Custom Search

Sunday, 13 June 2010

some thoughts on Earthships

I have just done a three day course on building Earthships at the Brighton Earthship.

For those unfamiliar with Earthships, they are the brainchild of American Architect, Michael Reynolds; the author of several books on the Earthship concept, and star of the recent film 'Garbage Warrior'. They are designed to be self sufficient and off grid, passive solar homes that maintain constant temperature year round without bills, they are made from reclaimed materials (such as Earth Rammed Tyres and bottle walls) and harvest their own water supply and solar power and can be adaptable to any climate on Earth, apparently. They are therefore some kind of super-house that you'd have to be a complete idiot to not want! They really are brilliant. It all sounds too good to be true, and yet with a little understanding of the principles and systems with which they are designed it seems really do-able, especially as more and more people seem to be living in them.

What I have learned over the last few days is that things are not that simple. The devil is in the detail and despite the ready availability of blueprints and plans, as well as the possibility of hiring the inventors services on these builds; its just not there yet. The idea needs to be developed further; lots further.

The Brighton Earthship was designed by Michael Reynolds himself and it is an incredible structure. It is beautiful to look at, its location is outstanding and the people involved in the project are fantastic. It is well worth a visit and compared to many other buildings it's eco-credentials look pretty damn good but it was not by any means a cheap build and mistakes have been made. That in itself is no bad thing because lessons have been learned and continue to be.

The failure to insulate under the floor (on Reynolds insistence that it was uneccesary) was the result of the success of this strategy in New Mexico. Unfortunately temperature analysis of the Brighton Earthship has demonstrated that the lower ground temperatures in England cause an uninsulated floor to act like a bottomless drain on the internal heat rather than a store for it. The team have learned from this, but it is a mistake that could have been avoided had other advice been heeded.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing but what struck me was that a lot of people worked very hard and contributed to this project which for Reynolds was an experiment that he got paid for and left behind; one in which he ignored advice from local architects who were familiar with the climate. His struggles to get permission to build experimental houses in the US have no doubt forced him to rigidify his thinking and stick to his guns but the result is that when one of his Earthships does not work or disagrees with his assesment of something, he is all to quick, it seems, to dismiss the client as 'bitching and moaning' for not having realised how experimental their home would be, or just not seeing things as clearly as him. I had got the distinct impression from that these buildings were experimental in the sense of non-conventional (but reliable) rather than in the sense of 'could blow up in your face' (though not literally! - please don't sue, Mike, I'm a huge fan!). All credit to Mike Reynolds; these homes perform well in New Mexico and are a truly remarkable work of genius, but in Europe there is an enormous gamble in building an Earthship and there will continue to be until there have been more experiments and mistakes.

Any sustainable housing is bound to be experimental and this is because we don't know how to do it. we're going to make mistakes as we learn but learn we will, as long as we can keep an open mind and listen to other people, rather than dogmatically sticking to our own view we can evolve much faster. There are now European architects taking an interest in the Earthship concept and developing it for use in Northern European climates. Mike Reynolds is on a mission. I guess his failure to heed the warnings of others is because in his haste to save the planet he doesn't feel there is time for him to mess around with checking whether or not something will work in one place just because it did in another. His vision has to be bigger than that, there is a whole planet to save after all and because of the urgency of this mission as he sees it he doesn't perhaps consider the personal impact his mistakes can have. but they need to practice a bit too and learn more about the way these remarkable buildings work. Many Earthship builds in Europe are taking the form of community centers rather than homes and so the research goes on without so many people feeling like their self-build was a disaster. The technology isn't ready yet though. Its not a cheap alternative home (about £1200 sq metre after buying land) and despite its many good qualities it is a massive gamble and not always easy to put mistakes right.

I guess i went to the course thinking i could have an affordable home this way and be set up for life (this is what an Earthship is meant to be) and i came away realising that there is a long way to go before that is assured. Rather than rushing out to get my own land and start ramming tyres, I think it is far better to be cautious. A better approach for anyone interested is to get involved in projects such as those community builds. Its far better to learn by volunteering on a EU funded project or similar, before you spend £250,000 of your own money on a home before you know if its going to work. 

Of course no experiment is a failure if you learn from it; so in that sense the Brighton Earthship has been a resounding success. Architects are looking at it and working out how to make it work better in our climate and they are going to get better at designing them.  What this will require is the work of many minds, working well together for shared goals; not a lone dogmatic voice in the wilderness, who has had to become deaf to criticism. Earthships can be bought prepacked from Earthship Biotecture and assembled by their crack teams, but what is far more important is that the design is adapted. We don't need a divine revelation from somewhere in the desert. We need to get together and, inspired by his example, work out how it can be done better. The world does not need one Mike Reynolds. It needs thousands like him, who are better at listening to dissenting voices and adapting to their concerns, because the task with which Earthshippers worldwide are faced can only be easier with more people giving it their best. Architects who can 'play well with others' will not dismiss criticism as whining and will find better ways of doing things all the time. Not simply pretend that there are no problems and encourage people to risk everything they can afford for something that money cannot yet buy.

These passive solar homes may be our last best hope as a species but it is naive to believe that one man has all the answers. People who have stuck their neck out to develop the next generation of euro-earthships are paving the way for those of us who dream of a comfortable sustainable life off-grid and they are going to need a lot of help ramming those tyres. These projects offer chances for European earthshippers to learn, where the Taos project has already packaged it before its ready for general release. My own opinion is that by helping out on these community earthships we are going to learn a lot of lessons that will make the prospect of a cheap self-built earthship much less of gamble when the kinks have been ironed out and the power of these projects to bring people together is truly inspiring in this individualised age. Get involved; but don't build your own just yet; unless you can afford to experiment. By helping others you learn the skills you need, for free. You create something that enhances the localitly on many levels and you provide 'example' buildings that will teach thousands of others both 'how to do it' and 'how it can be done better' at no expense to yourself other than time. A first time builder will save themselves hundreds of thousands of pounds through merely giving a little time and being patient enough to wait till a few more builds have tried and failed.

