To change the culture III: metaphysics

There will be a revival of Christianity when it becomes impossible to write a popular manual of science without referring to the incarnation of the Word.

Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances, Chapter XXIII

Bruce Charlton is right–our disagreement with the World comes down to metaphysics. How does one choose a metaphysics? Rather, how does one choose between rival metaphysical assumptions? One cannot derive metaphysical beliefs from something more fundamental, because there is nothing more fundamental. One’s metaphysics must not conflict with experience, but that is a low bar; many systems provide some way of reading the observed facts. There are also internal checks. Whitehead says that a metaphysical system should be coherent, meaning not only that its parts don’t conflict, but that they all interrelate and co-depend. Metaphysics should also cohere with our scientific, psychological, aesthetic, and religious thinking. When one find oneself appealing to the (univocally) same concept when making sense of a quantum field theory calculation, when understanding the motives of an agitated friend, and when arguing that the Back to the Future sequels weren’t very good, one is inclined to accept that a concept with such reach has metaphysical validity.

What is the metaphysics of contemporary man? By his way of talking, he believes the universe has three basic components. First is “matter”, which is fundamentally a conglomeration of particles of some sort, although convenience leads us to give certain arbitrary groupings of particles their own names. (Like the ancient atomists, one probably must also posit space as an independent entity to make this work, but this will not be an important issue for what follows.) Second, there are “the laws of physics”, spoken as if actual entities rather than descriptions, which tell the particles how to move. The laws of physics at least logically pre-exist matter, because they created the universe ex nihilo. Finally, there is moral quality, which inheres in groups of people independent of their choices (free will is not required for moral quality), leading some to be identified as oppressors, others as oppressed. This moral quality does not seem to be grounded in a utilitarian calculus or neutral accounting of violations of some deontological moral law, but to be a primitive feature of the world. Finally, contemporary man believes truth is completely objective. He has shed all remnants of 20th century liberalism and postmodernism with its supposed multiplicity of “truths” and valid perspectives. No one may question “the science” (the truth of the first two components of the universe) or “justice” (the truth of the third).

This is, of course, grossly incoherent. However, the schemes of the materialist philosophers are not much better. They all have serious problems.

  • Most obviously, the two “hard” problems of contemporary philosophy: consciousness and quantum mechanics. Regarding the first, materialism can’t explain consciousness (qualia and intentionality). Descartes and Brentano proved it, and it’s one of the best-established truths in philosophy. Some drastic change is needed to incorporate mental-like qualities at the base level of ontology. Hence the wild speculations of the panpsychists (who make phenomenal experience the inner essence of the most fundamental things) and process philosophers (who make intentionality–“prehension”–the inner essence of the most fundamental things). Regarding the second hard problem, reading the postulates of quantum mechanics one realizes that one is dealing not with a theory but with a recipe, which would seem to be a great opportunity for the philosopher who can make sense of it all–the double slit experiment, noncommuting operators, entaglement, etc. However, having read many books on the subject, I conclude that all interpretations of quantum mechanics on offer are either crazy, self-inconsistent, ugly and ad hoc, or all three.
  • These philosophies have seldom-recognized but serious issues of helping themselves to metaphysical categories to which they have no right. For example, dismissing levels of being and causality as mystifications and then claiming that the laws of physics can explain the universe and that my atoms are more fundamental than, more real than, or “ground” me.
  • They claim, reasonably enough, that we should try to read off metaphysical principles from physics, but in fact they usually just read their seventeenth century mental pictures of matter into physics. Those who embrace John Wheeler’s “it from bit” program (information as the fundamental reality) make a more serious effort to read off from physics, but they read off not the actual findings of physics (which will be expressed as information no matter what physical theory is true) but its particular manner of representing the world. I’ve actually read some mad enough to affirm that the base-level of reality is a vector in an infinite-dimensional Hilbert space! On the other hand, if we admit that physics gives us only relations between observables and mathematical structures of we-know-not-what, then we must ask if we have any other sources of information, or if we are back to Kant and his unknowable noumena.

The metaphysics of modern man is not very compelling, which presents an opportunity for us. Furthermore, this is an area that is not heavily guarded. Modern man will not listen to arguments that the sexual revolution was a bad thing; his conditioning kicks in, and he starts shrieking “fascist!” The firewall doesn’t really check for metaphysical propositions (as long as you don’t bring in God too soon). That makes it an even better opportunity. Best of all, overturning contemporary metaphysics overturns everything. Great, so let’s all become metaphysicians! The problem, of course, is that metaphysics is hard, and our alternatives–neo-Platonic, Scholastic, or Process–have some coherence problems of their own.

