Why I Am Not an Atheist 30

Ever wonder why Richard Dawkins is such a staunch defender of evolution? Here’s why:

The first cut in this clip is from an interview with Ben Stein — Buller? Ferris… Buller? — taken from the famous (and questionable) Intelligent Design documentary Expelled.

Here, Dawkins clearly admits to the possibility of some “Intelligence” behind the “design” one sees in the (created) universe, although he does not admit to the possibility of creation.

The second cut is far more interesting. Most notable is that he openly admits his aim to kill religion.

By the way, I did mention that he just published a new book, aimed at spreading his doctrine to kids, right? If you missed it, see Friday’s post.

So, were’s the Biltrix? Here it comes…

It’s a hard point to miss, it seems, since Mr. Dawkins’ logic is impressively clear, almost impeccable. Fortunately, whether he intends it this way or not, his argument also allows me the opportunity to explain why I am not an atheist (to give one of the reasons, anyway).

He says (paraphrasing, slightly):

Since evolution is manifestly true, if there are people who really believe that if you’re an evolutionist then you’ve got to be an atheist, all I’ve got to do is persuade them of evolution, which should be comparatively easy, since the evidence is overwhelming. And I’ll turn them all into atheists.

The argument depends on two things being true, which Mr. Dawkins assumes to be true.

First, he assumes that there are people who believe that if you’re an evolutionist, you must also be an atheist. Unfortunately, there are people who believe this. I’m not one of them. (By the way, though I believe that evolution is possible, even highly probable, I would not call myself an evolutionist, but if you think my strong belief in the possibility of evolution makes me an evolutionist, then call me an evolutionist, just for the sake of argument).

Someone like myself could respond that even if you were to convince me that evolution is an undeniable fact, I would still not be compelled to be an atheist. Dawkins thinks that evolution and atheism are coextensive beliefs. I don’t.

Here’s the Biltrix: According to his argument, the success of his victory — converting you into an atheist — depends on whether you think all evolutionists are atheists. I don’t think that evolutionists have to be atheists. That’s one reason why I’m not an atheist.

Second, Dawkins says that all he has to do is persuade the listener of evolution, which he believes should be comparatively easy (compared to what, may I ask?), and then he’ll turn him into an atheist. The comparative ease of his persuasion depends on what he means by evolution.

If he is referring to his theory of evolution and thinks that persuading someone to buy into his theory is sufficient to kill religion (and this is certainly what he means), I have to disagree with him there too. I do not think his theory is compelling enough to force anyone to be an atheist.

That will be the topic of tomorrow’s post. Dawkins will present his own theory (in the video clip). Then we’ll see what his theory accomplishes, and what it fails to accomplish.

Comming up… My encounter with an athiest.

30 comments

  1. Hello, James
    Thanks for pointing out this Biltrix. I’m looking forward to what is coming up. Keep up this great work.
    Ivair Watte, LC

  2. This is completely quote-mined. If you actually watch his conversation with krauss, you’ll see that he’s making that remark as a joke. Dawkins has never argued that evolution disproves god. Get your facts straight.

    • Quote minded? Get your facts straight. I never said he said what you said I said he said. I just took him for what he said, which was a hypothetical statement. Go back and read what I actually said, S W.

      Here, since you were too lazy to read it right the first time, I’ll make it easier for you. Dawkins:

      Since evolution is manifestly true, if there are people who really believe that if you’re an evolutionist then you’ve got to be an atheist, all I’ve got to do is persuade them of evolution, which should be comparatively easy, since the evidence is overwhelming. And I’ll turn them all into atheists.

      The structure of his statement was conditional: if… then…

      Dawkins is saying that if you believe that if you are an evolutionist then you’ve got to be an atheist, then all he has to do is persuade you that evolution is true then he’ll turn you into an atheist.

      Now I don’t think that he thinks that all his readers are that a-critical, but some people are.

      Whether or not he was joking is beside the point. If the antecedent is true, the consequent is also true. All I’m saying is that the antecedent is not true. I’m actually accepting his point. I’m adding nothing to what he said nor taking away anything from what he said. The context in which he said it is quite irrelevant, because I’m just focusing on a perfectly valid argument that he makes, whether he’s joking or not.

      Read more carefully next time.

      • And I quote – “Dawkins thinks that evolution and atheism are coextensive beliefs. I don’t.”
        But I’m glad you now admit that isn’t what he said.
        While I agree that evolution does not disprove god, though it seems to create some issues with the christian belief system, the burden of proof still remains upon the person making the claim, which is you. I’m an atheist because god’s existence has never been successfully demonstrated, not because I accept evolution.

  3. [reply to SW] I think we are in agreement, except for perhaps on one thing (besides our respective beliefs). It is in my opinion that Dawkins thinks that evolution and atheism are coextensive beliefs.

    I should probably soften that because I recognize that one can be an atheist without thinking that accepting evolution entails accepting atheism. And I never inferred that much.

