Saturday, February 28, 2015

When our eyes fooled us

Sometimes whatever I'm thinking about at a given moment magically comes into focus in the public sphere shortly thereafter. Such is was the case yesterday when, less than two weeks after I reflected on what it means to perceive objects, social media was abuzz about a photograph of a dress which could be mysteriously interpreted in two very different color pairings. It didn't take long for the inevitable modern reaction to play out.

  1. The image went viral, and everyone immediately formed an opinion about it.
  2. Vicious arguments ensued.
  3. An investigation into the origins of the image proved conclusively what color the dress actually was.
  4. A scientific explanation rationalized our disagreement, supposedly revealing something about ourselves, at least to those of us enlightened enough to listen.
  5. The image has instantly become a cultural artifact of our time, and will be the source of thousands of sarcastic comments to come.
It's that fourth point that hit closest to home. I'm part of that large demographic that eats this stuff up:
Light enters the eye through the lens—different wavelengths corresponding to different colors. The light hits the retina in the back of the eye where pigments fire up neural connections to the visual cortex, the part of the brain that processes those signals into an image. Critically, though, that first burst of light is made of whatever wavelengths are illuminating the world, reflecting off whatever you’re looking at. Without you having to worry about it, your brain figures out what color light is bouncing off the thing your eyes are looking at, and essentially subtracts that color from the “real” color of the object. “Our visual system is supposed to throw away information about the illuminant and extract information about the actual reflectance,” says Jay Neitz, a neuroscientist at the University of Washington. “But I’ve studied individual differences in color vision for 30 years, and this is one of the biggest individual differences I’ve ever seen.”
Notice the language used here. Let me isolate one of those sentences with emphasis added:
Without you having to worry about it, your brain figures out what color light is bouncing off the thing your eyes are looking at, and essentially subtracts that color from the “real” color of the object.
For all of the scientific materialism that permeates this kind of explanation, it remains stubbornly dualistic. There's you, and then there's your brain, and also your eyes. You, in this model, don't have access to what's "real" (in quotation marks, because how can we be sure there is such a thing?) because it's all mediated to you by something in between, namely your eyes. This is a consistent theme in modern scientific explanations of ourselves--as much as we would like to explain everything mechanistically, we can't seem to include ourselves in the explanation, even though we are clearly part of "everything".

Let's go back to that point 2, which, as the Wired article says, is "just another Thursday" on the Internet. A common explanation for these arguments is that people just like to be quarrelsome, especially in an anonymous setting like the Internet. That is certainly a good explanation for the magnitude of these arguments, for the eruption of emotion that accompanies them. Still, why exactly do we care enough to argue in the first place?

It really wouldn't make sense for us to argue about what our senses are telling us if our senses were separate from ourselves. To get a better idea of what is going on, I think one should take a look at a few of the hilarious customer reviews which have been added to the Amazon web page of the now infamous dress, including, "This dress is a glitch in the Matrix," "Not as described -- wrong color, ate soul," and "Carves a crooked path through perceptual reality and leaves behind it a wake of confusion and existential crises." One of my friends posted on facebook that the dress taught them how easily their world could be shattered.

These comments are funny not because they are false, but because they are true. No matter how many illusions we see, no matter how aware we become that our senses can "fool" us, we still remain attached to our sensory judgments as true experiences of the world, only to find time and time again that our vision must change as we experience things in a new way. If we could be equally honest about more serious controversies, we would say the same thing (and sometimes we do).

That is because sensory experience is not a signal being sent from my eyes and my brain to me. It is, rather, an initial vision of things, that spontaneous image created by me, using the tools I have (which happen to be eyes and a brain). This is not a mere turn of phrase. The point is that my sensory organs are not flawed sources of information. Indeed, the only way I will ever learn that I was wrong to see white and gold is by again using my eyes, not by dispensing with them. The problem is not the means with which I encounter the world, but rather the level of patience I have when doing so. If I cling to my initial conception of reality, I will later face the painful process of having that conception torn to pieces.

Modern scientific rationalization of our perceptual failures is probably dualistic for this reason. We wish to distance ourselves from our mistakes. No, we didn't fail--it's our organs that failed, and we need to learn not to trust them. Applied to more important issues, such as religion and politics, we blame difference of perception on cognitive biases. If the brain is a tool, we just need to figure out why that tool doesn't always work right. Then we will all naturally agree, because we will be able to filter out all the errors.

But all controversies are really the same. We don't simply try to receive information about the world and then attempt to filter out the errors. Rather, we imagine the world in an attempt to relate to it. Being told you are wrong is always personal, even if it's over a very trivial thing. It's like being told that a person you know isn't the person you thought they were. In the less important cases, it can be disconcerting, while in very important cases it can break your heart.

