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The Big Problem with Sean Carroll’s “Poetic Naturalism”

CaptainKirk

Today we continue our look at Sean Carroll's anticipated new book,The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (Dutton, 2016).

Carroll starts his book by diving right into the deep end. The first chapter in the first section concerns a huge topic: the fundamental nature of reality. Carroll explains that philosophers consider this the domain of ontology, but then he offers a strange definition. Ontology, he says, is "the study of the basic structure of the world, the ingredients and relationships of which the universe is ultimately composed" (10).

Unfortunately, this is the first of several confusing errors in his book. There are two major problems in this case. First, it's simply the wrong definition. Ontology is the study of being qua being, or the study of existence. Physics is the study of the basic physical ingredients that make up the world. By getting this definition wrong, Carroll has already begged the question in the first few pages of his book. He's smuggled his conclusion—that physics can adequately answer questions about ontology—into his definition of ontology. It's a simple mistake, but it has profound effects. Instead of putting forth arguments that physics can justly and completely account for the fundamental nature of reality, Carroll simply defines the study of fundamental reality in physicalist terms.

To his credit, Carroll does express caution about any naturalist ontology. He admits that, "Naturalism presents a hugely grandiose claim, and we have every right to be skeptical...Naturalism isn't an obvious, default way to think about the world" (13). It certainly seems, at least to most people, that there is more to reality than collections of impersonal atoms and laws. Therefore if naturalism is true, Carroll affirms, its supporters "need to make the case" for it (13).

That's precisely what he aims to do throughout the rest of his book. His goal is to show how all of reality can be accounted for in naturalist terms, without recourse to God, souls, free will, or anything supernatural. And in Carroll's view, that's best done through a worldview he's coined "poetic naturalism".

What is Poetic Naturalism?

Carroll holds that, "The world is what exists and what happens, but we gain enormous insight by talking about it—telling its story—in different ways" (19). While straight naturalism tells us that the world revealed to us by scientific investigation is all there is, we still need ways of talking about that world. That's where poetic naturalism comes in.

According to Carroll, the "poetic" aspect of poetic naturalism, or what separates it from other naturalist schemes, can be summarized in three points:

  1. There are many ways of talking about the world.
  2. All good ways of talking must be consistent with one another and with the world.
  3. Our purposes in the moment determine the best way of talking.

In other words, the same reality can be described in many different ways, using different stories or concepts. We don't only have to rely on the descriptions of fundamental physics.

Carroll offers a concrete example. For the poetic naturalist, Captain James T. Kirk is both a collection of atoms stretching through space and time (when we're telling a story about his fundamental nature) and a human person who captains the starship USS Enterprise (when describing him at a higher, macroscopic level.) This would be a different approach than, say, eliminativism (or eliminative materialism, or what some people just call straight naturalism). On that view, the latter definition of Captain Kirk would be nothing more than illusion. It may seem like Captain Kirk is more than a collection of atoms, but that's simply false—it's illusory. Poetic naturalism "strikes a middle ground, accepting that values are human constructs, but denying that they are therefore illusory or meaningless" (5).

Within poetic naturalism, Carroll distinguishes three "levels" of storytelling. First is the fundamental reality, the deepest (usually microscopic) way of describing the universe. This is where we talk about reality at rock bottom. The second level includes "emergent" or "effective" descriptions, which are valid within some limited domain. This level is where we see concepts like ships, dogs, animals, books, games, shapes, and more. The third and final level is reserved for values, "concepts of right and wrong, purpose and duty, or beauty and ugliness" (21).

The point of poetic naturalism is that these three levels don't necessarily conflict. You can, for example, talk about "dogs" (a level two concept) to your wife and kids, but then when you're in the laboratory, reduce dogs conceptually to fundamental particles. Different ways of talking are appropriate for different domains of life.

Poetic naturalism is clearly the main idea of Carroll's book. In fact, all other chapters simply apply the poetic naturalist framework to each of life's Big Questions. So that's why before diving in to those specific questions, it's worth asking a more basic one: is poetic naturalism true?

The Big Problem with Poetic Naturalism

Among scientists, there's a long, ongoing dispute about the goal of science. Is science about finding truth, or is it primarily concerned with adequately describing the world? In the twentieth century, the so-called instrumentalists, led by John Dewey and Karl Popper, took the latter view. They held that scientific theories are just practical tools used to map the world around us in order to achieve useful ends (like finding cures and inventing technology). In other words, if a scientific theory "works", then it's good one; if a theory comports with the available empirical data and leads to good results, it's successful.

Suppose a chemist was exploring malaria parasites, and she haphazardly devised a theory that yielded an effective malaria cure. Even if the science behind the theory was dubious, an instrumentalist would say it was a good one.

But here's the problem: sometimes a scientific theory can "work" even when that theory is false. In our malaria example, perhaps the chemist's theory was useful but false. Maybe her theory was flawed even though it resulted in a good end, namely a cure for malaria.

This isn't a rare situation. The history of science is littered with examples. Two significant ones would be geocentrism and Newtonian physics. In both cases, the theories matched our observable data to theretofore unheard of accuracy. Defenders of each theory occupied at one time just the same position that Carroll does now in regards to poetic naturalism: they thought the evident success in prediction, explanation, and description made it nearly impossible, or extremely unlikely, the theory was false, and the remarkable achievements made possible by these theories, false or not, made them good theories.

But we now know both theories are false (or, in the case of Newtonian physics, at least incomplete and fundamentally inaccurate.)

Throughout The Big Picture, it becomes clear that Carroll is most interested in harmonizing the many useful stories we tell about the world. That's the aim of poetic naturalism. The problem, as with geocentric and Newtonian theories, is that the journey toward truth often veers from the path of pragmatism. What's true isn't identical to what works.

(For more background on this distinction, read Mitch Stokes' excellent new book, How to Be an Atheist: Why Many Skeptics Aren't Skeptical Enough.)

So that gets to the biggest problem, in my view, with Carroll's poetic naturalism:

It's preferred because it's useful, not because it's true.

Two More Problems with Poetic Naturalism

There are at least two more flaws with poetic naturalism, both of which affect all forms of naturalism. First, poetic naturalism is self-limiting. Carroll tries to answer the big metaphysical questions noted in the book's subtitle, but since he's closed to supernatural answers, his answers are constrained and unsatisfying. They don't survey the full range of possible solutions. As we'll come to see in later posts, this is why he answers many of the biggest questions with some form of, "Well, we just don't know because science hasn't confirmed that yet...but we're confident it will one day." That answer, of course, is unsatisfying, especially in light of the book's grandiose scope, for even a child can give "we don't know, but maybe one day" answers to life's Big Questions. Those are really non-answers, but they're doubly worse because they neglect possible answers that may lie outside the purview of science.

A second problem with poetic naturalism is that it's self-refuting. As many thinkers have observed over the years, from C.S. Lewis to Victor Reppert, William Hasker, and Alvin Plantinga, if naturalism is true, then it seems to leave us with no reason for believing it to be true. Why? Because all judgments would equally and ultimately be the result of non-rational forces. Thus even if it was true, we would have no good grounds for believing it.

In the next post, we'll examine what happens when Carroll applies his poetic naturalism to a question of ongoing interest here at Strange Notions: did the universe have a First Cause or did it just move itself?

Brandon Vogt

Written by

Brandon Vogt is a bestselling author, blogger, and speaker. He's also the founder of StrangeNotions.com. Brandon has been featured by several media outlets including NPR, CBS, FoxNews, SiriusXM, and EWTN. He converted to Catholicism in 2008, and since then has released several books, including The Church and New Media (Our Sunday Visitor, 2011), Saints and Social Justice (Our Sunday Visitor, 2014), and RETURN (Numinous Books, 2015). He works as the Content Director for Bishop Robert Barron's Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. Brandon lives with his wife, Kathleen, and their five children in Central Florida. Follow him at BrandonVogt.com or connect through Twitter at @BrandonVogt.

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  • Luke Meyer

    I haven't read the book, so thanks for these great summaries that give us an idea of the important principles.

    From a Christian point of view, poetic naturalism seems like a step in the right direction: just substitute things like poetic naturalism's "Captain Kirk has an intangible personhood" with Christianity's "Captain Kirk has a soul that gives him his Kirk-iness" and you're good to go. On the other hand, scientism, which so often boils down to traditional naturalism, will probably regard poetic naturalism as an attempt to dilute the truth.

    While I'd love for an idea like poetic naturalism to spread, it doesn't strike me as an idea that will be taken seriously in most secular thought.

    • Jim (hillclimber)

      I agree. Poetic naturalism seems to be a step in the right direction, even if perhaps it doesn't go far enough. It is a step away from a flavor of naturalism that puts a dogmatic stranglehold on the language that we are allowed to use to describe reality. As such, I think it is a move that should be applauded.

  • Lazarus

    I'm struggling to move past that mistake he made with the definition of ontology. He does indeed try to smuggle his conclusion into the back door by way of his definition. This is problematical. It can only be ignorance or an attempt at deception, both of which could make reading a 500 page book a waste of time.

    • Will

      Sean isn't in error. Brandon limits his definitions to scholastic philosophy, the rest of us simply do not.

      • That definition derives from Aristotle, who was drawing on Plato, millenia before the scholastics. Further, it (or at least something extremely close) is held by all sorts of philosophers who are definitely not scholastics--Hegel, Heidegger, Deleuze perhaps. Ontology literally means the study of being.

        Perhaps some modern analytics would like to think that metaphysics isn't about being as such, but there's no real dispute that the predominate way to think of ontology is as a study of being. Even wikipedia says "Ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being, becoming, existence or reality as well as the basic categories of being and their relation"

        Entry 1a of the OED defines ontology as "The science or study of being; that branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature or essence of being or existence." And that's how philosophers on the whole, ancient, medieval, and contemporary, understand the term.

        • Will

          If you include relationships, ontology is exactly what Carroll says it is. The relations are key. You did read that I quoted Wikipedia right? How is Carroll in error?

          • The study of being also includes plants, insofar as they exist. That doesn't mean that ontology is botany.

          • Will

            Lol! You guys are hilarious sometimes! It makes it funnier because I'm pretty sure you are trying to be serious.

        • David Nickol

          Ontology literally means the study of being.

          In actually doing philosophy, though, what does "the study of being" entail?

          • It's not clear that this can be described in a few paragraphs. I will instead present you with the conclusion of a relatively short treatment of the matter by quantum physicist and philosopher Bernard d'Espagnat:

                Things being so, the solution put forward here is that of far and even nonphysical realism, a thesis according to which Being—the intrinsic reality—still remains the ultimate explanation of the existence of regularities within the observed phenomena, but in which the "elements" of the reality in question can be related neither to notions borrowed from everyday life (such as the idea of "horse," the idea of "small body," the idea of "father," or the idea of "life") nor to localized mathematical entities. It is not claimed that the thesis thus summarized has any scientific usefulness whatsoever. Quite the contrary, it is surmised, as we have seen, that a consequence of the very nature of science is that its domain is limited to empirical reality. Thus the thesis in question merely aims—but that object is quite important—at forming an explicit explanation of the very existence of the regularities observed in ordinary life and so well summarized by science. (In Search of Reality, 167)

            The title of the book, In Search of Reality, pretty clearly gets at ontology. However, the above can be seen more as a teaser for d'Espagnat's more systematic book, On Physics and Philosophy. One can compare the conclusion above, with the conclusion at pp410–411 of the latter. The latter book could be construed as a study of Being and how twentieth-century quantum mechanics ought to inform that study.

            I don't know how much you'll be able to get out of the above concluding remarks. The idea that ultimate reality, or 'Being', might not "[have] any scientific usefulness whatsoever" is perhaps worth emphasizing. If one's sole or primary lens is utility, one might not even consider that there is something which could explain, and yet lack utility. This could be why Sean Carroll uses the term "unbreakable patterns", in preference to speaking in terms of causation at the most fundamental levels. Anyhow, I wouldn't be surprised if a good number of Christians will tell you that God is not, most fundamentally, useful.

          • See Heidegger!

          • Depends on the tradition you belong to. A Hegelian will approach the question differently than a Thomist. David Lewis would go about it differently than Gilles Deleuze.

    • David Nickol

      Could you suggest a definition of ontology that Carroll could have used? If you already know what ontology is, then it may be adequate to say, "Ontology is the study of being qua being, or the study of existence." However, that definition tells most readers absolutely nothing.

      • The trick is that pretty much any other definition smuggles in your own notion of ontology. What you can do, however, is give exemplars of ontologies. They may all have very little overlap, but you could then provide significantly more concreteness.

    • Jim (hillclimber)

      I don't know. He's writing for a popular audience, so I think it's OK to be a bit loose. It seems to me that "ingredients and relationships" can be interpreted very broadly, so I'd be willing to work with what he has put forward. For example, in my ontology, the fundamental "ingredients and relationships" are: transcendent love, the finite enfleshment of love, and the relationship between transcendent love and its finite enfleshment. Through that trinity, all things were made, and all things ultimately find their meaning and existence in relationship to that trinity.

  • Jim (hillclimber)

    This seems to be primarily of a critique of pragmatic theories of truth that can be used to motivate and justify poetic naturalism, which is a bit of a separate issue from the validity of poetic naturalism per se.

    Although I'm not well-versed (to put it mildly) in the philosophical literature, I believe most thoughtful proponents of pragmatism would have a much broader conception of utility than what is suggested here ("finding cures and inventing technology"). For example, the wikipedia entry on Charles Saunders Peirce states, I think correctly:

    Pragmatism begins with the idea that belief is that on which one is prepared to act ... It equates any conception of an object to a conception of that object's effects to a general extent of the effects' conceivable implications for informed practice.

    For example, I largely think Christianity is true because, when living as if it is true, when living as if Jesus of Nazareth is the proper root metaphor for understanding all other things, I find that I am led to deeper levels of interconnectedness, or to deeper levels of "being-in-love" (to use Bernard Lonergan's term), to new and fruitful ways of thinking, to new horizons of experience, etc. These are properly understood as pragmatic considerations, i.e. I am making a decision about what to believe because those beliefs have implications for my informed practice of living, implications that I judge to be good.

    I'm not sure of how broadly Sean Carroll conceives of utility when he speaks of "useful" ways of thinking, but I'd be curious if those who have read his book think he conceives of "utility" in the broader sense that I have indicated, or rather than in the narrow technological sense that is suggested above.

    In any case, I think that pragmatic theories of truth, when given their due, are compelling and hard to dismiss. Note, incidentally, that even if my pragmatic justification of Christianity is wrong-headed, it might still be the case that Christianity itself is fundamentally correct. Likewise, even if Carroll's pragmatic justification of poetic naturalism is wrong-headed, it could still be the case that poetic naturalism is more or less the right way to look at things.

    • I believe Carroll uses "utility" in the broader sense that you have articulated. For instance, Carroll goes on to say that we should identify transgender individuals as whatever gender they want, since that is most useful.

    • Peirce's notion of truth bears resemblance to Yoram Hazony's explication of dabar in The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture; he explicitly rejects the correspondence theory of truth, which is consistent with pragmatism (see e.g. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature).

      However, it's not clear that utility is a good way to characterize "the growth plate of knowledge", as one might describe it. For example, the research my wife is doing may not be useful for 10–30 years. I don't think it's right to say that what drives her to research is utility. Instead, it's more of an aesthetic. This is even more clear with pure mathematicians. One of my college dorm mates was proud of doing math because it is completely useless. (Although, he isn't guaranteed that in 50 years, his work won't find practical uses.)

      In Josef Pieper's 1957 Knowledge and Freedom, he heavily criticizes the idea of tying science to utility. The instant you require scientists to be practical, you start constructing a philosophical dome, circumscribed by what people currently want. I worry, along with Yuval Levin, that we've constructed quite a dome by now. I'll end with his assessment of today, informed by significant policy work in Washington, D.C.:

          Avoiding the worst, rather than achieving the best, is the great goal of the moderns, even if we have done a very good job of gilding our gloom with all manner of ornament to avoid becoming jaded by a way of life directed most fundamentally to the avoidance of death. We have gilded it, above all, with the language of progress and hope, when in fact no human way of life has ever been more profoundly motivated by fear than our modern science-driven way. Our unique answer to fear, however, is not courage but techne, which is much less demanding. And so our fear does not debilitate us, but rather it moves us to act, and especially to pursue scientific discovery and technological advancement. (Imagining the Future, 11–12)

      • Jim (hillclimber)

        I agree and I had some thoughts along those lines as I wrote my comment. I wanted to avoid excessive sprawl in my first comment on the topic, but I'm glad you brought this up.

        The word that I would prefer over "utility" is "fruitfulness". "Utility", as you suggest, has the (in this case) unwanted connotation that we know with some clarity what we are pursuing. On the other hand, if I speak of a "fruitful" direction for research, or a "fruitful" way of thinking about a problem, perhaps that better connotes that I don't really know what will come of the line of inquiry that I'm suggesting, but I sense that it will be a good heuristic for navigating new territory and ultimately for discovering new connections, or new (unforeseen) "fruit".

