philosophy

Anathem is Neal Stephenson’s latest novel. Told in the first person, it’s the story of Erasmus, a young member of a monastic order dedicated to philosophy and science. Erasmus lives on Arbre, a world rather like our own. The monks aren’t religious (quite the reverse, for the most part), but their monasteries use many of the trappings of religious orders, like ritual, sung music, a set of rules of discipline, and seclusion from the outside world. It’s not a boy’s club, though: male and female monks mix within the monastery, and certain kinds of relationship are allowed by the discipline.

The monks are grouped according to how often they have contact with the outside world, which can be every 1, 10, 100 or 1000 years. As the story starts, it’s just before a 10 year Apert, where the 1 and 10 year monks will mingle with the populace for 10 days. Erasmus, a “tenner”, finds the monastery’s astronomical observatory closed, and gets the first hints that the secular and monastic authorities are conspiring to keep a pretty big secret. Together with his cohort of young monks, he gets drawn into solving the mystery.

Saunt Descartes was a drunken fart

In the early part of the book, Stephenson draws the reader into the world of Erasmus’s monastery. He uses the common SF trick of making up words for things: the monks are the “avout”, the outsiders “saecular”, the monasteries are “concents”. Some people don’t like this sort of thing, but for the most part I was content to let this wash over me as part of the book’s scene setting, the measured pace of which parallels the life of the avout. (There’s also a glossary at the back, which helps). The avout are serious seekers of knowledge who learn the stories of theoreticians as religious monks might learn about the lives of saints (the avout word for a great thinker is “saunt”, a contraction of “savant”). They engage in debates which are intellectual duels, the sort of stuff you get in the better debating places on and off-line. Stephenson has placed real philosophy in the book under the names of the saunts who thought of it on Arbre: it’s fun to try to work out the real world analogues, among whom are Plato, Faraday, Occam, and Einstein. The philosophy isn’t just there for show, it becomes important later: Stephenson is the second SF author I’ve come across who has written a story which hinges on the idea of the Platonic world of forms (the other is Greg Egan).

Modern life is rubbish

In comparison with the concents, the saecular world Erasmus encounters in the 10 days of Apert is unthinkingly religious and commercialised, a parody of modern American society right down to the thugs in sportswear (anyone who remembers the thetes in The Diamond Age might think that Stephenson has a thing about this) and the drugs which keep everyone happy but somehow blunted. Erasmus observes several times that clever people tend to end up inside the walls of the concents. The book seems to describe a vicious circle of anti-intellectualism leading to the intellectuals hiding away, leading to further distrust of intellectualism in the outside world, which eventually leads to the concents being sacked every few thousand years. The initial retreat into concents happened because of some cataclysmic events in the past. You can see Stephenson drawing on A Canticle for Leibowitz here, with the difference that the avout aren’t just preserving old books they don’t understand.

The first part of the story is a more erudite version of a Harry Potter book, with the young avout (Erasmus is 18 as the story starts) ranging over the old stone buildings they live in, talking about philosophy and science, and finding ways around authority with the help of some wiser older monks. We see more of the saecular world as Erasmus is thrust into it in the later part of the book, and finds that things aren’t a total cultural desert out there. Stephenson dislikes the unthinkingly religious and so Erasmus does too, but the religious contemplatives that Erasmus meets show the other side of Stephenson’s opinions, where religion provides people with a code which keeps them from the feckless behaviour of most people outside the concents.

Ninja monks in space

The final part of the book is page-turning SF stuff with ninja monks in space, a long way from Erasmus’s quiet life as the book begins. Stephenson draws the philosophical threads from earlier in the book into a satisfying conclusion. The popular notion that he can’t write endings was disproved by The System of the World, but sceptics will be pleased to hear that Anathem has an ending too.

A positive effect of the narrator’s voice is that the book is less frenetically digressive than Stephenson’s earlier stuff. Some of Stephenson’s wild tangents are fun (my favourite is the wisdom tooth removal in Cryptonomicon), but they make his books longer without advancing the plot. At about 900 pages, Anathem is long, but most of it is world-building or action (if you count the philosophy stuff we’re going to need for the later revelations as “world-building”). Other reviewers have complained it’s slow to get going, but the avout are sympathetic characters, so I didn’t mind reading about their lives at the start of the book. I think it’d be quite cool to be one of them, in fact.

