The Nature of Physical Law: A Dialogue Between St. Athanasius, Jaegwon Kim, and Jeffery Poland

Let us suspend reality for just a moment and imagine that St. Athanasius has returned from the grave . . . and is desperately craving a cup of hot coffee.  After locating the nearest local coffee shop, he walks in with a huge smile on his face–having at last found a place to satisfy his craving.  To his great surprise, he discovers the imminent physicalists Jagewon Kim and Jeffery Poland sitting in the back of the shop enjoying their morning brew.  A dialog quickly ensues . . .

Athanasius: “Good morning gentlemen! Grace to you and peace from our heavenly Father who spoke all things into existence through His own eternal Logos, through which all things hold together harmoniously and in good order!”

Jeffery Poland: “Good god man, you can’t be serious! If you please, I’m attempting to enjoy a cup of coffee before my next lecture.

Athanasius: “My apologies my friend, but surely one can not help but extol the wonders of the Logos who holds all things together!”

Jaegwon Kim: “You’re somewhat of an odd fellow. Are you not aware that what holds all things together are the fundamental laws of physics? My dear friend, there is no God. For, all things that exist in this world are bits of matter and structures aggregated out of bits of matter, all behaving in accordance with laws of physics . . . any phenomenon of the world can be physically explained if it can be explained at all. (1) So, enough of this nonsense about a divine logos.”

Athanasius: “I see. But, if you will, please explain to me the nature of these laws. Are the laws of physics themselves physical?

Jaegwon Kim: “Do we not experience them in the physical world? For all the things we experience are physical. Is this not obvious?

Athanasius: “Obvious indeed. So what you are saying is that the fundamental laws of physics . . . are the fundamental laws of physics?

Jaegwon Kim: “No, that would be circular reasoning.”

Athanasius: “My dear friend, if your ontology is correct then the only possible answer to the question of the nature of the laws of physics is that they are ultimately bits of matter and structures aggregated out of bits of matter all behaving in accordance with the laws of physics. For, as you say, “any phenomenon of the world can be physically explained if it can be explained at all.”

Jaegwon Kim: “Yes, I did say that.  But  . . . “

Jeffery Poland: “I didn’t want to get involved in this discussion, but I can hardly sit quietly any longer!  The relevant point here is that physicalists are (or should be) concerned with what exists in nature: i.e. with what can be spatially and temporally related to us, with that with which we can interact and by which we can be influenced, and with that of which we and the things around us are made . . . sets, propositions, universals, and so on, when abstractly conceived, are not considered to be in nature at all. Nor are they within the scope of the physicalists domain of study. (2)  Hence, your argument is superfluous.”

Athanasius: “But Mr. Poland, do you not state in your writings that ‘everything that exists is either an element of the physical basis or is constituted by elements in that basis?” and do you not further assert that, ‘everything that exists is, in this sense, ‘ontologically grounded’ in the physical domain?” (3)

Jeffery Poland: “Well yes . . .”

Athanasius: “So, physicalism is committed to the belief that everything which exists is ultimately grounded in the physical domain?

Jeffery Poland: ” . . . yes.”

Athanasius: “Tell me, Mr. Poland, do the laws of physics exist?

Jeffery Poland: “Well, of course . . .”

Athanasius: “Clearly, then, the laws of physics fall within the explanatory scope of physicalism!”

Jeffery Poland: “But that would lead to a tautology.”

Athanasius:  “Exactly!  And you’ve only two ways in which to avoid this tautology:  (1) you can accept that the laws of physics are nonphysical universal truths, or (2) you can reformulate physicalism as being a methodological doctrine rather than an ontological one.  Perhaps the notion of a divine logos is not so foolish after-all?”

(1) Kim, Jaegwon. Physicalism or Something Near Enough. New York: Princeton University Press, 2001. 149-150.

(2) Poland, Jeffrey. Physicalism:  The Philosophical Foundations. New York: Oxford, 1994. 228.

(3) Ibid. 18.


Nietzsche and a Pastor: The Will to Power

This is part two of a new series–to read the introduction click here.

“What is good? — All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man.
What is bad? — All that proceeds from weakness.
What is happiness? — The feeling that power increases — that a resistance is overcome.
Not contentment, but more power; not peace at all, but war; not virtue, but proficiency (virtue in the Renaissance style, virtu, virtue free of moralic acid).
The weak and ill-constituted shall perish:  first principle of our philanthropy.  And one shall help them to do so.
What is more harmful than any vice? — Active sympathy for the ill-constituted and weak — Christianity . . .”

It’s important to remember that any definition of the good or of happiness proceeding from a naturalistic framework, such as Nietzsche’s, is completely arbitrary and, if I dare say, totally farcical — that is to say, it is a rather deceptive act in which moralistic language is ascribed to fundamentally neutral, amoral, categories.  So, when Nietzsche speaks about the good as being, “the will to power, power itself in man,” it’s important to remember that he is not outlining a system of morality; rather, he is simply describing a brute process of nature using moralistic terminology.

