What Naturalism Really Boils Down To: Personal Values

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Consider the following quote from Alva Noe:

. . . Naturalism, at most, is committed to the idea that we don’t need to bring God into the story. Not because we know there is no God, but because it won’t help us fix the car.

On my view, this is the case for naturalism: it suits a particular set of values.

The context: suppose my crappy but beloved Honda Civic broke down. How would I explain it? It’s possible that North Korean spies are responsible, but it would suit me better to look for a mechanical cause if I want the car to run again.

Same goes for God: God’s a bad explanation because He doesn’t help us fix things. This rejection very practical. Even religious believers appeal to this most of the time in their daily lives. In no way does the rejection imply anything about God’s existence, only about whether or not we should accept God as an explanation, and ultimately for many, whether or not to believe in God.

Of course, what is practical is value relative. People are practically rational if they act in a way that maximizes what they value. If they value fixing cars, then they should seek a mechanical cause for the breakdown.

But what if fixing things isn’t the only thing one values? What if one values an ultimate meaning to everything? What if one values the sense of the numenal, something greater than humanity, the sense that there is a light shining on us from outside the universe (I can’t put this the way I want to. The master at this is C.S. Lewis). What if one values Joy, as opposed to stomach flutterings and a racing mind? Or Peace, as opposed to sleep, low heart rate, etc? What if one values the spiritual?

Wanting the spiritual values doesn’t make God exist, of course. But it mitigates against a complete naturalism, using natural explanations for absolutely everything natural. Why not open oneself to the supernatural regarding at least some things?

Noe’s fixing a car example is a bad one. There the practical need is very clear and acute, and also dependent on some other goal or need. It can’t be extrapolated to explanations about the universe and spirituality. In other words, just because Noe is right about the car, doesn’t mean he’s right about the universe! But naturalism requires he be right about the universe.

Why I Doubt the Doubts

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Thomas Nagel, an prominent analytic philosopher

In my “about” page I described my story a little; I said that I was a born-again Christian in college, then I started doubting the faith. I studied philosophy at a conservative Christian seminary hoping to solve my doubts, but instead of solving my doubts, studying there got me to doubt the doubts. That is, I didn’t come out with an overwhelming case for Christianity and against, say, atheism, but I did come out with reasons to be doubtful of atheism. In fact, I became doubtful of the whole naturalist project. This was the story of my faith from then through my PhD studies at a secular (and somewhat hostile; well, at least some of the professors were hostile to Christianity) philosophy department. It’s still my story.

Why doubt the doubts? It may be bordering on the genetic fallacy, but let me start with this: consider this blog post from Subversive Thinking. The poster quotes Thomas Nagel, a prominent philosopher. I’ll requote:

I believe that this is one manifestation of a fear of religion which has large and often pernicious consequences for modern intellectual life.

In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper—namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.

My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind. Darwin enabled modern secular culture to heave a great collective sigh of relief, by apparently providing a way to eliminate purpose, meaning, and design as fundamental features of the world.

The field I know best, philosophy, definitely displays what Nagel is talking about. Consider this quote from another prominent philosopher, David Chalmers:

A fourth motivation to avoid dualism [the view that there is a non-physical component to us], for many, has arisen from various spiritualistic, religious, supernatural, and other antiscientific overtones of the view. On the view I advocate, consciousness is governed by natural law, and there may eventually be a reasonable scientific theory to it. There is no a priori principle that says that all natural laws will be physical laws; to deny materialism is not to deny naturalism. A naturalistic dualism expands our view of the world, but it does not invoke the forces of darkness.

From The Conscious Mind, p.170. Italics his.

This passage follows what I take to be a powerful case against materialism (the view that matter and energy are all that exist. By the way, for more on his views, see here.). He tries to reassure his readers that his views are genuinely naturalistic (i.e., secular, atheistic); even if dualistic they do not “invoke the forces of darkness.” This passage reflects a definite trend not only towards arguing for materialism among philosophers, but desiring materialism among philosophers. If the desire wasn’t there, then why the fear of dualism?

