Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Logos vs. Chaos, Part Two

This the second of two posts -- the first post is here.

So, according to Timothy O’Connor, there are two kinds of necessary being (NB, for short) which could provide the right kind of ultimate explanation for our contingent reality: a personal agent (Logos), or an impersonal primordial world generator (Chaos). In Chapter 4 of his book, Theism and Ultimate Explanation, he examines these options to see which provides the better explanation.

O’Connor considers several types of Chaos models. He distinguishes between single-stage (all creation at once) and multi-stage models. For single-stage models, he describes three versions: Immutable Chaos, Abundant Chaos, and Random Chaos.

In the Immutable Chaos model, the world is necessarily a product of the NB’s nature. On reflection, O’Connor finds this model hard to credit: it seems unlikely that our large, highly arbitrary and extensively structured world should need to follow from the NB’s nature. Also, the idea of a single world being a necessary product runs afoul of the need for the NB to provide a non-fully contrastive cause, as discussed earlier in the book.

In the Abundant Chaos model, many worlds are produced, including ours. Oddly, to me at least, O’Connor uses the same sort of objection he had to Immutable Chaos to argue against the plausibility of this model:

“For surely it is no explanation of why the nature of Chaos is ordered to this effect to say that it is because it is ordered to that entire range of effects, and this is one of them. Really, the situation is just made more problematic. How is it that a highly unified source could be causally ordered to just this effect, and also to just that one, and… (Emphasis original, p.94)”

This analysis seems wrong to me. If there are many worlds (perhaps an infinite number of them), then arguing from the highly particular nature of our world loses its force. It is, after all just our local neighborhood in a great expanse. In the extreme case, one might see the NB giving rise to (or, in the panentheistic mode, being constituted by) all metaphysically possible worlds. I’ll return to this point again below when I review O’Connor’s later invocation of the fine-tuning argument as a guide to choosing the correct NB model.

The third Chaos option is labeled Random Chaos. Here, the NB generates a world from its nature utilizing something like a random number generator. O’Connor sees this as having more merit than the other Chaos options. To me, however, this didn’t seem much different in a crucial sense from the Abundant Chaos model: myriad possibilities are viable and we find ourselves in one of them.

O’Connor also considers multi-stage versions of Random Chaos. For instance, perhaps at the termination point of a world (like Big Bang/Big Crunch points) a successor world is generated with random alterations from the previous entry. He says such models may have merit although the mechanisms are somewhat obscure to him (for a multiverse proposal with this feature, see physicist Lee Smolin’s first book). I didn’t find the single-stage/multi-stage distinction very important in all of this.

At this step in his discussion, O’Connor sees the Random Chaos model as the best alterative to the Logos (or agent) model. How might one choose between them? At this point, O’Connor invokes the fine-tuning argument. He believes that the fine-tuning argument fails as a stand-alone design argument for the existence of a NB, but given independent motivation of the NB from the cosmological argument from contingency, he thinks it can help choose between the options as to the NB’s nature.

I’ll skip reviewing some of O’Connor’s discussion of the fine-tuning argument, which would be familiar to those who have spent time on it (a nice summary is on these posts at Parableman). He concludes that it does succeed in elevating the Logos option over Chaos. He thinks the particular nature of our world argues for a NB which is an agent acting on purpose-driven intentions in creating our world. I disagree with this conclusion because I believe the (independently motivated) existence of a multiverse removes the force from the fine-tuning argument. O’Connor, on the other hand, concedes that the multiverse idea dilutes the force of fine-tuning, but he doesn’t think it eliminates it.

O’Connor does say that the strongest multiverse concept (for the purpose of countering fine-tuning) is one which invokes the existence of myriad metaphysically possible worlds as opposed to the cosmological models offered to-date by physicists (I agree). In evaluating whether the multiverse defeats the fine-tuning argument, he first offers the objection that positing the multiverse is less parsimonious then positing a NB designer -- however he concedes this is not obviously persuasive. Then he offers a second objection, which I found dubious, saying that a multiverse option would be but one of many “totality” possibilities, many of which may not contain intelligent life. But if the multiverse is the complete metaphysical manifold, then this objection is ill-founded. I conclude that O’Connor does not find a compelling objection to the metaphysical multiverse model as a defeater for the fine-tuning argument (discussion takes place on pages 107-108). Therefore, the fine-tuning argument fails to provide a basis for preferring Logos.

