Dialog with Jeff Williams: Part I

This is a continuation with the dialog between Jeff Williams and I. For my summary of the background, see here.

On his blog, Jeff has asked me to
respond to several points.

But before he makes his specific request, he makes some preliminary statements, some of which I take issue with. He writes:

I recognize two distinct innate modes of human thought: rational objectification of events in the world; and esthetic experience of Being.

I agree with Jeff that we make distinctions between the sense data of our experiences, the description of what we think our sense data is telling us about an external world (assuming an external world exists!), and the description of how we think that sense data compares to an ideal (the esthetic experience). Where I disagree with Jeff is the nature of these distinctions.

We are all just "
ripples on the quantum pond" (do take time to read this link. If we disagree on this we won't agree on the important things). So our sense data is ripples on the pond; our rational objectification of events is ripples on the pond, our esthetic experience is ripples on the pond; our "our" is ripples on the pond. For there to be true distinctions between these things then there needs to be true distinctions in the ripples.

This means that there are ripples that give rise to logic, truth, and meaning for these are the basis of our ability to describe events (Jeff's "rational objectification") and our ability to describe a "distance" between two events (which is the "is/ought" distinction). The only difference between the "rational objectification of events" and the "esthetic experience of Being" is that the latter involves a distance metric between two events or between an event and an "idealized" event.

The resulting representations do not exist as such in the external world...

Here, Jeff needs to demonstrate that there is an "external" -- as opposed to "internal" -- world. If everything is ripples on the pond, then the events and our descriptions of the events, all exist in the same pond. The "internal"/"external" distinction is due to the limitations of our perception and are not due to a fundamental aspect of reality.

I retain Heidegger’s distinction between them as “Truth” arising from esthetic experience, and “Correctness” inhering in objectification.

I note that Jeff needs to define what "truth" and "correctness" are in his worldview, just as I will have to do in mine. Mine is easy.

Again, Being is reduced to copula.

This is problematic for several reasons, which Jeff will have to defend. First, how does anyone know what "Being" is, since we can't directly experience it? Second, it betrays a form of thinking where "Being" and "copula" are distinct things. As a Christian, I would argue that this is equivalent to the "modalist" heresy. I don't want to immediately derail this particular part of the discussion, but we may eventually have to go there (cf. my posts on the
Trinity, which are more about the ways this doctrine shows how individuals think about things than it is about the doctrine itself.).

Thankfully, we have no need to go through another tedious debate about duality.

I'm not sure we can ultimately escape it. As I (attempt to show) in
On the Undecidability of Materialism vs. Idealism both physicalism and metaphysicalism are dual ways of looking at the same thing. If Jeff wants to get rid of metaphysics, then the only way he's going to be able to do it is by a subjective mental coin flip. That is, the only way you can get rid of metaphysics is by arbitrary fiat. Note the duality: the only way you can get rid of physicalism is by arbitrary fiat, too.

So now we get to the discussion points. Jeff wrote:

my claim that reason is essentially different from reality ...

Reason can't be different from reality, since it's all just ripples on the quantum pond
1. What I think Jeff wants to say is that reason allows us to construct descriptions that may, or may not, accurately describe reality. The hard part is knowing which descriptions belong to which class. Jeff wants to reject the idea of "Being" and "copula", but he has to provide a basis as to why. Why not say that "Being" and "accurate descriptions of Being" are both "Being"? (note the parallel to Trinitarian thought).

I will repeat my original answer to that question: while we have dedicated receptors and neural paths for each sensation, no such thing exists for reason. I cannot experience reason the way I do light.

If reason is just the swirling of atoms in certain ways in your brain, then you have to be able to experience it, even if the connection may not be obvious. As I will show in the next blog post, you do have neural paths for reason. I'll show how they work in theory. That this works in practice can be seen in the paper "
Computation Emerges from Adaptive Synchronization of Networking Neurons". And, if you're like other people (admittedly, my sample size is small), you experience reason by talking to yourself (we subvocalize our thoughts). That is, computation has to interact with it's environment for the results of computation to be known. The swirling atoms in your brain which are your reason interact with the sense receptors in your brain to make the results of reason known. That is, your sense receptors can be triggered by interaction with an external swirl of atoms as well as the internal swirl of atoms.

where I can create mathematics or logical forms, but this is entirely without external sense data.

