Review: Terence Horgan “Austere Realism”

As I noted at the top of my Amazon review (see inclusion below), Hogan’s “Austere Realism” and Graham Harman’s “Object Oriented Ontology” are, near as I can tell, exact inverses of one another. Harman’s view is that everything is real, everything is an object. Every star, planet, building, book, nation, thought, and all their relations, a virtual infinity of relations between everything and everything else taken individually and in sum. “All objects”. Horgan’s view it the exact inverse. For Horgan there is only one ontologically genuine concrete object in the universe, that being the universe taken as a whole, across all time, what he calls “the blobject”.

Both theories, in their own way, amount to saying the same thing. Whether “all is one” or “literally everything is an object”, both declare that “everything is the same”. On a strictly ontological level, there is no distinction to be made anywhere. This is not to say that the two theories say the same thing, not at all. But because they are both at the extreme ends of the metaphysical spectrum they both collapse all distinction and end up explaining nothing.

Horgan doesn’t mention Harman; not in the book nor the copious end notes. None of Harman’s books are even listed in the bibliography. I am surprised. Although the polar opposite of Horgan’s ontology, I would think the common feature of “being at the extremes” of ontological speculation would be worth a mention. I have dealt with Harman in several book reviews and essays here on the blog. Now it is Horgan’s turn.

In my review I do point out that Horgan’s book has two purposes; to set forth his “blobjectivism” and to show how, even if there is but one concrete particular in the universe (the universe itself) this idea is perfectly consistent with talk about a multiplicity of objects. “The United states dollar is the primary reserve currency on Earth” is true even though “the United States”, dollars, currency, and “the Earth” do not strictly exist. The same is true for more purely physical assertions. “Mars is the fourth planetary orbit outward from the sun” is true though there is no Mars, planets, orbits, or the sun. These statements can be true because their truth lies in semantic contexts that only “indirectly correspond” to some as yet unspecified phenomena of the “mind-independent world”, something both Horgan and Harman must accept as real or they wouldn’t be “realists” at all.

It is the social construction of language and so the presence of varying semantic contexts that make such statements true. They are true not because the things they purportedly reference (planets, money) exist, but because they meet the semantic standards of speech concerning posits about distinctions that exist only in a mind-dependent way. This connection between ordinary speech and ontology is a nice touch, but what is it about these “pseudo object posits” that makes them unreal ontologically speaking? Horgan points to vagueness (which he also calls boundarylessness) and the “Special Composition Question” introduced by a short detour through the work of Peter Van Inwagen. Much of this Horgan illustrates with what philosophers call “sorites problems” the most famous of which (and perhaps because of this Horgan doesn’t use it) is the “ship of Theseus”.

Theseus has a ship made from wooden planks. At some point one of the planks rots and must be replaced with a new piece of wood. Is it still the same ship? What if two planks are replaced, or ten, or all of them? Somewhere along the process some people would say that it is no longer the same ship though others would disagree. But the point is there is no definite point where the replacement of just one more plank makes a different ship. This observation suggests that the ship of Theseus (and most everything else) is vague and it is an axiom of Horgan’s ontology that “vague objects” do not actually exist as such. There is no such object as “the ship of Theseus” even though Theseus (who also does not exist) is plainly sailing in something.

The “special composition question” is related to this but has to do with what is and is not a proper part of a larger construct. Does a chair (some chairs) have parts? Does it have legs, a back, a seat, and perhaps arms? The chair is subject to sorites issues; if I remove a leg and replace it with another is it the same chair? But also we notice that legs, arms, seats, and backs, not to mention chairs, are all made of atoms. Perhaps the only real parts of anything are the atoms. A chair (Van Inwagen’s famous example) is nothing but “atoms arranged chair-wise”. It has no other proper parts because they are all merely atoms arranged leg-wise, seat-wise and so on.

So what does Horgan say is the chair in the mind-independent world? He says it doesn’t exist. It is not a “proper part” of the universe. Instead, what he believes, is that the blobject, the whole universe just is in some particular spatiotemporal location arranged chair-wise. Instead of a composition from atoms on up, the key insight for Horgan is that the differentiation goes from the top down. The mind-independent “whole universe” happens to be differentiated into everything that we take to be mind-independent about the world and according to Horgan (he is explicit here) this differentiation is both real and precise; not vague.

Yet, since the blobject is differentiated into something or other not-vague (chair shaped, rocks in orbits, suns, gas clouds, radiation) literally everywhere, and all of these differentiations have effects (gravitationally or otherwise) on other differentiations around them, how is saying what Horgan says any different from saying that all of the differentiations, taken mind-independently, are simply real objects with a genuine compositional structure? If the blobject’s everywhere differentiations are not vague, where comes from that vagueness he uses to insist that suns, rocks, gas clouds, and chairs don’t really exist? If the blobject differentiates precisely and the differentiations are mind-independent, the vagueness can only come from what is not mind-independent, namely the machinations of mind both pre-linguistic and linguistic!

The problem comes fully around to bite Horgan when he speculates on mind itself. If there is mind in the universe, the blobject also is differentiated spatiotemporally into minds! Mind itself, our phenomenology taken as a whole (Horgan suggests) is also a differentiation of the blobject and for that reason precise, though the contents of any given mind, for example propositions, can still be vague. But even with this little escape for vagueness’ sake, Horgan seems committed to mind-independent mind!

This result does not appear to have given Horgan any pause, but I think it is enough to show that there are difficulties with his view he does not address in the book. In the end philosophy is always trivially right when it takes positions at the extremes of ontology or epistemology. One cannot in the end refute a pure idealism, nihilism, solipsism, or a realism that says, one way or another, that “everything is the same”. In the end Horgan is not wrong. Nor is Harman. But Blobjectivism, like Object Oriented Ontology, is a difference that makes no difference! As concerns the “mind-independent world” saying everything, including all properties, are localizations of the blobject is the same as saying that all the localizations are real and exist. As goes ontology, Horgan (though not Harman) need not worry about baldness, nations, money, or even language since none of these phenomena are strictly mind-independent.

Austere Realism: Contextual Semantics Meets Minimal Ontology. Terence Horgan 2008

Interestingly this book is a counter point and the ultimate theory is exactly the inverse of Graham Harman’s “Object Oriented Ontology” (see my reviews of various Harman books). Ironically, the universality of their views cause both philosophers the same problem. If what exists is univocal (everything is an object [Harman] or there is only one object [Horgan]) you explain everything while explaining nothing. However delving into such philosophical matters is not the purview of a book review and I will talk more about this in my blog. Meanwhile, one of my criticisms of Harman is that he never really tells us why or how he came to his position, a complaint I cannot level at Horgan as that telling is the very purpose of this book.

Horgan first introduces us to realism in general and then austere realism. He spends roughly one third of the book (at the beginning and again at the end) characterizing austere realism and in particular his version of it, something he calls “blobjectivism”. Roughly two thirds of the book he spends not on his ontological theory as such but on how that theory relates to statements in ordinary and scientific discourse. If we want to say that planets, stars, buildings, and nations do not exist, how is the scientific statement “Earth occupies the third orbit outward from the sun” or the economic observation “the U.S. dollar is the world’s primary reserve currency” true? He says such statements are true not because the “objects” they purportedly name exist, but because talk of these categories only “indirectly corresponds” to the mind-independent world. The indirection goes through the process of conceptualization.

Much of the book is an exposition of this process works; how it is that many statements in ordinary and scientific discourse can be true even though the objects they purportedly talk about do not really exist. His direct argument for their non-existence has to do with vagueness, what he also calls the boundarylessness of discursive subjects, and the related “special composition question”. In stipulating a mind-independent world he also stipulates that no mind-independent object can be vague or boundary-less. Vagueness can always be made to look inconsistent. He gets into this issue by introducing what philosophers call “sorites problems” (take a man with 5000 hairs on his head. If I take away 1 hair is it still the same man? And this is only the beginning of a sorites problem). Anything we might call “an object” within the universe is subject to this sort of breakdown. Horgan insists that this being so, none of these postulated things exist in the mind-independent world. Objects of the mind-independent world cannot be intrinsically vague.

Horgan slides between mind-independence that cannot be vague, and discourse following general and not-fully-specifiable linguistic standards (themselves vague), to what he calls the vagueness of linguistic posits about the world. The problem here, the problem Horgan doesn’t seem to see, is that all the vagueness is mind-dependent. There isn’t any vagueness about the man with 5000 hairs in the mind-independent world. The vagueness enters only when mind directs itself at analyzing the concept of that man. Horgan is quite correct I think in that all that is mind-dependent is vague. I believe this is necessarily so, though Horgan does not (and says so). Nevertheless these indirectly corresponding posits cannot be real though propositions about them can still be true. Besides introducing us to the blobject, the point of the book is the [mind-dependent] connection between Horgan’s ontology and the correctness of ordinary talk thanks to semantic context and indirect correspondence.

