Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Is This an Answer?

Recently, I had occasion to read two items in close mental proximity.  One was by a blogger who calls himself in a touching fit of Objectivist modesty Blazing Truth, which I stumbled across in the usual fashion while googling for something regarding Aristotle's potency/act distinction that I thought I might use in a PowerPoint presentation.  The other was an essay by the inimitable James Chastek continuing a discussion on the nature of the sensibles. 

If it's not one thing, it's another.  First, the one thing.

1. If it's not one thing....

 Our intrepid Blazing Truth, whom I will call "Blaze" as a nickpseudonym, evidently believes that the God of classical theism is a scientific hypothesis put forward to explain natural phenomena, and that therefore Thomas Aquinas' "First Way" (a.k.a. the "argument from motion") is an attempt at physics and is therefore false because he did not know Galileo, Newton, and Einstein.  Unlike many others, he is honest enough to admit that he has in earlier posts misunderstood the nature of the argument and the meanings of the terms as they were used in the argument.  He does not change his mind, obviously.  He simply reiterates his objections from physics.

Now one of the objections is to the proposition that "whatever is changing is being changed by another."  He does not realize that Aristotle and Thomas were aware that a dog, for example, could be changed in location, by its own decision, and what was meant here was that in compound bodies, the motion of the whole (dog) was due to the motion of a part (legs).  Thus, when Blaze says
It is wrong to think of the actualization of an atom’s beta decay as *dependent* upon the weak nuclear force. It should instead be said that the weak nuclear force is a property of the atom itself. To be clear, the weak nuclear force is contained within the atom, and it is not an external actualizer. There is no external force which facilitates beta decay. 
But of course, it was Aristotle who claimed that powers arose from within the being.  It was the Cartesian revolution that postulated "dead" matter that was simply particles in motion, moved from without.  The weak nuclear force is, philosophically, a "part" of the atom and is surely able to actualize the potential of another part.  At least Blaze grasps that Aristotle's κινεσις meant actualizing a potential, even if he is not entirely clear on what potentials and actualization are.

You will notice that physicist William Wallace included the Weak Force as one of the powers of inorganic being in his model, above.  (The others are strong force, gravitational force, and electromagnetic force.)  Together, they constitute the substantial form of inorganic being, such as an atom.  If any one of them were removed, the matter would cease to be matter as we understand it.  Blaze recognizes this, but seems to think it is an objection to Aristotelianism rather than a feature of it.

But the piece de resistance is that trusty old internet stand-by, quantum mechanics.  (It has been suggested that in any internet discussion, the first person to evoke the quanta should automatically lose.)  Blaze writes:
It is because of virtual particles that spontaneous phenomena exist. Examples of these include but are not limited to: the Casimir force, spontaneous photon emission during decay, Hawking Radiation, etc. Again, it is wrong to say that these particles are dependent upon anything.
He evidently thinks that spontaneous changes are not caused by anything.   They are magic.  On another, linked site, he counters the proposition "whatever is changing is being changed by another" by saying some things are changing without being changed at all.  This is a neat trick, actually.  (Pun intended.)
Some might say that the spontaneous virtual particle pairs are empirical evidences of God creating.  Bingo, there they are, coming out of "nothing."  (They aren't really; but then the not-nothing becomes the changer....)  The respondeo is "IT JUST IS!"  Curiously enough, this was the answer God is said to have given Moses when Mo asked him his name: I JUST AM!  For those easily amused, such as me, this is easily amusing. 
On a linked site, Blaze says:
According to the most commonly accepted interpretation of quantum mechanics, individual subatomic particles can behave in unpredictable ways and there are numerous random, uncaused events. (Morris, 1997, 19)
Now, the obvious response is that the most commonly accepted interpretation of quantum mechanics must therefore be wrong.  A physicist friend once commented that if a theory results in singularities and paradoxes, there is something wrong with the theory, not with the world.  There are, after all, several other interpretations of quantum mechanics, all of them compatible with the observed data and the mathematical laws, and not all of them produce the paradoxes.  Mathematical models typically break down precisely at boundary values. 

Blaze has also, unwittingly, drawn a line inside the material universe and said, "Thus far can physics lead, but no farther!"  After that, it's faith and turtles all the way down, I suppose.

Now the other.

2. ...It's the other.

Nothing is in the mind that is not first in the senses.  Thomas was an empiricist.  He always started with actual experience.  In that he differed from modern materialists, who often start with some abstract Truth, like "materialism," which they then apply willy nilly while keeping their eyes firmly closed when passing the bristling strongholds of mathematics.

