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

Monday, December 17, 2007

Where do we begin?

We have spoken often here about how the only indubitable certainty is "that I am experiencing existence". From there our epistemology exhibits a steady downhill trend. Even so, as finite men we have only one option in our search — and that is to begin with ourselves. And here I think is the dilemma that I've been trying to articulate. (with limited success.)

What justifies such a move?

What justification do we have to begin with our own experience? There is only one answer that holds any weight, and It's not atheism. Atheism destroys any justification to begin with ourself. Within atheism the foundation of all reality is an impersonal something. If you start with impersonal something, then man must be reducible to impersonal stuff. To argue otherwise is to say the stream rises above it's source.

My co-blogging friend Matt seems to realize this (at least the first bit) and thus, has accepted determinism. Man is simply part of the machine. But he can't live consistently within such a world view — none of us can. The implications are too destructive. As such, he clings to one last hope: "My life is meaningful because I find it to be meaningful". I empathize with his sentiment here – we all do – but it's an unjustified leap. It's unjustified because it destroys itself when it tries to answer the question I have asked above. "What gives us the right to start with ourselves?"

It all comes down to this word "personal". If, for the sake of argument, we presuppose atheism, then to avoid having the stream rise above it's source, "personhood" must be reducible the impersonal. Suddenly all the attributes that man has historically thought unique to himself (self-determination, the importance of love, the ability to act for 'better' or 'worse') have been destroyed by man's only option: The decent into behaviorism and determinism. Man is just a part of the machine.

One must watch closely at this juncture as all but the most hopeless of men employ some understandably slippery language in the hope of avoiding the implications. You will hear them say things like, "You are making this all sound much worse than it really is. You simply fail to comprehend the incredible potential of the material world!" and "There is no God needed, just look at all the world can do with out him!" Though I truly empathize with such statements, they are irreconcilably flawed. First off, they simply beg the question. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, they make an unjustified optimistic leap. The leap is to desire one's unique personhood in-spite of what must become a reductionist programme in the absence of God. Any attempts to argue otherwise once again have our stream rising above it's source.

I hope I have made the situation clear. It's a desperate place to come to, but if the foundation is impersonal something we are left with no alternative. Now I often have those who are of the atheist persuasion become angry with me at this point. They act as though I have tricked them. There has to be another way... and indeed there is, but before we can consider it we must feel the depth of our plight. If we begin with the impersonal, man is dead. There is no other alternative.

So what other option do we have? "What right do we have to begin with ourself?". There are only two options here an I am convinced that the presupposition of atheism has utterly failed. Let us now consider that which Christianity holds to be truth — that at the center of all reality lies personality. If this proposition obtains we don't have the dilemma of the stream rising above its source. In-fact, personality becomes irreducible altogether. There is an upward rather than downward movement. In atheism we think we know what material is and what it does, thus we are reduced to it. Under Christianity we are only experiencing diffused personality. We cannot fully grasp what it is to be personal. Our ultimate starting point is not blind matter, but a personal God. Our ultimate relationship to reality is not downward, but upward. The mistake of atheism is that it tries to get to know personality by studying corpses.

In the Christian system, beginning with ourself is justified as we are created in the image of God. Like God, we posses a measure of self-determination. Thus, our search is valid because we really CAN search. Also like God, our mind operates according to reason, thus validating our search for unity within the varity. However an important distinction between man and God is that man is finite (and fallen, but that's for another time). Our finite nature makes necessary the 'search' for truth. We don't arrive programmed. We need to look for it. And so, in these ways our most basic task of beginning with ourselves is justified.

One caveat I must add is this: We must here make the distinction between validating the "starting from one's self" and validating the claims of rationalism which stipulate we can achieve final answers using ONLY man, at the exclusion of any revealed religion. This has been the enlightenment project that has died a thousand deaths, but for some reason continues to resurface in the minds of men. If we choose to reject all forms of revelation the result is predictable as the rising of the sun. Unless an unjustified leap of faith is adopted, man is dead. All is arbitrary. We are lost.

As I continue to grapple with these questions I am increasingly confronted with the fact that Christianity, as a system, answers man's fundamental questions like no other philosophy or religion can. It's coherence and correspondence continue to amaze me. Though there are plenty of peripheral questions I continue to do battle with, I am able to live in the comfort of knowing the big ones have answers that satisfy the deepest yearnings of man.

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52 Comments:

Blogger Matt M said...

Interesting post.

But I'm afraid you're going to have to elaborate on a few things before it becomes clear to me what exactly you're arguing.

"What justification do we have to begin with our own experience?"

Where else is it possible to start?

"The leap is to desire one's unique personhood in-spite of what must become a reductionist programme in the absence of God."

Isn't this rather like arguing that milk ceases to exist once it becomes part of a custard?

As an atheist, I consider myself a unique combination of atoms (or chemicals, or cells, or quarks, or whatever) - that is my uniqueness, what makes me me. It's the relationship between the parts that define who I am.

11:29 AM

 
Blogger Bernard Walker said...

I am a bit confused with the talk about rights. Why suppose we need to settle the issue of rights to talk about and settle the issue of our importance? Without question, we have more value with God, but this does not rule out importance in any sense of the word. You accused the atheist of begging the question without stating what the question was that she begs. Your account of the Enlightenment is a bit simplistic. It has the spirit of a presuppositionalist like C. van Till or a John Frame.

1:31 AM

 
Blogger Tom Freeman said...

If we start, a la Descartes, with our own first-person self-awareness, the justification for doing so is simply that that’s the only indubitable phenomenon from this ultra-skeptical perspective.

This may tell us that one thing exists; it certainly doesn’t in itself tell us what other things exist nor what ‘the ultimate nature of all things’ might be. To assume otherwise is to confuse epistemology with ontology. This is about the foundation of knowledge, not of reality or existence.

Christianity, as a system, answers man's fundamental questions like no other philosophy or religion can

Why not Islam?

5:51 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Good morning guys,
I see some clarifications are in order.

Matt,
"Where else is it possible to start?"

That's the whole point, but the question is: what justifies such a move? What are we that we should expect any progress as a result of beginning with our experience?

"Isn't this rather like arguing that milk ceases to exist once it becomes part of a custard?"

Had to think about this one for a while... Let me try and respond to this in two ways. 1. If one was to ask, "What is a custard?" we'd say, "Well, it's milk, sugar, etc...". Now if one is to ask, "What is Matt?" we'd have to say, "Come on, I'll introduce you.". There's a qualitative difference. How do we explain that? The atheist must say that ultimately much of what appear to be qualitative differences are only illusory. Man is just as much a product of the machine as a custard. The theist, on the other hand, has grounds to maintain that there is indeed a true qualitative difference between man and the world he inhabits. This is because our ultimate cause, which is higher than ourselves, is personal and possesses self-determining freedom.

2. secondly I'd just wish to point out how you have already accepted this logic in the stance you have been taking over this last year. As an atheist you know you are not above the system that created you and as such you realize the system lacks any potential for self-determination, thus you accept determinism. In the world of morals you can sense no over-riding ethic that is binding on the universe thus you accept relativism. Why is it you don't continue that logic and deny other basic aspects of your person hood, such as the reality of your own experience as well?

11:55 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Hey Dr. Walker,
Good to see you here!

"I am a bit confused with the talk about rights."

As well you should be. Sloppy use of language on my part. I'll change that. The proper term I would wish to use deals with justification – not rights.

"but this does not rule out importance in any sense of the word."

I'm assuming you mean here that if there were no God, such a state of affairs would not rule out importance? I realize this is your position, but thus far I still can not see how it's warranted. As Matt and others here have accepted, if atheism obtains, so does determinism. At such a point the universe is once colossal "IS" with no point, purpose, or value. At what point within a mechanically determined universe does "importance" or "value" obtain? Perhaps the illusion of value or importance might manifest itself in the self-perceiving flukes that happen from time to time, but in all actuality those little blips are of zero importance in the first place. Where does one then smuggle in a concept such as importance?

"You accused the atheist of begging the question without stating what the question was that she begs."

