Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Some reflections on time

This is a highly speculative essay.

Two questions to begin with: Can God stop time, and, can God change the past? Note, the same question can be asked as: Can time stop, and, can the past change? These are not questions about the nature of God, but about the nature of Time. The reason I introduce God is as a mechanism for these processes, i.e., what could possibly manipulate time in this manner but God?

The answer to the first question is no, which will require a slight discussion, since, well, can’t God do anything? This is an important point in general discussions of God, which this is not, so I’m only going to speak briefly on it. God cannot do the logically impossible. For example, God cannot make a married bachelor or a living corpse, or a square circle, not because He lacks the materials, skills, and power to do so, but because it is nonsense even to speak of such things. If we demand that God create such a non-thing, the problem is in the demand – in that it doesn’t ask God to do anything that makes any kind of sense – and not in the Power of God.

So, can God stop time? Let me ask it this way: Can God stop time for an hour? See the absurdity? If time were to stop, it would have to stop for a period of time. Therefore, it is nonsense to think time is the kind of thing that can stop. Stopping is an event that only makes sense within the context of time. God may be able to stop all events in time, but if anything is stopped, then by definition time is still passing.

How about the second question: Can God change the past? This one is more complicated. On the surface the answer seems to be no. The past is defined as what has already happened. The future is open to many possibilities, based on the choices of God, Man, and any other being that might be that can choose. But that’s because it hasn’t happened yet. There is only one past.

We must distinguish between two ways of looking at time: Physical time and Experiential time. To accomplish this end, we get to talk about a time traveler. Looking out of the window of his time machine, he sees the movements of the physical objects around him slow down, stop, and then reverse. The sun goes from west to east, tidal waves build coastal towns before being released into the ocean, and life ends with the sexual act. Think of a video playing in reverse (not that last one). No logical contradiction in that. But for the time traveler, these events are happening in forward time. Though time in the world around him stops, reverses, his past is still the events leading up to this quest; his present experience is progressing forward while nothing around him is progressing forward; and his future is still unwritten, even though it occurs in “the past”. Time as it is experienced is unidirectional. There is no contradiction in things moving backward and forward in physical time. Experiential time, however, is a matter of experience building upon experience. To go backward in experiential time is to forget your experiences.

(There are other paradoxes of time travel that don’t directly bear on this so I don’t deal with them here)

But what this means is that if experiential time did reverse alongside physical time, we systematically wouldn’t know it happened. We would just go back to the point of divergence as if all the intervening time never happened, and pick up from there with new choices and experiences. But if such is the case then it is possible that it happens. And, though the basic idea doesn’t require God, the reversal of time and the changing of the past are logically possible. If there is a God, this adds another dimension to his power.

So the answer to the second question, can the past change, can God change the past, turns out to be yes. Now the speculative part: Say this actually happens, through God or through one of nature’s countless unexplained forces: Perhaps this has some role to play in our ability to anticipate the future, or in a theory of volition.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Debating For Girls

A girl told me the other night that she finds it very attractive when men fight. Especially if she is already attracted to one of the contenders. And not necessarily only when they’re fighting over her.

This shouldn’t have come to me as a surprise. Throughout the animal kingdom, males fight. And females watch. And the champions get the girls. In winning the fight, the male displays that he is strong. The female wants a strong male, so she watches and enjoys, dare I say, even gets turned on. From an evolutionary perspective it’s because the fact that he’s strong indicates he’s got good genes, and better genes in the parents means better genes in the offspring. But for female animals it is visceral and not based on any intellectual calculation like this.

Here’s a social situation I often find myself in: I’m at a conversation-friendly party or social gathering. On the chair next to mine is another guy, and sitting on the couch across from us are seated an indefinite number of attractive, available girls. The conversation is flowing and enjoyable. Speaking for myself and speculating educatedly for the other guy, we both want (at least one of) the girls to like us. Consequently, we both want to make conversation with the girl, where she participates as well. Well, as the eveng progresses, he expresses an opinion about something. I express to him a contrary opinion and offer a rationale. All of a sudden, I am debating with this guy, and the girls aren’t even participating. Now I enjoy debating, and with an intelligent interlocutor the conversation can become very rich in ideas and fascinating. But I always think to myself that we should either change the topic to something the girls can get in on, or include them even though the atmosphere of the debate is cross-fire.

