Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Theistic evolutionists and the two-platoon strategy

What should we make of theistic evolutionists telling us that you can believe in God, while still knowing that matter, law and chance explain the full development of all of life?

Consider this quotation from Phillip E. Johnson.

Quote:

The National Academy’s way of dealing with the religious implications of evolution is akin to the two-platoon system in American football. When the leading figures of evolutionary science feel free to say what they really believe, writers such as Edward O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Carl Sagan, Steven Pinker, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin and others state the “God is dead” thesis aggressively, invoking the authority of science to silence any theistic protest. That is the offensive platoon, and the National Academy never raises any objection to its promoting this worldview.

At other times, however, the scientific elite has to protect the teaching of the “fact of evolution” from objections by religious conservatives who know what the offensive platoon is saying and who argue that the science educators are insinuating a worldview that goes far beyond the data. When the objectors are too numerous or influential to be ignored, the defensive platoon takes the field. That is when we read those spin-doctored reassurances saying that many scientists are religious (in some sense), that science does not claim to have proved that God does not exist (but merely that he does not affect the natural world), and that science and religion are separate realms which should never be mixed (unless it is the materialists who are doing the mixing). Once the defensive platoon has done its job it leaves the field, and the offensive platoon goes right back to telling the public that science has shown that “God” is permanently out of business. (The Wedge of Truth, IVP 2000, pp. 88-89).

So what naturalistic scientists believe is that God didn’t do anything to create the diversity of life – that nature does all of its own creating. In fact, it doesn’t matter if the best naturalistic explanation is improbable or implausible – scientists must bitterly cling to materialistic explanations of natural phenomena.

The problem for these scientists is that they are taxpayer-funded, and religious people don’t like paying to have scientists shoehorn reality into a pre-supposed naturalistic framework. Sometimes, religious people get annoyed about being told that sparking gases can create functional proteins. And sometimes, religious people get annoyed about being told that the universe oscillates eternally despite observations that falsify that speculative theory. And sometimes, religious people get annoyed about being told that there are as yet undiscovered fossilized precusors to the Cambrian era fossils.

Naturalists think that opposition to these lame naturalistic theories only ever be religiously-motivated. They cannot accept that people might question their naturalistic just-so stories on scientific grounds. So what do the naturalists do when faced with scientifically-motivated dissent that they think is religiously motivated? Well, they trot out “religious” scientists. These “religious” scientists claim to have a deep personal faith in God, and a belief in miracles. But these religious scientists believe that what actually happened is that law, matter and chance did all the creating of life. This is the “second platoon”. They are sent out to mislead the public by talking about their personal faith, and what God could and couldn’t do, and how evolutionists can believe in God without any evidence of intelligent causes in the history of life. The one question they most want to avoid is whether science, done in the ordinary naturalistic way, can discover evidence of intelligent agency in the history of the development of life.

Now, take a look at this article by Jay Richards. He cites some theistic evolutionists.

Excerpt:

Biologist Ken Miller:

For his part, [Ken] Miller, a biologist, has no qualms about telling us what God would do: “And in Catholicism, he said, God wouldn’t micromanage that way. ‘Surely he can set things up without having to violate his own laws.’”

I am unaware of any tenet of Catholic theology that requires God not to micromanage. It is, however, a tenet of deism.

Got that? What really happened is that God didn’t do anything. How does he know that? From the science? No. Because he assumes naturalism. Oh, it’s true that he says that God is lurking somewhere behind the material processes that created life. But God’s agency is undetectable by the methods of science. And he is hoping that you will accept his subjective pious God-talk as proof that a fundamentally atheistic reality is somehow reconcilable with a robust conception of theism.

More from Richards:

Then we get Stephen Barr offering his private definition of “chance.”

It is possible to believe simultaneously in a world that is shaped by chance and one following a divine plan. “God is in charge and there’s a lot of accident,” said Barr, also a Catholic. “It’s all part of a plan. . . . God may have known where every molecule was going to move.”

