Richard’s Holiday Camp

New Atheists like Richard Dawkins feign outrage at any suggestion that their creed itself amounts to a kind of religion – even as (for example) they issue their own suggested revisions of the Ten Commandments (see The God Delusion, pp. 263-4). Now, a reader informs me, Dawkins has decided to sponsor his own version of Bible Camp. I kid you not. All Dawkins needs now is a camp song; have fun coming up with your own lyrics.


The materialist shell game

Materialists sometimes argue that the mind is bound to succumb to naturalistic explanation, because everything else has. How could it be the only hold-out? As I have argued in several places (most recently and at greatest length in The Last Superstition), far from being the knock-out blow some materialists think it, this argument actually shows how very shallow and historically ill-informed much materialist thinking is. For, whether explicitly or implicitly, materialism is committed to the mechanistic conception of matter inherited from early modern thinkers like Galileo, Descartes, Hobbes, Boyle, and Locke, where the core of this conception – or the only part of it that has survived over the centuries, anyway – is the idea that neither goal-directedness or final causality, nor sensory qualities like color, odor, taste, sound, and the like as we experience them, exist in the objective material world, but only in the mind of the perceiver. Matter, that is to say, was simply defined in such a way that (a) mental properties were taken to be paradigmatically non-material, and (b) certain features that common sense and the Scholastic tradition regarded as inherent to matter were re-defined as mental. This both facilitated the giving of “naturalistic explanations” – since whatever wouldn’t fit the naturalistic-cum- mechanistic explanatory model was simply defined away as a mere mental projection in the first place, not part of the material world at all – but also guaranteed that the mind would be uniquely resistant to the same sort of explanatory procedure. For the mind was made the rug under which everything that wouldn’t fit the naturalistic model could be swept. By definition, as it were, the same “sweeping” strategy cannot possibly be applied to the mind itself.

Victor Reppert kindly draws his readers’ attention to a passage in my book Philosophy of Mind where I made this point. But it is hardly original with me. Reppert also cites a passage from Richard Swinburne’s The Evolution of the Soul which makes the same point. Thomas Nagel’s famous article “What is it like to be a bat?” makes it too. (Most readers of this article wrongly focus on the bat example itself, quibbling over whether analogies with human experience coupled with neuroscientific knowledge might allow us to infer what it is like to be one. But in doing so they miss Nagel’s deeper and more devastating point that it is the “objectivist” way in which contemporary philosophers tend to conceive of matter that makes a naturalistic explanation of mind – not just the conscious experiences of bats, but any “subjective” conscious mental state – impossible in principle.)

Indeed, the point is as old as modern philosophy itself. It was central to the thinking of the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth (1617-1689) and the Cartesian Nicolas Malebranche (1638-1715), both of whom emphasized that the “mechanical philosophy” necessarily entails dualism. It is also at least implicit in Descartes and Locke. If you are going to insist that matter is comprised only of colorless, odorless, tasteless, soundless particles devoid of any inherent meaning or goal-directedness, then of course qualia and intentionality are going to have to count as immaterial, and color, odor, taste, sound, etc. understood as objective features of nature would simply have to be re-defined (in terms of patterns of motion in particles, or whatever). Hence the reason so few modern philosophers, until very recently, followed Hobbes in his materialism, is not because they were afraid to follow out the implications of modern science, but rather precisely because they did follow out its implications (that is, insofar as modern science tends to take a “mechanical” conception of matter for granted). And the reason so many recent philosophers have followed Hobbes is, I would suggest, that they have forgotten the history of their subject and not thought carefully about the conception of matter they are implicitly committed to. When a contemporary philosopher of mind with naturalistic sympathies does think carefully about this conception, he tends either to come to doubt that naturalistic models of the mind really can succeed (as e.g. Fodor, McGinn, and Levine do in their various ways), or to suggest that it is only by developing some radically new conception of matter that naturalism can be defended (as e.g. Nagel and Galen Strawson do in different ways), or to adopt some “naturalistic” form of dualism (as e.g. Chalmers does explicitly and Searle does implicitly, despite his best efforts to avoid it.)

