Physics vs feeling: Can I really touch anything?

Mouse asked:

I have recently heard that, according to physics, you can never actually touch anything.

This seems clearly false and I feel it should be refuted with philosophy (if not physics).

Can you comment on this?

p.s. See for example which seems to claim that, according to physics, you can never actually touch anything.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

A philosopher can easily get tired of all these ultra-reductionist and ultimately futile assertions. One begins to wonder what they really seek to show (or prove?), or whether it’s merely one-upmanship on naive auditors.

After all, it must have been obvious to Caveman that the lizard on his hand can’t see him, and that conversely he can’t taste the food this creature eats. So what? Yet the creature feels something of the man’s skin, maybe a kind of leathery landscape that allows it to sink its claws in to hold fast; and the man would feel the pinpricks as well as the warm soft texture of the lizard’s belly. Between the two a connection is established, and that’s what we need to understand about our feelings – not that they are unreal, figments or hallucinations. Fact: there is rapport here that conveys a specific type of information to both nervous systems.

Of course you can place a microscope with stupendous magnification powers on this scene, when you would observe nothing but molecules tumbling around in some oily slosh. Entertaining for a while, but not informative to your heartbeat with the wonder of it. Going further down into the realm of physics changes everything again, because here even the molecules are so big that (by all appearances) you could drive a fleet of trucks through the spaces between them. Except that you can’t see this at all, because there is no way of making it visible. This is where those wonderful coloured graphs in our textbooks deceive us, making us believe that neutrons and protons and electrons and the rest of the subnuclear bric-a-brac are hard physical things, whereas in reality there is nothing hard or soft to be found.

So what could your physicist explain? Nothing much that is meaningful to the animal/human context. In particular: He could not deduce from either the chemical slosh or the scattering of neutrons what they might produce in terms of sensations. He and you need the experience of a physical touch first, before any physics elaboration is possible. Without this prior knowledge, it would not be possible to conceive of a moment or location when sensation arises; and the sad truth is, that even with this experience behind us, a billionfold swarm of elements still does not yield up the information that physics pretends to convey. And so, to be blunt about it, the message of physics on whether touch is real or not, ends up being gobbledygook.

The message from chemistry is slightly more respectable, because chemists deal with things to which we can put a measuring gauge through a microscope. But again: size is of the essence – for in the region of molecules which sport only a few million chemical bits and pieces, you can see something that vaguely resembles cause and effect being realised in the macroscopic world. But this could occur in a Petri dish as well as your fingertip, so that we are still no wiser on the question.

Consider, however, that some of these molecules are alive and act/react the same way cavemen and lizards do. Evidently this is where sensing becomes a phenomenon to which we can relate, namely with microbes initiating a sense of touch, from which we learn that all sensations are variants of the basic sense of touch.

Many steps up the evolutionary ladder, we discover that hearing is the impact of a train of air-driven molecules on your eardrum, and that taste is the tongue’s analysis of physically deposited chemical substances on its surface. The brain, which has evolved to recognise sensory impact as so many species of molecular vibrations, knows how to separate them and pipes this information into your consciousness in the form of subjective feelings.

This subjectivity does not, however, diminish its reality. Your and my reality is actual touch, hard or soft, hot or cold, rough or smooth. How wonderful to be told that all this is due to the energetic flurry of chemical elements and their interpenetration. That’s knowledge too. But emphasising the distance between the atoms of my fingertips and my tabletop for an argument that it precludes actual touch is non-information, because it copulates quite illicitly two different and incompatible dimensions of existence.

The only virtue, in the end, is that chemical know-how enables us at times to bridge these dimensions indirectly, i.e. by administering anaesthetic drugs. Yet even this is not a valid component of the argument, since it only numbs the body’s receptors. Blind people know about this and navigate with the help of sticks, exchanging one touch for another.

To end, a couple of curious instances on this “physics vs feelings” dichotomy.

(1) The poet Goethe, who knew a thing or two about art, wrote up a theory of colour. Some years later it was demolished in the name of science by the physicist Helmholtz. Who was right? Most people incline towards Helmholtz, but there have always been unrepentant lovers of art who ask the more relevant question, “what use is the physics theory to artists?” Answer: None. For colour is a sensation that provokes inter alia an emotional reaction. So does the pin-prick which, according to your physicist, involves no immediate touch.

