Sunday, June 27, 2010


I'll be on vacation for the next two weeks--and although I'll have consistent computer access, if I do any blogging it will likely be some lighter fare. But do check in. After all, last year while on vacation I drove past a billboard boldly declaring, "The Choice is Yours: Heaven or Hell," followed by a phone number to call for more information. That triggered a series of prank phone call fantasies which made it onto this blog--and which, if I do say so myself, were magnificent.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Keeping Oklahoma Safe from Islamic Law

For those of you who haven’t heard the news, legislators here in the great state of Oklahoma (apparently not wishing to be outdone by political weirdness in other states) have now approved a ballot measure that would amend the state constitution so as to prohibit judges from making rulings based on Islamic “Sharia” Law.

Although Muslims comprise less than 1% of the population of Oklahoma, and although Oklahoma is in the Bible Belt where the real risk is that Levitical Law will be enforced from the bench, and although there has never been even the remotest rumbling of a hint of a risk of Sharia law guiding judicial decisions in this state—despite all of this, it is apparently of vital significance for securing Oklahoma’s future that the state take a strong “pre-emptive” stand against Sharia law...apparently in order to discourage “liberal activists” from trying to legitimate it (since we all know how common it is for those ACLU liberals to try to circumvent church-state separation).

At first, of course, I found the whole thing absurd. Since there isn't even the remotest possibility that Oklahoma judges will be tempted to follow Sharia law from the bench, let alone think they can get away with it, it seemed to me that devoting a constitutional amendment to the issue was really just a way of expressing an ideological opposition to Islam. But as I think more about it, it occurs to me that the legislators responsible for this proposed constitutional amendment may be onto something after all.

Of course, there would be no risk of Sharia law guiding judicial decisions were one in a state where the principle of separation of church and state is strongly upheld. But maybe these legislators realize that Oklahoma is not such a state. Maybe they realize it because they are the very ones who have been laboring so long and hard to eviscerate this principle in the great state of Oklahoma, so as to better enable state legislators and judges to impose biblical morality on Oklahoma citizens.

And they are suddenly fearful that their achievements in this area come with a cost. With church-state separation out the window, what is to stop other religions from imposing their sectarian concept of justice on the people of Oklahoma? After all, only Christians should be free to force everyone to live by their sectarian principles. But since U.S. founding principles enshrine equality for all—including on the basis of religion—what happens when a state passes a constitutional amendment enshrining legal discrimination against gays and lesbians, even though such discrimination cannot reasonably be justified by any non-sectarian principle? What we have here is a state that has written legal discrimination into its constitution based on prevailing Christian doctrine--in other words, it has written into its constitution a practice that presupposes the legitimacy of imposing sectarian religious convictions on everyone regardless of their faith (or lack thereof). Because of this anti-gay constitutional amendment, the rejection of church-state separation has been implicitly written into the very constituition of the state of Oklahoma. And if that's the case, but there's still this impulse towards religious equality, what's going to stop those danged liberals from insisting that if Christians are free to use judicial power to impose their sectarian morality on everyone, then Muslims should be free to do the same?

While religious parity might be achieved by trying to restore a strong separation of church and state, doing so would impose inconvenient impediments on the efforts of Oklahoma Christians to pursue their God-given right to use the law to persecute gays and lesbians. While it is true that Sharia law would also call for the persecution of gays and lesbians, Oklahomans are firm in their commitment that when a sexual minority is to be subjected to discriminatory laws in the great state of Oklahoma, the discrimination should be justified by Bible quotes, not Koranic ones.

And even if the risk of the latter may seem low with such a tiny Muslim population in Oklahoma, one can never be too careful...especially now that the very President of the Unites States is a Muslim.

Oh, wait. Nevermind.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

What is Naturalism? Part V: Alternative Ontologies and Why We Should Care

So far, my primary aim in my series of posts on naturalism has been to offer an account of metaphysical naturalism—that is, naturalism construed as an ontology (an account of the nature of reality). I have proposed to define metaphysical naturalism as follows: it is the view that the picture of the world that emerges through the exercise of the scientific method (roughly as described in previous posts) is an exhaustive picture of the fundamental reality behind the world of appearances. In other words, it is the view that the scientific “picture” that emerges through the scientific method describes not merely the world that is constructed by the subject as it receives and organizes data coming in from things-in-themselves; it actually describes for us what the underlying noumenal reality is like. Or, more precisely, this is what would be achieved by the picture of the world that science would ultimately produce if it were able to achieve and adequately test an ultimate model of everything. In any event, science is bringing us ever closer to an exhaustive grasp of noumenal reality.
If this is what metaphysical naturalism maintains, then metaphysical supernaturalism becomes the view that even if science were to achieve that elusive theory of everything, and test it rigorously and successfully, the picture it gave us would not be an exhaustive depiction of noumenal reality.

But if we define metaphysical supernaturalism in those terms, then a further division becomes possible, between two broad species. The first species shares the naturalist premise that the scientific method is generating an account of reality as it is in itself, and not merely as it appears to us—but it denies that science gives us all of reality. This is the view that there are two kinds of reality—what might be called material or physical reality, and then some other kind (spiritual or mental, perhaps). Descartes can be seen as epitomizing metaphysical supernaturalism in this sense, insofar as he endorses a dualistic ontology that sharply divided the physical world and the mental, and insofar as he takes science to be capable of studying only the former.

The second kind of supernaturalism, by contrast, denies the naturalist premise altogether. That is, it denies that science and its methods have taken us past the domain of phenomena. This would be Kant’s contention. He would argue that at every stage in the process of science, we are dealing with the objective pole of consciousness, which is constructed by the engagement of the self with the world. What science gives us, then, is an increasingly useful phenomenal picture—that is, an understanding of the interface between self and external reality that facilitates at least one species of successful engagement, namely prediction and control. But this useful picture is still just a picture—the world as it appears to us, mediated through our faculties, our concepts, and our categories—and so is not to be identified with reality as it is in itself.

With respect to this second kind of supernaturalism, a further subdivision becomes possible, based on whether noumenal reality is thought to be utterly unknowable or simply unknowable through scientific means. The former is Kant’s position. The latter position admits of even further variations, in terms of both how much of the noumenal realm is thought to be accessible to human cognition and what means are thought to be of use in helping us understand the noumenal. These further subdivisions will not interest me here. It should be clear from what I have said in previous posts, however, that both Hegel and Schleiermacher fall within this broad category, as do many others—including, most significantly, a philosopher who preceded Kant by many, many centuries, and who might be regarded as the founder of Western philosophy. I mean, of course, Plato.

So, let us lay out these alternatives in more formal terms:

Metaphysical Naturalism: The theory that noumenal reality is to be exhaustively identified with the “idealized scientific picture of the world”—that is, the picture that would be generated by the scientific process of careful observation, modeling, and empirical testing of models, if only that process were allowed to continue to completion.

Metaphysical Supernaturalism A (Cartesian Supernaturalism): The theory that the idealized scientific picture would give us an accurate portrait of one kind or dimension of noumenal reality (what we might call material or physical reality) but that there is another kind or dimension (mental or spiritual) that lies outside the scope of science to adequately represent.

Metaphysical Supernaturalism B (Kantian Supernaturalism): The theory that the idealized scientific picture does not give us noumenal reality at all, but offers at best only an ever-more-useful phenomenal picture. Noumenal reality is something entirely other than what emerges in the scientific picture, and is furthermore inaccessible through any other means of inquiry. Noumenal reality, in short, is unknowable.

Metaphysical Supernaturalism C (Platonic Supernaturalism): The theory that the idealized scientific picture does not give us noumenal reality at all, but offers at best only an ever-more-useful phenomenal picture. Noumenal reality is something entirely other than what emerges in the scientific picture, but can be at least partly grasped through other means.

Now none of these categories offers a specific account of the nature of reality. What I have offered here are categories into which more precisely characterized ontologies might fall—but I have done so primarily in epistemological terms (that is, in terms of what and how we know). I have done so in large measure because my starting point was with naturalism, and because at least as I understand naturalism, the naturalist’s ultimate allegiance is epistemological.

Let me explain. If you are a metaphysical naturalist as I have defined it, that means you identify ultimate reality with the picture that would emerge through an idealized science. But insofar as contemporary scientists disagree about numerous things at a very basic level, being a naturalist in this sense doesn’t commit you to a specific picture of what ultimate reality is like. A metaphysical naturalist may have such a picture (and most usually do), but an allegiance to metaphysical naturalism entails a fallibilism with respect to any such picture, insofar as science might advance in ways that force the picture’s abandonment. There are surely metaphysical naturalists who believe string theory offers a (barely comprehensible) portrait of ultimate reality. But to be a metaphysical naturalist in the sense I have been articulating here is to care more about the scientific method than about any specific scientific means of modeling the world. If we advanced to a point where string theory could be empirically tested, and if it were then falsified, anyone who clung to string theory at that point would not be a metaphysical naturalist in my sense.

But this also means that, given my taxonomy, those who thinks noumenal reality is utterly inaccessible through any means, including scientific ones, are metaphysical supernaturalists (of the Kantian sort)—even if they also believe that (a) the inaccessibility of noumenal reality entails its irrelevance for human life, (b) all we should care about is understanding the phenomenal world in which we live our lives, and (c) we ought to rely entirely on scientific methods (and, perhaps, scientifically endorsed methods) in shaping our beliefs.

But persons who embrace (a)-(c) are not apt to call themselves supernaturalists, even though in terms of their views about ultimate reality they deny that an idealized science would put us in touch with that reality (and hence, in effect, believe that there is more to reality than meets the scientific eye). They are, instead, apt to call themselves naturalists. And of course, there is something very significant they have in common with metaphysical naturalists as defined above: they share a deep allegiance to the scientific method and its outcomes.

