Friday, November 03, 2006

An Inquiry from Johnny-Dee on the AFR

Johnny-Dee wrote: Hey Vic, I'm currently taking a grad seminar on Descartes, and I've been grappling with the "problem of the circle." This has led me to consider whether AFR arguments have a similar circularity. For Descartes, the circle goes something like this:

(1) I am certain that God exists only because I am certain of whatever I clearly and distinctly perceive.

(2) I am certain of whatever I clearly and distinctly perceive only because God exists.

How do AFR arguments avoid a similar problem of circularity. Of course, the AFR circle (if one exists) would be different, perhaps it would go something like this:

(1*) I am justified in believing my cognitive faculties function rationally only because God exists.

(2*) I am justified in believing God exists only because my cognitive faculties function rationally.

With all of this stuff on Descartes, this gave me a perfect opportunity to raise this question, which I've been meaning to ask you.

An excellent question, and one that I have come to terms with in my own work. I think I handle this issue better in my essay, “The Lewis-Anscombe Controversy: A Discussion of the Issues,” from Christian Scholar’s Review in 1989 than I do in my book. Or at least I shortened the discussion when I wrote my book. I cover it on pp. 58-60 of CSLDI. It has to do with the distinction between Skeptical Threat Arguments and Best Explanation Arguments. The idea is this: If we begin by raising skeptical questions about reasoning and argue from there to the conclusion that theism can refute skepticism but atheistic views cannot, then we run into trouble. If we, for example, raise skeptical questions about whether the law of noncontradiction is really a sound logical principle, and then we argue that if there is a God then God’s agency can justify the status of the principle of noncontradiction, then all we have to do is look at the fact that we are presenting an argument that is at the same time using the law on noncontradiction to see that we are caught in a circle.

A Best Explanation argument takes it as a fact that we do reach truths through inferences. Only if our opponent, say an eliminative materialist, says “Well, of course, there’s no such thing as rational inference, but so what,” then we point out the disastrous epistemological consequences of denying that there are rational inferences. The AFR as I construe it does not justify our confidence in rational inference with an appeal to anti-materialist metaphysics. What it does is insist that both sides in the dispute agree that there is rational inference, but while one side is trying to explain the rational in terms of the non-rational, our side is not. So I would never answer the question “Why do you believe that modus ponens is good logic?” by saying that God has created me and therefore that belief is true. If, on the other hand, I am asked why I think I am able to recognize that modus ponens is good logic, then I might give a theistic explanation at that point.

Steve Lovell's account in the linked paper on naturalism is very helpful as well.

Johnny-Dee's comment is here.
http://dangerousidea.blogspot.com/2006/11/outline-of-descartes-meditations.html#comments

7 comments:

Johnny-Dee said...

Thanks for the response, Vic. even thought I am sympathetic to the view that Descartes is not guilty of vicious circularity, I'm glad to see that you aren't going to flirt with any possibility of circularity. Your response clearly demarcates AFR arguments from Descartes's project.

Anonymous said...

"What it does is insist that both sides in the dispute agree that there is rational inference, but while one side is trying to explain the rational in terms of the non-rational, our side is not."

So your side is trying to explain the rational in terms of the rational? That sounds circular to me.
Guess I should mention that I am a Christian who believes that God created the world so that it is completely independent of Himself. I take it as a given that all natural phenomenon occuring in the world should have a "natural" explanation. In other words, despite being sympathetic toward your basic theistic stance, I don't find the AFR to be very effective or appealing.
Harold

JD Walters said...

Anonymous,

I think you misunderstand what the AFR aims to accomplish. Even though C.S. Lewis did say that reason had to involve the supernatural 'invading' the natural, the AFR is more an argument against certain forms of materialism which are ultimately self-refuting because they deny the reality of certain phenomena that critical reason depends on for it to exist. Of course God created the world to be independent of itself, and there is a 'natural' explanation for everything. But a natural explanation in a Universe created by God will be richer and more metaphysically suggestive than one in a chance, purposeless Universe. For example, 19th century materialists asserted that all of reality is just material particles in motion, a view which went hand-in-hand with their atheism (if reality is really just particles in motion, what evidence is there of the providence of a loving God?) but which ultimately was too impoverished to account for human experience. A theist, however, expects to find a world which is rich in potential for the emergence of novelty and signs of purpose. Critical reason is at home in such a world, being in some way 'basic' to reality insofar as it was one of the purposes of the Creator. Atheistic materialism, on the other hand, treats intelligence and reason as epiphenomena or at best functional tools aimed at survival, and so we would have reason to doubt the deliverances of natural reason in an atheistic world.

It makes no difference to the AfR that detailed theories of brain function or cognition account for the actual operation of our intelligence. The AfR goes deeper than that, down the 'fabric of reality'.

John W. Loftus said...

Johnny-dee, I did a master's paper on the Cartesian Circle under Bill Craig at TEDS where I argued that he did in fact argue in a circle. Interesting, isn't it? That two sincere students can come up with two different conclusions assuming the laws of logic, eh? There's so much I can say about the laws of logic, as a logic instructor, but here let me just say that one man's modus ponens is another man's modus tollens. Even if we agree to abide by these laws it doesn't mean we will agree about our conclusions, and I find that fasinating.

It's similar to how Christians claim a source of truth from God in the Bible but yet disagree on its meaning and significance. The question I'd like to see pursued is what difference it makes to have an agreed upon set of logical rules if they don't help us much, just as I wonder what good it does to have the "word of God" when it doesn't help people come to the same conclusions.

Anyway, Vic, I believe the Euthyphro dilemna applies to Logic as well as Goodness. Did God create the rules of logic, or must he follow them? Do you have anything to add to this latter dilemna that you haven't said about the former dilemna?

It's probably not unlike Godel's theorem when it comes to math. We can use math effectively, but it cannot yield information concerning both the completeness and consistency of the mathematical system itself. So we must refer to metamathematical statements to explain the system. Now, either there are such things as metamathematical statements which explain the whole system, or there are not, but whether they exist is left undecided by the system itself.

Do all these things point to God? Then explain the logical and mathematical Euthyphro dilemnas.

Victor Reppert said...

John: The short answer is that I thought Steve Lovell answered you pretty effectively on the Euthyphro, and I see no reason why Steve's answer there can't work here. I may post a "long answer" later.

John W. Loftus said...

Vic, really? Okay, I'll look forward to it.

Anonymous said...

"Even though C.S. Lewis did say that reason had to involve the supernatural 'invading' the natural, the AFR is more an argument against certain forms of materialism which are ultimately self-refuting because they deny the reality of certain phenomena that critical reason depends on for it to exist. Of course God created the world to be independent of itself, and there is a 'natural' explanation for everything. But a natural explanation in a Universe created by God will be richer and more metaphysically suggestive than one in a chance, purposeless Universe. "

JD, if the natural world really is a creation of God, an independent reality from the uncreated divine world, then I don't see why a theist's or atheist's explanation for the natural phenomena in this world should differ in any meaningful sense.
As a theist I assume we would agree that at the fundamental level of the uncreated world, reality is different than in this created world. But I think it more consistent with the view of a truly independent created world that all the phenomena in it arose naturally according to the laws of that world. That means, I take it, that the ability to make rational inferences, consciousness, etc. have emerged from the natural processes in this world. And this seems to be exactly what science has so far discovered.

"The AfR goes deeper than that, down the 'fabric of reality'."
I understand that to mean that you would agree with Lewis about the necessity of the supernatural invading the created world for reason to occur. In other words, it would be impossible for God to create a world in wich some sentient creatures evolved naturally with the capability to reason. I believe that sort of God is less powerful than the One I believe in: Who created a truly independent world; a world that does not have to rely on the intervention of the uncreated world in order for it to work properly. And that is one reason why I think Lewis' AFR is theologically flawed.
Harold