Do You Even Science, Frater?

The other day, I went to a Thomistic Society talk about Aquinas’s views on the Problem of Evil and other topics. At one point, the presenter casually mentioned that humans engage in self-destructive behavior, like alcoholism, self-mutilation, drug addiction, etc., while non-human animals don’t.

That made my [citation needed] sense tingle, so I looked around. Among other things, I found Animal models of self-destructive behavior and suicide:

Research on nonhuman primates has demonstrated that self-mutilation is a common reaction to extreme disruptions of parental caretaking in other mammalian species as well. For example, isolated young rhesus monkeys engage in self-biting and head slapping and banging (21). Analgesia is also common in self-destructive animals.

Or this non-scholarly page about the effects of drugs, including addiction, in animals such as horses, goats, and even bees.

So apparently this speaker simply wasn’t aware of self-destructive behavior in non-human animals. I don’t remember what her point was, so it might have been a minor thing, but still, it wasn’t true.

But this brought to mind the previous Thomistic Institute talk I went to: there, the presenter casually mentioned that humans engage in abstract reasoning, while animals don’t.

Again, this didn’t seem quite right. This study from 2007 involved teaching dogs to push a button when shown a set of pictures of dogs, and another button when shown a set of pictures of landscapes.

Interestingly, presentation of pictures providing contradictive information (novel dog pictures mounted on familiar landscape pictures) did not disrupt performance, which suggests that the dogs made use of a category-based response rule with classification being coupled to category-relevant features (of the dog) rather than to item-specific features (of the background).

Or this paper, entitled simply Concept Learning in Animals, whose abstract says:

We suggest that several of the major varieties of conceptual classes claimed to be uniquely human are also exhibited by nonhuman animals. We present evidence for the formation of several sorts of conceptual stimulus classes by nonhuman animals: perceptual classes involving classification according to the shared attributes of objects, associative classes or functional equivalences in which stimuli form a class based on common associations, relational classes, in which the conceptual relationship between or among stimuli defines the class, and relations between relations, in which the conceptual (analogical) relationship is defined by the relation between classes of stimuli. We conclude that not only are nonhuman animals capable of acquiring a wide variety of concepts, but that the underlying processes that determine concept learning are also likely to be quite similar.

No one will deny that humans can perform mental feats that non-human animals can’t, as far as we can tell. Other animals can’t play chess, prove mathematical theorems, or form complex sentences, as far as I know. But at the same time, the issue isn’t a black-and-white “humans can reason abstractly and animals can’t.”

Lastly, I’ve written at length about Thomist Edward Feser, and his ignorance of science from Newton on up.

Individually, each of these mistakes are just that: mistakes. Or ignorance: philosophers can’t be expected to be masters of nuclear physics or animal cognition. Or simplifications that gloss over a complex idea in order to make a broader point.

But collectively, I do see a pattern of Thomists being wrong on matters of science in a thousand small ways. That suggests that either they don’t bother checking whether their beliefs are true, where possible, and correct their errors, or else they have other beliefs that lead them to erroneous conclusions. And either way, if I can’t trust them on the small stuff, why should I believe them on the big stuff?


The Last Superstition: Let’s Meet Aquinas

Chapter 3: Getting Medieval

Having laid the groundwork in Chapter 2, Feser now moves on to the star of the show, Thomas Aquinas. He opens the chapter with a story of Aquinas overlooking a woman’s achievements, and instead interrupting her with a comment about her body:

he once came upon “a holy nun who used to be levitated in ecstasy.” His reaction was to comment on how very large her feet were. “This made her come out of her ecstasy in indignation at his rudeness, whereupon he gently advised her to seek greater humility.” [p. 74]

And one about attacking a woman, when his brothers locked him up in the family castle (bold added):

When the brothers upped the ante by sending a prostitute into his room, he famously chased her away with a flaming brand snatched from the fireplace and then used it to draw a cross on the wall, before which he prayed for, and received, the gift of lifelong chastity. [p. 74]

Section What Aquinas didn’t say

Feser starts out by spending five pages berating Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett. This can be skipped.

