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Thursday, April 30, 2009


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You were smoking a pipe when you wrote this, weren't you?


Hi Bill,

If God can exist without his existence having been caused by another, how do we know that the space-time system (as a whole) can't?


I don't follow. Why does a self-existent nature preclude the existence of minds within nature?


Actually, yesterday I smoked a bit of a cigar. The fall is pipe season is my personal liturgy, and the summer has returned to the Sonoran desert. And the nicotine blast a cigar smoked to the 'roach' provides is nothing like that supplied by a pipe. That can be said in its favor. There is also something slightly effete about the pipe whereas the cigar . . .

Hi Malcolm,

Because the space-time system is modally contingent. Contra Ilion and agreeing with Derrick, there is no problem with a self-existent nature containing minds.

Ilíon, I think even a solely deterministic universe could contain minds. Mind is not the same thing as free will. So Dr. Vallicella is not contradicting himself when he writes that there is no problem with a self-existent nature containing minds.

Ilíon, you wrote:

'If "nature" is self-existent, then every aspect of "nature" (or, "the space-time system (as a whole)," as Mr Pollack phrased it) must be purely and entirely explicable soley in terms of "nature." '

If I may split a hair: if we apply Bill's privative view of "self-existent", it would mean only that the space-time system does not have an external cause, but says nothing further about its origin or explication. (As is suggested regarding God.)

It seems also that you yourself beg the question when you write:

"What is "the space-time system (as a whole)?" Why, it is matter moving in space, nothing more... There is no 'mind' anywhere in that ..."

The naturalist will respond that there do indeed seem to be "minds in that"; we are using them as we speak. There are certainly good reasons to suspect that matter somehow gives rise to minds: in particular, I would cite the many predictable and repeatable ways in which tweaking or damaging the physical brain alters the action of the mind, the faculties of reason, and the contents of consciousness.

The argument that physical causes cannot produce reasoning (which C.S. Lewis called the "Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism") overlooks that what we flatter ourselves to be our pure and abstract reason can be seen by the naturalist as an elaborate and highly flexible system, the product of eons of design, that models the natural world's regularities not perfectly, but "well enough" to get by. In humans it gets by very well indeed; in us it has learned to model not only the world, but itself and its contents as well, giving it unique capabilities.

But we are very far from being ideal ratiocinators; indeed, in very many ways we are deeply irrational (and predictably so, which is telling as well) - just as we would expect from an impressively engineered but imperfect system, one that is designed and optimized to solve some problems and not others.

Bill, I will join Ilíon in asking: how do we really know that the complete spacetime system (suitably expanded to include concepts of the "multiverse", etc.) is actually contingent? And, as an aside, even if it were, must every self-existent thing exist necessarily? Can no contingent thing be self-existent in the sense you describe, even as a "brute fact"? (Forgive me if you have taken this up elsewhere.)

Malcolm Pollack,

The observation that damaging or altering brains results in altered behaviors and reasoning isn't a major concern to most dualists (or idealists, or panpsychists, or otherwise). With Lewis' AfR (just like with Plantinga's EAAN) the concern isn't with the idea that the mind can have a partial basis in the physical. It's the idea that the mind is entirely physical, and that physical means mechanistic materialism.

Frankly, it seems to me that you're only building Ilion's case here. Responding to the "Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism" by A) Pointing out that humans are often deeply irrational (how do we know this again?), B) Connecting the development of our rationality and reason to evolution (By orthodox view, an unguided and non-rational process that is concerned solely with survival rather than truth or rationality/reason), and C) Conflating reason and rationality with an ability to survive and thrive itself (as you seem to do when you seem to equate reason/rationality with "the product of eons of design, that models the natural world's regularities not perfectly, but "well enough" to get by") seems to give away the store. Especially when conjoined with the unspoken D) all that exists is purposeless, unguided matter in motion, of which minds happen to be one unintended result.

Reducing reason and rationality to "whatever leads one to engage in actions most beneficial to survival" results in denying reason and rationality. Arguing that evolution ultimately selects not just for survival/physical thriving but also for truth and reasonable/rational beliefs makes evolution profoundly queer on naturalism, and incompatible with physicalism so defined. Biting the bullet and arguing that the ground floor constituents of the universe are rational rather than non-rational redefines physicalism to practically entail something like panentheism, and naturalism goes out the door.

