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.


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.

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. :)

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!

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 . . .

Edwardtbabinski 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.

Error 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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