I thought this was obvious. The sentence I was referring to was this: "There is no God needed, just look at all the world can do with out him!" In this case, the person is assuming the very thing they are trying to prove. In trying to prove that God is not needed to bring about the sort of world we now live in they are pointing to the world we now live in and making the assumption that he had nothing to do with it. But this doesn't prove anything. It simply assumes the desired outcome.

"Your account of the Enlightenment is a bit simplistic."

Very possible. I'm still reading up on my history. I just recently got my hands on the first couple books of Coplestone's A History of Philosophy. I can't wait to dig in!

11:55 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Tom,
"If we start, a la Descartes, with our own first-person self-awareness, the justification for doing so is simply that that’s the only indubitable phenomenon from this ultra-skeptical perspective."

I wouldn't necessarily say it's justified, but rather it's simply the corner we've backed ourself into. Descartes' evil demon scenario defeats any sort of a priori justification simply because our experience is. So working outward from there, on the basis of determined chemicals reacting qua atheism, how does such a state of affairs justify any 'search for truth' beginning with one's experience?

"Why not Islam"

For one thing is lacks any answer to mans pursuit of finding unity within the variety, as the first cause is only unity with no variety. The God of islam is a monolithic 'one'. Christianity posits unity and variety existing within the first cause itself. The trinitarian concept of God thus answers a fundamental question that Islam cannot. Islam also dashes itself upon the problem of evil as all occurrences are Allah's will. Then aside from all of that, the dubious nature if it's historical formulation pales in comparison with the emergence of early Christianity. Do you trust the message of those who kill you if you don't except it, or do you trust the message of those who will not lift a hand against you but will allow you to kill them but never recanting?

11:56 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

What are we that we should expect any progress as a result of beginning with our experience?

In 'The Myth of Sisyphus', Camus makes the point that we acquire the habit of living before the habit of thinking - and I think that applies here. By the time we get around to asking why we should expect progress we've already started down the path and therefore already know that trying to make sense of the universe through the prism of our first-hand experience works (or not). So I think the question is answered long before it's asked.

If one was to ask, "What is a custard?" we'd say, "Well, it's milk, sugar, etc...". Now if one is to ask, "What is Matt?" we'd have to say, "Come on, I'll introduce you.".

I can explain custard by saying “look at this” just as much as I can describe a person in terms of their constituent parts (X is kind, generous, etc.).

To me, the difference between your average person and your average dairy product is simply a matter of complexity – there's no fundamental distinction that can be drawn in the way you suggest there can be.

Why is it you don't continue that logic and deny other basic aspects of your person hood, such as the reality of your own experience as well?

Because I can't really see what it is I'm being asked to deny. That I exist?

12:55 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

"I think the question is answered long before it's asked."

right... and I think this answer ought to say something about our ontology. If we are able to genuinely search for truth and acquire some measure of it, then we simply cannot be determined chemical machines. Determined machines do not search. They don't acquire truth. They simply are. Period. The fact that this quest has even begun ought to cause us all to look good and hard at what it means to be human, and then to ask the question, "in who's narrative do we fit?"

"(X is kind, generous, etc.)."

but these are irreducible personal qualities. You'd need to say, "Matt is 7 parts H2O, 1 part snails, and 2 parts puppy dog tails" or something to that effect.

"To me, the difference between your average person and your average dairy product is simply a matter of complexity – there's no fundamental distinction that can be drawn in the way you suggest there can be."

This is an important statement to meditate on. I wonder how it is you come to such a place. You begin your young life filled with wonder at the world around you. You experience yourself as a freely acting expressive young person. You dream. You imagine. You play. And now here you are at the ripe old age of 25 telling me there's no fundamental difference between you and your desert. Just as your dessert has no opportunity to move from lesser to greater, so you also simply 'are'.

You continue to follow the logic of the atheistic presupposition, but I wish there was some way I could help you see that it's killing you. You continue to become less and less the further you travel down this road. You've come to a point where the only way you know you have any worth is by resorting to your own (supposedly) determined impulses. And even here you can't provide any justification for these impulses other than 'they simply are'.

You are so much more than this Matt. I hope some day you see that. You are not forced into the corner you are now standing in.

"Because I can't really see what it is I'm being asked to deny. That I exist?"

You have been willing to jettison your sense of freedom as well as any justification for your moral sense because you can't find any way for an impersonal universe to contain them. As I see it, the next logical step is to jettison your first person experience as well. If the universe is fundamentally an impersonal material reaction there ought to be no such thing as the first person. All should be describable in purely third person terms.

1:53 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Determined machines do not search. They don't acquire truth.

I think the concept of “truth” is important here. If taken simply to mean “what is” then your statement here is clearly false: determined beings (in the widest possible sense of the word) search all the time – trees search for light, snails search for food, computers search for specific information. As far as I can see, our attempts to understand the world are simply an extension of our more basic searches (for warmth, food, etc.). If there's no fundamental difference between “why berries here and not there?” and “why am I here?” then the latter really requires no more basic explanation than the former. Where you seem to see fundamental differences I just see degrees of complexity.

but these are irreducible personal qualities. You'd need to say, "Matt is 7 parts H2O, 1 part snails, and 2 parts puppy dog tails" or something to that effect.

I don't think that kindness, etc. is irreducible, as we can easily talk of chemical reactions in the brain. So it should be quite possible (even if we don't have all the details to hand) to talk of human beings in terms of the physical content.

All should be describable in purely third person terms.

I'm sorry if I've misunderstood you, but all this really seem to boil down to is an appeal to ignorance – we don't entirely understand what consciousness is, so therefore a naturalistic account of it is necessarily false. As I've said before, we're nowhere near being able to fully describe consciousness in naturalistic terms, but I've yet to see a plausible reason as to why it should be impossible.

Personally, I'm not sure that language (which all theories – including theistic ones – ultimately come down to) is capable of dealing with something as fundamental (really must find a thesaurus) as consciousness. But that merely leads to agnosticism, not theism.

3:13 PM

 
Blogger Bretwalda Edwin-Higham said...

You two boys have been having a ding-dong battle for a long time now.

3:42 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Matt,
I'll come back to this, but for the moment I have another question directed towards Dr. Walker. (or anyone else for that matter)

I've been thinking about the comment with regard to the Enlightenment. Is the problem that it is simplistic, or is it that it's inaccurate? Could anyone point out a more judicious treatment to me? From the little I've read I've gathered that man's search for ultimate answers apart from revelation have ended in either nihilism, absurdity, or unjustified optimism based on a leap of faith.

Thoughts?

5:38 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

From where I'm sitting, even if you include revelation you still end up with absurdity or unjustified optimism when it comes to "ultimate" truths.

But, some examples of the searches you're thinking about would be handy.

No rush though. I'm off to bed.

5:54 PM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Hi Alex, good to see you back in the saddle,

I share Matt’s confusion. I'm still finding it difficult to extract the supporting elements of many of your assertions regarding atheism. Let’s break the post down:

” Atheism destroys any justification to begin with ourself. Within atheism the foundation of all reality is an impersonal something. If you start with impersonal something, then man must be reducible to impersonal stuff. To argue otherwise is to say the stream rises above it's source.”

The first statement is powerful and confrontational; but you don’t elaborate as to why it’s true. The following statements may well be true, but don’t enlighten as to why the opening statement is also true.

“Suddenly all the attributes that man has historically thought unique to himself (self-determination, the importance of love, the ability to act for 'better' or 'worse') have been destroyed by man's only option: The decent into behaviorism and determinism. Man is just a part of the machine.”

You the give no indication as to why man’s being a machine necessarily “destroys” his personhood. You also don’t enlighten as to why personhood cannot possibly be produced from non-personhood. Finally, we have no evidence that “ self-determination, the importance of love, the ability to act for 'better' or 'worse'” are traits “unique” to man in the first place.

”One must watch closely at this juncture as all but the most hopeless of men employ some understandably slippery language in the hope of avoiding the implications.”

Poisoning the well here a little. By “slippery” do you mean difficult to refute?

”Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, they make an unjustified optimistic leap. The leap is to desire one's unique personhood in-spite of what must become a reductionist programme in the absence of God. Any attempts to argue otherwise once again have our stream rising above it's source.”

You don’t explain why this leap is unjustified in the preceding text, nor why the reductionist program is necessarily the terrible thing that it is.

So far you haven’t demonstrated that atheism is in conflict to personhood and you haven’t demonstrated that there is anything remotely desperate about man being a biological machine. Regarding our previous exchange, I’m interested in your feelings about AI; do you honestly believe that if we successfully create a machine capable of abstract thought that it is nevertheless devoid of personhood, simply by virtue of being just “a machine”? Is every mammal other than Homo sapiens devoid of personhood by virtue of not being God’s chosen species? These are the implications of your argument, aren’t they? Do you believe that no machine, biological or otherwise, can “search” as you say? That’s a spectacular assumption, IMHO.

”I am convinced that the presupposition of atheism has utterly failed.”

Well, given that the tone of the post seems to presuppose that atheism is a failure, that’s hardly surprising. But do you really provide a case here, or are you just restating your opposition to materialism?

”In the Christian system, beginning with ourself is justified as we are created in the image of God. Like God, we posses a measure of self-determination.”

Well, this isn’t an argument from reason but an argument from faith. It can neither be proven nor disputed. It certainly cannot be used as a counterpoint for a criticism of atheism that attempts to be reason-based. Using reason to dismantle a natural philosophy, and then denying the validity of reason in challenging faith because faith transcends nature is a common theist strategy, and one far more deserving of the term “slippery”!

Just in closing, how can one argue against matter giving rise to mind without putting limitations on God’s will? The above attempt to discredit atheism surely suggests that God, if he had wanted, could not produce a being with a sense of personhood and a moral compass purely through the manipulation of matter and the physical laws.

I'm prepared to concede the possibility that, regardless of whether we demonstrate that morals are crafted by natural selection and that all mind is generated by the interactions of matter, an external force may nevertheless have had a hand in the process. However, if we concede that this is possible, and thus that we can be who we are through the interactions of matter alone - whether divinely motivated or not - then your argument against atheism stalls a bit, doesn't it?



Great to see the cobwebs have been swept aside on this board!

7:25 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Matt,
"Where you seem to see fundamental differences I just see degrees of complexity."

What you had to say here makes a very good point. I don't know much I can really refute the logic you employ here, but perhaps I can at least illustrate my discomfort. You talk of degrees. Incitatus has in the past also brought up this very topic. In effect he stated that everything we are about at this very moment is essentially based off an the comparatively simple withdrawal reflex.

As I sit here and work this through in my mind I must begin with the wider universe as a whole. I find myself considering gassy giants, astroids, supposedly sterile planets, supernovas, black holes, etc... There's no 'searching' going on here. Likewise any 'truth' is just, as you say, "what is".

But then we have this thing we call "life" occurring on this planet. Now, someone may wish to try and argue me out of this, but it seems to me the category that we call "living", or "life" is indeed fundamentally different than the rest of the known universe. Incitatus may have some insight here. Let me know if I'm off base. Life as we know it has this mysterious tendency to posses something like a will (thus the ability to search), as well as something like intelligence. Further still in the case of man we have what we consider to be morals.

At this point we have a choice to make in our philosophy. Either 1. we reduce these phenomena to what we think we know about the universe as a whole, thus rendering them illusory. (because 1. impersonal material and energy does not posses a 'will', or 2. intelligence, or 3. morals.) or, 2. based on our very real experience of these phenomena we consider the possibility that perhaps the universe is not purely reducible to impersonal matter and energy. Perhaps the foundation is something much deeper.

That is basically the point I'm trying to make. It seems to me that 2. is the more reasonable option. It also seems to me that the God of Christianity is the best explanation for that "something much deeper".

"but all this really seem to boil down to is an appeal to ignorance – we don't entirely understand what consciousness is, so therefore a naturalistic account of it is necessarily false. As I've said before, we're nowhere near being able to fully describe consciousness in naturalistic terms, but I've yet to see a plausible reason as to why it should be impossible."

It would be an appeal to ignorance if I was simply saying "we don't know, thus x view is false", but that's not what I'm doing here. I am, in various ways, trying to craft an abductive argument. Atheism makes some very concrete claims with regard to the nature of the universe. As does Christianity. The point of tension I'm exploring is who's narrative makes the most sense? If we really boil this down it would go a little something like this:

Hypothesis A
If the foundation of reality is a creative, self-determining, personal God with a necessary character which we recognize as love, then we would expect to see this God create a universe that contained other personal, self-determining beings who could recognize God's character.

We experience in this world personal self-determining beings who all (excluding some mentally handicapped) experience moral impulses.

Conclusion
Hypothesis A is probably correct.

If we do the same exercise but insert the atheistic hypothesis instead, I see us running into some serious obstacles. I won't patronize you by constructing such an argument, but I'll just say I see some irreconcilable problems between assuming an impersonal foundation and the experience we have as humans.

10:50 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Incit,
Great comments here! I'd love to spend some quality time with each, but I'm afraid I'm reaching the end of my blogging allotment for the day. I'll address yours next no matter how interesting the next post is.

I will address this one bit today as I rudely disappeared on you in our previous conversation.

"I’m interested in your feelings about AI; do you honestly believe that if we successfully create a machine capable of abstract thought that it is nevertheless devoid of personhood, simply by virtue of being just “a machine”?"

We are getting into that realm of the philosophic zombie again... I don't think I have a great answer here, but I'll give you what I got. My gut says any machine we create regardless of complexity may become a fantastic simulation of ourselves, but in the end remains a machine displaying only the illusion of a first person perspective. There's nothing there to take in the experience other than a manufactured chip.

Form an article from MIT's Technology Review Ray Kurzwell is paraphrased by author Gregory Mone as saying:

"Kurzweil's answer to the big question was a qualified yes. He believes that the exponential progress of technology will lead to machines capable of acing the Turing test: they'll be able to carry on a conversation with a human being, and the human will not be able to tell that the other party is a computer. And ­Kurzweil says we'll get there in 25 or 30 years. But he adds that whether these robots will truly be conscious or simply display what he calls "apparent consciousness" is another question, and one for which he has no definite answer."

Both men involved in the debate above agreed that such a question is philosophical rather than scientific. From here. So we must approach this from a philosophical perspective. The way I begin is by drawing out the implications of each view-point. I have done this elsewhere, but my most recent attempt is above. In brief, if we presuppose atheism our very personhood must (even now) be anchored in impersonal stuff. Does this necessarily abolish personhood? Depends how we define the term. The atheist's definition of personhood is something quite different than the theists'. The atheist's personhood only contains a series of determined physical patterns. The personhood I speak of contents these patterns but also self-determination and moral accountability. As I tried to make the point above, I see the Christian account of man to mesh with my actual experience... even if I cannot explain by what mechanism or process. It's a mystery, but at the same time as real as my reaching for a cup of delicious coffee.

"Is every mammal other than Homo sapiens devoid of personhood by virtue of not being God’s chosen species?"

No. I don't think I'd say this at all. In many ways I am sympathetic to speaking in terms of degree rather than in kind once we begin talking about living organisms. Even so, I would say that Man does contain a sharp distinction from the animal world in terms of his moral accountability. We can see this in how we don't blame animals for acting as they do, but even here I could be tempted to consider the possibility of something like morals in animals. I'm fairly agnostic on this. According to my world view I am justified in saying that man does indeed occupy a special place in the larger scheme. Again, such a position is validated by our observation. It would be foolish to ignore the fact that there is something truly wonderful about man that is set apart from the rest of creation.

"Do you believe that no machine, biological or otherwise, can “search” as you say? That’s a spectacular assumption, IMHO."

See what I wrote to Matt above.

To close this out, I noticed you made some references to the tone of my last thread. I apologize if what I said sounded insulting. I do my best to be respectful in what I write, but sometimes my passion gets the better of me. I continually need to improve in this area. Feel free to remind me any time. ;-)

10:58 AM

 
Blogger Tom Freeman said...

