Investigating pragmatic Christianity

rearviewTwo years into this journey and I find myself at a place where I can scarcely imagine reaffirming Christianity as the best explanation of reality. Even the most “liberal” flavor of the faith looks difficult to swallow. But there is more to life than knowledge and sometimes the most rational thing we can do is eschew truth. Don’t tell me it’s a sugar pill if it is truly my best shot at feeling better. Just lie to me and give me the damn pill.

Almost two years ago I sat in a pastor’s office with my wife to discuss the revelation that I could no longer honestly call myself a Christian. At some point in the discussion I said that I knew that I could blind myself to all sources of doubt and immerse myself in the Christian world – and then wait. After enough time I would probably return to a genuine faith. I shared a similar sentiment with my wife in an email I that I sent her before that meeting, just a couple of days after revealing my loss of faith to her:

It’s like asking somebody to forget what they’ve seen. We can’t choose to forget. It may happen naturally over time, but we can’t will ourselves to forget. … I could ignore those issues, do everything I can to avoid discovering new ones and pretend that they’re meaningless. Over time, that would probably work and the issues would fade into the background. This is where the choice comes in. I could choose to do that but then I would be living a lie for 5, 10, 20 years, or however long it takes for the issues to fade away. Instead, I’m choosing to face the issues. If Christianity is true, then I think that my journey should lead me to that conclusion.

Amongst the countless hours of reflection over these last two years there have been many occasions where I could identify a practical benefit to the Christian worldview. In an earlier post I acknowledged that there is a strong psychological allure in Christianity, namely in the belief that we are not simply at the mercy of chaos and that, in the end, victory will be ours. It is easy to understand why we would want this to be true. These beliefs, however, can and do extend beyond the conceptual and impact us directly in the here and now. Some would argue that holding unsubstantiated beliefs is in some sense wrong (Clifford’s Principle) – but I disagree. I contend that if holding a belief is clearly the best way to attain a desired outcome then it is completely rational to hold it.

So this is want I want to examine. What benefits does Christianity enable us to realize in this life, and is adherence to the Christian worldview the best way to attain those benefits? In other words, does the cost-benefit analysis favor Christian belief over all other possible mechanisms for leading a fulfilling life? To start, I’ve identified a few benefits and costs to explore. This post is in large part a request for your input on these and for other practical factors that I should consider in subsequent posts.

Benefits (even if the Christian worldview is false)

  1. Stress management (achieved in several different ways)
  2. Better outcomes via the placebo effect
  3. Social fellowship with emphasis on encouragement and support
  4. Reduced death anxiety
  5. Regular reminders to self-evaluate
  6. Sense of having purpose and value which transcends our circumstances
  7. Frequent encouragement to cultivate material contentment and to invest in the lives of others
  8. Diminished sense of loss when loved ones die

Costs (assuming that the Christian worldview is false)

  1. Potentially long or indefinite period of intellectual discomfort until dissonance fades, with strong potential for reemergence later
  2. Misallocation of resources
  3. Improperly or ineffectively acting toward a goal because of a false understanding of influences
  4. Undue pressure to accept potentially disagreeable principles on the basis of authority
  5. Insufficient value placed on earthly life and “temporal things”
  6. Potential for anguish over the fate of “unsaved” loved ones

I crossed out #2 on the costs lists because it would be begging the question. If it turns out that the pragmatic benefits of Christianity outweigh the costs and they are not otherwise attainable then the allocation of resources to the Christian cause should actually be viewed as appropriate. Additionally, I need to point out that I am well aware that many of the benefits listed here are not exclusively found in Christianity. The exploration of alternative mechanisms for realizing those benefits is a crucial element to this series.

If you’re wondering why I haven’t included the afterlife in these lists, see my post on Pascal’s Wager. On the surface, this topic might seem contradictory to the perspective I offered there – namely that we shouldn’t believe something just for the benefit. However, there is a vast difference. Pascal’s Wager is based on a purely speculative outcome obtained via a purely speculative mechanism. Conversely, in this case we can draw upon our experiences, psychology and other research to understand probable outcomes in this life.

This isn’t a tidy, well-planned series. My coverage of these topics will span a long time and will be interspersed between plenty of other posts that I’ve already dreamed up. This isn’t the type of thing where the answers are just sitting out there waiting to be found. There are a lot of factors at play, a lot of psychology to sift through and the end result is enormously subjective. Hopefully your interactions will keep me grounded.