What this shows is that metaphysical naturalism is only one species of naturalism, and that for a full understanding of naturalism we need to make some further distinctions. In effect, the Kantian “supernaturalists” described above dismiss the entire category of “noumenal reality” as unimportant for human existence, and identify “reality” in the only significant sense as that which we must contend with in experience. The world of experience is the world we live in, and that world can be more or less accurately depicted. Accuracy is measured in terms of the depiction’s usefulness for prediction and control—and the method that's proven itself to consistently produce the best depictions for these purposes is the scientific method.

This perspective is what might be called “pragmatic naturalism.” For the purposes of living our lives successfully, noumenal reality is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is what the phenomenal world is like, in terms of such things as the rules it follows and the state it is in—in short, in terms of the features that we must contend with whether we like it or not. This is “reality” in the pragmatic sense, and the best tool for putting us in touch with that reality is science. Theological speculation, by contrast, is utterly useless in telling us what we need to contend with—and so is useless in helping us to better predict what will happen next and how we can better control outcomes. Praying over grandpa doesn’t restore his heart to health and so keep him alive longer. If we want to do that, we need to learn through scientific methods how the heart works and what interferes with its ability to do its job—and then use that knowledge to devise life-saving surgeries.

Now from this broadly pragmatic perspective, there is no doubt at all that science is extremely important and that we ignore it at our peril. For the sake of predicting and controlling outcomes in the world we live in (however merely phenomenal that world might be), science is really the only game in town. But once we’ve stepped away from the question of what is ultimately real and into the question of what is most useful for living our lives in the world of appearances we inhabit, we need to acknowledge that there can be different ways in which a picture of things is useful. Prediction and control is only one species of usefulness. Conduciveness to a sense of wholeness or meaning should surely be construed as useful as well—and why should usefulness in terms of prediction and control be given priority over other forms of usefulness?

Furthermore, if the whole reason for attaching a special priority to the lessons of science is that they enable us to more effectively engage with our world, science is being assessed within a context of agency. That is, we are assuming that we have the power to make decisions based on our understanding of things. But decision-making depends not only on an understanding of what effects we are most likely to produce by this course of action as opposed to that course of action. Decision-making also depends on an assessment of which effects are most worthy of pursuing, and on judgments about the legitimacy of the available means for pursuing those results. A Nazi researcher conducting experiments on unwilling Jewish subjects might have been as committed to the scientific method as anyone else, and as conversant with its lessons as anyone of his era…and yet it doesn’t follow that this scientist is operating with the most useful belief system for successfully living a human life.

Put more simply, that science offers the most successful beliefs for the sake of prediction and control doesn't mean it offers the most successful beliefs in all areas. It doesn't mean it can ground ethics. In fact, some are convinced that the picture of the world generated by science is entirely value-neutral—reducing values to mere epiphenomenal facts about brains. But agency cannot operate without values. In fact, the entire pragmatic approach to deciding how and what we should believe is a value-laden one: “usefulness” is a value concept. And if values are wholly subjective, then the usefulness of any enterprise—including science—is radically relativized. And so it no longer becomes possible to say, as the pragmatic naturalist does, that the scientific method offers the “best” way of forming beliefs about our world. It is only the best relative to certain subjective value systems, that is, relative to certain brain impulses.

A pragmatic naturalist might attempt to avoid these problems by maintaining, as Sam Harris does, that science can be relied upon to give us the ethical norms we need for decision-making, and that these scientifically-grounded norms are in some sense “better” than any others. I have already expressed my skepticism about that, but for now it is enough to note that in looking to science for an objective grounding for ethics and values, Harris is at best expressing a pious hope. It certainly isn’t the case that the scientific method has demonstrated that science can ground objective morality.

There's another issue rooted in the fact that pragmatic naturalism operates in the context of agency. Specifically, what needs to be the case for “agency” to be possible at all? To be an agent is to make decisions based on reasons—but is that even possible under a purely scientific view of the self? To act based on reasons is a very different thing than to exhibit certain behaviors based on the causal influence of pre-existing conditions in accord with natural laws. The latter accounts for behavior in terms of past events producing an outcome. The former would have it that we are in some way capable of bringing about a course of action because of a judgment to the effect that something is worthy of being done.

One might attempt to take the “judgment that this act is worthy of being done” to be just folk-psychology short-hand for a complex predecessor brain state that produces further brain stimuli in accord with natural laws. But in that case, the conscious judgment as such is simply an epiphenomenal by-product of the brain state that causes the behavior.

This is important for understanding why Kant thought we had to postulate something distinctive about the noumenal self in order for morality to be possible. For Kant, moral principles are truths of reason. They are true by virtue of the nature of rational consistency itself. But unlike other truths of reason, such as mathematical truths (2+2=4, say) these are expressly about what behavior it is rational to engage in (whether or not anyone actually engages in it or has any desire to do so).

For Kant, being moral is about being directly motivated by one of these distinctive truths of reason rather than being motivated by what he calls “inclination” (by which he means any appetite, desire, instinct, emotional impulse, etc.). So, in order for it to be possible to be moral, we have to be capable of doing something, not because there is some prior inclination that causes us to do it, but rather because we are directly motivated by a truth of reason. But truths of reason are not brain states. 2+2=4 is not identical with any brain state, even if a brain state might represent mathematical truths. What makes 2+2=4 true is not some neurological event in the brain but the fact that the concept of “2” is related to the concept of “4” in the indicated way. It’s an abstract truth, not a physical fact.

But here’s the key thing: being moral means, for Kant, being motivated to action by an abstract truth rather than by a physical fact. If I do what I do necessarily and exclusively because of complex brain states that bring it about, then I am necessarily removed from the domain of moral agency.

And if I am removed from the domain of moral agency, then I am removed from the domain in which there might be any objective values that can guide my behavior (as opposed to the subjective preferences that are really just physiological impulses which feel a certain way). My behavior then falls into the same category as the behavior of the weather or the tides, except that the causal mechanism is far more complex and so much harder to predict (and is wedded to epiphenomena that are causally inefficacious). But if my behavior is in the same category as that of the weather or tides, then offering reasons to value science or speaking of the pragmatic value of science becomes utterly pointless. Giving reasons and arguments, making the case for valuing this or that—all of this presupposes a genuine capacity to be responsive to abstract ideas and judgments and principles, as opposed to being motivated by nothing but causal forces.

Or consider artistic activity. If all human actions are caused by prior physical brain states rather than being motivated by abstract principles and ideas, then a poem produced by a great artist is not in a different category than (to borrow B.F. Skinner’s crude metaphor) a turd squeezed out by toddler. The causal mechanism responsible for the former is more complex—but without the capacity for human beings to be guided behaviorally by abstracted ideas themselves (even if we concede that these ideas are always represented by brain states), none of the things we would like to say about the poem and the poet (things it makes no sense to say about the toddler and the turd) can meaningfully be said.

That’s how both Kant and I see it, in any event—and I cannot help but think that those who think materialism can easily make sense of human moral and artist agency just haven’t thought about it long enough to understand the problem. I’m not saying that the problem is necessarily insurmountable (although I can’t see a way to surmount it). What I’m saying is that the problem is real and it’s HUGE. Unless the problem can be surmounted, a worldview that admits in nothing but what science offers us about human nature and the mind is a worldview that systematically strips human life of everything that, well, makes us human.

If we are operating purely at a pragmatic level, rather than at the level of ultimate truth, then I cannot see how anyone could view such a worldview as pragmatically the best. While I fully accept that any pragmatically useful worldview must value the scientific method and treat its conclusions concerning the phenomenal world (the world we must contend with) as invaluable for the sake of prediction and control, the fact is that there isn’t just a phenomenal world I have to contend with. There is also a “me” who has to contend with the world. And there are some presumptions about this “me” that I cannot help but adopt as I engage with the world. One of these is that I can be and really am responsive to ideas and reasons and arguments—abstract entities that, like 2+2=4, cannot coherently be identified with any physical state of affairs (even if, as may very well be the case, these abstract entities are represented by a physical state of affairs, that is, by a brain state).

For Kant, this is precisely the point at which an unknowable noumenal reality becomes relevant despite its unknowability. Because Kant was convinced that the capacity for agency was not part of our phenomenal experience of the world. This may sound strange, since most of us have an instinctive understanding of ourselves as capable of making choices based on reasons. But this capacity for agency isn’t what we experience when we make ourselves the object of experience. When we look at ourselves in that way—when we put ourselves at the objective pole of consciousness and study ourselves the way that we study the stars and the inner working of biological organisms—the result is an understanding of ourselves as causally determined to behave as we do. And so as soon as we make of the self an object of experience--as soon as it becomes part of the phenomenal world--we are presented with an object about which we cannot attribute free agency.

Our sense of freedom and agency is present only when we don’t turn our attention to ourselves, only when we don’t make of ourselves an object of experience. It is immediately felt, we might say—part of our subjective experience of ourselves rather than part of our objective experience of ourselves. That this feeling isn’t corroborated when we investigate ourselves empirically would be devastating for the possibility of moral agency if the outcomes of such empirical investigation represented reality as it is in itself. But because it doesn’t, the determinism found in the empirical world doesn’t preclude us from assuming what we need to assume in order for human life to have the meaningfulness and dignity that (for Kant as well as myself) only comes from moral agency.

In other words, for Kant the chief value of an unknowable noumenal reality is that it makes it possible for us to coherently make postulates that transcend what science can teach us about the empirical world, postulates that we must make in order for our overall worldview to really work, not merely for the sake of prediction and control but for the sake of acknowledging ourselves to be what we intuitively take ourselves to be, and what we must be if our lives and projects are to be more meaningful than a turd.

All of this is a way of saying that Kant is not merely a metaphysical supernaturalist of type B, but also a pragmatic supernaturalist in something analogous to Metaphysical Supernaturalism A. If a pragmatic naturalist finds the most useful holistic picture of the world to be a purely scientific one that makes no room for positing entities or powers that defy scientific modeling, then Kant is a pragmatic supernaturalist in the sense that he finds a holistic picture that includes “transcendent” elements to be more useful overall. These transcendent elements are not objects of knowledge—because they are postulates about what falls outside the phenomenal world and hence outside the realm in which (for Kant) knowledge is possible. That there is a noumenal reality beyond the phenomenal world, even if we can't know anything about it,  make it possible to include in our overall worldview postulates that don't describe the empirical world and aren’t knowable—and this in turn makes it possible for us to operate in the phenomenal world with a worldview that is pragmatically more useful than any worldview limited to affirming what empirical investigation can support.

