"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The wonders of irrationality

A few days back The Tin Drummer approached me do engage in a little guest blogging action. He was hoping I'd do a write up on the topic of belief. I'm still working on that, but as I've been thinking on that topic I ran across this piece by Bill Vallicella. He just so happens to set the stage quite nicely for what I'm working on at the moment. Vallicella starts by laying out some objections to Christianity and talks about how Theists typically don't give up their faith in light of these problems. Then he then turns his gaze towards the naturalists:


Let’s start with what philosophers call the phenomenon of intentionality, the peculiar directedness to an object that characterizes (some) mental states. It is very difficult to understand how a purely physical state, a state of the brain for example, could be of, or about, something distinct from it, something that need not exist to be the object of the state in question. How could a physical state have semantic properties, or be true or false? How could a piece of meat be in states that MEAN anything? How do you get meaning out of meat? By squeezing hard? By injecting it with steroids? Does a sufficiently complex hunk of meat suddenly become a semantic engine? How could a brain state, for example, be either true or false? This suggests an argument:

Every belief is either true or false
No brain state is either true or false
So, No belief is a brain state.


Now ask yourself: would any self-respecting naturalist throw up his hands and concede defeat when presented with such an argument? Of course not. He will do exactly the same thing the theist does. Holding fast to his conviction, the naturalist will seek to defuse the anti-naturalist argument. He will deny the minor premise of the above syllogism and try to show how some physical states could be true/false.


Vallicella Goes on to say:


So what is the difference between the theist and the naturalist? In both cases we find a deep and abiding conviction that seeks to transform itself into clear and broad understanding armed at every point against every possible objection. Just like the theist, the naturalist, operating under the aegis of his overarching conviction, never gives up. No matter how often you slap down his theory of intentionality, say, he goes back to the drawing board. Naturalism, he feels, just MUST be true, and the arguments against it just MUST be unsound.


So the question I will leave hanging is this: If by looking at the same information intelligent people cannot agree on these topics, then on what grounds do we form our beliefs? Furthermore, does it even matter?

Labels: , , ,

22 Comments:

Blogger Matt M said...

This seems more Tom's area than mine, but I think it's worth pointing out that Vallicella's argument is aimed at a kind of absolute naturalism that I doubt many people hold to.

For example, I don't believe that naturalism MUST be true, I simply see it as the best theory we have at the moment. In a hundred years time we might have a better one.

All someone has to do to stop me being a naturalist is prove that God exists.

8:37 AM

 
Blogger Tom Freeman said...

It's true, people often don't give up their pre-existing beliefs (there is a god, the mind is just the brain, the Iraq war was worthwhile, my wife would never cheat on me) in the face of new contrary considerations. They - sorry, we - look for ways to reject these.

I posted about cognitive dissonance recently, and where beliefs that we rate as personally important are concerned, there's often some of that going on.

Psychological studies have shown that where money's concerned, people tend to be more worried about the risk of a loss than excited about the prospect of a gain. Maybe there's an analogy with 'cherished beliefs' that biases us against what ought to be a beneficial learning process.

At the same time, personal motives for responding to counter-arguments are all very interesting, but they're independent of the actual quality of the arguments for and against whatever belief. So if a bunch of us with differing views are in discussion, hopefully we can mutually keep this sort of (ir)rationalising down to a minimum!

Oh, and Vallicella says: "True, the theist posits an entity, God, for which there is no sensory evidence. But the naturalist does something equally questionable: he takes phenomena that are given, intentionality, qualia, etc. and either denies their very existence, or attempts to interpret them in naturalistic terms that are incompatible with their own nature."

He's assuming here that the nature of mental phenomena is incompatible with naturalism. Sure, naturalism is questionable - please, let everything be questionable - but what he says here tries to rule it out by definition. Which is a tad cheeky.

10:44 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Hey Matt,
Whew! Seems like it's been ages since we've done this!

You say:
I think it's worth pointing out that Vallicella's argument is aimed at a kind of absolute naturalism that I doubt many people hold to.

I find it difficult to imagine a "kinda-sorta" type of naturalism. I don't doubt that there are those who try and maintain this position, but so far any iteration I have heard has seemed incoherent at best.

For instance, Stephen offers property dualism as an option:
property dualists deny all properties are material properties and that the material ultimately explains everything.

