Branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including being, personhood, cause, agency, identity, time, and space.
George Gilder on the Invisible Microcosm and the Overthrow of Physics
Steve Jobs on Faith and What Computers Are
Computers are actually pretty simple. We’re sitting here on a bench in this café. Let’s assume that you understood only the most rudimentary of directions and you asked how to find the rest room. I would have to describe it to you in very specific and precise instructions. I might say, “Scoot sideways two meters off the bench. Stand erect. Lift left foot. Bend left knee until it is horizontal. Extend left foot and shift weight 300 centimeters forward…” and on and on. If you could interpret all those instructions 100 times faster than any other person in this café, you would appear to be a magician: You could run over and grab a milk shake and bring it back and set it on the table and snap your fingers, and I’d think you made the milk shake appear, because it was so fast relative to my perception. That’s exactly what a computer does. It takes these very, very simple-minded instructions — “Go fetch a number, add it to this number, put the result there, perceive if it’s greater than this other number” — but executes them at a rate of, let’s say, 1,000,000 per second. At 1,000,000 per second, the results appear to be magic.
Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will
There are neuroscientists who claim that our decisions are made unconsciously and are therefore outside of our control and social psychologists who argue that myriad imperceptible factors influence even our minor decisions to the extent that there is no room for free will. According to philosopher Alfred R. Mele, what they point to as hard and fast evidence that free will cannot exist actually leaves much room for doubt. If we look more closely at the major experiments that free will deniers cite, we can see large gaps where the light of possibility shines through. Mele lays out his opponents’ experiments simply and clearly, and proceeds to debunk their supposed findings, one by one, explaining how the experiments don’t provide the solid evidence for which they have been touted. There is powerful evidence that conscious decisions play an important role in our lives, and knowledge about situational influences can allow people to respond to those influences rationally rather than with blind obedience.
The Unity of Consciousness
In The Unity of Consciousness Tim Bayne draws on philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience in defence of the claim that consciousness is unified. In the first part of the book Bayne develops an account of what it means to say that consciousness is unified. Part II applies this account to a variety of cases – drawn from both normal and pathological forms of experience – in which the unity of consciousness is said to break down. Bayne argues that the unity of consciousness remains intact in each of these cases. Part III explores the implications of the unity of consciousness for theories of consciousness, for the sense of embodiment, and for accounts of the self. In one of the most comprehensive examinations of the topic available, The Unity of Consciousness draws on a wide range of findings within philosophy and the sciences of the mind to construct an account of the unity of consciousness that is both conceptually sophisticated and scientifically informed.
Tamás Ungar on Vital Signs and the Subjectivity of Pain
Others are missing the point, just as administrators sorely missed the point back in the 1980s when pain became the “fifth vital sign.” In medicine, vital signs are treated quite differently from symptoms. Since pain has no objective measure like the rest of the vital signs do — like temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure — doctors naturally resisted. They faced litigation and bureaucratic intimidation for undertreating pain.
Michael Egnor on What Your Computer Doesn’t Know
Your computer doesn’t know a binary string from a ham sandwich. Your math book doesn’t know algebra. Your Rolodex doesn’t know your cousin’s address. Your watch doesn’t know what time it is. Your car doesn’t know where you’re driving. Your television doesn’t know who won the football game last night. Your cell phone doesn’t know what you said to your girlfriend this morning. ¶ People know things. Devices like computers and books and Rolodexes and watches and cars and televisions and cell phones don’t know anything. They don’t have minds. They are artifacts — paper and plastic and silicon things designed and manufactured by people — and they provide people with the means to leverage their human knowledge. ¶ Computers (and books and watches and the like) are the means by which people leverage and express knowledge. Computers store and process representations of knowledge. But computers have no knowledge themselves.
Malcolm Jeeves on the Unsettled Verdict on Mind and Brain
On the relation between mind and brain we should note the varied views of Nobel Prize winners. The easy approach would be to say that all mental activity will ultimately be reduced down to brain activity. Some like Francis Crick, arguably the greatest biologist of the twentieth century, seemed to take that view. However, at times, even he backed off a bit, realizing that it meant that his own brilliant discoveries would become nothing more than the chattering of neurons. Other Nobel laureates who have studied brain processes have taken different views. Sir John Eccles had no doubt that the primary reality is consciousness and everything else derives from that. A more recent laureate, Gerald Edelman, argued that consciousness is “efficacious,” and is not an epiphenomenon. Yet another laureate, Roger Sperry argued very strongly for a model that he thought best fits the evidence, and that was to put full weight on the topdown effect as well as on the traditional upward microdeterminism, which is happening at the level of neurons and of the atoms and molecules of which the neurons are composed. Sir Roger Penrose, an Oxford mathematician, had no doubt that consciousness is a phenomenon through which the universe’s very existence is made known. In a word, it is stupid to pretend that consciousness and mental life are unimportant.
