Sunday, June 2, 2013

Mackie’s argument from queerness


In his book Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, J. L. Mackie famously put forward his “argument from queerness” against the objectivity of moral values.  The argument has both a metaphysical aspect and an epistemological aspect.  Mackie writes:

If there were objective values, then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe.  Correspondingly, if we were aware of them, it would have to be by some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else. (p. 38)

Mackie’s claim is that we simply have no good reason to believe either in such odd entities as objective values or in an odd special faculty of moral knowledge.  We can explain everything that needs to be explained vis-à-vis morality by analyzing values in terms of our subjective responses to certain events in the world, and Ockham’s razor favors this approach to the alternative given the latter’s “queerness.”

Naturally I think Mackie is wrong, though I don’t like the word “value” in this context.  “Value” suggests that which is valuable to or valued by someone, so that talk of “objective values” does indeed sound odd.  If X has “value” to the extent that someone values it, then even if we say that someone rationally should value X, its status as having value does seem to depend on us.  And in that case it is certainly at least understandable why the idea of something that has value but in a way that in no sense depends on our valuing it does sound “queer.”

The right thing to say is that goodness and badness are objective features of the world.  To use some of my stock examples, a tree with thick and deep roots is a good tree and a tree with weak and sickly roots is a bad one; a squirrel with four legs that scampers about and gathers nuts is to that extent a good squirrel while a squirrel that is missing a leg or lacks any desire to gather nuts is a bad one; a Euclidean triangle drawn slowly and carefully with a ruler is a good one while a Euclidean triangle drawn sloppily is a bad one; and so forth.  The core idea is that of a good or bad specimen of a kind of thing, of something which more or less adequately instantiates what is of the essence or nature of the kind.  By itself this does not entail moral goodness or badness, but moral goodness or badness do enter the picture when we bring in the rationality and free will that are distinctive of rational animals.  (For the full story see chapter 5 of Aquinas.)

To make sense of this metaphysically, however, we need something like Aristotelian formal and final causes, which, of course, most modern philosophers won’t countenance.  And that, I think, is crucial to understanding why Mackie’s argument seems to many contemporary readers to have force.  What is not explicitly said in the course of the argument itself is as important as what is said.  And what is not said is that the “objective,” natural world is to be understood in essentially the anti-teleological, anti-Aristotelian “mechanistic” way introduced by Galileo, Descartes, and their successors.  (See The Last Superstition for the full story about this intellectual revolution.  Of course I’ve also discussed it a great many times here on the blog.) 

Suppose you take the view that what is paradigmatically real is what can be captured via the methods of physics, where those methods involve giving a purely quantitative, mathematical description of those aspects of the material world susceptible of strict prediction and control.  Color, sound, odor, taste, heat, cold and qualitative features in general, as common sense understands them, are on this view not really features of objective reality as it is in itself, but only of our perception of objective reality.  What exists “out there” are only color, sound, etc. as redefined in terms of surface reflectance properties, compression waves, and so forth.  Neither, on this view, is teleology or goal-directedness (Aristotelian final cause) a real feature of the world.  We have ends and purposes (or seem to, anyway) but nothing in the world as described by physics does.  Neither are the hard and fast distinctions between kinds of thing that we see in the world (differences that reflect a difference in what Aristotelians call substantial forms) really there.  Water, stone, trees, worms, dogs, cats, and people are ultimately all “nothing but” the same kind of stuff, organized in relatively superficially different ways.  Suppose, in short, that the correct description of the natural world is given by a modern variation on the ancient atomist idea that everything we perceive as differing in kind and rich in qualities and meanings are “really” all just misleading appearances of the same desiccated substrate -- colorless, odorless, soundless, tasteless, meaningless particles in motion, and moving to no end or purpose but according to blind, mechanical necessity. 

As I’ve noted in my series of posts on Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, contemporary naturalists are often willing to concede that physics doesn’t give us the entire truth about the natural world, though I’ve also suggested there that implicit in such a concession is an acknowledgment that an Aristotelian, or dualist, or idealist, or in some other way non-naturalist conception of the material is correct after all, whether or not naturalists realize this.  Be that as it may, most naturalists (Nagel himself being one exception) are certainly keen to avoid Aristotelian final causes and related notions, whatever other concessions to the anti-reductionist they are prepared to make.

Seen in light of a broadly naturalistic metaphysics, though, value, including goodness and badness in particular, are indeed bound to seem very “queer.”  Even the difference between a good and bad specimen of a tree or a squirrel is going to seem odd if understood as an objective feature of the world.  For the goodness or badness here is irreducibly teleological and essentialist.  Sickly roots make of a tree a bad specimen, and the absence of a leg makes of a squirrel a bad specimen, only because of the ends toward which these irreducibly different kinds of thing point.  If they are both ultimately “really” just the same kind of stuff, and a kind of stuff in which there is no teleology to be found -- if, say, they are both “really” just particles in motion to no purpose -- then distinct “tree-like” and “squirrel-like” goods are not really objective features of nature.   They are at best useful fictions.  Goodness and badness, like color, sound, odor, etc. and like teleology and meaning, seem much more plausibly regarded as something the mind projects onto the external, natural world rather than something it really sees in that world as it is in itself.

Effectively to rebut Mackie’s position, then, in my view requires rebutting first the naturalism or scientism that it implicitly presupposes.  In particular, it requires, I would argue, a return to an essentially Aristotelian philosophy of nature.  Anything short of this is bound to leave “value” -- or rather, goodness and badness -- seeming so radically unlike and disconnected from anything else we know about objective reality that Mackie’s argument will retain its bite.

Here is one key area where we see the ineffectiveness of the “new natural law theory” of Grisez and Finnis, which famously eschews the traditional natural law theorist’s commitment to Aristotelian formal and final causes, concedes the Humean “fact/value dichotomy,” and attempts to ground natural law theory in an account of practical reason considered from the subjective point of view of the agent, rather than in the metaphysics of human nature considered objectively.   If this doesn’t quite give the game away to Mackie, it comes close.

Hence, consider “new natural lawyer” Robert P. George’s response to Mackie in chapter 1 of his book In Defense of Natural Law.  As I read him, George presents two basic lines of argument against the “argument from queerness.”  The first is to note that there are other aspects of reality that seem equally “queer” and difficult to fit into the natural world -- George cites consciousness, meaning, causation, and the normative status, in logic, of truth and validity -- yet Mackie and like-minded thinkers are committed to the reality of at least some of these features, at least implicitly. 

Now I certainly agree with George that these features are no less “queer” given a naturalistic view of things than goodness and badness are.  But it is no good merely to point this out as if it sufficed to rebut Mackie.  For Mackie himself considers this sort of objection in Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, and thinks he has an answer to it (an answer George does not address).  His answer is to suggest that for any phenomena which seem as “queer” as objective values do, either they can at the end of the day be analyzed in what Mackie would regard as metaphysically respectable terms, or if not “then they too should be included, along with objective values, among the targets of the argument from queerness” (p. 39).

