I added a post on free will. I’m in the process of adding articles on the problems that shape how theology and religious philosophy come about. Soon I’ll have one on the problem of evil to be followed by others and how problem solving is inherent in these endeavors.
I’ve talked about this in other areas but as I’ve been reading and listening to modern thinkers lately I’ve been struck by how persistent and pervasive the idea of the physicalism is. One can hardly image someone addressing the deep questions of reality without using the term “physical”. And then there is also the pervasive distinctions raised in philosophy of mind discussions between the physical and the mental. As the story goes, there is the physical brain and then there is the mind. How these two can become congruent is a constant topic? So what is behind all this physicalism that remains intransigently embedded in our cultures? Let’s look at some history.
The idea of materialism often called physicalism today probably first arose around the 600 BCE in the Indus Valley of what is now known as India. At that time there was a Charvakan school of thought. These philosophers were perhaps the first materialists because one of the things they postulated was that all there is, is matter and it has “svabhava” or self-nature. In other words matter has an intrinsic nature that produces the world we see. Today this self-nature is thought of as “properties” such as mass, spin, charge, etc. Apparently this line of thinking made its way to early Greek thought probably through the Persian trade routes because about a hundred years later materialist, atomistic thought emerged most notably by Democritus. In atomism it is claimed that reality is constituted by atomos, small indestructible elements which have intrinsic properties and when combined in various ways produce the variety we see. This particular characterization of reality caught on in the West and eventually led to the predominant view in science and culture.
Now if we think about these early pre-scientific thinkers this line of thinking probably makes sense. Just think about observations. A rock is some discrete form but can be crushed into small pieces (atomos in Greek). However, each of the small pieces still behaves like a rock. So, there must be some svabhava, intrinsic properties of what it means to be a rock and these don’t seem to be dependent on anything else. A rock just behaves like a rock in whatever situation it finds itself in.
But what about combinations. You take a rock and crush it down to a dirt like consistency and then add some water (which has its own svabhava: flowing) and what you get is mud. Now mud seems to be a combination of properties. It flows but not very well. It has the positional intransigence of a rock but it also flows somewhat like water. An obvious intuition would be that more complex combinations of things incorporated the svabhava of the constituent parts but also exhibits new properties. So what the Charvakan thinkers must have postulated was that everything was made up of atomos that when combined create everything we see with its own combination of svabhava.
Now today, this line of thinking still dominates discourse. But why? It’s not because there weren’t and aren’t challenges to it. Even early on in Greek thought there we those who challenged the svabhava model. They were both in the East and West who rejected this view. In the East the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna developed his sunyata concept or “emptiness” saying that nothing has an essential independent nature but only a conditional or relational existence. The term for this is often “dependent co-arising” in Buddhist thought. (To me this has are remarkable similarity to quantum theory concepts of nonlocality and emergence) In early Greek thought the rejection of atomism was more subtle. Anaxagoras did not reject atomism, per se, but claimed that what ordered and animated atoms was not a self-nature but nous or mind. Anaxagoras is considered by some to be the first panpsychist. Plotinus also posited the primacy of mind, “For there is for this universe no other place than the soul or mind”.
Then of course there has been a constant rebellion against svabhava thought throughout history. Most notably were the idealists like George Berkeley who posited that mind created reality (“to be is to be perceived”). There were also many strains of idealism ranging from the epistemological idealism of Kant and the ontological idealism of Hegel. All of these posited that, in some sense, mind was an inescapable factor in reality either how its is or how it is perceived. Even so the term physical remain part of the discourse.
Now, all this remained in the realm of speculative metaphysics until the twentieth century. Enter quantum mechanics. The advent of quantum mechanics created a disturbing prospect for some, that mind had a crucial role in what constituted reality. In the standard model (still dominant) of quantum mechanics how reality is constituted depended on the mind of the observer. If the observer decided to look for a wave in an experiment, that’s what they got. If they looked for a particle, that’s what they got. Their conscious decision effected how reality what was actualized. In quantum physics this is called the wave-particle duality. A remarkable turn of events in the history of science.