In effect, then, I am interpreting Kant as embracing Metaphysical Supernaturalism A and pairing it with pragmatic supernaturalism—in contrast with those who embrace Metaphysical Supernaturalism A and pair it with pragmatic naturalism.

Both of these positions need to be further contrasted with someone who embraces Metaphysical Naturalism but then pairs it with pragmatic supernaturalism. This would be someone who thinks that supernatural beliefs are false but useful and so should be encouraged despite being out of touch with reality. Daniel Dennett seems to think that many modern defenders of religion fall into this category, when he talks about “belief in belief” in Breaking the Spell. Richard Dawkins seems to treat Karen Armstrong in these terms as well.

I suspect they’re wrong. I think the theologians and philosophers they pigeonhole in this way are, like Kant, pragmatically-minded adherents to Metaphysical Supernaturalism B. That is, they think that ultimate reality is beyond our reach—including the reach of science—but that we nevertheless need to operate in terms of a (fallible) picture of reality, and that the best procedure for doing so is pragmatic. A picture that denies the models produced by the best science is less useful than any picture that affirms them—but one that affirms nothing but them is less useful than some pictures that affirm something more.

As anyone who’s read my book should know, I lean towards a kind of pragmatic supernaturalism—but I don’t identify reality with what is pragmatically useful. That is, I think reality is what it is, so to speak. But I also think that what we must contend with in experience, and which ways of thinking are most helpful in contending successfully, offer important guidance into bringing our worldview into alignment with a deeper reality (in this respect I am closer to Hegel than to Kant).

I’ve also been convinced by certain philosophical arguments (especially the Leibniz/Clarke Cosmological Argument which I discuss in my book) that the kind of reality pictured in scientific modeling cannot offer ultimate explanations. And so, if there is to be a reason for why there is something rather than nothing (a principle I find myself unable to set aside), then there must be a noumenal reality crucially unlike what science depicts. As such, I cannot accept Metaphysical Naturalism. But when it comes to which species of Metaphysical Supernaturalism I adopt, I find myself waffling quite a bit--but I think I ultimately lean towards the Platonic variety.

But I'm not content to simply go with my leanings here, because I think Schleiermacher and Hegel are right about something important: Whatever the noumenal reality is, I’m a part of it. Not the "me" who is an object of experience—that’s the phenomenal me. And the naïve “phenomenal me” that comes from immediate introspection is no less phenomenal than what scientists look at when they study my brain. What bearing it has on the “noumenal me” remains an open question.

But still, I am what I am—and so in being me (as opposed to putting myself at the objective pole of conscious observation and then studying me) I am being part of noumenal reality. And there may be a way to leverage that fact into some kind of understanding of noumenal reality. That’s what Hegel tries to do in The Phenomenology of Spirit--and whether a project like that is going to work is, I think, a question we should not attempt to answer in advance of pursuing it. I think the way to decide whether noumenal reality can be accessed in some fashion or other is to really try out different strategies and methodologies. The one Hegel recommends is, in effect, a pragmatic one—but one that fills in some crucial holes in more conventional forms of pragmatism.

And so there’s my set-up for talking about Hegel in future posts. But it may take awhile to get those posts put up, in part because I'm getting ready to leave for vacation, but more significantly because talking about Hegel is hard. There are two reasons for this. First, his writing is so danged obscure, so loaded with his own invented jargon. Second, Hegel has an authorial voice I can’t stand, one that is weighted down by the man’s obvious arrogance and sense of self-importance. But unlike certain others whose authorial voices turn me off, I’ve become convinced that Hegel’s is one I need to contend with—because, even if he is a pompous ass, he’s also brilliant.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

What is Naturalism, Part IV: Science as a Pathway to the Noumenal

For this post I want to focus on the idea, embraced by many (implicitly if not explicitly) that contrary to what Kant thought, the noumenal realm can be reached through the scientific method—that is, through the method of (a) making careful empirical observations, often with the aid of technological enhancements that refine our capacity to observe and measure, (b) discovering recurring patterns in what is observed, and (c) constructing models (either mechanistic or mathematical) for making sense of these patterns—models which typically (but not always) are empirically testable because they make a difference with respect to what we might observe.
The idea here--which I take to be a particularly helpful way of understanding the core thesis of metaphysical naturalism--is that were this method rigorously pursued to its completion (which will never in fact be achieved), what would be uncovered is reality as it is in itself: the noumenal realm.

Now there are two things I can think of that speak in favor of this view. The first can be highlighted with an example I used in my book for a very different purpose. Years ago I was at a conference on categories in which the audience was presented with a series of computer-generated sounds. What we heard sounded like five P’s followed by five B’s. It was then explained to us that the difference between a P and a B is the interval of time between the “pop” of the lips and the onset of vocalization, and that the computer had generated ten distinct sounds by narrowing this interval by the same increment ten successive times. But because we were all English speakers, and because the English language only has two phonemes into which to categorize this range of sounds, we heard only two sounds, each repeated five times.

What does this have to do with science and bridging the gap between phenomena and noumena? Well, it seems as if, with the help of instruments that don’t have our distinct perceptual limitations, we’ve been able to isolate something in our perceptual apparatus that informs what we experience while at the same time “seeing past” that feature of our perceptual apparatus to get a truer understanding of what is going on. Sounds are more diverse and varied than what we hear, but with the right sort of technological help we can track these variations that our unaided senses can’t track. And so, it seems, we are moving towards a more accurate picture of how things are--that is, bridging or at least narrowing the phenomenal/noumenal gap.

The second point I want to make is broader. Specifically, the world as described by scientists is very different from what we immediately apprehend in our waking lives. The world of ordinary experience would have it that the desk in front of me is solid—but science has taught us that it is “really” mostly empty space, within which atoms comprised of protons and neutrons and clouds of electrons exert forces on one another. Science has taught us that the appearance of solidity is a function of how our sensory apparatuses interact with this reality—and these sensory apparatuses can themselves be studied scientifically, so as to explain why these perceptions are produced despite their disconnect with reality.

In short, science has given us a picture of the world that is very different from ordinary experience, and has at the same time given us a picture of how our senses operate—and these pictures in turn offer at least a partial account of why things appear to us as they do. It’s almost as if science has offered us a way to isolate what we bring to phenomenal experience and separate it out from what is independent of phenomenal experience. Science tells us, “The table looks solid, but we now know that it’s really mostly empty space.” This sounds like an appearance/reality distinction right in line with Kant—but more significantly, it sounds as if what science has done is taken us past appearances to the underlying reality. And so it is concluded that science has given us a glimpse of a noumenal reality that ordinary perception cannot offer.

But none of this is what one would call a deductively valid argument for the conclusion that science puts us in touch with noumenal reality. It is, rather, an interpretation of what science has done—an interpretation based on the fact that science has offered a picture of things quite different from the way things ordinarily appear to us, along with some explanations of how our minds might be structured so as to produce these appearances on the basis of an underlying reality that is as scientists have described it to be.

To see why none of this amounts to a demonstration of the fact that the scientific method is putting us in touch with noumenal reality, let me draw on something else that I use in my book for a different purpose—namely, the Matrix-like analogy of the world of brains-in-vats being fed stimuli by a supercomputer, one which also adjusts the stimuli it sends based on messages coming from the brains-in-vats. The result is a perfectly realized virtual world in which the brains-in-vats experience and respond to their environment.

For Kant, phenomenal reality is analogous to the virtual world experienced by the brains-in-vats. Noumenal reality is analogous to the brains, vats, supercomputer and its programming, etc. If we assume that the virtual world is experientially just like our own, then we can assume that the phenomena experienced by the brains-in-vats can be scientifically modeled in exactly the same ways that we model our phenomenal experience--and that the scientists of the virtual world will therefore conclude, just like we do, that tabletops that appear to be solid "are  really mostly empty space, etc."

But in our analogous case, this scientific picture of things is no more noumenal than the naïve picture. The brains studied by the scientists are phenomenal ones--not the "real ones" wired into the supercomputer, but the virtual brains produced by the supercomputer's stimuli. The sense organs studied by these scientists are likewise utterly unlike the ultimate reality (in which there are no analogous sense organs at all).  The structure and operation of these virtual brains and sense organs exist exclusively in the virtual (phenomenal) world,  and what a careful study of them tells us (about, for example, how these organs affect our perception) is also something that is true only of the phenomenal realm.

In short, the scientific models proposed to make sense of regularities in the phenomenal world are simply a way to describe (from a different angle and in minute detail) the workings of the phenomenal world. None of this gets us out of the virtual matrix and to the underlying reality. Scientists can work for centuries and never uncover the brains-in-vats or the supercomputer.

Now I don’t introduce this analogy because I think we live in a virtual reality matrix created by a supercomputer, but rather to offer an analogy that can help explain why Kant would say that the scientific picture of things is just as much phenomenal as our naïve picture of things. It’s a more helpful picture of the phenomenal world, offering us more detail and precision and incorporating an understanding of how the phenomenal self (the self as an object of experience that can be studied) interacts with other phenomenal objects to produce “second-order phenomena.” But noumenal reality is just as out of reach after science has done this work than ever before. The scientific picture is still just a picture, a way that things appear to us--and the question of how closely appearances track reality remains an open question.

Let me come at this idea from a very different angle—specifically, from an introspective one. Consciousness has a shape to it. Among other things, there is a subjective pole and an objective one—there is that which experiences and then there is that which is experienced. There’s also the matter of how we experiences, and this connects to another feature of our introspective sense of ourselves. In addition to being subjects of experience, we also seem to be agents. That is, we will things to happen which we can then observe happening.