To my mind, Horgan fails to appreciate some of the implications of his ontology. For him, the stuff of the mind-independent world are not parts of something greater but rather spacetime localisations, differences, of “the one concrete particular that exists”, the blobject. If this is the case, and he says this, these spatiotemporal localisations must be precise, not vague! There are many issues arising here I will leave for another venue (see my blog), but the bottom line is that if they are not vague we might as well call them objects! It isn’t that Horgan is wrong (let’s say). It isn’t that ontology cannot be as austere as he claims. But it doesn’t matter. Giving an inch here is worth a mile. If spatiotemporal variations in the blobject are real and precise then conceptualizing those variations as objects, saying “they exist” and “directly correspond” (in Horgan’s semantic scheme) to mind-independent particulars amounts to saying the same thing.

Still all in all Horgan does a great job putting this together. I gave the book four stars not because of philosophical issues but because Horgan’s writing is not as clear as it might be. There are many long sentences with multiple and parenthetical clauses. Sometimes his argument is a little difficult to follow. But what was worse, the Kindle version of this book (the version I have) has a serious problem! This is not the author’s fault. The publisher was way too casual with this conversion. There are a lot of end notes in this book. A considerable amount of detail in the author’s exposition is in the end notes! But while the notes are flagged in the text, flags are not made into links. You cannot press on an end note and go to the note as as is conventionally the case in most of the Kindle books in this and other non-fiction genera. Such features are, after all, part of the point of e-books! This is a serious omission in a scholarly work like this, and makes the whole, if you really want to see the end notes as they come up, way more difficult than it should be.

Book Review: Self Knowledge for Humans by Quassim Cassam


A philosopher needs both breath and depth in the discipline. There are a certain range of issues in which I have a primary interest reflected in all of the essays on this blog. But a philosopher cannot rely only on the writings of others in their field. To understand the implications of even narrow issues, one must read both opposing voices and something of other issues that may be but peripherally related. For me this is one of those books.

Is self-knowledge of the substantial variety on which Cassam focuses important to me as a person? Yes to some extent it is, and in fact the author covers that “to some extent” very well in his last chapter. Is self-knowledge important to me as a philosopher? Is it important to my specific interests? In my case crucially yes, but it is not a sort of self-knowledge, a knowledge of beliefs and why I have them (I do know what I believe and why I believe), wants, emotions, and character traits addressed in this book.

What I need better to understand is the quality of my evidence and whether it is evidence for what I believe. My primary interests often impinge on philosophy of mind (not our belief that other people or animals have minds, but rather what mind is, what makes mind happen in brains, and how this relates to physics, biology, etc) and much of what I believe is derived from a phenomenal examination of my own mind. I want to know if what I discover in that examination is genuinely evidence for what I believe.

This is a question that Dr. Cassam misses. I make no criticism of his work here. It is clear from his exposition that the metaphysics of mind is not his subject. Who or what is this entity that believes, wants, feels, and has character traits? None of what Cassam writes here hinges on any particular metaphysical view of this entity. Yet surely an answer to this question is about one’s self? It is about what one believes constitutes the self. My interest is in what I might learn of the self as compared to knowledge about myself. While not addressing that question, this book provides a helpful context. Thanks to  my reading, I am better positioned to describe that entity and what I can (perhaps) infer of it in the context of self-knowledge more broadly conceived.

Self-Knowledge for Humans by Quassim Cassam (2014)

As with many other philosophy texts I’ve reviewed over the years this one is both professional and well written. There is almost a formula for doing good philosophy in the analytic tradition. Begin by clearly stating the nature of the problem you are going to address. Briefly review the history of the issue; make distinctions, show that the problem is more than trivial. Here the subject is something of a narrow subset of philosophy of mind, epistemology, phenomenology, and even psychology. It is the nature of what, how, and why we know, or fail to know, about ourselves as this pertains to our beliefs, emotions, desires, characters and more. Cassam sketches distinctions between the trivial and the substantial in self knowledge, and also the occasional (what I’m thinking, believing, feeling, wanting, right now) versus the standing (what do I believe, fear, want, and so on over time).

Next address the various theories about the subject in the literature and show why they are inadequate, if not entirely then at least partly. This review often, and in this case does, take up much of the book. Third make a positive argument for your own theory, in this case what Cassam calls “inferentialism”; describe it carefully and show how it addresses the inadequacies of the other dominant theories in the subject area. Then address specific objections to your theory advanced by others and show why they do not have the force their authors believe they do.

Cassam does all of this masterfully and manages not to be dry in the doing of it. He ends with two chapters on related matters, one being self-ignorance itself distinguished into variations and brought under his theory, and lastly a chapter on a meta-issue, why these inferences, why self-knowledge is or might be important.

Is Inferentialism convincing? Well yes, given how much Cassam emphasizes its broad but not always universal applicability. His claim is that Inferentialism covers much of the ground because it can be conscious or unconscious (sometimes this last is better understood as “interpretation”) and would often, but not always, be the dominant means by which we come to know things about ourselves. In short there are a lot of distinctions to be made about what self-knowledge is, and Inferrentialism happens to address all of them (including self-ignorance) to a greater or lesser extent, but is never, or almost never, absent entirely from the process of coming to know things about ourselves. Objections to the idea are unable to gain purchase because Cassam fully accepts that other theories have explanatory power here and there about this or that sort of self-knowledge, but points out that none of these, even if they happen to be operational in specific cases, preclude an inferential component to the path to self-knowledge. It is about as neat and tidy a package as I have seen.

“Self-Knowledge for Humans” would make a superb introduction to the style of Western Analytic Philosophy. In addition it well illuminates the issue and makes a substantial contribution to our grasp of what a solution looks like.

Book Review: I am a Strange Loop by D. Hofstadter

This book deserves a lot of additional commentary, but I will keep it short and begin with philosophy of mind’s “elephant in the room”; free will.

Hofstadter rejects free will. No such thing, any appearance to the contrary an illusion. But even worse, it is an illusion on top of an illusion (the agent whose will it is) on top of another illusion, mind, that is subjective consciousness, also illusion or at best epiphenomenal with zero power of downward causation. Of course. What else can he say? He is committed to all of this being nothing more than manifestations of physical process in the brain whose complexity in some unspecified way becomes self-referencing, creating some sort of physical effect (like a harmonic oscillation though he doesn’t say this) that magically transforms itself into our subjectivity. A harmonic oscillation (a complex pendulum) that becomes an unmeasurable (by third parties) interiority.

Despite this multi-layered trickery, Hofstadter uses the word ‘soul’ many dozens of times throughout the book, even calling human beings “spiritual animals” in his conclusion. To what, in this epiphenomenal context, can these concepts possibly refer? Nothing. They are meaningless terms standing for illusory abstractions. Surely he knows that these words, in a non-physicalist context, stand for something purportedly both real (not illusory) and yet non-physical. To be sure, even in their normal context they are vague terms and there is no end of debate among philosophers of religion about what they reference. But all agree they reference something not material. But God is a fantasy to Hofstadter. Words normally associated with “God talk” can be appropriated and made to mean anything one wants. Nothing about ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ can be real. Although the words are real enough in the English language, they literally can mean nothing what-so-ever as  that to which Hofstadter applies them is ultimately an illusion.

Take beauty, the simplest of the values (truth, beauty, goodness) to grasp because we detect its manifestation in the physical world. Physical things (whether natural or artifactual phenomena, sunsets or art) strike us as beautiful or not but either way the perception of beauty is something that exists only in mind. We seem to see it in the material world, but there is not much controversey about its status as a purely mental phenomenon, coming out, in what would have to be Hofstadter’s view if he is being consistent, as an illusion in an epiphenomena. While having no causal power, our epiphenomenal mind can itself have an illusion about which we might report: “that is a beautiful sunset”. But this is but another behavior determined by the purely physical operation of our brains, a report that happens, magically to coincide with the illusion arising in a causally impotent epiphenomena having no correspondence what-so-ever to any physical quality of the sunset.

This leaves all of what Hofstadter says he values, the memories of a wife he loved deeply, and the children he continues to adore, his close friends, his career, all illusion. Memories are an imperfect mental record of past experience, but experience is nothing but effervescent epiphenomena. They don’t mean anything because meaning is intelligible only to a subject, itself an illusion. He likes to think he acts out of love for his children, but this is impossible unless there is downward causation. Love has an experience that is overtly more than its physiological concomitants. This part of it is quintessentially mental, and therefore epiphenomenal. There is nothing there that has any stake (and in any case cannot be a cause) in the behavioral game.  Like beauty, physics does not find love in the causal mechanisms of the physical world.

If Hofstadter is right, then we might as well be zombies of the sort envisioned by his student (years ago) David Chalmers. Our interiority would seem to belie that. Chalmer’s “philosophical zombies” (P-zombies) have no interiority, but then our having one makes not the slightest difference to anything we might say or do, like “I love my children”. There is no “him” (all illusion) there to love anything, only his brain that determines the verbal report made.

Hofstadter declares to us that he “takes mind seriously”. Another zombie-report forced on him by his brain, just as that same brain forced him to pen that book. This is not “taking mind seriously”. If you take mind seriously, then you have to come out a bit like John Searle (whose critique of “machine consciousness” Hofstadter swipes at here and there throughout the book). Searle takes mind seriously. He says that he cannot shake the feeling that nothing about the entire history of human experience, not to mention the day-to-day experience of individual humans, makes any sense, becomes unintelligible, unless free will, and even personal agency (for Searle at least of a functional and not ontologically real sort) are both real. Searle, being ultimately a physicalist, admits he cannot figure out how this would be possible, but he nevertheless cannot shake the conviction that it is. Hofstadter (Searle and many others also) has another option, one that his  sort of “taking it seriously” prevents him from considering. He could take consciousness, agency, and free will to be real, and conclude that therefore physicalism must be false!