Of course I believe that we should try to eliminate bias and errors from our thinking. I am simply saying that the solution is not to distance ourselves from the "instruments" that supposedly cause these errors. Our eyes are not fooling us--we are simply clinging too tightly to what we spontaneously imagine to be real. Our brains are not the product of evolution--we are the product of evolution, that is, of history, both our own and that which has come before us. The way to correct ourselves is through humility, realizing that things are not always as we imagine them, but that there is endless joy in trying to reimagine as we experience more.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Are my eyes fooling me?

It's question natural enough that it has been asked by many a philosopher. Descartes always seems to be the first who comes to mind, since his whole method was based on doubting everything until he could determine which things were most certain.

In the modern world, you don't have to be in a Cartesian state of doubt to wonder. The standard example is that when you look around, you see many solid objects, but in fact physics tells us that this is mostly empty space. Or if that is too abstract, there are plenty of common illusions of a more mundane sort. Are my eyes telling me lies? It's worth probing the question a bit.

The only illusion, in fact, is the idea that there are direct experiences of things, as opposed to interpretations of them. This illusion is caused by the fact that most of our interpretations of the objects around us are spontaneous. I do not consciously invent the shape and color of the computer screen in front of me, it just happens. To imagine my computer as really a collection of atoms and empty space, or even to imagine it in terms of its constituent electronic parts, requires conscious effort based on training and contemplation.

Yet the difference is in degree, not kind. Whether I am casually observing something or rigorously studying it, my only access to a thing is to imagine it. Indeed, this applies to all of external reality, to such an extent that it is possible to understand the world as not being composed of "things" at all. There are some religions and philosophies which posit a universe which is really all one, and the separateness of the things around us is just an illusion--it is all really one thing.

Imagination is perhaps most naturally associated with fiction, but even in everyday language, we use it more generally, as when someone might say, "I imagine it is difficult to move to a new a country," when that person has never done so. That person means to state a belief, not to invent a world. So it is with all of our beliefs: they are expressions of how we imagine the world.

To clarify, the difference between imagination and merely pretending is that in the latter case we make no attempt to test or change what it is we imagine, but we leave it entirely up to our choice. The kind of imagination which leads to a greater understanding of the world might be called "theorizing" or "hypothesizing." There is a kind of naïve view of the sciences which imagines (indeed!) that a theory is basically reducible to a sentence with causal structure, as in, "If X, then Y." But most scientific theories are really based on what one might call "models," and these are really ways of imagining the world that one can test. For instance, Newton's laws of motion are far from being mere causal statements. They can be best expressed by imagining the world as a three-dimensional Euclidean space measured by spatial coordinates, and objects as points in that space whose coordinates change in time and are governed by differential equations. If you want to know what really makes Einsteinian relativity different from Newtonian mechanics, you need to start by imagining the universe in four dimensions rather than three and go from there. Certainly, what proves that Einstein was more correct than Newton is that certain testable predictions are made, and Newton is shown to be lacking where Einstein is not. But you will not truly have a theory if all you have is a set of prediction statements.

So even our most sophisticated theories about the universe are no different in kind, but only in degree, from the spontaneous images our minds produce when casually observing it. I look at the coffee mug on the table in front of me, and I spontaneously see its colors, a cylindrical shape and a little handle protruding from it. With a little more conscious imagination, I might imagine Cartesian coordinates enveloping it, so that I can more precisely analyze its geometric relation to other objects on the table. Or with a little more imagination, I imagine it as little atoms quickly vibrating against one another, and then even the air around it as atoms moving much more freely. Everything seems to change as I move from one mode to another, yet it is the same reality. There is no reason to say that, after this mental exercise, I have understand my coffee mug "better" than before. And that is because the purpose of my coffee mug is to hold my coffee, which anyone is perfectly capable of seeing even with only a limited scientific imagination, or none at all.

Why, then, should I want to imagine things in different ways? That is a good question, and I don't think there is one single response that applies to all cases. It depends on our intentions, our desires, on our relationship with the world around us. If there were never anything puzzling or difficult or otherwise problematic about the world, I imagine we would be perfectly content with the way we spontaneously envision it--a coffee mug would be a coffee mug, and that's that. And yet there wouldn't even exist such things as coffee mugs, because such an invention comes only in the face of solving a problem--namely that coffee is a hot liquid which I want to drink! Even if something had the size and shape of one, we would not call it a coffee mug nor even have any other sort of name for it were it not for our intention to drink coffee.

An illusion, then, is a way of imagining the world which damages, rather than helps, our relationship to it. This is in relation to a certain context. For instance, if you look at the Müller-Lyer illusion, you will see two lines which appear to have different length, even though in fact they have the same. The reason you are fooled is that your visual senses are calibrated to see such things in a three-dimensional world, and transported into a two-dimensional context you are fooled. I should think you would be rather thankful that your brain is incapable of "unseeing" this illusion, because your ability to navigate the three-dimensional world may very well depend on it!

So the pursuit of truth and the rejection of illusion cannot be devoid of value judgments. How you imagine the world depends greatly on how you desire to live in it. If you seek to master it and control it, you will continually be testing your theories to try to reimagine the world more accurately. If you seek to understand reality as a whole, you will be continually inventing or perfecting robust abstract concepts which capture the essence of everything.

