Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Causality and the Big Bang

Since Big Bang cosmology is the claim that matter, energy, space, and time all sprang into existence, it strikes many people as similar to the theistic doctrine of creation ex nihilo (and by "similar" I mean "identical"). So some philosophers and some cosmologists have tried to find ways of avoiding the theistic implications.

One of the most common is to claim that causality is a physical phenomenon; it describes what takes place within the universe. You can't apply it to the beginning of the physical universe. The idea here is that causality is a posteriori like the laws of physics or chemistry, not a priori like the laws of logic. As such, it only describes the conditions inside the universe and can't be applied to the beginning of the universe itself. This is the tack taken by some illustrious philosophers, such as Adolf Grünbaum and Quentin Smith

It's certainly true that causality is not a priori in the same way the laws of logic are. We simply can't imagine the law of non-contradiction failing to hold, but we can imagine causality failing to hold -- that is, we can imagine (form a mental picture of) something popping into existence without a cause. But it's incorrect to say that we discover causality the same way we discover the laws of physics, i.e. through observation. Causality is derived from our basic intuition that something does not come from nothing (ex nihilo nihil fit: out of nothing, nothing comes). To limit this intuition to physical processes would be a case of special pleading; there's no reason why it wouldn't apply to the beginning of the universe. Causality is not a physical principle, it's a metaphysical principle.

Perhaps one could suggest that once we have the principle of causality via intuition, we can then establish it via observation and continue to believe it based on the latter. But it's not clear to me how causality could be falsified, or what would count as observation of causality not holding. At best you could say that you didn't observe a cause of an effect, but everyone would infer that the effect does in fact have a cause and we just didn't observe it. It's not like you could set up a scientific experiment to observe the absence of causality, since if the conditions you set up are sufficient to bring about the effect, then obviously the former caused the latter. As such, I think William Lane Craig's argument that causality has never been falsified is an empty claim. There are plenty of times where we observe an effect without a cause, but no amount of such experiences will ever convince a sane person that the effects didn't have a cause, merely that the causes weren't observed.

Or, perhaps one could simply deny the intuition. There are problems with this though: for one thing, science presupposes causality. If causality goes out the window, science goes with it. This is not only absurd and unacceptable, it's a conclusion I doubt nontheists would be willing to accept, since they (mistakenly) think science is on their side. For another thing, while causality is not a priori in the same way that the laws of logic are, it is still a precondition of thought. If causality did not hold, then there would not be an appropriate connection between our beliefs and their objects, such that we could never know if any of them are true. So it's not merely scientific knowledge that would be endangered; if we deny causality, then the possibility of any knowledge becomes impossible. So it's not like this intuition is just some random assertion.

But doesn't quantum physics posit virtual particles coming into existence without causes? This is a misunderstanding. As Craig writes,

... virtual particles do not literally come into existence spontaneously out of nothing. Rather the energy locked up in a vacuum fluctuates spontaneously in such a way as to convert into evanescent particles that return almost immediately to the vacuum. ... The microstructure of the quantum vacuum is a sea of continually forming and dissolving particles which borrow energy from the vacuum for their brief existence. A quantum vacuum is thus far from nothing, and vacuum fluctuations do not constitute an exception to the principle that whatever begins to exist has a cause.

Another suggestion might be that Hume denied causality. But ignoring the fact that Hume was not inerrant, this is another misunderstanding. Hume argued that just because we've observed a particular cause producing a particular effect in the past, we cannot know that the cause will produce the same effect. In other words, he argued that we can't infer an effect from a cause. Those who deny causality applies to the creation of the universe are claiming that we can't infer a cause from an effect -- that just because we observe that an effect has taken place, we can't claim that it was caused. This is radically different from what Hume was claiming, and Hume explicitly repudiates such an idea as absurd.