As readers of Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality know, there is virtually no limit to what some contemporary philosophers might be willing to chuck out as too “queer” to be reconciled with naturalism.  I have argued at length in a series of posts on Rosenberg’s book that the resulting position is incoherent, but it is not enough to point out the problems with reductionist and eliminativist accounts of consciousness, intentionality, and the like.  It is not even enough to opt for a Cartesian sort of dualism on which conscious experiences, intentionality, value, and the like are tacked on to otherwise naturalistically-explicable human beings.  (Indeed, “new natural lawyers” themselves are always going on about how problematic Cartesian forms of dualism are.)  As long as you allow even just for the sake of argument that the entire natural world apart from a small sliver of natural history on a single planet can be entirely accounted for in terms of the mechanistic account of nature described above, it is going to seem “queer” to suppose that some radically different sorts of properties -- objective values -- together with a novel cognitive faculty for grasping them, suddenly came into existence only very recently in geological time, in a single species.  Treating objective value as a kind of cognitive illusion is going to seem more plausible given that general background metaphysics. 

George’s second response to Mackie suffers from the same drawback.  He suggests an “argument to the best explanation” according to which the existence of objective moral value better makes sense of our actual moral experience.  This is true, but by itself has little force if a broadly naturalistic metaphysics is taken for granted.  For the naturalist can always say that our moral experience provides merely a tiny sliver of all the data that needs to be accounted for.  And if the entirety of the rest of the natural order can be accounted for in something like the mechanistic terms outlined above, and the existence of objective values and operation of a special faculty of knowing them seem utterly mysterious on this picture, then the overall evidential situation (so the naturalist could argue) speaks against their existence.  As Mackie writes:

How much simpler and more comprehensible the situation would be if we could replace the moral quality with some sort of subjective response which could be causally related to the detection of the natural features on which the supposed quality is said to be consequential. (p. 41)

Properly to fit mind, meaning, and value into the natural order requires rethinking the natural order in general, not just where human nature is concerned.  In particular, it requires a return to just the sort of neo-Aristotelian project in the philosophy of nature that the Neo-Scholastics, whom Grisez and Finnis threw under the bus, were engaged in.  Nagel, with his neo-Aristotelian gestures in metaphysics, implicitly recognizes this.  And a general rethinking of the natural order is independently called for anyway, given that (as Aristotelians argue) Aristotelian concepts are required if we are properly going to understand change, causation, and the like in the non-human world.  In any event, short of such a rethink, those who affirm objective value will always be open to Mackie’s Josie Cotton-style taunt.

48 comments:

Crude said...

If there were objective values, then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe. Correspondingly, if we were aware of them, it would have to be by some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else.

I understand the reply that the problem with Mackie's argument comes from the presuppositions he starts with - but even on its own terms, this quoted position just seems weak to me. The way that I know two plus two equals four is radically different from the way that I know how flowers smell. Many aspects of the quantum world seem utterly different from day to day life and experience, or even other parts of science. Even biology, certainly psychology, seem utterly different from physics in a lot of relevant ways.

What bothers me here bothered me when I saw it with Rosenberg too. I forget the exact quote, but I recall one of Rosenberg's fundamental commitments wasn't just an investment in science, but a conviction that the science of the future would be an awful lot like the science of today. There was a lot wrong with Rosenberg (nicely documented on this site), but that move in particular seemed to torpedo him immediately: science has, more than once, undergone some pretty massive revisions in terms of theory or even fundamental commitments. The quantum world, relativity and various other things are as queer as anything else. Mackie wouldn't reject those, presumably. Now, Mackie may argue that 'well, they're well-supported by the arguments and evidence!' But that wouldn't help him out - they're still pretty damn queer, and arguing that something stops being queer the moment it turns out to be true would gut his argument anyway.

I agree that the naturalist can always just deny the reality of anything that doesn't fit with his worldview - but that seems to say a lot more about the naturalist than his argument. I'm pretty sure a determined solipsist could dig in their heels and reject anything that didn't fit in with their worldview. In fact, I'm pretty sure a solipsist could even give their own version of an argument from queerness. But there just doesn't seem to be that much meat to it all in the end.

Edward Feser said...

Hi Crude,

I think that underlying all such arguments is ultimately the "Science has explained everything else, so..." canard. It's not "queerness" as such that is the problem, but queerness in light of the (purported) near-universal success of naturalistic explanations. That's why the queerness of QM is not a good counterexample, because since it's part of the naturalistic story (as these guys see it) it is perfectly acceptable. What is unacceptably queer is what can't be fitted into that overall story.

So, as long as the "Science has explained everything else..." illusion persists, the appeal to "queerness" will seem to have force. That's why I think it is no good to appeal even to this or that other purported instance of non-naturalistic "queerness" (George's first response) or to consider ethics in isolation from more fundamental metaphysical issues (George's second response). One has to defuse the fundamental scientistic canard itself.

Crude said...

Ed,

I think that underlying all such arguments is ultimately the "Science has explained everything else, so..." canard. It's not "queerness" as such that is the problem, but queerness in light of the (purported) near-universal success of naturalistic explanations. That's why the queerness of QM is not a good counterexample, because since it's part of the naturalistic story (as these guys see it) it is perfectly acceptable. What is unacceptably queer is what can't be fitted into that overall story.

I understand that, sure. The idea that 'science has explained all these others things so far - that's why science is going to explain this too!' I understand the criticisms of that view, I think, complete with the particular problem most things mental pose for it (the sweeping under the rug bit, etc.) I don't dispute any of that. I think those criticisms are entirely valid and right.

But I think even without those replies, the 'argument from queerness' is in a lot of trouble. The reason I bring up examples like quantum physics, relativity, etc is because science didn't make these things any less bizarre, and they certainly didn't find ways to square them with our previous notions of what the natural world should look like. Instead, people just said 'Well, our old view of nature was wrong. This is that nature is really like after all, in light of the arguments and evidence!' The old views were discarded.

That's the problem with saying 'science has explained everything else': quite a lot of those 'explanations' involved radically revising our view of nature, our view of matter, our view of atoms, our view of a lot of things. So when Rosenberg or someone else says, "Science will come up with an explanation for X, just you wait!", it just seems like there's absolutely no bite to that in and of itself, precisely because - even if science were to explain it - just how it would be explained is wide open. Maybe the only way satisfactory progress will be made is if, once again, we fundamentally revise our view of nature, and say "Well, queer as this is, it seems to fit". And again, there's precedence for this.

That's why it seems to me that Rosenberg in particular had to (oddly enough) make an anti-scientific move in embracing scientism. It's not enough to bank on science providing an explanation, because in principle that explanation may be something completely other than what Rosenberg says must be the case anyway. So instead there needs to be this additional conviction that the science of the future will be exactly like Rosenberg's idealized science, or exactly like the (wildly incomplete) science of the present. But that's an extremely questionable bet to make: the history of science is filled with people who gambled that way and lost.

rank sophist said...

Mackie's argument, to me, just begs the question. Like Crude seemed to insinuate, what seems queer to one person seems normal to another. At best this is an argument from unexamined cultural intuition. Aquinas makes a solid point about such arguments in the Summa contra Gentiles, when he rebuts the claim that God's existence is self-evident:

In part, the above opinion arises from the custom by which from their earliest days people are brought up to hear and to call upon the name of God. Custom, and especially custom in a child[,] comes to have the force of nature. As a result, what the mind is steeped in from childhood it clings to very firmly, as something known naturally and self-evidently. (SCG b1 ch11.1)

C.J. Caswell said...

