Sunday, October 13, 2013

Here is matter unorganized...

If a tree falls in the woods and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound? There are a few different ways to answer this elementary question. First, one could say that the sound of a tree falling is simply vibrations in the air caused by the tree interacting with other trees and the ground, and thus it makes a sound regardless of whether or not someone is there to hear it.

A second answer to this is to say that sounds are not the vibrations in the air, but are rather the phenomenological experiences that results from those vibrations interacting with complicated structures of the inner ears and traveling to the brain as nerve signals where those signals are transformed into what our minds experience as sounds. Thus, without any ears and brains to receive and transform those vibrations in there air, there are no sounds resulting from the falling tree.

A third answer builds on the second, but instead focuses on the sound of a falling tree. Even if an ear and brain are present to receive and transform those vibrations to a phenomenological experience, there still remains the ability for the sounds of a falling tree to be heard as such. This requires both distinguishing and identifying the sound. The forest contains a blend of vibrations from rustling leaves and branches, chirping birds, rushing rivers, animal calls, wind, etc. Together these bombard the ear and brain as a chaotic mess of vibrations. It is only through time and experience that our brains begin to distinguish one set of vibrations from another (which begins in the womb). Furthermore, as time and experience enable the vibrations to be distinguished, more experience and and instructions (both self-taught and from others) enable us to identify the sounds we are hearing. What entered our ears as unorganized/chaotic vibrations are able to be experienced as organized and ordered sounds. In the forest we can hear, not just sounds, but the sound of a falling tree, the sounds of rustling leaves, the roar of the river, and the chirping of individual birds as if they were each happening in isolation.

This brings me to divine creation and the purpose of this post. In early and even contemporary Mormonism, certain Mormon thinkers criticized and mocked the notion of creatio ex nihilo or creation out of nothing, calling the creation of something out of nothing to be nonsensical--and they did so with the odd assumption that it made more sense to understand God as creating the world with chaotic stuff by speaking to rocks that listen and obey, or angels manufacturing the objects of the world with their knowledge of chemistry. To be honest, I find theories like the Big Bang and natural selection to be far superior and adequate at explaining the existence of objects in the universe and world. In fact, I feel confident in saying that if someone rejects those theories they can only do so out of ignorance or harmful religious fundamentalism.

Many religious scientists who accept cosmological explanations of the universe or evolutionary explanations of life do so with the caveat that those are tools by which God created those things. Such a view, however, is unnecessary and should be rejected, simply because one of the key explanatory values of these theories is that they do not require any deity or higher-being to operate. They are self-sufficient in explaining the existence of the physical state of things in a purely atheistic universe.

Does that mean that I am saying that God did not create the universe? No. Those of you who have followed my philosophical/theological pondering know that part of my project has been to rethink religious language about the divine, understanding them more in terms of divinity than in term of anthropomorphism. For example, eternal life is a type of life, not just more of it; and God's power is a type of power (specifically, love), and not just abilities of a Supersupersuperman. Similarly, I believe we should understand God's creative ability as a type of creation, and not just the creative abilities of a steroid-induced artisan. In other words, God's creative act is not analogous to a potter working unorganized clay into a new physical thing, but is instead His imbuing purpose and meaning into an already existing universe of things.

Just as the forest without distinguishing and identifying brains contains a chaotic and seemingly incongruous mess of vibrations in the air, the physical universe--as it presently is--is chaotic and unorganized in itself. The physical universe does not distinguish rock, from mountain, from ant, from ice, from star, from human baby, from good, from bad. Those are things that we do (as well as other brained-animals to a certain extent). Using the tools of experience and science we organize the world by distinguishing and identifying those things that we distinguish. Without humans and god, the world of things would still exist. There just wouldn't be anybody around to point at it, saying, "This is a rock," "This is ice," and "This is a baby."

This type of creation by organizing that which is inherently unorganized is similar to, but not wholly analogous to, God's creative act (even though one could read this into the Genesis 1 account of creation). Rather than simply organizing the unorganized product of cosmology and natural selection by distinguishing and identifying its parts, God's creative act is a type of organization that only God can do. His act was to imbue the whole with purpose and meaning.

To talk about God creating the universe should not be a discourse on the origin of things (including Homo sapiens), but the recognition of the purpose of the universe. At its religious heart, to say that God created the universe is not to say that the universe of things would not exist if there were no God, but is to evoke the purpose and meaning that the universe and ourselves have been given.


