Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Perils of Earthquake Prediction and Political Hubris

Six seismologists were finally acquitted last month after they made rash comments before Aquila earthquake of 2009.  They were victims of unreasonable expectations and not scientific ignorance. 
At 3am on 6 April 2009, an earthquake measuring 6.2 on the Richter scale devastated the medieval city of L’Aquila in the Apennine Mountains of central Italy.  Over three hundred people died and the city’s cultural treasures were left in a parlous state.  But it is events that unfolded shortly before the quake that have continued to attract worldwide attention. 

Six days before the disaster, a government committee of six seismologists and a public official tried to dampen down fears that an earthquake was imminent.  In particular, the one member of the committee who was not a scientist, Bernardo De Bernardinis, stated that there was “no danger”.  In 2012, a local court convicted the committee members of involuntary manslaughter.  When they were first charged, numerous professors, decorated with the weightiest of credentials, wrote letters attacking the prosecutors.  Putting these men on trial was an affront to the dignity of science, they cried.  When the seven were found guilty, the cacophony of outrage doubled in volume.  The Aquila seven joined Galileo as paradigms of scientific martyrdom. 
The wheels of Italian justice turn extremely slowly and only now have appeals against the decision of the local court been handed down.  The six scientists have had their convictions quashed, but that of De Bernardinis, who said there was no danger, was upheld.  Further appeals are still possible.

So what was really going on?  The world’s media misreported the 2012 trial with an even greater level on ineptitude than usual.  No prosecutor had alleged that failing to predict the earthquake was a criminal offence.  This was because predicting an earthquake is impossible.  The record of failure is long and inglorious.  We’ve only recently found out why earthquakes happen at all.  Aristotle thought they were a result of vapours escaping from the soil.  In the eighteenth century, some theorists blamed lightning strikes.  The development of plate tectonics in the early-twentieth century means that we now understand what causes the ground to shake. But mainstream geologists long derided this theory and it only achieved widespread acceptance in the 1950s.
Prediction remains a pipedream.  Studies of animals have found that, while they can act strangely before a major quake, plenty of more innocent occasions set off the same behaviour.  A retired engineer claimed that an earthquake was looming at L’Aquila because he was picking up higher readings of a radioactive gas.  But again, this also happens when no earthquake is due.  Foreshocks, such as those felt at L’Aquila, occur before about half of large quakes.  In contrast, large quakes only follow foreshocks about one occasion in fifty.  Thus, major seismic events do give some warning signs.  It’s just that those warnings don’t usually presage a serious earthquake.  In the jargon, “false positives” are far more common than true predictors.  Just imagine if scientists demanded the evacuation of Los Angeles, promising the big one was around the corner, and then nothing happened.  That is the most likely outcome given the current state of knowledge.

So, the seven Italians were not convicted of failing to predict the disaster in L’Aquila.  Rather they were accused of going about their duties negligently.  And negligence that causes death is often characterised as manslaughter.  Given De Benardinis assured the public they were completely safe, the failure of his appeal seems fair.  But the seismologists were in the impossible position of not knowing what the risk was, just that it probably wasn’t very great.

One question the case raises is the extent to which scientists should be held accountable.  The implication of many of the L’Aquila seven’s defenders is that scientists should be given carte blanche to say what they like.  Anything else would obstruct free enquiry.  But that can’t be right.  A scientist who carried out their work without due care or made off-the-cuff pronouncements would surely be culpable.  Given that we cannot predict earthquakes, a confident statement that no earthquake was due would be as bad as saying that it was imminent.  As in many other fields, an honest mistake is a defence, but negligence is not.  Scientists enjoy the status of latter-day sages.  Many imagine that their methods provide the only road to truth, not only in physics and biology, but in the social sciences as well.  So perhaps the message from L’Aquila is that in making those claims, scientists unintentionally erect expectations that they cannot possibly meet.
Still, there is another way of looking at the case of L’Aquila.  The government set up a committee to advise on earthquakes and people of the city felt betrayed when it failed to protect them.  No matter that the state could no more control the ground than Canute could the tide.  Like so many westerners, the citizens of L’Aquila thought that their government was an indomitable Leviathan.  The media fuels this mood with its constant refrain that “something must be done” even when there is patently nothing that can be.  So grandiose has the rhetoric of the state become, that people imagine the reality should match the words.  Even in a country like Italy where the government is so self-evidently incompetent, it is still expected to be in control of events that are intrinsically beyond control.  Extending the scope of a government’s tasks to scientifically impossible tasks such as earthquake prediction is only a small step further from expecting it to achieve the economically impossible by “kick-starting the economy” or the mathematically illogical task of preserving generous entitlements without raising taxes or cutting other spending. 

We have come to expect too much from our politicians and our scientists.  What it needed is for both professions to become more humble. Otherwise, they can expect to be severely punished if they can’t live up to their rhetoric.
Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Text wanted

I'm looking for an introduction to philosophy text that meets the following criteria:

1. It's arranged topically, not historically.
2. It nevertheless deals with these topics by going over how various thinkers throughout history have addressed them -- although not exhaustively of course.
3. It's actually introductory, for people who haven't taken philosophy before.
4. It's inexpensive.

I had used Does the Center Hold? but it's chapter on metaphysics was exclusively on philosophy of mind (not really dealing with space and time, causality, etc.), and the chapter on philosophy of religion was just terrible. Anyone have any ideas?

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Trace of God by Joe Hinman

“Are mystical experiences real?” asks Joe Hinman in his new book, The Trace of God: A Rational Warrant for Belief. It should not be too much of a spoiler to reveal that he concludes that they are. Joe has distilled the research on mysticism since William James to determine the commonalities of these experiences and to ask how much they can tell us about aspects of reality not readily accessible to everyday experience.

There are plenty of problems with studying mystical or “peak” experiences. For a start, they are highly subjective and extremely difficult to describe. Francis Spufford gives it a go in his excellent book Unapologetic, but reading about someone else’s experience is always second best. I am a decidedly non-mystical person and so I find the subject alien, if quite fascinating. Joe introduces us to Ralph Hood Jr’s “M scale” which attempts to provide a measure of mystical experience so that they can be compared and validated. In fact, it turns out that there has been a great deal more work in this area than your might imagine. This has revealed uniformities that mean we can certainly group these experiences into a single category.

But are they real? The standard rationalist response is to dismiss mysticism was something that goes on inside our heads, often aided by illicit chemicals. It has no external cause and so it is of interest to neurologists and hippies only. It certainly can’t tell us anything about God. As Joe explains, the problem with this dismissal is that all our experiences are ultimately subjective. We never enjoy unmediated access to reality, but only the most radical solipsist would claim this means that reality doesn’t exist. We know when we are awake and quite often know when we are dreaming. Mysticism isn’t like that – it feels more real than everyday life.

Still, the strength of science, says the rationalist, is that it overcomes subjectivism by insisting on repeatability. Joe marshals Thomas Kuhn and other sociologists of science to argue that scientists are just as prone to herd mentality as the rest of us. I’m not sure this goes far enough to mean a mystical experience can claim parity of subjectivity with a laboratory experiment. But Joe doesn’t want to take things that far. He just argues that the mere fact that mystical life is subjective does not rule it out of court as a valid experience from which we can extrapolate knowledge. His basic argument is that we are justified in accepting religious truths on the ground of our own experiences (what is called the “religious a priori”). Thus, mysticism can provide us for a rational warrant for religious belief.

The bulk of The Trace of God is taken up by detailed rebuttals of sceptical arguments against mysticism: that it is just emotions and feelings, caused by drugs or brain chemistry. Joe blunts these arguments, but he would be the first to admit that he has not proved that mystic experiences are not purely internal. However, by showing that rationalists cannot invalidate mysticism, he leaves the road open to his own argument: these experiences are evidence of God in the way that a footprint is evidence of a wild animal. Mysticism provides a trace that gives us a rational warrant to postulate the existence of the being that gave rise to the spoor. We’re not dealing in proof here. In that respect, Joe’s project is similar to Alvin Plantinga’s work on warrant. But whereas Plantinga floats his justifications on rarefied philosophical air, Joe builds on the solid ground of widely experienced phenomena. No one, as far as I am aware, believes in God because of philosophy. Plenty of people base their religious faith on mystical experience.

