Counterfactuals as Historical Fiction

Suppose someone reading Anne of Green Gables asks a question about what happened before the story begins. For example, what did Anne have for lunch 37 days before her arrival in Avonlea?

It is easy to see that this question does not have one true answer. There is no such thing as what she really had for lunch, because it is a story, and that meal is not included in it. On the other hand, despite the lack of any absolute truth here, some answers remain more reasonable than others. For example, “She had salad,” is a more sensible answer than “she ate crushed glass that day.” Just as I said in regard to “why” something is the case, one can give a partial answer, in the sense of showing that some options are more intelligible than others, without being able to exclude some options entirely.

These same things will apply to questions about a work of historical fiction, although the intended historical context will provide additional ways to show that some answers are more sensible than others. Thus if a story is set in ancient Rome, the claim that someone had corn for lunch is unreasonable due to the historical context, although not as unreasonable as some other possibilities that you could suggest.

Now consider a counterfactual question about your current situation: “What would you do if it were 120 degrees Fahrenheit in your house?”

There is no fundamental difference between this and the case of historical fiction. In effect, we just created a story about you: “It was 120 degrees in your house. You…”

Like the case of historical fiction, some answers will be more sensible than others, but there is no thing that you really would do in that situation. The story didn’t really take place, but if it did, it would have taken place with a lot more concrete detail, and that concrete detail could determine the specific answer to the question. If Anne of Green Gables were a true story, her concrete situation would have determined what she had for lunch that day. And if it were really 120 degrees in your house, what you would do would depend on how and why things got that way, as well as other factors in your concrete situation.

Some philosophers have spent a lot of time on this kind of counterfactual question, apparently largely from a desire for absolute answers. For example, some suggest that a counterfactual is true if the claim is true in the nearest possible world where the antecedent is true. In a similar way, Molinists argue that in order to be omniscient, God has to know what you would do if it were 120 degrees in your house, and that it must be one specific thing, so that there is one thing that you really would do in that situation. They call this kind of knowledge “middle” knowledge, namely something in between knowledge of what actually is and knowledge of what merely might have been.

All accounts of this kind are wasted effort. The brief account above is sufficient.

Fair and Unfair Logic

St. Thomas discusses cases in which one should not follow the law:

As stated above (Article 4), every law is directed to the common weal of men, and derives the force and nature of law accordingly. Hence the jurist says [Pandect. Justin. lib. i, ff., tit. 3, De Leg. et Senat.]: “By no reason of law, or favor of equity, is it allowable for us to interpret harshly, and render burdensome, those useful measures which have been enacted for the welfare of man.” Now it happens often that the observance of some point of law conduces to the common weal in the majority of instances, and yet, in some cases, is very hurtful. Since then the lawgiver cannot have in view every single case, he shapes the law according to what happens most frequently, by directing his attention to the common good. Wherefore if a case arise wherein the observance of that law would be hurtful to the general welfare, it should not be observed. For instance, suppose that in a besieged city it be an established law that the gates of the city are to be kept closed, this is good for public welfare as a general rule: but, it were to happen that the enemy are in pursuit of certain citizens, who are defenders of the city, it would be a great loss to the city, if the gates were not opened to them: and so in that case the gates ought to be opened, contrary to the letter of the law, in order to maintain the common weal, which the lawgiver had in view.

He calls the attitude that leads one to set aside the law in such cases “epikeia,” or “equity,” which in this context means something like fairness or moderation:

As stated above (I-II:96:6), when we were treating of laws, since human actions, with which laws are concerned, are composed of contingent singulars and are innumerable in their diversity, it was not possible to lay down rules of law that would apply to every single case. Legislators in framing laws attend to what commonly happens: although if the law be applied to certain cases it will frustrate the equality of justice and be injurious to the common good, which the law has in view. Thus the law requires deposits to be restored, because in the majority of cases this is just. Yet it happens sometimes to be injurious—for instance, if a madman were to put his sword in deposit, and demand its delivery while in a state of madness, or if a man were to seek the return of his deposit in order to fight against his country. On these and like cases it is bad to follow the law, and it is good to set aside the letter of the law and to follow the dictates of justice and the common good. This is the object of “epikeia” which we call equity. Therefore it is evident that “epikeia” is a virtue.

“Fairness” is probably a good translation here, since someone who rigidly demands the application of the law in such a situation would often be called unfair in relation to the people involved.

Someone might object that much of the benefit of having a law directly depends on following it consistently, without making exceptions based on minute analysis of particular situations, as we saw in the last post. This is correct as far as it goes, but St. Thomas is not talking about analyzing each situation in detail and making an exception whenever there appears to be a benefit, but rather talking about situations which are extremely different from the situations considered by the law. Thus he says in the reply to the second objection:

He who follows the intention of the lawgiver, does not interpret the law simply; but in a case in which it is evident, by reason of the manifest harm, that the lawgiver intended otherwise. For if it be a matter of doubt, he must either act according to the letter of the law, or consult those in power.

To the degree that “laws of logic” can be analogously interpreted as rules for sensible thought and speech, telling one to behave in some ways and not in others, similar principles will apply. Thus, for example, an atheist confronted with the argument of Alexander Pruss for the existence of God based on the indeterminacy of language might not only be inclined to call it sophistical, but to add that it is an unfair way to argue. And indeed it is, precisely in the sense that it applies the rule “either say that A is B or say that A is not B” to situations for which it was not intended, namely situations where B is simply too vague to say. The rule is intended to make people think and speak sensibly, but Pruss is abusing the rule with the opposite result: that he does not speak and think sensibly.

Someone might agree that this is reasonable insofar as we are considering these laws as rules of behavior, but another issue comes up. Human laws are really intended to exclude some kinds of behavior that are really possible. And likewise, rules of logic are really intended to exclude some kinds of behavior that are really possible, e.g. making arguments like:

A: You always say I am wrong.

B: I said you were right about X.

A: See, you just said I was wrong again. You always say I am wrong!

I know from experience that this behavior is possible, and it does violate the laws of logic considered as rules of behavior. But someone might add that the laws of logic are also based on the nature of reality itself, and for this very reason we said that they are not conventions, but could not have been otherwise. So it seems to follow that it should be possible to expound the laws of logic in a form in which they are truly exceptionless, by expressing reality as it truly is.

There is some truth here, but there is also a problem analogous to a similar objection about human law. Consider the third objection and reply in the above article from St. Thomas:

Objection 3. Further, every wise man knows how to explain his intention by words. But those who framed the laws should be reckoned wise: for Wisdom says (Proverbs 8:15): “By Me kings reign, and lawgivers decree just things.” Therefore we should not judge of the intention of the lawgiver otherwise than by the words of the law.

Reply to Objection 3. No man is so wise as to be able to take account of every single case; wherefore he is not able sufficiently to express in words all those things that are suitable for the end he has in view. And even if a lawgiver were able to take all the cases into consideration, he ought not to mention them all, in order to avoid confusion: but should frame the law according to that which is of most common occurrence.

The objection here is similar. If there are cases where it wouldn’t be good to apply the law, the lawgiver ought to have enumerated those cases. St. Thomas replies that in reality you will not foresee every case, and that even if you could, enumerating them would simply cause confusion.

A similar thing applies if we consider the laws of logic. You can say, “If you say that A is B in an infinitely precise sense, and that B is C in an infinitely precise sense, you should also say that A is C,” and your claim might be exceptionless. The problem is that your claim has no cases: no one ever says anything in an infinitely precise sense.

