Archive for September, 2021

September 27, 2021


by Neil Rickert

Most people are probably familiar with dualism. It is the claim that the mind exists as an immaterial substance. It is often called “Cartesian Dualism”, because of the way that it was formulated by Descartes. However, the idea of a spiritual soul seems to be much older.

Apparently, Descartes was familiar with the workings of a clock, and saw that the kinds of mechanisms used could possibly explain motions and other visible behaviors of animals and people. But he did not believe that it could explain thinking. So he argued for two substances. The physical motions would be explained by extended stuff (or material substance), while thought would be explained by thinking stuff (or mental substance), taken to be distinct from extended stuff.

Modern views

Since the time of Descartes, much has been learned about anatomy and about the brain. And our experience with computers shows how intricate behavior can be controlled without requiring any immaterial substance. As a result, dualism is now rejected by many people. However, many religious folk still like the idea of a spiritual soul, so continue to cling to some kind of dualism.

These days, most people of a scientific bent point to the brain as responsible for what Descartes attributed to an immaterial mind. And most academic philosophers agree, though there seem to be a few holdouts.

Passive perception

Descartes took the view that perception is passive. That is, we just perceived the world the way that it actually is. This seems a reasonable conclusion for a dualist such as Descartes. If the mind was assumed immaterial, it could do magical things.

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September 20, 2021

Conservative Christianity

by Neil Rickert

I’m taking a break from my more usual topic. So this is something of a filler.

I was a Christian from around age 11 to around age 23. I’m inclined to say that I was a liberal Christian in a conservative church. I perhaps should add that this was in Australia.

Conservative Christianity never made sense to me. I was a liberal Christian, because that made sense. My pastor encouraged me to read the Bible, so I did. I read the OT and the NT in parallel. When I got to the Adam & Eve story, my reaction was “Surely I am not expected to believe that this is true history!” It seemed so obvious that it had the genre of a fable, that I didn’t even bother to ask my pastor about that. And, of course, I had a similar reaction to the story of Noah and the flood, the story of the Tower of Babel, the story of Jonah. I guess I was already well on my way toward becoming a liberal Christian.

The Gospels

In my reading of the NT, I particularly (but not exclusively) concentrated on the gospels. After all, the religion was supposed to be about Jesus and his teachings. And I thought those teachings were pretty good. I read where Jesus taught that we should love our neighbor (Luke 10:27). And this was followed by the parable of the good Samaritan, which I took to be a lesson that we should care about all humans, even those from different ethnic backgrounds. This idea was reaffirmed in Matt. 25 — the parable of the sheep and the goats.

I guess this is what people mean by “The Social Gospel”. But the conservative churches, particularly so in America, reject that social gospel.

To me, based on what I learned during my period as a Christian, the conservative version of Christianity seems distinctly unchristian to me.

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September 13, 2021

Against mechanism

by Neil Rickert

The title might be a tad misleading, so I will need to clarify. But perhaps I should start by pointing out that we really don’t have a good definition of mechanism. So people might disagree about what the word means.

I have a car, clocks, a wrist watch, a cell phone, and many other such things. I am not against that kind of mechanism. I will note, however, that all of those kinds of mechanisms eventually fail. Mechanical things break.

And then there are our scientific laws. Newton’s laws were often described as “Newtonian mechanics”, and Einsteins newer theory is often described as relativistic mechanics. We normally do not expect scientific laws to fail. Of course, these days we normally see relativistic mechanics as having superseded Newtonian mechanics. But that wasn’t because Newton’s laws failed in the way that real mechanisms fail. Rather, it was because relativistic mechanics was better than Newtonian mechanics. And, of course, Newtonian mechanics is still very much in use, because it is easier to use than relativistic mechanics, and in most cases it works well enough.

Ideal mechanisms

Because scientific laws are not expected to fail, we might consider them to be ideal mechanisms. They are abstract, rather than composed of physical gears and levers such as we see with physical mechanisms.

Again, to be clear, I am not in any way opposed to the kind of ideal mechanisms that we see in science. They not what I am against. After all, I am a mathematician, and much of mathematics is about such ideal mechanisms.

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September 6, 2021

Subjective and objective

by Neil Rickert

I have been reading Nagel: “The view from nowhere“, where Nagel attempts to give an account of objectivity. Here’s the book summary from Wikipedia:

The View from Nowhere is a book by philosopher Thomas Nagel. Published by Oxford University Press in 1986, it contrasts passive and active points of view in how humanity interacts with the world, relying either on a subjective perspective that reflects a point of view or an objective perspective that takes a more detached perspective. Nagel describes the objective perspective as the “view from nowhere”, one where the only valuable ideas are ones derived independently.

Nagel emphasizes the idea of becoming more detached. But I did not find a good account of what it means to become detached. I’m not at all sure that one can become detached without going into clinical depression. But perhaps I misunderstand what Nagel is suggesting.

An alternative

I will suggest a different idea as to what distinguishes subjective from objective.

In my last post, I discussed the idea of standards. And I suggested that there can be several sets of standards. In particular, we can have personal stands. And, additionally, there can be community standards. Here, I considered scientific standards as being a particular case of community standards, where “community” refers to the scientific community.

My suggestion is that we make subjective judgements when we base those judgements on our personal standards. And we make objective judgements when we base them on community standards.

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