Saturday, December 31, 2005

Clinging to Deterministic Freedom, Postponing Causal Explanation

Blake has offered the first step of his planned argument, asking for more clarity on my assumptions about determinism and causality. I’ve only read the Stanford Encyclopedia (SEP) link he offered so far, but I don’t think I need to read the other to respond to his comment.

In my first couple of posts related to this topic I was content with the term ‘determinism.’ I think I started—perhaps ill-advisedly, I am not yet sure—using the term ‘causal determinism’ after reading Blake’s Dialogue article. After reading the SEP article I am content to leave ‘causal’ out of it—I don’t know that any of my posts depend on it, though I would be glad to know how, if they do—and revert to naked ‘determinism’ as defined by the SEP to take as my premise:
Determinism: The world is governed by (or is under the sway of) determinism if and only if, given a specified way things are at a time t, the way things go thereafter is fixed as a matter of natural law.
I am also content with the statement near the top of the article that “there is no agreement over whether determinism is true (or even whether it can be known true or false), and what the import for human agency would be in either case.” I see this statement as consistent with the idea that taking determinism as a premise and seeking to work out a compatibilist view of freedom is a reasonable project. That is to say, there is no consensus that such a project is necessarily doomed to failure.

I don’t think the existence of eternal intelligences in LDS thought entails any unavoidable ‘space invader’ problems that invalidate this SEP statement. One can always maintain faith that relativity (or something like it), or a non-toroidal topology of space, prevents the action of intelligences as space invaders (objects of unbounded speed affecting a system at say, t=0, whose arrival was not logically entailed by states of the world prior to t=0).

Further, one can posit that the intelligences contemplated by LDS tradition do not have libertarian freedom, in the sense of having genuinely open futures; but instead arguably enjoy what I might call autonomous freedom: they possess a meaningful independence of action from certain other objects in the world—characterized by the capacity for scenario formulation and selection according to their own internal rules and values—while still having specific material aspects of their future (e.g. which kingdom of glory they will inhabit) that necessarily and uniquely follow from the infinite regressions of their own internal prior states and those of God.

I am rather hazy on the whole issue of causation, which is why I am basically punting on that aspect of Blake’s comment. I suppose that as a physical scientist my general sympathies lie with notion that efficient causation—as I understand it, the laws or regularities that describe the mechanics of how things happen—has some sort of primacy I am not presently equipped to describe well. (Nor can I offer a detailed efficient causal account of how what I have called autonomous freedom arises in humans, but think it plausible that such an explanation is possible.) I don’t even remember the specific names of Aristotle’s other forms of causation. I suppose my prejudice is that other forms of causation may give ‘insight’ and ‘meaning’ in human terms, but are not ultimate or fundamental “pushy explainers” that “make things happen in certain ways” (to use phrases from the SEP article).

Finally I suggest that while LDS scripture and doctrine declare humans to be ‘free,’ they are not sufficiently philosophically precise to distinguish between what I have labeled ‘libertarian’ freedom and ‘autonomous’ freedom. It is also not clear to me that they rule out the sufficiency of efficient causation as the ultimate “pushy explainer”—which sufficiency I tend to assume on the basis of parsimony, taste, and (admittedly limited) experience.


Thursday, December 29, 2005

Taking Stock on Determinism and Freedom

As several posts have gone by on issues related to free will, and the questions of whether and how to proceed with the discussion have arisen, it might be a good idea to explain more precisely what I am interested in arguing about. I will also use this post as a place to collect links to my posts on this subject.

I am not trying to prove causal determinism as a conclusion. It is true that I have expressed skepticism that a future that is open in the sense required by libertarian free will can avoid luck or randomness. From my skimming of the links Blake provided, my initial sense is that this is deemed, by at least some serious and competent people, an open problem in the technical philosophical literature. I confess that at this point I don’t have much interest in following these technical arguments closely. Until the project I describe below is a demonstrated to my satisfaction to be a failure, for reasons of time and interest it is not a discussion I intend to engage closely here.

Because of my distaste for the notion that randomness would play a material role in individuals’ eternal outcomes, and because of my skepticism that libertarian-style programs will prove successful in avoiding randomness, I am more interested in asking the following: Given causal determinism as a premise, can notions of freedom and responsibility be constructed that are meaningful, reasonable, consistent with our experience, and—on the Mormon track of my thought—consistent with a viable form of Mormonism? In this series of posts I have essayed to argue in the affirmative.


Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Persistent Morality and Praiseworthiness

Blake has steered the conversation on free will to the nature of morality, and the question of what makes actions ‘moral,’ worthy of praise or blame; see this comment. Does determinism imply that moral systems are mere social convention, and further that no actions are worthy of praise or blame? I don’t think so.

