Metaphysical horror

Perhaps you have experienced this too. You encounter an idea about the way the universe is and recoil from it in pre-rational disgust. “How awful if the world were that way!” I think the first time I felt it was in high school, walking around the gym during lunch break, when I overheard another student claiming to his friend that the past does not really exist, but only in memory. This was my first encounter with presentism, a crude version of it perhaps, but its more elaborate versions still inspire the same instinctive reaction–“What an appalling thought!” My reaction to event ontology–which takes atomism to the extreme and makes events the sole reality, so that nothing ever really persists through time–was similar, as was my reaction to the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.

Pre-rational responses should not be trusted; neither should they be ignored. I have since tried to set aside my prejudices and give these beliefs a fair hearing. I recently read a whole book on the many-worlds interpretation, and I was forced to admire the cleverness of its defenders in arguing that Everett’s theory is in fact consistent with the Born rule, despite what one would initially think. This is not to say that I was convinced; I was not, but I hope that this is not a mere rationalization. I’ve also tried to let the event ontologists make their case, in particular Whitehead, whom I know Kristor admires. I got about a hundred pages into Process and Reality before I had to give up because I could no longer understand individual sentences. Then I turned to secondary literature, which is a shame because Whitehead himself strikes me as more agreeable company than his more zealous admirers. If you’re like me, and found Leibniz’s Monadology attractive but unbelievable, you will see something appealing in Whitehead’s system (“you” in this system being of course a sequence of discrete events that somewhat resemble each other). He’s taken the idea that each thing is a particular point of view on the whole universe about as far as it can go. As for the horrifying A-theory of time, I tried my best to set aside my prejudices to let Ed Feser make his case. Being both a relativist and a traditionalist, that was a lot of prejudice to set to one side.

One would like to think that one’s choice of worldview is a matter or rational deliberation, but we are also swayed by what we find desirable, or beautiful, or easy to understand, or just what sticks vividly in the imagination. What to do about this? I sometimes read essays about how to improve one’s belief-forming process. The enemy is always supposed to be bias–confirmation bias, myside bias, etc. I agree that people really do blind themselves in these ways. However, my main strategy for getting outside of my mind and its preconceptions is to put myself into someone else’s, and I see that, from these other points of view (as well as my own), biases are not necessarily irrational. To approach the world utterly without bias is to be a sitting duck for the side that controls the megaphone. To a person who connects his beliefs with his group allegiance, the plea of an outsider to set aside a commitment to “my people, right or wrong” and look at the facts dispassionately will suspect that what he is being asked for is unilateral psychological disarmament. And 9 times out of 10, this suspicion will be well-founded, and the interlocutor will have no intention of setting aside his tribal commitment.

Ideally, there would be intellectual spaces dedicated to clarifying issues and understanding other points of view, with all sides agreeing to set aside polemics about which group is wise and righteous, which is stupid and wicked. I have found that it is impossible to accurately understand a belief without having it explained by someone who actually holds it. Hostile accounts (even under academic pretense) are never accurate. This includes those written by my side. Our unbelieving commenter a.morphous is really to be admired for following our writings. I myself am no longer able to find non-abusive expositions by my enemies of their beliefs; the utter depravity of my people seems to be their central belief, and they can discuss no other without invoking it. Probably it seems the same to my enemies who are curious about us, and the goal of my essays at Throne and Altar was to explain the beliefs of my side, what we believe and why, in a few pages and without hostility to members of the other side who might be reading. I wonder if there is still any value of this, or if there ever was.

13 thoughts on “Metaphysical horror

  1. I too hate the many-worlds theory. It disgusts me and I hope to God it’s not true. If it is, I’ll have a bone to pick with God, were I counterfactually to meet Him. I never won a school prize, so, I’m not anticipating a private interview with God Almighty.

    • Me too! The MWI is disgusting. For one thing, it is the opposite of explanation: everything happens, so there is no way to explain why any particular thing happens. So much for science.

      I’m not so worried about the A theory of time in most of its versions, because taking tenses seriously as it does looks to me like a difference of emphasis in analyses of time, that does not exclude other analyses of time such as the B theory, which emphasizes temporal locus of events rather than their tenses with respect to each other. Likewise with eternalism and the growing block theory; all these seem amenable to ontological reconciliation.

