Thursday, January 27, 2011


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美國有三寶,麥粉,當鋪,墨外勞。 (麥當勞?)

The first paragraph of this page contains an explanation for the first line in this post, but the other two lines are whimsical paraphrases, arguably very un-PC, of my own making.

I'm watching the movie…

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…but I've never known anything about the series before. An interesting tidbit from the Wikipedia entry on "The Green Hornet":

He would be accompanied by his similarly masked chauffeur/bodyguard/enforcer, who was also Reid's valet, Kato, initially described as Japanese, and by 1939 as Filipino of Japanese descent.[4] Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, references to a Japanese heritage were dropped.[5]

Specifically, in and up to 1939, in the series' opening narration, Kato was called Britt Reid's "Japanese valet" and from 1940 to '45 he was Reid's "faithful valet." However, by at least the June 1941 episode "Walkout for Profit," about 14 minutes into the episode, Reid specifically noted Kato having a Philippine origin and thus he became Reid's "Filipino valet" as of that point.[6] When the characters were used in the first of a pair of movie serials, the producers had Kato's nationality given as Korean.

Children vs. children…

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In I Corinthians 7, St Paul teaches that it is better to marry and raise children than to burn with lust, whereas modern culture teaches that it is better to remain like children and burn with lust than to marry.

Granted, Jesus teaches that we must enter the Kingdom as children, but something tells me He didn't mean giant-sized children with credit lines and scrupulously well fed sex lives.

Monday, January 24, 2011

By hook or by crook…

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From "When Booze Was Banned But Pot Was Not" by Jacob Sullum, Reason
Posted on January 14, 2011, Printed on January 23, 2011

Entrepreneurs taking advantage of legal loopholes included operators of “booze cruises” to international waters, travel agents selling trips to Cuba (which became a popular tourist destination on the strength of its proximity and wetness), “medicinal” alcohol distributors whose brochures (“for physician permittees only”) resembled bar menus, priests and rabbis who obtained allegedly sacramental wine for their congregations (which grew dramatically after Prohibition was enacted), breweries that turned to selling “malt syrup” for home beer production, vintners who delivered fermentable juice directly into San Francisco cellars through chutes connected to grape-crushing trucks, and the marketers of the Vino-Sano Grape Brick, which “came in a printed wrapper instructing the purchaser to add water to make grape juice, but to be sure not to add yeast or sugar, or leave it in a dark place, or let it sit too long before drinking it because ‘it might ferment and become wine.’ ”

Friday, January 21, 2011

An open letter to my cat…

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Dear Cheetoh,

Sometimes you remind me of the Warren Zevon song "Excitable Boy". That's not a compliment. For one thing, you're not a boy. If you must keep whining, please learn to speak Spanish, Chinese, German or English, so I can undestand what you keep going on about. I might like to sleep, you know?

But… it is impressive that you like to sleep on top of my boxed set of Feynman's Lectures on Physics. You can stay.



Thursday, January 20, 2011

The cyantific maythid…

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Science is humankind's best tool for gaining cognitive access to the real world. Only what can be measured empirically under repeatable conditions can be said to exist in a cognitively relevant way. This is the stepwise victory of science. However, the present moment cannot be quantified, nor measured repeatedly: there is no objectively repeatable way to verify the nature of "now". Therefore the present moment does not exist in a scientifically meaningful way. "Now" is scientifically, and therefore almost certainly, meaningless for human existence.


This post does not exist…

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This sentence is only six words long.

This is the first seven-word sentence here.


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Here's a stab at expressing one of the key points I wanted to make in an earlier post:

In so far as all descriptions of physical law are at best probabilistic, all attempts to make real descriptions of the physical world indicate the merely probabilistic nature of the world. As such, the most that scientific nomology can deliver for determinism is a picture of a generally deterministic world, which is to say, science does not avail to support determinism.

Along similar lines, I encourage you to watch the following lecture on neuroconsciousness by Gerald Edelman. Edelman's remarks do not begin until about the 30-minute mark, but once he begins, note his admission both of the stochastic, radically neuron-individualistic (my term of art) nature of the human brain and of his rejection of reductionism. Here are two syllogisms to keep in mind as you listen:

1. If Edelman is right that each neuron is literally unique, and

2. since scientific laws are generalizations about classes which do not apply to individual cases, then

3. there may be literally no formulable laws of neuroscience.


1. the brain is patently both a stochastic and natural entity, and in so far as

2. stochastic causation undermines determinism, then

3. the brain compromises the deterministic closure of the natural world.

The semiosis of semiosis…

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"First of all," writes John Deely on page 5 of What Distinguishes Human Understanding? (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine's Press. 2002), "it is no longer possible to participate intelligently in this discussion [i.e. the question of animal cognition and human understanding] without taking account of the fact that there are qualitative differences in the communication systems of all biological species or forms." All species have species-specific modes of semiosis, so the question of "whether humans are unique" is a red herring. We might as well ask whether gold finches are unique. Clearly they are––they are gold finches, not golden retrievers. "Every cognitive organism belongs to one or another species," continues Deely, "and every cognitive species is distinguished by apprehensive modalities peculiar to itself" (loc. cit.).

I have written before about these matters, and my most sustained effort to distinguish human semiosis from 'mere' animal cognition involved a "fourfold" conception of semiosis.

The idea of a square: human semiosis differs from general animal cognition as qualititatively as squares differ from triangles, lines, and points, yet not at the exclusion of points, lines and tri-angle-arity.

Human semiosis transcendentally includes lower forms of semiosis: it manifests those forms but is not reducible to them.

While reading Deely's book I pondered a simpler way to explain the distinction: Only humans can cognize about the semiotic cognition of other species.

This thesis grants that non-human animals do cognize. Pace Descartes, animals are not just elaborate clockworks. They have emotions, desires, goals, fears, etc. They are robust semiotic cognizers.

Yet, interestingly, members of a species concern themselves with semiotic exchanges relevant only to their mutual interaction. Sparrows recognize wolf cries, and some animals can mimic the calls of other animals. But it seems that only humans make signs about the sign-making of other species. We not only manipulate our own species-intelligible signs qua signs (viz. for personal gain, social function, etc.) but also manipulate signs as signs for cognizing the signs made by other animals. Call the former β-cognition and the latter δ-cognition. I choose δ to note human semiosis in deference to Walker Percy's idea of the Delta Factor. I should also note that my notion of fourfold semiotics also stems from my reading of Percy's The Message in the Bottle.

Generative anthropology, another field of inquiry of which I only recently became aware, bears striking resemblances to Percy's thesis. According to (sigh) the Wikipedia entry,

Generative Anthropology is a field of study based on the theory that the origin of human language was a singular event and that the history of human culture is a genetic or "generative" development stemming from the development of language. …

Generative Anthropology originated with Professor Eric Gans of UCLA who developed his ideas in a series of books and articles beginning with The Origin of Language: A Formal Theory of Representation (1981). which builds on the ideas of René Girard, notably that of mimetic desire. However, in establishing the theory of Generative Anthropology, Gans departs from and goes beyond Girard's work in many ways. Generative Anthropology is therefore an independent and original way of understanding the human species, its origin, culture, history, and development. …

The central hypothesis of Generative Anthropology is that the origin of language was a singular event. Human language is radically different from animal communication systems. It possesses syntax, allowing for unlimited new combinations and content; it is symbolic, and it possesses a capacity for history. Thus it is hypothesized that the origin of language must have been a singular event, and the principle of parsimony requires that it originated only once.

Language makes possible new forms of social organization radically different from animal "pecking order" hierarchies dominated by an alpha male. Thus, the development of language allowed for a new stage in human evolution - the beginning of culture, including religion, art, desire, and the sacred. As language provides memory and history via a record of its own history, language itself can be defined via a hypothesis of its origin based on our knowledge of human culture. As with any scientific hypothesis, its value is in its ability to account for the known facts of human history and culture.

So there's yet another tract of knowledge over which I can cast the seemingly endless seeds of my ignorance.

Where was I? Right: fourfold semiosis, δ-cognition. Damn. Sorry. My 'simplified' epiphany was a lot clearer when I had it reading Deely than it looks while writing here. I'll just cite Deely again:

"Of all living things we can say that they are semiosic creatures, creatures which grow and develop through the manipulation of sign-vehicles and the involvement in sign-processes, semiosis. What distinguishes the human being among the animals is quite simple, yet was never fully grasped before modern times had reached the state of Latin times in the age of Galileo. Every animal of necessity makes use of signs, yet signs themselves consist in relations, and every relation (real or unreal as such) is invisible to sense and can be understood in its difference from related objects or things but never perceived as such. What distinguishes the human being from the other animals is that only human animals come to realize that there are signs distinct from and superordinate to every particular thing that serves to constitute an individual in its distinctness from its surroundings."