Anathem is a fun mix of philosophy and action. Recommended to people who read the sort of stuff I write here on LJ 🙂

I’ve just finished off a series of replies to Matt in our discussion on religion, naturalism, physics, morality and consciousness which I mentioned in my previous post. You can view them on his blog, or you can find them below. I’ve also added to the discussion on Aquinas and divine simplicity which is happening here.

Especially in the latter discussion, I’m aware that my lack of philosophical sophistication may let me down at some points, so I’d be interested to hear what other people think of my arguments.

<lj-cut> On the status of the laws of physics, and Lewis’s argument: I don’t know whether the laws of physics exist in the sort of platonic sense that I’ve been assuming when talking about necessary existence in your previous posting, but my point there is that if we’re allowing stuff to exist immaterialy and necessarily, so as to cause the universe, it needn’t be anything like a God of the sort that most theists believe in. My friend Gareth recently produced a great summary of reasons to think that there is a deep link between mathematics and reality (along with some reasons why that might be wrong).

Lewis’s argument seems to have some holes (although the bit at the bottom of that page about how Lewis was destroyed by Anscombe appears to be an overstatement, according to Wikipedia). To those objections, I’d add that Lewis assumes that if you do think there’s a relationship between the human mind and some sort of platonic mathematical world (in which logical reasoning is grounded), you can’t be a naturalist. Perhaps this is a terminological problem, but I bet people like Roger Penrose don’t think of themselves as supernaturalists. Naturalists who disagree with that sort of platonism might want to throw Penrose out of the naturalist club, I suppose, but all that means is that there’s at least a third position which Lewis has not considered (I’m not arguing in favour of Penrose’s position, merely point out it exists and is not completely crazy).

I’ll try to answer Aaron on your other post.

On the relation of philosophical arguments to the universe: the possibility that new physics will sink HMS Kalam illustrates the problem I’m talking about. It seems very odd to reason about what the universe must or must not do while skating over things like what the universe is made of, what shape it is, or why time appears to have a particular direction[1]. I don’t give a lot of weight to such arguments (I’m slightly guilty about having entered into an argument on such non-physical terms in previous comments). Maybe it’s just subject chauvinism on my part. [Though I should say I’m not actually a physicist, I just play one on the Internet. I have enough background from my degree to go and read popularised accounts of the sort of stuff that Carroll talks about, or I can ask one of the physicists round here. I certainly wouldn’t be up to contributing to the sort of discussion Carroll gets in his comments, because I can’t do the maths].

In my digging around on the subject, I came across a similar debate to our own. It seems that one can quibble over whether the universe as a whole is contingent or necessary. Again, these are non-physical categories, so I’m not sure how you’d tell who was right.

[1] Carroll seems to have some fairly funky ideas about the direction of the arrow of time in our far past. I’ve no idea what sort of first cause arguments could survive those turning out to be true.

On Swinburne: I don’t really recognise his picture of science. If we discover that some disparate areas of science are linked behind the scenes, that doesn’t invalidate the notions we had before, it just gives them some backing in terms of something more fundamental. Classical thermodynamics and optics still have their place as part of science in cases where you don’t need to care what atoms and photons are doing. By understanding it in terms of some more fundamental objects you’re going to get a handle on where the limits of applicability of your older ideas are, but that has not rendered the older ideas useless within those limits.

I’m also not sure what his point is when he separates physics from sensory impressions. Whatever mysterious stuff is going on in our minds, the sensory inputs to those minds register temperature and pressure and so on (and never mind that those concepts aren’t fundamental, because they’re perfectly appropriate for the level of explanation we need for human sensory organs).

Among physicists, there’s a feeling that mathematical laws are the most fundamental objects, and that it should be possible to derive all the rest of science from these. However, E. Brian Davies points out in his book that things like continental drift or evolution are less speculative than mathematical physics (in the sense that it’s likely there’ll be new equations before too long, but it’s unlikely anyone will disprove continental drift), and that the hope that humans will be able to form and comprehend a seamless bridge from fundamental physics to chemistry to biology might yet be forlorn, as our mental powers are limited (in which case it’s not clear how we’d know whether it was even possible in principle to build this bridge). Even if Davies turns out to be right, I don’t think this means that biology and chemistry are not sciences. Similarly, a science of consciousness need not be unified with physics to be a science. If the limits of our knowledge mean such a science is more like weather forecasting than rocket science (where they’re still happily using Newton’s laws, pace Swinburne), has that doomed naturalism?