The upshot is that the materialist’s “everything else has been explained naturalistically” shtick is little more than a shell game. “Everything else” is “explained” only by hiding the recalcitrant features, like a pea, under the shell of the mind. The illusion only works precisely because there is a shell to hide things under, and thus requires dualism. To assume otherwise is like assuming that a shell game scam could successfully be carried out either by hiding, not only the peas, but also every shell under a shell (as reductionist forms of materialism effectively do insofar as they assume that the same strategy applied to explaining heat, color, sound, etc. – that is, carving off and “hiding” the subjective element and re-defining the phenomenon in mechanistic terms – can be applied to mental states themselves) or by getting rid of the shells entirely (as eliminative materialism effectively does). Not even the boldest sidewalk scammer would attempt such folly. For that you need an intellectual in the grip of a theory.

Empiricism versus Aristotelianism

In my previous post, I noted how empiricists and Aristotelians differ over the relationship between intellect and imagination, and that this difference has major metaphysical implications. By popular demand – OK, a single request – let me expand on that.

Both empiricists and Aristotelians hold that “nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses,” as the hoary Aristotelian dictum puts it. But they disagree about what this means.

For Aristotelians, sensation leads to the formation of “phantasms” (very roughly, mental images), and from these objects of the imagination, the intellect in turn abstracts universals. So, for example, the perceptual experience of various triangles leads to the formation of various mental images of triangles, and from these the intellect derives an abstract general concept of triangularity. Such general concepts are nevertheless irreducible to mental images. For any mental image applies, strictly speaking, only to certain members of a class; for example, any particular mental image of a triangle is necessarily going to be either of an isosceles , scalene, or equilateral triangle, of a black, blue, or green triangle, and so forth. But the abstract concept of triangularity applies to all triangles without exception. Mental images are vague and indeterminate when they concern something complex; for instance, a mental image of a chiliagon (a 1,000-sided figure) cannot be distinguished from a mental image of a 1,002-sided figure, or even from a mental image of a circle. But the concept of a chilaigon is clearly distinct from the concept of a 1,002-sided figure or the concept of a circle. There are things we can form no mental image of at all – abstractions like law, economics, and love, for example – that we nevertheless have clear concepts of. And so forth.

Since Wittgenstein, contemporary philosophers have been pretty well inoculated against the error of supposing that concepts could possibly be reduced to images of any sort. (Though they hardly needed Wittgenstein to tell them that – Platonists, Aristotelians, Thomists, and rationalists have emphasized it for centuries, or even millennia.) And yet such a reduction, a view known as “imagism,” was a key feature of the classical empiricism of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. (Sometimes it is disputed whether Locke was really committed to it, though not very plausibly, I think.) Berkeley and Hume rightly concluded that imagism entails that there are no abstract concepts, for every mental image is always inherently particular rather than universal. (Here as elsewhere Locke failed to see all the implications of his position.) So-called “general ideas” are for them really just particular ideas annexed to a general term (together, in Hume’s case, with a disposition to refer to all ideas resembling that particular one by the term in question).

This is, however, simply a reductio ad absurdum of the (imagist) theory that leads to it. For we simply and obviously do have abstract or universal ideas – triangularity is one of them, and there are countless others – and any theory that implies otherwise is thereby proved to be false. Furthermore, Berkeley’s and Hume’s attempts to defend their account of “general ideas” are notoriously unconvincing. Berkeley says that a particular idea stands for or represents other ideas of the same sort. But what is it for one idea to stand for or represent other things? And in virtue of what are the various represented particular ideas “of the same sort”? The obvious answer to the first question seems to be “It is to be an abstract concept under which particular things fall,” and, to the second, “In virtue of exemplifying the same abstract concept.” That is to say, the seemingly obvious answers to these questions presuppose the existence of the very thing Berkeley denies. Or at least, if these answers are wrong, Berkeley needs to provide some alternative answer, which he does not. He also says that a particular idea is made general when the mind selectively attends to some features of it and not others. But how can this “selective attention” to some features possibly fail to presuppose an abstract concept of that which has precisely those features and not the ones attended to? Again, the view seems to presuppose precisely what it denies, and again we are given no reason to suppose otherwise.

Hume basically takes all this on board, and only calls greater attention to the problem by saying that we have a disposition to call “resembling” ideas by the same general term. For we want to ask: In virtue of what do they resemble? By exemplifying the same abstract concept, surely; or if not, we need to be told why not, and we’re not.