Finally, please do not misinterpret this exercise. I can imagine how this might be psychoanalyzed. I’m not in some dark place looking to reclaim the joy I had when I was a Christian. I don’t know how to compare distinctly unique stages of life, but its possible that I’ve never been happier. Ironically, the motive behind this exercise is very non-Christian: if this life is the only one I have then I should pursue the course which makes the most of it. This journey is about more than collecting facts and discerning the structure of reality. It’s also about navigating life, and I went public with this blog because I knew that my best shot at success was to incorporate a wide variety of insights from others. So please let me know your thoughts on this topic in general, and on the individual benefits and costs of a Christian worldview. Thanks in advance.


Pascal’s Wager

As far as I can tell, Pascal’s Wager is rendered impotent by one simple thought experiment. As always, please tell me if there’s something I’ve overlooked. If the text is difficult to read, click on the image for the full scale version.

Pascal's Wager

Created at Storyboard That

It’s important to note that this says nothing about the probability of God’s existence, or about the evidence therein. This only shows that the assignment of unsubstantiated attributes or actions to a god do not serve as reasons to believe in that god. Now, if you can provide evidence of those attributes or actions (e.g., that acceptance or rejection of a particular belief actually determines one’s afterlife), well, then you’ve got something.


A pragmatic approach to free will

PinocchioEarlier this year I engaged in a discussion on doxastic voluntarism where a commenter stated that

“I use freewill to mean we can choose to change the physical sequence of events in our brains. … If we don’t have genuine freewill, then we can’t choose”,

to which I responded with

“Regardless of where one stands on free will, we agree that we engage in something called ‘choosing’. This phenomenon is universal whether we think it is performed by a ghost in the machine or it is just another cog in the chain of prior causes.

This thread of the discussion carried on a little longer without a mutual understanding and eventually ended with me saying that I would try to explain myself in a new post.

So here we are. I currently suspect that we do not have libertarian free will; that is, I doubt that there is an uncaused part of us which controls the act of choosing. This is not a certainty, but I am compelled by the evidence (and the lack of alternative evidence) that this is probably a correct description of reality. So, now that you have received this revelation, you may climb back in bed and curl up in a ball and wait for your death because you are just a cog in a chain of causes. You are no different than the computing device you are currently using. You are a powerless bag of molecules, a meat puppet dangling by the strings of chance. Upon believing that your choices are byproducts of everything else, you could, paradoxically, immediately succumb to a self-defeating fatalism or you could keep reading and take another path. What will you do? Is that even a meaningful question?

This post does not seek to argue whether or not we actually have libertarian free will. The point of this post is to consider the implications for our sense of freedom if we do not possess uncaused agency.

Wait. How do you explain our experience of choice?

Pinocchio_to_lifeGood question. Even though I have no intention here of making the case for an absence of libertarian free will, it is worth considering whether that situation is even possible. I would like to start by reflecting on some observations which are representative of things that we’ve all experienced at one time or another.

The other day the book I was reading included a comment that “…animals don’t seem to want to party, despite what we see in children’s cartoons like Madagascar.” About 30 minutes after reading that – I’m slightly embarrassed to admit – I found myself with the Katy Perry song “Firework” in my head. Upon recognizing this I was surprised, so I stewed on it a bit. This is not a song that I encounter frequently in my listening habits. When I stopped to think about this, a faint scene began to play in my mind. It was an animation of zoo animals performing circus acts. You see, about a week earlier, I spent a couple hours watching Madagascar 3 with my sons. Near the end of the movie, the main characters engage in an elaborate circus performance set to the music of – you guessed it – “Firework”. Unbeknownst to me, the reference to the Madagascar movie in the book I was reading had set in motion a network of activity, drawing on recent experience, that led to the production of a particular song in my head.

When I was a kid my brother would play the “made you flinch” game. It may be a stretch to call it a game, but the rules are basically this: at any time, you can go up to your sibling and act like you’re going to hit them and then stop short. If they react in a defensive way then you have license to actually hit them. Twice. By definition, a flinch is involuntary. After enough bruises you learn to remain vigilant and can suspend your reaction, but eventually you will be caught off-guard again. Control of the flinch is subject to awareness.

As a final example, we’re all well aware that repetition can train us to do things effortlessly and thoughtlessly even though these things required considerable conscious attention during the initial training. This includes actions like reading, riding a bike, driving a car, using a mouse, etc… Even simple math eventually becomes automatic. These well-trained processes seem to lie on the borderlands between the intentional and the unintentional, lying just below the level of consciousness and waffling in and out of our awareness. We sometimes catch ourselves unaware that we had done something, or are doing something.

