Fire, Water, and Numbers

Fire vs. Water

All things are water,” says Thales.

“All things are fire,” says Heraclitus.

“Wait,” says David Hume’s Philo. “You both agree that all things are made up of one substance. Thales, you prefer to call it water, and Heraclitus, you prefer to call it fire. But isn’t that merely a verbal dispute? According to both of you, whatever you point at is fundamentally the same fundamental stuff. So whether you point at water or fire, or anything else, for that matter, you are always pointing at the same fundamental stuff. Where is the real disagreement?”

Philo has a somewhat valid point here, and I mentioned the same thing in the linked post referring to Thales. Nonetheless, as I also said in the same post, as well as in the discussion of the disagreement about God, while there is some common ground, there are also likely remaining points of disagreement. It might depend on context, and perhaps the disagreement is more about the best way of thinking about things than about the things themselves, somewhat like discussing whether the earth or the universe is the thing spinning, but Heraclitus could respond, for example, by saying that thinking of the fundamental stuff as fire is more valid because fire is constantly changing, while water often appears to be completely still, and (Heraclitus claims) everything is in fact constantly changing. This could represent a real disagreement, but it is not a large one, and Thales could simply respond: “Ok, everything is flowing water. Problem fixed.”

Numbers

It is said that Pythagoras and his followers held that “all things are numbers.” To what degree and in what sense this attribution is accurate is unclear, but in any case, some people hold this very position today, even if they would not call themselves Pythagoreans. Thus for example in a recent episode of Sean Carroll’s podcast, Carroll speaks with Max Tegmark, who seems to adopt this position:

0:23:37 MT: It’s squishy a little bit blue and moose like. [laughter] Those properties, I just described don’t sound very mathematical at all. But when we look at it, Sean through our physics eyes, we see that it’s actually a blob of quarks and electrons. And what properties does an electron have? It has the property, minus one, one half, one, and so on. We, physicists have made up these nerdy names for these properties like electric charge, spin, lepton number. But it’s just we humans who invented that language of calling them that, they are really just numbers. And you know as well as I do that the only difference between an electron and a top quark is what numbers its properties are. We have not discovered any other properties that they actually have. So that’s the stuff in space, all the different particles, in the Standard Model, you’ve written so much nice stuff about in your books are all described by just by sets of numbers. What about the space that they’re in? What property does the space have? I think I actually have your old nerdy non-popular, right?

0:24:50 SC: My unpopular book, yes.

0:24:52 MT: Space has, for example, the property three, that’s a number and we have a nerdy name for that too. We call it the dimensionality of space. It’s the maximum number of fingers I can put in space that are all perpendicular to each other. The name dimensionality is just the human language thing, the property is three. We also discovered that it has some other properties, like curvature and topology that Einstein was interested in. But those are all mathematical properties too. And as far as we know today in physics, we have never discovered any properties of either space or the stuff in space yet that are actually non-mathematical. And then it starts to feel a little bit less insane that maybe we are living in a mathematical object. It’s not so different from if you were a character living in a video game. And you started to analyze how your world worked. You would secretly be discovering just the mathematical workings of the code, right?

Tegmark presumably would believe that by saying that things “are really just numbers,” he would disagree with Thales and Heraclitus about the nature of things. But does he? Philo might well be skeptical that there is any meaningful disagreement here, just as between Thales and Heraclitus. As soon as you begin to say, “all things are this particular kind of thing,” the same issues will arise to hinder your disagreement with others who characterize things in a different way.

The discussion might be clearer if I put my cards on the table in advance:

First, there is some validity to the objection, just as there is to the objection concerning the difference between Thales and Heraclitus.

Second, there is nonetheless some residual disagreement, and on that basis it turns out that Tegmark and Pythagoras are more correct than Thales and Heraclitus.

Third, Tegmark most likely does not understand the sense in which he might be correct, rather supposing himself correct the way Thales might suppose himself correct in insisting, “No, things are really not fire, they are really water.”

Mathematical and non-mathematical properties

As an approach to these issues, consider the statement by Tegmark, “We have never discovered any properties of either space or the stuff in space yet that are actually non-mathematical.”

What would it look like if we found a property that was “actually non-mathematical?” Well, what about the property of being blue? As Tegmark remarks, that does not sound very mathematical. But it turns out that color is a certain property of a surface regarding how it reflects flight, and this is much more of a “mathematical” property, at least in the sense that we can give it a mathematical description, which we would have a hard time doing if we simply took the word “blue.”

So presumably we would find a non-mathematical property by seeing some property of things, then investigating it, and then concluding, “We have fully investigated this property and there is no mathematical description of it.” This did not happen with the color blue, nor has it yet happened with any other property; either we can say that we have not yet fully investigated it, or we can give some sort of mathematical description.

Tegmark appears to take the above situation to be surprising. Wow, we might have found reality to be non-mathematical, but it actually turns out to be entirely mathematical! I suggest something different. As hinted by connection with the linked post, things could not have turned out differently. A sufficiently detailed analysis of anything will be a mathematical analysis or something very like it. But this is not because things “are actually just numbers,” as though this were some deep discovery about the essence of things, but because of what it is for people to engage in “a detailed analysis” of anything.

Suppose you want to investigate some thing or some property. The first thing you need to do is to distinguish it from other things or other properties. The color blue is not the color red, the color yellow, or the color green.

Numbers are involved right here at the very first step. There are at least three colors, namely red, yellow, and blue.

Of course we can find more colors, but what if it turns out there seems to be no definite number of them, but we can always find more? Even in this situation, in order to “analyze” them, we need some way of distinguishing and comparing them. We will put them in some sort of order: one color is brighter than another, or one length is greater than another, or one sound is higher pitched than another.

As soon as you find some ordering of that sort (brightness, or greatness of length, or pitch), it will become possible to give a mathematical analysis in terms of the real numbers, as we discussed in relation to “good” and “better.” Now someone defending Tegmark might respond: there was no guarantee we would find any such measure or any such method to compare them. Without such a measure, you could perhaps count your property along with other properties. But you could not give a mathematical analysis of the property itself. So it is surprising that it turned out this way.

