William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Category: Philosophy (page 1 of 111)

The philosophy of science, empiricism, a priori reasoning, epistemology, and so on.

Summary Against Modern Thought: There Is Nothing In God Against Nature

This may be proved in three ways. The first...

This may be proved in three ways. The first…

See the first post in this series for an explanation and guide of our tour of Summa Contra Gentiles. All posts are under the category SAMT.

Previous post.

A short entry this week, for next week we start on something bigger and of more importance: that God is not a body. Plus, this is the last hurrah of summer and many of us are not around. We could skip this, but why not be complete during the lull? Besides, I can’t see any of this being controversial, granting the previous arguments.

Chapter 19: That in God there is nothing violent or beside nature

1 HENCE the Philosopher[1] concludes that in God there cannot be anything violent or outside nature. For whatever has in itself anything violent or beside nature,i has something added to itself: since that which belongs to a thing’s essence cannot be violent or beside nature. Now no simple thing has in itself anything that is added, for this would argue its being composite. Since then God is simple, as shown above,[2] there can be nothing in Him that is violent or beside nature.

2 Further. The necessity resulting from compulsion is a necessity imposed by another. Now in God there is no necessity imposed by another, for He is necessary of Himself, and the cause of necessity in other things.[3] Therefore nothing is compulsory in Him.ii

3 Moreover. Wherever there is violence, there can be something besides what belongs to a thing by its very nature: since violence is contrary to that which is according to nature. But it is not possible for anything to be in God that does not belong to Him according to His nature, since by His very nature He is necessary being, as shown above.[4] Therefore there can be nothing violent in Him.iii

4 Again. Everything that is compelled or unnatural has a natural aptitude to be moved by another: because that which is done by compulsion has an external principle, without any concurrence on the part of the patient.[5] Now God is altogether immovable, as shown above.[6] Therefore nothing in Him can be violent or unnatural.iv


iDon’t take violent in its most common meaning. A pin in a hip to keep it swinging free is “violent” in St Thomas’s words. As the rest of this argument shows, since God is not in potential, he cannot possess anything that is besides His nature. Here is Aristotle on nature, from St Thomas’s footnote (to understand the language used if nothing else):

(4) ‘Nature’ means the primary material of which any natural object consists or out of which it is made, which is relatively unshaped and cannot be changed from its own potency, as e.g. bronze is said to be the nature of a statue and of bronze utensils, and wood the nature of wooden things; and so in all other cases; for when a product is made out of these materials, the first matter is preserved throughout. For it is in this way that people call the elements of natural objects also their nature, some naming fire, others earth, others air, others water, others something else of the sort, and some naming more than one of these, and others all of them.-(5) ‘Nature’ means the essence of natural objects…

(6) By an extension of meaning from this sense of ‘nature’ every essence in general has come to be called a ‘nature’, because the nature of a thing is one kind of essence.

From what has been said, then, it is plain that nature in the primary and strict sense is the essence of things which have in themselves, as such, a source of movement; for the matter is called the nature because it is qualified to receive this, and processes of becoming and growing are called nature because they are movements proceeding from this. And nature in this sense is the source of the movement of natural objects, being present in them somehow, either potentially or in complete reality.

Then much later, about privation, an important term:

We speak of ‘privation’ (1) if something has not one of the attributes which a thing might naturally have, even if this thing itself would not naturally have it; e.g. a plant is said to be ‘deprived’ of eyes. (2) If, though either the thing itself or its genus would naturally have an attribute, it has it not; e.g. a blind man and a mole are in different senses ‘deprived’ of sight; the latter in contrast with its genus, the former in contrast with his own normal nature. (3) If, though it would naturally have the attribute, and when it would naturally have it, it has it not; for blindness is a privation, but one is not ‘blind’ at any and every age, but only if one has not sight at the age at which one would naturally have it. Similarly a thing is called blind if it has not sight in the medium in which, and in respect of the organ in respect of which, and with reference to the object with reference to which, and in the circumstances in which, it would naturally have it. (4) The violent taking away of anything is called privation.

