On Philosophy

July 7, 2006

Further Analysis

Filed under: Epistemology,General Philosophy,Ontology — Peter @ 2:02 am

This post contains three unconnected topics, so feel free read only the one that interests you most. The topics are: the casual closure of the physical universe, an objection to the formalization of descriptions, and evidence for god’s existence.

1: Casual Closure of the Physical Universe

First let me quote myself on this topic:

“Let me assert that the complete physical description of the universe is causally closed, by definition. Of course this isn’t true for our current physical description of the universe, as surely there are laws that haven’t been discovered yet. But, it is closed in principle because of how we decide what kind of information count as ‘physical’. For example let us pretend that the physical description wasn’t casually closed and that there was some non-physical force, Y, that had a causal effect on the physical world. If it has a causal effect then there is some physical system, X, that will produce result X-1 in the presence of Y and X-2 in the absence of Y. This behavior however is enough to postulate some physical cause, y, of X-1. A materialist could produce a detector for y using system X, and using this detector identify all of the ways in which Y had a causal effect on the world. This causal effect would be completely captured by y, which is part of the physical description. It is true that there may be more to Y than the physical properties captured by y. In this case we might argue that Y-y still exists and is non-physical. However Y-y has no casual effect on the world, and thus is epiphenomenal (because all the casual effects have been captured by the physical y).”

One possible objection to this argument is that it doesn’t exclude the lawless interaction of the non-physical with the physical. However consider what a lawless interaction means. It doesn’t mean simply that there is only a chance of a certain interaction happening. For example neutrinos interact only rarely interact with normal matter, but because their interaction is has a predictable probability we still consider them physical. A truly lawless interaction is one in which no information about the non-physical world could be deduced from its interactions with the physical. This excludes every proposed non-physical domain that I can think of. For example if you believe in god surely god acts rationally, and hence predictably. Likewise any possible interaction between a mental substance and the physical world must be lawful, since it is almost certain that every time I wish for my arm to rise it goes up. Additionally if the non-physical domain really is lawless how could we possibly know anything about it, since as I stated above no information about it can be derived from the effects we observe? Thus I still maintain that we can’t have any knowledge, or reason to believe in, non-physical objects.

2: Wittgenstein’s Objection

A few posts ago I made the assertion that we could have a predicate that holds true when a description applies and false when it doesn’t. However Wittgenstein argued, with his famous example of the word “game”, that the formalization I assume is in fact impossible. Although I think that Wittgenstein’s argument shows that it isn’t easy to come up with such a predicate, and that a universally acceptable one is impossible, it is easy to demonstrate, given the assumption of materialism, that it must be possible to construct such a predicate. For example consider a single person’s choice to call something a game or not. That choice is arrived at based on physical activity in their brains. Since such activity obeys mathematical laws we can develop an extremely complicated formula that represents this activity. This formula is the predicate we were after, assuming that we set the math up so that the input represents the activity in question and the output represents the person’s choice. Thus Wittgenstein was wrong.

3: Evidence For God’s Existence

Lately some of my posts have made me think about the idea of god. (see here and here) Let me assume that we are persuaded by my arguments, and believe that, although god may not necessarily exist, it should be possible to find evidence for or against his/her/its existence. Furthermore let us assume that god is omnipotent and perfectly good. If this is true what kind of universe would we expect to find? Intuitively we would expect to find the best possible universe, but it seems obvious that the universe we live in isn’t (although Leibniz would disagree). However, if the best possible universe was created instead of this one we wouldn’t exist, and some other people would. Isn’t our own existence worth something? In fact how could a benevolent god choose between universes, when to pick one would be to deny an infinite number of people their existence. Clearly such a god couldn’t, all possible universes would have to exist. And surprisingly this is just what the multiple worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics tells us. Of course multiple worlds theories aren’t proven yet, and even if they were they still wouldn’t be evidence for god’s existence, only a lack of contradictory against. Still, it is something interesting to think about.

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June 14, 2006

Epiphenomenalism as an Objection to Several Philosophical Ideas

Filed under: Epistemology,Language,Ontology — Peter @ 12:13 am

1: What am I Talking About?

Usually epiphenomenal is used to describe a theory in which mental states exist but have no casual effect on the world. However in this article I am going to accuse other philosophical views, not necessarily about the mind, of being epiphenomenal. By this I mean that the objects that they propose to talk about do not have a casual effect on the universe. Without such a casual effect however we would have no way of knowing that they exist. Thus we should reject such ideas as being meaningless and un-provable. Of course these are broad claims, which require their own justification, so read on.

