Metaphysics Corner

Oscillon asks me the following questions. Or perhaps he is merely, as his name suggests, oscillating the electrons in my computer, not attempting to convey a question.

 This is meant as discussion, not argument….

1. Defining terms: Atheist. Does Atheist mean, I am certain there is no God? Or does it include the position “I have no reason to believe there is a God.”? Where is the line between Agnostic or Atheist in your opinion? Is like “I don’t see any elephants around here and have no reason to think there are” or “There are no elephants around here, I have checked all possible places where they could hide”? Agnostic always seemed to me to mean “I’m not sure if there are any elephants around here or not, maybe.”

2. “…cannot be reduced to matter in motion. Mathematics cannot be so reduced, nor can logic, nor can ontology, nor can metaphysics, nor can ANYTHING except physics. Even biologist can and must make statements about non-material values in order to describe a living system, such as, for example, ascribing “utility” or “end results” to various organs or behaviors. (Whenever you say a flower attracts a bee ‘in order to’ pollinate, you have left material cause, and are now in a world of final causes)…”

I have not come to any conclusion on this. But what reason do you use to conclude that these other things you list like mind, logic, etc. are not just referring to a common pattern in matter/energy?

If I drop things in water they either float or sink. “Floatworthyness” is not some extra-material thing. Does the mere existence of pattern or category make materialism wrong? What in your list cannot be described as a pattern?


I can think of a series of simple to more complicated detectors.

1. A photovoltaic light detector. Goes green light when light is present.

2. A fancier one that detects flashing light.

3. One that detects increasing frequency light.

4045673. One that detects animals walking by.

6009387356. One that detects threatening animals walking by.

On and on until you have a man looking at the world and seeing patterns that describe enormous underlying physical complexity. Where in the progression did something else get added?

Another way to ask this is “Can I create a man from scratch in a laboratory?”

I have his DNA and a scifi atom assembler. Can’t I create an embryo and grow it into a baby? Where in this process does something else (non-material) get created? What is the source? When did it get there?

Following the above discussion it seems like you both agree that simple materialism (read matter/energy) is not fully descriptive of the universe (meaning everything). But I don’t see the reasoning by which you conclude this.  

My reply:

Well, I am not sure I understand your questions well enough to answer them, and I am sure a comments box is too narrow a forum to give these deep topics the careful analysis they deserve: so let me try to respond to your questions, even if I cannot answer fully.  

1. An atheist is someone who says “God does not exist.” An agnostic is someone who says, “No one can say for sure whether God exists or not.” The former is a statement about the world; the latter is a statement about human knowledge. When I was an atheist, I disbelieved in God for three reasons, a logical reason, an empiric reason, an emotional reason. Logically, for example, the concept of a benevolent and all-powerful omniscient God governing a world filled with real and pointless suffering does not make sense. Likewise, the concept of a all-powerful being who acts (for action implies selecting means to gratify ends, whereas omnipotence implies immediate gratification) is illogical. One might as well speak of square triangles. The empirical evidence seemed to be against it: the history of the Church (I was raised Protestant) was portrayed as a mass of superstition and priestcraft. Emotionally, I was not willing to bow to any superior power, certainly not in the realm of morality. If my conscience told me murder was bad, and an all-powerful being told me burning heretics was good, then that all-powerful being was merely an all-powerful tyrant.  

Let me hasten to add that I was a Judeo-Christian Atheist, but I was a Pagan Agnostic. The Christian God I was sure did not exist: Thor and Zeus, meh, I assumed it was theoretically possible that they existed, but I had never seen evidences of them.  

2. “But what reason do you use to conclude that these other things you list like mind, logic, etc. are not just referring to a common pattern in matter/energy?”  

Physical properties can be reduced to simpler physical fundamentals: acceleration, viscosity, energy, can be reduced to expressions of mass, length, and duration, for example. Even things one would not normally associate with these constants can be reduced: “red color” for example, can be expressed as a wavelength of light, and wavelength be expressed as periodic motion over time.  

