Sunday, October 24, 2010
Thursday, October 21, 2010
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Edit: Please excuse the weird formatting, I've tried as hard as I can to fix it and nothing seems to work.
(A caveat: I have not read either of Hawking’s or Spitzer’s recent books, so my critique of Spitzer’s argument is based only on his blog post.)
In his blog post “The curious metaphysics of Dr. Stephen Hawking”, Fr. Robert Spitzer offers some criticisms of Stephen Hawking’s recent book The Grand Design. I agree with some of his criticisms, but not with others. First, a point of agreement. Fr. Spitzer addresses the following quote from Hawking’s book:
“Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist.”
Fr. Spitzer points out—rightly, in my view—that if the law of gravity is to account for the creation of the universe, it must exist, and hence the creation of the universe is not really “from nothing”. Furthermore, I agree with him when he says,
“[…] these thinkers [i.e., Parmenides and Plato] use the term “nothing” to mean “nothing” (i.e. “that which there is no such thing as”). Nothing should not be thought to be a vacuum or a void (which is dimensional and orientable – where you can have more or less space); and it is certainly not a physical law.”
If we understand the term ‘universe’ broadly, as including physical laws, then indeed we cannot explain why the universe exists by reference to such laws, nor can we use physical laws to explain why there is something rather than nothing, for they must exist in order to explain, and so we would only have explained the existence of “something” by the existence of “something else”.
However, Fr. Spitzer does not merely criticize Hawking’s claim. He also makes the following argument for the thesis that “only nothing can come from nothing”, which he hopes will show that the physical universe must have a transcendent cause:
“But let’s go back to Dr. Hawking’s underlying assumption, namely that there are reasons to think that something came from nothing – namely, reasons for a beginning. How have philosophers and metaphysicians traditionally responded to this question? With what many term the first principle of metaphysics, “From nothing only nothing comes.” If you take nothing literally – that is if one acknowledges that there is no such thing as nothing, then one cannot attribute anything to nothing. One cannot attribute characteristics, actions, powers and so forth to nothing. In this absence of everything, one can only conclude that “only nothing can come from nothing.” What does this mean?
It means that if the physical universe had a beginning (a point at which it came into existence” then prior to that point it was nothing. And if it was nothing then it could not have created itself (because only nothing can come from nothing). So what does that imply? The very reality that Dr. Hawking wants to avoid, namely, a transcendent power which can cause the universe to come into existence.”
Now we have come to the point where I must disagree. If one is committed to the thesis that there is no such thing as nothing, it is of course true that one cannot attribute anything to “it.” But that is not to say that there is some mysterious metaphysical somewhat which we have decided to call ‘nothing’, and which somehow “is” without being a “thing” or without having any attributes. Instead, to say that there is no such thing as nothing is just to say that there is no object which is not the same thing as some object, and/or that there is no object which does not have attributes, where the word ‘object’ applies not only to physical objects, but to everything that exists.
While I doubt that Fr. Spitzer holds the view that “nothing” is a mysterious metaphysical somewhat, the phrasing of the passage I quoted above does suggest it. For he says, “if the physical universe had a beginning (a point at which it came into existence” then prior to that point it was nothing. And if it was nothing then it could not have created itself (because only nothing can come from nothing).” That suggests that there is something that the universe was prior to its beginning—namely “nothing”! But if one rejects the “metaphysical somewhat” conception of “nothing”, one should say, more perspicuously, that prior to the beginning of the universe it was not the case that anything existed. Furthermore, if it was not the case that anything existed, it also was not the case that anything existed which could have created the universe. That being so, it follows straightaway that the universe could not have created itself, there being no universe around to do the creating. If this is what Fr. Spitzer means, then I think he is surely right. But then he has not really shown that “only nothing can come from nothing”, only that the universe could not have created itself from nothing. There remains another possibility which he has not yet foreclosed, which is that the universe had a beginning without being created by anything. We may say that nothing caused the universe to come into existence, not in the sense that its coming-into-existence was caused by a mysterious metaphysical somewhat called ‘nothing’, but rather in the sense that it came into existence without having any cause at all. Fr. Spitzer may have other arguments to show why the universe must have a transcendent cause, and for all I know he may be right that it has one. I only take myself to have shown that the thesis that “only nothing can come from nothing” isn’t going to do the trick.