Basically he is saying this: Material is all there is and sometimes it produces some strange non physical properties.

Sounds like an immediate contradiction to me.

You go on to say:
I don't believe that naturalism MUST be true, I simply see it as the best theory we have at the moment.

The best theory that is wholly incapable of accounting for the central phenomenon of your existence??? By existence, I mean the beginning of matter and energy, but even more so, the existence of the experience you call 'me', or 'I'.

Strict naturalism falls on it's face when it's presented with these concepts. When you open the door to the possibility of something perhaps "other than", or "beyond" materialism, what would that be? Other mindless forces? Dimensional rifts that cast out yet to be discovered properties? So long as the atheist insists that the word "mindless" must be involved in any future formulation they will come no closer to unraveling this mystery of our conscious experience.

All someone has to do to stop me being a naturalist is prove that God exists.

Common!!! Serious? Brother, you MUST stop saying this!

I can say, "Matt, all you need to do to make me abandon my Theism is to prove that God does not exist."

It's really an impossible task, and you know it. No one can "prove" anything to anyone. ANYTHING can be denied. If I wanted to deny that I'm sitting here typing this to you I could. I could rather maintain I am simply an object in the imagination of another mind. This topic of belief (or lack thereof) in God does not reside in the realm of proofs or strict reasoning.

Later bud.

11:03 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Mr. Tom,
Good to see you again.

One thing you said I really want to point out.

personal motives for responding to counter-arguments are all very interesting, but they're independent of the actual quality of the arguments for and against whatever belief. So if a bunch of us with differing views are in discussion, hopefully we can mutually keep this sort of (ir)rationalising down to a minimum!

Yes Tom. Well said. I think for the most part we have done pretty well at that. I came to this realization long ago. No one changes their mind regarding these topics based on a well fashioned argument. Let's admit it. We'd all love to be on the same page. I'd wager we all believe there's an actual page to be on in the first place. But how do we get there?

Obviously reason plays a role. No one would listen to you if all you could spew is nonsense, but I think there's a more important aspect at play here. You mention the "motives" and I think you are on to something.

Do you know what I think will draw our perspectives closer together?

Thoughtful well reasoned arguments? Partially, yes.

But more importantly it's building relationships based on selfless love.

I know, I know the L-word is tossed out to much in polite conversation, but hear me out. What could possibly be learned from another if you felt the other was simply out to "defeat" you? Would you listen to anything another had to say if any disagreement immediately turned into insults or subtle innuendo?

But on the other hand what if you got the impression that the person you were conversing with really had your best interest at heart? How would that change things?

So let me be the first to say, I love you guys. Sorry if I don't always come off that way.

11:24 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Alex,

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more, or close the wall up with our English dead!...

I find it difficult to imagine a "kinda-sorta" type of naturalism

I think that the naturalistic view of things is best viewed as a work-in-progress. Without the benefit of an all-mighty creator, you can't expect all the answers served up to you on a plate.

By existence, I mean the beginning of matter and energy, but even more so, the existence of the experience you call 'me', or 'I'.

The cause of the big bang is a mystery. For all we know it might always be a mystery. Anything beyond that which can be empirically verified will just be speculation. It could've been a divine being that kick-started it, or something beyond our comprehension. For me, the only valid answer to "why are we here" is: "I don't know".

So long as the atheist insists that the word "mindless" must be involved in any future formulation they will come no closer to unraveling this mystery of our conscious experience.

Once you begin reducing it down to its component parts, sense, memory, etc. it becomes less and less mysterious. If the determinists are right, and as of yet there's little to suggest that they aren't, what we call consciousness is just an illusion, and is simply a complex biological process no different from any other.

Common!!! Serious? Brother, you MUST stop saying this!


Okay: I wasn't being entirely serious. But your God could stop a lot of naturalists in their tracks through simply manifesting himself to them in an undeniable way - something he did a few times, back in the olden days as I recall.

12:19 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

So let me be the first to say, I love you guys. Sorry if I don't always come off that way.

[Goes into default stereotypical British male mode]

(Looks at ground) Yes... (Clears throats loudly) Well... (adjusts collar) Mutual, and all that...

12:22 PM

 
Blogger The Tin Drummer said...

