The Laws of Physics and the Comprehensibility of God

Can God be Comprehended?

A while back FireTag (a bloggernacle participant with the Community of Christ) recommended a physics book to me called The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch. I was electrified. I went on to read several more books out of it’s bibliography including Roger Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind, Douglas Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Frank Tipler’s The Physics of Immortality, and Karl Popper’s Myth of the Framework. In addition, I supplemented my science reading with Alice in Quantumland by Robert Gilmore and A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. I’m currently reading Roger Penrose’s The Road to Reality, which will likely be finished just before the day I die.

What all these books have convinced me is that physics is far more than trying to understand “the physical world.” It is really about comprehending reality altogether. Therefore physics is really about (or at least can be about) comprehending God.

If we do discover a complete theory… we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we are and the universe exists. …it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God. (A Brief History of Time, p. 175.)

…physics must be extended into theology. (The Physics of Immortality, p. 329)

Is that a laudable goal, to try to comprehend God? Is God even comprehensible? Please note, I do not mean to ask if God is comprehensible to current mortal man. No, I am asking if God is comprehensible at all.

What is Comprehension?

What does it mean to comprehend something? Try to define that for yourself for a moment to get a feel for the difficulty in doing so.

I would like to propose a fairly straight forward definition for your consideration. [1] I propose that “to comprehend” something is the ability to describe it in terms of the aximos and laws the govern it — to algorithmically compress it, if you will. If we comprehend how the world goes around the sun, this surely must mean we understand the laws of physics that cause it to do so. Therefore comprehensibility is equivalent to explanation and description.  (At least under this definition.)

Can God Comprehend Himself?

An interesting question is if God can explain Himself and therefore comprehend Himself? [2] If He does comprehend Himself, then we have already deduced that He is describable via laws. This means that once we have an “ultimate set of laws of physics” they must also be able to describe God.

Theology and Science

This means that a fully revealed theology will be absorbed into some future theory of everything, just as Hawking and Tipler predicted. However, we should not expect our current Mormon theology, at it’s current level of imprecision, to entirely match our current understanding of physics any more than we expect our current quantum theory to match our current theory of general relativity. Indeed, it is well known that quantum and relativity theories are a contradiction to each other.

Unfortunately, however, these two theories are known to be inconsistent with each other – they cannot both be correct. (A Brief History of Time, p. 11-12)

This means that until all knowledge is revealed and theology is so precise that it’s converged into physics, we should not expect science and theology to always agree, though we should expect to find many significant touch points between them along the way.

In The Fabric of Reality, David Deutsch put it this way:

Arthur C. Clarke once remarked that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’. This is true, but slightly misleading. It is stated from the point of view of a pre-scientific thinker, which is the wrong way round. The fact is that to anyone who understands what virtual reality is, even genuine magic would be indistinguishable from technology, for there is no room for magic in a comprehensible reality. Anything that seems incomprehensible is regarded by science merely as evidence that there is something we have not yet understood, be it a conjuring trick, advanced technology or a new law of physics. (The Fabric of Reality, p. 138)

But will our current understanding of the laws of physics have anything in common with this hypothetical “ultimate theory?” What is the relationship between our current laws and the ultimate laws? Are they like Newton’s compared to Einstein’s or are they like Aristotle’s compared to Einstein’s?

D&C 88 – A Comprehensible God

Regardless, this is all good news for Mormons and bad news for all other Christian religions, for in D&C 88, we are told to expect God Himself to be fully comprehensible.

D&C 88:49 The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not; nevertheless, the day shall come when you shall comprehend even God, being quickened in him and by him.

Indeed, what is the Doctrine of Deification (I.e. The doctrine of becoming one with God or in other words “becoming gods.”) but a statement of the comprehensibility of God. If we can become gods, then we know God is, to the right level of intellect, comprehensible. Deification therefore must logically flows from any science world view that includes the concept of God.

Interestingly, God is defined in terms of His comprehension as well:

41 [God] comprehendeth all things, and all things are before him, and all things are round about him; and he is above all things, and in all things, and is through all things, and is round about all things; and all things are by him, and of him, even God, forever and ever.

And, without missing a beat, comprehension is explicitly tied to the concept of “law.”

34 And again, verily I say unto you, that which is governed by law is also preserved by law and perfected and sanctified by the same.
37 And there are many kingdoms; for there is no space in the which there is no kingdom; and there is no kingdom in which there is no space, either a greater or a lesser kingdom.
38 And unto every kingdom is given a law; and unto every law there are certain bounds also and conditions.
39 All beings who abide not in those conditions are not justified.
42 And again, verily I say unto you, he hath given a law unto all things, by which they move in their times and their seasons;

Spirit Matter

This Doctrine of the Comprehensibility of God explains a mystery around the assertion that spirits are in some sense “matter.”

There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes; D&C 131:7

Outside of this D&C quote, we have no official doctrine on what “spirits” really are. But what does this scripture actually tell us? Well, not much. Does it mean spirits are energy? Many Mormons believe that since we now know matter and energy are really one and the same. But many of us are dubious of that since then we’d be able to easily detect spirits with modern technology.

Another theory I’ve heard is that spirits are really “matter” that relies on forces that don’t interact with our visible matter. Since matter is really just forces, if you have two forces that don’t interact at all, they are entirely undetectable from each other. You could, if you will, have two entirely different physical worlds overlapping each other but not interacting with each other.

The truth is that the word “matter” in D&C 131:7 just doesn’t tell us much. The only thing it really tells us is that we should expect “spirits” to be governed by some, perhaps yet to be discovered, law of physics. Therefore, we expect “spirits” to be just as comprehensible, at least in principle, through descriptions of these laws as the physical world we now inhabit is through our current understanding of the laws of physics. D&C 131 is best understood as a statement about the potential comprehensibility of spirit matter.

The significance of this requires a bit more explanation.

Undefined vs. Negatively Defined

I had a conversation with a Catholic friend recently where I claimed that the main difference between the Mormon and Catholic concept of “spirit”is that to Mormons it’s undefined and to non-Mormon Christians it’s negatively defined.

The easiest way to understand the difference between “undefined” and “negatively defined” is to imagine Michael the Archangel showing up in my bed room tomorrow and revealing to me the physical laws that govern the spirit world. If you don’t believe that mortals can comprehend such a thing (or you can’t imagine me comprehending it anyhow) then imagine Michael first increasing my intellect until I can and then taking several years to give me an advanced PhD in spiritual physics.

Then imagine me publishing a paper entitled “The Laws of Spirit Physics” whereby I describe the physical laws that explain what spirits are as given to me by this angel from God.

The Mormons in the world would shrug their shoulders and say “Eh, it might be right. Who knows?”

By comparison, I suspect the non-LDS Christians of the world would definitively state it to be incorrect because it would violate their belief that “immaterial spirits” are in any sense comprehensible. Therefore even “the truth” (as we are supposing is being published) would be openly denied.

In other words, non-LDS Christian beliefs in “immaterial spirits” (at least as far as I understand it) are really just a way of saying that spirits can’t be explained, even by God. For if God can explain them, then they are by definition “comprehensible” and thus by definition they are governed by some heretofore undiscovered theory of everything.

Fear Not Science

If God is comprehensible, then we should never fear scientific discoveries. Henry Eyring, the famous Mormon Scientist, recalled the advice his father gave him before he went off to college:

I’m convinced that the Lord used the Prophet Joseph Smith to restore His Church. For me, that is a reality. I haven’t any doubt about it. Now, there are a lot of other matters that are much less clear to me. But in this Church you don’t have to believe anything that isn’t true. You go over to the University of Arizona and learn everything you can, and whatever is true is part of the gospel. The Lord is actually running the universe. (Reflections of a Scientist, p. 1)

Notes:

[1] In proposing this definition for “comprehension” I am not suggesting there aren’t other possible valid definitions also. Wrestling over words is pointless. Try to understand the underlying concept instead.

[2] Some of the comments below suggested the possiblity that God might have some sort of extra form of epistemology (i.e. theory of knowledge) available to Him. Therefore, an infinite human-like intellect would be unable to comprehend or explain things that God can. This is an idea worthy of further criticism, perhaps in a future post. However, for the sake of this post, even if God has extra epistemological means available, this still means He can describe Himself via those means. He just wouldn’t be able to explain Himself to us. So the “ultimate set of laws of physics” would only be available to God and never will be to us. That strikes me as a rather bleak thought, and I see massive logical problems with that approach.

Update: Based on the comments below, I made minor changes to this post to reflect the suggested subtle difference between “comprehending” and “explaining” and I got rid of the word “physical.” The notes were added to clarify a few points.

77 thoughts on “The Laws of Physics and the Comprehensibility of God

  1. Pingback: The Laws of Physics and the Comprehensibility of God | Junior Ganymede

  2. Yeah, physics is awesome!

    Might I suggest that physics is the most perfect subject and that a man/woman will draw nearer to God by studying its precepts than any other subject. :)

    (Please tell me you can take a joke.)

  3. “. I’m currently reading Roger Penrose’s The Road to Reality”

    That is a very interesting book. He did not hold back to water down physics at all.

    I guess the only issue with that book is twister physics has not been as accepted by the theoretical physics community as much as Penrose would like. (He admits this in his book).

    Although Ed Witten, (always Ed Witten), has incorporated twisters in string theory in some very interesting ways. This has received a fair amount of interest.

  4. Mr. Nielson writes, ‘In other words, Catholic beliefs in “non-physical spirits” are really just a away of saying that spirits can’t be comprehended, even by God. For if God can comprehend them, then they are by definition “comprehensible” and thus by definition they governed by some heretofore undiscovered laws of physics and are thus in some sense “physical.”’

    Your basis for this remark is the premise that comprehending reality and comprehending physics are the same thing. Which really is the same as the assertion that nothing can exist which is not physical.

    This is an assertion which has not, indeed cannot, be proven. We Catholics make so bold as to deny that assertion, and say that God does indeed comprehend spirits, as he comprehends all things whatsoever.

  5. Agellius, no need to call me “Mr. Nielson”

    “Your basis for this remark is the premise that comprehending reality and comprehending physics are the same thing.”

    Agellius, you’ve either completely misunderstood what I actually wrote, or you chose words to repeat that have sausaged it to the point where I no longer recognize it. In any case, I don’t agree with your summary of myself.

    I think you reversed the cause and effect I actually wrote about, but I’m not sure. I only suggested physics was the attempt (and success in many cases) to understand reality. That’s a truism. I also was careful on how I used the word “physics” in multiple senses, which your reply did not.

  6. There was a line years ago in a Physics Today obituary that has stayed with me. “There are two kinds of physicists: those who had trouble with their crystal radio kits and those who had trouble with their God.”

  7. Bruce: Then maybe you wouldn’t mind trying to correct my understanding?

    You wrote, ‘What all these books have convinced me is that physics is really about comprehending reality ….’

    If physics is ‘about comprehending reality’, does this not imply that ‘things governed by the laws of physics’ and ‘reality’ are the same thing?

  8. Bruce, this is one of the most interesting posts I have read by anyone anywhere. I don’t even know where to start. Let me just say that I wish I could go back to college and study physics just so I could get my mind around some of these issues.

    This post is so “big” that trying to address any part of it is like trying to drink from a firehose, but let me just address one small thing that comes to mind. I wish more physicists would read Mormon theology because it would give them entire new ways of looking at the world and indeed their field. What I mean by this is that you often hear physicists say they are atheists. The reason most of them say this, in my opinion, is that they have spent some time comtemplating the world of mainstream Christianity and they find it difficult to square with their worldview. Many physicists I know, for example, assume that many Christians take the Bible literally and when they go to Christian scholars to discuss the foundation of the universe and Noah’s ark and other issues they get disappointed by the lack of an intelligible response.

    The universe revealed to Joseph Smith opens up a whole new set of possibilities, however. Who created God? We don’t know, but we know we can know someday because we can advance in our knowledge. Why can’t we know all things right now? Because, as God told Moses, our puny brains are not ready yet to understand things beyond this world. So God is in fact telling us to concentrate on the things of this world, but he’s also telling us to study the universe from the perspective of this world, which is exactly what physicists are doing. So their work must be pleasing to God!!! What a concept!

    Scientists should spend more time around Latter-day Saints. They would feel right at home.

  9. Agellius,

    “If physics is ‘about comprehending reality’, does this not imply that ‘things governed by the laws of physics’ and ‘reality’ are the same thing?”

    You need to nuance “physics” the same way I did before that question can be answered. What do you mean by “physics? Do you mean current laws as we understand them? (Which might, for example, turn out to be a lower order implementation of laws.) Or do you mean laws period?

    If the former, no, that is not what I am saying.

    If the latter, then we can rephrase what you said to instead say: “Reality can be described by laws and the name we give to any attempt to describe reality by laws is ‘physics’.” Which is exactly what I believe I said, though to me that seems rather tautological. It’s true by definition. This being the case, my statement you’re quoting is not a statement of amazing insight or really of any insight at all.

  10. “Bruce, this is one of the most interesting posts I have read by anyone anywhere. I don’t even know where to start. Let me just say that I wish I could go back to college and study physics just so I could get my mind around some of these issues.”

    I’ve actually thought about doing just that. Then I remembered that I’m bad at Calculus. :)

    Actually, I’d really like to take some physics classes and see how I do as an adult. But getting a degree in physics (when you don’t even have an undergrad degree in i t) is a long long road.

    I am planning on doing a series of follow up posts where I explore physics and theology more. I wanted to do this one first to set the tone, but also because I’m afraid any attempt to connect physics and theology is going to be extremely speculative and thus controversial, even for Mormons. My next post will probably be on intelligence and the Strong AI hypothesis. (Talk about controversial right off the bat!) ;)

  11. Bruce: Thanks for trying to clarify for me. You are introducing some new concepts. Please understand that I am not being deliberately obtuse but am still trying to feel my way around this new universe. Your corrections might help me to get there.

    You say that ‘Reality can be described by laws’.

