Saturday, October 18, 2008

Holy gibberish!

A review of "Naturalism" by Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro

A theist friend recommended this book as a corrective to my anti-theistic enlightenment philosophy, also termed naturalism. "... this book, in my view, completely exposes and reveals how a materialistic world-view undermines and destroys the very possibility of reason." The book is part of a series called "Interventions", in the sense of classic theistic apologia, intervening to help believers fend off skepticism and doubt. The authors are philosophers and evidently aspiring theologians at small colleges, and the blurbs on the back likewise praise the book with statements like "Anglo-Saxon naturalists are not rationalist but ... are, in fact, the enemies of reason ..." and "Patiently, gently, but in the end decisively, Goetz and Taliaferro demolish the dogmas of naturalism." and "In a day when theologians and Christian leaders feel bullied by scientific naturalism, this book is a must-read."

Very well- this presents a most compelling challenge! The book has only 122 pages in five chapters which introduce naturalism and then attack it in various ways. Their definition of naturalism is perfectly adequate: "... the philosophy that everything that exists is a part of nature and that there is no reality beyond or outside of nature." The authors concentrate on one of its more immediate aspects- the mystery of consciousness, or in theistic terms, the soul. Far from exploring the current scientific status of consciousness, however, they delve right into why it might be reasonable to think we have a soul, where it is, how large it is, how it interacts with our bodies, and similar headscratchers. It is in essence a defense of vitalism a mere century or two after its overthrow. Thus much of the book feels like a time machine, sending the reader back some 400 years to a time when scholastics racked their brains with such questions. Here is a sampling:

"Hence, it does not seem the least bit implausible to say that a soul's thinking, choosing, experiencing pain, etc., are explainable in terms of its having the power to think and choose and exercising them, and its having the capacity to experience pain and its being actualized." (p.69).

"In response, Sosa might claim that no Cartesian who (for the reasons cited in the previous paragraph) thinks he is a nonspatial entity can reasonably believe that he causally interacts with a certain physical body, without also having a knowledge of a noncausal pairing relation in which he stands to that body and that makes it causally accessible to him. It seems to us, however, that such a claim is not more obvious than the nonobvious claim that a spatial relation is a necessary condition of causal interaction between two entities." (p.64).

"We believe that Sosa's account of causation is largely mistaken. Just as a spatial relation is not the individuating principle of the substantial objects that are its terms, but those objects are intrinsically individuated, so also a spatial relation is not the individuating principle of the relevant causal properties possessed by the terms of the causal relation, but these are individuated intrinsically and possessed essentially by their bearers. Given the causal ontology summarized in the previous section, a causal relation obtains or is primarily a function of the causal power and capacity of the agent and patient objects respectively." (p.59).

As English and as logic, this is utter gibberish. These arguments occupy all of chapter three and good portions of the rest of the book. Their very incoherence is a sure sign of their content- that the authors, and indeed all their predecessors in theology, have no idea how to analyze supernaturalism except through dogma. At least Descartes had the rigor to propose the pineal gland as the locus of mind-brain interaction.

The authors are capable of some lucidity, however, such as in the last chapter, titled "The argument from reason". Here, they articulately set up a straw man- that naturalists do not believe in mental contents. Thus any idea that naturalists might have is self-refuting, because ideas are mental contents! It is hard to express how infantile this argument is. There have been precious few thinkers of any stripe who have rejected mental contents entirely. Even B. F. Skinner, the leader of extreme 1950's behaviorism which discounted mental events for experimental convenience, did not discount them theoretically. And contemporary neuroscience is finally gaining access to exactly the mental contents that have previously been so elusive, via fMRI scanners and the like. These methods continue to plumb the causal relations between our thoughts, which the authors would have us believe have no cause that can be traced in material reality. The point of naturalism with regard to consciousness is, then, not that mental contents do not exist, but that they are identical with physical events that are possible (in principle, and increasingly in practice) to observe from the outside.