Determinism does not imply willy-nilly moral relativism, or that anything under the sun might be arbitrarily agreed upon by social creatures and actually turn out to be workable. (Hence in answer to Blake’s question ‘Why is Zion desirable?’, I would suggest it turns out to be that which is permanently sustainable—uniquely so, in a Mormon perspective.) I agree with Blake that there are deep instincts or tendencies in us that are very closely related to our capacity and need for relationships that range from cooperative to loving, and that these instincts underpin widely-shared (Blake would say universal and absolute) moral precepts.

But whether or not these deep tendencies amount to eternal, unchanging moral absolutes, or instead merely appear to be so compared to typical human lifetimes and experience, depends on which track of my thinking I’m on at the moment. In an eternal Mormon view I suppose they might be taken as eternal and unchanging. In a non-religious naturalistic view, I see the deep instincts—not all of which are ‘morally praiseworthy’—as products of evolution, existing in an uneasy balance that ‘works.’ (Recall that part of the ‘genius’ of evolution is that that which does not work is eliminated.) It is a persistent balance, one exhibiting strong hysteresis, but not utter permanence: it can shift and adapt, to some extent purposefully and to some extent automatically, with the ever-changing conditions in which humanity finds itself.

These changes are due in no small part to humanity’s technological capabilities: consider for example changes in what society tolerates in terms of sexuality as a result of birth control and disease prevention, simply because these technologies allow a wider range of mixes of deep tendencies toward variety and jealousy to be expressed without unacceptable social costs.

I note in passing that the possibility of unchanging moral absolutes under a Mormon perspective does necessarily make them (or at least their proper ethical implementation) easily recognizable. Consider a wedding feast described by Joseph, which featured (post reception of the Word of Wisdom) his blessing of “three servers filled with glasses of wine” passed around: “I doubt whether the pages of history can boast of a more splendid and inocent wedding and feast than this for it was conducted after the order of heaven” (Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling, p. 310; the context makes clear that by “order of heaven” Joseph was referring not only to the ceremony itself, but the entire social experience). Obviously there has been a change since then, to absolute prohibition of alcohol. Or, consider the change from many wives to one. Do these changes represent unmitigated progress towards implementation of the true moral absolutes, or are they temporary ‘law of Moses’-style exigencies required by the conditions of external society, with previous practices to be restored at a glorious future day? Mormonism provides no ready answer, for unprecedented progress and restoration were both ideas Joseph readily drew upon as needed.

Enough on the consistency of persistent (and not merely arbitrary) morality with determinism; how about the praiseworthiness (or blameworthiness) of actions? I would suggest that whether we attach moral meaning to someone’s actions affecting others results from two things: first, a sense that their processes of scenario formulation are functioning accurately (i.e. that they are not mentally ill); and second, that their decision reveals internal rules and values consistent with those deemed ‘worthy’. These two criteria for praise- or blameworthiness do not require a genuinely open future, but are consistent with causal determinism. The deceptive perception of causal openness may simply be an artifact of our not being privy to the internal rules and values used by the agent to ‘compute’ a selection among scenarios until these rules and values are (partially) revealed by the observed selection.

For a final insight into the true minimality of the threshold of our perceptions of merit and blame, I refer to a past comment of Blake’s about dogs simply urinating where they please, in contrast to humans. This is wrong: dogs can and do learn to control themselves, and can learn many other more complicated things besides. Observing properly-done tasks, their masters say “Good boy!”—and such praise is not empty, but sincerely considered well-deserved.


Friday, December 23, 2005

The Relationship of Consciousness to Rationality, Responsibility, and Will

As an immediate follow-up to my discussion of scenario formulation and selection, in addressing Blake’s emphases on ‘rational thought’ and ‘moral responsibility,’ I think it may be useful to recognize, and perhaps put in proper place, the role of consciousness. Humans, apparently uniquely, have a cognitive capacity for recursion that seems important for both language and consciousness. If I understand correctly, lesser apes have some capacity for symbolic communication, but not the ability to talk about what Alice is talking about Bob talking about (this sort of multi-leveled ‘nesting’ is what I mean by ‘recursion’). Similarly, it may be that apes ‘think’ in some immediate sense, while not having the recursive ability to think about their thinking—the phenomenon we call consciousness.

Now, Blake has emphasized the term ‘rational thought.’ I am not sure I understand the motivation behind the emphasis, and think behind it is undue placement of weight on consciousness. Consider again the elaboration and assessment of, and selection among, future scenarios by an expert chess computer program. Would Blake call it rational or irrational? I would prefer to call it ‘rational’ (centuries of philosophical tradition be damned if necessary!). For me, I suspect in contrast to Blake, rationality is a matter of accuracy, reliability, logical rigor, and so on, rather than a conscious feeling of control (see below on mental illness). In terms of freedom, more distinguishing between chess programs and humans than rationality (which I would say they share) or consciousness (which humans have and chess programs lack) is the auto-rewritability of humans’ rules and values (see the immediately preceding post).

