Friday, October 4, 2019

A tension in some theistic Aristotelian thinkers

Here is a tension in the views of some theistic Aristotelian philosophers. On the one hand, we argue:

  1. That the mathematical elegance and discoverability of the laws of physics is evidence for the existence of God

but we also think:

  1. There are higher-level (e.g., biological and psychological) laws that do not reduce to the laws of physics.

These higher-level laws, among other things, govern the emergence of higher-level structures from lower-level ones and the control that the higher-level structures exert over the lower-level ones.

The higher-level laws are largely unknown except in the broadest outline. They are thus not discoverable in the way the laws of physics are claimed to be, and since no serious proposals are yet available as to their exact formulation, we have no evidence as to their elegance. But as evidence for the existence of God, the elegance and discoverability of a proper subset of the laws is much less impressive. In other words, (1) is really impressive if all the laws reduce to the laws of physics. But otherwise, (1) is rather less impressive. I’ve never never seen this criticism.

I think, however, there is a way for the Aristotelian to still run a design argument.

Either all the laws reduce to the laws of physics or not.

If they all reduce to the laws of physics, pace Aristotelianism, we have a great elegance and discoverability design argument.

Suppose now that they don’t. Then there is, presumably, a great deal of complex connection between structural levels that is logically contingent. It would be logically possible for minds to arise out of the kinds of arrangements of physical materials we have in stones, but then the minds wouldn’t be able to operate very effectively in the world, at least without massively overriding the physics. Instead, minds arise in brains. The higher-level laws rarely if ever override the lower-level ones. Having higher-level laws that fit so harmoniously with the lower-level laws is very surprising a priori. Indeed, this harmony is so great as to be epistemically suspicious, suspicious enough that the need for such a harmony makes one worry that the higher-level laws are a mere fiction. But if they are a mere fiction, then we go back to the first option, namely reduction. Here we are assuming the higher level stuff is irreducible. And now we have a great design argument from their harmony with the lower-level laws.


Leo Kwak said...
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Leo Kwak said...

Hello Dr. Pruss,

So is it that given the irreducibility of the higher laws into lower ones, the probability of there being such a great harmony between higher and lower laws is so low that it is more likely that the higher laws do not exist to begin with?

Philip Rand said...

Here we are assuming the higher level stuff is irreducible. And now we have a great design argument from their harmony with the lower-level laws.

Here is scope for a book for you (jettison the Aristotle)... I would suggest using bilking type arguments...

Alexander R Pruss said...


Well, it's a low probability if there is no God, but not a low one if there a God.

Michael Gonzalez said...

I don't think a person is being nearly Aristotelian enough if they think that minds "arise in brains". "Mind" talk is just talk about our distinctive capacities (our "rational psyche"). We do not actually have some thing called a mind; and our mental capacities don't "arise from brains".

Perhaps if we just go to the first psyche of "life", and leave out the problematic mental issues for simplicity. I think it's a mistake to talk about whether life "arises out of physical arrangements", especially if that way of phrasing it leads us to even ask whether it could arise out of the arrangement of a rock (let alone answer in the affirmative!). This is not logically possible, because it makes no sense. A rock is, by definition, not the kind of thing that takes in nutrients, rebuilds itself with those, excretes waste, or has a "well-being" or "health" or "lifespan".

Life doesn't "arise from physical arrangements"; it arises from previous life (or from special creation by God, of course).

So, to return to your original question, there may well be some tension there. I mean, if someone thinks the elegance of the laws of physics is an argument for God's existence, I suppose it might bother them that those laws don't actually describe everything in the world. That being said, you ask about "higher-level laws", and I wonder... are there really "laws of biology" in the same sense as there are "laws of physics"? Living things have certain characteristic properties and capacities, but I don't know if we want to call those "laws".... The only real "law" I can think of for life is that it only comes from previous life.

I dunno... This is certainly interesting.

Leo Kwak said...

Thank you for the distinction, Dr. Pruss. This is a very interesting argument that had me thinking about it for the last few days.