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.

The Practical Argument for Free Will

Richard Chappell discusses a practical argument for free will:

1) If I don’t have free will, then I can’t choose what to believe.
2) If I can choose what to believe, then I have free will [from 1]
3) If I have free will, then I ought to believe it.
4) If I can choose what to believe, then I ought to believe that I have free will. [from 2,3]
5) I ought, if I can, to choose to believe that I have free will. [restatement of 4]

He remarks in the comments:

I’m taking it as analytic (true by definition) that choice requires free will. If we’re not free, then we can’t choose, can we? We might “reach a conclusion”, much like a computer program does, but we couldn’t choose it.

I understand the word “choice” a bit differently, in that I would say that we are obviously choosing in the ordinary sense of the term, if we consider two options which are possible to us as far as we know, and then make up our minds to do one of them, even if it turned out in some metaphysical sense that we were already guaranteed in advance to do that one. Or in other words, Chappell is discussing determinism vs libertarian free will, apparently ruling out compatibilist free will on linguistic grounds. I don’t merely disagree in the sense that I use language differently, but in the sense that I don’t agree that his usage correspond to the normal English usage. [N.B. I misunderstood Richard here. He explains in the comments.] Since people can easily be led astray by such linguistic confusions, given the relationships between thought and language, I prefer to reformulate the argument:

  1. If I don’t have libertarian free will, then I can’t make an ultimate difference in what I believe that was not determined by some initial conditions.
  2. If I can make an ultimate difference in what I believe that was not determined by some initial conditions, then I have libertarian free will [from 1].
  3. If I have libertarian free will, then it is good to believe that I have it.
  4. If I can make an ultimate difference in my beliefs undetermined by initial conditions, then it is good to believe that I have libertarian free will. [from 2, 3]
  5. It is good, if I can, to make a difference in my beliefs undetermined by initial conditions, such that I believe that I have libertarian free will.

We would have to add that the means that can make such a difference, if any means can, would be choosing to believe that I have libertarian free will.

I have reformulated (3) to speak of what is good, rather than of what one ought to believe, for several reasons. First, in order to avoid confusion about the meaning of “ought”. Second, because the resolution of the argument lies here.

The argument is in fact a good argument as far as it goes. It does give a practical reason to hold the voluntary belief that one has libertarian free will. The problem is that it does not establish that it is better overall to hold this belief, because various factors can contribute to whether an action or belief is a good thing.

We can see this with the following thought experiment:

Either people have libertarian free will or they do not. This is unknown. But God has decreed that people who believe that they have libertarian free will go to hell for eternity, while people who believe that they do not, will go to heaven for eternity.

This is basically like the story of the Alien Implant. Having libertarian free will is like the situation where the black box is predicting your choice, and not having it is like the case where the box is causing your choice. The better thing here is to believe that you do not have libertarian free will, and this is true despite whatever theoretical sense you might have that you are “not responsible” for this belief if it is true, just as it is better not to smoke even if you think that your choice is being caused.

But note that if a person believes that he has libertarian free will, and it turns out to be true, he has some benefit from this, namely the truth. But the evil of going to hell presumably outweighs this benefit. And this reveals the fundamental problem with the argument, namely that we need to weigh the consequences overall. We made the consequences heaven and hell for dramatic effect, but even in the original situation, believing that you have libertarian free will when you do not, has an evil effect, namely believing something false, and potentially many evil effects, namely whatever else follows from this falsehood. This means that in order to determine what is better to believe here, it is necessary to consider the consequences of being mistaken, just as it is in general when one formulates beliefs.

Semi-Parmenidean Heresy

In his book The Big Picture, Sean Carroll describes the view which he calls “poetic naturalism”:

As knowledge generally, and science in particular, have progressed over the centuries, our corresponding ontologies have evolved from quite rich to relatively sparse. To the ancients, it was reasonable to believe that there were all kinds of fundamentally different things in the world; in modern thought, we try to do more with less.

