My Ontology – Part 2: Mind-dependence

Open MindIn Part 1 I laid the foundations for my ontological framework and came to the conclusion that my position is currently best categorized as that of conceptualism. In this post I would like to dig into this deeper and examine some of the key issues surrounding the topic of mind-dependence and some of the arguments against the conceptualist view. What does it mean to say that a mind-dependent thing (hereafter referred to as a concept) exists? Some may initially balk at the prospect that concepts actually do exist in some sense, but I think our experience infers our acceptance of this proposition on a regular basis. I suggested in Part 1 that we often include concepts when we speak of things which exist. In addition, we routinely say that we “have an idea” and we can recognize the feeling of “getting it” when an explanation “sinks in”. We have a word “on the tip of our tongue” when we are aware of the concept but unable to express it. A placebo can change our well-being. It seems to me that these are all manifestations of concepts.

In the entry on Platonism, the Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy states that “[conceptualism] has serious problems and not very many people endorse it.” Chris Swoyer suggests that conceptualism warrants renewed consideration and starts by noting that “Somewhere in the twentieth century… conceptualism fell off the map….it’s surprising it continues to receive even the perfunctory nod it often gets…”. As an alternative many either come to accept that these things I call concepts are actually mind-independent (realists) or that they don’t exist at all (nominalists). I hope that in this post I am able to make the case that conceptualism has been overlooked. Of course, it is also possible that somebody will come along and straighten me out and make me realize that I’m actually a nominalist or a realist; but we won’t know unless we try.

A naturalist account of concepts

As it currently stands, I find that the naturalist account of reality is more probably true than the Christian (or theistic) perspective I once held. This means that I should be able to reconcile naturalism with the ontology that I have proposed. The naturalist position unashamedly equates the mind with the brain, and so the existence of concepts must be defined within that context.

neuronsTo start this exploration, I want to re-iterate a perspective that I have offered before. In Part 1 of my epistemology, I proposed that logical reasoning can be explained as a process of mapping relations between experiences (and the labels assigned to those related portions of our experiences) and in the end I came to the conclusion that I am an empiricist. Similarly, in Part 1 of this series, I argued that experiences define our knowledge of objects and thus inform our ontology. Taken as a whole, this perspective appears to be highly compatible with our modern understanding of the brain. Allow me to try and briefly outline this congruence.

First, we are well aware that the brain is highly associative. We regularly employ mnemonic devices to improve our recall, and basic introspection reveals how our train of thought tends to follow along paths which relate concepts. Second, we know that the brain is a somewhat flexible configuration of what is very roughly estimated to be 100,000,000,000 neurons and 1,000,000,000,000,000 synaptic connections, where by “flexible” I mean that the connections can change. The neurons and synapses combine to form neural networks that, as far as we can tell, serve to encode sensation and train our response. Sense data, both external and internal interfaces with the brain and causes the relevant neural networks to update accordingly. Obviously all of this is a rather gross simplification and so, when coupled with the fact that my knowledge of neuroscience is both limited and informal, you would be wise to investigate these things further on your own. Regardless, all of this leads me to a rather simple definition of a mental concept: with each experience our brains are modified with a “shadow” of the sense data from that experience. These shadows are linked with each other (perhaps even shared in some way) when the sense data is phenomenally or temporally similar. Symbols associated with these experiences become linked into the networks, tying words into the mesh. The result is a massive network of neural relations that can be broken into symbolically identifiable segments, where each segment represents a discreet aspect of one or more experiences. This defines a concept. They can be linked to define new, more complex concepts, or dissected to define simpler concepts. The following TED talk (20 min) offers a glimpse into this amazing network.

So, to put it simply, concepts are patterns in the brain. These patterns are byproducts of our experiences and genetics, and persist with varying fidelity. As a result, they are unique to each individual. The sensory encoding process for humankind, however, is generally the same. The resulting patterns then share enough commonality, and relations to symbols, that we are able to agree on the external reality from which they were formed. We communicate this to each other primarily through the use of the word symbols linked to the concepts.

Now lets take this idea to its natural conclusion. If mind-dependent things are really just patterns in the brain, then what is this thing that we are calling a pattern? As I see it, there are two options under this framework: either patterns are themselves something independent of the mind and are a foundational part of all concepts, or patterns are themselves patterns. The first seems to be a theoretical leap based on nothing but the fact that we’ve hit the end of our rope. Alternatively, the second option puts us into an interminable self-referential loop (aka, recursion). While there is something disquieting about this, I am at a loss to explain why it is in any sense invalid. In fact, this may be the only kind of infinite that exists. As a software engineer, I myself have on rare occasion created these interminable self-referential loops. There are other reasons to prefer the self-referential option. For one, we intuitively identify a pattern as an abstract object. It only makes sense, then, that it would remain as such. Recursion also makes sense when you consider the neurophysiology outlined above. If concepts exist within a massive web of interconnectivity, then the potential for self-reference should come as no surprise. I have here breached a rather massive topic to which many are devoting entire lives, yet I shall leave it at that. It is only necessary at this time to define the foundational ontology of concepts for the purpose of further scrutiny.

Objective relations

Mt. Everest, Lhotse, Nuptse

The Stanford article on platonism suggests that one of the stronger objections to conceptualism can be summarized as follows: “…relational claims seem to be objective; e.g., the fact that Mount Everest is taller than Mont Blanc is a fact that holds independently of us; but conceptualism about universals entails that if we all died, it would no longer be true that Mount Everest bears the taller than relation to Mont Blanc, because that relation would no longer exist.”

I may have fried a few neurons thinking about this one. I was at first inclined to suggest that this was no different than my thought experiment in Part 1, where I proposed that the only reason the story of Paul Bunyan seems to survive the death of its lone storytellers is because the concept of the story remains in my mind. Similarly, I thought, the “taller than” relation (and similar relations) only appear to be objective because the concept remains in our mind when we consider the example. It then occurred to me, however, that there is a key difference to be taken into account. The “taller than” relation would seem to be clearly discoverable without having ever been transferred from another mind. In some sense, it appears that the relation is not completely mind-dependent.

So I started working from the ground up. I asked myself what it means when we say that something is “taller than”. I concluded that we are expressing a perceived difference in the amount of space the objects occupy in the vertical dimension. This space is a quantifiable, observable object. So the “taller than” relation actually has a referent – the space that is occupied by the taller object and is not occupied by the shorter object. I am venturing to propose that this holds for all objective relations. For example, “brighter than” refers to the photons emitted by the brighter object which are in excess of the photons emitted by the dimmer object. “Faster than” refers to the change in space-time covered by the faster object that isn’t covered by the slower object. The examples could go on and on. If you have a counter-example of an objective relation that has no referent in the physical world (i.e., space / time / matter / energy), please send it my way.

What does this mean? It means that objective relations are very much like concrete particulars and their corresponding universals. The particulars are differences which correspond to quantitatively identifiable aspects of the physical world that we experience. These experiences are then linked together in generalizations that we assign labels. The “taller than” relation is an effective and convenient shorthand for expressing differences in the amount of vertical space occupied by objects, just as calling something a table is an effective and convenient shorthand for referring to all our past experiences of similar objects. So it would seem that the ontology of objective relations should be viewed no differently. If all minds are extinguished then the universal concept of a table no longer exists, but the particular table objects remain. Likewise, the generalized concept of a “taller than” relation does in fact disappear when all minds are extinguished, but the particular instances of physical differences do not.

The problem of universals

If I have thus far explained myself well, it should already be obvious that I see universals as concepts in the mind. Even so, it would be careless for me to summarily dismiss it on that note. Conceptualism, some say, doesn’t address the problem of universals. To quote from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Conceptualism’s appeal to concept application must concern only correct concept application. As such, it is fair to ask, “What makes it the case that the concept red is rightly applied to both a and b, but not of some third individual, c?” To treat this fact as brute and inexplicable is to revert to problematic Predicate Nominalism. So it seems the Conceptualist must say that the concept red applies to a and b, but not c, because a and b share a common feature, a feature c lacks. Otherwise, the application of red is unconstrained by the individuals to which it applies. But simply noting that a and b resemble each other isn’t going to help, because that just is the fact we originally sought to explain, put differently. The Conceptualist might now say that a and b share a property. But if this isn’t to amount to a restatement of the original datum, it must now be interpreted as the claim that some entity is in both a and b. That, of course, turns our supposed Conceptualist strategy back into Realism. Critics say Conceptualism solves no problems on its own. In trying to ground our right to predicate the concept red of a and b, we are driven back to facts about a and b themselves and that leaves Conceptualism as an unstable position. It teeters back and forth between Realism, on the one hand, and Nominalism, on the other.

I suspect that this objection is levied against a form of conceptualism in which concepts are not formed through experience. Allow me to try using the proposed framework to answer the key question of this objection: “What makes it the case that the concept red is rightly applied to both a and b, but not of some third individual, c?” Answer: There is a frequency range in the electromagnetic spectrum for which objects a and b emit or reflect light and object c does not. The sensory input from electromagnetic waves in that range is associated with neural structures that collectively form the concept of redness, and we call this concept “red” because those structures have further associations with the word “red”. The sensory input from object c does not create the same associations and so the concept of “red” is not applied to it. At the risk of sounding pompous, it seems to me that the discussion ends there. Have I missed something?

“Red”, as a universal, can be easily associated with particulars, namely the electromagnetic waves in a certain frequency range. When the universal in question is the type which is a categorization of particulars (e.g., red, table, chair, etc…), the application of conceptualism is clear – the universal is the concept that links our experiences of the particulars together. There are other types of universals, however, which assign properties to objects and that have no obvious referent. We might say that something is hot, flat, smooth or loud. How do these types of universal properties fit into the conceptualist framework? The answer lies in the discussion of relations above. The similarity between relations and these types of property universals becomes clear upon consideration of what these properties are really saying. When we say that something is hot or cold, flat or steep, smooth or sharp, or loud or quiet, we are in fact expression a relation to the norm, or a relation to other spatially or temporally nearby objects. If we’re standing in a walk-in freezer then we might say that an object at 10° C is warm, but we might say that the same object is cold if we are in a stifling equatorial jungle. A knife is sharp because most objects don’t have edges that cut, but a knife can be dull if it doesn’t cut like it used to. These are all relations and, as previously discussed, that means that they all have particular referents in the physical world from which the experiences combine to form concepts.


Mary the color scientist Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal chords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’.… What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not? It seems just obvious that she will learn something about the world and our visual experience of it. But then is it inescapable that her previous knowledge was incomplete. But she had all the physical information. Ergo there is more to have than that, and Physicalism is false.Frank Jackson, Epiphenomenal Qualia (1982)

The “knowledge of” entails a completely different kind of pattern in the brain than does the “experience of”. Setting aside the likelihood that color concepts do not consist of the exact same pattern in each person, the knowledge that Mary possesses is only present in the form of the patterns of the information she has acquired through her research. According to the story, the pattern which results from the stimulus of the wavelengths themselves was never realized. So, yes, she does “learn” something new. Now, we could perhaps propose that Mary not only knows how to translate sensory experience into neurophysiology but also has the incredible ability to manipulate her own neurology accordingly. In this case, I would propose that the problem has gone away. Mary has induced the experience of color independent of the actual visual reception of color. She would now have the patterns of color experience encoded in her brain and will thus have created the qualia in the same way that actually seeing it would have.

Who cares?

Door to...

