Best Possible World: Gateway to the Millennium and Eschaton



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The reductionists next took on the seemingly less onerous task of being the ontology police of Science, using Occam's razor as their disciplinary whip, if you will. But with the proliferation of ontology laden special sciences, the outcome for them is appearing no less dismal. The reductionistic physicalist is becoming an endangered species, if not already extinct. I keep a careful watch for this rare bird, and I cannot report a single sighting in, say, the last five years. If you know of one, I will gladly put out a 'rare bird alert'.
The very last bastion of those folk of a reductionist persuasion is now, as we have seen, under the banner of 'naturalism'. The naturalist shtick is simple: only establishment scientists are allowed to play the ontology game. The rest of us are encouraged to go and, well, play with ourselves, not to give it too fine a point.
One might suppose that the theologians would feel left out, if not downright offended. Well, think again. The message from the naturalist to the theologian is: 'Après moi, le deluge.' The theologians are most receptive to this dire warning. They know, as well as any, that we natives, we ontology freaks, are restless. The scent of 'gunpowder' is in the air. There is a line being drawn in the sand. There is a siege mentality on the part of the secular Intellectual Establishment. Their professional sectarian colleagues, seeing the storm clouds, are keeping a low profile. The Intelligent Design contingent may think they are storming these barricades, but, in truth, they are seen as little more than a nuisance. What then is the focus of their trepidation? Surely, it's not yours truly. No, but these folk are sufficiently wary of the metaphysical instability to know that the bullet that hits them is the one they wont see coming. Here's my prediction: the bullet in question is the demystification of the Eschaton. Nothing less focused nor less forceful will pierce the veil, and nothing less can account for the irrational anguish of the besieged. Suffice it to say that this observation was not made from an armchair.
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Enough of social psychology, it's back to naturalism.
It is still a big leap from non-reductive naturalism to eschatology, and that's putting it mildly. As the naturalists would have it, the only ontological furniture in the world is that which emerges spontaneously: the mind being everyone's Exhibit A. Is the mind natural? This might be more palatable if we had only the possibility of animal minds to consider. The significant problem comes rather closer to home.
There were those, of course, who would deny us our minds, but their odd gambit has lost its traction. Radical connectionism appears to have been their last hurrah. The real battle has shifted now to the ontological definition of the mind. At this point I can't resist the urge to mangle another metaphor by suggesting that the mind is the soft underbelly of naturalism. Persuading psychologists to toe any ontological line presents as inviting a prospect as herding cats. Here the naturalists are going to have to maintain the barricade themselves. This is become a fulltime job: the neuroscientists and AI people presumably have to struggle to keep their day jobs.
Now it may be that the very success of science is turned against its self-styled defenders. In delving into the realm of the mind, epistemology is transformed into ontology. With the blurring of that distinction, the scientific knowledge explosion becomes a major ontological headache.

[11/26]


To the holistic nature of language, we may add the apparently irreducible nature of our innate grammatical sensibility. Our universal mathematical proficiency is another, quite probably undeconstructible talent, among many others.
Then there is the developmental psychology that is our epistemic foundation. There is an extraordinary, innate proclivity for the acquisition of new talents that is the source of all our remarkably diverse and constantly expanding repertoire of abilities.
All of this actual and latent ability comes under the rubric of natural intelligence. Is it not fair to say that the more we learn about natural intelligence, the more stark becomes its contrast with artificial intelligence? There has not even been an attempt to define the limits of natural intelligence. Even its qualitative outline remains obscure.
Nonetheless, even just a perceived threat from the ranks of strong AI has, in the past, kept a lid on the metaphysics of the mind. However, the split in the AI community between the connectionists and the computationalists, may have radically diminished that perception. There is no longer even the perception of a coherent program emanating from that direction. Their respective strategies are strongly incommensurate, and each one postures itself on the all too obvious weaknesses of the other. Are we not in the terminal phase of a mutually assured destruction? At this point the AI people are literally on their knees praying for a divinely inspired breakthrough. Can I stand here and swear to you that God will not answer their earnest entreaties? No. Would God have given us the Quantum if she did not want us to build a Quantum Computer? No. I would be among the last to deplore such a development. Why will it not exacerbate the rampant metaphysical speculation already engendered? The Quantum is already a metaphysical nightmare for the materialists. Nay, it has turned into a metaphysical tar baby. The actual process of attempting to tame the Quantum is showing no prospect of diminishing its metaphysical stickiness. It continues to maintain the upper hand.
In metaphysics there are no guarantees. God is not going to write us a contract. There will always be an extra mile. And, most significantly, there will be an irreducible, indestructible element of faith. Faith is an essential core, if not the actual essence, of human nature. I doubt that the Creator would, or even could, ever deny that to her creatures. What proof there is, is ever only in the pudding.

