I have been having a discussion in the comment boxes at Strange Notions with an avatar, Andrej Tokarčík. The discussion has outgrown the comment box format and I have offered to continue the discussion here… in comment box format.
We began debating a variant of the argument from contingency/prime mover as articulated by Thomas Aquinas. See the post by Trent Horn and our discussion.
In brief, Horn says Aquinas argues “everything in motion only moves because it has a potential to move. Since nothing can move itself, an object can only move if its potential to move is activated by something outside of it.”
Andrej accepts that this “something outside of it” entails an ultimate ‘something’ responsible for all motion he calls “Pure Act” which is non-material and in some way related to the Catholic God.
I disagree. I have argued, essentially, that we conclude that things moving are moved by other things because we observe this repeatedly and consistently. We conclude through induction that all things moving were caused to move. I think I have clarified that by using induction what I mean is that all things in motion seem to be caused to move. But all the causes of things we have observed are material. There is no reasonable inference from this that some immaterial ultimate Pure Act entity is involved. I have suggested that Andrej is anthropomorphizing a concept he has of “Pure Act” and accepts this as part of reality, without foundation. Moreover I have suggested that his conclusion of “Pure Act” was reached not through reason and evidence but because of an absence thereof.
We have recently gotten to the point in which Andrej has thought I have ruled out all non-material existence. I do not, but neither to I see any reason to believe anything non-material can exist. I cannot even conceive of what it would mean for something to exist non-materially.
Anyway hopefully we can have some fun dialogue. Here is our last exchange:
ANDREJ Hello, Brian. At first, I’d like to ask You this: You say that it was understandable for philosophers living hundreds of years ago when various natural phenomena were apparently without a material cause to assume the existence of an immaterial cause in order to explain the phenomena. But is it really so that today we’re in a position to positively claim that all natural phenomena have a material cause? To the contrary You Yourself mention the sudden appearances of particles on the quantum level. But how is this not analogical to the motion of sun, which seemed to the medievals to be without a material cause? Back then, You appear to say, they tried to explain the materially-uncaused material phenomena by resorting to immaterial causes. It was even understandable, You said. How come that today we feel completely okay to give up on finding any cause whatsoever of phenomena, which are now so similar to the motion of sun inasmuch as they seem to be without a material cause? Why is it more acceptable to totally give up on the possibility of an explanation of a seemingly-materially-uncaused phenomenon rather than to take advantage of an explanation involving an immaterial cause?
However, absolutely everything I have observed or can conceive of causing motion is material. The inference I get from this is that all motion appears to be caused by something material.
Analogically, I would reason as thus: Absolutely everything I have observed or can conceive of causing motion is capable of causing that particular kind of motion (for what I can say, not everything can cause all possible kinds of motion, e.g. a dog left on his own cannot cause a car to move). The inference I get from this is that all motion appears to be caused by things that are capable of causing that kind of motion.
As I see it, we both attempt to generalise from observations. But it turns out that neither of us has made an observation/generalisation that would undermine his respective world view. I haven’t limited myself to material causes only, while You have. The question is: which of the two chains of reasoning we presented is more probable to be correct? I’d say that mine has got the advantage of not taking the risk of being too specific, as I’m talking about causes in general, while You restrict Yourselves to material causes, without properly addressing reasons for this constraint. “That’s how I observe it!” is not a real justification and is prone to errors of purportedly bullet-proof induction, as I’ll try to demonstrate in the next example.
For instance, I’ve been conducting an experiment lasting tens of years already and still ongoing, in which my observations have constantly — with absolutely no evidence to the opposite — verified the fact that the human species is not extinct. As such, upon an allowable aid of generalisation, I feel qualified to contend with very high confidence that the human species has actually never ever been extinct. Such a result is actually very nice to have, for in that case no mechanisms of evolution are required to explain arising of the species, not to talk about as hard topics as abiogenesis, the origin or the fundamental laws of the universe.
I think that You wouldn’t be very eager to accept such an application of inductive reasoning. But still, it remains an instance of induction :)
We should also avoid the other extreme, though: just because one has to be very careful when reasoning inductively, it does not mean that all such reasoning should be abandoned. Induction just shouldn’t be seen as the final word on neither what we can know nor what we certainly know. (I’d recommend Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan on this topic, despite my not having read through all of it.)
All the best,
“But is it really so that today we’re in a position to positively claim that all natural phenomena have a material cause?”
Well there is really no need for such a claim. Mine is: as far as we can tell all causes are material in some sense.
“But how is this not analogical to the motion of sun, which seemed to the medievals to be without a material cause?”
This is exactly my point, it was wrong to assume no material cause for the Sun’s apparent motion, we should not make the same assumption with respect to the appearance of virtual particles or the earliest known state of the Cosmos.
“I haven’t limited myself to material causes only, while You have.”
I have not ruled out immaterial existence, I just see not reason to accept it. My dispute with you is that when you do not detect a material cause, you conclude an immaterial cause. I would say this is fallacious. It is arguing from ignorance.
“The question is: which of the two chains of reasoning we presented is more probable to be correct?”
Based on the fact that all observed causes are material I would say it is more likely that all causes are material.
“That’s how I observe it!” is not a real justification and is prone to errors of purportedly bullet-proof induction, as I’ll try to demonstrate in the next example.”
Of course induction is not bullet-proof, it leads to weak positions. When I say something is established inductively, I mean it “appears” to be the case. This is what inductive arguments do. Your example more or less sets out the problem of induction. We have no way of knowing that past patterns predict the future but we all behave as if this is the case. This is what I mean when I say I take the reliability of induction as axiomatic.
I have read the Black Swan twice and I am almost done with Anti-Fragile. You should read the whole thing and I suggest you have a close look at chapter six which begins with “On the Causes of My Rejection of Causes”