Sunday, March 28, 2010
Sunday, February 21, 2010
One of the main reasons we can have for believing in God is that, If God exists, we have a good explanation for the existence of an orderly and relatively life-friendly universe such as we find ourselves in. But this is only true if God’s will is not completely free. To see why this is so, let us consider two sets of possible worlds: The first is the set of all possible worlds, and the second is the set of all possible worlds where God exists. Now, my question is this: Does God’s nature impose any constraints on which possible worlds He can actualize? Of course, if God exists, it follows that God cannot actualize any possible worlds where He does not exist, and so in this sense the answer to my question is surely “yes”. But are there any constraints besides this? Or is the set of worlds in which God exists, apart from His existence, exactly the same as the set of worlds in which God does not exist? To clarify: Is God’s existence compatible with possible worlds which are disordered, hostile to life, and which perhaps contain no sentient beings at all? If it is, the existence of God cannot explain the order and life-friendliness of the universe because those characteristics are no more likely if God exists than if He doesn’t. But if God’s nature does impose constraints on which worlds God can actualize—constraints which, as above, rule out possible worlds which are too disorderly to accommodate life or sentience of any sort—then there are significant constraints on what God can will, for then God cannot actualize just any possible world. God’s will would not be completely free. This would not mean that God is “forced” to actualize only orderly, life-friendly worlds against His will, but rather that those are the only kinds of worlds God could desire to actualize. The upshot of our considerations is this: On the one hand, if God’s will is completely free, there are no constraints on which worlds God can actualize, and hence God’s existence does not explain the existence of an orderly, life-friendly universe. One of the main reasons we could have for believing that God exists would be undercut. On the other hand, if God’s nature does impose constraints on which worlds He can actualize, there are significant constraints on His free will, which may be considered unorthodox by many theists. Thus, if they wish to uphold the complete freedom of God’s will, they cannot endorse teleological and/or cosmological arguments for God’s existence. For such arguments presuppose that God’s existence would explain the existence of an orderly, life-friendly universe, but we have seen that this would not be so if God’s will were completely free.
 I am supposing that God does not exist in all possible worlds (assuming for the sake of argument that He exists). If you disagree, consider two different ways of envisioning the space of all possible worlds: One in which God exists in all, and another in which God exists in none.
Monday, January 25, 2010
4.1 Is this relativity compatible with realism? I think not. For if realism is true, in cases of veridical perception we perceive things just as they really are. But if Strawson is right, we cannot speak of “the way things really are” independently of some standpoint. What then can it mean to say that there are cases of veridical perception? It can only mean that we perceive things as they really are in a certain standpoint. The question now becomes, “What is it for things to be a certain way in a certain standpoint?”
4.2 Let us elaborate on this a bit. To make things clearer, suppose that instead of saying, e.g., “That mountain is really blue”, we turn ‘really’ into a sentential operator and say: “It is really the case that that mountain is blue.” Now we can ask, for all sentences P, does “It is really the case that P” entail P? If it does—and it certainly seems to—how can divergent property ascriptions in different standpoints not be inconsistent? For then the sentence “It is really the case that that mountain is blue”, asserted in whatever standpoint you please, entails “That mountain is blue.” Thus, if someone asserts “It is not the case that it is really the case that that mountain is blue” in any standpoint, this entails “It is not the case that that mountain is blue”, and that clearly contradicts “That mountain is blue.” And this is problematic for Strawson’s view, for according to his view these seemingly inconsistent sentences could be truly asserted in different standpoints.