But you distinguished your property from other properties, and that must have involved recognizing some things in common with other properties, at least that it was something rather than nothing and that it was a property, and some ways in which it was different from other properties. Thus for example blue, like red, can be seen, while a musical note can be heard but not seen (at least by most people.) Red and blue have in common that they are colors. But what is the difference between them? If we are to respond in any way to this question, except perhaps, “it looks different,” we must find some comparison. And if we find a comparison, we are well on the way to a mathematical account. If we don’t find a comparison, people might rightly complain that we have not yet done any detailed investigation.

But to make the point stronger, let’s assume the best we can do is “it looks different.” Even if this is the case, this very thing will allow us to construct a comparison that will ultimately allow us to construct a mathematical measure. For “it looks different” is itself something that comes in degrees. Blue looks different from red, but orange does so as well, just less different. Insofar as this judgment is somewhat subjective, it might be hard to get a great deal of accuracy with this method. But it would indeed begin to supply us with a kind of sliding scale of colors, and we would be able to number this scale with the real numbers.

From a historical point of view, it took a while for people to realize that this would always be possible. Thus for example Isidore of Seville said that “unless sounds are held by the memory of man, they perish, because they cannot be written down.” It was not, however, so much ignorance of sound that caused this, as ignorance of “detailed analysis.”

This is closely connected to what we said about names. A mathematical analysis is a detailed system of naming, where we name not only individual items, but also various groups, using names like “two,” “three,” and “four.” If we find that we cannot simply count the thing, but we can always find more examples, we look for comparative ways to name them. And when we find a comparison, we note that some things are more distant from one end of the scale and other things are less distant. This allows us to analyze the property using real numbers or some similar mathematical concept. This is also related to our discussion of technical terminology; in an advanced stage any science will begin to use somewhat mathematical methods. Unfortunately, this can also result in people adopting mathematical language in order to look like their understanding has reached an advanced stage, when it has not.

It should be sufficiently clear from this why I suggested that things could not have turned out otherwise. A “non-mathematical” property, in Tegmark’s sense, can only be a property you haven’t analyzed, or one that you haven’t succeeded in analyzing if you did attempt it.

The three consequences

Above, I made three claims about Tegmark’s position. The reasons for them may already be somewhat clarified by the above, but nonetheless I will look at this in a bit more detail.

First, I said there was some truth in the objection that “everything is numbers” is not much different from “everything is water,” or “everything is fire.” One notices some “hand-waving,” so to speak, in Tegmark’s claim that “We, physicists have made up these nerdy names for these properties like electric charge, spin, lepton number. But it’s just we humans who invented that language of calling them that, they are really just numbers.” A measure of charge or spin or whatever may be a number. But who is to say the thing being measured is a number? Nonetheless, there is a reasonable point there. If you are to give an account at all, it will in some way express the form of the thing, which implies explaining relationships, which depends on the distinction of various related things, which entails the possibility of counting the things that are related. In other words, someone could say, “You have a mathematical account of a thing. But the thing itself is non-mathematical.” But if you then ask them to explain that non-mathematical thing, the new explanation will be just as mathematical as the original explanation.

Given this fact, namely that the “mathematical” aspect is a question of how detailed explanations work, what is the difference between saying “we can give a mathematical explanation, but apart from explanations, the things are numbers,” and “we can give a mathematical explanation, but apart from explanations, the things are fires?”

Exactly. There isn’t much difference. Nonetheless, I made the second claim that there is some residual disagreement and that by this measure, the mathematical claim is better than the one about fire or water. Of course we don’t really know what Thales or Heraclitus thought in detail. But Aristotle, at any rate, claimed that Thales intended to assert that material causes alone exist. And this would be at least a reasonable understanding of the claim that all things are water, or fire. Just as Heraclitus could say that fire is a better term than water because fire is always changing, Thales, if he really wanted to exclude other causes, could say that water is a better term than “numbers” because water seems to be material and numbers do not. But since other causes do exist, the opposite is the case: the mathematical claim is better than the materialistic ones.

Many people say that Tegmark’s account is flawed in a similar way, but with respect to another cause; that is, that mathematical accounts exclude final causes. But this is a lot like Ed Feser’s claim that a mathematical account of color implies that colors don’t really exist; namely they are like in just being wrong. A mathematical account of color does not imply that things are not colored, and a mathematical account of the world does not imply that final causes do not exist. As I said early on, a final causes explains why an efficient cause does what it does, and there is nothing about a mathematical explanation that prevents you from saying why the efficient cause does what it does.

My third point, that Tegmark does not understand the sense in which he is right, should be plain enough. As I stated above, he takes it to be a somewhat surprising discovery that we consistently find it possible to give mathematical accounts of the world, and this only makes sense if we assume it would in theory have been possible to discover something else. But that could not have happened, not because the world couldn’t have been a certain way, but because of the nature of explanation.

The Power of a Name

Fairy tales and other stories occasionally suggest the idea that a name gives some kind of power over the thing named, or at least that one’s problems concerning a thing may be solved by knowing its name, as in the story of Rumpelstiltskin. There is perhaps a similar suggestion in Revelation 2:7, “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.” The secrecy of the new name may indicate (among other things) that others will have no power over that person.

There is more truth in this idea than one might assume without much thought. For example, anonymous authors do not want to be “doxxed” because knowing the name of the author really does give some power in relation to them which is not had without the knowledge of their name. Likewise, as a blogger, occasionally I want to cite something, but cannot remember the name of the author or article where the statement is made. Even if I remember the content fairly clearly, lacking the memory of the name makes finding the content far more difficult, while on the other name, knowing the name gives me the power of finding the content much more easily.