A final claim might be to suggest that applying causality to the Big Bang is just as problematic for the traditional theistic doctrine of creation. The doctrine, after all, is called creation ex nihilo (out of nothing) and the intuition is that ex nihilo nihil fit (out of nothing, nothing comes). But again, this is a misunderstanding. Creation ex nihilo is the claim that the universe didn't have a material cause -- that it wasn't constructed out of some pre-existent "stuff". This is certainly a radical claim and we should recognize it as such. But it doesn't deny that the universe has an efficient cause -- some entity or agent that brings about the effect -- since the claim is that God is the efficient cause of the universe. Those who deny that causality would apply to the beginning of the universe, however, are claiming that the universe had neither a material cause nor an efficient cause. So I simply put it to you, which of these two explanations is more plausible: that the universe's beginning has an efficient cause but no material cause, or that it has neither?

Now it's all well and good to say that applying causality to the beginning of the universe creates some philosophical issues, but the alternative is that it just popped into existence without any cause whatsoever. That people who portray themselves as skeptics would be willing to accept this shows that their skepticism is absurdly selective. If this is the the only way to avoid believing in God then there's just no contest.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Thursday, April 15, 2010

The tale of the two saints

Some time ago, in a discussion on Richard Carrier’s blog, the historian Charles Freeman mentioned the bizarre treatment of St Thomas Aquinas’s body following the saint’s death on the 7th of March 1274. A summery of it’s fate is related in the introduction to Aquinas’s selected writings (ed Ralph M. McInerny):

‘Thomas was buried for the first time before the high alter of the church of the Cistercian abbey in which he had died after a funeral Mass attended by members of his family as well as by fellow Dominicans and other non Cistercians. Because the sub prior at Fossanova was cured of blindness when he touched Thomas’s body and soon other miracles occurred, the Cistercians began to fear that the remains would be stolen and taken off to a Dominican resting place. As a result of this fear, the body was disinterred and reinterred at Fossanova several times during the next two years. Jealous of their treasure the monks took macabre precautions. They exhumed the corpse of Brother Thomas from it’s resting place, cut off the head and placed it in a hiding place in a corner of the chapel. The idea was that, even if the corpse were taken, the head would be theirs. His sister was given a hand, a finger of which was to describe a grisly trajectory of its own...By the time the canonisation process began in 1319 the corpse had been reduced to bones from which the flesh had been removed by boiling.’

In his comment, Freeman also mentions that:

Then the story went around that you could find marks of sanctity inside a dead body. Clare of Montefalco's body was cut up in 1308 and sure enough ' a cross or an image of the crucified Christ' was found on her heart. Bynum goes on (p.323) ' By the fifteenth century inquisitors at canonization proceedings looked to autopsy evidence for proof of paramystical phenomena such as miraculous abstinence' .

Yet a similar - and if anything stranger- fate was to be met in the 20th century by the ‘secular saint’ Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, that which has been related by Paul R Gregory in ‘Lenin’s Brain and other tales from the Soviet Archives’. After his death in 1924 Lenin's brain was removed as part of the autopsy and left to stew in formaldehyde for the next two years. It was then decided by Stalin and the Politburo that the organ should be studied to provide detailed scientific proof of the late leader’s genius.

The neurologist selected for this task was the German Oskar Vogt who proposed that Lenin’s brain be compared to other brains in his laboratory in Berlin. This transpired to be a problematic move for the communists. Having been sent a specimen of Lenin’s brain, the person charged with assessing his genius was now an independent scientist outside the grasp of communist censorship. More problematic were Vogt’s public lectures. Stetskii, the Russian Head of the culture and propaganda department of the central committee reported that:

‘Vogt’s presentations are of a questionable nature; he compares Lenin’s brain with those of criminals and assorted other persons. Professor Vogt has a mechanical theory of genius using an anatomic analysis based on the presence of a large number of giant cortical pyramidal cells’

Vogt had said in his initial reports that Lenin’s brain had shown a great number of ‘giant cells’ which he saw a sign of superior mental function. However as Stetskii reported, this made a mockery of Lenin’s brain since in the German encyclopaedia of mental illness, ‘a German authority (a professor Spielmaier) claims that such pyramidal cells are also characteristic of mental retardation’