    However, by disregarding all religious beliefs as myths and continually asserting that if people were more scientifically minded they would recognize that religion is unreasonable, Dawkins leaves me no choice but to conclude… And I quote:

    “Dawkins thinks that evolution and atheism are coextensive beliefs. I don’t.”

    If the burden of proof is to supply scientific evidence that God exists, I’d say that can’t be done. I do not accept intelligent design theory. I think ID-theory is a perfect combination of bad science, bad philosophy, and bad religion. The “Expelled” documentary was a farce.

    That said, I still think rational proof for God’s existence is possible. For example, I think that Thomas Aquinas’s 5 ways to prove God’s existence are valid and sound arguments. The problem is that are often oversimplified. For instance, if you reduce the first proof he gives to a scientific proof (i.e., based strictly on physics), the argument is futile and proves nothing.

    So, if I were to accept that the burden of proof is on me to successfully demonstrate the existence of God, I would need to know what your background is in philosophy. Otherwise we run the huge risk of talking past each other — not that I mind that, but I’d prefer to do that over a beer than through a combox.

  4. It may be that he believes theistic evolution to be an inconsistent position, but I won’t put words in his mouth either way. Dawkins does not speak for all atheists, so as far as I’m concerned, it’s not particularly relevant.
    How one goes about demonstrating god’s existence depends heavily upon one’s definition of god. Scientific evidence is certainly impossible for many definitions.
    As for Aquinas, I don’t find his proofs to be valid, but even if they were they would only get you as far as deism, which is a far cry from christianity.
    I consider myself to be quite well versed in philosophy, both from personal study and several classes. As well I have a catholic upbringing as far as knowlege of religion goes.

  5. As for Aquinas, I don’t find his proofs to be valid, but even if they were they would only get you as far as deism, which is a far cry from christianity.

    In part, very true.

    However, context of the whole is important to understand the part. I’m referring to the context of the Summa as a whole, Thomas’s works as a whole, and his thought/worldview as a whole.

    But then again, we were only talking about the existence of God, right? The God of Christianity would entail a more theological discussion. At this point, that’s not part of the discussion yet.

  6. well I must admit I’ve not actually read aquinas’ works, but what I know of him has not been enough to attract my interest, and my reading list is rather long at the moment.
    As for his arguments:
    Prime mover/first cause: It’s just as sensible to say the universe/big bang is the exception to causation as it is to say that god is.

    Necessary being: To say that at some time there must have been nothing is to contradict yourself, because time itself is a thing. One cannot say there was nothing before the big bang, because there is no before the big bang. Unfortunately, to speak coherently about such things is difficult as a result of our language. Whether there is a multiverse/etc. with an alternate version of time is at this time unknowable. I am no physicist, but I think to make any such claim at this time is premature at best.

    Greatest being: I see no basis for making the statement that “Whatever is great to any degree gets its greatness from that which is the greatest.”

    Design: Darwin clearly demonstrates this to be false.

    I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have a thorough understanding of the beginning of the cosmos or its nature, but simply by virtue of the time I live in my understanding is far greater than that of Aquinas, and so is yours. I find it much more intellectually honest to answer these questions with a simple “I don’t know” than to assert that god is the answer.

  7. Bit of a delay here. I was watching a screening of For Greater Glory, the movie coming out in June on the Cristero revolution in Mexico: Atheists will have a heyday with this one, for obvious reasons, but I’m not going to write a review on it here.

    As for your comments on the five ways, like I said, the 5 ways are often oversimplified.

    For example, I mentioned that if you were to understand them in terms of physics you would be missing the point. They are metaphysical arguments that need to be understood in terms of Thomas’s understanding of act and potency, especially regarding the principle that nothing can be moved from potency to act except by something that is already in act. If the argument is not understood in along those lines, then your critique of the unmoved mover argument would be perfectly justified.

    The second way, which takes its point of departure from the observation causation follows the same reasoning as the first, for the most part.

    Your critique of the necessary being seemingly fails to recognize that if God were the creator of all things, and time, as you say, is at thing, then God is the creator of time.

    Time is the measurement of movement in space. So, what is the cause of time? The big bang? Did the big bang cause itself? That would be contradictory. Did it have no cause? That would be unscientific. What is the cause of motion? The point continues to be that anything that is moved is caused to be in motion by another.

    The greatest being argument applies to certain types of perfections. For example Michael Jordan is arguably the greatest basket ball player. It would be absurd to say that he is the cause of basketball greatness. However, perfections such truth, goodness, beauty, and justice are of a different order.