    In your original post you say that in Catholic doctrine God and spirits, because they are immaterial, are incomprehensible. Thus the fact of their being *immaterial* is what causes them to be *incomprehensible*. Therefore you are equating *materiality* with *comprehensibility*. For this reason it seems apparent that by ‘laws’ you do not mean laws in general but physical laws.

    It then follows that the statement ‘reality can be described by laws’ means ‘reality can be described by physical laws’ (otherwise you would not have excluded the possibility of immaterial spirits being comprehensible). From which it follows that reality is physical. And from thence that the non-physical is unreal.

    You may protest that by “physical” you don’t mean that in the conventional sense (let’s call the conventional sense ‘physical(1)’), you only mean “describable by laws”. But if you don’t mean physical(1) laws, then why say that immaterial spirits are incomprehensible on the basis of their immateriality alone? If there may be non-physical(1) laws that describe them, then incomprehensibility would not follow from their immateriality.

    See, I have to object to your statement that Catholics believe spirits are incomprehensible, even to God, by virtue of their being immaterial. In our view nothing that exists is incomprehensible to God. However, you seem to be translating “immaterial” into “non-physical”, and then defining “non-physical” as “not governed by any laws”, and on that basis saying they are incomprehensible. But we don’t necessarily say that spirits are not governed by laws of any kind, we only say that they are not governed by physical(1) laws. If you propose that there are laws other than physical(1) laws that might govern them, I might be open to that — although I can’t be open to the idea that God himself is governed by any laws outside himself.

    But then, maybe by “laws” you don’t mean “forces that make things happen”, you only mean “descriptions of things that happen”. In that strict sense I could agree that God could be described by laws (although I don’t know how useful that would be). But it would have to be understood that nothing external to God can cause God to do anything, that he is the cause of the existence of everything else, including everything that is physical(1), including all physical(1) forces and all matter of whatever kind, that he is not physical(1) nor made of matter (since he created all matter), and that he himself is uncaused.

    However you want to define “physics”, we Catholics would simply have to say that God is the uncaused and uncreated author and source of all laws of “physics” and the creator of all “physical” things.

  12. Looks like I better finish a couple of posts I started, Bruce, or else you’ll surely tackle the ideas before I do!

    Among my colleagues in my physics PhD program (yes, it is a long road!), I’ve found that most are what I would call agnostics; more than anything else they are simply apathetic about God, spirituality, religion, etc. There are a handful of Christians, all of them Protestants of various flavors.

    Yet I believe one evening I spent with one particular colleague gives great insight into the psychology of physicists. He and I went out for coffee and hot cocoa, respectively, and we had a memorable conversation about Why. My friend shared that the reason he wants to study physics is to understand the ultimate nature of the world. It is a search for meaning. I suspect many (perhaps most) physicists are Seekers of this type. There are mysteries that we want to understand, and we think physics has the best chance of allowing us to find answers.

  13. Bruce, you might also want to look at Lisa Randall’s Warped Passages. Did a lot for me in understanding (well, at least partially) string theory, multiple dimensions, and quantum physics. I think, as a liberal arts major in college, that I missed out not taking any college level physics classes, other than an Astronomy class.

  14. “For this reason it seems apparent that by ‘laws’ you do not mean laws in general but physical laws.”

    Seems less apparent to me.

    I added the following line to my post to help clarify this point.

    “(Don’t here confuse “physical” for “tangible.” Light counts as ”physical” even though most people consider it “intangible.” Even computing theory is “physical” in that it’s a physical process.)”

    “But then, maybe by “laws” you don’t mean “forces that make things happen”, you only mean “descriptions of things that happen””

    These two statements will always work out to be exactly the same logically. A description of “what happens” can be defined as an algorithm or “law” and then can be utilized (once understood) to “make things happen.” If you can think of a logical exception to this, let me know.

    I think you might be confusing this point. I am not trying to put words into your mouth, but you seem to be working with an assumption that if we define God via laws, then that means God is less than those laws. But in reality what we really said was that God is describable in terms of laws, not that he is less than them.

    This does, on the other hand, suggest the possiblity that God is subject to laws (albeit ones of His own making and choice.) Maybe this is what you are really trying to say. If this is what you mean, then you’ll have to wait for a future post on the subject. ;)

  15. “If you propose that there are laws other than physical(1) laws that might govern them, I might be open to that — although I can’t be open to the idea that God himself is governed by any laws outside himself.”

    All laws are “physics” in the way I’m using the term. They are thus also “physical” in the way I’m using the term. (Think of the computing theory example here.) Indeed, the very existence of something as a “law” is by definition “physics” and “physical” the way I’m using the term.

    “Outside himself” seems to be the key phrase here. But what if you simply assume that all “laws that govern God” are by definition “inside himself”? You’re now open to the possiblity that God is entirely “governed by laws.” So it’s hard to see how this really defines anything one way or the other.

  16. I posit that it’s not necessary to understand physics and the various theories in order to comprehend God. The ancient patriarchs were not physicists, theoretical or otherwise. Yet Heavenly Father, through His spirit, enlightened their minds and their understandings to comprehend some of the things of God. Joseph Smith and the Ancients, who had visions not only of heaven but of “the eternities” must have known more (though not “all”) about the nature of God than what any modern physicist does.

    Remember, if God reveals something to someone, he/she has to live up to it, or they are damned. If you live up to it, then you qualify for the next tidbit.

    Personally, I _think_ I’ve discovered parallels between Hawking’s theory of multiverses and string theory, with what is written in Sections 76 and 88 of the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Revelation of St. John.

    Joseph Smith even said you can learn more by gazing into Heaven for 5 minutes than by studying everything ever written about heaven (or “the heavens”, meaning the galaxy and universe.)

    It’s hard for me to tell whether the parallels I’ve seen between scientific explanations and sacred writings are my own imagination or whether such insights are inspired. I’m honestly not sure.

    But this I know: The more I read the scriptures, the more those insights come to me, and the more my questions get answered about “life, the universe, and everything”. (Hat tip to Douglas Adams.)

    I think that knowing the human sciences of physics and astrophysics, will merely serve to give short-cut vocabulary, in terms of English words, to those “eternal” concepts.

    I think such words “eternal” and “spirit” and “come into being” and “organized” and “pass away” have multiple meanings in scriptural context.

    One of the things that helped me understand “eternal” and “existing outside of time” and “time will be no more”, was a conversation on the Star Trek: Deep Space 9 tv show between Captain Sisko and the “Worm Hole Aliens.” I can’t quote the dialog, but it just rang so close to my “gut feeling” for things that I got from Sections 76/88, and Revelation. Maybe the screen writers were reading Hawking.

    The Holy Ghost can indeed give us “gut feelings” and “gut level understanding” for things even when we don’t have the vocabulary to put those understandings into English.

    One reason I love the restored gospel is that Joseph Smith was the first man of modern times (since the writers of the NT) who put accurate words to things that the Spirit taught me wherein I did not have the vocabulary to describe them. I read some of Joseph Smith’s teachings and said “Wow! yeah! that’s it! Joseph nailed it!”

    The glory of God is intelligence, but purely intellectual pursuit doesn’t bring one gospel/eternal understanding. Alvin Dyer was right, above all, as he said “The gospel is a _feeling_”. Also, I have to keep reminding myself that “intellectual” does not mean and does not equate to “intelligent”. There are a lot of intellectuals in the world who are intelligent, but lack common sense. And there are intellectuals who have neither common sense nor intelligence.

    When the GA’s put down “intellectuals”, they were not putting down intelligence, or the pursuit of intelligence. They were decrying, like Jacob of old, those who consider themselves learned, but who are not open to the _feelings_ or _spirit_ of knowledge and intelligence that comes through the Holy Ghost.

    I give my amen to Alvin Dyer: “The gospel is a feeling.”
    See: http://www.ldsinfobase.net/rh/missn/chall_testify.html

    Personally, I would rather have the gut-level feeling of the nature of God and “eternity” than merely a physics/astrophysics level understanding.

    Also, let us be careful of looking beyond the mark in this. Only those who attain unto exaltation (not the lower 2 rungs in the CK), will “know as they are known.”

    It really _can’t_ be known by someone who remains in mortality, even if they are transfigured, or even if they were translated. Bro of Jared and Moses and Enoch saw ‘every particle of the earth’, but they did not, and could not see all of God’s works (ie, this universe) without having attained exaltation. (Abraham has actually attained unto exaltation, so he’s someone who has this understanding of God’s existance of which you speak.)

    If one wants that ulimate understanding, the target (“mark”) they need to focus on would then be enduring to the end in a way that leads to exaltation in the CK. Looking beyond the mark/target might cause us to miss it.

    To me, what we’ve been given already in Sec 76/88/132 and Daniel/Ezekiel/Isaiah/Revelation is more than the vast majority of us can handle in mortality. And those things written in the scriptures are far far beyond where the vast majority of us are at just trying to live up to baptism and temple covenants.

    I also believe that the reason we don’t have “advanced manuals” in the church which lay out many of the obscured meanings of Sec 76/88 in black-and-white is that that understanding truely does have to come from the Holy Ghost. In other words, when a person is ready to understand it, then they will study it on their own, and the Holy Ghost will lead them to the truths they are ready to handle.

    Most of us have enough to handle in faith/repentance/baptism/gift-of-the-Holy-Ghost/temple/enduring-to-the-end, and in living up to those covenants. I know I have more than I can handle in those things, and I need to meet a higher standard than I am now if I’m going to progress.

  17. Hi Bruce,

    A friend of mine just pointed me to this post and the fact that you linked to two of my articles in one of your comments. So I came over to check out what you had written. I liked your article and I just wanted to give a few comments.

    I think what you are actually driving at (without explicitly saying it) is a correct epistemology. I generally don’t like to use that word because it has a lot of philosophical baggage that comes with it. But in essence you are trying to find a correct view of how we know the world (or universe, as the case may be). What makes physics so attractive to people like you and me is that it has a fundamental approach to gaining knowledge and insight about the world that resonates with us. We find that the methods used to discover new truths in physics are similar, and in some cases identical, to the methods used to gain knowledge and truth in a gospel or theological setting. So part of why we find physics (or the gospel) so exciting is because it is easy and natural for us to study it as it uses the same modes of knowing that we are familiar with and are already adept at using. (Note to understand what I mean by modes of knowing see Truman G. Madsen’s talk entitled “On How We Know” http://speeches.byu.edu/?act=viewitem&id=628&tid=2 )

    This means that when we read something about physics, I do not mean any one particular law or equation, but when we read or participate in the method used by physicists to gain knowledge we will feel it and say, “Yes! This is correct, because I use the same method to know and comprehend my God.” When we come to this point and have this realization the feeling can be “electrifying” as you put it. While this can be very exciting and fun, it does have the danger of getting us over enthusiastic about the connection between physics and the gospel, and then we run the risk of making connections that are tenuous at best and blatantly untrue at worst. Even still, just because we cannot draw immediate and clear connections between physics and gospel topics does not mean that one or the other is false, or not worth studying. Still the methods we use to learn both are very similar and that makes it natural to move from one to the other.

    If we think of this topic in terms of how we know things, instead of whether or not God is physical then the question reduces down to “Is God knowable in the same way that the universe is knowable?”. Meaning, can we come to know God through the same modes of knowing that we use to know physics, or science in general. For those who find no inherent disconnect between science and religion, the answer generally is “Yes”, but for those who do find a conflict (or are prone to find a conflict) between science and religion the answer is “No”.

    I think that if you approach the topic from this perspective then you will avoid many of the confusions that may arise from addressing it from a “physics” perspective. Personally I think that it is a stronger assertion to say that God, spirits and other such things are knowable and comprehensible to us than to say that they are “physical”. In reality it is the same thing, but by making that assertion we get around the problem of having people acknowledge that God and spirits are physical, but still insist that they are unknowable. But then again if we say that God and spirits are knowable, then some people will agree but insist that they are not physical. So in the end we get problems both ways, but I find that more people have a hard time thinking of God as knowable then they do as physical. But that is just my own personal opinion and will be different for different people in other situations.

    That was all the thoughts I had on your article. I also have a few comments on the comments.

    From Agellius: “Your basis for this remark is the premise that comprehending reality and comprehending physics are the same thing.” –St. Thomas Aquinas would agree with this statement, depending on what is meant by “reality” and I think that is the main question here (I’m trying to find where in the Summa Aquinas talks about this, I remember reading it I just can’t find it right now). “Which really is the same as the assertion that nothing can exist which is not physical.”–Again this is the crux of the matter.

    “This is an assertion which has not, indeed cannot, be proven.” –Aquinas would disagree. “We Catholics make so bold as to deny that assertion, and say that God does indeed comprehend spirits, as he comprehends all things whatsoever.”
    –Aquinas would agree (see Summa Theologica, Question 50 Article 1)

    I think that the important question is not whether or not God can comprehend Himself, or the angels, but whether or not we can comprehend them. I think we can discover God (Aquinas argues quite strongly that we can, See Summa Theologica Question 12), but the question is whether or not the same modes of knowing can be used to discover God as are used to discover the “physical” world. I think here the LDS perspective is unique in that we assert that God and angels are “physical” in that they have bodies of “matter” (again with a broader definition of matter), but that to comprehend them we must “see them with our spiritual eyes”. So in the latter respect we would tend to agree with Aquinas (and Catholics in general) that God is knowable through the intellect, but we also assert that He is also physical and we can “handle [Him] and see, for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as [we] see [Him] have.” http://scriptures.lds.org/en/luke/24/39#39

    So thus we have the additional assertion that the same modes of knowing that we use for science can be used to discover God, and I think that this is where the disagreement comes. This means that if the modes of knowing that are used for science (i.e. finding laws through observation) apply to God then He too must follow Law. So now we have another question, whether or not God is bound by law.

    From Geoff B.: “I don’t even know where to start.” This reminded me of a line from the Chronicles of Narnia. When Susan gets her first full view of Narnia she says, “It’s so big!” to which Mrs. Beaver replies, “It’s the world dear. Did you think it would be small?” It is a very, very big topic and sometimes it’s hard to find where to start. I know how you feel.