Evolution does require mistakes, as Reynolds claims, but his mistakes have been paid for by others in
some cases. By coming together to work on these projects we spread the cost of failure and share the lessons so that instead of securing our own substandard Earthship and dropping off the map, we instead do as Jerry Garcia once suggested and 'think about finding ways of moving the whole human race forward a step or two' rather than greedily looking our for our own place in the sun. The advantage of waiting and helping out on others building sites is that your home, when you eventually get around to it, ends up being much better for being built on the successes and failures of the projects currently underway. The Earthship concept still has a way to go in many climates and it is not as reliable as some anecdotal evidence would suggest. Unless you can afford to risk building a solar house that might not work, just wait a while and see how other Earthship builds are progressing by joining in and getting your hands dirty. There are a lot of very bright minds working on developing sustainable technologies and by getting involved you are going to be so much better off than trying to buy a home and ending up paying for a failed experiment.

further reading
Earthship: How to Build Your Own, Vol. 1
Earthship: Systems and Components vol. 2
Earthship: Evolution Beyond Economics, Vol. 3
Earthships: Building a Zero Carbon Future for Homes

Friday, 4 June 2010

life after philosophy BA

Well the last dissertations are in and the last exam has been sat. far from feeling like it is all over, i have the worrying suspicion that its all just beginning. the world of work beckons and it is a hostile looking environment. The need to 'sell' oneself to employers is contrary to my firm belief that it is better to remain humble. The enforced pigeonholing of oneself to fit the requirements of application forms or the horrors of writing a cv...all so you can be competitive. its a whole mess of egoistic bullshit that i would rather starve, than buy into.

Don't get me wrong. i'm not averse to hard work but doing a job is a means to an end. the crucial thing is not to give up so much of yourself that you lose sight of why you were doing it; of who you are ; and this is the problem. what should I do for a living? what is it that i'm already the perfect guy for? not 'what do i need to change about myself in order to get a job in which i subsequently live in fear of being found out for not being one of them?'.

My hair is long. my mistrust of authority is razor sharp. my wits are keen (except perhaps in the early morning) my capacity for abstract thought and problem solving are pretty good and i tend to obsess over things to the detriment of my social skills. These are not exactly positives.
I am a highly moral freethinker who works best when left to get on with things and i don't handle teamwork very well. I can follow orders but never without questioning the underlying reasons for them. This is sensible in my view but not popular in the workplace often.

Any suggestions? i'd much rather work hard for someone i like, than be a wage slave to some asshole who is more concerned about the way i work than the quality of the work i do.

we really need to reorganize the systems of labor in society to something that is more conducive to wierd people who don't fit the mould. this is where our creative energies find expression in the form of innovation and progress and the current systems stifle that creativity at every step of the way. we just get more of the same unoriginal ideas regurgitated and the weird and unconventional is suppressed.

In the coming weeks i'll be sticking some of my dissetations up here...edited heavily since i've had some more time to think about my arguments in them; though not before results are announced since i don't want to have the hassle of being accused of plagarising from myself. There is some writing on wittgensteins tractatus, Early Marx in a Buddhist perspective, and some thoughts on Rorty, conventionalism and truth in fiction with reference to Nagarjuna and buddhist philosophers of the Madhyamika Prasangika.

I'm also enjoying gettting back into reading heavily and will hopefully get around to posting some other thoughts on here at various times.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

where i've been

sorry for the long gap between posts...

its been a busy time moving house and i have been busy on some other projects.

in the pipeline are some transcripts of teachings i am doing from some mini-discs i have on Buddhist Tantric practice...unfortunately these are only going to be available to those who have recieved the necessary initiations.

Also on the backburner at present is a kind of open letter to the people of earth, in which i try to put the world to rights by way of a "to whom it may concern" type compaint letter....i see it more as an ongoing project, since the section on religeon, atheism, religious conflict and the middle east ran to about a chapter in length. its going to take heavy editing and im trying to avoid it being just a rant; ideally if i put a few simple well thought ideas out there that make a difference then it's done its job. i don't intend it to be a serious piece of social political philosophy but i would like to integrate some of my own philosophical perspective into it. In essence i want to force myself to examine where, what i see as problems in mainstream western philosophy, have engendered an outlook that is at the very root of many of the problems experienced by many of us during our short time on this tiny lump of rock orbiting the sun....and more importantly to apply what little understanding i have of buddhist philosophy to providing some simple things we can all do to make those around us and thereby ourselves, a little happier. Don't worry i know how presumptuous all that sounds but its just something i want to try mainly in order to think it all through myself. it may never see the light of day...

none of that has anything to do with reviewing crap movies in a comical fashion but maybe i'll get round to that at some point too

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Can we give a good explication of what scientific method is?

Can we give a good explication of what scientific method is?

A well known answer to this question is proposed by Paul Feyerabend in his text “Against method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge” (1975) published shortly after his brief tenure as a visiting lecturer at the University of Sussex. In it he answers with a resounding “No” and argues that there is no specific scientific method that, if strictly adhered to, would not at some point have prevented significant advances. This claim is not entirely baseless. What I intend to show in this essay, is that at least two attempts to refute Feyerabend’s controversial views, whilst having some merit, still fall short of giving us reason to believe that a good explication of the scientific method could ever be possible.