        Re: aesthetics, I would make two points.

        First, the new fruit may simply be an awareness of a subtly beautiful connection that we never knew about before. I wouldn't want to say that beauty itself is useful, but I would say that a way of thinking is useful if it leads to the discovery of something beautiful. E.g. a whale watching expedition might have a useful way of thinking about how to find whales. Seeing the whales per se is not useful, but I would say that the information that gets you there is, broadly speaking, useful. Seeing the whales is the purpose. What gets you there is useful for that purpose.

        There is also the very interesting phenomenon you mention that many scientists find fruitful ways of thinking about things precisely by allowing themselves to be guided by aesthetic considerations. In other words, I would say, it is very fruitful to think about the world is if it is beautiful at the deepest level. I take that as a sign that despite many surface appearances, reality is in fact beautiful at the deepest level.

        • The word that I would prefer over "utility" is "fruitfulness".

          I think that's a good word; you might take that, combine it with Thagard's #1 and #2, and then read Mt 3:10 and 7:17–19. We might also add that there is a kind of life that is better described as cancer or disease—those things can replicate, but not in a fruitful way. For a possible example of this, see the what the Sokal affair revealed.

          First, the new fruit may simply be an awareness of a subtly beautiful connection that we never knew about before.

          Yep. And if God were clever, he might prevent us from discovering useful things if we will not appreciately purely beautiful things. >:-] I'm reminded of Harry Potter extracting the Philosopher's Stone from the mirror because he wanted to find it, but not to use it. Imagine wanting to find something out about a person, but not to use it—even us it against him/her. Maybe reality thwarts people who only see knowledge as a tool for domination.

          [...] I would say, it is very fruitful to think about the world is if it is beautiful at the deepest level. I take that as a sign that despite many surface appearances, reality is in fact beautiful at the deepest level.

          In Search of Beauty gets at this. A friend of mine, who a vocal atheist, finds the beauty of mathematics and the fact that it actually describes our world to be one of the best arguments for the existence of God.

      • Jim (hillclimber)

        One of my college dorm mates was proud of doing math because it is completely useless.

        I have also heard this before from mathematician friends and professors. Some are deliberately using hyperbole, while others, frankly, are having trouble articulating precisely what they mean. I believe what they generally intend to imply is that the purpose of their work is not quotidian. It's not really that their work has no purpose. It's just that it has a so-called "higher" purpose -- the discovery of beauty, or something like that. And yes, beauty doesn't have a purpose, but beauty is a purpose (or, perhaps, the purpose) toward which their mathematical work is directed.

        • From Josef Pieper (Catholic theologian):

          [...] to exist not for anything else, but for itself and for its own sake—this is what human language means by "freedom." (Knowledge and Freedom, 149)

          A bit later:

          [...] although man is first of all a practical being, whose lot it is to provide for his needs by putting nature to work for him, he nonetheless comes into possession of his truest wealth not by the technical control of the forces of nature, but in the purely theoretical knowledge of reality. Man's life is fuller to the degree that reality becomes accessible and opened up to him. (150)

          Too much focus on utility ultimately undermines this. The consequences are not instant: since theoretical work can often lead practical utilization of it by decades, a strangling of theoretical work won't be immediately visible to the practical "it works" results of science and technology for a while. And if this slow-down is slow enough, the frog may not realize that the temperature of the water is being turned up (or perhaps: turned down).

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Too much focus on utility ultimately undermines this.

            I took a couple days to think about this. I agree with the spirit of the comment, but I want to come back to argue that this is too narrow a view of utility, and this narrowness perpetuates what I see as a false dichotomy between utility and truth.

            A way of understanding the truth is useful for the purpose of understanding the truth! If a "way of talking" (to use one of Carroll's expressions) engenders deeper and deeper understandings of the truth (*), then it is useful for understanding the truth. And what's more, I think that when a vocabulary is useful in this way, we can reasonably (albeit cautiously) take that as a sign that the elements in the vocabulary successfully refer to reality. That is, the utility of the vocabulary is indicative of the validity of the corresponding ontology.

            (*) I am glossing over the not-so-minor issue of how one would know that one was growing in understanding. I have plenty of ideas on that, but I'll leave that aside for now.

  • Will

    Carroll explains that philosophers consider this the domain of ontology, but then he offers a strange definition. Ontology, he says, is "the study of the basic structure of the world, the ingredients and relationships of which the universe is ultimately composed" (10).

    From wikipedia:

    Ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being, becoming, existence or reality as well as the basic categories of being and their relations.

    So, it's the study of the basic categories (ingredients) of being and their relations. Isn't this what Carroll says?

    Stanford indicates the exact definition of ontology isn't settled

    As a first approximation, ontology is the study of what there is. Some contest this formulation of what ontology is, so it's only a first approximation. Many classical philosophical problems are problems in ontology: the question whether or not there is a god, or the problem of the existence of universals, etc.. These are all problems in ontology in the sense that they deal with whether or not a certain thing, or more broadly entity, exists. But ontology is usually also taken to encompass problems about the most general features and relations of the entities which do exist. There are also a number of classic philosophical problems that are problems in ontology understood this way. For example, the problem of how a universal relates to a particular that has it (assuming there are universals and particulars), or the problem of how an event like John eating a cookie relates to the particulars John and the cookie, and the relation of eating, assuming there are events, particulars and relations. These kinds of problems quickly turn into metaphysics more generally, which is the philosophical discipline that encompasses ontology as one of its parts. The borders here are a little fuzzy. But we have at least two parts to the overall philosophical project of ontology: first, say what there is, what exists, what the stuff is reality is made out off, secondly, say what the most general features and relations of these things are.

    Error, what error? Welcome to modern philosophy, Sean is using a more nuanced and modern definition. Modern analytic philosophy and scholastic philosophy not only disagree on philosophy, but even on the definition!

    • Ye Olde Statistician

      Contesting definitions of this sort is bootless. If one is going to discuss X, one ought to use the definitions of X that were employed in formulating the problems. Otherwise, we could show Darwin is false simply by redefining "evolution" to mean something else, and free all killers by redefining "murder."

      • Humans have a long history of trying to obtain victory in their arguments with their definitions. How much of this is conscious vs. subconscious, I don't know.

      • Will

        No one has "redefined ontology". The scope of the definition has been expanded slightly so it can do the intellectual work it needs to. Haven't we redefined atom from the hard sphere of the original atomists? Today, evolution has a definition much expanded from Darwin's. Darwin only understood evolution by natural selection. Today we talk of convergent, divergent, and parallel evolution. We also talk of evolution by sexual selection and other "modes" of natural selection which certainly expand the definition even more.
        I thought this was obvious, but it seems Thomists are somehow blinded to the fact that they don't own philosophical words, and that progress since Aquinas is possible. Sad actually.

        • Ye Olde Statistician

          Haven't we redefined atom from the hard sphere of the original atomists?

          Surely. The atomists were wrong and their term was hijacked by Dalton and the others. We haven't so much redefined the atom as we have been studying something else to which we have applied the same word. (Besides, they were not hard spheres. There were four (maybe five) atoms, corresponding to the regular geometric solids. Fire was composed of tetrahedral atoms, which is why it hurt your hand. Those sharp points, y'know. Earth was composed of cubic atoms, which accounts for its stability, etc. The spherical atoms made up water: compare a bowl of marbles to a bowl of water.)

          But as the statistician W. Edwards Deming pointed out, there is no such thing as a measurement independent of the method of measuring. Science requires operational definitions: i.e., a series of operations performed that define the thing being measured. Two different methods of measurement will in general produce two different measures (or counts).

          Today, evolution has a definition much expanded from Darwin's. Darwin only understood evolution by natural selection.

          This confuses the thing with a theory of how the thing comes about. Darwin avoided the term "evolution" entirely, due to its association with the French Revolution. He preferred "descent with modification." I'm pretty sure that remains the fact, even when other theories to explain how descent with modification happens have been proposed. Darwin himself added "sexual selection," although critters in the wild don't seem to go along with the gag. Heck, by the sixth edition he was even saying good things about Lamarckian theories.

          But none of these theories about how affected the definition of what.

        • ClayJames

          No one has "redefined ontology". The scope of the definition has been expanded slightly so it can do the intellectual work it needs to.

          Can you explain how the definition has been expanded and not limited? It seems to me that the wikipedia and Standford definitions do not limit ontology to the ¨world¨ and the ¨universe¨ like Carroll attempts to do.

          • Will

            If spirits, angels, demons and gods exist, they interact with the world and universe. Perhaps part of them is outside the universe, but the interaction itself is part of the world/universe. If you read the book, it all makes perfect sense in context, at least it did to me. He doesn't deal with God or the soul exhaustively, but he certainly discusses it and proposes the use Bayesian reasoning as opposed to a priori in approaching the topic.

  • Will

    Sean's poetic naturalism is the most common general form, in my experience (though the name isn't common). The hyper reductionistic materialism often critiqued here is pretty rare from the books I've read.

  • Brandon, it seems you're not being fair to Carroll regarding the argument from reason against naturalism. Carroll would not accept this as a coherent argument since his whole book is predicated on the premise that "reason" is a concept utilized at the macroscopic higher-level domains and that these "non-rational forces" are concepts utilized at the microscopic lower-level domains, and that we shouldn't mix language or concepts between different domains. So Carroll would say that your argument is a category mistake.

    Note that I don't think Carroll is right, but he does at least provide a counter-argument to yours that you fail to mention--perhaps you were planning on addressing it later.

    • David Nickol

      Doesn't the Catholic Church itself claim the utility of reason is limited when it says that certain truths are not against reason, but "above" reason?

      • I'm not Catholic so perhaps I'm not the best person to answer your question. It is a good question nonetheless.

  • Peter

    [Sean Carroll] answers many of the biggest questions with some form of, "Well, we just don't know because science hasn't confirmed that yet...but we're confident it will one day." That answer, of course, is unsatisfying, especially in light of the book's grandiose scope..

    It may be unsatisfying but it is understandable. According to Norman Hampson:

    "As science seemed to establish itself on an impregnable basis of experimentally verified fact, doubt and confusion eventually gave way to self-confidence, the belief that the unknown was merely the undiscovered, and the general assumption–unprecedented in the Christian era–that man was to a great extent the master of his own destiny" (The Enlightenment 1968, p.35)

    The problem is, however, that while scientists expected new discoveries of the unknown to lead us further and further away from God, they are in fact leading us closer to God. Far from turning us away from any notion of the transcendent, science has done the opposite. It has revealed intricacies in the natural world that can only be the product of considerable thought.

    Sean Carroll's claim for naturalism, poetic or otherwise, is destined to fail. What he describes as naturalistic is being progressively uncovered as the intricate product of a supreme mind. By illuminating the natural, science is revealing the transcendent.

    • Will

      The problem is, however, that while scientists expected new discoveries of the unknown to lead us further and further away from God, they are in fact leading us closer to God.

      Who is us? In general the entire West continues become less religious, at what seems to be an increasing rate.

      The share of Americans who identify as atheists has roughly doubled in the past several years. Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study found that 3.1% of American adults say they are atheists when asked about their religious identity, up from 1.6% in a similarly large survey in 2007. An additional 4.0% of Americans call themselves agnostics, up from 2.4% in 2007.

      http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/06/01/10-facts-about-atheists/

      Obviously "us" isn't Americans, and Europe is similar. Are we talking Africa? If so, I'm not sure how knowledge of science is related.

      • Peter

        "“Little science takes you away from God but more of it takes you to Him.” Louis Pasteur.

        Perhaps much of the population in the West hasn't got past the little science stage yet.

        • Will

          Lol :)

        • Doug Shaver

          Perhaps much of the population in the West hasn't got past the little science stage yet.

          Maybe. Or maybe Pasteur was just mistaken.

          • Peter

            Are you denying that there is a cult of ignorance in the West?

          • Doug Shaver

            No. I am denying that deep familiarity with science is correlated with belief in God.

          • Peter

            It's your word against Pasteur's then.

          • Doug Shaver

            It's your word against Pasteur's then.

            Yes, it is, for anyone satisfied with arguments from authority.

          • Peter

            Surely the most reliable conclusions resulting from the accomplishment of science would come from an accomplished scientist?

          • Doug Shaver

            No. The most reliable conclusions are those representing a current consensus of the scientific community. The opinions of only one scientist, regardless of his accomplishments, are practically irrelevant, especially if that scientist lived over a hundred years ago.

          • Peter

            Because Pasteur lived over a hundred years ago, his opinion of more science leading you to God has become even more relevant.
            Over the past century, scientific discoveries have increased and not diminished the likelihood of God existing.
            The deeper we delve into the universe, the more it reveals itself as the brainchild of a supreme creative mind.

          • Doug Shaver

            Because Pasteur lived over a hundred years ago, his opinion of more science leading you to God has become even more relevant.

            As a scientific judgment, it has never been relevant. Science is a collective enterprise, and as such, the judgment of one man counts for nothing.

            Over the past century, scientific discoveries have increased and not diminished the likelihood of God existing.

            Apologists do love to say that.

          • Peter

            the judgment of one man counts for nothing

            Pasteur's does; his prediction is true.

            Apologists do love to say that

            Again, because it's true. Science was meant to progressively wipe God out, yet it's done the opposite.

          • Doug Shaver

            Science was meant to progressively wipe God out,

            You say so.

          • Peter

            Well, that's what was anticipated, even as late as 1977:

            "The more the universe has become comprehensible through cosmology, the more it seems pointless"

            Steven Weinberg

          • Doug Shaver

            that's what was anticipated

            It's still just your say-so. Your Weinberg quote doesn't mention God and says nothing about what science was meant to do.

          • Will

            Pasteur's does; his prediction is true.

            Based on what evidence?

            I'll submit strong evidence to the contrary

            A survey of scientists who are members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press in May and June 2009, finds that members of this group are, on the whole, much less religious than the general public.1 Indeed, the survey shows that scientists are roughly half as likely as the general public to believe in God or a higher power. According to the poll, just over half of scientists (51%) believe in some form of deity or higher power; specifically, 33% of scientists say they believe in God, while 18% believe in a universal spirit or higher power. By contrast, 95% of Americans believe in some form of deity or higher power, according to a survey of the general public conducted by the Pew Research Center in July 2006. Specifically, more than eight-in-ten Americans (83%) say they believe in God and 12% believe in a universal spirit or higher power. Finally, the poll of scientists finds that four-in-ten scientists (41%) say they do not believe in God or a higher power, while the poll of the public finds that only 4% of Americans share this view.

            http://www.pewforum.org/2009/11/05/scientists-and-belief/

            So 83% percent of non-scientists believe in God, and only 33% of scientists do. It seems the prediction is completely wrong. You could claim these are all "little scientists" (which is unevidenced and a rather ridiculous claim), but then I'd counter with this

            One fact that concerns some Christians and elates some atheists is that 93 percent of the members of the National Academy of Sciences, one of the most elite scientific organizations in the United States, do not believe in God.

            The National Academy of Science houses the countries elite scientists, and they are almost ALL atheists.

            It's fascinating the alternate realities that many people live in. I prefer to align myself with actual reality as much as possible, and the evidence speaks for itself.

          • Peter

            So 83% percent of non-scientists believe in God, and only 33% of scientists do. It seems the prediction is completely wrong

            For your claim to be valid, you have to determine how many of the 83 percent of non-scientists believe in God through biblical revelation and how many through science. You will most likely find that very few believe in God through science. Now do the same for your 33 percent of scientists and you will very likely find that most believe in God through science.

            This is borne out by your second set of figures. Only 12 percent of non-scientists believe in a higher power compared with 18 percent of scientists. Belief in a higher power does not rely on biblical revelation but on a deeper understanding of the world through scientific discovery.

            More scientists than non-scientists believe in a higher power because their greater scientific awareness has brought them to that belief. So it's true, more science brings you closer to God.

          • Will

            Maybe the ones that believe in a higher power are just eastern, Buddhist, hindu, Taoist, ECT. Good luck with your pill trying to demonstrate your thesis. 12 to 18% is a very small difference...could just be an anomaly.

          • Peter

            Of those who believe in a higher power, it is more likely that it will be non-scientists rather than scientists who are Buddhists etc. The former will not have the direct exposure to scientific discovery that the latter have, and therefore their worldview will not be so influenced by that exposure.

            Inasmuch as the worldview of scientists is influenced more by science than the worldview of non-scientists, belief in a higher power which is part of that worldview will also be influenced more by science.

            So, even if there were no difference between the proportion of scientists and non-scientists who believe in a higher power, the former would have acquired that belief mostly through science. This proves that science is instrumental in making belief in a higher power greater than it otherwise would be.