Also, on accident, “Accident’ has also (2) another meaning, i.e. all that attaches to each thing in virtue of itself but is not in its essence, as having its angles equal to two right angles attaches to the triangle. And accidents of this sort may be eternal, but no accident of the other sort is.”

iiNobody forces God to do anything, not even 800-pound gorillas. But you get the idea.

iiiIf somebody dents your skull with a lead pipe, he has done violence to your cranium. But don’t miss the subtle point, repeated: “it is not possible for anything to be in God that does not belong to Him according to His nature, since by His very nature He is necessary being”. A necessary being is one which must exist and in the form, or rather essence, it takes. If it were other than its essence, it would be contingent and not necessary.

ivThe note is back to the important Chapter 13, where it is proved God is the Unmoved Move, the Unchangeable Changer. God must be the first cause, and therefore cannot be done violence, nor can He be compelled against His will—and this is so despite some fanciful and overly literal interpretations one occasionally runs into.

[1] 5 Metaph. i. 6 (D. 4, v. 6).
[2] Ch. xviii.
[3] Ch. xv.
[4] Ch. xv.
[5] 3 Ethic. i. 3.
[6] Ch. xiii.

Philosophic Issues in Cosmology VII: Is there a Multiverse?–Guest Post by Bob Kurland

A meeting of the multiverse organizers.

A meeting of the multiverse organizers.

Bob Kurland is a retired, cranky, old physicist, and convert to Catholicism. He shows that there is no contradiction between what science tells us about the world and our Catholic faith.

Read Part VI. *Quotations, unless otherwise specified, are from Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology, George F.R. Ellis.

It’s hard to build models of inflation that don’t lead to a multiverse. It’s not impossible, so I think there’s still certainly research that needs to be done. But most models of inflation do lead to a multiverse, and evidence for inflation will be pushing us in the direction of taking [the idea of a] multiverse seriously. —Alan Guth

“Well, there is the hypothesis…that all possible universes exist, and we find ourselves, not surprisingly, in one that contains life. But that is a cop-out, which dispenses with the attempt to explain anything. And without the hypothesis of multiple universes, the observation that if life hadn’t come into existence we wouldn’t be here has no significance. One doesn’t show that something doesn’t require explanation by pointing out that it is a condition of one’s existence. If I ask for an explanation of the fact that the air pressure in the transcontinental jet is close to that at sea level, it is no answer to point out that if it weren’t, I’d be dead. —Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos.

The notion of an ensemble of many possible universes (small u), not causally connected, “a multiverse”, has been used to counter the unlikeliness of all the anthropic coincidences. To quote Ellis*:

If there is a large enough ensemble of numerous universes with varying properties, it may be claimed that it becomes virtually certain that some of them will just happen to get things right, so that life can exist; and this can help explain the fine-tuned nature of many parameters whose value values are otherwise unconstrained by physics…However there are a number of problems with this concept. Besides, this proposal is observationally and experimentally untestable, thus its scientific status is debatable.

One problem (other than the untestable aspect) is that the probabilistic character of the multiverse is never specified by authors who invoke it:

These three elements (the possibility space [the population description], the measure [the quantities that describe the particular universe], and the distribution function [for the measure]) ,must all be clearly defined in order to give a proper specification of a multiverse…This is almost never done.

What is also not usually specified are the possible types of universes contained in a multiverse. Which of the types below should be included?

  • “Weak Variation: only the values of the constants of physics are allowed to vary?…
  • Moderate Variation: different symmetry groups, or numbers of dimensions…
  • Strong Variation: different numbers and kinds of forces, universes without quantum theory or in which relativity is untrue (e.g. there is an aether), some in which string theory is a good theory for quantum gravity and others where it is not, some with quite different bases for the laws of physics (e.g. no variational principles).
  • Extreme Variation: universes where physics is not well described by mathematics, with different logic; universes ruled by local deities; allowing magic… Without even mathematics or logic?

Which is claimed to be the properties of the multiverse, and why? We can express our dilemma here through the paradoxical question: Are the laws of logic necessary in all possible universes?”

Although the existence of multiverses cannot be justified by measurements, do they offer good explanations for the anthropic coincidences? Ellis answers:

It has been suggested that they (multiverses) explain the parameters of physics and of cosmology and in particular the very problematic values of the cosmological constant (lambda, the constant for negative pressure). The argument goes as follows: assume a multiverse exists; observers can only exist in one of the highly improbable biophilic outliers where the value of the cosmological constant is very small…If the multiverse has many varied locations with differing properties that may indeed help us understand the Anthropic issue: some regions will allow life to exist, others will not. This does provide a useful modicum of explanatory power. However it is far from conclusive.