This leaves us with two difficult questions: is belief in God warranted by someone else’s mystical experience? And where does religious doctrine fit into experiences that can be wildly inconsistent? Joe doesn’t really deal with the first of these. He concludes that the evidence of mysticism provides him with warrant for knowledge about God that he has anyway. It doesn’t seem to provide much evidence for the non-believer unless that non-believer is willing to invest in a religious interpretation of these experiences. As far as apologetics goes, this is a “come on in, the water’s lovely” argument. 

And what about doctrine? Joe, like me, is an orthodox Christian of liberal persuasion. One senses that, for him, the universal aspects of mysticism are an advantage not a problem. A Christianity that damned the rest of humanity (or worse a Christian sect that damned most Christians into the bargain) is not one that Joe or I would be comfortable with. If mystical experiences provide warrant for believing in God, they also provide evidence of God’s interest in all of humanity. Joe distinguishes between knowing God “face to face” and the knowledge of doctrine. He finds evidence for the distinction in the writings of Paul: the man who had the most famous mystical experience in history. 

Overall, as a first book that breaks new ground in the philosophy of religion, this book represents a considerable achievement. Joe’s publishers, Grand Viaduct, also deserve credit for helping him overcome the disadvantage of dyslexia to communicate his ideas in a format such that they might achieve the recognition they deserve.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum

Wednesday, March 19, 2014


Ed Feser had an online debate with Keith Parsons. Considering that they had had some minor hostility issues with each other previously, it's remarkable how respectful and cordial they are, although it started with some less-than-polite forays. Here are the elements, and the comments are worth reading too:

Before the debate:
Keith Parsons: Can the arguments of the "new atheists" be made stronger?
Ed Feser: Four questions for Keith Parsons

The debate:
Parsons: Answering Prof. Feser
Feser: An exchange with Keith Parsons, part 1
Parsons: Reply to Prof. Feser's second question
Feser: An exchange with Keith Parsons, part 2
Parsons: Reply to Prof. Feser's third question
Feser: An exchange with Keith Parsons, part 3
Parsons: Reply to Prof. Feser's fourth question
Feser: An exchange with Keith Parsons, part 4

After the debate:
Feser: Can you explain something by appealing to "brute fact"?
Parsons: Response to Prof. Feser's response, part 1 (I'm not sure why this was just posted a couple days ago as it seems to form a part of the actual debate, but so be it)

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Arctic views

With Russia's sort-of invasion of Ukraine (some say it is definitely an invasion, some say it isn't), pundits on the political right are pointing out how, during the 2012 American presidential campaign, Mitt Romney was mocked by President Obama, John Kerry, and the media for suggesting that Russia was America's number one geopolitical foe. Some have looked further back to the 2008 campaign when Sarah Palin was not taken seriously when she suggested that Obama's stance towards Russia's invasion of Georgia would only encourage Putin to invade Ukraine.

This latter case is bringing up another issue involving Sarah Palin and Russia that I've never understood. During the 2008 campaign, an interviewer asked her for her thoughts on Russia, given its proximity to Alaska, the state Palin was the governor of at the time. She responded that Russia and Alaska are neighbors, and that in fact you can see Russian territory from Alaskan territory, specifically an island in the Bering Strait.

When I first heard this, I nodded my head. I thought it was common knowledge. There are two islands about two and a half miles apart in the Bering Strait: the Little Diomede Island is Alaskan and the Big Diomede island is Russian. The Alaskan island has a town facing the Russian island, and the Russian island has a military base on it. The international date line goes right between the two islands, and the space between them (actually the whole Bering Strait) was known as the Ice Curtain during the Cold War. Monty Python's Michael Palin began one of his travelogues on Little Diomede Island, and tried to finish it there as well, but couldn't quite make it. I remember in the 1980s the comic strip Bloom County had a sequence about how some ignorant hicks heard that the USSR had moved within two and a half miles of American territory and were panicking about it. Lynne Cox, an American swimmer, swam between the two islands to "ease international tensions." Etc. Again, I thought this had permeated American culture and that everyone knew it -- not necessarily the names of the islands (which I didn't know), but just that there was an American island and a Russian island a couple miles apart in the Bering Strait.

In fact, the Diomede Islands aren't the only place that Alaska and Russia are within sight of each other: "To the Russian mainland from St. Lawrence Island, a bleak ice-bound expanse the size of Long Island out in the middle of the Bering Sea, the distance is 37 miles. From high ground there or from the Air Force facility at Tin City atop Cape Prince of Wales, the westernmost edge of mainland North America, on a clear day you can see Siberia with the naked eye." St. Lawrence Island has two towns on it. And Tin City, as noted above,  is part of the North American continent, not an island. It is the mainland, and you can see Siberia from it: "The station chief at Tin City confirms that, for roughly half the year, you can see Siberian mountain ranges from the highest part of the facility."

Yet when Palin said you can see Russian territory from an Alaskan island, everyone went crazy about how stupid she was. On Saturday Night Live, Tina Fey, portraying Palin, said "I can see Russia from my house," which, incredibly, has entered the public consciousness as something Palin supposedly said. I guess if people were ignorant of the Diomede Islands -- and if they didn't realize that the proximity of mainland Russia to St. Lawrence Island and the westernmost part of the North American continent allowed an observer to see one from the other (which I was ignorant of and surprised by) -- I could understand them being skeptical of Palin's actual statement. But even if you think she's unintelligent and says foolish things in general, once you found out about these islands, why in the world wouldn't you respond by saying, "Oops, my bad, Palin was right." I mean, it's no big deal. You didn't know about a couple of islands in the Bering Sea. It's not a personality flaw. Yet Palin's statement is still held up as an example of stupidity on her part. I don't get it. Maybe it's because she supposedly used this to tout her international cred. But, again, she was asked about Russia's proximity to Alaska, and she merely confirmed it by accurately stating you could see Russian territory from Alaskan territory.

I'm not defending Palin's politics at all here. My confusion about this has nothing to do with her politics or her overall intelligence or how well-informed she is. I just don't understand why an innocuous and correct statement she made in response to an interviewer specifically asking her about this subject would cause so many people to have such a strong reaction that she must be wrong. If you think she's unintelligent, fine. If you think she's wrong about politics, great. This isn't politics, it's geography. What's the source of this reaction? It's this absurd polarization, this staking out of claims, this willful blindness that makes me avoid politics as much as possible.

Update: Here's some pictures that I obviously cannot vouch for. First, to show their proximity, are some pictures of the Diomede Islands:

Second, a picture of the Russian mainland from St. Lawrence Island, with the Alaskan town of Gambell in the foreground:

Third, a picture taken from Tin City (presumably at the part that's over 2000 feet above sea level), which, to reiterate, is the westernmost point of the North American continent. The Diomede Islands are about three-fourths up from the bottom of the picture -- Little Diomede is right in front of Big Diomede, so it's hard to distinguish them. On the upper right part of the picture is Cape Dezhnev, the easternmost point of the Asian continent, and on the upper left part of the picture is more Russia.

Another update: Here's the beginning of Michael Palin's travelogue Full Circle, which begins on Little Diomede Island with Big Diomede in the background:

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Some recent reads

Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology by Daniel Dennett. I just added Dennett to my "Favorite Books" list on my profile page. Not because I agree with him, but because he has staked out the issues that I tend to move towards as well. The difference is in our assessment of the issues, but we agree on the meta issue of which issues should be addressed. I'm currently reading The Intentional Stance (I'm stuck in the far-too-long chapter "Beyond Belief" which defends his almost-but-not-quite eliminativism), and will move on to his new book afterwards, probably.

Physicalism, or Something Near Enough by Jaegwon Kim. You should read everything Kim writes. He is one of the most important voices in philosophy of mind. I'd like to make a website devoted to Kim's writings, analogous to the websites Andrew Bailey has made for Alvin Plantinga, Peter van Inwagen, and others. This book, which I disagree with for the most part, is his attempt to solve the mind-body problem and mental causation, which he also addressed in his excellent Mind in a Physical World. He seems to think he is successful -- and Kim is emphatically not one of those overconfident philosophers who solves deep problems with superficial analyses -- but he says he is still left with qualia. That's why it's near enough to physicalism: he's solved the most important and difficult part, and the remainder is a difficult but nowhere near as significant issue.