If one takes mind, and provisionally like Searle, free will and agency seriously, if physicalism is false, then one moves on to asking what must be the case about reality as a totality that makes these phenomena possible? What must be true about the universe if these subjective experiences are experiences of real phenomena? This is a question that Hofstadter, like Searle, cannot bring himself to ask.

I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter 2004

Douglas Hofstadter, justifiably famous for “Godel, Escher, Bach” wrote about the much trickier subject of mind and personal identity in this 2004 book. It is one thing to analyze the relation between three applications (their results in Math, visual art, and music) of self-referencing thought, and quite another to analyze the entity doing the thinking. Hofstadter begins with Godel because as it will turn out, his insight into the recursive descriptiveness of number theory from which self-reference was (supposedly) banned by Bertran Russel, becomes his inroad into a philosophy of mind. Hofstadter is a master at describing (without mathematical formalism) what Godel did and why it matters. He is not so good at applying this to mind.

Besides Godel, the author’s other insight comes from the loopy-like nature of recursive entities like infinite halls of mirrors or what happens when you point a television camera at the screen displaying what that camera is viewing. We all have seen these, and from these two things, Hofstadter assembles a theory of mind based on the idea that whatever goes on in the brain at the low and mid physical levels results in some sort of abstractions (perhaps manifested in harmonic oscillations of electromagnetic energy) that from another perspective, are the very stuff of consciousness.

There is nothing particularly new about this. Rejecting religion or other basis for any sort of dualism (and his remarks are rather disparaging in this respect) and declaring oneself a physicalist (there is nothing more than physics) is par for the course and occasionally swatting straw-man arguments to the contrary, is all part of the contemporary game for most of today’s philosophers and scientists. Besides religion he mentions David Chalmers who was, apparently, a student of Hofstadter’s in his doctoral days and rejects Chalmer’s non-religious panpsychism (and along with this presumably Davidson’s “dual aspect” monism as well) which is fine as far as it goes.

Hofstadter’s theory is somatic. Mind arises from what goes on physically in the brain and nothing more. The problem is he never gets to connect up the subjective with anything that can, even in theory, be measured by third parties. This is not to criticize him alone here, no other physicalists (or for that matter panpsychists) manage to do it either, but in this case the author jumps from the neurological layer to the concept of self-referencing abstraction (presupposing consciousness) without pointing to anything in between that might connect the two.

After declaring his theory “explained”, Hofstadter moves on to considerations of how one strange loop-abstraction, the one that fools me into the illusion of a stable “I”, is influenced and modified by others. He is much impressed by Derek Parfit’s thought experiments [supposedly] demonstrating that what we take to be the uncopyable core of ourselves, is nothing but effervescent illusion and can in fact be copied. Moreover, though we cannot copy it today (and may never be able to do that in reality) we can, from our own interiority, find ourselves being partial expressions of other people, their strange loops!

He supposes that our own personal-identities form slowly as we proceed from infant to child based on all the various influences that impinge on us from the world as these come to influence new effects in our own minds. The totality of all this over time results in a relatively stable, but not changeless, personal identity. He moves on from there to suppose that those we hold and know particularly closely (our parents, wives, children, siblings, etc) can cause their own identities to be partly duplicated in our own minds. None of this really makes sense. Of course someone with whom we are close for many years will have a proportionally larger influence over the shape of our phenomenal arena. What he doesn’t seem to appreciate is that this influence takes the same pathways (our interpretation of sensory experience for example) as the initial early development of our own personality. There isn’t any loop in my brain that is a copy (however imperfect) of my wife or children’s identity, only modifications of my own that represent them.

There is much here and I do not doubt that writing “I am a Strange Loop” was a labor of love in more ways than one. It is, as with other somatic theories, even possible that oscillating fields in the brain have a lot to do with consciousness and personal identity. There are still reasons to believe that this is not the whole story.

The Mistake in Theological Fatalism

“God knows everything you’ve done and loves you. God knows everything you are going to do and still loves you” Vern Benom Grimsley

There is a present fashion among intellectuals, a belief they are not free willed in the libertarian sense, that libertarian free will is impossible in a universe of randomness (quantum mechanics) and determinism (everything else). Although this present fashion is rationalized by modern physics, the idea is as old as the Greeks. Democritus (of atom fame) was one of those who believed this, and so the debate has gone on for some 2400 years.

I make no secret of my scorn for this fashion (see “Arguing with Automatons” and “The Nonsensical Notion of Compatibilism”). It is the philosophical equivalent of adolescent obsession with self-mutilation. Philosophers, even atheist philosophers like John Searle (“MIND” 2005 and “Making the Social World” 2010), Nicholas Rescher (“Free Will: A Philosophical Reappraisal” 2009), and Edward Lowe (“Personal Agency” 2006), address the absurdity of this position, though Searle admits he cannot reconcile his epistemological conviction that free will must be genuine with his equally strong metaphysical conviction (grounded in physics) that it is impossible.

In this context, the term ‘libertarian’ is not a political ideology but refers to the idea that some agency, my “I”, is volitional; “at liberty” to cause (in Rescher’s term “initiate” [atemporal cause]) some sorts of neurological activity in my brain. Some entity (often called mind) is the starting point of actions instantiated in the physical world by my body. In effect a subjective agent, I, and not merely neurological activity (which I am not aware of directly) am in command/control of my body, and this I, while resting on neuro-physiology, has some independence from physics; there is a gap between that which chooses, and the physiology the choice precipitates. For this reason, the term “contra-causal will” is associated with libertarianism.

The idea here is that this “I” in command (mind?) does not appear to be a physical entity and so libertarian free will commits to the added idea there is in the universe a “cause of the physical” that is not physical. This idea violates a central principle of physics known as the Causal Closure Principle (see “Fantasy Physics and the Genisis of Mind”). The two ideas, libertarian will and contra-causal will, are therefore associated, but the connection rests on the assumption the “I” is not a physical object. ‘Libertarian’ refers to phenomenology, first person experience, while ‘contra-causal’ cause is a metaphysical idea. “Theological Fatalism” addresses the former and is not necessarily committed to the latter should the “I” happen to be physical (see “I Am a Strange Loop” 2004 by Douglas Hofstadter and Lowe referenced above).


On the other side of the debate, philosophers of religion (also going back to the Greeks) have an escape. God, being omnipotent, knows the trick of making contra-causal (and so libertarian) free will possible in a universe whose only other causes are random or deterministic.

Logicians then framed a puzzle. If God is omniscient, he knows everything that has, is, and will happen. This has to include every choice ever made (and ever to be made) by any minded being, personal or otherwise. If that is the case, if God already knows that when you step into a taquiria you will today order pollo and tomorrow carne asada, how can those choices be free? You cannot avoid the problem by intending to order chicken and then at the last moment changing your mind; God knows you will do that too. This puzzle is called “Theological Fatalism”. Even if God is the source of a third (contra-causal) cause, and “mind causes physics” (Sean Carroll “The Big Picture” 2016, something Carroll of course denies is possible) that cause cannot be free in the libertarian sense because God already knows what the choice will be and can never be wrong about it.

The puzzle is, as puzzles go, childish. It is reminiscent of Zeno’s paradox (back to the Greeks again). Zeno said that movement, change in space, is impossible because to move a mile, or a foot, or even a millimeter, one has to go first half the distance, and then half that distance and so on blocking any movement before it begins. Although it seems obvious that we can move, it took some time for philosophers, early mathematicians, to figure out where Zeno goes wrong. The distance between any two points can be divided into an infinite series of smaller distances. Mathematicians demonstrated that one can traverse or complete an infinite series in a finite time. Zeno did not account for time and in a sense the same is true of Theological Fatalism, or at least that is a part of the story.

Before I dismantle this puzzle I want to note that this argument is raised by scientists and philosophers by way of ridicule; God himself is inconsistent with free will. Oddly, many present-day theologians and philosophers have accepted the argument and decided that therefore God is either not omniscient or not omnipotent! Theologians and philosophers of religion abrogate any moral authority they have teaching this nonsense.

If a theologian does not understand that God must be able to do and experience in ways we cannot and that there are logical riddles, transparent to God, we cannot (perhaps never will) fathom, who will? Such philosophers should hang up their philosophy hats and go away. Logically probing how such qualities as omnipotence and omniscience go together and yet provide for free will is one thing. Denying this is possible because they cannot figure out how it works is ridiculous; the pinnacle of hubris!


If God is God then he knows everything that has, is, and will happen throughout time with absolute assurance, never guessing, and never being surprised. His knowledge is immediate and atemporal, it is a knowledge of a sort we know nothing about by experience, nor can we grasp it logically. We can suppose that God’s knowledge must be infinite and perfect, but not what that is like to experience it.

