I wish that I could have dedicated my time to writing about something else. However, the debate has recently travelled down the road of, what I previously called, ‘bad philosophy’, and I feel that I must address that.
I wrote previously about why I thought that considerations of ‘the god of philosophy’ were ill-spent distractions. My primary reason for this opinion is that I think it distract the efforts of concerned individuals away from what actually matters. I thought, also, that the ‘god of philosophy’ could never, by any valid reasoning, be transformed into the ‘god of religion’. Insofar as that is the case, I found it to be a fruitless endeavor, even for the faithful.
Sean, in his 5 part series wishes to embark on this project. I doubt, however, that he can succeed without deferring – in the most crucial parts – to faith. I see that every argument, therefore, reduces to a consideration of faith – which I consider to be an epistemic issue – and it is faith, so I think, that is precisely the problem in the world. I find, therefore, that we are wasting time in considering old philosophical problems and would find our time better spent in discussing whether or not faith was a reliable, or even legitimate, epistemic theory. Any impartial consideration of this problem will find that it is not.
Sean’s first article in the series, in which he considers some form of the cosmological argument, fails in very significant ways – or if it can be considered a success, it is merely trivially so. His argument, if understood as successful, concludes that: if there is a cause (as we understand that word) to the universe then the cause must be spaceless, timeless and very potent. I doubt whether any religious believer would be satisfied with this conclusion.
It is a trivial conclusion, and further its status as an ‘explanation’ of why the big bang occurred is dubious. It is not an explanation or worse so it is a pseudo-explanation, of why the universe exists, because the conclusion is merely analytically true. A proposition is analytically true if the meaning of the predicate is contained in the meaning of the subject. ‘All bachelors are unmarried men’, is the common example – ‘unmarried man’ is a concept contained within the concept ‘bachelor’. But we should not count this as an explanation of why some men are unmarried. Similarly, if we grant, as Sean did, that the universe was caused, it follows analytically from the concept of ‘a universe’ that its cause – which must exist prior to the universe, which is the ‘effect’ – is spaceless, timeless and potent. But this does not explain in any sense at all why the universe was created. For that Sean would have needed to establish that this cause was intelligent and personal – his argument could not succeed here. On its best interpretation, therefore, Sean’s argument failed to establish anything that is theologically meaningful.
But there are good reasons not to grant Sean this best interpretation. What follows are problems that he, and his readership, should be mindful of. (1) If ‘time’ was created with the universe, it follows that there is no time ‘outside’ of the universe. (2) It, consequently, makes no sense to consider any state of affairs prior (a temporal concept) to the universe. Also, (3) if by ‘causality’ (or the notion of cause and effect) we understand that an effect always follows, temporally, its cause, then it follows that (4) there is a cause prior to its effects. This is, what I will call, ‘cause as we understand it’.
It is the case, however, that there is no sense in talking about any state of affairs prior to the universe. Since a cause occurs prior to its effects it is illegitimate, therefore, to understand the universe as an effect of some cause prior to it. There is no sense, therefore, in even asking ‘what caused the universe’, so long as we speak about ‘cause as we understand it’. Not only does Sean’s argument establish a triviality, but if we were truly critical, his argument is not legitimate at all. Sean ought therefore to rebut these problems, or let his project take off from a different base.
Sean’s article presupposes another point – that ‘truth’ can be known. In philosophy this supposition occurs from what I think is an undue reverence for the human faculty of reason. I asked Sean in Part 1, ‘why is it that if something is logically valid we should also think that it is ‘true’?’ (I am using the term truth to refer (in some simplistic sense) to a kind of platonic form) . The assumption that logically valid things are ‘true’ in this sense is an assumption; there are convincing reasons (as opposed to good ones) to believe this, but there is a large conceptual problem here as well. ‘Truth’ (if understood as some platonic form) is not necessarily connected to logical validity. If that is the case, then there is something incorrect about using philosophical arguments to determine, or establish, metaphysical realities. The most philosophy can do, I think, perhaps is to establish consistent and non-contradictory metaphysical conjectures – this, also, should be deeply unsatisfying for any theist. This is, with regards to Sean, surely a problem relevant to the philosophy of science as well as a meta-philosophical problem both about our access to ‘truth’, and to the powers and limits of philosophy and science. He owes it to himself, as well as his readers, to address this problem, or at least to admit that he is not able to solve it.
But this, as well as the theologically relevant issue of the ‘soul’, can be challenged by a more intelligible problem – the problem of dualism. I am referring particularly to a philosophy of mind in which the mind/soul is considered as distinct from the body/brain (Cartesian dualism is probably the most infamous example). Such theories incur numerous (and unassailable) difficulties, the simplest of which is probably the ‘problem of interaction’. If we accept that the universe is causally closed – that physical objects only interact with other physical objects, then it is unclear how an immaterial mind/soul (presumably immortal too) affects and interacts with the brain/body . All serious cognitive scientists espouse some kind of materialism – the idea that the mind is realized by, or dependent on, the functioning of the physical brain. Indeed, I suspect that one can only really believe in dualism either as a product of ignorance (which is not a crime) or as a product of faith.
In support of this conjecture I will refer to a recent news article which details how someone has been enabled to control a prosthetic robotic arm with her mind:
“Using only her thoughts, a Massachusetts woman paralyzed for 15 years directed a robotic arm to pick up a bottle of coffee and bring it to her lips…able to control free-standing robotic arms with the help of a tiny sensor implanted in their brains …The sensor … eavesdropped on the electrical activity of a few dozen brain cells as the study participants imagined moving their arms. The chip then sent signals to a computer, which translated them into commands to the robotic arms.”
This illustrates vividly how our qualitative mental states (desires and intentions) are tracked through our brain by hardware to achieve a behavior in an external prosthetic. This supports, quite well, the idea of materialism, and poses a dramatic challenge to the notion of an immaterial mind/soul. Further, since Sean’s argument turns on the notion of causality he therefore supports a kind of determinism. Since it is quite clear that the mind is realized by the physical brain, and since determinism affects physical objects, the mind must also be determined in some sense and therefore not free. Since dualism is a bogus theory, and since Sean’s argument accepts determinism as true, he would have to conclude (one way or the other), whatever else was true about ‘god’, there was no immaterial (and probably therefore no immortal) soul, and whatever the ‘soul/mind’ was, it was not free. I suspect this would be very unsatisfactory conclusion for any religious person. Theistic arguments, though, ought to take these problems into account.
This also, I think, poses a threat to the notion of ‘reason’ as being some kind of ‘bridge’ between our experiential physical world and some higher world of ‘forms’ (truth). If our ‘faculty of reason’ is a kind of mental capacity, and if mental phenomena are realized by and dependent on the physical brain, then what reason is there to think that our ‘faculty of reason’ grants access to the ‘truth’? This could have troubling implication for any argument (theistic or not) which is attempting to prove or demonstrate something supernatural to be ‘true’. Sean, and many others I’m sure, ought to deal with this problem which is a direct attack on a central concept of Sean’s argument – and theistic thought more generally – that the ‘truth’ can be apprehended by mere thought.
Sean’s argument therefore faces the following problems: He cannot validly assert that there is a cause (as we understand the term) to the universe. He cannot, therefore, establish that there is any ‘causer’ to our universe. Since there is no causer that can be established he cannot then validly attribute any qualities to this causer. Even if there is a conceivable way to talk about ‘causation’ outside and prior to the universe (which conceptually seems impossible), there are only dubious reasons to think that our reasoning represents anything ‘true’ in any supernatural sense.
I am aware, though, that the above is, firstly, contestable – I am not the final arbiter on these matters – and secondly difficult to understand and quite inaccessible. This is, however, the nature of philosophy, and if one is to engage in philosophical inquiry then – to put it bluntly – they ought to do it correctly. As I expressed above, and in my previous articles, the god of philosophy is a useless distraction from the real problems of the world. I doubted whether anyone actually could establish the god of philosophy, and above I have given some reasons why I doubt it.
I think that religious people ought to be more honest and simply admit that they believe what they believe on faith. There is no need to invoke erroneous and inaccessible (and old and boring) philosophical arguments; for none can be valid. Faith is what drives belief in gods, and faith remains a great problem in the world.
I think that if these debates are to continue successfully then we ought to discuss why, or if, faith is a valid epistemic theory. And I challenge any theist, and perhaps particularly Sean, to provide a valid argument to show that ‘faith’ is a good way to come to knowledge. I do not think such an argument is possible. It is not only that I think knowledge cannot be derived from faith, it is that I see that faith based beliefs do some serious damage in the world – damage that could be prevented. We unnecessarily distract ourselves with these philosophical concerns. We would do better to discuss the real issues of the real world.
1. Plato, ‘Republic’, Translation by Robin Waterfield, pp. 237ff (The analogy of the line)
2. John Heil, Philosophy of Mind, pp. 17-26