Posts Tagged ‘Examining Sophisticated Theology’

Philipse on Arguments from Order to Design

August 18, 2017

Chapters 13 and 14 focus on the Argument from Design and other inductive arguments respectively. But it is definitely the case that by this point Philipse isn’t really providing anything new, neither a new and fresh examination of the arguments nor a strong and specific refutation of Swinburne. As such, there’s not that much to say here. The stuff that’s new is Swinburne’s, which won’t be that impressive to anyone who isn’t already a fan of his, and the stuff that isn’t specific to Swinburne isn’t new.

So what I want to talk about briefly is, again, Philipse’s attempt to claim that global arguments from design are more promising than local arguments from design. Again, he appeals to this on the basis of avoiding the “God of the Gaps”, and thus the risk that later science will, in fact, find an explanation for the phenomena. But, again, this is ridiculous. If I could demonstrate that, say, by the best evidence we have the eye is irreducibly complex and so had to be produced deliberately by an intentional agent, it’s in no way a response to say “Well, science might find a way to explain that … sometime. In the future. So you can’t make that claim!”. In the previous chapter, Philipse insists that cosmological arguments need to be inductive arguments to the best explanation, while here he insists that for design inductive arguments to the best explanation aren’t promising because they run the risk of science refuting them at later date. One suspects that if Philipse found any inductive arguments for the cosmological argument that he couldn’t refute he’d be insisting that they fail because science might refute them later, a criteria that he pushes in Chapter 13 for a temporal design argument of Swinburne’s.

At this point, it seems clear that Philipse’s main focus — perhaps unconsciously — is to at all times place the burden of proof on the theistic argument, and thus insist that we must take any scientific explanation before we accept a theistic one. Thus, if we follow Philipse’s idea of “God in the Age of Science” we end up ceding all discussion on the matter to science. Which might not be a problem unless science is, in fact, explicitly naturalistic, as in that case science would accept any explanation — no matter how improbable — over a theistic or supernatural one. In fact, it might even accept “We don’t know yet” over a theistic or supernatural one. Philipse himself directly accepts both of these arguments at various times. Thus, to accept Philipse’s view of “the Age of Science” is to, essentially, concede that atheism and naturalism are true, not because they are specifically better evidenced, but merely because science implicitly and perhaps explicitly assumes them.

Fortunately, we don’t have to accept Philipse’s view. There are a number of philosophical, epistemological and even empirical and scientific issues with his views. And if we don’t accept them, then we don’t accept most of his arguments against the specific theistic arguments that he addresses either. Thus, without us accepting his starting points, we won’t accept where he ends here, and so all of this is just standard replies to the standard arguments.

Next time, Philipse, at the end, talks about religious experiences. It would seem like that would be something he would have addressed much earlier …

Philipse on Cosmological Arguments

August 11, 2017

So, in Chapter 12 Philipse examines Cosmological Arguments in an attempt to show that they aren’t going to work. He differentiates between two main types of cosmological arguments: deductive ones like the classic “First Cause” arguments, or inductive ones to the best explanation. As it turns out, Swinburne also prefers the latter sorts of arguments, so Philipse is going to start by attempting to show that deductive arguments aren’t as promising as inductive ones so that he can spend the bulk of the chapter focusing on inductive arguments and thus also on Swinburne’s arguments and explanations. This will work as long as you end up agreeing with him that deductive arguments aren’t promising avenues to take. If you don’t accept that, then the complicated arguments Swinburne advances will seem like nothing more than a waste of time when simpler and as if not more promising arguments are available.

The problem is that the meat of Philipse’s arguments against deductive arguments are nothing more than taking the two most popular deductive arguments and attempting to show that they don’t work. Sure, he brings in Swinburne’s argument that deductive cosmological arguments aren’t sound, but he — rightly — points out that it’s not easy to argue that without examining the specific arguments themselves. But Philipse then goes on to insist that the literature has done that for pretty much all of those specific cases and decides to demonstrate that by picking two examples and showing that they are not sound and so can be dismissed. Of course, this would in no way demonstrate that all possible deductive arguments are not sound, so it doesn’t even defend against the specific counter that Philipse himself raised. He could have made a decent argument if he had tried to show that having a universal premise would risk them not being sound or would at least lead us to think that establishing universal premises was too difficult a task to be considered reasonable, but he doesn’t even do that. So even if we accept that he’s right about the two arguments he addresses, we have no reason to think that deductive cosmological arguments are just a dead end.

And when it comes to the two arguments that Philipse tries to address, I find that I have to express my deepest gratitude to him, because his attempts to refute them have led me to come to the realization of why they, in fact, actually seem to work. Whether or not I can get to God from those two arguments, when it comes to establishing some kind of First Cause or First Element the arguments seem conclusive. Thus, instead of making me doubt their validity, he’s only made me even more certain that the arguments are right. That’s … probably not what he was going for.

Let me start with the first argument, which is essentially the argument from contingent causes, and I’ll quote his presentation of it here:

1. A contingent entity exists (that is, and entity of which we can suppose without contradiction that it does not exist), or a contingent event occurs.
2. Each contingent entity or event has a sufficient cause.
3. Contingent entities or events alone cannot constitute, ultimately, a sufficient cause for the existence of a contingent entity or the occurrence of a contingent event.
4. Therefore, at least one necessary entity or event exists (that is, an entity or event of which we cannot suppose without contradiction that it does not exist or occur). And because it exists necessarily, it does not stand in need of an explanation.[pg 223]

While I wouldn’t normally quote the counter argument when quoting from a book — as it’s usually not worth the effort to do so when a summary will do just as well and usually be clearer — here I have to quote what he’s saying so that everyone can check to see if my interpretation of it is correct:

What one should repudiate is premise (3), since causal explanations cannot but refer to causes that exist or occur contingently. If one explains causally an event E with reference to a cause C, what one means is that, ceteris paribus, if C had not occurred, E would not have occurred either, assuming there is no causal redundancy. Hence, it is essential to the very meaning of the word ’cause’ that we can always suppose without contradiction that a cause C did not occur.[ibid]

You would think that someone who was in fact a philosopher would do two things here. First, one would assume that in examining this they would take the concept of a necessary object, put it in the place of C, and see if the statement “If C had not occurred, E would not have occurred” still makes sense or itself produces a contradiction. Philipse doesn’t seem to have done that, because it seems pretty obvious that, yes, saying that still makes sense. What it really means to be a necessary entity or event is that it is not possible for it to not have occurred. So what we would say is that C occurred and C had to occur. And because C occurred, E occurred. Now, if C hadn’t occurred, then E wouldn’t have occurred. But, of course, C did occur, because it had to occur. Why is that case that much different from the case where we observe that a contingent C happened in the past that produced an event E? Isn’t it just as contradictory to assert that if C hadn’t happened then E wouldn’t have happened? After all, C did happen, and we can’t change that now. Once C happens or exists, then E will happen. Why C happens or exists doesn’t impact that. It seems to me that Philipse has fallen into a “If humans evolved from apes, then why are there still apes?” argument. His entire argument relies on interpreting the first part of the if as being an actual statement about C, which then implies that to make the conditional work we’d have to actually assert that C might not have occurred. But we don’t need to and don’t do that. The conditional, then, does not in any way imply that it is actually physically or conceptually possible for C to not exist or have occurred, which would be the contradiction. The statement is talking about the dependency of E on C, and not making any actual conceptual statement about C itself. So this argument fails.

