Disclaimer: What follows is Chapter 5 of my book Philosophical Atheism: Counter-Apologetics and Arguments For Atheism.
Personal experience and emotions are subjective. They aren’t, however, irreducibly subjective. We will return to this shortly. When I get a cut on my finger, smell pizza, or see different colors, there’s something it is like for me to have these experiences, something that is entirely subjective. This pertains to phenomenal consciousness, the aspect of consciousness that results in Chalmers’ hard problem of consciousness. This what it’s like is what philosophers call qualia.58
Qualia feature as an important motivation for accepting ontological arguments, the likes of which were discussed in the previous chapter. They also feature in transcendental arguments (TAGs), which will be discussed in the next chapter. Take, for instance, Richard Swinburne’s and Robert Adams’ Argument from Human Consciousness.59 The argument can appear as follows:
P1 It is a fact that human consciousness exists.
P2 That fact can be adequately explained within a theistic framework (i.e., one which posits God’s existence), whereas it cannot be adequately explained within an atheistic (or naturalistic) framework (i.e., one which denies God’s existence).
P3 Hence, there is a fact which only theism can adequately explain.
C Therefore, God must exist.60
Like Conifer, I will openly admit that this isn’t Swinburne’s or Richard’s exact argument. It is, however, a general form of the argument. The difference is that Swinburne puts emphasis on what he thinks are nonphysical mental states. His argument relies on his preferred theory of mind, substance dualism or Cartesian dualism. It is important to note that not all substance dualists are Cartesians dualists. E.J. Lowe is a substance dualist who divides a human being into two substances: body and person, in where person is a psychological substance that differs from the body.61 Swinburne and Cartesian dualists would instead say that a human being is body and soul; the soul transcends space-time and is a nonphysical substance that isn’t confined to our universe. They would argue that the mind is immaterial and the body is physical.
Given this, P2 implies Swinburne’s stipulation. A naturalistic or atheistic account of consciousness would not be able to account for nonphysical states of consciousness, assuming there are any. P2 or Swinburne’s P1 — that genuinely nonphysical mental states exist — are the premises one has to debase in order to refute his argument. In order to do this, one must show that qualia are not nonphysical and that there can’t be any nonphysical mental states. One can therefore approach qualia through the lens of philosophy of religion and from the perspective of philosophy of mind. Yet if one chooses the first route, it will come to a crossroads with the second route; they will meet at some junction, so this is to say that it’s required for one to have a grasp of competing views in the philosophy of mind prior to ruling out Cartesian dualism.
I will therefore focus on naturalistic theories of mind and approaches to qualia in order to demonstrate where Cartesian dualism goes wrong. As stated above, for Swinburne’s argument to work, substance dualism needs to prove superior to other views in the philosophy of mind. Given the sciences mentioned and given the cogency of some of these other views, it’s not only that substance dualism fails to make a strong case, it’s that it can’t.
C.S. Peirce, writing in 1891, said of Cartesian dualism: “The old dualistic notion of mind and matter, so prominent in Cartesianism, as two radically different kinds of substance, will hardly find defenders today.”62 More than a century later, matters are more bleak. Neuroscience and cognitive science have marshaled in an incredible body of evidence that strongly suggests that the mind is not one with or part of a disembodied soul. The mind is intimately tied to the very much physical brain and world. Rhawn Joseph, speaking of one his split-brain patients, puts it this way:
2-C complained of instances where his left hand would act in a manner completely opposite to what he expressively intended, such as turn off the T.V., or change channels, even though he (or rather his left hemisphere) was enjoying the program, or perform socially inappropriate actions (e.g. attempting to strike or even strangle a relative). On at least one occasion, his left leg refused to continue going for a walk and would only allow him to return home.63
This could serve as reason why on some accounts, like J.C.C. Smart’s, the mind is reducible to the brain. Joseph, in another paper he wrote in 1988, would conclude that the left and right hemispheres are responsible for different tasks and that because of this, intra-psychic conflicts arise in where “unbeknownst to the left brain, sometimes the right perceives, remembers, or responds to some external or internal source of experience and/or to its own memories and, thus, reacts in an emotional manner” whilst “the left (speaking) hemisphere in turn only knows that it is feeling something but is unsure what or why, or, conversely, confabulates various denials, rationalizations and explanations which it accepts as fact.”64 My own account will go further, since phenomenal consciousness is reducible to more than just the brain. I will briefly discuss three theories that are much more cogent than substance dualism. The case is more than likely that some other view of the mind best explains consciousness.
The first view we will discuss, like the other views, is naturalistic. It is a view born out of the move away from phenomenal and toward psychological explanation. Ryle argued that all mental concepts are accompanied by corresponding behaviors, and that these behaviors are caused by mental states. I want to highlight this view because Gilbert Ryle has an effective and accessible refutation of Cartesian dualism. To him, Cartesian dualism makes a category mistake.65 This occurs when you put one thing that more aptly belongs to another category in the wrong logical category. Ryle uses the example of a prospective student or visitor visiting Oxford who sees almost the entirety of the campus, and then asks whether he can see the university. The individual didn’t realize that the university is comprised of the same buildings he just visited.
To Ryle’s mind, Descartes committed a similar error. The body, on Ryle’s view, accounts for people’s talents, memories, and so on. Descartes, like dualists following him, believed in a soul, the proverbial ghost in the machine. Ryle argued that intelligence is a combination of a number of properties such as wit, spatial capacity, critical thinking, eloquence, and so on. Intelligence doesn’t exist apart from the body. Neither does it exist parallel to it, the way a branch of dualists called parallelists argued. Intelligence is comprised of these various physical properties that are a part of and associated with the body.
If Ryle is correct, Swinburne’s view has already failed. The dualist may retort by claiming that Ryle has simply begged the question. In order for the accusation to stick, it isn’t enough to claim that intelligence and the like are part of the body. If Ryle’s contention is left as is, the dualist might have a point. So there’s more work to be done. There’s also the fact that Ryle conflates the phenomenal and the psychological; the former is concerned with why an experience feels a certain way, with the what it’s like of a given experience whilst the latter focuses on a mental state’s causal role. Chalmers’ summarizes his concern with Ryle’s view: “To assimilate the phenomenal to the psychological prior to some deep explanation would be to trivialize the problem of conscious experience; and to assimilate the psychological to the phenomenal would be to vastly limit the role of the mental in explaining behavior.”66 Perhaps J.C.C. Smart’s reductionism can succeed where Ryle’s view failed.
On Smart’s view, mental states are identical to brain states. My feeling pain in my back is identical with nociceptors responding to a fractured disk in my spine.67 A naturalist defending this view is not only saying that Cartesian dualism commits a category error. S/he is also providing reasons for drawing such a conclusion. If brain states and mental states are identical, then notions of a ghost in the machine are off base. This is the hallmark of a neuroscientific perspective of mind.
Take, for instance, the severe brain trauma experienced by Phineas Gage. An explosion sent a tamping iron through his left cheek bone at a high speed; the iron exited at the top of his head and was found several rods68 behind him. His brain injury was such that it resulted in drastic changes in his behavior. John Martin Harlow, the physician who attended to Gage, published a report in the Bulletin of the Massachusetts Medical Society in where he discussed Gage’s behavioral changes:
His contractors, who regarded him as the most efficient and capable foreman in their employ previous to his injury, considered the change in his mind so marked that they could not give him his place again. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint of advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operation, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. In this regard, his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was “no longer Gage.”69
Before the hard problem of consciousness, Smart’s theory held more sway. Most philosophers, in other words, readily admitted that mental states are contingent on brain states, albeit not entirely. They added that there are irreducible, nonphysical mental states called qualia.
Saul Kripke and then David Chalmers developed this nonphysicalist theory further. Kripke questions the identity component of the theory whilst Chalmers defends a theory he regards as more complete. Kripke makes use of the philosophy of language and cites rigid designators, which speaks of the same object in all possible worlds. We can think of Hilary Putnam’s famous example of XYZ. Putnam envisions other worlds or even a twin Earth having lakes and rivers in where water isn’t H2O, but rather XYZ. Despite this, though XYZ isn’t water, it is counterpart to our H2O.70
Kripke uses the example of heat being the same as molecular motion. It isn’t that he’s ignoring radiant heat. Rather, he’s highlighting molecular motion that one feels as heat. He then suggests that we can use these analogies to show that this isn’t the case with the brain process of pain. He also suggests that it is possible for such processes not to be felt as pain. Kripke concludes that mental states aren’t contingent on brain states in the same way the sense of heat is contingent on molecular motion.
Chalmers, on the other hand, proceeds from the question “Why should there be something it is like to be such a system?”71 Even though he admits that the aforementioned sciences have given us a better understanding of human behavior, he believes we are in the dark with regards to consciousness and that it remains mysterious. He tries to develop a theory of consciousness by taking consciousness seriously, by assuming “that consciousness exists, and that to redefine the problem as that of explaining how certain cognitive or behavioral functions are performed is unacceptable.”72 Even though he directs his work at people “who feel the problem in their bones,”73 it is of particular interest because Chalmers’ theory accounts for what I agree are three relevant variables, namely the structures of consciousness and awareness, and information. Chalmers’ theory is also one that takes qualia very seriously. So even if Swinburne himself or a proponent of his argument were to abandon Cartesian dualism and instead argue that what’s irreducibly nonphysical about the mind are qualia, then a reductionist like myself would be obligated to contend with Chalmers’ view.
I am, in other words, throwing the theist a bone. Swinburne’s substance dualism is out of style and his discussions with Adams are dated.74 Regardless of this, I want to update his argument with a modern nonphysicalist view that can be ushered in to defend the argument. Chalmers’ view fits the description and being that he accepts the insights of modern science, though he only accepts them as they regard the so-called easy problems, his view is far superior to a view that states that the insights of modern science don’t explain mental states at all or one that would ignore the insights of cognitive science and neuroscience.
Chalmers does not do this. In fact, he feels that scientists ignore what he coins the hard problem; he feels that the question of what it’s like isn’t even asked or is brushed aside for some far off date. This is why I emphasize that I partly share the Churchlands’ and Dennett’s view. Recall my discussion on nominalism in the previous chapter. Unlike the Churchlands and Dennett, I won’t simply eliminate phenomenal consciousness. I will admit that it definitely exists, but I will attempt to reduce it in an unexpected way. I will do this by reducing qualia to multiple lower level phenomena. So like a nominalist who states that ‘humanity’, for instance, can’t be aptly called a universal, I will argue that qualia cannot be understood as nonphysical. So it’s more a recalibrating of the way we understand qualia, a way of redefining the term. It’s not merely the what it’s like of an experience, but more so what it’s like to experience this or that, i.e., what it’s like to experience one particular thing or another.
To be fair, contending with Chalmers’ work can fill a book of its own. It’s almost a crime that I’m devoting part of a chapter to his theory. What’s equally criminal is that I’m devoting a short space to my own theory. I will, despite these concerns, highlight my issues with Chalmers’ theory and then present my own. I feel that the important parts of this particular task can be done in a short space like this one and I will set out to do that.
To be clear, Chalmers’ view is naturalistic. He does not offer a supernatural account of mind. So when I say that I’m throwing the theist a bone, I am not at all saying that Chalmers rendered a supernatural explanation for consciousness. What I am saying, however, is that his account can be reconciled with supernaturalism. He can be regarded as a panpsychist, one who thinks all things are somewhat conscious. Chalmers is not arguing that thermostats, for instance, are self-conscious. What he means is that there’s something it is like to be a thermostat. He acknowledges that most people would recoil and feel that such a conclusion is intuitively nonsense, but he adds that such people have to present an argument(s) to show that a thermostat isn’t conscious in the phenomenal sense.
An analogous view is Leibniz’s view on substance and his subsequent philosophy of mind. For Leibniz, bare monads have perceptions. In fact, bare monads have infinitely many perceptions. Furthermore, all monads, whether bare or complex, perceive the universe at every moment.75 Given this, a theist can put a supernaturalistic spin on Chalmers’ view. Chalmers admits that his view is speculative and that speculation is necessary to get ideas on the table. A theist, despite the fact that all speculation is not created equal, can take it upon himself to offer further speculation, the kind that meshes better with their own beliefs.
This recognition isn’t the only reason I find Chalmers view concerning. Chalmers has gone too far in suggesting that thermostats have phenomenal consciousness, that there’s something it is like to be a thermostat.76 In offering my reductionism, which avoids his equivalence between reductionism and logical supervenience, I will also offer an argument against the notion of a conscious thermostat. Before that, I have to offer a minor quibble.
Chalmers expresses reluctance in giving up hope on materialist reductionism. He states that we have to go beyond materialism in order to account for consciousness despite the fact that it’s beautiful and thus far successful. He presents an argument against materialism that immediately struck me as false, especially in light of materialism’s explanatory success. Perhaps we don’t have to go beyond it. Maybe we are required to rethink or reframe the problem, and I happen to think Chalmers has contributed much to what can result in a working theory of consciousness. To summarize his argument, he argues that if we recognize that there are conscious experiences in our world, we must grant that it’s logically possible for there to be a world (think universe) wholly identical to ours save the fact that the positive facts of consciousness aren’t the case. From this he concludes that materialism is false.77 His notion of philosophical zombies (p-zombies) also stems from this logical possibility.78
As will be repeated in different ways throughout, one should be wary of drawing ontological conclusions on the basis of logical considerations. I can certainly imagine a p-zombie, but it doesn’t follow that they exist in this world or another. This rests on the following questions: whether conceivability implies logical possibility and whether logical possibility implies ontological reality.79 Chalmers, to my mind, is committing the same mistake Anselm committed when he argued from the conception of the greatest being to the existence of it. My suspicion, and I’m not sure this suspicion occurs as often as it should in philosophy, is that everything that is logically possible can’t possibly have an ontological place in this world or another.
