Friday, May 28, 2010

PZ Myers--Used as a Critical Thinking Case Study

So, I was rereading PZ Myers’ response to my recent Religion Dispatches essay (in which, among other things, I challenge Myers’ infamous “Courtier’s Reply”), and I found it so riddled with problems—informal fallacies, sophistry, seemingly willful misinterpretations, and a kind of deep blindness to my broader point—that I almost started to feel sorry for the guy.

This temptation was quickly dispelled as I skimmed through the hundreds of comments by his legions of yes-men who praised him for his masterful “take-down” of this hapless Reitan character. And then my eye was caught by one comment I’d missed during the last go-around. Here’s what the commenter says:

Brilliant essay. But what keeps bothering me is... will Reitan ever read this?
Does he just post something like this then blissfully wander away in
ignorance? These people never, ever, EVER seem to respond to such high
quality critiques. Oh, sure, they love to respond to some idiots ripost, but
when its good...never.

How do they do that? How do they remain so detached from ever thinking about their position, what they wrote? I cannot understand being so purposefully ignorant.
At first it just made chuckle, that someone could make such a dogmatic (and erroneous) assumption. After all, I’d not only already read Myers’ critique, I’d written a quick response in which I zeroed in on a key instance of Myers’ willful mischaracterization of my point (a mischaracterization that is crucial to his entire “take-down” of my essay).

But I am now tempted to offer something more substantial—the sort of thing I might do in a critical thinking class (a kind of “spot the fallacies and sophistical argument-surrogates” exercise). Unfortunately, the piece is so riddled with problems from this perspective that to treat all of them would take more time than I have. So, this may have to be the first post in a series...if I have the energy to persist in an exercise of this sort.

Warning: This post is a bit more prickly than usual for me. In any event, here we go.

Poor Caricatures:

Let me begin with the very same part of Myers’ essay that I addressed in my last post. Myers, to his credit, quotes here a substantial chunk of my essay—the chunk in which I say the following:

But belief in God isn't primarily a belief about the contents of the empirical
world. It is, rather, a certain holistic interpretation of our experience, one
that offers an account of the meaning and significance of the empirical world
and the lives we lead within it. To believe in God is to understand the world of
ordinary experience in terms of an interpretive worldview that posits the
existence of "something more."

He then immediately follows it up with these words: “Let me clarify that for you, Dr Reitan. You are saying that religion is a nice fairy tale that makes you feel good.”

Since I’ve already pointed out in my previous post just how far off the mark this supposed summary of my meaning happens to be, I won’t repeat that here. What I want to stress here is the sophistical argumentative strategy that is employed. Rather than attempting to restate the author’s actual thinking and critically assess its merits, he immediately offers a caricature.

But not just any caricature. Rather, he jumps to the strangest sort of caricature one can imagine—one in which the substantive content of the caricature has so little to do with what is actually stated in the quote that it doesn’t seem to even be a caricature of the quoted passage at all.

Let me help Myers out a bit. What he says here—“Religion is a nice fairy tale that makes you feel good”—could actually be used as a caricature of some of the things I actually do say in my book and elsewhere. When I characterize the concept of God as that whose existence would fulfill the “ethico-religious hope” (the hope that the universe is not pitilessly indifferent but is in some fundamental way on the side the good), and I then endorse a pragmatic understanding of “faith” as the decision to live as if a hoped for possibility is true, these ideas might be (unfairly) caricatured in the terms Myers uses.

But using this "believe it because it's a feel good fairy tale" notion to caricature the passage he quotes from the RD essay is akin to using a political cartoon of Barack Obama (in which his ears are larger than his head) as a caricature of Hillary Clinton.

Let me put it baldly: Caricaturing what others say is unsound. It replaces careful argument by offering an up oversimplified straw man for mockery, leaving the more nuanced actual view uncritiqued. But using a caricature that doesn’t even resemble what is being mocked is not just unsound, it exemplifies an utter indifference to engaging seriously with what is being said. Myers can get away with this kind of thing only because his target audience is a crowd of followers eager to cheer him on. From the standpoint of an outsider, one is left scratching one’s head in utter bewilderment.

Leaving Important Stuff Out for the Sake of Creating a False Impression:

In the opening of his riposte, Myers says the following:

What Reitan does in his essay is an interesting sidestep. He acknowledges that there are two kinds of theologies — "apologetic theology", which attempts to address the reality of god's existence, and the misleadingly named "substantive theology", which he claims is about the operational consequences once we've assumed god's existence — and he simply waves away apologetic theology for now. He still claims there's good reason to believe, but it's not the topic here — it's exclusively about whether we can
dismiss "substantive theology", which is what the Courtier's Reply argues.
First of all, I should point out that he doesn’t exactly get me right when he says that I “claim there’s good reason to believe”--that, in effect, apologetic theology succeeds. In a sense, of course, I do claim this—but not in this essay, and almost certainly not in the sense he has in mind (since the sense in which I hold belief to be reasonable includes some observations about the nature of rationality that presuppose the kind of distinction between interpretive worldviews and empirical facts that Myers fails to understand and so simply ridicules).

What I do claim in the RD essay is that Dawkins hasn’t adequately addressed apologetic theology. It is true, of course, that I do not explore that point in the RD essay. But neither do I merely wave it away. Rather, I point out that since I’ve written an entire book in which large portions are devoted to making this point, I will focus on another point here. In other words, I say that there are two points to be made. One point I’ve already addressed at length, but the other still needs addressing. And so I will (start to) address it.

This certainly changes the significance of my exclusive emphasis on substantive theology. Rather than it sounding like I’m "sidestepping" and "waving away" a crucial issue because I don’t know how to address it, it becomes clear that I’m filling in a blank among things that I haven't yet addressed. But the former is more derogatory and more likely to make me sound like the kind of slippery hack Myers likes to caricature theologians and theistic philosophers as being. And so he goes with that.