The second thing a philosopher ought to do here is actually attack the logic itself, and not simply look to provide a counter-argument, which is what Philipse’s argument actually does here while in the guise of refuting premise (3). The reason to do this is that we don’t want to end up in an Antinomy, where we have two sound logical arguments that lead to the opposite conclusions. Again, Philipse claims to be attacking premise (3), but what he’s really doing — by his own words — is making an argument that the concept of cause makes necessary events — at least ones that have any causal power — incoherent. But that doesn’t attack the original logic that says that you can’t stop at a contingent event, and that by definition every contingent event must have a sufficient cause explaining it. And this argument would go as follows: for an event to be contingent, it means that its existence depends on some event or cause that causes it to happen as opposed to the alternatives. This means that for any contingent event we can ask for an explanation of it, meaning that we can ask what made it so that it happened as opposed to something else (which might be nothing). Let’s call that C. Now, C can either be contingent or non-contingent. If it is contingent, then we would say that its existence depends on another event, C’. Which we could then go and examine to see if C’ is contingent or non-contingent. And so on and so forth. Thus, for any contingent event C we could never stop there, because there would always be something left that we would need to explain, which is why C itself happened, which we can only explain by appealing to another event C’. If, however, that C is non-contingent, then it needs no further explanation for its existence and so we can stop there.

You can argue that my argument depends a lot on us needing an explanation or still having something to explain, which might not be necessary (this might be an epistemological as opposed to a conceptual argument). Fair enough, but remember that Philipse wants us to do theology like science, and science can never say that if there is still something there to be explained that we can simply stop there and claim that we’ve explained enough. Science can argue that we can’t find out that explanation, but that’s definitely an epistemological as opposed to a conceptual argument, and so can’t refute the idea that what we have is a necessary entity or event C out there that stopped our chain of explanation. So Philipse would still need a conceptual argument to refute the idea that there’d still be something out there that can’t be contingent to be the explanation for the contingent entity or event we are considering.

Let me quote the second argument:

1. This event in the universe is fully or partially caused by earlier events. The same holds for other events. They are caused by causal chains going backwards in time.
2. Infinite causal regresses are impossible.
3. Therefore, there must have been a first cause of each causal chain.[ibid]

Philipse uses the standard reply of appealing to Cantorian Set Theory to demonstrate that we can, indeed, have an infinite causal regress. The problem is that the classic examples use there are things like the set of all integers, the set of all positive integers, and so on and so forth. The problem is that these causal sets are not like those, but are more like the Fibonacci sequence, where the existence of any element in the set is determined by earlier elements in the set, except for the initial terms, which have to be stipulated by definition. So, to weaken Philipse’s logic, what he’d have to show is that dependent sets can be infinite in the same way as, say, the set of all integers. If they can’t, then you can’t use Cantorian Set Theory against the argument.

So, having weakened the argument, let me again provide a positive argument for why that isn’t the case. In generating the set of all integers, I can generate a number at random and see if it belongs to the set and add it if it ought to be in the set (and isn’t already there). So I could generate the set, then, by randomly generating 100, 350, 2, 19 and so on and doing so until I have the entire set. Sure, it’s not physically possible for me to do that, but it’s conceptually possible for me to do that. Thus, I can generate any element of the set at any time and be able to determine if that element should be in the set and, in fact, even add it to the set.

Can I do that for a simple dependent set, where, say nm is determined by nm-1 + 1, where n is a positive integer? So I generate 56. Is 56 in the set? Well, in order to determine that, I’d have to know what its m would be if it was in the set, so that I can determine if nm-1+1 = 56. So that means that there needs to be at least one other element in the set before I can determine if this element is in the set. And since that applies to every element in the set, I can’t add any element to the set until I know that another element is in the set. Except for n0, the initial term. If I stipulate that n0 is 55, then 56 is clearly in the set. But if I stipulate that n0 is 233, then it clearly isn’t in the set. Thus, no element can be added to the set until I add an element that is not dependent on any other elements in the set to the set.

And it turns out that for any dependent sets that we come across, we always specify by definition some elements that exist in the set but that aren’t dependent on any other elements in the set. And as soon as we do that, we can then generate the rest of the elements that exist in that set, by proceeding from those initial elements to the next elements down the line. So we cannot proceed infinitely past that starting point and maintain a sensible set that actually contains elements.

Since causal regressions, by (1) are dependent sets, the same thing applies to them. No element can be said to be in that causal regression unless we can specify an initial term that kicks this all off. Sure, if we see a dependent causal regression we can identify it as such and trace it backwards in time, but mathematically we’d have to expect there to be an initial term that is not dependent on any other elements in the set. Thus, mathematically it really does look like the argument holds.

There might be places where I go wrong with these arguments, but the important point is that Philipse has certainly not established that even these two deductive arguments are not fruitful, let alone that no deductive arguments are not fruitful. And since he hasn’t established that, I see no reason to follow him and Swinburne down the complicated rabbit hole of inductive arguments to the best explanation. Which makes the rest of the chapter irrelevant, and so I’m not going to bother addressing it.

Next up: Design arguments.

Philipse on the Probability of Theism

July 21, 2017

So, in Chapter 11, Philipse starts talking about whether or not theism is probable, and what it might mean to determine that. However, what we see here — and have already been seeing in previous chapters — is an odd sort of issue based on the fact that Philipse himself both seems to want to go after theism in general but focus on Swinburne specifically. Thus, Philipse ends up focusing very much on Swinburne’s specific views while still talking about what theists would do or problems they would have in general. It seems that Philipse wants to focus on Swinburne at least in part because Swinburne accepts some of the issues Philipse has with theism and so at least in general more directly addresses those concerns. In fact, we see on a number of occasions Philipse using Swinburne to argue for Philipse’s main points. The problem with this approach is that Swinburne’s view isn’t that of all or potentially even most theists, and so if someone isn’t convinced by Philipse’s arguments they aren’t likely to be convinced by Swinburne’s either, and also won’t find the discussions of the specific solutions Swinburne advances and the problems Philipse has with them all that interesting. Yes, there are solutions and issues with them, but those solutions are addressing problems that many theists think are only issues if you buy somewhat dubious premises and propose a rather odd solution to those problems. This makes chapters that claim to make general points but that focus on Swinburne specifically seem somewhat irrelevant.

Here, in this chapter, I want to ignore all of the points about Ultimate Explanations and Swinburne’s specific use of that and the problems of it. I’m not convinced that even empirically any of this matters, especially considering that I rejected the need for “immunization” of theistic belief last time. I’m also not convinced that the right way to determine which is the more reasonable theory is by using probability — I’m inclined towards Quine’s “Web of Belief” model and so think general fit is better — and am certainly not convinced that Bayesian approaches are the right ones. So most of the chapter is predicated on my accepting premises that I don’t accept, and so the specific arguments aren’t that interesting. Thus, I’m going to focus somewhat briefly on two specific points. The first is a discussion over how probable a belief must be before we are justified in accepting or believing it, and the second is a discussion over the empirical background, which is about as close as Philipse gets to actually arguing for the theistic belief being improbable.

So, let’s start with the first point. Philipse talks constantly about “religious belief” in that section, and talks about “justified” in that context. When he talks about how philosophers view “justified”, and particularly when he talks about it having to be “highly probable”, he ends up shifting definitions here, talking about justified as it is used in “justified true belief” … which is to say, in terms of knowledge. But all we’re talking about here is which theory is to be preferred given the evidence we currently have. That’s probably not a knowledge claim. Sure, if we want to claim that we know God exists based on that reasoning, we’d want a very high probability, but to merely say that it is the most probable given what we know at the moment should only require it to be more probable than all of the competing theories … and Swinburne wanting it to have a higher probability than 1/2 guarantees that. So unless Philipse wants to demand that before we can reasonably think that a theory is the best candidate we have to know that it is the true one, or else wants to insist that one cannot reasonably believe that the best candidate we have is true, he’s just confused here about what belief and justification for belief has to be, conflating belief and knowledge.

Now, the next issue is when Philipse discusses the “empirical background knowledge”, which is critical for a Bayesian analysis and, it seems to me, provides the best reasons to think that Bayesian analysis is less than useful. While Philipse points out that some Bayesians think that the analysis can be subjective, in order to work as an argument against anyone else the probability of a theory given the empirical background knowledge has to be objective enough that your opponent can’t just reject your probability and blunt your argument. Thus, it can’t depend on things that you believe but that others might not. So let’s look at a couple of possible arguments that might make theism improbable based on the empirical background knowledge.