–– John Deely, "The Semiotic Animal: A postmodern definition of human being superseding the modern definition ‘res cogitans’", p. 10.

Reading Deely is for merather like flirting with a gorgeous woman. She's very attractive to me and I make attempts to win her over, but she is also daunting and baffling in her feminine exaltation. Likewise, though I am immensely attracted to the wisdom Deely has to offer, I often find his prose florid and stilted. This is probably due both to the influence of Peirce and Heidegger, neither writer which lacked in byzantine prose, on Deely's thought and his fluency in Latin, Greek, German, Spanish, and Italian: he writes like a Peirce born during the Renaissance.


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Can't… "Can't"… Kant…

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[UPDATE, 20 Jan 2011: I had a flash of intuition but expressed it so cryptically that now I'm trying to decrypt it for myself. I have made small revisions to the original oracle and added explanatory glosses after the three + signs.]

Because the cognitive "can't" is performatively equivalent to the metaphysical "can't", therefore determinism is false. "I can't tell you who killed your wife" because I don't know "who" he is and "I don't know who killed your wife" because "who" he is lies outside my total set of causal experience, are equivalent on determinism. Yet they are not really equivalent, therefore determinism is not a theory adequate to the real world.

+ + +

Cognitive inability: "I can't answer your question because I lack the relevant knowledge/experience."

Metaphysical inability: "I can't answer your question because there is no means by which I can discover the answer." Imagine if I were asked what the happiest man in the world on 8 March 1928 ate for breakfast.

Cognitive inability: "I can't get in the room because I don't know where the key is."

Metaphysical inability: "I can't get in the room because it is bursting with flames and I am chained to the wall."

If I say, "I can't tell you who killed your wife," my inability is due to the fact that I don't know who the killer is, not to an intrinsic lack of power on my part. If I knew who the killer is, I could tell you. My response-performance would follow from my modified cognitive state. As it happens, "I don't know who killed your wife" because who he is (i.e. anything relevant to identifying him), is outside my total set of causal experience. My cognitive deficit is based on the limitations of my causal career. On determinism, my cognitive deficit is intrinsic to me, since I cannot alter my character contrary to the total causal complex which determines me. If determinism is true, nothing is intrinsically up-to-me, but only proximately inclusive-of-me in its determined ocurrence.

Yet, clearly, my cognitive deficit is not intrinsic to me, for I could perhaps acquire the knowledge I need to answer your question. This is a problem for determinism, though, since, if my cognitive (and therefore volitional) state is totally and intrinsically dependent on my total antecedent causal complex, while it is not metaphysically impossible for my cognitive state to change, it is metaphysically impossible for me to alter my cognitive state. As such, the cognitive inability manifested in my response is performatively equivalent to a metaphysical inability intrinsic to my (wholly determined) character. The cognitive "can't" is performatively equivalent to the metaphysical "can't", therefore determinism is false. An observer would have no way of differentiating a cognitive deficit from a metaphysical inability in me, since he could only go by my performative career.

Further, since determinism stipulates that there is no autonomous "self" which can function in any way independently of an agent's encompassing causal Umwelt, it follows on determinism that there is no metaphysical principle by which the agent could determine for himself how to alter his cognitive states. The alteration of his cognitive states would not be a function of his rational agency, but rather a function––or perhaps an integral?––of the causal complex which comprises both the agent and his semiotic milieu. His cognitive and metaphysical inabilities would derive from one and the same set of causal factors. Hence, on determinism, the agent's inability would be metaphysically and cognitively equivalent. Yet these modes of inability are not really equivalent, therefore determinism is not a theory of the real world. In so far as determinism confuses, or simply elides, an important distinction in reality, determinism fails as an important theory of reality.


I'm not just conjecturing about the denial of the "self" on a materialist espousal of determinism. Consider the following excerpts from "Denying the Little God of Free Will: The Next Step for Atheists? An Open Letter to the Atheist Community" by Tom Clark, Director of the Center for Naturalism.

With a little help from added emphasis, I will let the usual contradictions and fallacies speak for themselves (yuk yuk yuk).

A few points to keep in mind are that a) speaking of what determines human behavior begs the question, b) it is a false dichotomy to treat substantial rational agency as distinct from "nature" simply because it is not mechanistic, and c) in so far as the evidence for or against naturalistic claims is neither apodeictic nor deductive, such indeterminacy reinforces the need for a choice on our part for or against those claims.

With that, have a looksee:

In atheist circles it’s conventional wisdom to doubt God’s existence on empirical grounds: there’s no good evidence that such a being exists, so we don’t waste time believing in it. But there’s an equally suspect, supernatural entity that often lurks at the heart of commonsense ideas about human nature: the freely willing self.

We have, it is widely believed, the power to think, choose, and act in some crucial respect independently of those causal factors that create us as persons, and that surround us each moment of our lives. Unlike anything else in nature, human beings have a special contra-causal freedom to cause things to happen without themselves being fully caused in turn.

Sound familiar? It should, for such causally privileged freedom is a characteristic of God – the uncaused causer, the prime mover, who acts without himself being at the effect of anything. The assumption of free will, so widespread in our culture, in effect sets us up as supernatural little gods, and it’s this assumption that a thorough-going naturalism upsets. We should doubt the little god of free will on the very same grounds that atheists doubt the big god of traditional religions: there’s no evidence for it.

Just as science has radically altered our view of cosmic reality, replacing the static earth-centered heavens with the Big Bang, and supernatural human origins with Darwinian evolution, so too it replaces the soul with the fully physical person, shaped in its entirety by the complex interaction of genetics and environment. Rapidly accumulating evidence from biology, evolutionary psychology, and cognitive neuroscience suggests we are not causal exceptions to nature. There is no categorically mental agent or soul-essence floating above the brain which can exert a choice-making power that’s independent of neural processes. There’s nothing supernatural or causally privileged inside the head, just as there’s nothing supernatural outside it. …

How can we take or assign credit and blame? How do we justify punishment or praise? Without free will aren’t we just puppets, mere mechanisms playing out our fates as determined by impersonal forces?

As pressing as such questions are, they have no bearing on the truth of the matter, which, if we are naturalists, we decide on the basis of evidence, not on what we suppose must be the case. And indeed, looking at the world and ourselves dispassionately and scientifically, there really are no evidential grounds for supposing we have supernatural souls, or any categorically mental, immaterial self that makes us freely willing little gods here on earth. …

Supernatural contra-causal freedom really isn’t necessary for anything we hold near and dear, whether it’s personhood, morality, dignity, creativity, individuality, or a robust sense of human agency. We may be fully caused in our choices and behavior, but that doesn’t render us ineffective in getting what we want, nor does it upset our moral compass: we can still tell right from wrong, and we’re still fully motivated to create a world in which we flourish, not perish. As Duke University philosopher Owen Flanagan argues in his ground-breaking book The Problem of the Soul, without free will we still have self-control, self-expression, individuality, rationality, moral accountability, and political freedom (see chapter 4, “Free Will”). …

[T]he realization that we are not little gods has considerable benefits, both personal and social. First, by accepting and illuminating our complete causal connection to the world, a consistent naturalism leads to a compassionate understanding of human faults and virtues. Seeing that we aren’t the ultimate originators of ourselves or our behavior, we can’t take ultimate credit or blame for what we do. This reduces unwarranted self-righteousness, pride, shame, and guilt. And since we see others as fully caused…[,] we become less blaming, less punitive and more empathetic and understanding. …

In denying supernatural free will, naturalism focuses our attention on what actually determines human behavior. This increases our powers of self-control, and encourages science-based, effective and progressive policies….

Lastly, by showing we are fully included in nature, naturalism provides the basis for a satisfying approach to concerns about ultimate meaning and significance. Since we are not little gods, we find ourselves completely at home here on earth, part of an awe-inspiring universe, full-fledged participants in the unfolding natural order.

Because without cause…

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Because jazz exists, determinism is false. Note the use of the words "form", "developed", "substance", and "play".

Jazz is inherently indeterministic yet real, therefore reality is indeterministic.

This is an inuition akin to the role of Bach's music in coming to see the existence of God.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Get down to brass tacks…

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From the Wikipedia entry on (mathematical) "Deterministic systems" (emphasis added by me):

In quantum mechanics, the Schrödinger equation, which describes the continuous time evolution of a system's wave function, is deterministic. However, the relationship between a system's wave function and the observable properties of the system appears to be non-deterministic.

