My first example is here. Read it for context and for some necessary distinctions. Now for a second example. Adam Frank writes,
For Smolin there is no timeless world and there are no timeless laws. Time, he says, is real and nothing can escape it.
Time, of course, seems real to us. We live in and through time. But to physicists, time's fundamental reality is an illusion.
Ever since Newton, physicists have been developing ever-more exact laws describing the behavior of the world. These laws live outside of time because they don't change.
That means these laws are more real than time.
First of all, it can be true both that time is real and that not everything is in time.
Second, if you want to tell us that time is an illusion, just say that, don't say, oxymoronically, that its fundamental reality is an illusion. Obviously, if something has reality, let alone fundamental reality, then it cannot be an illusion.
Third, as I argued earlier, it is impossible to maintain both that time is an illusion and that, e.g., the Big Bang occurred 12-13 billion years ago. If you want to say that temporal becoming or temporal passage is an illusion, then say that; but don't confuse the rejection of temporal becoming with the rejection of time altogether. For it could well be that time is real, but exhausted by the B-series, as I explained in the earlier post. And this, I take it, is what most physicists maintain. They think of time as the fourth dimension of a four-dimensional space-time manifold. That is not a denial of the reality of time; it is a theory of what time is.
Fourth, it is intolerably sloppy to say that "to physicists," time is an illusion when, as is obvious, Smolin is a physicist who denies this!
Fifth, If the laws of physics don't change, how is it supposed to follow or "mean" (!) that "these laws are more real than time." What on earth is this guy getting at? Is he suggesting that time is an illusion because the laws of physics are real? The laws of physics are real and they 'govern' what happens in the changing physical world which is also real.
Frank, I take it, is a physicist. So he must be capable of precise thinking and clear writing. Why then does he write such slop as the above in his off-hours? Why can't he write something clear and coherent that is helpful to the interested layman?
I fear that a lot of our contemporary scientists are hopelessly bereft of general culture. They are brilliant in their specialties but otherwise uneducated. But that does not stop the likes of Dawkins and Krauss and Coyne and Hawking and Mlodinow from spouting off about God and time and the meaning of life . . . . They want to play the philosopher without doing any 'homework.' They think it's easy: you just shoot your mouth off.
The theological virtues are three: faith, hope, and charity. The scientistic virtues are two: faith and hope. The scientistic types, pinning their hopes on future science, are full of faith in things unseen, things that are incomprehensible now but will, they hope, become comprehensible in the fullness of time. They thirst less for justice and righteousness than for the final slaying of the dragon of the Hard Problem that stands between them and the paradise of naturalism. (Of course they fool themselves in thinking that the problem of qualia is the only hard problem in the philosophy of mind.)
What is strange here is the quasi-religious talk of "pinning hopes on future science" as if -- quite absurdly -- knowing more and more about the meat within our skulls will finally resolve the outstanding questions in the philosophy of mind. And what, pray tell, does science have to do with hope? To speak of hope in this context shows that one has abandoned science for scientism. There is also something exceedingly curious about hoping that one turn out to be just a material system, a bit of dust in the wind.
"I was so hoping to be proved to be nothing more than a clever land mammal slated for destruction in a few years, but, dammit all, there are reasons to think that we are more than animals and have a higher destiny. That sucks! Life would then have a meaning beyond the four 'F's: fighting, fleeing, feeding, and reproducing!"
Andrew Ferguson writes on the the explosion of hostility toward Thomas Nagel after the publication of his 2012 book, Mind and Cosmos. Here is my overview of the book. More detailed posts on the same book are collected under the Nagel rubric.
For a non-philosopher, Ferguson's treatment is accurate. Here are a couple of interesting excerpts in which he relates the thoughts of Daniel Dennett:
Daniel Dennett took a different view. While it is true that materialism tells us a human being is nothing more than a “moist robot”—a phrase Dennett took from a Dilbert comic—we run a risk when we let this cat, or robot, out of the bag. If we repeatedly tell folks that their sense of free will or belief in objective morality is essentially an illusion, such knowledge has the potential to undermine civilization itself, Dennett believes. Civil order requires the general acceptance of personal responsibility, which is closely linked to the notion of free will. Better, said Dennett, if the public were told that “for general purposes” the self and free will and objective morality do indeed exist—that colors and sounds exist, too—“just not in the way they think.” They “exist in a special way,” which is to say, ultimately, not at all.
What amazes me is that people like Dennett fail to appreciate the utter absurdity of what they are maintaining. He obviously believes that civilization and civil order both exist and are worth preserving. This is why he thinks the sober materialist truth ought not be broadcast to hoi polloi. And yet the preservation of civilization and its order require the widespread acceptance of such illusory notions as that of moral responsibility and freedom of the will. But if these notions are illusory, then so are Dennett's value judgment that civilization is worth preserving and his factual judgment that civilization exists.
It is absurd (self-contradictory) to maintain both that civilization is valuable and that every value-judgment is illusory.
It is also absurd to urge that the truth ought to be withheld from the ignorant masses. There is no room for 'ought' in Dennett's eliminativist scheme. Nor is there any room for rational persuasion. Rational persuasion requires that there be reasons, and that people are sensitive to them. But in Dennett's world reasons must be as ultimately illusory as consciousness and free will and all the rest of Wilfrid Sellars' Manifest Image.
It is absurd to attempt to persuade rationally if reasons are illusory.
It is also absurd to put forth 'truths' on a scheme that allows no place for truth.
When all of the following are consigned to the junk heap, then the very eliminativist project consigns itself to the junk heap: consciousness, intentionality, purposiveness, qualia, truth, meaning, , moral responsibility, personhood, free will, normativity in all its varieties . . . .
It's nonsense and the various emperors of this Nonsense are naked. And yet Dennett and Co. can't see it:
“I am just appalled to see how, in spite of what I think is the progress we’ve made in the last 25 years, there’s this sort of retrograde gang,” he said, dropping his hands on the table. “They’re going back to old-fashioned armchair philosophy with relish and eagerness. It’s sickening. And they lure in other people. And their work isn’t worth anything—it’s cute and it’s clever and it’s not worth a damn.”
There was an air of amused exasperation. “Will you name names?” one of the participants prodded, joking.
“No names!” Dennett said.
The philosopher Alex Rosenberg, author of The Atheist’s Guide, leaned forward, unamused.
“And then there’s some work that is neither cute nor clever,” he said. “And it’s by Tom Nagel.”
There it was! Tom Nagel, whose Mind and Cosmos was already causing a derangement among philosophers in England and America.
Dennett sighed at the mention of the name, more in sorrow than in anger. His disgust seemed to drain from him, replaced by resignation. He looked at the table.
“Yes,” said Dennett, “there is that.”
Around the table, with the PowerPoint humming, they all seemed to heave a sad sigh—a deep, workshop sigh.
Tom, oh Tom . . . How did we lose Tom . . .
Thomas Nagel may be the most famous philosopher in the United States—a bit like being the best power forward in the Lullaby League, but still. His paper “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” was recognized as a classic when it was published in 1974. Today it is a staple of undergraduate philosophy classes. His books range with a light touch over ethics and politics and the philosophy of mind. His papers are admired not only for their philosophical provocations but also for their rare (among modern philosophers) simplicity and stylistic clarity, bordering sometimes on literary grace.
Many commentators with no theological ax to grind -- such as David Albert, Massimo Pigliucci, Brian Leiter, and even New Atheist featherweight Jerry Coyne -- slammed Krauss’s amateurish foray into philosophy. Here’s some take-to-the-bank advice to would-be atheist provocateurs: When evenJerry Coyne thinks your attempt at atheist apologetics “mediocre,” it’s time to throw in the towel. Causa finita est. Game over. Shut the hell up already.
But isn't there something unseemly about beating up a cripple and rolling a drunk? Not that I haven't done it myself.
The following statement by Nicholas Humphrey (Psychology, London School of Economics) is one among many answers to the question: What do you believe is true though you cannot prove it?
I believe that human consciousness is a conjuring trick, designed to fool us into thinking we are in the presence of an inexplicable mystery. Who is the conjuror and why is s/he doing it? The conjuror is natural selection, and the purpose has been to bolster human self-confidence and self-importance—so as to increase the value we each place on our own and others' lives.
If this is right, it provides a simple explanation for why we, as scientists or laymen, find the "hard problem" of consciousness just so hard. Nature has meant it to be hard. Indeed "mysterian" philosophers—from Colin McGinn to the Pope—who bow down before the apparent miracle and declare that it's impossible in principle to understand how consciousness could arise in a material brain, are responding exactly as Nature hoped they would, with shock and awe.
Can I prove it? It's difficult to prove any adaptationist account of why humans experience things the way they do. But here there is an added catch. The Catch-22 is that, just to the extent that Nature has succeeded in putting consciousness beyond the reach of rational explanation, she must have undermined the very possibility of showing that this is what she's done.
But nothing's perfect. There may be a loophole. While it may seem—and even be—impossible for us to explain how a brain process could have the quality of consciousness, it may not be at all impossible to explain how a brain process could (be designed to) give rise to the impression of having this quality. (Consider: we could never explain why 2 + 2 = 5, but we might relatively easily be able to explain why someone should be under the illusion that 2 + 2 = 5).
Do I want to prove it? That's a difficult one. If the belief that consciousness is a mystery is a source of human hope, there may be a real danger that exposing the trick could send us all to hell.
Humphrey mentions the 'hard problem.' David Chalmers formulates the 'hard problem' as follows: "Why is all this processing accompanied by an experienced inner life?" (The Conscious Mind, Oxford 1996, p. xii.) Essentially, the 'hard problem' is the qualia problem. To explain it in detail would require a separate post. Humphrey offers us an explanation of why the 'hard problem' is hard. It is hard because nature or natural selection -- Humphrey uses these terms interchangeably above -- meant it to be hard. Her purpose is to "fool us into thinking we are in the presence of an inexplicable mystery." She wants to fool us in order to "bolster human self-confidence and self-importance." How thoughtful of her. Of course, to say that she is fooling us implies that consciousness is not mysterious but just another natural occurrence.
Not only does Nature fool us into thinking that consciousness is mysterious, when it is not, she also makes it impossible for us to see that this is what she has done. But there may be a loophole: it may be possible to "explain how a brain process could be (designed to) give rise to the impression of having this quality," i.e., the quality of consciousness. By 'impression,' Humphrey means illusion as is clear from his arithmetical example. So what he is suggesting is that it may be possible to explain how brain processes could give rise to the illusion that there is consciousness, the illusion that brain processes have the quality of consciousness.
But this 'possibility' is a complete absurdity, a complete impossibility. For it is self-evident that illusions presuppose consciousness: an illusion cannot exist without consciousness. The 'cannot' expresses a very strong impossibility, broadly logical impossibility. The Germans have a nice proverb, Soviel Schein, so viel Sein. "So much seeming, so much being." The point being that you can't have Schein without Sein, seeming without being. It can't be seeming 'all the way down.'
The water espied by a parched hiker might be an illusion (a mirage), but it is impossible that consciousness be an illusion. For wherever there is illusion there is consciousness, and indeed the reality of consciousness, not the illusion of consciousness. If you said that the illusion of consciousness is an illusion for a consciousness that is itself an illusion you would be embarked upon a regress that was both infinite and vicious. Just as the world cannot be turtles all the way down, consciousness cannot be illusion all the way down.
In the case of the mirage one can and must distinguish between the seeming and the being. The being (reality) of the mirage consists of heat waves rising from the desert floor, whereas its seeming (appearance) involves a relation to a conscious being who mis-takes the heat waves for water. But conscious states, as Searle and I have been arguing ad nauseam lo these many years, are such that seeming and being, appearance and reality, coincide. For conscious qualia, esse est percipi. Consciousness cannot be an illusion since no sort of wedge can be driven between its appearance and its reality.
