Thursday, December 18, 2014

Why atheist philosophers don't do philosophy of religion: it's simpler than most people think

The reason why most atheist philosophers don't do philosophy of religion is a lot simpler than most of the explanations I have been seeing. A theistic philosopher is developing an understand of what they do believe, so they are going to devote their attention to it. An atheist philosopher is engaged in explaining why he or she doesn't believe something. The truth about reality, as the atheist sees it, has to be developed in some other way. Denial of the existence of God doesn't tell us anything about what does exist, it only indicates what does not exist. Atheists can be strongly naturalistic like Dennett, or very non-naturalistic like Nagel. In general people spend more time on what they think is true than on what they think isn't, unless they think there's a mind virus out there they think they can get rid of. But most atheist philosophers that I have encountered don't think this. They may not think someone like Plantinga is right, but they are happy to see his point of view competently represented. Here's an excellent example (though I realize many atheists thinks Nagel is a traitor).


40 comments:

steve said...

Incidentally, I think that's why nowadays the smartest atheists don't bother to write about Christianity. They don't think it's worth the investment of time and intellectual energy. The secular philosophers who make it their business to attack Christianity nowadays are rarely, if ever, the intellectual cream of atheism.

im-skeptical said...

Nagel: "Can naturalists say anything to match this [that naturalism has no explanation for formation of reliably true beliefs], or must they regard it as an unexplained mystery?"

Naturalists can and do say plenty to match this, and no, it's not a mystery. The fact that Plantinga is ignorant of the relevant science highlights the irony of his position that atheists are lacking in a basic belief-forming capacity (faith). His position that naturalism is "self-defeating" is a joke that has been soundly refuted. Perhaps this kind of philosophy explains why more atheists don't gravitate to philosophy of religion.

steve said...

What are im-skeptical's scientific credentials?

B. Prokop said...

"What are im-skeptical's scientific credentials?"

He once read a book about "science" somewhere. Plus, he probably watched Cosmos on TV.

im-skeptical said...

Another fine example of the logic of theistic philosophy: Plantinga's lack of evidence for his claims doesn't matter because you have no idea what my scientific credentials are.

Crude said...

He once read a book about "science" somewhere.

High praise, sir. You think he actually read a book.

I lack faith in such a fanciful claim.

B. Prokop said...

"High praise, sir. You think he actually read a book."

I said he read a book. I won't speculate as to any level of understanding.

Victor Reppert said...

This is pretty off-track.

mattghg said...

OK im-skeptical, humour us:

The fact that Plantinga is ignorant of the relevant science ...

Tell us, what is "the relevant science" in this case?

His position that naturalism is "self-defeating" is a joke that has been soundly refuted.

Where and by whom has it been refuted?

Thanks in advance.

Victor Reppert said...

Well, these charges against a major figure like Plantinga do need specifics.

im-skeptical said...

Gee, Victor. You pretend you haven't heard any of this before.

http://infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/reppert.html

Victor Reppert said...

Heard of it? Good heavens. I've answered it in considerable detail.

im-skeptical said...

And how do you answer to not having evidence for your assertions? (Plantinga, too.)

By the way, this was my objection the first time I heard the AFR.

Victor Reppert said...

What would evidence look like if we had it. I think I have plenty of evidence to be honest with you. Every time I see someone trying to get the mental out of the physical, they smuggle it in, or else they give an account that explains the mental away but still call it mental. If we keep close tabs on what it takes for something to be physical, the mental is defined out of it, so it can't be built back in on the back end without fudging categories.

im-skeptical said...

It's the Argument From My-religious-belief-says-it-can't-happen. But it isn't backed up by evidence.

Victor Reppert said...

This is the usual stuff. "You don't have any evidence for that." "Yes, I do, here it is." Sorry, that's not evidence.
Why the hell not?

