London Karl brings to my attention an article by Sam Harris touching upon themes dear to my heart. Harris is an impressive fellow, an excellent public speaker, a crusader of sorts who has some important and true things to say, but who is sometimes out beyond his depth, like many public intellectuals who make bold to speak about philosophical topics. (But Harris is surely right clearly and courageously to point out that, among the ideologies extant at the present time, radical Islam is the most dangerous.)
In Rational Mysticism, Harris responds to critic Tom Flynn and in doing so offers characterizations of secularism, religion, and rational mysticism:
I used the words spirituality and mysticism affirmatively, in an attempt to put the range of human experience signified by these terms on a rational footing. It seems to me that the difficulty Flynn had with this enterprise is not a problem with my book, or merely with Flynn, but a larger problem with secularism itself.
As a worldview, secularism has defined itself in opposition to the whirling absurdity of religion. Like atheism (with which it is more or less interchangeable), secularism is a negative dispensation. Being secular is not a positive virtue like being reasonable, wise, or loving. To be secular, one need do nothing more than live in perpetual opposition to the unsubstantiated claims of religious dogmatists. Consequently, secularism has negligible appeal to the culture at large (a practical concern) and negligible content (an intellectual concern). There is, in fact, not much to secularism that should be of interest to anyone, apart from the fact that it is all that stands between sensible people like ourselves and the mad hordes of religious imbeciles who have balkanized our world, impeded the progress of science, and now place civilization itself in jeopardy. Criticizing religious irrationality is absolutely essential. But secularism, being nothing more than the totality of such criticism, can lead its practitioners to reject important features of human experience simply because they have been traditionally associated with religious practice.
The above can be distilled into three propositions:
1. Secularism is wholly defined by what it opposes, religion.
2. Religion is irrational, anti-science, and anti-civilization.
3. It would be a mistake to dismiss mysticism because of its traditional association with religious practice.
The final chapter of my book, which gave Flynn the most trouble, is devoted to the subject of meditation. Meditation, in the sense that I use the term, is nothing more than a method of paying extraordinarily close attention to one’s moment-to-moment experience of the world. There is nothing irrational about doing this (and Flynn admits as much). In fact, such a practice constitutes the only rational basis for making detailed (first-person) claims about the nature of human subjectivity. Difficulties arise for secularists like Flynn, however, once we begin speaking about the kinds of experiences that diligent practitioners of meditation are apt to have. It is an empirical fact that sustained meditation can result in a variety of insights that intelligent people regularly find intellectually credible and personally transformative. The problem, however, is that these insights are almost always sought and expressed in a religious context. One such insight is that the feeling we call “I”—the sense that there is a thinker giving rise to our thoughts, an experiencer distinct from the mere flow of experience—can disappear when looked for in a rigorous way. Our conventional sense of “self” is, in fact, nothing more than a cognitive illusion, and dispelling this illusion opens the mind to extraordinary experiences of happiness. This is not a proposition to be accepted on faith; it is an empirical observation, analogous to the discovery of one’s optic blind spots.
To continue with the distillation:
4. Meditation, defined as careful attention to conscious experience, is the only basis for sustainable claims about subjectivity. There is nothing irrational about it.
5. Deep meditation gives rise to unusual, and sometimes personally transformative, experiences or "insights."
6. One such "insight" is that the "sense of self" or the "feeling called 'I'" can disappear when carefully searched for.
7. The sense of "self" is a cognitive illusion, and can be seen to be such by empirical observation: it is not a proposition to be accepted on faith.
There is much to agree with here. Indeed, I wholeheartedly accept propositions (1), (3), (4), and (5). Of course, I don't accept (2), but that is not what I want to discuss. My present concerns are (6) and (7).
Let me say first that, for me, 'insight' is a noun of success, and in this regard it is like 'knowledge.' There cannot be false knowledge; there cannot be false insights. Now does deep meditation disclose that there is, in truth, no self, no ego, no I, no subject of experience? Harris does not say flat-out that the self is an illusion; he says that the "sense of self" is an illusion. But I don't think he means that there is a self but that there is no sense of it in deep meditation. I take him to be saying something quite familiar from (the religion?) Pali Buddhism, namely, that there is no self, period. Anatta, you will recall, is one of the pillars of Pali and later Buddhism, along with anicca and dukkha.
So I will assume that Harris means to deny the the existence of the self as the subject of experience and to deny it on empirical grounds: there is no self because no self is encountered when we carefully examine, in deep meditation, our conscious experience.
It seems to me, however, that the nonexistence of what I fail to find does not logically follow from my failing to find it.
It may be that the self is the sort of thing that cannot turn up as an object of experience precisely because it is the subject of experience.
Here is an analogy. An absent-minded old man went in search of his eyeglasses. He searched high and low, from morning til night. Failing to find them after such a protracted effort, he concluded that he never had any in the first place. His search, however, was made possible by the glasses sitting upon his nose!
The analogy works with the eyes as well. From the fact that my eyes do not appear in my visual field (apart from mirrors), it does not follow that I have no eyes. My eyes are a necessary condition of my having a visual field in the first place. Their nonappearance in said field is no argument against them.
It could be something like that (though not exactly like that) with the self. It could be that the self cannot, by its very nature, turn up as an object of experience, for the simple reason that it is the subject of experience, that which is experiencing.
It is simply false to say what Harris says in (7), namely that one empirically observes that there is no self. That is not an observation but an inference from the failure to encounter the self as an object of experience. It is an inference that is valid only in the presence of an auxiliary premise:
Only that which can be experienced as an object exists. The self cannot be experienced as an object. Therefore The self does not exist.
This argument is valid, but is it sound? The second premise is empirical: nothing we encounter in experience (inner or outer) counts as the subject of experience. True for the standard Humean and Buddhist reasons. But we cannot validly move from the second premise to the conclusion. We need the help of the auxiliary premise, which is not empirical. How then do we know that it is true? Must we take it on faith? Whose faith? Harris's?
My point, then, is that (7) is false and that Harris is operating with a dogmatic, non-empirical assumption, the just-mentioned auxiliary premise.
Harris needs to be careful that in his war against "absurd religious certainties" he does not rely on absurd dogmatic certainties of his own.
There are two paths toward reducing deficits and debts of the magnitude we face: raising taxes or cutting spending. A balanced compromise would involve some amount of both, but the two political parties face strong electoral incentives to do neither. If Republicans push for reduced spending, they are criticized for taking away the benefits people rely on. If Democrats push for raising taxes, they are decried for swiping workers' hard-earned dollars. Both solutions are seen as taking money away from voters, and are thus fraught with political peril.
Consider the matrix above, in which both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have two policy choices. Republicans always promise lower taxes, so their choice is whether to cut or maintain spending levels. Democrats, in contrast, want to keep spending high, so their choice is whether to raise taxes or keep them low.
A close look at the matrix shows that it is politically rational for the Republicans to maintain today's unsustainable levels of spending when faced with either behavior from Democrats. And, campaign rhetoric aside, that is what they tend to do. Republicans have learned that whenever they actually legislate spending cuts, they are attacked by their opponents and tend to lose elections. They are not keen to do the fiscally responsible thing when the price is giving up power.
Likewise, whether Republicans cut or maintain spending, Democrats are politically better off if they allow taxes to stay low. This explains why, despite President Obama's rhetoric about raising taxes, he and other Democrats have generally refrained from actually doing so, especially at the levels needed to pay for their spending. That the expiration of the Bush tax cuts was postponed until after the 2012 election was not a coincidence.
