bookmark_borderMetaphysical Naturalism and Consciousness

Frequent correspondent Dianelos Georgoudis recently responded to my request that he present three conceptual problems with metaphysical naturalism. I had planned to address all three in a single post, but the issues are tangled and multifaceted, so I really only managed to address his first one—and this is still a very long post. The other points will have to wait until later.

I think, as is so often the case, one source of our disagreement is that we have different understandings of the terms. Metaphysical naturalism (MN) is a hard term to define precisely. The metaphysical naturalist (hereafter, just “naturalist”) is most definitely not committed to the view that current science offers a complete and satisfactory description of reality. Clearly, it doesn’t. Hence, if quantum mechanics and relativity clash at some level, or if QM seems to imply irresolvable paradoxes, this is a problem for physicists—or rather, perhaps, philosophers of physics—but not for MN or the naturalist qua naturalist. The naturalist affirms that substantial (non-abstract) reality is in some sense physical or natural, that is, that it is constituted exclusively of entities that act and are acted upon in accordance with regular, impersonal, and universal laws. The naturalist is not committed to the view that we now have an exhaustive and accurate understanding of those entities or the laws that govern them. On the contrary, our understanding of the universe and its constituents is (and may always be) a work in progress.

At bottom, I think that what really motivates MN is the idea that nature is a closed system. That is, that whatever happens in the natural world is explicable in terms of natural entities, forces, and processes, and that there is no need to invoke supernatural beings, powers, or occurrences, such as gods, souls, or miracles to account for anything that happens in the universe. So, a naturalist might not really be averse to the idea of impersonal supernatural entities, such as Platonic ideas, so long as those purported entities are sequestered within “their own realm” and cannot act upon or influence the phenomena of the physical universe. In short, naturalists endorse the vision of the first philosophers of the Western tradition, the Milesians of the 6th Century B.C.E.: That the arche of things is to be found in physis itself, that is, that the origin, primordial stuff, and underlying principles of natural things is to be found in nature, not in myths about gods, ghosts, and gobbledygook.

Why would anyone accept MN? Speaking personally, I am extremely suspicious of any sort of positive assertions about “ultimate reality.” I think when we venture in that direction we are in extreme danger of having our thinking become perversely “dialectical” in Kant’s sense, that is, we begin to use concepts that have meaning in empirically constrained contexts, and try to apply them where there are no such constraints. The consequence is that we quickly fly off into conceptual cloud-cuckoo-land where nobody knows what he is talking about and philosophers become fools. For instance, I have no idea at all what it could mean to say, as some religious philosophers do, that some putative ultimate reality is more objectively probable than another. The reason is that it is meaningful and useful to speak of the objective probability of things or events where we have some sort of experience or theory to guide and constrain us, but when we have prescinded our probability judgments from any such background or context, such judgments can only be pretentious expressions of ignorance or bias.

Therefore, I am a naturalist by default. I know that physical entities exist. I know that science has made enormous progress with theories that postulate only natural entities, and that over the history of science supernatural hypotheses have been ruthlessly driven out in favor of naturalistic ones. I do not know that supernatural entities exist, and it is my judgment that the purported evidence for their existence ranges from the shoddy to the risible. Natural theology is a failed research program and, as for ghosts, demons, and supernatural bugaboos in general, for over thirty years the Skeptical Inquirer has had good fun debunking those claims. Therefore, if forced to place my bets about “ultimate reality” I’ll wager that it is physical, and I shall continue to look for physical explanations of physical phenomena. Also, I put the burden of proof on anyone who says that there is a problem with taking reality to be physical. Does Mr. Georgoudis meet that burden?

His first objection to MN is what he calls “the problem of consciousness”:

“Consciousness is a scientifically unnecessary concept, because it does not refer to something observable, nor is the hypothesis that it exists necessary for explaining anything observable. Thus consciousness lies beyond the scientific field of investigation. According to scientific naturalism nothing exists but the objects of science, which implies the non-existence of consciousness. But consciousness clearly does exist, and cannot be construed to be an illusory concept.”