What does Barfield mean in the quote at the top of this post? It means that it is not enough to show that belief in God and the soul is consistent with modern science and engineering, and with modern knowledge of ancient history and other cultures. The easiest way to do that is to argue that these things are unrelated, address different subjects, use different categories, speak different language games. Even if this argument succeeds, it is an argument that religion is irrelevant for most of our mental life and that the universe is not a very coherent place. Let us say you want people to believe in God, and you define God as “pure act”. Then it is not enough to have an understanding of act and potency that makes this phrase comprehensible (although I am not altogether sure the Scholastics have achieved even that). It must be the same ideas of act and potency, following the same rules, that you use to make sense of black holes, heart transplants, and economic depressions. Admittedly, every area of thought invokes the idea of the state an object is actually in, as opposed to what it possibly might have been in. However, this bare concept of act has no natural quality of purity or degree. On it, men are no more fully actual than stones; they are just actually different things. The idea of degrees of actuality requires a richer understanding of act and seems only to appear and do real work in natural theology. Similarly the idea of a “pure perfection”. We usually think of perfection with reference to an external or (assuming intrinsic teleology) internal standard, but when that standard is met, no more purity can be asked for. Perfection transcending particular standards seems to come out of nowhere and only when natural theology needs it. If people found that they need one of these ideas (in the full version that points to God) to make sense of the structure of the world around us, they would naturally become theists. (Similarly, metaphysical principles that come out of nowhere to do theological work, such as the principle of proportionate causality, which otherwise only makes nuisance for us as we try to explain away all the obvious counter-examples.)

Unfortunately, Scholastic thought, confronted with the disproof of Aristotelian science, has largely retreated from the empirical world, using the “different subjects, different categories, different language games” type of argument. The findings of science are dismissed as merely quantitative, so that, by a new form of the doctrine of double truth, almost no alteration is needed to Aristotelian natural philosophy. I don’t think this dismissal works. Modern science does have a qualitative dimension, is not meaningless math; the ancient understandings of motion, light, and chemistry are not even qualitatively viable given available observations. Nor is it only a question of a false theory being replaced by a truer one. In some cases, we have advanced in clarity and are able to recognize our former “common sense” belief not as a superseded false theory but as a jumble of vague ideas, poorly defined terms, unrecognized distinctions, and unstated assumptions. When the Scholastics tell me that I should abandon Riemann’s understanding of curvature, Maxwell’s understanding of color, or Cantor’s understanding of actual infinities in favor of “common sense”, they should first show that this common sense is a real alternative of comparable conceptual precision and explanatory power. Each of these topics deserves a separate post, but the main point is that even if it is true that a correct ontology is nearly independent of a scientific and/or mathematical representation of the world, and hence provides no insight into these representations, this would be a very disappointing conclusion, a nearly hollow victory.

I believe the non-materialist metaphysical systems also have internal problems of vagueness, of two main types. First, each posits a most fundamental level of being–Plato’s Forms, Aristotle’s substance, Whitehead’s actual occasion–but has trouble telling us how to identify instances of it. Two and a half millennia ago, Parmenides managed to stump Socrates by asking him if there is a Form of hair or dirt. Confusion remains regarding what types of objects are full substances (statues? photons? rivers? gases? planets?) and which groupings of spacetime events are actual occasions. Second, non-materialist philosophies are often holist, regarding wholes as ontologically prior to parts. Then they must explain how the properties of parts are grounded in those wholes. Whatever the faults of atomism, it does provide an easy-to-understand explanation for how my posture is grounded in the location of my atoms. But if I am prior to my parts, then my substantial form should ground the properties of my parts, e.g. the spins of my nucleons. How does it encode this information?

What I’ve written will probably sound excessively harsh toward Scholastic metaphysics in particular, but that is only because it is the system that I had most wanted to believe, that I have studied the most, and whose unfinished work therefore most vex me. It may yet turn out that the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas or Duns Scotus is entirely correct and is exactly what we need to establish the coherence of the world, but it will require a profound sharpening of its basic concepts to be truly ready for this role. Perhaps our age of mathematical physics and analytic philosophy is indeed the one wherein such work could be done, but it will be no matter of minor clarification and adjustment. A genius on the order of Aquinas or Scotus himself may be needed. How the prospect excites me! But alas I am not that genius.

21 thoughts on “To change the culture III: metaphysics

  1. Thank you very much for these posts Bonald, particularly this one, because it begins to draw the map of where the work needs to be done by Christian scientists to reconcile the intellectual achievements in the natural sciences with the Christian metaphysics.