[12/2]
I was out of town for a few days, so let's recapitulate. There is a continuing struggle with realism. My insight from last night was in the form of an increased emphasis on the holistic and relational nature of realism [i.e. its gestalt quality, as noted above]. There are different possible starting points for realism, and then one proceeds to construct a coherent web of reality.


One idea from last night was that our mathematical ability would be a logical starting point. It is very difficult to account for mathematics from a biological point of view. There is a minimal required intersubjective conceptualism. The precisely rational manipulation of mathematical structures provides a robust basis for conceptual realism. This realism includes a downward or final causality for these concepts.
I then would like to extend this realism back down the evolutionary ladder, and see how far we can reasonably go in that direction. This is toward the general notion of biological functionalism. For the previous several days I had been trying to make the case for biological pattern recognition for something as basic as enzymes. Following Pattee, I believe, one could argue that enzyme activity involves the Quantum measurement problem, bringing in metaphysics and ontology through that back door. But this is too big a leap from conceptualism. Thus I reverted to the general problem of nutrient acquisition, or just hunting, from a higher perspective.
A more general rubric would be mental modeling. Survival entails the predator and prey in a mutually escalating competition of anticipatory modeling. (One should be reminded of the basic ability of 3-D mental rotation studied by Shepard. Conceptual realism was surprisingly vindicated thereby.) One would expect some such modeling ability to extend rather far down the food chain. At the highest end of that chain we would have the the imaginative power of writers to create realistic characters with quasi-autonomy, which in turn, carried to a pathological extreme, would constitute a multiple personality disorder. This is just self-organization or autopoiesis carried to the next higher power. The web of realism is already well extended.
Linguistic capacity is a form of mental modeling. Words must be endowed with an irreducible causal efficacy if we are to take seriously our communication skills.
Given this tentative foothold for realism, the next extension of it might be organismic ontogeny. This is the realm where biological reductionism most severely strains our already overtaxed credulity. Ontogeny provides a possible bridge between mental and biological ontology, or between conceptualism and vitalism: a material based autopoiesis at its most impressive. Once the balance starts tipping away from reductionism and toward holism, that reversal of fortune is soon to become dramatically irreversible. No longer will mere atoms tyrannize our spirits. That day has been a long time coming. No need to be other than cautious and deliberate.

[12/3]
Yesterday I neglected to mention biological traits as prime candidates for realism. How else could they be selected? Notice, however, that they are not completely objective nor precisely defined, but evidently they are sufficiently real for all natural purposes.


On the issue of realism, the life sciences are caught between the vitalists, broadly construed, and the skeptics. Most scientists evidently feel that they can go about their business while ignoring the ontological issue. We point out to them that there can be no science without ontology. (A nominalistic science is tantamount to idealism.) The scientific status of an organismic biology is then the same as that of psychology or sociology. This is hardly shocking. Mathematicians are seldom exercised about the ontology of their subject matter.
The only folk who care about ontology are those of a religious persuasion. Theirs has always been an uphill battle. They should take heart from the ontological ambiguity of the sciences, but, so far, that comparison has not had much practical benefit.
And what about the ontology of meteorology? History? Persons?
Are persons real? Why are we not exercised about this? This may be the crux of the reality issue.
Consider the ontological vs. the legal status of persons. The abortion debate is just one facet of this issue. There is a liberal conservative divide as to whether the locus of reality is with the person or the society. Nature vs. Nurture, etc. Do persons make history or are we its products? What are the various causes of history? Biological and economic determinism are closely related issues. Of course, the ontological status of persons and souls are closely correlated.
The status of persons is also at issue between the prophetic and mystical or pantheist traditions. In general, the mystics are the great skeptics about many things, including especially gods and persons. On the other hand, even the atheist existentialists take persons, and their angst, seriously. Personal angst may be the only thing they take seriously.
A peculiar and remarkable facet of modern existence is the degree to which Physics has co-opted ontology. This is not particularly the doing of the physicists, is was mainly a role that was thrust upon them by outsiders with ulterior motives. I don't doubt that some aspects of this role have been manipulated in a a political or even conspiratorial fashion, but the great bulk of it has been simply the modern ethos, the zeitgeist (real?), if you will. The historians will not have an easy time explaining the ascendancy of the idea (sic) of materialism. It may well be the most difficult fact they will ever have to explain.
But how about meteorology? Are storms real? Is this a coherent question? How might the ontological status of meteorological taxonomy differ from that of its biological counterpart, for instance? Is it a matter of degree or of kind? Are storms a natural kind the way species are? Most planets and stars have (recognizable) storms, but only one is known to harbor species, setting aside the BPWH (hypothesis).
The physicalist would argue that storms are reducible to physics, like everything else. But are they not, more accurately, (strongly?) emergent bulk phenomena? Is there not a bona fide phenomenology of storms. (By the by, did you know that Physics is replete with phenomenology? I had almost forgotten this little skeleton in Physics' ontology closet.) The status of nuclear physics wrt to Physics is virtually the same as that of meteorology. It is difficult to deny the reality of nuclear weapons or of hurricanes, but that is not quite the issue. We're talking final causes. Nothing is real without a final cause, including, especially the world, ergo, eschatology. Formal and final causes may be identified for this larger, historical purpose. Does an electron have a formal cause? That may depend on the 'transworld' validity of Steve's Standard Theory of Physics. The formality of the electron is guaranteed only by the BPWH.
I should note that the reality of storms is not just an academic question for us idealists. Idealism does not rule out the possibility of upward causation, and the logical conflict between upward and downward causes in idealism could be a sticky issue. How much control might God have over the weather, and how might that control be exercised? Physics is a legitimate aspect of creation. Physicalism has a role, but just how limited is that role? That is something we'll need to deal with, at our early convenience:
The concept of the Alpha and Omega, and creation as a suspension between these pillars may be relevant. Take Alpha as the efficient cause and Omega as the final cause, and one has a model for balancing the upward and downward causes in a given time slice. These two, quasi-orthogonal, dimensions of causation could be the warp and woof of Creation. I'm struggling here folks, help me out!
The TV Weather lady doesn't need the BPWH, presumably.

