Monthly Archives: March 2013

Synchronicity: Cats look like slugs

This past Tuesday night I was mopping the floor, and the cats were charging around chasing the mop. Something about the way they were moving made my wife say, “Don’t you think they look like slugs?” Actually, she said that mostly in Chinese — “牠們很像 slugs, 你不覺得嗎?” — but with slugs in English, since the corresponding Chinese word (蛞蝓) is rather obscure.

I didn’t quite see it. “Slugs? But slugs are slow.”

“Well, they look like fast slugs.”

She went on to mention their slug-like appearance three or four more times that night and the next morning.

*

The afternoon after this, I was tutoring one of my students, who has been practicing his English reading comprehension with a simplified version of Treasure Island. I don’t have a copy of the book, but he brings it to our classes with him and we begin each session by talking about the chapter he has just read. This time, I asked him how far he had gotten in the book, and he opened up to chapter 18 — the second paragraph of which reads as follows:

I could not paddle and I saw that I would be drowned or dashed to death on sharp rocks if I came closer to shore. And I saw what looked like giant slugs on the rocks. These, I later learned, were sea lions, barking in the sun.

So that’s twice in less than 24 hours that I encountered carnivorous mammals being rather improbably compared to slugs — and although sea lions are biologically caniform, linguistically they are lions, a kind of cat.

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Philosophically anarchic vs. dysfunctional

Some have suggested that human will is compelled to choose what it does, though not coerced. For not all compulsion is violent, only external compulsion: the movements of nature are compelled but not violent, since violence — originating outside — is incompatible with both the natural and the willed — both of which originate inside. The suggestion, however, is heretical since it destroys the notion of human action as deserving or undeserving: somebody so compelled to act that he can’t avoid it doesn’t seem to be doing anything deserving or undeserving. The opinion is also philosophically anarchic, not only opposed to the faith but destroying the foundations of ethics. For if we are not in any way free to will but compelled, everything that makes up ethics vanishes: pondering action, exhorting, commanding, punishing, praising, condemning. Opinions like these, which destroy the foundations of a branch of philosophy, are called anarchic: the opinion that nothing changes, for example, which does away with natural philosophy. People are led to embrace them, Aristotle says, partly by brinkmanship and partly by sophistical reasoning to which they can’t find the answers.

— St. Thomas Aquinas, Quaestiones Disputatae de Malo (McDermott translation)

Finding the term philosophically anarchic a little odd, I looked up the original and found that Prof. McDermott has taken certain liberties with the text (something I had suspected anyway, since his Aquinas is so readable!). In the original Latin, the bolded clause reads as follows: Huiusmodi autem opiniones quae destruunt principia alicuius partis philosophiae, dicuntur positiones extraneae. — so it appears that Aquinas is not calling such opinions anarchic but rather foreign to philosophy, a designation which makes much more sense. Such opinions, regardless of whether or not they can be proven false, simply have no place in philosophy.

(I also looked up the passage from Metaphysics Aquinas cites here, just in case positiones extraneae should turn out to be a translation of a Greek term more properly translated as anarchic. But Aristotle merely attempts to explain why some people might deny the principle of non-contradiction. He doesn’t create and define a category of anarchic/foreign opinions as Aquinas does, or at least not in the cited passage.)

Aquinas’s concept of opinions which are foreign to philosophy is comparable to my concept of philosophically dysfunctional opinions. (See my use of that term here and here.) But Aquinas’s definition — opinions “which destroy the foundations of a branch of philosophy” — manifests a typically scholastic let’s-classify-everything approach which I find less than helpful. I prefer to define a philosophically dysfunctional opinion as one that undermines, not some particular branch of philosophy (perhaps some branches, such as astrology, deserve to be undermined?) but philosophy itself — thought itself, in fact.

The end purpose of all thought is to serve as a guide to action. This purpose can be frustrated, and thought rendered dysfunctional, in several different ways, but — to attempt to get into the scholastic spirit a bit — philosophical dysfunctions can be classified under three main heads:

  1. The denial of ends. If nothing is good or bad, or if no particular thing matters more than any other particular thing, then the idea of a “guide to action” makes no sense. A guide cannot function without a destination.
  2. The denial of means. If there is no causation, or if causal relations cannot be known and reasoned about, there can similarly be no guidance. In addition to knowing the destination, we need to know which roads lead to it and which do not.
  3. The denial of agency itself. Obviously if there is no action — only the passive propagation of mechanistic cause-and-effect — then there is nothing to guide.