  18. “I think that if you approach the topic from this perspective then you will avoid many of the confusions that may arise from addressing it from a “physics” perspective. Personally I think that it is a stronger assertion to say that God, spirits and other such things are knowable and comprehensible to us than to say that they are “physical”. In reality it is the same thing, but by making that assertion we get around the problem of having people acknowledge that God and spirits are physical, but still insist that they are unknowable”

    I see your point.

    The word “physical” seems to be a sticking point that isn’t really necessary. Music is “not physical” in one sense but clearly is physical in the way I intended it in that it follows explainable laws based on comprehendable initial conditions or axioms and is therefore a “physical process.”. The word “physical” may not be the best word here, though it’s not clear that any word will suffice in that any word I choose will come with baggage.

  19. quantumleap42:

    I enjoyed reading your comment, and thanks for your feedback on my own.

    You wrote [quoting me], ‘“This is an assertion which has not, indeed cannot, be proven.” –Aquinas would disagree.’

    The assertion I was referring to was that “nothing can exist which is not physical”, and I was saying this has not been proven. Are you really saying that Aquinas would disagree with that? In other words Aquinas would say that it has been proven that nothing can exist which is not physical?

    I suspect we have a miscommunication somewhere…

  20. Bruce:

    I’m not sure I agree or even understand you fully, but my main concern was just to state the correct Catholic position as I see it. Since I have done that I won’t argue any further.

  21. More thoughts:

    We all meet people all the time. We talk to them, interact with them, we “know” other people exist. We know they have memories, can process information, can make choices, etc.

    At one point in human history, people seemed rather mysterious and supernatural (as did all life.) So the world was philosophically split up into “living” and “non-living” types of matter.

    Now that we have a science world view, a fair question to ask – and science does ask this question – is “how do people function?” How do they store memories? How do they make choices? How do they process information? etc.

    From a purely temporal / brain point of view, these questions all have answers. We can hook a person up to an MRI, and see their brain activity and see that thoughts are real physical processes as are memories. We can actually interfere with memories by disturbing the neurons that hold the information. We can force a person to think of certain memories by activing other neurons. Etc.

    Therefore, we might say that “a physical person” is “reducible” to a set of chemical laws which are further reducible to a set of physical laws and initial conditions (i.e. initial conditions probably have a techincal definition I don’t understand. I merely mean the existence of basic things that laws act upon. This might be quarks or strings, maybe? Or maybe not even that).

    Now imagine meeting a spirit. It’s an immaterial disembodied mind. Science would immediately ask (and they’d be right to ask) “how do spirits function?”

    Now let’s assume two possible answers:

    1. Spirits, like temporal persons, are also reducible to a set of initial conditions and laws. In this scenario, to comprehend spirits is to understand how they function by their laws and initial conditions. Spirits are therefore “explainable”
    2. Spirits, unlike temporal persons, are atomic. They have no underlying description at all. They *are* an initial condition.

    I’ve been calling #2, “incomprehensible” and claiming its equivalent to “God not comprehending spirits.” I’m going to stand by that claim but with a caveat that softens it a bit. This is because, from another point of view, the reason it’s “unexplainable” is because there is nothing to comprehend or explain. They just are what they are. They are just an initial condition. The scientific question of “how do they function” is an unanswerable question and doesn’t actually even make sense.

    As I understand it, Catholics officially believe in #2 and Mormons perhaps have no official belief either way, but I’m saying I personally believe in #1. I believe all things can be explained by God.

    The reason I believe in #1 is because #2 strikes me as problematic in that disembodied minds are clearly not something atomic. They too store information (memories) and can think thoughts and make choices. A disembodied mind is (to me anyhow) obviously complex and therefore reducible. So I’m really ruling out #2 as impossible.

    Since I see #2 as a non-option, and #1 as the only other option (so far anyhow) then logically I must accept that spirits *can* be explained via some set of laws. Once science understands and documents those laws, those laws would then be part of the ‘laws of physics’ (as far as any scientist is concerned) and would therefore be considered real ‘physical process.’ From this point forward, spirits would rightly no longer be considered “immaterial” except maybe in the same sense we might consider energy, or alternative universes to be immaterial from our point of view.

    This isn’t such a large leap. Consider that all Christian religions believe a physical body and an “immaterial spirit” can somehow interact with each other in that one embodies the other. This implies a certain level of physicality by definition. So scientists would probably consider #2 to also imply that “immaterial spirits” are still “physical.” Indeed, science is going to consider the existence of anything at all to be “physical” in that sense. So the word “physical” isn’t necessarily that useful unless we’re positing that spirits are immaterial in that they are “not physical in any sense at all” (which would then just mean they don’t exist and are imaginary.)

    Now what if you accept #2 as true? Does this mean God can’t comprehend spirits?

    The reason I was asserting it means this is because of the following:

    Pretend like you are talking to God and you ask “gee, how do disemboddied spirits store memories?”

    If #2 is true, there is no possible answer to this question. The answer is “they just do.”

    To me, this is really just the same as saying “God can’t explain spirits either” though in reality we might also see this as “God just did explain spirits. The answer was they require no explanation.”

  22. A quick thought. First I think we have to distinguish between disembodied and physical, as other noted. While both ‘physical’ and ‘material’ have problematic definitions let’s for simplicity’s sake just say they just refer to stuff “in” space/time that have various properties. Things can be spatial but disembodied, like light. (And many people apply it to gases)

    The opposition is typically immaterial souls. Some Mormons, such as B. H. Roberts, favored immaterial souls. But especially in the 20th century physicalism had tended to discount anything not spatial in some sense – simply because we can’t experimentally deal with such entities.

    Is God or the soul immaterial? We simply don’t know. If they are then I suspect they wouldn’t be physics anymore. I’m pretty skeptical anything is immaterial. And that has a long history in Mormon thought as well. (Orson Pratt wrote a horribly bad but highly influential treatise on this back in the mid-19th century)

  23. “While both ‘physical’ and ‘material’ have problematic definitions let’s for simplicity’s sake just say they just refer to stuff “in” space/time that have various properties.”

    This demonstrates the real problem and illustrates my point very well. The fact is that if there is “stuff in space/time with properties” (or even out of space time with properties) then physics will eventually claim it by definition because it’s part of reality. Period.

    Maybe “physical” is a poor word for this, but it’s hard to think of a better one at the moment. I don’t think of logic or information theory as being ‘physical’ yet in a sense it is because both of those represent real physical processes.

    “Things can be spatial but disembodied, like light. (And many people apply it to gases)”

    You are right. Under the way we normally think of the word “physical” neither light nor gas may qualify as “physical.” Yet many (most? all?) physicist would consider them “physical.” Why? In the case of gas, it’s obvious. Gas is still made up of physical particles and even has weight. It may not seem physical to us macro objects, but it’s actually as physical as we are.

    Even in the case of light, it’s not so different. Light is, of coruse, made up of massless particles called photons. The reason light can burn you is because it caries packets of energy, which as we know, is actually just matter in a different form.

    It’s not hard to imagine a whole new set of fundamental physical particles that interact with each other but not with our particles. Think of these particles (for the sake of argument) as having a strong and weak nuclear force prime. They interact with each other, but not with our particles. They are (from our point of view) entirely non-existent, yet to each other, they do exist and it’s use that don’t exist.

    If Physics at some point had to assume these “prime particles” existed, they’d consider them as “physically existing” even though from our point of view they are entirely completely immaterial.

    This is my real point. From an LDS Christian stand point “immaterial” is undefined. It could be anything so we’re open to all possibilities. Spirts might be a gas, or made of light, or some form of pure energy, or some particle heretofore undiscovered, or some cloud of quarks, or even “prime particles” that have no impact on us at all.

    By comparison, my take in conversations with non-Mormon Christians is no possible definition that could qualify. This is what I mean by “negatively defined.” To non-Mormon Christians that I’ve talked to “immaterial” literally means “it’s not energy, not photons, not a gas. It’s not in space or time. It’s not part of physics or of nature in any sense. In fact, no matter what definition you come up with, it’s not going to be that either.” (Individuals will vary, of course. I suspect Polkinghorn or Telihard would feel as uncomfortable with a negatively defined “immaterial” as I am.)

    This is why I feel it’s “negatively defined.” It’s merely defined as not being any possible definition. To me, It’s the same as saying “God doesn’t comprehend it either.” (Or perhaps more correctly, “God can’t explain it either.”)

  24. Immateriality itself is negatively defined, yes. Of course. The prefix “im” indicates the privation of something, in this case matter.

    But *things* that *are* immaterial are not negatively defined. A spirit is a being with a mind. Neither “being” nor “mind” is negatively
    defined. It’s only undefined in terms of describing its physical makeup: not a gas, not energy, etc. That is only a lack if we assume
    in the first place that it must have a physical makeup of one kind or
    another.

    OK, your question is really (based on your penultimate comment), how does it work? How, for example, does a spirit store memories?

    The question, though, assumes a spatio-temporal viewpoint, which perhaps spirits don’t share. The very notion of “storing” is a spatio-temporal and therefore physical(1) concept, assuming from the outset that memories are physical(1) things that have to be put in some location.

    But if spirits exist, by definition they would not be spatio-temporal creatures. And if not, maybe memories are not needful to them as they are to us.

    What function do memories serve? I think that it’s basically the same function as our ability to imagine and anticipate the future: Being temporal creatures, we can only experience reality one moment and one place at a time. Without memory and imagination, we would be like a fish in a bowl, swimming around and around in circles, passing the little ceramic castle every ten seconds and saying “oh look! A castle!” every time. We could never learn or grow but would always stay the same. We could never make friends or plan our lives.

    But perhaps immaterial beings are not subject to the limitations of temporal creatures. Maybe they are not limited to experiencing reality one moment at a time, and therefore don’t need to heap up a store of moments for future reference. Maybe they don’t need to grow from one state of perfection to another by accumulating experiences and changes, because they are created perfect (i.e. complete, just as God wants them) right from the get-go.

    The point is that if immaterial beings (as Catholics conceive them) exist, theirs is a different plane of existence. Some of the things
    that we think must be explained, perhaps do not even apply to them. It doesn’t follow from this that God himself can’t explain or comprehend them.

    And by the way I take issue with your definition of “comprehend”. You say that “comprehending” God — or God comprehending himself — means understanding the laws that govern him. But the Catholic belief is that God is not governed by any laws external to himself. Therefore our definition of God comprehending himself has nothing to do with any laws that are supposed to govern him.

    It is for this reason that I disagree with your statement that Catholic beliefs about God make him incomprehensible to himself: I disagree with your definition of “comprehend”, which appears tailored to spatio-temporal events. Yes, if you define “comprehend” such that it necessarily involves the idea that everything is subject to laws, then something asserted to be independent of any laws is by definition incomprehensible (as well as non-existent). But in my opinion, that definition is unnecessarily narrow.

    I think the whole concept of “laws”, like that of memory, is steeped in the spatio-temporal, indeed the materialistic viewpoint, wherein nothing happens unless something physically causes it to happen, and those causes are expressed in words as laws. But maybe God can cause a thing to happen simply by willing it, as I can conjure up a mental image of an elephant. Maybe in the realm of spirit the “law” is nothing more than God’s will that it should be so. “Will”, of course, being an immaterial thing.

    A question: Do you think things like love, justice and goodness exist? Are they material or immaterial? Physical or non-physical? Explainable by laws?

  25. Interesting thoughtful responses, Agellius. Let me clarify a few things.

    “Immateriality itself is negatively defined, yes. Of course. The prefix “im” indicates the privation of something, in this case matter.”

    You’ve used this argument before, but it seems to be a misunderstanding of what I actually said.

    As previously explained, by “negatively defined” I do not mean that there is an “im” on the front of it nor even that it’s defined by what it is not.

    Mormons also sometimes use “immaterial” to mean “not material.” Because “immaterial” means literally “not material” to them, they would generally take it to mean that spirits can’t be touched — i.e. literally they are not made of normal matter. In this limited sense, Mormons do accept that spirits are “immaterial.”

    Therefore, Mormons, unlike other Christians, assume that “immaterial” means literally “something that isn’t material.”

    My experience with many Catholics and Protestants has left me with the impression that most of them seem to interpret “immaterial” as “there is no definition possible by which to define spirits.”

    The difference between these two views is that under the first, we Mormons have to admit we don’t know what “immaterial” is, we only know what it is *not*. (i.e. it’s not “matter” in the traditional sense of something I can touch.)

    Therefore, to Mormons, *any* theory as to what spirits are is valid.

    This attribute is readily apparent in Mormons and Mormon theology. Speculation as to what spirits really are is normal and accepted. There is no possible “wrong answer.” (Well, unless you are going to speculate that they really are just normal matter and your spirit is actually your dog, or something like that. I guess that would be a wrong answer.)

    Under the Catholic/Protestant view “immaterial” has no definition that can be concevied or could ever possibly be valid for consideration.

    I also see this attribute as readily apparent in Catholic/Protestants. If I come up with *any* definition as to what spirits *are* (rather than what they are not), I am always told “no that’s not what it is.” Catholics and Protestant are certain they know what spirits aren’t — they aren’t anything that can be conceived.

    Clearly this goes way way beyond merely adding an “im” in front of the word “matter.” This is what I mean by “negatively defined.” I mean literally “defined as having no definition.”

    As stated in my comments, I don’t believe all Catholics negatively define spirits. I suspect this differs by individual.

    But since you are a Catholic, Agellius, we have a fairly simple test here. Are you willing to consider *any* theory as to how to explain what spirits are and how they operate?

    If you are, then you are not negatively defining spirits. You are open to any non-material explanation. But if we find that you reject all possible definitions, then you are indeed negatively defining the term too.

    ______________

    “The question, though, assumes a spatio-temporal viewpoint, which perhaps spirits don’t share”

    Your entire argument rested upon this, but I’m not sure why you are saying this.