Good question. As I noted at the outset, it wasn’t long ago that I would have considered these musings to be pointless and absurd. What I’ve come to find, however, is that this all actually plays a significant role in the God debate. Why? Because if some type of realism is true, and it can be said that even some small subset of abstract objects or universals exist on their own, then we have accepted the independent existence of the immaterial. This in itself is not necessarily troublesome for the naturalist position. After all, science is in the business of discovering new aspects of “nature” that were previously mysterious. There does seem to be a difference this time, though. If these things exist, and we know about them, then the implication is that we have accessed them in some non-empirical way. This accessibility elevates the mind to a privileged position which gives it access to things in a way that isn’t found anywhere else in nature. Furthermore, the current reckoning of the naturalist position would infer that this special access came about as the result of blind evolutionary forces acting on material that didn’t yet have any interface with these things. Is that just a coincidence?

To the theist, this is the gateway to further interrogation into the immaterial realm (God, soul, spirit, free will, etc…). To the naturalist, this is a crack in the door that was supposed to have been closed. While it may not serve as evidence for God, it would suggest that there is more to reality than the naturalist is typically willing to grant. There’s no telling what all lies behind that door. Of course, this potential conflict is no reason to avoid the questions and shun sensible answers. We should pursue truth wherever it may lead.

With that in mind, you may have noticed that I have skirted some of the big questions. I am ending this two part series having merely outlined my perspective on what is means to say that something exists while showing how, within the conceptualist paradigm, there does not appear to be any problem reconciling the existence of mind-dependent objects with a naturalistic account of reality. By aligning myself with conceptualism I have inferred that abstract objects exist only by virtue of their mind-dependence, but I have avoided asking whether or not some things (morality, mathematics and, of course, God) are truly mind-independent. That said, I believe that this framework presents a coherent mechanism by which we may suggest that they are mind-dependent. Even so, those will have to be addressed another time; perhaps after much more contemplation. I do not yet feel comfortable with any one position on these, among others, and this should not be a surprise. We have been debating these things for centuries. In the end, I will openly concede that a deep dive into those topics, or a persuasive refutation of my reasoning here, could potentially turn this entire framework on its head. And that is where you come in. Please, dear reader, tell me why I’m wrong.


My Ontology – Part 1: Foundations

John Stuart Mill

The tendency has always been strong to believe that whatever received a name must be an entity or thing, having an independent existence of its own; and if no real entity answering to the name could be found, men did not for that reason suppose that none existed, but imagined that it was something peculiarly abstruse and mysterious, too high to be an object of sense. The meaning of all general, and especially of all abstract terms, became in this way enveloped in a mystical haze.

John Stuart Mill in Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind

Not too many years ago I probably would have placed ontological discourse under the category of “pointless and senseless blather”. I say this not to denigrate the subject matter but rather to expose the naivety with which I constructed my worldview. That said, the John Stuart Mill quote does well to capture my current sentiment. Though I still find myself bewildered by certain ontological perspectives, I cannot escape the ramifications therein and so I am obliged to make an effort to address the topic.

I think it’s worth repeating the disclaimers that I offered when I presented my epistemology:

Disclaimer #1: I have no formal philosophical training, so forgive me if I abuse the terminology and/or overlook well established points and counter-points. My goal is not to educate others on philosophy, but to work through and explain the current state of my own view of ontology. This is armchair philosophy.

Disclaimer #2: I am trying to avoid using complicated and confusing language, but that is not always easy in these types of discussions. I apologize in advance if I have failed in that endeavor. I’m almost certain that I will.

First things first

I’m not sure that I could have given you the definition of ontology if you had asked me three years ago. I am now all too aware that ontology is the branch of philosophy which deals with the nature of existence. My journey over these last couple years has introduced me to the world of the existential, a land which was utterly foreign to me before I began to question my foundational assumptions. So, when I set forth my epistemic framework some time ago (see Part 1 and Part 2) I never considered the possibility that I was doing things out of order. According to some there is a very simple explanation for why our ontology (theory of existence) must precede our epistemology (theory of knowledge). They would suggest that we must assert that something does or does not exist before we can say that we know anything about it. On the surface this seems like a fair proposition, but then I am compelled to ask how it is that we can say whether something exists, or the form of its existence, without considering how it is that we even know about that something? As far as I am concerned the entanglement between ontology and epistemology is too deep to warrant any claims that one is prior to the other. I am tempted to leave it at that but it seems appropriate to examine this further with an example.

Frequent exposure to philosophical discussion over the last few years has bred familiarity with certain ‘pet’ scenarios and examples. When it comes to ontology, it seems that tables and chairs have been favorites for centuries. I shall continue the tradition to investigate the relation between the epistemology and ontology of tables. This starts with a brief thought experiment.

Suppose a child grows up in a house where the only tables in the house are square, four-legged tables which are set up on their side. A wire is run between the legs and used to hang clothes for drying. Suppose this child is never exposed to any other use of tables. Upon discovering the neighbors sitting and eating at a four-legged table, she may or may not recognize that it is a table but, if she does, she will suppose that it is being used in a strange way. Alternatively, upon seeing a neighbor sitting at a circular pedestal table the same child will almost certainly fail to recognize the object as a table at all because (a) it doesn’t look like the tables she knows, and (b) it has no obvious utility for running wires to dry clothes even if it were set on its side.

At this point you may be wondering if I have drifted off into a confusion between semantics and ontology but I hope to link this all together, so bear with me. The point of the ridiculous thought experiment above is to see that words, like ‘table’, are a type of expression of our experience, or what philosophers refer to as ‘qualia’. To say that something exhibits the property of ‘tableness’ is to say that it is a fair approximation of past experiences with other objects that have been labeled as tables. Words give us a way to relate those experiences between each other and this is most evident where one person’s association of a word to an experience is very different from another person’s association, even if they talking about the same physical object. Our qualia of tables includes both sensory perception of the table itself (color, texture, shape, etc…) but also relational observations (how tables are used, where they tend to reside, etc…). As the number of experiences with tables grows, so does our understanding of ‘tableness’.

While we are reliant on experience to develop a concept of ‘tableness’ we also generally expect that tables exist in the world regardless of whether we ever experience them. But I contend that this expectation only exists because we have already experienced tables, or similar objects, as independent and persistent entities; our experiences enable us to comprehend what it means for tables to exist. If we ignore this, that is, if we suppose that existence can be comprehended without any relation to experience then it would seem that existence itself becomes an incoherent concept. I cannot escape the conclusion that our comprehension of the existence of tables (ontology) cannot in any coherent way be separated from the knowledge of tables (epistemology), yet our knowledge of tables (epistemology) is apparently dependent on their existence (ontology). You cannot claim one without the other. Our ontology is necessarily informed by our epistemology. Attempts to deduce ontology independent of epistemology are actually relying on epistemology while at the same time claiming to ignore it.

Disclaimer #3: Lest it should appear that I am addressing a particular work, please note I wrote and titled this section before encountering James W. Sire’s book “Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept”, which contains a chapter entitled “First Things First” that is an evangelical argument for ontology prior to epistemology (and which can be read on Google books). He considers views where ontology comes first and where epistemology comes first, but never one in which they cannot be prioritized relative to each other. I guess we disagree.

Defining existence

Plato's cave

In the previous section I did not discount the possibility that ‘tables’ exist as something separate from any particular instance of a table. That is, to say that we have experienced ‘tableness’ may allow that we experienced something distinct and possibly independent from the tables themselves. I have just waded into some deep and murky waters and sanity requires that we review some definitions.

We can broadly split all ontological positions into two groups:

  • Realism: The position that something exists.
  • Anti-Realism: The position that something does not exist.

Simple enough. We typically apply ‘realism \ realist’ and ‘anti-realism \ anti-realist’ as qualifiers for a category of things (e.g., moral realist, mathematical anti-realism, etc…). For the most part this distinction isn’t very interesting until we start talking about abstract objects and universals. It is here where we open the proverbial can of worms, so I need to proceed by first defining the main categories of “things”. As it is with all philosophical language, there is widespread disagreement about definitions; and fringe cases abound. Regardless, this is what I understand to be the majority perspective:

  • Concrete Object: Something which can be located in space and time.
  • Abstract Object: An idea, non-physical representation or categorization.
  • Individual (or Particular): A singular instance of an object. (Wikipedia says that ‘particular’ is the adjective and ‘individual’ is the noun, but I find that they are actually used interchangeably in practice).
  • Universal: A quality or property which is common between individual objects.

I find it especially true in philosophy that examples are invaluable for clarifying definitions. The following table tries to offer some examples that show the relationship between the categories given above.

Concrete Objects Abstract Objects
  • The pixels in the shape of a 7 on your screen
  • My dining table
  • An electromagnetic wave with a 520nm wavelength
  • Tonight’s sunset as viewed from your house.
  • The number 7
  • The table described in a fictional story
  • The green I see in my front yard
  • The beauty of tonight’s sunset
Universals Empty?
  • Numbers
  • Tables \ Tableness
  • Green \ Greenness
  • Beauty

There are several points of contention here. The most obvious is whether anything should be categorized as a concrete universal. Somebody might also argue that “the green I see in my front yard” is just a synonym of “an electromagnetic wave with a 520nm wavelength” – but philosophers will often suggest that the qualia of ‘green’ is something different; we’ll touch on this more later. Regardless, now that we have a set of words to describe the possible constituents of reality, let’s look at the ontological positions that have historically been held:

  • Realism \ Platonism: The position that abstract objects and universals exist on their own in addition to concrete particulars.
  • Conceptualism: The position that abstract objects and universals exist only as a concept while concrete particulars exist in and of themselves.
  • Nominalism: The position that abstract objects and universals don’t exist whereas concrete particulars do.
  • Idealism: The position that everything exists only as a mental concept. In a sense, there is no “physical” world.
  • Nihilism: The position that nothing exists. No need to discuss this further then, eh?

Having laid all of these definitions out it immediately becomes apparent that there’s a huge problem: every definition relies on an agreement as to what it means for something to exist. At first blush, existence appears to be defined by the set of things which we say exists, but that type of definition will just make us dizzy (if you weren’t already). So, to start, I want to narrow down the concept of existence a bit. At the risk of confusing things further, I want to bring two more categories into play: mind-dependent things and mind-independent things. Mind-dependent things are those which are only identifiable as conceptions of the mind. Fictional characters like Paul Bunyan and Captain Kirk are clear examples. Depending on your ontological position, certain abstract objects may or may not also be examples. Mind-independent things are those which can be said to exist even if there is no mind, like Ayers Rock, the keyboard I’m typing on or the screen you are reading this on. They are “out there” and can be discovered or accessed by minds. We generally agree that all concrete particulars are mind-independent things. A moral realist would also say that morality is mind-independent and an idealist might say that nothing is mind-independent (except perhaps God).

Paul BunyanNow, to define existence, I want to examine how it is that we use the word in our everyday practice. In my experience we will generally agree that things which are mind-independent can be said to exist. The remaining question, then, is whether that completes the set of things which exist or whether there are cases in which mind-dependent things can also be said to exist (setting aside the question of which things are mind-independent). Probing this further, it is also my experience that we will generally agree that certain mind-dependent things do not exist. We will generally agree that Paul Bunyan the person does not exist, but what about Paul Bunyan the story? My intuition tells me that I should say that Paul Bunyan the story exists but that Paul Bunyan the person does not. What is the distinction? Time for another thought experiment.