I think that some people reject the possibility that minds could be wholly contained within the system of nature because they restrict nature to what is here being described as "mechanistic". But the notion of a mechanical system has undergone some pretty radical changes in the history of physics, which should make us all chary of assumptins about how nature is constituted. And developments in quantum "mechanics" have muddied the waters to such an extent that we can no longer even be confident that mechanical "systems" can be localized. If we aren't (yet) in a position to say how nature is constituted, I don't see how we can be in a position to say that it excludes minds.


I agree that the changes to physics have been pretty radical to say the least, and that certainly does a number on conceptions of "physical" as well as "natural". (The destruction of what was typically meant by 'materialism' pre-QM and so on is, to me, one of the most shockingly underdiscussed turning points in modern philosophy.)

But I think the argument being given here ends up similarly: Even with all these revisions, the insistence is that the operations of nature occur devoid of mind, purpose, or intent. I'd be more inclined to say that our uncertainty about what "really" constitutes nature or physics is more of an argument in favor of rejecting the typical naturalist depiction of nature itself, or at least being very skeptical of their conclusions, than anything else.

I think you're quite right in your construing of that phrase to be negative rather than positive; I have not really found many natural theologians use that term, however.

I have an totally off-topic question for Dr. Vallicella, if he'd be willing. I read your one post concerning a book by Badiou, so I know you've read at least some of his writings. My own area is metaphysics and I've come across one of his books; I took out his book "Being and Event" from the library. However, I am not clear on a point of his metaphysics. The inconsistent multiplicity of the "event" is, for Badiou, "void" or non-being. This is "counted-as-one" and thus forms a basis for our mathematics and logical reasoning. But this seems totally nonsense as, if it is truly "non-being," I don't see anything to be counted in the first place. I would assume there needs to be a basis for the count, somewhere. My own intuition is that Badiou is in a Kantian spirit and understanding the "void" as the unknowable in-itself, which is only known via constructed categories of reason. But then why say it doesn't exist? That seems to render it meaningless. I want to know if anyone else, or Dr. Vallicella, has any input on this question. Maybe I'm just reading Badiou too uncharitably.

Joseph - One can stipulate that "the operations of nature occur devoid of mind, purpose, or intent," and your conclusions follow. But why accept that stipulation? The contrast between the natural and the non-natural will be difficult to maintain if we accept that a great many creatures besides we humans possess minds, purposes and intentions. I think a better contrast than mind/nature is culture/nature. And I'd suggest that culture should be analyzed in terms of the intentional, purposive, mindful use of symbols. From the suggested vantage point, the system of nature can include minds -- though we know not how.


I have no problem with rejecting such a stipulation. I reject it myself. Of course, I also reject materialism and naturalism - so for me it's easy. But to accept that 'mind, purpose, and intent' as rock-bottom constituent(s) of the natural world is to rule out materialism and to wreak havoc on naturalism. I may as well redefine nature to include God and argue the pope subscribes to naturalism.

As for a 'great many creatures besides we humans' possessing minds, who's to say. Here I'm concerned with reason and rationality - when parrots start arguing about universalism versus nominalism or efficient versus final causality, I'll start wondering about them. I'm not saying humans are utterly unique in this regard, only that the status of humanity seems (all claims to the contrary) rather singular in nature so far. And human reason and rationality is all that's needed for the observation to hold force.


I'm not sure what "store" you are suggesting I'm giving away; if it is the notion that our reason functions purely as a relation between "ground and consequent" rather than as the output of an "under-the-hood" cause-and-effect process, quite invisible to our introspection, that has been designed to model the logical relations and regularities of the world, then I'm quite untroubled by giving it away. If this is "denying reason", then so be it, but I wouldn't call it that at all. What I am denying is the claim - and a rather dogmatic claim it seems to me to be, given how much we still have to learn about the natural world - that the gappy and limited reasoning we do cannot possibly be the output of a physical system.

Designed "material" things can indeed do this sort of thing quite well; for example someone observing the behavior of a chess-playing computer for the first time would be forgiven for imagining that it was dealing exclusively with the abstract relations of the pieces and rules. We know, though, that in fact it is, rather, just a remarkable machine that has been designed to model the relations and regularities of the little world in which it operates. The naturalist simply argues that so, at a far higher level of design adapted to a much wider world, are we.


Taking your responses in reverse..