    Why does the assumption that things can be explained through reducible explanations imply a spatio-temporal view point? (Unless by “spatio-temporal” you really mean “explanable”)

    As you yourself point out, love, justice and goodness all exist, are (from the way you are using the term) are not spatio-temporal yet they are in fact governed my laws and can be reduced to an explanation via laws. If this were not so, then we couldn’t, for example, make laws to enforce justice in our societies.

    __________________

    “…means understanding the laws that govern him. But the Catholic belief is that God is not governed by any laws external to himself.”

    I admit I have no idea what the difference between an external and internal law are.

    However, by specifying that God is not subject to external laws (whatever those are), you seem to be saying that He *is* subject to internal laws (whatever those are). Therefore, you are really agreeing with me.

    You would then be asserting that God is governed by laws (internal ones) and therefore God is explanable by law, just like physics is. You are confirming my point about the comprehensibility of God.

  26. This is my real point. From an LDS Christian stand point “immaterial” is undefined.

    I guess this is what I’m disagreeing with. In physics ultimately everything is related to forces and that is ultimately all about change in position. Position is, in some sense, fundamental. (I’ll leave aside the question Leibniz, Mach, and Einstein dealt with about whether space was fundamental or emergent out of particle relationships – for the question at hand I just don’t agree with this)

    Now the question of the mental is, by some, simply a kind of phenomena that doesn’t deal with position. One can dispute this is fully possible. (Consider the fundamental problem of the interaction of the physical and mental in Descartes, for instance. There the problem is that the action is one directional.) I think there are a lot of critiques one can make here. While I don’t accept the possibility of the immaterial, I just think the issues are much more complex than you are portraying them.

    Forces between physical particles are characteristic in that both particles change position. If we have something that simply isn’t position indexed and relations don’t affect position then it seems to me we might as well say that it is immaterial. This is a common criticism of property dualism – the idea that the physical has mental properties. One can simply say there’s no ultimate reason to distinguish this from a separate mental substance that interacts with particular matter.

  27. My experience with many Catholics and Protestants has left me with the impression that most of them seem to interpret “immaterial” as “there is no definition possible by which to define spirits.”

    I don’t think that’s accurate. Most are highly influenced by both Thomas Aquinas’ view of souls as well as Descartes (which arguably is pretty similar to Aquinas’). Aquinas’ view is basically an Aristotilean form which has its own independent reality rather than just being matter in a form. (Sort of a halfway position between Plato and Aristotle)

    In any case if you look at the discourse its defined fairly well.

  28. Clark,

    I gave a series of much longer replies, and then thought better of it and deleted them. I have found long replies as blog comments generally just confuse things more.

    Bruce said: This is my real point. From an LDS Christian stand point “immaterial” is undefined.

    Clark responded: I guess this is what I’m disagreeing with.

    The truth is that I couldn’t understand your comment. You went on to claim that physics is fundamentally about position. I couldn’t see how it was related to the quote you said you were disagreeing with. And also, I wasn’t sure what you were disagreeing over. Are you saying LDS people do believe spirits are fully defined and comprehended? If so, I’d have to disagree.

    If you are right that physics is solely about things that have position, then you would be correct that there can be things that are real but outside of physics. But I already defined “physics” as the study of reality, so I must be using a more expansive definition that this.

    Personally, I believe that “metal” and “thought” can indeed be (or eventually will be) fully explained via what we’d call “laws of physics” – just not by our current level of understanding or current theories. (Although later I’ll do a post about how some physicists feel we can already explain thought through physics.) Quantumleap is right, I’m really talking about epistemology and just didn’t realize it, so I’ll have to change my post to explain that better.

    I’m actually very curious about what Aquinas taught about immaterial spirits. I would assume Aquinas defined them better than the discussions I had with lay members.

    However, it would seem that you’ve already basically proven that Aquinas’ views prove my point when you said this: “which has its own independent reality.”

    If Aquinas’ views boil down to a long set of explanations that ultimately say “it’s impossible to comprehend or explain the immaterial because it has its own independent reality that we can never understand” (and it sounds like you are saying he said exactly that) then I would consider that proof of my point. That which can’t be explained can never be comprehended.

    I get the feeling that the thing I’ve “missed” is that the ancient philosophers (and thus the Christians that borrowed those philosophies) are basically asserting that God has available to Him epistemological methods that are wholly different and wholly other to anything in physical reality. Therefore (or so would go the logic) it is possible for immaterial spirits to be utterly incomprehensible by any intelligence in the universe, even if infinite, yet still be comprehensible by God who is not only infinite in intelligence but also has this extra epistemological method available to him that just isn’t available within our reality. Is this possibly what you are suggesting?

  29. I guess my point is that physics isn’t just about the study of reality and even physicists don’t define it that way. There’s a certain approach to doing physics and it is caught up in a 3rd person perspective. If you look at the physicalists who attempt to reduct psychology to physics and who discount the notion of immateriality then what they also have to do is reduce 1st person descriptions to 3rd person ones. Effectively the claim is that any 1st person phenomena is not real.

    I’m quite sympathetic to the idea that reality has an effect and to the degree it has an effect in a consistent way it is open up to scientific discussion. I think one has to be careful not to confuse this with the question of immaterialism. I just don’t think the claim about immaterialism is a claim about incomprehension but rather the mode of comprehension and that goes to the 1st person vs. 3rd person distinction. Now it is true that what hasn’t been reduced in science tends to be judged incomprehensible. Once again one need only look towards psychology, economics, sociology, and cognitive science. What is considered incomprehensible or at least not yet comprehended tends to be precisely what some considered immaterial. It is seen as philosophy rather than science.

    Will there ever be a science of the 1st person? Perhaps. Certainly people have tried. (Husserl famously – and arguably that is what psychology is purportedly all about) I just think that given the state of success one has to be cautious.

  30. Clark,

    Rather than argue with you over the correct definition of “physics” I’m just going to say that it’s the concept that matters not the word itself. I will freely give you the word and let you decide what is the “correct” definition and continue to use my “incorrect” version of it because I have no other word.

    I do not understand what you are referring to in terms of 1st person vs. 3rd person. Do you have a link to more info? I looked up Husserl and you seem to be talking about a science of the mind, but I can’t be sure with the limited info you gave me.

    “I think one has to be careful not to confuse this with the question of immaterialism. I just don’t think the claim about immaterialism is a claim about incomprehension but rather the mode of comprehension and that goes to the 1st person vs. 3rd person distinction”

    Somehow I think we’re talking past each other on this and may also be disagreeing. But I can’t tell.

    I rewrote my original example in the post above to be more clear. You may want to re-read it. The thing I’m getting tripped up on is that I don’t believe I am claiming that “immaterialism” is in every sense an assertion about “explain-ability.” In fact, I think I’ve given numerous examples of how “immaterialism” could in fact be explainable and thus comprehended by us.

    What I thinking I’m claiming is that a specific set of people with a specific set of claims about immaterialism is equivalent to unexplain-ability and therefore equivalent to incomprehensibility via a certain specific mode of comprehension

    Specifically, I am refering to lay Christians I’ve had discussions with. I do not know if they were properly or improperly representing Aristole, though perhaps they were. Are you refering to the same thing I am refering to? Perhaps. But I can’t tell so far.

    I get the feeling that your actually objecting to me refering to comprehension as being equivalent to explainability via laws and first principles. But as of yet, I’ve never made the claim that is the only possible definition of comprehension, only one valid definition of “copmrehension.” (I do intend to later explore the possibility that it’s the only possible way to fully comprehend something. But I have not asserted that there are no other valid definitions of “comprehension”.)

    Furthermore, I think I’m directly challenging the idea that this “mode of comprehension” and “explain-ability” are somehow different. I fail to see how they could be.

    Also, if there are modes of comprehension not available to us, then anything that can only be learned through that mode of comprehension is therefore forever incomprehensible to us. (Well, unless we are later turned into something that is no longer us.) Are you disagreeing with me over this assertion? I can’t tell.

    “Will there ever be a science of the 1st person? Perhaps. Certainly people have tried. (Husserl famously – and arguably that is what psychology is purportedly all about) I just think that given the state of success one has to be cautious.”

    This comment suggests again we are talking past each other.

    If there exists a science of the mind (is that what you mean by 1st person?), then I am correct that even that can be reduced to laws and therefore explanations. If there is not such a science, then I’m still right because it’s then impossible to explain it.

  31. Bruce:

    You write, ‘Under the Catholic/Protestant view “immaterial” has no definition that can be concevied or could ever possibly be valid for consideration.’

    I don’t follow you. “Immaterial” means “not made of matter”. How is that not a definition?

    You write, ‘Catholics and Protestant are certain they know what spirits aren’t — they aren’t anything that can be conceived.’

    You’re wrong. A spirit can be conceived of. It’s conceived of as a being with a mind. “Immaterial” is included to distinguish “spirit” from “human being”, which is also a being with a mind. The only way you can say that’s inconceivable is if both “being” and “mind” are meaningless.

    You write, ‘But since you are a Catholic, Agellius, we have a fairly simple test here. Are you willing to consider *any* theory as to how to explain what spirits are and how they operate?’

    I don’t understand what it means to “consider a theory” as to what spirits are. I have said what they are. We consider their existence and their nature to have been divinely revealed. As to “how they operate”, again I consider that question to be imbued with the spatio-temporal viewpoint: It assumes that there must exist some sort of a *mechanism* of operation. I see no grounds upon which to assume that “mechanism” is applicable to immaterial beings. If you don’t mean “mechanism of operation” then please tell me what you mean by a “theory as to how they operate”.

    You write, ‘If you are, then you are not negatively defining spirits. You are open to any non-material explanation. But if we find that you reject all possible definitions, then you are indeed negatively defining the term too.’

    I reject your premise, which apparently is that to define something is to describe a mechanism of operation. I am not negatively defining “spirit” since neither “being” nor “mind” is negatively defined.

    You write, ‘[quoting me]“The question, though, assumes a spatio-temporal viewpoint, which perhaps spirits don’t share” … Why does the assumption that things can be explained through reducible explanations imply a spatio-temporal view point?’

    I’m not sure what you mean by “reducible explanation”. But the statement of mine that you quoted had to do with your question of how spirits store memories. I think I made it clear why that question assumes a spatio-temporal viewpoint: It assumes that memories are necessary to intellectual beings, which in turn assumes that all intellectual beings experience reality one moment and one place at a time. That is the spatio-temporal viewpoint in a nutshell.

    You write, ‘As you yourself point out, love, justice and goodness all exist, are (from the way you are using the term) are not spatio-temporal yet they are in fact governed my laws and can be reduced to an explanation via laws. If this were not so, then we couldn’t, for example, make laws to enforce justice in our societies.’

    Actually I didn’t say they exist, I asked you whether they exist. But anyway, in what way are “love”, “justice” and “goodness” governed by and explainable by laws? I don’t comprehend what you mean by that.

    You write, ‘However, by specifying that God is not subject to external laws (whatever those are), you seem to be saying that He *is* subject to internal laws (whatever those are). Therefore, you are really agreeing with me. You would then be asserting that God is governed by laws (internal ones) and therefore God is explanable by law, just like physics is. You are confirming my point about the comprehensibility of God.’

    Non sequitur. God is subject to nothing and no one but rather is the source of all that exists, including all laws. I specified “external” because I’m not clear on what a “law” would mean outside the spatio-temporal context. Within that context it refers (as I understand it) to the physical or material causes of events. Taken to mean “causes of events”, I could grant that laws exist within God, since he himself is the ultimate cause of all events that have ever transpired. But “laws” in that sense do not govern him, rather he causes them to exist by his will.

  32. By the way, M* is really slow. It’s slower to load and post comments than pretty much any other site I use.

    Also, I have subscribed to this thread but never receive emails notifying me of new comments.

    But you guys probably knew that. : )

  33. “I don’t follow you. “Immaterial” means “not made of matter”. How is that not a definition?”

    *Sigh* I meant explanation. In any case, energy is “not made of matter” (depending on how you define matter) so energy is thus “immaterial.” Yet this isn’t what you mean.

    “As to “how they operate”, again I consider that question to be imbued with the spatio-temporal viewpoint: It assumes that there must exist some sort of a *mechanism* of operation. I see no grounds upon which to assume that “mechanism” is applicable to immaterial beings. If you don’t mean “mechanism of operation” then please tell me what you mean by a “theory as to how they operate”.”

    I think there are two things here I need clarification on.

    Do you consider “laws and first principles” in science to always be the same as “mechanism?” I see nothing wrong with saying they are the same. If so, yes, I’m talking about “mechanisms” and I’ll even use the word from that point forward. (This would imply, for example, that economics or psychology is based on mechanisms. I’m fine with saying that if you are.) If not, then I don’t understand the question and you’ll need to clarify.

    The second is your implicit assumption that “laws” are always without fail the same as a spatio-temporal viewpoint. You’ve accused me of this several times now and I’ve denied it several times now. Is it possible we’re talking past each other? Or are you not aware that laws can exist outside a spatio-temporal framework?

    I think about something like epistemology — the theory of knowledge. I just posted an interesting speech by David Deutsch about this. As a matter of fact, I am using his definition of “physics” as the study or explanation of reality rather than the study of forces or positions. Even if Clark is right that this is an “incorrect” definition, it doesn’t change anything. (Being “correct” or “incorrect” about a word rarely does.)

    I do not personally think of the theory of knowledge as being spatio-temporal. That’s part of why I’m in denial. But it is a physical process. (A point he emphasizes over and over in his book.) It is literally part of the ultimate theory of everything physicist seek to comprehend. This is the grounds on which I am referring to it as part of the laws of physics. (A usage I got directly from Deutsch.)

    Likewise, physics studies (i.e. attempts to explain) what caused the big bang and therefore how the universe came to be. To me, this is also entirely outside anything spatio-temporal because we’re talking about something prior to the existence of space and time. If we’re studying prior to the existence of space and time, I fail to see how “spatio-temporal” is the right word for it.