And since my reasons for not taking up apologetic theology here don't have bearing on the strength of my argument for substantive theology in any event, insinuating (for argumentative effect) an erroneous negative account of those reasons amounts to the ad hominen fallacy.

Of course, it could be that Myers just wants to avoid helping to sell copies of my book--and that's why he left out mention of it. And once it was left out, he noticed that doing so enabled him to make a false impression that would illegitimately serve his rhetorical purposes...and jumped at the opportunity.

Skipping the Hard Stuff and Launching Headlong into Mischaracterization:

A bit further on, Myers attempts to summarize a key part of my argument in the following way:

He tries to claim that theology is just like naturalism, equally unjustifiable
and ultimately arbitrary, and simply a matter of convenience and compatibility
with our personal philosophies. We have to "try on" different philosophies about
the universe in order to determine which one fits, as if the universe is a rack
of clothes with different sizes for different folks, and we have to each pick
and choose to determine which universe is best for us.

Notice here that he makes no effort to explicate why I'd say that “theology is just like naturalism”—which isn’t what I say, by the way. What I say is that theistic worldviews, insofar as they offer a holistic interpretation of the facts rather than making factual claims, are in the same category as metaphysical naturalism: both make a claim about reality that can’t be tested empirically. In other words, if you’re presented with two rival claims—one holding that what is empirically observable exhausts what’s real, the other holding that it doesn’t—you can’t decide between them by appeal to empirical evidence. Empirical observation cannot determine whether there is more to reality than what is empirically observable.

Since this point is so obviously true--and since it implies immediately that naturalism is an empirically unfalsifiable worldview, and hence implies immediately that Myers is committed to an empirically unfalsifiable worldview--it's no wonder that Myers makes no attempt to seriously address this point. Rather, he just (mis)states it in a dismissive tone. The use of dismissive tones in lieau of argument is a standard sophistical tactic which critical thinking teachers warn against and Myers uses repeatedly as if it were a virue. It is not. It is an intellectual vice.

And when that vice is committed, it's often the case that it is being used to mask a weakness in someone's position. Given Myers' insistence both that nothing that defies empirical testing should be embraced and that metaphysical naturalism is true, it's no wonder he resorts to mockery when it's pointed out that metaphysical naturalism defies empirical testing.

He then proceeds quickly to mischaracterize my position, by stating that I conceive of alternative worldviews as “equally unjustifiable and ultimately arbitrary,” comprising a kind of “rack of clothes” from which we are all free to choose “which universe is best for us.”

Of course, choosing worldviews isn't the same as choosing universes. The universe is what it is. A worldview is a holistic understanding and interpretation of it--one which either fits with reality or doesn't, but one whose fit can't be tested empirically. Here, Myers entirely misses the crucial point, which is that I am in this essay attempting to sketch out a broad strategy for investigating the relative merits of something—which worldview we should embrace—that cannot be investigated through the empirical methods exemplified by the sciences.

Admittedly, it is not possible to offer in such a short essay a fully developed picture of this alternative method. If Myers were dissatisfied with the account of this method and desired a fuller picture, it would be fair to ask for more information—whereupon I might direct him to Hegel’s work (not that he’d read it).

But in a short essay one has to content oneself with modest points, and the modest point I was making was this: if there is one clearly necessary feature possessed by any strategy that is going to have any hope of helping us decide which worldview best captures the fundamental nature of reality, that necessary feature is this: a willingness to seeing how the world looks, how experience fits together, under the most carefully developed alternative worldviews. And that requires reading substantive theology.

Myers never engages with this central claim. Instead, he attributes to me a kind of crass relativism to which I do not ascribe. Either this is the result of a failure to read carefully and charitably, or it is the result of a willful misrepresentation. Either way, it is a poor example of sound critical engagement with the views of others. But why engage seriously and thoughtfully with the views of others when you just know you’re right and you’ve got legions of fans who will call your most sophistical prose a work of genius?

Unfortunately I’ve run out of time before running out of sophistry to critique (heading out of town for the long weekend). Since there are a few more whoppers in Myers' post, I may take them up when I get back. But this wholly negative exercise is tiring, so I might not.


  1. Hi, Eric-

    I sympathize, because Myers tends to stoop to crass expressions and lazy reasoning. At the same time, I don't think you have a prayer of making headway on your substantive claims. I'll take one example:

    "Empirical observation cannot determine whether there is more to reality than what is empirically observable.

    Since this point is so obviously true--and since it implies immediately that naturalism is an empirically unfalsifiable worldview, and hence implies immediately that Myers is committed to an empirically unfalsifiable worldview--it's no wonder that Myers makes no attempt to seriously address this point."

    You are descending into a straw man here yourself. The only reason to suspect "more" to reality is because of observable effects- pangs in the stomach, epiphanies in the head, miracles in scripture (though you seem to not be so enamored of those), fine tuning in the universe. You have relentlessly tried to make your case for "something more" by way of actual evidence. Evidence that does not really succeed, and which is offered with no end of caveats, but evidence nevertheless.

    If you were truly dedicated to making your case without empirical props, then you would enter into straight fideism and be done with it- belief, authority, and basta. Or you could argue from pure utilitarianism- that such beliefs, whether true or not (impossible to tell without empiricism) are effective towards various goods you value.

    So, truth-wise, we are all in the same boat of making sense of the empirical world based on our perceptions of it. It is indeed possible to entertain various world views of the same evidence- perspectivism, and all that. But there has to be something there to observe in order to have a (different) perspective on it. Theology has lost all its historical examples of such ethereal objects, from the heavens to our inner biology. It is left with the cosmos at large and fine tuning, which is a poor argument in my estimation and one for deism at best.

