By R.N. Carmona
When one normally thinks of reincarnation, one has in mind a caricature, the spirit of a Jane Doe coming to inhabit a frog, unbeknownst to anyone, but arguably Jane Doe herself. This, however, is an oversimplification. While reincarnation is often considered an idea lauded by Eastern mystics, modern day science can be marshaled in to lend support to the idea of reincarnation, though in ways completely unexpected. For instance, one would usually hear the usual tripe: since matter and energy cannot be created nor destroyed, one’s consciousness must live on after death. The argument I want to offer is more intricate.
Firstly, I want to begin from the finitude of brain states, an extension from the limits of phenomenal experience. I do not disagree that there is accompanying phenomenal experience for any interaction between an object and our senses. I do disagree that what it is like for me to smell roses is peculiar and markedly different from your experience of smelling a rose. I happen to think our experiences are roughly equal. Whether you or I like the smell of roses or not involves more than just the phenomenal experience. In other words, there’s a lot of background noise that explains why you like the smell more than I do. Perhaps I associate the smell of roses with wakes and funerals rather than with candlelit dinners and weddings. The noise is not what I want to focus on.
Instead, I would like to focus on mental states themselves and argue that though there are potentially innumerable brain states, they are finite. Even if we capture every brain state of every organism in the universe, and include also the correlate states of organisms that are conscious though lacking a brain, the total number of mental states do not stretch infinitely. Furthermore, the combinations of brain states, right down to the size and function of my brain or your brain, in particular, are finite. To put it another way, let us say that there is a limitation in the communication between one’s prefrontal cortex and cerebellum. This may result in autism or schizophrenia (Watson, Thomas C et al. “Back to front: cerebellar connections and interactions with the prefrontal cortex.” Frontiers in systems neuroscience vol. 8 4. 4 Feb. 2014, doi:10.3389/fnsys.2014.00004). With these particular disorders, there are a number of hallmark behavioral traits. This gives some credence to the idea that brain states are fundamentally finite and do not, as it were, stretch on forever.
Unfortunately, we are no longer so taken by behaviorists and know that human beings are a lot more than simply a finite set of behaviors. We have our preferences, things we are repulsed by, idiosyncrasies, and personalities to speak of. Even then, I think that the combination of traits that make you you, no matter how multifarious, are finite. This implies that given a long enough time, some sentient being, whether homo sapien or something very similar to our own species, will come to believe in the same you you believe you are. This, to my mind, is how naturalism makes room for reincarnation.
Perhaps not in the next generation of life, or even in the next ten generations, but at some point, a sentient being will be born who believes, perhaps mistakenly, that they are me. To believe this, you need only believe that mental states, whether tied to a brain, or to intricate nervous systems, are finite. If such states are finite and the combination of such states and functions are finite, then there are only so many identities to go around. Given a long enough time, someone will come along and believe that they are exactly who Napoleon thought he was.
This, in fact, falls on the horns of a dilemma Buddhists have. Recall, Buddhists hold to the concept of anattā (no self). While I may have thrown around the word ‘identity’, this need not imply that I believe identity to be real and substantive. In fact, I think it is entirely illusory and that if we interact with enough people, we will find that we have more in common than we would like to admit. Some of us have delusions of grandeur; we have god and savior complexes, see ourselves as fixers, and believe that there is no problem we cannot solve. Others choose to mind their business, to not take on a deep personal investment in the struggles even loved ones go through, and instead choose to let the people around us work through their own problems. In one way or another, it is likely that my two brief sketches of identity resonate with my readers. Either you are one who suffers from delusions of grandeur and you base even your romantic relationships on this futile attempt to save everyone. Or, you are someone who has no deep personal investment in the problems even the people closest to you have; this isn’t to say you refuse to help when asked, but you prefer to let people find their own way. If one of the two people I have described describes aspects of you, then you are further to committing to the premise that mental states are finite and that therefore, identities are limited.
Buddhists have long struggled to reconcile the idea of reincarnation with anattā, but a resolution isn’t difficult to come by. Before offering a solution, I defer to Wildman:
In fact, the anattā (no-substantive self) doctrine of most forms of Indian Buddhism means that there is no jīva (soul) that persists from life to life through death and reincarnation, as there is in most forms of Hinduism. The consequences for samsāra and nirvana of this view are complicated, and perhaps mind boggling, and Buddhists have spent enormous effort in debate over them, both with Hindus and among themselves. So it is not surprising that many Buddhists do not hesitate to picture life and death in rather Hindu terms, as re-enfleshment of an enduring soul, despite their characteristic no-self doctrine. Many Buddhist intellectuals will not do this, however, and their more subtle approach is not registered at all when the word reincarnation is used as the comparative category to comprehend both Hindu and Buddhist versions of the implications of samsāra for living beings.Wildman, Wesley J. Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry: Envisioning a Future For The Philosophy of Religion. State University of New York Press. Albany, NY. 2010. 133. Print.
My resolution is that while there is no self, no concrete identity, what persists are the illusions of a self or an identity brought about by the limited combinations of mental states humans experience. This is why so many of us come to have exactly the same ideas about ourselves, despite the fact that we are different people with vastly different past experiences. This is why mental and cognitive disorders feature an array of hallmark symptoms. To illustrate this even better, think of the way genes encode phenotypic features. Straight thumbs, for instance, are expressed with a capital S whereas hitchhiker thumbs are recessive alleles expressed with a lowercase s. This peculiarity, assuming you have it, does not belong to you. There are other people who have hitchhiker thumb and they have it because gene expression in their genomes have resulted in this phenotypic feature. Likewise, our mental states, the manner in which brain regions communicate with one another, and the way in which our particular neurons fire in our brains create the same illusions of a static identity, packaged with a linear life narrative that we can literally draw a straight line through from our first memories in childhood through today.
There is no substantive self that persists, a soul as it were. There is, however, a persistent illusion in all of us and I do not put it passed a being eons from now to think that s/he is exactly who I think I am. Furthermore, I do not discount the idea that s/he will feel, phenomenologically speaking, exactly as I do. There is this sense that I am. Whether or not identity is real, the illusion is powerful enough to lead me to believe I am unique and that there will never be another exactly like me. This is folly. So while there is no substantive soul in me or in my cat, there are a number of mental states, resulting from brain and nerve interactions, that make both of us feel like we are a unique individuals never to be replicated. I conclude that it is far likelier that since there are not infinite mental states to go around, there are not infinite illusions to go around either. What we refer to as the soul or identity has its boundaries and limits. There will be another you, so in that sense, even after death, should the universe persist, you will live again with no recollection of the you you are right now.
This may seem particularly discomforting for some readers. For others, they may think that this idea is not developed enough. I admit, the argument is very bare bones and could use more flesh. That, however, does not mean the argument is unsound. I happen to be convinced, first and foremost, that mental states and what we call identities do not stretch to infinity and that therefore, there are only so many yous to go around. As such, you will live again or be reborn. This is how naturalism makes room for something as mystical as reincarnation. The lesson is that naturalists should shun the habit of dismissing an idea because it is religious or prima facie supernatural. There might be a kernel of truth to the idea of reincarnation. That remains to be seen, but my argument is certainly a good place to start.
By R.N. Carmona
Isms abound and nuance is sorely needed. I think my readers ought to follow my lead and shed their isms. In place of these various isms, they should offer clear definitions of what they mean by these isms. I think definitions are more robust and are more capable of giving, especially detractors, an idea of what a label means in practice. I will now outline a few of my various isms and unpack them, so that people can start to see the absurdity of opposing some of them. In place of these labels, I will offer explanations for why I identity with these views.
Atheism is not merely an epistemic stance concerning belief in god, but a robust philosophical position that contains an analytic component. Analytic atheism is concerned with what is meant by theism and what is meant by God. 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 cannot be attributed to mere existence: he is omniscient, omnipotent, eternal, timeless. 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 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 s/he 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.
McCormick, Matt. “Atheism”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. ND. Web. 21 Dec 2014
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 is not 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?” (Mackie, J. L. 1955. Evil and omnipotence. Mind 64 (254): 200-212. Available on web.). 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 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 is possible that God could will something he cannot do, in Mackie’s case, will something that he cannot 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.McCormick, Ibid.
Another route available to such an atheist is to argue that we have not been offered an adequate concept of god (see Smart, J.J.C. “Atheism and Agnosticism”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 9 Mar 2004. Web. 21 Dec 2014.). 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 does not 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 did not 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.Martin, Michael, 1990. Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.
What makes this argument inductive is P3 and P4. P3 and P4 hold hitherto and thus, there is 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.Arthur Fine as quoted in Ritchie, Jack. Understanding Naturalism. Stocksfield, England: Acumen, 2008. 97. Print.
NOA is an alternative to scientific realism and anti-realism. “Both realism and anti-realism add an unwanted philosophical gloss to science” (Ibid.). 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” (Ibid.).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.Ferguson, Matthew. “Thinking about the ‘Metaphysics’ in Metaphysical Naturalism”. Civitas Humana. 26 Apr 2014. Web. 21 Dec 2014.
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…Carrier, Richard. Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism. Bloomington, Ind.: Authorhouse, 2005. 67. Print.
Where such authorities are silent, metaphysical naturalism is capable of providing possible answers. Take, for instance, consciousness. Metaphysical naturalism can offer cogent explanations within the physicalist framework. For instance, with respect to consciousness, 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 (McCormick, Ibid.). In fact, part of this attitude plays a role in discussions between theists and atheists. Theists, generally speaking, make it quite obvious that they are not aware of all of the relevant evidence. William Lane Craig, for example, employs a perfunctory or selective grasp of cosmology in order to support his KCA. It is reasonable to conclude that if he were aware of all of the evidence or if he did not omit counter-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 is not just that a theist’s knowledge is fallible, but it is that they disregard the fact and do not care to correct it. Even worse, apologists are in the habit of omitting evidence to the contrary.
Lastly, the definition “lack of belief in gods” is inadequate because it alludes to everyday beliefs. It is correct to say I lack or do not have the belief that Jesus died for my sins and resurrected three days later, and then ascended to the right hand of the Father where he now intercedes on my behalf. Religious beliefs of this sort are not properly epistemic beliefs, which are “the attitude[s] we have, roughly, whenever we take something to be the case or regard it as true” (Schwitzgebel, Eric. “Belief”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2019. Web.). Atheists, therefore, have the epistemic belief that the available evidence makes it much more probable than not that there are no gods or spiritual entities whatsoever. Naturalism, whether some of us like it or not, is a framework that has imposed itself on us. Even in cases where we assume supernatural or paranormal explanations, thorough investigation renders a much more mundane explanation. For some people, it is difficult to accept that the world is not fantastical. Severed limbs do not regenerate in the name of Jesus, people do not rise from the dead when a spell is invoked, and our ancestors do not protect us from physical harm. Thorough investigations only yield naturalistic, reproducible explanations. So when someone proclaims a belief that does not speak to knowledge or truth, but rather, faith, I can definitely say I do not share or that I lack that belief. Now when speaking of properly epistemic beliefs, I have the attitude that atheism is the case; atheism is true in that the various claims of religion do not hold up to scrutiny and that moreover, gods are entirely absent in the scope of all of our explanations. In other words, star formation, planet formation, the arrangement of the earliest, simplest metabolisms, the evolution of species, and ultimately, every model of the universe’s origin do not require a god in order to make sense.
When atheism is spelled out in this much detail, detractors are given no room to disingenuously offer a definition they prefer, one that allows them to malign atheists and misrepresent what they stand for. The label of atheism is futile. The definition or perhaps better said, the practice clearly spells out what it is that I stand for. The same applies to naturalism. The label no longer applies. Instead, I prefer to make explicit what I mean by it. Kai Nielsen explains the intimate connection between atheism and naturalism best:
Religions, whether theisms or not, are belief-systems (though this is not all they are) which involve belief in spiritual realities. Even Buddhism, which has neither God nor worship, has a belief in what Buddhists take to be spiritual realities and this is incompatible with naturalism as is theism as well, which, at least as usually understood, is a form of supernaturalism. Naturalism, where consistent, is an atheism.Nielsen, Kai. Naturalism and Religion. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 2001. 30. Print.
The Fourth Wave may be the most powerful wave yet, but a glaring issue limits its power: there are people who not only misunderstand feminism, but also either stand against feminism or misrepresent feminism. The former and the latter are more related than one realizes. Those who misrepresent feminism are very often responsible for those who stand against it. Some Christians and Muslims believe that women are inferior to men and will therefore oppose feminism by default, but there are anti-feminists who do not have religious reasons for opposing feminism. Their reasons are based on the misunderstandings of self-proclaimed feminists.