On to ‘moral responsibility,’ which I would say involves the initiation of, regulation of the nature of, and termination of social relationships (note this description encompasses even judgment by God and assignment to kingdoms of glory). If I declare expectations to someone, spelling out what will happen to our relationship based on various behaviors she might exhibit, and she can therefore (like an expert chess program) accurately formulate and assess future scenarios, then she is ‘responsible’—she can respond to these expectations according to her values. (Similarly but more primitively, in an airplane on autopilot we may say that the onboard computer is ‘responsible’ for the maneuvering of the plane.) Along with this, I ‘hold her responsible’ by regulating my participation in the relationship in accordance with the expectations I laid down. Now if someone is mentally ill, they are incapable of accurate scenario formulation and/or assessment, and therefore cannot respond accurately—they are not ‘responsible.’ Likewise, recognizing this incapacity, I may not ‘hold them responsible’—lay down expectations or regulate the relationship in the same manner as with some someone sane.

Now, there are degrees of responsibility, and we may choose to distinguish the higher degrees that require consciousness by the name moral responsibility. In the documentary March of the Penguins, the colony does not allow a mother penguin who has lost her egg or offspring to steal that of another. The enforcement of the relationship would be the same whether or not the mother penguin’s behavior results from faulty brain wiring (‘mental illness’). This is because penguins, not having the recursive capacity of consciousness, cannot think about other penguins’ thinking, or assess their assessments. In contrast, the regulation of human (and presumably divine) relationships proceeds in part on the basis of thinking about and assessing the thinking and assessments of others—a recursive activity requiring consciousness. None of these features of responsibility, however—whether amoral and unconscious, or moral and conscious—seem to require the absence of determinism.

Finally, on the relationship of consciousness to ‘free will.’ Blake tries to evade causal determinism, while disclaiming “mere indeterminism,” by saying that “What accounts for why an agent chooses A rather than B is that the agent has a power to agent cause the decision that is inherent [in] the very fact of having a will that is free.” But it seems to me that this statement is meaningless without an operationally useful notion of a ‘will.’ I think it would be useful and meaningful to use the term ‘will’ to describe a situation in which the assessment of future scenarios is itself being self-assessed—in colloquial terms, that a conscious mind is ‘observing’ its own deliberations. While we do not presently understand how consciousness arises, I do not know of anything precluding the possibility that this entire process of our brain or eternal intelligence monitoring its own assessments proceeds entirely under causal determinism.


Scenario Formulation and Selection, and the Evolvability of Character

Along with others, Blake has made detailed comments on three previous threads (here, here, and here) relating to agency and free will. After saying something about where I’m coming from in approaching this subject, I will state what I see as areas of broad agreement and spell out some specifics of potential continuing disagreement on scenario formulation and selection. In an immediate follow-up post I will comment on notions upon which Blake lays much emphasis: ‘rational thought’ and ‘moral responsibility.’

Aside from lacking intimate familiarity with the standard philosophical history and terminology of this subject (an accurate assessment on Blake’s part), and aside from the inherent difficulty of the problem (as evidenced by the fact that it’s still around after thousands of years of study), and even aside from my limited intelligence and writing ability, one reason Blake may have reason to call my thinking and presentation “muddled” is that my thought is proceeding on two parallel tracks that I have not always been careful to distinguish in my presentation: a Mormon account involving uncreated individual intelligences, and a naturalistic account where the human brain is all there is. From this point on I may need, where relevant, to be more clear and careful about distinguishing these two tracks (even though I have thought both may be deterministic in some sense).

Blake has suggested I may in fact be a libertarian of some kind, and it may be that we are in fact somewhat close. We agree there is in humans a capacity for conscious imagination of future scenarios. We agree there is ultimately a choice, a selection among these scenarios. It seems we agree there is something inside an individual, in some meaningful sense independent of its environment, that contributes to or constrains or determines the particular selection.

But we may continue to disagree on the nature of these processess of imagination of future scenarios and the selection among them.

On the process of imagination: Does the individual in some sense create previously non-existing scenarios, as Blake seems to suggest? Or is the imagination of the future more in the character of recognizing the various logical possibilities consistent with the individual’s degree of knowledge of current states—a recognition (as opposed to outright creation) by deterministic means that, to give a non-conscious example more primitive than human capacity, might be akin to computations done by an expert chess computer program?

On the process of selection: Does a particular selection arise with, perhaps not ‘mere indeterminacy,’ but any material degree of indeterminate spontaneity, as I understand libertarian free will to require? Or does the particular selection necessarily and uniquely follow from specific rules already present inside the individual at the moment of decision, by which the imagined future scenarios are assessed against specific ‘values’ already held by that individual—values that might be anything from protecting the king for a chess program, to physical homeostasis for an animal, to the establishment and preservation of social relationships for a human?

Please note well: this latter position of ‘selections necessarily and uniquely follow from an individual’s current state’—a position I am calling ‘determinist’—does not imply that either the rules or values the individual uses to conduct assessments—which we might call ‘character’—cannot change, or that anyone (including probably even God) can predict what changes may arise in an individual’s rules and values.