Any student of Biology can tell you that life is a power struggle — those organisms with the strongest will to survive and the power to do so will inevitably outlast other organisms with a weaker constitution.  In evolutionary terms, this is commonly described as the survival of the fittest.  Consequentially, a brute physical process, such as this, can hardly be described as “the good” in any objective moral sense on naturalism.  For this would imply teleology within nature — which is precisely the thing that a naturalistic view of reality denies.  Hence, to assign the, “feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man,” or, “all that proceeds from weakness,” the terms “good” or “bad” says absolutely nothing about the true goodness or badness of such things — it is merely to state a brute fact about reality.

According to naturalism, values are completely dependent upon the observer and therefore totally subjective.  In other words, they have very little to do with reality and everything to do with one’s personal opinions or feelings.  What we are left with, under this  scheme, are merely objects and events.  How we interpret the objects and events we find in nature is purely a matter of personal taste.  This mindset explains  why we often hear the term “meaning-making” used to describe values.  What this heart warming little term is actually communicating is that nature, in and of itself, has no intrinsic meaning; you, the observer, must make meaning.

The reason I’ve gone through great pains to express the above point is that many, these days, mistakenly believe it is possible to have objective morality within the naturalistic framework.  This belief, however, is entirely incompatible with the naturalistic worldview.  For there is nothing, objective, to ground values in under this framework–and this is something that Nietzsche understood all too well.  This is precisely why he speaks of the desire for power and the will to power–because this is, essentially, what life boils down to in a world without God and without objective  moral standards or purpose.  So, do not be confused by Nietzsche’s use of the terms “good” or “bad” and suppose that he is speaking of morality; on the contrary, what he is proposing is the complete antithesis of morality.  He is proposing that those who believe God to be dead embrace the implications of this belief and recognize what life truly is:  a cold, and fundamentally meaningless, struggle for power; the brutal battle for survival.

It is no wonder that Nietzsche viewed Christianity with such contempt; for Christianity stands in complete contrast to this view of reality.  It teaches that there is an overarching meaning and purpose to reality and that values are grounded in the source of existence Himself.  It asserts that man is made in the very image and likeness of the source of his existence and is, therefore, intrinsically valuable and important.  It further insists that, as creatures made in the image of their Creator, man is accountable to Him and obligated to care for all the things which He has made–even the lowly.  Hence, Psalm 41 implores us to, “consider the poor,” and Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it for me” (Matt. 25:40).

As  you can see, the Christians attitude towards the “ill-constituted and weak” and his mindset that our existence is rooted in notions like love, service, and self-sacrifice, stands in total contrast to the naturalistic worldview which explains human existence in terms of a desire for and will to power.  Under the naturalistic view such care for the weak is truly absurd: for, “the weak and ill-constituted shall perish:  first principle of our philanthropy.  And one shall help them to do so.”  This is simply a brute fact about reality that one must accept, or else, continue to live in a delusional state and be subject to the control and power of those few human beings who do accept it.

Now, you must ask yourself, at this moment, what view of reality you are prepared to accept.  If you truly believe that “God is dead” and that the physical world is all there is then you must be willing to embrace Nietzsche’s assertions with all of your being–for this is the only honest position to take.  However, if Nietzsche makes you uncomfortable, if you sense that love must somehow enter the picture, that the acquisition of power is somehow shallow and ultimately meaningless, that there is intrinsic value to all human beings–and, in fact, in every organism–that somehow morality must be objective and grounded in something, and that somehow you were made for a purpose, then you must come to terms with the fact that God may not be as dead as you had originally thought.

Why Should I be Moral? or Here’s to You Akron!

Last week for Mystic Mondays I posted a passage from the Wisdom of Solomon which outlined some of the consequences of embracing a naturalistic ethic.  One of the questions I asked readers to consider as they meditated on this passage was: if God does not exist why should we be moral at all?  One of our regular commentators, Akron,  was kind enough to take the time to respond to this question.  His answer was that we should be moral because, “it’s the right thing to do,” and he further asserted that we, “don’t need orders from God to do the right thing.”

Let’s take some time to dwell upon this question and upon the answer that Akron gave (an answer, by the way, which is very common among your average atheist or agnostic).

To begin with, let’s consider the question itself: if God does not exist why should I be moral at all?  If God does not exist we are living in a universe in which there is no objective purpose, no objective morality, no underlying intelligence or rationality, in which men are simply the chance byproduct of blind brute physical processes, in which we cease to exist upon death, and in which there is no one watching over what men do or holding men accountable for the things in which they do.  If this, indeed, is the type of universe we live in, this question becomes extremely difficult to answer because it is hard to know, objectively, what it is to be moral in the first place.