And on the other hand, if you try to make your claim include some actual cases, you will not be able to avoid the possibility of exceptions, just as the human lawgiver does not foresee all cases. And as in the case of human law, if you attempt to enumerate all cases, you will simply cause confusion. Thus, for example, someone might say that the problem in the case of Queen Elizabeth is that we simply don’t have a precise enough definition for “old,” and they might then attempt to give a precise definition. But this would have several results:

1. First, the new word “old” would not have the same meaning as the original word, because the very fact that the original word is vague is part of what the word is. It is not accidental; it is not meant to have a precise cut-off.

2. Someone might attempt to remedy the above flaw by enumerating various circumstances, rather than giving a precise cut-off. “If you are less then 10 years old and you say that someone is ‘old,’ it signifies someone who is at least 15.” “If you are in your 30s and you say that someone is ‘old’, it signifies that they are at least 67.” And so on. But attempting to fix the first problem, you have simply compounded it. The new word still does not have the same meaning as the original word, because the original word was meant to be flexible; even your new rules have too much rigidity.

You could attempt to remedy the above problems by listing all the situations where people in fact use the word “old,” but that is not a definition: it is just an indefinitely long list. What St. Thomas said about human law, that it “ought not to mention them all,” is equally true about this situation. The point of defining “old” is to provide an explanation which is both general and flexible. Someone might argue that we should provide a list of all possible circumstances and what should be done in those circumstances, in order to avoid the flexibility of “epikeia,” but such an attempt would be absurd, and harmful to a good life. And it is equally absurd when we attempt to apply the same process to logic or to definitions, and harmful to sensible thought and speech.

What about reality itself? Isn’t it an exceptionless reality that a thing is what it is? Indeed. But this is neither a rule of behavior nor of speech. Nor is it a rule making something be some way; reality does not need something else to make sure that it turns out to be reality rather than something else. There is simply nothing else to be. Parmenides was right at least to this degree.

Miracles and Anomalies: Or, Your Religion is False

In 2011 there was an apparent observation of neutrinos traveling faster than light. Wikipedia says of this, “Even before the mistake was discovered, the result was considered anomalous because speeds higher than that of light in a vacuum are generally thought to violate special relativity, a cornerstone of the modern understanding of physics for over a century.” In other words, most scientists did not take the result very seriously, even before any specific explanation was found. As I stated here, it is possible to push unreasonably far in this direction, in such a way that one will be reluctant to ever modify one’s current theories. But there is also something reasonable about this attitude.

Alexander Pruss explains why scientists tend to be skeptical of such anomalous results in this post on Bayesianism and anomaly:

One part of the problem of anomaly is this. If a well-established scientific theory seems to predict something contrary to what we observe, we tend to stick to the theory, with barely a change in credence, while being dubious of the auxiliary hypotheses. What, if anything, justifies this procedure?

Here’s my setup. We have a well-established scientific theory T and (conjoined) auxiliary hypotheses A, and T together with A uncontroversially entails the denial of some piece of observational evidence E which we uncontroversially have (“the anomaly”). The auxiliary hypotheses will typically include claims about the experimental setup, the calibration of equipment, the lack of further causal influences, mathematical claims about the derivation of not-E from T and the above, and maybe some final catch-all thesis like the material conditional that if T and all the other auxiliary hypotheses obtain, then E does not obtain.

For simplicity I will suppose that A and T are independent, though of course that simplifying assumption is rarely true.

Here’s a quick and intuitive thought. There is a region of probability space where the conjunction of T and A is false. That area is divided into three sub-regions:

  1. T is true and A is false
  2. T is false and A is true
  3. both are false.

The initial probabilities of the three regions are, respectively, 0.0999, 0.0009999 and 0.0001. We know we are in one of these three regions, and that’s all we now know. Most likely we are in the first one, and the probability that we are in that one given that we are in one of the three is around 0.99. So our credence in T has gone down from three nines (0.999) to two nines (0.99), but it’s still high, so we get to hold on to T.

Still, this answer isn’t optimistic. A move from 0.999 to 0.99 is actually an enormous decrease in confidence.

“This answer isn’t optimistic,” because in the case of the neutrinos, this analysis would imply that scientists should have instantly become ten times more willing to consider the possibility that the theory of special relativity is false. This is surely not what happened.

Pruss therefore presents an alternative calculation:

But there is a much more optimistic thought. Note that the above wasn’t a real Bayesian calculation, just a rough informal intuition. The tip-off is that I said nothing about the conditional probabilities of E on the relevant hypotheses, i.e., the “likelihoods”.

Now setup ensures:

  1. P(E|A ∧ T)=0.

What can we say about the other relevant likelihoods? Well, if some auxiliary hypothesis is false, then E is up for grabs. So, conservatively:

  1. P(E|∼A ∧ T)=0.5
  2. P(E|∼A ∧ ∼T)=0.5

But here is something that I think is really, really interesting. I think that in typical cases where T is a well-established scientific theory and A ∧ T entails the negation of E, the probability P(E|A ∧ ∼T) is still low.

The reason is that all the evidence that we have gathered for T even better confirms the hypothesis that T holds to a high degree of approximation in most cases. Thus, even if T is false, the typical predictions of T, assuming they have conservative error bounds, are likely to still be true. Newtonian physics is false, but even conditionally on its being false we take individual predictions of Newtonian physics to have a high probability. Thus, conservatively:

  1. P(E|A ∧ ∼T)=0.1

Very well, let’s put all our assumptions together, including the ones about A and T being independent and the values of P(A) and P(T). Here’s what we get:

  1. P(E|T)=P(E|A ∧ T)P(A|T)+P(E|∼A ∧ T)P(∼A|T)=0.05
  2. P(E|∼T)=P(E|A ∧ ∼T)P(A|∼T)+P(E|∼A ∧ ∼T)P(∼A|∼T) = 0.14.

Plugging this into Bayes’ theorem, we get P(T|E)=0.997. So our credence has crept down, but only a little: from 0.999 to 0.997. This is much more optimistic (and conservative) than the big move from 0.999 to 0.99 that the intuitive calculation predicted.

So, if I am right, at least one of the reasons why anomalies don’t do much damage to scientific theories is that when the scientific theory T is well-confirmed, the anomaly is not only surprising on the theory, but it is surprising on the denial of the theory—because the background includes the data that makes T “well-confirmed” and would make E surprising even if we knew that T was false.

To make the point without the mathematics (which in any case is only used to illustrate the point, since Pruss is choosing the specific values himself), if you have a theory which would make the anomaly probable, that theory would be strongly supported by the anomaly. But we already know that theories like that are false, because otherwise the anomaly would not be an anomaly. It would be normal and common. Thus all of the actually plausible theories still make the anomaly an improbable observation, and therefore these theories are only weakly supported by the observation of the anomaly. The result is that the new observation makes at most a minor difference to your previous opinion.

We can apply this analysis to the discussion of miracles. David Hume, in his discussion of miracles, seems to desire a conclusive proof against them which is unobtainable, and in this respect he is mistaken. But near the end of his discussion, he brings up the specific topic of religion and says that his argument applies to it in a special way:

Upon the whole, then, it appears, that no testimony for any kind of miracle has ever amounted to a probability, much less to a proof; and that, even supposing it amounted to a proof, it would be opposed by another proof; derived from the very nature of the fact, which it would endeavour to establish. It is experience only, which gives authority to human testimony; and it is the same experience, which assures us of the laws of nature. When, therefore, these two kinds of experience are contrary, we have nothing to do but subtract the one from the other, and embrace an opinion, either on one side or the other, with that assurance which arises from the remainder. But according to the principle here explained, this subtraction, with regard to all popular religions, amounts to an entire annihilation; and therefore we may establish it as a maxim, that no human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle, and make it a just foundation for any such system of religion.