A French philosopher might say that consciousness 'recuperates itself' from every attempt to reduce it to the status of an illusion. The French philosopher would be right -- if interpreted in my more sober Anglospheric terms.
It is also important to note how Humphrey freely helps himself to intentional and teleological language, all the while personifying Nature with a capital 'N.' Nature meant the hard problem to be hard, she had a purpose in fooling us. She fooled us. Etc. This is a typical mistake that many naturalists make. They presuppose the validity of the very categories (intentionality, etc.) that their naturalistic schemes would eliminate. How could they fail to presuppose them? After all, naturalists think about consciousness and other things, and they have a purpose in promoting their (absurd) theories.
There is no problem with using teleological talk as a sort of shorthand, but eventually it has to be cashed out: it has to be translated into 'mechanistic' talk. Eliminativists owe us a translation manual. In the absence of a translation manual, they can be charged with presupposing what they are trying to account for, and what is worse, ascribing meanings and purposes to something that could not possibly have them, namely, Natural Selection personified. What is the point of getting rid of God if you end up importing purposes into Natural Selection personified, or what is worse, into 'selfish' genes?
So Humphrey's statement is bullshit in the sense of being radically incoherent. It is pseudo-theory in the worst sense. One of the tasks of philosophers is to expose such pseudo-theory which, hiding behind scientific jargon (e.g, 'natural selection'), pretends to be scientific when it is only confused.
A central task of philosophy is the exposure of bad philosophy.
Another problem is that scientists like me are intimidated by philosophical jargon, and hence didn’t interrupt the monologues to ask for clarification for fear of looking stupid. I therefore spent a fair amount of time Googling stuff like “epistemology” and “ontology” (I can never get those terms straight since I rarely use them).
This is an amazing confession. It shows that the man is abysmally ignorant outside his specialty. He is not wondering about the distinction between de dicto and de re, but about a Philosophy 101 distinction. It would be as if a philosopher couldn't distinguish between velocity and acceleration, or mass and weight, or a scalar and a vector, or thought that a light-year was a measure of time.
Despite his ignorance of the simplest distinctions, Coyne is not bashful about spouting off on topics he knows nothing about such as free will. Lawrence Krauss is another of this scientistic crew. And Dawkins. And Hawking and Mlodinow. And . . . . Their arrogance stands in inverse relation to their ignorance. A whole generation of culturally-backward and half-educated scientists does not bode well for the future.
One aspect of contemporary scientism is the notion that great insights are to be gleaned from neuroscience about the mind and its operations. If you want my opinion, the pickin's are slim indeed and confusions are rife. This is your brain on prayer:
A test subject is injected with a dye that allows the researcher to study brain activity while the subject is deep in prayer/meditation. The red in the language center and frontal lobe areas indicates greater brain activity when the subject is praying or meditating as compared to the baseline when he is not. But when atheists "contemplate God" -- which presumably means when they think about the concept of God, a concept that they, as atheists, consider to be uninstantiated -- "Dr. Newberg did not observe any of the brain activity in the frontal lobe that he observed in religious people."
Dr. Newberg concludes that all religions create neurological experiences, and while God is unimaginable for atheists, for religious people, God is as real as the physical world. "So it helps us to understand that at least when they [religious people] are describing it to us, they are really having this kind of experience... This experience is at least neurologically real."
First of all, why do we need a complicated and expensive study to learn this? It is well-known that serious and sincere practioners of religions will typically have various experiences as a result of prayer and meditation. (Of course most prayer and meditation time is 'dry' -- but experiences eventually come.) The reality of these experiences as experiences cannot be doubted from the first-person point of view of the person who has them. There is no need to find a neural correlate in the brain to establish the reality of the experience qua experience. The experiences are real whether or not neural correlates can be isolated, and indeed whether or not there are any.
Suppose no difference in brain activity is found as between the religionists and the atheists when the former do their thing and the latter merely think about the God concept. (To call the latter "contemplating God" is an absurd misuse of terminology.) What would that show? Would it show that there is no difference between the religionists' experiences and the atheists'? Of course not. The difference is phenomenologically manifest, and, as I said, there is no need to establish the "neurological reality" of the experiences to show that they really occur.
Now I list some possible confusions into which one might fall when discussing a topic like this.
Confusion #1: Conflating the phenomenological reality of a religious experience as experienced with its so-called "neurological reality." They are obviously different as I've already explained.
Confusion #2: Conflating the religious experience with its neural correlate, the process in the brain or CNS on which the experience causally depends. Epistemically, they cannot be the same since they are known in different ways. The experience qua experience is known with certainty from the first-person point of view. The neural correlate is not. One cannot experience, from the first-person point of view, one's own brain states as brain states. Ontically, they cannot be the same either, and this for two sorts of reasons. First, the qualitative features of the experiences cannot be denied, but they also cannot be identified with anything physical. This is the qualia problem. Second, religious/mystical experiences typically exhibit that of-ness or aboutness, that directedness-to-an-object, that philosophers call intentionality. No physical states have this property.
Confusion #3: Conflating a religious entity with its concept, e.g., confusing God with the concept of God. This is why it is slovenly and confused to speak of "contemplating God" when one is merely thinking about the concept of God. The journalist and/or the neuroscientist seem to be succumbing to this confusion.
Confusion #4: Conflating an experience (an episode or act of experiencing) with its intentional object. Suppose one feels the presence of God. Then the object is God. But God is not identical to the experience. For one thing, numerically different experiences can be of the same object. The object is distinct from the act, and the act from the object. The holds even if the intentional object does not exist. Suppose St Theresa has an experience of the third person of the Trinity, but there is no such person. That doesn't affect the act-object structure of the experience. After all, the act does not lose its intentional directedness because the object does not exist.
Confusion #5: Conflating the question whether an experience 'takes an object' with the question whether the object exists.
Confusion #6: Conflating reality with reality-for. There is no harm is saying that God is real for theists, but not real for atheists if all one means is that theists believe that God is real while atheists do not. Now if one believes that p, it does not follow that p is true. Likewise, if God is real for a person it doesn't follow that God is real, period. One falls into confusion if one thinks that the reality of God for a person shows that God is real, period.
We find this confusion at the end of the video clip. "And if God only exists in our brains, that does not mean that God is not real. Our brains are where reality crystallizes for us."
This is confused nonsense. First of all God cannot exist in our brains. Could the creator of the universe be inside my skull? Second, it would also be nonsense to say that the experience of God is in our brains for the reasons give in #2 above. Third, if "God exists only in our brains" means that the experience of God is phenomenologically real for those who have it, but that the intentional object of this experience does not exist, then it DOES mean that God is not real.
Confusion #7: Conflating the real with the imaginable. We are told that "God is unimaginable for atheists." But that is true of theists as well: God, as a purely spiritual being, can be conceived but not imagined. To say that God is not real is not to say that God is unimaginable, and to say that something (a flying horse, e.g.) is imaginable is not to say that it is real.
What I am objecting to is not neuroscience, which is a wonderful subject worth pursuing to the hilt. What I am objecting is scientism, in the present case neuroscientism, the silly notion that learning more and more about a hunk of meat is going to give us real insight into the mind and is operations and is going to solve the philosophical problems in the vicinity.
What did we learn from the article cited? Nothing. We don't need complicated empirical studies to know that religious experiences are real. What the article does is sow seeds of confusion. One of the confusions the article sows is that the question of the veridicality of religious experiences can be settled by showing their "neurological reality." Neither the phenomenological nor the neurological reality of the experience qua experience entails the reality of the object of the experience.
Genuine science cannot rest on conceptual foundations that are thoroughly confused.
Those who hold that the only knowledge is scientific knowledge will not be content to restrict themselves to such knowledge; they will be tempted to pass off as scientific what is not. The prime and best example is scientism itself: it is passed off as scientific when it is a philosophical thesis with all the rights, privileges, and debilities pertaining thereunto.
A tip of the hat to Professor Joel Hunter for referring me to a recent discussion between philosopher Julian Baggini and physicist Lawrence Krauss. We have come to expect shoddy scientistic reasoning from Professor Krauss (see here) and our expectation is duly fulfilled on this occasion as on the others.
The issue under debate is whether there are any answerable questions in which philosophy has proprietary rights. Are there any questions that are specifically philosophical and thus beyond the purview of the sciences? Or are all answerable questions scientific questions? For Krauss, ". . . all the answerable ones end up moving into the domain of empirical knowledge, aka science." When philosophical questions "grow up, they leave home."
Moral (ethical) questions have traditionally belonged to philosophy. If Krauss and his scientistic brethren are right, however, these questions, if answerable, will be answered empirically: "science provides the basis for moral decisions . . . ." Baggini makes the expected response:
My contention is that the chief philosophical questions are those that grow up without leaving home, important questions that remain unanswered when all the facts are in. Moral questions are the prime example. No factual discovery could ever settle a question of right or wrong. But that does not mean that moral questions are empty questions or pseudo-questions.
Baggini's is a stock response but none the worse for that. Krauss' rejoinder is entirely lame:
Take homosexuality, for example. Iron age scriptures might argue that homosexuality is "wrong", but scientific discoveries about the frequency of homosexual behaviour in a variety of species tell us that it is completely natural in a rather fixed fraction of populations and that it has no apparent negative evolutionary impacts. This surely tells us that it is biologically based, not harmful and not innately "wrong".
Here we observe once again the patented Kraussian 'bait and switch' dialectical ploy. Note the scare quotes around 'wrong.' Krauss is switching from the relevant normative sense of the word to an irrelevant nonnormative sense. That is the same type of trick he pulled with respect to the Leibnizian question why there is something rather than nothing. He baited us with a promise to answer the Leibnizian question but all he did was switch from the standard meaning of 'nothing' to a special meaning all his own according to which nothing is something. So instead of answering the question he baited us with -- the old Leibniz question -- he substituted a different physically tractable question and then either stupidly or dishonestly passed off the answer to the physically tractable question as the answer to the philosophical question.
He is doing the same thing with the homosexuality question. He is equivocating on 'right' and 'wrong' as between nonnormative and normative senses of the term. Avoid that confusion and you will be able to see that a practice cannot be shown to be morally acceptable by showing that the practice is engaged in. Slavery and ethnic cleansing are practices which have proven to be be very effective by nonnormative criteria. World War II in the Pacific was ended by the nuclear slaughter of noncombatants. Questions about moral acceptability and unacceptability cut perpendicular to questions about effectiveness, survival value and the like.
There is also this Kraussian gem:
. . . that many moral convictions vary from society to society means that they are learned and, therefore, the province of psychology. Others are more universal and are, therefore, hard-wired – a matter of neurobiology. A retreat to moral judgment too often assumes some sort of illusionary belief in free will which I think is naive.
Three non sequiturs in two sentences. That's quite a trick!
A. Yes, moral convictions vary from society to society, and yes, they are learned. But Krauss confuses moral convictions as facts (which belong to psychology and sociology) with the content of moral convictions. For example, I am convinced that rape is morally wrong. My being so convinced is a psychological fact about me. It is an empirical fact and can be studied like any empirical fact. We can ask how I cam to hold the conviction. But my being convinced is distinct from the content of the conviction which is expressible in the sentence 'Rape is morally wrong.' That sentence says nothing about me or about any agent or about the psychological state of any agent. Confusing convictions and their contents, Krauss wrongly infers that moral questions are in the province of psychology as an empirical science when all he is entitled to conclude is that things like the incidence, distribution, and causes of moral beliefs belong in the province of psychology, sociology and related disciplines.
B. With respect to universal moral beliefs, Krauss falls into the same confusion. He confuses the moral belief or conviction qua psychological fact about an agent with its content. Even if my being convinced that X is morally wrong falls within neurobiology, because the being convinced is a state of brain, the content doesn't. A further problem with what he is saying is that moral beliefs cannot be identical to neural states. It is obvious that my moral convictions, as facts, belong to psychology; but it is the exact opposite of obvious that some of my moral convictions -- the universal ones -- belong to neurobiology. No doubt they have neurobiological correlates, but correlation is not identity.