If you seek to appreciate and enjoy the world, perhaps you will not be concerned with theories, but you certainly will be engaged in imagination. You will seek to refine your ability to notice colors, smells, tastes, sounds, and their relationship to one another. This is yet another way of imagining the world, one which often takes the form not only of observation but response, in the form of literature, art, music, and other sorts of performance. All of these are forms of knowledge, as sure as any science. All knowledge is simply a refinement of imagination.

Whether or not I can trust my senses or other faculties is ultimately the same question as whether or not I can live well in this world. Is the world sufficiently inviting to my presence that my attempts to understand it will be fruitful? It is not a question that can be answered a priori; it must be explored as with any other relationship, though this relationship might be decidedly one way. I don't want to go further down this trail of thought, but I mention it only to raise an objection to the notion, common today, that questions of truth are unrelated to questions of goodness.

Now, it seems to me, one thing you can never fully understand is your own mind. Why? Because it is precisely that mind which is doing the imagining, and to imagine itself is a hopelessly recursive task. Take an analogy to some physical object. When you try to understand physical things, you imagine them not only as they are but as they would be in hypothetical situations. So you imagine not only the baseball as a round object in space but also as something being hit by a baseball bat, and you visualize its reaction. You can even quantify such reactions with physical laws (differential equations). Now suppose you try to do the same thing with your own mind. You try to imagine it in such a way that you will be able to predict its behavior. How will you test this, when it is in fact that very mind which decides how to act? Could I have predicted that my mind would formulate this question, and then would seek to respond to it? Can I predict what its response will be? It is like a dog chasing its own tail--the effect is dizzying.

There are, of course, scientific theories of the brain which are rapidly developing. But I do not think any of these can constitute a complete theory of mind, and indeed I do not think there can be any sort of complete theory of mind whatsoever. It is the mind that has theories, the mind that imagines, and the mind that tests itself against the world. The mind cannot test itself against itself.

There is nothing tragic in this. When I read the state of modern day philosophy of mind, I sense an air of sadness that there might be one thing in this universe which we can never understand. Yet this notion is based on the strange separation of our minds from ourselves. To fully understand the mind is futile, because the mind is not in fact external to itself.

Instead of lamenting this futility, perhaps we need to remind ourselves about the point of trying to understand anything at all. Things are not simply there to be understood, but to be lived with. The goal is to increasingly perfect the relationship between our minds--or rather our whole selves--and the world we live in. We cannot step outside the world to understand it is a whole, and why would we want to? If we were removed from this world, there would be no point in understanding it.

It could be objected that there would be great value in understanding another mind, which is not my own, on the assumption that my own mind is much like that other mind. There is a point to this--it is a principle which bears much fruit in fields of study like psychology. But there is still an insurmountable problem, which is that I cannot trascend my own freedom. There can never be a complete theory of my own mind which gives me the ability to predict my mind's own actions, because in fact those actions are choices--my choices. To make this clearer, perhaps one should go read about Newcomb's paradox and then ask, "Am I a one-boxer or a two-boxer?" The problem is that your answer will not simply be a prediction, but rather a conclusion of your own thoughts--a choice.

So I think I have finally articulated an explanation, however faulty or incomplete, of why I think the whole project of comprehensively explaining the mind is flawed to begin with. Of course, words like "choice" and "imagination" are sure to raise controversy, but for now I simply have no other way to see the problem.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Thoughts on Augustine's City of God

A while back I promised myself to read City of God. It was a bit like reading through Calvin's Institutes, in that it is a massive work written at a pivotal time in Christian history, and also in that Augustine and Calvin really do sound a lot alike (as much as two men separated by more than a thousand years can sound alike). I have not blogged through my entire reading of the book, as I did for Calvin, and I did not space my reading evenly over a year, but I think I still retain enough of an idea to summarize some of my reactions here.

Augustine was writing at a time just after Rome had been sacked. The world had changed. In light of that change, a defense of Christianity had to be given. I confess that I'm so underinformed about history that I still have trouble making sense of this--hadn't Christianity already become the religion of the empire? But perhaps this book alone sheds some light on how naïve it is to think that Christianity was ever really the religion of Rome. The Roman pagans gave what would be, I suppose, the natural response to Rome's fall: it's the Christians fault. And so Augustine launches himself into a critique of paganism in all its forms, followed by a philosophy of history based on the Christian Bible, in order to put historical events into a larger narrative.

I'm not an expert in how this book shaped history following that moment, but the very fact that we're here (Christians in the West, that is) means that it probably had a massive influence. After Rome fell, Christianity not only held on but continued to spread, eventually shaping all of what we now think of as "Western culture." (As an aside, I always find it terribly confusing when people think of Christianity as merely the "local religion" of something called "Western culture." As if there would be anything called "Western civilization" had it not been for the spread of Christianity which eventually united all of these European barbarians!)