The systems studied in chaos theory are deterministic. If the initial state were known exactly, then the future state of such a system could be predicted. However, in practice, knowledge about the future state is limited by the precision with which the initial state can be measured.

My question is, if Heisenberg uncertainty is not only a deficit based on limitations in our measurement apparati, but is also inherent to any observed quantum state, then is there any means by which "the initial state" could be "known exactly"? If not, then the determinism of chaotic systems is still only promissory, as I complained in an another post recently. The larger point that I (think I) want make (as indicated in the same prior post) is this:

If determinism is simply the doctrine that for any state S that occurs, S has an antecedent cause C sufficient to explain S, then I suppose "indeterminism" about the rational will is 'deterministic' in so far as it is the will W which is a mode of C to explain any S that arises from the action of an agent A suitable for W. But that seems to be argument by definition, not by demonstration. In other words, if the choice is between a denial of causality per se and determinism, then I affirm determinism. The issue, however, is not about causality, but about mechanism and teleology. And teleology seems to be an irreducible category of rational action not sufficiently explained by mechanistic descriptions. If "determinism" is rigged to include rational agent causation, then determinism enjoys a merely Pyrrhic victory. For by including rational agency under the head of determinism, the determinist would grant that rational agency is a legitimate form of causation. But that would be a very perverse form of determinism, historically speaking.

A further worry I have––and I use "worry" in the philosopher's sense of "an abiding academic quandry"––is how determinism is supposéd to be empirically grounded (about which I worried in the previous post cited). If a major part of the basis for determinism is the success of practical prediction, then the theoretic success of determinism rests in large part on its adequacy in prediction. (I dealt with this worry to some extent in a previous post about baseball.) If, however, prediction itself collapses at certain points, whether because of our cognitive impairments or because of inherent limitations in what is physically observable, then determinism is beset with the same faults. Meanwhile, indeterminism with respect to the deliberative will W of a rational agent A faces no parallel limitation, since the theoretical adequacy of teleological accounts of behavior maintain their value even when perfect prediction fails.

Along these lines, a commenter recently suggested that determinism, while perhaps not demonstrable––though I would go farther and say it is in principle not even utterable––, is still a good "theory" for us in order to navigate our existence in the world. The commenter likened determinism to a perfect circle: while both a circle and determinism can be defined, neither ever perfectly shows up in nature. While it might suffice to note how devastating such a concession is for determinism––namely, that the world is never perfectly deterministic!–– I would like to add two further objections.

First, positing determinism as a formal guide is exactly the worst move a determinist could make, since formal systems, of which I think the definition of geometric shapes (like a circle) is one, are, after the discovery of Gödel's incompleteness theorems, fundamentally indeterminate, or at least permanently incomplete (which is just to repeat the concession that got me to this first objection). If determinism is a formal principle, sort of like a perfect Platonic notion of Seamless Causality, and if such formal principles are not actually instantiated in the empirical world, then determinism is no more a feature of the "real world" than is a perfect circle. Both are pure abstractions, not empirically determinate realities. In addition, the very 'supernaturalness' of such formal entities suggests that Determinism qua Seamless Causality manifests cognitive access to a world beyond empirical reality, namely, the world of immaterial abstraction. Significantly, it is the traditional position of "free will" indeterminists that free will basically resides in our natural power of immaterial abstraction. In so far as intellection––i.e. the cognition of abstract reality––is in principle incommensurate with any material organ, our grasp of determinism as a formal but not empirical truth would itself ground our ability as non-deterministic agents. For if determinism is just a formal set of axioms for analyzing phenomena, then it is Gödel-indeterminate, which of course patently undermines determinism.

Second, I deny that determinism is a superior "working theory" of action, since, as I have already noted, teleological (i.e. agent-based) accounts of change are integral to human existence, and in a way that determinism cannot afford. As Professor Sandra LaFave notes in her online article about free will and determinism:

"The notion of mechanical causality applies to things but not to persons. When we account for the behavior of persons, we must use teleological explanations. …

Most philosophers nowadays acknowledge the necessity of teleological explanations of human behavior. One standard argument for teleological explanation comes from Kant.

Kant says persons are like things in the sense that physical laws apply to their bodies; the indeterminist might even admit that psychological “laws” govern some of people's consciousness events. But persons are NOT like things because they can be conscious of the operation of these laws. (A thing is just subject to laws; it is not conscious of being subject to laws.) Even the hard determinist must admit this odd characteristic of persons. People can thus be aware of physical and psychological laws as observers, from the outside.These laws are viewed as things that can operate on me, but there is always a sense in which I view myself as apart from them — for example, right now, when I am reflecting about them.

When I think about how to behave, I consider reasons. I never think about causes, because insofar as I am an agent, they are never relevant. I have to make choices, and I choose on the basis of reasons. In other words, the model of physical causation does not fit at all when you try to apply it to human choices. Even if all human choices were determined, the HD [i.e. hard-determinist] model would still be completely inadequate to describe the perspective of the agent, which is what really matters for morality. The HD position is simply at odds with human experience because it continually asserts that as far as human experience is concerned, things are not what they seem.

I should add that LaFave, in the latter paragraph, is not saying that determinism is wrong because it is counter-intuitive, or because it flies in the face of "everyday experience". If that were all we needed to refute someone, Einstein would be a madman, not a genius. Rather, LaFave's objection cuts much deeper, because she says HD does not account for all the data (as scientists like to say). Here's a syllogism, reminiscent of my recent syllogistic disproof of the claim that Darwinian natural selection explains human nature (cf. infra), to capture LaFave's worry:

1. Human action is an irreducible metaphysical category in the real world.

1a. If not, the action of human advocates of determinism is an accidental metaphysical category and not a genuine feature of real-world cognition. In other words, the noises determinists make aboue the truth of determinism is as superficial to a rational grasp of the world as their burps are.

2. Human action is meaningful only in teleogical terms.

2a. Even if we speak only of desires, we still must speak of them as more than bare causal states, to speak nothing of indeterminately complex desire-matrices.

2b. If perceptual desires are reducible to and identical with "bare causal states", then even falling rocks and rising flames 'desire'––which would be an astounding concession for the determinist to make to Aristotle after all these centuries!

3. Determinism does not have any theoretical 'space' for teleological action: it excludes teleogical agent-causation.

4. Therefore, determinism does not provide a metaphysically satisfactory account of the world, which of course includes der menschliche Umwelt of perceptual reasoning.

5. Therefore, determinism is false in the real world.

The point is that even if we espoused determinism merely as a "working theory", or as a "functional model", of the otherwise 'unknowable' world, it would not suffice as a working theory of what we encounter all the time, namely, our own rational agency as an irreducible category of making sense of our own existence. Indeterminism is therefore superior to determinism even in merely pragmatic terms.

In any event, another worry I have is why, on determinism, specific cases of action could not be subsumed to vintage scientific laws themselves. For if every instance of a falling apple 'perfectly' manifests (though, of course, it is hardly formally perfect), then why could not an instance of my choosing to buy one book rather than another be an instance of a natural law in its own right? Presumably, if in an otherwise gravity-free universe––a universe occupied by only one microscopic object––an apple were introduced near that molecule for an hour, the universe would, for one hour, 'have' the law of gravity. Interestingly, in the entire history of that cosmos, the law of gravity would have applied only for an hour. It would be a transient, particular event, not an overarching principle of natural action.

Presumably, as well, "the laws of physics as we know them" (how's that for a pleonasm!) did not hold prior to a certain point (i.e. the Planck epoch) in the inflation of the primeval cosmos. Did, then, other laws hold, or no laws at all? If they were laws of nature, it seems odd that they could simply fail to hold, and after a mere few nanoseconds, to boot. If they were not abiding laws of nature, however, then the cosmos began and was inflated by no knowable laws. As such, the cosmos could not be accounted for by reference to its own immanent laws, but would indicate the radical contingency of the universe. Further, if the primal conditions were only "transiently nomic", why do we presume our cosmos operates under "laws" now? Whether they last a couple nanoseconds or a few billion years, if laws of nature are incidental to the actual operation of nature, then why call them laws of nature?

The upshot as far as rational agency is concerned is that, if we can stipulate laws that apply to something as mercurial, inscrutable, unrepeatable, and transient as the birth of the cosmos, could we not also stipulate laws of action, which, while not 'violating' other principles of natural generation, included as their truthmakers the immanent action of the very agent being described by physical law? If a law could apply in the cosmos for an hour, or even just for a few nanoseconds, and then be 'sublimated' by passage into a different state of affairs (SoA), subject to distinct causal parameters, then presumably a law could exist at the junction of an agent A's deliberative choice A(c) and other laws which grounds the means for A(c).

