I posted on Armstrong's naturalism yesterday, and that got me to thinking whether he ever said anything anywhere about religion. A little searching turned up the following 2002 interview of Armstrong by Andrew Chrucky. Here is an excerpt that touches upon Armstrong's view of religion:
Chrucky: Let me move on to something else. What I would want to know from a philosopher if I were an ordinary person. Probably the first things I would want to know is: Are you religious in any way? Armstrong: No. I'm not.
Chrucky: What is your take on religion? Armstrong: I have the greatest respect for it. I think it may be the thing that many people need, and it enshrines many truths about life. But I do not think it is actually true.
Chrucky: So, it expresses truth in some metaphorical way? Armstrong: In some metaphorical and symbolic way, I think it grasps at truth. And I think it gives hope and comfort to many.
Chrucky: I am not much into religion as a subject, but perhaps someone like Bultmann who was demythologizing religion is someone you would find favor with? Armstrong: I am quite happy with religion going on the way it is. I don't want to alter the religions. That's not my interest. But I suppose that if you are considering what is the truth behind religion then it would have to be demythologized.
Chrucky: How do you view the state of the world? Right now there seems to be a rise in fundamentalism all over. Armstrong: Yes.
Chrucky: You know Iran became a theocracy, and there seems to be a Christian-Islamic confrontation going on. How does one resolve this? Is there a philosophical way of looking at it? Armstrong: No. I don't think so.
Chrucky: Is there a need for dialogue? . . . so that religions confront one another, or is this hopeless? Armstrong: I don't really know. I really don't have any views on this point. I think of myself as in the Christian and Jewish tradition, and in the tradition of Greece. Matthew Arnold thought of Hebraism and Hellenism as the twin poles of Western culture. I see myself as a person in the stream within that culture, and I think it may perhaps be the best tradition of thought and life that has so far been evolved. Certainly I don't think we should be apologetic about it.
This interview confirms what I suspected was Armstrong's attitude toward religion. As a naturalist, he cannot consider any of the characteristic claims of religion to be literally true. But as a conservative, he has "the greatest respect for it" and he appreciates the important and beneficial role it plays in the lives of many people. While not true in its characteristic claims, religion "enshrines many truths about life." Armstrong endorses the notion that Hebraism and Hellenism are the twin poles of Western culture, the tradition of which is the best that has so far been evolved. Armstrong sees himself in that tradition. One might wonder, however, whether his work in philosophy has had or will have the effect of undermining it.
He is clearly a traditionalist who takes the great problems of philosophy seriously and unabashedly uses phrases like 'great problems.' He respects the tradition even while diverging from it. I cannot imagine him writing a book like David Stove's The Plato Cult. His approach in philosophy is direct, realistic, ontological, nonlinguistic. He is also traditional in that he sees an important role for philosophy. He is far from scientism as I tried to make clear in my earlier post.
A final observation. Armstrong's is a disinterested search for truth. He is like Aristotle in that regard. One cannot imagine his naturalism becoming a substitute religion for him.
The late David Malet Armstrong has a serious claim to being Australia's greatest philosopher. His life work is summed up in his Sketch for a Systematic Metaphysics (Oxford UP, 2010). It is from the Introduction to this slim volume that I draw the following précis of his naturalism.
Armstrong on Naturalism
1. Naturalism for Armstrong is the thesis that "all that exists is the space-time world . . . ." The space-time world is the physical world. The thesis, then, is that reality is exhausted by the physical world.
2. Naturalism is an assumption: it is assumed to be true.
3. Armstrong admits that he has no argument for naturalism except that it is a position that many would accept, both philosophers and non-philosophers. There is no philosophical reasoning whereby one could prove that any metaphysical scheme, including naturalism, is correct. To think otherwise is "folly." I agree. One cannot prove naturalism or any form of anti-naturalism.
4. Armstrong also describes naturalism as an "hypothesis," one that many would accept as plausible. "The space-time entity seems obviously to exist. Other suggested beings seem much more hypothetical." (1)
5. Though naturalism cannot be proven, one can attempt to develop it into a coherent vision of the fundamental structure of the world or of the general nature of things, a vision (his word) that can then be put into competition with other visions. The development of a vision of things will involve argumentation but also bare assertion. "I argue where I can, but at times I simply assert."
6. The exclusion of so-called abstract entities or abstract objects such as mathematical sets, unexemplified universals, and numbers from the roster of the real is because of their lack of causal power. What causal role could they play? "And if they play no causal role it is hard to see how we can have good reasons for thinking that they exist." (2)
We ought to distinguish between
A. To exist is to be capable of entering into causal relations
B. We have no good reasons for postulating entities that are incapable of entering into causal relations.
Armstrong affirms (B), but he also seems committed to (A) since (A) is entailed by naturalism. Naturalism is the view that reality is exhausted by the space-time world, the view that nothing exists except what exists in the space-time world. Given that the space-time world is a world of causal interactions, it follows that all and only that which is causally active/passive exists. If you are an Armstrongian naturalist, then you cannot posit such causally inert entities as mathematical sets even if there are some good reasons for postulating them.
7. The space-time world, the physical world, is Wilfrid Sellars' world of the scientific image, not that of the manifest image. It is therefore the task of physics, or perhaps total natural science, to tell us what the physical world, and thus all of reality, is like.
8. Now if naturalism is true and physics (or total science) informs us as to nature's laws and properties, why do we need metaphysics? Why isn't physics all the metaphysics we need? Why shouldn't we embrace both the ontological thesis of naturalism and the epistemological thesis of scientism? After all, they seem to go together. If all that exists is the system of space-time-matter, and physics tells us what there is to know about it, then what room is there for metaphysics?
There is room for metaphysics according to Armstrong because we need a systematic account of such topic-neutral notions as cause, class, property, relation, quality, kind, resemblance, quantity, number, substance, fact, truth, law of nature, power, and others.
For example, common experience and the sciences inform us as to what causes what, but not as to what causation is. What is causation? What distinguishes a causal from a noncausal event sequence? Is causation 'in the objects' mere regular succession as Hume thought (or as Hume is often taken to have thought)? Or is there more to it? And what is that more? Does the cause produce the effect? Does the cause bring the effect into existence? Can x cause y even if the x-y sequence does not instantiate any regularity? What are the relata of the causal relation? Can a substance be a causal relatum? Is causation a relation at all? And so on. All of these are questions in metaphysics (ontology) for Armstrong.
So a thoroughgoing naturalist who restricts the real to the space-time system needn't embrace scientism; he can maintain that there is room for metaphysics in one sense of that ancient word: not an inquiry into what is beyond the physical or natural, but an inquiry into the deepest and most pervasive structures of the natural. (Armstrong does not mention scientism or make the point I just made, but it clearly follows from what he says.
Why I am Not a Naturalist (A Brief Sketch)
Armstrong is surely right that one cannot prove naturalism. Equally, one cannot disprove it. But there reasons that make its rejection reasonable.
There are questions that naturalism cannot satisfactorily answer. Among them: Why does anything at all exist? Or, more precisely, why does anything contingent at all exist? The space-time system exists and it exists contingently -- there is no logical or metaphysical necessity that there be a space-time system at all, or the precise one that we find ourselves in. But the space-time entity, as Armstrong calls it, lacks the resources to explain its own existence. I won't argue this here, but I have in other places. There are also good reasons to reject the suggestion that the space-time system exists as a matter of brute fact.
Deeper than the question, Why does anything at all exist? is the question, What is it for any contingent thing to exist? Does Armstrong have an answer for this question? Surely it is a central question of metaphysics. We cannot decide what exists or why anything exists unless we know what it is for something to exist. He doesn't deal with it as far as I know, but he does seem to have an implicit answer, (A) above which can also be formulated as follows:
A*. For any x, x exists iff x is possibly such as to be either a cause or an effect.
A**. For any x, x exists iff x has the power to bring about a change in itself or in another or the liability to have a change brought about in it.
But even if these biconditionals are true, they presuppose existence rather than accounting for it. A thing cannot have a causal power or a causal liability or stand in a relation unless it 'already' (logically speaking) exists. What makes a thing exist, therefore, cannot be its having a power or liability or its standing in a relation.
Long story short, A's naturalism has no satisfactory answer to either of my existence questions.
And then there are questions about mind, questions about consciousness, qualia, intentionality, reason, and the like. They notoriously resist naturalistic treatment. Armstrong, who is famous for his intellectual honesty, readily admits this:
I do not know how to refute the claim that intentionality is an irreducible phenomenon, a phenomenon that is something different from the physical processes in the brain. So in my philosophy of mind I face difficulties from the alleged qualia and from the phenomenon of intentionality that seem rather greater than anything I am aware of in the rest of my ontological scheme. (115)
That naturalism is not compelling is also evident from the fact that naturalists disagree bitterly among themselves as to what shape it should take. Some naturalists want to countenance abstracta while others are eliminativists about the mind.
But I don't reject naturalism simply because it does not have satisfactory answers to all the questions that need answering; I also reject it on the basis of all the experiences (mystical, religious, paranormal) that point to, though they do not prove, what William James calls the "reality of the unseen." Such experiences by themselves may not cut much ice, but in conjunction with an array of rigorous arguments against naturalism and an array of rigorous argments for some form or anti-naturalism, they play an important role in a cumulative case argument for the reasonableness of anti-naturalism.
I have read your latest post on truthmakers. Among other things, you mention [David] Armstrong's view on abstract objects. As I read elsewhere (not in Armstrong own works, I have not read anything by him yet) he was realist about universals and gives a very voluminous defense of his view. Does this view entail realism about abstract objects?
I think that Quine was realist about abstract objects and at the same time naturalist and also holds that his Platonism was consequence of his naturalized ontology. Moreover, I have the impression that several preeminent analytic philosophers hold realist views on abstract objects, mostly under influences from Quine and in a smaller degree from Putnam.
Do Armstrong's views about universals entail realism about abstract objects?
No, they do not. Rejecting extreme nominalism, Armstrong maintains that there are properties. (I find it obvious that there properties, a Moorean fact, though I grant that it is not entirely obvious what is obvious.) Armstrong further maintains that properties are universals (repeatables), not particulars (unrepeatables) as they would be if properties were tropes. But his is a theory of immanent universals. This means two things. First, it means that there are no unexemplified universals. Second, it means that universals are constituents of the individuals (thick particulars) that 'have' them. In Wolterstorff's terminology, Armstrong is a constituent ontologist as opposed to a relation ontologist. His universals are ontological parts of the things that 'have' them; they are not denizens of a realm apart only related by an asymmetrical exemplification tie to the things that have them.
