bookmark_borderArguments from Reason

I’ve finally gotten around to starting Victor Reppert’s book, C.S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason. As Reppert points out in one of his chapters, we can really think of the “argument from reason” as the name for an entire family of theistic arguments. Indeed, Reppert formulates six different versions of the argument from reason which, he says, can be combined to form a cumulative case.
Here are his six arguments.

  1. Argument from Intentionality
  2. Argument from Truth
  3. Argument from Mental Causation
  4. Argument from the Psychological Relevance of Logical Laws
  5. Argument from the Unity of Consciousness in Rational Inference
  6. Argument from the Reliability of Our Rational Faculties

What follows is Reppert’s formulation of each argument.
Argument from Intentionality

  1. If naturalism is true, then there is no fact of the  matter as to what someone’s thought or statement is about.
  2. But there are facts about what someone’s thought is about. (Implied by existence of rational inference.)
  3. Therefore, naturalism is false.

Argument from Truth

  1. If naturalism is true, then no states of the person can be either true or false.
  2. Some states of the person can be true or false. (Implied by existence of rational inference.)
  3. Therefore, naturalism is false.

Argument from Mental Causation

  1. If naturalism is true, then no event can cause another event in virtue of its propositional content.
  2. But some events do cause other events in virtue of their propositional content. (Implied by existence of rational inference.)
  3. Therefore, naturalism is false.

Argument from the Psychological Relevance of Logical Laws

  1. If naturalism is true, then logical laws either do not exist or are irrelevant to the formation of beliefs.
  2. But logical laws are relevant to the formation of beliefs. (Implied by existence of rational inference.)
  3. Therefore, naturalism is false.

Argument from the Unity of Consciousness in Rational Inference

  1. If naturalism is true, then there is no single metaphysically unified entity that accepts the premises, perceives the logical connection between them and draws the conclusion.
  2. But there is a single metaphysically unified entity that accepts the premises, perceives the logical connection between them and draws the conclusion. (Implied by existence of rational inference.)
  3. Therefore, naturalism is false.

Argument from the Reliability of Our Rational Faculties

  1. If naturalism is true, then we should expect our faculties not to be reliable indicators of the nonapparent character of the world.
  1. But our faculties do reliably reveal the nonapparent character of the world. (Implied by existence of rational inference.)
  1. Therefore, naturalism is false.

Since I’ve just started to read his book, I don’t have much to say other than this. Like many people, Reppert suggests that different arguments have more strength when considered as a cumulative case, as opposed to when each argument is considered individually. Also like many people, however, it appears that Reppert doesn’t (1) actually spell out the cumulative case argument or (2) defend the claim that the cumulative case is stronger. In his defense, perhaps he thought it was too obvious. But, if so, I disagree with him. It may be that his six arguments do combine to form a cumulative case, but that needs to be shown and not just asserted. (I trust Victor will correct me if I’m in error and he does do this in his book or elsewhere.)
As I’ve explained before, cumulative case arguments have a very natural and straightforward Bayesian interpretation (scroll down to “Cumulative Case Arguments” in the linked PDF file). The simplest way to explain it is this. Suppose you have two facts, F1 and F2, and you want to show that F1 and F2 combine to form a cumulative case favoring hypothesis H1 over hypothesis H2. How do you do this?
Let’s start with what not to do. You don’t do this by showing:
1. F1 favors H1 over H2.
2. F2 favors H1 over H2.
Instead, you need to show two things:
1. F1 favors H1 over H2.
2. F2 favors (H1 combined with F1) over (H2 combined with F1).
I think it’s an interesting question whether Reppert’s six arguments can be combined to form a cumulative case in this way.
For example, start with intentionality — let’s treat intentionality as F1. (As an aside, I wonder if the fact of intentionality is conditionally independent of the fact of consciousness. In other words, does it even make sense to suppose there is a state of affairs where consciousness exists, but intentionality does not? I don’t know. But let that pass.) Let’s just assume, for the sake of argument, that intentionality favors theism over naturalism. So we have:
1′. F1 favors T over N. [assumption]
Going out of order, let F2 be mental causation. If F1 and F2 are a cumulative case, then we need reason to believe the following is true.
2′. F2 favors (T combined with F1) over (N combined with F1).
The problem is that the truth of 2′ is far from obvious. If we’re including the fact of intentionality in our background knowledge — i.e., if we are already assuming that intentionality exists — then it’s far from obvious that mental causation adds much, if anything, to the case for theism and against naturalism. I’m inclined to believe this: the existence of consciousness is certain on the fact of intentionality. Furthermore, the existence of mental causation is very highly probable, if not certain, on the fact of consciousness. Ultimate metaphysical hypotheses like theism and naturalism don’t seem to change this at all, once we include intentionality (or consciousness) in our background knowledge. Therefore, 2′ is doubtful.
With that said, I must write that I am initially VERY skeptical of the argument from intentionality. I haven’t thought about it deeply, so take my comments with a grain of salt. But because I consider consciousness and intentionality linked, I don’t see how the argument from intentionality adds to the argument from consciousness. In Reppert’s defense, he might say, “It doesn’t. So go deal with the argument from consciousness!” Which would be a fair reply.
Okay, I said these would be some very preliminary thoughts.