Further, we should recall the rationale we used for positing some kind of NB in the first place, which is to ground real modal truths of necessity and possibility. Given a robust modal realism (which O’Connor and I both endorse) I think we should conclude that the NB is the source for (and should perhaps even be identified with) the full manifold of metaphysical possibilities. (By the way, I don’t think it matters for this discussion whether the other possibilities are concretely realized or abstract.) So, I conclude that a “Chaos” model of the NB is the preferred model. I judge this on the grounds of parsimony, since the personalized Logos model needs to have the same metaphysical scope, but also adds extra features (purposes, intentions) which are unneeded.

For now, I will not be blogging about the last two chapters of O’Connor’s book. Chapter 5 deals with the matter of how many worlds a Logos NB would create and discusses how this applies to the problem of evil and other matters. Finally Chapter 6 is of less purely philosophical interest as O’ Connor discusses issues in Christian theology and the problem of reconciling the God of metaphysics to the God of the Bible.

So, this concludes my discussion of O’Connor’s though-provoking book. I will be following up, though, with some additional reflections on this topic of inferring the nature of a transcendent necessary entity from what we know about our world. Also, I understand that Peter Van Inwagen discussed this Chaos/Logos topic in his Metaphysics, so I may have some thoughts after reading the relevant passages (which I intend to do soon).

[UPDATE: 2 September 2008] In the paperback 2nd edition of Van Inwagen’s book (linked above), he concludes that the multiverse objection is decisive against the fine-tuning argument. He says: “It is the possibility of an interplay of chance and an observational selection effect that is the undoing of the teleological argument in the form in which we are considering it (p.158).” When subsequently discussing the options of Logos and Chaos, he therefore sees no reason to prefer one over the other:

“As far as our present knowledge goes (aside from any divine revelations various individuals and groups may be privy to), we have no reason to prefer either of the following two hypotheses to the other:
• This is the only cosmos, and some rational being has (or rational beings have) fine-tuned it in such a way that it is a suitable abode for life.
• This is only one among a vast number of cosmoi (some of which are -- a statistical certainty -– suitable abodes for life) (p.161).”

To be sure, he does not give any credence to my argument that the chaos option is preferable to logos on grounds of parsimony.

I might also mention some context for those who haven’t read the book: Van Inwagen, while being one of our most prominent philosophers who is also a theist, finds none of the traditional philosophical arguments for theism (ontological, cosmological and teleological) compelling.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Logos vs. Chaos, Part One

Timothy O’Connor has written an interesting book full of meaty metaphysics (plus some theology): Theism and Ultimate Explanation: The Necessary Shape of Contingency. In this post I will focus on the sections of the book which were of greatest interest to me, but I enjoyed reading the whole thing. The central goal of the book is to present an up-to-date cosmological argument from contingency for the existence of a transcendent necessary being.

Like O’Connor, I’m interested in pursuing the quest for ultimate metaphysical explanation, and I agree with him that it is the apparent contingent nature of our world which demands an answer (“why this?”).

Unlike O’Connor, however, I don’t come to this quest as a traditional theist. I’ve long thought that the purposes and activities of a personal god cannot provide an explanation without raising equivalently difficult questions. So, an intriguing part of the book is where O’Connor discusses and compares two models of a transcendent necessary being: the personal and the impersonal. Or as he labels them: Logos and Chaos.

Before getting to this point, O’Connor lays the groundwork. In the first two chapters of the book, he discusses the case for modal realism and sketches a theory of modal epistemology. I agree with him that our concepts of possibility and necessity are so fundamental to explanation and reasoning (as well as to everyday life) that they are grounded in real modal truths. With regard to his account of how we come to know such truths, I found the discussion interesting, but tentative, and will leave this aside for now.

In Chapter 3, we begin to look at where the quest for explanation will take us. If the contingency of the world is acknowledged, and the necessities we come to know (if imperfectly) are real, what explains this situation? After commenting on the tendency for many philosophers to dismiss this sort of question as unanswerable, O’Connor turns his attention to the options on offer (I would note that Graham Oppy, in his review, disagrees with O’Connor in that he counts “contingent world as brute fact” as one of the options).

First, O’Connor discusses the common naturalist option which asserts that there is an infinite causal chain of contingent things, and that no further explanation is needed. O’Connor says even if the infinite causal chain is the right model, we can still coherently ask for an explanation of why THIS chain of things, and not another. The rejoinder at this point is to point out that a fully contrastive explanation of why this chain is as it is, if it existed, would convert the contingent chain to a necessary one. But O’Connor responds by saying that we can still seek a complete explanation, even if it is a non-fully-contrastive one. He says the only way to do this will be to ground contingent reality in a transcendent-cause explanation that is non-contrastive.

