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.

Consciousness

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.

Cognition

“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 dangerousidea.blogspot.com). 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.

Value

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.

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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

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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.

Qualia

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.

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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
Particulars
  • 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Did religion make me a skeptic?

As I reflected on Steven Pinker’s book “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature” I was struck with a notion that had never before crossed my mind: could it be that my view on human nature during my formative years contributed to a cognitive style that would eventually lead me to question my faith? Or, simply put, did religion make me a skeptic?

The Setup

The primary argument of Pinker’s book is that the political left too often ignores our innate tendencies and erroneously acts as if people’s behavior can be molded entirely through their social context (hence the blank slate). He suggests that this kind of thinking is in part responsible for the brutal social engineering programs of Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot and the like. On this point, I think he is on the mark. It is foolishness to reject the existence of human nature or expect that entire societies will abandon their very nature. On the whole, human nature will win out.

That said, Pinker is concerned with the broad social implications but never addresses what it means if an individual comes to recognize their human nature and strives to proceed accordingly. If human nature is predominantly revealed in our “fast thinking” (System 1), as it would seem to be, and this can sometimes be overridden by our “slow thinking” (System 2), then the implication is that those who learn to recognize these tendencies and who train themselves to rely on System 2 as much as possible are more likely to make decisions which are driven by empirical information and are thus less influenced by human nature [1]. These people are said to have an analytic cognitive style.

It seems to me that I am among this group and that it is largely responsible for the path I currently walk; and I am not alone. The war cry of the skeptic is a promotion of critical thinking, reason and logic. Studies have shown a negative correlation between analytic cognitive style and religious belief and the vast majority of deconversion stories I encounter focus on the person’s critical assessment of the evidence. Even so, most Christian apologists would advocate a liberal reliance on reason and careful analysis. Though these very same apologists claim that unbelief is rooted in some deeper moral objection, it is evident to me that the primary force behind loss of faith is a thoughtful reflection on the data.

The Twist

I was raised to believe in the Pauline struggle; to believe that I had a sin nature (flesh) which was at war with my spirit and that this war could be won by aligning my will with God’s. My instincts were corrupt and needed to be held in check. Living by the flesh comes easily and naturally, so be on guard. In psychological terms, I was taught to recognize the tendencies of System 1 and employ System 2 to overcome them. When this background is applied to the theory presented above, it would suggest that my Judeo-Christian perspective on human nature may have been partially responsible for my cognitive style. In other words, it may be that I question my faith because my faith taught me to question myself.

On the other hand, it could just be my nature. I would even venture to say that it is likely that I am naturally inclined toward a critical approach. History tells us that the religion we’re born into is likely to stick with us and a myriad of research tells us that our personalities are most strongly dictated by our genetics. But what if there’s more to it? If there’s any truth to the idea that the development of our cognitive style could be influenced by our childhood perspective on human nature, and that those with an analytic cognitive style are less likely to embrace religion, then the implicit result is not just swimming in irony; it’s drowning in it.

So, did religion make me a skeptic? Honestly, I doubt it…. but what’d you expect?


[1] Keep in mind that System 1 and System 2 are just tools for describing different modes of thought, not actual mental systems. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept then there are some decent introductions here:
NY Times review of Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow”
Scientific American: Of Two Minds When Making a Decision
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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

Definitions

  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.

Premises

  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.

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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?

WhereTheConflict

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 “..it 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.

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