Consider a scenario where the story of Paul Bunyan exists only in the oral tradition of an isolated tribe. The story is never reproduced except through verbal communication between the tribe’s members. Imagining myself as a member of this tribe, I find it very easy to say that the story of Paul Bunyan exists. Now suppose that a nasty virus sweeps through and kills every member of the tribe (and that ‘mind’ does not survive the body). Would I still say that the Paul Bunyan story exists? I am inclined to answer yes, but only because I know that it was at one time part of a mind. If you instead asked me whether the Luap Naynub story exists and could tell me absolutely nothing about it and could not even explain why you asked that question in the first place then I am inclined to say that it does not exist. The difference is that in the first case the knowledge of the story’s existence survives in my mind (even if I don’t know any details of the story – which almost certainly means its existence in my mind is vastly different than its existence in the context of the tribe) and in the second case there is no identifiable mind, past or present, in which the knowledge of the story exists. I can see no difference between mind-dependent things which do not exist and mind-dependent things which are universally unknown. I then find myself with a few options. Either mind-dependent things:

  1. Never exist (and my intuitions about the existence of the story of Paul Bunyan were incorrect), or
  2. Come into and out of existence (under an A-Theory of Time), or
  3. Exist if they ever have been, are, or will be synthesized in a mind (under a B-Theory of Time), or
  4. Always exist for all possibilities (and are “out there” waiting to be discovered).

I propose that the 2nd option is the best fit for our everyday understanding of existence, with the 3rd option as the equivalent formulation under a B-Theory of time. It appears that this definition applies equally well to mind-independent things.

OK, so what about Paul Bunyan the person? Why don’t we say that he exists? Let’s look at this through the lens of concrete versus abstract objects. The story of Paul Bunyan is a particular of the universal type “story”, and particulars of type “story” are also abstract. We are content to say that abstract objects exist as mind-dependent things, so it makes sense to say that the story of Paul Bunyan exists. However, the person of Paul Bunyan is a particular of universal type “people”, and particulars of “people” are concrete. If we say that a concrete object exists, we expect it to be mind-independent, and we have no reason to believe that Paul Bunyan the person is mind-independent (and good reasons to doubt it). This means that there is a problem if we say that Paul Bunyan the person (a concrete object) exists. The solution, then, is to say that he does not exist. Conversely, we can accept the proposal that the idea of Paul Bunyan the person does in fact exist, because now the particular is the idea (an abstract object), not the person (a concrete object).

So this is where I will settle. I will use “exist” to indicate that something is a constituent of reality even in the absence of mind (i.e., it is mind-independent) or that it is identifiable as a concept within a mind. This approach unfortunately requires that we qualify whether we are speaking of concrete existence or conceptual existence, but that is simply an artifact of language. Finally, note that the actual substance (if there is any) of abstract objects is tangent to this and can be safely ignored for the purposes of defining existence this way. If I then had to classify myself according to the ontological positions given above, I suppose this means that I am a conceptualist.

In Part 2 I take a closer look at mind-dependent things and how I think that a naturalist can plausibly account for their existence. It may be fair to say that this post (Part 1) is just a primer for the discussion there.


Moral anti-realism and the problem of evil

Italianate_Landscape_with_an_Artist_Sketching_from_NatureOn several recent episodes of the Stand to Reason podcast, Greg Koukl has argued that those who do not hold to moral realism cannot put forth the problem of evil as evidence against the existence of God because, in short, they cannot define evil. J. Warner Wallace makes the same claim in Cold Case Christianity. They tie this back to the moral argument, wherein the existence of objective morality counts as evidence for the existence of God (as the ultimate grounding of that morality). They then show that this results in an ironic turnabout wherein the claim that evil exists actually counts in favor of God’s existence rather than against it.

Support for subjective morality means surrendering the most rhetorically appealing argument against God:  evil.
– Greg Koukl in Solid Ground, May/June 2014

The problem of evil is perhaps the most difficult issue to address … When people complain that there is evil in the world, they are not simply offering their opinion. They are instead saying that true, objective evil exists. … the existence of true evil necessitates the presence of God as a standard of true virtue.
– J. Warner Wallace in Cold Case Christianity, p 134-135

For this post I want to simply consider the claim that a moral anti-realist is being inconsistent if they assert the problem of evil as evidence against the existence of God.

Let me paint a picture…

David Hume said that “Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them”. As far as I can tell, we generally agree that beauty is a subjective judgment. There is no absolute standard of beauty. What one man finds beautiful, another may not.

Suppose a painter has spent a lifetime creating intricate paintings of serene, natural settings filled with mountains, streams, meadows and wildlife. He doesn’t want credit for his work so he submits everything anonymously and is only known to the art world as “Mr. X”. To each piece he attaches a dialog highlighting the aesthetic merits of the painting – the rich hues, the use of light and shadow and, most importantly, the realism. Throughout the course of his life he has closed every dialog with the phrase “Nothing is more beautiful than reality”. All the while, this same painter has been a vociferous critic of abstract art. He would regularly publish editorials bashing the modern art movements as having produced nothing but pointless garbage. To him, these “artists” were simply wasting perfectly good paint. Everybody knew exactly where Mr. X stood, though they didn’t know who he was.

abstractThen one morning a curator arrives at his museum to find a painting on his doorstep. The painting is little more than a few haphazard lines and a couple splatters of paint. Attached to the painting is a note that simply says “My most beautiful work. – Mr. X”. The curator sets it aside as a curiosity. As the years go by Mr. X continues submitting more of his traditional landscape paintings and more editorials about the irreverence of abstract art. There is no hint that anything has changed.

So what do we make of the curious abstract painting and note attributed to Mr. X? Was it a joke? Did it actually come from somebody else? No matter what the answer is, there is a simple contradiction: either all the other paintings betray Mr. X’s true perspective, or the note on the abstract painting is wrong. The question of “objective beauty” is irrelevant.

Back to the problem of evil

Hopefully its clear how this analogy relates back to the moral anti-realist’s use of the problem of evil, but I’ll dissect it anyway. God is Mr. X, realist art equates to the moral good and abstract art equates to the moral evil. As with Mr. X, repeated exposure to God’s viewpoint, via divine revelation and theology, have shown us what he considers to be good and evil. God’s morality has been spelled out for us directly (e.g., the ten commandments, sermon on the mount), in rules of thumb (e.g., do unto others as you would have them do unto you) and by the moral law that he has written on the hearts of men. We get it. We have a pretty clear picture of what it is that God considers morally good and morally evil and for the most part we share that perspective and are able to identify moral judgments that we know will align with God’s morality.

So what do we make of the presence of evil in God’s dominion? As far as I can tell, moral realism doesn’t even come into play. The problem of evil is not exposing a contradiction between God’s dominion and an objective morality; it is exposing a contradiction between God’s dominion and his revealed character and attributes. Just as with the mysterious painting, the question of objectivity is irrelevant. We perceive evil in accordance with God’s definition of evil, which is generally shared with our definition of evil, and we wonder why he doesn’t stop it.

If moral realism is an unnecessary addition to the problem of evil then the apologists’ turnabout falls flat. So does the problem of evil count against the existence of God? Well, clearly one solution is that he simply isn’t there but that isn’t the only option. You could also accept that either ‘true morality’ feels uncomfortably immoral or that God is not perfect. No matter what, some concession appears to be necessary. The problem of evil is not some half-wit gimmick that can be turned on its head to defend the existence of God. It is a real problem that cannot be ignored.


Pick your poison: Either God is imperfect or “true morality” is uncomfortably immoral

Michelangelo, The Fall and Expulsion from Garden of EdenThis post was birthed out of an exchange with Prayson Daniel at his blog, With All I Am. I would like to thank him for posing the question in a way which caused me to think through the various ramifications of a free will theodicy.

The setup is simply this: there appears to be a logical contradiction between the concept of a wholly perfect God and the introduction of pain and suffering as the result of free will. The options which are available to dispose of the contradiction all lead to either accepting that God is in some sense imperfect, or to accepting that “true morality” is defined by a formulation of God’s nature which does not comfortably align with our sense of morality.

The Argument


  1. Holiness: The collective qualities which define God’s nature. To say that God is perfectly holy is to say that he is perfectly moral, perfectly loving, perfectly righteous, perfectly just, perfectly merciful and perfectly praise-worthy.
  2. Omnipotent: Having complete or unlimited power.
  3. Omniscient: Having infinite awareness, understanding, and insight.


  1. A perfectly holy God wills the world to be that which is most compatible with his holiness. Alternatively it can be said that when given the ability to actualize one world from a finite set of possible worlds, a perfectly holy God will actualize the world which accords with his holiness better than the others.
  2. An omnipotent God can achieve any world which is logically coherent (e.g., God cannot make a square circle).
  3. An omniscient God knows everything about the world; past, present and future.
  4. A perfectly holy and omnipotent God will not violate the freedom of his created free agents (because it is a moral imperative and because freedom of will is necessary for genuine love).
  5. A perfectly holy God cannot intentionally introduce evil, pain and suffering into a world where it did not previously exist (because that would be contrary to his nature).
  6. An omnipotent God can end evil, pain and suffering at any time.

A definition of the free will theodicy

  1. God is perfectly holy (#1) and omnipotent (#2), and thus #4 applies.
  2. God has created free agents with the ability to sin or not sin at any time. This is typically explained as being necessary because the resulting world is more compatible with God’s holiness than the world without free agents.
  3. Pain and suffering was introduced by the created free agents as a natural consequence of their sinful act and God knew this would happen (#3). The consequences may also include a fallen creation which produces “natural evils”.
  4. God can end evil, pain and suffering (#6) but has not yet done so because he knows that the current state is for the best (#3) and so has sufficient reasons for allowing it to persist (as required by #1).

Putting it together

God has allowed evil, pain and suffering for some time (#9). Therefore, the world in which evil, pain and suffering endures must be more compatible with God’s holiness (by #1 and #2) than the world in which evil, pain and suffering do not endure. God cannot introduce evil, pain and suffering (#5) and cannot influence the created free agents to do so (#4). Therefore, God is completely incapable of using his own volition to attain the world which is most compatible with his holiness. This contradicts God’s omnipotence.

Possible Objections

Objection #1: God is not omnipotent
OK, you’re more than welcome to accept that. Just make sure you incorporate it into your entire theological framework and understand all the consequences. Review objection #3 to see how this is sometimes employed.

Objection #2: God is not perfectly holy
Ditto above.

Objection #3: God is not omniscient
Ditto above, and…

To be clear, this objection hinges on the presumption that omniscience includes foreknowledge and some would deny the possibility of foreknowledge. This view belongs to a growing trend called open theism, most notably led by Greg Boyd. It would seem that this view exists almost exclusively to solve this problem, though it also helps make sense of some passages in the Bible where God seems to change his mind. However, this doesn’t solve the problem on its own – review the argument to see why. Accepting this would still seem to require accepting at least one of the other objections, namely objection #1 or objection #6. If this is combined with objection #1 (God is not omnipotent), then it could be that it wasn’t just that God didn’t see this coming, but he also couldn’t stop it. That does, however, also make it difficult to accept premise #5 (future perfection). As to how this could be combined with objection #6, review the discussion there.

Objection #4: Man does not have free will, or God sometimes does violate man’s free will
Fair enough. Now lets apply this to the circumstances at hand and understand the implications. The problem we’re trying to resolve is how evil, pain and suffering were introduced. This solution only resolves that problem if we also agree that it was God who directed agents to sin and thus introduce evil, pain and suffering. To be blunt, under this objection God is the author of sin and its consequences. If God is the author of sin, then either God is not morally perfect, or “true morality” as defined by God’s character, does not preclude the willful introduction of sin and its consequences (which may or may not include eternal damnation for most). Either God wanted this world despite the fact that it was contrary to his will, or he wanted the world because it is compatible with his nature. The latter option takes us to the next objection.