I’ll start with Philipse’s. His main argument is that God, as defined, is a personal being with consciousness, but he argues that “… all empirical investigations suggest that mental phenomena cannot exist without neural substrata.”[pg 205] In short, his big argument here is that you can’t be conscious unless you have neurons and thus are physical, and God is a non-physical spirit. Philipse has ridden this rather dubious argument for the entire book, and it’s still dubious here. First, if we are talking about an “ultimate” consciousness, then if it exists it would have to be able to compute without any limits. But any physical implementation of consciousness would have limits. Thus, an ultimate consciousness would have to be non-physical to avoid physical limits. Philipse could reply, then, that this would mean that an ultimate consciousness is impossible, but then he’d need far more evidence than “So far, all the conscious things that we’ve found are physical!” to demonstrate that. Second, AI is not going to have a neural substratum and we think that it is at least possible that we could get a conscious AI, and there is no empirical evidence that it can’t and at least some empirical evidence that it might be able to from AI implementations. So we have good reasons to find this purported piece of empirical background knowledge a bit dubious.

Richard Carrier, in a recent post addressing Swinburne and another Bayesian theist, brought in another argument:

If we count up all the things in history we at some point couldn’t explain, or thought was explained by magic or ghosts, and then securely found out what the actual cause was (so that it is now approximately a universally accepted fact of science or history), how many of those things turned out to be magic or ghosts? If the answer is zero (and it is…and anyone who denies that, is literally insane), and the number of those things is in the millions (which have reached that degree of investigation, so that it is now a known fact of the world what causes them; not just a belief or speculation), then the prior probability the next thing you ask the cause of will have been caused by magic or ghosts is logically necessarily millions to one against. And if the number of such things is in the billions, it’s billions to one against; if in the billions of trillions, then billions of trillions to one against. There is no rational escape from this consequence.

Well, there is indeed one: call it what it is, the inductive fallacy. This is essentially like saying that you’ve examined millions and millions of swans and so if someone says they’ve seen a black swan the empirical background knowledge makes that radically improbable. The problem here is not so much in saying that it is reasonable to believe that there are no black swans given what we’ve empirically examined, but is instead in choosing to use that as an argument that black swans don’t exist when someone gives you a reason to think that they might. The same thing applies here: if we think that in this specific case that a supernatural explanation makes the most sense for other reasons, saying that we’ve never had one of those doesn’t impact that assessment because it doesn’t — and can’t — address the reasons we had for preferring the supernatural explanation.

But the point here is not to refute these two arguments, or even to say that it is unreasonably for them to hold them (although I think that these particular arguments are so bad that it is indeed unreasonable to hold them). What is important is that these are justifications for very important premises that will greatly impact the prior probability Philipse and Carrier assign to the theistic hypothesis … and are premises that someone might, at least, reasonably not accept. No one need accept Philipse’s idea that mental activity must have a neural substrata or Carrier’s idea that the success or failure of previous supernatural explanations are relevant to this one. And as soon as someone does that, the whole Bayesian analysis — at least, one using priors, and it seems like there is little reason to use Bayesian reasoning if you don’t include priors — goes out the window. All I have to do is say “I don’t think this piece of empirical background knowledge is true” or “I don’t think this piece of empirical background knowledge is relevant” and the whole analysis collapses. Thus, the empirical background knowledge, well, has to be knowledge for it to work here: things known to be true and known to be true by all parties. And the implications have to strongly follow. This is, in fact, a pretty difficult thing to achieve, and neither Philipse nor Carrier achieve it.

Now, the thing is that it’s reasonable — or at least, not unreasonable — for Philipse and Carrier to hold their beliefs. Philipse is a physicalist and denies the existence of immaterial things, and Carrier is a naturalist who denies the existence of the supernatural. As beliefs, they certainly have sufficient reason to believe those things. But others have sufficient reasons to believe otherwise, or at least to withhold judgement on those propositions. And as soon as they do, the priors falter and their arguments for why theism is improbable evaporate.

This result is consistent with my general view on belief, which is that we assess the “likelihood” of a proposition or theory being true based on how well it aligns with our current “Web of Belief” (which includes but is not limited to what we know). If someone is a naturalist, any supernatural explanation will seem incredibly unlikely. If someone is not, then that it is supernatural might count in its favour, or at least will be neutral. And I will argue that this is perfectly reasonable. Moreover, it’s all we can do. Any objective Bayesian reasoning will try to make the assessment give an initial assessment that is the only reasonable one to accept and then move by objective steps to new probabilities as new evidence is introduced, but to do so it can’t rely on anything that we don’t solidly know and so can’t account for differing beliefs. Either we can’t believe what we don’t know — which is wildly impractical — or it will splinter into subjective Bayesian as soon as there’s a belief that is in dispute that at least one party thinks is relevant. And subjective Bayesianism is nothing more than a mathematical complication of what we’d do naturally anyway, as the number it comes up with is meaningless without the context that spawned it.

This, then, is the issue with arguing that theism is “improbable”. You need an objective standard for that to have meaning, but that standard has to be based on subjective beliefs. In general, the insistence of probabilities strikes me as a way to claim objectivity while hiding the subjective premises that underlie the assessment … which explains why these arguments always devolve to arguing over those specific premises in the end.

Next up, cosmological arguments.

Philipse on the Immunization of Theism

July 14, 2017

In Chapter 10, Philipse examines the need — at least according to him — for theologians to “immunize” their theology from science, by which he means that they have to make it so that their theories cannot be disconfirmed by future scientific discoveries. The main issue that undercuts pretty much all of this chapter is, again, that natural theologians and any theologians who are attempt to approach their theology empirically and scientifically ought to be as worried about future scientific examinations disproving them as, well, scientists are … which is to say, not one bit. Philipse seems to want to put theology in general into a bind. He wants to argue that theology can’t be respectable unless it accepts the standards and methods of science, but then should theology actually attempt to do so insists that it can’t be taken seriously in science unless it meets higher standards than general scientific theories have to. In short, if theologians promote more conceptual theories, he’ll dismiss them as not being scientific, but if they promote empirical or scientific theories, if Philipse can come up with any explanation that isn’t supernatural he will claim that those are to be preferred to even the empirical and naturalistic theological theories. At which point, if theism accepts the moves, there is no way for theism to win even if it’s true. But there’s no reason for a naturalistic theologian to accept that there is a problem if it is possible for future scientific discoveries to impact their theory, nor is there any reason for a conceptual theologian to accept that their proofs need to be empirical or scientific in order to be respectable.

Here, Philipse is trying to use the argument of “God of the Gaps” to argue that natural theologians need to immunize their theories against potential future scientific refutation of their explanations. The problem is that the “God of the Gaps”, when it’s used as an argument at all, doesn’t work that way. The basic “God of the Gaps” is simply noticing that theistic explanations were used in a lot of places, and then science came along and replaced them with actually better explanations. If this is used as an argument, it’s an inductive one that says that since scientific explanations have replaced theistic explanations so often in the past, we should presume that for any phenomena where we want to use a theistic explanation we should probably just wait for a scientific one instead of doing that. This is, of course, an invalid argument that at best only means that if you want to promote a theistic explanation for a certain phenomena you need to provide a reason other than “Science can’t explain it” … which we probably should be doing anyway. And if a natural theologian has an explanation for a phenomena that requires there be a God and has reasons for thinking that God is the best or a good explanation of that phenomena, they should not be at all concerned about the possibility that science might come up with a better theory at a later date. Yes, it might … and it might not. We can only assess what is the best explanation looking at what we know now, not by what might happen later. So the need for immunizing theism from future scientific discovery seems to not be a need after all.

