Tag Archives: philosophy

Determinism – Another Great Misunderstanding

My last post was about one misunderstanding of science that annoys me. Here’s another.

Just rereading Anthony Kenny’s “What I Believe” (motivated by a reply to Bob’s comment in the last post) – in the chapter on morality he summarily dismisses utilitarianism. By saying:

Either determinism is true or it is not. If it is, then there is only one course of action which is a genuinely possible choice for us…. If, on the other hand, determinism is false, then there is no such thing as the totality of the consequences of one’s action; for the total future of the world depends on the choices of others as well as one’s own.

This falls foul of a mistake I’ve come across many times. It confuses the idea of non-determinism (that the future cannot, even in principle, be determined) with the idea that prediction is impossible.

We are very good at predicting the future. You wouldn’t survive crossing a road if you weren’t. Of course, you cannot tell exactly what will happen, you couldn’t say where each car will be at a particular moment in the future, and how fast they will be travelling. You couldn’t even say what lanes each car will be in. But you don’t need to. In science this is called the probability distribution.

In a world where outcomes are continuous, any particular outcome has a likelihood of basically zero. But instead we can group outcomes into categories. A category of outcomes where car 1 is in lane 2, for example, or when car 3 is going between 50-52 mph. Given any possible grouping of future states, what are the likelihoods of each group? These are probabilities we can guess. And our survival depends on having at least a good go (though we’re not perfect, by any means). This is perfectly consistent with non-determinism, and is also consistent with determinism, under the (pretty obvious, I think) assumption that we cannot know enough to predict a specific future.

There’s another example in a book I’m reading “Introducing Persons” by Peter Carruthers. But its harder to quote because it is an extended argument. In it, he basically says that you aren’t justified in thinking that other people have a mind on the basis of what they do. In other words, you might suppose that someone has a mind, because you can see their actions, work out their perceptions, and posit an intermediate set of mental states. So what is the problem with this? Well according to Carruthers we can’t perfectly predict what will occur, we can’t know exactly what mental states they are in, we are “constantly surprised” and therefore we can’t posit any mental states.

Really, is it so hard for philosophers to understand uncertainty? I know it takes a while in Math lessons to really get probability (so you don’t think that 5 coin flips coming up heads make a tails more likely*). And it is still notoriously difficult to develop gestalts around problems such as the Monty Hall Problem or the Tuesday’s Child Problem. But still, this seems to border on the wilful misunderstanding to me. These philosophers deal with far more complex ideas all the time.

In the hands of other debaters, well I’m happy to concede it might just be an annoying point of confusion.

* Incidentally this is a difference between a mathematician and an engineer. Given a coin that flips heads 5 times in a row, a mathematician will tell you the next flip is equally likely to be heads or tails. The engineer will tell you (correctly) it is more likely to be heads.


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God Does Exist After All — Part 3

Part 3. The Will of the Sofa

This follows on from part 1, whereas part 2 was a bit of background. In part 1 I described what it means to say that something like Marxism, or pacificm, exist. As we saw it is a strange type of existence: we can look at it as one amorphous thing, or many more specific things. Neither view is correct, Marxism itself is both one and many, both amorphous and specific.

I’m going to turn towards God now.

It will come as no surprise for me to say that I think God exists in the same way as Marxism and pacifism. God exists as a property of many human thoughts. At one level God is universal and ineffable. At another, God is personal and specific.

By abandoning the need to think about a God as an external, objective thing, this model allows us to take believers seriously, and understand what they think about the God they worship. Because, at least at some levels, what they think about God does define God. And at another level, all those thoughts flow into the amorphous world-spanning notion of God that humanity has given birth to.

I think it is a powerful model. And this and the next and last part will explore two features of it.

God the Agent

You don’t have to talk to believers for long, before you realise that they mostly agree that God has desires. I’ve met very few believers who were truly deist. Most want to claim, at least at some level, that God wants to influence the way we behave. God favours good actions over bad actions (for a suitable definition of Good and Bad).

Now this is a fascinating thing – because we’re now out of the territory of Marxism and pacifism, into new features of the God concept. One could certainly talk what it means to be a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ Marxist, and by implication that being a Marxism means you should prefer one action over another.

But you would not say (unless by metaphor) that Marxism itself wants you to behave one way or another.

We could dismiss this by saying that God is just a personified concept. But that would miss the point. The point is that believers believe that their God wants them to do stuff. And, crucially, they will therefore go out and do it.

