Monthly Archives: March 2015

Metaphysics 101 Part 3

(Part 3 of Ten)

(continued from Part 2 of Ten)

Determinism and Free Will

There are two chronicles, one from the Old Testament, the other from the New Testament of the Bible, each of which implicitly demonstrates a metaphysical enigma that pervades the Bible and many other oral or written chronicles of the world’s religions. I submit these two chronicles as examples of determinism, a major topic of philosophy.

The first is the chronicle in which God asks Abraham to prove his fealty to Him by sacrificing his son, Isaac. As the story goes, just as Abraham is about to comply, an angel intervenes and Abraham sacrifices a lamb instead of his son.

The second is the chronicle of the Crucifixion of Christ. At the Last Supper, Jesus tells his disciples that one of them will betray Him. He also tells Peter that he will deny his association with Jesus three times before the cock crows. Of course, all this comes to pass.

In the former event, we have God asking a man to sacrifice his son. In the latter, God’s plan is to sacrifice His Son, Jesus. Why the sacrifice of Isaac or Jesus—or, for that matter, why the sacrifice of a lamb, or the intercession of an angel at the moment when Abraham was about to strike the fatal blow? Were these events predetermined?

A free will theist might respond that the actions of Abraham, Judas (who betrayed Jesus), and Peter were perfectly compatible with free will because God knew what was to happen in each chronicle only because of His omniscience, but that the choices made by Abraham, Judas, and Peter were made by their free will. However, I can’t help wondering why Abraham was required to show his fealty to God when God already knew what Abraham would do. Or why God, omniscient and omnipotent, created a world in which sacrifice and betrayal are possible in the first place. If God were omniscient and omnipotent, why would He create a world in which the crucifixion itself was inevitable, with or without free will?

Also incompatible with the absolute prescience of Jesus, is His cry on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Why would Jesus ask a question for which He already knew the answer—a question about the essence of His sacrificial mission on earth?

Millions of people have asked that same question through the centuries as they’ve been crushed under the hoofs of the four horsemen. In light of this, the theist has an insurmountable burden to prove the existence of a God. The atheist has a much simpler task of presenting his case against the existence of God, let alone a benevolent God. He might merely cite the Bubonic and Ebola Plagues and rest his case.

Those two chronicles from the Bible pale when we contemplate the Aztec practice of cutting the heart out of a living human being as an “offering” to their god (religions, like politics, are big on sacrifice). No religious practice can excel the horror of Aztec “piety,” but the following examples come close.

Hinduism is a potpourri of five basic divisions. Its origins can be traced to sacrificial Vedic scriptures and the Máhabhárata and Rámáyana epics. The central Hindu premise is the transmigration of souls, a concept usually referred to as “reincarnation.”

Some Sikhs brush away insects as they walk so that they might avoid stepping on an ant that may be the reincarnation of their aunt who still has a long way to go toward Nirvána. Most Hindu sects believe that all life is precious—unfortunately, some lives more precious than others when we consider the Hindu treatment of Untouchables. For example, two young “untouchable” men (Ramprasad and Ramlakhan) “will never…forget the day they dared fish in a pond used by upper cast villagers in Utta Prades” [India]… “A mob doused the two Untouchables with acid.” (see: National Geographic, June 2003, Page 29) Ramprasad’s facial disfigurement, shown on that same page, exceeds that of any Hollywood horror make-up creation. Ironically, the Untouchables themselves practice Hinduism.

The Caste System was tacked on to Hinduism 1,500 years ago. Disguised as a religious practice, it is designed to provide upper class Hindus with slaves. What is pertinent to this article, however, is the Hindu notion that people are born “untouchable,” another example of deterministic dogma.

Predetermination is basic to the Caste System. Even one’s line of work is predetermined! And, to add misery to injustice, only menial work is assigned to Untouchables. This is particularly inhumane in a country where sewers are cleaned by the lowest class of Untouchables (Bhangis) who, with no more than a brief tunic, immerse themselves in excrement, blood, and other bodily fluids: This, while being derided by the “clean” citizens of India whom they serve.

