Immaterialist Reductionism

Materialist reductionism runs into all sorts of problems explaining such things as organisms on the basis of the properties of their constituent parts. This happens because materialism gets the direction of reduction wrong. A whole can account for the properties of its parts, but not vice versa. E.g.: a complete account of a salt molecule must include a full specification of the properties of its sodium atom; but a complete account of a solitary sodium atom cannot include a full specification of the properties of a salt molecule.

It’s not the tiniest conceivable parts that are basic, but the largest conceivable whole. The parts of reality supervene upon the whole of reality.

So reduction can work – if reality is causally coherent, it must – but only if, at least in principle, we reduce all things ultimately to God.

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27 thoughts on “Immaterialist Reductionism

  1. Supposing that I read you aright, Kristor, a complete account of the currently existing universe must include a full specification of the cosmic singularity; but a full specification of the cosmic singularity must not include a complete account of the currently existing universe. The universe will only become explicable when it arrives at its telos. But this is Bertonneau trespassing Bonald’s territory. Let us live long and prosper…

    • Yes, good point. Put another, equivalent way: the singularity event isn’t over yet.

      While each moment must account for its past, no moment can account for its future. I cannot now go to the store tomorrow. So, saying the same thing in five different ways: actualities cannot be wholly determined by their actual histories; there must be real potentials; there must be real freedom; there must be real acts; there must be real actualities.

      In fact, no moment can account even for itself, for as no moment can account for its future, so it cannot know the full panoply of its accidental properties, which include its effects on its successors, its meaning to them, what it seems like to them.

      So, no moment can be completely intelligible except from the perspective of eternity. The intelligibility of contingent things then derives from the intelligibility of things sub specie aeternitatis. We can begin to understand at all only because God eternally understands in full.

      Thus this approach to the relations between parts and their subvenient wholes preserves both creaturely freedom and Divine omniscience.

      • And this is Plato’s answer to Parmenides — saving the intelligibility of becoming by making it an image of being. Everything is intelligible through formal reality that instantiates in particular things at particular moments, and this reality is God’s thought. We might even confess that God expressed his thought by his Word — by whom all things were made.

      • Just so. The specification of an act can be completed only by way of that act, for only as completed and therefore wholly definite can it be defined or specified – that is to say, named. And vice versa: the completion of a concrete act cannot be possible in the first place unless just exactly that act has been fully specified, defined, named, qua potentiality.

        If we are at b, we can’t even start toward c unless c is already there as a fully fleshed out potentiality. But c can’t be fully comprehended except as actual, and therefore completely definite, from the perspective of d or some other letter further along in the alphabet (note: an alphabet, not a number line – no geometricization here!). Until it is thus fully comprehended, it cannot be completely fleshed out qua potentiality.

        It sounds hopeless. It sounds as though there is no way becoming could ever get under weigh. But this is only an appearance, a partial apprehension that cooks out of our temporal perspective. Fortunately for the creation, God is both Alpha and Omega.

        6 By the word of the LORD were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth.
        7 He gathereth the waters of the sea together as an heap: he layeth up the depth in storehouses.
        8 Let all the earth fear the LORD: let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him.
        9 For he spake, and it was done; he commanded, and it stood fast.
        – Psalm 33:6-9

  2. I think you mean to say the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Fair enough. Which would argue that we should be thinking of the largest and most encompassing systems and not the smallest particles to understand the universe properly. Fair enough as well. We need to read the whole book and not fixate on a word or a letter.

    Sodium atoms are generally considered interchangeable. If you’ve seen one, you’ve pretty much seen them all. They are interesting in their own way, but they can serve by analogy as letters in a larger word that may be much more interesting. That word, in turn, can be part of an even more interesting story, and so on.

    But if you are saying something more, you’ve lost me.

    Your post strangely reminds me of the lyrics from Bernstein’s “Simple Song,” in his Mass, which read in part:

    “Sing God a simple song, lau da lau de.