I’ll go further for the sake of the conundrum. Harry Frankfurt is famous in ethics circles for coming up with a puzzle. A mad genius has learned to take over brains and can cause a person to make any decision the genius wishes. Moreover, the genius knows (here is the real genius) what decision you make as you are making it. If your decision is what the genius wants you to do anyway, she need do nothing. But if your decision is about to be what she doesn’t want, she can force you to make the one she wants and do so in such a way that you do not even realize you are being forced! The question is: is your will still free?

The short answer to the Frankfurt question is, I think, yes you are free when you make the decision the genius wants and no otherwise. My point in bringing this up is to note that God has the power (omnipotence plus omniscience) to be the supreme Frankfurt genius! While we appear to be free, we are merely compelled (having no feeling of being compelled) to follow God’s script. But this mistakenly implies a causal relation between what God knows and what we do. No one claims theological fatalism precludes freedom because it is causal . It is rather a logical problem. In this case it arises from assuming an impossible (for us) universal perspective, and is resolved within our actual perspective. Within a perspective (which in our case includes both space and time) will is original cause and therefore free.

In the comments here an interlocutor points out that what God knows amounts to fate, and for this reason we are not free. It is a viewpoint that amounts to a deduction from a universal perspective impossible for us to actually have. Since “God is one” one might argue that everything that, to us, appears differentiated about the universe is all illusion or but a shadow of the singular unified reality. This ignores the manifest, to us, reality of matter and a richly differentiated universe. Both views reflect the same singular reality, a shadow to God, differentiated reality to us. It is from this perspective that we are free even if what we choose is, from God’s universal view fated.

So long as (and assuming) mind is a cause in time, the future appears genuinely open to us, and from our perspective the present choice makes a future difference, then our choice is free from within that perspective. We might still be wrong about this if God is a deceiver, if it is in fact the case (as in Frankfurt’s clever puzzle) that we are not the cause of our choices, or that we are that cause only when we choose what God has foreordained.

There is good reason to believe, if God should be real, that he could not be a deceiver. Descartes understood this. We can sense God’s character, the reality of values; truth, beauty, goodness. In moral contexts (not magic shows) deception is immoral, not-good, violating the unity of God axiom (see “Prolegomena to a Future Theology”). It does seem to experience that our will itself, the subjective mind exercising it, is (provided we are of normal brain) sovereign over choice no matter what choice we make. That God knows what that choice will be does not abrogate its freedom from within the view of our perspective.

From our viewpoint, future possibilities from among which we choose (God knows these also) are in fact genuinely open to us from within our subjective and time constrained viewpoint because we do not know what God knows. We do, subjectively, choose from among alternatives and “which choice” we make makes a future difference to us and others whom the choice may entangle. This is all a robust libertarian free will needs. The strongest advocates of libertarian will do not demand that no power in the universe knows what you will decide. Libertarianism demands only that we cannot know what that power knows and as concerns God’s viewpoint this is surely true.

All that libertarianism requires is that subjective agency, the self-aware subject, and not deterministic neurophysiology nor God, initiates action from within its perspective and this requirement is fully satisfied in the human experience of willing. We are free in our experience and if “mind can cause physics”, if contra-causal cause is real (possible if God is real), and God is not a deceiver, then we are free in the libertarian sense, from within our perspective, despite what God knows. God knows what we will choose, but his knowledge is not a cause of our choice and for that reason our will is free from within its constrained perspective. Theological fatalism is a false doctrine.

Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind


Physics rests on the “causal closure principle” (CCP). The CCP has three legs:

CCP(1): Physics comes only from physics.
CCP(2): Physics produces only physics.

Together these say the physical effects we observe come only from prior physics, and physical causes (using cause in its common language sense) produce only physical effects.

CCP(3): There is no teleology in physical mechanism, no goal-directedness. CCP(3) is something of a corrollary of the first two legs. Physical relations and interactions are either determinate or indeterminate, but either way they are not “before the fact” directed at particular outcomes.

If God does not exist, the only philosophy of mind (PoM) consistent with all three legs of the CCP is eliminative materialism. Every other nontheistic PoM that rejects eliminative materialism and accepts that mind cannot be logically reduced to physics, violates the CCP in one or more ways.

PoM theories that claim mind exists in some sense of that word, that mind is real and emerges from ordinary physics without anything “in principle undetectable” (QM aside) added to physics to make it happen violate CCP(2) but not CCP(3).  They assert, plainly enough, that physics results in something that is in some sense non-physical, but mind’s emergence is just as accidental (contingent) as all other [physical] emergent phenomena (from stars to liquid water to life).

PoMs claiming that physics is incomplete, that something else must be added to ordinary (measurable) physics to make mind emerge (dual-aspect monism and panpsychism of various sorts) violate both CCP(2) and CCP(3).

Only theism can both accept all the CCP while accommodating mind’s reality (and for that matter libertarian free will). Theism also grounds our conviction of agency which nontheistic theories universally deride. I write about theism extensively but my purpose in this essay is to show that the [supposed] problems with theism for physics and PoM are no worse than those of nontheistic PoMs. This is to say both suffer from equally serious metaphysical and epistemological problems.

Being inaccessible to empirical (or for that matter logical) demonstration (or falsification), a “God hypothesis” is a speculative solution, a curve drawn arbitrarily to fit points (mechanistic nature of the universe joined with free will for example). Other speculative solutions, so it is claimed, are equally possible and equally impossible to confirm or deny. In fact however it is more difficult than it seems to come up with these alternative solutions. Speculative solutions that fit all the points (the mind-independent world and everything in experience) and remain logically coherent are difficult to invent. Many have tried. Like theism, atheistic attempts at solving the mind problem are also data-free speculative solutions because the data, mind emerging from brains, cannot be observed!

Physicists are often eliminative materialists (nothing emerges strictly speaking) or reductive-materialists (only an epiphenomenon emerges).  Only eliminative materialism is fully compliant with the CCP and logically coherent, but it is also the solution that is most prima fascia absurd from the subjective viewpoint it denies exists! Reductive-materialism either violates CCP(2) if epiphenomenal-mind is taken to be something real or it is logically incoherent! Physics causes the external conditions of a mirage, but the illusion that is the mirage happens only in a mind. An illusion presumes a subjective experience in which the illusion occurs.

The view that a non-material mind emerges from ordinary physics violates CCP(2)! The idea is coherent because mind is not taken to be an illusion. The problem is that no physicist has ever seen a physical phenomenon emerging into (or as) a nonphysical one. We see physics emerging from physics all over the universe from galaxies and stars to liquid water to life, but all of what comes of these events (causes and effects) is physical! The retort from physics is that we do not see any other non-physical emergence because the one such thing that has happened in the universe is the very mind we are trying to explain. Mind is the evidence that physics can produce mind. Surely this argument is circular? It plainly begs the question to say that the evidence physics alone can explain the appearance of mind is mind!

There are a few philosophers who follow the physicists here (John Searle, Bob Dole among others), but many philosophers see problems in this approach. First there is the circularity already mentioned, but in addition, this solution (whether it includes a role for quantum mechanics commonly sited by both physicists and philosophers) entails that mind’s appearance is contingent. Not only might it not have appeared in the universe, something every materialist accepts, but its appearance is mysterious. The mystery applies to mind in general, and individual minds in particular. Why is consciousness ubiquitous in animals with complex nervous systems?

Troubled by these problems, materialist philosophers seek solutions that remain [purportedly] physical while, at the same time, channeling universe evolution towards consciousness and by doing so taking its mystery away. But every one of these solutions violates CCP(2) and CCP(3)! The idea that universe evolution is directed is plainly teleological! This is what prompts philosophers (and some physicists) to grasp the straw of quantum mechanics,  but this (I will argue) doesn’t help them.

To explain genuine mind in a Godless universe there are dual-aspect monisms (Henry Stapp, Donald Davidson, Thomas Nagel) and panpsychisms (David Chalmers, Philip Goff, John Leslie). Under normal circumstances both of these theories would count as metaphysical, that is not physical theories at all! They are physical not logically, but merely by ancestry. Purportedly they remain physical (or physics grounded) because their novel (never specified) qualities can only have originated in the big bang!

Dual-aspect monisms make the claim that physics is incomplete in the sense that there are additional fundamental properties in micro-physics not yet (and perhaps never to be) discovered. The physical in this view includes the mental in a proto-property form. This undiscovered addition is not conscious; atoms are not aware. Nevertheless the qualities of this extra-physics direct event unfolding towards that which yields consciousness. Working backwards from consciousness, this channeling must also encompass the preconscious stages of life’s evolution and the origin life throughout the universe. To our empirical experience, only life, some life, becomes conscious, and that only as it gains the right sort of complexity following millions of years of evolution.

If dual-aspect monism of any sort was true however, we would expect its effect to show up in the equations describing the regularity of physical evolution. There is no such term in the equations of macro physics so to say that this extra aspect of the physical is a part of physics surely begs the question.

This is why I think so many philosophers grasp at quantum dynamics to locate proto-mental qualities. We cannot directly measure quantum phenomena until they interact with the macro physical world, and quantum phenomena, technically, are not random but indetermined. Perhaps (so they speculate) we can locate the proto-mental in the difference between ‘random’ and ‘indeterminate’, in effect shielding teleology from possible detection? But surely a proto-mental is not the only possibility accounting for the restriction from random to indeterminate (see note on this distinction at end of essay).