    One question that comes to mind regarding this topic — do you recommend Wolfgang Smith, the contemporary physicist who is on this blogroll who appears to write about Vertical Causality? I clicked on the link earlier this week but I do not have enough familiarity with the subjects he is discussing to know whether or not it is worth reading his work in depth?

    • I’ve read one of Smith’s books, “The Quantum Enigma”. He is doing interesting work and makes interesting suggestions. He is worth reading, although I think it’s premature to become his follower (not that he would necessarily want this or imagines that he has a fully adequate articulated metaphysics anyway).

  2. I suspect the Thomistic retreat from empiricism is mainly a function of there being such a small cross section between Thomist metaphysicians and physicists. Regardless of whether one reads metaphysics out of physics or not, one certainly needs to understand e.g. entanglement to understand its ontology.

    I don’t think their reluctance to derive new metaphysical principles from modern physics is unwarranted though. Many of the common physics-based refutations of classical metaphysics assume more than can be empirically demonstrated (reductionism, for example), and the problems of quantum mechanics seem to mainly be a matter of us not knowing how certain aspects of it work, namely how wave function collapse occurs and the decision mechanism (what causes a given particle to end up in state A rather than B). I suspect that if these things were understood, most of the metaphysical issues with QM would do away. Or at least reduce to a level of difficulty similar to that of classical mechanics and relativity.

    • I’ll agree that reluctance is warranted. Not that extracting metaphysics from physics is impossible (Aristotle did it), but it is tricky and is often done amateurishly, with the philosopher’s prior assumptions doing the real work.

      With regard to interpreting quantum mechanics, philosophers can choose whether they want to try to interpret the formalism of the standard theory or whether they want to try to make sense of observed “quantum phenomena” like the double slit experiment or violations of Bell’s inequalities. I suppose I was mostly writing about doing the former, but you’re right that this might be premature; maybe physicists themselves will adjust the theory in ways that make it more clear. It’s not too early to be thinking philosophically about quantum phenomena, because they are observed features of the world and aren’t going away, and it’s hard to imagine that any theory that replaces standard quantum mechanics and is able to accommodate these phenomena will not be in some ways as weird as standard quantum mechanics.

      • Taking Bell’s inequality as an example, I think we can say that each particle is in some state (which might be one definite spin or a probability distribution of spins that could be produced by some unknown interaction with the measurement device). When one particle is measured, the act of measurement alters the state of the other particle in some way.
        I don’t think metaphysicians can be any more specific than that without further input from physicists regarding how the process works. There’s certainly a lot of room for speculation there, but it’s in the realm of thought experiments (meaning ways that different theories could produce different empirical outcomes), not metaphysics proper.
        Regarding the weirdness of the complete theory, a theory can be “weird” either because it’s complex and unintuitive, or because it’s metaphysically paradoxical. I don’t doubt that any full explanation of Bell’s inequality (or the measurement problem in general) will be much weirder in the first sense, but I suspect that it won’t strain our metaphysics any more than other types of mechanics.

  3. Good post. Excellent job describing the framework of the problem.
    “A genius on the order of Aquinas or Scotus himself may be needed. How the prospect excites me! But alas I am not that genius.”
    I feel the same way. Reading about these kinds of things, I sometimes think I can get a glimpse of what would come next, but I know I’m not going to be the one to do it.
    Going into some of the specific topics, I think that Cantor’s infinities are more mathematical than physical. In trying to understand them, I have come to believe that they relate more to how to think about bijective functions than something in the physical world. For instance, Cantor’s hierarchy of infinities depends crucially on the powerset axiom, which is itself somewhat weird. What exactly does it mean to take *all* subsets of a given set if you don’t know what they are ahead of time?
    And then you get into large cardinals (those not entailed by the normal axions of set theory). I don’t know much about them, but I find it hard to believe that all this stuff relates to actual quantities rather than properties of logical systems.
    I don’t know a lot about Wolfgang Smith’s work. But from watching the video about it “The End of Qunatum Reality” and reading some other things, I think he’s really onto something. As far as I can understand it, it’s the idea that the whole is just as real as the part. That’s what’s going on in the double-slit experiment. The wave is still there even with individual particles. It’s not that the wave is made out of particles, but that particles coalesce to form the wave.
    This is similar to how they make images in video games for example. You don’t randomly shuffle pixels around to generate an image, you have someone design the image by drawing or computer modeling. The image itself comes from a mind and then it is assembled by the building blocks.
    Likewise, where did the form of a cat come from? Well, I would say a mind more powerful than a human mind (say, an angel) thought it up and then matter coalesced into a cat.
    I think this is how medical miracles work. Saints and angels don’t have to make use of such crude means of healing as complex bottom up arrangement of matter, they can just tell the bone what to do and the matter will arrange itself accordingly.
    Also, this is why chemistry is a real science. I recall readidng that the formation of molecules crucially involves quantum mechanics and so in this case we have that the whole, the molecule is just as real as the parts, it already exists somehow, perhaps similar to an Aristotelian form, and the particles arrange themselves into that format.
    I agree that Aristotelian philosophy is very abstract. I read descriptions that stay on the most abstract level but never explain how the philosopher thinks of what he is describing. That’s one way forward, to try to figure out how to concretely interpret the insights of Aristotelian philosophy, making use of the knowlege we have gained from science as a corrective.