I’d still be interested in your thoughts on how an immaterial consciousness interacts with the world, and why brains seem so linked to consciousness, by the way.

Morality: I’m not an expert here, but there are clearly some shared morals among most humans (Marc Hauser’s research is relevant, I think). Most of us cannot fail to recognise (if not practice) morality because it’s been wired into us, either by our shared biology or shared culture or probably some combination of the two. But I said that I didn’t think this indicated anything about the non-human world. If we met intelligent aliens, it’s possible they would not share our morals, yet from their point of view, they’d be following a standard shared by their species. (I’m not sure atheism is incompatible with moral realism, though, it’s just I’m not very convinced of moral realism myself).

I was interested in the Argument from reformers: if the moral consensus has changed over time (even among people who claimed to be getting their morality from some external source, like the Bible or the church, and so, ultimately, from God), how do you know what the objective morality actually is? This seems to me to be the same sort of problem which dogs ideas of Biblical inerrancy.

Most people don’t seem to ask “why should we be moral?” because they find they have moral ideas and at least some notion that they should follow them, even if they don’t actually do so all the time. My essay is intended as my own fallback position if I can’t think of any other reason not to become a cold-blooded sociopath (as it happens, my main reason, like most people’s, is that I don’t want to). As I’ve written elsewhere, I’m certainly not arguing that anything goes or that some cultures are not better than others. I think accepting that morality is not a universal absolute puts the responsibility more on us to build the sort of world we want to live in.

Why do you think we should be moral, by the way?

Conclusion: I’m not sure I’m the model of a modern atheist, since my own naturalism is methodological rather than metaphysical, if I’m understanding certain Wikipedia pages correctly. It’s pragmatism based on believing things for which I think there’s good evidence.

Is religion irrational? It’s semantics, I suppose: it’s possible to be rational and wrong, and religious people may have what they consider to be evidence. As Christians like to point out, evidence from personal relationships is not scientific, yet we do not reject it in everyday life (my problem with Christianity is that it has a special meaning of the word relationship of which I’d not previously been aware, and that this meaning leads to problems with reasonable non-belief). I didn’t start the “religion is irrational” business on Yellow’s blog, I’d rather argue the more persuasive point that religion is incorrect.

I’ve read all of the gospels lots of times, as you might have realised, although I could stand to refresh my memory, I suppose 🙂

So, I have found some more Christians to argue with on the Internet. Mattghg and I are talking about naturalism and what it can and cannot do. Mattghg is a Christian who argues that naturalism cannot explain some things. I’m a tentative naturalist who isn’t sure that he’s right. Another commenter mentioned Alvin Plantinga’s response to Dawkins, so we’re also talking about whether God would be complex.

I’m pleased that I’ve managed to refer to Penny Arcade in support of my position, a tactic I’d like to christen argumentum ad Fruit Fucker (link from a series of strips which contains zombies, since they’re apparently in fashion today).

Matt’s written a lengthy response to my original comment, which I hope to have time to address over the next couple of days.

robhu recently set the atheist hit squad on a luckless university chaplain who had the gall to criticise the Great Dawkins. Yellow, the chaplain, argues that the current atheist backlash is President Bush’s fault, but that Bush’s sort of religion is unrepresentative of Christianity as a whole.

robhu‘s argument that religion is irrational has provoked a series of interesting posts from Yellow. The first one starts off talking about Sam Harris before the topic begins to turn to rationality.

The second gets into some philosophy, with Yellow pointing out that Hume’s arguments on causality and induction lead to the conclusion that science itself is not strictly rational. To my shame, I wasn’t that familiar with Hume before this, mainly being aware of his stuff on miracles (and that he could out-consume Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, of course), so it’s been interesting to do some reading up on the web pages of various philosophy departments (Stanford’s is particularly good). I’ve left a comment on Yellow’s blog, remarking that there’s something slightly odd about invoking the arch-empiricist Hume in an attempt to argue for Christianity. ETA: added link to my comment.

Finally, there’s a third post on cosmological arguments for the existence of God. The absence of physical content in these arguments gets on my goat, so I responded there, too.