My flat-footed filosophy

For whatever reason, I’ve felt the need lately to try to articulate my broader philosophical view. And that’s always fun to share, especially when someone points out problems. So here goes.

CH’s principles of philosophy

1. My metaphysics ought to be continuous with science. I don’t deny that there are significant controversies within science, nor that there will be advances in science which supersede what is now taken as true. But nothing that I come up with about the natural world will be better grounded than what scientists largely presume as they go about doing their research, so it would be foolish not to take advantage of what they have been able to put together.

Chiefly, I draw the following from science:

I. Ontology of masses, events, forces, relations, etc.: I believe that, ultimately, the things that exist, along with their properties and relations, are those described by physics. Everything else is some kind of human invention or manner of speaking. For a wide variety of reasons, we find it useful and illuminating to speak of species, societies, art, rights, opinions, prejudices, colors, mutations, love, and so on, but all of these phenomena emerge, or seem to emerge, out of an overall picture which is itself generated out of the materials physics describes. It is a lot like “cloud-spotting” with a friend: you point out the cloud that looks like a crab, or a horse’s head, and from that description your friend is able to see what you see in it, but some shapes are more clearly identified than others, and none of them have very much to do with what’s really in the cloud. There is something about the cloud, surely, which allows it to be identified as crab-shaped rather than flower-shaped, but the crab-shapedness also has something to do with the perspective you have upon the cloud, together with the various sightings of crabs you have enjoyed, and the similarities between your sightings and those of your friend’s. Another way of putting this: physics tracks the primary properties of the universe, and any property not tracked by physics is a secondary property (or tertiary, if any Lockeans are reading).

(My attitude here is very reductionistic. I just can’t shake the belief that what the big stuff does is determined by the behavior of the smaller stuff which composes it. “Holistic” seems to me a synonym for “magic.”)

II. Denial of both determinism and contra-causal freedom: Small-scale events, like quantum phenomena, are frequently indeterministic: there is and can be no full explanation for why they happen. Somehow, they all sum up to large-scale events which are fully deterministic. Every large scale event can be (in principle) fully explained, and could not have been otherwise. In particular, human behavior is fully determined, and nothing a human does could have been done otherwise.

III. Denial of objective values: the universe does not prefer any state of affairs to any other. Every actual state is equally natural.

IV. Denial of special mental facts: consciousness emerges ultimately from the ontology of physics, and no souls or spirits or irreducible phenomenal properties are required to account for human experience.

2. My account of ethics needs to remain true to my metaphysics. From the above account, I am committed to believing that moral values are in the “cloud-spotting” category: entities of our perception, or secondary qualities, with only a loose grounding in what is real. Indeed, I think the grounding here is very, very loose.

I. Morality is rooted in an error. When we think in moral terms, we assume the truth of contra-causal freedom. We believe people have genuine choices, at least from time to time, and ought to be held accountable for those choices. When we make a claim of the form “I could have done X,” I think we typically mean: if I had been slightly different in my desires or beliefs, or attitudes, I would have done X. That’s true, but irrelevant, since of course I was not different in those ways, and could not have been, given the truth of determinism for large-scale events. So moral thinking requires some “let’s pretend,” or some forgetting (to paraphrase Nietzsche). We may be able to distinguish those determined actions whose principal causes lie outside an agent’s realm of typical control from those which lie within it (compatibilism), and there is some overlap between this distinction and many common distinctions between “free” and “compelled” action, but it’s not a perfect match.

II. But it sure is effective. The interesting thing is what emerges from this sloppy thinking: moral norms, or rules and principles, which go into the constitution of human communities, and then turn around and play real roles in influencing human behavior. Out of ignorance, we unwittingly invent seemingly nonsensical rules (like “You ought not lie,” etc.), teach them to our children, and the belief in those rules then governs, in part, what those children do. And, as it turns out, some rules tend to be better than others at ensuring the survival of those communities, etc. So, in the end, moral talk is ultimately nonsense, but very potent nonsense which has significant effects upon individuals and communities. Humans need this nonsense in order to survive as individuals, and as a species. (Not that there is any “objective value” in this.)