To be sure, politicians in both parties make noises about good economic choices (from their perspectives) that balance the budget, but their actual behavior is what matters. President George W. Bush oversaw the expansion of spending on entitlements, as well as on defense, education, and other discretionary programs. President Obama serially preserved Bush's tax cuts. Politicians know what is best for the country in the long term, but they have no easy way to change their behavior now during a period of polarization in which the institutions and incentives are set up for imbalance.
This amounts to an institutional failure. For most of the nation's history, the rules of the budget game worked. Today, however, they no longer function. Politically rational behavior is now fiscally perverse. Addressing this institutional failure thus requires changing the rules of game. The only remedy to our political prisoners' dilemma, therefore, is to change those rules so that they in fact rule out structural fiscal imbalance — by imposing painful penalties on lawmakers for failing to budget responsibly.
This is the sixth in a series of posts, collected here, on Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos (Oxford 2012). In my last post I suggested that Nagel needs a principle of plenitude in order to explain the actual existence, as opposed to the mere possibility, of rational organisms. But maybe not, maybe teleology will turn the trick for him. So we need to see what he says about teleology.
Nagel distinguishes "constitutive" from "historical" questions. What is reason? is an example of the former; How did reason arise? of the latter. Now one might wonder whether reason is the sort of thing that could arise. I am tempted to say that reason could no more arise than truth could arise, but then I'm a theist. Nagel, however, must hold that reason arises given his monism. As a monist, he maintains that there is exactly one world, this natural world.
Off the top of my head, I suggest we have at least six options concerning the nature and origin of reason.
A. Interventionist Theism. Reason didn't arise, but always existed. God is its prime instance and source. Reason in us did not arise or emerge from irrational or pre-rational elements but was implanted by God in us. It is part of what makes us of higher origin, an image and likeness of God.
B. Noninterventionist Deism. Reason didn't arise, but always existed. God is its prime instance and source. But God did not infuse or implant reason in certain animals at any point in the evolutionary process; what he did is rig up the world in such a way that rational animals would eventually emerge. Nagel mentions something like this possibility on p. 95.
C. Transcendental Subjectivism. Reason didn't arise, but neither is God its prime instance and source. Reaon is an a priori structure of our subjectivity, a transcendental presupposition without which we cannot carry out our cognitive operations. A view like this could be read out of Kant. A transcendental idealism as opposed to the Hegelian objective idealism that Nagel supports. (17)
D. Reason is a fluke. Reason arose, but it was a cosmic accident. That there are rational beings is simply a brute fact. Nagel rightly rejects this view.
E. Materialist evolutionary naturalism operating by "directionless physical law." (p. 91)
F. Nature-immanent non-intentional teleology.
Nagel rejects all of these options except the last. Unfortunately, Nagel's proposal is so sketchy it is hard to evaluate. To get a handle on it we need to study Nagel's final chapter on value in a separate post. According to natural teleology, the world has an in-built propensity to give rise to beings for whom there is a difference between what is good for them and what is bad for them. There is no agent who intends that such beings should arise; there is just this tendency toward them in nature below the level of mind. And so the explanation of the existence of such beings is not merely causal but teleological: there is is a sort of axiological requiredness in rerum natura that pulls as it were from the future these beings into existence. (See p. 121) This is my way of putting it.
This is the fifth in a series of posts, collected here, on Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos. The question that concerns me in this entry is whether we can forge a link between the intelligibility of nature and the existence of rational beings.
For Nagel, the existence of rational animals is not a brute fact or fluke or cosmic accident. Nagel's somewhat sketchy argument (see p. 86) is 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 cosmic accident.
I take Nagel to be maintaining that the eventual existence of some rational beings or other is no accident but is included in the nature of things from the beginning -- 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. So eventually nature must produce beings capable of understanding it. We are such beings. "Each of our lives is part of the lengthy process of the universe waking up and becoming aware of itself." (85)
Nagel's thesis is not obvious. 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? Nagel's argument needs some 'beefing up' so that it can meet this demand.
1. Let's start with the idea that nature is intelligible. Why? That the world is intelligible is a presupposition of all inquiry. The quest for understanding rests on the assumption that the world is understandable, and indeed by us. The most successful form of this quest is natural science. The success of the scientific quest is evidence that the presupposition holds and is not merely a presupposition we make. The scientific enterprise reveals to us an underlying intelligible order of things not open to perception alone, although of course the confirmation of scientific theories requires perception and the various instruments that extend it.
2. Now what explains this underlying rational order? Two possibilities. One is that nothing does: it's a brute fact. It just happens to be the case that the world is understandable by us, but it might not have been. The rational order of things underpins every explanation but itself has no explanation. The other possibility is that the rational order has an explanation, in which case it has an explanation by something distinct from it, or else is self-explanatory. On theism, the world's rational order is grounded in the divine intellect and is therefore explained by God. On what I take to be Nagel's view, the rational order is self-explanatory, a necessary feature of anything that could count as a cosmos.
Nagel views the intelligibility of the world as "itself part of the deepest explanation why things are as they are." (17). Now part of the way things are is that they are understandable by us. Given that the way things are is intelligible, it follows that the intelligibility of the world is self-explanatory or self-grounding.
Our second premise, then, is that the intelligibilty of the world is self-explanatory, hence a necessary feature of anything that could count as a cosmos.
3. Our third premise is that intelligibility is an an inherently mind-involving notion. Necessarily, if x is intelligible, then x is intelligible to some actual or possible mind. Nothing is understandable unless it is at least possible that there exist some being with the power of understanding.
The conjunction of these three premises entails the possibility of rational beings, but not the actuality of them. There would seem to be a gap in Nagel's reasoning. The world is intelligible, and its intelligibility is a necessary feature of it. From this we can infer that, necessarily, if the cosmos exists, then it is possible that there be rational beings. But that is as far as we can get with these three premises.
4. What Nagel seems to need is a principle of plenitude that allows us to pass from the possibility of rational beings to their actual existence. J. Hintikka has ascribed to Aristotle a form of the principle according to which every genuine possibility must at some time become actual. This would do the trick, but to my knowledge Nagel make no mention of any such principle.
5. I suggest that theism is in a better position when it comes to explaining how both intelligibility and mind are non-accidental. Intelligibility is grounded in the divine intellect which necessarily exists. So there must be at least one rational being. We exist contingently, but the reason in us derives from a noncontingent source.
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.
Is it ever rational to believe something for which one has insufficient evidence? If it is never rational to believe something for which one has insufficient evidence, then presumably it is also never rational to act upon such a belief. For example, if it irrational to believe in God and post-mortem survival, then presumably it is also irrational to act upon those beliefs, by entering a monastery, say. Or is it?
W. K. Clifford is famous for his evidentialist thesis that "It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything on insufficient evidence." On this way of thinking, someone who fails to apportion belief to evidence violates the ethics of belief, and thereby does something morally wrong. This has been called ethical evidentialism since that claim is that it is morally impermissible to believe on insufficient evidence. Sufficient evidence is where there is preponderance of evidence. On ethical evidentialism, then, it is morally permissible for a person to believe that p if and only p is more likely than not on the evidence the person has.
A cognitive evidentialist, by contrast, maintains that one is merely unreasonable to believe beyond a preponderance of evidence. One then flouts a norm of rationality rather than a norm of morality.