Now you could take the imagist position in question to form the basis of an argument for nominalism: Concepts are images; images are particular rather than universal; therefore concepts are particular. (The claim that everything else is particular too would then be argued for independently as a “mop-up” operation, since the universality of concepts is arguably the hardest case for nominalism.) Or you could take imagism to presuppose nominalism: Concepts, like everything else, must be particular; mental images, which are particular, are the only things for concepts plausibly to be if concepts are not universal; so concepts must be mental images. Either way, imagism is just false – having been decisively refuted over and over again by (as I have said) Platonists, Aristotelians, Thomists, and rationalists – and both arguments are therefore unsound.

All the same, Berkeley and Hume rode this dead horse amazingly far. It arguably underlies all of Berkeley’s arguments against the possibility of material substance. For the concept of matter, Berkeley says, would have to be something that abstracts away from all ideas of sensation, and (he claims) there are no such abstract (i.e. non-imagistic, non-particular) ideas. Similarly, Hume’s skepticism about material substance depends on the idea that we cannot trace the idea of material substance to any impression – which would be the case only if we assume (as Aristotelians would not but classical empiricists would) that ideas or concepts cannot be anything more than a faint copies of sensations (and thus necessarily fail to transcend the particularity of sensation), rather than being abstractions from them (and thus capable of transcending that particularity). The claim that all ideas or concepts not only begin from sensation but cannot outstrip it also underlies Hume’s claim that we can have no idea of necessary connection because we have no impression of it. This can be so, again, only if ideas or concepts are faint copies of impressions (that is to say, if they are, more or less, mental images) and thus cannot transcend the particularity of the impressions from which they derive.

If the mind’s conceptual powers do outstrip the limits classical empiricism would put on it, however – as they obviously do given that we have many concepts that cannot be accounted for on classical empiricism – there is no reason to take seriously the bizarre and/or skeptical conclusions vis-à-vis causation, substance, etc. that classical empiricists derived from their false conception of these limits.


Hume, science, and religion

Suppose you buy Hume’s famous analysis of causation, and thus deny that we can have any knowledge of objective causal connections in nature (either because there aren’t any – the traditional, “verificationist” interpretation of Hume – or because there are but the mind can never genuinely know or understand them – the newer “skeptical realist” interpretation). You shouldn’t buy it (for reasons set out in The Last Superstition), but suppose you did. It is understandable why, in that case, you’d reject First Cause arguments for God’s existence. If we can’t have any knowledge of objective causal connections between things, then we can’t have knowledge of a First Cause.

But how in that case could you fail to reject modern science as well? Wouldn’t theism and natural science – which seems to be in the business of discovering objective causal connections between phenomena – stand or fall together? A way around this might be to adopt some kind of non-realist interpretation of science. You could take the instrumentalist view that scientific theories don’t really tell us anything about the nature of things, but are merely useful tools for predicting experiences.

One problem with this response is that non-realist interpretations of science are just implausible. As Hilary Putnam famously put it, realism is “the only philosophy that doesn’t make the success of science a miracle.” Another problem is that it arguably wouldn’t really address the heart of the objection anyway, but only push the problem back a stage. For if you are going to treat scientific theories as tools for predicting experiences, then it seems you are presupposing that at least one thing in the world – the experiencing human mind itself, or your own mind anyway – manifests causal regularities that can be captured in scientific theories. Even as a Humean you will do so; for example, qua Humean you will suppose that ideas come from, and can only come from, antecedent impressions; that they are combined only in accordance with the three Humean principles of association; and so forth. These seem precisely to be causal regularities, whose existence guarantees that there is an orderly set of experiences for an instrumentalist science to describe and predict.

Of course, this sits poorly with Hume’s own analysis of causation. If (as Hume claims) any effect might in principle follow from any cause or from none at all, where does he get off telling us that every idea (apart from the famous “missing shade of blue,” anyway) must derive from an antecedent impression? If there are no objective “necessary connections” between causes and effects – the very idea of necessary connection being a mere projection of the mind’s subjective expectation of A on the occasion of B, a propensity produced by observed constant conjunctions of A and B in the past – then why exactly must ideas behave only in accordance with the principles of association? Indeed, even the notion of a “propensity” to expect such-and-such an effect, and of this propensity’s being “produced” in the mind by constant conjunction, are themselves causal notions. So does Hume mean to say that all of these claims about the mind and about causation are themselves mere projections based on nothing more than observed regularities in the order of our impressions and ideas, and have no objective validity? Presumably not; indeed, the very idea seems not only implausible, but utterly incoherent. All the same, consistently pushing through a radical Humean skepticism about causation would seem to require applying Hume’s analysis of causation to Hume’s own claims about the mechanisms that govern the mind. And while this would certainly undermine First Cause arguments, it would also undermine science too – precisely because it would undermine almost every claim to knowledge, including Hume’s own theory. The traditional, “radical skeptic” reading of Hume leaves us with a snake that eats its own tail.