Now to the text itself. The first ten books are devoted to refuting paganism, starting with gods and goddesses, then moving on to various pagan philosophies, and finishing with the Platonists, who Augustine says are the closest to the truth of Christianity. If you've ever engaged in modern debate on religion and theism, you've probably heard someone ask something like this:
"Why should we believe in the Christian God and not, say, Zeus or Poseidon? What evidence is there for one which there isn't for the other?"
It's true that in the modern world we don't feel the pressing need to refute the existence of Zeus. Augustine did. So if you'd like to know why Christians reject the existence of Zeus and other gods, you can read about 300 pages of painstaking refutations. Fair warning: you will, as a modern person, feel a bit silly reading them. Yet Augustine took the religions of his day seriously, as I think modern Christians take (or ought to take) Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and of course Judaism very seriously. (Note that Augustine never "refutes" Judaism, which was also an important competitor to Christianity. The implication seems to be that the only dividing line between Judaism and Christianity is the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and I suppose that despite the divergent evolution of the two religions, that's still ultimately true today.)

What gives me occasion to reflect very deeply about my faith is the fact that Augustine's refutations of paganism rest largely on moral grounds. The gods were either immoral, or were worshipped in immoral ways, or were celebrated in tales of immorality. Is not the same charge leveled today against the Christian God? The argument worked very well for Augustine, because in fact Greek and Roman philosophers really did find the popular religion quite embarrassing (I recall that Plato wanted to ban poetry from his ideal Republic, because it gave people false impressions of the gods). In some sense that argument works today on Christians, does it not? In my experience, when you talk to more sophisticated Christian theologians, they tend to finesse difficult biblical passages until they are allegorized or spiritualized into oblivion, or else they flat out reject those passages! On some occasions you will find a very stern theologian willing to bite the bullet on every biblical passage, but these find it more and more difficult to get a hearing in today's world, even within the Church. And I think this is not without reason. It is just plain difficult to see how the same God who would lovingly die on the cross for our sins, refusing to fight evil with evil, would also order the wholesale slaughter of women and children or even of anyone at all, as we read in the Old Testament. To me this question remains perpetually unresolved, which is either part of the beautiful mystery of Christianity or else a grave weakness which will ultimately be its undoing. Yet this is not a new problem by any means--it has been there since the beginning of Christianity--and here we are after 2000 years.

So much, I suppose, for the first half of the book. The second half is Augustine's attempt to explain all of human history. I read in the preface that many scholars think of this is the first "philosophy of history" ever written, and I suppose that's one way to think of it. It's hard to imagine you'd ever consider a "philosophy of history" something worth writing unless you already had one given to you by Scripture or something else. And that is indeed the case for Augustine. He looks at the Bible as a whole, and from its contents deduces an outline to all of human history based on the presence of two cities: the city of man and the city of God.

I won't outline the whole argument. I will instead tell you to simply go read the Bible, cover to cover, with Augustine's basic framework in mind. The city of man is all the children of Adam after being expelled from Eden, and the city of God is all those who by faith in God lived and now live in the hope of new life to come in Jesus Christ. Indeed, one way to think of Augustine's work is as a "philosophy of history," but perhaps a more direct way to think of it is as a synthetic exposition of all of Scripture. In that it really is akin to Calvin's Institutes.

There are other ways in which Augustine's and Calvin's works are similar, and that is because they appear to have similar theological bents. First, they both emphasize regularly the power and foreknowledge of God, the weakness of the human will after the fall, and the sheer unmerited grace which allows us to attain to the hope of new life in Christ. Second, they both base their arguments on the sheer authority of Scripture as an unquestionable guide in matters of doctrine. I think it's good to put this second point after the first, though some might believe it should go first--after all, it's from the Scriptures that we know about God's power and foreknowledge, isn't it? Yet it pretty clearly acts as an interpretive framework over Scripture, so that any time God is said to change his mind or make a decision, this is interpreted as merely a way to describe God in human terms, and not literally true. Everything else in the Bible might be literally true, but not those parts! This comment is not meant to prove that Augustine and Calvin are wrong, but only to show which ideas they truly put first. In my view, there simply is no interpreting Scripture without some first principle(s) guiding you, which must come from outside of Scripture itself.

Now, the reason I am emphasizing similarities between Augustine and Calvin is mostly because of my own experience reading through Calvin, and not to do any favors to Calvinists, who will take such comparisons as a compliment. Personally, I find that the things Augustine and Calvin hold in common are what make them both difficult to read. Consider their view of Scripture. Now, their justification of the authority of Scripture is slightly different: Calvin emphasized the direct confirmation of the Holy Spirit, while Augustine uses a somewhat different argument. Isn't it amazing, he says, how the whole world has come to accept the authority of the Bible? And this, he says, is also a fulfillment of biblical prophecy, which only bolsters that accepted authority. The argument isn't circular in either case, but it is rather frustrating, because it seems completely inaccessible to reason.