It would not be unfair to describe a good ‘explication of scientific method’ as the Holy Grail for philosophers of science. There is good reason for this; as Feyerabend puts it:

“ if science had found a method that turns ideological contaminated ideas into true and useful theories, then it is indeed not mere ideology, but an objective measure of all ideologies” (Feyerabend. P. in Newton-Smith, 1981 p.144)

The logical positivists attempted to provide such an explication by demonstrating that ‘science is derived from facts.’ Due to the problematic nature of facts, in so far as they are theory dependant and fallible, this attempt proved unsuccessful. Falsificationism had similar difficulties in giving a complete explication of scientific method because whilst it provided some account of a method for distinguishing science from non-science, it failed spectacularly in any real situation to provide a method for determining decisive falsifications, much as logical positivism had done when seeking to provide decisive confirmations. Such failures prompted some thinkers of the time to conclude that such a method was impossible to find.

Kuhn’s paradigmatic model of science opened the door to relativism and one thinker to leap through it enthusiastically was Paul Feyerabend. Both Kuhn and Feyerabend coined the term ‘incommensurability’ independently to describe the impossibility of basing theory choice on experimental evidence where there was no shared theoretical framework. Where Kuhn sought to rescue science from absolute relativism, (restricting the non-scientific decision making to times of paradigm shift, whilst leaving periods of normal science wherein some form of scientific method would be followed) Feyerabend, conversely, embraces the idea of relativism. His view is that because in such situations of paradigm shift, theory choice is determined not by any special scientific method but by passion, belief or other socio-political factors; ‘it is very difficult to find wish-independent arguments for their acceptability.’(Feyerabend in Newton-Smith 1981. p.126)

For Feyerabend, relativism applies not just to theory choice but to the entire epistemic practice of science; to Feyerabend the times of normal science would base their methodology on the dominant theories of the paradigm and therefore be as contaminated with beliefs and superstitions as the theory choice itself. Additionally he argues that “…there is not a single rule, however plausible, and however firmly grounded in epistemology, that is not violated at some time or other.”(Feyerabend in Newton-Smith 1981, pp128) He refutes the idea of a system of rules, or universal scientific method that guide scientists in their theory choices.

“According to him no such system of rules can be found and to adopt any particular rules or methodology can only have the effect of impeding scientific progress” (Newton-Smith 1981 p.126).

He argues that universal rules governing scientific method, if there are any, can only be phrased so loosely so as to rule nothing out. Feyerabend’s view is perhaps best stated;

“the only principle that does not inhibit progress: anything goes.” (Feyerabend in Newton Smith 1981 p.126)

This is far from an explication of scientific method. It is however a bold claim and his arguments for epistemological anarchism do merit some attention.

There is little doubt that his arguments in Against Method make for compelling reading and provoke interesting questions, but do they stand up to scrutiny, and more importantly, do they satisfactorily rule out the possibility of an explication of scientific method? One thinker who feels this is not the case is W.H. Newton-Smith, writing in his book The Rationality of Science (1981) (Chapter VI - Feyerabend the Passionate Liberal). He finds Feyerabend’s account to be inconsistent and ill-founded and takes issue with several points. At times Newton-Smith’s criticisms do little more than cite one of Feyerabend’s conclusions (e.g. witchcraft and acupuncture should be given equal status as science) and claim it is ridiculous by appealing to the same sensibilities in the reader that Feyerabend seeks to free them from.(e.g. because that wouldn’t be rational to give them equal status, because science is based on fact) Feyerabend’s point is that it is rational; and it is when Newton-Smith looks at his reasons for claiming this, that Newton-Smith’s objections move beyond mere rhetoric and address some salient flaws. The strategy he employs to greatest success in this endeavour is to try and find contradiction within Feyerabend’s writings.

One argument posed by Newton-Smith is along these lines;

“The considerations that incline Feyerabend to view that science is ideology would equally incline him to view that philosophy as ideological. Consequently one is inclined to ask what can possibly be the force of his arguments about the science of nature” (Newton-Smith 1981 p.127)

It is my feeling that this is a case of putting the cart before the horse. Feyerabend at no point says that ideologies have no epistemic value. What he is claiming is that as an ideology, science has no purely objective grounds wherein it can measure either itself of other ideologies precisely because it lacks this special method for turning ideological views into true and useful theories that would distinguish it from other ideologies, as in the opening quote of this essay. He is therefore not using his (philosophical) ideology ex hypothesi to refute another (scientific) one as Newton-Smith claims. Feyerabend of all people would admit freely that there is a reasonable degree of incommensurability between two such ideologies. What he instead highlights is that science has no grounds upon which it can base a claim to be more than mere ideology. True; there is no basis for one ideology to make objectively valid criticisms of another ideology but Feyerabend’s criticisms are based not on such as false comparison. He is pointing out that science itself is unable to make such criticisms of ideologies and demonstrate its inherent superiority precisely because it is merely an ideology. Feyerabend makes no claim to have some philosophical objective measure of the value of conflicting ideologies. He makes no claim to the superiority of any ideology, even philosophy, precisely because he already understands that for anyone to make such a claim requires “a method that turns ideological contaminated ideas into true and useful theories…(so that it can become)…an objective measure of all ideologies”. Feyerabend does not claim to have such a method. He is simply indicating that neither does science. His reasons for this need not be philosophical. The failure of scientists, working within their own ideological frameworks, to find such a universal method leaves science without a means of positing its own superiority to mere ideology. Feyerabend needs to make no such argument because science’s own failure to deduce an objectively valid universal scientific method, is all he needs to cite when he claims it is no more than an ideology.

