Zeal for Form, But Not According to Knowledge

Some time ago I discussed the question of whether the behavior of a whole should be predictable from the behavior of the parts, without fully resolving it. I promised at the time to revisit the question later, and this is the purpose of the present post.

In the discussion of Robin Hanson’s book Age of Em, we looked briefly at his account of the human mind. Let us look at a more extended portion of his argument about the mind:

There is nothing that we know of that isn’t described well by physics, and everything that physicists know of is well described as many simple parts interacting simply. Parts are localized in space, have interactions localized in time, and interactions effects don’t move in space faster than the speed of light. Simple parts have internal states that can be specified with just a few bits (or qubits), and each part only interacts directly with a few other parts close in space and time. Since each interaction is only between a few bits on a few sides, it must also be simple. Furthermore, all known interactions are mutual in the sense that the state on all sides is influenced by states of the other sides.

For example, ordinary field theories have a limited number of fields at each point in space-time, with each field having a limited number of degrees of freedom. Each field has a few simple interactions with other fields, and with its own space-time derivatives. With limited energy, this latter effect limits how fast a field changes in space and time.

As a second example, ordinary digital electronics is made mostly of simple logic units, each with only a few inputs, a few outputs, and a few bits of internal state. Typically: two inputs, one output, and zero or one bits of state. Interactions between logic units are via simple wires that force the voltage and current to be almost the same at matching ends.

As a third example, cellular automatons are often taken as a clear simple metaphor for typical physical systems. Each such automation has a discrete array of cells, each of which has a few possible states. At discrete time steps, the state of each cell is a simple standard function of the states of that cell and its neighbors at the last time step. The famous “game of life” uses a two dimensional array with one bit per cell.

This basic physics fact, that everything is made of simple parts interacting simply, implies that anything complex, able to represent many different possibilities, is made of many parts. And anything able to manage complex interaction relations is spread across time, constructed via many simple interactions built up over time. So if you look at a disk of a complex movie, you’ll find lots of tiny structures encoding bits. If you look at an organism that survives in a complex environment, you’ll find lots of tiny parts with many non-regular interactions.

Physicists have learned that we only we ever get empirical evidence about the state of things via their interactions with other things. When such interactions the state of one thing create correlations with the state of another, we can use that correlation, together with knowledge of one state, as evidence about the other state. If a feature or state doesn’t influence any interactions with familiar things, we could drop it from our model of the world and get all the same predictions. (Though we might include it anyway for simplicity, so that similar parts have similar features and states.)

Not only do we know that in general everything is made of simple parts interacting simply, for pretty much everything that happens here on Earth we know those parts and interactions in great precise detail. Yes there are still some areas of physics we don’t fully understand, but we also know that those uncertainties have almost nothing to say about ordinary events here on Earth. For humans and their immediate environments on Earth, we know exactly what are all the parts, what states they hold, and all of their simple interactions. Thermodynamics assures us that there can’t be a lot of hidden states around holding many bits that interact with familiar states.

Now it is true that when many simple parts are combined into complex arrangements, it can be very hard to calculate the detailed outcomes they produce. This isn’t because such outcomes aren’t implied by the math, but because it can be hard to calculate what math implies. When we can figure out quantities that are easier to calculate, as long as the parts and interactions we think are going on are in fact the only things going on, then we usually see those quantities just as calculated.

The point of Robin’s argument is to take a particular position in regard to the question we are revisiting in this post: everything that is done by wholes is predictable from the behavior of the parts. The argument is simply a more extended form of a point I made in the earlier post, namely that there is no known case where the behavior of a whole is known not to be predictable in such a way, and many known cases where it is certainly predictable in this way.

The title of the present post of course refers us to this earlier post. In that post I discussed the tendency to set first and second causes in opposition, and noted that the resulting false dichotomy leads to two opposite mistakes, namely the denial of a first cause on one hand, and to the assertion that the first cause does or should work without secondary causes on the other.

In the same way, I say it is a false dichotomy to set the work of form in opposition with the work of matter and disposition. Rather, they produce the same thing, both according to being and according to activity, but in different respects. If this is the case, it will be necessarily true from the nature of things that the behavior of a whole is predictable from the behavior of the parts, but this will happen in a particular way.

I mentioned an example of the same false dichotomy in the post on Robin’s book. Here again is his argument:

But consider a key question: Does this other feeling stuff interact with the familiar parts of our world strongly and reliably enough to usually be the actual cause of humans making statements of feeling like this?

If yes, this is a remarkably strong interaction, making it quite surprising that physicists have missed it so far. So surprising in fact as to be frankly unbelievable. If this type of interaction were remotely as simple as all the interactions we know, then it should be quite measurable with existing equipment. Any interaction not so measurable would have be vastly more complex and context dependent than any we’ve ever seen or considered. Thus I’d bet heavily and confidently that no one will measure such an interaction.

But if no, if this interaction isn’t strong enough to explain human claims of feeling, then we have a remarkable coincidence to explain. Somehow this extra feeling stuff exists, and humans also have a tendency to say that it exists, but these happen for entirely independent reasons. The fact that feeling stuff exists isn’t causing people to claim it exists, nor vice versa. Instead humans have some sort of weird psychological quirk that causes them to make such statements, and they would make such claims even if feeling stuff didn’t exist. But if we have a good alternate explanation for why people tend to make such statements, what need do we have of the hypothesis that feeling stuff actually exists? Such a coincidence seems too remarkable to be believed.

I am currently awake and conscious, hearing the sounds of my keyboard as I type and the music playing in the background. Robin’s argument is something like this: why did I type the previous sentence? Is it because I am in fact awake and conscious and actually heard these sounds? If in principle it is predictable that I would have typed that, based on the simple interactions of simple parts, that seems to be an entirely different explanation. So either one might be the case or the other, but not both.

We have seen this kind of argument before. C.S. Lewis made this kind of argument when he said that thought must have reasons only, and no causes. Similarly, there is the objection to the existence of God, “But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist.” Just as in those cases we have a false dichotomy between the first cause and secondary causes, and between the final cause and efficient causes, so here we have a false dichotomy between form and matter.

Let us consider this in a simpler case. We earlier discussed the squareness of a square. Suppose someone attempted to apply Robin’s argument to squares. The equivalent argument would say this: all conclusions about squares can be proved from premises about the four lines that make it up and their relationships. So what use is this extra squareness? We might as well assume it does not exist, since it cannot explain anything.

In order to understand this one should consider why we need several kinds of cause in the first place. To assign a cause is just to give the origin of a thing in a way that explains it, while explanation has various aspects. In the linked post, we divided causes into two, namely intrinsic and extrinsic, and then divided each of these into two. But consider what would happen if we did not make the second division. In this case, there would be two causes of a thing: matter subject to form, and agent intending an end. We can see from this how the false dichotomies arise: all the causality of the end must be included in some way in the agent, since the end causes by informing the agent, and all the causality of the form must be included in some way in the matter, since the form causes by informing the matter.

In the case of the square, even the linked post noted that there was an aspect of the square that could not be derived from its properties: namely, the fact that a square is one figure, rather than simply many lines. This is the precise effect of form in general: to make a thing be what it is.

Consider Alexander Pruss’s position on artifacts. He basically asserted that artifacts do not truly exist, on the grounds that they seem to be lacking a formal cause. In this way, he says, they are just a collection of parts, just as someone might suppose that a square is just a collection of lines, and that there is no such thing as squareness. My response there was the same as my response about the square: saying that this is just a collection cannot explain why a square is one figure, nor can the same account explain the fact that artifacts do have a unity of some kind. Just as the denial of squareness would mean the denial of the existence of a unified figure, so the denial of chairness would mean the denial of the existence of chairs. Unlike Sean Carroll, Pruss seems even to recognize that this denial follows from his position, even if he is ambivalent about it at times.