The problem of the sensibles.  Things enter our mind through our senses.  The external senses are things like sight, hearing, etc.  The inner senses are things like the common sense (which integrates all the sense impressions into a single, not necessarily visual image), memory (which stores the image) and imagination (which manipulates the image).  (The intellect then reflects on these perceptions and abstracts concepts from them, and so on.)   

Chastek's series of essays on the sensibles looked at the distinction between proper and common sensibles. 

Proper sensibles: are those that can be sensed by only one sense; such as color, sound, smell and taste.  They cannot be confirmed by other senses, esp. by touch.  We can't listen to red.  If we try to touch red at second hand, such as by measuring the frequencies of reflected light, we are confirming red based on the given experience of seeing red.  Proper sensibles are, however, the first things we know of an object in our senses. 
Common sensibles are those that can be sensed by more than one sense; such as shape, number, motion, etc. They are more reliable because they can be confirmed, and perhaps more certain as well.

During the Revolution, Galileo and then Descartes took this distinction and ran with it.  
Aristotle's terms  → Galileo's terms  →   Descartes terms
Common sensibles → “primary qualities→ “objective” qualities.
Proper sensibles → “secondary qualities” “subjective” qualities
The revolutionaries then declared that only the objective (metrical, controllable) qualities of an object were mete for science.  Devotees began to claim that proper sensibles (subjective qualities) did not even exist in the world.   If a tree fell in the forest and no one was there to hear it, it did not make a sound.  It made waves in the air.  These are objective.  It did not make a sound.  

Aristotle said that we cannot err about the proper sensibles.  But, said Chastek, color is not perfectly objective.  A bee sees two colors on sunflower petals; humans, only one.  Deer see bright orange vests as same color as trees.  So who sees the "right" color of a hunter's vest: deer or man?  

So Thomas wrote that we cannot err about the sensible insofar as it is sensed.  Meaning that if you see a blue sheet of paper on the table, then you have seen "blue," and that's it.  This is true even if the sheet was "really" white and the room was lit by black light.  The blue is in your consciousness.  End of story. 

So in Aristo-Thomism, the sense object is a compound of
  • a thing in the world and
  • the subjective/personal dispositions of the one sensing.
IOW, the observer affects the thing observed.  The proper sensibles really do exist in the world AND they are combined with observer’s subjective disposition.  Why don't we call this "the observer effect."  
Funny.  That has a familiar ring to it.

Keine Problem, Werner!
Hey, glad to meet you, Ari!
They meet! 

So Aristotelianism already denied perfect objectivity to sensation. 
  • We can say that there’s a difference btw the subjective and objective elements of sensation,
  • We cannot say what the difference between these two elements is.
Heisenberg, classically educated, knew this.  His was the last generation of scientists to receive a rounded education.  

3. So what was that Quantum Stuff all about?

Common sensibles (e.g. quantity) can be absolutely separated from their foundation in the proper sensibles.  Physics has assumed that the quality of the common sensibles is identical to the quantity of a mathematical account.  This might just be the source of the quantum paradoxes.  We think we can have a true “wave” or “particle” – or any quantity at all – in an area where the proper sensibles cannot exist.  

Decartes' res extensa stripped world of sensibles (or qualia).  His res cogitans claimed that the sensibles are projected into the universe by the observerThus was born the "problem of the qualia," as it is now called.  This bifurcation is by now so ingrained that moderns must struggle even to recognize, let alone eradicate it.  But eradicate it, we must if we are to resolve the quantum paradoxes.  We must "Rediscover the corporeal world!"  

The apple really is red!  

Physicist Wolfgang Smith has written about this in his book, The Quantum Enigma.  He claims that by properly understanding the distinction between the "corporeal apple" and the "physical apple" -- that is between the apple of the senses and the apple of physics -- and understand how these two planes of existence map to each other, we can resolve the quantum paradoxes.  Aquinas to the rescue, once again.  

The Paradox of the Gap.  CORPOREAL Apple in the world (the Matter) enters the mind
through the various senses, where it is unified as an ymago.  (The intellect may then
abstract the Forms, like red, or even apple in general from the particular apple of sensation. 
Meanwhile, the PHYSICAL Apple is measured by the Instruments and is expressed
in forms abstracted only from the metric qualities of the Apple.  Formally, it is
an equation.  The Corporeal Apple may present a Physical Apple; but it is more problematical
to go from a Physical Apple to a Corporeal Apple.  The gap between the Corporeal Apple and
the Physical Apple is where the Quantum Paradoxes lurk. 
But about this I can say no more until I secure, read and digest a copy of Smith's book.  Then I can regurgitate it all over your screen.  