And the center of our agency seems to be located in the same “place,” so to speak, as the subject of consciousness. It’s as if there is this “self” that is capable of both receptivity and activity—capable both of receiving something from the outside world in the form of conscious awareness, and of deciding to engage the world in various ways (by deciding what to look at, what to ignore, what to delight in and what to despise, as well as deciding how to move one’s body and the like).

Now there is a kind of activity we can pursue—an activity called objective observation—that is really about turning our attention to what we find at the objective pole of experience—the “phenomena”—and then study them in an unbiased way so as to accurately and with great precision and detail describe what we actually find there at the objective pole of experience (as opposed, say, to describing what we wish were there).

The aim is to get an “objective” understanding of what we observe, that is, an undistorted picture of what lies at the objective pole of consciousness—by which we mean a picture that hasn’t been distorted by other things that are at work in our consciousness, especially such things as desires and hopes and aversions and fears. Of course, insofar as we receive the object through our senses and in terms of our concepts and categories of understanding, what we find at the objective pole of consciousness is not the “thing in itself” but the thing as mediated by these faculties. In that sense, then, there is no such thing as an undistorted object of consciousness. Every object of experience comes to us in a form shaped by our means of apprehension and suited to our modes of cognition.

But still, there are influences on how we characterize what is on the objective pole of consciousness that aren’t part of the fixed laws by which our minds present and conceptualize experience. And these variable influences are likely to be numerous. We are rarely merely passive in relation to phenomena. We engage and interact with them. We make value judgments about them. We have feelings about them. We hope they will be like this. We are afraid the will be like that. We hate what they seem to be like. We love what we find there and don’t want it to change.

But at some point in human history it was discovered that there is something to be gained by suppressing all of this interactive engagement with phenomena and trying, instead, just to observe them--that is, to be wholly receptive in relation to them, so that we can come to discern what is there at the objective pole of consciousness with a degree of detail and accuracy that wouldn't otherwise be possible. Put another way, there is something to be gained from really paying attention to what sits at the point of interface between the conscious self and to "other."

Of course, what we gain from this receptive attention has to do with our active side: if we interact with things based on beliefs about them derived from such pure observation, the results are more predictable (things behave and respond the way we expect them to) and hence generally more rewarding. Put another way, our active engagement with the phenomenal world is more successful, at least in terms of prediction and control, to the extent that we base our decisions about what to do on views about that world derived from careful observation—observation that aims to set aside any psychological factors which might interfere with the phenomenal object presenting itself to us “as it is.”

Again, what is presenting itself to us when we strive for such objective receptivity is, from a Kantian standpoint, still the phenomenal object as opposed to the thing in itself. But there’s this sense that the phenomenal object that we encounter through such objective observation is more to be trusted. And so it’s quite natural to suppose that a phenomenal object received in this way—through purely receptive attention, or what is generally called unbiased observation—offers clues to noumenal reality that can be found nowhere else.

And this, I think, is the premise around which science grows. If we focus our attention on the objective pole of consciousness, and endeavor to adopt an attitude of pure receptivity to what the objects at that pole give to us, we can then begin to describe the phenomenal world at a level of detail that will uncover an array of clues about the reality that lies behind it.

We collect a set of observations—for example, the observations spelled out in the ideal gas laws. We note that at a constant temperature, volume and pressure have an inverse proportional relationship (Boyle’s Law). At a constant pressure, volume and temperature are directly proportional (Charles’ Law). At a constant volume, pressure and temperature are directly proportional (Gay-Lussac’s Law).

But instead of being content with merely describing these recurring patterns, we treat them as clues. We speculate about what the gases have to be like—and what pressure and temperature are really measuring—in order for these observations to hold true. We construct a mechanistic model: Gases are really tiny particles in constant, random motion. Pressure measures the frequency with which these particles strike the container in which the gas is housed. Temperature measures the velocity at which these particles are moving.

And so we now arrive at the kinetic theory of gases. But we ask ourselves why we should believe that this model captures the reality behind appearances. Since detached observation of phenomena brought us this far, we appeal to it again. We ask what else we might observe if this kinetic theory of gases is true. And then we try to observe it.

This process continues. The same “particles” that were postulated in the kinetic theory of gases come up in other models used to makes sense of other observations. While we cannot observe them directly, we use our growing grasp of the rules by which the phenomenal world works to create devices that “see” them for us. We make observations about them—and then proceed to model them to make sense of these observations. We conceive of them as made up of smaller particles—some forming a nucleus around which others orbit. We refine this model. We begin to examine everything, including our own bodies and brains, in terms of these powerful models. The models are progressively refined in the light of what we observe--and are themselves explained in terms of more basic models which postulate more basic particles and more basic rules (which we reify in terms of concepts such as “forces” and “physical constants”).

And at some point we become convinced that this picture has taken us beyond phenomena to reality itself. We think that what we are doing, as we engage in this process, is using the careful examination of the phenomenal world to piece together a picture of the underlying noumenal reality. The process that starts with ignoring everything in consciousness but what is at the objective pole, that proceeds by setting aside the influence of any elements of our consciousness that might interfere with pure receptivity to what the objective pole presents us with, and then lets the active element of ourselves back in at the point of constructing models to explain what is observed—this process is taken to put us in touch with noumenal reality, at least in part.  The pragmatic usefulness that this method affords in terms of prediction and control of the phenomenal world is take as evidence that we are steadily aligning our beliefs with the reality that lies behind appearances. And it is a short step from this judgment to the belief that this same process has the power, at least in principle, to give us all of noumenal reality, the whole world as it is in itself (if only we could somehow carry the scientific project to completion and generate a flawless unifying model of every empirical observation). And so, if anything is posited to exist which in principle could not be discovered through this process, then it is dismissed as "supernatural."

This is what I take metaphysical naturalism to be: the view that the picture of the world that emerges through the exercise of the scientific method (roughly as described here) is an exhaustive picture of the fundamental reality behind the world of appearances. In other words, it is the view that noumenal reality is to be identified with the scientific picture of the world—or, more precisely, with the picture of the world that the scientific method would ultimately produce if it were able to achieve and adequately test an ultimate model of everything. In any event, the idea is that science is bringing us ever closer to an exhaustive grasp of noumenal reality. As such, metaphysical naturalism is a much stronger view than the more modest thesis that science gives us insight into some important feature or dimension of noumenal reality, leaving open the possibility that there are things in the noumenal realm that science cannot even in principle get at.

And so, if the picture that emerges from this scientific process leaves no space for an understanding of ourselves corresponding with our immediate inner experience of ourselves as unified subject and agent, this is taken to show that the noumenal reality about ourselves is at odds with our phenomenal experience of ourselves. If the resultant picture cannot account for entities in the world possessing objective value, then our experience of such a thing must be a subjective projection, produced by an underlying physical reality (the brain)—another case in which noumenal reality is at odds with phenomenal appearances.

Now this identification of noumenal reality with the outcomes of an idealized science cannot be falsified through the scientific method, because that would require that the scientific method offer up a picture of reality at odds with its picture of reality. Science cannot directly access noumenal reality in some way independent of its methodology in order to show it to be at odds with the picture produced by science. Furthermore, if the noumenal reality is at odds with the scientific picture of things, it will likely be because the noumenal reality is related to phenomenal experience in something analogous to the way that the supercomputer-reality is related to the virtual experience of the brains-in-vats. In other words, if the identification of the scientific world picture with ultimate reality is wrong, it will be wrong for reasons that make it impossible to directly show that it is wrong.

One might think, however, that we should believe in the close correspondence between the scientific picture and noumenal reality unless one has been given good reason to doubt it. Unless we have good reasons to think there's a disconnect between appearances and reality as significant as what one has in the brain-in-vat analogy, one should trust that there isn't such a disconnect. Science gives us reason to think there is such a disconnect between everyday appearances and reality, but there is nothing comparable that provides us with reason to suspect a comparable disconnect between scientific appearances and reality. And so, we should trust that scientific appearances connect us with reality, and the default position should be metaphysical naturalism.

There are several problems here. First, there is the question of what is to count as a reason to suspect the identification of scientific models with noumenal reality. Many of the disputes in this blog turn on just this question--a theist offers reasons to be suspicious of the identification, and these reasons are dismissed because (a) they aren't the sorts of reasons that fit with the assumption that what can be scientifically modeled exhausts reality, and (b) scientific modeling provides a means of explaining away as predictable illusion the considerations that have been put forward to challenge the identification.

But let's set aside worries of this sort and accept as legitimate only the kinds of reasons for doubt that scientists typically treat as legitimate. If we do this, then the absence of reasons for doubting the identification of ultimate scientific models with noumenal reality doesn't say much. The absence of reasons for doubt counts in favor of a belief only if we would expect there to be reasons for doubt if the belief is wrong---but this is not the case with the identification between what science depicts and what is ultimately real. The absence of any such reasons for doubting the identification is just what we would expect were noumenal reality as inaccessible to real-world scientists as it is to virtual-world scientists in our analogous case.

Finally, let us return to thinking about the scientific method from our starting place in consciousness.  Science proceeds by intially bracketing (or setting aside for a pragmatic purpose) everything but the objective pole of consciousness. Metaphysical naturalism then identifies the whole of reality with what has been arrived at by paying exclusive attention to this objective pole. The subjective pole of experience, our sense of agency, the deepest longings of the soul, our values—these are reintroduced only once a holistic picture of reality has been constructed without them. Is it any wonder that, according to a holistic picture of reality embraced without paying any attention to anything but what we find at the objective pole of experience, everything other than what we find at the objective pole of experience is judged to be a phenomenal illusion?