What is consciousness? Nobody can define it and the whole confused notion is a conceptual minefield. We have to be very careful how we speak or we get inextricably mired in a quagmire of obfuscation. First of all, consciousness is not a thing, we must not reify it and try to think of it as some sort of concrete being or entity (I think such reification is at the core of Cartesian dualism). Consciousness is not a ghost in the machine, or a homunculus sitting inside of us watching and directing all that we do, as in the hilarious bit from Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex. We therefore do not expect that consciousness will be observable in the same way that a horse is, or even in the same way that a chromosome is. “Consciousness” is a term that, in ordinary usage, encompasses a very large number of phenomena, states, and processes. Phenomena like feeling, states like self-awareness, and processes like thinking through a problem all occur consciously, or, at least, some aspects of them occur consciously. Can any of these multifarious items be observed or detected in any sense?

Of course. What could be more observable? We enact states of consciousness constantly in our own first-person cases, and we have all sorts of ways of accessing other people’s conscious states indirectly. Is the supposed problem the fact that we can only observe other people’s conscious states indirectly, rather than immediately? I cannot literally feel your pain, but I have all sorts of ways of knowing when you are in pain (e.g., your report through gritted teeth that you are in pain). In fact, I can get quite a bit of detailed information about just what kind of pain you have. The fact that pain detection is indirect doesn’t mean that pain is not an appropriate object for scientific study. Most of the items that science studies are detected indirectly (e.g., neutrinos). It is a common mistake (often committed by creationists, BTW) to think that science deals with observables. What science requires is not direct observability but that we have reliable empirical access to phenomena, and that access is often quite mediated and roundabout.

Mr. Georgoudis says that consciousness is a “scientifically unnecessary concept.” What does this mean? Does it mean that the phenomena we explain by that concept could be explained more economically by other concepts, or that scientific inquiry has invalidated that concept, or that the concept reduces to a more basic concept? Of course, the concept of consciousness is logically unnecessary, but so are the past and an external world. The phenomena we explain in terms of consciousness (except in our own first-person case) could conceivably be due to unconscious causes. Likewise, our apparent perceptions of external objects could co
nceivably be due to delusions induced by a Cartesian evil genius. Similarly, there is no contradiction in supposing that everything, including every apparent trace of a past, could have been created ten seconds ago. It is conceivable that my friend’s expressions of outrage or empathy are not due to feelings of outrage or empathy, but are instead the programmed output of a cleverly constructed but unconscious android. Hence, the famous philosophical problem of other minds. But that the nonexistence of something is a logical possibility does not mean that it is something that should be neglected by science or common sense. You might be nothing but a brain in a vat, but you still had better get your doctor to check that suspicious looking mole.

Are there any episodes from the history of science where inferences to the best explanation have led to the postulation of conscious phenomena, states, or processes? Sure there are. Plenty of them. In their terrific book Baboon Metaphysics, Dorothy L. Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth give some quite fascinating examples (pp. 7-9). In the early heyday of behaviorism, psychologists Edward C. Tolman and Otto L. Tinklepaugh (real name; bet he had a tough time in junior high) did some studies of monkeys that challenged the behaviorist tenet that mental states are private and unmeasurable and so not amenable to scientific study. Tinklepaugh had monkeys watch as either lettuce or banana was placed under one of two cups, the other cup being left empty. The monkeys were taken away for a few minutes and then returned and allowed to choose a cup. They all chose the one with food, though with much greater enthusiasm when they had seen the banana placed under the cup.

Suppose the monkey sees lettuce placed under the left-hand cup before being taken out of the room. Most non-behaviorists would say that the monkey has learned that there is lettuce under the left-hand cup. Behaviorists, though, denied that the monkey had a mental state of “knowing that there was lettuce under the left-hand cup.” Their claim was that the lettuce merely served to reinforce the link between the stimulus (the sight of the cup) and the response (looking under the cup). They denied that the monkey had learned anything about the lettuce at all. To test between the behaviorist and the “common sense” interpretations, Tinklepaugh did another experiment. This time he let the monkey see banana being placed under the cup, but when the monkey was out of the room, he replaced the banana with lettuce. When the monkey was returned to the room, here is what happened:

“Subject rushes to the proper cup and picks it up. Extends hand towards lettuce. Stops. Looks around on floor. Looks in, under, and around cup. Glances at other cup. Looks back at screen. Looks under and around self. Looks and shrieks at any observer present. Walks away, leaving lettuce untouched on floor (p. 8).”

