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”.