If other academics are anything like these philosophers it seems that academic atheists are influenced by emotions and other subjective stuff as much as anyone. They have their worldviews, their cherished beliefs. Contrary to popular opinion, they are not logic machines impersonally crunching the data and destroying God.

Peer review doesn’t eliminate this bias. It may work regarding individual biases, but what I’m talking about isn’t that; it’s more like a Spirit of the Age. I felt it in grad school. Other theists feel it (naturalists may not feel it, as the bias is not directed against them). Since so many in academia are alike in their naturalism, personal biases become a systemic bias, the kind that resists correction from peer-review and the like (so much so that even religious academics typically think that to be good academics they need to keep their religion out of their discipline — e.g. cell biologist and catholic Ken Miller’s endorsement of methodological naturalism).

Why does this produce “doubts about the doubts?” It might seem that since there is sort of a consensus with academics that naturalism is true, that reasonable people ought to accept it. The above mitigates this, especially since, to my knowledge, no one has really produced an overwhelming case for naturalism. Part of this consensus might be based on emotions, values (humanist values such as the desire for autonomy), and desires as much as it is based on facts and reason. In addition to this, perhaps motivated by such values, academics usually begin with an a priori commitment to naturalism (their justification being something along the lines of the success of science) before they even start investigating a topic. Then they make everything fit in it. Consider this dogmatic passage from Daniel Dennett, a prominent philosopher of mind:

This fundamentally antiscientific stance of dualism is, to my mind, its most disqualifying feature, and is the reason why in this book I adopt the apparently dogmatic rule that dualism is to be avoided at all costs. It is not that I think I can give a knock-down proof that dualism, in all its forms, is false or incoherent, but that, given the way dualism wallows in mystery, accepting dualism is giving up.

From Explaining Consciousness, p 37, emphasis his.

Dennett sees dualism as a non-starter, not because it’s been disproven, but because it’s unscientific and draws a limit to what humans can know. It’s not naturalistic. It violates sacred humanist values! In my mind the doubts arise: “But humanism is just one worldview. And what if there really are souls? What if God really does exist? Wouldn’t this attitude rule out our ever knowing these valuable facts?”

What I take from all this is that I need to be just as careful around atheist arguments as I need to be around theist arguments; I am tempted (due to the confidence we naturally grant to swaggering intellectuals) to let atheists slide in logic when I would pounce on a feeble-minded born-again Christian making a similar error. I also take from this that there are significant personal, psychological, and sociological forces behind naturalism that I, as a rational agent, need to resist.

Science Pride: Or Why William Lane Craig Wins So Many Debates

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Lawrence Krauss: Great physicist, but can he cook?

Physics is hard. It requires a lot of brains to do it right. Successful physicists have a right to be proud: they earned it.

I’m a philosopher changing careers: I’m studying computer science now. And, honestly, though philosophy can be tough, I think computer science is tougher. It requires more brains to be a leader in the field of artificial intelligence than it does to be a leading reflector on the meaning of mind. It involves math, algorithms, and such. And though my physics stops at the first year level, I can see it also has a lot of hard math, math beyond me. I will admit that physicists probably have higher I.Q.s than philosophers.

Before I studied philosophy I was a biology major (got my B.S. in it). It too is tough; perhaps tougher than philosophy.

So shouldn’t the great minds of physics, computer science, mathematics, biology, etc, be able to answer philosophical questions (such as “Does God exist?”) better than people who aren’t as smart as they are (philosophers)?

Well, isn’t cooking less intellectually rigorous than physics? Cooking requires skill and knowledge, no doubt, but it’s not physics. Physics is harder, and physicists have higher I.Q.s than cooks, in general.

Now, I don’t know whether or not Lawrence Krauss can cook (he didn’t list it as something he does in his spare time on his webpage). I’ll assume he’s not a master chef. Can he compete with Chef Ramsay? Probably not.

