Monday, 18 June 2007

Is there more to life than this?

Here is the winner of the Alpha Course viral competition:

The website also published the joint runners-up: one, two

Thursday, 14 June 2007

Reply to Paul Wright on naturalism

In my last post I laid out four reasons why I think naturalism is explanatorily inadequate. Paul Wright made some thoughtful comments, to which I respond below. One thing to bear in mind, though, is the post was against naturalism, not for theism. Where theistic arguments come up I am not necessarily pushing them as far as they go because the point was and is to try to show that naturalism “cannot rationally be believed”.

I'm not sure whether I'm a naturalist or not. Does your postulated "spiritual" realm have rules like the "material" universe apparently does (I'm assuming that the patterns we find through science represent something about the world and not entirely about our minds)? If so, why is it different from the material universe, rather than being an extension of it into territory we don't yet understand? If a spiritual realm exists, presumably it oculd be investigated in the same way the material realm can. (If it doesn't have rules, how does any order arise there?)

Well, at least one aspect of that realm (using my definition of “not postulated by the natural sciences”) is subject to rules: the human soul. Our thought is subject to the rules of logic. These aren’t laws like physical laws because they’re normative rather than deterministic: in apprehending that p implies q and that p obtains I do not automatically realise that q obtains in the way that a rock will fall if you drop it; nevertheless, if I don’t admit q than I am objectively in the wrong. The thing is, you can’t get the laws of logic out of the laws of physics; if anything, this is putting the cart before the horse (cf. the Nagel quotation). You may have heard this argument before; I’d be interested to hear your response.

I think I'd just say that science has worked out pretty well at explaining things so far. If it ceases to be effective, we'll have to try something else. As I've said elsewhere, to be wedded to the position that science will explain everything seems to go against the pragmatism which makes science so powerful.

Fair enough. You will be aware, however, that there exists a tendency in some quarters to make this assertion, coupled with the definitional trick whereby any question which science is unable to answer is therefore not a “real” question (cf. the Dawkins quotation). I’m glad you don’t argue in circles like that.

Theism merely removes the question of why anything exists to another level. You may think "who made God" is a schoolboy question, but the standard response (that God exists by definition) is unsatisfactory. Assuming the question is meaningful at all, why can't the laws of physics exist by definition, for example, and then cause the universe to exist? Simple axioms seem more likely to be necessary than a complex being.

Aaron has done a good job answering this. You have to tell us why the “standard response” is unsatisfactory. And to paraphrase Hawking (and Snell): are the laws of physics so compelling that they force the existence of the physical entities whose behaviour they are supposed to describe? In what way is your (admittedly provisional) view different from the view that matter is necessarily existent? What exactly is gravity (for instance) in the absence of any bodies with mass? This conceptual juggling raises issues of its own. Oh, and you owe us an argument as to why God has to be complex.

If you're not inclined to take imaginary time as a threat, you're admitting that discoveries about how the universe actually is can have no effect on your theistic cosmological arguments, so, as I've complained on Yellow's blog, these theistic cosmological arguments have no physical content. If you accept the conclusions of physicists, what you're accepting is that all of the universe we can now see was once very hot and very small, and then expanded very rapidly before continuing to expand a lot more slowly. You're not commiting yourself to creation ex nihilo or even, necessarily, to the idea that there was a first moment in time. Sean Carroll's posting should be read by everyone who thinks their Kalam argument is supported by Einstein or any other physicist.

Slow down. I admit no such thing. If physics were to somehow show that the universe has an infinite past, that would obviously hit HMS Kalām below the waterline, and other versions of the argument, while not necessarily refuted, would look a lot less shipshape than at present. I haven’t seen anything like that happen. Now I ain’t no physicist, and I know that you are, so you’ll have to bear with my amateurishness here (and I do admit that I wasn’t able to follow everything on the post to which you linked), but on my reading of Hawking the invocation of imaginary time, while removing the beginning event, does not remove the universe’s finitude with respect to the past. And if the universe has a finite past, then it is contingent, which is enough to skewer Hume’s particular objection to Leibniz’s cosmological argument. It is still possible to dodge the argument by denying any formulation of the principle of sufficient reason, like naturalist philosopher and arch-refuter of cosmological arguments Quentin Smith:

[The universe] exists nonnecessarily [i.e. contingently], improbably, and causelessly. It exists for absolutely no reason at all.[1]
But that amounts to admitting what I claim, namely, that naturalism cannot account for the origin of the universe. Smith’s response is that it doesn’t have to, and that may possibly be true (:s), but remember that my post was against naturalism, not for theism. I think this point counts against naturalism. If you want cosmological arguments in minute detail I suppose I could post on that at some point, but you’d really be better off going to Willaim Lane Craig’s web page on the subject. He’s a professional. If, as I imagine, you’ve done that already and found them unconvincing, then fine. I freely admit that I will not be able to do any better.