III. Morality is a composite of means of evaluation. Moral thinking consists in a broad mix of ways of evaluating actions – some basic and deontological (“Don’t lie!”, etc.), some more evaluative and consequentialist (“In this case, let’s do X, since most people are interested in doing that”), some aesthetic (“That’s simply an ugly way of behaving as a human being!”), and there may be many others. They are all rooted in what we are taught, on different occasions, for different reasons. When we argue over morality, all of these different means of evaluation play their roles, and often lead to opposing results, or paradoxes, controversies, and perplexities. That is unavoidable. And, again, debating over these conflicting results is a significant activity, to the extent that it leads to real actions, and real consequences. The universe doesn’t care what those consequences are, but individuals typically do.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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23 Responses to My flat-footed filosophy

  1. Kleiner says:

    Probably a dumb question, but: You say,
    “And, as it turns out, some rules tend to be better than others at ensuring the survival of those communities, etc. So, in the end, moral talk is ultimately nonsense, but very potent nonsense which has significant effects upon individuals and communities. Humans need this nonsense in order to survive as individuals, and as a species. (Not that there is any “objective value” in this.)”

    But why should we care about the survival of a community? Indeed, why should we care about self-survival? That we approve of these “make pretend” moral norms that serve those ends implies that we consider community and self-preservation to be real goods. This starts to sound a lot like the natural law — our moral norms are derived from the goods that we in fact cherish. The cherishing of such things (community, self) does not appear to be arbitrary and “make pretend”, does it? Doesn’t it rather appear to be writ into “human nature” (however you want to explain that)?


  2. Huenemann says:

    Not dumb at all. I don’t think there is any deep reason why we should care about a community, though there is some sort of evolutionary explanation: those groups in which a decent majority cared about the welfare of the group outsurvived groups of would-be Nietzscheans who mostly didn’t have any such concern. (Same goes, in spades, for self survival.) Similarly, most humans like sugar — a lot — and there is no reason why we *should*, though there is of course an explanation for that taste on our part.


  3. Chris Cauley says:

    “Small-scale events, like quantum phenomena, are frequently indeterministic: there is and can be no full explanation for why they happen.”

    I think that the jury is still out as to whether or not quantum mechanics is indeterminate. QM is at the threshold of our understanding of the universe. It may be indeterminate, or it might just appear indeterminate since we have no understanding of the factors governing quantum mechanics. Every advance of science into a lower level has shown the previous level to be fully determinate. We haven’t come to understand anything smaller than quantum mechanics (particle physics may seem like an obvious objection, but we’ve never observed quarks, &c. while still in an atom), so we can’t yet say if it is indeterminate or not. To say there “can be no explanation” is an exceptionally large claim since only a handful of people in all of history actually Understood quantum mechanics, and they all disagreed on it’s impact on free will.

    Proponents of free will claim that quantum mechanics is evidence of an indeterminate universe simply because it has yet to be shown as determinate. I have heard similar trains of thought used to “prove” the existence of angels. Proof of an indeterminate system (requiring two identical systems that evolve different out comes), is actually impossible because you can never prove two systems as being identical (a consequence of the uncertainty principle). Personally, I describe the universe as completely determinate, because in all other areas ranging from celestial bodies to thermodynamic systems (any microscopic ensemble of greater than 1,000,000 objects) science has removed all uncertainty.

    Sorry if that seemed off topic. Mike said you might find my comment here interesting. Excellent article, and I agree whole heartedly with your response to the first comment.


    • Sandi Atwood says:

      “…there is and can be no full explanation for why they happen.”

      You are sounding surprisingly mystical here, Dr. Heunemann.

      Quantum mechanics challenged and continues to challenge the scientific and personal philosophies of the greatest minds of the past century, and last I heard the jury is still out on how it fits with anything else in physics. Although there are numerous compelling theories currently poised to realize (interesting word–to make real?) the much sought after unification of micro and macro physics, for now, it would seem scientists are just “cloud-watching” until the ‘theoretical’ mathematical equations (mere abstract notions; ideas) bring long-term precision to what now ‘appears’ to be short-term unpredictability. So do these mathematical ideas produce the reality or just explain it? In his book, The Lightness of Being, Frank Wilczek (a nobel prize winning quantum physicist) wrote,

      “For example, the equations that describe gluons were discovered before the gluons themselves. They belong to a class of equations invented by Chen Ning Yang and Robert Mills in 1954 as a natural mathematical generalization of Maxwell’s equations of electrodynamics. The Maxwell equations have long been renowned for their symmetry and power. Heinrich Hertz, the German physicist who proved experimentally the existence of the new electromagnetic waves Maxwell had predicted (what we now call radio waves), said of Maxwell’s equations:

      “One cannot escape the feeling that these mathematical formulae have an independent existence and an intelligence of their own, that they are wiser than we are, wiser even than their discoverers, that we get more out of them than was originally put into them.”

