Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Balfour and the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism

The Argument from Reason did not originate with Lewis. Something like it can be traced all the way back to Plato, and Augustine had an argument that said that our knowledge of eternal and necessary truths. Descartes maintained that the higher rational processes of human beings could not be accounted for in materialistic terms, and while Kant denied that these considerations did not provide adequate proof of the immortality of the soul, he did think they were sufficient to rule out any materialist account of the mind. However, naturalism or materialism as a force in Western thought did not become really viable until the 1859, when Charles Darwin published the Origin of Species.
The earliest post-Darwinian presentation of the Argument from Reason that I am familiar with, and one that bears a lot of similarities to Lewis’s argument, is found in Prime Minister Arthur Balfour’s The Foundations of Belief. Lewis never mentions The Foundations of Belief in his writings, but he does say in one place that Balfour’s subsequent book Theism and Humanism is “a book too little read.” According to Balfour the following claims follow from the “naturalistic creed.”
1) My beliefs, in so far as they are the result of reasoning at all, are founded on premises produced in the last resort by the ‘collision of atoms.”
2) Atoms, having no prejudices in favour of the truth, are as likely to turn out wrong premises as right ones; nay, more likely, inasmuch as truth is single and error manifold.
3) My premises, therefore, in the first place, and my conclusions in the second, are certainly untrustworthy, and probably false. Their falsity, moreover, is a kind which cannot be remedied; since any attempt to correct it must start from premises not suffering under the same defect. But no such premises exist.
4) Therefore, my opinion about the original causes which produced my premises, as it is an inference from them, partakes of their weakness; so that I cannot either securely doubt my own certainties or be certain about my own doubts.
Balfour then considers a “Darwinian rebuttal, which claims that natural selection acting as a “kind of cosmic Inquisition, will repress any lapses from the standard of naturalistic orthodoxy. The point was made years later by Antony Flew as follows:
[A]ll other things being equal and in the long run and with many dramatic exceptions, true beliefs about our environment tend to have some survival value. So it looks as if evolutionary biology and human history could provide some reasons for saying that it need no be a mere coincidence if a significant proportion of men’s beliefs about their environment are in face true. Simply because if that were not so they could not have survived long in that environment. As an analysis of the meaning of ‘truth’ the pragmatist idea that a true belief is one which is somehow advantageous to have will not do at all. Yet there is at least some contingent and non-coincidental connection between true beliefs, on the one hand, and the advantage, if it be an advantage, of survival, on the other.
However, Balfour offers this reply to the evolutionary argument:
But what an utterly inadequate basis for speculation we have here! We are to suppose that powers which were evolved in primitive man and his animal progenitors in order that they might kill with success and marry in security, are on that account fitted to explore the secrets of the universe. We are to suppose, that the fundamental beliefs on which these powers of reasoning are to be exercised reflect with sufficient precision remote aspects of reality, though they were produced in the main by physiological processes which date from a stage of development when the only curiosities which had to be satisfied were those of fear and those of hunger.
Interestingly, Balfour’s argument here finds surprising support from Darwin himself. In a letter to William Graham Down, Darwin wrote:
the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey's mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?
As can be seen Balfour’s presentation of the argument, and his consideration of counter-arguments, anticipated much of the debate on this issue that is still going on a century after his book was written.


JD Walters said...

Dr Reppert,

This is indeed a remarkably prescient formulation of the argument from reason (at least of one formulation of it). It is the one I find most convincing, because you cannot really claim that if evolution is true that most of our beliefs are likely to be wrong or erroneous, just that the criterion of cognitive reliability is likely to be very pragmatic indeed, more pragmatic than a person might wish who wants mental tools to establish that a highly sophisticated philosophical position like naturalism is true. For example, Edward Craig notes the following concerning Descartes' reliance on a good God to establish the reliability of our reasoning:

"For Descartes human reason was a faculty given to us
and guaranteed by God, no less, and that was why he
could rely on it to tell us about the essential nature
of mind and matter, and a good deal else besides. What
if instead he had thought of it as a natural
instrument which had developed because, and to the
extent that, it gave its possessors a competitive
advantage over those without it? Would he then have
supposed that what it appeared to tell us on such
matters could with complete confidence be taken to be
the truth? If so, how would he have justified it?...Am
I to believe that because reason is good at helping us
survive it must also be good at metaphysics? Why on
earth should that be true?"

(Edward Craig, Philosophy: a very short introduction.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 92)

The British philosopher John Gray is even more explicit about this dilemma imposed by evolutionary naturalism:

"Darwinian theory tells us that an interest in truth
is not needed for survival or reproduction. More often
it is a disadvantage. Deception is common among
primates and birds...In a competition for mates, a
well-developed capacity for self-deception is an
advantage. The same is true in politics, and many
other contexts...Truth has no systematic evolutionary
advantage over error...As Trivers points out,
evolution favors useful error: 'the conventional view
that natural selection favors nervous systems which
produce ever more accurate images of the world must be
a very naive view of mental evolution'".

(Straw Dogs: thoughts on humans and other animals,
John Gray, London: Granta Books, 2002, p.27)

Interestingly neither of these philosophers believe in God. John Gray, in fact, is a very strong atheist and fully accepts the conclusions of evo-naturalism, consistently applied. This means, essentially that the naturalist must give up any claim to metaphysical certainty based upon our mind (designed only by natural selection) having the requisite cognitive reliability to do so. Naturalism must be held for other reasons, like aversion to theistic alternatives.

This should never be taken as an argument against evolutionary science, which applies principles of population genetics to explain how organisms change over time. It is telling, however, against Daniel Dennett's extravagant claim for evolutionary ideas:

"Perhaps, you may think, we could make a useful division: there are the
parts of Darwin's idea that really are established beyond any
reasonable doubt, and then there are the speculative extensions of the
scientifically irresistible parts. Then-if we were lucky-perhaps the rock-solid
scientific facts would have no stunning implications about religion, or
human nature, or the meaning of life, while the parts of Darwin's idea
that get people all upset could be put into quarantine as highly
controversial extensions of, or mere interpretations of, the scientifically
irresistible parts. That would be reassuring. But alas, that is just
about backwards...[the Darwinian idea], which is about as secure as any in
science, really does have far-reaching implications for our vision of
what the meaning of life is or could be."

(Darwin's Dangerous Idea, pp. 18-19)

But of course Dennett does not really mean to apply his "universal acid" consistently. Very early on he states that "My admiration for Darwin's magnificent idea is unbounded, but I, too,
cherish many of the ideas and ideals that it seems to challenge, and
want to protect them." (p.21)

And so after his analysis of Darwin's idea, the ideals that he himself cherishes reassuringly emerge intact, but of course the consequences for religion are earth-shaking. Dennett cannot have it both ways. Either Darwin's idea is so earth-shakingly devastating to all aspects of our existence, in which case the highly sophisticated theory of Darwinism also faces the axe, or Darwin's idea is indeed scientific and as such neutral on philosophical or metaphysical implications.