2: Knowledge and Causation

The background premise is that to know about something and to be able to meaningfully discuss it that thing must lie in your casual history. (Note: for the remainder of this article when I use the word meaning it is in the sense of meaningful. It is true that something that isn’t meaningful might have some private meaning to you, but it wouldn’t be justified to base a theory on it.) Of course to make a statement about casual history we must have defined causation first, so I suggest that you read the linked post if you have any questions about what counts as a cause for this argument. Another way of stating this premise is that to have knowledge of X there must be some time in the past in which I can say that X is a cause of my current mental state (my current knowledge). And of course for our words to have meaning we must have knowledge of the objects they propose to refer to. Now I am not saying that causation is all there is to meaning and knowledge (that story will have to wait until another time), I am simply saying that it is a necessary condition for meaning and knowledge.

(By knowledge I am referring to certain beliefs, as defined here)

An important caveat to make here is that not only must this causation exist but it must be discoverable as well. For example let us consider a possible world in which the disposition of objects to fall towards the ground is not caused by gravity but by the will of Odin. However Odin just happens to will things to fall if and only if gravity is present. People living in such a world will never be able to formulate laws involving the will of Odin, and thus as follows from my knowledge of causation post they will never think that Odin is the cause of anything. Assuming that Odin’s will is limited to making things fall they will then also never have knowledge of Odin’s will. Although they might speculate “what if the real reason things fell wasn’t gravity” they would have no way of knowing what it was, nor any evidence that it wasn’t gravity, and thus no way of knowing that it is Odin’s will.

Of course the obvious objection to the view that causation is required for knowledge is the question “what about fictional things?” It seems obvious that we have knowledge about Santa even though Santa, not being real, can never be a cause of any of my mental states. To this I would agree, and I think it shows that we don’t have knowledge of Santa, all we have is knowledge about what people have told us about Santa. To have knowledge of something implies that it is real, but what is real in this case is not Santa but the legends about Santa (they are real legends, in the sense that they exist, not that they are correct).

Does this imply then that because I have never seen the Eiffel tower that I have no knowledge of it? In a way, yes. I definitely have knowledge about pictures of the Eiffel tower, and what people have said about the tower. It is possible at least that these are all false, and thus absolute certain knowledge is impossible. However I reason thus: the most likely explanation for these pictures and descriptions is that a real Eiffel tower exists and is a cause of the pictures and explanations. Thus I feel warranted in acting as though I had knowledge of the Eiffel tower (as if it lay directly in my casual past, which it does), even though there is a minuscule possibility that it does not, and what I thought was knowledge about the Eiffel tower is really only knowledge about a complicated deception people have been playing on me. The meaning of words functions in much the same way. I use the words Eiffel tower as though I mean a real tower when all I really mean is a mental construct that has been formed by my knowledge of the tower (this is all that casually influences the words I speak, the real tower is not a cause of my speech; it can’t be it is too far away). It is possible that this mental construct is in error, or does not correspond to a real object. In this case the meaning of my words is a purely private matter, but if (as I reason is probable) other people have knowledge of the Eiffel tower as well they will have similar mental constructs, and the meaning of Eiffel tower to me will be nearly identical to the meaning of Eiffel tower to them, allowing us to communicate.

Let us propose a different objection then. Suppose that 2 million light years away there is a man called Darth Vader, who dresses all in black, ect. Now suppose we have watched a popular motion picture containing many details of what, by coincidence alone, happens to be this man’s life. Do we have knowledge of the “real” Darth Vader, even though there is no way that he could be the cause of this motion picture or the mental states that resulted from the motion picture? No, I would say that the casual link correctly tells us that we only have knowledge of the motion picture and not of the hypothetical “real” Darth Vader. Because even if Darth Vader was real it is equally possible that he isn’t real, but yet our knowledge of Darth Vader and his properties (such as his favorite color) is unchanged, he could even be popping in and out of existence as we speak, and our knowledge would remain the same. Thus since our knowledge can’t be affected by this “real” Darth Vader it seems baseless to say it is about him. On the other hand it makes perfect sense to say that it is about the fictional Darth Vader, for if somehow the movies were removed from time our knowledge would vanish with them.

Alright, enough about knowledge; if you still subscribe to a non-physical or magical theory of knowledge and meaning obviously the rest of this essay will sound hollow to you, and I apologize for that, but I have spent too long on meaning and knowledge as it is.

3: Epiphenomenal Ideas

Before we go on let me assert that the complete physical description of the universe is casually closed, by definition. Of course this isn’t true for our current physical description of the universe, as surely there are laws that haven’t been discovered yet. But, it is closed in principle because of how we decide what kind of information count as “physical”. For example let us pretend that the physical description wasn’t casually closed and that there was some non-physical force, Y, that had a casual effect on the physical world. If it has a casual effect then there is some physical system, X, that will produce result X-1 in the presence of Y and X-2 in the absence of Y. This behavior however is enough to postulate some physical cause, y, of X-1. A materialist could produce a detector for y using system X, and using this detector identify all of the ways in which Y had a casual effect on the world. This casual effect would be completely captured by y, which is part of the physical description. It is true that there may be more to Y than the physical properties captured by y. In this case we might argue that Y-y still exists and is non-physical. However Y-y has no casual effect on the world, and thus is epiphenomenal (because all the casual effects have been captured by the physical y).