I will show that this is false. You cannot sever the roots of mathematics from sense data. But I first have to show where you get logic, then truth, then meaning, and then math.

Without converting to the imaginings of space and time, I have no intuition of reason at all.

This, too, is false. One of the things that has to be understood is that, when it comes to physical devices, there is no difference between the hardware and the software. We may not know what initial knowledge the wiring of our brains gives us, but it's clear that it's there. See, e.g. "Addition and subtraction by human infants", Karen Wynn, Nature, Vol 361, 28 January 1993.

The new subject of quantum mind is attracting top physicists and neuroscientists and perhaps offers the path to understanding.

One the one hand, everything is quantum. On the other hand, let me quote Feynman:

Computer theory has been developed to a point where it realizes that it doesn't make any difference; when you get to a universal computer, it doesn't matter how it's manufactured, how it's actually made.2

That is, computer theory doesn't care about the actual physical construction details as long as you get the right behavior.

Your model, however, centers on atoms, not waves, and leaves the exact principles unspecified.

As per the Feynman quote, it doesn't matter if the model is based on atoms or waves. The model doesn't care. I'm going to use atoms simply because it's easier. And this is an interesting property, since whatever quantum "stuff" is, it exhibits wave-particle duality. That is, computation theory is wave-particle agnostic. What matters is the actual behavior.

and since atomic arrangements are part of nature, that implies an exact connection and description of truth.

Note quite. There is an exact connection between connection and description, but that doesn't mean that every description is true. Remember, there are false as well as true descriptions.

It would also leave unexplained the limitations of Wigner’s invariability principles, which seem to demonstrate the inability of reason to grasp anything larger than a very limited set of events within limited space and time.

Sure, our brains, being physical objects, have physical limitations on what they can keep in mind at one time. But the wonderful thing about Turing machines is that they can use external storage. In fact, to the best of my knowledge,
man is the only animal that does use external storage for thoughts. We have all the physical bits in the universe by which we can augment our reason.

Instead, I would ask you to demonstrate why reason is an atomic arrangement ...

Better, reason is matter in motion in certain patterns. If you want to get a preview, see Notes on Feser's "From Aristotle..." If you have questions with this, I can try to address them in the next post.

[1] Unless, of course, you want to admit a transcendent God, who is reason itself and the non-physical cause of all physical things.
[2] Simulating Physics with Computers, International Journal of Theoretical Physics, Vol. 21. Nos. 6/7, 1982

Dialog with Jeff Williams: Intro

On September 8, Jeff Williams and I entered into a Twitter debate about the nature of reality. Jeff describes himself as "an atheist as a result of recognizing the illusion of metaphysics in its entirety." His blog is "Too Late For The Gods".

Eleven days later, the discussion is still going. I cobbled some code together to pull the entire conversation from this
starting tweet, formatted it a bit, and saved it in a text file here.3 It helps immensely to be able to search the complete discussion for what has been said, to look for conversational loops, dead ends, and unanswered questions.

But the conversation has outgrown Twitter. At
this point in Twitter, Jeff has asked me to defend one of my claims and has switched to his blog to continue this phase of the dialog. His post is here. After some preliminary remarks, I will respond directly here on my blog. If Twitter isn't a very good medium for these kinds of things, neither are a blog's commenting facilities, particularly since I'm going to want to use diagrams to illustrate some points.

Why have Jeff and I been doing this for almost two weeks now? I won't speak for Jeff but, while I thoroughly disagree with some of his fundamental statements and think that his worldview is ultimately incoherent, we do agree in some surprising ways. For example, he
posted a rebuttal to some arguments made by the Christian apologist William Lane Craig. While I don't agree with everything in his rebuttal, I do agree that Craig (as well as most contemporary apologists) are an embarrassment. I'll try my best not to join them.

I also agree that reality, whatever it is, is deeply counterintuitive. I've posted Feynman's comments about the nature of nature from his lecture on quantum mechanics before (e.g
here and here). They are1:

We see things that are far from what we would guess. We see things that are very far from what we could have imagined and so our imagination is stretched to the utmost … just to comprehend the things that are there. [Nature behaves] in a way like nothing you have ever seen before. … But how can it be like that? Which really is a reflection of an uncontrolled but I say utterly vain desire to see it in terms of some analogy with something familiar… I think I can safely say that nobody understands Quantum Mechanics… Nobody knows how it can be like that.

