A Philosopher's Blog

God, a Yacht and Bitches

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on November 18, 2011
Aliosha VII Yacht

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Stephen Colbert recently raised an important theological and philosophical question, namely,”Could God create a yacht so big that he could not fill it with bitches?” This sort of question, obviously enough, parallels some of the classic questions about the nature of God’s omnipotence, such as “can God create a rock that He cannot lift?”

The specific question of whether or not God can create such a yacht would seem to involve considering the specifics of the scenario, such as the size limits of yachts (would a ship of a certain size be too big to be classified as a yacht?) and bitches as well as what would count as being full of bitches (does this mean that the bitches are comfortably occupying the vessel or stacked and stuffed in all the spaces?). However, these complications can be set aside (along with the offensive term “bitches”) in favor of a more general sort of question: can God create a container that He cannot fill?

On the face of it, this would seem to create what appears to be a paradox. If God is omnipotent, then it would seem to follow that He could create a container (such as a yacht) of any size-even one that would be so big that He could not fill it (even given an infinite supply of created bitches). However, His omnipotence would also seem to entail that He could fill any container, no matter how big. After all, He could just create enough things to fill the container.

One potential way out of this problem is to play games with the notion of infinity. Presumably the largest container that God could create would be infinite in size. Presumably the largest number and volume of things (such as bitches) that God could create would also be infinite. Leibniz, in his Theodicy,  writes “and infinity, that is to say, the accumulation of an infinite number of substances, is, properly speaking, not a whole any more than the infinite number itself, whereof one cannot say whether it is even or uneven.” Stealing from Leibniz, perhaps it could be said that when talking about an infinite yacht and an infinite number of bitches it would not be possible to say whether it is full or not. Of course, this seems vaguely (or not so vaguely) unsatisfying.

Perhaps a better approach would be to look at the matter a bit differently. The problem arises from taking the ability to create something so big that He cannot fill it as a positive ability of God. As such, if God did not have that ability, then He would be lacking. But, of course, if he could not fill the object, then he would also be lacking.

However, the idea of an ability to create an object so big that He cannot fill it seems to involve an absurdity. After all, if God could create a hollow object of X size and Y interior volume, then it would seem that He could simply create an object marginally smaller than X with a volume of Y. Thus, the question is actually asking “could God create an object and not be able to create a smaller object (or objects) that would fill the larger object” and the answer would seem to be “no.” After all, objects have volumes and sizes, but so big that it cannot be filled does not seem to be a legitimate property that God could just give to an object. Rather, this property is a relational property between the object and all other things that exist or could exist. Thus, the supposition that God can create objects entails that He can fill any object He creates.

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Monads Look Inwards

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 23, 2011
Gottfried Leibniz, who speculated that human r...

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Philosophers during the modern era wrestled with various philosophical problems. Some of these were cast as new problems, although many had been vexing philosophers since the start of the profession. One of these is the problem of the external world: how do I know that my perceptions match what is real? Another is the mind-body problem: how does the mind interact causally with the body? Leibniz attempted to address these problems (and more) with his monads.

For Leibniz, monads are the fundamental entities that make up the world. They are immaterial and, although they have qualities, they have no parts. There are supposed to be an infinite number of these entities and, apparently, they all perceive. On most interpretations, each monad is a mind. However, the monads do vary in their degree of mental capabilities and they range from the most minimally perceiving monad to the supreme monad (not to be confused with the supreme Dalek or a nacho supreme) which is, of course, God. The higher sorts of monads are conscious and aware while the lower sorts presumably are not. As such, while your soap perceives (think about that the next time you lather up) it is not conscious (which is probably best for both of you).

While all these myriad monads perceive, this perception is not (as Leibniz sees it) a perception caused by external objects. As Leibniz famously claimed, the monads do not have windows and (in addition to making it hard to enjoy warm spring days) nothing enters or departs from them. However, each monad is supposed to mirror all of reality. While I usually use the  analogy of a bowl full of polished ball bearings as an analogy to illustrate that bit, the analogy rather obviously fails badly. But, I do think it is a nice image.

While this windowlessness might seem rather odd, it does enable Leibniz to solve two problems with one nad, monad, that is. First, the mind body problem is elegantly solved: reality is fundamentally mental (which I am sure you have long suspected) and hence there are not two distinct metaphysical types to have relationship problems. There is but one type and, perhaps even better, there are no causal relations between these monads (well, aside from God’s act of creation, but God is always mucking up things). Thus, these problems are solved. Well, sort of anyway. Second, the problem of the external world is also solved. Monads do not perceive what is outside of them, for there are no windows via which they interact with an external world. The split between experience and reality that allows the problem of the external world to gain traction simply is not there, hence its wheels spin futilely. Or would, if problems had wheels.