    Make it up as you go along, lau da lau de.

    Sing like you like to sing; God loves all simple things.

    For God is the simplest of all, for God is the simplest of all.”

    I don’t think these lyrics are impressive as theology. Critical reception of Bernstein’s Mass was largely negative, and it is inappropriate as a worship service. It still serves as somewhat dated piece of musical entertainment.

    • I’m saying a bit more than that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, although that is implicit in what I’m saying. I’m saying that parts exist at all only insofar as they participate in the whole – i.e., only insofar as they are indeed parts of a subvenient whole. Thomas is getting at the same thing when he says somewhere that parts subsist only virtually – only in virtue of that whole of which they partake.

      • But that is not so obvious. It might be so, but it hasn’t been proven, and I don’t see how it can be proven from mere physical observation. Sodium atoms can exist without being part of a salt in which they would be an ionized part. Most of the visible universe is still elemental hydrogen, primarily in clouds of gas and stars. Impressive, but maybe not so interesting. Perhaps it is a case of “they also serve who only stand and wait.”

        Now most of the universe is believed to be the mysterious dark matter/dark energy, which is intriguing, but so far not apparently very useful.

        Our DNA has unused codons. There is speculation that they are from our genetic past, but perhaps they are part of our genetic future. All those elemental letters could form a lot of words. Or maybe they are just there, just letters that aren’t words.

      • Well, one of the ways this gets real interesting real fast is that no thing is truly solitary. We can treat a sodium atom heuristically as a solitary system, but in reality there can be no such isolation. The sodium atom that does not participate in any molecule does still participate in the world. Nothing escapes the sway of Mach’s Principle; there is no way for a creature to subsist apart from any world.

        Even a creature nowise environed by other creatures would be environed by God, so that God would be its world, as he is the environing world of our world, which subsists in secula seculorum – in a world of worlds.

        It seems fairly obvious to me that none of this could possibly be demonstrated from physical observation. The mereological principles I’m talking about lie with other first things – math, logic, metaphysics – at the basis of all action, including the act of observation and the acts both of explanation and understanding.

      • “Virtual” is a word, commonly used by physicists but poorly if at all understood, in my experience. They seem to treat it as an exalted synonym for “imaginary”.

        I wonder if you could write a post illustrating this word in its philosophical usage.

      • “Virtual existence” is indeed a squirrelly term, and can be used in several ways. I haven’t been using it in this thread the way that modern physicists generally do, as when they use it to characterize particles that foam up from the quantum vacuum and then foam back down into it without having interacted with any other particular particle. Although I see their point, that evanescent sort of existential career does not seem to me to fall into a different ontological category than those of other particles that do interact with other particles, because the evanescent particles interact with the universe at large – they have field effects, such as the Casimir effect, and it is possible to construe them as aspects of the quantum vacuum itself, which ex hypothesi is concrete. I understand that many physicists would say that the quantum vacuum is not concrete, but is rather nothingness; but that’s definitely a category error, because the quantum vacuum has properties, and nothingness can’t have properties.

        But none of that quite touches on what a philosopher – particularly an Aristotelico-Platonic philosopher – must properly mean by “virtual existence.” Your suggestion is a good one, potentially very fruitful. I’ll chew on it. That will probably generate a post!

      • Mach’s Principle is interesting, even appealing, but somewhat vague, and a conjecture. I invite your consideration of Chekhov’s gun, a principle stating that every element in a narrative must be necessary and irreplaceable. It works for drama. Does it work for the universe?

        What these speculations and all philosophical speculations lack, and what physical science has, is the opportunity to test the hypothesis. We can’t have two flasks side by side, one where Mach’s principle operates and one where it doesn’t. We can have a container of effectively pure sodium, i.e. pure for all practical purposes. But, as they say, don’t try keeping this at home.