What does Barr really believe? He believes that what science shows is that nature created life without any interference by an intelligent agent. Barr then offers believers his subjective pious God-talk to reassure them that evolution is compatible with religion. He has a personal belief – NOT BASED ON SCIENCE – that the material processes that created all of life are “all part of a plan”. He cannot demonstrate that from science – it’s his faith commitment. And more speculations: “God may have known…”. He can’t demonstrate that God did know anything from science. He is just offering a personal opinion about what God “could have” done. The purpose of these subjective opinions is to appease those who ask questions about what natural mechanisms can really create. Can natural causes really account for the development of functional proteins? Never mind that – look at my shiny spiritual-sounding testimony!

That’s theistic evolution. What really happened is that no intelligent causes are needed to explain life. What they say is “God could” and “God might” and “I believe” and “I attend this church” and “I received a Christian award” and “I believe in miracles too”. None of these religious opinions and speculations are scientifically knowable – they are just opinions, speculations and biographical trivia. Atheists and theistic evolutions agree on what science shows about the diversity of life – intelligent causes didn’t do anything.

The quickest way to disarm a theistic evolutionist is to refuse to talk about religion or God, and to ask them to show you the naturalistic explanation of the Big Bang. And the naturalistic explanation of the fine-tuning. And the naturalistic explanation of the origin of life. And the naturalistic explanation of the Cambrian explosion. And so on. Focus on the science – don’t let them turn the conversation to their personal beliefs, or to the Bible, or to religion, or to philosophy. Ask them what they can show in the lab. If naturalistic mechanisms can do all the creating they say it can do, let’s see the demonstration in the lab.

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Brian Auten interviews Dr. Angus Menuge on philosophy of mind

Click here for the interview. It’s up at Apologetics 315!

Details:

Today’s interview is with Dr. Angus Menuge, Professor of Philosophy  at Concordia University, and author of Agents Under Fire: Materialism and the Rationality of Science. He talks about his background and work, the philosophy of mind, what reason (or reasoning) is, what materialism is as a worldview, things excluded from a materialistic worldview, methodological naturalism and materialism, accounting for free will, materialistic accounts of reason, the epistemological argument from reason, the ontological argument from reason, finding the best explanation for reason, problems with methodological naturalism, implications of materialism, practical application of the argument from reason, advice for apologists, the International Academy of Apologetics, and more.

If what Dr. Menuge says in this interview is true, and I think it is, then a person who believes in materialism can neither ground free will nor rationality! So atheism wouldn’t really be freethought so much as it would be… un-free… non-thought.

In case people don’t want to listen to the podcast, then I’ve got some things for you to read below.

The ontological argument from reason

Dr. Menuge presented a paper at the real Evangelical Philosophical Society conference for students and professors of philosophy, and you can download the paper here in Word format. (here’s a PDF version I made)

Here is the introduction to the paper that Dr. Menuge read at the EPS conference:

The argument from reason is really a family of arguments to show that reasoning is incompatible with naturalism. Here, naturalism is understood as the idea that foundationally, there are only physical objects, properties and relations, and anything else reduces to, supervenes on, or emerges from that. For our purposes, one of the most important claims of naturalism is that all causation is passive, automatic, event causation (an earthquake automatically causes a tidal wave; the tidal wave responds passively): there are no agent causes, where something does not happen automatically but only because the agent exerts his active power by choosing to do it. The most famous version of the argument from reason is epistemological: if naturalism were true, we could not be justified in believing it. Today, I want to focus on the ontological argument from reason, which asserts that there cannot be reasoning in a naturalistic world, because reasoning requires libertarian free will, and this in turn requires a unified, enduring self with active power.

The two most promising ways out of this argument are: (1) Compatibilism—even in a deterministic, naturalistic world, humans are capable of free acts of reason if their minds are responsive to rational causes; (2) Libertarian Naturalism—a self with libertarian free will emerges from the brain. I argue that neither of these moves works, and so, unless someone has a better idea, the ontological argument from reason stands.

