Humean, All Too Humean

I intended this post to be a bit of reflection on agent causation and free will, but I was led in a more fundamental direction after concluding with Timothy o’Connor that an account of agent causation really depends on the impossibility of a Humean account of causation. This is a rather simple thesis that can be summed up as follows: agent causation (AC) takes as fundamental that causes really do necessitate their effects – let’s call this Real Causality (RC). Humean-ism (H) fundamentally denies that causes necessitate their effects. Therefore, the first step towards an account and defense of agent causation ought to begin with a look at the metaphysics of causation – more specifically, why we shouldn’t take H to be the case.

Tim Maudlin in his excellent volume ‘The Metaphysics Within Physics’ maps out H by way of two doctrines derived from a reading of David Lewis:

‘Doctrine 1 (Separability): The complete physical state of the world is determined by (supervenes on) the intrinsic physical state of each spacetime point (or each pointlike object) and the spatio-temporal relations between those points.’

‘Doctrine 2 (Physical Statism): All facts about the world, including modal and nomological facts, are determined by its physical state alone.’ (p. 51)

Maudlin then takes these ideas to task, drawing arguments against Doctrine 1 from quantum physics. Classical physics was indeed separable – the physical state of the universe is, more or less, determined by spatio-temporal relations, dispositions and properties in space and time. Maudlin spends a fair amount of time doing some pretty fancy math and comes to the conclusion that given quantum theory as a part of a true description of the world (which is a separate but related contention – Maudlin isn’t trying for an instrumentalist or consciousness-based interpretation of quantum theory here), separability cannot be sustained. He arrives here by an exposition of particle systems, spin states and entagled states, which is rather technical.

Doctrine 2 Maudlin takes to be indefensible as well, and I’ll quote him at length here:

‘It matters not whether one starts with Newton, who, in the Principia, simply announces his three laws of motion after giving the definitions of various terms, or whether one turns directly to any contemporary textbook on quantum theory, which will treat, e.g., the Schrodinger equation as a fundamental dynamical principle. Physicists seek laws, announce laws, and use laws, but they do not even attempt to analyze them in terms of the total physical state of the universe or anything else…Unlike reductive analyses of possibility, causality, and chance, reductive analyses of laws are not endorsed by scientific practice.

Indeed, scientific practice seems to preclude such an analysis. As we have seen, physical possibility is easily understood in terms of models of the laws of physics. Let us suppose (and how can one deny it) that every model of a set of laws is a possible way for a world governed by those laws to be. Then we can ask: can two different sets of laws have models with the same physical state? Indeed they can. Minkowski space-time, the space time of Special Relativity, is a model of the field equations of General Relativity (in particular, it is a vacuum solution). So an empty Minkowski space-time is one way the world could be if it is governed by the laws of General Relativity. But is Minkowski space-time a model only of the General Relativity laws? Of course not! One could, for example, postulate that Special Relativity is the complete and accurate account of space-time structure, and produce another theory of gravitation, which would still have the vacuum Minkowski space-time as a model. So under the assumption that no possible world can be governed both by the laws of General Relativity and by a rival theory of gravity, the total physical state of the world cannot always determine the laws. The only way out is either to assert that empty Minkowski space-time must be governed by both sets of laws, since it is a model of both, or (a more likely move) that it can be governed by neither set of laws, since neither is the simplest account of space-time structure adequate to the model (the simplest account is just Special Relativity). But how can one maintain that the General Relativistic laws cannot obtain in a world that is a model of the laws, and hence allowed by them? The necessity of distinguishing the physical possibilities (i.e. the ways the world could be given that a set of laws obtains in the world) from the models of the laws signals a momentous shift from philosophical analyses that follow scientific practice to analyses that dictate it.’ (p. 67-68)

There is no shortage of less physics-based reasons to not be a Humean, however. One might point out that Hume’s conclusions have force only if his empiricism is accepted, and there are many good reasons why that shouldn’t be accepted – modern philosophy is, in fact, partly composed of such rejections (Reid, Sellars, and the rejection of the positivists make up part of this history. The positivists, who claimed that non-analytic statements or statements that go beyond empirical justification are meaningless, are left in a position which doesn’t exactly aid one in the search for the laws of nature. Nor are things such as quarks and their flavors logical constructions out of sense-data). This isn’t to say that a wholesale rejection of Hume is called for – his observation that causation is not empirical is absolutely correct, though not his further conclusion that it doesn’t exist at all, since causation is very real though metaphysical category. But if the foundation for Humean-ism, which is a strict empiricism, isn’t sound, then we have far less reason to accept Humean-ism.