I’d say that was one pissed off and disappointed monkey. After citing other more rigorous tests of this nature, Cheney and Seyfarth conclude:

“The results of these experiments challenge the more extreme behaviorists’ view that mental states like knowledge, beliefs, or expectations cannot be studied scientifically and may even be an illusion. Instead, they support Tolman’s view that learning allows an animal to form a mental representation of its environment. Through learning, animals acquire information about objects, events, and the relation between them. Their knowledge has content, and this content can be studied scientifically (p. 9).”

In fact, there are many books that report on scientific studies of consciousness. Adam Zeman’s Consciousness: A User’s Guide is a good one. There is even an Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness. Check their website. Maybe Mr. Georgoudis means to claim that such studies can only address what David Chalmers calls the “easy problem” about consciousness, viz., how brain processes and conscious states relate, but cannot address the “hard problem,” that is, to explain why there should be phenomenal consciousness at all. This is the famous “explanatory gap” between information about brain states and processes, however complete, and the fact that things feel a certain way. We might explain in complete detail the underlying neurological processes involved in feeling pain, but this does not tell us why it hurts when such processes are occurring. Similarly, Frank Jackson tells the story of one hypothetical “Mary” who has complete scientific knowledge about the physiology of color perception. She can tell you precisely what occurs in your head when you have the experience of seeing a red rose. Yet Mary herself has been raised in a purely black-and-white environment. Then, one day, she has the experience of seeing a red rose. Only then does she discover what it is like to see a red rose; all of her scientific knowledge could not tell her that. Then there is the question Thomas Nagel put to us: What is it like to be a bat? We could have complete knowledge of the bat’s faculty for echolocation, but that would still not tell us what it phenomenally feels like to echolocate like a bat. Don’t all these puzzles show that natural science can never explain science and that we have to look beyond nature for an adequate explanation?

Let’s ponder this question a bit more: Why do so many thoughtful people (many of them metaphysical naturalists) think that neuroscience can never explain consciousness? Because it seems to them that even a completed neuroscience cannot tell us what we really want and need to know. It seems that neuroscience can only succeeded in displaying deep correlations between brain states and states of our phenomenal consciousness without explaining how anything like, e.g., pain, ideas, or blueness could come from anything like brain processes. At some point in a ground-up scientific explanation, consciousness will be seen to emerge within a physical system, and some philosophers will still see a vast, unbridgeable explanatory chasm here. Science, it appears, may someday tell us how states of consciousness occur by giving us an exhaustive list of their physiological correlates, but we cannot expect an account of why conscious states would be expected to arise from those functions of physical systems. In short, even at the end of the day neuroscience seemingly can only give us correlations, not explanations, only hows, not whys.

However, as William Lyons observes (Lyons, Matters of the Mind, p. 204), there is no sharp dividing line between “how” explanations and “why” ones. As he notes, the answer to the query why, given that metal expands when heated, railway lines do not buckle in hot weather, will explain why by detailing how the lines are constructed and laid so as not to buckle as they expand (Lyons, 205). In this case, explaining how is also explaining why, and there seems to be no reason why, in principle, this should not also be the case with the explanation of consciousness:

“It seems likely that if scientists could explain how, neurophysiologically and biochemically, the parts of our brain causally relevant to consciousness are put together and function in relation to one another, then ipso facto the scientists will have explained how those parts function together so as to generate consciousness (Lyons, 206; emphasis in original).”

Why is there consciousness? Because there are brains that are organized and function in these particular ways; this is how they work and that is why there is consciousness. The feeling that in this case, as opposed to the railway tracks case, a how-explanation still leaves us wondering “But why?” may really be no more than that—a feeling. The neuroscientific account, when and if it is completed, may leave us with a sense of mystery, but that may be a feeling that we will eventually get over. On numerous occasions in the history of human inquiry, certain questions have been
dropped, not because they were answered, but because there no longer seemed to be any point in asking them.