(2) Arthur Eddington wrote on page 6 of his book The Nature of the Physical World that “the table I write on is mostly empty space”. How so? “There are innumerable electric charges rushing about, but their combined bulk amounts to less than a billionth of the table’s substance”. But (he says) he still maintains his complete trust in physical reality of the table, leaning on it while writing without expecting the billions of interstices to cause its collapse.

Thus, finally: Immediate touch is nothing other than a question of how greatly this event is magnified when you look at it. And it stands to reason that at a certain level of magnification, not only the sense of touch, but the meaning of this event disappears.

Sport and philosophy

Florence asked:

Hello! I am looking to do philosophy and politics at university however I am struggling to relate my achievements (outdoor sports/ qualifications, Gold Duke of Edinburgh Award etc) to the subject for my personal statement. What would you suggest for me to get involved within or read/ attend to make myself stand out from the crowd a bit more? Thank you in advance.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

There isn’t much talk about sports among the great philosophers. But as luck would have it, the ancient Greeks were pretty much obsessed with it, for which their Olympic Games are the best testimony. This is not forgetting their statuary art with its obsession for an ideal male physique. There is an ample literature on sport itself, and its reflection in art in ancient Greek and Roman culture, written by scholars.

The fact that Anglosaxon colleges and universities practised and promoted intensive physical exercise for the past 200 years, even to the level of professional commitment, is a return to this emphasis in ancient culture. It is an issue worth pursuing in light of the contempt for sporting activities in the preceding 1000+ years, when the Church despised everything physical and left it to the armed forces of the princes to pursue.

You could tie this in with reading Plato, especially his Republic, which is one of the primary sources for political philosophy of all time. There is plenty of debate and discussion in this work about the physical fitness of those who are chosen for a role in the governing tier of an ideal society — including dietary considerations, physical exercise, ethical issues involved with their spartan regimes, and so on. It would look pretty good on your CV if you can make a convincing case of your familiarity with Plato’s ideas and how the Greek predilections for it seeped back into modern culture. The name Thomas Arnold, appointed headmaster of Rugby College in 1828, springs to mind as a catalyst for this modern revival.

There is also a spate of quite recent books on “Philosophy and Sport”. You can find them easily by putting these three words in your web search field. I can’t promise you anything about their contents or relevance to philosophy; but a few actually try to blend sport with social ethics and the influence of sport on politics. E.g. one American philosopher (David Papineau) has a list of the 5 best books on the subject matter and written his own texts on it.

Thinking in words – or not?

Jan asked:

What are the arguments for and against the proposition that humans think in words?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

All arguments ‘for’ are driven by philosophical, linguistic, and even religious notions, as well as certain intuitive ideas based on the peculiarity that humans are alone among all species of animals with this capacity.

It is an attractive proposition to say to ourselves, as we think, “I’m thinking with words”, because that’s what we commonly seem to do. I’m doing this right now, thinking as I’m writing these words. By the same token, I am aware — as perhaps we should all be — that before I put pen to paper, there is an idea in my head I wish to express, and this idea is not a sequence of words — rather the words come as I write, as if my thinking mind triggers a process that collects the words ‘on the fly’, so to speak. Exactly the same pertains to speaking, which is precisely the reason that makes me write a speech down before I deliver it. I cannot trust my mind to make me think with the right words if I speak without prior preparation, and therefore writing them down is a safeguard against getting stuck or confused, letting wrong words slip out or simply missing something that I wish to say.

All these familiar hiccups are an argument ‘against’. I have known people who can “speak like a book”, but they are rare. And this applies to writing as well. Just look at the most common problem that afflicts writers: They grimace at their text and wonder why the words just don’t seem to reflect what they were intended to say. Tolstoi is reputed to have written War and Peace seven times over; and I think (again with few exceptions) this is the rule. For everyone, speaker or writer, it’s a struggle to find the right words to express their ideas.

This is not forgetting that words do not generally stand alone, but must obey the grammar and syntax of the language and that, importantly, most words must be fitted to this mould specifically, i.e. must occupy a specific place in the sequence, which is not predetermined, but can vary depending on the intended message.

