Some Notes on Abduction and Doctrinal Development

In some of the literature in the philosophy of science you can find a term of art that is sometimes alleged to refer to a special variety of inference that is not deductive in form but that is supposedly stronger than mere induction. The term “abduction” is due to Charles Sanders Peirce, a 19th century American chemist, mathematician, and logician who, along with William James, is credited with making seminal contributions to that distinctively American style of philosophy known as pragmatism. Abductions, he maintained, represent a kind of scientific inference involving explanations intended to connect samples to populations. Suppose, for example, that I have a small pond in my back yard, and I decide to do some fishing there one day. I spend the whole afternoon pulling small bass from the pond and putting them into a bucket, and at the end of the day I take my catch home and put the bucket on the front porch. Along comes my buddy Earl, who is in charge of stocking my pond. He sees the bucket and my fishing equipment and reasons to himself, “All of the fish in this bucket are bass; I stocked that pond over yonder myself with nothing but bass, knowing that there were no other fish in it; hence, the fish in this bucket must have come from that pond over yonder.”

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More to motion than movement?

In the 13th chapter of the 1st book of his Summa contra Gentes, St. Thomas begins his argument for the existence of God from the effect of motion by saying, “Everything that is moved is moved by another [quod omne motum movetur ab alio].”  The modern mind, however, might immediately recoil at this claim and, if it finds it repugnant enough, may not proceed to the remainder of the argument. After all, everything moves. “Every thing is in constant motion relative to other things,” our critic explains. “There is no absolute reference frame. This is basic physics.”

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This + This ≠ ThisThis, but = That

A triangle has three angles equaling 180 degrees, but not one of its sides has an angle.

A circle has a radius and a diameter, but not any one of its points has a diameter.

An atom has a spin property, but no tiger, composed of atoms, has a spin property.

A sample of water freezes at 0 degrees Celsius, but no molecule of H2O freezes.

A brick is red and rectangular, but not any one of its molecules is red and rectangular.

A house has a roof and walls, but no element in the construction of the house has a roof or windows.

A spoken word conveys meaning and elicits a response in a hearer, but not any one of its phonemes conveys meaning or elicits a proportionate response.

In all such cases, while may be the case that the larger, aggregate entity cannot exist without the smaller, composite elements, this does not entail that the former exists because of the latter. The aggregates, thus, enjoy a formal integrity which none of its composite members can bestow upon it.

Indeed, all of the smaller entities are what they are only in reference to their larger aggregate entity’s existence. An atom of water is what it is as an atom of water. Even an atom under scientific scrutiny is the atom that it is in connection with the larger aggregate of space cum equipment cum observer. Thus, the aggregate displays as much of a final sovereignty over its members’ causal co-relations as it enjoys a formal wholeness that pervades their theoretical content.

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Believing facts, seeing facts, or wanting facts?

Perhaps you have heard it said, as I have, that, in order for an argument to be logical, the arguer needs facts and proof, not just beliefs. And perhaps this seemingly obvious claim struck you as funny, as somehow off, as it strikes me. The claim is itself an attempt at a logical argument about logic, with a form, I think, like this:

Major premise: Logical arguments require demonstrable facts.

Minor premise: Beliefs are not demonstrable facts.

Conclusion: Logical arguments cannot be based on beliefs.

What primarily bothers me about this line of reasoning is that it seems to lack any factual content itself. Speaking more historically, this sort of “obvious” claim seems subject to the same flaws of old-school positivism. To wit, is it an empirical fact that “you need facts to make logical conclusions”? How can I empirically observe that statement? Or is the stricture itself just a belief about logic? Are facts, in fact, properly objects of logical construction?

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The evidence for evidence?

Consider the following axiom and two corollaries:

“A wise man [A] proportions his belief [Pa] to the evidence [Gc].”

“Corollary #1: A belief which leaves no place for doubt is not a belief; it is a superstition.”

“Corollary #2: It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” [This is the (in)famous principle expounded by W. K. Clifford contra William James.]

Let us say that A is an agent, Pa is a proportionate action by A, and Gc is the grounding condition (or conditional grounds) for Pa.

Now consider the following statements:

A wise man [A] never plays the lottery [Pa] since the evidence clearly suggests he will not win [Gc].

A good husband [A] adjusts his commitment to his wife [Pa] based on the evident worth of her love [Gc].

A good friend [A] considers someone his friend [Pa] only when he is certain someone will be a great ally [Gc].

A virtuous child [A] bases his attachment to and respect for his parents [Pa] on the evidence that they will raise him well and satisfactorily provide for his success [Gc].

A wise man [A] bases his immediately upcoming decision [Pa] strictly on what he has done before [Gc].

A wise man [A] bases his immediately upcoming decision [Pa] strictly on what the evidence of his senses indicate he will do [Gc].

A wise man [A] bases his adherence to rationality [Pa] on the evidence that it conforms to the reality in which he is immersed [Gc].

A wise man [A] adjusts his commitment to truth [Pa] on the evidence he has for there being such a thing [Gc].

A good man [A] proportions his commitment to his ideals [Pa] to the evidence that they succeed and will be accomplished in his life [Gc].

A good soldier [A] bases his loyalty to his country [Pa] on the evidence that his country will win the conflict at hand [Gc].

I believe you will notice an analogical “soft spot” in all these claims, and, thus, in the original axiom and its corollaries: there is either a distinct circularity in the above claims (e.g., we only see rationality works in reality by rationally applying the fruits of our reasoning to the rationally ordered description of reality) or a crucial non sequitur between them and the goal they describe. After all, on what evidence might we base our assent to the above axiom? And, short of holding that axiom as an evidentially indefatigable proposition, what necessitates that we accept it on purely evidential grounds? Doesn’t it just make good sense to proportion our belief to the evidence for it? If so, however, what sense does it make to say “making good sense” is rooted in evidential certitude? And round and round we go.

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Being and doing its own thing…

The problem of intentionality vis-à-vis physicalism is not an empirical problem; it is a categorical problem. Formal operations, for instance, are determinate in a way that physical operations cannot be. Intellection is, for instance, universally abstract in a way that physical “signs” cannot be. The contents of sensory experience are analytically non-identical with the physical correlates we infer as their causal substrate. And as for intentionality…

Intentionality and physical order are simply, categorically mutually irreducible. This is hardly a “pet claim” of Thomists. Read some J. Levine, or J. Searle, C. S. Pierce, or F. Brentano, or J. Kim, or W. Vallicella, or S. Kripke, or K. Gödel, or D. Melser. Indeed, read some D. Dennett: he is so committed to physicalism, and yet aware of the intentionality problem, that he denies the latter on behalf of the former.

The issue is simply not one that can be overcome by “more brain studies.” Intentionality, and its related immateriality, is, like purpose and action (cf. R. Taylor’s Action and Purpose), simply not reducible to behavioral categories. Intentionality, purpose, action, formal order––these are simply “their own things” and not to be trifled with. Certainly, it is true to say that intellection occurs “naturally” insofar as it is metaphysically contiguous with the operations of its natural agents; but this must be qualified by the fact that nature, thus, operates with both material and immaterial powers.

In any case, consider the following scenarios (which I borrow from R. Taylor):

a. A man attending a debate raises his hand in order to get the attention of debater Q, and thereby both attracts the attention of debater Q and scares off a fly.

b. A man attending a debate raises his hand in order to get the attention of the moderator, and thereby both attracts the attention of the moderator and scares off a fly.

c. A man attending a debate raises his hand in order to scare off a fly, and thereby both attracts the attention of debater Q and scares off the fly.

Behaviorally, and I should say neurologically, these events are indiscernible. Only on the supposition of a distinct purpose (“in order to”) can they be differentiated. Likewise with intentionality. Physically indiscernible phenomena can have different intentionality, different meaning. Physical causation is, to palm off of Walker Percy and Pierce, metaphysical dyadic, whereas language–-qua intentionality in action––is conceptually triadic, and, indeed, intersubjectively tetradic. Physical things only stand in formal, theoretical bonds with each others as we evoke those bonds by the intentional, immaterial power of referential language. An atom simply does not and cannot “refer to” something else; but language can and, incessantly, does “conscript” an atoms, and hordes or atoms, for such bonds.