As mentioned earlier, materialism has a successful track record, so abandoning it at first sign of seeming failure is to throw the baby out with the bath water. If materialism is beautiful, simple, and elegant — everything one would want a good theory to be — why the sudden knee-jerk reaction? Why abandon it now, especially when one admits that phenomenal consciousness is poorly understood? Chalmers openly admits that we have nothing in the way of psychophysical laws or a theory of consciousness that accounts for the phenomenal aspects of our experience and yet, he’s willing to throw out a viable framework that has a proven streak of success.80 I am wary of going that far.
Even if I offer an inductive argument, Hume notwithstanding, one can accept the conclusion that the theory of consciousness will be materialistic. So as to avoid the Problem of Induction altogether, I can take a more scientific, hypothetico-deductive approach and offer a series of hypotheses each having a set of expected circumstances should they turn out to be true. Upon experimentation, I can either falsify or confirm each hypothesis and from this, get a theory of consciousness. I must confess that I don’t know what exactly that will look like. When discussing my own p-zombie, I will offer conjecture that may prove to be a viable hypothesis.
My own view, which I’ll call Hegelian reductionism, is also a naturalistic view that I think will succeed at a mutiple-reduction of consciousness. Like Chalmers admitted of his theory, I’ll admit that my theory is speculative. I agree that much speculation is needed to get us going in the right direction. By multiple-reduciton, I am not arguing that mental states are identical to physical states. I am not arguing that mental states are reducible to neurological states. Nor am I arguing that consciousness is restricted to the brain, that consciousness can, in other words, exist in a vacuum. As Hegel recognized in his Phenomenology of Spirit and as Chalmers explained in The Conscious Mind, there are two structures that have to be accounted for: as Chalmers calls them, the structure of consciousness and the structure of awareness, both of which are mediated by an information space.
The relevant question is: awareness of what? Chalmers and Hegel will both acknowledge that we are aware of things around us. Chalmers explains that “the structure of consciousness is mirrored by the structure of awareness, and the structure of awareness is mirrored by the structure of consciousness.”81 A good analogy is the upside-down from the Netflix Original “Stranger Things.” In the upside-down, the small town of Hawkins, Indiana is represented in a manner that is roughly identical topographically and geometrically. Will’s house is the same distance from Hawkins Laboratory in the upside-down and in the actual world.82 In like manner, one’s visual field has a size, a scope, a given geometry that corresponds to what is represented in the structure of awareness.
Though I have no qualms with Chalmers’ structural coherence or with his notion of information, which he characterizes as the “specificity of a state within a space of different possibilities,”83 I do have qualms with the direction he takes when addressing the question of whether experience is ubiquitous. The first postulate of my own theory of consciousness is that phenomenal consciousness belongs to biological beings. As Todd Tremlin states, “as a biological machine…the human central nervous system has much in common with those other living organisms, designed, as all are, to control bodily function and to interpret and respond to signals received from the outside world.”84 This isn’t to say that phenomenal consciousness cannot, at some point in the future or even now in an unobserved present (e.g. a world in where sufficiently advanced aliens reside), belong to robots or AI. I grant that such entities can have phenomenal consciousness, but as far as we currently know, only biological beings have it. It follows that I don’t attribute phenomenal consciousness to thermostats, air conditioners, or what have you.
What’s required for phenomenal experience is what Hegel coined as the thing and its properties. Put another way, we can use the Lockean terminology discussed in chapter two: a thing and its qualities. We can think of things, their shape, mass, and extension, and also their color, texture, and dispositions. A thermostat lacks this awareness because it lacks the apparatus usually associated with awareness. From the human all the way down to the slug, I agree with Chalmers because all biological beings have sense apparatus. Clearly this is where the structure of awareness takes shape because without such apparatus as our central and peripheral nervous systems, eyes, ears, nose, and hands, we would receive no information and thus, lack phenomenal experiences. Due to limitations of language, we might say that a thermostat senses thermal expansion and then knows to switch an electrical circuit either on or off. It would be a mistake to conflate sense as just used with sense in the way we normally construe it.
A thermostat does not sense anything. It is a tool that is constructed in a certain way in order to achieve a desired effect. Thermostats have bimetallic strips that are comprised of two different metals. These strips are placed back to back. The reason two different metals are used is because the one will have a high coefficient of linear expansion and will therefore, expand when the temperature increases and this results in the bending of the bimetallic strip in one direction toward either opening or closing the circuit. One might contend that I have merely explained how it works and have not cancelled out phenomenal consciousness in thermostats. I will retort by saying that the person making such a claim has begged the question. Despite the fact that we haven’t rendered a viable theory of consciousness, they are content with imbuing objects like thermostats with phenomenal consciousness. Something has gone awfully awry.
Biological beings, like humans and slugs, and Chalmers would agree, were not created for a given purpose. They were not designed to carry out a specific task or set of tasks. They do not operate in a given way. Furthermore, they have sense apparatus, some far different from others. We can imagine that the talons of a bald eagle have a similar textile sense to human hands. Yet if we admit that, per Hegel, texture has arguably as much to do with the object in question as it does with extremities, whatever similarity in textile sense might exist in the talon and the hand including the corresponding qualia of touch, are reducible to some combination of the objects being felt and the dispositions pertinent to each extremity. So smoothness, hardness, roughness, leatheriness, and the like will be partly due to whatever the talon or hand is touching. Far from eliminating qualia, I am locating the what it’s likeness of our experience not only in our consciousness, but also in what Hegel referred to as the objects of consciousness, things and their qualities. As stated earlier, consciousness cannot exist in a vacuum.
All one has to do is return to the common examples of qualia. There’s something it is like to smell pizza, experience pain, see a given color, and so on. If matters weren’t as they are, if light were not an astrophysical phenomenon that accounts for the available spectrum of colors we see, if chemistry didn’t result in the different textures we feel, if expansion of molecules didn’t result in warmth, if taste buds and receptors didn’t exist in the papillae on the tongue, inner cheeks and esophagus, if we lacked both our peripheral and central nervous systems, our phenomenal experiences would be nonexistent. So phenomenal experience is not reducible to just the brain, though the brain no doubt plays a pivotal role in interpreting or mediating the information relayed from the objects of consciousness. Consciousness, it would follow, is also reducible to physical structures like skin, papillae, eyes, ears, noses, nervous systems and so on. It would also follow that it’s reducible to the objects around us and to the physical phenomena and laws that permit color, heat, and sound.
Think of the particular cadence of a guitar when listening to a player who plays well. The sound is not exactly mysterious, given that an acoustic guitar and electric guitar are designed to sound somewhat distinct. The beautiful cadence of a melody or a solo can be contrasted with the harsh and unpleasant sensations one receives from the chaotic sounds coming from a novice player. The notes are more than likely not crisp; the chord is not clear and very often a novice player will cancel out a note in the chord with his clumsy fingers. Yet the cadence of a well-played guitar is due not only to the design of the guitar, acoustic or electric, and if electric, it’s not only due to the amplifier and pedal board, but most importantly, it is due also to the expertise of the person playing the guitar, the individual who composed the song. Music is often imbued with personal experience and emotion, both of which a number of listeners will find relatable.
In this sense, phenomenal experience is reducible in more ways than one and it is unclear whether a set of psychophysical laws are even necessary. If consciousness is not reducible to merely the brain, but also reducible to the objects of consciousness, if, in other words, consciousness is reducible to the information bridging Chalmers’ structure of consciousness and structure of awareness, then we would have to make do with explaining consciousness through existing laws. So though this can be seen as sort of an eliminativism of qualia, I am not arguing, like Dennett and the Churchlands do, that phenomenal consciousness is an illusion and that qualia don’t exist.85 The former is not an illusion and the latter definitely exist, but they pose no great mystery.
Think of a tetrachromat, for example, a woman identified as cDa29 in a recent study conducted by Gabriele Jordan.86 If you take the monochromat thought experiment seriously, if you think that someone like Mary, a scientist who has lived her entire life in a black and white room, is logically possible, then it follows that you agree with the conclusion that when she first sees a color, she only learns what it’s like to see that color. She already knew that colors existed because she’s an expert in neuroscience and is familiar with the electromagnetic spectrum.87 The vast majority of us are trichromats in that our eyes have three kinds of cone cells. This means that it is entirely possible for us to learn what it’s like to see a color we currently do not see, a color we currently can’t even fathom.
Yet an astute observer will notice that our learning of what it’s like to see this color is simultaneous with seeing the color. Therefore, the object possessing that color, the astrophysical phenomenon of light permitting the color, and this new fourth cone in our eyes would be fully responsible for our experience. Without any of these factors, we would not be able to have this experience, let alone consider what it’s like to have it. So my eliminativism doesn’t do away with qualia, but rather with the mystery that purportedly accompanies them. I am not arguing, like the Churchlands, that it’s a pseudo-issue like Ptolemaic celestial spheres. What I’m arguing is that pain, for example, feels a certain way because of what this specific quale reduces to, due to what it’s like to experience this or that — whether an object or a richer experience like sky diving or admiring a painting.
Compare an oil burn on the hand to a piercing of the hand. How have we convinced ourselves that the oil doesn’t have a given chemistry and thus, a given set of dispositions and that, on the other hand, the blade of a knife doesn’t have a chemistry distinct from that of the oil and therefore, a given set of dispositions that differ from that of the oil? The oil’s viscosity and the fact that its boiling point is roughly one and a half times more than the boiling point of water account for the skin blistering feelings on the hand. The blade’s hardness and sharpness account for the skin piercing, nerve damaging feeling in the hand. This isn’t to say that both pains can’t be felt on and within the hand, but they are distinct because the objects causing the pain are distinct. There is a sense in which phenomenal consciousness is reducible to these distinct objects.
I think that such a theory, at the very least, lifts the veil. This theory would, in other words, do away with the mystery that often surrounds qualia. By extension, this Hegelian theory of consciousness does away with the motivation a theist has for being convinced by Swinburne’s Argument from Consciousness, ontological arguments, and TAGs. What’s more is that this theory reintroduces materialism thus resulting in an overall consistency in a naturalistic philosophy, the likes of which I’m presenting in this work.
This theory also proves superior to Cartesian dualism because, unlike in the case of dualism, mental states are confined to the physical world and are explained, in a consistent manner, via physical parameters and objects of experience. Unlike the Cartesian dualist, this theory doesn’t make use of an ethereal substance that somehow interacts with a physical substance. As Chalmers stated, “it remains plausible that physical events can be explained in physical terms, so a move to a Cartesian dualism would be a stronger reaction than is warranted.”88 Cartesian dualism also violates principles of simplicity and plausibility, unless one has a predilection for preferring a theory of consciousness that’s much more complex than it has to be, not to mention beyond the reach of our senses, scientific tools, and so on. A Cartesian dualist, in light of neuroscience and cognitive science, would be left with no choice but to deny the portrait offered by these sciences. My theory fully accepts these portraits and makes good use of them.
Given this, consciousness need not be contingent on god. There are no nonphysical mental states. Qualia, at least at the start of this chapter, seemed to be the most viable candidate. As it turns out, qualia are not at all nonphysical. They are simply much more difficult to reduce to lower level phenomena and it is this difficulty that has led to a sense of mystery and bewilderment. As Chalmers states, there’s nothing we are more intimate with than consciousness and yet, it is hard to understand the phenomenal aspect of it. It’s difficult because we often think about this aspect in isolation of real world objects that give rise to these experiences and the accompanying what it’s like of these experiences. We become aware of these various objects and they are represented in some way within our consciousness, these mirror structures pervade all of our experiences, and information mediates the link between consciousness and awareness, but one often fails to account for the things around us, and the physical phenomena and laws that imbue these things with qualities.
Unless one is to go full idealist and deny the independent existence of objects around us, there’s no denying that our phenomenal consciousness, as Hegel well understood, partly reduces to the things around us. This theory may be doused in speculation, but speculation, given our current circumstances, is required. This is how we bring ideas to the fore and make them available for discussion, elucidation, and refutation. What’s manifest is that my theory is wholly naturalistic and accounts for mental states without need for a supernatural agent or explanation.
The primary objection one can raise is that it appears I have begged the question with regards to the existence of objects. They will argue that what’s required is an epistemological account that accounts for the existence of things around us. I would agree that such a requirement is a reasonable demand. I have not, however, begged the question. There’s still the fact that we seem to experience other things and people, so even if some version of idealism holds, my theory would make for a secondary explanation of consciousness. The primary one would focus on how exactly the mind is responsible for reality as we experience it.
Another objection will certainly involve self-knowledge, which given my account, wouldn’t be at all possible without other people and things. Following philosophy’s long history of thought experiments and setting aside the question of whether conceivability entails logical possibility and the question of whether logical possibility entails ontological reality, I will ask the reader to imagine the other philosophical zombie (p-zombie). Chalmers has argued that the mere logical possibility of there being a p-zombie like his entails that physicalism is false. His p-zombie, which is a zombie that’s psychologically indistinguishable from any other human being, lacks qualia and therefore, lacks phenomenal consciousness. His p-zombie gets the most attention though at least one other has been offered. Steven Harnad offered a neurological p-zombie. His p-zombie isn’t one designed to counter physicalism. Rather, it’s one employed to bolster the case for the Computational Theory of Mind and a case for artificial intelligence.89
Imagine a person indistinguishable from a human being. Now imagine that this person is blind, deaf, and mute. Further, imagine that this person cannot taste, smell or feel anything. Imagine that this person is devoid of all senses, even the sense of knowing when it’s time to urinate and digest. On my Hegelian reductionist account, sensations feature in the information received from the physical world. Sights, sounds, colors, textures, and so on inform our awareness, a structure comprised of our nervous systems, skin, sense apparatus and other smaller structures like papillae; this in turn informs our consciousness. Information mediates awareness and consciousness. This is in agreement with David Chalmers’ view. Where we differ is that I conclude that without our senses, we would not have phenomenal consciousness, especially since the qualia of sight, for instance, is simultaneous with whatever we are seeing.
