Sunday, March 15, 2020

Daniel Dennett and the Skyhook ban

In an exchange on the Argument from Reason between myself atheist philosopher David Kyle Johnson, both in the volume C. S. Lewis’s Christian Apologetics: Pro and Con, and in a subsequent exchange I had with him in Philosophia Christi; there emerges a significant issue as to exactly what the argument from reason targets. In Lewis’s book Miracles he calls the target position naturalism, and he contrasts that with supernaturalism. For Johnson, naturalism is the view that the natural world is whatever makes up the universe. Hence, he says, “if a person believes that the mental is a fundamental element or property of that which makes up the universe, and believes that the mental is causally operating at the basic level, then that person is a naturalist.”
But I think there is more to it than that.  There is a significant viewpoint in philosophy and science which is very insistent on denying that the mental operates at the basic level. As I have indicated earlier, this thrust is largely responsible for the increased popularity of atheism since the publication of Origin of Species. The problem is, as I pointed out with the example of the rocks falling down on my head, for most of nature the mental is not thought to be anything that operates at the physical level, and it is widely held that nothing other than the initial position of the basic particles, whatever they and the laws that govern those basic particles, constitute a closed system of causation, and nothing other than these can determine where, for example, the particles in my left arm will be on Sunday morning. Thus even if I could truly say “I went to church on Sunday because I believe the teachings of Christianity and wanted to worship God,” I cannot explain the presence of the atoms and molecules in my body in ways that do not, in the last analysis, reduce down to the mindless movements of fundamental particles in accordance with the laws of physics. In the last analysis, the laws of physics, not the rules of conduct by which I live my life, govern the actions of the basic particles of my body.
When I wrote my book defending the Argument from Reason, I entitled it C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea, obviously in response to Daniel Dennett’s book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Interestingly enough, Jim Slagle entitled his book about arguments of this sort The Epistemological Skyhook, which again makes reference to Dennett’s book. The reason for this is not hard to understand. For Dennett, Darwin’s dangerous idea is that in explaining the world, we must operate from the ground up, not from the top down, using cranes instead of skyhooks. As he explains:
Let us understand that a skyhook is a ‘mind-first’ force or power or process, an exception to the principle that all design and apparent design is ultimately the result of mindless, motiveless, mechanicity.
On the other hand,
A crane, in contrast, is a subprocess or special feature of a design process that can be demonstrated to permit the local speeding up of the basic, slow process of natural selection, and that can be demonstrated to be itself the predictable (or retrospectively explicable) product of the basic process, (p. 76, italics in original)
              Now, I was very surprised to see Johnson, in our most recent exchange, characterize Dennett’s resistance to skyhooks as an argument that divine minds are not causally operative. He writes:
For example, he takes naturalists’ arguments that divine minds are not causally operative to be arguments that human minds are not causally operative. This is especially clear when he quotes Dennett talking about Darwin. Reppert thinks that his skepticism about “meaning” entails that he is eliminating human mentality from the natural world; but Dennett makes I absolutely clear that he is talking about meaning “in the existentialist sense” (as in “the meaning of life,” or “the purpose of the world”). Darwin argues that the world was not designed for a purpose (like the creation of intelligent life) by an intelligent designer—not that it lacks mentality at the basic level.
            Dennett is an atheist, and of course a member of the “four horsemen,” of New Atheists: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens being the others, but Darwin’s Dangerous Idea is not primarily an atheist polemic. The Darwinian critique of divine design is for the most part presupposed throughout the book. Instead, Dennett spends most of the book criticizing people who aren’t religious believers, but somehow are shy about applying the Dangerous Idea; people like Searle, Gould, Penrose, and Chomsky. They may be philosophical naturalists, but they fall into viewpoints that involve skyhooks, and thus they are inconsistent naturalists whose nerve has failed.Most importantly, Dennett insists on applying the Skyhook Ban to every area, including our understanding of mind.
            Long before Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, explicates the Skyhook Ban in an essay entitled “Why the Law of Effect Will Not Go Away,” where is explicitly applies the Ban to our account of the mind.
Psychology of course must not be question-begging. It must not explain intelligence in terms of intelligence, for instance by assuming responsibility for the existence of intelligence to the munificence of an intelligent creator, or by putting clever homunculi at the control panels of the nervous system. If that were the best psychology could do, then psychology could not do the job assigned to it.
            Well, what “job” is Dennett assigning to psychology? He claims that the social sciences, which are intentional in nature, depend on the science of psychology. But the task of psychology is to explain intelligence, and it has to explain in terms of a universe which at its base lacks intelligence. Whether we explain intelligence in terms of intelligent design, or by putting homunculi in the nervous system, (that is, providing a ground-level intentional explanation that does not appeal to a transcendent being), we would be committing what Dennett would later deride as a skyhook.
            What I have called C. S. Lewis’s dangerous idea, by contrast, is the idea that a consistent application of the Skyhook Ban to the mind undermines the very explanations that thinkers need to apply to their own reasoning in order for it to provide a rational foundation for what they believe. If none of our beliefs can be traced back to skyhooks, then reason is explained away. Thus, if the watchmaker is really blind, then Dawkins wouldn’t know that it. But since we do have knowledge, (a claim you can’t abandon without undercutting science) and we do form beliefs based on reasons, the skyhook ban cannot be fully and completely implemented.


Starhopper said...

I am currently 86 pages into Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's The Phenomenon of Man, and I'll have to admit up front that I'm not at all sure I understand what I'm reading. But if I do understand him correctly, Chardin was proposing that the entire universe is conscious, both at a macro and a micro level. Therefore, in his view (I think), the mental and the physical are inextricably intertwined at every stage.

So, would that make Chardin a naturalist?

Dominik Kowalski said...

I recommend staying with Armstrongs definition: “Naturalism is the thesis that the whole of reality is exhausted by the space-time system and its contents.“

Starhopper said...

The problem I see with Armstrong's definition is that it is essentially a tautology. It can be reduced to "Everything is everything," and does not seem to add anything to the conversation.

Victor Reppert said...

Except that Christians believe in a God who transcends space-time. However, Dominik, doesn't Armstrong's definition mean that Hindu Pantheism, or the Westernized version that C. S. Lewis came to believe in when he became convinced of the Argument from Reason, Absolute Idealism, are forms of naturalism. These views hold that the ways science describe the space-time world are in fact products of Maya, or illusion, and the reality is that the space-time world really is a Divine Being. I can't imagine D. M. Armstrong agreeing to something like that.

StardustyPsyche said...

"But since we do have knowledge, (a claim you can’t abandon without undercutting science) and we do form beliefs based on reasons, the skyhook ban cannot be fully and completely implemented.
S "

Just because we have intelligence in no way requires that intelligence be the source of our intelligence. Positing an intelligence to account for our intelligence solves no logical problem, only pushes the problem back a step in an infinite regress of intelligences, a regress of the god of god of god ad infinitum.

The principle of proportional reason is baseless. In the real world there are exceptions to the 2nd "law" of thermodynamics, for example every star and every living thing and every snowflake.

Complexity arises from simple submicroscopic beings by mindless natural forces.

Material self organizes without intelligence and in some rare places in the universe that self organization reaches sufficient complexity to become aware of itself.

We are, each of is, literally a part of the universe that is aware of the universe, composed of some 10^28 mindless little parts.

There are no skyhooks, the ban is total, our intelligence is not due to any skyhook of any sort.

Starhopper said...

I do not know why anyone would bother listening to anything said by a person who insists that intelligence is fundamentally "mindless". What's the point?

bmiller said...

In case you were looking for a firsthand account of Victor explaining this in more detail. You can find it here.