Archive for August, 2014

Subtitle: how a modern physicist is liable to misunderstand Aristotle. This post was inspired by a very interesting post by Edward Feser here.

I have tried. What follows is my attempt to give full expression of my own ignorance. One of the conclusions I have drawn from my forays into Ancient and Medieval philosophy is that these are great thinkers.

Here is the standard illustration for Aristotle’s four causes. Consider a marble statue. The statue has four causes. The material cause is the marble, the material out of which the thing is made. The formal cause is the arrangement of the statue, its geometrical shape. The efficient cause is the “doer”, the sculptor, who arranges the material into the desired shape. The final cause of the statue is the purpose for which the sculptor has created the statue, e.g. to look beautiful in the garden.

Aristotle and Newton

Right, I think. My physicist training naturally has me try to cast my Newtonian (occasionally Einsteinian, sometimes quantum) view of the world in these categories. (This might be a bad idea, I think, given the discontinuity between Aristotle and Newton. Still, I’ll give it a go. Also, I’ll worry about relativity and quantum mechanics later, if at all.) So,

  • Material cause – the particles of matter out of which physical things are made.
  • Formal cause – the arrangement of those particles. Mathematically, a list of the position and velocity of each particle at some time (x_i(t), v_i(t))
  • Efficient cause – Newtonian forces, which move particles around.
  • Final causes – an emergent, higher-level property of minds, who can make and execute plans.

(This is not the correct way to understand Aristotle, so stay tuned.) So far, so good, I think. The “Newtonian” material, formal and efficient causes give all the information one needs to solve Newton’s laws of motion. But now the confusion starts.

A lecturer giving an introduction to the history of science talks about Plato’s theory of forms as a realm of abstract but still “really” existing ideas. He later seems to suggest that the formal cause of a chalk circle drawn on the board is the idea of the circle in the mind of the lecturer. I ask, “For the circle on the board: is the formal cause the idea in the mind, or the idea of a circle floating out there somewhere in Plato’s realm?”. “Uh … have you been reading the Scholastics?”, he replies. “Nope”. I can’t remember the rest of his answer – it was rather vague. I’ve had a chance to ask a few other philosophers about formal causes since, and their reply usually starts with a grimace.

Enter Feser

So it was that I came to Edward Feser’s Aquinas (A Beginner’s Guide). His exposition is admirably clear, and it is obvious that I must change my understanding of the four causes. In particular, final causes are more than just intentions of minds. There are natural final causes. When a match is struck and fire is created, the efficient cause of the fire is the match. At the same time, the final cause of the match is the fire. The properties of the match “point to” or “are directed at” the creation of fire. Fire is what matches do. The match isn’t just a generic efficient cause that could cause any old thing but just happens to cause fire every time. Its ability to do something is controlled by fire as its final cause. I picture this as the efficient cause being the engine, and the final cause as the steering wheel. The efficient cause does the causing, and the final cause directs the efficient cause towards the production of its effect.

The shocking thing about this, as Feser points out, is that the scientific revolution, despite its PR, didn’t get rid of final causes. Final causes are how Aristotelian metaphysics explains the orderliness of nature. The fact that things keep doing the same kind of things – trees grow, the sun shines, fire burns, dropped stones fall – is because the efficient causes in the world are conjoined (is that the right word?) to final causes, ensuring that they produce consistent effects. The “laws of nature”, to use an slight anachronism, are more about final causes than efficient ones. But that is a topic for another day.

Despite Feser’s clarity, formal causes now get even more confusing. Feser argues that things can be imperfect instantiations of their form. Their form isn’t just how their parts are arranged. It is, in some sense, how they should be arranged, what their essential arrangement is. For example, when a person loses a leg, they don’t take the form of a one-legged person. Their true, two-legged human nature is still there in the person, but it is instantiated imperfectly.

Note that Aristotle differs from Plato in locating the form of a thing in the thing itself, not in some ideal external realm of forms. It isn’t just that the person fails to replicate the ideal of a  two-legged Platonic person “up there”. The one-legged person still has the form of a  two-legged human. Two-legged-ness is still in there, somewhere. (more…)

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Last time, I started a review of the Carroll vs. Craig debate with a (mostly historical) overview of the back-and-forth about the beginning of the universe for the last 90 years of modern cosmology. Here, I’ll have a look at fine-tuning. I should start by saying how much I enjoyed the debate. They should do it again some time.

In his speeches, Sean Carroll raised five points (transcript) against the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life as an argument for the existence of God. I want to have a look at those five. Carroll (here) and Craig (here, here and here) had a few points to make post-debate, too.