In the end, Darwinian evolution is more dangerous to an atheistic perspective than to a theistic one, because in the context of theism, God is more powerful than any universal acid. The atheist has no such guarantee. Descartes himself stated the dilemma most concisely:

“Perhaps there are some who would rather deny so powerful a God than believe that everything else is uncertain. Let us not oppose them; rather, let us grant that everything said here about God is fictitious. Now they suppose that I came to be what I am either by fate, or by chance, or by a connected chain of events, or by some other way. But because being deceived and being mistaken appear to be a certain imperfection, the less powerful they take the author of my origin to be, the more probable it will be that I am so imperfect that I am always deceived”

Descartes, Rene. Meditations on First Philosophy (1641). Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993, p. 62

Blue Devil Knight said...

These discussions, posed in terms of beliefs, are sort of abstract. We could ground them in actual data from the literature on sensory coding, which shows that animal sensory systems are extremely accurate indicators of what is happening in the world. Bill Bialek, at Princeton, has done a lot to get people to think about this more quantitatively.

The leech, for instance, which predominantly uses its sense of touch (via mechanoreceptors) and chemical senses (to sense blood and fellow leeches to mate with), is a good model system. For instance, its mechanoreceptors are exquisitely accurate indicators of where it has been touched: for the leech this is of paramount importance for its survival.

Such accuracy is observed in sensory systems in all phyla that have them. It is not all that hard to imagine how such highly accurate sensory systems evolved. Also, since at least some of the content of our beliefs is fixed by the information carried by our sensory systems, since the latter are very good at tracking features of the world, wouldn't it be strange if our belief box (which in all likelihood depends on properly funcioning sensory systems) had a dramatic disconnect from this feature, suddenly became untethered from the reliable world mirror provided by our sensory systems?

I think the problem with the way Victor poses the debate is that it is too Cartesian: How can I justify my belief system? Since Quine and Sellars, and the naturalistic turn more generally, it has become clear that it is more fruitful to ask empirical questions about other systems, and the resulting methods/results typically extend in fairly straightforward ways to ourselves.

You could say, "How do you know the stimulus you gave to the leech? How can you trust the voltage signal you recorded in its sensory neurons?" I.e., you could take the skeptical turn and ask me to essentially justify everything, or even try to get me to justify the existence of the external world. This Cartesian epistemic stance is possible, and I can't prove that I am not presently dreaming. This doesn't particularly bother me. Here on Neurath's raft, where we are all situated, none of us can prove such things, so I assume you aren't claiming that naturalists need an answer to radical skepticism to be taken seriously.

JD: the theist, indeed, has the ultimate free parameter to explain anything. I'm not sure this is a good thing, or conducive to truth discovery. It certainly isn't conducive to truth discovery in science, where we try hard to kill our pet theories, and to take seriously theories that can be shown false.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Here is a link to a PDF of one of Bialek's classic papers. I actually wrote a review article comparing two approaches for quantifying how well a neural response tracks what is going on in stimulus space. It is here.

Steven Carr said...

'"For Descartes human reason was a faculty given to us
and guaranteed by God, no less, and that was why he
could rely on it to tell us about the essential nature
of mind and matter, and a good deal else besides'

How did Descartes know that his reasoning about this was true?

JD Walters said...


I am not referring to the accuracy of sensory systems. That has very little to do with the argument Reppert and I were discussing. Of course organisms need accurate sensory devices in order to survive. The question is whether the cognitive machinery that interprets sensory data will be up to the task of extending our knowledge beyond that needed for us to survive and reproduce in order to produce the reliable metaphysical knowledge the naturalist needs in order to have rational justification for the claim that "naturalism is true". In fact C.S. Lewis comments on this in his book "Miracles", where he claims that the relationship between stimulus and response is very different from that between premises of an argument and the truth known. Natural selection works by improving an organism's responses to its immediate environment. But will this improvement of responses result in the ability to achieve true insight into "the way things are"? Does the ability to see in infrared imply the ability to write down Maxwell's equations of electromagnetism?

I am with you on the need to perform empirical research. That's why I'm into neuroscience. But I'm also interested in the philosophical presuppositions of our empirical research, and which worldview provides the most satisfying framework for the conduct of empirical research. With some of the earliest scientists, like Galileo and Kepler, I have come to the conclusion that theism provides the most satisfying framework. Pursuing science as a way of "thinking God's thoughts after Him", in my view, sure beats the idea that our scientific investigations are merely extensions of figuring out how to get fruit off a higher tree branch, or intelligence as a display of genetic "feathers". I'm not saying the evolutionary story is wrong, I'm just saying it's incomplete.

I do go to Princeton, by the way. I know about Bill Bialek and his work in biophysics. Extremely fascinating. But it has very little to do with constructing or critiquing worldviews.

Steven Carr said...

'But will this improvement of responses result in the ability to achieve true insight into "the way things are"? Does the ability to see in infrared imply the ability to write down Maxwell's equations of electromagnetism?'

Is this why people do not rely on their innate abilities when it comes to answering exam questions on Maxwell, but spend years in a university studying?

The idea that , under naturalism, people's knowledge is limited to what is selected for is such utter junk that I wonder about people who are prepared to write such things in public.

Blue Devil Knight said...

I'm relieved we can all agree that sesory systems carry information (i.e., are accurate indicators) about what is happening in the world. I really didnt' want to waste time dealing with a general skeptic.

If our belief box depends on our sensory systems, that gets us a lot. It suggests the empiricist has something going for him. Beliefs evoked by our sensory systems are more reliable than those generated via complicated chains of inference which, though grounded in perception-based knowledge, are not tethered to it. This realization, which Kant really drove home, is the core of modern empiricism.

Whether you are an empiricist or not, facts about sensory systems are not philosophically inert. They may seem trivially true (to anyone who knows biology), but that doesn't mean philosophers have incorporated such facts into their worldview . Indeed, as recently as 1996, the philosopher Akins argued that we shouldn't look at sensory systems as providing information about the world: this article was very popular and published in J. Phil.. In other words, our knowledge that sensory systems really does provide accurate information about the world is fairly recent and has been recognized to have implications for epistemology and philosophy of mind (in addition to Akins incorrect piece see Dretske).

In reasoning about the structure of the world, the further we get from experience, the more we rely on complicated chains of inference in ordinary language, the more likely we are to get things wrong, to become a bit too enamored of their beautiful chains of logic. Philosophy is less successful than science partly because its practitioners don't struggle like we do to force their theories to make contact with experiment.

All of this success suggests the empiricists, and their naturalist cousins, were on to something.

As for naturalism itself, I don't think that is a claim like "I expect this neuron to fire more action potentials than that neuron." There is no such "crucial experiment" for naturalism. However, the alternative has simply failed as a hypothesis. Antinaturalism has all the hallmarks of a degenerative research program, naturalism of a flourishing productive research program. Anything else that had so consistently been shown to be useless in so many fields would evoke only scorn among scientists. And it does, among most. The Christian materials scientist would balk at you if you said that the shear in a beam can only be explained by god. Gods didn't used to be scorned in science: a telling fact. It fell out of favor because of its complete uselessness. Naturalism in science is not a dogma: it has been verified historically and people have just forgotten that it used to be one alternative among many. THis is unfortunate, as it gives license for people like Philip Johnson to say that it is simply an unjustified dogma, and people don't know he is utterly full of shit.

Incidentally, perhaps you could say utility isn't a guide to truth. I think it is, especially when arguing about our beliefs about the world. But that is another topic.

As a final thought, if someone's belief in god is based on gaps in our present scientific knowledge (e.g., our inability to explain why dogs turn around in circles when excited), I am worried about his faith. There are much better reasons to believe in god, and not a whole lot of worse reasons.

Again, working on this grant will probably prevent me from making any more comments here: I always think I will only take a minute to compose these posts but it ends up chewing an hour out of my day. But I will be sure to read any comments.

JD: I mentioned Bialek because I knew you were there. He is a fun and interesting guy.

Blue Devil Knight said...

OK, that rant against supernaturalism was a bit over the top. Riding into work I realized it. I think I am basically right, but I don't want to give the impression that only fools believe in gods. Naturalism/nonnaturalism are both worldviews that smart, reasonable people hold (though I do think the evidence, inductive and historical in nature, against nonnaturalism is overwhelming.) I do think 'god of the gaps' theists tend to be naive theologically and on thin ice, though.

OK, I will really try to focus on my grant. I rarely suceed in my attempts to steer clear of fun and explosive arguments on blogs.

JD Walters said...


"In reasoning about the structure of the world, the further we get from experience, the more we rely on complicated chains of inference in ordinary language, the more likely we are to get things wrong"

That is exactly the point I am trying to make. But the naturalist is no 'cousin' to the empiricist. Comprehensive metaphysical naturalism is just as remote from everyday experience and language (even in the scientific community) as a religious system like theism is, and as such falls prey to the difficulty you noted with extrapolating from our immediately available sensory information, or what Thomas Nagel called that "unapparent character of the world". And remember, in an evolutionary naturalist scheme our minds serve evolutionary success, not truth. In such a context the empiricist would be better off holding to a very pragmatic view of science. Here's John Gray again:

"The authority of science comes from the power it gives humans over their environment. Now and then, perhaps, science can cut loose from our practical needs, and serve the pursuit of truth. But to think that it can ever embody that quest is pre-scientific...To think of science as the search for truth is to renew a mystical faith, the faith of Plato and Augustine, that truth rules the world, the truth is divine."(p. 20)

C.S. Lewis also saw what might have to happen if the atheistic view of evolutionary naturalism were applied consistently:

“A still humbler position remains. You may, if you like, give up all claim to truth. You may say simply ‘Our way of thinking is useful’-without adding, even under your breath, ‘and therefore true’. It enables us to set a bone and build a bridge and make a Sputnik. And that is good enough. The old, high pretensions of reason must be given up. It is a behavior evolved entirely as an aid to practice. That is why, when we use it simply for practice, we get along pretty well; but when we fly off into speculation and try to get general views of reality we end in the endless, useless, and probably merely verbal, disputes of the philosopher. We will be humbler in the future. Goodbye to all that. No more theology, no more ontology, no more metaphysics…But then again equally, no more naturalism."

THAT is the difficulty facing the naturalist.

But I couldn't disagree with you more about your comparison of naturalism and anti-naturalism as a research program. The success you refer to is NOT of naturalism, but of empiricism, i.e. the view that one should not decide by a priori philosophizing how nature should behave, but by gathering as many accurate observations as you can and let the theory fit the data. And as many historians of science have argued, including A.N. Whitehead ("Science and the modern world"), Reijer Hooykaas ("Religion and the rise of science"), Ronald Numbers ("God and Nature"), David Lindberg ("When science and Christianity meet"), Rodney Stark ("For the glory of God", "The victory of Reason") and others, the empiricist program began to flourish when devoutly Christian scientists such as Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton applied their energies to the study of the material world because they believed in the regularity and order confered upon it by its Creator. This belief in the law-like character of the world is firmly grounded in Christian theology as opposed to animistic or polytheistic views in which nature is capricious and taboo, not to be studied but merely appeased with sacrifices and rituals. If you want to judge research programs by their success (following Lakatos, am I right?), then Christian theism was one of the most successful research programs in science of all time. Naturalist scientists now ride piggy-back on the success of those early Christian scholars (I may also mention Nichole D'Oresme and Jean Buridan of the Middle Ages, as well as Robert Boyle, Michael Faraday and Joseph Priestley) and think that they can take all the credit for the rise of science. Not so. But theism is not, strictly speaking, a research program. It is not committed to any metaphysic other than the existence of a good, rational God Who creates and sustains the world. It would not matter to the theist if science discovered that all matter is composed of microscopic strands of spaghetti. What theism does is provide a satisfying worldview for the justification of science. Under theism science is indeed the pursuit of truth. Under evolutionary naturalism it is simply, as Lewis described it, "a behavior evolved as an aid to practice". In my view, the status of science is greatly undermined under evolutionary naturalism.

The fact that Gods are scorned in science today (by whom, exactly?) has less to do with science than with social factors and secularization. Read a good history of science. The "warfare" thesis of the relationship between science and religion has been torn to shreds in modern scholarship.

Anonymous said...

BDK, really, I can't understand why you bother.

You gave a citation to the primary literature and JD has said -- in as many words -- that evidence about how neurological systems form beliefs is irrelevant to his view of how neurological systems form beliefs.

If you wanted a declaration of willfull, invincible ignorance, you wouldn't find it more plainly stated than that. Evidence is as irrelevant to the supernaturalist as steakhouse menus to the vegetarian. You're not dealing with someone who upholds the same conversational morality as you.

JD Walters said...


First of all you need to learn how to read. Our discussion was NOT about how neurological systems forms beliefs. It was about how well sensory systems track their environment. If you have studied any neuroscience at all you will know that belief formation is a much more complex process than response to environmental stimuli. Prick yourself with a pin and a nerve impulse will cause you to suddenly withdraw your arm from the source of the prick. But the process of forming a belief about why you were pricked or, say, what the pin is actually made of involves many more neural networks and much more computation and analysis.

I NEVER said that how that works was irrelevant. I study neuroscience for a living to find out how that works. My point of contention was much broader and more philosophical than that, however. My question was, just because our sensory systems track our environment with accuracy (but I can also point you to as much primary literature as you want for examples of how often our perceptions are in error), does that mean we can fathom the metaphysical structure of the world? At the edge.org website you find some of the world's top scientists worrying that because our brain is only a finite computational device we may be fast coming up on the limits of what we can decipher. Can a computational organ which (by the evolutionary naturalist's account) was designed solely by blind natural selection for reproductive success be trusted to draw such a grand metaphysical conclusion that, in the words of Carl Sagan, "The Cosmos is all there is, was, and all that ever will be"?

Cognitive scientist Justin Barrett is rather pessimistic about those prospects for the naturalist. He says:

“Though some cognitive scientists assume that because our brains and their functions have been ‘designed’ by natural selection we can trust them to tell us the truth, such an assumption is epistemologically dubious. Just because we can successfully survive and reproduce in no way ensures that our minds as a whole tell us the truth about anything-especially when it comes to sophisticated thinking…what a completely naturalistic view of the human mind may safely embrace is that our minds were good for survival in the past”

And David Sloan Wilson, renowned evolutionary biologist, states that:

“…it appears that factual knowledge is not always sufficient by itself to motivate adaptive behavior. At times a symbolic belief system that departs from factual reality actually fares better”

Now many atheistic scientists apply this understanding to religion, claiming that it's just an adaptive illusion. But to be consistent you would have to do the same for science as well. Under the auspices of a blind watchmaker, who is to guarantee that science is not just a 'symbolic belief system' that motivates adaptive behavior, useful only insomuch as it helped us to survive and reproduce?

But I don't expect you to properly understand the point I or Vic Reppert or Arthur Balfour was trying to make, Anonymous. Clearly you have never studied evolutionary biology or neuroscience and you hilariously caricature and misread your opponent's position. Honestly, I can't imagine where you came up with that assessment of what I'm trying to say. I never said anything of the sort.

Stay off the blog if you have nothing constructive to contribute. You're not Anonymous, you're an ignoramus. And I certainly won't waste anymore time on your rambling.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Good to see some other people posting. Before I call it a night, I thought I'd mention that I think one key to our scientific abilities, in things abstract and unobservable, is the power of public symbol systems like natural language (spoken and especially written) and mathematics.

While our inbuilt reasoning systems may well be evolutionary kludges, these public systems allow us to disengage from the cognitive systems to some degree, and to groom argumentative practices so that we make a lot fewer mistakes. E.g., people are really bad at understanding conditionals (believe me, I TAed logic a few times, and some people just couldn't grasp the conditional). By creating this public space of reasons and rules their use, rules that try to weed out error-propagating patterns of symbolic chains and preserve truth-propagating chains (e.g., 'if it is raining, then there are clouds', 'there are clouds', does not license you to assert 'therefore, it is raining'). With such public systems, we have made amazing strides. It is only via a ridiculous amount of study and practice that people get good at manipulating such symbols 'in their heads.' Just look at all the scratch paper people use in doing proofs.

I think that philosophers tend to overestimate the importance of private thinking, and have only just begun to appreciate the cognitive virtues of public cognitive prosthetics like language.

For a pretty good discussion of this stuff, Andy Clark's book 'Being There'. In Cognitive Science, Ed Hutchins' 'Cognition in the Wild' is an underappreciated empirical study of the cognitive processes at work in the navigation in naval vessels.

JD Walters said...


Interestingly your theory of "public symbol systems" bears resemblance to the claims of some social scientists and biologists who insist that through culture (i.e. language, tool-making, etc.) human beings can 'transcend' evolution, so that we are no longer constrained by our genetic makeup and ancestry. Culture is supposed to break the genetic 'leash'. But it seems to me that your claim that through culture we can "disengage from the cognitive systems to some degree" is about as meaningful as suggested that a person can lift himself into the air by pulling up on his own bootstraps. Under naturalism there is no way to 'step outside the box' and evaluate our truth-seeking procedures that is even a little bit 'independent' from the cognitive systems that evolution has instilled in us. As Descartes worried, under naturalism our thoughts are simply the result of "the arrangment of organs" in the brain. All brain events fall under the relentless chain of physical cause and effect, with no guarantee whatsoever that, in addition to this chain of cause and effect, logical sequences also apply to our thought processes. Brain events simply happen whether or not they result in true beliefs about the world.

Some biologists such as E.O. Wilson are very skeptical of the ability of culture to enable humans to transcend biology. He insists that the genetic leash is very tight indeed. See for example his "Sociobiology" and "Genes, Mind and Culture". Think about it this way: if a group of people with poor eyesight work together, will that enable them to see any better? They're all still just as visually challenged. Plus, according to evolutionary critics of religion, group efforts often serve to amplify and reinforce existing false perceptions. Under unguided evolutionary naturalism, what guarantees that the same does not happen to science? What guarantees that our minds, whether private or collective, will gravitate towards the truth?

Again I emphasize that I am not against evolutionary theories of development. I am not even averse to Darwinian perspectives on culture. I just don't think that evolutionary naturalism is a very good foundation for what human beings cherish, including the quest for truth and knowledge.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Think about it this way: if a group of people with poor eyesight work together, will that enable them to see any better?

If there are any scientists, they will make glasses.

Blue Devil Knight said...

I wouldn't put it in terms of 'transcending' evolution, though I understand what they are saying. For one, through public symbol systems, we have an extremely efficient means for transmitting knowledge via nongenetic means. An epistemic watershed! Even the honeybees use a primitive symbol system to good advantage.

JD suggests we might be in a situation analagous to a group of nearsighted people that are simply myopic, that appeals to public linguistic systems can't guarantee our objectivity. Unfortunately, no subculture can guarantee they are not being myopic: this includes religious groups, scientists, etc.. We are fallible people making fallible claims about how the world works, using the cognitive systems we were given (whether evolved or designed by Zeus), and there is no way to step outside of these cognitive systems, peek at raw reality, and determine if the two match up. We are all in this boat. Public symbolic systems are an indispensible part of this process, but they are also fallible. There is no argument against naturalism, specifically, to be found here, but a general skeptical worry. When we start to argue about whether we can really know we are not all just deluded, we are being pulled into a Cartesian philosophical morass that is as unproductive as it is boring. The arguments will mimick teapot tempests about whether we can really know there is an external world. Have fun with that.

JD, in other words, you did not address my response to your claim. Through public symbol systems, especially those comandeered by people obsessed with throwing theories against the experimental wood chipper, we have developed rich and elaborate theories that bear little resemblance to those which our inbuilt cognitive machinery could have imagined. Infinite dimensional vector spaces, nonEuclidian geometries, Gods, etc.. Without these systems, neither science nor theology are possible for us. They give us access to worlds screened off from creatures without such public utilities.

Stepping back, I think these Balfour arguments are cute, and trade on our present ignorance (like all god of the gaps arguments), but I don't understand their pull as serious ideas. Good scientists take their own ignorance as a sign of their lack of imagination and creativity, of the need to think more deeply about how to integrate some phenomenon into the natural order. For the god-gap fetishists, our present ignorance is an invitation to laugh at science and proclaim (loudly) that God (and only God) has the answer. One example of this anachronistic style of thinking is found in Dembski, who in his assinine 'Design Inference' formalizes the argument and actually endorses it [Namely, if we can't (presently) explain X naturalistically, then X is the product of design]! Perhaps he was the tutor to the cavemen in their meteorological theories!

Just pointing out our ignorance implies nothing but a psychological fact about ourselves. It does not have metaphysical implications beyond that. Because of the quite justified resistance scientists (qua scientist) have to supernatural explanations, we require more than these subtle arguments about things we are all ignorant about. Much more will be needed to let the supernatural back into science after its long and fruitful absence.

Mike Wiest said...

The main point of debate seems to be whether we have some absolute rational faculty ("non-naturalist") or whether instead we merely generalize from empirical regularities ("naturalist"). If we can perceive the necessary truth of some arguments, it is suggested that this confidence can't be justified by mere evolutionary pressure, which might as easily have pushed us to a false belief.

This argument reminds me of the Penrose-Lucas argument from Godel's proof, where a human's ability to perceive the truth of an underivable proposition appears to show that we have a non-algorithmic faculty for ascertaining certain truths.

In the present case it might be conceivable that certain regularities in our experience are so universal (e.g. either a or not-a is true) that they are somehow 'hard-wired' into our intelectual apparatus. This possibility by itself does not appear to me to justify a condescending dismissal from naturalists of the whole issue. "The remarkable effectiveness of mathematics in science," and our very ability to construct consistent mathematical theories, in not adequately accounted for by half-baked suggestions that natural selection might often favor true descriptions.

Still, this seems like a difficult problem that naturalism might or might not solve, rather than a proof that naturalism is incomplete. A classical naturalist might attempt to resolve this problem by describing a brain system that somehow provides a general purpose model of CONSISTENT dynamical possibilities so as to explain our ability to generalize and infer 'necessary' truths about situations that have never been encountered in our history or even in our species' history. In my judgement contemporary theories of "Bayesian inference networks" and such have NOT yet achieved any such satisfying general account of putative mechanisms to explain our flexible intellecutal powers.

It seems relevant to note that orthodox modern physics admits that it is causally incomplete: Stapp argues that it is incomplete in just such a way as to allow for the reintroduction of a causally efficacious mind into scientific theory. Should this kind of theory be called naturalist because it doesn't obviously require a god, or non-naturalist because it postulates irreducible mental aspects of reality?

Mike Wiest said...

BDK said "In reasoning about the structure of the world, the further we get from experience, the more we rely on complicated chains of inference in ordinary language, the more likely we are to get things wrong."

I this this has the flavor of a truism, but could be misleading. I think the antinaturalists here are not debating the reliability of our sensory data (though of course we know they are fallible). According to my understanding they are pointing out how amazingly far we can get from direct experiences--AND STILL GET THE RIGHT ANSWERS. Examples from the history of math and physics are legion. How is it that abstract theories of complex numbers and non-Euclidian geometries were found to provide a reliable basis for physical predictions IN THE FOLLOWING CENTURY? What is our "mechanism" for sniffing out consistent theories, even when they are too complex to hold in mind at any one time?

So I would have to agree that the reliability or unreliability of sensory coding is basically irrelivant to understanding Balfour's argument. Similarly, focusing on the tools we use to extend our memory and communicate with each other does not seem particularly relevant either. These tools help us test and develop our ideas, but they don't explain our basic individual capacities for long chains of--suprisingly reliable--creative reasoning.

JD Walters said...


Balfour's argument is not "God of the gaps". It consists of pressing the premises of a well-defined metaphysical system, namely atheistic evolutionary naturalism, to their logical conclusion, namely skepticism about the deliverances of our cognitive faculties which go beyond mere survival and reproduction. There is nothing God-gappy about that. I am asking which worldview provides the most satisfying foundation for the conduct of science, one that includes a Creator God who orients us toward the truth, or a blind watchmaker which only guarantees that what sticks around will stick around?

Your appeal to our collective cognitive situation is not a very convincing one. It reminds me of Elliot Sober's response to Plantinga's version of the argument. He basically just says that our cognitive machinery is all we have, so we should be circumspect with its use. That is exactly what Lewis was getting at when he said that, absent any further orientation of our mind towards truth, we should just be agnostic about all metaphysics or ontology, and rely on our thinking only insofar as it is useful. But then the naturalist cannot appeal to science to establish the premises of naturalism, and must hold their belief that the material world is all there is by other factors.

You continue not to argue from a well-defined version of atheistic naturalism to how we can achieve reliable metaphysical knowledge of the world, but simply assert that it happens and appeal to our collective situation to insulate your position against criticism. If 'subtle arguments' do not do anything to cause scientists to reconsider their position, then I wonder what will? Arguments together with experimentation is what science is all about. It sounds like you have a very meat-and-potatoes view of science, without concern to further examine presuppositions or care to go 'further up and further in', as Lewis would have put it.

And you seem to have an allergic reaction to the word 'supernatural', as if by that we mean some kind of spooky gaseous stuff that does things ordinary matter doesn't and gums up the works of our orderly material world. It is no such thing. You can even dispense with the word 'supernatural' within the context of Christian theism, because God is the ultimate reality, not the material world, which is an offshoot or creation of God. Supernatural in this case simply means the affirmation of a richer reality than naturalism allows for. It allows for meaning and purpose in the world as opposed to a blind interlocking arrangement of matter-energy. Even going by your own appeal to our collective ignorance, how can some (notice I use the word some, not all) scientists be so arrogant as to think that they have elucidated the nature of ultimate reality? Given our limited constitution isn't that a bit presumptious?

Ultimately the Balfour argument is not, as Vic Reppert points out in his book, a skeptical threat argument, and it does not seek to make science spooky or occult. It simply wants to expand our vision of reality beyond the flatland conceptions of atheistic scientists. I am perfectly happy to work with the best of what contemporary science has to offer, including evolutionary biology and neuroscience (which I find endlessly fascinating), as long as scientists do not dogmatically declare that that's the end of the story of our existence, that they only provide partial perspectives on the Universe.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Hmm. I can't get these links to work correctly, and the html code is fine, and they show up fine in preview mode...Oh well. If the links are still busted, I've provided them again below...

Hi Mike. I agree that mathematical systems are crucial (as I mentioned: without them, we'd be in a primitive scientific state), and these are a good example of a public symbolic system that gives us a great deal of power to think ourselves into new theoretical directions, directions we couldn't conceive of if limited to our home-grown cognitive machinery.

Your bringing up Bayes' nets is very interesting. If we discover, empirically, that our brains/minds implement Bayes' nets in our reasoning about the world, as many psychologists , and the mathematicians/statisticians tell us that such procedures are reliable for making inferences about the world [e.g., causal Bayes' nets are good at reliably inferring infer the presence of unobserved variables] that would be one example of a good start on the naturalization of cognition, a naturalization that dovetails with the epistemically normative claims of mathematics.

As for whether the accuracy of sensory systems is irrelevant for this debate, I think you are wrong. If we empirically discovered that they were systematically not accurate, for instance, then that would leave quite a philosophical puzzle for the naturalist. The fact that they are accurate makes the story about bootstrapping to more abstract cases, with the help of public systems of symbols, much easier to imagine. Plus, it suggests more concrete ideas: e.g., test the hypothesis that abstract thought piggybacks on the computations performed in our sensory systems.

Link 2

JD Walters said...


And just how do mathematicians/statistitians discover that Bayes' nets are reliable? Doesn't that presuppose that we have an external standard by which to judge whether some procedure or other produces reliable knowledge?

There have been numerous attempts to form some kind of probabilistic evasion of normativity in mathematics and reasoning, but most have been unsuccessful. For one example, see http://weblinks3.epnet.com/externalframe.asp?tb=1&_ua=bo+B%5F+shn+1+db+aphjnh+bt+ID++%22PPP%22+0F63&_ug=sid+78A4A645%2D1FEA%2D4D82%2DA10F%2DA9E207647026%40sessionmgr2+dbs+aph+cp+1+E9C1&_us=sl+%2D1+hd+False+or+Date+frn+1+sm+ES+mdbs+aph+dstb+ES+sel+False+ri+KAAACB2D00016058+DE18&_uh=btn+N+6C9C&_uso=st%5B2+%2D+st%5B1+%2D+st%5B0+%2Devolution++of++reason+tg%5B2+%2D+tg%5B1+%2D+tg%5B0+%2D+db%5B0+%2Daph+hd+False+op%5B2+%2DAnd+op%5B1+%2DAnd+op%5B0+%2D+mdb%5B0+%2Dimh+1C1C&fi=aph_13293160_AN&lpdf=true&pdfs=68K&bk=R&tn=16&tp=CP&es=cs%5Fclient%2Easp%3FT%3DP%26P%3DAN%26K%3D13293160%26rn%3D2%26db%3Daph%26is%3D09515089%26sc%3DR%26S%3DR%26D%3Daph%26title%3DPhilosophical%2BPsychology%26year%3D2004%26bk%3D&fn=1&rn=2

Sorry for the ridiculously long link! It is a review from Philosophical Psychology of a recent attempt to make mathematics and logic a branch of biology using probabilistic nets. Basically it presupposes too much and sneaks in normative concepts outside the naturalistic net.

Furthermore, even if Bayesian nets are good for modeling the external world they might do so only in a very pragmatic sense, only that which we need to survive. We might be going hopelessly out of the bounds of our epistemic certainty when we start to construct grand metaphysical theories.

Mike Wiest said...


I find it un-natural to assume that our reasoning abilities depend essentially on "public symbol systems." It seems pretty evident that we don't have to talk to anyone to reason. Language certainly facilitates complex thought, but I see it as a vehicle for storing or communicating the contents of our thoughts, not a somehow independent or prior source of our ideas and beliefs.

This would accord with the Bayes Net Model of Brain-Mind that you approved: the mechanisms of our reasoning process would be in our heads, not out in the public library.

No one is denying that sensory systems often give accurate information about the world. The issue is whether our complex but CONFIDENT inferences from sensory data can be justified if we postulate that our representations evolved only to faciliate survival rather than understanding of truth.

Even given a putative mechanism like the Bayes network--which I stress we do not actually have--there remains the question of why we have this CONFIDENCE in the correctness of complex inferential (mathematical) structures, if they represent situations that have never been encountered before.

You might counter that our inferences and our confidence in them is often wrong. But when we find they are wrong we don't lose faith in our logical rules: that faith is nearly absolute. Instead we go back and look for where in our reasoning we violated those rules. Arguably, this proceedure has never failed. We have never found an inconsistency in nature: she always eventually fits into our a priori logical structures.

In this sense, although we all constantly make errors, we have access to an apparently infallible system of logic. Why are we so sure it's infallible when applied to esoteric math (or metaphysics) if it is merely an evolved way to get ahead in life?

I think this is the issue that Balfour is getting at, that is not directly addressed unless we have a fully realized specific candidate for the naturally selected neural algorithm for making "infallible" inferences, that explains why this algorithm should be so effective outside the realms in which it evolved.

So good luck fleshing out the mechanisms in the Neural Bayesian model...

Blue Devil Knight said...

JD, I adumbrated the sense in which symbolic systems acquire epistemic normativity above. We discover that certain inference patterns are better than others for preserving truth.

For instance:

Therefore, ~B

is not reliable. (A=it is raining, B=there are clouds in the sky). That is, we should not be convinced that the conclusion is true by the above argument.

Normative questions exist at two levels. First, what analogs of symbolic processes are occuring in our minds? Second, what are the best inferential strategies in our public symbol systems. It is an empirical question whether the two will match up.

Once we have discovered the strategies used by our minds, we can use them to generate predictions about errors people will tend to make, etc, using the much more powerful resources of mathematics.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Mike. I need to be clear about some distinctions I am making. Against JD, I was arguing that even if our cognitive mechanisms are not trustworthy, that is not all we have to go on. In fact, science is fundamentally social and relies on the kinds of symbol systems I was talking about. I leave open the possibility that our brains actually implement one of these symbol systems, which is the point I was making with the Bayes' nets stuff.

As for confidence that we can get things right, even when we go beyond simple perceptual reports ('There is a book on the table'), this may be true, but what are we to make of such confidence? I would imagine that an Uluguru tribesman is as confident in his animistic explanations of the weather, as we are in our modern-day explanations. It seems to me that our minds are pretty bad at judging how confident we should be when we extend our theories way past the evidence. We accept what our parents and other authorities say without question for many years (Santa Claus), we get persuaded by charismatic charlatans about quack remedies, etc.. The evidence and mathematically obsessed culture of science provides a pretty useful brake to our free-wheeling flights of imagination. It often leads to things quite at odds with our theoretical intuitions about the structure of the world (e.g., constancy of c in all reference frames, time dilation in general relativity, even F=ma).

JD Walters said...


"The evidence and mathematically obsessed culture of science provides a pretty useful brake to our free-wheeling flights of imagination. It often leads to things quite at odds with our theoretical intuitions about the structure of the world (e.g., constancy of c in all reference frames, time dilation in general relativity, even F=ma)."

Quite right. This is what G.K. Chesterton observes in "Orthodoxy" about the non-apparent character of the world:

“The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait”

And that is the dilemma of the naturalist. Aristotelian physics was a lot more intuitive than Newtonian physics, and quantum mechanics and relativity were even more flagrantly in opposition to our common sense. It is not just that evolution ensures a very pragmatic criterion of cognitive reliability, but that, even through social refinement and control there is no guarantee that we will reach the flatly counter-intuitive knowledge provided by modern science. And again you just assert that 'science works' to provide a brake to our free-wheeling imagination without giving any good reason WHY this should be so. Why should not science be yet another flight of fancy? You can only give a question-begging response from a naturalistic framework which presupposes a distinction between 'objective' knowledge and mere psychological construction and which also presupposes that humans can reliably tell the difference.

Even Henry Plotkin at the end of his book on Darwin Machines admits that the accuracy and precision with which we can elucidate the physical world would seem very unnatural to some people. But it is not unnatural if there is a rational Creator God and we are made in His image. That is to be expected under the theistic framework, and that is one of the many reasons why I think a theistic worldview is superior to naturalism.

Blue Devil Knight said...

JD, at this point I'm gonna refrain from repeating myself, as you are bringing up issues I've discussed in my already too numerous posts. Thanks for the discussion.

Mike Wiest said...


Just a slight clarification about "confidence." I'm talking about the justified confidence in, for example, axioms of mathematical physics, EVEN BEFORE THEY ARE VERIFIED EMPIRICALLY. As I said, the basic laws of logic, which you suggest may have evolved, seem never to have been wrong. As I pointed out, whenever it turns out that our confidence in some belief was wrong, we are able to recognize that our reasoning was wrong if we violated one of our most basic logical "instincts" or laws somewhere.

I asked, why should we be so confident they apply in the most esoteric and complex mathematical chains of reasoning, and why would we be RIGHT, as we have been many times in history when we followed the rules--if we just evolved expedient representations for particular circumstances of our prehistoric past?

It doesn't seem like quite enough to say, "these rules would obviously lead to more useful inferences and behavior, so they evolved." I think I require a more detailed model to be satisfied, which would make clear how mechanisms that evolved in a very limited set of circumstances, could be turned into virtual theory of everything, in a few generations.

Edward T. Babinski said...

From "collisions of atoms" to a brain-mind filled with conscious ideas in constant interactive movement. That's a question worth the scientific investigation of everything from colliding atoms to brain-minds and all things inbetween, i.e., every cell and animal in the loop so to speak.

But as a starting philosophical premise (i.e., "from colliding atoms to brain-minds") it is no wilder than any other premise. Supernaturalism presumes "from 'God stuff' to brain-minds," and we know less about "God stuff" than we do about colliding atoms. In both cases we are dealing with our present ignorance, not with "proofs" or "disproofs" of anything.

JD Walters said...