Hanson’s argument about the human mind is actually rather similar to Pruss’s argument about artifacts, and to Carroll’s argument about everything. The question of whether or not the fact that I am actually conscious influences whether I say that I am, is a reference to the idea of a philosophical zombie. Robin discusses this idea more directly in another post:

Carroll inspires me to try to make one point I think worth making, even if it is also ignored. My target is people who think philosophical zombies make sense. Zombies are supposedly just like real people in having the same physical brains, which arose the through the same causal history. The only difference is that while real people really “feel”, zombies do not. But since this state of “feeling” is presumed to have zero causal influence on behavior, zombies act exactly like real people, including being passionate and articulate about claiming they are not zombies. People who think they can conceive of such zombies see a “hard question” regarding which physical systems that claim to feel and otherwise act as if they feel actually do feel. (And which other systems feel as well.)

The one point I want to make is: if zombies are conceivable, then none of us will ever have any more relevant info than we do now about which systems actually feel. Which is pretty much zero info! You will never have any info about whether you ever really felt in the past, or will ever feel in the future. No one part of your brain ever gets any info from any other part of your brain about whether it really feels.

These claims all follow from our very standard and well-established info theory. We get info about things by interacting with them, so that our states become correlated with the states of those things. But by assumption this hypothesized extra “feeling” state never interacts with anything. The actual reason why you feel compelled to assert very confidently that you really do feel has no causal connection with whether you actually do really feel. You would have been just as likely to say it if it were not true. What could possibly be the point of hypothesizing and forming beliefs about states about which one can never get any info?

We noted the unresolved tension in Sean Carroll’s position. The eliminativists are metaphysically correct, he says, but they are mistaken to draw the conclusion that the things of our common experience do not exist. The problem is that given that he accepts the eliminativist metaphysics, he can have no justification for rejecting their conclusions. We can see the same tension in Robin Hanson’s account of consciousness and philosophical zombies. For example, why does he say that they do not “make sense,” rather than asking whether or not they can exist and why or why not?

Let us think about this in more detail. And to see more clearly the issues involved, let us consider a simpler case. Take the four chairs in Pruss’s office. Is it possible that one of them is a zombie?

What would this even mean? In the post on the relationship of form and reality, we noted that asking whether something has a form is very close to the question of whether something is real. I really have two hands, Pruss says, if my hands have forms. And likewise chairs are real chairs if they have the form of a chair, and if they do not, they are not real in the first place, as Pruss argues is the case.

The zombie question about the chair would then be this: is it possible that one of the apparent chairs, physically identical to a real chair, is yet not a real chair, while the three others are real?

We should be able to understand why someone would want to say that the question “does not make sense” here. What would it even be like for one of the chairs not to be a real chair, especially if it is posited to be identical to all of the others? In reality, though, the question does make sense, even if we answer that the thing cannot happen. In this case it might actually be more possible than in other cases, since artifacts are in part informed by human intentions. But possible or not, the question surely makes sense.

Let us consider the case of natural things. Consider the zombie oak tree: it is physically identical to an oak tree, but it is not truly alive. It appears to grow, but this is just the motion of particles. There are three positions someone could hold: no oak trees are zombie oaks, since all are truly alive and grow; all oak trees are zombies, since all are mere collections of particles; and some are alive and grow, while others are zombies, being mere collections of particles.

Note that the question does indeed make sense. It is hard to see why anyone would accept the third position, but if the first and second positions make sense, then the third does as well. It has an intelligible content, even if it is one that we have no good arguments for accepting. The argument that it does not make sense is basically the claim that the first and second positions are not distinct positions: they do not say different things, but the same thing. Thus the the third would “not make sense” insofar as it assumes that the first and second positions are distinct positions.

Why would someone suppose that the first and second positions are not distinct? This is basically Sean Carroll’s position, since he tries to say both that eliminativists are correct about what exists, but incorrect in denying the existence of common sense things like oak trees. It is useful to say, “oak trees are real,” he says, and therefore we will say it, but we do not mean to say something different about reality than the eliminativists who say that “oak trees are not real but mere collections of particles.”

But this is wrong. Carroll’s position is inconsistent in virtually the most direct possible way. Either oak trees are real or they are not; and if they are real, then they are not mere collections of particles. So both the first and second positions are meaningful, and consequently also the third.

The second and third positions are false, however, and the meaningfulness of this becomes especially clear when we speak of the human case. It obviously does make sense to ask whether other human beings are conscious, and this is simply to ask whether their apparent living activities, such as speaking and thinking, are real living activities, or merely apparent ones: perhaps the thing is making sounds, but it is not truly speaking or thinking.

Let us go back to the oak tree for a moment. The zombie oak would be one that is not truly living, but its activities, apparently full of life, are actually lifeless. In order to avoid this possibility, and out of a zeal for form which is not according to knowledge, some assert that the activities of an oak cannot be understood in terms of the activities of the parts. There is a hint of this, perhaps, in this remark by James Chastek:

Consciousness is just the latest field where we are protesting that something constitutes a specific difference from some larger genus, but if it goes the way the others have gone, in fifty years no one will even remember the controversy or bother to give the fig-leaf explanations of it being emergent or reductive. No one will remember that there is a difference to explain. Did anyone notice in tenth-grade biology that life was explained entirely in terms of non-living processes? No. There was nothing to explain since nothing was noticed.

Chastek does not assert that life cannot be “explained entirely in terms of non-living processes,” in the manner of tenth-grade biology, but he perhaps would prefer that it could not be so explained. And the reason for this would be the idea that if everything the living thing does can be explained in terms of the parts, then oak trees are zombies after all.

But this idea is mistaken. Look again at the square: the parts explain everything, except the fact that the figure is one figure, and a square. The form of a square is indeed needed, precisely in order that the thing will actually be a whole and a square.

Likewise with the oak. If an oak tree is made out of parts, then since activity follows being, it should be unsurprising that in some sense its activities themselves will be made out of parts, namely the activities of its parts. But the oak is real, and its activities are real. And just as oaks really exist, so they really live and grow; but just as the living oak has parts which are not alive in themselves, such as elements, so the activity of growth contains partial activities which are not living activities in themselves. What use is the form of an oak, then? It makes the tree really an oak and really alive; and it makes its activities living activities such as growth, rather than being merely a collection of non-living activities.

We can look at human beings in the same way, but I will leave the details of this for another post, since this one is long enough already.

Age of Em

This is Robin Hanson’s first book. Hanson gradually introduces his topic:

You, dear reader, are special. Most humans were born before 1700. And of those born after, you are probably richer and better educated than most. Thus you and most everyone you know are special, elite members of the industrial era.

Like most of your kind, you probably feel superior to your ancestors. Oh, you don’t blame them for learning what they were taught. But you’d shudder to hear of many of your distant farmer ancestors’ habits and attitudes on sanitation, sex, marriage, gender, religion, slavery, war, bosses, inequality, nature, conformity, and family obligations. And you’d also shudder to hear of many habits and attitudes of your even more ancient forager ancestors. Yes, you admit that lacking your wealth your ancestors couldn’t copy some of your habits. Even so, you tend to think that humanity has learned that your ways are better. That is, you believe in social and moral progress.

The problem is, the future will probably hold new kinds of people. Your descendants’ habits and attitudes are likely to differ from yours by as much as yours differ from your ancestors. If you understood just how different your ancestors were, you’d realize that you should expect your descendants to seem quite strange. Historical fiction misleads you, showing your ancestors as more modern than they were. Science fiction similarly misleads you about your descendants.