But the whole discussion so far has failed to ask two most pertinent questions: (1) Why should MN have the burden of explaining consciousness? (2) Is there any prospect that any ontology inconsistent with MN, say Cartesian dualism, could do a better job of explaining consciousness? Let’s take the second question first. To say that we think because we possess a soul, a “thinking substance” is most emphatically not to explain thought or any other aspect of consciousness. Such an “explanation” is really just like the old joke from Moliere about explaining the sleep-inducing effects of opium by saying that it has a “dormative potency.” You don’t explain the phenomenon; you just pretentiously and tendentiously re-name it. Souls explain consciousness no better than matter does; a lot worse, in fact. By definition, we can have no inkling about how an incorporeal posit like a soul is supposed to operate. Its functioning, in principle, is entirely occult. At least with matter we can, in principle, have “how” explanations of consciousness.

Well, why not just postulate consciousness as a primitive, as the idealists did? That is, consciousness is taken as a, maybe the, basic reality with “matter” only an epiphenomenon of mind. Because one of the most obvious things we know about consciousness is that, so far as we can tell, it occurs only in association with the physiological functioning of very complex organic entities that appear quite late in the evolution of the universe. We know this with as much certainty as we know any scientific fact. We know it as a scientific fact that at one time, probably quite recently in the geological sense, nothing on earth was conscious. Were trilobites conscious? Dinosaurs? Homo erectus? Further, even if consciousness has its own causal powers, and is not merely epiphenomenal, clearly its existence and nature are dependent, wholly and in detail, on quite subtle physical conditions. This takes us back to question (1).

In response to question (1), MN does not have the burden of explaining consciousness; it is quite sufficient to know (which we do) that consciousness is wholly dependent upon the quite precise functioning of certain physical processes. In fact, all of the evidence indicates that particular physiological changes in the central nervous system are sufficient for changes in consciousness. Quite subtle changes in your brain chemistry can turn you (yes, you) into a raving lunatic, sex addict, or gun-totin’ goober who thinks that Barack Obama is not a natural born U.S. citizen. The books of Oliver Sacks are quite instructive on these points. He shows with great eloquence how brain disease and trauma can change consciousness in quite remarkable and sometimes quite terrifying ways. One of his stories tells of a man, an artist, who suffered a head injury and could no longer see colors. He not only could no longer see colors, he could not even form a mental image of colors. He was like Frank Jackson’s “Mary.” Less frightening is Sacks’ story about the 90 year-old woman who began to feel young again, even with a renewal of libido. Turns out that she had contracted syphilis when young, and, after seventy years of dormancy, the spirochetes had become active in her brain. Sacks killed the spirochetes with penicillin and left her with her perky feelings. When anything, from spirochetes to speed, changes your brain functioning, it changes YOU.

Paul Churchland has a fascinating section in The Engine of Reason, the Seat of the Soul about the physiology of taste perception. The qualitative difference between two very different tastes, say limburger cheese and ripe peach, comes down to different levels of stimulation of a quite small number of different kinds of taste receptors on the tongue. Somewhat simplifying, if there are ten different levels of excitation for each of four different kinds of receptors—sweet, sour, bitter, and salty—then there will be 104 or 10,000 different states of excitation, which we can represent by ordered quadruples from (1,1,1,1) to (10,10,10,10). These will correspond to 10,000 distinct and discernable qualitative differences in “taste space.” Thus the taste of limburger cheese would be something like a (2,2,6,7) state of stimulation for the sweet, sour, bitter, and salty receptors respectively, and ripe peach would be (8,6,2,1) or something like that. Now, we might still insist that such correlations tell us nothing about why those particular tastes, or any taste at all, would always be associated with those, and only those, levels of cellular stimulation. But they are. This is just as MN would expect, and that is the crucial point. By the way, Cartesian dualism has no way of explaining why the features of consciousness should be correlated in such a comprehensive and fine-grained way with the detailed operations of wetware. As far as Cartesian dualism or idealism can say, we should be capable of having the same sort of consciousness we presently enjoy if our skulls were full of lime Jell-o. I cannot think of anything the dualist or the idealist could say here that would not be dreadfully ad hoc (or, less politely, ass-covering).