Reason, Metaphysics, and Mind edited by Kelly James Clark and Michael Rea. These are the proceedings from Alvin Plantinga's retirement conference. The essays aren't on Plantinga's philosophy, but rather (and I approve of this wholeheartedly) on issues that Plantinga wrote on extensively. As with any collection there are some good and some not as good, but it's definitely worth it.

The Concept of Canonical Intertextuality and the Book of Daniel by Jordan Scheetz. Jordan is one of my best friends, so I'm completely biased towards this book. We went to the same school, and we both took a class on Aramaic. This is relevant because his book is a focused commentary on Daniel, one of two Old Testament books (the other being Ezra) with a significant portion written in Aramaic rather than Hebrew. This book is a short commentary, but Jordan has mastered the languages so completely, it's incredible. Some general editor compiling a new series of Bible commentaries better contact him, because if he wrote a comprehensive commentary on Daniel, it would be amazing.

Simply Jesus by N.T. Wright. Very good. I need to start buying his Christian Origins and the Question of God series, seeing as how he's just published a fourth volume on Paul.

Jesus and the Logic of History by Paul Barnett. I've had this book for 15 years and never read it. I finally took it off the shelf a couple months ago. It's outstanding. One very interesting point he makes is how scholars start studying Jesus with the gospels, and never move on. He suggests that we start with the New Testament epistles because the information they contain about Jesus is a) tangential to the points they're making to their audience, and b) was already accepted by the original audience -- that is, the statements were meant to remind the readers about something, or put it in a specific context they may not have thought of before. Barnett suggests this makes these statements immune to many of the methodologies used to evacuate the gospels of historical validity.

The Martian by Andy Weir. My wife brought me back a pre-publication copy of this novel from a conference she attended in Chicago last month (it was officially published this month). It's about one of the first manned explorations of Mars, and one astronaut being accidentally abandoned there and struggling to survive, the hope of rescue, etc. I read a lot of science-fiction, so I'm referencing this book in lieu of a long list. My reasons for singling out this one are that a) it's a particular subject that I love: near-future exploration of the solar system; b) it threads the needle of being a very pleasant read while being nice hard science-fiction: the guy really knows the science and the technology (or at least is able to convince a layman like myself that he does). This is made all the more impressive by the fact that c) it's the author's first work. For my fellow science-fiction fans, I recommend it.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum

Saturday, January 25, 2014

On the Appearance of Age; or Putting the "omph" in omphalos

I just finished reading Darwinia by Robert Charles Wilson, whose short story "Utriusque Cosmi" made me a lifelong fan no matter what else he writes. The premise of Darwinia is that in 1912 Europe essentially disappears and is replaced by an alternate Europe with roughly the same coastlines, rivers, mountains, etc., but no sign of human civilization, and with plants and animals from a very different evolutionary history than our own. Wilson uses this to ask questions about one of the primary arguments young-earth advocates use in order to avoid the scientific evidence that the earth and universe are billions of years old: the claim that God created things with a false appearance of age. Wilson's main character speculates about this issue:

Certainly Europe had been remade in 1912; just as certainly, these very trees had appeared there in a night, eight years younger than he found them now. But they did not seem new-made. They generated seed (spores, more precisely, or germinae in the new taxonomy), which implied heritage, history, descent, perhaps even evolution. Cut one of these trees across the bole and you would find annular growth rings numbering far more than eight. The annular rings might be large or small, depending on seasonal temperatures and sunlight ... depending on seasons that had happened before these plants appeared on Earth.

Similarly, young earth creationists claim that God created trees with annual rings, polar ice sheets with annual layers, and coral atolls with daily band deposits for days, years, and millennia that never happened. One prominent way they do this is to suggest that when God created the stars, he also created beams of light in transit between those stars and the earth (and presumably everywhere else in the universe). Otherwise, light from stars that are more than a few thousand years away from us wouldn't have reached us yet, and so couldn't be observed.

The problem here is very much the same as with tree rings that indicate weather conditions from years that, ex hypothesi, never happened. As I wrote here, when we observe light from distant objects, we don't just observe objects, we observe events. For example, astronomers regularly observe supernovae in other galaxies, millions of light years away. Now say God created the beams of light from those galaxies in transit a few thousand years ago. In that case, the light that left those galaxies immediately upon their creation would still have a long way to go before it reaches us; what we observe is just the beam God created between these galaxies and us. So when did these supernovae take place? Are they taking place now, that is, when they are observed by us? But then in a few million years, we'll see them again when the light they produce reaches us. It seems that since the light showing a supernova taking place was created in transit, these supernovae never happened.

Now this scenario is extremely contrived or ad hoc. But that's not the problem I have with it: the problem I have is that it ascribes deception to God. God is painting scenes on the sky that never happened, he is manipulating the universe to make it appear differently than what it actually is. But the God of the Bible cannot lie. It's not merely that he does not (in that he's never had occasion to) or will not (in that he chooses not to) but he cannot. It is contrary to his nature.

In response, I've heard young earth advocates challenge this, by suggesting that this puts God in a box. God can create any way he wants to: why should we assume that it's contrary to his inscrutable will to create, say, a car that looks rusted and dilapidated? Or take a Scriptural example: God had the Hebrews wander in a seemingly random manner in order to trick Pharaoh into thinking that they were confused and could be easily defeated (Exodus 14:1-4). So God can manipulate for purposes that will often be beyond our ken.

There's two answers to this. First, it seems to me that creating something that manifestly displays properties it doesn't really have would still qualify as deception (and thus as lying). By "manifestly" I do not mean "superficial", I mean something that is not ad hoc or contrived. If you built a car but designed it to look like an old rustbucket when it actually is not, would you be trying to deceive people? Whatever reason Pharaoh had for thinking that the path the Hebrews were wandering in was random, he had a much stronger reason for thinking that God was guiding them: he had just had ten plagues visited on his nation which were explicitly revealed to be a punishment from God for his failure to let the Hebrews go. Once he let them go, they traveled in such a way to look as if they were hemmed in by the desert, but Pharaoh could not have thought that meant they could be recaptured without ignoring the much more obvious, dramatic, and explicit events that had just taken place.

Perhaps I'm wrong about this though. Perhaps creating a car that looks old when it is not would not automatically count as a lie. But here's my second point: it would count as a lie if God told us the car was a reliable and trustworthy revelation from him. And this is exactly what God says of the natural world. He tells us that nature is true revelation (which is redundant) from God, which is clear and understandable to all people in all times and places -- including times and places that did not have access to the Bible or any other form of special revelation. God never told Pharaoh that he would reveal himself through the route the Hebrews would travel after their departure from Egypt, but he did tell him to let his people go. If God created a new car that looked rusted and dilapidated and then told us that this car could be trusted to reveal the truth, he would be lying, because it wouldn't reveal the truth. And God can't lie.

In response to this, young earth proponents will often give Scriptural examples of God creating things with a false appearance of age, and then suggest that this could be true of the universe as a whole (which, incidentally, commits the fallacy of composition). Here are the three examples I've encountered:

The creation of Adam and Eve. Many argue that when God created Adam and Eve, he didn't create them as zygotes which then slowly grew to infancy, childhood, and eventually adulthood -- he created them as adults. Since they were created "full grown" they bore the appearance of an age that they didn't actually have.

Now I will not argue here about how literally we are supposed to take the story in Genesis 2, I'll grant that it's literal for the sake of argument. Nor will I enter into an extensive analysis as to whether the biblical text really commits us to the claim that God created Adam and Eve as adults. I'll grant this too. Even with this, I think it is still enormously problematic to suggest that God created Adam and Eve with a false appearance of Age.

This can be illustrated by asking whether Adam's and Eve's cells and organs had physical indicators that they had been alive for twenty (or so) years. For example, according to this scenario God presumably created Adam and Eve with adult-sized hearts. But it doesn't follow from this that these hearts bore the wear and tear of having been beating for twenty years -- he created them brand new, not with a false appearance of age. Let me reiterate that: they would have appeared adult-sized AND brand new. The claim that being created as adults means being created with an appearance of age presupposes that size and age are essentially the same thing. This is obviously false.

