The Evangelical Universalist Forum

JRP's Bite-Sized Metaphysics (Series 120)

[Well, I’m finally more-or-less over the pseudo-flu! So, on with the BSM entries!]

[The previous series, 119, can be found [url=]here. This series, 120, picks up with the topic arrived at the end of the previous series. An index with links to all parts of the work as they are posted can be found here.]

[This series concludes Chapter 10, “SIF/n-SIF vs. ??”]

[Entry 1 for “theism [u]or atheism”]

On one side of the attempt to combine both positions, we have this concept: the IF is a Mind, but it has no plans and does not initiate events.

On the other side of such an attempt, we have this: the IF is not a Mind, but it has plans (or ‘purposes’) and initiates events (or ‘strives’).

One way to analyze the cogency of these propositions is to ask: what do these propositions offer?

[Entry 2]

The first option may seem to offer an explanation for the apparent intelligibility of the universe: the universe is not completely arbitrary, and there are notions we can discover about it which we can trust to a very large degree (maybe absolutely) to be true statements of the way reality really is.

These notions could be called static, or even objective, truths, although (like a mountain that isn’t going anywhere) these truths would reflect different aspects under different conditions. Two oranges and two tomatoes will always take up four spaces in your box–unless you cut the oranges into sections, after which they are arguably no longer ‘two oranges’. And the observations we make about things like this, give us data from which to infer reliable truths.

It would be easy to slur ‘intelligible’ into ‘intelligent’; it would, in fact, be one variation of the famous (or infamous) Argument from Design. (It would also, I think, be another variation of the externalistic fallacy: just because an entity behaves intelligibly, does not mean the entity is itself intelligent.) But I don’t think the Stoics did this, necessarily. I think they looked around at their lives and their world, and concluded that the entities capable of the best efficiency were capable of reasoning. Greek thinkers were very concerned with ‘efficient causes’, and the Stoics were no exception; thus the ultimate (and most ‘effective’) efficient cause must (they decided) be capable of Reason. The ‘highest’ thing they (and we) meet in our world is reasoning ability; thus Reason must in some way be a function of the highest thing. (This would be one variant of the Argument from Reason, though not one of the variants I myself employ.)

Yet the Stoics do not seem to have been proposing an entity that could give commands or introduce effects into the natural order in any fashion; they had already had quite enough of that, thank you very much, from Greek polytheism.

At any rate, I can see that if I accepted the first variation of ‘sentient and non-sentient’, I might have some reassurance that reality was, at bottom, at least somewhat similar to myself–and a Stoic was very properly concerned with reaching his or her full potential, which involved interfacing most efficiently with reality (which naturally would be feasible if ultimate reality shares some key characteristics with us). At the same time, I wouldn’t need to worry about this Mind personally bothering me–it has no purposes, no plans, no personality. It doesn’t initiate action. It isn’t going to send a priest to my door asking for contributions to the temple, or for my sons in a war–or for my soul’s allegiance. I can pay attention to it as a Mind when I want to, and when I feel like it; it is convenient to me. (Time to suggest new laws at the public forum? Well, let’s think about how this divine Mind would try to order things if it was faced with our particular situation.)

[Entry 3]

The second proposition offers me a very similar package, despite the switch in characteristics. Instead of the cold, unfeeling mechanism of Darwin and his ilk (whose “ilk” includes most supernaturalist theists, by the way, in this case), Nature must be alive–like me! Nature is ‘up to something’, and for all I know it could be something good–if not for me, well, then for my descendants, because self-ordering is in Nature’s character, so to speak. (Well, somewhere in Nature’s character anyway, mumble mumble entropy mumble…) I am alive; it is alive. It and I are not so different. I can look back in all sorts of history, and see Nature providing just the right events at just the right times to bring about–me! At the same time, I needn’t worry about Nature bothering me–it has purposes and initiates action, but it has no personality. The kind of actions it initiates are, well, really beneath my notice; too simple and basic to bother me. It isn’t going to send a priest to my door asking for contributions to the local parish, or for my sons in a crusade–or for my soul’s allegiance. I can pay attention to it as a Life when I want to, and when I feel like it; it is convenient to me. (Look at the past, this is the way history is going; and that means this is the way Life itself, the irreducible Fact of the universe, is striving to go. It is mankind’s destiny to be part of the plan I am advocating!)

Plenty of energy around (sun, radioactive decay, geological processes) to combat entropy :smiley:

In a tellurian ripple sense, that’s true. The problem comes when that energy gets spread progressively more ‘around’. :wink:

i.e. the only problem with those processes for combatting entropy, is that they proceed by enacting entropy. 18th through early-mid 20th century philosophical developmentalism, of which vitalism was one eventual strand, appealed to the idea of an inherent natural progression of ever-continuing development in principle. Natural entropy, however, undermines this principle. Or, as some economist once quipped while critiquing classic “long-term” economic theories of the time: in the long run, we’re all dead.

(Philosophical developmentalism and its subcategories should be kept quite distinct from biological evolutionary theories; although as a matter of history, that hasn’t always been the case: the topics are clearly similar and they’ve often been conflated. However, to clarify, my comment about entropy has nothing to do with critiquing any form of b.e.t. as a science per se. I am aware that “entropy” has occasionally been brought in against b.e.t., too, but at this time I don’t agree with such criticisms. Tellurian ripple effects are (or anyway seem to me) quite sufficient to power organizational properties in the relatively short and medium terms of biological history, as much so as for powering non-biological crystal organization effects.)

