Jon Aquino's Mental Garden

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Monday, May 23, 2011

Pride and Prejudice: A Third Reading

Several days ago I picked up Pride and Prejudice again and spent a number of late nights reading it. I am trying to figure out why I enjoy reading the novels of Jane Austen and her contemporaries. Not everyone likes Pride and Prejudice. From the back matter of the book, I note that Mark Twain, referring to this book, found it not "to his taste". And yet...and yet...when I pick up the book, it is two hours before I set it down again.

I suppose it is because when I read the book I am getting reacquainted with old friends. Fascinating old friends, witty and articulate, some fabulously rich, some charmingly beautiful. And of course, you fall in love with one of them. In the end, justice is done, and life turns out happily.

And when the book ends, you wish you could continue in their company. Which I suppose you could do by revisiting your favorite parts of the book, or perhaps reading it in its entirety after a while. It's bittersweet at the end - you have enjoyed your visit, have not regretted your time spent there, but must now depart from that world. Until the next time you open its covers.

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Difficulties with Aquinas' First Way of Arguing for God's Existence

I blogged a few weeks ago about Aquinas' First Way of arguing for God's existence, as described in Edward Feser's TLS. Aquinas thought the First Way (the Argument from Change) was the most evident of the arguments for God's existence. If I have it right, the basic idea is that every change is caused by (1) something else that changes or (2) something that does not change (which is called God). In other words, any change has an immediate causal chain that must terminate with an unchanged changer. For computer programmers, it's a bit like recursion, which must have a base case.

I do find myself running into problems when applying this to some real-life examples though. For example, I pick up a book. That change is caused by my flexing my arm muscles. That change is caused by neurons firing. Now we could continue to trace along the causal chain to molecules and atoms and thence to the unchanged changer. But could we not also trace down the causal chain to the human mind and say that the human mind, not God, is the unchanged changer in this case? But perhaps we need to ask a couple of other questions first: How can something immaterial like the mind cause a change in something material like the body (the "mind-body problem")? And is a thought in the mind something with its own immediate causal chain that we can trace down? I haven't read much on the philosophy of mind, so I don't have answers for these questions.

Another example that I have trouble with is this: Consider two billiard balls that hit each other and rebound. Can we use this example to argue for God's existence using the First Way? The change in question is that Ball A's velocity changes from 1 m/s to -1 m/s. This change is caused by Ball B. It's not clear to me how to follow the causal chain from this point. Do we say the next cause is the law of conservation of momentum (m1v1 + m2v2 = m1V1 + m2V2)? Or is this where we trace the causal chain down to molecules and atoms? If we do that, we will encounter other laws of physics, such as electromagnetic forces (F = kqQ/r^2, etc.). Do we count these laws as "causes" in the causal chain which themselves need to be explained by other causes? Have we shifted from arguing from change (the First Way) to arguing from cause (the Second Way), and is there a way for us to stick purely to the First Way?

I'm sure these questions have explanations that I'm not seeing. Let me know!

Sunday, May 01, 2011

The Unmoved Mover as Argument for God's Existence

I am trying to understand Aquinas's First Way of arguing for God's existence as explained by Edward Feser in TLS (p. 94–96 on "The Unmoved Mover"), and I think I'm close to understanding it. Suppose you are pressing down a key on your keyboard. Let us consider the chain of causes in that instant of time. What causes the key to go down? Your finger applying force. OK, let's continue to drill down into this instant of time. What causes your finger to apply force? Your muscles contracting.

What causes your muscles to contract? Your neurons firing.

What causes your neurons to fire? Interactions between neurotransmitter molecules.

What causes the neurotransmitter molecules to interact? Interactions between atoms.

What causes the atoms to interact? Interactions involving electromagnetism, the weak force, the strong force, etc.

And so forth. We continue looking down the chain of causes in this particular instant of time, looking at deeper and deeper levels of reality. This "vertical" chain of causes has to stop somewhere – it cannot be infinite (which is obvious if you think about it). And when it stops, it stops with an action that is not caused. This action-that-is-not-caused is what Aquinas calls God. An interesting implication is that this action-that-is-not-caused keeps the world in existence from moment to moment (p. 98).