We would now say that Theseus’s ship is made of atoms, all of which are made of protons, neutrons, and electrons-exactly the same kinds of particles that make up every other ship, or for that matter make up you and me. There isn’t some primordial “shipness” of which Theseus’s is one particular example; there are simply arrangements of atoms, gradually changing over time.

That doesn’t mean we can’t talk about ships just because we understand that they are collections of atoms. It would be horrendously inconvenient if, anytime someone asked us a question about something happening in the world, we limited our allowable responses to a listing of a huge set of atoms and how they were arranged. If you listed about one atom per second, it would take more than a trillion times the current age of the universe to describe a ship like Theseus’s. Not really practical.

It just means that the notion of a ship is a derived category in our ontology, not a fundamental one. It is a useful way of talking about certain subsets of the basic stuff of the universe. We invent the concept of a ship because it is useful to us, not because it’s already there at the deepest level of reality. Is it the same ship after we’ve gradually replaced every plank? I don’t know. It’s up to us to decide. The very notion of “ship” is something we created for our own convenience.

That’s okay. The deepest level of reality is very important; but all the different ways we have of talking about that level are important too.

There is something essentially pre-Socratic about this thinking. When Carroll talks about “fundamentally different things,” he means things that differ according to their basic elements. But at the same kind the implication is that only things that differ in this way are “fundamentally” different in the sense of being truly or really different. But this is a quite different sense of “fundamental.”

I suggested in the linked post that even Thales might not really have believed that material causes alone sufficiently explained reality. Nonetheless, there was a focus on the material cause as being the truest explanation. We see the same focus here in Sean Carroll. When he says, “There isn’t some primordial shipness,” he is thinking of shipness as something that would have to be a material cause, if it existed.

Carroll proceeds to contrast his position with eliminativism:

One benefit of a rich ontology is that it’s easy to say what is “real”- every category describes something real. In a sparse ontology, that’s not so clear. Should we count only the underlying stuff of the world as real, and all the different ways we have of dividing it up and talking about it as merely illusions? That’s the most hard-core attitude we could take to reality, sometimes called eliminativism, since its adherents like nothing better than to go around eliminating this or that concept from our list of what is real. For an eliminativist, the question “Which Captian Kirk is the real one?” gets answered by, “Who cares? People are illusions. They’re just fictitious stories we tell about the one true world.”

I’m going to argue for a different view: our fundamental ontology, the best way we have of talking about the world at the deepest level, is extremely sparse. But many concepts that are part of non-fundamental ways we have of talking about the world- useful ideas describing higher-level, macroscopic reality- deserve to be called “real.”

The key word there is “useful.” There are certainly non-useful ways of talking about the world. In scientific contexts, we refer to such non-useful ways as “wrong” or “false.” A way of talking isn’t just a list of concepts; it will generally include a set of rules for using them, and relationships among them. Every scientific theory is a way of talking about the world, according to which we can say things like “There are things called planets, and something called the sun, all of which move through something called space, and planets do something called orbiting the sun, and those orbits describe a particular shape in space called an ellipse.” That’s basically Johannes Kepler’s theory of planetary motion, developed after Copernicus argued for the sun being at the center of the solar system but before Isaac Newton explained it all in terms of the force of gravity. Today, we would say that Kepler’s theory is fairly useful in certain circumstances, but it’s not as useful as Newton’s, which in turn isn’t as broadly useful as Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

A poetic naturalist will agree that both Captain Kirk and the Ship of Theseus are simply ways of talking about certain collections of atoms stretching through space and time. The difference is that an eliminativist will say “and therefore they are just illusions,” while the poetic naturalist says “but they are no less real for all of that.”

There are some good things about what Carroll is doing here. He is right of course to insist that the things of common experience are “real.” He is also right to see some relationship between saying that something is real and saying that talking about it is useful, but this is certainly worth additional consideration, and he does not really do it justice.

The problematic part is that, on account of his pre-Socratic tendencies, he is falling somewhat into the error of Parmenides. The error of Parmenides was to suppose that being can be, and can be thought and said, in only one way. Carroll, on account of confusing the various meanings of “fundamental,” supposes that being can be in only one way, namely as something elemental, but that it can be thought and said in many ways.