The paper is 11 pages long, and it is helpful for those of you looking for some good discussion of one of the issues in the area of philosophy of mind.

You may also be interested in Alvin Plantinga’s epistemological argument from reason, which is related to this argument. It shows that even to have the ability to think, you have to have a certain anthropology and you have to have mental faculties that are designed for reason, not survival.

Methodological naturalism

Dr. Menuge also wrote an article entitled “Is methodological materialism good for science?”.

Intro:

Should science by governed by methodological materialism? That is, should scientists assume that only undirected causes can figure in their theories and explanations? If the answer to these questions is yes, then there can be no such thing as teleological science or intelligent design. But is methodological materialism a defensible approach to science, or might it prevent scientists from discovering important truths about the natural world? In my contribution to The Waning of Materialism (Oxford University Press, 2010), edited by Robert Koons and George Bealer, I consider twelve of the most common arguments in favor of methodological materialism and show that none of them is convincing.

Of these arguments, perhaps the most prevalent is the “God of the gaps” charge, according to which invoking something other than a material cause is an argument from ignorance which, like a bad script writer, cites a deus ex machina to save our account from difficulty. Not only materialists, but also many Christian thinkers, like Francis Collins, worry that appeal to intelligent design commits the God of the gaps fallacy.

As I argue, however, not only is an inference to an intelligent cause not the same as an inference to the supernatural, it is a mistake to assume that all gap arguments are bad, or that only theists make them. If a gap argument is based solely on ignorance of what might explain some phenomenon, then indeed it is a bad argument. But there are many good gap arguments which are made both by scientific materialists and proponents of intelligent design.

So how do you make an argument like that?

As Stephen Meyer has argued in his Signature in the Cell, intelligent design argues in just the same way, claiming not merely that the material categories of chance and necessity (singly or in combination) are unable to explain the complex specified information in DNA, but also that in our experience, intelligent agents are the only known causes of such information. The argument is based on what we know about causal powers, not on what we do not know about them.

Since the inference is based on known causal powers, we learn that the cause is intelligent, but only further assumptions or data can tell us whether that intelligence is immanent in nature or supernatural. It is a serious mistake to confuse intelligent design with theistic science, and the argument that since some proponents of design believe that the designer is God, that is what they are claiming can be inferred from the data, is a sophomoric intensional fallacy.

If you think this is interesting, then do have a listen to the podcast. Dr. Menuge is not an ordinary academic – he is very direct. He calls materialism “a catastrophe” in the podcast!

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Is there any science in the new “Cosmos” series, or is it all naturalistic religion?

I noticed a couple of reviews of this television series, produced by an atheist producer of cartoons.

The first review comes from J. W. Wartick.

Multiverse:

The universe is actually so huge that we can’t actually observe the entire thing because there is more beyond what we can see. But “many… suspect” that our universe is but one in an extremely huge number of actual individual universes (here shown as little bubbles spreading out continually over the screen).

Origin of life:

The origin of life “evolved” through biochemical evolution.

J.W. comments:

The depiction of the multiverse with little-to-no qualification was alarming, for there is much debate over whether there even is such a multiverse, and if there is, to what extent it may be called a multiverse. The portrayal within this episode was essentially a fictitious account being passed off without qualification as something a lot of people believe. The wording used was that “many… suspect” there is such a universe. Well yes, that may be true, but to what extent can we test for these other universes? What models predict them and why? I am uninterested in how many people hold to a belief; I am interested in whether that belief is true.

[...][T]he brief snippet used to explore the origin of life: “biochemical evolution” was astonishingly insufficient. I’m sure we’ll get into that in the next episode, but the origin of life is one of the great unsolved mysteries within science and to just hand wave and say “biochemical evolution” is, well, notable to say the least.

I agree with Wartick. What I am looking for is the story of how scientists experimented, observed and tested in order to find out about the universe. I’m not interested in people working theoretical physics who presupposed naturalism at age 14 because their Sunday School teacher was mean to them. Presupposing a philosophy of naturalism is just religion. I want to see the science. Here are my responses to the multiverse speculation and the origin of life speculation.