Second, if the fact that they were created as adults indicated a false appearance of age, then we have opened a door we definitely do not want to go through. If Adam's and Eve's bodies bore a false appearance of age, we have no grounds for denying that their minds may have as well. In other words, God may have created Adam and Eve with false memories of childhoods which never happened. And thus, there is nothing to prevent us from maintaining the same thing of our own memories. God, in other words, would be implanting false memories into our minds. I've never seen anyone suggest anything like this, and it seems so absurd, and so blatantly contrary to God's truthful character, that I doubt any Christian would seriously propose it. But it's unavoidable that this would be a possibility if we try to argue that God's creation of Adam and Eve as adults implies that he created them with a false appearance of age.

Finally, the bodies of Adam and Eve are not here for us to examine to see if they really do bear a false appearance of age. But the universe is here for us to examine. We should always try to understand the unclear in light of the clear, not the other way around. We can't employ what is, at best, a highly speculative interpretation of Scripture in order to deny the reality of the world around us.

Jesus changing water into wine. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus changed water in several jars into wine (John 2:1-11). Wine is by its very nature an aged substance. It takes time to ferment. When Jesus made wine instantaneously out of water he either radically sped up the fermentation process, or he created the wine with the appearance of having experienced the fermentation process when it had not. In either case, the wine would have borne a false appearance of age.

However, it is not evident that the molecular structure of wine by itself indicates a particular age or appearance of age. The fact that alcohol is naturally produced by fermentation does not imply that if God supernaturally changes H2O molecules into alcohol molecules, he makes them with the appearance of having been produced by fermentation. Just as the previous argument equates size with age, so this argument equates molecular structure with age, which again is obviously false.

I think some people who argue that changing the water to wine indicates an appearance of age are thinking of a wonderful passage by C.S. Lewis  in his book Miracles about Jesus' miracles of fertility. Lewis points out that the water to wine and the multiplication of bread and fish (Mark 6:30-44; 8:1-13) are doing something in a different way that God usually does through nature. Bread is multiplied in that a single seed grows into a full plant; fish are multiplied by procreation; and water is changed to wine through the growth of grapes and fermentation. "Thus, in a certain sense, He constantly turns water into wine".

Of course, it all turns on the phrase, "in a certain sense". Water, after all, doesn't ferment. The point of these miracles, Lewis argues, is that it shows that God is the God of fertility, the God of the vine, "He is the reality behind the false god Bacchus". God usually accomplishes these things through the universe he made, but he can also do it directly, "short circuit[ing] the process". To suggest that in these acts God is creating something with a false appearance of age is to completely miss the point. The miracle of changing water to wine was a miracle of transformation, not one of aging: God supernaturally changed the molecular structure of the water in the cisterns into the molecular structure of wine. In other words, God created all the elements of wine other than water and then placed them in the water. This doesn't mean that God "sped up" the natural process of fermentation any more than when someone mixes water with dehydrated wine (yes there is such a thing). Moreover, as with the bodies of Adam and Eve, the wine Jesus made from water is not present for us to examine. We simply cannot conclude, therefore, that it bore a false appearance of age.

Some may think that if we deny the possibility of God creating with a false appearance of age, we are claiming that he can't speed up natural processes. But I don't claim this. God can speed up (or slow down, or change in any way he wants) the processes of nature at his discretion. My claim is merely that, if he does, the objects acted upon would bear witness to his divine intervention. Or perhaps these critics are thinking that any proposed first state can be given a naturalistic history. Thus, it is impossible for God to not create without some appearance of age. This seems to assume that God's miracles could actually occur by natural processes given enough time, just as wine, bread, and fish can be produced by natural processes. Then, when God performs a miracle, he speeds up these natural processes. I simply disagree: while some miracles may be something that could occur naturally (perhaps the miracle then being in their timing; the parting of the Sea of Reeds might be an example), this is not the case for all of them. There are some miracles that could never occur naturally without divine intervention, so they wouldn't represent a false appearance of age. Water in a jar will never turn into wine by itself no matter how much time you gave it. Natural processes will not bring a dead man back to life with a glorified body if you wait long enough.

The budding of Aaron's staff. In Numbers 17, we are told that the Israelites were jealous of the special position God had given Moses and Aaron, so God had Moses take the staffs from the leaders of each of the twelve tribes and place them in the tent of meeting. The following morning, Aaron's staff had sprouted and budded, producing blossoms and ripe almonds. However, the miracle here was not that God "sped up" a natural process, but that he brought a dead piece of wood back to life. All of the reasons why the bodies of Adam and Eve and Jesus' transformation of the water into wine don't imply a false appearance of age also apply here. And just like the other two examples, we don't have Aaron's staff to examine to see if it really does exhibit a false age. How do we know that, upon closer examination, the bodies of Adam and Eve, the wine made from water, and Aaron's staff wouldn't give evidence that they had been supernaturally altered? Wouldn't it be more reasonable to conclude that God wouldn't cover up or conceal such remarkable examples of his power by making them appear normal when they weren't?

None of the examples above constitute examples of God creating things with a false appearance of age, and hence we have no grounds for asserting that he may have done so with the universe as a whole. We know that creation can be trusted to reveal the truth about itself, since God has gone to such lengths to tell us that it is a revelation by which he makes himself known to humanity. If this revelation weren't trustworthy, it's inexplicable why God would tell us that it is, unless God himself is a deceiver. That is not an option for the Bible-believing Christian.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature

The news is full of bad things.  Wars, murders and accidents sell papers and keep us glued to our screens.  So, it's natural to think that disastrous events are growing more common as they become better reported.  I call this the headline fallacy.  That's our inclination to generalise from the latest gory headlines and so miss the big picture.  Behavioural psychologists have bigger words for this propensity: the "heuristic of availability".  Many experiments have shown that we tend to answer broad questions from the specific instances at the front of our minds.

The headline fallacy badly distorts the way we see the world.  Most people in the UK think crime is rising.  In fact, it has fallen precipitously since the 1990s.  Environmentalists tell us that global warming has increased the likelihood of big storms like recent typhoon in the Philippines.  With Haiyan hogging the headlines, that seems highly plausible but it just isn't true.  On the smaller scale of individual tragedy, a recent cluster of cycling deaths in London has led to claims that riding a bike has become more dangerous.  But, statistically, it hasn't.

In his recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker takes the long view and asks whether violence has declined over the course of human history.  And, if so, why has it?  Let's get one thing out of the way first.  This is a long book containing a large number of errors.  Here are just some examples I jotted down from the first few chapters: the iron maiden and pear of anguish are modern hoaxes, not authentic torture implements (the latter is a misidentified surgical tool); Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake but not for believing the earth goes around the sun; watermills, horse collars and horse shoes are not late medieval - they were all widespread by 1066; and public executions were outlawed in England in 1868, not in 1783.  Pinker appears to believe that Henry VIII was a protestant, that Thomas Hobbes opposed executing witches and that Barbara Tuchman is a scholarly source on medieval history.  I could go on, but you get the drift.  Just in case you don't, here and here are a couple of longer articles by fellow clerk Humphrey on Pinker's historical illiteracy.

All these mistakes are unfortunate.  Really, if you are going to argue for a controversial thesis then you need to get your facts right.  Nonetheless, Pinker's central point is surely correct: violence of all kinds has declined massively since prehistory and very considerably over the last half a century.  There are fewer wars, fewer murders, and less violence against women and children.  Even animals are subjected to lower levels of suffering.  Our instinct to believe otherwise is a symptom of the headline fallacy.  Campaigning groups, having won many battles, are loath to admit their success in case the funding dries up.  But Pinker provides reams of statistics covering all sorts of unpleasantness that brook little argument notwithstanding that his anecdotes, as I noted above, can go badly awry.

He deserves congratulations for demonstrating some good news in a world of pessimism.  That said, this is a deeply flawed book.  While he devotes 23 pages to animal suffering, Pinker's short section on the violence of abortion is grossly inadequate.  And it is pretty clear why: Pinker is a liberal secularist who just doesn't have a problem with the industrial slaughter of foetuses.  He concedes that abortion rates are slowly declining but appears to consider this less a cause for celebration than the better living conditions now enjoyed by laboratory rats.

