bookmark_borderI Seem to be Thinking about Alex Rosenberg

Here are some preliminary thoughts about Alex Rosenberg’s Atheist’s Guide to Reality, particularly his claim that we do not think about things (hence the snarky title to this post). Sorry for the inordinate length. Once again, the writing is meant for the general, educated reader rather than the professional philosopher, though, naturally, I want to make sure that it is philosophically sound.
Rosenberg freely embraces the label “scientism,” generally regarded as a pejorative term. His tone is uncompromising and even flippant. Here is how he thinks science requires us to answer the “big questions” about the meaning of life:
Is there a God? No.
What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is.
What is the purpose of the universe? There is none.
What is the meaning of life? Ditto.
Why am I here? Just dumb luck.
Does prayer work? Of course not.
Is there a soul? Is it immortal? Are you kidding?
Is there free will? Not a chance!
What happens when we die? Everything pretty much goes on as before, except us.
What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them.
Why should I be moral? Because it makes you feel better than being immoral.
Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden permissible or sometimes obligatory? Anything Goes.
What is love and how can I find it? Don’t look for it; it will find you when you need it.
Does history have any meaning or purpose? It’s full of sound and fury but signifies nothing.
Does the human past have any lessons for our future? Fewer and fewer, if it ever had any to begin with (2-3).
Wow. Atheist debaters often face religious apologists who make precisely some of the charges against atheism that Rosenberg enthusiastically affirms. Anyone trying to get a hearing for atheism might think that with “friends” like Rosenberg, we don’t need enemies! In fact, though he rejects theism he equally repudiates secular humanism (277-82). Clearly, Rosenberg has taken on a big task and has a heavy burden of proof. Since we have introduced the topic, let’s consider his arguments against free will.
Rosenberg says that the scientific case against free will is simple and direct:
The mind is the brain, and the brain is a physical system, fantastically complex, but still operating in accordance with all the laws of physics—quantum or otherwise. Every state of my brain is fixed by physical fact. In fact, it is a physical state. Previous states of my brain and the physical input from the world together brought about its current state. They were themselves the result of even earlier brain states and inputs from outside the brain. All these states were determined by the laws of physics and chemistry. These laws operated on previous states of my brain and states of the world going back to before my brain was formed in embryogenesis…When I make choices—trivial or momentous—it’s just another event in my brain locked into this network of processes going back to the beginning of the universe, long before I had the slightest “choice.” Nothing was up to me. Everything—including my choice and my feeling that I can choose freely—was fixed by earlier states of the universe and the laws of physics. End of story (236).
Someone might object that Rosenberg is assuming strict determinism, when we know that indeterminism rules at the quantum level. At the quantum level the old bumper sticker slogan applies (cleaning it up): Stuff happens. Might not quantum indeterminacy make room for free choice? However, Rosenberg notes that if a random, uncaused quantum event in the brain were to initiate a chain of causes resulting in an act of choosing, that act would be no freer than the effect of a deterministic causal chain. The “choice” would still just be something that happened to me, not something I did. Personal agency is a necessary aspect of free choice (237).
But what about introspection?
Introspectively it just feels like you choose; it feels like it is completely up to you whether you raise your hand or stick out your tongue. That feeling is so compelling that for most people it tips the scale against determinism. They just know “from inside” that their will is free (238).
However, for Rosenberg, introspection is not reliable.He cites famous experiments done by Benjamin Libet and replicated often since (152-4). In these experiments, subjects were asked to perform a simple task, like pushing a button whenever they wished. They also recorded when they first consciously decided to push the button. It takes about 200 milliseconds from the time of one’s decision to push the button to the actual flexing of the wrist. Yet 500 milliseconds before the wrist flexed, Libet detected activity in the subjects’ motor cortex that initiated the wrist flexing. In other words, the “choice” came after the process was already initiated by the brain! Apparently, the brain initiates both the “choice” and the movement! Hence, the subjects’ subjective perception of freely choosing was an illusion. We think that “we” make conscious choices but our brain makes them for us—and then makes us think that our conscious choices had something to do with it!
I think that many philosophers, myself included, would reply to Rosenberg as follows: “Quite unaccountably for a professional philosopher you seem to overlook the compatibilist position on free will, namely, that causal determinism is quite compatible with free will in the everyday sense, and, in fact, that this mundane sense encompasses all the freedom we need. In the everyday sense, being free to choose means that I am not compelled, either externally or internally, but get to decide a course of action based on my beliefs, my values, and my desires. This is quite compatible with determinism. Freedom consists not in being exempt from causation, but in the ability to deliberate, either with ourselves or with others on the proper courses of action to realize our ends. Philosophers going back to Aristotle have identified human autonomy—not with indeterminism—but with our ability to make and execute rational plans for the realization of our purposes.”
Rosenberg, however, will have none of this idea of freedom deliberation either:
Since the brain cannot have thoughts about stuff, it cannot make, have, or act on plans, projects, or purposes it gives itself. Nor, for that matter, can it act on plans that anyone else favors it with. There are no plans. That’s just more of the illusion Mother Nature exploited for our survival (238).
Is he serious? We never think about things? We never make plans? We never have purposes? This seems absurd. However, the history of philosophy is replete with ideas that appear quite absurd on their face (e.g. Berkeley’s claim that matter does not exist; Wittgenstein’s assertion that you cannot know that you are in pain; Quine’s claim that we can never really know what speakers of other languages are talking about) but these assertions were not gratuitous absurdities but offered on the basis of rigorous argument. Hence, even if, in the end, they are actually absurd, they cannot be dismissed but have to be argued out. So, we have to examine Rosenberg’s arguments for these extraordinary claims. As the saying goes, though, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and we are justified in putting a heavy burden of proof on Rosenberg’s arguments.
Thoughts appear to be about things. For instance, I seem to be thinking about my cat and the endearing but sometimes irritating way that she will climb onto my chest, even when I am trying to drink my morning coffee and read the newspaper. “Intentionality” is what philosophers call this “aboutness” of thought. Our thoughts seem to have this intentional quality even when we are considering things that do not exist. For instance, it certainly seems to me that I can think about mermaids, centaurs, Santa Claus, honest politicians, and other non-existent beings. Intentionality seems to just be a datum, a given of our conscious experience. Indeed, intentionality and qualia—the felt qualities of sensations, like the smoothness of silk or the richness of cream—seem to constitute the essence of consciousness. Conscious states just are those qualitative or intentional states. How could we be wrong about that?