Kant, by contrast, was more than prepared to consider the possibility that the scientific picture of reality left things out because, after all, it was just a picture. And so, for example, he looked at the self-understanding that comes from empirical investigation, according to which all things are mechanistically determined by pre-existing conditions and constant natural laws. He saw that this implies that our actions are determined rather than free. But for Kant, all that this showed is that the phenomenal self--the self as an object of experience--is determined. But that doesn't mean the noumenal self is. Moral agency, he argued, makes no sense apart from real freedom--but the determinism of the phenomenal self isn't therefore a bar to affirming moral agency, since we can postulate that the noumenal self is free. He called this a necessary postulate of practical reason (reason that is action-guiding), because in order for reason to be action-guiding the self must be capable of choosing to follow the dictates of reason rather than merely act mechanistically in accord with physical laws. While no scientific picture will show a self that can do this, such pictures are purely phenomenal. And so attributing such determinism to the noumenal self would be both unwarranted and inappropriate, since it would mean the denial of moral responsibility.

One might treat this as a kind of practical wager: Either we are morally responsible for our actions or not. Which is true depends on what the noumenal self is like, something we cannot know. We can postulate that the noumenal self is determined, that we have no moral responsibility for our actions, or we can postulate that the noumenal self is free and that we do have such responsibility. If we postulate the former and are mistaken, then we have abdicated a responsibility that we actually possess. If we postulate the latter and are mistaken, we are just as determined as we ever were. Kant thought that practical reason demands we make the former postulate--that, in other words, practical reason demands we reject metaphysical naturalism.

What I would add to all of this is that our intuitive sense of ourselves is one that affirms free agency. And the fact that the scientific method begins by bracketing all such intuitive affirmations so as to focus exclusively on the objective pole of consciousness is not a good reason to conclude that these intuitive affirmations are false. After all, we should expect that a model of reality that begins by setting these intuitive affirmations aside won't afford them a veridical place in the model.

Of course, it doesn't follow that these intuitive affirmations are true, either. And that practical reason demands that we postulate things about the noumenal realm that transcend what scientific modeling can endorse doesn't entail that the metaphysical naturalist's position is false.

So where does that leave us? It leaves us with metaphysical naturalism as a theory about ultimate reality that (as far as we can say at this point in our thinking) might be true but is hardly uncontestable. In my next post I want to consider a range of alternatives to metaphysical naturalism—not merely metaphysical supernaturalism, but also pragmatic naturalism (which Burk gestured towards in a comment on an earlier post in this series) and perhaps some other alternatives as well.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Exclusive Interview with BP CEO Tony Hayward

Over the weekend, BP chief executive Tony Hayward took some well-deserved time off from watching oil pour into the Gulf of Mexico to enjoy a yacht race around the Isle of Wight—a race in which his personal 52-fooy yacht, “Bob,” participated.

Our hard-hitting faux interviewer for The Piety that Lies Between caught up with Hayward through the magic of teleconferencing as he was celebrating Bob’s fourth-place finish with a pint of Guinness at his nearest bungalo.

TPTLB: Many people are wondering how, in good conscience, you can enjoy this kind of luxury indulgence—a yacht race in unsullied British waters—while countless people, animals, and ecosystems in the gulf region suffer the grim consequences of the ongoing oil spew. What do you say in response?

Hayward: The truth is that these people’s lives are going to be devastated whether or not I enjoy myself, so I might as well enjoy myself. And while these events are tragic, no one should be forced to give up living their lives because of it.

TPTLB: Umm...People are being forced to do just that--by the great plumes of oil fountaining into the Gulf. Why shouldn't you be one of them?

Hayward: Because I'm rich, so I can afford to go where the water is pristine. No, wait. I take that back. What I mean wasn't my fault.

TPTLB: But there’s mounting evidence that BP has pursued a company-wide policy of prioritizing cost savings over safety issues. In the last three years, BP oil refineries have accounted for 97% of the “egregious willful violations” uncovered by OSHA inspectors, even though they only account for a small fraction of the refineries in the US. Internal documents reveal that BP chose the cheaper and less safe of two designs for the Deepwater Horizon rig, and that BP also rejected Halliburton’s recommendation to use 21 centralizers to make sure the well bore remained in the center of the casing—choosing instead to go with just 6. And CNN interviews of survivors of the rig explosion describe decisions made leading up to the disaster that clearly prioritized profits over safety. CNN’s summary of these interviews runs as follows: “(T)he workers described a corporate culture of cutting staff and ignoring warning signs ahead of the blast. They said BP routinely cut corners and pushed ahead despite concerns about safety.” How do you respond to all of these allegations?

Hayward: I had nothing to do with any of that. I was out of the loop.

TPTLB: But doesn't all of this point to an overarching corporate culture, one that systematically prioritizes profits over workers’ lives and environmental protection? If the CEO isn’t responsible for shaping corporate culture, who is?

Hayward (smiling sheepishly, fishing in his briefcase, and extracting a laminated poster featuring BP’s logo): Just look at this logo. It’s kind of like a cross between a green sun and a flower. Very environmental. And our new brand name is Beyond Petroleum. What other corporation in the industry has done so much to shape its public image so as to convey a love of nature and a commitment to alternative energy? We’re on the cutting edge of green PR. I don't think that kind of accomplishment should be belittled.

TPTLB: Just out of curiosity, how many years might someone live off what it cost to buy Bob, your yacht?

Hayward: What kind of living wage are we talking about? $5,000,000? Bob is worth only $700,000—so I suppose that would keep you going for about a month or two.

TPTLB: No, I was thinking of a living wage more on the order of what a Louisiana fisherman would make—about $30,000.

Hayward: Uhhh…fishermen actually live off of that?

TPTLB: Well, not anymore. The bleeding wound your policy of greedy negligence has punched into the ocean floor has pretty much put those fishermen out of work. According to my math, the price of that yacht of yours could pay a fisherman’s salary for more than 20 years. You think maybe you should sell the thing and donate the money to some of the folks put out of work by your company’s practice of “egregious and willful” disregard for safety concerns? Maybe, while you’re at it, you could sell all your real estate, move into the kind of suburban three-bedroom house that most people who have far more money than they need typically live in, and then give the rest to help mitigate the effects of this disaster. Would you consider doing that?

Hayward: No.

TPTLB: Why not?

Hayward: It’d just be a drop in the bucket. I mean, the costs of this disaster are huge. Billions won't be enough to deal with a catastrophe of this magnitude. I could sell everything, move to skid row, and it would hardly make a dent in the problem. Besides, I already gave up my bonus this year.

TPTLB: Your multi-billion-dollar bonus?

Hayward: Yes. Along with all the other top BP executives. We all care so much about this problem that we felt we should tighten our belts.

TPTLB: And by "tighten your belt," you mean live on a bit less than you're used to but still more than most people will ever dream of seeing even if they pooled their lifetime income with the lifetime incomes of everyone in their village or neighborhood?

Hayward: Uhh...

TPTLB: You are absolutely right that selling your yacht and giving the income to the victims of this oil spew won't make much of dent in the problem. But it would be something. Maybe you could serve as an example to other CEO's. Don't you think you should do everything you can to help assuage the effects of this catastrophe, even if it means a radical change in your lifestyle, and even if it isn't enough? Especially since you bear at least some of the responsibility for what happened?

Hayward (huffing with frustration): Listen, you want me to be honest with you? The truth is that I like the life of luxury that I’ve been enjoying, and this whole disaster is an enormous distraction from it. I’d like my life back. I don’t want to have to give it up just because of my company’s role in the biggest manmade environmental catastrophe in history. I mean, do you think I really care about that, deep down? No! Of course not! At least not enough to give up my way of life over it. I just want to live the life I've come to enjoy.

TPTLB: As do we all, Tony. As do we all.

(The interview had to be cut short at this point because the interviewer needed to fill up gas in his brand new 2010 minivan, drive across town to pick up his daughter from a day camp, and then meet the rest of his family for lunch at a restaurant with enormous portion sizes.)

Saturday, June 19, 2010

What is Naturalism? Part III: The Quest for a Pathway to the Noumenal

In the last post, we looked at Kant’s distinction between phenomena (objects as they appear to us) and noumena (things as they are in themselves), and we saw that Kant took the noumenal realm to be entirely inaccessible to human understanding. Whatever is knowable by human beings is knowable by virtue of being presented to us in experience—and anything that is presented to us in experience is a phenomenon. Furthermore, phenomena are not only presented in a form that says more about our mode of apprehension than it does about the things being apprehended (their spatio-temporal properties are an example of this), but any effort to understand them necessarily involves putting them into conceptual categories that, at the most basic level, say more about the nature of human cognition than than they do about the objects being conceptualized.
So, the object of experience is an appearance, not a thing-in-itself (which is beyond the reach of cognition). All our knowledge is thus knowledge of appearances. But the world of appearances has a givenness to it: it is a world we have to come to grips with, a world that operates according to rules that hold regardless of what we might wish. Put in simple terms, this world of appearances is the world in which we live our lives—and even though it is in part constructed by our distinctively human cognitive faculties, its features are beyond our conscious control or will. Space and time won’t go away just because we wish them to—they are an inextricable part of the world of experience.

For these reasons, Kant calls the world of appearances “empirical reality”—it is real in the sense that it’s a given, something we have to come to grips with. But even though space and time are therefore “empirically real,” they are not for Kant a feature of things as they are in themselves apart from our experience. They are, rather, the necessary form in which our faculties of perception present objects to us in experience. Kant captures this idea by saying that space and time, while empirically real, are transcendentally ideal. That is, they are a real part of the empirical world (the world of phenomena) but not of the noumena that lie behind or beyond the empirical world.

If all of this is correct, then “ultimate” reality is unknowable. And, as I pointed out in the last post, this implication of Kant’s thought was not one that others were prepared simply to accept. In the intellectual generation immediately following Kant, there were two towering figures in philosophy and theology who, each in his own way, sought a pathway beyond the wall of unknowability that Kant had erected around the noumenal.

I’m speaking, of course, of Schleiermacher and Hegel. Both thought that Kant had missed something important—namely, that the self which experiences the world is also a part of the world it is experiencing. Rather than there being this sharp divide between the experiencing subject and things-in-themselves, with phenomena emerging at the point of interface, the experiencing subject is a thing-in-itself. It is one of the noumena—or, put another way, the self that experiences the world is part of the ultimate reality that lies behind experience.