Afternoon chaps.

Either 1. we reduce these phenomena to what we think we know about the universe as a whole, thus rendering them illusory. (because 1. impersonal material and energy does not posses a 'will', or 2. intelligence, or 3. morals.)

Do you generally think that if a thing X, which has (or seems to have) feature F, is reducible to Y, which doesn’t have feature F, then F was illusory?

Certainly, if you define matter and energy as impersonal, then you can say it doesn’t have a mind. And if you look at unarguably mindless arrangements of matter and energy as your examples, then that fits with your case. But there really isn’t anything there to establish that there aren’t any configurations of matter and energy that do yield sentience.

if we presuppose atheism our very personhood must (even now) be anchored in impersonal stuff. Does this necessarily abolish personhood? Depends how we define the term.

I think that question cuts right to the source of why our arguments and counter-arguments here don’t quite meet up.

The atheist's definition of personhood is something quite different than the theists'. The atheist's personhood only contains a series of determined physical patterns. The personhood I speak of contents these patterns but also self-determination and moral accountability.

If we’re to talk about this at all, then we can’t be mucking around with different definitions. What we need is a basic common idea of what’s involved in being a person, and then we can get into different explanations of how that status comes about. If one of us builds our own philosophical theories into the initial idea, then everyone else is quite entitled to shrug and walk away.

But that’s no fun.

Try this for starters: A person is a being capable of perception, emotion, self-awareness, thought, choice and action.

This can definitely be bettered and expanded upon (and there might be counterexamples), but I think it has three things going for it: (1) it’s pretty simple and the features it lists are ones I think we’d all accept that a person has; (2) these features include ones that you think a materialist view can’t deal with, so it’s something we can use to illustrate our disagreements; (3) it doesn’t claim that this view or that one can’t deal with those features. In fact, it’s deliberately neutral on all sorts of issues: brains vs souls (vs computers); origin; how chosen actions come about; and, most saliently, the reducibility or otherwise of the aspects of personhood.

Now, on that final point: where’s the burden of proof?

Unarguably, our current understanding of the human mind is limited. Does that mean that ‘there are decent grounds to expect science will gradually remove the mysteries’ is unwarranted overconfidence? Or is ‘our status as persons is not going to be explicable in scientific terms’ itself unwarranted overconfidence of a different form?

Obviously, either side would like a sound, clear, watertight argument – but if such is lacking, which way should we tend to lean? Given the role of personhood in your case for theism, Alex, I think that agnosticism on the reducibility issue won’t suit you.

It wouldn’t suit me, either: from an Occam’s razor viewpoint, a sui generis phenomenon at a level above that of basic physics isn’t something to accept without seriously good reason.

I was going to write more, but I’ve got to get home now. But do people think this works as a point on which we can agree to base the discussion?

12:07 PM

 
Blogger Timmo said...

Alex,

Within atheism the foundation of all reality is an impersonal something. If you start with impersonal something, then man must be reducible to impersonal stuff. To argue otherwise is to say the stream rises above it's source.

As before, I point out that atheism and physicalism are distinct positions, neither of which requires one to hold the other. Atheism is the view that God does not exist; physicalism is the view that everything which exists is physical or supervenes upon things which are physical. Atheists can be dualists, physicalists, idealist, or whatever they like.

Some "atheistic" philosophers have held that the basis of the world is in some sense personal, but have not identified that person with God: Aristotle, the superpersonal entity Nous; Spinoza, a deterministic, yet sentient, Nature; Fitche, the metaphysical Ego; and Hegel, the Absolute world spirit.

In this comment, you suggest that if physicalism is true, then all mental states, properties, and events must reduce to physical states, properties, and events. However, reductionism is not the only possible philosophy of mind which is physicalist.

For example, one can hold that mental properties are emergent from the physical properties of the brain in the sense that mental properties are neither physical properties held by any parts of the brain in isolation, nor a result of merely summing together the individual physical properties of the brain. So, mental properties arise from the physical properties of the brain, but they do not reduce to them. For more information, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on physicalism. For more on emergent properties, check out this article.

...we can achieve final answers using ONLY man, at the exclusion of any revealed religion. This has been the enlightenment project that has died a thousand deaths, but for some reason continues to resurface in the minds of men. If we choose to reject all forms of revelation the result is predictable as the rising of the sun.

This is incorrect. Many of the great Enlightenment thinkers were pious Christians, including Locke, Leibniz, and Kant. None of theses thinkers held that revelation has no place in human life. What they did believe that our own, independent judgment and use of reason must be the final arbiter in human affairs. Indeed, Kant proclaimed that enlightenment is freedom from self-incurred tutelage.

Allen Wood perceptively writes, "One perniciously distorted view of the Enlightenment sees its essential traits as positivistic dogmatism, the reduction of reason to instrumental reason, and hence leading in politics to a kind of scientistic statism in the service of whatever irrational goals happen to be lying at hand. This in effect identifies Enlightenment exclusively with the deeds of its historic enemies and then criticizes it on the basis of values which the critics draw from nowhere but the Enlightenment itself." (For more, see his paper 'What is Philosophy?', available here.

Tom,

I too worry that your proposed definition is subject to counter-examples. A comatose person does not have the capacity for any of the mental activities that you list, but surely 'comatose person' is not a contradiction in terms! (Or, maybe a comatose person does have the capacity for consciousness and the rest, but that capacity is contingently impaired by the medical condition of the individual in such a way that that individual cannot exercise that capacity.) So, probably the definition needs some adjustment, but one never starts philosophical inquiry with impeccable definitions anyway!

However, for the purposes of our discussion, your suggested definition is probably good enough. I think that is a good point on which to base further discussion.

10:56 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Our ideas of what it means to be human are definitely at the heart of things here. The crux of the matter seems to be this:

self-determining beings

Now, I regard us as self-determining in a compatibalist sense – my choices are determined by my desires and ability to reason. If I have to choose between an apple and an orange and I prefer oranges then (all other things being equal) I will choose the orange. However, Alex has argued for a libertarian concept of free will (LFW) which (in a way not determined by desire or reason) allows me to choose the apple (in a non-random way).

(Alex, sorry for talking about you in the third-person here. I know it seems a bit dismissive, but I can't think of a better way of addressing everyone at the same time)

As LFW exists outside cause and effect (and therefore the physical universe) it necessarily leads to a dualist account of the world, which Alex believes is best explained by his Christianity.

It's an argument that doesn't work (in my opinion) for two reasons: 1) The concept of LFW is incoherent (neither determined nor random), and 2) I don't think dualism sustains the idea of Christian God – a considerable “leap of faith” is required to get from “something other than the material universe exists” to “the Christian God exists”.

7:34 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

fellers,
Alex has become sick...
Christmas stuff begins tomorrow...

I'll have to pick up on this later. Let it suffice to say, there's much to think about... too much! Thanks for all you've put into this.

So now along with my hurting sinus' I'll drag myself off to bed.. with my newly hurting head.

8:56 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Sorry to hear that - hopefully it's just a 24 hour thing. Though taking a break over the Christmas week might be good for all of us. :-)

Merry Christmas everyone. See you all after the madness has died down.

6:15 AM

 
Blogger Timmo said...

Get well soon, Alex.

Happy Christmas everyone!

6:59 AM

 
Blogger Tom Freeman said...

Yeah, hope you feel better soon Alex. And hope everyone has a good Christmas!

11:53 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Thanks Guys!
A Merry Christmas to you all as well!

*sniff* I love it when we get all mushy around here. *sniff*

12:13 PM

 
Blogger The Tin Drummer said...

Happy Christmas Alex, Matt, Rev Dr, Timmo, and all you other very bright guys whose stuff is such a joy to read on this blog.

and congrats to Alex, and Matt it is fair to say, because they both contribute a lot to this blog, for creating a space where people feel comfortable discussing matters of faith.

8:56 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Hey thanks TD,
A merry Christmas to you as well! So happy to hear you find our musings to be a worthwhile endeavor.