I think that many—perhaps most—philosophers would at this point just dismiss the claim that intentionality is an illusion as a pathological aberration. I think that they would justify peremptory dismissal like this: That all thinking is thinking about is just a datum of consciousness. The idea that there could be a content-less thought seems just ridiculous, in fact, contradictory, like saying that there could be a colorless green nightgown. Therefore, in denying intentionality, Rosenberg is denying thought and asserting that we do not think. Such an assertion is no more worthy of philosophical rebuttal than the assertion that one is a poached egg..
Just dismissing Rosenberg’s claim therefore is therefore an eminently understandable response. Still, since Parmenides one purpose of philosophy has always been to push the limits of reason, to see whether reason can justify claims that seem false, even outrageously so. I think that this is an important, if, no doubt exasperating and fatiguing enterprise, that is worth doing only if, in the end, we return to our familiar beliefs with a deeper understanding of why we hold them.
Rosenberg’s answer, in a nutshell, is that thought is a physical thing—a configuration of neurons and their states in the brain—and no physical thing can be about another physical thing. Let’s consider the kinds of thoughts we call memories. My wife and I visited Paris in 2004 and we have many wonderful memories from that trip. Such memories must be encoded in highly complex neural connections, but neural connections are just physical states, like the wires of an old fashioned telephone exchange. Physical states and things may be related to each other in a number of ways, but none seems to be capable of being about another. We may use a key to open a lock, but the key is not about the lock. How, then, can my memories, a physical state, be about some other physical entity—the city of Paris?
But are not some physical things in fact about other physical things? Isn’t an octagonal red sign with letters spelling out “S-T-O-P” about the physical act of stopping your car? However, a stop sign, considered as a physical entity, is nothing but metal shaped and colored in certain ways. It is no more intrinsically about stopping a car than a pair of green trousers hung in the intersection. Rosenberg puts it this way:
There is nothing that is intrinsically “Stop”-ish about red octagons. Downward pointing yellow triangles—yield signs—could have been chosen as stop signs as well. Red octagons are about stopping because we interpret them that way. We treat them as the imperative…expressed in English as “Stop!”…(176).
Well, then, might not the brain serve as its own interpreter? Might not the brain interpret some of its own neural states as being about Paris? Yet the interpreter in the brain could be nothing other than another neural state, and we face the same problem all over again, namely how one physical state can be about another one. If neural state #2 is the interpreter of neural state #1, interpreting it as being about Paris, then there would have to be a third neural state to interpret#2 as being about #1! And then the same problem arises for #3! Clearly, rather than solving the problem, we are on the road to an infinite regress. Our proposed solution just recreates the same problem again, i.e. how one physical state can be about another physical state.
The upshot seems to be that we cannot have any memories about Paris, since memories are physical things and Paris is a physical thing, and physical things do not bear any intrinsic aboutness relations to each other. One would have to be interpreted as being about the other, but because the interpreter in the brain can only be another physical thing, we are just making the problem worse. Further, what holds for memories would hold for any other thoughts, including those that would be about plans or purposes.
This argument seems to rest upon an equivocation on the word “memory.” By “memory” we could mean either the physical traces in the brain that encode information and is passively awaiting retrieval, or we could mean the active, conscious memories that we create by accessing that stored information through a process we call “remembering.” Paul Thagard describes the process of recalling a concert you had once attended:
Retrieval of a memory works by reactivating a pattern of firing in a population of neurons. Suppose someone starts telling you about another concert that is similar to the one you went to, perhaps because the bands played the same kind of music. Hearing about the new concert may produce a pattern of firing in roughly the same population of neurons that encoded the various aspects of the old concert. The newly generated pattern of firing will then generate additional neural activity by virtue of synaptic connections, possibly producing a pattern of firing that is roughly similar to your original experience. That activation of a firing pattern of neurons constitutes your recalling the memory (49).
By reactivating a particular pattern of neuronal firings, the brain draws upon stored, encoded information to create an active, conscious memory. Memory is a creative process, by the way; remembering is not playing back a recording, but an active (and error-prone) reconstruction.
My memories of Paris in the sense of patterns of neuronal connections caused by a trip to Paris are there whether I am consciously remembering Paris or not. Memory in that sense—patterns encoded in the brain—are not intrinsically about Paris any more than the travel guide to Paris when nobody is looking at it. When nobody is looking at the travel guide it is just marks on paper, just another physical thing, and likewise for the stored information encoded in the neuronal connections in a brain. However, when we actively remember and that stored information is drawn upon to create a conscious recollection, then we have more than passive storage. We have a conscious (self-aware) process of remembering, actively reconstructing memories by drawing on stored information—a process physically realized in the reactivated patterns of neuronal firing. Memory in this latter sense can most definitely be about Paris or anything else.
At a more fundamental level, Rosenberg seems to conflate the doer with the doing. The singer is the doer, and hitting high C is what she does. She accomplishes this remarkable vocal feat entirely with her physical apparatus for creating and projecting sound. However, the accomplishment itself, hitting that true note, is not a physical thing, and you commit a grave category mistake if you classify it as such. Of course, to say that it is not a physical thing does not imply that it is a nonphysical thing. It is not a thing at all. It is something done by things. Of course, hitting high C is an event in space and time and it is entirely physically realized, but the aria, of which that note is a part, is the organized pattern of notes and words as arranged by the composer and librettist. The aria is not a physical thing, but a particular kind of order, a way of organizing things, that can be physically realized in innumerable ways. What is true of arias is true of memories and all sorts of other thoughts.
The upshot is that speaking of a brain’s relation to Paris is not like talking about the relation of one lump of clay to another. Lumps of clay are passive; they just sit there and one definitely cannot have any sort of “about” relation to the other. The living brain, however, is not a lump, but is constantly, fantastically active. It is doing things all the time, and Rosenberg has given us no reason whatsoever to think that it is incapable of generating thoughts about things. One of the many amazing things a brain can do is to think about Paris. If you can think about Paris, then you can think about plans, purposes, and the whole intentional shebang.
Rosenberg would not be impressed with the above line of argument. What the brain does, he indicates, is no different from what the brains of sea slugs or rats do, and no different, in principle, from what computers do. What sea slugs and rats do when they learn is to rewire their neuronal connections to create new input/output circuits that create a new habit. Thus, sea slugs and rats can be conditioned to acquire new habits and the conditioning works by effecting neuronal reconnections. Rats, for instance, can learn how to locate a life raft in a water tank. There is no reason to think that sea slugs or rats acquire new habits by thinking about them. Their brains simply change to correlate input with different output. The same thing seems to have happened with you when, in early infancy, you learned to recognize your mother’s face:
When the rat acquires and stores information “about” the location of the life raft in the tank, that’s just the neurons in its hippocampus being reorganized into new input/output circuits. They have changed in the same way the neurons in the sea slug have changed. Similarly, knowing what your mother looks like or that Paris is the capital of France is just having a set of neurons wired up to an input/output circuit (185).
Neither the sea slug, nor the rat, nor you need to think about these things to get them right. It is all input and output.
Computers can do very complex tasks that previously only humans could accomplish, like playing chess well enough to beat the human champion or even to excel at the TV game show Jeopardy! But computers, like Watson, the computer that plays Jeopardy!, do not think about things at all. Once again, it is merely input and output. Watson is cleverly programmed so that when the input is a Jeopardy! answer, the output is something we interpret as the appropriate Jeopardy! question (in Jeopardy! you are given the answer and required to give the appropriate question). Rosenberg says that the brain is just a computer:
[The brain is] composed of an unimaginably large number of input/output circuits, each one a set of neurons electrically connected with other through their synapses. The circuits transmit electrical output in different ways, depending on their electrical inputs and on how their parts—individual neurons—are wired up together. That’s how the brain works (188).
So, in answer to my suspicion that he is conflating the doing with the doer, Rosenberg could reply that we know precisely what the brain does, and the brain does just what a computer does. If a computer is incapable of thinking about anything, then the brain is incapable of thinking about anything.
Unquestionably many of the things our brains do can be explained in terms of input/output and intentionality does not enter into it at all. Recognizing your mom’s face is certainly one of these; you have been doing it automatically since you were a small infant, and doing it without any thought at all. The same goes for many other operations of our brains. For instance, as soon as I see certain politicians’ faces on TV, I immediately begin to mutter expletives. There must be an input/output circuit in my brain such that when the input is an image of politician P, the output is a string of monosyllabic words of Anglo-Saxon derivation.
On the other hand, some of our mental operations, prima facie, certainly are not easily explicable merely in terms of input/output, that is, stimulus/response reactions. Consider doing philosophy. Can we believe that Rosenberg’s production of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality was nothing but a complex concatenation of automatic inputs and outputs? Didn’t he have to think about it? This is not an ad hominem argument or a too-quick “hoist with your own petard” kind of maneuver. Rather, I am just pointing out that reflective thought, and innumerable other things we do with our brains certainly are not obviously merely input/output events. Let’s put it this way: If reflective and creative thought (recall Beethoven’s Eroica symphony again), for instance, are explicable in terms of inputs and outputs, we can say that such an explanation currently exists only as a promissory note. That puts it far too weakly. It is more like a third-party, postdated check drawn on a bank in Burundi.
I think that Rosenberg’s basic fallacy is not to mistake the doer with the doing, but to think that what the part is doing must be what the whole is doing. Invoking a musical analogy once again, no musician performs a symphony; symphonies are performed by orchestras. Each individual in the orchestra plays his or her part, and the result of a hundred people doing that correctly is a symphony. An individual neuron is just an input/output device. However, thinking involves the very complex, hierarchical, multiply-patterned, parallel-processed, and highly coordinated interactions of ensembles of millions or billions of neurons: the cerebral symphony.
With respect to any activity involving the coordinated interaction of numerous units, any question about what is being done can only be answered by specifying the level that we are talking about. Otherwise the question is meaningless. What is your car doing as you drive down the road? Well, what the car is “doing” depends on what level of organization you are talking about. The fuel injection system is doing one thing and the engine cooling system something else. Locomotion is an emergent property that comes in only when we are talking about the vehicle as a whole. By analogy, asking “What is your brain doing?” is unclear unless the level of organization is specified. The organization of the brain begins with individual neurons, which are organized into systems, which are organized into systems of systems, and then systems of systems of systems…all interacting in astonishingly complex ways with multiple feedback loops and cross connections. Reflective thought seems to be one of the higher level activities of the brain. Individual neurons cannot consider philosophical propositions, but millions or billions coordinated and interacting in the right way maybe can. Perhaps “Philosophy” is one of the tunes the cerebral orchestra can play.
But how can individual events that are about nothing add up to an event that is about something? Suppose that we arrange 10,000 people in a stadium in a 100 × 100 square. On each seat is a specific monochrome card for the occupant to hold up on cue. On cue each holds up his or her card, and when seen from across the stadium, the cards create a 10,000 pixel portrait of, say, Barack Obama. Each individual card is a portrait of nothing; it is just a solid color. However, when displayed all at once and in the correct order, they create a detailed and highly accurate portrait. Of course, this is just an analogy, but it does indicate how a picture of something can be constituted entirely by bits that are pictures of nothing.
It is not even clear that Rosenberg is right about computers and their capacities. Is it certain that no computer, or system of computers, could ever be programmed to think about things? Why not? Perhaps Rosenberg has an argument demonstrating the impossibility of intentional machines, but it is not to be found in The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.
Before continuing, a nagging question that has been waiting in the wings during this whole discussion and must finally be addressed: How can I think that I am thinking about P without being able to think that P? Conscious experiences have the peculiar property that appearing to be in a conscious state is to be in that conscious state. If it seems to me that I have a splitting headache, then I do have a splitting headache. If I seem to be hearing the opening notes of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, then I am having the experience of hearing the opening notes of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, even if I am having an auditory hallucination. How, then, can I seem to be thinking about, say, my cat, unless I am actually thinking about my cat? Well, maybe I have made a dreadful mistake and the cat that I am thinking about as mine is actually my neighbor’s cat and not mine. But even in this case I am still thinking about something, namely, my neighbor’s cat.
think that Rosenberg must at least admit that when I think that I am thinking about my cat, i.e. I seem to be thinking about her coloring, her temperament, etc., then my subjective experience—the way it seems to me—will be the same as if I were actually thinking about her. How could it be any different? What content would the state of really thinking about her have that only seeming to think about her would lack? But if a brain can achieve the one state—thinking that I am thinking about my cat—how can it not be able to achieve the subjectively identical state—actually thinking about my cat? How can one mental act be possible and a second phenomenologically identical one be impossible? Rosenberg may have an answer, but I have not found it.