The problem with this, apart from the falsity of asserting that being can be in only one way, is that no metaphysical account is given whereby it would be reasonable to say that being can be thought and said in many ways, given that it can be in only one way. Carroll is trying to point in that direction by saying that our common speech is useful, so it must be about real things; but the eliminativist would respond, “Useful to whom? The things that you are saying this is useful for are illusions and do not exist. So even your supposed usefulness does not exist.” And Carroll will have no valid response, because he has already admitted to agreeing with the eliminativist on a metaphysical level.

The correct answer to this is the one given by Aristotle. Material causes do not sufficiently explain reality, but other causes are necessary as well. But this means that the eliminativist is mistaken on a metaphysical level, not merely in his way of speaking.

Parmenides the Eliminativist

While the name “eliminativism” is used particularly with respect to the denial of the reality of consciousness or various mental conditions, we could define it more generally as the tendency to explain something away rather than explaining it. The motive for this would be that someone believes that reality does not have the principles needed in order to explain the thing; so it is necessary for them to explain it away instead. In this way we noted that Daniel Dennett denies the existence of consciousness. Since every being is objective, in his view, reality does not have any principle which could explain something subjective. Therefore it is necessary for him to explain away subjectivity.

If we take eliminativism in this general way, it will turn out that Parmenides is the ultimate eliminativist. According to Parmenides, not only is there nothing but being, but nothing can be distinct from being in any way, even in concept. Thus anything which appears to be conceptually distinct from being, including ourselves and all the objects of our common experience, is nothing but an illusion deluding itself. And ultimately nothing at all, since even illusions cannot be something other than being.

Parmenides comes to this conclusion in the same general way as Dennett, namely because it seems to him that reality cannot have any principle which could explain things as they are. It is evident that there cannot be anything besides being; thus if something seems distinct from being in any way, there is no principle capable of explaining it.

Descartes argued that he can know he exists since he thinks. On the contrary , Parmenides responds: you think, but thinking means something different from being; therefore you are not.

All Who Go Do Not Return

Shulem Deen begins his memoir of the above name:

I wasn’t the first to be expelled from our village, though I’d never known any of the others. I’d only heard talk of them, hushed reminiscences of ancient episodes in the history of our half-century-old village, tales of various subversives who sought to destroy our fragile unity. The group of Belzers who tried to form their own prayer group, the young man rumored to have studied the books of the Breslovers, even the rebbe’s own brother-in-law, accused of fomenting sedition against the rebbe.

But I was the first to be expelled for heresy.

The call came on a Sunday evening, while Gitty and I were having dinner with our children.

“Shulem, this is Yechiel Spitzer,” a deep male voice said, and then paused. “Can you be at the dayan’s office for a meeting at ten?”

I wasn’t entirely surprised by the call. I had heard from friends that word was getting around the village: Shulem Deen has become a heretic.

If heresy was a sin in our all-Hasidic village in Rockland County, New York, it was not an ordinary one. Unlike the yeshiva student who ordered a taxicab each night to get away for an hour of karate lessons, or the girl spotted wearing a skirt that didn’t fully cover her knees, or the schoolteacher who complained of the rebbe’s lengthy Sabbath noon prayers, heresy was a sin our people were unaccustomed to. Heresy was a sin that baffled them. In fact, real heresy, the people in our village believed, did not happen in our time, and certainly not in our village, and so when they heard there was a heretic in their midst, they were not sure what to make of it.

The meeting itself is not the most pleasant:

“We have heard rumors,” Mendel began. “We have heard rumors and we don’t know if they’re true, but you understand, rumors alone are bad.”

He paused and looked at me, as if expecting me to show agreement of some sort.

“People say you’re an apikorus. People say you don’t believe in God.” He raised his shoulders to his ears, spread his palms, and opened his eyes wide. “How does one not believe in God? I don’t know.” He said this as if he were genuinely curious. Mendel was an intelligent man, and here was a question that, given the time and inclination, one might seek to discuss. But now was not the time, and so he went on to tell me more about what people were saying.

I was speaking ill of the rebbe.

I was no longer praying.