[12/4]
Let's face, there wouldn't be so much physicalism if God did not love the physicalists. I was one once, myself, and but by the grace of we know whom, there still goeth yours truly.


But when it comes to obstructing El Camino Real, the postmodern skeptics are more effective than the remnant physicalists. It is political correctness, more than physical correctness that is the obstacle. Rationality has always been at a disadvantage relative to politics. And this politics has been severely polarized by the political excesses of the right-wing 'christian' crowd. A polarized polity bodes ill for rationality. Will the Muslim excesses just exacerbate the irrationality? There are limits to irrationality. Modern Cartesian irrationality has about played itself out. There is a latent demand for coherence. The radical nature of immaterialism is the remaining barrier to a postmodern coherence. El Camino Real beckons.
We are seeing the last hurrah of fundamentalism. Its superficial literalness was always the servant of the demagogue. It does not serve the spirit. The spirit hungers. The spirit will be served in the end.
Fundamentalism was merely a creature of modernity. It will not stand to the corrosion of postmodern scrutiny. As fundamentalism self-destructs, there will be a demand for coherent alternatives. People, though, are not yet spiritually prepared for the singular shock that awaits us on this front. To some it will seem that we are jumping from the frying pan into the fire, and they will not be entirely mistaken!


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Topical Index
11/22/02

Gospel of the Real



El Camino Real is the high road. It is ours. These are glad tidings!
Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door. Build a better road and the world will not have to beat a path to your door. There is simply now the Gospel of the Real.
So where is the world in its regard of the Real? How do we find out? Will Google work its magic?
The coherent gestalt of the Real is not easy to pin down. The point of greatest general concern ought to be the reality of persons. This would be the point on which Science would diverge most radically from public sentiment. Philosophers argue mightily over the status of folk-psychology. The status of persons is what is at stake.
I am not aware of any concerted postmodern view on the matter of persons. One might think that they maintain an embarrassed silence and just look the other way. Phenomenology is the intellectual bastion of personhood. I suppose that postmodernity maintains an uneasy alliance with phenomenology. Semiotics may be the wild card in this intellectual stalemate. Humanistic psychology and existentialism also provide safe harbors for persons.
Semiotics vs. AI might be the point of greatest cognitive dissonance with regard to personal identity (130,000 hits) [previously mentioned here, here (w.r.t. the politics of human nature) and here]. Not bad. Let's investigate. Adding 'reductionism' yields only 1,200 hits:
'Parfit, and the problem of personal identity in two philosophical traditions':
It is, therefore, refreshing to find two significant new books treating persons and personal identity from the perspectives of philosophy and Buddhist Studies, respectively, that defy convention and intellectual taboo each by nodding in the other's direction. Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons and Steven Collins' Selfless Persons are concerned not only with personal identity, to be sure, but because it is a central theme in both books and also their point of intersection, it will be the focus of this essay. Reasons and Persons represents the radical elaboration of a theory of persons derived ultimately from Locke, which holds the facts of personal identity to be wholly explicable in terms of continuity and connectedness, while Selfless Persons is a remarkably thorough analysis and interpretation of the themes relating to the concept of persons in Theravada Buddhist discourse.
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[Parfit] asks that you consider in what sense, if in any, you are the same person after a tele-transporter beams you to Mars. Your terrestrial brain and body are destroyed and an exact replica appears a few minutes later on the Red Planet. The replica has your memories, intentions, habits, and tastes. He will carry out your projects, care for your family, and so on. In short, he is continuous with you in all relevant respects. But have you survived your tele-transportation? Parfit argues that "this kind of continuity is just as good as ordinary continuity," and that, on certain criteria of personal identity at least, "my Replica .... would be me".
Derek's analysis ought to constitute a reductio ad absurdum for any insubstantial view of persons.
The most familiar sort of Non-Reductionist View is represented by the Cartesian doctrine of spiritual substance; but there are other versions as well, for example, the Further Fact View, which maintains that "though we are not separately existing entities, personal identity is a further fact, which does not just consist in physical and/or psychological continuity.
Rational agency and rationality proper are founded on personal identity. There is no coherence outside of personal coherence. Theism and personalism are logically inseparable. All identity is necessarily founded on personal identity.
Take note of Chalmers' list of sources.
I'm being sidetracked now onto The Identity Theory of Truth. It sounds not unlike direct realism.