But let us look a bit more deeply into this. Hilary Lawson, whose position was somewhat discussed here, has a discussion along these lines in Part II of his book, Closure: A Story of Everything. Since he denies that language truly refers to the world at all, as I mentioned in the linked post on his position, it is important to him that language has other effects, and in particular has practical goals. He says in chapter 4:

In order to understand the mechanism of practical linguistic closure consider an example where a proficient speaker of English comes across a new word. Suppose that we are visiting a zoo with a friend. We stand outside a cage and our friend says: ‘An aasvogel.” …

It might appear at first from this example that nothing has been added by the realisation of linguistic closure. The sound ‘aasvogel’ still sounds the same, the image of the bird still looks the same. So what has changed? The sensory closures on either side may not have changed, but a new closure has been realised. A new closure which is in addition to the prior available closures and which enables intervention which was not possible previously. For example, we now have a means of picking out this particular bird in the zoo because the meaning that has been realised will have identified a something in virtue of which this bird is an aasvogel and which thus enables us to distinguish it from others. As a result there will be many consequences for how we might be able to intervene.

The important point here is simply that naming something, even before taking any additional steps, immediately gives one the ability to do various practical things that one could not previously do. In a passage by Helen Keller, previously quoted here, she says:

Since I had no power of thought, I did not compare one mental state with another. So I was not conscious of any change or process going on in my brain when my teacher began to instruct me. I merely felt keen delight in obtaining more easily what I wanted by means of the finger motions she taught me.

We may have similar experiences as adults learning a foreign language while living abroad. At first one has very little ability to interact with the foreign world, but suddenly everything is possible.

Or consider the situation of a hunter gatherer who may not know how to count. It may be obvious to them that a bigger pile of fruit is better than a smaller one, but if two piles look similar, they may have no way to know which is better. But once they decide to give “one fruit and another” a name like “two,” and “two and one” a name like “three,” and so on, suddenly they obtain a great advantage that they previously did not possess. It is now possible to count piles and to discover that one pile has sixty-four while another has sixty-three. And it turns out that by treating the “sixty-four” as bigger than the other pile, although it does not look bigger, they end up better off.

In this sense one could look at the scientific enterprise of looking for mathematical laws of nature as one long process of looking for better names. We can see that some things are faster and some things are slower, but the vague names “fast” and “slow” cannot accomplish much. Once we can name different speeds more precisely, we can put them all in order and accomplish much more, just as the hunter gatherer can accomplish more after learning to count. And this extends to the full power of technology: the men who landed on the moon, did so ultimately due to the power of names.

If you take Lawson’s view, that language does not refer to the world at all, all of this is basically casting magic spells. In fact, he spells this out himself, in so many words, in chapter 3:

All material is in this sense magical. It enables intervention that cannot be understood. Ancient magicians were those who had access to closures that others did not know, in the same way that the Pharaohs had access to closures not available to their subjects. This gave them a supernatural character. It is now that thought that their magic has been explained, as the knowledge of herbs, metals or the weather. No such thing has taken place. More powerful closures have been realised, more powerful magic that can subsume the feeble closures of those magicians. We have simply lost sight of its magical character. Anthropology has many accounts of tribes who on being observed by a Western scientist believe that the observer has access to some very powerful magic. Magic that produces sound and images from boxes, and makes travel swift. We are inclined to smile patronisingly believing that we merely have knowledge — the technology behind radio and television, and motor vehicles — and not magic. The closures behind the technology do indeed provide us with knowledge and understanding and enable us to handle activity, but they do not explain how the closures enable intervention. How the closures are successful remains incomprehensible and in this sense is our magic.

I don’t think we should dismiss this point of view entirely, but I do think it is more mistaken than otherwise, basically because of the original mistake of thinking that language cannot refer to the world. But the point that names are extremely powerful is correct and important, to the point where even the analogy of technology as “magic that works” does make a certain amount of sense.

Anticipations of Darwin

I noted here that long before Darwin, there was fairly decent evidence for some sort of theory of evolution, even evidence available from the general human experience of plant and animal life, without deep scientific study.

As said in the earlier post, Aristotle notes that Empedocles hypothesized something along the lines of natural selection:

Wherever then all the parts came about just what they would have been if they had come to be for an end, such things survived, being organized spontaneously in a fitting way; whereas those which grew otherwise perished and continue to perish, as Empedocles says his ‘man-faced ox-progeny’ did.

Since Aristotle is arguing against Empedocles, we should be cautious in assuming that the characterization of his position is entirely accurate. But as presented by Aristotle, the position is an argument against the existence of final causes: since things can be “organized spontaneously” in the way “they would have been if they had come to be for an end,” there is no reason to think they in fact came to be for an end.

This particular conclusion, namely that in such a process nothing comes to be for an end, is a mistake, based on the assumption that different kinds of causes are mutually exclusive, rather than recognizing that different kinds of causes are different ways of explaining one and the same thing. But the general idea regarding what happened historically is correct: good conditions are more capable of persisting, bad conditions less so, and thus over time good conditions tend to predominate.

Other interesting anticipations may be found in Ibn Khaldun‘s book, The Muqaddimah, published in 1377. For example we find this passage:

It should be known that we — may God guide you and us — notice that this world with all the created things in it has a certain order and solid construction. It shows nexuses between causes and things caused, combinations of some parts of creation with others, and transformations of some existent things into others, in a pattern that is both remarkable and endless. Beginning with the world of the body and sensual perception, and therein first with the world of the visible elements, (one notices) how these elements are arranged gradually and continually in an ascending order, from earth to water, (from water) to air, and (from air) to fire. Each one of the elements is prepared to be transformed into the next higher or lower one, and sometimes is transformed. The higher one is always finer than the one preceding it. Eventually, the world of the spheres is reached. They are finer than anything else. They are in layers which are inter­connected, in a shape which the senses are able to perceive only through the existence of motions. These motions provide some people with knowledge of the measurements and positions of the spheres, and also with knowledge of the existence of the essences beyond, the influence of which is noticeable in the spheres through the fact (that they have motion).

One should then look at the world of creation. It started out from the minerals and progressed, in an ingenious, gradual manner, to plants and animals. The last stage of minerals is connected with the first stage of plants, such as herbs and seedless plants. The last stage of plants, such as palms and vines, is connected with the first stage of animals, such as snails and shellfish which have only the power of touch. The word “connection” with regard to these created things means that the last stage of each group is fully prepared to become the first stage of the next group.