To set feminism straight, a return to the basics is required. Once the different schools of feminism are made explicit, misunderstanding should be quelled. Misunderstanding occurs due to oversimplification of the thought of one school or another. I agree with Richard Carrier, who stated that, “Feminism is often badly understood by people who don’t study it well or don’t read widely among contemporary feminist authors” (Carrier, Richard. “A Primer on Fourth Wave Feminism”. Freethought Blogs. 5 Apr 2015. Web. 8 Apr 2015.). A successful movement, of course, has to move against some form of oppression or move toward some end, but it also has to stop and gather its fugitives. It, in other words, should not exclude people who want to identify with it. However, it should be responsible for ensuring that its members understand the movement. It is responsible for its reputation and since the reputation of the movement is based on its members, cohesion and continuity are a must. We are in a digital age in where people listen to someone on a YouTube channel or a blogger in the blogosphere. It is a readily accessible form of media. It is often short and sweet when compared to a book, so the more learned and educated in a movement have to stop to protect the movement from misunderstanding and mischaracterization. To do this, one must gather the fugitives, and to accomplish this, they have to be shown where they have gone wrong. They need to be corrected. Often what is needed is a return to the basics.
Fugitives are the people anti-feminists get these ideas from, young girls who are themselves anti-feminists or who identify a feminists and confess to things that are not at all in keeping with the movement: that feminists hate men; that feminists want to exclude them; that feminists seek female dominance and perhaps a matriarchy; that feminists are looking to devalue masculine attributes; that feminists ignore the effects the patriarchy has on men and that they, in fact, ignore men’s issues across the board. These ideas are not true to feminism, but there’s still the question as to why people think they are. Mackay has a succinct summary of feminism and not surprisingly, she alludes to common misconceptions:
Feminism is one of the oldest and most powerful social movements in history; it is a revolutionary movement, and that means change. There is so much wrong with the present system that we can’t just tinker round the edges, we need to start again; our end point cannot be equality in an unequal world. This is also the reason why feminism is not struggling to simply reverse the present power relationship and put women in charge instead of men (though this is a common myth about feminist politics). Feminism is about change, not a changing of the guard.Mackay, Finn. “Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism in Movement”. Times Higher Education. 19 Feb 2015. Web. 8 Apr 2015.
What kind of change is the label of feminism about? Feminism concerns securing equality for women. Women should have the same opportunities men have. Women should have the same rights men have. Women should be respected in their careers the way men are; they should be paid equally. There should be no sex-based differences in academia, the workplace, at home, or anywhere else. When this is spelled out, it is an uncontroversial perspective. There should be no reason for anyone to oppose the affirmation that women should be equal to men.
IV. Black Lives Matter
Likewise, there should be no opposition at all when I say that Black people and minorities, more generally, should be equal to Whites. There is nothing wrong with saying that if a Black man commits a crime or fails to comply with police, he should not be gunned down. White men have committed crimes on a much larger scale and were escorted away in handcuffs. White men do not have to worry about police officers kneeling on their necks or shooting 41 rounds at them. Timothy McVeigh murdered 168 people, including 19 children, in an act of domestic terrorism, and he walked away with his life (Gumbel, Andrew. “Oklahoma City bombing: 20 years later, key questions remain unanswered”. Guardian. 13 Apr 2015. Web.). That is because he was given the right to a fair trail. In this country, a Black man selling loose cigarettes on a corner can be the victim of extrajudicial execution. There is nothing controversial about saying that even the life of an accused Black criminal matters. Innocent until proven guilty applies to Black people or at least, it should apply to Black people.
The same applies to Asian Americans, who have recently become the target of hate crimes across the country. Implicit here is that I am opposed to anyone who endorses stereotypes about ethnic groups. So when the former President joked about the “Kung Flu” and blamed China repeatedly for the COVID-19 outbreak, that was one of the many reasons I opposed him, his administration, and his supporters. It is absurd to me that right-wingers in America are roundly opposed to racial equality. They are also opposed to women securing equality. There is a sense in which my political opponents are wholly aware of what these labels mean and yet, they routinely choose to ignore the definitions, no matter how clearly they are explained. It is not any lack of clarity or sense on my part, but rather an obstinate decision to oppose progress of this sort at every turn. Political affiliation should not keep anyone from accepting my definitions or identifying with them. If your political party prohibits you from even seeing the need for racial equality, abandon the party or admit to having abandoned your moral integrity. There are no two ways about it.
In the past, I have used this term and I have done so to differentiate myself from Democrats. I am not a Centrist, a sycophant who condones incompetence and corruption on both sides while pretending that they are both exemplary. Neither political party in the United States is morally admirable. While it is the case that Democrats are marginally better, there is still a lot that they get wrong, hence my anti-Democratic, anti-Capitalist stances. I do not support the American idea of Democracy because, like Mbembe, I recognize that it has a nocturnal body: colonialism and every human rights violation that has followed from it from slavery to the Jim Crow era to mass incarceration of Blacks after a fabricated crack-cocaine epidemic. The United States is a hegemony, a pseudo-Empire precisely because it destabilizes entire regions by rightfully overthrowing despots and making the critical mistake of leaving a power vacuum in their place. Terrorist factions are just a small part of this country reaping what it sowed, but I digress.
Proponents of Capitalism are enamored with the idea of Capitalism. They, however, ignore the reality of it. Inequality the world over is perpetuated by Western ideas and interference. In the year that COVID-19 has wreaked havoc in the United States, workers have lost over $3.7 trillion to date while the wealth of top billionaires has increased by $3.9 trillion. This can be seen as one of the largest redistributions of wealth in history (see here and here). A lot more can be said about Capitalism, perhaps in a separate post for another day. The point I am making now is that the labels of Black Lives Matter, feminist, anti-Capitalist, and the like do not necessarily pertain to Far Left politics. Once these labels are made explicit, in that one makes clear what they mean in practice, it should strike anyone as absurd to be diametrically opposed to these positions.
That leaves open the question as to why people on the right see these positions as fundamentally opposed to their brand of politics. Again, if your political party imposes these discriminatory and even racist views on you, it is good sign that you should renounce it. There are ways to be fiscally conservative, a proponent of small government, and so on without subscribing to views that promote racial, gender, and wealth inequality. I fail to see how what I have had outlined is unclear or nonsensical. The isms, once unpacked, should not be as controversial. This is why I prefer stating my positions clearly, so that there is no room for misconstruing, misrepresenting, straw manning, and so on. There is, in my book, a difference between an opponent and an enemy. The enmity I reserve for my enemies has everything to do with the fact that they think their ignorance is better than my knowledge, their apathy superior to my empathy, their desire to oppress groups they dislike equal to my desire for equality. Opponents, by contrast, can have their minds changed. The omission of relevant facts is not the same as ignorance. My enemies intend to ignore that which disagrees with or defeats their views and more importantly, they intend to cause harm to people like myself, so they do so by weaponizing their right to vote to further marginalized groups they want to harm. Then they pretend to be innocent because they are not drawing a firearm. They might as well. Voting for a candidate that does not care about the plights of minorities, women, non-Christians, etc. is a deliberate attempt to harm these groups. You are not innocent.
Ultimately, labels in and of themselves are futile. We should do away with labels and instead flesh out what we stand for. This leaves little room for error and leaves our enemies fully exposed. This is not to say that people cannot disagree with atheism and naturalism, for instance. They are more than welcome to. What this does mean is that they cannot make the vacuous claim that I suppress God in my unrighteousness or that I hate God or that I choose to not believe because I prefer to indulge sinful concupiscence. These are comfortable things Christians say to avoid the fact that people have good reasons for not believing in God. My robust descriptions of atheism and naturalism leave no room for speculation of the sort. It gives them no space at all to go with a definition that allows them to slander people like myself. Labels do not accomplish this. Fuller descriptions of what is meant by a label go much further. Let us abandon our labels and instead, describe in greater detail what we stand for.
By R.N. Carmona
Why a blog post and not a proper response in a philosophy journal? My very first journal submission is still in the review process, close to two months later, for one. Secondly, blogging allows me to be pedantic, to be human, that is, to express frustration, to show anger, to be candid; in other words, blogging allows me to be myself. Probably of highest priority is the fact that I do not want my first publication in the philosophy of mind to be a response. I want to eventually outline my own theory of consciousness, which is strongly hinted at here, and I prefer for that to be my first contribution to the philosophy of mind. I do not find panpsychism convincing and I think there is another theory of consciousness, similar to panpsychism in ways, that is much more cogent. I have outlined some qualms I have with panpsychism before; to people new to the blog, you can read here. In any case, I will be responding to a number of points in Strawson’s Realistic Monism: Why Physicalism Entails Panpsychism. Here I will outline refutations that should leave panpsychism unresponsive once and for all as it is not a productive theory of consciousness, i.e., it does no explanatory work and does not illuminate further research; it gives us no real direction to go in.
Strawson states: “You’re certainly not a realistic physicalist, you’re not a real physicalist, if you deny the existence of the phenomenon whose existence is more certain than the existence of anything else: experience, ‘consciousness’, conscious experience, ‘phenomenology’, experiential ‘what-it’s-likeness’, feeling, sensation, explicit conscious thought as we have it and know it at almost every waking moment” (3). Strawson not only sounds like an absolutist, but he has, no doubt intentionally, boxed out real physicalists like the Churchlands and Daniel Dennett. For my purposes, I deny none of these things. I am not an eliminativist though in the past I have called myself such when I lacked a better term for my own point of view. Now, I believe I have located a better term and so, I call myself a recontextualist. I do not deny qualia. What I strongly deny is what panpsychists think they entail: usually a version of nonphysicalist panpsychism or even covert substance dualism in where mental phenomena are ethereal. In light of this, I suggest that qualia are physically reducible in obvious ways already known to us and in currently non-obvious ways yet to be discovered or understood; we simply have to do the work of demonstrating how what-it’s-likeness is physically reducible. I do not think Strawson dodges recontextualism and this will become clearer as we move on.
He explains: “It follows that real physicalism can have nothing to do with physicSalism, the view — the faith — that the nature or essence of all concrete reality can in principle be fully captured in the terms of physics. Real physicalism cannot have anything to do with physicSalism unless it is supposed — obviously falsely — that the terms of physics can fully capture the nature or essence of experience” (4). I think the word physicSalism is clunky and so, I will exchange it for the word physicsism, which I think ties nicely to its predecessor scientism. There is not a chasm between someone who thinks science is the only way of knowing and someone who thinks physics is capable of explaining everything. Strawson makes the mistake of thinking physics stands alone among the hard sciences, as if it is the ground level of scientific explanation. I think chemistry joins physics in that department and as such, real physicalists can be physicsists if they are also chemistrists, the idea that a great number of physical phenomena are reducible to chemistry. If monism, that there is only one substance, and physicalism, that this one substance is physical in nature, are true then it is incumbent on Strawson to address the notion that science cannot apprehend certain physical phenomena. Strawson, therefore, is guilty of the same dualistic tendencies he accuses Dennett of (5), and he seems to bite the bullet on this in offering his “‘experiential-and-non- experiential ?-ism’” (7). Per his view, there are actual physical phenomena explainable by science, especially ground level hard sciences like physics and chemistry. On the other hand, there are quasi-physical phenomena in where Strawson feigns at physicalism while also betraying the fact that he means nothing more than nonphysicalism. This has to be qualified.
So, let us grant that Strawson would qualify the sense of sight as uncontroversially physical. Now, he claims that the what-it’s-likeness of seeing red is also physical and yet, science has no account for this per his claims; not only does science have no current account, but it can never have a viable account because, in his own words, “experiential phenomena ‘just are’ physical, so that there is a lot more to neurons than physics and neurophysiology record (or can record)” (7). I am a real physicalist and I strongly disagree with this statement. For starters, I think his statement is informed by a conflation some people tend to make: if something is explainable by science, it lacks existential meaning and so, anything that is explained by science enables nihilism. In other words, if we can explain the origin of morality without recourse to God, morality is suddenly meaningless in the so-called ultimate sense and just is relativistic or subjectivistic. This is wrong-headed. Explaining the what-it’s-likeness of red would not change the fact that red is my favorite color; nor would it change my experience of seeing a blood red trench coat hanging in a clothing store, as if begging me to purchase it. In a naturalistic world, meaning is decided by us anyway and so, nihilism does not follow from the fact that science explains something. Love is not any less riveting, captivating, and enrapturing if science somehow explained every detail about falling in love, loving one’s children, loving the species one belongs to, and loving species entirely different from oneself.
