Naturalism Without Mechanism

As there is occasional interest in the relation between science and metaphysics here, I thought I’d share this article: “Metaphysics of Metamorphosis“, by the philosopher of science John Dupre. Dupre argues that metaphysics that takes science seriously — what he calls “naturalistic metaphysics” — will give us a very different picture of reality than what we get from traditional a priori metaphysics:

This project of science-based metaphysics, sometimes referred to as ‘naturalistic metaphysics’, has been surprisingly controversial. The philosophers James Ladyman at the University of Bristol and Don Ross at the University of Cape Town offered a forceful defence in their book Every Thing Must Go (2007). As that book illustrates, the debate can be technical and vitriolic. Consequently, I won’t defend naturalistic metaphysics from its critics so much as show you how it helps us inch towards an answer to one of the oldest chestnuts in the history of philosophy: is reality made up of things that somehow change over time, or are things just temporary shapes that our perception plucks out from a flux of unruly, unfolding processes?

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The Idea of ‘Science’ “vs” “Religion’

There’s a rather good article recently published on Aeon, “Why religion is not going away and science will not destroy it“. Since we often circle around the question of the relationship between science and religion, and since most TSZ contributors seem to assume the conflict thesis — that science and religion tend to, and perhaps even must, conflict — I wanted to bring this article to your attention. Discuss — or not!

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Intelligibility

One of the deeper questions that runs throughout philosophical speculation — Western, Eastern, and besides — is a kind of wonder or awe at the fact that the world does make any sense to us all. This awe can be expressed as itself an intellectual problem: why is the world intelligible? The question is sometimes put as: what is the source of the world’s intelligibility? Is the source of intelligibility itself intelligible? Or does a mystery remain after all explanations have had their say?

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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.

 

 

Foundationalism and Anti-Foundationalism

There’s a deep and fascinating question about whether we need “foundations” in our philosophical system, and if so, why and what kind.

First question: is the foundationalism primarily epistemological (foundations of knowledge) or ontological (foundations of being)?*

Second question: insofar as foundationalism implies a hierarchy, is the grounding or fundamental principle at the top of the hierarchy or at the bottom?

These two questions give us four positions:

top-down epistemological foundationalism: rationalism
bottom-up epistemological foundationalism: empiricism
top-down ontological foundationalism: theism/idealism
bottom-up ontological foundationalism: materialism

The ontological foundationalism can be reductive or non-reductive. Hence:
reductive top-down ontological foundationalism: idealism
non-reductive top-down ontological foundationalism: emanationism
reductive bottom-up ontological foundationalism: physicalism
non-reductive bottom-up ontological foundationalism: emergentism

Likewise, anti-foundationalism can also be epistemological or ontological:

epistemological anti-foundationalism: pragmatism (or: the good parts of Hegel/Peirce/Sellars)*
ontological anti-foundationalism: process ontology (or: the good parts of Spinoza/Whitehead/Deleuze)*

The main reason why I have resisted efforts to interpret me as an empiricist or materialist is that both empiricism and materialism are forms of foundationalism. Since I am an anti-foundationalist (both in epistemology and in ontology) I am as opposed to empiricism as I am to rationalism, and as opposed to materialism as I am to theism. My views might look like those of an empiricist/physicalist, but only if one insists on interpreting those views through the lens of the foundationalism that I reject.

As time permits I’ll explore the arguments for epistemological anti-foundationalism and ontological anti-foundationalism. For now I just wanted to get the conversation started.

*I’m leaving aside ethical and political versions of foundationalism and anti-foundationalism, though I think that’s where the philosophical action is really at.

** I’m only citing philosophers in the Western canon here, but Nagarjuna in the Madhyamika tradition of Tibetan Buddhism developed a consistently anti-foundationalist epistemology and ontology one and a half millennia  before it was even conceived of in the West. Within the West, probably Nietzsche and Dewey would be the first consistently anti-foundationalist philosophers.

Philosophy In An Age of Cognitive Science

Since the publication of The Embodied Mind (1991), the cognitive sciences have been turning away from the mind-as-program analogy that dominated early cognitivism towards a conception of cognitive functioning as embodied in a living organism and embedded in an environment. In the past few years, important contributions to embodied-embedded cognitive science can be found in Noe (Action in Perception), Chemero (Radical Embodied Cognitive Scie Rnce), Thompson (Mind in Life), Clark (Being There and Surfing Uncertainty), and Wheeler (Reconstructing the Cognitive World).

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A Critique of Naturalism

The ‘traditional’ objections to a wholly naturalistic metaphysics, within the modern Western philosophical tradition, involve the vexed notions of freedom and consciousness.   But there is, I think, a much deeper and more interesting line of criticism to naturalism, and that involves the notion of intentionality and its closely correlated notion of normativity.