5:57 PM

 
Blogger DSK Samways said...

Somebody attempted to convert me to Mormonism over Christmas. I read the first couple of chapters of The Book of Mormon, though.

'Struth. That's some far out material. Not even South Park did justice to its essential weirdness.

It's like something Monty Python would cook up as a satirical commentary on theism. Only somebody took it seriously. Very seriously.

Hope everyone had an ace holiday.

2:25 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Hey Incit,
Check this out: Frontline's "American Experience" The Mormons Fascinating. And more than a little disconcerting.

"The first statement is powerful and confrontational; but you don’t elaborate as to why it’s true."

If man is reduced to random/determined material reacting then speaking of "starting with 'one's self'" becomes a impossibly problematic statement. (in my view) I wish I could get more sophisticated with this, but I probably have a lot more reading to do.

"You also don’t enlighten as to why personhood cannot possibly be produced from non-personhood."

I apologize. I really don't think I'm qualified to give much of a justification here. All I can say is that I have a very hard time seeing how the following view is a reasonable conclusion: From [nothing/impersonal something] began a reaction which organized itself according to preexistent laws into more and more complicated formations until at one point the reaction perceived itself. This is the tune I've been singing here all along and given that consciousness is still such a mystery to even the best amongst us, I have little hope that we will be able to come to much of an agreement on this. I obviously need to do more thinking on this, as what I wrote above really does little to move things along.

"Poisoning the well here a little. By “slippery” do you mean difficult to refute?"

Nope, I mean slippery as in sounding good, but lacking any basis on which to anchor the claim. Optimistic phrases such as: "My life is meaningful, Love is good, We shouldn't hurt each other" lack all rational justification when combined with: "We are a cosmic fluke, we are nothing more than determined/random material reacting". There is a tension that is created here. The logic of the second set of phrases leads quite handily to a nihilistic worldview. The problem is, we can't accept that. The way the world really is won't let us. We know our lives have meaning. We know self-sacrficial love is better than maintaining our own interests at all costs.

We have three ways to react to this. 1. We can accept the logic of a materialistic worldview and admit the absurdity of all existence. 2. We can recognize the inconsistency and consider the possibility that a unflinchingly materialistic stance doesn't do justice to reality as we experience it, or 3. we can ignore the problem and make an unjustified optimistic leap. By this I mean we say something like, "Sure I'm just matter reacting, but I know my life is meaningful and I'm going to make the best of this amazing life." To speak in such terms can only be done by holding to a fundamental inconsistency.

"Well, this isn’t an argument from reason but an argument from faith. Well, this isn’t an argument from reason but an argument from faith. It can neither be proven nor disputed. It certainly cannot be used as a counterpoint for a criticism of atheism that attempts to be reason-based."

Ouch. Scathing my friend, but I think you are missing me a bit. It would be an argument from faith if all I was saying was, "I just believe God did it. We really have nothing more to discuss." But I'm not saying that. (see abductive argument below) As for being "proven", well neither can much of life. It's simply the epistemic situation we finite folk are brought into. Even so, contra what you claim, it can be disputed via reason.

Reading over that last bit I think it is now me who is missing you (missing me). Let me try again. When I said: "In the Christian system, beginning with ourself is justified as we are created in the image of God. Like God, we posses a measure of self-determination..." all I am trying to communicate is that IF what Christianity claims about the nature of the universe is true THEN beginning our 'search' with 'ourselves' is justified. Now whether or not you find the whole package of Christianity as worthy of trust is an entirely different crock of stew. (one that is indeed quite open to reasoned discussion as well)

"Just in closing, how can one argue against matter giving rise to mind without putting limitations on God’s will?"

This is an interesting thought. I think it illustrates a perception you have of me that I feel is inaccurate. I get the feeling that with all my railing on the inadequacy of materialism I've given that impression that I think "material" is pretty worthless stuff. However, this couldn't be further from the truth! The universe, as it exists, is chock full of awesome material manifestations. It's just that I see the formulation: "matter + nothing = all reality" as less convincing than: "God + material = all reality". So when you ask how I could argue against matter giving rise to mind without limiting God; I don't think that's at all what I'm about. The moment you toss an eternal personal mind into the mix, (as you must for your question to hold together) I have no beef with material doing all sorts of zany stuff. At such a point there is a reason that all the wonder of complexity of the created order is what it is. There's a reason the system was able to generate people like ourselves. And there's a reason we ought to learn the depths of what it means to love. The unity that sustains the variety gives the answer to what the philosophers have always sought. The logic of such a hypothesis holds even IF it doesn't obtain. Though in my view, it's the only solution we have that doesn't lead to an absurd abolition of man.

As Jean-Paul Sartre so correctly stated: "No finite point has meaning without an infinite reference point." And that's what this is all about. What is our infinite reference point? Impersonal stuff? Or the personal mind of our eternal Father?

"However, if we concede that this is possible, and thus that we can be who we are through the interactions of matter alone - whether divinely motivated or not - then your argument against atheism stalls a bit, doesn't it?"

I'm afraid we are using language here that contains realities that we cannot begin to wrap our heads around. No one knows what matter is. We only know what it is by what it does. And even here the jury is out. The string theorists continue to battle on, looking for the big unifying theory. Same with what we are calling "personhood" and "free will". All these words contain much more reality than we able to comprehend. All we can do is keep scratching away at the surface. So when you speak of "being who we are through the interactions of matter alone" you are packaging up a whole lot of baggage. I'm not so sure we can cary it all.

My whole point is this: (trying to keep it as simple as humanly possible)

As I consider the data of my life and studies so far, I am not convinced that metaphysical theories that begin with "impersonal X" are adequate. The reality I see around me rises so far beyond what any sort of "impersonal X" ought to be able to generate.

I realize I just glossed over a lot of what Matt, Timmo and Tom were saying, but in the interest of keeping my word I needed to respond to Incit first. Honestly, as slow as the blog has been these days, it's still way too fast paced for a guy with a kid!

Have a great New Year everyone!

11:47 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Just a quick one...

Optimistic phrases such as: "My life is meaningful, Love is good, We shouldn't hurt each other" lack all rational justification when combined with: "We are a cosmic fluke, we are nothing more than determined/random material reacting".

What rational justification does theism offer?

The reality I see around me rises so far beyond what any sort of "impersonal X" ought to be able to generate.

This seems a pretty meaningless statement though, as no-one's able to assess the the absolute properties of the "impersonal X".

We don't know what the universe is capable of - so you can't rule anything out a priori.

Happy New Year.

12:06 PM

 
Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

This might take a few posts. Sorry.

First, an empirical correction to Matt's claim that he is a unique collection of atoms or whatever. He's not. There isn't a single atom in his body presently that was in his body (say) ten years ago. (At least, something like this is true.)

This elucidates the problem of personal identity for atheists.

Sorry guys, more later. Gotta run to church. And, trivia: My word verification thingee is "ipawd." Isn't that cool?

2:43 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Revvvvvvvd,

I suppose I should have should unique configuration of atoms, with the emphasis on configuration - though I don't deny the continual change we go through.

A unique spacial and temporal arrangement, perhaps?

4:17 PM

 
Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

Matt, we definitely don't have a unique configuration of particles. That's even more obvious that the question of being built of a constant batch of particles. Development is the alteration in configuration. Temporal constancy? I smell question begging. What we want to know is "What makes you you over time?" To invoke a "You are whatever you are over time" seems to fail to understand the problem. I maintain that atheists have problems with personal identity. Many of my atheist friends admit this and wash their hands of the concept.

Now...on to the meat of the post. I suppose the cognitive psychologist should have a word here. Firstly, I think Matt's claim that he is no different from a bowl of custard, just more complex is problematic. It's so problematic that I'm not even sure what sense to make of it. Matt had hair, a bowl of custard does not. A bowl of custard is yellow, Matt is whitish. Or am I being superficial? I guess it is the case that both Matt and said custard are composed of the same particles. My physicist friends will insist that they are both made of energy. But why should be privilege material constitution? Why not relational constitution instead? Thorny, thorny.