This aversion to science eventually explaining qualia reeks of nonphysicalism and to my mind, just is nonphyiscalism being labeled as physicalism, which is really just a nominal label that is so far failing to cohere with what is normally meant by physicalism. The notion that physics, chemistry, genetics, and neurophysiology can never record those aspects of neurons that account for qualia is incompatible with physicalism. If science can apprehend physical substance, and qualia are a physical substance as Strawson claims, then science can apprehend qualia. To say otherwise is for Strawson to admit that what he means by physical in the case of qualia is actually not physical at all. It is covert dualism and nonphysicalism. I have no qualms with scientists fully understanding why red is my favorite color. This does not then dampen my experience or make it meaningless.
Likewise, I know that sexual attraction reduces to mostly superficial, properly aesthetic, considerations and pheromones that induce a reaction in my brain, which then translate to a host of bodily reactions, e.g., feeling flush and then blushing, feeling either nervous, excited, or some combination of both, feeling a knot in my stomach. This does not accomplish making my attraction meaningless or, at least, making it less meaningful because, in truth, while I understand the science of attraction, it does not register when I am in the middle of experiencing attraction. These considerations factor even less when I have fallen in love. I do not think, “well damn, scientists have me pegged and I am only feeling all of these sensations because of serotonin and dopamine releases in my brain; love is ultimately meaningless.” What gives vibrance to experience is the experiencer.
Experience is akin to aesthetics, hence why we find some experiences pleasurable while there are others we can describe with an array of negative words and connotations. Science can also explain why a lot of people hate waiting for a long period of time, why just as many people hate the feeling of being out of breath, and why pretty much anyone hates going to work after a night of inadequate sleep. Science explaining these experiences does not change the interpretation of the experiencer; science does suggest why we have very common associations between most experiences, from pleasurable to painful to everything between, and that speaks to us being one species. So, experience can be explained by science and science can even predict the interpretation of this or that experiencer, but science does not dampen phenomenal experience. Panpsychists confuse that we have phenomenal experience with that we interpret phenomenal experience. Physicalism is not opposed to science fully explaining either of these and in fact, it has done much in the way of explaining both. Strawson tries to avoid this and yet claims: “If everything that concretely exists is intrinsically experience-involving, well, that is what the physical turns out to be; it is what energy (another name for physical stuff) turns out to be. This view does not stand out as particularly strange against the background of present-day science, and is in no way incompatible with it” (8). Well, if indeed it does not stand out as particularly strange against the background of present-day science, then all concrete things can be explained by science. This entailment seems uncontroversial and obvious for anyone identifying as a physicalist.
Strawson stipulates that “real physicalists … cannot deny that when you put physical stuff together in the way in which it is put together in brains like ours, it constitutes — is — experience like ours; all by itself. All by itself: there is on their own physicalist view nothing else, nothing non-physical, involved” (12). This is patently false as it alludes to mind-brain identity theory. It is not just atoms coming together in brains like ours. Human consciousness is compound reductive. In other words, human consciousness is not reducible to just one physical, macro aspect about our biological structure. That is to say that it is not reducible to just our hands or just our feet or just our brains. Strawson’s conflation of physicalism, as usually construed, and mind-brain identity theory leaves out crucial elements of experience, namely our central and peripheral nervous systems; the parts of the brain because anyone versed in the pertinent science knows that when it comes to the brain, the parts are more integral to consciousness than the whole; sense apparatus like our eyes, noses, pain receptors, and so on; and finally, external objects that provide the mind with data to process, interpret, make sense of, and so on.
From the perspective of differential ontology, and given that I have been thoroughly disabused of flippant idealism and solipsism, I know that my thoughts are not organically generated as if in a vacuum, within my brain. My thoughts are invariably and intimately connected to whatever I am occupied with, in the present time by Strawson’s various claims about what physicalism entail. If he had never written his thoughts, then I would not be countering his claims with my own. Perhaps I would be thinking about lunch at 12:26 pm ET, but alas, I am not. The point being that when I do start to think about having lunch, my thoughts about what to eat will be influenced by hunger pangs that amount to a feedback loop between my brain and my gut, again demonstrating the importance of organs other than just the brain in accounting for my experience, and pretty much any human being’s experience, of hunger. That feeling would take priority over my desire to respond to Strawson. Deciding what to eat amounts to constraints, like what food I have in my pantry and refrigerator and a desire not to spend money on takeout. So, I can only end up eating what is already available to me; in this case, only unexpected factors can change this course. Perhaps a neighbor or a relative is decided on bringing me baked lasagna and since I currently do not know that they have these plans, that option does not feature in what I am thinking of having for lunch. In any case, what has become clear is that phenomenal consciousness reduces, in part, to a litany of physical objects, some of which are not even in your vicinity. What is also clear is that the brain alone does not account for phenomenal consciousness.
Strawson and other panpsychists are looking in one of the right places, to be sure, but understanding phenomenal consciousness is like understanding a crime scene, and as such, we have to be aware of various factors that make the crime cohere, from blood spatter patterns to the murder weapon to point of entry (and whether or not it was forced entry) all the way up to possible motive. If we stop short at the murder weapon, then we can conclude the person was stabbed, but we cannot make any conclusions as to how many times, in what areas of the body, by whom, and for what reason. Phenomenal consciousness, uncontroversially, is exactly like that! Strawson and panpsychists sit out on the porch of the brain and do not venture into a mansion with many rooms, light switches, outlets, and the such. Neurons, synapses, neurogenesis, neurodegeneration, memory formation, recollection, confabulation, and so on are critically important in accounting for certain experiences. We cannot say the what-it’s-likeness of déjà vu is due to the fact that particles are conscious. That tells us nothing, does not help us elucidate on this experience, and ultimately, lacks explanatory power. It is simply a vacuous claim. Real physicalists can enter the many-roomed mansion and start to explain why this experience feels a certain way, and why some of us interpret it the way we do; for instance, there is a delay between seeing and being aware that we have seen, and so, in those small intervals of time, we can fool ourselves into thinking we have already seen what we just realized we saw. In other words, your brain “knows” what you see before you realize you have seen it. Generally, however, scientists think that déjà vu is tied to memory, so if we are sitting on the porch, trying to explain what it’s like to have this experience, we are in the wrong part of the house. We have to venture into the hippocampus, for instance (see Hamzelou, Jessica. “Mystery of déjà vu explained – it’s how we check our memories”. New Scientist. 16 Aug 2016. Web.).
I will free to skip the entire section on emergentism because while I find this account intriguing, it is implausible and has, what I think, are obvious commitments. Strawson defines it as follows:
Experiential phenomena are emergent phenomena. Consciousness properties, experience properties, are emergent properties of wholly and utterly non- conscious, non-experiential phenomena. Physical stuff in itself, in its basic nature, is indeed a wholly non-conscious, non-experiential phenomenon. Nevertheless when parts of it combine in certain ways, experiential phenomena ‘emerge’. Ultimates in themselves are wholly non-conscious, non-experiential phenomena. Nevertheless, when they combine in certain ways, experiential phenomena ‘emerge’. (12)
If this is the case, then emergentism is committed to idealism and to solipsism, “sometimes expressed as the view that “I am the only mind which exists,” or “My mental states are the only mental states”” (Thornton, Stephen. “Solipsism and the Problem of Other Minds”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.). The obvious drawback here is that there is no way to pin down where these properties emerge from. The source will vary from one first person point of view to the next or, to put it facetiously, from one person under the illusion that they have first person perspective to another person under the same illusion. I will claim that all that exists is my mind while someone else can lay claim to their own mind existing. I will then claim that all else emerges from my mental states while the next person makes the same claim. Then the question becomes, when we are both shopping for clothes, why do we both see a blood red trench coat for sale and why is it that my mental state of wanting to buy it does not emerge from his mental state of barely noticing the coat? How can these same properties group together to become the same object from two people under the illusion that their respective mental states are the only mental states? Emergentism, with respect to consciousness, does not evade these problematic commitments.
To understand the next couple of sections in his paper, in where Strawson’s claims go off the rails and get even wilder, the following have to be kept in mind:
- The non-experiential thesis: “[NE] physical stuff is, in itself, in its fundamental nature, something wholly and utterly non-experiential” (11)
- Real Physicalism: “[RP] experience is a real concrete phenomenon and every real concrete phenomenon is physical” (12)
- P-phenomena: “the phenomena of liquidity reduce without remainder to shape-size-mass-charge-etc. phenomena” (13)
- “The central idea of neutral monism is that there is a fundamental, correct way of conceiving things — let us say that it involves conceiving of them in terms of ‘Z’ properties — given which all concrete phenomena, experiential and non-experiential, are on a par in all being equally Z phenomena” (23)
Setting aside Strawson’s side-stepping of chemistry, which easily shows how liquid water can “emerge” from two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, the reason we cannot have Z phenomena is because the question of how consciousness can come from non-consciousness is itself reducible to a scientific question that has yet to be fully answered: how did life arise from non-life? Consciousness, as we know, is found in living things, so per the combination problem, what criteria need to be met for a consciousness like ours to take shape? Is it size, mass, shape, charge? Buildings and mountains are far more massive than us and by extension, are larger and have more particles generating what should amount to greater charges; and yet, mountains and buildings do not appear to be conscious at all. This is a critical clue because clearly, the haphazard combination of particles when a mountain forms or when a building is erected does not accomplish giving rise to consciousness like ours. Briefly, the combination problem can be formulated as follows:
Take a hundred of them [feelings], shuffle them and pack them as close together as you can (whatever that may mean); still each remains the same feeling it always was, shut in its own skin, windowless, ignorant of what the other feelings are and mean. There would be a hundred-and first-feeling there, if, when a group or series of such feelings where set up, a consciousness belonging to the group as such should emerge. And this 101st feeling would be a totally new fact; the 100 feelings might, by a curious physical law, be a signal for its creation, when they came together; but they would have no substantial identity with it, not it with them, and one could never deduce the one from the others, nor (in any intelligible sense) say that they evolved it.Goff, Philip, William Seager, and Sean Allen-Hermanson. “Panpsychism”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Summer 2020. Web.
To do away with Strawson’s assertions concerning consciousness coming from experiential ultimates, I summon help from an unexpected source. Though the neo-Aristotelian uses this thought experiment for different purposes, it is enough to show that basic organization does not consciousness make. Jaworski, no doubt inadvertently, presents a version of the combination problem that cuts deeply into Strawson’s thesis. He explains:
Suppose we put Godehard in a strong bag — a very strong bag since we want to ensure that nothing leaks out when we squash him with several tons of force. Before the squashing, the contents of the bag include one human being; after, they include none. In addition, before the squashing the contents of the bag can think, feel, and act, but after the squashing they can’t. What explains these differences in the contents of the bag pre-squashing and post-squashing? The physical materials (whether particles or stuffs) remain the same — none of them leaked out. Intuitively, we want to say that what changed was the way those materials were structured or organized.Jaworski, William. Structure and the Metaphysics of Mind: How Hylomorphism Solves the Mind-Body Problem. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. 9. Print.
Intuitively, I do not say that what changed is just the organization or structure of these materials. That dodges Jaworski’s neo-Aristotelian commitments. I also add that the spark of consciousness is what changed. There is, in this case, irreparable damage to the claustrum, thus making consciousness impossible to turn back on, so to speak (see Koch, Christoph. “Neuronal “Superhub” Might Generate Consciousness”. Scientific American. 1 Nov 2014. Web.). Furthermore, there is irreparable damage to other pivotal organs that make it possible for us to make any claim to being alive. The liver, heart, stomach, etc. have all lost their function. The matter is still there, but the electric fields that make us conscious are permanently off. This is why I am conscious and an inanimate object, equal in size and weight to me, perhaps a boulder, is not conscious. Non-experiential things can be used to design other non-experiential things or can naturally form into other non-experiential things given that organic compounds and electric fields are entirely absent. The question of how consciousness arises from non-consciousness just is the question of how life arises from non-life. Just because we currently do not have a fuller, more detailed picture does not mean we have license to offer theories like panpsychism, which possess nothing in the way of explanatory power. The panpsychist and neo-Aristotelian think they are headed in some definite direction, but they are both quickly approaching dead ends.