The series quote Carl Sagan at the beginning, but he a person who let his religion of naturalism lead him away from the scientific evidence for a beginning. Instead of accepting the standard Big Bang model, which implies a transcendent Creator, Sagan chose to embrace a faith-based eternal oscillating model of the universe, which tries to avoid a Creator. I wrote about the problems with Sagan’s naturalistic speculative cosmology in this post.

Now let’s see Casey Luskin’s review on Evolution News.

Excerpt:

During the first episode, Tyson devotes lengthy segments to promoting the old tale that religion is at war science, and strongly promotes the idea that religion opposes intellectual advancement. He tells the story of the 16th-century astronomer cultist philosopher Giordano Bruno, who he says lived in a time without “freedom of speech” or “separation of church and state,” and thus fell into the clutches of the “thought police” of the Inquisition for disagreeing with the church’s geocentric views. Never mind that his show made it appear that President Obama endorsed Sagan-style materialism, but I digress… Of course the main religious authority of that time was the Catholic Church, and the program shows angry priests with evil-sounding British accents dressed in full religious garb throwing Bruno out on the street, and eventually burning him at the stake.

Just to make sure that other Christians who aren’t Catholic also understand their religions too hinder scientific progress, Tyson goes out of his way to point out that Bruno was opposed by “Calvinists in Switzerland,” and “Lutherans in Germany,” including the great protestant reformer Martin Luther himself. He never mentions that Protestants aren’t the ones who burned Bruno at the stake, nor does he ever mention that most of the founders of modern science were Christians. But I digress…

It’s a lengthy scene, all to highlight some of the darkest chapters of Christianity in Europe. But the entire retelling of Bruno’s fate lasts a good portion of the first episode’s hour. Why make the religious persecution of scientists some four hundred years ago a major focus of a widely publicized television series that is ostensibly about promoting science?

Luskin took issue with the idea that religious people hold science back. On the contrary, religious Christians were largely responsible for the birth of modern science. Luskin also reports on over a dozen cases where naturalists have suppressed critical thinking about whether science disproves the religion of naturalism.

Here’s are a few:

A congressional subcommittee staff investigation found that biologist Richard Sternberg experienced retaliation by his co-workers and superiors at the Smithsonian, including transfer to a hostile supervisor, removal of his name placard from his door, deprivation of workspace, subjection to work requirements not imposed on others, restriction of specimen access, and loss of his keys, because he allowed a pro-ID article to be published in a biology journal.

In 2005, over 120 faculty members at Iowa State University (ISU) signed a petition denouncing ID and calling on “all faculty members to … reject efforts to portray Intelligent Design as science.” These efforts were significant not just because they opposed academic freedom by demanding conformity among faculty to reject ID, but because they focused on creating a hostile environment for pro-ID astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez, co-author of The Privileged Planet, who was denied tenure at ISU in 2006 due to his support for ID. Both public and private statements exposed through public records requests revealed that members of ISU’s department in physics and astronomy voted against Gonzalez’s tenure due to his support for ID.

In 1993, San Francisco State University biology professor Dean Kenyon was forced to stop teaching introductory biology because he was informing students that scientists had doubts about materialist theories of the origin of life.

In 2005, pro-ID adjunct biology professor Caroline Crocker lost her job at George Mason University after teaching students about both the evidence for and against evolution in the classroom, and mentioning ID as a possible alternative to Darwinism. While her former employer maintains that it simply chose not to renew her contract, she was specifically told she would be “disciplined” for teaching students about the scientific controversy over evolution.

In 2013, Ball State University (BSU) President Jo Ann Gora issued a speech codedeclaring that “intelligent design is not appropriate content for science courses” at BSU, after atheist activists from the Freedom from Religion Foundation charged that a “Boundaries of Science” course taught by a well-liked physics professor (Eric Hedin) was violating the Constitution by favorably discussing intelligent design.