Objection #5: God can introduce evil, pain and suffering because it is not in conflict with his holiness
Let’s unpack this a bit. The inference behind this objection is that if God’s nature leads to the introduction of evil, pain and suffering then that world must be the best world. When all is reduced, every act of evil, every instance of pain and every period of suffering that has ever scarred the history of mankind occurred because it was consistent with God’s nature. The fallen world is exactly what God wanted.

Yet, if God can end pain and suffering at any time (premise #5) then he could have conceivably done this at the instant it first appeared, or he could have prevented pain and suffering from being the consequence of sin in the first place. He didn’t, but, according to the doctrine of a future perfection, he will. Why will he do this in the future? Presumably because that brings about a better world. So this objection seems hold a logical contradiction: the world without evil, pain and suffering is not better than the fallen world, yet God will bring about the world without evil, pain and suffering in the future because it is better.

That said, I see how one could argue that the period of pain and suffering is a prerequisite for the future without pain and suffering (i.e., an Irenaean theodicy, or “soul building”). In that case, the better world is the one in which there is a duration of pain and suffering that is followed by the elimination of pain and suffering. This doesn’t explain, however, why sanctification is necessary in the first place. If the agents were perfect before their fall and God authored their fall as part of his sovereign plan for sanctification, then that would imply that the agents weren’t really perfect to start with even though that is the ultimate goal. So either he cannot create agents with a perfected disposition from the start (meaning he is not omnipotent) or he prefers that the perfected disposition be acquired through pain and suffering (which is uncomfortably immoral).

Objection #6: Omnipotence does not include the ability to introduce evil, pain and suffering
More explicitly, this objection asserts that God’s nature makes it logically incoherent for God to have attained the world that is most compatible with his nature. In other words, perfect holiness includes the mandate “thou shall not violate a free agent’s will”. As a result, God’s omnipotence is NOT defeated because the act which would have resulted in the best world is logically incoherent and thus not a member of the set of capabilities which define omnipotence. The world with free agents and the potential of evil, pain and suffering is the best God could do within the constraints of logic. Problem solved.

Not so fast. If God’s omnipotence does not include a capability that is required in order to attain the better world, can we still say that he is both omnipotent and perfectly holy? If the combination of God’s nature and a separate agent’s free choice could have resulted in the better world, then it would seem that this combined agency is more capable (or more holy) than God, which entails that God is either not omnipotent or is not a perfectly holy being. If you question whether that assertion is true, then it’s time to move on to objection #10.

This objection can also be combined with objection #3 (God is not omniscient) to sustain God’s moral perfection. This combination suggests that it is not only logically incoherent for God to have introduced evil, pain and suffering, but it is also the case that God did not know that the free agents would sin and bring that world about. However, if that is the case then it does seem quite odd that he’s let it persist for so long (rather than stopping it immediately), especially if you also want to accept premise #5 (future perfection). It almost seems as if you have to toss in objection #1 as well (God is not omnipotent).

Objection #7: God’s omnipotence is realized through his creation of free agents
The goal of this objection is to show that God’s omnipotence is not defeated because he actually is able to bring about the best world by relying on his omniscience regarding the behavior of the created agents. Since he knew what the agents would do, he was able to attain the best world as a result of his creative action. All this really means, though, is that God is indirectly responsible for the introduction of evil, pain and suffering. He is the CEO and the responsibility eventually falls back in his lap, which puts us back at either objection #4 or objection #5.

Or maybe not. Could it be that God is not ultimately responsible under this scenario? To examine this we need to take a closer look at point #8 in the free will theodicy. That point claims that the created agents have the ability to sin or not sin at any time. This means that, conceivably, they could have never sinned.

If we accept the possibility that the agents could have never sinned then it is possible that the fall never occurs, in which case the best world (the fallen world) is not realized. This brings us back to the very last claim of the argument, that “God is completely incapable of using his own volition to attain the world which is most compatible with his holiness. This contradicts God’s omnipotence”. To consider whether that claim holds up, please see objection #10.

Conversely, if we accept the possibility that the agents would necessarily sin at some point, then it would seem that they do not actually have free will on this particular matter. In that case, who is responsible? It would be the one who’s will was directing the agent’s will. Presumably that agent is God himself, which again puts us back at either objection #4 or objection #5.

Objection #8: Molinism to the rescue
Ah yes, Molinism. The view popularized by William Lane Craig as the answer to reconcile free will with God’s perfection and sovereignty. But does it also answer the problem of evil? Let’s examine its application to our situation here.

In Molinism, the created agents have complete free will while giving God the power to know all possible choices that the agents will make, such that God can then direct the world in such a way that those agents will make the choice which aligns with God’s will. Neither free will nor God’s sovereignty are sacrificed. If I review the argument above, however, it appears to be just as applicable to Molinism as to any other free will theodicy. God is still perfect and agents are still free. Molinism offers no help to resolve the problem of evil and must still confront the argument by appealing to one of the other objections. In fact, Molinism looks to be a complicated variation of objection #7.

Objection #9: It’s a mystery, or God is not bound by logic
This is perhaps the most popular answer to the problem. Logic be damned, God is both perfect in all regards and is not responsible for the introduction of evil, pain and suffering. We can have our cake and eat it too by invoking “mystery”. Obviously this gets you out of the dichotomy I proposed up front but in its place you’re left feeling unsettled, like you’ve just cheated and you know the victory is a fraud. Surreptitiously, cognitive dissonance begins its ascent.

I also contend that the statement “God is not bound by logic” typically implies a misunderstanding of logic. This infers that logic is a set of arbitrary rules which we happen to follow, like gravity or inertia. This is misguided. Logic is the description of relationships between symbols, which are the constituents of thought itself. If logic is discarded then comprehension itself is also discarded, which makes the statement meaningless. This kind of response is what eventually leads to negative theology, in which case you’re essentially admitting that you don’t really know anything about God.

Objection #10: God’s perfection is not defeated if he wills something other than the best world
Here we are rejecting the very first premise in the argument – that a perfectly holy God wills the world to be that which is most compatible with his holiness. To evaluate whether this is the case, consider the following: If God does not will the world which is most compatible with his holiness then we can conceive of a being who is identical except that this being wills the better world. The new being would be more holy than God, thus God is not perfectly holy. In short, perfection wills perfection and a being which wills anything less is not perfect.

One way to attempt to resolve this is to assert that it is logically incoherent for a perfectly holy God to will the introduction of evil, pain and suffering (see objection #6) and that, as a result, the hypothetical “better God” given above is not logically possible. This maneuver, however, has now moved the definition of the “best world” away from God. We are now saying that the best world is defined by something other than that which God wills. God’s nature no longer defines what is “best”. That is no small concession and implies that God is subject to some external ideal – that God is not the ultimate authority. It makes little sense to take this step when the whole reason for considering the possibility in the first place was to sustain the concept of God’s perfection.

What now?

It appears to me that the solution which is most capable of holding up under logical scrutiny and salvaging the orthodox definition of God is a combination of objection #4 and objection #5, where God is ultimately responsible for evil, pain, suffering, et al, as the natural product of his nature. This is exactly what Calvinism offers. God’s power and sovereignty win out. Despite the seemingly violent opposition to the moral law which is “written on the hearts of men” (Romans 2:15), a significant number of us are simply “objects of wrath prepared for destruction” (Romans 9:22). To mitigate this, many Calvinists (including Calvin himself) will tack on objection #9.

This isn’t new. The debate has raged for centuries and, as of late, Calvinism has experienced a resurgence. I counted myself as a Calvinist for a period of time, though not because of this argument – just because it seemed most biblical. As I contemplated the implications of Calvinism, however, I eventually found that I couldn’t sustain it. It seemed so contrary to the goodness of God, a goodness which pervaded my theology and tugged at my heart. The implications of Calvinism truly did act like a poison which ate away at my conscience. So I came to decide that I simply didn’t know whether I was an Arminian or a Calvinist and that it didn’t matter. The conflict seemed interminable because both sides had scripture to back them up. I chose to resolve the problem by continuing in ignorance on the matter.

I started this post by offering a dichotomy: either accept that God is not perfect, or that the morality he defines feels strangely immoral. This is, of course, a false dichotomy. There is another option available to those who are willing to wade into the waters of blasphemy. What if these ideas aren’t from God? Maybe the foundational concepts that we are wrestling with are man-made. Maybe those who introduced them hadn’t coordinated and analyzed the consequences of their ideas as deeply as the rest of us have throughout the centuries. Maybe these issues are so difficult to resolve because there isn’t a grand conductor orchestrating a coherent backstory that brings it all together. Maybe we’re trying to mash together a bunch of random musings that were never meant to fit. Doesn’t this all make a lot more sense if the truth is that we’ve just created an artificial problem to which there isn’t actually a solution?

How will you answer that question? For me, from my current perspective, the answer is a bittersweet “yes”. Bitter because it pushes away the God that I thought I knew, but sweet because it feels like truth.


A few comments on Plantinga’s “Where the Conflict Really Lies”

I don’t plan on commenting on every book I read but I was compelled to address what appeared to me to be some glaring omissions and one audacious claim in the argumentation found in Alvin Plantinga’s “Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, & Naturalism”. There were three particular assertions that caught my attention: (1) that evolutionary theory says nothing about whether it is unguided, (2) a logical proof that determinism is false, and (3) that unguided evolution cannot yield reliable beliefs (aka “the evolutionary argument against naturalism”, or EAAN).

There is no reason to believe that evolution is unguided?


Ignoring the theological implications and biblical creation accounts, Plantinga says that “The scientific theory of evolution as such is not incompatible with Christian belief; what is incompatible with it is the idea that evolution, natural selection, is unguided.” I agree that it is not necessary to assert that evolution is unguided. There is no way that we can show that some supernatural agent is not overseeing the genetic changes which drive evolution. Fair enough. However, Plantinga goes on to say that “But that [the idea that evolution is unguided] isn’t part of evolutionary theory as such; it’s instead a metaphysical or theological addition.” What struck me is that Plantinga seemingly makes this claim without engaging with the foundational reasons why evolution is generally defined to be unguided. Instead, he chooses to review the arguments which show how complexity could arise by an unguided process. Yes, those arguments don’t prove that the process is unguided but that is beside the point. The task at hand is to find the best explanation for our observations. Is the best explanation that evolution is guided, or is the best explanation that evolution is unguided? When I survey the data, I see compelling reasons for inferring an unguided process. For example:

  1. The vast majority of species that have ever existed are now extinct. Natural selection occurs by killing off creatures with the less favorable property. Competition and death are fundamental components of the evolutionary process.
  2. It is far more likely that a mutation is neutral or deleterious than beneficial.
  3. What were once beneficial adaptations can become deleterious in the face of a changing environment.
  4. Artificial selection (for example, in dogs) has produced in hundreds of generations a degree of variation that is only comparatively realized in nature over thousands of generations.

Among others, these are all characteristics of evolution which, to me, infer an unguided process. The first observation demonstrates how wasteful, vicious and “immoral” the process is. If you want to argue that we have no reason to believe that God wouldn’t create through such mechanisms then that’s fine, but at least admit that it is not how we expect an all-loving, all-powerful, super-intelligent being to act and is among the least attractive of the possible methods (e.g., special creation). The second observation highlights how the process seems to be driven by a small fraction of changes in a probabilistic paradigm, which is almost by definition the opposite of a guided process. The third observation demonstrates that the result of selection does not always lead to a long-term benefit. Again, this seems to contradict an intelligence behind the outcomes. Lastly, the final observation reveals how inefficiently slow the changes are accumulated in nature, whereas a known intelligent agent (humans) has succeeded in utilizing the exact same underlying mechanisms to realize dramatic changes in a short period of time.