Here is fine-tuning reply number one:

First, I am by no means convinced that there is a fine-tuning problem and, again, Dr. Craig offered no evidence for it. It is certainly true that if you change the parameters of nature our local conditions that we observe around us would change by a lot. I grant that quickly. I do not grant therefore life could not exist. I will start granting that once someone tells me the conditions under which life can exist. What is the definition of life, for example? If it’s just information processing, thinking or something like that, there’s a huge panoply of possibilities. They sound very “science fiction-y” but then again you’re the one who is changing the parameters of the universe. The results are going to sound like they come from a science fiction novel. Sadly, we just don’t know whether life could exist if the conditions of our universe were very different because we only see the universe that we see.

“Interesting” Games

Is the debate over the definition of life a problem for fine-tuning? Sean and I had a brief discussion on this point during my talk at the UCSC Summer School on Philosophy of Cosmology. My response was (roughly) as follows.

Consider chess. In particular, I’m wondering whether minor changes to the laws of chess would result in a similarly interesting game. Wait a minute, you say, you haven’t defined “interesting”. In fact, different people are going to come up with different definitions of interesting. So how can we know whether a game is interesting or not?

It’s a good point, but instead of considering this question in abstract, consider this particular example. Change one word in the rules of chess: instead of “Knights may jump over other pieces”, we propose that “Bishops may jump over other pieces”. If we were to rewrite the 530 page “Silman’s Complete Endgame Course“, we would need just one page, one paragraph, two sentences: “White bishop moves from f1 to b5. Checkmate.”


My claim is that this particular case is so clear that by any definition of interesting, this is not an interesting game. The game is no more interesting than tossing a coin to see who goes first. It is too simple, too easy. (more…)

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It’s been a while, but I’ve finally gotten around to jotting down a few thoughts about the Sean Carroll vs. William Lane Craig debate. I previewed the debate here (part one, two, three, four). I thoroughly enjoyed the debate. Future posts will discuss a few of the philosophical questions raised by the debate, but I’ll briefly discuss some of the science in this point. (I didn’t manage to record my talk a few weeks ago, but this post summarises it.)

Firstly, I want to refer you to the much greater expertise of Aron Wall of UC Santa Barbara. I’ll list them all because they’re great.

(I’m on the “astrophysics” end of cosmology. The beginning of the universe probes the “particle and plasma and quantum gravity and beyond” end of cosmology. I know the field, but not as well as someone like Wall or Carroll.)

No one expects the beginning of the universe!

Regarding the scientific question of the beginning of the universe, here is how I see the state of play. Cosmologists don’t try to put a beginning into their models. For the longest time, even theists who believed that the universe had a beginning acknowledged that the universe shows no sign of such a beginning. We see cycles in nature – the stars go round, the sun goes round, the planets go round, the seasons go around, generations come and go. “There is nothing new under the sun”, says the Teacher in Ecclesiastes. Aristotle argued that the universe is eternal. Aquinas argued that we cannot know that the world had a beginning from the appearance of the universe, but only by revelation.

So when a cosmic beginning first raised its head in cosmology, it was a shock to the system. Interestingly, theists didn’t immediately jump on the beginning as an argument for God. Lemaître, one of the fathers of the Big Bang theory and a priest, said:

“As far as I can see, such a theory [big bang] remains entirely outside any metaphysical or religious question.”

In 1951, Pope Pius XII declared that Lemaître’s theory provided a scientific validation for existence of God and Catholicism. However, Lemaître resented the Pope’s proclamation. He persuaded the Pope to stop making proclamations about cosmology.

The philosophical defence of the argument from the beginning of the universe to God (the Kalam cosmological argument) starts essentially with Craig himself in 1979, half a century after the Big Bang theory is born.

In fact, the more immediate response came from atheist cosmologists, who were keen to remove the beginning. Fred Hoyle devised the steady state theory to try to remove the beginning from cosmology, noting that:

“… big bang theory requires a recent origin of the Universe that openly invites the concept of creation”. His steady-state theory was attacked “because we were touching on issues that threatened the theological culture on which western civilisation was founded.” (quoted in Holder).

Tipping the Scales

But what of the beginning in the Big Bang model? Singularities in general relativity weren’t taken seriously at first. Einstein never believed in the singularities in black holes. Singularities were believed to be the result of an unphysical assumption of perfect spherical symmetry. In Newtonian gravity, a perfectly spherical, pressure-free static sphere will collapse to a singularity of infinite density. However, this is avoided by the slightest perturbation of the sphere, or by the presence of pressure. A realistic Newtonian ball of gas won’t form a singularity, and the same was assumed of Einstein’s theory of gravity (General Relativity).

The next 80 years of cosmology sees the scales tipping back and forth, for and against the beginning. (more…)

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