Mr. Feser,

Mackie's position, and the position of the naturalists, seems about as weak to me as it does to you, although my argument wouldn't be Aristotlean so much as Nietzschean.

Your example of the tree and the squirrel shows why: what makes a good tree a good tree, and a good squirrel a good squirrel, is that those forms are empowered by the completeness of the type. strong roots and a full complement of legs empower both to survive in a dangerous environment where both must withstand assault from predators and gather nutrients. If there is a teleological direction it is encompassed with the phrase "will to power".

Good/evil or good/bad as a matter of human values have been the subject of cultural warfare for centuries, as cooperation requires allowing vulnerability but survival of identity requires standing ground; thus, the perpetual conflict and revision of "true" human values. But the underlying purpose is still power: may the strongest society win. The difference is one of supervenience. That makes more sense to me than fixed dualities.

I beg pardon if this sounds like cynicism, but there is little reason to go straight to Aristotle to undermine Mackie's thesis. It's much easier. And after years of economic study, my understanding of what constitutes good and bad behavior in many spheres of human life only seems more dependent on culture, context, and identity. What we can probably agree on is the weakness of the argument from queerness and the groan-inducing foolishness of Rosenberg, but the subjectivity of values - or at least the perspectivism inherent in worldview - deserves a better look.

Tony said...

Mackie's argument, to me, just begs the question.

I think so too. As a matter of fact, moral theologians claim exactly what he is holding up as being a highly unlikely oddity - that we must have some interior sense of the moral right and wrong - it's called "conscience".

To call it "queer" is to ignore the full range of data that is available to make it not quite so much of an oddity: that creation is ordered. The physical order is ordered to the highest fulfillment and goodness of the highest element of the physical order - man. Man's highest good is the perfect rational response of a reasoning creature to his Creator. Thus, conscience is a unique faculty in that creature who is unique in the physical order, having both physical bodies and spiritual souls capable of free choice. And thus both moral truth and the faculty by which we sense it are restricted to man, and there is nothing queer about it properly understood.

You can only call it queer by ignoring the "rest of the story." As Crude would say, that's true of quantum mechanics too: it is certainly just as queer standing on its own and unsupported by the rest of the story. When you have it "fitting in" with the whole picture, the queerness dissolves into the grains of the picture.

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

Scientific realism is the dominant naturalistic metaphysics nowadays, and is thus the dominant atheist view of reality. According to that view reality is indeed essentially “anti-teological, anti-Aristotelian” and “mechanistic” – for these are properties of the scientific models of the universe. And I think the reason naturalists find that view so convincing is that it explains (at least in principle) all the data we have, both the data related to actual scientific observations, and the data related to the human condition, including our subjective senses of freedom, of value, of morality, of purpose, or of the sensus divinitatis, etc. And they manage the latter trick because we now know beyond reasonable doubt that there is a perfect correlation between experience and the state of our physical brain. Given then that scientific realism (plus perhaps property dualism) explains all data we have without requiring the God hypothesis, and given Occam’s razor, many people hold that reason requires them to embrace atheism.

In the context of scientific realism Mackie’s argument from queerness is trivially right, since indeed science does not describe any value or specifically moral properties of physical systems. A tree with thick roots is not any more “good” than a tree with thin roots (but is just so that it will probably live longer – and neither by the way does it make any sense to say that a virus that fools the human immune system is “good”). And if there were such properties of physical systems not available to scientific observation then our brain would indeed require some kind of non-physical/supernatural means for detecting them. From the scientific realist’s point of view that’s queer stuff indeed.

On the other hand Mackie’s argument may mislead people (both theists and atheists) into thinking that scientific realism entails the denial of the reality of value or of goodness. In fact the scientific realist has no reason to “rebut” Mackie’s argument. Rather the scientific realist can use colors as an analogy. That ripe strawberries are red and fresh grass is green are objective properties of the physical universe (since these claims do not depend on one’s tastes or customs or educational background). But not because these objects are by themselves colorful, but because our brain is so evolved as to detect physical properties of how these objects reflect light and ultimately perceive them as colors. Thus the union of some objective physical properties of these objects and some of our brain ground the objectivity of colors. In exactly the same way our brain is so evolved as to perceive some choices or states of affairs as being morally good or evil. Indeed perceive them with the same clarity we perceive that strawberries are red and grass is green. The only difference is that the physical properties that ground goodness and evil are far more complicated than the ones that ground color, but the young science of evolutionary psychology already convincingly describes the basic mechanisms at work.

My larger point here is this. The A-T philosopher must not imagine that everybody else should look at the world with A-T lenses. In order to understand and thus engage in fruitful dialectic the A-T philosopher must discard her lenses and look at the world through naturalistic lenses. Criticizing naturalistic thought through theistic lenses is as pointless as criticizing theistic thought through naturalistic lenses. Rather the philosopher’s metaphysical project should be this: Construct the best theistic metaphysics she can, construct the best naturalistic metaphysics she can, and then compare the two.

Crude said...

Criticizing naturalistic thought through theistic lenses is as pointless as criticizing theistic thought through naturalistic lenses.

I disagree. One thing Ed did in TLS, and which I see as extraordinarily valuable to this entire conversation, is point out A) the inability to escape metaphysics, B) some idea of the variety of metaphysical views that there are, and C) the inability of science to differentiate between the options, and the ability of science to work in tandem with the options.

I see his OP as walking along that same line. He's pointing out what follows if only already accepts naturalism to begin with - and also that accepting naturalism to begin with isn't necessary. This may not be news to a diehard metaphysical naturalist prepared to go to the trenches over naturalism. It's going to be news to a lot of people, and to the people who get it, it's tremendously eye-opening.

Robert said...

The right thing to say is that goodness and badness are objective features of the world.

I think that I might have to disagree with this statement, in the context in which it it being used.

Both "goodness" and "badness" are subjective descriptions of an object. They are relative.

A tree with strong and deep roots will die if the water table into which its deep and strong roots extend becomes salinated whereas the tree with the shallow, weak roots may in fact survive due solely to the fact that its roots ran too shallow and were too weak to reach the corrupted water source.

At the same time, the 3 legged squirrel may be able to escape the trap in which it has become ensnared, while the four legged squirrel, due to it's total volume displacement, becomes dinner.

Or, perhaps, the "bad" nut gathering variety, avoids eating the poisoned nuts consumed by the "good" nut gatherer, etc...

Anonymous said...

Robert, I don't think you quite understand Feser's point with the tree and squirrel examples.

That the tree with weak roots or withered branches is bad, or that the three-legged squirrel is a bad squirrel, is a matter of the natures of trees and squirrels, not the survival value of their particular collection of defects in some contrived situation.

Fitness for survival is, of course, often correlated with what is best for an individual, but it is secondary in determining a thing's degree of goodness to whether the thing is a good specimen of its nature.

Robert said...

@Annonymous

Robert, I don't think you quite understand Feser's point with the tree and squirrel examples.