As an example of the kind of past difference that Robin is discussing, even in the fairly recent past, consider this account by William Ewald of a trial from the sixteenth century:

In 1522 some rats were placed on trial before the ecclesiastical court in Autun. They were charged with a felony: specifically, the crime of having eaten and wantonly destroyed some barley crops in the jurisdiction. A formal complaint against “some rats of the diocese” was presented to the bishop’s vicar, who thereupon cited the culprits to appear on a day certain, and who appointed a local jurist, Barthelemy Chassenée (whose name is sometimes spelled Chassanée, or Chasseneux, or Chasseneuz), to defend them. Chassenée, then forty-two, was known for his learning, but not yet famous; the trial of the rats of Autun was to establish his reputation, and launch a distinguished career in the law.

When his clients failed to appear in court, Chassenée resorted to procedural arguments. His first tactic was to invoke the notion of fair process, and specifically to challenge the original writ for having failed to give the rats due notice. The defendants, he pointed out, were dispersed over a large tract of countryside, and lived in many villages; a single summons was inadequate to notify them all. Moreover, the summons was addressed only to some of the rats of the diocese; but technically it should have been addressed to them all.

Chassenée was successful in his argument, and the court ordered a second summons to be read from the pulpit of every local parish church; this second summons now correctly addressed all the local rats, without exception.

But on the appointed day the rats again failed to appear. Chassenée now made a second argument. His clients, he reminded the court, were widely dispersed; they needed to make preparations for a great migration, and those preparations would take time. The court once again conceded the reasonableness of the argument, and granted a further delay in the proceedings. When the rats a third time failed to appear, Chassenée was ready with a third argument. The first two arguments had relied on the idea of procedural fairness; the third treated the rats as a class of persons who were entitled to equal treatment under the law. He addressed the court at length, and successfully demonstrated that, if a person is cited to appear at a place to which he cannot come in safety, he may lawfully refuse to obey the writ. And a journey to court would entail serious perils for his clients. They were notoriously unpopular in the region; and furthermore they were rightly afraid of their natural enemies, the cats. Moreover (he pointed out to the court) the cats could hardly be regarded as neutral in this dispute; for they belonged to the plaintiffs. He accordingly demanded that the plaintiffs be enjoined by the court, under the threat of severe penalties, to restrain their cats, and prevent them from frightening his clients. The court again found this argument compelling; but now the plaintiffs seem to have come to the end of their patience. They demurred to the motion; the court, unable to settle on the correct period within which the rats must appear, adjourned on the question sine die, and judgment for the rats was granted by default.

Most of us would assume at once that this is all nothing but an elaborate joke; but Ewald strongly argues that it was all quite serious. This would actually be worthy of its own post, but I will leave it aside for now. In any case it illustrates the existence of extremely different attitudes even a few centuries ago.

In any event, Robin continues:

New habits and attitudes result less than you think from moral progress, and more from people adapting to new situations. So many of your descendants’ strange habits and attitudes are likely to violate your concepts of moral progress; what they do may often seem wrong. Also, you likely won’t be able to easily categorize many future ways as either good or evil; they will instead just seem weird. After all, your world hardly fits the morality tales your distant ancestors told; to them you’d just seem weird. Complex realities frustrate simple summaries, and don’t fit simple morality tales.

Many people of a more conservative temperament, such as myself, might wish to swap out “moral progress” here with “moral regress,” but the point stands in any case. This is related to our discussions of the effects of technology and truth on culture, and of the idea of irreversible changes.

Robin finally gets to the point of his book:

This book presents a concrete and plausible yet troubling view of a future full of strange behaviors and attitudes. You may have seen concrete troubling future scenarios before in science fiction. But few of those scenarios are in fact plausible; their details usually make little sense to those with expert understanding. They were designed for entertainment, not realism.

Perhaps you were told that fictional scenarios are the best we can do. If so, I aim to show that you were told wrong. My method is simple. I will start with a particular very disruptive technology often foreseen in futurism and science fiction: brain emulations, in which brains are recorded, copied, and used to make artificial “robot” minds. I will then use standard theories from many physical, human, and social sciences to describe in detail what a world with that future technology would look like.

I may be wrong about some consequences of brain emulations, and I may misapply some science. Even so, the view I offer will still show just how troublingly strange the future can be.

I greatly enjoyed Robin’s book, but unfortunately I have to admit that relatively few people will in general. It is easy enough to see the reason for this from Robin’s introduction. Who would expect to be interested? Possibly those who enjoy the “futurism and science fiction” concerning brain emulations; but if Robin does what he set out to do, those persons will find themselves strangely uninterested. As he says, science fiction is “designed for entertainment, not realism,” while he is attempting to answer the question, “What would this actually be like?” This intention is very remote from the intention of the science fiction, and consequently it will likely appeal to different people.

Whether or not Robin gets the answer to this question right, he definitely succeeds in making his approach and appeal differ from those of science fiction.

One might illustrate this with almost any random passage from the book. Here are portions of his discussion of the climate of em cities:

As we will discuss in Chapter 18, Cities section, em cities are likely to be big, dense, highly cost-effective concentrations of computer and communication hardware. How might such cities interact with their surroundings?

Today, computer and communication hardware is known for being especially temperamental about its environment. Rooms and buildings designed to house such hardware tend to be climate-controlled to ensure stable and low values of temperature, humidity, vibration, dust, and electromagnetic field intensity. Such equipment housing protects it especially well from fire, flood, and security breaches.

The simple assumption is that, compared with our cities today, em cities will also be more climate-controlled to ensure stable and low values of temperature, humidity, vibrations, dust, and electromagnetic signals. These controls may in fact become city level utilities. Large sections of cities, and perhaps entire cities, may be covered, perhaps even domed, to control humidity, dust, and vibration, with city utilities working to absorb remaining pollutants. Emissions within cities may also be strictly controlled.

However, an em city may contain temperatures, pressures, vibrations, and chemical concentrations that are toxic to ordinary humans. If so, ordinary humans are excluded from most places in em cities for safety reasons. In addition, we will see in Chapter 18, Transport section, that many em city transport facilities are unlikely to be well matched to the needs of ordinary humans.

Cities today are the roughest known kind of terrain, in the sense that cities slow down the wind the most compared with other terrain types. Cities also tend to be hotter than neighboring areas. For example, Las Vegas is 7 ° Fahrenheit hotter in the summer than are surrounding areas. This hotter city effect makes ozone pollution worse and this effect is stronger for bigger cities, in the summer, at night, with fewer clouds, and with slower wind (Arnfield 2003).

This is a mild reason to expect em cities to be hotter than other areas, especially at night and in the summer. However, as em cities are packed full of computing hardware, we shall now see that em cities will  actually be much hotter.

While the book considers a wide variety of topics, e.g. the social relationships among ems, which look quite different from the above passage, the general mode of treatment is the same. As Robin put it, he uses “standard theories” to describe the em world, much as he employs standard theories about cities, about temperature and climate, and about computing hardware in the above passage.

One might object that basically Robin is positing a particular technological change (brain emulations), but then assuming that everything else is the same, and working from there. And there is some validity to this objection. But in the end there is actually no better way to try to predict the future; despite David Hume’s opinion, generally the best way to estimate the future is to say, “Things will be pretty much the same.”

At the end of the book, Robin describes various criticisms. First are those who simply said they weren’t interested: “If we include those who declined to read my draft, the most common complaint is probably ‘who cares?'” And indeed, that is what I would expect, since as Robin remarked himself, people are interested in an entertaining account of the future, not an attempt at a detailed description of what is likely.

Others, he says, “doubt that one can ever estimate the social consequences of technologies decades in advance.” This is basically the objection I mentioned above.