A PSA from Elliam…

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Elliot informs me comments have not been showing up in the comboxes, though they do reach him by email.

My suggestion to anyone who wants to leave comments is either

a) to write short comments around 500 words each, which should go through without a hitch, or

b) to post your comment and, if you see an error message, just go "Back" on the window to refresh it. The comment should be there.

The error message seems to be as much a lie as the cake!

That is all. As you were.

You have to laugh…

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I did.

Besides, laughter is better than getting all wee wee'd up!

"Sarah Palin Defends 'Refudiate'."

Is philosophy a waist of time?

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Dr. Stephen Hicks provides a regular florilegium of highly amusing "insights" about philosophy from his undergrad students over the years. A choice excerpt:

The existence of God is questionable since evil does have some good points to make. The greatest gift is to be in God’s presents, but when we are in God’s presents we should not think about ourselves. John Hick rebukes the concept that God would not allow suffering if he existed in the third paragraph of his essay. Because of evil there is said to be another force in the universe—a dark force. His name is Satin.

Viel Spaß beim Lesen!

The latest from…

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…BBEDU, my weight training blog.

My "Squats and Milk" regimen is going well.

No injuries lately to speak of.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Truthmakers, Mythmakers, Falsifiers, Fairies… 

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The Bode-Titius Law (BTL), which I cited in a recent post on Darwinism and morality, has been percolating in my mind since I encountered it in Stanley Jaki's The Relevance of Physics. It is a fascinating case study of the falsifiability of scientific claims, as well as of the question of how much heuristic 'slack' a theory should be given vis-á-vis empirical inconsistencies. Lately, the specific problem that has vexed my brain is this:

The falsifier of the BTL was the existence of Neptune, once discovered.

Yet, the (unrecognized) existence of Neptune was a truthmaking condition for the validity of the BTL.

Therefore, the existence of Neptune was both a truthmaker for and falsifier of the BTL.

(I'm not the only one who hears "B.L.T." whenever I read "BTL", am I?)

Images I have: Johann Elert Bode, with full confidence in its truth, successfully using the BTL to explain astronomical phenomena at the cutting edge of the science in his day. The planet Neptune, unknown, orbiting the sun in space, influencing the very motions of the planets being described by the BTL. Passage of time. The discovery of Neptune. The planet Neptune, now recognized, orbiting the sun in space, still influencing the motions of other planets in ways yet to be described by a later law.

If at some point humanity lost awareness of Neptune but somehow managed to salvage the BTL, would the BTL be true again? Was it ever true? Is any scientific equation ever true? Should we even speak of the Bode-Titius Law as a natural phenomenon if it could so easily be "repealed" by human cognition? If a scientific law can apply to the system called "the Milky Way", can another law not just as plausibly apply to a system called "the Milky Way without reference to this and that planet"? If laws can apply when restricted to a certain range of material objects, can they not also apply when restricted to a range of temporal units (e.g. could we not construct a "law of nature" which explains why I ordered a bacon waffle sandwich at 15:30 this afternoon but makes no mention of why anyone else ordered something nor of what I did before or after that time)?

I am, once more, a very diffident scientific realist.

Lo! Strange signs in yon ever-turning sky…

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"Unser Handeln sei getragen von dem stets lebendigen Bewußtsein, daß die Menschen in ihrem Denken, Fühlen und Tun nicht frei sind, sondern ebenso kausal gebunden wie die Gestirne in ihren Bewegungen."
–– aus Einstein sagt. Alice Calaprice (Hrsg.), München/Zürich: Piper, 1997, S. 177.

["Our behavior is borne by the always living consciousness that humans are not free in their thinking, feeling and doing, but rather are as causally bound as the stars in their motions."]

Perhaps you've heard of the recent "identity crisis" sweeping the astrological world. As Andrea Reiher reports (13 Jan 2011,

Astronomer Parke Kunkle tells NBC news that due to the Earth's changing alignment in the last 3000 years, the sign you are born into now are different than they were long ago. Plus, astronomers believe there is a 13th Zodiac sign called Ophiuchus, which falls between Scorpio and Sagittarius.

"This is not something that happened today. This has gone on for thousands of years," says Kunkle. "Because of this change of tilt, the Earth is really over here in effect and Sun is in a different constellation than it was 3,000 years ago."

The constellation of Ophiuchus is located near the celestial equator and is typically depicted as a man wrangling a serpent. "Ophiuchus" means "serpent-bearer" in Greek. …

… Ophiuchus can be found in the Sidereal Zodiac, which is used by Jyotish (or Hindu) astrologers. The Sidereal Zodiac's astrological sign dates are … based on a moving Zodiac, not the fixed one we use today in Western astrology. Therefore, that Zodiac has shifted almost one full sign from the fixed zodiac.

The astrologically inclined commenters are generally of one mind: "No way, I'm SOME ZODIAC SIGN through and through." Indeed, in the original article that Reiher cites (, 12 Jan 2011), we read:

"So I'm an Aries now, fabulous," said Jozsef Szathmary, reacting to the news.

Szathmary has gone from Taurus to Aries in stride, vowing to his sun alignment that he is ready to change.

"I'm a ball of sunshine....wherever the sun is at, that's where I'm at," he said.

And that is just the point. The Sun and Earth are moving surely and slowly, so the stars of your sign aren't the same as they were when that sign was assigned to your birth thousands of years ago.

Is this not an incredible instance of falsification in what otherwise claims to be a science, and an equally stunning case of cognitive dissonance and dogmatism by astrological adherents? Actually, I think astrology's scientific merit should be demonstrable or refutable on grounds prior to this "discovery". It is a philosophical puzzle which has been tickling my mind for days, since the question for Western astrologers now is whether a person's "fate" was decided by their birth star by the immutable (fated!) arrangement of the stars, or whether a person's fated "character" has actually changed.

Let us see what astrology's resources might be for salvaging itself. On the one hand, astrologers might say a person born a Cancer (like myself) still is a Cancer, and his fated character just included from all time the ordeal of having to go by a different astrological moniker. For instance, if I believed in astrology––which I don't––, I could view myself as a Cancer fated to live the rest of my life under the guidance of Gemini. In other words, I would lead heed a Gemini's guidance in a Cancer-way, much like an immigrant might live "the American way" in an unmistakably Greek way. His Greekness includes in it the capacity for living as an American. In this way, there is simply a new disclosure of the previously unapprehended dimensions of each Zodiac sign. Astrologists, therefore, might salvage their practice by saying the signs functionally overlap in certain ways. They might say that each sign has relatively disparate degrees of a common set of characteristics or tendencies shared by all the signs.

This tactic, however, seems undesirable, not only because it seems very ad hoc, but also because it seems to explode the notion of fate, which is central to astrology. Let us imagine I was born on 9 July 1979 and it was within the means of astrology to foretell that my fate would be to die as a mighty general in a foreign country. Had I been born two weeks earlier, however, as a Gemini, it would have been my astrological fate to die as a reviled political dissident in my own country. If my fate really is the former, then there can be no changing it––that's what fate means! If, though, I really do get 'demoted' to the fate of a Gemini, then I have no reason to heed either of my fates, since clearly neither of them––indeed, no fate at all––is unalterable.

An alternative tactic would be something like Mr Szathmary's, cited above: just accept your new "fate", based as it is on the ancient patterns of the heavens, and admit that our humble astrology merely tries to "model" the elusive reality. The shifting phenomena of the astrological charts would not disprove the truth of astrology, only loosen the pragmatic fit between the actual deterministic course of the heavens and astrology's usefulness as a tool for mapping that reality. Interestingly, in so far as normal science these days has generally settled for generating appealing "models" of the world (cf. e.g. Hawking and Mlodinow in The Grand Design), which never actually capture the "truth" of the "real world", then astrology has a legitimate seat at the table of scientific modeling. Its comparative inaccuracies are a function of the vast complexity of its object (viz. the entire cosmos and human behavior), not of its falsity per se. In contrast, the superior accuracy of other "hard sciences" is merely due to their comparatively narrower field of inquiry. Meteorology is actually more complex than astrophysics, and neuroscience probably more complex than both of them, but this does not mean we scorn weather science just because it is less pragmatically successful than astrophysics, nor that we reject brain science just because it is arguably still beset by semi-scientific illusions.