Consciousness: nobody understands it, everyone likes talking about it. I note that poking at brains alters conscious experience, so brains are involved in human consciousness somewere. If consciousness is not purely a function of brains (or similar arrangements of stuff), what else is there and how does it interact with our brains? Your assertion that matter is not the kind of thing that thinks appears to be a faith statement which I've no good reason to accept unless it buys you some explanatory power, but I've not seen that from the idealists I've talked to.

Remember what I said before about the qualitative difference between the (logical) laws to which the mind is subject and the (physical) laws to which matter is subject. At the very least, this gives intuitional power to the idea that what we’re dealing with here are just two different kinds of things. In response to the usual objection that this apparent difference will eventually be overcome with more science I have already linked to C.S. Lewis’ argument for you to chew on; but probably the best argument here (and there are many) comes from Richard Swinburne, whom I will quote verbatim (and at length. Sorry!):

But does not science always surprise us with new discoveries? The history of science is punctuated with many ‘reductions’ of one whole branch of science into another apparently totally different, or ‘integration’ of apparently very disparate sciences into a super-science. Thermodynamics dealing with heat was reduced to statistical mechanics dealing with large groups of particles of matter and collisions between them; the temperature of a gas proved to be the mean kinetic energy of its molecules. The separate sciences of electricity and magnetism came together to form a super-science of electromagnetism. And then optics was reduced to electromagnetism; light proved to be an electromagnetic wave. How is it that such great integrations can be achieved if my argument is correct that there could not be a simple and so probably true super-science that predicts the connections we find between mental events and brain events?

There is a crucial difference between these cases. Every earlier integration into a super-science, or sciences with entities and properties apparently qualitatively very distinct, was achieved by saying that really some of these entities and properties were not as they appeared to be. A distinction was made between the underlying (not immediately observable) physical entities and physical properties, on the one hand, and the sensory properties to which they give rise. Thermodynamics was initially concered with the laws of temperature exchange; and temperature was supposed to be a property inherent in an object that you felt when you touched the object. The felt hotness of a hot body is indeed qualitatively distinct from particle velocities and collisions. The reduction to statistical mechanics was achieved by distinguishing between the underlying cause of the hotness (the motion of molecules) and the sensation that the motion of molecules causes in observers, and saying that really the former was what temperature was, the latter was just the effect of temperature on observers. That done, temperature falls naturally within the scope of statistical mechanics – for molecules are particles; the entities and properties are not now of distinct kinds. Since the two sciences now dealt with entities and properties of the same (measurable) kind, reduction of one to the other became a practical prospect. But the reduction was achieved at the price of separating off the felt hotness from its causes, and only explaining the latter.

All other ‘reductions’ of one science to another and ‘integrations’ of separate sciences dealing with apparently very disparate properties have been achieved by this device of denying that the apparent properties (such as the ‘secondary qualities’ of colour, heat, sound, taste) with which one science dealt belong to the physical world at all. It siphoned them off to the world of the mental. But then, when you come to face the problem of the mental events themselves, you cannot do this. If you are to explain the mental events themselves, you cannot distinguish between them and their underlying causes and only explain the latter. The enormous success of science in producing an integrated physico-chemistry has been achieved at the expense of separating off from the physical world colours, smells, and tastes, and regarding them as purely private sensory phenomena. What the evidence of the history of science shows is that the way to achieve integration of sciences is to ignore the mental. The very success of science in achieving its vast integrations in physics and chemistry is the very thing that has apparently ruled out any final success in integrating the world of the mind and the world of physics.[2]

Morality: I find myself unable to stop thinking that some things are right and other things are wrong, but it seems the height of arrogance to imagine that my feelings reflect some properties of the non-human world (it's also pretty unlikely, unless those properties happen to change over time). Why do we feel we should we be moral? Because it seems we cannot feel otherwise. There are those who don't feel as we do (sociopaths, say), but from our perspective, we're right to consider them immoral. In the end, though, if all the typical humans died out and left the sociopaths behind, our morals would die with us. Personally, I think morality is what you can get away with. (That's just my view, of course, there are other non-theistic moralities: ask a Buddhist).

Again, as with the Quentin Smith quotation above, this amounts to acknowledging that naturalism cannot explain the phenomenon in question by denying that there is anything there to explain. The quotation from John Searle in my previous post shows that he has spotted a similar tendency in the philosophy of mind. And Dawkins does the same thing regarding the question of why anything exists. I’m beginning to see a pattern.

It’s a shame you think it “the height of arrogance” (and is it really? Are there not, perhaps, at least one or two levels of arrogance higher than this?) to believe that moral values are objective, not really because there is a stack of arguments out there that this is the case, but mainly because it makes nearly everyone on the planet out to be arrogant, at least until they start to study philosophy. Then, of course, they realise that when they say something like “That’s not fair!” they are, in fact, not referring to an objective standard of justice at all but only to their own preferences. Or so the story goes. I didn’t ask, “Why do we feel we should be moral?”, I asked “Why should we be moral?” The essay to which you link gives me no answer beyond self-interest. Pantheism (e.g. Buddhism) has its own problems here, but again, this was a post against naturalism.