Let me stay with Augustine's argument for a moment. It interests me, because its plausibility in Augustine's mind must have been related to the historical context. Christianity had just seen, over the course of a few hundred years, a breathtaking rate of growth throughout a pagan empire, despite (or indeed because of) persecutions, all by the transmission of these words of Scripture. It is commonplace today to insist that "many other religions" have had similar experiences, but how many are there, really? Buddhism counts, I suppose, and perhaps certain sects within both the Christian and Islamic traditions. And of course there is Judaism with its own rather unique story, but it bears repeating that the line between Christianity and Judaism has always been, frustratingly, very thin. I honestly can't think of many others which have spread and flourished in quite the same way that Christianity did in its early years. Given all of that, I think we should be sympathetic to Augustine's argument. The words of Scripture changed people in a way that suggests real power.

Yet of course it's quite a logical leap to conclude that the Bible is therefore completely accurate in everything that it says. This is an aspect of Augustine's thought that disappointed me. I was set up for this by modern pastors and theologians of a certain intellectual type who like to bang on about how we don't read the Bible today the way ancient Christians did. They bring this up in the context of modern debates about faith and science, claiming that the early Church Fathers never did take Genesis 1 literally, and so why should we do any different? We should relearn to give sophisticated, spiritual readings of biblical texts, not focusing on their historicity but on how they point to Christ. I find this approach attractive.

It's true that from what I've read of Origen, that man truly did not take Scripture literally. But Augustine, let's face it--he's a fundamentalist. Now, that does not make him less intelligent, nor does it mean that his philosophical reflections are any less sophisticated. Some of the most profound reflections on joy and suffering in this world can be found in Augustine. And of course, Augustine loves allegorical interpretations of the Bible--as everyone does! I find it absolutely laughable when modern Catholic and Orthodox Christians assert or imply that Protestants hate allegorical interpretations, insisting only on the literal. They have clearly never listened to a Bible-thumping Baptist sermon, full of allusions and comparisons between Scripture and present-day events. It is simply impossible to read the Bible and not draw analogies between the texts and our own world, or between different texts themselves. No one has ever seriously denied this. But Augustine, like traditional Protestants (and all traditional Christians, I suppose, depending on what you mean by "traditional"), believes that the Bible should also be taken historically. He leaves no doubt that he thinks Adam was the first human being, that the world is only a few thousand years old, and that every word of the Bible is to be taken as telling us how human history happened exactly. To be fair, he is not so simplistic as not to notice all the problems of translation, all the mysterious numbers that appear in certain texts, and all the competing historical claims from nonchristian sources. Yet to a modern reader, it is quite difficult, if not impossible, to share Augustine's confidence in the veracity of Scriptural history.

All of this causes me more and more problems as the book draws to a close, where Augustine finally deals with judgment and salvation. I will have to save that for another post, because there is a lot to unpack.

Let me conclude this summary post by saying what I learned about myself by reading City of God. I learned that I am truly (sadly?) unfamiliar with the Greco-Roman world, but perhaps more at home than I thought I would be in the ancient Christian world. When Augustine talks about Homer or Plato, I struggle to recall the few basic lessons I learned in school, and my reading is slow. When Augustine quotes Scripture, I find myself reading quickly. It is not just what he says, but even the objections he responds to, which I find amazingly familiar. Truly, there are few theological controversies which divide Christians today which did not already exist in the early Church. We may have new language in which to express them, and perhaps new reasons to find them important, but we are not the first people to think of such problems.

Finally, I have to mention that City of God is a very different reading from, say, Confessions. I learned to love Augustine from reading the latter when I was much younger, and so I assumed (perhaps naïvely) that reading City of God would only reinforce that love. That is not quite true. I find now that I both love and hate Augustine, much in the same way that I both love and hate Calvin. That is perhaps an inevitable reaction to anyone with enough gumption to lay out a definitive history of the human race. You will find incredible beauty in this book, but you will not be able to look away from all the things which perplex and terrify you.

If I find time, I will come back to some particular passages of this book, because they deserve some meditation, but I think I've managed here to touch on all my general reactions. It's a work that certainly makes an impression, and I'm glad I took the time to read it.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

What evidence?

I recently watched a debate between Keith Ward and Arif Ahmed on belief in God. On the theistic side, I'm sympathetic to Ward's philosophical idealism, as well as his belief that faith is fundamentally experiential. Still, overall I was underwhelmed, particularly by his Q&A.

On the atheistic side, I found Ahmed's argument very standard, and he expresses it very well. In particular, he drove home on more than one occasion the central tenet of his empiricism: one should only believe on the basis of evidence. By contrast, he says, you should not believe something because you want it to be true, because you believed it when you were a child, or even if it makes you a better person.

It's the third point of that list that struck a chord with me. This form of empiricism seems to be now a sort of modern orthodoxy, so that even devout Christians seem more often than not inclined to nod assent to it. Permit me to be a heretic.