Brain wiring—and rules and values, assuming these are encoded in brain wiring—often do in fact change, on the basis of experience: memories of past outcomes can change the nature of future assessments. Profoundly, ‘intelligence,’ in both secular and Mormon theological senses, may correspond to just such a diagnostic and adaptive capacity—one that may nevertheless unfold deterministically.

In a Mormon context, we may add to naturalistic learning in the brain the reprogramming of an individual’s rules and values by the divine power of the atonement—his law engraven on the heart, as it were, with repentance and acceptance of grace involving the granting of the necessary permission to the Savior to do the engraving. The appearance of different outcomes even in a powerful and benevolent plan of God—the ultimate necessity of degrees of glory—would ultimately (and only) derive from two key uncreated and unchangeable capacities that eternal intelligences possess, beyond God’s control, in different degrees: the ability to accurately diagnose one’s need for reprogramming, and willingness to allow it to be done. God’s plan, unfolding deterministically, will grow each intelligence to the full potential allowed by the degree these key uncreated characteristics are possessed. In this perspective, anything other than determinism would result in outcomes that would be, to my taste, unjust.


Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Response to God and science

Since Geoff B mentioned me by name, I feel inclined to respond. Statements from his post are in italics, and my responses follow.

As an example of how God might fit into scientific articles, consider articles about the origin of life on earth. There could be a whole array of scientific hypotheses put forward, all of which could lead to scientific tests, especially in the field of genetics.

As I look over Pratt’s list that follows this statement they all seem, contrary to what Pratt says, either untestable at present with little hope for future testability, barring God’s detailed and public disclosure of his role (b through d, g and h); or falsified, with regard to organisms’ physical bodies (e and f).

A refusal by the scientific world to accept God in any of its respected experiments these days makes for incomplete studies and false science.

Science does not include God in its hypotheses because no one has discovered indications of his actions that are sufficiently precise, testable, and publicly shareable to be amenable to the methodology of science. The range of questions that can be addressed by science is obviously limited (though it has grown steadily over time), and in this respect science is certainly “incomplete.” But that in no way makes it “false.”

As any student of the history of science will know, Sir Isaac Newton and even Einstein accepted the existence of a Creator.

Neither man accepted an anthropomorphic, embodied God. I think for Newton, infinite and absolute space and time (that is, the entire ‘stage’ on which everything plays out) were essential aspects of God’s very being. As far as Einstein goes, one quote I quickly found through Google put it this way:
He rejected the conventional image of God as a personal being, concerned about our individual lives, judging us when we die, intervening in the laws he himself had created to cause miracles, answer prayers and so on. Einstein did not believe in a soul separate from the body, nor in an afterlife of any kind…

…he was also struck by the radiant beauty, the harmony, the structure of the universe as it was accessible to reason and science…

…it seems likely that he believed in a God who was identical to the universe—similar to the God of Spinoza. [!] A God whose rational nature was expressed in the universe, or a God who was identified with the universe and its laws taken together.
I don’t think Mormons can really look to either of these guys for support in specific theology, or that creationists of any stripe can point to them in support of their perverse notions of science pedagogy. That they had interests and perspectives that included things beyond science is a good example for all of us, but says nothing about what should be in science classes—which, after all, is only one slice of life. Ironically, by insisting on including God in science classes, creationists may have already given in or sold out: they shoot themselves in the foot by implicitly conceding and adopting the point of view that the scientific method is the only path to knowledge, insight, happiness, and so on.

Do they honestly believe that the study of science in a Millennial world will be the same as it is now?

If there is open communion with the heavens in a Millenial world then yes, the range of questions addressable by science will be expanded, because there will then be precise, testable, and publicly shareable indications about God’s nature and his past and current involvement with Earth and humanity.

And, lastly, if science classes are incomplete without factoring in the “God factor” in their experiments, isn't there room for at least bringing that up in evolution or astronomy classes?

I think science classes should reflect the content and methods of mainstream professional science, with protracted discussions of its limitations and alternative putative ways of knowing left to other areas of the curriculum (philosophy, “Guidance” class as they call one subject in our local district, etc.), and to other venues (churches, books, blogs, seminars by charismatic circuit tour speakers…)

In this connection I am against the inclusion of so-called ‘teach the controversy’ approaches involving Intelligent Design in science classes, because this does not reflect mainstream science. However such discussions may have a useful place in classes on philosophy, social studies, science and society, etc.