When this girl told me that she enjoys watching men fight, it led me to thinking: Women enjoy displays of prowess. Perhaps when men debate and the girls are silent, they are watching with attraction – and the accompanying enjoyment. In which case it is not rude or exclusionary, but a complex social interaction that includes the males and the females in different ways each enjoyable in its way to its repective sex.

What do you think?

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Stupidities of Science pt. 2; On positive and negative charge

It is extremely stupid that excess of electrons should be called negative charge and deficiency of them called positive charge in current scientific language. When they teach you about it in school they tell you, if they try to justify it at all, that because the mathematical and utilitarian results are the same when you're dealing with positive and negative numbers, it doesn't make a difference which you call which. They tell you that it's arbitrary. I disagree.  It does make a difference conceptually. It is not arbitrary that we associate the addition of something with positive numbers and the subtraction of something with negative numbers. That’s what’s happening, and the language in which it is described should reflect what’s happening. Science isn’t merely a tool for industry, it is supposed to be an accurate picture of what is going on, a picture that takes what’s happening in the world and represents it most accurately to the one kind of being to which pictures are significant: The mind. 

“But”, one may argue, “work for it for long enough, you conceptually get what’s going on anyway. Once you learn the language, even though it’s not intuitive, you get the picture. You see a positive as a deficiency of electrons even though the event that happens in nature is a subtraction.” When we’ve worked with it for a while we don’t have to do the extra step of reversing the signs in our heads to relate to the physical world with an accurate concept, but why should we have to do it while learning it? Or if we did not do it when we learned, and just studiously balanced the equations without regard for proper conceptualization, how well do we relate to the accurate picture even having worked with the conventional model long enough?

Same issue with the conventional representation of the flow of electrical current from positive to negative rather than the direction charge actually flows, from negative to positive. Now, in all the rest of physics energy does flow from point of excess to point of deficiency, as heat flows from high temperature to low temperature, as fluid flows from high pressure to low pressure, as water flows from high elevation (potential energy) to low. This is in fact the reason that conventional current is represented this way. The same early researchers that concluded that what we now call positive charge was an excess rather than a deficiency as it actually is, concluded that it flowed rather than being flowed into. So there is a point in representing electricity as flowing the wrong way: To use a flow from positive to negative is intuitive. But in light of what has been said above, it should be clear why this is wrong. If we regard the electron as the electrically positive charge then we can represent the actual flow of electrons from point of high concentration to low concentration and retain the intuitiveness of positive-to-negative in the numerical representation.

To me, this is obvious. I do not see how it is not obvious to anyone who has ever given it any thought viz. the scientists. I understand there are historical reasons why this convention has been used all the years, but there is no sufficient justification for its continued use given what we know today and have in fact known for quite some time.

When scientists decided that Pluto wasn’t a planet anymore, they said so and within a week no one was fighting about it anymore. In the name of accuracy we change what we call things. I don’t think it will be hard to learn, even for people who have been working with the conventional model all their lives. In fact, I am confident that, once learned, the correct system will be easier to work with, for expert and beginner, (though even if it were decidedly harder, it would still be proper to use the more accurate models. It is harder to learn to solve gravity equations using Einstein's methods than Newtons, but we do it). Most of the people in the fields that have to think about this are pretty smart. Smart enough to learn to change the way they write things subtlely, and hopefully smart enough to see why it is sensible and correct to do so.