So for Armstrong universals are immanent in two senses: (a) they cannot exist unexemplified, and (b) they enter into the structure of ordinary (thick) particulars. It follows that his universals are not abstract objects on the Quinean understanding of abstract objects as neither spatial nor temporal nor causally active/passive. For given (b), universals are where and when the things that have them are, and induce causal powers in these things. And yet they are universals, immanent universals: ones-in-many, not ones-over-many. Some philosophers, including Armstrong, who are not much concerned with historical accuracy, call them 'Aristotelian' universals.
Does Armstrong reject all abstract objects?
Yes he does. Armstrong is a thorough-going naturalist. Reality is exhausted by space-time and the matter that fills it. Hence there is nothing outside of space-time, whether abstract (causally inert) or concrete (causally active/passive). No God, no soul capable of disembodied existence, or embodied existence for that matter, no unexemplified universals, not even exemplified nonconstituent universals, no Fregean propositions, no numbers, no mathematical sets, and of course no Meinongian nonenties.
How do Armstrong and Quine differ on sets or classes?
For Quine, sets are abstract entities outside space and time. They are an addition to being, even in those cases in which the members of a set are concreta. Thus for Quine, Socrates' singleton is an abstract object in addition to the concrete Socrates. For Armstrong, sets supervene upon their members. They are not additions to being. Given the members, the class or set adds nothing ontologically. Sets are no threat to a space-time ontology. (See D. M. Armstrong, Sketch for a Systematic Metaphysics, Oxford UP, 2010, p. 8.)
What about the null set or empty class?
For Armstrong, there is no such entity. "It would be a strange addition to space-time!" he blusters. (Sketch, p. 8, n. 1). Armstrong makes a bad mistake in that footnote. He writes, "Wade Martin has reminded me about the empty class which logicians make a member of every class." Explain the mistake in the ComBox. Explain it correctly and I'll buy you dinner at Tres Banderas.
Are both Quine and Armstrong naturalists?
Yes. The Australian is a thorough-going naturalist: there is nothing that is not a denizen of space-time. The American, for reasons I can't go into, countenances some abstract objects, sets. It is a nice question, which is more the lover of desert landscapes.
According to William Ernest Hocking, to philosophize is to assume that the universe has an objective meaning, one that can be discerned by us. "And since meanings are something more than the bare facts of the natural order, all philosophy is, in its assumptions, contradictory to naturalism, taking naturalism strictly as the negative doctrine that Nature is all there is." (Types of Philosophy, 1929, p. 437)
Ah, the endless and enduring pleasures of a well-stocked library! Of books. Let an EMP, natural or anthropogenic, , bring down the grid. I'm ready.
Do you understand lasagne? Of course you do. But I understand it better because I know how to make it from ingredients none of which is lasagne. (If I were to 'make' lasagne by fusing eight squares of lasagne, and you were a philosopher, you would protest that I hadn't made lasagne but had 'presupposed' it. And you'd be right. That would be like making coffee by pouring eight cups of coffee into a carafe.)
It is tempting to suppose that what we know how to make, we understand. (He said with a sidelong glance in the direction of Giambattista Vico.) Let's give into the temptation. Suppose one day humans create a robot that is really conscious, conscious in the way I believe my wife is conscious. Whether or not I know that she is, in that tough sense of 'know' that entails being certain, I do not doubt for a second that my wife is a genuine bearer of intentional and non-intentional mental states. She has feelings just as I do and she thinks about things just as I do, and this is not a matter of ascription on my part as when I ascribe to my chess computer the 'desire' to inflict mate. Her verbal and non-verbal behavior do not merely simulate, even if exactly, behavior that is expressive of real consciousness; it is behavior that is expressive of real consciousness.
So suppose we have a really conscious robot fabricated to look like a woman, so well fabricated, let us assume, as to fool a gynecologist. If we know that that conscious being is a robot, we may find it hard to believe that she is really conscious. But suppose we can convince ourselves that our robot is really conscious and enjoys an 'inner' life just as we do.
What implications would this have for the mind-body problem? Would the existence of a really conscious robot that we had constructed from non-conscious material parts show that consciousness was a natural phenomenon that arises or emerges from sufficently complicated configurations of wholly material parts? Would it put paid to substance dualism? Would it show that there was nothing supernatural about consciousness? Could one refute substance dualism and the notion that consciousness (including self-consciousness and all spiritual functions) has a higher (non-natural) origin by building a conscious robot?
Many would say 'yes.' But I say 'no.'
If we make a really conscious robot, if we 'synthesize' consciousness and the unity of consciousness from non-conscious materials, what we have done is to assemble components that form a unified physical thing at which consciousness is manifested. But this neutral description of what we have done leaves open two possibilities:
1. The one is that consciousness simply comes into existence without cause at that complex configuration of physical components but is in no way caused by or emergent from that complex configuration. In this case we have not synthesized consciousness from nonconscious materials; we have simply brought together certain material components at which consciousness appears.
2. The other possibility is that consciousness comes into manifestation at the complex configuration of physical componets ab extra, from outside the natural sphere. A crude theological way of thinking of this would be that a purely spiritual being, God, 'implants' consciousness in sufficiently complex physical systems.
On both (1) and (2), consciousness arises at a certain level of materal complexity, but not from matter. On (1) it just arises as a matter of brute fact. On (2), consciousness comes from consciousness. On neither does consciousness have a natural origin. On (1) consciousness does not originate from anything. On (2) it has a non-natural origin.
Given these two possibilities, one cannot validly infer that consciousness is a wholly natural phenomenon from the existence of conscious robots. The existence of conscious robots is logically consistent with (1), with (2), and with the naturalist hypothesis that consciousness is purely natural.
My point could be put as follows. Even if we succeed in creating machines with (literal) minds, this has no bearing on the mind-body problem. This is because it leaves open the three possibilities mentioned. Suppose you are a conscious robot who is thinking about the mind-body problem. Substance dualism would be an option for you. You could not validly infer that your mind is not an immaterial substance from the fact that you were created in Palo Alto by robotics engineers. Same goes with me. I am not a robot, but a conscious animal who came into the world inter faeces et urinam. (Actually, if the truth be told, I came into the this vale of tears by Caesarean section; but let's not quibble: you came into it inter faeces et urinam.) But I cannot validly infer from the fact of my animal origin that my consciousness is a wholly natural function.
Now suppose naturalism is true. There is still the problem of the unintelligibility of the arisal of consciousness from brain matter, an unintelligibility that Colin McGinn, naturalist and atheist, has rightly insisted on. This unintelligibility will not be diminished one iota by the arrival of conscious robots should such robots make the scene in the coming years.
If only naturalism were unmistakably and irrefutably true! A burden would be lifted: no God, no soul, no personal survival of death, an assured exit from the wheel of becoming, no fear of being judged for one’s actions. One could have a good time with a good conscience, Hefner-style. (Or one could have a murderous time like a Saddam or a Stalin.) There would be no nagging sense that one’s self-indulgent behavior might exclude one from a greater good and a higher life. If this is all there is, one could rest easy like Nietzsche’s Last Man who has "his little pleasure for the day and his little pleasure for the night."
If one knew that one were just a complex physical system, one could blow one’s brains out, fully assured that that would be the end, thus implementing an idiosyncratic understanding of "When the going gets tough, the tough get going."
Some atheists psychologize theists thusly: "You believe out of a need for comforting illusions, illusions that pander to your petty ego by promising its perpetuation." But that table can be turned: "You atheists believe as you do so as to rest easy in this life with no demands upon you except the ones that you yourself impose." Psychologizers can be psychologized just as bullshitters can be bullshat – whence it follows that not much is to be expected from either procedure.
Am I perhaps falsely assuming that a naturalist must be a moral slacker, beholden to no moral demand? Does it follow that the naturalist cannot be an idealist, cannot live and sacrifice for high and choice-worthy ideals? Well, he can try to be an idealist, and many naturalists are idealists, and as a matter of plain fact many naturalists are morally decent people, and indeed some of them are morally better people than some anti-naturalists (some theists, for example) -- but what justification could these naturalists have for maintaining the ideals and holding the values that they do maintain and hold?
Where do these ideals come from and what validates them if, at ontological bottom, it is all just "atoms in the void"? And why ought we live up to them? Where does the oughtness, the deontic pull, if you will, come from? If ideals are mere projections, whether individually or collectively, then they have precisely no ontological backing that we are bound to take seriously.
The truth may be this. People who hold a naturalistic view and deny any purpose beyond the purposes that we individually and collectively project, and yet experience their lives as meaningful and purposeful, may simply not appreciate the practical consequences of their own theory. It may be that they have not existentially appropriated or properly internalized their theory. They don't appreciate that their doctrine implies that their lives are objectively meaningless, that their moral seriousness is misguided, that their values are without backing. They are running on the fumes of a moral tradition whose theoretical underpinning they have rejected.
If that is right, then their theory contradicts their practice, but since they either do not fully understand their theory, or do not try to live it, the contradiction remains hidden from them.
The intuitive puzzle is clear, and McGinn presents it with multilayered intensity. He is right that we can never hope to understand how consciousness as we know it in everyday life relates to the brain considered as a lump of matter. But it doesn't follow that consciousness is a mystery -- except insofar as everything is. This move rests on a large assumption that is almost universally held, although it is certainly false.
This is the assumption that we have a pretty good understanding of the nature of matter -- of matter in space -- of the physical in general. It is only relative to this assumption that the existence of consciousness in a material world seems mystifying. For what exactly is puzzling about consciousness, once we put the assumption aside? We know just what it is like. Suppose you have an experience of redness, or pain, and consider it just as such. There doesn't seem to be any room for anything that could be called failure to understand what it is. You know what it is.
BV comments: Strawson is right about one thing: we know what consciousness is from our own case. We experience pains and pleasures, and so on. (And he is also right to avoid the eliminativism that tempts many.) But he misses the problem that McGinn so masterfully presents. It is is not consciousness as we experience it that is puzzling, but how consciousness arises from the gray matter in our skulls. We understand consciousness from the first-person point of view, and our physics gives us a very good understanding of matter from the third-person point of view. What we don't understand is how matter can be conscious.
It is not consciousness that is puzzling, then, but matter. What the existence of consciousness shows is that we have a profoundly inadequate grasp on the nature of matter. McGinn agrees with this last point, in fact: with considerable speculative panache, he develops the idea that there must be something deficient in our idea of space, as well as in our idea of matter. But he still wants to stress the mysteriousness of consciousness; to which the reply, once again, is that we find consciousness mysterious only because we have a bad picture of matter.
BV: Strawson is not making sense. There is nothing particularly puzzling about consciousness, and, contrary to what he says, there is nothing particularly puzzling about brains. What is puzzling is how a brain can be conscious. He doesn't seem to grasp the problem. Besides, how can the existence of consciousness show that we have an inadequate grasp of matter? What does that even mean?