bookmark_borderDid Jesus Exit? – Part 17

Does L, the special source used by the author of the Gospel of Luke, represent Jesus as a male descendant of the Hebrew people?
Like Mark and Q, L uses masculine nouns, pronouns and verbs of Jesus:
L 7:11b-15 “his disciples” “with him” “As he approached” “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion” “he came forward” “And he said” “He gave him”
L 7:36-47 “asked him” “He went” “took his place” “he was eating” “his feet” “this man” “he would have known” “touching him” ” ‘Teacher’ ” “he said”
L 10:39-42 “the Lord’s feet” “he was saying” “came to him” ” ‘Lord, do you not care…’ ” “the Lord answered her”
L 13:1b-5 “He asked them”
L 13:10-17b “he was teaching” “he called her over” “he laid his hands on her” “he said this” “The Lord answered him”
L 13: 31b-32 “He said to them”
L 14:2-5 “in front of him” “He said to them”
L 14:8-10 & 12-14 “He said also”
L 15:11-32 “He said”
L 17:12-18 “As he entered” “approached him” “when he saw them, he said” “thanked him”
L 18: 2-8a “He said” “And the Lord said”
L 19:2-10 “to see him” “he looked up” “to welcome him” “He has gone to” “said to the Lord”
Also, as with Mark and Q, the main character in the L source is referred to as ‘Jesus’ (or Yeshua):
L 7:36-47 “Jesus spoke up”
L 10:30-37a “Jesus said to him”
L 13:10-17b “When Jesus saw her, he called her over”
L 14:2-5 “Jesus asked” “So Jesus took”
L 17:12-18 ” ‘Jesus, Master…’ ” “Then Jesus asked”
L 19:2-10 “He was trying to see who Jesus was” “When Jesus came to the place” “Jesus said to him”
‘Jesus’ or ‘Yeshua’ was one of the more common names for a Jewish male (a male descendant of the Hebrew people) in Palestine in the First century.
As with Mark and Q, L places Jesus in Palestine:
L 10:30-37a “Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by the other side. …But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. …’ ”
L 13:1b-5 [told him about the] “Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He [Jesus] asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you: but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them–do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’ ”
L 13:31b-32 ” ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ ” (words spoken to Jesus).
‘Herod’ here is presumably Herod Antipas (‘Herod’ being a dynastic title) who killed John the Baptist around the time Jesus started his own ministry. Antipas was appointed tetrarch over Galilee and Perea in 4 BCE, and he ruled there until 39 CE. Even if the above passage refers to some other ‘Herod’ in the dynasty, the various ‘Herods’ ruled over various areas in Palestine.
L 17:12-18 “As he [Jesus] entered a village, ten lepers approached him. …He [one of the lepers] prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. …”
Samaritans originate from Samaria, and Samaria was located in Palestine between Galilee (in the North) and Judea (in the South). So, this story suggests that Jesus met these lepers when he was visiting a village somewhere in Palestine.
L 18:10-14a ” ‘Two men came up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.’ ” [The phrase “the temple” here clearly refers to the Jewish temple in Jerusalem].
Representing Jesus as a man who was an adherent of the Jewish faith who was living in Palestine in the First Century (at about the time of Pilate) suggests that Jesus was a male descendant of the Hebrew people.
One final passage provides additional confirmation that Jesus was a descendant of the Hebrew people, or at least that L represented him as such:
L 17:12-18 “As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at his [Jesus’] feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ ”
In the above passage, Jesus refers to the ‘Samaritan’ man as a ‘foreigner’. Why? Consider the following commentary on Jesus’ parable about the ‘Good Samaritan'(in Luke 10:29-37):
By making the hero of the story a Samaritan, Jesus challenged the longstanding enmity between Jews and Samaritans. The latter were regarded as unclean people, descendants of the mixed marriages that followed from the Assyrian settlement of people from various regions in the fallen northern kingdom (2 Kgs 17:6, 24).
(The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, “Luke” by R. Alan Culpepper, p.229)
When Jesus refers to the grateful Samaritan (in the ten lepers incident) as a ‘foreigner’, Jesus means that this man was a descendant “of the mixed marriages that followed from the Assyrian settlement…”. In other words, Jesus is implying that the grateful man was racially impure, not a purebred descendant of the Hebrew people. But in using the term ‘foreigner’ Jesus is also implying that he (Jesus) was racially pure, was a purebred descendant of the Hebrew people, and NOT a product of “the mixed marriages….”. So, in this passage, Jesus strongly implies that he is a descendant of the Hebrew people.
My conclusion is that L, like Mark and Q, represents Jesus as being a male descendant of the Hebrew people.

bookmark_borderEvil as an Argument for God

Consider the following argument by Alvin Plantinga:
“The premise is that there is real and objectively horrifying evil in the world. Examples would be certain sorts of appalling evil characteristic of Nazi concentration camps: guards found pleasure in devising tortures, making mothers decide which of their children would go to the gas chambers and which would be spared; small children were hanged, dying (because of their light weight) a slow and agonizing death; victims were taunted with the claim that no one would ever know their fate and how they were treated…Naturalism does not have the resources to accommodate or explain this fact [the existence of objective evil] about these states of affairs. From a naturalistic point of view, about all one can say is that we do hate them; but this is far short of seeing them as intrinsically horrifying. How can we understand this intrinsically horrifying character?…A good answer (and one for which it is hard to think of an alternative) is that this evil consists in defying God, the source of all that is good and just, and the first being of the universe. What is horrifying here is not merely going against God’s will, but consciously choosing to invert the true scale of values…(The Shorter Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy , p. 326).”
In short, Plantinga asserts that unless we postulate the existence of God, we cannot have a basis for saying that some things are objectively and intrinsically horrifying. Since we do hold that some things are objectively and intrinsically horrifying, we should postulate the existence of God.
I think that a neo-Aristotelian ethical naturalist could reply as follows: On, the contrary, for us cruelty is intrinsically horrifying for precisely the reason you mention: It is the conscious choice to invert the true scale of values. For the ethical naturalist the true scale of values is a matter of biological fact. There are certain objective states of affairs that constitute eudaimonia, which is the state of greatest value for human beings. Eudaimonia is a state of mental and moral excellence with the enjoyment of a modicum of health and material prosperity. Objective evil consists in the destruction of human life or the imposition of conditions that prevent humans from achieving or enjoying such well-being.
If values are thus based on the facts of human biology and psychology, there is no need for ethicists to refer to God. If God opposes human well-being, then he himself is evil because he opposes what is objectively good and therefore consciously inverts the true scale of value. On the other hand, if God endorses objective goodness, then his endorsement is irrelevant. Even if an act conforms to God’s will, and even if God is essentially good, what makes a good act good is that it is conducive to the achievement of the human telos, not that it conforms to God’s will. So, God’s will can just be left out of the account. Explanations of goodness of good and evilness of evil need make no reference to God, but only the scientific facts. [This, of course, is a version of the old “Euthyphro” dilemma: Are things good because God wills them, or does God will them because they are good?” I am not convinced that theists have yet effectively discharged this dilemma.
Naturally, Plantinga would be unsatisfied with this answer. He would want to know why, given that there is an objective state of human well-being—we ought to value this state. What would a naturalistic ethicist say, for instance, to Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, who simply thumbs his nose at human well-being, choosing spite over happiness? What arguments could the naturalist offer to say why the Underground Man should value happiness? Isn’t the naturalist limited to saying merely that we do value happiness, and so has nothing to say to the Underground Man—who doesn’t value it?
It is true that the ethical naturalist would have nothing much to say to someone who genuinely disdains all happiness, including his own. If human well-being is the summum bonum, then there is no higher good that can be invoked to justify it. But, to offer a tu quoque, could the theist do any better? What could the theist say to the Underground Man that would help? Of course, the theist could threaten him with hell, a sanction the naturalist cannot deploy. But the traditional doctrine of an eternal, punitive hell is one hard to square with any plausible conception of goodness. (As I have argued. See “Heaven and Hell’ in Debating Christian Theism, edited by J.P. Moreland, Chad Meister, and Khaldoun A. Sweis.). Besides, if the Underground Man chooses spite over happiness, why wouldn’t he spitefully defy God’s will? In fact, isn’t this just what sin is traditionally conceived to be?
Plantinga appears to hanker for a categorical imperative, a pure, context-less “thou shalt” with the universal authority of necessary truth. The problem is that grounding a categorical imperative in God’s nature seems no more promising than grounding it in human nature. Even to say that God is essentially good does not help because this is to explicate God’s nature in terms of goodness, not explicate goodness in terms of God’s nature—which is what we need.
The upshot is that the existence of objectively horrifying evil is no basis for postulating God.