    What is the measure of truth? The stament it is raining is true while it is raining. It is not eternally true. The statement whales are mammals is necessarily true for all whales of all time as long as there are whales. Yet whales are contingent. What makes the statement whales are mammals true transcends the whale, because the whale does not make itself a mammal; it does not cause it’s own nature; rather it receives it from another. And if it is not the cause of its own nature, then it is not the cause of that same nature in its offspring, because then it would be the cause of its own nature (since it is the same nature). So what is the per se cause of the nature of the whale? The proposition whales are mammals is true, because it actually corresponds to the nature of the thing in question. But the nature thing in question does not cause itself. If you evoke evolution, you will fall into an infinite regress: what gave the thing that gave rise to the nature of a whale the power to produce whale nature? Whatever that thing was, it did not give its powers to itself.

    Design? What design? The 5th way argument has to do with final causality not intelligent design. That “we observe that all things are ordered toward a determinate end” is not to be confused with intelligent design theory, which does fall victim to the “God of the gaps refutation” (and I don’t buy into ID-theory). We can explain the order and the finality of many things through observation. Observation is the realm of physical science. Yet scientists who reject ID-theory also reject the notion of final causation. I find this denial absurd. How do you deny that the things we observe in nature ordinarily behave in determinate ways and ordinarily act toward determinate ways? How can science be possible without stability in nature and our ability to observe it.

    So we observe that things are predisposed, so to say, to behave in certain ways. If genes can mutate, they have this potentiality to mutate, and are predisposed to mutate in such and such a way. Bees don’t evolve into flowers. Mammals don’t evolve into invertebrates. Natural selection can’t be entirely random and chaotic. There is some kind of relation of determinacy between point of departure and point of arrival. What determines that?

    The answers to these questions are not “God”. The questions point in that direction iff one understands the sense behind the questions. Once that is settled, then one can proceed with the rest of the argument.

  8. I just went with the first version of the proofs that came up on google tbh.
    Well it seems to me that to understand them in terms of anything but physics is to not be speaking of the universe that we live in (though physics is admittedly imperfect). Whether it was valid in terms of his more limited understanding of nature seems irrelevant to me.
    As I said, it’s difficult to speak coherently of the universe beginning. From what I understand, causation itself came about with the big bang, but supposing that’s not the case, why is it any less scientific to exempt the big bang from causal principles than to exempt god from them? If we’re going to suspend causation, then the addition of a god seems superfluous to me.
    I still see no validity in his 4th argument. I see no reason why these properties must reference a maximum.
    Whales are mammals as a matter of human convention. The statement that whales are always mammals is true because we define it as such. Though at what point in altering its genetic makeup it seizes to be a whale or a mammal is a somewhat arbitrary matter. Such classifications are necessarily somewhat abstract and vague. I’m not exactly sure what you mean by it’s nature or the cause of its nature. It sounds oddly reminiscent of vitalism. A thing is its properties/nature, and if you don’t believe that, try to imagine an object with no properties. Evolution does explain quite well how whales came about. The exact details of abiogenesis are not thoroughly understood, though that’s to be expected when attempting to describe a process that took place billions of years ago acrossed potentially several million years.
    Well determinism of any absolute variety does not seem to be quite true, but rather is observed on a macroscopic level due to statistical probabilities on a quantum level. If we roll a die 600 times and it comes up on each side about 100 times, we don’t conclude that this was due to the die acting on the behest of an entity which ordered that end. If it came up all 6’s on the other hand, we may make such a conclusion. Multiply this by many, many orders of magnitude and statistical variation becomes negligible, and it is for this reason that our observations of the behavior of matter appear to be regular and determined.
    Scientists don’t believe evolution to be a random process. The mutations in genes are random for all intents and purposes, but the selection is quite nonrandom and is a result of what is most successful for purposes of survival and reproduction in a given environment. The process is determined by what works and what doesn’t. Indeed, it would be if bees gave birth to flowers that I would begin to suspect an intelligence tampering with the process.

    • Again, very thoughtful objections.

      If I go point for point, this will be a very long response, so I am going to have to be selective. If I miss something you really think ought to be answered, you can let me know.

      Regarding your first point, you are basically denying the possibility of metaphysics. The point (or central aim) of metaphysics is to determine whether all being (existence, existing things) depend on matter for their existence, or if it is not, rather, the other way around (I am foregoing an explanation of the different senses or uses of the word “being” here for the sake of brevity). The implication is that it is possible for immaterial things to exist. And of course one needs to go on to demonstrate the existence of such things.

      In answer to your first observation, “Well it seems to me that to understand them in terms of anything but physics is to not be speaking of the universe that we live in,” you would necessarily be closed to any response to this objection if you were not at least open to the possibility of what metaphysics aims to show, namely, that the universe we live in is not merely physical.

      Of course, having studied philosophy, you know that the term “metaphysics” can mean anything from Yoga to the Rationalist metaphysics of Descartes, Leibniz, and co., against which Kant leveled in his first critique. In the present discussion, we are talking about Thomas’s metaphysics.

      The question we are entertaining here, regards whether there are causes beyond those that the physical sciences study. If not, then physics is not only the first science, but really the only science. I am leaving out some specificity here, but I should at least clarify that mathematics and physics are clearly distinct disciplines. However, since the quantities math studies are abstracted from matter, and many would argue that the physical world can be reduced to quantity, I’m not expecting the typical (legitimate) objections in this discussion to what I just said.