Firstly, it is unclear why the multiverse should have the restricted kinds of variations of the cosmological constant assumed in (these) analyses…If we assume ‘all that can happen, happens’ the variations will not be of that restricted kind; those analyses will not apply.

Secondly, ultimate issues remain. Why does the unique larger whole (the multiverse) have the properties it does? Why this multiverse rather than any other one? (emphasis added)

I will add to Ellis’s comment that even though one universe in a multiverse has an appropriate value for a particular constant (say, lambda), it will not necessarily be the case that other parameters will be appropriate. There still has to be a conjunction of values for all the laws and constants, which requires either a Theory of Everything to give that (something to wonder about in itself) , or more amazing coincidences.

Ellis further argues that probability-based arguments cannot demonstrate the existence of a multiverse:

Probability arguments cannot be used to prove the existence of a multiverse, for they are only applicable if a multiverse (that is to say, a population of multiverses) exists. Furthermore probability arguments can never prove anything for certain, as it is not possible to violate any probability predictions, and this is a fortiori so when there is only one case to consider, so that no statistical observations are possible. (emphasis in the original). All one can say on the basis of probability arguments is that some specific state is very improbable. But this does not prove it is impossible; indeed if is stated to have a low probability, that is precisely a statement that it is possible…probability arguments…(are) equivalent to the claim that the universe is generic rather than special, but whether this is so or not is precisely the issue under debate.

The issue of whether a multiverse can contain an infinite number of universes (thus justifying the claim that “whatever can happen will happen”) is addressed by Ellis as part of the question whether an infinite number can be considered as real (rather than as a mathematical construct) in his analysis of the philosophic/ metaphysical questions involved in cosmology, and will be discussed in the last post of this summary.

In conclusion, Ellis argues that Multiverses are a philosophical rather than scientific proposal.

The idea of a multiverse provides a possible route for the explanation of fine-tuning. But it is not uniquely defined, is not scientifically testable … and in the end simply postpones the ultimate metaphysical questions.

These philosophic issues will be discussed in the final post of this series.

See Dr Kurland’s original post, linked above, for a further discussion of Inflation.

Summary Against Modern Thought: God Is Not Made Of Parts

This may be proved in three ways. The first...

This may be proved in three ways. The first…

See the first post in this series for an explanation and guide of our tour of Summa Contra Gentiles. All posts are under the category SAMT.

Previous post.

That God, accepting He exists based on the previous proofs, is not a composite object won’t be especially difficult to believe. Except for those who, strangely, believe God is a created (or maybe “evolved”) being. If He was, it begs the question how. And that would immediately bring us back to how anything changes, which must involve the existence of a necessary Being, which is to say, God Himself. Reminder: it simply makes no sense to say things “just happen” or happen “by chance” or “randomly.” There must be a First Cause.

Chapter 18: That in God there is no composition

1 FROM the foregoing we are able to conclude that there is no composition in God. For in every composite thing there must needs be act and potentiality: since several things cannot become one simply, unless there be something actual there and something else potential. Because those things that are actually, are not united except as an assemblage or group, which are not one simply.i In these moreover the very parts that are gathered together are as a potentiality in relation to the union: for they are actually united after being potentially unitable. But in God there is no potentiality.ii[1] Therefore in Him there is no composition.

2 Again. Every composite is subsequent to its components. Therefore the first being, namely God,[2] has no component parts.

3 Further. Every composite is potentially dissoluble, so far as its composite nature is concerned, although in some there is something else incompatible with dissolution. Now that which is dissoluble is in potentiality to not-being. But this cannot be said of God, since of His very essence He is necessarily. Therefore there is no composition in Him.iii

4 Moreover. Every composition requires a compounder: for if there be composition, it results from several things: and things that are several in themselves would not combine together unless they were united by a compounder. If then God were composite, He would have a compounder: for He could not compound Himself, since no thing is its own cause, for it would precede itself, which is impossible. Now the compounder is the efficient cause of the composite. Therefore God would have an efficient cause: and thus He would not be the first cause, which was proved above.[3]iv

5 Again. In any genus the more simple a thing is the more excellent it is; such, in the genus hot, is fire which has no admixture of cold. Therefore that which obtains the summit of nobility among beings, must be in the summit of simplicity. Now that which obtains the summit of nobility in things is what we call God, since He is the first cause, because the cause is more excellent than its effect. Therefore there can be no composition in Him.v

