Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Exbeliever on the Argument from Reason

A lot of people seem to want me to take a swing at Exbeliever's response to my argument from reason. I should begin by saying that I didn't invent the argument. It was most famously defended by a Christian apologist that Exbeliever can be perhaps be excused for never having heard of, C. S. Lewis. A version of the argument can be found in the book Scaling the Secular City by another obscure apologist by the name of J. P. Moreland. And there's a really obscure philosopher from the University of Notre Dame who has developed what is known as the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, which bears a family resemblance to the arguments from reason that I defend. His name is Alvin Plantinga.

In general, the argument makes a distinction between naturalistic world-view, in which the fundamental entities of the universe lack mental characteristics (atoms, or maybe something else, but not something that at all resembles a mind), and world-views such as theism, but also pantheism and absolute idealism, according to which the fundamental causes of the universes are mental, or as Lewis would say, more like a mind than anything else. The argument from reason, if successful, gives us a good reason to suppose that one of the mentalistic world-views must be true and that naturalism is false. It is designed to enhance the likelihood that theism is true by eliminating some alternatives, alternatives that are in fact the most popular non-theistic world-views.

It's a good idea to look at what happened in Lewis's own case to see how the argument contributed to his coming to belief in God. Lewis had been what was then called a "realist", accepting the world of sense experiece and science as rock-bottom reality. Largely through conversations with Owen Barfield, he became convinced that this world-view was inconsistent with the claims we make on behalf of our own reasoning processes. In response to this, however, Lewis became not a theist but an absolute idealist. It was only later that Lewis rejected absolute idealism in favor of theism, and only after that that he became a Christian. He describes his discussions with Barfield as follows:

(He) convinced me that the positions we had hitherto held left no room for any satisfactory theory of knowledge. We had been, in the technical sense of the term, “realists”; that is, we accepted as rock-bottom reality the universe revealed to the senses. But at the same time, we continued to make for certain phenomena claims that went with a theistic or idealistic view. We maintained that abstract thought (if obedient to logical rules) gave indisputable truth, that our moral judgment was “valid” and our aesthetic experience was not just pleasing but “valuable.” The view was, I think, common at the time; it runs though Bridges’ Testament of Beauty and Lord Russell’s “Worship of a Free Man.” Barfield convinced me that it was inconsistent. If thought were merely a subjective event, these claims for it would have to be abandoned. If we kept (as rock-bottom reality) the universe of the sense, aided by instruments co-ordinated to form “science” then one would have to go further and accept a Behaviorist view of logic, ethics and aesthetics. But such a view was, and is, unbelievable to me.

C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (San Diego, Harcourt Brace, 1955), 208.

So did the argument he accepted make theism more likely? It certainly did. In his mind it gave him a reason to reject his previously-held naturalism. Now you might think of Absolute Idealism an atheistic world view; I don't think you would want to call pantheism atheistic, but the argument runs a reductio absurdum against non-mentalistic world-views.

Consider the following argument:

1. Either the fundamental causes of the universes are more like a mind than anything else, or they are not.
2. If they are not, then we cannot make sense of the existence of reason.
3. All things being equal, world-views that cannot make sense of the existence of reason are to be rejected in favor of world-views that can make sense of the existence of reason.
4. Therefore, we have a good reason to reject all worldviews reject the claim that the fundamental causes of the universe are more like a mind than anything else.

Now if you want to hold out the idea that a idealist world-view is nevertheless atheistic, then my argument merely servces to eliminate one of the atheistic options. But suppose someone originally thinks that the likelihoods are as follows.

Naturalism 50% likely to be true.
Idealism 25% likely to be true.
Theism 25% likely to be true.

And suppose that someone accepts a version of the argument from reason, and as a result naturalism drops 30 percentage points. Then those points have to be divided amongst theism and idealism. So the status of theism is enhanced by the argument from reason.

Exbeliever writes:

Notice that the skeptic is simply to assume that something like a god can exist and after assuming this, it can be posited as an explanation of a phenomenon like reason. Much like presuppositionalism and its TAG argument, Reppert demands that the skeptic presuppose the most controversial aspect of his worldview (i.e. the existence of a non-corporal being who reasons without a physical brain) and then accept this presupposition as a valid "solution" to a "problem" of epistemology.

Now we have to tease out what he means by can. If "can" means logically possible, then all I need to show that is that there is no contradiction in the assertion "God exists." And I think that's pretty clear. If on the other hand, he means "it is plausible that God exists," well, the plausibility of a belief differs from person to person. There is no person-independent way of assessing antecedent probabilities, at least as I see it. So yes, if someone thinks that the existence of God is hopelessly implausible, he might conclude either that there must be some naturalistic understanding of the phenomenon of reason that has not yet been discovered, or he can conclude that some non-theistic mentalistic world-view must be true. But that does not alter the fact that the argument provides a substantial reason for believing in God. I have never said that the argument is absolutely decisive, in fact I have disappointed some supports of the argument with the modesty with which I present my arguments.

In EXB's discussion of the explanations for computer malfunctions, it seems we have a reason for preferring computer sprites to infallible designers. If these really are the only options, then evilcomputerspiritism must be accepted. It's just that we all know perfectly well that there are more alternatives, and the most plausible explanations are not on the table. So the argument is a false dilemma. In the case of my argument, where are the "third alternatives" other than what I have identified, namely, pantheism and idealism?

EXB writes: What Reppert has done in his argument is hidden the fact that the idea of a god, itself, must be plausible if it is to be called on as a "solution" to an epistemological "problem." To solve an extraordinary problem, he has posited an even more extraordinary solution. Simply having any old "solution" does not make a worldview superior to one that can offer no solution. The solution, itself, must be plausible; otherwise, it is simply magnifying the problem of the existence of a phenomenon by requiring justification of the existence of an even greater phenomenon.

Now here, instead of saying that the existence of God needs to be possible, he is now saying that it needs to be plausible. But of course I am trying to render it plausible by attempting to show that it makes sense of reason. In doing so I am at least attempting to enhance the plausibility of theism. So to say that I must first show that the existence of God is plausible before I can present an argument that the existence of God is plausible is to involve me in an infinite regress. EXB is just begging the question here.

As for what is "oustide my experience" the existence of an external physical world is, strictly speaking, outside my experience, in that it is consistent with all my experiences that there is no external world and that I am a brain in a vat being given experiences of objects that have no external reference. In other words, it is perfectly possible for me to have the relevant experiences in a world in which the objects do not exist, just as it is possible for me, after using a liberal amount of Jack Daniels to be, as philosophers would say, "appeared to red-goatly" even if there is no red goat in my presence. So EXB's burden of proof argument is a road to radical skepticism about a lot more than just religion.

I will leave EXB"s criticisms my critique of materialism for another occasion, pointing out only that I have dealt in some detail with criticisms of the various arguments from reason on this blog, including those of Richard Carrier. In fact, I redated three of those responses to the past month.


JD Walters said...

Dr Reppert and exbeliever,

First of all, I think if exbeliever had studied science he would have noticed that in science we are forced all the time to accept 'solutions' to problems posed by the data that appear at first sight to be very implausible. Who would have accepted wave/particle duality, or quantum probabilities, or more recently superstrings and higher dimensions if there were not some real quandary with the current physical models? Rejecting a solution to a problem because it is counter-intuitive or seemingly implausible is not good science or (by extension) good metaphysics. Also, exbeliever is forgetting that God does not only 'solve' the problem of reason, but also makes sense of a huge variety of other phenomena, including morality, religious experience, miracles, the order of nature, etc. That's what makes Christian theology such a successful 'theory of everything'. As C.S. Lewis said, "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen; not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else".

That said, a simple appeal to Pinker and Chomsky's research won't help very much here, because their findings PRESUPPOSE that mental content can be instantiated in physical structures like the brain and furthermore also presuppose that mental states cause other mental states by virtue of their propositional content. Which metaphysical system best explains and supports Pinker's findings is still an open question. Remember we're not dealing here with empirical questions, as I tried to explain to Blue Devil Knight in our exchange on the argument from reason, but with meta-scientific questions of epistemology and metaphysics. Science makes the assumption that reality is orderly and comprehensible by human beings. It is up to the metaphysician to consider whether these assumptions can be soundly and reasonably made and if so which metaphysics best supports these assumptions.

HiveMaker said...

Why does beer work?

John W. Loftus said...

JD Walters PRESUPPOSE. This is the operative word here for both sides. What makes one person presuppose one thing which causes him to fit the facts into that presupposition in the first place, and vice versa? As I have argued and will argue again soon (probably in a scholarly journal), it's because of when and where we were born to an overwhelming degree. And so I propose that skepticism should be our presumption when it comes to God. This skepticism is based on the Outsider Test for faith. See my Blog.

James Anderson said...

Reppert: "EXB is just begging the question here."

This is exactly right. EXB's claim that AFR fails on account of the prior implausibility of theism is just an attempt to bypass the substantial philosophical issues on which AFR trades. Moreover, even if EXB were correct regarding the plausibility of theism, isn't it evident that even an implausible worldview that can account for the preconditions of human reasoning is rationally preferable to any worldview that undermines those preconditions?

As for EXB's materialist narrative, he is essentially claiming that the laws of logic supervene on biological facts, specifically, facts about the origin and structure of our brains ("logic supervenes on this linguistic biology"). But then it follows that the laws of logic are merely contingent rather than necessary (since all biological facts are contingent facts), and merely descriptive of human thought rather than normative for human thought (since biology is a purely descriptive discipline). Indeed, EXB states as much: "I would say that logical laws are how we think..." (emphasis added). That is, EXB holds that the laws of logic are concerned with how we do think rather than how we should think; and what we humans take to be 'logical' or otherwise is effectively an accident of our evolutionary history.

Such conclusions place EXB squarely in the camp of Rorty and other epistemological anti-realists. If this is the philosophical fruit of materialism, EXB is welcome to it. But I'd venture that it does little to enhance the plausibility of materialism vis-a-vis theism.

John W. Loftus said...

I am finding that logic doesn't help us in the quest for metaphysical truths, anyway.

We use logic in the service of our faith, it is not the reverse. Logic does not lead to God, for instance. What you believe about God leads you to your view of logic.

Take for instance this modus ponens:

If (P)Elvis is dead then (Q)Bush is the president of the USA.


.: Q

But the question here is whether the first premise is a non-sequitor. How do we decide if someone says that's what he believes because of a dream he had or that God makes the connection? What then? How do you use reason to deny this?

And what do you say to the pantheist who will choke out a koan in response to any of your logical questions?

And what do you say to the atheist who believes logic is biologically based? There's no logic that can change his mind if he has different presuppositions, just like there is no logic that can change your minds either.

What one thinks about logic is a worldview issue. When you use your view of logic to defend the existence of your God in the AFR, all you're doing is spelling out the implications of your worldview when it comes to logic.

In essence what you're saying is that if your God exists, then this is how we should view logic.

If God is everything (pantheist) or if there is no God at all (atheist), then they have differing views of logic.

So the real question is as exbeliever has posed: what is the reason for believeing in God in the first place? Because it all hinges on whether or not God exists.

And my particular attack on religious faiths is to consider how we gained out presuppositions in the first place. We do so because of when and where we were born. Go here and scroll down to the Outsider Test, to see yourself. This is the biggest background factor of all when it comes to religious faiths..when and where we were born. So basically you're using an accident of geography to adopt your view of logic, and that's it.

In my opinion the "accidents of birth" lead me to agnosticism, and agnosticism leads inexorably to atheism.

James Anderson said...


I am finding that logic doesn't help us in the quest for metaphysical truths, anyway.

Well, kudos for coming clean on that. ;)

When you use your view of logic to defend the existence of your God in the AFR, all you're doing is spelling out the implications of your worldview when it comes to logic.

Defenders of AFR, like Dr Reppert, aren't appealing to some peculiarly theistic view of logic. Rather, they're appealing to widely-held prephilosophical intuitions about human reason and logic: intuitions shared by philosophers from all religious traditions and none.

So basically you're using an accident of geography to adopt your view of logic, and that's it.

If that's the case, then so are you and all your secularist colleagues. Nice work! By your own lights, you've just transformed all the "logical argumentation" of Debunking Christianity into little more than a public display of Western atheistic introspection. :)

John W. Loftus said...

I've made a post out of my last comment here to show a public display of Western atheistic introspection.

Prephilosophical intuitions also tell the uninformed that they can see and hear true reality. But any philosophically minded person knows reality is filtered through our particular human senses. So what's your point?

If that's the case, then so are you and all your secularist colleagues.

Yes, I'll admit this. But such an admission leads to agnosticism, and agnosticism about metaphysical truths leads inexorably to atheism.

The Discomfiter said...

Yes, my teacher John Loftus is giving the theists hell!

John told Anderson when it was pointed out that atheism is, according to my teacher, the result of cultural bias,

"Yes, I'll admit this. But such an admission leads to agnosticism, and agnosticism about metaphysical truths leads inexorably to atheism."

But above John, my teacher, said this:

"I am finding that logic doesn't help us in the quest for metaphysical truths, anyway."

See, above he tried to employ logic to "metaphysical truths" (e.g., *leads* to) but then below says logic isn't helpful in finding metaphysical truth. So, agnosticism *leads* to the metaphysical truth that God does not exist, or that he probably doesn't, or whatever.

I love it when my master denigrates logic for his benefit and then elevates it for his benefit. My teacher truly can both have his cake and eat it too!

James Anderson said...


Prephilosophical intuitions also tell the uninformed that they can see and hear true reality. But any philosophically minded person knows reality is filtered through our particular human senses. So what's your point?

I dare say any philosophically minded person will observe that there's no obvious conflict between the claim that we "can see and hear true reality" and the claim that "reality is filtered through our particular human senses". In other words, the truth of the second claim doesn't entail the falsity of the first (at least, not on any plausible reading of those claims). So what's your point?

Did you mean to imply that you deny that human sense experience is generally veridical? Where does that leave all your empirical arguments against Christianity?

Yes, I'll admit this. But such an admission leads to agnosticism, and agnosticism about metaphysical truths leads inexorably to atheism.

Your admission leads not so much to agnosticism and atheism as to a self-stultifying socio-cultural relativism. Once you've taken that road, your advocacy of agnosticism and atheism enjoys no more rational significance, in any interesting public sense, than other autobiographical details such as your zip code and favourite bedtime beverage.

If you deny objective, culture-transcending standards of rationality, as you seem intent on doing, then you deny one of the preconditions of rational debate. How one goes about "debunking Christianity" in such an epistemological atmosphere isn't wholly clear. But perhaps you'll concede that you were always preaching to the (de)converted!

John W. Loftus said...

Your admission leads not so much to agnosticism and atheism as to a self-stultifying socio-cultural relativism.

Sure it does, because now I need to come up with the best explanation for this state of affairs. And the best explanation for this state of affairs is that this universe is a brute fact incapable of being understood based upon the initial assumption that there is a reason for its existence. But upon second thought, the best assumption is that chance explains it, since chance cannot be explained.

Let me put it to you this way so you can better understand. Let's say there isn't a rational explanation for the existence of the universe. None. Then to look for it is to be frustrated and to be at your rational wits' end. No explanation seems to account for all the data. That's epistemological agnosticism. But when I try to explain this agnosticism the best answer that accounts for it is atheism. So from now on, we just do the best we can do.

Your problem, Dr. Anderson, is the same as mine. Yet, you won't acknowledge it, because like most Christian apologists you have a fortress mentality, and your mission is to save those on the inside.

Your problem is how to account for the everlasting existence of a 3 in 1 omnisicient God (who consequently never learned anything and cannot weigh alternatives through the prosess of thinking), who cannot be free to choose his own morality, and who didn't choose the standards of reason either.

Your God must either have a higher standard of reasonableness that he adheres to (hence God isn't the standard), or he can make reasonable whatever he wants to make reasonable--the Euthyphro as applied to reason.

You see, whatever you criticize me for, I can criticize your God for. If I don't have an absolute standard for logic, then neither do you have one in your God. You claim the high road in that you assume you do, but that claim falls to pieces.

HiveMaker said...

I'm still waiting for someone who claims to be a "non-naturalist" to explain to me why beer works.

exbeliever said...


Unfortunately, I'm packing up my computer in a few hours for a cross-country move. I can only respond briefly.

The point of my post was to demonstrate that worldviews cannot be weighed on one issue. You say that Christian theism "makes sense" of reason and because it "makes sense" of reason it is preferrable to a worldview that does not "make sense" of reason.

I pointed out that a truly silly worldview can "make sense" of that phenomenon, but that still would not mean that that worldview is preferrable to any other. What is important is how your worldview "makes sense" of reason. To do so, it posits some kind of "magical" answer. It posits an extraordinary being that I have no reason to believe in.

You say that it is begging the question to say there is no reason to believe in an extraordinary being when I am, presumably, being given a reason to believe in this extraordinary being. The problem is that the nature of your extraordinary being is that it can be used to "explain" any phenomenon.

"Gee, why is that bumblebee yellow and black?" God did it.

"Why do humans breath air?" God did it.

Because your god is a "magical" being, any phenomena can be explained in reference to him. Any phenomena can be explained by any magical being if one grants that being enough power.

"Explanations," then, are shallow given the nature of the magical being you posit as an "answer." What is extraordinary about a magical being is not that it can easily explain any phenomenon, but it's existence per se. Anything can be "explained" by magic/supernatural powers. These "explanations" are cheap, however, given the highly unusual "pill" one has to swallow to accept it.

More should be said . . .

Don Jr. said...


First, you're either being condescending or not taking the issue seriously (which is about the same thing) when you refer to the Christian God as a "magical being." A leprechaun is a magical being. God is not a leprechaun. A wizard is a magical being. God is not a wizard; He doesn't have a wand. A few days back you asked why no theist would respond to you. Now, I don't doubt your sincerity in this discussion and you seem like a rational guy, but when you refer to the theistic God as a "magical being" I don't think you should then question why no theist would engage in discussion with you. On the other hand, if you honestly think God a "magical being" then you just have a confused theological perspective and again discussion would be futile. I'm all for serious, honest discussion; but I'm not (and I would think that neither are you) for wasting time in conversation with others who won't even take one's beliefs seriously. I doubt you would engage—or at least engage seriously—in discussion with some "fundy" who thinks that all atheists are devil worshipers.

I say all that not to chastise you (though it may seems that way), but in order that we, or you and others, might engage in serious discussion rather than condescending back-and-forths. Honestly, it is more of a compliment than anything else, because there are a lot of non-theists (and theists) who I don't even think it worth my, or anybody's, time to respond to because they seem so blinded by their own cherished opinions. You (and I hope I'm right about this) do not seem to be that sort of individual.

All of that aside, let me respond to your last post now. I think it is very important to note the second paragraph of Dr. Reppert's (or "Vic's") original blog entry. I do not want to waste space by quoting the entire thing here, so I will just hope that you will re-read it (it is not long). In essence what Vic says there is that the aim of the argument from reason is to prove that mind, not matter, is fundamental to the universe. If correct, this lends support to worldviews, such as theism, in which mind is fundamental (Vic refers to these as "mentalistic world-views").

You say that worldviews cannot be weighed on one issue. Now, in interpreting that, I will take that to mean (though correct me if I'm wrong) that worldviews can't be selected or chosen on one issue. I completely agree with that. But I do think worldviews can, and must, be weighed on particular issues. It's sort of, if not exactly, like process of elimination. When one does not know the answer directly (and in the question of worldviews, of the nature of reality, we do not directly know) then one must use process of elimination to narrow the choices down. One does not select a certain option based on a singular issue. I would absolutely agree with that. But one can, and must, weigh (and even eliminate) certain options based on a singular issue. If the question is "When was George Washington born?" although, by knowing that he was born in the 1700s, I cannot select a specific option I can at least eliminate any options not in that category.

And that is the point of the argument from reason. If it can be shown that mind is fundamental to reality then, while one cannot, based solely on that, choose theism over pantheism (or any mentalistic worldview over another), one can at least eliminate the worldviews that are not mentalistic. Or even if one can show that reason only "makes sense" in particular worldviews and not in others, then one ought to prefer the former to the latter. That would then imply that any mentalistic worldview, while it cannot be selected outright based solely on this one issue, would at least be preferable to any non-mentalistic (or mechanistic) worldview since the mechanistic worldviews would have been eliminated as viable options. Similarly, in keeping with my analogy, one would prefer 1742 (though in the end it is not the correct answer) to 2005 as a response to "When was George Washington born?"

I make note of this because you say, "The point of my [Exbeliever's] post was to demonstrate that worldviews cannot be weighed on one issue." As I discussed, I agree with that if "weighed" is replaced with "chosen." But if your point was that the argument from reason does no good for Christian theism, I disagree. If sound, then not only does it lend support to mentalistic worldviews of which Christian theism is one but it also eliminates all non-mentalistic worldviews, or at least those which cannot account for reason. (Important Note: Whether or not the argument from reason is a sound argument is not my concern here in this particular comment. Also, I apologize for the length of this post.)

HiveMaker said...

"First, you're either being condescending or not taking the issue seriously (which is about the same thing) when you refer to the Christian God as a "magical being." A leprechaun is a magical being. God is not a leprechaun. A wizard is a magical being. God is not a wizard; He doesn't have a wand. A few days back you asked why no theist would respond to you. Now, I don't doubt your sincerity in this discussion and you seem like a rational guy, but when you refer to the theistic God as a "magical being" I don't think you should then question why no theist would engage in discussion with you. On the other hand, if you honestly think God a "magical being" then you just have a confused theological perspective and again discussion would be futile."

If someone who turns sticks into snakes, animates clay golems, can't bear to see his name spelled, cures blindness with mud, revels in blood sorcery, possesses flaming shrubbery, and communes with his followers via ritual cannibalism is not a "magical being" then I submit that the phrase "magical being" has no meaning.

Don Jr. said...


If you want to refer to God as a "supernatural being" or a "mysterious being," be my guess. Either is perfectly legitimate. (Even if you want to refer to Him as a "magical being," be my guess; but then, don't be surprised if no one takes you seriously, just as a person who referred to all atheists as "demon worshippers" would not be taken seriously.)

Magic is associated with fiction. Magic isn't real. By referring to God as a "magical being," one, it seems to me, is (from the start) making an implicit claim about the reality of God or the works of God. If by referring to God as a "magical being" one simply means that He can do inexplicable works then, for clarity's sake, it would better to refer to Him as a "mysterious being," due to all the negative connotations associated with "magical." This is similar to the fact that one would refer to an African-American as either an African-American or a black person (and even that might be "politically incorrect" these days) rather than calling him or her a Negro or that other N word, due to the negative connotations associated with the latter terms. You're of course free to do what you like, just don't be shocked if no theists take you seriously if you refer to their God as a "magical being."

HiveMaker said...

Magic "is associated with fiction"? That's the argument?

Unlike you, people like Mr. Reppert and I are able to set aside our metaphysical prejudices and not leap to the conclusion that because something is described as beyond the norm of the natural, it must therefore impliedly be fictional.


1. The art that purports to control or forecast natural events, effects, or forces by invoking the supernatural.
1. The practice of using charms, spells, or rituals to attempt to produce supernatural effects or control events in nature.
2. The charms, spells, and rituals so used.
3. The exercise of sleight of hand or conjuring for entertainment.
4. A mysterious quality of enchantment: “For me the names of those men breathed the magic of the past” (Max Beerbohm).


1. Of, relating to, or invoking the supernatural: “stubborn unlaid ghost/That breaks his magic chains at curfew time” (John Milton).
2. Possessing distinctive qualities that produce unaccountable or baffling effects.

I ask again: in what sense of the word "magical" is Yahweh not a magical being?

JD Walters said...


Yahweh is not magical in all the senses you give except one: that He produces baffling, mysterious effects. All the others are definitely not what Christians are talking about when they refer to God. We do not believe in God in order to control nature or others. We believe in God because we are responding to an invitation to enter a loving relationship with the 'ground of being'. I don't see that magic in any of the senses you give can properly be applied to God as Christians understand Him.

Don Jr. said...


What I said wasn't an argument. Whether it is okay to refer to God as a "magical being" or not is the last thing I'm going to "argue" about. If you want to refer to him as a magical being be my guess. My only point was that if you are using magical as a synonym for supernatural or mysterious then it would be better to use one of the latter terms simply for clarity's sake. Other than to say that (and other than agreeing with what JD said in his last post), I have no desire to argue with you over this trivial matter. Call God what you like. Call him a donkey if you wish. I'd much rather discuss the actual subject of this entry, namely, the argument from reason. For that it looks like I'll just have to wait until Exbeliever gets back.

HiveMaker said...

So it is the position of JD and Don that Yahweh does not turn sticks into snakes, animate clay golems, cure blindness with mud, revel in blood sorcery, possess flaming shrubbery, or commune with his followers via ritual cannibalism?

This is a very simple, plain English, yes or no question.

Edward T. Babinski said...

THE QUESTIONS BELOW ARE FROM THE ARTICLE, "The Tyranny of Common Sense" by the British philosopher David Papineau, author of The Roots of Reason: Philosophical Essays on Rationality, Evolution, and Probability, and, Thinking about Consciousness (Oxford University Press).

To quote Papineau:

Philosophical conservatism is especially rife in one of my own specialities, the philosophy of mind. This is an area where there is plenty of scope to query common sense. Everyday thinking embodies a rich structure of assumptions about the mind, and it is by no means clear that all these assumptions are sound. In particular, there are many recent scientific findings that cast substantial doubt on our intuitive view of the mind. For a start, take Benjamin Libet's work on the genesis of actions. Libet's experiments indicate that, at least when it comes to basic bodily movements, our conscious choices occur a full third of a second after neural activity in the brain begins to prompt the behaviour. This certainly casts doubt on our intuitive conviction that our actions are instigated by our conscious choices. Again, the work of David Milner and Melvyn Goodale on the separation of the dorsal and ventral streams in visual processing (the “where” and “what” streams) suggests that our basic bodily movements aren't guided by our conscious visual awareness but by some more basic mechanism. And then there are the many experiments on “change blindness”. These show that we often fail to see large visible changes occurring right in front of us, and so question the intuitive compelling idea that we are aware of pretty much everything within our field of vision.

However, when philosophers come across this kind of work, they don't view it as an exciting challenge to the everyday view of the mind. Rather, their first reaction is to distrust the interpretation of the scientific experiments. In their view, there is no way that our everyday view of the mind can be threatened by scientific findings. Our intuitive conception of the mind is sacrosanct, so there must be something wrong with scientific arguments that cast doubt on it.

Sometimes this resistance is rationalised by positing a principled distinction between “personal level” claims about the mind and “sub-personal” accounts of the mechanisms operating in the brain. The idea is that science can tell us about the sub-personal level, but the personal level is something that we need to find out about by commonsensical means. But this distinction seems a desperate device. Of course, there can be differences in the grain of different descriptions of any system, and we should not suppose that interesting claims about the parts will automatically translate into interesting claims about the whole. But we can agree about this without adopting the unmotivated and indefensible view that our intuitive large-scale picture of the mind is somehow insulated against any threat from scientific findings.

I myself have recently become interested in a rather different way in which recent scientific findings threaten to overturn our everyday view of the world. Here the evidence comes from quantum mechanics rather than psychological research...the full article appears in this month's issue of The Philosophers Magazine


Professor Colin McGinn is a fascinating British philosopher whose work focuses on philosophy of mind, ethics, and philosophical logic. He was recently interviewed on Moyers's new program, "Bill Moyers's on Faith and Reason," which can be seen here. As well as being interviewed by Jonathan Miller in the summer of 2003 for the series "Atheism - A Rough History Of Disbelief," the transcript of which can be read here.

McGinn is the leading proponent of the "New Mysterianism," namely, that a full understanding of the mind-brain identity might never be achieved. His classic paper on the topic is available online: McGinn, C. (1989), "Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem?" One difficulty with solving the problem he mentions is that, "Consciousness does not seem made up out of smaller spatial processes; yet perception of the brain seems limited to revealing such processes." McGinn also acknowledges a debt to Nagel who pointed out the ineffability of bat experience, which McGinn used as an analogy in his article. According to Nagel, we can never really grasp what it's like to be a bat; some aspects of bathood are, as McGinn might put it, perceptually closed to us. Now if all our ideas stemmed directly from our perceptions (as is the case for a 'Humean' mind), this would mean that we suffered cognitive closure [or blindness] in respect to some ideas ('batty' ones, we could say). Of course, we're not in fact limited to ideas that stem directly from perceptions; we can infer the existence of entities we can't directly perceive. But McGinn says this doesn't help. In explaining physical events, you never need to infer non-physical entities, and in analysing phenomenal experience you never need anything except phenomenal entities. So we're stuck. (To quote someone's analysis of McGinn's view.)

McGinn is also mentioned in the following online philosophy of mind articles:

Nicholson, Mr D.M. (2005) From a Flaw in the Knowledge Argument to a Physicalist Account of Qualia.

Lazarov, Georgi (2003) Materialism and the problem of consciousness: The aesthesionomic approach.

Nicholson, Dennis (2003) Solving the Mind-Body Problem - The Real Significance of the Knowledge Argument.

Carruthers, Peter (2002) Consciousness: explaining the phenomena. Naturalism, Evolution and Mind..

Harnad, Stevan (2001) Explaining the Mind: Problems, Problems. The Sciences.

Harnad, Stevan (2001) No Easy Way Out. The Sciences.

Carruthers, Peter (2000) The evolution of consciousness. Evolution and the human mind: modularity, language and meta-cognition.

Harnad, Stevan (2000) Correlation vs. Causality: How/Why the Mind/Body Problem Is Hard. Journal of Consciousness Studies.

Humphrey, Nicholas (2000) How to solve the mind-body problem. Journal of Consciousness Studies.

Also of note is McGinn's university homepage which features a link to his online book, "Principia Metaphysica" that contains some intriguing paragraphs. McGinn seems to be aiming for a poetic form of philosophical discourse that sums up his view of life the universe and everything, but also recognizes the limitations of both philosophical language and human understanding. Note especially his mention of "intentionality" and "consciousness" in the final paragraph below:

23. I want to say outright that laws necessarily come before everything, even God—but that is not quite right (though sometimes hyperbole serves sobriety). It is as if the laws of the world were the first item on God’s agenda, and once they were settled a lot else was too. The laws that govern God are an embarrassment to him, like wearing a low-ranking uniform; he wishes he could throw them off. But without them he is nothing, a pure untrammeled ego, a frictionless point, a featureless receptacle—a metaphysical vacuum. The laws of God would apply to other gods with his nature; he is subsumed by his laws. The idea of the supernatural is not scientifically dubious; it is metaphysically incoherent. Any object consists of law-governed stuff—so where is there room for the supernatural (in the sense of an object subject to no law—or to “quasi-laws”)? Try to conceive of a universe in which every object is supernatural. Supernatural compared to what? We think we have the idea of the absolutely free agent, a pure lawless will, a nomologically transcendent I--but without laws there is no nature, and hence no object. Of course, there is no contradiction in the idea of another kind of stuff “ectoplasm”) subject to other types of law; but this is really the idea of another order of nature. No object could participate only in miracles, if a miracle is defined as an exception to natural laws. (A law is actually the nearest thing to a miracle that we have.)

24. Laws are produced by nothing but produce everything. Laws do not impose order on the world, as if the world were a disorderly place till they came along. Can you rely on laws of nature? Not as you rely on the word of a trusted friend. Laws are formative, not merely reliable or predictively useful. The sun may not rise tomorrow—it may be blown out of the sky by powerful aliens. But this is no abrogation of the laws of nature. To abrogate the laws of nature would be to have no sun to begin with. Obviously, laws do not govern the universe in the way a political party governs a country, and yet this dual use of “govern” invites illusions of independence. It would probably be best to re-invent our entire vocabulary for talking about laws.

25. “Laws + stuff = objects”: not such a bad way to put it. “Laws are made manifest in objects and events”: yes, but that doesn’t mean they acquire reality that way. “Objects instantiate laws”: true, but not as objects instantiate predicates (one wants to make a distinction here between internal and external instantiation.) “Objects have laws running through them”: better, metaphorically--and how metaphorical is “instantiate” anyway? Compare: “objects ‘respect’ laws”.) If there were no laws, there would only be raw stuff—and that is impossible. Raw stuff is like the unarticulated given—a kind of contradiction. Stuff must come in the form of objects, as thoughts must come in the form of intentionality (rough analogy). Lawless stuff is like James’s “blooming, buzzing confusion”—a trick of language. Stuff, objects and laws come in a seamless package--as consciousness and intentionality do. There is no shaping of a pre-existing reality. (Remember that all analogies have their limitations.) Physical atoms are anything but formless; they are the parts of objects—not their stuff. God’s three major acts of creation—stuff, objects and laws—are really just one. Conceptual distinctions are not ontological distinctions.

JD Walters said...

Once again the Babinski torrent of quotations...and what on earth does all this have to do with the present discussion of the argument from reason? Notice I say present discussion because all this IS relevant in its own way to some of the facets of the AFR that Vic Reppert deals with in his book...but here we were discussing the legitimacy of invoking theism as a 'solution' to an epistemological problem. The latest attempts by Carruthers, et. al. are certainly not relevant here.

And by the way, I deliberately choose not to comment on Hivemaker's insipid "yes or no" question. His misreading of I, Vic Reppert's and Don Blow's points is too obvious to merit further elaboration.

HiveMaker said...

Is that the sound of the cock crowing? I could have sworn I'd heard that twice before. Oh dear, here comes the sunrise...

Well, to be fair, maybe that wasn't the sound I heard. But I'm quite sure it wasn't the sound of someone who obeys the rule to always be ready to give an answer for the hope they have. I suppose ethics really are situational for the Christian.

I've never heard of a simple yes or no question being "insipid". Nor do I understand why, outside of weak special pleading, a being who turns sticks into snakes, animates clay golems, cures blindness with mud, revels in blood sorcery, possesses flaming shrubbery, and communes with his followers via ritual cannibalism IF IT WERE NOT THE ONE YOU HAPPEN TO BELIEVE IN would not qualify as a "magical being". But I guess I have a lot to learn. A pity I can't learn it from the people I go out of my way to ask in good faith about it.

JD Walters said...


I am certainly ready to give an answer to those who ask-if they are sincerely seeking the truth, not just looking for an excuse to babble about their own seriously twisted conception of Christianity. If you really want to learn, ask within the bounds of respectable intellectual discourse, without sarcasm or ridicule. I'm more than happy to clear up misunderstandings or to help you see the logic of Christianity. But I have the feeling your mind is already closed to that.

spider said...

Richard Carrier seems to think that Reppert has not proved his case.

Naturalism does have many explanations why we should trust the reliability of reason.

Paul Manata said...

Hivemaker said,

"So it is the position of JD and Don that Yahweh does not turn sticks into snakes, animate clay golems, cure blindness with mud, revel in blood sorcery, possess flaming shrubbery, or commune with his followers via ritual cannibalism?"

Oh, I see, it's all better if "momma Nature" turns lizards into birds, two-way lungs into one-way lungs, and non-moral matter into moral matter (or, matter able to make moral choices).

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