My p-zombie shows that my reductionist account succeeds, since accounting for the p-zombie’s self-knowledge and qualia is impossible. Whatever account one might render is all but ineffable. Can this p-zombie proceed as Descartes did and eventually say “I think therefore I am”? If s/he knows of no people and no other objects, how can this person prove him/herself to exist? On my differential ontological view, we know who we are, in part, because of differentiation with other people and objects; there are no essential properties about us. So if such a p-zombie is possible and lacks what Chalmers calls the structure of awareness, how then can it retain a structure of consciousness? Moreover, if it lacks senses and cannot receive information, how then is his/her consciousness informed? If Chalmers’ p-zombie refutes physicalism, my p-zombie proves physicalism; a stalemate would ensue. My p-zombie would lack phenomenal consciousness only because s/he lacks all senses. This shows quite conclusively that qualia are dependent on our senses and the objects we interact with, and that without neither of these, we’d have no phenomenal consciousness to speak of.
The goal of this chapter isn’t to ensure that my theory is bulletproof. The goal is to divorce qualia from their supposed connection to supernatural agents or modes of explanation, and despite the speculative nature of my theory, the task has been completed. As mentioned earlier, we can’t simply ignore the insights of neuroscience and cognitive science, and assert that mental states are nonphysical. Neither can we follow Chalmers in overreacting and disavowing materialism due to its seeming failure to solve the hard problem of consciousness. Despite the conundrum of phenomenal consciousness, I’ve chosen not to abandon a strict naturalistic approach and a materialistic framework that has hitherto proven successful. What is demonstrably unsuccessful is the project of proving that nonphysical mental states exist. By extension, arguing from such mental states to the existence of god is unsuccessful.
58 Tye, Michael. “Qualia”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 20 Aug 1997. Web.
59 Adams, Robert. The Virtue of Faith. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1987. Print.; Swinburne, Richard. The Evolution of the Soul. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1986. 185. Print.
60 Conifer, Steve. “The Argument From Consciousness Refuted”. Infidels. 2001. Web.
61 Lowe, E. J. (2006). Non-cartesian substance dualism and the problem of mental causation. _Erkenntnis_ 65 (1):5-23.
62 Charles S., Nathan Houser, and Christian J. W. Kloesel. The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992. 292. Print.
63 Joseph, Rhawn. The Right Cerebral Hemisphere: Emotion, Music, Visual-spatial Skills, Body-image, Dreams, and Awareness. Brandon, VT: Clinical Psychology Pub., 1988. Print.
64 Joseph, Rhawn. “Dual Mental Functioning in a Split-brain Patient.” Journal of Clinical Psychology J. Clin. Psychol. 44.5 (1988): 770-79. Web.
65 Weed, Laura. “Philosophy of Mind: An Overview”. Philosophy Now. 2011. Web.
66 Chalmers, David. The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. 16. Kindle Edition.
67 Smart, J.C.C. “The Mind/Brain Identity Theory”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 18 May 2007. Web.
68 One rod is the equivalent of roughly 5.02 meters.
69 Costandi, Mo. “Phineas Gage and the effect of an iron bar through the head on personality”. The Guardian. 8 Nov 2010. Web.
70 Joe Lau and Max Deutsch. “Externalism About Mental Content”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 22 Jan 2014. Web.
71 Ibid. , xi
72 Ibid. , xii
73 Ibid. , xiii
74 Kimble, Kevin, and Timothy O’connor. “The Argument from Consciousness Revisited.” Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion Volume 3 (2011): 110-41. Web.
75 Jurati, Julia. “Gottfried Leibniz: Philosophy of Mind”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. ND. Web.
76 Ibid. , 293
77 Ibid. , 123
78 Ibid. , 94
79 Balog, Katalin. “Conceivability, Possibility, and the Mind-Body Problem.” The Philosophical Review 108.4 (1999): 497. Web.
80 Ibid. , 215
81 Ibid. , 225
82 Dickens, Donne. “Everything ‘Stranger Things’ didn’t explain about the Upside Down (basically everything)”. Hitflix. 18 Aug 2016. Web.
83 Ibid. , 278
84 Tremlin, Todd. Minds and Gods: The Cognitive Foundations of Religion. New York: Oxford UP, 2006. 54. Print.
85 Dennett, Daniel Clement. Consciousness Explained. London U.a.: Lane, the Penguin, 1992. Print.; Churchland, P.S. 1986. Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the Mind-Brain. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.
86 MacDonald, Fiona. “Scientists have found a woman whose eyes have a whole new type of colour receptor”. Science Alert. 25 July 2016. Web.
87 Nida-Rümelin, Martine. “Qualia: The Knowledge Argument”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.
88 Ibid. , 125
89 Harnad, S. “Minds, Machines and Turing.” The Turing Test Studies in Cognitive Systems (2003): 253-73. Web.
My purpose here is to respond to a post published by Steven Dunn over at Philosophic Augustine. I met Steven several years ago in conversations on Tumblr. Over the years, he has maintained a resolute interest in philosophy, which is something I greatly admire about him. Few things remain constant over several years, so the fact that he has retained his passion for philosophy is impressive. He’s also grown a lot with respect to his knowledge and that’s to be applauded.
Prior to reproducing our discussion hitherto, I want to be clear about what I’ll be looking to accomplish in this response: a) address his latest response that features Aristotelian personalism and metaphysics b) circle back around to Bill Vallicella’s argument. I think it’s important not to lose sight of the argument, especially given that that’s the reason I commented on Steven’s Facebook post to begin with. I will make it clear that even if one granted the undeniable personhood of a fetus, it still would not follow that an abortion is equivalent to murder. With that said, here is the discussion as it stands; my reply to Steven’s latest response will follow.
Steven Dunn: Philosopher Bill Vallicella over at his blog Maverick Philosopher considers a brief but important argument:
(a) Abortion is murder.
(b) Abortion ought to be illegal.
The question: Can one consistently hold (a) and not (b)? Suppose an added proposition:
(a) Abortion is murder.
(b) Abortion ought to be illegal.
(c) Murder is illegal.
I posted this argument on my personal Facebook page which wrought the response of one of my old friends from the Tumblr blogosphere, R. N. Carmona. Carmona is a philosophic tour de force, one of whom I’m familiar with conversing and debating since I was 17 in 2013 (now I’m 24).
There was a lot of heated exchanges between me and Carmona. After learning of his upcoming book, Ending the Abortion Debate, I knew that this issue was something he was well-versed in and felt passionate about. The following exchange doesn’t do full justice to Carmona’s overall position, but the highlights I’m sure are as he would see fit. Enjoy!
R. N. Carmona: (a) is unsound, hence making the whole argument unsound. Aborting an embryo or non-viable fetus simply is NOT murder. Most abortions happen before week 16, with a majority of them happening before week 9. At no point in those times does a fetus resemble an infant and more importantly, the hallmarks of a person aren’t present yet. That happens at around week 22, hence the hard cut off in most states at 20 weeks. Specifically, EEG waves register in the neocortex at around week 22 and the neocortex isn’t full developed till around week 36. I’d argue that it’s murder after week 22.
The only time I make exceptions after that many weeks is if there’s a threat on the mother’s life, but if the choice is between the quality of life of a mom and her family and a nine week old fetus, it’s an easy choice. Keeping abortion legal prior to week 20 reduces maternal mortality, which, if you’re pro-life, you should care about. Moreover, restrictive policies increase infant and maternal mortality. We’ve had lots of tries at the conservative Christian way: Northern Island, the Muslim World, the Philippines, etc. Restrictive policies do not work.
This is precisely what my next book is about. Want to end abortion? Get behind the issue. Address poverty, lack of education, lack of access to contraception, domestic violence, etc. That’s the only way to slow the rate of abortion. Restricting it won’t work and those conservative states that have passed heartbeat bills are about to find out the hard way.
Steven Dunn: There is actually a large extent in which I agree with you. I’ve read a lot of your writing on this issue and I appreciate you’ve pointed the dangerous restrictive policies that do currently exist. There is also an importance as you say in addressing poverty, lack of education, etc.
However, my initial problem began when you claimed that aborting an embryo or non-viable fetus is not murder. Even though non-viable fetuses have no chance of survival, that still does not warrant moral permissibility to end its life. I don’t see where the line of moral difference changes with an embryo, fetus, or fully grown human infant. Is it a spatial difference? Is it a temporal difference? Does the week, day, or trimester matter when ending the life of a *potential human?
Of course, we could have a metaphysically more significant conversation than the kinds of questions I’m asking you. I just think that these questions are a good starting point. Also, what is the “hallmarks of a person”?
R. N. Carmona: The hallmark of a person is quite simply, the consciousness attributed to human beings and higher order animals like dolphins and the great apes: neuroplasticity, memory acquisition, language capacity, etc. Even simpler than that, the capacity to apprehend taste, texture, sound, and so on. Even them who are mentally disabled, assuming they aren’t blind or deaf, can have these experiences. The blind and deaf, though lacking an important sense, still have propensities for memory acquisition, language, and so on.
And that’s the difference: spatio-temporal. Of space, because the potential person now occupies a uterus, taking nutrients from the would-be mother; of time because the potential person is currently not in the world, i.e. is not a citizen of a given country; is not protected by laws.
Potential simply is not enough. The fetus is potentially stillborn or potentially going to die of SIDs or will potentially be an ectopic pregnancy or will potentially be born to become a serial killer that will make Ted Bundy blush. You can’t speak of potential as though it’s solely and predictably positive; potential can be very negative. In fact, this child can be the reason the mother dies and leaves behind a husband to raise several kids, including the newborn, on his own. Potential simply isn’t enough to obligate a woman to continue a pregnancy she’d rather terminate.
So yes, the week matters because so long as a fetus isn’t viable, abortion should be permissible. The moral difference changes once the fetus is viable. Potentiality simply isn’t a good argument. Viability is a much stronger argument.
Furthermore, the moral difference changes when purposeful modification comes into play. Sure, an infant doesn’t have that capacity: it doesn’t, for example, set goals for itself. However, the parents, once they are told that the fetus is developing well, start to purposely modify on the fetus’ behalf: they start thinking of a name, buying clothing, setting up its room, putting money in its college fund, etc.
No parent, even if they’re a Christian conservative, begins to purposely modify at conception or even in the early weeks. It’s simply not enough to go on and tells you that, behaviorally speaking, most parents write off potential. Potential isn’t enough for anyone to go on and that’s why most people need something concrete before they begin to purposely modify on their baby’s behalf.
So yes, there’s a simple line to draw between a non-viable fetus and a viable one. I can speak of organismality as well, namely comparing and contrasting between organisms to come to a good conclusion regarding what a non-viable fetus most closely resembles, and it’s clear that they don’t resemble a newborn. There are marked differences, but I digress.
Steven Dunn: I would clarify that you are *technically correct in saying that potentiality is not enough. A potential X of course is not an X. Because I am a potential speaker of the French language doesn’t mean I can speak the French language. However, potentialities are still nonetheless grounded in being: they are realities not merely possibilities.
They are actual human beings with various potentials.
Though they are not realized among differing spatial and temporal locations/positions, I don’t think you’ve provided a meaningful account of persons. Human persons, as I see it, are instances of personalized being; persons possess phenomenological qualities that make them eligible for relationships – or interpersonal love. I think our definitions of persons should capture something specific (and simple), rather than be a construct of various qualifiers (neuroplasticity, apprehension of the senses, etc).
One biological example worth mentioning that I think you’ll appreciate is the cognitive capacity of bonobos – which is one of my favorite areas of primatology to examine their analogous behavior with humans. They’re sympathetic, they can experience pain, they are highly intelligent, they can have an extensive non-verbal vocabulary, etc.
Despite these striking qualities, they do not fit under the definition of persons I’ve provided above.
What does it mean to be a real person? A couple things: (i) what W. Norris Clark has called the “participation structure of the universe”; rational-intelligibility that allows for human persons and the universe to find meaningful relations/predictions; (ii) existence as a dynamic act of presence and (iii) action as a [self] manifestation of inner-being.
I think your definition of persons is merely conditional; it’s dynamic but not exhaustive. Human beings – that is, if a personalized being possesses such potentialities – are intrinsically valuable; there can be no moral difference among this being’s spatial or temporal location.
In summary. . . I think you are raising issues that aren’t typically addressed by conservatives. It’s important that we better handle areas of women’s reproductive healthcare, which can be dealt with through better and intentional education, personal conviction, etc. However, I think we need to agree that the moral question is not somehow addressed because we’ve raised current social or political problems surrounding abortion. There are consequences and symptoms that need to be taken care of, by all means. However, if structurally we are dealing with the intentional ending of a human life then we need to talk about it.
R. N. Carmona: I disagree there. What I hear is Aristotelian language here and I reject his metaphysics all the way through. Potentialities are not realities grounded in being. I think even Aristotle makes a distinction between potentiality and actuality, and as I recall, he doesn’t conflate them in this manner.
Persons do, however, possess phenomenological qualities, like phenomenal consciousness, but that isn’t what makes them eligible for relationships and interpersonal love. What’s needed there is simple empathy and bonobos and chimps, in general, are capable of that; that’s one reason why some advanced nations recognize them as persons. So rather than a construct of qualifiers, it’s more a recognition of qualifiers taken together to get a basic definition of person.
The base anthropocentrism of theists doesn’t allow them to accept that other higher order animals are persons, and that’s what you’re doing here. Dolphins call each other by name and remember individuals for decades. Elephants can also remember individuals after years of not seeing them. So while there’s certainly a distinction between a human person and a dolphin person, there is overlap that qualifies them both and that overlap is found in the sciences. The issue here is that your definition relies less on science and more so on an implied belief in the soul or on metaphysics rather than science.
I agree with (I) as it’s pretty much purposeful modification paraphrased. (II) relies heavily on Aristotelian metaphysics and I reject it outright. (III) stems from two, but alludes to libertarian action of will, which I don’t think anyone has. There’s no [self] without the [other] and other is much more crucial in action, especially willful. I think human persons can change course, but only after realizing enough deterministic conditions underlying their actions, thus empowering them to experience determinants that may lead to an overall change of course.