    “But anyway, in what way are “love”, “justice” and “goodness” governed by and explainable by laws?”

    Yes, they most certainly are. My example of justice and laws of the land shows this easily enough. The fact is that “love” and “justice” can be explained. We can break them down to principles and laws and explain them and how they function.

    “God is subject to nothing and no one but rather is the source of all that exists, including all laws.”

    Bingo!!!!

    I think you just proved my point. Do I understand you correctly that you believe God can’t be described by laws because then it means he’s subject to those laws? (Which would be true by definition.)

    And it does seem to me that you are saying that immaterial spirits have no “mechanisms” in which case you mean they have no laws or first principles by which they can be explained or comprehended.

    It seems like you are saying exactly what I said. If God and spirits are not describable by “mechanism” then they can’t be explained or comprehended via those means.

    Is our disagreement merely over whether or not my suggested definition for “comprehension” and “explanation” are “correct” in your view? Is it possible you are literally agreeing with everything I said but arguing over whether or not I used the right word to say it?

  34. “According to physicalism, no irreducible privileged first-person perspectives exist. Everything can be exhaustively described in an objective language from a third-person perspective. A physicalist description of a mom would say, “There exists a body at a certain location that is five feet tall, weighs 115 pounds,” and so forth. The property dualist would add a description of the properties possessed by that body, such as the body is feeling pain, thinking about lunch, or can remember being on vacation with her children in Grandview, Missouri, in 1965.

    But no amount of third-person description can capture Mom’s own subjective first-person acquaintance of her own self in acts of self-awareness. In fact, for any third-person description, an open question always exists as to whether the person described in third-person terms is the same person as Mom. She knows her self not because she knows some third-person description of a set of mental and physical properties and because a certain person satisfies that description. She knows herself as an ego immediately through being acquainted with her own self. She expresses that self-awareness by using the term “I.””

    “If physicalism is true, then human free will does not exist. Instead, determinism is true.”

    Agellius, that was as *very* interesting article. I am even more convinced now that you are agreeing with me, but arguing with me over which words I chose to describe my point. (And I think Clark is doing the same now if this is what he meant by first person and third person.)

    I have to say, I can’t really agree with what is described above. Don’t get me wrong, I do not consider myself a “physicalist.” But if I were, I can’t see how the above arguments are sound.

    Personally, I believe in spirits. But I do not believe a true ‘physicalist’ would agree that the body and the self are one and the same. I plan to do some future posts on some thoughts on Godel, Escher, Bach: And Eternal Golden Braid and The Physics of Immorality. Both are written by scientists that I *would* consider physicalists (mind you, Tipler is a Christian but also a physicalist) and neither would agree that the body and the self are the same thing as this article assumes they would.

    I think this argument misses the distinction between hardware and software. Both of those authors would say that the self is the pattern in the body, not the body. It is therefore immaterial but clearly is subject to the laws of physics and describable by them. (Tipler, author of Physics of Immorality, believes that’s what a soul/spirit is – the pattern in the body – not just in the brain, the whole body.)

    (This is yet again a definition of immaterial that I can accept as comprehensible because it can be explained by laws.)

    Furthermore, Tipler would add that a pattern can be duplicated in multiple mediums, so the body is not required for ourselves to exist. (Tipler would add that your body is being destroyed and reconstructed every moment anyhow, so obviously “you” are the pattern, not the body.)

    Tipler also objects to the idea that physicalism results in determinism. (He is an MWI believer. He believes we can choose which universe we live in.)

    Actually, would you be okay with me doing some future post (probably on Jr. G. for this topic) responding to the analysis problems in this article? I think all of the arguments they used have been defeated by the two above mentioned authors, one being a Christian and one an Atheist (probably.) how they defeated them is very interesting. (I’m not saying their beliefs are true, I’m just saying they have proven the conclusions drawn in the article are not logically necessary for physicalists because the article makes assumptions about physicalists that aren’t true.)

  35. Pingback: Ancient Physics

  36. Bruce:

    I am not wedded to the conclusions of the article, so feel free to respond in any way you choose. I just happened upon it and when Clark brought up the 1st person/3rd person thing, remembered it and thought I would pass it along in case it might help.

  37. Bruce:

    You write, ‘[quoting me] “I don’t follow you. “Immaterial” means “not made of matter”. How is that not a definition?” *Sigh* I meant explanation. In any case, energy is “not made of matter” (depending on how you define matter) so energy is thus “immaterial.” Yet this isn’t what you mean.’

    The purpose of the word “immaterial” is to say that something is not made of matter.  As I said, it’s added to the definition of “spirit” to distinguish a spirit from a human being:  an immaterial being with a mind, from a material being with a mind.  It succeeds in doing so. There is no requirement that it specify every single thing that spirits are not made of. If there were beings-with-minds made of energy, then maybe we would have a word to distinguish spirit from those beings as well. As it is, the only beings-with-minds of which we are aware are human beings and spirits, so all we need do is distinguish them from each other, which “immaterial” does.

  38. Agellius,

    I feel we’re talking past each other on the whole “definition of immaterial thing.” You keep restating the same thing and so do I.

    As far as I can tell, my point is that Catholics seem to use “immaterial” to mean a lot more than merely “not matter.”

    Your point seems to be… well, to be honest, I’m not really sure… but whatever your point is, it seems you are agreeing with me that Catholics mean a lot more then just “not matter” when you speak of “immaterial spirits.”

    (The salient example here being that anything that can be described by laws or physics, even a pattern/information in a body as per Tipler’s view of the soul, is definitively NOT what you are referring to when you speak of “immaterial spirits” even though “patterns/information” are “not matter.”)

    In any case, I suggest we resume this discussion against my future posts. I plan to address Tipler’s and Hofstadter’s views in more detail later and perhaps that will help you bridge the communication gap.

    Don’t get me wrong on the article you sent. It clarified the whole first and third person thing quite well. I’d call any article that makes salient point an article worth reading. I just don’t think the author is properly representing all physicalists (assuming I really understand that word), particularly Tiper or Hofstadter’s. (Tipler is a Christian. Hofstadter is probably an atheist.) But that doesn’t mean the arguments aren’t sound against many or most physicalists, presumably ones that haven’t given it as much thought as Scientists like Tipler and Hofstadter.

    I want to clarify one thing too. This post was about a certain point of view expressed by (some of) the authors in the books I listed. Particularly Deutsch, Hawking, and Tipler took a very different view of physics than merely “the study of the physical world.” I think it’s also obvious Penrose somewhat agrees with this view, though he is less clear about his beliefs on the subject. (Though anyone that believes in an actual platonic world of math seems to me to be taking the view that physics is more than than the study of the physical world.)

    (It is less clear if Popper agrees with this view and Hofstadter is a computer scientist and his book doesn’t address “physics” per say. It’s more of a philosophy book on “what’s intelligence and consciousness.” However Deutsch’s views are entirely based on Popper’s views. I’m just not sure what label Popper would happen to slap on what Deutsch calls “physics.”)

    In any case, it doesn’t matter to me whether or not the Tipler/Deutsch/Hawkings view of “physics” is the “correct” definition of not. I don’t believe definitions can truly ever be said to be “correct” or “incorrect” so I feel it’s a waste of time to argue over them.

  39. Bruce:

    You write, ‘Is our disagreement merely over whether or not my suggested definitionfor “comprehension” and “explanation” are “correct” in your view? Is itpossible you are literally agreeing with everything I said but arguing over whether or not I used the right word to say it?

    I could only answer that if I were sure I was understanding everything you’re saying.  Despite not fully understanding it, though, something about it has been niggling at the back of my mind.  Please bear with me as I try to put my finger on it.

    It sounded initially like you were saying that everything should be explainable by physical(1) laws or else it’s incomprehensible, even to God.  You did say that you were using “physical” in another sense besides physical(1), but the only meaning I could attach to that usage of the word is something about attempting to understand all of reality in terms of “laws”.  But as of now I still don’t understand what those “laws” would consist of: how they are similar to physical(1) laws and how they are different, specifically.  That’s why I keep asking you to explain love, justice, etc. in terms of “laws”, as you said could be done; maybe that would help me to understand what you’re getting at.

    In my opinion, using “physics” to mean “the study of all reality” implies that all reality is physical.  You say that is correct, that’s what you mean by it.  But by “physical” you don’t mean the standard understanding of “physical”.

    “Physics” has always meant, more or less, “the scientific study of matter, energy, force, and motion, and the way they relate to each other”.  How, specifically, are you changing that definition?  Is physics now, “the scientific study of matter, energy, force, motion, and also things that have nothing to do with matter, energy, force or motion”?  Calling it “the attempt to understand reality” is an insufficient definition, since all sciences attempt to do that, including philosophy and theology.

    In Aristotle’s day there were the disciplines of physics, ethics, politics, rhetoric, metaphysics, zoology, astronomy, etc.  Each of these was considered a science, and each tried to understand reality.  In Aquinas’s day theology, the study of God, was considered a science as well (in fact the queen of the sciences since it dealt with matters of the highest dignity, and its principles were divinely revealed).  All of these together were considered “science”, and their combined goal was to understand and categorize all of reality.

    It seems to me that what you are now proposing is to use the word “physics” the way the word “science” was once used.  But if so, why “physics”?  Why not just call it “science”?  And if we change “physics” to mean what used to be called “science”, what will we call the branch of science which from Aristotle’s day was called physics?

    The fact that you insist on using that term, causes me to suspect that your intent is to continue using the current standards and methologies of physics.  Changing the definition of “physics” to mean “the attempt to understand reality” doesn’t mean that physics is now going to branch out to encompass theology, philosophy, and the other sciences. Physics is going to remain physics.  The only thing changing is that things that can’t be studied, observed and measured by the standards of physics, will be relegated to the realm of non-reality.  It looks to me like materialism in new clothes.

    Imprecise as it is, I think this expresses the root of my problem with what you’ve been saying. I hope somehow it enables you to clarify your meaning for me.

  40. Actually, that helps clarify. As I suspected, you are getting “stuck on the words” and therefore misunderstanding what I am actually saying.

    First, take a look at this post and the little cartoon there.

    The key point here is that all science is in fact physics at root. Scientific fields are not separate fields. They are emergent laws that stem from the field we call “physics.” Physics begets chemistry, which is the basis for biology, which is the basis for psychology, etc.

    One can quibble over whether or not psychology can really be reduced to physics, for example. But then it sort of depends on what you mean by “physics” in the first place. If we tautologically define “physics” to mean “the ultimate laws that govern reality” then psychology either can be reduced to “physics” are it can’t be fully explained afterall. I believe this is the point of view being taken by some of the authors.

    Also, I am using science here to mean literally things disciplines that utilize the scientific method. So I am not counting philosophy or theology as “science” in this sense, at least not yet. That’s NOT a dig on philosophy or theology in any way shape or form. I’m just recognizing them as a different class of knowledge at this point. (Actually, I think with a broad enough view of the word “science” we could classify them as science.)

    The point of view expressed in this post is that of the authors I’m reviewing. It is that eventually theology and philosophy will be subsumed into what today we call “physics.” This point of view is that an ultimate theory of everything would be able to explain even things like “love” “justice” “poems” “beauty” “consciousness” etc. (Look at the Hawking quote to see an example of this view expressed elegantly.) (Note: There is more than one definition for “theory of everything” so don’t make the mistake of getting stuck on a particular definition. Word-offense kills understanding. It does not clarify.)

    The post does NOT take a point of view what this ultimate theory would look like. This ultimate theory might look nothing like what we currently call physics. But since physics is, by definition, the ultimate basis of science, we would call an ultimate theory of everything “physics.”

    Also, we do already know that, if an ultimate theory exists, it will be based on first principles and laws, otherwise it’s not comprehensible and therefore not a theory.

    Personally, I do believe there is an ultimate theory of everything. I don’t know that for sure, obviously. (Belief might be too strong a word here. I am hoping there is and see no reason why there couldn’t be.) You might say there is “faith” involved with “believing” that everything can be eventually explained in terms of laws and therefore can be fully comprehended. There are many people, even really respected scientists, that would disagree with this point of view. I am reading a book by John Barrow right now where he essentially expresses the idea that we will never find an ultimate theory of everything. (Though his reasons aren’t so much because one doesn’t exists but rather that knowledge is forever sealed off from us due to not having the initial conditions of the big bang.)

    The post makes the point that even if you believe there is no ultimate theory of everything, tautologically it means that some things can never be fully comprehended in the same sense we might ‘comprehend’ gravity via laws and explanations. (One might argue here that we don’t really comprehend gravity yet. Probably true. But we can certainly codify gravity into laws and model it better than we can “beauty.”) In any case, in a worldview where “love” and “beauty” can never be fit into an ultimate theory of everything by being defined by laws, we might say (rightly in my opinion) that those things might be comprehensible to a degree, but never fully. They will forever be a bit (or a lot) of a mystery to us. The only way they could be fully comprehended is if they can in fact be fit into an ultimate theory of everything whereby they are turned into laws and can be fully explained.

    The point of the post was not to address how one might turn “justice” or “love” into laws, but to merely express faith that perhaps we can, therefore, perhaps we can eventually fully comprehend them as well as absolutely everything. In short, I’m expressing faith in the existence of an explainable and comprehensible reality and therefore an explainable and comprehensible God. (Not necessarily to our current level of intellect.)

    Can “love” and “justice” be turned into “laws?” Well, we can’t today for “love” no. But we already do for “justice”, or at least try to with some considerable measure of success. We call it “the legal system.” And I see no particular reason why we can’t eventually understand “love” in the same way. Can’t we already define “love” via laws to some degree? Can’t we already express it as a law whereby one person’s happiness is tied up in someone elses? This is an imperfect “law of love” but it’s already a start. Even “love” seems to be explainable and thus comprehensible. I’m in favor of saying it will one day be fully explainable. (I would say that love is also an experience that you have to experience to understand fully. But this just makes the “experience of love” a first principle distinct from a description of what it is and how it functions.)