The chess-playing computer doesn't function as a good example here for a number of reasons. "We know" that the software (and of course the hardware) is made by mind-possessing agents, and judged by those agents according to the standards of those agents. But how we can regard human minds as rational/reasonable given assertions of a mechanist-materialist nature is the very question on the table. If we're non-rational and non-reasonable, so too will be our creations. "Because we were designed by a rational agent!" is an interesting way to get around it, but I don't think materialists would like that one.

As to your first - as I said with Bob, that plea works in two directions. If the naturalist response is that we have so much to learn about nature that it's dogmatic to claim nature is incapable of doing certain things, then my response is that the naturalist is dogmatic (and in no position) to assert that "nature" is devoid of the very things the naturalist claims they are devoid of. Computers and simulations, honestly, strike me as far more trouble for the naturalist than the non-naturalist here.

Either way, it comes down to what I said before. If reason and rationality is reduced to "whatever survives or leads to survival" purely, then R&R is denied. But arguing evolution and 'natural processes' are biased towards truth - "survival of those closest to the truth!" - makes for a very strange naturalism, and a damning of physicalism. And declaring the ground-floor constituents of physical reality to be rational and suffused with the mind-like means rewriting the "natural" to such an extent that it's hardly a position discernible from non-naturalism anymore.


I haven't said we are non-rational, only that our rationality is the imperfect product of a long process of design and engineering, and may not be quite as ideal as we'd like to think. The chess computer was a satisfactory example for my purpose, which was simply to show that effective reasoning can arise from the workings of a physical system. (It is, of course, just a toy model compared to the human brain.)

Where we seem fundamentally to differ is that you seem to think that only a reasoner can create a reasoner. The naturalistic reply is that while this is a seductive intuition, based on our everyday experience of designers and artifacts, it overlooks that there is quite another sort of design process at work in the evolution of living creatures. I realize that in the view of many (particularly here at MP) intentionality must enter the world full-blown or suffer an infinite regress; I disagree with this view, and have argued, both here and at my own website, that there is nothing problematic about intentionality's arising in an evolutionary way.

Regarding the "tu quoque" remarks in your second paragraph, it is no defense against the charge of dogmatism to seek it also amongst naturalists. Indeed, the prevalant view amongst naturalistic sorts -- that nature is devoid of teleology and divine oversight (if those are among the things you allude to that naturalists claim nature is devoid of) -- is more a matter of parsimony than dogma (though I won't deny that there are some rather dogmatically parsimonious naturalists out there). It is simply that, as Laplace said, there is "no need of that hypothesis."

Arguing that selection is "biased toward truth" is not a "very strange naturalism" at all; it is a perfectly orthodox naturalistic notion that if creatures are to make their living modeling and predicting the regularities of the world, then the better the correspondence between the models and the truth -- and the more supple and flexible the cognitive architecture that manipulates them -- the fitter the creature. And that our vaunted faculty of reason is nothing more than good practical engineering is made embarrassingly evident by the many "bugs" the system often reveals when tested with inputs other than those for which it was designed (not to mention that it can be pushed right off the road in all manner of ways by twiddling the brain). An ideal, purely immaterial ratiocinator would not, presumably, exhibit such engineering limitations.

Indeed, in the view of many, one glaring bug is our hyperactive faculty of agent-detection: which tends, it being adaptive to err on the side of false positives, to lead us to imagine supervisory and causative agents that probably aren't there at all.


At the very best it's a question-begging model. To paraphrase Searle, a computer /model/ of a digestive system is not an /example/ of a digestive system. Asserting that a chess computer is "reasoning" brings to mind a number of replies (again, Searle comes in handy here), but the first reply in this case is that whatever it is, it's an example of a creation by an intentional and mindful agent. Again, a great example (call it an intuition pump), but not for the mechanistic materialist.

As for the source of reason, I'd say that if reason is to mean anything all, reason must have a foundation in reason itself. That strongly implies a reasoner, or at least endowing nature with a property the naturalist is unwilling to accept. But yes, I'm sure this isn't the first time or the last time this argument has come up on here - obviously I'm not persuaded by the arguments to the contrary.