In the event the research was transferred to the Moscow Brain Institute. The final report was published in 1936 and came to 153 pages. The brain of the great leader had been compared with ten average people and the brains of leading figures (including I.V Pavlov). It had shown an exceptional ‘high organisation..with an especially high functioning in the areas of speech, recognition and action’ and ‘with processes requiring great diversity and richness of cognitive powers, in other words with an exceptionally high functioning of the nervous system’. He had ratios of the temporal lobe to the total brain mass which were superior to those of the poet Mayakovsky and the physician philosopher Bogdanov. Somewhat amusingly (and perhaps typically) the report then ends with an impassioned appeal for more funding.

The report would not be publicised however, since by the time of it’s completion, Stalin was busily executing his prominent rivals. It would therefore have been imprudent to remind the public of the super-brained Lenin.

Odder still was the treatment of Lenin’s body. The original plan was to freeze it, but the body had begun to deteriorate while the super freezer was being built. Instead his corpse was embalmed and sealed in a glass sarcophagus. It now requires constant treatment and chemical baths every eighteen months to moisturise the features and keep spots of black mould from appearing on the face and hands. His blood, bodily fluids and internal organs were removed as part of the original process but his eyebrows, moustache and goatee remain intact, as do his genitals.

This is more than can be said for Napoleon’s. In 1972 what was alleged to have been his penis was infamously put up for auction at Christies, having supposedly been removed during his autopsy in 1821 and ended up in the personal effects of his friend Vignali. Newspaper reports of the Christies sale described the object as ‘something like a maltreated strip of buckskin shoelace or shrivelled eel’, another described it as ‘one inch long and resembling a grape’. To add to the indignity, the alleged penis failed to reach it’s reserve price and was withdrawn.

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Sorry I have been a bit quiet recently. I am in the process of emigrating from the United Kingdom to the rather large and eccentric country somewhat to the west, whose national anthem is based on a British boozing song called ‘To Anacreon in Heaven’. One of the purposes of this tune in the 1760s was as a sobriety test. If you could sing a stanza of the notoriously difficult melody and stay on key, you were sober enough for another round. They must have been made of sterner stuff in those days because no-one seems to be able to sing the medley at baseball matches; or remember what is in the other 3 verses, the ‘foe's haughty host in dread silence’ reposing and so on and so forth.

On this blog we pride ourselves in playing up the more modern and rational aspects of the Middle Ages, something of a pity really because the details I find most interesting are often the more macabre; talking heads for example. One such incident appears in the pages of ‘Medicine in the English Middle Ages’ by Fay Marie Getz:

‘In 1371 John Crok was instructed by the king’s justices to produce a bag with a dead man’s head in it. John produced the bag. He said that the head was that of a Saracen and he had bought it in Toledo, Spain in order to house a spirit in it so that the said spirit would answer questions. The book also contained in the bag had experiments (experimentis) written on it. John clamed that he had not done anything with the head or the book yet, and the bag and its content were burned before the king at Westminster. John was ordered to swear on the gospel not to do anything else contrary to faith’

If I could choose a Saracen's head to bring back to life I think it would have to be that of Edward Said, if only to find out why his books were such a load of crok.

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The Huxley-Wilberforce Debate

This was a legendary debate that took place just seven months after Darwin published the Origin of Species. "Darwin's Bulldog" T. H. Huxley defended evolution against the smears of Samuel Wilberforce. It ended with Wilberforce going for a rhetorical win by asking Huxley whether he claimed ape ancestry on his grandmother's side or his grandfather's. Huxley responded that he'd rather be descended from a poor chattering monkey than a man of great intellect who misused it to obscure the truth. Boom. Science vs. religion, and science wins again.

Except the debate may have been legendary in more than one sense. The philosopher J. R. Lucas published an interesting essay on this: "Wilberforce and Huxley: A Legendary Encounter". Read the whole thing.

