then its origins must be accounted for in the choices of the creators.

Proposals that posit a single universe have less basic entities to explain that any others.

Proposals that posit a multiverse have to explain the existence of the multiverse, as opposed to a single universe. They have to explain how these come to be, and the behavior of each.

Proposals that posit creators have two basic sorts of entities to explain.

In any case , prima facie, there are big holes or gaps in the positions. All have similar rational challenges.




Saturday, March 15, 2014

15 March, 44 B.C.: Big Julie bumped off.

Flavius Maximus, private Roman eye is on the case.
 A classic from Wayne and Schuster. Listen HERE,

(right click to download.)

Or listen here: 

Monday, February 24, 2014

In honor of Harold Ramis, a repost (with additions) on Groundhog Day

Ironically, the class I teach, a class centered around philosophical themes explored in film, has as this week's movie, Groundhog Day.  I couple the film with a discussion of Plato's Ring of Gyges. There are many philosophical approaches to the film, a veritable cottage industry has grown up around it. It is arguably one of the best American films, certainly Ramis's best.  So, here are two prompts I use for discussion in class and in Blackboard discussion forums:

Prompt 1:
In "Groundhog Day" Bill Murray's character, Phil, a cynical and bored TV weather man finds himself living through the same day for an indefinite but quite large number of times. During the course of this very long series of temporal loops, he realizes among other things, that his actions have no carry over consequences into successive days.

As it dawns on him that he cannot harm people, it also occurs to him that there are no longer any reasons for him not to manipulate others for his own ends.  What is more, as he repeats the day over and over again, he compiles an amazing amount of information about the other folks in the film, and is able to use that information in his manipulations, and later in his more altruistic endeavors. He is also able to learn a skill, (piano) and use it in successive repeats of the day. This raises a question: If you were given some such power, and were also put in a situation where no negative feedback from other people was logically possible, vis your own actions, would there by any reason not to react as Phil initially does, living it up, and milking the situation for all it is worth?

Plato asks (and answers) just such a question in the Republic, with his "Ring of Gyges" thought experiment. He essentially argues that there is a very good self-interested reason NOT to react as Phil initially does.  The answer is premised on the fact that Gyges (and Phil) do suffer 'negative feedback,' not from others, but from themselves, for they persist through the repeated days (notice, very much unlike the situation would be if he were to himself reset every day, along with the reset of the surroundings). Because they persist, their choices and actions impact them, corrupting character, and ultimately moral mental and emotional health. For that reason, Plato argues, they have very good reason to resist the temptation to use others as mere means to their own ends, even though there is no chance that in so doing they inflict lasting harm on those folks.

Now, consider this 'on the other hand' response: 

We see that Phil derives a sense of satisfaction and a sense of purpose toward the end of the film, and becomes selfless in his love. When he attains this, he is released from the temporal looping. This is a sort of happy ending, a film with a positive moral. But, suppose though, that he reached that turning point and had NOT been released: He would now live through repetitions of Groundhog day, doing his good deeds and seeing each day end, only to be replaced by a reset of that same day, and the same folks in exactly the same circumstances, open to being helped in the various ways he does. Nothing of lasting consequence comes from his actions, day after day. While it is true he would not suffer the guilt of seeing himself behave in scumbag manner, it is also true that he would see the futility of everything he does. Nothing would have lasting significance for anyone except himself. 
Would he devolve back into a cynicism or depression as we see him do in the middle of the film, when he no longer derives any pleasure from acting like Gyges? Does a person of good will, who sees that he or she cannot possibly affect anything of value via his/her actions, run the risk of becoming despondent?  If not, why? If so, why?

Prompt 2:

Suppose you get this message from God (booming voice from the sky or quiet voice in your head, take your pick):

"Someday in the future (you don't know exactly when) you will be sent through an indefinitely long series of temporal loops (repetitions of a single day) just as Phil endured in Groundhog Day. You don't know where you will be at the time; you don't know how long I'll leave that switch in the 'on' position. Heck, you don't even know if I will ever switch to 'off.' BUT HAVE NO DOUBTS THAT THIS WILL OCCUR.  Be prepared!”