      Ironically, thanks to Einstein, the ‘new’ physics and therefor reality as we ‘know’ it, in very nature is relative, absolutely vulnerable to perspectives. Just something to think about…


  4. BWI, QM is deterministic on on some models (e.g., the so-called many-worlds interpretation).

    Also, query whether one needs to suppose that “objective” values could only exist if they were universal. That is, for example, it could be an objective fact that agent A ought to x without it being the case that the world is better for A having x’d (or worse for his having not x’d).


  5. Huenemann says:

    Michael — I guess it depends what you mean by “ought.” If it’s just a matter of strategy (i.e., instrumental rationality), then sure — I ought to go to the store if I need to buy beans, and ought to give money to Oxfam if starvation bothers me.

    On QM — I defer to the experts. I take it that what all scientists agree upon is that there’s no way known to us now to predict a quantum event, and very possibly there is no such way period. Maybe it is deterministic after all, and maybe we will be able to predict, and maybe not. In the meantime, I’ll calls ’em as they see ’em.

    I am pretty skeptical of the attempts to integrate QM and free will, but not for very good reason — just sounds a little desperate. I’ll have to read Penrose, I guess.


  6. Rob says:

    To piggy-back on Michael’s point about values: what if there are some, like power, that are generated by the nature of human motivation and the structure of agency? Might they not qualify as both objective and nonsense-free?


  7. Huenemann says:

    Sandi – no, I don’t think I’m being mystical. As much as I’d like to be a full determinist, I have to concede that it is possible that subatomic events are perfectly random, causeless (and that’s why there’s no full explanation for why they do what they do when they do). Indeed, right now that looks like the safest judgment about those events — holding out for a hidden variable theory, as Einstein did, is motivated only by prejudgments about what reality has to be like. And I certainly don’t want to start thinking that mathematical formulas are “wise,” any more than I wish to think that the number 7 is rotund! (Or am I missing the point you were making with the quote from Wilczek?)

    The real mystery is how the subatomic lunacy builds up into a concrete, deterministic world, which is what we find at the macro level. That’s the “measurement problem,” I guess, and there seems to be little consensus about how to solve it. True to my flat-footed predilection, I prefer the theory that says simply: when you get a sufficient degree of indeterminacy, the whole structure collapses on its own, like a sufficiently tall stack of quarters. But, again, I’m at the limits of my amateurish knowledge.


    • Sandi Atwood says:

      As am I. You make a strong argument. I feared that I was out of my league when I jumped in on this, but I couldn’t resist. However, if you ever need some arch support for that flat-footed philosophy… (It’s a joke, are you laughing? I hope so.)


  8. Huenemann says:

    In fact, I think I dismissed the Wilczek quote too quickly. One surprising feature of the history of science is apparently the way the same mathematical relations keep showing up. For a while it was inverse-square laws, in all sorts of different phenomena; now I guess it’s other stuff. Of course nature is systematic (the “of course” there being pure rationalistic bluster), but still, it’s surprising to see the same relations holding among what seem like quite disparate phenomena, like gravity and electromagnetism. I don’t know how this surprising feature is to be explained.


  9. Vince says:

    Belatedly to Chris Cauley

    There was a long discussion between Bohr and Einstein about the interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Eventually Einstein–Podolsky–Rosen trio suggested that there were hidden variables that would complete Quantum Mechanics or lead to a new classical-type theory that would be deterministic in its prediction ability. The eventual result of their discussion was clarified by Bell’s Theorem (read the conclusion of the wiki article). Bell’s Inequality could be true if a phenomenon could be classically described. The Theorem basically demonstrated that there could be no hidden variable otherwise Quantum Mechanics would not be Quantum Mechanics and it would not have the phenomenal success that it has with predicting observations of the quantum mechanical realm. Any physical theory with deterministic physics cannot account for the observations that Quantum Mechanics predicts well. Period (almost).