6 Moreover. In every composite thing the good does not belong to this or that part but to the whole, and I speak of good in reference to that goodness which is proper to, and is the perfection of, the whole: thus the parts are imperfect in relation to the whole: thus the parts of a man are not a man, nor have the parts of the number six the perfection of six, nor do the parts of a line attain to the perfection of the measure found in the whole line.vi Therefore if God is composite, His proper perfection and goodness are found in the whole of God but not in any of His parts.vii And thus the good that is proper to Him will not be purely in Him; and consequently He will not be the first and supreme good.viii

7 Further. Before every multitude it is necessary to find unity. Now in every composite there is multitude. Therefore that which is before all things, namely God, must needs be devoid of all composition.ix


iIf A is joined to B, there is A+B not AB, or rather, there is not an indivisible (new) C. If something is composite, it is in potential to being busted apart, to being A and B again.

iiDon’t forget that St Thomas earlier proved that in God there is no potentiality. Maybe it’s not obvious, but from this we deduce that God is not a “life-force”, or evolved being, made of parts. God is not an anthropomorphic being, is not made of pasta or DNA or anything material, even though he can be painted that way. God is Being itself, and Being itself is not be decomposable. Being itself cannot be painted or pictured.

iiiWe have already proved that God, as First Mover or Unchanging Changer, must necessarily exist, or nothing could ever move or change. This why St Thomas says, “since of His very essence He is necessarily.”

ivI find this very pretty. Everything that changes has a cause for the change. A composite is caused to be composite from its parts (somehow). And we’re right back at the beginning. Of course, we must never forget, not everything changes. God does not, because God is not in potentiality.

vThis extra, unneeded argument will probably sound phony, or at least fishy, to modern ears. And anyway, it doesn’t reach syllogistic proof because of the (as yet unproved) premise that the more excellent something is, the simpler it is. Simpler? To moderns, simpler is equated with stupider or that which is less useful. But to St Thomas, it is associated with elegance, beauty, sublimity. This is why he says “the cause is more excellent than its effect.” After all, without the cause, there is no effect.

viAnd here is similar language. A jigsaw puzzle can still be beautiful even though it’s missing a piece, but it hasn’t reached it’s potential perfection, or rather completeness. It may also come as a surprise to some atheists to learn that the parts of a man are not a man. But a man can have missing parts and still be a man, though an imperfect instantiation of one. A few cells which live as a man, though small, is also a man (after all, what are you but a large collection of cells?). That some objects, or people, exist as imperfections does not do away with perfection.

viiIn other words, if God is put together from pieces, those individual pieces are not the perfection—only the whole is. or could be Just like the jigsaw puzzle.

viiiThe good will not be purely in him, because the good would be in the whole which is made of pieces. The good would be in pieces too, as it were. Now this follows: “consequently He will not be the first and supreme good”. This is not a complete argument that God is the first and supreme good. St Thomas is anticipating that claim, which is anyway familiar even to us moderns (that God is Good). Thus, this also is not, at this point, another proof that God is not composite.

ixOkay, fine, But what about the Trinity? God the Father, Jesus-slash-God, God the Holy Ghost? How could God be three in one? How could a non-composite God be a man? Short answer: nobody knows. Not how. But we can know that. And we can only know things like this through faith, through revelation. Because of this, St Thomas does not concentrate on these matters, taking as his subject on those propositions which can be proved via the senses in absence of ordinary revelation.

We still haven’t close to describing God’s essence. We know he’s outside of time (eternal), not in potentiality, and not made of stuff. But that’s it so far. There is much more to come. How much? An infinite amount!

Update Perhaps this is the best ever explanation of the Trinity.

[1] Ch. xvi.
[2] Ch. xiii.
[3] Ch. xiii.

The Unexamined Scientific Life


Busy day at WMBriggs.com-land, so only a slight puzzle.

If you want to be a scientist, it is essential—I speak in earnest—to learn the calculus. Indeed, the importance of this branch of mathematics is impossible to overstate. Without it, you will never have more than an imperfect sketchy fractional crude view of any modern scientific field.

But since calculus takes time to master—it is difficult, vast, and subtle—the years spent learning it can be put to better use doing actual science. Anyway, calculus permeates university and even ordinary life. We’ve all seen calculus equations in newspapers, on Facebook, Twitter, everywhere. You can surely absorb what you need as you go along, just by being part of our modern scientific culture

Consider that the subject is on everbody’s mind, it’s part of the daily discourse, it is “built in”, so to speak, to everything. Why, after five or ten years, by sheer osmosis you’ll have had enough of it knocked into your head that you could write books on the subject. Or, if you were feeling especially ambitious and had a free afternoon, you could always read a popular account penned by some science writer—a book or Wikipedia article which hits the highlights.