So here’s what I suggest. From now on, when you do chemistry homework or write chemistry papers and books and so on, write on the top or in the introduction that you’re using the more accurate conventions and leaving the old behind, stay consistent throughout your work, and let your teachers and students learn the new conventions on the fly, even become comfortable with them. Your answers and results are correct even if not stated in the conventional language and your teachers and students will have to acknowledge that. And in electricity classes, from basics onward - and if the basics have not been taught this way it can be introduced at any level; again we're dealing with smart people here - instead of teaching “conventional current flow” and incidentally showing “physical current flow” because that’s the way it really works, teach it the correct "physical" way and incidentally show the “conventional” way because your better students will have to deal with the historical conventions in historical texts.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Sex, and Why It's Bad For You.

"Sex without love is an empty experience. But as far as empty experiences go, it's one of the best"
-Woody Allen

In my opinion, it is not quite so innocuous as that. Casual sex, sex without personal and socially sanctioned commitment between the partners, can be dangerous and evil. This is true for many reasons, and here I present one:

Behavior is inertial; even if we don't make any choices or exert will, we still engage in behavior. If I'm hungry, it takes more effort, and is therefore more of an activity, to refrain from eating than to eat. In such a case non-behavior is more active than behavior. One's default behavior in a given class of circumstances is a habit. Habits can be changed by an experience or by thinking, but the most effective way to change one's habits is by willful action in opposition to the habit in the given circumstance-class. This will be called changing one's pattern of behavior.

For most people, whether by nature or nurture, sex is by default a powerful connective mechanism reinforcing a very close relationship. Even if this is not the only default position, I would argue that it is possible for the sexual relationship to have this effect, and one ought to still retain openness for it when possible. To lose this ability is a great loss.

Say I want to engage sexually with this woman with whom I do not hold a commited relationship. Either (1) I do not want a commited relationship with her, or (2) I do, but have not (yet) developed one.

If (1): Fine, we're two consenting adults, so what's the problem? Being that by default I should feel this close bond, if I am not to feel it - which is my intention in this case - I have to actively change my habit to this association. I have to dissociate in my mind and life the close tie between sex and commited love. The result is a change in my pattern of behavior. I slowly lose my habit for associating sex with love. The terrible consequence is that down the road it will be more difficult to create a good, real, meaningful, commited sexual relationship.

If (2): Either (A) I think it's appropriate to commit to her, or (B) I don't yet know if it is appropriate.

If (2-A): Then put your money where your mouth is and commit to her with the sanction of the law. Take the appropriate steps and you're in the clear. This argument only objects to casual sex.

If (2-B). then either

(I) It isn't an appropriate relationship. The sex will, by default we argue, make me like her and want to commit to her. If we stay together, then, we will be stuck in a bad relationship, and I'll find it out hard when the flourish fades. If we do not, then I am ever more likely to dissociate sex with commited love. 

(II) It is an appropriate relationship. These often don't work out either. If it does not, then if I had already been having sex with her, not only will that tend to the dissociation of sex with commited love, but probably more so than in any of the other cases, because it will advance a cynicism: "I though that this sex was a token of great love and commitment, but it's all loss and a waste of time."

If it does work out in (2-B-II), then what can I say? Lucky you.

Water is a Mineral

Well, more accurately, water is a lava, a magma when it's underground. In some parts of the Earth - in some times in Earth's history and destiny quite a lot of it - as in much of the rest of the universe, H2O is a kind of a rock. Water is thus molten rock - lava.

A geyser is literally a volcano.

In addition, geology divides rocks into basically three main classess: Igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic. Igneous rocks are rocks formed from frozen lava or magma. Rocks that form by pre-existing rock particles that get smashed or cemented together are sedimentary; rocks that get smashed together with so much intensity that they actually change their chemical structure are metamorphic. But if you think about it, all of the earth was molten once. All the rocks that form from lava that freezes are igneous rocks. The pre-existing material constituting sedimentary and metamorphic rocks are igneous rocks.

Thus, all rock is igneous rock.

Ice is also igneous rock, as water is lava. Thus, all the mineral part of Earth is Lava and the igneous rocks formed from it.

This message was brought to you by the Association for the Unification of All Things.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Belong. A song.

It's a song. this is not the proper experience of it, but I think it's pretty good as a poem too.