On the flip side, one could argue that the amazing outcomes of evolution – the eye, flight, the brain – are all pointers toward a guiding intelligence. I understand this view; it is truly amazing what has been wrought. I feel the draw of the design explanation when I consider the remarkable intricacies of life, but I also recognize that this pull arises because the design hypothesis is easier to relate to our experience (i.e., our intuitions are biased toward that model). This is not the place to rely on intuitions, however, so we must turn to the evidence. In a twist of irony, Plantinga has already included arguments which explain how these wonders may result from an unguided process. So the counter to the argument for guided evolution has been presented and acknowledged. As I see it, this means that the reasons for thinking that evolution is unguided weren’t addressed at all and the reasons for thinking that evolution is guided were found to also fit the unguided paradigm. I cannot agree that this conflict is merely superficial.

Determinism is logically impossible?

Though it is a minor side-note in the book, it immediately caught my attention. What an audacious claim – a logical proof that determinism is false! This warranted a closer look. The argument is as follows:

  1. A natural law is of the form “If the universe (U) is causally closed, then P.”
  2. Also take the conjunction of all natural laws to be “If U is causally closed, then P.”
  3. If determinism is true then the conjunction of all natural laws (If U is causally closed, then P) and a specific past state of the universe (PAST) necessarily entails the future (F).
  4. Using N to mean Necessarily, the above statement is equivalent to: N [if (if U is causally closed then P) and PAST, then F].
  5. Becomes:  N [if (either U is not causally closed or P) and PAST, then F]
  6. Becomes:  N [if [(PAST and P) or (PAST and U is not causally closed)], then F].
  7. This takes the form N if (p or q) then r, which means that both p and q entail r, hence
  8. N [if (Past and P) then F] and N [if (PAST and U is not causally closed) then F].
  9. The right hand side of #8 is obviously false because there is clearly a possible world that (i) shares its past with the actual world, (ii) is not causally closed (because perhaps God acted) and (iii) does not share its future with the actual world. Therefore, determinism is false.

I will admit that it took me several reads to follow this argument. In the end, however, I think I see the slight of hand (whether or not this was intentional, I do not know). It was my attempt to translate this into software code that clearly revealed the problem for me. Here’s the code:

function CreateFuture(Universe, Past) {
  if(Universe.CausallyClosed) {
    P = Universe.NaturalLaws;
  return DoPhysics(P, Past);

My fellow software engineers will immediately recognize the bug in this function: if the universe is not causally closed then P is undefined and an attempt to use it to generate the future yields unpredictable results. This is the key to the problem with the proof. In step 5, Plantinga expands the proof to cover both branches of the conditional and infers that both branches are still bound within the definition of determinism. This then, of course, leads to the obvious result where the future created with defined natural laws may be different than the future created with undefined natural laws. Plantinga groups these outcomes together under the definition of determinism and declares that the internal inconsistency shows that determinism is false. This is completely invalid, however, because determinism is only defined to be the branch where the universe is causally closed. All other branches (or possible worlds) are something other than determinism. I am honestly a bit baffled that Plantinga chose to include this in the book.

Despite my rejection of this proof, I should note that I am not a strict determinist. I would consider myself something of a quasi-determinist. Quantum indeterminacy has shown us that we can’t (yet) predict all possible states, but the quantum effects adhere to a predictable distribution such that the macro-world, and even the molecular world, behaves according to the physical laws to the extent that we have accurately described them. In the absence of supernatural intervention the natural world is, for all practical purposes, deterministic.

Naturalism cannot yield reliable beliefs?

The central thesis of the evolutionary argument against naturalism (EAAN) is that, without a guiding force, there is no reason to believe that the evolutionary process would result in a belief forming system that yields true beliefs. As I read through the EAAN, I was eagerly anticipating Plantinga’s response to the following objection: evolutionary theory claims that well before any creature was conscious there were sensory systems that triggered responses which selected the population. Selection is dependent on beneficial interactions with the external world. If those interactions do not consistently and properly map to the outside world then they are less likely to be beneficial. Consciousness and belief formation are extensions of this rudimentary system. As such, the evolutionary processes which led to sensory response systems, and therefore also to consciousness and belief formation, are likely to produce reliable reflections of the outside world.

Finally, in chapter 10, part 5, section C he gets there. He introduces the objection with “Isn’t it just obvious that true beliefs will facilitate adaptive action?” and eventually follows-up with “Yes, certainly. This is indeed true. But it is also irrelevant.” Then comes the explanation: “We ordinarily think true belief leads to successful action because we also think that the beliefs cause actions, and do so by virtue of their content… But now suppose materialism were true: then, as we’ve seen, my belief will be a neural structure that has both NP [neuro-physiological] properties and also a propositional content. It is by virtue of the NP properties, however, not the content, that the belief causes what it does cause.” After providing several examples of how the content of beliefs result in action, he finishes with “Going back to materialism…If the belief had had the same NP properties but different content, it would have had the same effect on behavior.”

Plantinga immediately recognizes that materialism would deny that it is possible for two beliefs to have the same NP properties but different content. Then things get messy. He digresses into a brief discussion of how this isn’t the place to address how counterfactuals and counterpossibles should be used in argumentation. Then he closes the response with “ doesn’t matter to the adaptiveness of the behavior (or of the neurology that causes that behavior) whether the content determined by that neurology is true.” Wait a second – isn’t that where we were before this whole objection was raised?

Is it just me, or did he completely misrepresent the naturalistic ontology of belief and then dismiss the objection to that misrepresentation without offering an explanation? It seems as if he has superimposed dualism onto naturalism and then argued against this bastard child. What really confuses me is that in the pages leading up to this he clearly defined the materialistic view as one in which belief content can be reduced to NP properties. Somehow, when it came time to address the big objection, this reduction no longer applied and content was now something completely separate from the physical. How did this happen? I re-read those pages several times and I just don’t get it. Am I in over my head? Did I miss something? I can’t help but feel like I did; but, then again, I’m far from being the only one who has seen problems with this argument. This turn of events left me bewildered and I can’t give any regard to the EAAN until this is resolved.

Closing Thoughts

This was my first encounter with any of Plantinga’s books, though I was familiar with his work and was well aware of his reputation as one of Christianity’s greatest thinkers. The writing generally lived up to the standard; the text was lucid and, in most cases, the arguments were easy to follow. It was a worthwhile read. In the end, however, I was severely disappointed that his key claims – the “apparent conflict” between theism and evolution and the “deep conflict” between naturalism and science – ultimately omit or dismiss the most relevant objections to those claims. Perhaps even more alarming was that he chose to publish a clearly flawed proof that determinism is false. Collectively these observations have done nothing but tarnish his reputation in my eyes. I had hoped for something more.


My Epistemology – Part 2: Truth

Plato and AristotleTruth has always been especially important to me but I’ve come to realize that I had only valued it superficially. Obviously this is demonstrated by the fact that I  never critically examined the underpinnings of my faith, but it is perhaps more apparent in that I never stopped to consider how one might best discover truth in the first place. From what I can tell, I simply defaulted to common sense. If something seemed to consistently meet expectations, then it was probably true, or at least close enough. If people were sharply divided with rational but contradictory views, then the truth was probably found somewhere in the middle. Now that I have begun to unearth my philosophical foundations it has been interesting to see that my approach to truth hasn’t changed much. The difference is that for the first time in my life I can explain what I’m doing. I have carved a path to truth and no topic is off limits.

This post is a continuation from Part 1, where I explored my epistemic roots; that is, how I acquire the evidence that informs my beliefs. Here, I hope to build upon that understanding to see how I might go about discerning truth.


In those difficult conversations where I revealed to others that I felt that I could no longer defend the Christian faith, I  discovered what appeared to be a common misconception about the typical way in which we form our beliefs [1]. The statements of others would often infer that I had made a decision; that somehow I had willfully chosen to discount my beliefs. I tried to explain that this transition wasn’t a choice, that it was simply the unintended outcome of seeking truth, but I’m not sure how often I was successful. I think that unless you have experienced it for yourself it is difficult to understand how somebody’s entire worldview can make a dramatic shift without intention.

So what is belief? Philosophers call it a “propositional attitude”. Perhaps this is more clearly understood as “a feeling about the truthfulness of a proposition”. Either way, you can see that there is nothing here about making a choice. Instead, beliefs are described as feeling and attitudes. It is usually the case that we do not think that we can choose how to feel, only how we respond to those feelings. So it is with belief. I can choose to keep my foot on the brake when the light turns green and insist to others that the light is still red but that does not change the fact that I perceived a green light and understood this to be correct. My belief is that the light is green but my actions defy my belief.

Most would agree that our beliefs are primarily by-products of the evidence we encounter. We acquire various forms of data and then with each new piece of information, poof, out pops a belief. Even when presented with a proposition that is entirely new and unique to us, our past experience of similar data leads us into a feeling about the truthfulness of the new proposition. We form these beliefs without even trying. Regardless of how this belief making machine works (a topic for another time), there is still an open question: when is a belief justified by the evidence? That is, when is a belief worth believing?


Justification is the process, or the output, of examining the reasons for a belief. The definition of belief which I gave above included a “feeling of truthfulness”. As I noted when I described intuition, this feeling of truthfulness can exist prior to, and even without, awareness of a robust justification. It is still possible, however, to stop, reflect and attempt to explain the foundations of the belief in question. Going through the process itself might even change your belief. That is the process I examine here.

External Corroboration

Working from the foundational reality developed in part 1, which asserts that I am one of many thinkers in an external world, I am inclined to think that there may be no better way to establish the reliability of evidence than through the corroboration of other thinkers. It is the only solution with the potential to overcome subjectivity and expand our data set beyond the narrow slice of the world that we experience. The mechanism of corroboration is clear and simple: compare your description with other descriptions. If they match, then the reliability of the evidence is bolstered. If they don’t match, then the reliability of the evidence is diminished.

Beyond this simple comparison, the value of external corroboration is heavily influenced by the independence of the data. There are many ways by which the division between two or more subjective experiences can be blurred by a set of common preconceptions, motives, conditions, suggestions, et al. Corroboration carries the most weight when it is clear that the observers are not biased into obtaining the same or similar data. For the same reason, corroborative justification is also strengthened by the addition of more corroborators. The strength of corroboration is in its power to overcome subjectivity.


David HumeCorroboration offers a solution to the problem of not knowing whether our own experience is reliable, but what are we to do when corroboration is unavailable or insufficient? This is a problem we solve on a daily basis. More often than not, our interactions with the outside world are not corroborated by somebody else. Instead, we regularly assume that the past can be viewed as generally representative of the present. This is how we operate by default. David Hume could find no rational justification for this assumption but I contend that this is not sufficient to discard our dependence on induction. Not only in the now, but also in the past, we have found that prior experience is an effective guide to current and future experience. So induction, by induction, seems reliable. Sound circular? It is, but I have no reason to believe that its circularity renders it useless. It has a proven track record and so I shall pragmatically accept it as a generally useful method of justifying my beliefs.

Even so, my acceptance of induction needs further qualification. A single observation, or a small number of observations, do far less to justify belief than do multiple observations. The weight of induction toward supporting a belief is correlated with the depth and breadth of inductive experiences. This is simply Stats 101; we should try to minimize our sampling error.

