Re-telling Bishop Berkeley’s joke: what’s the point?

Stanley Fish, post-modernist, recycles Berkeley’s sneer at Newton and his followers. The Dawkins-Hitchens recycling of Voltaire’s sneers at Christianity may have occasioned the outburst, but they hardly justify it.

The spectacular success that resulted from the application of mathematics to natural philosophy in the era of Galileo, Descartes, Newton, and Leibniz made the theologians look silly by showing that (1) sacred texts weren’t very reliable guides to the physical world (2) it was possible to actually make genuine, palpable intellectual progress rather than trading arguments insults, and anathemas and (3) the heavens themselves yielded their secrets to mechanical, rather than spiritual, analysis.

Naturally, the theologians struck back. Unable to produce any actual knowledge in their own domain, their answer was to prove that scientific analysis was just as full of holes as religious dogma. Berkeley’s The Analyst: A Discourse Addressed to an Infidel Mathematician is the masterpiece of this genre: what Orwell, two centuries later, was to call the “silly-clever” style of argumentation.

Berkeley pointed out, correctly, that the conceptual basis of the differential calculus was unsound; it waited for Dedekind and his colleagues in the late 19th century to finally build a secure intellectual foundation under the tremendous edifice that had been erected in the meantime. Berkeley’s scorn is eloquent and magisterial:

And what are these Fluxions? The Velocities of evanescent Increments? And what are these same evanescent Increments? They are neither finite Quantities nor Quantities infinitely small, nor yet nothing. May we not call them the Ghosts of departed Quantities?

And yet, at the end of the day, the natural philosophers continued to be able to predict and explain more and more phenomena with increasing precision, and the theologians continued to trade arguments, insults, and anathemas, just as before. The natural philosophers were able to work signs and wonders at least as impressive as those attributed by the sacred texts to the Deity and His prophets and saints, with the added virtue of being current and actual rather than historical and mythical. Even Raising the Dead is now, under the less euphonious label of Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation, a routine bit of techne that can be learned by anyone who cares to learn it, without even a bit of esotericism to give it flavor.

Of course the theologians respond that their discipline isn’t about all that foolish wonder-working, but considers the Ineffable Big Questions. But that’s simply not consistent with Scripture: back when people actually believed, they naturally claimed for their faith the power to heal, and to move mountains. That was before penicillin and bulldozers.

But while the scientists and engineers continue to make progress, the theologians, now joined by their fellow obscurantists of the post-modern movement, continue to mock. (I’m told that the PoMos in sociology of science have fought, rather successfully, to eliminate the concepts of scientific discovery or scientific progress &#8212 which might suggest that scientists are capable of finding actual knowledge &#8212 with more neutral-sounding language about changes of opinion within scientific communities, as if trends in physics had no more justification than trends in hemlines.)

True to their sacred principle of never making intellectual progress, the theologians and their friends continue to say what Berkeley said: “Your science is just as mysterious as our religion. So there!”

Like a joke that was funny the first time, the reiterations of this point suffer from rapidly diminishing marginal returns. So I have no idea why Stanley Fish considers Terry Eagleton’s latest essay along these lines, Reason, Faith, and Revolution, worth commenting on, or why Eagleton thought it worth writing in the first place. The NYT on-line summary ably captures the essence of the argument: “believing in technology and progress might be more superstitious than believing in religion.”

Fish quotes Eagleton in defense of religion: “What other symbolic form has managed to forge such direct links between the most universal and absolute of truths and the everyday practices of countless millions of men and women?” Umm … aren’t watching television, traveling by jet, and talking on cellphones “the everyday practice of countless millions of men and women”? And yet the television involves a direct link to the electromagnetic spectrum, the jet a direct link to Newton’s Laws of Motion, and the semiconductor-based cellphone a direct link to quantum mechanics. Aren’t those “universal and absolute truths”? Or do I need a new dictionary?