  1. 1. You state the universe, on its own, is just a chaotic mess of vibrations, but doesn't that also include our brains? Why is *this* matter arranged rock-wise purposeless or chaotic, but *this* matter arranged brain-wise not only has purpose but can imbue other bits of matter with purpose?

    2. Doesn't a purposeless, chaotic mass of vibrations (the universe) have to have regularities in order to give rise to mind in the first place? And if it acts according to regularities, doesn't it already have purpose/order? I don't see any getting around the fact that order must presuppose any type of regularities, and order is synonymous with purpose (since purpose, according to Aristotle, is just regular directedness toward some end).

    3. Perhaps the problem here is that you haven't actually defined "purpose." It seems like you vaguely mean that "purpose" is sort of the labels that human brains give to various vibrations in the world, but I wanted to give you a chance to define it so I know what you're trying to say. I don't know a coherent meaning of the word "purpose" that doesn't presuppose an order that is necessarily logically prior to any material state of affairs. If the world were completely chaotic to begin with, then whence the regularities that our minds can label?

  2. Syphax,

    Before addressing your questions, I should first make clear that this post is primarily about language and not about metaphysical reality.

    1. The universe is chaotic and unorganized in that organization and categorization are not inherent parts of reality, but ways in which we talk about and view reality. Our brains are no different.

    2. By 'purpose' I am referring to intention. The universe doesn't intend anything. It just is. While physical laws may "govern" how matter acts, it does not involve intention. There is no planned intent.

    3. To be clear, I don't think I said that the universe is made up of vibrations. I am not proposing some metaphysical basis of reality, or appealing to string theory or something like that. Furthermore, it seems obvious to me that "purpose" need not precede material state of affairs. A rock gains purpose when I pick it up and decide to kill you with it. For this post, for "purpose" of creation I am specifically referring to religious language.

    Hope that clarifies things.

  3. 1. But we are PART of reality, right? In which case, organization and categorization ARE inherent in reality, since we are. Matter arranged rock-wise doesn't have intention, but matter arranged brain-wise does. So there are at least some parts of reality in which organization and categorization do exist.

    2. You say this is not about metaphysical reality, but you ARE making claims about metaphysical reality - since you claim that it doesn't have purpose or intention. But is that true? You say that the universe is chaotic and unorganized. But does it exhibit regularities? Could it give rise to *any* coherent state of affairs without regularities? Could we *ever* pick out patterns of vibrations if there were no regularities to pick up on? Why do our patterns seem to persist through time if they are not grounded in a principle that constrains what they do (my television was a television yesterday, and it seems to work the same today, too). Just appealing to the "physical laws" doesn't help because what are they, on your view, other than the descriptions we give to patterns that we see? And if so, we are led again to the question of whether there are patterns at all and why?

    3. Then intentions are causally impotent. They don't do or change anything - the universe would just go on as it would anyway. Furthermore, there is no reason to think that God's intentions are any more or less important than ours - can't I give purpose or meaning to the world as a whole just like God can? Can't my purpose completely contradict God's purpose? What is so qualitatively different about God's purpose compared to ours?

    To summarize, do our purposes have any purpose? More importantly (I think), does God's purpose have any purpose?

  4. 1.

    "But we are PART of reality, right?"

    What do you mean by "we," "part," and "reality."

    "organization and categorization ARE inherent in reality, since we are."

    No. Organization and categorization are ways in talk about the material world.

    "Matter arranged rock-wise doesn't have intention, but matter arranged brain-wise does."

    You'll need to explain to me how those differ in intention materially. What do you mean to say that matter arranged brain-wise has intention? Does matter arranged tree-wise have intention? What about river-wise? Volcano-wise? Comet-wise? Coal-wise?


    "You say this is not about metaphysical reality, but you ARE making claims about metaphysical reality - since you claim that it doesn't have purpose or intention."

    If you want to call a denial of metaphysics a claim about metaphysics, go right ahead. And while you are at it, call creationists evolutionists, since by denying evolution, they are, afterall, making a claim about evolution.

    "You say that the universe is chaotic and unorganized."