Now, there are several ethical theories that a naturalist could maintain but these theories hardly explain the nature of morality in any objective sense.  For example, a naturalist could adhere to some form of Utilitarianism in which the good is defined as whatever brings the most pleasure (and the least pain) to the most amount of people.  However, adopting this ethical system would be completely arbitrary.  Defining the good in such a way would be totally subjective.  According to naturalism, there is no underlying law written within the fabric of the universe which states that the good is whatever brings the maximum amount of pleasure, and least amount of pain, to the most amount of people.  We may argue that Utilitarianism is a useful way of living one’s life and good for maintaining a stable society, but we could not argue that Utilitarian ethics, or any ethical system, was objectively true or said anything concrete about right and wrong.

Hence, if we embrace naturalism, we must also embrace the fact that morality is totally subjective–that is, dependent upon an individual or a society.  From this point we may now examine the question of why, under the naturalistic worldview, someone should adhere to some form of morality?  A naturalist who was being honest with himself would have to answer that there is no objective reason why someone should adhere to an ethical system.  This is not to say that an individual or society might have reasons why they would want to adopt some form of morality, but simply to acknowledge that there is no objective reason why they should adopt a form of morality.

Perhaps I may want to embrace a form of anarchy in which I do whatever pops into my head at any given time.  When I see a beautiful woman I just walk up and kiss her, when I see something in a store that I want I just take it, if I suddenly have the urge to hit someone or something I act upon that urge without restraint.  You might tell me that it would be more advantageous if I were to embrace some form of Utilitarianism, and perhaps that would be true; or, perhaps, I feel that I am more powerful than most people and don’t really care about the rest of society.

Perhaps I don’t care if I live a long life and don’t care about anyone else’s welfare; perhaps I’m only interested in the here and now.  There is nothing about the nature of reality, according to naturalism, which states that I am wrong to live this way.  No one could point their fingers at me and claim that I’m being immoral or evil.  All they could do is claim that I was not adhering to the social norm or that I was disrupting society.  They could not say that I was being objectively evil or that anything I did was objectively  wrong.

All of this is to say that to claim that, if God does not exist, we should be moral because it is the right thing to do is simply question begging.  If God does not exist there is no such thing as the “right thing to do.”  There is what I say to do, or what society says to do, or what some ethical theory says to do, but there is no such thing as the right thing to do.

If, however, God does exist, then there is an order and a purpose woven into the fabric of reality.  There is, more specifically, an objective purpose to human life; there is an objective standard that we must all measure up to which is independent of our society , our culture, or our feelings.  There is also someone watching what we do and to whom we are accountable to.  It is only under this scheme that there are objective reasons why we should be moral and in which there is a clear and definable sense of what being moral is.

Mystic Mondays: Is there Something More?

Today  I’d like to share a passage from The Wisdom of Solomon which vividly portrays the ethical consequences of the naturalistic view of reality.  I ask you to meditate on these words and to wrestle with the implications of a world in which God does not exist, in which there is no objective purpose or reason for anything, and in which there is no life after death.  Do not simply engage this topic with your mind but examine it with your heart as well. Ask yourself these questions:  What is the purpose of my life?  Is there an objective purpose to my life if God does not exist? If there is no life after death then why should I live a moral life?  Is sensual pleasure what defines me?  If there is no God, why should I care about the weak?  Why should I be moral at all?  Is there something more?

“For they [the ungodly or atheists] reasoned unsoundly saying to themselves, ‘Short and sorrowful is our life, and there is no remedy when a man comes to his end, and no one has been known to return from Hades [i.e. death].  Because we were born by mere chance, and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been; because the breath in our nostrils is smoke, and reason is a spark kindled by the beating of our hearts.  When it is extinguished, the body will turn to ashes, and the spirit will dissolve like empty air.  Our name will be forgotten in time, and no one will remember our works; our life will pass away like the traces of a cloud, and be scattered like mist that is chased by the rays of the sun and overcome by its heat.  For our allotted time is the passing of a shadow, and there is no return from our death, because it is sealed up and no one turns back.

‘Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that exist, and make use of the creation to the full as in youth.  Let us take our fill of costly wine and perfumes, and let no flower of spring pass by us.  Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wither.  Let none of us fail to share in our revelry, everywhere let us leave signs of enjoyment, because this is our portion, and this is our lot.  Let us oppress the righteous poor man; let us not spare the widow nor regard the gray hairs of the aged.  But let our might be our law of right, for what is weak proves itself to be useless.” – Wisdom of Solomon 2:1-11

Heaven and the Human Mind: A Response to Stephen Hawking (Featuring St. John of Damascus)

Stephen Hawking was interviewed by the Guardian last Sunday concerning his views of the afterlife and, to no one’s surprise, he denied the existence of the afterlife. His reasoning, however, is shockingly bad. This is because Hawking makes two completely contradictory claims: On the one hand he says that Heaven is merely wishful thinking, but on the other hand he says that our brains are like computers. How can a computer – something that lacks free will – have wishful thinking – something that requires free will?