So: the self that has experiences is a noumenal reality. Both Schleiermacher and Hegel believed that this fact could be made use of, so that somehow the self could serve as a wedge to pry open a doorway through the wall of mystery, into an understanding of reality as it is in itself.

But this understanding couldn’t be achieved by simply turning our attention on ourselves. As soon as we do that we’ve made ourselves into an object of experience, and this object is just as likely to be the product of our own cognitive reconstructions as any other object. In other words, what we are presented with when we investigate ourselves introspectively is the phenomenal self, not the noumenal self. The self as it appears to itself may be radically unlike the self as it is in itself.

In briefest terms, Hegel’s solution to this conundrum was his dialectical method. If my understanding of myself is at odds with what I am in myself, Hegel thought this would become apparent as I attempt to be (in practice) what I take myself to be (in theory). There arises a clash between my self-concept and what the self really is, a clash that manifests itself as a “contradiction,” one that then forces a revision in my self-understanding. When I try on this new self-understanding and attempt to live it out, another contradiction emerges. And so on. The resulting “dialectic” (Hegel’s name for this evolutionary process) continues until (at the end of history, so to speak) I finally reach a self-understanding that generates no contradictions when lived out. At that point, the phenomenal self has collapsed into the noumenal self—and I come to see what I am in myself.

According to Hegel’s own developed philosophy, the vision I have of my noumenal self turns out to be not just a vision of one small piece of the noumenal realm, but rather a vision of the Absolute (Hegel’s term for the ultimate noumenal reality). And this makes sense, insofar as an understanding of the self cannot be divorced from an understanding of broader reality. A materialist understanding of the self is wedded to a materialist understanding of the universe, etc.

Let’s leave Hegel aside for a moment to consider how Schleiermacher dealt with the same conundrum--that is, with fact that even if I am a noumenal self, the self as I appear to myself may not be all that similar to what I am in myself. Schleiermacher dealt with this conundrum by privileging a distinct mode of self-consciousness, one in which all attempts to make the self into an object of consciousness—that is, all attempts to come to know the self—are set aside. When the self is made an object of study it becomes a phenomenon, and as such is divorced from the noumenal self. But it is possible to simply be—to become quiescent, if you will, and simply be what one is rather than attempt to know what one is.

And in this place of cognitive stillness, one discovers in a direct experiential way an ultimate reality that cannot be conceptualized or made into an object of study. This is the domain of mystical experience—and even though it is ineffable (that is, even if it cannot be made into an object of knowledge) it brings with it a kind of insight or enlightenment. One may not be able to adequately put this experience into propositional terms that can be affirmed as true, but that doesn’t mean one hasn’t in some sense encountered noumenal reality. One hasn’t encountered it as an object of experience (since that would turn it into a phenomenon). Rather, one encounters it in the way one experiences.

The challenge, then, is to attempt to articulate this encounter in a way that is meaningful to us--in other words, in a way that our cognitive minds can grasp and affirm. The encounter itself is what Schleiermacher calls “religion.” The effort to articulate this encounter is theology. My own view, for what it’s worth, is that theology risks turning this profound mystical experience into just another phenomenon unless something like Hegel’s methodology guides the theological discipline. And so, rather than treating the approaches of Schleiermacher and Hegel as alternatives, I treat them as complementary pieces of a broader strategy. In effect, as we spiral up through the Hegelian dialectic, one of the most important things to do is pay attention to what implications our self-understanding has for the interpretation of mystical experience. Contradictions that arise on this front are uniquely significant in driving the evolution of our self-understanding

But defending the merits of this approach will have to wait for another time, because my aim here is simply to describe one broad strategy for trying to get beyond the Kantian wall of mystery that hides noumenal reality from us. And my main reason for describing this broad strategy is to offer a point of contrast with the view that I take metaphysical naturalists to be espousing.

Make no mistake: like Hegel and Schleiermacher, metaphysical naturalists think there is a way to get beyond appearances to things-as-they-are-in-themselves. But for the metaphysical naturalist, the method isn’t Hegel’s philosophical one of pushing successive self-concepts to the point of rational untenability, nor is it Schleiermacher’s method of critically reflecting on alternative interpretations of mystical experience. Rather, the method is a scientific one of describing the phenomenal world, modeling it in essentially mechanistic or mathematical terms (that is, conceiving a general mechanism that might produce the range of phenomena we observe, or a coming up with a mathematical formula that these varied observations all fit into), and then testing and refining the models in the light of further phenomenal observations.

What the metaphysical naturalist claims is that this method gets us past appearances to things as they are in themselves—or at least it moves us ever closer to an understanding of reality as it is apart from our experience of it. The question is why one might think that, and why one might be skeptical. And while I had originally thought to take up that question in this post, my lead-up to it took more space than I had expected—so it will be the topic of the next.

Jesus Fibbers, Sophists, and Inner Peace

A friend of mine called my attention to this article from the Huffington Post, in which Karl Giberson confesses not so much to telling lies in his print and online clashes with the new atheists, but to engaging in creative namecalling (he even confesses to spending time trying to come up with clever put-downs).

Given my recent exchange with PZ Myers, I was particularly interested in his brief comments about his own clashes with Myers, and the following remark: "I recommend against verbal swordfights with PZ Myers -- you can't win."

I immediately wondered what he meant by "verbal swordfights." Presumably, given the topic of the piece, he meant exchanges of clever sophistry and put-downs, as opposed, say, to well-thought out arguments that engage fairly with one's opponents' thinking.

And here, as I contemplate Myers, I find myself sorely tempted to do what Giberson confessed to doing and which he recommends against doing in relation to Myers. All sorts of slams against Myers are flying through my head--and, ironically, they are triggered by Myers' own propensity to rely on clever slams and my own philosopher's outrage against the intellectual vices that such reliance on slams epitomizes. In short, my moral outrage against Myers' pseudo-reasoning triggers in me a nearly irresistible desire to engage in it myself.

I should note, I think, that to name what Myers does "sophistry" and "pseudoreasoning" is not itself to engage in the same if one has taken the time to pick through Myers writing to identify instance after instance of argumentative tactics that forego actual fair and sound argumentation in favor of fallacious arguments, misrepresentation, and the like. Since I have done this in a recent sequence of posts (here, here, and here), to say that his writing routinely resorts to pseudoreasoning is to apply a description that has been shown to fit--which is the antithesis of pseudoreasoning.

But what I'm tempted to do goes beyond simply noting that much of Myers writing is sophistry. In fact, the temptation is so strong that I have already written and erased from this post half a dozen colorful and (I dare say) clever slams of Myers. I indulge in them for a moment and then delete them because it would be sinking to Myers' level (I actually had to rewrite that last phrase, since something much more vivid danced off my keyboard than "sinking to Myers' level"). I can't tell you how many low blows I deleted before posting the final versions of my responses to Myers. And I'm sure I didn't keep them all out of the final versions. After all, the whole exercize was motivated by something less noble than a desire to warn readers against the kinds of rhetorical tactics that take the place of argument. I wanted Myers to look bad.

And so, in my own way, I was allowing myself to be drawn into Myers' kind of personal-attack-approach to disagreement. And the fact is that I think I could be pretty good at it. If I let myself go there--if I really indulged the impulses that shape Myers' writing--a part of me almost believes that, contrary to what Giberson says, I could actually win.

But in the process, I would be indulging things in myself that I not only view to be intellectual vices but that would stir me up inside, being a source of ongoing inner unrest rather than the internal peace I seek.

And as I think about what it would take to do what Myers does day in and day out, so effectively that Giberson feels called to warn people against taking Myers on in those terms--as I think about what parts of his character Myers needs to indulge, I actually do feel for him. Because I've flirted on the edge of just that emotional space on many occasions. And while there is a thrill associated with it, there's also a deep personal cost.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

What is Naturalism? Part II: Kant’s Phenomenal/Noumenal Distinction

In my previous post I started a series in which I hope to shed some light on the distinction between "metaphysical naturalism" and contrary ontological positions. I began there with an overview of the position I want to develop. Today, I want to look more closely at a key distinction that I will make use of throughout this series—specifically, Kant’s distinction between phenomena and noumena.

For Kant, the “phenomenon” refers to the object of experience—or, perhaps better, the object as experienced. The “noumenon” refers to the thing as it is in itself. Thus, there is for Kant the phenomenal or empirical world, which will inevitably be constituted in part by the faculties we rely on to interact with the underlying reality; and then there is the noumenal world— reality “as it truly is in itself,” we might say, apart from our experience of and cognitive engagement with it. In oversimplified terms, what we have here is the distinction between appearance and reality.

Kant makes several important points with respect to this distinction in The Critique of Pure Reason. First, the phenomenon is the object as given to us in sense perception, or through what Kant also refers to as an “empirical/sensible intuition” (for Kant, to “intuit” something is to be, in a sense, presented with it through some faculty of apprehension; and empirical intuition is contrasted with the kind of apprehension we have of mathematical objects, which Kant calls a “pure intuition”).

Second, sense perception or “empirical intuition” presents objects to us in a certain form—specifically, phenomena always come to us as situated in space and time. But this, Kant argues, is a feature of our sensory faculties, not a feature of things in themselves. In Kant’s words, “space and time are only forms of sensible intuition, therefore conditions of the existence of things as appearances only.” Put another way, our perceptual faculties are designed so as to spontaneously organize sensory inputs in spatio-temporal terms, so that the phenomenal objects given to us through perception are always located in space and time. But it doesn’t follow from this that spatio-temporal location is a feature of noumena, that is, of objects as they are in themselves.

As Kant puts it, “…space is nothing if we leave out of consideration the condition of all possible experience, and assume it as something on which things in themselves are in any way dependent.” That is, space is meaningful only as attributed to the world as it appears to us (the phenomenal world), not when it is attributed to the world as it is in itself.