It is true that the contemporary belief in science has many of the trappings of religion, and even of an established religion. When Wolsey wanted to get Henry VIII an annulment, he bribed and bullied theologians; today’s attempts to corrupt and intimidate intellectuals focus on scientists, because scientific opinion has weight in courts, in legislatures, in administrative practice both public and private, and in public opinion. Functionally, scientists are a kind of clerical order, and it should be no surprise that an anti-clerical movement should arise in response to their power and its abuses. But surely that movement can do better than this. Actual scientific communities can move in the wrong direction, under both internal and external influence, and that point needs to be better understood. But the need of the moment is for a reformer, a Luther, rather than a mere scoffer like Voltaire.

Like Fish and Eagleon, I get exasperated at the ranting of global-village atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens, who recycle Voltaire, Paine, and Ingersoll just uninterestingly as Fish and Eagleton recycle Berkeley. Of course there are questions beyond the scope of what used to be called “the mechanical philosophy,” starting with the question of how the mechanics of neurons, synapses, and neurotransmitters produces the subjective experience of consciousness.

That’s not a question that can be answered by the analysis of matter-in-motion, because consciousness and its operations, such as knowing and intending, inescapably involve immaterial entities and relations. “I know that Julius Caesar was assassinated” cannot be reduced to a set of propositions about elementary particles interacting in fields, because “knowing that” is not a physical relationship. Moreover, a science that has proceeded precisely by eschewing teleology cannot, by its own terms, tell us what purposes to pursue.

If I were Dawkins or Hitchens I would be ashamed, rather than proud, of my tone-deafness to spiritual questions.

But none of that justifies the attempt of the obscurantists of the past to join the obscurantists of the future in denying the scope and significance of scientific achievement. Scientists can’t help us much with Kant’s “moral law,” but they’ve done the job on the “starry heavens” and are now moving briskly through the processes of life. Any serious discourse about science and religion will have to start with that bedrock fact.

More here.

Update John Holbo at Crooked Timber is also unimpressed by Fish’s essay.

Michael Drake at Strange Doctrines finds my argument that conscious operations such as knowing and intending involve non-physical relationships imprecise:

This begs the question, because of course if naturalism is correct, then knowing and intending inescapably involve entities that are material through and through. So I think the correct thing to say, the most that we can say, is that mental properties and attitudes pose an explanatory problem that is as perplexing now as the problem of gravitational “action at a distance” was in Newton’s time (and, let’s admit it, in some ways probably still is). This mysterium fascinas might invite the illicit, Berkeleyan temptation, but given the continued success we’ve enjoyed on the naturalist assumptions of science, it seems pretty clear that physicalism is a better induction.

And while I appreciate Mark’s point (not quoted above) about the tendency toward tone-deafness about “spiritual” questions among some atheists (though admittedly not among those he names), it’s important to see that we can motivate those questions even on the physicalist picture, namely, by pointing out that even if we could translate all our experience into nature (and vice versa), we still couldn’t grok what it means to be a conscious physical system (even though we necessarily know “what it’s like”). After all, there’s no reason a priori to think that once endowed with an ideally complete physics we could convert all the true propositions about the microstructure of a brain in the thrall of some experience or another into isomorphic phenomenal content in our own. That would be a bit like having a complete physical description of a typical desktop running Linux and a complete understanding of the relevant programming languages at all levels of hierarchy, and thinking that based on that you could make iTunes play Le Sacre du Printemps by typing MIPS instructions into Word. (Or something like that.)

That led to a long and (to me) interesting email exchange, reproduced in full below the fold.

My notes to Michel are set normally, his to me as blockquotes.


Thanks for the kind words. But your comment suggests that I failed to make my meaning clear.

I don’t doubt that knowing and intending have material substrates in the brain. I was trying to say just what you say: that understanding the material process still doesn’t get you to the subjective experience. I don’t think this is like action at a distance; you can observe the gravitational effect in purely physical terms, even if you can’t see how it works. You can’t reduce “A knows that B” into a statement about elementary particles and their interactions, simply because, unlike gravitational acceleration, “knowing” is not a physical relationship.