I disparaged the Torah and the teachings of our sages.

I was corrupting other people. Young people. Innocent people.

In fact, people were saying that I had corrupted a yeshiva boy just last week. Corrupted him so badly that the boy left his parents’ home, and— Mendel didn’t know if this was true, but so people were saying— went to live with goyim in Brooklyn. It was rumored that the boy planned to attend college.

People were saying, Mendel further informed me, that something must be done. People were very concerned, and people were saying that the bezdin must act.

“If people are saying that the bezdin must act, you understand, we can’t very well do nothing.”

Yechiel Spitzer, sitting at the very end of the table, twirled a few hairs beneath his lower lip and absentmindedly placed one hair between his front teeth. The three rabbis sat with their eyes downcast.

“You understand,” Mendel went on, “that this is not about causing pain to you or your family.”

Here he paused and looked at the dayan, before putting his palms flat on the table and looking at me directly.

“We have come to the conclusion that you must leave the village.”

I was being expelled, though in those moments, I wasn’t sure how to feel about it. My initial thought was to defend myself, to declare it all lies, hateful gossipmongering. But the truth was, I no longer belonged here. This was a community of the faithful, and I was no longer one of them.

How did things come to this point? To those who are curious, I recommend the book. However, Shulem remarks on this matter:

“What made you change?” people would ask in later years, and the question would frustrate me because the things that made me change were so many and varied that they felt simply as life feels: not a single moment of transformation but a process, a journey of inquiry and discovery, of beliefs and challenges to those beliefs, of uncomfortable questions and attempts to do away with them, by brute force if necessary, only to find that that was not possible, that the search was too urgent and necessary and giving up was not an option. Yet I found no neat answers but only muddled and contradictory ones, until hope gave way to disillusion, which would in turn give way to hope once again, but dimmer and weaker each time, until I would swing back to confusion and disillusion in an endlessly maddening cycle.

Overall, the process is so gradual that he does not even remember a definite moment of changing his mind, but only remembers the realization that he has already done so:

I remember that I was in the dining room, and through the thin walls I could hear Gitty busy in the kitchen: “Akiva, finish your toast,” “Freidy, stop bothering the baby and get dressed,” “Tziri, brush your hair and get your backpack.” The sounds all blended together. One by one, each of the children recited the morning blessings, groaned about unfinished homework assignments, lost shoes, misplaced hair accessories. I swung my prayer shawl over my shoulders, whipped up my sleeve, and wrapped the leather straps of my tefillin around my arm. And as I stood there, the black leather cube on my left arm bulging against the sleeve of my starched white shirt, my body enveloped in the large, white, black-striped shawl, the thought came to me:

I no longer believe in any of this.

I am a heretic. An apikorus.

For a long time, I had tried to deny it. A mere sinner has hope: An Israelite, although he has sinned, is still an Israelite, the Talmud says. But a heretic is lost forever. All who go do not return. The Torah scroll he writes is to be burned. He is no longer counted in a prayer quorum, his food is not considered kosher, his lost objects are not returned to him, he is unfit to testify in court. An outcast, he wanders alone forever, belonging neither to his own people nor to any other.

It was at that moment, sometime between fastening the knot of my tefillin against my occipital bone and racing through whatever chapters of prayer I still chose to recite, that I realized that my heresy was simply a fact about myself, no different from my brown eyes or my pale skin.

Earlier we discussed the possibility of changing your mind without realizing that you have done so, and there is no reason that this cannot apply even to things as important as religion. This seems to have happened in Shulem’s case, although of course he was aware of the process in a general way, as can be seen in the previous quotation.

If a person is raised in a religion from childhood, and taught to adhere very strongly to that religion, then given that he is capable of looking at the world honestly, he will almost inevitably go through a process much like the one described by Shulem Deen, even if it may have a different ending.