            Having said that, there is a difference in favour of scientists who believe, which means that science is even more efficacious in generating belief in a higher power.

          • Will

            Of those who believe in a higher power, it is more likely that it will be non-scientists rather than scientists who are Buddhists etc. The former will not have the direct exposure to scientific discovery that the latter have, and therefore their worldview will not be so influenced by that exposure.

            I've seen many scientists say that Buddhism is the most science friendly religion, in their mind. This is very common among psychologists who have embraced mindfulness meditation as an effective medical treatment for all kinds of things. Here is a blog post:

            http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/is-buddhism-the-most-science-friendly-religion/

            So, even if there were no difference between the proportion of scientists and non-scientists who believe in a higher power, the former would have acquired that belief mostly through science.

            I don't understand why you think that. Do you have any evidence to support it, or is it just opinion?
            I read science books fairly often, and have taken high level physics, chemistry, and other classes, and have NEVER gotten this impression. Where you have gotten it form, apologists who aren't even scientists?

            So we have rates of belief in belief going down drastically in scientists, and you rationalize it into confirming your idea. Truly fascinating.

          • Peter

            As I said in my earlier post, if you want your claim that belief in God among scientists is lower because of science to carry any weight, you must compare like with like.

            You must ascertain what proportion of scientists who believe in God or a higher power do so because of science and not because of biblical revelation or other religions. Then you must ascertain what proportion of non-scientists who believe in God or a higher power do so because of science and not because of biblical revelation or other religions. Then compare the two.

            The fact that you have not done so means that you have no evidence to claim that belief is lower because of science. I on the other hand do have evidence that belief is higher because of science. 18 percent of scientists believe in a higher power while only 12 percent of non-scientists do.

            To claim that these 18 percent believe in a higher power because of Buddhism is nonsense. Buddhism is not belief in a higher power. One can be Buddhist and still not believe in a higher power. These 18 percent believe in a higher power because of science.

          • Will

            To claim that these 18 percent believe in a higher power because of Buddhism is nonsense.

            I just said it was possible. I don't think any of this is nearly as simple as you seem to think. Plenty of Buddhists believe in a higher power, but Buddhism certainly doesn't require it. I'm not sure why you confuse your unevidenced assumptions and opinions with fact (when the facts contradict it you twist them around as confirmation). A serious deficit in critical thinking I suppose. I have nothing more to add, have a great one!

          • Lazarus

            Buddhism as science friendly religion is a marketing tool in the West. It has as much dogma and faith as you would find in most theistic religions. And don't take my word for it, ask the Buddhists themselves -see eg. Matthieu Ricard objecting to a higher power in "The quantum and the lotus", B. Alan Wallace, Donald Lopez, Buddhist-turned-Catholic Paul Williams and others.

            The "scientific" Buddhism that we find in these parts are a carefully pared down, karma-lite rebirth-if-you-want-to Dalai Lama-inspired Hallmark card spirituality for the bored, the "spiritual but not religious". Whatever that may mean.

            Buddhism proper, in all of its many shades, is not science friendly at all.

          • Will

            I actually see what both sides are saying. The tenants of Buddhism are only partially comparable to Catholic Dogma, and the the core of the religion is anathema to Crusades and Inquisitions as striving is pointless to traditional Buddhism. Of course, that striving has lead to science, something that would never happen if you just sat around and meditated all day ;)
            I don't for a second think Theism is anti-science at all. Atheism/theism are philosophical interpretations of what we find in the universe, the I think Christian versions of God are hard to believe in the light of evolution, the poe, the rarity of life, ect.
            At any rate, Peter seems to think he has an inside track on the minds of scientists, in general, which is pretty strange to me. Even if they are wrong, I've seen many scientists claim Buddhism is the most science friendly religion (though I don't think science would have developed in a Buddhist culture myself). I'm just trying to use what scientists say about themselves if we are playing the motives for belief game. Again, it's mostly psychologists that are pro-Buddhism, and that is generally because of a single effect psychological treatment, mindfulness. No doubt that has a biasing effect...everything does.

          • Lazarus

            Ok, I understand your point better now.

            Have you read "The Unexpected Way" by Paul Williams? A great read, that seriously damaged most of my last few remaining fantasies about Buddhism as a live option.

          • Will

            I haven't, perhaps I'll give it a try once I get my current list paired down. Thanks for the book tips :)

        • Phil

          I always loved that insight formulated as such:

          The first couple of swigs out of the glass of the natural sciences or philosophy may turn you into an atheist. But God is always waiting for you at the bottom of the glass!

          • David Nickol

            Of course, it is a well known fact that just the opposite is the case. Both scientists and philosophers are much more likely to be atheists than the general population.

            I am bewildered to why this is even being debated!

          • Phil

            Hey David,

            That quote has little to do the overall beliefs of the population of scientists and philosophers. Since truth is not decided by popular vote, we have to put all those kind of stats in their proper perspective.

            It has much more to do with following where the evidence ultimately leads. When one first starts studying philosophy and the natural sciences it may seem like God is a ridiculous claim. But the more one dives into both science and philosophy, the more reasonable the claim that God exists actually becomes. That is what it means to "find God waiting at the bottom of the glass". :)

          • David Nickol

            Since truth is not decided by popular vote, we have to put all those kind of stats in their proper perspective.

            Not to nitpick, but implicit in your saying is an assertion of empirical fact: A little learning in philosophy and the sciences might turn you into an atheist, but deeper learning will lead you to theism. That statement may be true or false whether theism itself is true or false. And if most scientists and philosophers are atheists, then the assertion implicit in the saying is false whether or not there is a God. There are a number of ways you could attempt to salvage the saying—for example, by claiming that scientists and philosophers who don't believe in God just haven't learned enough science and philosophy yet. If they just keep going, they will eventually find God. But that makes it a pretty worthless saying.

          • Phil

            My statement above is only true if God exists. If God doesn't exist, then one can't find God at the bottom of the glass :)

          • Peter

            Glasses are of different sizes for different people, depending on how hard their heart is against finding God.

            The harder the heart and the deeper the glass, the less it is likely that one will ever get to the bottom to see whether God is there or not.

      • Ye Olde Statistician

        Well, a certain percentage of those who self-identify as atheists also profess belief in a supreme being, so self-definition does have its limitations. Like those who self-identify as "vegetarians" because they only eat fish or chicken, some people call themselves atheist because they do not belong to a particular church. This is one reason why social "science" should always use quotation marks.

        • Will

          This is one reason why social "science" should always use quotation marks.

          The Pew Reseach Center does an excellent job of wording polls well. I am not aware that it claims to be a scientific enterprise per se, but the social sciences are indeed sciences. What it attempt to get a handle on is highly complex and always changing, like the weather but worse. Of course, next you'll claim climate science should have quotes around it, lol ;)

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Perhaps they do; but that does not mean the respondents are equally careful. The chicken-eating vegetarians and the God-fearing atheists are not made up, and the latter appeared in a Pew Survey.

            We may call surveys "instruments" all we like, but they are not the same kind of thing as micrometers or gas chromatographs. It takes more than imitating the forms and rituals of physics to make a thing a science in the modern sense.

            The Scientific Revolution was built on a number of pillars. First and foremost was the shift from knowing Nature to dominating and controlling Nature. But there were also a) conceptualizing the World as a machine; b) the distinction between primary ("objective") qualities and secondary ("subjective") qualities; c) the use of deliberate experimentation to create data, and d) the privileging of mathematics as the discourse of science. (In addition, there were a couple of cultural or social innovations, too.)

            Note, btw that these were metaphysical choices, not discoveries.

            They provided an excellent framework for studying the motion of inanimate bodies. It worked well in the remainder of physics -- compare Coulomb's Law to Newton's -- and spread to chemistry in the 18th cent. But except for biophysics, biochemistry, and genetics, it did not work so well in biology -- Where are Darwin's equations? -- and not at all in social studies, where experiments are nigh impossible.

            Even in the physics of motion, mathematics required simplification to work: perfect vacuums, frictionless surfaces, ideal gasses, etc. But Newton failed to calculate the orbit even of the Moon. It's a three-body problem, and there is no analytical solution. When the number of variables increases, one must fall back on statistics instead of mathematics, with the consequence that only general or average qualities can be analyzed and predictions concerning individual units become impossible. And this is only when the complexity is disorganized: that is, when the units are essentially alike in the relevant properties. So, thermodynamics and life insurance. But in problems of organized complexity, even statistics fail. You cannot calculate a mean of heterogeneous data. (How many testicles does an average human being have?) Not if you want it to have physical meaning. (Pun intended.)

            However, the methodological choices of regarding objects as inanimate machines and of discounting the subjective are hard to shake even when the objects of study are capable of talking back and topics like consciousness are irreducibly subjective. But these were all epistemic choices, not facts of nature.

          • David Nickol

            Are you saying that Darwin's work (or the field of evolutionary biology) is not science?

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Not the way physics or chemistry is. Given initial conditions and the law of gravity, the physicist can predict with reasonable precision where a body will be at any given time in the future. But given the initial conditions of species, what theory can predict the evolution of those species over time?

            Darwin's theory was more of a metaphysical stance. It is a POV from which a large part of biology suddenly "made sense." It is certainly science in the medieval sense. But there is a reason why it was called "natural history" and was taught in museums rather than in universities -- even by Huxley.

          • David Nickol

            Not the way physics or chemistry is.

            So are you saying that there are different kinds of science, or are you saying that evolutionary biology is not really a science?

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Of course there are different kinds of science. Every sodium atom is just like every other sodium atom. Each behaves identically. (Same goes for various ions of sodium, each for each.) It's easy to construct a science handling units that all act the same. Chemistry is not the same as physics; biology is not the same as chemistry.

            One frog is not like all other frogs, except in certain fundamentals. (Otherwise, they would not all be "frogs.") Each is an individual with her own quirks. Cut them open and their innards are not always identical. Cows have been born with two heads. The further up the evolutionary ladder you go, the more individuating the units become. Different dogs or horses have different personalities, as any farmer, pet owner, or medieval scholastic could tell you.

            And yes, there is more metaphysics in evolutionary theory than there is empiricism, experiment, and mathematics. For the science of evolution, consult genetics, biochemistry, or biophysics rather than adaptaionist just-so stories.

          • Sample1

            The further up the evolutionary ladder you go, the more individuating the units become.

            Invariably when the word ladder is used in evolution, problems arise. What are individuating units? Dogs have thirteen blood types, horses around eight (last I checked) but humans can be said to have four. Are dogs and horses further up the evolutionary "ladder?" Quickly we see how this starts to get confusing.

            Keep ladders out of evolution and leave them in construction/carpentry or with Jacob.

            Mike
            Edit done.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            What have blood types to do with it?

            I should have written "the more individuated the units become. Two different sodium atoms are identical. Two different horses are not. Each horse is an individual, with its own personality.

            The same is not quite true for plants. There is an aspen grove in Colorado known as "Pondo." Every tree in it is growing from the same root system, so while we can say that two trees are not identical, they are not as individuated as most animals.

            Dogs and horses are further up the evolutionary ladder than petunias and mosses. They have more powers and more complexity. Like plants, they have digestive and reproductive powers and developmental and homeostatic powers, but in addition they possess sensation, perception, emotion, and motion.

          • Sample1

            Dogs and horses are further up the evolutionary ladder than petunias and mosses. They have more powers and more complexity.

            Again with the ladder. Well, why not say that mosses are further up the evolutionary "ladder" because, for instance, they've been successful at reproduction for a vastly longer period of time than mammals? You're assigning an arbitrary significance here, which is fine as long as you recognize that and know when and where such arbitrary notions can apply or when they are meaningless even.

            Mike

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            why not say that mosses are further up the evolutionary "ladder"
            because, for instance, they've been successful at reproduction for a vastly longer period of time than mammals?

            That does not make them more complex or give them more powers.

            Inanimate beings possess only the powers of the gravitational, electromagnetic, nuclear, and radiative forces.

            Plants possess these plus the powers of digestion, growth and development, homeostasis, and reproduction.

            Animals possess all of these plus the powers of sensation, perception, emotion, and motion.

            Humans possess of the above plus the powers of conception and volition.

            It's fashionable to say there is no evolutionary ladder, but all that means is that any particular evolution may move in any direction; although I know of no instance in which an animal species evolved into a plant. (Or vice versa for that matter. Besides, it is the complexity per se that we're speaking of, not the particular evolutionary path of any particular species.

          • Sample1

            although I know of no instance in which an animal species evolved into a plant.

            I don't know what you mean by ladders and moving in any direction or powers. Ancestral commonality is the "film of life running backwards" if you will; there you will see why mammals also have plant genes.

            Complexity, as I mentioned before doesn't mean much to me without arbitrary definitions. Definitions which, as I also mentioned, can be meaningless even.

            I never learned about powers in biology.

            Mike

          • Sample1

            all that means is that any particular evolution may move in any direction...

            Who taught you that?

            Mike

        • Lazarus

          As there are Christians who do not believe in God, or Jesus as the divine son of God. "Science" indeed.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            "Measurement" in social studies should not be confused with actual measurement using calibrated instruments and operational definitions.

            There can be no science of any hard empirical variety when the very act of identifying one’s object of study is already an act of interpretation, contingent on a collection of purely arbitrary reductions, dubious categorizations, and biased observations. There can be no meaningful application of experimental method. There can be no correlation established between biological and cultural data. It will always be impossible to verify either one’s evidence or one’s conclusions-indeed, impossible even to determine what the conditions of verification should be.
            ******
            in a sense, Dennett is himself a cargo cultist. When, for instance, he proposes statistical analyses of different kinds of religion, to find out which are more evolutionarily perdurable, he exhibits a trust in the power of unprejudiced science to demarcate and define items of thought and culture like species of flora that verges on magical thinking. It is as if he imagines that by imitating the outward forms of scientific method, and by applying an assortment of superficially empirical theories to nonempirical realities, and by tirelessly gathering information, and by asserting the validity of his methods with an incantatory repetitiveness, and by invoking invisible agencies such as memes, and by fiercely believing in the efficacy of all that he is doing, he can summon forth actual hard clinical results, as from the treasure houses of the gods.
            -- David B. Hart, "Daniel Dennett Hunts the Snark"

          • Lazarus

            Ah DBH, I'm a great fan. I'm reading his "In the aftermath" anthology at the moment, and I see the last essay is titled "On the trial of the snark with Daniel Dennett", which I suppose is just a re-titling of your reference.

  • Craig Roberts

    "Poetic naturalism" is an oxymoron. Poetry requires soul. Sean Carroll is attempting to spiritualize science to make it more palatable as a substitute for religion. He may succeed to some extent though because, God knows, we have made religion so profoundly confusing that any alternative will suffice.

  • Ye Olde Statistician

    Ontology, he says, is "the study of the basic structure of the world, the ingredients and relationships of which the universe is ultimately composed"

    A natural mistake: If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

    Carroll holds that, "The world is what exists and what happens

    IOW, matter and form. (Or as Pruss put it: "things" and "doings.")
    http://alexanderpruss.com/papers/Forms.html#_ednref5

    the world revealed to us by scientific investigation is all there is

    And the world revealed to us by metal detectors is all metallic. You will never discover wood with a metal detector, and the same goes for the study of quantitative facets of material bodies. It cannot discover anything that is not a measurable property of a material body. Everything will be seen from that angle. So red ceases to be a color and becomes reflections of certain wavelengths of light detected by certain receptors in the retina and transmitted to the brain. End of story. But consider the following thought-experiment:

    Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal chords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’.… What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not? It seems just obvious that she will learn something about the world and our visual experience of it. But then is it inescapable that her previous knowledge was incomplete. But she had all the physical information. Ergo there is more to have than that, and Physicalism is false.
    Frank Jackson, as reported at SEP: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qualia-knowledge/#2

    ##

    collections of atoms

    This obscures the important distinction between "things" and "heaps." Both are "collections of atoms" but one of them lacks "thingieness." Or as von Hayek put it when "the character of the structures ... depends not only on the properties of the individual elements of which they are composed, and the relative frequency with which they occur, but also on the manner in which the individual elements are connected with each other." (Nobel Laureate Lecture, "The Pretense of Knowledge" (http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economic-sciences/laureates/1974/hayek-lecture.html)) This again highlights the importance of form.

    Three levels of description

    Several years ago, James Chastek made the observation:

    One and the same grape. The farmer, the connoisseur, the chemist, the poet and the broker all have an exact knowledge of what it is. How would it be desirable, necessary, or even conceivable to know even grapes by a single universal method or system?

    Carroll wishes to privilege one point of view -- not surprisingly, the one he is most familiar and comfortable with. But it is only one way of looking at things, not necessarily the "most fundamental" way. It's a little like saying a great book is best understood by careful study of the letters of which it is composed, the acidity of the paper on which it is printed, the chemical composition of the ink with which it is printed, or the weight of the book that is finally cut and bound. But does anyone suppose that a novel is best grasped as "a collection of letters"? Then why suppose that a grape is best understood as a collection of atoms?