The idea seems to be something like this: contrary systems of religion put forth miracles in their support, so the supporting evidence for one religion is more or less balanced by the supporting evidence for the other. Likewise, the evidence is weakened even in itself by people’s propensity to lies and delusion in such matters (some of this discussion was quoted in the earlier post on Hume and miracles). But in addition to the fairly balanced evidence we have experience basically supporting the general idea that the miracles do not happen. This is not outweighed by anything in particular, and so it is the only thing that remains after the other evidence balances itself out of the equation. Hume goes on:

I beg the limitations here made may be remarked, when I say, that a miracle can never be proved, so as to be the foundation of a system of religion. For I own, that otherwise, there may possibly be miracles, or violations of the usual course of nature, of such a kind as to admit of proof from human testimony; though, perhaps, it will be impossible to find any such in all the records of history. Thus, suppose, all authors, in all languages, agree, that, from the first of January, 1600, there was a total darkness over the whole earth for eight days: suppose that the tradition of this extraordinary event is still strong and lively among the people: that all travellers, who return from foreign countries, bring us accounts of the same tradition, without the least variation or contradiction: it is evident, that our present philosophers, instead of doubting the fact, ought to receive it as certain, and ought to search for the causes whence it might be derived. The decay, corruption, and dissolution of nature, is an event rendered probable by so many analogies, that any phenomenon, which seems to have a tendency towards that catastrophe, comes within the reach of human testimony, if that testimony be very extensive and uniform.

But suppose, that all the historians who treat of England, should agree, that, on the first of January, 1600, Queen Elizabeth died; that both before and after her death she was seen by her physicians and the whole court, as is usual with persons of her rank; that her successor was acknowledged and proclaimed by the parliament; and that, after being interred a month, she again appeared, resumed the throne, and governed England for three years: I must confess that I should be surprised at the concurrence of so many odd circumstances, but should not have the least inclination to believe so miraculous an event. I should not doubt of her pretended death, and of those other public circumstances that followed it: I should only assert it to have been pretended, and that it neither was, nor possibly could be real. You would in vain object to me the difficulty, and almost impossibility of deceiving the world in an affair of such consequence; the wisdom and solid judgment of that renowned queen; with the little or no advantage which she could reap from so poor an artifice: all this might astonish me; but I would still reply, that the knavery and folly of men are such common phenomena, that I should rather believe the most extraordinary events to arise from their concurrence, than admit of so signal a violation of the laws of nature.

But should this miracle be ascribed to any new system of religion; men, in all ages, have been so much imposed on by ridiculous stories of that kind, that this very circumstance would be a full proof of a cheat, and sufficient, with all men of sense, not only to make them reject the fact, but even reject it without farther examination. Though the Being to whom the miracle is ascribed, be, in this case, Almighty, it does not, upon that account, become a whit more probable; since it is impossible for us to know the attributes or actions of such a Being, otherwise than from the experience which we have of his productions, in the usual course of nature. This still reduces us to past observation, and obliges us to compare the instances of the violation of truth in the testimony of men, with those of the violation of the laws of nature by miracles, in order to judge which of them is most likely and probable. As the violations of truth are more common in the testimony concerning religious miracles, than in that concerning any other matter of fact; this must diminish very much the authority of the former testimony, and make us form a general resolution, never to lend any attention to it, with whatever specious pretence it may be covered.

Notice how “unfair” this seems to religion, so to speak. What is the difference between the eight days of darkness, which Hume would accept, under those conditions, and the resurrection of the queen of England, which he would not? Hume’s reaction to the two situations is more consistent than first appears. Hume would accept the historical accounts about England in the same way that he would accept the accounts about the eight days of darkness. The difference is in how he would explain the accounts. He says of the darkness, “It is evident, that our present philosophers, instead of doubting the fact, ought to receive it as certain, and ought to search for the causes whence it might be derived.” Likewise, he would accept the historical accounts as certain insofar as they say the a burial ceremony took place, the queen was absent from public life, and so on. But he would not accept that the queen was dead and came back to life. Why? The “search for the causes” seems to explain this. It is plausible to Hume that causes of eight days of darkness might be found, but not plausible to him that causes of a resurrection might be found. He hints at this in the words, “The decay, corruption, and dissolution of nature, is an event rendered probable by so many analogies,” while in contrast a resurrection would be “so signal a violation of the laws of nature.”

It is clear that Hume excludes certain miracles, such as resurrection, from the possibility of being established by the evidence of testimony. But he makes the additional point that even if he did not exclude them, he would not find it reasonable to establish a “system of religion” on such testimony, given that “violations of truth are more common in the testimony concerning religious miracles, than in that concerning any other matter of fact.”

It is hard to argue with the claim that “violations of truth” are especially common in testimony about miracles. But does any of this justify Hume’s negative attitude to miracles as establishing “systems of religion,” or is this all just prejudice?  There might well be a good deal of prejudice involved here in his opinions. Nonetheless, Alexander Pruss’s discussion of anomaly allows one to formalize Hume’s idea here as actual insight as well.

One way to look at truth in religion is to look at it as a way of life or as membership in a community. And in this way, asking whether miracles can establish a system of religion is just asking whether a person can be moved to a way of life or to join a community through such things. And clearly this is possible, and often happens. But another way to consider truth in religion is to look at a doctrinal system as a set of claims about how the world is. Looked at in this way, we should look at a doctrinal system as presenting a proposed larger context of our place in the world, one that we would be unaware of without the religion. This implies that one should have a prior probability (namely prior to consideration of arguments in its favor) strongly against the system considered as such, for reasons very much like the reasons we should have a prior probability strongly against Ron Conte’s predictions.

We can thus apply Alexander Pruss’s framework. Let us take Mormonism as the “system of religion” in question. Then taken as a set of claims about the world, our initial probability would be that it is very unlikely that the world is set up this way. Then let us take a purported miracle establishing this system: Joseph Smith finds his golden plates. In principle, if this cashed out in a certain way, it could actually establish his system. But it doesn’t cash out that way. We know very little about the plates, the circumstances of their discovery (if there was any), and their actual content. Instead, what we are left with is an anomaly: something unusual happened, and it might be able to be described as “finding golden plates,” but that’s pretty much all we know.

Then we have the theory, T, which has a high prior probability: Mormonism is almost certainly false. We have the observation : Joseph Smith discovered his golden plates (in one sense or another.) And we have the auxiliary hypotheses which imply that he could not have discovered the plates if Mormonism is false. The Bayesian updates in Pruss’s scheme imply that our conclusion is this: Mormonism is almost certainly false, and there is almost certainly an error in the auxiliary hypotheses that imply he could not have discovered them if it were false.

Thus Hume’s attitude is roughly justified: he should not change his opinion about religious systems in any significant way based on testimony about miracles.

To make you feel better, this does not prove that your religion is false. It just nearly proves that. In particular, this does not take into an account an update based on the fact that “many people accept this set of claims.” This is a different fact, and it is not an anomaly. If you update on this fact and end up with a non-trivial probability that your set of claims is true, testimony about miracles might well strengthen this into conviction.