That the tree with weak roots or withered branches is bad, or that the three-legged squirrel is a bad squirrel, is a matter of the natures of trees and squirrels, not the survival value of their particular collection of defects in some contrived situation.

Fitness for survival is, of course, often correlated with what is best for an individual, but it is secondary in determining a thing's degree of goodness to whether the thing is a good specimen of its nature.


How is this not simply arbitrary?

Natures do not seem to be static in our universe, though static natures are what is being implied by this argument.



FZ said...

Hi Robert, are you arguing that the natures of things (or animals at least) are not static? I don't see how, even with evolutionary processes. Sure, organism A might produce offspring with different natures (due to genetic mutation, etc) but that does not mean organism A's nature changes. New natures might come about from generation to generation, but on the individual basis, they seem static. I'm neither an evolutionary biologist, nor an essentialist so I apologize for any errors. Also, I might be getting the definition of nature incorrect as well (in regards to the essentialism), it has to do with formal causality right?

Joe K. said...

As a gay homosexual man who is sexually attracted to men of the same sex, I am offended by the casual use of the term "queer." Such language can only properly be described as hate speech!

No, but Robert, the focus is on the essence of the thing, not on a specific chance it might have to survive in some scenario. Philippa Foot discusses this in some detail. It's not a best-for or utilitarian like analysis. It's better to understand it like this: HOW does a "squirrel" survive, reproduce, and do what life does? Or more accurately, an animal that survives and reproduces by X (nuts, trees, scampering, etc.) and has body parts to do these things is a squirrel. And a being that does those things and has those parts but does them and has them in a deficient way would be a bad example Of a squirrel.

We use this sort of language all the time of course. "John has bad eyes; he's nearsighted." What we mean is that eyes, by their nature, related to the human being, see, and that eyes that don't see are defective. This would be true even if suddenly the sun got super bright and he had an advantage is having reduced sight. It might be "good" that he survives because of his defect, but it would not make his eyes good examples of eyes, which are things that see.

A polar bear who dies in the Sahara is not a bad example of a polar bear. In fact, it might be a supreme example of one. Similarly a fish out of water does not have "defective lungs." It has very proficient gills. Even if water suddenly disappeared from the planet forever, it would still have great gills.

The Deuce said...

Mackie:

If there were objective values, then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe. Correspondingly, if we were aware of them, it would have to be by some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else.

This appears obviously wrong on the face of it. Are not true and false objective values that we are aware of? Certainly "true" isn't some physically observable property of material objects. Rather, it is a value of propositions and beliefs, and one that is objective (a false proposition is false even if I subjectively believe it to be true). In this very quote, Mackie is purporting to be aware that the proposition that there are objective values of which we are aware is objectively false.

In fact, it appears to me that awareness of objective good and bad is directly parallel to awareness of objective true and false (note how we use the terms "right" and "wrong" interchangeably for both), such that any argument against the possibility of the former applies with equal force against the latter. Conversely, if you accept the obvious fact that we can have awareness of objective truth and falsehood, it shouldn't seem strange or different at all that we can have awareness of goodness and badness.

Anonymous said...

Robert, you ask

"How is this not simply arbitrary?

To which I answer, I'm not sure that the question makes sense.

That squirrels have a nature is perfectly obvious, since it is obvious that they are not the same kinds of things as trees or fish.

The degree to which we understand that nature, of course, will depend on the experience we have with them and on the power of our methods in discovering their natures.

I don't see a sense in which these natures are "arbitrary," however. The nature is simply the natural kind that the squirrel possesses, insofar as it is a squirrel at all, hence it is the natural standard of goodness qua squirrel.

Indeed, it rather arbitrary that one should focus on the survival value of a particular squirrel's collection of traits as definitive of the good of a squirrel, qua squirrel, if one does not appeal to its essence (if only its essence as a living thing).

As for whether forms are static, I wonder why you think so. Forms come into being and go out of being all the time. Now, certainly, a Nature taking on another nature while remaining the same nature is a contradiction in terms, hence one cannot say that a Form changes in itself while remaining the same Form. But I don't see how this entails any sort of "stasis."

Robert said...

Thanks for the responses.

When I used the word static, I was referring to the seeming fact that each and everything in the universe changes from one moment to the next, depending on which level it is one views it.

In this sense, any claim to a specific nature as being the "good" seems simply arbitrary, in my view.

However, I will consider your responses carefully before commenting further.

George R. said...

I'm neither an evolutionary biologist, nor an essentialist so I apologize for any errors.

Well, you made plenty of them, FZ, but I accept your apology.

Natures do not seem to be static in our universe, though static natures are what is being implied by this argument.

True, they don't seem to be, but if you consider the situation patiently and thoughtfully, you'll find that not only can natures be static, they must be.

Anonymous said...

Robert,

Certainly everything changes from one moment to the next, but not every change is an essential change for everything. For instance, pumping a ball more full of air wouldn't make it less of a ball, or cause it to go out of existence.

It is perfectly obvious that when one grasps what a ball is, that this is an accidental, rather than a substantial, change, qua what it is to be a ball. That is, if a ball is essentially a spherical solid, and pumping it full of air is not incompatible with it continuing to be both spherical and solid, pumping it so that it expands can't cause it to go out of existence.

As to why a nature is the standard of goodness of a thing, the nature of a thing is that determines what is perfective for the kind of thing it is.

The Aristotelian/Thomist does not singling out any particular nature for "the good" (except for that of God, but maybe we'll get back to this later). Indeed, the good for different creatures is different, precisely because they have different natures.

Tony said...

And they manage the latter trick because we now know beyond reasonable doubt that there is a perfect correlation between experience and the state of our physical brain.

?

"perfect correlation"????

!!!!?!

That would be the sort of affirmation we would get from, say, an 18 year old Gnu atheist who has had atheism drummed into his head by propaganda in school and media for 18 years, and has yet to even hear one single solid account of traditional theists claims about God, much less read, MUCH less understand, an actual carefully prepared argument (either for or against) theism.

The only way scientistic claims have made a strong "correlation" about such things is by waving its hands magically and saying "we saw some correlations and we don't know any reason why it isn't just like that for every other experience, nor do we have any theory that would establish a full correlation, in part because we don't understand any possible correlation between thinking 'science is right' and science actually being true."

Crude said...

Tony,

The only way scientistic claims have made a strong "correlation" about such things is by waving its hands magically and saying "we saw some correlations and we don't know any reason why it isn't just like that for every other experience, nor do we have any theory that would establish a full correlation, in part because we don't understand any possible correlation between thinking 'science is right' and science actually being true."

I think the point DG may be driving at is that 'science indicates that the mind and the brain are tightly interwoven', which is true enough. But that's not a surprise on A-T, or just about any other view. Even the idealists can accept as much.

With regards to intentionality, subjective experience, etc, there's not really any science to yet be realist about. Even pinning ones hopes on 'someday, maybe, science will come up with a theory that explains intentionality or subjective experience or..!' I'm sure, but even overlooking the problems with that, there's also no guarantee that the solution will be anything like the materialist expects.

I think DG was vastly overstating the naturalist's case anyway, and I disagree with his view on how these discussions should proceed. In fact, when it comes to Cult of Gnu atheists, I'm skeptical that a discussion is even a live option.