We can see hints of both tactics in another article by Reiher (, 13 Jan 2011), one intended to calm the troubled hearts of the astrologically inclined:

Astrological signs are based off the position of the sun relative to the Zodiac constellations on the day you are born. The problem is that the positions were determined thousands of years ago and they have since changed due to the precession, or Earth's "wobble." It would mean horoscope signs as determined by the constellation positions are now nearly a month off. …

The "new" dates are not news -- to astronomers, which are not the same as astrologers. Astronomers include the 13th Zodiac sign, Ophiuchus, which some theorize was discarded by the ancient Babylonians because they wanted 12 signs and not 13. …

Which is just an example of how fickle astrology is.

What are the characteristics of an Ophiuchus? Nobody knows, because astronomers don't assign characteristics based on where the sun was when you were born. And most Western astrologers don't count Ophiuchus. Certainly astrologers could choose to include Ophiuchus and would then have to assign its bearers characteristics and give it an element -- we would guess a Water sign, as Scorpio is one and they are assigned in triangles across the sky….

There has also been talk that this "new" change only affects those born after 2009. That's not right either. Ophiuchus was discovered just as long ago as the other Zodiac constellations and the Earth's shift on its axis has been happening and will continue to happen forever. In another 3000 years, signs will have shifted again and, for instance with ourselves, all Libras will be Leos.

But astrology doesn't work the same way as astronomy and if Western astrology is something you believe in, you're fine. Nothing has changed. So don't panic, horoscope fans. You can stay just the way you are. But it's an interesting concept to ponder.

I admit I don't follow how Reiher, regardless how much she may ponder, can admit both that the astrological signs are constantly shifting and that nothing has changed for astrology. I think her point is that "normal astrology" is not so much about your "fate" from birth as it is about following the relation between the sun and the Zodiac constellations on a regular basis. But how could you know what relation to track unless you arleady know your "birth sign" and unless it didn't change? Perhaps normal astrology is just about noting how the sun looks and predicting your mood for the day, or noting how the constellations look and predicting which wine you will have after dinner. In that case, the Weather Channel is my astrologer!

How fickle astrology is, indeed.

In any event, the foregoing sketches another reason why I reject determinism, actually: determinism is just promissory astrology. For, according to both astrology and determinism, my origin, character, and destiny are all unchangeably fixed by the primal conditions of everything in the cosmos. For both (hyper-)astrologers and determinists, we are literally just puppets of the motion of the sidereal universe. The problem, though, is that only astrology tries to make meaningful, coherent, specific prophecies from its deterministic presuppositions. "Ordinary determinists", by contrast, admit the world is too complex (so far?) for us to predict someone's fate by correlating it with heavenly phenomena. Clearly, though, the predictions of astrology are wrong, not only as a matter of experience but also in terms of the mutability of the astrological signs. Astrology could be true only if determinism were true. The more specific astrological predictions become, however, the weaker their fatalistic impact becomes, since, as we see, the signs will shift every n years and a person will be indeterminately subject to contradictory fates (fates, mind you, which aren't even "fated for all time").

Now, suppose astrologists, wanting to preserve determinism, lowered their standards for what an astrological prediction is. Then determinism would suffer the same fate as astrology at the hands of its critics. For by making a person's "determined" course of existence so vague that it can include numerous contradictory predictions, deterministic "foresight" is either vacuous––like the cleverly generic "horoscopes" which could be applied to almost anyone at various points in life–– or would be an admittedly unfalsifiable doctrine. For if, due to the complexity of the world, no prediction can be made in principle which is specific enough to demonstrate or refute determinism. Only if determinists dared to make predictions along the lines of plain 'ol horoscopes, would we have any means of testing the predictive usefulness of determinism. Without specifying what the causal mechanism is which grounds the deterministic links between "the entire universe" and "my personal fate", determinism is theoretically vacuous––mere promissory astrology. "We can't articulate what your fate is, but we are certain your destiny is fated: we're sure of determinism, but we can't make precise predictions from it: the world's just too complex." For if science were ever so complete that we could predict a person's behavior, inclinations, choices, and destiny from a reading of the stars at the time of her birth––which is to say, from looking at the largest causal matrix which has bearing on that person's actual existence––, then astrology would be the highest form of science. Here's a troubling syllogism, though:

1. If determinism is true, then astrology is true.

2. Astrology is false.

3. Therefore, determinism is false.

Consider another syllogism:

1. If the theory of special relativity is true, then the speed of light in a vacuum is constant.

2. The speed of light is not constant. (Assuming a future experiment shows this.)

3. Therefore, the special theory of relativity is false.

Yet another syllogism:

1. If Christianity is true, then the doctrine of the hypostatic union is true.

2. The doctrine of the hypostatic union is false. (Assuming a future argument demonstrates this.)

3. Therefore, Christianity is false.

In each case, the falsity of the entailments of a theory entails the falsity of the theory. Therefore, only if a determinist is prepared to defend the plausibility of astrology, should he be prepared to embrace all the entailments of determinism.

The usual rejoinder is that our failure to compute exact predictions is merely a limitation of our cognitive abilities, not a disproof of determinism… which sounds an awful lot like what an astrologist says. Here's a fundamental problem, though: if the basis for believing in determinism is the cognitively accessible "scientific evidence" for it, then the basis for determinism is a function of our cognitive abilities as scientific cognizers. In other words, if determinism is "scientifically demonstrable", then the cognitive access to scientific demonstrations of determinism is coterminous with any cognitive basis for determinism. Unfortunately, though, as soon as the determinist admits that exact science may never be able to compute completely rich predictions to satisfy the skeptic, he eo ipso undermines the reliability of our heretofore scientific proof for determinism. The consistent accuracy of scientific predictions in various domains is a function of our computational success: scientific predictions, in other words, are only worth the predictions on which they're printed. As such, the scientific evidence for determinism extends no farther than the success of predictions which bear it out. By admitting that we may in principle be unable to make predictions beyond a certain computational point, however, the determinist is admitting that determinism in principle may not extend beyond the computations we actually make. That is a "local" fact about us, though not a truth about the world as a whole––at least, not a "scientific truth."

The solution at this point would be to include a substantial ceteris paribus clause that, say, "the laws of nature which underwrite our scientific predictions apply in all cases at all times in the universe and will never change." To add such a clause, however, not only preempts the much vaunted revisability and falsifiability of exact science; but also, far from demonstrating it, merely assert determinism: "The world is the way it is from all time and for all time." If we believe in determinism because exact science meshes with it, yet also admit that the complexity of the world outstrips our ability to get at its true nature, then the "scientific validity" of determinism may just be as much the fault of our idiosyncratic cognitive limits as the falstity of astrology is the fault of the charts' phenomenological limitations.

Songs I use to clean my room…

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As in, which I use to give me that allmächtigen Zimmerreinmachendengeist!

Basically… anything instrumental, and nearly anything at all, by Fugazi!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Philosophy by metabolism again…

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From "Darwin's Rape Whistle" by Jesse Bering (, 13 Jan. 2011):

Thornhill and Palmer, Malamuth, and the many other investigators studying rape through an evolutionary lens, take great pains to point out that "adaptive" does not mean "justifiable," but rather only mechanistically viable. Yet dilettante followers may still be inclined to detect a misogyny in these investigations that simply is not there. As University of Michigan psychologist William McKibbin and his colleagues write in a 2008 piece for the Review of General Psychology, "No sensible person would argue that a scientist researching the causes of cancer is thereby justifying or promoting cancer. Yet some people argue that investigating rape from an evolutionary perspective justifies or legitimizes rape."

I want to rework this paragraph to see what might fall out:

Investigators studying honesty through an evolutionary lens, take great pains to point out that "adaptive" does not mean "vicious," but rather only mechanistically viable. Yet dilettante followers may still be inclined to detect a naivete in these investigations that simply is not there. As University of Burpelson psychologist Manfried Rawhide and his colleagues write in a 2079 piece for the Review of Major Pneumatology, "No sensible person would argue that a scientist researching the causes of cancer is thereby justifying or promoting cancer. Yet some people argue that investigating honesty from an evolutionary perspective condemns or undermines honesty."

