How Comfortable is Naturalism with Highly Atypical Events?

There are numerous definitions of naturalism. Here is one definition with some additional observations from infidels.org:

As defined by philosopher Paul Draper, naturalism is “the hypothesis that the natural world is a closed system” in the sense that “nothing that is not a part of the natural world affects it.” More simply, it is the denial of the existence of supernatural causes. In rejecting the reality of supernatural events, forces, or entities, naturalism is the antithesis of supernaturalism.
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The “Soul”

There’s a lot of (mostly very obscure) talk about “the soul” here and elsewhere. (Is it supposed to be different from you, your “mind,” your “ego” etc.? Is it some combo of [some of] them, or what?)  A friend recently passed along the following quote from psychologist James Hillman that I thought was nice–and maybe demystifying–at least a little bit. Continue reading

Evolution’s Puzzle & Trans-Evolutionary Change

In lead-up to the recent Royal Society’s “New Trends in Evolutionary Biology: Biological, Philosophical and Social Sciences Perspectives” meeting in London, which courted the terms ‘extension,’ ‘replacement’ and ‘amendment’ in regard to the (neo-)Darwinian evolutionary ‘Modern Synthesis’ in biology, as presented by active and leading members of the (mainly Anglo-American) biological scientific community as well as philosophers (and a couple of largely physical rather than cultural anthropologists), including several members of The Third Way of Evolution, this was one of a few trans-evolutionary change preparations aimed at liberating the social sciences and humanities from positivist, reductionist, evolutionist, atomist & naturalist (PREAN) ideologies (none of which, of course, refers to a single soul at TSZ because almost everyone here is – by definition of being a ‘skeptic’ – skeptical about even their own admittedly personal ideologies that are often so easily identifiable by their words made in public?), which display hegemonic tendencies by capital-capture political positioning scholars & dehumanising ‘public understanding’ gurus coming from oftentimes highly specialised natural-physical sciences fields that have become an unfortunate burden in collaborative science, philosophy and theology/worldview discourse, to everyone.

Cheers to moving beyond (neo-)Darwinian evolutionism with trans-evolutionary li-ber-a-tion!

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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Cartesian skepticism and the Sentinel Islander thought experiment

Cartesian skepticism has been a hot topic lately at TSZ. I’ve been defending a version of it that I’ve summarized as follows:

Any knowledge claim based on the veridicality of our senses is illegitimate, because we can’t know that our senses are veridical.

This means that even things that seem obvious — that there is a computer monitor in front of me as I write this, for instance — aren’t certain. Besides not being certain, we can’t even claim to know them, and that remains true even when we use a standard of knowledge that allows for some uncertainty. (There’s more — a lot more — on this in earlier threads.)

In explaining to Kantian Naturalist why I am a Cartesian skeptic, I introduced the analogy of the Sentinel Islander:

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Consilience and the Cartesian Skeptic

It is not all that infrequent here at TSZ that some opponent of theism or ID makes a statement that makes me scratch my head and wonder how it is possible that they could make such a statement. This OP explores a recent example.

Cartesian scepticism, more impressed with Descartes’ argument for scepticism than his own reply, holds that we do not have any knowledge of any empirical proposition about anything beyond the contents of our own minds. The reason, roughly put, is that there is a legitimate doubt about all such propositions because there is no way to justifiably deny that our senses are being stimulated by some cause (an evil spirit, for example) which is radically different from the objects which we normally think affect our senses.

– A Companion to Epistemology, p. 457

Imagine my surprise when I found keiths (a self-identified “Cartesian Skeptic”) appealing to the senses.

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Thorp, Shannon: Inspiration for Alternative Perspectives on the ID vs. Naturalism Debate

The writings and life work of Ed Thorp, professor at MIT, influenced many of my notions of ID (though Thorp and Shannon are not ID proponents). I happened upon a forgotten mathematical paper by Ed Thorp in 1961 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that launched his stellar career into Wall Street. If the TSZ regulars are tired of talking and arguing ID, then I offer a link to Thorp’s landmark paper. That 1961 PNAS article consists of a mere three pages. It is terse, and almost shocking in its economy of words and straightforward English. The paper can be downloaded from:

A Favorable Strategy for Twenty One, Proceedings National Academy of Sciences.

Thorp was a colleague of Claude Shannon (founder of information theory, and inventor of the notion of “bit”) at MIT. Thorp managed to publish his theory about blackjack through the sponsorship of Shannon. He was able to scientifically prove his theories in the casinos and Wall Street and went on to make hundreds of millions of dollars through his scientific approach to estimating and profiting from expected value. Thorp was the central figure in the real life stories featured in the book
Fortune’s Formula: The Untold Story of the Scientific Betting System that Beat the Casino’s and Wall Street by William Poundstone.
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Primary and Secondary Qualities

Every student of philosophy knows how to draw up the lists of primary and secondary qualities: on the left go extension, size, shape or figure, solidity, motion or rest, and number; on the right go color, sound, scent, taste, heat and cold. But what is the principle of the distinction? Does it have to do with objective versus subjective? Categorical versus dispositional? Intrinsic versus extrinsic? Or several or none of these?

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Galen Strawson’s Panpsychism

This Strawson piece just appeared in the NY Times.

It’s a position that I found attractive long ago.  FWIW, I preferred Strawson’s father as a philosopher but I give the son some credit for consistently pushing this position for years.  (IIRC, correctly, he also has no sympathy for compatibalism, and is an old-fashioned hard determinist.

What do y’all think?

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Does Naturalism Exclude Exceptional Phenomenon?

Would naturalism insist 500 fair coins 100% heads on a table could not possibly emerge from a random process (like random coin flipping)? How about a buzzillion fair coins being 100% heads after an explosion from a terrorist event at a bank? If naturalism won’t exclude such improbable events (events statistically indistinguishable from miracles), then naturalism doesn’t exclude miracles.
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Biology as viewed through 19th Century Lenses

Most modern readers have difficulty appreciating the resilience of spiritual or metaphysical overtones to 19th Century scientific thought, alternatively referred to as “vitalism” & “teleology”. At this point, a quick historical digression is in order.

What exactly is life?”! Traditional education systems were well-grounded in the classics, and many 19th Century naturalists could relate to an ancient Greek philosopher named Aristotle who was convinced no real boundary existed between “living” and “non-living”. According to Aristotle, non-living matter could give rise to living things because our universe possesses some vital life force or soul, “anima”, which could “animate” non-living matter. In Aristotle’s view: the universe, as a whole, had its own soul. In modern terms the universe could be considered as some giant fractal and we are all but elements therein. Even today, various mystical traditions hold similar ideas.

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The Death of Humanity

The Death of Humanity is a new book by Richard Weikart.

Are humans intrinsically valuable, or are they simply a cosmic accident with no real meaning or purpose? Since the Enlightenment this debate has raged in Western culture, profoundly influencing our understanding of bioethics and informing the debate over abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, genetic engineering, etc. The title of this book, The Death of Humanity, refers not only to the demise of the concept that humans are intrinsically valuable, but also the the resultant killing of actual human lives.

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Burden tennis

Burden tennis is an intellectual parlor game, wherein the players “hit” the “burden of proof” across the net from one side to the other.  We see this expressed as “the burden is in your court” or “the burden of proof is yours”, with often both sides making similar statements.

Burden tennis can be a fun game to watch, but it is sometimes wiser to avoid being a participant.

Note:  I did not invent the term “burden tennis”.  I saw that being used on the net somewhere many years ago.  But it seems like a good term.

This post is really a reply to Patrick’s post in the moderation thread.  I’ve started a new thread, because the discussion really doesn’t belong there.

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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.