    Here is where you are misunderstanding me. By "chaotic and unorganized," I am playing off what I make quite clear (at least I think I do) that ways in which we describe the world are ways of speaking and do not depend on a senseless metaphysical reality that our words are connecting to. The universe is not made up of things that possess "rockness" or "iceness," which we then point to and say "that inherently possesses rockness, therefore we will call it 'rock'" or "that inherently possesses iceness, therefore we will call it 'ice'." In a similar manner, I do not inherently possess "Loydness." Rather, naming is a convention that we utilize for communicated. "Loyd" is a word we use to talk about someone we have distinguished by my history, personality, appearance, etc. It's just nonsense to say that if all those attributes that we use to identify me were different that I would still possess "Loydness."

    For the rest of #2, let me go back to my forest analogy. The forest does not distinguish between sounds of falling trees, birds, and rivers. The vibrations in the air are not hashtagged #fallingtree, #bird1, #bird2, #river, #leavesinthewind, etc. They just combine to make a single flow of vibrations that lack any identification in themselves. In a similar way, the speakers in my earphone do not receive signals that come tagged, #bass, #bass, #snare, #guitarpowerc, #synthasharp, etc. The just receive changing signals which cause the speaker to vibrate. The signals themselves are caused by my iphone reading and transforming a series of 1s and 0s which are transformed into those electrical signals. The speakers send vibrations to my ears. (By the way, both the speakers and my ears at any moment are only capable of receiving a single signal). Those vibrations are transformed to nerve signals. The 1s and 0s, electrical signals, air vibrations, and nerve signals do not /become/ music until my brain attempts to make sense of the signals it is receiving. (And, of course, if I handed my iphone to my grandfather, he would say that he only hears a chaotic and unorganized mess of sounds--because he's never been /trained/ to identify industrial music).

    "What is so qualitatively different about God's purpose compared to ours?"

    To the religious believer, the difference is infinite.

    Again, my post isn't about what God does or doesn't do, or whether or not God even exists. Rather, it is an examination of religious language.

  5. Loyd, I agree, although I consider this complementary to rather than inconsistent with engineering the physical aspects of the world.

  6. "You'll need to explain to me how those differ in intention materially. What do you mean to say that matter arranged brain-wise has intention? Does matter arranged tree-wise have intention? What about river-wise? Volcano-wise? Comet-wise? Coal-wise?"

    I'm not making the claim, you are - and you said that the rock doesn't possess intention until you decide to kill someone with it. No justification for that claim, you just said it. I'm trying to understand how you intent to justify that claim - define those words however you want.

    "If you want to call a denial of metaphysics a claim about metaphysics, go right ahead. And while you are at it, call creationists evolutionists, since by denying evolution, they are, afterall, making a claim about evolution."

    Um, no, that's just silliness. A metaphysical claim is any claim about being/reality. You are the one saying things like "ice does not possess 'iceness'" so you're obviously making metaphysical claims (specifically, either Conceptualism or Nominalism). The old adage in philosophy is, "If you think you're not doing philosophy, you're probably just doing it badly." Except we're specifically talking about metaphysics. Your claims about meaning, language, and reality, ARE metaphysical claims whether you admit it, know it, or not.

    As to your Forest Analogy, again, these are just unjustified, question-begging claims. You're arguing for an anti-realist metaphysical position, but you haven't provided any justification for that. You're just asserting that vibrations/patterns are chaotic and meaningless in the sense that we haven't categorized them or labeled them - but that's only true if it's, well... true. It's the very thing that realists deny. By rejecting realism you're taking up an anti-realist metaphysical position (again, either Conceptualism or Nominalism depending on how you see universals in the mind).

    I can't tell if you know the metaphysics and you're intentionally ignoring them (and I'm wasting my time) or you don't know the metaphysics (and I'm still wasting my time). There is no "default" non-metaphysical position regarding universals or forms. Just saying you're not doing metaphysics doesn't make it so.

    "To the religious believer, the difference is infinite."

    Another unjustified claim. I'm a religious believer, and I think that the "difference" between two subjective intentions of purpose for a mechanistic chaotic mess of matter is not infinite. It's up to you to justify your claim.

    For the record, I think that your account of purpose/creation is probably the best one can expect for Mormon Cosmology (and I'm a Mormon who has grappled with such issues so I'm familiar with them), but so much the worse for Mormon Cosmology. I don't see any way we can deny that there are objective patterns in reality, that these patterns are constrained by reason (not the other way around), and that our language corresponds to those patterns. Otherwise, everything collapses into subjectivism and relativism.

  7. Well here I am again, at the impasse of a Wittgensteinian and the non-sense of metaphysical realism.

    Meh. I'm tired of having this discussion over and over and over again.


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