    • "But she had all the physical information."

      No she didn't, she didn't have a physical brain state, in her physical brain, that corresponds to "seeing red."

      I just don't see the non-physical part of this thought experiment.

      If she has a brainstate inducing machine(if we're just making stuff up), that she had used, in which case I would then say that no, she does not learn anything new.

    • Lazarus

      Didn't Jackson later qualify, or even reject, the Mary's room experiment?

      • Ye Olde Statistician

        Yes. It apparently took him someplace he did not want to go. That does not make it wrong. See here:
        http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2010/07/when-frank-jilted-mary.html
        Also, this abstract touches on the matter.
        Why Frank Should Not Have Jilted Mary, by Howard Robinson
        DOI:10.7551/mitpress/9780262232661.003.0013

        This chapter investigates the reasons behind Frank Jackson’s abandonment of the knowledge argument, of which he was the most famous proponent. Jackson explains here the “illusion” of knowledge acquisition, with the key points being that experience represents states that are highly complexly relational and functional and internal, that such experience is purely representational, that experience does this in a “holistic”
        manner so that the complex seems like a simple or intrinsic property, and that, because there is apparently no such physical property, it seems to be a nonphysical one. This raises two points of contention. First is the adequacy of the purely representational account of the qualitative content of experience, and second, is the status of the claim that the unitary representation of a complex state of affairs presents itself as qualia-like.

        To jilt Mary because one holds that "knowledge acquisition" is an illusion is a little disquieting, or should be so, to scientists.

        • Lazarus

          Thanks for the information.

    • Will

      There are all kinds of objections one can raise to Mary's room, but let's focus on instrumentation.

      Mary has complete knowledge of light and color, but has never used a new color measurement device which is outside the room. Mary leaves the room and uses the new device, and learns something new. If we include every possible interaction with color in the knowledge of color, complete knowledge is quite impossible.
      If Mary has normal color vision, Mary will never know the experience of using color deficient eyes to observe color. If Mary is human, Mary will never know the experience of being a dog and observing color. In fact, even if Mary and Tom have normal color vision, it is a mistake to think that Mary's experience of color is exactly the same as Tom's experience. Mary will never know what it is like for Tom to experience color. We assume the experiences are the same just because we can talk about them, but that is a naive assumption.
      Physicalism has no problem here, as the color information from the retina will be interpreted slightly different in every brain, as every brain is unique. Neuroscience also classes physical knowledge of light as a different type of memory storage as the experience of viewing light. The first is declarative memory, the second is episodic.

      http://www.human-memory.net/types_declarative.html

      http://www.human-memory.net/types_episodic.html

      Most of us will never know what it is to see sounds. I had a musician friend who told me his synesthesia helped him remember and compose music much better, which is a strong argument against it being a disorder.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synesthesia

      None of this is a problem for versions of physicalism I'm familiar with, that simply claim that information only exists on physical substrates and do not have an existence separate from the particular. Again, this is simply being in agreement with Aristotle of Plato. Destroy the substrate the information is on, and the information goes with it. Try reading a novel that is nothing but ash ;)

      • Phil

        If am reading you correctly, the issue goes deeper than what you address here.

        The "Mary's room" thought experiment simply points out that knowing everything physical about color and sound does not equal the actual experience of color and sound. It matters little if different people's experiences of color and sound are slightly different.

        The main point again being that all the material aspects of something does not exhaust the knowledge we can know about something; hence the point that this points towards the falsity of materialism/physicalism.

        • Will

          The "Mary's room" thought experiment simply points out that knowing everything physical about color and sound does not equal the actual experience of color and sound. It matters little if different people's experiences of color and sound are slightly different.

          Of course, and I addressed it in my post, though perhaps you didn't understand. The experience of color and sound isn't a property of light or sound. The experience is a complex interaction between color/sound and the person's nervous system. Even if one had access to all of the required information, down to the details, only an intellect far greater than a human mind could use such to imagine the experience. For Mary's room to be successful one would need to argue that Mary's experience could not be simulated with sufficient physical information. We won't know for sure for some time if that is correct, but quantum computing has recently achieved complete simulation of an atom and some molecules for the purpose of predicting chemical reactions. Major advancement would be required to reach even insect brain simulation, but it is only going in one direction.

          • Phil

            I see what you are getting at; sorry if I missed that above.

            A few questions:

            1) It seems even this "imagined experience" wouldn't be reducible to the physical knowledge of the sound/light? I'm curious how you would reduce subjective experience purely to the physical sound/light, and ultimately to neural patterns and chemical reactions in the brain?

            2) A side question -- Is it possible, even in principle, to imagine an experience without first having some relevant experience in the past? For example, its irrational to propose that an entity could imagine something if it never had any experience of reality.

          • Will

            1) It seems even this "imagined experience" wouldn't be reducible to the physical knowledge of the sound/light? I'm curious how you would reduce subjective experience purely to the physical sound/light, and ultimately to neural patterns and chemical reactions in the brain?

            The physical knowledge would be all that is required to produce the experience, but the experience isn't reducible to any single aspect of the information. It requires an all at once simulation.

            Simulation is sufficient for experience, otherwise you could say that it is impossible to know what an apple looks like without seeing an actual apple. Anyone who makes that claim has never encountered a screen or photograph. Does one gain knowledge from seeing an actual apple (ignoring touch and taste for the moment) that one doesn't gain from seeing a picture? I think not. An imagine on a screen is nothing more than a pile of representation bits that contain.

            I'm curious, the thought experiment claims that Mary gains new knowledge by seeing red, but how could she convey that knowledge? Might she say, "Wow, I never really knew how red red is until I saw it?" What would that even mean? What "knowledge" does she gain at all? I have no doubt that she gains experience, but shouldn't we somehow consider that a different type of subjective knowledge that should be distinguished from objective knowledge? Is it knowledge if it can't be communicated? What can anyone say about the experience of seeing red other than its...well, red?

            A side question -- Is it possible, even in principle, to imagine an experience without first having some relevant experience in the past? For example, its irrational to propose that an entity could imagine something if it never had any experience of reality.

            Umm, I imagine things all the time that I never experience. I've imagined meeting famous people, being stuck in the holocaust, all kinds of things. Now, imagining a new mode of sensory input would be a bit different, and I can certainly imagine what it would be like to see by hearing (with technology, some blind people do this), but there is no way to know if I'm getting it right. I imagine I'm seeing the same thing as you when I see red, but again, there is no way to prove the qualitative experience is the same as yours, even though we use the same words.

            For fun, here is a discussion of blind people seeing with sound:

            But blindness cuts off the usual flow of information from the eyes to this part of the brain, and people who’ve been blind since birth have never actually seen a human form. Something must change in their brains when they learn to perceive body shapes using sound. Do visual parts of the brain start responding to sounds? Or do auditory parts of the brain start responding to body shapes? It’s a neat trick either way.

            To find out what really happens, Ella Striem-Amit and Amir Amedi of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem scanned the brains of seven congenitally blind people who’d trained for an average of 73 hours on the augmented reality system. After training, they achieved 78 percent accuracy at classifying three different types of objects: people, everyday objects (like a cellphone), or textured patterns.

            http://www.wired.com/2014/03/blind-brain-sound/

            Are they imagining what something looks like with sound? Certainly they are not seeing with their eyes, but they are seeing. Who knows what that experience is like. 78% accuracy is pretty high. The ability of the brain to produce models of its surrounding via input is quite impressive, but I know I'm getting off topic. For all we know, these blind people are imagining seeing via the sound from the echolocation devices. Talk about knowing what it's like being a bat.
            Of course, this type of imagination is different from modelling the experience based on physical information (this is more of a sensory cross). I have no reason to doubt it's possible, in principle, but surely a human brain doesn't have the horsepower. One can doubt it's possible until it is done, of course.

          • Phil

            1)

            The physical knowledge would be all that is required to produce the experience, but the experience isn't reducible to any single aspect of the information. It requires an all at once simulation.

            Simulation is sufficient for experience, otherwise you could say that it is impossible to know what an apple looks like without seeing an actual apple

            The word "simulation" itself points us towards the answer. The simulation can't happen unless there is something is it simulating. This is pointing us towards the fact that we are trying to simulate and copy something.

            For example, a mechanical robot which looks and acts exactly like a human person would be a simulation of a human person. A "flight simulator" simulates the experiences of flying. When you have the experience of flying it would be incoherent to say you are simulating flying.

            2)

            'm curious, the thought experiment claims that Mary gains new knowledge by seeing red, but how could she convey that knowledge? Might she say, "Wow, I never really knew how red red is until I saw it?" What would that even mean? What "knowledge" does she gain at all? I have no doubt that she gains experience, but shouldn't we somehow consider that a different type of subjective knowledge that should be distinguished from objective knowledge? Is it knowledge if it can't be communicated? What can anyone say about the experience of seeing red other than its...well, red?

            Think about never hearing a guitar played before. I could explain to you all the physical facts about a guitar. All the physical facts about sound and physics in general. I could compare a guitar to other music instruments you know about. But until you actually personally experience a guitar being played you will not know exactly what hearing a guitar is like. That is the extra knowledge that is gained. It is not something that can be quantified. But to hold that only what can be quantified actually exists is a self-defeating belief.

            So you are right, the personal experience of red or a guitar is something that is exactly that, personal. We come to some extra knowledge once we actually experience light/sound.

            (Now, unless one takes a broadly A-T metaphysics and epistemology, then one falls into the "isolated mind problem". But this is no problem for a proper metaphysics.)

            3)

            Now, imagining a new mode of sensory input would be a bit different, and I can certainly imagine what it would be like to see by hearing (with technology, some blind people do this), but there is no way to know if I'm getting it right

            Yes, exactly! You can only imagine things you have experienced in some way. You have seen famous people, therefore you could imagine meeting famous people. You have seen images and heard people talk about the holocaust, and therefore you could imagine it. I'm talking about imaging something you have absolutely nothing to compare it to.

            The answer is that it is not possible because our knowledge comes from outside ourselves, the external world. We abstract our concepts from the external world.

            Now, this doesn't creating new things impossible. Creating something new takes concepts and things we do know, and applying them in new ways. But you can't apply something you don't know in a new way.

            3)

            Are they imagining what something looks like with sound? Certainly they are not seeing with their eyes, but they are seeing. Who knows what that experience is like. 78% accuracy is pretty high. The ability of the brain to produce models of its surrounding via input is quite impressive, but I know I'm getting off topic. For all we know, these blind people are imagining seeing via the sound from the echolocation devices. Talk about knowing what it's like being a bat.

            These kind of things are so cool. I love Tommy Edison's youtube channel (he has been blind from birth) and talks about these sorts of things.

            We can absolutely say that people blind from birth can learn to identify things through there other properly functioning senses. But what we can never say is that they know what it is like to see. They don't and can't (and Tommy Edison will tell you that).

            You can only know what it is like to see by actually seeing.

          • Will

            The word "simulation" itself points us towards the answer. The simulation can't happen unless there is something is it simulating. This is pointing us towards the fact that we are trying to simulate and copy something.

            Yes. If the physical knowledge is sufficient to produce the experience (with a sufficiently powerful imagination) then all of the information is there, that's the point in my mind. I've talked to people who understand this perfectly, but others can't seem to imagine it. Imagine that ;)

            A "flight simulator" simulates the experiences of flying. When you have the experience of flying it would be incoherent to say you are simulating flying.

            It's funny you should mention flight simulator, from Lockheed Martin's website:

            You hear the screech of the rubber as the tires skid across the runaway. In a matter of seconds, you have come from flying 200 knots to a complete halt.
            The sand clears in front of you, and you can feel your heart pounding. A small door to your left opens and light floods in.
            Only then do you remember: this was a simulation.
            This May, Arizona’s Luke Air Force Base, the epicenter for U.S. fighter pilot training, welcomed its first class of F-35 Lightning II pilots. This milestone carved a path for thousands of future pilots to undergo simulations like this – and many more – in their training to become professional military pilots.
            However, if you think that most pilot training takes place in the aircraft itself, think again.
            “We are using game engines and the actual plane’s software and controls to create a simulated environment that feels and looks real,” said Mike Luntz, Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Training System director. “Think about the F-35 simulator as a snow globe with the pilot in the middle. The pilot is completely immersed in a virtual world.”

            http://www.lockheedmartin.com/us/news/features/2015/051815-video-games-get-serious.html

            Many pilots say this dedicated simulators are indistinguishable from the real thing. The experience is fully simulated, but it is the same experience as flying, and it counts as flight experience for the military...check out the website. With qualia, we have to take the subject at their word, thus the experience of a simulated flight is equal to an actual flight. I rest my case there.
            I can imagine myself flying an aircraft (based on games I've played). What is that but a simulation in my head. I used to daydream a lot, I suppose it's because my imagination is powerful enough to produce interesting simulations :)

            Now, this doesn't creating new things impossible. Creating something new takes concepts and things we do know, and applying them in new ways.

            Someone had to come up with every concept that exists. No one had the concept of the atom before the atomists. No one had the concept of math until it shows up in early humans. No one had the concept of using fire to cook food until someone figured it out. The idea that entirely new concepts don't appear is impossible given history. Ideas don't exist until they are created, though no human mind is a blank slate. Beside the general point here, but completely novel idea creation has happened over and over again throughout human history. I agree that applying existing concepts in new ways is much, much more common than completely novel concepts, of course. When new concepts are explained, however, they tend to rely on existing concepts to allow them to be explained...communicating new concept is impossible, otherwise...like trying to use your own language that no one else knows to commmunicate.

            We can absolutely say that people blind from birth can learn to identify things through there other properly functioning senses. But what we can never say is that they know what it is like to see. They don't and can't (and Tommy Edison will tell you that).

            What does it mean to see? Does identifying objects with nothing but light count? If so, the echolocation is a crude form of seeing. We can use neural implants to get rats to see infrared:

            http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2015/10/brain-implant-lets-rats-see-infrared-light

            I wonder what that is like? In principle we could expand the range of human vision to outside the normal spectrum How close does it need to approximate a normal eye before we call it seeing? Do these bionic eyes count?

            http://scienceblogs.com/sciencepunk/2013/02/20/implanted-bionic-eye-allows-the-blind-to-see-again/

            Fun discussion, but common sense and common definitions come up so short with these kinds of discussions, don't they?

          • Phil

            1)

            Yes. If the physical knowledge is sufficient to produce the experience

            I gotcha -- And so you would need to show that knowledge is possible apart from experience. Because if knowledge is not possible apart from experience, then you would prove exactly what "Mary's room" experiences seeks to show, namely, that knowledge is gained by the experience of actually seeing/hearing something.

            2)

            An artificial device actually forming knowledge/memories in the brain? Definitely evidence in favor of physicalism in the mind. IO is much easier, and already working

            To be clear, it says in the article that this device doesn't implant or form memories. It simply makes it easier for a person to generate memories.

            But either way, this would also support an Aristotelian-Thomistic view of the mind/brain as well. The only view this may shoot down would be an idealist/spiritualist view of reality.

          • Will

            On a side note, for more neuroscience fun, working memory implants exist, but so far only tested in animals:

            https://www.technologyreview.com/s/513681/memory-implants/

            An artificial device actually forming knowledge/memories in the brain? Definitely evidence in favor of physicalism in the mind. IO is much easier, and already working

            http://www.neurosurgery.pitt.edu/centers-excellence/human-neural-prosthetics

      • Ye Olde Statistician

        It is not necessary that Mary and Tom experience red in exactly the same way. Only that each experiences something new when observing red for the first time that was not possible from a complete physical knowledge of light reflection and neural stimulus. It is precisely the point that the new "instrument", i.e., the eyes, leads to a new experience not derivable objectively from the physical matter.

        You seem to think that individual deficiencies are an objection in principle rather than simply individual deficiencies. Dogs are four-legged critters, but a friend of mine once had a dog with three legs. This does not prove that dogs do not have four legs. It proves that this particular dog lost a leg in an accident. (Or that something went wrong during development or there was a defect in its genes, etc.)

        • Will

          Only that each experiences something new when observing red for the first time that was not possible from a complete physical knowledge of light reflection and neural stimulus.

          But this knowledge is impossible for a human to have, because each brain would react at least somewhat differently to the neural stimulus. Even then, one would have to imagine the whole thing in real time, which is far beyond the capability of the human brain. Would the information be enough for God or a superintelligent being to imagine it? I think so, if they had all of the information contained in Mary's brain. Eventually we might be able to determine this via experimentation by emulating an insect brain, but neurons are so complex and diverse, getting all of the information correct is extremely difficult.

          You seem to think that individual deficiencies are an objection in principle rather than simply individual deficiencies.