On his Dangerous Idea site, Victor Reppert quotes, apparently approvingly, from St. Augustine’s City of God:

“Even after the plain truth has been thoroughly demonstrated, so far as a person is capable of doing, the confirmed skeptic will insist on maintaining belief in his own irrational notions. This is due to either a great blindness, which renders him incapable of seeing what is plainly set before him, or on account of an opinionative obstinacy, which prevents him from acknowledging the truth of what he does see. Thence arises the woeful necessity of going to ridiculous lengths to expound yet more fully on what we have already made perfectly clear, in hopes that we might get through to those who close their minds to reason.
And yet how shall we ever profit from our discussions, or what bounds can be set to our discourse, if we forever fall to the temptation of replying to those who reply to us? We must acknowledge that those who are so hardened by the habit of contradiction will never yield, but would rather reply out of stubbornness, even when they recognize their own error.”

As Mr. Spock would say: Fascinating.. Change a word or two and you would get the perfect expression of what many atheists have reported as their experience of debating religious people. This raises an interesting issue relating to my last post: If two groups are so deeply divided that even the most earnest efforts at rational debate end with each side feeling that the other is just being pigheaded, what should we conclude?
Well, four conclusions seem possible:
1) Atheists are being pigheaded.
2) Religious people are being pigheaded.
3) Both atheists and religious people are being pigheaded.
4) Neither is being pigheaded. The issue is one that cannot be resolved by rational argument.
Increasingly, I lean towards (4). The reason is that arguments between theists and atheists are generally either in the form of inferences to the best explanation or they take a Bayesian structure. With inferences to the best explanation, theists and atheists have such fundamentally different intuitions about what constitutes a good or an acceptable explanation that these go nowhere. In a Bayesian context, the arguments are just too weak to overcome radically divergent priors as well as very divergent estimates of likelihoods. Put simply, there just is no sufficient common ground for arguments to ever really go anywhere. Sure, we each accept basic logic, mathematics, and maybe the laws of physics, but–when push comes to shove–damn little else. What we share is just too exiguous to make up for our vast differences. The upshot is that attempts at rational discussion almost always end in questions being begged.

bookmark_borderReppert on Theistic Explanation

Victor Reppert has chimed in on my reply to Wintery Knight.

This is always an interesting issue. But does it really make sense to ask of an omnipotent being how they did something. For example, I once beat a Grandmaster in a chess tournament. Now, you might ask how I did that, since as someone whose rating has never gone above expert, you might wonder how I did that. (And the answer isn’t all the flattering, was able to win because my opponent had had entirely too much to drink.) But if I have all power, then the simple answer is that I used the power of omnipotence to get it done.

Since it is at least possible that an omnipotent being occasionally works through secondary causes, the question at least makes sense. For example, if I remember correctly, Richard Swinburne says that God fine-tuned the initial conditions of the universe and the values of the various constants in physical laws of nature, such that intelligent beings like humans would evolve. In one sense, we might say that, on Swinburne’s view, God’s fine-tuning of the universe explains the evolution of human beings. In other words, Swinburne might say, “The explanation for the existence of human beings is that God fine-tuned the initial conditions and constants of the universe in such a way as to cause the evolution of human beings.” Now suppose we ask, “But what explains the initial conditions and constants of the universe?” Suppose Swinburne said, “God used the power of omnipotence to get it done.” That statement may very well be true, but we wouldn’t have an explanation in the sense I have been talking about in my last few posts.
Again, imagine a naturalist responding to a cosmological fine-tuning argument. He says, “there is a naturalistic explanation for cosmological fine-tuning, but we have no idea what it is or how it works. Science hasn’t figured it out yet.” That statement may very well be true, but it hardly counts as an explanation. It’s hard to see how the theist’s “using the power of omnipotence” is any more informative or explanatory than the naturalist’s “there is an answer, but science hasn’t figured it out yet.” At this point, the naturalist can hardly be blamed for comparing the track record of naturalistic explanations to that of theistic explanations and sticking with naturalistic explanations.