I will respond to one particular objection, however. Some will take this argument to be stubborn and wicked, because it seems to imply that people shouldn’t be “convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” And this does in fact follow, more or less. An anomalous occurrence in most cases will have a perfectly ordinary explanation in terms of things that are already a part of our ordinary understanding of the world, without having to add some larger context. For example, suppose you heard your fan (as a piece of furniture, not as a person) talking to you. You might suppose that you were hallucinating. But suppose it turns out that you are definitely not hallucinating. Should you conclude that there is some special source from outside the normal world that is communicating with you? No: the fan scenario can happen, and it turns out to have a perfectly everyday explanation. We might agree with Hume that it would be much more implausible that a resurrection would have an everyday explanation. Nonetheless, even if we end up concluding to the existence of some larger context, and that the miracle has no such everyday explanation, there is no good reason for it to be such and such a specific system of doctrine. Consider again Ron Conte’s predictions for the future. Most likely the things that happen between now and 2040, and even the things that happen in the 2400s, are likely to be perfectly ordinary (although the things in the 2400s might differ from current events in fairly radical ways). But even if they are not, and even if apocalyptic, miraculous occurrences are common in those days, this does not raise the probability of Conte’s specific predictions above any trivial level. In the same way, the anomalous occurrences involved in the accounts of miracles will not lend any significant probability to a religious system.

The objection here is that this seems unfair to God, so to speak. What if God wanted to reveal something to the world? What could he do, besides work miracles? I won’t propose a specific answer to this, because I am not God. But I will illustrate the situation with a little story to show that there is nothing unfair to God about it.

Suppose human beings created an artificial intelligence and raised it in a simulated environment. Wanting things to work themselves out “naturally,” so to speak, because it would be less work, and because it would probably be necessary to the learning process, they institute “natural laws” in the simulated world which are followed in an exceptionless way. Once the AI is “grown up”, so to speak, they decide to start communicating with it. In the AI’s world, this will surely show up as some kind of miracle: something will happen that was utterly unpredictable to it, and which is completely inconsistent with the natural laws as it knew them.

Will the AI be forced by the reasoning of this post to ignore the communication? Well, that depends on what exactly occurs and how. At the end of his post, Pruss discusses situations where anomalous occurrences should change your mind:

Note that this argument works less well if the anomalous case is significantly different from the cases that went into the confirmation of T. In such a case, there might be much less reason to think E won’t occur if T is false. And that means that anomalies are more powerful as evidence against a theory the more distant they are from the situations we explored before when we were confirming T. This, I think, matches our intuitions: We would put almost no weight in someone finding an anomaly in the course of an undergraduate physics lab—not just because an undergraduate student is likely doing it (it could be the professor testing the equipment, though), but because this is ground well-gone over, where we expect the theory’s predictions to hold even if the theory is false. But if new observations of the center of our galaxy don’t fit our theory, that is much more compelling—in a regime so different from many of our previous observations, we might well expect that things would be different if our theory were false.

And this helps with the second half of the problem of anomaly: How do we keep from holding on to T too long in the light of contrary evidence, how do we allow anomalies to have a rightful place in undermining theories? The answer is: To undermine a theory effectively, we need anomalies that occur in situations significantly different from those that have already been explored.

If the AI finds itself in an entirely new situation, e.g. rather than hearing an obscure voice from a fan, it is consistently able to talk to the newly discovered occupant of the world on a regular basis, it will have no trouble realizing that its situation has changed, and no difficulty concluding that it is receiving communication from its author. This does, sort of, give one particular method that could be used to communicate a revelation. But there might well be many others.

Our objector will continue. This is still not fair. Now you are saying that God could give a revelation but that if he did, the world would be very different from the actual world. But what if he wanted to give a revelation in the actual world, without it being any different from the way it is? How could he convince you in that case?

Let me respond with an analogy. What if the sky were actually red like the sky of Mars, but looked blue like it is? What would convince you that it was red? The fact that there is no way to convince you that it is red in our actual situation means you are unfairly prejudiced against the redness of the sky.

In other words, indeed, I am unwilling to be convinced that the sky is red except in situations where it is actually red, and those situations are quite different from our actual situation. And indeed, I am unwilling to be convinced of a revelation except in situations where there is actually a revelation, and those are quite different from our actual situation.

Common Sense and Culture

If we compare what I said about common sense to the letter of St. Augustine on the errors of the Donatists, quoted here, it seems that St. Augustine takes his belief in Christianity to be a matter of accepting common sense:

For they prefer to the testimonies of Holy Writ their own contentions, because, in the case of Cæcilianus, formerly a bishop of the Church of Carthage, against whom they brought charges which they were and are unable to substantiate, they separated themselves from the Catholic Church—that is, from the unity of all nations. Although, even if the charges had been true which were brought by them against Cæcilianus, and could at length be proved to us, yet, though we might pronounce an anathema upon him even in the grave, we are still bound not for the sake of any man to leave the Church, which rests for its foundation on divine witness, and is not the figment of litigious opinions, seeing that it is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man. For we cannot allow that if Cæcilianus had erred,— a supposition which I make without prejudice to his integrity—Christ should therefore have forfeited His inheritance. It is easy for a man to believe of his fellow-men either what is true or what is false; but it marks abandoned impudence to desire to condemn the communion of the whole world on account of charges alleged against a man, of which you cannot establish the truth in the face of the world.

It is true that St. Augustine talks about “divine witness” and so on here, but it is also easy to see that a significant source of his confidence is existing widespread religious agreement. It is foolish to abandon “the unity of all nations,” and impudent to “condemn the communion of the whole world.” And the problem with “charges alleged against a man, of which you cannot establish the truth in the face of the world,” is that if you disagree with the common consent of mankind, you should first attempt to convince others before putting forward your personal ideas as absolute truth.

Is common sense a real reason for St. Augustine’s religious position, or he is merely attempting to justify himself? Consider his famous rebuke of those who attack science in the name of religion:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although “they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.”

St. Augustine in fact seems to be giving priority to common sense over religion here. If your religion contradicts common sense, your religion is wrong and common sense is right. This suggests that his argument for his religion from common sense is an honest one; it might even be his strongest reason for his belief.

As I said in the earlier post, the argument for religion from the consent of humanity had problems even at the time, and as things stand, it has no real relevance. There is no religious doctrine, let alone any religion, that one could reasonably say is accepted by even a majority of humanity, let alone by all. At any rate, this is the case unless one makes one’s doctrine far vaguer than would be permitted by any religion.

I concluded above that St. Augustine’s defense of common sense is likely an honest one. But note that this was not necessary: it would be perfectly possible for someone to defend common sense in order to justify themselves, without actually caring about the truth of common sense. In fact, consider what I said here about Scott Sumner and James Larson. Larson’s claim to accept realism is basically not an honest one. I do not mean that he does not believe it, but that its truth is irrelevant to him. What matters to him is that he can seemingly justify himself in maintaining his religious position in the face of all opposition.

Consider the cynical position of Francis Bacon about people relative to truth, discussed here. According to Bacon, no one is interested in truth in itself, but only as a means to other things. While the cynical position overall is incorrect, there is a lot of truth in it. Consequently, it will not be uncommon for someone to defend common sense, not so much because of its truth, but as part of a larger project of defending their culture. Culture is bound up with claims about the world, and defending culture therefore involves defending claims about the world. And if everyone accepts something, presumably everyone in your culture accepts it. One sign of this, of course, would be if someone passes freely back and forth between putting forth things that everyone accepts, and things that everyone in their culture accepts, as though these were equivalent.

Likewise, someone can attack common sense, not for the purpose of truth, but in order to engage in a kind of culture war. Consider the recent comments by “werzekeugjj” on the last post. There is no option here but to explain these comments with the methods of Ezekiel Bulver. For they cannot possibly represent opinions about the world at all, let alone opinions that were arrived at by honest means. Werzekeugjj, for example, responds to the question, “Do people sometimes write comments?” with “No.” As I pointed out there, if they do not, then he did not compose those comments, and there is nothing to reply to. As Aristotle puts it,

We can, however, demonstrate negatively even that this view is impossible, if our opponent will only say something; and if he says nothing, it is absurd to seek to give an account of our views to one who cannot give an account of anything, in so far as he cannot do so. For such a man, as such, is from the start no better than a vegetable.

