Philosophical Questions

Mark Pottenger


Like my Spiritual Science essay, I am writing this largely in response to something from The Great Courses that I listened to—in this case, The Big Questions of Philosophy. Like most of The Great Courses, this is definitely worth listening to, but there were several points I differed with along the way.

An early lecture says abductive reasoning (or abduction) is our most reliable guide to truth. The term itself threw me a bit, since I didn't remember it from my logic and philosophy classes in college 40+ years ago, and I didn't find anything appropriate in checking my New Oxford American Dictionary. I did find that one meaning of abduction in my The Random House Dictionary of the English Language and Oxford English Dictionary is a syllogism with a certain major premise and a probable minor premise, producing a conclusion with the probability of the minor premise (synonym: apagoge). According to this lecture, abduction picks the best of available alternate explanations by applying five criteria: testability (producing testable predictions), fruitfulness (producing correct novel predictions), scope (explanatory range), simplicity (AKA parsimony, Occam's razor) and conservatism (consistency with other knowledge).

Even though I use Occam's razor a lot, I do so acknowledging that it is, as far as I know, a bias in human thinking rather than a law of nature. In fact, every time I read a Science article about biology/biochemistry/molecular biology my eyes tend to glaze over at the levels of convolution & complexity. Rube Goldberg was a piker compared to biological evolution. As I discussed in my "Spiritual Science" essay, monistic materialism or physicalism creeps into the way most scientists and many philosophers apply Occam's razor, which of course also slips it into the rules of abduction used in this course. My personal belief in pantheistic/panpsychic matter-spirit monism gives me a very different take on applying Occam's razor or the rules of abduction. For me, indivisible matter-spirit, not matter, is the most basic building block, so I reach a different conclusion than the lecturer for many of the arguments in the course. This fundamentally different assumption is fine for me, a sometimes mystic who appreciates science, but is still beyond the pale for current mainstream peer-reviewed science.

Several lectures explore questions of whether a Judaeo-Christian God can exist, especially given the problems of moral evil & natural evil. The lectures stack the deck by using a definition of God that isn't what I recall. It has a different set of three omnis (omniscient, omnipotent & omnibenevolent) from the three omnis I recall (omniscient, omnipotent & omnipresent). The insertion of omnibenevolent is what makes the problems of evil a strong refutation of the existence of a God with that definition.

The discussion of freedom vs. foreknowledge is one where I see the argument given as fundamentally flawed. In a context of omnitemporalism (all time already exists), which I believe is a valid view of time, it says "We cannot be free without alternate possibilities, and there are no alternate possibilities if the future already exists." The flaw I see is confusing possibility with eventuality. Up to the moment of a decision or action, some number (1-n) of possibilities exists. After the moment of decision or action, one eventuality exists. The single eventuality does NOT wipe out any alternate possibilities from before the moment of decision. This section of the course includes an attempt I didn't find convincing to stretch the previously used definition of truth to deal with a time component. For a physical example of my viewpoint, think about the way quantum phenomena are described. Until a measurement or other interaction collapses it, there is a quantum wave function or probability cloud. After the collapse, there is a specific quantum state. The measurable state (eventuality) does not change the nature of the cloud (possibilities) present up to the moment of interaction/measurement.

Copyright © 2016 Mark Pottenger

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