      The distinction that needs to be made to begin with is that, on the one hand, the subject matter of physics contains things that move, which are observable either to the 5 senses alone or by means of instruments that aid the senses in observing physical phenomena; whereas, metaphysics, on the other hand, speculates beyond the physically observable phenomena and considers causation of a higher order.

      The distinction is between what we call primary and secondary causation; metaphysics considers the former, physics the latter.

      To simply respond to this distinction by saying, “But the world just is physical,” begs the question. One should at least entertain the condition for the possibility of what metaphysics proposes – that is precisely what Kant sought to do. I think I know my Kant well enough to offer my opinion as to where he misses the point. But I’m not offering that opinion here, yet.

      I am, however, somewhat sympathetic to Kant. He was a brilliant philosopher, IMHO (or IMNSHO – in my not so humble opinion).

      Is this good for starters? I have an appointment coming up. If you are still interested in continuing with this discussion, I will get to your other objections this afternoon. Feel free to shoot back at me on what I’ve said here in the meantime. Thanks!

    • Got up a little early this morning with nothing to do, so I decided to adress the whale/mammal thing. Here, we are definitely not seeing eye to eye.

      First, a thing is not it’s properties. If a man goes blind, or loses his hair, he does not stop being the thing that he is. So there are some properties that are not essential to the nature of the thing.

      However, some properties belong essentially to a thing’s nature: Circles are round. Round and circle are not synonymous. So we can distinguish between a thing and its properties.

      The term nature can be understood and used in many ways. In this context it refers to the set of properties that a thing has as being proper to its kind or the type of activity that belongs per se to a thing of a given kind: it is of the nature of a dog to bark (but if the dog isn’t barking, it’s still a dog); Dogs have skeletons (if it does not have a skeleton, it’s not a dog).

      Classification may be conventional, as many aspects of language are also conventional. The words “whale” and “mammal” are conventional. However, we name things according to the way we know them, and we know them based on the ability of our mind to get certain things right about the way things are. If we couldn’t get at least some things right, there goes the possibility of doing science.

      The classification of things in nature (using a broader sense of term nature: “natural types” as opposed to artificial things) is not entirely arbitrary. We classify according to relevant traits that certain things have in common.

      Humans and whales, for instance are animals, not plants. What’s arbitrary about that?

      The classification of a mammal is broader than the classification of a whale, since humans and whales are both mammals, but a man is not a whale, and a whale is not a man.

      Anatomically, based on, say, the skeletal structure, all mammals have something in common, namely, three bones in the inner ear. There are other natural traits that all mammals have in common that distinguish them radically from fish, birds, mollusks, shards of glass, what have you. You could consider the duck-bill platypus as an anomaly, because it lays eggs, but it has other traits that give us reasons to classify it as a mammal (such as mammary glands).

      I don’t see how any of what I said amounts to vitalism.

      The proposition, “A whale is a mammal,” is true, and the proposition, “A whale is a fish,” or, “A whale is an angiosperm,” false, not merely by convention. There is something about the nature of the thing in question that makes the proposition fit to the way the thing in the world actually is. And our mind naturally gets this.

      The fact that we can revise our scientific understanding means that we get this, because scientific progress aims at more accuracy and precision in clarifying and improving the way we understand the way things are; not just adjusting our conventions.

      To your other points:

      Regarding Thomas’s 4th argument, let’s leave it at that. It’s a platonic argument (neoplatonic, in fact). I’m a big fan of neoplatonism, but I don’t think it’s worth going into now. Besides, he gives 4 other arguments, and there are others besides the ones you find in Summa I.2.3 or in St Thomas, for that matter.

      Now, as you know, there are various theories and accounts of evolution. I actually like Dawkins’s approach — fascinated by it; think it should be taught in school; wish I had his current explanation when I was a kid. LeMarc’s theory, if I am not wrong, involves series of random genetic mutations. And, if I am not mistaken about Darwin, his theory of natural selection based on survival of the fittest discounts any finality to the evolutionary process. That would make it random.

      If the current scientific community discounts randomness in evolution, I would call that progress.

      As for determinism, there certainly is some of that in nature, and I would not be opposed to it’s inclusion in evolutionary theory. But that certainly raises the following question (among other thorny questions): What is determining what?

      No single thing determines itself in every regard. So if a thing is determined, it’s determined by another; and that thing by another; and so on. Do you mean to say that “Evolution” determines the determining? That is the very thing being determined. Is it “Laws” of nature? Well if classification of nature is conventional, so are laws of nature. In that case, it would all just be in our heads. But what we want to know is not what’s inside our heads; science aims to figure out and explain the way things are.