Wasn't it Kierkegaard who said that the thing that makes us choose one argument over another is basically irrationality? Or was it someone else (Nietzsche probably)?

2:07 PM

 
Blogger The Tin Drummer said...

Matt, please forgive me for this, because you know I am an idiot but -

what we call consciousness is just an illusion, and is simply a complex biological process no different from any other.

If consciousness, which I take to mean my understanding of the world outside my skull and myself, the bizarre and pathetic world inside my skull, is an illusion, then what is it that is suffering the illusion, if I myself am basically a non existent illusion? How did my illusion create a novel? (Or maybe my illusion was a delusion, or maybe again "free will is not an illusion after all" - you know who, you shouldknow where).

2:11 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Tin Drummer,

When I say that consciousness could be an illusion, I'm referring to the nature, not the fact of it.

Once you start breaking consciousness down into its constituant parts - memory, perception, thought, etc. - it becomes gradually less and less mysterious and requires little, if indeed any, recourse to the supernatural to explain its operation.

It's only when we try to see it as a whole that problems arise. But this could quite easily be an illusion - the human brain is after all remarkably good at seeing patterns or objects where none exist.

you know who, you should know where

Yes, but I think you'll find that the good Doctor was using the term free will in a purely compatilabilist sense - his actions were determined by a) his character and b) his experience of the parallel dimension.

5:24 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Matt,
... Mutual, and all that...

That's some quality picture painting with words you did there! ;-)

You go on to say:
Once you start breaking consciousness down into its constituant parts - memory, perception, thought, etc. - it becomes gradually less and less mysterious and requires little, if indeed any, recourse to the supernatural to explain its operation.

To which I'd ask you to consider once again the following statement:
would any self-respecting naturalist throw up his hands and concede defeat when presented with such an argument? Of course not. He will do exactly the same thing the theist does. Holding fast to his conviction, the naturalist will seek to defuse the anti-naturalist argument...

These last five months of arguing have had nothing to do with the quality of our arguments. It would seem that for all the mental gymnastics we have been through neither of us has budged an inch! You've heard all my arguments before Matt. You apparently find them unconvincing. However in my mind they have effectively dealt a death blow to the concept of atheistic naturalism. You really want to believe there is no God. I really want to believe there is a God. You have your reasons for your belief and I have mind for my own. Not really sure where to go from here with you. The tantalizing illusion that I might play some part in changing your mind has been set aside. It really feels like arguing for the sake of arguing at this point.

Maybe we should just talk about our favorite recipes or something?

7:13 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Alex,

You really want to believe there is no God

Not necessarily so.

I have no problem with the deist position. If you were to say that you intuitively felt that God existed then there's nothing more I can say to that, and I can't see any reason why I'd want to.

My problem is when you go on to say that God is a real, discernible presence in the world with a clear-cut plan for how we should live and that it's only my misguided stubborness that's stopping me from realising such an obvious fact.

I don't know whether there's a God. Honestly appraising all the evidence I have for and against such an idea I can only say that the jury's still out on that one. Consequently, I can't build my life around what's essentially hearsay about a being that may not exist.

8:24 AM

 
Blogger The Tin Drummer said...

Once you start breaking consciousness down into its constituant parts - memory, perception, thought, etc. - it becomes gradually less and less mysterious and requires little, if indeed any, recourse to the supernatural to explain its operation.

Matt, please be aware that I have no scientific training at all here, I'm a classic humanities tosser. I find that as I break my assumptions or experiences down as you suggest, they become more mysterious, even if the process is explicable. Take memory. What I retain, what I forget, what came back to me the moment I was told my friend had died (namely the fact that I _knew_ why, because he had told me, but which I had utterly forgotten), how it affects my other senses and my inspiration or my philosophy....I'm not suggesting the processes are inexplicable, in naturalistic terms at all; simply that they seem odder and odder to me. The older I get, itself a bizarre contingency, the more I feel strange as an existing being, as opposed to one that doesn't exist (far more likely). By the way, I don't regard a divine spirit as supernatural, merely the summit of natural. Incidentally, I'm aware that by poking the brain with a stick you can make someone see colours and taste things: it doesn't mean that when I taste things someone has lopped off the top of my head and is poking my brain.

It's only when we try to see it as a whole that problems arise. But this could quite easily be an illusion - the human brain is after all remarkably good at seeing patterns or objects where none exist.