The upshot is that I do not see that the phenomenon of consciousness presents any special problem for MN. There may be aspects of consciousness that will always be a mystery, or at least will feel mysterious for us, but I do not see how any alternative to MN helps in that regard. I’ll end with a challenge: Show me any instance in which two identical states of an organism’s central nervous system are correlated with two distinctly different states of consciousness, and I’ll have to admit that the phenomena of consciousness constitute a legitimate challenge to my worldview.

bookmark_borderReport: North Korea Publicly Executes Christian Woman for Distributing Bible


While we usually address church-state issues that involve violations of the civil liberties of nontheists, this story highlights an extreme example of the reverse sort of issue, where the lack of government neutrality apparently harmed a theist (to put it mildly). Anyone who claims to be a freethinker or a supporter of church-state separation should condemn this action by North Korea.

bookmark_borderSkeptical Approaches to Miracles – Part 6

Because Part 5 was posted back in November of 2008, I will condense the previous post here, and add a few new ideas too.

In Miracles and the Modern Mind, Norman Geisler summarizes Spinoza’s argument about miracles:

1. Miracles are violations of natural laws.
2. Natural laws are immutable.
3. It is impossible to violate immutable laws.
4. Therefore, miracles are impossible.
(MMM, p.15)

Contrary to Geisler’s interpretation, Spinoza does not argue against the possibility of miracles. Rather, he assumes that miracles do occur, and then argues against defining “miracles” in terms of violations of natural law:

Argument for New Definition of “Miracle”

5. If miracles require the violation of a natural law, then miracles are possible only if the violation of a natural law is possible.
6. The violation of a natural law is impossible.
7. If miracles require the violation of a natural law, then miracles are impossible.
8. Miracles are possible.
9. Miracles do not require the violation of a natural law.

This argument from Spinoza in support of a re-definition of the word “miracle” can, however, be modified to support the view that miracles are impossible:

Argument for the Impossibility of Miracles

5. If miracles require the violation of a natural law, then miracles are possible only if the violation of a natural law is possible.
6. The violation of a natural law is impossible.
7. If miracles require the violation of a natural law, then miracles are impossible.
10. Miracles require the violation of a natural law.
11. Miracles are impossible.

This is not, however, Spinoza’s argument, since he asserts conclusion (9), which is the exact opposite of premise (10) in the argument for the Impossibility of Miracles (hereafter: IOM).

Geisler’s first objection to Spinoza’s argument is that it begs the question. Let’s see if this objection holds up against the IOM argument. Geisler makes seven different comments that appear to be related to his “begs the question” charge. I will examine these comments one at a time.

Comment 1: “…anything validly deducible from premises must have been present in those premises from the beginning.” (MMM, p.18)

Deductively valid arguments do sometimes beg the question, but many deductively valid arguments do not. Geisler’s comment implies that all valid deductive arguments beg the question. If this were the case, then his own favorite argument for the existence of God (a deductive version of a cosmological argument) either begs the question or is logically invalid.

Comment 2: “…the anti-supernatural is already presupposed in Spinoza’s rationalistic premises…” (MMM, p.18)

Note that none of the following words occur in the IOM argument:


So, if Geisler is going to make this point stick, he needs to explain or define the term “antisupernatural” (or anti-supernaturalism), and point to one of the premises of IOM, and show how that that premise presupposes “the antisupernatural” (or antisupernaturalism), and then explain why that makes the premise question begging. Geisler has made no effort to provide any such explanation, so the point here is too vague and undefined to be evaluated.

Comment 3: “…Spinoza has provided no convincing argument..” for “the rationalistic premises” of his argument. (MMM, p.18)

The use of the qualifier “convincing” in this comment suggests that Spinoza has provided one or more arguments for a controversial premise(s), and that the argument is defective and falls short of being a solid argument. But if Spinoza has provided an argument for a controversial premise of IOM, then Geisler cannot fairly charge Spinoza with begging the question. The fallacy of begging the question occurs when a controversial premise is simply assumed to be true, without any argument or support being provided for the controversial premise.

Geisler merely asserts that Spinoza has given only unconvincing arguments in support of a basic premise of the IOM argument, without giving any details or explanation or support for this charge.