The animal world then widens, its species become numerous, and, in a gradual process of creation, it finally leads to man, who is able to think and to reflect. The higher stage of man is reached from the world of the monkeys, in which both sagacity and perception are found, but which has not reached the stage of actual reflection and thinking. At this point we come to the first stage of man after (the world of monkeys). This is as far as our (physical) observation extends.

It is possible that he makes his position clearer elsewhere (I have not read the entire work.) The passage here does not explicitly assert that humans arose from lower animals, but does suggest it, correctly associating human beings with monkeys in particular, even if some of his other connections are somewhat strange. In other words, both here and elsewhere, he speaks of one stage of things being “prepared to become” another stage, and says that this transition sometimes happens: “Each one of the elements is prepared to be transformed into the next higher or lower one, and sometimes is transformed.”

While Ibn Khaldun is at least suggesting that we notice a biological order that corresponds to some degree to an actual historical order, we do not see in this text any indication of what the mechanism is supposed to be. In contrast, Empedocles gives us a mechanism but no clarity regarding historical order. Admittedly, this may be an artifact of the fact that I have not read more of Ibn Khaldun and the fact that we have only fragments from Empedocles.

One of the strongest anticipations of all, although put in very general terms, can be found in David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, in the following passage:

Besides, why may not motion have been propagated by impulse through all eternity, and the same stock of it, or nearly the same, be still upheld in the universe? As much is lost by the composition of motion, as much is gained by its resolution. And whatever the causes are, the fact is certain, that matter is, and always has been, in continual agitation, as far as human experience or tradition reaches. There is not probably, at present, in the whole universe, one particle of matter at absolute rest.

And this very consideration too, continued PHILO, which we have stumbled on in the course of the argument, suggests a new hypothesis of cosmogony, that is not absolutely absurd and improbable. Is there a system, an order, an economy of things, by which matter can preserve that perpetual agitation which seems essential to it, and yet maintain a constancy in the forms which it produces? There certainly is such an economy; for this is actually the case with the present world. The continual motion of matter, therefore, in less than infinite transpositions, must produce this economy or order; and by its very nature, that order, when once established, supports itself, for many ages, if not to eternity. But wherever matter is so poised, arranged, and adjusted, as to continue in perpetual motion, and yet preserve a constancy in the forms, its situation must, of necessity, have all the same appearance of art and contrivance which we observe at present. All the parts of each form must have a relation to each other, and to the whole; and the whole itself must have a relation to the other parts of the universe; to the element in which the form subsists; to the materials with which it repairs its waste and decay; and to every other form which is hostile or friendly. A defect in any of these particulars destroys the form; and the matter of which it is composed is again set loose, and is thrown into irregular motions and fermentations, till it unite itself to some other regular form. If no such form be prepared to receive it, and if there be a great quantity of this corrupted matter in the universe, the universe itself is entirely disordered; whether it be the feeble embryo of a world in its first beginnings that is thus destroyed, or the rotten carcass of one languishing in old age and infirmity. In either case, a chaos ensues; till finite, though innumerable revolutions produce at last some forms, whose parts and organs are so adjusted as to support the forms amidst a continued succession of matter.

Suppose (for we shall endeavour to vary the expression), that matter were thrown into any position, by a blind, unguided force; it is evident that this first position must, in all probability, be the most confused and most disorderly imaginable, without any resemblance to those works of human contrivance, which, along with a symmetry of parts, discover an adjustment of means to ends, and a tendency to self-preservation. If the actuating force cease after this operation, matter must remain for ever in disorder, and continue an immense chaos, without any proportion or activity. But suppose that the actuating force, whatever it be, still continues in matter, this first position will immediately give place to a second, which will likewise in all probability be as disorderly as the first, and so on through many successions of changes and revolutions. No particular order or position ever continues a moment unaltered. The original force, still remaining in activity, gives a perpetual restlessness to matter. Every possible situation is produced, and instantly destroyed. If a glimpse or dawn of order appears for a moment, it is instantly hurried away, and confounded, by that never-ceasing force which actuates every part of matter.

Thus the universe goes on for many ages in a continued succession of chaos and disorder. But is it not possible that it may settle at last, so as not to lose its motion and active force (for that we have supposed inherent in it), yet so as to preserve an uniformity of appearance, amidst the continual motion and fluctuation of its parts? This we find to be the case with the universe at present. Every individual is perpetually changing, and every part of every individual; and yet the whole remains, in appearance, the same. May we not hope for such a position, or rather be assured of it, from the eternal revolutions of unguided matter; and may not this account for all the appearing wisdom and contrivance which is in the universe? Let us contemplate the subject a little, and we shall find, that this adjustment, if attained by matter of a seeming stability in the forms, with a real and perpetual revolution or motion of parts, affords a plausible, if not a true solution of the difficulty.

It is in vain, therefore, to insist upon the uses of the parts in animals or vegetables, and their curious adjustment to each other. I would fain know, how an animal could subsist, unless its parts were so adjusted? Do we not find, that it immediately perishes whenever this adjustment ceases, and that its matter corrupting tries some new form? It happens indeed, that the parts of the world are so well adjusted, that some regular form immediately lays claim to this corrupted matter: and if it were not so, could the world subsist? Must it not dissolve as well as the animal, and pass through new positions and situations, till in great, but finite succession, it falls at last into the present or some such order?

Although extremely general, Hume is suggesting both a history and a mechanism. Hume posits conservation of motion or other similar laws of nature, presumably mathematical, and describes what will happen when you apply such laws to a world. Most situations are unstable, and precisely because they are unstable, they will not last, and other situations will come to be. But some situations are stable, and when such situations occur, they will last.

The need for conservation of motion or similar natural laws is not accidental here. This is why I included the first paragraph above, rather than beginning the quotation where Hume begins to describe his “new hypothesis of cosmogony.” Without motion, the situation could not change, so a new situation could not come to be, and the very ideas of stable and unstable situations would not make sense. Likewise, if motion existed but did not follow any law, all situations should be unstable, so no amount of change could lead to a stable situation. Thus since things always fall downwards instead of in random directions, things stabilize near a center, while merely random motion could not be expected to have this effect. Thus a critic might argue that Hume seems to be positing randomness as the origin of things, but is cheating, so to speak, by positing original stabilities like natural laws, which are not random at all. Whatever might be said of this, it is an important point, and I will be returning to it later.