However, Swinburne tries to do so, arguing that there are some phenomena that are too weird or too big to be handled by science. I’m not going to talk about the “too big” argument, because that’s essentially cosmological arguments and, well, it’s better to handle that by looking at those arguments specifically and seeing if they work than by worrying over whether science could ever find an explanation for those phenomena. I will talk a bit about the “too weird”, which is basically miracles, and Philipse focuses on the Resurrection as a specific example to look at to purportedly prove his case.

Philipse’s argument is essentially this: if we accept Swinburne’s idea that miracles are too weird to fall under science, then we have to accept that they are, well, improbable given what we know about the world. That’s rather the point of a miracle. But if they really are that “weird” and improbable, then if we are told about one or see something that might suggest that it actually happened, what we probably should do is doubt that the event happened rather than proclaiming it a miracle. Thus, the very characteristics that would cause us to classify it a miracle should also cause us to be skeptical that it actually happened.

This might sound good at first, but when we put it into the context of Hume’s argument which inspires it, we can see the problems with it. Recall that Hume’s argument was, essentially, that miracles are so improbable that no matter how trustworthy we think a witness is it is always more probable that they were lying or mistaken than that the miracle actually happened. Philipse is more generous, conceding that we might be able to have a witness or set of evidence reliable enough to establish a miracle, but that that standard has to be enormously high given that we are talking about a miracle. But the problem is that these arguments smack of denying that an event occurred only or at least primarily because they don’t like the implications of that event actually happened. Sure, they talk about probabilities so as to make it sound more reasonable, but remember that for Hume he would have argued that for someone that you think is completely reliable, has no reason to lie, and who was definitely in a position to affirm that the event happened, it would still be more probable to deny that the event occurred than to accept that a miracle actually happened. Ultimately, then, the argument seems to translate to “If this event occurred, it would be a miracle, and therefore I will deny that the event occurred”. But you can’t deny that an event happened just because you don’t like the implications if it did. You can’t argue that the reliability of someone’s testimony is determined by whether or not you want to believe that the event they’ve testified to actually happened, or that someone’s senses must have been deceived just because of what they saw. Ultimately, that really seems like an argument that you will deny all possible evidence because you don’t like the conclusion that evidence leads you to.

We can see this more fully when we look at Philipse’s analysis of the Resurrection. Philipse wants to jump through all sorts of hoops to deny that the event occurred, but all he ends up doing is showing us what we ought to already know: we don’t have enough direct evidence to accept that the Resurrection actually happened. We, at least in modern times, don’t have anything like direct testimony from a reliable witness or set of witnesses that were in an appropriate position to witness the event. Instead, we have second-hand testimony passed down primarily by word of mouth until it was written down, which allows for corruption and the introduction of false and misleading testimony and evidence into the record. So we have reasons to doubt that the event happened independently of what actually happened … or, at least, to say that the evidence we have for it isn’t sufficient to establish that the event actually happened.

Now, if Philipse could argue that it is the “oddness” of the event that drives our skepticism, then he’d have a point … but that’s not what drives our skepticism. Yes, we tend to demand stronger evidence for stranger beliefs, but as it turns out a “miracle” being ascribed to a purportedly supernatural being is less improbable than if it is being ascribed to a natural being. For example, in a series like the Elenium or the Amber series we’re not going to blink an eye if someone casts a magical spell, but we’d be dragged completely out of immersion if, say, Jack Ryan did that. Since Jesus is purportedly a supernatural being, His being involved in a miracle is consistent with what we’d expect from such a being. No, what makes us skeptical about the Resurrection is less its oddness and more its importance: it is absolutely critical to Christianity that it happened, and so those skeptical of Christianity are going to peruse it in detail before accepting it. In general, it is always at least a combination of oddness and importance that drives how easily we will accept certain claims. If someone said that Jesus ate fish on a particular day, we wouldn’t subject that to any scrutiny. But if someone argued that a certain important event depended on Jesus eating fish on a particular day, we in general would want to make sure that we had really good evidence that that did, indeed, happen on that day.

And as we saw above, “oddness” isn’t really “improbable”, but is instead more “inconsistent”. If, say, someone said that I ate fish on a particular day, that would strike at the “oddness” criteria, even though people eat fish every day. The reason is that _I_ don’t like fish, and so I don’t eat it very often. So someone being told that about me would find it puzzling and would want more evidence before accepting it. And if my eating fish that day mattered for some reason, then that inconsistency might even drive them to strongly doubt that as confirming evidence. This is why Jesus performing or being part of a miracle is less odd than, say, my doing it would be; it is consistent with our expectations for a supernatural being like Jesus and inconsistent with our expectations for a natural being like myself.

So this defense of “oddness” doesn’t work. Ascribing supernatural actions to a supernatural agent won’t trigger than criteria in our skepticism. The Resurrection triggers skepticism because it is a important event that we have little solid evidence for, not because someone being raised from the dead is just that odd. And even if it was, demanding exceedingly high standards of evidence can only be seen as an attempt to set the bar so high that the atheist need never accept that a miracle or the Resurrection ever occurred, which is not a reasonable position to take, and is a position that no theist need accept. Ultimately, the best way for a theist to approach the arguments in this chapter is to simply refuse to accept the presumptions that underlie them, and thus to deny that there is any problem at all, requiring Philipse to put forward far better arguments for them than he has.

Philipse on the Predictive Power of Theism

June 30, 2017

In Chapter 9 of “God in the Age of Science?”, Philipse points out that to count as a scientific theory, theism — or “bare theism” as he likes to insist he is sticking to — must have some kind of predictive power. To be fair here, this is an argument that natural theologians will have to address, so he’s off to a good start. The initial argument is that predictive power as per predicting future events is going to be problematic for theism, at least because it hasn’t really had a lot of that sort of predictive power in the past — a lot of religious assumptions were wrong in the past — and because the conception of God ends up being vague enough that without, at least, importing specific religious concepts it’s going to be hard to tie specific actions to that bare theistic conception of God. Note that this is more my overall summary of the underlying problems; I think that Philipse ultimately makes arguments of this sort, but am not certain if he makes them this explicitly and directly.

At any rate, Philipse eventually concludes that theists are likely going to want to retreat to a notion where, essentially, theism is seen as the best explanation for the evidence we have, even if we can’t use it to predict new discoveries. This becomes much more important and prominent later, but here Philipse wants to question whether we can have any background that we can use to determine the intentions and plans of the intentional being God, so that we can determine that if God existed the world and universe or that any phenomenon in particular is a confirmation or disconfirmation of the theory that God exists. And as usual Philipse attempts to show at least the problems with this — if not to provide reason to think that the theistic theory has no predictive power — by addressing a specific argument of Swinburne’s, that of moral access. The argument is essentially this: there is such a thing as objective morality, and we at least have some ability to determine what is moral and what isn’t. God is by conception ultimately moral, and so will always act in accordance with the highest standard of morality. Thus, the background we can use to assess what things God would or wouldn’t do is to appeal to objective morality as a starting point.

Philipse follows the two standard tactics here. The first is that he starts from assuming that if he can find any other alternative explanation then he’s created a serious problem for the theist, and the second is that he decides to go after and attack the idea of objective morality itself to deny it. Thus, he appeals to evolutionary biology and the assertions of some of them that morality is nothing more than evolved preferences built to promote social structure. The argument always boils down to the idea that if we have a different evolutionary path — if we were all hive creatures like bees, for example — we’d have a radically different sense of what is or isn’t moral. Thus, morality can’t be objective in the way Swinburne wants it to be to work as a background for God.