Regarding dogmatism - potayto, potahto, which was largely my point in bringing up the charge. Indeed, it underscores why bringing up computers and simulations is more harmful to the naturalist than to the non-naturalist: If we go with your understanding, we have abundant evidence of minds introducing purpose, intention, and teleology to otherwise 'mechanical' systems. These points go in favor of the non-naturalist. But we have no example of the mindless, purposeless, and unguided doing the same - unless we beg the question and assume the universe is such a thing. Either way, the hypothesis isn't thrown out - it's simply ignored, and there's no certainty it isn't needed (Indeed, there's powerful arguments to the contrary that it -is- needed.) Naturally, I'm certain you're not persuaded by those.

Yes, it's "very strange naturalism" because the view of evolution that has been most favored by contemporary naturalists is one where the ultimate standard of measurement is not belief, but action. If beliefs are incorrect yet they prompt beneficial actions and behavior, selection will smile upon them. Indeed, your talk about 'evident faulty reasoning' only builds my case in this regard - because the common and favored evolutionary explanation is "well, these actions and behaviors were prompted by untrue beliefs, but said actions and behaviors were positive, so..!" A large part of that is orthodoxy, but pragmatism also plays a role. When Lenski did his E Coli studies, "What do these bacteria believe?" didn't come up as a consideration.

Either way, why a designer would design things the way they did is a deep question itself, beyond the scope of this conversation. But, since you keep talking about how overblown our reason and rationality is, and how faulty our much-praised capacity for these things is, I'll simply remind you that the sort of arguments referred to here don't on the surface demand credence being given to a fundamental rationality in nature, or a creative ultimate source. Rationality and reason could just be denied altogether - and there's at least one upside to that. Think of how many hypotheses you can declare unnecessary if that's embraced!


Taking your paragraphs in order:

First, Searle made those remarks as a response to functionalist claims regarding *consciousness*, and not being a functionalist myself I am inclined to agree with him that there may well be something about the physics of the biological brain that is required for consciousness. I am not at all sure this is true when it comes to reasoning, though, which is a separate question from consciousness; I think it may well be valid to see the "reasoning" of a chess computer - which has designed-in "interests" and a physical system that models its "world" using various data structures, and evaluates their relationships according to certain principles - as quite similar in kind, if vastly inferior in complexity, to the reasoning we humans do with our brains.

As for your second, you are quite right that these are persistent arguments that appear here often and are never resolved to anyone's satisfaction.

In your third, you say: "...we have abundant evidence of minds introducing purpose, intention, and teleology to otherwise 'mechanical' systems. These points go in favor of the non-naturalist." Well, not really: they simply show that we intentional beings can do those things, which no naturalist is disputing. As for question-begging, all the naturalist is doing is pointing out the facts: that once upon a time the Earth was a barren, lifeless place, with, presumably, no reasoning going on at all, and that gradually, more and more complex living things appeared on the scene, with increasingly complex cognitive faculties. To make sense of this the naturalist has a persuasive, non-teleological, evolutionary model that requires no supernatural influences; the theist or other non-naturalist prefers to insist that the source of this progress, and of reasoning and consciousness, must come from outside the system. Each can see the other's position as question-begging, if you like, but it doesn't really get us anywhere. We choose sides, I think, according to our intuitions.

In your fourth, you are quite right: if false beliefs and faulty reasoning produce adaptive behavior, then they will prosper. (Many think that this is why we still have religions.) One can joke around about inquiring as to what a bacterium "believes"; this shows that we ought to be careful about conflating having interests (which all living things do) with the far more expensive feature of being able to *represent* those interests as accessible internal, cognitive models. A moth, for example, is designed to navigate by the moon, which provides a light source at an effectively infinite distance, and therefore a constant visual angle. This system can by fooled, though, by an artificial, nearby light source, such as a candle. Maintaining a constant visual angle during flight when the source is a candle results in a fatal inward spiral. Would you say the moth "believes" the candle is the moon? There are many terminological pitfalls here.

As for your last - beyond the scope of this conversation, as you say.


If we're going to reduce reason and rationality that much, why even bring in computers? When a rock is nudged down a steep hill, it considers pathways and pursues its goal of arriving at the bottom of the hill by reasoning its way through a series of events with the principle of least action in mind. Much less complex than a chess-playing program, but quite similar in kind. But if it is, so much greater is the point made by critics.