This leads me to sympathy for Jeff's statement:

The strangeness of physics presents unmatched opportunities for philosophy at this moment. I regret that few mathematicians and scientists have reciprocated with an understanding of philosophy, which always precedes other fields by clearing and setting the grounds for thinking in any age.2

But I will expand on that in that we all need each other. Philosophers need to incorporate what we know of the physical world into their philosophies (assuming they want them to be correct descriptions of reality, for some definition of "correct"), and scientists need to do the same. Because sometimes they share the same goal: to figure out what we really know and how we know that we know it.

I found Jeff's post "
Response to Eckels on Heidegger and Being" a welcome companion to illuminate some of the things he said on Twitter. Some (hopefully helpful) material to provide background on what I hope to say in more depth in my reply is here. I expect that it will take me a few days to put things in a satisfactory arrangement.

[1] "
The Character of Physical Law - Part 6 Probability and Uncertainty"
Part one and part two.
[3[ Updated 9/22/20 since the conversation is still ongoing.


The Prodigal God

My pastor recommend Keller's "The Prodigal God", which is a study of the parable in Luke 26:11-32, commonly known as the parable of the prodigal son. Keller is supposedly somewhat of a "rockstar" in Presbyterian circles. I have a couple of his books on my laptop. I see that I read "Generous Justice" in 2012, but I don't remember anything from it. Whether that's due to the contents of the book or my advancing drecepitude I leave open. In any case, given the enthusiasm of the recommendation I had high hopes for this book.

It's not a bad book. It provides some interesting insight into the story of the two sons and how the two sons are really us. I consider it an interesting companion to Capon's
Kingdom, Grace, Judgement.

But, given my high expectations, and the five star rating currently on Amazon, the book was almost completely ruined by this one passage:

...the prerequisite for receiving the grace of God is to know you need it.

There is no more wrong statement than this. There is no prerequisite for receiving God's grace, because it is God's grace that opens your eyes to your need in the first place. Presbyterians are funny creatures. They hold to the tenets of Calvinism that says that God's grace is irresistible and that there is nothing man can do to merit grace, then say things like this.

A lesser peeve is that Keller wants to redefine what "sin" means. He writes,

... sin is not just breaking the rules, it is putting yourself in the place of God as Savior, Lord, and Judge...

This fails to make this case, since the very first rule (at least as given to Moses) is "You shall have no other gods before me," and the behavior described by Keller breaks this rule.

Finally, Keller agrees with those who hear Jesus' cry from the cross, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?", and conclude that in that moment of pain and darkness that His Father turned His back on His Son and abandoned Him:

He was expelled from the presence of the Father, he was thrust into the darkness, the uttermost despair of spiritual alienation...

I am forever grateful to my mentor, Mike Baer, who once related the wise words of a nun who said, "I'm willing to be the second person God ever forsook." Because God never forsakes His people -- most of all the One who dwells in the "bosom of the Father" (John 1:18). Jesus couldn't say, "go read Psalm 22". The text didn't have those divisions then. By saying the first line of Psalm 22, Jesus was pointing to the end of the Psalm, which tells of rescue and victory.

Am I being too hard on Keller? Possibly. But with his stature comes greater responsibility.


This afternoon my sister informed me that our brother Tom (second of four, two years younger than me) passed away. There are very few additional details at this time.

On the Undecidability of Materialism vs. Idealism

Is mind an emergent property of matter or is matter an emergent property of mind?

According to Douglas Hofstadter

What is a self, and how can a self come out of the stuff that is as selfless as a stone or a puddle? What is an "I" and why are such things found (at least so far) only in association with, as poet Russell Edison once wonderfully phrased it, "teetering bulbs of dread and dream" .... The self, such as it is, arises solely because of a special type of swirly, tangled pattern among the meaningless symbols. ... there are still quite a few philosophers, scientists, and so forth who believe that patterns of symbols per se ... never have meaning on their own, but that meaning instead, in some most mysterious manner, springs only from the organic chemistry, or perhaps the quantum mechanics, of processes that take place in carbon-based biological brains. ... I have no patience with this parochial, bio-chauvinist view...

According to the Bible

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. ... And God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light.

I believe that computability theory, particular, the lambda calculus, can shed some light on this problem.