As these examples show, it is possible for behavior and mental activity to arise outside of our immediate awareness and control. They do not run through the “free will” filter. If we acknowledge that this is possible then it seems reasonable to acknowledge the further possibility that choice itself, our apparent exercise of free will, restraint and deliberation, can also arise through causative factors outside of our awareness. Under this paradigm, we might say that choice is what happens when our brain deals with competing interests. Even choosing to get up and get a drink is in competition with a desire to conserve energy and stay where you are. We have a remarkable feedback system that can recall past experiences and forecast future experiences. These work themselves in to the choice equation and sometimes we can spend considerable time and energy in deliberation as the network keeps pulling up data on both sides of the tug-of-war and reconfiguring itself in response.

The insistence that we make choices independent of causative influence begs the question. It assumes that our identity is fully contained within a singular, unified, independent perspective; in short, a ghost in the machine. Yet, if we ask someone who has flinched whether they chose to flinch then they’re most likely going to say that it wasn’t a choice while at the same time agreeing that they acted. Likewise, we will not deny that it was us who performed automated tasks, even if we weren’t fully aware of what we were doing. So in some cases our action can come from some sort of involuntary aspect of our self. That is, we do not always disassociate our self identity from the actions which were not clearly “under our control”. If we accept that this is a part of who we are and that the line between voluntary and involuntary does not demarcate our identity, then I see no reason why the abolition of libertarian free will should be seen to annihilate the self and render us incapable of choice. Instead, our conception of the “self who chooses” must be revised so that it is consistent with the fact that we already include our involuntary self in our identity. We dispose of the idea that we are a singular, unified and independent soul and find that our identity is multifaceted, distributed and interdependent. Incidentally, a rare group of split-brain patients have offered us a fascinating window into how this works, as do patients who have experienced certain brain injuries (see blindsight, visual agnosia and hemispatial neglect). It appears that this distributed view of the self is the more accurate perspective.

You should believe that you can make choices

pinocchio_donkeyAs demonstrated by the original quote at the top of this post, it is common to see claims that the rejection of libertarian free will is also the rejection of choice. I will address that claim further in the next section, but first I want to briefly review why you should believe that you – this new, complex, multifaceted you – can make choices. When we believe in free will:

  1. We are less likely to harm each other and more likely to help each other (Baumeister 2009).
  2. We are more likely to act fairly and show gratitude (Vohs 2008, MacKenzie 2014; though Zwaan failed to reproduce Vohs).
  3. We show less prejudice against predetermined group membership (Zhao 2014, and accordingly, we show more prejudice against chosen group membership – Brewer 2013).
  4. We are more likely to detect errors and invest in thought (Rigoni 2014, Rigoni 2013, Lynn 2013).
  5. We are less likely to succumb to impulses and more likely to exercise self-control (Rigoni 2012, Alquist 2013, Job 2010).

Given these results, the evidence seems to suggest that we prefer the versions of ourselves who believe in free will. The pragmatist follows by suggesting that the rational thing to do is to believe that we actually possess this freedom.

But I can’t just pretend for the benefits

I completely understand the objection and agree that in the short term we can’t choose our beliefs – but I’m also pretty sure that you don’t have to pretend. Even when you think you can give a reason for your choice we can always just ask why again, and keep asking why until you get to the point of saying “I don’t know”. Eventually you will get there, which means that as far as we can tell from pure introspection, there appears to be something unexplainable going on. This is where we find our “free will”.

It is possible that there actually is no prior cause at the bottom of this search but, as we have seen, it is also possible that the prior causes are simply elusive or inaccessible. If you disagree, please explain to me how this kind of experience would differ from the experience under libertarian free will. I don’t see a difference and, introspectively, we have nothing but our experience to go on. So, if our internal experience regularly lacks a fully formed understanding of causation and if we recognize that we can choose between options, why does it matter whether or not our choice is actually uncaused? Pragmatism takes over when explanations run dry and suggests that instead of looking at causes, we should look at effects. We feel a sense of control and operate with the experience of control and this results in outcomes which accord with our choice. Is this not sufficient?

pinocchio_homeFrom a purely experiential perspective, I make choices. If there is no libertarian free will then I may end up in bed, shut off from the outside world because all prior causes led to that condition. However, it is equally true that all prior causes may lead me to fight off the melancholy and seize the day. We don’t know which is the future path of the causal chain, yet we detect an ability to direct it. The internal experience is the same; our sense of freedom is present no matter what. This is all that matters when it comes to the choices we make. You needn’t sacrifice your freedom on the alter of fatalism. You have a choice.