The Pharisee fallacy?

The following is taken from a Northern Irish blog. One of our readers here would like to know if others can spot any fallacies/incoherence in Jonathan Bartley’s position.

Commenting on the statement issued today by six churches and Christian groups against US anti-gay hate group Westboro Baptist Church, who proposed to picket in the UK on Friday but were yesterday banned by British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith from entering the country)[,] Jonathan Bartley, co-director of the religion and society thinktank Ekklesia, said: ‘‘It is welcome that a number of churches and evangelical groups have made a public statement and joined the many others who are opposing Westboro’s Baptist church-style hate speech. But it is relatively easy to issue statements against extremists, distance oneself, and condemn them. It is more challenging, and uncomfortable, to acknowledge what one might have in common with those we find abhorrent. But that is what the message at the heart of the Christian faith requires.

“This is the real challenge that Westboro Baptist church presents. And among those who have condemned Westboro are some who preach rejection of faithful gay relationships, who deny their baptism and Christian ministry, and who refuse their wisdom. Some have attempted to negotiate opt-outs from equalities legislation so they can themselves discriminate against lesbian and gay people in employment and in the provision of goods and services. The Evangelical Alliance in particular removed the Courage Trust from its membership when the Trust made a Christian commitment to affirming lesbian and gay people.

“The six churches and groups have said with one voice: ‘We believe that God loves all, irrespective of sexual orientation[.]’ We invite them to reflect these words in their actions.”

Can you see what I mean?

How does one visually represent a concept?

Imagine that the following sentence, “Jane sat on a yellow cushion and literally fell head over heels,” were ‘pictorialized’ such that “Jane” was replaced by a picture of Jane, “sat on a yellow cushion” were replaced by a picture (or a couple shots in series) of Jane sitting on a yellow cushion, and “literally fell head over heels” were replaced by a picture of a startled Jane mid-tumble.

Visually, we find that “literally” evaporates; it is just a part of “fell over”. “Literally”, it seems, literally has no visualizable reality. You cannot point at the concept of “literally” in spacetime. It is a sheer verbal parlor trick, used only to dramatize and exaggerate an otherwise mundane description of events. Conceivably, every instance of “literally” in written history could be literally deleted and the associated meaning would survive. A word like “literally” is a, visibly, a meaningless waste of ink and ASCII.

And yet––yet, “literally” does have a meaning. It is a coherent concept which we can and do use all the time. It is a real “intentional object”––otherwise how could you be reading what I have written about it and with it?

It seems, then, that not all words are visually registered. What we know, in other words, is not coextensive with what “Literally” cannot be “caught on film,” but it can be caught in the mind. You can see what I mean without ever seeing what what-I-mean is. The only fitting picture of “literally” is the series of conjoined letters in ‘literally’. The word, thus, acts as an unnatural sign of an unnatural reality. A material in quo (by which) of an immaterial quod quid est (that which is).

There’s a new blog in town!

Just wanted our throngs of loyal readers to know I have set up a new blog:

It is strictly a reference blog concerning issues in natural philosophy, metaphysics, and the philosophy of science. Be sure to check out the scads of essays and books I’ve added to the sidebar.

The Four Horsemen of the Causocalypse!

(Hmm… “the Causocalypse”… I am reminded once more how some things sound better sung to heavy metal in one’s head than they look on a computer screen. Bu the show must go on!)

“Not all that glitters is gold,” as they say.

Now let’s “Aristotelianize” the saying: “Not all that displays finality is conscious.”


All that is conscious of attaining ends, does display consciousness. This is exactly what Popper meant by “all of life is problem-solving.” If even the tiniest unconscious creatures display apparent aims, then a fortiori (all the more) do conscious creatures like us display “aimedness.” Without intrinsic (viz., evolved, inherited) dispositions to try this and that tentative solution-behavior for the attainment of some solution to a problem, creatures will not “give” anything to natural selection to approve or condemn.