C. Krauss thinks that the belief in free will is "illusionary." This is a nonsensical view shared by other scientistic types such as Jerry Coyne. ( See here.) It is also difficult to square with Krauss' own apparent belief in free will: "We have an intellect and can therefore override various other biological tendencies in the name of social harmony." So, holding social harmony to be a value we freely restrain ourselves and override out biological tendencies when we get the urge to commit rape. The man cannot see that his theory is inconsistent with the course of action he is recommending.
There is a bit more to the Krauss-Baggini discussion, but the quality is so low that I won't waste any more time on it.
Scientism is a philosophical thesis that belongs to the sub-discipline of epistemology. It is not a thesis in science, but a thesis about science. The thesis in its strongest form is that the only genuine knowledge is scientific knowledge, the knowledge generated by the natural sciences of physics, chemistry, biology and their offshoots. The thesis in a weaker form allows some cognitive value to the social sciences, the humanities, and other subjects, but insists that scientific knowledge is vastly superior and authoritative and is as it were the 'gold standard' when it comes to knowledge. On either strong or weak scientism, there is no room for first philosophy, according to which philosophy is an autonomous discipline, independent of natural science, and authoritative in respect to it. So on scientism, natural science sets the standard in matters epistemic, and philosophy’s role is at best ancillary. Not a handmaiden to theology in this day and age; a handmaiden to science.
The author appreciates that scientism enjoys no scientific support. He appreciates that it is not a scientific thesis that can be verified or falsified by scientific procedures. But he fails to give a sufficiently powerful argument against it.
One problem with strong scientism is that it is self-vitiating, as the following argument demonstrates:
a. The philosophical thesis of strong scientism is not an item of scientific knowledge. Therefore b. If all genuine knowledge is scientific knowledge, then the philosophical thesis of strong scientism is not an item of genuine knowledge.
Hence one cannot claim to know that strong scientism is true if it is true. For if it is true, then the only genuine knowledge is scientific knowledge. But strong scientism is not an item of scientific knowledge. So scientism, if true, is not knowable as true by the only methods of knowledge there are. How then could the proponent of strong scientism render rational his acceptance of strong scientism? Apparently, he can't, in which case his commitment to it is a matter of irrational ideology.
After all, he cannot appeal to rational insight as a source of knowledge. For that is precisely ruled out as a source of knowledge by scientism.
Scientism falls short of the very standard it enshrines. It is at most an optional philosophical belief unsupported by science. It also has unpalatable consequences which for many of us have the force of counterexamples. So here are some positive considerations against it.
If scientism is true, then none of the following can count as items of knowledge: That torturing children for fun is morally wrong; that setting afire a sleeping bum is morally worse than picking his pockets; that raping a woman is morally worse than merely threatening to rape her; that verbally threatening to commit rape is morally worse than entertaining (with pleasure) the thought of committing rape; that 'ought' implies 'can'; that moral goodness is a higher value than physical strength; that might does not make right; that the punishment must fit the crime; that a proposition and its negation cannot both be true; that what is past was once present; that if A remembers B's experience, then A = B; and so on.
In sum: if there are any purely rational insights into aesthetic, moral, logical, or metaphysical states of affairs, then scientism is false. For the knowledge I get when I see (with the eye of the mind) that the punishment must fit the crime or that a proposition and its negation cannot both be true is not an item of scientific knowledge.
I have been enjoying your blog for a couple of years now, and I have to say that I like how your mind works. There are a lot of issues I am thinking about currently regarding philosophy and that didn't change after reading Angus Menuge's book Agents Under Fire. If you haven't read that, I strongly recommend you to. He has some very interesting arguments regarding reason, intentionality, agency, reductionism, materialism etc. One issue is bugging me particularly these days, and it is the ever-lasting question of free will. I hope I am not asking too much, but would you be able to tell me what your position about free will is and briefly explain why you hold that position?
My position, bluntly stated, is that we are libertarianly free. As far as I'm concerned the following argument is decisive:
1. We are morally responsible for at least some of our actions and omissions. 2. Moral responsibility entails libertarian freedom of the will. Therefore 3. We are libertarianly free.
Is this a compelling argument? By no means. (But then no argument for any substantive philosophical thesis is compelling. Nothing substantive in philosophy has ever been proven to the satisfaction of all competent practioners.) One could, with no breach of logical propriety, deny the conclusion and then deny one or both of the premises. As we say in the trade, "One man's modus ponens is another's modus tollens." Any valid argument can be thrown into 'inferential reverse,' the result being a valid argument.
I of course acccept both premises. That I am morally (as opposed to causally, and as opposed to legally) responsible for at least some of what I do and leave undone I take to be more evident than its negation. And, like Kant, I see compatibilism as a shabby evasion, "the freedom of the turnspit."
Some will say that free will and moral responsibility are illusions. I find that incoherent for reasons supplied here. Other posts in the Free Will category touch upon some of the more technical aspects of the problem.
There is a lot of utter rubbish being scribbled by scientists these days about philosophical questions. Typically, these individuals, prominent in their fields, don't have a clue as to the nature, history, or proper exfoliation of these questions. Recently, biologist Jerry Coyne has written a lot of crap about free will that I expose in these posts:
This stuff is crap in the same sense in which most of Ayn Rand's philosophical writings are crap. The crappiness resides not so much in the theses themselves but in the way the theses are presented and argued, and the way objections are dealt with. But if I had to choose between the scientistic crapsters (Krauss, Coyne, Hawking & Mlodinow, et al.) and Rand, I would go with Rand. At least she understands that what she is doing is philosophy and that philosophy is important and indispensable. At least she avoids the monstrous self-deception of the scientistic crapsters who do philosophy while condemning it.
But as evolutionary biologists and cognitive neuroscientists peer ever deeper into the brain, they are discovering more and more genes, brain structures and other physical correlates to feelings like empathy, disgust and joy. That is, they are discovering physical bases for the feelings from which moral sense emerges — not just in people but in other animals as well.
The result is perhaps the strongest challenge yet to the worldview summed up by Descartes, the 17th-century philosopher who divided the creatures of the world between humanity and everything else. As biologists turn up evidence that animals can exhibit emotions and patterns of cognition once thought of as strictly human, Descartes’s dictum, “I think, therefore I am,” loses its force.
People often question the utility of philosophy. One use of philosophy is to protect us from bad philosophy, pseudo-philosophy, the 'philosophy' of those who denigrate philosophy yet cannot resist philosophizing themselves and as a result philosophize poorly. Man is a philosophical animal whether he likes it or not. Philosophize we will — the only question being whether we will do it poorly or well.
The two paragraphs quoted illustrate the sort of pseudo-philosophy that the genuine article must combat. Since to spend much time criticizing writing as shoddy and uninformed as the above is a poor use of time, I'll just make two brief remarks.
First, it was not Descartes who set human beings apart from the animal kingdom. This idea is a staple of the Judeo-Christian tradition and is already set forth in the Book of Genesis:
Faciamus hominem ad imaginem et similitudinem nostram . . . (Gen 1, 26) Let us make man in our image and likeness. . . Et creavit Deus hominem ad imaginem suam. . . (Gen 1, 27) And God created man in his image. . .
The idea is that God, a purely spirtual being, conferred upon man a spiritual nature that distinguishes him from the rest of the animals. In Imago Dei, I go into this at some length and ward off a common misunderstanding.
Second, the 'force' of Cogito ergo sum is in no way lessened by evidence that animals exhibit emotions and patterns of cognition found also in humans. The author betrays a complete lack of understanding as to what the Cartesian dictum means.
What it means is that there is something accessible to my experience that is indubitable. The existence of my thinking (in the broad Cartesian sense that includes perceiving, imagining, wishing, willing, hoping, desiring, and indeed every mental act that displays the property that Brentano called intentionality) cannot be doubted. Given that I am conscious of a (putatively external) object (in whatever modality: perception, imagination, recollection, etc.), it is possible to doubt whether the object of consciousness exists apart from my being conscious of it. Presently gazing at Superstition Mountain, I can doubt the existence of the mountain, but I cannot doubt that a mental act of visual perception is now occurring, or that this act is of a mountain of such-and-such a description. Both act and object qua object are indubitable as to their existence; dubitable alone is the existence of the object in reality. If I try to doubt the existence of my present thinking, I find that my doubting guarantees its own existence: Dubito ergo sum.
If you understand this, then you understand that the author of the NYT piece is an ignoramus.
The book is due back at the library today, and good riddance. A few parting shots to put this turkey to bed. The book is a mishmash of bad philosophy, badly written, and popularization of contemporary cosmology. I cannot comment on the accuracy of the popularization, but the philosophy is indeed bad and demonstrates why we need philosophy: to debunk bad philosophy, especially the scientistic nonsense our culture is now awash in. I am tempted once more to quote some Kraussian passages and pick them apart. But besides being a waste of time, that would be the literary equivalent of beating up a cripple or rolling a drunk.
In my post of 29 April I put my finger on the central problem with the book: the 'bait and switch.' Krauss baits us with the old Leibniz question, 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' (See On the Ultimate Origin of Things, 1697.) Having piqued our interest, he switches to a different question, actually to several different questions, one of which is: "Why is there ‘stuff’, instead of empty space?" (Click on above link for reference.) Apparently our man forgot that empty space is not nothing.
Bait and switch. I recall an old Tareyton cigarette commercial from the '60s: I'd rather fight than switch. Apparently Krauss would rather switch than fight an intellectually honest fight.
Here are links to my more substantial, but no less polemical, Krauss posts.
Jerry Fodor's "Is Science Biologically Possible?" (in Beilby, ed. Naturalism Defeated? Cornell UP 2002, pp. 30-42) begins like this:
I hold to a philosophical view that, for want of a better term, I'll call by one that is usually taken to be pejorative: Scientism. Scientism claims, on the one hand, that the goals of scientific inquiry include the discovery of objective empirical truths; and, on the other hand, that science has come pretty close to achieving this goal at least from time to time. The molecular theory of gasses is, I suppose, a plausible example of achieving it in physics; so is the cell theory in biology; the theory, in geology, that the earth is very old; and the theory, in astronomy,that the stars are very far away . . . .
I'm inclined to think that Scientism, so construed, is not just true but obviously and certainly true; it's something that nobody in the late twentieth century who has a claim to an adequate education and a minimum of common sense should doubt.
Up to this point one might get the impression that Fodor is simply stipulating that he will use 'scientism' in his own perverse and idiosyncratic way. But then he goes on to say that scientism is under attack from the left and from the right: "on the left, from a spectrum of relativists and pragmatists, and on the right, from a spectrum of Idealists and a priorists."
At this point I threw down the article in disgust and went on to something worthwhile.
If you want to take a term in widespread use, a term the meaning of which is more or less agreed upon by hundreds of philosophers, and use it in our own crazy-headed way, that, perhaps, may be forgiven. But it is utterly unforgivable to use one and same term with both the received meaning and your crazy-headed arbitrarily stipulated meaning.
What is scientism? I expect some bickering over the particulars of the following definition, but I believe the following captures in at least broad outline what most competent practioners understand by 'scientism.'
Scientism is a philosophical thesis that belongs to the sub-discipline of epistemology. It is not a thesis in science, but a thesis about science. The thesis in its strongest form is that the only genuine knowledge is scientific knowledge, the knowledge generated by the (hard) sciences of physics, chemistry, biology and their offshoots. The thesis in a weaker form allows some cognitive value to the social sciences, the humanities, and other subjects, but insists that scientific knowledge is vastly superior and authoritative and is as it were the 'gold standard' when it comes to knowledge. On either strong or weak scientism, there is no room for first philosophy, according to which philosophy is an autonomous discipline, independent of natural science, and authoritative in respect to it. So on scientism, natural science sets the standard in matters epistemic, and philosophy’s role is at best ancillary. Not a handmaiden to theology in this day and age; a handmaiden to science.