Its all been done before
Nothing original, nothing compelling
But still I reach for more
Nothing will satisfy, restless and reckless I
 Reach for the gold at the end of the road
 Hoping there’s still something left there for me
 A moment of truth but yet something is missing

The drive for success is a symptom of pride
The end’s the beginning of the other side
Now that I’m here I am somewhere where I don’t belong

Lists of projects compiled in haste
Some are repeated; none are completed
Is it too much to just want a taste?
I’m frustrated, prostrate, uncertain and bound yet I
 Reach for the stars at the top of the sky
 Blocked by the gloom of the clouds in the night
 I can see nothing, a word full of nothing

When I was younger I thought I was wise
My inspiration was my guarded prize
And by its light I have walked to where I don’t belong

It’s stormy, it’s steamy
Its beauty is cold
Regret makes my heart beat
At least there is something still there
Where am I?

Sounds of the city streets screaming in pain…

We’ve reached a fork at the end of the road
Jump to conclusions, the future untold
Far from the goal but yet closer by steps
Even if you have traversed the whole world
Sailed all the oceans and kissed all the girls
The wave that you’ve left in your wake will soon settle
Into naught

A quick review of the deeds you have done
For insight, for grace, for salvation or fun
How will I know if I lived my life rightly or wrong
I don’t know where I belong

© 2007 by Dave the Philosopher

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

"I'm sorry" vs. "I'll never do it again"

I have a disembodied memory of an occasion where someone was apologizing for a wrong he had done, and the recipient of the apology said, "Don't be sorry, just don't do it again". Even then - it must have been years ago - something seemed wrong about this reasoning. I can't guarantee that I'll never do it again, but I can guarantee that I am sorry for what I have done. But the point was really driven home when I was watching the HBO series "Rome".

In it, an important and well loved political and millitary figure is assassinated. The assassin clearly respected the man he was killing, but his orders from the other side overrode that respect. As he drove the knife into the man's belly, he said to him with great sincerity, "I'm sorry sir".

Sometimes we do things that are beyond our control. Certainly we have the responsibility to control what we can, and not willingly do others wrong. And if we had total control of our actions, if we are truly sorry for what we did, we would not repeat the action. But since we do not, we should at least apologize.

And try not to do it again.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Vomiting Mystic

Last night, drunk off my ass, kneeling before the toilet waiting for the opposite of eating to occur, I had a mystical experience.

Being nauseous is awful, but consummating the nausea is, to me, pretty much the worst thing in the world. Even if I fully expect it to make me feel better, I cannot put my finger in my throat. Now, sometimes even those that live a healthy lifestyle will puke, but when I find myself praying to the porcelain god it is usually my own fault. Rabbi Noach Weinberg has said that “pain is the price you pay for pleasure”, and indulgence in drink certainly has its price.

Last night, drunk of my ass, I wondered what Hell must be like.

The way I understand it, the pain our souls may suffer in the hereafter (whatever the correct way of looking at it is) is not “punishment”, per se. Punishment is external to the crimes which warrant it. Fair punishment is proportional to the crime, but that is a quantitative, not a qualitative, judgment. If I cheat in business, it may be fair to lock me up in jail. If I spray graffiti, it may be appropriate to strike my arse with a cane. But there is a logical gap, a human – and therefore somewhat arbitrary – decision lying between the crime and its punishment. But if I put my hand in a fire and I get burned, the question of fair or not doesn’t even come it. The “punishment” and the act are the same.

One of the “punishments” for drinking too much is the tortuous ordeal of nausea. And last night, kneeling before the toilet, the best I could do was look to God, take responsibility for my actions, and accept my “punishment” gracefully. Rising from my slump posture, I kneeled with certitude, with a complete understanding of why I was undergoing this ordeal.