Nor is it possible to apply a principle of charity here and say that Werzekeugjj intends to say that their claims are true in some complicated metaphysical sense. This does apply to the position of the blogger from Atheism and the City, discussed in that post. He presumably does not intend to reject common sense. I simply point out in my response that common sense is enough to draw the conclusions about causality that matter. The point is that this cannot apply to Werzekeugjj’s expressed position, because I spoke expressly of things in the everyday way, and the response was that the everyday claims themselves are false.

Of course, no one actually thinks that the everyday claims are false, including Werzekeugjj. What was the purpose of composing these comments, then?

We can gather a clue from this comment:

“in such a block unniverse there is no time flow
so your point on finalism or causality is moot
same with God
they don’t exist

The body of the post does not mention God, and God is not the topic. Why then does Werzekeugjj bring up God here? The most likely motivation is the kind of culture war motivation discussed here. Werzekeugjj associated talk of causality and reasons with talk of God, and intends to attack a culture that speaks this way with whatever it takes, including a full on rejection of common sense. Science has shown that your common sense views of the world are entirely false, Werzekeugjj says, and therefore you might as well abandon the rest of your culture (including its talk of God) along with the rest of your views.

Supposedly describing their intentions, Werzekeugjj says,

i’m not trying to understand the world or to change your mind but i’m trying to state what is true
and i’m puzzled by how you think there is no problem with arguments like these

This is false, precisely as a description of their personal motives. No one who says that balls never break windows and that they did not write their comments (in the very comments themselves) can pretend to be “trying to state what is true.” Sorry, but that is not your intention. More reasonably, we can suppose that Werzekeugjj sees my post as part of a project of defending a certain culture, and they intend to attack that culture.

But that is an inaccurate understanding of the post. I defend common sense because it is right, not because it is a part of any particular culture. As Bryan Caplan puts it, “Common sense is the foundation of all reasoning.  If you want to reject a common-sense claim, you’d better do it in the name of an even stronger common-sense claim.”

Revisiting Russell on Cause

We discussed Bertrand Russell’s criticism of the first cause argument here. As I said there, he actually suggests, although without specifically making the claim, that there is no such thing as a cause, when he says:

That argument, I suppose, does not carry very much weight nowadays, because, in the first place, cause is not quite what it used to be. The philosophers and the men of science have got going on cause, and it has not anything like the vitality it used to have.

This is absurd, and it is especially objectionable that he employs this method of insinuation instead of attempting to make an argument. Nonetheless, let me attempt to argue on Russell’s behalf for a moment. It is perhaps not necessary for him to say that there is no such thing as a cause. Suppose he accepts my account of cause as an explanatory origin. Note that this is not purely an objective relationship existing in the world. It includes a specific relationship with our mind: we call something a cause when it is not only an origin, but it also explains something to us. The relatively “objective” relationship is simply that of origin.

A series of causes, since it is also a series of explanations, absolutely must have a first, since otherwise all explanatory force will be removed. But suppose Russell responds: it does not matter. Sure, this is how explanations work. But there is nothing to prevent the world from working differently. It may be that origins, namely the relationship on the objective side, do consist of infinite series. This might make it impossible to explain the world, but that would just be too bad, wouldn’t it? We already know that people have all sorts of desires for knowledge that cannot be satisfied. A complete account of the world is impossible in principle, and even in practice we can only obtain relatively local knowledge, leaving us ignorant of remote things. So you might feel a need of a first cause to make the world intelligible, Russell might say, but that is no proof at all that there is any series of origins with a first. For example, consider material causes. Large bodies are made of atoms, and atoms of smaller particles, namely electrons, protons, and neutrons. These smaller particles are made of yet smaller particles called quarks. There is no proof that this process does not go on forever. Indeed, the series would cease to explain anything if it did, but so what? Reality does not have to explain itself to you.

In response, consider the two following theories of water:

First theory: water is made of hydrogen and oxygen.

Second theory: every body of water has two parts, which we can call the first part and the second part. Each of the parts themselves has two parts, which we can call the first part of the first part, the second part of the first part, the first part of the second part, and the second part of the second part. This goes on ad infinitum.

Are these theories true? I presume the reader accepts the first theory. What about the second? We are probably inclined to say something like, “What does this mean, exactly?” But the very fact that the second theory is extremely vague means that we can probably come up with some interpretation that will make it true, depending in its details on the details of reality. Nonetheless, it is a clearly useless theory. And it is useless precisely because it cannot explain anything. There is no “causality” in the second theory, not even material causality. There is an infinite series of origins, but no explanation, and so no causes.

The first theory, on the other hand, is thought to be explanatory, and to provide material causes, because we implicitly suppose that we cannot go on forever in a similar way. It may be that hydrogen and oxygen are made up of other things: but we assume that this will not go on forever, at least with similar sorts of division.

But what if it does? It is true, in fact, that if it turns out that one can continue to break down particles into additional particles in a relatively similar manner ad infinitum, then “water is made of hydrogen and oxygen” will lose all explanatory force, and will not truly be a causal account, even in terms of material causes, even if the statement itself remains true. It would not follow, however, that causal accounts are impossible. It would simply follow that we chose the wrong account, just as one would be choosing wrongly if one attempted to explain water with the second theory above. The truth of the second theory is irrelevant; it is wrong as an explanation even if it is true.

As I have argued in a number of places, nature is not in the business of counting things. But it necessarily follows from this that it also does not call things finite or infinite; we are the ones who do that. So if you break down the world in such a way that origins are infinite, you will not be able to understand the world. That is not the world’s problem, but your problem. You can fix that by breaking down the world in such a way that origins are finite.

Perhaps Russell will continue to object. How do you know that there is any possible breakdown of the world which makes origins finite? But this objection implies the fully skeptical claim that nothing can be understood, or at least that it may turn out that nothing can be understood. As I have said elsewhere, this particular kind of skeptical claim implies a contradiction, since it implies that the same thing is known and unknown. This is the case even if you say “it might be that way,” since you must understand what you are saying when you say it might be that way.

Motivated Reasoning and the Kantian Dichotomy

At the beginning of the last post, I distinguished between error caused by confusing the mode of knowledge and the mode of being, and error caused by non-truth related motives. But by the end of the post, it occurred to me that there might be more of a relationship between the two than one might think. Not that we can reduce all error to one or the other, of course. It seems pretty clear that the errors involved in the Kantian dichotomy are somewhat “natural,” so to speak, and often the result of honest confusion. This seems different from motivated reasoning. Similarly, there are certainly other causes of error. If someone makes an arithmetical error in their reasoning, which is a common occurrence, this is not necessarily caused by either confusion about the mode of knowing or by some other motive. It is just a mistake, perhaps caused by a failure of the imagination.

Nonetheless, consider the examples chosen in the last post. Scott Sumner is the anti-realist, while James Larson is the realist. And if we are looking only at that disagreement, and not taking into account confusion about the mode of knowing, Larson is right, and Sumner is wrong. But if we consider their opinions on other matters, Sumner is basically sane and normal, while Larson is basically crazy. Consider for example Larson’s attitude to science:

In considering what might be called the “collective thinking” of the entire Western world (and beyond), there is no position one can take which elicits more universal disdain than that of being“anti-science.” It immediately calls forth stereotyped images of backwardness, anti-progress, rigidity, and just plain stupidity.

There are of course other epithets that are accompanied by much more vehement condemnations: terms as such anti-semite, racist, etc. But we are not here concerned with such individual prejudices and passions, but rather with the scientific Weltanschauung (World-view) which now dominates our thinking, and the rejection of which is almost unthinkable to modern man.