    I’ll do a future post on Deutsch’s view of “physics” and his ideas on what he feels are already an emerging “theory of everything” via four scientific strands: quantum physics, evolutionary theory, theory of knowledge, and computer theory. (Many will be shocked to find that he considered all of those as being part of and directly related to “physics,” though I feel his argument as to why they are is compelling.)

    Interestingly, Tipler takes essentially the same view as Deutsch, apparently independently, and develops a full scientific theology (and yes, it’s a full theology) based on those ideas. Not one I agree with, but it’s impressive what he’s accomplished and suggests many intriguing possibilities. (His view is a fully materialist view of Christianity, btw. I didn’t think such a thing was possible prior to reading his book. I’m still shocked it can be done at all, agreement or no.)

  41. I wanted to comment on whether or not I’m a “materialist.” Agellius simply can’t see how my point of view can be anything but that of a “materialist.” I think this is a fair question, but not one with a simple answer.

    The problem is that I feel like the answer to the question “are you a materialist?” is “depends on what you mean by ‘materialist’”

    Normally, I think of a materialist as being someone like the physicists whose view I’m reviewing. All of them believe there is no spiritual realm (as far as I can tell anyhow.) Even Tipler, who believes in Christianity, defines it in terms of physics we currently know. The spiritual realm is the information contained within our bodies. When you die, it is lost until reconstructed in the far future heaven.

    Now personally, I do not believe our reality can be defined in terms of what we currently think of as ‘science.’ Also, I believe in spirits and the spirit world even if I have no idea what spirits really are. I do not believe the spirit realm is explainable by our current laws of physics. Therefore, I would not normally consider myself a materialist and certainly not in the way I consider said physicists to be.

    On the other hand, I buy the Mormon doctrine that spirits are really “matter in a sense.” I do not believe in negatively defining “immaterial” like I perceive Agellius (and non-LDS Christians in general) as doing.

    Agellius has made it very clear he does not believe there is any “mechanism” or “laws” by which you can describe “immaterial spirits.”

    To me that means there are no laws or first principles that describe them period. (Agellius can freely correct me on this.) Catholics therefore seem to me to be saying that “immaterial spirits” are not explainable nor comprehensible and never will be. Even God couldn’t explain them to us in terms of first principles and laws (as I would with things in the material world) because no such first principles and laws exist for them.

    I do not believe this and I don’t currently believe the Mormon view of spirits allows for such a view. (But I’m always shocked when Mormons come up with wild ways of explaining things, so who knows. In any case, I’m fairly ‘orthodox’ in my beliefs here.)

    This is precisely what I mean by “undefined” vs. “negatively defined.” It seems to me that Mormons are open to any ‘scientific explanation of spirits’ whereas Catholics believe there is none and never can be such an explanation. Using my example from the post, if we pretend we had a true ‘theory of spirits’ today in our hands (including probably a whole new theory of physics to go with it and possibly as a way of explaining how spirits can exist outside of time and space for all I know) Mormons would have no idea if it’s right or not and Catholics would deny it’s the truth and continue to believe that any ‘scientific explanation’ of spirits is wrong by definition. Now I might be wrong about that, but Agellius’ comments about ‘no mechanism” have certainly left me with that impression.

    So the question I ask is, why do non-LDS Christians seem to assume any explanation of spirits is wrong by definition? (My experience anyhow, your mileage my vary.) I think the reason why is because the Mormon view of spirits *is* materialism to a Catholic/Protestant.

    I suspect that this is because Catholics/Protestants do not merely define “immaterial” to mean “not material.” Light is “not material” in the normal sense. But spirits made of light would not be considered “immaterial” by Catholics/Protestants as far as I can tell. (Again, Agellius can correct me if I’m wrong on this.) In fact i suspect nothing you can come up with would fit the Catholic/Protestant definition of “immaterial”. Try it. Dream up anything you want as to what “immaterial spirits” are made up out of or describable by and then ask a Catholic or Protestant if this might not be what an “immaterial spirit” is. I suspect the answer will always be “no, it’s not that” because “immaterial” means more to them then just “not material.” I think it literally means “not humanly explainable via scientific means or any set of laws or mechanisms.” This is a far cry from merely meaning “not material.”

    Mormons, in saying spirits are in some sense ‘refined matter’ are presupposing there is a legitimate (what we might call) ‘scientific explanation for spirits’ out there, even if we currently have no idea what it is and even if it falls under theories that don’t yet exist. Mormons fully anticipate that some day Jesus will return, and we’ll learn what spirits are and it will all make sense. We believe we’ll someday understand and comprehend everything for that matter. Catholics seem to me to be presupposing that no such explanation exists and if you think one does, you’re a materialist.

    If therefore I define “materialist” to mean “anything that can be explained via the same means science is explainable” I’d have to agree with the Catholics. I am – in this very limited and misleading sense – a materialist. Probably most or all Mormons are. (Note: this is without a doubt a misleading way to label Mormons. But as I said, there is no point in arguing over definitions. If Catholics/Protestants want to define ‘materialist’ in this way, they can. I just ask that they be honest and explain how their definition differs from the more common one to avoid saying deceptive things about Mormons. I find it to be dishonest to knowingly use a definition that is known to confuse people about another religions beliefs, even if you feel your definition is “more doctrinally accurate” from your own religious view. All I’m asking it to explain the nuance that actually exists to avoid deceptive labels.)

    That’s why I feel like I can’t really answer the question very well. I am not a materialist in the normal sense. I believe in spirits and I believe they are “immaterial” from my current view point and understanding and that our current science can’t explain them. I am even open to the possiblity that spirits exist outside time and space — though I’m also open to the possiblity that they exist within time and space. I don’t claim to know.

    But I also believe that with further future knowledge from God the world of spirits will become explainable and comprehensible to us.

  42. I don’t have time for a lot on this. It’s hard to know what to explain Bruce as I’m not sure how familiar you are with the main issues in philosophy of science. The big problem is that “materialism” as normally discussed is a shifting target due to whether it means some ultimate sense of physics or physics right now. Typically it’s used to mean some future physics with the assumption that future physics won’t be that different from physics right now. But it is a problematic term precisely because of this ambiguity. When put into an opposition against supernatural then it is also problematic once again for muddled historic reasons since sometimes that opposition is used to disparage anything not like physics (like a Cartesian mind) while other times to merely disparage what seems unlawlike (say Hume’s criticism of miracles).

    One of my points might be characterized as saying we ought keep separate issues of lawness or regularity in phenomena from the question of 1st person perspective (our conscious mind) and 3rd person perspective (most physics). Of course even there things get complex (think the role of the observer in QM or GR).

    Some of this might be terminological. As to your point about whether a true physicalist would agree the self and body are the same. Actually nearly all do. That’s very characteristic of physicalism although there is some problem in the word “self.” It might be worth reading the entry on physicalism at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I think that might make discussion a little easier.

    (More later if I can stand how slow M* has become)

  43. A few other quick points. First, until the revelation in the D&C on spirits and material most Mormons took spirits to be immaterial. After that things became a little trickier and all of that is caught up in the Brigham Young – Orson Pratt debates in the late 19th century. Pratt believed in intelligence conscious atoms and thought everything was made up of this. Young appears to be what is called an Idealist (which in some uses of the term is opposed to materialism) However trying to explain idealism in this context is something I’m just not prepared to do. Brigham Young, however, thought we should only talk about embodied beings – basically an anthropology and that anything else just wasn’t worth discussing. When B. H. Roberts comes onto the scene in the early 20th century he reconciles Joseph Smith, Orson Pratt and Brigham Young by introducing the tripartite model where you have immaterial intelligences (Cartesian minds), a spirit body, and then a physical body. I think that’s been the dominant LDS view of the 20th century although Pratt’s view still had a lot of proponents. (Young’s view basically dropped off the map)

    So immaterialism not only has a long LDS tradition it was actually the dominant view for some time.

    With regards to immaterial spirits (which Mormons don’t accept) the assumption is that laws are necessary to describe such things. Typically they are instead described in terms of faculties. It’s not clear to me why laws are necessary for descriptions. Consider the flavor of salt. Does it have lawlike relations? (That is structures around which the taste is manifest) Sure. Do those describe the taste of salt? Not in the least. Does this mean that the taste of salt is not comprehensible? Of course not because all I need to do in order to comprehend is to taste salt.

  44. Clark, I feel like your explanation of the problem of defining materialism matched what I said in my last comment. So I feel like we’re in agreement over that.

    I also also accept that you are correct that some Mormons do believe in “immaterial spirits” and that at one point — particularly prior to the revelation on the subject — probably most did. (Here taking “immaterial spirts” to be a negatively defined term rather than, say, meaning spirits are made of energy and are thus “not material”.)

    I believe you misrepresented what I said about physicalists and the 1st / 3rd person argument. Of course physicalists believe the self is “the body.” I never said otherwise. You have missed the distinction between “the body” vs. “the matter that makes up the body” vs. “the information state contained within the matter that makes up the body.” I spoke only of the last.

    Simply put, there is a difference between these two strings of letters, even though they contain identical letters:
    1. “geinamn”
    2. “meaning”

    The difference isn’t the physical make up (i.e. the letters) it’s the information contained by the state they are in. The problem is that “the body” (as you put it) fails to differentiate between the physical elements that make it up and the information contained within it. “The body” could mean one or both of these.

    I do not believe the 1st person / 3rd person argument (at least not the one in Agellius’ article) properly represents physicalists because it doesn’t recognize the difference between “matter” and “the information contained within matter” as I was supposing a real physicalist would. I admit I don’t know what real physicalists would in general say here. I really only know what informed ones, like Hofstadter, would say and I’m generalizing, perhaps inappropriately. But I am afraid I am unclear on what the value is of an argument that only works against uninformed representatives of a group. So I feel I’m right to question the 1st / 3rd person argument (at least the version of it in the article.)

    By comparison, Hofstadter’s theory of intelligence is that the brain contains within it something analogous to a “software program” whose purpose is to model the world around it. This “program” is believed to include a symbol for “the self” as well. Given Hofstadter’s theory on intelligence — a purely physicalists one — it’s not hard to see that the 3rd person is the “hardware of the body” and the 1st person is the symbol of “the self” which is part of the “software” of the body. So I do not see how the 1st person / 3rd person argument says anything useful here.

    (According to Deutsch’s and Tipler’s additions to the theory, you actually can separate the “hardware” and the “software” via universal emulation, just like you can run a program on multiple computers. So they’d probably claim that in fact the symbol of the self is the real self and not the body, which is just the hardware-medium used to contain the information.)

    “One of my points might be characterized as saying we ought keep separate issues of lawness or regularity in phenomena from the question of 1st person perspective (our conscious mind) and 3rd person perspective (most physics). Of course even there things get complex (think the role of the observer in QM or GR).”

    I would request a bit more clarity in this statement. I am going to guess QM is quantum mechanics. There is a role of the observer there due to the wave function collapse, so that makes sense. I am going to guess GR is general relativity. I am not sure what the role of the observer you are referring to is there unless you mean relativity of time and space itself relative to the observer.

    I also do not understand what you mean when you say “we ought keep separate issues of lawness or regularity in phenomena from the question of 1st person perspective. “I think you are saying that, similar to the article link that I quoted in comments above, that physics can only explain a 3rd person view point. (That’s what the article is saying anyhow, true or not.) Is this what you mean?

  45. “(Young’s view basically dropped off the map)”

    Actually, didn’t it show up in Orson Scott Card’s fiction? :)

    “Consider the flavor of salt. Does it have lawlike relations? (That is structures around which the taste is manifest) Sure. Do those describe the taste of salt? Not in the least. Does this mean that the taste of salt is not comprehensible? Of course not because all I need to do in order to comprehend is to taste salt.”

    Hmm… this looks suspiciously like this quote from me:
    “(I would say that love is also an experience that you have to experience to understand fully. But this just makes the “experience of love” a first principle distinct from a description of what it is and how it functions.)”

    To my expressed view point, the “experience of salt” is what we might call an emergent first principle. “Salty” is derived from it.

    But how the “experience of salt” forms in the brain is entirely chemistry and thus physics. My expressed view is that we “fully comprehend” “salt” by both experiencing it and also understanding how that experience takes place physically.

    In fact, taking a purely physicalist view (that’s what we’re discussing, right?) it’s not hard to imagine creation of software life forms (Greg Egan style) that can and do experience salt by understanding the physics of it and modeling it for themselves via software algorithms.

    In any case, the point of view I’m actually expressing — that all things can be explained — is undistrubed by the experience of salt.

    I wonder if my lack of philosophical training is causing me to use the word “law” when you are looking for me to use something else. It may be that I’m *not* supporting a “science worldview” or a “law based worldview” and I just think I am because I lack the correct word to express myself with.

    Hey Clark, tell me what a simpliciter is. I can’t understand the article you sent without it.

  46. Bruce:

    You write, ‘I suspect that this is because Catholics/Protestants do not merely define “immaterial” to mean “not material.” Light is “not material” in the normal sense. But spirits made of light would not be considered “immaterial” by Catholics/Protestants as far as I can tell. (Again, Agellius can correct me if I’m wrong on this.) In fact i suspect nothing you can come up with would fit the Catholic/Protestant definition of “immaterial”. Try it. Dream up anything you want as to what “immaterial spirits” are made up out of or describable by and then ask a Catholic or Protestant if this might not be what an “immaterial spirit” is. I suspect the answer will always be “no, it’s not that” because “immaterial” means more to them then just “not material.”’

    As I’ve said repeatedly, we (at least I) do indeed define “immaterial” to mean “not material”. The fact that “not material” allows for the possibility that spirits could be made of light or energy or what-have-you is irrelevant. Key point: “Immaterial” is not designed to give a positive definition of what a spirit is “made up out of”, for the simple reason that a spirit is not “made up out of” anything. “Made up out of” assumes something physical, and a spirit is non-physical.