He lists one objection that I am partly in agreement with:

Many doubt that brain emulations will be our next huge technology change, and aren’t interested in analyses of the consequences of any big change except the one they personally consider most likely or interesting. Many of these people expect traditional artificial intelligence, that is, hand-coded software, to achieve broad human level abilities before brain emulations appear. I think that past rates of progress in coding smart software suggest that at previous rates it will take two to four centuries to achieve broad human level abilities via this route. These critics often point to exciting recent developments, such as advances in “deep learning,” that they think make prior trends irrelevant.

I don’t think Robin is necessarily mistaken in regard to his expectations about “traditional artificial intelligence,” although he may be, and I don’t find myself uninterested by default in things that I don’t think the most likely. But I do think that traditional artificial intelligence is more likely than his scenario of brain emulations; more on this below.

There are two other likely objections that Robin does not include in this list, although he does touch on them elsewhere. First, people are likely to say that the creation of ems would be immoral, even if it is possible, and similarly that the kinds of habits and lives that he describes would themselves be immoral. On the one hand, this should not be a criticism at all, since Robin can respond that he is simply describing what he thinks is likely, not saying whether it should happen or not; on the other hand, it is in fact obvious that Robin does not have much disapproval, if any, of his scenario. The book ends in fact by calling attention to this objection:

The analysis in this book suggests that lives in the next great era may be as different from our lives as our lives are from farmers’ lives, or farmers’ lives are from foragers’ lives. Many readers of this book, living industrial era lives and sharing industrial era values, may be disturbed to see a forecast of em era descendants with choices and life styles that appear to reject many of the values that they hold dear. Such readers may be tempted to fight to prevent the em future, perhaps preferring a continuation of the industrial era. Such readers may be correct that rejecting the em future holds them true to their core values.

But I advise such readers to first try hard to see this new era in some detail from the point of view of its typical residents. See what they enjoy and what fills them with pride, and listen to their criticisms of your era and values. This book has been designed in part to assist you in such a soul-searching examination. If after reading this book, you still feel compelled to disown your em descendants, I cannot say you are wrong. My job, first and foremost, has been to help you see your descendants clearly, warts and all.

Our own discussions of the flexibility of human morality are relevant. The creatures Robin is describing are in many ways quite different from humans, and it is in fact very appropriate for their morality to differ from human morality.

A second likely objection is that Robin’s ems are simply impossible, on account of the nature of the human mind. I think that this objection is mistaken, but I will leave the details of this explanation for another time. Robin appears to agree with Sean Carroll about the nature of the mind, as can be seen for example in this post. Robin is mistaken about this, for the reasons suggested in my discussion of Carroll’s position. Part of the problem is that Robin does not seem to understand the alternative. Here is a passage from the linked post on Overcoming Bias:

Now what I’ve said so far is usually accepted as uncontroversial, at least when applied to the usual parts of our world, such as rivers, cars, mountains laptops, or ants. But as soon as one claims that all this applies to human minds, suddenly it gets more controversial. People often state things like this:

“I am sure that I’m not just a collection of physical parts interacting, because I’m aware that I feel. I know that physical parts interacting just aren’t the kinds of things that can feel by themselves. So even though I have a physical body made of parts, and there are close correlations between my feelings and the states of my body parts, there must be something more than that to me (and others like me). So there’s a deep mystery: what is this extra stuff, where does it arise, how does it change, and so on. We humans care mainly about feelings, not physical parts interacting; we want to know what out there feels so we can know what to care about.”

But consider a key question: Does this other feeling stuff interact with the familiar parts of our world strongly and reliably enough to usually be the actual cause of humans making statements of feeling like this?

If yes, this is a remarkably strong interaction, making it quite surprising that physicists have missed it so far. So surprising in fact as to be frankly unbelievable. If this type of interaction were remotely as simple as all the interactions we know, then it should be quite measurable with existing equipment. Any interaction not so measurable would have be vastly more complex and context dependent than any we’ve ever seen or considered. Thus I’d bet heavily and confidently that no one will measure such an interaction.

But if no, if this interaction isn’t strong enough to explain human claims of feeling, then we have a remarkable coincidence to explain. Somehow this extra feeling stuff exists, and humans also have a tendency to say that it exists, but these happen for entirely independent reasons. The fact that feeling stuff exists isn’t causing people to claim it exists, nor vice versa. Instead humans have some sort of weird psychological quirk that causes them to make such statements, and they would make such claims even if feeling stuff didn’t exist. But if we have a good alternate explanation for why people tend to make such statements, what need do we have of the hypothesis that feeling stuff actually exists? Such a coincidence seems too remarkable to be believed.

There is a false dichotomy here, and it is the same one that C.S. Lewis falls into when he says, “Either we can know nothing or thought has reasons only, and no causes.” And in general it is like the error of the pre-Socratics, that if a thing has some principles which seem sufficient, it can have no other principles, failing to see that there are several kinds of cause, and each can be complete in its own way. And perhaps I am getting ahead of myself here, since I said this discussion would be for later, but the objection that Robin’s scenario is impossible is mistaken in exactly the same way, and for the same reason: people believe that if a “materialistic” explanation could be given of human behavior in the way that Robin describes, then people do not truly reason, make choices, and so on. But this is simply to adopt the other side of the false dichotomy, much like C.S. Lewis rejects the possibility of causes for our beliefs.

One final point. I mentioned above that I see Robin’s scenario as less plausible than traditional artificial intelligence. I agree with Tyler Cowen in this post. This present post is already long enough, so again I will leave a detailed explanation for another time, but I will remark that Robin and I have a bet on the question.

Ezekiel Bulver on Descartes

C.S. Lewis writes:

In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became to be so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism.” Some day I am going the write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father – who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third – “Oh, you say that because you are a man.” “At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

In the post linked above, we mainly discussed “explaining how he came to be so silly” in terms of motivations. But Ezekiel Bulver has a still more insidious way of explaining people’s mistakes. Here is his explanation of the mistakes of Descartes (fictional, of course, like the rest of Bulver’s life):

Descartes was obsessed with proving the immortality of the soul and the existence of God. This is clear enough from his own statements regarding the purpose of the MeditationsThis is why he makes, “I think, therefore I am,” the fundamental principle of his entire system. And he derives everything from this single principle.

Someone who derives everything from such a thought, of course, is almost sure to be wrong about everything, since not much can actually follow from that thought, and in any case it is fundamentally misguided to derive conclusions about the world from our ideas about knowledge, rather than deriving conclusions about knowledge from our knowledge of the world.

While Bulver includes here a reference to a motive, namely the desire to prove the immortality of the soul and the existence of God, his main argument is that Descartes is mistaken due to the flawed order of his argument.

As I suggested above, this is even more insidious than the imputation of motives. As I pointed out in the original discussion of Bulverism, having a motive for a belief does not exclude the possibility of having an argument, nor does it exclude the possibility the argument is a strong one, nor does it exclude the possibility that one’s belief is true. But in the case under consideration, Bulver is not giving a cause rather than a reason; he is saying that Descartes has reasons, but that they are necessarily flawed ones, because they do not respect the natural order of knowing. The basic principle is the same: assume that a man is wrong, and then explain how he got to be wrong. The process appears more reasonable insofar as reasons are imputed to the person, but they are more exclusive of the person’s real reasons, while motives do not exclude any reasons.

As we have seen, Bulver is mistaken about Descartes. Descartes does not actually suppose that he derives his knowledge of the world from his knowledge of thought, even if he organizes his book that way.