Integral to this world-view is the belief that there is a world of “Science” containing all knowledge of the depths of the physical world, that the human mind has the potential to fully encompass this knowledge, and that it is only in the use” of this knowledge that man sins.

It is my contention, on the other hand, that the scientific weltanschauung is integrally constituted by a dominant hubris, which has profoundly altered human consciousness, and constitutes a war against both God and man.

Stereotyped or not, the labels Larson complains about can be applied to his position with a high degree of accuracy. He goes on to criticize not only the conclusions of science but also the very idea of engaging in a study of the world in a scientific manner:

It is a kind of dogma of modern life that man has the inalienable right, and even responsibility, to the pursuit of unending growth in all the spheres of his secular activity: economic, political (New World Order), scientific knowledge, technological development, etc. Such “unending quest for knowledge and growth” would almost seem to constitute modern man’s definition of his most fundamental dignity. This is fully in accord with the dominant forms of modern philosophy which define him in terms of evolutionary becoming rather than created being.

Such is not the Biblical view, which rather sees such pursuits as reeking disaster to both individual and society, and to man’s relationship to Truth and God. The Biblical perspective begins with Original Sin which, according to St. Thomas, was constituted as an intellectual pride by which Adam and Eve sought an intellectual excellence of knowledge independently of God. In the situation of Original Sin, this is described in terms of “knowledge of good and evil.” It is obvious in the light of further Old Testament scriptures, however, that this disorder also extends to the “seeking after an excellence” which would presume to penetrate to the depth of the nature of created things. Thus, we have the following scriptures:

Nothing may be taken away, nor added, neither is it possible to find out the glorious works of God: When a man hath done, then shall he begin: And when he leaveth off, he shall be at a loss.” (Ecclus 28:5-6).

And I understood that man can find no reason of all those works of God that are done under the sun: and the more he shall labor to seek, so much the less shall he find: yea, though the wise man shall say, that he knoweth it, he shall not be able to find it.” (Eccl 8:17).

For the works of the Highest only are wonderful, and his works are glorious, secret, and hidden.” (Ecclus 11:4).

For great is the power of God alone, and he is honoured by the humble. Seek not the things that are too high for thee, and search not into things above thy ability: but the things that God hath commanded thee, think on them always, and in many of his works be not curious. For it is not necessary for thee to see with thy eyes those things that are hid. In unnecessary matters be not over curious, and in many of his works thou shalt not be inquisitive. For many things are shewn to thee above the understanding of men. And the suspicion of them hath deceived man, and hath detained their minds in vanity.” (Ecclus 3:21-26).

These scripture passages proscribe any effort by man which attempts to penetrate (or even be inquisitive and curious about) the hidden depths of God’s “works.” It is evident that in these scriptures the word “works” refers to the physical world itself – to all those “works of God that are done under the sun.” There is no allegorical interpretation possible here. We are simply faced with a choice between considering these teachings as divinely revealed truth, or merely the product of primitive and ignorant Old Testament human minds.

It is not merely that Larson rejects the conclusions of science, which he admittedly does. He also condemns the very idea of “let’s go find out how the world works” as a wicked and corrupting curiosity. I say, without further ado, that this is insane.

But of course it is not insane in the sense that Larson should be committed to a mental institution, even though I would expect that he has some rather extreme personality characteristics. Rather, it is extremely obvious that Larson is engaging in highly motivated reasoning. On the other hand, most of Scott Sumner’s opinions are relatively ordinary, and while some of his opinions are no doubt supported by other human motives besides truth, we do not find him holding anything in such a highly motivated way.

Thus we have this situation: the one who upholds common sense (with regard to realism) holds crazy motivated opinions about all sorts of other matters, while the one who rejects common sense (with regard to realism) holds sane non-motivated opinions about all sorts of other matters. Perhaps this is accidental? If we consider other cases, will we find that this is an exceptional case, and that most of the time the opposite happens?

Anti-realism in particular, precisely because it is so strongly opposed to common sense, is rare in absolute terms, and thus we can expect to find that most people are realist regardless of their other opinions. But I do not think that we will find that the opposite is the case overall. On the contrary, I think we will find that people who embrace the Kantian side of such a dichotomy will frequently tend to be people who have more accurate opinions about detailed matters, and that people who embrace the anti-Kantian side of such a dichotomy will frequently tend to be people who have less accurate opinions about detailed matters, despite the fact that the anti-Kantian side is right about the common sense issue at hand.

Consider the dichotomy in general. If we analyze it purely in terms of concern for truth, the anti-Kantian is interested in upholding the truth of common sense, while the Kantian is interested in upholding the truth about the relationship between the mind and the world. From the beginning, the anti-Kantian wishes to maintain a general well-known truth, while the Kantian wants to maintain a relatively complex detailed truth about the relationship between knowledge and the world. The Kantian thus has more of an interest in details than the anti-Kantian, while the anti-Kantian is more concerned about the general truth.

What happens when we bring in other motivations? People begin to trade away truth. To the degree that they are interested in other things, they will have less time and energy to think about what is true. And since knowledge advances from general to particular, it would not be surprising if people who are less interested in truth pay less attention to details, and bother themselves mainly about general issues. On the other hand, if people are highly interested in truth and not much interested in other things, they will dedicate a lot of time and attention to working out things in detail. Of course, there are also other reasons why someone might want to work things out in detail. For example, as I discussed a few years ago, Francis Bacon says in effect: the philosophers do not care about truth. Rather their system is “useful” for certain goals:

We make no attempt to disturb the system of philosophy that now prevails, or any other which may or will exist, either more correct or more complete. For we deny not that the received system of philosophy, and others of a similar nature, encourage discussion, embellish harangues, are employed, and are of service in the duties of the professor, and the affairs of civil life. Nay, we openly express and declare that the philosophy we offer will not be very useful in such respects. It is not obvious, nor to be understood in a cursory view, nor does it flatter the mind in its preconceived notions, nor will it descend to the level of the generality of mankind unless by its advantages and effects.

Meanwhile, Bacon does not himself claim to be interested in truth. But he desires “advantages and effects,” namely accomplishments in the physical world, such as changing lead into gold. But if you want to make complex changes in the physical world, you need to know the world in detail. The philosophers, therefore, have no need of detailed knowledge because they are not interested in truth but disputation and status, while Bacon does have a need of detailed knowledge, even though he is likewise uninterested in truth, because he is interested in changing the world.

In reality, there will exist both philosophers and scientists who mainly have these non-truth related concerns, and others who are mainly concerned about the truth. But we can expect an overall effect of caring more about truth to be caring more about details as well, simply because such people will devote more time and energy to working things out in detail.

On this account, Scott Sumner’s anti-realism is an honest mistake, made simply because people tend to find the Kantian error persuasive when they try to think about how knowledge works in detail. Meanwhile, James Larson’s absurd opinions about science are not caused by any sort of honesty, but by his ulterior motives. I noted in the last post that in any such Kantian dichotomy, the position upholding common sense is truer. And this is so, but the implication of the present considerations is that in practice we will often find the person upholding common sense also maintaining positions which are much wronger in their details, because they will frequently care less about the truth overall.