One problem with strong scientism is that it is self-vitiating, as the following argument demonstrates:
a. The philosophical thesis of strong scientism is not an item of scientific knowledge. b. All genuine knowledge is scientific knowledge. Therefore c. The philosophical thesis of strong scientism is not an item of genuine knowledge.
Hence one cannot claim to know that scientism is true if it is true. Scientism falls short of the very standard it enshrines. It is at most an optional philosophical belief unsupported by science. It also has unpalatable consequences which for many of us have the force of counterexamples.
If scientism is true, then none of the following can count as items of knowledge: That torturing children for fun is morally wrong; that setting afire a sleeping bum is morally worse than picking his pockets; that raping a woman is morally worse than merely threatening to rape her; that verbally threatening to commit rape is morally worse than entertaining (with pleasure) the thought of committing rape; that 'ought' implies 'can'; that moral goodness is a higher value than physical strength; that might does not make right; that the punishment must fit the crime; that a proposition and its negation cannot both be true; that what is past was once present; that if A remembers B's experience, then A = B; and so on. In sum: if there are any purely rational insights into aesthetic, moral, logical, or metaphysical states of affairs, then scientism is false. For the knowledge I get when I see (with the eye of the mind) that the punishment must fit the crime is not an item of scientific knowledge.
Back to Fodor. His definition of scientism has nothing to so with scientism as commonly understood. The latter is a highly dubious philosophical thesis as I have just demonstrated. But what he calls scientism is but a platitude that most of us will accept while rejectiong scientism as commonly understood.
In the pages of Scientific American, Lawrence M. Krauss writes:
As a scientist, the fascination normally associated with the classically phrased question “why is there something rather than nothing?”, is really contained in a specific operational question. That question can be phrased as follows: How can a universe full of galaxies and stars, and planets and people, including philosophers, arise naturally from an initial condition in which none of these objects—no particles, no space, and perhaps no time—may have existed? Put more succinctly perhaps: Why is there ‘stuff’, instead of empty space? Why is there space at all? There may be other ontological questions one can imagine but I think these are the ‘miracles’ of creation that are so non-intuitive and remarkable, and they are also the ‘miracles’ that physics has provided new insights about, and spurred by amazing discoveries, has changed the playing field of our knowledge. That we can even have plausible answers to these questions is worth celebrating and sharing more broadly.
This paragraph is a perfect example of why I find Krauss exasperating. They guy seems incapable of thinking and writing clearly.
First of all, no one can have any objection to a replacement of the old Leibniz question -- Why is there something rather than nothing? See On the Ultimate Origin of Things, 1697 -- with a physically tractable question, a question of interest to cosmologists and one amenable to a physics solution. Unfortunately, in the paragraph above, Krauss provides two different replacement questions while stating, absurdly, that the second is a more succint version of the first:
K1. How can a physical universe arise from an initial condition in which there are no particles, no space and perhaps no time?
K2. Why is there 'stuff' instead of empty space?
These are obviously distinct questions. To answer the first one would have to provide an account of how the universe originated from nothing physical: no particles, no space, and "perhaps" no time. The second question would be easier to answer because it presupposes the existence of space and does not demand that empty space be itself explained.
Clearly, the questions are distinct. But Krauss conflates them. Indeed, he waffles between them, reverting to something like the first question after raising the second. To ask why there is something physical as opposed to nothing physical is quite different from asking why there is physical "stuff" as opposed to empty space.
One would think that a scientist, trained in exact modes of thought and research, would not fall into such a blatant confusion. Or if he is not confused 'in his own mind' why is he writing like a sloppy sophomore? Scientific American is not a technical journal, but it is certainly a cut or two above National Enquirer.
To make matters worse, Krauss then starts talking about the 'miracles' of creation. Talk of miracles, or even of 'miracles,' has no place in science. The point of science is to demystify the world, to give, as far as possible, a wholly naturalistic account of nature. It is a noble enterprise and ought to be pursued to the limit. But what is the point of bringing in a theological term with or without 'scare' quotes? The same goes for 'creation.' In his book he refers to the physical universe as creation. But creation implies a creator. Why the theological language? Is he trying to co-opt it? What game is he playing here? Whatever it is, it doesn't inspire confidence in anything he says.
Go back to my opening point. There can be no objection to a replacement of the Leibniz question with one or more physically tractable questions. Unfortunately, Krauss is not clearly doing this. He thinks he is answering the Leibniz question. But he waffles, and he shifts his ground, and he backtracks when caught out and criticized.
Whatever merit his book has in popularizing recent cosmology, it is otherwise worthless. The book is a miserable exercise in 'bait and switch.' From the very title (A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing), Krauss purports to be answering the old philosophical question using nothing but naturalistic means. But having baited us, he then switches and waffles and backtracks and plays semantic games.
Victor Stenger contributes a meatier piece, Nuthin' to Explain in which he replies to David Albert's NYT review of Krauss. One of the questions Albert raises is where the laws of quantum mechanics come from. Strenger's thesis is that "the laws of physics arise naturally from the symmetries of the void." So the void has symmetries and these symmetries give rise to the laws of physics. I imagine Albert would simply reiterate his question: where do these symmetries come from? Symmetries are not nothing. And presumably they are symmetries in this respect or that, in which case one can ask what these respects are and where they come from. And what about the void itself? If it is nothing at all, then ex nihilo nihil fit. And if it is something, then it is not nothing and one can ask about its origin. Stenger opines:
Clearly, no academic consensus exists on how to define "nothing." It may be impossible. To define "nothing" you have to give it some defining property, but, then, if it has a property it is not nothing!
Maybe I can help Stenger out. Nothing is the absence of everything. Isn't that what everybody who understands English understands by 'nothing' is this context? Have I just done the impossible? Can one rationally debate the sense of 'nothing'? Is there need for an "academic consensus"? Does Stenger understand English? Stenger goes on:
The "nothing" that Krauss mainly talks about throughout the book is, in fact, precisely definable. It should perhaps be better termed as a "void," which is what you get when you apply quantum theory to space-time itself. It's about as nothing as nothing can be. This void can be described mathematically. It has an explicit wave function. This void is the quantum gravity equivalent of the quantum vacuum in quantum field theory.
Now Stenger is contradicting himself. He just got done telling us that 'nothing' cannot be defined, but now he is telling us that it is precisely definable. Which is it, my man? The problem of course is that Krauss and Stenger want to have it two ways at once. They want to use 'nothing' in the standard way to refer to the absence of everything while at the same time using it in violation of English usage to refer to something.
I have a suggestion. What these boys need to do is introduce a terminus technicus, 'Nuthin' or 'Nathin' or 'Nothing*' where these terms refer to a physical something and then give us their theory about that. But if they did this, then they wouldn't be able to play the silly-ass game they are playing, which is to waffle between 'nothing' as understood by everyone who is not a sophist and who understands the question 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' and 'nothing' in their technical sense. If they stopped their waffling, however, they would not be able to extract any anti-theology out of their physics. But that is the whole purpose of this scientistic nonsense, and the reason why Richard Dawkins absurdly compares Krauss' book to The Origin of the Species.
The religious question "why is there something rather than nothing," has been around since people have been around, and now we're actually reaching a point where science is beginning to address that question. [. . .]
What's amazing to me is that we're now at a point where we can plausibly argue that a universe full of stuff came from a very simple beginning, the simplest of all beginnings: nothing. [. . .]
The fact that "nothing," namely empty space, is unstable is amazing. But I'll be the first to say that empty space as I'm describing it isn't necessarily nothing, although I will add that it was plenty good enough for Augustine and the people who wrote the Bible. For them an eternal empty void was the definition of nothing, and certainly I show that that kind of nothing ain't nothing anymore. [. . .]
What drove me to write this book was this discovery that the nature of "nothing" had changed, that we've discovered that "nothing" is almost everything and that it has properties. That to me is an amazing discovery. So how do I frame that? I frame it in terms of this question about something coming from nothing. And part of that is a reaction to these really pompous theologians who say, "out of nothing, nothing comes," because those are just empty words. [. . .]
I had fun back in January pilloring the scientistic nonsense Lawrence M. Krauss propagates in his recent book, A Universe From Nothing. Meanwhile the book has shown up at the local library and tomorrow I will borrow it. I would never buy a piece of crap like this, though, to be fair, I will first have to read it to be sure that it is crap. That it is crap is an excellent bet, however, given what I quoted Krauss as saying and given David Albert's New York Times review of a couple days ago.
I won't quote from Albert's review. Study it carefully and you will see why Krauss' book is junk.
One mistake many people make is to think that any opposition to scientistic nonsense of the sort that Krauss spouts can only be religiously motivated. Carefully pointing out the confusions to which Krauss and Co. succumb gets one labeled an 'apologist for religion.' Now an affirmative answer to the question whether contemporary physics has the resources to explain why the physical universe exists does of course have negative implications for those forms of theism that posit a transcendent divine creator. But the question itself is not a religious question but a metaphysical question. Every clear-thinking atheist should reject Krauss's specious reasoning. Rejecting it would not make our atheist an apologist for religion.
People sometimes question what philosophy is good for. Well, one thing it is good for is to debunk bad philosophy, Krauss' scientistic nonsense being a particular egregious example of bad philosophy.
Philosophize we must and philosophize we will. The only question is whether we will do it well.
This is the fourth in a series of posts on Plantinga's new book. They are collected under the rubric Science and Religion. In the third chapter of Where the Conflict Really Lies, Plantinga addresses questions about divine action and divine intervention in the workings of nature. A miracle is such an intervention. But aren't miracles logically impossible? Plantinga doesn't cite Earman, but I will:
. . . if a miracle is a violation of a law of nature, then whether or not the violation is due to the intervention of the Deity, a miracle is logically impossible since, whatever else a law of nature is, it is an exceptionless regularity.
According to one way of thinking, miracles are violations of laws of nature. And so one may argue:
1. A miracle is an exception to a law of nature. 2. Every law of nature is an exceptionless regularity (though not conversely). Therefore 3. A miracle is an exception to an exceptionless regularity. Therefore 4. Miracles are logically impossible.
Please note that (2) merely states that whatever a law of nature is, it is an exceptionless regularity. Thus (2) does not commit one to a regularity theory of laws according to which laws are identified with exceptionless regularities. The idea is that any theory of (deterministic) laws would include the idea that a law is an exceptionless regularity.
The above argument seems to show that if miracles are to be logically possible they cannot be understood as violations of laws of nature. To avoid the conclusion one must deny (1). How then are miracles to be understood? Plantinga supplies an answer:
Miracles are often thought to be problematic, in that God, if he were to perform a miracle, would be involved in 'breaking,' going contrary to, abrogating, suspending, a natural law. But given this conception of law, if God were to perform a miracle, it wouldn't at all involve contravening a natural law. That is because, obviously, any occasion on which God performs a miracle is an occasion when the universe is not causally closed; and the laws say nothing about what happens when the universe is not causally closed. Indeed, on this conception it isn't even possible that God break a law of nature. (pp. 82-83)
As I understand him, Plantinga is saying that a miracle is not a divine suspension of a law of nature, but a divine suspension of causal closure. Conservation and other natural laws apply to isolated or closed systems (78). God cannot intervene without 'violating' closure; but that does not amount to a violation of a law since the laws hold only for closed systems. "It is entirely possible for God to create a full-grown horse in the middle of Times Square without violating the principle of conservation of energy. That is because the systems including the horse would not be closed or isolated." (79)
Plantinga is maintaining that it is logically impossible, impossible in the very strongest sense of the term, for anyone, including God, to contravene a law of nature. But it is logically possible that God contravene causal closure. This implies that causal closure is not a law of nature.
