Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Infinitude of God

The metaphysics of continuity (my thesis topic) is actually related to Monotheism, as follows. Given Naturalism, our concepts probably evolved, through a succession of brains performing various functions within changing environments, so that although primitive concepts like continuity (smooth extension) would have been effective enough building-blocks of the world-views of primitive humans (and may remain the foundations of a folk metaphysics adequate for common sense), we would have little reason to expect them to cohere (beyond such limited applications), let alone correspond (to the structure of reality). But while set-theoretical continua would then be quite adequate for our needs, why should we (and is it even rational to) accept such a dismal view of our own reasoning powers (in the absence of a proof of atheism)?
......But, if we were created by (and in the image of) a perfect person, then we might reasonably expect our most basic concepts to carve nature at its metaphysical joints; and if (as reason and revelation indicate) that person exists everlastingly (rather than timelessly) then (unless we think of God as existing within time) time would be primarily an aspect of a perfect person, whence time would probably (since it appears to be smooth) be full of a perfect (or absolute, rather than merely transfinite) infinity of instants—if continua are full of points; and it's quite conceivable (think of a square) that perfectly sharp edges exist geometrically, and a point is where two such lines could intersect, as they can (think of its corners), and (since there is nowhere in a line where it could not be intersected by another line) hence there are points everywhere within it.

Monday, January 28, 2008

People = Particles

This brown desk (to borrow John Hick's analogy) has a flat top; but it's also true that it's covered in little dips and bumps, that it's not flat. And a bat would perceive it quite differently, certainly not as brown, and perhaps not even as an object; and even I believe that it's (probably) a fuzzy set of atoms (so that alien nanoprobes, for all their precise observations, would only see, where my table is, such sets of atoms as my table isn't), whence I wonder if it really is one thing...
......But it can be moved about (and it was made) as one thing, so it clearly is; so, there's a pragmatic element to truth (correspondence between our concepts and the cosmos, our words and the world), arising from how we fit our thoughts, our language to reality (even within modern physics). But that shouldn't threaten our common sense realism about ordinary objects. After all, we can even say something about the bat’s view of things: If the bat manages to avoid flying into the (flat, brown) desk, then its view of such things is probably true enough (is good enough for its purposes).
......Similarly, if conceptual frameworks connect animals (via perception) to physical objects much as (on Hick's analogy) religious traditions connect people (via revelation) to God then, much as I know I'm sitting at a brown desk (which, I also know, might not even be an object really), so I might know of the God of Abraham (and that a Buddhist's view, for example, of such knowledge might also be true—not that Buddhists are batty, but there is, for example, an obscure context-sensitivity to the extrapolation of our concepts beyond the mundane).
......After all, most of us aren't like Abraham, aren't actually perceiving much (of the details), but are rather reading descriptions of (what is metaphorically) the brown desk at which Hick sat, writing of how (apparently) contradictory descriptions might not be of different objects; which is an argument (not for Hick's pluralism but) for a range of inclusivisms because surely we should not stop thinking of a flat, brown desk as a desk (as one object) or as brown, or even as flat when using it as a desk (when engaging with it directly).
......That suggests (appropriately obscurely) that even contradictory propositions (with ordinarily well-defined terms) might be true of a being as transcendent (to us much as we are to our dreams) as God; but some could not be, e.g. regarding whether God is a person or impersonal Hick noted how (even something as mundane as) light seems to be both particles and waves, but while light is physically well-modelled by a quantum-mechanical wavefunction (and a desk might be a fuzzy set of similar particles) surely if God is a person then S/he will know that fact directly, and if not then no such awareness (of that fact) would exist.
......Still, the Abrahamic faiths having falsely attributed a gender to God (much as we would naturally attribute physical continuity, rather than atomicity, to water), for example (and saintly believers being equally present in all the well-established traditions, as Hick rightly emphasizes), it does seem unlikely that our own religion would contain an exceptionally penetrating description of God (especially in view of such things as the place of politics in the history of its doctrines, and the traditional view of history and metaphysics generally).