Electric fields theory (EFT) of consciousness, indeed similar to panpsychism, at least prima facie, is where panpsychists should place their chips. Tam Hunt elaborates:
Nature seems to have figured out that electric fields, similar to the role they play in human-created machines, can power a wide array of processes essential to life. Perhaps even consciousness itself. A veritable army of neuroscientists and electrophysiologists around the world are developing steadily deeper insights into the degree that electric and magnetic fields—“brainwaves” or “neural oscillations”—seem to reveal key aspects of consciousness. The prevailing view for some time now has been that the brain’s bioelectric fields, which are electrical and magnetic fields produced at various physical scales, are an interesting side effect—or epiphenomenon—of the brains’ activity, but not necessarily relevant to the functioning of consciousness itself.
A number of thinkers are suggesting now, instead, that these fields may in fact be the main game in town when it comes to explaining consciousness. In a 2013 paper, philosopher Mostyn Jones reviewed various field theories of consciousness, still a minority school of thought in the field but growing. If that approach is right, it is likely that the body’s bioelectric fields are also, more generally, associated in some manner with some kind of consciousness at various levels. Levin provided some support for this notion when I asked him about the potential for consciousness, in at least some rudimentary form, in the body’s electric fields.Hunt, Tam. “The Link Between Bioelectricity and Consciousness”. Nautilus. 10 Mar 2021. Web.
While I am committed to monism, the idea that only physical substance exists, and am therefore committed to physicalism, I am not committed to the idea that particles are the kinds of ultimates that attend to consciousness. Cells are the ultimates that attend to conscious beings like ourselves. This is the reason why the boulder lacks consciousness despite weighing as much as I do. Intuitively, the boulder should have roughly the same amount of particles in its structure as I do, but of utmost priority here is determining what I possess that the boulder does not. I am, as it were, activated by electric fields, receptive to my environment, can respond and adapt to it. The boulder, on the other hand, cannot do this. One might want to ask why, when the boulder finds itself gradually eroding under a small waterfall, it does not simply relocate itself? If, like me, it has a rudimentary spark of consciousness, why does it resign itself to a slow death, i.e., erosion? Bioelectric fields account for why I will move out of the way of an oncoming vehicle while the boulder remains idle under the waterfall, slowing eroding as time goes on.
This is probably the most damning response to Strawson: various domains of science are needed to understand consciousness. If EFT is accurate, and I see no reason for it to be inaccurate, cell biology is just as crucial as physics, chemistry, and neurophysiology. This makes for a comprehensive understanding of consciousness, comprised of the convergence of all our domains of knowledge. Philosophy of mind no doubt has a role to play, but not when it ventures far and wide from what science suggests. There is already a fundamental distinction between non-life and life, between inanimate objects and people. It follows, therefore, that if consciousness is inhered in living things, then it cannot be attributed to non-living things. This smacks of common sense and yet, philosophers are willing to occupy the fringes with popular theories like panpsychism. Some pretty anecdotes have come from this idea. Some say we are the universe experiencing itself, but if the universe already had all the makings of phenomenal consciousness, why does it need overrated chimpanzees who are preoccupied with reality tv, social media, violence against one another, and all manner of mundane and superficial nonsense to understand itself? If any composition at all, even absent bioelectric fields, are enough to account for consciousness, why not just configure itself into a Boltzmann brain that has no potential to develop the silly prejudices and biases humans tend to have?
My account starts to make clear how I can be committed to NE and RP and lead us in the right direction as it concerns Z phenomena. P phenomena are well-accounted for as they pertain to inorganic compounds. Of course, it begs the question to say that we have not quite nailed P phenomena as they concern organic chemistry. To reiterate, our ignorance with respect to how inorganic compounds become organic compounds that are essential to life does not give us license to make as many wild assumptions as we please. Any hypothesis, even within philosophy, especially if it encroaches on the territory of science, has to demonstrate awareness of scientific literature or at least, incorporate science wherever it is germane to one’s theory. Claiming that particles are actually experiential entities that account for why we are conscious pushes the buck back. Panpsychists have moved the goalposts and if they were correct, we would still be tasked with comprehending the consciousness of things utterly unlike ourselves. Thankfully, we do not have to do that and we can focus our energy on understanding why there is a what-it’s-likeness to our experiences. Again, there are important clues: for instance, people who were born blind cannot see while dreaming:
When a blind man is asked if he dreams the answer is immediate: ‘Yes!’ But if we ask him if he sees anything in the dream, the answer is always doubtful because he does not know what it is to see. Even if there were images and colours in his brain during the dream, how could he recognize them? There is, therefore, no direct way, through the dream reports, to evaluate the presence of visual activation in the dream of congenitally blind subjects.Carr, Michelle. “Do Blind People See in Their Dreams?”. Psychology Today. 29 Dec 2017. Web.
If experiential particles give rise to sight, then why do particles seem entirely dependent on eyes? Why do they not simply configure themselves in another way in order to circumvent the blindness of the eyes? It is quite telling that in the absence of a sense, the corresponding phenomenal aspect of experiences associated with that sense are also absent. My compound reductive account predicts this; this is unsurprising on my theory of consciousness whereas on Strawson’s account, and any panpsychists account, there is no way to account for this. Severe retinopathy is usually what causes people to be born blind. There are millions of light-sensitive cells within the retina, along with other nerve cells that receive and process the information that is sent to your brain, by way of the optic nerve. On EFT, therefore, blindness is damage within the electric fields that result in sight. The cure for blindness is to restore the electric fields within these cells so that communication between nerve cells is possible. That would then restore any corresponding phenomenal experiences. The mere organization of particles clearly does not accomplish this. EFT seems to have far more explanatory power than panpsychism does and if we took pains to assess just our five ordinary senses, we would be able to see that like blindness, anosmia, aguesia, deafness, and things like neuropathy, hypoesthesia, and CIP (congenital insensitivity to pain) are all reducible to nerve cell damage in the nose, mouth, ears, and extremities respectively. In simple terms, bioelectric pathways are damaged and thus, turn off communication to the brain, and in turn, cut off the corresponding qualia. This is essentially what I mean by recontextualizing qualia and Strawson clearly does not dodge that bullet.
Ultimately, I think EFT should supplant panpsychism in popular circles. I can agree with the notion of conscious cells because they are among the smallest structures atoms have assembled into within living things. I disagree with the idea of conscious particles because when they organize into air fryers, thermostats, buildings, mountains, and sand dunes, despite having comparable mass, size, shape, and charge to living things, none of these objects appear to be conscious; in other words, none of these objects appear to be aware, awake, attentive, and most importantly, alive. I can knock on a fish tank and the fish with the blankest stare in the tank can respond to a stress signal and move away from that area in the tank. I can throw a rock repeatedly into a harder material and it will continue to remain idle; put another way, I can take a geologist’s hammer to sediment over and over again, whether for a dig or in a fit of sustained rage, and the sediment will remain idle, allowing me to crack and break it as much as I please. Conscious beings, on the other hand, have a bias toward survival and retention of their structure. To use as humane an example as possible, if you were to do something that caused an insect pain, perhaps sending minor electrical charges into one of its legs, its automatic response will be to try to escape the situation. The insect, like you, wants to survive and ensure that it is not crushed or, in this case, burnt to a crisp. The same cannot be said of the myriad, non-experiential macro objects around us day in and day out. Strawson and panpsychists, aside from co-opting terms like physicalism when they really do not mean physicalism, would do well to renounce panpsychism and accept a better theory of ultimates: electric fields theory of consciousness. Then they can come to my pluralist physicalist account that allows for compound reductionism. To my mind, this is the only real way to study consciousness.
By R.N. Carmona
My purpose here is twofold: first and foremost, I want to clarify Rasmussen’s argument because though I can understand why word of mouth can lead to what is essentially a straw man of his argument, especially in light of the fact that his argument requires one to pay for an online article or his book Is God the Best Explanation of Things? which he coauthored with Felipe Leon, it is simply good practice to present an argument fairly. Secondly, I want to be stern about the fact that philosophy of religion cannot continue to rake these dead coals. Rasmussen’s argument is just another in a long, winding, and quite frankly, tired history of contingency arguments. In in any case, the following is the straw man I want my readers and anyone else who finds this post to stop citing. This is decidedly not Rasmussen’s argument:
Rasmussen has no argument called The Argument From Arbitrary Limits. Arbitrary limits actually feature in Leon’s chapter in where he expresses skepticism of Rasmussen’s Geometric Argument (Rasmussen Joshua and Leon, Felipe. Is God The Best Explanation For Things. Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan. 53-68. Print.). Also, Rasmussen has a Theistic conception of God (omnipresent, wholly good, etc.) that is analogous to what Plantinga means by maximal greatness, but Rasmussen does not refer to God using that term. Perhaps there is confusion with his use of the word maximal conceivable. While given Rasmussen’s beliefs, he implies God with what he calls a maximal foundation, “a foundation complete with respect to its fundamental (basic, uncaused) features” (Ibid., 140). He makes it clear throughout the book that he is open to such a foundation that is not synonymous with God. In any case, his maximal conceivable is not a being possessing maximal greatness; at least, not exactly, since it appears he means something more elementary given his descriptions of basic and uncaused, as these clearly do not refer to omnipresence, perfect goodness, and so on. There may also be some confusion with his later argument, which he calls “The Maximal Mind Argument” (Ibid. 112-113), which fails because it is relies heavily on nonphysicalism, a series of negative theories in philosophy of mind that do not come close to offering alternative explanations for an array of phenomena thoroughly explained by physicalism (see here). In any case, Rasmussen has no argument resembling the graphic above. His arguments rest on a number of dubious assumptions, the nexus of which is his Geometric Argument:
JR1 Geometry is a geometric state.
JR2 Every geometric state is dependent.
JR3 Therefore, Geometry is dependent.
JR4 Geometry cannot depend on any state featuring only things that have a geometry.
JR5 Geometry cannot depend on any state featuring only non-concrete (non-causal) things.
JRC Therefore, Geometry depends on a state featuring at lest one geometry-less concrete thing (3-5) (Ibid., 42).
Like Leon, I take issue with JR2. Leon does not really elaborate on why JR2 is questionable saying only that “the most basic entities with geometry (if such there be) have their geometrics of factual or metaphysical necessity” and that therefore, “it’s not true that every geometric state is dependent” (Ibid., 67). He is correct, of course, but elaboration could have helped here because this is a potential defeater. Factual and metaphysical necessity are inhered in physical necessity. The universe is such that the fact that every triangle containing a 90-degree angle is a right triangle is reducible to physical constraints within our universe. This fact of geometry is unlike Rasmussen’s examples, namely chair and iPhone shapes. He states: “The instantiation of [a chair’s shape] depends upon prior conditions. Chair shapes never instantiate on their own, without any prior conditions. Instead, chair-instantiations depend on something” (Ibid., 41). This overt Platonism is questionable in and of itself, but Leon’s statement is forceful in this case: the shape of the chair is not dependent because it has its shape of factual or metaphysical necessity that stem from physical necessity. Chairs, first and foremost, are shaped the way they are because of our shape when we sit down; furthermore, chairs take the shapes they do because of physical constraints like human weight, gravity, friction against a floor, etc. For a chair not to collapse under the force of gravity and the weight of an individual, it has to be engineered in some way to withstand these forces acting on it; the chair’s shape is so because of physical necessity and this explains its metaphysical necessity. There is therefore, no form of a chair in some ethereal realm; an idea like this is thoroughly retrograde and not worth considering.
In any case, the real issue is that chair and iPhone shapes are not the sort of shapes that occur naturally in the universe. Those shapes, namely spheres, ellipses, triangles, and so on, also emerge from physical necessity. It is simply the case that a suspender on a bridge forms the hypothenuse of a right triangle. Like a chair, bridge suspenders take this shape because of physical necessity. The same applies to the ubiquity of spherical and elliptical shapes in the universe. To further disabuse anyone of Platonic ideas, globular shapes are also quite ubiquitous in the universe and are more prominent the closer we get to the Big Bang. There are shapes inherent in our universe that cannot be neatly called geometrical and even still, these shapes are physically and therefore, metaphysically necessitated. If JR2 is unsound, then the argument falls apart. On another front, this addresses Rasmussen’s assertion that God explains why there is less chaos in our universe. Setting aside that the qualification of this statement is entirely relative, the relative order we see in the universe is entirely probabilistic, especially given that entropy guarantees a trend toward disorder as the universe grows older and colder.