Unlike anti-theists, I don’t express my views about religions with the intention of “railing against God” or taunting theists. That is not my purpose at all. I have religious friends and atheist friends: we have no problem respecting and loving each other. I also note the absurdity of anti-theists railing against a god in whom they do not believe exists!

But since religion is virtually always an integral part of metaphysics, which in turn includes a discussion on determinism vs. free will, I think it appropriate to highlight the subject here. Of course an extensive discourse on religion is far deeper and more complex than what I’ve presented here. For example, St. Thomas of Aquinas was an ardent advocate for free will!

(to be continued in Part 4 of Ten)

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Metaphysics 101 Part 2

(Part 2 of Ten)

(continued from Part 1 of Ten)

Instinct and Thought

Stones, bones, and microbial impressions tell us a narrative of life that began on earth eons ago. That story weaves millions of species into and out of existence. But whatever the similarities and differences among species may be, instinct is built into all living things, even if that ‘instinct’ is that of a virus at the border of life ‘replicating’ itself by entering a living cell.

Having no life of their own, viruses are quintessential parasites. I read somewhere that a mass of viruses behaves as one (!) as though it ‘knows’ when it may or may not advance against the resistance level of a host organism. Not being alive, a virus is absent of volition as we know it, yet the virus’s movement into a cell and the resulting ‘re-arrangement’ of the living cell’s molecules is probably a purely chemical phenomenon. But I think that the movement resembles an instinct. The same may be true of vegetative life when it works against gravity in the photosynthetic process. Perhaps microbiologists have a better explanation for what it is that makes viruses do what they do (including mutate), but at the more complex level of multi-celled life, instinct is a clear and universal property of life.

What is significant in the context of this article is that the phenomenon of thought sharply distinguishes itself from instinct. When a living organism recoils from heat or cold, its movement is instinctive. When it thinks, it transcends instinct. The interaction of instinct and thought varies from species to species, some of whom have no thought at all (insects) to sporadic thought (land and aquatic mammals). When thought is at a metaphysical level, it is exclusively human.

Oooooops! Now, I hear the shrill voices of relativists of all stripes admonishing me for my “anthropocentric” view of humankind. But the fact is that humans write books, study stars, and split atoms. Apes don’t.

We are told that we owe our dominance to the opposing thumb, which enables us to extensively engage in tool-making. That, they say, is the major reason for humankind’s dominance. Although I’m sure that tools and thumbs greatly helped us achieve dominance, they are not the primary factors in our rise from caves to skyscrapers: brains are.

Thought is the crown jewel of the universe. Thought can be silent, yet you can hear it. It makes you hear music without sound—sometimes even when you want to stop the music but cannot. You hear the word “elephant” and you cannot avoid ‘seeing’ an image of an elephant without the aid of light. And you cannot stop thinking while you are conscious. You know what thought is, but you cannot define it.

If thought is no more than an ongoing activity primordially initiated eons ago when particles came into being; if it is no more than the activity of a macabre dance of particles that began at the first attosecond of time—then, all cerebral activity is irrelevant. Yet, that is the underlying concept of determinism. Its counterpart is free will. No metaphysical issue has been more discussed and none is more profound than that of determinism vs. free will.

(to be continued in Part 3 of Ten)

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Metaphysics 101 Part 1

(Part 1 of Ten)

I’ve never needed proof that a stone is a stone. Nor have I ever accepted the notion that the stone doesn’t exist if I don’t perceive it. I also have no doubt that I’m conscious (at least, most of the time). It follows that any attempt to disprove the existence of matter or consciousness is in itself proof of their existence. Speculation that matter and consciousness are illusions is sophomoric, tedious, and a waste of time.

Life profoundly differs from stones, stars, and galaxies, notwithstanding the fact that stardust is the matter that makes life possible. When a plant draws water up against the force of gravity, that is an event that unequivocally distinguishes life from inanimate matter.