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Synchronicity: Jumpin’ Jack Flash

On Thursday morning, I suddenly felt like listening to the Rolling Stones — specifically to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” I’m not a huge Stones fan and only own two of their albums, neither of which includes “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” so I listened to it on YouTube.

I remembered that when I was a little kid and heard that song on the radio, I had always assumed that “I’m Jumpin’ Jack Flash, it’s a gas gas gas” was a reference to Spring-heeled Jack, perhaps with a secondary allusion to the Mad Gasser of Mattoon — Jack and the Gasser being two characters I knew from the “true unsolved mysteries” books I liked to read in those days. Wondering if I had perhaps been right, I looked the song up on Wikipedia and found that it had actually been inspired by Jack Dyer, the gardener at Keith Richards’s country house — not by the spring-heel’d Terror of London. Then I skimmed the Wikipedia article on Spring-heeled Jack for good measure. (It didn’t mention the Stones song, but it did compare Jack to the Mad Gasser.)

*

That night, I came home to find my wife watching TV. It was a sci-fi program in which the heroes somehow get hold of a velociraptor (not sure how they do this, since I missed the beginning) and, trying to send it back in time to where it belongs, they accidentally send it back to Victorian London instead. The raptor of course starts killing people, but the deaths are blamed on Spring-heeled Jack. Then the heroes go back to Victorian London themselves to catch the velociraptor, and they too are accused of being Spring-heeled Jack!

*

I regularly go for years at a stretch without ever once hearing, reading, speaking, or thinking of Spring-heeled Jack — so having him cross my path twice in one day — well, it was kind of a gas!

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The necessity of agency (continued)

I will attempt to make sense here, but don’t get your hopes up. I can feel as I write what follows that I am being neither eloquent nor clear, that my subject is defeating me. Nevertheless I will try.

*

It is necessary to assume the reality of cause and effect. Although, as Hume demonstrated, there can be no proof — nor even any evidence — that there is such a thing as causation, any philosophy that dispensed with the concept would be a dysfunctional philosophy, one incapable of doing what a philosophy is supposed to do, namely, to serve as a guide to action. One could not say that such a philosophy would be “false” necessarily, but it would be wrong and unacceptable at a level deeper than, and prior to, the level at which the concepts of truth and falsehood become relevant. As John R. Harris says in Climbing Backward Out of Caves, “causation is not a sight but a way of processing things seen” — but despite the lack of, the impossibility of, evidence for causation, it is nevertheless philosophically necessary for us to process things in this way.

The concept of mechanistic causation is incomplete without the concept of agency. Without agency, events are caused, but nothing is caused by anything. Each link in the chain of causation merely passively passes on what it has received. Such a model of the world — all dominoes and no fingers — is incoherent and philosophically useless. In a world with no agency, there can be no real causation, either. Such a world would contain intelligible patterns — it would not be a mere chaos — but it would be an abuse of language to say it contained causes and effects. And causes and effects are philosophically necessary.

*

What is agency, then? Agency causes things but is not caused by things. It has a relationship with prior events which is intelligible — it is not mere randomness — but does not amount to cause-and-effect. What exactly that means is admittedly hard to grasp. The concept of agency is (to borrow a simile from G. K. Chesterton) like the sun; it illuminates other things, but looking at it directly is not advisable.

Agency is what makes it possible for contingent things to exist. Without it, it would be impossible for necessary things to give rise to contingent things.

*

I should mention that, as a sort of corollary to my acceptance of agency, I also now accept the existence of God. I hasten to add, lest my religious friends get too excited, that at this point my tentative theism/deism is of the barebones god-of-the-philosophers variety — i.e., I don’t yet believe in anything that looks much like Jehovah — but it is nevertheless a significant step for me. This card-carrying atheist has turned in his card.