      • Ah, but while it is indeed tremendously handy, the empirical test is not the only sort of test. It is perfectly possible to test the truth of the Pythagorean Theorem, albeit not with corporeal triangles, none of which exhibit the necessary degree of perfection.

        I had not considered whether Chekhov’s gun applies to actual history as it does to drama. My inclination is to say that if it does indeed apply to dramatic history in a strict sense, then this can be so only because it applies to actual history; so that for drama to be able to compel the suspension of disbelief, it must ape reality in this respect.

        But drama can’t be our lodestone. Reality must be. And so, considering the way things really work, I would have to say, no: Chekhov’s gun does not really apply. Things could go one way, or another. *Within* any one of the many ways things can go, Chekhov’s gun applies trivially, for were any aspect of such a way to be altered, the whole way would be a different way. But across all the ways that things could go, any one of them might be selected, so the constraint would not apply.

        Interesting question, Leo, thanks.

      • “Reality must be [our lodestone]. And so, considering the way things really work…”

        On this we agree.

        A pragmatist would say the geometry is important because it reflects the way real things (e.g. land in surveying) really work, whether platonic triangles actually exist or not. A theory that is imperfect, but useful, is to be preferred over the theory that might be perfect, but which isn’t useful.

        The actual existence of platonic objects is not falsifiable. Karl Popper stressed the importance of falsifiability in the history of science.

        This reminds me of the phrase attributed to Wolfgang Pauli: It is not only not right, it is not even wrong. The phrase is applied to arguments that purport to be scientific but fail at some fundamental level in that they cannot be tested by experiment.

      • I’m not sure what you are getting at. Could you explain? Or, just assert what you would assert. So far as I can tell, nothing you’ve said in this comment apposes to anything I’ve said so far.

        Harking back to your previous comment, you *seem* to be asserting that philosophical knowledge is unattainable because the propositions of philosophy are not susceptible to experimental falsification. But I doubt that this is what you are asserting, because that assertion is itself not susceptible to experimental falsification.

        Re geometry, I did not mean to suggest that geometry is unimportant, only that the geometricization of time – i.e., the reification of the temporal dimension of extension (as, say, along a number line) – can lead to serious confusion. To map history to a line is tremendously useful as a heuristic, but it is terrifically easy to take the properties of a line as properties of time. In some respects, that’s an erroneous transference; comparable to inferring from the topology of the map itself that the territory is two-dimensional.

      • What I am saying is that statements subject to experimental verification or falsification are of a different category than those that are not. In the words of Karl Popper, “In so far as a scientific statement speaks about reality, it must be falsifiable; and in so far as it is not falsifiable, it does not speak about reality.” And reality was your lodestone, and you brought up the science of chemistry in your original post.

        Philosophy need not be meaningless or wrong even though it is not science. But while science has made demonstrable progress; it is hard to point to such progress in philosophy.

        I find Popper’s criticism of Plato interesting, and I assume you disagree with Popper on that, but I also find philosophy to resemble tail chasing. See http://www.philipchircop.com/post/6499463940/a-big-dog-saw-a-little-dog-chasing-its-tail-and Why should I believe Plato over Popper? Or vice versa? Both are distinguished, presumably honest, and highly intelligent.

      • Ah. Well, I certainly agree that statements subject to experimental falsification are categorically different from statements that are not. That’s just what I’ve been saying. And Popper is tautologically correct that a scientific statement must be falsifiable in order to be a properly scientific statement in the first place – i.e., an experimentally falsifiable assertion about reality. I would go further and say that any sort of statement must be somehow falsifiable, at least in principle, in order to be meaningful in the first place.

        The statement that the specification of the properties of salt molecules cannot be complete unless it includes the specifications of the properties of their constituent atoms is however not a scientific statement, properly speaking; it is, rather, a statement in the philosophy of science. It is rather an argument about the nature of explanatory completeness than it is about whatever it is we might happen to be trying to explain completely. It would have been equally apt for me to adduce the example of a triangle, saying that the specification of the properties of triangles cannot be complete unless it includes the specifications of the properties of their angles and sides.