 

Patience and Truth

When we consider truth as a good to be sought, the virtue of patience is related to this good in the same way that it is related to other goods. One must seek the truth with an “equal mind,” as St. Augustine says, in order that an unequal mind will not lead one to attempt shortcuts that will not in fact lead towards the truth, but away from it.

As an illustration, we can consider this in relation to our previous discussion of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. We can argue that impatience is involved in their claims, and in several different ways. This will not apply of necessity, of course, to every individual who makes such claims. An individual Witness may simply believe what he has been told by the wisest people he knows, and this may be perfectly reasonable, without any sort of impatience. Nonetheless, I would argue that impatience is involved here in a kind of objective way, and almost certainly with respect to many individuals as well.

In the first place, consider the general claim that apocalyptic events will soon take place. This seems to go back to Nelson Barbour’s argument in his publication Herald of the Morning. Let us look at a few passages, taken from here.

In the book of Daniel, we find a concise history of the world. And those who will compare these prophecies with the facts in history, will find an antidote to infidelity.

That the prophecy was given prior to the Christian era, no one questions. And the evidence is abundant that it was written at about the close of the sixth century, B.C.

Now go with me over the world’s history, and compare it with the prophecy as found in Dan. 7, and then as an honest man, say if one doubt remains, as to its Divine origin.

The four great empires of the world were shown to Nebuchadnezzar in the form of a great image, or likeness of a man; but are here represented to Daniel, as four great wild beasts.

That Babylon, Medo-Persia, Grecia, and Rome, are the four great empires of the world, is known by the veriest schoolboy.

Babylon, founded by Nimrod, the grandson of Noah, was conquered by Cyrus, about 538 B.C. And the kingdom passed into the hands of Darius the Mede, who was father-in-law to Cyrus. And here, “the lion,” Babylon, gave place to “the bear,” Medo-Persia.

The second empire continued a little more than two hundred years, and was then conquered by Alexander the Great; who was the “first king” of the third universal empire; represented in the symbol, by the leopard.

This beast had “four wings,” and “four heads,” denoting a division of the kingdom into four parts, as we are informed.

At the death of Alexander, his four generals shared the kingdom between them. Cassander reigned in Greece, Lysimachus, in Thrace, Ptolemy in Egypt, and Seleucus, in Syria.

This quadrible empire continued about three hundred years, but was eventually subdued by the Romans, B.C. 30.

With the fourth empire, the prophecy enters into very minute detail. Its destructive character, its final division into ten parts, or “horns,” the coming up of another power, “diverse from all the others,” and which was to “wear out the saints of the Most High,” and continue for twelve hundred and sixty years to hold “times and laws,” and afterwards, undergo gradual consumption “unto the end.”

Rome conquered Grecia, and became a universal empire, at about 30 B.C. and so continued, until about the middle of the fifth century, when it was broken into ten fragments. And after that, came up this “little horn,” of which we mean to speak more particularly.

The papacy has its history and character so clearly and minutely recorded here, that we cannot be mistaken in the application.

This “little horn” comes up after the other ten, hence, after the middle of the fifth century. Since “the virgins have been slumbering and sleeping,” some of them have called this “little horn,” the whole eastern empire. But the eastern empire came up more than a hundred and fifty years before Rome was divided into ten parts.

This horn was to “speak great words, and wear out the saints, and think to change times and laws”; all of which was accomplished by the papacy, and not the eastern empire.

After Rome was divided into ten parts, we are to look for a “little horn, diverse from all the others.” The papacy exercised ecclesiastical, as well as civil power, hence, it was different “from all that were before it.” “He shall subdue three kingdoms.” The popes wear a tiara, or three crowned hat; and the map of the Papal States, as they existed a few years since, embraced the territory of three of the original divisions of the Roman empire, viz., Lombardy, the Exarch of Ravenna, and Romania. Sir Isaac Newton, in his dissertation on the Bishop Newton; the Encylopedia of the Royal Society of London for the diffusion of useful knowledge, John Down Dowling, in his History of the Papacy, and all other authorities, outside of certain Adventists, make this same statement in relation to the three horns that were plucked up by this little horn.

The next thing mentioned of the little horn is, “He shall speak great words against the Most High.” I need not stop here to tell you of the great words spoken by the papacy; its history is too well known. “He shall wear out the saints of the Most High.” This also is graven “in blood and flame, and sword and captivity,” on the pages of history. “He shall think to change times and laws, and they shall be given into his hand for a time, times, and the dividing of time.”

Mark the expression, “they, (times and laws) shall be given into his hands.” Who gave them? Let the Bible speak for itself. “These ten kings, … these have one mind, and shall give them power and strength unto the beast.” Rev. 17:12, 13.

Soon after the ten horns came up, they embraced the papal religion, and did “agree and give their kingdom to the beast” until the words of God, viz., “the forty and two months,” or “time, times, and the dividing of time,” was fulfilled.

Ok, you might say, all very well, but this all seems pretty debatable. But even if we assume that it is all correct, how is this supposed to show that apocalyptic events will soon take place? Patience. Barbour’s argument is not a short one.

When the Gothic power was broken in Italy, about A.D. 538, Rome ceased to have a king; and from that date, and for centuries after, the governing power in Rome was of a very mixed and confused character; so much so in fact, that it was difficult to trace its history.

“Times and laws shall be given into his hands, for a time, times, and the dividing of time.” (ver. 26.) The question here arises, why we assume that this period of time is twelve hundred and sixty years? And I shall answer very briefly.

This period occurs here, and in Dan. 12:7, and Rev. 12:14. In Rev. 12 it says, “The woman fled into the wilderness, … and they should feed her there for a thousand two hundred and three score days.” In verse 14 it declares, “She flew into the wilderness, where she is nourished for a time, times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent.” And in Rev. 13:5, we find this power, from which the true church, or “woman,” fled, was to continue forty and two months. In Dan. 11, the margin against verse 13 gives the Hebrew reading, of the meaning of “time,” “Heb. At the end of Times, even Years.” In Hebrew, when two “times,” or “years,” were spoken of, the plural was used, “times”; when more than two, the number was given. Hence, a literal rendering of the above text is, “for a year, two years, and the dividing of a year.” (Dan. 7:26.) This “dividing of a year,” leaves it a little obscure, but in Rev., these three expressions, “time, times, and a half,” “forty and two months,” “a thousand two hundred and three score days,” are used to measure the same period of time, and therefore, these periods must be synonymous. A year is twelve months, two years twenty-four months, and a half year, six months, and together, make the period of forty and two months. A Bible month is thirty days. (See Gen. 7:11.) Where the fountains of the great deep are broken up on the seventeenth day of the second month. And in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day, the ark rested on Mount Ararat. (Gen. 8:4.) “And the waters prevailed upon the earth a hundred and fifty days.” (Gen. 7:24.) From the seventeenth day of the second month, to the seventeenth of the seventh month, is five months; and God said it was “a hundred and fifty days.” Five times thirty is a hundred and fifty. Thus we learn that a time, times, and the dividing of time, or half a time, as given in Dan. 12:7, is 1260 “days.”

A day, when used in prophecy as a symbol, represents a year. (See Ezek. 4:1-6.) But the best of all proof is, the prophecy has been so fulfilled.

In March, A.D. 538, the power of the Goths in Italy was broken; and somewhere about that time, probably near the end of that year, but we cannot determine the month, the provinces of Italy changed their allegiance from the Goths to the Catholic party. “The provinces of Italy had embraced the party of the emperor,” says Gibbon. (See Gib. 1824, page 707.)

Somewhere, then, in the year 538, the provinces, civil power became catholic; and within “one hour,” prophetic time, or fifteen days, (as we shall show on another occasion) from that change of allegiance, the last of the “ten kings” joined the confederacy, and “agreed and gave their power and strength unto the beast.” Here, then, somewhere in the year 538, the papacy began to exercise civil power. And when that church became a civil power, it was numbered among Gentile governments, and became a “horn,” or “beast,” in prophetic language.