Nope. This is not about our present ignorance. Like I reminded BDK, this is about a consistently, clearly articulated philosophical position (atheistic evolutionary naturalism) pressed to its logical conclusion (skepticism about the deliverances of our intellect that go beyond mere survival and reproduction). Theism provides a good epistemological foundation for our scientific endeavors. Evolutionary naturalism does not, or at least not as good as theism.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Naturalists typically aren't in the business of providing 'foundations' for human knowledge. Since Quine and Sellars, we have embraced the fruitful rejection of this Cartesian project. There is no first philosophy. There is no privileged set of core beliefs that can provide a foundation for the rest of what we know.

The Cartesian, axiomatic, formal model of human knowledge is an anachronism (not too old, though: the Logical Positivists were subject to its call, as was Husserl). I can understand its pull: I think we all start our initial musings in things epistemological wishing to find epistemic bedrock upon which to rest our inference chains, as otherwise an infinite regress threatens. Fortunately, while there are circles in our web of belief, not all of them are vicious, and some of them are tethered to the world via data and evidence (though even data and evidence are subject to revision, for instance if my voltmeter needs calibration; also, the nature of the tethering is itself a subject of scientific study in studies of sensory systems).

It is a much less secure epistemic situation, to realize we start (and end) en media res, and that there is no unassailable epistemic fulcrum that will capture the human condition in its net. Where Cartesianism gets you is stuck in the "I think", trying to work your way out.

Rather than focus on what core beliefs we should 'start out with', the naturalist has focused more on the best methods to revise her beliefs in a way that maximizes some norms such as error-avoidance. Nowadays, this is done most fruitfully in probability and statistics, fields in which, ironically, most philosophers are not even trained.

JD Walters said...


You just don't get it, do you? You are right to recognize that naturalism provides no foundation for any beliefs. That's the point of the argument from reason. But you can't avoid first philosophy. How on earth can you revise beliefs without some idea of how to judge which beliefs need revising? Error-avoidance is a norm, in other words a truth-seeking activity.

And remember the old way of refuting the statement "there are no absolutes", by recognizing that that statement itself is absolute? That's exactly what you are trying to do. That's smuggling in epistemological capital which the naturalist does not have.

It takes the absolute knowledge that there is no supernatural reality or a valid epistemological foundation for our beliefs (such as God) to realize that we cannot have absolute knowledge. That is why naturalism is self-refuting.

Stick with your pragmatic, utilitarian view of science and knowledge if you will. But to be consistent you have to kiss metaphysics goodbye. There's no place for that in a naturalistic scheme. Your comments on this blog have convinced me of that.

This should make it clear that science offers no support for naturalism whatsoever. Naturalism is a faith position, just like its religious alternatives.

I'm going to have to drop this thread, because I think we are starting to repeat ourselves. But you have not convinced me that naturalism is immune from the argument from reason. On the contrary, by your concessions and compromises you have convinced me that the only way to defuse the argument from reason is to abandon reason itself.

Blue Devil Knight said...

You are right to recognize that naturalism provides no foundation for any beliefs.

I think your misunderstanding, JD, is that you conflate having foundations with having justifications for beliefs. There is an illicit jump from 'There are no bedrock beliefs' to 'There are no justified beliefs.' That this is a mistake was a key insight provided by Quine/Sellars. They realized that the pretensions of philosophers to ground knowledge in some core of claims, that can be known independently of science, and from which science somehow derives, is a Quixotic endeavor based on the phantom menace of an infinite regress.

This doesn't mean that certain claims are not more reliable than others (e.g., there is a real distinction between theory and evidence!). As we've all agreed, the information provided by sensory systems is a wonderful constraint, and science has turned this realization into the most productive (in terms of providing true and useful theories) set of methods for understanding the structure of the world, i.e., metaphysics.

The best introduction to these issues is in the book
Knowledge, Mind, and the Given
, an extended introduction to Sellars' seminal 'Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind', an essay which can also be found online here.

JD Walters said...

Here I go again. I've read some of Sellars' work and I just don't see it. I did not, strictly speaking, claim that if there is no foundation for beliefs there are no justified beliefs. But if all you have to go on to justify beliefs are the deliverances of the senses then the naturalist is a very poor position indeed. I take it the psychological work on cognitive illusions, bias in perception and selective attention has not escaped your attention. Evolutionary psychology reveals that we tend to systematically get things wrong and perform errors in estimation and reasoning for the sake of survival. That does not give confidence that sense-data are a good way to justify beliefs.

But let's grant that for a minute, that sense-data do provide a reliable way of justifying beliefs. Then you can only trust, as I have been arguing, the deliverances of the senses regarding the readily apparent character of the world. If your senses tell you that there is a tree in your path then you can reasonably trust your eyes' input and step around it. But anything beyond that would be highly suspect if you have no principles which allow you to extrapolate to unseen things, abstract theories and principles. Exercises in metaphysics become flights of fancy, no more tethered to reality than theology supposedly is.

I don't think you realize that the empiricist stance involves the rejection of metaphysics (see for example "The Empirical Stance" by Bas Van Fraasen). I already conceded in my last post that you can keep on doing science as a naturalist-just as long as you make no claims whatsoever, BASED ON SCIENCE, as to what is really real. Science is constantly subject to revision. If naturalism is to be identified with the deliverances of science, then it has gone through so many reincarnations that there is no recognizable body of positions which a naturalist can be consistently commited to. You might say that such commitment to revisability is part of the attractiveness of the naturalistic worldview. But that makes the naturalistic hypothesis trivial and void of any substantive meaning. It just says that you accept whatever science says-and that's scientism, and you cannot claim philosophical support for this position because you only have the resources provided by empiricism, which judging from psychology are very fallible indeed, more likely to get things wrong than right for the sake of survival, with no appeal to pre-scientific timbre for justification.

Like I said, if you want to view science like that, in an almost fideistic sense, that's fine with me. Just don't claim that naturalism offers a better justified and more solidly articulated worldview than theism. It seems that naturalism, in the sense that you describe it, is not even a worldview but more a research program (a la Lakatos), and in my view a very poorly motivated one at that. If that be the case then we're really not on the same page here. We're not even talking about the same thing.

If all the naturalist can do is evade (by avoiding the burden of proof based upon it by its rivals by declaring that some things don't really matter anyway) or concede (by acknowledging that naturalism has no foundation for belief), then no argument against naturalism will ever succeed, because it is such a shifting position that nothing substantive can be said about it anyway. It certainly poses no threat to theism.

Blue Devil Knight said...

JD, you argue like you are trying out for a job at the Discovery Institute, not earnestly looking for truth.

You haven't paid attention, or perhaps understood, my claims above. Public symbol systems are a key to getting past our innate sensory/cognitive take on the world, but you keep pointing out that such innate systems have some problems. I have addressed that. My above posts make this point multiple times, from multiple angles.

van Frassen is in the fringe of empiricism. Most modern empiricists are realists.

Some relevant classes to consider: Semantic Theory, Psychology of Rationality, Epistemology (coherentism vs foundationalism, hopefully with Quine and Sellars).

I would go for the BSE rather than the AB though, to be better prepared to engage with things as a scientist. I don't know how much flexibility there is.

JD Walters said...


You argue like you already have a job and don't really care about the truth anymore. As long as it works (in whatever sense of the word), you use it.

I have not misunderstood your point about public symbol systems. I acknowledge the fact that you are trying to answer the argument from reason in this way. I read all your posts carefully, but your logic doesn't add up. Your attempts to evade the challenge posed by the evolutionary argument against naturalism successively 1)tried to ground our belief forming cognitive faculties in our (presumably accurate) sensory systems, but when you saw that that in no way guarantees the reliability of our theoretical reasoning 2) you appeal to public symbol systems to somehow 'disengage' from the 'apparent' picture of the world but when you acknowledge that this can also extend to the aborigine's animistic view of nature, described no doubt in very sophisticated symbols and language, so does not guarantee the reliability of our scientific theories 3)you appeal to science and empiricism to 'winnow out' bad or purely imaginative theoretical constructs via a collective effort but when you admit that it presupposes a reliable way to sift out truth from error 4)you appeal to our collective situation and accuse me of invoking the threat of universal skepticism. You also try to jettison first philosophy, appeal to Bayesian probabilisitc nets and even point to the supposed failure of anti-naturalistic projects to justify clinging to a stifling metaphysical naturalism. Nothing in all this has led me to believe that naturalism provides a better epistemological foundation for theism. Indeed, with your concessions and relinquishment of ideas like truth has convinced me of just the opposite. No matter how you try to avoid it, a blind watchmaker is not a good foundation for epistemology.

You argue as if Quine and Sellars had given the last word in epistemology and metaphysics and that every other philosopher before or after them somehow got it all wrong. Quine and Sellars revealed for us THE TRUTH, and the truth shall set us free. Talk about complacency. If you cling to their views as gospel, that's fine with me. But you can hardly expect me to accept their views as universal and final. In fact, I very much disagree with a lot of what they argue.

I am taking neuroscience and philosophy of religion classes. Epistemology, psychology of rationality and all the rest are also in the cards. But as you no doubt have gathered from my other posts and my blog, I have already read an awful lot on all these subjects. I am not a humanities person with disdain for science. On the contrary, I am very scientifically minded which is why I am studying neuroscience. But I also believe that science on its own is not self-justifying, that whether people recognize it or not, it rests on meta-scientific assumptions and worldviews that are more or less coherent and robust. I have judged atheistic evolutionary naturalism inferior to Christian theism, and I believe that I have made that judgment based on sound consideration of all the evidence, including the writings of the naturalists themselves. You are free to disagree. No one ever said the argument from reason was a knock-down proof of the existence of God anyway, just that it gives a reasonable person some reasons for preferring theism over evolutionary naturalism.

And I'd appreciate it if you'd refrain from accusing me of not being interested in the truth in the future. It only lowers my opinion of you as a debater and fellow truth-seeker.

Blue Devil Knight said...

For every case in which we have come to understand a phenomenon thoroughly, it has turned out that deities weren't needed (e.g., meteorology, astronomy, muscle contraction, geology, etc).

You don't have to make a pessimistic induction over the history of supernatural explanations, but I think it isn't unreasonable at all to do so.

Of course, there are still lots of things science can't explain, for which scientific explanations are hard to imagine. This interesting psychological fact might turn out to turn on a metaphysical inadequacy of scientism. Or, it may turn out to be a boring result of our impoverished imaginations.

Rather than get all dogmatic, certain, and inflexible (the cornerstone of the Discovery Institute's strategy), we need to do more science. I think everyone should agree on that: to proclaim that our ignorance about something shows that naturalism is false is pretty weak. While I know you wouldn't agree that this is what you are doing, it is precisely what you are doing. You are predicting what you will think about what science has to say about some topic before the science is even close to done, hell, it's barely started.

It is quite an interesting coincidence that the phenomena on which the theists base their arguments are things which even naturalists will admit we don't understand very thoroughly (e.g., morality, consciousness, reason, free will).

This seems to be a foolish strategy. Why not pick something which the naturalist thinks we have a really good naturalistic explanation for, and show that they are wrong? E.g., muscle contraction, AIDS, planetary motions? At least in those cases, you'd have lots of concrete data upon which to make a more sound judgment, and perhaps even some predictions. As it is, we are left with people being really confident about what science cannot tell us, but paradoxically basing this on things which science is just starting to study.

JD Walters said...


Now who's repeating themselves? This is not about the science. This is not an appeal to ignorance. As I have stressed many times already, the argument from reason is an extrapolation from a clearly formulated, unambiguous version of naturalism to its logical conclusion, namely skepticism about the reliability of our cognitive faculties and the possibility of genuine rationality.

There is nothing mysterious about free will under naturalism. It simply doesn't exist. If the configuration of our brain from moment to moment is fully determined by the prior physical state of the brain, there can be no such thing as genuine rationality or moral responsibility, except by a fluke. I don't deal with questions of consciousness because nobody knows what the hell it is anyway.

There are two senses of 'naturalistic' which I think it is important to distinguish. If by naturalistic you mean an explanation for a phenomenon which is based on empirical evidence and regularity in nature, then I accept naturalistic explanations by all means. That's why I'm studying neuroscience because I'm interested in those kinds of explanations. But there is another sense of 'naturalistic', which says physical reality is the sum total of existence and there is no God or purpose to the Universe. It is the second sense which I am opposed to.

It is precisely because I think the naturalistic position (in the second sense) is dogmatic that I don't accept it. It goes against the spirit of scientific inquiry.

And I don't consider scientific explanations for AIDS, planetary motions, etc. triumphs for scientific naturalism, not by a long shot. And besides, the discovery of planetary motion was made by Christian scholars who believed that reason was a gift of God and that by studying creation they could learn something of the Mind of God (such as Galileo, Kepler, etc.). If anything, planetary motion was a triumph of Christian theistic rationality. Only subsequently did science become detached from its theistic context.

You are right that scientific explanations do not make mention of God. But when you start to ask questions such as, why is science so successful at explaining various phenomena, why we find ourselves in such a rich reality of experience, etc. it is very possible that the theistic explanation is the simplest and most elegant (cf Swinburne, The Existence of God).

This is not about what science cannot explain. We are looking for a meta-theory to explain why science explains. It is precisely the opposite of an appeal to ignorance. It is an appeal to what we already understand and why our search for truth has been so effective. The Christian finds God in what we have discovered as much as in what remains to be discovered.

Blue Devil Knight said...



More stupid web-isms.





My grandmother was a Christian Scientist. Now there is one philosophy that goes full tilt against the naturalist canon, straight on. No shifting or hemming/hawing: flat out, medical science is wrong. That's what I'm looking for.

I think, if the antinaturalists are ever going to be taken seriously, they need to take on similarly established canons, and stop firing at the fringes of science. I'd like to see the nonnaturalist explaination of AIDS.

Show me the gods in your physics textbooks. I'm not talking about the psychology of theory generation. Kekule dreamt the solution to the structure of hexane in a couple of snakes sucking each other's tails. That's fine. But nobody thinks that hexene is anything but a physical phenomenon. Anything else is explanitorily invisible in science.

I could be convinced by evidence that I am wrong. Flat-out crazy big-ass undeniable miracles. Dead people coming to life, telling me that I better become a Christian because they have seen the afterlife. That would make me a Christian. Pretty fast. And if such things happened regularly, science would undergo a radical transformation.

But such things don't happen, and science merely reflects this fact. It would only be a dogma if science stopped modifying its doctrines in the light of good evidence that it is on the wrong track with naturalism.