God continues:

“The questions I have for you: 

What will you choose to do with your life during that indefinite period of looping?

What do you choose to do with your life until that moment when I flip the switch?

What will you do IF I turn the switch off?

What will you do if it goes on and on, and looks like I’ll never switch it off?

I am not asking what you think I WOULD WANT YOU TO DO. Not at all.

I am asking for a frank assessment of what you would REALLY do.  Now, being the metaphysical big guy, I know everything, so, I'll know if you're feeding me a line. I also want to assure you that I will not do anything to you based upon your answer. Honest. (And, yes, I know that you know that I already know what your answers are. Just humor me, OK?)

So, lay it on me Clyde; what would you do?"

Think about how your answer will differ depending on your circumstance in life when God flips the Groundhog Day switch (young, middle aged, old, married, single, etc.)  

Give as detailed answers as you can, along with justifications.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Presidents Day with Mr. President

A great OTR series. The idea is to listen to the episode and guess who it is that is being portrayed. Some are easy to figure out, others not so easy. Visit the link to download, or hit the play button to listen.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Materialism, Mental Content and Logical Possibility

An interesting interview with Alvin Plantinga appears in “The Stone” a philosopher’s corner at the NYT. It contains a passage concerning the metaphysical position called “materialism,” i.e., the thesis that the only things that exist are physical objects and their properties. As applied to mind, this means that there is no non-material mind or soul that is in principle separable and independent of the brain. The mind is simply a feature of the brain. When the brain ceases to function, the mind vanishes. Similarly, when current ceases to run through a computer running a sim, the sim ceases to run, ceases to be. This is true even if the structures or hardware items are still around.  Needless to say, if you turn off the current and smash the machine, the sim ceases to run. Similarly, if you shock the brain, starve the brain, destroy it, the mind vanishes.
There are many interesting questions surrounding the position, and its competitor (dualism), that are the stock and trade of philosophy of mind. Plantinga is one of the most penetrating people in that conversation. But, I think he makes a mistake in the following argument. Follow along and see if I’m just being dense. First, the portion of the interview containing the argument (emphasized parts mine), then a couple of reconstructions, and my criticism:

AP: First, if materialism is true, human beings, naturally enough, are material objects. Now what, from this point of view, would a belief be? My belief that Marcel Proust is more subtle that Louis L’Amour, for example? Presumably this belief would have to be a material structure in my brain, say a collection of neurons that sends electrical impulses to other such structures as well as to nerves and muscles, and receives electrical impulses from other structures.
But in addition to such neurophysiological properties, this structure, if it is a belief, would also have to have a content: It would have, say, to be the belief that Proust is more subtle than L’Amour.
GG: So is your suggestion that a neurophysiological structure can’t be a belief? That a belief has to be somehow immaterial?
AP: That may be, but it’s not my point here. I’m interested in the fact that beliefs cause (or at least partly cause) actions. For example, my belief that there is a beer in the fridge (together with my desire to have a beer) can cause me to heave myself out of my comfortable armchair and lumber over to the fridge.
But here’s the important point: It’s by virtue of its material, neurophysiological properties that a belief causes the action. It’s in virtue of those electrical signals sent via efferent nerves to the relevant muscles, that the belief about the beer in the fridge causes me to go to the fridge. It is not by virtue of the content (there is a beer in the fridge) the belief has.
GG: Why do you say that?
AP: Because if this belief — this structure — had a totally different content (even, say, if it was a belief that there is no beer in the fridge) but had the same neurophysiological properties, it would still have caused that same action of going to the fridge. This means that the content of the belief isn’t a cause of the behavior. As far as causing the behavior goes, the content of the belief doesn’t matter.