Given this all-too-cursory look at why we might not want to be Humean, what exactly follows? Concerning agent causation, we are left with a good bit of space with which to work, now that the shackles of Humean causation have been loosed – we are free to develop an account of agency and freedom in which agents are real causes of events.


Thought Notes 8/11/2014: Hume, Science and Faith

I think that Hume’s problem of induction is one of the most fun and fruitful philosophical problems out there. Not because the immediate problem itself is especially edifying, but because sustained reflection and engagement with the problem will cause you to reflect on and engage with nearly every major issue in philosophy, spilling over into the sciences and even humanities. Whether or not it is an actual problem is a matter of some debate, but for the sake of argument and reflection it can be kind of assumed to be a genuine problem.

I don’t remember what brought the topic of ‘science and faith’ to my mind (a topic I honestly think is so worn out as to nearly be a dead horse) – maybe it was a random tweet or something like that. But I got to thinking about the nature of the ‘false choice’ between science and faith that many people seem to think is set before earnest young enquirers – naturally, when faced with such a choice, they opt for Science, leaving their faith behind as a distant memory of something they couldn’t ‘reconcile’ with what they took to be the modern scientific world.

A few thoughts (I sort of began thinking on this topic here): if science and faith are in conflict, and you opt for science over faith, it appears to me that what you didn’t have faith, but had a system of beliefs that was actually already quasi-‘scientific’ in nature, and not religious. Basically, it wasn’t faith you had, it was crappy science that was overruled by different science. Any given piece of empirical data doesn’t do anything to strengthen or weaken faith unless it’s already presupposed that the merit of that faith are based upon empirical evidence. Apparent ‘design’ in nature (to take one example) isn’t proof of anything – but given a prior commitment to God as a designer, it becomes something which doesn’t strengthen the actual belief but simply reinforces the underlying presuppositions. I was going to say that it confirms what you already knew, but that doesn’t work either – if you know something you don’t need it confirmed – you already know it. So it’s not even that the data confirms something to be true – it simply justifies you more in holding to the presuppositions you already hold to.

So, with that in mind: the ‘false choice’ of either science or faith becomes not a choice between science and religious belief but between science and quasi-science. If belief in God or the Resurrection or what have you can’t be reconciled with a ‘scientific worldview’ then the problem isn’t reconciling science and faith but reconciling science and quasi-science. Religious ideas have ceased to be religious and have become a quasi-scientific ideas, and since those ideas can’t (obviously) be reconciled with science, they are jettisoned.

Stanley Jaki on Hume

‘Starting with a dark mystery, Hume went on stumbling from mystery to mystery, because he had radically separated at the very outset sense from mind and mind from sense. The rise of sensory impressions become one unfathomable mystery, the assocation of impressions another. By ascribing it to some “gentle force” to an instinctive inclination, Hume only made the mystery more mysterious. More mystery arose when Hume tried to reduce that instinct to the “original qualities” of mind. The mystery was now so dense that Hume did not even pretend to “explain that origin”. But Hume could have even that thick mystery only at the price of evoking a vision of mind as a substance capable of having qualities. A little honest reflection on Hume’s part might have shown him that man’s experience of having a mind consists precisely in experiencing a peculiar unity which gives them intelligibility and order. Instead, Hume ended up advocating a notion of mind which in his description could easily evoke the image of a heap of bricks. To assume that the heap formed through some all-pervading mortar a genuine unity was an illusion: “What we call a mind, is nothing byt a heap of collection of different perceptions, united together by certain relations and supposed, though falsely, to be endowed with a perfect simplicity and identity.” (Stanley Jaki, ‘The Road of Science and the Ways to God’, p. 104)

I Just Kant Do It

In my more naive days, I thought two things (well, I thought more than two things, but for present purposes, only two are of importance): that causality was empirical and that Kant was way overrated. I know realize that causality is a metaphysical, not empirical category, but I still think Kant is way overrated. What Kant has showed me, however (and, if I may say so, through no small effort of my own – Kant isn’t exactly a paragon of clear writing) is that the human mind is not simply a passive receiver of empirical data from the world outside my mind.