Having said that, I do not think claims should be overstated in science classes, and I do not think all subjects should be taught at all levels, and this leads me to a particular kind of science pedagogy I think should prevail. What belongs in science classes are tested hypotheses for which the students are capable of understanding the nature of the tests. Because I think science classes should leave students with a ‘feel’ for the practice of science, even more than filling their brains with specific facts, I think it would be poor science pedagogy to present even well-established conclusions of professional scientists at a point before students can have some understanding of how those conclusions were arrived at. This approach would, to some extent at least, both allow and teach students to evaluate evidence for themselves. Adherence to this approach would also serve as a prophylactic against the temptation to bandy about the latest and greatest hypotheses at the margins of knowledge before they are tested—as often happens in the media—which often leads to the unfortunate false impression that science is continually overturning itself, when in fact there is steady accumulation of well-established facts and ‘laws,’ and new theories reduce to well-established old ones in the limited conditions addressed by the old theories.


Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Doctrinal Modesty on Varieties of Free Will

In my preceding thread on a deterministic version of free will, Geoff referred to a post of his containing a sentence I wish to contest: “Needless to say, traditional determinism and compatibilism are at odds with Mormon doctrine.” My rejoinder, in brief: Needless to say, just as the scriptures are not a detailed scientific manual, neither are they a detailed philosophical handbook; which is to say, they are not sufficiently precise and jargon-laden to distinguish between libertarian and compatibilistic varieties of free will.

For this reason I am puzzled by Geoff’s repeated insistence in my previous thread on what “the revelations indicate,” since as far as I know he has given no detailed exegesis with an explicit hermeneutic. I strongly suspect such an attempt would fail, because the gross mismatch between what Jim F. would call the ‘universes of discourse’ of (a) scripture and (b) the traditional philosophical technical debates on free will is sufficiently severe to render preposterous any claims one way or another on what Mormon ‘doctrine’ (whatever that is) says about libertarian vs. compatibilistic free will.

The only thing scripture says is that we are free, and obviously adds no modifiers, either libertarian or compatibilist (that the thought of the scriptures using words like these simply makes us laugh justifies my use of the word “preposterous” in the preceding paragraph); hence I would hope both sides could bactrack from strident claims about what Mormon doctrine is on the specific nature of freedom, and recognize that in these arcane matters we are pretty far out on narrow limbs, with little if any support from the trunk of scripture. It is not accurate, much less helpful, to speak of people who “heretically believe” a version of compatibilistic free will relying on uncreated individual intelligences, or to imply that such people are “trad[ing] the gem of the gospel for a mess of pottage.”

The scriptural lack of relevant theoretical apparatus means that neither libertarian nor compatibilist free will is either heterodox (much less heretical) or orthodox, and normally this would make me relatively uninterested in debating doctrinally unresolvable eternal imponderables; but in this case I am interested in exploring the potential viability of purely materialistic (even atheistic) conceptions of freedom and responsibility. Now, on the basis of this exploration, you are free to call me a heretic. Just don’t do it on the basis of openness to uncreated individual intelligences.


Sunday, December 18, 2005

Deterministic Freedom Explained

In a comment and in an email Blake Ostler suggested I might benefit from reading his Mormonism and Determinism (Dialogue, Winter 1999, p. 43), in which he responds to Determinist Mansions in the Mormon House? by L. Rex Sears (Dialogue, Winter 1998, p. 115). (These articles can be found at the Dialogue website by searching on the author name and article title.) I made an immediate response to Ostler, but now I respond (with only a modest attempt to make my response self-contained) after a first reading of both Sears’ and Ostler’s articles, and provide my own inkling as to why our deterministic behavior nevertheless feels ‘free.’

I do not believe in absolute foreknowledge. This makes some of Sears’ arguments for determinism, and I think even more of Ostler’s arguments against determinism, irrelevant for me. (Though I note with regret that what strike me as two of the most interesting Mormon scriptures relating to the question of God’s foreknowledge—the prophecies of Joseph Jr. and Sr.’s names, and the complex of Book of Mormon and D&C scriptures associated with the loss of the 116 Book of Mormon manuscript pages—were not mentioned by either Ostler or Sears.)

Pervading the arguments of Ostler and to some extent Sears is the false assumption that determinism necessarily entails predictability of human behavior. Unfortunately, this commonly-held but false notion appears to lead Ostler (and perhaps certain authorities he cites) to the dubious conclusion that the unpredictability associated with the sensitive dependence on initial conditions exhibited by some nonlinear systems (i.e. chaos) negates determinism on scales relevant to human cognition. In fact, the practical limitations on our knowledge of initial conditions that result in our inability to predict in practice in no way imply that a chaotic system is doing anything other than following precisely the nonlinear equations governing it—that is, that the system is behaving deterministically—starting from particular (albeit unknown to us) initial conditions. It is perfectly consistent to believe or assume that determinism reigns even if neither God nor mortals are capable of predicting individuals’ behavior.