Can anything be done? I think physics can help, by undermining features of our picture of matter that make it appear so totally different from consciousness. The first step is very simple: to begin with, perhaps, one takes it that matter is simply solid stuff, uniform, non-particulate (the ultimate Norwegian cheese). Then one learns that it is composed of distinct atoms -- solid particles that cohere closely together to make up objects, but that have empty space (roughly speaking) between them. Then one learns that these atoms are themselves made up of tiny, separate particles, and full of empty space themselves. One learns that matter is not at all what one thought.
Now one may accept this while retaining the idea that matter is at root solid, dense lumpen stuff, utterly different from consciousness. For so far this picture preserves the idea that there are true particles of matter: tiny grainy bits of ultimate stuff that are in themselves truly solid. And one may say that only these, strictly speaking, are matter -- matter as such. But it's been a long time since the 18th-century philosopher-chemist Joseph Priestley pointed out that there are no scientific grounds for supposing that the fundamental constituents of matter have any truly solid central part, and the picture of grainy, inert particles has effectively disappeared in the strangenesses of modern quantum theory and superstring theory.
Current physics, then, thinks of matter as a thing of forces, energy, fields. And it can also seem natural to think of consciousness as a form or manifestation of energy, as a kind of force, and even, perhaps, as a kind of field. You may still feel the two things are deeply heterogeneous, but you really have no good reason to believe this. You just don't know enough about matter. When McGinn speaks of the ''squishy'' brain, he vividly expresses part of our ordinary idea of matter. But when physics inspects the volume of space-time occupied by a brain, what does it find? It finds a vibrant play of energy, an astonishingly insubstantial, radiant form.
All this being so, do we have any good reason to think that we know anything about the physical that legitimates surprise at the thought that consciousness is itself wholly physical? We do not. And that is the first, crucial step that one must take when facing up to the problem of consciousness.
BV: Strawson is maintaining that the sense of the utter heterogeneity of matter and consciousness arises from an inadequate conception of matter, and that if we had an adequate conception the sense of heterogeneity would dissipate. We would then understand consciousness to be a purely material phenomenon. Now it is true that our concept of matter is pegged to the state of physics, and also true that we now have a more adequate conception of matter than we had in earlier centuries. Well, suppose the volume of space-time occupied by a brain is filled with "a vibrant play of energy, an astonishingly insubstantial, radiant form," as Strawson lyrically puts it. The problem remains: how does brain matter so conceived give rise to consciousness, not to mention thought? The problem remains on any extant conception of matter, no matter how "insubstantial." Strawson is fooling himself if he thinks that the problem arises only on the assumption that matter is the 'ultimate Norwegian cheese."
Strawson is doing nothing more than giving expression to his faith and hope that someday physics will have advanced to the point where it will become intelligible how the brain matter in animals of our complexity can be conscious. But he has no idea of what the solution will look like. He is gesturing hopefully in the direction of he-knows-not-what. Both he and McGinn are naturalists. But he is an optimist where McGinn is a pessimist. Strawson pins his hopes on future physics. McGinn has no such faith or hope. His view is that the matter-consciousness problem has a solution but it is one our cognitive architecture prevents us from ever knowing.
Both philosophers are naturalists who maintain that there is nothing non-natural or supernatural about consciousness. I am not a naturalist. But if I were I would say that McGinn's position is the more reasonable of the two. What best explains the intractability, hitherto, of the problems in the philosophy of mind? Our lack of understanding of physics, or something about our cogntive architecture that makes it impossible for us to grasp the solution? I'd put my money on the latter.
This is the fourth in a series of posts on Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos (Oxford 2012). The posts are conveniently collected under the rubric Nagel, Thomas. Before proceeding with my account of Chapter 4, I will pause in this entry to consider Elliot Sober's serious, substantial, and sober Boston Reviewreview. Sober's sobriety lapses only in the subtitle (which may have been supplied by the editor): "Ending Science as We Know It."
According to Sober, Nagel " . . . argues that evolutionary biology is fundamentally flawed and that physics also needs to be rethought—that we need a new way to do science." This seems to me to misrepresent Nagel's project. His project is not to "end science as we know it" but to indicate the limits of scientific explanation. A legitimate philosophical task is to investigate the limits of even the most successful sciences. (4) Now, to investigate and point out the limits of evolutionary biology and physics is not to argue that they are "fundamentally flawed." They do what they are supposed to do, and the fact that they do not, or cannot, explain certain phenomena that certain scientistically inclined people would like them to explain, is no argument against them. After all, physics cannot explain the proliferation of living species, but that is no argument against physics. If evolutionary biology cannot explain how consciousness arises in certain organisms or the objectively binding character or normative judgments, that is no argument against evolutonary biology. To oppose Darwinian imperialism as Nagel does is not to oppose Darwinism. To suppose that every gap in our understanding can be filled with a Darwinian explanation is rightly ridiculed as "Darwinism of the gaps." (127)
Nagel's targets are not existing successful sciences. He tells us right at the outset what his target is (bolding added): "My target is a comprehensive, speculative world picture that is reached by extrapolation from some of the discoveries of biology, chemistry, and physics -- a particular naturalistic Weltanschauung that postulates a hierarchical relation among the subjects of those sciences, and the completeness in principle of an explanation of everything in the universe through their unification." (4) He goes on to characterize this worldview as "materialist reductionism" and "reductive materialism."
Nagel is therefore not opposing any science but rather a philosophical position, materialist reductionism, that is reached by a speculative-philosophical extrapolation from some of the results of the sciences.
Although Nagel admits that there are some brute facts, mind, the intelligibility of the world, and the fact that there are conscious organisms (45) are not among them. Mind is not an accident or fluke (16) and "The intelligibility of the world is no accident." One of the limits of current evolutionary theory is that it cannot explain why these remarkable fact are non-accidental. Sober does not understand why, if some facts are brute, the remarkable facts of mind, intelligibilty and consciousness are not among them:
My philosophical feelings diverge from Nagel’s. I think that Beethoven’s existence is remarkable, but I regard it as a fluke. He could easily have failed to exist. Indeed, my jaded complacency about Beethoven scales up. I don’t think that life, intelligence, and consciousness had to be in the cards from the universe’s beginning. I am happy to leave this question to the scientists. If they tell me that these events were improbable, I do not shake my head and insist that the scientists must be missing something. There is no such must. Something can be both remarkable and improbable.
Sober seems to be imputing to Nagel the following argument:
What is remarkable cannot be improbable. Life, consciousness, reason, etc. are remarkable Therefore Life, consciousness, reason, etc. cannot be improbable.
Now this is an unsound argument, of course: Beethoven's existence was remarkable but improbable. But this is not the way Nagel is arguing. He needn't be read as denying that there is an element of chance in the appearance of Beethoven, a particular instance of life, consciousness, and reason. His point is rather that consciousness and reason in general cannot be cosmic accidents. Sober ignores what is specific to reason, and views it as just another remarkable fact. Nagel's actual argument (see p. 86) is rather along these lines:
1. There are organisms capable of reason. 2. The possibility of such beings must have been there from the beginning. 3. This possibility, however, must be grounded in and explained by the nature of the cosmos. 4. What's more, the nature of the cosmos must explain not only the possibiity but also the actuality of rational animals: their occurrence cannot be a brute fact or accident.
I take Nagel to be maintaining that the eventual existence of some rational beings or other is no accident -- which is consistent with maintaining that there is an element of chance involved in the appearance of any particular instance of reason such as Beethoven.
Of course, Sober will still balk. Why can't reason be a fluke? Even if we grant Nagel that the intelligibility of nature could not have been a fluke or brute fact, how does it follow that the actual existence of some rational beings or other, beings capable of 'glomming onto' the world's intelligible structure, is not a fluke? In a later post I will try to beef up Nagel's argument so that it can meet this demand.
For now, though, we have a stand-off. Nagel has this deep sense, which I share, that "rational intelligibility is at the root of the natural order . . . ." (17) Sober in his sobriety does not share that sense.
There is more to Sober's criqiue than this, but this is enough for today.
This is the third in a series of posts on Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos (Oxford 2012). The first is an overview, and the second addresses Nagel's reason for rejecting theism. This post will comment on some of the content in Chapter 4, "Cognition."
In Chapter 4, Nagel tackles the topic of reason, both theoretical and practical. The emphasis is on theoretical reason, with practical reason receiving a closer treatment in the following chapter entitled "Value."
We have already seen that consciousness presents a problem for evolutionary reductionism due to its irreducibly subjective character. (For some explanation of this irreducibly subjective character, see my Like, What Does It Mean?)
'Consciousness' taken narrowly refers to phenomenal consciousness, pleasures, pains, emotions, and the like, but taken widely it embraces also thought, reasoning and evaluation. Sensory qualia are present in nonhuman animals, but only we think, reason, and evaluate. We evaluate our thoughts as either true or false, our reasonings as either valid or invalid, and our actions as either right or wrong, good or bad. These higher-level capacities can be possessed only by beings that are also conscious in the narrow sense. Thus no computer literally thinks or reasons or evaluates the quality of its reasoning imposing norms on itself as to how it ought to reason if it is to arrive at truth; at best computers simulate these activities. Talk of computers thinking is metaphorical. This is a contested point, of course. But if mind is a biological phenomenon as Nagel maintains, then this is not particularly surprising.
What makes consciousness fascinating is that while it is irreducibly subjective, it is also, in its higher manifestations, transcensive of subjectivity. (This is my formulation, not Nagel's.) Mind is not trapped within its interiority but transcends it toward impersonal objectivity, the "view from nowhere." Consciousness develops into "an instrument of transcendence that can grasp objective reality and objective value." (85) Both sides of mind, the subjective and the objective, pose a problem for reductive naturalism. "It is not merely the subjectivity of thought but its capacity to transcend subjectivity and to dsiscover what is objectively the case that presents a problem." (72)
Exactly right! One cannot prise apart the two sides of mind, segregating the qualia problem from the intentionality problem, calling the former 'hard' and imagining the latter to be solved by some functionalist analysis. It just won't work. The so-called Hard Problem is actually insoluble on reductive naturalism, and so is the intentionality problem. (Some who appreciate this go eliminativist -- which is a bit like getting rid of a headache by blowing one's brains out.)
The main problem Nagel deals with in this chapter concerns the reliability of reason. Now it is a given that reason is reliable, though not infallible, and that it is a source of objective knowledge. The problem is not whether reason is reliable as a source of knowledge, but how it it is possible for reason to be reliable if evolutionary naturalism is true. I think it is helpful to divide this question into two:
Q1. How can reason be reliable if materialist evolutionary naturalism is true?
Q2. How can reason be reliable if evolutionary naturalism is true?