Jeffrey Jordan, who has done good work on this topic, makes a further distinction between absolute and defeasible evidentialism. The absolute evidentialist holds that the evidentialist imperative applies to every proposition, while the defeasible evidentialist allows exceptions. Although Clifford had religious beliefs in his sights, his thesis, by its very wording, applies to every sort of belief, including political beliefs and the belief expressed in the Clifford sentence quoted above! I take this as a refutation of Clifford's evidentialist stringency. For if one makes no exceptions concerning the application of the evidentialist imperative, then it applies also to "It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything on insufficient evidence." And then the embarrassing question arises as to what evidence once could have for the draconian Cliffordian stricture which is not only a morally normative claim but is also crammed with universal quantifiers.
If I took Clifford seriously I would have to give up most of my beliefs about politics, health, nutrition, economics, history and plenty of other things. For example, I believe it is a wise course to restrict my eating of eggs to three per week due to their high cholesterol content. And that's what I do. Do I have sufficent evidence for this belief? Not at all. I certainly don't have evidence that entails the belief in question. What evidence I have makes it somewhat probable. But more probable than not? Not clear! But to be on the safe side I restrict my intake of high-cholesterol foods. What I give up, namely, the pleasures of bacon and eggs for breakfast every morning, etc. is paltry in comparison to the possible pay-off, namely living and blogging to a ripe old age. Surely there is nothing immoral or irrational in my behavior even though I am flouting Clifford's rule. And similarly in hundreds of cases.
The Desert Rat
Consider now the case of a man dying of thirst in a desert. He comes upon two water sources. He knows (never mind how) that one is potable while the other is poisonous. But he does not know which is which, and he has no way of finding out. Should the man suspend belief, even unto death, since he has insufficient evidence for deciding between the two water sources? Let us suppose that our man is a philosopher and thus committed to a life of the highest rationality.
Absolute evidentialism implies that the desert wanderer should suspend judgment and withhold assent: he may neither believe nor disbelieve of either source that it is potable or poisonous on pain of either irrationality or an offence against the ethics of belief.
On one way of looking at the matter, suspension of belief -- and doing nothing in consequence -- would clearly be the height of irrationality in a case like this. The desert wanderer must simply drink from one of the sources and hope for the best. Clearly, by drinking from one (but not both) of the sources, his chances of survival are one half, while his chances of survival from drinking from neither are precisely zero. By simply opting for one, he maximizes his chances of reality-contact, and thereby his chances of survival. Surely a man who wants to live is irrational if he fails to perform a simple action that will give him a 50-50 chance of living when the alternative is certain death.
He may be epistemically irrational, but he is prudentially rational. And in a case like this prudential rationality trumps the other kind.
Cases like this are clear counterexamples to evidentialist theories of rationality according to which rationality requires always apportioning belief to evidence and never believing on insufficient evidence. In the above case the evidence is the same for either belief and yet it would be irrational to suspend belief. Therefore, rationality for an embodied human agent (as opposed to rationality for a disembodied transcendental spectator) cannot require the apportioning of belief to evidence in all cases, as Clifford demands. There are situations in which one must decide what to believe on grounds other than the evidential. Will I believe that source A is potable? Or will I believe that source B is potable? In Jamesian terms the option is live, forced, and momentous. (It is not like the question whether the number of ultimate particles in the universe is odd or even, which is neither live, forced, nor momentous.) An adequate theory of rationality, it would seem, must allow for believing beyond the evidence. It must return the verdict that in some cases, to refuse to believe beyond the evidence is positively irrational.
But then absolute evidentialism is untenable and we must retreat to defeasible evidentialism.
The New Neighbors
Let us consider another such case. What evidence do I have that my new neighbors are decent people? Since they have just moved in, my evidence base is exiguous indeed and far from sufficient to establish that they are decent people. (Assume that some precisifying definition of 'decent' is on the table.) Should I suspend judgment and behave in a cold, skeptical, stand-offish way toward them? ("Prove that you are not a scumbag, and then I'll talk to you.") Should I demand of them 'credentials' and letters of recommendation before having anything to do with them? Either of these approaches would be irrational. A rational being wants good relations with those with whom he must live in close proximity. Wanting good relations, he must choose means that are conducive to that end. Knowing something about human nature, he knows that 'giving the benefit of the doubt' is the wise course when it comes to establishing relations with other people. If you begin by impugning the integrity of the other guy, he won't like you. One must assume the best about others at the outset and adjust downwards only later and on the basis of evidence to the contrary. But note that my initial belief that my neighbors are decent people -- a belief that I must have if I am to act neighborly toward them -- is not warranted by anything that could be called sufficient evidence. Holding that belief, I believe way beyond the evidence. And yet that is the rational course.
So again we see that in some cases, to refuse to believe beyond the evidence is positively irrational. A theory of rationality adequate for the kind of beings we are cannot require that belief be always and everywhere apportioned to evidence.
In the cases just mentioned, one is waranted in believing beyond the evidence, but there are also cases in which one is warranted in believing against the evidence. In most cases, if the available evidence supports that p, then one ought to believe that p. But consider Jeff Jordan's case of
The Alpine Hiker
An avalanche has him stranded on a mountainside facing a chasm. He cannot return the way he came, but if he stays where he is he dies of exposure. His only hope is to jump the chasm. The preponderance of evidence is that this is impossible: he has no epistemic reason to think that he can make the jump. But our hiker knows that what one can do is in part determined by what one believes one can do, that "exertion generally follows belief," as Jordan puts it. If the hiker can bring himself to believe that he can make the jump, then he increases his chances of making it. "The point of the Alpine hiker case is that pragmatic belief-formation is sometimes both morally and intellectually permissible."
We should therefore reject absolute evidentialism, both ethical and cognitive. We should admit that there are cases in which epistemic considerations are reasonably defeated by prudential considerations.
And now we come to the Big Questions. Should I believe that I am libertarianly free? That it matters how I live? That something is at stake in life? That I will in some way or other be held accountable after death for what I do and leave undone here below? That God exists? That I am more than a transient bag of chemical reactions? That a Higher Life is possible?
Not only do I not have evidence that entails answers to any of these questions, I probably do not have evidence that makes a given answer more probable than not. Let us assume that it is not more probable than not that God exists and that I (in consequence) have a higher destiny in communion with God.
But here's the thing. I have to believe that I have a higher destiny if I am to act so as to attain it. It is like the situation with the new neighbors. I have to believe that they are decent people if I am to act in such a way as to establish good relations with them. Believing the best of them, even on little or no evidence, is pragmatically useful and prudentially rational. I have to believe beyond the evidence. Similarly in the Alpine Hiker case. He has to believe that he can make the jump if he is to have any chance of making it. So even though it is epistemically irrational for him to believe he can make it on the basis of the available evidence, it is prudentially rational for him to bring himself to believe. You could say that the leap of faith raises the probability of the leap of chasm.
And what if he is wrong? Then he dies. But if he sits down in the snow in despair he also dies, and more slowly. By believing beyond the evidence he lives better his last moments than he would have by giving up.
Here we have a pragmatic argument that is not truth-sensitive: it doesn't matter whether he will fail or succeed in the jump. Either way, he lives better here and now if he believes he can cross the chasm to safety. And this, even though the belief is not supported by the evidence.
It is the same with God and the soul. The pragmatic argument in favor of them is truth-insensitive: whether or not it is a good argument is independent of whether or not God and the soul are real. For suppose I'm wrong. I live my life under the aegis of God, freedom, and immortality, but then one day I die and become nothing. I was just a bag of chemicals after all. It was all just a big joke. Electrochemistry played me for a fool. So what? What did I lose by being a believer? Nothing of any value. Indeed, I have gained value since studies show that believers tend to be happier people. But if I am right, then I have done what is necessary to enter into my higher destiny. Either way I am better off than without the belief in God and the soul. If I am not better off in this life and the next, then I am better off in this life alone.