If you have read this, and you find yourself agreeing with my conclusions, then it is possible that your experiences have now changed you so that you are more inclined to invoke your sense of free will. Ironically, you have just been externally caused to have a greater sense of freedom. Run with it.


Mind and Cosmos

mind_and_cosmosThomas Nagel’s “Mind & Cosmos”, published in 2012, is almost certainly the book that has garnered the most attention over the last couple years in the God debate; and it has thus become required reading for those of us who are immersed in that milieu. My encounters with the book have primarily come through the off-handed endorsements of Christian apologists. It has become a weapon of choice for defense of the theistic worldview. Conversely, the naturalists were quick to call foul. Most famously, Steven Pinker called it “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.” Deeply critical negative reviews abounded and those who rushed to Nagel’s defense were quick to suggest that he was, in an ironic twist, being treated like a heretic by the clergy of the church of science. With all of this in mind, my goal was to approach this book via the middle road, as someone seeking truth wherever it may be found. There’s no doubt that I am flawed and biased, but I honestly hope that I came to the text with an open mind.

So what is all the fuss about? Perhaps the subtitle of the book says enough: “Why the materialist neo-darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false.” That’s a pretty bold statement which, when viewed through the lens of the God debate, clearly lands in the theist’s camp. Furthermore, students of apologetics will quickly recognize that the content bears a striking resemblance to some of the key objections to naturalism that have been levied by the likes of C.S. Lewis, Alvin Plantinga and J.P. Moreland. The primary difference here is that Nagel’s work does not go on to endorse a theistic solution.

Silver bullets…?

Nagel spends the first two chapters of the book – about 30 pages – outlining the high-level view of his concerns with naturalism. It is here that he introduces us to the “failure of psychophysical reductionism” and identifies three ways in which this failure is realized: in theories of consciousness, cognition, and value – each of which serve as the titles for the substance of the argument in the next three chapters. By this point the territory had grown familiar and I couldn’t help but wonder whether Nagel was fully aware that his thesis mirrors three of the most philosophically prominent arguments for the existence of God. He cites contemporary secular philosophers, such as Sharon Street, as his primary interlocutors yet on the theistic side we get little more than a single footnote reference to Plantinga’s “Where the Conflict Really Lies”. Whereas the apologetic versions of these arguments essentially all boil down to “Nature cannot produce (or access) X, thus God.”, Nagel is affirming everything before the comma and leaving everything after as an open question; though he does prod us toward accepting the possibility of an impersonal teleological force. Nevertheless, allow me to summarize his points and show how they couple into the case for theism.


What it's like to be a batHere we find Nagel reaffirming ‘the hard problem of consciousness’, as he has done in the past. In his 1974 essay “What is it like to be a bat?” he closed with the statement that “it seems unlikely that any physical theory of mind can be contemplated until more thought has been given to the general problem of subjective and objective.” 38 years later, this chapter takes it a step farther and suggests that the subjective cannot be reduced to the physical:

“if Ψ [a mental event] really is Φ [a physical event] in this sense, and nothing else, then Φ [a physical event] by itself, once its physical properties are understood, should likewise be sufficient for the taste of sugar, the feeling of pain, or whatever it is supposed to be identical with. But it doesn’t seem to be. It seems conceivable, for any Φ [physical event], that there should be Φ [a physical event] without any experience at all” (pg 41).

In the next section this conclusion is then applied to the evolutionary story:

“Since a purely materialist explanation cannot do this [explain the appearance of conscious organisms], the materialist version of evolutionary theory cannot be the whole truth” (pg 45).

To put it briefly, the ‘hard problem’ amounts to the difficulty we have in translating the experiential (qualia) to the descriptive, and it seems clear that any physical explanation is inherently descriptive. To this the theist agrees and then asks, “What now?” The God answer has most notably been advanced by Richard Swinburne (see The Existence of God) and J.P. Moreland (see Consciousness and the Existence of God).

Disclaimer: These two books are on my list but I have not yet read them and am working from the content available online. Reader beware (even though I may have stumbled into full versions of the texts).

These heavyweights of Christian philosophy propose that consciousness is not only incompatible with a purely physical cause but that its very nature begs for a personal cause that is itself conscious. Why? To quote Moreland,

“on a theistic metaphysic, one already has an instance of consciousness and other mental entities, e.g. an unembodied mind, in God. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that finite consciousness or other mental entities should exist in the world. However, on a naturalist view, mental entities are so strange and out of place that their existence (or regular correlation with physical entities) defies adequate explanation. There appear to be two realms operating in causal harmony and theism provides the best explanation of this fact.”