          You could have identical twins and still have variation in the perception of red. Just because they both call red, red, does not mean they experience it in the same way. Herein lies a critical problem with discussing qualia...there is good reason to believe no two people have the same experience, and it's only a guess that our experiences are similar. The experience of red is a complex interaction involving a dramatic array of events and interactions that no human mind could possible use to imagine someone else's perception. None of this implies anything non-physical is going on.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            this knowledge is impossible for a human to have, because each brain
            would react at least somewhat differently to the neural stimulus.

            I love the way we can smuggle our conclusion into our premises. What makes us think that our brains "know" anything? Isn't that the point under debate?

            You could have identical twins and still have variation in the perception of red.

            So what? The Knowledge Argument is not that Mary and Alice would have identical experiences, but that Mary would have an experience not derived from any physical understanding of light waves and neurons. The same would be true of Alice. What-is-it-like-to-see-red is not something that can be known by measurement and test. It's similar to what-is-it-like-to-be-a-bat or what-is-it-like-to-be-conscious.

          • Will

            I love the way we can smuggle our conclusion into our premises. What makes us think that our brains "know" anything? Isn't that the point under debate?

            You think you can know something without a brain? Give it a try, lol!

            So what? The Knowledge Argument is not that Mary and Alice would have identical experiences, but that Mary would have an experience not derived from any physical understanding of light waves and neurons. The same would be true of Alice. What-is-it-like-to-see-red is not something that can be known by measurement and test. It's similar to what-is-it-like-to-be-a-bat or what-is-it-like-to-be-conscious.

            So what? Complete knowledge of light, including it's interaction with all nervous systems is impossible, as every interaction with every nervous system will be different. One of the premises of the thought experiment is complete knowledge, remember? I suppose this is hard to follow for some people.
            Seeing red can be viewed as a form of measurement. Of course you don't know what it's like to measure red with your eyes until you actually do so. So, what's it like? It's very red, right? What does that even mean? What do you now know? You simply can identify red.
            I'm guessing you don't understand the possibility of simulating the whole thing given all of the physical information, oh well, was worth a try.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            You think you can know something without a brain? Give it a try,

            http://www.rifters.com/real/articles/Science_No-Brain.pdf

            There is a difference between the Whole Person using an organ and endowing that organ with some magical sort of autonomy. It's clear that sensory knowledge passes through the brain. That's where we "see" or experience "hunger." It's not clear that intellectual knowledge does so.

            But you cannot divorce the two. Try knowing something after your heart has been ripped out. Or even your liver. That doesn't mean that your liver 'knows' something.

            Complete knowledge of light, including it's interaction with all nervous systems is impossible,... One of the premises of the thought experiment is complete knowledge, remember?

            DId you know that the trolley cars of Zurich cannot approach the speed of light? So much for Einstein's Gedankenexperiment.

            It's very red, right? What does that even mean? What do you now know?

            I know what-it-is-like-to-see-red. No matter how hard we try, we can never seem to get rid of the qualia.

          • Will

            It's not clear that intellectual knowledge does so.

            I've mentioned this before:

            Henry's memory loss was far from simple. Not only could he make no new conscious memories after his operation, he also suffered a retrograde memory loss (a loss of memories prior to brain damage) for an eleven year period before his surgery. It is not clear why this is so, although it is thought this is not because of his loss of the hippocampi on both sides of his brain. More likely it is a combination of his being on large doses of antiepileptic drugs and his frequent seizures prior to his surgery. His global amnesia for new material was the result of the loss of both hippocampi, and meant that he could not learn new words, songs or faces after his surgery, forgot who he was talking to as soon as he turned away, didn't know how old he was or if his parents were alive or dead, and never again clearly remembered an event, such as his birthday party, or who the current president of the United States was. In contrast, he did retain the ability to learn some new motor skills such as becoming faster at drawing a path through a picture of a maze, or learning to use a walking frame when he sprained his ankle, but this learning was at a subconscious level. He had no conscious memory that he had ever seen or done the maze test before, or used the walking frame previously.

            https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/trouble-in-mind/201201/hm-the-man-no-memory

            After brain surgery, a major loss of intellectual knowledge, and the complete and total loss of the capability to gain any new knowledge except low level motor skills. This is just a single example...I could go on for hours. At this point you must be engaging in willful ignorance. So be it.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            And if his hands had been amputated, he would have lost the ability to play the piano.

            You speak of memory, and memory is a power of the imagination, not the intellect. My old textbook from Philosophy of Man asserts that the imagination and conciousness are seated in the brain. And since it is difficult to form concepts without prior percepts from which to abstract them, then the intellect would also be affected. But since concepts are not sensible, physical objects, it's hard to say which sensory channels would have been involved.

          • Will

            Just fyi, artificial hippocampi to fix people like HM are making developmental progress and have had success in monkeys

            https://www.technologyreview.com/s/514006/regaining-lost-brain-function/

            Your position flies in the face of an entire field of medicine, clinical neurology/neurosurgery which is becoming more and more successful. Notice the severe damage to the hippocampus in Alzheimer's patients

            https://www.alz.org/braintour/healthy_vs_alzheimers.asp

            It's no surprise that early philosophers were so off base in some things with their philosophy of mind. They knew none of this. Denying modern medicine is usually reserved for quacks, just fyi.

            You could still argue that there is something extra going on in addition to all of the neurology. But pretend the brain doesn't handle intellectual knowledge? That's absurd.

          • David Nickol

            I know what-it-is-like-to-see-red. No matter how hard we try, we can never seem to get rid of the qualia.

            Does God know what it is like to see red? Or does God know what it is like even to see?

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Beats me. I never thought to ask.

          • Phil

            Haha! Though I had to laugh at Statistician's perfect answer below, I think the psalmist said it correctly when s/he wrote:

            Psalm 94:
            "Can the one who shaped the ear not hear? The one who formed the eye not see."

            Now, of course, God doesn't see exactly like us, but God knows exactly what it is like to do anything a human person could possibly do since he is the creator and sustainer of anything that is. (He wanted to show that this was the case so much that he literally become man in Jesus, so he has "walked the walk", so to say!)

  • David Nickol

    So that gets to the biggest problem, in my view, with Carroll's poetic naturalism: It's preferred because it's useful, not because it's true.

    I was prevented by vampires from reading Sean Carroll's book prior to this series by Brandon (I had to finish the third book in The Passage Trilogy), but it looks to me like this critique of Part One (titled Cosmos) of The Big Picture does not hold up once one tackles Part Two (titled Understanding), with chapters like the following: Learning About the World, Updating Our Knowledge, Is It Okay to Doubt Everything?, Reality Emerges, What Exists and What Is Illusion?, Planets of Belief, Accepting Uncertainty, etc.

    • "I was prevented by vampires from reading Sean Carroll's book prior to this series by Brandon (I had to finish the third book in The Passage Trilogy), but it looks to me like this critique of Part One (titled Cosmos) of The Big Picture does not hold up once one tackles Part Two (titled Understanding), with chapters like the following: Learning About the World, Updating Our Knowledge, Is It Okay to Doubt Everything?, Reality Emerges, What Exists and What Is Illusion?, Planets of Belief, Accepting Uncertainty, etc."

      David, I've read Part Two twice and I didn't see any reason why it would undermine my critique of Part One. You'll have to offer specific examples instead of vague suppositions.

      • David Nickol

        From what I have read so far, I do not think that Carroll is saying naturalism is the preferred worldview because it is useful. I think he is saying that according to his ontology there is nothing beyond the natural world—which he holds to be the case because it is true, based on the evidence—and that there are other things that are human creations that are good, valuable, and "real" that are also useful.

        To give my own example, money is a human creation. It is real. If I say there are 100 cents in a dollar, that is true. It would be foolish (under ordinary circumstances) for anyone to act as if money weren't real, or to act as if there weren't 100 cents to the dollar, but it has nothing to do with ontology as far as naturalism is concerned. What can be said of money can also be said of nations and governments, jury verdicts, Supreme Court decisions and possibly even of abstractions such as justice. They are real, but they are human creations, and poetic naturalism recognizes them as real. And even though they cannot be derived from the naturalist's ontology, they are useful.

        I actually did (as best I can remember) get through Part Two when I started the book, which I had pre-ordered and received from Amazon on the day it came out. But I have just started again from the beginning. I don't want to make any very specific arguments until I have read through Part Two again, but I certainly don't remember any hint of a suggestion that naturalism—the ontological underpinnings of it—is to be accepted because it is useful rather than true. However poetic naturalism is presented as useful in comparison to other approaches to naturalism or materialism.

        One could make the case, for example, that the United States doesn't exist because there are no such entities as countries. They are not real. They can be thought of as fictions—no more real than unicorns. Or, to use Carroll's own example, eliminativists could argue that there are no such things as ships—just collections of atoms that human beings have cobbled together and chosen to refer to as ships. But poetic naturalism recognizes ships (and countries) as human creations, recognizes them as real, and is thus practical and useful compared to eliminativism.

        So, yes, poetic naturalism is to be preferred because it is (among other things) useful compared to other approaches to naturalism. But that does not mean that Sean Carroll maintains that in determining what to believe, we should opt for what is useful rather than what is true.

  • neil_pogi

    i wonder if physics (laws of physics) is just a product of freak accident.

  • Paul Brandon Rimmer

    Brandon Vogt discusses Sean Carroll's concept of Poetic Naturalism from Carroll's book.

    He points out a potentially fatal flaw in Carroll's book here:

    [Carroll's definition of ontology is] simply the wrong definition. Ontology is the study of being qua being, or the study of existence. Physics is the study of the basic physical ingredients that make up the world. By getting this definition wrong, Carroll has already begged the question in the first few pages of his book. He's smuggled his conclusion—that physics can adequately answer questions about ontology—into his definition of ontology. It's a simple mistake, but it has profound effects

    This would be a severe flaw if true. But let's see how Carroll defines ontology (from Vogt's quotation):

    Ontology, he says, is "the study of the basic structure of the world, the ingredients and relationships of which the universe is ultimately composed" (10).

    What conclusion does this smuggle in? I don't see it.

    Maybe Carroll uses a non-standard definition. He doesn't use the Latin 'qua', that's for sure. But I don't see where the conclusion lies. It is true that, if Carroll is correct, the way he defines ontology and the way Vogt define ontology would seem to be nearly or exactly identical. But Carroll's definition doesn't require this identity. It may be that Vogt-ontology includes objects that Carroll-ontology misses. Carroll's definition doesn't reject this possibility, nor does his use of the term through the book, as far as I can tell. Later on, Carroll even examines some arguments for naturalism, for why the world we live in looks very much like the world we would expect should Vogt-ontology match up with Carroll-ontology.

    As for the poetic part of Carroll's naturalism, I see this as less a matter of philosophy and more a matter of taste. Some people might be happy saying that collections of atoms organised a certain way can be usefully (although not strictly truly) be said to have beliefs. I don't share their tastes. My own direct experience of my senses leads me to conclude that my beliefs and consciousness are something not merely useful but fundamental to the structure of reality. Any discoveries that could cause me to doubt this fundamentality would cause me to doubt my senses. This would indeed lead me into a Cartesian trap, although unlike Descartes, I wouldn't even have my belief in my own existence to save me. Although in a certain poetic sense "I" am real, not in any fundamental sense, and so my conclusions, including conclusions about fundamentality, could be at best termed useful, and not in any way touching what is fundamentally real. Physics won't get to the deepest realities.

    All this should probably wait until we get to Carroll's epistemology, where he wrestles with some of these issues. But since Vogt brought this up, I think it appropriate to comment now on why I don't really see the poetry (or the believability) in Carroll's naturalism. It has nothing to do with his definitions, though, as far as I can tell.

    • Ontology, he says, is "the study of the basic structure of the world, the ingredients and relationships of which the universe is ultimately composed" (10).

      What conclusion does this smuggle in? I don't see it.

      Reductionism. There are basic ingredients, and everything else is made of them and reduces to them.

  • Thanks for this great kick-off, Brandon. It sounds to me like a lot of the work established here in the beginning is key to the rest of the book!

    Just some preliminary rambling...

    I have to say, Carroll's anti-reductionist ontology may be more respectful and expansive, but at the same time, I almost find more to love in the chutzpa of pessimistic materialists. In fact, I think there's a lot of consonance between Catholicism and "hard" naturalism in the domain of philosophy that too often gets ignored, i.e., we both doggedly insist on getting at the way things are, and not just the way they appear to be or the way we usefully talk about them in everyday life. In short, we want the truth. The difference of course is that Catholics say that the methodology of science and the tools of reason yield too narrow a truth.

    As you rightly point out, Catholics take the same stance on an ontology like poetic naturalism. The difference I think is that Carroll is trying to have his cake and eat it too, i.e., he's still essentially a reductionist regarding what's real, but wants to make room for formal or poetic "talk"...maybe to mollify non-naturalists and give them a seat at the adult table. I can't help but feel like there's something condescending in that.

    No one wants to be told that their perspective is simply interesting or useful. They want to be right! If behaving as if I'm a free agent is "useful" or "interesting," but not really true, I couldn't care less about useful or interesting it is: because I'm not free, and that makes all the difference. So to my mind to take his position is to take the first step on the road to saying that that "talk" basically illusory and meaningless, without having the endurance (or maybe the decency) to follow through.

    (The alternative in the other direction is Rorty's "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature", where human constructs and pragmatic ways of talking about the world, the great web of "conversations" and "frameworks" that may or may not be useful, become more than just an "add-on" to naturalism; they become the whole game. The danger in this direction is of course one of pure relativism where we lose even the steady footing of science.)

    I don't begrudge the impulse of men like Carroll and Hitchens to want to make room for poetry, music, love, and the like in the worldview of naturalism. It makes perfect sense. But my challenge to them would be this: how do we make these things really and truly present, in a meaningful way, without falling into the opposite error of vaporized idealism?

    • Doug Shaver

      No one wants to be told that their perspective is simply interesting or useful. They want to be right!

      Of course we all want to be right. And Catholics have been telling us naturalists from Day One that certain things are true regardless of whether we want them to be true. We're just saying it back at you.

  • Doug Shaver

    Ontology, he says, is "the study of the basic structure of the world, the ingredients and relationships of which the universe is ultimately composed" (10).
    . . . . He's smuggled his conclusion—that physics can adequately answer questions about ontology—into his definition of ontology. It's a simple mistake, but it has profound effects. Instead of putting forth arguments that physics can justly and completely account for the fundamental nature of reality, Carroll simply defines the study of fundamental reality in physicalist terms.

    I didn't understand him in those terms. I'll concede that his definition of ontology was a tad sloppy, but in saying that physics "can justly and completely account for the fundamental nature of reality," he was, as I construe him, simply stipulating that "the ingredients and relationships of which the universe is ultimately composed" are those, and only those, that can be studied scientifically. That is, he is saying in effect, "This book will defend a naturalistic ontology."

  • I fail to see how naturalism is self-refuting (not that it's necessarily true, but that's another issue). Because all judgments would be the result of non-rational (natural) forces, it does not follow all judgments have the same evidence for them. Evidence would still be available on naturalism for deciding which if any judgment was true.

    • Phil

      It may be more precise to say that a naturalism which doesn't include an immaterial human intellect is self-refuting. A naturalism which includes the existence of immaterial entities, and hence the possibility of an immaterial human intellect could be argued for.

      (People define "naturalism" in all sorts of way. So there are many different versions of naturalism, and not all of them assume a materialist metaphysics.)

      • True, the natural need to be entirely material (and it seems to me that's been shown already, thus "physicalism" has replaced "materialism"). However I'm not sure why a material intellect is self-refuting though.

        • Phil

          This was the essay I wrote on the reason why materialism cannot account for truth, which is the reason why it is self-refuting (since you have to account for truth itself before you can say that materialism itself is true!):

          https://strangenotions.com/irreconcilable-differences-the-divorce-of-materialism-and-truth/

          I'd recommend skipping right to the part entitled: "The Argument". The intro is probably much more long-winded than it needed to be... :/

          • It seems that I read this sometime back, but didn't remember. That explains the view a bit better. I'm not sure that this entails complete skepticism though. While we are not absolutely certain of truth on materialism, I'm not sure we really would be with any metaphysics. So what is required for out knowledge mechanism to be reliable? This seems like a problem in general. Of course like I said I'm not a materialist, but it's because of some different grounds (simply put, it seems that matter is not all that exists, on purely scientific evidence). I also just don't buy the idea of God being replaced with materialism, but perhaps it's semantic.

          • Phil

            I'm not sure that this entails complete skepticism though.

            The key is that if materialism makes it so that there is no way to tell the difference between something that appears to be true and something that actually is true, then we can have 0% certainty about any belief. 0% certainty equals complete skepticism.

            While we are not absolutely certain of truth on materialism, I'm not sure we really would be with any metaphysics.

            Absolutely, 100% absolute certainty is not possible in regards to most beliefs, if any.