Like Leon, I share his general concern about “any argument that moves from facts about apparent contingent particularity and an explicability principle to conclusions about the nature of fundamental reality” (Ibid., 67) or as I have been known to put it: one cannot draw ontological conclusions on the basis of logical considerations. Theistic philosophers of religion and unfortunately, philosophers in general, have a terrible habit of leaping from conceivability to possibility and then, all the way to actuality. Leon elaborates:
Indeed, the worry above seems to generalize to just about any account of ultimate reality. So, for example, won’t explicability arguments saddle Christian theism with the same concern, viz. why the deep structure of God’s nature should necessitate exactly three persons in the Godhead? In general, won’t explicability arguments equally support a required explanation for why a particular God exists rather than others, or rather than, say, an infinite hierarchy of gods? The heart of the criticism is that it seems any theory must stop somewhere and say that the fundamental character is either brute or necessary, and that if it’s necessary, the explanation of why it’s necessary (despite appearing contingent) is beyond our ability to grasp (Ibid., 67-68).
Of course, Leon is correct in his assessment. Why not Ahura Mazda, his hypostatic union to Spenta Mainyu, and his extension via the Amesha Spentas? If, for instance, the one-many problem requires the notion of a One that is also many, what exactly rules out Ahura Mazda? One starts to see how the prevailing version of Theism in philosophy of religion is just a sad force of habit. This is why it is necessary to move on from these arguments. Contingency arguments are notoriously outmoded because Mackie, Le Poidevin, and others have already provided general defeaters that can apply to any particular contingency argument. Also, how many contingency arguments do we need exactly? In other words, how many different ways can one continue to assert that all contingent things require at least one necessary explanation? Wildman guides us here:
Traditional natural theology investigates entailment relations from experienced reality to, say, a preferred metaphysics of ultimacy. But most arguments of this direct-entailment sort have fallen out of favor, mostly because they are undermined by the awareness of alternative metaphysical schemes that fit the empirical facts just as well as the preferred metaphysical scheme. By contrast with this direct-entailment approach, natural theology ought to compare numerous compelling accounts of ultimacy in as many different respects as are relevant. In this comparison-based way, we assemble the raw material for inference-to-the-best-explanation arguments on behalf of particular theories of ultimacy, and we make completely clear the criteria for preferring one view of ultimacy to another.Wildman, Wesley J. Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry: Envisioning a Future For The Philosophy of Religion. State University of New York Press. Albany, NY. 2010. 162. Print.
Setting aside that Rasmussen does not make clear why he prefers a Christian view of ultimacy as opposed to a Zoroastrian one or another one that may be proposed, I think Wildman is being quite generous when saying that “alternative metaphysical schemes fit the empirical facts just as well as the preferred metaphysical scheme” because the fact of the matter is that some alternatives fit the empirical facts better than metaphysical schemes like the ones Christian Theists resort to. Rasmussen’s preferred metaphysical scheme of a maximal foundation, which properly stated, is a disembodied, nonphysical mind who is omnipresent, wholly good, and so on rests on dubious assumptions that have not been made to cohere with the empirical facts. Nonphysicalism, as I have shown in the past, does not even attempt to explain brain-related phenomena. Physicalist theories have trounced the opposition in that department and it is not even close. What is more is that Christian Theists are especially notorious for not comparing their account to other accounts and that is because they are not doing philosophy, but rather apologetics. This is precisely why philosophy of religion must move on from Christian Theism. We can think of an intellectual corollary to forgiveness. In light of Christian Theism’s abject failure to prove God, how many more chances are we required to give this view? Philosophy of religion is, then, like an abused lover continuing to be moved by scraps of affection made to cover up heaps of trauma. The field should be past the point of forgiveness and giving Christian Theism yet another go to get things right; it has had literal centuries to get its story straight and present compelling arguments and yet here we are retreading ground that has been walked over again and again and again.
To reinforce my point, I am going to quote Mackie and Le Poidevin’s refutations of contingency arguments like Rasmussen’s. It should then become clear that we have to bury these kinds of arguments for good. Let them who are attached to these arguments mourn their loss, but I will attend no such wake. What remains of the body is an ancient skeleton, long dead. It is high time to give it a rest. Le Poidevin put one nail in the coffin of contingency arguments. Anyone offering new contingency arguments has simply failed to do their homework. It is typical of Christian Theists to indulge confirmation bias and avoid what their opponents have to say. The problem with that is that the case against contingency arguments has been made. Obstinacy does not change the fact. Le Poidevin clearly shows why necessary facts do not explain contingent ones:
Necessary facts, then, cannot explain contingent ones, and causal explanation, of any phenomenon, must link contingent facts. That is, both cause and effect must be contingent. Why is this? Because causes make a difference to their environment: they result in something that would not have happened if the cause had not been present. To say, for example, that the presence of a catalyst in a certain set of circumstances speeded up a reaction is to say that, had the catalyst not been present in those circumstances, the reaction would have proceeded at a slower rate. In general, if A caused B, then, if A had not occurred in the circumstances, B would not have occurred either. (A variant of this principle is that, if A caused B, then if A had not occurred in the circumstances, the probability of B’s occurrence would have been appreciably less than it was. It does not matter for our argument whether we accept the origin principle or this variant.) To make sense of this statement, ‘If A had not occurred in the circumstances, B would not have occurred’, we have to countenance the possibility of A’s not occurring and the possibility of B’s not occurring. If these are genuine possibilities, then both A and B are contingent. So one of the reasons why necessary facts cannot causally explain anything is that we cannot make sense of their not being the case, whereas causal explanations requires us to make sense of causally explanatory facts not being the case. Causal explanation involves the explanation of one contingent fact by appeal to another contingent fact.Le Poidevin, Robin. Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. London: Routledge, 1996. 40-41. Print.
This is a way of substantiating that an effect is inhered in a cause or the principle, like effects from like causes. This has been precisely my criticism of the idea that a nonphysical cause created the physical universe. There is no theory of causation that permits the interaction of an ethereal entity’s dispositions and that of physical things. It is essentially a paraphrase of Elizabeth of Bohemia’s rebuttal to Cartesian dualism: how does mental substance interact with physical substance? This is why mind-body dualism remains in a state of incoherence, but I digress. Mackie puts yet another nail in the coffin:
The principle of sufficient reason, then, is more far-reaching than the principle that every occurrence has a preceding sufficient cause: the latter, but not the former, would be satisfied by a series of things or events running back infinitely in time, each determined by earlier ones, but with no further explanation of the series as a whole. Such a series would give us only what Leibniz called ‘physical’ or ‘hypothetical’ necessity, whereas the demand for a sufficient reason for the whole body of contingent things and events and laws calls for something with ‘absolute’ or ‘metaphysical’ necessity. But even the weaker, deterministic, principle is not an a priori truth, and indeed it may not be a truth at all; much less can this be claimed for the principle of sufficient reason. Perhaps it just expresses an arbitrary demand; it may be intellectually satisfying to believe there is, objectively, an explanation for everything together, even if we can only guess at what the explanation might be. But we have no right to assume that the universe will comply with our intellectual preferences. Alternatively, the supposed principle may be an unwarranted extension of the determinist one, which, in so far as it is supported, is supported only empirically, and can at most be accepted provisionally, not as an a priori truth. The form of the cosmological argument which relies on the principle of sufficient reason therefore fails completely as a demonstrative proof.Mackie, J. L. The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and against the Existence of God. Oxford: Clarendon, 1982. 86-87. Print.
Every contingency argument fails because it relies on the principle of sufficient reason and because necessity does not cohere with contingency as it concerns a so-called causal relation. Mackie, like Le Poidevin, also questions why God is a satisfactory termination of the regress. Why not something something else? (Ibid., 92). Contingency arguments amount to vicious special pleading and an outright refusal to entertain viable alternatives, even in cases where the alternatives are nonphysical and compatible with religious sentiments. In any case, it would appear that the principle of sufficient reason is not on stable ground. Neither is the notion that a necessary being is the ultimate explanation of the universe. Contingency arguments have been defeated and there really is no way to repeat these arguments in a way that does not fall on the horns of Le Poidevin and Mackie’s defeaters. Only the obdurate need to believe that God is the foundational explanation of the universe explains the redundancy of Christian Theists within the philosophy of religion. That is setting aside that apologetics is not philosophy and other complaints I have had. The Geometric Argument, despite using different language, just is a contingency argument. If the dead horse could speak, it would tell them all to lay down their batons once and for all, but alas.
Ultimately, contingency arguments are yet another example of how repetitive Christianized philosophy of religion has become. There is a sense in which Leon, Le Poidevin, and Mackie are paraphrasing one another because, and here is a bit of irony, like arguments result in like rebuttals. They cannot help but to sound like they each decided or even conspired to write on the same topic for a final paper. They are, after all, addressing the same argument no matter how many attempts have been made to word it differently. It is a vicious cycle, a large wheel that cannot keep on turning. It must be stopped in its tracks if progress in the philosophy of religion is to get any real traction.
By R.N. Carmona
Consider what follows some scattered thoughts after reading an excellent paper by Marius Backmann. I think he succeeds in showing how the Neo-Aristotelian notion of powers is incongruous with pretty much any theory of time of note. My issue with powers is more basic: what in the world are Neo-Aristotelians even saying when they invoke this idea and why does it seem that no one has raised the concern that powers are an elementary paraphrase of dispositions? With respect to this concern, Neo-Aristotelians do not even attempt to make sense of our experience with matter and energy. They seem to go on the assumption that something just has to underlie the physical world whereas I take it as extraneous to include metaphysical postulates where entirely physical ones make do. Dispositions are precisely the sort of physical postulates that adequately explain what we perceive as cause-effect relationships. What I will argue is that a more thorough analysis of dispositions is all that is needed to understand why a given a caused some given effect b.
My idea that powers are an elementary paraphrase is entailed in Alexander Bird’s analysis of what powers are. He states:
According to Bird, powers, or potencies, as he calls them alternatively, are a subclass of dispositions. Bird holds that not all dispositions need to be powers, since there could be dispositions that are not characterised by an essence, apart from self-identity. Powers, on the other hand, Bird (2013) holds to be properties with a dispositional essence. On this view, a power is a property that furnishes its bearer with the same dispositional character in every metaphysically possible world where the property is instantiated. If the disposition to repel negatively charged objects if there are some in the vicinity is a power in that sense, then every object that has that property does the same in every metaphysically possible world, i.e. repel negatively charged objects if there are some in the vicinity.Marius Backmann (2019) No time for powers, Inquiry, 62:9-10, 979-1007, DOI: 10.1080/0020174X.2018.1470569
Upon closer analysis of Bird’s definition, a power just is a disposition. The issue is that Bird and the Neo-Aristotelians who complain that he has not gone far enough have isolated what they take to be a power from the properties of an electron, which is a good example of a particle that repels negatively charged objects given that some are in its vicinity. Talk of possible worlds makes no sense unless one can prove mathematically that an electron-like particle with a different mass would also repulse other negatively charged particles. However, though it can easily be shown that a slightly more massive electron-like particle will repulse other particles of negative charge, its electrical charge will be slightly higher than an electrons because according to Robert Milikan’s calculation, there seems to be a relationship between the mass of a particle and its charge. The most elementary charge is e = ~1.602 x 10^19 coulombs. The charge of a quark is measured in multiples of e/3, implying a smaller charge, which is expected given that they are sub-particles. So what is of interest is why the configuration of even an elementary particle yields predictable “behaviors.”
To see this, let us dig into an example Backmann uses: “My power to bake a cake would not bring a cake that did not exist simpliciter before into existence, but only make a cake that eternally exists simpliciter present. Every activity reduces to a change in what is present” (Ibid.). The Neo-Aristotelian is off track to say we have power to bake a cake and that the oven has power to yield this desired outcome that do not trace back to its parts or as Cartwright states of general nomological machines: “We explicate how the machine arrangement dictates what can happen – it has emergent powers which are not to be found in its components” (Cartwright, Nancy & Pemberton, John (2013). Aristotelian powers: without them, what would modern science do? In John Greco & Ruth Groff (eds.), Powers and Capacities in Philosophy: the New Aristotelianism. London, U.K.: Routledge. pp. 93-112.). Of the nomological machines in nature, Cartwright appears to bypass the role of evolution. Of such machines invented by humans, she ignores the fact that we often wrongly predict what a given invention will do. Evolution proceeds via probabilities and so, from our ad hoc point of view, it looks very much like trial and error. Humans have the advantage of being much more deliberate about what they are selecting for and therefore, our testing and re-testing of inventions and deciding when they are safe and suitable to hit the market is markedly similar to evolutionary selection.