And this book has wider problems than just not recognising that abortion is violence even though it has received a liberal imprimatur.  Pinker's explanations of why violence has declined sound like the musings of an undergraduate who has digested too much nineteenth-century Whiggish history.  His thesis, in summary, is that violence is caused by religion and conservatives.  It has declined because reason and blue-state values are conquering the world.  I simplify, but not by all that much.  The first chapter of Better Angels seems calculated to alienate Christians and they receive random jabs in the ribs throughout the book.  Moreover, Pinker goes to enormous lengths to avoid giving Christianity any credit at all for social progress (except for the occasional nod towards Quakers).  The trouble is, contrary to Pinker, the abolition of the slave trade was a victory for evangelical Protestants whose zeal and organisation culminated in the successful campaign in England decades before the American Civil War.  And religion was an essential part of the process by which civilisation got going in the first place.  Pinker admits the formation of stable societies, Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan, was an essential first step in reducing levels of violence.  However, he clearly has no idea how this process of state formation got going because he cannot admit that it was religion that first bound these new entities together.

Maybe Pinker has come down with a touch of Russell's Syndrome: the condition that gives so many intelligent atheists a case of the stupids when they start talking about religion. Or perhaps Pinker is only interested in convincing his fellow east- and west-coast academics.  Admittedly, this is likely to be hard enough for him.  He finds that much of the recent reduction in violence had its roots in the rise of individualism and the erosion of community values.  Trade, free markets and capitalism have done more for peace 'n' love than socialism ever did.  It is classical liberal values (sometimes called libertarianism) rather than left-liberalism that Pinker finds most conducive to amity and concord.

Pinker is always engaging and I am a huge fan of The Blank Slate.  Unfortunately, with Better Angels, his inability to give credit to any factor associated with faith or conservatism means he has to accept some implausible alternatives.  Postulating that the Enlightenment was caused by the spread of novels and the decline of murder by improved table manners seems a stretch.  His remarks on how the Flynn effect (whereby the results of IQ tests have risen over time) represent a rise in moral intelligence are especially unconvincing.  That's not to say that these explanations are wrong.  It is just that in a book of 1,026 pages, much of what Pinker says seems seriously undercooked.  Better Angels would have been superior if it were shorter and more focused.  Nonetheless, Pinker has done us a service by showing that the decline of violence is real.  That's very good news.  Arguing over the causes is of secondary importance.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum

Friday, November 15, 2013

C.S. Lewis's Argument against Naturalism, part 7

Further Objections and Influences
In addition to objections made specifically against C.S. Lewis’s argument, other objections have been made to similar arguments that have relevance to it. I will now go over those I have encountered.

Computers process information, and yet are completely physical in nature. Their processing functions are entirely cause-effect rather than ground-consequent, but they still give the right answers.{1} Therefore, this shows that we need not posit something more than the physical world with its cause-effect relations in order to account for the validity of our reasoning processes.

While Lewis did not directly address this objection, he did present an argument that can be seen as relevant to it: his claim that a news broadcast cannot be reduced to the functioning of the television set. If a broadcast were entirely produced by the functioning of the set, we would not ascribe any degree of validity to it.{2} This holds true of computers as well. The reason why we ascribe validity to the functioning of a computer is precisely because there is something “behind” it; namely a programmer, an intelligent agent, who designed it. If we thought the computer’s programming was the result of some random, non-intelligent process, we would not trust its results. Even if the results turned out to be true, it would not have reached those results because they are true. As William Hasker writes,

Computers function as they do because they have been constructed by human beings endowed with rational insight. And the results of their computations are accepted because they are evaluated by rational human beings as conforming to rational norms. A computer, in other words, is merely an extension of the rationality of its designers and users; it is no more an independent source of rational thought than a television set is an independent source of news and entertainment.{3}

Appealing to computers as purely physical processors of information begs the question. The only reason they can process information is because of the human being standing behind it, who organizes it in such a way that the computer’s cause-effect processes correspond to the programmer’s ground-consequent processes. And whether that human being’s capacity to process information can be reduced to purely cause-effect physical processes is precisely the question under discussion.

Perhaps a related objection could be made at this point. The naturalist might say that the supernaturalist view of God endowing us with the capacity to reason is exactly parallel to our endowing computers with the capacity to process information. Thus, any claim that computers do not really reason applies equally to us, and so there must be something wrong with such claims. Again, Lewis makes a point that is directly applicable: “to talk thus is, in my opinion, to forget what reasoning is like. … Reasoning doesn’t ‘happen to’ us: we do it. … human thought is not God’s but God-kindled.”{4}

Self-reference as nonsensical
Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell argue in Principia Mathematica that self-reference leads to contradictions, and is therefore nonsensical.{5} If we allow it, it leads to Russell’s paradox: we can think of classes that belong to themselves; for example, the class of concepts is a concept itself. We can also think of classes that do not belong to themselves; for example, the class of blue things is not itself blue. The problem comes in when we ask this about the class of classes that do not belong to themselves. If this class belongs to itself, then it does not belong to itself; and if it does not belong to itself, then it does belong to itself. This creates a vicious circle from which there is no escape.

The only way to avoid this, Russell and Whitehead argue, is to disallow all self-reference. This would make the concepts of classes that do or do not belong to themselves incoherent, and so the paradox is avoided. They apply this to a common refutation of skepticism: a man says we cannot know anything, and a detractor then asks him whether he knows that we cannot know anything. If he does, then his statement is false, and if he does not, then it remains possible for us to know something. Yet the question, “do you know that we cannot know anything?” is self-referential, and therefore nonsensical. “Hence any significant scepticism is not open to the above form of refutation.”{6}

Now go back to Lewis’s argument: if all of our beliefs are caused by nonrational processes, this would include the belief that all of our beliefs are caused by nonrational processes. Therefore, such a belief would not be rational, and is thus self-refuting. However, according to Russell and Whitehead, such an argument is incoherent because it refers to itself.

The first problem to note here is that self-reference is unavoidable. If we say, “no proposition can be self-referential,” then this would either apply to this proposition itself, or it would not. If it does not apply to itself, then it is false, since there remains a proposition that can be self-referential; that is, the ban on self-referential propositions does not apply to it, in which case it would remain possible for that proposition to refer to itself. On the other hand, if it does apply to itself, then it refers to itself; which leads to contradiction, since the statement that propositions are not self-referential is a self-referential proposition. So the ban on self-referential statements is either false or contradictory; regardless, in either case, we end up with self-reference.

Another problem is that many self-referential statements seem perfectly coherent. Semantic paradoxes, such as “this statement is false,” can be incoherent, but this is “neither due to the fact that they arise in self-referential statements nor to the fact that the self-reference is semantic. The precise difficulty is that there are no propositions expressed in these supposed statements; there is nothing definite to which the referring terms might refer. Like a mirage, the supposed referent continually recedes.”{7} What this demonstrates is that there are different types of self-reference, and not all of them are problematic.{8} “Russell and Whitehead regard as identical in kind the self-reference of the application of formal notions to themselves, the self-reference of the semantical paradoxes, and the performative self-reference of skepticism. These are clearly different, as are the paradoxes which arise in each case.”{9}

So what of Russell’s class of all classes that do not belong to themselves? One can simply deny that such a class exists without thereby discounting all examples of self-reference. The class of all classes that do not belong to themselves is incoherent, but it does not lead to a genuine antinomy, like the liar paradox.{10} On the other hand, the skeptic who says we cannot know anything is making a performative self-referential statement. Such statements “imply certain propositions about their speaker, their audience, and so on. If the implied propositions are false, then the utterance is irrational. … There is nothing formally wrong with the circularity involved in this fallacy. The fallacy arises because the circularity makes impossible the successful achievement of the purpose of the argument.”{11} Thus, the skeptic is refuted by the detractor who says that if we cannot know anything, we cannot know that we cannot know anything: “We are always prevented from accepting total scepticism because it can be formulated only by making a tacit exception in favour of the thought we are thinking at the moment.”{12} Similarly, Lewis’s argument, that if naturalism is true, we could have no reason to think it is true, still stands.