Assuming that you buy this, there are still some obvious problems remaining. One is the matter of addressing the intuitively plausible view that we are perceiving the same reality and that we seem to interact. For example, as I type the blog my husky (a husky monad) is watching. I believe that she is perceiving me doing this and I believe that I am perceiving her perceiving me and that she is no doubt wishing that I was handing her some treats rather than typing. So, how does this work with monads?

For Leibniz the answer is very straightforward. In the beginning, God created all the monads and placed “in” each one all its experiences (sort of like downloading a whole movie before starting to play it). Being really amazing, God makes sure that all the monads are in sync (no, not in the boy band). So, back to the husky example, when I have the experience of seeing my husky and she has the experience of seeing me, we are not “really” seeing each other. Rather Isis (my husky) is having an experience in her mind as if she were seeing me and likewise for me. While I do suspect that husky hair could actually get into a monad, there is no actual causal interaction between us. However, the experiences are in a state of pre-established harmony and hence it all works out. Really.

Not surprisingly, this has caused some people to wonder why this does not just collapse into solipsism. After all, if all my experiences are pre-loaded, then I should have them whether there are any other monads or not. By Occam’s Razor, one might argue, it would seem simplest to hold that I and I alone exist. Or, at best it is just me and the creator-which sticks us (or rather just me) into the problem raised by Descartes. Perhaps even worse, if the God monad perceives everything perfectly, then it would seem to entail that everything is just a quality of God’s mind. This is, of course, pantheism and something the sane generally endeavor to avoid whenever possible.  As such, let us quietly close that door and sneak away.

Now that all those problems have been successfully ignored, there is the obvious problem of space. If we are just immaterial monads, then the space we perceive would thus clearly not be space in the usual sense of a box in which God keeps his stuff. Also, what we take to be extended (three dimensional) objects cannot actually be three dimensional in the usual sense.

Leibniz solves the first problem by taking space to be a system of relationships between what a monad experiences. To use a contemporary example, think about “moving” around in 3D video game like Halo or World of Warcraft. It seems like you are moving through space because of the relationship between the elements of your experience, yet there really are not three dimensions in the usual sense. Space is merely a matter of perception and relative to the experiences.

In regards to objects appearing to be extended, this  is also a matter of perception. While Leibniz uses the analogy of a rainbow, the video game analogy works even better. In video games we experience what seem to be extended objects, even though they are not actually extended. Rather, the extension is something of an illusion. Likewise for the monad’s experience of extension-it is all in their minds. The monads look inwards and see all that can be seen.

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ESP & Philosophy

Posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 3, 2011
David Kellogg Lewis
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Daryl Bem became a minor media star recently with his paper on ESP. While his work has been subject to some rather serious criticism (mainly in regards to the methodology) it does raise some interesting matters.

Bem’s paper discusses nine experiments he has conducted over the past ten years.

In one experiment Bem had 100 students take a memory test and then had them practice the words they had used in the test. He claims that “The results show that practicing a set of words after the recall test does, in fact, reach back in time to facilitate the recall of those words.”

In his famous porn experiment, the subjects were asked to pick which virtual curtain concealed an image on the computer. Once the choice was made, a program randomly “placed” an image “behind” one curtain or the other. According to Bem, the subjects were able to pick the curtain that “hid” an image 53% of the time when that image was erotic. They were able to pick non-erotic photos only 50% of the time. He claims that “What I showed was that unselected subjects could sense the erotic photos, but my guess is that if you use more talented people, who are better at this, they could find any of the photos.”

While I am rather skeptical of his claims, I will assume (for the sake of the discussion that follows) that his results are statistically significant. On this assumption, some interesting issues in epistemology and metaphysics arise. At the core, the main matter is how information from the future would be “known” (epistemology) and what features reality would need in order for this to occur.

As noted above, Bem seems to take his tests as indicating some sort of backwards causation. Normal causation (if one dares to use such a phrase) involves time’s arrow always flying one way: towards the future and not back from the future. But, if the subjects “know” about the future or, more generally, that their present mental states are affected by future events, then it would seem that time’s arrow can fly both ways.

On the one hand, this seems to be rather implausible. After all, the general consensus among layman and experts would seem to be that time is a one way sort of thing and that causation does not work backwards in time.

On the other hand, time is a rather odd sort of thing and it would be hasty to assume that our assumption about time being one way is correct. After all, time travel certainly has a lot of appeal and it can be argued that it is at least possible. As such, perhaps it is not impossible for events of the future to have an impact on peoples’ mental states in the relative past. This, of course, would require that people have some seemingly unusually epistemic capabilities, but that is what ESP is all about.