Swinburne starts with the same assumption and then makes this being personal and gives him motivation for creating us by appealing to the moral capacity of conscious beings, wherein beings which can choose to do good are a valuable addition to the universe. Good activities include relationship and love and so the origin of consciousness should have these qualities as well.

If we grant that consciousness cannot arise from the physical then I honestly think I would favor the apologist’s proposition. If consciousness truly is something fundamentally significant and distinct from physical reality then explaining its origin in terms of an advanced, transcendent consciousness seems more sensible than positing a disinterested or unintentional source. This may not get us to a particular formulation of what that transcendent consciousness is, but it leads the way to further discussion. Regardless, the obstacle lies in that first clause – in establishing the failure of the naturalist account.


“We take ourselves to have the capacity to form true beliefs … We don’t take these capacities to be infallible, but we think they are often reliable, in an objective sense, … human life assumes that there is a real world … and that there are norms of thought which, if we follow them, will tend to lead us toward the correct answers. It assumes that to follow those norms is to respond correctly … It is difficult to make sense of all this in traditional naturalistic terms.” (pg 72)

Nagel goes on to grant that it does make sense from an evolutionary perspective for our faculties to accurately represent the world. Even more, he cogently describes the standard evolutionary explanation for cognition through the adaptive benefits of the mental faculties that enable us to generalize and symbolize and, at the end, acknowledges that the story as a whole is not impossible. Section 3 then commences with the deconstruction.

The first criticism raised is the circularity of reliance on our reasoning. He points out – and correctly so, in my opinion – that when we evaluate the evolutionary story and find it to be an adequate explanation of our capacity for reason, we are in fact relying on that very explanation in the process. The second shot is aimed at our ability to discern truth. Whereas consciousness may render a generally accurate picture of our immediate environment, reason allows us to step out of our subjectivity and compare and contrast data from an objective standpoint to locate truth. The reasons why we might see this as an obstacle to physical explanation are less clear and largely intuitive: “it does seem to be something that cannot be given a purely physical analysis and therefore, … cannot be given a purely physical explanation.”

CS-LewisNot long ago I read C.S. Lewis’ Miracles. The first half of the book says very little about miracles and purposes instead to set the stage for the allowance of the supernatural. His central argument for the existence of something which transcends the material was an examination of Reason and our ability to utilize it. This has come to be known as the argument from reason (which is actively defended by Victor Reppert at The argument can be summarized as “How can the rational come from the irrational?” It builds upon our intuition, crafted by our experience, that the unconscious world is generally not oriented toward truth. Nothing in random natural processes seems to work toward discerning correctness. Why should evolution have ended up with something that did?

Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism argues the same position with a bit more philosophical depth and with the addition of the circularity observation that Nagel poses. I already discussed this argument a bit in a review of “Where the Conflict Really Lies”, so I won’t rehash that here. Regardless, both Lewis and Plantinga go on to suggest that if reason cannot be explained by the physical realm then the most sensible conclusion is that its presence in our world has its origin with something that is itself capable of reason, and which values rationality, and thus bestows that value upon us. Again, I find that this is a reasonable option if we agree that rationality necessarily transcends the physical. As before, it may not be the only conclusion but it is a strong and viable candidate.


Nagel’s final concern with the physicalist paradigm rests on value realism. His opening section again acknowledges that the target, this time the subjectivist account of value, is “not flagrantly implausible.” The subsequent section continues to discuss the distinction between subjectivism and value realism and then interestingly closes with a concession about the case for value realism:

“There is no crucial experiment that will establish or refute realism about value… Positive support for realism can come only from the fruitfulness of evaluative and moral thought in producing results, including corrections of beliefs formerly widely held and the development of new and improved methods and arguments over time. The realist interpretation of what we are doing in thinking about these things can carry conviction only if it is a better account than the subjectivist or social-constructivist alternative, and that is always going to be a comparative question and a matter of judgment.” (pg 104-105)

This seems to indicate that he thinks that our recognition of progress is the best indicator of value realism; but he also recognizes that the identification of progress is itself subjective. Ultimately Nagel grants that his grounding for the objectivity of value is purely an intuitive feeling and, as such, very little time is spent defending that conclusion. Instead, Nagel spends the next couple chapters outlining his agreement with Sharon Street in her proposal that a purely Darwinian account of evolution is incompatible with value realism (see A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value).