That being said, the components of a machine do account for its function. It is only due to our understanding of other machines that we understand what should go into building a new one in order for it to accomplish a new task(s). Powers are not necessary because then we should be asking, why did we not start off with machines that have superior powers? In other words, why start with percolators if we could have just skipped straight to Keurig or Nespresso machines or whatever more advanced models that might be invented? Talk of powers seems to insinuate that objects, whether complex or simple, are predetermined to behave the way they do, even in the absence of trial runs, modifications, or outright upgrades. This analysis sets aside the cake. It does not matter what an oven or air fryer is supposed to do. If the ingredients are wrong, either because I neglected to use baking powder or did not use enough flour, the cake may not raise. The ingredients that go into baked goods play a “causal” role as well.
Dispositions, on the other hand, readily explain why one invention counts as an upgrade over a previous iteration. Take, for instance, Apple’s A14 Bionic chip. At bottom, this chip accounts for, “a 5 nanometer manufacturing process” and CPU and GPU improvements over the iPhone 11 (Truly, Alan. “A14 Bionic: Apple’s iPhone 12 Chip Benefits & Improvements Explained”. Screenrant. 14 Oct 2020. Web). Or more accurately, key differences in the way this chip was made accounts for the improvement over its predecessors. Perhaps more crucially is that critics of dispositions have mostly tended to isolate dispositions, as though a glass cup’s fragility exists in a vacuum. Did the cup free fall at 9.8m/s^2? Did it fall on a mattress or on a floor? What kind of floor? Or was the cup thrown at some velocity because Sharon was angry with her boyfriend Albert? What did she throw the cup at: a wall, the floor, Albert’s head, or did it land in a half-full hamper with Sharon and Albert’s dirty clothes?
Answering these questions solves the masking and mimicker problems. The masking problem can be framed as follows:
Another kind of counterexample to SCA, due to Johnston (1992) and Bird (1998), involves a fragile glass that is carefully protected by packing material. It is claimed that the glass is disposed to break when struck but, if struck, it wouldn’t break thanks to the work of the packing material. There is an important difference between this example and Martin’s: the packing material would prevent the breaking of the glass not by removing its disposition to break when struck but by blocking the process that would otherwise lead from striking to breaking.Choi, Sungho and Michael Fara, “Dispositions”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
I would not qualify that the packing material prevents the glass from breaking by blocking the process that would result if it were exposed. The packing material has its own properties and dispositions that we have discovered through trial and error making this material good at protecting glass. Packing paper was more common, but now we have bubble wrap and heavy duty degradable stretch wrap, also capable of protecting glass, china, porcelain, and other fragile items. The dispositions of these protective materials readily explain why their encompassing of fragile objects protects them from incidental striking or drops. If I were, however, to throw a wrapped coffee mug as hard as I can toward a brick wall, the mug is likely to break. This entails that variables are important in this thing we call cause and effect.
A perfect example is simple collisions of the sort you learn about in an elementary physics course. If a truck and haul speeding down a highway in one direction at ~145 km/h, and a sedan traveling in the opposite direction at cruising speed of ~89 km/h collide, we can readily predict the outcome and that this particular collision is inelastic. The speeding truck would likely barrel through the sedan and the sedan will be pushed in the direction the truck was traveling in. The vehicles’ respective speeds and masses are extremely important in understanding what goes on here. There is no sense in which we can say that trucks just have a power to mow things down because a collision between the truck in our original example and a truck and haul driving at roughly the same speed in the opposite direction results in an entirely difficult outcome, a perfectly elastic collision in where both trucks collide and come to an immediate halt after the effects of the impact are fully realized.
Neo-Aristotelian analyses of powers give us nothing that is keeping with physics. What these explanations demand is something they imagine happening behind the veil of what science has already explained. There are just dispositions and what is needed is a more critical analysis of what is entailed across each instance of cause and effect. Power ontologies beg the question, in any case, because they require dispositions to make sense of powers. That is because powers are just a cursory analysis of cause-effect relationships, a way of paraphrasing that is overly simplistic and ultimately, not analytical enough. Power ontologies, along with talk of dynamism, which properly belongs to Nietzsche not Aristotle, severely undermine the Neo-Aristotelian project. Nietzsche’s diagnosis of causation makes this clear:
Cause and effect: such a duality probably never exists; in truth we are confronted by a continuum out of which we isolate a couple of pieces, just as we perceive motion only as isolated points and then infer it without ever actually seeing it. The suddenness with which many effects stand out misleads us; actually, it is sudden only for us. In this moment of suddenness there is an infinite number of processes that elude us. n intellect that could see cause and effect as a continuum and a flux and not, as we do, in terms of an arbitrary division and dismemberment, would repudiate the concept of cause and effect and deny all conditionality.Nietzsche, Friedrich W, and Walter Kaufmann. The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. New York: Vintage Books, 1974. 173. Print.
Nietzsche describes a continuum and a flux, in other words, a dynamism thoroughly unlike what can be attributed to Aristotle’s theory of causation. So the fact that Neo-Aristotelians even speak of a dynamism feels like a sort of plagiarism, since they are associating the idea of a dynamism with a thinker that said nothing to that effect. Nietzsche is critical of Aristotle’s causal-teleological marriage and can be seen as explicitly accusing Aristotle and also Hume of arbitrarily splicing a dynamic continuum in an ad hoc manner that does not find justification in metaphysical ideas. If Nietzsche had been properly exposed to modern science, he would probably agree that this splicing does not find justification in physical ideas either. The hard sciences confirm a continuum, preferring complex processes from which predictable results follow. There is just no sense in which we can apply any theory of causation to a chemical reaction. What features in these reactions are the properties and dispositions of the elements involved and how they are constituted explains why we get one reaction or another. Any talk of dynamisms is properly Nietzschean in spirit and as should be clear in his words, there is no invocation of powers.
Suffice to say that a deeper analysis of dispositions also explains away the mimicker problem. Styrofoam plates simply do not break in the way glass plates do and their underlying composition explains why that is. Ultimately, Neo-Aristotelians are not in a good position to get to the bottom of what we call cause and effect. Aside from the difficulties Backmann sheds light on, the notion of powers is incoherent and lacking in explanatory power, especially at levels requiring deeper analysis. Predictably, I can see Neo-Aristotelians invoking an infinite regress of sorts. In other words, is it simply the composition of the glass interacting with the composition of a hardwood floor that results in the glass shattering or is there more to the story? To that I would respond that events like these happen within a causally closed space-time system. It is then when we will be asked who or what decided that a glass cup should break on impact when landing on a hardwood floor? Well, who or what decided that a compound fracture of the tibia is expected given that it receives a strong enough blow from an equally dense or denser object? The Neo-Aristotelian will keep pushing the buck back, demanding deeper levels of analysis, effectively moving the goalposts. What will remain is that there is no intelligence that decided on these things, i.e., there is no teleological explanation involved in these cases, because then they would have to account for undesired ends like broken bones.
In the end, I think that the deepest level of analysis will involve a stochastic process in where degrees of probability encompass possible outcomes. Not every blow leads to a broken tibia. Dropping a glass cup on just any surface is not enough to crack or shatter it. There are cases in where angular momentum as a result of a human foot can change a falling glass cup’s trajectory just enough to ensure that it does not break upon hitting the ground. I have met people quite adept at breaking these kinds of falls with a simple extension of their foot. As such, probabilities will change given the circumstances on a case by case basis. This element of chance at the deepest level of analysis coheres perfectly with the universe we find ourselves in because even the fact that we are beings made of matter, as opposed to beings made of anti-matter, is due to chance. Apparently, God has always rolled dice. On this, I will let Lawrence Krauss have the last word:
Because antiparticles otherwise have the same properties as particles, a world made of antimatter would behave the same way as a world of matter, with antilovers sitting in anticars making love under an anti-Moon. It is merely an accident of our circumstances, due, we think, to rather more profound factors…that we live in a universe that is made up of matter and not antimatter or one with equal amounts of both.Krauss, Lawrence. A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing. 1st ed. New York, NY: Free Press, 2012. 61. Print.
By R.N. Carmona
I have submitted a paper to Philosophical Studies addressing Dustin Crummett and Philip Swenson’s paper. Admittedly, this is my first attempt at publishing in a philosophy journal. I took a swing with no guidance, no co-author, and no funding. There is of course a chance it gets rejected, but I am hoping for the best. In any case, I think my paper provides heuristics for anyone looking to refute Evolutionary Moral Debunking Arguments like Crummet and Swenson’s. Let us turn to how I dissect their argument.
They claim that their Evolutionary Moral Debunking Argument Against Naturalism (EMDAAN) stems from Street’s and Korman and Locke’s EMDAs. The latter EMDAs target moral realism while Crummett and Swenson’s targets naturalism. The issue with theirs is that they grossly overlook the fact that both Street and Korman & Locke do not argue that naturalism is threatened by EMDAs. Street argues that her practical standpoint characterization of constructivism sidesteps any issues her EMDA might have presented for her naturalism. Korman and Locke target the minimalist response and in a separate paper, not cited by Crummett, relativism. They do not target naturalism either.
At first glance, I compared Crummett and Swenson’s argument to Lewis’ long-defeated Argument Against Atheism. They state: “The problem for the naturalist here is that, if naturalism is true, it seems that the faculties responsible for our intuitions were formed through purely natural processes that didn’t aim at producing true beliefs” (Crummett & Swenson, 37). One can easily see how they paraphrase Lewis who says:
Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen, for physical or chemical reasons, to arrange themselves in a certain way, this gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought. But, if so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? It’s like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way it splashes itself will give you a map of London. But if I can’t trust my own thinking, of course I can’t trust the arguments leading to Atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an Atheist, or anything else. Unless I believe in God, I cannot believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God.Marsden, George M.. C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity : A Biography. Princeton University Press. 89. 2016. Print.
This is a known predecessor of Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). Therefore, the first angle I take in the paper is to show how Crummett and Swenson did not understand Street’s paper. Perhaps it is the sheer length of her excellent paper (over 50 pages) or perhaps they were so intent on addressing New Atheists that they overlooked her more robust approach to showing how anti-realism fares against EMDAs. I think her paper makes a lot more sense when read in conjunction with her overview of constructivism (see here). Bearing that in mind, I attempt to divorce Crummet and Swenson’s EMDAAN from Street’s EMDA against moral realism. Korman and Locke’s project is markedly different, but their work does not help Crummett and Swenson’s argument either.
With the EAAN now in focus, I show how Crummett and Swenson’s EMDAAN just is an iteration of the EAAN. The EAAN applies to general truths. Put simply, Plantinga argues that if we take seriously the low probability of evolution and naturalism being true despite the fact that that our cognitive faculties formed from accidental evolutionary pressures, then we have a defeater for all of our beliefs, most notably among them, naturalism. Crummett and Swenson make the same exact argument, the difference being that they apply it to specific beliefs, moral beliefs. Given that moral beliefs are a sub-category within the domain of all beliefs, their EMDAAN is an iteration of the EAAN. Here is an example I did not pursue in my paper, call it the Evolutionary Scientific Debunking Argument.
RC1 P(Sm/E&S) is low (The probability that our faculties generate basic scientific beliefs, given that evolution and science are true, is low.)
RC2 If one accepts that P(Sm/E&S) is low, then one possesses a defeater for the notion that our faculties generate basic scientific beliefs.
RCC Therefore, one possesses a defeater for one’s belief in science.
Perhaps I would be called upon to specify a philosophical view of science, be it realism or something else, but the basic gist is the same as Crummett and Swenson’s EMDA. I am, like them, targeting a specific area of our beliefs, namely our beliefs resulting from science. My argument is still in the vein of Plantinga’s EAAN and is a mere subsidiary of it.