But isn't it a proposition of physics that the physical universe is causally closed, that every cause of a physical event is a physical event and that every effect of a physical event is a physical event? No, says Plantinga. Causal closure is a "metaphysical add-on," (79) not part of physics. That's right, as far as I can see. I would add that it is the mistake of scientism to think otherwise.
Whether or or not God ever intervenes in the physical world, I do it all the time. It's called mental causation. That it occurs is a plain fact; that mental causes are not identical to physical causes is not a plain fact, but very persuasively arguable, pace Jaegwon Kim. So if a frail reed such as the Maverick Philosopher can bring about the suspension of causal closure, then God should be able to pull it off as well. (This comparison with mental causation is mine, not Plantinga's.)
There's not much downside to abandoning the notion of free will. It's impossible, anyway, to act as though we don't have it: you'll pretend to choose your New Year's resolutions, and the laws of physics will determine whether you keep them. And there are two upsides. The first is realizing the great wonder and mystery of our evolved brains, and contemplating the notion that things like consciousness, free choice, and even the idea of "me" are but convincing illusions fashioned by natural selection. Further, by losing free will we gain empathy, for we realize that in the end all of us, whether Bernie Madoffs or Nelson Mandelas, are victims of circumstance — of the genes we're bequeathed and the environments we encounter. With that under our belts, we can go about building a kinder world.
This, Coyne's concluding paragraph, has it all: scientism, incoherence, and liberal victimology.
1. Coyne realizes that we cannot deliberate, choose, and act without the belief in free will. He realizes that one cannot, say, choose to eat less in the coming year without believing (even if falsely) that one is freely choosing, without believing that the choice is 'up to oneself.' But then Coyne immediately confuses this unavoidable false believing with pretending to choose. He seems to think that if my choice is determined and not free (in the libertarian sense explained in the earlier post), then it is not a genuine choice, but a pretend choice. But that is not the case. A choice is genuine whether or not it is determined.
People deliberate and choose. Bicycles don't. That's part of the pre-analytic data. It is also part of the pre-analytic data that people sometimes pretend to deliberate and pretend to choose. It is a grotesque confusion on Coyne's part to think that if one is determined to choose then one's choice is not genuine but pretend. (Note also that if determinism is true, then one's pretending to choose is also determined without prejudice to its being a real case of pretending to choose.)
Coyne is making a mistake similar to the one he made at the beginning of the piece. There he implied that if a choice is not free then it is not a choice. But a choice is a choice whether free or determined. Coyne was confusing the question, Are there choices? with the question, Are there free choices? He now thinks that if a choice is determined, then it not a real, but a merely pretend, choice. That is doubly confused. Just as a pretend choice can be free, a real choice can be determined.
2. We are then told that consciousness, free choice, and the idea of the self are "illusions fashioned by natural selection." This is nonsense pure and simple.
First of all, consciousness cannot be an illusion. Consciousness cannot be an illusion for the simple reason that it is a presupposition of the distinction between reality and illusion. An illusion is an illusion to consciousness, so that if there is no consciousness there are no illusions either. There simply is no (nonverbal) distinction between the illusion of consciousness and consciousness. If one is under the illusion that one is conscious, then one is conscious, really conscious, and therefore not under any illusion about the matter.
The thesis that consciousness is an illusion is self-refuting. If I merely seem to be conscious, but am not conscious, then I am conscious. And if I do not merely seem to be conscious, but am conscious, then (of course) I am conscious. Therefore, necessarily, if I seem to be conscious, then I am conscious. Here we bite on granite, and "our spade is turned" -- to mix Nimzovich and Wittgenstein metaphors. Or in the words of a German proverb, Soviel Schein, soviel Sein.
Consciousness, in this regard, is analogous to truth. If you try to say something about truth, you presuppose truth. For if you try to say something about truth, presumably you are trying to say something true about truth. So if you say that truth is an illusion, and that there are no truths, then you are saying that in truth there are no truths -- which is self-refuting. If, on the other hand, you are simply making noises or perhaps aiming to say something false, the we ignore you for those reasons.
3. I don't believe that one can show in the same clean 'knock-down' way that free will is not an illusion. That consciousness is an illusion is a plainly incoherent idea; the incoherence of the notion that free will is an illusion is harder to uncover. But suppose we ask, "In which sense of 'illusion' is free will an illusion?" It is nothing like a correctable perceptual illusion of the sort we are subject to on a daily basis. The 'illusion' of free will, if illusion it be, cannot be thrown off. I cannot function as an agent without taking myself to be free, and I cannot cease being an agent short of suicide. Echoing Sartre, I am condemned to agency and to that extent "condemned to be free." Even a mad-dog quietist who decided to renounce all action, would be deciding to renounce all action and thereby demonstrating willy-nilly the ineradicable reality of his agency. An 'illusion' that it constutive of my very being an agent is no illusion in any worthwile sense of the term.
It's a bit like an Advaitin (an adherent of Advaita Vedanta) telling me that the multiple world of our ordinary sense experience is an illusion. "OK, but what does that mean? When we are at the shooting range, you are going to take care not to be down range when the shooting starts, right? Why, if the world of multiplicity, the world of shotguns and shells and targets and tender human bodies is an illusion? Why would it matter? Obviously, you are playing fast and loose with 'illusion' and don't really believe that this gun and your head are illusions.)
One cannot distinguish (except verbally) the mere appearance of consciousness and the reality of consciousness. Similarly, I suggest that one cannot distinguish between the 'illusion' of free will and its reality. This thesis of course requires much more development and support! But hey, this is a blog, just an online notebook!
Those who claim that free will is an illusion are simply playing fast and loose with the word 'illusion.' There are not using it in an ordinary way, in the sort of way that gives it its ordinary 'bite'; they are using it in some extended way that drains it of meaning. It is a kind of bullshitting that scientists often fall into when they are spouting scientism in the popular books they scribble to turn a buck. Doing science is hard; writing bad philosopohy is easy. By the way, that is why we need philosophy. We need it to expose all the pseudo-philsophy abroad in the world.
We need philosophy to bury its undertakers lest there be all those rotting corpses laying about.
4. Finally, Coyne tells us we are all "victims of circumstance." But I've had enough of this guy for one day. I shouldn't be wasting so much time on him.
Hawking is a brilliant man, but he's not an expert in what's going on in philosophy, evidently. Over the past thirty years the philosophy of physics has become seamlessly integrated with the foundations of physics work done by actual physicists, so the situation is actually the exact opposite of what he describes. I think he just doesn't know what he's talking about. I mean there's no reason why he should. Why should he spend a lot of time reading the philosophy of physics? I'm sure it's very difficult for him to do. But I think he's just . . . uninformed.
This became evident to me in October of 2010 when I sat down to study Hawking and Mlodinow, The Grand Design. I soon discovered it was rubbish. Here are my notes on Chapter One. After studying Chapter Two I decide the trash-to-treasure ratio was so unfavorable as not to justify further discussion. I mean, it's work writing these posts!
This Atlantic piece is well worth attention. It is free of sort of nonsense I have criticized in Krauss and Coyne and Hawking and others.
To answer the title question we need to know what we mean by 'explain' and how it differs from 'explain away.'
1. An obvious point to start with is that only that which exists, or that which is the case, can be explained. One who explains the phenomenon of the tides in terms of the gravitational effect of the moon presupposes that the phenomenon of the tides is a genuine phenomenon. One cannot explain the nonexistent for the simple reason that it is not there to be explained. One cannot explain why unicorns run faster that gazelles for the simple reason that there is no such explanandum. So if consciousness is to be explained, it must exist.
2. A second point, equal in obviousness unto the first, is that a decent explanation cannot issue in the elimination of the explanandum, that which is to be explained. You cannot explain beliefs and desires by saying that there are no beliefs and desires. A successful explanation cannot be eliminativist. It cannot 'explain away' the explanandum. To explain is not to explain away.
3. Summing up (1) and (2): the very project of explanation presupposes the existence of the explanandum, and success in explanation cannot result in the elimination of the explanandum.
4. Daniel Dennett points out that there can be no explanation without a certain 'leaving out': "Leaving something out is not a feature of failed explanations, but of successful explanations." (Consciousness Explained, 1991, p. 454.) Thus if I explain lightning as an atmospheric electrical discharge, I leave out the appearing of the lightning to lay bare its reality. That lightning appears in such-and-such a way is irrelevant: I want to know what it is in reality, what it is in nature apart from any observer. The scientist aims to get beyond the phenomenology to the underlying reality.
5. It follows that if consciousness is to be explained, it must be reduced to, or identified with, something else that is observer-independent. Dennett puts this by saying that "Only a theory that explained conscious events in terms of unconscious events could explain consciousness at all." (454) For example, if your explanation of pain in terms of C-fibers and Delta A-fibers (or whatever) still contains the unreduced term 'pain,' then no satisfactory explanation has been achieved. There cannot be a "magic moment" in the explanation when a "miracle occurs" and unconscious events become conscious. (455)
6. Now if a successful explanation must explain conscious events in terms of unconscious events, then I hope I will be forgiven for concluding that consciousness CANNOT be explained. For, as I made clear in #2 above, a successful explanation cannot issue in the elimination of that which is to be explained. In the case of the lightning, there is a reduction but not an elimination: lightning is reduced to its observer-independent reality as electrical discharge.
Now suppose you try the same operation with the sensory qualia experienced when one observes lightning: the FLASH, the JAGGED LINE in the sky, followed by the CLAP of thunder, etc. You try to separate the subjective appearance from the observer-independent reality. But then you notice something: reality and appearance of a sensory quale coincide. Esse est percipi. The being of the quale is identical to its appearing. This is what John Searle means when he speaks of the "first person ontology" of mental data.
7. It follows from #6 that if one were to explain the conscious event in terms of unconscious events as Dennett recommends, the explanation would fail: it would violate the strictures laid down in #2 above. The upshot would be an elimination of the datum to be explained rather than an explanation of it. To reiterate the obvious, a successful explanation cannot consign the explanandum to oblivion. It must explain it, not explain it away.
8. I conclude that consciousness cannot be explained, given Dennett's demand that a successful explanation of consciousness must be in terms of unconscious events. What he wants is a reduction to the physical. He wants that because he is convinced that only the physical exists. But in the case of consciousness, such a reduction must needs be an elimination.
9. To my claim that consciousness cannot be explained, Dennett has a response: "But why should consciousness be the only thing that cannot be explained? Solids and liquids and gases can be explained in terms of things that are not solids, and liquids, and gases. . . . The illusion that consciousness is the exception comes about, I suspect, because of a failure to understand this general feature of successful explanation." (455)
Dennett's reasoning here is astonishingly weak because blatantly question-begging. He is arguing:
A. It is a general feature of all successful explanations that F items be explained in terms of non-F items B. Conscious items can be explained Ergo C. Conscious items can be explained in terms of nonconscious items.
(B) cannot be asserted given what I said in #6 and #7. I run the argument in reverse, arguing from the negation of (C) to the negation of (B): conscious items such as pains are irreducible.
10. Recall from #4 that Dennett said that successful explanations must leave something out. But in the case of a conscious item like a pain, what is left out when we explain it is precisely what we needed to explain! For what is left out is precisely the sensory quale, the felt pain, the Feiglian "raw feel,' the Nagelian "what it is like."
11. Amazingly, on p. 455 he retracts what he said on the previous page about successful explanations having to leave something out. He now writes:
Thinking, mistakenly, that the explanation leaves something out, we think to save what otherwise would be lost by putting it back into the observer as a quale -- or some other "intrinsically" wonderful property. The psyche becomes the protective skirt under which all those beloved kittens can hide. There may be motives for thinking that consciousness cannot be explained, but, I hope I have shown, there are good reasons for thinking it can. (455)
Do you see how Dennett is contradicting himself? On p. 454 he states that a successful explanation must leave something out, which seems plausible enough. Then he half-realizes that this spells trouble for his explanation of consciousness -- since what is left out when we explain consciousness in unconscious terms is precisely the explanandum, consciousness itself! So he backpedals and implies that nothing has been left out, and suggests that someone who affirms the irreducibility of qualia is like a lady who hides her 'kwalia kitties' under her skirt where no mean neuroscientist dare stick his nose.