Would Chef Ramsay be impressed with Lawrence Krauss’s souffle?

The same goes for philosophy. Even if it’s easier than physics, you still have to learn it! And if you go head to head with a professional philosopher, and you haven’t bothered to study up on it, then you will end up looking like, well, Krauss did when he took on Christian apologist and philosopher William Lane Craig in debate: foolish. The same goes for the embarrassing performance of Oxford chemist Peter Atkins.

I don’t agree with everything Craig says, but he does know philosophy. And that’s where much of the debate is regarding God. And, what’s more, Craig has taken the time to study physics as well. Krauss, on the other hand thinks his expertise in physics should be enough to carry the day. That’s just not true. It wouldn’t be enough to bake a cake either.

Atheism, Morality, and the Meaning of Life

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For an atheist’s account of the meaning of life, check out this video by A.C. Grayling:

For him, autonomy and freedom are key to the meaning of life: we choose our meaning, what is valuable. I think there is an incoherence here. For consider another area of value: morality.

For moral realists, that is, those who think there is such a thing as an objective right and wrong, autonomy cannot be the source of the content of morality. We don’t get to choose what is right or wrong. The only choice we get is whether to follow the commands of morality. Regardless of what we choose, the command is what it is, a command. If we choose not to follow these commands, we are morally wrong, evil, wicked.

In other words, even if a moral realist is an atheist, he must admit that there is something in the realm of value that he he is called to submit to, something he doesn’t get to choose. If he does choose to live as a purely self-choosing autonomous being, he must  do so as an amoral/immoral being. He cannot be moral.

This isn’t to say that atheists aren’t moral: they often are. What it’s saying is that having self-will as the purpose of life implies that one throw morality out of the view.

The only way to be a moral being, and to have righteousness as part of one’s goal for living, is to reject autonomy as the core of one’s purpose for life. Purpose comes from outside, not from inside.

 

A New Burden of Proof Argument Against the Soul

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This post is about substance dualism, the view that we are both body and mind, where the mind is an immaterial substance that can survive death. That is, the view that we have a soul. Religious people are usually substance dualists.

I say the argument is new because I haven’t seen it before (except, perhaps, by the judge at the end of the above Star Trek clip). It’s not the usual Ockham’s Razor burden of proof argument against dualism: we should presume the simplest view of the mind, and adding a non-physical component to our theories of mind involves a complexity that needs to be justified. I’m thinking more of something like the argument pro-life advocates make when they say that fetuses should be given the benefit of the doubt regarding the right to life.

I’m assuming that computer science will, someday, be able to create machines that can do every cognitive task we can do. The machines will pass the Turing Test. The argument starts with this:

(1) If a machine can pass the Turing Test, then it has a mind.

(2) If a machine has a mind, then it has a right to life and all the other rights of personhood.

(3) Therefore, if a machine can pass the Turing Test, then it has a right to life and all the other rights of personhood.

When these machines appear, if (1) and (2) are true, then they will have these rights, and if we refuse to grant them, we will be on a moral par with Hitler and slave owners.

The obvious objection: Just because machines act like we do, that doesn’t mean that they are conscious, that is, have experiences (as David Chalmers argues). They may also lack semantics (as John Searle argues). They will just be symbol manipulating machines.

These are good points. But here’s the rub: Do we know that machines don’t have this consciousness? Sure, it’s possible that they aren’t conscious: Chalmers and Searle are successful in showing that behavior doesn’t imply mind. But that doesn’t mean that a mind isn’t there. They just showed that it’s possible that AI machines don’t have minds. The same goes for us as well, for it’s possible for a brain do all that we do yet have no “inner world!” That is, philosophical zombies are possible. But no one takes that seriously.

If we don’t know that powerful AI machines are not conscious, then we might have a burden of proof argument in their favor: we should rather be mistaken about treating them as persons than not treating them as persons.

Who among us would really want to deny Data, for example, his rights?!

