Book Review: God’s Grand Game by Steven Colborne

As noted in the review itself (included below) this is the worst theological idea I have ever read. In literally every chapter (maybe but one) there is some contradiction. But all of them, with but a couple of minor variations, stem from the author’s one grand mistake. His failure to recognize that a truely infinite, eternal God is not limited, in creation, to the temporal! Colborne misunderstands the nature of time, that while we, human mind and with particular regard to its creative powers, are stuck in an eternal now of succession, God, who purportedly is the creator of time, is not so limited. As concerns God, the creation of other entities, other creation, that are also eternal with Him, persons who were begat but nevertheless “have, like God, no beginning” are not square circles, not logical impossibilities.

Once that truth (something that must be true of an infinite and self-consistent God) is accepted, Colborne’s entire theological idea falls apart. It is in the creation of such persons, two conjoint eternal persons, that God escapes from the logical trap that Colborne thinks he sets. God can continue to uphold everything. He remains, after all, the only absolute source. But he is able to withdraw from actually having to do everything. By creating others to whom God gives powers to do (and then sharing in that doing) God sets a pattern that imprints itself on the entire universe (the Father creates the Son and together they share in creating the Spirit), including the physical, at least as soon as persons are able to be made within it. Not only does this make the reality of free will possible (in direct contradiction to Colborne), but it inverts everything Colborne concludes. The living universe is filled with various degrees of free will. Free will that has risen to the personal level, partners with God (if it so chooses, the freedom is real after all) in the evolution (in the case of biological humans on physical worlds) of the physical universe itself.

Colborne’s idea is the ultimate skepticism, even as concerns God. Not only can we not know for sure anything about what seems to be our genuine experience (there being after all no real us to know anything), but except for the assumption that one entity (God) exists, we cannot know anything about Him either given that Colborne’s theology makes God a deceiver! I’m not going to use a lot of space refuting him in detail. It should be obvious that if God literally, personally, and directly does everything that is done, and if at the same time God is literally everything and everything is God (Colborne asserts all of this), there is no room for anything else. But why would anyone embrace such an absurd self-negating idea? If Colborne was right, he had nothing to do with his book. God did it all. Nor have I anything to do with this critical essay, God did that too. Why? If none of this is really how it seems it can have no meaning, not only to ourselves (strictly speaking we are nothing but figments of God’s imagination) but even to God! Such a God is if not psychotic, at least very neurotic, and I think that is the clue we need to answer the why question!

Colborne tells us a bit about himself at the beginning of the book. He had a hard growing-up punctuated by psychotic episodes. I’m certainly not qualified to analyze him, but one has to suspect that his whole theology absolves him of something. What? Responsibility. Neither he, nor you, nor I are ever responsible for anything! Further (and Colborne mentions this), if your brain is in some small way defective, you are not responsible for any psychosis anyway, but how much better if not only are you not responsible for the problem, but that God actually wants things this way. He must! After all he could fix that defect right now if he so willed it. You may not know why he wants that defect, but it doesn’t matter because first there isn’t any you anyway, and if something is the case, it can only be God making it happen right now! If there is no free will after all, not only is nothing any of our responsibility, but even better there is nothing any of us can do about it because this is the way God wants things, and this also includes the most depraved evil!

I put this review and commentary up because it so contrasts with a vision of an infinite God who is self-consistent and therefore wholly good. To get an idea of the magnitude of the difference this implies here are some links..

A self-consistent first principles theology: Prolegomena to a Future Theology
On ethics, God as a pointer to the value direction: What are Truth, Beauty, and Goodness?
On free will and the point of all this creation: Why Free Will?
On mind able to comprehend genuine truth: From what comes Mind?

What is evil and why does it exist if God is good?: Theodicy in the Urantia Book 

Each of these essays contain pointers to many others. On the absurdity of the “no free will” idea for example see: Arguing with Automatons.

 

God’s Grand Game (2019) by Steven Colborne

In this short book, Steven Colborne offers us a complete, if shortened, theology, a “theory of God”. It is, in my opinion, the worst theory of God I have ever read, not merely because it is wrong (no human thinker gets everything right about God), but because its error amounts to God being evil. Why then three stars and not two or one? I appreciate the scope of Colborne’s effort. He covers a lot here, and he writes well. Beginning from reasonable premises he makes one grand logical error and from that he courageously drives his theory to its conclusion. He is honest about all of this effort, carefully distinguishing between what he claims must follow from his idea, and what amounts to further speculation. Mostly, his conclusions (while wrong thanks to the big error) follow from his premises, until the last chapter where he fails to stay consistently within the boundaries he himself sets (see below). The problem is that some of what falls out of his analysis makes God a whimsical child who, for his own entertainment, puts both pleasure and pain into creation!

The theory is not entirely new. It has within it a theological idea called “occasionalism” which holds that everything that happens is “occasioned”, that is made to happen, by God, personally and directly. Colborne also folds in an 18th Century idealism popularized by George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne in the first half of the 1700s. In Berkeley’s idealism, every perception we have of the physical world is put into our mind’s by God. Nothing of the physical world exists independently of God’s keeping it before (or in) our mind’s directly. This includes also all our thoughts, beliefs, desires, and so on. Everything we call consciousness is put there, moment by moment, by God himself. Colborne is not an idealist (if God wants a mind-independent world he can create one), but the way his theory comes out it doesn’t really make any difference. Is the tree we both see in front of us really there or does God put it into both our heads? Given his radical occasionalism we cannot tell the difference.

Colborne begins reasonably enough. God must be infinite, eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and possessed of unconstrained free will save for the creation of logical impossibilities (like square circles). He affirms what is called the “doctrine of divine conservation” which means that God must, at every moment, uphold all of universe reality. Put simply, if God blinked, there would be nothing and not something! Colborne errs in assuming that divine conservation entails occasionalism. He goes from “God could do everything that happens” (true) to “God does do everything that happens” (false) and on to “God must do everything that happens”. In this last move, Colborne declares free will impossible, like a square circle, completely forgetting that since God is infinitely free, he can uphold, and he can permit or allow, without actually doing everything. God can be the upholder without being the only doer in the universe. Who are the other doers? Well among others perhaps, at least us!

The evil in the theology really gets going here. To Colborne, nothing anyone does has anything to do with any freedom they think they have. He denies he is a pantheist, but his idea amounts to pantheism. Everything is God and God is everything, not merely in the sense that God everywhere upholds it all, but that he is personally doing it all. If I save a child from drowning, really God did it. If I murder you, really God did it. No matter what, good or bad (Colborne denies God is a source of the moral direction — a pointer to the true, beautiful, and good), physical, or mental (all of your thoughts, pains, pleasures) are really God playing at being a you. Colborne recognizes that human beings appear to themselves to be free willed agents, particularly in the moral domain. We cannot freely fly, but we can choose that which we perceive as more (or less) true, beautiful, or good. Indeed there seems to be no bounds on our moral freedom. But all of this is illusion according to Colborne. God is a deceiver by his lights, itself a violation of the principle of God’s consistency and unity! I have never used the term blasphemy in a review, I don’t even believe in the concept, but I think it might fit this book.

After driving at all of these conclusions based on his fundamental mistake (failing to see that while God could do everything, his freedom permits him not to have to do everything), Colborne offers us an analysis of various world religions pointing out that we didn’t invent any of them, they are all God literally “playing around”, and yes, even contradicting himself! But in a final chapter, he suggests that his idea, it’s all only God, would be a sound basis for inter-faith dialogue. But that inter-faith dialogue has any value at all presupposes free will which Colborne denies exists. If we talk, it is only God talking to himself. If we kill one another, it is only God messing around with his puppet soldiers. God’s whim either way, nothing more.

Unless you are just curious about Colborne’s extreme and morally vacuous theological idea, I cannot really recommend this book!

Process Theology in the Urantia Book

“Process Theology” is a term The Urantia Book (UB from here on out, good e-book editions about $4 here) does not use. Yet is does speak much about the subject. Indeed one could argue that more than half the book is about process theology whether directly or (mostly) indirectly.

In the philosophy of the 20th Century, there emerged “process philosophy” (though as with everything else this had its roots in Ancient Greece, in this case Heraclitus). The fundamental idea in Process Philosophy is that, as goes the basic ontology of the universe, it isn’t “the stuff” that comes first and then undergoes transformation and change. Rather transformation and change itself, movement in time, is the fundamental, and “the stuff” is what it is because it is the outcome of change and time. But what can change if there’s no stuff? This a vexing question for process, and the appearance of quantum mechanics in the early decades of the 20th century is what gave to process its present cache. No one can say of what “the stuff” of the quantum world is, or even that it is. But we can identify process taking place and we believe that all of “the stuff” in the macroscopic universe comes through it!

Process Theologians took this idea from Process Philosophers and applied it to God. We live, obviously in a changing and imperfect universe. Perhaps God is not the existential, changeless, infinite person, outside of time, but instead comes to exist inside time when the universe finally reaches its perfect state, a direction (extracted from Christian theology) they take it to be going. There may be process theologians associated with non-Christian religions (Buddhism especially comes to mind) I do not know their work. Christian-derived process theology at least is very parochial, a mistake the UB takes pains to correct.

What is the nature of this projected perfection? According to Teilhard de Chardin the collective mental life of all the people of the Earth, something he called “the Noosphere”, the “mental” arena consisting of all the people of the planet, reaches (some day) an “Omega Point” when the minds of all humans became unified. In a sense God emerges as collectively us. This would serve to detach our collective mentality from the biosphere (how exactly Teilhard doesn’t say) and this unified collective mind would become the God of Time.

Unification in Teilhard’s sense involves all facets of the mental. God cannot be unified if parts of him hold contrary opinions about something. The UB affirms a part of this. We do, collectively, become integral to the functioning in time of God made manifest in time, but that manifestation of God is his own person, and our individuality, our personal subjective viewpoints, remain. It is not, for the UB, a unification of minds that achieves this, but a unification of wills about a single point. Every individual on the world (in fact on every world everywhere, more on this below) comes to freely will “to do the Father’s will”.

What is the Father’s will? However it is described, it comes out to love for others, one’s brothers and sisters, the spiritual family of a world. What is love? “Love is the desire to do good to others” [UB 56:10.21], and this is the sum and substance of the unity we are supposed to achieve. Love however, this “desire to do good” is also a product of value (truth, beauty, goodness) discrimination, something of which only humans, and not animals, are capable. It is this power that constitutes a discriminating moral capacity. Even animals can love and do good, but they cannot think about these things in the abstract. They can act “out of love”, but not abstractly “because it is good”. There is much more to be said about this subject, but apart from the requirement that we achieve universal love, the details are not pertinent to the process theology story. For more detail on the relation between the values and human free will see “Why Free Will?” As concerns the values themselves, see “What are Truth, Beauty, and Goodness?”

The unification criteria come out to the free choice of each individual to do “the Father’s will” however one looks at it. The people unified around this choice remain individuals rooted in their biology. They don’t think alike, They still have contrary opinions, they still make mistakes. The one thing they unify on is the individual desire to do the will of God. Not until a world reaches this stage of social evolution is it considered a finished product, what the UB calls a “settled world”.

Process theology then is a tidy solution to the problem of God’s interaction with the universe. We are the instruments of that action. But Teilhard’s idea is beset with tricky problems. Does the Omega Point arise purely out of the collective will of living persons, or does it also include those who have died (and in some sense and place survive) over the history of our world? If the former, the whole of the scheme doesn’t seem very fair. If the latter, what has constructed the survival mechanism prior to God’s manifestation? Who or what created the universe and put such potentials as an “evolving God” (not to mention mind) into it? Teilhard had to equivocate about these questions. Like other process theologians, he was mostly, but not entirely, committed to the idea that the “process God” was The God. This either-or bias, derived from process philosophy, has colored all of process theology.

What does the UB say about this? The Process God, who the UB calls “The Supreme” is the manifestation of The God in timespace. The God is existential and eternal. It is this God, The “Father Infinite”, along with two co-eternal coordinates, The Son and The Spirit whom we will meet again below, who has set up all the mechanisms underlying the spiritual, mindal, and physical ontology of the universe. That God, The Father, is not, presently, manifest personally in timespace. The Supreme is to become that manifestation. The Supreme becomes “fully manifest”, recognizable to all timespace persons, possessing within the limitations of time the powers God the Father would manifest if personally present in time, when all the persons in the timespace universe freely will to do the existential God’s will, to love one another.

THE PEOPLES OF THE UNIVERSE

To flesh this out a bit, a short digression into a broad brush description of the “who” mentioned above. Who are “all the persons in the timespace universe”? There are two broad categories. The first, descendant persons, are those created directly by the Gods (the Father, Son, or Spirit, singularly or in any combination). Really there are two broad levels of descending personalities (more on this below) but for now, we can consider both classes together. They have their divine origin in common. There are trillions upon trillions of such persons serving in the physical universes. These beings are not material. We cannot, in our present estate, see or otherwise detect them. But they do live and work (whatever constitutes their work) on physical worlds. “Physical worlds” in the UB include more than the evolutionary sorts of planets with which we are familiar. They include also what the UB calls “architectural spheres”, purpose-built worlds.

Among the duties, by no means exclusively, of this vast descendant host, is the shepherding, the teaching, of the second great group, the ascendant beings from the status of biological creatures to “perfected ascenders”. The evolution of biological creatures whose minds are sensitive to the values (again see “What are Truth, Beauty, and Goodness”) are always persons, and they can, potentially, know God and do their best to freely do what they take (however imperfectly) to be his will. All of these evolved mortals have souls. This term, as used in the UB, has little resemblance with the term as used, to mean almost anything, by the philosophers of this planet theist or atheist (see “What is The Soul?”). Mortals on evolutionary worlds are born physical, biological, beings. During their relatively short lives they nurture a soul, something unknown to any direct experience of the creature, but which serves as what amounts to the life-boat with which we escape biological existence and become “ascendant mortals”. I will not get into more of the details here, see the aforementioned “Soul” article.

This group, ascendant mortals consists of everyone who has died (mostly, there are a few timing details but they are not important over-all) on all the inhabited worlds of space (a growing number as the universe evolves). The universe is, a gigantic school dedicated to perfecting these ascenders who begin on day one of their survival, no different in spiritual status than on the day they died. What follows is a multi-billion year education until individuals reach levels of spiritual attainment and perfection enabling them to stand before God the Father in direct person to person communion. The details are not so important to our concern in this paper. What is important is to recognize that there are trillions of worlds from which such ascenders have come now for a few billions of years, for we are not by far the oldest inhabited world in the universe. That means this ascendant group, from rank beginners to the most advanced students, exist in numbers measured in trillions of trillions.

Where do all these people live? On the “purpose-built worlds” mentioned above. There is a lot of discussion of this in the UB. The details are not particularly pertinent to process theology as such.

We have then, broadly three groups of beings of personal status in the universe. Descenders, ascenders who have ascended, and future-ascenders, beings who have not finished out their biological life on evolutionary worlds. To bring the finite physical world to completion, all of these beings, literally every single individual, must have dedicated himself or herself to the doing of the Father’s will and actually love one another. Now it so happens that all of the descendant personalities, with but the fewest of exceptions I address a little later, are already on board with the program. So are, as it turns out, the vast majority of the ascendant beings, the few exceptions restricted to some of those at the very beginning stages of their post-mortal education. Ninety-nine-point-nine-nine percent of all these beings are already “with the program”. All have freely dedicated their lives to the doing of God’s will. Who remain? We do, those yet living in their original biological form on the evolutionary worlds of space.

It is the material people living on the evolutionary worlds who are, mostly, holding up the program. I am being a bit facetious here, because the evolution of such grossly imperfect beings for the purpose of perfecting them is one of (not the only) the main purposes of the whole creation. As concerns the individuals born on such worlds, that perfecting process takes place in the long educational career following material death. But in order for the “God of Time” to become manifest the peoples of the material worlds must also, universally, get with the program. This means that in some generation, the living people of a given world must all choose, must freely will, to do God’s will and love one another. As good as this may seem, it isn’t enough. A world that achieves this status for a few years, even a few generations, can still revert. To become a “settled world” by universe standards, a culture of universal will-to-love must obtain, unbroken, for ten thousand planetary years!

Now to put the final point to the scope of this effort, consider two things. First, when humans first appear on evolutionary worlds, they live brutal lives for many thousands of years. Humanity on Earth may be about one million years old. We are by no means the oldest world in the universe, but nor are we the youngest. There are planets in all stages of their geophysical or biological evolution. But for the entire universe to be settled, for the God of Time to fully manifest, all these worlds must be finished. There will, in other words, come a time when no new unsettled planets exist and no new (yet to be inhabited) worlds emerge. This completion amounts to the fixation of moral intention. While many sorts of change in time continue (babies continue to be born on the worlds of space, stars and planets continue to change), change ceases as concerns the moral intention of every personality in the universe. In this one way, temporal change ceases throughout the timespace universe. This stasis is one of the pillars of the Supreme’s power.