There is enough in the above to show that thinking is not done with words. On the contrary, these struggles testify against it. If we thought with words, why do we make mistakes? It’s illogical to believe that I think words and then can’t speak or write them! So all this points to some faculty that is connected to, but not identical with, the “dictionary” and “grammar primer” in our memory. But we have to be careful to keep ambiguity at bay. It means that, although thinking is not done in words, nor with words, the words and grammar are ‘in reserve’, like infantry, cavalry, artillery etc. lining up for battle. In other words: We must have learnt the words as well as grammar and syntax first, before thinking is possible. And, incidentally, every infant would (if they could!) tell you the same thing.

Therefore the answer to this dilemma is the existence, in our brain, of verbal and motor cortices, all connected to the conceptual faculty and memory, which do this work for us. As I start to think with intention to speak or write, my cortices go hunting for the words, put them in sequence and activate the appropriate muscles — lips and tongue, or the hand driving a pen or tapping a keyboard. All the errors I mentioned above are reminders that it is a far from perfect performance. If we really thought in words, these things would not happen!

To sum up: I am not, generally speaking, convinced that science is in possession of appropriate tools to handle the many subject-related topics on which philosophy thrives; and this includes theories of the mind. But there are exceptions; and on your question we have one of these few, in that neurophysiology has by and large succeeded in unravelling an issue on which, as it turns out, philosophy is not well equipped to offer a plausible explanation from its own stock of concepts.

Occam’s Razor

Felicetta asked:

What philosophical “blade” encourages one to prefer simple explanations when they fit the evidence?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

The “blade” you refer to is called “Occam’s Razor”. It is the name given to two arguments by the English scholastic thinker William of Ockham which stressed the “principle of greatest economy” in the search for truth and insight.

The first of these says:

It is pointless to do with more that can be done with less.

The other points out that:

A plurality should not be assumed without necessity.

Both these sentences are essentially warnings of the dangers of multiplying hypotheses to bolster a proof. An hypothesis is not a certainty; therefore five hypotheses will only render a proposition more uncertain and dissipate focus on the essence of an issue.

In addition, hypotheses are often framed with special nomenclatures requiring a definition, which is tantamount to a separate proof. But if only one of these is uncertain, then the whole ensemble is impaired.

Ockham, who was born in the 13th century, was targeting primarily the reliance of theological “proofs” on syllogistic principles. This method, he said, rests on confusion between concept and denotation — the first is a creature of the mind whereas the other points to something in the world. In metaphysical speculation, however, they are of equal value; therefore syllogisms which rely on supernatural causes run their course without contradiction and end up “proving” arguments that are plain nonsense.

There is a nice little book on this by Stephen Tornay: Ockham Studies and Sketches. It goes almost without saying that the march of science since the 18th century relies altogether on “Occam’s Razor”; it is nothing less than the First Commandment of scientific research.

Creationism vs. emanationism

Anthony asked:

I read your article about emanationism:

I got questions.

What’s the difference between emanationism and creationism?

And what do you think about it?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

The real issue here is not what creationism and emanationism are, but why people argue about them. It is a wholly religious question; therefore (strictly speaking) you should stick with religious literature. As far as philosophy qua philosophy can go, neither of these doctrines has a place in it, as philosophy cannot prove the existence of any metaphysical being; and if you can’t do that, you have no pathways towards a sufficient and compelling demonstration.

Nevertheless, to keep it radically simple: Emanation means that the earthly presence of a divine being does not imply his/ her physical instantiation on earth. They are apparitions, and although (unlike ghosts) you might be able to touch them (e.g. “Supper at Emmaus”), your sense of touch involves hallucination. Creationism implies the opposite, namely the conversion of a spiritual energy into physical substance, so that this divine being actually walks on earth and is capable of physical discomforts like being wounded (cf. Aphrodite at Troy), yet destined to ascend back to their own native sphere when they are done with their earthly intervention.

In terms of science, both these notions are nonsense. Only the authority of theology vouches for them; otherwise we would be hard put to believe in them any more than the flying horses, talking trees and other ‘miracles’ of legendry. It leaves one other issue to be considered, of course, which is why some people invent them and others put their faith in them.