I intended to give a number of examples, since this point is hardly proven by the single instance of Scott Sumner and James Larson. But since I am running short on time, at least for now I will simply point the reader in the right direction. Consider the Catholic discussion of modernism. Pius X said that the modernists “attempt to ascribe to a love of truth that which is in reality the result of pride and obstinacy,” but as we saw there, the modernists cared about the truth of certain details that the Church preferred to ignore or even to deny. The modernists were not mistaken to ascribe this to a love of truth. As I noted in the same post, Pius X suggests that a mistaken epistemology is responsible for the opinions of the modernists:

6. We begin, then, with the philosopher. Modernists place the foundation of religious philosophy in that doctrine which is usually called Agnosticism. According to this teaching human reason is confined entirely within the field of phenomena, that is to say, to things that are perceptible to the senses, and in the manner in which they are perceptible; it has no right and no power to transgress these limits. Hence it is incapable of lifting itself up to God, and of recognising His existence, even by means of visible things. From this it is inferred that God can never be the direct object of science, and that, as regards history, He must not be considered as an historical subject. Given these premises, all will readily perceive what becomes of Natural Theology, of the motives of credibility, of external revelation. The Modernists simply make away with them altogether; they include them in Intellectualism, which they call a ridiculous and long ago defunct system. Nor does the fact that the Church has formally condemned these portentous errors exercise the slightest restraint upon them.

As I noted there, epistemology is not the foundation for anyone’s opinions, and was not the foundation for the opinions of the modernists. But on the other hand, Pius X may be seeing something true here. The “agnosticism” he describes here is basically the claim that we can know only appearances, and not the thing in itself. And I would find it unsurprising if Pius X is right that there was a general tendency among the modernists to accept a Kantian epistemology. But the reason for this would be analogous to the reasons that Scott Sumner is an anti-realist: that is, it is basically an honest mistake about knowledge, while in contrast, the condemnation of questioning the authenticity of the Vulgate text of 1 John 5:7 was not honest at all.

Replies to Objections on Form

This post replies to the objections raised in the last post.

Reply 1. I do not define form as “many relations”, in part for this very reason. Rather, I say that it is a network, and thus is one thing tied together, so to speak.

Nonetheless, the objection seems to wish to find something absolutely one which is in no way many and which causes unity in other things which are in some way lacking in unity. This does not fit with the idea of giving an account, which necessarily involves many words and thus reference to many aspects of a thing. And thus it also does not fit with the idea of form as that which makes a thing what it is, because it is evident that when we ask what a thing is, we are typically asking about things that have many aspects, as a human being has many senses and many body parts and so on.

In other words, form makes a thing one, but it also makes it what it is, which means that it also makes a thing many in various ways. And so form is one in some way, and thus called a “network,” but it also contains various relations that account for the many aspects of the thing.

Someone might extend this objection by saying that if a form contains many relations, there will need to be a form of form, uniting these relations. But there is a difference between many material parts, which might need a form in order to be one, and relations, which bind things together of themselves. To be related to something, in this sense, is somewhat like being attached to it in some way, while a number of physical bodies are not attached to each other simply in virtue of being a number of bodies. It is true that this implies a certain amount of complexity in form, but this is simply the result of the fact that there is a certain amount of complexity in what things actually are.

Reply 2. “Apt to make something one” is included in the definition in order to point to the relationships and networks of relationships that we are concerned with. For example, one could discuss the idea of a mereological sum, for example the tree outside my window together with my cell phone, and talk about a certain network of relationships intrinsic to that “sum.” This network would have little share in the idea of form, precisely because it is not apt to make anything one thing in any ordinary sense. However, I say “little share” here rather than “no share”, because this is probably a question of degree and kind. As I said here, “one thing” is said in many ways and with many degrees, and thus also form exists in many ways and with many degrees. In particular, there is no reason to suppose that “one” has one true sense compared to which the other senses would be more false than true.

Reply 3. A network of relationships could be an accidental form. Thus the form that makes a blue thing blue would normally be an accidental form. But there will be a similar network of relationships that make a thing a substance. If something is related to other things as “that in which other things are present,” and is not related to other things as “that which is present in something else,” then it will exist as substance, and precisely because it is related to things in these ways. So the definition is in fact general in comparison to both substance and accident.

Reply 4. This objection could be understood as asserting that everything relative depends on something prior which is absolute. Taken in this sense, the objection is simply mistaken. The existence of more than one thing proves conclusively that relationship as such does not need to depend on anything absolute.

Another way to understand the objection would be as asserting that whatever we may say about the thing in relation to other things, all of this must result from what the thing is in itself, apart from all of this. Therefore the essence of the thing is prior to anything at all that we say about it. And in this way, there is a truth here and an error here, namely the Kantian truth and the Kantian error. Certainly the thing is the cause of our knowledge, and not simply identical with our knowledge. Nonetheless, we possess knowledge, not ignorance, of the thing, and we have this knowledge by participation in the network of relationships that defines the thing.

Reply 5. The objection gratuitously asserts that our definition is reductionist, and this can equally well be gratuitously denied. In fact, this account includes the rejection of both reductionist and anti-reductionist positions. Insofar as people suppose that these positions are the only possible positions, if they see that my account implies the rejection of their particular side of the argument, they will naturally suppose that my account implies the acceptance of the other side. This is why the 10th objection claims the opposite: namely that my account is mistaken because it seems to be anti-reductionist.

Reply 6. I agree, in fact, that we are mostly ignorant of the nature of “blue,” and likewise of the natures of most other things. But we are equally ignorant of the network of relationships that these things share in. Thus in an earlier post about Mary’s Room, I noted that we do not even come close to knowing everything that can be known about color. Something similar would be true about pretty much everything that we can commonly name. We have some knowledge of what blue is, but it is a very imperfect knowledge, and similarly we have some knowledge of what a human being is, but it is a very imperfect knowledge. This is one reason why I qualified the claim that the essences of things are not hidden: in another way, virtually all essences are hidden from us, because they are typically too complex for us to understand exhaustively.

An additional problem, also mentioned in the case of “blue,” is that the experience of blue is not the understanding of blue, and these would remain distinct even if the understanding of blue were perfect. But again, it would be an instance of the Kantian error to suppose that it follows that one would not understand the nature of blue even if one understood it (thus we make the absurdity evident.)

Reply 7. God is not an exception to the claim about hidden essences, nor to this account of form, and these claims are not necessarily inconsistent with Christian theology.

The simplicity of God should not be understood as necessarily being opposed to being a network of relationships. In particular, the Trinity is thought to be the same as the essence of God, and what is the Trinity except a network of relations?

Nor does the impossibility of knowing the essence of God imply that God’s essence is hidden in the relevant sense. Rather, it is enough to say that it is inaccessible for “practical” reasons, so to speak. For example, consider St. Thomas’s argument that no one knows all that God can do:

The created intellect, in seeing the divine essence, does not see in it all that God does or can do. For it is manifest that things are seen in God as they are in Him. But all other things are in God as effects are in the power of their cause. Therefore all things are seen in God as an effect is seen in its cause. Now it is clear that the more perfectly a cause is seen, the more of its effects can be seen in it. For whoever has a lofty understanding, as soon as one demonstrative principle is put before him can gather the knowledge of many conclusions; but this is beyond one of a weaker intellect, for he needs things to be explained to him separately. And so an intellect can know all the effects of a cause and the reasons for those effects in the cause itself, if it comprehends the cause wholly. Now no created intellect can comprehend God wholly, as shown above (Article 7). Therefore no created intellect in seeing God can know all that God does or can do, for this would be to comprehend His power; but of what God does or can do any intellect can know the more, the more perfectly it sees God.

St. Thomas argues that if anyone knew all that God can do, i.e. everything that can be God’s effect, he would not only know the essence of God, but know it perfectly. This actually supports our position precisely: if you have an exhaustive account of the network of relationships between God and the world, actual and potential, according to St. Thomas, this is to know the essence of God exhaustively.

Reply 8. I concede the objection, but simply note that the error is on the part of Christian theology, not on the part of this account.