Robert K. Garcia on Platonism
The scuttlebutt has it that Platonism is a posh piece of metaphysical speculation, a rather rococo knickknack on the top shelf of a worldview, maximally aloof from the concerns of everyday life. … The dispute between Platonism and naturalism is perennial. In fact, Plato himself describes it as an “interminable battle” (Sophist, 246A-C). Plato’s choice of “interminable” was prescient, as it was succeeded by two thousand years of philosophical fracas. Indeed, it seems that a resolution to this dispute retreats from the advancing philosopher like a rainbow’s end. But what’s the battle about, exactly? The Stranger in Plato’s Sophist says it’s a quarrel about reality: the “giants” have it that all reality is bodily and visible, whereas the “gods” have it that true reality consists in bodiless and invisible forms.
E.J. Lowe on Ontology, Partial Truth, and Reality
Why cannot each special science, be it empirical or a priori, address its own ontological questions on its own behalf, without recourse to any overarching ‘science of being’? The short answer to this question is that reality is one and truth indivisible. Each special science aims at truth, seeking to portray accurately some part of reality. But the various portrayals of different parts of reality must, if they are all to be true, fit together to make a portrait which can be true of reality as a whole. No special science can arrogate to itself the task of rendering mutually consistent the various partial portraits: that task can alone belong to an overarching science of being, that is, to ontology. But we should not be misled by this talk of ‘portraits’ of reality. The proper concern of ontology is not the portraits we construct of it, but reality itself.
E. J. Lowe on Progress in Metaphysics and Philosophy
There is a widespread assumption amongst non-philosophers, which is shared by a good many practising philosophers too, that ‘progress’ is never really made in philosophy, and above all in metaphysics. In this respect, philosophy is often compared, for the most part unfavourably, with the empirical sciences, and especially the natural sciences, such as physics, chemistry and biology. Sometimes, philosophy is defended on the grounds that to deplore the lack of ‘progress’ in it is to misconceive its central aim, which is to challenge and criticise received ideas and assumptions rather than to advance positive theses. But this defence itself is liable to be attacked by the practitioners of other disciplines as unwarranted special pleading on the part of philosophers, whose comparative lack of expertise in other disciplines, it will be said, ill-equips them to play the role of all-purpose intellectual critic. It is sometimes even urged that philosophy is now ‘dead’, the relic of a pre-scientific age whose useful functions, such as they were, have been taken over at last by genuine sciences. What were once ‘philosophical’ questions have now been transmuted, allegedly, into questions for more specialised modes of scientific inquiry, with their own distinctive methodological principles and theoretical foundations.
Paul K. Moser on Expectations of God
Human talk of God is often cheap and easy, and self-serving too. It thus leaves us with a god unworthy of the morally perfect title “God.” This book takes a different route, in order to move away from counterfeits and toward the real article. Our expectations for God, if God exists, often get in the way of our receiving salient evidence of God. We assume that God would have certain obligations to us, even by way of giving us clear evidence, and when those obligations are not met we discredit God, including God’s existence. This is a fast track to atheism or at least agnosticism. We need, however, to take stock of which expectations for God are fitting and which are not, given what would be God’s perfect moral character and will.
Beyond the Control of God?