You can read more about the problems with Carl Sagan’s religion-driven rejection of experimental science in this post by Phillip E. Johnson. For a better take on cosmology with more evidence and less religion, check out this lecture by particle physicist Michael Strauss. I think you’ll find that science is better when it’s done by a practicing experimental scientist, and not by the creator of cartoons like “Family Guy”.

UPDATE: On the Christian Apologetics Alliance blog, Dr. Tim McGrew wrote that the portrayal of Bruno had even more inaccuracies. Isn’t it amazing that that a cartoonist can get something filled with myths and misrepresentations to be televised? And many people will believe it, too, just like many people accepted the (now-discredited) oscillating model of Carl Sagan. I still have atheists proposing this to me when I present the standard model to them. That’s the hazard of having a TV-driven worldview, I guess. A worldview based on Star Trek.

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Physicist Victor Stenger debates William Lane Craig: Does God Exist?

This debate took place on March 1, 2010 at Oregon State University.

In this debate, Victor Stenger does affirm his belief that the universe could be eternal in his second rebuttal (1:02:30), thus denying the standard Big Bang cosmology. He also denies the law of conservation of energy and asserts that something can come from nothing in his concluding speech (1:33:50). He also caused the audience to start laughing when he said that Jesus was not moral and supported slavery. There is almost no snark in this summary. Instead, I quoted Dr. Stenger verbatim in many places. I still think that it is very entertaining even without the snarky paraphrasing.

The debate includes 30 minutes of Q&A with the students.

Here is the MP3 file for the audio.

Here’s the video of the debate:

Dr. Craig’s opening speech:

  • The ontological argument
  • The contingency argument
  • The cosmological argument
  • The moral argument
  • The resurrection of Jesus (3-fact version)
  • Religious experience

Dr. Stenger’s opening speech:

  • There is no scientific evidence for God’s existence in the textbooks
  • There is no scientific evidence for God acting in the universe
  • God doesn’t talk to people and tell them things they couldn’t possibly know
  • The Bible says that the Earth is flat, etc.
  • There is no scientific evidence that God answers prayers
  • God doesn’t exist because people who believe in him are ignorant
  • Human life is not optimally designed and appears to be the result of a blind, ad hoc evolutionary process
  • The beginning of the universe is not ordered (low entropy) but random and chaotic
  • It’s theoretically possible that quantum tunneling explains the origin of the universe
  • The laws of physics are not objectively real, they are “our inventions”
  • Regarding the beginning of the universe, the explanation is that something came from nothing*
  • Nothing* isn’t really nothing, it is “the total chaos that we project existed just before the big bang”
  • If something has no structure, then “it is as much nothing as nothing can be”
  • Consciousness is explainable solely on the basis of material processes
  • There are well-informed, rational non-believers in the world and God would not allow that

Dr. Craig’s first rebuttal:

Stenger’s argument that there is no objective evidence for God’s existence:

  • First, it is not required that God rely only on objective evidence in order to draw people to himself (Alvin Plantinga)
  • Second, God is not required to provide evidence to everyone, only to the people who he knows would respond to him
  • Third, Craig gave lots of objective evidence, from science, history and philosophy
  • Stenger asks for certain evidence (answered prayers, prophecy, etc.), but Craig presented the evidence we have

Stenger’s argument that the balance of energy is zero so “nothing” exists:

  • if you have the same amount of assets and liabilities, it doesn’t mean that nothing exists – your assets and liabilities exist
  • Christopher Isham says that there needs to be a cause to create the positive and negative energy even if they balance
  • the quantum gravity model contradicts observations
  • the vacuum is not the same as nothing, it contains energy and matter
  • the BVG theorem proves that any universe that is expanding must have a beginning

Stenger’s argument that mental operations can be reduced to physical operations:

  • mental properties are not reducible to physical properties
  • epiphenomenalism: is incompatible with self-identity over time
  • epiphenomenalism: is incompatible with thoughts about other things
  • epiphenomenalism: is incompatible with free will
  • substance dualism (mind/body dualism) is a better explanation for our mental experience
  • God is a soul without a body
Dr. Stenger’s first rebuttal:

Craig’s cosmological argument:

  • Craig’s premise is “everything has a cause”, but quantum mechanics has causeless events
  • There are speculative theories about how something could have come into being uncaused out of nothing
  • “I don’t know of a single working cosmologist today who believes there was a singularity prior to the Big Bang”
  • “If there wasn’t a singularity then there’s no basis for arguing that time began at that point”
  • “There’s no reason from cosmology that we know of that the universe can’t be eternal”
  • “When I talk about an eternal universe, I mean a universe that has no beginning or end”
  • The Hartle-Hawking model doesn’t have a beginning
  • “There was no violation of energy conservation by having a universe coming from nothing”
  • “The universe could have come from a previous universe for example or even just from a region of chaos”
  • The paper by Vilenkin is counteracted by other papers (he doesn’t specify which ones)

Craig’s moral argument:

  • Dr. Craig is arguing from ignorance
  • But morality can be decided by humanity just like governments pass laws, and that’s objective
  • Dr. Craig has too little respect for the human intellect
  • I don’t need to tell me that slavery is wrong
  • The Bible supports slavery
  • Atheists can behave as good as theists
  • Morality just evolved naturally as an aid to survival

Craig’s resurrection argument:

  • No Roman historians wrote about the execution of Jesus but none of them did
  • The empty tomb is doubtful because it is only mentioned in the gospels, not by Paul
  • John Dominic Crossan says there was no empty tomb
  • Christianity only survived because the Roman empire thought that they were useful

Dr. Craig’s second rebuttal:

Craig’s cosmological argument:

  • There is no reason to prefer an indeterministic interpretation of quantum mechanics
  • Dr. Stenger himself wrote that deterministic interpretations of quantum mechanics are possible
  • The vacuum in quantum mechanics is not nothing
  • The quantum vacuum he proposes cannot be eternal
  • The cosmological argument does not require a singularity
  • The Hartle-Hawking model is from 1983
  • Hawking says that there is a beginning of space and time after that model
  • The Hartle-Hawking model does still have a beginning of time – the model is not eternal
  • The BVG theorem that requires a beginning for expanding universes is widely accepted among cosmologists

Craig’s moral argument:

  • Stenger redefined objective to mean that most people agree with it – but that’s not what objective means
  • Objective means right and wrong whether anyone accepts it or not
  • Richard Dawkins himself says that on atheism there is “no evil and no good” – why is he wrong?
  • Even Dr. Stenger says that morality is the same as passing laws – it’s arbitrary and varies by time and place
  • But on his view, right and wrong are the same as deciding which side of the road to drive on
  • But somethings really are right and some things are really wrong

Craig’s resurrection argument:

  • Josephus is a Roman historian and he wrote about Jesus, for example
  • There were four biographies of Jesus are the best sources for his life
  • The scholars that Stenger mentioned are on the radical fringe

Dr. Stenger’s second rebuttal:

Knowledge and the burden of proof:

  • Dr. Craig has to bear the burden of proof, not me – because his claim is more “extravagant”
  • “I don’t have to prove that a God was not necessary to create the universe”
  • “I don’t have to prove that a God did not design the universe and life”
  • “I don’t have to prove that the universe did not have a beginning”
  • “I don’t have to prove that God did not provide us with our moral sense”
  • There are a lot of books written about how morality evolved naturally
  • “I don’t have to prove that the events surrounding the supposed resurrection of Jesus did not take place”
  • Bart Ehrman says that the gospels are generally unreliable (Note: Ehrman accepts all 3 of Craig’s minimal facts)
  • Just because people are willing to die for a cause, does not make their leader God, e.g. – the Emperor of Japan

Aesthetic concerns about the universe:

  • I don’t like dark matter and I wouldn’t have made the universe with dark matter
  • I don’t like the doctrine of penal substitution
  • I don’t like the doctrine of original sin
  • I don’t like the heat death of the universe

Dr. Craig’s conclusion:

The case for atheism:

  • Dr. Stenger had two arguments and he has to support his premises
  • Dr. Craig addressed his two arguments and each premise and Dr. Stenger never came back on it

The contingency argument:

  • Dr. Stenger has dropped the refutation of this argument

The cosmological argument:

  • The theoretical vacuum he proposes cannot be eternal

The moral argument:

  • He asserts that things are wrong, but there is no grounding for that to be objective on atheism

The resurrection of Jesus:

  • There are surveys of scholars on the empty tomb and 75% of them agree with it
  • Bart Ehrman agrees with all 3 of the minimal facts that Dr. Craig presented
  • Ehrman’s objection to the resurrection is not historical: he’s an atheist – he thinks miracles are impossible

Religious experience:

  • No response from Dr. Stenger

Dr. Stenger’s conclusion

The cosmological argument:

  • “I argued that we have very good physical reasons to understand how something can come from nothing”
  • “There is a natural tendency in the universe… to go from.. simpler thing to the more complicated thing”
  • The transition from a vapor to a liquid to ice shows how something could come from nothing
  • “It cannot be proven that the universe had a beginning”

The moral argument:

  • Objective morality, which is independent of what people think, could be developed based on what people think
  • “Jesus himself was not a tremendously moral person… he had no particular regard for the poor… he certainly supported slavery… he was for the subjugation of women” (audience laughter)

The resurrection argument:

  • Bart Ehrman says that the majority of the gospels are unreliable

Religious experience:

  • I don’t see any evidence that there is anything more to religious experience than just stuff in their heads

God’s purpose of the world should be to make people feel happy:

  • God could have made people feel happier
  • God could have made people not die
  • God could could have made the universe smaller: it’s too big
  • God could have made it possible for humans to live anywhere “even in space”

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Does a commitment to naturalism undermine rational thought and textual meaning?

Dr. William Lane Craig had a formal debate with an atheist philosopher named Alex Rosenberg a few months back that brought up an interesting idea. Rosenberg is a strong naturalist and he suggests all kinds of counterintuitive outworkings of naturalism in his book. Dr. Craig brought up a bunch of those strange views in his debate, and I listed them out in my summary of the debate as follows:

  1. The argument from the intentionality (aboutness) of mental states implies non-physical minds (dualism), which is incompatible with naturalism
  2. The existence of meaning in language is incompatible with naturalism, Rosenberg even says that all the sentences in his own book are meaningless
  3. The existence of truth is incompatible with naturalism
  4. The argument from moral praise and blame is incompatible with naturalism
  5. Libertarian freedom (free will) is incompatible with naturalism
  6. Purpose is incompatible with naturalism
  7. The enduring concept of self is incompatible with naturalism
  8. The experience of first-person subjectivity (“I”) is incompatible with naturalism

We are concerned with #1 and #2 in this post.

Now I was visiting my parents last week in my home town and Dad and I went to church on Sunday. He wanted to listen to some weird sing-song-voiced pastor on the drive there, but I plugged in my smartphone and we listened to these three podcasts by William Lane Craig instead.

Dr. Craig was explaining in part 3 (I think) about how he went on the offensive with the 8 points. One point caught my attention. Craig said that if naturalism is true, then nothing written down is meaningful. He also wanted to know why Dr. Rosenberg would write a book if his worldview entailed that nothing written down is meaningful.

The solution has to do with Rosenberg’s denial of “intentionality”, which is the idea that something can be about something else. For example, I can think about what I had for breakfast today on the way to church (two apples and coffee) or I can think about the sermon today in my home church and how good it was. A naturalist believes that the whole universe is made up of pure matter alone, and matter cannot be about anything. So Rosenberg denies this common sense view of “intentionality” or “aboutness” because there is no room for it on his naturalistic / materialistic / physicalist view of reality.