I should note that Feser berates both Dawkins and Dennett for either mangling or not devoting much space to the classical — i.e., Aristotle’s and Aquinas’s — proofs for God. But he also keeps telling us what a mistake it was for the world of philosophy to abandon these ideas. In other words, he criticizes Dawkins and Dennett for not paying attention to ideas that are not widely embraced even by philosophers and theologians. If he can’t convince his colleagues to accept Thomism, why should the rest of us spend any time on it?

The other thing I’d like to pause on is this quotation on p.79:

The author of a sympathetic recent study of Dennett’s philosophy acknowledges that the “consensus evaluation” of Dennett’s work among his academic peers is that while it is “undeniably creative and important,” it “lacks philosophical depth and is not systematic.” [Tadeusz Zawidzki, Dennett (Onewold Publications, 2007), p. ix]

This quotation comes from the opening paragraph of the preface:

I came to this project with some standard assumptions about Dennett’s work. I have been reading Dennett since deciding to major in philosophy as an undergraduate, and over the years I had come to accept the consensus evaluation of his work: although undeniably creative and important, it supposedly lacks philosophical depth and is not systematic. Consensus has it that Dennett’s approach is diffuse and piecemeal, involving clever discussions of specific problems at the intersection of philosophy and the sciences of human nature, without the backing of an overarching, philosophical system. Many of Dennett’s admirers, skeptical of the excesses of traditional philosophical systems, see this approach as a virtue (Rorty 1993, pp. 191–192; Ross 2000, pp. 16–23). Indeed, Dennett himself often blithely dismisses the importance of philosophical system-building (Ross 2000, p. 13; Dennett 2000, pp. 356, 359).

Writing this book has significantly changed my view of Dennett’s work. If the reader comes away with anything from the following, I want it to be an appreciation of the fact that Dennett’s work constitutes a deeply coherent philosophical system, founded on a few consistently applied principles.

I’ve underlined the parts that Feser quoted, and added bold emphasis.

Feser is doing the same thing that creationists do when they quote Darwin saying that the evolution of the eye seems absurd: taking part of a rhetorical construct and quoting it out of context to make it sound like a flaw.

Since the rebuttal of Feser’s implication is right there in the second paragraph; since he carefully selected this quotation to be technically true (well, some people say that Dennett’s a hack); and since he deliberately selected his quotations to just remove “supposedly”; it’s clear to me that Feser knew exactly what he was doing: selectively quoting Zawidzki to make him say something he doesn’t agree with. So I’m going to call him dishonest.

Series: The Last Superstition

The Last Superstition: Aristotle’s Metaphysics

Chapter 2: Greeks Bearing Gifts, Aristotle’s metaphysics

We now come to Aristotle, and one of Feser’s central points (emphasis in the original):

How significant is Aristotle? Well, I wouldn’t want to exaggerate, so let me put it this way: Abandoning Aristotelianism, as the founders of modern philosophy did, was the single greatest mistake ever made in the entire history of Western thought. [p.51]

At least he doesn’t mess about.

[This abandonment’s] logical implications can also be seen in today’s headlines: in the abortion industry’s slaughter of millions upon millions of unborn human beings; in the judicial murder of Terri Schiavo (as Nat Hentoff aptly labeled it) and the push for euthanasia generally; in the mostly pointless and certainly point-missing debate between Darwinians and “Intelligent Design” advocates; in the movement for “same-sex marriage” and the sexual revolution generally; and a thousand other things besides. [p.51, same paragraph as previous quotation]

PS, he is not a crackpot.

A central part of Aristotle’s philosophy is “actuality” vs. “potentiality”. In considering the example of a rubber ball that melts and becomes gooey:

Aristotle replies: Even if the gooeyness itself doesn’t yet exist in the ball, the potential for gooeyness does exist in it, and this, together with some external influence that actualizes this potential (e.g. heat), suffices to show how the change can occur. [p.53]

This, by the way, is supposed to put us on the way to understanding that there must be a god.