To the third - one problem is that, when pointing out the "facts", you're slipping in a presumption about the very subject being argued about ("no reasoning going on at all"). If the theist or possibly non-naturalist is right, this is incorrect - there was reasoning or similar going on far in advance of there being biological life in our universe. The evolutionary model, insofar as it is scientific, has little to say about teleology's presence or lack - that subject is put aside. (I'm very aware that there are evolutionary biologists, including Darwin himself, who denied and deny teleology up and down in evolution. I take that as relevant to the actual science as Newton being convinced he was studying a clockwork mechanism of God's handiwork, or Mendel likely thinking he was discovering God's methods for diversifying and intensifying traits.)

But that's partly where the "abundant evidence" I spoke of comes in: The teleologist is able to point to intentional beings instantiating evolutionary systems by way of computer simulations (or even more novel applications in programming.) Those denying teleology aren't able to do this, precisely because 'they' would be 'doing' it. They're stuck with speculation. To make a model is to model teleology.

As to the fourth: Well, that's the point I've been making. The orthodox understanding of evolutionary theory is hardly concerned with beliefs. Again, it's understandable to a point: If we had to answer the "What is it like to be a bat?" question to really get a proper understanding of bat evolution, so much the worse for evolutionary theory. So the focus is on physical actions taken and available, with beliefs pushed far out of the spotlight - beliefs can be true, false, or utterly irrational or non-rational. So long as they promote the right actions, they get the job done. If we rework the theory to make truth and judgment practically bedrock constituents (Where 'survival' is no longer the sole certain "end product", but also "truth" or even "inevitably closer approach to truth" or similar), we're making a grand change to the theory that makes for a mighty strange bedfellow with naturalism.

J.R. Lucas has been thinking and writing on the topic of computationalism and its relationship with reason, rationality and freedom for over four decades. No one, as far as I'm concerned, can have an informed opinion on this topic without having read him. Most of his published work is available at his Oxford website under 'Godelian Arguments': http://users.ox.ac.uk/~jrlucas/. I highly recommend his (in my opinion) classic book 'The Freedom of the Will', published in 1970 by the Oxford Clarendon Press. I don't know if you've ever read anything by him, Joseph A., but his opinions on this topic are very close to your own.

Malcolm and Joseph - I think both of you are probably wrong about the relevance of natural selection to the story we tell about the emergence of reason.

I think Malcolm is wrong to suggest that reason evolved via natural selection. In its regulative role, 'truth' looks to be an idealization. (We've also made it an ideal, and an aspirational ideal, to boot.) While I grant that natural selection might have endowed us with some bits and pieces of cognitive structure that could, quite incidentally, give us the ability to form simple idealizations, I don't think there's any reason to believe that natural selection drove the development of the capacity to form idealizations, much less its expression in the regulative ideal of truth.

And I think Joseph is wrong to think that this undermines the naturalist project, if I may call it that. Naturalism can avail itself of a wide variety of explanatory strategies, none of which need be universally applicable. If, as I suspect, natural selection did not drive the development of reason, there are other ways it might have developed from raw materials that are nonethelss products of our evolutionary heritage. And naturalists are also allowed to have their own version of faith, a conviction based on hope that continued careful investigation can reveal wholly new facets of nature. Of course they need the humility to recognize the limitations of their current stock of ideas and investigative methods before such a faith can take root. But that's another matter.

This is interesting; I am perfectly happy to agree with you that in a sense the rock "calculates" the path down the hill. One might also mention the behavior of soap films, which can very rapidly "solve" extremely difficult minimal-network problems. So I'll retract my remark about "no reasoning going on at all", if you like; what was missing from that barren world was intentionality, or anything with interests.

But I'll stick with evolution favoring reasoning ability and correspondence with truth, insofar as such correspondence is adaptive. Yes, selection may favor false beliefs if they cause behavior that improves fitness: for example, we may believe that God wants us all to pull together, and will reward us in Heaven, and as it happens pulling together in this way lifts the fitness of the whole group of believers. But it hardly seems farfetched to imagine that correct models of the world pay off, in general, far more often than false ones. (I should stress also that nobody is suggesting that selection pushes toward "truth" in any way that is independent of fitness: survival and differential reproduction are always the bottom line.)

But as I said before, it is exactly those examples in which false beliefs and irrationality persist that support the view that we are not ideal reasoners (using a mysterious faculty of abstract reasoning that does its work on some immaterial plane before Telexing its output down to the "merely" physical brain for display), but are instead imperfectly engineered, "buggy", physical systems. After all, if reasoning isn't happening somehow in the synapses of the brain, why does it fail so utterly, in so many odd and entirely predictable ways, when the brain is drugged or damaged? If the brain were just some sort of transmitter/receiver that merely *communicates* with a transcendent Reason, you'd expect that the transmission might become garbled during the I/O stage -- but why the reasoning itself?