A computer, by definition, can only know what has been programmed into it. Even computers that learn still lack free will proper because they’re stuck with the programming they have. If you program a computer, say Hal 2000, to murder everyone on a space ship, then Hal 2000 will murder everyone on that ship. It might learn new and creative ways to murder the people, like sucking them into the vacuum of space, but ultimately its sole purpose is to murder everyone on the ship. Thus, the computer is stuck with its programming. I will deal with that later, but first let us look at Hawking’s belief in Heaven directly.

If this is true for humans, then where is the moral responsibility? More importantly, how does Heaven become wishful thinking if we are programmed with knowledge? Ultimately, while Hawking’s religion is science, his reasoning forces us to believe that Hawking is ultimately irrational in his beliefs.

Continue reading

Message Board Academics or The Intellectual Collapse of Naturalism

Today the New York Times has brought to the populace a debate that was essentially happening behind the academic curtain. Barbara Forrest published an article critical of Francis Beckwith’s work concerning the Constitutionality of teaching intelligent design. Now, Beckwith is a philosophical critic of ID, going so far as to say that he rejects ID, but still believes there might be constitutional ground to allow it to be taught in school (even if he thinks this is ultimately a bad idea).

Forrest’s response was less than academic, which is fine for a blog or an article in a popular magazine; though uncivil, it would hardly warrant an outcry or any second-guessing. The problem, however, is that Forrest was writing in an academic journal concerning the philosophy of science, one where ad hominem and genetic fallacies ought to be avoided. Sadly, Forrest’s article primarily consisted of attacking Beckwith’s Catholic background in order to prove her point that ID isn’t Constitutionally protected; in other words, she went after both the academic and personal character of Beckwith to establish ground for tossing out his claims.

Rather than argue for the validity of ID or debate the Constitutional merits of allowing ID into the classroom, I think there are bigger issues going on here that people have ignored (and one that is ignored in the NYT article). First, that the guest editors and editor in chief didn’t catch the ad hominem prior to releasing the article online betrays either a massive bias or inability to spot faulty reasoning. Secondly, while many in Forrest’s camp are arguing that Synthese was wrong for issuing an apology, none are acknowledging that she was wrong for writing the article in the first place. Third, someone who is a critic of ID was still targeted for simply defending the possible legality of teaching it, which amounts to a closing off of the debate. Finally, and most importantly, we’re finally beginning to see the intellectual credibility for naturalism erodes, which is both good and bad. Continue reading

The Atheist Dilemma, or Why the New Atheism is Just Silly

The Atheist Dilemma

It is popular among the new atheists to say that religion has and always will be detrimental to society. They argue that it actually harms a society to embrace religious viewpoints. But unfortunately, this poses quite a problem with consistency for atheists. For most new atheists, naturalism/scientism is the only viable theory in existence. Everything can and must be explained naturally, meaning that when it comes to humans natural selection is the rule of the day.

But if natural selection is the driving force behind all human interactions, then criticizing religion poses an extreme problem for atheists. Consider this:

If religion is truly the bane of a society and harms the chances of a society’s survival, then how did it come about that it exists? If it has no survival benefit, then it should have been selected out via natural selection, like the tail on ancient humans or the short beaks on finches during a drought.

If, alternatively, religion came about as a survival process, then perceived evils aren’t evil at all, but instead have aided in the propagation of homo sapiens, meaning we have no reason to argue against religion. It is a survival trait, thus arguing against religion is the equivalent to arguing against having eyes or having rationality.

Thus, the new atheists must explain how religion came about and was (and is) the predominant view among humans for thousands of years while simultaneously harming our survival, or they must acknowledge that religion has aided in our survival, thus nullifying their arguments.

What is worse is that if religion is no longer advantageous to survival then it will die a natural death, meaning there’s no need to argue against it. If humans lost the need to hear then there would be no reason to argue against listening; it would naturally die off. If religion is just a bi-product of human survival, then it will naturally die off if not needed, and if it doesn’t die off then obviously it’s needed, so there’s no reason to argue against it.

Now, I don’t agree with any of the presuppositions of the new atheists, but I’m simply showing how under their own system they put themselves out of jobs (that is, if they logically follow their own system). You can’t on one hand argue that religion developed out of a need for humans to survive, but on the other hand explain that religion has been the greatest evil thrust upon humanity. At some point, if you’re concerned with being intelligent and logical, you have to make a choice (under their system that is).