Think of the proverbial alcoholic; he doesn’t willfully change his bad habit, but what he does is “change” a given number of determinants so that his actions may change and out of a recognition that if he doesn’t make these changes, he is pretty much enabled: a) stops associating with friends who drink regularly b) doesn’t go to bars when invited c) goes to rehab. And so on and so on and so on.
Action itself isn’t in a vacuum, but dynamic and intertwined with the flux of all there is. So human potential takes course in a deterministic manner and any human looking to have any semblance of control over that will reposition herself with respect to determinants. A fetus is incapable of this sort of purposeful modification, which I think is the most actualized of all.
So my definition, while not alluding to souls or anything religious, is also sufficient because it recognizes the role of the other in the shaping of the self. The embryo and non-viable fetus do not interact with the other in the manner in which persons do and it is simply potentiality and not actuality, to use your language. What is commonly aborted is (what can be) rather than (what is), so that spatio-temporal difference lays the groundwork for a moral difference and the moral difference lies in purposeful modification which I think your (I) paraphrases.
Any metaphysic that doesn’t account for the other, even something as arbitrary as a chair, isn’t complete. Hegel understood this and is the forefather, I think, of modern metaphysics, starting in the phenomenologists that soon followed him. Hurssel relied a lot on Aristotle too and I’m not alone in seeing that he was mistaken for doing so, but again, I digress.
Steven Dunn: I would respond to your outlook on Aristotelian personalism as not fully appreciating what the system has to offer. In our personal conversations on abortion I have mentioned to you that yes, personalism and the potentiality principle has largely been carried and grounded in Catholic moral theology. I understand, therefore, we both don’t share views in the inspiration of Christian theology.
Hence, we need to find anthropological and philosophical commonalities in which we can meaningfully proceed in a discourse about human persons and what exactly is developing in the womb. The best system that does this, in my view, is Aristotle’s conception of being from his Metaphysics and the further extension from Thomas Aquinas’ doctrine of persons (with some modifications).
Aquinas argued that persons are that which is “perfected in all of nature.” This essentially means that persons are not merely special “modes” of being amongst others, but that personhood is being when it is allowed to be at its fullest. In other words, persons are not restricted by sub-intelligent matter. There are a number of reasons why persons – humans – possess the special status that they do, and while I think there are theological reasons for this I think I can still demonstrate that apart from any inspired or “revealed” source.
First, Aquinas’ notion of person was conscious of the distinction between person and nature, because providing a consistent account of personhood meant that a consideration of God as Triune (one divine nature amongst three persons) and Christ as the God-man (divine person possessing two natures) needed to be contextually consistent.
Therefore, it has been an accusation by some leading Catholic philosophers (Wojtyla, Ratzinger, Clarke, etc) that Aquinas falls short of a comprehensive philosophical definition of person because the medievals relied primarily on the Boethian definition of person: “An individual substance of a rational nature.” Hence, I would argue for a further inclusion of the concept of “relation,” which is fundamental to our understanding of what it means “to be.”
Aquinas moved away from the what has been called “self-diffusiveness” of the Good as seen by the NeoPlatonists (the collaboration of the Good with all “substances”) and instead moves to Supreme Being, where Existence (esse) – as I said before – now becomes the root of all perfection. Supreme Being is the subsistent Act of Existence, where now the self-diffusive Good now becomes self-communicative Love.
Hence we have three primary qualities for the relationability of persons: being is (1) self-communicative (showing that persons are intelligible [ratio] by their actuality); (2) being is self-manifesting (persons are immediately relatable to other beings); and (3) being is intrinsically active (persons are not merely present but actively present).
Suppose a being for example that existed in reality but didn’t or couldn’t manifest itself to other beings, or if it didn’t or couldn’t act in any way. If this kind of being lacked such properties then other beings couldn’t have knowledge of its existence; it would be almost as if it had no being at all. Now imagine if all beings existed in this sort of way; the universe itself wouldn’t be connected in the unified sense that philosophers and scientists typically speak of the rationality of the universe.
Now combine this with the potentiality principle. According to Current Anthropology (2013), potentiality is a principle not so foreign to them: potentiality “denotes a hidden force determined to manifest itself – something that with or without intervention has its future built into it.”1
Let me be clear that potentiality is the only relevant metaphysical principle worth considering for abortion. My position, to be clear, is not:
- X is a creature of a certain sort.
- Creatures of this sort have right R.
- Therefore, X has a right R.
Premise 2 of course begs the question in favor of what I want to prove. In summary, my position is that the full and perfect realization of being is always inherent in its nature. All living things, including mindless plants, dolphins and gorillas have a proper end or “good” which is naturally directed within their nature – even from a formless or potential state. Nothing can exist without potentials, and potentials cannot be realized apart from something actual.
Now the metaphysical picture I’ve provided is not mere conjecture but is what historically has served as the foundation of Western intelligentsia for over 1,500 years, until the advent of the modern model by Descartes and Newton. And I would argue that that move away from the model of classical metaphysics has been one of the greatest errors and blunders of Western thought. It was an illegitimate move because it’s not as if new physical discoveries were made, hence “outdating” the Aristotelian system.
Descartes, among other French intellectuals at his time were responsible for the shift away from potential/actual, the four causes, and his metaphysic of being. Bad move.
R.N. Carmona: While not mere conjecture and arguably the foundation of Western intellgentsia for over 1,500 years, one would have to gloss over important bits of history to make that argument. One of the more significant bits of history I have in mind is the Christian and Muslim censorship and destruction of texts that were not in agreement with monotheism, especially works that were of a more naturalistic flavor. Carlo Rovelli puts it succinctly:
I often think that the loss of the works of Democritus in their entirety is the greatest intellectual tragedy to ensue from the collapse of the old classical civilization…We have been left with all of Aristotle, by way of which Western thought reconstructed itself, and nothing of Democritus. Perhaps if all the works of Democritus had survived, and nothing of Aristotle’s, the intellectual history of our civilization would have been better … But centuries dominated by monotheism have not permitted the survival of Democritus’s naturalism. The closure of the ancient schools such as those of Athens and Alexandria, and the destruction of all the texts not in accordance with Christian ideas was vast and systematic, at the time of the brutal antipagan repression following from the edicts of Emperor Theodisius, which in 390-391 declared that Christianity was to be the only and obligatory religion of the empire. Plato and Aristotle, pagans who believed in the immortality of the soul or in the existence of a Prime Mover, could be tolerated by a triumphant Christianity. Not Democritus.2
It’s not a mere coincidence that Aristotelian metaphysics stood in fashion for so long, nor was it established that the Aristotelian system was better than other systems. In that same time period, theists, especially Christians, held a virtual monopoly on ideas and as such, metaphysical frameworks with more naturalistic bents were destroyed or censored. Due to this, there was a reluctance on the part of skeptics and naturalists to offer a naturalistic metaphysical system. They were rightfully afraid of The Inquisition. So, Aristotelian metaphysics didn’t dominate the landscape because it was the best framework, but rather, because the game was rigged in its favor.
Copernicus and Galileo, for instance, dealt with the consequences of challenging theistic thought. Copernicus’ De revolutionibus “was forbidden by the Congregation of the Index ‘until corrected’, and in 1620 these corrections were indicated. Nine sentences, by which the heliocentric system was represented as certain, had to be either omitted or changed.”3 Galileo’s house arrest is a well-known historical fact and there’s no need to tread over old coals here. More to the point, “Bruno [was]…much more of a philosopher than a scientist. He felt that a physicist’s field of study was the tangible universe, so he challenged any line of thought that utilized nonphysical elements and avoided what he considered the juvenile exercise of calculation. To him, computational astronomy missed the true significance of the sky.”4 Bruno held to eight purportedly heretical theses and they served as the reason for his execution. Among these theses were patently naturalistic positions: the universe is spatially infinite, there are other planets very similar to ours, there were humans before Adam and Eve, the Earth moves in accordance with Copernican theory.5 In all but one of these positions, Bruno has been proven correct. So the notion that Aristotle’s system is best overall or, at the very least with respect to defining personhood, is already disputable because as has been demonstrated, competing, especially naturalistic, frameworks were discouraged. Despite this, before I set out on my own exploration with regards to what best explains potentiality, I will challenge Aristotle’s personalism.
Even if I were to grant that Aristotle offered much in the way of explaining personhood, there’s still the question of how any of these criteria apply to embryos and early fetuses. Take for instance, (1) self-communicative (showing that persons are intelligible [ratio] by their actuality). To my mind, embryos and early fetuses are not self-communicative nor intelligible, and that’s because they have yet to develop the organ that makes this possible, namely the brain. Now, while I recognize that Aristotle offers an interesting conundrum worth considering, i.e., as you put it, “Nothing can exist without potentials, and potentials cannot be realized apart from something actual,” I don’t see that a fetus’ obvious intelligibility and self-communication follows. As we will see shortly, there’s a better explanation for the notion that nothing can exist without potentials and that no potentials can be realized separate from something actual.
In like manner, let’s consider also (2) being is self-manifesting (persons are immediately relatable to other beings). On the assumption that Aristotle was correct, I don’t see how embryos and early fetuses are self-manifesting and immediately relatable to other beings. If anything, it is only relatable to its parents and siblings, assuming they had children already. Since it has not emerged independently within the world, it is not relatable to other people, the ecosystem in its locale, nor the wider biosphere. The fact that it isn’t independently within the world makes so that it isn’t relatable to any other beings. Furthermore, it’s relation to its parents and siblings is best explained and anticipated by genetics, which we will get to shortly.
Let’s also consider (3) being is intrinsically active (persons are not merely present but actively present). Again, embryos and early fetuses are not present, let alone actively present for the same reasons they aren’t self-manifesting. The fact that it is not independently within the world, once again, proves problematic for the third criterion. I can grant that it is actively present once born, for its parent(s) is now self-modifying on its behalf. It is interacting with other persons in a very obvious manner and relies on them for its physical, emotional, and psychological growth, growth that is crucial for its potential to eventually become a person who has a theory of mind, a sense of self, an ego, memories, desires, goals, and so on. Within the womb, that simply is not the case early in any pregnancy. The woman’s voice and music can help with brain development starting at 29-33 weeks. So harkening back to what I said earlier, interpersonal interaction is only possible when the brain is sufficiently developed, which strongly favors the thesis that the brain is integral to a human person rather than a soul.
Now to the matter of what better explains the predictable potential of a human fetus, after which three conclusions should be immediately clear: either 1) that we do not require a metaphysical explanation for potentiality and personhood or 2) that given genetics and evolution, what’s necessary is a metaphysical framework that is congruous with and readily predicts scientific facts and 3) that nothing can exist without potentials and that potentials are not realized without actuals has been solved.
One of the primary reasons I reject Christian theism as a worldview is because it gives human beings an undue “special status” all while ignoring human evolution. Human potential or more specifically, homo sapien potential wouldn’t exist without an ancestor’s (probably homo antecessor) potential. Furthermore, homo sapien potential would not have been realized without the actuality of ancestors and likewise, without the divergence of ancestors, great apes would not have progressed as they have. As you well know, we share about 98.5% DNA with chimpanzees and some 96% with gorillas, two facts that establish a common ancestry. So this “special status” is actually an example of special pleading because it’s not at all clear why chimps and gorillas do not qualify for such status; also, neanderthals, given what we currently know about them, are in many respects like homo sapiens (a fact that made their interbreeding possible) and as such, would qualify for such status without question. Yet on Christian theism, no human ancestor qualifies for this status, an attitude I find very suspicious.
Human evolution, like evolution in toto, has an underlying genetic component that explains these variations in populations over time. That same genetic component continues among all populations of species and thus, better explains “the perfect realization of being…inherent in the nature of mindless plants, dolphins, and gorillas.” Furthermore, potentiality does not denote a “hidden force determined to manifest itself,” but a rather statistically predictable pattern present in the genome of an organism; it isn’t hidden at all, but rather in plain sight. The pattern is so predictable that one can readily explain how and why that which is formless becomes something with form.
So prior to circling back to Vallicella’s argument, I will offer a brief overview showing how the actuality of parents results in the potentiality and probable actuality of a child. It is also important to note that given genetics, there are a number of factors that determine morphological sex, eye color, hair color, skin tone, and so on. So let’s imagine that in universe A, Jack and Jill have a baby girl named Janice and that in universe B, they have a boy named Jake. Let’s consider the important differences in each child, differences that explain why Janice exists in A and Jake in B.
In universe A, Jack and Jill are both 24-years-old when they agree to having a child. Jack and Jill are wealthy and have spent the last four years of their relationship traveling. Neither of them are stressed and have no trouble being happy and grateful for all that they have. When considering that high stress increases the probability of having a boy, it is no surprise that Jill gives birth to Janice nine months later. Yet that still does not explain why Janice has brown eyes (though both her parents have blue eyes), her mother’s hair color, and her father’s hitchhiker thumb. In the main, had another sperm fertilized the egg, Janice very likely would have been born with completely different features. Despite low stress levels, there’s also the fact that Jack has five sisters and no brothers, therefore increasing the probability of having a girl. This still does not explain why Janice has brown rather than blue eyes, blonde rather than brown hair, and a hitchhiker thumb rather than a straight thumb.
Allelic combination is important in explaining her phenotypic features. Should both parents pass on recessive genes, Janice is born with a hitchhiker thumb. Or alternatively, if there’s a combination of dominant and recessive genes, she may have a chance to have a hitchhiker thumb or a straight thumb. If there’s a combination of dominant genes, then she will predictably have a straight thumb (see reference). Eye color tends to be similar, albeit more complicated.