CONCLUSION: I have no more reason now to think that naturalism, which basically is modern atheism, is any more credible than I did when we started. This project began out of the claim that faith in God is irrational. I admit that the Biblical worldview has problems, but I submit that these are, at most, no more serious than those faced by the naturalist and that therefore he cannot make the above claim with integrity. And we can't not have a worldview. Sorry, that's just a result of being conscious. Now go and read a Gospel :)

[1] 'Atheism, Theism and Big Bang Cosmology' (1991). The italics are his.
[2] The Existence of God (OUP, 2004), 205-206

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

What naturalism can't do

This post is a continuation of a comment I made on the Dark Side of the Moon Chaplaincy blog. There, Yellow took on the claim that faith in God is irrational with a version of the cosmological argument, to which someone responded by linking to an article in the Guardian by Susan Blackmore where she says that faith is so irrational and that she'd like to eliminate it by use of Harrisian conversational intolerance. (Dawkins and Dennett also think this is a good idea. Bring it on, I say. The gospel message did just fine under similar circumstances in the Greco-Roman world of the first century).

So, in a mammoth tu quoque, I said "naturalism cannot be rationally belived"[1]. I suppose I'd better try to back up that assertion ;). If I fail, please turn your attention to Alvin Plantinga on the same subject. He's an awful lot cleverer than I am.

Naturalism is slightly stronger than atheism; it is possible to be an atheist without being a naturalist. It is, however, by far the most popular form of atheism around at the moment. So how do we define it? The front page of the Secular Web tells us that naturalism is "the hypothesis that the physical universe is a 'closed system' in the sense that nothing that is neither a part nor a product of it can affect it". I'll take a second premise to be that the list of these "parts and products" is exhausted by those entities postulated by the natural sciences.

So defined, naturalism cannot account for the following:
  1. The existence of contingent beings, or, "why does anything exist at all?" When Richard Dawkins dismisses this as a "vacuous existential question"[2] he is displaying an unfortunate tendency to trivialise those massive issues with which he is incapable of dealing. I have a friend who, when asked this, replied "You can't ask that question!" Unfortunately, I just had.

  2. The origin of the universe. Linked to the above. If you accept Einsteinian cosmology, it seems you must accept that the universe at some point began to exist; therefore, it is a contingent being. This is what Hume could not have known. We today have less excuse. I am not likely to take "imaginary time" as a threat to these conclusions any time soon.

  3. Basically, anything to do with the mind, that is, consciousness, intentionality, rationality, the self, free will, etc., etc. I realise I am in way over my head (hehe) here; it's just that I never cease to be amazed by the volume of scorn some thinkers pour on Christians for believing in a soul, while failing to notice the flagrant absurdity of their own views. There are several naturalists who notice this, for instance Thomas Nagel,
    The thought that the relation between mind and the world is something fundamental makes many people in this day and age nervous. I believe this is one manifestation of a fear of religion which has large and often pernicious consequences for modern intellectual life. [...] One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everthing about life, including everything about the human mind.[3]
    John Searle
    Why are so many philosophers driven to deny certain common-sense claims, such as, that we really do have conscious thoughts and feelings; that we do have real intentional states such as beliefs, hopes, fears, and desires[...]? [...] This is a rather easy view to refute, because it denies the existence of the things we all know to exist. It asserts that there are no ontologically subjective phenomena, and we know this is false because we experience them all the time.[4]
    and Michael Ruse
    I don’t buy into this meme bullsh**[5]
    As I've said elsewhere, dogged commitment to materialism in the philosophy of mind has led some very intelligent people to say some very silly things. Put conservatively, consciousness is not the sort of thing we should expect given naturalism. Put more boldly, if naturalism were true, consciousness would be impossible. A purely physical being can no more think than an abstract object can have mass. They're just different kinds of things.

  4. Normative ethics: not "why are we moral?" but "why should we be moral?" (or even, what does to "be moral" even mean?). Please at least read this post if you think the reason theists keep going on about morality is because they're too dumb to understand game theory, or kin selection, or utilitarianism, or...
I've held fire on some issues (e.g. abiogenesis) because I don't believe it to be impossible that they be accounted for naturalistically, only very unlikely. We'll see. I could be wrong about all of this, but that wouldn't prove that naturalism is true, only that it's not actually incredible - which is where I stand at the moment.

[1] Quoting myself somewhat out of context...
[2] River out of Eden (Phoenix, 2001), 97. HT: Prof. D.C. Spanner
[3] The Last Word (OUP, 1997), 130-131
[4] Mind: A Brief Introduction (OUP, 2004), 72, 91. Searle makes it clear he does think all the phenomena I have listed can be accounted for naturalistically. Others disagree. I leave it to the reader to study the relevant arguments and come to his/her own conclusions.
[5] In an e-mail to Daniel Dennett, which Ruse himself released and which can be read here.

Thursday, 7 June 2007

Hitchens reviews Hitchens

Here is a review of Christopher Hitchens' latest addition to the war against theism by his brother, Peter, in the Mail on Sunday. HT: Denyse O'Leary

Tuesday, 5 June 2007