The rubber-ball example Edward Feser uses in The Last Superstition to describe “the four causes” is, explicitly, anthropomorphic, but it is not meant to be an exhaustive demonstration of finality per se. It is an anthropomorphic analogy, and, as we all know, no analogy is perfect. He describes fourfold hylomorphic causation thus:

Efficient cause: workers in plant

Material cause: rubber

Formal cause: elastic sphere

Final cause: amusement of child

Since this seems too obviously anthropomorphic, how can the rubber ball example be generalized––deanthropomorphized––to clarify finality per se?
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Design space? Selection pressure? Neither––or all of the above?

“The notion of order is inseparable from that causality, which is itself an order of dependence. … The ability of a living being to move itself, even though it be only to assimilate and grow, involves therefore the organization of heterogeneous parts of which it is composed. This is why one says of living bodies that they are organisms or that living matter is organic [organiseé]. The finalism of Aristotle is an attempt to give a reason for the very existence of this organization. … To explain heterogeneous parts by the same principles which explain homogeneous parts is to leave deliberately unexplained the heterogeneity of the heterogeneous. … “–– Étienne Gilson, From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again (University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), pp. 3, 97.

Try this: extend your arm partly out, with the palm of your hand hanging facedown, like you stopped midway reaching for something, and hold that pose. Now try extending (i.e., lifting up) each finger one by one without moving any of the others: thumb, pointer, “bird”, etc. Or try this: make a loos Black-Power fist, and try extending each finger one by one. What did you notice? Only the ring finger was hard to manipulate, right? Your ring finger kept “pulling” up a nearby finger, and it gave you an awkward tingle in the tendons of your wrist, right? (If I’m wrong, stop reading and go to your room!)

I mention this not as some kind of crude refutation of Berkeley’s idealism, nor as a demonstration of mind-body interaction and the freedom of the will, but as an entry point into considering the standard Darwinian method of explaining current human anatomy and physiology. I will focus on what I see as twin parameters in the Darwinian method: selective pressure (based, of course, on reproductive advantage) and design-space constraints. I hope this reflection will raise interesting questions about the enduring role of teleology in the Darwinian method as it aims to be a coherent explanation of the natural order.
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The demonization of the reification of nothing…

I stumbled upon a post at the blog called unBeguiled, in which the writer argues against the theistic ploy of asking, “Why does something exist rather than nothing?” The writer’s main beef, as I see it, is that this question is a red herring, since, by virtue of the fact that it exists, existence stands in no need of explanation. What else, in a word, could existence do other than exist? Theists are guilty, in other words, of reifying nothing.

Further, the imaginary possibility of nothing (which the writer also seems only grudgingly willing to admit is even coherent), is trumped in explanatory value by actual existence. The imaginary possibility of “nothingness” has no logical right to undermine the evidence and, as it were, metaphysical autonomy of existence. In his own words:

Can a true state of nothingness exist in reality? The answer cannot be known. It is impossible to have direct knowledge whether a true state of nothingness could exist. The statement “I know that nothingness could exist” is a contradiction. … I deny that we should consider nothingness as a serious alternative to somethingness.

I disagree, on many fronts, and the following are comments (still in rough form, I admit), I made in reply to the post. I would like to see readers add their thoughts to this topic here or at unBeguiled. Although “you” is written to this writer, it should be understood as the general “you”.

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Find the fallacy…

On page 45 of Programming the Universe, Seth Lloyd says,

The universe began just under 14 billion years ago in a massive explosion. What happened before the Big Bang? Nothing. There was no time and no space. Not just empty space, but the absence of space itself. Time itself had a beginning. There is nothing wrong with beginning from nothing. For example, the positive numbers begin from zero (the “empty thing” [Sanskrit: shunya]). Before zero, there are no positive numbers. Before the Big Bang, there was nothing––no energy, no bits.

I find one of Lloyd’s central claims here highly dubious, for at least two reasons. Before I state my reasons, however, I wanted to invite readers to give their two (or three) cents about the quotation. Why am I dubious? Should I be? Is Lloyd just right, or just out in left field?

Okay, now I will explain my reasons for looking askance at Lloyd’s obiter dicta on, literally, nothing and everything. I appreciate the good insights others offered, some of which will be shown to anticipate my own ideas.

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