Since his description is more general than a description of living things in particular, Hume does not mention anything like the theory of the common descent of living things. But there is no huge gulf here: this would simply be a particular application. In fact, some people have suggested that Hume may have had textual influence on Darwin.

While there are other anticipations (there is one in Immanuel Kant that I am not currently inclined to seek out), I will skip to Philip Gosse, who published two years before Darwin. As described in the linked post, while Gosse denies the historicity of evolution in a temporal sense, he posits that the geological evidence was deliberately constructed (by God) to be evidence of common descent.

What was Darwin’s own role, then, if all the elements of his theory were known to various people years, centuries, or even millennia in advance? If we look at this in terms of Thomas Kuhn’s account of scientific progress, it is not so much that Darwin invented new ideas, as that he brought the evidence and arguments together in such a way as to produce — extremely quickly after the publication of his work — a newly formed consensus on those ideas.

Infinity

I discussed this topic previously, but without coming to a definite conclusion. Here I will give what I think is the correct explanation.

In his book Infinity, Causation, and Paradox, Alexander Pruss argues for what he calls “causal finitism,” or the principle that nothing can be affected by infinitely many causes:

In this volume, I will present a number of paradoxes of infinity, some old like Thomson’s Lamp and some new, and offer a unified metaphysical response to all of them by means of the hypothesis of causal finitism, which roughly says that nothing can be affected by infinitely many causes. In particular, Thomson’s Lamp story is ruled out since the final state of the lamp would be affected by infinitely many switch togglings. And in addition to arguing for the hypothesis as the best unified resolution to the paradoxes I shall offer some direct arguments against infinite regresses.

Thomson’s Lamp, if the reader is not familiar with it, is the question of what happens to a lamp if you switch it on and off an infinite number of times in a finite interval, doubling your velocity after each switch. At the end of the interval, is it on or off?

I think Pruss’s account is roughly speaking correct. I say “roughly speaking” because I would be hesitant to claim that nothing can be “affected” by infinitely many causes. Rather I would say that nothing is one effect simultaneously of infinitely many causes, and this is true for the same reason that there cannot be an infinite causal regress. That is, an infinite causal regress removes the notion of cause by removing the possibility of explanation, which is an intrinsic part of the idea of a cause. Similarly, it is impossible to explain anything using an infinite number of causes, because that infinity as such cannot be comprehended, and thus cannot be used to understand the thing which is the supposed effect. And since the infinity cannot explain the thing, neither can it be the cause of the thing.

What does this imply about the sorts of questions that were raised in my previous discussion, as for example about an infinite past or an infinite future, or a spatially infinite universe?

I presented an argument there, without necessarily claiming it to be correct, that such things are impossible precisely because they seem to imply an infinite causal regress. If there an infinite number of stars in the universe, for example, there seems to be an infinite regress of material causes: the universe seems to be composed of this local portion plus the rest, with the rest composed in a similar way, ad infinitum.

Unfortunately, there is an error in this argument against a spatially infinite world, and in similar arguments against a temporally infinite world, whether past or future. This can be seen in my response to Bertrand Russell when I discuss the material causes of water. Even if it is possible to break every portion of water down into smaller portions, it does not follow that this is an infinite sequence of material causes, or that it helps to explain water. In a similar way, even if the universe can be broken down into an infinite number of pieces in the above way, it does not follow that the universe has an infinite number of material causes: rather, this breakdown fails to explain, and fails to give causes at all.

St. Thomas gives a different argument against an infinite multitude, roughly speaking that it would lack a formal cause:

This, however, is impossible; since every kind of multitude must belong to a species of multitude. Now the species of multitude are to be reckoned by the species of numbers. But no species of number is infinite; for every number is multitude measured by one. Hence it is impossible for there to be an actually infinite multitude, either absolute or accidental.

By this argument, it would be impossible for there to be “an infinite number of stars” because the collection would lack “a species of multitude.” Unfortunately there is a problem with this argument as well, namely that it presupposes that the number is inherently fixed before it is considered by human beings. In reality, counting depends on someone who counts and a method they use for counting; to talk about the “number of stars” is a choice to break down the world in that particular way. There are other ways to think of it, as for example when we use the word “universe”, we count everything at once as a unit.

According to my account here, are some sorts of infinity actually impossible? Yes, namely those which demand an infinite sequence of explanation, or which demand an infinite number of things in order to explain something. Thus for example consider this story from Pruss about shuffling an infinite deck of cards:

Suppose I have an infinitely deep deck of cards, numbered with the positive integers. Can I shuffle it?

Given an infinite past, here is a procedure: n days ago, I perfectly fairly shuffle the top n cards in the deck.

This procedure is impossible because it makes the current state of the deck the direct effect of what I did n days ago, for all n. And the effect is a paradox: it is mathematically impossible for the integers to be randomly shuffled, because any series of integers will be biased towards lower numbers. Note that the existence of an infinite past is not the problem so much as assuming that one could have carried out such a procedure during an infinite past; in reality, if there was an infinite past, its contents are equally “infinite,” that is, they do not have such a definable, definite, “finite” relationship with the present.

Structure of Explanation

When we explain a thing, we give a cause; we assign the thing an origin that explains it.

We can go into a little more detail here. When we ask “why” something is the case, there is always an implication of possible alternatives. At the very least, the question implies, “Why is this the case rather than not being the case?” Thus “being the case” and “not being the case” are two possible alternatives.

The alternatives can be seen as possibilities in the sense explained in an earlier post. There may or may not be any actual matter involved, but again, the idea is that reality (or more specifically some part of reality) seems like something that would be open to being formed in one way or another, and we are asking why it is formed in one particular way rather than the other way. “Why is it raining?” In principle, the sky is open to being clear, or being filled with clouds and a thunderstorm, and to many other possibilities.