For instance, the assumption is that since Janice’s parents have blue eyes, she will also have blue eyes. There are two genes integral to determine eye pigmentation: OCA2 and HERC2. An active HERC2 activates OCA2, which determines pigment; given this, we know that this is what explains Janice’s brown eyes. Her counterpart in universe B, Jake, has either a broken HERC2 or a broken OCA2 and therefore, has blue eyes (see reference). He also has brown hair and a straight thumb. He has a straight thumb because instead of a recessive and dominant gene (what we find in Janice’s genome), we find two dominant genes in Jake’s genome. Their disparate hair colors are also explained in this manner as well. It is also likely that in Universe B, Jill gave birth to Jake because of the high levels of stress she experienced during pregnancy. Jack and Jill decided to conceive at the ages of 31. During the pregnancy, they moved from Middletown, NY to New York City because they both wanted more job opportunities. The crowded commutes, her career, the noise pollution, among other things, stressed Jill out to no end and this increased the probability of having a boy, hence (probably) the birth of Jake.
Form, likewise, follows suit. Drosophila have been important in research in evolutionary biology and genetics. In observing curious mutations in these flies, geneticists discovered homeotic genes that determine the body pattern of all organisms. The research gets very technical and makes for quite the tangent, but homeotic, or Hox genes themselves come from a Hox-like ancestor that explains the similarities Hox genes have from organism to organism (see reference). The graphic makes the extrapolations of their research clear.
What is also clear is that the following turns out to be false: “All living things, including mindless plants, dolphins and gorillas have a proper end or “good” which is naturally directed within their nature – even from a formless or potential state.” It’s not so much that there’s a natural tendency even from a formless, potential state, but rather, that there’s an evolutionary and genetic history that informs how a comparatively formless embryo develops into a human being. There are also traits that are arbitrary as there’s no purpose as to why someone would have brown rather than blue eyes or a hitchhiker thumb rather than a straight thumb. Some traits are inconsequential with respect to who a given person is.
Aristotelian metaphysics is considered outmoded by contemporary philosophers and scientists because it is incongruous with various scientific paradigms. Setting cosmology and physics aside, as I think I’ve shown, Aristotle’s concept of a person is incongruous with evolution and genetics and the system did nothing in the way of anticipating the advent of evolutionary biology and genetics. His system speaks of personhood in a patently non-naturalistic or even supernatural manner whereas genetics and evolution show that personhood is linked to certain types of purely physical organisms. What is required is either no metaphysical framework at all (à la logical positivists) or a framework that coincides with modern philosophical and scientific paradigms. Aristotle’s system doesn’t accomplish that and far from a “bad move,” Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and everyone who eventually stood on their shoulders have every justification to move away from the Aristotelian system. Although interesting, that potentials can’t exist apart from actuals is explained by genetics for that which is animate and memetics for that which is inanimate. In fact, Aristotle was closer to correct with regards to universals and particulars, an explanation that can be applied to inanimate objects rather than living entities. Yet despite the potential for a human embryo to become an actual human person, a roughly predictable, naturalistic set of occurrences take place before every human birth. The process is also a fragile one as an injury to the would-be mother can end the pregnancy; genetic anomalies and an implantation anywhere other than the uterus can make it so that this potentiality never results in an actuality. Aristotle’s system also doesn’t explain the fragility of this process not just in humans, but in other organisms as well. It should therefore be clear that conclusions aforementioned have been firmly established and that if metaphysics remains a concern for philosophers, we have to do better than what Aristotle and his disciples rendered us.
Now to circle all the way back to Vallicella’s argument. Even if one were to grant the undeniable personhood of a fetus, either through the medium of Aristotelian metaphysics or another metaphysical framework altogether, there’s still the issue that the intentional killing of this person doesn’t constitute a murder. The pivotal error pro-choicers make is that they tend to define abortion and ignore what it’s being equated to. They should also consider the legal definition of murder, since Vallicella is alluding to the legal rather than the moral definition.
The killing of an embryo or fetus is done with intentions and motives altogether different from those underlying homicide, and as such, from a legal standpoint, it can’t be approached as murder or even a lesser offense like manslaughter. There is no degree of murder applicable to abortion; the intention and motive are not the same either, so even from a legal perspective, abortion is not murder. It would constitute an intentional killing of a different sort, of an even benevolent sort. Therefore, a woman who has an abortion can’t be tried and convicted as a murderer, neither can the doctor who performed the abortion. Let’s consider first degree murder. Premeditation is already an issue for Vallicella’s argument; the prosecution wouldn’t be able to argue that the mother had a malicious intent to kill this person. As for second degree, even though lacking the premeditation criterion, implies a reckless disregard for human life. The prosecution can’t accuse a woman of that either.
What’s more is that, if you were right in that a fetus is a person despite its viability, then restrictive policies would be the only choice we’d have. Like Vallicella’s argument implies, murder is treated in an extremely restrictive manner; even self-defense has to be established with no room for doubt. So if abortion were murder, it would be dealt with in like manner. So setting metaphysics and ethics aside, from a practical point of view, we should be wary of equating abortion with murder because we have dealt with the latter in a restrictive manner and we should know better, especially given the deadly consequences of such policies. So even if for solely practical reasons, we should shy from such equivalence even if it could be proven that abortion is murder. The issue here is that no pro-lifer has qualified that statement in any manner that doesn’t make for a bare assertion. Abortion is simply not murder and to think of women who have abortions as murderers is to misunderstand this issue altogether. What we should be addressing are the common motivations for seeking an abortion: poverty, domestic violence, lack of employment opportunity, and so on. I can go on, but I’ve probably overstayed my welcome as it is, so for the time being, I will leave this here.
The featured image to this article was taken from https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/work/4291/
The featured image to this article is Rembrandt’s Two Old Men Disputing (1628).
-  Taussig, Karen-Sue, Klaus Hoeyer, and Stefan Helmreich: “The Anthropology of Potentiality in Biomedicine: An Introduction to Supplement. Current Anthropology (vol. 54). 2013.
-  Rovelli, Carlo, et al. Reality Is Not What It Seems: the Journey to Quantum Gravity. Riverhead Books, 2018, pp. 32-33.
-  “Nicolaus Copernicus.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908.20 Jun. 2019 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04352b.htm>.
-  NA. “Bruno and Galileo in Rome.” Honors Program in Rome, University of Washington. 2003. <https://depts.washington.edu/hrome/Authors/pev42/BrunoandGalileoinRome/pub_zbarticle_view_printable.html>
-  Ibid. 
With some hesitation, I am choosing to respond to Geek From the East’s review of my book Philosophical Atheism: Counter Apologetics and Arguments For Atheism. The reason I hesitate is because though the blogger refers to himself as an “Agnostic seeker,” a brief skimming of his blog will convince anyone that he has a clear bias in favor of theism. I also hesitate because he’s an uninformed layman falling victim to a bit of Dunning-Kruger effect. His book reviews and blog posts have consisted of responses to atheists. He seems to have a vested interest in defending theism whilst pretending to safeguard academic writing from sloppy scholarship. Had he actually read my book, rather than skimmed, he would realize that the book was never intended to be a serious academic work! Serious academic work often intimidates readers and makes them feel incapable of fully grasping what’s being conveyed. In my book’s introduction, I state the following:
I’ve done my best to ensure that the book is accessible to the casual reader who has, at the very least, a faint interest in atheism, religion, philosophy, and science. My hope is that this work will light the dim flame of such a casual reader so as to get them more interested in philosophy and science. Despite this goal, there are places that are quite esoteric. These portions of the work might be difficult to follow, but these portions are not included for sake of discouraging any member of the audience. My hope, with regards to esoteric material, is that the mind of the reader is elevated, that within such an individual a will is awakened to learn more about these topics and get a better understanding of what at the moment appears difficult.
p.14, Print Edition
This adequately deals with his concern that the references and sources I use aren’t used in professional works that are meant to be taken seriously. The purpose of this book wasn’t to enter the discussion on the philosophy of religion. My intent wasn’t to get into a dialogue with William Lane Craig, John Lennox, or any of the other apologists mentioned in my book. While I would welcome such dialogue, assuming it takes the shape of actual dialogue rather than someone obstinately trying their darnedest to convert me, I didn’t write my book for sake of starting such a dialogue. My book is aimed at atheists, particularly atheists who are new to atheism; as such, they likely won’t know how to respond to these arguments.
This brings me to my next issue with this reviewer who unabashedly goes out of his way to misrepresent my work. He states that my book doesn’t “describe a current landscape of the topic accurately” and that, particularly in the chapter on the Moral Argument, I use a net-based reference — as though William Lane Craig’s own Q&A response somehow misrepresents his Moral Argument. If my reader were suspicious of my formulation of Craig’s Moral Argument, they can readily consult dozens of internet sources — including tons of YouTube debates in where he formulates the Moral Argument in the same exact manner. It always sounds like this:
P1 If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
P2 Objective moral values and duties do exist.
C Therefore, god exists.
That is precisely the argument I addressed and it is precisely the argument Craig puts forward. My concern isn’t whether there are other versions of the Moral Argument. There most certainly are. My intent is to address the most known version, the version that atheists will encounter the most. Given that Craig has plenty of admirers here in the US, over in the UK, in Australia, and in parts of Asia, it is only fitting that I address his argument and not Leibniz’s, for example. Most Christians with apologetic bents aren’t even familiar with Leibniz’s Moral Argument, so why address it? If it’s stronger than Craig’s then it stands to reason that they would employ it more often. Since they do not, my book didn’t address it. If it were to ever become more commonplace, then perhaps I will address it in future editions of my book.
Given my target audience (wannabe apologist Christians and atheists new to atheism, but most especially this latter group), I use accessible sources. Those accessible sources usually have further sources should any of my readers choose to consider them. I am not going to fill my book with journal publications that are inaccessible because they’re hard to get copies of or because they’re blocked by a paywall. Furthermore, I am not going to fill my book with sources that will obligate my reader to buy a ton of books. If they choose to consider the books and journal publications I did include, that’s entirely up to them. The point, once again, was to write a book that doesn’t scare the reader away.
Now to the biggest complaint. He talks about the current landscape and accuses me of dishonesty and yet fails to give an example of this so-called current landscape. Moreover and much more importantly, he neglects to mention that apologists like Craig, Licona, Lennox, and so on are guilty of this. I am not guilty of failing to update the discussion. They are most certainly guilty of that. William Lane Craig, who is only the most well-known apologist in both Catholic and Protestant circles, has trotted out the same five or six arguments in debate after debate after debate for about 30 years. That’s three decades of stale arguments and unmentioned objections, talking points, and amendments (assuming there are any) to any of the arguments he employs.
My purpose, I reiterate, is to address the arguments as they are usually offered. You can’t fault a response for basically quoting verbatim. If Craig’s Moral Argument differed today from a version offered twenty years ago, I would have addressed the new version of the argument. More importantly, I address this very point in my book, so had the reviewer sat on his hands a bit rather than prematurely review a book he didn’t read closely, he would have encountered the following:
The first half of this work dealt with as many theistic arguments as possible. There are others and variants of some of the ones discussed, but a theist will acknowledge that some of the arguments that rank as the best were included. Whether they will admit that the arguments were adequately refuted is doubtful. Despite this work, one that attempts to treat the case for theism charitably, I am of the persuasion that theism, most specifically monotheism, is held up by obstinacy rather than reasonable belief. This is to say that belief in god cannot be shown to be reasonable as proponents of apologetic arguments often claim. When their arguments are defeated, the believer will double down and often with no attempt to, at the very least, amend the argument.
C.S. Lewis, for example, offered an Argument Against Naturalism that met bitter defeat in the objections of Elizabeth Anscombe. Briefly, Lewis argued that since all thoughts are the result of irrational causes assuming naturalism is true, then either naturalism is unreasonable or false. Lewis used the example of atoms, which he considered to be irrational. Anscombe corrected Lewis and said that atoms are not irrational, but rather non-rational. Lewis accepted this distinction and attempted to revise his argument by replacing irrational with non-rational. The new conclusion is not the one he intended to arrive at, since a system of thought — which is what he considered naturalism to be — cannot be non-rational.
My intention isn’t to proceed as though I wish to address Lewis’ argument. Instead, I want to suggest that Lewis should serve as an example of how to proceed should one’s argument prove flawed. Lewis revised his argument, but upon realizing that Anscombe’s objection proved fatal to the argument, he abandoned it. The fact that one argument turns out to fail doesn’t mean that the world view has failed. Given theism’s catalog of arguments, this shouldn’t be much of a problem. Unfortunately, the opposition appears to confuse quantity with quality. Over thirty arguments are sometimes offered to make the case for theism, e.g., Peter Kreft. A few good arguments should suffice.
Aside from that, defeaters like the ones presented in the first half of this work aren’t enough to compel the theist to revise their argument, let alone abandon it entirely. The case for theism rests on the stilts of obduracy, the belief that theistic arguments can’t possibly be proven wrong. William Lane Craig offers the same five arguments in one debate after another. Four of the arguments he has employed have been adequately addressed in the first half of this work. What’s more is that I’m far from the first philosopher to refute these arguments. Yet these arguments have not been revised or abandoned.
Once again, I mention Craig’s penchant to trot out the same, tired arguments. I also mention that there are other variants, variants I didn’t consider because atheists won’t encounter them as often — if ever. What I also mention is that apologetics rests on obstinacy; apologists often proceed without amending arguments or abandoning them. I further suggest, as other philosophers have, that apologetics is pseudo-philosophy and pseudo-scholarship. It’s paradoxical in nature because it pretends to be something it isn’t. The field proceeds as though it’s scholarly and yet, it fails to showcase any of the hallmarks of actual scholarship. This is most pronounced in Craig’s refusal to abandon his arguments.
Now, a closet theist, like this reviewer, will no doubt claim that Craig has no reason to change his arguments because they haven’t been defeated. I outline plenty defeaters ranging from Mackie’s to Nielsen’s to Carroll’s and others. In Chapter 3, which this reviewer mentions in passing, I develop an accessible overview of Christine Korsgaard’s procedural realism — to my mind, one of the more viable non-theistic theories of morality. I could have also mentioned Kagan’s No Harm principle or Scanlon’s contractualism. I could have mentioned Carrier’s Goal Theory or the more modern pluralist theory offered by some psychologists. But again, that can be a work all its own and would involve more scholarship than my target audience cares for.
His claim is that popular apologetic arguments are straw mans and yet, he fails to provide even one example. He fails to mention that the Kalam Cosmological Argument isn’t original to William Lane Craig. How is that argument a straw man? Which argument is the real, stronger version? The Moral Argument isn’t a straw man. Again, I offered it, word for word, the same way Craig does. What argument is the Moral Argument a straw man of? How about Aquinas’ arguments — which I carefully formulated using Aquinas’ own words? What are they straw mans of? He actually said that “those popular arguments are mostly just weaker form of those strongest arguments for God. In other words, they are actually straw-manned form of those arguments.” This is the most dubious part of his review and yet he says that I don’t know what I’m talking about. It appears that the shoe fits his foot perfectly.
What’s also golden is that he accuses me of being uncharitable to theistic arguments because I supposedly didn’t include refutations to my refutations or refutations to my arguments for atheism. My arguments for atheism have been on the web for about two years and aside from the one objection discussed in Chapter 12, I have encountered no refutations. This doesn’t mean there aren’t any. It certainly doesn’t mean that I didn’t consider any. In fact, my Argument from Cosmology receives much attention because it runs into a number of difficulties, the biggest of which is one of its pillars, namely mathematical antirealism. I spend much time in Chapter 11 discussing this difficulty, a difficulty that can no doubt be raised in objection to the argument. Craig and most apologists are mathematical realists, so my argument will no doubt strike them as off — hence why I carefully address such an issue. But what can be said about a reviewer who didn’t even get that far or one who didn’t care to read my book carefully?
Had he read Chapter 7, he would have seen a clinical treatment of Aquinas’ notion of privation, which attempts to refute the notion of a perfectly evil being or, using his terminology, a being that is evil to the utmost degree. Had he read Chapter 6, he would have seen that I updated the theist’s philosophy of mind. I replaced the outmoded Cartesian dualism with Chalmer’s property dualism. In Chapter 8, I am most careful in my treatment of Van Tillian presuppositionalism. I make my best attempt to convey what Van Til tried to argue without degrading his language. The entire book is an exercise in charitable presentations of what theists have offered. The fact that I ultimately am not persuaded by any of these arguments or systems of thought is by no means an indication of a secret desire to misrepresent theistic arguments. To the contrary, my intention is to be as charitable as possible so as to increase the strength of my refutations. The first step in any successful refutation is a clear comprehension of the argument or system of thought.
Perhaps he should, once again, fault apologists. Craig does not change his favored arguments. Licona follows his lead. Lennox doesn’t really present arguments in that form. His approach is more informal. I briefly mention Peter Kreft who has as many as 30+ arguments — each receiving adequate refutation. The fault is on the apologist who thinks his argument(s) so ironclad that the discussion never moves forward. My book is a handbook of sorts for people new to atheism, but it is also an indictment of apologetics. I entered a stale discussion if only to inform people new to atheism and cocksure Christians who put too much stock in these arguments. I never intended to move the discussion forward because my opponents don’t think that’s warranted; if they thought so, they would have already done that.
One apologist that attempts to do that is Alvin Plantinga. He has amended his ontological argument a few times. The one presented in my book is considered the strongest version by a vast majority of Christians. It is, after all, the version I encounter the most and the one that is labelled the “Victorious” Ontological Argument. The reviewer may disagree and might offer a slightly different version, but that version will fall victim to the same objections. Plantinga’s god is maximally excellent, which means perfect in a particular world. His god is also maximally great, which means perfect in every world. My refutation is simple, so simple it can be stated in a sentence: if we can find a world lacking a maximally excellent being, then a maximally great being (a being who is maximally excellent in all worlds) doesn’t exist. Given that, I suggest we consider the only world we can access, i.e., the one we find ourselves in. I focus on the idea that he’s perfectly good and ask whether a perfectly good god can exist in this world, ala Problem of Evil. My conclusion is the same as many a philosopher’s conclusion: the natural evil in this world is gratuitous to such an extent that a perfectly good being cannot possibly exist. Therefore, a maximally excellent being fails to exist in this world and by extension, a maximally great being fails to exist.
This is a fatal defeater to Plantinga’s argument in any form unless he chooses to abandon the maximally excellent and maximally great qualifiers. In recent scholarship, Plantinga has not done that. His admirers most certainly haven’t when considering that the version appearing in Chapter 4 of my book is precisely the version presented by wannabe apologists. The reviewer may disagree and offer another, a “stronger” version. What argument can be better than the so-called “Victorious” Ontological Argument? If he were to present one, I will carefully pick it apart as well.
Now I turn to the minor problems he has with “my book” as though these problems are pervasive. I briefly mention a distinction in scientism. That distinction is not important to my book. I mention it for sake of condemning the maximal scientistic attitudes of New Atheists. Despite that, I am not opposed to science informing philosophy and other disciplines. The reviewer says minimal scientism is meaningless to argue and/or indefensible. On minimal scientism, science can inform philosophy. Science has done exactly that in many cases. Any brief consideration of philosophy of mind or of time or of mathematics will prove this quite conclusively. I wanted to be sure to say that I am not opposed to a philosopher mentioning cognitive and neuroscience. I am not opposed to a philosopher talking about cosmology and quantum mechanics with respect to time. I wholeheartedly believe science should inform other disciplines whenever it is deemed relevant and/or necessary. The same applies to history. I suggest a scientism along Pinker’s lines of thinking (see here). If it’s so indefensible, the author has to tell us why cognitive and neuroscience are inapplicable to philosophy of mind. He has to argue against the use of science in philosophy, history, and other disciplines. What’s untenable is his position.
The other minor quibble he has with my book is my discussion on atheism. Yet he has no grasp of the normative-analytic distinction, a distinction I borrowed from the philosophy of law. On natural law, answering the question of normative jurisprudence, namely what should law be, also answers the question of analytic jurisprudence, what is the law. So, if we answer what atheism should be we arrive at what atheism actually is. He alludes to a non-naturalistic atheism, but fails to qualify it. He is all too content with saying that he doesn’t get why atheism should be defined as strictly as I define it. Following Kai Nielsen, I argue that “naturalism, where consistent, is an atheism” (Nielsen, 2001 p.30). I further argue that atheism, where consistent, is a naturalism. That’s why I contrast atheism with Buddhism, a religion that obligates its adherents to believe in metaphysical beings and realities. Should an atheist believe in such things, they are not a naturalist and arguably, not an atheist. So if we answer the question of what atheism should be, we answer the question of what it actually is.
The dictionary tells us that atheism is the lack of belief in gods. Common sense tells us it’s a bit more involved than that. Do atheists lack belief in gods, but still believe in what the holy text(s) convey? They do not. Do they stop believing that there’s a god and continue to believe in angels and demons? They do not. Along with god, atheists lack belief in the efficacy of religious rituals, the divine authority of religious texts, and metaphysical beings and realities. This is precisely why Buddhists, though they don’t worship a god, are not atheists. They revere the Buddha to an extent and attempt to imitate his ways; they also take his words and deeds seriously and believe in the efficacy of their rituals, most especially meditation. On meditation, some forms have proven effective, but Buddhists go beyond a version like Transcendental Meditation and continue to believe that meditation results in samadhi or what the ancient Hindus referred to as moksha. Along with that, some continue to believe in the cycle of death and rebirth, i.e, reincarnation. Atheists cannot and very often do not believe in any of these things. By their own admission, they are naturalists; all that exists is what is sensible, measurable, and quantifiable in the universe. There are no astral planes, heavens, or portals to metaphysical dimensions.
Lastly, my discussion in Chapter 1 is prefaced by much discussion between other philosophers. Atheists make use of the approaches I discussed. They employ naturalism, fallibilism, and deductive and inductive atheology. The best use of atheism, philosophically speaking, is an approach that employs those approaches and more. I also suggested that one approach may work better in one case but not others. We can indict a theist’s conclusion because his knowledge isn’t complete, i.e., fallibilism, in a given case. In another case, however, it might be more useful to employ naturalism. Where one person argues that prayers can be answered, an atheist might be better suited in addressing that conclusion via naturalism rather than waving away the conclusion because the theist’s knowledge is faulty. It is faulty in this case as well, but there are ways to disabuse the theist of such a conclusion that prove more effective. One can, for instance, allude to the Problem of Evil.
Theist: “God answered my prayer! I got the job!”
Atheist: “Why would he give you a job and fail to answer the cries of the little boy being sexually abused by his priest or the cries of a girl being molested by a family friend? Also, plenty of research has been done on this and it has been proven conclusively that prayer doesn’t work. For one, there are psychological biases people have. In other words, you want to see things a certain way. What you’re neglecting in your case is that you interviewed for the position, you worked your butt off to attain all the necessary qualifications, and you ultimately impressed them with your charm and the depth of your answers. You want god to take the credit for something you did. Some cases are like that. Other cases attribute causation from mere correlation or outright coincidence.”
It should occur to anyone that atheists proceed in both ways. Sometimes they’ll go with fallibilism and sometimes they’ll go with naturalism. Other times, as I did in the second half of my book, they’ll platform on naturalism and use actual deductive or inductive arguments. I am not suggesting, as the reviewer thought I did, that we can jump from an ought to an is. What I’m suggesting is that the way atheism is is as it should be. In other words, what atheism ought to be is precisely the form it takes wherever it retains consistency. An atheist who believes in astrology is mildly inconsistent and should address that if they care for the project of making their atheism more consistent. An atheist who believes in astral realms is extremely inconsistent and hasn’t fully come to terms with the conclusion that there’s no god. Perhaps some aspect(s) of religious thinking still appeals to this individual and that’s fine, but a consistent atheist s/he is not. The form it has taken in the likes of Mackie, Ayer, Grayling, Dennett, Russell, Smith, and others is precisely as it should be. So it isn’t that we answer the normative question to get the answer to the analytic question, but rather that in answering the former we simultaneously answer the latter. That point I made absolutely clear.
As for the other parts of his review, I’ll be sure to read them, but given this rough start, I’m not sure I’ll be responding to anything else this particular reviewer has to say. It’s clear to me and should be clear to anyone else — given his blog’s content — that he has a clearly defined bias for theism, almost certainly Christianity. He resides in South Korea, a country with a burgeoning Christian population. He may not be sure that god exists, but it’s clear that he believes in god. He is, to put it another way, an agnostic theist. He believes in god, but doesn’t know or claim to know that he exists. That’s fine so long as he doesn’t pretend otherwise. He may want to give people the impression that he’s impartial and doesn’t care either way, but given his reviews and posts, it is crystal clear that he is opposed to atheism. This review is rife with problems, each of its own creation. Had he read my book more thoroughly or read it in its entirety before reviewing, he may have fared better. What’s more is that he seems to have missed one of the central focuses of my book; this book is written to interested laymen, them who are, in particular, new to atheism. Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and other new atheists will not give them any segue into addressing these arguments; I have attempted to provide that in a brief, mostly accessible manner and despite these uncharitable complaints, I strongly believe that I have accomplished that.
I’ll let new readers decide for themselves. My book is available for purchase here. Read, write a review on Amazon or on your blog, or approach me with questions over on Tumblr. Happy reading!
It is useful to note that even if Plantinga or any Christian rejects the contra-argument, the first premise can be challenged. Rather than quibble with what is meant by maximal excellence, an atheist can accept the definition as it stands. The atheist can, however, question whether this is possible world W in where a being of maximal excellence exists and explore the consequences if it turns out that this isn’t that possible world. In other words, if this isn’t that specific possible world, then the argument is speaking of a possible world that is inaccessible to the believer and the believer is therefore in no better position to convince the non-believer. Put another way, if a being of maximal excellence doesn’t exist in this possible world, then it possibly exists in another world that cannot be accessed by any of the inhabitants in this world. There is therefore no utility or pragmatic value in belief. The argument would only speak of a logical possibility that is ontologically impossible in this world.
The atheist can take it a step further. What Christian theists purport to know about god stems from the Bible. The Bible, in other words, gives us information about god, his character, and his history as it relates to this world. Assuming this is possible world W, does he represent a being having maximal excellence? Is he, for instance, identical to a being who is wholly good? Any honest consideration of parts of the Bible would lead one to conclude that god is not identical to a being who is wholly good; god, in other words, isn’t wholly good. So obvious is his evil that Marcion of Sinope diverged from proto-Orthodox Christians in concluding that the Jewish God in the Old Testament is an evil deity and is in no way the father of Jesus. Yet if he’s evil, then he isn’t wholly good and if he isn’t wholly good, he fails to have maximal excellence.
Moreover, and much more damning to Plantinga’s argument, is that a being of maximal greatness has maximal excellence in all worlds. Therefore, if this being does not have maximal excellence in one of those worlds or more specifically, in this world, then it does not possess maximal greatness. Far from victorious, Plantinga’s argument would taste irreparable defeat and this, in more ways than one.
By R.N. Carmona
Whether Correspondence Theory, Semantic Theory, Coherence theories, Foundationalist theories, Deflationary or Pragmatic theories, every account of truth is missing a factor that philosophers recognize. In fact, attentive, everyday individuals have recognized this factor. So many have captured this factor without confining it to its rightful bottle.
That factor is unpleasantness. A good indicator of truth is the level of unease or discomfort it makes one feel. Let us suppose you believe the complete opposite of a true conclusion, to find out that you’ve been wrong all along is in itself unpleasant. This is not what I’m suggesting. What I’m suggesting is that there’s an unease or discomfort that is inherent to the truth or fact in question, that arises quite often when the truth or fact is expressed.
Take as examples the wage gap in the Western world, evolution, and mortality. If someone were to state that women get paid less than men for doing the same job, an unease or discomfort immediately arises. For he that disagrees, it’s immediate because it’s contrary to what they believe is the case. For one who accepts the fact, the unease arises from the character of the statement itself. To them it is unconscionable that women should make less than men given that they work the same position and stay with the company for a greater or equal length of time. Yet this is the case.
For one who is religious, specifically one subscribing to one of the Abrahamic faiths, the truth that they recognize is the one that coincides with their holy text, be it the Bible, the Torah, or the Qur’an. Evolution, for many of these believers, challenges one of the statements they accept: the notion of special creation. For Christians, human beings were created in God’s triune image. We are distinct from nature in a certain way. Evolution disturbs that portrait and thus, leads to discomfort. But again, this is not the unease I speak of.
The unease I speak of stems from the character of a statement like: we share a common ancestor. If so, we are not distinct from sharks and ants in the way in which we thought. We come from the same source biologically and physics tells us we come from the same source chemically. I am not expressing this to cause debate, but before the beauty of such a picture can be appreciated, discomfort often arises. It was the same unpleasantness that resulted from learning that the Earth is not at the center of the solar system and universe.
In terms of mortality, all people commonly agree. We agree to the degree that we all confirm Terror Management Theory. To some minds, religion and mysticism are ways to cope with and respond to our shared fear of dying. Death is true. Death is inevitable and will happen at one point to me and everyone reading this. Aside from that, its unpredictability is also unsettling. We don’t know when it will happen and we don’t know how; all we know is that it will. Add to that the fact that we also know it’ll happen to those we love. So we are grief stricken long before it happens and once it does, a common stage of dealing with death is denial. The truth in this case is so discomforting that we do not immediately accept it.
On these grounds and others not mentioned, I think unpleasantness should be a pivotal factor in any account of truth. I am speaking here of concrete facts and hard truths, usually philosophical and scientific in nature. I’m not speaking of mundane truths like the location of your local grocery store or the names and ages of your parents.
This factor can be challenged and I’m aware of that. Someone may raise the point that falsehoods can be unpleasant. They will mention the oft stated belief that the more absurd a thing is, the likelier it’s true. A Christian might say that the fact that we’re sinners makes people uncomfortable. The nature of human psychology does make me uncomfortable; we agree in principle, but not on the source of such shortcomings. So this unpleasantness can cut both ways as it is indicator of what may be false as well.
We agree that human psychology isn’t perfect, but they go further and tell us that we can be made clean if we repent and accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. There’s an inherent unease in the notion of any scapegoat, divine or otherwise. So while this falsehood is unpleasant if taken as truth, it’s curious that it must be believed as true in order for its unpleasantness to weigh on someone. Then there’s the fact that if it’s recognized as false, one is uneasy and has recognized that this is patently absurd and can’t be the case, especially in light of the fact that any successful system of morality accounts for personal responsibility. If I cast my burdens on Christ, I am no longer accountable for my own improvement; I have passed the buck. So this system can’t be right. A convincing falsehood does well to capture unpleasantness and feature it in its purported truth, so falsehoods confirm unpleasantness rather than challenge it.
So while such a challenge to unpleasantness is interesting and worth attention, it isn’t a decisive blow against this factor. The truth is often tough, if not, outright ugly and horrible. Hard truths and facts are cold, indifferent, and often leave one unsettled. To learn about the children who died in Iraq due to economic destabilization, caused entirely by the US meddling in their affairs, is unsettling for any American with a conscience, any human being who isn’t American, and to anyone who doesn’t have a political axe to grind. To learn that, moreover, the number of children who have died in Iraq is more than the children who died in Hiroshima is more unpleasant still. This is a cold, hard, unpleasant fact that one might deny at first glance. If you find a statement or set of statements that make you feel this way, it is likely you’ve discovered some truth or fact for yourself. As Carl Sagan once stated: “Better the hard truth, I say, than the comforting fantasy.”
By R.N. Carmona
In approaching the doctrine of eternal return, one will find that there are three ways to interpret it. There is the cosmological interpretation (CI). There are also the ethical (EI) and existential interpretations (EXI). After an extended discussion of these interpretations, I will demonstrate that EXI is the most plausible, especially when considering Nietzsche’s philosophy as fully as possible. In other words, if one can agree that it is possible to, at the very least, attempt to consider Nietzsche’s philosophy as a whole, then one can also agree that of these interpretations, EXI is consistent with Nietzsche’s philosophy or perhaps more forcefully, EXI is what allows for there to be any talk of a consistent Nietzschean philosophy. To my mind, the more forceful point is tenable and I will endeavor to demonstrate it. To accomplish this, it is necessary to show that CI and EI are not consistent with Nietzsche’s philosophy; moreover, it must be shown that neither of these interpretations can make his philosophy consistent.
Prior to discussing the interpretations, it will be useful to consider aphorism 341 of Nietzsche’s The Gay Science:
What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal? (Nietzsche, 273)
Given this aphorism, it would seem that every interpretation is prima facie plausible. It would also seem that CI and EI are more tenable, since they’re made explicit in the passage. Prior to seeing that more clearly, it is imperative to explain what is entailed by CI and EI. It is time now to flesh out the three interpretations of eternal return.
The cosmological interpretation (CI) tells us that there is a finite set of ways in which matter can organize itself. It also states that determinism is true and that the universe is eternal. Given these premises, all events eternally recur and matter will repeatedly organize itself in a finite number of ways. On the latter, the implication is that every person that has ever existed will exist again and since determinism is true, they will live precisely the same life they lived the previous time. This is perfectly in keeping with aphorism 341, since the demon states that you will return once the eternal hourglass is turned upside down over and over again; even the spider and the moonlight between the trees will recur in precisely the same succession.
The ethical interpretation (EI) sidesteps the metaphysical commitments of the premises of CI and seems to prescribe to us an ethical principle with an unusual Kantian flavor. This is part of the reason it’s untenable once one considers Nietzsche’s philosophy as a whole. Nietzsche seems to disagree with Kant in a number of places as will be shown momentarily, so it would be curious if he employed the doctrine of eternal return to prescribe an ethical principle which sounds like a paraphrase of Kant’s categorical imperative, “will only those actions which you wish to recur for all of eternity.” It would appear to be the case given that the doctrine bears upon one’s actions as the greatest weight.
The existential interpretation (EXI) also circumvents the metaphysical commitments of CI and rather than prescribe an ethical principle as EI appears to do, it implores the great individual to live the sort of life they would approve of living an infinite amount of times over. It is as Ronald Dworkin offered, an adverbial rather than adjectival life, a life comprised of the total performance rather than what remains when the performance is subtracted. As the demon states at the end of the passage: “Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate confirmation and seal?” The life of the great individual, the Übermensch, Nietzsche believes, will crave an ultimate confirmation and seal, the ultimate acknowledgement of the life s/he led. In order to see why EXI succeeds where CI and EI fail, it is imperative to capture Nietzsche’s philosophy as fully as possible.
CI cannot counter the fact that Nietzsche doesn’t apply determinism to great people. When speaking of the equivalence of greatness and a lack of compassion, Nietzsche states that this experience is “a parable for the whole effect of great human beings on others and on their age; precisely with what is best in them, with what only they can do, they destroy many who are weak, unsure, still in the process of becoming” (Nietzsche, 101). The key is in the phrase “with what only they can do,” which would seem to attribute free will solely to great people. When coupled with Nietzsche’s analysis of herd instincts (see pp.174-175) along with the herd’s attribution of free will to bad conscience, then it would seem that Nietzsche is arguing that only great people can act out of their own volition.
To further establish the notion that only great people can exhibit free will, we can consider Nietzsche’s concept of self-creation. Nietzsche speaks of giving style to one’s character. He also implies that the great individual has the ultimate self-knowledge that is to such an extent that s/he is fully cognizant of their strengths and weaknesses (Nietzsche, 232). This knowledge enables them to build a unified character, one that affirms the good and the bad that exists within them. This self-creation, giving style to oneself, is not possible without free will, without the capacity to tear the head off the snake — a snake that can be seen as the determinism inherent in the herd instinct.
In addition to this, Nietzsche strongly disagreed with a mechanical world. He states that “an essentially mechanical world would be an essentially meaningless world” (Nietzsche, 335). He refers to such thinking as a degradation of existence and asks us to consider whether music can be reduced to calculations and formulas. He refers to the scientific view of the world as “stupid” and yet a scientific view implies a deterministic view, “ ‘a world of truth’ that can be mastered completely and forever with the aid of our square little reason” (Ibid.). Though there are other instances in where Nietzsche appears to undertake the metaphysical commitments of CI—in particular in his discussions on history and the herd instincts inherent in morality—a full consideration of his overall philosophy disabuses one of committing the error of thinking he’s confined himself to such commitments. Given this, CI is untenable and a fuller exploration of Nietzsche’s views of individuals will only further establish this.
Though EI circumvents the metaphysical commitments of CI, EI is an untenable interpretation as well. As mentioned above, Nietzsche disagreed with Kant explicitly. In his Critique of Practical Reason, Kant states that his categorical imperative “determines quite precisely what is to be done to solve a problem and does not let him miss.” Given Nietzsche’s opposition to a mechanical view of the world, one can speculate that he would be staunchly opposed to Kant’s claim. More explicitly, however, Nietzsche inverts the very values Kantian ethics rests upon. In aphorism 4, for example, he says that “the evil instincts are expedient, species-preserving, and indispensable to as high a degree as the good ones; their function is merely different” (Nietzsche, 79). In aphorism 5, Nietzsche seems to indict Kant’s categorical imperative as a quasi-religious alternative. He speaks of “talk of ‘duties,’ and actually always of duties that are supposed to be unconditional” (Nietzsche, 80). He adds that “they would lack the justification for their great pathos” in the absence of such talk and that they therefore “reach for moral philosophies that preach some categorical imperative” or “ingest a good piece of religion” (Ibid.). Given this and his lengthier disagreements with Kant specifically in Beyond Good and Evil, and given Kant’s mechanistic view of his own categorical imperative, EI must be wrong since it suggests that Nietzsche is proposing an ethical principle based on unconditional duty and that would therefore justify our great pathos. This would no doubt run counter to Nietzsche’s overall project of revaluation of values, which had till his time been based upon herd instincts.
Given what’s been surveyed above, it is clear that CI and EI do not allow Nietzsche’s philosophy to be consistent. In fact, both interpretations lead to glaring inconsistencies. Though it may be argued that Nietzsche was not a hard determinist and that thus, a modification of the premise “determinism is true” is in order, there is still no way of demonstrating that he committed himself to the other premises. Given his discussion of causality (see pp.172-173), for example, it can be argued that he believes in the sort of infinities that would cancel out the notion of a finite number of states in which matter can organize itself. EI will lead to still other inconsistencies as we’ve seen. Perhaps the most damning point to be made is that Nietzsche’s thesis involved an inversion of Christian values and an admonition for us to see evil as vital to the preservation of our species. Far from allowing for his philosophy to remain consistent, EI would make it obviously inconsistent.
EXI, to the contrary, succeeds at unifying the threads of Nietzschean philosophy. His view of individuals, especially great individuals, his revaluation of values, and his belief in a dynamic rather than mechanistic world are all encompassed in EXI. His doctrine of eternal return is therefore telling us to live the kind of life we would approve of living over and over again for all of eternity, for in permitting this revelation to possess our thoughts and thereby bear upon our actions is the equivalent of living a great life once. This not only encompasses Nietzsche’s ideas of self-creation and greatness, but it also anticipates the Übermensch, the overman, the human ideal who prevails against the herd instinct and fully succeeds at creating both for himself and for others new values. The doctrine of eternal return connects his later projects and perhaps this is why he assigned to this idea such great importance.
Of the possible challenges EXI faces, I will deal with two. One challenge I’ll call the nihilistic challenge (NC) and the other I’ll call the inconsistency challenge (IC). On NC, one can argue that Nietzsche simply didn’t care about the life you choose to live. He did suggest that the doctrine of eternal return may crush you and perhaps this will be the common reaction to the demon’s revelation. On the basis of this, we’ll surrender our commitment to life and give up notions of meaning and purpose; we will behave as though nothing matters. On IC, one can argue that EXI leads to an inconsistency in thought. In other words, self-creation and the Übermensch are null concepts when considering that Nietzsche is prescribing to them an existential principle. Both challenges fail to adequately challenge EXI for the following reasons.
NC fails because it gives more weight to the suggestion that the doctrine of eternal return will crush people than to other suggestions, in particular the suggestion of desiring an eternally recurring life and receiving it as an ultimate confirmation. The latter suggestion encompasses EXI, but even if it didn’t, the suggestion that it would crush people to the point of nihilism ignores the human penchant for talk of meaning and purpose, and the ensuing search for them. As we saw earlier, even Nietzsche was not immune to talk of meaning; in fact, meaning is arguably the primary reason why he was opposed to a mechanistic view of the world. IC, on the other hand, fails to present an adequate challenge because the proponent of IC would have to assume that Nietzsche didn’t think we can influence one another. To the contrary, he speaks of the sort of intoxication that leads to the breaking of limbs along false paths (see p.101). To his mind, great human beings offer a drink that is too potent to them who are weak. This implies that the drink isn’t too strong for them who are ready to receive it. Nietzsche is basically borrowing Christian imagery and is saying something akin to milk is for babes and meat is for the strong (1 Corinthians 3:2), and therefore, the great can influence the great. If this holds, then there’s nothing inconsistent about EXI.
In light of what has been briefly surveyed here, EXI is not only more tenable than CI and EI, but it also succeeds where they fail with regards to either being consistent with Nietzsche’s philosophy in toto or in allowing for any talk of a consistent Nietzschean philosophy. EXI is harmed by neither NC nor IC. More importantly, it is the connective thread of Nietzsche’s works, starting with The Gay Science and ending with On the Genealogy of Morals. Perhaps a more elaborate discussion is needed, in particular one that is able to employ Nietzsche’s insights in the works mentioned above in addition to insights found in Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil. At any rate, if Nietzsche’s philosophy is to retain its consistency, it is necessary for EXI to remain tenable across these four works. What’s been established here is that it is tenable within the purview of The Gay Science.
By R.N. Carmona
Theism and atheism aren’t merely epistemic stances concerning belief in god, but they’re robust philosophical positions that contain an analytic component. Analytic theism will ask the following questions: what is theism?; what or who is god? Analytic atheism will share the latter question insofar as the theist attempts to provide answers to that question.