What is involved in my belief that I’m drinking a beer as I type this?  Well, my belief is about something — namely, the beer that I’m drinking.  But what does this “aboutness” consist of?   It requires, among other things, a commitment that I have undertaken — that I am prepared to respond to the appropriate sorts of challenges and criticisms of my belief.  I’m willing to play the game of giving and asking for reasons, and my willingness to be so treated is central to how others regard me as their epistemic peer.  But there doesn’t seem to be any way that the reason-giving game can be explained entirely in terms of the neurophysiological story of what’s going on inside my cranium.  That neurophysiological story is a story of is the case, and the reason-giving story is essentially a normative story — of what ought to be the case.

And if Hume is right — as he certainly seems to be! — in saying that one cannot derive an ought-statement from an is-statement,and if naturalism is an entirely descriptive/explanatory story that has no room for norms, then in light of the central role that norms play in human life (including their role in belief, desire, perception, and action), it is reasonable to conclude that naturalism cannot be right.

(Of course, it does not follow from this that any version of theism or ‘supernaturalism’ must be right, either.)

 

A Matter of Faith

For those interested in creationism and the culture wars, I bring to your attention the forthcoming A Matter of Faith (trailer here).  [And could someone explain to me how to post the trailer directly in my post?]

Several things fascinate me about this development, among which are:

(a) comments on the YouTube video are disabled, so there can be no debate about a movie which centers on a debate;

(b) this movie is produced and endorses by Answers In Genesis, which explicitly refused to endorse “God’s Not Dead” in their review of it (which comes through, in their terms, in the conflict between “evidential” and “presuppositional” apologetics);

(c) the same aesthetics as “God’s Not Dead” (on which, see here for a brilliant and nuanced assessment of how these kinds of films work);

(d) the culmination of the “teach the controversy” strategy.  I found out earlier today that the pedagogy of “teach the controversy” was developed for dealing with conflicting interpretations of literary texts (source here).  It fell to Paul Johnson to appropriate a pedagogical strategy perfectly suited for the humanities — “teach the controversy” — into the sciences. This leads to what strikes me as the right-wing version of Rorty’s collapse of the humanities/sciences distinction. This is the epistemic apocalypse — there is no knowledge, it’s all just “faith”. Which is kind of a bad thing for a culture with a knowledge-driven economy . . .

 

The ‘Hard Problem’ of Intentionality

I’m starting a new thread to discuss what I call “the hard problem of intentionality”: what is intentionality, and to what extent can intentionality be reconciled with “naturalism” (however narrowly or loosely construed)?

Here’s my most recent attempt to address these issues:

McDowell writes:

Consider this passage from Dennett, Consciousness Explained, p. 41: “Dualism, the idea that the brain cannot be a thinking thing so a thinking thing cannot be a brain, is tempting for a variety of reasons, but we must resist temptation . . . Somehow the brain must be the mind”. But a brain cannot be a thinking thing (it is, as Dennett himself remarks, just a syntactic engine). Dualism resides not in the perfectly correct thought that a brain is not a thinking thing, but in postulating some thing immaterial to be the thinking thing that the brain is not, instead of realizing that the thinking thing is the rational animal. Dennett can be comfortable with the thought that the brain must be the mind, in combination with his own awareness that the brain is just a syntactic engine, only because he thinks that in the sense in which the brain is not really a thinking thing, nothing is: the status of possessor of intentional states is conferred by adoption of the intentional stance towards it, and that is no more correct for animals than for brains, or indeed thermostats. But this is a gratuitous addition to the real insight embodied in the invocation of the intentional stance. Rational animals genuinely are “semantic engines”. (“Naturalism in Philosophy of Mind,” 2004)

Elsewhere McDowell has implied that non-rational animals are also semantic engines, and I think this is a view he ought to endorse more forthrightly and boldly than he has. But brains are, of course, syntactic engines.

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Does Atheism Entail Nihilism?

I take it that most (though not all) non-theists assume that atheism does not entail nihilism.  More specifically, most non-theists don’t believe that denying the existence of God or the immortality of the soul entails that truth, love, beauty, goodness, and justice are empty words.

But as we’ve seen in numerous discussions, the anti-materialist holds that this commitment is not one to which we are rationally entitled.  Rather, the anti-materialist seems to contend, someone who denies that there is any transcendent reality beyond this life cannot be committed to anything other than affirmation of power (or maximizing individual reproductive success) for its own sake.

The question is, why is the anti-materialist mistaken about what non-theists are rationally entitled to?   (Anti-materialists are also welcome to clarify their position if I’ve mischaracterized it.)