A second thing to note is that this planet, our Earth, is an exception to the norm in that its culture remains only semi-civilized a million years after the evolution of the first persons. This unusual and very rare situation is the result of historical events going back two-hundred-thousand years in our history. These events have no direct bearing on the “process theology” story over-all (the requirement that all planets settle, including Earth, still stands), but because they so dramatically effect delay in this planet’s social evolution I will address them briefly later in the essay.

GOD THE SEVENFOLD

“The people of the universe” are the tips of the fingers of the Supreme, the God of time. It is through us (descendant and ascendant persons), that the Supreme interacts with the physical world. But behind the fingertips there are hands, arms, and a head. There is much more to process theology in the UB than the union of the noosphere, which is, however, its end point. All of these people are not just milling about. Those ascending are being guided, and those doing the guiding have been trained. They have functional roles related to the ascendant economy, the gigantic university and much else that goes on in parallel with it. Those roles include an extensive hierarchy of authority and jobs extending from, under normal circumstances, evolutionary worlds up to the Father. If this sounds, to Christian Theologians, vaguely like Arianism, it is. But like the mutually compatible reality of an existential and and evolving “God of Time”, in the UB, Triuneism (the Trinity) and parts of what the Arians asserted, are both true.

At top of this hierarchy is what might be analogous to the corporate board and the collection of senior management. The UB calls it “God the Sevenfold”. It is not a person, but it does consist of persons. The first three of these persons, the first three levels of God the Sevenfold, are God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit. All three are eternal, all three are infinite (the Father unqualifiedly, the Son and Spirit qualifiedly, see “Prolegomena to a Future Theology”). I should note that while these first three persons happen to be the three persons of the Trinity, they are not The Trinity in their role as part of God the Sevenfold, but rather three individuals. The UB’s view of the Trinity is more nuanced than Christianity’s. I include a note about it at the end of this essay as The Trinity as such is not directly a part of the process theology story.

The fourth level of God the Sevenfold is The Supreme himself. How is this possible? It is possible because the person of the Supreme is eternal, created by God the Father “from the beginning”. But he is not infinite and he is incomplete in his domain, the finite universe of time. Nevertheless, he is already known as a person to the Father, Son, and Spirit, though he will not be knowable to the rest of us until the finite universe has achieved its endpoint.

From this midpoint, the seven-fold hierarchy continues into timespace. Level five are the Master Spirits. There are seven of them, one for each super-universe. They are responsible for the presence, in time, of Cosmic Mind (see “From What Comes Mind?”). I will not have more to say about them here. I have not spoken of super-universes, nor local-universes. The relation here between the UB’s description of what constitutes the “universes of time” is quite problematic and the subject of a future paper. I shall leave this subject alone, except to say that super-universes are very big places each divided into one hundred thousand local-universes I address below.

The “Ancients of Days” are level six. There are three in each super-universe, so twenty-one total. They are the top of the administrative arm of the Super-universes. Think of them as a trio of very large division managers in a large corporation consisting of many divisions. If this all begins to seem like a giant bureaucracy, that is exactly what the UB describes and the Arian Heresy envisioned! But pause to consider this is an idealized bureaucracy! Remember that virtually all of the descendant persons (exceptions addressed below) and also the ascendant persons-in-training are all, already, with God’s program and there is no limitation here on training, nor lack of motivation in any role. Each, from the highest to the lowest, functions in their role with virtual (certainly from our viewpoint) perfection.

The seventh and last layer of God the Sevenfold is the most important as concerns the God of Time and certainly for ourselves as we presently are. The UB calls these beings Creator Sons. There are seven-hundred-thousand of them, one for each local universe, and their existence represents the boldest insight of the Arian Heresy.

The Arians believed there was a hierarchy of being that added up to a God of time. Though they didn’t put it this way, they were proto-process theologians, and the UB affirms this insight with modifications. Among other things the Arians accepted an eternal existential Father, but not an eternal Son or Spirit. The Arians reasoned that if the Father “begot the Son and the Spirit”, these two persons could not be eternal because the begetting relation entails time. The UB denies this. What “entails time” is our thinking process. We are creatures fully soaked in time and cannot conceive of any “precedent relation” in a creation process that isn’t intrinsically temporal.

Although it is true to say that The Father begot the Son and together they begot the Spirit “…there never was a time when the I AM was not the Father of the Son and with him of the Spirit” [UB 0:3.16]. All three are fully eternal. Such eternal precedent relations, while not possible in the temporal realm, are possible (along with much more, see note on the Trinity following) at the Deity level. The Father, Son, and Spirit are all unqualifiedly eternal. They are also infinite, the Father unqualifiedly, the Son and Spirit each in one dimension. The Son is the “first and infinite person”, personality being the sine qua non of spirit reality. The Spirit, the first conjoined thought of The Father and The Son, is infinite in mind. [Personality] “..is one thing which can be added to spirit, thus illustrating the primacy of the Father in relation to the Son. (Mind does not have to be added to spirit)” [UB 112:0.14]. Notice the beginning of a pattern here. The Father creates the Son and with the Son the Spirit. The whole of UB theology rests on shared power and responsibility from top to bottom.

Yet there was something correct about this Arian insight. An infinite eternal being cannot personally appear in the physical universe. There cannot be a past-eternal-infinity, even “for a time”, in the temporal-finite. “It is not possible for [the Eternal Son], an absolute being, to suspend consciousness of personality…” [UB 7:5.6]. One might add, as Jesus had to do by being born. Jesus, the God-man who lived on Earth is not past-eternal. He is a being created in time. Jesus is the Creator Son of our local universe. In case this diminution to the status of what amounts to a demi-God seems disappointing, the UB’s explication of the role of this class of Sons portrays them as far more powerful than most Biblical interpretations of Jesus’ life picture him. A local universe, when finished, consists of some ten million inhabited evolutionary worlds, and “To our universe and all its inhabited worlds the Sovereign Son is, to all practical intents and purposes, God” [UB 33:1.4].

LOCAL UNIVERSES, CREATOR SONS, AND HOLY SPIRITS

The super-universes are administered at various levels, the Ancients of Days, being but the top of the administrative chain. But the entirety of a super universe is composed of local universes in a way analogous to how the entire nation of the United States is composed of states. God The Father (in the UB telling, through the Spirit) sets the basic conditions and physical laws (an over-simplification, but will do here). Once these conditions result in sufficient development (proto-galaxies, galactic clusters, and so on, the beginnings of large scale organization of the temporal realms), the Creator Sons are dispatched to deal with the details. “…the local universes are the real laboratories in which are worked out the mind experiments, … divinity unfoldings, and personality progressions which when cosmically totaled, constitute the actual foundation upon which the Supreme is achireving deity evolution in and by experience” [UB 116:4.7]. This includes not only the physical details of their respective realms, but also the creation of a second set, a local universe set, of descendant personalities, and ultimately also the evolution (yes evolution) of bio-physical beings on evolutionary worlds leading to the appearance of brains (and therefore minds) able to recognize Spirit through the values (see “What are Truth, Beauty, and Goodness?”) and thereby worthy of personality status bestowed directly by The Father (see “Why Personality?”).

There is also a reflection at the local universe level of the relationship between the three infinite deities and God The Supreme. The Creator Sons are children of both the Infinite Father and the Eternal Son. The Infinite Spirit also is involved. Each Creator Son is paired with a companion created by the Spirit, a local universe child of the Spirit who is, like the Son, a person the book calls “The Holy Spirit”. There are a few interesting parallels here. The Creator son is an individual person. He is not infinite and he is a time-constrained being. While he isn’t physical (except in special circumstances I come to below), he cannot be in two places at once. By contrast the Holy Spirit is everywhere in her local universe at the same time. The geographic extent of her presence is the local universe, and outside her boundary is another, other, local universe, the domain of another Holy Spirit.

Further, while the Holy Spirit is a person, until certain milestones in the evolution of a local universe are reached, only the Creator Son recognizes her as a person, parallel to the way in which the original three Deity persons alone know the person of the Supreme prior to the completion of the timespace realms. As it turns out, in our local universe, the one the UB calls “Nebadon”, those milestones have been reached. Since all of this process bears directly on the eventual completion of the Supreme I must briefly review it.

As the three Infinite Deities both singly and in any combination create various super-universe descending orders, the Creator Sons and their consorts (singly and together) create local universe orders of being. I return to these in a moment. Through the earlier stages of local universe evolution a Creator Son rules that universe only as a proxy for the Infinite Father. The Son must earn full sovereignty of his own universe, and he does this by bestowing himself on, literally becoming one of, the various orders of being he and the Holy Spirit have created (like the TV show “Undercover Boss”). There are always seven such bestowals, each one illustrating some aspect of the relationship between the three Infinite Deities (distinctions we cannot recognize in our present estate). The bestowals begin illustrating the Father-Son-Spirit combination, then successively, the Son-Spirit, Father-Spirit, Father-Son, Spirit, Son, and lastly, on the lowest order of all, ascendant humans on an evolutionary world, the Father himself! That bestowal, the seventh of the Creator Son of our local universe was on Earth, the bestowal of Jesus. The bestowal rules require the Son to live “the full life of the creature”. If, as it does on an evolutionary world, that entails both birth and death, the Son must go through those too.

“Joshua ben Joseph [Jesus], the Jewish baby, was conceived and was born into the world just as all other babies before and since except that this particular baby was the incarnation of Michael of Nebadon, a divine son … and the creator of all this local universe of things and beings” [UB 119:7.5]. How does the Creator Son manage to be born a fully human baby and yet be the person of the Creator Son of the local universe? The book tells us that this is a mystery none know other than the Father, Infinite Son, and those that go through it, the Creator Sons themselves. But why, of nearly ten million inhabited worlds of the local universe, did our Creator Son choose Earth for the scene of his final bestowal? To explain that, I must sketch the administrative levels of the local universe.

There are three broad levels of local universe administration, the universe itself (think state government), the constellations (think county governments, one hundred give or take in every local universe), and the systems (think city government, one hundred give or take in each constellation). Each system administers roughly (eventually at completion) one thousand inhabited evolutionary worlds like Urantia (our world, Earth, hence the eponymous name of the book). The systems are the first level of contact between a world’s population and the “celestial administration”. It is to the system headquarters (a collection of “architectural worlds”) our souls are taken and awakened at some point (usually many years) after mortal death. The systems are also responsible for what is supposed to be routine, long term, contact with the early peoples of these worlds.

Sometime after the evolution of humans on a given world, the system headquarters sends a delegation to the planet, a revelatory mission. The delegation consists of a descendant being called a “planetary prince” and one hundred early-ascenders from other worlds in the system who volunteer for a long-term assignment to a newly populated (humans having evolved) planet. The planetary prince is not visible to the inhabitants of the planet, but the one-hundred ex-mortals are materialized (50 men, 50 women) as beings of that world, using the human genetics of the planet. Mortals of the world can interact with them, talk with them, learn from them. This mission began on Earth some 500,000 years ago, about 500,000 years after the first humans evolved on Earth (the UB definition of human has to do with the capacity of individual mind to sense the values, and not morphology as we must define it from our perspective). Caligastia was the name of our planetary prince. His boss, the system sovereign’s name was Lucifer, and our system (still) is named Satania after Satan, Lucifer’s ambassador to all the planetary prince missions on the system’s worlds.

The UB says that, in our local universe, there is an unusual degree of freedom accorded the administration of the systems. There is much rich detail in the UB about events that occurred some two-hundred-thousand years ago in the system of Satania, one of only three such events to ever occur in the local universe of 10,000 systems (three of these is a lot by UB standards). There is detail in the description of the administrative relation between the local universe and the systems. Of the inhabited planets in Satania (some number between six-hundred and a thousand), thirty seven of the Planetary Princes sided with Lucifer in what amounted to a revolt against the authority of the Creator Son. thirty seven out of at least 600, and this was the “worst” such rebellion (of three) in the local universe!

There is also considerable detail about how this rebellion, now two-hundred-thousand-years past affected the historical and social trajectory of the peoples of the Earth. I am not going to reprise those details here, but suffice it to say that this event, and a later, more recent (thirty-eight-thousand years) second failure related to the first, made Earth an exceptionally rare “double failure”. Both of these missions took place in what is now the middle east, the first somewhere now under the north end of the Persian Gulf, the second ended up (I blur many details) a few miles north between what are now, and were then, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Importantly to our story, the double failure, especially the later one, had further and more profound impact on our history, making Earth one of, if not the, spiritually darkest worlds in the local universe. It is for this reason, that the Creator Son of this local universe, chose this world as the site of his final bestowal at the end of which he had completed the bestowal requirements and “all power on Earth and in heaven has been given to him”.

Jesus chose this world, the darkest of his universe, to exhibit the nature of The Father himself. That was the main mission. Everything else that happened, while important in its way, was (and remains) incidental to that mission. Did that mission fail? It seems that for subsequent generations on Earth it did, for there is still a great deal of confusion and “fake news” concerning the nature of the Father. But Christianity, nevertheless, managed to retain some part of Jesus teachings and life. The nature of the Father can be threaded out from the life of Jesus as portrayed in the New Testament, but it is a difficult task (see “Prolegomena to a Future Theology”). Meanwhile, humans on Earth were not the only audience. According to the UB, the entire (local universe) descendant hierarchy of beings, and all (local universe) ascendant post-mortal beings, were enthralled by the 33 year spectacle of Jesus’ Earth life. They all got the point, and it was for them, mainly and not us, that the universe-wide public bestowal was intended!

The UB’s historical story gets more detailed as it approaches the time of Jesus’ bestowal. For example among the rules of such bestowals (apparently) is that a Creator Son must appear among a people who believe in one God (even if not exactly “the Father” he came to illuminate). By two thousand years prior to the bestowal, the monotheistic idea on Earth (taught by both system-sponsored missions prior to their failure) had disappeared. How did a particular people become “the Jews” who satisfied (if less than ideally) that bestowal requirement? This is a fascinating story but not directly relevant to process theology. What is relevant is what happened when it ended. We return to the “God of Time”, the Supreme.

THE ALMIGHTY SUPREME

Why have I digressed in this, even over simplified, explication of Earth history? It answers the question “why Earth”, both explaining why this planet is so atypically evil, and why, for that very reason, Jesus chose this world. But regardless of his choice, the completion of his bestowal on Earth changed his status, allowing him to assume the rule of his local universe “in his own name”. This, in turn, fits into place, a piece of the puzzle that is the power of the God of Time to whom I now return.

The God of Time, the Supreme, is the fourth level of God the Sevenfold, its center. The being of the Supreme, his person, is existential, supplied by the first three levels, the Father, Son, and Spirit. The last three levels, the Master Spirits, Ancients of Days, and the Creator Sons represent the skeleton, and in the case of the Creator Sons also much of the muscle, the power potential, of the Supreme’s capacity to act.

If we (humans and ascendant humans along with all the descendant hosts) are the fingers of the Supreme, the Creator Sons are the hands which make the fingers possible. Completing his bestowal requirements does not complete in the sense of “fully settle” the local universe. Ultimately, that is the task of all its inhabitants, including us. But the Creator Son’s bestowals, all of them but in particular the last illuminating “The Father Himself”, sets a pattern in the local universe, foreshadowing the outcome. When once the person of the Supreme comes together with a timespace universe of beings all dedicated to the doing of the Father’s will, the person now known only to the three Deities becomes the “Almighty Supreme”, the personal manifestation of God the Father in and to the finite.

To the point of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus lived his life in virtually perfect connection with and understanding of the nature of God’s will — its love-directedness. But this was a purely human life. Prior to his baptism, Jesus’ awareness of his Father was no different from that which any human being could, in potential, achieve. In any given circumstances Jesus had to figure out what God’s will might be, how God himself might express love, and how best to apply it to the given situation. This almost always amounts to finding some compromise between an ideal of action, and what might actually be done (by some particular individual) faced with a real decision.

It is this standard (and not what followed after that baptism when Jesus’ being the Creator Son was fully revealed to him), this ever-present connection to figuring out how best to do God’s will on Earth (and in the rest of the universe career) we must all achieve. As Jesus grew from childhood to adulthood he became the consummate master of this process. In one short life he grew from “best ever for a kid”, to “best there ever was expressed on Earth” and for that matter in the entire local universe! None of the rest of us, indeed not even immortal descendant beings, are expected to achieve this mastery in a few decades, and for us not even in a one-hundred year human lifetime. We are, however, expected to make progress. For ordinary humans progress means being better at “doing good” (both in discernment of opportunity and the act) this year compared to last. Such progress, at least in the present life, does not entail any particular intellectual religious beliefs, or for that matter any belief in God at all (see “What is the Soul?”).