Another attack on Feyerabend is the accusation that in looking for an exceptionless method, he is asking too much;

“Thus Feyerabend’s easy defeat of a straw man (the rationalist who believes in infallible exceptionless rules) is construed by him as a victory over a real man (the rationalist who believes in general guiding fallible principles of comparison) who is in fact enlisted in the battle with the straw man!” (Newton-Smith 1981 pp.134-5)

I think this is actually the point at which Newton-Smith unwittingly concedes the argument in Feyerabend’s favour. Why? Because infallible exceptionless rules are the only sort that are going to give absolute guarantees of the validity of their outcome, and more importantly for the purposes of this question, are the only sort of rules that could be employed in an explication of scientific method. Anything less than infallible and exceptionless rules are only sufficient for an explanation; without a set of meta-rules governing the times when such rules need to be considered fallible or to be exceptional cases there is nothing approaching the required degree of rigour to qualify as an explication, rather than a more general explanation. Newton-Smith’s concession that there are no exceptionless rules pays into Feyerabend’s hands.

For an explication of Scientific method to be possible, in my view, it would have to be possible to give an account of the rules of investigation that can be applied in any situation, i.e. be universal. When Newton-Smith accepts that science has no such universal rules all he is left with are guidelines with no explicable superstructure to indicate where and when to follow which advice. The exceptions that Newton-Smith permits become the open door through which Feyerabend’s claims of subjectivity and personal preference manage to thrust their foot. Once that foot is in the door, Newton-Smith seems unable to provide us with reason to believe that an explication of scientific method is possible. At best he leaves the door open for a general explanation, but to explicate requires a universal means of determining what exceptions are to be made and when. Newton-Smith gives no reason to believe this is possible and therefore can only be said to concede that no good explication of scientific method is possible.

Feyerabend’s attack on method when viewed through Newton-Smith’s critical eye does not rule out the possibility of giving an explanation of scientific method but such an explanation could only ever be a general one and certainly not universal. Furthermore, Newton-Smith does not offer an explanation or explication of scientific method he merely challenges Feyerabend’s arguments against method while failing to show a method or demonstrate that such an explication could ever be possible. A.F. Chalmers, in “What is this thing Called Science?” takes a slightly different approach;

“I have no problem joining the campaign that Feyerabend launched against method… provided method is understood as universal, unchanging method…However, universal method and no method at all do not exhaust the range of possibilities. A middle way would hold that there are methods and standards in science, but that they can vary from science to science and can, within a science, be changed, and changed for the better.” (Chalmers 1999 p.162)

He then rather puzzlingly gives an argument by John Worrall (1988) against such a middle way!;

“If I am to defend a change in scientific method in a way that avoids extreme relativism then I am obliged to show in what way such a change is for the better. But better according to what standards? It would seem that unless there are some superstandards for judging changes in standards then those changes cannot be construed in a non-relativist way. But superstandards takes us back to the universal method that is meant to yield such standards. So, Worrall’s argument goes, either we have universal method or relativism. There is no middle way.” (Chalmers 1999 p.162-3)

In the following chapter of his book, Chalmers attempts an explanation of his middle way, based on an idea of gradual methodical change. He bases his explanation around Galileo just as Feyerabend does, and in particular he focuses on the methodical change from using naked eye data to telescopic data. He considers the change to be both progressive and rational but it enables him to give little more than a general explanation of scientific method.

To Feyerabend, Popper’s ideas if employed were so restrictive as to slow the growth of, if not kill off entire areas of inquiry, and where Lakatos developed these ideas into the more sophisticated ‘methodology of scientific research programmes’ his work is seen by Feyerabend to contain unfounded value judgements about what qualifies as good methodical practice or conversely to provide guidelines so lax as to rule nothing out. It was for this reason that Feyerabend often jokingly referred to Lakatos as a fellow anarchist (much to the latter’s annoyance.) It seems that Feyerabend, like Chalmers, tries to find a middle way and quickly realises that such a middle way requires superstandards that make anything more rigorous than a mere explanation impossible. Whilst a good explication of scientific method may be possible there is little reason to believe such a view in light of Feyerabend’s work. What Newton-Smith and Chalmers do succeed in rescuing is the possibility of a general explanation filled with seemingly ad hoc exceptions, but this falls far short of the explication one would expect as a justification for science’s status as a measure of all ideologies for it is fallible and has no way of knowing objectively where exceptions to its general methodology will be found.


Chalmers, A. (1999) What is this thing called science? (3rd Edition). Hackett Publishing, Indianapolis.

Newton-Smith. W.H. (1981) The Rationality of Science (1st Edition), Routledge & Kegan Paul, Boston, London and Henley

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Critically assess Mavrodes’ solution to the paradox of the stone.

Jon Carberry

Mavrodes’ solution to the paradox of the stone is an argument that seeks to invalidate the paradox as a means of undermining the doctrine of omnipotence. Attempts have been made to refute the doctrine of omnipotence by finding examples of things God cannot do, for example drawing a square circle or creating a stone which he cannot lift (or in an episode of “The Simpsons”; “…microwave a burrito so hot that he cannot eat it”). The idea of God being able to draw a square circle is obviously and easily dismissible a priori on the grounds that it is a self contradictory idea. It is not possible for anyone to draw a square circle because such a thing cannot exist. The definition of a circle precludes any possibility of a circle ever being square, in the same way as a square, being defined by its four straight equal sides, joined at corners of precisely 90°, cannot be circular. The paradox of the stone is not so obviously contradictory; however there are contradictions within the paradox and Mavrodes correctly indicates some of these.

The contradiction of asking an all powerful being to create a situation which requires a limit of their power (namely, to create a stone that exceeds their (omnipotent) power to lift) is every bit as contradictory as the square circle. What is essentially being asked of God is that he not only creates the stone but surrenders his omnipotent power so as to render himself unable to lift it (omnipotence, implying that he can lift anything, and is unable to lift no thing) assuming he intends to create a stone which he cannot lift. Certainly for God to create a stone which he cannot lift goes no way towards proving his omnipotence because it would cost him his omnipotence in order to satisfy the demands of the argument.

