Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Conspiracy Theory and Knowledge

First off, let me point you in the direction of the article that made me think about this topic.  There was this article from HowStuffWorks.com about ten people that are considered really smart that have done really stupid things.  The list was interesting to me because it brought up the idea of how we know what we know and what it takes to convince us of something that we don't believe.  There's also this interesting article that I found more recently about a similar topic.  There was also an article about people refusing to believe in things that have been debunked by science but I can't find that link right now.  When I find it I'll add it.

So let's start off our discussion with defining 'conspiracy.'  Wikipedia defines it like this: "A conspiracy theory is an explanatory proposition that accuses two or more persons, a group, or an organization of having caused or covered up, through secret planning and deliberate action, an illegal or harmful event or situation."  Interesting that this definition has no bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim.  Here are some doozies (that's the technical term) that I can think of myself that I know some people actually believe, this is in no particular order: The assassination of JFK (specifically that more than Lee H. Oswald was involved), the moon landing (it was totally faked), the holocaust deniers, the birth certificate of sitting president Barack Obama, any number of Biblical conspiracies including numerology and "Jesus mythicists," vaccination hysteria (the far extreme being the operative position), the 9/11 cover up, and the Erin Brockovich and the PG&E Hinkley groundwater contamination cover up.  This is just my own list of conspiracy theories that I've been thinking about in regards to this entry; it is by no means meant to be comprehensive here's another wiki article (nearly all the previous links were to wiki articles) that has a much more interesting list.

Starting off with the most difficult one, the JFK assassination.  First off, what is the question?  Is the conspiracy that more than one assassin was involved?  So what?  That doesn't really affect the world in any way.  If the conspiracy is that the US government intentionally covered up the fact that someone in power wanted to oust JFK by assassination, and blame it all on one lone gunman, that's more significant.  Here's my basic answer to that kind of conspiracy: Two people can keep a secret, if one is dead.  This old saying applies to the USG as well!  I recently commented on a video on Facebook about this, "The US can't keep ACTUALLY SECRET things secret (Snowden ring any bells?)! How in the world could someone believe that the US government could keep a secret so huge that thousands upon thousands of people would have to be in on it?"  The same critique applies to the moon landing hoax claim.  Do you really believe that the USG could collude with thousands of people to hide a lie that huge, and get away with it?

The moon landing is so much clearer to me.  Though the actual artifacts left on the moon by the Apollo missions cannot be seen with the Hubble telescope, it can be measured.  So, how much disbelief are you willing to suspend?  Does the movie Watchmen convince you that there really was a JFK conspiracy?  Then maybe the lunar laser ranging retroreflector experiment won't convince you that people really walked on the moon.

Another totally crazy one, basically this one gives even ordinary conspiracy theorists a bad name, is that people that deny the holocaust.  While WWII is fading into memories there have been enough actual eye witness testimonies and legitimately researched and peer reviewed historical texts that clearly document the truth.  How can people really close their minds to truth?

The reason I listed the Erin Brockovich case is this.  The plaintiffs were dismissed as conspiracy nuts at first.  Then, after a thorough investigation, they settled for somewhere around $333 million!  While technically a settlement is not an admission of guilt, it doesn't lend credibility to their counter-claim that there was nothing wrong.  My point was that not all conspiracies are false.  I'm not trying to claim that all seemingly crazy claims are false, but here's the deal, what will you accept as evidence and what will convince you that something is true (or false)?  Also, what will happen to your epistemology?  If your epistemology is foundational and one of these conspiracies is part of your belief system you could be in a world of hurt if it's proven untrue.  Foundational epistemology is dangerous!

Since this post is getting too long and I need some rest, I'll complete this discussion some other time.

If this characterizes your epistemology, you're doing something wrong.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas: Part 8: Aquinas’s Metaphysics Part 2

I tried this with the part 1 of this lecture, but it didn't seem to shorten it at all!  I used the the text of the lecture and just commented on what I thought interesting.  Too much of it seemed important and the entry ended up much longer than I wanted.  So here goes part 2.

Here lies an apparent contradiction how is there unity in the diversity of the universe.  Even the word bespeaks of the contradiction, uni and diverse share roots with universe.  Parmenides denied one half of the apparent paradox, manyness.  This eliminates change as well because change is just a manyness in time, before and after.  He was a monist/pantheist everything is one god, the universe, everything because there is only one thing.  The direct opposite can be found in Heraclitus he denied any permanence, saying that all reality was like a river that you could never step into twice.  Plato resolved the problem by distinguishing two worlds, matter where there is manyness and the world of the forms where there was unity.  Aristotle joined Plato’s two worlds with substance being matter and form together.

Aquinas commented on the error of Parmenides and other monists with this:
“They fell into error because they dealt with being as though it were a univocal concept and an essence . . . this, however, cannot be done, for being is analogous . . . Parmenides argues as follows: outside of being there is nothing but nonbeing, and that which is not being is nothing. Since being is one, whatever is outside the one is nothing.’ From this argument of his it is clear that Parmenides was thinking of the concept of being, which appears always to be one and the same, and univocal, for it is unthinkable that something be added to the concept of being so that one concept of being be distinguished from another. For that which would be added to being must necessarily be something outside of and distinct from being. But the only thing outside of or extraneous to being is nonbeing or nothing. Hence it appears that the notion of being cannot be modified, cannot be anything but one, unique, and univocal.”
If there is only one thing, individuality is an illusion.  However, radical pluralism is nominalism: it denies universal ideas existence, and reduces them to mere words.  But, the evidence of our senses shows us both oneness and manyness.  Any good philosophy has to account for all possibilities, not ignore what we don't like or want to understand.

As Professor Kreeft says, "Aquinas explains the oneness of beings by the fact that they all share the act of existence, which is itself one and the same simple act.  But beings are different because this act of existence is received into many different essences."