This will happen almost always, without regard to how much truth there is in the religion, or how much truth is lacking there. For at least in the devout cases of which we speak, the parents will teach the child that their religion is very certainly true, and it is unlikely that they will go out of their way to present arguments and evidence against it. And if they do present such arguments and evidence, they are likely to present them in the least favorable way, rather than in the most favorable way. None of this is very surprising, nor does it have much to do with religion in particular, but is simply the way that people generally present their opinions to others. But it follows from all this that the child is not given a balanced view of the evidence relative to his religion, but one which makes the evidence seem more favorable than it actually is. As was said, this would be likely to happen even if the religion in question were entirely true.

The consequence is that once the person begins to get a more balanced grasp on the evidence, which will be the natural result of living in the world, they will  begin to see that their religion was less certain than they supposed it to be.

This will happen even in the case of very devout people who are entirely enveloped, as it were, in the belief and life of their own religious community, and who seem to have virtually no contact with unbelievers or their reasons. Thus for example St. Therese, in her autobiography, speaks of the conflict between her belief in heaven and her doubts about it:

I was saying that the certainty of going away one day far from the sad and dark country had been given me from the day of my childhood. I did not believe this only because I heard it from persons much more knowledgeable than I, but I felt in the bottom of my heart real longings for this most beautiful country. Just as the genius of Christopher Columbus gave him a presentiment of a new world when nobody had even thought of such a thing; so also I felt that another land would one day serve me as a permanent dwelling place. Then suddenly the fog that surrounds me becomes more dense; it penetrates my soul and envelops it in such a way that it is impossible to discover within it the sweet image of my Fatherland; everything has disappeared! When I want to rest my heart fatigued by the darkness that surrounds it by the memory of the luminous country after which I aspire, my torment redoubles; it seems to me that the darkness, borrowing the voice of sinners, says mockingly to me: “You are dreaming about the light, about a fatherland embalmed in the sweetest perfumes; you are dreaming about the eternal possession of the Creator of all these marvels; you believe that one day you will walk out of this fog that surrounds you! Advance, advance; rejoice in death which will give you not what you hope for but a night still more profound, the night of nothingness.”

St. Therese mentions two things favorable to the existence of heaven: her own desire to go there, and the fact that “I heard it from persons much more knowledgeable than I.” No particular reason is given supporting the denial of heaven, except the “voice of sinners,” which corresponds in a certain way to one of her positive reasons, since St. Therese is aware that many of the sinners in question are also much more knowledgeable than she is. While not explained clearly in her autobiography, she stated verbally a few months before her death:

“If you only knew what frightful thoughts obsess me! Pray very much for me in order that I do not listen to the devil who wants to persuade me about so many lies. It’s the reasoning of the worst materialists which is imposed upon my mind: Later, unceasingly making new advances, science will explain everything naturally; we shall have the absolute reason for everything that exists and that still remains a problem, because there remain very many things to be discovered, etc., etc.”

Why is it such a bad thing to explain everything? Her fear, of course, is that the explanation will imply that there is no life after death.

Of course the arguments implied here, on one side and the other, are not very complicated or technical, because St. Therese is not a scholar. And although she may be able to see some reasons supporting their position to some extent, as in this case the progress of science, to a large extent her doubts are simply caused by opposing authorities: people more intelligent than she who do not believe what she believes. In this sense, St. Therese is a clear example of the point under discussion, where someone raised to hold to their religion with great certainty, comes to be less certain of it when they realize that the evidence is not all on one side.

Nonetheless, St. Therese is evidently not attempting to weigh the evidence on one side and the other, in order to decide which side is more likely to be true. She writes, again in her autobiography:

My dear Mother, I may perhaps appear to you to be exaggerating my trial. In fact, if you are judging according to the sentiments I express in my little poems composed this year, I must appear to you as a soul filled with consolations and one for whom the veil of faith is almost torn aside; and yet it is no longer a veil for me, it is a wall which reaches right up to the heavens and covers the starry firmament. When I sing of the happiness of heaven and of the eternal possession of God, I feel no joy in this, for I sing simply what I WANT TO BELIEVE. It is true that at times a very small ray of the sun comes to illumine my darkness, and then the trial ceases for an instant, but afterward the memory of this ray, instead of causing me joy, makes my darkness even more dense.