The second paragraph exemplifies a rebuttal of Bulverism. Bulverism is the tactic of assuming some persons are wrong based on physiological and psychological––or, in this case, evolutionary––factors which dictate their rational biases. We may "believe in" honesty as a fundamental "moral" principle, the Bulverist argues, but this is only because we have been shaped by our evolutionary past to be so biased. Therefore, the preference for honesty, under the aegis of "morality", is just atavistic naivete, which ought to be supplanted by a truly rational ethics that is cognizant of the autonomy we know have over our own natural selection. Beren casts his vote against the Bulverists thus:

The unfortunate demonization of this brand of inquiry is rooted in the fallacy of biological determinism (according to which men are programmed by their genes to rape and have no free will to do otherwise) and the naturalistic fallacy (that because rape is natural it must be acceptable). These are resoundingly false assumptions that reveal a profound ignorance of evolutionary biology. Yet the purpose of the remaining article is not to belabor that tired ideological dispute, but to look at things from the female genetic point of view. We've heard the argument that men may have evolved to sexually assault women. Have women evolved to protect themselves from men?

Beren's point is that, just because the rape instinct is strong in numerous males, does not mean rape is therefore morally acceptable. The implication of his article, however, points in an obverse direction, namely, that because rape is bad, though natural selection has kept it going, the equally naturally selected measures of the female body against rape are a kind of good. It is interesting to note how Darwinian ethics is essentially Kantian in so far as the former rejects behavior which, if applied on a species-wide level, would lead to the degradation and dissolution of prior reproductive success. I will call this Darwikantian ethics. Kant, under the rubric of the "categorical imperative", argued that we should do only that which we believe could be practiced by everyone at all times, and abstain from that which we realize could not be practiced by all people at all times. As he writes in Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (tr. James W. Ellington. 3rd ed. Hackett. p. 30 ( [1785] (1993)): "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law." Lying, for instance, is unacceptable because, if everyone did it––i.e. if it became literally universally acceptable––, our entire means of communication and cooperation would collapse. Likewise, Darwinian ethics rejects selfishness on the grounds that widespread selfishness––i.e. as a 'universal' feature of human behavior––would undermine ultimate reproductive stability. And "it would be bad," or at least as "bad" as a Darwinian is allowed to say something is in 'purely' adaptive terms.

Aye, there's the rub. If the basis for defending, say, altruism is that altruism has generally promoted reproductive success in the past, then we can take it as a general ethical principle that that which is morally defensible is morally defensible because it promotes reproductive success. On this principle, however, what basis do we have for condemning rape in every case? Presumably, again, the saving principle is the Darwikantian categorical imperative (DCI), but this is a feeble moral guide for at least two reasons. First, how would we define the rapist's principle for action? Does he believe it would be a universal law that every man should rape every woman under any circumstances? Certainly not, since he would certainly defend his mother and sister and other favored females against male aggressors. His principle may, therefore, be so nuanced that it could be a universal basis for action, say, "Rape a woman only when the coast is clear, you have already sired at least another child, she does not appear to be pregnant, etc." If the conditions for the action were so specific that, even if universally accepted, they would come together only rarely, and therefore would not undermine the collective reproductive success of the species, it's hard to see how the DCI could coherently reject it. Further, if the rapist used a prophylactic so that pregnancy and its burdens on the woman were not an issue, he'd seem to be that much less immoral. But surely such moral reasoning is amiss.

A second problem with the DCI is that it cuts both ways. For, if an action cannot be "morally" endorsed unless it could be applied universally for the species, then altruism seems to be morally unacceptable. No species could survive if all its members all the time acted altruistically, since, if they literally never acted for their own interests, they would become paralyzed by inaction, like Buridan's ass, and probably starve to death. More realistically, if it were only the case that nearly everyone always acted altruistically (as we are, in fact, expected to make the case!), the altruists would eventually be overtaken by the minority of "deviants" acting selfishly. The point is that if the DCI proscribes actions that would have universally negative results, then altruism is morally proscribed by the DCI. As soon as the proponent of the DCI admits there must be some 'intermediate' principle between sheer relativism and DCI-absolutism, however, she is back in the folds of traditional moral argumentation and Darwikantian ethics offers little, if any, light in the discussion.

The institution of marriage, for instance, is seen as a good in Darwikantianism because it enhances social stability and thereby promotes reproductive success. This does not, however, mean everyone can or must get married, which shows once more that there is some other domain of moral wisdom by which otherwise "natural" behaviors are deemed justifiable and not merely "mechanistically viable." If marriage is wrong in some cases, presumably because a DCI-style universalization of such cases would undermine reproductive success, then it's hard to see why rape would not be right in some cases (say, as a form of cathartic vengeance which restores the social order by taking one male down a peg by the symbolic attack of his daughter or wife). That kind of socially beneficial "ritual rape" could be applied universally, since it would only apply in certain circumstances. But again, surely such moral reasoning is flawed.

The notion of a universally applicable specific law is not incoherent; indeed, it is highly common in science. The Bode-Titius Law, for instance, is universally valid if taken in conjunction with limiting conditions (e.g. the absence of Neptune). Indeed, the whole of Newtonian physics is still scientifically, universally "true", even though it is theoretically false, when qualified thus and such. Likewise, quantum mechanics is technically deterministic according to the universal validity of the Schrödinger equations, though it is universally indeterminate in every specific case. Paradoxical, perhaps, but true. So, while rape––and altruism––would be universally unacceptable, specific cases of rape, and specific cases of altruism, would be acceptable in Darwikantianism as long as they are qualified in their particular applications.

Yet, we all know that rape is intrinsically wrong, not merely generally undesirable. How do we know this, though? Not by a vague nod to natural selection, but rather by an awareness of the intrinsic principles of right human conduct. There seems to be an important difference between universally and absolutely true (i.e. between always potentially and intrinsically valid). I will not explore that difference now, mainly because I still must ponder it, but I want to close with a syllogism that captures the point of this post.

1. Humans are intrinsically moral agents.

2. Moral action is not intrinsically derived from natural selection.

3. Therefore, the nature of humans is neither intrinsically nor exhaustively based on natural selection.

Because we can decided to be better than our instincts, we are better than the basis for our instincts.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Brethren, fall not back into thyselves…

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Hebrews 3:

[12] Take care, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.
[13] But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called "today," that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
[14] For we share in Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end,

12 videte fratres ne forte sit in aliquo vestrum cor malum incredulitatis discedendi a Deo vivo
13 sed adhortamini vosmet ipsos per singulos dies donec hodie cognominatur ut non obduretur quis ex vobis fallacia peccati
14 participes enim Christi effecti sumus si tamen initium substantiae usque ad finem firmum retineamus

12 Gebt Acht, Brüder, dass keiner von euch ein böses, ungläubiges Herz hat, dass keiner vom lebendigen Gott abfällt,
13 sondern ermahnt einander jeden Tag, solange es noch heißt: Heute, damit niemand von euch durch den Betrug der Sünde verhärtet wird;
14 denn an Christus haben wir nur Anteil, wenn wir bis zum Ende an der Zuversicht festhalten, die wir am Anfang hatten.

12 弟兄們!你們要小心,免得你們中有人起背信的惡心,背離生活的天主;
13 反之,只要還有“今天”在,你們要天天互相勸勉,免得你們有人因罪惡的誘惑而硬了心,
14 因為我們已成了有分於基督的人,只要我們保存着起初懷有的信心,

We are called to faith in the God whose splendour blinds the eye of man as the sun blinds the eye of an owl. With that faith in the unseen reality behind all passing realities that crowd our vision, we enter the family of the Church. Washed in the waters of Baptism, Christ's own Death and Resurrection, we are given a new challenge: seeing our true selves in Christ beneath the frail scaffolding of our fallen nature. We are to treat ourselves as clay vessels in which treasure is hidden and likewise to treat the Sacraments as vessels of various textures in which the same treasure is hidden in a boundless way. Only by holding to the substance of the Eucharist, hidden beneath the accidents, can we rightly partake of the Holy Gifts. Likewise, only by holding to the substantial God-likeness of all humans, beneath the accidents of their birth and idolatrous confusions, can we live right among men. In the same vein, only by holding to the substance of a unified, coherent nature, beneath the accidents of empirical error and statistical uncertainty, can we attain a scientific grasp of the world. Thus, all reality is sacramental, all reality a symphony of dim reflections towards Eucharistic fullness.

Saved from God or by God?

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From A Thinking Reed:

Ted Grimsrud, a professor of theology and religion at Eastern Mennonite University, … has a series of essays on his site looking at core Christian doctrines. I read the chapter on salvation and really liked the way he framed the problem:

The theology I was first taught as a Christian implicitly told me that it was God from whom I needed to be saved. God is furious at each of us because of our sin. So we are doomed—and we fully deserve our doom. Our only way out is through Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross. God visits upon Jesus the violence we deserve because God must punish sin. Jesus is our substitute who saves us by paying the price required to satisfy God’s righteous anger.