After I establish the genealogy of Crummett and Swenson’s argument, I turn the EAAN on its head and offer an Evolutionary Argument Against Theism. If Plantinga’s argument holds sway and the Theist believes that evolution is true, he is in no better epistemic shape than the naturalist. Therefore, Plantinga’s conditionalization problem, which offers that P(R/N&E) is high iff there exists a belief B that conditionalizes on N&E, is an issue for Theists as well. In other words, perhaps the probability that our cognitive faculties are reliable given that evolution and naturalism are true increases iff there is an added clause in the conjunction. Put another way, the probability that our cognitive faculties are reliable, granting that evolution and naturalism and (a successful philosophy of mind), is high. This successful philosophy of mind will have to show precisely how a brain that resulted from naturalistic evolutionary processes can generate the sort of consciousness capable of acquiring true beliefs. The theist who says P(R/T&E) is high is begging the question because merely asserting that “God ensured that there would be some degree of alignment between our intuitions and moral truth” ((Crummett & Swenson, 44) does not help the Theist avoid the conditionalization problem.
With that established, and I cannot give too much away here because this is the novelty in my paper, I argue that the only recourse the Theist has, especially given that they have no intention of disavowing Theism, is to abandon their belief in evolution. They would have to opt, instead, for a belief in creationism or a close variant like intelligent design. In either case, they would then be left asserting that a Creationary Moral Confirming Argument in Favor of Theism is the case. I explore the litany of issues that arises if the Theist abandons evolution and claims that God’s act of creating us makes moral realism the case. Again, the Theist ends up between a rock and a hard place. Theism simply has far less explanatory power because, unlike naturalism, it does not account for our propensity to make evaluative errors and our inclination toward moral deviancy. If God did, in fact, ensure that our moral intuitions align with transcendent moral truths, why do we commit errors when making moral decisions and why do we behave immorally? Naturalism can explain both of these problems, especially given the role of reason under the moral anti-realist paradigm. Evaluative errors are therefore, necessary to improve our evaluative judgments; reason is the engine by which we identify these errors and improve our moral outlook. The Theist would be back at square one, perhaps deploying the patently mythical idea of a Fall to account for the fact that humans are far from embodying the moral perfection God is said to have.
With Crummett and Swenson’s argument now thoroughly in Plantinga’s territory, I explore whether the anti-realist can solve the conditionalization problem. I suggest that evolution accounts for moral rudiments and then introduce the notion that cultural evolution accounts for reliable moral beliefs. Cooperation and altruism feature heavily into why I draw this conclusion. So P(Rm/E&MAR) (if evolution and moral anti-realism are true, the probability that our faculties generate evaluative truths) is high given that cooperation and/or altruism conditionalize on our belief that evolution and moral anti-realism are the case. We are left with P[(Rm/E&MAR) & (C v A)] or P[(Rm/E&MAR) & (C&A)]. In other words, if evolution and moral anti-realism are true, and cooperation and/or altruism conditionalize on our beliefs that evolution and moral anti-realism are the case, the probability that our faculties generate evaluative truths/reliable moral beliefs is high.
Ultimately, like Moon, I think my paper will provide fertile ground for further discussion on the conditionalization problem. The jury is still out on whether the naturalist’s belief that evolution and naturalism are true even requires a clause to conditionalize on that belief. In any case, much can be learned about EMDAs against naturalism from the vast literature discussing Plantinga’s EAAN. I think that my arguments go a long way in dispensing with EMDAs in the philosophy of religion that target naturalism. When one considers that the Theist cannot account for moral truths without unsubstantiated assertions about God, it is easy to see how they are on less secure ground than the naturalist. If the Theist is a Christian or a Muslim, then they ought to be reminded that their scriptures communicate things about their gods that are not befitting of moral perfection. If the choice is between naturalism and the belief that a god who made parents eat their children is, despite all evidence to the contrary, morally perfect, I will take my chances with naturalism!
By R.N. Carmona
Weaver’s argument, although robust, commits what I think is a cardinal sin in philosophy: “An objection from logical considerations against atheism is one which attempts to show that some deliverance of logic is at odds with atheism or something strictly implied by atheism” (Weaver, C.G. (2019). Logical Objections to Atheism. In A Companion to Atheism and Philosophy, G. Oppy (Ed.). https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119119302.ch30). One should not get in the habit of drawing ontological conclusions on the basis of logical considerations and though Weaver makes a good attempt to justify his conclusion, there are too many areas in his composite argument that are vulnerable to attack. There are parts of his composite argument that are clearly stated in his own words, but other parts have to be sifted out from his discussions, specifically on logical monism and classical logical consequence (CLC). Also, the conclusion that atheism is false has to be gathered from his discussion following his claim that ontological naturalism is false.
A general note, prior to proceeding, is in order. Weaver’s paper is quite technical and not at all easy for the untrained eye to read, let alone understand, so I will endeavor to avoid technicality wherever necessary; I will only permit pursuing one technical element because I disagree with Weaver’s treatment of supervenience, how he conveniently begs the question regarding reductionist materialism (if only to ensure that his argument is not met with immediate difficulty), and the conclusion he believes follows. More importantly, I think that the domestication of philosophy within the ivory towers of academia was a critical misstep that needs to be rectified. While analytic philosophy has its use, its abuse makes philosophy the slave of academic elites and therefore, keeps it well out of the reach of ordinary people. Philosophy, therefore, if it is to be understood by laypeople, needs to be communicated in ordinary, relatable language. Since my interest is to, first and foremost, communicate philosophy in an approachable way, I tend to avoid technicalities as much as possible. With that said, it is not at all necessary to quibble with Weaver’s logical proofs of validity (especially because validity matters much less than soundness) or Williamson’s notion that contingentist statements can be mapped onto necessitist ones and vice versa, but that “The asymmetry favours necessitism. Every distinction contingentists can draw has a working equivalent in neutral terms, but the extra commitments of necessitism allow one to draw genuine distinctions which have no working equivalents in neutral terms. If one wants to draw those distinctions, one may have to be a necessitist” (Williamson, T.. “Necessitism, Contingentism, and Plural Quantification.” Mind 119 (2010): 657-748. 86. Web.).
Williamson and Weaver, following his cue, are both guilty of ignoring logical atomism, so ultimately, it does not matter if the validity of logical statements suggests that necessitism about mere propositions is probably true because ultimately, we are not talking about mere propositions but rather Sachverhalte, “conglomerations of objects combined with a definite structure” (Klement, Kevin, “Russell’s Logical Atomism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)). This is perhaps Weaver’s motivation for dismissing Carnap who was anti-metaphysical. It can be argued, therefore, that reinstating metaphysics or overstating its importance is necessary for any argument against naturalism and/or atheism or conversely, for Theism, to get any traction. The fact remains, however, that propositions comprising a sound logical argument are dependent on real world experiences via the senses. The proposition “there is a cat” may speak to the fact that either i) one believes they have seen a cat in whatever space they find themselves in ii) one knows and can confirm that there is a cat in their vicinity iii) there is presently a cat within ones field of vision. While I grant that propositions can speak to entirely imaginary or, at least, hypothetical entities, all propositions rely on entities we have identified in our common tongue. Therefore, statements like “there is a cat” will always rely on content not necessarily entailed within a given proposition. There is still a question as to the context of such propositions and the preciseness of what one is trying to say.
Weaver’s Composite Argument Against Naturalism and Atheism, and Its Problems
With these preliminary concerns in our rearview, I can now turn to Weaver’s composite argument and provide a few avenues for the atheist to refute his argument.
W1 Since situationspf do not exist (“I will therefore be entitled to reject…the existence of situationsPF” (Weaver, 6).), situationsC exist.
W2 Given situationsC , classical logical consequence (CLC) is the case.
W3 From W2, necessitism is true.
W4 “If necessitism is true, then ontological naturalism is false.”
W5 “Necessitism is true.”
W6 “Therefore, ontological naturalism is false” (Weaver, 15).
W7 From W6, “Necessitism is true and modal properties are indispensable to our best physical theories.”
W8 If W7, “then there is a new phenomenon of coordination (NPC).”
W9 “Necessarily, (if there is an NPC, it has an explanation).”
W10 “Necessarily, [if possibly both (atheism is true and there is an NPC), then it is not possible that the NPC has an explanation]”
C “Therefore, atheism is false” (Weaver, 18).
Setting aside that Weaver assumes that suitably precisified situations (situationspf) cannot exist and the problems he would face if just one instance of such a situation does exist, there is a way to show that even on the assumption that just classically precisified situations (situationsC) exist, it doesn’t follow that CLC holds. Weaver seems to think that CLC follows from a schema concerning mere validity: “A deductive argument is valid, just in case, there is no situation in which the premises are true and the conclusion false” (Weaver, 4). I think it is straightforwardly obvious that a typical non sequitur already violates this schema. Consider the following:
P1 If it is cloudy outside, there is a chance of precipitation.
P2 It is cloudy outside.
C Therefore, the Yankee game will be postponed.
The first two premises are true perspectively. In New York City, at this present hour, it is partly cloudy outside and there is thus, a chance of precipitation. However, the conclusion is false because the New York Yankees are not even in Spring training and it is out of the norm for them to have a regular season home game in late January. The above argument can prove true given not only at least one extra premise, but also the fact that it is not winter but spring, and that the MLB regular season is underway. This goes a long way in showing that propositions are usually missing crucial content and are true given specified context. Perhaps, then, Weaver should provide a different schema to ground CLC.
Weaver, unfortunately, does not give an adequate account of what he means by situationspf and what such situations would look like. It is enough to reiterate that the existence of even one such situation takes him back to square one. This is aside from the fact that a rejection of pluralism entails a rejection of arguments operating outside of classical logic, e.g., Plantinga’s Modal Ontological Argument, which rests of the axioms of S5 modal logic. A thorough rejection of free logical systems would limit Theists to the domain of classical logic, which will prove unforgiving since nothing like God seems operative in the real world.
Weaver’s dependence on situationsC and CLC proves problematic and is one place for an atheist to focus on. Another avenue for an atheist to take is W4 and W5. Is the notion that ontological naturalism is false conditional on necessitism being true? I do not think Weaver established that this premise is true. Furthermore, aside from exploring whether these clauses have a conditional relationship, one can simply ask whether necessitism is true. The jury is still out on whether necessitism or contingentism is the case, and there may yet be a synthesis or a handful of alternative positions that challenge both. Given the current state of the debate, I am uncommitted to either position, but I am suspicious of anyone siding with one for sake of attempting to disprove a position they already assume is false, which, in Weaver’s case, are naturalism and atheism.
In plain language, the perspective of necessitists falls flat or appears to be saying something nonsensical. Williamson outlines where disagreement lies:
For instance, a contingentist typically holds that it is contingent that there is the Thames: there could have been no such river, and in those circumstances there would have been no Thames. By contrast, a necessitist typically holds that it is necessary that there is the Thames: there could have been no such river, but in those circumstances there would still have been the Thames, a non-river located nowhere that could have been a river located in England. Thus the contingentist will insist that necessarily if there is the Thames it is a river, while the necessitist allows at most that necessarily if the Thames is located somewhere it is a river.Williamson, T.. “Necessitism, Contingentism, and Plural Quantification.” Mind 119 (2010): 657-748. 9. Web.
Contingentists deny the necessity of the Thames, whether river or not. These identity discussions extend further when one considers people. Manuel Pérez Otero explores this and tries to synthesize these two opposing point of views (see Otero, Manuel Pérez. “Contingentism about Individuals and Higher-Order Necessitism.” Theoria: An International Journal for Theory, History and Foundations of Science, vol. 28, no. 3(78), 2013, pp. 393–406. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23926328. Accessed 25 Jan. 2021.). Though Otero’s synthesis is tangential for our purposes, it shows that this binary Weaver thinks exists is one of his own making, essentially a false dichotomy. Given the issues necessitism presents for ordinary language, and the likelihood of one of its alternatives being true, it follows that necessitism is probably false. An exhaustive defense of a position I am not committed to is not at all required to show where Weaver has gone wrong.
This takes us to Weaver’s treatment of supervenience and his New Phenomenon of Coordination (NPC), which states:
Why is it that modal properties and notions enter the verisimilitudinous fundamental dynamical laws of our best and most empirically successful physical theories given that modal properties do not weakly supervene upon the physical or material? (or) How is it that the material world came to be ordered in such a way that it evolves in a manner that is best captured by modally laden physical theorizing or dynamical laws given that modal properties do not even weakly supervene upon the material and non-modal? (Weaver, 17)
If necessitism is probably false, then ontological naturalism still has a chance of being true. This is despite the fact that Weaver failed to show that the falsity of ontological naturalism is conditional on necessitism being true. A stronger route for him to have took is to argue that ontological naturalism is false iff necessitism is true because even if turns out that necessitism is true, ontological naturalism can also be true. Weaver has not established that they are mutually exclusive. Therefore, an atheist can feel no pressure at all when confronted with NPC. This is setting aside that Weaver appears to be undisturbed by the incongruity of our scientific and manifest images. One would think a reconciliation is required before proclaiming that the material world is organized via modally laden physical theories and dynamic laws that supervene, whether strongly or weakly, on the material world.