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Gap of Creation

Swinburne's explanatory argument is basically that while Naturalism cannot explain the origin of minds (e.g. he asks, "how far could the science of the future explain the evolution of souls," in his 1997, p. 174), Monotheism can explain the world's evils (e.g. via my theodicy), whence the latter is the best explanation... but of course, that is so only if Monotheism can explain the origin of souls (otherwise it would be rather like postulating a pork chop to explain crop circles).
......In particular, Swinburne postulates a perfect person as a simple hypothesis (with a correspondingly high prior probability) to explain the world, but that is only explanatory if creating worlds is conceivably something that a person could do. Now, we know that people can rearrange things, but so can evolution. We know that people dream (can even deliberately daydream), so maybe people can create lower sorts of being (if dreams have a sort of being-in-themselves; if we do indeed create them, rather than just experience them), whence a transcendent person might create a physical world; but if God makes people like us (as souls, with free will) as a lower sort of being (not just an imperfect or finite sort), then we seem to lose our sense of God as a perfect person, and the high prior probability without which the God hypothesis isn't even contending...

We seem to, but the criterion of simplicity itself stands in need of justification (or explanation). Maybe what we really want are, to begin with, a few hypotheses that promise to be worth looking into and which seem fairly exhaustive (the alternatives being clearly too odd); hypotheses that we can hope to work with easily enough (simplicity), which promise enough of a pay-off (if they win) and which are naturally unweighted to begin with (prior to the evidence). I'm not suggesting that a big reward for belief can make us believe (Pascal's Wager is off) but after all, the reason why we value truth that highly is, under Naturalism, that genes for such valuations were rewarded, with reproductive success (while under Monotheism truth relates us to God; and incidentally were we made in God's image, simpler concepts would be more likely to resemble those behind creation).
......So Monotheism remains a contender... And while creation remains mysterious, so do mind and matter given Naturalism; and if it's conceivable that matter could spontaneously appear in a Big Bang, and that minds like ours could (somehow) arise from such material, then surely it's similarly conceivable that a sufficiently unlimited person could cause such things deliberately (and incidentally the substance dualism that is our common sense experience is more explicable given Monotheism).

Monday, January 21, 2008

On knowing that One is Irrational

Can one know that one is irrational? It seems contradictory; but suppose I believe that I'm the product of billennia of natural selections—that my most basic concepts, and ways of reasoning (and of judging, and so forth), were probably just the normal ways in which human brains happen to make sense of sensory information, having been selected (from random variants) for not being ways that led more primitive brains (of apes, rats, fish and so forth) into inviability; and also that knowledge was one such concept, one fuzzily orientated towards experts (social authorities) and what they tell us, rather than infallibility. I might then believe that I knew that I was irrational.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Mr. E. and Miss Tree

A couple of mysteries, concerning our selves. The first mystery relates to how we come in two sexes (as a rule), male and female. Considering how profound this sexual division is biologically (even plants have two sexes), the difference between men and women is surprisingly shallow. (The sexism of most religions is therefore ironic, for the asexuality of people qua people argues rather strongly for our being essentially souls.) So my first mystery is, how should we handle a third person of unknown or no sex? I've been using s/he and he/r, for want of anything better, for I've been regarding a perfect person as asexual.
......We naturally think of people-as-people as (potentially) sapient beings, so that anyone who could (e.g. when awake, and well) access such higher mental faculties as language-use (e.g. silicon-based aliens, or intelligent robots) might count as a person. Maybe whales, or birds are sapient; but what if fish have souls that might reincarnate as birds? Or, what if a human has a damaged brain and so can't use language? To look at it another way, plants are alive, but a machine that did pretty much what some plant did would not normally be thought of as alive. Machines do not seem to be any one (in the apposite way, as above), whence a computer could not, after all, be sapient. Our sapience is intimately connected with our being sentient, aware, subjects, something we associate with apes, rats, fish, maybe worms, but hardly plants, bacteria, viruses (are they even alive?). Computers, however powerful, are not alive, do not even have a sex (though we could give them a gender) let alone sentience, so how could they be sapient?
......I even wonder if sentience can exist without the capacity (perhaps in some other life) for sapience; would an animal without its own will not be (as Descartes thought) a mere machine? Anyway, my second mystery is, what should we call ourselves? How about "males" and "girls"? They are syntactically similar, and whilst "girl" has connotations of youth, "male" applies to animals and plants too (and one problem with "man" is that it can mean any human, while a problem with "woman" or "female" is that they are derivative). Any better suggestions, for either mystery? (Anyone reading this far who missed Newborn babies have a preference for the way living things move, about two weeks ago, is rewarded with that link :)