The Supreme’s power to act depends on the dedication (freely doing the Father’s will) of his actor-agents, literally every personal being in the inhabited universe, to being “agents of the Supreme”. It also depends, as with anything else we or any person might do, on the skill of the actor. The actor’s skill, in turn, develops with practice (literally trying, “doing one’s best” to discern God’s will in a given situation and act constructively to express it). Skill also improves when appropriately motivated students are taught by a master, literally shown what such an ideal of discernment and action might look like.

By living a life dedicated to the doing of God’s will on this darkest of worlds, Jesus delivered a demonstration like no other (perhaps very few others) ever delivered in all the inhabited universes of space. Literally trillions of beings were apprised of what it means for a life to be dedicated to God’s will even under the most trying of circumstances. Although Jesus’ final bestowal did not complete his universe (in the sense of settling it) it did enhance both the dedication and skills of all beings (see note on “advanced worlds” below) inhabiting it. When a single human (or other) being makes that dedication for herself the Supreme grows by one more fingertip. When Jesus finished his bestowal, the Supreme’s power grew by trillions of fingertips.

The God of time as envisioned by human theologians emerges out of the the homogeneous union of earthly minds. This idea does parallel the UB in that nothing short of universal (on Earth) achievement as concerns the desire to do God’s will will do to finish the job. Human process theology is not clear about the existence of an existential infinite metaphysically underlying this process. Only the humans of the Earth (with few exceptions) are accorded a role in this process, and there is also vagueness about the role of those who have passed on (even from the Earth).

By contrast, in the UB, The Supreme fits into a structure of support that makes him and his eventual unification His origin grounded by the Father, Son, and Spirit, while supported, his proxy power, by the Master Spirits, the Ancients of Days, the Creator Sons, and all the persons of the inhabited universes who are already on board with the program. Within this structure, the Supreme eventually becomes the manifestation of the perfect existential Father as far as this is possible from within time. But while much of his supporting power is already operational, the Supreme cannot personally act in his own name as that manifestation as long as there are persons remaining in the time domain who are not yet with the program. A perfect representation of God in time cannot exist until the universe itself has reached a certain fixed state. Not perfection in all phases and certainly not absence of further change except for one change. No one in the finite universe ever again rejects the program!

What happens to free will? In effect nothing. There are still choices to be made, decisions and “courses of action” to take, learning goes on, and eventually a new class of ascenders (see below) to help shepherd on their way to perfection. There is still error (ascending mortals are not yet perfect in all phases as they become at the apex of their personal careers). If error is possible, then potential evil remains real (see “Theodicy in the Urantia Book”). But while the potential remains, there is no actual evil. Persons can still, theoretically, commit error deliberately (actual evil) but it would never occur to anyone to do so.

How then can this work? Imagine Earth is literally the last planet in the inhabited universe on which every living decision-capable person (not demented or too young) has not decided to try, always, to do the will of God. Imagine there is only one such person on the whole world. At some point, that person changes his mind, and freely decides, after all, that he does want to do God’s will. Does the Supreme suddenly pop into the universe and become manifest to all where before he was manifest to none but the Father, Son, and Spirit? Suppose further that a day, or a year, from this time, a child is born who, upon growing to his age of choosing, freely decides that he does not wish to do God’s will. Does the Supreme’s action-presence (capacity to act and be known) in the universe vanish? Can the Supreme flicker in and out like this, depending on the whim of the last few holdouts in the universe?

The answer is surely no. Given the administrative structure from God the Seven Fold, and especially the Creator Sons, suggests the Supreme’s integration, his person and his capacity to act and interact with the beings from which his power emerges likely in the perfection of entire local universes. When an entire local universe is “settled” in this sense, I suspect the Supreme’s power, if not complete and integrated throughout all of the inhabited creation is effectively present throughout such a settled local universe, or would be had such an event taken place. The UB notes that no local universe in all the wide inhabited creation has yet completely settled, though the older ones are much farther along the path than the younger ones.

CONCLUSION

The UB moves us from a process God appearing out of a mystical unification of earthly minds to one who represents the completion of a multi-billion year project backed and founded by an existential God who projected the God of Time from before time was. The future power of this “manifestation of the Father” in timespace is supported by a hierarchy ranging from just “plain old spiritual folks” to the personalities of God the Sevenfold. The emergence of the Supreme the bringing together of his person, known to The Father from the beginning, and his capacity to act, a function of personality throughout the universe unified on the desire to do The Father’s will, is the completion, the fruition intended from the beginning, of the timespace domain. They are the same event.

So what happens at that point in time? For one thing persons, all persons in timespace recognize the person of the supreme. He becomes contactable. The UB says that many changes occur in the timespace realm, but says little about what they are. It does tell us that “…since all creature experiencing registers in, and is a part of, the Supreme, when all creatures attain the final level of finite existence, and after total universe development makes possible their attainment of God the Supreme as an actual divinity presence, then inherent in the fact of such contact, is contact with total experience” [UB 117:5.14]. Being a manifestation of the perfect Father in the then-perfected timespace universe, the Supreme would have to be omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent within the finite. The UB does not tell us if these qualities are constituted solely by our power to act in accord with the Father’s will (persons are everywhere, everything that can be known in the finite at that future time is known by someone), or if the person of the Supreme comes to exercise power of himself. I suspect, the answer is both.

Being creatures of time, the UB says that we cannot really comprehend anything beyond the level of the Supreme, meaning anything that is prior to or follows from timespace and his completion. At least not now in our present estate, and for that matter through our entire ascension career until, at graduation, we achieve the full measure of eternal spirituality. We can discover and comprehend the physics of the time universe because it is of timespace. We can know something of God The Father because he is represented in timespace, especially by the Creator Sons, but also by the values discriminated in human mind. In our present estate, we have no epistemological access to what lies beyond the Supreme, but such things can at least be named. As we live today in time, there is a domain the book calls the absonite which is “…characterized by things and beings without beginnings or endings and by the transcendence of time and space” [UB 0:1.12]. In that domain, as yet uninhabited, persons are not evolved as they are in time but “eventuated”. What does this mean? We cannot know, but are told that it is in this absonite, a domain tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of times larger than the finite, that the next phase of God’s manifestation to reality begins (has already begun) to take shape. What God the Supreme is to the finite, God the Ultimate is to the absonite. God is infinite. Process never ceases.


[Note on the Trinity]  Like its process theology, the UB Trinity is an expanded version of the Christian version. In Christianity, the “three persons” are the Trinity and the Trinity is the three persons, end of story. In the UB, they come apart. As analogy, think of a small corporation with a three-member board: president, treasurer, secretary. These are three individuals who can act and interact in seven different ways that are, nevertheless, not the board of directors.

1. The president alone
2. The treasurer alone
3. The secretary alone
4. The presidenbt and the treasurer
5. The president and the secretary
6. The secretary and the treasurer
7. The president, secretary, and treasurer together.

One is tempted to say that the last, the seventh, is the board-of-directors, our trinity, but this is not so. All three, for example, might be attending a barbq and interact without being the board. Now from time to time, these three persons do come together in a metaphorically fused form as the board-of-directors. When this group, as the board, issues a policy statement, they are, metaphorically, speaking with “one voice”. The analogy stops here. At the human level, each of the seven individual combinations and the metaphorically “fused board” are all sequential. Only one of the seven possible individual interactions can take place at one time, and the same is true of the board speaking “as the corporation”.

The existential deities are infinite and eternal. To them, seen from our viewpoint, every possible relationship is both simultaneous and forever. Not only do the three persons relate in seven ways and act as the fused Trinity simultaneously, the three, as individuals or in any combination, can also interact with the Trinity! It is because of this that the Father, Son, and Spirit, but not the Trinity as such, can be the first three levels of God the Sevenfold. It is also another reason why Jesus of Nazareth cannot be the Eternal Son, second person of Deity. There cannot be a time at which the Son is not always in association with the Father, Spirit, and Trinity.

[Note on advanced worlds] As noted in the text, Earth suffered twin failures in the first two system-sponsored-missions to this planet. This is very rare. ninty-nine-point-nine-nine percent of evolutionary worlds suffer no such failures. Once a people has advanced far enough in their civilization (the criteria of this is political, social, and spiritual, not technological) there are literally places one can go on the world to meet and speak with the system representatives to the planet. Such beings, if they are not already materialized, can be made visible and audible to humans. Not only is individual communication possible, but events of the system, constellation, and local universe, analogous to news broadcasts, are available to the inhabitants. So it happens, that on some worlds, even the material mortals were enabled to follow the life of Jesus as he lived it out on this world.

 

 

Mental Cause

In several essays on the broad subject of free will I have said that there are three types of causation in our physical universe: micro-physical indeterminism, macro-physical determinism, and agent-volition, the last subjectively experienced as the willful exercise of one’s mind’s causal capacity, “mental cause”. I refer to what Aristotle called “efficient cause”, that is the immediate forerunner (or forerunners) of a particular event or outcome taken to mean “that which physically brings that particular event about.” Aristotle defined four types of causes, three of which could be said, sometimes, to have “mental” aspects. A simple example here, a fire in a fire-place, will serve to illustrate Aristotle’s distinctions.

1. The “material cause” of the fire is that out of which it could be made. Wood or paper might work. Water would not. There also has to be some oxygen (or other oxidizer) present and so on.

2. “Formal cause” has to do not with the fire’s material substrate but its shape. Not all arrangements of even qualified materials will successfully light. To make a nice fire place fire, the wood and paper have to be arranged in certain ways. Many but not all possible arrangements will serve.

3. “Efficient cause” is that which physically brings the fire about. It might be a lit match set to paper for example. When physics talks about causes, it is this they are talking about. Importantly, there can be chains of efficient causes. To set my wood pile alight with a match I must first strike the match and light it, then hold its flame under my paper kindling. That last step is commonly called also the “proximate cause” and it is mostly this that this essay is about.

4. Aristotle’s fourth cause, the “final cause” is the reason we have built and lit our fire. We want to get warm. Notice that this cause is only indirectly connected to our fire. Besides starting a fire we might get warm in other ways. We could do physical exercise or put on a coat. The entire set up of the fire from the material (wood and paper), its arrangement, to its ignition, are merely means to this end.

Under normal circumstances, we would always attribute “final cause”, to a desire, aim, or objective (purposeful intention) of the agent to get warm. If “mental cause” (of any sort) even exists, final causes would always, by definition, be mental. “Material causes” (that wood and paper in the presence of oxygen can burn) are not typically thought of as mental. Formal causes (the arrangement of the wood and paper in the fire place) might or might not be mental. The wood and paper in their pre-light configuration is not mental per-se, but the arrangement-design might or might not be. In the case of our fire place an agent is involved, but for example in a natural forest (arrangement of trees) ignited by lightening, it is not. As with formal cause, efficient cause might or might not involve mentality. In the case of our fire place, an agent lights the fire, but in the forest fire, lightening does the job.

Notice that from a third-party viewpoint, efficient (causal) agency remains always a physical object. What lights our fire place is a body with arms and hands that strike matches, and so on. There is no need to assume mental cause is real from an outside perspective. When we get to an inside perspective however the situation is quite different.

WHY DO WE NEED MENTAL CAUSE

What we need is some justification for believing mental cause exists, that it belongs in our ontology and “is real” by virtue of being one of the causes (somewhere in the chain of efficient cause) of [some] physical event. When we observe what we take to be a minded agent (human or animal) we see that the physical effects they engender are always products of a body’s motion. No one disputes the physical connection between the body and the rest of the world. The issue comes down to “what moved the body”? The answer is muscles of course, nerves, and more nerves comprising some part of the brain. The question is, was there something that isn’t a nerve as such (though a nerve would be involved) but something quintessentially mental, perhaps a desire or something like that lying at the beginning of the chain of efficient-causes?

Most people would say that it “seems as though” this is the case. Physics says this seeming must be an illusion because it discovers only two kinds of causes in the universe, the indeterminate and the determinate. To be sure, discovered here means measured. Physics detects, with physical instruments, only two types of causes. Speculation about mental cause goes back as far as the earliest recorded philosophy, but physics has never been able to detect it!

If however there is no mental cause when we seem so strongly to sense that there is, all sorts of philosophical problems arise. Mental cause is not the same as free will, but free will entails mental cause. Physics of course denies free will is real But if I am not warranted in believing my agency can be a cause, at least of my own body’s motion, how am I warranted in believing anything? Belief itself (causal or not) is a quintessential mental phenomenon. If my causal capacity is an illusion why not also my agency, and why not anything I might happen to believe or desire?

We can be deluded about our beliefs being true, but it is difficult to believe we are deluded about having beliefs, and doubly so for desires. The debate isn’t usually about having (subjectively experiencing) beliefs, but rather about their being anything “over and above” brain states. If physics calls my very agency into question (not the illusion of it, but its being something more than brain states) what is it then that has beliefs and desires? Can “brains” be an answer? How do brains, qua brains, come to have beliefs and desires? Do the mechanisms of a clock know the time of day in the sense that a human knows it when she looks at the clock? To deny brain states beneath (the foundation) of our mental states would in this day be absurd. The issue is always ultimately the ontological status of what appears, the subjective, as a result of their presence, and what (if any) downward causal powers the appearance has.

These sorts of issues are but the tip of the iceberg. If mental cause (and so by extension free will) is an illusion then a radical skepticism about everything would seem to be warranted. At the same time, even skepticism, since we must be skeptical of our very agency, is not warranted either. There is a long literature here, but as John Searle put it (The Construction of Social Reality [1995]) nothing about the human experience nor all of human history makes any sense without presupposing free will.

WHY IS MENTAL “EFFICIENT CAUSE” CONTROVERSIAL?

I have given some answer to this above: because physics cannot measure it. It would seem unproblematic to take for granted that physics doesn’t cover everything; it is, as the matter is put, incomplete. But the problem is more subtle than that. The two types of causes that physics can measure (strictly speaking physics cannot measure quantum phenomena directly, but only when these interact with the macroscopic world) have qualities, characteristics, that mental causes lack. These qualities are what explain in the sense of “reveal the mechanism for” physical causation. There is no mathematics in physics, no observation or experiment that would suggest that anything other than prior-physics can be a cause in physics. Even not-directly-observable quantum phenomena are readily observed via these same qualities when they interact with the macroscopic world. Purportedly “mental causes”, by contrast, do not appear to share these qualities. As a result, they cannot be observed from a third party viewpoint, and so no path exists to an explanation of the mechanism of their effect on physics.

Rather than accepting that some mysterious sort of cause that cannot be observed must be real, physicists and most philosophers instead move to strike “mental cause” from the list of causal possibilities in our universe. This is a philosophical move, an induction based on evidence from the only sort of detection or measurement instruments, physical instruments, that exist. The anti-physicalist might respond by claiming that while physical instruments can not in principle measure mental cause, subjective consciousness, literally our phenomenal arena detects them, and this arena is, after all, also a part of the universe along with everything else.

At this point we are thrown back upon the brain which is indisputably physical. We know that the movement of my arm is preceded by nerve impulses in my arm and brain that are themselves indisputably physical. If at the top of this chain of efficient cause there was a mental event that set the chain in motion it behooves the proponent of mental cause to say how, that is by what mechanism, the mental event effects (that is trigger) the first indisputably physical (nerve) process in the chain?

CHARACTERISTICS OF MATERIAL and MENTAL CAUSES

According to Phil Dowe (Physical Causation [2000]) material cause is all about transferring some [physically] conserved quantity momentum, mass-energy, or electric charge. If one billiard ball strikes another momentum is transferred from one to the other. This results in two other observations important in this context. First physical cause is temporal. Causes precede their effects. The transfer of a conserved quantity cannot take place faster than the speed of light. Second, there is a reciprocal impact of the effect on the cause. If one billiard ball gains momentum, the other loses it.

Both of these qualities are absent from mental cause. In this context, distinctions made by Nicholas Rescher (“Free Will: A Philosophical Reappraisal” [2008]) will be helpful. Rescher is aware of the overall relation between consciousness (including mental cause) and brain states. He claims that there never can be any instance of mental cause without the simultaneous existence of some correlated brain state. If we look for a mental event that brings about a brain state, but isn’t itself associated simultaneously with some other brain state, we will never find it. “Mental causes”, in Rescher’s terms are not causes in Dowe’s physical sense.

Mental causes are not, in Rescher’s view, temporal. They are literally (metaphysically) simultaneous with their effect, some brain state. He distinguishes this sort of a temporal cause by calling it “initiation”. Initiation (often intentional but not necessarily so) need not evoke a neurological correlate ex nihilo. It need only slightly modify an existing state. From a third party viewpoint, that modified state would appear a perfectly natural evolution from its own prior state. Nothing would be found to suggest that anything non-physical was responsible for it.