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

Crude,

I agree with A), B), and C). I think it is pretty obvious that science can only underdetermine reality. This insight is there with us since the time of Plato’s cave, all the way through to Descartes and the modern computer simulation hypothesis.

What I am saying is that, given the two facts I claimed, it is easy for the scientific naturalist to describe a reality which is consistent with all the data we have, and therefore represents a viable metaphysics. These two facts being the physical closure of the universe (i.e. that no supernatural or non-physical effects must by hypothesized by the physical sciences) and the perfect correlation between experience and the physical state of our brain.

Ed in his TLS does point out many problems related to scientific naturalism. The point is that all these problems, which are indeed deeply troubling, are only of a conceptual nature. And here’s the point: The scientific naturalist explains how come we feel these problems are troubling. According to scientific naturalism the universe is a mechanical system the state of which evolves blindly and purposely, and which has produced complex brains made in such a way that sometimes they react negatively to deep insights about how the world really is. Thus, for example, the scientific realist will explain how come we have the sense of libertarian free will even though such a thing does not exist, and how come most of us will feel deeply troubled by the idea that we don’t possess free will. Similarly the scientific naturalist will explain how come we feel troubled by the problem of intentionality, or how come we feel some arguments for theism are convincing, or how come we form the idea of “the squirrel” and we find it obvious that squirrels have a “nature” and even that (notwithstanding natural evolution) this nature “must be static”, etc.

Now when I write that scientific naturalist “explains” this and that, I don’t mean that one can actually read up the specific explanation in some book written by a scientific naturalist. Even if scientific naturalism is true such a feat may not be feasible or even possible. Rather the scientific naturalist will say: Look, given the overwhelming scientific evidence, we know there exists a detailed description of the evolution of the physical universe (including of our brains) which is entirely mechanical. And within that description there is necessarily the explanation of how come we think and feel and argue the way we do.

Finally, even though the naturalist would love to have an intellectually satisfying explanation that explains consciousness, the fact is that the warrant the naturalist has for holding her view does not depend on the presence of such an explanation, but only on the fact that conscious experience exists and perfectly correlates with physical states of the brain.

Anonymous said...

Dianelos, I must say I'm perplexed by your last comment. Of course scientistic naturalists say things like that, but that does not mean they are justified in doing so. It does not mean their explanations are not very often question begging, based on explanatory leaps, or in various other ways unproven or even illogical.

The claim that the scientistic naturalist can describe a reality perfectly consistent with the data, in particular, seems dubious. Dr. Feser alone is constantly showing us why this is the case. That the scientistic naturalist might turn round, when, for example, the necessity of intentionality is pointed out to explain features of the universe and our minds, and give some sort of naturalistic or materialistic attempt to explain intentionality away does not mean his response is justified or even sensible and rational.

I think, as well, that the term perfect correlation, is misplaced when describing the relationship between conscious experience and physical states of the brain. My knowledge is inexact, but I think you overstate the current knowledge of nueroscience.

Anonymous said...

- When I say Dr. Feser alone I mean, of course, his work is just one example of that which shows the flaws in scientistic naturalism, not that he alone has been highlighting its flaws.

The Deuce said...

Now when I write that scientific naturalist “explains” this and that, I don’t mean that one can actually read up the specific explanation in some book written by a scientific naturalist. Even if scientific naturalism is true such a feat may not be feasible or even possible. Rather the scientific naturalist will say: Look, given the overwhelming scientific evidence, we know there exists a detailed description of the evolution of the physical universe (including of our brains) which is entirely mechanical. And within that description there is necessarily the explanation of how come we think and feel and argue the way we do.

That's not explaining. That's simply asserting that there's some materialist explanation, without giving even the slightest hint of the content of that explanation. At best you could call it an unsuccessful attempt to explain, but it's not even that. It's really nothing more than saying that the check is in the mail when it isn't.

reighley said...

@Dianelos Georgoudis,
"Look, given the overwhelming scientific evidence, we know there exists a detailed description of the evolution of the physical universe (including of our brains) which is entirely mechanical."

I hate to have to build out the old dictionary here, but would you mind defining your notion of "mechanical" as opposed (I imagine) to "non-mechanical" descriptions of the physical universe?

I can imagine several different propositions which might fill those shoes but none of them match your intuition exactly. Consider :

(1) it may be that the marginal change of state in the universe is a function of its current state only. "Marginal change", "state", "universe", "function" all carry pretty heavy baggage which you might be taking for granted.

(2) even if (1) were true we would probably have to know boundary conditions in order for the universe to actually be determined completely. Some part of the boundary of the universe might lie in the future.

(3) it may be that (1) is not exactly true but subject to some noise which would involve a random variable in the laws of nature. Is this still mechanical?

(4) it may be that (1) is exactly true, but we must behave as if (3) anyway because of inevitable errors in our measuring equipment.

(5) it may be that (1) is true but the function which represents the marginal change is not computable. Is this still mechanical?

(6) it may be that (1) is true and the derivative is computable but the dynamics of the system are chaotic so we still have no hope of figuring out what is going to happen next (outside of a very short interval of time).

(7) it may be that (1) is true and the function is computable and the dynamics are stable but solving for the future state of the universe could still be NP-complete (so what good is (1) to anyone, from a public policy perspective).

(8) it may be that (1) is not true.

Crude said...

DG,

What I am saying is that, given the two facts I claimed, it is easy for the scientific naturalist to describe a reality which is consistent with all the data we have, and therefore represents a viable metaphysics. These two facts being the physical closure of the universe (i.e. that no supernatural or non-physical effects must by hypothesized by the physical sciences) and the perfect correlation between experience and the physical state of our brain.

Part of the problem here is that the bar for a 'viable metaphysics' can be absurdly low: regard all issues your metaphysics cannot account for as a problem to be solved at a later date, and regard all evidence consistent with your view as evidence FOR your view, and voila - viability. The solipsist can do this too.

The causal closure of the universe is a fact only insofar as it's a metaphysical principal assumed more than argued for, and the correlation (perfect? what?) between mental states and physical states is mere consistency, not evidence of materialism itself. Otherwise every view that argues for or expects that consistency can claim it as evidence too. (I'd further argue that the 'causal closure of the physical' leaves things vastly more wide open than people realize even if it's accepted, but I'll put that aside for now.)

What's more, this circles back to the point I made in this thread originally: it's no use to cling to science and say 'science will eventually vindicate my views!', because science, more than once, has radically changed in fundamental terms - and we have every reason to expect that this can happen again. This is before getting into the argument that science is incapable in principle of deciding various metaphysical questions.

Either way, I have to object to your view of the 'right way' to approach these issues, where everyone assembles the best metaphysical view they can from the various camps and decides which one makes the most sense. In fact, you complain that the A-T proponent should not demand that people look at the world through A-T lenses - but I disagree. I think this is precisely what must be done, because simply establishing that there are, in fact, a diversity of viable metaphysics does a tremendous amount of work towards undoing the naturalist perspective to begin with, in part because of the common-in-some-areas sentiment that naturalism is the only 'viable' game in town.