Comment 4: “…once we define natural laws as ‘fixed,’ ‘immutable,’ and ‘unchangeable,’ then of course it is irrational to say a miracle occurred.” (MMM, p.18)

This statement appears to grant the validity of the logic of the IOM argument. My formulation of the IOM argument does not refer to “unbreakable” natural laws, but the same idea is implied in premise (6):

6. The violation of a natural law is impossible.

Once one grants that it is impossible for a natural law to be violated, then it would be irrational to turn around and insist that natural laws are sometimes violated. But none of the premises assumes that miracles cannot occur. Premise (6) does not say anything about miracles, and premise (10) is based on a definition of “miracle” that Geisler would accept. It is only the combination of premises (6) and (10) that shows miracles to be impossible.

Comment 5: “Spinoza’s argument…begs the question by defining miracles as impossible to begin with, namely, as a violation of assumed unbreakable natural laws.” (MMM, p.21)

The IOM argument does not define the term “miracle”, but it does have a premise that is presumably a conceptual or analytic claim about miracles:

10. Miracles require the violation of a natural law.

Geisler does not object to defining miracles as involving a violation of a law of nature. Thus, the question begging that Geisler thinks occurred, relates to premise (6), not premise (10). Premise (6), however, does not put forward a definition of “miracle”, so Geisler is wrong in asserting that a question-begging definition of miracle is being assumed or asserted in the IOM argument.

Geisler is making a similar mistake here as with Comment 4. It is the combination of (6) and (10) that implies the impossibility of miracles, but neither premise (6) by itself, nor premise (10) by itself, assumes impossibility of miracles. Thus, neither (6) nor (10) begs the question by assuming what needs to be proven.

Premise (6) is, however, a controversial claim, so (6) needs to be supported by further arguments or reasons in order for the IOM argument to avoid the charge of begging the question. If Spinoza simply asserted (6) without giving any argument or reasons for this, then Geisler’s charge would be justified (I will say more on this point in Part 7).

Comment 6: Spinoza’s “rationalistic ‘axioms’ are wrong.” (MMM, p.21)

I take it that the word “wrong” here means false. Geisler is asserting that Spinoza’s argument is unsound because it is based on one or more false premises. It should be noted that arguments with false premises need not involve circular reasoning or begging the question. So, even if this comment by were correct, it would provide no support for the charge that the IOM argument begs the question.

Second, to establish this point Geisler needs to specify one or more premises, and then argue that those premises are false. Geisler has not specified any particular premise as being false, and he has not provided an argument to back up this objection.

Comment 7: Spinoza’s rationalistic presuppositions “are never firmly attached to the firm ground of empirical observation.” (MMM, p.21)

Spinoza is known as one of the leading rationalist philosophers. Geisler is attempting to make use of a general objection to rationalism as the basis for an object
ion to the IOM argument. The idea that we can arrive at significant truths about reality and ourselves on the basis of pure reasoning, without making any use of sensory experiences or observations seems wildly mistaken from a contemporary point of view. However, it is not clear whether one must accept Spinoza’s rationalism in order to accept the IOM argument.

In any case, even if some premises of the IOM argument have no support from empirical observation, it does not follow that the argument begs the question, nor does it follow that those premises should be rejected. Other grounds exist for acceptance of premises. There are, at the very least, analytical or conceptual claims that do not rest on empirical observation. Premise (10) is presumably based on some definition of “miracle”, and the correctness of that definition derives from an analysis of this concept, and not from any empirical observations of miracles or alleged miracles.

There may also be normative claims that can be justified on the basis of normative criteria or principles and/or a normative theory. There may be self-evident truths that are acceptable on the basis of some sort of intuition. There may be “groundless” assumptions that are acceptable because they are necessary foundations for the exercise of rational thought and discourse.

Perhaps all factual or scientific claims must be grounded in empirical observation, but it is doubtful that the only sort of claims that one can rationally believe are factual or scientific claims (Note: The claim that “One can rationally believe only factual or scientific claims” is itself a normative claim and not a factual or scientific claim).

Geisler’s favorite argument for the existence of God does rest upon what appears to be an empirical claim: “Some things exists.” Geisler likes this aspect of his version of a Cosmological argument, because it gives his argument an empirical foundation, but it is an empirical claim that is about as certain as one can imagine, thus avoiding the usual vagaries and vicissitudes of scientific thinking.

But other premises of his cosmological argument do not appear to be based on empirical observation (Christian Apologetics, 1976, p. 239):

“Whatever has the possibility not to exist is currently caused to exist by another.”