I also like this quote, "Aquinas calls God the pure act of existence unlimited by any finite essence."

This is not to reduce God to a philosophical abstraction, just a way of talking about God that makes sense.  This does not change how God is the God of Abraham, Isaac etc.  This isn't about just philosophy, it's about the real world as well.

Everything that is real shares a kinship in the act of existence.  And, as God is the infinite pure act of existence this is one way in which God is omnipresent.  "God is existence itself, and existence itself is most intimately present at the heart of every being. Therefore God is most intimately present at the heart of every being."

So here we have it, God is everywhere but this is NOT pantheism, because it’s the act of existence and that transcendent fact that so is intimately present to everything.

Prof Kreeft goes into a long discussion about Angels and their differences from humans, but I'm not going to go into it here.

This is important to Aquinas' philosophy: "Like Aristotle, Aquinas defines change as the transition from potentiality to actuality, and he distinguishes two different kinds of change: accidental change and substantial or essential change. When I get older, smarter, or fatter, that’s only change in accidents, but when I die, that’s a change in essence."

Something remains the same in accidental changes, I am still me even though my entire body's cells have died and been replaced by new cells.

Each person also goes through essential change twice, when we are conceived and when we die.  Corpses are not people nor any kind of a person.

Again "following Aristotle," seems Aquinas was quite enamored with Aristotle's philosophy, "Aquinas distinguishes four causes, four kinds of causality: form and matter are the two intrinsic causes, the formal cause and the material cause; and the efficient and final causes are the two extrinsic causes."

This final point, which Aristotle and Aquinas call a "final cause," has fallen out of modern usage, possibly because it's not considered scientific.  All things act in definite ways.  Puppies always become dogs (assuming they don't die prematurely),  Birds fly, fish swim etc.  Puppies never become horses and rocks can't swim and never will.  This is final causality, things are directed to their specific ends.

As Aquinas argues in one of the five ways, everything that begins to exist needs an efficient cause to account for its existence.  If a thing itself were its own sufficient reason, it would have to exist always.  Either this sufficient reason is eternal or it would have to give existence to itself—which is impossible: nothing can give what it doesn't posses.

Again, sorry no picture!

Monday, June 2, 2014

The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas: Part 8: Aquinas’s Metaphysics Part 1

Part 8 is the beginning of a series of lectures that follow a philosophical order rather than the Summa’s theological order. First is metaphysics and the following lectures will cover philosophical anthropology, epistemology, and ethics.  Metaphysics is foundational because it deals with what is, what is real and what reality even means.  Everything depends on metaphysics.  If one is a materialist then in philosophical anthropology one will have to deny that humans are essentially different from animals, the materialist denies the soul.  The materialist's epistemology will necessarily be a strict empiricism, without a distinction between immaterial, intellectual, rational knowledge and sense knowledge.  Lastly the materialist will concentrate on material goods only.

Some modern philosophers deny the legitimacy of metaphysics.  This is a materialist position, claiming that metaphysics has no distinctive subject because its subject falls outside the material on which the hard sciences and other specific realms of philosophy focus.

Sciences look at beings, but metaphysics looks at universal properties and laws and principles.  What it means to be a being.  As Prof Kreeft says of Heidegger, Western metaphysics after Plato, is guilty of a “forgetfulness of being” because they focused on what things are forgetting to think about the fact that they are.  Aquinas does consider this and the primacy of the act of existence is at the very center of his view of metaphysics.

Another objection to metaphysics is that it claims a kind of God’s-eye point of view.  Looking at the whole of being as if one could do so from outside, forgetting that we are only part of the whole. Aquinas quotes Aristotle that “philosophy begins in wonder.”  He notes that the wonderis not just about some certain beings but about being as a whole. The very fact that we can raise questions about being in general indicates that we are not merely part(s) of that whole.  We can only wonder about something if we are outside that something.  This idea reminds me of the Gödel Escher Bach book by Douglas Hofstadter.

Hobbesian or Humean empiricism, seems to ignore the very mind that’s doing the reducing of itself to “the scout for the senses.”  These views don't seem to account for the very self that’s asking the questions about oneself.  The argument that this goal of knowing what existence is like this.  The very fact that we have the desire to know what existence is like belies that it is knowable.  We wouldn't have a thirst for a knowledge that we couldn't possibly have would be absurd.

Then we have the principle of analogy.  The principle of analogy solves the problem of how we can know anything about God.  If we view God in human terms it's anthropomorphic: we drag God down to the human level, if the terms used for God apply to humanity.  However, if the terms are equivocal, they tell us nothing about God and we cannot know anything about God.  If the attributes of God are analogical, then we know some reflections of God, though pale and remote—we can know something of God.

The first task in analogical analysis is distinguishing between actual existence and merely mental existence.  Aquinas uses the act of existence to separate the two types of existence.  Actual existent things exist by themselves, but mentally existent things do not.  Things that only exist in the mind cannot give real existence to things because they cannot give what they do not themselves posses.

To Aquinas the “second act” is activity and the “first act” is that of existence.  Existence is always acting, always giving itself to something ontologically—self-giving is built into the very nature of existence.  A theological reason for this is that existence is rooted in the very nature of God as self-giving love, and everything else is in the analogical image of God.

This brings us to unity.  Unity is also analogical, I like the way Prof Kreeft puts this: "God is more one than a human soul; and a human person is more one than an animal, because we can meaningfully say 'I;' and an animal is more one than a plant. And even a plant is more one than a rock, or an atom, or a subatomic particle."

This lecture is too long and complicated to give it a fair treatment in one blog post, so I'll save the second half for another entry.  Unfortunately, I don't have a good picture to include with this entry.