This “a temporal initiation” is possible because in mental cause, no conserved quantity is transferred, and consequently there is no reciprocity. If I elect to pick up a rock and throw it at a window, I can feel the momentum transfer between my arm and the rock, and of course the throw is temporal. But the initiation of the event was simultaneous with the physical brain state that lies at the top of the physically [efficient] causal chain. The evidence that this is so is our experience that there is no reciprocal effect of my choice to initiate a rock-throw back on that initiator. Nothing about the initiation impacts back on the mental cause itself. Of course I may, this being a directed (intentional) initiation, immediately regret having done so. But that is a different, subsequent, thought, not a modification of the original one.

If Rescher is correct about initiation, how can we tell if the choice (mental cause) results (simultaneity being granted) in a correlated brain state or the other way around? We cannot tell based on any physical measurement. Physicalists would say there is no reason not to suppose that the physical is logically (if not temporally) prior. But if Rescher is correct, what then of the mechanism problem?

With regard to mechanism, many speculations seem to orbit about some interaction at the quantum level. The a temporal nature of initiation coupled with a lack of conserved quantity transfer and so lack of reciprocity, are suggestive of quantum entanglement where, on some views (see Ruth Kastner “Understanding our Unseen Reality” [2015]), the same qualities (or lack of them) characterize quantum phenomena. Since we cannot measure quantum phenomena directly, as far as we know, prior to some manifestation in the macro world (the exchange of a conserved quantity) the same qualities as characterize “mental cause” (initiation) might characterize “quantum cause”. The most detailed speculation with regard to mind might be Henry Stapp’s (“Quantum Theory and Free Will [2017]) Quantum Zeno Effect (QZE), mind’s ability to hold or otherwise modify subtle quantum indeterminacy within the anatomical and physiological processes of the brain. True, even QZE does not say exactly how this power of the mental connects up to the physical, but in this case, neither side of the transaction can be directly measured and there are reasons to believe (see the aforementioned Kastner book) that quantum phenomena are also initiations in Rescher’s sense.

WHAT IS MENTAL CAUSE

Above I have looked at mental cause from the physical side. What does it look like from the mental side? Some philosophers have characterized mental cause in terms of beliefs or desires. But beliefs and desires are not mental causes in Aristotle’s efficient sense. They are Aristotelian “final causes” and clearly mental, but not our issue here.  Being a reason is of course mental, but not all of what is mental is also causal. I might want to get warm (my reason for lighting a fire) but not move a muscle to do anything about it. The quintessential efficient mental cause is a volitional act, an exercise of will on the part of a minded agent. In our experience, only mind, the subjective consciousness of an individual, has this ability to act volitionally, for a purpose, and not either indeterminate or determined by prior physics.

Purposeful cause is mental and only mental, and it is causal, that is itself determining of subsequent physics, for example my throwing a rock. As much as I disagree with Schopenhauer, I do believe he was correct in locating will and representation at the core of phenomenal experience, or as we would put these in more modern terms, intention and qualia. Mental cause, in particular our capacity to control intent and by extension a body, is an intrinsic component of our “what is it like to be…” experience.

Qualia are the mental effects of physical (brains) causes (an over simplification but for purposes of this essay I leave it at that, see “From What Comes Mind”). Intention is a mental cause (initiation) of a physical effect. Throwing a rock begins with an intention, but this is also true for subjective states that exhibit no gross physical effects. Suppose on a nature walk you come upon a beautiful flower. You attend to it, visually, perhaps also aromatically at the same time. Suddenly you become aware of a buzzing sound from behind or above your head somewhere. You cannot see what is causing the sound, but without moving your gaze from the flower you have become aware of it. Becoming aware is clearly a mental event which in this case may be comfortably attributed to prior physics (brain states, bearing in mind Rescher’s initiation can work in both directions). Only subsequently do we volitionally attend to the sound, perhaps to identify it. The volitional element entails agent purposeful-direction and so mental cause even if no muscle has moved.

Under normal circumstances, when we are conscious, we are never without both qualia and intention about something. Is it possible one can be conscious without intention, qualia, or both? Advanced Buddhist monks, masters at meditation, claim to achieve the first, but even this being so, they maintain this special state only while meditating. Sensory deprivation might suggest the possibility of a qualia-free consciousness, but people report made-up qualia, images and sounds brains generate (and to which we attend as we do in a dream state) in the absence of external stimulation. Perhaps we cannot be conscious in the absence of qualia.

MENTAL CAUSE AND FREE WILL

Mental cause is necessary but not sufficient for free will. In addition, free will demands agency, a subject whose will it is. An exercise of free willed choice is a volitional act of an agent. It is not either prior-determined, though often influenced, by physics, nor random. It is mental cause directed by agent-purposeful volition, itself quintessentially mental and unique to minded-agency in the universe. To get free will, mental cause must be real, and also subjective agency. The action of the body-agent of a physical event (throwing the rock) is willful only by extension from the [presumptive] mental-agent who is the initiator of that act. A body can sometimes act in the absence of agent consciousness. Such acts are not willful, and typically we do not claim that they are.

The connection between intention (willfulness) and subjective agency is built-in to human language. To speak of intention always implies subjective agency. So free will and mental cause are doubly linked. Free will rests on mental cause, but if free will is not real, there is nothing interesting left for mental cause to do. It is possible there are, for example, subconscious mental causes of which we are not aware (conscious of) and so not willed as such. But if in fact free will (not to mention agency as such) can be subsumed by brain states, there is no reason why subconscious mental cause could not be also.

An exercise of will (volition) by an agent is the quintessential “mental cause”. If free will is an illusion it is hard to understand the point of working to save mental cause. If all of our choices, our behaviors (including purely subjective sorts like “attending to”), are prior-determined by our brains what is left for mental cause to do? When Sean Carroll denies the possibility of free will because “If free will were real it would mean that mind causes physics” (The Big Picture [2016]) he is aiming, really, at mental cause. Free will goes along for the ride because it is the volitional exercise of the causal potential of mind that matters.

Agent volition then, and not beliefs or desires, is the epitome of mental cause. But if volition itself is prior-determined by brain states, and not a non-material (mental) agent, then there is no point to mental cause, the brain can do it all. In turn, mental cause, apart from the free will issue, is usually defended (or challenged) with reference to free will. The possibility of free will is grounded on the reality of mental cause and in addition the reality of the volitional agent able to utilize it. Both of these, in turn, rest on the reality of mind with the “power to cause physics”.

Book Review: The Universe in a Single Atom

Picture of me blowing smoke

We’ve all heard of or noticed it… The solar system: a sun and planets, mostly empty space. The atom: a nucleus and electrons, mostly empty space. As above, so below! The analogies are in-exact, but they still serve to illustrate that the stuff of the universe is mostly empty. That part is true unless you count fields. Fields aren’t made of atoms but they do pervade empty space. In this book there isn’t much discussion of fields, though they are mentioned. Mostly the book is about consciousness, but I’m going to focus on the metaphysics of Buddhism as the Dalai Lama summarizes it because as must be the case it grounds the Buddhist view of consciousness, identity, and has implications for the matter of free will.

It all begins with that emptiness. It is worth quoting some key passages here because they hold in their language the key to their truth and error.

“At its [the theory of emptiness] heart is the deep recognition that there is a fundamental disparity between the way we perceive the world, including our own existence in it, and the way things actually are. In our day-to-day experience, we tend to relate to the world and to ourselves as if these entities possess self-enclosed, definable, discrete, and enduring reality. … The philosophy of emptiness reveals that this is not only a fundamental error, but also the basis for attachment, clinging, and the development of our numerous prejudices.”

“All things and events, whether material, mental, or even abstract concepts like time, are devoid of objective, independent existence. To possess such independent, intrinsic existence would imply that things and events are somehow complete unto themselves and are therefore entirely self-contained. This would mean that nothing has the capacity to interact with and exert influence on other phenomena.”

“Effectively, the notion of intrinsic, independent existence is incompatible with causation. … Things and events are ’empty’ in that they do not possess any immutable essence, intrinsic reality, or absolute ‘being’ that affords independence.”

“In our naive or commonsense view of the world, we relate to things and events as if they possess and enduring intrinsic reality. We tend to believe that the world is composed of things and events, each of which has a discrete, independent reality of its own, and it is these things with discrete identities and independence that interact with one another.”

Is his eminence correct about our ordinary, commonsense way of seeing things? I do think my automobile is a discrete particular I can positively identify in part because it endures through time. But those existence (enduring through time) and identity (my car, is a different particular from your car) criteria exist only because a mind (mine or yours) abstracts them from the concrete reality of the object. Independence here (in both the commonsense and philosophical view) implies only independence of a particular from mind. The object exists and has certain characteristics that I can name, but I do not create them. Nor, however does it imply that there endurance is any more than temporary, for a time, and that one day they will cease to exist.

Obviously automobiles can interact with the world causally. Certain of their properties, mass for example, have causal implications. If all the Dalai Lama is saying here is that no object, no event, is permanent, eternal, then this is but a trivial truth. It seems to his eminence that “independent existence” entails changelessness, not merely “mind independence”. Of course he is right that material object or event is eternal, but that does not mean it lacks all independent existence if only “for a time”. The object is not empty, even though it is temporary.

I do not agree with a lot of what Graham Harman believes, but he does handle this issue well. In summary:

1. Everything (material things, events, thoughts, intrinsic and extrinsic relations, etc) is an object.
2. Every object has both an essence and dispositional properties. The dispositional properties can be enumerated and quantified, the essential properties never entirely known.
3. Even given #2, objects and their essences are temporary. They come into existence at a time and go out at another time.
4. It is through their dispositional properties, not essences, that objects interact causally and relationally.

Harman claims to be a realist albeit from a continental background. While he need not represent here the majority opinion in modern philosophy he is comfortable with objects having an essence which does not participate in events (causally or otherwise) and at the same time dispositional properties that do. I suppose what makes this possible is temporal dependence, something the Dalai Lama denies is possible for essences. Because no eternal object exists (East and West [mostly] agree), they cannot (in the Lama’s view) therefore have essences. In the Western view (if one holds there are essences), this object, essence and all, had a beginning and will have an end. Putting this another way, the one physical phenomenon to which essences relate, or in which essences participate, is time!

Another quote is telling: “By according intrinsic properties of attractiveness, we react to certain objects and events with deluded attachment, while toward others, to which we accord intrinsic properties of unattractiveness, we react with deluded aversion.”

If there is one thing all modern western philosophy has in common it is the assumption that there is such a thing as “mind-independent reality”. The debate in Western terms is over what can be said or known about the mind-independent world, not its existence. To a realist, real objects (whose dispositional properties are discoverable by mind) exist and have all their properties, essential or otherwise, prior to and independent of their apperception by any individual mind, human or animal. Not all objects are like this of course. Thought-objects (Harman a big fan) of course do not, but even some material objects. A particular automobile, once built and prior to its someday destruction, is mind-independent now, but its origin in the past, its coming into existence as a mind-independent object, cannot have been possible without some mind’s intervention in the causal stream.

Who today, in the Western tradition, would say that attractiveness was an intrinsic property? It is in the Western sense, a relational property between some (possibly) presently-mind-independent object’s dispositional properties and some mind! One of the insights of modern science is that the mechanisms of the mind-independent universe (essences or not) are teleology-free (see “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”)! Attractiveness, by contrast, is implicitly teleological. It is attractiveness for the purposes of some mind whether for some pleasure, survival, or merely aesthetic appreciation.

In the Dalai Lama’s view, the ground of all reality is empty of all properties. At this ground, there is no distinction to be made between mind-dependent and mind-independent reality. All are equally empty. His eminence takes this to be a fundamental truth. So when we get to what amounts to an illusion of a differentiated world he does not, other than superficially (from within the illusion) distinguish between mind-dependence and mind-independence, emptiness all!

There is yet another problem. The emptiness doctrine might be incoherent. If the fundamental ground of everything including space and time is emptiness where does all this illusory stuff come from? That is to say where does anything that can have illusions come from? Emptiness at least implies quiescence. Not only must it be free of any real, mind-independent, stuff, it is free also of any process. Nothing happens! How is it that anything comes to be at all?

How does the emptiness doctrine impact the matter of free-will? If the differentiation of everything is an illusion, then that we (an illusion) have an effective will must also be illusion. One of the great differences between Hinduism, and especially Buddhism, as compared to Judeo-Christianity and Islam is that the former religions aim at being a “vessel of the divine”. The personal goal of those religions is to realize the emptiness of all that is. The net result is quiescence, merging with emptiness as a drop of water merges with the ocean. Will, among our illusions, has nothing therefore to do. In fact doing anything, willing anything is counterproductive, and precisely what leads to desire and misery. It isn’t that God wants us to do nothing, it is that like everything else God is empty. Technically speaking there is no “divine” only the empty ground of all that is.

Western religions, by contrast are religions of action. God and the universe are not nothing. They have positive existence. The goal of these religions is to bring what God wants (ultimately for us to love one another) to fruition and this takes place only when we freely will (of our own volition) and so act (or attempt to act) to bring that state about now and in the future. If free will does not exist (not because all is empty but because only brain-states have any causal efficacy) obviously this would be impossible; impossible that is to “freely choose” to do God’s will.

If a transcendent God of a sort envisioned by Western religions exists (this is not to say the real God would in all qualities be what is said of him in Western holy books see “Prolegomena to a Future Theology” for a less conflicted portrait) not only must free will be real, it must be the linchpin of the process for getting from the present to the future God intends (see “Why Free Will?”). But why would an omnipotent transcendent God set things up this way? Why not just make the universe the way he intends it to be from the beginning? The answer can be inferred from our sensitivity to values (see “What are Truth, Beauty, and Goodness?”) free will itself. What God intends must be that universe resulting from the mass-exercise of value-sensitive minds freely electing to instantiate (literally “make instances of”) the values.

If the Dalai Lama’s metaphysics of emptiness was true, and everyone on Earth achieved union with it, human history would end; everyone would starve to death! By contrast if the transcendent God exists, and everyone freely chooses, to the best of their evolving capacities, to do his will (the collective instantiation of truth, beauty, and goodness being love) the life of every individual on the world would be paradisaical! Because we (who are not illusions in this view) are partnering with God, freely choosing his way rather than what might be our own, the universe ends up better (apparently) than what God could have done by himself because all value-discriminating wills in the universe are freely on board!

The Universe in a Single Atom by the Dalai Lama 2005

Who can critique the Dalai Lama? He is a smart, wise, man with a curiosity about pure science, and a pragmatic streak about technological applications. Should they benefit mankind, alleviate suffering, they are good. The Dalai Lama seems to have wanted to write this book thanks to a life-long fascination with science coupled with insights of his years of Buddhist training. He tells us as a boy growing up he had no training in western science whatsoever, but he was fascinated with a few (first-half 20th century) examples of western technology belonging to his predecessor. As a young man, once vested in his office, he availed himself of a new-found access to many of the world’s greatest minds, philosophers, scientists, artists, and so on. He has gone on talking and learning from great minds ever since.

After this introduction, the book looks at the physical (cosmology, quantum mechanics, relativity) and then life sciences. I was hoping he would not get into a “Buddhism discovered it first” argument, and mostly he does not. He comes close on the subject of quantum mechanics but I think mostly because at the time, the people from whom he learned it still took seriously the idea that individual human minds (for example that of a researcher) could be responsible for wave-function collapse. If this were true (the idea has long been put to rest as concerns individual minds) the tie-in with the Buddhist mind-first world-view and deep exploration of that first-person (consciousness) world would indeed be strong.

Even within quantum mechanics his eminence is sensitive to the great gulf between the western scientific paradigm and the focus of Buddhism. He well illustrates these differences while pointing out to scientists that much of what they take to be the “structure of reality” is a metaphysical assumption. It does not follow necessarily from scientific methodology which so well illuminates structure as concerns the physical world.

But this same methodology can say very little about consciousness. It is with consciousness that he spends much of the book examining the views of modern brain-science and how they might relate to Buddhist discoveries. The views of these different worlds stem as much from the purposes of their separate investigations as the technique; empirical 3rd-party evaluation versus highly-trained rigorous introspection. Becoming a master monk takes as many years as obtaining a PhD in physics (more in fact), but he mis-uses the term ’empirical’ here. What the monk does and what the monk learns in the doing should not be dismissed by western science, but it is still subjective and for that reason not empirical. He advocates for joint research. Neuro-scientists together with trained monks, he thinks, might help unlock some of the mind’s mysteries. He also is aware that not all mysteries are unlock-able!

In the book’s penultimate chapter he uses the then-new technology of genetic manipulation to plead with the scientific community to take it slow. He wants us all to be asking the right questions concerning the long term affects of the possibilities on our humanity. Here the contribution of Buddhism is the importance of compassion, of constant awareness of the mission to alleviate suffering. He is very good at identifying frightening possibilities in the technology and lists them. At the same time, aspects of the field, the need to produce more food, provided it isn’t motivated purely by financial gain, can be good. In his last chapter, his eminence returns to the same subject, a cooperation between science and Buddhism’s focus on bettering the human estate, not only physically or biologically, but socially, psychologically, and spiritually.