Imagine vomiting for an eternity in the hereafter. Wrongful overindulgence doesn’t only have a physical price, but a spiritual one as well. Just as the pleasure of being drunk involves a certain freedom of the spirit, and just as the vice is a lack of spiritual steadfastness and discipline, the pain that attends it is also spiritual in nature. Sometimes God is merciful enough to let us purge our crimes during this life, and that is what I was counting on last night. What if I don’t get this opportunity in life and I have to purge myself after my earthly tenure? How long would that take? How awful would that be? How I wanted to purge, to puke, to pay.

But I would still not stick my finger in my throat. That would be akin to self-flagellation, that practice of some zealous and misguided religious people of inflicting corporeal punishment on themselves in order to willingly pay God for their sins. Mortification of the flesh. That is not my style at all. If God chooses to punish me, I want to take it gracefully. But I don’t think God wants me to punish myself, only to learn from my errors and from the messages he sends me.

I want to live better, and I know God is helping me. I need to try harder.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Why do we itch?

Why do we have a sensation that compels us to scratch? Ok, it helps us to keep insects off ourselves, and encourages us to keep clean. That's not the kind of itch I'm talking about. It makes perfect sense that we have a mechanism that makes us want to get foreign stuff off our bodies.

I'm talking about wounds, infections, bites and rashes. We have a biological mechanism that compels us to scratch exactly when scratching is the worst thing you could possibly do!

What I'm trying to say is that these mosquito bites are more annoying because they don't make sense.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Friday, July 27, 2007 Intelligent Speciation With or Without God

Friday, July 27, 2007
Intelligent Speciation With or Without God

This essay deals with two primary issues: First, the highly problematic issue of the natural existence of mind in a physical world, and second, how the evolution of the species, as events in the physical world, might be thought of as possessing mind, and intelligence. What will emerge is a different way of looking at nature.

The philosopher G.W. Leibniz (1646-1716) challenges us to imagine a machine with cogs and wheels and gears that is wired exactly as the human brain is. Would such a machine possess a "mind"? If not – and this is what he was going for – then we humans, who clearly possess minds must be more than mere machines. But let us suspend that judgment. Our science is reluctant to admit the existence of a soul, a substrate for the mind, that is separate from the body, and reasonably so.

However, we cannot conceptualize a system of physics, a science of bodies, that incorporates mind.

Two proofs: First, the philosophical zombies. These zombies are just like human beings. They look and act and even interact like normal human beings. But they have no consciousness and no experience of the world. The fact that such is a coherent idea means that there is something more to possessing a mind then having the physiology and behavior of a human being. We are obviously not such beings. Second proof, the "neural correlates of behavior". Every class of behavior, including thinking (in theory at last, and let us grant the strongest theory,) can be detected using advanced brain scanning technology. That is, if I'm thinking of a pizza, if someone can see into my brain with sufficient detail, he can know that I'm thinking of a pizza. But my experience of the thought pizza is different from my firing neurons. What is happening in my brain involves electric charges, molecules and ions, shapes and patterns, all laid out in geometric space. The idea in my head has nothing to do with any of those things. Be it true that whenever one is present the other is present too; that doesn't make them the same thing. It merely means they are correlated.

We don't understand what it means for a physical pattern to be a mental pattern. But what else could the mind be? Physical matter shouldn't have mind, if elementary physics is correct, but it seems to in some cases, namely brains. So we assert that the firing pattern of the brain and the thought are the same without understanding how. It takes us beyond the boundary of science, however, it seems a reasonable conjecture. In any case, I can think of no good scientific philosophy of mind other than this one. Let us grant it then, and see where it leads us.

Leibniz's machines – and we're not so far away from creating such machines with computer technology – might indeed be conscious. There is nothing about the particular kind of goop a brain is made of that makes us think that it is the only substrate that can hold a mind. If the same interactions take place in a network of silicon chips or in a computer program, there is no scientific reason to think that mind will not occur in such substrates. (Of course, it will be impossible to prove that mind exists in computers. However, we can forgive that as it is impossible for me to prove that you have a mind and are not a "zombie". I think, therefore I am; I can prove only my own consciousness, not yours. Incidentally, we humans can never know exactly what it's like to be a non-human animal.)