So we have this strange phenomenon of a concept with not only desires, but agency: a concept that can get its desires fulfilled. God has no hands or legs, but God can mobilise human beings with hands and legs to act in the world.

In the comments to my first part it was suggested that this model applies to anything. At that stage it did. But now, not at all. A sofa can’t do work in the real world. God can. God can have constitutional rights rescinded in California, or organize a terrorist attack in New York.

Obviously it is human beings doing these things. That is true. But then, when you write a comment on a blog, it is fingers actually doing the typing.

My central thesis is that, by combining a large number of independent thinkers, each imagining and listening for God, and each in communication and tight feedback with each other, people inadvertently form the fabric of exactly such a thing – a God with desires and will. As long as we bear in mind the amorphous-specific distinction from part 1, we are justified in talking about the will of God.

Still just a concept, God can function as an actor and agent in the physical world.

This, I contend, is quite unlike most other concepts, such as Marxism, or Sofa-ness.

This mini-series is exploring the theological model I am using for some work I am doing at the moment. I am experimenting with different ways to express the core ideas, because I’m not sure what makes the most sense. I’d really appreciate feedback, suggestions and links to other similar work.

Oh, and I’m still an atheist 🙂


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God Does Exist After All — Part 1.

Part 1. Another Type of Existence

What is ‘libertarianism’? Or ‘pacifism’? Or ‘Marxism’? Do these things exist?

I think these three things can be said to exist, but they do so in a very particular way.

They are things that exist based on what human beings think they are. They have no existence outside human thought. And their existence is the combination of lots of different human thoughts, some contradictory, some personal and some universal.

We all will have a slightly different view of Marxism, for example. What is Marxism? Well it is a combination of those views.

Marxism doesn’t have definite boundaries. It is fuzzy. There are some things that lots of people associate with Marxism, and other things that are peculiar to a few. People cluster. Liberation theologians might share many of the same associations with each other, but be relatively distant from Leninists, who again share the same associations with each other.


To visualise this, let’s imagine we can write down on a big piece of paper all the different features or associations people have with Marxism. We try (as much as possible) to put associations that tend to appear together, near to one another. We then color in our piece of paper, with a lighter color for associations that more people have, and a darker color for rarer features (we could also weight this process by how strongly each person holds that association). This is called a heat-map. We might end up with something that looks like figure 1.

Fictitious heapmap of associations for Marxism

1. A fictitious heatmap of associations for Marxism - no cutoff applied.

We can see a reasonable cluster down the bottom left and a smaller cluster around some ideas in the bottom right. But any possible association is shared by some people. As I said, there is no definite boundary.

One thing that heat-maps allow you to do, however, is to fix certain boundaries. We can say that only associations that are particularly strong should be considered part of Marxism. So an association with Karl Marx, the man, might be high, and association with Joe’s grandfather might be rare. The first we might say is part of Marxism, the second is not.

We can visualise this on our heat map by adding a cut-off. Any idea that isn’t associated strongly enough, by enough people, isn’t part of Marxism. Any idea that meets this criteria is part of the concept (figure 2).

The Marxism heatmap, with a cutoff

2. The Marxism heatmap, with a cutoff, showing the boundaries of what constitutes a single, global concept of Marxism.

But, of course choosing this cut-off is problematic. What threshold do we use? If we choose a low threshold, then the concept is pretty meaningless (i.e. just about everything is part of Marxism). If we choose it too high, then it may fragment. With a suitably high threshold in the example I’ve given so far, we get four different Marxisms (figure 3).

A Heatmap with a threshold, showing four different Marxisms.

3. For a suitably high cutoff threshold, four different Marxisms arise.

A New Type of Existence

So what is Marxism? Is there one of it, or four of it?

Marxism is what people think it is. Some things are thought by more people, and more strongly. Some things are rarer. There is both one Marxism, and four (and, if you keep going, a different Marxism for every person who has a concept of it).

Marxism, pacifism, and libertarianism have a different kind of existence to a chair, or a corporation, or a car crash. It behaves in different ways to other kinds of existence, and we need to take care to understand it on its own terms. It is a crucial type of existence to understand when we look at the concept of God.

This mini-series is exploring the theological model I am using for some work I am doing at the moment. I am experimenting with different ways to express the core ideas, because I’m not sure what makes the most sense. I’d really appreciate feedback, suggestions and links to other similar work.

Oh, and I’m still an atheist 🙂


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Why Arguing Matters

Every reasonable person admits that some of their beliefs may be wrong. But no-one knows which they are, for if they did, they would no longer be beliefs. It is only in the robust clash of honest argument, that we see their weaknesses exposed.