Then Erwin Schrödinger came up with the famous Schrödinger wave function equation that said that a quantum actualization was only one among many probabilities. Only the probabilities could be could be calculated, not the actualized event. For some this seemed to represent a idea like paradigm. Here’s how Berkeley physicist Henry Stapp states it:
An important characteristic of this quantum conceptualization is that the substantive matter-like aspects, have dropped out. The theory is about: (1) abrupt events, each of which is tied to an experiential increment in knowledge; and (2) potentialities for such events to occur. Events are not substances, which, by definition, endure. And the potentialities have an “idea-like” character because they are like an “imagined” idea of what the future events might be, and they change abruptly when a new event occurs. Thus neither the events nor the potentialities have the ontological character the substantive matter of classical physics. Yet the predictions of quantum mechanics encompass all of the known successes of classical mechanics.
There has been much debated about this interpretation of quantum physics but the Copenhagen interpretation is still supported by many in physics. There have been other interpretations like the Bohm’s pilot-wave, many worlds, and decoherence theories, but they haven’t ruled out the Copenhagen interpretation so far probably because they have either have hidden variables or probably can’t be verified empirically.
Still, even with all that the physicalist terminology persists. Attempts have been made to eliminate mental talk either by semantic strategies or promissory notes on how some day science will finish up with a physicalist explanation. But even besides quantum mechanics there is another sticky issue, subjective experience. How can physicalism account for phenomenal consciousness, “what it’s like”. Renowned philosopher David Chalmer’s and other’s have presented powerful arguments that physicalism may be powerless to explain our subjective experience.
So why is there such a de facto deference to physical talk? I think there are several reasons. One is probably “the path of least difficulty”. Mind is notoriously difficult to define and translated in to testable scientific language. Just the fact that we have a term “mind” shows its power as part of explanations. But how can they be brought to bear in a scientific explanation. Very difficult. Perhaps it’s easier to ignore it or redefine it away, as some chose to do. I think another factor is religion. If mind is fundamental to reality then that may imply a cosmic mind. When another towering figure in quantum mechanics, Niels Bohr, asked Schrödinger if there was a universe before there were observers to collapse the wavefunction, he speculated there must a cosmic mind to do the observing. Schrödinger also found a form of Vedantic thought appealing with its idealistic tendencies.
So if this talk of God or a cosmic observer is in the offing, it is often abhorrent to many scientific minded individuals. For them, perhaps better to ignore it despite the evidence and forge ahead with physicalism hoping that someday it will win the day. Also there is a real price to pay for those who entertain the idea of a cosmic mind instantiating reality. There is such a negative bias against religion in science that even hinting at the God scenario would signal the death knell of one’s credibility and career. It’s only the brave few that even breach the possibility that there is a God and God’s mind is what constitutes reality.
Now let me say this. It is understandable that many find God talk or religious formulations abhorrent. There has been so much magical thinking, unsystematic, and unreasonable claims made by many religious thinkers such that no wonder the modern mind rebels. But that is a Sunday school mentality. It doesn’t spend time to research and examine the depth of theology and religious philosophy. There have been so many profound religious and metaphysical thinkers throughout history that have taken the difficulties seriously and tried to come up with systems that are both rigorous, reasonable, and systematic. It may be easier to stick with a Sunday school mentality than resist deep biases against religion than to look further.
Often thinkers spout the axiom, “Follow the evidence where it leads”. However, because of confirmation bias, this is not always the case. However, perhaps in the future as more evidence arises that supports the idea of a cosmic mind, like the simulation concept that many non-religious thinkers are beginning to embrace, things will change.
Sometimes dry philosophical arguments can be hard to understand. That’s why I think metaphors can be helpful even for those who are familiar with metaphysics. So, here’s another concerning the activity of God (Divine Action) in this world — the juggler.