Third, humans are not merely awash in a sea of sensory experience. We aren’t just presented with phenomenal objects. We also think about them. We make judgments about them and can come to know things about them. And this requires concepts. One of Kant’s most important ideas is that there are certain basic laws by which human cognition operates. More specifically, our minds have these basic concepts or “categories of the understanding” by which we make sense of “intuitions”—and it is only through the work of these categories (which include the categories of cause and effect, by the way) that we can formulate propositions about the phenomenal objects we intuit.

Let’s put it this way: when we passively experience the “external” world, what comes to us immediately is already merely an “appearance” rather than the thing in itself. But as human beings, we rarely just experience the world passively—and whenever we try to do something more (whenever we form beliefs about the world) we do so in terms of conceptual categories that are a part of our cognitive make-up rather than part of reality “in itself.” This means that the object of the understanding—the object as something we can have beliefs about, learn things about, etc.—is in a sense even further removed from the noumenon, the “thing as it is in itself,” than is the uncomprehended phenomenal object (what we might suppose is experienced by the newborn baby).

For these reasons Kant draws a very sharp line between the world of phenomenal objects that we can study and learn things about and the world of things-in-themselves (the noumenal world). In fact, Kant was convinced that our knowledge could never reach beyond the realm of phenomena. He thought we could confidently say there is a noumenal reality, a thing in itself, that isn’t identical with the phenomenal object we directly encounter in experience. While he’s convinced that “all theoretical knowledge of reason is limited to objects of experience,” that is, to phenomenal objects as presented by intuition and conceptualized by our cognition, he also thinks “that this leaves perfectly open to us to think the same objects as things in themselves, though we cannot know them. For otherwise we should arrive at the absurd conclusion that there is appearance without something that appears.”

So, in summary: we can know that there are things-in-themselves or noumena, we cannot know anything about them. The objects of perception are already shaped by the process of being perceived, and are further shaped by the conceptual categories we must make use of in order to even begin to formulate knowledge claims. The objects of our knowledge are therefore necessarily, inescapably, objects that we have helped to construct through our sensory and cognitive apparatuses. Things as they are in themselves are thus utterly unknowable.

This doesn’t mean we can’t postulate things about noumena. In fact, Kant thought we had to do so. He was convinced that making sense of ourselves as moral agents requires us to make postulates about the noumenal realm (especially about the noumenal self—me as I am in myself as opposed to me as the object of my experience). But these postulates are just that. They are not knowledge. Knowledge of the noumenal is impossible.

If you take Kant seriously about all of this, then his perspective has some very important implications. One is this: whatever scientists discover, through whatever methodologies they employ, will never be an understanding of reality itself. At best, science will be the project of describing in painstaking detail the world of appearances (what Kant called the empirical world) and constructing helpful conceptual models for engaging with it in ways that, we might say, decrease the frequency with which we are surprised.

Predictably, many scientists have historically been loath to accept this implication—as have philosophers and theologians. Scholars in various disciplines have sought to pierce the wall of mystery that Kant erected—some by defending a “direct realism” which denies the phenomenal/noumenal distinction, others by acknowledging the distinction but looking for some method of inquiry that can take us through the wall into the noumenal world. Ultimately, I think metaphysical naturalism is a claim to the effect that scientists have found a way to pierce that wall—that, in other words, what they are modeling for us on the basis of their methodologies isn’t just a useful way to engage with the phenomenal world but is, actually, a picture of reality as it is in itself.

As such, metaphysical naturalists are in the same camp as others—such as Hegel and Schleiermacher—who have been unwilling to accept that the veil between us and noumenal reality is utterly impenetrable. But they are looking in a very different place for the way to peek beyond the veil.

But these last points are ones I will develop in my next post in the series.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

What is Naturalism? Part I: An Overview

What is naturalism? Or more precisely, what is metaphysical naturalism—naturalism viewed as a theory about reality? This is the question I intend to explore in a series of posts that will, hopefully, do a couple of things once we’re finished: first, clarify some issues that come up repeatedly on this blog; second, set the stage for more precisely characterizing (in future posts) the roughly Hegelian method for trying to understand reality which I tend to favor.

So, what is metaphysical naturalism? To say that it’s a theory which rejects the existence of the supernatural isn’t especially helpful, since what’s really at issue when we ask this question is precisely how to draw the distinction between “natural” and “supernatural.” For this reason, some choose to define metaphysical naturalism by reference to science. On this understanding, to be a metaphysical naturalist is to believe that what can be studied scientifically exhausts what is “real.”

This approach strikes me as in the ballpark, assuming we can specify the “scientific method” of inquiry in a sufficiently narrow way, and assuming that we can do so without appeal to the natural/supernatural distinction. A key move in contemporary efforts to characterize the scientific method (and one I’m sure I’ve resorted to myself) is to say that scientists are methodologically naturalistic. In other words, to do science is to look for naturalistic explanations rather than supernatural ones. Obviously, if we define or characterize the scientific method in these terms, we won’t be able to define naturalism by reference to science without finding ourselves right in the middle of a vicious circle.

What I propose to do here is pursue a definition of metaphysical naturalism (and by implication metaphysical supernaturalism) in relation to a method of inquiry that at least characterizes much of what scientists take themselves to be doing. Whether this method is coextensive with the scientific method is an issue I won’t take a stand on here (I suspect it's not, especially not at the level at which theoretical physicists operate).

With respect to both the method of inquiry I wish to describe and the definition of naturalism in relation to this method, my intention is to appeal to Kant’s distinction between phenomena (in brief, appearances) and noumena (the realities that underlie appearances).

In this post, however, I want to offer a kind of overview of the position I will be developing. By necessity, this overview will gloss over lots of details which will be fleshed out more carefully in subsequent posts—so concepts and distinctions that aren’t as clear as one may wish for here will hopefully be fleshed out in future posts. My objective in this post is to provide enough of an overview of the forest so that, once we’re in the midst of the trees, we’ll be less likely to get lost.

In briefest terms, then, what I will argue is this: there is a method of inquiry widely used by scientists which makes use of “phenomenal/empirical observations" to generate models of how the world works, models which are not themselves directly observed (phenomena) but which would have phenomenal effects that are. Such models are accepted on two conditions: first, we must be able to predict further phenomenal observations based on them; and second, those predictions must consistently come true.

This methodology ultimately generates a picture of the world which I’ll call (for lack of a better term) a “scientific picture.” And the scientific picture that has emerged today is very different from the way the world immediately appears to us (the phenomenal world). What I will propose is that metaphysical naturalism is the theory that the noumenal world in roughly Kant’s sense (what really is the case apart from our experience of it) is to be identified with this scientific picture.

More precisely, noumenal reality is to be identified with the scientific picture that would ultimately emerge once this methodology has been pursued to completion—that is, to the point at which no more refinement in the picture is possible because all actual and potential phenomenal observations have been perfectly modeled. Stated in these terms, it should be clear that, on this naturalist hypothesis, we will never actually arrive at a full understanding of the noumenal realm, but will steadily come closer and closer to it the more we rely exclusively on this “scientific” method of inquiry for developing our understanding of reality.

In any event, that’s a summary of what I take “metaphysical naturalism” to be. But a fully adequate articulation of this naturalist thesis—one which exposes both its strengths and weaknesses and helps us to better conceptualize the alternatives to it—will require a more in-depth look at several things, including Kant’s phenomenal/noumenal distinction.

My next post will therefore be about that.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

God Expresses His Wrath in the Conventional Way--But Why?

On Monday night, a 62-foot-tall statue of Jesus, erected along Interstate 75 in Monroe, Ohio by the good people of Solid Rock Church, was struck by lightning. The fiberglass and plastic foam construction quickly burned, leaving nothing but the metal frame.

Since the damage to this statue (nearly total annihilation) is far more significant than what happened to the steeple of Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis last August (even if the cost is likely comparable)—and since John Piper took the storm that caused that damage as a divine message to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which at the time was preparing to vote to be more inclusive towards gays and lesbians—I can only assume that Piper believes Solid Rock Church is preparing to commit an even more egregious offense than the crime of being more welcoming, egalitarian, and loving towards gays and lesbians (that is, more loving than God wants us to be).

Of course, in the case of Central Lutheran Church, the offending party was the denomination to which Central Lutheran belonged; but since Solid Rock is a nondenomenational church, we can't look there for the offense that triggered such a spectacular (if conventional) display of divine displeasure: destruction by lightning bolt. So it has to be something that the church itself is guilty of doing or preparing to do.

But since I know nothing about Solid Rock Church, and since Piper has so far not informed us of the message God was sending through such a harsh and destructive act, I’m left puzzled. What could be the divine purpose behind burning up this statue of Jesus? Was it that it didn’t actually resemble the historic Jesus, and God is a stickler for historical accuracy (thus making sure, for example, that the biblical witness is without any such historical errors as offering incompatible accounts of Jesus’ genealogy)?

Did He not approve of the contemporary worship service at Solid Rock Church, because He’s a fan of traditional hymns? Or maybe, just maybe, God thinks churches should be spending their money on feeding the poor rather than on building enormous, kitschy, plastic-and-fiberglass statues along the highway? (No—that can’t be it. After all, burning down the statue will probably just inspire the church to build another $250,000 statue--or build a more expensive one out of flame-resistant materials--thereby directing even more resources away from caring for the least of these).

Anyway, I’m stumped. So if anyone can help me out here I’d be deeply appreciative.

New Interview at The Philosopher's Eye

For those interested, there’s a new interview with me about Is God a Delusion? posted at The Philosopher’s Eye (the companion forum to the on-line philosophy survey journal, Philosophy Compass). It offers a helpful overview of the aims of the book, as well as providing some of the personal background that helped to motivate the project.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

From Electrons to God: A Closer Look at a Design Argument Proposed by a Commenter on this Blog

In this post I want to feature a discussion that emerged in an earlier post between two regular discussants on this blog (Dianelos Georgoudis and Burk Braun).

In an exchange in the commentary on my “Contemplating New Atheism’s Effects” post, Dianelos sketched out an argument against naturalism and in support of theism, one which relied in part on the premise that naturalism forces us to accept certain extraordinary claims about electrons. Burk responded with the following dismissive comment: “I would be quite interested in how you deduce a personal god from the electron.”