I have some skepticism of that project as well, keep in mind: I think many times people's "metaphysics" are led by their personal preferences and politics. But I think there are enough people out there who are simply unaware of the metaphysical options and the actual state of intellectual affairs to make this a very reasonable approach.

rank sophist said...

reighley,

I hate to have to build out the old dictionary here, but would you mind defining your notion of "mechanical" as opposed (I imagine) to "non-mechanical" descriptions of the physical universe?

Mechanical descriptions of the universe place the efficient cause as the motivating force of action. Non-mechanical descriptions place the final cause as the motivating force of action.

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

Anon 5:30am

A theory may be consistent with data without being consistent with our sense of the data or with our sense of life in general. Let me discuss the problem of intentionality you mention, from the point of view of the scientific realist I would be if I were one:

Short version: The physical universe is a large machinery blindly evolving. No part in that machinery is “about” anything else. Some parts in that machinery produce consciousness (such as human brains producing human consciousness) the states of which are often about something else. A case in point. The word “Paris” printed on a piece of paper is not about anything. Reading that word produces a particular state in our physical brain, which is not about anything either. But the respective experience produced is about the city of Paris (if one can read English and knows something about the city of Paris).

Long version: Our psychological condition is such that we experience, think about, and speak about the world in certain ways – which sometimes do not correspond with reality. Thus we commonly say that ripe strawberries are red, when in fact strawberries themselves have no color properties. Metaphysics is only about the correct description of reality, and while doing metaphysics we should not get confused by issues of human psychology beyond the domain they apply.

A case in point is intentionality. We do experience and think of the universe as if some physical things (and in particular symbols such as typed words) are *about* other things. The easiest way to realize that this is not so is by considering not our world but an artificial one which shares our world’s mechanical nature. Thus, imagine a simple Darwinian evolutionary space where organisms evolve via natural selection. Imagine further that the survival of a particular species requires cooperation. Perhaps some of the organisms can see but cannot run, and others can run (and carry a fellow along) but not see. Given these facts, the execution of the Darwinian algorithm will produce a survival strategy such that the seer signals the runner that a predator is approaching from a particular direction, and the runner responds by grasping the seer and running in the opposite direction. This much should be unquestionable – we can in principle simulate the whole thing in a computer.

Now if these organisms were conscious and we were to ask them about their experience, the runner would say something like “well, the seer send me a signal *about* a predator approaching from the northeast, and therefore I grabbed him and run to the southwest”. But we who are aware of the entire physical make-up of the experiment understand that the signal is not *about* the predator at all. Rather it is a specific consequence of the blind evolution of the entire system: The system evolved in such a way that the presence of the predator causes a particular physical change (the signal) which causes another particular change (the runner’s actions). It’s purely a matter of blind physical consequence – and is interpreted as a “signal about the predator” only from the subjective and limited point of view of the runner. Similarly, the electrical current running through a lightbulb is not *about* it having been inserted into a socket, but a consequence of that. A bell resonating is not *about* another bell near-by having been struck. The words appearing on my computer screen, or the electrical currents traveling through my computer’s CPU, are not *about* my typing. (Actually the case of the signal in the Darwinian experiment is even clearer, since should we run the experiment again the strategy evolved will almost certainly be the same but the signal will be almost certainly completely different – thus demonstrating that there is no connection between the signal itself and the predator, and that there can’t therefore be any “aboutness” in the signal itself which points to the predator.)

[continues]

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

Coming back to our world it should now become clear that the word “Paris” printed on a piece of paper is not *about* the city of Paris at all. It’s only our psychological or experiential response to reading that word which is about Paris. Physical states (including the state of our brain when reading the word “Paris”) cannot be about something, since there is nothing in the physical properties of a thing that points to something else. But mental states can be about something, and normally are, as we thinking persons cannot fail noticing. Intentionality with respect to mental states is a problem only in the context of the eliminitivist and identity theories of mind, which are materialist theories the scientific naturalist need not and should not embrace.

Having realized all of that, the scientific naturalist will continue to speak of the meaning of words, of a photo of her children, of a theory about gravity, of a book about history, *as if* they were about something – simply because that’s the normal and practical way to talk. Natural language and its concepts have evolved for the practical business of surviving – not in order to make any easier the life of the philosopher of metaphysics.

As for my claim that there is a perfect correlation between experience and the physical state of the brain, I understand we already have lots of evidence for. After all without such a precise correlation we wouldn’t be capable of forming a precise visual picture of our environment. (Some more examples here http://www.trinity.edu/cbrown/mind/kimChapter04.html ) And there is exactly zero evidence against the claim. If there were warrant for some serious doubt about the claim then the identity theory of mind would not even get off the ground. Please observe that the evidence is about correlations, not causality – thus the evidence by itself is entirely consistent with substance dualism, idealism, etc.

Conversely, let’s consider what it would mean for such perfect correlation not to exist. It would mean that our experience could change without a corresponding change in our physical brain – which would count as a simple observational proof for the supernatural, an implausible state of affairs even from the point of view of theism.

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

The Deuce,

That's simply asserting that there's some materialist explanation, without giving even the slightest hint of the content of that explanation.

Sometimes to prove that something exists it is sufficient to describe where to find it (or how to construct it) even when in fact it is impossible to do so. Thus we know that there exists the one centillionth digit in the decimal expansion of pi, because we know how to find it, even though in fact it is impossible to do so. Similarly, I say, we can know that there exists an explanation of X if we can describe how to find it, even if we haven’t found it yet, and even should it happen that it is in fact impossible to find.

Further, in the context of our discussion, I think I can in many cases give some “hint” of the content of the explanations.

Crude said...

DG,

Conversely, let’s consider what it would mean for such perfect correlation not to exist. It would mean that our experience could change without a corresponding change in our physical brain – which would count as a simple observational proof for the supernatural, an implausible state of affairs even from the point of view of theism.

..Or that we weren't looking at the proper scale, or that we were looking in the wrong location, or that we didn't understand what we were seeing, or...

No, it wouldn't be an observational proof for the supernatural in and of itself. It wouldn't even be a blow against physicalism full stop. It'd be a blow against one particular physicalist theory.

Sometimes to prove that something exists it is sufficient to describe where to find it (or how to construct it) even when in fact it is impossible to do so. Thus we know that there exists the one centillionth digit in the decimal expansion of pi, because we know how to find it, even though in fact it is impossible to do so. Similarly, I say, we can know that there exists an explanation of X if we can describe how to find it, even if we haven’t found it yet, and even should it happen that it is in fact impossible to find.

Except there's a big difference between the cases. There is no reason to suspect that the centillionth digit if Pi would be found with some new approach to mathematics. It'd be the exact same approach, with the exact same fundamentals in mind, extrapolated.

With other Xs, there's no guarantee that we'll be able to find an explanation for X using the same exact approach of our perception of the field that we were using. You can wait for a purely classical explanation of micro-phenomena. You may well wait in vain.

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

reighley,

By “mechanical universe” I understand a universe that is fully described by a quantitative state and which blindly evolves by some mathematical formula or rule system (which need not be deterministic but may well be probabilistic, e.g. the way Quantum Mechanics describes the evolution of physical systems).

About your observations.