But if this is true, and we do end up granting machines rights, then we will be compelled to accept that being a machine is enough for personhood/mind, and we would settle on the idea that we are just machines too.

 

The Difficulty of Saying “God Did It”

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Al       or . . .
Alien?

You have a bowl of beef on the kitchen counter. Your only roommate is your beloved Labrador, Al. You leave for work, making sure your door is locked and your windows closed. No other creature you are aware of is in your house. You come back and find that:

1. The bowl is on the the floor.

2. The beef that was in the bowl is nowhere to be found.

3. The bowl looks clean, but has a sticky film on the inside.

4. Al is in the closet and won’t make eye contact with you.

You didn’t see what happened. How can it be explained?

The obvious explanation is that Al knocked the beef bowl onto the floor, ate the beef, licked the bowl clean, and then, out of either guilt or fear, went and hid in the closet. But this is not the only explanation.

There could have been a 2nd dog (Second Dog Theory). This dog got into the house somehow and ate the beef. Al, intimidated by this dog, ran into the closet and hid. Or a variation: Al has a girlfriend whom he somehow let in to eat the beef. Then, embarrassed, he ran into the closet.

There could have been a cat, functioning as the second dog. Or a mouse (Al apparently is very cowardly).

There could have been a burglar, who, finding nothing he wanted to steal in your house, decided on a snack. Al was again intimidated and scared into the closet.

Aliens could have taken the beef, making it look like Al did it.

When I ask my intro to philosophy students which explanation is best, they choose the theory that Al ate the beef. Al, like most other dogs, loves beef. Moreover, it would be easy for him to get onto the counter and knock the bowl onto the floor. Finally, dogs are known to display guilt behavior, just like what we observe with Al.

The second dog theory seems the next most plausible, as it explains everything (except how the second dog got into the house). It also adds the complication of a second dog. Similar reasoning goes along with the cat, mouse (though Al would have to be pretty cowardly indeed to be afraid of a mouse), etc.

The burglar theory doesn’t cover the data as well, for no sign of break-in was observed, and you do have some valuables that a burglar would want (your laptop, for example).

The worst theory is the alien theory. But notice the reason why it is bad. It’s not because it can’t cover all the observations: aliens could conceivably beam beef aboard their undetectable vessel (hence no observations from NASA), frighten the dog, place a film of dog saliva on the bowl, etc. In fact, we can imagine the aliens doing pretty much anything we want. The reasons the alien theory is bad is that it introduces the existence of something for which we have no independent confirmation. Moreover, barring any real information about aliens, we can speculate that they have pretty much any power we can imagine. This makes the alien theory very ad hoc. Not so with Al, other dogs, cats, mice, and burglars.

Notice that theories that are actually somewhat incompatible with the data are still preferred to the alien theory. The burglar theory is an example. It is incompatible with the lack of evidence for a break-in and the fact that nothing but the beef was taken.

What can be taken from this example? Explanations for observations have two components: They have explanatory power, and they have inherent probability. Explanatory power is how well the explanation can cover all the observations. Both the Al theory and the alien theory have good explanatory power: they both account for everything we observe. But there is also inherent probability. And this is where the Al theory shines: we already know Al is in the house, and our background information about dogs is that they love beef. As for aliens, we aren’t even sure if they exist, or what they are like. Furthermore, it seems rather unlikely that aliens would come all the way to earth just to take some beef from a bowl, and feel forced to frame a dog for the theft.

Here’s why you find atheists rejecting evidence for God. Given how mysterious God is, we can imagine God doing all kinds of things. This gives God great (unlimited) explanatory power for just about anything. But we have no independent confirmation of God’s existence, or about any of His traits. Thus even if God’s activities explain a set of data well, better than any natural theory, atheists will insist on the natural theory, just as we would prefer the burglar theory to aliens, if these were the only two choices we had.

