Category Archives: Actual philosophical discussion!

Boltzmann’s brains

Here is a bit of material for philosophical reflection, from yesterday’s NYT.

The basic idea, as I understand it, is this. Scientists think that the universe’s level of disorder, as a rule, never decreases. What this means is that things decay, disperse, and lose any non-uniform distribution of qualities over time. You can’t unscramble an egg; you can’t unswirl the cream in your coffee; you can’t make the universe, as a whole, warm up, or even stay the same temp. This is the second law of thermodynamics: disorder (entropy) never decreases.

That’s a law for the universe as a whole.  It doesn’t preclude little isolated burps of increasing organization, so long as, over the long haul, there is a net loss in order. So the universe can tolerate isolated exceptions to the second law. But, since nature seems to always choose the simplest path, these exceptions should be kept to a minimum.

Here comes Boltzmann. Suppose the universe had two choices. One is to allow the great big exception to the second law known as the history of human evolution and civilization. The second is to allow the comparatively minor exception which would have you spontaneously come into existence, for a few seconds, with all the memories, perceptions, and expectations you are experiencing right now. Case number two is the smaller breach of entropy. So we should believe that that’s the truth: you think you are part of a great big exception to entropy, but you’re not. You’re something like a one-second-old brain in a vat.

What do you think?

New question for the new semester

The Edge is an interesting blog, mostly aimed at discussion among scientific humanists about big questions (it’s on the blogroll, at the right). Their first question for 2008 is a good one; I thought I’d raise it again here to see what people here have to say, both in terms of answers and in terms of how they have set up the question:

When thinking changes your mind, that’s philosophy.
When God changes your mind, that’s faith.
When facts change your mind, that’s science.

WHAT HAVE YOU CHANGED YOUR MIND ABOUT? WHY?

 Any takers?

Promise of materialism?

The “Tuesday’s talk” thread was getting a bit long, so I thought I’d create this post where the discussion can continue further.

Kleiner posted this note:

“Do you think empirical science has to have a materialism metaphysics? I don’t think it does. In fact Aquinas makes arguments that begin (but do not always end) with empirical data. I would argue that without something immaterial, science (or any kind of intelligibility) is impossible (see recent Machuga lecture).
“In short, what I resist is your tendency toward reductionism. Moving from the claim that the body matters to full blown materialism. Moving from science to scientism. I just don’t see any real justification for these moves. In fact, making those moves undercuts your science. I think Hume is right, if you are going to restrict yourself to nothing other than empirical data, then you cannot even justify science (causation).”

No, I don’t think an empiricist has to be a materialist, George Berkeley and Ernst Mach were empiricists, and idealists. But that’s not what Kleiner has in mind, I think. He and Machuga really have in mind an argument between nominalists and realists.

The nominalist believes particular things (whether atoms, bodies, or simple ideas) are real, and all general things (concept of “DOG”, concept of “MASS”) somehow “ride upon” (supervene) upon the particular things. These general things are sometimes called “universals.”

The realist, on the other hand, thinks that these general things must be real. If they weren’t real, then there would be nothing in virtue of which all the particular dogs come to be correctly classified under the concept “DOG.” This might not sound compelling in the case of dogs, so here’s a more gripping example. Sceintists end up talking about kinds of things, like hydrogen. Well, what makes it true that this little bitty thing and that little bitty thing are both hydrogen atoms? “They have the same structure,” we answer. “Same structure”? Isn’t that just to say there is a thing (same structure) those two particular little bitty things have in common? That’s a universal, folks.

The realist then continues: universals, by definition, aren’t particular things. But every material thing is a particular thing. (Try to name one that isn’t!) So does it not follow that there exist immaterial things? And as a follow up: If we can somehow perceive or pick up on the existence of these immaterial things, then how can we be purely material beings?

(How’s that, Kleiner?)

My own answer — well, let me try this out as an answer, and see what happens — is that the question “is it material?” simply does not apply to universals like structure or function. It’s sort of like taking an adjective, verb, or adverb and asking what thing it refers to. Those parts of speech don’t refer to things; they’re not like nouns. They describe what things do, or what they are like. So the universal “DOG” actually is the property or cluster of properties dogs have in common. And if someone asks, “Is that universal material?” I want to answer, “No, but neither is it immaterial. It’s not a thing. It’s a property.” It’s tricky here because we can easily start talking about properties as if they are things — thus turning adjectives into nouns — and then start thinking that names of properties name things (i.e., universals). But we’re being misled by grammar.

Tuesday’s talk

In anticipation of my lecture Tuesday, I thought I’d offer a preview.

This will be a “big-picture” sort of talk. The big picture is this. I think that, given the available evidence, it is reasonable to adopt the view of “scientific naturalism” — namely, that the world is pretty much as science describes, Einstein and Darwin are largely right, and there are no ‘supernatural’ forces at play in the world. (Of course, science can always turn out to be wrong, but right now there’s little reason to think it is.) But that leaves very little room for most ancient religions — including Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism (in some versions) and Islam. So, if you accept scientific naturalism, religion has to change.

One possible change is to go the route of Spinoza, and “water down” religion so it ends up fitting with science. But the changes are severe: you have to give up divine creation, the soul, and providence. The other possible route is Nietzsche’s, and give up on religion altogether. But there is a cost here as well, since I don’t think it is obvious that naturalism provides enough of a foundation for morality. So, it’s a dilemma.

UPDATE: Thanks to those who were able to attend, and offer comments and raise questions. If you weren’t able to make it, but are interested, here are an mp3 recording of the lecture and the accompanying PowerPoint presentation:

Huenemann on Spinoza vs. Nietzsche

Spinoza/Nietzsche PowerPoint

Aristotelian minds

Ric Machuga gave a fascinating lecture yesterday. His main claim is that in order for there to be meaning in the world, there has to be an immaterial intellect. “Meaning” here isn’t anything fancy; it is just the phenomenon of a set of symbols meaning something, like the way that the word “tool” means tool. You can find a copy of his paper here. Professor Machuga has offered to check this website from time to time, so he’ll respond to any questions or objections you post!