Of course, it does seem somewhat extreme to conclude that our concepts of time and causation are fundamentally wrong and to embrace some rather dubious epistemology because some college students appear to be marginally better at picking out the porn. As such, it would seem sensible to consider some alternatives.

Since I recently taught about Hobbes and I am currently teaching about Spinoza, one possibility that occurred to me is that a deterministic universe could be used to explain these results without a need for any change in our concepts of causation, time or epistemology. If the events of the future follow of necessity from the events of the past, then sensing the future would not need to be a matter of the future somehow causing effects in the past. Rather, a person could predict the future based on what they know (or believe) about the present and the past. Since our epistemic abilities are rather limited, then our predictions would tend to be rather limited as well.

Speaking of dead European philosophers, Leibniz seems to provide a metaphysical system that would allow for the sort of ESP that Bem seems to be discussing.

Leibniz claims that the world is composed of monads and that each monad mirrors or represents the entire world. Crudely put, each of us is a monad (or rather the dominant monad in a collection of monads). Leibniz famously claimed that the monads have no windows-nothing comes out of or goes into the monads. This raises the obvious problem about how you, for example, can read this blog. Leibniz’s answer is that each monad mirrors or represents the entire world-though the clarity varies. As he sees it, when God created the universe, he created all the monads and each monad has all its experiences “placed” within it. To use a crude analogy, the movie that is your life is placed on a DVD that is placed within your mind. It plays and thus you have the experiences you do. As such, when you read this blog, your inner DVD is playing that experience for you.
Fortunately God has synced up all our inner DVDs so that they play in pre-established harmony. So, for example, if my inner DVD is playing so that I am “hearing” you speak, your inner DVD is at the point where you are “speaking” to me. Since each of us contains within us all our experiences, it would thus seem possible for people to “skip ahead” a bit and “see” events that have not yet happened. While this would seem like seeing the future, it would simply be like seeing what is on the DVD by skipping around in the scenes rather than playing the movie out normally. Thus, the students who were able to pick out the porn could have “skipped” ahead to see the porn on their inner DVD and thus known what to pick “ahead” of time.

Leibniz also claims that “each body feels all that happens in the universe, so he who sees all, might read in each what happens everywhere.” This would seem to allow for the possibility of the sort of ESP Bem is discussing.

In addition to his monads, Leibniz is also known for his claims about possible worlds, namely this being the best of the lot. Another philosopher who is well known for his work on possible worlds is the American philosopher David Lewis. In his On The Plurality of Worlds Lewis presents the hypothesis that possible worlds are real and that we, in fact, inhabit one. Of course, our world is the actual world to us. He even discusses the epistemological implications of such worlds and considers that they could be epistemically or doxastically accessible to us. Interestingly enough, Lewis’ possible worlds would seem to provide a metaphysical basis for ESP.

In terms of how this would work, one merely needs to assume that there are possible worlds, that we have epistemic access to them (that is, we can know about them or at least have warranted beliefs about their content), and that there are worlds whose timeline is ahead of our own (that is, their present is our future).

This all works out in the following manner. Suppose that Jack is a subject in Bem’s porn experiment. Sitting at the computer, he somehow accesses possible worlds (I’ll just help myself to Lewis’ arguments about how this works). In some of these worlds there are counterparts to Jack who are also involved in experiments being run by Bem’s counterpart. Crudely put, a counterpart to the actual Jack (the Jack in our possible world or Jack@thisworld) is whatever most resembles Jack in another possible world (such a Jack would be Jack@thatworld). In some of these worlds, the Jack counterparts are ahead of Jack@thisworld in the experiment, so that they have seen the results of their picks. In some cases the picks yield porn and in other cases they do not. Since Jack wants to see the porn, he will presumably make his choice based on the results experienced by the other Jacks. Given that Jack presumably has, at best, “fuzzy” access to these possible worlds and that the worlds would not be exactly like this world, the minor increase in correct picks is easily explained. Really.

In this scenario, the future is not causing anything in the past. Rather, Jack is merely accessing a possible world whose present is a counterpart of our future. Nothing could be more sensible.

While this is interesting, it is not without its problems. One obvious problem is that this is rather weird and mysterious. Another problem is that if future possibilities are grounded in the presents of possible worlds, then there would need to be a world for each world’s possible future, thus creating what would seem to be a rather unfortunate infinite regress. But, that seems to be a small price to pay for an account of ESP.

One final thought is maybe we are in an eternally recurring world and a bit sticks from the last time around. So maybe the kids keep getting a bit better at picking out the porn. Who knows, a few million more times around and they will pick porn at 100%.

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