Again, nobody is disputing that there exist teleological creatures who do teleological things, and the fact that there are does nothing to undermine naturalism. The point is not that naturalism somehow *refutes* a teleological view -- it doesn't -- but rather that it presents an alternative model in which teleology is not *required* in order to get things up and running, or to drive the design process that brought such purposeful beings into existence.


I do disagree with you about the minor role you think selection played in the development of reasoning creatures; in particular I think it could be argued that we are, in Darwinian terms, as phenomenally successful as we are (at least in terms of sheer numbers and reproductive success) because of our supple cognitive architecture. Do you really think that improvements in proto-humans' ability to form idealizations didn't increase our fitness? You may doubt that selection "drove" the creation of human reason -- it may, as you say, have emerged as a "spandrel" of some sort, though I imagine a more straightforwardly adptive story -- but surely you would agree that once achieved, it would confer some selective advantage, and tend to propagate? There was probably also a strong "Baldwin effect" at work as well, whereby brains that were naturally better equipped for cultural transmission of ideas would be favored at the genetic level also.

To put it another way: it seems the dualist looks at human reason and says: "if reason were just a physical process, how could it possibly work so well?"

On the other hand, the naturalist looks at human reason (and at its many glaring limitations, including how little progress we've made on these questions themselves, despite thousands of years of effort) and asks: "if reason were indeed a transcendent process, how could it possibly work so *badly*?"

I guess we just have to take our pick.

Reason might work slowly, and it might sometimes be very difficult to reason through the more intractable problems effectively, and even harder to say something new; and we're often unsure if we've reasoned correctly at all--if there isn't something we've missed. But the claim that reason works "badly" strikes me as completely absurd. Reason works just fine. The huge advances made across the whole spectrum of human thought attests to the fact. Yes, there were blunders along the way, often serious blunders, but these only throw the great successes of human reasoning into even sharper relief. Taking a realistic view of human reasoning doesn't at all lead to the belittlement of reason, the adoption of this sort of no-big-deal attitude, where reason is so radically redefined that rocks can be said to calculate and soap films solve problems. All it means is that we must admit our fallibility; a point on which the atheist and the theist are in perfect agreement.

But perhaps, in this instance, there is a significant difference. The theist believes that, in spite of human imperfections, in spite of human ignorance, there is such a thing as objective truth, and that by the proper exercise of reason this truth can be discovered and understood. The (materialist) atheist obviously can't believe in any sort of transcendental truth; whether they can believe in objective truth at all is questionable, relying as it does on the idea that reason somehow 'emerged' out of a series of adaptations whose primary function was not the conferral of reasoning faculties for the discovery of truth, but the maximisation of physical utility. The idea that adaptation is at all likely to lead to cognitive faculties that produce true beliefs is very questionable indeed; I'm sure you're aware of Plantinga's arguments to the contrary. But even if ratiocination we're purely adaptive, that would still leave activities of human reason that have no obvious evolutionary advantage, such as higher mathematics and metaphysical speculation, unexplained. Perhaps they could be claimed to be the result of hypertrophied faculties that have an adaptational origin: counting is plausibly an adapted trait, but set theory isn't, and perhaps the latter is just an accidental result of the former. Maybe so. But if a view leads me to the conclusion that the profoundest aspects of human reasoning are just the reasonless outgrowths of unreasoning processes, and that we can't even be sure that they tell us anything true about the world, then I'd sooner reject that view as inadequate than give up my position on the ultimate reliability of reason, and its, admittedly sometimes wayward, connection with objective truth.

So I guess I pick your first option, though my question isn't really how reason works so well, but how it even exists at all, and from where our sense of objective truth comes from. Perhaps from God directly (which I'm not at all comfortable with), or from an inherent teleology in nature towards the creation of rational creatures (with which I am more sympathetic), or some other explanation--I doubt we'll ever know. But I won't belittle reason in the name of some dubious piece of metaphysics; in the words of J.R. Lucas, to do so would be a 'counsel of despair'. It would lead to all sorts of irrationalism and, taken far enough, self-refutation. It is a position of absolute last resort.