    Sorry to be so blunt, but I truly think you are barking up the wrong tree trying to rehabilitate theology as something respectable, while trying to comment as sparingly as humanly possible(!)

  2. Burk

    I don't where Eric sets up a strawman in this post. If you had read his post clearly you would know that he is not making his case based on empirical evidence. He is just making the statement that the naturalistic worldview is just as empirically unfalsifiable as the theistic one. No strawman here!!

    "The only reason to suspect "more" to reality is because of observable effects- pangs in the stomach, epiphanies in the head, miracles in scripture (though you seem to not be so enamored of those), fine tuning in the universe. You have relentlessly tried to make your case for "something more" by way of actual evidence."

    Have you read his book??

    I have and don't recall any of these things you posted. I think you are the one setting up a strawman!!

  3. Hi, Chris-

    I think the core of Eric's case for theism in whatever form is the spiritual feeling. This is Schleiermacher's core as well, and a long chapter is spent in advancing the idea that such feelings may be signs, even "veridical" signs, of the beyond and its supposed inhabitant.

    If that isn't empirical, I don't know what is. I have great appreciation for such spiritual feelings, but what they betoken is of course a matter of careful, even scientific, analysis.

    You are probably right that what I pointed at is not a straw man.. more like bad analysis. Verifiability not something easy to apply to any world view, such views being by definition sort of meta-conceptions, but the only world view one could conceivably apply it to is the empirical one. Anything that is empirically observable is real, and anything not so observable, or logically inferrable from observations, is not real. Other world views freely propose other "realities", but without observational/logical tests for such realities, these views can not be rationally defended, let alone verified.

    Logical inferrability has rather broad scope, of course, and interpretation is where the whole game is at. But there should be logical connections between an observation and an inference, and saying the one's oceanic feelings indicate that one is in contact with the creator of the universe is way beyond what can be reasonably connected, especially with the absence of other solid reasons to believe in such a being, and conversely with the growing knowledge about mundane neurological accounts of such feelings.

  4. "saying the one's oceanic feelings indicate that one is in contact with the creator of the universe is way beyond what can be reasonably connected, especially with the absence of other solid reasons to believe in such a being, and conversely with the growing knowledge about mundane neurological accounts of such feelings."

    I agree with part of this statement. Being an agnostic myself, I agree that to make any case for God one has to posit reasons that aren't verifiable or provable. However, I really enjoy Eric's humility in his beliefs. He hopes that there is a God but admits that he is not certain. You don't find to many people who exhibit such humility in these polarizing debates.

  5. Hi Eric,

    Please do continue with your critique; as thorough and extensive as you can bear. It is vitally important to see this kind of rigorous response by those capable of giving it.

    This beginning post has proved sufficient warrant for me to go and buy your book.

    All the best,

  6. Eric,

    I think it’s clear that a proportion of atheists are not atheists because of their reasoning about how reality is, but because they like to belong to the group they perceive as representing the smartest people. New atheist leaders know this, so they seldom miss the opportunity to mention how few of the National Academy of Sciences believe in a personal God, and so on. Daniel Dennett even proposed that atheists should be called “brights”, apparently not realizing the irony in the suggestion. So, what you see in the posts to PZ Myers’ blog is quite typical of that type of atheist: They spend their time congratulating each other for their brilliance, and trying to outdo each other in the ridicule of theism. To be fair I think there is also a proportion of theists who are theists just because they like to belong to the exclusive club of the “saved”, or even the “guaranteed saved”, and who speak in equally derisive and/or threatening tone about those not agreeing with them. I suppose there will always be people who believe that the way to derive merit is by belonging to the right group.

    PC Myers himself clearly does not understand what he is talking about. As many a scientist he seems to be deeply ignorant not only of theology, but also of philosophy in general. In my experience it’s physicists who tend to be more philosophically sophisticated, perhaps because quantum mechanics has raised some deep questions about how reality is, questions that biologists and chemists, who pretty much continue to use classical science, are only dimly aware. What is remarkable though in PZ Myers’ response to your recent Religion Dispatches essay, apart from the ugliness, is that it is quite apparent that he is not making the least effort to understand what you are saying. And the question is why should one be motivated to respond to an essay and at the same time, apparently willfully, misunderstand what it says.

    The standard new atheistic answer is that theism is so obviously false that it is pointless to study theological thought. (Indeed, Richard Dawkins actively advices his followers not to read serious books on theology; I wonder how he’d feel if a fundamentalist Christian would advice others not to read serious books on natural evolution since natural evolution is after all obviously false.) In any case this standard answer does not work here, because PZ Myers did read your essay, only without apparently understanding a word of it. Now nobody suffers from that degree of reading incomprehension, certainly not a university professor like Myers. It looks like, whether consciously or unconsciously, he feels he must not risk understanding theistic reasoning lest he discovers that theism is not obviously false (“believing in God is like believing in fairies” claims Richard Dawkins). But theism, if false, is clearly not trivially false, as evidenced by the how hard serious atheist philosophers must work to counter theistic arguments, not to mention how unimpressively the brightest of the new atheists fare when debating theists (even though they almost exclusively debate conservative “Biblical” theists, which is like fighting somebody who has one arm tied behind his back). So, in my judgment, new atheism has succeeded in attracting many simpleminded people only by sacrificing two of the main virtues of traditional atheism, namely freedom of thought and intellectual honesty.

    Now, again, to be fair, it is clear that new atheists are not the best thinkers that atheism has to offer, not by far. Indeed they are the intellectual equivalent of the Biblical literalists within theism. Doesn’t the principle of charity imply that theists and atheists alike should search out and engage with the best thought the other side has to offer?