      Presentism however – which I take to be the strongest version of A theory – makes me feel a bit ill. If presentism is true, I can’t figure out how it could be true that I had some coffee this morning. Nor can I see a way that past events could be factors of the present if they were not real as of the present; the character of the present moment is linked to, and indeed largely constituted of, feelings of and about past events. If those events are not real so as to have characters of their own which present events might apprehend, then it would seem that there is nothing there to apprehend, and our impression that present events are related to past events is an illusion. But in that case, how could we come to suffer such an illusion?

      Event ontology of course troubles me not at all. It makes sense to me to parse substances into their constituent adventures. I gain a lot of explanatory understanding by so doing, and I can’t see that I lose any of the advantages of treating substances as enduring essentially through their accidental changes.

      Bonald, if you had trouble with Process and Reality – as I certainly did, the first time through – I cannot too highly recommend The Epochal Nature of Process in Whitehead’s Metaphysics, by F. Bradford Wallack. The great benefit of her book is that in it she explains just what Whitehead meant by his various terms. I had been reading Whitehead for several years when I encountered the book, and found it revelatory, and also clarifying. It cleared up a lot of confusions, and made Whitehead’s metaphysics a lot more commonsensical, and aligned with Aristotle, Plato, and Aquinas.

      Plus Wallack is totally sober and plain spoken. Five stars.

      • Hi Kristor. Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll definitely look into this book.

        I’m glad someone has the same troubles with presentism as I do. As for why my instincts rebel against the idea of event ontology, which in some ways fits very well with my eternalism, I guess it’s that I would then have to sacrifice the idea that objects persist at all. Many people are depressed at the idea that that if there is no afterlife, they will not persist after death. If event ontology is true, I will not persist after this moment, and this disturbs my self-preservation instinct in a similar way. None of this amounts to an argument that it is false, of course. It just means my first impression is to hope that it isn’t true.

      • Ah, I see the nature of your difficulty with event ontology. You write that if it is true, then the you of now will not persist after this moment. But NB: this is so only if presentism is also true. And I don’t see how presentism can be reconciled with experience per se; a sure test of any notion.

        Perhaps it will help for you to think of your present self as integral with every moment of your past in the way – in *exactly* the way – that your present self is integral with your body. The resurrection of your body is the resurrection of your whole past. So likewise is your present moment.

        Both these integrations – body with spirit and spirit with its past – are types of hypostatic union.

      • My head hurts when I start thinking too hard about topics like presentism: I realize that I don’t understand the concepts well enough even to have an opinion.

        For example, when we say that the past does or doesn’t exist, what do we mean when we say ‘exists’? Can we define what it means for something to exist, or is it one of those terms that resists definition because it is more basic than any of the terms we might want to use to define it?

      • A good question. A tough question. With respect to presentism, I should think that “exists” means (for the presentist) “is present.” I.e., “exists in the same way that the present moment exists.” But maybe not, for that definition begs the question (and most philosophers sophisticated enough to find presentism appealing are going to notice that this is so): obviously my coffee this morning is not present now. But that does not mean my coffee this morning is not real now. It means only that my coffee this morning is real now in a way different than my present recollection of the coffee, or the present soggy grounds in the filter.

        I have not studied presentist arguments with any care, because the notion seems to me a non-starter, and thus not worth my time. So, maybe there is more to presentism than I see in it.

      • Thanks. As Bonald mentioned, Feser is a presentist, so it seems it would be at least worth seeing how he defends it. I haven’t myself yet read his book where he addresses it. Presumably, other serious Thomists also are presentists (though I have no idea about Thomas himself), which would seem reason enough to engage with the idea seriously.

        If we take the principle “action follows being”, then we could say whatever exists exerts causal influence on things. Now, certainly, the past has exerted causal influence on the present. But is it exerting causal influence now? If I simply assert ‘yes’ or ‘no’, I seem to beg the question in favor or against presentism. (It’s hard even to formulate the question without implicitly adopting a position on presentism: “exerts” vs. “has exerted”. And what does it even mean for the past to exist ‘now’? Or is it wrong-headed to think about the past as a ‘thing’ in its own right, rather than of individual substances that persist or pass away?). And now my head is starting to hurt again…

      • Now, certainly, the past has exerted causal influence on the present. But is it exerting causal influence now? If I simply assert ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ I seem to beg the question in favor or against presentism.

        Yes. But the question begs itself, as a matter of definition. Whatever is happening now is present. In order to exert causal influence now – one sort of such happenings – the past must be real now.