bookmark_borderDid Jesus Exit? – Part 16

Did Q represent Jesus as a male descendant of the Hebrew people?
We have previously seen that both Mark and Q represent Jesus as a devout Jew, i.e. as a devout follower of the religion of Judaism. But someone can be Jewish in this sense of being an adherent of the Jewish faith without being a descendant of the Hebrew people.
Q does represent Jesus as a male.
First, the name ‘Jesus’ was a common name of Palestinian Jewish males in the first century, and ‘Jesus’ was NOT a common name of Palestinian Jewish females in that time. It was the 6th most common name for Jewish males. So, the use of the name ‘Jesus’ in Q implies that the person in question was a male descendant of the Hebrew people. (Q 3:21, 4:1-13, 7:9, 9:58, etc.)
See Ben Witherington’s post on the Jesus Tomb for details on frequency of the name ‘Jesus’ and other names among Palestinian Jews:
Note: The names of Jesus’ family members given in Mark imply that Jesus was a male descendant of the Hebrew people.
Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed.
“Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.
(Mark 6:1-3, NIV)
‘Mary’ was by far the most common name for Jewish females in Palestine around the first century. ‘Simon’ was the most common name for Jewish males in Palestine;’Joseph’ was the second most common name for Jewish males in Palestine, and ‘Jesus’ was the sixth most common name for Jewish males in Palestine.
Second, Q uses masculine personal pronouns (translated as ‘he’ and ‘his’) in reference to Jesus (Q 3:16-17, 4:1, 6:20, 7:1&3, 7:18-23, etc.).
Third, in so far as Q represents Jesus as the promised Messiah (as we shall soon see to be the case), this is a strong indication that Jesus was both a male and a descendant of the Hebrew people, for it was commonly believed that the Messiah would be a male descendant of the Hebrew people.
Q represents Jesus as a descendant of the Hebrew people.
Although the words ‘Messiah’ and ‘Christ’ do not appear in Q, there are fairly clear indications that Jesus was viewed by the author of Q as being the promised Messiah of the Jews. Since being a male descendant of the Hebrew people was a basic requirement for being the Messiah, this implies that Jesus was a male descendant of the Hebrew people, at least as Jesus is represented by Q.
Q appears to represent Jesus as the promised Messiah:
Q 3:16b-17 John and the One to Come
16b I baptize you in‚ water, but the one to come after me is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to take off. He will baptize you in holy‚ Spirit and fire. 17 His pitchfork «is» in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn on a fire that can never be put out.
Q 7:18-23 John’s Inquiry about the One to Come
18 And John, on hearing .. about all these things‚, 19 sending through his disciples, said‚ to him: Are you the one to come, or are we to expect someone else? 22 And in reply he said to them: Go report to John what you hear and see: The blind regain their sight and the lame walk around, the skin-diseased are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised, and the poor are given good news. 23 And blessed is whoever is not offended by me.
[John the Baptist appears to be asking whether Jesus is the promised Messiah, and Jesus refers to the fulfillment of Isaiah 61:1 in response, thus implying that Jesus is indeed the promised Messiah.]
Q 7:24-28 John — More than a Prophet
24 And when they had left, he began to talk to the crowds about John: What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 25 If not, what did you go out to see? A person arrayed in finery? Look, those wearing finery are in kings’ houses. 26 But «then» what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, even more than a prophet! 27 This is the one about whom it has been written: Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your path in front of you. 28 I tell you: There has not arisen among women’s offspring «anyone» who surpasses John. Yet the least significant in God’s kingdom is more than he.
[Jesus indicates that Malachi 3:1 is a prophecy fulfilled by John the Baptist, thus implying that Jesus was the Messiah.]
Q 10:23-24 The Beatitude for the Eyes that See
23 Blessed are the eyes that see what you see .. . 24 For I tell you: Many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see, but never saw it, and to hear what you hear, but never heard it.
[Another indication that Jesus claimed to be the messiah]
Q 22:28, 30 You Will Judge the Twelve Tribes of Israel
28 .. You who have followed me 30 will sit .. on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
[If Jesus’ disciples will one day be Judges over the tribes of Israel, then this implies that Jesus will be the King or ruler over Israel one day.]
In Q, as in the synoptic Gospels, ‘the Kingdom of God’ is a central theme of Jesus’ teachings. Given the context of Roman domination of the Jewish people in Palestine, talk about ‘the Kingdom of God’ seems a bit subversive, and would certainly have inspired Jewish Palestinians to think and talk about whether a Messiah or King of the Jews would soon arise, and who that Messiah might be, and what the Messiah would do about the Roman domination of Palestine. In the religious and political circumatances of first century Palestine, teaching about ‘the Kingdom of God’ would tend to focus attention on the idea of a coming Jewish Messiah.
In Q ‘The Kingdom of God’ was a theme of Jesus’ teaching:
Q 7:24-28 John — More than a Prophet
Q 10:5-9 What to Do in Houses and Towns
Q 11:2b-4 The Lord’s Prayer
Q 11:14-15, 17-20 Refuting the Beelzebul Accusation
Q 11:46b, 52, 47-48 Woes against the Exegetes of the Law
Q 12:22b-31 Free from Anxiety like Ravens and Lilies
Q 13:18-19 The Parable of the Mustard Seed
Q 13:20-21 The Parable of the Yeast
Q 13:29, 28 Replaced by People from East and West
Q 16:16 Since John the Kingdom of God
Q 17:20-21‚ The Kingdom of God within You

We have previously seen that Q represents Jesus as being a devout follower of the Jewish religion. Q also represents Jesus as a person who lived in Palestine. The combination of these two claims implies that Jesus was a descendant of the Hebrew people. There were non-Hebrew people who accepted the Jewish religion, but in Palestine in the first century, most of the people who followed the Jewish religion were descendants of the Hebrew people. So in representing Jesus as a devout follower of the Jewish faith who lived in Palestine in the first century, Q strongly suggests that Jesus was a descandant of the Hebrew people.
Q represents Jesus as a person who lived in Palestine:
Q 10:13-15 Woes against Galilean Towns
13 Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the wonders performed in you had taken place in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, in sackcloth and ashes. 14 Yet for Tyre and Sidon it shall be more bearable at the judgment than for you. 15 And you, Capernaum, up to heaven will you be exalted? Into Hades shall you come down!
Q 7:1, 3, 6b-9, ?10? The Centurion’s Faith in Jesus’ Word
1 And it came to pass when‚ he .. ended these sayings, he entered Capernaum. 3 There came to him a centurion exhorting him and saying: My‚ boy doing badly. And he said to him: Am I‚, by coming, to heal him? 6b-c And in reply the centurion said: Master, I am not worthy for you to come under my roof; 7 but say a word, and let‚ my boy be‚ healed. 8 For I too am a person under authority, with soldiers under me, and I say to one: Go, and he goes, and to another: Come, and he comes, and to my slave: Do this, and he does «it» . 9 But Jesus, on hearing, was amazed, and said to those who followed: I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith. ?10?
Q 3:2b, 3 The Introduction of John
2b John in the wilderness .. 3 all the region of the Jordan .
Q 3:7-9 John’s Announcement of Judgment
7 He said to the crowds coming to be‚ baptized‚: Snakes’ litter! Who warned you to run from the impending rage? 8 So bear fruit worthy of repentance, and do not presume to tell yourselves: We have as «fore»father Abraham! For I tell you: God can produce children for Abraham right out of these rocks! 9 And the ax already lies at the root of the trees. So every tree not bearing healthy fruit is to be chopped down and thrown on the fire.
Q 3:16b-17 John and the One to Come
16b I baptize you in‚ water, but the one to come after me is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to take off‚. He will baptize you in holy‚ Spirit and fire. 17 His pitchfork «is» in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn on a fire that can never be put out.
Q 3:21-22‚ The Baptism of Jesus‚
21‚ … Jesus … baptized, heaven opened ..,‚ 22‚ and .. the Spirit … upon him … Son … .
Q 13:34-35 Judgment over Jerusalem
34 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her nestlings under her wings, and you were not willing! 35 Look, your house is forsaken! .. I tell you, you will not see me until «the time» comes when‚ you say: Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Finally, Jesus speaks in negative terms about ‘Gentiles’ which implies that he himself was not a Gentile but rather was Jewish, i.e. a descendant of the Hebrew people.
In Q, Jesus expresses negative sentiments about ‘gentiles’:
Q 6:32, 34 Impartial Love
32 .. If you love those loving you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same? 34 And if you lend «to those» from whom you hope to receive, what you ?‚??? Do not even the Gentiles‚ do the same?
Q 12:22b-31 Free from Anxiety like Ravens and Lilies
22b Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you are to eat, nor about your body, with what you are to clothe yourself. 23 Is not life more than food, and the body than clothing? 24 Consider the ravens: They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet God feeds them. Are you not better than the birds? 25 And who of you by being anxious is able to add to one’s stature a .. cubit? 26 And why are you anxious about clothing? 27 Observe‚ the lilies, how they grow: They do not work nor do they spin. Yet I tell you: Not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed like one of these. 28 But if in the field the grass, there today and tomorrow thrown into the oven, God clothes thus, will he not much more clothe you, persons of petty faith! 29 So‚ do not be anxious, saying: What are we to eat? Or:‚ What are we to drink? Or:‚ What are we to wear? 30 For all these the Gentiles seek; for‚ your Father knows that you need them all‚. 31 But seek his kingdom, and all‚ these shall be granted to you.
New Testament
ethnos appears in the NT with two meanings, “nation” and “Gentile”. In the latter sense, it refers specifically to all non-Jews, that is, to people groups foreign to Israel…
(p.281 Mounces Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words, edited by William Mounce. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.)
Based on the above passages from Q, I conclude that Q represented Jesus as being a male descendant of the Hebrew poeple.
The passages quoted from Q above are from the reconstruction and translation of Q by the International Q Project:

bookmark_borderA Ten-Year Project – Part 2

Before deciding what topics and issues to cover in my multi-volume critique of Christianity, I want to look over some lists of common topics in (a) Christian Apologetics, (b) Systematic Theology, and (c) Philosophy of Religion.
I looked through the table of contents of a number of handbooks on Christian Apologetics to come up with a list of common topics:

NOTE: WIAC = Why I am a Christian, edited by Geisler & Hoffman
Based on this quick survey of a few handbooks of Christian Apologetics, I came up with a list of a dozen topics:
1. Apologetics/Faith & Reason
2. The Existence & Nature of God
3. Creation & Evolution
4. Miracles
5. Evil & Suffering
6. The Divinity of Jesus
7. The Resurrection of Jesus
8. The Bible
• Historical Reliability of the Bible
• Scientific Reliability of the Bible
• Inspiration of the Bible
9. Life after Death/Heaven & Hell/Salvation
10. Christianity vs. Other Religions
11. Objective Truth
12. Morality/Ethics

I also took a look at a few works of Systematic Theology by Evangelical Christian theologians:

From this brief survey, I came up with a dozen topics for Systematic Theology:
1. Knowledge of God
2. The Bible
3. Attributes of God
4. God’s creation
5. Sin
6. Jesus
7. The Holy Spirit
8. Salvation
9. The Christian Life
10. Man
11. The Church
12. The End of History

For an excellent and inpiring example of a critique of a bit of Systematic Theology, see Theodore Drange’s article “Why Resurrect Jesus?” in The Empty Tomb, edited by Robert Price and Jeff Lowder (Prometheus Books, 2005).
NOTE: BOICE’s stuff on “Time and History” appeared disjointed and unfocused, and there does not appear to be a clear parallel in other Systematic Theology books, so I set that topic aside and substituted “Man” for topic #10 (pulling it out of where it was lumped in with other items under “God’s creation”, topic #4).
Here is a comparison chart of common Theology topics with common Apologetics topics:

Based on this comparison chart, if I had to choose between covering the topics of Systematic Theology and the topics of Christian Apologetics, I would go with Apologetics. Those topics seem more focused on what is central and most important, especially in terms of evaluating the truth or the rationality of Christianity.

bookmark_borderA Ten-Year Project

I’m starting to build a plan for a ten-year project for myself. The goal will be to produce a multi-volume critique of Christianity, with a focus on Evangelical Christianity, but I would also like to touch on Catholic Christianity and Liberal Christian views.
One objective would be for the critique to be systematic and comprehensive, so I’m thinking about Topics and Issues to cover. Since my educational background is in philosophy (ethics, philosophy of religion, logic, critical thinking, epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of language, political philosophy, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Mill, Marx, Wittgenstein), the most obvious choice for topics would be based on:
1. Handbooks and Guides on the Philosophy of Religion.
Since I am especially familiar with the work of one leading modern Christian philosopher of religion, my topics could be based on:
2. Richard Swinburne’s Trilogy on Theism and his Tetralogy on Christian Doctrines.
Another set of topics closely related to philosophy of religion would be based on:
3. Handbooks and Guides on Christian Apologetics (esp. McDowell, Craig, Geisler, Habermas, Kreeft, Nash, etc.).
A somewhat broader range of topics could be based on:
4. Works of Systematic Theology (esp. by Evangelical Christian theologians).
If I go with the Systematic Theology topics, I could start by focusing on the core of Evangelical Christian theology:
5. The Gospel (i.e. John 3:16, The Four Spiritual Laws, The “Romans Road”).
Another way to plan and organize this project would be to use a high-level logical analysis:
6. A Problem-Solving/Medical Schema for Analysis of Worldviews (i.e. symptoms, diagnosis, prescription/therapy, prognosis).
Worldviews can be understood in terms of identifying a particular problem that is viewed as critical or central to human existence, and presenting an alleged solution to that problem. Note that the topics in approach (5) would closely match topics for approach (6), since “The Four Spiritual Laws” look a lot like a problem-solving analysis of the Gospel.
I am interested in hearing your suggestions or advice.

bookmark_borderMelnyk, Goetz, and Taliafero on the AFR

Lately I have been doing a book revision and in the process reflecting on the “Great Debate” between Andrew Melnyk and the Christian philosophers Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliafero. Melnyk defends the thesis of the physical realization of the mental (PRM) and Goetz and Taliafero offer criticisms. Here are my thoughts so far. Comments would be welcome. Sorry for the length and apologies also that I am too lazy to put in references in this draft. The MTB thesis is the claim, broader than Melnyk’s specific one, that minds are in some sense reducible to, caused by, identical with supervenient upon, realized by…etc. the brain.
It appears that if PRM is true, it cannot be rationally believed!
“What this [PRM] seems to imply is that everything that occurs in our mental lives, including our beliefs, is ultimately explicable in terms of physical causation alone without any explanation of that which is irreducibly mental by something else which is irreducibly mental. If physicalism is true, it seems that the ultimate explanation of M’s belief that physicalism is true will mention only neural phenomena and/or more fundamental physical constituents. There will be no mention in that explanation of anything that is ultimately and irreducibly mental. So, even if there are irreducible contents of apprehensions and beliefs which are physically realized…physicalism entails that M believes that physicalism is true, not because his apprehensions of irreducible contents ultimately cause his belief with it irreducible contents but because physical (neural) realizers of those apprehensions causally produce physical realizers of that belief. In short, physicalism seems to entail that apprehensions of contents are explanatorily impotent. Given the truth of epiphenomenalism and the explanatory impotence of apprehensions of contents, why should any of us try to reason with other about anything with the hope of changing their beliefs by having them apprehend contents of conceptual entities (Goetz and Taliafero, 4)?”
This important and subtle “argument from reason” (AFR) must be explained carefully: A common view of rationality holds that what makes our beliefs rational is that we base them on reasons. That is, you rationally believe that P when, and only when, your belief that P results from having fairly considered the reasons for (and against) P and it seems to you that the reasons, on balance, are sufficient for the truth of P. For instance, if I want to know the capital of Mongolia, I pull down my atlas and see that the capital of Mongolia is Ulan Bator. My recognition that a standard reference book, which would be very unlikely to be wrong about such a fact, tells me that the capital of Mongolia is Ulan Bator seems to me sufficient reason to accept that claim. Hence, my belief is rational. The essence of this account of rational belief is that one irreducibly mental event, belief that P is explained by another irreducibly mental event, the apprehension of the reasons for P and their sufficiency for the truth of P.
If you ask Melnyk why he accepts PRM, then, like anyone else, he will give reasons that he holds are sufficient for the truth of his claim. Let’s call those reasons R1, R2, R3…Rn. Goetz and Taliafero argue that if PRM is true, Melnyk cannot hold PRM because of reasons R1, R2, R3…Rn. Suppose that Melnyk apprehends reasons R1, R2, R3…Rn (where we will assume that those reasons include the recognition that the other reasons are jointly sufficient for the truth of PRM). It follows that, since PRM is assumed true, the cause of Melnyk’s belief is not his mental apprehension of those reasons, but the physical realization of those mental apprehensions in his neural states. This is because, if PRM is true, the mental state “belief that PRM is true” is fully realized in a physical (neural) state. Further, that neural state is caused by other neural states, namely, the physical realizations of the apprehension of reasons R1, R2, R3…Rn.
The upshot is apparently that, on PRM, the mental act of understanding a reason is an epiphenomenon of the physical cause. To say that A is an epiphenomenon of B means that B causally determines A, but A does no causal work, either back on B or on anything else. So, on PRM it cannot be the mental act of understanding per se that explains the belief; rather, it is the physical realization of that act that does all the causal work. The mental act therefore just seems a useless appendage, an epiphenomenon. Hence, if PRM is true, then Melnyk cannot believe the truth of PRM because of the reasons he cites. Melnyk does not believe because of those reasons. Instead, his belief was caused by a sequence of neural, i.e. purely physical, events in his brain. But how can a belief be rational if it is not based on reasons? Melnyk’s belief that PRM is true seems to be like the breaking of a glass bowl when it is dropped onto a hard floor. Both belief and breakage seem to be caused by brute, blind force (to indulge in a bit of rhetoric), so neither the belief nor the broken bowl can be explained in terms of reasons.
It seems to follow from this argument that the truth of PRM precludes any rational basis for believing that PRM is true. This is because the truth of PRM precludes the possibility of having any reasons for believing it because it relegates all causes of belief to a sequence of physical causes. Surely, it seems, there must be something profoundly and irremediably wrong with a theory that, if true, insures that it cannot be rationally believed to be true!
I think that the AFR articulated in the above few paragraphs is Goetz and Taliafero’s strongest argument. However, I do not think that Melnyk replies to it adequately so I will now say what I think is wrong with it.
First, note that Goetz and Taliafero’s arguments, and practically all arguments against the MTB thesis, are a priori in nature, whereas the arguments for MTB are mostly empirical. Historically, a priori arguments have fared very poorly when opposed to empirical arguments. Philosophers will draw an a priori line in the sand and scientists will gleefully jump over it. The dismal track record of a priori claims against empirical ones provides some reason to doubt the cogency of arguments like those of Goetz and Taliafero.
Further, human beings would be most unfortunate if in fact a theory as important as PRM were true and could not be rationally believed. Goetz and Taliafero appear to concede that PRM could be true, but they hold that the truth of PRM would preclude rationally believing it by our standards of rational belief. However, if our standards of rational belief are such that they can preclude us from rationally believing an important theory that (we are assuming) is in fact true, then perhaps our standards of rational belief are deficient. Standards of rational belief are supposed to permit, not preclude, rational belief in true theories. If PRM is true—and, again, Goetz and Taliafero apparently concede that it could be—then this is a very important truth and there needs to be some way that we can rationally believe that it is true.
A reliability account of warrant would seem to fill the bill. According to reliabilism, all that matters is whether a belief-forming process reliably generates true beliefs. A belief that is formed by a reliable process is warranted and therefore a rational belief. The nature of the process is irrelevant. If I can reliably form true beliefs by rolling a pair of magic dice, then rolling the dice confers warrant on my beliefs. If we accept reliabilism, then it does not matter if Melnyk is caused to believe that PRM is true by a physical process. It only matters that the process was reliable in generating true beliefs, and the reliability of physical belief-forming processes can certainly be accommodated by PRM and would seem to generate no self-referential problem. That is, there could be reliable processes causing the belief that PRM is true.
Some might object that precisely the problem with a reliability theory is that its account of warrant runs plainly against some of our deepest intuitions about rationality, such as that beliefs are rational only if they held because of the reasons for them. But what is the worth of such intuitions when they are opposed by successful theory? But other intuitions seem to go the other way. If we hold that a belief is rational only if it is held because of reasons that we apprehend and duly consider, then this entails that most of our beliefs are irrational. Certainly all of our perceptual beliefs would be. I see a cup on my desk and immediately believe that there is a cup on my desk. Apprehending reasons has nothing to do with it. It would be highly counterintuitive to say that all of our perceptual beliefs are irrational. The same thing holds for many beliefs based on testimony. As soon as my wife tells me that it is raining again I immediately believe that it is raining again. I don’t weigh her credibility against my background beliefs or anything like that. I immediately, and rationally, accept it.
Perhaps Goetz and Taliafero mean only that theoretical knowledge is rational only if we get it by apprehending and a set of reasons and recognizing the sufficiency of their support for that theory. So, let’s cut to the chase and ask whether reasons would be epiphenomena on PRM, useless danglers that have no explanatory role in accounting for our beliefs? Not at all. In fact, it seems to me that to think that reasons would be epiphenomenal given PRM is to fail to take PRM seriously and to continue to think in dualistic terms.
Let’s begin by reviewing what it means to say that the mental is physically realized. PRM first defines the mind in functional terms; a mind is anything that does mental stuff. It then identifies the human brain (or, technically, certain physical subsystems of the brain) as the object that, for human beings, performs the function of doing mental stuff (including rational thought). At bottom, then, PRM is a theory about how we think; we do it with our brains. We have a mental system fully realized in our mental organ, the brain, just as we have a digestive system fully realized in the organs of digestion. The functioning of our mental system—those orderly, causally-linked patterns of neuronal firings—is how we think, just as the functioning of our digestive system—peristalsis, the secretion of digestive juices, etc.—is how we digest. Those neural processes in our brains are not a more fundamental reality to which thought can be reduced. They are thought itself—the genuine article. Further, the fact that we think with our brains does not make thought any less real, significant, or explanatory than it is on dualism.
Let’s imagine a case of simple inference by modus ponens: Upon arising in the morning I look out the window and see that the streets are wet. I infer that it rained overnight. Generally, that inference would be immediate, but I have not had my coffee yet, so my thinking process is slow. Let’s imagine that I think it out step by step: “I see that the streets are wet. I know that if the streets are wet, then it rained last night. Therefore, it rained last night.” According to PRM, what just happened here? What caused my belief that it rained last night? That belief, “it rained last night,” is neurally realized and, of course, its proximate cause was other neural events. However, those other neural events were events of a very special sort; they were also the thoughts “the streets are wet” and “if the streets are wet, then it rained last night.” So those physical events were also mental events—because the physical events are the doing of the mental events—and so an equally good explanation is that my belief was based on my reasoning validly in accordance with modus ponens.
Given PRM there are two ways of individuating a thought (speaking precisely we should say “a thought token,” but for simplicity I will just say “thought”). We could individuate it by indicating that a particular thought-content was entertained by a particular brain at a given time, e.g. “At time T1 Parsons thought ‘the streets are wet.’” Or we could individuate it by a specifying a particular set of neural events in a particular brain, e.g. “At time T1 this particular pattern of neuronal firing occurred in Parsons’ brain.” But just because we can individuate something in two different ways does not mean that we are individuating two different things. According to PRM, it is one and the same thought that is individuated in both ways. The neural event is the mental event. Thinking “If the streets are wet, then it rained last night; the streets are wet; therefore it rained last night” just is a causally connected series of neural events.
The upshot is that physical realization does not render the mental an epiphenomenon. On the contrary, it is the physical realization of the mental that “empowers” one mental event to cause another mental event. It is in virtue of their physical realization that mental events can cause other, physically realized, mental events. But doesn’t this mean that, as Goetz and Taliafero insist, it is the physical that does all the causing and the reasons are impotent? No, because, again, the physical causing of my belief and the being convinced by reasons are one and the same thing. The physical causing is the mental causing; that is what PRM means. In short, PRM holds that being convinced by reasons is something we accomplish with our brains.
I think that Goetz and Taliafero read PRM as a thesis of the one-way causation of the mental by the physical, rendering the mental into an epiphenomenon. But this is wrong. Melnyk is not saying that the physical produces the epiphenomenal mental like a car engine produces useless noise. It seems that Goetz and Taliafero misconstrue PRM because they continue to think in dualist terms. Dualism must regard the mental and the physical as two opposite and irreconcilable properties, whereas PRM erases that distinction and asserts that the mental is something that special physical things can do. If the thought that mental and physical as mutually exclusive categories is deeply entrenched for you, the claim of PRM will be hard to understand, much less accept.