AnalogyHume as mosaic

It is likely that when we acquire new information we will observe similarities with other information and then use this relationship to build or reinforce beliefs. For example, you may have inferred that the subject of the picture on the right is David Hume; a belief that you almost certainly would not have formed were it not for the resemblance to the picture above. This is perfectly valid, though certainly not always reliable. It is not difficult to imagine cases where the inference from analogy would lead us astray.

As with other forms of justification, the strength of the support that an analogy lends to a belief is dependent on more than just the mere presence of similarities. Key factors also include:

  1. Frequency: Inferences made between many data sets that share common traits are usually more reliable than inferences made between fewer data sets.
  2. Congruence: Inferences made between data sets that share many common traits are usually more reliable than inferences made between data sets that share fewer common traits.
  3. Proximity: Inferences made between experiences that occur close in time and space are usually more reliable than inferences made between experiences that are distant in time and space.


Can intuition itself contribute to the justification for our belief? In my discussion of intuition in part 1, I argued that intuition is predominantly a by-product of our experience. It has been well documented that the reliability of specialized intuition is improved with the accumulation of specialized experience. However, most of us also observe that our expectations are more likely to be met when those expectations arise from a belief that is supported by the evidence at hand. This is not only an introspective conclusion but it has been demonstrated experimentally on numerous occasions. The fallibility of our intuitive behavior relative to behavior which results from slow, methodical reasoning is well established. That said, we also recognize that in the course of reasoning we are sometimes unable to recall the information which has shaped our intuition. It appears that intuition may be able to clue us into something that lies just beyond the grasp of our memory.

So where does this leave us? In my view, yes, intuition can help inform our justification for a belief but we must be extremely cautious in doing so. We must recognize the supremacy of reasoning through readily available evidence and only allow intuition to inform the justification when (a) alternative evidence is lacking, and (b) we recognize that we have a wealth of experience which has shaped our intuition (specialization). Even then, intuition should not supersede or overrule evidence which offers clear and immediate feedback, nor should it be allowed greater influence. Furthermore, when we recognize the shortcomings of our evidence we should also seek to fill the gaps before defaulting to intuition. In the end, intuition is a tool of last resort for the purposes of justification. We successfully rely on intuition throughout the course of our daily lives but justification is not the domain of snap judgements, and that is where intuition is best employed.

Defeaters and Falsification

So far I have only discussed how evidence can be used to support a belief, but that is only half the story. Evidence can also be used to defeat a belief; that is, evidence can be used to show that a particular belief is not reliable. Philosophers seem to particularly enjoy lobbing defeaters back and forth. Defeaters are the missiles in the arms race of ideas. The scientific world has a corresponding notion for defeaters. Karl Popper felt that the problem of induction was insurmountable and needed to be formally addressed. To that end, he introduced falsification, which has become a key tenet of modern scientific inquiry. The premise is actually quite simple: use the evidence to build your theory and then do your damnedest to tear it down. If it survives, then your theory is solid. If it fails, then you need to revise.

Both of these concepts – defeaters and falsification – are very powerful. It takes only one example to tear down or remodel erroneous claims of truth. A belief cannot be justified when a valid defeater stands in the way. We simply cannot overlook and push aside those evidences which clash with our beliefs. Unfortunately, I fear that this happens far too often. Certainly I was not exempt, nor am I still. We are deeply invested in our beliefs and making a change is difficult and painful. But if it is truth that we seek, we must be willing to accept defeat.

Contextual Integrity

Information almost never comes to us in isolation. The data we acquire from books, web sites, videos, etc… all carry far more than a single soundbite. Even in our everyday sensory experience we are bombarded with information from multiple senses covering multiple points in space and time. It turns out that all of this extra information can be useful in assessing the reliability of any one part of the data. When we read an article, or a chapter, or a book, we can form many beliefs, each based on evidence from a small part of the content. The justification of that belief is largely dependent on the reliability of the evidence. The reliability of the evidence can be informed by the reliability of the entirety of the content from which the evidence was extracted. In short, the rule is that data which is coupled to other reliable data is itself more likely to be reliable, and data which is coupled to other unreliable data is itself more likely to be unreliable.

On that note, I’m compelled to consider the role this plays with non-empirical evidence. It seems extremely common for non-empirical data to have contact with empirical data. It may be that it includes claims which can be investigated empirically, or that it directs us toward specific interpretations of information that can be investigated empirically. We simply cannot ignore these points of contact. They are more often than not our best windows into evaluating the reliability of data which cannot be examined by any other means. For an excellent critique of how this applies to Christianity, I encourage you to review “Christian Agnosticism & Touching Earth” at


A Few Good MenMany of our beliefs are formed in large part on information that has been communicated to us by another thinker without us ever having experienced it for ourselves. The fact that this information is devoid of personal experience does not, however, restrict us from evaluating it with the same tools that I have already laid out. The information contained in testimony is subject to the same criteria to which we hold other evidence. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. There is an added wrinkle to contend with.

Whereas external corroboration can help us strip away the layers of subjectivity, testimony adds them on. Furthermore, we often have no way of personally investigating the claims. A cloud of doubt looms large over testimonial evidence. As I see it, there are some key defenses against these shortcomings. First and foremost, we can call on external corroboration to help us peel back the layers of subjectivity. This is perhaps the most important validation we can apply to testimony and is a primary reason why the scientific endeavor is considered so trustworthy. Scientific publications which have not been subjected to peer review are essentially disregarded. Another defense against the subjectivity of testimony is to evaluate both the historical and contextual integrity of the source. The evaluation of the contextual integrity was discussed in the previous section. The evaluation of the historical integrity is just a particular type of induction. It involves simply looking at the track record of the testimonial source and using that to inform the veracity of the new data. If prior testimony from this source has proven reliable then new data is also more likely to be reliable. If prior testimony from this source has proven unreliable then new data is also more likely to be unreliable. These tools, together with all the other methods of justification, can go a long way toward saving testimonial data from the subjective uncertainty that it inevitably bares.

The Absence of Evidence

It is often said that the “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. In other words, we cannot prove that something did not exist or occur simply by pointing to the lack of evidence. This can be true, particularly for testimony of historical events, but there are also many situations for which the absence of evidence does count. We can appeal to induction and analogy to define the evidence that we should expect and then see if it exists. For example, if somebody tells me that New York has been demolished by a giant lizard and then I go to New York and see that everything is just the same as it was before, then the absence of destruction serves as a solid defeater for the belief that New York was demolished by a giant lizard.

The problem is that we eventually encounter a point where the claim infers less evidence than we can reasonably acquire with sufficient certainty. When the expected evidence becomes impractical to discover, the absence of evidence loses all power. However, when that threshold is reached we notice that the claim itself has also most likely lost its power because it can no longer offer a justification. To assert that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence is, more often than not, also an admission that a claim is lacking in evidence.

Investigative Balance

Though it sounds like a Fox News tagline, my discussion would be incomplete if I did not address the balance of the evidence used in a justification. When our beliefs first form, it is often the case that we have no control over the scope of the evidence that formed those beliefs. If we truly want our beliefs to be justified, however, we need to make an effort to ensure that the evidence is balanced. Even so, we need to distinguish between absolute balance and proportional balance. If our research has uncovered a body of evidence for which 90% favors a particular view, while 10% favors another view, it may be inappropriate to pursue a 50/50 balance by intentionally blinding ourselves to further evidence of the 90% while seeking out only further evidence for the 10%. In this attempt to be fair, we may in fact be injecting an artificial bias. The problem, however, is that we don’t know what we don’t know. We cannot foresee the actual balance of evidence that exists and so we are left with only one solution: gather as much evidence as is practicable from as many diverse sources as is practicable and proceed from there. The measure of practicality will of course vary for each person and situation. The key is only that we make an intentional effort to acknowledge and acquire data from multiple viewpoints. It is the best we can do.

Making the Casegavel

The evidence does not stand on its own. It is rarely sufficient to simply present the evidence as the sole support of a belief. Instead, once we have gathered all the evidence and established its reliability, we need to assemble everything into a coherent explanation. Reasoning is at the core of this process (see part 1 for a more extensive review of logical reasoning and its different forms). We must take the time to reason; to identify and consider the relationships between the evidence, evaluate the relative strength of separate evidences and look for the causal connections between the data. We must be able to tell the story that traces through all of the evidence to arrive at a belief. This is the step that completes the process of justification.

I could say a lot more on this. I could outline the basic structures of argumentation, how to use premises to arrive at a conclusion and I could discuss all the different logical fallacies that we need to avoid; but I’m not going to do that (though I strongly encourage you to review them for yourself if you are unfamiliar). Those are all certainly relevant and important to the process of justification, but it seems to me that they boil down to one idea: an argument turns sour the moment it claims a level of certainty that is not actually supported by the entirety of the evidence. Arguments needs to account for all of the available evidence and weigh the relative strength of the evidence.

The determination of an evidence’s strength is tricky. In laying out the various ways we can assess the reliability of evidence, I intentionally called attention to their contribution toward an increase or decrease in the reliability of a belief. I deliberately avoided language that would imply that justification would lead to absolute certainty. This tells you a little something about my view of truth.


In the previous sections I looked at the ways in which we can justify our beliefs. Now I must confront the relationship between justification and reality. What does it mean for a belief to be accurate? It is usually the case that beliefs are formed because they appear to match reality. Justification is itself our best attempt to correlate beliefs with reality. But how can we ever be certain that our beliefs truly do match reality? To be blunt, it seems that we cannot. When all is reduced, we are ultimately reliant on our own sensory experience (which is both limited and fallible) and on corroboration by other thinkers (where both their sensory experience and the transmission of their thoughts to us are both limited and fallible) to justify our beliefs. Absolute certainty, it would seem, is doomed.

Pragmatism, not post-modernism

What I am suggesting here is not the view that many would associate with post-modernism, a philosophical view in which we are inescapably mired in an uncertain world of subjective truth. Rather, it seems entirely possible to me that there is in fact absolute truth and that we can form beliefs which are thus true. It may not always be easy to justify those beliefs, and new information may alter our beliefs, but that does not mean that we cannot attain truth – it simply means we should openly acknowledge that our current set of beliefs might be wrong and that we should be willing to accept new evidence and new justifications, even if that means our beliefs might change. Truth is experienced as more of a journey than as a destination, even if the destination really does exist.

There is an important distinction between acting as if we cannot hold true beliefs and acting as if we cannot be certain that our beliefs are true. Of course, we are now meandering into the question of how we respond to our beliefs, which is a whole new topic, so I am going to end this part of the discussion with a brief endorsement of pragmatism. It seems that there is little value in dwelling on uncertainty. Rather, value arises from the consequences of the actions we take in response to our beliefs. When our beliefs are sufficiently justified and turn into to actions toward fulfilling an expectation, and that expectation is consistently met, then our belief was successful. I don’t see why we need anything more than that.
As an aside to those who are compelled to raise the problem of quantum indeterminacy against this view, I respond by noting that an expectation need not be deterministic; it is perfectly possible for one to hold an expectation that something behaves in an undetermined (but probabilistic, in this case) way.

The scales of truth

ScalesWe gather evidence, we form beliefs and we justify those beliefs with explanations of the evidence. If only it were that simple. The variety of evidence and differing interpretative explanations can be overwhelming. As a result, we encounter conflicting beliefs while at the same time acknowledging the value of their justifications. What are we to do? I have now come full circle. In my introductory post I outlined a prescription for my truth seeking journey which involved collecting data and then considering the conclusions about that data from both the Christian worldview and the naturalist worldview. By definition, I have immersed myself in conflict. There is little value in assessing the relative merit of each worldview by examining the areas where they agree. If I have dedicated this journey toward resolving those conflicts which are waring in my mind then I must have some way to deal with this problem.