A successful explanation will be a complete explanation when it says “once you take the origin into account, the apparent alternatives were only apparent, and not really possible.” It will be a partial explanation when it says, “once you take the origin into account, the other alternatives were less sensible (i.e. made less sense as possibilities) than the actual thing.”

Let’s consider some examples in the form of “why” questions and answers.

Q1. Why do rocks fall? (e.g. instead of the alternatives of hovering in the air, going upwards, or anything else.)

A1. Gravity pulls things downwards, and rocks are heavier than air.

The answer gives an efficient cause, and once this cause is taken into account, it can be seen that hovering in the air or going upwards were not possibilities relative to that cause.

Obviously there is not meant to be a deep explanation here; the point here is to discuss the structure of explanation. The given answer is in fact basically Newton’s answer (although he provided more mathematical detail), while with general relativity Einstein provided a better explanation.

The explanation is incomplete in several ways. It is not a first cause; someone can now ask, “Why does gravity pull things downwards, instead of upwards or to the side?” Similarly, while it is in fact the cause of falling rocks, someone can still ask, “Why didn’t anything else prevent gravity from making the rocks fall?” This is a different question, and would require a different answer, but it seems to reopen the possibility of the rocks hovering or moving upwards, from a more general point of view. David Hume was in part appealing to the possibility of such additional questions when he said that we can see no necessary connection between cause and effect.

Q2. Why is 7 prime? (i.e. instead of the alternative of not being prime.)

A2. 7/2 = 3.5, so 7 is not divisible by 2. 7/3 = 2.333…, so 7 is not divisible by 3. In a similar way, it is not divisible by 4, 5, or 6. Thus in general it is not divisible by any number except 1 and itself, which is what it means to be prime.

If we assumed that the questioner did not know what being prime means, we could have given a purely formal response simply by noting that it is not divisible by numbers between 1 and itself, and explaining that this is what it is to be prime. As it is, the response gives a sufficient material disposition. Relative to this explanation, “not being prime,” was never a real possibility for 7 in the first place. The explanation is complete in that it completely excludes the apparent alternative.

Q3. Why did Peter go to the store? (e.g. instead of going to the park or the museum, or instead of staying home.)

A3. He went to the store in order to buy groceries.

The answer gives a final cause. In view of this cause the alternatives were merely apparent. Going to the park or the museum, or even staying home, were not possible since there were no groceries there.

As in the case of the rock, the explanation is partial in several ways. Someone can still ask, “Why did he want groceries?” And again someone can ask why he didn’t go to some other store, or why something didn’t hinder him, and so on. Such questions seem to reopen various possibilities, and thus the explanation is not an ultimately complete one.

Suppose, however, that someone brings up the possibility that instead of going to the store, he could have gone to his neighbor and offered money for groceries in his neighbor’s refrigerator. This possibility is not excluded simply by the purpose of buying groceries. Nonetheless, the possibility seems less sensible than getting them from the store, for multiple reasons. Again, the implication is that our explanation is only partial: it does not completely exclude alternatives, but it makes them less sensible.

Let’s consider a weirder question: Why is there something rather than nothing?

Now the alternatives are explicit, namely there being something, and there being nothing.

It can be seen that in one sense, as I said in the linked post, the question cannot have an answer, since there cannot be a cause or origin for “there is something” which would itself not be something. Nonetheless, if we consider the idea of possible alternatives, it is possible to see that the question does not need an answer; one of the alternatives was only an apparent alternative all along.

In other words, the sky can be open to being clear or cloudy. But there cannot be something which is open both to “there is something” and “there is nothing”, since any possibility of that kind would be “something which is open…”, which would already be something rather than nothing. The “nothing” alternative was merely apparent. Nothing was ever open to there being nothing.

Let’s consider another weird question. Suppose we throw a ball, and in the middle of the path we ask, Why is the ball in the middle of the path instead of at the end of the path?

We could respond in terms of a sufficient material disposition: it is in the middle of the path because you are asking your question at the middle, instead of waiting until the end.

Suppose the questioner responds: Look, I asked my question at the middle of the path. But that was just chance. I could have asked at any moment, including at the end. So I want to know why it was in the middle without considering when I am asking the question.

If we look at the question in this way, it can be seen in one way that no cause or origin can be given. Asked in this way, being at the end cannot be excluded, since they could have asked their question at the end. But like the question about something rather than nothing, the question does not need an answer. In this case, this is not because the alternatives were merely apparent in the sense that one was possible and the other not. But they were merely apparent in the sense that they were not alternatives. The ball goes both goes through the middle, and reaches the end. With the stipulation that we not consider the time of the question, the two possibilities are not mutually exclusive.

Additional Considerations

The above considerations about the nature of “explanation” lead to various conclusions, but also to various new questions. For example, one commenter suggested that “explanation” is merely subjective. Now as I said there, all experience is subjective experience (what would “objective experience” even mean, except that someone truly had a subjective experience?), including the experience of having an explanation. Nonetheless, the thing experienced is not subjective: the origins that we call explanations objectively exclude the apparent possibilities, or objectively make them less intelligible. The explanation of explanation here, however, provides an answer to what was perhaps the implicit question. Namely, why are we so interested in explanations in the first place, so that the experience of understanding something becomes a particularly special type of experience? Why, as Aristotle puts it, do “all men desire to know,” and why is that desire particularly satisfied by explanations?

In one sense it is sufficient simply to say that understanding is good in itself. Nonetheless, there is something particular about the structure of a human being that makes knowledge good for us, and which makes explanation a particularly desirable form of knowledge. In my employer and employee model of human psychology, I said that “the whole company is functioning well overall when the CEO’s goal of accurate prediction is regularly being achieved.” This very obviously requires knowledge, and explanation is especially beneficial because it excludes alternatives, which reduces uncertainty and therefore tends to make prediction more accurate.