What if this central tenet of empiricism is false? Maybe the point of believing something is to be a better person. In some sense this doesn't actually change the positive requirement of empiricism, which is to believe things only on the basis of evidence. But it does change what kinds of things you might accept as evidence.

Whatever tenets of empiricism philosophers may profess, science is sold more often than we realize on the basis of making us better people. Modern cosmology makes us humble in the face of our own smallness. The theory of evolution teaches us how many weaknesses and biases we naturally inherit, in the hopes that we will be mindful of them. The same theory also teaches us how little difference there really is between what we call different "races" of human beings. Technology in general and medicine in particular allow us to help others like never before. And the list goes on.

Certainly, having a false impression of how the physical world works usually hinders you being a good person. False views of economics, for example, will harm your ability to help the world's poor, no matter how good your intentions. False views of science will make you blind to the harm we've done to the environment. Again, the list goes on.

But what about that which does not concern physical phenomena? If believing that love itself is eternal, that goodness, beauty, and truth unite in one infinite, eternal being--if believing that and acting upon it causes you to grow into a better person, what are we to make of that? Are we to presume it is false, simply because it doesn't help predict physical phenomena?

If one tries to tear truth and goodness in two, then I suppose you end up with atheism. But I don't think we should do that. Your search for truth should ultimately be one with your search for goodness and beauty.

One application would be in response to the Poseidon question. This was a question from the audience to which I think Keith Ward gave the most disappointing response of the debate. The questioner asked whether substituting "Poseidon" for "Jesus" in all of Ward's arguments would have made any difference.

The answer is that Poseidon does not lead us any closer to what is good. Pray to him all you want, you won't be any better acquainted with the mystery of transcendent love. Ancient pagans prayed and sacrifice to their gods to appease them, essentially as a way of sanctifying political power. Jesus has nothing to do with that.

Poseidon is the god of the sea. If you believe in gods of different things, you are still far from believing in anything truly transcendent. The God of classical theism is not attached to any one particular thing. One does not pray to God in order to appease Him or to gain power over this or that object, but rather to know and love the very essence of the whole universe.

Monday, February 2, 2015

My biggest problem with "eliminative materialism"

In college I took a course on the philosophy of mind according to Paul and Patricia Churchland. We got to meet Paul at the end of the course, which is a story I could tell another day. I was simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by the Churchlands' idea of mind. They go even further than other materialists in insisting that the mind really is the brain and nothing else. See, you can be a materialist and still hold to some functionalist perspective in which the brain "gives raise" to certain traits, and those traits can be said to be "mind." The Churchlands throw even that out. That's why they call it "eliminative" materialism.

I was reminded of this as I read through a recent article on why we can't solve the "Hard Problem." For some reason, not even David Chalmers can convince the Churchlands (or Daniel Dennett, who, I believe, really is a zombie) that it really is a problem. Instead, they (or at least Patricia) keep coming back to this line of argument:
“The history of science is full of cases where people thought a phenomenon wasutterly unique, that there couldn’t be any possible mechanism for it, that we mightnever solve it, that there was nothing in the universe like it,” said Patricia Churchland of the University of California, a self-described “neurophilosopher” and one of Chalmers’s most forthright critics. Churchland’s opinion of the Hard Problem, which she expresses in caustic vocal italics, is that it is nonsense, kept alive by philosophers who fear that science might be about to eliminate one of the puzzles that has kept them gainfully employed for years. Look at the precedents: in the 17th century, scholars were convinced that light couldn’t possibly be physical – that it had to be something occult, beyond the usual laws of nature. Or take life itself: early scientists were convinced that there had to be some magical spirit – the élan vital – that distinguished living beings from mere machines. But there wasn’t, of course. Light is electromagnetic radiation; life is just the label we give to certain kinds of objects that can grow and reproduce. Eventually, neuroscience will show that consciousness is just brain states. Churchland said: “The history of science really gives you perspective on how easy it is to talk ourselves into this sort of thinking – that if my big, wonderful brain can’t envisage the solution, then it must be a really, really hard problem!”
Consciousness is not like light. Light is something we observe, consciousness is that by which we observe. If we can be said to "observe" consciousness, that really means consciousness observing itself, already a weird sort of self-referential loop. The mysteries compound themselves when we try to figure out exactly how that might be taking place in a network of neurons. But, unless you really are a robot, you can't just pretend that this "phenomenon" (if it can really even be called that) doesn't exist.

Yet all of that isn't actually what bugs me the most, because it gets very confusing to narrow in on exactly what we're targeting philosophically. What boggles my mind is that the Churchlands actually seem to believe that our language should change to reflect a more scientifically accurate view of the brain. I remember Paul giving a talk to our class in which he described how his grandmother used to cheer him up when he was feeling down, using terminology completely alien to normal speech--hormonal imbalances repaired, neuronal excitation, things with which I myself am too unfamiliar to reproduce any specifics. That approach, I think, is silly on even the most basic level.