      Laws are principles of things that we figure out regarding the way things work and the way things are. But you would not want to say that those laws are just in our heads, would you? So what is it about the fixed natures of things — the way things determinately are for the most part — that allows us to grasp these laws? And where do these laws come? They don’t come from the things, because they determine the way things are and the way they behave. That which determines the way a thing is can’t be the product of the thing in question.

      What determines the laws? Other laws? What determines those laws?

      Note that none of what I’ve said here necessarily implies: Ergo, God exists. They are just questions I’d like you to answer.

  9. I suppose I can pretty fairly be described as a scientific naturalist, or whatever equivalent term you prefer. Metaphysics is an interesting study, but it seems to me that it is, by and large, speculative in nature. I won’t say that metaphysical entities do not exist, but I find them to be a superfluous concept in explaining reality. To paraphrase Laplace – I have no need of that hypothesis. Now, if you wish to classify thought, perception, emotion, etc. as being metaphysical, I have very little problem with that. I would personally label them as emergent properties of nature, but my understanding of that field is rather limited. I know Dennett has done much work in the field and I intend to read more of his work in the future. I don’t know the details of Aquinas’ metaphysics, so feel free to fill me in if you find it necessary.

    • Thanks for the rundown. It gives me a better idea of who I’m talking to. I should probably say a just a little about my own philosophical profile, just briefly.

      For now let it suffice to say, that I don’t mind being called a Thomist, but I’m not an Aristotelian-Thomist, because the man some people might idealize as a so-called “Aristotle-Thomas” never existed.

      Besides that my interests in the history of philosophy are broad.

      It’s fair to call me a moderate realist in the following sense: I appreciate honest skepticism; I’m radically opposed to representationalism, outside of art.

      You and I definitely have different views on metaphysics, but I do understand where you are coming from. I like the idea of emergentism, but it needs a lot more development before it produces a cogent theory. Jaegwon Kim thoroughly tears it apart.

  10. Okay, S W, I am responding to your comment way above. In order to do justice to your objections, I am going to have to take them one at a time, if you don’t mind.

    You mentioned in your last comment (below) that metaphysics (MF from now on) is speculative in nature. But if you are going to accept the claim that causation comes from the big bang, then you should also admit that physics is highly speculative too, which it is.

    The study of physics involves observation and collection of data and it also involves theorizing about that data (the Greek term theoreo and the Latin speculare have roughly the same sense in philosophical usage).

    I don’t exempt the big bang from causal principles. It fits very well with causal principles on the physical level (secondary causation). Yet to suggest that it causes itself can’t be explained on the level of secondary causation; in fact, suggesting that would incur a contradiction.

    You’re saying or at least entertaining the possibility that causation started with the big bang. You also said that there is nothing (I take it nothing physical) prior to the big bang.

    I distinguish between temporal priority and priority of dependence. On the one hand, I can accept the possibility that nothing was temporally prior to the big bang, at least for the sake of argument, since time is a measurement of motion. Let’s say motion was posterior to the big bang, and hence so was the beginning of time.

    Here’s one thing we agree on: time had a beginning. No one can actually prove that that’s absolutely true, but we both seem to accept it, albeit for different reasons.

    Nothing can be temporally prior to time, for obvious reasons, even if you believe that the universe (pluriverse or multiverse) is eternal.

    Now consider the prospect of priority of dependence. I’d use the example of whales and mammals here but we need to come to some consensus about whether a whale is mammal by convention or by nature before I can go there. (One thing at a time)

    So consider the relationship between a circle and its center. The definition of a circle is a round planar figure, whose circumference consist of points that are equidistant from one fixed point called the center. Which is temporally first? The circumference or the center? They are all present at the same “time” because once you have a center-point, that center-point is what it is, namely, a center, only with respect to a circumference (which is nothing but a circle); the circumference only is what it is, with respect to the center as a fixed point of reference.

    This order of dependence has a priority. The circle is the circumference. It is not the center; rather it depends on the center. The center does not depend on the circumference in the same way. It is what it is, namely, a just point, even without the circle. In order for there to be a circle many points must depend on one simultaneously, but the dependence is not reciprocal, because that point does not depend on the circle in order to be a point.

    My point is that causation does not necessarily depend on time.

    So, scientifically speaking, what are the necessary conditions in order for a big bang to occur? I don’t think science stops there unless it want’s to get completely speculative, like metaphysics.

    If you can recognize the sense behind distinguishing between different orders of causation, you will understand why I don’t accept this as a legitimate problem: “If we are going to suspend causation, then the addition of a God seems superfluous to me.” We’re not suspending causation.

    I’ll move on to your next objection after a short break.

  11. Physics certainly does involve speculation, but after a theory/hypothesis has been formulated by speculation, physicists go about trying to disprove it through observation, while on the other hand, no such practice exists, or could exist, in metaphysics.
    I readily admit that I don’t have a strong understanding of the physics of the big bang but I don’t think any common sense notions of time and causation can be applied to it any more than they can be applied to quantum mechanics or relativity. The origin of the big bang may very well be beyond our understanding even in principle. Krauss’ book/lecture on A Universe From Nothing is quite interesting and gives some insight into the matter(highly recommended if you’ve not watched it), but again, the most intellectually honest statement I can make on the matter is ‘I don’t know’. However, I was not attempting to state that there was nothing before the big bang, but rather that “before the big bang” is a nonsensical notion, because to have a “before” you must have time, which seems to have arose with the big bang itself.
    To use geometric concepts for this discussion seems not quite the right choice. I admit I’ve not studied mathematical philosophy in any depth, but it seems to me that true circles do not exist in nature, but are rather purely conventional abstractions which can be only approximated in concrete existence. Whales, on the other hand, do exist in nature, but are not nearly so formally defined as circles. (Not sure what my point is there, but it seemed worth mentioning)
    Physics regarding the big bang is almost entirely theoretical/speculative at this time, but it may not alway be such. Afterall, astronomy in general used to be equally speculative. We had no way of knowing what those points of light in the sky actually were in any detail, but now we do.

    I think we would do well do define what we mean by the word “thing” here, because it’s used rather vaguely by most people. Alan Watts addresses this quite brilliantly, so I’ll just have you listen to this – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rUzx9r8zCrY
    So it can perhaps be said that a thing is its properties, but only those properties that we regard as important. So a man can lose his sight and you’ll still consider him a man, but if he loses his skeleton you won’t. So in this way, as long as a thing has certain properties you can label it a man/whale/mammal/etc. and if it has other properties as well, then we just consider those incidental. But can you see that this is just our way of viewing and classifying the world, and that it could just as easily be classified with a different system? Words and labels are necessarily abstractions upon reality.
    That’s not to say that our classification are completely arbitrary and without reason, but they aren’t always precise. Of course people and whales are easily distinguishable from each other. But at which point in varying the traits of a whale it becomes something that’s not exactly a whale is less exact.
    Evolution is by no means working towards a final end product, so if you consider that random, then so be it. Survival of the fittest was a phrase based on a mistranslation of darwin, and it’s not quite correct. Survival of the best adapted is a more apt phrase as it takes into consideration the environment as well as the organism.
    If you can ask what is determining determinism, you will be led to infinite regression, because you can then ask what determines the determination of determinism, and so on. I don’t see that the properties of matter which determine its behavior need to be bestowed upon it by an outside entity.
    The laws of nature as they exist in physics are merely descriptions of how matter behaves. In fact, I don’t quite like the choice of the word law. It creates confusion, because in human society, a law is not a description of how a thing behaves, but a command for it to behave in a certain way, which is something quite different from a physical law. So I would say that yes, as a description of reality, the laws of nature exist entirely in our heads, but the behavior of the reality they describe does not.

    • Thanks!
      Metaphysics must begin with experience, since that is where our knowledge begins, and can be resolved in experience, at least to the extent that it does not or should not contradict confirmed experience; for that matter, it must avoid all contradiction in order to be valid.

      I’m not a specialist in physics either. I have no problem with the licit contributions that relativity and quantum mechanics have to offer. However, do these fields necessarily have the last word? After all, as disciplines they are also still in progress and have their limits – not saying that metaphysics has the last word either, but well guided rational speculation should not be counted out. Once you start speculating and making statements about the limits of time, which we do not experience, I don’t see how you can avoid it.

      Nothing more to add to what I already said about “before big bang.” I’ll only reiterate, I can agree that we can’t talk about a temporal before, if movement and time begin with the big bang. We agree on that much, don’t we?

      The circle example is not a mathematical study. It is an analogy that I borrowed from Plotinus. The point to the example is that there are ways of understanding the words “before” and “prior to” that don’t entail time. For example (one that does not apply to the discussion at hand but is an a-temporal use of the word before), “I stand before the king,” or, “He put the cart before the horse.” One of the senses that Aristotle gives to the word before (Check Metaphysics book 5 (Delta), s.v., “before” or “prior to”) is that of priority of dependence. Just like the word “in” in some contexts does not mean physically or locally in some determinate place; e.g., to quote Rod Stewart: “You’re in my heart! You’re in my soul!” First example that popped into my head just now.

      Yes, circles are abstractions, though I would not call them conventional. We naturally abstract and conventionally name. The circular shape does belong to some things in reality, mostly artificial things but also natural things as well. The full-moon, for example, though not a perfect sphere or circle, appears almost perfectly circular when viewed from earth with the naked eye. From what we perceive, we abstract, and then form the notion of circle. We naturally express our understanding with language, but the naming of things is mostly conventional. An example of a possible exception would be onomatopoeia.

      But again, the circle example was an analogy about what we could call a-prioritized (not a priori) non-reciprocal dependence. If you can conceive of a circle – which you certainly can if we’ve been talking about the same thing when we use the word circle – then you can see the point I’m trying to make with it. But then again, Plotinus was not the clearest chap in the world, and I’m using his example.

      Back to physics and speculation. Of course, physics can’t be as speculative as metaphysics and still be physics. We need to respect the realms, positive contributions, and limitations of all sciences. In that regard, physic is still progressive and has not exhausted all there is to know about the physical world. Astrophysicists still don’t know all there is to know about stars. That does not detract at all from it’s being a legitimate science.

      I’m not sure human science will ever exhaust all there is to know. Some would say, given time, it will – Now that’s what I call Faith.

      I’ll stop here to listen to the audio you recommended (and go be social for a couple of hours) before I continue. Before I sign off, however, I’ll leave you with this quote:

      The fact that these phenomena can be explained in this way is no proof of the theory’s truth; for the same phenomena might be better explained in a wholly different way as yet unknown to men. (Aquinas, De coelo [On the heavens], II, lect. 17)

      Aquinas was commenting on the Ptolemaic, Geo-Centric vision of the astronomy of his times. He was enough of a critical thinker to preempt, in some way, the Copernican Revolution. Of course the physics of his time was way out of whack, but it worked with what it had and there were some pretty wacky explanations to vouch for what people were able to observe and calculate back in those days. This quote shows that Aquinas was open to the possibility that the understanding of the universe, on which he based his own theories, could someday be radically revised and even discarded.

      Are people humble enough to maintain this same attitude today?

    • Okay, I watched the video and found it both entertaining and interesting. Just a question before we continue — and this might just be it for me today…

      Do you accept everything Alan Watts is saying here?

      I mean, sure, he’s a smart guy and all, but is everything he says here absolutely unquestionable?

      I’d like to know your opinion on that, first.

  12. I don’t accept it as a matter of Watts’ authority if that’s what you’re asking. Everything he said is perfectly open to any scrutiny you wish to subject it to, but nothing about what he said strikes me as being particularly objectionable. So, yes, I accept it, but no, that doesn’t make it unquestionable. I don’t believe in the infallibility of any individual/etc.

    • For the sake of argument, let’s accept that things are the things like the things astrophysicists study, like stars, or the things biologists study, like whales, or the things you or I might bump our respective heads into in the dark that make us feel pain. Things we talk about when we talk about things, like the things we’ve been talking about. Things we ordinarily think of as things. Things most people naturally assume to be things. So even a property of a thing could be a thing.

      Any objections?

      • Seeing as the only way we have of describing the universe is through thought and representations thereof, and things are essentially units of thought, I see no alternative to discussing existence in such a manner. So long as we keep in mind the nature and limitations of this process, I have no objection at the moment.

      • Fine, but I think we can make the distinction between what we know and the way in which we know it.

        Our thoughts are abstracted from the world as we perceive it, our words are signs of those thoughts, and through those thoughts they refer to things in reality. We normally intend that our words refer to actual things when we make statements like, “Pass the butter, please,”
        or “I can’t find my wallet.”

        When you go to the dentist, because you have a toothache, what do you want the dentist to cure? Your idea of a toothache, his idea of a toothache or actually locus or pain in your mouth? Where do you want him to drill? In your brain, his brain, or in your tooth? That ultimate point of reference to which intend our words to refer, ordinarily, is what I mean by thing.

        We don’t normally intend for the words we use to refer to themselves as verbs and nouns. Words are signs, and the purpose of a sign is to indicate, i.e., to point to something other than itself.

  13. First I’d like to just put the point I was making in context, because I feel like we’re getting sidetracked. The point was being made in regards to the contingency argument, in which you stated that the nature of a thing requires a cause. So to just revert to the common sense notion of “things” is to miss the point being made. If things don’t actually exist as discrete entities in nature, but are rather units of thought used by humans as a pragmatic way of understanding our world in day to day life, then the question of what causes their nature seems to me to be a silly, if not completely meaningless question. Now, if you wish to address what causes the nature of the universe/big bang as a whole, then that might be a little more sensible. If you’ll give me an acceptable definition of the nature of the universe and why it needs an outside cause, then we can discuss that.

    • Thanks for the clarification. I subscribe to a substance based ontology. From this perspective even the properties of things can be called things. The unity of substance is not based on the properties a thing has but on the principle that unites them as an identifiable whole. When the integrity of the whole is compromised, the substance is either destroyed or begins the process of decomposition. Properties can remain but they do not necessarily belong to the aforesaid substance once these alterations begin to occur.

      The universe is not a substantial unity, but rather an order of relation among various things (entities) — all things, as the name universe implies. We still call it a thing, that we give it a name. So there are some instances where we can and do identify sets of related entities (properties, substances, and relations among them) as things, in as much as we identify them as a whole. So I can agree to what you are saying to some extent, but I do not agree that we can apply this notion of a thing to everything.

      If you want to talk about the nature of the universe, it becomes difficult. First, nature is an analogous term. I’m not going to apply the notion of nature to the universe in the same way that I would apply it to a whale or a photon, or the color of a rose. Second, we do not experience the universe as a whole, yet we still talk about it as a thing.

      Is the big bang a thing?

      I’d say that if it occurred, it is. Otherwise what are we talking about and how can we talk about it. Language is not purely conventional. And we will continue talking past each other unless we agree on this.

      You say that “If things don’t actually exist as discrete entities in nature, but are rather units of thought used by humans as a pragmatic way of understanding our world in day to day life, then the question of what causes their nature seems to me to be a silly, if not completely meaningless question.” I don’t agree with the antecedent, so as far as I am concerned, the consequent does not follow.

      Please name something that isn’t a thing. This could sound like a redundancy in English, but not in some other languages. In Latin, for instance, aliquid (something) and res (thing) are different.

      So identify a “certain whatever” in reality that cannot be called a thing.

    • If memory serves, Aristotle calls the person who can’t identify or say what a thing is a “vegetable” (photon) — but let’s not make arguments from authority.

      • That should be phyton [pronounced: fu-ton, as in Japanese/Yuppy furniture; or fee-ton, if you are a modern or Byzantine Greek] from physis, meaning “nature”. So I guess we’ve come full-circle ;) . (Sorry for being pedantic)

  14. I’ve been quite busy lately, my apologies.
    I would say that the universe is in fact a unity. All of the universe appears to be causally related, although cause may not be quite the correct word as it indicates separateness. Of course, that is in a sense true by definition in that something cannot appear to us in any way without being causally related to us in some way. So it’s possible that there are things which are not of such a unity, but it is impossible for us to know of them, by definition. What we call things (or more accurately, objects) are essentially sections of this unity which are more closely intertwined than the average, especially in terms of spatial unity. There are multiple ways of describing this through analogy which have some value. A curve is a unity even if it can be analyzed as a series of individual points. A knitting is made of a single yarn, even if you can distinguish many individual knots where the intertwining is greater than at other locations. How close together or strongly bonded do two pieces of matter need to be in order to be considered a substantial unity in your ontology? Is this matter not at least somewhat arbitrary?
    The big bang can surely be called a thing/event (essentially synonymous terms) and I would say that the big bang is synonymous with the universe. And furthermore, if the universe/big bang can be called a thing, does that not make it a single unified “thing” even by the ontology you’ve suggested?
    I don’t think I’ve argued that language is *purely* conventional. I’d say language has formed based on what have been found to be effective methods of forming and expressing useful ideas among individuals of our species. Different methods have formed among different cultures, and none are optimal, but they have in common that they work excellently for the everyday needs of the individuals of their cultures. But they still have their limits of course. Language is arbitrary to about the same extent as genetic evolution and forms in a similar way. If you’re familiar with Dawkins then I assume I don’t need to explain memetics any further.
    It may not be a redundancy from a strictly linguistic standpoint, but you’re essentially asking me to think a thought which isn’t a thought. I think we can both recognize the absurdity of such a task.

    • Hi. I agree with most of what you’ve said. In answer to your question:

      “How close together or strongly bonded do two pieces of matter need to be in order to be considered a substantial unity in your ontology?”…

      And furthermore, if the universe/big bang can be called a thing, does that not make it a single unified “thing” even by the ontology you’ve suggested?

      No. Well, in one way yes, in one way no. It’s not a substance.

      I distinguished between things we call substances and other things.

      I would not call a computer or a cat-toy sewn together by yarn a substantial unity, but I would still call it a thing.

      A thing that enjoys substantial unity is completely destroyed when the principle of it’s unity is lost.

      For example, you can take a 100 computers completely apart, interchange those parts randomly but equally among computers, so that they all end up with the same types of parts but not the exact same token pieces they originally had, and you would end up with 100 working computers.

      However, although, you can perform organ transplants on animals, it is very improbable (and I believe impossible) to perform a brain transplant. Of course just because this has not been successfully performed yet, does not mean that medicine will not accomplish it one day. But I don’t think it is physically possible because the integrity of each human body, for example, is intimately bound to its brain. When the integrity of substance is destroyed, substance is destroyed.

      There are stronger and lesser forms of substantial unity. Some things like rocks have weak substantial unity, for which reason one could argue that they are merely conglomerates of matter, not substances. If you bust a rock in two, you get two rocks. But if you bust a dog in two, you don’t get two dogs.

      Worms and starfish could be seen a counterexamples to this thesis, but if you consider the type of division in these cases for what they actually are, namely, asexual reproduction, then it can be simply explained as the natural mode of propagating the species, proper to that species. This even happens in the case of identical twins. But after a certain point in the embryo’s development, these types of divisions are tantamount to destruction.

      On the thing/object distinction. Objects are relative to subjects, as in the case of thought or any other transitive activity. As a thing, the entity in question does not depend on one person’s thought in order to exist.

      If the big bang was real occurred before anyone thought of it, then I’d call it a thing — not a substance, not a property, but at thing.

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