I am either right or wrong about God and the soul. If I am right, and I live my beliefs, then then I have lived in a way that not only makes me happier here and now, but also fits me for my higher destiny. If I am wrong, then I am simply happier here and now.
So how can I lose? Even if they are illusions, believing in God and the soul incurs no costs and disbelieving brings no benefits.
(1) An assertion is a mere assertion unless argued. (2) Mere assertions are gratuitous. (3) The premises of arguments are assertions. (4) One cannot argue for every premise of every argument.
This is an accurate summary except for (3). I did not say that the premises of arguments are assertions since I allow that the premises of an argument may be unasserted propositions. The constituent propositions of arguments considered in abstracto, as they are considered in formal logic, as opposed to arguments used in concrete dialectical situations to convince oneself or someone else of something, are typically unasserted.
Since the conclusion of an argument cannot be any stronger (or less gratuitous) than its premises, doesn't it follow from these claims that the conclusion of every argument is gratuitous?
Well, if the conclusion follows from the premises, then it has the support of those premises, and is insofar forth less gratuitous than they are. Your point is better put by saying that, if the premises are gratuitious, then the conclusion canot be ultimately non-gratuitous, but only proximately non-gratuitous.
You distinguish between 'making' arguments and 'entertaining' arguments, but that doesn't offer a way out here because the kind of argument required in (1) and (3) is a 'made' argument rather than an 'entertained' argument.
Isn't the answer here to reject (1) and to grant that some assertions (e.g., the assertion that your cats are on the desk) can be neither mere assertions nor argued assertions? We need a category like 'justified' assertions: no justified assertion is a mere assertion and not every justified assertion is an argued assertion.
Professor Anderson has put his finger on a real problem with the post, and I accept his criticism. I began the post with the sentence, "Mere assertions remain gratuitous until supported by arguments." But that is not quite right. I should have written: "Mere assertions remain gratuitous until supported, either by argument, or in some other way." Thus my assertion that two black cats are lounging on my writing table is not a mere assertion although it is and must be unargued; it is an assertion justified by sense perception.
Expressed more clearly, the main point of the post was that ultimate justification via argument alone cannot be had. Sooner or late one must have recourse to propositions unsupportable by argument. Argument does not free us of the need to make assertions. (I am assuming that there is no such thing as infinitely regressive support or circular support. Not perfectly obvious, I grant: but very plausible.)
That a principle can be taken to an extreme is no argument against the principle so taken. It is rather an argument against extremism. The principle that one has the right to keep and bear arms, for example, is not refuted by the fact that some will take it to mean that one has the right to keep and 'bear' tactical nukes. Similarly in other cases.
Suppose an author exercises due diligence in the researching and writing of a nonfiction book. He has good reason to believe that all of the statements he makes in the book are true. But he is also well aware of human fallibility and that he is no exception to the rule. And so, aware of his fallibility, he has good reason to believe that it is not the case that all of the statements he makes in the book are true. He makes mention of this in the book's preface. Hence 'paradox of the preface.' Thus:
1. It is rational for the author to believe that each statement in his book is true. (Because he has exercised due diligence.) 2. It is rational for the author to believe that some statement in his book is not true. (Because to err is human.) Therefore 3. It is rational for the author to believe that (each statement in his book is true & some statement in his book is not true.) Therefore 4. There are cases in which it is rational for a person to believe statements of the form (p & ~p).
"What the paradox shows is that we need to give up the claim that it is always irrational to believe statements that are mutually inconsistent." (Michael Clark, Paradoxes From A to Z, Routledge 2002, p. 144) Is that what the paradox shows? I doubt it. The paradox cannot arise unless the following schema is valid:
a. It is rational for S to believe that p. b. It is rational for S to believe that ~p. Ergo c. It is rational for S to believe that (p & ~p).
It is not clear that the schema is valid. Rational believability, unlike truth, is a relative property. What it is rational to believe is relative to background knowledge among other things. Relative to the author's knowledge that he exercised due diligence in the researching and writing of his book, it is rational for him to believe that every statement in the book is true. But relative to considerations of human fallibility, it is rational for him to believe that it is not the case that every statement in his book is true. So what (a) and (b) above really amount to is the following where 'BK' abbreviates 'background knowledge':
a*. It is rational for S to believe relative to BK1 that p. b*. It is rational for S to believe relative to BK2 that ~p.
From these two premises one cannot arrive at the desired conclusion. So my solution to the paradox is to reject the inference from (1) and (2) to (3).
"But doesn't the author's background knowledge (BK) include both the truth that he exercised due diligence and the truth that human beings are fallible?" Well suppose it does. Then how could it be rational for him to believe that every statement in the book is true? It is rational for him to believe that every statement is true only if he leaves out of consideration that people are fallible. Relative to his total background knowledge, it is not rational for him to believe that every statement in his book is true.
In this way I avoid Clark's draconian conclusion that it is sometimes rational to believe statements that are mutually inconsistent.
Let's talk about cigarettes. Suppose you smoke one pack per day. Is that irrational? I hope all will agree that no one who is concerned to be optimally healthy as long as possible should smoke 20 cigarettes a day, let alone 80 like Rod Serling who died at age 50 on the operating table. But long-term health is only one value among many. Would Serling have been as productive without the weed? Maybe not.
Suppose one genuinely enjoys smoking and is willing to run the risk of disease and perhaps shorten one's life by say five or ten years in order to secure certain benefits in the present. There is nothing irrational about such a course of action. One acts rationally -- in one sense of 'rational' -- if one chooses means conducive to the ends one has in view. If your end in view is to live as long as possible, then don't smoke. If that is not your end, if you are willing to trade some highly uncertain future years of life for some certain pleasures here and now, and if you enjoy smoking, then smoke.
The epithet 'irrational' is attached with more justice to the fascists of the Left, the loon-brained tobacco wackos, who, in the grip of their misplaced moral enthusiasm, demonize the acolytes of the noble weed. The church of liberalism must have its demon, and his name is tobacco. I should also point out that smoking, like keeping and bearing arms, is a liberty issue. Is liberty a value? I'd say it is. Yet another reason to oppose the liberty-bashing loons of the Left and the abomination of Obamacare with its individual mandate.
Smoking and drinking can bring you to death's door betimes. Ask Humphrey Bogart who died at 56 of the synergistic effects of weed and hooch. Life's a gamble. A crap shoot no matter how you slice it. Hear the Hitch:
Writing is what's important to me, and anything that helps me do that -- or enhances and prolongs and deepens and sometimes intensifies argument and conversation -- is worth it to me. So I was knowingly taking a risk. I wouldn't recommend it to others.
And like Bogie before him, Hitch paid the price for his boozing and smoking in the coin of an early death at 62. Had he taken care of himself he might have kept up his high-toned ranting and raving for another ten years at least.
So why don't I smoke and drink? The main reason is that smoking and drinking are inconsistent with the sorts of activities that provide satisfactions of a much higher grade than smoking and drinking. I mean: running, hiking, backpacking and the like. When you wake up with a hangover, are you proud of the way you spent the night before? Are you a better man in any sense? Do you really feel better after a night of physical and spiritual dissipation? Would you feel a higher degree of satisfaction if the day before you had completed a 26.2 mile foot race?
Health and fitness in the moment is a short-term reason. A long-term reason is that I want to live as long as possible so as to finish the projects I have in mind. It is hard to write philosophy when you are sick or dead. And here below is where the philosophy has to be written. Where I hope to go there will be no need for philosophy.