Let us not forget that Nagel himself is an evolutionary naturalist. He is clearly a naturalist as I explained in my first post, and he does not deny the central tenets of the theory of evolution. His objections are to reductive materialism (psychophysical reductionism) and not to either naturalism or evolution. Now Nagel is quite convinced, and I am too, that the answer to (Q1) is that it is not possible for reason to be relied upon in the manner in which we do in fact rely upon it, if materialism is true. The open question for Nagel is (Q2). Reason is reliable, and some version of evolutionary naturalism is also true. The problem is to understand how it is possible for both of them to be true.
Now in this post I am not concerned with Nagel's tentative and admttedly speculative answer to (Q2). I hope to take that up in a subsequent post. My task at present is to understand why Nagel thinks that it is not possible for reason to be reliable if materialism is true.
Suppose we contrast seeing a tree with grasping a truth by reason.
Vision is for the most part reliable: I am, for the most part, justified in believing the evidence of my senses. And this despite the fact that from time to time I fall victim to perceptual illusions. My justification is in no way undermined if I think of myself and my visual system as a product of Darwinian natural selection. "I am nevertheless justified in believing the evidence of my senses for the most part, because this is consistent with the hypothesis that an accurate representation of the world around me results from senses shaped by evolution to serve that function." (80)
Now suppose I grasp a truth by reason. (E.g., that I must be driving North because the rising sun is on my right.) Can the correctness of this logical inference be confirmed by the reflection that the reliability of logical thinking is consistent with the hypothesis that evolution has selected instances of such thinking for accuracy?
No, says Nagel and for a very powerful reason. When I reason I engage in such operations as the following: I make judgments about consistency and inconsistency; draw conclusions from premises; subsume particulars under universals, etc. So if I judge that the reliability of reason is consistent with an evolutionary explanation of its origin, I presuppose the reliability of reason in making this very judgement. Nagel writes:
It is not possible to think, "reliance on my reason, including my reliance on this very judgment, is reasonable because it is consistent with its having an evolutionary explanation." Therefore any evolutionary account of the place of reason presupposes reason's validity and cannot confirm it without circularity. (80-81)
Nagel's point is that the validity of reason can neither be confirmed nor undermined by any evolutionary account of its origins. Moreover, if reason has a merely materialist origin it would not be reliable, for then its appearance would be a fluke or accident. And yet reason is tied to organisms just as consciousness is. Nagel faces the problem of explaining how reason can be what it is, an "instrument of transcendence" (85) and a "final court of appeal" (83), while also being wholly natural and a product of evolution. I'll address this topic in a later post.
Why can't reason be a cosmic accident, a fluke? This is discussed in my second post linked to above, though I suspect I will be coming back to it.
I think I shall have to write a number of posts on this exciting and idea-rich book by one of our best philosophers. Here is the first.
Short (128 pp.) and programmatic, Thomas Nagel's new book explores the prospects of an approach in the philosophy of mind that is naturalistic yet not materialistic. His approach is naturalistic in that he locates the source of the world's intelligibility in it, and not in a transcendent being such as God outside it. As Nagel rightly observes, "Theism pushes the quest for intelligibility outside the world." (p. 45)
Nagel's approach is also naturalistic in that he views mind as a biological phenomenon as it could not be if substance dualism were true. But while naturalistic, Nagel also rejects "psychophysical reductionism" or "reductive materialism." Thus he rejects naturalism as currently articulated without embracing any form of anti-naturalism such as theism. Nagel, we might say, seeks a middle path between theistic anti-naturalism and materialistic naturalism. The latter is just materialism which Nagel defines as follows:
Materialism is the view that only the physical world is irreducibly real, and that a place must be found in it for mind, if there is such a thing. This would continue the onward march of physical science, through molecular biology, to full closure by swallowing up the mind in the objective physical reality from which it was initially excluded. (37)
This is a useful definition. Materialism is either eliminativist or reductivist. Now obviously there is such a thing as mind, so eliminativism is not an option. (41) My arguments against it here. So the materialist must try to show that mind belongs to objective physical reality and that everything about it is understandable in the way everything else in objective physical reality is understandable. In this way materialism closes upon itself, explaining not only the world the mind engages, but the engaging mind itself. I agree with Nagel that reductive materialism is untenable.
Treading his via media between theism and materialism, Nagel reopens the case for neutral monism and panpsychism. How does he get to these positions? This is what I will try to figure out in this post.
Mind is a biological phenomenon. We are organisms in nature, not Cartesian egos contingently attached to physical bodies. But we are conscious organisms. We are subjects of such qualitative states as pleasure and pain, and we are individuals with a subjective point of view. If psychophysical reductionism fails, as both Nagel and I maintain, then physical science, even if it can explain our existence as organisms adapted to an environment, cannot explain our existence as conscious organisms. We are not just objects in the world, we are subjects for whom there is a world. Even if the first fact can be adequately explained by physical science, the second, our subjectivity, cannot be.
Given the failure of psychophysical reductionism, and given that mind is a biological phenomenon encountered only in conscious organisms that have evolved from pre-conscious organisms, evolutionary theory cannot be a purely physical theory. (44) The 'makings' of conscious organsims must already be present in pre-conscious life forms. In this way the mind-body problem spreads to the entire cosmos and its history. Thus "the mind-body problem is not just a local problem" that concerns such minded organisms as ourselves. (3)
Inanimate matter evolved into pre-conscious life forms, and these evolved into conscious life forms. Since conscious organisms qua conscious cannot be understood materalistically, the same is true of pre-conscious life forms: the reduction of biology to physics and chemistry will also fail. This is because life must contain within it the 'makings' of consciousness. That is my way of putting it, not Nagel's.
Turning it around the other way, if we are to have an adequate naturalistic explanation of conscious organisms, then this cannot be "a purely physical explanation." (44) And so Nagel floats the suggestion of a global (as opposed to local) neutral monism "according to which the constituents of the universe have properties that explain not only its [mental life's] physical but its mental character." (56) Conscious organisms are composed of the same ultimate stuff as everything else is. For this reason, neutral monism cannot be kept local but goes global or "universal." (57) The idea, I take it, is that even the merely physical is proto-mental, the merely living being even more so. When conscious organisms arrive on the scene, the proto-mental constituents achieve an arrangement and composition that amounts to mental life as we know it.
Now how do we get from this universal neutral monism to panpsychism? Well, a universal neutral monism just is panpsychism: the ultimate constituents of nature are all of them proto-mental. Mind is everywhere since everything is composed of the same proto-mental constituents. But it is equally true that matter is everywhere since there is nothing mental or proto-mental that is not also physical.
Thus we arrive at a position that is neither theistic nor reductively materialistic.
Let me now try to list the key premises/assumptions in Nagel's argument for his panpsychistic naturalism.
1. Consciousness is real. Eliminativist materialism is a complete non-starter.
2. Naturalism: Consciousness occurs only in conscious organisms, hence cannot occur without physical realization. Mind is a biological phenomenon. No God, no Cartesian minds. No substance dualism, no theism.
3. Reductive Materialism (psychophysical reductionism) is untenable.
4. Consciousness cannot be a brute fact. Mind is not an accident but "a basic aspect of nature." (16) It cannot be that consciousness just inexplicably occurred at a certain point in evolutionary history when organisms of a certain physical complexity appeared. The arrival of conscious organisms needs an explanation, and this explanation cannot be an explanation merely of their physical character. It must also explain their mental character. But this materialism cannot do. Hence "materialism is incomplete even as a theory of the physical world, since the physical world includes conscious organisms as its most striking occupants." (45)
5. Nature is intelligible. Its intelligibility is inherent in it and thus not imposed on it by us or by God. The intelligibility of nature is not a brute fact: nature doesn't just happen, inexplicably, to possess a rational order that is understandable by us. I take Nagel's position to be that intelligibility is a necessary feature of anything that could count as a cosmos. Thus it needs no explanation and surely cannot have a materialist one: it cannot possibly be the case that the intelligibility of nature arose at some time in the past via the operation of material causes. The universe is so constituted as to be understandable, and we, as parts of it, are so constituted as to be able to understand it. (16-17)
I accept all of these propositions except (2). So in a subsequent post I must examine whether Nagel's case against theism is stronger than his case for his panpsychism.
So far I have run across David Gordon's very good treatment of one aspect of Thomas Nagel's project in Mind and Cosmos(Oxford 2012) entitled Moral Realism vs. Evolutionary Biology? Other than that it has been slim pickin's when it comes to informed, nontendentious discussions of Nagel's latest. I've heard that Plantinga is writing a review, but it hasn't yet appeared to my knowledge.
A certain blogger famous for his academic gossip site, arguably the preeminent such site in the whole of the philososphere, published a hit piece in a certain left wing publication but it is not worth reading. (Antecedent of 'it' left ambiguous: take it both ways.)
ComBox is open should anyone know of any good reviews or discussions of Nagel's book. I'm on p. 76 and will post something in the next few days.
Here are excerpts from a Gordon review of an earlier Nagel book.
Plantinga's latest is entitled, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. Here is Nagel's review. Like everything Nagel publishes, it is well worth careful reading. The review ends as follows:
The interest of this book, especially for secular readers, is its presentation from the inside of the point of view of a philosophically subtle and scientifically informed theist—an outlook with which many of them will not be familiar. Plantinga writes clearly and accessibly, and sometimes acidly—in response to aggressive critics of religion like Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. His comprehensive stand is a valuable contribution to this debate.
I say this as someone who cannot imagine believing what he believes. But even those who cannot accept the theist alternative should admit that Plantinga’s criticisms of naturalism are directed at the deepest problem with that view—how it can account for the appearance, through the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry, of conscious beings like ourselves, capable of discovering those laws and understanding the universe that they govern. Defenders of naturalism have not ignored this problem, but I believe that so far, even with the aid of evolutionary theory, they have not proposed a credible solution. Perhaps theism and materialist naturalism are not the only alternatives.
I didn't finish my series of detailed posts on Plantinga's Where the Conflict Lies, but here are the ones I posted:
1. Ernst Mach Spies a Shabby Pedagogue. In The Analysis of Sensations (Dover, 1959, p. 4, n. 1) Ernst Mach (1838-1916) offers the following anecdote:
Not long ago, after a trying railway journey by night, when I was very tired, I got into an omnibus, just as another man appeared at the other end. 'What a shabby pedagogue that is, that has just entered,' thought I. It was myself; opposite me hung a large mirror. The physiognomy of my class, accordingly, was better know to me than my own.
When Mach got on the bus he saw himself, but not as himself. His first thought was one expressible by 'The man who just boarded is a shabby pedagogue.' 'The man who just boarded' referred to Mach. Only later did Mach realize that he was referring to himself, a thought that he might have expressed by saying, 'I am a shabby pedagogue.'