So basically, a thing’s “actuality” is the way it that thing is, or exists, or is configured, and its “potentialities” are all the ways it could possibly be. If I’m understanding correctly, actuality is the object’s position in phase space, and its potentialities are all the positions reachable from its current position.

Feser reminds us that a potential can’t actualize itself, and this seems trivially true: if you have a blue rubber ball, and it might be painted red, then “being red” isn’t something that can paint a ball. Likewise for all the other potentialities. But he also tells us,

Consider also that if a potential could actualize itself, there would be no way to explain why it does so at one time rather than another. [p. 54]

This seems like a non sequitur. I said above that potential states aren’t the sort of thing that do things, but even if we take the sentence above to mean “If a thing could change on its own, there would be no way …”, I don’t see how the second half necessarily follows.

Superficially, it seems obvious, but if there’s one thing science should have taught us, it’s that “obvious” is not the same as “true”: the sun does not revolve around the earth, objects in motion don’t stop on their own (more on this later), fast-moving objects get shorter, and so on. So I’d like to see a few more intermediary steps between “an object can’t change on its own” and “there can be no explanation for why it changes at time t0 and not t1.

But there’s another problem with the above, beside the non sequitur: let’s say that Feser is right, and there’s some phenomenon for which there’s no explanation beyond “that’s just the way it is”.

So what?

I know that this makes us uncomfortable. I, for one, would find that rather unsettling, because it does seem as though everything has a good explanation. But so what? The universe is not obligated to conform to our desires. And we see all the time that people accept bogus explanations because they’re more satisfying than saying “I don’t know” or “that’s just the way it is”. But this self-deception is exactly the sort of thing we need to guard against if we want to know the truth.

Form and matter

For Aristotle, Feser tells us, an object has two important properties: its matter — the stuff it’s made of — and its form — the way the matter is put together. That is, you can have a bunch of hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, etc. atoms (matter), and if you assemble them into the shape of a chair (form), then you’ve got a chair. Seems pretty straightforward.

The four causes

The four causes are Aristotle’s answer to four questions that can be asked of anything: “What is it made of?” (material cause), “What’s its shape or form?” (formal cause), “What caused it?” (efficient cause), and “What’s it for?” (final cause).

The first two seem out of place, since they’re not really causes as that word is currently understood, but maybe there are historical reasons. The third one, efficient cause, is just your garden-variety cause: “Why is the water boiling? Because it’s on a hot stove.” That sort of thing.

But final cause deserves closer scrutiny. For one thing, asking “what is X for?” presupposes that X is for something, and that’s far from obvious. But Feser tells us that final causality can be found everywhere:

I also gave the functions of bodily organs as an example, and it is indeed the most obvious and compelling sort of example to give. But Aristotle takes final causation or goal-directedness to exist throughout inorganic nature as well. The moon is “directed toward” movement around the earth, as a kind of “goal.”

The moon is there so it can orbit the earth. You heard it here first, folks.

To be sure, Feser makes it clear that he doesn’t think the moon is conscious, and doesn’t want or intend to orbit the earth. Rather, the moon is for orbiting in the same way, I guess, that a knife is for slicing. But yes, at the end of the day, Feser tells us, the moon has a purpose: orbiting.

This is one of many “you have got to be kidding me!” moments in this book.

Feser says, here and elsewhere in the book, that everything or nearly everything has a final cause, but he never supports this claim. He says that Aristotle believed that everything has a final cause, but never presents a case for why we should take this as more than opinion.

He talks a lot about the opinions of “modern philosophers, scientists, and intellectuals in general [p. 71]” on final causes, but his case has several problems: he never quotes his opponents directly, doesn’t cite them, and doesn’t even tell us who these people are.

And when he does present their case, he has them saying that there are no final causes, e.g:

And this is precisely why causation has become such a problem for modern thinkers. Famously, they deny that there really are any final causes at all, appearances notwithstanding. [p.64]

Of course, the converse of “everything has a final cause” isn’t “nothing has a final cause”. It’s “it’s not true that everything has a final cause.” Either Feser’s interlocutors fail basic logic, or else he’s setting up straw men.