  7. Burk,

    Even many atheists agree that the evidence of the fine tuning of the universe inexorably leads one to suspect that there is more to reality than what meets the eye when we look around. Indeed, by proposing the existence of a gargantuan number of parallel universes, atheists have abandoned the venerable principle that one should not propose the existence of invisible and unfalsifiable entities for which no scientific rationale exists just in order to prop up one’s metaphysical beliefs.

    If I were an atheist the evidence that would most push me into wondering whether there isn’t something more to reality, is the fact that we are conscious beings. Indeed consciousness is the only truly overwhelming and incorrigible kind of evidence there is. Consciousness is literally the mother of all evidence, for all other pieces of evidence require its presence. Now, the existence of consciousness makes excellent sense on theism, but no sense whatsoever to one who believes that reality is composed just by the kind of objects that the natural sciences say exist. Indeed, famously, science does not require the consciousness hypothesis to explain any observable phenomenon.

    And what about free will? It turns out that free will does not make any sense on scientific naturalism either.

    And what about moral knowledge? Most people would agree that they are more certain about the truth of some moral propositions than about the truth of any scientific proposition. Yet nobody has yet found a way to describe a non-theistic reality in which moral truths are objective.

    And what about the evidence that for 100 years now the most successful scientific theory we have, namely quantum mechanics, resists naturalistic interpretation? Unless, that is, one is willing to abandon the deepest naturalistic intuitions, as well as any claim to plausibility.

    In conclusion, there is overwhelming evidence that there is more to reality than the material universe we see when we look around and which the natural sciences study. I agree with Eric Reitan’s point that there are several ways one can interpret one’s experience of life, but it does not follow that all such interpretations are equally reasonable, or equally coherent given the whole of our experience of life, or equally compatible with the natural sciences, or equally successful in the pragmatical sense.

  8. Erin, Myers has a history of this sort of thing.


  9. oops! Eric** , not "Erin"

  10. Anonymous,

    It is interesting to note how those atheists who more often call upon science in their argumentation, are also the ones who more often display ignorance of science. (That’s putting it mildly, one could also think that they are trying to deceive.) In the post you linked, for example, PZ Myers claims that in science “you have to propose *mechanisms*”. It’s true, of course, that ultimately what you want to do in science is *model* phenomena. But modeling phenomena is not the same as proposing mechanisms. Indeed in fundamental physics you don’t see any mechanisms. So, for example, according to general relativity mass bends spacetime around it in a specific way, but nobody has ever demanded of Einstein to explain by what mechanism does mass manage to do this. And, in any case, it’s clearly not the case that “you have” to propose a mechanism, otherwise it’s not science. Those, for example, who catalogue beetles or photograph the rings of Saturn do not propose any mechanisms but are doing science. Similarly Gregor Mendel did great science when he discovered the laws of the inheritance of traits, even though he did not propose any mechanism to explain them. Should an experimental physicist today discover a gravitational phenomenon which contradicts Eintein’s general relativity then it’s not like he would also have to propose a better theory than general relativity in order to explain the anomaly he discovered, otherwise he wouldn’t be doing science.

    PZ Myers’ scientific pretensions are just nonsense. Indeed more often than not new atheists are wildly overselling the science. So I’d say it’s them who claim that their metaphysical worldview is dressed with the splendid clothes of science, when in fact their emperor is naked. No matter how much I have looked I have never found any science that actually supports naturalism over theism. It’s all smoke and mirrors, a game of make believe.

  11. Burk: With respect to the following:

    “The only reason to suspect ‘more’ to reality is because of observable effects- pangs in the stomach, epiphanies in the head, miracles in scripture (though you seem to not be so enamored of those), fine tuning in the universe. You have relentlessly tried to make your case for ‘something more’ by way of actual evidence. Evidence that does not really succeed, and which is offered with no end of caveats, but evidence nevertheless.”

    I want to make two points. The first relates to the following statement: “The question of whether there is more to reality than meets the empirical eye cannot be answered through empirical means.” The point I want to make is that this statement’s truth does not depend on anyone actually having reason to suspect that there’s more to reality than meets the empirical eye. Some agnostic might well say, “If there are reasons to believe in something more than meets the empirical eye, those reasons won’t be empirical ones. And so empirical inquiry won’t answer this question. But I haven’t yet encountered any such non-empirical reasons to believe in something more.”

    My second point is that, while I do think there are reasons to suspect more to reality, and while such reasons might be called “evidence” in a broad sense, it doesn’t follow that the evidence of the same sort that is excluded in the statement above. Let me clarify with two distinctions.

    First, I want to distinguish between two efforts: (A) The effort to decide among rival hypotheses concerning the “phenomenal world”—by which I mean the world as OBJECT of experience. Such hypotheses posit what kinds of entities inhabit that world (and hence might be experienced in the sense of being directly or indirectly “observed”), how those entities are organized, and the patterns or regularities which govern their behavior (all of which might be “observed”). (B) The effort to decide among rival holistic interpretations of this world (rival “worldviews”)—interpretations which attempt to offer an understanding of the significance of the whole of experience—including (but not limited to) the totality of elements uncovered through (A).

    This distinction gestures towards a second one, between (i) the kind of experience that is admitted as evidence within the parameters set by the scientific method (what I will call “empirical evidence”), which is limited to what we can “observe” (what manifests, if you will, as an object of experience); and (ii) other experiences or features of experience—such as the feeling of agency and the immediate awareness of being the subject of experiences—which don’t qualify as evidence from the standpoint of the contemporary scientific method but which together with the empirical evidence make up the totality of experience we are trying to make sense of with a comprehensive worldview.