“There cannot be an infinite regress of current causes of existence.”

So, if the IOM argument is to be rejected because one or more of the premises of the argument is not based upon “the firm ground of empirical observation,” then we must also reject Geisler’s favorite argument for the existence of God, for the very same reason.

bookmark_borderRobert Wright with Bill Moyer’s Transcript Available

Bill Moyer's interview with Robert Wright, which aired last Friday, is now available on transcript here. My favorite part was when Moyer's challenged his Platonism:

ROBERT WRIGHT: No. And I think, you know, in a way we shouldn't. I mean I think if there is you know, something out there called moral truth. And we should continue to try to relate to it in a way that brings us closer to it. And it–

BILL MOYERS: I don't understand what you mean. Out there?


BILL MOYERS: What did–

ROBERT WRIGHT: Did I say that?

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, you've said it several times. I mean–

ROBERT WRIGHT: I should be careful.

BILL MOYERS: –if you don't–

ROBERT WRIGHT: Because I don't– what do I mean. I don't–I mean what. Transcendent is a very tricky word…. I don't know exactly what I mean by transcendent. I may mean beyond our comprehension. I may mean you know, I may mean prior to the creation of the universe or something. I don't know.

Tricky indeed! It's easy for theists to be metaphysical realists with respect to moral truth because they can say that truth derives from God. (The "good" is that which pleases God and the "bad" is that which displeases Him.) But if you begin with the premise that God is an illusion, as Wright did early in the show, then it's difficult to say that moral truth is transcendent while in the next breath suggesting that it it beyond our comprehension.

bookmark_borderEverything’s Bigger in Texas, Including the Idiots

We’re still dealing with organized ignorance in high places here in Texas. Specifically, as I’ve mentioned in prior posts, our State Board of Education is stuffed with fundamentalist activists. Their latest effort is to make sure that social studies textbooks emphasize how America was “founded on biblical principles.” Below is my letter to the Houston Chronicle published, very slightly edited, in today’s (7/20) paper:

Dear Editor,

What the social conservatives on the State Board of Education like Don McLeroy don’t know about the Founding Fathers could, and does, fill volumes. One such volume is Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers by Brooke Allen. Of course, Ms. Allen enjoys the advantage of having actually read the Founders’ words on religion, while Mr. McLeroy apparently has only consulted the likes of David Barton, an activist whose version of American history may be charitably described as “extreme revisionism.” What Allen’s book shows is that Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton were anything but the sorts of narrow, doctrinaire, ax-grinding Christians that constitute today’s religious right. The last thing these intellectuals of the Enlightenment wanted was for the United States to be founded on “biblical principles” as understood by the likes of Mr. McLeroy. Indeed, many of the Founders’ religious views were shockingly skeptical: Adams thought the orthodox creeds and the doctrine of the Trinity to be absurd; Franklin ridiculed strict observance of the Sabbath, and even expressed doubts about Christ’s divinity. Though falsely portrayed as devout by early propagandists like Parson Weems, Washington’s religious zeal was tepid at best. Jefferson frankly despised the Christian clergy and rejected biblical miracles. In fact, if the SBOE required that what the Founders really said about religion to be taught in Texas schools, the conservative churches would scream bloody murder.

Keith M. Parsons

bookmark_borderLiberal converts

It’s generally the more conservative, even fundamentalist, versions of religions that strenuously evangelize and seek converts.

So, other than bringing up children in the faith, how do more liberal religions reproduce themselves? I imagine there’s a good deal of stealing from more conservative movements. For example, a college student can come to think scriptural literalism is unworkable, and drift toward a less rigorous version of her childhood faith. There has to be some amount of conversions from nonbelieving circles as well; there has to be something to the stereotype of nonbelievers coming to look for some more spirituality in their lives.

Thing is, such speculation doesn’t take me beyond the image of liberal religion as a watered-down compromise between a full-throated faith and nonbelief. I suspect that isn’t good enough: liberal religion has its own integrity, its own attractions besides the image of moderation and truth being in the middle.