The problem is not that we conceptualize things, but that we conceptualize them wrongly, hastily, superficially. The problem is not that we draw distinctions, but that we draw too few distinctions or improper distinctions. Perhaps in the end one must learn to trace all distinctions back to the ONE whence they spring; but that is in the end. In the beginning people must be taught to conceptualize, discriminate, and distinguish.
A superficial Zen training that attacks the discursive intellect in those who have never properly developed it does a great disservice.
1. All genuine problems are soluble. 2. No problem of philosophy is soluble. 3. Some problems of philosophy are genuine.
I claimed that "(2) is a good induction based on two and one half millenia of philosophical experience." The inductive inference, which I am claiming is good, is not merely from 'No problem has been solved' to 'No problem will be solved'; but from the former to the modal 'No problem can be solved.' From a deductive point of view, this is of course doubly invalid. I use 'valid' and 'invalid' only in connection with deductive arguments. No inductive argument is valid. No news there.
Peter Lupu's objection, which he elaborated as best he could after I stuffed him with L-tryptophan-rich turkey and fixin's, was along the following lines. If the problems of philosophy are insoluble, then so is the problem of induction. This is the problem of justifying induction, of showing it to be rational. So if all the problems are insoluble, then we cannot ever know that inductive inference is rational. But if we cannot ever know this, then we cannot ever know that the inductive inference to (2) is rational. Peter concludes that this is fatal to my metaphilosophical argument which proceeds from (2) and (3) to the negation of (1). What he is maintaining, I believe, is that my argument is not rationally acceptable, contrary to what I stated, because (2) is not rationally acceptable.
Perhaps Peter's objection can be given the following sharper formulation.
(2) is either true or false. If (2) is true, then (2) is not rationally justifiable, hence not rationally acceptable, in which case the argument one of whose premises it is is not rationally acceptable. If, on the other hand, (2) is false, then the argument is unsound. So my metaphilosophical argument is either rationally unacceptable or unsound. Ouch!
I concede that my position implies that we cannot know that the inductive inference to (2) is rationally justified. But it might be rationally justified nonetheless. Induction can be a rational procedure even if we cannot know that it is or prove that it is. Induction is not the same as the problem of induction. If I am right, the latter is insoluble. But surely failure to solve the problem of induction does not show that induction is not rationally justified. Peter seems to be assuming the following principle:
If S comes to believe that p on the basis of some cognitive procedure CP, then S is rationally justified in believing that p on the basis of CP only if S has solved all the philosophical problems pertaining to CP.
I don't see why one must accept the italicized principle. It seems to me that I am rationally justified in believing that Peter is an Other Mind on the basis of my social interaction with him despite my not having solved the problem of Other Minds. It seems to me that I am rationally justified, on the basis of memory, that he ate at my table on Thursday night despite my not having solved all the problems thrown up by memory. And so on.
One person fears loss of contact with reality and is willing to take doxastic risks and believe beyond what he can claim strictly to know. The other, standing firm on the autonomy of human reason, refuses to accept anything that cannot be justified from within his own subjectivity. He fears error, and finds the first person uncritical, gullible, credulous, tender-minded in James' sense. The first is cautious lest he miss out on the real. The second is cautious lest he make a mistake.
The second, brandishing W. K. Clifford, criticizes the first for believing on insufficient evidence, for self-indulgently believing what he wants to believe, for believing what he has no right to believe. The second wants reality-contact only on his own terms: only if he can assure himself of it, perhaps by ‘constituting’ the object via ‘apodictic’ processes within his own consciousness. (Husserl) The first person, however, is willing to accept uncertainty for the sake of a reality-contact otherwise inaccessible.
What should we fear more, loss of contact with objective reality, or being wrong?
Analogy. Some are gastronomically timorous: they refuse to eat in restaurants for fear of food poisoning. Their critical abstention does indeed achieve its prophylactic end -- but only at the expense of the foregoing of a world of prandial delights.
Now suppose a man believes in God and afterlife but is mistaken. He lives his life in the grip of what are in reality, but unbeknownst to him, life-enhancing illusions. And of course, since he is ex hypothesi wrong, death cannot set him straight: he is after dying nothing and so cannot learn that he lived his life in illusion. But then why is his being wrong such a big deal? Wouldn't it be a much bigger deal if his fear of being wrong prevented his participation in an unsurpassably great good?
"But he lived his life in the grip of illusions!"
To this I would respond, first: how do you know that he lived his life in untruth? You are always demanding evidence, so what is your evidence for this? Second, in a godless universe could there even be truth? (No truth without mind; no objective truth without objective mind.) Third, even if there is truth in a godless universe, why would it be a value? Why care about truth if it has no bearing on human flourishing? Doesn't your concern for evidence only make sense in the context of a quest for truth?
I need to get clearer about the rationality of beliefs versus the rationality of actions. One question is whether it is ever rational to believe something for which one has insufficient evidence. And if it is never rational to believe something for which one has insufficient evidence, then presumably it is also never rational to act upon such a belief. For example, if it irrational to believe in God and post-mortem survival, then presumably it is also irrational to act upon those beliefs, by entering a monastery, say. Or is it?
W. K. Clifford is famous for his evidentialist thesis that "It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything on insufficient evidence." On this way of thinking, someone who fails to apportion belief to evidence violates the ethics of belief, and thereby does something morally wrong. Although Clifford had religious beliefs in his sights, his thesis, by its very wording, applies to every sort of belief, including political beliefs and the belief expressed in the Clifford sentence lately quoted! I take this as a refutation of Clifford's evidentialist stringency.
If I took Clifford seriously I would have to give up most of my beliefs about politics, health, nutrition, economics, history and a crapload of other things. For example, I believe it is a wise course to restrict my eating of eggs to three per week due to their high cholesterol content. And that's what I do. Do I have sufficent evidence for this belief? Not at all. I certainly don't have evidence that entails the belief in question. What evidence I have makes it somewhat probable. But more probable than not? Not clear! But to be on the safe side I restrict my intake of high-cholesterol foods. It's a bit like Pascal's Wager. What I give up, namely, the pleasures of bacon and eggs for breakfast every morning, etc. is paltry in comparison to the possible pay-off, namely living and blogging to a ripe old age.
And then there is a problem whether Clifford has sufficient evidence for his evidentialist thesis. It is obvious to me that he doesn't but I'll leave that for the reader to work out.
Consider now the case of a man dying of thirst in a desert. He comes upon two water sources. He knows (never mind how) that one is potable while the other is poisonous. But he does not know which is which, and he has no way of finding out. Should the man suspend belief, even unto death, since he has insufficient evidence for deciding between the two water sources?
On one way of looking at the matter, suspension of belief would clearly be the height of irrationality. The desert wanderer must simply drink from one of the sources and hope for the best. Clearly, by drinking from one (but not both) of the sources, his chances of survival are one half, while his chances of survival from drinking from neither are precisely zero. By simply opting for one, he maximizes his chances of reality-contact, and thereby his chances of survival. Surely a man who wants to live is irrational if he fails to perform a simple action that will give him a 50-50 chance of living when the alternative is certain death.