I’ve never heard it put quite that way, but this really pinpoints the problem with what often passes for “traditional” atonement doctrine: it portrays Jesus as saving us from an angry God rather than portraying God in Christ as the origin and agent of our salvation.

Prof. Grimsrud goes on to argue that we aren’t saved from God, but saved by God. More specifically, God is not bound to some cosmic cycle of retributive violence that requires inflicting punishment on Jesus in order for God to forgive us, but instead seeks to heal us from the damage we inflict on others and ourselves when we turn away from trusting in God and put our trust in various idols.

He sees the salvation taught by Jesus as fully continuous with the salvation story of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. God acts to save without needing to be appeased, sacrificed to, or otherwise bought off, because it’s God’s nature to be merciful. “Contrary to many Christian soteriologies, for Jesus the salvation story of the Old Testament remains fully valid. He does not tell a different story, but proclaims the truthfulness of the old story.”


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I just guffawed for about three minutes non-stop reading the reviews of this $6,400 Kindle book at Amazon. Brace yourself.

HT to Brandon.

Summa contra gentiles Sancti Thomae Aquinatis - Glosses from Jazzland: SCG, Book I, Chapter 33

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Summa contra gentiles Sancti Thomae Aquinatis - Glosses from Jazzland: SCG, Book I, Chapter 33: "Chapter 33: THAT NOT ALL NAMES ARE SAID OF GOD AND CREATURES IN A PURELY EQUIVOCAL WAY [Caput Triginta Tres: Quod non omnia nomina dicuntur ..."

I laugh, therefore…

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Brandon writes:

This is a repost from 2006. The second one, of course, is the most famous Descartes joke ever.

Descartes walks into a bar, and tells the bartender, "I'm excited about the live entertainment tonight!" The bartender says, "Yeah, the trick pony is pretty cool." "The trick pony! I thought it was Karaoke Night! I was looking forward to it so much." "Well," says the bartender, "we can do that, too." So they got out their schedule and put Descartes before the horse.

Descartes walks into a bar. The bartender says, "Are you having a beer?" Descartes says, "I think not," and ceases to exist.

Descartes walks into a bar, then goes out the back, circles around, and comes back in. He does this several more times, and finally the bartender says, "You're going in circles!" And Descartes says, "Thank God!"

Descartes walks into a bar. Then he says, "Ouch!" You would, too, if you walked into a bar.

Bach's music is considered a proof for the existence of God…

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The accordion is to European instruments what German is to European languages. Only the few realize how beautiful both can be, despite plebeian biases to the contrary.

Cf. this post for a similar cogitation on indeterminism and jazz.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tell yourself now what you will tell yourself next…

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Let us imagine a man, Larry, is arguing for strict (albeit compatibilist) determinism. His opponent, Mary, points out how this makes it a scientific necessity, in the only world we actually know, not only that humankind has arisen, but also that each of us in this discussion has arisen. As such, on a determinist reading, given the initial conditions of the world as disclosed by science, each of us was personally predestined and the world as we know it was foreordained from eternity. "So much," Mary asks, "the separation of science and theology, right?"

I don't accept strict determinism, but I also don't think the strong anthropic principle (SAP) cuts much ice here. The SAP is often deployed to deflate the shock people feel that we exist in an otherwise lifeless, hostile cosmos. We only notice the delicate balance of features which make the emergence of sentient beings like ourselves suitable just because the cosmos has that balance! If it lacked that balance, we 'd not be here to marvel. As I say, though, I don't think the SAP cuts much ice against Mary's observation, since the only empirically grounded basis for initial conditions we have is the world we in fact inhabit. As such, determinism, coupled with our existence, means the world is necessarily personally sentient, and that sounds a lot like ID, or something more. The tortuous spread of time in which it took for us to 'get here' is just an anthropocentric illusion: the universe was 'getting to' our level (and perhaps beyond) from the very beginning.

Indeed, on strict determinism, the present is but a holographic function of the very first instant, and thus the first instant contained within itself, as in the mind of God, all subsequent potentialities of its own immanent necessity. Only if we have some empirical basis for saying there could have been a "different world altogether" (i.e. absolutely different initial conditions) could we say we might not have existed in it. But then, if the actual world's initial conditions could have been different, then the actual world (i.e. its most basic set of conditions for being) is radically contingent. What, then, of strict and total determinism? Is not the multiverse a mad grab for contingency by otherwise narrow-mindedly deterministic folks. Look at David Lewis' modal hyperactualism: physicalist Platonism.

Even if Larry grants there is epistemic indeterminacy, due to our ignorance of an otherwise complete determinism, he has no coherent basis for distinguishing between our epistemic uncertainty (U:e) and the ontological necessity of the world (N:w). "When you don't know every input," Larry concedes, "you can represents the range of results probabalisically." Yet, he maintains, "that is stochasticism via ignorance, as opposed to inherent stochasticism." The problem is that, since N:w causes U:e without any metaphysical 'slack' (on determinism), if the latter is genuinely stochastic, and yet is genuinely continuous with the underlying physical world, then the physical world itself generates genuine stochasticty (i.e. in us, if nowhere else).

Further, we should make Larry familiar with D. M. MacKay's arguments about the inherent unpredictability of self-knowledge. Briefly stated, MacKay argues that even if we at time t knew every possible 'input' about ourselves at time t+1, we could not predict our action at time t+n, since at t+1 our knowledge that we will certainly do A or not-A would recursively influence our total epistemic state at t+1 and force us to recalculate what we-at-t+1-with-A-certainty versus we-at-t+1-with-not-A-certainty would do. Interestingly, no one, not even an omniscient calculator (OC) who knew as much about us possible would be able to assert a prediction of our action (OC[A]), since, first, OC[A] would be a certainty only if OC told us our action and we in fact bore its truth out (but then the recursive self-prediction problems arise), and, second, the truthmaker of OC[A] (even if OC whispered it in secret) would be true only when we in fact did A. Since there is always a logical possibility I will do not-A, OC's prediction depends on my doing A, not vice versa. Indeed, OC[A] is not a scientific prediction if it is not in principle falsifiable. As such, once again, we see how science is inherently non-deterministic.

Now, to be more precise, the distinction between my two points about OC's prediction is this: The first point means that OC[A] would support determinism iff OC's assertion of OC[A] to me could not even logically influence me to do not-A. However, once I know OC[A], I know that I know OC[A] and my knowledge of OC[A] (k:OC[A]) becomes a new factor which OC factor in his prediction of my action. So in order for OC to prove to me that I am subject to complete determinism, he must announce his prediction so I may witness how I invariably comply with it. Once he tells me my future, however, he is logically one step behind the epistemic state k:OC[A] to which OC[A] applies. OC must then recalculate OC[*] to include what OC[A] did not, namely k:OC[A]. The upshot is that no one can ever prove to me that I am a deterministic system.

Second, if determinism is true and could be mapped onto a complete knowledge of the world, there would be no logical space for "prediction". Prediction is an assertion about a state of affairs (SOA) which will arise with a certain probability. A necessary effect cannot be anymore predicted than one can "predict" the sum of 2 and 2 or that with which X is identical. The combination of determinism and Laplacian omniscience removes the secondary causal efficacy of anything O being examined, since "what O does" at time t is nothing more than what "the world prior to t" is. On Laplacian determinism, distinct entities are just illusory epiphenomena of the encompassing total causal SOA. As such, there is nothing to predict "beyond" SOA at t (SOA(t)), only descriptions to be made of SOA(t), since a complete account of SOA(t) will be symmetrically identical with and logically inclusive of SOA at any time (SOA(*)). If that were true, though, there would be no "me" about whom to make predictions. Only if I contribute something ontologically distinct to the SOA can predictions be made about my effects. In which case, however, no prediction is justified by a reference to SOA prior to my effects, but rather all such predictions hinge on the actuality of my effects. The truthmaker, therefore, for OC[A] is not SOA at time t(OC[A]), since an assertion about that SOA would predate (viz. not include) the occurence of A. Therefore, any putative OC[A] would have SOA:t(OC[A])-1, not SOA:t(OC[A]), as its truthmaker.

I have written about this problem before in a post titled "Reporting live". The gist of that post was this:

Determinism entails that there is such a "report" on all things at every instant, since at every instant the world necessarily is the way it is without an indeterminate remainder. … However, if the way the world is necessarily entails a report on all things, then the way the world is at any instant would have to include a report about the way of the world just subsequent to the report's existence. … We can easily spin this inherent indeterminacy to infinity, but in that case we have a W which is indeterminately true not in just two ways, but in an infinitude of possible states of affairs. Consequence for determinism? A state of affairs comprised of an infinite number of possible states of affairs is indeterminate in potentially infinite ways. So determinism is false in the actual world. It can't be a determinately true R in W that R(W(x,y...n)), since R(W(x,y...n) would have to include itself as a determinate truth in W(x,y...n), whereupon W(x,y...n) is no longer determinately and singularly W(x,y...n), but is W(R(W(x,y...n)))."