Clearly, the thought expressed by 'The man who just boarded is shabby' is distinct from the thought expressed by 'I am shabby.' After all, Mach had the first thought but not the second. So they can't be the same thought. And this despite the fact that the very same property is ascribed to the very same person by both sentences. The difference emerges quite clearly if we alter the example slightly. Suppose Mach sees that the man who has just got on the bus has his fly open. He thinks to himself: The man who has just boarded has his fly open, a thought that leads to no action on Mach's part. But from the thought, I have my fly open, behavioral consequences ensue: Mach buttons his fly. Since the two thoughts have different behavioral consequences, they cannot be the same thought, despite the fact that they attribute the very same property to the very same person.
But if they attribute the same property to the same person, what exactly is the difference between the two thoughts?
Linguistically, the difference is that between a definite description ('the man who just boarded') and the first person singular pronoun 'I.' Since the referent (Frege's Bedeutung) is the same in both cases, namely Mach, one will be tempted to say that the difference is a difference in sense (Frege's Sinn) or mode of presentation (Frege's Darstellungsweise). Mach refers to himself in two different ways, a 3rd-person objective way via a definite description, and a 1st-person subjective way via the first-person singular pronoun.
If this is right, then although there are two different thoughts or propositions, one indexical and the other non-indexical, it might seem that there need only be one fact in the world to serve as truth-maker for both, the fact of Mach's being shabby. This is a non-indexical fact. It might seem that reality is exhausted by non-indexical facts, and that there are no such indexical or perspectival facts as those expressed by 'I am shabby' or 'I am BV' or 'I am the man who just got on the bus.' Accordingly, indexicality is merely a subjective addition, a projection: it belongs to the world as it appears to us, not to the world as it is in reality. On this approach, when BV says or thinks 'I,' he refers to BV in the first-person way with the result that BV appears to BV under the guise of 'I'; but in reality there is no fact corresponding to 'I am BV.'
2. But is this right? There are billions of people in the world and one of them is me. Which one? BV. But if the view sketched above is correct, then it is not an objective fact that one of these people is me. That BV exists is an objective fact, but not that BV is me. BV has two ways of referring to himself but there is only one underlyingobjective fact. Geoffrey Maddell strenuously disagrees:
If I am to see the world in a certain way, then the fact that the world seen in this way is apprehended as such by me cannot be part of the content of that apprehension. If I impose a subjective grid on the world, then it is objectively the case that I do so. To put it bluntly, it is an objective fact about the world that one of the billions of people in it is me. Mind and Materialism, 1988, p. 119.)
Maddell's point is that the first-person point of view is irreducibly real: it itself cannot be a subjective addition supplied from the first-person point of view. It makes sense to say that secondary qualities are projections, but it makes no sense to say that the first-person point of view is a projection. That which first makes possible subjective additions cannot itself be a subjective addition.
Consider the phenomenal redness of a stop sign. It makes sense to say that this secondary quality does not belong to the sign itself in reality, but is instead a property the sign has only in relation to a perceiver. In this sense, secondary qualities are subjective. But to say that subjectivity itself, first-person perspectivity itself, is a subjective projection is unintelligible. It cannot belong to mere appearance, but must exist in reality. As Madell puts it, "Indexical thought cannot be analysed as a certain 'mode of presentation', for the fact that reality is presented to me in some particular way cannot be part of the way in which it is presented." (p. 120)
3. Trouble for materialism. According to materialism, reality is exhausted by non-indexical physical facts. But we have just seen that indexical thoughts are underpinned by indexical facts such as the fact of BV's being me. These facts are irreducibly real, but not physically real. Therefore, materialism is false: reality is not exhausted by non-indexical physical facts.
I now have Alvin Plantinga's new book in my hands. Here are some notes on the preface. Since I agree with almost everything in the preface, the following batch of notes will be interpretive but not critical. Words and phrases enclosed in double quotation marks are Plantinga's ipsissima verba.
1. Plantinga is concerned with the relations among monotheistic religion, natural science, and naturalism. His main thesis is that there is "superficial conflict but deep concord" between natural science and monotheistic religion but "superficial concord but deep conflict" between science and naturalism.
2. The great monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) affirm the existence of "such a person as God." Naturalism is a worldview that entails the nonexistence of such a person. "Naturalism is stronger than atheism." (p. ix) Naturalism entails atheism, but atheism does not entail naturalism. One can be an atheist without being a naturalist. John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart is an example. (My example, not Plantinga's.) But one cannot be a naturalist without being an atheist. This is perhaps obvious, which is why Plantinga doesn't explain it. Roughly, a naturalist holds that the whole of reality (or perhaps only the whole of concrete reality) is exhausted by the space-time system and its contents. No one who holds this can hold that there is such a person as God, God being a purely spiritual agent.
To put it my own way, theistic religion and naturalism could not both be true, but they could both be false. This makes them logical contraries, not contradictories. Their being the former suffices to put them in real conflict. For many of us this is what the ultimate worldview choice comes down to.
3. Plantinga rightly points out that while naturalism is not a religion, it is a worldview that is like a religion. So it can be properly called a quasi-religion. (p. x) This is because it plays many of the same roles that a religion plays. It provides answers to the Big Questions: Does God exist? Can we survive our bodily deaths? How should we live?
I would add that there are religious worldviews and anti-religious worldviews, but that natural science is not a worldview. Science is not in the business of supplying worldview needs: needs for meaning, purpose, guidance, norms and values. Science cannot put religion out of business, as I argue here, though perhaps in some ways that Plantinga would not endorse.
4. Given that naturalism is a quasi-religion, there is a sense in which there is a genuine science vs. religion conflict, namely, a conflict between science and the quasi-religion, naturalism. Very clever!
5. Plantinga's claim that "there is no serious conflict between science and religion" puts him at odds with what I call the Dawkins Gang and what Plantinga calls the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. Plantinga, who never fails us when it comes to wit and style, suggests that the atheism of these four "is adolescent rebellion carried on by other means" (p. xi) that doesn't rise to the level of the the old atheism of Bertrand Russell and John Mackie. "We may perhaps hope that the new atheism is but a temporary blemish on the face of serious conversation in this crucial area." That is indeed the hope of all right-thinking and serious people, whether theists or atheists.
6. Plantinga fully appreciates that modern natural science is a magnficent thing, "the most striking and impressive intellectual phenomenon of the last half millenium." (p. xi) This has led some to the mistake of thinking that science is the ultimate court of appeal when it comes to the fixation of belief. But this can't be right for two reasons. First, science gives us no help in the areas where we most need enlightenment: religion, politics, and morals, for example. (p. xii) There are worldview needs, after all, and science cannot supply them. "Second, science contradicts itself, both over time and at the same time." (p. xii) Indeed it does. But no one, least of all Plantinga, takes that as an argument against science as open-ended inquiry. A question to ruminate on: Should not religion also be thought of as open-ended and subject to correction?
7. I would say that if there is demonstrable conflict between a religious belief and a well-established finding of current natural science, then the religious belief must give way. Plantinga commits himself to something rather less ringing: if there were such a conflict, then "initially, at least, it would cast doubt on those religious beliefs inconsistent with current science."(p. xii). But he doesn't think there is any conflict between "Christian belief and science, while there is conflict between naturalism and science."
8. One apparent conflict is between evolution and religion, another between miracles and science. Plantinga will argue that these conflicts are merely apparent. Theistic religion does not conflict with evolution but with a "philosophical gloss or add-on to the scientific theory of evolution: the claim that it is undirected . . . ." (p. xii) As for miracles, Plantinga says he will show that they do not violate the causal closure of the physical domain and the various conservation laws that govern it. "Any system in which a divine miracle occurs . . . would not be causally closed; hence such a system is not addressed by those laws." (p. xiii) That sounds a bit fishy, but we shall have to see how Plantinga develops the argument.
9. As for the "deep concord" between theistic thinking and science, it is rooted in the imago Dei. If God has created us in his image, then he has created us with the power to understand ourselves and our world. This implies that he he has created us and our world "in such a way that there is a match between our cognitive powers and the world." (p. xiv) I would put it like this: both the intelligibility of the world and our intelligence have a common ground in God. This common ground or source secures both the objectivity of truth and the possibility of our knowing some of it, and thereby the possibility of successful science.
10. But when it comes to naturalism and science, there is "deep and serious conflict." Naturalism entails materialism about the human mind. It entails that we are just complex physical systems. If so, then Plantinga will argue that "it is improbable, given naturalism and evolution, that our cognitive faculties are reliable." If this can be shown, then the conjunction of naturalism and evolution is not rationally acceptable. "Hence naturalism and evolution are in serious conflict: one can't rationally accept them both." (p. xiv)
You say: "I would argue that a naturalist/physicalist/materialist ought to be a moral nihilist, and that when these types fight shy of moral nihilism that merely shows an inability or unwillingness on their part to appreciate the logical consequences of their own doctrine, or else some sort of psychological compartmentalization. "
I agree with you that the naturalist/materialist/physicalist ought - intellectually ought - to be a moral nihilist. Of course, that's not a very popular position. So aren't we left with the case where the naturalist/materialist/physicalist 'ought' to pretend to be otherwise? In other words, when we see someone like Hitchens talking about moral oughts, is this necessarily a case of either compartmentalization or contradiction? What about the other option: they're lying, because what's important is advancing an agenda. After all, moral nihilism doesn't compel one to be up front about one's moral nihilism.
The reader agrees that naturalism logically requires moral nihilism. That it does is not obvious and requires argument. A naturalist might try to argue that objective values either supervene upon, or emerge from, pure natural facts. A huge topic! For one thing, it depends on exactly what sort of naturalism is under discussion. A nonreductive naturalist might escape the entailment, assuming he can make sense of nonreductivism, and good luck with that. But surely an eliminativist naturalist would not. So it seems obvious that eliminativist naturalism does entail moral nihilism. We can raise our question with respect to a naturalist of this stripe.
So, assuming that some versions of naturalism do entail moral nihilism, what ought we say about the naturalist proponent of one of these versions who refuses to accept the consequence?
I suggested that there are two options: either he is simply being logically inconsistent, something I wouldn't put past a 'public intellectual,' or he is compartmentalizing. (I saw a show last night on TV about one 'Mad Dog' Sullivan, mafia hit man. He was a good husband and father when he wasn't gunning people down in cold blood. He'd walk into a bar, shoot his victim through the head, and calmly walk out. He has about 20-30 murders to his 'credit.' He pulled off the compartmentalization by telling himself that his crimes were just 'business.' The most depressing bit came at the end when his wife and two sons insisted that Sullivan was "a good man.")