    In arguing for theism, I often invoke (ii) in the pursuit of (B). But that doesn’t amount to trying to use empirical evidence to support the hypothesis that there is more to reality than meets the empirical eye

  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

  13. Hi, Eric-

    "... (ii) other experiences or features of experience—such as the feeling of agency and the immediate awareness of being the subject of experiences—which don’t qualify as evidence from the standpoint of the contemporary scientific method .."

    "In arguing for theism, I often invoke (ii) in the pursuit of (B). But that doesn’t amount to trying to use empirical evidence .."

    I do not think that washes. Consider stroke- one's sense of awareness may be altered in deep and odd ways. There are countless manifestations of stroke, and loss of a feeling of agency may be one of them, as alien hand, Cotard syndromes and the like can show. These are very much evidence that come increasingly under the modern scientific cannon. Subjectivity itself is perennially under investigation as well, in anaesthesia and related areas of neurology.

    So I think that you confuse technical limitations- that we don't yet have full technical capacities to make sense of all these feelings and sensations- with the idea that such experiences aren't empirical evidence at all. This is an area where science is making progress, and taking up heretofore mysterious areas as we speak.

    Anyway, whatever account we make of these feelings, they are evidence- one either interprets it naively, hewing to consciousness's evolved design of giving us a seamless and subjective experience of life with mysterious underpinnings (including moving religious experiences, perhaps). Or one pokes around a bit under the hood and finds that all aspects of this experience can be impaired (or activated) in part or in whole by physical/electrical/chemical brain manipulation, while no non-brain signal or origin is in evidence, other than our regular interactions with the world by experience, learning, etc. Nothing that is or happens is outside "evidence". Science takes in everything that is/happens, just as theology attempts to, even if it is more humble about it, leaving hard topics for later. The one place it does not go is positing an unreality to account for evidence in this reality.

    Could it be that the ultimate cause of our feelings and plain subjectivity come from some non-material/non-materialist basis? There are no kinds of consciousness other than animal/organic consciousness, so we can't argue from some sort of cosmic consciousness for which there is any serious evidence. If one takes evolution seriously, one would have to suppose some magic moment when this extra soul was inserted into humans, but not, say, chimpanzees, which again has no plausibility as we learn more about our evolutionary history. And mechanistically, the more we learn, the more brain-based our mind is, including the increasingly complicated ingredients that apparently go into consciousness.

    Lastly, the theological discussions of soul stand as evidence as well- they fail to deal with neurological evidence, they fail to account for empirical phenomena by prediction or retrodiction, and typically hide their lack of insight in complicated and completely unnecessary jargon involving fanciful but fatally vague theories, which you call "technical language". It is reminiscent of creationism/ID, which had nothing coherent to offer as a hypothesis, other than a vague god did it/does it in her mysterious way, while taking lame potshots at evolution. I'm just going by Goetz and Talliafaro, however, who are apparently tops in their field.

  14. Burk--I think we're talking past each other a bit (again). You bring up here several correlations between brain events and reports of certain kinds of subjective experiences. These observable facts are the sort of thing that any reasonable worldview has to accomodate. As such, certain kinds of mind/body dualisms are excluded because they don't track onto the body of experiences that they purportedly interpret.

    But multiple worldviews DO track onto these observed correlations, including reductive materialism, Searlean emergentism, Thomistic hylomorphism, and the kind of dualism William James sketches out in his essay on immortality. In general, greater detail in cataloguing consciousness/brain state correlations does not seem to call for the abandonment of any of these alternative interpretations broadly construed, but at most their refinement.

    If we are to decide among these holistic interpretations of what we observe, we need to appeal to something else. Included within that "something else we might appeal to" is the immediate inner experience of what it is like to be a subject of experience or a deliberative agent. And here is the key point: THAT this immediate experience is CORRELATED with physical brain events is ONE kind of experience (an observation). WHAT IT'S LIKE TO BE A SUBJECT (or an agent) is a different kind of experience.


  15. The former, insofar as it is a matter of observation--an object OF experience--falls within the class of experiences that scientists treat as evidence. (Evidence for WHAT is another matter. Insofar as there are a range of foundational metaphysical theories that can accomodate these correlations, it seems implausible to treat them as evidence for the truth of one metaphysics over another. Nevertheless, they do qualify as scientific evidence--perhaps for the truth of general laws governing the impact of specific brain phenomena on states of consciousness (e.g., the impact of seratonin reuptake on mood).

    But the latter--what it's like qualitatively to BE a subject or agent--does not operate as scientific evidence in this way. But that it doesn't operate as such evidence doesn't mean it has no value in our thinking about alternative worldviews. The immediate experience of what it is like to be an agent may, for example, make more sense under one worldview than under another. It might, say, be taken as indicative of an immediate connection with a "noumenal reality" under one worldview, and dismissed as a misleading delusion under another. But such differences in the meaning of an experience under one worldview or another does not rise to the level of either verification or falsification--that is, worldviews are not verified by their capacity to explain a feature of experience, nor are worldviews falsified by the fact that they need to explain AWAY an experience. And so, we might say, that the process of deciding on a holistic interpretive worldview is more art than science.

  16. Eric,

    Wouldn’t you agree that the only people who really believe that there is nothing more to reality than meets the empirical eye, are solipsists? (I am using here "empirical" in the sense of "object to the five senses".) Everybody else believes that there is a real world out there producing the phenomenal world.

    At this juncture many an atheist may argue that the point is that the real world is just “like” what meets the empirical eye, but on further consideration this can’t be right. After all, the typical naturalist will agree that even though the world we see around us is full colors, there aren’t really any colors in the real world. Rather what exists in the real world are photons of various wavelengths, and our brain interprets the soup of electromagnetic radiation that enters our eyes in a way which literally paints the empirical objects of our visual experience with bright colors.

    One possible interpretation of the typical naturalist’s position is that they believe that the real world is like the phenomenal world in the sense that there is a one to one mapping between the two. But according to scientific realism there are many objects in the real world (from quarks and bent spacetime to something as basic as mass) that are not objects of empirical experience.

    I suspect that the vast majority of naturalists subscribe to scientific naturalism, which is at least a concrete ontology and says that the real world consists of what you get when you reify the scientific models of physical phenomena. But this position is untenable for two reasons: First, because quantum mechanics (and probably the entirety of future fundamental science) is such as to resist reification, hence the need to “interpret” quantum mechanics and all the mess that has resulted from that (a mess which only affect naturalists by the way). And secondly because on scientific naturalism conscious experience does not form part of the real world, which is absurd. Not to mention the naturalization problem that plagues the philosophical discourse of naturalism, and in which (as somebody in the excellent “Naturalism in Question” wryly notes) the theories proposed are believed only by their authors and a few of their students.

    In conclusion, apart from all the pretense of being “scientific”, I do not see what it is that naturalists call the real world. Some naturalists will say things like “we don’t yet know, we are still searching, science is a work in progress” and so on, but unless naturalists can at least come up with an intelligible hypothesis, I don’t see how a theist is supposed to evaluate naturalism. Theism’s hypothesis (mainly St. Anselm’s definition) is in comparison crystal clear as evidenced by the fact that many atheist philosophers write long essays about it, often using theologically sophisticated reasoning.

    The most charitable interpretation of naturalism I can find, is that according to naturalism the real world, however it may be, is ultimately a mechanical one, in the sense that all possible predictive knowledge about the real world (and hence about the phenomena it produces) can be modeled mathematically (including the math of probability theory). This definition strikes me as both fair (in the sense that it does reflect the naturalistic mindset about a blindly evolving reality), and as a maximally flexible one. For example, it does not entail the commitment that only physical things exist. Nor that non-physical things can’t have causal powers over physical ones. Nor limits naturalistic epistemology to the scientific method.

  17. Eric,

    Trying to understand why naturalists think like they do, I note a subtle but significant shift in the meaning they give to common words. So, for example, a naturalist will often conflate “evidence” with “physical evidence”, “existence” with “physical existence”, “reality” with “the observable universe”, “empirical” with “objectively observable”, “explanation” with “mechanistic how-to explanation”, “consciousness” with “intelligence”, “freedom” with “absence of coercion”, “ethics” with “pro-social behavior”, and of course “naturalism” with “science”. In all these cases the original meaning of the word is blunted, and out of the simplistic language a simplistic worldview is forged. Or perhaps it’s the other way around too: On a simplistic worldview there is pressure to blunt the meaning of words as to make conceptual problems disappear.

    I think that theists, in their effort to achieve a fruitful discourse with naturalists, should not adopt the simplistic language of naturalism, because in so doing they only help preserve the conceptual confusion. So, for example, if God exists and is an object of direct experience, as well as the best explanation for the whole of our experience of life, then I don’t see why theology is not literally an “empirical science”. If I am right on this, then theists should discuss theology as an empirical science and not as an art form, lest we confuse the other side. And that naturalists are grossly confused about the theistic thesis is only too apparent when one reads the popular new atheism books. And even sometimes when one reads some contemporary academic philosophers. (I am still taken aback with the Evan Fales’ claim that we never observe disembodied minds, as if we did sometimes observe embodied minds - I wonder if you’d comment on this point.)

    Even the very sacrosanct naturalistic distinction between “objective data” and “subjective feeling” is questionable is one actually looks critically at it. So, for example, to read the temperature of a thermometer is supposed to be “objective data”, but the experience of God as a transcendental force for good is supposed to be a “subjective feeling”. But where exactly is the difference? I suppose naturalists see two differences: First, that everybody sees the thermometer’s reading but not everybody experiences God. But this difference is only one of ease of experience; perhaps it is true that experiencing God is not a trivial exercise but then again neither is it experiencing climbing Mount Everest, or understanding general relativity. The second difference I suppose a naturalist may use to justify the objective/subjective distinction is that in the case of thermometer everybody reads the same temperature, whereas in the case of God people describe their experience in incompatible ways. But neither claim is precise. In the first case one would find it very difficult to describe to a blind person the experience of reading the thermometer. And in the second case, given that language has evolved to describe experiences we commonly share (such as seeing physical objects) it’s certainly more difficult to describe one's private experience of God. Nonetheless there is remarkable consistency in the way mystics, old and new, in the west and in the east, and belonging to many different religions, describe their powerful experiences of the transcendental. But even in those cases where descriptions are contradictory there is nothing to it: People may describe their experience of climbing Mount Everest in mutually contradictory terms too, especially if they have climbed it from different sides. So, in conclusion, it seems to me that the for the naturalist significant epistemic distinction between “objective data” and “subjective feeling” is simply an artifact of naturalism’s worldview and does not represent a valid epistemic distinction given our experience of life. Therefore, nobody should adopt this distinction in their ontological thinking lest they get attracted to naturalism by begging the question.

  18. Greetings... (in 3 parts)

    I learned a bit about hylomorphic approaches to mind here. And the delightful James essay is here.

    I'll leave the hylomorphic hypothesis, which I don't understand enough, and doubt is very significant, in agreement with the blogger above. I mean, forms are our mental constructs, not part of the world, so how one could stake a ontology on them is a bit hard to understand. I could summarize the position of James as the radio receiver (transmissive) model, where the brain is essential to the mind as a radio is to hearing broadcasts, but some essential element, perhaps the entire motivational force, comes from outside, whence we know not.