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Collateral Paradox

Trying to think about the crucial difference between the Train and the Hospital scenarios (as described in this post at Show-Me) got me thinking about the following pair of scenarios:
......In the first scenario you are a busy person who sometimes gives to charity (whenever you feel guilty), so you have set up an account so that some money is automatically donated to a good charity every month (without you having to think about it)—in effect, you are improving the lives of ten poor people (e.g. educating their children, and providing health cover). One day you see an advert by a much more efficient (but no less reliable) charity, who can help five times as many poor people with the same amount of money; fifty people could be saved, instead of only ten, you think. So you call your bank and alter your details accordingly.
......The second scenario is similar, except that the original charity paid their workers slightly less and instead spent the money on sending you information about the ten people you were helping (e.g. photos of them, and some letters from some of them). You were usually too busy to bother reading all that (more advertising, you thought), but as you picked up the phone to call your bank (as above) you happened to glance at one of the photos (some family looking hopeful). Before your money could help anyone else, it would have to be taken away from them, you think; so you leave things as they are (and get on with your busy life).
......But why should a mere photo make such a difference?

Monday, January 07, 2008

Is God a Bit of a Deceiver?

God, it is said, is no deceiver; Descartes famously based his worldview on that certainty, and the idea still seems popular, e.g. Swinburne (The Existence of God, 2nd edn. 2004: 241): "God, if he is not to deceive us and yet give us a real free choice between helping and not helping others, must make a world where others really do suffer." But it strikes me that, even if I grant that opportunities for displays of compassion, charity and self-sacrifice are desirable, nonetheless if any creator of such an opportunity had a choice between deceiving all the participants or else torturing one of them, then the choice of the latter (to avoid being deceitful) would display a marked lack of those very virtues (compassion, charity and self-sacrifice).
......What does the Bible have to say? Well all four Gospels tell how Peter denied Jesus; that is, that Peter lied about God. Did the disciples murder anyone, steal much or have naughty sex (et cetera)? No, so how bad a sin could it be, if Peter did it? The Old Testament contains several stories in which God's people (e.g. Moses) used deceit to outwit their enemies, apparently with God's approval (or even complicity). Matthew 13 contains a nice account of Jesus explaining why he spoke in parables; and if Noah's Ark (or any other bit of Genesis) was fictional then God was a bit of a deceiver because until recently people would have had no reason not to take such stories literally (and if not then it's deceptively fictional-looking nowadays). And was there not something like deceit in God's tempting of Abraham?
......But my grasp of the Bible is very weak, so those examples may not prove anything; but my point is really just a question: Why is divine deceit regarded as unthinkable? We would find it acceptable to tell our children white lies if that would keep them from harm, and surely (as Swinburne says of the alternative, in the first of these quotes) "God who is, ex hypothesi, so much more the author of our being than are our parents, has rights so much greater in this respect." Is it that, were the object of our compassion (et cetera) shown to be a hollow puppet we would feel that our goodness had been wasted? But suppose we were shown that after the purpose of the opportunity in question had been revealed to us; would we not then feel gratitude?
......It may depend upon what that purpose was; but suppose it was our opportunity to define ourselves as good—then our good acts, far from being wasted, would have become our good being; and being good we would not want the cost of that to be the suffering of another. And the purpose could hardly lie entirely in it being a genuine (or objective) rather than merely apparent (or subjective) helping of another, when even such a real act would add so infinitesimally little to the infinitely greater goodness of the transcendentally Real creator of the opportunity in question.
......Now, I'm not suggesting that the holocaust (for example) was hollow because (i) we should not, even were that the case, think that it was (although surely we should hope it was), and (ii) I don't think that the point of life (on Earth) is likely to be soul-building—I do think it's likely to involve some deception (if that is plausible), although nothing worse than what would follow from having chosen to be hypnotised in order to behave better (since we would have volunteered for it); whence the question, could it involve divine deception?