I've read some of Lucas' works on his webpage - I didn't absorb everything he had to say, but I think I came away with some important observations from him all the same. I'll go back and read him again soon - there's always more to pick up where he's concerned.


There's a few problems I have with your observation. The first is that, if we're going to crack open naturalism that wide, then what - really - is naturalism arguing when we get down to it? I recall seeing you write about one problem of "physicalism", pointing out that just what is or isn't 'physical' is a very murky issue, and my responding about what sort of problems admitting to that vagueness or murkiness leads to. And I'd say again, if naturalism is little more than "well whatever really exists, God or the Godlike sure isn't it!", just how interesting is the project/position?

I suppose one way to put what I'm saying here is this: To view naturalism the way you do is to (it seems to me) regard it as something of a paper tiger. It's claims to success and 'obvious' truth are vastly overblown, and there's really very few commitments at work in it besides faith and a stance against God(s)/the Godlike. After all, theists can hope to discover new and amazing things about the world as well.


Retract it if you like, but it's still a presumption - and one about the very thing supposedly under investigation as well. Now, you're saying that naturalism doesn't refute teleology - and that in fact it doesn't need to. It just offers an alternative model. But very little about the model that's attractive (the hard science) is available exclusively to the naturalist anyway, and it comes with the price tag of a deep faith in a model we can't really test even in principle. Even at our (probably, in the grand scheme of things) weak stage of technological prowess, what can be achieved by intentional agents is striking and apparent. It's odd that the aspects of 'the world' we're most certain truly do exist (intentionality, thought, reasoning, etc) are the very thing the naturalist wants banished from the ultimate foundation of the world.

As for models, as Brodie would suggest, I'd say it's far from clear that it isn't farfetched on the orthodox account of evolution, which - again - has minimal if any focus on beliefs, and tremendous focus on actions. But to assert that 'grasping the truth' happens to be highly correlated with 'fitness' - that organisms which more accurately perceive truth are (far?) more likely to thrive than other such beings - results in making evolution more teleological than it seems to be on the surface. Ken Miller, Simon Conway Morris, Paul Davies and others have speculated that there is - for whatever reason - a built-in tendency in the universe for minds and rational creatures to develop, and all three noted, to my knowledge, recognize this as a teleological view.

As for the operations of reason, as Brodie said, that we're not perfect reasoners isn't news to anyone - theist or atheist. Further, there are more (far more, really) options on that table available to the non-naturalist than a mere and crude cartesian dualism (hylemorphism, variations on panpsychism or panentheism, idealism, even more "physicalist" teleological models, etc.) Even by the examples you gave it's not clear what's going on - is the person reasoning but doing so improperly, or are they not actually reasoning at all? Similar to how, if I attempt to solve a problem, my math can be perfect yet my answer wrong. I could have overlooked something, etc.

But in the end, akin to what Brodie said - reducing 'reason' to involve regarding soap bubbles and rocks as 'reasoning' (unless you're taking something close to an idealist or (odd) panpsychist view) is a funny way of approaching the question. It certainly highlights the threat of a thoroughgoing mechanistic materialism to lead to serious skepticism about truth and the world (and in turn, about materialism itself) that has to be answered with a kind of materialist fideism, or ignored.

Joseph - You think the sort of naturalism I'm describing is to "wide open." But what about it isn't "natural?" I, on the other hand, think you don't respect necessary distinctions between naturalism and a very crude form of physicalism which doesn't even acknowledge the incompleteness of current physical ideas. Now, granted, there are people who clothe themselves in straw, and you are certainly free to knock them down. But don't fool yourself into thinking that in doing so you've vanquished naturalism.

BTW, from your perspective, was Spinoza a naturalist? That's not a trick question.


Don't get me wrong: I don't mean to dismiss human reason's many impressive achievements, nor to suggest that there is no such thing as truth. Reason does indeed work just fine for most of the things we use it for (which is just what the naturalist would expect) - but for others (which tend to be farther from the practical things that would seem more obviously adaptive) reason can function at all only with enormous training and effort, the results are often not so spectacular. Indeed, in your own remarks you offer some good examples of places where our reason seems quite inadequate to the job, saying "I doubt we'll ever know". If human reason is indeed transcendent, then whence its blatant limitations? Such bounds and shortcomings - which the investigations of cognitive psychology and neuroscience are showing to be explicable and predictable - seem perfectly, well, "natural", under the naturalist view that we are complex, engineered reasoning systems, built to design specifications that do not cover every scenario.