How could I disagree with this? I am paranoid after all. But my point, I think, remains: a brain inside a skull somewhere, sometime, constructs a moral and intellectual identity, which somehow relates to other entities - if you blow it out, the illusion finishes. I may be a mass of contradiction, or a jumble of illusions, but if you put a bullet through me, I cease to be anything at all, and there is nothing to be, erm, illused. "Fortunately there is a reality you and I can both agree on. The ultimate reality" (YKH again, TOATL).

Yes, but I think you'll find that the good Doctor was using the term free will in a purely compatilabilist sense - his actions were determined by a) his character and b) his experience of the parallel dimension.

His actions, and those of the people around him, were freely chosen, using common abilities, which was why one world was destroyed and the other survived, from very similar starting points. The choice was no illusion and the existence of the choosing mind no illusion either.

12:14 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Hey Matt,
I have no problem with the deist position.

why is that now?

If you were to say that you intuitively felt that God existed then there's nothing more I can say to that

Yes, but that's not all I've said. Not only that, but you are operating as much on intuition as I am. That's my whole point. We both look at the same info and find a way to realize (to our relief) that it supports our own position.

For instance on the topic of consciousness.
I look at the info and see that clearly naturalism cannot account for how mindless matter could clank around long enough to one day perceive it's self. Thus, it supports my position of theism.

You, on the other hand, look at the info and see how we can now explain many of the mechanical aspects of consciousness, thus you reason that though we cannot explain it all the aspects, surely that can be attributed to our limited present understanding. The fact that we can explain as much as we can leads you to believe that surly the rest of the explanation also lies in a purely naturalistic explanation, thus supporting your position.

My problem is when you go on to say that God is a real, discernible presence in the world with a clear-cut plan for how we should live and that it's only my misguided stubborness that's stopping me from realising such an obvious fact.

I can see how that impression would be very insulting. Does it help matters at all if I was to say it is my own misguided stubbornness that keeps me from fully realizing the life God would have me live? The point is Matt, that we are all misguided and stubborn. I would also like to point out that I have never claimed that the faith I hold to is an obvious fact. At least not using the senses we are used to using. Not only that but I doubt if God was an obvious fact that we would have the sort of change of heart you'd expect.

Honestly appraising all the evidence I have for and against such an idea I can only say that the jury's still out on that one. Consequently, I can't build my life around what's essentially hearsay about a being that may not exist.

Good to hear that. No one's asking you to build your life around something you don't believe. I am asking you to do your best to keep your mind and heart open. Question everything, but most of all check your heart. Like Tom was saying the motive for questioning is often more telling than the question its self.

12:26 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

One last thing...
So far as we rely strictly on empirically verifiable experience, the jury will always be out on the existence of God. The day He steps back on to the stage is the day that the play is over.

That said, I would also add, you will never come to know God unless you desire Him in the first place. Remember, what he is after is your love and trust. Everyone will have at least a period of life where God will be knocking on the door of their heart. The only way to begin to grasp an understanding of Him is to let Him in.

There will always be questions and disagreements, but I hope that I have at least demonstrated these last several months that they are not insurmountable. In fact it is only without God that you encounter the fundamental violation of your existence. Basically, without God all we can hope to accomplish it explaining ourselves away.

2:09 PM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Alex said: "For instance on the topic of consciousness.
I look at the info and see that clearly naturalism cannot account for how mindless matter could clank around long enough to one day perceive it's self".


I don't think you can look at it that way though, because the current situation is closer to what you describe for Matt's position:-

"You, on the other hand, look at the info and see how we can now explain many of the mechanical aspects of consciousness, thus you reason that though we cannot explain all the aspects, surely that can be attributed to our limited present understanding"

Unless your suggesting that our knowledge of the purely natural world is more-or-less complete as is, and cannot be significantly improved upon? Surely only by holding this belief can you make such a categorical statement that the natural laws are insufficient to explain these phenomena?

If we do have a lot to learn about science, and are - as I suspect - about as close to understanding consciousness as Edison was close to inventing email, then you can't possibly be 'clear' that naturalism will fail to solve these mysteries eventually, can you?


"Basically, without God all we can hope to accomplish it explaining ourselves away."