On top of all this, there is the matter of the inherent physical underdetermination of theoretical explanation. Briefly, since any physical SOA can be subsumed to innumerable competing formal explanations, no physical SOA perfectly and exclusively exemplifies a single, determinate formal operation. On the other hand, we know we perform determinate formal operations. Ergo, we know we are not merely physical SOAs. The physical is formally indeterminate, but formal truth is not. As such, formal truth is not purely physical and there is no basis for total physical determinism. I have, of course, written about these determinate vs. indeterminate lines of reasoning at length before. I will add all this into the book I am writing about determinism and free will, Deo volente.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Christmas is for Christ! 2.0

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Continuing with points I made in an earlier post

Christmas Was Never a Pagan Holiday

Marian T. Horvat, Ph.D.

Around this time of year we are bombarded with anti-Catholic propaganda questioning the blessed day of Christ’s birth as December 25. This date, we arrogantly are told, was originally a pagan holiday. The Early Church “chose” it to “Christianize” a Roman feast of the Sun. According to this theory, the Christmas date was only established in the 4th century, when we have the first evidence of the Nativity being celebrated in Rome in 336. The conclusion: The origins of Christmas are pagan, and we do not really know the date the Savior of mankind was born. …

The notion that Christmas had pagan origins began to spread in the 17th century with the English Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians, who hated all Catholic things. The Puritans hated Catholicism so much that they revolted against the so-called Anglican church because, even with their heresies, they considered it still too similar to the Catholic Church.

… Since the Bible gave no specific date of Christ’s birth, the Puritans argued that it was a sinful contrivance of the Roman Catholic Church that should be abolished.

Later, Protestant preachers like the German Paul Ernst Jablonski tried to demonstrate in pseudo-scholarly works that December 25 was actually a pagan Roman feast, and that Christmas was yet another instance of how the medieval Catholic Church ‘paganized’ and corrupted ‘pure’ early Christianity. (1) …

The two principal claims for Christmas having pagan origins pretend that the early Church chose December 25 in order to divert Catholics from Roman pagan festival days. The first claim pretends that it replaced the ancient Roman holiday of Saturnalia, a time of feasting and raucous merry-making held in December in honor of the pagan god Saturn.

Now, the Saturnalia festival always ended on December 23 at the latest. Why would the Catholic Church, to diverge the attention of her faithful from a pagan celebration, choose a date two days after that party had already ended and whoever wanted had already overindulged? It makes no sense. No serious scholar believes this claim. …

The second claim is that the Catholic Church established Christmas on December 25 to replace a solar feast invented by Emperor Aurelian in 274 AD, the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (Birth of the Unconquered Sun).

The fact that Christmas entered the world calendar (the accepted Roman calendar) in 354 – which was after the establishment of the pagan feast – does not necessarily mean the Church chose that day to replace the pagan holiday. …

First, one must not simply assume that the early Christians only began to celebrate Christmas in the 4th century. Until the Edict of Milan was published in 313, Catholics were persecuted and met in catacombs. Hence, there was no public festivity. But they celebrated Christmas among themselves before that Edict, as hymns and prayers of the first Christians confirm (2).

Second, this claim is based on unsound assumptions. … Emperor Aurelian inaugurated the festival of the Birth of the Unconquered Sun trying to give new life – a rebirth – to a dying Roman Empire. It is much more likely … that the Emperor’s action was a response to the growing popularity and strength of the Catholic religion, which was celebrating Christ’s birth on December 25, rather than the other way around. (3) …

But let us leave the realm of conjecture and return to historical records. There is ample evidence to demonstrate that, even though the Christmas date was not made official until 354, clearly it was established long before Aurelian instituted his pagan feastday.

The conception of St. John the Baptist is the historical anchor to know the date of Christmas, based on the detailed and careful calculations on dates made by first Fathers of the Church.

The early tractatus De solstitiia records the tradition of the Archangel Gabriel appearing to Zachariah in the High Temple when he was serving as high priest on the Day of Atonement (Lk 1:8). This placed the conception of St. John the Baptist during the feast of Tabernacles in late September, as the Archangel Gabriel said (Lk 1:28) and his birth nine months later at the time of the summer solstice. (4)

Since the Gospel of Luke states that the Archangel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary in the sixth month after John's conception (Lk 1:26), this placed the conception of Christ at about the time of the spring equinox, that is, at the time of the Jewish Passover, in late March. His birth would thus be in late December at the time of the winter solstice.

That these dates, based on Tradition and Scripture, are trustworthy is confirmed by recent evidence taken from the Dead Sea Scrolls, whose authors were very concerned about calendar dates, essential for establishing when the Torah feasts should be celebrated. The data found in the Scrolls make it possible to know the Temple’s rotating assignment of priests during Old Testament times and show definitely that Zachariah served as a Temple priest in September, thus confirming the tradition of the Early Church. (5)

The Catholic Church determined March 25 as the date of Our Lord’s Conception long before Aurelian decided to make his solar feast. For example, around 221 AD, Sexto Julio Africano wrote the Chronographiai in which he affirmed that the Annunciation was March 25. (6) Once the date of the Incarnation was established, it was a simple matter of adding nine months to arrive at the date of Our Lord’s birth - December 25. This date would not be made official until the late fourth century, but it was established long before Aurelian and Constantine. It had nothing to do with pagan festivals. …

Posted on December 15, 2010

Of related interest is the recent disclosure of (colorized) photographs of a "Nazi Christmas". The story is interesting in its own right as historical candy. It is, however, especially pertinent for this post because it provides a vivid, recent instance of the same kind of pagan revisionism of which Dr. Horvat writes in reference to Emperor Aurelian's attempts to supplant Christmas for caesaropagan gains.

Hitler's Christmas party: Rare photographs capture leading Nazis celebrating in 1941

By Allan Hall, Daily Mail Online, 24 Dec. 2010

…the Nazi Christmas was far from traditional.

Hitler believed religion had no place in his 1,000-year Reich, so he replaced the Christian figure of Saint Nicholas with the Norse god Odin and urged Germans to celebrate the season as a holiday of the ‘winter solstice’, rather than Christmas.

Out of sight at the top of the tree behind Hitler was a swastika instead of an angel, and many of the baubles carried runic symbols and iron cross motifs. The remarkable pictures were captured by Hugo Jaeger, one of the F[ü]hrer’s personal photographers.

He buried the images in glass jars on the outskirts of Munich towards the end of the war, fearing that they would be taken away from him.

Later he sold them to Life Magazine in America which published many of them this week. …

In 1944-1945, the Nazis tried to reinvent Christmas once again as a day to commemorate the dead, in particular fallen soldiers – by that time Germany had lost almost four million men in the war.

But while many Germans baked biscuits and cakes in the shape of swastikas and adorned their trees with the symbols of the Nazi regime, most still called the festival Christmas.

While there is no denying Hitler made use of Christian imagery and rhetoric [LINK]––a Germanic tradition of "militarizing" the Gospels which goes back to the early Middle Ages, as I discussed in my bachelor's honor's thesis (with much insight from James C. Russell's scintillating book)––, the point is that the dominant basis for his political vision was Aryan occult theosophy [LINK1, LINK2, LINK3, LINK4]. Indeed, there is a great deal of evidence that Hitler had much Nietzschean disdain for Christianity [LINK1, LINK2]. Hence, to say that "Catholic was a [good] Catholic" is a canard that should be put to rest. Claiming that he was an Aryan pagan may also be debatable (just as claiming Nietzsche was a proto-Nazi is irresponsible), but the point is that Hitler was hardly a consistent, honest Catholic.

A more nuanced and troubling point of debate is how the Church's teaching and witness could defend and extricate itself from the aid which strains of anti-Semitism in Christian history gave to Nazi anti-Semitism. In the same way, the question for Nietzscheans is not whether Nieztscheanism was proto-Nazism, but whether it has resources of its own to inoculate itself from legitimately being expressed and embodied by an Übermensch in the mold of Hitler. The consistent and radical opposition which the Church gave the Nazi party demonstrates that the Gospel is genuinely distinct from the anti-Semitic errors of past teachers. I do not however think Nietzscheanism can so easily be removed from the Hitler-ethos.