Feser does give us specific examples of the sorts of final causes he’s talking about: that the point of the moon is to orbit the earth, or that “an oak tree is the final cause of an acorn” [p.115], so I’m willing to accept that some things have final causes. But that doesn’t imply that everything has a final cause, or that the interesting things (human life, the universe, etc.) have final causes, or that those causes are interesting.

Let’s say it turns out that the purpose or final cause of the universe is to expand. Well, fine. It can do that on its own. The rest of us can ignore that and get on with our own final purposes.

Formal and eminent causation

One last thing before moving on:

whatever is in the effect must in some sense be contained in the cause as well. The basic idea is that a cause cannot give to its effect what it does not have to give [p. 67]

This seems like a very odd thing to say, or at least an odd way of saying it. Yes, a hot fire makes a room hot, a cold ice cube makes a drink cold, a red paint brush makes a canvas red, and so on. But of course, there are other ways of causing something:

Or, to take another example, the cause of a fire might itself be on fire, as when a torch is used to start a brushfire, or it may instead have the power to produce fire, as a cigarette lighter has even when it is not being used. The traditional way of making this distinction is to say that a cause has the feature that it generates in the effect “formally” in the first sort of case (e.g. when both the cause and the effect are red or on fire) and “eminently” in the second sort of case (e.g. when the cause is not itself red or on fire but has an inherent power to produce redness or fire). If a cause didn’t contain all the features of its effect either formally or eminently, there would be no way to account for how the effect came about in just the way it did. Again, a cause cannot give to its effect what it does not have to give. [p. 68]

Which is to say that a cause can produce an effect either by transferring an attribute from itself to something else, or by some other means. It seems odd, even reminiscent of phlogiston to put it the way Feser does: the cigarette lighter doesn’t have heat inside it the way an orange contains juice. Feser has a reason for putting it this way, but since he’s laying groundwork for his main argument, it’ll have to wait.

Series: The Last Superstition

The Last Superstition: Plato’s Forms

Chapter 2: Greeks Bearing Gifts is a recap of the history of Greek philosophy that led to Thomas Aquinas, which he’ll talk about in chapter 3. This is, in my opinion, the best chapter in the book.

I’ll skip over the first section, From Thales to Socrates because although it’s interesting, from a historical perspective, to see where certain ideas came from, most of Feser’s arguments are based on something like Plato’s Forms, so let’s skip ahead to that.

Plato’s Theory of Forms

If you draw a bunch of triangles, you’ll notice that none of them are perfect: one of the sides might be crooked (in fact, all of them are crooked, if you look at them through a microscope), or the corners might not quite meet up, and in any case, the sides have non-zero width. All of them are more or less good approximations to the abstract notion of a triangle. On top of which, we can think about triangles, and draw conclusions about them, that might not be true of any specific triangle that we can draw. So there are real-world triangles, and there’s the abstract notion of a triangle.

Likewise, dogs are all different from each other, but they all have something in common, namely that they’re dogs. But it would be tautological to say, “all dogs are dogs”. What is it, exactly, that all dogs have in common? For Plato, it’s their Form (which I will try to remember to capitalize, since it’s a term of art). Feser tells us:

What is a “Form”? It is, in the first place, an essence of the sort Socrates was so eager to discover. To know the essence of justice, for example – to know, that is to say, what the nature of justice is, what defines it and distinguishes it from everything that isn’t justice – would for Plato just be to know the Form of Justice. [p. 32]

In other words, a Form seems to be a definition, or specification. (Also, the terms “Form”, “nature”, and “essence” seem to be more or less interchangeable, here.)

that when we grasp the essence or nature of being a triangle, what we grasp is not something material or physical, and not something we grasp or could grasp through the senses. This is even more evident when we consider that individual perceivable, material triangles come into existence and go out of existence and change in other ways as well, but the essence of triangularity stays the same. […]

That does not mean, however, that in knowing the essence of triangularity we know something that is purely mental, a subjective “idea.”7 Nor is this essence a mere cultural artifact or convention of language. For what we know about triangles are objective facts, things we have discovered rather than invented. It is not up to us to decide that the angles of a triangle should add up to 38 degrees instead of 180, or that the Pythagorean theorem should be true of circles rather than right triangles. [pp. 33–34]

Yes, the astute reader will have noticed that triangles’ angles don’t always add up to 180 degrees, so in a way, it is up to us to decide whether we’re talking about euclidean or non-euclidean geometry.