Twelve hundred and sixty years from that date the prophecy declares, that “judgment should sit, and they shall take away his dominion, to consume and to destroy it, unto the end.” (Verse 26.) Twelve hundred and sixty years from 538 ended in 1798; and you all know what happened to the papacy. I need not quote history; these facts which I have given, are the outline facts with which all students of history are familiar, and all that is required to establish this application, with absolute certainty, viz. 538, and 1798.

The papacy is organized today — men, women and children, over twelve years of age, all over the world — for the final death struggle. Labor is organized against capital; the Internationals against governments. There are startling events at hand, a time of trouble such as this world has never experienced.

“And the saints of the Most High shall take the kingdom, and possess the kingdom for ever, even for ever and ever.” 1335 prophetic days from where the 1260 began, allowing for certain fractions of a year, which will be made clear in another article, bring us to the end of the world’s history; and complete all the symbols as God has drawn them. This is as certain, and can be made as clear, as is the present application of this prophecy. Is there not, therefore, a plausible argument, at least, that we are on the eve of the Gospel dispensation, and the morning of the next, the glorious age? Then, friends, you who have been waiting long for the coming Bridegroom, take heart, and you who are unprepared for these events, get ready, THE GREAT JUDGMENT DAY IS AT HAND!

I am sure that the reader will be happy to know that I do not intend to include Barbour’s argument for the “1335 prophetic days.” However, his claim here is that the end of the world must come 1335 years after the year 538, or in 1873-1874. His text is written in January 1874, so he is predicting the end of the world within the next twelve months.

One might feel at a loss at how to respond to an argument such as the above: and this is because it is more a series of claims than a series of arguments in the first place. For example, Barbour takes it as obvious that it is the papacy that should be said to “speak great words, and wear out the saints, and think to change times and laws.” No argument is made for this, nor even historical illustrations given of what he is talking about. Perhaps his most important claim is that the papacy became a civil power in 538 and ceased to be one in 1798, and that this reveals a period of 1260 years that corresponds to the prophecy. But it is easy to see that both parts of this claim, both regarding the year 538 and regarding the year 1798, are very questionable interpretations of history, and can represent nothing like the absolute certainty that he says we can have about this part of his interpretation. But even if he was definitely right about his interpretation of the history of the papacy, the period of 1260 years could easily be a complete coincidence, relative to his interpretation of the prophecy. It is evident that many, many things have taken place exactly 1260 years apart; in fact as many as one pleases to find. And of course the fact that the world did not end in 1874 should call into question the whole of his argument, not only the part about the 1335 years.

In any case, Barbour’s claims are rather different from those which the Jehovah’s Witnesses built on them. Barbour ends his article by saying that there is at least “a plausible argument” that the world is about to end, which one finds a bit surprising given that throughout he repeatedly says that his interpretations are beyond reasonable doubt.

Given the objective weakness of Barbour’s argument, a weakness that we can easily discern even without imputing any particular motive, even C.S. Lewis might agree that it would not be absurd to suggest that Barbour is in fact motivated. In fact, the motive is itself not hard to discern. The coming age is “the glorious age.” The sooner, the better, then.

If this is the case, it suggests that the original claim that “apocalyptic events will soon take place,” is an impatient claim, in the most obvious way, namely that the claim is made because of the desire that apocalyptic events take place, and that they take place as soon as possible.

But impatience is involved in another way as well, one that applies more often to other situations besides the particular case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. A few days ago we discussed the fact that knowledge proceeds from being vague and general to being distinct and more particular, and that the latter knowledge is more perfect.

Now consider the impatience of Peter. In his haste to get home, he omits the good that is needed, namely careful driving, and so fails to get home. In a similar way, someone seeks the truth impatiently who attempts to see the truth in too much detail, too quickly. Patience is needed. As Aristotle says, “For as the eyes of bats are to the blaze of day, so is the reason in our soul to the things which are by nature most evident of all.” When one steps outside on a bright and sunny day, it is often difficult to discern the details of things at first. But wait a while, and the details will become clear. On the other hand, if we step outside and attempt to immediately describe every detail, before things have cleared up, we will almost inevitably be mistaken.

It is easy enough to see this kind of impatience in the history of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They repeatedly make very detailed claims about the soon-to-occur apocalyptic events, ones that by the very fact that they do not happen, reveal that they are beyond the current ability of the Witnesses to know the truth. Yet because a detailed knowledge would be a more perfect knowledge, impatience for knowledge can lead someone to make such claims before the right time, and thereby lead them away from the truth, just as Peter fails to get home.

More on Knowing and Being

I promised some examples of the point made in the previous post. I will give just a few here, although the point could easily be extended to many more.

Parmenides argues that nothing can come to be, since “what is not” cannot be or become. He also claims that “it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be,” and apparently this is intended to cover not only what is, but also the way that it is. Consequently, his position seems to imply a perfect identity between thought and being, even if it is ultimately inconsistent, since he says that human beings are wrong about change and the like, and this implies a discrepancy between thought and being.

Alexander Pruss argues that all words are sharply defined, at least in the mind of God.  He makes the argument, “Words are part of the world, so if there is vagueness in words, there is vagueness in the world.” This is no different, of course, from arguing that since words are part of reality, and some words are universal, there are universal things. There are universal things, if we mean by that universal terms or concepts, and there are vague things, if we mean by that vague words or concepts. But there are no universal cats or dogs, nor are there vague cats or dogs, despite the words “cat” and “dog” being vague.

C.S. Lewis argues, “Either we can know nothing or thought has reasons only, and no causes.” As I argued in the linked post, reasons in fact are a kind of final cause relative to their consequences, and they do not exclude efficient causes. This case might be somewhat less evident than the two previous cases, but I would argue that the cause of Lewis’s error here is the fact that, as St. Thomas says, the human mind can understand many things at once only by understanding them as one. Consequently, we can understand that an efficient cause can be for the sake of an end, but if the efficient cause and the final cause are presented as simply two causes, without the order that they actually have, they are not intelligible in this way.

These are examples of speculative errors resulting from confusing the mind’s way of knowing with the way that things are. I asserted in the last post, however, that practical errors can also result from this confusion. There is a very fundamental way this can happen: by nature we know things only if they have some relation to ourselves. The corresponding practical error would be to suppose that those things are real and important only in relation to ourselves. Look around you, and it appears that the world is centered on you. If you take this appearance and attribute an absolute truth to it, you will conclude that everything else has its being and importance in relation to you. Consider that you exist, and that all of the past has past out of existence. It might seem that the past only existed to bring you about.

St. Therese says about humility, “To me it seems that humility is truth. I do not know whether I am humble, but I do know that I see the truth in all things.” This is related to the examples I gave above. Since we know things in relation to ourselves, there is the temptation to suppose that things exist in the very same way. This leads to a false idea about our place in reality. Humility consists, on the contrary, in the truth about our place in reality, as I noted here.

C.S. Lewis on Bulverism

C.S. Lewis begins his essay on Bulverism:

It is a disastrous discovery, as Emerson says somewhere, that we exist. I mean, it is disastrous when instead of merely attending to a rose we are forced to think of ourselves looking at the rose, with a certain type of mind and a certain type of eyes. It is disastrous because, if you are not very careful, the color of the rose gets attributed to our optic nerves and its scent to our noses, and in the end there is no rose left. The professional philosophers have been bothered about this universal black-out for over two hundred years, and the world has not much listened to them. But the same disaster is now occurring on a level we can all understand.

We have recently “discovered that we exist” in two new senses. The Freudians have discovered that we exist as bundles of complexes. The Marxians have discovered that we exist as members of some economic class. In the old days it was supposed that if a thing seemed obviously true to a hundred men, then it was probably true in fact. Nowadays the Freudian will tell you to go and analyze the hundred: you will find that they all think Elizabeth [I] a great queen because they all have a mother-complex. Their thoughts are psychologically tainted at the source. And the Marxist will tell you to go and examine the economic interests of the hundred; you will find that they all think freedom a good thing because they are all members of the bourgeoisie whose prosperity is increased by a policy of laissez-faire. Their thoughts are “ideologically tainted” at the source.

The person probably most known for making the first point, about sensation, is John Locke. He says in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding:

9. Primary qualities of bodies. Qualities thus considered in bodies are,

First, such as are utterly inseparable from the body, in what state soever it be; and such as in all the alterations and changes it suffers, all the force can be used upon it, it constantly keeps; and such as sense constantly finds in every particle of matter which has bulk enough to be perceived; and the mind finds inseparable from every particle of matter, though less than to make itself singly be perceived by our senses: v.g. Take a grain of wheat, divide it into two parts; each part has still solidity, extension, figure, and mobility: divide it again, and it retains still the same qualities; and so divide it on, till the parts become insensible; they must retain still each of them all those qualities. For division (which is all that a mill, or pestle, or any other body, does upon another, in reducing it to insensible parts) can never take away either solidity, extension, figure, or mobility from any body, but only makes two or more distinct separate masses of matter, of that which was but one before; all which distinct masses, reckoned as so many distinct bodies, after division, make a certain number. These I call original or primary qualities of body, which I think we may observe to produce simple ideas in us, viz. solidity, extension, figure, motion or rest, and number.

10. Secondary qualities of bodies. Secondly, such qualities which in truth are nothing in the objects themselves but powers to produce various sensations in us by their primary qualities, i.e. by the bulk, figure, texture, and motion of their insensible parts, as colours, sounds, tastes, &c. These I call secondary qualities. To these might be added a third sort, which are allowed to be barely powers; though they are as much real qualities in the subject as those which I, to comply with the common way of speaking, call qualities, but for distinction, secondary qualities. For the power in fire to produce a new colour, or consistency, in wax or clay — by its primary qualities, is as much a quality in fire, as the power it has to produce in me a new idea or sensation of warmth or burning, which I felt not before — by the same primary qualities, viz. the bulk, texture, and motion of its insensible parts.

It is possible that this is actually mostly true, and mostly consistent with the philosophy of Aristotle, even though Locke would likely wish that the latter were not the case. Aristotle says in On the Soul:

If it is true that the movement, both the acting and the being acted upon, is to be found in that which is acted upon, both the sound and the hearing so far as it is actual must be found in that which has the faculty of hearing; for it is in the passive factor that the actuality of the active or motive factor is realized; that is why that which causes movement may be at rest. Now the actuality of that which can sound is just sound or sounding, and the actuality of that which can hear is hearing or hearkening; ‘sound’ and ‘hearing’ are both ambiguous. The same account applies to the other senses and their objects. For as the-acting-and-being-acted-upon is to be found in the passive, not in the active factor, so also the actuality of the sensible object and that of the sensitive subject are both realized in the latter. But while in some cases each aspect of the total actuality has a distinct name, e.g. sounding and hearkening, in some one or other is nameless, e.g. the actuality of sight is called seeing, but the actuality of colour has no name: the actuality of the faculty of taste is called tasting, but the actuality of flavour has no name. Since the actualities of the sensible object and of the sensitive faculty are one actuality in spite of the difference between their modes of being, actual hearing and actual sounding appear and disappear from existence at one and the same moment, and so actual savour and actual tasting, &c., while as potentialities one of them may exist without the other. The earlier students of nature were mistaken in their view that without sight there was no white or black, without taste no savour. This statement of theirs is partly true, partly false: ‘sense’ and ‘the sensible object’ are ambiguous terms, i.e. may denote either potentialities or actualities: the statement is true of the latter, false of the former. This ambiguity they wholly failed to notice.

Saying the sound and color are a “potentiality” when they are not being sensed, and actualized when they are being sensed, suggests very much the same thing as Locke when he says that sensible qualities are “such qualities which in truth are nothing in the objects themselves but powers to produce various sensations in us.”

However, by using the terms of “primary” and “secondary,” and saying that sensible qualities are “nothing in the objects themselves but…”, Locke suggests that there is something especially unreal about qualities such as color and odor, as Lewis mentions in his opening paragraph. This at least is a mistake on Locke’s part, since he failed to notice that there is no huge distinction between the aspects of a body that he calls “primary” and the ones that he calls “secondary.” Just as the color of an object appears differently in different lighting and so on, so a body looks larger or smaller depending on where it is situated relative to me. Likewise an elliptical object appears to have a different shape depending on my point of view. In other words, if there is reason to think that color is “nothing but the ability to look colored,” then there is an equal reason to think that shape is “nothing but the power to appear shaped.”

And I would say that both of these are true in a certain way, and false in a certain way, just as Aristotle did about the existence of white and black. They are false, if they are taken to mean that “grass is green,” is a false statement, or that is a subjective one. It is a true statement, and an objective fact about grass. They are true, if they mean that what we know about greenness is basically what we know from sensing it, and that being green means having the possibility of being sensed in this way. And the like is equally true of shape, size, quantity, hardness, and the other aspects that Locke calls primary.

C.S. Lewis is using this as a comparison with a critical analysis of people’s thought processes. Just as analyzing the causality involved in sensation can lead someone to say that sensible things don’t have an objective existence, so analyzing people’s thought processes could lead someone to believe that nothing is true. Thus he continues:

Now this is obviously great fun; but it has not always been noticed that there is a bill to pay for it. There are two questions that people who say this kind of thing ought to be asked. The first is, are all thoughts thus tainted at the source, or only some? The second is, does the taint invalidate the tainted thought – in the sense of making it untrue – or not?

If they say that all thoughts are thus tainted, then, of course, we must remind them that Freudianism and Marxism are as much systems of thought as Christian theology or philosophical idealism. The Freudian and Marxian are in the same boat with all the rest of us, and cannot criticize us from outside. They have sawn off the branch they were sitting on. If, on the other hand, they say that the taint need not invalidate their thinking, then neither need it invalidate ours. In which case they have saved their own branch, but also saved ours along with it.

The only line they can really take is to say that some thoughts are tainted and others are not – which has the advantage (if Freudians and Marxians regard it as an advantage) of being what every sane man has always believed. But if that is so, we must then ask how you find out which are tainted and which are not. It is no earthly use saying that those are tainted which agree with the secret wishes of the thinker. Some of the things I should like to believe must in fact be true; it is impossible to arrange a universe which contradicts everyone’s wishes, in every respect, at every moment. Suppose I think, after doing my accounts, that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this belief of mine is “wishful thinking.” You can never come to any conclusion by examining my psychological condition. Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself. When you have checked my figures, then, and then only, will you know whether I have that balance or not. If you find my arithmetic correct, then no amount of vapouring about my psychological condition can be anything but a waste of time. If you find my arithmetic wrong, then it may be relevant to explain psychologically how I came to be so bad at my arithmetic, and the doctrine of the concealed wish will become relevant – but only after you have yourself done the sum and discovered me to be wrong on purely arithmetical grounds. It is the same with all thinking and all systems of thought. If you try to find out which are tainted by speculating about the wishes of the thinkers, you are merely making a fool of yourself. You must find out on purely logical grounds which of them do, in fact, break down as arguments. Afterwards, if you like, go on and discover the psychological causes of the error.

If being “tainted” means having causes that are not completely correlated with truth, then the true answers to Lewis’s questions are that either all, or nearly all, thoughts are tainted, and no, this does not necessarily mean that they are false. Virtually all thoughts are tainted in this sense because human beings do not usually have only a single motive for things that they choose to do, and this includes the choice to believe certain things. This need not “invalidate” the thoughts because obviously it does not guarantee that the thoughts are false.

Lewis is correct that pointing out that someone’s opinions match his desires does not prove that his opinions are false. However, we saw earlier that a person’s claim is evidence for what is claimed. This will be affected, however, by a person’s motives. If a person is motivated mostly by reasons which make his claim more likely to be true, then his claim is stronger evidence. And likewise, if he is motivated mostly by things which do not make his claim more likely to be true, then his claim is weaker evidence. Consequently, if I point out that such motives are a strong factor in a person’s belief, this is not a waste of time, nor is it irrelevant. It is quite relevant, because it weakens the evidence present in his claim, and consequently it becomes more likely that the thing is actually false.

Lewis continues:

In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became to be so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism.” Some day I am going the write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father – who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third – “Oh, you say that because you are a man.” “At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

I find the fruits of his discovery almost everywhere. Thus I see my religion dismissed on the grounds that “the comfortable parson had every reason for assuring the nineteenth century worker that poverty would be rewarded in another world.” Well, no doubt he had. On the assumption that Christianity is an error, I can see clearly enough that some people would still have a motive for inculcating it. I see it so easily that I can, of course, play the game the other way round, by saying that “the modern man has every reason for trying to convince himself that there are no eternal sanctions behind the morality he is rejecting.” For Bulverism is a truly democratic game in the sense that all can play it all day long, and that it give no unfair advantage to the small and offensive minority who reason. But of course it gets us not one inch nearer to deciding whether, as a matter of fact, the Christian religion is true or false. That question remains to be discussed on quite different grounds – a matter of philosophical and historical argument. However it were decided, the improper motives of some people, both for believing it and for disbelieving it, would remain just as they are.

I see Bulverism at work in every political argument. The capitalists must be bad economists because we know why they want capitalism, and equally Communists must be bad economists because we know why they want Communism. Thus, the Bulverists on both sides. In reality, of course, either the doctrines of the capitalists are false, or the doctrines of the Communists, or both; but you can only find out the rights and wrongs by reasoning – never by being rude about your opponent’s psychology.

Until Bulverism is crushed, reason can play no effective part in human affairs. Each side snatches it early as a weapon against the other; but between the two reason itself is discredited. And why should reason not be discredited? It would be easy, in answer, to point to the present state of the world, but the real answer is even more immediate. The forces discrediting reason, themselves depend of reasoning. You must reason even to Bulverize. You are trying to prove that all proofs are invalid. If you fail, you fail. If you succeed, then you fail even more – for the proof that all proofs are invalid must be invalid itself.

Lewis is himself engaging in something very like Bulverism here, or at least he is attempting to get others to do so. In the first place, the very invention of the name “Bulverism” is such an attempt. It has a ridiculous sound, and the only contribution it makes to the discussion is to make it appear that someone is doing something ridiculous. This is part of Lewis’s plan to “crush” Bulverism, namely by making people dismiss it out of hand, just as he says that they dismiss his positions out of hand.

Of course, as I already stated, Bulverism as defined by Lewis is indeed a bad thing. But this is not because a person’s motives are irrelevant, but because a person may be right despite his motives. And even if a person’s motives may weaken the evidence present in his claim, it would indeed be silly to think that the full response to an argument could be that the person does not have good motives relative to truth. If you are going to refute an argument, you should do that by discussing the matter of the argument. Lewis is quite right on this point.

Regarding Lewis’s last point in this paragraph, it is unlikely that many people actually had the intention to “prove that all proofs are invalid.” People really do have various motives for their beliefs, but this does not prove that their beliefs are false, nor does it show that their arguments do not work.

Lewis concludes the essay:

The alternative then is either sheer self-contradicting idiocy or else some tenacious belief in our power of reasoning, held in the teeth of all the evidence that Bulverists can bring for a “taint” in this or that human reasoner. I am ready to admit, if you like, that this tenacious belief has something transcendental or mystical about it. What then? Would you rather be a lunatic than a mystic?

So we see there is justification for holding on to our belief in Reason. But can this be done without theism? Does “I know” involve that God exists? Everything I know is an inference from sensation (except the present moment). All our knowledge of the universe beyond our immediate experiences depends on inferences from these experiences. If our inferences do not give a genuine insight into reality, then we can know nothing. A theory cannot be accepted if it does not allow our thinking to be a genuine insight, nor if the fact of our knowledge is not explicable in terms of that theory.

But our thoughts can only be accepted as a genuine insight under certain conditions. All beliefs have causes but a distinction must be drawn between (1) ordinary causes and (2) a special kind of cause called “a reason.” Causes are mindless events which can produce other results than belief. Reasons arise from axioms and inferences and affect only beliefs. Bulverism tries to show that the other man has causes and not reasons and that we have reasons and not causes. A belief which can be accounted for entirely in terms of causes is worthless. This principle must not be abandoned when we consider the beliefs which are the basis of others. Our knowledge depends on our certainty about axioms and inferences. If these are the results of causes, then there is no possibility of knowledge. Either we can know nothing or thought has reasons only, and no causes.

“Either we can know nothing or thought has reasons only, and no causes,” indicates that Lewis is confused.

Thoughts surely do have causes, and the efficient cause is generally the human will. Reasons and motives are both “why” people choose to believe things, and consequently are the formal aspect of that efficient cause, or in other words are final causes. It might seem a little strange to say that the fact that two and two make four is the final cause of my belief that if I have two shoes and acquire two more, I will have four shoes. But it only seems strange because we do not notice that final causes themselves come in varieties. And in any case, this is partly a question of framing. If I say, “I think I would have four shoes because to think otherwise would call into question that two and two make four,” then it is clear enough that my belief is for the sake of the truth that two and two make four.

Lewis fails to note the distinction between various types of causes, and so supposes that if thoughts have causes in an ordinary sense, they cannot have reasons, but this does not follow. Reasons are simply one of the causes that thoughts have, but they can have other causes at the same time.

Someone might say that this blog engages in a good deal of what C.S. Lewis calls Bulverism, and this concern is one of the “tainted thoughts” which led me to compose this post. Thus I summarize my response to this concern:

More or less all claims are affected by motives other than truth. But this is not irrelevant, because some claims are more affected by such motives than others, and to the extent that this is the case, this weakens the evidence contained in those claims. Thus I would not consider it irrelevant even if I point out someone’s motives without proving directly that he is mistaken.

Nonetheless, in practice I do not usually do this. Generally if I think that someone is wrong, I will argue this directly, and only reveal someone’s motives in addition, which even Lewis concedes can be relevant in that situation.

There is one possible additional objection, which Lewis does not formulate explicitly, but which he indicates when he says, “The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly.” The objection would be that whether he is right or wrong is “the only real issue.” So even if you first argue that someone is wrong, proceeding to discuss his motives is inappropriate, since it is no part of the issue, and it seems merely insulting.

I disagree that whether someone is right or wrong is the only real issue. As I have stated before, I do not think I really understand someone until I understand why he says what he does. And real people do not only have reasons for their beliefs, but motives as well. So in order to understand someone as well as possible, it is necessary to know not only his reasons, but also any other motives that he has.

But since people rarely notice their own motives, this suggests that I am saying that frequently people do not even understand themselves. And this is quite true, and in this way St. Paul says that some have “turned to meaningless talk, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions.”