Good News: And No Religion, Too

March 2023 Forums General discussion Good News: And No Religion, Too

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  • #238862

    “air (spiritus)”

    I wonder if that’s where the term
    “airy fairy” comes from?

    But, seriously, what has air being material (as it is) got to do with “spirituality”? They are two different things. As an emotion “spirituality” is also material and can be studied by materialist science too.

    As to Sagan, I saw the tv series and have got the book. They were good. Sagan was ok, except he was a bit soft on religion. I’m with Dawkins on that.


    All this loony talk of (hot) air takes me back to my time at Cambridge when we went on that sky-gazing field-trip me and a group of would-be cosmologists. They took me along to put up the Coleman four person tent and dig the latrine. Have you even shared a tent with three student cosmologists? Each in a state of emotional and hygienic disarray? Breaking wind all night. Dear o dear. I hardly got a wink of sleep. Must have been that brawn hotpot I had.


    I have finally got round to watching that video on so-called “free will”. Alex presents his case well enough. See post #238723.

    But what he is actually arguing against is the claim that people are free to decide to do something they don’t want to do. This is because he assumes, by definition, that what you do (unless coerced) is what you want to do. So whatever you do do, you wanted to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it.

    It’s a bit of a sophist’s argument rather like the subject of a student study essay I once had to write: if good is what you want, can you want to do bad?

    What about at a factual level? Most people will agree that at least some of what they want to do does depend on external factors such as the past and present experiences such as the way they were brought and the type of society they are living in.

    But agreed, they will still want to say that they can freely choose between different options on simple everyday matters such as to what clothes to wear or what to eat for breakfast.

    Alex says this is an illusion (because everything that happens anywhere in the universe at one moment is determined by everything that happened before right back to the Big Bang). Maybe it is in that unhelpful sense (unhelpful because it doesn’t explain anything). Or maybe “free will” is the (unhelpful) name given to that illusion?


    “Alex says this is an illusion (because everything that happens anywhere in the universe at one moment is determined by everything that happened before right back to the Big Bang). Maybe it is in that unhelpful sense (unhelpful because it doesn’t explain anything). Or maybe “free will” is the (unhelpful) name given to that illusion?”

    I didn’t watch the video, but the arguments seem like the common ones. I think the mistake being made here is one of confusing different levels of explanation. The assumption is that every explanation has to be reducible to physics, and since ‘free will’ can’t be seen in the world of physics (in the interactions of atoms, particles etc) then it doesn’t exist. But the kind of social explanations we are looking for take place at the level of intentional agents (eg in a social world made up of agents that act according to intentions – not in the world of atoms and particles), there is no need to reduce the explanation to physics.

    This podcast explains it better (you can skip to 13 minutes if you are already familiar with the arguments):


    Interesting (but unfortunate name — when I saw “Christian List on Free Will” I thought I had gone to a religious site).

    I don’t think that TM here was denying that humans are “intentional agents” (have “wills”) or have “causal control” (that what they do causes something to happen). He was denying that humans can choose between “alternative possibilities” — that when you go into a cafe your choice whether to order tea or coffee is not a free one, that if you chose tea that was the only possibility (as shown by you choosing it)

    A difficult position to maintain unless you are prepared to argue that everything that happens (and is going to happen) was predetermined at the time of the Big Bang. Or, as List points out, unless you think that the only reality is the movement of physical particles and that everything can (and should?) be explained in terms of this. In other words, “mechanical materialism”.


    “Alex says this is an illusion (because everything that happens anywhere in the universe at one moment is determined by everything that happened before right back to the Big Bang). Maybe it is in that unhelpful sense (unhelpful because it doesn’t explain anything). Or maybe “free will” is the (unhelpful) name given to that illusion?”


    That’s what David Hume said wasn’t it? – that “The cause must be prior to the effect.” (A Treatise of Human Nature, 1739). It’s called mechanical determinism – or hard determinism. Everything is reducible to the order(s) of reality below it and ultimately, I guess, to the level of subatomic particles. Causation is strictly a one-way flow – from the “lowest” (or earliest) to the “highest” order we know of being conscious existence.

    The opposite of the hard determinist perspective in relation to the free will question is the indeterminist perspective held by people like Sartre. This asserts the absolute reality of free will. We are absolutely free to choose what we wish which is obviously bunkum. Our choices are evidently conditioned by what is possible

    There is however an intermediate perspective called “soft determinism” which seems to me to be the most plausible one and gets around the problems one encounters with an essentially “physicalist” explanation of reality provided by the hard determinists who completely deny the possibility of free will altogether. This soft determinist position is represented by “emergence theory”. This basically holds that a higher order of reality “supervenes” or depends on a lower order but is NOT reducible to that lower order. Non-reducibility is demonstrated by the fact that the higher order can exert “downward causation” on the lower order. For example, mental states can affect brain states and are not simply “determined” by the latter. There is a two-way interaction.

    I’ve never really understood why some comrades appear to adopt what seems to be a hard-determinist position. It’s a position that came to the fore with the emergence of mechanical philosophy in the 17th century and, as it happens, lent support to the social contract theories of people like Thomas Hobbes around that time.