But let’s leave that aside, and note that what Plato seems to be doing here is groping for the concept of information, or software. It might be hard to remember, but for most of human existence, this was a fairly difficult concept. You didn’t have a book or a letter as a separate entity from the paper it was written on. You could sing someone else’s song, and you could copy someone’s words or ideas in your own book, but for the most part, there was no need to distinguish between information and the medium it was recorded in. So Plato et al. get props for thinking about this.

Unfortunately, Feser doesn’t answer, or even discuss, some of what I think are rather basic questions about Forms: how many Forms are there? Is this a constant number, or perhaps can we create Forms as needed? Which Forms apply to a given object? And how do we know?

Feser tells us, above, that a crudely-drawn triangle, drawn in chalk on a sidewalk, is just a poor instance of the ideal “triangle” Form. But presumably it’s a decent instance of the “sidewalk art” Form, and a very good instance of the “wobbly triangle drawn in chalk where the corners don’t meet” Form.

What about an iPhone 7? Does it instantiate the “rectangle” Form? The “telephone” form (which in turn is an instance of the “electronic device” Form)? If you use it to tell time, does it instantiate the “clock” form? If you use it to hold down loose papers at a café, does it instantiate the “paperweight” form?

If, as I suspect, Plato assigned Forms to salient entities in his environment, I see no reason why we couldn’t define our own Forms based on what we find interesting or important at any given moment.

Later, we’ll talk about the toothpaste-eating squirrel.

Series: The Last Superstition

The Indian and the Ice: When to Believe Something

Imagine a woman living in India in the 18th or 19th century[1]. Her cousin, the sailor, has just returned from a trading voyage and, after being suitably plied with food and attention, tells his audience about distant lands where it is so cold that water becomes as hard as wood; you can break off a piece of water and hold it in two fingers.

The woman doesn’t believe him. His story seems utterly fantastical. In her experience, water is never hard. It’s always liquid or gas. As much as she wants to trust her beloved cousin, he’s also a sailor, just like the ones who have passed through town in the past, talking about mermaids and six-headed serpents.

[1] I got this analogy from The Pig that Wants to Be Eaten, by Julian Baggini. He, in turn credits it to David Hume’s On Miracles, though I gather that the analogy of the Indian and the ice didn’t actually appear in On Miracles, but rather arose out of criticism of that work.

Clearly, the Indian woman is wrong: there is such a thing as ice. But I’d argue that she’s wrong for the right reason: being too skeptical, rather than too gullible. And this is one of those cases where reality turns out to be weirder than she could imagine.

Forming an accurate understanding of the world is a balancing act: I don’t want to admit too many untrue ideas, but I don’t want to just disbelieve everything, because I also want to admit true ideas. And I also don’t want to spend my life on the fence about everything. So I use rules of thumb, which don’t always work. And so sometimes, I’m wrong.

Like other atheists and skeptics, I’ve been accused of being closed-minded. The analogy of the Indian woman and the ice is just the sort of thing a critic could point to. More things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy and all that.

But for every such nugget of implausible truth, there are several metric tons of bullshit. The Indian sailor’s story of hard water sounds, to the woman, just like other stories about six-headed monsters, centaurs, mermaids, and floating mountains. And so she’s right to reject it, at least until such time as good evidence comes along.

The cost of believing too much is measured in money and in human lives. Tim Farley keeps a running tally at What’s the Harm?. The cost of believing too little seems, to me, much lower. So it’s a chance I’m willing to take.

Flaming Telephone

(Note to people reading this in a future when they’ve grown up never using a telephone for voice communication with another human: we used to have a game where a message would be distorted by serial whispering, and we found this amusing.)