I will add that, speculatively, quantum zero-point energy introduction into the natural system may itself effectively combat natural entropy of the system. A concept that I doubt has gone unnoticed for modern vitalists (if there are any)! (I make use of a combination of those concepts myself in my fantasy novels, where I occasionally have technician characters call the result “vitalistic”. Come to think of it, Philip Pullman’s underlying panpsychism for his Dark Materials trilogy–which he claims to personally believe to be true–involves a variant of vitalism, too: the natural universe is slowly but certainly developing into a sentient entity.) But historically, it was the factoring of entropy that finally denigrated philosophical developmentalism.

The conceptual demolishing of the pantheism variant known as “absolute idealism” was linked to the downfall of phil-dev, too: absolute idealism was itself a variety of phil-dev, appealing to a more-or-less modern version of early Stoicism to try to explain why we could expect ever-continuing progressive development of human society, the human species, etc. One of the big crits was that we couldn’t really expect this absolute Mind to ever really do anything; so why could we expect it to guarantee such a continuing development?! Vitalism seemed a way to safely ‘fix’ and save the optimism of phil-dev without introducing a bothersome Goddy-type entity. :wink:

Also, World Wars I and II happened (not to say Korea, Vietnam, and all the other small shooting wars of the 20th century), and people became somewhat less optimistic that there was some inherent automatic “Force” driving natural human development.

[Entry 4]

Obviously, these two ideas throw a sop to my own pride; it is (only) up to me to figure out what the Divine Nature is up to. The Divine either isn’t smart enough to understand its own plans, or despite being ‘rational’ it doesn’t have plans. It either isn’t smart enough to have opinions of its own, or despite being ‘rational’ it cannot initiate judgments to form ‘opinions’ per se. The world is on automatic pilot; and the pilot is an autistic savant who happens to be pretty good at piloting! He’s going to do his job, which is only worth my time noticing on the macrohistorical scale, and I’m going to do mine (vitalism). Or, he’s going to do his job, and I’m just along for the ride; although it makes a difference to my happiness whether I buckle-up in a first-class seat and take the ride as it comes, or pop open the hatch to crawl out on the wing (early Stoicism). Either way, the pilot isn’t going to come out of the cabin and annoy me. I may have to put up with some unruly passengers, of course; but that is to be expected.

On the one hand, we have a denial of initiation ability for the IF; but it still somehow represents the necessary order of interactions between cause/effect, ground/consequent. It is unconscious, but can still produce efficient mental effects–as I can reactively answer questions under anesthesia, although I didn’t choose to.

On the other hand, we have an affirmation of initiation ability for the IF, although this doesn’t include the processing of efficient mental effects: despite its initiation ability, it is still considered to be (quite overtly so) ‘unconscious’. Thus it doesn’t consciously judge–especially it doesn’t judge me! The particular actions it initiates are essentially beneath my notice. Insofar as my own convenience goes, it is not initiating actions at all. (Unless of course its actions are convenient for me to notice and appeal to.)

[Entry 5; next to last for this series]

An atheist, in distinctive opposition, would say: the IF does not initiate purposeful actions. It does not think. It is blind, unconscious, automatic. There is no point in saying that It has Reason if those other claims are true about It; that is just playing with words.

A theist (including, I think, even some pantheists), in distinctive opposition, would say: the IF does initiate actions. It has purposes, and plans, which It is striving to bring to fruition. It knows where it wants to go; and It knows where It wants Nature to go. And that means It knows where It wants me (and you) to go, because one way or another we are part of It. And if It has plans and purposes, then by default–by definition of what a ‘plan’ and a ‘purpose’ is–It is intentionally, actively excluding one set of potential behaviors for another set. There is no point in saying It does not have Reason if those other notions are true about It; that is just playing with words.

The n-SIF advocate (for example the naturalistic atheist) and the SIF advocate (for example a Jewish theist) both cut pretty cleanly, I think, through the contradictions of the attempt at a middle-ground. For this reason (and for some reasons involving contradictions in general, which I have already covered in previous chapters), I will eventually be required to decide, if I can, whether the IF is sentient (as an action initiator that can, among other things, actively judge the coherency of linked propositions), or non-sentient (a blind, automatic, non-purposive mechanism that initiates no actions but very effectively reacts and counterreacts).

[Entry 6; finale for this series of entries]

The middle-ground pantheist (this type of middle-grounder is typically a pantheist, although not all pantheists accept this both/and proposition about the IF) may reply that she didn’t literally mean the IF has Reason, or that it has ‘purposes’. She was ‘only’ speaking metaphorically.

I note that in the way she would use this term, she means something reductive–she means the reality is less, not more, than her description implied. I also note this can only lead to a n-SIF proposition if it is followed through consistently. No one ever bothers to say they were ‘only’ speaking metaphorically when they denied something had active purposes or when they denied something could accurately judge abstract links of reality in what we would consider a ‘cogent’ manner. No one bothers to say they were ‘only’ speaking metaphorically when they described reality as ‘blind, automatic and non-purposive’! The middle-ground proponents could turn out to be atheists (of some sort) after all.

On the other hand, I don’t think reductionism is a very good example of what it means to speak ‘metaphorically’. Although I think such reductionistic use of metaphor can represent a definite notion that its adherent is trying to get across, such a tactic can be abused to imply that whenever anyone speaks metaphorically they really mean less than they appear to be saying.

I strongly disagree with such a use, and the removal of this misconception will help some people deal with claims about ‘religion’. So to the topic of metaphor I now turn.

Next series: thought and imagination]