I don’t see what the relevance of measuring equipment is. They are part of the state of the universe and evolve with it. QM’s measuring problem is irrelevant in our context. (Consider Everett’s many worlds interpretation in the abstract and actualize one probable history out of it.)

I have never thought about the issue of computability. As long as the function is well defined I don’t see why a system which evolves through a non-computable function should not be called mechanical. In any case I have no reason to suspect that non-computability applies to the evolution of the actual physical universe.

Again no problem with chaotic evolution. Our own universe has most probably chaotic features. The issue of predictability is moot. The scientific naturalist wants to affirm this: Here are the initial conditions of the universe and its production rules. And here is the actual state evolution of the universe. The latter fits the former (the probability of the latter given the former is not small); therefore I don’t need to hypothesize any final causality, supernatural effects, etc.

Anonymous said...

DG,

I'm still perplexed by your responses. You give an overview of the scientistic naturalist, but I'm just not sure what this proves. It certainly doesn't seem to prove, to me at least, that the scientistic naturalist has a coherent and sensible metaphysics, that his explanations, when he tries to apply them to the whole our experience, internal and external, are not question begging and explanatory leaps and are in various others ways sensible and reasonable.

To suggest a perfect (and that is the term being used) correlation between experience and the physical brain, suggests to me a complete, or almost complete, description of this relationship. It suggests, for example, that our different experiences of a particular cat and a particular dog could be completely mapped in our brain - that we know completely the brain side of this process. I do not think this, or anything like it, has been achieved or is near being achieved.

Tony said...

That's not explaining. That's simply asserting that there's some materialist explanation, without giving even the slightest hint of the content of that explanation. At best you could call it an unsuccessful attempt to explain, but it's not even that. It's really nothing more than saying that the check is in the mail when it isn't.

Thanks, Deuce. That's what I meant by 'magical handwaving."

And I notice that Dianelos still hasn't attempted to deal with the more defiant problem with his account: if the whole stimulus-response relationship means that "paris" isn't "about" anything, then the printed words he uses to explain the account of scientific naturalism aren't "about" anything either. Evolution has conditioned him to feel like those printed words are about something, but really they mean nothing whatsoever, and certainly they don't refer to something that is "true" because there ain't no sich animal in the human mind. However, evolution has NOT conditioned MY mind to think his words are true, so there is no reason for me to accept his words as anything other than random electrons with no meaning, even though nature forces him to delusionally imagine them "true."

Nature in "naturalism" sure gets its jollies doing odd things. To paraphrase Bugs Bunny: "ain't she a stinker!"

Fred T said...

DG, Are you deliberately trying to make naturalism look silly? If so, you're succeeding admirably. The absurdities in your comments are legion, to take just a few: Even if anyone had actually proven a "perfect correlation" between a brain state and, say, the emotion of love (a dubious proposition at best), correlation does not necessarily indicate causality, and even if in this case it did, it does not show which way the causality flows. Does the brain state cause love or vice versa? A naturalist would probably say the former, but his reason for doing so could only be ideological, never scientific, even in principle.

And resistance to naturalism comes from a naturalistically evolved tendency to see the world in comprehensive illusions? As Dan Carvey's Church Lady would say, "Well, isn't that conveeenient." It's a self-serving and, worse from a scientific point of view, absolutely unfalsifiable "just so" story.

Now I'm no evolutionary biologist, but I have read a bit on the subject. From what I have read, a "Darwinian algorithm" for a "survival strategy" is an oxymoron since genetic mutations are random. The organisms in your example might, if the genes fell out just right, behave in the manner you relate, but if not, they would go extinct. In neither case is there an "algorithm" at work. I could go on, but suffice it to say that all of your "arguments" are on the same ridiculous level as those three. If that's the best naturalism can do, I'd say theism is pretty safe.

Anonymous said...

Tony, DG is not, I believe, a scientistic naturalist. He is trying to make a point about metaphysical systems, but I'm just at a loss to understand what that point is.

Crude said...

Yeah. I recall DG is an idealist, actually, and a theist. (Correct me if I'm wrong DG.)

But I think he's trying to offer a charitable view of naturalism. I'm all in favor of charitable readings, but I think this instance is just way over the top and doesn't ultimately stand.

reighley said...

@Dianelos Georgoudis,

"By “mechanical universe” I understand a universe that is fully described by a quantitative state and which blindly evolves by some mathematical formula or rule system (which need not be deterministic but may well be probabilistic, e.g. the way Quantum Mechanics describes the evolution of physical systems). "

I feel that this characterisation has all the appearances of taking a position without actually taking one.

The universe is fully described by its quantitative states, but need not be deterministic?

These rules are a "formula" or a "system" or even a "description" but it need not be possible, even in principle, to write them down?

They are imagined to be complete but as the complete rules will never be made available to me this fact can have no practical consequences!

It seems to me that the universe you describe could still very easily accommodate miracles of all shapes and sizes provided the miracles were themselves completely described by some state vector and there were only finitely many of them.

I also do not see why formal and final causes must be excluded as they are surely no less amenable to quantification than efficient ones.

The phrase "mechanistic universe" has been construed so broadly as to be almost meaningless.

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

Tony,

if the whole stimulus-response relationship means that "paris" isn't "about" anything, then the printed words he uses to explain the account of scientific naturalism aren't "about" anything either.

Right. But through words which by themselves are not about anything and thus have no meaning, we can transmit ideas between our minds, ideas which are about something and do have meaning. That’s, ahem, the idea. And I think it’s obviously true.

Evolution has conditioned him to feel like those printed words are about something, but really they mean nothing whatsoever, and certainly they don't refer to something that is "true" because there ain't no sich animal in the human mind.

I was only responding to the problem of intentionality from the point of view of scientific naturalism. The issue of epistemology, and of the concept of truth, are beyond our current discussion. The scientific naturalist will give a strictly psychological sense to truth, and explain that there is no such thing as truth beyond the minds that go with intelligent brains. Indeed I think the scientific naturalist should agree with the premises of Plantinga’s EAAN argument, and simply point out that in any case our cognitive faculties are reliable enough to give us control over our environment and a pretty good standard of life – and that this is all that really matters.

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

Fred T,

No proof for the claim about the perfect correlation between mind states and brain states is needed, or even possible. Plenty of scientific evidence is already there, philosophical arguments can be given even by a theist to the effect that this claim is probably true, there is not even a thread of scientific evidence against, nor is there really the slightest problem for classical theism should that claim be true – in short there is already sufficient warrant for us all to believe in that claim. To deny that claim amounts in my view to clutching at straws, and without good reason.

As for the “evolved tendency to see the world in comprehensive illusions”, the scientific naturalist will explain that it is not about illusions. Rather when we read the word “Paris” what we deal with is *not* the actual printed word but our experience of reading it. Thus when we say that the printed word is about something we are not falling for an illusion, but simply referring to our actual experience of the printed word. After all, clearly, the very letters or form or any other physical properties of the printed word “Paris” are irrelevant to its meaning. It is natural and practical to use linguistic shortcuts. Thus we speak of “the meaning of a word” and not, as would be more precise, of “the meaning of our experience when reading that word”, or “the idea that reading that word produces in our mind”.