Nothing on my list, mind, logic, etc., can be described as a “pattern” because patterns describe the formal cause of a thing, and my list lists things that require a final cause. A formal cause can describe the movement of a threatened amoeba (mass A goes direction B in time T) but it cannot describe the final cause (the organism fears a threat, and moves away from the threat in order to preserve its beloved life and health, which are good).  The formal cause of an amoeba moving toward food might be the same (mass  A goes direction B in time T) but the final cause would be the opposite (the organism craves food, and moves toward the food source in order to augment its life and health, which are good).  

In the same way physical properties can be reduced to simpler physical expressions, final properties can be reduced to simpler final expressions:  all living things seek the Good, by definition. All value judgments are a judgment that something has value. No merely physical property of matter involves a value judgment: two meters is not “better” or “worse” than six seconds.  

Men seek health and prosperity, but also justice, beauty and truth because these things are (or are seen to be) good. Ask any dog in heat whether fighting a rival for a mate is good, and whether it is better to win rather than lose such a combat. The meaning of the dogfight is lost if the final cause is not known: you do not understand what you are seeing if you do not see the dog is fighting for his mate. Merely describing the mass and motion-vector of the dog fails to describe the meaning of his actions.

To use your example, somewhere between 3 and 4045673, a meaning was introduced: the light-image cannot be interpreted, nay, cannot even be seen, unless the Idea, the Concept, the Mental Reality, of what is called “animal” is understood by the watcher. A subject-object distinction is introduced, that only a living organism, a creature that thinks, can think.  

Somewhere between 4045673 and 6009387356 a value judgment has been introduced: the Idea and Concept of a “threatening” animal. To be a threat does not mean to mass nine pounds as opposed to eight and a half pounds. To be a threat means to threaten something I love and value. It introduces the concept of good and bad, pain and pleasure, health and damage, potential and actual, fear and anticipation, and other concepts and ideas that cannot be reduced to mere expressions of mass, length, and time.   

“I have his DNA and a scifi atom assembler. Can’t I create an embryo and grow it into a baby? Where in this process does something else (non-material) get created? What is the source? When did it get there?”  

We do not need an atom assembler for this question: Every mother has the power to give birth, which is bringing new life into the world. You are asking me at what point a mass of tissue becomes a baby. The answer is never: the babies are made of tissue, but no description of tissue masses will describe the baby. Your question assumes its own conclusion: you assume the things that cannot be reduced to physical fundamentals arise out of physical fundamentals–but by definition whatever cannot be reduced to physical fundamentals does not arise from the combination of physical fundamentals, no more than adding any number of horizontal magnitudes in a plane will never get you one inch of vertical distance above the plane.

Are you asking me by what material process does a nonmaterial reality come into material existence? The answer is never. Let me ask you a question in return. Take a living amoeba and a dead amoeba. Place both under a microscope. Their mass and volume is the same. Does the fact that their mass and volume is the same mean they are the same in all respects?  

Obviously not. The fact that one is alive and the other is not MEANS something: the living amoeba’s behavior cannot be described except in terms of final causes. The amoeba “desires” to live and “seeks” food and health and “prefers” to avoid threats.  Concepts like desire and seeking and preferring are concepts that can be reduced to statements of good and bad, but not to statements of mass, length, and duration.  

Take a living amoeba that dies. One moment, it is alive, the next, not alive. The mass and volume are the same. No mass was lost during the moment of death. But no one in his right mind would bother asking me where in the process did something non-material get destroyed. Obviously nothing non-material got destroyed (if I understand what you mean by non-material). All that happened was the philosophical category of understanding, that is, the category of value judgment, of good and bad, the categories which apply to living things and not to unlving things ceased, in this case, to apply. Dead things have no good and bad: they are merely matter in motion, not creatures with meaning.   

One might as well ask me when Isosceles Triangles got invented. Before the Big Bang? After? Did Pythagoras invent the Isosceles Triangle? Would triangles have four angles instead of three if Pythagoras had been in a different mood that day? Did hexagons exist when the First Bees first made the first honeycombs, or not until Euclid?— and so on.

The questions make no sense because they involve an assumption that makes a categorical error.  Final causes, minds and ideas can only be described in terms of other ideas, not in terms of the material evens and material causes.