It’s probably painfully obvious how this relates to the theistic worldview. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb if I propose that the moral argument is among the two or three most important and widespread arguments for God’s existence. It was a favorite of C.S. Lewis, and nearly every apologist thereafter. Francis Collins indicated that it was the key factor in his conversion. Briefly, the moral argument says that moral value exists independent of our opinion. Some things, like the oft cited “torturing babies for fun”, are truly wrong regardless of what we think. The theists then take the next step and ask where these moral truths come from. They do not appear to be a material part of the world and yet regularly guide our actions and serve as the explanatory foundation of our reasoning – which is the key to the theists proposition. When we keep asking why, we will usually eventually hit a wall made entirely of value judgments. If the answers to the “why” questions are not found in the answers to the “how” questions, and we are the only part of the physical realm which seems to care about the “why”, then the origin of those values is reasonably accounted for in something capable of valuing – something intentional and teleologically motivated.

For the sake of argument, lets grant the assumption of moral realism. When I take this stance, I am compelled to agree with the problems it poses for a undirected evolutionary account of our moral disposition. As I thus proceed to examine the alternative explanations for its existence, here again I find myself appreciating the theistic answer. Why? Because value seems to be intrinsically tied to intention, and intention infers purpose and an agent pursuing that purpose. If value is independent of humanity then it makes sense that it be grounded in something that retains intention and purpose. Without this, it would seem, value loses its value.

…or misfires?

But, in the end, I am unpersuaded. As indicated by the quotes from the book, the rejection of the naturalist explanation appears to be intuitively driven speculation on what is possible within the framework. Yes, the naturalist position on these topics is also speculative, but it is utilizing the world as we know it and trying to minimize additional assumptions. Accordingly, there are several points of momentum carrying the naturalist explanation, and I contend that the current is strong:

  1. There is a continuum of mental faculties in the animal kingdom. It seems that we can incrementally walk down the chain of neural complexity until the brain essentially becomes a scrutable set of chemical reactions. There is no obvious reason why we should draw a line somewhere and start assigning significance.
  2. Neuroscience has made it abundantly clear that the mental is, at the very least, co-dependent on physical aspects of the brain. If this much is indisputable then it seems extraneous to postulate something more when there is a readily identifiable explanation for our lack of complete understanding; namely the complexity and inaccessibility of the living brain. The insistence that qualia cannot be reduced to the physical seems to be begging the question. See my brief comment on the ontology of qualia for more on the relation between the physical and the mental.
  3. The naturalist program hinges on regularity. So far, in the course of history, we have identified regularities in the underlying explanation of nearly everything and the only exceptions bear the distinction of unresolved complexity – we see the regularity of the underlying parts, but have not unraveled their cumulative behavior. We have not yet, to my knowledge, identified anything which is simple yet unpredictably irregular. Is it not reasonable to suspect that this trend will continue? If there truly is a teleology shaping the world then it is an odd coincidence that it only manifests within instances of unresolved complexity.
  4. Aside from the possibility that the physical parameters of the universe were fine-tuned at its birth, the universe as a whole does not obviously have the appearance of one in which a powerful, directive force or being is actively working toward the goal of consciousness, cognition and value. Conversely, the universe is overwhelmingly void of these things and seems indifferent to their permanence. It is conceivable that there are universes in which the life that sustains consciousness, cognition and value is less fragile, or in which the environment better supports that life. If Nagel’s teleologic force is constrained in its capabilities, or if I have misapprehended the possible set of life valuing universes, then this objection would disappear.

Accordingly, I simply do not see how a non-teleological evolutionary theory fails to enable consciousness, cognition and value. Physical reproduction is inherently dependent on the acquisition and manipulation of material that is external to the replicating being. A reproductive process which never replenished or adopted outside material would quickly come to an end. This means that accurate interaction with the outside world is imperative to reproductive success. Any system which does this better than its ancestor is more likely to flourish. Accordingly, what may have started as the most simple of interactive functions would be expected to improve as change creeps in. Eventually, the combination of consciousness and cognition yields the coordination of multiple external stimuli, an increased sample size by incorporating past experience, the projection of the past to the future to guide anticipatory motor control, and a generally accurate inference of the external world beyond our immediate perception. The associative machinery in our brain builds links based on real world input and so, when those links strengthen one interpretation over another, we favor it as truth. As more experience and information is added to those links the probabilities of aligning with truth increases and we gain an advantage in navigating the world. Finally, add the development of an innate bias toward that which is most beneficial to our survival and reproduction and out pops “value”. To top it all off, if those values are rooted in a common ancestry then they will be perceptually objective to the descendents.