The whole passage is a tissue of confusion wrapped in a rhetorical trick. And that is the way his big book ends: on a contradictory note. A big fat load of scientistic sophistry.
12. To sum up. A successful explanation cannot eliminate the explanandum. That is nonnegotiable. So if we agree with Dennett that a successful explanation must leave something out, namely, our epistemic access to what is to be explained, then we ought to conclude that consciousness cannot be explained.
Perhaps you've chosen to read this essay after scanning other articles on this website. Or, if you're in a hotel, maybe you've decided what to order for breakfast, or what clothes you'll wear today.
You haven't. You may feel like you've made choices, but in reality your decision to read this piece, and whether to have eggs or pancakes, was determined long before you were aware of it — perhaps even before you woke up today. . . . And those New Year's resolutions you made? You had no choice about making them, and you'll have no choice about whether you keep them.
Suppose you have chosen to read Coyne's essay and have decided on scrambled eggs for breakfast. Well then, you have made a choice and a decision and it is nonsense for Coyne to claim that you haven't just done those things. It is also nonsense to claim that you had no choice concerning your New Year's resolutions. It is a plain fact that one chooses, decides, and deliberates. What is debatable, however, is whether one freely chooses, decides, deliberates. Coyne gets off to a rocky start by conflating these two questions:
1. Do human beings ever choose, decide, deliberate? 2. Do human beings ever freely choose, decide, deliberate?
Only the second can be debated reasonably, and this, to be charitable, is the question Coyne is posing. His answer is that we never freely choose, decide, deliberate. His thesis is that "free will is a complete illusion."
Suppose you ordered the scrambled eggs. No one held a gun to your head: your choice was uncoerced and in that sense free. So you made a choice and you made a free (uncoerced) choice. But there is another sense of 'free' and it is the one with which Coyne is operating:
3. Do human beings ever freely choose, etc. in the sense that they could have done otherwise even if all the antecedent conditions up to the point of the choice, etc. were the same?
Call this the libertararian sense of 'free' and distinguish it from the compatibilist sense of the word. To refine Coyne's thesis, he is claiming that libertarian freedom of the will is an illusion. Why should we believe this? Coyne says that there are "two lines of evidence."
Although Coyne uses the word 'evidence' and postures as if empirical science is going to step in, do some real work, and finally solve a problem that philosophers in their armchairs merely endlessly gas off about, the first "line of evidence" he provides is just a stock deterministic argument that could have been given in the 18th century. Determinism is the thesis that the actual past together with the actual laws of nature render only one present nomologically possible. Determinism has two consequences: it deprives the agent of alternative future possibilities, and it insures that the agent is not the ultimate source of any action. For if determinism is true, the agent himself is nothing other than an effect of causes that stretch back before his birth, so that no part of the agent can be an ultimate origin of action. Hence when you chose the scrambled eggs you could not have done otherwise given the actual past: you could not have chosen oat meal instead. You made a choice all right; it is just that it wasn't a libertarianly-free choice.
There 's nothing new here. We are just complex physical systems, and determinism is true. So everything that happens in our bodies and brains is necessitated, and libertarian freedom of will cannot exist. Hence our sense that we are libertarianly free is an illusion.
That's a nice philosophical argument that makes no appeal to empirical facts. Amazing how so many of these scientistic science types with their contempt for philosophy cannot help doing philosophy (while disingenuously denying that that is what they are doing) and simply trotting out old philosophical arguments all the while displaying their ignorance as to their origin and how to present them rigorously.
The argument is only as good as its premises. Even if we assume determinism, it is scarcely obvious that we are just complex physical systems: "Memories, for example, are nothing more than structural and chemical changes in your brain cells. Everything that you think, say, or do, must come down to molecules and physics."
Really? I am now enjoying a memory of hippy-trippy Pam from the summer of '69. So my memory state is identical to a brain state. But that is arguably nonsense: the one exhibits intentionality ,the other doesn't, and so by the Indiscernibility of Identicals, they cannot be identical. No materialist has ever given a satisfactory account of intentionality.
So the first argument is rather less than compelling despite Coyne's scientistic posturing: "And what they're [neuroscientists] finding supports the idea that free will is a complete illusion."
The other "line of evidence" is from neurobiology:
Recent experiments involving brain scans show that when a subject "decides" to push a button on the left or right side of a computer, the choice can be predicted by brain activity at least seven seconds before the subject is consciously aware of having made it. [. . .] "Decisions" made like that aren't conscious ones. And if our choices are unconscious, with some determined well before the moment we think we've made them, then we don't have free will in any meaningful sense.
This argument is hardly compelling. For one thing, it appears to confuse predictability with unfreedom. Suppose I am able to predict accurately how Peter will behave in a range of situations. It doesn't follow that he does not act freely (in the libertarian sense) in those situations. On the basis of my knowledge of his character and habits, I predict that Peter will smoke a cigarette within an hour. That is a prediction about the future of the actual world. Suppose he does smoke a cigarette within an hour. My correct prediction does not entail that could not have done otherwise than smoke a cigarette within an hour. It does not entail that there is no possible world in which he refrains from smoking a cigarette within an hour.
So if, on the basis of unconscious brain activity, it is predicted that the subject will make a conscious decision, and he does, that does not entail that the decision was not free. Furthermore, why should 'decision' be used to cover the whole seven second brain process? If 'decision' is used to refer to the conscious pressing of the button, then no part of the decision is unconscious, and Coyne's argument collapses. What scientistic types don't seem to understand is that empirical science is not purely empirical. It cannot proceed without conceptual decisions that are a priori.
If Coyne thinks that contemporary neuroscience has proven that there is no libertarian freedom of the will, then he is delusional: he is passing off dubious philosophy as if it were incontrovertible science while hiding the fact from himself.
In the sequel I will will adress the question whether libertarian free will could be an illusion. Does that so much as make sense?
Classical human reason, defined in terms of common sense notions following from our own myopic experience of reality is not sufficient to discern the workings of the Universe. If time begins at the big bang, then we will have to re-explore what we mean by causality, just as the fact that electrons can be in two places at the same time doing two different things at the same time as long as we are not measuring them is completely nonsensical, but true, and has required rethinking what we mean by particles. Similar arguments by the way imply that we often need to rethink what we actually mean by 'nothing', from empty space, to the absence of space itself.
Perhaps this passage that I just dug up answers or helps to answer the question I posed yesterday: How can someone so intelligent spout such nonsense as I quoted Krauss as spouting? Answer: he's a mysterian! We have discussed mysterianism before in these pages in connection with the theologian James Anderson and in connection with the materialist philosopher of mind Colin McGinn. With Krauss (and others of course) we find the mysterian move being made in the precincts of physics. Marvellously manifold are the moves of mysterians!
Yesterday I quoted Krauss as saying, "Not only can something arise from nothing, but most often the laws of physics require that to occur." I commented:
This is just nonsense. Whatever the laws of physics are, they are not nothing. So if the laws of physics require that something arise from nothing, then the laws of physics require that something arise without there being laws of physics. [. . .]
So you've got this situation in which nothing at all exists, and then something comes into existence because the physical laws (which don't exist) "require" it.
This implies an explicit logical contradiction: the laws of physics both do and do not exist. They do exist because they govern the transition from nothing to something. They do not exist because they are included in the nothing from which something arises.
Completely nonsensical (in the sense of being logically contradictory) but true nonetheless!
Now this is either a mysterian position or a dialetheist position. The dialetheist holds that, in reality, there are some true contradictions. The mysterian does not hold this; he holds that there are, in reality, no true contradictions, but some propositions no matter how carefully we consider them appear to us as contradictory, or perhaps must appear to us as contradictory given our irremediable cognitive limitations.
This raises all sorts of interesting questions. Here is one: One task of science is to render the world intelligible to us (understandable by us). But if natural science in one of its branches issues in propositions that are unintelligible (either because they are intrinsically contradictory or such that they appear or even must appear as contradictory to us), then how can one call this science?
Forgive me for being naive, but I would have thought that science, genuine science, cannot contain propositions that are nonsensical! And would it not be more reasonable to take the apparent nonsensicality that crops up in the more far-out branches as a sign that something has gone wrong somewhere?
Sam Harris poses the following question to physicist Lawrence M. Krauss:
One of the most common justifications for religious faith is the idea that the universe must have had a creator. You’ve just written a book alleging that a universe can arise from “nothing.” What do you mean by “nothing” and how fully does your thesis contradict a belief in a Creator God?
The answer Krauss gives is such an awful mess of verbiage that I will not quote a big load of it, but I will quote some of it. The reader can read the whole thing if he cares to.
1. The "long-held theological claim" that out of nothing nothing comes is "spurious." This is because "modern science . . . has changed completely our conception of the very words 'something' and 'nothing.' " We now know that " ‘something’ and ‘nothing’ are physical concepts and therefore are properly the domain of science, not theology or philosophy."
Wow! Modern science has completely changed our conceptions of something and nothing! That is something! Something and nothing are physical concepts? You mean, like mass and momentum? Please tell me more!
2. "The old idea that nothing might involve empty space, devoid of mass or energy, or anything material, for example, has now been replaced by a boiling bubbling brew of virtual particles, popping in and out of existence in a time so short that we cannot detect them directly. I then go on to explain how other versions of 'nothing'—beyond merely empty space—including the absence of space itself, and even the absence of physical laws, can morph into “something.” Indeed, in modern parlance, “nothing” is most often unstable. Not only can something arise from nothing, but most often the laws of physics require that to occur."
There is no point in quoting any more of this stuff since it is obviously gibberish. What is not obvious, and indeed what is most puzzling, is why anyone who is supposedly intelligent would spout such patent nonsense. Or is he joking? Pulling our leg? Trying to sound 'far out' to sell books? It surely sounds like a weird joke to hear that nothing boils and bubbles and 'morphs' and is unstable with particles popping in and out of existence. If a virtual particle popped out of existence would it be even more nothing than the nothing that it was a part of?
If I tell you that I met nobody on my hike this morning, it would be a bad joke were you to inquire, "And how is Nobody doing these days?" 'Nobody' is not the name of a person or the name of anything else. If you are confused by 'I met nobody on my hike,' then I will translate it for you: 'It is not the case that I met somebody on my hike.' The same goes for 'nothing.' It is not a name for something.
The point, of course, is that nothing is precisely nothing and not a weird something or even a non-weird something. Krauss is not stupid, and he is presumably not joking. So he is using 'nothing' in some special way. He and his colleagues are free to do that. He and they are free to stipulate a new meaning for an old word. But then he is not using it in the sense in which it figures in the old principle, ex nihilo nihil fit, 'out of nothing nothing comes.' Whether true or false, the meaning of the principle is clear: if there were nothing at all, nothing could have come into being. This obviously cannot be refuted by shifting the sense of 'nothing' so that it refers to a bubbling, boiling soup of virtual particles.
The strong scent of intellectual dishonesty is wafting up to my nostrils from this bubbling, boiling cauldron of Unsinn.
If I make a tasty hamburger out of a lump of raw meat, have I made something out of nothing? Sure, in a sense: I have made something tasty out of nothing tasty. In a sense, I have made something out of nothing! But one would have to have hamburger for brains if one that ought that that refuted ex nihilo nihil fit.
"Not only can something arise from nothing, but most often the laws of physics require that to occur." This is just nonsense. Whatever the laws of physics are, they are not nothing. So if the laws of physics require that something arise from nothing, then the laws of physics require that something arise without there being laws of physics.
Not only is the quoted sentence nonsense, it contradicts the rest of what Krauss says in quotation #2 above. For he says that there is a sense of 'nothing' which implies the absence of physical laws. So we are supposed to accept that physical laws require the emergence of something out of nothing even if there are no physical laws?