Now in a sense, Dianelos had already offered just such a deduction in his prior comment. Whether that deduction is sound is another matter—and we can take Burk’s comment as, perhaps, a flippant way to ask Dianelos to elaborate on and defend certain key premises of the argument. Dianelos has since responded with a brief elaboration, one that presents his argument as a variant on the design argument—but an interesting variant that hasn’t been addressed to my knowledge in the philosophical literature (it’s neither the fine tuning argument nor an argument from the supposed irreducible complexity of specific organic systems).

Burk responds in turn with some of the standard complaints against design arguments—basically, “Just because science hasn’t explained a phenomenon yet doesn’t mean science can’t or won’t, and positing God explains nothing.” While there’s something to the first part of this retort (although there are complexities I won’t get into now), the second part misses Dianelos’s central thesis, which is that theism and atheism are holistic ontologies (that is, understandings of the nature of existence) rather than explanatory hypotheses in the scientific sense, and that locating scientific claims within the theistic ontology renders them less extraordinary than they are when located within the atheistic ontology. As I take it, Dianelos is thus not offering God as an alternative to scientific explanations but, rather, as a holistic framework within which all scientifically derived explanations are understood. As such, I don't think it's quite the same kind of design argument that we see in the ID community in relation to biological examples of so-called “irreducible complexity.”

But let me leave these general issues aside so we can lay out the argument at issue more formally (as a deductively valid argument for theism) and then zero in on the details (specifically identifying vulnerable premises and the controversies and conversations they might stimulate). I think doing so is worthwhile because I think it will raise some interesting points of discussion; and because it is a distinctive design argument worthy of fuller development (it not only involves some non-traditional indicators of design but has a form that’s a bit different from that of a conventional design argument).

So, while preserving Dianelos’s original language as much as is consonant with formalizing it as a deductively valid argument, here is my reproduction of The Argument from the Electron to God.

1. Theism is the doctrine that all existence ultimately rests on the presence and will of a personal being.
2. Atheism is the contrary doctrine that it is not the case that all existence ultimately rests on the presence and will of a personal being.
3. Hence, if atheism is false, theism is true (and vice versa) (from 1, 2)
4. If it is not the case that all existence ultimately rests on the presence and will of a personal being, then all existence is ultimately autonomous, purposeless, and of a mechanical nature.
5. Naturalism holds that all existence is ultimately autonomous, purposeless, and of a mechanical nature.
6. Hence, if atheism is true, naturalism is true. (from 2, 4, 5)
7. Scientific research supports the claim (E) that electrons, which are physical primitives with no access to some computing machinery, nevertheless behave in ways that are highly computationally complex.
8. On the presumption of naturalism, claim (E) is an extraordinary (highly implausible) claim.
9. Hence, if naturalism is true, we must accept extraordinary claims. (from 7,8)
[Note: Premise 7 is taken to be one example among many for which the same kind of sub-argument 7-9 can be generated}
10. Any ontology which requires one to accept extraordinary claims should be rejected unless those who would endorse it provide compelling reasons to accept its truth despite the extraordinary implications.
11. No naturalist has provided compelling reasons to accept the truth of naturalism.
12. Hence, naturalism should be rejected as false. (from 9-11)
13. Hence, atheism should be rejected as false (from 6, 12)
14. Hence, theism should be accepted as true. (from 3, 13)

Now as laid out, this argument is valid. The question, then, is whether we should accept the premises. Premises 1, 2, and 5 are definitions—and even if Dianelos’s definitions do not track onto all contemporary usage, that doesn’t change the outcome of the argument if all other premises are correct. In other words, we can treat these definitions as stipulative (that is, nothing substantive hinges on how well these definitions fit with ordinary usage). That leaves premises 4, 7, 8, 10, and 11. Should all of these premises be accepted?

Well, I don’t know quite what I think of 4, but I’ll let it pass. With respect to 7, there are really two claims: first, that electrons behave in computationally complex ways; second, that electrons do not have access to any computing mechanism. I really don’t know enough to assess the first of these claims, but I’m very curious about it and would like to hear more about what sorts of behaviors Dianelos takes to exemplify computational complexity. Educate me!

With respect to the second claim, I wonder if naturalists might not try to invoke recent quantum research (which I don’t really understand) suggesting the possibility of some mode of immediate communication across great distances. Could the possibility of such communication make it possible for isolated electrons to have some kind of access to a sophisticated computational machinery comprised of scattered basic particles forming an organized system through these non-spatial channels of communication? Possibly (I don’t know)—but even if this suggestion is plausible it probably wouldn’t deflect Dianelos’s argument—first, because communication of spatio-temporal objects in the absence of any spatial proximity or mechanistic mode of communication might be taken as another claim that is problematically extraordinary when located within a naturalistic ontology; second, because the suggestion begins to gravitate towards a kind of pantheism in which a “universal mind” emerging out of the non-spatial, non-mechanistically produced interconnection of the basic building blocks of the universe guides the behavior of the basic particles that make up the universe—which is so close to theism (albeit in a pantheistic variation) that I doubt atheists would find it a satisfactory escape hatch from Dianelos’s argument. But further discussion about this would intrigue me.

Premise 8 is the key “design premise.” That is, it is the premise which holds that what we observe is very implausible given an ontology in which the properties of existing things are ultimately explained by blind mechanism and chance (but not similarly implausible given an ontology in which the properties of existing things are ultimately explained by agency). The observational claim (E), again, is that electrons behave “in computationally complex ways” (some elaboration of this would be welcome) but that they do not have access to a computing machine (such as a brain).

I’d say that what is posited in (E) does seem pretty strange if there is no other possible guidance system for computationally complex behavior than a mechanistic computational system. If such a system is the only thing that can reliably guide computationally complex behavior (that is, if there are no immaterial minds or intelligences not rooted in the organized complexity of a mechanical system like an organic brain or synthetic computer), then (E) imples that there are these basic entities that behave in computationally complex ways for no reason at all. It’s just what they do—act as if they are guided by intelligence in the absence of any guiding intelligence. Put another way, (E) is highly implausible given naturalism. On theism, by contrast, (E) would not imply that basic entities behave as if they are guided by intelligence in the absence of intelligence, because theism posits that all existent things have the properties they have by virtue of an underlying intelligence. Hence, if (E) is true (which I’m in no position to assess), it follows that there is a fact about the universe that is extraordinary on the assumption of naturalism but not extraordinary on the assumption of theism.

There is, of course, more to be said here—about the basis on which we judge a proposition to be extraordinary or implausible. But let’s move on for the moment, since this issue will come back.

Premise 10 won’t do as stated, but has to be modified—an once modified appropriately, it calls for a modification in 11 in order to preserve its validity.

Why do I say this? Well, 10 says in effect that we should reject P if P has implausible implications and there is no case for P more compelling than P’s implications are implausible. But suppose it is the case that not only does P have such implications (without an outweighing justifying argument), but so does not-P. In that case, given 10, we’d have to reject both P and not-P. And so, under conceivable circumstances, 10 would require that we reject the law of excluded middle (which holds that, for any proposition P, either P or its negation, not-P, is true). And so I think 10 needs to be reformulated to say something along the following lines:

10*: Any ontology which requires one to accept extraordinary claims should be rejected unless either (a) there are reasons to accept the ontology that are at least as compelling as the indicated implications are implausible, OR (b) the rejection of the ontology requires one to accept claims that are just as implausible.

[Note that if (b) is the case, it doesn’t follow that one should accept the ontology in question, only that one is no longer called to reject it based on its extraordinary implications. If one is saddled with extraordinary implications whether one accepts or rejects an ontology, the fact that it has extraordinary implications ceases to be, by itself, a good reason to reject it.]

But if we replace 10 with 10* we can validly make the inference to 12 only if we replace 11 with the following:

11*: No naturalist has provided compelling reasons to accept to truth of naturalism and no one has shown that rejecting naturalism (in other words, accepting theism) requires one to accept claims that are just as implausible.

Now, once we modify the final premise of the argument in this way, what we open up are, I think, two very difficult philosophical research projects. The first calls for a careful critical examination of all arguments in favor of naturalism. And, as I’ve said countless times, we cannot establish naturalism through a simple exercise of the scientific method; so these arguments for naturalism will be essentially philosophical, appealing to something other than empirical evidence alone (although presumably making use of empirical evidence as part of a broader philosophical case). The second research project calls for an assessment of the implications of a theistic ontology (relative to the known features of the world) to determine whether any of its implications are as extraordinary as those of naturalism.

But here we again confront the challenge of the criteria we use to decide whether we take a claim to be extraordinary. Of course, many atheistic naturalists take theism as in some way intrinsically implausible in itself. They contemplate the idea of agency behind the universe and it just seems to them, in an immediate way, to be incredible. What are we to do with such anti-theistic intuitions?

One might dismiss them as irrelevant. In the case of (E), its implausibility is presumably a function of naturalism’s own standards of what is plausible or implausible. Since naturalism’s only explanation for computationally complex behavior is the guidance of an evolved computing machine of some sort, seeing the former without the latter is extraordinary by naturalism’s own standards. That is, Dianelos seeks to point to an implication of naturalism that a naturalist would find implausible looking at it from a naturalist perspective. Parity would require that, for theism to be viewed as comparably problematic, it have implications that are extraordinary by theism’s own standards.

But there is more to be said. Are the only standards by which we can assess the reasonableness of a claim internal to a given comprehensive worldview? Or are there standards that transcend worldviews? And if so, what are they?

Once we descend into these sorts of issues, we find ourselves quickly enmeshed in a range of ongoing philosophical debates. And since I’ve already gone on long enough, what I’ll say here is that there are highly intelligent, thoughtful, sincere, intellectually virtuous people who fall on different sides of the various implicated controversies. And this leads me back to my own default position—namely that, given the finite human intellectual position, reasonable people can disagree about whether there is a God.