While I do agree with Russell that the mind has at times been given a place of prominence in philosophy and metaphysics that it doesn’t necessarily deserve, there can be no real doubt that in at least this one instance, Kant’s idea that the mind plays an active role in some kind of creation of the world of our experience. If the self was, for example as Hume thought, a bundle of impressions (granting for the sake of argument that this wasn’t an incoherent notion informed by radical empiricism), then there couldn’t really be any experience of the world because there would be no principle by which experience of sense-data could be organized to form any kind of coherent unity of experience at all. There would be only sense-impressions, one after the other, and knowledge of particulars only isn’t any kind of knowledge at all.

Reading Notez 3/1/14

Went through more of ‘Personal Knowledge’ this morning. Got to a brilliant part where Polyani gets into the personal aspect of analytic logic – his example, ‘p is true’, upon his closer inspection, to be just as personal a truth as anything. I found that to be absolutely fascinating.

Been going through a bit of Hume and Reid – Hume is an interesting critical philosopher, but the ideas he offers up aren’t so strong. Dead on about causality not being an empirical thing, though. That particular insight seems like it should have more impact on philosophy of mind than it does. Perhaps it does and I’m just not aware of it. Reid, of course, is the man, who basically criticizes Locke through Hume (specifically, the way of ideas) and by extension, Berkeley.

Continuing to read Feser’s ‘Philosophy of Mind’, specifically the sections on Russellian theory of mind and hylemorphic dualism and Thomistic dualism, which are interesting and solid theories of mind/matter. Russell’s criticisms of the idea that physics can provide a complete picture of reality are quite powerful. Interestingly, Russell thought that the amount of space and attention that we give to the mind in elevating it to be the thing does more harm than good.

I snagged the Blackwell companions to Philosophy of Science, Philosophy of Religion and Metaphysics for  total of 29 bucks, which is pretty cool. I’m a big believer in having good encyclopedia/dictionaries on hand, because they get you the basics – if you learn your basics, you can apply them to the more complex things much more easily. Just like learning to fire your rifle – no fancy tricks needed. Learn your fundamentals and basics, apply em’, and you can’t lose, whether on the range on at your desk.

N.T. Wright on Miracles

‘The older liberalism, dating back at least to the eighteenth century and in particular to Hume, claimed that ‘miracles’ never happened, or at any rate that there could never be sufficient evidence to believe that they had; hence, that Jesus probably never performed any, hence, that perhaps he was not after all ‘divine’. Bth of these lines of thought, in fact, contain the same non sequitur: the strongest incarnational claims in the New Testament (e.g. those of Paul) have nothing to do with Jesus’ might works, and the accounts of the mighty works in the gospels are not usually offered as ‘proof’ of Jesus’ divinty.’

‘The very word ‘miracle’ itself, and for that matter the words ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’, are in fact symptomatic of a very different range of possible worldviews from those which were open to Galilean villagers at the time. The evangelists use terms like paradoxa, things one would not normally exxpect; dunameis, displays of power or authority; terata or semeia, signs or portents. The closest we come to ‘miracle’ is the single occurrence of thaumasia, ‘marvels’, in Matthew 21.15. These words do not carry, as the English word ‘miracle’ has sometimes done, overtones of invasion from another world, or outer space. They indicate, rather, that something has happened, within what we would call the ‘natural’ world, which is not what would have been anticipated, and which seems to provide evidence for the active presence of an authority, a power, at work, not invading the created order as an alien force, but rather enabling it to be more truly itself.’