[12/5]
I have not yet found a focus in the battle for the reality of the self. There is a broad line of demarcation between humanistic and behavioral psychology, but no real battle is in evidence. The two sides manage to ignore one another.


Parfit, Lewis, and Sperry on Personal Identity -- Eugene Marshall:
Imagine a person, John, will be subjected to a fission operation where each hemisphere will be transplanted into the empty skull of a new and different body. John’s body is disposed of afterwards. We will call the resulting bodies John1 and John2. The problem, as Parfit raised it, is this: how can John1 and John2 be identical with John, but not with each other?
Aren't those philosophers clever? Analysis (surgery) is used to defeat identity. I have a bit more faith in integrity. Let me point out that the integrity of the self is transcendental: Self & Love being the ultimate organizing principles of the cosmos. This matter was broached in the context of autopoiesis and multiple personality disorder. We are the multiple personalities of God, but that does not reduce God, just as Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn do not reduce Samuel Clemens. If you wish to perform experimental psycho-surgery on God, well, good luck!
If personal identity is the foundation of reality, it would seem that reality inhabits a slippery slope. That is the whole point. There is a chain of being, but certainly not in any biological or Darwinian sense. The holistic nature of being eludes all analysis and gives comfort to skeptics and nihilists. That is the price one pays for this stairway to heaven. What about the spiritually challenged? Is there no handicapped entrance? Not to worry, salvation is universal. So when you look around and notice that you are the last one at the nihilists' keg party, just be sure to turn out the lights before you leave.
On this same analogy, physicalism serves as grease on the stairway to heaven. It can expedite passage in either direction, depending on one's frame of mind. The chain of being is then not a stairway or even a chain with discrete links. It is more like a fire pole. It is physics that fills all the gaps. And it is God, too. How they manage this joint effort is perhaps our Gordian knot. Surely the Monster Group gets into this act, but don't ask me how, or from whence It came.
Reality does not provide us with a spiritual crutch. Believing in one's own self is a struggle, as it was meant to be. Believing in God makes that struggle rather more manageable in the long haul. The abyss is an ever present reality. People do fall off the edge of the world, every day. Fear does play a constructive role. The abyss is like the wolf prowling on the edge of the herd. She keeps us on our toes.
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Because of ontology's notorious slipperiness, the professionals have, with good reason, largely abandoned these slopes. Now we have amateur hour on the slopes. We are enjoying the ski party. How long will it last? The party will last until things get serious. When will that be? At about the time when the Eschaton starts making noises off-stage. I'm trying to make all the noise I can, but Google is not cooperating, is she? Does this make me a party pooper? If you think this is a party, well, you ain't seen nuthin.
Speaking of which: slippery ontology (1,200 hits) [and recall Computational Epistemology]:
Some Organizing Principles For A Unified Top-Level Ontology -- Nicola Guarino (1997):
....it shows an open-minded attitude towards the subtle distinctions of philosophy and the slippery issues of natural language and commonsense. The philosophical field inspiring this trend is that of formal ontology, which has been defined as "the systematic, formal, axiomatic development of the logic of all forms and modes of being". As such, formal ontology is a recent expression of traditional ontology, intended as the branch of philosophy which deals with the a priori nature of reality. In its current shape, formal ontology can be seen as the confluence between a school of thought which has addressed metaphysical problems within the mainstream of analytic philosophy, and another school more closely related to phenomenology, in the tradition of Brentano and Husserl.
Ain't the beer cold! The AI folk cannot stand on ceremony. They have to go out in the trenches and wrestle ontology with their bare hands.
Hanjo Glock, University of Reading, Title: Does Ontology Exist? (COLLOQUIUM SERIES

THURSDAY, MARCH 29, 2001)

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