What Mavrodes suggests, is that to say “God cannot create a stone so heavy that he is unable to lift it” does no damage to the doctrine of omnipotence. He seeks to demonstrate this by firstly setting down parameters; either God is omnipotent, or he is not.

Mavrodes assumes in the first instance that God is not omnipotent and on this basis, points out that “a stone too heavy for God to lift” is not necessarily self contradictory. My power to lift is limited as I am not omnipotent, so it is well within the realms of possibility that I could create something that is beyond my ability to lift. Therefore for a limited God, the ability to create a stone that is too heavy to be lifted is not contradictory. In fact, the only being that would be unable to make such a stone is a being that is able to lift anything. The paradox sets out a task that only an omnipotent being could fail! One could say it is a unique characteristic of non-omnipotent beings that there are things they are unable to do. This characteristic cannot be shared by omnipotent beings precisely because the one thing they lack is a limit to their abilities (other than the limit of what is actually possible and not self contradictory) by definition. As Mavrodes correctly indicates, if we start with the assumption that God is not omnipotent then whether he is able (to create the stone but unable to lift it) or unable to create such a stone, all that is proved is that he is not omnipotent which is the assumption that we started with. The argument is circular in the instance of a non-omnipotent god.

In the second instance, Mavrodes presupposes that God is omnipotent. He states;
“On the assumption that God is omnipotent, the phrase ‘a stone too heavy for God to lift’ becomes self contradictory. For it becomes ‘a stone which cannot be lifted by him whose power is sufficient for lifting anything’…” (Mavrodes, 1963)
demonstrating that for an omnipotent being there is no such thing as a stone they cannot lift, nor could there ever be. Although for a limited being, the idea of something too massive to lift is an everyday reality, this is not the case for those whose power is in no way limited. Because there is no thing that an omnipotent cannot lift, for an omnipotent, such a stone is contradictory and so under St. Thomas Aquinas’ solution to the issue of the square circle, the paradox vanishes in an instant because the doctrine of omnipotence makes no claim about God’s ability to perform self contradictory tasks. It should also be noted at this point that this argument also appears to be circular (a point Mavrodes seemingly misses);
(A) 1. God is omnipotent.
2. Omnipotent beings are capable of performing any task (other than that which is self contradictory).
3. For an omnipotent being an unliftable stone is self contradictory.
4. Therefore God cannot create a stone that God cannot lift because he cannot perform any self contradictory task.
5. Therefore God is omnipotent.
because points 1 and 5 are identical the conclusion that God is omnipotent depends upon the assumption that he is omnipotent!

One point of Mavrodes article that makes for entertaining reading is the objection that he pre-empts in paragraph 8. He supposes that an objector refuses to accept that the existence of a stone that an omnipotent cannot lift is self contradictory. In such a case the objection collapses under its own weight because if the notion of a stone that an omnipotent cannot lift is not self contradictory, then it is compatible with the existence of an omnipotent being and therefore, for God to create such a stone and be unable to lift it would pose no threat to the notion of his omnipotence because there exists the possibility of a stone that no omnipotent being could lift! Thus allowing God to be unable to lift the stone but remain omnipotent. This only further proves how contradictory the notion of the required stone is, rather than demonstrating anything contradictory about the nature of omnipotence itself.

As delightful in its simplicity as Mavrodes solution appears, a critique of it penned by C. Wade Savage four years later raises further interesting objections to Mavrodes. Although in principle Wade Savage seems to agree with Mavrodes it seems he finds his [Mavrodes] solution to be insufficient. Wade Savage argues that in proving the notion [of a stone that an omnipotent cannot lift] to be self contradictory, Mavrodes has side-stepped an important issue of whether or not the inability to create such a stone (self contradictory or not) implies a limitation on Gods power. Wade Savage restates the paradox in much clearer terms that make no allowance for the get-out clause offered by the idea of an omnipotent being unable to perform self contradictory tasks in (A2). He then offers his own solution to the paradox, best summarised as follows;
“Whether x=y or x≠y, x’s inability to create a stone which y cannot lift constitutes a limitation on x’s power only if (i) x is unable to create stones of any poundage, or (ii) y is unable to lift stones of any poundage. And since either (i) or (ii) may be false, ‘x cannot create a stone which y cannot lift’ does not entail ‘x is limited in power’…” (Wade Savage, 1967)
the interesting thing about this solution is that in the case of x and y being omnipotent (where x=y or x≠y) both (i) and (ii) are false and therefore Gods inability to create a stone that God cannot lift implies no limitation to his powers regardless of whether or not the task is self contradictory.

In his concluding paragraph Mavrodes is keen to point out that his solution makes no judgement on whether or not God is omnipotent or not. “All that I intend to show is that certain arguments intended to prove that he is not omnipotent fail.” (Mavrodes 1963) The paradox in its original form attempts to show that the notion of omnipotence is self contradictory, by unwittingly making a self contradictory demand of omnipotence. Mavrodes’ article makes a useful contribution insofar as it shows the task required in the paradox, to be self contradictory and thereby removes the threat to the doctrine of omnipotence posed by the paradox. I do however share the view of C. Wade Savage that Mavrodes solution does not go far enough to solve all forms of the paradox; however since Mavrodes stated intent was merely to “show that certain forms of argument…fail” he manages to do so adequately within the confines of his own stated version of the paradox.


Mavrodes, George I. “Some Puzzles Concerning Omnipotence”, Philosophical Review 72 (1963) pp. 221-23.

Vitti, J. “Weekend at Burnsie’s” The Simpsons, (2002) Season 13 Episode 11

Wade Savage, C. “The Paradox of the Stone”, Philosophical Review 76 (1967) pp. 74-79.