Now, to the point.  (Yes, I had one; though I almost forgot it.)  Back to Chastek.  Consider that we can only touch things with photons and electromagnetic particles.  These are very small things.  When a photon bounces off the apple to the apple of our eye (and then becomes the apple of our perception) the apple is affected by the impact of the photon.  Big deal, says the apple.  I am big and it is small.  A flea.  It is no more than a bug on the windshield of my life.  And indeed, our anthropomorphic apple is correct.  The apple is changed so minutely by shining a light on it, that we would need godlike powers to detect it.  (But we do know that we can move things with the impact of light.  You know that, right?)  

But what is true for apples is not true for subatomic particles.  In that realm, the particle that we sense by are large compared to what we are trying to sense.  The impacts of the sensory light or particle beams are plenty powerful; less a bug on the windshield than a deer.  Chastek compares hitting a bug to hitting a tree.  Relative size matters.  No wonder that "the quanta are a hopeless mess" (as the Bohr-Einstein letters complain).  

For a macro appreciation of what sensing the quantum world would be like, suppose we did not "see" by photons bouncing off the object and into our eyes, but by rubber balls bouncing off and impacting on our skin.  In that case, a chicken may look very different from an egg.  And we might wonder at the quantum enigma of chickens hatching from broken eggs; for almost every egg we "see" would be broken, and we would suppose this to be their natural state.  But all we have done is turn a tennis ball launcher on the egg in order to "illuminate" it. 


  1. I'm glad you gave some response to the Blazing Truth post; I became aware of it a while back because it links to me (some of my very old notes on the First Way are apparently the source for, or at least linked with, Blaze's rising at least enough above the ordinary internet criticism to recognize the role of actuality and potentiality -- at the "I got sucked in" link in the Blazing Truth post, which I'm thinking of taking as a motto). I intended to say something at some point, but was busy at the time and afterward completely forgot about it.

  2. Regarding the Schrodinger's Cat paradox, it has always struck me the way physicists assume that quantum mechanics will apply to a cat. However, no experiments have shown that the QM will apply and the cat can be properly described by the probability wavefunction.

    The physicist assumes that (1) Cat is made up of atoms.(2) QM applies to atoms thus (3) QM applies to the cat.

    But perhaps (3) does not follow. Your thoughts?

  3. Hi there, Blaze here.

    I've gone on further and am in the process of writing a new article, because this one is ultimately not satisfactory. The Thomists' typical response to my own is that I'm making a category error when I posit virtual particles/quantum fluctuations as empirical objections to Aquinas. They say I need to meet him on metaphysical grounds rather than empirical ones. As such, I'm in the midst of a conversation on reddit with some Thomists which might be of interest to you.


    I have adopted dispositional monism as a metaphysical theory which stands in contrast to Aquinas' Ways. I'd like to chat with you, if possible, about what exactly is the right way to think about quantum mechanics -- I have a feeling that there's some terrible metaphysics behind things such as the Copenhagen Interpretation.

    In this, I still maintain that these phenomena are uncaused, but that they lack a causal basis does not mean they are not "grounded" in anything. Cheers!

  4. It's not the cat that's quantum. It's the radioactive atom which may either decay or not decay and in doing so trigger the killing mechanism or not. Since the emission of the radioactive particle is a quantum event, the death of the cat from the causal series initiated is also. I'm not entirely sure, but I'm thinking that ol' Erwin concocted the example to show the silliness of Copenhagen. He once wrote a paper questioning whether there really are quanta.
    + + +

    Oh, Reddit...

    The significance escapes me.
    + + +

    I'm still wondering about magical "uncaused" events.

  5. YOS,

    I was just being dismissive. Reddit is an aggressively anti-religious website. Most theistic arguments, regardless of their merit, are usually met with snark and contempt and end up buried by the "downvotes" of an emotionally driven crowd that is uninterested in charitable, fruitful discussion. Personally I don't care about the snark, it's just that discussing anything remotely religious there is not productive.

  6. @Man w/ Comp

    I have never figured out why those who proudly proclaim the use of reason are so little disposed to use it.

    Blaze at least seems disposed to try to use it; so kudos to him.