However, why bias ourselves to assume that the only physical systems that can manifest consciousness are brains? The lesson here is that mind and matter can (sometimes) be identified one with the other, that is, this thought, action or feeling is the motion of matter. What does it matter if the moving is the stuff of brains or other stuff? The brain is a highly complex physical system. The interactions that comprise the exchange and proliferation of genetic material in the evolution of species, are also extremely complex. During the processes of exchange and proliferation of electro-chemical signals in the brain, the various states of consciousness occur. Perhaps the evolutionary processes, (along with many other processes of nature which I'm not addressing at the moment) also possess consciousness.

Perhaps, you could say, from its perspective there is a state of the evolution of a species that is always correlated to its mental state at the time.

There is a debate going on between "evolutionism" and "intelligent design" as ideologies of the origin of the species. Evolutionism sees the processes responsible for evolution as random and senseless, because, they posit, all of nature's interactions are random and senseless. The rules of nature are such that enough random, senseless motion occuring within them produces complex, beautiful, and interesting results. But are all of nature's interactions random and senseless? What about human interactions? Some interactions are purposeful, for example, when we humans act purposefully. Perhaps other physical systems also act purposefully.

Bioforms change and evolve through time through adaptations that make them better suited for their environments. Some of these adaptations are very clever indeed. But you and I mean differently with the word "clever". I take it to be cleverness in the way that people or animals are clever. I don't know what you take it to mean. You kind of mean it as a metaphor. It would take a clever person to design what nature did by chance. But you were willing to accept the word when you first read it.

Whether or not you believe in God, you believe in the existence of the human mind. If so, there is no reason not to believe in other kinds of mind also. If so, then the forces that govern the evolution of bioforms may very well be intelligent.

Monday, June 25, 2007 The atom cannot be divided

The idea of atoms goes back to Greek times, to at least 400 BCE. The meaning of the word "atom" is, basically, "indivisible thing". The theory states that if you break something down into its fundamental constituents, there will reach a point where you can't break it down any more. There is a bottom level to the analysis of a thing into its parts.
In modern chemistry, born in the early 1800s, the term atom has been taken to mean a certain cluster of matter, ones that during the early to mid 1800s were thought to be the bottom level of matter, not analyzable further into its smaller particles. But in fact, "atoms" in this sense are broken down into protons neutrons and electrons, these into quarks, strings, who knows?
The use of the word "atom" in science today is inappropriate. We are still in search for the atom. For, by definition "atom" means the lowest level; if it is not the lowest level, it can still be broken down further, and it is not the atom.
The improper understanding of this idea results in my being pissed off in this scenario: When a scientist will say that the fact that the "atom" is made up of more fundamental particles shows that Democritus' ancient atomic theory was shown false, since atoms are found to be divisible, and the ancient theory clearly states that the atom is not divisible. This is wrong, the atom of Dalton, Mendeleev and Rutherford did not turn out to match the original concept of the atom .  Dalton and the founders of modern chemistry chose the name of the particle prematurely. Perhaps what we now call the quark is the atom? Perhaps the superstring? Democritus would still be vindicated if realtiy turns out to consist of such elements. The atom cannot be divided.

Friday, May 11, 2007 Reflections After the Biting of a Guy's Nipple by an Alligator on Cable TV

A topic which fascinates me is the sympathy/empathy complex. There are numerous conflicting accounts of the distinction between the two in the psychological literature and in people's minds. In my mind I have two ideas, two different modes of how emotion can be transferred. If you disagree that the two ideas I'm elaborating are "sympathy" and "empathy", that's okay, they are still two different ideas. We attach words to things after we think of their concepts in order to try to characterize them, and when words fail, that doesn't mean we don't possess the concepts.

My definitions are these. Sympathy ("feeling with") is actual participation in a feeling that originates in someone else. Empathy ("feeling into") is a feeling that originates in oneself, when one creates a copy in oneself of the feeling, and feels that copy. One way to look at this is to reflect that one can have empathy into a fictional character, but not sympathy.