Moreover, life straddles the twin pillars of the universe: It is at once rooted in both matter and consciousness. Consciousness is the unique characteristic of life as distinct from matter. Integrated with universal space/time and the four universal forces, especially electromagnetism, life is a band of existence in the universe that exclusively includes Will.

The Essence of Will

When a stone (inanimate) and a man (animate) roll down a hill, the stone does so in absolute conformity with the ‘laws’ of physics. The man—as long as he is conscious and to whatever extent he can—engages in willful action to minimize injury. That action is the instinctive Will to survive. Will is a universal phenomenon applicable exclusively to life.

We are all familiar with Darwin’s brilliant concept of evolution and its principal tenet, Natural Selection. For example, giraffes that have longer necks are more apt to be ‘selected’ by nature to survive in the long run. His concept maintains that the origin and survival of a species primarily depends on chance in an erratic biosphere that determines which species shall survive and which shall not. His concept implicitly describes a deterministic pattern for life that somewhat mirrors the passive state of inanimate matter.

Lamarck, Darwin’s predecessor, posited an earlier concept of evolution. He stated that evolution is driven by the use or disuse of limbs and organs in willful response to an ever-changing biosphere. That process eventually leads to a new species that has acquired (or inherited) characteristics from its progenitors. His theory explicitly describes a pattern of evolution that is primarily generated by Will, not chance. The taller giraffes are not selected by chance; rather, they strive (or Will) for longer necks over generations. Therefore, the evolution of new species (and their subdivisions) is significantly driven by species willing themselves to survive in an ever-changing biosphere. Darwin’s concept of evolution is circumstantial; Lamarck’s concept of evolution is purposeful.

Of course there are several less celebrated concepts for the evolution of life, whether based on chance or Will. The Darwinian concept of chance is clear on the face of it. Theories that are based on purpose are significantly more complex. For example, although it significantly strains credibility, there is a theory that suggests evolution is a process through which the universe is striving to “understand itself”! It maintains that the fundamental agents driving evolution are genomes. Are we therefore sub-automatons in the service of genomes?

Scientists of considerable scientific reputation posit variations on that theme, but their central concept neither rises above the level of pure conjecture nor fundamentally differs from the two basic concepts of evolution. Note that although Lamarck’s concept of evolution is heavily flawed in respect to factors not cited here, his concept of heredity does smack of modern genetics.

Darwin’s concept prevails in the realm of science, as well it should. But no philosophical reference to human behavior is more significant than the difference between Determinism and Free Will when placed in the context of metaphysics.

To begin with, there is the huge metaphysical question about the origin of life. The current scientific consensus is that it was carried here by cosmic debris that collided with earth eons ago. The concept of a primordial homemade soup right here on earth as the progenitor of life on earth is still on the list of life’s possible progenitors.

And then there is the hotly debated issue of creationism. For now, please remember that however life originated and whatever its evolutionary history, no concept of life’s genesis and evolution is in itself incompatible with the concept of a God as the progenitor of life. Faith is a valid subject in a discussion about metaphysics. Much more on that later.

Please note that an exploration of metaphysics virtually always includes the incidence of religious faith. Religious faith, in turn, is intimately associated with ethics, a branch of metaphysics about which I’m particularly concerned. Much more on that later.

Please also note that I’ve used the words ‘concept’ and ‘theory’ in this introductory segment to differentiate between what is now self-evident (evolution) and what is conceptual only (unproved theories). The reason for that distinction on my part is that metaphysics is extremely tricky. It is loaded with “conceptual IEDs!” At the risk of seeming pedantic, I tread slowly, carefully, and humbly in the vast labyrinth of metaphysics. For the sake of the article’s integrity, I find it impossible to avoid repetition of concepts I’ve posted elsewhere on this website over the years.

I suppose that my motivation and qualification for scaling the heights of metaphysics is my age. At eighty-eight years of age, I feel compelled to express my thoughts about life, especially to the young who are exposed to the clutter of current relativistic metaphysics.

So, here goes!

(to be continued in Part 2 of Ten)

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