Cases like this are clear counterexamples to theories of rationality according to which rationality requires always apportioning belief to evidence. In the above case the evidence is the same for either belief and yet it would be irrational to suspend belief. Therefore, rationality for a human agent (as opposed to rationality for a disembodied transcendental spectator) cannot require the apportioning of belief to evidence in all cases, as Clifford demands. There are situations in which one must decide what to believe. Will I believe that source A is potable? Or will I believe that source B is potable? In Jamesian terms, the option is live, forced, and momentous. (It is not like the question whether the number of ultimate particles in the universe is odd or even.) An adequate theory of rationality, it would seem, must allow for believing beyond the evidence. It must return the verdict that in some cases, to refuse to believe beyond the evidence is positively irrational.
Let us consider another such case. What evidence do I have that my new neighbors are decent people? Since they have just moved in, my evidence base is exiguousindeed and far from sufficient to establish that they are decent people. (Assume that some precisifying definition of 'decent' is on the table.) Should I suspend judgment and behave in a cold, skeptical, stand-offish way toward them? ("Prove that you are not a scumbag, and then I'll talk to you.") Should I demand of them 'credentials' and letters of recommendation before having anything to do with them? Either of these approaches would be irrational. A rational being wants good relations with those with whom he must live in close proximity. Wanting good relations, he must choose means that are conducive to that end. Knowing something about human nature, he knows that 'giving the benefit of the doubt' is the wise course when it comes to establishing relations with other people. If you begin by impugning the integrity of the other guy, he won't like you. One must assume the best about others at the outset and adjust downwards only later and on the basis of evidence to the contrary. But note that my initial belief that my neighbors are decent people -- a belief that I must have if I am to act neighborly toward them -- is not warranted by anything that could be called sufficient evidence. Holding that belief, I believe way beyond the evidence. And yet that is the rational course.
So again we see that in some cases, to refuse to believe beyond the evidence is positively irrational. A theory of rationality adequate for the kind of beings we are cannot require that belief be always and everywhere apportioned to evidence.
And now we come to the Big Questions. Should I believe that I am libertarianly free? That it matters how I live? That something is at stake in life? That I will in some way or other be held accountable for what I do and leave undone? That God exists? That I am more than a transient bag of chemical reactions? That a Higher Life is possible?
Not only do I not have evidence that entails answers to any of these questions, I probably do not have evidence that makes a given answer more probable than not.
But here's the thing. I have to believe that I have a higher destiny if I am to act so as to attain it. It is like the situation with the new neighbors. I have to believe that they are decent people if I am to act in such a way as to establish good relations with them. I have to believe beyond the evidence.
Suppose I'm wrong. I live my life under the aegis of God, freedom, and immortality, but then one day I die and become nothing. I was just a bag of chemicals after all. It was all just a big joke. Electrochemistry played me for a fool. So what? What did I lose by being a believer? Nothing of any value. But if I am right, then I have done what is necessary to enter into my higher destiny.
Philosophy is unserious to the onesidedly worldly and 'practical' because it bakes no bread. To which the best response is: "Man does not live by bread alone."
To the onesidedly religious, philosophy is unserious because it begets pride and does not lead unto salvation. "Not worth an hour's trouble," said Pascal with Descartes in his sights. Both types, the worldly and the religious, dismiss philosophy as 'mere theory' and 'empty speculation' but for opposite reasons.
Strangely enough, both types make use of it when it suits their purposes. Each justifies his own position philosophically. How else could he justify it? Assertions and arguments about philosophy are philosophical assertions and arguments -- and it cannot be otherwise. Such assertions and arguments cannot come from below philosophy, nor can they come from above it: metaphilosophy is a branch of philosophy.
Blaise Pascal wrote a big fat book of Pensées -- and a magnificent book it was. But why did he bother if philosophy is not worth an hour's trouble? Because he made an exception in his own case: his philosophy, he felt, was different! Well, all philosophers feel that way. All feel themselves to be questing for the truth as for something precious, even when they, like Nietzsche, say things that imply that there is no truth. None feel themselves to be engaged in 'empty speculation' or 'mental masturbation' or 'meaningless abstraction.'
One of the curious things about fair Philosophia is that you cannot outflank her, and you cannot shake her off. She outflanks all would-be outflankers. Ultimate dominatrix that she is, she always ends up on top. So you'd better learn to live with her and her acolytes.
Albert Camus is a frustrated rationalist. He values reason and wants the world to be rationally penetrable, but he finds that it is not. What he calls the Absurd consists in the disproportion between the human need for understanding and the world's unintelligibility, "the unreasonable silence of the world." (Myth of Sisyphus, Vintage 1955, p. 21, tr. Justin O'Brien)
Lev Shestov, on the other hand, is an irrationalist. He delights in what he takes to be reason's impotence.
Such wild diversity in the life of the mind and spirit does not delight me, but it does fascinate me and serve as a goad to struggle on, day by day, for as much light as can be attained in these inasuspicious circumstances until the curtain falls -- or lifts.
Reason, though weak, is a god-like power in us, and at the same time a power that makes us normatively human -- which is why calls for the crucifixion of the intellect should give pause if not cause a shudder of disgust.
1. The cogency of an argument is neither augmented nor diminished by the passion of the arguer. Cogency and passion are logically independent. The same goes for the truth or falsity of an assertion. The raising of the voice cannot transform a false claim into a true one, nor make a true one truer.
2. What's more, any display of a passion such as anger is likely to be taken by the interlocutor as a sign that one's argument is nothing but an expression of passion and thus as no argument at all. He will think your aim is to impose your will on him rather than appeal to his intellect. The interlocutor will be wrong to dismiss your argument on this ground, but you have yourself to blame for losing your cool and failing to understand human nature. If your aim is to convince someone of something, then you must attend not only to your thesis and its rational support, but also to the limitations of human nature in general and the particular limitations of those you are addressing. 'Tailor your discourse to your audience' is a good maxim.
3. While bearing in mind points 1 and 2, you must also realize that a failure to show enthusiasm and commitment may also work against your project of convincing the other.
4. 'Rhetoric' is too often employed pejoratively. That is unfortunate. The art of persuasion is important but difficult to master. It is not enough to know whereof you speak; you must understand human nature if you will impart your truths to an audience.
Steven Nemes informs me that Keith Parsons is giving up teaching and writing in the philosophy of religion. His reasons are stated in his post Goodbye to All That. The following appears to be his chief reason:
I have to confess that I now regard “the case for theism” as a fraud and I can no longer take it seriously enough to present it to a class as a respectable philosophical position—no more than I could present intelligent design as a legitimate biological theory. BTW, in saying that I now consider the case for theism to be a fraud, I do not mean to charge that the people making that case are frauds . . . . I just cannot take their arguments seriously any more, and if you cannot take something seriously, you should not try to devote serious academic attention to it.
Keith [Parsons] and I have emailed about getting out of the philosophy of religion. I've made the same decision. I'm through wasting my time trying to convince people who don't want to be convinced of the irrationality of their beliefs. And I have had more than enough verbal abuse from the Richard Purtills, the Peter Kreefts, and the Thomas Talbotts. We are all getting older and I, for my part, would much rather read books I want to read (or reread) and listen to great music that I either don't know or want to know better. Not to mention, spending more time with my wife instead of constantly yielding to the lure of the computer to work on yet another project that will convince few, antagonize some, and be ignored by most. Interestingly, Keith and I came to this conclusion more or less simultaneously but independently.
Steven Nemes comments in his e-mail to me:
I don't imagine you think the case for theism is so bad . . . . Any arguments in particular you think are promising? Any anti-theistic arguments you think are particularly good, too? (It was Parsons who said that the case for atheism/naturalism has been presented about as well as it ever can be by philosophers like Michael Martin, Schellenberg, Oppy, Gale, et al.)