B. Prokop said...

Attempting to hold a rational discussion with Skep is like trying to nail jello to the wall. For months now, he's been insisting that the Early Church deliberately modified the Scriptures in order to conform to doctrine. I have repeatedly demonstrated to him (mostly, of late, over on his own website) that his arguments are self-contradictory. His latest response? " The NT is loaded with contradictions that were never papered over. I don't think they cared." (These are his own words!!!) I can't wait to see how he squares that circle in another attempt to avoid admitting that his original accusation was false.

im-skeptical said...

You miss the point of Carrier's objection altogether. The naturalist doesn't have to "smuggle in" anything. He only has to make a plausible case (and that certainly has been done). You assert that it can't happen. You have no proof.

"If we keep close tabs on what it takes for something to be physical, the mental is defined out of it"

That's your belief. It's not what any competent scientist would tell you.

Victor Reppert said...

Well, a lot of them would.

http://www.coma.ulg.ac.be/papers/consciousness/demertzi_ANYAS09.pdf

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

im-skeptical: I think you are unnecessarily and unjustifiably dismissive of what Reppert says. In fact, based on the most standard conception of evidence (Bayesian), it's obvious that the existence of the mental is evidence favoring theism over naturalism.

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularoutpost/2014/03/22/a-good-f-inductive-argument-for-theism-based-on-consciousness/

I'm an atheist and even I can see this point.

Dan Gillson said...

Don't go knockin' Cosmos, Bob. That show is wonderfully soporific. It's like some super potent sleeping aid.

im-skeptical said...

Jeffery,

I am aware that you're not an atheist. Neither do you seem to be a naturalist.

"N is not intrinsically much more probable than T, i.e., Pr(N | B) is not much greater than Pr(T | B)."

This seems to assume a non-scientific background knowledge. I think it is highly disputable.

And I think Victor's answer to Carrier makes the same mistake.

im-skeptical said...

I meant to say that I am aware you are an atheist.

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

im-skeptical:

I am aware that you're not an atheist. Neither do you seem to be a naturalist.

and then:

I meant to say that I am aware you are an atheist.

If your first reply to me had a typo and you meant to say that you know I am an atheist, I don't know how to parse your second sentence about me NOT seeming to be a naturalist.

This seems to assume a non-scientific background knowledge. I think it is highly disputable.

Intrinsic probability is related to, but not the same as, prior probability. Why do I mention this? Because, by definition, scientific knowledge isn't relevant to intrinsic probability (whereas it can be relevant to prior probability). Intrinsic probability is determined by a hypothesis's coherence, modesty, and nothing else. (And by "hypothesis" I mean simply a proposition which we do not know with certainty to be true and we do not know with certainty to be false.)

With that said, I'm starting to think that naturalism IS intrinsically much more probable than theism. But that's another topic for another time...

And I think Victor's answer to Carrier makes the same mistake.

I haven't thought enough about Carrier's critique and Victor's reply to have an opinion yet. In any case, note that the link I provided was about consciousness, whereas the subject of Victor's post is intentionality. Unless we're going to assume that consciousness entails intentionality, we should treat them as separate though related things. For example, it could be the case that consciousness is evidence favoring theism over naturalism, whereas intentionality doesn't favor theism or naturalism. (I'm not claiming that is the case; rather, I'm just pointing out that is a possibility.)

Of course, it may also be the case--and I think is the case--that an evidential argument from consciousness for theism (like mine) is offset by an evidential argument from mind-brain dependence for naturalism. In plain English, we get this:

(channeling my 'inner Paul Draper')

"Consciousness does seem to be evidence favoring theism over naturalism. But we know much more about consciousness than the fact that it exists. We also know, thanks to the relatively new discipline of neuroscience, that human consciousness is highly dependent upon the brain. Nothing mental happens without something physical happening. The fact that human consciousness is highly dependent upon the brain is evidence favoring naturalism over theism. So once the evidence about consciousness is fully stated, it's far from obvious that it significantly favors theism."

im-skeptical said...

"I don't know how to parse your second sentence about me NOT seeming to be a naturalist."

I seem to recall you saying that you believe in some kind of dualism. Perhaps that explains why you think consciousness is better evidence for theism than for naturalism.