Here is a post by Bill Valicella on Maverick Philosopher blog that answers Dad’s questions.

First, Rosenberg’s own view from his book.

A single still photograph doesn’t convey movement the way a motion picture does. Watching a sequence of slightly different photos one photo per hour, or per minute, or even one every 6 seconds won’t do it either. But looking at the right sequence of still pictures succeeding each other every one-twentieth of a second produces the illusion that the images in each still photo are moving. Increasing the rate enhances the illusion, though beyond a certain rate the illusion gets no better for creatures like us. But it’s still an illusion. There is noting to it but the succession of still pictures. That’s how movies perpetrate their illusion. The large set of still pictures is organized together in a way that produces in creatures like us the illusion that the images are moving. In creatures with different brains and eyes, ones that work faster, the trick might not work. In ones that work slower, changing the still pictures at the rate of one every hour (as in time-lapse photography) could work. But there is no movement of any of the images in any of the pictures, nor does anything move from one photo onto the next. Of course, the projector is moving, and the photons are moving, and the actors were moving. But all the movement that the movie watcher detects is in the eye of the beholder. That is why the movement is illusory.

The notion that thoughts are about stuff is illusory in roughly the same way. Think of each input/output neural circuit as a single still photo. Now, put together a huge number of input/output circuits in the right way. None of them is about anything; each is just an input/output circuit firing or not. But when they act together, they “project” the illusion that there are thoughts about stuff. They do that through the behavior and the conscious experience (if any) that they produce. (Alex Rosenberg,The Atheists’ Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions.  The quotation was copied from here.)

And here is what Bill V. says about that:

Rosenberg is not saying, as an emergentist might, that the synergy of sufficiently many neural circuits gives rise to genuine object-directed thoughts.    He is saying something far worse, something literally nonsensical, namely, that the object-directed thought that thoughts are object-directed is an illusion.  The absurdity of Rosenberg’s position can be seen as follows.

  1. Either the words “The notion that thoughts are about stuff is illusory”  express a thought — the thought that there are no object-directed thoughts — or they do not.
  2. If the latter, then the words are meaningless.
  3. If the former, then the thought is either true or false.
  4. If the thought is true, then there there are no object-directed thoughts, including the one expressed by Rosenberg’s words, and so his words are once again meaningless.
  5. If the thought is false, then there are object-directed thoughts, and Rosenberg’s claim is false.

Therefore:

  • Rosenberg’s claim is either meaningless or false.  His position is self-refuting.

As for the analogy, it is perfectly hopeless, presupposing as it does genuine intrinsic intentionality.  If I am watching a movie of a man running, then I am under an illusion in that there is nothing moving on the movie screen: there is just a series of stills. But the experience I am undergoing is a perfectly good experience that exhibits genuine intrinsic intentionality: it is a visual experiencing of a man running, or to be perfectly punctilious about it: a visual experiencing AS OF a man running.  Whether or not the man depicted exists, as would be the case if the movie were a newsreel, the experience exists, and so cannot be illusory.

To understand the analogy one must understand that there are intentional experiences, experiences that take an accusative.  But if you understand that, then you ought to be able to understand that the analogy cannot be used to render intelligible how it might that it is illusory that there are intentional experiences.

What alone remains of interest here is how a seemingly intelligent fellow could adopt a position so manifestly absurd.  I suspect the answer is that he has stupefied himself  by  his blind adherence to scientistic/naturalistic ideology.

If you want to sort of double check the details, then go ahead and watch the debate or read my summary or listen to the debate audio, and then listen to Dr. Craig’s three podcasts that I linked above.

I know a lot of you are thinking right now “Hey! You cheater! That’s a presuppositional argument! You said they were bad!” Well, I didn’t say they were bad, I said that the epistemological view of presuppositionalism was bad. Presuppositional arguments are good. See below for a few posts about them. Use them all you can, but use the good scientific and historical evidence, too.

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