Second, the assumption that determinism is bad and evil and anti-Christian is also problematic. Tell me, Alex, why exactly IS determinism so anti-Christian? A good stack of theologians were and are determinists (or some variety or another), and while they might be wrong, it'd be nice to know why that is so.

Thirdly, I would argue that machines CAN be sentient and conscious and all that. To ask whether they can be "persons" is fluffy because no one's really given a good operational definition of the term (e.g., Bob is a person iff he p, q, and r). The problem is epistemic. It's difficult to know when we should believe that a (non-biological) machine is sentient, conscious, etc. Again, thorny.

It seems to me like there are a few things going on here:
Alex wants to say that personhood - the fact that there are persons - is a curious phenomenon. He wants to conclude that theism is the best explanation for this state of affairs. I there there are 2 bits of work to do. First, Alex must define "personhood." What exactly is this curious fact about reality which requires explanation? And second, Alex must tell us why theism explains personhood better than atheism? Incitatus has pointed this out, I think. Why can't personhood arise from non-personhood without divine intervention?
I suspect that atheists have to give up the notion of personal identity. If Matt is right, atheists also have to give an account of human (and other such, e.g. animal, rights) based on "complexity." That is, atheists have to tell us why we should privilege the complex in ethics. Why can I eat a bowl of custard but not a bonobo chimp? Why is it the case that (if the only difference between the two is complexity) that complexity is related to an entity's status as a moral patient?

As my friend Elaine would say: Eek.

1:40 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Matt, we definitely don't have a unique configuration of particles.

By unique I simply meant not found elsewhere - the (exact) relationship of atoms that make up me (at any given time) aren't also found elsewhere.

If it helps, I'm not exactly an essentialist when it comes to human identity. A lot of what we consider individual nature is just custom: "I" am just an abstract concept applied to a particular collection/space of changing relationships over time.

I think Matt's claim that he is no different from a bowl of custard, just more complex is problematic.

Heh. There are many differences between me and a bowl of custard - just not, as I see it, any fundamental differences. Using complexity as a yardstick, you could put both of the custard and I onto a scale and there'd be no absolute gap between us.

If I were n, then the custard could be thought of as n-12358565676, rather than existing on a completely different scale altogether.

6:56 AM

 
Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

Well, the fact that we have a unique history of particular flux is neither here or there in safeguarding personal identity. The desideratum is something (perhaps, so sort of continuity) that makes Matt age 4 the same person as Matt age 22. But OK, if you're not a personal identity realist, and if "I" is epiphenomenal, I guess you've done what I think atheists have to do. You've given up the notion. But this has all sorts of repercussions, I think. I'm not sure what the abandonment of the "I", the individual person, would have for ethics and, indeed, epistemology (both of which underly many conversations here).

On the second note, I'm not sure what the desideratum is here. What makes a difference a "fundamental" difference? Is the quantitative-qualitative distinction a meaningful one? Or can everything be quantified naturally? Or are all quanlitative differences emergent properties of quantitative differences? And if so, is this significant in this conversation? Thorny, thorny.

3:49 PM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Only 12 hours to go... for us in the Midwest anyway.

Alex
"...I have a very hard time seeing how the following view is a reasonable conclusion: From [nothing/impersonal something] began a reaction which organized itself according to preexistent laws into more and more complicated formations until at one point the reaction perceived itself.

I don't have such a hard time with it. We can already demonstrate that order can, without contradicting thermodynamics, arise out of apparent randomness. If that order reaches a level of complexity sufficient for replication and thus becomes sensitive to selective pressure, then the limits of the resulting complexity are held back only by time and environmental conditions.

"...consciousness is still such a mystery to even the best amongst us, I have little hope that we will be able to come to much of an agreement on this."

I agree, we have to remain agnostic about it until further evidence presents itself.

""My life is meaningful, Love is good, We shouldn't hurt each other" lack all rational justification when combined with: "We are a cosmic fluke, we are nothing more than determined/random material reacting"."

As Matt has pointed out before, the only thing that disappears as a result of "We are a cosmic fluke, we are nothing more than determined/random material reacting" is a purely objective interpretation of "My life is meaningful, Love is good, We shouldn't hurt each other". Our subjective sense of the latter is not affected one iota.

"The logic of the second set of phrases leads quite handily to a nihilistic worldview."

Well, in so much that nihilism is simply a statement on the lack of purely objective moral truth, yes it does. Our "truths" regarding morality are certainly relative if we compare them to the apparent moralistic "truths" of certain other animals.
Nevertheless, altruism and the role of groups in species evolution is simply to vital for survival in many (although not all) environmental niches. As a result, our "truths" still manage to attain a considerable level of uniformity; so uniform that it arguably becomes easy to misinterpret them as purely objective.

The problem with Nihilism is that, as I understand it, its adherents confuse the difference between no objective truth, and no truth at all. From a purely objective view of the universe, an organism behaving in a violently self-serving manner on Earth is neither here nor there. However, for the organism that is acting in a violently self-serving manner, its behaviour could very well limit its chances of survival and replication significantly. There is no objective imperative to cease behaving in a violent and self-serving manner, but there is a powerful survival imperative to do so, and thus the following is often true:

We know self-sacrificial love is better than maintaining our own interests at all costs.


"Even so, contra what you claim, it can be disputed via reason."

Only if a presuppositionalist (circular?) strategy is used. Again, I don't think reason is a good tool of choice for defending the existence of God. Inevitably, the wily materialist (not me, I'm not that wily) is going to wrestle even the most ardent theist into confessing a position of agnosticism with regard to the relationship between God and the material world.

"So when you speak of "being who we are through the interactions of matter alone" you are packaging up a whole lot of baggage. I'm not so sure we can cary it all.
"


Not at all, because this is only being presented as a valid, but as yet unsatisfactorily tested, hypothesis. Again, agnosticism is currently inescapable.

With the exception of the small group of atheists demanding the death of religion entirely, most materialists simply aim to convince the theist that a dogmatic view of the world and its purpose is simply not justified; that definite "knowledge" is no more within one theist's possession as it is in the possession of another type of theist or a non-theist. If we can convince people of this, secular or otherwise, I think we can go a long way to reducing the necessity for human conflict.

12:24 PM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

"I suspect that atheists have to give up the notion of personal identity.

As you point out though, we don't really have a hard-and-fast definition of what personhood actually is. It's not so much that atheists must give up on personal identity, but simply concede that they aren't yet sufficiently informed to define and explain it.


"If Matt is right, atheists also have to give an account of human (and other such, e.g. animal, rights) based on "complexity." "

Our ethics are not directly related to complexity, though, but our learning in response to interacting with things in our environment. Generally, the more sentient something acts, the more likely we are to include and consider it in terms of ethics. If I do this to the thing, what will it do in return? Yes, sentience usually belies complexity, but only assuming that the label of sentience was correctly given. However, humans have worshipped the sun, the weather, animals, and plants of all kinds because of a mistaken diagnosis of sentience (thunder is aggressive, it seems angry, people get angry, thunder must be caused by powerful person &c). So complexity has not traditionally been a benchmark for our ethics.

Of course, our development in terms of implementing reason has allowed us to more accurately define sentience and subject it to anthropomorphication. But that doesn't tell us that bias towards levels of sentience is objectively sound. Only that this is the particular moral structure we have evolved with.

1:30 PM

 
Blogger Tom Freeman said...

I half agree with Alex on the meaningfulness of life: I do believe that the proximate source of meaning has to be a personal mind. So if Alex thinks about God’s plan for the universe, or if Matt thinks about his plans for what to do next week, these are both examples of this (on different scales).

But I don’t think that the ultimate source of meaningfulness has to be a person – i.e., I don’t accept that an absence of an initial theistic creator means that there can be no meaning. In an atheistic view, you have purpose where there are people to generate that purpose in their lives and societies, even if the universe as a whole doesn’t have ultimate meaning.

The reason I can square these two is that I think our minds have developed naturally as we’ve evolved from simpler organisms, all composed at root wholly of physical substance.

