Those who have been following this blog for a while will, no doubt, recall the various discussions/debates/arguments I have had with Andrew Finden in the past. As frustrating as I find them at times, I think he often tackles interesting and difficult topics with a calm intelligence not very often found in the religious debate. This makes me a little ashamed of the ridicule we levelled at him during an early podcast; but just a little.
So it is with a some disappointment I note that Andrew is wrapping up his religiously focused blog with “one last philosophical hurrah.” Andrew’s post is rather lengthy and covers many topic, however I wish to adequately address the points he has raised which means this post is only the first of many replies.
Andrew first raises the spectre of “agency verses mechanics”, drawing a distinction between how something works and why, or the difference between “mechanics and agency”. He invokes an “agency” who tinkers with the physics to effect the universe. I have never been fond of metaphysical arguments of this nature for they make a number of unstated assumptions, which often sail by without question. For example:
- The metaphysical actually exists.
- A metaphysical agent exists.
- The metaphysical agent is not natural in the sense that it occurs within the universe. It is something separate.
- The metaphysical agent can affect changes within the natural world, and
- The metaphysical agent cannot be considered part of an all encompassing metaphysical universe, for this would render the agent itself a part of the overall machinery and undermine the conclusion of the syllogism.
Of course, Andrew is free to state such metaphysical agents exist and “cause” the mechanics of the physical universe to behave in certain undefined ways, but he bears the unenviable burden of proof for this extraordinary claim – a charge he conveniently avoids because:
“… limited to studying the physical universe, so of course, anything that is not a part of the physical universe (e.g. a universal causal agent, meaning, art, love, purpose, or any range of meta-physical things) is not going to fall within science’s scope.”
Having shed the the tools of science he is left simply asserting that the metaphysical actually exists and he knows this because “there are other ways of knowing”, but refuses to detail how these “other ways” work, or how we can test their accuracy.
The statement “god” is a “metaphysical” entity like love, art, and purposes raises some interesting problems for his argument: “God”, like meaning, art, love, purpose is a concept. I am sure Andrew is not arguing that “god” is merely just a concept, but that he actually exists in some real way. Some metaphysical “real” way. None of the other “things” in the list exist in any real sense, they are descriptions of real objects, feelings, or behaviours. No one has ever been able to capture “love” in a jar, or examine “art” under the microscope, although we may examine our feelings, or paintings.
“Love” is an emotion; a powerful brain state. Everything we know about human physiology suggests our bodies, emotions, and our brain states are affected by chemistry, electrical impulses, magnetism, diet, thermal changes, and a host of other purely physical characteristics. Some drugs are known to induce feelings of euphoria where the afflicted expresses deep “love” for everything and everyone. Are we to believe a metaphysical substance called “love” associates itself with particular compounds waiting for the next hippie to blaze up? No, this is clearly absurd. The same basic arguments can be made against “art”, “purpose”, or any other imagined metaphysical property.
Of course, at first glance it appears I have fallen into the trap of using science in an attempt to discover and examine the metaphysical and therefore have stepped beyond of scope of the scientific endeavour, but not so. If you will pardon the pun, let me illustrate with colour.
There are many things in this world I call “yellow”. Flowers, bananas, The Simpsons, frogs, lemons, fish, sapphires, Spongebob Squarepants, rubber ducks, snakes, and those awful happy pants I purchased in the 80′s. We can agree all of these things are “yellow”, but what does that actually mean? Not many give the sensation of colour any serious thought, much less the specific colour “yellow” We simply assume it exists and is real, for that is what our eyes tell us. Unfortunately, colour doesn’t actually exist in the real world – at least not in the sense we commonly think about it.
Light with a wavelength of between 570–590 nm equally stimulates long and medium cone cells of our retina, which is interpreted by our brains as the colour “yellow”. There is nothing inherently “yellow” about this wavelength of light anymore than the “non yellowness” of 565 nm or 600 nm. Light simply has a frequency at which is oscillates. It does not gain “yellowness” and it passes through this frequency range. It is our brains which interpret the impulses sent from our eyes to form the concept of yellow. “Yellow”, if it can be said to exist at all, is a pattern of neural activity brought about by the application of 570–590 nm lightwaves to the retina of an individual. What’s important is that light does not gain a “yellow” metaphysical “substance” as it passes 570 nm, only to shed it again once the frequency rises above 590 nm.
We have evolved various (limited) methods to detect our environment which clearly aids in survival. As language evolved, the sensation of internally experiencing this wavelength of light has been given the label “yellow” (at least in the English language). “Yellow” is the label we give to a feature of the universe as detected by our senses. We take the linguistic shortcut to assist our communication – just imagine trying to honestly and fully explain the universe every time you desired a piece of fruit, or wanted to look like an idiot in happy pants again.
I believe the same can be said for everything we experience. Our senses detect parts of the real world and we internally simulate the world attaching crude labels to our internal experiences. This leaves my position as a physical reductionist bare – a position Andrew takes issue with:
“Take, for example, the words on your screen. One kind of explanation is to describe the electronics, the LCD and all the physics and so forth which allow you to see words appear on the screen. Another explanation is to say that I had some thoughts I wanted to communicate, and so I wrote a blog post. Both explanations are true, but they are different kinds of explanations – one is about mechanics and the other about agency, and neither explanation precludes the other. The extent to which an understanding of the mechanics can inform us about agency is rather variable, and requires a whole stack of other background knowledge. An explanation of the physics of seeing words on a screen can’t tell you, for example, that I’m writing in English – you need further background knowledge for that*.”
* John Lennox points out that semantic meaning, while emergent from letters, cannot be explained by a reductionist view of the physics and chemistry of ink on paper.”
While I have addressed this point in the past, I continue to think Andrew’s brain and thoughts (as well as yours and mine) are a product of its physical structure, chemical reactions, electrical activity, and a raft of other purely physical phenomenon. Everything medical science knows about the brain suggests it is intimately tied to personality, thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs – so much so that there does not appear to be any facet left untouched by the physical. Accident victims struggle with physical brain injuries, taking drugs (including alcohol) affects your mood, and applying electrodes can ease the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. There is nothing which suggests “thoughts” are somehow separate from the brain; not only do our thoughts occur within the brain, they are the brain. “Thoughts” are the label we give to the emergent phenomenon of a properly functioning human brain.
Let’s be clear: Andrew’s brain reacts concordantly with its initial physical state, and the laws of the physical universe. This results in him writing a blog post, where this computer encodes the message electronically and stored the results onto magnetic patterns of a web servers hard drive for future visitors to discover. Their computers render the fonts using a Liquid Crystal Display (or something fancier depending on your budget), which throws light into our retinas, to be interpreted by our physical brains. Being raised in an English community I recognise the patterns and swirls on the screen as “English” and can parse the information presented. I may also recognise the patterns of other languages, but may not have the skills to interpret their meaning, which should be a point which utterly destroys Andrew’s position.
If, as John Lennox puts it, “semantic meaning” is emergent from the “physics and chemistry of ink on paper” then why does it break down if the symbols cannot be recognised or interpreted by the receiver? In other words, if “meaning” transfers independently from the ink we should still be able to discern “meaning” without knowing the language utilised. Since this clearly is not the case it seems the notion of “semantic meaning” is bunk.
For the same reasons I also discard the idea of a “meta physical agency” for it fails in a similar manner and adds no explanatory power to our understanding of the universe. Andrew would have you believe a
supernatural metaphysical god agency intervenes in the natural world, or is ever present – in which case god spends an inordinate amount of time attending to orbits of electrons. Either way, I find the hypothesis to have no utility – they are, by definition, useless. The first because I cannot devise a way to differentiate the natural world acting in accordance with its own innate laws verse behaviours caused by an supernatural agency (something I have challenged Andrew on int he past). The second because an answer which answers everything, in fact answers nothing.
Lastly and for the sake of argument, if I were to assume a “meta physical agency” somehow exists beyond space and time, then I may equally ask the same questions; How do you account for the behaviours and actions of this “meta physical agency”? Just as things within the natural world could have external agents affecting them, surely the same could be said for an “meta physical agent”? I would also be interested to know how anyone can make any claims about the non-physical as it is surely beyond the scope of our natural senses to perceive. Personally, I find Occam’s razor makes swift work of these “explanations”.
Next time: “Why believe there is a God?“