Begging the question
Eliminative materialists argue that all mental properties, such as beliefs, can be reduced to non-intentional content, and explained in purely physical terms of the brain’s biochemistry. Moreover, the brain’s function is derived from the struggle for survival, so the pursuit of truth is irrelevant to it. Such concepts (“belief,” “truth”) amount to “folk psychology,” the popular way of thinking about our minds that is no more valid than folk religion. “Looked at from an evolutionary point of view … a nervous system enables the organism to succeed in the four F’s: feeding, fleeing, fighting, and reproducing. The principal chore of nervous systems is to get the body parts where they should be in order that the organism may survive. … Truth, whatever that is, definitely takes the hindmost.”{13}

There are, of course, many possible objections one could raise to this position -- for example, whether folk psychology constitutes a hypothesis. However, when Paul Churchland presented this thesis, one of the first questions put to him was whether this applied to his own beliefs regarding eliminative materialism.{14} This is very similar to Lewis’s argument from reason. It seems as though the eliminativists are asking us to believe that there are no beliefs. In order to be consistent, they would have to say that they are not asking us to believe their thesis, that they do not even believe it themselves, and that, at any rate, eliminative materialism is not true (or has no truth-value). But then it becomes exceedingly difficult to continue paying attention to them.

The response has been that such objections beg the question. It assumes that the tenets of folk psychology are the only way to explain how our minds work. However, if these tenets can be reduced to the physical -- which is, after all, the premise of eliminative materialism -- then there is another way to explain how our minds work. Once we have achieved a complete cognitive science, “truth” and “belief” will be replaced with “successor concepts.”{15} We may not have fully achieved it yet, but it’s coming. Thus, charging eliminative materialism with self-refutation is analogous to charging the denial of vitalism with self-refutation. After all, the anti-vitalist would not be alive to deny vitalism if he did not have a vital spirit.{16}

Many remain unconvinced. For one thing, the analogy is a poor one. The appropriate parallel would be an anti-vitalist who argues that he is not alive.{17} However, the anti-vitalist is not denying that he is alive; he just has a different conception of what “being alive” means. The eliminativist, on the other hand, does not merely have a different conception of what “having a belief” means; he is denying that we have beliefs at all. Beliefs are to be “eliminated,” they are to be evacuated of any intentional content. Insofar as he appeals to these successor concepts, the eliminativist is not merely giving a different definition of belief; he is denying it altogether.

Another problem is that these successor concepts are empty: we literally have no idea what they might entail; if this were not the case, it would be incumbent upon the eliminativist to produce them. This means, however, that the eliminative materialist cannot employ them in explaining his theory. Say the successor concept for “believe” is “believesuc.” When asked if he believes that there are no beliefs, he can respond, “No, I do not believe that there are no beliefs; however, I believesuc that there are no beliefs.” Unfortunately, as Hasker writes,

It is important to realize that this option is not available. We simply have no grasp of these successor concepts, and cannot use them to make any assertions, no matter how they are named. Indeed, we have no assurance (as Churchland’s scenario makes clear) that the roles played by the successor concepts will be even “remotely analogous” to those occupied by the concepts of our present scheme. No. The concepts involved … the only concepts available to him, are precisely the concepts of the commonsense conception renounced by eliminativism. The charge of falsehood and contradiction remains. And if a theory which admittedly contains self-contradiction and massive falsehood is not self-refuting, what more does it take?{18}

Or to put it another way, I very much doubt an eliminativist would be willing to grant to his opponent the use of terms that have no meaning in order to argue that eliminativism is false -- especially if the argument’s validity hinges on those terms.

Yet another problem is that there is no evidence that these successor concepts can ever be developed; indeed, the evidence available to us seems to indicate that they cannot.{19} The eliminativist may respond that thousands of years ago, there was insufficient evidence that the sun is the center of the solar system; so the absence of evidence today does not prove that such concepts will never be developed. However, there are two problems with this: first, simply pointing out that true things are not always accepted does not do much to advance one’s claims in the face of contrary evidence. After all, thousands of years ago there was no evidence that fire is cold, or stones fall upward, or two plus two is five either.

Second, while the available evidence did not support the heliocentric model thousands of years ago, such a model would have been completely understandable in the terms employed by geocentrists. They understood what the terms “sun,” “earth,” “center,” and “revolve” mean, and could therefore comprehend the claim that the sun is the center of the solar system, although they would have denied it. This is true of all modern science; we might have to introduce new concepts and terminology, but we would still ultimately be able to explain it to a pre-modern. The claim of the eliminativist, however, is that these successor concepts are completely beyond our imagining; again, if they were not beyond our imagining, it would be incumbent upon him to produce them.

Moreover, the appeal to a future science that would dispel all appearance of inconsistency would be available to any self-refuting statement; in which case, self-consistency would no longer be needed nor desired. In this scenario, self-refuting statements only appear to be contradictions within the limitations of the tenets of the folk psychology that we use to express ourselves. When cognitive science has advanced sufficiently so as to provide us with successor concepts for these tenets, however, the apparent inconsistencies will disappear.

What this demonstrates is that this scenario amounts to a deus ex machina: anything can be explained by it. Of course, the eliminativist might counter that our displeasure with deus ex machina solutions is just another aspect of folk psychology, and will be eliminated along with everything else when the revolution comes -- and that is precisely the point: any conceivable objection could be dismissed on the grounds that it will no longer hold once it is reduced to the successor concepts.

Finally, by denying the concept of truth, eliminativists take away the only advantage they have in their corner. Any plausibility they may have is due to naïve scientific realism, “the view that science aspires to show us the real structure of the objective world, and our best present-day science is at least roughly successful in doing this.”{20} Eliminative materialism, however, is radically inconsistent with naïve scientific realism, since it holds that the brain’s function is not to pursue truth but to enable the organism to survive long enough to produce progeny. As Churchland writes, “Truth, as currently conceived, might cease to be an aim of science.”{21} Insofar as such a realism is unacceptable to eliminativists, whatever credibility they had is lost: if naïve scientific realism is false, “why be materialists at all, let alone eliminativists?”{22}

So it seems as though the eliminative materialist is unable to escape from “the threat of cognitive suicide.”{23} Lewis’s argument still holds.

Similar arguments and influences
Arguments similar to Lewis’s have played a significant role in philosophy. As the flipside of the computer objection mentioned above, J.R. Lucas writes that his Gödelian argument against strong AI (the theory that a computer can completely duplicate the processes of the human brain) is based on the same intuition as Lewis’s argument against naturalism.{24} Kurt Gödel proved that any mathematical system must assume the truth of statements that cannot be proved within the confines of the system itself; “truth is more than provability.”{25} Yet the human mind with its reasoning processes can transcend this limitation. Therefore, the human mind is more than just a computer, and no computer system will be able to completely duplicate it.{26} This argument has amassed a huge amount of literature, both for and against it, and there are hints of it in Bishop Berkeley’s 44th Query in The Analyst: “Whether the Difference between a mere Computer and a Man of Science be not, that the one computes on Principles clearly conceived, and by Rules evidently demonstrated, whereas the other doth not.”{27}

Alvin Plantinga’s argument against naturalism bears a striking resemblance to Lewis’s. According to Plantinga, if naturalism were true, the likelihood that we could form valid beliefs would be either improbable or inscrutable. Obviously, science depends upon our capacities to form valid beliefs; for example, for our belief in evolution to be valid, our abilities to perceive and assess the available evidence must be reliable. Thus, either evolution is true or naturalism is true. Not both.{28} Plantinga’s argument has also created its own literature,{29} with some explicitly linking it to Lewis’s.{30} The argument from reason also bears some similarity to the Transcendental Argument for God (TAG) employed by Christian presuppositionalist theologians.{31}

In 1985, John Beversluis wrote a critique of Lewis’s entire apologetic, with one chapter which deals with the argument from reason. In 2007 he published a significantly reworked second edition. Beversluis is something of an iconoclast, having also criticized Socrates and defended his interlocutors.{32} There is a tension in his critique of the argument from reason, insofar as he approves of G.E.M. Anscombe’s critique of it, but decries the “Wittgensteinian fideists” in general.{33} However, it is uncertain whether Anscombe’s critique still carries as much weight when divorced from its Wittgensteinian framework.