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Sunday, April 04, 2010

The Christ Myth Myth

I've gone over this before here and here, so let me just summarize. Some people think 1) Jesus Christ is mythological rather than historical, and their primary evidence of this is that 2) there are parallels of Jesus in world mythology. Some take this the further step of arguing that 3) Jesus is completely mythological and thus completely unhistorical; that is, no such person as Jesus of Nazareth ever existed. I'll deal with these in reverse order. In the following, by "scholars" I mean "scholars of the relevant disciplines", i.e. historical Jesus scholars: people with PhDs in ancient history or New Testament history or something similar. I'm sure there are experts in pharmacology or library science who have different views than the scholars I'm referring to, but this is irrelevant since their area of expertise has no bearing on the subject in question. To think otherwise would be to commit the fallacy of irrelevant authority.

3) No scholar thinks it even remotely possible that Jesus may not have existed. Those that do mention such claims explicitly put them on the same intellectual level as Holocaust denial, Moon landing hoax claims, and other conspiracy theories. Indeed, scholars maintain that certain events regarding Jesus are historically certain, and he would obviously have had to exist in order for these events to have taken place. So, for example, Jesus' crucifixion is considered by scholars to be one of the central events in human history; you can't deny it without having to deny most of ancient history in order to be consistent, and it would render subsequent historical development virtually inexplicable. N. T. Wright, the most prestigious contemporary scholar, wrote in The Resurrection of the Son of God that this is true of the empty tomb and post-mortem appearances of Jesus as well: "I regard this conclusion as coming in the same sort of category of historical probability so high as to be historically certain, as the death of Augustus in AD 14 or the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70". Similarly, William Lane Craig has called Jesus' post-mortem appearances "a fact that is almost universally acknowledged by New Testament scholars today".

2) The claim that there are parallels to Jesus in world mythology was only ever held by a minority of scholars, and has been completely rejected by scholars for nearly a century. The parallels in question were conceived so broadly that virtually anything would fit. As such, they were completely contrived. There are, of course, some authors who argue for these parallels even today, but they are not scholars. Joseph Campbell comes to mind: he wrote extensively about mythology and how the Christian myths had many antecedents (except the antecedents were far superior to the Christian version). But Campbell didn't have a PhD, he had a Master's degree in French literature. That's certainly very valuable and a noteworthy accomplishment, but it doesn't qualify him to be considered a historical Jesus scholar. I have a couple of Master's degrees in Philosophy; that doesn't qualify me to be considered a scholar of solid state physics. At any rate, many universities have "The Bible as Literature" courses which are essentially stages to advocate the parallels between Jesus and mythology. But again, these courses are not taught by historical Jesus scholars, they are taught by people with degrees in unrelated disciplines. I find this unfortunate.

1) The idea that the gospels are mythological survived a few decades longer within scholarly circles than did the idea that there are mythological parallels to Jesus. Rudolf Bultmann advocated the view that when the gospels are "demythologized", very little of Jesus could be known beyond the fact that he existed and was killed by crucifixion. Bultmann lived to the 1970s, but his views were rejected by the 1950s with the initiation of the Second Quest for the historical Jesus (we are currently in the midst of the Third Quest). But there is a much more obvious problem with the claim that the gospels are mythological. Mythology is, at least partially, a literary genre, a style of writing. But I'm unaware of any scholar, ever, who argued that the gospels are written in the genre of mythology. Rather, those who claimed they were mythological argued that what the gospels record could not be historical, and so must be mythological, regardless of the genre in which they were written. This point is easily demonstrated: simply read some actual myths -- not modern accounts of myths, but the actual myths themselves -- side by side with the gospels. It's obvious that they don't belong to the same genre, the same type of writing. Thus, James D. G. Dunn argued in the entry for "Myth" in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels that the entry wasn't really necessary: "Myth is a term of at least doubtful relevance to the study of Jesus and the Gospels". The genre of the gospels has been a matter of dispute for the last couple of hundred years, although most scholars would have said that they are written as historical writings. But in the last 20-30 years there has been an incredible revolution within historical Jesus studies to the effect that most scholars today consider the gospels to have been written in the literary genre of ancient biography. Of course, this doesn't speak to their reliability in matters of detail, but it certainly makes it difficult to claim they don't have a solid historical core at all.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Saturday, April 03, 2010

The Tragedy of the Secular Left

It is impossible not to feel sympathetic towards Tony Judt, brain as sharp as ever but trapped in a paralysed body. Although English, he has spent his career in New York as a bastion of the American academic left. His most controversial utterance was to declare that Israel would have been better off if it followed the multicultural Lebanese model, rather than being a specifically Jewish state.