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The necessity of agency

It says: “In the beginning was the Word.”
Already I am stopped. It seems absurd.
The Word does not deserve the highest prize,
I must translate it otherwise
If I am well inspired and not blind.
It says: In the beginning was the Mind.
Ponder that first line, wait and see,
Lest you should write too hastily.
Is mind the all-creating source?
It ought to say: In the beginning there was Force.
Yet something warns me as I grasp the pen,
That my translation must be changed again.
The spirit helps me. Now it is exact.
I write: In the beginning was the Act.

— Goethe, Faust (Kaufmann translation)

All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.

— Joseph Smith, Doctrine and Covenants 93:30

For several years now I have maintained the position that belief in “free will,” in the normally accepted sense of that term, is logically incoherent and not-even-false, that it is incompatible with both determinism and indeterminism and as such could not be a feature of any conceivable universe. (See my posts Free will: a problem for everyone, Free will and the limits of reason, and A concise statement of the problem of free will.) Now, after protracted reflection on the kalam paradox, I am recanting that position. I now accept the philosophical necessity of free will — or, to use more precise language, of agency. The universe must include things that act, over and above things that merely happen.

This means that I am rejecting one of the axioms on which my past reasoning about free will was based. Contrary to what I wrote in my first post on free will, there is — must be — “something which is neither chance nor necessity nor a combination of the two.” I am obviously well aware of the paradoxical nature of this position — but the scales have tipped, and I now consider this particular complex of paradoxes to be more philosophically acceptable than that which arises from the contrary position.

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I will probably be explaining this further in future posts, or at least attempting to do so. (The topic is notoriously difficult even to think clearly about, to say nothing of writing!) At this point I merely wish to notify my readers that I have changed my mind on this point and no longer stand by what I have written in the past about free will.

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Behold, I say unto you, Nay.

Motivated in part by my correspondence with Bruce Charlton, who holds the book in high esteem, I recently reread the entire Book of Mormon for the first time in about 12 years. Where my past readings of the book had always been slow and drawn-out, a chapter or two a day, this time I read the whole thing in two weeks — and did most of that reading in two (non-consecutive) days, during two long flights between Taiwan and the United States.

Reading the whole book in such a short period of time, you naturally notice things you wouldn’t otherwise about the structure and unity of the book as a whole. One little thing that caught my attention this time was a rhetorical device which is virtually absent from the Bible but which appears again and again throughout the Book of Mormon: rhetorical yes/no questions which the speaker or writer answers himself with “(Behold,) I say unto you, Yea/Nay.”

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Given how closely the diction of the Book of Mormon is patterned after that of the King James Bible, it is somewhat surprising that this particular formula doesn’t appear in the KJV at all. The closest it comes is “I tell you, Nay,” which is used three times by Luke’s Jesus (Luke 12:51; 13:3, 5). Jeremiah also twice answers a rhetorical question with a simply “nay,” with nothing corresponding to “I say unto you” (Jeremiah 6:15; 8:12). Unless I’ve missed something, nowhere else in the entire Bible does a speaker or writer answer his own yes/no questions. (In fact, the words yea and nay in general occur far less frequently in the Bible than in the Book of Mormon. As a proportion of the total number of words in the book, nay is 2.3 times more frequent in the BoM than in the KJV, and yea is a whopping 10.7 times more frequent — making the latter even more characteristic of BoM language than the infamous “it came to pass,” for which the figure is 8.8.)

In the Book of Mormon, on the other hand, rhetorical questions followed by “(Behold,) I say unto you Yea/Nay” occur 33 times — recorded by at least 5 different writers and attributed to 12 different speakers spanning the entire thousand-year history of the Nephites.

No. Speaker References
8 Nephi 1 Ne. 15:16; 17:33, 34. 2 Ne. 26:25-28; 31:19
1 Jacob Jacob 2:14
1 Jarom Jarom 1:2
1 King Benjamin Mosiah 5:14
3 Abinadi Mosiah 12:37; 13:26, 32
10 Alma the Younger Alma 5:8, 9, 25; 7:17; 32:18, 29, 31, 35, 36; 42:25
2 Amulek Alma 11:24; 34:11
2 Ammon Alma 26:31, 33
1 Captain Moroni Alma 60:23
1 Jesus Christ 3 Nephi 12:26
1 Moroni Mormon 9:15
2 Mormon Moroni 7:29, 37

The prevalence of this structure throughout the book could be seen as a small piece of evidence that it is the work of one person (Joseph Smith) rather than of several different writers who lived hundreds of years apart. This fact that the structure also occurs in Joseph Smith’s own writings (see Doctrine & Covenants 84:59; 132:35) lends support to this interpretation.

Alternatively, for believers in the historicity of the book, the structure could be seen as a rhetorical device which became conventional among the Nephites — apparently originating with Nephi himself and subsequently imitated by his descendants down through the centuries. By the first century, it was apparently so well entrenched that Jesus himself felt the need to insert it into the Sermon on the Mount in order to meet the rhetorical expectations of his Nephite audience.

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My sign from God

In his book Climbing Backward Out of Caves (pdf), John R. Harris discusses why apparent miracles and other empirical phenomena cannot be used to prove religious claims:

There are no [empirical] arguments for faith, properly speaking, nor can there be. If you could pray to be placed atop the church’s steeple and then, miraculously, your body rose through thin air to the lofty perch desired, what would you have proved to the scientist? He would examine your shoulders for ropes or cords. He would investigate the church’s structure for a small elevator concealed from a certain perspective. He would search the premises for cleverly installed mirrors that project stable images over some ladder or mechanism. If brought to his last resort, he would have his own blood tested for hallucinogens and his own brain for neurological disorders. In a last last defense, he would perhaps found a new science devoted to the study of unknown mental powers capable of concentrating intense amounts of energy upon very specific objects for very brief periods of time.

Your miracle, having been perceived, would be scientifically explicable, and hence no miracle at all. The trick would be finding the answer… but the presence of an answer could be presupposed, since causation is not a sight but a way of processing things seen. All that we perceive immediately incurs the possibility of explanation. Those who should choose not to investigate your levitation beyond a certain point — to accept you as a true miracle-worker and prophet — would have made an arbitrary decision to desist from the search. Their resignation would not be justified by any objective evidence: it would only demonstrate that they had grown weary of searching, and perhaps that they were already predisposed to see wonders all around them.

I experienced the truth of this firsthand a couple of years ago (Friday, October 15, 2010, to be exact) when I asked God for a very specific sign, received exactly what I asked for that very same day — and came out of the experience not appreciably less of an atheist than I had been before.

*

I was living in Changhua, Taiwan, at the time, and working mostly in that city, but twice a week I took a train to Yuanlin and taught some classes at the university’s branch there. One day I was sitting in Changhua Station waiting for the train when something popped into my head and (subaudibly) out my mouth: “God, if you’re there, give me a sign.” Then, realizing that it might be nice to be a little less vague than that, I added, “Make someone give me a cicada.”

I can’t really say what prompted me to say such a thing. It’s not as if I had been particularly wondering whether God existed or hoping that he might. I had been an atheist for nearly 10 years, and I was quite confident in my unbelief. I had recently started reading and commenting on a few blogs by Christians (Bruce Charlton, John C. Wright, maybe a few others), and I suppose that’s what put it into my head. I had also had a few recent experiences where I had thought to myself, “You know, I could really use ___ right now,” and then the thing I had wished for had immediately (but otherwise quite non-miraculously) appeared.

Why a cicada? I don’t know. I had the idea that I should ask for something improbable but not actually miraculous, and that’s what came into my mind. The idea seemed to come from nowhere, and I thought at the time that it might be an inspiration — God telling me what sign he intended to give, rather than the other way around.

The request wasn’t quite as random as it probably seems, though. Those who remember the old header image from this blog will be aware that I’ve made the cicada a personal emblem of sorts, and that Friday morning in the station I was actually wearing a jade cicada pendant around my neck. (I had a second such pendant at home, but the cord had been broken for some time.) Cicadas are a reasonably common decorative motif in Taiwan, comparable to, say, unicorns in America. You don’t see them every day, but they’re not unheard of.