So you've got this situation in which nothing at all exists, and then something comes into existence because the physical laws (which don't exist) "require" it. Bullshit! Sophistry for the purpose of exploiting rubes to make a quick pop science buck.
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)
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.
An archeologist who claimed to have uncovered the site of Plato's Cave would be dismissed as either a prankster or a lunatic. There never was any such cave as is described in the magnificent Book VII of Plato's Republic. And there never were any such cave-dwellers or goings-on as the ones described in Plato's story. And yet this, the most famous allegory in the history of philosophy, gives us the truth about the human condition. It lays bare the human predicament in which shadow is taken for substance, and substance for shadow, the truth-teller for a deceiver, and the deceiver for a truth-teller.
The reader will have guessed where I am going with this. If the allegory of the Cave delivers the truth about the human predicament despite its falsity when taken as an historical narrative, the same could be true for the stories in the Bible. No reasonable person nowadays could take Genesis as reporting historical facts. To take but one example, at Genesis 3, 8 we read that Adam and Eve, after having tasted of the forbidden fruit, "heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the Garden . . . ." Taken literally, this implies that God has feet. But if he has feet was he shod on that day or not? If shod, what was his shoe size? 10 1/2? Obviously, nothing can have feet without having feet of a determinate size! And given that the original parents heard God stomping around, then he had to be fairly large: if God were the size of a flea, he wouldn't have made any noise. If God were a physical being, why couldn't he be the size of a flea or a microbe? The answer to these absurdities is the double-barreled denial that God is a physical being and that Genesis is an historical account. I could give further examples. (And you hope I won't.)
This is why the deliverances of evolutionary biology do not refute the Fall. (I grant that said deliverances refute some doctrines of the Fall, those doctrines that posit an original pair of humans, without animal progenitors, from whom the whole human race is descended.) Indeed, it is quite stupid to think that the Fall can be refuted from biology. It would as stupid as to think that the truths about the human condition that are expressed in Plato's famous allegory can be negated or disconfirmed by the failure of archeologists to locate the site of Plato's Cave, or by any physical proof that a structure like that of Plato's Cave is nomologically impossible.
And yet wasn't that what Jerry Coyne, the University of Chicago biologist, was quoted as maintaining?
I’ve always maintained that this piece of the Old Testament, which is easily falsified by modern genetics (modern humans descended from a group of no fewer than 10,000 individuals), shows more than anything else the incompatibility between science and faith. For if you reject the Adam and Eve tale as literal truth, you reject two central tenets of Christianity: the Fall of Man and human specialness.
I suppose this shows that the wages of scientism are (topical) stupidity.
Addenda (10 September 2011)
1. I said that the Allegory of the Cave "gives us the truth about the human condition." Suppose you disagree. Suppose you think the story provides no insight into the human condition. My point goes through nonetheless. The point is that the truth or falsity of the story is unaffected by empirical discoveries and nondiscoveries. Anthropological and archeological investigations are simply irrelevant to the assessment of the claims being made in the allegory. That, I hope, is perfectly obvious.
2. There is another point that I thought of making but did not because it struck me as too obvious, namely, that the Allegory of the Cave is clearly an allegory, and is indeed explicitly presented as such in Chapter VII of the Republic (cf. 514a et passim), whereas the Genesis account is neither clearly an allegory, nor explicitly presented in the text as one. But that too is irrelevant to my main point. The point is that biological, anthropological, and geological investigations are simply irrelevant for the evaluation of what Genesis discloses or purports to disclose about the human condition. For example, at Gen 1, 26 we are told that God made man in his image and likeness. That means: Man is a spiritual being. (See my post Imago Dei) Obviously, that proposition can neither be established nor refuted by any empirical investigation. The sciences of matter cannot be expected to disclose any truths about spirit. And if, standing firm on the natural sciences, you deny that there is anything other than matter, then you fall into the easily-refuted mistake of scientism. Furthermore, Genesis is simply incoherent if taken as presenting facts about history or facts about cosmology and physical cosmogenesis. Not only is it incoherent; it is contradicted by what we know from the physical sciences. Clearly, in any conflict between the Bible and natural science, the Bible will lose.
The upshot is that the point I am making about Genesis cannot be refuted by adducing the obvious difference between a piece of writing that presents itself as an allegory and a piece of writing that does not. Plato's intention was to write an allegory. The authors of Genesis presumably did not have the intention of writing an allegory. But that is irrelevant to the question whether the stories can be taken as reporting historical and physical facts. It is obvious that Plato's story cannot be so taken. It is less obvious, but nonetheless true, that the Genesis story cannot be so taken. For if you take it as historical reportage, then it is mostly false or incoherent, and you miss what is important: the spiritual, not the physical, meaning.
3. The mistake of those who think that biology refutes the Fall is the mirror-image of those benighted fundamentalists and literalists who think that the Fall 'stands or falls' with the historical accuracy of tales about original parents, trees, serpents, etc. The opposing groups are made for each other. The scientistic atheist biologist attacks a fundamentalist straw man while the benighted fundamentalist knocks himself out propping up his straw man. Go at it, boys! The spectacle is entertaining but not edifying.
John Farrell, a long-time friend of Maverick Philosopher, has an article in Forbes Magazine entitled Can Theology Evolve? Early in his piece Farrell quotes biologist Jerry Coyne:
I’ve always maintained that this piece of the Old Testament, which is easily falsified by modern genetics (modern humans descended from a group of no fewer than 10,000 individuals), shows more than anything else the incompatibility between science and faith. For if you reject the Adam and Eve tale as literal truth, you reject two central tenets of Christianity: the Fall of Man and human specialness.
Commenting on this quotation, Farrell writes, "I don’t know about human specialness, but on the Fall he [Coyne] is correct."
Let's think about this. If one rejects the literal truth of the Adam and Eve story, must one also reject the doctrine of the Fall? We can and should raise this question just as theists while prescinding from the specifics of Christianity, whether Roman, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant. For if the issue is, as Coyne puts it above, one of the compatibility/incompatibility of "science and faith," then it won't matter which particular theistic faith we adopt so long as it includes a doctrine of the Fall of Man.
The question, then, is whether the rejection of the literal truth of the Adam and Eve story entails the rejection of the Fall of Man. Coyne and Farrell say 'yes'; I say 'no.' My reason for saying this is that man can be a fallen being whether or not there were any original parents. I will assume (and I believe it to be true) that evolutionary biology gives us the truth about the origins of the human species. So I will assume that the Genesis account of human origins is literally false. But what is literally false may, when taken allegorically, express profound truths. One of these truths is that man is made in the image and likeness of God. I explain the easily-misunderstood sense of imago Dei here.
But how can God create man in his image and likeness without interfering in the evolutionary processes which most of us believe are responsible for man's existence as an animal? As follows.
Man as an animal is one thing, man as a spiritual, rational, and moral being is another. The origin of man as an animal came about not through any special divine acts but through the evolutionary processes common to the origination of all animal species. But man as spirit, as a self-conscious, rational being who distinguishes between good and evil cannot be accounted for in naturalistic terms. (This can be argued with great rigor, but not now!)
As animals, we are descended from lower forms. As animals, we are part of the natural world and have the same general type of origin as any other animal species. Hence there was no Adam and Eve as first biological parents of the human race who came into existence directly by divine intervention without animal progenitors. But although we are animals, we are also spiritual beings, spiritual selves. I am an I, an ego, and this I-ness or egoity cannot be explained naturalistically. I am a person possessing free will and conscience neither of which can be explained naturalistically.
What 'Adam' refers to is not a man qua member of a zoological species, but the first man to become a spiritual self. This spiritual selfhood came into existence through a spiritual encounter with the divine self. In this I-Thou encounter, the divine self elicited or triggered man's latent spiritual self. This spiritual self did not emerge naturally; what emerged naturally was the potentiality to hear a divine call which called man to his vocation, his higher destiny, namely, a sharing in the divine life. The divine call is from beyond the human horizon.
But in the encounter with the divine self which first triggered man's personhood or spiritual selfhood, there arose man's freedom and his sense of being a separate self, an ego distinct from God and from other egos. Thus was born pride and self-assertion and egotism. Sensing his quasi-divine status, man asserted himself against the One who had revealed himself, the One who simultaneously called him to a Higher Life but also imposed restrictions and made demands. Man in his pride then made a fateful choice, drunk with the sense of his own power: he decided to go it alone.
This rebellion was the Fall of man, which has nothing to do with a serpent or an apple or the being expelled from a physical garden located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Original Sin was a spiritual event, and its transmission is not by semen, pace certain Pauline passages, but by socio-cultural-linguistic means.
If we take some such tack as the above, then we can reconcile what we know to be true from natural science with the Biblical message. Religion and science needn't compete; they can complement each other -- but only if each sticks to its own province. In this way we can avoid both the extremes of the fundamentalists and literalists and the extremes of the 'Dawkins gang' (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Harris, et al.)
Our question was whether rejecting the literal truth of the Adam and Eve story entails rejecting the doctrine of the Fall. The answer to this is in the negative since the mere possibility of an account such as the onejust given shows that the entailment fails.Man's fallenness is a spiritual condition that can only be understood in a spiritual way. It does not require that the whole human race have sprung from exactly two animal progenitors that miraculously came into physical existence by divine agency and thus without animal progenitors. Nor does it require that the transmission of the fallen condition be biological in nature.
The universe, the 18th-century mathematician and philosopher Jean Le Rond d’Alembert said, “would only be one fact and one great truth for whoever knew how to embrace it from a single point of view.” James Gleick has such a perspective, and signals it in the first word of the title of his new book, “The Information,” using the definite article we usually reserve for totalities like the universe, the ether — and the Internet. Information, he argues, is more than just the contents of our overflowing libraries and Web servers. It is “the blood and the fuel, the vital principle” of the world. Human consciousness, society, life on earth, the cosmos — it’s bits all the way down.
At his point I stopped reading. A bit is a binary digit. So my love for my wife is binary digits all the way down? That's nonsense, and beneath refutation. An appropriate response would be, "Get out of here, and take your scientistic Unsinn with you." A more charitable response: "Please come into my office and lie down on the couch. We need to talk." Some need therapy, not refutation.
Tibor Machan makes some obvious but important points about multiple universes. One is that there cannot be two or more universes if by 'universe' is meant everything that exists in spacetime. I would add that this is a very simple conceptual truth, one that we know to be true a priori. It lays down a contraint that no empirical inquiry can violate on pain of tapering off into nonsense. So talk of multiple universes, if not logicaly contradictory, must involve an altered, and restricted, use of 'universe.' But then the burden is on those who talk this way to explain exactly what they mean.
Philosophers often speak of possible worlds. There is nothing problematic about there being a plurality of possible worlds, indeed an infinity of them. But there is, and can be, only one actual world. The actual world is not the same as the physical universe. For not everything actual is physical. My consciousness is actual but not physical. A second reason is that the actual world is a maximal state of affairs, the total way things are. It is a totality of facts, not of things, as Ludwig the Tractarian once wrote. But the physical universe is a totality of physical things not of facts.
UCLA philosopher Tyler Burge scores some good clean hits against neuroscientistic Unsinn in a December NYT piece. (HT: Feser). For example, did you know that there is an area of the brain that wants to make love? (Is it equipped for any such thing, with a tiny penis or vagina? And what would it make love to? An area of the brain of another organism? Or a different area of the same brain? The possibilities of mockery are endless, but I will restrain myself.) But I can't resist reproducing this tidbit:
For example, a recent article reports a researcher’s “looking at love, quite literally, with the aid of an MRI machine.”
Quite literally! You, sir, have your head in the proctologist's domain, quite literally!
Many thanks to reader David Parker for sending me a copy of Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (Bantam, 2010). Not a book worth buying, but graciously accepted gratis! When physicists need money, they scribble books for popular consumption. But who can blame them: doing physics is hard while writing bad philosophy is easy.