A more promising strategy for the Humean who wants to accept science while rejecting natural theology would be to take a softer “New Hume” or “Hume as skeptical realist” line, and deny that the Humean analysis of causation really entails taking a non-realist approach to science in general or causation in particular. One could hold that Hume’s position merely entails that we cannot strictly know or understand objective causal connections, but not that there are no such connections. The idea would then be that Hume’s view that our belief in objective causal relations is impervious to rational criticism anyway, since we can’t help but cling to it given our nature, also entails that the science we base upon this belief is something we can hardly bring ourselves consistently to doubt. Yet if causation might in fact have an objective basis even if we can’t know or understand it, so too would science. Hence we need not dismiss science, any more than causation, as an illusion. We may be unable either to justify it (rationally speaking) or to doubt it (psychologically speaking), but it doesn’t follow that a Humean has to regard our belief in it as either false or strictly meaningless. (I am not claiming that all of this is plausible or even coherent all things considered, either as an interpretation of Hume or as a defensible position in its own right. The point is just that this is a more promising position for a Humean to take if he wants to reject First Cause arguments but accept science.)

OK, so where does the rejection of First Cause arguments fit in? Why wouldn’t they, like science, survive a less radical “skeptical realist” Humeanism? If the mere possibility of objective (though unknowable) causes coupled with our animal faith in them lets empirical science off the hook, why not natural theology? The answer would seem to be that in the view of the Humean, and indeed of Hume himself, though we cannot know or understand objective causal connections, we can lay down criteria for determining which particular purported causal relations are likely to exist, if any causal relations really exist at all. And while the theories enshrined in “our best science” conform to these criteria, arguments for a First Cause do not.

Thus do we arrive at that long and dishonest (or at least woefully ill-informed) skeptical tradition of treating the traditional arguments of natural theology as if they were essentially little more than second-rate empirical scientific hypotheses, feeble exercises in “God of the gaps” reasoning (a tradition given aid and comfort by William Paley and his successors). And thus can the Humean have his scientistic cake and eat it too. For science is just an extension of what we cannot help but believe in “common life,” outside the philosopher’s study. Hence, despite its being rationally unjustifiable, science is OK; and natural theology would be OK too if only it were good science. On this view, it wouldn’t be Hume’s theory of causation per se that undermines First Cause arguments. Rather, the claim would be that considerations of parsimony, empirical adequacy, etc. make theism a less “probable” “hypothesis” than atheism.

The trouble is that, as I show in TLS (and I am hardly the first person to show it), the classical First Cause arguments are not empirical quasi-scientific “God of the gaps” arguments at all, but rather attempts at metaphysical demonstration. And the relevant metaphysics is the Aristotelian kind, which claims precisely to be doing nothing more than extending what we already take ourselves to know in common life. In particular, Aristotelian-Thomistic First Cause arguments attempt to show that the existence of a First Cause is a necessary precondition of there being anything like what common sense understands as “causation” in the first place. So, if for the Humean (or “New Humean”) our “common life” beliefs about causation (a) may well be correct, and (b) are legitimately held by us despite their rationally unjustifiable status, why may we not also accept the conclusion of such First Cause arguments? We are back once again to asking: If science is OK, why not natural theology?

The Humean may at this point object that such arguments still go beyond what an appeal to “common life” can possibly justify, insofar as they presuppose (a) an a priori metaphysical methodology, and (b) that we have a transparent grasp of the essences of things (and in particular of their causal powers). But while such an objection may have force against rationalist natural theology of the sort practiced by Leibniz – I’m not saying it really does, mind you, just conceding this for the sake of argument – it has no force against Aristotelian-Thomistic natural theology. For A-T does not argue a priori, and does not hold that we have in general a complete and transparent knowledge of essences; like the empiricist, the A-T metaphysician insists that knowledge of real existence must be a posteriori, and recognizes limits on our knowledge of the essences of things. Where A-T differs from empiricism is in refusing to collapse the distinction between intellect and imagination, between concepts and mental images – the cardinal sin of modern empiricism, from which all its many other errors follow. Hence A-T also rejects the nominalism that follows upon this chief error (or underlies it, depending on how you look at it), and rejects the radical skepticism about causation, substance, essence, etc. that follows in turn upon imagism and nominalism.