            The key in regards to materialism is that exactly no certainty is possible (i.e., 0%). This leads to the rational conclusion that materialism is a self-refuting belief, and therefore it is false. We can reasonably throw it out as a plausible metaphysics.

            So what is required for out knowledge mechanism to be reliable?

            A mechanism that somehow transcends the mere physical and is not at the whim of purely physical processes, namely, an intellect which is immaterial.

            If the intellect is immaterial in its functioning, this means it can tell the difference between something that appears to be true and something that actually is true because it is not at the whim of physical processes. Its very nature/purpose is the seeking of truth which cannot be reduced to physical processes.

          • I'm not sure it does though. There is still correspondence with facts or lack thereof which we can recognize.

            Such an intellect is a tall order. Our intellectual faculties clearly seem affected by physical things (brain damage or disease inhibits them, for instance). This does not mean there is no immaterial aspect, but I'm not sure how that interaction works if the physical can affect it this way. From what I understand it has long been a problem in philosophy.

          • Phil

            Are you able to read over the section entitled "Materialist Option C" in the linked essay above and let me know what part of it you think is wrong?

            That argument is laid out to show exactly how materialism is self-defeating. So to show that the conclusion is wrong you'll have to show one of the premises is false.

          • Well it seems to me the objection from evolution that you mention is valid. True, evolution does not have the goal of making our beliefs hold. Yet beings who fail to recognize dangers will be much less able to live and reproduce, as an example. So it seems like we do have a belief-making mechanism that, although not perfect, is capable of producing beliefs that are valid. I'm not sure, but that seems to fall under your third premise.

          • Phil

            So it seems like we do have a belief mechanism that, although not perfect, is capable of producing beliefs that are valid.

            As I put in that evolution section:

            "The fact of the matter is this [evolutionary optimizing of belief-making mechanisms] could all be true, but it would still not change the fact that materialism is an incoherent belief.

            The reason for this is we are not debating whether the human person could actually hold some true beliefs. The above discussion hinges upon the question of whether it is possible to show that any specific belief we hold is actually true, rather than simply appearing to be true to us. If we can’t show this, then the human person is left in a state of complete skepticism, even in regards to the belief that “materialism is true”.

          • Well as I said before, to actually show a belief is true seems to be just a problem that applies across the board. It seems to me that evolution does give a reason why correspondence of our beliefs to actual reality is a useful though not universal result.

            P.S. For some reason I'm not getting notified when you post over email. They aren't in my spam folder either. Very odd.

          • Phil

            Well as I said before, to actually show a belief is true seems to be a problem that applies across the board.

            Why would you say this is a problem for a conception of the mind that transcends matter in some way?

            If the mind transcends matter and natural physical laws in some way, it isn't subject to them. This means it is perfectly free to seek truth and can reason between that which is true and that which merely appears to be true.

            It seems to me that evolution does give a reason why correspondence of our beliefs to reality is a useful though not universal result.

            Sure, some of our beliefs may be true, but that matters none whatsoever if we have no way to tell which beliefs are actually true, including the belief "materialism is true".

          • Sure, but it is not guaranteed to find the truth. An immaterial mind could still be fooled. There is nothing in the definition of an immaterial mind that precludes it from error.

            Again, I'm not sure how we do that for anything with certainty.

          • Phil

            Ahh yes, but it is possible to tell the difference between something that appears to be true and something that is actually true with a mind that transcends the mere material in some way (this doesn't mean one will alway be right or can't be fooled). To be "fooled" assumes that we are capable of figuring out what is actually true over what merely appears to be true in the first place!

            With a purely material mind, this isn't possible even in principle. Hence the point that a purely material mind leads to complete skepticism. Complete skepticism is an incoherent belief. Therefore we have a contradiction and can proclaim that materialism is false.

          • Is it? How do you tell if a belief is actually true versus only apparently true? With more certainty than not, that is.

          • Phil

            For example -- Say you are at a history museum and every person that walks into the museum is not capable of speaking Spanish. From a purely material minds point of view, it seems that the museum may cause people to not be able to speak Spanish. This is a perfectly legitimate conclusion from a material point of view. But it only appears to be true.

            An immaterial intellect can come to know the form (nature) of a being. We can come to know that a building does not have the power the cause people to speak or language or not be able to speak a language. Therefore, we can conclude that though it appears that the history museum causes people to not be able to speak Spanish, it is illusory.

            In short, there is no way to tell the difference between correlation and causation from a purely physical point of view. They both look the same.

            [This is only possible for an immaterial intellect because form/nature is not purely reducible to the material, so only something immaterial is capable of coming to know something immaterial. Also the immaterial mind can transcend the mere material reality and look past the "appearances".

          • I'm not sure how that follows at all.

            This seems to be begging the question a bit, as it hasn't been demonstrated than an immaterial mind has this ability versus a material one.

          • Phil

            Would you agree that if we can show that a material mind is not capable of doing what a human person's mind is capable of doing, then we can reasonably conclude that the human mind is not purely material?

          • I'd hope so. You brought up the issue of skepticism however. It still applies no matter what mind you have.

          • Phil

            Well, let's go slowly here. Let's first agree that materialism cannot account for the human person's mind. Then we could move onto other theories of mind, mainly, dualism and hylomorphism.

          • I'm not fully convinced, but as I'm not a materialism I don't have much of an incentive to defend a material mind further. So let me stipulate that it could be true.

          • Phil

            How would a purely material mind tell between perfect correlation and actual causation?

          • I don't know. How would an immaterial one?

          • Phil

            Remember, we are starting by seeing if the materialist proposal is even possible. So we are figuring out if it is. If we decide that it can't account for the data, then we move onto the next theory. A good theory must account for the data and evidence.

            If we can agree for now that it appears that a materialist theory of mind cannot explain the data we could move onto another theory.

          • I agree that it's possible, and I'd like to hear your own view.

          • Phil

            Well, unfortunately, it's bed time for me. I hold a broadly Aristotelian-Thomistic hylomorphic metaphysics. You'll want to become familiar with the basics through the two articles I'll link to below. Then we can pick up the conversation tomorrow, how does that sound?

            1) https://strangenotions.com/body-soul-and-the-mindbrain-question/

            2) https://strangenotions.com/why-materialism-and-dualism-both-fail-to-explain-your-mind/

            Thanks for the discussion!

          • Sure, I understand. I think that I've read the second one already. Definitely we can, I look forward to it. Thanks to you too.

          • Phil

            Before we really dive into hylomorphism, I just wanted to throw something simple out.

            If we can see that a materialist theory of the human person can't account well for the data and evidence, there is a simple proposal that could thrown in. Is it possible that the human mind is not purely reducible to the material (i.e., it is at least in part immaterial) and its very function and purpose is to come to truth and tell the difference between that which is true and that which appears to be true? The answer I believe is, sure why not?!

            If this is the case, a theory that includes an immaterial human mind already can account for more data and evidence than a materialist theory.

          • Sure, I already said matter is not everything.

          • Phil

            Cool, I guess we are agreement then right now. :)

            Last night it sounded like you weren't convinced that a non-materialist account of the human person could explain the data better than a materialist account.

          • Well since I'm not a materialist, the account has to be immaterial in part. I honestly don't know much about it though. Perhaps it seems pedantic, but I just wanted to explore the objections to materialism in this.

          • Phil

            I gotcha -- Yeah, definitely keep asking questions in general because that is how we search for truth. And ultimately don't be afraid of answers that you don't like at first. Much of the time we will be based towards what we already believe, but we have to be humble enough to say, well, maybe my belief is a little off.

            In general, materialism is a very hard belief to defend well, and which I would hold is impossible to defend coherently. Which is why I don't believe it is true.

          • Yes, definitely. It's difficult but necessary too for growth.

            Personally I don't know much about it, but I'm clearly finding that there are many more good objections than materialists seem to acknowledge (in my own experience anyway).

          • Okay, so I've read Body, Soul and the Mind/Brain Question. I have some questions, if that's okay.

            First, it doesn't seem like there were any actual arguments as to why there is a form of matter that must be immaterial.

            Second, it doesn't really seem to me like the form is there from the beginning in the way that it's said. For instance, a new seed looks very different from the plant it grows into. The same thing applies on a larger scale in evolution.

            Third, the concept of soul here is very different. It's said the soul and body can't exist apart. So perhaps I missed something with this, but how does it survive when the body dies?

            Last, perhaps this answers the question I had earlier about why brain damage affects mental functions, if they're the parts of a coherent whole on hylomorphism. Or would you have something to add on that?

          • Phil

            1)

            First, it doesn't seem like there were any actual arguments as to why there is a form of matter that must be immaterial.

            Form is immaterial, matter is material. Together they form a single form-matter substance.

            In short, everything we experience in our world is a single substance composed of immaterial (form) and material (matter).

            2)

            Second, it doesn't really seem to me like the form is there from the beginning in the way that it's said. For instance, a seed looks very different from the plant it grows into. The same thing applies on a larger scale in evolution.

            The key is that the seed and full-grown tree are the same living being. Just as a human when newborn and then when 90 years old is the same biological being present at both times.

            The form is the thing directing the oak seed to grow into a mature oak tree. The form is the reason why an oak seed doesn't grow into a rabbit.

            The form of a fully mature oak tree must be present in the seed already in some way, or the seed couldn't grow into an oak tree!

            3)

            Third, the concept of soul here is very different. It's said the soul and body can't exist apart. So perhaps I simply missed something here, but how does it survive when the body dies?

            Good question -- so "soul" is a specific type of form, a "substantial form". And yes, form and matter normally exist together. So that is correct, once something is destroyed, that instantiation of the form is also destroyed. So when a dog dies, its substantial form/soul goes out of existence as well.

            Now, the expectation is that we have reason to believe that the human soul is actually unique in that it could subsist after bodily death. The reason for believing this is the human "intellective soul" does not rely on the body for its powers of intellection. This means it subsists in some way. Therefore, we actually have reason to believe it could continue to exist after bodily death, unlike the substantial form/soul of non-human animals.

            4)

            Last, perhaps this answers the question I had earlier about why brain damage affects mental functions, if they are part of a coherent whole on hylomorphism. Or would you have something to add on that?

            I think you are right on it. If the brain is the thing through which the intellective soul/mind functions in and through, it makes perfect sense that damage to the physical brain would cause issues to mental functions.

            As Pat mentioned in that second essay, damaging the brain is like cracking your glasses. Normally functioning glasses help you to experience reality as it exists, they are perfectly clear. But when you crack or scratch them, they get in the way and don't relay reality as clearly as they should.

            Hope this is clearer than mud!

          • 1) Okay, but how do we know?

            Interestingly, this sounds kind of like a dual-aspect monism.

            2) I certainly agree with that, but the form changes. So maybe the word "form" was confusing me here. If you said "telos" or something that would make more sense.

            3) It doesn't? Yet changes in matter like brain damage seem to affect it.

            4) Yes, that makes sense. I'd earlier thought when there was discussion elsewhere on the mind/body problem that maybe the software/hardware metaphor was somewhat logical. So the soul could be the "software" here. Or is that metaphor off to you?

          • Phil

            Honestly, for these very general questions, I think your best bet is to dive headlong into a basic study of the system. Check out this book. It is a great book for those just entering into the philosophical discussion. It will do a much better job than I ever could at explaining an Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics (i.e., hylomorphism):

            https://www.amazon.com/Aquinas-Beginners-Guide-Edward-Feser/dp/1851686908

            This on here is just a hobby for me, so unfortunately I run out of time and can't answer things as well as I wish I could :(

          • Sure, I understand. Thanks for answering what you did though.

          • Will

            Just fyi, I think Aristotle's hylomorphic concept is just fine, and perfectly compatible with physicalism. No one I've read anywhere says form doesn't exist, the physicalist simply says, like Aristotle, that the form doesn't exist without the material it's composed of. It's when you add something in addition for form (like Aquinas did) that you get a form of dualism
            Aristotle was probably somewhat dualistic with regard to the active intellect, but not hylomorphism in general.

            In other words, critiquing a form of physicalism that rejects structure (form) is critiquing a view no living person holds that I aware of. I've only ever seen apologists critique such a thing, never seen in discussed in actual philosophical books are conversations. Apologetics isn't philosophy, in my mind...it's more like political adds, lol!

          • Phil

            Interesting, are you saying that physicalism doesn't hold a materialist metaphysics?

          • Will

            I'm not sure what you mean by materialist metaphysics...Here is a pretty good article on the subject, which discusses nuances and different approaches. The core tenant is that nothing exists without a physical substrate, but all kinds of things can supervene on that substrate. Here is a good article on the subject:

            http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/physicalism/

            Relating Aristotle to physicalism:

            Aristotle did not believe in Platonic Forms, existing independently of their instances. Aristotelian forms (the capital ‘F’ has disappeared with their standing as autonomous entities) are the natures and properties of things and exist embodied in those things. This enabled Aristotle to explain the union of body and soul by saying that the soul is the form of the body. This means that a particular person's soul is no more than his nature as a human being. Because this seems to make the soul into a property of the body, it led many interpreters, both ancient and modern, to interpret his theory as materialistic. The interpretation of Aristotle's philosophy of mind—and, indeed, of his whole doctrine of form—remains as live an issue today as it was immediately after his death (Robinson 1983 and 1991; Nussbaum 1984; Rorty and Nussbaum, eds, 1992). Nevertheless, the text makes it clear that Aristotle believed that the intellect, though part of the soul, differs from other faculties in not having a bodily organ. His argument for this constitutes a more tightly argued case than Plato's for the immateriality of thought and, hence, for a kind of dualism. He argued that the intellect must be immaterial because if it were material it could not receive all forms. Just as the eye, because of its particular physical nature, is sensitive to light but not to sound, and the ear to sound and not to light, so, if the intellect were in a physical organ it could be sensitive only to a restricted range of physical things; but this is not the case, for we can think about any kind of material object (De Anima III,4; 429a10–b9). As it does not have a material organ, its activity must be essentially immaterial.

            It is common for modern Aristotelians, who otherwise have a high view of Aristotle's relevance to modern philosophy, to treat this argument as being of purely historical interest, and not essential to Aristotle's system as a whole. They emphasize that he was not a ‘Cartesian’ dualist, because the intellect is an aspect of the soul and the soul is the form of the body, not a separate substance. Kenny (1989) argues that Aristotle's theory of mind as form gives him an account similar to Ryle (1949), for it makes the soul equivalent to the dispositions possessed by a living body. This ‘anti-Cartesian’ approach to Aristotle arguably ignores the fact that, for Aristotle, the form is the substance.

            http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/dualism/#HisDua

            What Aristotle did not know is that intelligence is tied to the brain, and the form of the brain changes with every new experience and piece of knowledge gained. It's form is uniquely dynamic...it's called neuroplasticity in science.

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroplasticity

            We know that the form of certain areas of the brain is critical for reasoning and abstraction, what Aristotle calls the intellect. There are many way to demonstrate this, a simple one is dysexecutive syndrome which is cause by brain damage.

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dysexecutive_syndrome

            As you can see, the physicalist generally agrees with Aristotle except on the intellect, and we have good reason to disagree with him now. There is still much more to learn about how the brain reasons, of course :) Neuroscience is still a fascinating frontier...some say it's still "pre-Newton".

          • Phil

            Just doing a simple search I find that the standard definition of physicalism is: the doctrine that the real world consists simply of the physical world.

            This is what I was working from. So physicalism is a materialist metaphysics. Immaterial entities do not exist.

            This would be drastically different from Aristotle and his hylomorphism. Aristotle's hylomorphism is not materialist. It asserts that material (matter) and immaterial (form) exist as a single substance.

            As you can see, physicalism and hylomorphism are quite different since one believes that matter is all there is, and the other does not!

          • Will

            How would you like it if I based my view of Catholic philosophy off a single, one sentence definition...wow.

          • Phil

            Haha! Pardon my slowness, but is this referencing the fact that you think Catholics hold some pretty crazy stuff!?

            If so, yep, the Catholic Church is either very right or very wrong, there is no middle ground!

            I wouldn't hold that bread and wine do actually become the Body and Blood of our very God unless I had very good reason to hold it. Reality is so much bigger and colorful than most times we want to admit!

          • Will

            Lol, I'm just saying you can't capture an entire philosophy, or even come close, in a single sentence. The Stanford article is quite long. Supervenience is a key concept.

          • Phil

            I gotcha --

            So the version of physicalism you are proposing would claim that immaterial entities do exist?

          • Phil

            So as I just read the Stanford Encyclopedia's entry on physicalism, it was pretty clear that, yes, physicalism does hold that ultimately everything that actually exists is material/physical. Immaterial entities do not actually exist:

            From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

            "Physicalism is the thesis that everything is physical, or as contemporary philosophers sometimes put it, that everything supervenes on the physical. The thesis is usually intended as a metaphysical thesis, parallel to the thesis attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Thales, that everything is water, or the idealism of the 18th Century philosopher Berkeley, that everything is mental. The general idea is that the nature of the actual world (i.e. the universe and everything in it) conforms to a certain condition, the condition of being physical. Of course, physicalists don't deny that the world might contain many items that at first glance don't seem physical — items of a biological, or psychological, or moral, or social nature. But they insist nevertheless that at the end of the day such items are either physical or supervene on the physical."