There is an essay on how reality is constituted here where I argue that science, especially quantum mechanics, has strongly suggested that the way reality is constituted looks more like Mind at work than some sort of physicalist model. The crucial role of the observer (in the Copenhagen interpretation) says that a conscious mind is inextricably linked to how reality actualizes. And since presumably the universe existed before minds could observe it, then that suggests that there is a universal mind at work. One of the seminal figures in quantum mechanics, Erwin Schrödinger suggested just that. Continue reading
Sometimes a metaphor can more powerfully illustrate a concept than a philosophical argument. In the Divine Life Communion, everything in this life is an aspect of God’s life. This includes humans, animals, bacteria, rocks, elementary particles, etc. Each exists with its constraints. While there is an abysmal aspect of God that Tillich called “the God above the God of theism”, for some reason God chose to live. In Christianity and other religious systems this represents an emptying or taking on constraints to live. In Christianity this is called kenosis where Christ shed the divine nature in some respects to become incarnated in human form.
Now it is important to remember that each aspect is part of God’s life but each with its own particular constraints. So, one metaphor that might illustrate this is a type of game called role playing game. In these games the player takes on the role of some type of character. That character has certain attributes: personality, strengths, weakness, powers, moral character, attitudes, etc. It might be a knight, a thief, a priest, a noble, a scoundrel, a healer, etc. Now the key to how good the gamer is, is how well they take on that role and behave according to the attributes of that character. They must suspend their own personal attributes and take on the role, even if it is contrary to how they would normally think or behave. A similar analogy is found in acting where the actor takes on a role that may be very different from how they are themselves.
While these metaphors are not perfect, perhaps they can partially illustrated how God takes on an aspect in life. Each aspect has its attributes, limitations, strengths, etc. For some reason God wanted to experience life in all these different “roles”, to embrace the limitations, struggle with challenges and experience both the positive and negative consequences of that constrained being. And just like in an RPG game it is not only the individual role that is important but also how all the characters act towards each other and how the community fares in their adventure together. God’s aspects do not occur in isolation. They occur within the communion of all God’s aspects, each playing its part in the unfolding of God’s purposes in living. Each has its own identity but that identity is also in communion with all the others. They all also participate in the divine depth that guides and navigates all the vicissitudes and challenges that life has to offer.
In this post I want to argue that the only viable option from a psychological perspective is theism. The argument is based on causation. Without an intentional cause fundamental to reality, the psychological impact is devastating and cannot lead to a healthy personal psychology and rather leads to denial or irrationality.
First a bit of background on causation. Now this may be a bit lengthy but hopefully it will set things up for my argument. Also, this won’t be an extensive treatment of these topics and I’ll leave it to the reader to explore further if they are interested.
There is a long history in thought about the idea of causality. Causation basically means that events (effects) are preceded by causes. Causes produce effects. This has been a cornerstone for many fields of thought, especially science. Science requires causes to produce effects because without it there could be no predictions. Continue reading
I haven’t done much with the site in quite some time and as I was looking at it recently I felt it could use some rework. I think I can organize things a bit differently to make following the arguments easier, so I’ve started that. I also think there are some areas that need a more extensive treatment and new essays created so that will be coming up as well. One thing I’m currently working on is an essay where I detail what I think can be a legitimate process for developing a systematic theology. Even if someone doesn’t care for the DLC theology, perhaps it could be a guide for them in working on their own, if they feel the desire to.
I have a great admiration for the work of Paul Tillich. I consider him one of the greatest modern theologians. However, I do think that Tillich made a misstep in his core ontology that destined his theology to be less than adequate for the 3rd millennium.
Tillich adopts a version of the Greek ontology that dates at least back to Plato. Plato’s allegory of the cave is a good example of this ontology. In this allegory Plato uses the illustration of shadows on the cave wall that are created from eternal forms or ideas but in this world they are distorted. This creates an ontology where there is a “perfect” essence but an imperfect existence to things. Tillich adopts something similar to this where he summarizes the flow of being from essence to existence (and estrangement) to return to the divine ground (essentialization). Continue reading