Tuesday, November 20, 2007

On God and free will…

I wanted to clarify––partially for my own sake––what I've been up to with the two recent, brief posts on free will and God. I was able to do so to some small degree while at Energetic Processions.

…On my blog I’ve recently been tinkering with a kind of argument (for free will and for the existence of God) which, while I highly doubt is original with me, is something I can only call “defining into existence”, or maybe the “fallacy of an all too apt definition.” As long as I appropriately set up the meaning of “free will” and “God”, I can syllogize them right into existence. Much the same goes for Ostler’s quasi-divine analysis. If he can argue around that the one troubling aspect of divinity––namely its being DIVINE–– then he can certainly posit a “coherent” view of a corporeal God. It may be coherent but, as Perry said, is that relevant to the debate as the term is understood historically and contextually?

My own frank diffidence about my “definition” arguments on my blog are not to say I deny the existence of free will or God (on the contrary, I’d like to think their form, if not their content, is of some obscure merit); it is simply to acknowledge how devilishly tempting it is to tweak established terms for our own ends; and it is to acknowledge the limits of doing so. This kind of lowest common denominator thinking is rampant in much Artificial Intelligence boosterism, which M. Taube saw 40+ years ago by calling it a vicious circle. I know just the trick: If machines can’t be engineered up to human levels, let’s reduce man down to machine levels. Turing did so explicitly, arguing for a multitude of kinds of rationality, whereby clunky machine thinking is ‘just as good’, ‘in its own way‘, as conventional, and therefore chauvinistically favored, human thinking. This practice (known in some circles of a darker hue as “changing the joke to slip the yoke”) is not without merit but must be handled carefully in philosophy.

This is more of lark on testing how definitions work as criteria for truth. Socrates said, by his actions at least, that to be able to define something is to understand it. The "arguments" I make for God and free will are, truth be told, not meant primarily as arguments, but as lab runs of an argument-form. I took free will and God to be two of the most obvious, most interesting things to test the form on. I know multiple other definitions of God and free will could be posited, all probably with just as good results, but what I sense is that unless a definition of those two "things" can be stated AND THEN shown to violate known reality, the form of argument as I've made it has some kind of heuristic value. This is pure philosophical intuition.

Now, an objector might say, "I can define a unicorn as that which makes it rain, and then see it rain, but that doesn't mean unicorns exist." But aside from the fact that such is NOT a normal definition of unicorns, and therefore begs the question why "a winged, one-horned horse" is not used instead, this objection also misses the point of my argument-form. Defining a unicorn into existence based on its putative role in rainmaking is not DEFINING a unicorn at all; the definition collapses into a number of meteorological entities/forces, which renders the definition useless; it tells us nothing about unicorns as such. A definition should be able to uniquely "pick out" one thing from many others, literally defining the boundaries of one thing versus another as we make our way through life. We CAN say water is "that which gets people wet", or "that which people drink when thirsty", but no such definition is really a DEFINITION. Water is dihydrogen monoxide. Is there, in turn, in fact something that is made up of two hydrogen molecules covalently bonded with an oxygen molecule? There is! Therefore, water exists.

The point of my argument-form is to see if a definition of something not collapsible into something else, has probative value. My argument is not that people make choices, THEREFORE they have free will. Rather it is that no other thing can be rationally conceived of as free will AND be seen to occur in life. Brain states are not what affects the changes I mentioned in my first premise, since brain states do not always affect such changes, whereas the deliberation, concomitant with brain states, ALWAYS produces such changes. Without that deliberative agency, numerous changes would not be affected. Brain states can produce a number of different behaviors without really producing a "choice", since the very concept of choice includes deliberation; only deliberative action produces what preserves the meaning of the word "choice." Hence brain states are a material but not formal cause of deliberative action; they are a necessary but not sufficient ground for such actions.

Likewise with God. No other definition is coherent AND present in life as experienced in the categories discussed in that argument. This is not, of course, to say NO OTHER formulation of the definition, or no other definition of God from another perspective (e.g., moral), could work. The argument-form is more modest, saying 1) the definition-premise is coherent and 2) there appear to be part of life that "fit the bill" for that premise; hence, that thing exists as the very mechanism at work in the realities mentioned in the middle premise.

This thinking seems all too waxy, I know. But I wonder if there are not some things––indeed, many things––that fit this kind of bill. How else do scientists come to agree on purely theoretical things like hadrons and fermions? They don't SEE these things. Rather, they posit (i.e., hypothetically define) them as a certain kind of entity, see if such a definition makes sense of known data, and then conclude tot he existence of the subatomic particles. It seems there is a point at which defining a thing any less aptly than what "fits" the inquiry is not to solve the inquiry but to give up on solving it for fear of forcing the definition to the evidence. The point of this argument-form is to press the question, "Is there, for example, anything else besides free will which coherently accounts for deliberate effects and, for example, anything else besides God which coherently accounts for the total relative integrity of the cosmos?"

Again, this little project is much less ambitious than the first two topics might suggest. But this argument-form, even were it picked apart and burned at the stake by a sharp philosophical eye, tickles my mind…

"Natural selection" is the mechanism by which random phylogenetic changes are increased or decreased in a gene pool based on environmental pressures over time.

Phylogenetic changes fluctuate over time in accordance with environmental pressures.

Therefore, natural selection exists.

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