The answer is that the human faculties are divided, grosso modo, into perceptual and conceptual orders. The first concerns matters that we perceive, and must perceive in order to equip us for survival in the world. The other concerns ideas, images, thoughts etc., which represent what we have learnt from experience. The conceptual faculty is not in touch with the world, because it relies on the perceptual faculties for its store of information. Therefore when we think, imagine, day-dream and so on, we are not in ‘experience mode’, but in ‘manipulation mode’ with respect to the ideas in our mind. Hence contemplation can evolve anything at all, from the laws of science which enabled us to build flying machines, to creatures that exist only in the mind. And so anyone might also come up with ideas like ’emanationism’ and ‘creationism’ as pure mind constructs — as ‘noumena’ in Kant’s terminology, for which no-one can be obliged to furnish a specimen. But we can talk about them; and for many people this is sufficient to make them believe. C’est la vie!

Moral ‘isms’ and relevance

Jimmy asked:

Hey I have some questions regarding ethics. How do you determine what moral properties exist and what the best moral system is? It seems like every property that people refer to is only morally significant for arbitrary reasons. Like why does sentience, autonomy, rationality, etc. matter? It seems like people assume these axioms while just appealing to intuition. How would you be able to assert that sentience is a more valid moral property than say, race? What if someone just has the natural intuition to prefer white people over others? Most people would obviously agree that that’s absurd, as racism is less common than “sentientism”, but how would you subjectively and arbitrarily determine when an intuition is common enough to matter, and for whom does this intuition apply too? Should we only consider the intuition of humans or men or white people, or even living creatures for that matter?

Also, this would apply to deontology vs consequentialism and utilitarianism. A common objection for the latter two is the utility monster argument. But how would one arbitrarily decide that it is wrong to give all the resources to the utility monster. It is also the case that people seem to be more inclined to give to the utility monster if you switch the situation so that the monster begins at a baseline of massive suffering. More people would support giving resources to the monster if it relieved his suffering greatly at the expense of having slightly less pleasure for the human. This shows that people arbitrarily determine whether deontology or consequentialism is better. This is why I don’t understand how to prove that one’s moral system is better. It is for these reasons that moral nihilism seems to make more logical sense to me, although personally it obviously sounds absurd to say things like rape, murder, etc. aren’t wrong. I was wondering what your thoughts on all of this is.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

You’re obviously well read and knowledgable about this subject matter. Therefore it occurs to me that half your questions already contain the answer, inviting little more than ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in response. However, you might have considered the anthropological aspect to counteract the overly intellectual preoccupations with morals which incur your displeasure. You are perfectly right in asserting that all arguments about morals are arbitrary, as all reflect the presuppositions at work in any given society for which they are framed. Moreover there is no absolute standard, as the idea of a ‘residual observer’ or independent judge (“God”) is also a matter of mere opinion, given the number of gods that have populated our minds and passed moral legislations over historical times.

However, I have to take issue with your first two sentences, where you throw ethics and morals into the same basket. This is impermissible under your own criteria. Ethics are portable, whereas morals generally refer to a closed society — “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Consider that offence against morals is often severely punishable, while many approved moral practices would find a man of good ethics spewing in disgust. For instance, in some societies, the most brutal institutional murder is/was morally sanctioned (e.g. witch burning, public stoning to death), whereas a doctor has an ethical duty to heal any patient, whoever they might be. This is based on the recognition that human life is dominated by one constant, namely suffering. Ethics tends to be about these constants of humanity, rather than the particulate interests of closed communities. So let us not confuse and commingle morals and ethics!

Bearing this in mind, more credible arguments accrue to anthropological than to philosophically tinged criteria, as the ‘primitive’ behaviour patterns we deprecate in ourselves have never diminished over the 4000+ years that we have talked about morals. For this, there is a short and a long answer. The short version is simple: ‘Morals’ comes from the Latin and means ‘customs’. I don’t need to spell out what they are.; it is sufficient take note of customs, cults, traditions and rituals being bedfellows with morals, whereas ethics take a larger conspectus on desirable social behaviours.