The primary issue with Weaver’s assessment is the assumption that all atheists must be committed to reductionist materialism or physicalism to be a consistent ontological naturalist. There are alternative naturalisms that easily circumvent Weaver’s NPC because such a naturalist would not be committed to any version of supervenience. As an example, this naturalist can hold, to put it as simply as possible, that scientific theories and models are merely representations. Therefore, the modality of scientific theories need not supervene on the material world at all. Given a representationalist account of scientific theories, perhaps something like a reverse supervenience is the case.
∎∀𝑥∀𝑦(∀𝐹 𝐹𝑥 ≡ 𝐹𝑦 ⟶ ∎∀R R𝑥 ≡ R𝑦 )
Necessarily for any entity x and for any entity y, [(if for any material property F, (x has F, just in case, y has F), then necessarily, for any representational property M, (x has M, just in case, y has M)].
Scientific theories and models are, in other words, more akin to impressionist paintings than a group of modally laden propositions. This is a more commonsense view in that a scientific model is a portrait of the real world. While there is a feedback between the model and the material world, in that theories have to be tested against reality, theories and models are not conceived in a vacuum. Real world observations impose the postulates of a theory or render a portrait that we call a model. Ptolemy misconstrued planetary orbits and attributed their motions to invisible spheres rather than the ellipses we are familiar with. He was not far off the mark, especially given that there is an intangible involved, namely gravity, but his impression was inexact. This is what a representationalist account of scientific theories would look like and whether something like reverse supervenience is necessary does no real harm to the account.
The last route atheists can take is in Weaver’s conflation of atheism and naturalism. Though I am sympathetic to the conflation, like Nielsen, who stated, “Naturalism, where consistent, is an atheism” (Nielsen, Kai. Naturalism and Religion. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 2001. 30. Print.), the same need not apply in vice versa. In other words, the following statement need not be the case: “atheism, where consistent, is a naturalism.” While I am also partial to that statement, even going as far as defending it in Philosophical Atheism: Counter Apologetics and Arguments For Atheism, that gods do not exist does not entail that no immaterial beings can exist. It could be the case that no iteration of god exists, but that ghosts do. Weaver’s conflation seems to rest on the assumption that naturalism is the antithesis of supernaturalism. Naturalism is also opposed to paranormal phenomena, so there can be defeaters of naturalism that are not also defeaters of atheism. In other words, a definitive proof of the paranormal does not debase the thesis that gods do not exist. A definitive proof of one’s great grandma roaming the estate does not imply that God or any other god undeniably exists. Nielsen’s statement implies only that a disproof of atheism is also a disproof of naturalism, but this does not work in the other direction.
Ultimately, in light of the composite argument above, one that I think is true to Weaver’s overall argument, fails to disprove ontological naturalism and atheism. There is far too much controversy in a number of places throughout his argument to regard it as convincing. The argument needs to be critically amended or entirely abandoned because in its present form, it does not meet its end. My rebuttal provides fertile ground for further exploration with respect to necessitism, contigentism, and any possible syntheses or alternatives, in addition to what is required to contradict naturalism and atheism. God, whether the idea Theist philosophers defend, or a more common concept tied to a particular religion, is still resolutely resigned to silence, hiddenness, and outright indifference. Therefore, Theists have their own onus that must go beyond even a successful argument against naturalism and/or atheism.
By R.N. Carmona
“A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.” — Francis Bacon
Even when philosophy was considered the handmaiden of theology, this statement was patently false. One need only consider the methods of philosophy to disabuse oneself of the notion that depth in philosophy convinces one that religious claims are true or more accurately, that Christian claims are true. Philosophy, first and foremost, is a pre-Christian enterprise. It may not appear that way because works that were not palatable to Christian sentiments were destroyed. Carlo Rovelli outlines this 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.Rovelli, Carlo. Reality is Not What it Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity. New York: Riverhead, 2018. 32-33. Print.
The suppression of philosophical ideas that do not blend well with Christianity persists today, albeit in a different form. Since Christianity does not have the sociopolitical power it once had, these tendencies are confined to Christian publications, institutions, and of course, churches. What one encounters in all of these areas is the Christian propensity to overstate philosophical schools or theories that appear to support Christian claims coupled with a disingenuous presentation or outright censorship of competing thought. This is how one gets online Christians, with little to no college experience, professing an immoveable foundationalism, usually stemming from washed up philosophers turned theologians or apologists, like Paul Moser and Alvin Plantinga. Given the suppression of the competition, Christians like this often do not realize how thoroughly retrograde their assertions are. Moser’s opponents recognized, over three decades ago, that foundationalism was out of fashion and that Moser’s iteration was flawed (e.g., Laurence Bonjour, Kevin Possin, Mark Timmons). That is more true today than it was then. Then this sort of Christian will arrogantly claim that Moser’s arguments against the competition were ironclad all while ignoring that in order for foundationalism to remain out of fashion, his arguments must have been defeated by other philosophers.
Wesley Wildman, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Theology, and Ethics at Boston University, states:
The kind of epistemic foundationalism that has prevailed in most modern Western philosophy has now mostly collapsed. Its artless insistence on certainty in the foundations of knowledge proved unsuitable even for mathematics and natural sciences, and it was a particularly inapt standard for big-question philosophy.Wildman, Wesley J. Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry: Envisioning a Future For The Philosophy of Religion. State University of New York Press. Albany, NY. 2010. 11. Print.
He adds that since Peirce, Dewey, and later, Quine, a thorough rejection of foundationalism was followed by a fallibilist epistemological framework. This is how philosophy proceeds in the modern day. The history of philosophy should be enough to disabuse such Christians of their tendency to think philosophy was and still is beholden to theology. Unfortunately, it does not suffice. In that same vein, the history of philosophy ought to remind them of the origin of science, in the works of natural philosophers like Boyle, Galileo, Harvey, Kepler, and Newton. Perhaps that would make them more capable of taking C.S. Peirce’s timeless advice:
What I would recommend is that every person who wishes to form an opinion concerning fundamental problems, should first of all make a complete survey of human knowledge, should take note of all the valuable ideas in each branch of science, should observe in just what respect each has been successful and where it has failed, in order that in the light of the thorough acquaintance so attained of the available materials for a philosophical theory and of the nature and strength of each, he may proceed to the study of what the problem of philosophy consists in, and of the proper way of solving it.Charles Sanders Peirce (1891. “The Architecture of Theories”, The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings (1867-1893). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992. 292. Print.
There is a sense in which philosophy underpins every other discipline and as such, breadth in philosophy is not only a knowledge of philosophy of language, mind, religion, science, and time, in addition to epistemology, ethics, metaphysics, ontology, and so on, but also a knowledge of areas of inquiry that make use of philosophical methodology, particularly logic, reasoning, and the clarification of important distinctions. Furthermore, if the aim of an enterprise is to locate the truth of a matter, then this should be of interest to anyone who purports to have a real enthusiasm for philosophy. To ignore the conclusions of other disciplines is to behave in a patently unphilosophical manner, but I digress.
Wildman is perhaps one of the more important thinkers in the philosophy of religion because he is at the forefront of defining how thinkers in his field will proceed. He recognizes already, unlike Christian theologians and philosophers, that philosophy of religion, as well as philosophy in general, have been divorced from Christianity and apologetics. Philosophers of religion are moving away from Christianized treatments of the issues they discuss, as well as the search for a personal, anthropomorphic deity. In defining the prominent theological traditions, Wildman makes it abundantly clear that the central arguments that got these traditions started, as Kant showed, do not prove the existence of God. This applies most especially to any variant of the Cosmological Argument.
He says, for instance, of the ontotheological tradition that if the entire tradition were based on the ontological argument, “most philosophers would probably consign it to the dustbin of history — and not without reason, despite the ballooning contemporary literature on the subject” (Ibid., 251). He goes on to say that the tradition is far broader and thrives separately from the ontological argument, specifically in that it does not rely on the argument’s anthropomorphic thinking. Similarly, of the cosmotheological tradition, Wildman expresses frustration resulting from the stubborn refusal to field nontheistic arguments. He adds: “Many religious philosophers nowadays recognize that the cosmotheological approach does not produce results that are immediately applicable to the religious beliefs of living theistic religions” (Ibid., 258). Therefore, this makes the tradition useful for nontheistic approaches as well. Wildman makes similar observations as it pertains to the physicotheological, pyschotheological, axiotheological, and other traditions he discusses.
Philosophers of religion are taking Nielsen’s advice, indeed their only recourse at this point after the obstinate insistence on the part of Christians to keep repeating these arguments as though they have yet to encounter any defeaters. This is precisely my gripe with Christians on social media. They have been so taken by Bacon’s statement that they think there is truth to it and that moreover, depth and breadth are equivalent. Further still, depth in a particular author that convinces you is not depth in philosophy. Even if a Christian can name ten philosophers that align with their views, they are doing nothing but indulging their confirmation bias and speaking to the fact that since roughly 30 percent of the world population is Christian, it is then no surprise that a good percentage of scholars harbor Christian sentiments or are sympathetic to Christianity. With respect to the arguments underlying the traditions Wildman discusses, Nielsen states:
It is a waste of time to rehearse arguments about the proofs or evidences for God or immortality. There are no grounds—or at least no such grounds—for belief in God or belief that God exists and/or that we are immortal. Hume and Kant (perhaps with a little rational reconstruction from philosophers like J.L. Mackie and Wallace Matson) pretty much settled that. Such matters have been thoroughly thrashed out and there is no point of raking over the dead coals. Philosophers who return to them are being thoroughly retrograde.Nielsen, Kai. Naturalism and Religion. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 2001. 399. Print.
Depth and breadth in philosophy would incline a man’s mind to a wide range of possibilities. Atheism and theism are not the only options on the table. Depth and breadth would also disabuse any would-be philosopher of the tendency to think in binaries. When philosophers speak of distinctions, there are not always two choices on offer. Sometimes what muddles the pursuit of proper distinctions is the fact that there are several options to consider. This is often lost on Christians, especially the less initiated who spend their time engaging in sophistry on social media. If that were not the case, they would realize, without much in the way of effort, that the notion of a personal being is utterly at odds with a deity who sparks the universe to then supervise its evolution via physical laws and eventually, evolutionary drivers that finally and ultimately result in his desired creative end: humankind. The notion is incongruous with the virtually instantaneous creation described in Genesis. That is setting aside that the fine-tuning of the parameters just right for life is owed to the gradual freezing and entropy of the universe. There is no indication that the parameters were decided from the start and as such, the idea of a silent creator of this sort is indistinguishable from the conclusion that the universe simply does not require a creator.
Ultimately, breadth and depth in philosophy disabuses one’s mind of binaries. Belief in a personal god or the lack thereof are not the only options on offer. The fact that I identify as an atheist is a consequence of what the evidence seems to dictate. Moreover, the ad hoc inclusion of an agent, especially as it pertains to causation, always struck me as suspicious. That is, until I realized that causation and teleology have long diverged. Therefore, if a thing or an event or an entire universe can be explained without recourse to an agent of any kind, it is unnecessary to attach such an agent to a self-contained and consistent explanation. It is precisely because I realize that the inclusion of a god in any mode of explanation is simply inadvisable that I identify as an atheist. However, since my mind is free of binaries and confirmation bias and other cognitive shortcomings that will hinder anyone from finding the truth of a matter, I am, as I have always been, open to being wrong. Like Wildman though, I realize that if there is a hand behind the curtain, it is unlike anything that most modern religions describe and furthermore, it may be vastly inappropriate to tarnish this being with the monicker of god. Perhaps the concept is so invariably tied to the Abrahamic monotheisms, that there is no real way to isolate the concept. This would imply that philosophers of religion are in pursuit of a sufficiently advanced alien race that may be simulating a universe for purposes of understanding philosophical big-questions like volition in higher sentient beings, consciousness, universals, mathematics, and so on. Or perhaps they are perpetually in pursuit of themselves, the proverbial cat spinning after its own tail.
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.