The question of God’s relationship to abstract objects touches on a number of perennial concerns related to the nature of God. God is typically thought to be an independent and self-sufficient being. Further, God is typically thought to be supremely sovereign such that all reality distinct from God is dependent on God’s creative and sustaining activity. However, the view that there are abstract objects seems to be a repudiation of this traditional understanding of God. Abstract objects are typically thought to exist necessarily and it is natural to think that if something exists necessarily, it does so because it is its nature to exist. Thus, abstract objects exist independently of God. Philosophers have called this the problem of God and abstract objects. In this book, six contemporary solutions to the problem are set out and defended against objections. It will be valuable for all students or scholars who are interested in the concept and nature of God. ~ Publisher’s Description
In a culture in which science is believed to hold the answers to every question, spiritual realities like the soul are often ignored or ridiculed. We are told that neuroscience holds the key to explaining every aspect of human behavior. Yet Christian philosopher J. P. Moreland argues that Scripture, sound philosophical reasoning, and everyday experience all point to the reality of an immaterial soul. Countering the arguments of both naturalists and Christian scholars who embrace a material-only view of humanity, Moreland demonstrates why it is both biblical and reasonable to believe humans are essentially spiritual beings. He also describes the various components of the soul and how Christians can nurture their souls as disciples of Christ. Moreland shows that neuroscience and the soul are not competing explanations of human activity, but that both coexist and influence one another. ~ Publisher’s Description
Dave Gelernter on Immodest Science
The huge cultural authority science has acquired over the past century imposes large duties on every scientist. Scientists have acquired the power to impress and intimidate every time they open their mouths, and it is their responsibility to keep this power in mind no matter what they say or do. Too many have forgotten their obligation to approach with due respect the scholarly, artistic, religious, humanistic work that has always been mankind’s main spiritual support. Scientists are (on average) no more likely to understand this work than the man in the street is to understand quantum physics. But science used to know enough to approach cautiously and admire from outside, and to build its own work on a deep belief in human dignity. No longer.
The Underground Man on Free Will
Dostoevsky’s unprecedented short story, Notes from Underground, is a philosophical treatise of striking originality. In the early nineteenth century, with the remarkable successes of science in controlling nature, social and political theorists began to conceptualize human persons as just one more cog in the Newtonian “world machine“. As such, it was thought, human society could likewise be controlled through social engineering, ensuring its proper functioning toward desired outcomes. In this excerpt, Dostoevsky voices his revulsion toward this mechanistic view of humans, renouncing the notion that humans can be relied upon to act in the predictable, law-like fashion that characterizes the physical world. On the contrary, we humans are radically free, often acting irrationally and self-destructively for no other reason than to assert our independence from custom, convention, and social pressure. The larger story, from which this excerpt is taken, recounts the inner dialogue of an isolated and contemptuous civil servant whose quest for vengeance against perceived slights leads him to alienate himself from all others. Though this “Underground Man” is especially unseemly, Dostoevsky takes it that his rationalizations will resonate with the reader’s own inner thoughts, and will thereby undercut the deterministic, materialistic view of man current in his day. Dostoevsky’s protest on behalf of free will remains a spirited rebuke to the standard narratives of human events that offer explanations only in terms of psychology and instinct, of nurture and nature, both geared towards self-preservation. ~ Nate
Oh, tell me, who was it first announced, who was it first proclaimed, that man only does nasty things because he does not know his own interests; and that if he were enlightened, if his eyes were opened to his real normal interests, man would at once cease to do nasty things, would at once become good and noble because, being enlightened and understanding his real advantage, he would see his own advantage in the good and nothing else, and we all know that not one man can, consciously, act against his own interests, consequently, so to say, through necessity, he would begin doing good? Oh, the babe! Oh, the pure, innocent child! Why, in the first place, when in all these thousands of years has there been a time when man has acted only from his own interest? What is to be done with the millions of facts that bear witness that men, CONSCIOUSLY, that is fully understanding their real interests, have left them in the background and have rushed headlong on another path, to meet peril and danger, compelled to this course by nobody and by nothing, but, as it were, simply disliking the beaten track, and have obstinately, wilfully, struck out another difficult, absurd way, seeking it almost in the darkness. So, I suppose, this obstinacy and perversity were pleasanter to them than any advantage….
The Boob Tube for Brooders
Recently a number of philosophically arresting moments have managed to insert themselves into the television landscape. True to form, Ronald D. Moore and company continue to address contemporary political, philosophical, and religious questions in the alternate world of Caprica, territory he brilliantly charted in his groundbreaking Battlestar Galactica. If the pilot is any indication, Caprica promises to explore even more pointedly themes of religious and ethnic tolerance, terrorism, technology, and the nature of the soul. ABC’s FlashForward, clearly aimed at continuing the legacy of Lost and retaining its audience, has somewhat disappointed so far, but has nonetheless woven several provocative existential questions into its narrative, including one powerful Sartrean moment in particular. On the comedic front, NBC’s Community had the temerity to devote an episode to whether humanity is intrinsically good or evil, and did so superbly. I’ll admit to being prone to vegging in front of the tube even when the viewing is less cerebral, but a couple of these moments had me off the couch cheering for the writers.