    The problem with this position is that the more we learn, the less we need it. Brain cells capable of recognizing Bill Clinton have been found, for heaven's sake. Other cells capable of predicting motor actions prior to their occurrence have been found. The circuitry required for thought is being slowly delineated and once it is closed from start to finish (if it is), there will be no more room or need for the putative signals coming from outside, not that any evidence for them has ever been found in any form whatsoever.

    Any transmissive apparatus would also show signs of that function, such as crystals to receive a radio signal not generated endogenously, or mouth parts that channel air that arrives from elsewhere to form a voice. Such signs have never been observed in the brain- its cells talk to each other and to the body, and that, as far as we know, is that. The pineal gland has, for one, not turned out to support a putative soul-transmitting function.

    So these soul and immortality hypotheses live on in our gaps of knowledge, doomed (if materialism is correct) to complete eradication as knowledge of brain-mind circuitry becomes complete. Linking up of all these circuits,and correlating them all with consciousness in a detailed way will, I think, get us over the divide and indeed force the abandonment of these other theories, or else show them to be correct. Subjective consciousness shouldn't be beyond this kind of analysis, once stimulation can, for instance, selectively induce specific alterations in experience/visual scene, etc. that would leave no doubt about these correlations.


  19. "And here is the key point: THAT this immediate experience is CORRELATED with physical brain events is ONE kind of experience (an observation). WHAT IT'S LIKE TO BE A SUBJECT (or an agent) is a different kind of experience."

    I don't see the distinction, really. The subjective experience is evidence especially when manipulated and correlated with material alterations. Most scientific work follows the same pattern- geology is a matter of inference among long-ago events using mechanistic theories and indirect evidence. Correlation becomes causation after enough circumstantial evidence accumulates to make a given theory the overwhelming best explanation, and we are essentially at the point for brain-mind function.

    I think that while you and James are formally correct that a radio-like hypothesis is not yet entirely defeated, it is grasping at straws in view of the lack of any evidence for such outside action- the very same intervention that was supposed to mediate lightning, evolution, insanity, and many other unexplained phenomena that are now mechanistically explained.

    And to insist on this formal possibility is like geologists formally proposing that earthquakes might be proximally caused by supernatural means. Since we don't know what specifically causes earthquakes to happen at one time or another, making them hard to predict, etc., this is a formal possibility. But the surrounding evidence is so well-secured and the general theory covers the phenomenon well enough through chaotic/random processes, that it is neither necessary, nor reasonable, to inject supernatural causation here. Not that some folks wouldn't try!

    "But such differences in the meaning of an experience under one worldview or another does not rise to the level of either verification or falsification--that is, worldviews are not verified by their capacity to explain a feature of experience, nor are worldviews falsified by the fact that they need to explain AWAY an experience.'"

    This is exactly why metaphysics is so fruitless. If one can't use it to differentiate among hypotheses, then what good is it? To come to a conclusion, we need another way into the problem, which is to take it apart mechanistically, piece by piece, from a more objective perspective. Then if this can be manipulated/tracked/correlated with subjective perspectives as well via technical means, we may have an answer. But staring at our navels, as Buddhists have been doing for millennia, bless them, is never going to analyze this problem successfully.

    I appreciate the world view issue, but in this case, you seem to be hiding behind what are increasingly defunct world views, giving them a false equivalence based on purely formal possibilities that upon rational (even holistic!) analysis dissolve to essentially nothing. Feel free to reserve judgement till the brain is better understood, however.

  20. Let me note with regard to Mr. Georgoudis that he is right that physics is full of brute facts that lack any explanation. And also that biology hews to a pretty old-fashioned positivism because its foundations are so secure, in chemistry, etc. The very frontiers of science only can be described- QCD is descriptively true, and we don't know why that is so. But QCD does explain prior levels of phenomena that are not at the knowledge frontier. QCD explains atoms, atoms explain chemistry, chemistry explains biology, etc. We keep looking for yet deeper explanations that rationalize what at the moment are mere observations- that is certainly the quest, for theist and scientist alike.

    Who is seriously grappling with such questions at those frontiers? The Vatican observatory aside, I would suggest that theists (including theologians) are rank amateurs and posers when it comes to looking for serious explanations beyond the current frontiers of descriptive physics and other fields. Their resources are the musty old standbys of supernaturalism, ready to fill any gap and quiet any doubt.

    And the idea that naturalists fail in sophistication when they don't appreciate the significance of these otherworldly "explanations"- well, what can one say? Supernaturalists endlessly fret about modes of interaction- how their mythical realm might impinge on our real world, answering our prayers, etc. But the efficient hypothesis, so far abundantly validated, is that such problems are entirely unnecessary since anything that impinges on our real world is part of it as well. Not that we know what all these things might be, dark matter and all, but it is precisely through the effects that we observe and seek to explain that we keep finding the deeper parts of reality that do, indeed, explain them. Never once has such a search ended up staring god in the face, oddly enough.

    How about we all agree to simply include everything that impinges on reality in natural reality, and thus come together in a big Kumbaya moment? The need to actively keep some psycho-spiritual realm separate from nature is frankly more of a philosophical escape hatch and psychological fixation than any way to analyze where we find ourselves.

  21. Burk--You extracted this quote from my earlier comment: "And here is the key point: THAT this immediate experience is CORRELATED with physical brain events is ONE kind of experience (an observation). WHAT IT'S LIKE TO BE A SUBJECT (or an agent) is a different kind of experience."

    And then you said: "I don't see the distinction, really."

    The distinction is, to me, so obvious that I'm not even sure what to say. It is a fundamental distinction between two entirely different KINDS of things--between something at the objective pole of experience, if you will, and something about the entire shape of it. I may, nevertheless, try to get at the distinction in another way later--I only have a few minutes before the kids are awake and a busy day starts.

    But you later comment that what you call the radio-receiver model is utterly needless needs to be set against the question: Needless for what purpose? And this question points right back to the distinction you claim not to see. It is clearly not needed in order to explain correlations between observed brain activity and reports of subjective experience. But that's not its purpose. It's purpose is to help provide a holistic account of experience that offers an interpretation of ALL relevant features of experience, including what you have taken off your table by not understanding it.

    But it occurs to me that one way to get at this distinction that MAY be more fruitful is to follow up on some of the provocative questions raised by Dianelos's most recent post--questions about what, exactly, naturalism IS (and, by implication, what subernaturalism is).

    I've said before that I don't find the distinction all that clear, and that the more useful distinction is the Kantian phenomenal/noumenal one--but I think I have some thoughts about how the latter distinction can be used to hash out the former (the two distinctions do NOT directly track onto each other), and I think that doing so may help reveal the distinction above in a functional way (that is, in terms of the role it serves in the different approaches to attempting to get at noumenal reality pursued by "naturalists" and "supernaturalists").

    And so, when I have time in the next couple of weeks, I will develop a post aimed at doing this. That post will also, I think, serve as an introduction to the issues of Hegelian methodology I've promised to explore.

  22. Hi, Eric-

    Thanks for following up. It would be great to hear more about Hegel, noumena, etc. I recognize the subjective/objective distinction, and use it alot in moral theory. But for our purpose here, for an ontology of what is real, it seems to have much, much less significance.

    Suppose we are in the Matrix, and puzzle over the nature of this reality. We haven't yet made it to the white room, but have seen a few oddities- shortouts where a visual scene disappears, violations of "natural" laws, etc. One way to approach this is to assume that our experience is veridical, and try to make sense of the problems and inconsistencies by way of internal adjustments to our model of this Matrix world, hard as that may be. Another way to approach this is to posit that it is an engineered fantasy, and seek to understand what lies behind it.

    The ironic thing is that your position, and the theist position in general, seems to be like the former, positing only the vaguest kind of outside author to the whole show (that of consciousness), while trying mightily to maintain its internal coherence and meaning by assuming that it somehow points reliably to honest-to-goodness real phenomena for a coherent, (and good), if mysterious purpose.

    The other position, which draws more seriously on the defects in the scenery- the optical illusions that demonstrate mechanism behind subjective perception and the like, combined with investigations of those mechanisms- to posit that what we experience, while generally well-tuned to reflect reality, (by way of the evolution of consciousness), is also a complicated engineering trick, not authored by a mystical sky-being for which no evidence exists, but by the mechanisms of the brain.

    All this goes right back to the beginning of philosophy, obviously. We certainly do live in matrix-like existence, and the only question is what underlies it. The relative track records of these approaches to the question is markedly different. Assuming that subjectivity is veridical and deserving of direct credence whatever insanity might fall into our heads is a sort of shamanic position, and a venerable one, even a socially/existentially essential one, perhaps. But scientifically, I don't think it has much going for it, in view of the opportunities we now have to do the deeper work of relating these epiphenomena with the primary phenomena they arise from.

  23. Thanks to all for a fascinating discussion. I love reading this stuff from you all.

    Doesn't it all come down to the fact that we are a part of the world we are trying to comprehend?

    There is no objective, outside viewpoint - relativity rules. And the consistency of the natural world is a limit, or a focusing influence, on our freedom to imagine ultimate reality, not a complete answer to it. So that's why so many people build up different conceptual frameworks to "house" it all.

    I am suspicious of creeping dualism in all of this, as it requires an outside perspective that we do not have.

    The spirit/flesh dualism of traditional Christianity devalues the whole of our experience as we see more and more how we are made up of the same stuff as everything else. And it imagines a part of ourselves outside the physical world. I am not sure there are good enough reasons to accept this.

    But the real/not-real dualism of metaphysical naturalism is odd too. It suggests that nature is all there is - then it says we are capable of thinking of things that are not real. That seems contradictory to me.

    Even our imaginations are real, physical things, creating real physical images and ideas in our real physical experience. And given the possibilities of the digital future, our very world in a century or two may be what we imagine now. So theology is very, very important. It provides a framework for working out how to think about what is ultimate - and atheism is important too - the rejection of theology coupled with its replacement with secular humanism, etc.

    All these world views should be judged by their morality and that is difficult to ground wholly in empirical evidence - though it's impossible to establish with it.

  24. The ground of being? A necessary meta-reality?

    Liberal theologian - I think perhaps the field our experience is broader than the field of our understanding - so life is worth exploring through faith.

    Metaphysical Naturalist - if there are parts of our experience that we cannot understand, then that's it. Game over. It's not worth speculating about.

    Liberal theologian - I disagree with classical theism, but I see myself on a continuum with it. I think the idea of God is an idea that is being refined over time

    Metaphysical Naturalist - I disagree with classical theism. Chuck it and start over.

    I think both are quite valid viewpoints.

  25. I am contemplating the idea that meaning is irreducible. Any attempt to analyze or explain the role and nature of meaning must always beg the question, because everything we do assumes meaning right from the outset. For example, the idea that the universe is meaningless is a meaningless idea. It is a value judgment and one that can only be made because we understand meaning. If we didn't understand meaning then there would be no basis to call the universe 'meaningless'. And where then does our inherent sense of meaning originate? At what point were we able to devise meaning, if meaning has no presence in reality? How can meaning arise from a meaninglessness process?

    The contradiction at the heart of materialism is that it must be self-negating. If it were true that 'everything is meaningless' as materialism appears to assert, then it has no basis for that assertion, or any other assertion. It can only deal with instrumental statements like 'pass the spanner'. All value judgments are groundless by its own definition. If everything were as meaningless as materialism said, then it would be pointless to say it is meaningless, and pointless to argue against it. Neither argument would have any meaning.