Judt’s eloquent essay in the Guardian last Saturday has been remarked on by many commentators on the left, with its plea for a new language of social democracy coupled with pride in its past achievements. However, in many ways this essay is the ideal exemplar for Judt’s entire career: wrong but in an interesting way. The difficulty with his argument is one that afflicts the secular left as a whole: his manifesto is based on a misunderstanding of human nature and consequently it relies on wishful thinking.

Judt begins by assuring us that “the materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition.” Yet, as a historian, he must know that this is untrue. History affords us with endless examples of how humans predominantly look after their own and their family over the species as a whole. Where we cooperate, it is to advance our own ends. Yes, Adam Smith explained how markets can provide a common benefit derived from all the individual actors pursuing their own goals. But no workable theory of economics or human behaviour has been proposed that demonstrates that human beings are fundamentally altruistic.

Recent work in behavioural genetics and economics has borne this out. There was once a trend towards believing that altruism could be a serious force in economics. This followed experiments such as the “dictator game” where subjects were given some money and had the choice of how much of it to give away. Many did so, apparently for no reason. But recently, as the Freakonomics team of Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner have brilliantly reported, we’ve realised that human beings are only naturally altruistic when they are students doing economics experiments in front of their professors. In real life, people tend not to give away their cash for nothing.

Evolution has similar lessons for us. It is well established that we have evolved a capacity for reciprocal altruism (you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours). Furthermore, ‘kin selection’ means that we act altruistically with regard to our family because this helps us to advance the interests of our shared genes. But pure altruism has no satisfactory evolutionary explanation. That examples of genuine self-sacrifice exist, no one denies. We can transcend our evolutionary inheritance and be better than nature intended us to be. But most of the time we aren’t.

So, when Judt claims that selfishness is not inherent in human nature, he has confused the exception with the rule. And this fundamental mistake means that his whole argument is built on air. Nonetheless, he is able to identify the core of his problem when he states,
In post-religious societies such as our own, where most people find meaning and satisfaction in secular objectives, it is only by indulging what Adam Smith called our "benevolent instincts" and reversing our selfish desires that we can "produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions in which consists their whole race and propriety".
Unfortunately, a post-religious society lacks the most obvious tool with which to make people do unto others who are in no position to repay them. This leaves the secular left with the desire that we transcend our natures, but no lever to make us do so. This is not a new challenge. Communists used violence to achieve their aims, but no democrat can countenance such methods. The unions have always acted explicitly for the material gain of their members. No one should blame them for that, since benefiting their members is precisely their purpose. As Daniel Finkelstein has recently explained, this is why the unions have so often acted contrary to the interests of Labour governments.

The third strand of the nineteenth century left was Christian socialism, once a very strong force in the UK. It has become a cliché to say that the Labour Party owed more to Methodism than Marxism. Christian socialism was important because it provided the only way for a mass movement to persuade people to be better than they might otherwise be. Religions do ask us to transcend the crocked timber of our humanity. Even if the promise of heavenly reward represents yet another example of reciprocal altruism, at least the bills do not come due this side of the grave.

The secular left want for this string in their bow. They can cajole us into listening to our better natures or, like New Labour, appeal to our self interest. Only the latter is ever likely to be an election-winning strategy. For Judt, who won’t as he says “retreat to religion”, the problem is more than one of language and renewal. He must find a way either to defy human nature or to convince the prosperous middle classes that the left has something to offer them.

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