Well, first, just because some evolutionary biologists and others think this is plausible, it doesn’t mean it is. Philipse would need to do a lot more work to show that this is indeed an argument that Swinburne would have to take seriously. Second, it has serious flaws. The first is that a number of our moral decisions seem to follow more from our intellect than from our biology. For example, vegetarianism is not a moral conclusion that an evolved omnivore would just naturally adopt. Neither is the idea that sexual relations with someone who has entered puberty but is under 18 years old is immoral. As we develop new societies and new technologies, we adapt our idea of morality using our intellect, and it is reasonable to assume that intellect would apply across species. So if we put aside “ought implies can” arguments — where, for example, a carnivore cannot properly consider vegetarianism morally right — it’s certainly not clear that we can’t have a general, intellect-based objective morality. The second is that assigning morality to societal conventions doesn’t work either. Our moral intuitions make a sharp distinction between social conventions and moral claims, and this rather famously is something that psychopaths fail at. So taking that route to eliminate objective morality doesn’t seem all that plausible either.

The real issue is that trying to oppose Swinburne by opposing objective morality is taking a fairly controversial stance. It’s going to need a lot of argumentation to establish this as plausible to anyone who doesn’t already think that there is no such thing as an objective morality of the sort Swinburne holds. And Philipse, in general, seems to think that he can just drop in an alternative theory and say “You could be wrong!” and raise a serious challenge for his theistic opponents, but this isn’t the case. Taking that tack only leaves a debate where both sides — as I just demonstrated above — try to argue that their idea is more intuitively “plausible” than the other idea is. This is not likely to be productive, even if Philipse would bother giving stronger arguments for his claims than the points that he, himself, finds personally plausible.

The question of whether theism is the best explanation for the world we see will come up again and again, so this chapter lays a relatively important groundwork, even if its arguments really go nowhere and we never really have reason to think that theism has no predictive power. In the next chapter, Philipse will talk about attempts to immunize theism from scientific explanation.

Philipse and God’s Necessity

June 16, 2017

So, it’s been a while since I commented further on Philipse’s “God in the Age of Science”, but I am still committed to finishing it one day. I actually haven’t finished reading it yet, because I felt I needed to go chapter-by-chapter and comment on it, and so I’m reading a chapter or two ahead, commenting on it, and then going back to it. So things might change when I read later chapters, but so far that hasn’t really happened.

Anyway, here Philipse is talking about questions of whether or not God can exist necessarily, and again invokes Swinburne as his main source, seemingly both for ways that God can be necessary and for criticism of ways to claim that God’s existence is necessary. This is problematic because Swinburne’s idea of making God’s existence necessary seems to me to be fairly eccentric and esoteric, and so doesn’t seem to comport with the most famous arguments for the necessity of God. Philipse and Swinburne might think that that is a benefit on the basis that the more famous arguments don’t seem to work at all, but I’m not as convinced of that as they are.

At any rate, the move here is to eliminate purely conceptual arguments for God’s necessity and so for his existence. Philipse sets up a purported dilemma for the theologian: either they argue that God necessity is a purely conceptual one like that of numbers and so empirical evidence is neither possible nor required to demonstrate the existence of God, or else they argue that God’s necessity is an empirical matter but then run the risk of all of their arguments for why, say, the universe needs a cause being applied to God. The main issue here, though, off the top is that this does not apply to the theologians who are most likely to argue that God exists necessarily, which are theologians who are more conceptually/philosophically based than empirically/scientifically based. Any purely philosophical theologian is not even going to blink at the first horn of the dilemma, as that is likely one of their main arguments. Philipse may argue that he’s demonstrated that in the “Age of Science” the existence of anything requires empirical evidence, but obviously I’m not convinced of that. So if a philosophical or conceptual theologian actually makes one of these purely conceptual arguments work, I’m certainly not going to be all that concerned that it means that we can’t use empirical evidence to prove the existence of God. The important thing would be proving the existence of God, not how one actually managed that.

And unfortunately the only real argument that Philipse musters against the philosophical theolgian here is one from Swinburne: a purely conceptual God doesn’t seem like one that is worthy of worship. This does not work for Philipse — even though he tries to make it work — because Philipse is clear — and he goes on and on about this in Chapter 9 — that he is after bare theism, which is examining theism at a base level without, say, reading in too much from religious works and texts. But whether or not God is worthy of worship or not is not a proposition of bare theism, but is instead a proposition of religion. If, say, someone proved that an Evil God actually existed and everyone decided that that God wasn’t worth worshipping, that wouldn’t change the fact that God, in fact, actually exists. The key here is that Philipse cannot get away with arguing that a particular conception of God cannot be used because most religions wouldn’t accept it because, nonetheless, that concept would defeat atheism. And so a conceptual God who is necessary in the way numbers are necessary cannot be ruled out because arguably it wouldn’t be worshipped. If it would still count as a theistic God, then it has to count against Philipse’s atheism.

Now, there is an issue here for the natural theologian. The natural theologian is going to want to be able to use empirical evidence to prove the existence of and the properties of God, because that’s pretty much the definition of the field. But what they are going to want to avoid is, in so doing, making God a natural entity. We can restate the dilemma more clearly as this: natural theologians want to be able to look at the natural world to find evidence for the existence and properties of God, but is so doing have to avoid making God an entity just like any other entity, or else it won’t be God anymore. Which, when put that way, is less like a dilemma and more like a challenge: how do we preserve God’s “specialness” while still using evidence from the natural world?

As I said above, I don’t find Swinburne’s answer to that all that interesting, so I’m going to completely ignore it. What I am going to do is take Scholastics’ argument for God and show that it, in fact, manages to, at least potentially, meet that challenge. The idea, let me remind you, is that what we have is a Ground of All Being. Without a Ground of All Being, nothing can exist, and so we know that the Ground of All Being exists. But note that this argument relies heavily on observations of the natural world: things exist in the natural world, and so there must exist a thing that grounds their existence. Thus, we can go out and see if things exist, and if they do then a Ground of All Being exists.

This isn’t all that monumental, of course, but it gets interesting when we start asking what properties the Ground of All Being has to have, because the argument is that not only does this ground the bare existence of things, but also the existence of any positive properties that we observe in the world. So, do we find conscious beings? Then the Ground of All Being must be conscious, and have “perfect” consciousness, because the properties in the natural world are merely reflections of or participate in those ideal properties that the Ground of All Being possesses. Do we find moral beings? Then the Ground of All Being is ideally moral. Do we find agents with agency? Then the Ground of All Being has ideal agency. And so forth and so on.

What we can see from this is that, given that theory, the Ground of All Being — that the theory calls God — must exist necessarily, but all of the arguments for that entity and for its properties are natural/empirical. We know what properties God has by looking at the properties that exist in the world, and then applying them to God, and we know God exists because the natural world exists. This, then, seems to effective go between the horns of Philipse’s dilemma. If it works, of course.

This also answers the question that Philipse raises again, which is why the universe can’t be the thing that has necessity. The answer is that, under this theory, it can, but then it would be conscious, have agency, be moral, be omnipotent, be omniscient, and so on … at which point it would be God for all intents and purposes, and Philipse would be doing nothing more than quibbling over the name.

So, even if we accept that the natural theological approach is the only one that has validity, there are indeed potential ways to answer Philipse’s challenge that don’t rely on Swinburne’s. So we can’t eliminate necessity that easily.

Next chapter Philipse looks at whether the theory of God has any predictive power. He’ll obviously say “It doesn’t” but the hard part is going to be demonstrating that.

Is an Evil God as Plausible as a Good God?

October 19, 2016

Jerry Coyne has made a post linking to a video by Stephen Law that argues that the standard free will defense for God allowing us to act in evil ways would also work to justify an evil God. He posits that there might be an evil God who wants us to suffer and that might be the God who created everything. He then notes that the first counter to that would be that we’d imagine that the world would contain a lot more suffering than it actually does if that way the case, at which point he uses the “free will” defense to say that just as we can posit that a good God allows us to choose evil as an unfortunate but necessary consequence of us having free will, the evil God can allow us to choose good as an unfortunate but necessary consequence of us having free will. Thus, the free will defense allows us to justify both an evil and a good God, and so cannot be used to choose between them.