For this reason, while there is a tension between common sense and philosophy even on a “New Hume” view of causation – for given Humean epistemology and metaphysics, how can our common life understanding of causation be even possibly true, since causal connections become not merely unknowable but unintelligible? – there is no such tension in A-T. A-T really is what P. F. Strawson famously called a “descriptive” metaphysics, which leaves common sense intact, while Humeanism is “revisionary” to the core, thoroughly undermining common sense implicitly even when it pays lip service to “common life.” A Humean “skeptical realist” has, when outside his study, to feign complete ignorance of what he learned within it. Even the bare possibility that common sense might be right, the very intelligibility of causation, is ruled out when his methodology is taken seriously. No such pretense would be necessary on A-T even if the A-T philosopher were to entertain doubts about whether genuine knowledge is really possible, for there is nothing in his position (as there is in the Humean position) which casts doubt on the very intelligibility, and not just the knowability, of causes.

If we are really to take “common life” seriously, then, we have to take seriously the metaphysics which makes it even minimally intelligible, namely something like A-T metaphysics. And that means accepting (assuming they are otherwise unobjectionable, as I argue in TLS that they are) the First Cause arguments that follow from it. Conversely, to reject those arguments entails rejecting after all the idea that common sense is right even about the very possibility of objective causal connections – which means in turn rejecting even an “animal faith” justification of our commitment to science.

And that returns us yet again to the question we started out with: How can a Humean consistently accept science and yet reject First Cause arguments for the existence of God? The unavoidable answer seems to be: He can’t. As far as a consistent Humeanism is concerned, science and theism must stand or fall together. But then there is no good reason to be a Humean in the first place, and many good reasons not to be. So perhaps the question is moot.


You can’t make this stuff up, folks

The Leiter reader who parroted (and still parrots) the “apologist for murder” libel against me is awfully upset because, with some mild sarcasm, I referred to him as…

a logician. (Gasp!)

Specifically, I noted that that’s how he referred to himself on his site.

I know, I know. Nasty stuff. But hey, I was in a bad mood that week – what with, you know, people like this very doofus calling me an “apologist for murder” and what not.

Still, the poor, poor man. Apparently I hurt his feelings. You see, by “logician” he didn’t mean to portray himself as some especially penetrating thinker or anything. Just a guy who studies logic, that’s all. Or something like that. Anyway, he’s written a 1,254 word post explaining himself, so do read it, and disabuse yourself of the terrible calumny I directed against him.

Because, you know, he would never, never misrepresent someone else’s words. Nor would he ever ridicule someone else who defended himself against a libelous misrepresentation.

And Brian, I know you like to ridicule people for offering “lengthy” self-defenses – when you’re not ridiculing them for giving “non-replies,” that is. (The good old “Heads I win, tails you lose” strategy – clever one, Bri!) But please lay off this guy, huh? He’s very sensitive…

UPDATE: Bored with the whole Leiter/"apologist for murder" thing? Me too. But see here for an epilogue, courtesy of Big Bad Brian himself, if you want one last chuckle (or groan).

Farrell Multimedia

John Farrell, whose review of TLS I linked to below, discusses his book The Day Without Yesterday. (HT: Siris)


But seriously, ladies and degenerates…

From the new Sacha Baron Cohen laugh-fest Bruno (per Drudge):

In one scene Bruno appears on a talk show holding a baby who is wearing a T-shirt reading "Gayby."

The sequence flashes to Bruno having sex in a hot tub while the baby sits nearby. He then boasts to the outraged studio audience that the baby is a man magnet.

My take: If you think this is remotely funny, there is something seriously wrong with you. And if you need an explanation of why there is something seriously wrong with you, there is even more wrong with you than I thought. But hey, let’s not argue about it; as Elizabeth Anscombe would say, corrupt minds cannot be reasoned with.

To be sure, “concerns” have been raised about the movie – not because of the baby sex jokes, but (oh dear, hide the children!) because of some possibly “homophobic” elements.

Don’t worry, gentle reader, things could always be worse. And will be. And soon. After all, we moderns do everything faster and better than our forebears, especially civilizational decline. As they say in show biz, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
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