bookmark_borderThe Blue Folders Story: How Not to Defend Objective Moral Values

I think I first heard this story while listening to a debate between Michael Horner and Henry Morgentaler, but since then I’ve seen it or heard it repeated many other times. The story is supposed to illustrate that even people who claim to be moral relativists really do believe that objective moral values exist. Here is how Victor Reppert puts it.

Lewis’s first argument is the argument from implied practice. People are, at best, inconsistent moral subjectivists. He writes:
[quotation of C.S. Lewis snipped]
1. If ethics is subjective, then we should expect people to recognize that actions which they are inclined to think of as “wrong” are only wrong from their point of view.
2. But invariably, people view wrongs against themselves as actions that are really wrong.
3. Therefore moral values are objective and not subjective.
Some examples may help:
1) A student once wrote a paper for a professor defending moral subjectivism. He made extensive use of anthopological and sociological evidence and the paper was well-written. He put the paper in a blue folder and gave it to the professor. The professor returned it with an “F” and said “I do not like blue folders.” The student, of course protested, pointing out all the effort that went into the paper. the teacher replied “Your paper argues that moral values are subjective, that they are a matter of preference?” Yes, replied the student. Well, the grade is an “F” I do not like blue folders. Of course the student could say “But that’s not fair,” but to do so would, of course, compromise his subjectivist principles.

I’ve never underst0od why this story (and others like it) are supposed to defend premise (2). In fact, it seems to me that this story begs the question against subjectivism. To say that a proposition, such as “Murder is morally wrong,” is objective to say that the truth of the proposition is independent of the subjective states (beliefs, attitudes, desires, intentions, goals, etc.) of persons. To say that a proposition is subjective is to say that the truth of the proposition is determined by the subjective states of one or more persons.
Suppose you to go an ice cream store with a friend. You order chocolate and she orders vanilla. Your friend frowns and says, “Oooooh! Chocolate ice cream is gross! Yuk!” You start licking your lips and reply, “Mmmmm.. Chocolate is the best!” I think everyone would agree that the “yumminess” of ice cream is purely subjective. Although it might seem that you and your friend have a disagreement about chocolate, you actually don’t. Since both of you are subjectivists about ice cream, each speaker is simply expressing their preferences about ice cream flavors. When your friend says, “Chocolate ice cream is gross,” she isn’t saying, “There exists a neo-Platonic realm of abstract objects which include the ‘Form of the Best Ice Cream,’ and that Form is vanilla ice cream.” No! She’s simply saying, “I don’t like chocolate ice cream.” The only way the two of you could have a disagreement would for you to argue something like, “No, you like Chocolate,” or for your friend to argue, “No, you hate Chocolate.”
Similarly, in the blue folder story, if the student says, “But that’s not fair,” that doesn’t mean the student is appealing to an objective moral standard. The student, as a moral subjectivist, could simply be saying, “I don’t like unfairness.” Of course, that would simply invite the reply, “So what? I don’t.” A much more charitable interpretation is this: when the student says, “But that’s not fair,” the student is appealing to the professor’s belief in the moral wrongness of unfairness. If the professor believes it is morally wrong to be unfair, then the moral subjectivist student can consistently appeal to the professor’s belief in the wrongness of unfairness without presupposing an objective moral standard. In fact, this would be the case even if both the student and the professor were moral subjectivists!

bookmark_borderMaterialism and Beauty

In response to a post by Victor Reppert, I left the following comments on his blog.

Victor — I’m very late to this thread, but I hope you’ll respond to this comment.
I read the linked article. Maybe I misunderstood it, but it seems to me that even if everything that article said were correct, it wouldn’t follow that materialism cannot explain beauty. What that article talked about is one recent attempt by neuroscientists to offer a (neuro-)scientific explanation for beauty, an attempt which apparently didn’t work out very well. Have I missed something?
I don’t identify as a materialist because I understand materialism to be logically incompatible with abstract objects. Since I deny the existence of supernatural beings but allow for the existence of abstract objects, I identify as a metaphysical naturalist.
I’m aware that some philosophers (including Swinburne) have argued that beauty is evidence favoring theism over atheism (or naturalism). While I can usually understand why theists find various theistic arguments convincing, that’s not the case with the argument from beauty. I am baffled why anyone finds *that* theistic argument convincing.
In my experience, defenders of arguments from beauty usually (1) conflate the existence of beauty with the existence of observers who can appreciate beauty; and (2) assume without argument that the concept of “objective beauty” is coherent. I, for one, find the concept of “objective beauty” to be unintelligible. And if beauty is not objective, then beauty does not favor theism, since evolutionary naturalism can explain beauty, including non-utilitarian beauty, as well as theism. (As TaiChi has pointed out, not every inherited trait need be adaptive.) If, on the other hand, beauty is objective, then it’s far from clear why theism is a better explanation for non-utilitarian beauty than, say, neo-Platonism about beauty.

bookmark_borderVictor on Weird Stuff

Victor Reppert has been kind enough to reply on his Dangerous Idea blog to my comments on his earlier posting. I’m replying to his reply, which will evoke a counter-reply, which will get a counter-counter-reply…until one or the other of us has some real work to do and has to break it off. Sigh. That is the damn problem with these discussions. They could go on for lifetimes, but we academics have to work them in between grading papers, committee meetings, publishers’ deadlines, etc.

Anyway, here is what he says:

“I have trouble seeing why people are so sure that he [the supposedly clairvoyant violin teacher] didn’t know, even if they are naturalists. Does he really know that this is naturalistically impossible? It might be less likely given naturalism than given supernaturalism, and thus the evidence might probabilistically support supernaturalism via Bayes’ theorem. (OK, OK, people accuse me of abusing Bayesian probability theory on a daily basis, so I’m already bracing myself). But the most we can say, I think, if my teacher knew that my rival had gone down and been upset, this might be difficult to explain naturalistically based on what we know about nature at this point. Why do we have to assume it was a guess that turned into an appearance of knowledge because of confirmation bias.

A few more details about the incident are relevant here. First, he said he had this “perception” just at the time when the rival went down. Second, my violin teacher never reported anything like this in the three years when he was my teacher. It’s not as if he brought up a bunch of them, and this one just happened to fit. He did mention other clairvoyant incidents, but didn’t claim to have a whole lot of them. Third, although spellers, like all competitors, experience the agony of defeat, nobody ever was quite as demonstrative as this guy. So I’m just not sure you can chalk it all up to guesswork and confirmation bias. In fact, in the absence of some good reasons to believe that he couldn’t have known something that was going on a couple of miles away in that school auditorium, I think the reasonable thing to say would be that he did know.

But, of course, we have to consider the not only the probability of the event given naturalism, but we must also consider the laws of supernature. How probable is the event given supernatural involvement. Is it the sort of thing God is likely to do, or not, if we suspect God? Of course, Keith and I disagree as to whether it is possible to consider the laws of supernature, but people who have beliefs about supernature have probabilistic expectations concerning what to expect from supernature. If you say that’s not enough for a law, well guess what. In quantum mechanics all you get are probabilities also. Are we worried that God isn’t observable? Well, science commits to unobservables all the time.

In considering miracles claims like the Resurrection, we can formulate a theory about what kinds of miracles God is likely to perform, and why he would perform them. Given this theory, we can ask whether the historical evidence is more likely to be the sort thing we should expect if the theistic theory is true, or whether it is more like the sort of thing we should expect if the theistic theory is false. There is a very large trail of historical evidence to look at.

Of course, you can end up deciding that yes, the historical evidence confirms the theistic story, but the atheistic account is more probable based on the total evidence, or relative to your priors.

Have the laws of nature been established by a firm and unalterable experience, as Hume suggests? I don’t think so. My experience is far from establishing the laws of nature on a firm and unalterable basis. What about yours?”


Is clairvoyance impossible given naturalism? I certainly see no reason to think so. We currently have no idea, given what we know about the natural world, how clairvoyance, ESP, etc. could possibly work, and no scientific (as opposed to anecdotal) evidence that it does work. However, it strikes me as dogmatic to say that such events could not someday be verified and scientifically explained. No, my point is that skepticism about anecdotal reports of clairvoyance or other paranormal occurrences is abundantly justified, to the point that we can very reasonably dismiss such stories without further ado.

Consider what we know about memory. I hope I do not embarrass Victor when I reveal that he is within a year or two of my age (58). This means that for him, as for me, seventh grade was a looooong time ago. Memory is not a recording device. It is a story teller. In telling stories to ourselves and others repeatedly, what gets locked in our memories is not what happens, but the stories we tell. It is far too easy to think that the foibles of memory only happen to other people while our memories are clear. So, Victor may–in all honesty, of course–be reporting details that did not happen. The plasticity of memory is naturally a problem with all reports of extraordinary occurrences (Let’s see, was that one angel, or two men in dazzling apparel, or just a young man dressed in white at the empty tomb?).

A principle of rationality that I endorse is this: “When you hear hoofbeats in the distance, think ‘Aha, horses!’ not ‘Aha, unicorns!'” In other words, try hard to give something an ordinary explanation before resorting to a weird one. What I have from Victor is not the original event but a report of an event that allegedly occurred 40+ years ago. That report is the “hoofbeats” here. How best to explain the occurrence of such a report? Even supposing that the event happened exactly as Victor reports it, it would be credulous in the extreme to conclude that this was a genuine case of clairvoyance. Humans have a strong tendency to underestimate the prevalence of coincidence, and paranormalists thrive in that lacuna of human rationality.

Let me illustrate with my own anecdote. Needless to say, World War II seriously disrupted relationships and friendships, sending people for years to distant locales. During the War, my father lost track of an old friend. One day, a couple of years after the War, he was walking down the streets of Atlanta and thought he saw the old friend walking down the block ahead of him. He increased his pace, moving to catch up. Just as he was about to catch up, he blunders into a man who just stepped out of a shop. He steps back to apologize and sees that the man he blundered into was the old friend he thought he was pursuing. Something paranormal? Nope. Coincidence? Yep. Of course, such events are so striking and surprising when they occur, that we have a hard time accepting that they are “just coincidence.” Yet, over the course of a normal lifetime, highly improbable events of some sort or another are almost certain to occur. On a given day, an event like that might be most unlikely, but at some point in the approximately 30,000 days of an 80 year life, it very well could happen.

Victor also notes, correctly, that in estimating the probabilities of miracles, we have to recognize that these estimates will rationally differ given people’s priors. Therefore, the degree of credulity or incredulity with which we approach a miracle report can be rationally different for different people. OK, but I am interested in miracle claims adduced for apologetic purposes. As I see it there are two kinds of religious apologetic–soft apologetic and hard apologetic. Soft apologetic endeavors to reassure the faithful that their beliefs are, for them, reasonable. Thus if a Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins type says that religious believers are all fools or knaves, a soft apologist would show that believers need be neither. Hard apologists, on the other hand, try to bludgeon people like me into belief. But if you are going to try to convince me, you have to work with MY priors, not yours. Soft apologetic is easy to do; hard apologetic is hard.

Is it reasonable for Victor to believe in some miracles, the Resurrection, say? Sure. Why not? Is it reasonable for me to disbelieve it? I defy anyone and everyone to show me that it is not.

Finally, Victor says that his experience is far from establishing the laws of nature on a firm and unalterable basis. Two questions here: (1) If so, does not this make the task of the apologist much harder in trying to convince the well-girded skeptic? If we really don’t have any firm basis for regarding certain things as physical impossible, and I am given evidence that someone rose from the dead, I could just pass this off as something that happens from time to time. No miracle is needed if no natural law had to be violated. (2) OK, well what then is wrong with the following?: A man applied to a welfare agency for public assistance and got back the following bureaucratic missive: “Dear Sir, Our records indicate that you are presently deceased, and therefore ineligible for public assistance. Should your condition have changed, please notify this office within the next thirty days.” Well, holy mackerel. Something is wrong here. If “firm and unalterable experience” have not shown us that the dead remain dead, what has gone wrong???