So apparently Thomas Nagel, who’s an honest-to-Cthulhu serious philosopher, published a book last year called Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False“.

Here’s what Brian Leiter and Michael Weisber wrote in their review in the Nation, on Oct. 3:

Nagel now enters the fray with a far-reaching broadside against Darwin and materialism worthy of the true-believing Plantinga (whom Nagel cites favorably). We suspect that philosophers—even philosophers sympathetic to some of Nagel’s concerns—will be disappointed by the actual quality of the argument.

Here’s how Steven Pinker linked to Leiter and Weisber’s review, on Oct. 16:

Here’s how the New Republic reported Pinker’s tweet on Mar. 8 (five months after Pinker tweeted):

[…] Steven Pinker took to Twitter and haughtily ruled that it was “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.” Fuck him, he explained.

And here’s how Barry Arrington at Uncommon Descent links to the New Republic, today:

The New Republic reports that Pinker has taken to cyberspace to stir up the Darwinist mob against Nagel. Every whiff of heresy against the true faith must be ruthlessly stamped out. Torquemada had his Auto-da-fé. Pinker has his Twitter account.

With journamalism of this caliber, I wouldn’t be surprised if UD responded to this post by saying that I set babies on fire. After eating them.

But remember: it’s the atheists and Darwiniacs who are “shrill” and “strident”.

I Am Chase and/or Sanborn

Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Intuition Pump

So the other day, I found myself inside a philosophical intuition pump. But first, a bit of background:

Qualia (singular quale), in philosophy, are basically the sense of perceiving something. If you’ve ever had that discussion about “how do I know that what you see as red is what I see as red?” or “what’s it like to be someone who actually enjoys Brussels sprouts?”, then you’ve thought about qualia.

Daniel Dennett wrote Quining Qualia, a paper that argues against qualia, or at least against the notion that they’re a useful concept. In it, he introduces several intuition pumps, analogies intended to help us wrap our minds around the problem. One of them is:

Intuition pump #7: Chase and Sanborn. Once upon a time there were two coffee tasters, Mr. Chase and Mr. Sanborn, who worked for Maxwell House […] Along with half a dozen other coffee tasters, their job was to ensure that the taste of Maxwell House stayed constant, year after year. One day, about six years after Mr. Chase had come to work for Maxwell House, he confessed to Mr. Sanborn:

I hate to admit it, but I’m not enjoying this work anymore. When I came to Maxwell House six years ago, I thought Maxwell House coffee was the best-tasting coffee in the world. I was proud to have a share in the responsibility for preserving that flavor over the years. And we’ve done our job well; the coffee tastes just the same today as it tasted when I arrived. But, you know, I no longer like it! My tastes have changed. I’ve become a more sophisticated coffee drinker. I no longer like that taste at all.

Sanborn greeted this revelation with considerable interest. “It’s funny you should mention it, ” he replied, “for something rather similar has happened to me.” He went on:

When I arrived here, shortly before you did, I, like you, thought Maxwell House coffee was tops in flavor. And now I, like you, really don’t care for the coffee we’re making. But my tastes haven’t changed; my . . .tasters have changed. That is, I think something has gone wrong with my taste buds or some other part of my taste-analyzing perceptual machinery. Maxwell House coffee doesn’t taste to me the way it used to taste; if only it did, I’d still love it, for I still think that taste is the best taste in coffee. Now I’m not saying we haven’t done our job well. You other tasters all agree that the taste is the same, and I must admit that on a day-to-day basis I can detect no change either. So it must be my problem alone. I guess I’m no longer cut out for this work.

Chase and Sanborn are alike in one way at least: they both used to like Maxwell House coffee, and now neither likes it. But they claim to be different in another way. Maxwell House tastes to Chase just the way it always did, but not so for Sanborn. But can we take their protestations at face value? Must we? Might one or both of them simply be wrong? Might their predicaments be importantly the same and their apparent disagreement more a difference in manner of expression than in experiential or psy chological state? Since both of them make claims that depend on the reliability of their memories, is there any way to check on this reliability?