We all know the earth isn't flat, that the sun doesn't go up in the morning and down in the evening. But if I ask you what time is the sunrise tomorrow morning, it would be in completely bad faith for you to reply, "You know the sun doesn't actually rise, don't you?" No matter how far we progress in cosmology, we will always (as long as we live here on Earth) use the terms "sunrise" and "sunset." That's because, whatever the "real explanation" might be, these things happen, every day. Indeed, they give meaning the word "day."

Consciousness is similar to sunrise and sunset. We cannot avoid talking about it. If I want to do something, there is no other useful way to communicate that other than by using just those words. If I think something is true, it will never be unreasonable for me to say, "I believe that..." It would only obscure everything for me to start babbling on about activation patterns across neural networks. Not only that, but the language of consciousness--thought, feeling, intention, and so on--is what gives meaning to the very concept of "I." The boundaries of a day are sunrise and sunset. So in some sense thoughts, feelings, beliefs and desires are the boundaries of a particular person.

If science has taught us anything about what a day really is, it has done nothing to change our relationship to it (except through technology, such as the modern invention of clocks, which have nothing to do with whether the earth is flat or goes around the sun). It is still an ever-present reality. Similarly, I don't think consciousness will ever cease to be the thing of which we are most aware in ourselves, and for that reason the most mysterious thing which could possibly exist.

I think there are good reasons to entertain speculation about the "panpsychism" proposed by David Chalmers and others, but that will have to wait until another day.

To finish, I also wanted to comment on something that never ceases to amaze me in the debate about science in philosophy. Do you notice that line in the quote above--"Light is electromagnetic radition"? And this is supposed to be an explanation of why it isn't supernatural! I have the impression that many people would like to make everything which "science" has explained into something ordinary. Oh, how mundane, this wave-particle governed by Maxwell's equations! And we thought it was all so very mysterious before!

I once heard a scientist claim that Einstein should not have been so very surprised when he said, "The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible." Why, if humans evolved in this world, it should not be surprising that our minds our adapted to understand it! This is the level at which some scientists understand the world they live in. Everything is trivial, perhaps tautological. After all, everything that exists, well, exists! So it should not be surprising, really, that it exists. Such is the wholly undeveloped "cosmic religious sense," as Einstein called it, of far too many "intellectuals" of our day. It is no wonder that something like New Atheism can thrive in such a world. Science has become a matter of winning the argument for its own sake, detached from any sense of reverence. It is no wonder, really, that there should be philosophers who wish to eliminate entirely the concept of a soul.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Some thoughts on Effective Altruism

I discovered Effective Altruism through Give Well, a web site which embodies at least the essential part of what effective altruism means: giving charitably in such a way as to maximize the benefit to society. (And I discovered Give Well through Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution, which gives you an idea of some of the information I peruse on the Internet.)

Here's Give Well on effective altruism, and why it is not detached from emotion. If I had read only this much, I probably would have unreservedly endorsed the idea. (I do, in fact, give to charity in part through Give Well's recommendations.) But a few google searches led to some more food for thought.

David Brooks had an important response to effective altruism, particularly to this piece by Dylan Matthews about how bright young people are taking high paying jobs in order to donate their salaries (the bulk of it) to ending third world poverty. Brooks makes a couple of arguments, here. One is that taking such a job may transform who you are. You start out an idealist, then slowly the culture of the career you've chosen changes you. That may or may not be true. The more crucial and convincing part to me was Brooks's claim that human beings are ends in themselves. That includes you, the would be altruist. You are not just a machine for turning your capacities into world betterment. You are a person of infinite worth.

Now we're starting to get at the problem with effective altruism. If it is just an approach to philanthropy in which we try to focus on those causes which make the most difference, then that's something everyone can learn from. If, on the other hand, it is embedded in a strictly utilitarian system of ethics, then that calls the whole thing into question.

From a Christian perspective, I think both the universalist and radical nature of effective altruism are praiseworthy. Jesus asked his followers to give up all of their riches, taught that what would count on the last day was what we had done to the "least of these," and showed that our neighbor includes those outside our tribe. He blessed those who were poor and called woe on those who are rich. Christian mission has always pursued the poor in other parts of the world, seeking to alleviate suffering and seeing no difference between human beings.

Yet there is a dearth of Christian response to the effective altruism movement. That is either because the movement was founded by people who have little time for Christianity, or because Christians have little time for new ways to think about charitable giving, or both. This blog post challenges Christians in particular to prioritize global poverty using the approach of effective altruism, and makes a point to remind us how much of our Christian "charitable" giving goes to institutions which largely serve ourselves (paying to maintain and run churches, in large part). And if you look at even the parts of the country with the highest per capita giving, we Americans (one of the most generous nations in the world) still only give away up to 7% of our income. Given how many people around the world still live in extreme poverty, can't we do more? And shouldn't we want to do it effectively?