It seems to me that this severing of the connection between determinism and predictability/foreknowledge disables most of Ostler’s arguments against determinism (as well as one of Sears’ major arguments for determinism). All Ostler has left are arguments based on what he considers palatable notions of responsibility and on the apparent immediate experiences of “rational thought” and “free will.” I confess I find descriptions and definitions of these phenomena along the lines of Sears’ self-determination, mutual responsibility, etc. more satisfying than Ostler’s arguments from common sense. In Sears’ formulation,
to be a free agent with respect to a particular individual is to be possessed of a deterministically operative power of self-determination; to have been instructed by that individual to do or not do certain things; and to have the ability to determine, by choosing to obey or disobey the admonitions received by that individual, the nature of one’s future relationship with her. Having the relevant expectations held of us by her, in turn, makes us responsible to her, and to be a free agent with regard to a particular individual is just to be responsible to her.
To explain the key point further in my own words, the uniquely human capacity to imagine the future allows for the uniquely human experience of free will and capacity for responsibility, in a context that is nevertheless deterministic: our imagination and expectation of future consequences is an important causal feed entering (along with other causes) into our decision-making, and this is what makes us responsible—literally, ‘able to respond’—‘freely.’

How, then, to account for our immediate experience of ‘freedom’? I strongly suspect that our (often subconscious) assessments involve the probabilistic weighing of multiple imagined, as-yet unrealized future scenarios—which our brain may know, handle, and experience differently than knowledge of past events and associations stored in memory—and that this perceived difference between the accomplished past and the imperfectly ascertainable future accounts, particularly when the assessment is subconscious, for the powerful psychological perception of libertarian-style free will in the process of decision-making. (Note that this proposed existence of a qualitative difference between reflections on the future and the past could be tested with real-time functional brain imaging of conscious subjects.)

Aside from the manifest elegance of my utterly compelling explanation ;->, another reason I find deterministic formulations of agency and responsibility more satisfying is that I think Ostler has failed, as he claims, to have a third option breaking a dichotomy between causal determinism and random indeterminacy. According to Ostler,
A libertarian could adopt a process view of freedom where a free act is a creative synthesis of the prior states of the world. Thus, there are causal relations or nexus from which a free act flows; however, there are several different outcomes for which the causal conditions are adequate but not sufficient…

Human freedom consists of a synthetic unity of experience not present in the stimuli or causes from which consciousness arises. Human creativity is the additional element which must be added to the totality of past causes necessary to explain human choices.
But this appeal to a synthetic human creative input begs the question: in a given instance, how does a particular creative input emerge? If it necessarily follows from the nature of one’s eternal, uncreated individual intelligence—or, in my naturalistic formulation above, ‘under the hood’ it is simply a (conscious, subconscious, or both) mechanical best estimate by the brain of which is the most likely among imagined future scenarios—then we have in the end necessary determinism (though partially of an internal or self-determined variety). Otherwise, the appearance of a particular creative input arises with some component of randomness.

Hence it seems to me there is in fact no third option; and in the absence of a viable alternative, and assuming the existence of eternal uncreated intelligences, I prefer to think that the input from my intelligence would be causal rather than random—especially since this is the component upon which I ultimately would be judged!


Saturday, December 17, 2005

Science and Replicability

In a discussion of natural and unnatural methods of childbirth, it was asserted that “Scientific data is intended to be replicated—indeed, must be replicable—and objective”. I don’t have anything to say about childbirth, but I would like to point out that depending on what is meant by “replicated,” the above formulation has the potential to give an overly narrow or even misleading notion of science.

Being able to set up and perform an artificial experiment at will is less important to the definition of science than that data be publicly available and that there be sufficient objective control on hypotheses. It is great when a repeatable artificial experiment is possible, but such historical disciplines as geology, paleontology, in some cases astronomy and astrophysics, and so on depend in part on events (and sometimes even observations) that are not repeatable: we will not observe a real-time magnetic field reversal in our lifetime, dinosaurs will not go extinct again, SN1987A will not explode again, and so forth. Nevertheless the public shareability of recorded observations of these events and adequate cross-examinations to control interpretations justify calling their study ‘scientific.’

Statements like ‘many different people can analyze relics of the event and come to the same conclusion’ or ‘more dinosaur bones could be found’ are arguably instances of ‘replication’ in a different sense than repeatable, artificially controlled experiments; but I resist considering these as alternative ways of satisfying some putative overarching scientific ‘replicability criterion,’ for the first may simply collapse to the more useful notion of public transferability, and the second is obviously too restrictive: the study of dinosaur bones would remain scientific even if no new ones were ever found.

Finally, there is a danger in overemphasizing repeatability without sufficient attention to public shareability and objective controls (in this connection I appreciate the use of the word “objective” in the above formulation, I just think it deserves more emphasis—hence my present ascent to the soapbox). For example, it might be observed that instances of Mormon testimony are eminently repeatable (like the McDonalds’ slogan, Millions and Millions served), while the generation of Earth’s biodiversity by evolution cannot be replicated in the size or time scales of human laboratories and lifetimes. With an overemphasis on replicability some might therefore be tempted to call Mormon testimony ‘scientific’ and the study of evolution ‘unscientific.’ (I hasten to say that the commenter I quoted above didn’t say anything remotely like this; perhaps there are very few Mormons who would consider testimony a form of scientific knowledge, though Alma 32 might tempt some to say so. I am simply using her statement as an occasion to take off on an unrelated tangent that may be of little interest to anyone but myself.)