So the other evening, I opened a bottle of riesling and poured myself a glass. It was quite good, [insert a bunch of pretentious oenological terms like “fruity” and “bouquet”]. I recapped the bottle and put it back in the fridge.

The next evening, I opened the bottle and poured myself a second glass. But this time, it tasted distinctly more sour than I remembered it.

My first thought was “Well, crap. This means that I have to either drink a whole bottle in one sitting, or pay $12 for one glass of wine.” But I asked frequent Epsilon Clue commenter Fez, who knows more about wine than I do, and he said that my story didn’t match his experience; that he’ll often recork an opened bottle and drink it the next day.

So now I’m not sure what’s going on. It’s possible that this particular bottle went sour overnight. Maybe reds last longer than whites. Maybe whatever I had for dinner those two nights affected my taste buds. Maybe something else.

But what’s interesting to me is that what was originally intended as a hypothetical example to make a philosophical point has become more concrete and personal for me, with literally tens of dollars at stake.

Why Is Universalizability a Good Thing?

Back in 2010, Greta Christina wrote about liberal and conservative moral systems. At the core was a set of studies showing that while everyone shares the same core values — fairness, minimizing harm, authority, purity, loyalty, and a few others — that liberals and conservatives prioritize these values differently: liberals tend to put a higher value on fairness, for instance, while conservatives tend to put a higher value on authority.

She then argues that “liberal” core values like fairness and harm-reduction are better than “conservative” ones like purity and authority, because the liberal ones are universalizable: they aren’t parochial, and apply to every human being (and possibly animals and extraterrestrials) equally.

That explanation is okay, but I’m not quite satisfied with it. I kept asking why the fact that a value applies to everyone is a good core value. And that led me to the open marketplace of ideas.

And to do that, let me step back and look at the open marketplace of, well, markets.

Everyone in a capitalist society understands why, say, $3.79 is a fair price for a bag of chips: thousands of sellers pick prices at which to sell their goods, and millions of buyers make decisions as to whether to buy at that price or not. Of course I’d prefer to buy chips for a nickel, and of course the store would rather charge me twenty bucks. But I understand that that wouldn’t cover manufacturing costs, the store understands that if their price is too high, I won’t buy it, and out of many such interactions, of people either buying or not buying, a consensus emerges: $1.00 is too low, $10.00 is too high, and that something like $3.50 is a price that everyone can live with.

There are also times when prices can be tilted to favor or penalize some group of people or set of goods, such as “Buy American” campaigns or boycotts, or when a designer like Louis Vuitton convinces people to pay extra for goods that have a particular logo on them.

Over time, we will act as both buyer and seller, comparison shopper and haggler, and can appreciate at least the rudiments of everyone’s views.

Now, since morality is a way of regulating interactions between people (if it weren’t for the fact that we live together, we’d have no need for morality), I claim that a similar calculus takes place: that we are constantly negotiating The Rules in a corner of the marketplace of ideas.

Just as the store would love to charge me $20 for a bag of chips, I would like for everyone to call me “Your Highness” and let me skip ahead in line at the store. The problem is persuading people to treat me that way.

I also know that if someone else wanted to be treated that way, I’d resent and resist it. Nor can I come up with a convincing argument for why I should get special treatment, one that I would accept if the shoe were on the other foot. And so collectively we negotiate a compromise that we can all live with, in which nobody gets called “Your Highness” and we wait in line in first-come, first-served order.

And gosh, it sure looks as though this sort of free negotiation favors those rules and compromises that everyone can agree on. That is, universalizable values.

Now, unlike the economic marketplace, where I will by turns take the role of buyer or seller, in the marketplace of moral ideas, I will never be a woman, or Asian, or left-handed, or gay. But I do interact with people who are. Even if we ignore for a moment the effects of sympathy, and consider that everyone just wants the moral rules that most favor themselves, men will argue for rules that privilege men, and women will argue for rules that privilege women, and over time, they ought to compromise on something that isn’t what anyone wanted, but that everyone can live with, like equality.