In Brainwashed, psychiatrist and AEI scholar Sally Satel and psychologist Scott O. Lilienfeld reveal how many of the real-world applications of human neuroscience gloss over its limitations and intricacies, at times obscuring — rather than clarifying — the myriad factors that shape our behavior and identities. Brain scans, Satel and Lilienfeld show, are useful but often ambiguous representations of a highly complex system. Each region of the brain participates in a host of experiences and interacts with other regions, so seeing one area light up on an fMRI in response to a stimulus doesn’t automatically indicate a particular sensation or capture the higher cognitive functions that come from those interactions. The narrow focus on the brain’s physical processes also assumes that our subjective experiences can be explained away by biology alone. As Satel and Lilienfeld explain, this “neurocentric” view of the mind risks undermining our most deeply held ideas about selfhood, free will, and personal responsibility, putting us at risk of making harmful mistakes, whether in the courtroom, interrogation room, or addiction treatment clinic. ~ Product Description
John Searle on How We Fit In a Universe of Particles
There is exactly one overriding question in contemporary philosophy… How do we fit in? … We now have a reasonably well-established conception of the basic structure of the universe. We have plausible theories about the origin of the universe in the Big Bang, and we understand quite a number of things about the structure of the universe in atomic physics and chemistry. We have even come to understand the nature of the chemical bond. We know a fair amount about our own development on this little Earth during the past five billion years of evolution. We understand that the universe consists entirely of particles (or whatever entities the ultimately true physics arrives at), and these exist in fields of force and are typically organized into systems. On our Earth, carbon-based systems made of molecules that also contain a lot of hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen have provided the substrate of human, animal and plant evolution. … The most important set of basic facts, for our present purposes, are given in the atomic theory of matter and the evolutionary theory of biology. … It is not at all easy to reconcile the basic facts with … a conception of ourselves as conscious, intentionalistic, rational, social, institutional, political, speech-act performing, ethical and free will possessing agents. Now, the question is, How can we square this self-conception of ourselves as mindful, meaning-creating, free, rational, etc., agents with a universe that consists entirely of mindless, meaningless, unfree, non rational, brute physical particles?
Mind, Brain, and Free Will
Mind, Brain, and Free Will presents a powerful new case for substance dualism (the idea that humans consist of two parts — body and soul) and for libertarian free will (that humans have some freedom to choose between alternatives, independently of the causes which influence them). Richard Swinburne argues that answers to questions about mind, body, and free will depend crucially on the answers to more general philosophical questions. He begins by analyzing the criteria for one event being the same as another, one substance being the same as another, and a state of affairs being metaphysically possible; and then goes on to analyze the criteria for a belief about these issues being justified. Pure mental events (including conscious events) are distinct from physical events and interact with them. Swinburne claims that no result from neuroscience or any other science could show that interaction does not take place; and illustrates this claim by showing that recent scientific work (such as Libet’s experiments) has no tendency whatever to show that our intentions do not cause brain events. He goes on to argue for agent causation, and claims that — to speak precisely — it is we, and not our intentions, that cause our brain events. It is metaphysically possible that each of us could acquire a new brain or continue to exist without a brain; and so we are essentially souls. Brain events and conscious events are so different from each other that it would not be possible to establish a scientific theory which would predict what each of us would do in situations of moral conflict. Hence given a crucial epistemological principle (the Principle of Credulity) we should believe that things are as they seem to be: that we make choices independently of the causes which influence us. According to Swinburne’s lucid and ambitious account, it follows that we are morally responsible for our actions.