  7. RE: The cat paradox.

    The paradox is that the cat is supposed to be in a superposition state. Classically the cat would be either dead or alive with probabilities given by the atom decay. No paradox here.

    But if cat obeys QM, then it lands in a superposition of dead and alive states. The superposition only collapses when an observer observes the system (i.e. the cat).

  8. TOF:

    Thank you for a very interesting post.

    Along with Wolfgang Smith's book, I'd also recommend Philosophy of Nature and Quantum Reality by Ian J. Thompson; its approach is to build on Aristotelian metaphysics in understanding the world and its quantum peculiarities.

  9. @David that's exactly the kind of book I'm looking for. Thank you!

  10. "But if cat obeys QM, then it lands in a superposition of dead and alive states. The superposition only collapses when an observer observes the system (i.e. the cat)."

    Or, the wavefunction never truly collapses at all, a proposition which gives you the "many-worlds" interpretation. (Cat exists in superposition of alive + dead; observer observes cat, becomes superposition of "man observing dead cat" + "man observing live cat"; insofar as observer goes on to interact with the world, world becomes superposition of "world interacting with man who has seen dead cat" with "world interacting with man who has seen live cat"; &c.)

  11. There's another reason as to why the argument presented by "blaze" and other inductivists is irrelevant: God is not a hypothesis or matter of fact. If god exists he necessarily exists, if god does not exist he is impossible.

    Take a triangle; what sort of evidence would decrease the probability that a triangle has three sides?

    Take a married bachelor, what sort of evidence would increase the probability of there being married bachelors?

    Is 2+2+=4 probable or improbable? What evidence needs to be marshaled to raise or decrease the possibility of the result being 4?

    This and other related questions are irrelevant, non-sequiturs that confuse matter of facts with necessary truths.

    God is a sort of necessary truth; he is perfect, an unmoved mover, the greatest being that can be thought or the ground of all being or pure actuality, *nothing can prevent it from existing. *

    Now, if god does not exist it is because *he’s logically impossible*. There’s something in the concept of god that is incoherent. It is impossible for god to come into existence.

  12. YOS,

    The "rational person" shtick is an interesting affectation. It seems like some people want to be perceived as Spock-ish stoics who deal with the world-as-it-is, unlike those lowly feeble-minded sheep who cling to religion. It reminds me of Dr. Vallicella's excellent criticism of the stoic ideal as nothing but a deeply seated contempt for that which is beyond our control.

    I haven't had the time to look at much of Blaze's blog, but from what I've seen so far he seems like he is at least willing to evaluate his opponents' claims without distorting them. Plus, he understands basic metaphysics and accepts some sort of essentialism (I assume because of his Randian background), so that's an excellent starting point. Hopefully this will lead to an interesting exchange. I am not familiar with Bird's monistic metaphysics; I glanced at his website and all I found was a draft paper that I added to my reading queue.

  13. @ Schrödinger's cat:

    I agree that Erwin was probably poking fun at Niels.

    The cat is not in a superposition state because nothing much larger than a protein molecule can be in a superposition state as I understand it: interdeterminacy is a wave property, and large objects like cats have waves that are too small. Superposition states are resolved naturally well before one gets to macroscopic sizes; the technical term is decoherence, and decoherence has been proven by experiment.

    The fact that we don't know which until we look at it, doesn't change the fact that the poor cat is either alive or dead.

  14. "God is a sort of necessary truth; he is perfect, an unmoved mover, the greatest being that can be thought or the ground of all being or pure actuality, *nothing can prevent it from existing. *

    Now, if god does not exist it is because *he’s logically impossible*. There’s something in the concept of god that is incoherent. It is impossible for god to come into existence."

    This right here is the key. I'm not sure you've understood my article, because it is completely relevant. I was dealing with the first suggestion, and showing how the argument was not sound. I believe that it is not necessary that God exists and that is the extent of my ideas at this point in my life. I have yet to consider the second point.

    @Man with a computer,

    Firstly, thanks for your compliments. It is people like you which keep me honest.

    Regarding Objectivism, I have read Rand before when I was younger, but I like to think that I have outgrown O'ism as philosophy. For instance, Rand would lash out at any form of essentialism, IMO. I had a nice run through with O'ism for a few months, but have mixed feelings about it, and I do not consider myself an O'ist. I am an atheist and an anarcho-capitalist/libertarian.

  15. I think the necessary part pops out of the proof once you have a being that is pure act. Anything that is entirely actual cannot not be, and is Existence Itself. As St. Thomas might have said, "Existence exists, and cannot not exist."


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