Or perhaps you don't think the issues are so clear and obvious one way or the other in the philosophy of religion? In fact, is such dismissive hand-waving like Parsons' and Beversluis' ever acceptable in philosophy? Are there any issues that are settled?
Steven has once again peppered me with some pertinent and challenging questions. Here is a quick response.
Of course, I don't consider the case for theism to be a "fraud," to use Parson's word. I also don't understand how the case could be called a fraud if the people who make it are not frauds. But let's not enter into an analysis of the concept fraud. We may charitably chalk up Parsons' use of 'fraud' to rhetorical overkill, which is certainly not a censurable offense in the blogosphere. And when Parsons tells us that he cannot take the theistic arguments seriously any more, he is presumably not making a merely autobiographical remark. He is not merely informing us about his present disgusted state of mind, although he is doing that. He is asserting that the case for theism is not intellectually respectable, while the case for atheism and naturalism (which Parsons in his post brackets together) are intellectually respectable. (It is worth noting that while nauralism entails atheism, atheism does not entail naturalism: McTaggart was an atheist but not a naturalist. But this nuance needn't concern us at present.)
Parsons' metaphilosophical assertion does not impress me. I make a different assertion: There are intellectually respectable cases to be made both for theism/anti-naturalism and for atheism/naturalism. I don't think there are any 'knock-down' arguments on either side. There are arguments for the existence of God, but no proofs of the existence of God. And there are arguments for the nonexistence of God, but no proofs of the nonexistence of God. But of course it depends on what is meant by 'proof.'
I suggest that a proof is a deductive argument, free of informal fallacy, valid in point of logical form, all of the premises of which are objectively self-evident. I will illustrate what I mean by 'objectively self-evident' with an anecdote. In a discussion with a Thomist a while back I mentioned that the first premise of his reconstruction of Aquinas' argument from motion (the First of the Five Ways) was not (objectively) self-evident, and that therefore the First Way did not amount to a proof. The premise in the reconstruction was to the effect that it is evident to the senses that the reduction of potency to act is a real feature of the world.
I granted to my interlocutor that what Thomas calls motion, i.e., change, is evident to the senses as a real feature of the world. But I pointed out that it is not evident to the senses that the actualization of potency is a real feature of the world. That change is the reduction of potency to act is a theoretical claim that goes beyond what is given to sense perception. For this reason, the first premise of the reconstruction of the First Way, though plausible and indeed reasonable, is not objectively self-evident. One can of course give many logically correct arguments for the Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics, but we can ask with respect to the premises of these arguments whether they are objectively self-evident. If they are not, then they do not amount to proofs given my stringent definition of 'proof.'
It is equally true, however, that one cannot prove the nonexistence of God, from evil say.
But it is no different outside the philosophy of religion. God and the soul are meta-physical in the sense of supersensible. But there is nothing supersensible about the bust of Beethoven sitting atop my CD player. It is a material object, a middle-sized artifact, open to unaided perception. But such a humble object inspires interminable and seemingly intractable debate among the most brilliant philosophers. I am currently exploring some of these issues in other threads, and so I won't go into details here. But consider Peter van Inwagen's denial of the existence of artifacts (which is part of a broader denial of the existence of all nonliving composite objects). You could say, very loosely, that van Inwagen is an 'atheist' about artifacts. Other philosophers, equally brilliant and well-informed, deny his denial.
Now it would take an excess of chutzpah to label van Inwagen's carefully argued denial of artifacts as intellectually unrespectable. I suggest that it takes an equal excess of chutzpah to label the case for theism intellectually unrespectable.
Steven asked me whether the dismissive attitude of Parsons and Beversluis is acceptable. I would say no. It is no more acceptable in the philosophy of religion than it is in other branches of philosophy where there are equally genuine but equally difficult and interminably discussable problems.
Let me end with this question: If one's reason for abandoning the philosophy of religion is that one cannot convince those on the other side -- "I'm through wasting my time trying to convince people who don't want to be convinced of the irrationality of their beliefs." (Beversluis) -- then is this not also a reason for abandoning philosophy tout court? After all, the brilliant van Inwagen did not convince the brilliant David Lewis that the latter was wrong about Composition as Identity -- and this is a very well-defined and mundane and ideology-free question.
"God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob -- not of the philosophers and scholars." Thus exclaimed Blaise Pascal in the famous memorial in which he recorded the overwhelming religious/mystical experience of the night of 23 November 1654. Martin Buber comments (Eclipse of God, Humanity Books, 1952, p. 49):
These words represent Pascal's change of heart. He turned, not from a state of being where there is no God to one where there is a God, but from the God of the philosophers to the God of Abraham. Overwhelmed by faith, he no longer knew what to do with the God of the philosophers; that is, with the God who occupies a definite position in a definite system of thought. The God of Abraham . . . is not suspectible of introduction into a system of thought precisely because He is God. He is beyond each and every one of those systems, absolutely and by virtue of his nature. What the philosophers describe by the name of God cannot be more than an idea. (emphasis added)
Buber here expresses a sentiment often heard. We encountered it yesterday when we found Timothy Ware accusing late Scholastic theology of turning God into an abstract idea. But the sentiment is no less wrongheaded for being widespread. As I see it, it simply makes no sense to oppose the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob -- the God of religion -- to the God of philosophy. In fact, I am always astonished when otherwise distinguished thinkers retail this bogus distinction. Let's try to sort this out.
It is first of all obvious that God, if he exists, transcends every system of human thought, and cannot be reduced to any element internal to such a system whether it be a concept, a proposition, an argument, a set of arguments, etc. But by the same token, the chair I am sitting on cannot be reduced to my concept of it or the judgments I make about it. It too is transcendent of my conceptualizations and judgments. The transcendence of God, however, is a more radical form of transcendence, that of a person as opposed to that of a material object. And among persons, God is at the outer limit of transcendence.
Now if Buber were merely saying something along these lines then I would have no quarrel with him. But he is saying something more, namely, that when a philosopher in his capacity as philosopher conceptualizes God, he reduces him to a concept or idea, to something abstract, to something merely immanent to his thought, and therefore to something that is not God. In saying this, Buber commits a grotesque non sequitur. He moves from the unproblematically true
1. God by his very nature is transcendent of every system of thought or scheme of representation
to the breathtakingly false
2. Any thought about God or representation of God (such as we find, say in Aquinas's Summa Theologica) is not a thought or representation of God, but of a thought or representation, which, of course, by its very nature is not God.
As I said, I am astonished that anyone could fall into this error. When I think about something I don't in thinking about it turn it into a mere thought. When I think about my wife's body, for example, I don't turn it into a mere thought: it remains transcendent of my thought as a material thing. A fortiori, I am unable by thinking about my wife as a person, an other mind, to transmogrify her personhood into a mere concept in my mind. She remains in her interiority delightfully transcendent.
It is therefore bogus to oppose the God of the philosophers to the God of Abraham, et al. There is and can be only one God. But there are different approaches to this one God. By my count, there are four ways of approaching God: by reason, by faith, by mystical experience, and by our moral sense. To employ a hackneyed metaphor, if there are four routes to the summit of a mountain, it does not follow that there are four summits, with only one of them being genuine, the others being merely immanent to their respective routes.
I should think that direct acquaintance with God via mystical/religious experience is superior to contact via faith or reason or morality. It is better to taste food than to read about it on a menu. But that's not to say that the menu is about itself: it is about the very same stuff that one encounters by eating. The fact that it is better to eat food than read about it does not imply that when one is reading one is not reading about it.