Furthermore no one (physicist or philosopher) has been able to say what properties the proto-mental has, how they restrict random to indeterminate, or how the indeterminateness of the quantum phenomena we know push the macro universe towards consciousness. Even Henry Stapp’s “Quantum Zeno Effect” addresses only the narrow interface between brain and the human type of consciousness. Even if this speculative connection turns out to be a measurable phenomenon, no one has suggested how the physical world accommodates it. They all seem to agree that the proto-mental cannot be conscious in the sense that we experience it, but that tells us nothing of what properties it does, or even might, have and how they work!

What all of these theories entail however is that the mental (the proto-mental at least) must be antecedent to the physical! If it has a downward influence on the physical, which these views entail, it has to be ontologically real! Where does it come from? If the foundation of the universe is physical, what is it in or of the physical that grounds the proto-mental? The idea of a proto-mental here is not incoherent by any means. But it’s coherence largely depends on there being something about the fundamental ontology of the universe that isn’t physical! Moreover something that directs with intention!  Teleology is here introduced something the more honest of the philosophers admit they cannot seem to avoid.

For these reasons, dual-aspect monisms violate CCP(2) but they also violate CCP(3) because whatever else the extra might be it is clearly teleological. Instead of the universe ending in one state or another driven only by contingent process, the extra-physics channels evolution toward a specific outcome! It is therefore purposeful in the sense of being goal-directed.

Panpsychism is the converse of dual-aspect monism. It isn’t that mind builds up particle by particle thanks to some undiscovered property of particle physics, but rather it is the universe taken as a whole that comes to embody the extra physical qualities. Philip Goff (in a paper) neatly distinguishes two forms of panpsychism, micro and cosmo versions. Micropanpsychism is much like dual-aspect monism. The mental is attached to physics at the particle level but it isn’t effective except as contributor to a totalizing affect of the cosmos. Micropanpsychism has dual-aspect monism as a foundation but asserts that its impact is felt only in relation to the whole universe. You might think of this like neurons and brains. Every neuron in your brain is a foundation of brain functionality. But mind doesn’t show itself other than at the level of the whole brain, or at least large parts of it. In Micropanpsychism, the properties of the whole emerge from properties of the parts.

Cosmopanpychism abandons the dual-aspect foundation and asserts it is only the universe as a whole that reveals proto-mental properties. This view needs no micro-alteration to physics. Mind emerges from brains the way stars emerge from gas clouds because special properties of the totality, properties described by laws parallel to those of physics, are able to invoke it. Somehow, the entire universe acquires properties (usually not taken to be conscious as such) that come to direct physical evolution, and then biological evolution, towards consciousness.

This idea clearly violates CCP(3) (it is teleological) but is precisely an attempt to avoid violating CCP(2).  It is unsuccessful because the panpsychist claim is essentially that from the total state of the universe there emerges a parallel collection of qualities (properties and laws) that evoke mind from brains!  At one level or another, physics results in non-physics and so violates CCP(2). Besides Goff, David Chalmers is a proponent of this view.

For the cosmopanpsychists the “mental qualities” do not (typically) amount to the emergence of a literal Cosmic Mind, a “thinking universe”. Such a view would amount to substance dualism at the level of biological mind! But the philosophers who assert this do not, with one exception that I know of, specify what any of these properties are. As is the case with all the other theories, none of the qualities that supposedly effect the transformation nor any part of the mechanics of their interaction with the other-than-mental are anywhere given.

The exception here is John Leslie who asserts the property or quality characterizing this emergence is goodness. We normally think of goodness as a quality of the character of persons and so, by extension, of their minds. Emerging with the big bang is not only purposeless physical mechanism, but a parallel quality of goodness. A universe pushed in that direction is so pushed because goodness is a quality of it from the beginning, and mind is good!

To get the job done, any of these extras must, necessarily, be effective. It does no good to say that something besides the physics we know, something that is nevertheless physical (or quasi-physical), might or might not push cosmological evolution towards life and life towards consciousness. If the operation of these extras is itself contingent then what would be their point? To do the job they must not only have the necessary power, but that power must result in their goal-directed effect. The extra-in-physics, its goal-directedness, must be logically antecedent to the physics we measure that does not, in any aspect, appear goal-directed.

Where does antecedence come from? Since all of these philosophers are materialists, it must originate, with everything else, in the big bang. But there is nothing in the physics of the big bang that contains anything of the mental, anything of this extra there, and certainly nothing to which we can point that bears value; goodness. The big bang is a quintessentially physical event. What is  the proto-mental property in physics? How does it arise from within an other-than-mental physics and yet be logically antecedent to physics?

The extra-in-physics, under any of these approaches, hangs, metaphysically, on literally nothing! In John Leslie’s view, not only is universal mechanism goal directed, it is also moral! For him, morality happens to pop into the universe with the big bang and it is this quality that underlies drift towards the mental. How, presumably in the absence of any mind, has this direction become good? Even if it is, how does goodness effect the direction of physical contingency?

Does physics itself have an analogous problem with this last point? Where does the physical universe come from? Why is there any physics at all? Physicists have an out. They have the quantum vacuum which, while purportedly physical, cannot in principle be directly probed. This boundary layer between physics and nothing insulates physics. As concerns physics itself, and anything it gleans of quantum phenomena, the CCP is not violated. It is for this reason, I think, that so many philosophers reach for the quantum straw. We have already seen that this move is ad hoc. Moreover it goes against that which we have discovered about quantum behavior. No “mental term” is needed in the equations of quantum mechanics any more than in macrophysical equations, and goal-directedness is not implied by any of our multiple quantum interpretations.

To be fair, many of the philosophers who propose the solutions outlined above recognize that these suggestions violate the CCP. All claim (often citing Occam’s Razor) that violating the CCP is less onerous than supposing there is, for example, a God who knows the trick of making all of this work out the way it has. Working out a way, that is, for purposeless physical mechanism, mind, and even libertarian free will, to coexist in the universe. What troubles me about these philosophers is their refusal to admit that these problems (what brings about cosmological mental properties. How precisely do they interact with physics) are in some respects more mysterious than God! At least God can be supposed to “know the trick”.

Perhaps in the greatest twist of irony,  many of these minds have thrown up their hands and returned to idealism, abandoning the CCP entirely! Not only is the mental logically antecedent to physics, it is ontologically prior! The above mysteries are resolved because mind causes physics and not the other way around! The irony is that, in essence, this is what theism has claimed all along! I should not need to point out that in God’s absence, the metaphysical ground, prior to physics, of the mental is unfathomably mysterious!

How does a “God hypothesis” avoid violating CCP(1) with particular regard to free will? Doesn’t a genuinely (libertarian) free will entail (as Sean Carroll has put it in “The Big Picture”) that “mind causes physics”? In a narrow sense yes, theism violates CCP(1) but theism has an out. Mind is presupposed after all and constitutes the one exception to CCP(1) in the universe! The Theist is free to change CCP(1) to read: “physics comes only from physics and mind”. This move doesn’t help the physicalist because for her, the issue is the emergence of mind from physics without presupposing mind. They can, of course, say that mind is the only exception to CCP(1), but that surely begs the question, there not being any other evidence that physics can do this.

The change to CCP(1) is not circular in Theism. Yes mind is an exception. It is in truth a cause of physics. But here mind is presupposed. CCP(1) is not violated because mind doesn’t emerge only from physics. The exception, that part that evokes subjective experience from brain activity, comes not from physics but by some indirect route from God. It must be indirect (I do not believe God personally manages emerging individual minds) because God is changeless while mind, individual mind, changes with time. Mind’s direct source (besides brains) must be inside time.

Theism does not violate CCP(2) because physical mechanism still produces only physics. The result of mind-producing-physics, say the movement of my arm, remains physical. Theism does not violate CCP(3) because physical mechanism remains perfectly purposeless. Purpose as such remains entirely in mind. Notice that CCP(3) does not say that the physical universe has no purpose, only that the local operation of its mechanism (macro and micro)  is purposeless.

The goal of this essay has been to argue that nontheistic notions of mind’s emergence (or lack of existence) have problems equal to or exceeding the problematic aspects of theism. Let’s review.

God is a fantastical being. Positing his existence demands at the least an addition to what physicists take to be the only ontology of the universe; the physical. A God hypothesis demands that this entity has the power and knows the trick to producing the physical as well as causing minds to arise from the physical work of brains and interact downward with the material world. This mystery cries out for a physical explanation; at least a suggestion of what it is about the physical that makes that connection. Theism does not supply this physical answer, but nor does physicalism or any of the extra-physical theories covered above.

On first blush, the extra-physical ideas demand less addition to our fundamental ontology. The physicalist theories demand, if not technically an addition to ontology, at least that the physical can do that which no observation, no experiment, has seen it do; bring about something nonphysical. The extra-physical theories do demand a new, non-material addition to ontology. It isn’t God, but yet it must have the power to bring life and then mind about. Not only must it have this power, it must surely succeed. If the emergence of consciousness remained contingent and might not have happened the extra-physical qualities of the universe would be redundant. Further, any direction, anything other than absolute contingency, implies a teleology that has to be antecedent to the physics it influences!