    Bell’s Theorem was a thought experiment which was eventually tested in the Aspect experiments and other experiments. They were aimed at testing ‘reality’ to determine if ‘reality’ violates Bell’s inequality (quantum-like physics) or obeyed Bell’s inequality (classic-like physics). The general conclusion of the experiments is that a quantum-like theory is the correct theory and any classical (deterministic) physics competitor is not correct. However, all experiments have potential loopholes that are being worked on.

    To Huenemann.

    It is incorrect to assume that classical theory is necessarily deterministic. Chaos theory has been developed in the context of classical physics theories. It has demostrated that there are classical physics situations which prohibit forecasting given knowledge of initial conditions of the system (this is the essence of an indeterminate future). The earth’s tropospheric storms are the typical example of a classical chaos situation. It has been show that tropospheric storms have some predictability out to about 21 days, then predictability completely disappears. This chaos situation in classical physics in systems that are guided by non-linear physical equations. Often non-linear equations can have multiple physical solutions under that same set of conditions and choice between the solutions can be selected by very minor fluctuations in the initial conditions. The solutions of some non-linear equations become extremely insensitive to initial conditions because of crossing solution paths etc. This is the Butterfly Effect where “a hurricane being initiated by the flap of butter fly wings in Brazil”.

    There are possible arguments and controversies about Chaos Theory, so the determinist can still safely hide behind the argument that better science is coming in the future.

    Chaos Theory also lends support to the idea that a particular quantum fluctuation created by a brain with a quantum mechanical decision process can affect macroscopic events. So even if macroscopic events are guided by classical physics, there are situations where quantum mechanical fluctuations may determine the choice of different macroscopic outcomes.

    Ah …

    “For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
    For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
    For want of a horse the rider was lost.
    For want of a rider the battle was lost.
    For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
    And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.”


    • Sandi Atwood says:

      Why would anyone not feel comfortable with the argument that better science is coming? Scientists are constantly tweaking (a highly objective method for getting their equations to match ‘reality’) their equations. Often the tweak is directly related to the seeming ‘chaos’. For example, in 1925, Erwin Schrodinger (a really important scientist) discoverred, oops I mean invented the equations that explain the movement of electrons in waves. This was in addition to and even simultaneously with its being a point-object. Thus he verified the matter-wave hypothesis of Louis de Broglie. Later Bohr proposed his complimentarity theory which allowed sub-atomic particles to be both particle and energy; to exist as a point and/or a wave. Anyway, Schrodinger’s initial equations were not in agreement with experiments. A few months later he tweaked his equations and they were finally, and remain to this day, in agreement with observable data. A few years later, scientists realized that his original equations were essentially correct–however, he had not taken into account the spin of the electron, a concept that was unknown to him in 1925. In this case and many others, what appeared to be the chaotic behavior of electrons was later, by means of better science, discovered to be the, until then, unseen spin of the electron. There are many reasons to believe(I know, this word apparently does not fly with scientists or philosophers, but I use it anyway–and so did Schrodinger, Einstein, and Bohr by the way) that chaos is merely unidentified algorythms.


  10. Huenemann says:

    Vince – my understanding was that chaotic phenomena are deterministic but unpredictable.


  11. Huenemann says:

    Well, there’s chaos and there’s chaos. The chaos Vince is taking about, as I understand it, is more of an innovation in mathematical modeling than anything else. Scientists discovered a way of creating a model that doesn’t exactly predict what a system will do, but generates results that are broadly similar to the actual results of the system being modeled. So no one can predict what particular patterns a crack in a sidewalk will take, or how prices will fluctuate, or how the weather will behave over a lengthy period, but they can predict the sort of pattern such phenomena will follow, by using nonlinear equations. I think no one denies that in principle, armed with all of the information and the relevant laws, one could predict exactly what would happen. But we ain’ta gonna ever have all that information. Chaos theory, its proponents argue, gets us the sort of formulas nature is following even without all that information.

    That being said, there has been more and more work aimed at making predictions about chaotic phenomena. Last time I checked, though, the achievements were not all that impressive — but who knows what the future may hold?


    • Sandi Atwood says:

      It’s those durn definitions again. Schrodinger called it the “intersection of causal chains”. He compares it to the way DNA produces so much diversity…

      Honestly I just have a hard time getting my head around the idea of deterministic chaos. I like where some theorists are looking at Supersymmetry as a way to reign in gravity and some of the calculations from Wilczek and others seem to get us there. I’m anxious to see what the new particle accelerator reveals about the nature of hadrons and if those experiments will successfully verify boost symmetry theories. That may provide the needed perspective or vantage point to view some of this disparate behavior as simply different aspects of the same thing. Distinction without difference.