My reader suggests a third option: (some) naturalists are just lying. They see what their naturalism entails, and they are not compartmentalizing. They are lying to forward their agenda. After all, a fully self-aware moral nihilist would not consider truth to be a an objective value, and so could not have any moral scruples about lying.
I think my reader made a good point. If you are an eliminativist naturalist, and do not accept moral nihilism as a logical consequence of your naturalism, then you are either being logically inconsistent, or you are a self-deceived compartmentalizer, or you are a lousy no good liar!
You can guess what my strategy will be with respect to the other naturalisms. I will test whether or not they collapse into eliminativism in the end.
Could intentonality be an illusion? Of course not. But seemingly intelligent people think otherwise:
A single still photograph doesn't convey movement the way a motion picture does. Watching a sequence of slightly different photos one photo per hour, or per minute, or even one every 6 seconds won't do it either. But looking at the right sequence of still pictures succeeding each other every one-twentieth of a second produces the illusion that the images in each still photo are moving. Increasing the rate enhances the illusion, though beyond a certain rate the illusion gets no better for creatures like us. But it's still an illusion. There is noting to it but the succession of still pictures. That's how movies perpetrate their illusion. The large set of still pictures is organized together in a way that produces in creatures like us the illusion that the images are moving. In creatures with different brains and eyes, ones that work faster, the trick might not work. In ones that work slower, changing the still pictures at the rate of one every hour (as in time-lapse photography) could work. But there is no movement of any of the images in any of the pictures, nor does anything move from one photo onto the next. Of course, the projector is moving, and the photons are moving, and the actors were moving. But all the movement that the movie watcher detects is in the eye of the beholder. That is why the movement is illusory.
The notion that thoughts are about stuff is illusory in roughly the same way. Think of each input/output neural circuit as a single still photo. Now, put together a huge number of input/output circuits in the right way. None of them is about anything; each is just an input/output circuit firing or not. But when they act together, they "project" the illusion that there are thoughts about stuff. They do that through the behavior and the conscious experience (if any) that they produce. (Alex Rosenberg, The Atheists' Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions. The quotation was copied from here.)
Rosenberg is not saying, as an emergentist might, that the synergy of sufficiently many neural circuits gives rise to genuine object-directed thoughts. He is saying something far worse, something literally nonsensical, namely, that the object-directed thought that thoughts are object-directed is an illusion. The absurdity of Rosenberg's position can be seen as follows.
1. Either the words "The notion that thoughts are about stuff is illusory" express a thought -- the thought that there are no object-directed thoughts -- or they do not. 2. If the latter, then the words are meaningless. 3. If the former, then the thought is either true or false. 4. If the thought is true, then there there are no object-directed thoughts, including the one expressed by Rosenberg's words, and so his words are once again meaningless. 5. If the thought is false, then there are object-directed thoughts, and Rosenberg's claim is false. Therefore 6. Rosenberg's claim is either meaningless or false. His position is self-refuting.
As for the analogy, it is perfectly hopeless, presupposing as it does genuine intrinsic intentionality. If I am watching a movie of a man running, then I am under an illusion in that there is nothing moving on the movie screen: there is just a series of stills. But the experience I am undergoing is a perfectly good experience that exhibits genuine intrinsic intentionality: it is a visual experiencing of a man running, or to be perfectly punctilious about it: a visual experiencing AS OF a man running. Whether or not the man depicted exists, as would be the case if the movie were a newsreel, the experience exists, and so cannot be illusory.
To understand the analogy one must understand that there are intentional experiences, experiences that take an accusative. But if you understand that, then you ought to be able to understand that the analogy cannot be used to render intelligible how it might that it is illusory that there are intentional experiences.
What alone remains of interest here is how a seemingly intelligent fellow could adopt a position so manifestly absurd. I suspect the answer is that he has stupefied himself by his blind adherence to scientistic/naturalistic ideology.
Here is an earlier slap at Rosenberg. Peter Lupu joins in the fun here.
The qualia-based objections are supposed to pose a 'hard' problem for defenders of physicalism. The implication is that the problems posed by intentionality are, if not exactly 'easy,' then at least tractable. An earlier post discussed a version of the knowledge argument, which is one of the qualia-based objections. (Two others are the absent qualia argument and the zombie argument.) It seems to me, though, that intentionality is also a damned hard problem for physicalists to solve, so hard in fact as to be insoluble within physicalist constraints and another excellent reason to reject physicalism.
Before proceeding I want to make two preliminary points.
The first is that the untenability of physicalism does not entail the acceptability of substance dualism. Contrapositively, the unacceptability of substance dualism does not entail the tenability of physicalism. So if a physicalist wishes to point out the problems with substance dualism, he is free to do so. But he ought not think that such problems supply compelling reasons to be a physicalist. For it is obvious that the positions stand to each other as logical contraries; hence both could be be false.
We were talking about Frank Jackson's Mary. Now I introduce Marty, a Martian scientist who like Mary knows everything there is to know about human brains and their supporting systems. So he knows all about what goes in the human brain and CNS when we humans suffer and enjoy twinges and tingles, smells and stinks, sights and sounds, etc. We will suppose that Marty's sensorium is very different, perhaps totally different than ours. He may have infrared color qualia but no color qualia corresponding to the portion of the EM spectrum for which we have color qualia. Marty also knows everything there is to know about what goes on in my head when I think about various things. We may even suppose that Marty is studying me right now with his super-sophisticated instruments and knows exactly what is going on in my head right now when I am in various intentional states.
Suppose I am now thinking about dogs. I needn't be thinking about any particular dog; I might just be thinking about getting a dog, which of course does not entail that there is some particular dog, Kramer say, that I am thinking about getting. Indeed, one can think about getting a dog that is distinct from every dog presently in existence! How? By thinking about having a dog breeder do his thing. If a woman tells her husband that she wants a baby, more likely than not, she is not telling him that she wants to kidnap or adopt some existing baby, but that she wants the two of them to engage in the sorts of conjugal activities that can be expected to cause a baby to exist. Same with me. I can want a dog or a cat or a sloop or a matter transmitter even if the object of my wanting does not presently exist.
So right now I am thinking about a dog, but no presently existing dog. My thinking has intentional content. It is an instance of what philosophers call intentionality. My act of thinking takes an object, or has an accusative. It exhibits aboutness or of-ness in the way a pain quale does not exhibit aboutness of of-ness. It is important to realize that my thinking is intrinsically such as to be about a dog: the aboutness is not parasitic upon an external relation to an actual dog. That is why I rigged the example the way I did. My thinking is object-directed despite there being no object in existence to which I am externally related. This blocks attempts to explain intentionality in terms of causation. Such attempts fail in any case. See my post on Representation and Causation.
The question is whether the Martian scientist can determine what that intentional content is by monitoring my neural states during the period of time I am thinking about a dog. The content before my mind has various subcontents: hairy critter, mammal, barking animal, man's best friend . . . . But none of this content will be discernible to the Martian neuroscientist on the basis of complete knowledge of my neural states, their relations to each other and to sensory input and behavioral output. To strengthen the argument we may stipulate that Marty lacks the very concept dog. Therefore, there is more to the mind than what can be known by even a completed neuroscience. Physicalism (materialism) is false.
The argument is this:
1. Marty knows all the physical and functional facts about my body and brain during the time I am thinking about a dog. 2. That I am thinking about a dog is a fact. 3. Marty does not know that I am thinking about a dog. Therefore 4. Marty does not know all the facts about me and my mental activity. Therefore 5. There are mental facts that are not physical or functional facts, and physicalism is false.
Credit where credit is due: The above is my take on a more detailed and careful argument presented here by Laurence BonJour. Good day!
1. Many philosophers of mind who eschew substance dualism opt for a property dualism. Allowing only one category of substances, material substances, they allow at least two categories of properties, mental and physical. An example of a mental property is sensing red, or to put it adverbially, the property of sensing redly, or in a Chisholmian variant, being-appeared-to-redly. Any sensory quale would serve as an example of a mental property. Their irreducibility to physical properties is the reason for thinking of them as irreducibly mental properties. This post, taking for granted this irreducibility, focuses on the question whether it is coherent to suppose that a mental property could be had by a physical substance. Before proceeding, I will note that it is not just qualia, but also the phenomena of intentionality that supply us with putative mental properties. Recalling as I am right now a particular dark and rainy night in Charlottesville, Virginia, I am in an intentional state. So one can reasonably speak of my now instantiating an intentional mental property.
In sum, there are (instantiated) mental properties and there are (instantiated) physical properties, and the former are irreducible to the latter.
2. Now could a physical thing such as a (functioning) brain, or a part thereof, be the possessor of a mental property? Finding this incoherent, I suggest that if there are instantiated mental properties, then there are irreducibly mental subjects. Or perhaps you prefer the contrapositive: If there are no irreducibly mental subjects, then there are no irreducibly mental properties. But it all depends on what exactly we mean by mental and physical properties.
3. What is a physical property? An example is the property of weighing 10 kg. Although there are plenty of things that weigh 10 kg, the property of weighing 10 kg does not itself weigh 10 kg. Physical properties are not themselves physical. So in what sense are physical properties 'physical'? It seems we must say that physical properties are physical in virtue of being properties of physical items. And what would the latter be? Well, tables and chairs, and their parts, and their parts, all the way down to celluose molecules, and their atomic parts, and so on, together with the fields and forces pertaining to them, with chemistry and physics being the ultimate authorities as to what exactly counts as physical.
So I'm not saying that a physical property is a property of a physical thing where a physical thing is a thing having physical properties. That would be circular. I am saying that a physical property is a property of a physical item where physical items are (i) obvious meso- and macro-particulars such as tables and turnips and planets, and (ii) the much less obvious micro-particulars that natural science tells us all these things are ultimately made of. Taking a stab at a definition:
D1. P is a physical property =df P is such that, if it is instantiated, then it is instantiated by a physical item.
Admirably latitudinarian, this definition allows a property to be physical even if no actual item possesses it. This is is as it should be.
4. Now if a physical property is a property of physical items, then a mental property is a property of mental items. After all, no mental property is itself a mind. No mental property feels anything, or thinks about any thing or wants anything. Just as no physical property is a body, no mental property is a mind. So, in parallel with (D1), we have
D2. P is a mental property =df P is such that, if it is instantiated, then it is instantiated by a mental item.
(D2) implies that if there are any instantiated mental properties, there there are irreducibly mental items, i.e., minds or mental subjects. Now there are instantiated mental properties. Therefore, there are irreducibly mental subjects. For all I have shown, these subjects might be momentary entities, hence not substances in the full sense of the term, where this implies being a continuant. The main point, however, is that what instantiates mental properties must be irreducibly mental and so cannot be physical. Therefore, brains could not have mental properties.