Reconstruction, first approximation:
Assume materialism is true; (there are no non-physical things)
Beliefs and desires then must be material things or properties of material things.
There is close association of mental properties with neurological function.
Some of these, beliefs, have content, (propositional content or meaning).
Therefore, meanings, contents are properties of collections of neurons.
There must be some account for differences in content between distinct beliefs.
The differences must be accounted for by differences in neural structures or behaviors of structures.
Change a structure, or the behavior of the structure, and you will change the belief; change the content.
Neural structure and behavior also cause gross motor movements.
It is true that differing beliefs or contents can cause similar gross motor movements.
It follows, then, that the belief or content is not a cause of the gross motor behavior.
It seems to me that this last statement simply does not follow from the others.
In terms of immediacy, the most direct causes of motor movement are nerve firings that actuate muscular activity. These in turn, are caused by others, and you can trace the causal chain back to the neurons in the brain that have the contents, etc.
What is more, the fact that different beliefs can eventuate in identical motor movements is hardly surprising.
There are other phenomena that have multiple physical bases or causes. That does not make it the case that one or the other, or all of the causes are not causes of the phenomena.
Light is a simple example. Electric current passed through appropriate gasses will cause photonic emission. So too will heating a filament of tungsten.
If mental states, such as beliefs, and their contents are in fact physical properties of neural structures, then we can understand how it is possible for several different mental states to eventuate in similar gross motor movements.
The human case: Neural structures’ activities give the human brain a subjective first person experiential ‘theater’ which includes beliefs about the world around. By virtue of these subjective states being themselves, physical properties, they can bring about changes in the physical properties of other things (i.e., the first set of neurons down the line toward the muscles). If they do so, they are a part of the cause of that set of consequent motor movements.
By virtue of their also being first person perspectives on the world, (beliefs included), these first neuronal states serve as motivation for action. Thus, the gross motor behaviors come about. Two physical aspects of one object acting upon each other; the physical aspect we usually label “mental” acts on the physical aspect we label “biochemical”. No mystery there. This sort of thing happens all the time. Gravitational forces in the sun affect nuclear structures, for example.
But, maybe I can improve the argument, to show what I am missing. Putting emphasis on the last section which stresses conceivability, you can generate this:
Reconstruction, second approximation:
It is conceivable that the physical events that end with the gross motor movements in question could start somewhere downstream of contents of beliefs.
It is conceivable that the events that end at the fridge could find their start at neural structures (or behaviors of structures)which happen to be associated with content that bears no similarity to any content that normally gets such event trains moving.
If either or both of these are possible, then, it follows that the content plays no causal role.
Once again, I don’t see that this follows, even granted the counter-factuals.  If content Z and content A are both associated with actions of type M on two different occasions, that fact does nothing toward showing that Z or A (or neither) had no causal role in the M events.
If M is caused by something (F) that has no connection with Z or A, this establishes nothing with regard to events of types Z/A serving as causes of other M type events.
The criticism is an old one, aimed at such hypotheticals, pointing out that establishing logical possibility does not necessarily establish anything metaphysically.
It may be conceivable from our present perspective, that radically differing contents can be the starting point for similar trains of events down the neural stream. It may be conceivable that content-less events can bring about the same sorts of trains. Be that as it may, it is also conceivable that only a very few and specific contents CAN initiate such trains of events. It may be that in some heretofore unknown and subtle way, the sorts of events described in the revision are in fact not logically possible. We can certainly conceive of this. You just did, if you understood the sentences that transmitted the thought.
 If this is in fact conceivable and it is also conceivable that such specific contents are in fact instantiated only by a similarly circumscribed set of neural structural/behavioral complexes, then we have established by Cartesian thought experiment that both points of view (this one, and that of the revision) are logically possible, from our present epistemological perspective. It may be the case that content plays no role. It may be the case that it does play an essential role in such events. That is all. As to physical possibility, we know nothing from these conceptual exercises.