    Hobbes was a leading exponent of individualist ideology. He posited the idea that human beings once lived in a “state of nature” when existence was (supposedly) nasty brutish and short. These pre-social beings then decided to come together and set up a human society. Hence the idea of a “social contract”. Of course, the whole argument is completely nonsensical but it does conform exactly to the strict one-way flow of causation upheld by the hard determinist model. Empirical individuals had to have preceded social formations according to the logic of that model.

    This is surely contrary to everything that a Marxian theory of the individual upholds. According to this, individuals are socially produced. In saying they are socially produced we are acknowledging the possibility of downward causation – from the level of society to the level of the individual. Language itself is a social product, symbolic interactions between individuals only being possible on the basis of shared meanings. A so-called “social contract” could never have occurred between pre-social individuals who lacked the means of communicating their intentions to each other.

    If we accept in principle the possibility of downward causation then this refutes the claims of hard determinism but without, at the same time, lapsing into the idealism of indeterminism. Even in a “hard science” like Physics the mechanistic model of the universe has long been discarded before and since Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle was formulated back in 1927. We can add to the list of counter-examples such developments as the “observer effect”, the “butterfly effect”, and “entanglement theory” which paint a picture of physical reality that is altogether more complex and mysterious than a hard-nosed deterministic cum mechanical model of the universe would suggest.

    If that is true of the physical sciences how much more true would it be of the social sciences which is, after all, our terrain – the terrain of SOCIALists

    • This reply was modified 2 months, 2 weeks ago by robbo203.
    Bijou Drains

    “if good is what you want, can you want to do bad?”

    I have consciously and deliberately been bad on occasion and only an ex catholic really understands the true delicousness of sin!

    • This reply was modified 2 months, 2 weeks ago by Bijou Drains.

    On “spiritually”, during the break I am reading Rachel Holmes 500-page biography of Eleanor Marx. At the end of chapter 20 she writes that Marx

    “was famously critical of the tyranny of all religions but was sympathetic to the spiritual impulse.”

    A footnote refers the reader to pages 55-6 of Francis Wheen’s biography of Karl Marx. When you check, Wheen is referring to the anti-Semitic insults Marx used in some of his letters to Engels such as referring to Lassalle as a “Yid” and worse.

    It looks as if Holmes has got her notes mixed up. In any event, she produces no other evidence was sympathetic to “the spiritual impulse” (whatever that might be), though she does quote Karl Marx as saying:

    “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

    She describes Eleanor Marx “a resolute secularist and atheist”.

    Her book is quite good.


    Incidentally, I have been reading a fair bit of Pannekoek lately. He keeps referring to the need of a “spiritual revolution” to bring about socialism. Of course he is not talking about mystical religion but using “spiritual” to mean “mental” or “consciousness”. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t the only one to use the word in that way at the turn of the twentieth century, but wonder how widespread this usage was?


    I think it will be due to the German word Geist meaning both “spiritual” and “mental”:

    I imagine that in his writings in German (and Dutch) Pannekoek used the corresponding adjective. Some translators have translated it as “spiritual” when it could have been better translated as “mental” or “intellectual”. Even perhaps Pannekoek himself, when he wrote in English or translated his articles into English, did not grasp the connotation of the English word “spirtual”.

    I think we can be sure that he did not have in mind a sort of religious revival but meant what we mean by a change in consciousness; workers had to change their ideas and a majority of them had to come to want and understand socialism before they could bring it about.


    ‘I believe you see everything not pertinent to your own species as “other”, as you do the universe. As if you are separate from it.’

    ‘Sagan was a real materialist who knew that air (spiritus) is matter too. Space is not nothingness. Nothing does not exist. Only matter exists, and you are of it. You are not something else’.

    It would seem TM that you can’t understand anything that I write. As I said at the beginning of this debate that I believe we are an example of the universe becoming conscious of itself – how on earth could you possibly misinterpret this as meaning that I think that I am separate from it?
    So the genius Sagan knew that ‘air’ is matter!? Made of various gasses how could it be other than matter? The void of space is quite different from our atmosphere as I’m sure you know. It’s vacuum is pretty damn close to ‘nothing’. Besides on a philosophical level for ‘something’ to exist we must have a concept of ‘nothing’.

    • This reply was modified 2 months, 2 weeks ago by Wez.

    Ah well, there’s always dark energy and dark matter, which some scientists theorise are occupying that space which we consider vacuum and nothingness. Otherwise they don’t think there’s enough ‘stuff’ in the universe to explain why it’s expanding.
    So we can certainly have a concept of nothing but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the universe is full of it.

    There’s also the multiverse theory, by which there is an infinite number of universes each of which reflects a different set of actions and choices. It’s just that we can’t perceive them. So there’s at least one where you ‘chose’ to have tea instead of coffee for breakfast, at least one in which you never existed because your parents never got together, and no doubt several versions of socialist societies.

    All highly speculative of course, but subject to serious scientific thought nonetheless. It would suggest that all possible choices are actually made. Where exactly it leaves the notion of free will I’m not sure.

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