In this case, someone might ask why I included this objection, along with the previous, where even if I consider the theology defensible, I do not consider it authoritative. The reason is that I included objections that I expected various readers to hold in one form or another, and these are two of them. But what is the use of addressing them if I simply reject the premise of the objection?

There is at least one benefit to this. There is an important lesson here. Religious doctrines are typically defined in such a way that they have few or no undue sensible implications, as I said for example about the Real Presence. But philosophy is more difficult, and shares in much of the same distance from the senses that such religious claims have. Consequently, even if you manage to avoid adopting religious doctrines that have false scientific implications (and many don’t manage to avoid even this), if you accept any religious doctrines at all, it will be much harder to avoid false philosophical implications.

In fact, the idea of an immortal soul probably has false scientific consequences as well as false philosophical consequences, at least taken as it is usually understood. Thus for example Sean Carroll argues that the mortality of the soul is a settled issue:

Adam claims that “simply is no controlled, experimental[ly] verifiable information” regarding life after death. By these standards, there is no controlled, experimentally verifiable information regarding whether the Moon is made of green cheese. Sure, we can take spectra of light reflecting from the Moon, and even send astronauts up there and bring samples back for analysis. But that’s only scratching the surface, as it were. What if the Moon is almost all green cheese, but is covered with a layer of dust a few meters thick? Can you really say that you know this isn’t true? Until you have actually examined every single cubic centimeter of the Moon’s interior, you don’t really have experimentally verifiable information, do you? So maybe agnosticism on the green-cheese issue is warranted. (Come up with all the information we actually do have about the Moon; I promise you I can fit it into the green-cheese hypothesis.)

Obviously this is completely crazy. Our conviction that green cheese makes up a negligible fraction of the Moon’s interior comes not from direct observation, but from the gross incompatibility of that idea with other things we think we know. Given what we do understand about rocks and planets and dairy products and the Solar System, it’s absurd to imagine that the Moon is made of green cheese. We know better.

We also know better for life after death, although people are much more reluctant to admit it. Admittedly, “direct” evidence one way or the other is hard to come by — all we have are a few legends and sketchy claims from unreliable witnesses with near-death experiences, plus a bucketload of wishful thinking. But surely it’s okay to take account of indirect evidence — namely, compatibility of the idea that some form of our individual soul survives death with other things we know about how the world works.

Claims that some form of consciousness persists after our bodies die and decay into their constituent atoms face one huge, insuperable obstacle: the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood, and there’s no way within those laws to allow for the information stored in our brains to persist after we die. If you claim that some form of soul persists beyond death, what particles is that soul made of? What forces are holding it together? How does it interact with ordinary matter?

Everything we know about quantum field theory (QFT) says that there aren’t any sensible answers to these questions. Of course, everything we know about quantum field theory could be wrong. Also, the Moon could be made of green cheese.

Among advocates for life after death, nobody even tries to sit down and do the hard work of explaining how the basic physics of atoms and electrons would have to be altered in order for this to be true. If we tried, the fundamental absurdity of the task would quickly become evident.

Even if you don’t believe that human beings are “simply” collections of atoms evolving and interacting according to rules laid down in the Standard Model of particle physics, most people would grudgingly admit that atoms are part of who we are. If it’s really nothing but atoms and the known forces, there is clearly no way for the soul to survive death. Believing in life after death, to put it mildly, requires physics beyond the Standard Model. Most importantly, we need some way for that “new physics” to interact with the atoms that we do have.

Very roughly speaking, when most people think about an immaterial soul that persists after death, they have in mind some sort of blob of spirit energy that takes up residence near our brain, and drives around our body like a soccer mom driving an SUV. The questions are these: what form does that spirit energy take, and how does it interact with our ordinary atoms? Not only is new physics required, but dramatically new physics. Within QFT, there can’t be a new collection of “spirit particles” and “spirit forces” that interact with our regular atoms, because we would have detected them in existing experiments. Ockham’s razor is not on your side here, since you have to posit a completely new realm of reality obeying very different rules than the ones we know.

There are certainly different ways to think about this, but this is in fact a common way of thinking about the soul in relation to the body. For example, consider this discussion by James Chastek:

Objection: Conservation laws require that outcomes be already determined. By your own admission, life has to be able to “alter what would happen by physical causes alone” and therefore violates conservation laws.

Response: Again, laws and initial conditions do not suffice to explain the actual world. Life only “alters” physical causes under the counterfactual supposition that physical causes could act alone, i.e. in a way that could suffice to explain outcomes in the actual world.

Objection: It is meaningless to describe life acting on physical laws and conditions when we can’t detect this. Life-actions are vacuous entities about which we can say nothing at all. What’s their Hamiltonian?

Response: Physical laws and conditions as physical are instrumental or partial accounts of the actual world. The interactive mechanisms and measurement devices appropriate to establishing the existence of physical causes are not appropriate tools for describing all causes of the actual world.

Chastek is deliberately ignoring the question that he poses himself. But we know his opinion of the matter from previous discussions. What physics would calculate would be one thing; what the human being will do, according to Chastek, is something different.

This almost certainly does imply a violation of the laws of physics in the sense of the discussion in Chastek’s post, as well as in the sense that concerns Sean Carroll. In fact, it probably would imply a violation of conservation of energy, very possibly to such a degree that it would be possible in principle to exploit the violation to create a perpetual motion machine, somewhat along the lines of this short story by Scott Alexander. And these violations would detectable in principle, and very likely in practice as well, at least at some point.

Nonetheless, one might think about it differently, without suggesting these things, but still suppose that people have immortal souls. And one might be forgiven for being skeptical of Sean Carroll’s arguments, given that his metaphysics is wrong. Perhaps there is some implicit dependence of his argument on this mistaken metaphysics. The problem with this response is that even the correct metaphysics has the same implications, even without considering Carroll’s arguments from physics.

It is easy to see that there still loopholes for someone who wishes to maintain the immortality of the soul. But such loopholes also indicate an additional problem with the idea. In particular, the idea that the soul is subsistent implies that it is a substantial part of a human being: that a human is a whole made of soul and body much as the body is a whole made of various parts such as legs and arms. If this were the case, the soul might not be material in a quantitative sense, but it would be “matter” in the sense that we have argued that form is not matter. In this case, it would be reasonable to suppose that an additional substantial form would be necessary to unify soul and body, themselves two substantial parts.

Reply 9. There in fact is an implicit reference to matter in the definition. “Apt to make something one” refers to what is made, but it also refers to what it is made out of, if there is anything out of which it is made. The form of a chair makes the chair one chair, but it also makes the stuff of the chair into one chair.

There is more to say about matter, but my intention for now was to clarify the concept of form.

Reply 10. The network of relationships is most certainly not a construct of the mind, if one places this in opposition to “real thing.” You cannot trace back relationships to causes that do not include any relationships, if only because “cause” is in itself relative.

I have argued against reductionism in many places, and do not need to repeat those arguments here, but in particular I would note that the objection implies that “mind” is a construct of the mind, and this implies circular causality, which is impossible.

Reply 11. The objection is not really argued, and this is mainly because there cannot be a real argument for it. There is however a rough intuition supporting it, which is that applying this idea of form to immaterial things seems unfair to reality, as though we were trying to say that the limits of reality are set by the limits of the human mind. Once again, however, this is simply a case of the usual Kantian error, mixed together with choosing something that would be especially unknown to us. An immaterial thing could not exist without having some relationship with everything else. As we have suggested elsewhere, “there is an immaterial thing,” cannot even be assigned a meaning without the implied claim that I stand in some relation with it, and that it stands in some relation to me. But evidently I know very little about it. This does not mean that we need some new definition of what it is to be something; it simply means I do not know much of what that thing is, just as I do not know much of anything about it at all.