The book is full of interesting philosophical implications I will perhaps explore on my blog. These have more to do with physics, cosmology, and what western philosophy calls metaphysics than with consciousness which Buddhism takes more or less for granted. The idea that the stuff of the universe is fundamentally phenomenal suffuses all schools of Buddhism, while in the West the idea, while not unknown, is viewed with great suspicion. Where consciousness is concerned, his emphasis falls on intentionality, our capacity to direct our attention, but he never mentions free will. Like consciousness itself, perhaps Buddhism takes free will for granted.

What are Truth, Beauty, and Goodness?

In many essays of this blog I discuss what philosophers in prior centuries called values:  truth, beauty, and goodness, distinguishing them from facts. I have to sketch these over and over because my approach to a philosophy of mind, in particular any discussion of what distinguishes human from animal mind has to bring up the values. It is the ability to distinguish the values, that is to grasp that truth, beauty, and goodness exist and are discernible, that separates human from animal mind. This essay focuses on the values as such.

Is goodness (or beauty or truth) objective or subjective and relative? This is a question that has vexed philosophers for more than two thousand years. The answer, grounded in my theology (see “Prolegomena to a Future Theology”) is that it is both. It is the point of this essay to show why and how that is the case. What the values are falls out of my theology as does the distinction (made by almost no one in the philosophical community) between what values are and what has them. Goodness is a value. Justice (to take an example I will use below) is usually taken to “be good”. Justice is good (if indeed it is) because it has, embodies, or is an instance of goodness. This distinction holds for all three values. A sunset has beauty, and a proposition like 2+2=4 has truth. In the English language we normally say that justice is good, sunsets are beautiful, and propositions are true. It is this construction that blurs the distinction presented just above just as, pointing at a lit lamp and saying “that is light”, would blur the distinction between light and what is lit.

In the Prolegomena (linked above) I note that from a rational first-principle theism we infer there are three fundamental joints in reality: Matter-energy, mind, and spirit. Matter-energy is the familiar stuff of the material universe, including time. Mind refers not to individual human (or animal) mind, but the phenomenon of mind in the universe. To our experience of course mind manifests individually (see “From What Comes Mind?”). The reason mind so well represents the material world is that mind and the material world both originate in spirit. The point of mind is to represent matter-energy (in the human, biological case, on middle scales) to a subject. The subject is yet another matter I will not much deal with here. See “Why Personality”.

Human mind can, and animal mind cannot, sense something of antecedent spirit-reality, a thin something that is, in effect an inkling of “the character of God” or more precisely qualities of God’s character. Values, their reality, not what exhibits them, are that of which we are aware, by means of mind, is spirit. It is the only such awareness (of spirit) we have. Mind represents the material world to a creature having an individualized subjectivity. The phenomenon that catalyzes a brain’s evocation of a subjectivity is the same everywhere. The quality of spirit that humans can sense and further discriminate in their mental arena is present (everywhere) in the field I have called (again see above linked “From What Comes Mind?”) Cosmic Mind. The lion, or the dog, or the ape, simply do not notice it, do not detect it as a distinguishable facet of consciousness. Animal mind is not up to the task. Being “up to the task” is the identity criterion for human mind.

Values are the unified quality of God’s character refracted into the three primary joints: beauty into the material world, truth into mind as such, and goodness into the intentions (and intentional behavior) of persons (personality being the only spirit-component of our otherwise blended identity — see “Why Personality”). They also happen to be the root concepts of three major branches in philosophy,  aesthetics, epistemology, and ethics respectively.

Beauty is something we experience in sensory qualia and they, in turn are our window on the mind-independent material world. We find truth by mind in mind. To philosophers it is a property of propositions. Propositions are abstractions, mental phenomena, that either do or do not conform to the structure of the world as a whole, spiritual, mental, and material. There is a “fact of the matter” about the relation between General Relativity and quantum mechanics, and about the existence (or nonexistence) of God. Like beauty, truth is not about what is true or which abstractions have more truth, but rather the conviction that there is a consistent way the world is.

Goodness is about the intentions, and subsequently behaviors, of persons. Again it is not about what purposes are good, or how much goodness they have, but that it is possible to align (more or less) our individual purposes with God’s. Goodness is the most difficult value to grasp intellectually because it is the value refracted through reality’s “spirit joint”. Of matter we know much, of mind we have immediate experience, but of spirit we have only the mind-discriminated values themselves and personality which we cannot find (see “Why Personality”).

At the same time goodness is the value with which we most often engage. Persons, by extension their behavior, have (or do not have) goodness, but this is also the case with social institutions which are impersonal, but created by persons. Unlike the other values we project goodness strictly outside (though of course it remains related) its domain, the person. In doing this we invent new words for it, for example ‘justice’, fairness, or fitness. But in each case, though we speak of impersonal institutions, we refer to the doings, present or historical, of people.

There is something to note about the values taken together. As God is unified, the values, while refracted to human apprehension in reality’s three primary joints, must also be unified. Each must be consistent with the quality of the others. Beauty must be both true and beautiful, goodness beautiful and true, and truth beautiful and good. This interrelation between the values, recognized in classical treatments of them, has sometimes been identified with ‘love’ (Christian Agape) and is consistent with the view that they are what we apprehend as qualities of “God’s character”.

Our thin sense of these qualities is only a hazy pointer. It is not a reliable arbiter of what about particulars in the world (human art, propositions, or acts of persons) has these qualities or more exactly to what degree they have them. Values are apprehended in mind, but we recognize they belong to broad categories in the physical (a sunset), mental (a proposition) or personal (some exhibition of human intention) world. Subjective interaction with the world is always perspectival, it has a viewpoint. Perspective is unique to every human being who’s history, not to mention a unique physical ground (the brain) of the mental, ensures that uniqueness.

Each of our individual, already unique by different brains, perspectives color our general value awareness. There is room in the human perspectival range for both broad agreement and much disagreement about what is true, beautiful, or good. Suppose we face a palette of colors and must classify each into one of only three groups, red, yellow, and blue. We might agree about many of the various shades, but when it comes to an orange, I might say it belongs more to the red and you to the yellow. It is because of this colorization effect that we can have different views of say the value content of a sunset (or work of art), proposition, individual act or social policy; whether, for example a particular human action or policy enforced by law, is just.

There is another phenomenon that, to human mind, relativizes the values, time itself. Time, of course, is an ingredient in our own individual perspectives, but it is also a part of the social perspective we share as a culture. We are conditioned not only as individuals but also as a culture. Almost all humans agree there is often beauty in sunsets, but art is a different matter. The people of 17th century Europe expressed a wide variety of views on what makes up beauty in art. Faced with 19th century impressionistic art they might have had the capacity to extend their view of beauty-in-art to include it. But show any one of them a painting by Picasso or Pollack and few would find any beauty in them as many do today. What has happened here? The capacity of present-day individuals (some of them) to respond to beauty in a wider variety of art forms results from broadening this capacity within the evolving culture. The same holds for truth. There was “more truth” in Newton’s theory of gravity than what came before him, but still more in Einstein’s General Relativity.

For another example lets look at justice, not retributive justice but social justice. We take for granted nowadays that universal (in adults) and equal suffrage with regard to selecting political representatives is good because it is just. Justice, in other words, has goodness. But even in the Earth’s best models for the social evolution of universal suffrage (England and the United States) achieved today’s notion of what is just over several (in England’s case many) generations. At each stage of the evolution, the people who lived in those stages thought of them as just compared with prior stages. The situation in the late 18th Century and early 19th when only adult male property owners had an acknowledged political voice was “more just” than the prior condition when only aristocrats had a say, and that in turn more just than when kings alone made all the rules. Fifty or so years later when all adult males could vote there was yet more justice, more goodness (or at least we think so today), in the arrangement and so on.

Political inclusiveness was just, had goodness, in 1800, 1900, and today when all adults can vote. This is possible because cultural relativity conditioned what was just for that time. What was just in 1800 was good in the same way as it is today, yet what framed its just-ness varied from one age to the next. Philosophy’s inability to reconcile the relativity of value as we find it in the world with its seeming objectivity, the nagging suspicion that it is not, at least, purely relative stems from the philosophical failure to distinguish between what the values are and what has, embodies, or instantiates them in the world. This failure in turn results from philosophy’s rejection of God who would be the only possible source of the values as we know them (truth, beauty, goodness) that could ground their existence independently of minds which discover them.

Unlike the qualia set up by physical senses, values are found in human mind as such. No physical pathway connects an “outside source” of value to its discrimination in mind. Because of this it seems plausible to suppose (most philosophers do suppose) that we just invent the values in the sense that they spring into consciousness out of the froth of mind; they are epiphenomena! Humans all recognize them (some more than others) because human mind-froth is, after all, similar from one brain to the next. While this theory does account for different qualities-of-discrimination in different minds (brains differ), it does not account for some of their objective-like qualities.

Beauty seems to be in or of the sunset. 2+2=4 seems to be mind-independently true, while one can argue that slavery is unjust always even if there was a time when it was a compassionate alternative to murder. In our experience, mind-froth produces many mental states: epiphanies, novel idea combinations, fantasies, and so on that we do not take to be mind-independently real. The values are different in this way. Their mind-independence, unlike fantasies, is controversial. This alone suggests that something different may be going on. Cosmic Mind explains both how it is values are mind-independently real, qualities of God’s character, while present only, and differently felt (brains differ), in human mind.

While not epiphenomena, values themselves, like ideas or qualia, are not causal. Values can however, like the others, be reasons for intentions. Indeed if God exists and the physical universe, consciousness, and the interaction between the two is purposeful, the values must be a linchpin of that purpose. See “Why Free Will” for a further elaboration on this point.

Review: Philosophy of Mind by Edward Feser 2006

One would expect a book on this broad subject to leave some dangling issues. Dr. Feser’s sympathies clearly lay with Aristotelian dualism, even theism. He begins with a nuanced statement of Cartesian Substance Dualism. His aim is to explicate the logical strength of substance dualism, aware also of its primary weakness (the “interaction problem”) and then ask if the various alternatives to it, particularly those promulgated by materialist philosophers of the 20th and 21st centuries, are coherent in their own right and if so, successfully defeat dualism’s logic.

As noted in the review (reproduced below with a link to the book on Amazon) Feser spends the bulk of the book on this latter task. He demonstrates that none of the suggested alternatives actually work. Some (eliminativism of two kinds and epiphenominalism) are incoherent, while others (functionalism, behaviorism, and many others) fail to capture the substance of subjective first person experience, in effect explaining it away. Most of these critiques focus on epistemological issues, but some also run into metaphysical issues, indeed the same “interaction problem” faced by Cartesian dualism (see also “From What Comes Mind” and “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”).

Having demolished the contenders, Feser asks if there is something else, a different sort of dualism that might work and yet not require or point to theism? His solution is Aristotelian Hylomorphic dualism. Alas, as noted in the review, here he fails but doesn’t seem to notice it. Either the form emerges from the facts of the assemblage that is the brain, or it is added intentionally from the outside. Hylomorphism either collapses into reductive (or supervenient) materialism, or it leads back to something that must stand in the place of, if not be, God. Feser leaves this matter dangling.

Other issues dangle. Feser cites many authors I’ve read, among them David Chalmers, but as I read Feser, he seems to misunderstand Chalmers’ “property dualism”, more or less equating it with epiphenomenalism,  the idea that our mental arena is merely an accidental by-product of brain function with absolutely no causal consequence. It is precisely the point of Chalmers’ property dualism that it does have causal consequence and so is not epiphenomenal but rather a radical emergence.

From the physics of brains alone emerges what amounts to a substance with novel properties, the upward property of subjective experience itself, and a downward causal power, subjective will, on that same physics. Chalmers, being bothered by the radical character of the emergent subjectivity, speculates on panpsychism or various types of monisms that might be embedded in physics and so support such an emergence (see above linked “Fantasy Physics…” essay for details). These various ideas for sources of the phenomenal in a hidden property of the physical are quasi-material in Feser’s taxonomy.

Another matter of interest to me is Feser’s characterization of substance dualism. His sketch is more nuanced than that usually given by his materialist peers but there are other possibilities that yet remain broadly Cartesian. For example, a property dualism supported by the presence of a spacetime field that is not physical but also not phenomenal (or proto-phenomenal).

The field need not be mind as such. It need have no phenomenal/proto-phenomenal properties of its own. Viewed from the material, mind is a radical emergence (upward) and has, as a result of its novel properties, also downward causal qualities. Its appearance, however, its form and nature, is the result of an interaction with this everywhere present (and yes, mysterious) field and not equally mysterious undetectable properties embedded in physics. For a detailed explication of this model see my “From What Comes Mind?”

Of course an “interaction problem” comes immediately forward. This hypothetical field is, after all non-material. But this interaction issue is the same faced by property dualism generally along with panpsychism, and Russelian or dual-aspect monism. All of these theories propose proto-phenomenal properties embedded in micro physics or the universe as a whole, but none ever say how exactly to identify the proto-phenomenal, in what exactly its properties consist. Nor do they speculate on their origin, and how they interact with the physical we know; how exactly they perform their teleological function driving the physical towards [genuinely] phenomenal expression.

Feser notes that materialist philosophers always cite “Occam’s Razor” as reason for rejecting theism and so any sort of substance dualism. He should somewhere have noted Occam’s Razor is supposed to apply to two or more theories that equally explain all the data! Theism answers two of the questions left dangling by quasi-materialisms. It explains why it is we find the phenomenal, any phenomenal proto or otherwise, only in association with brains. It has also an origin story in theistic intentionality, the phenomenon we find at the core of the recognizably phenomenal, our phenomenal, itself!

Quasi-materialisms deny intention in the proto-phenomenal leaving the transition to intention in brains hooked (metaphysically) on nothing. None of this, not the postulation of a field or the proto-phenomenal explains how exactly interaction occurs. The problem with theism isn’t merely the interaction (about which at least “God knows the trick”) equally suffered by all the non-eliminative materialisms. The problem is the postulation of an intentional source of the field supporting intentionality as we experience it. Yes this is a big pill to swallow, but without it we can say nothing about how any of this works anyway. Rejecting the possibility of theism leaves behind more mysteries than it resolves.

Surely suggesting that there is an intentional (minded) source of intentional, subjective mind begs the question. Of course it does! It remains, however, a coherent, possibility! God can not only be conceived, his necessary qualities can be specified to considerable detail (see my “Prolegomena to a Future Theology”). It isn’t clear that the proto-phenomenal can be conceived, and even if we allow its conceivability there seems to be nothing that can be said at all about any  of its qualities.

I said at the end of the book review I would say something about free will. Feser does not mention it. Free will is related to intentionality. The ability to direct our attention purposefully is the core of the matter and some (Schopenhauer) would say it, is the essence of the conscious self! “Mental causation” or in Rescher’s terms initiation is, when not subconscious, agent-directed. We experience our agency as will (and this why the ‘free’ in ‘free will’ is redundant’ see “All Will is Free”). Will’s  relation to “philosophy of mind” should be obvious. We experience our volitional agency in mind, and like qualia and intention, the nature of volitional agency is mysterious, doubly so because it is a mystery on top of a mystery!

I have said much about free will and its associated agency elsewhere in the blog. On the negative side (the absurdity of denying it) see “Arguing with Automatons”, and “The Nonsensical Notion of Compatibilism”. On the positive side, “Why Free Will”, “Why Personality”, and “The Mistake in Theological Fatalism”.

The two best books on the subject are “Free Will: A Philosophical Reappraisal” by Nicholas Rescher and E. J. Lowe’s “Personal Agency”. My own books, “Why this Universe” and “God, Causal Closure, and Free Will” both address the subject.

 

Philosophy of Mind by Edward Feser (2006)

I picked up Feser’s “Philosophy of Mind”, a book in an introductory series, for the sake of little else to read at the time, but I’m glad I did. It is, perhaps the best basic-evaluation of this subject (one of my specialty areas) I have ever read. It doesn’t merely introduce and review the subject. It makes an argument, a point about the present philosophical state-of-the art on the nature of mind, and does it very well.

Feser begins by introducing the subject and settles on representative-realism (the external world is real more or less as we experience it, but what we experience as subjects is nevertheless a representation of it) as the fundamental datum which a philosophy of mind must account. He then moves to examine the various proposals put forth by modern philosophers, some with their roots back in classical Greek times. He begins with Cartesian (substance) Dualism, a rather more sophisticated treatment than is usually accorded by modern philosophy. He shows us that substance dualism rests on more solid logical foundations than is usually acknowledged even if it smacks of being unscientific thanks to its infamous “interaction problem”.

