In Defense of Republican Atheism

In a recent comment, Vincent writes that

However, I would argue that if we believe in human freedom, then that freedom has to include the freedom to bind oneself to a particular vision of humans’ ultimate good – whether it be one that includes God as its core or one which excludes God as a hindrance to unfettered liberty.

I’m very interested in theories of freedom and this idea of atheism as somehow involving “unfettered liberty.”

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Dennett in The New Yorker

I wanted to bring to your attention a lovely profile piece on Dan Dennett, “Daniel Dennett’s Science of the Soul“.  It’s nice to see a philosopher as respected and well-known as Dennett come alive as a human being.

I’d also like to remind those of you interested in this sort of thing that Dennett has a new book out, From Bacteria to Bach And Back: The Evolution of Minds. The central project is to do what creationists are always saying can’t be done: use the explanatory resources of evolutionary theory to understand why we have the kinds of minds that we do. There are decent reviews here and here, as well as one by Thomas Nagel in New York Review of Books that I regard as deliberately misleading (“Is Consciousness an Illusion?“).

[Note: The profile and/or the Nagel review may be behind paywalls.]

 

Knowledge As Articulated Insight

The standard definition of knowledge, canonized in epistemology textbooks, is that knowledge is “justified true belief.”

I think that this is badly wrong, and to put it right, we should return to where this idea comes from: Plato’s argument (“argument”) in Meno. I suggest, based in part on Plato, that we should reject the JTB definition of knowledge in favor of knowledge as articulated insight.

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Solving Wallace’s Problem and Resolving Darwin’s Doubt

I want to consider, in light of fairly new philosophical and scientific research, two long-standing conceptual objections to evolutionary theory: Wallace’s Problem and Darwin’s Doubt.

It is well-recognized that Wallace saw the need for some supernatural intelligence in explaining human evolution, in contrast to Darwin’s naturalistic speculations in Descent of Man. What is less recognized is that Wallace was, in an important sense, right. He squarely faced the problem, “can natural selection alone account for the unique cognitive abilities of human beings, such as abstract thought, self-consciousness, radical reshaping of the environment (e.g. clothing, building), collective self-governance by ethical norms, and the symbolic activities of art, religion, philosophy, mathematics, logic, and science?”  Whereas Darwin thought there was continuity between humans and non-human animals, his evidence is primarily amount emotional displays, rather than the genuinely cognitive discontinuity.

A closely related problem, however, was squarely faced by Darwin: the question, nicely phrased in his famous letter to Asa Gray, as to whether it is plausible to think that natural selection can have equipped a creature with a capacity for arriving at any objective truths about the world.  (It is not often noted that in that letter, Darwin says that he believes in an intelligent creator — what is in doubt is whether natural selection gives him reasons to trust in his cognitive abilities.)

These two questions, Wallace’s Problem and Darwin’s Doubt, are two sides of the same coin: if natural selection (along with other biological processes) cannot account for the uniquely human ability to grasp objective truths about reality, then we must either reject naturalism (as Wallace did) or question our ability to grasp objective truths about reality (as Darwin did).

Call this the Cognitive Dilemma for Naturalism. Can it be solved? If so, how?

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Scientific Metaphysics & Its Consequences

In a recent comment, Fifthmonarchyman engaged with my accusation that his remarks on what brains can’t do is based on his ignorance of neuroscience. He responded by saying

it’s not about neuroscience it’s about ontology.

Brains don’t comprehend because they are not minds. I would think that someone so enamored with philosophy would have a handle on different categories of existence.

It is precisely as a philosopher that I want to express my complete rejection of the assumptions implicit in this remark.

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The Impossibility of Skepticism

I hope I will be forgiven for abusing the term “skepticism” here — for what I have in mind is not a perfectly innocuous “claims require evidence” epistemic prudence, but rather Cartesian skepticism.

According to the Cartesian skeptic, one can be perfectly certain about one’s own mental contents and yet also be in total doubt about what really corresponds to those mental contents. Hence she needs an argument that will justify her belief that there is any external reality at all, and that at least some of her mental contents can correspond to it.

There are many responses to Cartesian skepticism, and here I want to pick up on one strand in the pragmatist tradition that, on my view, cuts deepest into what is wrong with Cartesian skepticism.

I think that one cannot talk, in any intelligible sense, about justification in the first place without also committing oneself to a belief in other minds with whom one shares a world. (Not that I like that way of putting it — “a belief in other minds” is a much too intellectualistic interpretation of the myriad ways in which we experience the sentience of nonhuman animals and the sentience-and-sapience of other human animals.)

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Radical Agnosticism

A few times I’ve referred to my view about “the God question” as “radical agnosticism.” I thought it might be fun to work through what this means.

For the purposes of this discussion, by “God” I shall mean follow Hart’s definition of God as “the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things” (The Experience of God, p. 30).

