Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind (Part 1)

The philosophy of mind is one of my strongest research interests. Of all the subjects that I’ve encountered in my years as a student, not a single one has proven itself to be as fascinating and endlessly entertaining (not to mention incredibly difficult) as this one. As such, I’d like to share with you some of the basics of the field. I’d like to discuss the major issue that leads to pretty much every other issue about the mind, and then briefly describe some of the various positions that have been put forward as answers to the major problem in the philosophy of mind.

Philosophy of mind starts when we ask ourselves: “What is the mind? What is the brain? How are the two related?” At least one of these questions seem easy enough to answer. We know where the brain is so we can just point to it, and there we have it, question answered. But it really isn’t that simple. Sure, we know where the brain is, and we know it does some things up there in our skull, but what about the mind? Is the brain causing the mind? Is it simply identical with the mind? Where the hell is that mind, anyway? I see evidence of my mind everywhere, but where the hell is my damn mind?!

 We’ve all heard the old phrase “I lost my mind.” But did we ever have it? I can’t find it. I search and search for it, but there is no mind to be found. The only way I know that I have a mind is because I am searching, and I realize that I am searching, and I realize that this realization itself confirms that I have a mind. And this is exactly how René Descartes arrived at his famous cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I exist). Through the act of thinking itself, one has sufficiently proven to oneself that one is a thinking thing. And what else could a thinking thing be, but a mind? Descartes used this existence proof to anchor his entire philosophical system, proceeding in a stepwise manner to every conclusion thereafter.

Through a methodical process of skeptical doubt of everything that can possibly be doubted, Descartes reasoned that the mind must not be a part of the body itself. We can never be sure that we’re in this body that we see. My hands, typing on this keyboard, may not be real. We could be living our lives in a virtual matrix, like the one from the popular science fiction film. So we cannot be sure of our bodies. But our minds…. of course we are certain about our minds! We couldn’t be in the matrix without a mind to perceive it. If there were no mind, there would be no “I” to speak of.

So now we can address the formal category of Descartes’ philosophy of mind: Dualism. Dualism is probably the longest-living view of the mind in existence, as it can be traced back far beyond Descartes’ time. Dualism holds that the mind is (or resides in) a separate substance from the substance of physical matter. There aren’t any good explanations (to my knowledge) out there of exactly what this mind-substance is, other than the fact that it is non-physical. So Dualism is the thesis that there are two “realms,” one non-physical (where our minds, souls, and presumably also God and all other ethereal beings that have been dreamt up over time reside), and one physical (where everything that we come into contact with on a daily basis resides).

The most common form of dualism is like Descartes’ version. It is called ‘Interactionist Dualism,’ meaning that the non-physical mind can interact with the physical world and have physical effects (e.g., you mentally desire some bacon, so you physically get up and make some bacon), and in turn the physical world can have mental effects (e.g., you have eaten so much bacon that you are now full and desire a nap). I keep these examples limited to desires alone, since it is unclear whether or not sensory perception is considered by most Dualists to be non-physical in nature. Things like desires and beliefs, however, are most universally considered to be purely mental, and hence non-physical, constructs.

The problem with Interactionist Dualism, as you may have already realized, is that it is entirely unclear how things that are non-physical could possibly have physical effects. We can understand physical causation because we see it in action every day. When one billiard ball smacks into another, they tend to roll off in different directions. There is a clear transfer of energy and motion in physical causation. What happens when two minds smack together? Does this question even make any sense? Indeed, it seems that it would take quite an imagination to conjure up a set of rules for non-physical causation, whether we are discussing the interaction of two non-physical things or one physical thing with a non-physical thing.

A highly influential modern philosopher by the name of Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz tried to dodge this problem of interaction with his view called Parallelism. Leibniz called upon God to settle this problem. God set up a “pre-established harmony” so that the physical world and the mental world would appear to completely coincide with each other. While physical things can only interact with each other and non-physical things can only interact with each other, to anyone that is not God (or apparently Leibniz), it appears as though our non-physical mental states are causing effects in the physical world directly. But this is just an illusion, set up by God. A similar view is one called Occasionalism, which holds that God, and only God, is the direct cause of all events. So there is no need to worry about the apparent interaction problem, since nothing interacts except with God. Nicolas Malebranche is a well-known proponent of this view.

A more modern approach to the mind-body problem is one called Property Dualism. Unlike Substance Dualism, which posits two fundamental substances, Property Dualism holds that there is only one substance, physical matter, but this homogenous matter can have two kinds of properties: mental and physical. So our beliefs and desires and the rest of our mental states that are held to be of a non-physical substance by Substance Dualists are actually just non-physical mental properties that reside in physical matter. If you’re confused by this, don’t worry. It is a very strange view to grasp at first. But the basic idea is that mental properties are somehow “over and above” physical substance. On most accounts, it is held that the brain is the physical substance in which all of our mental properties reside. So the brain somehow “produces” mental properties that are not reducible to a set of physical facts. Now, as much as I would like to go a bit further into the different types of property dualism (supervenience, epiphenomenalism, etc.), I’m afraid that this territory is too murky for a novice like myself to be leading others into it. The notions of supervenience and epiphenomenalism are a bit unclear at best, and so I will conclude my discussion of Dualism here.

So during this post, we have familiarized ourselves with some common and notable forms of Dualism. I dedicated a lot of space to this view because it is so influential in the world at large, not just among philosophers. It is likely that most everyone is some kind of dualist. Given the heavy influence of religious traditions in our world, most people desire to hold on to the idea that there is some non-physical reality, and the confusing aspects of the mind find themselves quite at home in this realm. Indeed, for most people, leaving the mind in the non-physical world is a much better option than trying to figure out exactly how a world of only physical objects could give rise to anything like conscious experience and mentality. And it will be in my next post that I will attempt to shed light on some of the views and theories that try to explain how a materialist (and also at least one ontologically neutral) view of the mind can still plausibly account for the nature of our minds.

On Heaven and the Problem of Evil

The problem of evil is one of the most famous (if not the most famous) atheistic arguments in philosophical debate. The well-known theistic philosopher Alvin Plantinga has been credited with describing the problem of evil as “the only argument against God that deserves to be taken seriously.” I’ve had no luck conjuring up the source of the quote, but regardless of who actually said it, there is some truth to the statement. While I do think that there are many other avenues of atheistic argumentation that can serve to support an atheistic worldview (and also disprove a theistic one), it is true that theists are more threatened by the problem of evil than any other atheistic argument. If God were a being who committed evil acts, or allowed them to occur when he could have easily stopped them, then theism is indeed in danger. The position of theism is dependent upon a personal God who is perfectly good.

Here is a basic sketch of the standard argument from evil:

  1. There exists a God who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.
  2. A being who is omnipotent has the power to do any and all things that are logically possible.
  3. A being who is omniscient has knowledge of all and only true propositions.
  4. A being who is omnibenevolent is perfectly morally good, and therefore does not want any evil to occur.
  5. Evil exists.
  6. Therefore premise 1 is false and there is no God who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.

This argument takes the form of a reductio ad absurdum, which initially posits a premise, and then through a process of deductions based on the meanings and entailments of that premise (and in this case we add an observation about the real world), finds a contradiction and concludes that the original premise must be false.

What is probably the most popular response to the argument from evil is the ‘free will defense.’ The free will defense claims that evil exists only as a result of the actions of the free will of humanity. God gave us this free will because it is a “greater good,” and so the balance of good vs. evil is kept in the positive side (the side of good). The goodness of our free will outweighs the evil that results from our decisions. So God allowed the Holocaust to happen because taking away the free will of Hitler and the Nazis would have been a greater evil than allowing Hitler and his troops to slaughter millions of Jews. Or something like that. In any case, theists tend to claim that this is the greatest of all possible worlds, because God created it, and God, being omnibenevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent, wants to create the best possible world, knows how to do so, and has the power to do so. So there is nothing preventing God from doing that, thus God must have done that. (NOTE: This is an obviously circular argument, and it is not the way the actual formal argument for this conclusion typically goes, so please don’t interpret this as me setting up a strawman. I am simply explaining the conclusion that theists have arrived at, not how they got there.)

There is a problem with this response, however. Most theists (usually being Christian) also believe in the existence of a perfect paradise where God will take his beloved creations and allow them to live for the rest of eternity after this earthly, material existence is finished. This paradise is traditionally referred to as Heaven. But the question then arises: isn’t Heaven the best of all possible worlds? Don’t we also have free will in Heaven? No acts of evil are committed in Heaven. Heaven is supposed to be a paradise that is much greater than our existence on this planet. So surely, this great good of free will that we experience here on earth is also available in Heaven. But then where is the evil there?

Consider this problem from another perspective. Imagine a continuum of possible Earths, all of which contain humans with free will. On one end of the continuum, there is the possible Earth in which every human is endowed with free will and has made the most evil decision that he/she possibly could at every opportunity. No good deeds have been done on this Earth, only evil ones. Now consider the other end of the continuum. On this possible Earth, every human is endowed with free will and has made the most good decision that he/she possibly could at every opportunity. No evil deeds have been done on this Earth, only good ones. Surely, this last possible earth is the best of all possible worlds. Presumably, this must be what Heaven is like. But the question now arises: why didn’t God just make this world? Why didn’t he make the world with free beings who happened to have made all and only good decisions with their free will? It seems to me that there is no good reason that God, if he had the properties discussed earlier and were able to create a place like Heaven, wouldn’t have just created Heaven and Heaven only. Why create a further world in which so much evil is to be perpetrated?

The theist, then, when confronted with this issue, appears to have two main avenues open to him:

  1. Deny that God has in fact, or could in principle, create a place like Heaven. Or
  2. Deny that God has all of the properties ascribed to him earlier (e.g., God might not want to prevent all evil, he might not know how, or he might not have the power to do so).

Embracing either of these strategies seems to eliminate the theist from maintaining a Christian standpoint, as Christianity posits both a Heaven and a God with the aforementioned omni-properties.

So, theists…. what’ll it be? Will you have your God? Or your Heaven? At least one of them has got to give.

Positions on Belief and Knowledge

In my first post on this blog, I briefly discussed two different “kinds” of atheism: strong and weak (also known as positive and negative, respectively). It has recently come to my attention that there is more confusion than just between the types of atheism, but also how they relate to agnosticism and theism. So I have decided to create a post that details concise defintions and descriptions of each of the common positions regarding the various orientations toward the existence of God and what we can know about it.

First, I would like to explain the most common position we should expect to find in America: theism. Theism is defined by philosophypages.com as “[b]elief in the existence of god as a perfect being deserving of worship.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy also says that “[t]heism is the belief in a “personal” God which in some sense is separate from (transcends) the world.” Together, we can condense these definitions into one: theism is the belief in the existence of a personal god who is perfect and transcendent. Now, to further clarify on this defintion, I would like to explain what we mean by “personal” and “perfect”. A personal god is one who can be considered a person who has thoughts, feelings, intentions, and all of the normal capabilities that one would attribute to a normally-functioning human being. A perfect god is one who, for every attribute it has, it is perfect in that attribute. So if God is moral, then he is perfectly moral. If he is knowledgeable, then he is perfectly knowledgeable, and so on. (What it means to be perfect in attributes like these, however, is a subject of much debate itself.)

Theism is the standard mode of belief for the three Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). So if you are not a theist, then you definitely do not belong to any of the mainstream lines of thought in these traditions. Most theists interpret “perfect” as including the attributes of omnipotence (all-powerful), omniscience (all-knowing), and omnibenevolence (all-good). So from the theistic perspective, not only is God transcendent, but also he(/she/it) is a person who is able to do any possible thing, knows all truths, is morally perfect, and he interacts with the world and persons in it according to his(/her/its) divine will. It also standard belief that the theistic God is responsible, in one way or another, for the existence of the universe (whether it be creation ex nihilo (out of nothing) or some other process).

Now that the majority perspective is laid out fairly clearly, it is time to move on to its antithesis: atheism. Atheism is simply defined as the negation of theism. Be sure not to only interpret the “negation” as meaning a positive denial of the truth of theism,  for although it can be interpreted that way, there is also another way to understand it. The negation of theism, in its most humble form, is known as weak or negative atheism. It is simply the lack of belief in theism. Anyone who does not hold theistic beliefs is technically a weak/negative atheist (I personally prefer the term “negative” as opposed to “weak”). Under this definition, babies and the severely mentally retarded are technically negative atheists. Cultures that are completely unaware of this kind of conception of God are also technically negative atheists as well. The other side of atheism is strong or positive atheism. Positive atheism is the bold claim that a theistic God absolutely does not exist. Be sure to notice the distinction here: negative atheists are simply without belief in god and do not commit themselves to deny the possibility of god’s existence, while positive atheists are without belief in god and do commit themselves to the denial of the possibility of god’s existence. Some very bold philosophers, such as Michael Martin and Victor J Stenger, have attempted to justify positive atheism in light of philosophical and scientific arguments. Most philosophers and scientists, however, generally believe that no kind of argument could ever absolutely prove or disprove the existence of God. As such, negative atheism is the most common form of atheism that one is likely to run into, and it is the position that I support as well.

Finally, we have agnosticism. In my experience, there is no philosophical position concerning God’s existence that has been more misrepresented and misunderstood by the very people who claim to hold the position. So please allow me to clear up the inconsistencies here. Theism and atheism are ontological positions. This means that they are claims about belief in the objective existence of something. Gnosticism and agnosticism are epistemological positions (I won’t be discussing gnosticism here, since it is fairly straightforward and is the standard epistemological position of most people). This means that they are claims about what we as human beings can come to know, subjectively, about something. So when someone claims to be an agnostic, this is only a claim about what knowledge he or she thinks we can possibly attain. It says nothing of whether or not they believe that a god exists. And again, there are two types of agnostics: strong and weak. Weak agnostics believe that the evidence and arguments concerning the existence of God that we currently have are not sufficient to make a decision one way or the other on God’s existence. Strong agnostics, alternatively, believe that there is no possible evidence or arguments concerning the existence of God that could possibly allow us to give a definite answer to the question. So weak agnostics are basically just waiting for the right argument to come along, and strong agnostics are convinced that no argument could sway them, since it cannot be proven either way.

The major misuse of the term that I want to point out is when people are asked about their beliefs on God’s existence, people often reply with “agnostic”. This, however, is not answering the question. The question is: “Do you believe that God exists?” Agnostics cannot answer yes to this question, and ‘agnostic’ is not a possible answer. When somebody asks you about what beliefs you hold, you perform a mental check of the beliefs in your “belief inventory”. If one is truly an agnostic, then there is no belief in that inventory that reads “God exists”. Therefore, agnostics must answer “no” to the question “does God exist?”. Using this understanding of agnosticism, all agnostics are essentially negative atheists. Agnosticism is not a halfway, fence-sitting position between theism and atheism. It is in a completely different area of inquiry. So the next time someone announces that they are agnostic, politely point out that this reply does not answer the question of what they believe about God’s ontological status, and request that they clarify their position.

So, I hope that this was helpful in clearing up some confusion about these terms. If you are still confused after reading this, please leave a comment to let me know what your questions are so that I may attempt to answer them or refer you to a source that can. And, as with any survey of philosophical positions, there are many more out there that I did not cover. If you would like to know more about those, I can try to help you with that, too.

On Science & Creation

I recently read Part One of Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason, and he raised some very interesting points in this essay. It is amazing how many of Paine’s observations and criticisms of Christianity are just as potent and relevant today, over 200 years later.

Paine began by explaining the nature of revelation. While most Christians today would hold the Holy Bible to be a revelation from God to man, Paine shows how this is a misuse of the term. Once an initial revelation has been made to a single person (Moses, or Paul, or whoever you think was the original author of any of the books), it ceases to be a revelation as the recipient of the revelation attempts to recount the message to others. It immediately becomes hearsay evidence. While anyone has good reason to believe what one has personally seen or heard in immediate experience, one does not have as good of a reason to believe what one has merely heard said by others. As the saying goes, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.

Given the number of lunatics and liars that have been a part of humanity since, well, about the time humanity started, I think it is reasonable to say that the odds that any given person is telling the truth when he or she claims to have received revelation from God is phenomenally low. There are more liars and lunatics than there are prophets (assuming, for the sake of the argument, that prophets are at least possible). This much, I would hope, we can all agree on, theist and nontheist alike. It is not too much to ask, I hope, that we assign a probablity of 1% to the number of people who claim to have receieved revelation who are actually telling the truth.

Now let us consider another scenario. Given the existence of the theistic God, what are the odds that God created the universe and everything in it? Pretty high, right? Most would say 100%, although certainly not all would agree. For our purposes here, though, I think it is safe to say that the vast majority of theists all believe that God created the universe, so let us go ahead and assign a probability of 100% that God created Earth.

With these probabilities in mind, why is it that so many believers disbelieve in the natural processes of the earth as discovered by science? Recent polls indicate that over 40% of Americans do not believe that evolution really happened. They choose to believe what their text of revelation says (or, more accurately, what the religious power-holders have told them the text says), which has only a 1% chance of being correct (and given the historical evidence concerning the authorship of the Bible, I’d say that is a rather generous probability assignment),  rather than what the evidence of the earth has shown, when this planet can be said with 100% certainty to have been created by the very God they love.

What accounts for such awful reasoning? What rational explanation is there behind this massive deception? Is it that powers that be? Are they responsible? What could one possibly seek to gain by holding to an outdated explanation for the origin of cosmos and life on Earth? It couldn’t just be about control of the masses by moral manipulation. The entire account of creation in the Bible can be jettisoned without the least bit harm done to the moral framework set up by Christianity. The liberal and moderate Christians have already shown this to be so.

The reason for the opposition to evolutionary biology is something that I may never understand. Perhaps it is just the human tendency to avoid any and all kinds of change, however minor it may be in reality. It can’t be that simple, though. There are just too many factors that could be at work here.

An Introduction To Free Will

We’re finally discussing one of my favorite philosophical issues in one of my classes: the free will problem. This is such an entertaining and engaging debate because pretty much everybody has a stake in it. Philosophers aren’t the only ones concerned with how the argument turns out (which unfortunately seems to be the case for so much of philosophy). If, somehow, a final consensus were to be reached on the issue, it could radically change the way we understand and operate within our world. Our current notions of accountability and responsibility (both legal and moral) are vital to the operation of our societies. If the foundations for either were to be weakened or perhaps undermined completely, the consequences would be palpable, to say the least.

So, in light of how potentially important and interesting the issue of free will is, I’ve decided to write my next few blogs on the subject. (This should be a nice break for any readers who don’t share my “radical” religious views that I have almost exclusively espoused here.) A large portion of my writing will mostly just be reviewing the discussions and readings from my class, which can serve a twofold purpose: 1) it shall be beneficial to my own understanding of the subject material, which will hopefully be reflected in my test score when our essay test comes around and 2) it will (hopefully) draw some more feedback from any of you who happen to be reading this. I really am interested in hearing what the nonphilosophers think about the free will issues. Sometimes hearing a fresh perspective that isn’t weighed down with previous knowledge of the historical arguments and philosophical problems can really shed light on difficult issues that may have gotten lost in the fog. So rather than beginning with a brief overview of the history of the free will debate, I’m going to just jump straight into the basics of the issue.

There are four main positions in the free will debate. Here is a chart that illustrates them nicely:

        Determined                        Not Determined

 

1

Compatibilism

a.k.a Soft Determinism

2

Incompatibilism

a.k.a. Libertarianism

3

Incompatibilism

a.k.a. Hard Determinism

 

4

Hard Incompatibilism

 

 

Free                           

 

 

     Not Free

 

 

(I have bolded the names that are typically used to describe these positions, and I will use these when referring to them in the future. Also, Hard Determinism and Hard Incompatibilism are very scarcely held positions in the free will debate, so I will not be discussing them here.)

The two most commonly held positions are Libertarianism and Compatibilism.  Compatibilism is the dominant position among those educated in the sciences and also nonscientists who have at least looked into the philosophical issues. It is the view that all of our actions are the result of a process or series of causally related events (in a causally closed world), yet this does not infringe upon our free will.  Compatibilism (as classically conceived) begins the attempt to reconcile free will and determinism by insisting that even though the facts of the past combined with the laws of nature are sufficient to determine only one unique outcome of any potential action in a situation, this does not mean that our actions are simply the result of the laws acting out as they necessarily must do. The laws may be unchangeable, but that does not mean that the facts of the past could not have varied. Had the past been different, then our current and future actions would have been different. So just because all of your current thoughts, intentions, desires, and beliefs that decide your future actions are the necessary result of the way the world happens to be, that doesn’t mean that all of your actions couldn’t have turned out differently. This is not yet free will, but it is the crack into which the compatibilists insert their wedge and do their work.

The next move by the compatibilists is to clarify what kinds of things would definitely take away our freedom. These factors consist of things that are external to oneself: constraint, coercion, and control. A constraint would be anything or anyone that keeps you from doing something that you want to do, e.g., being tied down when you want to walk away. Coercion is any case in which one is forced to act in a way that one does not want to act, e.g., being blackmailed. Control is very similar to coercion, except that it entails that whatever is doing the control is an active agent. So this would mean that one cannot be “controlled” by anything that isn’t an intelligent agent. One can be coerced to abandon one’s house when the lava from the nearby volcano approaches, but that doesn’t mean the lava is controlling one’s actions.

So absent any of the above types of conditions, one can still be free, so long as one is doing what one wants to do. It just so happens that what you want to do isn’t actually up to you. The Stoics had an excellent illustration of this idea. Imagine that you are a dog tied to a cart. The cart is ahead of you and it is rolling, and where it is rolling is not under your control. But as long as where the cart is headed is where you wanted to go anyway, then what you have is as good as any other conceivable kind of free will. So as long as nothing is forcing you at act against your will, one is still free, even though what you willed in the first place was determined, so say the compatibilists. (Keep in mind that this is the classical conception of compatibilism, and there are many new and improved versions that will likely be discussed in later blogs.)

And here enter the libertarians. Libertarians believe determinism is not compatible with free will because mere freedom from constraints and the ability to voluntarily do what one wills is not enough for true free will. They want to be able to control what they will as well. They term the compatibilist conception of free will as mere “freedom of action”, which they deem as only a part of the whole of free will. The libertarians deny that determinism is true, because that is the only way through which we could control our deeper “freedom of will” and not just our “freedom of action.”

The key idea behind standard libertarianism is that in any situation, we must have “the ability to do otherwise.” If determinism is true, for any situation (Sx) with a given set of facts about the past (Pf) and a given set of laws of nature (L) , then only one situation could result: (Sy). Libertarians want it to be such that (Sz) could result as well, given the same (Pf) and (L). Or to put it in what might be simpler terms, one should be able to either perform action A or refrain from performing action A, when the opportunity arises. This is called the Principle of Alternative Possibilities (PAP). If one accepts this principle, then determinism clearly cannot account for any free actions. Some compatibilists have tried to reconcile the PAP with determinism by applying something called a “conditional analysis of can, could, or ability“. This, however, is a very tedious argument that no one but die-hard philosophers would find interesting or take seriously anyway, so I’ll do you all a favor and leave it out. Instead, I’m going to skip to what is perhaps the most famous of the arguments against the libertarian PAP: the Frankfurt-style examples, originally penned by none other than Harry G Frankfurt himself in 1969.

The Frankfurt-style examples attempt to show that the ability to do otherwise (PAP) is not actually required for free will. Consider this scenario:

Charles is incredibly furious with Bob (for whatever reason, make up your own). Charles is so angry that he has decided that he wants to murder Bob. Unbeknownst to Charles, however, before Charles decided to kill Bob, an evil neuroscientist implanted in Charles’ brain a special device that monitors his brain activity. This device is set to force Charles to kill Bob in the event that Charles decides to let Bob live instead. So now we have Charles, who is planning to kill Bob. Let’s say he is right behind Bob with a gun pointed to his head. The evil neuroscientist is watching and knows what is going on. (A) If Charles decides that he doesn’t want to kill Bob, the neuroscientist will activate the device and force Charles to kill Bob. However, (B) if Charles doesn’t back down or change his mind, the device does nothing and the neuroscientist does nothing, and Charles still kills Bob. In either scenario, Charles ends up killing Bob. Now what are you intuitions telling you about these two situations? It seems that in situation (A), Charles should not be blamed for Bob’s death, since he didn’t do it of his own free will, but was forced by the device of the neuroscientists. In situation (B), however, it seems that Charles did in fact kill Bob out of his own free will, and so should be blamed for it.

But perhaps issues of blame should be set aside for now. The key issue in this Frankfurt-style example is that Charles could not have refrained from killing Bob. He could not have done otherwise. But it seems that even though he could not have done otherwise, situation (B) still looks suspiciously like Charles acted of his own free will. If this is true, then the libertarian Principle of Alternative Possibilities fails as a necessary component of free will, and the libertarians must look elsewhere.

I could go on about other related issues, or go into more detail about the issues already presented (as I probably should), but I feel that this post has gotten lengthy enough already. So I’d like to open the floor for any questions or comments or arguments against any position presented. Perhaps I’ve misrepresented something here and you’d like to correct me, or maybe I didn’t explain it clearly enough and you want clarification. Whatever it is that’s on your mind after reading this, I’d like to hear it. Do you think either of the positions here are plausible? Did you already hold one of these views before reading this? Do you think any of this even matters? Let me know what you think, I’m interested.

 

* Note that the majority of the topics and arguments covered have been summarized or paraphrased from Robert Kane’s “A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will”, part of the Fundamentals of Philosophy Series, published by Oxford University Press in 2005. It is an incredibly readable book, and since Kane presents these issues and more in a manner far better than I ever could, I recommend that you get yourself a copy if you are at all interested in free will.

Intelligent Design & The Supernatural

The Supernatural… It’s a word that gets tossed around a lot and gets used in a many different ways. Given my philosophical/scientific fixation, what I’m going to concern myself with here is the idea of the “supernatural realm”. So when I say “supernatural”, I’m using it in the same context as that most of the Western religions. Just so that we can all have the same mental imagery here, let’s try to visualize this as Heaven (and Hell, if you believe in that as well). God’s house, basically. It is that realm, completely distinct from our physical world, where any spiritual entities may reside, whether they be God, angels, demons, or  disembodied human souls. Also, let it be understood that I’m operating on the assumption that we live in the “natural realm”, where science operates to explain things in terms of mechanistic processes. 

 

William Paley, in 1802,  put forth perhaps the most famous version of the ‘Argument from Design’ (though he was certainly not the first to do so). It has come to be called the ‘Design Inference’ among today’s Intelligent Design advocates. The basic idea behind the argument is that in the same way that we can examine old artifacts from ancient cultures and conclude that they (the artifacts) had certain functions and were created by an intelligent agent, we can also note how much more incredibly complex the human body is, and how much more intelligent the designer of these (our bodies) must be. Upon examination of the impressive complexity of the human body (or perhaps life in general), we should infer the existence of a designer, or so the argument goes.

My question about the Design Inference is this: what kind of designer are we supposed to be inferring exactly? The Intelligent Design argument doesn’t describe anything specifically (and for good reason, since that mistake is the main reason why the creationists were destroyed in court). For all their “theory” cares, the intelligent designer could have been a super-advanced alien species from a galaxy far, far away…. But if you look at the members of the think tank behind Intelligent Design, it is pretty obvious which designer they have in mind: the God of Christianity. So although this argument could be used to argue for a non-supernatural designer, I shall only be concerned with those religious believers who reject “macro-evolution” and insist that a supernatural designer is required to explain the multitude of species. 

Now that we have an idea of what designer we are supposed to infer, we can focus my main question a bit more: how is it that we are supposed to infer something supernatural from artifacts in the  natural realm? The supernatural is by definition separate and distinct from the natural realm. But if this is the case, then how could the supernatural possibly interact with the natural? Once “something supernatural” enters the natural realm (say, to create new species), doesn’t that make it “something natural”? Science, by definition, operates and explains only in the natural realm. If science can be used to explain something, then that thing must be purely natural. So if the ID theorists want to use science to back up their claims, they have to accept that they are no longer arguing for a supernatural creator (who could arguably need no explanation of  his/her/it’s own existence), but they are now arguing for a natural creator who cries out for even more explanation than our own existence does. 

This question, it appears is hard for me to articulate in these terms, so allow me to pose an analogous question. Descartes is famous for his mind/body problem. He proposed that the mind was a separate thing from the body, and it was nonmaterial, whereas the body was purely material. The question then arose: how does the mind interact with the body, if the mind is, in fact, nonphysical? How does something that does not exist in space and time interact with something that does exist in space and time? In the same way, how can the supernatural, nonphysical and outside of space and time, make changes on the natural, physical and within space and time? 

Superstition and magic and conjuring was a major part of human life in our pre-scientific days. We would perform dances in hopes of inducing nature to grant us rain. This was due to a lack of scientific knowledge, knowledge that actually does some explaining. At that point in time, functionally speaking, there was no difference at all between complete ignorance of what was going on in the phenomenon of rain and proposing that it was the rain gods. Either situation has the same exact level of explanatory power: none. The choice is either recognizing our ignorance, or putting a cheap tuxedo on our ignorance, dressing it up as an explanation, and saying the supernatural gods did it. The major consequence of the former is a motivation to scientific understanding, or contentment without actually knowing anything in the latter. 

This is exactly what I say is happening when people, like the ID theorists, hijack science and try to use it to validate their own previously held religious beliefs. That’s just bad science, first of all, and also they are trying to make an inference that cannot possibly be made. You can’t speak about a realm or a god that is mysterious and separate from ours and then turn around and try to prove it via empirical means. They are arguing in a circle that destroys itself on the first rotation.

Maybe Religion Really Does Poison Everything

Perhaps Hitchens was right.

I’m not really gonna have too much to say in this post. I mostly just want to share a couple of articles. I really think everyone needs to read them and think hard about this issue. If you’re feeling lazy, forget what I’m writing, just read these articles at the very least.

Why Should I Respect These Oppressive Religions?Despite These Riots, I Stand By What I Wrote

The first is the original article, and the second one is a follow-up.

For me, reading these articles really brings to light the special, privileged status that religion enjoys in this world. It is usually not considered that big of a deal in the social setting, but when religious people become so fearful of having their beliefs questioned that they have to resort to hijacking the government for institutional invincibility, it just becomes sickening and pathetically sad.

Seriously. What kind of “faith” do you have if you don’t have any confidence at all that your beliefs can stand up to rational inquiry? If you’re beliefs are true, then put them out there and show them be true. But I don’t see any believers actually doing that. All I see is people complaining about how the “New Atheists” are so strident and arrogant and rude. And that is just simply false. They doing exactly what anybody would do with any other subject. Just because the story of Jesus in a manger tugs at your heart-strings more than quantum physics does not mean that we have to address the issues of religion and science differently. All claims of any kind should be subject to investigation and critical scrutiny. And the ones that don’t stand up and match the evidence should be discarded.

If some physicist or economist or doctor were to be making ridiculous claims that had no good evidence to back them up, we would question the hell out of em. But somehow when religious people make outrageous claims, we’re supposed to sit back and applaud their faith? We’re supposed to keep quiet while they continue to spread hate and ignorance? Are we supposed to tolerate the violence done in the name of religion every single day? That seems to be exactly what they are asking of us. That is why I’m not only opposed to the institutional protection of religion, but I also don’t think anyone has the right to ask someone to not speak ill of their religion in social settings. You don’ t have the right to not be offended!

I’m finding myself going off on all sorts of tangents here, so I’m gonna end with one last thought. You have the right to think whatever you want to think, and believe whatever makes you happy. But you aren’t allowed to force everyone else to accept your beliefs and act as if they are “above” criticism. To quote the great Ted Mosby, paraphrasing Descartes:  “In order to determine whether or not we know anything, we must first question everything we know.”

If you wanna believe something, that’s great. Go ahead. But if you want to bring that belief into the public sphere, then you’ve submitted it for review by the entire world. If you believe things without proper justification, then you’re wasting the greatest resource that we as humans have: our ability to reason. If you’re not reasoning your way through your beliefs, then your beliefs aren’t worth much, and don’t deserve any special respect. I respect the views of scientists and philosophers and other great thinkers because they’ve dedicated their lives to reasoning their way through things to arrive at the truth. If all you can do is go with what everyone else thinks is true or accept a given worldview on blind faith alone, then your opinion isn’t really worth any respect at all.

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