Monday, May 31, 2010

Mark Johnston's Surviving Death

I read Mark Johnston’s book, Surviving Death, which was based on his 2006 Carl G. Hempel lectures at Princeton. I had liked his previous book, Saving God (which I mentioned here); in comparison, Surviving Death is more densely argued and challenging, relative to the “payoff”. But I’m glad I read it: Johnston is an interesting and unique thinker.

In the book, Johnston looks for and finds a naturalistic sense in which a person could be said to survive death: a good person can truly identify with all of humanity by directing his or her actions in concert with this concern. He or she will then live on in the “onward rush of humanity.” A highly condensed summary follows below.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Where Rationalism Meets Empiricism

To review one aspect of the model being explored here:

The concrete world is a causal network of events; each event is an actualized outcome, selected from a set of possibilities*. Some form of modal realism is true: while the unactualized possibilities aren’t themselves concrete, they are real in some sense. Their reality is implicated in everything that happens.

I speculate that since we’ve evolved in this kind of world, we are naturally acquainted with possibilities. In fact, the consideration of possibilities is central to life (of animals, too) and to our reasoning. Somehow, humans leverage this acquaintance with possibilities to spin whole scenarios of how a world could be.

Contemporary rationalism takes the form of modal metaphysics – where one claims that our faculty for conceiving possible worlds is reliable. Like older forms of rationalism, it is vulnerable to critics who claim we can’t know about anything which is not experienced concretely.

But on this account, the space of possibilities is involved in every concrete event. These “abstract” entities are real and are implicated in causality. Therefore our modal reasoning (and by extension, our contemplation of all sorts of abstract concepts) is not disconnected from the empirical realm. Our rational faculties are grounded in our direct acquaintance with something real.

* An alternative account would characterize each event as a manifestation, resulting from an intersection of probabilistic dispositions, or propensities. In quantum physics, the analogues are the measurement event and the wavefunction.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Morality: Not Natural or Supernatural?

Sean M. Carroll, the Caltech cosmologist who blogs at Cosmic Variance, has had a couple of posts responding to Sam Harris’ recent arguments that we should be able to develop a science of morality (he doesn't think this is possible in principle, although his reasoning reads to me as a list of challenges about the practical difficulty).

His discussion offers a clear example of exactly why a materialistic worldview inspired by science leaves one out to sea when it comes to issues crucially important to us.  (I say all this as a big fan of Carroll; he is a great representative of a new generation of scientist-popularizers.)