‘The word ‘miracle’, by contrast, has come to be associated with two quite different questions, developed not least in the period of the Enlightenment: (a) is there a ‘supernatural’ dimension to our world? (b) Which religion, if any, is the true one? ‘Miracles’ became, for some, a way of answering ‘yes’ to the first and ‘Christianity’ to the second. Jesus’ ‘miracles’ are, in this scheme, a ‘proof’ that there is a god, who has ‘intervened’ in the world in this way. Hume and his followers, as we saw, put it the other way around: granted that ‘miracles’ do not occur, or at least cannot be demonstrated to occur, does this mean that all religions, including Christianity, are false, and the Bible untrue? This posing of the question precipitated two possible answers from those wishing to preserve something of the tradition: a non-miraculous ‘Christianity’ on the one hand, and a rearguard anti-critical reaction on the other. Today these questions seem a little lame. Few serious historians now deny that Jesus, and for that matter many other people, performed cures and did other startling things for which there was no natural explanation. But Christian apologetics has moved on as well: ‘miracles’ are not advanced as a ‘proof’ of anything much. What matters far more is intention and meaning. What did Jesus think he was doing, and why? What did his deeds mean to those involved, and to those who passed on the tradition?’ (N.T. Wright, ‘Jesus and the Victory of God’, p.186-188)

Chesterton, Hume, Contingency and Causality

Hume famously argued that causality was a mental construct and not an objective feature of reality – we see one billiard ball hit another, but we don’t see or sense causation – we merely see the fact of the balls collision and draw the causal connection ourselves. Causes do not necessitate their effects. In theory any effect may follow from any cause.

Chesterton, in his book ‘Orthodoxy’, (specifically, ‘The Ethics of Elfland), pursued a somewhat similar line of thought, though it may be that he was far more radical. Chesterton conceded that there are, in fact, things such as logical and mathematical necessities – one plus one is two, if I am the son of a miller, than a miller is my father. These are necessarily true. But then he makes what may turn out to be a stunning observation:

‘If Jack is the son of a miller, a miller is the father of Jack. Cold reason decrees it from her awful throne: and we in fairyland submit. If the three brothers all ride horses, there are six animals and eighteen legs involved: that is true rationalism, and fairyland is full of it. But as I put my head over the hedge of the elves and began to take notice of the natural world, I observed an extraordinary thing. I observed that learned men in spectacles were talking of the actual things that happened — dawn and death and so on — as if they were rational and inevitable. They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as necessary as the fact that two and one trees make three. But it is not.’

What Chesterton does here is to note that there is nothing necessary about an actual fact – that X happens does not mean that X is necessary. In all actuality, Chesterton says that anything may happen. There is not a chain of absolute causality about simple factual happenings – in the physical sciences, ‘there are no laws, only weird repetitions.’ 

Hume took the insight and argued that we have no right to expect that something, say, eating bread, will produce the same effects as it did in the past. I was nourished by bread in the past – but it does not follow necessarily that I will be nourished by it in the future.

Chesterton took this basic point and agreed with it – I’m not nourished by bread by necessity. It’s entirely possible that bread will not nourish me in the future. But what Chesterton argued is that though everything is contingent that happens, and we can’t count on repetition in a logical and necessary sense, reality is structured such that it should turn out to be an odd surprise if one should find trees bearing tigers instead of fruit. Every event is radically contingent, but reality itself is not structured in such a way that anything does come anything. The relations between necessary and logical propositions and facts do not give us a structure of reality as a whole which involves a chain of causation for every event – no event had to occur a certain way.

‘Chesterton’s stunning insistence in ‘The Ethics of Elfland,’ that science as such gives only logical identities and relations but no realities, should make him appear an interpreter of science to be ranked with a Duhem and a Meyerson.’ (Stanley Jaki,‘Interpreter of Science,’  from ‘Chesterton, A Seer of Science’).

It took me a long time to see the force behind Chesterton’s line of thought. The radical contingency and opposition to strict causal laws goes far beyond Hume, in my opinion.