The first issue here is that it ignores the idea that allowing humans to have free will is, in fact, good in and of itself. If it is better for humans to have free will than it is for us to be nothing more than the willing puppets of God with the illusion of actually making free choices, then we can easily see why a good God would allow us to have free will and even why a good God would accept us acting evil out of that free will, but it’s difficult to see why an evil God would give us that great good in the service of willing evil acts. So, if we stick strictly to good and evil here, a good God would give us free will because giving us free will is in and of itself good, but it seems inconsistent for an evil God to give us such a great good. To oppose this, you either need to show that free will is not a good, or that it facilitates in some way some great evil. Both of those would be daunting tasks, to say the least.

However, as I’ve already discussed, talking about “good” and “evil” is almost always too vague. We need to work out what we mean by “good” and “evil” to really work this out. Even Law assumes that his evil God really wants to increase our suffering. So let’s compare, then, a moral God who wants us to act morally to a sadistic God who wants us to suffer. Since being moral requires us to have free will and the free will to choose to act morally — an argument that Coyne, at least, can’t oppose since he thinks that if we don’t have free will then the concept of morality is meaningless — we have a good reason for a moral God to want to give us free will. This doesn’t seem to work for the sadistic God. After all, if the sadistic God really wanted us to suffer, he could just turn us into self-aware puppets with a strong innate moral fiber, with the ability to understand that what we are doing is wrong, but being unable to stop ourselves from doing it. This world is not like that. Additionally, if we are given the free will to stop hurting each other, then we might, in fact, all just go ahead and do that, leaving a world with a lot less suffering. This doesn’t in any way promote the sadistic God’s plans. One might argue that allowing us to act immorally might mean that all of us might choose to always act immorally and so contradict the moral God’s plans just as much, but it is clear that the moral God needs to risk that in order for us to act morally at all. The sadistic God does not need to give us free will in order to make us suffer.

But wait, I can hear some of you cry! Aren’t you pulling a bait and switch here? Why are you comparing a moral God to a sadistic God? Why aren’t you comparing a moral God to an immoral God, a God who wants us all to act immorally all the time? After all, the immoral God requires us to have free will just as much as the moral God does. So, let’s take a look at that case.

In order to assess this, we first need to decide what it means to act morally. Let’s first consider the case where what it means to act morally is to act according to what God says is moral. In this case, then, moral God wants us to act according to the moral rules that he has defined, while immoral God wants us to violate those rules, well, pretty much all of the time. At this point, immoral God seems to be drifting towards “insane God”, setting up rules that he deliberately doesn’t want us to follow. The best we could say about this is that it might be a God that is encouraging us to think for ourselves … but since that might mean that we act according to the rules or not according to the rules as we see fit we no longer have an “immoral” God, but instead a God that allows us to make our own choices, and thus a “free will” God. But a free will God has little reason to make moral rules in the first place. Thus, an immoral God under this model seems rather implausible, as either it has to be advocating against follow its own rules, or ends up as a God that doesn’t really want us to act immorally at all.

Next, let’s look at moral relativism. Here, the moral God would want us to act according to and consistently with our own ideas of morality, while the immoral God would want us to, in fact, act against those assessments. But giving us the ability to assess the situation morally flies in the face of that. Why care about morality at all if we aren’t supposed to follow it? It’s difficult to imagine a reason why an immoral God would, again, want us to have any moral capabilities at all in that case. So we’d have to retreat to God wants us to suffer or God wants us to make choices. Either way, the immoral God seems out of the picture.

Finally, let’s look at there being an objective morality that is independent of what God thinks is moral (ie it’s not just defined by what God says is moral). A moral God would want us to follow it, while an immoral God would want us to violate it. But we have to ask why, in fact, each of them would want us to do that. A moral God can appeal to either the idea that as moral agents — created as such by God — it is our natural duty to try to act morally, or the idea that it is better for us to act morally. The immoral God can’t appeal to the idea that it is our duty to act immorally if we are created as moral agents, and if we are not created as moral agents we are amoral, not immoral. Again, in that case it would be better if they hadn’t created us as moral agents at all, and if immoral God doesn’t create us as moral agents, then it doesn’t need to care about morality — or free will — at all. However, immoral God can appeal to the idea that it is better for us to reject that objective morality and so that’s why we should act immorally, as well as why we should have an idea of what is moral, so that we know what to avoid. But then we can sub back into the original question and note that that’s not an evil God anymore. On that argument, both moral and immoral God are advocating that we do what it is in our own best interest, which is, therefore, a good God. Their disagreement would be over whether being moral is good or whether being moral is bad for us. And most of us, by default, are going to side with being moral being good.

Thus, Law’s argument doesn’t work. Evil or immoral Gods tend to either not care about being moral or end up being good Gods of some sort anyway, and always end up being less plausible than good Gods. This does not mean that we have good Gods and don’t have evil Gods, it just means that this little quirk on the Problem of Evil doesn’t work to establish the point Law is trying to make here.

Philipse on Personal Identity

September 2, 2016

Yes, it’s been over a year since I last talked about “God in the Age of Science”, but I haven’t forgotten about it. So here I’ll talk about the last section in Chapter 7, which is the one on personal identity. It’s also the one where Philipse’s two main arguments really made me wonder if he was, in fact, even a philosopher.

Philipse is trying to address an argument by Swinburne here — again, although it won’t be all that problematic until the next chapter — that argues against the empirical/naturalistic idea of determining personal identity, presumably because after all of Philipse’s previous arguments about bodies it would seem to leave God out, or at least mean that we could only talk about the personal identity of God by analogy, which Swinburne is loathe to do. So Swinburne, according to Philipse, tries to dodge that problem by arguing for Cartesian Dualism, and at least against the empirical idea. Swinburne’s argument is essentially this:

1) If the empirical account — which Philipse favours — is true, then there are going to be cases where there is no right answer to the question of whether a person P1 is is the same person as another person P2.

2) But there is always a right answer to these questions even if we might not always be able to actual know or determine what that right answer is.

Therefore, the empirical account is wrong.

Philipse accepts 1), and so will try to challenge 2), and in fact — continuing his habit of making arrogantly grandiose claims — will insist that it is false. This means that he will have to deal with the thought experiments about brain transplants that Swinburne uses to try to demonstrate the issues. Unfortunately, here is where he introduces a pair of not only really bad arguments, but ones that are arguably anti-philosophical as well:

An account of a concept should give us an illuminating overview of the various uses of the relevant term in the language. However, our language is not made for a fanciful science fiction world, but for the real world in which we are living.

… it is a methodological mistake to test an analysis of an ordinary concept such as the concept of a person or the concept of knowledge by attempting to apply it to science fiction examples. … One cannot elucidate the normal concept of a word, and analyse the concept it expresses, by wondering how it we should apply it to imagined situations that never or very rarely occur, and in which the concept loses its grip.

This is, lamentably, a very common argument that many people use against the philosophical use of thought experiments: it’s not covering real situations, so any problems that it raises aren’t actually problems. However, it is odd to see a philosopher advocating that thought experiments aren’t of any use in analysing a concept. It is even odder to see a philosopher essentially arguing that the point of conceptual analysis is merely to give an overview of how people use the term. Thus, if most people think that gut feelings or faith entail knowledge, it would seem that the job of the philosopher to find out a view of the concept of knowledge where that can be true, instead of pointing out that the actual concept of knowledge, independent of the common usage, seems to leave those things out as true knowledge. So it really looks like Philipse is limiting conceptual analysis to something that we’d normally think some branch of linguistics might do, which is simply list out the common usages of a word. Surely philosophical conceptual analysis is to do more than that, and thus separating it from common usages is key to ensuring that we are not misled by errors in the common usages.

And the big effect here of those arguments is to give the impression that the main reason Philipse is trying to discredit the use of thought experiments is because the thought experiments really are a problem for his view, which is also how those arguments are commonly used in the other areas. Thus, it seems like the thought experiments raise something that even Philipse thinks is a problem for his view, and he has to retreat to “Well, these are too artificial of cases” to try to avoid those nasty consequences. But Philipse’s main view is that 2) above is false, as he strongly asserts later. Thus, if Swinburne’s thought experiments really came up with examples where the empirical approach couldn’t give an answer to the question of whether a person P1 was another person P2 or not, then there ought to be no problem for Philipse, as he is in no way committed to saying that there really must always be an answer to that question. So, if it is such a problem that he must go to great lengths to invalidate the thought experiments by, essentially, invalidating all of them, then either he is indeed committed to the claim that there must always be a right answer to such questions or, else, these specific thought experiments are cases where even the empirical approach ought to have an answer, and it doesn’t. Either way, his dodge fails, and he’ll actually have to answer the issues raised by the thought experiments.

And he uses this analysis as the entire basis for his conclusion that 2) is false, when obviously it shows no such thing. He retreats to a claim that, in fact, as merely a description of normal usage it’s fine for it to have gaps, but that doesn’t mean that, again, there are cases where even by that usage there is no right answer to the question.

The rest of the chapter are simply attempts to show that Swinburne’s Cartesian Dualism might fare no better, a step that ought to be unnecessary if he actually had proved 2) false. Even then, a dualistic approach always has an answer: P1 is P2 iff the mind in P1 ends up in P2. We might not be able to prove where the mind actually went, but that wasn’t Swinburne’s contention. Arguably, Philipse has the same options open to him for the empirical approach, but for some reason he doesn’t take them.

In Chapter 8, we’ll look at necessity again, and note that Swinburne’s problems about necessity don’t seem to be ones that would bother other theists, like the Scholastics.

Review of “Sense & Goodness Without God”

January 29, 2016

So, I finished reading “Sense & Goodness Without God” by Richard Carrier, and it’s the worst atheist/New Atheist book I’ve ever read … and I’ve read “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality”. Carrier manages to be even more arrogant than Rosenburg, but doesn’t make up for it by having better arguments. In fact, often he doesn’t really have arguments at all, but instead has small sections where he arrogantly tells us just how right he is, while leaving a long, italicized section at the end to tell us all of the things we ought to read to know how right he is, which is often longer than what he actually says in the section. This doesn’t work for either a popular work or for a detailed philosophical work. For the former, as most people won’t, in fact, read those works either he must be appealing to authority — look at all the people who agree with me, I must be right! — or ask them to take it on faith that the arguments are really there and are really devastating if we read them ourselves. For the latter, philosophers might well be willing to or have already read the works, but then what you’re supposed to do is summarize the important points and show how they directly reinforce your point, and then simply cite the works later. Carrier doesn’t do that, and so his actual words aren’t convincing and few will be willing to dive into the massive additional reading that he recommends. It very much seems like Carrier wants us to do his work for him.

If we could consider Carrier a fair commentator on the work of others, this wouldn’t matter quite so much, but Carrier spends a lot of time refuting points that he never really summarizes, and barely quotes. Despite Carrier often railing against quote-mining, all of his attempts to address others are nothing more than his pulling in short quotes out of context and then trying to refute that as if that was entirely the point. If that was entirely the point, then Carrier’s counter-arguments might work, but we ought to be suspicious that that really is the entire point … and, again, Carrier really gives up no reason to do the extra work to think that he’s right. In general, we’d be far better served by reading someone else than by doing the massive amount of work required to get Carrier’s points.

Many of Carrier’s points proving naturalism/materialism seem to boil down to wordy claims of “If I can find a way that it could be natural, then we ought to consider it such”, which has been said better elsewhere and with more credible natural solutions. Some of his arguments are interesting, but not enough to convince me that his view is worth considering to the level that his arrogant prose suggests we should. Also, the book needs updating, because he is very much convinced of things then that he seems to be not convinced of now, such as how he relies on his love for his now ex-wife to say that he knows what love is and entails, which doesn’t seem to be how he sees it now. Sure, the personal life of the author isn’t relevant to an argument unless he uses his personal beliefs as proof of how he just knows something was true that he doesn’t think is true now. Which carries over into his view of science, as he seems to try to claim that we know that science is reliable because it gets things wrong but corrects for it, which might establish that science overall is reliable, but not in the way he wants so that we should prefer any scientific answer because, it seems, science will eventually get it right, and this might just be the right answer. Yeah, if I find a scientific answer sufficiently counter-intuitive and science cannot answer for why my intuitions are wrong, saying “Well, it might be wrong, but it’ll get it right eventually!” is not going to help.

This is book crying out for fisking, but I’m not sure I’ll ever get around to it. Suffice it to say that there are better books out there to try to argue for materialism, and that even the prose of this book is annoying and hard to get through. It’s a slog to read and you probably aren’t going to learn anything that you couldn’t find out from far more entertaining works. I cannot recommend this work to anyone, even the people it is aimed at.

Philipse on Psychological Terms

July 15, 2015

The main goal of Chapter 7 in “God in the Age of Science” is to reduce all descriptions or all possible descriptions of God to metaphors or analogies, so that Philipse can then argue that by Swinburne’s own logic that the word “God” is meaningless and so that you therefore can have no rational or scientific belief in the existence of God. What Philipse tries to go after first is the psychological terms, because most people willing to describe God as having certain psychological traits — loving, angry, etc — and so could move from there to something that works as a description. Philipse wants to undercut this move, and so wants to find a theory of psychological terms that lets him leave God out. In so doing, he talks about three main views of the semantics of psychological terms: Cartesian dualism, behaviourism, and one which he amazingly — and I think indicatively — doesn’t actually give a name but instead describes as being one that Wittgenstein developed in his later years.

Now, my first thought when I read this was: where’s the “mental states” theory of psychological terms? I’m a card-carrying dualist about mind, but I of course know that you can, indeed, have a “mental states” theory about psychological terms with being a Cartesian dualist. All you have to accept that a psychological term refers to a mental state — and not simply a set of behaviours, for example, or a state of the physical brain — and you have a mental state theory. So, for example, if you say that what it means for a person to be in pain is that they are having an actual sensation of pain, no matter how they are acting, then you’re holding a mental state theory. This could still be produced or even in some sense reduce to a physical brain state, as long as you don’t argue that the term “in pain” just means “My brain is in a certain state”. But it’s clear that Philipse is lumping the mental states theory in with Cartesian dualism, and then attempts to refute that theory by refuting Cartesian dualism, including by arguing that Cartesian dualism isn’t accepted philosophically anymore (which will be seen to be a bit ironic later on). But he notes that this theory implies that you can’t know what someone else’s mental states are except by analogy to yourself, which means that if we accept the mental states theory his whole project is scuttled. So he needs to eliminate it.

He never really refutes in detail the mental states theory that he lumps in with Cartesian dualism, but he does go after the idea that we learn or refer to the mental states of others through analogy, with six reasons packed into one small paragraph. First, he claims that we aren’t aware of drawing these conclusions by analogy, but since much of this is done subconsciously we aren’t aware of what we are really doing, and the discovery of mirror neurons actually suggests that, yes, this is exactly what we do: we predict the actions and therefore also the mental states that drive these actions by putting ourselves in their position and simulating it (see simulation theory for more details). At any rate, he has to accept that we may not have direct access to the source of these conclusions; we also don’t seem to be reasoning it out, and the best he can say on that point is that it “just happens” when we look at someone, which is compatible with all three theories. Second, he says that it would be bad because it would commit the fallacy of hasty generalization, but this is a bad argument considering that if the mental states theory is right it’s all we have, and it would work a significant amount of the time, and we do, in fact, get these associations wrong and can be fooled relatively easily. Sure, it might not be completely logically valid, but it’s not a reason to say that we don’t or shouldn’t do it. Third, he say that we seem more confident than that sort of argument should justify … as if we never, for example, hold beliefs in far more confidence than we actually have — including beliefs about what other people are feeling and thinking. Perhaps the answer is that we should be less confident in our ability to determine the internal mental states of other people. Fourth, he argues essentially that we don’t see our own bodily reactions — like facial expression — and so can’t derive the beliefs from their bodily reactions that way, which is countered by the fact that we don’t learn these things by looking at their faces and seeing that they have the same facial reaction as we do, but instead by looking at the situation and thinking about what feeling we’d have, and noting that they have a specific facial reaction. If we’re right, then we can recognize that in most of those sorts of cases that expression is there, and so that that must be how they indicate that. And, of course, this can be subconscious. Fifth, he argues that philosophers of language — but doesn’t say which ones — argue that we somehow couldn’t learn the uses of the mental terms from others if they were private, but since I can learn them from looking at my own internal reactions in similar circumstances to what others are in when they use that term, again this is not an argument. Finally, he tries to refute Cartesian dualism by saying that it makes our personal pronouns like “I” ambiguous — since it can refer to the mind, or the body, or both — but a) an argument against Cartesian dualism is not an argument against the mental states theory, which again just shows that he conflates the two and b) this is not an argument since when you are referring to the body that the mind is associated with it’s not a problem at all to use the mental identity, and even if it was problematic it wouldn’t be any kind of argument against the truth of Cartesian dualism (which Philipse admits in a footnote that again just harps on how discredited Cartesian dualism is).

So, Philipse has not, in fact, managed to demolish the mental states theory, except by invalidly conflating it with Cartesian dualism and then tossing that out with “Well, no one believes that anymore.” But he needs to demolish it, because if it’s even still in the running he runs into the issue that it posits at its heart that we can have knowledge and meaning only by analogy, and so if we accept that it could produce meaningful psychological terms his whole project is undermined. And he won’t in fact even attempt to refute that view any further, which only reveals the major weakness in his overall project: if you deny that you can’t have a theory where one can only understand components of it in some kind of analogical sense, then toss out the whole chapter. And anyone who holds that the mental states theory could provide the meaning of psychological terms is not going to accept that.

Now, of course, no one holds the logical positivist/behaviourist views anymore (this isn’t the ironic part yet, although for some reason Philipse does not harp as much on its lack of acceptance as he does for Cartesian dualism), and so I think it best to move on to Philipse’s preferred alternative, that of the later Wittgenstein. As far as I can tell from Philipse’s description … it’s about looking at the behaviour of human beings and ascribing psychological terms using that. Well, at least, that’s going to be the heart of how Philipse will use the argument. In short, Philipse claims that the terms describe “capacities, inclinations, states or occurrences to human beings“[pg 100, emphasis in original]. He argues later, though, that we can indeed assign psychological terms to animals, which we do by their behaviour. Now, I’m pretty sure that I came across this theory in philosophy at some point, but given his description I’m having a hard time seeing, well, what’s so good about it or what it actually says. As described, it sounds like a half-baked attempt to bridge the two theories above, by denying that the meaning of a psychological term is just the behaviour that it spawns, but also that you can’t really have the meaning of the term without at least including the behaviour it spawns. The best and most popular attempt to do that is functionalism, and it seems to me at least that one of the Wittgenstein’s views — he differs from his early work to his later work — is at least the precursor to functionalism (the other is credited for behaviourism). So it is possible that what Philipse is describing here is a cut-rate functionalism, though don’t quote me on that because it’s been a while since I did Wittgenstein. Also (and here is where the irony arrives), Philipse denies that this is functionalism:

Of course, one might reject the third view … But in that case, one has to argue that this can be done on the basis of yet another semantical doctrine concerning psychological or personal terms, such as functionalism, for example, and one has to show that this semantical doctrine is superior to the third view discussed below.

[pg 97, emphasis added].

So, not functionalism, then … or at least not in Philipse’s mind. But the ironic part is that, well, Wittgenstein’s theory is, obviously, not new. It’s obviously rather old. And yet, the theory that is the predominant theory in cognitive science is … functionalism. It’s the theory that I learned over and over again in Philosophy of Mind and Cognitive Science courses and that was typically presented as the best theory — generally even better than the neurological theories — of mind for Cognitive Science. On the other hand … I can’t remember the Wittgenstein theory. At all. This suggests that it isn’t anywhere near as accepted as functionalism is. Philipse’s refutation of Cartesian dualism — and even behaviourism — is that they aren’t accepted, but then he turns around and ignores the far more accepted theory and insists that it somehow has to demonstrate that it is more plausible than the theory … that most philosophers don’t find as plausible as functionalism. By relying on philosophical acceptance to make his case, he ends up undercutting his own theory, because it isn’t as accepted.

And it only gets worse when you realize why he is ignoring both the mental states theory and functionalism. The reason is that both of them are, in fact, implementation independent. For mental states, if Data is really feeling pain then he feels pain, no matter whether he has a positronic brain or not (most of the objections would be that a positronic brain cannot produce pain sensations, not that it isn’t a human brain). For functionalism, if there is a structure that fills the right functional role it is pain, regardless of how that is implemented. This is problematic for Philipse because ultimately what he wants to argue is that since God doesn’t have a physical body He can’t have any psychology and ultimately can’t be a person. For the former, that will be an indirect argument, but he makes it directly for the second part (which will be covered in the next post). Only by tying his view of psychological terms to human beings specifically can he do that, and he does that with Wittgenstein’s view. Of course, that this potentially leaves out animals — see the idea of judging them by their behaviour — or AIs or even sufficiently different aliens is not something that Philipse allows himself to be concerned with … but anyone who cares about getting the concepts right is going to have to be concerned with.

Philipse points out that Swinburne argues against the Wittgenstein conception of the meaning of psychological terms, argue essentially that we can have psychological states without expressing them outwardly and that we don’t need to limit the ascription of psychological terms only to those things that express them the way we express them, so God might express them instead, for example, by “making marks in the sand”. Philipse takes on the first objection by insisting that we have to presume that an agent has expressed some behavioural signs of psychological states before we are justified in saying that in this case they still have them even though they aren’t expressing them. However, he runs into his old nemesis the mental states theory again that would argue that if someone was, for some reason, physically incapable of expressing, say, anger that wouldn’t mean that they wouldn’t feel it, just that we might not be justified in ascribing those states to that being. And Philipse, to have his argument come off, needs to establish that such a being is not possible, that you simply could not have a being that had psychological states but couldn’t express them bodily. He wants us to accept that there is no such thing, not that if there was such a thing we’d have a really hard time figuring out what psychological state it was in at the moment. So this simply won’t work; Swinburne’s argument does, in fact, demonstrate that a being can have psychological states that they do not express, and all Philipse can do here is insist that the way these things are for us — for example, that we learn to hide our emotions by learning what the normal behaviours are — is how they must be for all beings, which would be him simply assuming what he purports to demonstrate.

It is with the second argument that Philipse indirectly argues that if you don’t have a body then you can’t have psychological states, and so that implementation matters. Unfortunately, he actually tries to do that in a really, really horrid way, as he counters the “marks in the sand” argument with, essentially, “Don’t you need a body to make marks in the sand?”, which he then uses to say “So you have to do it by metaphor!” Except … this argument assumes that God cannot interact at all with the material world! If God can interact with the material world without a body, then He can make marks in the sand. And if Philipse thinks it reasonable to say that God cannot interact with the material world without a body, then Philipse would have, in fact, pretty much refuted theism. It’s no wonder that Coyne likes Philipse, when they make the same mistake: just as Coyne tries to establish that faith and science are incompatible because faith does not produce knowledge, Philipse tries to establish that God cannot have psychological states because God can’t interact at all with the physical world without a body. But if they could establish the latter, then that’s a much more serious issue for theism than the one that they are trying to justify with that claim. Which is why, then, theists won’t simply accept that. And Philipse doesn’t establish that here, and if he’d done it earlier he really should have just quit there and ended the book.

At any rate, in the next post we’ll get to the sections that had me wondering ““Look, are you REALLY a philosopher?”