            So the answer would be, yes, traditional physicalism does hold a materialist metaphysics.

          • Will

            But they insist nevertheless that at the end of the day such items are either physical or supervene on the physical."

            Form is physical. One can imagine it separate from material, but it never exists that way. Higher level concepts like value supervene on the physical, but physically exist in the brain of the valuer. None of this denies the existence of Aristotle's form, and it completely agrees with him that form doesn't exist separate from a particular, or an instantiation.
            Apologists continue to claim that materialists deny the exist of form, basically, which is absurd. Is form itself immaterial? Yes, but again, it always requires a material substrate to exist. Dualist propose the immaterial can have an independent existance without being able to point to where or how. Does that clear it up?

          • Phil

            Form is physical. One can imagine it separate from material, but it never exists that way.

            I gotcha, then this was't the Aristotelian hylomorphism you were speaking of. That's where the confusion came from.

            For Aristotle form is distinct from matter, but both of them compose a single form/matter substance of whatever entity one is speaking of.

            So form and matter are two sides of the same coin, but form is not matter, form is not reducible to matter, they are in fact distinct.

            In short, Aristotelian "form" is not reducible to the purely material (i.e., "matter").

          • Will

            So form and matter are two sides of the same coin, but form is not matter, form is not reducible to matter, they are in fact distinct.

            Physicalists agree. The same matter can take on an infinite number of forms. Such is obvious in chemistry. A hydrogen atom can exist stand alone, usually in the form of a flammable gas, but it also can interact with two oxygen atoms to form water. The form is still in the physical interactions of particles.
            From what we can tell, matter is just a manifestation of quantum fields, and energy is the fundamental substrate (energy can be used to create matter, and mass is lost in nuclear reactions to produce energy). The physicalism of today is a far cry from the simplistic atomist conceptions of a couple hundred years ago.
            Energy can take all kinds of forms (including matter) but it isn't "material". It's quite physical, of course, if one understands physics.

          • Phil

            The difference is that the physicalist would say that form is ultimately reducible to matter (the material), while the Aristotelian hylomorphist would say that form is not purely reducible to matter.

          • Will

            The difference is that the physicalist would say that form is ultimately reducible to matter (the material),

            What does this mean? There is no matter without form, we even label all energy with some type of form. The one with the least order (which is related to form, as pure disorder doesn't have a recognizable form, by definition), or highest entropy is heat, which is raw scalar (no consistent vector or direction) kinetic energy.
            Out of curiosity, can you quote a physicalist philosopher saying form reduces to matter? It would be news to me, but I'd be interested to see it. There are many forms of physicalism, and as with any philosophy, they have their weak points.
            In general, modern philosophers avoid dualism because of the interaction problem. If there is something more than the physical, it must interact with the physical, meaning our current fundamental physical models (including the core theory of quantum mechanics) must be wrong. There is no evidence, whatsoever, that this is the case, however.

          • Phil

            What does this mean? There is no matter without form, we even label all energy with some type of form.

            Yes, but this is a bad argument: If matter and form must exist together, then matter equals form.

            That matter and form exist together does not necessitate that matter equals form. Matter and form exist as a composite substance. If matter simply equaled form, then it would be ridiculous to say form is anything other than matter itself.

            2)

            Out of curiosity, can you quote a physicalist philosopher saying form reduces to matter?

            This is from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. My guess is the person who wrote this article has read more physicalists than I have:

            But they [physicalists] insist nevertheless that at the end of the day such items are either physical or supervene on the physical.

            This ultimately means that form is not immaterial and therefore is material (i.e., matter).

            3)

            In general, modern philosophers avoid dualism because of the interaction problem. If there is something more than the physical, it must interact with the physical, meaning our current fundamental physical models (including the core theory of quantum mechanics) must be wrong. There is no evidence, whatsoever, that this is the case, however.

            This is what makes hylomorphism so powerful. It does not propose two distinct substances of material and immaterial which are sandwiched together. Rather the material and immaterial form a single complete substance.

            That is why there is no interaction problem because you are dealing with a singe substance.

            In short, when you are observing material phenomenon, you are also observing immaterial phenomenon through the material phenomenon at the very same time! Matter and form "grow" together.

          • Will

            Yes, but this is a bad argument: If matter and form must exist together, then matter equals form.
            That matter and form exist together does not necessitate that matter equals form. Matter and form exist as a composite substance. If matter simply equaled form, then it would be ridiculous to say form is anything other than matter itself.

            Who is saying matter = form?

            This is from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. My guess is the person who wrote this article has read more physicalists than I have:
            But they [physicalists] insist nevertheless that at the end of the day such items are either physical or supervene on the physical.
            This ultimately means that form is not immaterial and therefore is material (i.e., matter).

            No matter != physical. Energy is physical, but not matter, remember? Form is physical, but not matter itself, if we want to make a distinction between the two, and that distinction can be useful. Why should form be immaterial and not physical?

          • Phil

            No matter != physical. Energy is physical, but not matter, remember? Form is physical, but not matter itself, if we want to make a distinction between the two, and that distinction can be useful. Why should form be immaterial and not physical?

            Ahh! Here we go. I figured something like this was going on in the background.

            When we speak of "matter" in the Aristotelian hylomorphic metaphysics, matter references every that is material in reality. ("Matter" equals "material" in Aristotelian hylomorphism.) This includes everything that the physical sciences could ever in principle study or observe.

            Form is immaterial in a hylomorphic system. It can be come to be known through the matter which it is informing, but is not itself material.

            Form is not immaterial in a physicalist system. Hence the main thing I've been trying to tease out here in the above comments.

          • Will

            I think we are making progress too :) I'm still not quite sure what it means for something to be immaterial as opposed to physical...neither being matter itself. Something to ponder, perhaps neither is clearly defined enough.

          • Phil

            Pretty much there are two categories under which all of reality could be classified: material or not-material (i.e., immaterial). Of course something could have both material and immaterial "parts" to it as well.

            Material simply refers to physical things, the effects of those physical things, and things that spring from physical things. Immaterial entities are things that, as you would expect, lack any sort of materiality/physicality. I think the main confusion was I was using "matter" as Aristotle himself was using it, where matter equals material/physical.

            I thought this essay did a good job at talking about what exactly material/physical things are:

            https://profmattstrassler.com/articles-and-posts/particle-physics-basics/mass-energy-matter-etc/matter-and-energy-a-false-dichotomy/

          • The scientific method? Hypothesize, test & revise, repeat.

          • Phil

            Sure and even if you repeat it 1,000,000 times, you are still no closer to saying whether it is purely correlation or whether it is actual causation.

            Say for the next 1,000 years, 1 million people walk into that museum and none of them can speak Spanish. Is the rational conclusion to say that this museum causes people to not be able to speak Spanish?

          • I think you'd bring a Spanish speaker and see if he loses the ability to speak, to start

          • Phil

            Yes, but this just pushes the problem further down.

            Let's say the Spanish speaker does walk in and he can't speak Spanish. But something else other than the museum causes him not to be able to speak Spanish. It isn't the museum causing this to happen, even though it is perfect correlation.

            Or he walks in and is able to speak Spanish. But it is the museum which normally causes people to not be able to speak Spanish, but something else has happened which disrupted this causal power.

            The way to get out of this completely skepticism is to propose that when we come to know something, we actually come to know its causal powers related to its nature. This is something that cannot come from knowing the merely the physical properties of a being.

            Hence the reason why materialism and truth are incompatible.

          • So that's when we revise the test, expand it, include more participants. If you're saying the perfect correlation still exists, you're just not talking about anything in the real world. If you construct epistemically impossible magical scenarios and then asks materialists to solve them without magic, I just don't think that proves what you want it to.

          • Phil

            What this is aiming to show is that no amount of correlation necessarily leads to causation if all we are observing are the material phenomenon.

            We somehow have to assume that we are in contact with the casual powers of an object when we proclaim that something causes another thing to change. Well, obviously, casual powers aren't physical in their existence. We can't measure or quantify the causal powers themselves.

            Therefore, the simple explanation is that the human intellect is capable of coming to know these immaterial casual powers because it is itself immaterial.

          • Will

            In epidemology, one uses a differing experiments to determine causation, and causation is often probabilistic instead of deterministic.

            Smoking causes cancer is a great example. The cigarette companies tried to spin it as a mere correlation, even saying that cancer could case smoking. The idea that cancer causes smoking yields different testable predictions than smoking causing cancer, of course. If smoking causes cancer, we expect to see smoking start a long time before cancer develops. If cancer causes smoking we expect to see smoking to appear pretty close in time to the cancer. The former (it takes 20 or more years of smoking to get cancer) is what studies shows, giving us more credence that smoking causes cancer, but not proving it. No single piece of evidence proves anything, all relevant pieces must be examined.
            Causation in this cause is difficult because only about 7% of smokers ever get lung cancer. In other words, smoking doesn't always cause cancer, it just does sometimes. The reasons why it's only sometimes are complex and include diet, physical activity, genes and perhaps unknown variables. Cause and effect in complex systems start to become elusive because there are so many factors in play.
            There is certainly more to smoking and cancer than I mention (recently it has been discovered how chemicals in tobacco alter genes related to cancer, adding more evidence for causal hypothesis), but suffice it to say that the scientific method relies on all available evidence and hypothesis testing (via predictions a hypothesis makes) to uncover the truth the best it can. Skeptics simply realize how easy it is to be fooled, and how difficult it is to get it right. Since science is always open to new evidence, at least in principle, it will never declare 100% certainty on any theory, though we can get to 99% in many cases where a theory has been tested ad nauseum.

          • Phil

            The problem is science, and any sort of knowledge, is left at 0% probability and nothing more with a materialistic metaphysics. 0% certainty equals complete skepticism. And as I argued in my wordy essay, complete skepticism is incoherent and if materialism leads one to proclaim that completely skepticism is true, materialism has undermined its own coherency.

            The problem is that to have any certainty above 0% one must assume that we can come into contact with, and come to know, the actual causal powers of entities in the external world.

            If we say that we can't actually get in contact with the casual powers of an entity, then it doesn't matter how many times you run an experiment and get the same result, your certainty that the object has that casual power is still 0%.

            ------

            I'll put forward an example:

            You are in a controlled experimental environment. You heat it up. It lights. You do this the same way 1 million times. Each time it lights the same exact way. Can you then safely proclaim that a match has the actual power to combust when heated up? Only if you assume that we somehow we were able to come into contact with the nature and causal power of that match.

            But the nature and causal power of that match is not reducible to the physical. It exists with the physical but is not reducible to it.

            So if materialism is true, casual powers and natures don't actually exist. And therefore we could never proclaim with more than 0% certainty that matches actually have the power to combust when heated up. It is just as likely that on the 1,000,001 test it turns into a rabbit when it is heated up. That outcome is just as likely as combusting on a materialist metaphysics.

            This might not be something that is obvious at first. But with some studying of metaphysics it becomes a big problem real quick.

  • It seems the first critique is that Caroll has identified ontology as equating to naturalism, or excluding anything non-physical from the outset.

    I can see how this may be inferred from the quote, but I don't think it makes sense, even with the rest of to section.

    I think it quite likely Caroll distinguishes ontology, (that which exists), from mataphysical naturalism (all that exists is natural). If he didn't, what would the point of the caution to be skeptical about a naturalistic ontology.

    • Phil

      I think it quite likely Caroll distinguishes ontology, (that which exists), from mataphysical naturalism (all that exists is natural). If he didn't, what would the point of the caution to be skeptical about a naturalistic ontology.

      I think this is a continuation of the confusion of terms. The study of metaphysics equals ontology. You can use those two terms interchangeably. Metaphysics does not equal supernatural. For example, one could defend a materialist metaphysics/ontology.

      Ontology/metaphysics studies being as being. That is where the word itself comes from: meta-physics, "beyond physics". The study of being itself underlies physics, which is how one goes "beyond physics". Where physics studies how things move/change, metaphysics studies why and if things actually do move/change and the nature of causality itself.

      • Maybe, but that is not the issue.

        The issue is not that he equated metaphysics with ontology, but ontology with naturalism. Brandon accuses him of characterizing ontology to be "that which exists in physically". Excluding the non-physical or non-material.

        I do not think this makes sense, as Carroll then goes on to caution readers to be skeptical of the naturalist position. Clearly someone who is saying "be careful in jumping to naturalism, this is not intuitive and needs to be justified" is not someone who has from the outset excluded the possibility of naturalism being false.

        • Phil

          I gotcha -- yeah, I don't think Carroll's understanding of ontology is really that far off, if at all.

  • I think there is certainly a much larger debate to be had n naturalism vs theism. but I think what poetic naturalism does is grant ontological status to emergent phenomena, not just fundamental phenomena.

    Just like a rock appears solid, but is really mostly empty space, it's solidness is not an illusion, it is an emergent reality of the fundamental particles making up the thing. Non-poetic naturalism is not really different, it just wouldn't agree that the solidness of the rock "exists".

    It really is not a different metaphysic than standard naturalism. What it does is confront an intuitive argument, that we have seen many times on Strange Notions.

    This is the argument that atheists accept beauty, meaning exists, but that naturalism cannot account for them, therefore it must be wrong. A standard naturalist would say these are emergent from the fundamental stuff, and thus illusory. A poetic naturalism would say the same thing, but accept the emergent meaning and beauty as existing as emergent aspects of the stuff. I do not see how you can really argue for or against this way of speaking about things.

    • Phil

      A poetic naturalism would say the same thing, but accept the emergent meaning and beauty as existing as emergent aspects of the stuff.

      The big problem with this sort of talk is it simply pushes the question down to the next level. If one wants to hold that this emergent aspect actually exists, then one must say it exists at this deeper reality. (As long as one wants to avoid the claim that the emergent aspect is actually illusory.)

      So instead of saying that the rock is solid, one must say that the particles that make up the rock are solid, and therefore the rock is solid.

      Again, if one wants to say that beauty is an existent emergent property of the "Mona Lisa" and not merely illusory, then the particles that make up the Mona Lisa must be said to be beautiful and therefore the Mona Lisa is beautiful. If you are catching my drift, you'll begin to see the issue. Where did the beauty of the particles come from; where did they emerge from if they aren't illusory?

    • Ye Olde Statistician

      A standard naturalist would say these are emergent

      Transl. "Then a miracle happens."

      • That is not consistent with my understanding of "miracle". Unless by "miracle" you mean something that emerges from natural phenomena and does not contradict naturalism.

        • Ye Olde Statistician

          No, it's just that "emergent property" is invoked as a miraculous explanation. It is an act of faith that somehow, someday, someone will find out how such things "emerge." A fable does not cease to be fabulous just because it's a naturalistic fable.

          And in fact a great many ordinary miracles are of the sort you envisage.

          • When I said "these things are emergent" I did mean something 'that emerges from natural phenomena and does not contradict naturalism'.

            I take it from your response that by "miracle" you mean something other than "that [which] emerges from natural phenomena and does not contradict naturalism'."

            So I fail to see how an accurate "Transl." would be that I meant a "miracle" happens, you have defined "miracle".

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            If you prefer "hand waving" to "miracle," as a description of how most folks use "emergent property!" feel free to make the substitution.

            Unless you have an explanation of how something "emerges from" natural phenomena. Is it like an emanation from a penumbra?

          • A non-miraculous use of 'emergence' can be found at Massimo Pigliucci's Essays on emergence, part I, but I'm almost certain he would reject Carroll's 'poetic naturalism'.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            He certainly gets into a debate with Carroll in the comments box. Carroll is apparently a reductionist whereas Pigliucci believes emergence also plays an explanatory role. Unlike its popular usage as hand-wavium, in which it is deployed as if the very term "emergent property" constituted an explanation, Pigliucci gives emergence serious thought and adduces examples that he contends cannot be explained by reductionist principles. There is more than a whiff of Platonic realism in the early discussion, though it has been a long time since I've heard mathematics given actual causal powers. (I.e., the equations don't just describe the phenomenon, they explain the phenomenon! Oy!)

            A number of respondents seemed committed to reductionism so devoutly that they believed it was a conclusion from science and not what it historically was, an epistemic choice. There is no surprise is deriving your original assumptions from the marvelous toy. The mistake is in thinking they are conclusions.

            Pigliucci is always a fascinating read.

            About halfway through, I bethought myself, "He's talking about Aristotelian formal causality." (This was the old term for "emergence," among Aristo-Thomists.) And Lo!, deep in the comm box, a respondent makes a similar statement regarding the Aristotelian soul, and Pigliucci agrees.