How does the “mathematization of nature” relate to the concept of the life-world?

The writings of Edmund Husserl, on what he perceived as the ‘Crisis of European Sciences’ contain his views on what he saw as a fundamental problem resulting from over-reliance on objective science, resulting in an overly dismissive attitude from mainstream science, towards the value of subjective experience. In Husserl’s view, science had lost its way. In the wake of the horrors of trench warfare, the first uses of poison gas and other technological advancements in the sphere of mechanised slaughter, the world had arguably witnessed a terrifying vision of what scientific progress could mean, when not used with wisdom. Knowledge of things, without depth of understanding had destructive potential.

Husserl argues in his Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, that many things understood in the ancient pre-scientific past had been forgotten. He claims that the objectivity, so prized in natural sciences, was undoubtedly a useful tool for developing our knowledge of the world we experience. He argues, however, that at some point along the way we forgot that the objective perspective was merely an epistemological tool, and due to the successes that objective-science achieved, it came to be widely regarded as a metaphysical truth; that is to say, the objective view became more than an analytical concept, taking on a reality of its own. The subjective, meanwhile, was relegated to not being objectively verifiable, and thereby not worth scientific consideration. Strict adherents to objectivist views even now argue that subjective consciousness is merely an illusion conjured by the objectively real brain.

Husserl rejects this eliminative reductionism as being inherently flawed. Whilst not dismissing the merits and achievements of objective-science, he wants to remind scientists that the objective viewpoint is a contrivance; that our objective viewpoint is derived not by seeing objectively, but instead by regarding subjective encounters in an objective way. He sees a contradiction in rejecting the value of the subjective when all of our objectively valid scientific principles are established through experiments whose objectively minded observers can only ever experience the results by means of being conscious, being a subject. The (objective) third person perspective is an artificial contrivance; one that scientists extrapolate from their (subjective) first person experience of the world.

The mathematization of nature is an important concept in Husserl’s thought. It describes a historical process that Husserl traces back to the Galileo and the ancient greeks.. It was Galileo who speculated that all things in the natural world could be understood in terms of mathematical formulae. This process of mathematization began with Ancient Greek arithmetic and Geometry; unlike the world which is imperfect, these areas of knowledge work with ideal numbers and shapes. The Greeks found use in these ideals for explaining relations of things in the non-ideal real world. At some point in time Husserl argues that this highly successful technique of applying ideals to the things in the world, became misconstrued. Rather than the ideal numbers and shapes being used merely as a tool, we took them to be a guide to the world of things as they are in themselves. This became the scientific ‘epoche,’ wherein that which could not be accounted for in terms of idealities, was neglected. What was not quantifiable became less real than what was measurable. Objective science became more highly valued than subjective-relative perspectives and over time, this distorted view was taken to be not merely a conceptual tool but an expression of the way things really are. Objective science found that its right hand had forgotten what its left hand was doing; or as Husserl states it:

“…merely subjective relativity is supposedly overcome by objective-logical theory, yet the latter belongs, as the theoretical praxis of human beings, to the merely subjective and relative and at the same time must have its premises, its sources of self-evidence, in the subjective and relative.” (Husserl, 1970, p.170)

Though developed from concepts observed in the life-world- the world that is to hand, the world as we experience it; the mathmatizing tendencies we devised allowed us to extrapolate from subjective experience and formulate an objective model that was useful for scientific progress. At some point we forgot that it was merely a model. The objective impostor usurped subjectivity’s claim to be authoritative. The life-world which Husserl argues is the most real for us as subjects, took second place to the ‘Real’ word which our sciences were now more familiar with. The model became regarded as if it were reality, whilst the reality of the life-world was neglected and dismissed as a metaphor.

“The contrast between the subjectivity of the life-world and the ‘objective,’ the ‘true’ world, lies in the fact that the latter is a theoretical-logical substruction, the substruction of something that is in principle not perceivable, in principle not experienceable in its own proper being, whereas the subjective, in the life-world, is distinguished in all respects precisely by its being actually experiencable.” (Husserl, 1970, p.167)

One may at this point be tempted to ask what the problem is with this misconception. If the objective-scientific model, substructed from the life-world , through the conceptual mathematization, has the greater universal explanatory power, then why does Husserl regard this view as mistaken and fundamental to the perceived crisis?

The answer lies in the domain of epistemic justification. Objective science has forgotten that the most fundamental premises of its arguments are derived not from the objective realm of things as the exist in themselves, but instead from our subjective experience of things as given to us in the life-world. In over-reliance on objectivity and the neglect of the importance of the life-world, objective science leaves itself without the ground upon which its theory-structures are founded. As Husserl expresses it:

“…while the natural scientist is thus interested in the objective and is involved in his activity, the subjective-relative is on the other hand still functioning for him, not as something irrelevant that must be passed through but as that which ultimately grounds the theoretical-logical ontic validity for all verification, i.e. as the source of self-evidence, the source of verification.” (Husserl, 1970, p.166)

Objective science that rejects the reality of the subjective, becomes tautological. It lets go of it connection to the world of experience. In addition to the objective or ‘naturalistic’ scientific attitude science has come to rely upon empirical verifications. Without acknowledging the reality of subjective experience, such verification is impossible. What Husserl is exposing is a double-standard; namely the logical inconsistency of rejecting subjectivity whilst positing claims that rely upon the experience of subjective beings for their verification. The mathematization leads us to take our theoretical metaphors and forget that they are metaphors (as opposed to ontologies):

“The visible measuring scales, scale markings, etc., are used as actually existing things, not as illusions; thus that which actually exists in the life-world, as something valid, is a premise.” (Husserl, 1970, p166)