The most inescapable criticism of this “just-so story” lies within the circularity of the naturalistic origins of our capacity to reason. I contend, however, that this is not limited to the naturalist. Everybody, it would seem, is trapped in this vicious circle. We necessarily start from a position of pragmatic reliance on our rational capacities and form our theory of its origin thereafter. Where the naturalist says “it’s reliable because it benefits survival”, the theist says “it’s reliable because God would not deceive”. Both parties have assumed the reliability of their cognition as a prerequisite to determining why it is reliable.

There is also definitely an intuitive appeal to the doubt that rationality can in some way arise from the irrational. Furthermore, this isn’t a concern that the naturalist can expunge with new evidence and further discovery. If the naturalistic explanation is true then this objection is here to stay and will only be reinforced as we learn more. I do not see, however, why it necessarily renders the story invalid. If all the evidence falls in line then we just have to accept where it points. Diverging from the evidence is a far less attractive option.

I commend Nagel for his continued willingness to think outside the box, go against the grain and challenge our assumptions. We all need to do this on a regular basis and society will never progress without those select few who break from the status quo. Even so, those ventures are only successful if they correspond with the reality of our world. It’s possible that I am among the masses who have been caught up in a false current and I am simply unable to see that I have been blinded to the faults of the “materialist neo-darwinian conception of nature” but, if that is so, then Mind & Cosmos has done nothing to snatch me from the rapids.


We are all human

And Now for Something Completely Different…

Sometimes when we bury ourselves in the ruminations of the “intellectual elite”, we can lose sight of the fact that they are no less human than we are. It’s good to have the occasional reminder that we’re all in this together and that there’s nothing particularly magical about the words that come from any one person.

Plantinga gets hot

Dawkins eats crow


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 expressing 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.


Reconciling the crucified messiah (and a new way to read the Bible)

I’ve done a lot of introspection this Easter season on what Christianity is, if not truth. It doesn’t seem rational to abandon a widely held worldview without at least trying to explain why it has been accepted in the first place. So how would a naturalist explain the origin and adoption of a worldview which centers around a crucified leader, and does that explanation make sense?

The birth of Christianity in 200 words or less

CrossesA charismatic sectarian from Galilee speaks out against the religious establishment and preaches repentance in preparation for the end of days – an end which infers Israel’s divinely mandated world domination. His followers eagerly anticipated this grand reversal of fortune but then he was killed because his message and growing profile was seen as a threat to the Roman state. Something happened that led to a belief that he may have been resurrected and this coupled into a hope that maybe his mission wasn’t done. The resurrection hypothesis and the apocalypse hypothesis fed off of each other, along with a few select passages in Psalms and Isaiah, to reinforce the story. Paul comes along and is inspired by the story but is compelled to more fully explain why the messiah was killed. He develops an extensive reformulation of the Judaic sacrificial system into a robust atonement theology which grows to become the foundation of Christendom. Collectively we are left with an intriguing story of sacrificial love, redemption, acceptance and hope that offers a remedy for our desire to belong and a salve for our deepest fears.

The birth of a new perspective

The kind of explanation given above may not be new to those who have already examined these things from a critical perspective, but it is to me. You see, when all your information has come from inside the Christian bubble the logic flows in reverse. You start with the assumption that Jesus came to offer salvation and so had to die – not that he died and so that needed to be explained. This is a complete reversal to the order of operations that I’ve known my whole life and if I’m honest I have to admit that it makes a lot of sense.

The psychology we encounter from this new perspective goes well beyond the New Testament. The Old Testament as a whole is dripping with angst. Israel is sick of being a doormat. They sit at the junction between Egypt and all other world powers and are constantly caught in the crossfire. Some have suggested that the bulk of the Tanakh is effectively the rallying cry of a trampled people, saying “we have conquered once, we will conquer again”. That may be a bit of a short sell but the overall theme seems correct.

The birth of a new revelation

Valentin de Boulogne: Saint Paul Writing His EpistlesThere have been many revelations for me on this journey. It is amazing how many of the mysteries of the Bible begin to unravel once you allow yourself to see it as a human creation. The dynamic between history and theology becomes one of cause and effect. Theology is no longer a message handed down on high from God but rather a very real psychological and emotional response to the events of our world. Ironically, this has given me a profound respect for the beauty of the humanity that can be found in the Bible; more so than ever before.

On this journey I have finally allowed myself to ask “Why did the author write this?”, instead of “What is God saying to me?”. As a Christian, I treated the Bible like something of a textbook; an instruction manual to be studied. I wanted to understand what God was saying. I was oblivious to the experiences, desires and perspectives that its authors brought to the text. In retrospect it’s a bit embarrassing to admit how blatantly I ignored this, though I still find myself befuddled when trying to parse a Christian explanation of how the Bible is the product of both God and man. I guess it’s easier to just act like it came straight from God and gloss over the human role.