Using this reasoning we can demonstrate that some forms of transcendental idealism are epiphenomenal. The form of transcendental idealism that I am referring to here is the belief that there are other aspects of reality that we have no access to, and that the aspects of reality we can perceive are in fact casually closed. Of course most philosophers who hold transcendental idealism to be true agree that we can have no knowledge about these other aspects of reality. However I would argue that if you can’t have any knowledge about it then you certainly can’t know that it exists. Thus I would argue that we should reject transcendental idealism because it is epiphenomenal; even if it were factual it can’t be known to be true, it can’t be detected, and it can’t effect us, so we might as well treat it as though it were false. Likewise when we have accepted that the physical description of the universe is casually closed we should reject dualism as epiphenomenal for the same reasons

The more interesting case though is ontology. There are two basic kinds of ontological claims. The weaker claim is that there are certain categories that we can impose on the world or that we can’t help but impose on the world. (By impose I mean that we can describe the world consistently with these divisions, and possibly argue from them.) On the other hand we have the stronger kind of ontological claim which states that reality is really divided into categories, in the sense that these divisions are part of the structure of reality, and are not in any way dependant upon people’s descriptions or thoughts. However, even if there were “real divisions” they would be epiphenomenal. For example you might think that there is a “real division” between objects under acceleration and objects in constant motion. Certainly an object cannot both be in constant motion and under acceleration. The category itself however does not have a casual effect on the world. Acceleration does, but the category is separate from acceleration, we simply use our observations on acceleration to determine which objects belong to the category. To look at it another way we might ask “what would change if the category of accelerated objects existed only in our minds?” The answer is that nothing would change. Individual objects would still accelerate and be subject to relativity even if the category dividing them from objects that were not under acceleration was only in our minds; the properties are real, but the category is not. From this I conclude that strong ontological claims are epiphenomenal, we have no way of knowing about them since they don’t have a casual effect on the world.

4: Conclusion

Someone who held one of these epiphenomenal views might now say to me “Yes, you have demonstrated that we cannot have knowledge about their contents, but neither have you demonstrated them to be false.” Well, since their contents have no casual effect on the world it is impossible to demonstrate their falsehood (except possibly through inconsistency). However because they are epiphenomenal I think that they are empty claims. Since we have no reason to believe them, and they can’t add anything meaningful to our understanding of the universe, I think that they should be discarded, even if they can’t be disproved.

May 4, 2006

On Ontology

Filed under: Ontology — Peter @ 11:30 pm

Ontology is a philosophical method which attempts to show that there are distinct kinds of thing in the world, and that the divisions between these kinds are natural, not the product of human thought. Once such divisions are established conclusions can then be drawn from their existence or their distinctness from each other. Some ontologies make their divisions between more abstract concepts, leaving the material world as one kind of thing, while others divide even the physical world into natural kinds. Although I find both types of ontology dubious I cannot refute more abstract ontologies here (i.e. I haven’t thought of a good refutation yet), and will restrict myself to directing my arguments against those ontologies that divide the physical world into ontological categories.

Such an ontology might argue that pine trees are a naturally distinct type from other kinds of trees. It could be argued that even if humans were to disappear pine trees would still be distinct from other kinds of trees, and thus the division of trees is natural and not a product of human reason. The fallacy of such arguments is that they rely on the idea that there are distinct objects which can be divided into such types. Under a non-ontological view of the world however there are no distinct objects, such distinctions are the product of human thought. What the world (actually the entire universe) ultimately reduces to under such a view is simply an uneven distribution of atoms and energy. The fact that we classify some atoms in complicated molecules as belonging to a tree and the simpler molecules adjacent to them as belonging to the atmosphere can be seen as a product of our perceptions, i.e. we are naturally disposed to perceive the atmosphere as distinct from solid objects, probably due to evolutionary pressures. Under such a view if there were no observers to make the distinction (thus no animals as well, if you consider them to have rudimentary minds, since they act as though there were a distinction between trees and air) then there really would be no trees, and thus no pine trees either.

However this is not to say that ontological arguments are necessarily flawed. To hold the kind of view regarding ontology that I have proposed here is not to necessarily embrace the post-modernist view that all distinctions are subjective and dependant on the observer. If the categories we impose on the world are distinct from each other, and based on objective facts, then it is indeed possible to argue using such categories. For example we might argue that our category of pine trees is objective in the following way: what makes a tree a pine tree is the particular arrangement of its atoms, which is not present in other trees, specifically the atoms in its DNA. Because this is a fact that is the same for everyone we can all agree that certain trees are pine trees while others are not. If one then wanted to go on and argue that pine trees had certain properties (based ultimately on their DNA) and draw conclusions from those properties, as one would in an ontological argument, it is perfectly valid to do so.

Note: I am not entirely satisfied with this piece and may have cause to revise it later.

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