In this analogy, asking why one group gets special privileges is like asking why one brand costs more than another. Sometimes there’s a good answer (“Brand L jeans are more durable than brand X”, “You should give up your subway seat to older people because they need it more”), and sometimes there isn’t (“Brand A costs more because we just redesigned the label”, “Men should be in positions of power because they have a Y chromosome”).

And yes, this process takes far longer than anyone would like, partly because (for the vast majority of people) it’s not a conscious process: we don’t set out to figure out what moral rules are best for us, for our loved ones, for the rest of society; we just sort of go along with what’s around us, and either complain when we don’t like something, or adapt when other people complain about our behavior. There are many other complicating factors as well.

But on the whole, this semi-conscious marketplace should favor those values that apply to everyone with a voice, or at least an advocate. That is, things like fairness and harm reduction.

Does Symmetry Exist?

Well, duh, yes.

But is symmetry a thing? Well, no. Again, duh.

The reason I bother to bring this up in the first place is that I’ve stumbled on the festering swamp of pretentiousness that is Edward Feser’s blag

One thing that annoys me is the way he constantly reifies ideas, and acts as though that Means Something.

Take a look for instance at this bit (he begins by summarizing a physicist’s post about philosophy):

Arguments for God as cause of the universe rest on the assumption that something can’t come from nothing.  But given the laws of physics, it turns out that something can come from nothing. 

Here was my reaction:

Is this guy serious?  The laws of physics aren’t “nothing.”  Ergo, this isn’t even a prima facie counterexample to the principle that ex nihilo, nihil fit.  That’s just blindingly obvious.  Is this guy serious? 

In other words, what Feser is saying is that a law of physics is something. Is this true?

So let me back up a bit and look at symmetry (for simplicity, I’ll just consider mirror symmetry). Some objects, like cue balls and 2×2 Lego bricks, look the same in a mirror as they do by themselves (plus or minus however much we care about; if we care about the specific positions of atoms, a cue ball isn’t symmetrical; if we don’t care about the number indicating the point value, an “M” tile from a Scrabble set is symmetrical).

This fact can be expressed in multiple ways. In English, it feels natural to say that an object has symmetry. In another language, such as French, one might say “this object is symmetrical”. In yet another language, the most natural way to express this (or indeed the only way) might be to say “this object mirrors-without-changing” or “this object endures mirrorily”.

Whether the idea is expressed using a noun, an adjective, a verb phrase, an adverb, or even as a mathematical equation, it doesn’t change what the object is. People from any country can look at at the object and agree whether it has this particular property.

So what is “symmetry”, then? Presumably it’s some data structure in the mind of an English speaker that gets excited when she thinks of an object that looks like its mirror image. An artifact of the way that person processes information about the world, that happens to be implemented as a noun.

But just because there’s a noun for something, that doesn’t mean that that something actually exists out there in the world.

And a law of physics isn’t a thing. It’s a statement about how things behave. In fact, it can be expressed as an if-then statement: “if certain things existed and certain conditions held, then such-and-such would happen”. For example, the statement “if my refrigerator had a mass of 100 solar masses, it would collapse into a black hole” is true even though my fridge doesn’t mass anywhere near that much, due to the way that implication statements work. So a statement like “all masses attract through gravity” can be expressed as “if there were any masses, they would attract” and would thus be true even if there weren’t any masses in the universe.

But in the end, a law is a statement about how things behave; it isn’t a thing itself. And when people talk about the universe starting from nothing, they’re generally wondering how all this stuff came to be here in the first place.

Now, it’s certainly fair to ask why stuff in the universe behaves the way it does, and whether the laws of physics could have been different, whether there are other worlds where they are different, and so on. But when Feser says “The laws of physics aren’t `nothing'”, he’s projecting the way his mind works onto the universe and trying to make that someone else’s problem. It’s as if he had asked the name of the man in the moon, or asked why two holes don’t repel each other, since they have negative mass.

This strikes me as sloppy thinking (and related to the use-mention error). And I see it all too often when I read Sophisticated Theologians™. Which is one reason why I have as little respect for that occupation as I do.