Next, I shall stipulate that our assertions about the world fall into two classes: those that take a truth-value in all possible worlds and those that take a truth-value only in the actual world. This is a contemporary version of “Hume’s Fork”: there are “relations of ideas”, “truths of reason”, analytic a priori claims and then there are “matters of fact”, “truths of fact,” synthetic a posteriori claims. (There are some reasons to be skeptical of this neat distinction but I’ll leave that aside for now.)

Whether or not God exists would therefore seem to be either a “truth of fact” or a “truth of reason”.  I shall therefore now argue that it cannot be either.

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Organisms and Machines

In the “The Disunity of Reason” thread, Mung suggested that “the typical non-theist will insist that organisms are machines, including humans.” And there is a long tradition of mechanistic metaphysics in Western anti-theism (La Mettrie is probably the most well-known example). However, I pointed that I disagree with the claim that organisms are machines. I’m reposting my thoughts from there for our continued conversation.

A machine is a system with components or parts that can be partially isolated from the rest of the system and made to vary independently of the system in which they are embedded, but which has no causal loops that allow it to minimize the entropy produced by the system. It will generate as much or as little heat as it is designed to do, and will accumulate heat until the materials lose the properties necessary for implementing their specific functions. In other words, machines can break.

What makes organisms qualitatively different from machines is that organisms are self-regulating, far-from-equilibrium thermodynamic systems. Whereas machines are nearly always in thermodynamic equilibrium with the surrounding system, organisms are nearly always far from thermodynamic equilibrium — and they stay there. An organism at thermodynamic equilibrium with its environment is, pretty much by definition, dead.

The difference, then, is that machines require some agent to manipulate them in order to push them away from thermodynamic equilibrium. Organisms temporarily sustain themselves at far-from-equilibrium attractors in phase space — though entropy catches up with all of us in the end.

It is true that some parts of an organism can break — a bone, for example. But I worry that to produce a concept general enough that both breaking and dying are subsumed under it, one can lost sight of the specific difference that one is trying to explain.

Indeed, that’s the exact problem with Intelligent Design theory — the ID theorist says, “organisms and machines are exactly the same, except for all the differences”. Which is why the ID theorist then concludes that organisms are just really special machines — the kind of machines that only a supremely intelligent being could have made. As Fuller nicely puts it, according to ID “biology is divine technology”.

The Disunity of Reason

Last night I was talking with an old friend of mine, an atheist Jew, who is now in the best relationship of her life with a devout Roman Catholic. We talked about the fact that she was more surprised than he was about the fact that their connection transcends their difference in metaphysics. He sees himself as a devout Roman Catholic; she sees him as a good human being.

This conversation reminded me of an older thought that’s been swirling around in my head for a few weeks: the disunity of reason.

It is widely held by philosophers (that peculiar sub-species!) that reason is unified: that the ideally rational person is one for whom there are no fissures, breaks, ruptures, or discontinuities anywhere in the inferential relations between semantic contents that comprise his or her cognitive grasp of the world (including himself or herself as part of that world).

This is particularly true when it comes to the distinction between “theoretical reason” and “practical reason”. By “theoretical reason” I mean one’s ability to conceptualize the world-as-experienced as more-or-less systematic, and by “practical reason” I mean one’s ability to act in the world according to judgments that are justified by agent-relative and also agent-indifferent reasons (“prudence” and “morality”, respectively).

The whole philosophical tradition from Plato onward assumes that reason is unified, and especially, that theoretical and practical reason are unified — different exercises of the same basic faculty. Some philosophers think of them as closer together than others — for example, Aristotle distinguishes between episteme (knowledge of general principles in science, mathematics, and metaphysics) and phronesis (knowledge of particular situations in virtuous action). But even Aristotle does not doubt that episteme and phronesis are exercises of a single capacity, reason (nous).

However, as we learn more about how our cognitive system is actually structured, we should consider the possibility that reason is not unified at all. If Horst’s Cognitive Pluralism is right, then we should expect that our minds are more like patchworks of domain-specific modules that can reason quite well within those domains but not so well across them.

To Horst’s model I’d add the further conjecture: that we have pretty good reason to associate our capacity for “theoretical reason” (abstract thinking and long-term planning) with the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and also pretty good reason to associate our capacity for “practical reason” (self-control and virtuous conduct) with the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (and especially in its dense interconnections with the limbic system).

But if that conjecture is on the right track, then we would expect to find consistency between theoretical reason and practical reason only to the extent that there are reciprocal interconnections between these regions of prefrontal cortex. And of course there are reciprocal interconnections — but (and this is the important point!) to the extent that these regions are also functionally distinct, then to that same extent reason is disunified. 

And as a consequence, metaphysics and ethics may have somewhat less to do with each other than previous philosophers have supposed.