  4. Here is a quotation relating to combining Aristotelian philosophy with modern science. It is from Pierre Duhem’s review of Ernst Mach’s The Science of Mechanics: A critical and historical account of its development:

    [Duhem]: Mach is the resolute adversary of the philosophy, inaugurated by Descartes, that claims to reduce all the phenomena of the material world to motion. Moreover, the reaction he proposes against Cartesian philosophy goes farther. Cartesian philosophy had constructed a ditch as deep as an abyss between the world of matter, whose essence is extension, and the world of mind, whose essence is thought. Mach foresees the time when this ditch will be filled.

    [Mach]: Careful physical research will lead, however, to an analysis of our sensations. We shall then discover that our hunger is not so essentially different from the tendency of sulphuric acid for zinc, and our will not so greatly different from the pressure of a stone, as now appears. We shall again feel ourselves nearer nature, without its being necessary that we should resolve ourselves into a nebulous and mystical mass of molecules, or make nature a haunt of hobgoblins. The direction in which this enlightenment is to be looked for, as the result of long and painstaking research, can of course only be surmised. To anticipate the result, or even to attempt to introduce it into any scientific investigation of today, would be mythology, not science.

    [Duhem]: The passage we have just cited would have been favorably received by Leibniz; for, according to him, the phenomena that bodies represent do not consist only in bare extension and its change; but something that has a relation with souls must necessarily be recognized; The passage would, above all, have been welcomed by the ancient scholars as a return to their preferred doctrines; in fact, for them, as for Mach, the force that pulls the magnet toward the iron, the alteration engendered by the presence of the magnet in substantial form of iron, was not essentially different from the sympathy or appetite which urges us toward a person or a thing, since this passion is nothing other than an alteration created on the soul by the presence of the object, the substantial form of man.

    • I’m on Descartes’ side on this one. Intentional responses in intelligent beings is categorically different from the responses of inanimate objects to forces.

      • One way I would interpret this is not that they are the same in every way, but that there is some underlying similarity which it would be worth trying to learn about. In this case I think Duhem and Mach are talking not about intentional responses as in deliberate, but reactions engendered by objects prior to a conscious reaction. (If you mean intentional as in intentionality, then I would have to think about that more).

        From a more general perspective, I see the value of the kind of thinking expressed in this quotation as saying that that *if* Aristotelian philosophy is true, then this means that rather than the qualitative being solely in the mind, it is connected with the material in some subtle way. And so, this would be one way to look for it. Of course there would be many others as well.

  5. For some reason, the paragraphing didn’t come through on my comments. Bonald, can you delete them and I’ll resubmit the comments again?

  6. My difficulty with Scholastic metaphysics is that it borrows from Aristotle a whole battery of categories – Potency and act, matter and form &c- that are properly at home in an abstract account of our descriptive language.

    Now, are we entitled to assume, as Aristotle plainly did, that the structure of our descriptive language corresponds to the structure of every describable thing, so that we can derive the structure of existence from the grammar of description?

  7. It seems to me that the metaphysics of modern man was designed to solve certain of his problems.

    His greatest problem is the existence of a God who has authority over him by virtue of being his Creator, Lawgiver and Judge. This problem is solved by postulating that ultimate reality is nothing more than impersonal matter and laws of physics. This makes God an unnecessary hypothesis and has the additional benefit of preserving classical science and its attendant technology which gives modern man a feeling of power.

    The problem of man’s subjective feelings of inadequacy and moral impurity is solved by placing moral qualities in groups, independent of the choices of the individuals therein. If you’re non-Christian, or non-white, or non-male, or non-straight (a group that includes the vast majority of mankind), modern metaphysics defines you as automatically righteous.

    Contemporary metaphysics is a product of the culture wars.

    This is partly a result of the crisis triggered when science began to conflict with Scripture and common sense (Darwin, Planck, Einstein,…), but modern man could have chosen to side with Scripture. He chose otherwise.

    This shows that a winning metaphysics must provide superior solutions to the problems of ordinary people.


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