Channeling Pythagoras at the Lap Pool

Essentially all of my organized exercise comes from lap-swimming. I like to keep track of how many laps I have swum at one go, and to make it more interesting I have taken to focusing on a particular canonical way of referencing each positive integer, based on multiplicative generation.

‘One’, of course, is unique: the identity element for the multiplicative group over the positive integers. Prime numbers I visualize by way of an assertion of the form “Prime number 1 is 2”. (In principle, at least—when the numbers get large this tends to turn into sort of a phone number: 511, 613, 717, 819, 923 and so on. Eventually these start to sound like numbers of years, especially 1861 and 1967.)

Composite numbers which are powers are canonicalized to “3 cubed”, “2 to the 5th power” and the like, always using the smallest possible base. Other composite numbers just get realized as “i times j”, where i is less than j and both are maximally close to the square root of their product (so “8 times 9” trumps “6 times 12”).

There are various patterns to be encountered in this counting sequence, such as the “four 13s” (3 times 13, 5 times 8 (the factors sum to 13), prime #13 is 41, 6 times 7 (the factors sum to 13)). I learned the term ‘semiprime’ for a number which is the product of two primes: the rare occurrences of three semiprimes in a row are notable (33, 34, 35; 85, 86, 87; 93, 94, 95; the next one is more laps than I ever swim).

I imagine Pythagoras and his crowd as tremendously impressed with the magic and complexity of the multiplicative group. What if we couldn’t just summon up integers for use by means of positional notation but had to construct them multiplicatively, visiting a notional numerical supermarket that only stocks primes?

I would suppose that a defender of classical theism like Ed Feser would have to say that the primeness of all primes, no matter how large, is continuously and simultaneously ‘known’ to God; to my mind this kind of ‘knowledge’ has nothing to do with knowledge as accessible to the human intellect.

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Ed Feser and the ‘Form of Squirrel’

A comment by Keith Parsons in the followup thread to his post titled Belated Response to Ed Feser provides a good springboard for me to address myself to Ed Feser and his book The Last Superstition, now about 3.5 years old. I will do this over a series of posts; there is a lot to be said.

Feser writes (TLS, p. 36): “the Forms, as archetypes or perfect patterns, are the standards by reference to which particular things in the world of our experience count as being the kinds of things they are. A triangle is a triangle only because it participates in the Form of Triangularity; a squirrel is a squirrel only because it participates in the Form of Squirrel; and so forth.” This passage is elucidating the thought of Plato, but it seems clear that Feser (though an Aristotelian/Thomist) basically agrees.

Anyway, Parsons nails it:

Where the notion of form might be interesting but false is in postulating a form for organic species. However, such a notion is most definitely undermined by Darwinism. Where now is the form “Tyrannosaurus?” If speaking of the form “Tyrannosaurus” is only a way of referring to the temporary anatomical arrangement of a kind of theropod dinosaur that flourished at the end of the Cretaceous, then, again, such terminology does refer to something real, but is only a portentous-sounding way of stating the obvious.

If, on the other hand,“Tyrannosaurus” is supposed to designate something that exists diachronically as a permanent essence that in some mysterious way shapes or guides organic processes (and this is the only way such a concept could be interesting), then such a thing definitely does not exist, so far as biological science can tell. Organic “form” resides in the genome, which we know to be plastic, and we know why and how it changes over time. Considered over geological time, there are no species. Looked at over hundreds of millions of year, one “form” flows into another or goes extinct. Those are the only two possibilities. To account for this process, “substantial form” does not need to enter anywhere.

If Feser wants to defend the notion that it is useful or even meaningful to talk of the “Form of species s” as distinct from or metaphysically prior to “the population of species s living in region r at time t”, he has a lot of work to do.


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Welcome back, Eric MacDonald

It was sad when Eric MacDonald suspended blogging at Choice in Dying and sadder still that he removed all his old posts (an action contrary to the spirit of the Internet, in my opinion). He is a fine and enviably fluent writer.

Anyway, I just noticed that there have been a few posts over the last year, some of them being reposts of old material, a few comments on the notorious Margaret Somerville, and in February and March two long posts concerning Peter Boghossian’s A Manual for Creating Atheists, followed by a reposted dialogue that took place in Jerry Coyne’s comment box, which Eric titles In which I take my leave from the new atheism.