Take a printed book, say Newton’s Principia. It’s a physical object. But the relationship between the book and the knowledge it embodies (or the phenomena it describes) is not a physical relationship, and ideas are not physical objects: what’s the rest-mass of Second Law of Motion? I can embody the very same ideas in an utterly unrelated physical structure: a CD-ROM facsimile of the book, or an audiobook. So no amount of natural science will tell me the content of the book without the help of humanists: a classicist to translate from the Latin and an historian of science to tell me what it meant to its readers.

Or am I missing your point?

I think you mostly take my meaning, but the key claims are definitional. For instance, it makes only about as much (or as little) sense to ask what the rest mass of the Second Law of Motion as it does to ask what the rest mass of a computer simulation or photosynthesis or a tropical storm is; yet there seems little doubt that the latter phenomena are purely physical processes. So the fact that “no amount of natural science” could answer such apparently incongruous questions isn’t in itself all that ontologically suggestive. Or?

I think two of your examples &&8212 the simulation and “photosynthesis” &#8212 are non-physical. The simulation has a physical embodiment in some code stored somehow, but that isn’t its content and its content can’t be reduced to the physical embodiment. Photosynthesis, like the Second Law, is an abstract concept with no embodiment (as opposed to instantiation). The storm, like a flame, is a (physical) process rather than a thing. That, of course, raises the Heraclitus-Whitehead question about whether things, as opposed to processes, exist at all. But I’m happy to say that the storm consists (entirely) of matter-in-motion.

Why doesn’t your argument about photosynthesis apply to storms? We could just as well call storms “cheimonogensis,” after all (at least if I have the Greek straight). Et voila! — with a change of name, we transform a noncontroversially physical process into “an abstract concept with no embodiment.”

Sure. A storm in the abstract is like the abstract process of photosynthesis. Either can be instantiated. The instance &&8212 an actual storm, or an actual chloroplast &#8212 has physical characteristics; the concept is just a concept. The concepts can be written down, and in some sense therefore embodied in physical objects. But the concepts, though they refer to physics, aren’t themselves physical. So a merely physical account of the universe doesn’t contain itself: the account is mental, not physical.

So then what is the rest mass of an instantiated storm?

The storm has no mass, any more than a candle flame has. But you can draw an envelope around the storm and measure the mass within the envelope.

But in just the same way you could measure the mass within the envelope drawn around an instantiated idea.

While there remains this metaphysical/linguistic puzzle about how there can be (assuming there can be) such a thing as ostensibly transcendent, substrate-neutral content, that’s a puzzle as much for instantiated storms as it is for instantiated ideas: a cyclone, like a network of firing neurons, bears informational content that is in principle multiply realizable.

I don’t understand about the cyclone. It has no meaning, no referent. The network of neurons and the book are different. So I say that the cyclone is (merely) physical, while the network and the book (merely) have physical substrates.

Oh, I see, the issue for you is the intentionality or “aboutness” of certain types of content. So consider the case of photographs. Photographs contain meaningful, representational content that that can be multiply instantiated. Are photographs physical or nonphysical?

Excellent example!

What’s a photograph? A photographic print or its negative is a physical object that has a meaning. Physics can describe the material substrate but misses the meaning altogether. A photographic image stored on a computer is in some sense the “same” image as the negative or the print, although the physical substrate is completely different.

I would claim that the print (or prints), the negative (or negatives), and the various electronic copies all instantiate “the photograph,” which is none of them but contains the form or pattern common to all of them. (See, I warned you I was a Platonist at heart.) To ask the question “Are these two images the same photograph?” &#8212 which I take to be an ordinary common-sense question that any ten-year-old can grasp &#8212 is to ask whether they are both instantiations of the same form.

Of course the problem is that two different prints of the same negative are only homomorphic and not isomorphic; at one point does a cropped or darkened or PhotoShopped image become a different image? I’m not really a Platonist all the way down.

But I claim that an analytic scheme based on matter-in-motion-under-the-influence-of-fields is deficient insofar as it can’t deal with the meaning of the photograph. And since physics as a scientific activity relies on photography as a method, that means that physics isn’t a closed system. Of course, that would be true even if physics didn’t rely on photography, because it relies on equations, which are also non-physical in the sense I propose, and on thoughts in the minds of physicists.