Well, I haven't seen any one argue this point effectively yet. But perhaps more telling, I haven't seen anyone argue either why and how the existence of a God automatically endows life with meaning. It seems rather arbitrary to suggest that meaning is resolved by throwing a supernatural architect into the equation. The idea of emergence actually seems a lot stronger; at least, it's backed up by the physical laws of this world rather than the abstract laws of a higher world.

4:43 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Incitatus,
shoot me an email, would ya.

Going to watch movie with wife. Be back tomorrow.

7:10 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Hey Incitatus,
You say:
"I don't think you can look at it that way though"

Sure I can. I do not deny that all of our physical existence will be explainable in purely physical terms. My objection is that the first person perspective that you and I experience is not physical. Science will go on to further understanding of what makes our body tick and how our brain interacts with our conscious experience, but science is simply not able to account for your own personal experience.

For example:
Through scientific processes you can examine what happens when you hit a persons thumb with a hammer. You can measure their reaction time, examine the nerves that connect with the brain, watch what parts of the brain respond to the pain. This is all physical measurable stuff. What science will never be able to do is quantify what it was like to be hit with that hammer... unless that person tells you.

As Matt is fond of saying: "The experience is more than the explanation"

We live in an obviously physical world. Science can tell us a great deal about it. Where naturalism runs off the cliff is when we processes the fact that there's an "us" to tell it to in the first place.

"Well, I haven't seen any one argue this point effectively yet."

Mindless matter and energy comes from who-knows-where and clanks off the physical laws until one day it perceives it's self only to realize it's mindless... ;-)

"But perhaps more telling, I haven't seen anyone argue either why and how the existence of a God automatically endows life with meaning."

Meaning is only a valid term in relation to a mind. If there is an ultimate mind from which we all flow, then we have a relationship to that mind and therefore we mean something to that mind. The bigger question is what sort of relationship do we have to this mind?

"The idea of emergence actually seems a lot stronger; at least, it's backed up by the physical laws of this world"

I see no reason to believe that the physical laws have anything to say about the first person perspective you and I experience.

Now in summation... dude! shoot me an email: alex underscore blondeau at hot mail dot com

11:58 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

What science will never be able to do is quantify what it was like to be hit with that hammer... unless that person tells you.

Actually, language can't convey the first person perspective at all - try telling someone who's been blind all their life what red is, or describe pain to someone who's never felt it.

Science is based in language, so it can never rise above it. Religion's the same though - spiritual experiences can't be described except in extremely general terms, and any god that can be put into words must be a limited being (as words themselves are).

So maybe both of us have entangled our explanations for the world with our experiences and learnt to ignore the line dividing them?

As the good book (or at least one of them) says:

The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

12:20 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Matt,
Actually, language can't convey the first person perspective at all - try telling someone who's been blind all their life what red is, or describe pain to someone who's never felt it.

Good point.

So maybe both of us have entangled our explanations for the world with our experiences and learnt to ignore the line dividing them?

unpack that a bit, could you?

1:12 PM

 
Blogger Geoff said...

(Arrived late on this thread... coming here from Stephen Law and Barefoot Bum.)

You write "However in my mind they have effectively dealt a death blow to the concept of atheistic naturalism."

If I had a nickel for every time I've heard that... but before leaping in and duplicating earlier exchanges, have you read Dennett's "Consciousness Explained"? If not, you need to do so. If so, you need to explain how your "death blow" disposes of Dennett's thesis. Because I haven't seen anything here that lays a glove in it.

Of course you may interpret it as "Consciousness Denied", as some reviewers put it, but that's what happens when cherished illusions are exposed. (A short course in the workings of visual perception should disabuse you of any sentimental attachment to such intuitions. See Alva Noe, for instance.)

1:01 PM

 
Anonymous Bill Cross said...

The syllogism is false. Brain states can be illusions or viable representations of the world. If they are illusions, acting on them will lead to unintended outcomes, possibly disasterous consequences. Then you'll know your brain state is not true. Truth is a relation between things, not a condition in itself.

1:47 PM

 
Anonymous peter whale said...

Hi just for the fun of it. What is the difference between belief and make believe?
Whatever anyone believes has no bearing or influence on whatever is the truth.
It seems rather difficult to find anything permanent or forever true.

1:31 PM

 

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home