So when atheists say that science disproves God, they are speaking really loosely. It doesn’t really do that. What it does is provide natural alternative explanations for things God used to explain. And given God’s low inherent probability, it’s better to accept a natural explanation for these things than God, even if there are problems in the natural explanations. This makes God completely unsupported by evidence. Again, this doesn’t disprove God’s existence, but, given God’s low inherent probability, God’s existence remains unlikely.

What can a theist say in reply? I think theists have to really come to terms with the apparent inherent improbability of God and come up with a persuasive case for why God isn’t really inherently improbable.

 

What about the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

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FSM Apologetics

 

Spaghetti and meatballs: who could have ever thought that it could be divine? Here’s a statement of faith from Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster:

  • We believe pirates, the original Pastafarians, were peaceful explorers and it was due to Christian misinformation that they have an image of outcast criminals today
  • We are fond of beer
  • Every Friday is a Religious Holiday
  • We do not take ourselves too seriously
  • We embrace contradictions (though in that we are hardly unique)

Regarding Creation:

We believe the Flying Spaghetti Monster created the world much as it exists today, but for reasons unknown made it appear that the universe is billions of years old (instead of thousands) and that life evolved into its current state (rather than created in its current form). Every time a researcher carries out an experiment that appears to confirm one of these “scientific theories” supporting an old earth and evolution we can be sure that the FSM is there, modifying the data with his Noodly Appendage. We don’t know why He does this but we believe He does, that is our Faith.

We all get the joke. Most (though not all, according to the website) of the followers of FSM are atheists: Pastafarianism is a parody of creationism. But FSM is used not to merely against creationism, but theism as well. For FSM is a legitimate member of the world’s pantheon, according to atheists. That is, FSM makes about as much sense as, well, say, Yahweh. If you don’t believe in FSM, an atheist might argue, then you shouldn’t believe in Yahweh either, for the same reasons.

As for the reasons for not believing in FSM, they should be pretty obvious. FSM is a ridiculous being: divine pasta with meatballs creating the world is absurd. The idea isn’t meant to be taken seriously.

Actually, for my purposes I need to take it a little seriously for a moment. Is FSM really so ridiculous? Well, in our experience, we have never known pasta to be intelligent, or even to possess consciousness. Furthermore, all the pasta we have known has been made by people. We know of no self-existent pasta. Pasta, as we know it, doesn’t have the ability to act, let alone create. It’s just semolina and tomato paste with some oregano and maybe some cooked meat. And though it might last a couple of weeks in the fridge, it certainly wouldn’t last ages, like the FSM has.

But couldn’t the same be said of the God of classic theism? Is that being a pretty close analogy to FSM? Both are self-existent, both created the universe, both possess great power. Both possess eternal minds, are intelligent. Both are omnibenevolent and worthy of worship.

True, these analogies exist, but there are disanalogies too. FSM is made of spaghetti, God isn’t. FSM has meatballs, God doesn’t. FSM has delicious marinara sauce. God doesn’t. FSM is physical, God is a Spirit. It seems to me that it’s the combination of these properties with properties like omnipotence, benevolence, self-existence, etc. that makes FSM ridiculous*. Thus I think the argument from analogy from FSM’s silliness to God’s silliness is weak.

That is, the argument seems to be that because divine attributes, combined with the attributes of spaghetti, are ridiculous, divine attributes are, in themselves, ridiculous. This conclusion clearly doesn’t follow.

So, regarding FSM as an attack on creationism, I really don’t know what to say. But as an attack on theism, it’s just a bunch of smoke. Its value for atheists is more in the line of the pleasure of teasing theists (An excuse to drink beer and dress up as pirates as well?).

* Atheists have an ad hoc move available here: they may claim that the sauce, pasta, and meatballs are of a very special, divine sort. I think that this move, to rehabilitate FSM, would have to be carried out to the extreme that the pasta, sauce, and meatballs that comprise FSM will be so unlike the ingredients we know as to make the use of ‘pasta’ and the rest deceptive. Their attempts to save FSM will only end up making FSM look less and less like FSM and more and more like God.