The problem here is that the more important consideration than replicability to the question of whether testimony or evolution are scientific is whether the experiences motivating belief in the respective principles are publicly transferable and controlled by objective data against plausible alternative explanations. In the case of testimony the answer is ‘no,’ and it must therefore be considered unscientific, notwithstanding its wide (if far from universal) replicability. To the extent the answer is ‘yes’ to various aspects of evolution, those aspects are scientific, in spite of the fact that we have only a single precious example of the historical unfolding of a great pageant of life.


Thursday, December 08, 2005


Time for another traveling Spinozist shout-out.

Destination: Chicago. I leave this morning.

When I posted about going to Seattle last month I got several great suggestions. A highlight was being introduced to Ethiopian food by J. Stapley. He also taught me some great slang. Let me demonstrate one phrase I picked up from him: J. Stapley has “serious bandwidth.” (In keeping with the image I’ve put in this post, I’ve also added one to the Seattle post, also featuring a skyline.)

Anyway, if you have any restaurant or sightseeing suggestions for Chicago, I’d love to hear them!


Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Devolved but not Devalued

By way of brief respite from heavy philosophizing, let’s discuss ‘devolution.’ Rather than wade through some academic-sounding definition, you can familiarize yourself with this concept by watching a fantastic advertisement for Guinness. From human to primitive amphibian in 60 seconds may seem like a Hollywood fantasy, but one day a week or so ago, The Spinozist Mormon suffered a similar fate overnight. Of course my heart sank, but I was reassured by the fact that the Spinozist's market value held firm or even rose during the same period.

The Truth Laid Bear (TTLB) ecosystem is a blog ranking system consisting of 14 ecological niches, ranging from Higher Beings at the top to Insignificant Microbes at the bottom. A blog’s rank is based on the number of other blogs that link to it. You can see TTLB’s links to The Spinozist Mormon here (this link is permanently on my sidebar near the bottom).

For awhile The Spinozist Mormon oscillated between a Flappy Bird and an Adorable Little Rodent, apparently depending on whether one of my posts was current at Mormon Archipelago; but after my sudden devolution (talk about punctuated equilibrium!), I now find myself oscillating between a Lowly Insect and a Slimy Mollusc. After initial panic—Did everyone suddenly dump me from their blogroll because of something controversial I said?—I saw that Times and Seasons was no longer a Large Mammal or even Marauding Marsupial, but a mere Flappy Bird, and I felt better. Later I found the sudden renormalization explained here.

When I speak of The Spinozist Mormon’s market value, it is with reference to another blog ranking system called BlogShares. To quote the site itself, “BlogShares is a fantasy stock market for weblogs. Players get to invest a fictional $500, and blogs are valued by incoming links.”

BlogShares information on The Spinozist Mormon can be seen here (also linked on my sidebar). One interesting thing about BlogShares is that it categories blogs by “industries,” and one of these is “Mormon / Latter Day Saints,” which you can peruse here. Perhaps surprisingly, Times and Seasons is not number 1, but number 2. The Spinozist Mormon is way down at number 44.

Are any bloggernacle denizens active in this BlogShares trading game? I bought shares in myself, but that’s it, and I’m not following it actively. I stumbled across my blog’s listing there by accident, and I have no idea how it got listed. Unlike many of the Mormon blogs on the list, The Spinozist Mormon has many shares available for purchase.

The bottom lines of this (oh so important!) post are twofold. (1) Link to me. I am willing to reciprocate. Push me up the food chain, increase my market value. I may never be an exalted Higher Being, but it’s always nice to move up. (2) The Analyst’s Report at BlogShares says of The Spinozist Mormon: “This is a growing blog (BUY), This stock is underpriced (BUY).” Buy Spinozist!


Thursday, December 01, 2005

Must a secular ‘way of being’ be ‘broken’ and devoid of the sacred?

Here I continue the discussion of a previous thread, and also begin to respond to Jim F.’s unpublished paper “Theology as a Hermeneutic of Religious Experience,” which he was generous enough to send me privately. If this makes this post especially confusing to other readers, I’m sorry. (If it is unfair to Jim to respond like this without his text being available to all to speak for itself, I apologize for that too!) Because Jim’s paper is not (I hope) written for the layman, I am not equipped to get all one could out of some of its technical terminology and arguments; but still I found it unusually fascinating and thought-provoking. I hope I was able to take some significant ideas away. My responses will show whether that is so, or whether instead my technical inadequacies have allowed me to go grossly astray, landing me flat on my face.