Bloody Platonists!

I actually agree with your claim about conceptually deficient analytical schemes, and if I thought the Forms gave us an extra measure of explanatory power, I’d hop on the bus (albeit an instantiated one).

But it’s no answer to the puzzle of how something like the meaning of a photograph can be physical to say that there is something nonphysical that is the meaning of a photograph. (And the latter suggestion, as doubtless you know, infamously suffers from the additional problem of accounting for how such occult entities can instantiate in physical media.)

I don’t understand your point about the distinction between homomorphic and isomorphic relations. We can consider the relation between different prints A and B of the “same” negative to be isomorphic in the following sense (and without appeal to intermediary abstractions): we can map this part of A onto that first bit of B; and this part of A to that part of B; etc., for all parts of A and B that we find salient. (I’m not essentialist about identity, so I don’t think there’s any true, determinate point at which accreting variations between photos sunder the identity relation.)

I agree that identity is a matter of more-or-less, not yes-or-no. And no, I don’t believe in Forms, but I do believe that there are formal qualities distinct from material qualities.

Of course there’s a puzzle about how meaning enters the physical universe; that’s the puzzle of consciousness, which is precisely what the natural sciences can’t get us past. (Darwin and Crick and Watson do allow us to understand how “information” can have material impacts, and how purpose can arise from matter-in-motion, through evolution.)

But I don’t see any puzzle about how a physical photograph can embody a non-physical meaning any more than I see a puzzle about how my (physical) breath can embody a (non-physical) proposition such as “2 + 2 = 4” or “F = MA” or “It’s raining.” Of course Descartes was wrong, but dualism seems to me an obvious fact about the universe.

Well, the same question goes for the puzzle of consciousness. We have consciousness. We don’t understand how a physical thing can be conscious. But we don’t understand any better how a nonphysical thing can be conscious. So what explanatory good does dualism do?

I’m not offering dualism as an explanation, but as a simple observation. We have a hugely successful physical science program that explains the world as matter-in-motion-under-force-fields with with no use of the ideas of goals or meaning. We have a biological theory (evolution) that explains how goals get to be relevant. But meaning, and the consciousness of meaning, are clearly a different order of phenomena, so our understanding of physics doesn’t understand itself. Therefore there are things that are actual but not physical, and we don’t know how it is that the physical things can be informed by the non-physical things or act as their substrate.

But, again, the mystery is how anything at all can be conscious. As such, the postulation of a nonphysical conscience-making substance doesn’t seem supported by your observation: The only support for the idea that consciousness is a “different order of phenomena” is that we don’t, presently, understand it. So I don’t see how this whole line of argument amounts to anything more than conjuring belief in dualism out of our ignorance about the world.

No no no. I’m not proposing a substance &#8212 I never touch the stuff &#8212 just a different order of phenomena that makes physics incomplete. Now if it turned out that the explanation for the apparent applicability of mathematics to physical phenomena had something to do with non-physical phenomena, that would be really interesting, and might get us as far as Descartes. But I don’t claim that.

But physics was already incomplete. 😉

I think the phrase “different order of phenomena” (DOOP) is problematically vague. Did the problem of the origin of species require an appeal to a DOOP to solve? In one sense, yes: we needed a different set of ideas to make sense of the data; but in another sense — and I think it’s the relevant sense implicated by your views about consciousness — no: the explanation we found didn’t require abandoning naturalism (quite the opposite).

So while the homonym associated with DOOP is coincidental, it is perhaps suggestive: Don’t be DOOPed!

I agree that the evolution idea was a legitimate surprise; I don’t think the vitalists were fools, but it turned out they were wrong to think that life couldn’t be explained “naturally.” But they were right to think that no account that left out teleology entirely could work; what they didn’t guess was that teleology could be made to arise from the interaction of forces none of which was itself teleological.

But at least that was about explaining behavior; I just don’t see how the natural philosophers are going to make consciousness pop out of their model. I can understand that consciousness might be an evolutionary advantage; but how consciousness could arise from non-conscious matter seems a harder nut to crack.


Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: