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Everything arises bottom-up

It occurs to me that, as we’ve come to understand things better, often a “top down” conception of how something arises has been replaced by a “bottom up” account.

An obvious example is political authority.  The Medieval concept of a God-appointed ruler issuing commands by divine right has been replaced by agreement that legitimate political authority arises bottom-upwards, from the consent of “we the people”.

Similarly, human rights are sometimes supposed to be absolute principles with which people are “endowed by their Creator”.  But, in reality they are collective agreements, deriving from human advocacy about how we want people to be treated, and thus resting only on their widespread acceptance.  Does that make them more insecure, more alienable?  Maybe (and perhaps that’s why some attempt to treat them as absolute and objective), but that’s all there is to it. 

It’s the same with the wider concept of morality. Many have sought to anchor morality in the solid foundation of either a divinity or objective reason.  But neither works: morality derives from human nature and human values. It bubbles up from each of us, leading to wider societal norms and expectations, rather than being imposed on us from outside. Some see that as producing only a second-rate morality, but wanting there to be an objective morality to which a supra-human authority will hold us doesn’t make such a scheme tenable. 

Likewise, principles of fairness and justice can only be rooted in human evaluations of what is fair or just.  There isn’t anything else, no objective scale against which we can read off a quantification of “justness” or “fairness”, any more than there is for moral “oughtness”. What we call “natural justice” is justice rooted in our human feelings of what is fair.  Beyond human society, nature is literally incapable of knowing or caring about concepts of “fairness”, “justice” or “morality”. These are human concepts arising from ourselves. 

And then there are concepts of meaning and purpose. Some argue that, without a God, there can be no meaning or purpose to life.  They tell us that, unless there is an afterlife, our lives are ultimately pointless. But the only forms of meaning and purpose that exists are the purposes that we create for ourselves and the meanings that we find in our lives. As thinking, feeling, sentient creatures we create purposes and we find things meaningful.  That they are local and time-limited doesn’t make them less real.  

But then sentience and consciousness also bubble up from below, forming out of patterns of non-sentient matter. These local and temporary patterns of material stuff arise as a product of evolution, that creates such patterns (“brains”) to do the job of facilitating survival and reproduction. 

It’s the same with intelligence. The top-down conception that the universe starts with intelligence, which dribbles down from there, is wrong.  Rather, intelligence bubbles up from non-intelligent precursors. Over evolutionary time, successive generations of animals developed greater capabilities to sense their environment, to process the information, and then compute a response.

Of course life itself is the same, arising out of non-life.  We’ve long ditched the dualistic notion of elan vital giving spark to inanimate matter.  Simple molecules can replicate because atoms of the same type act like each other, and so, in simple circumstances, simple collections of matter behave similarly. And it complicates from there as simple structures aggregate into complex ones. And when replicators get sufficiently complicated we call them “life”. 

The above traces social sciences into biology and into biochemistry and simple chemistry.  But maybe the same bottom-up approach also applies to physics.

Richard Feynman starts his Lectures by saying:

If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis, that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.

And everything builds from there. 

But even atoms are built of particles, and as for what “particles” are, well we are still pretty unclear on what the ultimate ontology is.

How about causation? It’s a fundamental concept on the macroscopic scale that thing happen at time t+1 because of how things were at time t. But even that may be an  emergent property, since causation gets less clear at the microscopic scale. Quantum indeterminacy holds that things occur for no discernible reason. A virtual particle pair can just arise, with no proximate cause. 

Maybe the concept of time is similar. Special Relativity has long destroyed the idea that there is a time that is absolute and the same for everyone.  Maybe time bubbles up and emerges so that we can only talk sensibly about “time” at a macroscopic level.  Such speculations are beyond established physics, but are being advocated by Carlo Rovelli and others.

And lastly there is space.  Again, the conception of space as an inert, static backdrop in which everything else plays out has long been overturned. Relativity tells us that space is distorted and warped by matter, such that it can no longer be thought of a separate from the matter it interacts with.  Speculative theories suggest that space itself may be created at the local, particle level from the quantum entanglement of adjacent particles.   

All of which leaves me wondering whether there is anything left for which a top-down conception is still tenable.  And, further, does the bottom-up nature of physics at the particle level necessitate that all higher-level properties are emergent bottom-up creations? 