4.3 Strawson could reply that there is no trouble here, for we have failed to index our sentences to the different standpoints. Since on his view sentences are only true in a certain standpoint, we should add in indexes to standpoints to make this fact explicit. Thus, instead of plain old “P” we have “P-in-standpoint-S”. So what we can say is that “It is really the case that P-in-standpoint-S” entails “P-in-standpoint-S”, and Strawson would say there is nothing wrong with the latter sentence. For him “P-in-standpoint-S” and “not-P-in-standpoint-R” are not genuinely inconsistent, because P and not-P are indexed to different standpoints. But I think such indexing makes sense only if the indexes make sense. Can we make any sense of a sentence’s being true only in a certain standpoint? I think the answer is “no”, as I will now argue.
4.4 As we have seen, Strawson thinks that divergent ascriptions of properties, when relativized to different standpoints, are not genuinely inconsistent with each other: “The appearance of both volatility and conflict vanishes when we acknowledge the relativity of our reallys” (Strawson p. 107). If that is so, why do ascriptions of properties need to be relativized? For there are statements in different standpoints that do not even seem to contradict each other. I can say, concerning the very same chair, both “That chair is wooden” and “That chair is made of quarks.” These sentences, though they may be relativized to different standpoints, could also be truly asserted in a single standpoint. Yet, if Strawson is right, the sentence “That chair is brown” can be truly asserted in the human perceptual standpoint and the sentence “That chair has no color” can be truly asserted in the scientific standpoint, though presumably they could not be truly asserted in a single standpoint. While Strawson does say (p. 108) that we can combine two standpoints in a single sentence, I think he means that different aspects of the sentence belong to different standpoints, not that the whole sentence does. As I understand Strawson, one can say something like: “Considered from the scientific standpoint, that chair has no color, but considered from the human perceptual standpoint, that chair is brown.” This combines two standpoints in a single sentence. But surely one could not say something like: “Considered from the scientific standpoint, that chair has no color, but considered from the scientific standpoint, that chair is also brown.” So the fact—if it is a fact—that we can combine two standpoints in a single sentence does not entail that we can truly assert inconsistent sentences in a single standpoint.
4.5 Now, suppose someone utters the sentence “That chair is brown” in a common-sense perceptual context and then utters the sentence “That chair is brown” again, this time in a scientific context. That sentence either has the same meaning in both contexts or a different one, assuming that it is not meaningless in either of them. If it has the same meaning, in cannot be true in one context and false in the other, on pain of contradiction. Thus if “That chair is brown” is true in the human perceptual standpoint it is also true in the scientific standpoint, and so it cannot also be the case that “That chair has no color” is true in the scientific standpoint. Conversely, if “That chair has no color” is true in the scientific standpoint, it is also true in the human perceptual standpoint, assuming it is uttered with the same meaning in a common-sense perceptual context. And if that is so it cannot also be the case that “That chair is brown” is true in the human perceptual standpoint. So if these sentences have the same meaning in both standpoints, they must have the same truth value in each of them, and Strawson’s view falls apart. If they have different meanings in the different standpoints, it is no surprise that each could have a different truth value in different standpoints; for the fact that the same sentence can have different truth values if it is assigned different meanings is a truism, and is something that can hardly resolve the conflict between the standpoints of human perception and science. And that means that Strawson’s account cannot do what it was meant to do.
5.1 In conclusion, Strawson’s account simply will not work. If one finds it appealing, I think it is because the notion of relativization to a standpoint has a certain charm, for it gives one the thrill of flirting with a contradiction. But we have seen that ascriptions of properties are either consistent or inconsistent: If they are consistent there is no need to relativize to a standpoint, and if they are not consistent, no relativization can reconcile them. Thus Strawson’s view is contradictory, and for that reason it is consistent neither with realism nor with anything else. Its aim to reconcile science and the common-sense view of perception is certainly praiseworthy, but it remains a noble attempt to do the impossible.