From that point Feser looks at what has been offered as alternatives to Dualism, various materialisms (eliminative, functionalism, behaviorism, pure epiphenomenalism, causalism, reduction and supervenience) and quasi-materialisms (panpsychism, Russelian-monism, property dualism). All of this treatment constitutes the bulk of the book and as he covers each solution there emerges the best taxonomy of philosophies-of-mind I have yet seen. The modern emphasis on qualia is explored thoroughly but he argues that intentionality, even given the representational realism with which he begins, is more important, more central to mind and consciousness, than qualia.

In doing all of this Feser drives home the point that none of the alternatives is without serious metaphysical or epistemological problems. All of the quasi-materialisms, in fact, come up against the same interaction problem as substance dualism, and the others are either incoherent (two sorts of eliminativism), or simply do not get at two core problems: why do we experience anything at all and why does the subject that appears throughout all experience seem so obviously causally potent?

In the last chapter Feser asks if there is anything else that does address the core issue without having to invoke what ultimately comes down to God? His answer is Aristotle’s “Hylomorphic Dualism” (also championed by Thomas Aquinas though his variation relies directly on God). To explain consciousness, to get at its core and resolve the ever-present interaction problem, Feser says all we have to do is reject the contemporary physicalist insistence that material and efficient causes (two of Aristotle’s four leaving out formal and final cause) exhaust causality in the universe. This would be, to say the least, a big pill for 21st Century science, and most of philosophy, to swallow.

Further while Hylomorphic dualism might deal nicely with the epistemological issues Feser everywhere touches, it does no better than the quasi-materialisms concerning the metaphysical. Either the form of the human mind springs entirely from the arrangement and dynamics of physical particles, in which case we are back to reductive or supervenient materialism, or it does not. But if it does not, where does it come from? That physics cannot detect any teleology in the physical universe does not mean it isn’t there. It does mean that it has to come from somewhere other than physics and be prior to individual human minds. We are on the way back to God.

There is also a notable absence. Feser never mentions free will. A discussion might be beyond Feser’s scope in this book, but I’m surprised he did not at least note its obvious relation to intentionality. I will cover this and other implications in a blog commentary.

From What Comes Mind?

This essay is about mind in general, consciousness, the “what is it like to be…” experience. What follows applies to human and animal mind. I include a note at the end about animal mind in particular. My focus is on consciousness as such, why it exists at all and why does it have the form it has. This will not be so much about the contents of conscious phenomenal gestalt, qualia, intentionality, beliefs, memories, and so on.

Many of the essays on the blog impinge on philosophy of mind. Although the assertions, analogies, and connections to philosophy here are mine, they rest broadly on the theory of mind presented by The Urantia Book. It is after all with mind that we experience the mind-represented sensory world, assert propositions, make intentional choices, sense values, and experience our agency.

The Urantia Book’s philosophy of mind is theistic and dualistic, but not in the way of Cartesian or for that matter Thomistic dualism. It does have elements of each of these (although the Thomism is about personality not mind as such) but also shares much with “property dualism” of the sort championed by David Chalmers (The Conscious Mind [1996] and The Character of Consciousness [2010]). The purpose of this essay is to present the theory and note certain relations to philosophies of mind common among present-day philosophers. The theological basis of this theory is to be found here. I begin therefore with property dualism.

Chalmers is at base a materialist. There cannot be any super-natural power in his theory, but there is nevertheless a supra-natural effect. In his view, minds emerge from nothing above and beyond physical brains. No intentional power adds mind to brains, but the emergent mind does, nevertheless, have real powers and potentials that are nowhere present in brains simplicter antecedent to mind’s emergence. These qualities include the form of our subjective arena, its qualia and the ever present awareness of our intentional agency, our will, its power of downward causation.

This is a new type of cause in the universe perhaps best described by Nicholas Rescher in “Free Will: A Philosophical Reappraisal”. Rescher advocates for far more freedom in our intentions and acts than many other advocates of free will (see Richard Swinburne’s “Mind, Brain and Free Will” for a much narrower view). His argument for the unique quality of mental-cause is that it is timeless; he calls it initiation rather than cause, it being simultaneous with its effect. This comes out to the impossibility of ever identifying a “mental cause” independent of a brain-state correlate! There is more on Rescher’s view here.

What manifests in mind (pace Aristotle) are final and formal causes where before mind there were but material and efficient causes. We experience, directly and only in the first person, the causal efficacy of our agent-purposeful-volition. The combination qualia (emergence upward), and agent-intention (downward causation) has been called a “radical emergence” to distinguish it from the more ordinary emergence that produces, from physics, only physical if novel properties. As far as we know the only such phenomenon in the universe, the only radical emergence there has ever been, is mind (see note on emergence at end)!

Chalmers’ must ask: how can this possibly work? Cartesian dualism after all is universally challenged based on a single irresolvable issue, the matter of how a non-material substantive entity interacts with a material brain. Property dualism faces the identical problem. How exactly does physics, without a built in phenomenalism, produce a non-material phenomenalism, and how then does that turn around and become a literal cause, effectively directing (however minimally) the physics of the brain? Chalmers’ answer, and the answer, in variations, of many contemporary philosophers of mind, is that physics is not without built-in phenomenalism (or proto-phenomenalism).

Both panpsychism and various sorts of monisms posit the existence in (the monisms) or the emergence of phenomenal (or proto-phenomenal) qualities from physics (cosmology for panpsychism) alone. These qualities are forever undetectable by physics but are, nevertheless, built-in to physics! There spring immediately to mind two further questions: where exactly, or how, do these phenomenal/proto-phenomenal qualities inhere in physics, and what precisely is phenomenal about them?

To the first question, none has any answer. They could, of course, say “God put it there” but the whole point of the exercise is to find a solution without postulating a minded being having such powers. But if we rule out a minded source we are left at best with a supposedly mindless source of mind. We have done nothing but push the interaction issue to another part of the rug.

The second question is equally vexing. No one wants to say that the fundamental constituents of matter (atoms, quarks, the quantum field, the monists) or the universe taken as a whole (panpsychists) are conscious or minded. The claim is that the phenomenal builds itself up as the basic building blocks (atoms or galaxies) themselves are built up. But they nevertheless insist there is something inherent in these entities that is the real root of the consciousness we have. The problem is that when asked in what do hypothetical proto-phenomenal qualities consist, none can say, or even speculate. It seems that, short of mind as we know it, we cannot say in what the proto-phenomenal consists.

How does my view help? It does not explain the interaction mechanism. It does account for the reason the mechanism cannot be explained by mind of our type. It does, however, account for why we cannot give any account of that in which the proto-phenomenal might consist. We cannot give such an account because there need not be any proto-phenomenal qualities for which to account.

Starting with the property dualism, brains produce subjective-conscious-minds in a way analogous to a radio producing music (compression waves in air that we interpret as music or speech or whatever, but this detail has no bearing on the analogy). Destroy the radio or alter its function and the music disappears or becomes distorted. This is exactly what happens to mind when brain function is altered away from normal working limits; from distortions of consciousness to mind’s destruction. Real minds do not survive the destruction of brains any more than music survives destruction of the radio. From a common sense point of view, it is perhaps legitimate to view the radio as the real and perhaps sole source of the music.

But the radio does not produce music ex nihilo. Rather it interprets information present in a spacetime field in the radio’s vicinity. The radio is the “source of the music” in that it alone is responsible for the conversion, interpretation, or translation of information present in the field from its electromagnetic form ultimately to compression waves in air, an entirely different phenomenon! One way to look at it is to say brains are responsible for the conversion or interpretation of some spacetime pervading field into the form of our consciousness. More accurately, we should say that the field has the power to evoke consciousness from the doings of brains.

The field need not, by itself, have any phenomenal qualities at all. It need not itself be conscious or minded in any sense of those terms any more than the electromagnetic wave is music.  Electromagnetic information isn’t music until the radio makes it so, and the field isn’t phenomenal until the brain makes it so, or at least this is all we need to specify about it. The field is a constant throughout (as far as we know) the universe. Radical emergence is effected from the brain-field combination.

The field I have elsewhere called “Cosmic Mind” (see “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”). Perhaps this a poor terminological choice as I do not mean to imply the field is conscious or even phenomenal in some uncharacterizeable sense. It mght be proto-phenomenal, phenomenal, or even conscious, but none of these matter to the model. As far as human beings and human consciousness is concerned the only property the field has to have is a capacity to evoke our subjective experience from our brain-states. If it has other properties, or indeed even purposes, we have no way of knowing.

The field does, however, have to be substantive in some way, not necessarily matter-energy as we are capable of measuring it. Only a substance of some sort can interact with another substance, in this case having an effect, the emergence of consciousness, from a functioning brain.

Being non-material there aren’t any instruments on earth that can detect Cosmic Mind save one. A physics experiment signals a detection of some kind with some physical event whether triggering a photo-detector or perhaps just moving a needle. Brains are detectors of Cosmic Mind. The needle, the event that we experience, is consciousness itself, the product of the detection.

In another, perhaps simpler analogy, imagine some material object (a ball on a pedestal) in a dark room. The ball has certain physical properties (mass, shape, and importantly here it happens to be opaque). Now a point light-source is turned on in the room. The ball now throws a shadow. Nothing about the physical properties has changed. The light-source does not add the shadow to the ball, but the shadow emerges from the properties of the ball (shape and opacity). Turn the light off, the shadow goes away. Remove the ball in the presence of the light and the shadow also goes away. The ball is the sole determiner of the properties of the shadow, but only in the presence of the light!

Mind, in other words, springs from brains as Chalmers envisions it, and this is why it is properly a property dualism. Viewed from the material, it is a radical emergence (upward) and has, because of its novel properties, also downward casual qualities. Mind’s appearance, however, its form and nature, is the result of an interaction. The emergence of subjective consciousness from brains is enabled, effected, by Cosmic Mind. Consciousness is the music produced by brains in the (everywhere) presence of Cosmic Mind.

This model differs from Cartesian Dualism, because the substance of individual mind (its power to affect physics) is derivative!  Cosmic Mind (which need not be anything like “a mind” and is not by any means individual mind) and brains, one immaterial and one material, are the antecedent conjugates. Human (and animal, any mind associated with brains) mind is the result, what brains produce in the presence of Cosmic Mind.

Unlike an electromagnetic field Cosmic Mind is not physical and that quality explains mind’s non-material quality. Cosmic Mind’s postulation accounts for mind’s relation to brains (mind’s physical root) and its subjective first-person-only phenomenology (mind’s non-material root). Qualia would appear to come from the brain side, our representation, via the senses, of the physical world. Intentionality is related to purpose, to final cause, something that doesn’t exist in physics. This quality must somehow be contributed by Cosmic Mind. How does Cosmic Mind interact with the physical? It is nice that brains detect Cosmic Mind, but how exactly do they do that? Aren’t I faced with the same “interaction problem”, perhaps pushed around a bit, as old fashioned Cartesian dualism?

The short answer is yes. It is the same problem, the same also faced by property dualism and panpsychism, and also Russelian, and any dual-aspect monism. The presence of Cosmic Mind is (like Cartesian mind) normally associated, directly or indirectly, with God, but one could leave its final source in abeyance as phenomenal monists and panpsychists do with their protophenomenal properties. None of these other theories ever say what exactly the phenomenal or proto-phenomenal qualities are let alone from where they come. Unlike the quasi-materialistic theories, Cosmic Mind is not (or need not be) phenomenal or proto-phenomenal (let alone conscious) at all. The emergent effect, subjective phenomenalism, only occurs when brains appear — Cosmic Mind being always on the scene. Unlike quasi-materialisms, this explains why we find the phenomenal only in association with brains and why we cannot even speculate about the protophenomenal in physics. It isn’t there to be found.

What about my other promise? Why is explanation of the interaction mechanism forever out of our reach? To support the radical emergence taking place, the field cannot, itself, be material (like the electromagnetic) or we would be back to unsupported radical emergence. Since it isn’t material it remains forever outside the capacity of physics (having only material instruments) to detect. Moreover, since the emergent dualism effected by the brain is also non-material the mechanism producing it is a mix of the physical (brain states) and non-physical (Cosmic Mind). Physics (in this case a synechode for neurophysiology resting on biology resting on chemistry and so on) can only measure the material side and it does! We can measure and find (roughly) consciousness-correlated brain states! What we cannot measure is the evocation subjective experience from their functioning.

What physics wants is an equivalence relation. But proving equivalence relations (for example the equivalence between thermodynamics and statistical mechanics) needs experimental confirmation, physical measurement, of the phenomenon from both ends as it were. This is precisely what is not possible concerning mind.

Where does Cosmic Mind itself come from? I’m a theist for this reason and many others. God covers a multitude of problems. The origin of course, but also the interaction. We can never spell out the mechanism but God knows the trick! Theism has no particular burden here. Panpsychists and monists do not tell us from where come their postulated “phenomenal properties-of-physics”, in what they consist, how they do their work, or how they are even possible within the physics we presently comprehend. Theism addresses all but one of these questions.

If we let materialist philosophers get away with “we don’t know, they’re just there” (concerning the proto-phenomenal) why shouldn’t theists? A non-material field pervading spacetime is no less conceivable than undetectable phenomenal properties underlying physics. One of Chalmers’ suggestions is “psychic laws” in parallel with physical law. Postulating Cosmic Mind answers more questions than proto-phenomenal physics or psychic laws, specifically why we cannot specify, or even speculate about, what qualities the proto-phenomenal has.

For more of my essays on this and related subjects see:

Essays:

Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind
Physics and the Evidence for Non-Material Consciousness
Why Free Will
Why Personality

Books:
Why This Universe: God, Cosmology, Consciousness, and Free Will (2014)
God, Causal Closure, and Free Will (2016)

Note: On emergence

I have allowed in this essay that mind is the only example of radical emergence of which we know, but I believe there are two others, the universe itself, the big bang, and life.  This essay is not the place to go into either, but it is the theme of my book “God, Causal Closure, and Free Will” linked above.

Note: On the subject of animal mind

Since mind is associated with brains we might speculate about where it appears in the development of animal nervous systems. The short answer is I do not know but at least it seems to be present, a “what it is like to be” subjectivity in all the mammals and birds and possibly all vertebrates. If Cosmic Mind is all of a piece, everywhere uniform throughout the universe, how is it that animal consciousness seems less rich than the human? The answer here is on the brain side in the same way the shape of the shadow depends on the ball.

The electromagnetic field is filled with information all jumbled together. It can be made coherent (by radios) through the process of tuning. When a radio is tuned to a particular “carrier frequency” amidst the jumble, all of the electromagnetic modulation around that frequency can be detected and interpreted say as music from one, speech from another and so on. But notice also, that even if we single out a particular carrier, radios can vary widely in the quality of their conversion/reproduction. The sound emerging from older, more primitive, radios contains less of the information than that coming from newer more advanced electronics.

Cosmic Mind need contain only one signal. Being non-material it might as well be undifferentiated as we couldn’t measure any differentiation anyway. But there are, like radios, brains of various qualities. Like an older radio, the mind evoked by the brain of a mouse is less rich than that of a dog, the dog less than an ape, and the ape less than a human all bathed in the same field. This seems to be the case for consciousness as a whole, but is not the case concerning specific qualia. A dog’s aroma qualia are far richer than a human’s, as is a bird’s visual qualia (birds have four types cone cells in their eyes supporting ultra-violet visual qualia). There is nothing surprising about this if qualia in particular are closely tied to the physical root of the subjective arena. Some more primitive radios can be optimized to reproduce a narrow range of audible frequencies better than a more advanced radio even though the latter does a better job over-all.

In accounting for this difference this “Cosmic Mind” hypothesis at least matches the accounting for qualia by panpsychism and dual-aspect monisms. In the latter theories, more primitive brains produce less rich phenomenal qualities from the basic proto-phenomenal building blocks but nothing blocks optimizations in different brains. In both cases, the onus for the quality (richness) of qualia lays with brains. But the quasi-materialisms cannot so well account for intention, purpose (something the higher animals clearly have), unless one posits its proto-presence as well. Such a move puts teleology firmly back into physics, and in that case we are half-way back to theism.

Adventures In Quantumland by Ruth Kastner: commentary and review

Picture of me blowing smoke

Ruth Kastner has made another effort to explain the “transactional theory of quantum mechanics”. My Amazon review of this excellent book is included below with a link to her text. In this commentary I address one technical aspect (or consequence) of the theory and separately her more speculative ideas in chapters 6 and 7 (both mentioned in the review). Her first attempt at explaining her ideas to a lay readership, the book “Understanding our Unseen Reality” 2015 is reviewed here.

The technical issue is I hope straight forward. In Dr. Kastner’s scheme, energy is not transferred, nor a spacetime event realized until a virtual or “incipient transaction” becomes a “real transaction”. Incipient transactions happen between any potential emitter of some quantum of energy, and all the possible absorbers of that quantum (the atoms that could absorb it) throughout the universe! They happen outside of spacetime and so their instantaneous virtual interaction throughout the universe is not at issue here.

What is at issue is that as I read her, no real transaction can begin until one of the emitter (offer wave) absorber (confirmation wave) pairs is promoted to a real transaction. A photon cannot be emitted until it has a determinate absorber destination! How does this idea work if the absorber is an atom in the detector of a telescope on Earth, and the emitter is a star in a galaxy 10 billion light years distant? How could there have been an actualized transaction between a star and a telescope that did not exist when the photon was emitted? I have identified two separate problems here.

First, the confirmation waves come from absorbers capable of absorbing the photon which, at the time of its emission, might have been an X-ray photon. But by the time of its real absorption by some atom in our telescope detector has been stretched way into the red end of the spectrum. It is possible that our red-capable absorbing atom could not possibly have produced a confirmation wave for an X-ray photon.

Secondly, at the time of the emission, the atom that ended up in the detector of the telescope might have been anywhere in the vicinity of the Earth/Sun system such as it was at the time, perhaps a just coalescing mass of hydrogen gas and dust swirling around a proto-star. How did that lucky atom end up in our telescope and not in the center of the Earth, or the moon or anywhere else in the solar system? Further the spatial relation between the proto solar system and our emitting star would be completely different than it is now 10 billion years later. But when we trace the path of our captured photon it always appears to have made a beeline (least time) path between the emitting star and that particular place in space where the Earth (and our telescope) just happen to be 10 billion years after emission.

I suspect Dr. Kastner has an answer here, or I am misunderstanding something about what she means about emission requiring an actualization between offer and confirmation waves. I hope she will address a query sent to her. If she does I will update this blog entry with her explanation.

In her chapters 6 and 7 she goes off the rails speculatively speaking. Her aim in chapter 6 is free will. There is nothing here that hasn’t been said before by others (broadly a theory called dual-aspect monism, see my “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”). Kastner begins by demolishing the anti-free-will arguments of David Dawkins and others of a similar type. She does a marvelous job from the viewpoint of the idea’s epistemological absurdity. If there is no free will, then Dawkins’ book isn’t really “his” and so on. In this she is entirely right even to pointing out that the view reduces us to automatons, something I have said for years (see my “Arguing with Automatons”).

Kastner points out that if nothing else, quantum mechanics shows the universe is not fully deterministic. Quantum mechanics “makes room” for free will. That’s fair enough. She also recognizes that “making room” and “the phenomenon” (free will) itself are two different things. Why? Because free will is not merely not-determined (indeterminate) but purposeful. Free will introduces teleology and if not for the universe as a whole then at least for the free-willed individual. Choice is always exercised “for a purpose”, and this is something quantum mechanics doesn’t address unless…

Kastner’s next move, the metaphysical move, is where she goes wrong. Perhaps, she says, quantum phenomena are not merely indeterminate. Perhaps they are also proto-volitional; there is in the phenomenon that which leads directly to the human sort of free will through some ascending volitional hierarchy? Something is “built into physics” that bears the germ of volition. She is, in effect, saying: we have a mystery here (free will) and we have a mystery there (Quantumland), perhaps one mystery is the explanation of the other? Now she emphasizes that this move is pure speculation but what is the point of it other than to fix a source of volition in a universe that is otherwise determinate and indeterminate at the same time, but not volitional.

No one (including Dr. Kastner) asserts that virtual quanta are conscious, but nor can anyone (including Dr. Kastner) tell us in what exactly, besides the non-teleological behavior described so well by mathematics, this proto-volitional consists! What is even a single “identity characteristic” of a proto-volition? In what way does (or even might) proto-volition contribute to quantum measurement outcomes? Where would a proto-volitional term fit into the equations of quantum mechanics? If there is no place for it why say it (volition) might be there other than the purely metaphysical need to have it start somewhere coupled with the metaphysical assumption that there is nothing more to the universe than the physical (including Quantumland).

To put the matter another way, Quantumland is speculation but not “empty speculation”. There are observables, particles communicating at seeming space-like distances and being in two places at once. A “foundation to macrophysics” outside of spacetime makes perfect sense in this context. Raw space and time can be seen to emerge from its seething processes. Quantumland explains a lot. It gives us part of the mechanism of spacetime emergence, and it removes the mystery from many of its emerging observables.

By contrast there is no observable that demands volition at the microscopic level. That volition (or proto-volition) is to be located there explains nothing about the mechanism of [much later] emerging consciousness. Free will is expressed only by or through consciousness (human or animal) as far as we know. The speculation here is empty of content. Nothing stands as an example of a property that ultimately adds up to consciousness or the volitional will of consciousness.

Quantum mysteries are encountered at just the point where they enter spacetime, but volition is not encountered in any obvious way until we reach all the way up to macroscopic brains. This is not to say that quantum phenomena are not involved in producing consciousness. It would surprise me if they weren’t! But this does not mean that quantum phenomena are themselves volitional or even proto-volitional there remains no teleology in physics.

This then brings me to chapter 7 where there is a related problem. The problem in chapter 6 is the emptiness of the speculation, the ad hoc quality of throwing volition into Quantumland because materialism has no other place to put it. In chapter 7 the problem is an induction fallacy. That Eastern metaphysics refers to a world beneath (or above or beyond) that of our physical senses, a world that is the source of the physical, does not mean they are talking about Quantumland! A Buddhist or Hindu using the word ‘energy’ and a physicist using the same word are not necessarily talking about the same thing (Dr. Jacob Needleman pointed this out to me a long time ago using “The Tao of Physics” [Capra], one of the books Kastner mentions in this chapter). Of course they could be talking about the same thing, and if you read enough of both you can cherry pick qualities from each that seem to overlap. Kastner does this in this chapter.

At the same time, Dr. Kastner gives herself the clue to their difference. The “spiritual traditions” all ascribe some sacredness to that which underlies our ordinary reality, but she doesn’t fully grasp the implications. Sacredness is intrinsically teleological. The source of our ordinary reality according to the “spiritual traditions” is purposeful, and being indirect products of it, we human beings have some relation, some responsibility to that purpose. But in no wise does it make sense to say we have any responsibility to Quantumland (nor does Dr. Kastner say such a thing), and this is precisely because Quantumland is not teleological.

Kastner must realize this implicitly as she reminds us multiple times that her ascription of volition to Quantumland (chapter 6) has no bearing on her physical theory as such. But nor is the traditional ascription of sacredness to “the other” some sort of mistake on the part of such traditions. It is a necessary quality of the other to which the traditions refer; a demonstration (as it were) that they are not speaking of Quantumland! There is nothing wrong with calling attention to the fact that spiritual traditions refer to “another reality” underlying our ordinary experience. Quantumland is also another possible reality underlying the macrophysical. But they are two different kinds of “other reality”.

If materialists wish to insist that the sacred sort of other doesn’t really exist, I can only say that until such time as there are observables that pick one theory out over another the same can be said of all the competing quantum others advocated by physicists and philosophers today.

I will leave things here because after all neither of these chapters bears in any way on the transaction interpretation of quantum mechanics as a physical theory. Unlike in her addenda to this latest book, Dr. Kastner isn’t resolving any paradoxes in these chapters. Indeed the misapplied logic (chapters 6 & 7) and misunderstood metaphor (chapter 7) is all on her side; though again and to repeat, none of this has ought to do with the explanatory value of the physical theory.

Adventures in Quantumland: Exploring Our Unseen Reality. Ruth Kastner 2019.

In (2015) Ruth Kastner, a physicist and philosopher, published “Understanding Our Unseen Reality”, a layman’s version of her earlier “The Transactional Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics” (2014). This book, “Exploring Our Unseen Reality”, is something of an addendum to that earlier work. It is really two books in one. The first half (roughly) is the book, while the last half is a collection of papers authored by Kastner, and sometimes collaborators, each addressing a specific (usually in more technical terms) issue covered in the book’s first half. Kastner frequently refers back (by chapter and page) to her earlier book. It isn’t necessary to have read the earlier book, Kastner makes her overall case perfectly well in this book alone using minimally more technical language (really symbols) to which she introduces us. On the one hand, this book’s explication of the theory’s main points and implications is brief. On the other hand, Dr. Kastner has had a lot of practice explaining the transactional interpretation and this latest attempt is clear and succinctly expressed.

Beginning with the basics Kastner moves us through subjects that are important to understanding her with a particular emphasis on the fact that her theory does not demand (I get the impression she encounters this idea a lot) that some mind be present to “collapse the quantum wave function”. To be clear, there are wave functions that minds do collapse. the ones that end in a quanta-absorbing event in one of our sensory neurons (and from there up the chain to our brains). In general, however, wave collapse is the result, the completion, of a measurement and that means a transaction between a quantum emitter and some absorber whether that absorber is in an eye, a brain, or the detector of some instrument.

The key to the theory is that the transfer of a quantum (measurable energy) requires an interaction between an emitter and absorber. There are two sorts of interactions here, incipient and actual. Incipient interactions happen between an emitter (an “offer wave”) and every potential absorber in the universe (“confirmation waves”), literally every atom that can absorb a photon of that particular energy. It doesn’t matter if these potential absorbers are near to or far from the potential emitter (in the incipient stage nothing has been yet emitted). Every incipient potential occurs instantly and simultaneously throughout the universe. One of these “offer wave/confirmation wave” (confirming that some emitter is ready to emit) “incipient transactions” wins out (remember this has taken place in zero time and across all space from our viewpoint in timespace) and becomes an “actual transaction”. The photon is emitted generating the beginning of a real singular timespace event propagating at the speed of light, and ends when the winning absorber receives the photon. The absorption constitutes a measurement because energy is transferred between the emitting and absorbing atoms. The transaction is complete.

If Dr. Kastner is right here, her theory has implications as revolutionary as the original insight (energy is quantized) resulting in the first generation of quantum mechanics. It would mean that no real photon can leave an emitter until a real absorber is selected out of the incipient possibilities. Personally I do not see how this can be. What if the absorber, the one that completes the transaction, is at the business end of a telescope while the [real not incipient] absorbed photon was emitted from a star 10 billion light years away; long before that telescope existed? There are several potential issues here and I suspect Kastner has an answer, but she does not explicitly address this. See my blog for further discussion.

In the final chapters of the book Kastner gets speculative about quantum mechanics and mind or more specifically the possibility of free will. This is not the “mind collapses the wave function” business, but its opposite. Not only does quantum mechanics give us an escape from absolute macroscopic determinism (fair enough) but rather that the quantum realm is somehow proto-volitional. The last chapter explores some speculations on the potential analogy between Kastner’s Quantumland (beneath spacetime) and various ideas present in ancient Greek and Eastern (Hindu and Buddhist) metaphysics. Kastner follows others, citing references, in all of these speculations. I have problems with both of these ideas, but this is not for a review and Kastner is sedulous about these being purely speculative, having no direct bearing on the transactional theory as such.

Following her last chapter, Kastner gives us an epilogue calling attention to (and thanking) her predecessors in the explanatory thread leading to the transactional interpretation, followed by an addendum in which she addresses several long standing “quantum paradoxes”. Her aim here is to show that they are not paradoxes at all, but bad interpretations of data even apart from the transactional theory, and that the transaction idea can make paradox resolution easier to grasp.

In summary an excellent if abbreviated explication of the “transaction theory”. In response to her previous book I said that Dr. Kastner’s theory is the only one I’ve ever encountered that “explains quantum mysteries without explaining them away”. Having read this book I see no reason to change my mind.

Why “One Size Fits All” Ontologies Never Work: Horgan, Harman, and DeLanda

There are three books from contemporary philosophers advocating for “one size fits all” ontologies. Each of them is strikingly different. In this commentary I’m going to focus on the meta-philosophical issue of a problem common to all of these ideas and by extension, all “one size fits all” ontologies. Ontologists do one of two things. They describe or catalog “what exists” or “what is real”, or they try to say something about the foundational qualities or properties of reality; what is “most fundamental” about what exists. All three of these philosophers are doing “what exists” sorts of ontologies.

As always, the three books I discuss are listed below with links to their editions on Amazon. Each title (except Horgan, I’ve linked my separate review of him here) is followed by the text of the review I posted to Amazon. I write these commentaries because their issues are out of place in a book review as such.

I’ll begin quickly with Terrence Horgan whose book “Austere Realism” I’ve reviewed separately (see link above). Horgan is the extreme minimalist. There is for him only one object that fully exists in the universe, and that is the universe in total (he calls it the ‘blobject’). Everything that we humans envision as existing (atoms, stars, animals, artifacts, and our own minds) exist only as affectations of language, a “fashion de parler”. As affectations, and for pragmatic purposes such “existence talk” is all well and good, but it is false to move from there to an ontological commitment; to the literal existence of any of these things. But Horgan is also a realist. The differentiation within the blobject (or of the blobject) are real. They are “mind independent differentiations” of the blobject. They are not “objects in their own right” but merely variations in the one object.

I’ve written before about Graham Harman here, and his collaborative work with DeLanda here. But I haven’t written about this particular book, “Object Oriented Ontology” in which Harman tries to address an issue I brought up in my review of other books, his “ontological idea” seeming to pop out of nowhere. In this book Harman describes more or less where his OOO idea comes from. It reinforces my idea that while proclaiming himself a realist he somewhat straddles the line between realism and anti-realism.

Harman’s approach is exactly opposite that of Horgan. Everything, stars, governments, ideas, relations between ideas or things, arbitrary sets, fictional characters, events, all real, all distinct objects. His is the ultimate ontological plurality but he is careful to say that while all are objects, not all objects are of the same sort. Some for example, like fictional characters, are real yet do not exist. Harman’s goal is a univocal causality. If rocks, governments, corporations, and ideas can be causes what does this say about the nature of causation in general?

Of the three authors, DeLanda’s ideas are the easiest to reconcile with common sense. Basically he observes that most differentiated things in the universe are composed of other things. They have parts that are extrinsic to the phenomenon of which they are parts. That means such parts can be removed and replaced by something similar (but not identical) and still retain their identity. In addition, these things composed of parts can become parts of other wider or larger things exhibiting new causal potentials.

As concerns ontological commitments, for Horgan, planets and governments do not exist as such, only the blobject actually exists but it happens to be differentiated into recognizable particulars that we can label in any way we see fit for pragmatic and scientific purposes. Horgan is interested mostly in what makes scientific discourse (say about stars) true even if stars do not, strictly speaking exist.

DeLanda agrees with Horgan that governments and stars do not belong in a strict ontology. What exists are assemblages each existing in a hierarchy of assemblages. Presumably the hierarchy goes all the way up to Horgan’s blobject, and all the way down to protons. But DeLanda does manage to clearly distinguish between social assemblages having physical expressions and potentials (governments, banks), and physical assemblages like stars and galaxies. What is important in both cases is that it is the assemblage that has ontological gravitas because it has causal potentials whether those are the potentials of a government or an asteroid.

Neither Horgan nor DeLanda are “essentialists” as concerns either what does or does not “strictly belong” in an ontology. There is no “hidden center” or essence to what belongs in ontology. If we had a complete description of everything (which for various reasons, linguistic, and perspectival, we cannot have) we would have fully exhausted being. Harman says no, that each object has an essence or being that we cannot even in principle ever exhaust. This includes “real objects” that do not exist like fictional characters. It is precisely this essence to which an object’s qualities are attached. Like objects have like qualities but their essence makes them individual. Objects are not merely “bundles of properties” described by a spacetime worm. Properties inhere in something and the being of that object, what makes it real, is whatever that something is.

Horgan is after the truth and meaningfulness of scientific discourse. He establishes this even in the face of his extreme ontological claim, and I believe this may be his point; “even given the blobject, science can be true”. Harman is after causation and he gets there but at the cost of an ontology as copious as Horgan’s is sparse. To make it all work, Harman’s objects must be divided up in various ways, much depending on what amounts to the classical distinction between mind and the mind-independent world. Harman does give us a nice account of fictional characters, but not really different from yet another “new realist” Maruzio Ferraris (reviewed here) who gives us the same account without the causal metaphysics. I am not sure how DeLanda would handle fictions. They surely have expressions in the physical (books, films) but I am not sure they could be said to have causal properties of their own. Certainly not outside minds that encounter and interpret the physical expressions.

Horgan and Harman are the two strictest “one size fits all” ontologists, DeLanda is less so, but even viewed as a one size fits all proposal, assemblages require little ad hoc maneuvering (Harman) or stipulation (Horgan and Harman) to fit in with most if not all of our experience. The common sense fact is that almost everything is made of other things. None of these views address mind very well though to be sure all are implicitly physicalist so brains are surely objects, assemblages, or proper differentiations of the blobject.

Harman, taking us back to Heideggar, claims that the contents of consciousness are all objects. This works fine as concerns sensory representations, even beliefs and memories. It is less clear how attitudes and intentions are objects. To the extent that both amount to ideas they have an object-hook. Both intentions and attitudes have causal properties. Ideas can lead us to actions. If that qualifies them for object-hood, so be it.