This is not a rejection of the value of the objective-scientific viewpoint. Husserl is quick to point out that because science and the mathmetization of nature is grounded in the life-world, its insights and their results are experienced in the life-world. What is asserted by Husserl, is a need for re-contextualization of objective science as rooted in the life-world and therefore unable to affirm or refute the existence of such a life world. Science is abstracted from the life-world so it necessarily fails to inform us about that world. We need to:

“…free ourselves from the constant misconstructions which mislead us all because of the scholastic dominance of objective-scientific thinking.”(Husserl, 1970, p.168)

The life-world, (as opposed to the mathematized objective world posited by science as a conceptual tool) is the world in which we live and experience. The objective world, or ‘real’ world posited by science, is the world minus subjectivity, seen in abstraction therefore, from the life-world. Although sciences claims seek their verification in objective observations in reality these are subjective experiences. They occur in the realm of the life world. Objectivism leads one to believe that one is looking at the way things are in themselves, however it is markedly different from anything we have ever observed. As subjective beings it is impossible for us to experience anything as it is in itself. All we ever experience, we experience as subjects:

“The life-world is a realm of original self-evidences. That which is self-evidently given is, in perception, experienced as ‘the thing itself’, in immediate presence, or in memory, remembered as the thing itself; and in every other manner of intuition is a presentation of the thing itself.” (Husserl, 1970, p.167)

In Husserl’s thought, then, it is plain to see that he regards the life-world as the world as it is in itself (complete with consciousness and subjectivity) and the mathematized natural world as an abstraction from this. Objective science has bearing within the world of our lived experience precisely because it is abstracted from such a world:

“The concrete life-world, then, is the grounding soil of the ‘scientifically true’ world and at the same time encompasses its own universal concreteness.” (Husserl, 1970, p.169)

The life-world and mathematized world are intimately related whilst each represents the anti-thesis of the others foundational principles. What Husserl argues for in his work is a synthesis of these two, wherein science is given its due status and recognition, but once more under the auspices of a new revitalised metaphysics.

In many ways it can be argued that Husserl continues the work of Kant. The crisis of metaphysics that arose in response to Hume’s Discourse on Human Nature was a direct result of the mathematization and naturalisation of the life-world. It was in response to this that Kant was faced with the need to justifying metaphysical discussion as more than ‘mere sophistry and illusion’; transcendental idealism was his response. Husserl in many ways simply addresses wider implications of the transcendental aesthetic in such as way as to make the philosophical concerns relevant to positivistic sciences at the time. Therein, Husserl found a deceptively simple counter-argument to the positivistic reductionism that was born out of scientific arrogance. Without taking the life-world into account, the objectively ‘real’ world is an ephemeral non-entity, a phantom that we summoned into being from out of nowhere.


Husserl, E. (1970) The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, Evanston: Northwestern

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Are mental properties identical to physical properties?

Last night after doing some preparatory reading for this essay, I went to bed. As I began to drift off, my mind remained on the subject of brain states, mental states, emergent properties and category errors. As my sleep deepened, I gradually became less aware that I was laying in bed thinking. The world familiar to me whilst awake disappeared and due, no doubt, to tiredness and my own inability to think clearly when tired, I completely failed to notice that the waking world had been replaced by a new very slightly different world. This dream world, although I was unaware of it as such, was entirely the product of my own mental states.

Still dwelling on matters dualistic I found myself in a position to conduct some research into the relationship between my brain and my thoughts. Working alongside some of the most brilliant minds (or perhaps ‘brains’) in the business it was decided that we should utilize MRI scanners, EEG’s and other tools to generate the most detailed images possible of my brain states at various points in time and in response to various stimuli. Very quickly, we were able to observe correlations between my state of mind and the corresponding brain states. Different parts of my brain would light up relating to different mental states. The more data we gathered, the clearer our understanding of correlations became. Eventually we developed such a detailed understanding of the relationship between what I was thinking and what my brain was doing, that we were able to conclude that all of my mental states were reducible to statements about brain states. This achievement would have been much more rewarding if we had not spent the whole time scanning the wrong brain.

We had never been able to prove which way around the causal relationship between brain and mind was operating and so, because the world around us appeared to exist objectively whereas my thoughts were merely subjective, we decided to assume that the brain was causing the thoughts. The problem was that in the dream, my real brain was nowhere to be found. It was in my head, which was resting on my pillow in my bed. We were busy at the imaginary lab working with an entirely imaginary brain that was entirely the result of my mental states. The changes in that brain were caused by changes in my thoughts; not, as we had assumed, the other way round.

Of course, the argument from dreams is not a new one. It has been raised before. My concern in raising it, is not one of radical skepticism so much as this; if my mind, or brain is capable of creating such a vivid private world that in no way, can hope to be expressed in its entirety through public behavior, such as language and so on, is Behaviorism justified to make the reduction that it does?

Within the context of such a dream, it would be perfectly reasonable to say that physical properties were identical to mental properties; properties of the physical world that I perceived were the contents of my thoughts. This is a very different claim than that which Behaviorists seek to make in claiming that mental properties are identical to physical properties.

Descartes’ substance dualism draws an ontological distinction between the mental and the physical, arguing that they are entirely different substances. He bases his argument primarily on what he perceives as differences between mental and physical properties. As he says in the sixth meditation:

“But nevertheless, on the one hand I have a clear and distinct idea of myself, insofar as I am simply a thinking, non-extended thing; and on the other hand I have a distinct idea of a body, insofar as this is simply a non-thinking, extended thing. And accordingly, it is certain that I am really distinct from my body and can exist without it.” (Chalmers, 2002, p.16)

Descartes therefore, commits himself to an ontological separation of body and mind claiming that mind can exist without body. In the context of my dream it is quite plausible to argue that my mind can exist without my (dream) body; however it does not follow from that, that my dream body could exist without my mind; unfortunately for Descartes, outside of the dream situation it is difficult to argue that our thoughts can exist without our bodies. The analogy of a dream, or the ability to conceive of oneself without a body, (whilst fortunate enough to experience the benefits of having such a body, and brain) does nothing to deter the materialist from claiming that all of the appearances to my dreaming mind were simply the result of physical processes; namely those occurring in a brain. A brain, which, at the time I was dreaming, existed outside of the realm of my experience.