    It might help you to understand us if you could think of reality (as we do) in terms of the created, physical universe, in which are found time, matter, force, energy, mechanism, etc.; and things that are not part of the created, physical universe and therefore in their own nature have no relation to time, matter, energy, force, mechanism, etc. The former is referred to as “nature” and the latter as “supernature”.

    (BTW, the root word of “physics” is the Latin “physica” which means “study of nature”.)

    Since supernatural beings are not part of nature, there is no need to ask whether they are “made up out of” matter, light, energy, etc., nor to answer the question which of those things they are made of. The question is inapplicable to them. It’s sort of like asking “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”, which medieval theologians supposedly spent countless hours debating (though I’ve never seen a quote evidencing that any of them actually did). Any medievel theologian worth his salt would have immediately answered, “the question makes no sense since angels have no size; indeed the concept of size is inapplicable to an angel”.

    What a spirit is “made up out of” is equally inapplicable. This is the reason (I assume) that most Catholics would say “no” when asked whether a sprit is made of matter, energy, light, or any other physical thing.

    ‘If therefore I define “materialist” to mean “anything that can be explained via the same means science is explainable” I’d have to agree with the Catholics. I am – in this very limited and misleading sense – a materialist. Probably most or all Mormons are. (Note: this is without a doubt a misleading way to label Mormons. But as I said, there is no point in arguing over definitions. If Catholics/Protestants want to define ‘materialist’ in this way, they can. I just ask that they be honest and explain how their definition differs from the more common one to avoid saying deceptive things about Mormons. I find it to be dishonest to knowingly use a definition that is known to confuse people about another religions beliefs, even if you feel your definition is “more doctrinally accurate” from your own religious view. All I’m asking it to explain the nuance that actually exists to avoid deceptive labels.)’

    I am sincerely at a loss. I don’t understand in what way Catholics are alleged to be labeling Mormons in a misleading way. I also don’t understand — since I want to be honest, honest I do — how to explain how my definition differs from “the more common one” to “avoid saying deceptive things about Mormons”. What are you referring to when you refer to “their definition” and what are you referring to when you refer to “the more common definition”?

  47. (Note: this replies to Bruce’s of 3/16, 11:05 a.m.)

    (By the way I posted this earlier but don’t see it posted, so I’m posting it again. If it gets posted twice I apologize.)

    It seems we have two basic disagreements, unless I’m misunderstanding you.

    1. Whether science can study all of reality

    You apparently are using “science” to mean only the physical sciences, and by that I mean sciences which depend on sensory input. You may not necessarily observe the thing concerning which you are testing a theory (such as black holes), but you have to test it in some way which is observable to the senses, or else observable by a machine which senses some observable event and expresses the observation in the form of data. I am including all this under the term “sensory input”.

    I say this because you said that all other sciences stem from physics, and you are using “science” to mean “disciplines that utilize the scientific method”. And the “scientific method” requires sensory input.

    I disagree with no. 1 because I believe that things exist which are not observable to the senses or detectable by machines with sensors.

    You did say that spirits may operate on a different plane, or something to that effect, i.e. they may be made of matter and subject to forces which don’t interact with our matter and forces; and if so, then physics as we know it would not be able to study them. Therefore you don’t believe that physics as we know it can necessarily study all of reality.

    But you indicate you believe that physics of some kind is or will be able to do so. Since you don’t re-define “physics” when referring to this “other kind of physics”, I have no choice but to assume that it will still be a science which uses the “scientific method” and therefore depends on sensory input. Since I believe things exist which are not observable to the senses, I disagree that physics, of whatever kind, will be able to study all of reality.

    2. Whether being explainable in terms of laws makes a thing comprehensible

    You say that if God is not explainable by laws then he is incomprehensible, even to himself. If by “laws” you mean the laws of physics then I disagree, since the laws of physics describe events that are discernible by the senses (or via machines), and again I believe God is a being who is not observable to the senses. Yet it doesn’t logically follow from that fact that he doesn’t comprehend himself.

    It seems that you are not limiting “laws” to those discoverable by the science of physics, since you spoke of love, justice, beauty, etc. being explainable by laws. But if that is true then I have no clear understanding of what you mean by “laws”. I can’t rule out the possibility that once I understand better what you mean by “laws”, I might agree that God may be described by them. But right now it’s impossible for me to say.

  48. “I am sincerely at a loss. I don’t understand in what way Catholics are alleged to be labeling Mormons in a misleading way.”

    LOL, Agellius. My comment wasn’t meant to say “Catholics say this about Mormons” at all.

    It was simply, if someone did, it would be misleading. I have no knowledge that anyone has accused Mormosn of being materialists and the real materialists would laugh to death at such a claim anyhow.

    I was merely putting an extra long disclaiminer on the label so that no one could possibly later say “Bruce says he’s a materialist” (because quoting out of context is common on the internet.)

    I confess, Agellius, given that you believe spirits are entirely outside of time, space, and mechanism at all, I think you and I are saying exactly the same thing. I think you are stopping maybe a hair breadth short of actually coming out and saying “Yes, I believe spirits have no possible explanation that we humans would comprehend. They will always be a mystery to us.”

    Personally, I suppose I am quite open to the possiblity that spirits are outside of time and space yet still obey laws and are explainable by those laws. I personally believe reality is explainable. (If it isn’t, I’m not sure why I’m bothering trying in any field.)

    How could spirits be explainable by laws yet be outside of time and space? I’m not sure how such a thing would be possible, but then me not knowing how a thing is possible doesn’t mean anything. But it wouldn’t supprise me at all to find that spirits do exist within time and space, either ours or some alternative one. I am open either way, though I suspect the later is the more likely. (i.e. they either are within time and aspace or they are in alternative time and space of some sort.)

    But in any case, if spirits are *not* explainable by laws, then I stick with the tautology that this is the same as saying they aren’t comprehensible via explanation.

    Let me requote this quote again because it says it all for me:

    Arthur C. Clarke once remarked that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’. This is true, but slightly misleading. It is stated from the point of view of a pre-scientific thinker, which is the wrong way round. The fact is that to anyone who understands what virtual reality is, even genuine magic would be indistinguishable from technology, for there is no room for magic in a comprehensible reality. Anything that seems incomprehensible is regarded by science merely as evidence that there is something we have not yet understood, be it a conjuring trick, advanced technology or a new law of physics. (The Fabric of Reality, p. 138)

  49. Agellius,

    One more thing. You spent quite a bit of time equating science to that which we can determined through the senses or in other words empiricism. Please be sure to watch the “David Deutsch on Explanations” video I posted. Then, rather than try to argue with me over a word, accept that I do not belong to the club of people that think science is based primarily on empiricism. I think science can and does address things without empiricism at times. That is because I believe science is really formalization of conjecture and refutation. (This is the sense in which I do believe theology and philosophy to be a type of science.) That is to say, I think “science” is equivalent to “searching for explanations through a formal methodology.”

  50. Bruce:

    You write, ‘I think you are stopping maybe a hair breadth short of actually coming out and saying “Yes, I believe spirits have no possible explanation that we humans would comprehend. They will always be a mystery to us.”’

    I disagree with your statement as phrased. You might be able to phrase it in a way that I could agree with. But I say that spirits have “no possible explanation” since in my view “being” and “mind” are explanations that we humans comprehend.

    The kind of explanation that I deny is possible or necessary is one that depends on physical laws. There could well be some other kind of explanation that we will begin to comprehend once we arrive (God willing) in Heaven. I just don’t think it will involve laws describing physical events formulated based on sensory input.

    You write (in a separate comment), ‘I think “science” is equivalent to “searching for explanations through a formal methodology.”’

    In that case I don’t see what grounds you have for excluding philosophy and theology from the ambit of science. However I don’t mean to start a new argument over this.

    I did watch the Deutsch video and I don’t recall him saying that observation and experimentation are not essential to science (correct me if I’m wrong). I realize that science involves conjecture, but the way conjecture is tested is by observation and experimentation. When the test results don’t bear it out then the conjecture is changed or dropped. Isn’t that basically how it works?

    Of course science also involves reason, logic and philosophical assumptions. For example science has to subscribe to the philosophical assumptions of realism in order to have any reason to exist in the first place. It has that in common with Aristotle/Aquinas — which, of course, is no coincidence.

  51. I wrote, ‘But I say that spirits have “no possible explanation” since in my view “being” and “mind” are explanations that we humans comprehend.’

    I meant, of course, that I *don’t* say that spirits have no possible explanation.

  52. By the way, Clark, I wanted to say that I enjoy your comments and find them very lucid.

    That’s not to take anything way from you Bruce, I respect your intelligence very much. But as you know from long experience, our respective underlying assumptions seem quite often to be at odds with each other, making it hard for us to achieve a meeting of the minds. But hey, we’re still friends, right? : )

  53. There are three fundamental issues here:

    (1) Is God part of the universe and constrained by fundamental natural laws
    (2) Is the world deterministic?
    (3) Did the universe start with a statistically neutral “big bang”?

    If all three are true, then everything is a branch of physics (if in some specific contingent context).

    If (1) is not true then physics is theology (rather than the reverse), as in classical theism, i.e. God is the author of all the laws of nature and is not comprehended by them.

    If (2) is not true, and there is libertarian free will, then theology and the entire social sciences, psychology, cognitive science, the humanities, and possibly much of biology cannot be explained in solely physical terms. No LFWian believes that morality is reducible to physics, for example, to say nothing of creativity.

    If (3) is not true, then an enormous amount of information about the way things are cannot be comprehended in terms of the statistically neutral physical evolution from statistically neutral initial conditions. Someone or something could have “wound up the clock” so to speak.

    If you affirm all three here, the problem is that morality and theology are largely contingent and accidental, i.e. they are constrained by nothing but the laws of physics and the contingencies of history.

  54. Agellius,

    Of course we’re friend! Fighting friends are the best type, especially if, like you, they can see past the debate and not take it personally. :)

    Hey, this thread had kind of grown stale. I had a long response to the above from you, but never got around to posting it and it seems silly to do so now.

    However, since you and I both hate being misunderstood, I just wanted to point one thing out:

    What Agellius said:

    In that case I don’t see what grounds you have for excluding philosophy and theology from the ambit of science. However I don’t mean to start a new argument over this.

    What Bruce actually said:

    Also, I am using science here to mean literally things disciplines that utilize the scientific method. So I am not counting philosophy or theology as “science” in this sense, at least not yet. That’s NOT a dig on philosophy or theology in any way shape or form. I’m just recognizing them as a different class of knowledge at this point. (Actually, I think with a broad enough view of the word “science” we could classify them as science.)

    I trust you see the issue.

  55. A couple of more quick thoughts. First, I’ll answer some of your questions in later posts, particularly the relationship between senses and science. You are holding to the Sir Francis Bacon view of science.

    Secondly, I am glad you found Clark lucid. I have no idea what he was trying to say but I was impressed with all the big words. :)

    Third, I have a question for you that *won’t* fit into future posts, so I’m going to ask it here. Feel free to respond here if you are interested, or you can save it for some future time.

    It seems to me that you are not being consistent in your conclusions.

    I personally believe God exists outside of time because of certain LDS scriptures that seem to say that — though of course I could figur-atize them of course, but I don’t as of yet. In any case, I do not claim to know for sure if God exists outside of space and time or not, I just personally believe he does or at least can.

    I think it’s possible God might exists in some sort of alternative space/time. (In physics, they deal with multiple types of space and time, not just the ones we normally think of, so this isn’t hard to imagine.) In short, I’m asserting that I have no idea by what means we’ll some day be able to comprehend and explain God fully, but I am expressing optimism that it can be done. (Please note, that is why your requests to “explain how that’s possible” showed you didn’t understand what I actually said.)

    Whereas I’m asserting a lack of understanding, but optimism that I will some day understand, you are asserting to know right here and now that God is outside of space and time in every possible sense and that this means there are no possible laws/mechanism by which to describe him and that the “scientific epistemology” will never be a valid way to know about God because things outside of space and time can’t be observed through any senses and observation via the senses is a requirement for science.

    I see why you are saying that because intuitively it does seem like you shouldn’t be able to observe things outside of space and time, especially if you are assuming that “outside of space and time” doesn’t mean some alternative space/time or alternative view of space/time.

    But this view you are expressing is problematic theologically for Catholics.

    Do Catholics, like Mormons, believe in heaven? Do they believe they will live with God forever someday? Do Catholics, like Mormons, believe one can sense (that is to say, observe through a sense) God right here in mortality? If not, what’s the point of believing in God at all?

    How in the world will your view that God is outside of space and time and thus can’t in any sense be observed be squared with the above? To be able to live with God implies space. Living with him forever implies time. Even if you tell me this is just figurative, then you still have to explain in what sense heaven is more ‘living with God’ then we are now and you’ve eliminated all possible routes to explain this via your own assertions.

    If I hold you to your own assertions, we must logically conclude that are saying God can’t be with us forever in heaven and that he’s utterly unobservable through any senses, the 5 or any others we don’t know about. We simply can’t know God in any way shape or form at all. Period. Even the incarnation becomes impossible because God is in no sense within space and time.

    Now of course you aren’t say that and those would be false conclusions. But that’s my whole point. You are being inconsistent. In reality you do believe God can be observed through senses ( even if not the first 5 right now) and thus your point that God can’t be know via observation doesn’t strike me as valid. Therefore your point that we can’t know about God through what I’m calling ‘scientific epistemology’ is premature.

    Furthermore, Catholic heaven seems to imply that God isn’t necessarily outside of *every sense* of time and space and that there is some legitimate sense in which God’s personal presence can be local and observable.

    From there, follow the logic through and your objections of what I am saying fall apart. You have no reason either to yet draw the conclusion that God can’t be comprehended via our current epistemological methods, even if we assume God is outside of space and time.

    Whereas you asked me “how is it possible?” I’m just going to reverse that and ask you “how can you be sure it’s not possible?” And since you are asserting certain knowledge, and I’m asserting to not know, the burden of proof is on you, not me.

    (Side Note: I actually believe we’ll ‘comprehend everything through explanations’ not by the scientific method, but by Jesus revealing it all to us after the second coming.)

  56. Bruce:

    You write, ‘You have no reason either to yet draw the conclusion that God can’t be comprehended via our current epistemological methods, even if we assume God is outside of space and time. Whereas you asked me “how is it possible?” I’m just going to reverse that and ask you “how can you be sure it’s not possible?” And since you are asserting certain knowledge, and I’m asserting to not know, the burden of proof is on you, not me.’

    So you’re saying that I have the burden of proving that it’s impossible for God to be comprehended by our current epistemological methods.

    First, I’m not sure what you mean by “proof” in this context. Obviously I don’t claim to be able to prove it, either logically or scientifically. It rests upon premises which I believe are part of divine revelation. Therefore I can’t prove it, I can only show that it follows from my premises.

    Second, I still can’t say that I’m clear on how you are using “comprehend”. Most of the time you have used it to mean “explainable by the laws of physics”, but with “laws” and “physics” used in a non-conventional way. I will need some kind of a concise definition of those terms before I can directly address your challenge.

    Third, it’s not clear to me what you mean by “our current epistemological methods”.

    I will say this: Scripture says that nothing exists which was not created by God (John 1:3). Therefore everything — every last thing that exists — stands in relation to God as a created thing to its creator, like one of Michelangelo’s statues to Michelangelo. While we may infer certain things about Michelangelo from his sculptures, what may be inferred with any certainty from those sources alone is quite limited. By the same token, we may infer a limited number of things about God from his creation. But that doesn’t mean God is explainable in terms of the laws and mechanisms which govern his creation and which he himself brought into being. To say that he is, would be like saying that Michelangelo is explainable in terms of marble and carving techniques.

    Now if you were to look at the non-physical aspects of Michelangelo’s sculptures, you would see beauty, balance, pleasing proportions, excellent technique, great care, etc. These are non-physical things, and from them you may infer non-physical things about Michelangelo: That he was sensitive to beauty, balance and proportion, that he was diligent and careful, etc. I think you get a bit further towards understanding Michelangelo in this way. By the same token you can infer from God’s creation that he loves beauty and goodness, that he is wise, orderly and incredibly powerful, that his intellect is far beyond ours, etc. Nevertheless even on this basis, what we can infer about him, compared with what he knows about himself, is quite limited.

    Even if there is “another space-time” apart from ours, I would deny that God lives “in” it or is subject to its laws and mechanisms, and therefore explainable thereby, because that space-time, like ours, and like everything else that exists whatsoever, would have been made by him. And so again, it would be like trying to explain Michelangelo in terms of his art works.

    I don’t say that God is not explainable in any sense; I never have said that. Quite possibly when we get to Heaven much more will be revealed to us, enabling us to understand things about him which before were completely mysterious. I just say that he is not explainable in terms of the laws and mechanisms of his creation.

  57. By the way, I want to make clear that in citing scripture I am not arguing against Mormon beliefs, or Mormon interpretations of that scripture, but only providing one of the premises upon which I base my own conclusions.

  58. Agellius asked me to make a response.

    “First, I’m not sure what you mean by “proof” in this context. Obviously I don’t claim to be able to prove it, either logically or scientifically. It rests upon premises which I believe are part of divine revelation. Therefore I can’t prove it, I can only show that it follows from my premises.”

    Like I said before, I don’t think we’re really disagreeing, Agellius. You, in essence, restate my point.

    I define “explanation” and “comprehension” as being one and the same. You don’t seem to but I don’t see you giving an alternative definition either. So at this point, I’m incapable of responding to any alternative point of view.

    I also define “explanation” as synonymous with algorithmic compression. That is to say, I accept the idea that we can either algorithmically compress something or it’s by definition either an axiom or its random and can’t be compressed or explained even in principle. (I can’t take the time to explain algorithmic compression, but it’s not that big a deal. It just means something can be explained via functions or logical steps. Also, someone is going to here say, ‘yeah, you can explain something that is random. You just say the explanation is that it’s random.’ Fair enough. I just mean it can’t be explained beyond that.)

    In claiming this, I am not denying the existence of emergent levels of laws or explanation. Clark took exception to the idea that salt can be comprehended by breaking it down chemically and instead suggested merely experiencing it is the best way to comprehend it. This is actually just a misunderstanding of what I am saying. You’d have to do both to fully comprehend salt. I am not claiming everything to be understood can only by understood via reducibility.

    It seems to me that at some point you have to accept something as a ‘brute fact.’ A brute fact has no further explanation by definition. I think of Euclidean axioms as examples of such brute facts. I know of no way to prove or reduce “A straight line can be drawn between any two points” further.

    I am *not* claiming that the fact that that axioms can’t be reduced further makes it incomprehensible. I consider such an axiom a first principle so I include it under the concept of ‘comprehensibility’; all accept it as true because it’s obvious, even if we have no way to explain further.

    I believe you are agreeing with me, but hate my wording because it seems negative to you.

    At this point, I am now claiming the Catholic concept of spirits are ‘incomprehensible’ according to my definition of comprehension *unless* declared a brute fact. I think this is logically obvious.

    You, on the other hand, seem to be saying “yes they are comprehensible, because they need no further explanation.” In other words, you’re declaring them to be brute facts or axioms. Spirits just exist, period.

    In other words, I see nothing you are saying that disagrees with what I have said.

    Further, I agree with you (in the quote above) that the issue is really you are trying to affirm a Catholic revelation. In fact, it is specifically the fact that I feel that Catholic revelation is circular logic that I am taking exception to.

    You are on faith accepting the idea that the concept of “God” is outside of any possible set of laws or, as, you say, mechanisms. When I question how that is possible you respond “well, how could God be God and be subject to a set of laws?” This statement makes perfect sense to you because you — by revelation — define God as being that which is outside of all laws.

    Yet, it seems to me that this Catholic belief brings nothing to the table whatsoever:

    If God can be explained in any part via love, then God can be explained (at least in part) via laws and is thus subject to laws in a sense. You don’t deny this, but you see no issue with it because you merely declare that love is a law ‘coming from within Himself’ and not external to Him. Therefore, this doesn’t deny your definition of God as being above everything.

    Indeed, if I decide that God is subject to gravity it’s now no issue at all, because we can declare gravity as coming from within Himself. So this explanation does nothing for me. It seems to merely beg the question.

    We might as well just say “God is subject to nothing but that which He is subject to on account of Him being God.” To me it’s it has the illusion of meaning without actually bring something to the table. From this point we can now arbitrarily ascribe to God anything we want while arbitrarily claiming ‘the other guy’ is limiting God. All we have to do is claim their concepts of God are ‘external laws’ and our own are ‘internal laws.’ And it’s all completely arbitrary at this point.

    But arbitrariness is required now. Because if we decide to give ‘the other guy’ the benefit of the doubt, then even an out and out pantheist is in no way claiming there are laws above God. Indeed, I find it impossible to, even in principle, formulate such an ‘external’ law.

    Other than that, I see only one other thing we are disagreeing over: Catholics claim spirits are brute facts requiring no further explanation. While some Mormons would agree with you, there is no Mormon doctrine one way or the other, so I’m free to believe otherwise. So I accept the possibility that they aren’t brute facts and that further explanation is possible, even if I don’t yet know what it is.

  59. Bruce:

    You write, ‘Agellius asked me to make a response.’

    I don’t think I so much asked for a response, as for you to let me know if you did respond since the email notification function didn’t seem to be working. However I’m glad you did!

    I started a point-by-point response but after pondering a while, decided to try it another way.

    I believe you are saying that something is incomprehensible unless explainable by laws, which is another way of saying, governed by laws by which it may be explained. By “explained” I take you to mean how the thing exists and how it acts as it does.

    I think laws can be divided into two kinds: (A) Those which govern non-rational things, and (B) those which govern rational beings.

    Laws of type A govern non-rational things insofar as they are purely non-rational. Thus the law of gravity governs my body but has no direct effect on my thoughts. Type A laws govern things such as atoms, molecules, energy, light, etc. Things governed by such laws have no choice but to obey them. I will call laws of this type non-rational laws.

    Laws of type B govern rational beings insofar as they are purely rational. Type B laws govern how rational beings are to conduct themselves, or in other words what we call the moral law. The moral law governs my spirit, i.e. my intellect and my will, but has no direct effect on my body. I can choose whether or not to obey the moral law. I will call a law of this type a rational law.

    Non-rational laws govern how non-rational things interact with each other, for example how energy interacts with matter, how a rock interacts with the earth, etc. Rational laws govern how rational beings interact with each other, in other words how they treat each other and whether or not they obey the will of the supreme rational being we call God.

    I say that God is not subject to non-rational laws since he is purely rational. No part of him is non-rational, such that it should be affected by laws governing the interaction of non-rational things insofar as they are purely non-rational.

    I say that God is not subject to rational laws, since they are equivalent to God’s own will — in other words, to obey the moral law is to obey God’s will. The written moral commandments are the expression of God’s will as it concerns our behavior: He wills that we not steal or commit adultery, etc., therefore those things are a violation of the moral law. God is not subject to rational laws since he is their author: To say he is subject to them would be to say he is subject to himself, which is just another way of saying he is subject to no one.

    There is no source of any laws outside God: He invented non-rational laws when he created non-rational things, and rational laws are nothing more than his will concerning the behavior of rational beings.

    God is what you would call a “brute fact”, if by that term you mean a thing which has no external cause of its existence or behavior. By that definition he is the only brute fact, or what we Catholics call the Uncaused Cause. Other spirits are not brute facts since they have, and are therefore explainable by, a cause other than themselves, namely God. Such spirits are not subject to non-rational laws since they are purely rational (and therefore have no parts that are purely non-rational). However they are subject to rational laws since they are subject to the moral law, i.e. God’s will.

    Human beings are subject to both non-rational laws and rational laws, since they are a composite of non-rational and rational (the only composite beings we know of): Their bodies are subject to non-rational laws, while their spirits are subject to rational laws.

  60. For what it is worth, Agellius, I like your response. I think “rational” and “non-rational” is a much better way to describe the split you were after than “internal” and “external.”

    Personally, I’m not convinced that the divide between what you are calling rational and non-rational laws is as ontologically separate as you seem to believe. Indeed, I personally would opt not for ‘rational’ vs. ‘non-rational’ and instead ‘higher and lower’ or ‘basic and derived’ or even ‘God’s laws and laws derived from it.’

    In short, I believe there is a difference, but not as strict a one as you seem to be claiming.

    I go back to our (off line) argument about whether God being subject to laws implies something above God. You have now proven that is not the case — exactly like I said back then. The laws God is describable by are all statements of God’s nature.

    On the other hand, this being the case, I disagree with you that God is a brute fact. If God were just a brute fact, then there would be no way to explain God. Instead, we find that God can be explained. God is not moral because morality is defined as ‘that which God has decided.’ Morality actually has a lawful reality all it’s own and it is therefore possible to explain God’s moral nature from various view points. That is to say, one can ‘explain why’ God is moral.

    This is just a fancy way of saying God can be explained or that God is not random, he is ‘algorithmically compressible.’

    It’s another way of saying God is lawful.

  61. Bruce:

    You write, “I personally would opt not for ‘rational’ vs. ‘non-rational’ and instead ‘higher and lower’ or ‘basic and derived’ or even ‘God’s laws and laws derived from it.'”

    My point was not the division itself, but rather to name all the kinds of laws I could think of (excluding manmade laws, of course). In the end they boiled down to two: Those which govern the involuntary conduct of non-rational forces and objects (commonly called the laws of physics), and those which govern the voluntary conduct of beings with minds (commonly called the moral law). If you know of other kinds, not falling into one of those categories, I would be interested to know what they are.

    You write, ‘I go back to our (off line) argument about whether God being subject to laws implies something above God. You have now proven that is not the case — exactly like I said back then. The laws God is describable by are all statements of God’s nature.’

    As usual I don’t understand you. I argued in my last post that God is subject to no laws whatsoever. Now you say I have disproven the proposition that if God is subject to laws that implies something above God? On the contrary, I still say that “subject to” implies something being ruled by something else in some respect. I deny that God is ruled by anything else.

    You write, ‘… I disagree with you that God is a brute fact. If God were just a brute fact, then there would be no way to explain God. Instead, we find that God can be explained. God is not moral because morality is defined as ‘that which God has decided.’ Morality actually has a lawful reality all it’s own and it is therefore possible to explain God’s moral nature from various view points. That is to say, one can ‘explain why’ God is moral.’

    I could agree that morality has a “lawful reality all it’s own” in the same sense in which I have a reality of my own (not sure where “lawful” comes in), nevertheless I am created and held in existence by God, so my reality is not “all” my own. The word “morality”, in my view of reality, pertains to the rules governing the way rational beings treat each other. These rules do not apply to God since God acts morally by nature. Having a law requiring God to act morally would be like having a law requiring water to be wet.

    For this reason I do not agree that there is an independently existing moral law to which God is subject. Rather the moral law governing the behavior of rational beings arises from their need to conform their natures to God’s nature in order to live and be happy. There is no nature to which God needs to conform his nature in order to live and be happy. His life and happiness have no source outside himself. They just are, as he himself just is (i.e. “I AM”).

  62. So we are agreed then: God being “subject” to a law is the same as describing God’s nature. Therefore it does not imply something above God. I’m glad we finally settled that. ;)

  63. In fact I do not agree with those statements. I think I have already made clear why, so I will let my prior comments speak for themselves, unless you have some specific rebuttal to make.

  64. Pingback: » Sam Harris on Science and Morality The Millennial Star

  65. Pingback: What is Science: Is Science about Reductionism or Holism? | Wheat and Tares

  66. Pingback: physics education

  67. Pingback: (This is adapte… « Agellius's Blog

  68. Pingback: Is God subject to laws? « Agellius's Blog

Comments are closed.