Regarding Bayesian inference, you can plug in whatever numbers you like to come up with some result. It's the assumptions behind those numbers that make or break your argument.

Crude said...

f course, it may also be the case--and I think is the case--that an evidential argument from consciousness for theism (like mine) is offset by an evidential argument from mind-brain dependence for naturalism.

"Naturalism" can't settle for mind-brain dependence. It crucially needs "brains" to ultimately be of a certain kind of matter, or basic fundamental stuff, in a certain metaphysical way. If brains are ultimately what the Aristotileans take them to be (which would mean matter, etc is as well), then naturalism would be out of luck.

It's also odd that you talk about theism or naturalism being favored depending on this or that fact about minds and brains, after differentiating between intentionality and consciousness. As Victor said: Denial of the existence of God doesn't tell us anything about what does exist, it only indicates what does not exist. Atheists can be strongly naturalistic like Dennett, or very non-naturalistic like Nagel.

So it looks like the proper comparison would be between naturalism and non-naturalism. As I've said before, I think the very attempt to try and define 'natural' and 'supernatural' fails in some pretty big ways. But even putting that aside - that seems like the proper comparison.

Papalinton said...

Atheist philosophers don't do philosophy of religion simply because POR is largely a cul-de-sac in contemporary analytical thought. Historically, the debate over the nature of consciousness was the exclusive prerogative of philosophers and religious scholars rather than scientists. It is only in very recent decades that a new paradigm for the scientific understanding of the brain has come anywhere near contesting the epistemological foundations of traditional philosophical and religious musings. Today, as our knowledge and understanding of the brain/mind/consciousness increases so do the number of scientists that are prepared to tackle this seemingly intractable, ineffable phenomenon. Scientifically-informed philosophy must of necessity be the basis of discourse about the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, Everything else is unfounded speculation.

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

I seem to recall you saying that you believe in some kind of dualism. Perhaps that explains why you think consciousness is better evidence for theism than for naturalism.

That's incorrect. I am not a dualist.

Regarding Bayesian inference, you can plug in whatever numbers you like to come up with some result. It's the assumptions behind those numbers that make or break your argument.

Evidential arguments for/against theism/naturalism don't require "plugging in numbers." They rely upon comparative judgments. What I call the evidential argument from consciousness is a case in point:

The probability that the mental exists conditional upon theism is one because theism *entails* that the mental exists. In contrast, metaphysical naturalism does not entail that the mental exists, so it's probability isn't one.That's all we need to know in order to know that the mental is more probable on theism than on naturalism.

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

"Naturalism" can't settle for mind-brain dependence. It crucially needs "brains" to ultimately be of a certain kind of matter, or basic fundamental stuff, in a certain metaphysical way. If brains are ultimately what the Aristotileans take them to be (which would mean matter, etc is as well), then naturalism would be out of luck.

I don't think I disagree with any of that, but that doesn't contradict anything I've written.

It's also odd that you talk about theism or naturalism being favored depending on this or that fact about minds and brains, after differentiating between intentionality and consciousness. As Victor said: Denial of the existence of God doesn't tell us anything about what does exist, it only indicates what does not exist. Atheists can be strongly naturalistic like Dennett, or very non-naturalistic like Nagel.

I agree with Victor that denial of the existence of God (atheism) doesn't tell us anything about what does exist. Metaphysical naturalism does tell us what exists, however. It tells us that the physical exists and, if the mental exists at all, that the physical has ontological priority over the mental. In other words, the physical explains why anything mental at all exists.

im-skeptical said...

Jeffery,

"That's incorrect. I am not a dualist."
- I'm sorry. I don't recall exactly how I got that impression.

"The probability that the mental exists conditional upon theism is one because theism *entails* that the mental exists. In contrast, metaphysical naturalism does not entail that the mental exists, so it's probability isn't one.That's all we need to know in order to know that the mental is more probable on theism than on naturalism."