(This ties in to the point about whether mind could emerge from mere matter under a theistic scheme. Say that God creates a wholly material universe and lets it bubble away under its own steam. Elements form, followed by planets, amino acids, simple self-replicating autocatalytic sets, single-celled life forms, bacteria, plants, fungi, animals and eventually some that have the psychological attributes of ‘personhood’ that we do. On this hypothesis, there’s a wholly mindless proximate cause of the existence of beings with minds.)

I find the idea that our minds are natural, physically based phenomena plausible because of a huge and growing body of (neuro)psychological work showing that our minds are composite systems whose parts are liable to temporary and permanent impairment; that, even when working normally, these contraptions are prone to systemic irrationality and far greater self-blindness than a Cartesian transparency model assumes. This would seem a shockingly and deliberately flawed sort of mind to create for a being whose prime concern was with personhood.

More: that the psychological aspect of personhood don’t just appear in individuals fully formed, but instead develop gradually from birth (a human newborn is far less, mentally, than an adult chimp); that through the animal kingdom, cognitive abilities vary with brain structure; that even the most basic life-forms need to react to aspects of their environment, and moving animals need to perceive in order to behave, and in more advanced species, these environments will include other organisms – so it becomes of growing importance to react to the behaviour of others, and even to anticipate them. Eventually this can give some understanding of their perceptions and motivations, which can end up being turned on oneself.

This is a laughably quick treatment, but I find it hard to see how the human mind is in origin anything other than a gradually developed piecemeal set of cognitive tricks that usually hang together passably well, and that through social interaction and the need to communicate has yielded some interestingly highbrow capabilities.

Revvvvvd, on personal identity: I do love the thought-experiments that we get in this area. But I’ve come to the view that once you specify the facts about physical and psychological continuity, including the degree, rate and cause of change, then there’s precious little left to worry about other than how we’d respond to the scenarios if they actually happened.

Also, I’m not sure that theists have much of an easier time: presumably, personal identity would be said to be determined by identity of a soul. But that raises the old question of how to individuate immaterial souls, and, more interestingly, we can start to devise thought-experiments about souls: could a soul divide? Could it be duplicated somehow? Could two merge? Could the psychological traits associated with one be swapped with another? But the trouble with pursuing these questions is that the notion of the soul is so much vaguer than that of the body or brain. OK, souls are not physical. But what, positively, are they?

What sort of ontological category ‘person’ should be construed as is for me a pretty moot point. I’m not even sure that the distinction between, say, event and thing really holds up that well.

Happy new year, guys!

7:55 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Hope everyone had a great night.

And that's pretty much all I'm capable of contributing to this discussion today.

9:44 AM

 
Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

More on morals:
Moral philosophers of theistic and non-theistic persuasion alike seem to want to argue for particular moral systems (say, utilitarianism) or moral "facts" (say, eating babies is wrong). One of the bigger considerations in moral philosophy is what (and who) to include in our list of moral patients, and how we should behave to different sorts of organisms (and, since we're doing philosophy, *why* we should behave thus). So, at least from a philosophical standpoint, asserting, "We treat apes better than paramecia because we've evolved thus" seems kind of weak. Maybe it's not, but prima facie it sounds like a cop out. In the end, almost all atheists concede that moral realism is no longer a live option for them. (Some rare ones because moral Platonists of some variety.) And I'm not sure we should be so ready to give up moral realism, even if for no other reason than that it seems so natural, so intuitive (there's an argument coming, don't worry).

More on personal identity:
This stuff will relate back to the brief discussion of morals. Incitatus, Matt, and I share certain beliefs in common. We all believe that our current set of moral beliefs have sufficient evolutionary explanations. We all materialists and determinists, when it comes to human thought and action. So, we should hold hands and be good friends. Anyway, several implications of these beliefs dawned on me several years ago. Most obviously first, Darwin made it difficult (and I would say impossible) to have anything like the species concept to which we are accustomed. And narrowing down, the materialist position with regards to personhood makes it difficult (impossible, even) to give an account of personal identity that does not invoke an external point of reference. Many people realize this. And many of them have dabbled with immaterial essentialism (Matt's talk about souls and such magicks) and others have dabbled with relational models of personal identity (such that a person is defined by his/her relationships with others). The problem with most relational models of personal identity is that relationships are in flux just as are molecules. This seemed to reinforce the bankruptcy of the concept of personal identity. The Christian, however, can conveniently say, "Matt is Matt because God knows and loves Matt as Matt" or something like this. She (the Christian) may invoke God.

On both moral and personal identity:
But why should we want to invoke God in our ethics and concept of personal identity? Why shouldn't we throw our hands up and concede that there are neither objective moral facts nor individual persons? I think we shouldn't for one of the reasons that people (I think justifiably) refuse to concede to total scepticism and solipsism: Our intuitions to the contrary are pretty darned strong. Moral realism and the notion of personal identity are pretty canalized with respect to the environment. The stuff is bloody everywhere. What hold on: Is this an argument? I think it is. If one thinks that basic beliefs are non-evidential but nonetheless warranted beliefs (I think most people do), then we have to give an account of what should count as a basic belief. Perceptual beliefs seem to be the paradigmatic basic beliefs. And yet the (evolutionary) story we tell about perception does not seem to differ that much with the story we tell about cognition (if we evolutionary psychologists are to be trusted).

Ok, I'll admit: This is all very exploratory at best. But I'd argue that there should be a presumption towards (panculturally) deeply entrenched beliefs. How strong this presumption should be, I can't say at this point. So, what does this mean for theism? Theism provides a better account of moral realism and personal identity than does atheism, and I think this should count as evidence (albeit weak evidence) for theism.

I'm wrong, aren't I? Heh.

3:37 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

It seems to me that moral statements often just come down to value judgements, which are arguably more a matter of psychology than science or reason. We value happiness over misery and so seek to promote the former over the latter. Most moral systems (atheist and theist) simply attempt to provide compelling arguments in favour of these preferences (formed through biology and socialisation) in the hope of convincing as many people as possible. When I say "X is good" I'm essentially arguing for more X in the world.

From an evolutionary POV, the fact that we're so often convinced that our preferences are actual facts about the world is hardly surprising - it pushes us to argue for them with more conviction, thereby increasing the chances of getting other people on board. (It's not just that I want people to stop rearing animals for slaughter, it must be wrong for all people at all times).

The fact that some of us find making animals suffer so intuitively wrong, while others don't should raise important questions for moral realists. Am I right or are you? And how do we decide?

The Christian, however, can conveniently say, "Matt is Matt because God knows and loves Matt as Matt" or something like this. She (the Christian) may invoke God.

How can a god know and love me when we haven't established that I have an essential existence? For all we know, maybe a god knows and loves me as a series of consecutive beings.

Observation seems to guarantees nothing.

Ironically, this highlights what I see as the bankruptcy of the theist position - don't worry that your house doesn't have foundations, God will hold it up. It's too convenient, and thus unconvincing.

6:52 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

As a post-script on intuitions - I had a conversation with a friend a while ago in which she explained that she rejected the idea of gods on an intellectually level but not on an emotional one. I'm the other way round: I don't think there's a convincing argument against divine beings, I just have a strong intuition that they don't exist.

6:57 AM

 
Blogger Tom Freeman said...

the (evolutionary) story we tell about perception does not seem to differ that much with the story we tell about cognition

And so, if we’re happy to take perception as yielding justifiably basic beliefs about the world around us, why not take our cognitive intuitions as yielding justifiably basic beliefs about morality?

Three thoughts: first, the causal link between nearby objects and perceptions is clear; the causal link between realist moral facts and intuitions is, in Mackie’s word, ‘queer’.

Second, I’ve just bee reading the answer to the Edge annual question (‘What have you changed your mind about? Why?’ – lots of interesting stuff there). One relevant answer here is from Donald Hoffman on veridical perception and evolution:

“natural selection hinges on reproductive fitness, not on truth, and the two are not the same: Reproductive fitness in a particular niche might, for instance, be enhanced by reducing expenditures of time and energy in perception; true perceptions, in
consequence, might be less fit than niche-specific shortcuts.”