DeLanda’s ontology is “one size fits all” in the form of things and not the things themselves. He does not insist that literally everything real (fictional or otherwise) is an assemblage. By contrast Harman and Horgan do claim that their ontologies cover everything. That they likely do not is demonstrated by how they must each be twisted to make them work. For Horgan, scientific truth, even epistemology in general, floats free of the “true ontology”. For Harman, objects must be distinguished into partly overlapping classes or kinds, universals like existing and non-existing, symbiotic and dormant, real and sensual (both of these last categories real in the strict ontological sense), and so on.

Only Horgan claims there is literally but one existing thing. Harman counts literally everything (remember even thoughts and arbitrary relations) as real objects but must then divide them up into many categories to make the idea come out. Why not merely objectify the category and claim that these universals are the foundation of the real? For DeLanda it is a structure of relations that is [almost] universal, but what emerges from such a structure is, like Harman, both distinct and real provided we are careful to distinguish between the abstraction naming it (star, or government) and the reality (an assemblage) of its composition and history.

Horgan and Harman are “ontologies of the now”. Neither takes much account of time. Time is involved in the differentiation of the blobject (Horgan) of course and objects (Harman) come, go, and change through time, but neither theory demands time to make its basic point. Only DeLanda’s ontology demands time because both the coming-to-be of assemblages and their impacts have intrinsically temporal dimensions. Assemblages include as a proper part their own history and possible future effects on events, other assemblages.

Though each of these ontologies are different they all suffer from a species of triviality. If literally everything is an X, then to say that “only Xs exist” is a difference that makes no difference. Horgan shows that scientific truths can remain firmly grounded even in the face of a stipulated truth: “all is one”. Harman’s idea is also, ultimately, a stipulation. He can’t really deliver an equivocal causation, only one that can be “thought of” like that. If all cause lies between categories (the real and the sensual) that doesn’t tell us much about it. It also might be that there is something important about the difference between the categories and not merely the objects in them. Non-arbitrary categories (perhaps material particulars and some universals) might indeed exist, while arbitrary ones (random sets, trivially contingent relations — “taller than”) do not.

Harman’s distinction between the important and the trivial is also arbitrary. What appears dormant or unimportant from our perspective might be symbiotic from another. DeLanda’s triviality is a little different. Remember that each of these philosophers is a materialist and so ultimately, whatever should be both “real and exist”, it must begin with atoms that are surely assemblages. So while Harman and Horgan’s ontologies ultimately come down to stipulations, DeLanda’s, by contrast, is observational, and if he is right, if everything is some part of everything else (the universe at least), his observation must be true (at least of the material world) and so is also trivial.

In the end none of these “one size fits all” ontologies fit the universe of our experience because the universe is not a one size fits all arena. If there is a God then there are three fundamental mind-independent joints in reality (see Prolegomena to a Future Theology), spirit, mind (not individual minds but the phenomenon of mind in general), and matter — the material world experienced by individual minds. Even if there is no God and individual minds emerge only from the functioning of brains (i.e. brains are sufficient, a dubious proposition disallowed by physics — see Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind), it is prima facia absurd to assert that mind is material, even more absurd to say it doesn’t exist. Individual minds, once emerged, have an impact on the unfolding of events. Mind is not physical and yet causally efficacious notwithstanding that what propagates its causal effect in the physical is a physical body controlled by a mind.

Aside from these three authors (Ferraris does not try to construct a universal ontology) I haven’t encountered another “one size fits all” ontology. If I do in the future I am confident that like these three any truth it contains will be but a trivial truth.

——————

Austere Realism by Terrence Horgan 2008
See my review and commentary here

Assemblage Theory by Manuel DeLanda 2016

Manuel DeLanda’s book is a mature attempt at explaining what “assemblage theory” is and its relation to the philosophical sub-discipline of ontology. Assemblage theory can be applied to other philosophical domains but first you have to understand what it says about what there is. To put it in its simplest form, most things in the world are assemblages. They are (1) made of parts that might be exchanged for sufficiently similar parts (parts are “extrinsic”), (2) have properties and potentials that the parts do not have other than as the assemblage, and (3) they can, in turn, become parts of larger assemblages having novel properties and potentials in part made possible by the contribution of its sub-assemblages.

Assemblages are rather intuitive in fact. We are all familiar with many of them. We are a part of some of them, and it is natural to see in the world differently scaled phenomena (from atoms to galaxies, even the universe) that all appear to be assemblages. DeLanda then begins from a place that matches most intuitions about the world, and he does not insist that everything that is MUST be an assemblage. There are things of the world that are not, but by-in-large very much of our familiar world consists of assemblages.

DeLanda then explores many of these familiar things as encountered through human history. He explores tools (machines), people themselves, language, cities, society, wars, and so on. A particular point he wants to make is that every noun I used in the last sentence is a made-up “making real” (reification or “to reify”) of things that don’t really exist simpliciter. DeLanda understands that to make up these concepts is perfectly legitimate for ordinary discourse, but he is not committed to “their existence” as these things. Rather his commitment is to the assemblages from which they are composed and the higher-level assemblages they can and do contribute to composing. To understand an assemblage we name, “the government”, or “the market”, we really have to understand what it is made of (more assemblages) and how it comes to affect the wider world, other assemblages in which it participates. It is the assemblages and their expressions that “are real” as far as ontology is concerned.

The examination of human institutions is followed by a chapter on the doing of science; the best encapsulation of “philosophy of science” I’ve read! He moves down from social reality to particles, atoms, and molecules in order to introduce us to the concept of a “diagram” by which not only can assemblage be described (its history) but also what future paths in could (possibility) and is likely (disposition) to follow. DeLanda moves away from social phenomena for the sake of simplicity. Future paths for a molecule are vast but still restricted compared to that of a city or person. In theory it is simpler to understand what he is driving at on this level and its significance can be felt in philosophy and other disciplines. Importantly, the same principles apply whether we are talking about a protein or a nation.

He gets a little technical here in the last chapters. Simpler or not I could follow all of this only because I’ve had just enough mathematics background to get the difference between the levels and types of mathematics he talks about here. Some readers will have trouble with this though DeLanda nowhere USES mathematics; there are no formulas or mathematical demonstrations. His aim is to show us that there are mathematical tools that can be applied to assemblages describing their history as well as dispositions and possible futures. DeLanda is keen to show that assemblage theory as philosophy is (can be) firmly grounded in mathematics. Again as from the beginning, this makes intuitive sense. That mathematics can be applied to the regularities of the universe is well known. If those regularities are “qualities of assemblages” it makes sense that math can be used to describe them.

All of this then comes together very well in this book. I have read and reviewed others of DeLanda’s books, but this is the one to get if you want a grounding in his idea from the fundamentals on up.

Object Oriented Ontology by Graham Harman 2018

In reviews of earlier books by Harman I complained that his “object oriented ontology” (OOO) seemed to pop out of nowhere. He never (before) tells us how ideas preceding it, those of other writers, built up to his central insight. He seems to be making an attempt to correct that lacuna in this book. I think he succeeds in the effort to enlighten us about OOO’s origins, but my issues with the substance of the theory itself are not here resolved.

Harman begins by introducing a distinction between truth and knowledge along with their relation to the doing of philosophy. For him philosophy is not about truth or knowledge though it seeks and approaches both. Instead it is about reality which cannot, nevertheless, be approached directly but only indirectly. With this he begins to give the reader an introduction to his version of realism which is not very realist as I understand that term. But nor is Harman an anti-realist in the traditional sense. Rather he seems to straddle the fence.

The mind independent world is perfectly real and filled with particulars (objects), this being the realist thread. However we never encounter those objects directly but through their qualities, sensual qualities (he should have used the word ‘sensuous’ here not ‘sensual’ but I’ll let you look up that difference), which are qualities of the object as it is reflected in the content of our consciousness. The tree in the yard is a real object. The tree in my mind is its sensual counterpart. But neither the tree in the yard, nor the counterpart in our mind ever reveal themselves fully to us. They are “real”, but their core is always hidden. This is the anti-realist thread in Harman.

In Chapter two Harman gives us the key insight that also belies his Continental inclinations. Philosophy is metaphor and theater. He doesn’t mean here play acting. He means that to do philosophy the philosopher must replace the metaphor with herself to understand what it reveals about the real object. Even the metaphor never completely succeeds in exhausting the object, but it gets us further into it than does any literal or scientific statement. Harman knows that language is metaphorical. In fact (for Harman) the literal tells us less than the metaphorical. No word or collection of words captures everything about that which they denote. But he rejects the notion that language alone is responsible for failing to grasp everything. There is always more to the object, real or sensual, than we can ever know.

From this beginning he investigates social and political discourse and then returns to a more detailed view of objects (real and sensual), their qualities, and the relations between them. Harman divides his ontological universe into four different types, the real and sensual objects, and their real and sensual qualities. He does a pretty good job on the objects and the sensual qualities, but I have trouble understanding what a “real quality” can be since like the real object, real qualities also withdraw from direct contact. Harman does a good job of analyzing fictional objects, and we are introduced to his distinction between passive and symbiotic object-relations. Again (as in other of his books) Harman insists that symbiotic is not only about importance to humans, but in fact it always seems to end up being that in the final analysis.

His ultimate target in this part of the book is physical causation (like two billiard balls colliding, though the idea is supposed to apply to causation of all sorts). Even billiard balls do not make contact directly but through their sensual qualities. This part of OOO makes no sense to me unless “sensual qualities” are taken to be something independent of mind. I suppose this interpretation is possible, but Harman does not make his thought clear here at all.

The book moves then to challenge some of Harman’s peers who have accused him of stealing ideas from others. He focuses on Deleuze and Foucault arguing that their views, which some have taken to be foreshadows of OOO are not really that at all. Following this he reviews the work of a number of young philosophers who have broadly adopted an OOO orientation. Harman does a good job here of sketching both the similarities and differences between his work and the others reviewed.

It is not until here, near the end of the book that Harman lets drop his disdain for matter something strange for a realist. He explains himself a bit more in the last chapter, but his explanation fails to bridge a gap. It may be true NOW that there is no undifferentiated matter in the universe. Everything is differentiated and hence all are objects. But this was not the case in the opening Planck times of the universe when there was nothing but undifferentiated radiation. Harman’s ontology, even if it captures the universe’s present (and I don’t think it really does) misses its history, something for which ontology should surely account. In this latter part of the book he also lets slip that all relations between objects are also objects. He has said this in other books, but other than this one parenthetical aside, he doesn’t elaborate on this claim at all.

In the end, this book does the job of explaining the origin of Harman’s OOO idea and some (but not all) implications. I remain not a fan. There is too much about OOO that seems ad hoc to me, but after all, differences of opinion are what keep philosophy going and as Harman notes at the very beginning we do not get all the way to knowledge or truth, but only aspire to find ways to get closer to both.

Book Review: “Ontology and Metaontology”

As with most of the philosophy I review there are matters, lines of inquiry, alternate points of view, that illuminate more to be done, or resolve issues raised, that are not appropriate in the context of a book review. A review should focus on what the author says and perhaps how (s)he gets to what is said, not on differences of opinion between author and reviewer. And so I publish book reviews on Amazon, and then republish them here along with a link to the book for my reader’s convenience, and commentary whose purpose is dredging up those differences of opinion.

The first question that comes to my mind is the relation between metaphysics and ontology. The authors do not address this very much other than to say that the latter is usually considered to be a sub-discipline of the former, but no relation is clearly delineated. As a result an issue I noted in the review is the authors attribution to ontology (an alternative “fundamental question”) of a question I normally associate with metaphysics; the “fundamental ground” of what is real. If ontology is about “what is real” or “what exists” independent of mind (including such mind-managed entities as propositions, numbers, and sets), it only gets to be about the fundamental ground of what is real if, as some ontological systems do claim, that fundamental ground is the sole existent entity, everything else being nothing more than various assemblies of it and “are real” only in a derivative sense.

But while trying to understand what might be real even of the assemblies (natural and artifactual kinds for example) surely mind itself is among the [presumably] “natural kinds” for which we must account. Drs. Berto and Plebani ignore this singular question choosing instead to narrow their survey to a few well-worked channels of thought about reality “besides mind”. Idealism (everything is mind) is ignored because their focus is on what can be said of “mind independent” reality. Taking for granted that there is such a thing, we can characterize it in variously useful ways, and thus reject idealism. But even if idealism itself is false, the question of what exactly mind is matters a great deal.

Natural kinds like stars and animals, and artifactual kinds like chairs and statues are, after all, physical particulars while propositions and numbers clearly are abstractions and the mind-independent status of abstractions surely depends on the status of mind itself? If mind “substantively exists” then we can argue about the ontological status of abstractions. If mind does not exist (eliminative materialism) or is merely epiphenomenal illusion, then abstractions cannot in principle have any “mind independent” status.

On the matter of “fundamental ground” there is no explicit discussion of the distinction between substance and process ontology. The authors come at their subject mostly from a “substance viewpoint” but they do also address the ontological status of events which are processes. They address the causal status of agency versus process in events, but the chicken and egg problem (are all substances process or is process merely the causal interaction of substances) is not specifically covered.

I have another small issue with this book. When reading books on ontology written in the last few years (this one in 2015) I look for references to E. J. Lowe who, in my opinion, was among the best thinkers on this subject (he passed away quite young in 2014 or so). I rarely find him, but these authors do cite him (from a 1989 book) in their examination of particulars. But the authors discuss not only particulars, but kinds (classes), tropes (or modes), and global universals (all are after all well-worn ontological subjects). Yet they make no mention of Lowe’s “Four Category Ontology” (2006) in which he brings each of these four elements into harmonious and logically consistent relation. Of course Lowe’s is but one idea among many, but it is the only recent treatment (and I have looked having read many of the authors they cite in the text) that so neatly ties them all together. There should have been at least some mention of Lowe’s book.

Meanwhile, despite these shortcomings, this is a good read. The authors address only a tiny slice of the whole ontological field, but they do a good job with that slice, broadly illustrating how ontology is done and the salient factors that enter into it.

Ontology and Metaontology by Francesco Berto and Matteo Plebani (2015)

I’m not much for reading “overview books” in philosophy, they tend to be over simplistic and misrepresent as much as they enlighten. Once in a while a title appeals to me and this one looked rich enough to be worth a read. It was.

Dr.’s Berto and Plebani (“the authors” from here on) begin very deliberately setting out the distinction between ontology from metaontology. The former (covered last in the book) is about answering the question: what things are there in the universe, or what kinds of things are there, and are “kinds” (for example) among the things there are? As it turns out trying to answer such questions, since they are so fundamental to what we take our experience to be about, raises many questions of procedure. From what set of assumptions do we begin to address such issues and by what methodology? These latter questions are the subject of metaontology.

In a moderate length book covering a 2500 year-old field, the authors cannot possibly address all the viable proposals for answering these questions. They choose several lines of thought taken to be the dominant contemporary themes of the field in the analytic tradition and follows them out. Beginning with what they entail for the procedural questions, and then using each of the various meta-positions to address the main questions of ontology proper: material things (natural and artifactual), abstract things (propositions, numbers, sets and classes, fictional characters), and events. They do a superb job tying the procedural approaches covered in the first half of the book to the meat of the subject in the second. They never answer the question “what is there” but then they are not advocating a particular ontology, rather showing how the possible set of answers follow from different approaches to the subject. The book illustrates how different meta-approaches affect the possible range of answers to the ontological questions themselves. He is successful here, but the reader does have to pay attention.

There are a few holes (and yes the ontological status of holes is addressed) in the presentation. Ontology is a sub-discipline of metaphysics and the authors do not ever clearly distinguish between them; not that this is easy to do in any case. For example, they present “grounding theories”, as the idea that the big question of ontology is not “what there is” but what is the “fundamental ground”, the “basic stuff” of “what there is”? As I understand it, the matter of grounding is the core of metaphysics and not ontology per se, though to be sure the line between them is very ill defined. They also note from the beginning that matters of mind are not at issue. Propositions and the quality of redness are mental phenomena. The ontological question is would we still, hypothetically, count them as entities in the universe if minds did not exist? Fair enough, but the ontological status of mind itself is controversial in philosophy. Some discussion of this question from the viewpoint the metaontologies he covers would have been interesting.

In the telling of all this, the authors include many dozens of references from philosophers of the 19th and (mostly) 20th Century. The book’s bibliography is a who’s who of metaphysical and ontological thought, and yet there is far more left out (God theories, ontological commitments in Continental philosophy, or Eastern philosophies are ignored) than included. Again I do not fault the authors for this. They had to find a way to narrow the material or the book would be a thousand pages long. This is a superb book for philosophy students at the undergraduate level who have an interest in these questions. It can be read by anyone however and does not presuppose any familiarity with the presented material.