Naturalizing Teleology and Intentionality? (Must Nature Be “Disenchanted”?)

Over the past year or so, two very interesting books in the philosophy of nature have attracted attention outside of the ultra-rarefied world of academic discourse: Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions and Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.  Both of these works have been extensively discussed in popular magazines, radio shows, blogs, and esp. at Uncommon Descent.  Here, I want to briefly describe what I see going on here and open up the topic for critical discussion.

Continue reading

Some thoughts on causality

I have been enjoying a lengthy debate with Stephenb on causality (Lizzie also contributing brilliantly). It has made me think about causality a bit more deeply. Here are a few loosely connected ideas for comment:

  • We should be wary of making causality into an unnecessary philosophical mystery. To say A causes B is just another way of saying that if A had not happened then B would not have happened. The way we investigate if A causes B experimentally is exactly this – we remove A and see if B still happens, we bring back A and see if B returns.The detail will vary immensely form one situation to another – A and B might be billiard balls moving, A might be a magnetic field coming on and B iron filings aligning, A might be the French revolution and B the rise of Napoleon – but whatever the detail that is the story. If I observe a white ball run into a red ball and the red ball moves then I can see that if the white ball had not run into the red ball would have not have moved.  There isn’t another metaphysical attribute of the event to be deduced – the causal relationship. This is an example of “language bewitching our intelligence” into thinking we need to find something which a word refers to.
  • The law of causality is a methodological tool not a law of logic. The assumption that every event has a cause is methodologically extremely useful. It drives us to investigate the circumstances under which things happen. But it is logically possible that we may find events that sometimes happen and sometimes do not and there are no circumstances that dictate when they happen. This is what appears to have happened in quantum mechanics.


  • The assumption that every contingent thing that comes into existence was brought into existence by something seems to be plucked out of the air.  Among other things “coming into being”, as Lizzie has pointed out, for most things is just a rearrangement of elementary particles and as such is just another event which may or may not have a cause. We are perhaps confused by dwelling on objects with very clear boundaries in time and space such as living creatures or manufactured objects such as balloons. It becomes clearer that there is nothing special from a causality point of view about coming into existence when we  think about fuzzier objects such as mountains and rivers.

“Naturalism” and “Rationality”

At Uncommon Descent — though not only there! — one often come across the view that naturalism is inconsistent with rationality: if one accepts naturalism, then one ought not regard one’s own rational capacities as reliable.   Some version of this view is ascribed to Darwin himself, and we can call it “Darwin’s Doubt” or simply “the Doubt.”   Should we endorse the Doubt?  Or are there reasons for doubting the Doubt?

Continue reading

AI Skepticism

In another thread, Patrick asked:

If it’s on topic for this blog, I’d be interested in an OP from you discussing why you think strong AI is unlikely.

I’ve now written a post on that to my own blog.  Here I will summarize, and perhaps expand a little on what I see as the main issues.

As you will see from the post at my blog, I don’t have a problem with the idea that we could create an artificial person.  I see that as possible, at least in principle, although it will likely turn out to be very difficult.  My skepticism about AI, is because I see computation as too limited.

I see two problems for AI.  The first is a problem of directionality or motivation or purpose, while the second is a problem with data.


Interestingly Patrick’s message, where he asked for this thread, contained a picture of Spock from Star Trek.  As a Star Trek character, Spock was known to be very logical and not at all emotional.  That’s what I think you get with computation.  However, as I see it, something like emotions are actually needed.  They are what would give an artificial person some sense of direction.

Continue reading

A Question for those that doubt Common Descent

Recent posts by Sal remind me that there are some intelligent educated people who doubt Common Descent.  What I don’t understand what they think the alternative is. Put simply I take Common Descent as the position that :

* At one time there was only very simple unicellular life on earth (this is not a debate about how that unicellular life originated)

* Complex life forms (eukaryotes) are created by slight modifications from other life forms (which are their parents). We have never observed them being created any other way!

* All complex life forms are the descended from a very small number of simple life forms – quite possibly just one.

The alternatives I can imagine are:

* Complex life descended many different times from simple life forms – so e.g. mammals descended from a different simple life form from fish. This flies in the face of the fossil record and the hierarchical nature of complex life but I can sort of understand it.

* Complex life from time to time gives birth to wholly different species – massively implausible.

* Complex life is created anew by some process never imagined or observed – even more implausible but presumably what Young Earth creationists believe.

But maybe there is another option?

If Sal or someone could explain I would be interested.

Kairosfocus and his son

At UD, kairosfocus writes:

I have a son, now on his way to major medical intervention overseas in light of recent developments, of such delicacy that the difference between success and devastating failure is literally 1/8 of an inch.

Accordingly, I request prayers for the proverbial guidance of the final diagnosis and surgical interventions and follow up care that lie ahead; also, for the logistical details connected therewith.


Though I can’t in sincerity offer my prayers, I do offer my heartfelt and earnest wishes and hopes for your son’s successful treatment and speedy recovery. I’m sure others here at TSZ do as well.

Please keep us posted on your son’s progress.

More on split brains and souls

The immaterial soul, at least as most theists conceive of it, does not exist.  There is an abundance of evidence for this assertion, but I have focused recently (both here and at UD) on observations of split-brain patients in particular.

split head

My argument, in a nutshell, is that split-brain patients have two minds in one skull.  The left hemisphere can believe, know, desire, choose, and act on things separately from the right hemisphere, and vice-versa.  Since theists typically attribute these characteristics to the soul, they can only conclude that there are two souls in each split-brain patient – or more sensibly, that the unified soul was a fiction all along.

Continue reading

The Myth of Absolute Certainty

I was banned from Uncommon Descent this morning for reasons unknown (though here is a plausible hypothesis). At the time of my banning, I was in the midst of a long discussion of absolute certainty and whether it can rationally be claimed. Since I can’t continue the discussion at UD, I’ll start a thread here instead and solicit the opinions of the very smart locals here at TSZ.

The question is whether there we can be absolutely certain of anything. I am not speaking of absolute certainty in the colloquial sense (“I’m absolutely certain I left the keys on the counter!”), but in the precise sense of 100.0% (unrounded) certainty, with literally no possibility at all of error — not even a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a percent chance of error.

Continue reading