Atheists, however, will not always agree with the answers provided by theists. A theist may respond to the first question and say that god is existence. An atheist might object by saying that such a definition is inconsistent with what theists commonly profess and that what they usually profess is much more elementary. God, for example, is man-like. He is pleased or displeased; given the latter, he is prone to anger. Furthermore, he purportedly has properties that can’t be attributed to mere existence: he’s omniscient, omnipotent, eternal. The atheist could also respond by stating that defining god as existence is much too vague. The aim of a definition is description; this definition, however, fails to describe what is meant by god.
Analytic atheism also attempts to answer the question: what is atheism? To accomplish this, however, the normative component has to be consulted. The analytic component, which is discussed below, will provide theories of atheism or more simply, accounts of what atheism should be–therefore providing possible answers to the question of normative atheism. The analytic component is therefore responsible for determining which account best captures what atheism is or alternatively, what an atheist is.
What an atheist is is perhaps best defined by the approach he/she chooses. The approach chosen or a combination of these approaches might help us to arrive at a better definition of atheism. There’s fallibilism, deductive atheology, and inductive atheology. The latter two are encompassed by evidentialism. This position is arguably most familiar to modern atheists:
[A]theists have taken the view that whether or not a person is justified in having an attitude of belief towards the proposition, “God exists,” is a function of that person’s evidence. “Evidence” here is understood broadly to include a priori arguments, arguments to the best explanation, inductive and empirical reasons, as well as deductive and conceptual premises. An asymmetry exists between theism and atheism in that atheists have not offered faith as a justification for non-belief. That is, atheists have not presented non-evidentialist defenses for believing that there is no God.1
A priori arguments fall in the purview of deductive atheology. Such atheists would argue that the traditional view of god is incoherent. Such a god isn’t possible on this view. The characteristics god purportedly has are contradictory either in and of themselves or when one attempts to reconcile them. Take for example J.L Mackie’s explication of the Omnipotence Paradox: “can an omnipotent being make things which he cannot subsequently control? Or, what is practically equivalent to this, can an omnipotent being make rules which then bind himself?”2 This is a more generalized version of the Omnipotence Paradox, which usually asks: can god create a stone he cannot lift? Therefore, the paradox can be viewed as an argument attempting to show that omnipotence is incoherent in and of itself. The argument attempts to accomplish this by dividing omnipotence into two components, which I’ll call functional and physical. Functional omnipotence is the capacity to will anything whilst physical omnipotence is the capacity to do anything. Therefore, the argument attempts to show that it’s possible that god could will something he cannot do–in Mackie’s case, will something that he can’t control or in the general case, will the existence of a stone so heavy that he cannot complete the particular task of lifting it.
Another route such an atheist takes is the attempt to show that any given attributes of god are irreconcilable.
The combination of omnipotence and omniscience have received a great deal of attention. To possess all knowledge, for instance, would include knowing all of the particular ways in which one will exercise one’s power, or all of the decisions that one will make, or all of the decisions that one has made in the past. But knowing any of those entails that the known proposition is true. So does God have the power to act in some fashion that he has not foreseen, or differently than he already has without compromising his omniscience? It has also been argued that God cannot be both unsurpassably good and free.3
Another route available to such an atheist is to argue that we haven’t been offered an adequate concept of god.4 Concepts of god are often relative to this or that religion or subjective to this or that individual. Such concepts often do not agree with one another.
Perhaps the final route such an atheist can take is to argue that the failure of theistic arguments entails atheism. In other words, since arguments for god fail, it is reasonable to hold that god doesn’t exist. Such an atheist, for example, will argue that since the Kalam Cosmological Argument fails to prove that god created the universe, we should believe that such an agent didn’t create the universe. Alternatively, she will argue that since the Ontological Argument fails to show the existence of a necessary being, this being is instead impossible. Whether or not these arguments hold are of no interest at the time. This is, however, how such an atheist will proceed.
An atheist operating under inductive atheology has several possible approaches. Whether or not one can prove a negative is too tangential a topic to cover here, but assuming it’s possible, one could offer Michael Martin’s argument:
P1 [A]ll the available evidence used to support the view that X exists is shown to be inadequate; and
P2 X is the sort of entity that, if X exists, then there is a presumption that would be evidence adequate to support the view that X exists; and
P3 this presumption has not been defeated although serious efforts have been made to do so; and
P4 the area where evidence would appear, if there were any, has been comprehensively examined; and
P5 there are no acceptable beneficial reasons to believe that X exists.5
What makes this argument inductive is P3 and P4. P3 and P4 hold hitherto and thus, there’s the tacit assumption that they will hold going forward. In other words, that the future will resemble the past.
Naturalism is another argument available to an atheist operating under inductive atheology. This is, in fact, the prevalent approach among modern day atheists. Atheists may disagree on the details and therefore, espouse different sorts of naturalism. However, the more prominent forms are metaphysical and methodological. Methodological naturalism has two primary forms: constructive and deflationary. Deflationary is based on–not exclusively–the Natural Ontological Attitude (NOA). Arthur Fine describes it as follows:
I certainly trust the evidence of my senses, on the whole with regard to the existence and features of everyday objects. And I have similar confidence in the “cheek, double-check, check, tripe-check” of scientific investigation…So if scientists tell me that there really are molecules and atoms, and…who knows maybe even quarks, then so be it. I trust them and, thus, must accept that there really are such things with their attendant properties and relations.6
NOA is an alternative to scientific realism and anti-realism. “Both realism and anti-realism add an unwanted philosophical gloss to science.”7 Therefore, the position neither agrees with scientific realism nor anti-realism. At first glance, NOA may sound exactly like scientific realism, but there are key differences that should be considered (e.g. the correspondence theory of truth doesn’t factor into Fine’s NOA). Constructive naturalism differs from NOA because it “involves commitment to a definite method for resolving ontological matters.”8 Such a naturalist may make use of, for example, Quine’s Naturalized Epistemology.
Metaphysical naturalism absorbs methodological naturalism. The view could be defined as follows:
Metaphysical naturalism seeks to explain every feature of our reality through only natural entities and causes, without the need of god(s) or the supernatural in any part of one’s worldview and life philosophy. In other words, a “big picture” explanation of reality can be reached without any appeal to religion, making religions such as Christianity unnecessary and extraneous to answering the big questions in life.9
Metaphysical naturalism is a robust worldview that often requires lengthy elucidation. This has been done by, for example, Richard Carrier who states:
[I]f you want to know what we believe on almost any subject, you need merely read authoritative works on science and history–which means, first, college-level textbooks of good quality and, second, all the other literature on which their contents are based. The vast bulk of what you find there we believe in. The evidence and reason for those beliefs is presented in such works and need not be repeated…10
Where such authorities are silent, metaphysical naturalism is capable of providing possible answers. Take, for instance, the mind or morality. Metaphysical naturalism can offer cogent explanations in regards to both. For instance, with respect to the mind, some naturalists have offered some version of supervenience.
On fallibilism, an atheist can argue that a theist has come to a given conclusion because he hasn’t considered all the relevant evidence.11 In fact, part of this attitude plays a role in discussions between theists and atheists. Theists, generally speaking, make it quite obvious that they aren’t aware of all of the relevant evidence. William Lane Craig, for example, employs a perfunctory grasp of cosmology in order to support his KCA. It’s reasonable to conclude that if he were aware of all of the evidence, his conclusion would be different. Unfortunately, this might be too generous. Craig has been made aware of the evidence and regardless of the fact, he still chooses to endorse the KCA. So in some cases, it’s not just that a theist’s knowledge is fallible, but it’s that they disregard the fact and do not care to correct it.
Now that I’ve surveyed analytic atheism, it is time now to discuss the normative component of atheism. The normative question is akin to normativity as commonly understood in philosophy. Take, for instance, normative jurisprudence. The question of normative jurisprudence is: what should law be? In like manner, the question of normative atheism is: what should atheism be? Or, what should an atheist be?
Clearly, given that a Buddhist can be considered an atheist, atheism should be more than simply lack of belief in gods. To see what atheism should be or what an atheist should be, it is required that we distinguish the atheist and the Buddhist. We are required to account for their differences. These differences will help us see why one identifies as an atheist whilst the other identifies as a Buddhist.
Buddhism, however, divides into two primary schools: Mahayana and Theravada. These two schools divide further within themselves. We therefore have to narrow our focus. In other words, we have to focus on a certain type of Buddhist to see where the differences are. Thus, we will focus on Tibetan Buddhism.
Tibetan Buddhism pertains to Mahayana Buddhism. It, however, incorporates tantric and shamanic aspects–the latter of which it appropriated from the ancient Tibetan religion, Bon. For this reason, it is often conflated with or mistaken for a minor school of Buddhism, Vajrayana.12 Tantra for instance “brings Tibetan Buddhism a magical element and a rich portfolio of heavenly beings. It also brings a wide variety of spiritual techniques such as mantras, mandalas, ceremonies, and many varieties of yoga.”13
Without going any further into Tibetan Buddhism, does an atheist, as normally construed, believe in magical elements and heavenly beings? Does she participate in rituals or believe in their efficacy? The obvious answer is no. Therefore, when someone refers to Buddhism as atheistic, they mean only to point out that Buddhism doesn’t offer a concept of god. It isn’t, however, atheistic in a normative sense. Given this, what then should atheism be? Alternatively, what should an atheist be?
Given the analytic component surveyed earlier, an atheist could adhere to any of the following theories: default atheism, natural atheism, or pluralistic atheism. Default atheism makes use of deductive atheology and cites that since the arguments for god fail, god cannot exist. Or such an atheist could state that since there’s no evidence for god, god doesn’t exist. They are therefore an atheist by default. Natural atheism, on the other hand, piggybacks on naturalism. Since all empirical explanations are naturalistic, the supernatural doesn’t factor into what she believes in. She is therefore a natural atheist.
Pluralistic atheism is what I want to offer. If any of the above methodologies or positions sound familiar to you, it’s because atheists are a diverse group of people that, in fact, employ some of these methodologies and therefore, adopt such positions. They will therefore have diverse ways of grounding their atheism, if such a project even interests them. Default atheists, for example, might not care enough about the question. Others not only care about the question of god, but they also care about what results from belief in god; given this, they make an effort to justify their non-belief in such entities. Pluralistic atheism therefore makes some use of every method discussed above. It doesn’t favor deductive over inductive atheology or vice versa. It can and very often does incorporate naturalism into its justification. It can and does invoke fallibilism in discussions with theists.
So given this, the question of what atheism is is answered by what atheism should be. Since pluralism incorporates naturalism, the question of natural atheism is essentially the combination of those questions. That is to say that what atheism is is identical to what atheism should be. On naturalism and therefore, on pluralism, the question of what atheism is is clearly answered once we consider what atheism should be.
Atheism should be more than the lack of belief in gods. It should also, by extension, be the lack of belief in the authority of religious texts, the efficacy of rituals, the purported existence of metaphysical entities such as angels and transcendent ancestors, magic, and even aspects of religious culture. Given the latter, atheists shouldn’t wear some traditional attire. The other items are pretty straightforward. The reason they’re straightforward goes back to our analytic component.
If the arguments for god fail or if naturalism is true or if a theist has incomplete knowledge and thus a false conclusion, we have good reason to reject the entirety of the system they’re offering. If we reject the Judeo-Christian god, then we are compelled to reject the Judeo-Christian portraits of heaven and hell along with the entities said to reside in these places. We must also reject the so called power of prayer and the utility of fasting. Also, given the authority of science and the evidence it has presented us with, the purported authority of the Bible becomes suspect. It is more suspect still when one considers what history tells us. Therefore, atheism should be and therefore is the lack of belief in gods and anything that may be tied to them: religious texts, rituals, metaphysical entities and places, and cultural aspects.
What I’ve attempted to do here is show that analytic atheism entails normative atheism. This is the case because on pluralism, naturalism is featured. Natural atheism, like natural law, answers the questions of analytic and normative atheism as one. The question of analytic jurisprudence is what is law whilst the question of normative jurisprudence is what should the law be. A natural law theory like, for instance, Leibniz’s will answer both questions simultaneously. This, I have argued, is what happens with atheism.
Atheism is the default position. Belief is like an achieved rather than ascribed status. At birth, you are either a son or daughter; this status is ascribed. The status of Christian is achieved given that one has to go through some motions to become one–e.g. baptism. Atheism, on the other hand, is like an ascribed status. At birth, you are neither Christian nor Muslim nor Hindu. These labels may be given to you by devout parents, but they aren’t true given that you have no way of formulating a sophisticated worldview. Atheism is also the natural position. Given naturalism, gods cannot feature into any explanation in and of the universe. One can, of course, offer ad hoc rationalization, but this is not parsimonious. It adds to an explanation that is already complete. Therefore, given natural atheism and consequently pluralistic atheism, what atheism is is exactly what atheism should be. If we answer the latter, we answer the former.
1 McCormick, Matt. “Atheism”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. ND. Web. 21 Dec 2014.
2 Mackie, J. L. 1955. Evil and omnipotence. Mind 64 (254): 200-212. Available on web.
3 Ibid. 
4 Smart, J.J.C. “Atheism and Agnosticism”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 9 Mar 2004. Web. 21 Dec 2014.
5 Martin, Michael, 1990. Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.
6 Arthur Fine as quoted in Ritchie, Jack. Understanding Naturalism. Stocksfield, England: Acumen, 2008. 97. Print.
7 Ibid. 
8 Ibid. 
9 Ferguson, Matthew. “Thinking about the ‘Metaphysics’ in Metaphysical Naturalism”. Civitas Humana. 26 Apr 2014. Web. 21 Dec 2014.
10 Carrier, Richard. Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism. Bloomington, Ind.: Authorhouse, 2005. 67. Print.
11 Ibid. 
12 “Tibetan Buddhism”. BBC. 14 Jan 2004. Web. 21 Dec 2014.
13 Ibid.