        It is not too hard to conjure a way for the past to be real now in a way that is different than other things that are happening now. E.g., it is perhaps right-headed to think of the past as existing now actually – wholly in act, as STA & alii would put it – and thus as an accomplished, definite fact, while the things that are now in the process of becoming actual and definite – that are still acting to move from potentiality to full actuality – e.g., the present moment of your subjective experience – exist now incipiently.

        Wolfgang Smith has done a lot of work on that notion.

      • At one with; adjoined seamlessly; inclusive of.

        Integral … from Medieval Latin integralis ”forming a whole,” from Latin integer (adj.), “intact, whole, complete,” figuratively, “untainted, upright,” literally “untouched,” from in– ”not” + root of tangere ”to touch” (from PIE root *tag– ”to touch, handle”).

        The integral calculus is a helpful metaphor: in it, the myriad infinitesimals are integrated into a curve.

        Integration … “act of bringing together the parts of a whole,” from … Late Latin integrationem “renewal, restoration,” noun of action from … integrare ”make whole,” also “renew, begin again.”

        The hypostatic union of the Lógos with Jesus is archetypal of this sort of union. As the Athanasian Creed makes clear, one type of that archetype is the union of our soul with our body:

        … Perfect God; and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father as touching his Manhood. Who although he is God and Man; yet he is not two, but one Christ. One; not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by assumption of the Manhood into God. One altogether; not by confusion of Substance [Essence]; but by unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man; so God and Man is one Christ …

        In the hypostatic union of soul with body in one person, the nature of neither is altered, nor are they confused or merged. Likewise in the hypostatic union of your present moment with your past career of moments, the nature of the past qua past and the present qua present are not changed, nor are they confused. Rather, the two natures are unified in a single novel event, which integrates in itself all its predecessors. Whitehead and his school characterize that integration as the positive prehension by the present moment of the characters of all the predecessors in its personal order, and its reiteration and integration of them in itself. The past of the personal career is not lost in this translation, but – literally – re-presented: made present again.

        There is lots more to say about this, but I don’t want to flog it more than is helpful.

        Plus I may have introduced new perplexities by what I have already written.

  2. “…the goal of my essays at Throne and Altar was to explain the beliefs of my side, what we believe and why, in a few pages and without hostility to members of the other side who might be reading. I wonder if there is still any value of this, or if there ever was.”

    There is always value in good work for the Lord’s side. I think that no good work or learning is ever lost: I think it will still be fruitful even in Heaven. Especially if you enjoyed doing the work! Equipping and encouraging the saints is a joy.

    Thanks for the link to your blog. Somehow I missed it and now have bookmarked it for future reading.

  3. Interesting post. The nature of different worldviews and understanding them is something I have thought about a fair amount as well.

    “What to do about this? I sometimes read essays about how to improve one’s belief-forming process. The enemy is always supposed to be bias–confirmation bias, myside bias, etc. I agree that people really do blind themselves in these ways. However, my main strategy for getting outside of my mind and its preconceptions is to put myself into someone else’s, and I see that, from these other points of view (as well as my own), biases are not necessarily irrational. To approach the world utterly without bias is to be a sitting duck for the side that controls the megaphone.”

    You make some good observations in this paragraph. I agree that trying to remove all biases is not the right way to go about evaluating beliefs (though trying to counteract some may be helpful). One reason is that it’s recursive. Biases exist, but how do we evaluate if any particular bias is good or bad? Also, the assumption that the best point of which from which to evaluate a position is from a completely neutral point of view is not true, since the deepest reality is not neutral. Whether neutrality itself is beneficial in any particular situation is something that also must be subject to discernment.

    I agree that one of the best ways to understand a worldview is trying to see it from the inside, even trying to reason through the implications of that worldview and see how it works in detail. One example is how Kurt Godel did research in intuitionistic logic (https://infogalactic.com/info/Intuitionism), even though metaphysically he did not believe in it, but believed it made points that should be taken seriously.

  4. I have found that it is impossible to accurately understand a belief without having it explained by someone who actually holds it.

    This is what is so impressive and valuable about Jim Kalb’s The Tyranny of Liberalism: despite being opposed to liberalism, his grasp and explanation of liberalism at a fundamental level and how its modern features connect to its basic principles is remarkable. I didn’t understand modern liberalism until I read that book.

    …the goal of my essays at Throne and Altar was to explain the beliefs of my side, what we believe and why, in a few pages and without hostility to members of the other side who might be reading. I wonder if there is still any value of this, or if there ever was.

    Well, they convinced me.

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