As I have suggested, it is apparent to me that our beliefs not only have content but also weight. Some beliefs seem especially true, some especially fragile, and many fall somewhere on the spectrum between. It also seems as if these weights are generally proportional to the breadth, depth and quality of the justification. From this I conclude that the best way to resolve conflicting beliefs is to, as best one can, carefully consider each belief on the virtue of its justifications and then “measure” its weight (this measurement is, of course, subjective even though we are trying to be as objective as possible). It is important to note that this is not an unjustified measurement (aka intuition) but rather a measurement which takes full accounting of the entire justification. Once each belief has been weighed, we can then compare the weights against each other and use this to decide which is most probably true. Some comparisons will decisively favor one view over another. Some will send us cautiously in one direction. Some will leave us caught in the middle of a tug-of-war. So be it. As new data comes in we update the justifications, reassess our weights and reevaluate our measure of truth; ad infinitum.

This is my process, my epistemology and my guide to truth.

The unexamined life is not worth living.
– Socrates
The truth shall set you free.
– Jesus of Nazareth

[1] Update – July 17, 2014
As a result of the discussions with unkleE in the comments of this post I have revised the language of the “Belief” section to allow for the possibility that we can sometimes choose our beliefs. In philosophical terms, I find “Indirect Doxastic Voluntarism” to be feasible but am skeptical regarding “Direct Doxastic Voluntarism“. The further caveat to this is that I suspect that this is a rare occurrence and that in nearly all cases we do not make intentional choices with a goal of acquiring a belief that we do not currently hold.

My Epistemology – Part 1: Evidence

The ThinkerEarly in this truth-seeking journey it occurred to me that if I’m going to compare the interpretations of the evidence for and against competing worldviews then I am going to have to establish what it means to have evidence and how to relate that evidence to truth. When I first formulated my methodology I was working under the presumption that there is some common ground; that there would be a set of data upon which competing worldviews could agree. After all, those who hold to these worldviews share a common mechanism for gathering data (our five senses) and have the potential to access the same stimulus from the outside world (by putting ourselves in the position to experience it for ourselves). I later came to learn that this is known in the philosophical world as empiricism.

But is that a fair playing field? Have I biased myself toward a naturalistic worldview by assuming that our data is acquired from sensory experience? Empiricism clearly does not preclude arriving at a theistic worldview; certainly God could reveal himself to us solely through these means. However, when we consider religious experience and divine revelation it appears that there is a claim that the acquisition of information is not always dependent on our senses (at least in the original form, before it is relayed to others). Certainly we can still include this information in our data set; the question is how to treat it. Similarly, there is also the question of innate knowledge, in which logical reasoning and mathematics are sometimes placed. Could that really be a product of sensory experience?

Disclaimer #1: I have no formal philosophical training, so forgive me if I abuse the terminology and/or overlook well established points and counter-points. My goal is not to educate others on philosophy, but to work through and explain my own epistemology in its current state. This is armchair philosophy.

Disclaimer #2: I am trying to avoid using complicated and confusing language, but that is not always easy in these types of discussions. I apologize in advance if I have failed in that endeavor.

I think, therefore…

It is in this discussion that we find the relevancy of philosophy’s most famous dictum, Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am”. This simple statement is the end result of Descartes’ attempt to find the foundation upon which all other knowledge is built. I do not disagree with his conclusion. Ultimately, everything that we know is for us a thought and we cannot begin our formulation of reality from anything less. So it is from this first principle that I too will begin my own attempt to unpack my epistemology. Grab a cup of coffee. This is a long one.

Disclaimer #3: My hope in this discussion is to put aside the mind-body problem and focus on the nature of knowledge. That is, I am intentionally addressing the content of thought and ignoring the substance of thought. To accomplish this, I will treat thoughts as if they cannot be reduced to something else and exclude discussion of whether or not that is really the case. That is a topic for another day.

The foundations of reality

I think, therefore I am. In the course of thinking, I often acquire input that appears to come from something external to myself. We call this perception. I sometimes perceive other bodies who appear to operate in a manner consistent with my understanding of myself, and so I conclude that they also think and exist in the same sense. When another thinker informs me of something external to both of us and I go and experience it, I usually find general agreement with their description of the experience. So from this I conclude that there is an external world which I share with other thinkers [1].

On many occasions, I perceive things in the external world of which others have no information and I am often given new information about the external world that was likewise revealed to me by others (i.e., testimony). It is also the case that we sometimes discover objects whose state was known at one time, which was then left unobserved by all thinkers for some time and then perceived to be in a different state at a later time. From these, I conclude that there is an external world which exists and acts independent of all thinkers (I recognize that some views of quantum mechanics cast doubt on this conclusion, but these seem to misunderstand the definition of an observer).

To summarize, the most reasonable explanation of reality is that I am one of many thinkers experiencing a world that exists independent of our consciousness.

Becoming a thinker

NewbornIn my explanation of reality I concluded that we are thinkers existing in an external world. Furthermore, it is apparent that we are associated with a body and that this body has grown and developed over time, starting from birth. I, like others, have no recollection of the first couple years of my life. Why is this? One explanation is that we are still learning how to think. We are still training the faculties to process sensations, form beliefs and make choices. This seems correct.

In his book, The Cradle of Thought, Peter Hobson makes a strong case for the idea that the development of thought is deeply rooted in the interpersonal interactions that occur early in life. He draws upon an extensive set of clinical data with particular attention to the detrimental cognitive effects observed in those with autism, in children with mothers who have relational problems (borderline personality disorder) and cases where children are deprived of the full interpersonal experience. The gist of the theory is that engagement with others and the relational observations that occur in those interactions is the foundation for the development of perspective. Furthermore, it seems that a key method for assigning meaning to those relational observations occurs through the recognition of emotional cues during interpersonal engagement. These emotional cues arise from an innate mirroring reaction, which then triggers an internal emotional response. The resulting ability to assign meaning from multiple perspectives is then the groundwork for symbolizing and imagination, which are foundational to language and thought.

In short, coherent thought is dependent on our sensory experience. This says nothing about the underlying potential that must preexist; but that itself is not thinking. It is clear that we are born possessing the capacities for thought and that we have inherent tendencies and personality traits. Those, however, are properties of the mind and are again, not a form of thought; they do not constitute knowledge, there is no informational content.

One only needs to look at the outcome of the most extreme cases of neglect and deprivation (see one, two, three) to see just how critical our interpersonal experience is to our cognitive development. You can’t help but recognize the animal tendencies of these children and realize just how fragile the mind is and how dependent we are on the social aspects of our upbringing. If our sensory experience, and in particular our experience of other persons, is not the lone originator of comprehensible, conscious thought then it is at the very least a dominant influence in shaping it.

Innate knowledge

The previous section suggested that coherent thought itself arises from experience, but the debate over whether or not there is such a thing as innate knowledge has been raging for centuries. When it comes down to it, however, the contention between the rationalist and empiricist views typically centers around a fraction of all that we can know. There is no disagreement that the vast majority of our information is acquired through empirical means yet it is also fair to say that the disagreement is pervasive because it pertains to some of the most fundamental forms of thought. The types of knowledge which are most commonly asserted to be innate are logical reasoning, mathematics and grammar, so I will focus on these (and there are three categories of logical reasoning, and so I will address each separately).

Disclaimer #4: I think it’s questionable whether these should even be considered to fall in the domain of knowledge. These might be better categorized as capabilities rather than knowledge (of the “know how” variety). Regardless, I think it’s still worth examining their relationship to the empirical world.

Deductive Reasoning

One of the most common examples of deductive reasoning takes the form: “All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.” Somehow we recognize the truthfulness of this arrangement and perform this type of reasoning on a regular basis. The explanation, some say, is that this recognition is independent of our experience.

To examine this, let’s take a closer look at the example. How do we come to know what it means to say that “all men are mortal”? It goes without saying that we are not born knowing what it means to be mortal. Instead, we encounter “mortal” in different contexts and, from those contexts, we come to associate it with the class of things which die. The word “mortal” becomes a symbol for the collective experiences which have shown us that there are some things which die. So, when we say that all men are mortal we are effectively saying that men are among the things which have informed our definition of the symbol “mortal”; that is, the group “all men” is a subset of the set of things which die. In the same way, the statement “Socrates is a man” is equivalent to saying that Socrates is a member of the set of men. It is the relationship between these groupings which then yields the conclusion “Socrates is mortal”. To clarify, here is the logical progression as a sequence of Venn diagrams:

Logic as sets

Rationalists and empiricists agree that our association of labels and properties with objects in the external world arises through empirical means. Our recognition of similarities, or patterns, in that information is then equivalent to the grouping of those items together. In other words, properties are the result of pattern recognition on empirical data from a set of experiences. As we can see in the diagram above, logic is synonymous with the expression of sets and subsets. If logic is thus reduced to pattern matching on empirical data, then one might argue that it is pattern matching which is innate; and in fact this is widely accepted. The question then is whether pattern matching is a form of knowledge. I’m not sure how to answer that, but it’s not difficult to see why we might suggest that it is not. A strainer effectively performs pattern matching when it separates noodles from water but few, if any, would suggest that a strainer is applying knowledge in doing so. This view also infers that deduction does not reveal any new information. Since the properties are based on our experience prior to the act of reasoning, the deductive process is only raising our awareness to the associations that were already established through pattern recognition and the formation of properties.

Inductive Reasoning

Inductive reasoning is nothing more than deductive reasoning in reverse. The inductive version of the proposition given above would be “Socrates is mortal. Socrates is a man, therefore all men are mortal”. The reliability of inductive conclusions is dependent on having multiple supporting cases (i.e., adding more and more of the little pink circles – John is mortal and a man, Paul is mortal and a man, George is mortal and a man, etc…). Regardless, the view I presented for deduction still applies when considering whether inductive reasoning is innate; it all comes down to pattern matching on empirical data. Furthermore, if my description of how we come to form properties is correct (through multiple associative experiences) then deduction is only possible after induction has already occurred. Induction is effectively the process by which groupings are established in the first place.

Abductive Reasoning

Logical ThinkingAlso called “inference to the best explanation”, abduction is what happens when you arrive at the middle circle in the Venn diagram by way of a combination of the bigger and smaller circles. Going back to the example with Socrates, the abductive version would be: “All men are mortal. Socrates is mortal, therefore Socrates is a man.” As with induction, the reliability of such statements is dependent on additional data. In the case of abduction, this additional data would serve to constrain Socrates into more and more of the outer circles that overlap with the “all men” circle (e.g., Socrates and all men speak, Socrates and all men are mostly hairless, Socrates and all men use tools, etc…). This narrows the possible space into which Socrates fits and leads to the conclusion that Socrates is a man. As with deductive and inductive reasoning, this seems to be reducible to pattern matching on empirical data; albeit across many sets which don’t necessarily fully overlap.

As I end the discussion on logical reasoning I must concede that perhaps this is all a bit too dismissive. I am not blind to the allure of ascribing transcendence to the process which calls our attention to the associations between the data we have acquired. That said, I also see no reason to believe that logical reasoning cannot be reduced to simpler, less “thoughtful” processes that are fully empirical in nature. Perhaps the best explanation is that we have an evolutionary adaptation for generating patterns from sensory information and then matching them in ways which produce logical relations that accurately represent the outside world, so that our faculty for logical reasoning is still empirically derived yet also largely innate.