But still, the question is interesting. Since liberal religions have the reputation, supported by the sociologists, of not holding onto their own members that well (partly because they aren’t demanding enough), to reproduce, they need a stream of converts. Where do they come from? Disaffected conservatives? The previously only culturally religious or religiously indifferent, who come to think they need more church or mosque in their lives? And is this enough to keep them going?

I should really talk to a sociologist of religion about this.

bookmark_borderFalling in love with gurus?

I’m reading a book by a journalist, consisting of interviews with Fethullah Gülen, the Turkish sect leader, together with her fawning commentary on Gülen.

It’s quite embarrassing really. Gülen speaks in banalities and produces shallow “spiritual” platitudes. He does some hamfisted punditry and generally demonstrates that he has, well, let’s say intellectual limitations. His main theme is a kind of combination and reconciliation of Islam and Turkish nationalism. (He does some Arab-bashing.) Nothing surprising here; I’m already familiar with Gülen’s “thought” from his entanglements with Islamically-flavored pseudoscience. But the gushing-schoolgirl attitude of the journalist caught me by surprise, I have to admit. She treats Gülen like some sort of intellectual Superman.

I shouldn’t be too surprised. Bookstores are full of books by best-selling New Age authors who offer up spiritual blather with less depth than a wading pool. And people swear by their wisdom.

But it does tempt me to speculate. I wonder how similar the phenomenon of people falling for a guru, spiritual teacher, or sect leader is to falling in love. At the least, it seems in both cases there’s an emotional high associated with brain processes underlying a critical attitude shutting down.

bookmark_borderAre Climate-Change Deniers as bad as Creationists?

This post will probably open a can of worms and take us WAY off topic. It is a letter I wrote to The Houston Chronicle (which they declined to print), noting that the language and tactics of climate-change deniers sounds eerily like that of creationists:

Predictably, whenever the Chronicle prints a statement of the fact of human-caused climate change, as it did with the publication of Paul Krugman’s excellent editorial, “This close to betraying planet” on Tuesday, June 30, there is always a backlash of ignorant outrage. These tirades sound eerily familiar in tone. They sound exactly like the antievolutionary screeds of creationists. In fact, there is probably considerable overlap between the climate-change deniers and creationists; once you start rejecting inconvenient science, it easily becomes a habit. Climate-change deniers and creationists indulge in the same kind of rhetoric and employ the same sorts of tricks. Unable to win on the basis of evidence and logic, they resort to name-calling. Creationists characterize evolutionists as “atheists” who promote “the religion of secular humanism.” Climate-change deniers call their opponents “pathological romantics” or “eco-zealots.” While engaging in ad hominem argument, it also helps to mischaracterize opposing positions. Evolutionary theory as depicted by creationists bears scant resemblance to the real thing. Similarly, deniers of climate change fatuously say that their opponents want to reverse the industrial revolution or go back to transportation by ox cart. In fact, those leading the charge in warning against climate change, like Secretary of Energy, Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Chu, are the most active proponents of new science and new technology. Another tactic common to both the creationists and the climate-change deniers is to present a skewed version of the facts. Young earth creationists falsely claim that there are no transitional fossils. Climate-change deniers laughably tout the balmy climate that global warming will supposedly bring to New England (the real effects will be devastating). It is little wonder that creationists and climate-change deniers are so much alike. Both groups are motivated by a fundamentalist ideology: theological fundamentalism in the one case, and economic fundamentalism on the other. Ignorance is always dangerous, and doubly so when it is intentional.

bookmark_borderKaren Armstrong rubbished

Vic Stenger will have a new book out soon, called The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason. (He’s retired, so he’s allowed to crank them out.)

One of the things I was not too successful in having Stenger change during the course of writing was a few passages where he relied heavily on Karen Armstrong. As far as I’m concerned, Armstrong produces drivel, full stop. You certainly can’t rely on her for history.

Apparently Armstrong now has a new book out, The Case for God, in which I’m guessing she has nothing new to say. From what I’ve run into, she bashes the New Atheism as a mirror image of fundamentalism, but nowadays that inanity passes for conventional wisdom. I expect she serves that up with her usual string of liberal religious platitudes.

Hence it gave me great pleasure to read John Crace’s rubbishing of The Case for God in The Guardian today. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, and it really is a good summary of the sort of things Armstrong says in her other books as well.