All day I was on the lookout for cicadas and was trying to guess what form the sign might take. (“Give me a cicada” is actually pretty vague.) Maybe I would see someone with a cicada T-shirt on the train. (I’ve never seen a cicada T-shirt before, but it could happen.) In addition to my regular classes in Yuanlin, I also did one-on-one tutoring with a little kid who loved insects and occasionally brought rhinoceros beetles and things to class with him — so maybe he would literally give me a live cicada. (His class was on Wednesdays, not Fridays, but it could still happen.) But nothing like that happened. All day I found nothing even remotely cicada-related, and that night on the train back home to Changhua I scolded myself for even entertaining the idea of a “sign” and said to myself, “Forget it. No one’s going to give you a cicada.”

I arrived home quite late that night, as I usually do. Ordinarily my wife would be waiting for me with dinner, but this time she met me at the door and suggested that we go out to the night market to eat and to get the broken cord on my other cicada pendant fixed. (I had bought both of the cicada pendants from the same vendor at the night market.) Her mentioning a cicada out of the blue (it had been broken for a long time, and it had been months since we had said anything about fixing it) got my attention, but it still wasn’t really the sign I had asked for, since I already owned the cicada in question and wasn’t being “given” anything.

At the market, I gave the jade vendor my pendant for repairs, and she showed me something new that she thought I might be interested in: a small white jade key chain in the shape of a cicada. Now we were getting closer to the sign, but not close enough — because of course I was going to buy the thing, which isn’t the same as being given it.

She needed some time to fix the cord, though, and while she worked and my wife chatted with her I wandered around the market a bit. When I came back, the vendor gave me the two cicadae. I reached for my wallet, but my wife stopped me and said, “That’s okay. I paid already.” So the new cicada did in fact end up being a gift rather than a purchase.

I was suitably impressed. For all the vague things I would have been willing to accept as a sign (seeing a T-shirt with a cicada on it!), what I received was precisely what I had asked for: someone gave me a cicada.

At that point I thought of Gideon’s asking for a second sign to confirm the first, and it occurred to me to do the same thing. Again I asked for the first thing that came to mind, and again I can’t really explain why I chose what I did: “Make someone say the word rabbit” (again I was shooting for something relatively improbable but not at all miraculous).

Within a minute or two of this request, a woman walked past me carrying a live rabbit in her arms. (Had I seem this woman before without consciously noticing her? Is that what put the “rabbit” idea into my head. It’s entirely possible.) Frustratingly, though, no one said anything about it. The word rabbit was not spoken. I felt almost as if I were being taunted, as if the intended message were, “See how easy it would be for me to grant that request? Well, I’m going to make a point of not granting it.”

*

In the following weeks I made a few half-hearted attempts at repeating the experiment — asking for other specific signs, trying to choose the first thing that came to mind — but nothing came of it — which is not surprising. “We do not satisfy men’s curiosity in that manner.” It’s not as if further signs would have served any useful purpose anyway. Repetitions would have decreased the odds that the original request had been fulfilled by mere chance — but the odds of that are already quite low enough. A billion to one or a trillion to one, what difference does it make? Mere coincidence is not an explanation I am seriously entertaining.

*

But neither — obviously — did the experience turn me into a theist. I think most people, believers and non-believers alike, would agree that it would be a pretty stupid reason to start believing in God. There are just too many other possible explanations. It could have been subconscious precognition on my part. It could have been subconscious mind-reading on the part of my wife. It could have been the work of some supernormal but subdivine being who wanted either to make me believe in God or to pass itself of as the same. It could have been “synchroncity,” whatever that is. It could have been any number of different things — far-fetched, all of them, but not obviously any more far-fetched than the idea that the omnipotent Creator of the universe decided to intervene in our world to grant a pointless request I had made on a mere whim.

I know I sound like Harris’s hypothetical scientist, founding his risible “new science devoted to the study of unknown mental powers capable of concentrating intense amounts of energy upon very specific objects for very brief periods of time” — but the point is that Harris’s scientist, however silly he may sound, is right. An explanation is always possible. There can be no empirical argument for God. And thus asking for a sign is a fundamentally foolish thing to do, since a sign alone can never convince an unbeliever, but can only increase his condemnation should there turn out to be a God after all. Woe unto thee, Chorazin! Woe unto thee, Bethsaida!

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