However, my account also raises new questions. If explanation eliminates alternatives, what would happen if everything was explained? We could respond that “explaining everything” is not possible in the first place, but this is probably an inadequate response, because (from the linked argument) we only know that we cannot explain everything all at once, the way the person in the room cannot draw everything at once; we do not know that there is any particular thing that cannot be explained, just as there is no particular aspect of the room that cannot be drawn. So there can still be a question about what would happen if every particular thing in fact has an explanation, even if we cannot know all the explanations at once. In particular, since explanation eliminates alternatives, does the existence of explanations imply that there are not really any alternatives? This would suggest something like Leibniz’s argument that the actual world is the best possible world. It is easy to see that such an idea implies that there was only one “possibility” in the first place: Leibniz’s “best possible world” would be rather “the only possible world,” since the apparent alternatives, given that they would have been worse, were not real alternatives in the first place.

On the other hand, if we suppose that this is not the case, and there are ultimately many possibilities, does this imply the existence of “brute facts,” things that could have been otherwise, but which simply have no explanation? Or at least things that have no complete explanation?

Let the reader understand. I have already implicitly answered these questions. However, I will not link here to the implicit answers because if one finds it unclear when and where this was done, one would probably also find those answers unclear and inconclusive. Of course it is also possible that the reader does see when this was done, but still believes those responses inadequate. In any case, it is possible to provide the answers in a form which is much clearer and more conclusive, but this will likely not be a short or simple project.

Rao’s Divergentism

The main point of this post is to encourage the reader who has not yet done so, to read Venkatesh Rao’s essay Can You Hear Me Now. I will not say too much about it. The purpose is potentially for future reference, and simply to point out a connection with some current topics here.

Rao begins:

The fundamental question of life, the universe and everything is the one popularized by the Verizon guy in the ad: Can you hear me now?

This conclusion grew out of a conversation I had about a year ago, with some friends, in which I proposed a modest-little philosophy I dubbed divergentism. Here is a picture.

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Divergentism is the idea that as individuals grow out into the universe, they diverge from each other in thought-space. This, I argued, is true even if in absolute terms, the sum of shared beliefs is steadily increasing. Because the sum of beliefs that are not shared increases even faster on average. Unfortunately, you are unique, just like everybody else.

If you are a divergentist, you believe that as you age, the average answer to the fundamental Verizon question slowly drifts, as you age, from yes, to no, to silenceIf you’re unlucky, you’re a hedgehog and get unhappier and unhappier about this as you age. If you are lucky, you’re a fox and you increasingly make your peace with this condition. If you’re really lucky, you die too early to notice the slowly descending silence, before it even becomes necessary to Google the phrase existential horror.

To me, this seemed like a completely obvious idea. Much to my delight, most people I ran it by immediately hated it.

The entire essay is worth reading.

I would question whether this is really the “fundamental question of life, the universe, and everything,” but Rao has a point. People do tend to think of their life as meaningful on account of social connections, and if those social connections grow increasingly weaker, they will tend to worry that their life is becoming less meaningful.

The point about the intellectual life of an individual is largely true. This is connected to what I said about the philosophical progress of an individual some days ago. There is also a connection with Kuhn’s idea of how the progress of the sciences causes a gulf to arise between them in such a way that it becomes more and more difficult for scientists in different fields to communicate with one another. If we look at the overall intellectual life of an individual as a sort of individual advancing science, the “sciences” of each individual will generally speaking tend to diverge from one another, allowing less and less communication. This is not about people making mistakes, although obviously making mistakes will contribute to this process. As Rao says, it may be that “the sum of shared beliefs is steadily increasing,” but this will not prevent their intellectual lives overall from diverging, just as the divergence of the sciences does not result from falsity, but from increasingly detailed focus on different truths.

Pseudoscience

James Chastek reflects on science, pseudoscience, and religion:

The demarcation problem is a name for our failure to identify criteria that can distinguish science from pseudo-science, in spite of there being two such things. In the absence of rational criteria, we get clarity on the difference from various institutional-cultural institutions, like the consensus produced by university gatekeepers though peer review (which generates, by definition, peer pressure), grants, prestige, and other stick-and-carrot means.  Like most institutions we expect it to do reasonably well (or at least better than an every-man-for-himself chaos) though it will come at a cost of group-think, elitism, the occasional witch hunt etc..

The demarcation problem generalizes to our failure to identify any meta-criterion for what counts as legitimate discourse or belief. Kant’s famous attempt to articulate meta-criteria for thought, which concluded to limiting it to an intuition of Euclidean space distinct from linear time turned out to be no limitation at all, and Davidson pointed out that the very idea of a conceptual scheme – a finite scope or limit to human thought that could be determined in advance – requires us to posit a language that is in-principle untranslatable, which is to speak of something that has to meaning. Heraclitus was right – you can’t come to the borders of thought, even if you travel down every road. We simply can’t articulate a domain of acceptable belief in general from which we can identify the auslanders.

This is true of religion as well. By our own resources we can know there are pseudo ones and truer ones, but the degree of clarity we want in this area is going to have to be borrowed from an intellect other than our own. The various religious institutions are attempts to make up for this deficiency in reason and provide us with clearer and more precise articulations of true religion in exactly the same way that we get it in the sciences. That a westerner tends to accept Christianity arises from the same sort of process that makes him tend to accept scientific consensus. He walks within the ambit of various institutions that are designed to help him toward truth, and they almost certainly succeed at this more than he would succeed if left solely to his own lights. Anyone who thinks he can easily identify true science while no one can identify true religion is right in a sense, but he doesn’t recognize how heavily his belief is resting on institutional power.

Like Sean Collins as quoted in this earlier post, Chastek seems to be unreasonably emphasizing the similarity between science and religion where in fact there is a greater dissimilarity. As discussed in the last post, a field is only considered scientific once it has completely dominated the area of thought among persistent students of that field. It is not exactly that “no one disagrees,” so much as that it becomes too complicated for anyone except those students. But those students, to an extremely high degree, have a unified view of the field. An actual equivalent in the area of religion would be if virtually all theologians accepted the same religion. Even here, it might be a bit strange to find whole countries that accepted another religion, the way it would be strange to find a whole country believing in a flat earth. But perhaps not so strange; occasionally you do get a poll indicating a fairly large percentage of some nation believing some claim entirely opposed to the paradigm of some field of science. Nonetheless, if virtually all theologians accepted the same religion, the comparison between science and religion would be pretty apt. Since that is not the case in the slightest, religion looks more like a field where knowledge remains “undeveloped,” in the way I suggested in reference to some areas of philosophy.