            There was also a discussion about exploring what the definition of "emergent" really is. It seems vain to cite "emergence" as an explanation on the one hand and debate its meaning on the other. If the meaning is not settled, how can it be be cited as explanatory?

            But the same can be said for "naturalism." What exactly is "natural"? As Heisenberg pointed out, what we find in nature depends on what methodology we employ to look at her. If we then say that "nature" is restricted to that which our methodology can discover, then all sorts of things can become "supernatural." As the reductionists accuse the emergentists of invoking.

          • I prefer "emergent property". I do not have an explanation of how something emerges from natural phenomena. But I do no natural phenomena exists.

            Do you know how beauty and meaning emerge or exit supernaturally? Do you even have evidence that anything non-natural exists?

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Like I said somewhere else here, much depends on what you actually mean by "natural" (or for that matter, by "evidence.")

          • So why not explain what you mean by evidence and natural and tell me what you have?

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            It was your question: Do you even have evidence that anything non-natural exists? You must have had something in mind and I'd rather not spend time in a "that's-not-what-I-meant" dialogue.

            Natural: from natus, birth. That which a thing possesses "by its nature." For example, some men are naturally strong. Others may become strong through art: i.e., by exercising and so forth. This would be artificial rather than natural. Teddy Roosevelt was not naturally strong, but made himself so by art; Demosthenes was not naturally a great orator, but became one by artful practice.

            Evidence: from evidentia, "obviousness; vividness; quality of being manifest/evident; distinction." That which makes a thing clear or evident. There are two ways of making a thing evident.

            a) Evidentia potissimus (i.e., "most powerful") is a logical presentation in valid syllogisms. Most mathematical things are made evident by this sort.

            b) Evidentia naturalis (i.e., "natural") is evidence by experience; e.g., eyewitness observation. Unlike the first kind, natural evidence is subject to reversal. So one may say "All swans are white" by natural evidence because every observed swan has white feathers. But a trip to Australia reverses this by producing a black swan.

            Nicholaus of Autrecourt did not call this "falsification," but he clearly had it pinned. Hence, natural evidence is always tentative, with one exception. The exception, he said, was one's own existence, which is known by direct experience but cannot be denied coherently. (Who exactly would be denying it?) This anticipated Descartes by a couple of centuries, along with Popper. Plus ça change and all that.

          • "It was your question: Do you even have evidence that anything non-natural exists? You must have had something in mind and I'd rather not spend time in a "that's-not-what-I-meant" dialogue."

            I do not have something in mind. I accept naturalism as a reasonable metaphysical position. I cannot really conceive of what something non-natural would be.

            The idea here is to distinguish between those who believe something non-natural exists. If you are distinguishing that which is "artificial" from that which is natural. Presumably by "artificial" you would mean something like a plastic plant or someone's who has taken steroids is "artificial" and not natural. But this doesn't seem to be the distinction at play here in terms of naturalism and theism (or supernaturalism, or some kind of dualism). Obviously a naturalist and a theist will believe plastic plants exist. What, in your view distinguishes naturalism from non-naturalism? Presumably the existence of something non-natural?

            Given this context what is something non-natural or supernatural, and what evidence (on any of the definitions above) is there for it existing?

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            See previous reply, in which I defined both "natural" and "evidence."

            If you believe plastic plants exist, then you already believe in something unnatural. The same goes for two-headed calves. A cow naturally has one head; so one born with two heads is, as you might say, outside "the common course of nature."

            That's why I asked what =you= meant by "natural" and by "evidence." If you are starting from a different definition of "natural," then you will have a different concept of "non-natural" and "supernatural" (they are not the same thing). Instead, you ask me to set up definitions, then you come back and say that's not what you mean.

            Hence, some numbers are called "natural" because they derive from the nature of quantity. Other numbers are artifacts (irrational, transcendent, imaginary, transfinite, etc,...) Although it must be admitted that if there is an apple on the table and another apple on the table, there are not three things on the table: an apple, another apple, and the quantity "two" which we abstract from them. If we arrange this apple, that apple, and another apple on the table, we do not see five things: an apple, an apple, an apple, the quantity "three", and the pattern "triangle."

            Now the only things that actually exist physically are the apples, so where are "three" and "triangle"?

            Sometimes I think "naturalism" is just shade for "materialism." (Or "physicalism" as it was later called.)

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Postscript to previous reply:
            By weird coincidence:
            https://thomism.wordpress.com/2016/07/28/evidence-and-metaphysics/

    • A standard naturalist would say these are emergent from the fundamental stuff, and thus illusory. A poetic naturalism would say the same thing, but accept the emergent meaning and beauty as existing as emergent aspects of the stuff. I do not see how you can really argue for or against this way of speaking about things.

      You can object that putting lipstick on a pig doesn't make it anything other than a pig. Sean Carroll's style of emergence denies downward causation, which makes it a very specific kind of emergence. How one argues against it is to argue against ontological reductionism, as I did:

      BGA: A lot of praise here, but there does seem to be a criticism of Carroll's worldview being small and reductionist. If there is a criticism on that basis I do not see what it would be.

      LB: You've never come across a cogent criticism of reductionism? [Goes on to provide the skeleton of one.]

      BGA: I think what you have laid out is a great criticism of what I would label methodological reductionism. This would be the idea of wrongfully limiting hypotheses. I agree that this is unreasonable.

      • So how is Carrol guilty of methodological reductionism, when he states quite clearly "Naturalism presents a hugely grandiose claim, and we have every right to
        be skeptical...Naturalism isn't an obvious, default way to think about
        the world"?

        This is not a statement from someone who has pre-determined that naturalism is the only possible answer.

        But you can say he has, and we can say theists do the same by ruling out naturalism, irrespective of claims that they are being open-minded and giving all options a fair hearing and investigation.

        If naturalism is false, let us hear the evidence for something non-natural.

        If poetic naturalism is false let us hear the argument against that.

        There certainly are good arguments on both sides. I prefer the naturalist arguments, I do not think it makes sense to say that meaning, numbers, forms, exist in the same way that atoms, cars exist. I see no reason to accept that meaning, numbers, pi, and so on exist by way of some fundamental ontological basis along with material fundamental existence (be it quarks or something more fundamental).

        Atheists however, may certainly disagree, and accept these immaterial entities do exist or are even fundamental and that material existence is emergent from them.

        These are interesting debates. But I think little is achieved by simply accusing the other side of being closed-minded.

        • So how is Carrol guilty of methodological reductionism, when he states quite clearly "Naturalism presents a hugely grandiose claim, and we have every right to be skeptical...Naturalism isn't an obvious, default way to think about the world"?

          As far as I can tell, Carroll embraces ontological/​metaphysical reductionism, per his Downward Causation article. You could also consult his blog post Avignon Day 3: Reductionism. One thing that's kind of annoying is that Carroll doesn't even always seem clear on what his reductionism denies, as can be seen in his blog post Physicalist Anti-Reductionism. (He phrases it in terms of his anti-reductionist opponents not having formulated their position well, but I would argue this is not just their responsibility, if reductionism is to be a scientific conclusion rather than a dogmatic assertion.)

          This is not a statement from someone who has pre-determined that naturalism is the only possible answer.

          You appear to be conflating naturalism with reductionism.

          If poetic naturalism is false let us hear the argument against that.

          Before I could possibly do this, I must establish what exactly it is that poetic naturalism denies. For example, does it deny that there can be nonlocal state which can effect nonlocal causation? (Recall my excerpt of Ilya Prigogine's The End of Certainty.)

          These are interesting debates. But I think little is achieved by simply accusing the other side of being closed-minded.

          That's not what I'm doing. You wanted to know why one could be against poetic naturalism's "way of speaking about things". I gave you a reason phrased poetically ("putting lipstick on a pig"), but I can give it to you non-poetically: to say that a reductionistic ontology can be spoken of non-reductionistically does not obviate the reductionism. In a sense, the only thing being done is that the word "illusory" is not being deployed, while the entire framework nevertheless presumes something virtually indistinguishable.

      • Will

        Carroll rightly denies upward causation the same as downward. Cause is a useful way of talking, but not part of the fundamental description of interactions

  • I find the accusation of poetic naturalism being self-limiting to be misplaced. (Needless to say this is a complaint about naturalism, not poetic naturalism.)

    But yes, of course any metaphysical position is going to be limiting. Any position on any question at all is going to be limiting. Monotheism restricts believers from polytheism and polytheism restricts adherents from pantheism. Naturalism limits adherents from a belief in the supernatural.

    It is no criticism to say that a conclusion is problematic because it rules out the alternatives. You need to show the conclusion has wrongfully ruled out these alternatives.

    I find it hard to accept that Sean Carrol is taking a position that is wrongfully excluding other possibilities. Rather than, as he may have done, exclude supernaturalism as mythology, superstition, and snake oil, he expressly asks his audience to entertain it.

  • And saying we do not know the answer to something may certainly be
    unsatisfying. We can imagine families of murder victims being very
    unsatisfied if investigators come up empty. But of course it would be
    wrong to force them to just pick a suspect in order to have an answer and feel satisfied. I think it is quite likely that we do not and may never be able to have sufficient evidence to reach reasonable conclusions on some issues, particularly on ultimate or fundamental issues. Just like sometimes we do not have enough evidence to arrest someone for a murderer.

    There
    is a criticism for not entertaining all the possible answers. I do not
    know what kind of discussion can really be had on supernatural
    possibilities. All of the discussion I have ever heard on this relies
    solely on an inability of naturalism to explain some observation or fact such as the specificity of cosmological constants. But such
    discussions are actually nothing to do with supernatural causes but with problems with natural causation.

    When Carol writes papers on multiverse theory, it is not discussions on how supernatural forces cannot explain problems supernatural causation thus there must be a natural cause. He writes about how known natural forces could result in a multiverse, even though this might be something we can never confirm empirically.

    But what discussion could be had on non-natural causation or explanations? What is there to entertain?

  • I simply do not see how naturalism, the position that all phenomena in the cosmos is natural, means we cannot know anything to be true.

    Naturalism and theism are ontological positions. They are positions on what exists. How we know what exists, or how we know anything, is epistemology. It's a simple mistake, but it has profound effects.

    On naturalism, there may be no actual order or rules or rationality to the cosmos, all this apparent order may indeed be arbitrary and coincidental, or the whim of some mind that has created a simulated universe. Or, indeed the ultimate reality may be one of order and rules that all phenomena follow.

    On theism there may be an order and rules that all phenomena, including those a god must follow. Or, there all of this may ultimately be up to an arbitrary or random mind of a god. Or it may be up to a mind of God that simply chooses to apply a certain order but is not forced to.

    The problem here seems to really be the problem of induction and/or the problem of sollopsism which are epistemelogical problems, of which I am unaware of any solution.

  • LHRMSCBrown

    A quote of William Carroll on Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture:

    Quote:

    Emergence of Complex Structures:

    To explain the relationship between the elements of the Core Theory and the macroscopic world, Carroll employs a broad notion of emergence. This concept traditionally refers to the ways in which higher level properties (e.g., those of water) emerge from the combination of more elementary constituents (e.g., hydrogen and oxygen). He claims that as time passes and entropy increases,

    “…..the configuration of matter in the universe takes on different forms, enabling the emergence of different higher-level ways of talking. The appearance of something like “purpose” simply comes down to the question: “Is purpose a useful concept when developing an effective theory of this part of reality in this particular domain of applicability?””

    “Consciousness” and “understanding” are concepts “we invent in order to give ourselves more useful and efficient descriptions of the world.” These concepts are not illusions, but accepting their reality does not mean a rejection of the laws of physics. All such concepts “are part of a higher-level vocabulary we use to talk about the emergent behavior of the underlying physical system, [they are] not something separate from the physical system.” This general mode of explanation allows the poetic naturalist to argue that

    “…..we are collections of vibrating quantum fields held together in persistent patterns by feeding off of ambient free energy according to impersonal and uncaring laws of nature, and we are also human beings who make choices and care about what happens to ourselves and others.”

    For poetic naturalism, the reality of concepts like consciousness, causality, and organism is only linguistic; they perform functions in particular narratives. The discussion is thus a nominalist discussion about concepts, not a realist discussion of what is true about nature. Yet, when Carroll turns to fermions, bosons, and the quantum wave function, he does think that these terms refer to the fundamental furniture of the universe. At this level of discourse, he is a realist; whereas in other areas he is a nominalist.

    End quote.

    Many people disagree with S. Carroll. Including S. Carroll himself. Just because someone foists that contradictions are not contradictory doesn't make it so. It's easy to be immune (or claim immunity) when you're all over the illusory map.

    Regarding the emergence of causality and regarding “Downward Causation” (which some may refer to as Top Down Causation) Sean Carroll (rightly) rejects such a notion and with it the idea of emergentism in his essay at http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2011/08/01/downward-causation/

    A copy/paste follows, but first, while reading it be sure to define all do-ing / verb-ing / think-ing / reason-ing / love-ing / cause-ing / causation / see-ing / talk-ing / care-ing according to S. Carroll,

    “…..we are collections of vibrating quantum fields held together in persistent patterns by feeding off of ambient free energy according to impersonal and uncaring laws of nature, and we are also human beings who make choices and care about what happens to ourselves and others.”

    And according to A. Ginn,

    “……at the lowest level of reality, the fermions that make up our bodies are subject to only the four fundamental forces of nature. There is no room for *you* to control their behavior.”

    And according to Wiki:

    “Fundamental interactions, also known as fundamental forces, are the interactions in physical systems that do not appear to be reducible to more basic interactions. There are four conventionally accepted fundamental interactions — gravitational, electromagnetic, strong nuclear, and weak nuclear. Each one is understood as the dynamics of a field. The gravitational force is modeled as a continuous classical field. The other three are each modeled as discrete quantum fields, and exhibit a measurable unit or elementary particle. The two nuclear interactions produce strong forces at minuscule, subatomic distances. The strong nuclear interaction is responsible for the binding of atomic nuclei. The weak nuclear interaction also acts on the nucleus, mediating radioactive decay. Electromagnetism and gravity produce significant forces at macroscopic scales where the effects can be seen directly in everyday life. Electrical and magnetic fields tend to cancel each other out when large collections of objects are considered, so over the largest distances (on the scale of planets and galaxies), gravity tends to be the dominant force.”

    Regarding this: “…..we are collections of vibrating quantum fields held together in persistent patterns by feeding off of ambient free energy according to impersonal and uncaring laws of nature, and we are also human beings who make choices and care about what happens to ourselves and others…”, well, of course many people disagree with S. Carroll. Including S. Carroll himself. Just because someone foists that contradictions are not contradictory doesn't make it so. It's easy to be immune (or claim immunity) when you're all over the illusory map.

    So then, with reality defined, here’s the copy/paste:

    Reading about emergence and reductionism and free will and determinism has led me to finally confront a concept I had vaguely heard about but never really looked into before: downward causation, a term that came to prominence in the 1970’s. (Some other views: here, here, here.) I think it’s a misguided/unhelpful notion, but this is way outside my area and I’m happy to admit that I might be missing something.

    Physicists are well aware that there are different vocabularies/models/theories that we can use to describe the same underlying reality. Sometimes you might want to talk about.............

    (well, it's far too much for a com-box.... see the link above for the entire essay by S. Carroll. Various segues etc...)

    • LHRMSCBrown

      Segue: Many people disagree with S. Carroll. Including S. Carroll himself. Just because someone foists that contradictions are not contradictory doesn't make it so. It's easy to be immune (or claim immunity) when you're all over the illusory map. When it comes to Carroll’s causal paradigm, we find him describing http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2011/07/13/free-will-is-as-real-as-baseball/ free will to be as real as baseball, and in such moves he simultaneously seeks the fulfillment of three wishes. [1] To remain within the causally closed paradigm afforded by physics, the “real”, the fundamentally impersonal (terms which in fact “….refer to the fundamental furniture of the universe. At this level of discourse he is a realist…”), and [2] to retain the intellectual right to employ terms of causality with respect to personal causation (the useful but not real, a “nominalist discussion about concepts, not a realist discussion of what is true about nature….” [and hence not true of human nature], and [3] it’s a bit blurry, but the third wish seems to fall along the lines of retaining the intellectual right to refute both emergentism and reductionism, forcing him into places between his realism and his nominalism. It’s real, but not really, and, it’s useful, but not true of reality’s fundamental nature, which ipso facto includes humanity’s fundamental nature, causally and otherwise. And so on. Therefore: regarding this: “…..we are collections of vibrating quantum fields held together in persistent patterns by feeding off of ambient free energy according to impersonal and uncaring laws of nature, and we are also human beings who make choices and care about what happens to ourselves and others…”, well, of course many people disagree with S. Carroll. Including S. Carroll himself. Just because someone foists that contradictions are not contradictory doesn't make it so. It's easy to be immune (or claim immunity) when you're all over the illusory map.