Victor Reppert, in addition to commenting on the argument against eliminative materialism mentioned above,{34} has defended Lewis’s argument against the criticisms of Anscombe and Beversluis, both in his book C.S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea and in philosophical journals,{35} receiving criticism from Keith Parsons,{36} William Hasker,{37} and others.{38} Reppert has derived a family of arguments from Lewis, which can be summarized as follows:

1. If naturalism is true,
     a. “There is no fact of the matter as to what someone’s thought or statement is about.”
     b. “No states of the person can be either true or false.”
     c. “No event can cause another event in virtue of its propositional content.”
     d. “Logical laws either do not exist or are irrelevant to the formation of beliefs.”
     e. “There is no single metaphysically unified entity that accepts the premises, perceives the logical connection between them and draws the conclusion.”
     f. Our faculties are not “reliable indicators of the nonapparent character of the world.”
2. None of these statements is true.
3. Therefore, naturalism is not true.{39}

Conclusions and prospect
C.S. Lewis’s argument from reason has a great deal of relevance for the philosophy of mind, the contemporary status of which seems to be, largely, the attempt to explain the properties of mind in terms of naturalism. In fact, I would argue that in order for the argument from reason to be thorough today, it must address the issues of the philosophy of mind. William Hasker, for example, has done precisely this: the first chapter of his book, The Emergent Self, deals with eliminative materialism, the second with theories of supervenience, and the third presents his version of the argument from reason, employing possible worlds.{40} Other issues in the philosophy of mind, such as artificial intelligence, dualism, and mind-brain identity, will also be affected by Lewis’s argument.

In part 1 of this series, I wrote that Lewis’s argument is less ambitious than similar arguments from consciousness.{41} This is because if beliefs are determined by what is known, then they are true, epistemically justified, and hence valid, and we need not appeal to anything beyond this. However, if naturalism is true, beliefs are not determined by what is known. Even if, for the sake of argument, we granted that naturalism allows beliefs to be so determined, it does not demand it. As long as this is the case, naturalism cannot account for knowledge. In other words, in order for determinism to be compatible with knowledge, it would have to be a determinism in which every belief is caused solely by what is known.

Here's an example: if some of my beliefs may be false or unjustified, how will I decide whether a particular belief is? Any belief I draw about that belief may itself be false or unjustified, and so would require its own justification; and so on, ad infinitum. This can be applied, for example, to the claim that religious beliefs are a sort of evolutionary holdover that should be rejected now that they no longer play a role in our survival. The obvious response is, why couldn’t a similar argument be used to dismiss these beliefs about religious beliefs? What makes them immune to the same criticism? The simplest way to avoid this is to allow for all of our beliefs to be true and justified, so this scenario never arises.

But of course, this is not the world we live in. People have contradictory beliefs. When beliefs are caused by what is known, innumerable other factors play a role in their occurrence as well. Therefore, in order to be able to distinguish between beliefs determined by what is known from beliefs not so determined, it is necessary to posit a “space” where we can step back from these beliefs and assess them independently of how they occurred in the individual’s mental life. This roughly lines up with what people mean by “consciousness.” Moreover, this means that we have to posit some sort of free will. The only determinism we can accept is one in which all beliefs are solely determined by that which makes them true, because then the belief that determinism is true could be trusted. Any other kind of determinism would lead to the infinite regress problem noted above.

I have been analyzing Lewis’s argument only insofar as it relates to whether naturalism is true or false, but of course, Lewis did not leave it at that. He argued that, since naturalism cannot be true, we have to posit a supernaturalist worldview in order to account for our reasoning processes. Note that he is not presenting a false dichotomy between naturalism and supernaturalism: he discusses another possibility, namely, the sub-natural or indeterminism. However, something less that naturalism does not solve the problem. We need something more than naturalism. In order for us to have any knowledge, including scientific knowledge, we have to presuppose that there is more than just the natural world of cause-effect events. Science presupposes supernaturalism.

Thus, Lewis’s argument also has drastic repercussions for the philosophy of science. Science is usually thought to presuppose naturalism, and there is an intuitive appeal to this. We observe natural cause-effect events in a natural world, so obviously the systematic study of these natural effects must begin by trying to find their natural causes. If we allowed ourselves to explain natural effects by positing unobservable supernatural agencies, further investigation would be stultified: “the only way that any sort of science can proceed is to assume that there is no divine intervention and to see how far one can get with this assumption.”{42} The more natural causes science discovers, the less room there is for supernatural causes.

But according to the argument from reason, since our formulation of scientific hypotheses and assessment of evidence must be rational acts in order for the hypotheses and assessments to be valid, and since naturalism precludes the potential for any belief to be valid, science is incompatible with naturalism. Some might object that the intuitive appeal of the claim that science must presuppose naturalism overwhelms any abstract argument to the contrary. I would argue, however, that the argument from reason is at least as, if not more, intuitive. When one claims that the mechanical processes of nature wholly determine our beliefs, the question that immediately presents itself is, what about that belief? What about the belief that “the mechanical processes of nature wholly determine our beliefs”? It seems that the arguer is making an exception for the belief he is holding at the moment.

Lewis is sometimes accused of being hostile to science, but this is incorrect. He is hostile to scientism, the claim that science can explain everything,{43} and he sees the argument from reason as a chink in the armor of this view. He is not trying to suggest that the world science has revealed is wrong so much as that it is incomplete: “Science is a good servant but a bad master, a good method for investigating and manipulating the material world, but no method at all for deciding what to do with the knowledge and power acquired thereby.”{44} We need to supplement scientific knowledge with knowledge of a different kind, and from a different source, in order to achieve the full life.

We were told it all long ago by Plato. As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the ‘spirited element.’ The head rules the belly through the chest -- the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest -- Magnanimity -- Sentiment -- these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.{45}

Those who seek to explain everything in terms of science or physics or nature are essentially trying to remove this middle (and hence, central) element. Lewis thinks such attempts amount to “The Abolition of Man.”

It is an outrage that they should be commonly spoken of as Intellectuals. This gives them the chance to say that he who attacks them attacks Intelligence. It is not so. They are not distinguished from other men by any unusual skill in finding truth nor any virginal ardour to pursue her. … It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.{46}

Probably the most significant contribution the argument from reason makes is to the relationship between science and religion. Since science is often equated with naturalism and the denial of supernaturalism, it is often seen as the antithesis of religion. However, the argument from reason resolves this tension: science does not and indeed cannot presuppose naturalism. For those who respect both science and religion, this conclusion is very encouraging. Unfortunately, some people’s interest in science seems to be due to its perceived iconoclasm. For them, building a bridge between the two would be anathema.

The argument from reason essentially pokes a hole in the façade of ontological naturalism. However, it is primarily a negative argument, arguing against a position rather than arguing for one. It does not provide any criteria on how we should proceed on a practical level. The issues it raises for the philosophy of science make this particularly evident. How can science function without presupposing naturalism? How can that which is teleological and non-mechanistic form a part of the prediction and falsification upon which science relies? How can we systematically observe that which is inherently unsystematic? These are the objections that most naturalists will pose in response to the argument from reason, and it seems to me that detailed responses are lacking.