Strawson, P.F., “Perception and Its Objects”, in Vision and Mind: Selected Readings in the Philosophy of Perception. Alva Noe and Evan Thompson (eds.). The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts / London, England 2002.
As some of you may have noticed, I haven't been blogging much for the last several months. This is due to the fact that I was pretty busy--I was taking five classes-- and also to the fact that I've had what I'll call philosopher's block--the inability to come up with anything new or interesting to say on philosophical subjects. I hope to overcome that soon and start posting (fairly) regularly again. In the meantime, here's one of my papers from a class I took on the philosophy of perception.
1.1 In his article “Perception and Its Objects”, P. F. Strawson defends a common-sense standpoint on the nature of perception against its scientifically-inspired opponents. In order to do so, he must establish that these standpoints, despite appearances, do not really contradict each other. However, I think that in this case the appearances are not deceiving. First, I explain the apparent conflict between the scientific standpoint and the common-sense human perceptual standpoint. Next, I outline Strawson’s attempt to reconcile the two via the notion of relativization to a standpoint. Finally, I argue that Strawson’s attempt fails because in the end the notion of relativization to a standpoint is incoherent.
2. Opposing Standpoints
2.1 In the last few pages of his article “Perception and Its Objects”, Strawson tries to reconcile two opposing standpoints: the scientific standpoint and the common-sense human perceptual standpoint. According to the first, objects do not possess any properties except those which our best physical theories attribute to them (Strawson, pp. 98-9). Physical objects do not, for example, have sensible properties such as colors. According to the second, in cases of veridical perception physical objects really do possess the sensible properties they seem to have (Strawson, p. 100 and p. 103), colors being a prominent example. Because perception is direct according to the common-sense standpoint (Strawson, p. 106), colors cannot be properties of perceptual intermediaries such as sense-data. So if there are any cases of veridical color experience, at least some colors must be properties of the external, physical objects of our perception; otherwise all color experience is illusory.
2.2 It would thus seem that we face a dilemma. If the scientific standpoint is correct, we are the victims of a massive amount of perceptual error. If the common-sense standpoint is correct, our best physical theories are radically incomplete, for then there is a large class of properties that they cannot account for, and do not even acknowledge to exist. Yet it seems that one or the other of these views must be right: Either colors are “out there” waiting to be perceived in the external, physical world, or they are not. Is there any way out of this? Can we have our chromatic cake and eat it too?
3. Strawson’s Aim: Reconciliation through Relativization
3.1 Strawson apparently thinks that we can. In order to do so, we must take a cue from the way we talk when we ascribe visual properties to things. For the same thing may look one way to Jones in one circumstance, another way to Smith in the same circumstance, and still another way to Jones in a different circumstance. The same mountains might look red at a certain distance in a certain light and blue at a different distance in a different light (Strawson, pp. 106-7). And the same fabric that looks purple in one light may really be green (Strawson, p. 107). Such property ascriptions are relative to a perceptual point of view that is regarded as standard, and we only recognize the relativity when things deviate from this standard (Strawson, p. 107). Sometimes, though, we can change the standard: “Magnified, the fabric appears as printed with tiny blue and yellow dots. So those are the colors it really is. Does this ascription contradict ‘it’s really green’? No; for the standard has shifted” (Strawson, p. 107). And of course we can also shift the standard back (Strawson, p. 107). Strawson thinks that we can give a similar account of the apparent conflict between the scientific and common-sense standpoints. The difference is that in this case we do not shift from one perceptual viewpoint to another, but from a perceptual viewpoint to a scientific one. Thus ascriptions of color are, for example, true relative to the common-sense human perceptual standpoint, and false relative to the scientific standpoint. As Strawson rightly notes, “This method of reconciling scientific and common-sense realism requires us to recognise a certain relativity in our conception of the real properties of physical objects” (Strawson p. 108).
 This and all subsequent page references are to Vision and Mind.