An interesting insight into the matter occurred to me as I was watching the movie Jackass (just comes to show how philosophy is everywhere). I saw a man having his nipple bitten by a baby alligator. Ouch. I was cringing for the entire duration. Emotion was transferred. I distinguished three levels of participation in the feeling. First, there was the guy having his nipple bitten. He was in physical pain. Now the idea of any physical pain is problematic, since insofar as a thing is physical, by standard definitions, it does not have feelings at all. He was also screaming, and laughing (curious) and after the humor had registered, he had the incredible urge to act so as to get rid of the fucking alligator. Then there were the people who were with him at the time. They had the "cringe" reaction as well, I'm sure, more profoundly than I did. But where they differed the most with me on the couch, and agreed with the victim was in the urge to act to remove the pain. (They eventually pried to gator's mouth open with a knife). That was a sympathetic reaction. His feeling was motivating their actions. As for me, that was merely empathy. This is perhaps another mark of sympathy distinguishing it from empathy.

Thursday, May 03, 2007 Polytheism for Jews?

Thursday, May 03, 2007
Polytheism for Jews?  

I would sooner be a polytheist than an atheist. Of course (not of course) I am a monotheist. I believe this to be the most rational position of all: That there is a spiritual power underlying all reality and that this power is essentially One. This principle of unity is considered rational in empirical science as well, indeed it is held by many to be the determinant of rationality, that, although we perceive the world as subject to a multiplicity of theories, there is/ought to be a unified theory underlying them all, if only we can discover and understand it. But we do perceive a multiple world.

We do not, however, perceive a world empty of spiritual power as atheists insist. I can defend this view, but not for the purposes of this exploration.

Monotheistic religions tend also to acknowledge a multiplicity of spiritual powers subordinate to God -- the angels. According to a Jewish tradition (cited in the Midrash) for every blade of grass, there is an angel standing over it urging it to grow. If this is granted as true (if only for the sake of argument,) then it is also true that each tree has its angel, and then, every leaf, and then every forest, and then, perhaps, plant life in general. If so, then animal life ought also to have its own angel. If so, the weather should have its own angel, volcanoes, the sun and moon, music, love, fertility, etc. Another tradition holds that each nation has its own guardian angel, If so, then within each nation, sub-societies should have their own angels as well, and each family, and each trade, and international corporations, etc.

I used to think the doctrines of angels to be silly, and opposed to the principle of unity from which monotheism derives its rationality. Yes, we perceive a world wherein God works through multiple channels, but that is a limitation in our perspective; in the final analysis, all is One. When I discovered the following argument, I had to change my position on the matter: Reflect on Descartes' famous argument: I think, therefore I am. Self-consciousness is proof of the existence of the being who is conscious. Therefore, if angels are self-conscious, then even if they are really modifications of God, they have real existence in the same degree as we do. Though I can't prove that angels exist on such an argument, just as I cannot prove you exist as a consciousness, the angel can prove its own existence to itself, just like as can prove your own existence. Therefore, it is not my place to outright deny that the angel, or any other consciousness, exists. It's not merely a question of definition.

According to polytheistic systems with which I am most familiar, which are African and Hindu religions, aside from the vast multiplicity of gods posited, there is also posited a One Supreme Being, of which all these other gods are merely modifications. The theological difference between monotheism which includes angels and such polytheisms is not in the existence of the entities in question, because what monotheisms call God can be identified with the Supreme Being and the angels can be identified with the multiple gods. Neither is it the choice of which gods or angels exist: I don't believe it to be of serious theological significance how we decide to split up God's tasks; we can always split them up differently to explain different things (much in the same way we can draw the lines between different scientific disciplines differently, for example, the domains of biology, chemistry, geology and ecology may overlap or separate depending on the problem we attend). And I think that polytheistic systems typically agree, as, for example, the Romans at the height of their empire had lists of over a million gods from all over its territories, and did not care which gods people worshipped. The divine, like any comprehensive phenomenon, can be split up in lots of different ways. Just like we can split the angels up in lots of different ways, if the angels are the gods, then they too can be split up in lots of different ways.