Reflections on Brexit and the moral presumption of the EU

Well that was a surprise; like most people I’d presumed that the British people would “always keep a-hold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse” and so vote, grudgingly, to remain in the EU. Among the acres of comment on this topic I’m not going to argue the pros and cons of Brexit — I have mixed feelings and would have preferred to stay in a reformed EU, if that were on offer — instead I’m going to completely ignore the economics and reflect on just one aspect: the presumption that joining in with and being part of a larger state is somehow morally virtuous in its own right, rather than being something to be decided on pragmatic considerations or purely by cultural preference.

“I’m sure the deserters will not be welcomed with open arms” said Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, as though membership of the EU were a moral obligation from which non-compliance would be rightfully punished.

The presumption that “ever closer union” of Europe is morally mandated has had dire consequences, including the notion that the righteousness of the project justifies doing it badly, and — more seriously — that its righteousness overrides the lack of democratic assent. Thus the EU’s leaders are currently anxious to prevent further referendums — preventing their people from having any say — since that might reveal deep dissatisfaction with the EU much more widespread than the UK. No matter, the democratic will of the people is less important than the moral principle of ever closer union. Continue reading

No “reasonable accommodation” for religion!

equal-logoBaroness O’Neill, chair of the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, has recently given a speech, hosted by the Theos think tank, on freedom of expression and religion of religion. There is much that is good in the speech. In particular I agree wholeheartedly with her view that:

There is no way of securing freedom of expression if we also maintain that there is a right not to be offended. Speech acts that incite hatred, or that intimidate, or that defraud, or that abuse, can be regulated without putting freedom of expression at the mercy of others. But if there were a right not to be offended, this would put everyone’s freedom of expression at the mercy of others.

Baroness O’Neill counsels:

What then should one do if one hears, reads or sees something that one considers offensive, perhaps deeply offensive? The basic thing is to remember is that unless the offending speech act was wrong in some further way (e.g. it was defamatory, or incited hatred, or was fraudulent), no right has been violated, and no remedy of the sort that respect for rights requires is needed.

But, there is one major area where I want to argue that Baroness O’Neil is misguided. And this is the fundamental matter of what we mean by “freedom of religion”. The Baroness says that: Continue reading

Contra theologian Roger Trigg on the nature of science

scientismRoger Trigg is a senior theologian and philosopher. His new book, “Beyond Matter”, is soon to be published by the Templeton Press, part of the wealthy Templeton Foundation whose aim is to produce a religion-friendly version of science.

Roger Trigg

An excert from the book promotes a view of science that is common among philosophers. Those of us with a scientistic perspective see it as erroneous, and yet, since Trigg’s account of science is widely accepted, it is instructive to rebut it.

Trigg argues that science rests on metaphysical assumptions:

What then has to be the case for genuine science as such to be possible? This is a question from outside science and is, by definition, a philosophical — even a metaphysical — question. Those who say that science can answer all questions are themselves standing outside science to make that claim. That is why naturalism — the modern version of materialism, seeing reality as defined by what is within reach of the sciences — becomes a metaphysical theory when it strays beyond methodology to talk of what can exist. Denying metaphysics and upholding materialism must itself be a move within metaphysics. It involves standing outside the practice of science and talking of its scope. The assertion that science can explain everything can never come from within science. It is always a statement about science.

This view can be summarised by the “linear” schematic:


One can see why theologians like this account of science. If it were really true that science rested on metaphysical assumptions then science would be in big trouble, since no-one has ever proposed a good way of validating metaphysical assumptions. Continue reading

A scientism defence of Logical Positivism

Like everyone else I read Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic as a teenager and, like many people of a scientific bent, I loved it. The Logical Positivism that it espoused can be summarised as the claim that knowledge is of two types: (1) logical reasoning from axioms, such as used by mathematics; and (2) claims about the universe that can (in principle) be verified empirically. Anything else — such as metaphysics — is literally meaningless.

Language, Truth and Logic, by A. J. Ayer

Logical Positivism is generally held to have been refuted (following criticisms from notables such as Quine, Popper and others), and as stated in its original form that is a fair assessment. However, its general thrust can be defended as sound. Indeed, Logical Positivism was a forerunner of what today gets called scientism, and interpreting it as scientism it is very much alive.

First, a defender of scientism would subsume the first type of knowledge, the “logical reasoning from axioms”, into the knowledge that derives from empiricism and can be empirically verified. Afterall, the reason that we adopt our basic axioms of logic and mathematics is because they work — they give results that apply to our universe. Where else would we have got them from? Continue reading