I agree with that, but I don't agree that theism is more probable given the existence of consciousness and all knowledge we have. You made that argument here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularoutpost/2012/06/13/the-evidential-argument-from-physical-minds-apm/

If we knew only the fact that consciousness exists, but had no additional knowledge, I could agree that theism seems more likely. But I think the physical nature of consciousness is pretty obvious.

B. Prokop said...

"But I think the physical nature of consciousness is pretty obvious."

Hah! And the reverse seems equally obvious to me.

im-skeptical said...

"Hah! And the reverse seems equally obvious to me."

As it did to people for thousands of years with scientifically uninformed views of nature.

Crude said...

Always a joy when IM Skeptical invokes knowledge he not only doesn't have, but screws up whenever he tries to actually explain it, as opposed to refer to it vaguely. ;)

Jeff,

I don't think I disagree with any of that, but that doesn't contradict anything I've written.

If mind-brain dependence, particularly the only kind of dependence that can be supported by science, does not lead to naturalism, then it does seem like it contradicts something you said with regards to 'offsetting'.

Metaphysical naturalism does tell us what exists, however. It tells us that the physical exists and, if the mental exists at all, that the physical has ontological priority over the mental.

Depending on the resolution of defining 'natural', anyway. More importantly - I've asked before whether theism is compatible with naturalism, on your view. If it is, then you're going to be in the odd situation where evidence for naturalism is not evidence against theism, or at least not theism, full stop.

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

If mind-brain dependence, particularly the only kind of dependence that can be supported by science, does not lead to naturalism, then it does seem like it contradicts something you said with regards to 'offsetting'.

If naturalism (as I've defined it) is true, then, if there is anything mental at all, the physical explains why anything mental at all exists. Notice that, so defined, naturalism does not ENTAIL the existence of anything mental. It doesn't follow, however, that naturalism is INCOMPATIBLE with the existence of the mental.

Consider an analogy. Let Legoism be the hypothesis that I have the Tower of Orthanc Lego set in my kids' play room. Legoism does not entail that I have Barbie dolls in my kids' play room. It doesn't follow, however, that if there are Barbie dolls in the play room, that Legoism is false.

I think maybe a more charitable interpretation of your comment is this: mind-brain dependence is a necessary but not a sufficient condition to explain known facts about human consciousness on naturalism. I agree with that. And that doesn't contradict anything I;ve written.

Depending on the resolution of defining 'natural', anyway.

Did you mean "defining 'physical'"? Because the definition of naturalism I just gave doesn't contain the word "natural."

More importantly - I've asked before whether theism is compatible with naturalism, on your view. If it is, then you're going to be in the odd situation where evidence for naturalism is not evidence against theism, or at least not theism, full stop.

Naturalism as I've defined it is logically incompatible with the existence of any supernatural beings. So by definition naturalism is incompatible with theism.

Crude said...

Jeffrey,

I think maybe a more charitable interpretation of your comment is this: mind-brain dependence is a necessary but not a sufficient condition to explain known facts about human consciousness on naturalism. I agree with that.

No, that doesn't seem right. Not in the ballpark of what I was saying.

You made reference to 'an evidential argument from mind-brain dependence for naturalism'. But I'm making the claim that an argument for mere mind-brain dependence isn't going to become an argument for naturalism - certainly not an empirical argument, and I'd add that's for the same reason you can't get (on those terms alone) an argument for Thomism based on mind-brain dependence.

"The fact that human consciousness is highly dependent upon the brain is evidence favoring naturalism over theism." Your Draper isn't doing what he needs to, I'm saying.

Naturalism as I've defined it is logically incompatible with the existence of any supernatural beings. So by definition naturalism is incompatible with theism.

But I didn't ask you if naturalism is compatible with the supernatural. I asked if naturalism is compatible with some forms of theism. Now obviously a theism where God is the classical theist God, and the classical theist God is taken to ultimately be fundamentally mental - putting it real loosely - that can't be the case. Further, if you just define God or gods as 'supernatural' from the outset, well, then there we go.

Otherwise, a whole lot of gods or even God would seem to qualify. The Mormon God (co-eternal with the universe, and material.) Zeus, and so on.

So I don't think 'by definition' is working here. Not unless you've defined 'theism' to mean 'supernatural' - but even if dig in and insist on that, it's easy to shrug and ask hypothetically about Zeus. At which point I think we're going to end up with, 'Sure, tremendously powerful, divine physical beings who created and control the world are compatible with naturalism, as are most - even all - of the things attributed to them. I'm just not going to call those gods.'

Hopefully everyone had a Merry Christmas.

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

im-skeptical:

I agree with that, but I don't agree that theism is more probable given the existence of consciousness and all knowledge we have. You made that argument here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularoutpost/2012/06/13/the-evidential-argument-from-physical-minds-apm/

If we knew only the fact that consciousness exists, but had no additional knowledge, I could agree that theism seems more likely. But I think the physical nature of consciousness is pretty obvious.


You've almost understood me, but not quite.

An evidential argument from consciousness for theism makes the modest claim that human consciousness, by itself, is evidence favoring theism over naturalism. It doesn't claim / imply / entail / make probable that there is no evidence against theism and for naturalism. It doesn't even claim / imply / entail / make probable that there is no RELATED evidence about consciousness against theism and for naturalism.

It is perfectly consistent to say:

(1) The fact that human consciousness exists is evidence favoring theism over naturalism.

AND

(2) Given that human consciousness exists, the fact that it is dependent upon a physical brain is evidence favoring naturalism over theism.

In fact, I happen to think BOTH (1) AND (2) are true.

Of course, nothing I've said in this combox addresses the question of whether (1) or (2) is the stronger piece of evidence. A theist, for example, might agree with both, but contend that (1) outweighs (2). Likewise, a naturalist might agree with both, but contend that (2) outweighs (1). Both of those positions (IMHO) are more respectable than the 'absolutist' position that only one of those is evidence.

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

Crude,

No, that doesn't seem right. Not in the ballpark of what I was saying.

OK. Fair enough!

You made reference to 'an evidential argument from mind-brain dependence for naturalism'. But I'm making the claim that an argument for mere mind-brain dependence isn't going to become an argument for naturalism - certainly not an empirical argument, and I'd add that's for the same reason you can't get (on those terms alone) an argument for Thomism based on mind-brain dependence.

I understand the claim; I'm saying it's false.

But I didn't ask you if naturalism is compatible with the supernatural. I asked if naturalism is compatible with some forms of theism. Now obviously a theism where God is the classical theist God, and the classical theist God is taken to ultimately be fundamentally mental - putting it real loosely - that can't be the case. Further, if you just define God or gods as 'supernatural' from the outset, well, then there we go.

Since theism is by definition a form of supernaturalism, theism is by definition logically incompatible with supernaturalism.

I don't know if this is your intent, but your paragraph above comes across to me as if you think it's unusual or ad hoc to consider theism to be a form of supernaturalism. It isn't.

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

Crude,

Otherwise, a whole lot of gods or even God would seem to qualify. The Mormon God (co-eternal with the universe, and material.) Zeus, and so on.

Re: Mormonism: I have to confess I haven't studied Mormon theology much. But, if this Wikipedia article is accurate, the Mormon Godhead is logically incompatible with naturalism because Mormonism's Holy Spirit is unembodied.

Re: Zeus: I have studied Greek mythology somewhat and I think you're definitely barking up the wrong tree here. I think I can understand why you think Zeus might be a problem for my definition of naturalism, insofar as Zeus had a physical body. But the attributes of Zeus include a lot more than that he had a physical body. Quoting Wikipedia for convenience, Greek mythology also taught that Zeus did many things which, based on our understanding of science and the laws of nature, are physically impossible.

* Zeus turned Pandareus to stone for stealing the golden dog which had guarded him as an infant in the holy Dictaeon Cave of Crete.

* Zeus killed Salmoneus with a thunderbolt for attempting to impersonate him, riding around in a bronze chariot and loudly imitating thunder.

* Zeus turned Periphas into an eagle, making him the king of birds.

* At the marriage of Zeus and Hera, a nymph named Chelone refused to attend. Zeus transformed her into a tortoise (chelone in Greek).

* Zeus, with Hera, turned King Haemus and Queen Rhodope into mountains (the Balkan mountains, or Stara Planina, and Rhodope mountains, respectively) for their vanity.

I could go on and on, but further examples aren't necessary. Such purported deeds would clearly be miraculous and are not compatible with naturalism.

So I don't think 'by definition' is working here. Not unless you've defined 'theism' to mean 'supernatural' - but even if dig in and insist on that, it's easy to shrug and ask hypothetically about Zeus.

Perhaps I am just being dense or even brain dead, but I don't think this poses any problem whatsoever for naturalism. And so I think it's just as easy to shrug and answer your hypothetical question about Zeus.

At which point I think we're going to end up with, 'Sure, tremendously powerful, divine physical beings who created and control the world are compatible with naturalism, as are most - even all - of the things attributed to them. I'm just not going to call those gods.'

If there are physical beings--whether Zeus, God incarnate as Jesus, or whatever--capable of doing things which are physically impossible, then naturalism is false. I think what we will find, for each of your hypotheticals, is that your alleged "tremendously powerful, divine physical beings" are incompatible with naturalism for either or both of the following reasons:

* violating the causal closure of the physical world
* postulating a purely (irreducibly) mental being, i.e., one that is not in any way dependent upon a physical body

Crude said...

Jeff,

But the attributes of Zeus include a lot more than that he had a physical body. Quoting Wikipedia for convenience, Greek mythology also taught that Zeus did many things which, based on our understanding of science and the laws of nature, are physically impossible.

Several problems.

A) For one thing, this is flat out new. You gave a standard of naturalism that gave reference to fundamentals. 'No miracles' is brand new.

B) The greeks didn't have an understanding of science that was at all thorough - and our own understanding of science is open to revision. Quantum physics, according to the understanding of classical physics, contains a wide variety of physically impossible happenings. We ended up revising our physics.

C) Putting aside the endless ability to re-interpret science, think about it this way. You're interacting with the example from a current vantage point, with current science, looking at the past. But imagine you existed in the past, and encountered Zeus doing exactly everything you described. You'd be forced to say that such things aren't physically impossible - after all, Zeus is doing them. You'd just incorporate those things into your model, and continue your investigations, your theorizing, and so on. But nothing stops you from doing that, now.

If there are physical beings--whether Zeus, God incarnate as Jesus, or whatever--capable of doing things which are physically impossible, then naturalism is false.

How in the world are you defining an act which a physical being truly and actually does as 'physically impossible'? It'd be a physical act, and therefore physically possible practically as a tautology.

Perhaps I am just being dense or even brain dead, but I don't think this poses any problem whatsoever for naturalism. And so I think it's just as easy to shrug and answer your hypothetical question about Zeus.

I'm not really trying to pose a problem for naturalism here. I'm trying to illustrate what naturalism has to overcome to gain evidence, particularly in the contexts you've brought up.

* violating the causal closure of the physical world

It's been a while since I last replied, but there's been no obvious violations of the causal closure of the physical world. At best, there's been - maybe - a causal closure of our particular world, being interacted with by another world. But if you define THAT as supernatural intervention, some multiverse theories are flat out supernatural.

* postulating a purely (irreducibly) mental being, i.e., one that is not in any way dependent upon a physical body

I've been leaving this one alone, though I think you're going to run into a problem with that even with the classical theist god. I suppose that would mean that if neutral monism is true, naturalism is false.

im-skeptical said...

Jeffery,

Thank you for your response.

The thing that I don't understand is why consciousness should be seen intrinsically as evidence for theism. I didn't see where you made the case for this in the first place, so I don't know what your reasoning is.

If you are a theist, you may tend to see everything as evidence of a creator god. But without that predisposition, it seems to me that consciousness is no different from any other phenomenon we observe. I am curious to know whether you really think consciousness would be evidence for theism in the absence of any theistic predisposition.