You write:

"But if a view leads me to the conclusion that the profoundest aspects of human reasoning are just the reasonless outgrowths of unreasoning processes, and that we can't even be sure that they tell us anything true about the world, then I'd sooner reject that view as inadequate than give up my position on the ultimate reliability of reason, and its, admittedly sometimes wayward, connection with objective truth."

Indeed, when it comes to the deepest questions to which we apply our reason, we can NOT be sure that reason is telling us anything true about the world. Does God exist? Is a dualistic view of the mind the correct one? Is there such a thing as objective morality? Are any of us *sure* that our reasoned answers to these questions are true? All we can ever be, I think, is *confident*, in varying degrees.

I don't see what I am doing here as "belittling" reason; I am just trying to look at it as honestly and frankly as I can, with a concern that we are rather too wishfully inclined to see this splendidly evolved and marvelously useful cognitive faculty as something more transcendent, more ethereally Godlike, than it really is.

Finally, regarding truth: I in no way mean to suggest that there is not an objective world. Truth, then, refers to a state of correspondence between the models, or assertions, we make about that world, and the objective state of the world itself. The closer that correspondence, the closer we are to "truth". I think that in general, it is fair to expect that selection will favor cognition that makes "truer" models of the world - but we seem to disagree about that.


You say, "You think the sort of naturalism I'm describing is to "wide open." But what about it isn't "natural?"" Yet I never said that it wasn't 'natural' - I didn't object to the redefinitions, I only pointed out what effect I see them as having on the discussion. And when did I say anything about "vanquishing" naturalism either? I did say that if naturalism means little more than "whatever really exists, God or the God-like sure isn't it!", then naturalism isn't all that interesting or as powerful as its proponents tend to claim. Sure, I've been arguing against naturalism here, but I haven't been smugly dismissing it as defeated. "Overblown", perhaps. Either way, I reject the suggestion I've been burning strawmen here, especially when I haven't been 'burning' (as in declaring wholly defeated, etc) anything besides.

As for Spinoza - honestly, I haven't read Spinoza all that deeply, and just what 'naturalism' covers is exactly what's under discussion here. All I can do is ask you: Is 'naturalism', at heart, nothing more than the claim that God or the God-like does not exist?

Joseph - I apologize if I have misrepresented your intentions.

Naturalism does deny the existence of god-like beings, if we assme that such beings transcend nature. But we needn't assume that. As a positive thesis, naturalism involves the claim that the same kinds of causes operate throughout nature, and so the same kinds of explanations apply throughout nature. How to characterize what those "kinds" of causes and explanations are is, of course, a serious problem for naturalists. Hence my counsel of humility about the incompleteness of our understanding.

But naturalism also has some teeth, since incomplete though our understanding of nature is, the kinds of explanations we can muster at this point are "intelligible," so far as they go (which is not to "rock bottom"). This "intelligibility" provides a sort of standard on which appeals to god-like beings or other "mysterious causes" often founder.

Still, in humility the naturalist should acknowledge that the standard of intelligibility itself has evolved. For example, where once gravity was considered an occult property, it became the model for explanations in terms of fields of force. (As I've often noted, however, I'm not sure that such forces really are intelligible.)


The way you're putting it, naturalism denies that God/the god-like, or things that transcend nature. But then - and forgive me if this isn't what you mean - you suggest naturalists aren't too clear on just what nature is, and what we do have knowledge of is incomplete in multiple and serious ways. But to me, that makes it seem that naturalism boils down to what I said: It's the claim that God/the God-like does not exist, and that's about it. Made more troublesome by the problem of figuring out just what 'nature' is to begin with.

To bring computers into it again - let's make a big assumption, and assume that one day we succeed in making a computer simulation of a world. Maybe it's a small world - a few AI and a small environment. What I'd ask you is, does a transcendent reality exist for those AIs? Either way the question is answered, it seems to me, poses a problem for the naturalist's attitude towards such things.

Joseph - Yes, I do think we are "not too clear" about what nature is, just like we're not to clear about what causality is, or knowledge, or virtue, or for that matter, what god is, or transcendence. So what's a reasonable person to do in such circumstances? Again, I counsel humility.

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