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

Anon 7:35pm

What I am trying to demonstrate is this: Given the deliverances of modern science we now know that there is a logically possible world in which 7 billion persons are having exactly the same experience of life we do (including our current exchange of posts), and which world is not theistic but naturalistic, i.e. of an entirely mechanical nature.

My motivation is to try to understand naturalists, their personal or psychological make-up if you will. The best among them are clearly neither dim-witted, nor uneducated, nor people of ill will. How come then they believe in such a bleak and deeply problematic metaphysics? Or rather, how come they don’t see that theirs is a bleak and deeply problematic metaphysics? Or perhaps, how come that we theists see naturalism as a bleak and deeply problematic metaphysics, and they don’t? Why is it that theists interpret the amazing successes of the physical sciences as revealing one more marvelous aspect in God’s creation, while naturalists interpret the same as revealing that God doesn’t exist?

There is another motivation. Years back I read about John Hick’s idea that the world is religiously ambiguous. I remember thinking that this is clearly false, and that anybody who conscientiously and consistently uses her reason will find that theism is vastly more reasonable a worldview than naturalism. But since then my views have changed. I now see that the human condition is such that reason and metaphysics are not independent but interdependent. In short, reason is not a given. In other words one’s metaphysical views affect the way one reasons, and this explains why the naturalist strikes the theist as being unreasonable, and vice versa. (I now think that even the way we experience the world is not a given but evolves according to the way we think about the world, and especially according to the way we live in the world.)

My deeper motivation is this: Since I hold that God is the creator of the human condition, the better we understand the human condition the better we understand God. In particular, to understand atheists better is to understand God better. That the human condition is such that the world is religiously ambiguous is a major feature of it, and certainly tells us a lot about God’s purpose. It is clearly the case that there is an epistemic distance between us and God; God is not as obviously there as there are squirrels or other minds. Why is that? I have come to believe that there is a very beautiful reason: The world is theistic, but God has designed the human condition in such a way that it is actually possible to choose to live in a non-theistic world also. God so much values our freedom that not even the reality of theism is not imposed upon us. (With John Hick I am also a universalist and thus confident that at some point all creatures will become aware of God and thus love God, but that’s another issue.)

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

The phrase "mechanistic universe" has been construed so broadly as to be almost meaningless.

A universe where God would often and publicly produce miracles would not be a mechanistic universe. A non-theistic universe where physical laws would suddenly shift in some random fashion would also not be a mechanistic universe. Finally, a theistic universe in which free will exists, and where God’s special providence according to classical theism obtains, would not be a mechanistic universe either. Thus we can imagine a lot of universes which do not comport with the definition of a mechanistic universe.

Let me clarify this. Let’s agree that the probability of the actual state evolution of the physical universe given its initial state and laws is not small. That is let’s agree that the physical universe *appears* to be a mechanistic system. The naturalist embraces the further metaphysical assumption that the physical universe *is* a mechanistic system, which *does* blindly evolve through a purely mechanistic process (namely its laws applied to its state). That view is compatible with the physical sciences but is incompatible with purpose, free will, special providence, etc, and is thus incompatible with theism. The theist, on the contrary, embraces the metaphysical assumption that God has created the universe in such a way that while it does appear to be a mechanistic system it is guided by divine special providence and affected by creaturely free will.

reighley said...

@Dianelos Georgoudis,

"A universe where God would often and publicly produce miracles would not be a mechanistic universe."

It would be if God and the miracles also evolved according to some rules.

"A non-theistic universe where physical laws would suddenly shift in some random fashion would also not be a mechanistic universe."

That's a tautology. We would not call them laws if we see them shifting in some random fashion. Furthermore we are tightly constrained by accident of biology to remain on a convenient little planet where even such non-laws as "things fall toward the ground" have all the appearance of universal applicability only because we are so parochial. Our knowledge of the laws of physics is local.

"Let me clarify this. Let’s agree that the probability of the actual state evolution of the physical universe given its initial state and laws is not small."

It is pretty close to zero if you admit even a small amount of random noise in the early universe. Here again the problem of measurement comes up : do we mean by "state" the state we are capable of observing, or the one that actually is?

"That is let’s agree that the physical universe *appears* to be a mechanistic system."

Oh yes. If you don't look carefully enough you might think it unfolded in a highly predictable fashion.

If you look even less closely it *appears* to be governed by the whim of irresponsible and malicious spirits.

Here is what I am asking of you. I get the impression that your notion of "mechanistic" boils down to the idea that the universe has a "state" which is subject to "evolution" according to some "law". That these are the only things that are real. I feel that this scheme came from a time when it was sincerely believed that the "state" was the position and momentum of all the "particles" taken together and the "law" was a system of first order differential equations. That notion of "state", "laws" and attendant "evolution" is inadequate today, so if you want to keep your idea of "mechanistic" you will have to figure out what quantities you will allow into the "state" and the form that the "laws" may take.

So what constitutes a "state"? And what is the form of a "law"?

Glenn said...

Danielos,

My motivation is to try to understand naturalists, their personal or psychological make-up if you will. The best among them are clearly neither dim-witted, nor uneducated, nor people of ill will. How come then they believe in such a bleak and deeply problematic metaphysics? Or rather, how come they don’t see that theirs is a bleak and deeply problematic metaphysics? Or perhaps, how come that we theists see naturalism as a bleak and deeply problematic metaphysics, and they don’t? Why is it that theists interpret the amazing successes of the physical sciences as revealing one more marvelous aspect in God’s creation, while naturalists interpret the same as revealing that God doesn’t exist?

Since...

[H]uman reasoning, by way of inquiry and discovery, advances from certain things simply understood---namely, the first principles; and, again, by way of judgment returns by analysis to first principles. ST I Q 79 A 8

...my surmise is that an adequate answer to your questions may have its genesis in the difference(s) between the set of first principles for theists and the set of first principles for naturalists.

To wit, the set of first principles for theists includes an acknowledgement of God, whereas the set of first principles for naturalists either simply excludes that acknowledgement or goes one step further and includes a denial of God.

Anonymous said...

Dr Feser, I am not sure if this is your kind of humor or not but since we are talking about 'queerness' I thought I'd post it here because it is weird. It's a silly version of the Platonic dialogues, and there are new ones coming out all the time:

http://voices.yahoo.com/the-lost-dialogues-plato-part-one-12111073.html?cat=2

http://voices.yahoo.com/the-lost-dialogues-plato-part-two-12113451.html?cat=44

http://voices.yahoo.com/the-lost-dialogues-plato-part-three-12133811.html?cat=2

Anonymous said...

To say that it is logically possible for there to be a world the same as ours but that is naturalistic seems a very controversial statement. We can conceive of such a world enough for us to discuss it, but whether it is indeed logically possible would presumably depend upon the metaphysics and explanations given by naturalists which we have been discussing.

When it comes to why naturalists believe what they do, it might be suggested that cleverness, education, and even skill in dialectic and discursive reason do not equal wisdom or the truest intellectual knowledge, Nous. I believe Elizabeth Anscombe once called Hume a "mere brilliant sophist" (I prefer Cobbett's epithet for him, "that great fat fellow). There is intelligence and there is Intelligence.

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