There’s a lot to read in the two-part Boghossian review and the leave-taking thread (and they are evidently related, in that the process of confronting Boghossian’s book seems to have crystallized Eric’s sense of his differences with the New Atheists), so what follows are only a few remarks springing from what I gather to be the direction of Eric’s thought.

Eric appeals for more understanding by atheists of the fact that there are plenty of liberal or ‘radical’ Christians for whom their religious inheritance has become a device for structuring their lives, devoid of any literal belief in the supernatural. This greater understanding would certainly be a good thing.

Having spent many years as a chorister in liberal Christian churches, I have my own measure of sympathy for this strain of ‘belief’. Clearly many people involved with it are sane and compassionate; it’s hard for me to judge what the actual content of their belief system is, since one doesn’t go around administering questionnaires to one’s fellow parishioners. As a former priest, Eric must know much more about the range of beliefs to be found in the pews.

But while doubtless many liberal Christians are actually ‘radical’ in belief, their denominations are less so. Of the demoninations of any size, only Unitarian Universalism has really gone significantly post-Christian.

And Eric knows, and says forthrightly, that fundamentalist Christianity is dangerous, that Roman Catholicism is dangerous, and that Islam is exceptionally dangerous (although of course there must be hundreds of millions of Muslims who hold their ‘beliefs’ as lightly as liberal Christians).

So, like life in general, the situation is complicated, free of easy answers.


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Whole-brain simulation: the fatal flaw

Has anyone besides me noticed that, if the enormous technical and other hurdles in the way of scanning and “uploading” a complete human brain could be overcome, the resulting entity would be insane from the get-go? Insane because that brain expects to be connected to a body that can interact with the world and with other human beings. One can imagine a silicon-based intelligence that would be well-adjusted to its lot in “life”, to interacting with the world only on a linguistic basis, or perhaps also (though this would be much more difficult) on a sensory basis (watching films, listening to music), but such an intelligence would not be connection-for-connection identical with a human brain.

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Meteorites and the Death of God

With the recent asteroid near miss, and the tragically destructive meteorite impact in Russia, it seems clear that in some realms of life atheism is taken for granted. When we think about objects that may or may not strike the earth, we do so knowing that it’s all about their trajectory and that if a collision is predicted no amount of prayer will avert it. If we wanted to protect ourselves against flying rocks (and there may be many more important things to allocate resources to) we would have to track them and be prepared to send rockets to explode them before impact.

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Free Will Again

Sorry about the writer’s block. I’m hereby restarting this blog; we shall see if I can keep it up.

I am still worrying at the free will question, so I will record some of my thoughts here.

The theistic view of free will is all about the burden of choosing good actions and avoiding evil ones. Nobody is interested in whether a person chooses chocolate or pistachio ice cream.

And for atheists who nevertheless feel the pull of morality this burden of choice remains. Not as a major feature of life, I think: it is my intuition that most of the evil actions I commit (yelling at my partner, say) are not the outcome of choice. The moral imperative as related to such situations has two prongs: that of repentance for the wrong, together with an attempt to undo its effects; and that of a resolve to train one’s mind to be better able to avoid such actions in the future.

(This mind-training aspect was brought more to my awareness recently through my friend Meng’s book Search Inside Yourself. The relevant theory is that mindfulness practice can enable one to notice emotions at the moment of their arising, so that one can actually make a choice as to how the emotion manifests in actions.)

So, unless the free-will-is-an-illusion crowd has a persuasive argument that we can be complacent about the moral choices that confront us, it seems to me that all the important features of free will as conceived by theists remain as an inescapable part of life.

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Paying for the Wars

Am I the only one who has noticed that Congress, in allowing the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to happen as they did, failed in what, historically, is their most important duty?

I’m not going to try to provide citations for this, but in my exposure to history through coursework and reading I received the impression that a key reason that parliaments developed as Europe moved out of the Middle Ages was as a check upon the desire of kings to fight wars that they could not afford to pay for.

In contrast, Congress sent the bill to posterity, adding insult to injury by way of the Bush tax cuts. Along with the failure to pass a carbon tax this is typical of the ongoing war on future generations.

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