This should be understood in the sense of voluntary belief. While St. Therese feels the weight of opposing reasons, she chooses to accept one side regardless. In that sense, she does not need to find an exact measure of the weight of the reasons for one side or the other, because her mind is already made up: regardless of how things stand exactly, she will still choose to believe.

One difference between St. Therese and Shulem Deen, then, is that while St. Therese had an experience somewhat similar to his, she chooses to prevent this process from leading to unbelief. In his case, in contrast, there may not have been any particular distinct moment of choice one way or another, according to his description.

If we return to our child, however, there are a number of other possible results. We will discuss these in a future post.

The Error of Parmenides

Parmenides entirely identified “what can be” and “what can be thought”:

Come now, I will tell thee—and do thou hearken to my saying and carry it away— the only two ways of search that can be thought of. The first, namely, that It is, and that it is impossible for it not to be, is the way of belief, for truth is its companion. The other, namely, that It is not, and that it must needs not be,— that, I tell thee, is a path that none can learn of at all. For thou canst not know what is not—that is impossible— nor utter it; . . . . . . for it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be.

As I pointed out here, the error here comes from an excessive identification of the way a thing is known and the way a thing is. But he does this only in a certain respect. We evidently think that some things are not other things, and that there are many things. So it would be easy enough to argue, “It is the same thing that can be thought and that can be. But we can think that one thing is not another, and that there are many things. So one thing can fail to be another, and there can be many things.” And this argument would be valid, and pretty reasonable for that matter. But Parmenides does not draw this conclusion and does not accept this argument. So his claim that what can be thought and what can be are the same must be taken in a more particular sense.

His position seems to be that “to be” has one and only one real meaning, in such a way that there is only one way for a thing to be. Either it is, or it isn’t. If it is, it is in the only way a thing can be; and if it is not, it is not in the only way a thing can be. But this means that if it is not, it is not at all, in any way, since there is only one way. And in this case it is not “something” which is not, but nothing. Thus, given this premise, that there is only one way to be, Parmenides’s position would be logical.

In reality, in contrast, there is more than one way to be. Since there is more than one way to be, there can be many things, where one thing is in one way, and another  thing is in another way.

Even granting that there is more than one way to be, Parmenides would object at this point. Suppose there is a first being, existing in a first way, and a second being, existing in a second way. Then the first being does not exist in the second way, and the second being does not exist in the first way. So if we say that “two beings exist,” how do they exist? The two do not exist in the first way, but only the first one does. Nor do the two exist in the second way, but only the second one does. And thus, even if Parmenides grants for the sake of argument that there is more than one way to be, he can still argue that this leads to something impossible.

But this happens only because Parmenides has not sufficiently granted the premise that there is more than one way to be. As I pointed out in the discussion of being and unity, when two things exist, the two are a pair, which is being in some way, and therefore also one in some way; thus the two are “a pair” and not “two pairs.” So the first being is in one way, and the second being is in a second way, but the two exist in still a third way.

The existence of whole and part results from this, along with still more ways of being. “The two” are in a certain respect the first, and in a certain respect the second, since otherwise they would not be the two.

Thus we could summarize the error of Parmenides as the position that being is, and can be thought and said, in only one way, while the truth is that being is, and can be thought and said, in many ways.

Language as Technology

Genesis tells the story of the Tower of Babel:

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

The account suggests that language is a cause of technology, as when the Lord says, “this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”

But is possible to understand language here as a technology itself, one which gives rise to other technologies. It is a technology by which men communicate with each other. In the story, God weakens the technology, making it harder for people to communicate with one another, and therefore making it harder for them to accomplish other goals.

But language is not just a technology that exists for the sake of communication; it is also a technology that exists for the sake of thought. As I noted in the linked post, our ability to think depends to some extent on our possession of language.

All of this suggests that in principle, the idea of technological progress  is something that could apply to language itself, and that such progress could correspondingly be a cause of progress in truth. The account in Genesis suggests some of the ways that this could happen; to the degree that people develop better means of understanding one another, whether we speak of people speaking different languages, or even people already speaking the same language, they will be better able to work together towards the goal of truth, and thus will be better able to attain that goal.