Some argue that there are certain mathematical constructs which have no empirical basis. I do not wish to dive into the details of those more complex elements here, but I will say this: the overwhelming majority, if not all, of the mathematical calculations that we perform can be reduced to counting. What is the first mathematical construct that a child learns? Counting. How do we learn to count? By associating numbers with the sensory experience of distinct objects. How do we learn to add? By counting groups of objects separately and then counting them when they’re together. I could go on to higher and higher levels of abstraction but the point is this: our development of mathematical knowledge is fundamentally based on empirical data. We learn to use numbers by seeing them as symbols for the empirical world, regardless of whether they represent quantities or magnitudes. This symbolizing fits the description of logical reasoning, where association is accomplished through pattern recognition. Does this mean that all knowledge of mathematics is empirical? I have no compelling reason to think otherwise, but I confess that I have not sufficiently investigated the opposing views and my authority for such a claim is limited.


I have suggested that both logical reasoning and mathematics can be seen as a system of symbols representing relationships between sensory experience. Conscious thought is predominantly an act of symbolizing and most often takes place in the form of an internal dialog according to our primary language. In considering our remarkable capacity for language acquisition, Noam Chomsky proposed that humans uniquely possess an innate universal grammar. However, language acquisition theories are hotly debated and some claim that the Pirahã language serves as a counter-example to Chomsky’s theory. The chief competitors to his theory imply that both the structure and content of language arises from the relationships and patterns in the context of our experience (see the distributional hypothesis and the combination of distributional semantics with experiential data). It is clear to me that these alternative ideas bear strong parallels with the theories of cognitive development and logical reasoning that I have presented above. These theories all fit together very nicely and, when taken as a whole, describe the formation of knowledge through wholly empirical means. Regardless, the acquisition of language is truly remarkable and I can appreciate why one might be persuaded by the idea of a universal grammar. In fact, as with logic, I am inclined to favor something of a middle ground – a evolutionary adaptive faculty that specifically facilitates language (or group communication) without dictating the exact form that it takes.

Non-empirical information

So far I have suggested that all of our information, all of our evidence, is acquired through sensory experience. Many would argue that this is still not a complete picture. In the secular world, it is generally only information about our internal state which is postulated to be non-empirical. However, we must also consider the means by which some thinkers have claimed to acquire religious information. For my purposes here, I have identified six potential sources of non-empirical information (“know what”) to discuss: intuition, emotion, invention and, in the Christian realm, sensus divinitatis, divine revelation and the inner testimony of the holy spirit. I will address each in turn.


Also known as “gut instinct”. There are, as always, varied philosophical positions on intuition. It seems fair, however, on all accounts to say that intuition is something like “the default strength of a belief”; it is our initial feeling of the truthfulness of a claim before we have taken the time to review the reasons for believing that the claim is true. But now it appears that I have gotten ahead of myself. My intent was to discuss my epistemology as a progression from evidence, to belief, to truth and here I am talking about belief and truth in a discussion of the evidence. This is actually a very important point. This infers that intuition is not some new source of information that can be used as evidence itself. It is instead our current default view on the evidence that we have already collected.

Some may disagree with me here. Some may argue that intuition can give us new information by informing us of the truthfulness of a claim in ways that are not accessible through rational reflection. I agree that this is possible, but I also contend that there are no good reasons to identify this as anything more than an alternative way to access the evidence we have already acquired. Conversely, there are good reasons for viewing intuition as a by-product of experience; namely that we can often explain our intuitions by reference to prior experience and feel that it is appropriate to do so. We can also recognize changes in our intuition as a consequence of experience. For now, I will say nothing more than to note that I will discuss our use of intuition later, when I tackle justification and truth.


TearsThe potential categorization of emotion as non-empirical is not at all obvious. It is often unclear where our feelings end and our sensory experience begins. When we feel sad, is that a sensory experience? Clearly it is not the same as seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling or touching; but it is similar in that it informs us of our current state and has known physiological correlates (i.e., neurotransmitters and brain regions). It is also clear that emotions are greatly influenced by our sensory experience (and vice versa). Another example worth consideration is pain. Often pain is closely tied to our sense of touch and has its roots in some stimulus from the outside world, but pain can also be entirely internal, with deep ties to our psychology. Really, the only obvious distinction is that emotions do not tell us about the outside world, only about our internal condition.

I am obliged here to also briefly address morality. Regardless of whether there are objective moral standards, it is clear that our emotional response most often dictates the moral property that we assign to a situation. It is generally the case that a feeling of disgust, sadness or anger (among others) leads us to identify something as bad and that a feeling of appreciation, joy or love (among others) leads us to identify something as good. These feelings may arise directly or indirectly through empathy. If this holds, then we are informed by our morality in much the same way that we are informed by our emotions. You can superimpose an external moral standard, but that is a different source of information and a different topic altogether. When we limit our consideration to the question of a moral law that is “written on the hearts of men”, I find it difficult to see why this should be considered distinct from emotion. There may be some outliers, but in general they seem to be congruent. Again, this is a much larger topic that will warrant much more discussion.

In the end, it seems to me that the question of whether or not emotion yields empirical data comes down to the direction of causation: are emotions caused by the physiological correlates, or are the physiological correlates caused by the emotion? I have yet to do an in-depth study on the topic, but the data which I have encountered so far seems to best support the former – that emotional sensations are the output of physiological processes, which are themselves responses to stimulus. The most compelling evidence on this front is the efficacy of drugs which promote or inhibit these physiological processes. These drugs effectively alter emotional states and this implies that the emotion follows from the physiology. In short, emotion is a valid source of information about ourselves, and how we respond to the outside world, but is likely also rooted in the empirical world.


In Descartes’ dualistic worldview, he postulated that one category of idea was that which was his own invention. We might also call this imagination. Descartes placed sirens and hippogriffs into this category. The claimed distinction is that these ideas are not sourced by our experience, whether that be via our current experience or recollection from memory. It seems to me, however, that this distinction is artificial. Taking Descartes’ examples, it is obvious that the definition of these imaginary creatures is nothing more than a composite of properties of actual creatures that have been experienced by the inventors. I am hard pressed to identify any situation where this is not in some sense the case.

That said, we must also consider the underlying faculty which enables this melding of multiple experiences into a coherent description of something which has never been experienced. Does the act of combining disjoint experiences qualify as the creation of new information? If we return to the section on logical reasoning and consider the Venn diagrams and the formation of properties, we can see how mixing and matching of properties might naturally arise from the associations and pattern matching that connect our experiential data. In that sense, invention is not creating new information but rather reformulating existing information in a way that does not match the original experiences. This can be intentional or unintentional. Sometimes it can be productive, or entertaining, or misleading but, whatever it is, it is still empirical.

Sensus divinitatis

First, a definition is in order. The formal concept of sensus divinitatis was popularized by John Calvin, where he presented it as follows:

That there exists in the human mind and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of Deity, we hold to be beyond dispute, since God himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead…. …this is not a doctrine which is first learned at school, but one as to which every man is, from the womb, his own master; one which nature herself allows no individual to forget.

Anybody with any exposure to apologetics recognizes the relationship between the sensus divinitatis and the undisputed fact that nearly every human culture which has ever graced the face of the planet has believed in some sort of divine agency. The cross-temporal, cross-cultural belief in the divine would seem to support the notion that this innate sense does in fact exist.

However, when I go further and reflect on the nature of sensus divinitatis, it is not clear to me why this sense should be considered as something different than intuition. In my discussion of intuition, I proposed that our intuitions are by-products of experience. To evaluate whether this also applies to sensus divinitatis, I would like to revisit my brief summary of cognitive development. There we find two striking observations: First, it was proposed that thinking itself arises from interactions with other agents. That is, our cognitive development may very well be dependent on the detection of agency. The implication is that we may be prone to attribute unexpected observations to external agents even when none are present (regardless of the evolutionary argument, anybody with children can clearly see how this actually plays out). Second, cases of extreme neglect and deprivation result in distinctly unfamiliar and animal-like behavior. It is unfortunately very difficult to see where those individuals espouse a sense of the divine. Furthermore, with the recent increased prevalence of non-religious cultures we find that children who are raised in those cultures do not seem to attain a natural sense of the divine. So, while I cannot reject the possibility of a sensus divinitatis I also recognize that there are indications that it may be nothing more than a culturally reinforced intuition that arises, in part, from a tendency to assign agency. This alternative is reasonable and so the claims of sensus divinitatis are subject to scrutiny.

Divine revelation

BibleTo start this discussion I must first clarify that I am referring to a very specific form of revelation. Clearly the visions and voices claimed in Ezekiel, Daniel, Revelation and the like are empirical – supernatural, yes, but also empirical because they rely upon the senses of the recipient to convey the information. It is clear, however, that this is not always the means by which divine information is claimed to have been revealed. It would seem that numerous old testament prophets spoke on God’s behalf through something akin to “thought injection” and the doctrine of inspiration seems to imply that information was somehow transferred from God to the strokes of the author’s pen; whether you wish to see that as some sort of circuitous and mysterious process or blatant mind control.

I’ll keep my thoughts on this short and to the point. This type of divine revelation, where information from God is revealed through the injection of unique mental content, seems indistinguishable from the notion of invention that I discussed above. If Moby Dick, Battlestar Galactica and any other work of fiction can arise through an inventive composite of our experiences then we cannot deny the possibility that content in the Bible is any different. To contend otherwise, one must be able to demonstrate that the information is both true and could not have arisen from the experiences of the authors. Nevertheless, I cannot prove that there has never been divine revelation, nor can I explain why such an event would be impossible. In the end, we are forced to evaluate and judge the merit of such claims just as we would any other evidence. If Moby Dick had billed itself as a true story, would we not also afford it the opportunity to prove itself true?

Inner testimony of the Holy Spirit

The concept which most closely aligns with the “inner testimony of the Holy Spirit” is what many would call conviction. Unfortunately the dictionary definition doesn’t really capture the way we actually use the word. Conviction, as I understand it, goes beyond a strong belief and adds emotion into the mix. You may not be able to dissuade me that 2+2=4, but I wouldn’t consider it a conviction. I am convicted, however, that the lives of my children are precious, or that Hitler was evil. I hope that the difference is clear, even if it is just semantics.

So when we consider the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit, what we find is something like a combination of intuition and emotion. In those prior discussions I argued that both of these were empirical constructs. The resulting implication is that the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit may be explained on purely experiential grounds. The story is concise: religious experiences are deeply emotional. The recurrence of those experiences develops our intuition and associates that intuition with the emotions correlated with the experiences. The result is a conviction regarding the source of those experiences.

This story may be simplistic but it captures the essence of how we might see that the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit can be the result of prior experience. As with the claims of non-empirical religious evidence, however, I cannot prove that this interpretation is correct. I can only point out that the possibility is there. From there we must rely on a deeper exploration to uncover the truth.

I am

I am an empiricist in general and a skeptic of rationalism. It seems probable that both thinking itself and the content of our thoughts ultimately arise when innate pattern recognition and mirroring functions are applied to our sensory experience and to evolutionary predispositions and faculties which themselves were formed through empirical input. That said, I cannot rule out the possibility of other sources or that my empirical reductions may be incorrect. My challenge will be to operate under my current understanding of the evidence while simultaneously accepting the possibility that I am wrong and will need to revise my perspective. Regardless, I can at least explain my foundations for the acquisition of evidence – that all information is most likely dependent on sensory experience. Now I just need to figure out how to discern the truth from amongst all this data. That will have to wait for the next post.