        I think it is pretty easy to point to progress in philosophy. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, for example, is a quantum leap forward.

      • There are other usages of “virtual” in physics. For instance. the principle of virtual work in mechanics, and virtual displacements that occur in derivation of lagrangian equations.

      • Right, but my understanding of virtual work and virtual displacements is that they are not considered ontologically concrete, in any sense, but rather merely mathematical, or at most only potential. Their reality is like that of a term that cancels out in an equation. This is quite a contrast with the virtuality of virtual particles, which have causal effects.

        But never mind all that. You’ve got me ruminating on the *metaphysics* of virtual existence.

      • Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem (1931) is an impressive piece of mathematical logic, but I am hard pressed to identify much impact from it outside the field of mathematical logic. Compare that to the much more impactful advances elsewhere in science and technology since 1931 that are everywhere evident. My son once said that he didn’t want to pursue a Ph.D. in mathematics because he didn’t want to wind up as an angry taxi driver.

      • Well, that may be due to the fact that the profound metaphysical and theological consequences of Gödel’s Theorem are not much talked about outside the relatively small circle of theist logicians and metaphysicians. Those consequences are lethal for any secular, atheist, or materialist worldview. That’s probably why so few people want to hear about them. The Incompleteness Theorem is arguably the most important discovery since Descartes.

        Briefly, the fact that no formal language is completable entails that a formalizable Theory of Everything in physics is not achievable. I.e., Nature Cannot Explain Itself; nor can any part of Nature explain itself. To understand – or to have – such a thing as a natural world, then, you are logically required to start with something supernatural.

        The fact that no part of nature can explain itself entails in turn that no physical system can understand itself; so that eliminative materialism is logically disproven.

        These are earth-shaking demonstrations.

        There are other radical, far-reaching and fascinating consequences of the Incompleteness Theorem, relating to language, information theory, artificial intelligence, and so forth. But for our purposes here at the Orthosphere, the consequences for philosophy of mind and for metaphysics are the most important.

        Granted, they won’t increase employment opportunities for mathematicians or philosophers any time soon, so your son’s career decision is probably prudent. But there has definitely been philosophical progress. That progress may eventually increase demand for priests and theologians with a talent for math, but we’ll have to wait until after the next Great Awakening …

  3. It might be more profitable to ponder about the the example of the Reaction’s greatest success–Franco’s Spain.
    Is it acceptable to libertarians here?’
    And the causes of its ultimate failure?

    • Well, the topics are so different that this makes a particularly nasty off-topic, but because your topic is interresting to me I’ll reply:

      > Is it acceptable to libertarians here?’

      Are there other libertarians besides Ilíon here? And self-censoring as to not upset libertarians makes no sense to me =) It would also be against libertarian principle of freedom of discussion =D

      > And the causes of its ultimate failure?

      It lacked continuity, but I wouldnt say it failed. From what I read in wikipedia, Spain was doing well economically in the 70s: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francoist_Spain#Economic_policy

      In the 80′s and 90′s liberal democracy conquered the west due to the image of immense sucess of this model which was projected by the USA via its media and movies. Even the Soviet Union couldn’t stand against it and collapsed. Only the most determined like China and the islamists didn’t accept it.

      History goes by in waves, it seems, and when a wave comes it makes huge pressure so that every country accepts the new way of doing things. It takes a huge determination to be a complete outcast from the world. Remember how South Africa was pressured until there was a regime change. The best way to survive this is to either get some kind of immunity from the liberal powers, like Israel and Saudi Arabia are given. Or just be insanaly fanatic like the Taliban or North Korea.

      So Spain was neither fanatically determined nor given immunity, and eventually it had to give in. The Soviet Union fell when they lost their fanaticism.

  4. Pingback: What are the Basic Things? | Junior Ganymede

  5. Pingback: Immergence | The Orthosphere

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