Numbers in parentheses are page references.
The first chapter, "The Mystery of Being," gets off to a rocky start with a curious bit of anthropomorphism: the universe is described as "by turns kind and cruel," (5) when it is obviously neither. Imputing human attitudes to nature is unscientific last time I checked. And then there is the chapter's title. I would have thought that the purpose of science is to dispel mystery. But let that pass. The authors remind us that we humans ask Big Questions about the nature of reality and the origin of the universe, e.g., "Did the universe need a creator?" (5) True, but the past tense of that question betrays a curious bias, as if a creator is a mere cosmic starter-upper as opposed to a being ongoingly involved in the existence of the world at each instant. It is the latter that sophisticated theists maintain.
The Big Questions traditionally belong to philosophy, but we are told that "philosophy is dead." (5) Unfortunately for the authors, "Philosophy always buries its undertakers," as Etienne Gilson famously observed in The Unity of Philosophical Experience (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1937, p. 306) He calls this the first law of philosophical experience. Memorize it, and have it at the ready the next time someone says something silly like "philosophy is dead." As a codicil to the Gilsonian dictum, I suggest "and presides over their oblivion."
Philosophy is dead, the authors opine, because she "has not kept up with modern developments in the sciences, particularly physics." (5) To get answers to such questions as Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? and Why this particular set of laws and not some other? we must turn to physics. (These three questions are listed on p. 10) It will be very surprising if physics -- physics alone without any smuggled-in philosophical additions -- can answer the first and third questions. But it will never answer the second question. For we are conscious and self-conscious moral agents, and no purely physical explanation of consciousness, self-consciousness and all it entails can be derived from physics alone.
What I expect the authors to do is to smuggle in various philosophical theses along with their physics. But if they do so -- if they stray the least bit from pure physics -- then they prove that philosophy is alive after all, in their musings. What they will then be doing is not opposing philosophy as such, but urging their philosophy on us, all the while hiding from us the fact that it is indeed philosophy.
That's a pretty shabby tactic, if you want my opinion. (And there you have it, even if you don't want it.) You posture as if you are opposing all philosophy which you claim is "dead," which presumably means 'cognitively worthless,' and then you go on to make blatantly philosophical assertions which are neither properly clarified as to their sense, nor supported by anything that could count as rigorous argumentation. For example, in Chapter 2, the authors opine that "free will is just an illusion." (32) The sloppy 'reasoning' laden with rhetorical questions that leads up to this obviously philosophical assertion is nothing that could be justified by pure physics. I will come back to this when I discuss Chapter 2.
Quantum theory is brought up and the suggestion is floated that "the universe itself has no single history, nor even an independent existence." (6) It has "every possible history." A little later we are introduced to M-theory:
. . . M-theory predicts that a great many universes were created out of nothing. Their creation does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god. Rather,these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law. (8-9)
The writing here is quite inept. If the authors want to say that these universes came into being out of nothing, they should say that, and not say that they were created out of nothing. Creation, whether out of nothing or out of something, implies a creator. It is also inept to speak of 'intervention.' If God creates a universe, he does not intervene in it; he causes it to exist in the first place. One can intervene only in what already exists. Such sloppy writing does not inspire confidence, and suggests that the thinking behind the writing is equally sloppy. But even ignoring these infelicities of expression, it is a plain contradiciton to say that these universes comes into being out of nothing and that they arise naturally from physical law. Whatever physical law is, it is not nothing! That's clear, I hope. So why don't our physicists say what they mean, namely that these multiple universes came into being , not from nothing, but from physical law. That would be noncontradictory although it would prompt the question as to the nature and existence of physical law or laws.
Another apparent contradiction worth noting: After mentioning quantum theory in the Chapter 1, the authjors assure us in Chpater 2 that "scientific determinism" is "the basis of all modern science." (30) How this is supposed to jive, I have no idea. But hey, when the idea is to make a fast buck, who cares about such niceties as logical consistency?
Not only did many universes come into existence out of physical law (or is it out of nothing?), but "Each universe has many possible histories and many possible states at later times, that is at times like the present . . . ." (9) Most of these states are unsuitable for the existence of any form of life. It is our presence that "selects out from this vast array only those universes that are compatible with our existence." (9) That's a neat trick given that universes "have no independent existence." (6) If so, then we have no independent existence and cannot function as the "lords of creation" (9) who select among the vast array of universes.
But I want to be fair. Perhaps later chapters will remove some of the murk. There is also this consideration: Even bad books are good if they stimulate thought. But don't buy it. Borrow it from a library.
As I always say, "Never buy a book you haven't read."
(People have been asking me to comment on Stephen Hawking's new book. As a sort of warm-up, I have decided to repost the following entry from the old site.)
I am all for natural science and I have studied my fair share of it. I attended a demanding technical high school where I studied electronics and I was an electrical engineering major in college with all the mathematics and science that that entails. But I strongly oppose scientism and the pseudo-scientific blather that too many contemporary physicists engage in. Case in point: Lawrence M Krauss's recent comment quoted in the pages of the New York Times that “We’re just a bit of pollution,” . . . “If you got rid of us, and all the stars and all the galaxies and all the planets and all the aliens and everybody, then the universe would be largely the same. We’re completely irrelevant.”
The context of Krauss's remarks is the theory of 'dark matter' and 'dark energy' where 'dark' signifies presently unknown and possibly forever unknown. The idea is that the universe ". . . is made of only 4 percent of the kind of matter we have always assumed it to be — the material that makes up you and me and this magazine and all the planets and stars in our galaxy and in all 125 billion galaxies beyond. The rest — 96 percent of the universe" is composed of dark matter.
So far, so good. I have no objection to cosmological theorizing, no matter how outlandish, though I am curious about what sorts of experimental data could be taken as confirmatory of the dark matter hypothesis. When physicists talk physics, I humbly listen; I do not presume to know better than they how they should proceed with their work.
But when they or popular expositors draw crazy philosophical inferences from physical theories then I feel entitled to speak out. To quote from the NYT piece:
If so [i.e., if 96% of the matter in the universe is 'dark'], such a development would presumably not be without philosophical consequences of the civilization-altering variety. Cosmologists often refer to this possibility as “the ultimate Copernican revolution”: not only are we not at the center of anything; we’re not even made of the same stuff as most of the rest of everything. “We’re just a bit of pollution,” Lawrence M. Krauss, a theorist at Case Western Reserve, said not long ago at a public panel on cosmology in Chicago. “If you got rid of us, and all the stars and all the galaxies and all the planets and all the aliens and everybody, then the universe would be largely the same. We’re completely irrelevant.”
The thesis being presented is that we human beings are "completely irrelevant," insignificant, and of no value in that "We're just a bit of pollution." Is this supposed to follow from the fact, if it is a fact, that we are not made of the same stuff as most of the rest of everything? To think so would be to embrace a breathtaking non sequitur.
If you can think clearly, you should be able to see that our relevance, significance and value have nothing to do with where our bodies are in space, or how big our bodies are, or what stuff we are made of, or whether the kind of stuff we are made of is small or large in quantity relative to the kind of stuff the rest of the universe is made of.
To see the absurdity of Krauss's reasoning, ask yourself whether our 'relevance' would be greater if dark matter were only 10% or 4% or 0% of the total matter in the universe instead of 96%. Would we become more relevant, and less of a 'pollutant' if all of the matter was like the matter our bodies are composed of? Obviously not. The very notion is absurd.
Similarly, if the universe had a center and we moved closer to or farther away from that center, would our significance and relevance wax and wane accordingly? Again this is absurd. Whatever significance we have cannot vary with our position in space or with the relative magnitude of the star which is our sun, and like facts. The upshot of the Copernican revolution, roughly, was that the earth went around the sun and not vice versa. True, but so what? How could that possibly diminish our status? And if the 'ultimate Copernican revolution' show us to be made of an underrepresented sort of stuff, how is that relevant to our status and worth?
Much is sometimes made of how tiny we are in the cosmos. Well, suppose we got bigger and bigger and bigger until we filled the entire cosmos. Does getting bigger elevate one's significance? Are fat people more significant and less irrelevant than thin people? Can I increase my moral stature by putting on weight or by being stretched on the rack? Again, this is simply absurd. Size does not matter when it comes to significance.
And the same goes for time. An individual human life is vanishingly small on a cosmic scale, and the same goes for the life of homo sapiens. We are a flash in the pan, so to speak. But would our significance be greater if we existed at every time? Is the temporal length of an individual huamn life a measure of its value? In the words of an old cigarette commercial, "It is not how long you make it but how you make it long." Plainly put, length does not matter; quality of life matters. And quality of life is not something physical.
Let me be painfully clear about what I am saying. I am assuming arguendo that
1. The kind of matter of which human beings are composed is only 4% of the total matter in the universe.
Whether or not (1) is true is a question for physicists, not philosophers. As a philosopher I am concerned with the inference from (1) to
2. Humans beings are "completely irrelevant," "a bit of pollution."
My claim is that this inference is obviously invalid. (2) does not follow from (1) and (1) offers no support for (2). (1) does not even offer inductive support for (2). Furthermore, the words and phrases in (2) are evaluative which makes (2) an evaluative claim whereas (1) is a factual and thus non-evaluative claim. So one can tax the inference with the fallacy of deriving a value judgment from a factual judgment.
But it is not just that 'irrelevant' and 'pollution' are evaluative terms. It is worse than that. Relevance and irrelevance are mind-involving notions. No physical thing qua physical can be relevant or irrelevant to any other physical thing. Relevance and irrelevance are like indifference and the opposite. The universe cannot be indifferent to us; it is neither indifferent nor caring. Your not caring about me or what I think is a conscious stance you occupy vis-a-vis me. But the universe does not occupy any conscious stance towards human beings. Thus it makes no sense to describe us as irrelevant to the universe, or it as indifferent to us.
We are obviously relevant to ourselves. So if Krauss is saying that we are irrelevant to the universe, then he is just talking nonsense.
I hope I have convinced you that the quotation from Krauss is a non sequitur and scientistic blather. But it is not just blather but something more ominous in that it is indicative of nihilism.
What is really at the bottom of this scientistic nonsense is an attempt to discredit the Judeo-Christian notion that man is made in the image and likeness of God. Of course, this image and likeness is a spiritual image and likeness as I explain elsewhere. The message of the Judeo-Christian tradition is that we human beings are of great worth, at least potentially, in that we are candidates for participation in the divine life, not as animals of course, but as spiritual beings. The message of Krauss and company is the nihilistic denial of this: man is nothing, of no value, a pollutant. Well, if he is a pollutant, then 'the environment' needs to be protected from him. Better then that he not sully the face of mindless matter.
Now the Judeo-Christian view may be false, but it cannot be dislodged by the sort of shabby 'reasoning' we have just examined.
Scientism is my label for what any one who takes science seriously shouldbelieve, and scientistic is just an in-your face adjective for accepting science’s description of the nature of reality. You don’t have to be a scientist to be scientistic. In fact, most scientists aren’t.
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.
Hilary Putnam, Mathematics, Matter and Method (Cambridge University Press, 1975), pp. xiii (emphasis added):
. . . I regard science as an important part of man's knowledge of reality; but there is a tradition with which I would not wish to be identified, which would say that scientific knowledge is all of man's knowledge. I do not believe that ethical statements are expressions of scientific knowledge; but neither do I agree that they are not knowledge at all. The idea that the concepts of truth, falsity, explanation, and even understanding are all concepts which belong exclusively to science seems to me to be a perversion . . .
Putnam does not need the MP's imprimatur and nihil obstat, but he gets them anyway, at least with respect to the above quotation. The italicized sentence is vitally important. In particular, you will be waiting a long time if you expect evolutionary biology to provide any clarification of the crucial concepts mentioned. See in particular, Putnam's "Does Evolution Explain Representation?" in Renewing Philosophy (Harvard University Press, 1992).