But the longer answer is so long that I have to curtail it into a small handful of sentences and leave the ramification for you to look into on your own initiative. A first approach would have to acknowledge the dilemma that morals are pretty much ingrained in us, as a legacy from our hominid ancestors; but their variety and arbitrariness militates against them ever becoming (as noted) a collective constant in human societies. Instead they are consistently answerable to the particular needs of closed communities. And so the emergence of conscious moral dictates is most likely a reflection of the conditions under which any tribal conglomerate strove to maintain itself against adverse circumstances, whether it is the weather and climate, the resources of the habitat or the hostility of other tribes.. It stands to reason that individualism cannot flourish under such conditions, the two exceptions being the ‘champions’ (as Hobbes calls them) whose prowess lifts them above the common denominator, and the appointees of the gods, who may from time to time announce principles of obedience to the champion’s clan and the gods.

My word ‘ingrained’ is therefore a reminder that we still carry this baggage — predominantly instincts and anthropomorphisms — in our survival kit; and it is plainly in sight of every thinking person that this kit is woefully inadequate, and never more so than in the modern industrialised world.

If you accept my meaning, you might be inclined to disqualify both academic disputation and the divine commandments thesis, since both effectively defend a position of “Do as I say, not as a I do!” Concerning metaphysical beings, we know nothing more about them than what the myths tell us; and the level of morality in those stories is hardly to be commended to humanity as models for our strivings. Can we doubt, then, that we humans never felt a real compulsion to obey their strictures, but on the contrary simply kept up their inhumane practices? I am reminded here of Leibniz’s argument, that God must allow some evil in the world, as otherwise ‘The Good’ cannot be identified as what it is. Does this mean our evil deeds are necessary for us to understand what morality really is? Now this is a typical intellectual position; it’s very presupposition cannot help leading to incoherent arguments and conclusions.

Against this ‘difficult’ position, it can easily be urged that threats to a tribe, community or state from hostile natural as well as human forces demand organisation, which evidently relies on honesty, trust and authority overriding personal self-interest and ambition. This may be called the bedrock of moral behaviour, though it cannot qualify as a constant due to the infinite variety of possible collective perspectives. But now the butcher of any such community may be used to blood and slaughter, yet murder is a different story, and likewise with theft, rape, adultery and so on. Moreover, parents in common with authority figures teach their children about gods and spirits, how they influence the weather, bring disease, or tilt a battle against another tribe. We can easily flesh out this little picture and deduce the origin of moral codes as well as explaining why there are so many. Not to forget that morals under the burning sun would have to differ from those practised in ice-bound habitats. All these and many more comprise criteria for survival, in which morals tend to be joined by the aforesaid customs.

Which only brings us back to your initial questions. There is no possible “best” moral code; all morals are to some extent restricted to time and place (which does not exclude sound reasoning behind them); meanwhile sentience, rationality etc. are prized intuitively by those who feel themselves addressed by those notions. Accordingly your observations on race (to which we must add religion, politics, warfare, trade etc.) show up the morals in question as non sequiturs. At the bottom of them we find fear and self-interest, advantage and privilege, individual as well as societal agency. I think it goes without saying that deontological, utilitarian and other trademark arguments (including nihilism) are creatures of the same ilk, though they may wear other stripes.

Having earlier sounded the word ‘suffering’, however, reminds us of the constant on this horizon. What we all seek is a diminution of suffering; and this means not only illness and disease, but even more so servitude, slavery, injustice, inequality, lovelessness, loneliness, hunger and deprivation, plague and pestilence. Ah! Now we know what all these moral codes purport! We want these ills remedied by the gods; and we want the fiercest enemies we know, other human beings, to be restrained by a superior power. But every such code supposedly originating ‘up there’, beyond the clouds, is on any close scrutiny a hotchpotch of prejudices. Which means nothing other than that laws are made by men, and men are often forgetful of crucial elements. E.g. the commandment “thou shalt not kill” contains no sub-clause for exceptions, so does it mean that we must not kill a flea that bites us, a bison while we’re on the hunt, another human being who threatens us? Conventionally we would claim that self-defence as well as killing for food are implied exceptions, but evidently Moses forgot or ran out of space on his tablets to make an appropriate list. In any case, “laws are made to be broken”, because circumstances change and laws can become obsolete. Meanwhile we are aware of codes in other cultures which take the injunction not to kill literally, even at their own inconvenience.