Perception conceals and simplifies a lot, sometimes to the point of falsehood. The perceptual – and cognitive – abilities we have are ones that have proved useful. Of course, a certain degree of truth – predator here, food there – is a necessity in perception. But are objectively true moral beliefs a necessity over and above those moral beliefs that are useful for getting on well as part of a group?

Third, other of our (non-moral) intuitive beliefs are unreliable. Imagine the guy at the roulette wheel who’s sure that black is ‘due’ after a run of reds. We have all sorts of cognitive biases that may often work well as practical shortcuts, but fall down when used outside the wild or as principles in abstract reasoning.

Also, as I’ve argued here and there, I don’t think theism can offer a moral realism – just a realism about what God wants.

On personal identity:

The Christian, however, can conveniently say, "Matt is Matt because God knows and loves Matt as Matt" or something like this.

I’m afraid I don’t get this at all. What is it about Matt that makes him remain the Matt that God continuously knows and loves?

7:21 AM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

"The fact that some of us find making animals suffer so intuitively wrong, while others don't should raise important questions for moral realists. Am I right or are you? And how do we decide?"

It is an important question to ponder, but one that I don't think is going to get the answer most of us would wish for (i.e. a certain one). Without an external authority to provide the last word, such moral questions must be dealt with somewhat arbitrarily from an objective standpoint. All we have to go on is what "seems" to be right according to our physiology, our communities and our individual upbringing at a given moment in time. This seems to be the course of things through history, with people becoming more sensitive to perceived forms of injustice in proportion to increasing quality of life. So, within a given group, the rights and wrongs of animal husbandry will no doubt change, but usually in a manner that has some degree of consistency within that group. The majority will agree that certain standards must be adhered to, legislation will pass, the new standards are implemented until such time as the majority change their view of what those standards should be.

I think morals are always going to be dictated in a sort of haphazard democratic style, which slowly and conditions being suitable, will gravitate toward an ideal in which hypothetically there is no such thing as suffering for anything (which I suppose at least adds something of a gold standard, even if one that is not practically achievable). However, where a certain society lies on that ethical journey will depend on its priorities at any given moment.

Of course, there will inevitably be clashes when the moral standard of one community conflicts with that of another. That pretty much sums up the problems of international politics. Or in the case of wartime, moral standards within the same community deviate because one fraction of that community, the soldier, is placed in an environment that test and alters his conditioned set of priorities.

So I don't think Revvvvd will have his question regarding how one determines ethical priorities answered in a satisfactorily reasoned manner. I think he's right, pure objective reason is never going to tell us why it's alright to eat a chicken but not the human babies of our enemies. I think the not-entirely-rational-but-good-enough-for-survival instincts we have evolved seem to direct us on a certain path that, as a side effect, causes us to empathise with suffering in a prioritized fashion (Family, friends, other people, other mammals, other animals, other eukaryotes and on downwards to the paramecium).

I don't think it is any accident that the direction of that innate moral compass happens to generally lie in the same direction of the one that theists would appeal to as an objective standard. I think this belief that there must be an objective standard is a natural reaction to explain our communal instincts. In the same way that Original Sin is an attempt to explain the malevolent side of human nature, which has played as important a part of our evolution as our altruistic instincts.

< /ramble >

5:01 PM

 
Blogger Timmo said...

rev. dr. incitatus,

While I appreciate your worries that our knowledge of morality can never be "objective" because it stems primarily from our own intuitions and from our particular moral upbringing, I hold that moral knowledge is not in a different category from other kinds of knowledge and that it is acquired in much the same way as other kinds of knowledge. Your write,

All we have to go on is what "seems" to be right according to our physiology, our communities and our individual upbringing at a given moment in time.

This is also true about our understanding of nature. All we have to "go on" is what seems to be true about the world according to the physiology of our sensory faculties, the scientific ideas of our community and our individual education at a given moment in time. Are you willing in this case to say that our belief that there must be an objectively existing world of physical objects that obey certain causal laws is merely a "natural reaction" to our communal, instinctive way of regarding our surroundings? Instead, like perception, we should regard our conscience as more or less reliable way of coming to know truths.

We have a number of belief-producing faculties, such as sensory perception, memory, reason, the natural language faculty, and conscience. I want to say: our conscience is just another belief-producing faculty like sensory perception or memory.

Thomas Reid responded to the problem of the external world in this way: it is not appropriate to doubt the reliability of our senses but still maintain the reliability of reason (we need reason in order to articulate philosophical doubts about the reality of an external world beyond our minds) because both our senses and our reason come from the same shop, so to speak.

Of course, outside factors can influence our conscience (our moral belief/intuition forming faculty). If we are corrupt, our own wicked motives may distort our moral understanding; also, no one can doubt the power that cultural moores exercise over our understanding of ethics. However, the fact that there are circumstances under which our moral intuitions are of dubious reliability does not suffice to show that we cannot use them to obtain genuine moral knowledge. All of our mental faculties fail under certain conditions. We can suffer from selective memory or confabulation; under stress, we are less able to reason effectively; the introduction of hallucinogenics or the presence of less than optimal conditions (e.g darkness) make our sensory apparatus untrustworthy.

10:31 PM

 
Blogger Linda said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

9:24 AM

 
Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

OK, a lot has been said since my last posts. We're still talking about theism's contribution to realism with regards to personal identity and ethics. Ethics first: I agree that what the theist ends up with is a realism of what God wants. And the moral content therein might contradict what we want. Classic divine command theory kind of stuff. I'm happy with that, as are most (non-Barthian) theists. Sure, I'll let the creator of the Universe dictate moral laws. Next, personal identity. If "Right" is whatever God decides is right, then analogously "Matt" is whoever God decides is "Matt." So, there might be no intrinsic thing that makes "Matt" "Matt", just as there is no intrinsic thing that makes an act moral or immoral. But I think theists should readily concede that it is God who sustains all things - including ethics and personal identity.

I take Matt's point, and I sometimes struggle with it too. It's too neat, too simple. What we get is a perfectly internally coherent system, but no reason for an outsider to step in. C.S. Lewis noticed this too, that he believes in God as he believes in the Sun: Not that he sees God, but that by God he sees everything. I'm not sure what the solution is. I'm not sure we can argue for or against entire metaphysical systems. But then again, I'm not a metaphysician.

Now, on the side, we talked about intuition. Of course, I'm more than familiar with perceptual and cognitive biases. And I think these biases can lead us to anti-realists, pragmatist, or critical rationalist epistemologies. The latter two allow us to accept our perceptions and intuitions at face value until given specific reason to doubt them. I think.

8:14 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Not that I want the discussion here to dry up, but I'm currently battling over the issue of morality here.

It'd be nice to have some intelligent theists join in.

(I realise that might seem like a cheap shot at the guys over there, but it's only about 12 comments in and it's already been suggested that I'm a potential Stalin twice).

11:01 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Not that I am presuming to be one of the intelligent theists you are summoning, but I'm going to have to pass. Classes just started again today, so I'd best attend to my new course work...

...as much as another round on morality tempts me.

...Okay, I'll just have a look, but I'm not writing anything. I promise.

11:38 AM

 
Blogger Timmo said...

Matt,

Sure, I'll join in. Classes don't start until Monday.

3:37 PM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Timmo,
Thanks for your erudite response above, BTW. I need to collect my thoughts before I reply in kind.

Briefly, I find myself agreeing with the general theme of your response, along the lines of the following:
"...our conscience is just another belief-producing faculty like sensory perception or memory."

However, I'd like to mull over the overall consequences of this idea a bit further.

4:31 PM

 
Blogger Timmo said...

rev. dr. incitatus,

I aim to please! :)

Let us know what your reflections disclose!

12:06 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Okay, so I lied. Adrian was up at six, so I had more time on my hands than I had hoped for... so much for a Saturday morning sleep in.

9:30 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

I'm afraid I've called you on one of the points you made (creations being subject to their creators) - I won't be offended if you take a while to get back to me on it though.

9:36 AM

 

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