This flies in the face of much current opinion. So let's think about it some more. If you countenance irreducibly mental properties being instantiated by brains, do you also countenance irreducibly physical properties being instantiated by nonphysical items such as minds or abstracta? Do you consider it an open question whether some numbers have mass, density, velocity? How fast, and in what direction, is that mathematical function moving? If physical properties cannot be instantiated by nonphysical items, but mental properties can be instantited by nonmental items, then we are owed an explanation of this asymmetry. It is difficult to see what that explanation could be.
5. My argument, then, is this:
a) If there are any instantiated mental properties, then there are irreducibly mental subjects. b) There are some instantiated mental properties. Therefore c) There are irreducibly mental subjects.
(a) rests on (D2).
The attempt to combine property dualism with substance monism is a failure. If all substances are physical, then all properties of these substances are physical. If, on the other hand, there are both mental and physical properties, then there must be both mental and physical subjects, if not substances. A physical item can no more instantiate a mental property than a mental item can instantiate a physical property.
There are different sorts of materialism about the mind, among them eliminative materialism, identity-materialism, and functionalism. There is also mysterian materialism. Here is a little speech by a mysterian materialist:
Look, we are just complex physical systems, and as such wholly understandable in natural-scientific terms, if not now in full, then in the future. And yet we think and are conscious. Therefore, we are wholly material beings who think and are conscious. We cannot understand how this is possible. But it is actual, hence possible, whether or not we understand or even can understand how it is possible. It's a mystery, but true nonetheless.
What motivates this mysterian view? There is first of all the deep conviction shared by many today that there is exactly one world, this physical world, that we are parts of it, that nothing in us is not part of it, and that it and us are wholly understandable in terms of the natural sciences. This naturalist conviction implies that there is nothing special about us, that we are continuous with the rest of nature. We are nothing special in that we have no higher origin or destiny. We are mortal, like everything else that lives, and anything (conscience, consciousness, ability to reason,sensus divinitatis, etc.) that suggests otherwise is susceptible of a wholly naturalistic explanation. Part of why people embrace the naturalist conviction is that it puts paid to central tenets of old-time religion: God, the soul, post-mortem rewards and punishments, the libertarian freedom of the will, man's being an image and likeness of God, etc. So hostility to religion is certainly, for some, part of the psychological (if not logical) motivation for the acceptance of the naturalist conviction.
Now take the naturalist conviction and conjoin it to the intellectually honest admission that we have no idea at all how it is so much as possible for a wholly material being to think and enjoy conscious states. The conjunction of the Conviction and the Admission generates a mysterian position according to which one affirms as true a proposition that one cannot understand as possibly true, namely, the proposition that we are wholly material beings susceptible of exhaustive natural-scientific explanation who nonetheless think, feel, love, make and feel subject to moral demands, etc.
This mysterianism is an epistemological position according to which our very make-up makes it impossible for us ever to understand how it is possible for us to think and be conscious. The claim is not that thought and consciousness are mysterious because they are non-natural phenomena; the claim is that they are wholly natural but not understandable by us.
Well, this mysterianism is certainly to be preferred to an eliminativism which argues from the unintellibility of a material thing's thinking to the nonexistence of its thinking. But eliminativism is a lunatic position best left to the exceedingly intelligent lunatics who dreamt it up.
The mysterian position cannot be so readily dismissed. But surely there is something very strange about maintaining that there are true mysteries. If a proposition either is or entails a broadly-logical contradiction, then I wouldn't know what I had before my mind if I had such a proposition before my mind. And if I didn't know exactly which proposition I had before my mind, I wouldn't know exactly which proposition I was claiming was both true and mysterious.
Before I can take a position with respect to a proposition I must know what the hell that proposition is.
I count four positions or attitudes one can take toward a proposition: accept as true, reject as false, suspend judgment as to truth-value, practice epoché , ἐποχή. Pithier still: Accept, Reject, Suspend, Withdraw. The first three are self-explanatory. By Withdraw I mean: take no position on whether or not there is even a proposition (ein Gedanke, a complete thought) before one's mind. (The notion is derived via Benson Mates from Sextus Empiricus.) Withdrawal goes farther than Suspension. To suspend is to refuse to accept or reject a well-defined proposition while accepting that there is such a proposition before one's mind. In the state of Withdrawal I take no position on whether or not there is a well-defined proposition before my mind.
Example. A Trinitarian says, 'There is exactly one God in three divine persons.' Studying the doctrine I come to the conclusion that I can attach no definite sense to it on the ground that it seems to me to entail one or more logical contradictions. That is not a case of rejection or of suspension; it is a case of epoché. I 'bracket' (to borrow a term now from Husserl) two questions: the question as to truth-value, and the more fundamental question as to whether or not there is even a proposition (a unified, coherent, sense-structure) before my mind as opposed to an incoherent, un-unified bunch of word-senses.
Suppose you say to me, "Snow is white and snow is not white." Being the charitable fellow that I am known to be, I would not churlishly jump to impute to you the assertion of a contradiction. I would take you to be using a contradictory form of words to express a non-contradictory proposition, perhaps, the proposition that snow is white where I didn't relieve myself, but not white where I did. Or something like that. The time-honored method of showing an apparent contradiction to be merely apparent is by making a distinction in respect of time, or respect, or word sense.
But if someone insists that he means literally that snow is white and snow is not white where there is no distinction in respect of time, respect, or sense of the word 'white,' then I wouldn't know what the content of the assertion was. I wouldn't know which proposition my interlocutor was trying get across to me. For if my interlocutor was otherwise rational, the principle of charity would forbid me from imputing a contradiction to him. I would have to practice withdrawal.
And so it is with the mysterian materialist. He bids me accept propositions that as far as can tell are not propositions at all. A proposition is a sense, but the 'propositions' he bids me accept make no sense. For example, he wants me to accept that my present memories of Boston are all identical to states of my brain. That makes no sense. Memory states are intentional states: they have content. No physical state has content. So no intentional state could be a physical state. The very idea is unintelligible. Where there are no thoughts one can always mouth words. So one can mouth the words, 'Memories are in the head' or 'Thoughts are literally brain states.' But one cannot attach a noncontradictory thought to the words.
No doubt there is an illusion of sense. There is nothing syntactically wrong with 'Thoughts are brain states' or 'Sensory qualia are physical features of the brain.' And the individual words have meaning. What's more, the words taken together seem to convey a coherent thought in the way in which 'Quadruplicity drinks procrastination' does not seem to convey a coherent thought. But when the meaning is made explicit, the unintelligibility becomes manifest.
My thesis is that the mysterian thesis that these unintelligible claims are true but mysterious in that they cannot be understood by us to be so much as possibly true, is itself unintelligible. For again, what is the identity of the proposition that I am supposed toaccept as both true and mysterious?
Mysterianism is the conjunction of the naturalist conviction and the intellectually honest admission that no one has any idea of how to account for consciousness in natural-scientific terms. Given that mysterianism is untenable for the reason I adduced, the reasonable thing to do is to jettison the naturalist conviction which, after all, is merely a conviction, a deep-seated belief that is just happening to to be getting a lot of play these days.
Here is a brief explanation of mysterianism with some references.
You are out hiking and the trail becomes faint and hard to follow. You peer into the distance and see what appear to be three stacked rocks. Looking a bit farther, you see another such stack. Now you are confident which way the trail goes. Your confidence increases as further cairns come into view. On what does this confidence rest?
Your confidence is based on your taking the rock piles as other than merely natural formations. You take them as providing information about the trail's direction, which is to say that you to take them as trail markers, as meaning something, as about something distinct from themselves, as exhibiting intentionality, to use a philosopher's term of art.
Of course, the rock piles might have come into existence via purely natural causes: a rainstorm might have dislodged some rocks with gravity plus other purely material factors accounting for their placement. Highly unlikely, but nomologically possible. But please note that if you believe that the cairns originated in that way, then you could not take them as embodying information about the direction of the trail. It would be irrational in excelsis to hold both that (i) these rock piles came about randomly; and that (ii) these rock piles inform us of the trail's direction.
So if you take the rock piles as trail markers, then you take them as other than merely natural formations caused to exist by natural causes. You take the stacking and the placement as expressive of the purposes of a trail-blazer or trail-maintainer, an intelligent being who had it in mind to convey information to himself and others concerning the direction of the trail. This shows that any intentionality embodied in the cairns is derivative rather than intrinsic. The rock piles in and of themselves do not inform us of the trail's direction. They provide us this information only if we take them as embodying the purposes of an intelligent being. Of course, my taking of rock piles as embodying the purposes of an intelligent being does not entail that they do in fact embody the purposes of an intelligent being. But in most cases my ascription of a purpose corresponds to a purpose: I ascribe a purpose and the rock piles do in fact embody a purpose.
Thus there are two streams of intrinsic intentionality converging on the same object, one emanating from me, the other from the trail-maintainer. The latter's embodying of his purpose in the cairn construction is a case of intrinsic intentionality. And when I take the rock piles as embodying the trail-maintainer's purpose thereby ascribing to the rock piles a purpose, that too is a case of intrinsic intentionality.
The ascribing of a purpose and the embodying of a purpose are usually 'in sync.' There are rock piles that have no meaning and rock piles that have meaning. But no rock pile has intrinsic meaning. And the same goes for any material item or configuration of material items no matter how complex. No such system has intrinsic meaning; any meaning it has is derived. The meaning is derived either from an intelligent being who ascribes meaning to the material system, or from an intelligent being whose purposes are embodied in the material system, or both.
Thus I am rejecting the view that meaning could inhere in material systems apart from relations to minds that are intrinsically intentional, minds who are original Sinn-ers, if you will, original mean-ers. We are all of us Sinn-ers, every man Jack of us, original Sinn-ers, but our Sinn-ing is not mortal but vital. Intentionality is our very lifeblood as spiritual beings.
I am rejecting the view that any sort of isomorphism, no matter how abstract, could make the rock piles mean or represent the trail's direction. No doubt there is an isomorphism: the trail goes where the cairns go. No one cairn resembles the trail to any appreciable extent; but the cairns taken collectively do resemble the trail. Unfortunately, the trail also resembles the cairns. But the trail does not represent the cairns.
Representation is most of the time asymmetrical; but resemblance is always symmetrical. I conclude that resemblance cannot constitute representation. Note also that the cairns might resemble things other than the trail. Thus the cairns taken collectively might resemble the path of a subterranean gopher tunnel directly below the trail and following it exactly. But obviously, the cairns do not mark this gopher tunnel. Note also that isomorphism is not sensitive to the difference between rocks whose stacking is artificial, i.e., an artifact of a purposive agent, and rocks whose stacking came about via random purely natural processes. But it is only if the stacking is artificial that the stacks would mean anything. And if the stacking is artificial/artifactual, then there is a purposive agent possessing intrinsic intentionality.