Mind and Cosmos
The modern materialist approach to life has conspicuously failed to explain such central mind-related features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, and value. This failure to account for something so integral to nature as mind, argues philosopher Thomas Nagel, is a major problem, threatening to unravel the entire naturalistic world picture, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology. Since minds are features of biological systems that have developed through evolution, the standard materialist version of evolutionary biology is fundamentally incomplete. And the cosmological history that led to the origin of life and the coming into existence of the conditions for evolution cannot be a merely materialist history, either. An adequate conception of nature would have to explain the appearance in the universe of materially irreducible conscious minds, as such. Nagel’s skepticism is not based on religious belief or on a belief in any definite alternative. In Mind and Cosmos, he does suggest that if the materialist account is wrong, then principles of a different kind may also be at work in the history of nature, principles of the growth of order that are in their logical form teleological rather than mechanistic. In spite of the great achievements of the physical sciences, reductive materialism is a world view ripe for displacement. Nagel shows that to recognize its limits is the first step in looking for alternatives, or at least in being open to their possibility. ~ Publisher’s Description
Although physicalism has been the dominant position in recent work in the philosophy of mind, this dominance has not prevented a small but growing number of philosophers from arguing that physicalism is untenable for several reasons: both ontologically and epistemologically it cannot reduce mentality to the realm of the physical, and its attempts to reduce subjectivity to objectivity have thoroughly failed. The contributors to After Physicalism provide powerful alternatives to the physicalist account of the human mind from a dualistic point of view and argue that the reductive and naturalistic paradigm in philosophy has lost its force. The essays in this collection all firmly engage in a priori metaphysics. Those by Uwe Meixner, E. J. Lowe, John Foster, Alvin Plantinga, and Richard Swinburne are concerned with ways to establish the truth of dualism. Essays by William Hasker, A. D. Smith, and Howard Robinson deal with the relation between physicalism and dualism. Benedikt Paul Göcke argues that the “I” is not a particular and Stephen Priest that “I have to understand myself not as a thing but as no-thing-ness.” In the final essay, Thomas Schärtl argues that there are limits to dualism as indicated by the concept of resurrection. By including two classical essays by Plantinga and Swinburne, the volume conveniently brings together some of the best and the newest thinking in making the philosophical case for dualism.
The Adjustment Bureau
Into the ever-expanding catalog1 of films predicated on our anxiety about the extent of our free will, enter The Adjustment Bureau, perhaps the most cerebral and ambivalent of the lot. The film envisions a world in which human action is directed, though not quite determined, by a confluence of chance, free will, and the nearly ubiquitous superintendency of “The Chairman”, a quasi-religious, mysterious power that influences human actions through the intervention of a minion of “clerks” who alter circumstances (and occasionally thought patterns) in order to keep the course of human events in line with “The Plan”. This is not, as some have supposed, a film about human pawns and a grandmaster who determines their fate. Rather, The Adjustment Bureau explores how the course of human events might be guided or “nudged” by such a master when the chess pieces themselves are free agents pursuing their own ends. As it turns out, this decidedly more difficult endeavor requires constant “caretaking” or “meddling”. The film itself remains surprisingly ambivalent toward this state of affairs and offers a provocative and nuanced picture of human agency, of our wills as simultaneously malleable and free. Indeed, the various kinds of interventions in The Adjustment Bureau provide a backdrop for considering just what should and should not be considered a violation of the will. Finally, though it wisely avoids any explicit religious references, the film portrays a world that bears a striking resemblance to a particular theological proposal regarding the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human free will, namely open theism.
A Brief History of the Soul
The concept of the soul is accepted in many religious traditions and widely used in fictional worlds, and yet the idea that we are anything more than physio-chemical organisms seems out of step with contemporary secular thinking. Scratch the surface of western philosophy, however, and you find a history filled with arguments in favor of the idea that we are embodied souls. This book provides a clear and concise history of the soul, from Plato to cutting-edge contemporary work in philosophy of mind. Taking in the arguments of influential thinkers, such as Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, and Hume, Goetz and Taliaferro tackle keys issues, such as the problem of mind-body interaction, the causal closure of the physical world, and the philosophical implications of the brain sciences for the soul’s existence. A Brief History of the Soul brings together historical and contemporary scholarship to examine one of the essential questions of our existence.
The Soul Hypothesis
Experts from different fields argue that there are good reasons to believe in the existence of the soul as distinct from the physical body. What do we mean when we speak about the soul? What are the arguments for the existence of the soul as distinct from the physical body? Do animals have souls? What is the difference between the mind and the soul? The Soul Hypothesis brings together experts from philosophy, linguistics and science to discuss the validity of these questions in the modern world. They contend that there is an aspect of the nature of human beings that is not reducible to the matter that makes up our bodies. This perspective is part of a family of views traditionally classified in philosophy as substance dualism, and has something serious in common with the ubiquitous human belief in the soul. The Soul Hypothesis presents views from a range of sciences and the resulting big picture shows, more clearly than one author could with one area of expertise, that there is room for a soul hypothesis.