I think this is pretty much the gist of it and as far as I can go in this forum. A neat summation to end on: “The Thrakians paint their gods with fair hair and blue eyes, while the Ethiopians depict them as dark skinned and snub-nosed.” Thus spake Xenophanes. His point is all too easily transferred to the domain of morals, as I think your own stress on the arbitrariness of all moral injunctions indicates well enough.

The dilemma of Euthyphro

Samantha asked:

Both Blackburn and Arthur casually allude to Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro as the locus classicus of the decisive refutation of a religiously based “command morality.” The sheer casualness and brevity of their allusion tells you much about how decisive and final that refutation is usually taken to be. How is that supposed to work exactly?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

This issue was contentious even in the ancient days, because Greek mythology, where it deals with the gods and their doings, is in large measure a chronique scandaleuse of human patterns of behaviour transferred to the heavens. The poets depicted it without compunction, which (as you know) incurred Plato’s censure in his Politeia. For any thinker to put up such a conceptual dilemma as Socrates proposed about piousness (“hosios”), would have made the average intelligent Greek wonder what he is all about. On this account there was a more or less general perception alive among the Greeks that the gods, being immortals, could not truly understand the human imperative of adding quality of life to their social structures — of which the primary consideration was what we today call ‘human rights’, in Locke’s words, life, liberty and freedom of economic activity, none of which is meaningful to an immortal being. All the same, they always sought the blessing of the gods for this impulse towards democracy, which made its first tentative appearance in the colonial city states of the 7th century BC, despite their belief that this was a signature of humanity, not of divinity. But there is frankly no democracy to be found on Olympus — any more than in the Heavens of Jewish, Christian and Islamic religions — which is precisely the reason that Socrates insists on the consent of all the gods. But now the aforesaid exhibitions of piety among the migrating colonists might easily strike a cynic as expedients; and I suspect that many an old-time Greek would have been familiar with Pascal’s Wager long before Pascal ever thought of it.

Then c. AD 1700 Leibniz brought the same issue up again:

“Whatever God wills is good and just. But there remains the question whether it is good and just because God wills it or whether God wills it because it is good and just; in other words, whether justice and Goodness are arbitrary or whether they belong to the necessary and eternal truths.”

You will be forgiven (in both cases) for protesting that the form of the question is circular and therefore half-meaningless. Thus Plato/ Socrates tended to reify ‘The Good’ and attribute its custodianship (though not its cultivation!) to the gods. Leibniz in turn might be supposed to hint at the possibility that ‘the good and just’ exist independently from God; or if the first half of the question is considered in isolation, that Voltaire’s rebuttal says all that needs to be said. But does this mean the issue has suffered terminal refutation, as in your question?

By no means, it is alive and kicking as we speak, because there are innumerable people (including academics) who find that morals are insecure and parochial at best, unless we can have recourse to divine command. Equally of course innumerable people reject this notion and applaud the multiplicity of moral codes, mindful of the dictum “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”. In other words, the whole subject matter is impaled on the horns of a dilemma that is located somewhere between Dostoyevsky’s despairing cry “if there os no God, then everything is permitted” and Kant’s categorical imperative.

Returning to Socrates: His final word of reconciliation was, that the question of piousness, goodness, justice etc. is not answered by reference to God’s will, nor by God’s love of it, because the way the question is posed you can only go around in circles with your arguments. Yet Blackburn/ Arthur evidently speak for themselves, not for the intellectual community as a whole, since a massive literature exists which extends all the way from the Scholastics to modern deists, theists, agnostics and atheists, and it must not go without saying that their contentions have spawned a huge bevy of new terms and nomenclatures in moral and ethical philosophy. But this is a domain “where angels fear to tread”, hence I shall refrain. Although I must mention before I close the small matter of punishment, that gets nowhere near the same mileage of prose as love and divine will. I hope at any rate that you now have something to mull over, beyond the apparent shrugging of shoulders by Blackburn/ Arthur!