But how can a necessary being (NB, for short) provide the right kind of explanation? The necessity of the cause would seem to “prove too much” and convert the contingent chain to necessary status. Indeed, this is a standard critique of the Leibnizian version of the cosmological argument, which features the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR). O’Connor concedes the effectiveness of this critique, and points out that his version will not invoke the PSR. But isn’t the PSR or something like it implied by the desire for an explanation of the contingent world?

O’Connor says he can avoid this as he isn’t offering a contrastive explanation (e.g. why this world instead of any other?) He says he can do this by invoking an explanation based on a model of the NB as an agent:

"In the context of an agent who exercises a capacity to freely act for a purpose, explanation is grounded in an internal similarity relation of the content of the prior purpose to that of the effective intention. To understand why an intention is freely generated, one need only identify its reasons-bearing content. This contrasts of course, with a mechanistic model of intentional action on which an agent’s purposes or desires or beliefs explain the choice, or formation of an intention, solely in terms of an external, causal relationship to it. But it is readily understandable in its own terms. (p.83)"

So the NB-agent’s creative activity of forming an intention, based on reasons (which is then satisfied by the creation of a contingent world), need not be seen as a necessary sequence of steps:

"And it would be a confusion to suppose that we needed a further explanation of the generation of the intention – for that is just the agent’s exercise of control over his state of intention and its product. (p.83, emphasis original)"

But still we want to ask: why intend contingent world C instead of C*? Well, we can’t ask this question, because an answer would provide for C being inevitable. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t given an explanation at all, according to O’Connor. The buck stops with the (contingent) intentions of the NB-agent.

To me, this seems a difficult stance. A naturalist might ask why we can’t stop the explanation at an earlier stage (before invoking the NB); O’Connor wants to stop the discussion at a later stage – but either way we eventually reach a “conversation-stopper”. Do the extra steps add enough value to prefer this NB-agent view, especially given all the (controversial) extra apparatus of intentions, purposes, activity, etc.?

Well, we need to recall the NB view’s main advantage, which is that it helps underwrite the reality of modal truths (there exists both contingent and necessary aspects to reality). But, do we really need the agent apparatus to provide this advantage?

To his credit, O’Connor sees the existence of another alternative (or set of alternatives). He starts by noting that, in addition to his agent model, there are many instances where we accept causal explanations even when they are not fully contrastive ones. Specifically, we do this in cases of “indeterministic mechanistic causal processes in the natural world, and the kinds of scientific explanations that may be given for them.” He gives the example of a disease which, when untreated, leads to a debilitating outcome 27% of the time. If the indeterminism here is fundamentally irreducible, we still have a good explanation for the outcome (the untreated disease) even if not a fully contrastive one (we can’t say why the outcome manifested itself this particular time).

So, the question becomes: could the necessary being be an impersonal “fount” of creative possibilities, which generates one or more contingent worlds?

{End of part one}

Note: I’m skipping over some sections along the way – for instance I’m leaving aside the discussion of the Spinozan view here (could our single world be the necessary being?). Also, O’Connor mentions in passing that it is hard to rule out a model of multiple NB’s -- although there seems to be no good argument for it either.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Conway and Kochen vs. Determinism

John Conway and Simon Kochen are out with a paper called "The Strong Free Will Theorem" (HT), updating and "strengthening" their earlier paper (discussed here). Recall that the theorem begins with axioms which, while idealized, flow from accepted aspects of quantum theory and relativity and then concludes that if humans are assumed to be free in setting up experiments, then particles have the same kind of freedom in selecting among experimental outcomes. The theorem also serves as another argument toward ruling out hidden-variable interpretations of QM.

This paper presents a "stronger" version of the theorem, by showing it still works if one of the axioms is loosened, but otherwise the thrust is unchanged. In keeping with the earlier paper, though, the authors add to the formal argument some provocative philosophical comments, which I enjoy. Here's how the paper concludes:

"Although...determinism may formally be shown to be consistent, there is no longer any evidence that supports it, in view of the fact that classical physics has been superceded by quantum mechanics, a non-deterministic theory. The import of the free will theorem is that it is not only current quantum theory, but the world itself that is non-deterministic, so that no future theory can return us to a clockwork universe."