The atheist philosophers who hold such theories recognize that they do move partway towards God (at least a Deistic version of him). In effect they are a “functional God”. But if there is no real God, then in what, metaphysically speaking, do any of these properties cohere? If you add to this stand-in the property of “having purpose”, and to backstop an infinite chain of prior cause, being first (and so uncaused) cause, you pretty much have gone all the way to God. In the end, the purely physicalist theories are nonsensical because mind is both prima facia obvious and non-physical. The extra-physical theories, if they do not need all the qualities of an “Abrahamic God”, require enough of these properties (non-materiality, purpose, antecedent cause) to be equally fantastical! When, in addition, you accommodate the problem of these mysterious properties emerging, literally from nothing, you end at a full-blown God concept that is at least deistic if not fully theistic.

Updated Dec. 2018

Note on the distinction between ‘random’ and ‘indeterminate’

The distinction is important in quantum mechanics (I believe) because quantum phenomena come out in a well known and repeatable probability distribution even though there is no reason, no cause that we know of, why they should not be actually random. An electron could, theoretically be anywhere in the universe but there is a 99.9% probability that it will be found in bounded range of locations.

Here is a mundane macrophysical example I hope captures the idea. Imagine a fair six-sided die. Any face from 1 to 6 can come up with equal probability. The die is random within the confines of possibility (even an electron cannot be outside the universe). Now suppose you have a heavily-loaded die in which two sides, 1 or 6 are likely (and repeatedly) to come up on 90% of the throws, but within that 90% a 1 or a 6 are equally likely. That die is no longer random, but it is indeterminate.


Review: The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli

By sheer coincidence I published the essay, “What is Time”, shortly before reading Carlo Rovelli’s book. Rather than writing additional commentary here, I put a pointer to that essay. While it does not address Rovelli directly (I hadn’t read him yet) it covers the points made in the review included below. But I do not want to discourage people from reading this excellent book. It is always good to understand the arguments of authors with which you (in this case I) happen to disagree. One cannot claim to be a well rounded philosopher without understanding what it is that those you disagree with are saying.

The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli (2018) Amazon review

Like consciousness, time is a subject that no philosopher or physicist has ever managed to nail down completely. Thanks to their slippery character, being so close to us (the first one IS us) they are endless sources for fountains of speculation. In this book, Rovelli’s subject is time, but consciousness comes into this narrative as well.

Rovelli is a “time denier”. OK, that’s being a little unfair but not by much. What he denies is that there exists an independent, fundamental property or quality of the universe that is time. Of course the universe is full of movement and change, events unfolding into other events. His basic position is that time emerges into our perspective, our viewpoint, from these phenomena, but it is merely an illusion. The movement is real, the changing is real, but the time in which all of this seems to occur is nothing more than a manifestation of human (possibly animal) mind and the illusion, in turn, is supported by the entropy generated in the functioning of our brains.

The book (not long read) is divided into three parts. In the first Rovelli covers the various sub-disciplines of physics and their temporal implications (or lack thereof). He begins with classical physics (the equations work backwards in time), and moves on to General and Special Relativity, and quantum mechanics. Here he demonstrates that our simple intuition of a universal time flowing from past to future is untenable. Time, mind-independent time, if it exists at all, cannot be like that. In part two he further demolishes time. Not only is it not what we think, in and for physics, it doesn’t really exist at all; even the present is an illusion! In part three, he puts time back together for and in the perspective of an subjective viewpoint.

He argues it is the fact that we view the world from a perspective, that when we perceive the world we inevitably blur the details into a sort of summary or gestalt for our perspective, that causes time to appear to mind, The physics supporting that appearance comes down to thermodynamics. Human time, brain time, is “thermal time”. Certainly Rovelli thinks thermodynamics (in particular the 2nd law) is real, but while responsible for what consciousness perceives of time and so a real enough subjective experience, from the 3rd party perspective of physics, change is real, but time is a mirage.

This book is written for a lay audience. There is almost no math in it (what there is appears in footnotes), and it defends a view common to much of the physics and philosophy community. To be sure Rovelli differs a bit from some of his peers. He argues that relativistic “block time” is no more a “true portrait of objective time” than any other theory. In Rovelli’s view remember there is no such thing as “objective time”.

In 2015 a philosopher (Roberto Unger) and a physicist (Lee Smolin) wrote “The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time”. This book (reviewed by me on Amazon) makes precisely the opposite case from that of Rovelli. Of course they recognize what Relativity and quantum mechanics imply about time, but they maintain, nevertheless, that a notion (and reality) of objective, “universal time”, is more fundamental than any other phenomena of the universe, even more than space! Rovelli mentions this book in a footnote and admits that Unger and Smolin’s view “is defensible”, but he leaves it there and never addresses what is defensible about it.

The Unger/Smolin book goes against the grain of 95% of today’s physicists. Personally I agree with Smolin and Unger. The fact (thanks to limiting effect of the speed of light) that we cannot map our present to any present in a remote galaxy, or even the nearest star does not mean there is no present there, in fact everywhere. Something is happening, NOW, everywhere in the universe. We do not know what it is, but that does not mean the present isn’t real as Rovelli believes. Had Rovelli directly addressed Unger and Smolin I would have given this book another star. Had he not mentioned them at all, I would have taken another away.

In summary this is a decent and well written book advocating for a particular view of time (or no time) that I happen to think is wrong, but what do I know? It happens to be the dominant view in physics today. Rovelli is a well respected physicist and a good writer. Those of you interested in the subject will find this book valuable whether you agree with the author or not.

What is Time?


Philosophers and physicists have developed conventions for speaking of time, but none of these ever say precisely what time is, or even if it is mind-independent. Space-talk is vague also, but not as vague as time talk. We can conceptualize space as a container in which objects exist in various relations of distance and direction. This may not be a complete physical description, but it describes space’s functional role. The structure of space is controversial, but there isn’t much disagreement about its mind-independent existence. This is not the case with time.

We say that time is a one-dimensional container along which we can place not objects, but events. Events can have various temporal distances from one another, but only one direction; from past through present to future. Once an event is fixed in time, past, no “new event” can be placed at an earlier time. This fixity on one side of the present, contrasted with a converse openness to contingency on the other is a central property of time. But it is because this quality is so ridged, and so universal, that it seems to disappear into the phenomena that occur within it.

In examining this hypothetical container we discover that from the present we can only discern evidence of what came before, in the past. We can project certain regularities into the future, but unlike the past for which records or markers exist in the present, there are no records or markers visible for the future. We also notice that from the viewpoint of our experience it is always “the present”. Unlike space within which we are patently able to move to different locations subjectively (in our experience) and objectively (from the viewpoint of third parties) we are not able to experience, or directly observe, anything other than a present moment in which movement and change is the only constant.

Change always occurs in the present which never moves off the unfolding flux of events. Put another way, where that flux is, is the present. This leads a large coterie of philosophers and physicists to say time isn’t an identifiable property of our universe. The causal net, process, is real, but time is nothing but a mirage in subjective mind, a way to interpret the net’s unfolding. That net is, after all, unfolding as patterns of brain states simultaneous with its evolution everywhere else. Consciousness rests on this same causal link.

Philosophers talk about time in tensed (A-series) and non-tensed (B-series) language, the ‘A’, ‘B’ business made up by a Scottish philosopher named McTaggart back in 1908 who argued that time didn’t exist because all talk about it was circular or inconsistent. “Tensed time” means there is a reference, an index, which is always our own subjective experience now. Events will happen in the future, happen in the present, and having happened are now past. Subjectively there is a “flow of time” from future through present to past. A-series talk focuses on subjectivity; a description of how we sense time.

Tenseless time talk is discrete. Event ‘X’ happens earlier or later or simultaneous with event ‘Y’. When speaking in these terms, it doesn’t matter where we are among the event relations. X can be earlier than Y whether our now succeeds Y or is somewhere between X and Y. If our now precedes both X and Y we can project their temporal relation without indexing it to our present temporal position. B-series talk is objectively focused on temporal relations independent of mind. Neither “A” nor “B” talk commits one to a particular view of time (existing or not) as such.


Most physicists (and philosophers) are either ‘presentists’, ‘eternalists’, or a particular combination of the two. Neither view commits one time’s mind-independent existence. Presentism relies on a certain idea about what “is real”. A real is something that you can “go to”. You can go to Mars, Mars is real. But you cannot go to the past or the future.

Time, whatever else it is, is not something you can “move around in”. only the present is therefore real. Presentism makes unsurprising our plain inability to move around in time. It accounts for our always-in-the present experience, but it remains non-committal about the physical reality of time as distinguishable quality of the universe.

Presentists have no problem talking about the past. There are plenty of markers or records in the present that signal past events. Importantly the events signaled are not occurring now, but their records, evidence of their happening, persist into, and become a part of, our present. That the intervals between past events and their present records seem to be real gives Presentism most of its philosophical trouble.

Marks or records relate time to truth and facts (see “Truth and Truthmaking”). The proposition “Julius Caesar died on March 15, 44 BC” is true because he did in fact die on that day. But is it the fact of his death in the past that makes the proposition true, or is it the record of that death persisting into the present to which the truth is connected? If we had no record of his death today (as is true of so many nameless historical passings) we would not be able to say that any fact (past event or present record) anchored the truth of the proposition.