This raises a basic epistemological problem for the materialist; how can we ever know, with any certainty that we are looking at the right brain? It is fair to say that the reasoning applied by my fellow researchers and I (in the dream) was no different when it came to assuming the objective reality of our world, as it would be in this one.

Physicalist views, such as behaviorism and functionalism reject dualism and claim that mental properties are identical to physical behaviors or physical properties; thoughts are identical to physical processes occurring in the brain. Both views constitute a rejection of substance dualism, or see the dualist mind/matter distinction as a conceptual division as opposed to an ontological one, reducing statements about thought and inner life or dreams as a form of linguistic shorthand for descriptions of physical states. One such thinker is Gilbert Ryle.

He rejects the mind-matter distinction as a category mistake, referring to it contemptuously as “the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine”. (Ryle, 2002, p.34) He claims however, to do so without reducing mental properties to material ones or vice-versa, which he argues is to treat them as “terms of the same logical type”.
He claims that:

“…the phrase, ‘there occur mental processes’ does not mean the same sort of thing as ‘there occur physical processes,’ and, therefore, that it makes no sense to conjoin or disjoin the two.” (Chalmers, 2002, p.37)

Therefore saying that ‘mental and physical processes occur’ is equivalent to saying that ‘people and airplanes fly,’ or ‘hamsters and computers run.’ In each example, the verb is applicable to people, airplanes, mental processes, physical processes, computers or hamsters, but the sense in which the verb applies is different. Airplanes fly, but people fly in a different sense. Whether the hamster or the computer run faster, is hard to determine because what it means for a hamster to run, is very different from what it means for a computer to run. So, for Ryle, the sense in which mental processes occur is not the same as the sense in which physical processes occur. In summarizing Ryle’s views David Chalmers writes:

“The mind is not to be seen as something distinct from the body and steering it from the inside, but as an aspect of the body’s own activities.” (Chalmers, 2002, p. 3);

Also adding the view that:

“the mind is an aspect of behavior…. Thus mind is seen as a public aspect of human activity, rather than as a private inner aspect.” (Chalmers, 2002, p.3)

Ryle therefore, would consider that talk about mental states is really, talk about behavior. The fundamental problem with this reduction is that assumes too much. Although lessons about mental properties can be learned from behavior and language, the entire phenomenal aspect of our inner lives is so much richer than the mere behaviors that we exhibit. If properties of the brain and properties of the mind are one and the same, then the example of dreaming shows a situation wherein mental properties do not translate readily into talk either of brain states or behavior. It goes against common intuitions (not merely philosophical ones,) to conflate mental states and the behaviors we instinctively feel are caused by such mental states. Hume in his Treatise on Human Nature states the epistemological problem of making such a reduction as follows:

“The powers, by which bodies operate, are entirely unknown. We perceive only their sensible qualities: and what reason have we to think that the same powers will always be conjoined with the same sensible qualities?” (Kramnick, 1995, p.200)

We cannot make inferences with any certainty that similar behaviors are always caused by similar mental states. The subjective character of consciousness is not merely a pattern of behavior, but instead, is limited by a positivistic tendency to exclude all but that, which is verifiable. In doing so, a mistake far worse than mere category error, occurs. Though Ryle denies that he makes a materialist reduction, in this text, he does err on the side of only acknowledging the ‘real’ existence of the physical. This neglects an enormous amount of mental activities that although private and non-verifiable, are nevertheless very real to those who experience them. Ryle cannot exorcise ‘the ghost in the machine’ without first establishing whether the ghost thinks it is in a machine, or the machine is in the mind of the ghost and its existence is as equally ephemeral. To assume there is only the machine, and the tasks it performs, is overly nihilistic and raises serious concerns about the richness of humanity’s inner lives were such a materialist outlook ever to catch on. Whilst mental properties may indeed be identical with physical properties, the way in which behaviorism and other physicalist perspectives seek to bridge this conceptual gap is one that looses too much of our everyday experience of having a mind. Though conscious states and brain states or behaviors may occur simultaneously this does not give us license to infer such a counter-intuitive causal link or to assume the direction of such causation. In my dream, such assumptions were made erroneously, because physical sciences lack the epistemic foundation to make metaphysical claims.

The rejection of substance dualism is justified and perhaps even long overdue, but physicalism has the potential to constitute an equally dangerous category error. By reducing our mental lives to physical processes, so much more is lost than in the reduction of physical properties, to properties of our mental experience. Where the physicalist reduction costs us our inner lives, the opposite reduction re-contextualizes our scientific knowledge, leaving our laws and governing principles intact, and integrating them into a more holistic worldview that neglects none of what we all intuitively know about ourselves as thinking beings.


Chalmers, D.J. (2002), Philosophy of Mind: classical and contemporary readings, Oxford University Press.

Descartes, R. Meditations on First Philosophy, excerpted in Chalmers, D.J. (2002), Philosophy of Mind: classical and contemporary readings, Oxford University Press, p.10-20

Hume, D. (1740) A Treatise on Human Nature, in Kramnick, I (Ed.) (1995) The Portable Enlightenment Reader, Penguin Books Ltd, London, p.195-202

Ryle, G. (1949) Descartes’ Myth, in Chalmers, D.J. (2002), Philosophy of Mind: classical and contemporary readings, Oxford University Press, p.32-38