In 1936, three distinct formal approaches to computability were proposed: Turing’s Turing machines, Kleene’s recursive function theory (based on Hilbert’s work from 1925) and Church’s λ calculus. Each is well defined in terms of a simple set of primitive operations and a simple set of rules for structuring operations; most important, each has a proof theory.

All the above approaches have been shown formally to be equivalent to each other and also to generalized von Neumann machines – digital computers. This implies that a result from one system will have equivalent results in equivalent systems and that any system may be used to model any other system. In particular, any results will apply to digital computer languages and any of these systems may be used to describe computer languages. Contrariwise, computer languages may be used to describe and hence implement any of these systems. Church hypothesized that all descriptions of computability are equivalent. While Church’s thesis cannot be proved formally, every subsequent description of computability has been proved to be equivalent to existing descriptions.3

It should be without controversy that if a computer can do something then a human can also do the same thing, at least in theory. In practice, the computer may have more effective storage and be much faster in taking steps than a human. I could calculate one million digits of
𝜋, or find the first ten thousand prime numbers, but I have better things to do with my time. It is with controversy that a human can do things that a computer, in theory, cannot do.4 In any case, we don't need to establish this latter equivalence to see something important.

The lambda calculus is typically presented in two parts. Lambda expressions and the lambda expression evaluator:


One way to understand this is that lambda expressions represent software and the lambda evaluator represents hardware. This is a common view, as our computers (hardware) run programs (software). But this distinction between software and hardware, while economical and convenient, is an arbitrary distinction which hides a deep truth.

Looking first at
𝜆 expressions, they are defined by two kinds of objects. The first set of five arbitrary symbols: 𝜆 . ( ) and space represent simple behaviors. It isn't necessary at this level of detail to fully specify what those behaviors are, but they represent the "swirly, tangled" patterns posited by Hofstadter. The next set of symbols are meaningless. They represent arbitrary objects, called atoms. Here, they are characters are on a screen. They can just as well be actual atoms: hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and so on.


The only requirement for atoms is that they can be "strung together" to make more objects, here called names (naming is hard).


With these components, a lambda expression is defined as:


Note that a lambda expression is recursive, that is, a lambda expression can contain a lambda expression which can contain a lambda expression, .... This will become important in a future post when we consider the impact of infinity on worldviews.

With this simple notation, we can write any computer program. Nobody in their right mind would want to, because this notation is so tedious to use. But by careful arrangement of these symbols we can get memory, meaning, truth, programs that play chess, prove theorems, distinguish between cats and dogs.

Given this definition of lambda expressions, and the cursory explanation of the lambda expression evaluator (again, see [3] for details), the first key insight is that the lambda expression evaluator can be written as lambda expressions. Everything is software, description, word. This includes the rules for computation, the rules for physics, and perhaps even the rules for creating the universe.

But the second key insight is that the lambda evaluator can be expressed purely as hardware. Paul Graham shows how to
implement a Lisp evaluator (which is based on lambda expressions) in Lisp. And since this evaluator runs on a computer, and computers are logic gates, then lambda expressions are all hardware. With the right wiring, not only can lambda expressions be evaluated, they can be generated. We can (and do) argue about how the wiring in the human brain came to be the way that it is, but that doesn't obscure the fact that the program is the wiring, the wiring is the program. That we can modify our wiring/programming, and therefore our programming/wiring, keeps life interesting.

Therefore, it seems that materialism and idealism remain in a stalemate as to which is more fundamental. It might be that dualism is true, but I think that by considering infinity that dualism can be ruled out as an option, as I hope to show in a future post.

[1] Gödel. Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, Twentieth-anniversary Edition; Douglas R. Hofstadter; pg. P-2 & P-3
[2] The Bible, New Revised Standard Version, John 1:1, Genesis 1:3
An Introduction to Functional Programming Through Lambda Calculus, Greg Michaelson
[4] This would require a behavior we cannot observe; a behavior we can't describe; or a behavior we can't duplicate. If we can't observe it, how do we know it's a behavior? A behavior that we can't describe would mean that nature is not self-describing. That seems impossible given the flexibility of description, but who knows?. There might be behaviors we can't duplicate, but that would mean that nature behaves inside human brains like it can behave nowhere else. But there just aren't examples of local violation of
general covariance, except by special pleading.