I have in my hand a copy of Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (Oxford University Press, 1997). The last essay in The Last Word is entitled, "Evolutionary Naturalism and the Fear of Religion." One hopes that Nagel does not consider it the last word on the topic given its fragmentary nature and occasional perversity. But it's a good essay nonetheless. Everything by Thomas Nagel is worth reading. Herewith, a bit of interpretive summary with quotations and comments.
Nagel's essay begins by pointing out a certain Platonism in the philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce, a Platonism that is foreign to pragmatism as usually understood. Nagel quotes Peirce as saying that the aim of science is "eternal verities," a notion at odds with the Jamesian view that the true is that which it is good for us to believe. What science is after is not a set of beliefs conducive to our flourishing but a set of beliefs that correspond to the world as it is independently of us. The researcher aims to "learn the lesson that nature has to teach. . . ." But to do this, the inquiring mind must "call upon its inward sympathy with nature, its instinct for aid, just as we find Galileo at the dawn of modern science making his appeal to il lume naturale [the natural light]. . . ."
Nagel finds these "radically antireductionist" and "realist" thoughts "entirely congenial" but "quite out of keeping with present fashion." (129) And talk of an "inward sympathy" of the inquiring mind with nature he finds "alarmingly Platonist."
But why should Nagel be alarmed at the Platonist view that reason operating properly mirrors the antecedent structure of reality? His alarm is rooted in the suspicion that the Platonist view is "religious, or quasi-religious." (130) A rationalism such as the Platonic "makes us more at home in the universe than is secularly comfortable." (130, emphasis in original.) That there should be a fundamental harmony between mind and world makes people "nervous" nowadays. This uncomfortableness and nervousness is one manifestation of the fear of religion in intellectual life.
Nagel makes it clear that he is talking about the fear of religion as such, and not merely fear of certain of its excesses and aberrations, and confesses that he himself is subject to this fear:
I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that. (130, emphasis added)
Nagel admits that he may just have a "cosmic authority problem." But then he says something very perceptive in a passage that may be directed against Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett:
My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind. (131)
Let me give an example of my own of the overuse of evolutionary biology. After Dawkins introduced the term 'meme' along about 1976, Dennett ran with it like a crazed footballer. Roughly, a meme is a self-replicating entity that plays on the cultural level the role that the gene plays on the biological level. They are like ideas, except that they are thought of -- literally, Dennett assures us -- as brain parasites. (Consciousness Explained, p. 220) A brain infested with these self-replicating parasites is really all that a mind is: "a human mind is itself an artifact created when memes restructure a human brain in order to make it a better habitat for memes." (CE, p. 207)
Now this is not the place to begin a critique of the meme meme; my only point for the nonce is that Nagel is on to something. Fear of religion with its attendant cosmic authority problem may well be a good part of what is driving this 'philosophy fiction' of Dennett and other fanciful ideas that stem from the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology.
Over breakfast yesterday morning, Peter Lupu uncorked a penetrating observation. The gist of it I took to be as follows. If a naturalist maintains that the physical universe can arise out of nothing without divine or other supernatural agency, then the naturalist cannot rule out the possibility that other things so arise, minds for example -- a result that appears curiously inconsistent with both the spirit and the letter of naturalism. Here is how I would spell out the Lupine thought.
The central thrust of naturalism as an ontological thesis is that the whole of reality is exhausted by the space-time system and what it contains. (To catalog what exactly it contains is a job for the physicist.) But this bald thesis can be weakened in ways consistent with the spirit of naturalism. The weakening makes naturalism more defensible. And so I will irenically assume that it is consistent with the spirit of a latitudinarian naturalism to admit abstracta of various sorts such as Fregean propositions and mathmatical sets. We may also irenically allow the naturalist various emergent/supervenient properties so long as it is understood that emergence/supervenience presupposes an emergence/supervenience base, and that this base is material in nature. I will even go so far as to allow the naturalist emergent/supervenient substances such as individual minds. But again, if this is to count as naturalism, then (i) their arisal must be from matter, and (ii) they cannot, after arising, exist in complete independence of matter.
What every naturalism rules out, including the latitudinarian version just sketched, is the existence of God, classically conceived, or any sort of Absolute Mind, as well as the existence of unembodied and disembodied finite minds.
The naturalist, then, takes as ontologically basic the physical universe, the system of space-time-matter, and denies the existence of non-emergent/supervenient concreta distinct from this system. Well now, what explains the existence of the physical universe, especially if it is only finitely old? One answer, and perhaps the only answer available to the naturalist, is that it came into existence ex nihilo without cause, and thus without divine cause. Hence
1. The physical universe came into existence from nothing without cause.
Applying Existential Generalization and the modal rule ab esse ad posse we get
2. It is possible that something come into existence from nothing without cause.
If so, how can the naturalist exclude the possibility of minds coming into existence but not emerging from a material base? If he thinks it possible that the universe came into existence ex nihilo, then he must allow that it is possible that divine and finite minds also have come into existence ex nihilo. But this is a possibility he cannot countenance given his commitment to saying that everything that exists is either physical or determined by the physical.
This seems to put the naturalist in an embarrassing position. If the universe is finitely old, then it came into existence. You could say it 'emerged.' But on naturalism, there cannot be emergence except from a material base. So either the universe did not emerge or it did, in which case (2) is true and the principle that everything either is or is determined by the physical is violated.
Theism in its various forms faces numerous threats to its truth and coherence. Christianity, for example, is committed to doctrines such as the Trinity whose very coherence is in doubt. And all classical theists face the problem of evil, the problem of reconciling the fact of evil with the existence of a God who is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. Faced with an objection like the one from evil, theists typically don’t give up their belief; keeping the faith, they seek an understanding both of it and its compatibility with the facts and considerations alleged to be inconsistent with it.
What I want to argue is that naturalists employ the principle of Faith Seeking Understanding no less than theists. Naturalism faces numerous threats to its truth and coherence. Let’s start with what philosophers call the phenomenon of intentionality, the peculiar directedness to an object that characterizes (some) mental states. It is very difficult to understand how a purely physical state, a state of the brain for example, could be of, or about, something distinct from it, something that need not exist to be the object of the state in question. How could a physical state have semantic properties, or be true or false? How could a piece of meat be in states that MEAN anything? How do you get meaning out of meat? By squeezing hard? By injecting it with steroids? Does a sufficiently complex hunk of meat suddenly become a semantic engine? How could a brain state, for example, be either true or false? This suggests an argument:
(The following review will be crossposted shortly at Prosblogion. Comments are closed here, but will be open there.)
Apart from what Alvin Plantinga calls creative anti-realism, the two main philosophical options for many of us in the West are some version of naturalism and some version of Judeo-Christian theism. As its title indicates, J. P. Moreland’s The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism (SCM Press, 2009) supports the theistic position by way of a penetrating critique of naturalism and such associated doctrines as scientism. Moreland briefly discusses creative anti-realism in the guise of postmodernism on pp. 13-14, but I won’t report on that except to say that his arguments against it, albeit brief, are to my mind decisive. Section One of this review will present in some detail Moreland’s conception of naturalism and what it entails. Sections Two and Three will discuss his argument from consciousness for the existence of God. Section Four will ever so briefly report on the contents of the rest of the book. In Part Two of this review I hope to discuss Moreland’s critique of Thomas Nagel’s Dismissive Naturalism. Numbers in parentheses are page references. Words and phrases enclosed in double quotation marks are quotations from Moreland. Inverted commas are employed for mentioning and ‘scaring.’
A guest post by Peter Lupu. Minor edits by BV. His comments in blue at the end.
Suppose I am a naturalist. Then I take science seriously just as Alex Rosenberg counsels.I also provisionally trust Rosenberg's argument, thereby, I find myself inclined to believe the conclusions of Rosenberg’s argument. One of these conclusions is
In the ComBox to the article linked to above, Rosenberg, responding to critics, says this among other things:
If beliefs are anything they are brain states—physical configurations of matter. But one configuration of matter cannot, in virtue just of its structure, composition, location, or causal relation, be “about” another configuration of matter in the way original intentionality requires (because it cant [sic] pass the referential opacity test). So, there are no beliefs.
This is a valid argument. To spell it out a bit more clearly: (1) If beliefs are anything, then they are brain states; (2) beliefs exhibit original intentionality; (3) no physical state, and thus no brain state, exhibits original intentionality; therefore (4) there are no beliefs.
But anyone with his head screwed on properly should be able to see that this argument does not establish (4) but is instead a reductio ad absurdum of premise (1) according to which beliefs are nothing if not brain states. For if anything is obvious, it is that there are beliefs. This is a pre-theoretical datum, a given. What they are is up for grabs, but that they are is a starting-point that cannot be denied except by lunatics and those in the grip of an ideology. Since the argument is valid in point of logical form, and the conclusion is manifestly, breath-takingly, false, what the argument shows is that beliefs cannot be brain states.
Now why can't a smart guy like Rosenberg see this? Because he is in the grip of an ideology. It is called scientism, which is not to be confused with science. (Rosenberg talks nonsense at the beginning of his piece where he implies that one does not take science seriously unless one embraces scientism.) Rosenberg thinks that natural-scientific knowledge is the only knowledge worthy of the name and, to cop a line from Wilfrid Sellars, that "science is the measure of all things, of what is that it is, and of what is not, that it is not." (Science, Perception and Reality, p. 173). That is equivalent to the view that reality is exhausted by what natural science (physics, chemistry, evolutionary biology) says exists. This is why Rosenberg thinks that, if beliefs are anything, then they are brain states. Given scientism, plus the assumption (questioned by A. W. Collins in The Nature of Mental Things, U of ND Press, 1987) that beliefs need to be identified with something either literally or figuratively 'inner,' what else could they be? Certainly not states of a Cartesian res cogitans.
The trouble with scientism, of course, is that it cannot be scientifically supported. 'All genuine knowledge is natural-scientific knowledge' is not a proposition of any natural science. It is a bit of philosophy, with all the rights, privileges, and debilities pertaining thereunto. One of the debilities is that it is self-vitiating. For if all genuine knowledge is scientific knowledge, then that very proposition, since it is not an item of scientific knowledge, cannot count as a piece of genuine knowledge. Nor can it ever come to be known.
That won't stop people like Rosenberg from believing it as they are entitled to do. But then scientism it is just one more philosophical belief alongside others, including others that imply its negation.
I think it is clear what a reasonable person must say. The (1)-(4) argument above does not establish (4), it reduces to absurdity (1). The only support for (1) is scientism which we have no good reason to accept. It is nothing more than a bit of ideology.