The difference between polytheism and monotheism thus construed is not in the ontology of the matter, not in what reality is thought to exist, but rather in the nature of the way humans ought to relate to that reality. Monotheism does not bar the existence of very powerful created spirits. But they are thought to be irrelevant to human devotion - or more, that human devotion to such spirits is inappropriate..

With this as background, here is my problem. I am a customer in a restaurant. I know intellectually that the source of the food I am being served is the owner of the restaurant, (and following the chain, the farmers, or the capitalists, or the chefs of the past who invented the recipes –again, there is a measure of arbitrariness in how we split it up. Ultimately, the end of the chain would be God. But for the illustration we'll pretend the restaurant owner is the end of the chain). So I should really be thanking the owner for the food. This may be true enough. But does that mean that I should not also thank the waiter that is serving me now? Similarly, if I am eating an apple, I know I should ask God for and thank Him for the apple. But should I not also thank the tree or the spirit of the tree, or pray to the tree spirits and weather spirits etc? Why should a relationship to the One Supreme God exclude relationships – real relationships – to other spiritual beings?

Sunday, April 29, 2007 A Fallacy in Brain Science

Recently, while reiterating in a new context the classical discussion concerning the nature of altruism, that is, whether we humans actually do things for other people or whether our motives are always selfish, someone submitted a comment which I believe contains a common fallacy among contemporary students of human nature.

The framework for the classical discussion is usually this: On the one hand, it is patently obvious that people do things for other people all the time. This is taken to the extreme – but extremes are allowable in discussions of this sort – when one is willing to die for someone else, which, on the surface anyway, offers little or no benefit to one's self. On the other hand, one always has an internal motive for acting for another, either to improve one's reputation, or to gain favors, or, because it just plain makes the person feels good to act for another. Even this good feeling is thought of as a selfish thing on this view. Furthermore, in a case where one is willing to die for another, it is, on this view, a result of the person calculating selfishly that death is preferable to living with guilt or shame or without another person etc. There are powerful and interesting arguments on both sides which may make interesting material for a future blogging.

Well, this time around, one of the discussants offered this argument from neuroscience/biopsychology. Altruism has been discovered in the brain, he claimed. There is a region in the brain that fires during altruistic acts, or that is better developed in altruistic people than in more selfish people, etc. This was submitted as evidence that true altruism does exist, since it has been physically discovered in the brain.

The fallacy is that the discovery of brain phenomena is no evidence one way or another for the existence of psychological or behavioral phenomena. Imagine that I get to observe a person for a week, with the limitation that I can only see that person's brain. I see section X of the brain fire in pattern Y. I would have absolutely no idea what the person is doing/thinking/feeling unless I have already linked that firing pattern with that non-neural activity (and probably even in such a case, but lets ignore that). Imagine then that I have only observed brains and never made those connections with non-neural states. It is clear that I would have no idea of the connection between the brain phenomena and "human" phenomena without also having observed the human activity. So in order to find altruism, or anything else of the sort, in the brain, I must already have in mind a certain class of human activity, must already have judged those things as altruistic, and only then can I make the link to brain activity. Once I have made these judgments, even before I find it in the brain, I already know the phenomenon exists, and the view from the brain merely offers me another perspective, indeed an informative one, on it. Conversely, if we judge that this activity is not altruistic, then the associated firing pattern in the brain must be judged not to be linked with altruism.

It is a common error in a common contemporary worldview to think that phenomena of human nature only exist if they can be found in the brain. If we start with the brain, as we have seen, we don't know what any of its phenomena mean unless we observe the associated body/mind phenomena. And if we start with the body/mind phenomena, then we don't need the brain phenomena to confirm their existence. Even if we have them, they prove nothing vis-à-vis the mind/body phenomena in question.

To begin with...

I have been writing on myspace and facebook, and I think it's time for me to begin a serious blog. So to begin with, I shall import all my previous posts here. They are all dated from today. I hope this disclaimer clears that up.