Imagine how silly it would be be for me to exclaim, while seated before a delicacy: "Food of Wolfgang Puck, Food of Julia Childs, Food of Emeril Lagasse, not of the nutritionists and menu-writers!"
I was interested to see your recent correspondence and post on the radical vs the conservative. I couldn't help but notice that there is a potential parallel between this and a common interest of yours [ours?], the productive tension between Aristotle and Plato. A radical may be liable to point out that it because Plato is prepared to build a state upon rational rather than traditional grounds that he is prepared to consider women as equally well qualified to rule the state on meritocratic grounds (a la Mill), a thesis which is well supported in the contemporary world though unthinkable in ancient Greece. They may also contrast this against Aristotle’s impression of women which appears indefensible in the modern era but natural in his own time, and they may also draw attention to Aristotle’s defense of slavery. The conservative Aristotle on these points alone appears monstrous to a modern audience against the radical Plato. In accord with the recent post, we might very well conclude that the conservative is a reality-based thinker (within his own environment), whilst the radical is a utopian (prepared to look beyond his environment). The conservative in reply would of course draw attention to the realistic and practical view of Aristotle on running a state and compare this to the proto-communist authoritarian and elitist Plato who would construct a state, mentally at least, that would appear equally monstrous to a modern audience.
This is very perceptive. Since I am first and foremost an aporetician keen to isolate and sharpen problems under suspension of the natural tendency to glom onto quick solutions, it interests me and indeed worries me that there may be a tension between my tendency to give the palm to Plato over Aristotle and my conservative tendency. As I said recently:
One cannot be a philosopher unless one believes that at least some important truths are attainable or at least approachable by dialectical and argumentative means. Thus there is no place in philosophy for the misologist, the hater of reason, and his close relative the fideist. Reasoning and argument loom large in philosophy . . . .
But now I must add that to the extent that I favor reason over experience and tradition, the universal over the particular, the global over the local, the impersonal over the personal, to that extent I am in some conflict with my conservative tendency. One of the differences between conservatives and their liberal/left/radical brethren is that they are skeptical aqbout the value of reason in the ordering of political affairs.
No thank you. A God that would demand the sacrifice of the intellect or even the crucifixion of the intellect is not a God worthy of worship. Imagine moving at death from the shadow lands of this life into the divine presence only to find that God is nothing but irrational power personified, the apotheosis of arbitrarity. What could be more horrible? Far, far better would be to be annihlated at death.
Reason is infirm in that it cannot establish anything definitively. It cannot even prove that doubting is the way to truth, "that it is certain that we ought to be in doubt." (Pyrrho entry, Bayle's Dictionary, tr. Popkin, p. 205) But, pace Pierre Bayle, the merely subjective certitude of faith is no solution either! Recoiling from the labyrinth into which unaided human reason loses itself, Bayle writes:
It seems therefore that this unfortunate state [the one brought about by the infirmity of reason] is the most proper one of all for convincing us that our reason is a path that leads us astray since, when it displays itself with the greatest subtlety, it plunges us into such an abyss. The natural conclusion of this ought to be to renounce this guide and to implore the cause of all things to give us a better one. This is a great step toward the Christian religion; for it requires that we look to God for knowledge of what we ought to believe and what we ought to do, and that we enslave our understanding to the obeisance of faith. If a man is convinced that nothing good is to be expected from his philosophical inquiries, he will be more disposed to pray to God to persuade him of the truths that ought to be believed than if he flatters himself that he might succeed by reasoning and disputing. A man is therefore happily disposed toward faith when he knows how defective reason is. (206, emphasis added)
Now how is this a solution to the alleged infirmity of reason? A Christian fideist, acquiescing in pure blind (purblind?) faith, accepts the Trinity while a Muslim fideist, equally subjectively certain of his faith, rejects the Trinity while intoning that God is one. Blind conviction butts up against blind conviction of the opposite kind and all too often strife and bloodshed is the upshot.
Is William G. Lycan rational? I would say so. And yet, by his own admission, he does not apportion his (materialist) belief to the evidence. This is an interesting illustration of what I have suggested (with no particular originality) on various occasions, namely, that it is rational in some cases for agents like us to believe beyond the evidence. (Note the two qualifications: 'in some cases' and 'for agents like us.' If and only if we were disembodied theoretical spectators whose sole concern was to 'get things right,' then an ethics of belief premised upon austere Cliffordian evidentialism might well be mandatory. But we aren't and it isn't.)
Being a philosopher, of course I would like to think that my [materialist]stance is rational, held not just instinctively and scientistically and in the mainstream but because the arguments do indeed favor materialism over dualism. But I do not think that, though I used to. My position may be rational, broadly speaking, but not because the arguments favor it: Though the arguments for dualism do (indeed) fail, so do the arguments for materialism. And the standard objections to dualism are not very convincing; if one really manages to be a dualist in the first place, one should not be much impressed by them. My purpose in this paper is to hold my own feet to the fire and admit that I do not proportion my belief to the evidence.
1. The arguments for dualism and the arguments for materialism both fail. 2. The standard objections to dualism are not very convincing. 3. It is rational to be a materialist.
In my opinion (1)-(3) is a consistent triad. If so, what does 'rational' mean? It cannot have the Cliffordian meaning according to which one apportions one's belief to the evidence. For that would require suspension of belief on the issues that divide dualists and materialists given the truth of (1) and (2). But Lycan does not suspend belief; he remains a committed materialist. He believes beyond the evidence in that he believes on insufficient evidence. The evidence is insufficient because it is counterbalanced by the evidence for the position he disbelieves. However we define 'insufficient evidence,' it seems clear that if the evidence for p and the evidence for ~p are equal, then the evidence for either is insufficient.
Lycan's is an interesting case because it doesn't display all of the Jamesian marks. The issue is live for Lycan and for the people here present, but is it forced and momentous? An issue is forced in the sense of William James if it is such that one's remaining theoretically agnostic about it is tantamount to deciding it in a particular way. James gives the example of a man who hesitates to get married. "It is as if a man should hesitate indefinitely to ask a certain woman to marry him because he was not perfectly sure that she would prove an angel after he brought her home. Would he not cut himself off from that particular angel-possibility as decisively as if he went and married someone else?" (Will to Believe, p. 26) The man who refuses to commit himself to marriage commits himself to bachelorhood nolens volens.
But surely dualism versus materialism is not a forced option in the Jamesian sense. For one thing, one might reject both in the manner of the idealist. The positions are not logical contradictories of each other but logical contraries: they can't both be true, but they can both be false. Second, it is not the case that a suspension of judgment is tantamount to an opting for one side. If you take no position on dualism versus materialism, how does that commit you to one side or the other? On the God question, if one takes no position on whether or not God exists, then it it strongly arguable that one is a practical atheist: the agnostic lives as if God does not exist. And similarly for the immortality of the soul: to take no position is to live as if the soul is mortal. Or at least this is plausibly arguable. But the dualist need not be a substance dualist, and if he is not a substance dualist, then it is very difficult to see how the dualism versus materialism option is forced. And even if the dualist is a substance dualist, one might be a substance dualist without being committed to the immortality of the soul or mind.
A momentous option is one in which "We are supposed to gain, even now, by our belief, and lose by our nonbelief a certain vital good." (WB, 26) But I think it would be a stretch to think that the rather technical and abstruse issues that divide materialists and dualists are momentous in James' sense.
All this notwithstanding, the Lycan quotation above illustrates how rationality needn't require apportioning one's belief to the evidence. Or will you argue that Lycan is irrational in remaining a materialist despite his newfound insight that the arguments for it are not compelling?