One blog post I found criticizes effective altruism from a Christian perspective. I found it surprising that a Christian could be critical of a universalist ethic, yet there is a compelling point to be made about the embodied mission of Jesus on earth. Jesus himself was critical of those who gave charitably but neglected the true spirit of the law. In one episode he explicitly rebukes a pure utilitarian calculus concerning the poor. And I suppose one shouldn't forget what the Apostle Paul wrote, "If I give all I possess to the poor...but do not have love, I gain nothing."

Another criticism I found was in the form of a lengthy article defending "philanthrolocalism." This criticism was more directly political. It appealed to Alexis de Tocqueville's theory of the thick institutional structure of American democracy in order to claim that localized philanthropy is not only more natural to human beings (and this is a postive, not a negative) but also necessary to the thriving of a free people. There's something to this, but I'm far from convinced. After all, shouldn't an aspiration to altruism be radical rather than conservative? Humans strive to be altruistic precisely because they wish to reach some transcendent ideal rather than be content to follow an established social order.

Actually the most crushing blow I found was not from a theological or philosophical perspective, but from an artist. Art for art's sake has no place in the minds of most "effective altruists." Unless you know you are on your way to writing the best screenplay ever, there is no reason wasting your time.

I find this view intolerable. There is such a thing as life not worth living, and life without art--not only some art, but a plethora of diverse attempts at art--is just that. We humans have always had the inescapable desire to create and enjoy, not merely to witness but participate in the beauty of the world. From a Christian perspective, we are made to worship. If we all suddenly decided to calculate our every move so as to eradicate poverty, would the poor wake up to a middle class lifestyle in which nothing had any meaning? Would that be any sort of liberation?

I will conclude this little run through of effective altruism with an ironic dictum: use effective altruism only insofar as it is useful. I absolutely agree that we should all be far more concerned than we are with eradicating global poverty, and one of the simplest yet effective ways we can do that is to give money to well-chosen charitable organizations. So go to Give Well and see where you can put your donations to best use. But for all that, I still won't buy into utilitarianism, and you probably shouldn't, either.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The "objective" view of the world

I want to expand on what I started writing yesterday, concerning the "literal," or here let me say "objective," view of the world. Yesterday I said this is true solipsism, and it involves not a turning inward toward myself, but rather a destruction of any concept of I. Well, that's not quite true, I suppose, but it does at least involve a total objectification of such concepts. It would go something like this:

Something exists. There exist multiple objects. There exist conceptual categories for differentiating objects. There exists language to describe those objects. There exist theories to understand those objects. There exist sensory experiences. The categories of "real" and "imagined" exist. Time exists. Distance and proximity exist.

There exist thoughts, feelings, and intentions. There exists the concept of "I, me, myself." Those thoughts, feelings and intentions are described as belonging to me. Thoughts occur in time, they change over time. Conceptual categories change over time. Theories change over time.

Everything associated with "my mind," including the very concept of me, can be taken not as distinction between one mind and other minds but rather as things which exist. There will then be a stark contrast between the "mind" of others and the mind (that is, the "mental phenomena" of thought, intentions, and so on) which I know to exist. The narrative might continue:

I exist. I am human. Other humans exist. They speak, describing thoughts, feelings, and intentions. But these thoughts, feelings, and intentions--where are they?

Would "in the brain" be an acceptable answer? No. If one examines the brain, one finds lots of things, but not thoughts, feelings, or intentions. One merely finds it possible to imagine a connection between the brain and the production of such thoughts, feelings, and intentions. But if you ask me to find a thought out there, I will only be able to find my own. Or, from the objective/literal point of view, why even bother saying they are my own? They are simply the thoughts which exist.

One thing I'm trying to do here is show how difficult it is to judge which point of view is more skeptical. Is it really more skeptical than the average point of view to take at face value my direct experience of the world? If it seems useful to talk about thoughts that exist in other minds somewhere, then I might as well do it, but I don't have to actually believe they exist, do I?

And I really don't think this is an obscure reflection with no bearing on real lived experience. When I was eating my lunch yesterday and pondering these very questions, I saw many people around me, and I noticed how easy it really was to view them as objects, not as minds. Yes, there were words coming out of their mouths. Yes, I could guess what sort of feelings they had. But for all my inherent capacity as a human being to connect with other human beings, I also find it quite easy not to seriously believe that any other human being is a person.

That is because, as I mentioned yesterday, to truly believe there exists another person is not merely to listen to someone attentively, to laugh with them in times of joy and cry with them in times of sorrow. It is not merely the ability to help them with problems, or invite them into your home. Believing that another person exists is not a matter of being a good friend. No, these are all just skills that can be developed by relying on the machinery already built into my body (though I admit they must be developed, and this is not trivial). To believe another person exists, again, is to believe there is another universe. It is to believe that the objective/literal view that I have described is possible from an entirely different starting point, one which I can never reach.

More tomorrow, I'm not finished on this point.