Where I once sought divine guidance, I now see an epic anthology that chronicles a psychological struggle to cope with the chaos of a world outside of our control and the tensions that strain our will. It’s not hard to see how this has spoken to us throughout the centuries. We all fight to see our way through the obstacles that life hurls our way and to resolve the conflicts that torment our soul (metaphorically speaking, of course). How comforting a prospect it is to suggest that this isn’t just chaos; that behind it all there is a magnificent plan that ends with a glorious victory! The full embrace of the Christian message can give us peace and rest. Who doesn’t want that? I for one wish it to be true, but that is a verdict which seems more distant with each step that I take. My rest will not be found where I am engaged in an unending struggle for truth.


The underdog archetype and the criterion of embarrassment

The Babylonian ExileAt a recent church service the speaker gave a message that used Joseph’s story (of technicolor coat fame) as an illustration of how we need to trust God’s timing. As I contemplated the story, I was reminded just how much the theme of overcoming adversity permeates the stories of the Old Testament. Isaac was born to Abraham and Sarah when it seemed impossible (and after they tried to do it their own way), Jacob was the scrawny second-born but received the blessing and becomes Israel’s namesake, young Joseph was discarded by his brothers and then ends up saving them, Moses is a coward but then leads the exodus and David was the diminutive afterthought who slayed the giant, supplanted the tall, handsome king (Saul) and led Israel to prominence in spite of his transgressions. Then there’s the oft repeated prophetic theme of the nation of Israel breaking free from the dominion of the various regional powers – Egypt, Assyria, Babylon and, in the case of Daniel, the Seleucid Empire. Israel was a nation beaten down only to stand tall in the end.

A few centuries later, we are introduced to Jesus. Illegitimately born (in a feed trough, no less) to a couple of unknowns in a little out of the way town up north. Rejected by his own people, misunderstood, denied and betrayed by his disciples, and then crucified like a common criminal. But that is not the whole story and, just as it was in the Old Testament, victory belongs to the underdog.

The criterion of embarrassment

Many apologists have latched onto the unflattering elements of biblical texts as evidence for their veracity. Certainly nobody would fabricate, or even embellish, such claims? This form of argumentation, known as the criterion of embarrassment, carries an intuitive appeal. Though few would suggest that it serves as conclusive evidence, it is commonly offered as a stone that tilts the scales toward upholding the truth of biblical claims. A prime example of the modern use of the criterion of embarrassment comes to us in David Instone-Brewer’s recent book “The Jesus Scandals”, for which he offers the following summary:

“If tabloid newspapers had existed during the first century, Jesus would have featured constantly in the headlines, linked with scandals of all kinds. Details of these were recorded in historical documents by both his friends and his enemies. They provide insights into Jesus’ life and teaching that have been obscured by the centuries. They tell us what his contemporaries really thought. These scandals include:  

  • his parentage and accusations of alcohol abuse and fraudulent miracles
  • the dubious status of his followers – poorly educated, ex-prostitutes and the certifiably mad
  • his anti-religious teaching on temple practices, eternal torment, easy divorces and judgement in this life
  • his thoughts of suicide, shameful execution and impossible resurrection

Faithful to the biblical text, this carefully researched book can be read as a whole or as stand-alone chapters.”

We cannot have it both ways

It is clear that ancient Jewish authors did not always shy away from including less than favorable bits in their hero stories. The criterion of embarrassment would argue that this is an indication that they are true but we often find ourselves drawn to the underdog story. In this regard, the Jews were no different – perhaps most clearly because they were the underdog. In fact, this would appear to be something of a cultural theme that had become entrenched in their identity. As a nation, they constantly found themselves under the thumb of more powerful nations and this engendered a hope which fueled the apocalyptic visions of Israel rising above the ashes. The underdog archetype was alive and well in Jesus’ time and the subjugation to Rome only reinforced it.

So something doesn’t fit. How can we argue that the embarrassing elements of the Jesus’ story only makes sense if they are true while at the same time embracing the corresponding typologies of the Old Testament? We cannot have it both ways.

Though I have never found the criterion of embarrassment especially persuasive, I have also never agreed with those who discount it altogether. While this is still true, my reflection on the presence of the underdog archetype in Jewish tradition has further diminished its power. This is not to suggest that the unsavory details of Jesus life are necessarily fabrications. Rather, my primary concern here is to point out that when the New Testament was authored there was a precedent in place. The story of the victorious underdog was the hope of Israel. We should not think it so odd that the hero of a fledgling Jewish sect would find himself in this role as well.