From Jim’s paper I think I got a better sense of what he called at one point in his last comment a “world-view/mythology/universe of discourse/world.” I hope I will not conflate too badly the two senses of this he mentioned in that last comment, but if left uncorrected, here and in subsequent installments of my response I will simply use the term “way of being” (short for “way of being in the world,” and closely related to “myth,” with the latter narrating the former)—the preferred term in his paper, which I agree is a quite enlightening way to think about it.
…myth shapes human existence by giving us a structure on which we hang our understanding of society and the world…

As a framework or ordering that makes understanding possible, the symbolic realm of myth and ritual is broader than that of philosophical and theological reflection. Indeed, myth and ritual are not merely ways of understanding the world, means for reflection. The myth and ritual of any particular religion manifest a way of being in the world—an attitude in the root sense of the word, a way of fitting, an aptitude—namely, the way of being of the religion in question. Reflection and understanding occur within the myth or ordering given by that way of being…
The term ‘way of being’ really comes into its own with the following insight:
Like many, perhaps even all religions, biblical religions call us to live in a certain way. They may do so conceptually, but they need not and, for the most part, they do not. For the most part, they call us to engage ourselves in the world in a particular way, and they do that with scripture and ritual and, especially, in their practices. As Kierkegaard points out, “The Christian thesis goes not: intelligere ut credam, nor credere ut intelligam. No it goes: Act according to the commands and orders of Christ; do the Father's will—and you will become a believing-one.”
Hence, for example, the Mormon emphasis on worthiness as a prerequisite to testimony.

These quotations refer specifically to religion, but I believe they can also be applied to secular or scientific ways of being. For instance, science arguably has its own “scripture and ritual and, especially, … practices.” Only those who practice it—who are immersed in this way of being—can really begin to appreciate its power. Laymen are often not truly converted, but instead mere sign-seekers willing to consume the technological fruits of science upon their lusts. They lack what Stephen J. Gould calls an “intimacy with the world of science (knowing its norms in their bones, and its quirks and foibles in their daily experience)…”. With their lips they draw nigh to science, but they deny the power thereof. For when the moment of temptation arrives—when the results of science threaten to open new possibilities for the construction of secular myths offering alternative meanings of our lives, and reasonable norms that might govern them—those not deeply rooted succumb. Unable to “apply a professional’s ‘feel’ for the doing of science to grasp the technical complexities…in a useful manner inaccessible to [non-scientists]” (Gould again, here and previously in a different context), they are seduced by such false doctrines as young-earth creationism or Intelligent Design—perverse abominations to those who live and breathe and practice science.

(Jim’s paper and previous comments make clear that he is not one such apostate of the scientific myth, even if he might wish for reforms. While he would reject secular myths of human meaning built on present scientific understandings, he does not reject scientific findings or methods in what he would consider their own sphere, nor attempt to inappropriately bastardize either scientific or religious myth.)

Down off my soapbox, and back to Jim’s paper: I’m not familiar with the detailed analysis, but am generally aware that objectivity pure and undefiled is not possible, and so tend to accept as very likely the assertion that not only ‘religion’ but also ‘secularism’ also operates within the context of a particular myth or way of being. (Indeed, the preceding paragraphs illustrate that I accept it.)

If I understood Jim’s paper correctly, his main argument is that if analysis of religion is to be undertaken, it ought to be done within the context of its own religious myth and not through the lens of the secular myth.

He goes further, saying it is not, as usually asserted, the religious myth that is “broken”—in the sense, I gather, of being blind to its own mythical underpinnings, and unable to account for itself—but the secular one. I think the overall tone of the paper may be too pessimistic towards the possibilities of a more viable secular myth. For one thing, secularism need not be conceived as monolithic. There is no single religious myth or way of being, and the same is true of secular myths. I am not persuaded that all possible versions of secularism that might be constructed are necessarily broken. Just as Jim suggests it may be possible to reflect validly and meaningfully on a religion from within its own way of being, the same may be true of a secular way of being.

As as final note in this first part of my response, I urge that care be taken with the religious/secular dichotomy that has been set up here. I do think it’s workable with sufficient wisdom and discretion. In particular, the possibility exists that, with appropriate definitions, both religious and secular ways of being could each have sacred and profane elements or aspects. I assert that religious ways of being do not, or should not, enjoy hegemony over sacredness. Consider, for example, the feeling evoked by Darwin’s closing sentence of The Origin of Species:
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful have been, and are being, evolved.
As for profanity in religious ways of being, religiously motivated terrorism comes immediately to mind in the harshest sense of ‘profane.’ More benignly, one may consider the frequency with which sentimentality is passed off as spirituality in lessons and talks, or—more visually—the kitsch in a Deseret Book catalog. (I hasten to add that when I say “profane,” I do not necessarily imply inappropriateness—there’s nothing necessarily inappropriate about, say, green jello or missionary open houses—it’s just that they may not be sacred, regardless of how ingrained they may be in our religious way of being.)