Could be a waste of time with Wikipedia, though. You could be out doing science instead. Just get on with it!

Latest Threat To Global Warming? In Vitro Fertilization

Certified carbon-free footprint.

Certified carbon-free footprint.

Stop me if you’re heard this one before. An academic, educated well beyond her capabilities, having a lot of free time on her hands, and frightened past the point of rational thinking by the terrifying promises of the horrors which await us once global warming strikes (soon, soon), figures out a way to solve the “crisis”. Her solution is—wait for it—to put the government in charge of making babies!

Ha ha ha! What a good joke!

(Where have we seen this before?)

The commedienne is Cristina Richie from the Theology Department (yes) at Boston College. Her peer-reviewed leg-pulling is entitled “What would an environmentally sustainable reproductive technology industry look like?” in the Journal of Medical Ethics.

Richie’s line is that “all of medicine and healthcare should be evaluated in terms of ecological sustainability”, especially the “assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) industry”. What’s an ART? An in vitro fertilisation factory.

ARTs deserve “special ethical attention” not because they are wasteful of human life (many embryos don’t make the cut and are never heard from again), but because they not “only absorb the ‘typical’ medical resources like buildings, medical instruments and intellectual capital, they are unique in that they alone create carbon legacies in addition to having a carbon footprint.” She doesn’t mind the killing, it’s done using electricity that bothers her.

“People who use ARTs are deliberately seeking a carbon legacy (emphasis mine).”

Carbon legacy? She means junior-sized human beings. Babies aren’t people, but carbon-generation machines. Utilitarianism pushed to its logical extreme is always funny, no?

Richie only cares about the factory-made babies, not the kind ordinary moms and dads make (are we still allowed to say “moms and dads” or is that something-or-other-phobic?). Though she does scold that “naturally made children” have an “undeniable impact” on the “environment.”

Babies made through ARTs are “a burden on the already over-taxed ecosystem to support new beings who might not have existed without medical intervention.” Yet how “over-taxed” can it be if Boston College can give Richie a cushy living, free of normal responsibility?

Ever wonder how to sound like an academic? How about this sentence? “Since the 1980s, the field of environmental bio-ethics has made the connection among pollution, carbon emissions and human health.”

Ever wonder how academics can lecture people outside their competencies? How about this sentence? “The impact of climate change on world citizens has continued to receive interest in the medical industry, urging consumption reduction to better the lives of those who currently suffer under conditions of food scarcity, respiratory disease and drought as a result of CO2 emissions.”

Has no one told her that CO2 has not caused any of these things? That, even if the IPCC is right, the apocalypse is still in the future and not yet? And, judging by how strongly her ego is tied to her theory, should we tell her? Breaking the bad news that all is not lost might not go well.

Skip it. Let’s get to Richie’s “solutions.” First, “[t]here is nothing that a potential parent could do, short of moving to another country, to offset the carbon of a biological child.” (She thinks Americans are especially egregious climate sinners.)

Second, banning. “While a moratorium on all fertility clinics would be the most ecologically sound decision in this purview, it is unlikely that established fertility procedures or treatments would be effectively ‘banned’ until global CO2 emissions stabilise.”

Third, “carbon capping.” Richie isn’t an economist, and writes like one who has no familiarity with the subject, which is why she suggests something like the “Kyoto Protocol and make an entire country accountable for carbon emissions, thus forcing each and every sector to examine their consumptive practices.”

Lest you think Richie has nothing solid to offer, she says this, which is true. “ARTs use scarce communal resources such as intellectual research, government funding for development and medical buildings. Natural procreation qua procreation does not. That is, a woman wishing to become pregnant through ARTs has to go to a clinic, visit a doctor and use the carbon-intensive resources of the medical industry.” She forgot to mention IVF can be highly wasteful of human life.

She’s also right when she says, “many fertile people who could become pregnant without any extra resources use ARTs”.

So while the enemy of my enemy might be my friend, and since I’m not fond of IVF you think I might support Richie, it can’t be done for the reasons she offers. For as the man said, the “greatest treason” is “to do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

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