Yet we also want to say there were events in the past, for which we have no records, whose facticity would make propositions about them true if records of them persisted to the present time. We discover new facts about the past precisely when we discover that certain present “states of affairs” are records of those events.

Facts are immutable. Time is so universal that immutability alone is sufficient to assign the event to the past. Part of what we mean by past is that some “state of affairs” came to be in just the way it did when that time was the present, and by so coming to be, became a fixed actual while before its occurrence it was only potential. Caesar’s murder was contingent, not necessary. It might have been that all the perpetrators and Caesar were present at the time and place, but some other event took place “there and then” that thwarted the planned deed.

Events happened as they did, but might have happened otherwise. Happening fixes their being, their facticity. Once they have happened, they cannot have happened any other way. This “locking into place” of what were, until now, only potentials, fixing events, is one of time’s salient properties.

Presentism’s recognition of records or markers in the present as evidence of events or states of affairs no longer real, must then connect these markers with the events they purportedly represent. It is something of a paradox to say the vibrant life and events of ancient Rome on the day of Caesar’s death, a present undoubtedly real to them at the time, has become unreal in our time while all the same, some part of the events of that day have perdured through the interval between that day and now. That perdurance is, after all, how we come to connect them up, to assert that they are evidence of past events. These markers have remained real, although often changed, in the interval since they came to exist. Such changes as they undergo (for example the gradual degradation of a ruin), have a continuity traceable to a prior present. Does it matter then if we say the past is also real but fixed?

Since unicorns are not real, saying “this unicorn is bigger than that unicorn” makes no sense. An analogous problem exists for Presentism concerning temporal intervals. If the past is not real what does it mean of two past events that one took place one year (or one minute) before the other or that some other event, a war for example, lasted thirty years? Records of these events are all real at the same time, now, but how can two events no longer real have a real interval between them? We can of course say that this record “came to exist” some years before that record, but is such a statement comprehensible if the past is no longer real?


Eternalism asserts that the past, present, and future are real even in and for the present. Eternalism does not commit one to saying that time is real, but rather measuring temporal intervals is never absolute and what looks future to our perspective might be past in another. Eternalism has swayed physics since Einstein’s publication of his theory of Relativity which has some strange and counterintuitive implications for our measurement of time. From within a reference frame (a physical system moving broadly together) time measurement by the speed of light seems identical. But when we look from one frame to another, frames moving faster than our own have slower moving time and vice versa.

This observation means that between frames it is impossible in an absolute sense to say that one event occurred earlier, later, or simultaneously, with another event in a different frame. Fixing a “time line” for events is possible only relative to the observing frame, not over all. Years of experimental work have indeed proved that a clock ticks more slowly in a frame that moves faster (relative to the speed of light) through space than in one that moves slower. Clocks also tick more slowly more deeply in a gravity well. There cannot now be any doubt about these observational results. This has led many philosophers and physicists to conclude there can be no such thing as time in an over-arching sense, only relative times specific to individual frames of reference.

Eternalists do not believe they can “go to” the past or the future in their own frame except for the trick of leaving their frame and going to another where time is slower then returning to the original frame. It would seem as though you have gone to the future (of the frame to which you have returned). In reality, this amounts to waiting out a certain number of clock ticks in the original (temporally faster) frame by spending time in a temporally slower frame.

Eternalism avoids committing itself to the present being in some sense special over-all. Of course it is special to us, and everyone agrees that psychologically it IS special because our subjectivity is limited to it. We are conscious only and always “in the present”. The “reality of the future” in Eternalism is a matter of some faith. It falls out of the mathematics of Relativity, but cannot be experienced observationally other than the trick of “waiting out” another frame’s clock ticks while in a temporally slower frame.

While there are events already past in some other frame that appear to lay in the future of our frame (and vice versa), those events are never observed until their light reaches the observing frame. It is an axiom of our space-time geometry that when the record of an event reaches us through space, our recording temporally succeeds its occurrence. No matter how the “pace of time” varies between any two frames, one frame cannot view an event in any frame before the event happens.

All of these considerations (a much oversimplified sketch) have led many philosophers and physicists to infer there is nothing to time at all, nothing other than a psychological response to motion (and cause) in space. One state of affairs unfolding into another needs some interval and we can assemble that unfolding  (within a frame) into a “time line” of “earlier” and “later” states of affairs. Julian Barbour in “The End of Time” (1999) accepts as an axiom of his faith that the future is real and already populated with “states of affairs” presently invisible to us. This leads him to advance a theory in which events of the present not only rest on a past and present foundation but are pulled into their new arrangements by the already settled reality of the future.

For Barbour, time simpliciter is not real, but there is a present everywhere. There is a fixed landscape of future events towards which the present, everywhere, unfolds. His landscape is filled with peaks and valleys the depth of which represent the probability of a given event or state of affairs unfolding in just that way and not another. Barbour does not deny that to us, it appears as though events flow onto this future landscape, but he insists that this is merely appearance, psychological time. Instead, the landscape fixes the distribution of “future states of affairs”.


What is it that we suppose time does for us? It allows for motion of course, and therefore cause. To cause requires time. Yet as in Barbour’s theory, we need not, as a result, think that time is a mind-independent property of the universe. In “Time, Tense, and Causation” (1997), Michael Tooley asserts that time is nothing more than a psychological expression of cause. He believes the present and past are real (though not the future) because causal unfolding happened in the past and is happening now, in the present. But like Barbour he believes that time, as such, does not exist. The present is real to experience, and the past is real because events, now fixed, happened, but time is real only to mind.

For Tooley, time is not a property of our universe, but motion and cause are properties of our universe and creatures such as ourselves report this unfolding of the causal web as time. Tooley rejects the physical reality of block time because in his view, the future is not real. There are no events there (yet). But his view does not escape the problem of simultaneity. He concedes that it is not possible, in principle, to place every event in the universe on a single time line. It makes no sense, for example, to say that “the universe is 13.8 billion years old”, something that can only be true (made true by our temporal relation to the big bang) from our specific frame of reference.

In a recent book, “The Order of Time” (2018) Carlo Rovelli more or less agrees with Michael Tooley about causal process, in Rovelli’s description “change and event unfolding” being the real phenomena that manifests in human psychology as a passing of time. Rovelli concedes that this experience is real enough and founded on thermodynamics, but outside of it, there isn’t any time at all, not even a present!

In “The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time” (2014) Roberto Unger and Lee Smolin take the opposite tack. Their claim is that time is not only mind-independently real, but the most fundamental and over-arching property of our universe. Space can literally come and go in cycles of gravitational collapse and big-bang creation. These cycles are possible because time goes backwards and forwards indefinitely.

Precisely because time is the universe’s fundamental property and, as Unger puts it, “drenches everything” it is a property that cannot be isolated, but is implied by its effect: Motion and cause occur in our universe and history is a particular path taken from the big bang to now, through time. The present universe is a combination of all the space-time paths taken in its history. These paths are real from their beginning notwithstanding they are forever fixed behind their leading edges. Time is not a phenomenon in the universe, but rather the environment in which the universe and its properties cohere. Time is real, because it is the stage on which cause, event unfolding, forms our totality.

It is a truism that the physical sciences can only measure phenomena of the physical world. All our instruments, and the means by which instruments report what they detect, are physical! It is a theorem of causal closure that physical phenomena result always and only in physical effects, and that those effects therefore arise from physical phenomena alone. Instruments and the phenomena they measure both conform to the same physical law. It is precisely the nature of measurement to convert or map one phenomenon (form of energy) that we cannot measure directly into another which we can. Laws remain the same, but phenomena become distinguishable because their interaction energy is convertible.

All of these variously converted phenomena are inside the universe. But time is not inside the universe, it is a fundamental quality of the universe. Everything we know, the instruments and the phenomena they measure are drenched with the same time. We can measure intervals of time by counting harmonic oscillations (from orbits of planets to vibration in atoms), but cannot map time the way we map energy conversions because all of those maps occur within a common ocean of time.

Since cause and time are so closely associated does it make any difference to say that time emerges from cause (Tooley) or that cause is possible thanks to time? Functionally, perhaps not, but each view has philosophical consequences. Assuming time is an ocean embedding everything else (including space) allows Unger & Smolin to reject an unverifiable multiverse.

If time is the universal ocean of the physical then our universe and its special properties is the present variation of a succession of universes each of which inherits characteristics from its prior ancestor. Present characteristics are traced from former characteristics through a temporal interval of extreme (but not infinite) pressure and heat (the big bang). This lets Unger & Smolin imagine that characteristics of the ancestral universe might one day be recognisable in this one. The transformation from one universe to another, unlike the multiverse, is hypothetically, a testable hypothesis.

Global time is yet another outcome of the Unger & Smolin thesis. The universe has the same age in every frame because different time measurements, intervals, can be mapped to one another. Clocks in our frame say the universe is 14 billion years old. This might be 10 billion years in a faster (through space) moving frame as measured from our own, and 15 billion in a slower moving frame. Yet from within all frames the recombination event (in our frame 380,000 years after the big bang) occurs at 0.00275% of the temporal distance between the big bang and that frame’s present.

From the viewpoint of any frame then, all the events of the universe can be fit, proportionally speaking, in the same order in every frame! We can, in other words, map our 14 billion years into the measurements in the other frames while keeping the same order of events. In the Unger and Smolin view, it is conceptually possible to place every event in the universe on a single time line. That the universe has a certain “global age” that is the same in all frames becomes meaningful.


Imagine an alternate possible universe that, at first glance, looks much like our own in that all the stars, galaxies, and planets are distributed in space exactly like they are for us in the real world. But in this alternate universe, there is no time and so no change. Everything is static, nothing moves. Of course this isn’t physically possible, a star could not be a star if in stasis. We are imagining here. In our imaginary universe there is no such thing as a light-year because there are no years, or for that matter hours or any other interval of time.

In our universe we can measure distance by time because we know of a phenomenon, light, that never varies in its speed through the vacuum of space. But we cannot do this in the imaginary universe because nothing moves, there is no change. There can be no speed which always involves distance and time. But there can be a concept of miles, or feet, or meters because defining those magnitudes need not involve time.

Now suppose you live in this universe (again, you cannot, but let’s imagine that a subjective view exists and has experience) on the planet Earth. Suppose you have the means to visit another star, say Arcturus. For simplicity let’s call a light-year 6×10^12 miles (it’s a bit fewer than that but I want to keep the math simple). Arcturus is 37 light-years (again the real figure is a bit less) from Sol. That comes out to 2×10^14 miles. In our imaginary universe Arcturus is that distance, in miles, from Sol even though light-years do not exist. But if you had the means to transport your consciousness to Arcturus, you would, in our timeless universe, cross the distance instantaneously. No time can elapse because there is no time. Want to go from Arcturus to Antares? Another instantaneous transition in space. Why stop at stars in our own galaxy? Visit Andromeda or any other galaxy in the universe, all instantly. Notice the jump from Sol to Arcturus to Antares, to any galaxy all, takes place timelessly. No time elapses in the entire multi-jump transaction.

Here is the point of the thought experiment. You could visit every star and galaxy in the universe instantaneously and that amounts to saying “at the same time”. This makes you omnipresent. You can literally be everywhere in space simultaneously. Supposing you could have experiences (yes, real experience demands time, but again we’re imagining) in all of these places. Not only could you visit everywhere simultaneously, you could remain in all places indefinitely! You would have the experience of everything everywhere simultaneously. You would be omniscient. By extirpating time from our universe creatures like ourselves gain two of the three infinite powers normally ascribed only to God.

God being infinite and eternal is “outside time”. Eternity is not merely “endless time” it is, as with my thought experiment above, something entirely different. In the Unger & Smolin view there is no eternity but time does go backwards and forwards indefinitely (not infinitely, leaving a hanging ontological question addressed only by a “God hypothesis”). But the story of a universe created by God, as near as our metaphysics can put it together puts time in exactly this same role. It is the ocean that governs our universe over-all.

We live in a “time governed universe”, meaning exactly what Unger & Smolin mean by time, an over-arching environment in which the objects, processes, and nominal regularities that describe them, are all time-dependent. The mathematics of basic physics works both forwards and backwards in time, but our actual physics, the macrophysics of our universe, does not. God may be “outside time”, but we live in a “time drenched” creation.

Nor should we assume from this theological view that time and eternity are, necessarily, the only two facets of the universe. Besides eternity and time it is possible there are other creations, ontologies that are other-than-eternal, yet not time-bound. But while this is a metaphysical possibility thanks to God’s infinity, there is nothing more we can say about such regimes should they exist. We are stuck in time and cannot detect, that is measure, anything other than time-bound phenomena as Unger & Smolin claim. Even to say “God is eternal” is only a placeholder (We have no sense of what eternity is really like) albeit one made reasonable by the philosophical demands of infinity (see my “Prolegomena to a Future Theology); a causeless, eternal, starting point grounding rational thought.

Yet there is something more here, something ignored by physics and philosophy, for which theology accounts. In both the “time does not exist” and the “time is the ocean” views, we should not expect to be sensitive to time simpliciter. A fish is, presumably, not aware of the ocean in which it swims. How are we aware of time? The philosophical community universally credits our time sense to consciousness in general. Brain processes occur on the leading edge of the causal web with all other process. It makes sense that our experience takes place with time always in the background, and this for animals as well as humans. But for human beings, time is more than background.

Animals live in the present and have memories but these are not connected to abstract ideas of past, present, and future. Human beings not only live in time like the animals but we are abstractly aware of time. Given that everything in the physical universe of our experience is “drenched in global time”, how is it that we are able to distinguish or identify time as a distinct quality of our experience at all?

What theology gives us is personality (see my books and the essay “Why Personality”). Human consciousness is able to distinguish time because human mind amalgamates a changeless pattern. Mind, consciousness is drenched in time and so constantly changing like everything else in the universe, but personality, our agency, remains fixed. Personality provides the contrast (changeless in the presence of otherwise ubiquitous change) by which we distinguish time itself.

Just about every philosopher disagrees with me and insists that personality (agency being merely another affect of consciousness) changes with everything else. All of these thinkers universally fail to distinguish personality from character, personality’s expression in consciousness and behavior. Character changes, but the personality centered in that character does not. This is how I know that I, the same person, persist (or perdure) through all the character and bodily changes I’ve experienced throughout my life. My body changes, my mind changes, my character changes, but I, the person, have not changed. I am the same person experiencing all of these changes throughout my lifetime.

How is it possible that this miracle of changeless pattern exists in a universe in which all else changes in the ocean of time? It exists and can exist because it comes direct from God who is infinite and changeless and is therefore the only possible source of it. Indeed it is the only phenomenon in the universe of our experience created directly by God and is the real meaning of the phrase “in God’s image”, that is, our being personal. All else, all the rest of the finite creation, including life and consciousness, arises indirectly. God remains the ultimate cause of everything, but the physics we experience, including its embedding in time, has come about indirectly, beginning at some fundamental level through a chains of physical cause.

I go into this subject in much more detail in my books and linked essays, but it is worth pointing out here that the higher animals, while conscious and sensitive to environmental clues occurring in time do not separate time from the other dimensions of their experience. Animals experience time in the same way that they experience values (see again the Prolegomena linked above). They are immersed in them (and it), but because animals are not persons they cannot distinguish time (or values) from their unified experience. A lion is not abstractly aware of being the same lion today as she was yesterday. Animal mind, like human mind apart from the personality pattern, changes along with everything else.

Personality may be the changeless benchmark by which we recognize time as such, but theology gives us something else with regard to mind-independent time. It entails the reality of the future! For Unger, Smolin, and Tooley, the future is not real because there are no events there; the causal nexus is, by definition and experience, the present. But theology fixes one event in the future. It is necessary, if there is a God who is God, that the time-universe has some purpose, some end state that must, also necessarily, come about. This would not be the end of time, but rather the achievement of some intended state of affairs in time.

From the principles of God’s infinity and human sensitivity to values, we can infer that this end must ultimately involve goodness, love, between all persons and become the best possible universe! We do not know what the physical state of the universe will be then, nor do we know by what contingent path it will arrive at that state. But that it must arrive eventually is certain and that fixes an event, the achievement of God’s purpose for time, in the future. If that is the case, the future must be real.


Everything in our physical universe, including the physics itself must have a causal beginning. Physicists point to the quantum vacuum, but if Unger & Smolin are right, time itself conditions or constrains this regimen. Physics cannot cause time, rather time is the environment in which physics takes place. But something must then ground time itself, something Unger & Smolin lay aside as brute and un-analyzable. They are correct. Without a “God hypothesis” we cannot make sense of a “beginning of time” even while making sense (the quantum vacuum) of a “beginning of space”.

I am happy with a theological underpinning that makes time real, an ocean that characterizes our universe. Most philosophers and physicists are happy to assume, from our inability to observe any but time-bound phenomena, that time is an illusion arising from motion which underlies cause. It was satisfying to discover a philosopher (Unger) and physicist (Smolin) who are not so flip and recognize that time is the real foundation of our universe. But even, assuming they are correct, to identify time with the over-arching environment within which the system that is our physical universe works, is only a metaphor. It is not to say anything about of what, exactly, time consists.

Time isn’t a substance any more than cause is a substance, but it isn’t a process either. To say it is the foundation on which cause, process, rests is only a metaphor though apt. The exchange of conserved quantities that underlies physical cause is properly a mechanism, and time plays an enabling role. But physical cause is effected by exchange of various conserved quantities and often the transformation of one such quantity into another. By contrast time enables all these uni-vocally. To “exchange conserved qualities”, whether charge, momentum, or energy demands time. Time mediates all of these exchanges, but that is to say nothing more than that they all occur in or through time.

Thanks to time’s global character, physics can safely ignore it. The “time factor” appearing in equations is a stand-in taking duration into account. But as far as concerns physics nothing more needs to be said about “global time”. It is nothing more than a manner of speaking. But if Unger, Smolin, and indeed Theism are correct, such a view, while enough to support calculation, misses an important characteristic of the reality of our physical universe. While it is possible to understand phenomena within the universe without supposing global time is real, it is not possible to understand the universe as a whole. Of course theology enriches this insight, but even without it, Unger & Smolin are, I believe, correct in that we cannot understand the facts of our cosmological history unless time is real.