I like argument. Constructive argument. I like receiving criticism, though I reserve the right not to accept it. This quote more than any other summarizes why.

I strive to be someone who can reject former beliefs when new arguments refute them. I strive to be someone who seeks out the strongest arguments to face. I don’t always succeed, but that would be my goal.

At various points in my life I’ve wanted to be a believer. Sometimes I have succeeded, at least for a while. But fundamentally my atheism comes down to this: atheism just seems to have the stronger arguments.

The quotation above is somewhat elusive. I thought I remembered it. I may have made it up. If I did remember it, it is likely to be John Stuart Mill (It seems consonant with his views, and is related to the line of argument he uses for free speech in “On Liberty”). But I can’t find it exactly, even searching with various combinations through his writings. And I may be thinking of him simply because I share most of his views, and would want to hang such a cool sentiment on him. If you can tell me where it comes from, please do. Otherwise I’ll claim it as my own!


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Friday Philosophy: Sorites Paradox

In what I hope will be a regular series, I want to think about a new philosophical question each Friday. This isn’t stuff I’ve thought about deeply or for a long time, so please feel free to make suggestions or corrections.

A pile of sand in a builder's yardThe Sorites paradox is also called the heap paradox.

Imagine a pile of sand. If I remove one grain of sand from the pile, do I still have a pile of sand? Well, of course, removing one grain of sand isn’t going to change the pile significantly.

So for any pile, I can remove one grain without producing a non-pile. But then if I keep removing grains of sand, I’ll end up with nothing – and surely we couldn’t say that is a pile!

The Sorites paradox is the most famous thought experiment in the philosophical study of vagueness. Vagueness is the study of concepts such as ‘pile’, or ‘tall’ or ‘rich’. In fact, almost all predicates seem to display a degree of vagueness.

Some philosophical approaches to vagueness include:

  • There is a particular minimum number of grains of sand that constitute a ‘pile’. Fewer than this number is not a pile.
  • There is a minimum number of grains in a pile, but nobody can know how many that is, exactly. So our association of ‘pile’ with a particular collection of grains is a probabilistic guess.
  • Pile is not a predicate. There can be groups of sand that have greater or lesser degrees of ‘pile-ness’. As you remove grains the collection becomes less of a pile, until eventually one should not call it a pile at all.
  • The collection of grains of sand is a pile if a reasonable number of people would call it a pile.

Any of these resonate? I think I operate mostly with the fourth approach, but all of them seem fair to me. I haven’t looked deeply into each one though, to see where the problems lie. I was fascinated, reading about the paradox, because classification is such a fundamental part of how we represent knowledge. I believe that classification is a double-edged sword: often making important differences appear more minor than they are.


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Friday Philosophy: Mary's Room

Frank Jackson: The philosopher who put forward the Mary's Room argument for the non-physicality of the mind. Credit: Australian National University

In what I hope will be a regular series, I want to think about a new philosophical question each Friday. This isn’t stuff I’ve thought about deeply or for a long time, so please feel free to make suggestions or corrections.

I listen to the Philosophy Bites podcast, when I’m driving long-distance or taking flights. I came to it only last year, so I’m listening back through its back-catalog.

I was listening to an old episode this week on physicalism (David Papineau on Physicalism).

It was very interesting because I had largely written off cartesian-style dualism (the idea that the mind, or some part of it, is non-physical). I therefore didn’t expect to hear that it was a live idea in philosophy of mind.

I’d like to present one argument from the podcast that I found very difficult to be convinced by, although I can’t clearly articulate why. It is apparently a famous argument (though I hadn’t heard it) by Frank Jackson. Maybe you can be clearer, or maybe you find it a slam-dunk argument for the existence of a non-physical mind!

Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal cords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’. […] What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?

What was really depressing was that I found the interviewee’s argument against this thought experiment completely unconvincing too.

I should say that actually, I have a duallistic ontology of the world, but it is not a (mind/spirit/soul)-body dualism. But that’s a subject for another post! 🙂


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The Form of the Cosmological Argument

The cosmological argument for the existence of God is a perennial line of reasoning for those wanting to bolster their belief in God. It is an argument I haven’t looked into deeply until it’s recent revival as the Kalam Cosmological Argument, beloved of evangelists like William Lane Craig. When I was doing my theology undergraduate degree I wrote a thesis on the ontological argument, this has to be brief as a blog post, but here’s a breakdown of the cosmological argument.

The cosmological argument has a number of different forms, but ultimately they all seem to reduce to the same basic structure.

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