  12. Rob says:

    IF any of this stuff should matter to incompatibilists, why?


  13. Vince says:

    I agree with the nuance that Charlie identifies. Chaotic behavior that can be produced by classical non-linearities produce futures that are unpredictable but the underlying physics is still deterministic. However, the point I made is still correct that small quantum fluctuations, which are indeterministic in nature, can affect macroscopic physics because many macroscopic systems are non-linear and chaotic. Small fluctuations matter at least a bit to the future.

    I do not disagree with Sandi’s statement that ‘better science must be coming’. Rather tests Bell’s Inequality have demonstrated that any replacement to Quantum Mechanics (QM) will have to have the same probablistic nature in order to explain the observations that QM models so well. While the science may get better the probablistic nature QM is the one thing that must be a part of any new theory. Any new theory that describes the realm that QM covers cannot have a classical (deterministic) nature.

    Again there are versions of QM that are deterministic but the Quantum Weirdness associated with those alternate theories are generally disregarded because of the complexity of the weirdness, which is that many-worlds where everything happens exist. Ockham’s Razor is used here. We only experience one reality so we assume there is only one reality and not countably infinite realities.


    • Sandi Atwood says:

      I am curious, what is your opinion of the eastern notions of Maya or that reality is but an illusion? Do you think there is any possible connection with countably infinite realities, membranes, strings, dimmensions (whatever you want to call it)?


  14. Huenemann says:

    Rob – if by ‘the stuff’ you mean what I’ve been saying about indeterminacy of QM, then in my opinion the answer is ‘nothing.’ But of course some folks say that the gaps in determinism are avenues for the causa sui to do its work, etc. The entry you cite by Strawson puzzles me, since all his argument seems to show is that if you’re a determinist, you can’t be a contra-causal libertarian. The regress he threatens is a deterministic one — you can’t be responsible for what you are unless you’re responsible for what causes you to be what you are — but of course the libertarian simply breaks that chain and lets some decisions create themselves, or arise from insufficient causes. (Yes, that breaks the PSR, but why should a libertarian care about that?)

    Sandi – well, I certainly think there’s more than enough illusion to go around. I like the metaphor of the veil of Maya because, like Plato’s analogy of the cave, it provokes some degree of relection upon the possibility that most everything we believe is false. But if the ‘veil’ is taken to mean that the whole physical world, as revealed by the senses, and by the whole of contemporary science, is an illusion, then I’m not much interested. Pipe dreams of mystics seem to me even less confidence-inspiring. And when it is sometimes argued that the conclusions of the most theoretical of sciences (like string theory, etc.) somehow are supposed to show that the world which is supposed to be explained by those sciences is illusory, then I’m simply baffled. It seems like a big contradiction: “Here’s experience, which is best explained by these theories, which show experience to be illusory.” What are we supposed to conclude? That reality is a big contradiction? That’s silly. No, wait, I think I believe that!


    • Sandi Atwood says:

      I guess I was thinking of it more in terms of a paradox where more than one reality is real, where the realities are relative to one another based on the observers perspective. For example, our crude senses tell us that the wooden table in our kitchen is solid, however our technologically enhanced senses show us that athe same wooden table is mostly made up of space. Modern science now permits us to see both realities. They are both quantitatively real. So I was simply wondering what the entire universe would look like through a microscope. In the end, I know that the physical world is real but from an alternate perspective couldn’t we also safely say that it is an illusion. I think in this context, I find myself constantly saying, That’s silly, but then on further inspection, I find myself saying, No, wait, I think I believe that. Perhaps you were trying to demonstrate how ridiculous all of this is, but in truth this is exactly how I feel.

      Speaking of perspectives, I have really appreciated yours.


  15. Huenemann says:

    No, my last minute change of mind wasn’t ironic — I try to remember not to be too confident when I’m arguing that the world is coherent. That being said…

    I guess science starts with the claim that the world isn’t really as it appears to be. Then the task is to discover how it really is, and why it appears to be different than it is. I don’t know that it is a paradox, or that realities are relative to the observer. It’s more like a case of a magic trick, or optical illusion: what is really going on isn’t what appears to be going on, and we want to know how the trick is being done.


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