Chastek is right to note that one cannot set down some absolute list of rules setting apart reasonable thought from unreasonable thought, or science from pseudoscience. Nonetheless, reflecting on the comments to the previous post, it occurs to me that we have a pretty good idea of what pseudoscience is. The term itself, of course, means something like “fake science,” so the idea would be something purporting to be scientific which is not scientific.

A recurring element in Kuhn’s book, as in the title itself, is the idea of change in scientific paradigms. Kuhn remarks:

Probably the single most prevalent claim advanced by the proponents of a new paradigm is that they can solve the problems that have led the old one to a crisis. When it can legitimately be made, this claim is often the most effective one possible. In the area for which it is advanced the paradigm is known to be in trouble. That trouble has repeatedly been explored, and attempts to remove it have again and again proved vain. “Crucial experiments”—those able to discriminate particularly sharply between the two paradigms—have been recognized and attested before the new paradigm was even invented. Copernicus thus claimed that he had solved the long-vexing problem of the length of the calendar year, Newton that he had reconciled terrestrial and celestial mechanics, Lavoisier that he had solved the problems of gas-identity and of weight relations, and Einstein that he had made electrodynamics compatible with a revised science of motion.

Some pages later, considering why paradigm change is considered progress, he continues:

Because the unit of scientific achievement is the solved problem and because the group knows well which problems have already been solved, few scientists will easily be persuaded to adopt a viewpoint that again opens to question many problems that had previously been solved. Nature itself must first undermine professional security by making prior achievements seem problematic. Furthermore, even when that has occurred and a new candidate for paradigm has been evoked, scientists will be reluctant to embrace it unless convinced that two all-important conditions are being met. First, the new candidate must seem to resolve some outstanding and generally recognized problem that can be met in no other way. Second, the new paradigm must promise to preserve a relatively large part of the concrete problem-solving ability that has accrued to science through its predecessors. Novelty for its own sake is not a desideratum in the sciences as it is in so many other creative fields. As a result, though new paradigms seldom or never possess all the capabilities of their predecessors, they usually preserve a great deal of the most concrete parts of past achievement and they always permit additional concrete problem-solutions besides.

It is not automatically unscientific to suggest that the current paradigm is somehow mistaken and needs to be replaced: in fact the whole idea of paradigm change depends on scientists doing this on a fairly frequent basis. But Kuhn suggests that this mainly happens when there are well known problems with the current paradigm. Additionally, when a new one is proposed, it should be in order to solve new problems. This suggests one particular form of pseudoscientific behavior: to propose new paradigms when there are no special problems with the current ones. Or at any rate, to propose that they be taken just as seriously as the current ones; there is not necessarily anything unreasonable about saying, “Although we currently view things according to paradigm A, someday we might need to adopt something somewhat like paradigm B,” even if one is not yet aware of any great problems with paradigm A.

A particularly anti-scientific form of this would be to propose that the current paradigm be abandoned in favor of an earlier one. It is easy to see why scientists would be especially opposed to such a proposal: since the earlier one was abandoned in order to solve new problems and to resolve more and more serious discrepancies between the paradigm and experience, going back to an earlier paradigm would suddenly create all sorts of new problems.

On the other hand, why do we have the “science” part of “pseudoscience”? This is related to Chastek’s point about institutions as a force creating conformity of opinion. The pseudoscientist is a sort of predator in relation to these institutions. While the goal of science is truth, at least to a first approximation, the pseudoscientist has something different in mind: this is clear from the fact that he does not care whether his theory solves any new problems, and it is even more clear in the case of a retrogressive proposal. But the pseudoscientist will attempt to use the institutions of science to advance his cause. This will tend in reality to be highly unsuccessful in relation to ordinary scientists, for the same reason that Kuhn remarks that scientists who refuse to adopt a new paradigm after its general acceptance “are simply read out of the profession, which thereafter ignores their work.” In a similar way, if someone proposes an unnecessary paradigm change, scientists will simply ignore the proposal. But if the pseudoscientist manages to get beyond certain barriers, e.g. peer review, it may be more difficult for ordinary people to distinguish between ordinary science and pseudoscience, since they are not in fact using their own understanding of the matter, but simply possess a general trust that the scientists know the general truth about the field.

One of the most common usages of the term “pseudoscience” is in relation to young earth creationism, and rightly so. This is in fact a case of attempting to return to an earlier paradigm which was abandoned precisely because of the kind of tensions that are typical of paradigm change. Thus one of their favorite methods is to attempt to get things published in peer reviewed journals. Very occasionally this is successful, but obviously it has very little effect on the field itself: just as with late adopters or people who never change their mind, the rest of the field, as Kuhn says, “ignores their work.” But to the degree that they manage to lead ordinary people to adopt their views, this is to act in a sort of predator relationship with the institutions of science: to take advantage of these institutions for the sake of falsehood rather than truth.

That’s kind of blunt, someone will say. If paradigm change is frequently necessary, surely it could happen at least once that a former paradigm was better than a later one, such that it would be necessary to return to it, and for the sake of truth. People are not infallible, so surely this is possible.

Indeed, it is possible. But very unlikely, for all the reasons that Kuhn mentions. And in order for such a proposal to be truth oriented, it would have to be motivated by the perception of problems with the current paradigm, even if they were problems that had not been foreseen when the original paradigm was abandoned. In practice such proposals are normally not motivated by problems at all,  and thus there is very little orientation towards truth in them.

Naturally, all of this has some bearing on the comments to the last post, but I will leave most of that to the reader’s consideration. I will remark, however, that things like “he is simply ignorant of basic physics because he is a computer scientist, not a physicist,” or “Your last question tells me that you do not know much physics,” or that it is important not to “ignore the verdict of the reviewers and editors of a respected physics journal,” might be important clues for the ordinary fellow.