{1} Ignoring, for the sake of argument, that computers can be programmed to give the wrong answers.
{2} C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study, 1st ed. (London: Bles, 1947), 50; 2nd ed. (London: Collins, Fontana Paperbacks, 1960), 43-44.
{3} William Hasker, Metaphysics: Constructing a World View (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1983), 49, italics in original.
{4} Lewis, Miracles, 1st ed., 37; 2nd ed., 32-33.
{5} Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell, Principia Mathematica, vol. 1, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1927), 37-38, 60-65.
{6} Ibid., 38.
{7} Joseph M. Boyle, Jr., Germain Grisez, and Olaf Tollefsen, Free Choice: A Self-Referential Argument (Notre Dame, IN: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1976), 129.
{8} Ibid., 122-38.
{9} Ibid., 128.
{10} Ibid., 127-30.
{11} Ibid., 124.
{12} C.S. Lewis, “De Futilitate,” in Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper (1967; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977), 61.
{13} Patricia Smith Churchland, “Epistemology in the Age of Neuroscience.” The Journal of Philosophy 84 (1987): 548-49.
{14} Paul Churchland, “Postscript: Evaluating Our Self Conception,” in Paul K. Moser and J.D. Trout (eds.) Contemporary Materialism: A Reader (London: Routledge, 1995), 170-72.
{15} William Hasker, The Emergent Self (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1999), 7-8.
{16} Patricia Smith Churchland, “Is Determinism Self-refuting?” Mind 90 (1981): 99-101; idem, Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the Mind-Brain (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1986), 397-99; Paul Churchland, “Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes,” in A Neurocomputational Perspective: The Nature of Mind and the Structure of Science (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989), 21-22; idem, Matter and Consciousness: A Contemporary Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1984), 47-48; Andrew D. Cling, “Eliminative Materialism and Self-Referential Inconsistency,” Philosophical Studies 56 (1989): 53-75; William Ramsey, “Where Does the Self-Refutation Objection Take Us?” Inquiry 33 (1990): 453-65.
{17} Lynn Rudder Baker, Saving Belief: A Critique of Physicalism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1987), 139.
{18} Hasker, Emergent Self, 18-9, italics in original.
{19} Ibid., 13.
{20} Ibid., 15, italics in original.
{21} Paul Churchland, “The Ontological Status of Observables: In Praise of the Superempirical Virtues,” in Neurocomputational Perspective, 150.
{22} Hasker, Emergent Self, 15.
{23} Baker, Saving Belief, 134-48; Victor Reppert, “Eliminative Materialism, Cognitive Suicide, and Begging the Question,” Metaphilosophy 23 (1992): 378-92.
{24} J.R. Lucas, “The Restoration of Man,” Theology 98 (1995): 453-55.
{25} Ibid., 455.
{26} J.R. Lucas, “Minds, Machines, and Gödel,” Philosophy 36 (1961): 112-27; idem, The Freedom of the Will (Oxford: Clarendon, 1970), 115-72.
{27} George Berkeley, De Motu and The Analyst: A Modern Edition, with Introductions and Commentary, ed. and trans. Douglas M. Jesseph (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1992), 218. J.R. Lucas’s Web site contains most of his contributions, as well as an extensive bibliography . Etica e Politica, an online journal, republished some of the more important essays in 2003 . Michael Harris brought the Berkeley quote to Lucas’s attention .
{28} Alvin Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993), 216-37; idem, “Naturalism Defeated” (1994), online; idem, Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2000), 227-40, 281-85.
{29} James Beilby, ed., Naturalism Defeated? Essays on Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 2002).
{30} N.M.L. Nathan, “Naturalism and Self-Defeat: Plantinga’s Version,” Religious Studies 33 (1997): 135; Angus J.L. Menuge, “Beyond Skinnerian Creatures: A Defense of the Lewis and Plantinga Critiques of Evolutionary Naturalism,” Philosophia Christi 5 (2003): 143-65.
{31} Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia: P & R, 1955), 116-22, 282-88.
{32} John Beversluis, Cross-examining Socrates: A Defense of the Interlocutors in Plato’s Early Dialogues (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000).
{33} John Beversluis, C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), 127-34. My comments here are based on the first edition, as the second edition had yet to be published when I originally wrote this.
{34} Reppert, “Eliminative Materialism, Cognitive Suicide, and Begging the Question”; idem, “Ramsey on Eliminativism and Self-refutation,” Inquiry 34 (1991): 499-508.
{35} Victor Reppert, ““The Lewis-Anscombe Controversy: A Discussion of the Issues,” Christian Scholar’s Review 19 (1989): 32-48; idem, “The Argument from Reason,” Philo 2 (1999): 33-45; idem, “Reply to Parsons and Lippard on the Argument from Reason,” Philo 3 (2000): 76-89; idem, “Several Formulations of the Argument from Reason,” Philosophia Christi 5 (2003): 9-33; idem, “Some Supernatural Reasons Why My Critics Are Wrong: A Reply to Drange, Parsons, and Hasker,” Philosophia Christi 5 (2003): 77-89.
{36} Keith Parsons, “Defending Objectivity,” Philo 2 (1999): 87-9 n. 7; idem, “Further Reflections on the Argument from Reason,” Philo 3 (2000): 90-102; idem, “Need Reasons Be Causes?” Philosophia Christi 5 (2003): 63-76.
{37} William Hasker, “What About a Sensible Naturalism?” Philosophia Christi 5 (2003): 53-62.
{38} Jim Lippard, “Historical but Indistinguishable Differences: Some Notes on Victor Reppert’s Paper,” Philo 2 (1999): 47-49; Theodore M. Drange, “Several Unsuccessful Formulations of the Argument from Reason: A Response to Victor Reppert,” Philosophia Christi 5 (2003): 35-52.
{39} Reppert, “Several Formulations of the Argument from Reason” 9-23; idem, C.S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003), 72-85. Bibliographies of arguments similar to Lewis’s, both for and against, can be found in James Jordan, “Determinism’s Dilemma.” Review of Metaphysics 23 (1969): 48 n. 1; William Hasker, “The Transcendental Refutation of Determinism,” Southern Journal of Philosophy 11 (1973): 175 n. 3; Boyle, et al., Free Choice, 181 n. 41-42; and Ted Honderich, A Theory of Determinism, vol. 1: Mind and Brain (Oxford: Clarendon, 1990), 361. In addition to the works referenced there, and thus far in the present work, I would also point to Joseph M. Boyle, Jr., Germain Grisez, and Olaf Tollefsen, “Determinism, Freedom, and Self-Referential Arguments,” Review of Metaphysics 26 (1972-73): 3-37; Robert Young, “A Sound Self-Referential Argument?” Review of Metaphysics 27 (1973-74): 112-19; Barbara Wootton, Testament for Social Science: An Essay in the Application of Scientific Method to Human Problems (London: Allen & Unwin, 1950), 92; George Trumbull Ladd, Philosophy of Mind: An Essay in the Metaphysics of Psychology (London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1895), 233-34; Boyd H. Bode, “Consciousness and Psychology,” in John Dewey, et al., Creative Intelligence: Essays in the Pragmatic Attitude (1917; New York: Octagon, 1970), 253-54; James Bissett Pratt, Matter and Spirit: A Study of Mind and Body in Their Relation to the Spiritual Life (New York: MacMillan, 1922), 18-21, 156-66, 187-93; idem, “The New Materialism,” The Journal of Philosophy 19 (1922): 338; Richard Purtill, Reason to Believe (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 43-47; Huw P. Owen, Christian Theism: A Study in Its Basic Principles (Edinburgh: Clark, 1984), 118; William Hasker, “Can Action Be Explained Mechanistically,” University of Dayton Review (1972): 53-61; A.C. Ewing, Value and Reality: The Philosophical Case for Theism (London: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., 1973), 77-78, 177-78; Jonathan Bennett, Rationality: An Essay Towards an Analysis (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964), 16-17; Hans Jonas, On Faith, Reason, and Responsibility (Claremont, CA: The Institute of Antiquity and Christianity, 1981), 43; and William Desmond, “On the Betrayals of Reverence,” in Is There a Sabbath for Thought? Between Religion and Philosophy (New York: Fordham Univ. Press, 2005), 265, 273-75. Several of the essays in Craig and Moreland, Naturalism: A Critical Analysis (London: Routledge, 2000) are also relevant. Arthur O. Lovejoy drew similar conclusions regarding Behaviorism as Lewis did regarding Freudianism and Marxism (“The Paradox of the Thinking Behaviorist,” The Philosophical Review 31 [1922]: 135-47; idem, “Pragmatism as Interactionism,” The Journal of Philosophy 17 [1920]: 592, 630-32). Antony Flew (“The Third Maxim,” The Rationalist Annual 72 [1955]: 63) refers to C.E.M. Joad as a proponent of the argument from reason, but does not cite a specific text.
{40} Hasker, Emergent Self, 1-80.
{41} Although he does sometimes state the argument in terms of consciousness (C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (1961; San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1989), 41; idem, That Hideous Strength [1946; New York: Macmillan Paperback, 1965], 357-58).
{42} Steven Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory (New York: Pantheon, 1992), 247.
{43} C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (1943; New York: Macmillan, 1947), 86-91; Michael D. Aeschliman, The Restitution of Man: C.S. Lewis and the Case against Scientism (1983; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998).
{44} Aeschliman, Restitution of Man, 33.
{45} Lewis, Abolition of Man, 34.
{46} Ibid., 34-35; cf. idem, That Hideous Strength, 357-58.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum