Wednesday, July 27, 2005

A Look at Pantheism

Why not split the difference between the traditional forms of theism and atheism? By traditional theism I mean the worldview featuring the personal, transcendent, benevolent “omni-everything” deity. By traditional atheism I mean the materialist/physicalist worldview (essentially “billiard balls all the way down”).

I make the following two observations:

1. The most compelling arguments atheists make against traditional theism have little or no force against a deity which lacks some of the usual attributes of being, say, personal, transcendent, and omnipotent. I’m thinking of the argument from evil as well as the general argument from the absence of evidence for ad hoc supernatural interventions.

2. The most compelling arguments made against materialist atheism point to a need for “something more” but they don’t require a deity with all those classic attributes. Here I have in mind the arguments from the irreducibility of first-person experience and intentionality and a modified version of the Thomist cosmological argument (the existence of things requires a unifying ground or force).

I’d also note that, in my opinion, religious experiences provide authentic evidence which points toward theism, but they don’t provide much support for specific religions (I’m skeptical that a person who never heard of Jesus would ever have an explicitly Christian religious vision).

So, what about pantheism? Pantheism is the idea that God is identical with nature or the universe, or alternatively God is a ubiquitous force or presence uniting entities in the universe. What God is not is a person or being distinct from the world. I thought this SEP article on pantheism by Michael Levine provided a fine, sympathetic summary.

His article shows that a difficulty with pantheism is that (not surprisingly) there are many versions, and it appears that few have been fleshed out in detail. There doesn’t seem to have been a leading figure in Western thought who was a pantheist since Spinoza (Levine lists some figures who are “possible” pantheists). So there is no metaphysical program to sign on to. On the other hand it seems pantheism is an idea which is all too easy to invoke in a fuzzy new-age way.

Actually, I would highlight two issues which need to be addressed. First, and to me most important, what problems does pantheism help us solve? Specifically, what are the metaphysical features which improve on the perceived limitations of atheism without broaching the problems of classical theism? The second issue is a question about why the worldview entails invoking something divine. What makes it a religious as well as a philosophical worldview?

To bring out the issues, let’s look at a particular simplified version of pantheism which identifies God with the natural world (with no further detail). On the first issue, one would have to say this worldview adds no “metaphysical value” to a naturalist philosophy which lacks God. On the second issue, it begs the question of why it would make sense to treat the natural world as something divine. What type of religious practice (worship or prayer) makes sense if there really is nothing supernatural? Traditional theists have understandably criticized this sort of pantheism as atheism with window dressing.

It seems to me it may be possible to form a more successful version of pantheism to address these issues. In the article, Levine highlights the concept of unity as something important to pantheism. Let me sketch something building on this concept. Perhaps God/World has two modes of presentation. The entities and properties studied through third-person investigations are one mode. The second mode is a unifying force which binds and connects individuals in the world-network and also endows them with the gift of first-person experience (minimal for simple entities, robust for humans). So, we’ve given the God/World some features beyond the usual worldview of naturalism, and also have a mode of existence (a uniting “world-mind”) which may be worthy of religious feeling. Obviously this sketch leaves many unanswered questions. What accounts for the dual modes? Is it a monistic system or really a dualism? Is the ontology one of substance, like Spinoza’s, or not? What are the implications for ethics, etc.?

Given the deficiencies in both poles of the traditional theism-atheism debate, these seem to be ideas and questions worth exploring.

One last note on a variation of pantheism: that is, panentheism. This is the idea that while our world is part of God, it does not exhaust God. God extends beyond our world. Given that even physicists speak more and more about multiple universes and/or dimensions, it seems reasonable to think that God could be a repository of many real or possible worlds, of which ours is a particular manifestation.

Monday, July 25, 2005

The Realm of the Possible

I imagine many who hold to physicalism or materialism do so at least partly out of respect for Occam’s razor: a reluctance to add substantial new metaphysical entities or processes. And indeed, two of my favorite proposals for improving on physicalism posit not only new processes which enable consciousness, causation and the existence of individuals but they also require an additional realm of being beyond our concrete world: a realm of possibility.

In Whitehead’s process theory, each individual (an “actual occasion”) has two poles. It has a physical pole which contains the objective input from antecedent occasions but it also has a mental pole which is able to draw upon a realm of possibility to finalize its becoming. It subsequently becomes part of the objective input for new occasions. The realm of possibility (which Whitehead considered to be God) is the source of true creativity in the system.

In Gregg Rosenberg’s theory, receptive properties unify and connect effective properties (the ones physics explicates are the effective ones) to create real individuals linked in a causal mesh. Receptive properties have an intrinsically experiential aspect which accounts for the origin of consciousness. Rosenberg also says that the fact that effective properties have many potential values implies a metaphysical realm of possibility existing along with the concrete world. The structure of receptive properties in essence chooses among the possibilities.

The existence of a realm of possibility is what makes something like free will possible in these systems, which is another benefit. But the cost is high. In addition to our concrete world, whose individuals require at a minimum a dual-aspect nature to fully explain, we also need in additional world which underlies ours: the realm of the possible.

One thing I always fall back on when I worry that this is too extravagant is the fact that physics itself appears to include a realm of possibility. Today's concrete (classical-looking) state of affairs can be seen as arising from a combination of the concrete past plus "choosing" from the realm of (quantum) possibility.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Individuals and their Constituents

Here's the last part of Alan Cook's comment from the previous post's discussion about Bill Vallicella's book:
You quote, or paraphrase, Bill to the effect that "existence is the unity of an individual's ontological constituents."
-- What is an "ontological constituent"?
-- What is an "individual?" (Does the term refer primarily or solely to subjects of experience, such as persons, or is the glass of beer on my desk an "individual"?)
-- What's the relationship between the answers to the above two questions; that is, why should we think that individuals have ontological constituents?

I'm sure Bill has very good answers to these questions; maybe formulating your own answers might help increase your understanding (and mine) of his viewpoint.
Here's my shot at a brief response:

As a starting point, I think we can take individuals and their constituents in the classic sense of talking about objects and the properties they contain or exemplify (apples which are red and round). Often Bill V. uses simple examples like this. And I take the category of individuals to be expansive and include me as well as my beer.

But despite my example using “red” and “round” which refer to perceptual appearances, for the purposes of this exercise we are being realists. Individuated things exists out there in the world independent of us; we can philosophize about them without having to assume we are really only talking about aspects of concepts and language. Now I would also add that this doesn’t mean we are naive realists, who precisely identify our perceptions with reality. I think it just means that despite the idiosyncrasies of the causal chains linking us to other things, we can at least assume they exist and have attributes analogous to what we apprehend.

Now I must also mention that often, depending on the context, Bill V. also talks about individuals as truth-making facts and/or states of affairs rather than objects; I take it by the way he moves back and forth that he sees these modes of “individual” as consistent with each other.

Now, when you ask, is an individual a “subject of experience” I think you are asking a very interesting question. (BTW this is not an angle Bill V. pursues in the book). I’m intrigued by the idea that the very same entities or processes responsible for the existence of individuals are what endow the individual as a subject of experience. Further, following through, this would be true of any individual, not just human beings: a panexperientialist system. Keep in mind this is just me talking here.

As to your last question, about why we should assume individuals have constituents? There are theories where the lowest level constituent would have the same kind of status as bundles of these constituents – I take it that this is true of trope theory (this is one of the very large number of alternative theories criticized in the book). But usually I would think an individual needs to contain a constituent or exemplify some property for it to be able to exist or enter into causal relations. (In the book, Bill V. also criticizes perspectives which hold that individuals are irreducible entities.)

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Blurbs on Books by Bloggers

I bought and read books by two philosophers whose blogs I’ve enjoyed browsing: Victor Reppert’s C.S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason, and William F. Vallicella’s A Paradigm Theory of Existence: Onto-Theology Vindicated. The two books both contain philosophical arguments which point toward theism. Otherwise they were quite different in intent and scope: Reppert’s is a short book meant to be engaging and accessible to laypeople, while Vallicella’s was a thorough and closely argued work of metaphysics/ontology.

I enjoyed Reppert’s book. C.S. Lewis is an intriguing figure and by taking some of his writings as a launching point, Reppert adds interest to the main task of the book, which is a discussion of the Argument from Reason (AfR). A brief sketch of the AfR: We form beliefs through rational inference. If materialism is true, all beliefs have non-rational root causes. Therefore no belief could be rationally inferred and materialism is false. There is a fair amount to unpack here, and Reppert analyzes a number of strands which underly the argument, and responds to some objections. He concludes there is ongoing merit to considering the argument. The book is rounded out by a discussion of the larger context of the debate between theism and naturalism.

In my opinion, the one underlying strand of the AfR which has “bite” is the argument from intentionality (especially conscious intentionality). The specific focus on reason and rational inference doesn’t add much in my view. Investigations in cognitive science and neuroscience on humans and animals seem to be slowly but steadily gaining traction on the problem of how reasoning and language can be built up from more primitive intentional interaction with the environment. What is not well explained is how conscious intentionality gets bootstrapped from components which themselves lack it.

Vallicella’s book was a challenging one for me to read, but I found it to be time very well spent. I plan to re-read parts or all of it again, and will probably post more down the road.

The goal of the book is to answer these questions: From the point of view of being a realist about the existence of concrete individuals in the world (a perspective I endorse), how can we account for this existence? What is existence, anyway?

In the primarily critical part of the book (chapters 2 through 5), Vallicella tenaciously takes apart what seems to be every alterative put forth by other philosophers past and present until one choice is left standing: Existence is the unity of an individual’s ontological constituents; further, this unity requires an external unifier. This theory is described and defended in chapters 6 & 7. Vallicella then offers as his proposal that the unifier is existence itself – the paradigm existent (introduced in the introductory chapter 1 and then discussed in the concluding chapter 8).

Because of the gaping holes in my background knowledge of the philosophical theories Vallicella takes on, I’m can’t offer any authoritative pronouncements, but I must say the clarity of the arguments and the cumulative impact of the criticism of competing ideas made for me a persuasive case that concrete individuals/facts do indeed require an external unifier of their parts.

On the other hand I found the conclusion that it is the paradigm existent that does the job comparatively less persuasive. One problem is that for some reason I am wary of the classical distinction between contingent and necessary (as I mentioned in this recent post). And when throughout the book Vallicella uses the word contingent to describe both the concrete individual and its ontological constituents, it directly leads him to a unifier which is necessary (furthermore a necessary being – and who else can that be but God?) But while conceding that the solution requires going beyond a traditionally monistic version of naturalism, couldn’t there be other ways to skin this cat? Specifically, could the parts be in a relation of interdependence with a co-evolving binding force? While I may have missed something, the only competing theory Vallicella discusses which appears to be something of this sort is Hector-Neri Castaneda’s theory of ontological operators (ch.8 section3), which I had not heard of and will need to investigate. It seems Vallicella rejects this idea because the unifier here would also be contingent, not necessary. And I guess the thought is that it is you’d still have more explaining to do because it is only the necessary which (by definition) doesn’t require further explanation.

My ideas on this are half-baked at this point, but I’m influenced by the fact that both Whitehead’s process philosophy and the recent proposal by Gregg Rosenberg go beyond physicalist-naturalism to solve the problem of actualizing/unifying individuals without invoking the paradigm existent. I have more thinking to do on this. But Bill Vallicella’s book has certainly offered plenty of food for that thought.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Return of the Tropes

Talk about an unlikely "blog meme"! Uriah Kriegel has a post on Desert Landscapes introducing and offering some admiration for metaphysical trope theory (my recent trope post linking to Bill Vallicella's take on this is here).

I find it useful to think through this theory, but believe it finally falls short. Individuals are something more than a bundle of tropes. There needs to be a unification of the individual's constituents. This unifier cannot itself be another trope, but needs to be something ontologically distinct. Uriah Kriegel says he is attracted to this because it is a monistic theory, and monism is more aestetically pleasing than pluralism. I share this attraction, but I've been increasingly of the opinion that you can't easily pack enough features into monism to both make it work and still be worthy of the name.