This last chapter begins:

"As we explained in the introduction, our ordinary view of ourselves includes the idea that we ultimately explain our undetermined choices in terms of purposes. In other words, according to our ordinary understanding of ourselves, our choices have ultimate and irreducible teleological explanations." (p.117)

This is a fair synopsis of the entire book, primarily concerned as it is with consciousness, and with the naturalistic dismissal of the theory of "soul" as a putative explanation. It is a rich sentence indeed. First, note the word "irreducible", which means not capable of being reduced or analyzed by way of the reductionist program of normal science (as well as being a faint shout-out to the intelligent design movement). Claiming that something is irreducible is like claiming that something (say, evolution) is inexplicable by natural mechanisms. It is merely an argument from ignorance, since once the phenomenon IS explained and reduced by someone not overly impressed with the word "irreducible", then suddenly it is reducible after all. This has happened with chemistry, with the vitalist theory of life, with electricity, with disease, and countless other phenomena including, famously, evolution.

Secondly, note the obeisance to "ordinary understanding", which is often mentioned as the author's touchstone. This is exactly what science and reason labors to improve upon. If we were to take ordinary understanding for our guide to understanding anything, be it the Earth's movement, the sun's power source, or the secret of heredity, we should be in a sorry and benighted state indeed. The exact same is true of the study of consciousness- a problem that all agree is as yet unsolved, but which has important logical bounds as well as an active program of research that will doubtless within the next few decades bear a great deal of fruit (see Buzsaki for the most promising current approach to this question). For instance, the conservation laws of physics, rather painstakingly arrived at by way of theory and decades of observation to the umpteenth decimal place, support what the authors term "causal closure" and rule out interactions between reality and un-reality, which the authors smoothly call "interactions between entities".

Also, the randomness of the quantum world is just as random as the classical randomness of statistical mechanics, likewise ruling out a theistic thumb on the quantum scale, as briefly suggested by the authors. And, of course there is the physical evidence of complete coincidence between minds and brains- the direct effects that strokes, surgery, transcranial magnetic stimulation, and drugs have on both coincidentally. Indeed it is ironic that these authors choose to attack naturalism on this weakest of fronts, where research is rapidly closing in on detailed brain/mind mechanisms. It is a classic "god of the gaps" approach to theism that stands little chance of surviving the decade, let alone the century.

Thirdly, a focus on teleological explanations is another theme. The authors posit that our actions are ultimately explicable by our teleological "purposes" which are "undetermined". This is a simple failure to grapple with the details of how minds (or other real processes) work. Ever since Freud (and many more before him) it has been known that we are not the masters of our own house. Our purposes do not spring from nowhere, but have clear antecedents in our instincts, in data arriving from our senses, and in past decisions developed for past problems. Our minds are a roiling, rich bed of causes and effects, some of which are reported into consciousness as thoughts. When making a decision, do we operate in consciousness? No- we sleep on it, or we discuss it with others, or crunch the numbers on paper, or a solution just "pops" into our heads, or any number of other forms of thinking, none of which follow the ordinary intuition of pure purposive consciousness. What cognitive scientists have painstakingly realized is that far from being the locomotive of our cogitation, consciousness is the caboose, as detailed by Daniel Wegner in "The illusion of conscious will". Consciousness is indeed a near-magical phenomenon that creates an apparently seamless video/sensation of our subjective reality, complete with time-adjustments to appear as real-time. But it can easily be demonstrated, by sudden reflex actions, or by detailed analysis of the visual pathway, that thoughts enter consciousness after they have been generated elsewhere in the brain, without exception. That is also the lesson of brain scanning studies, where recently, researchers have been able to predict physical actions of subjects before they themselves were aware of their own decisions.

This fixation on teleology is actually another version of the argument from ignorance. One might just as well say that computers' prodigies of computation are explained by teleological purposes. Suppose a bank is balancing its books at the end of a week, and its computers work overnight to produce the necessary reconciliation and reports. We could say, following these authors, that the computers do their work out of a "purpose" to balance the books. But that would not even be an attempt at explaining how they do so. As with computers, so with brains, and just because the details of the brain's computations are currently not as accessible does not mean that there is no "how" to its operations (or that its purposes arise from magical exterior sources, instead of from its inputs and programs).

The book is not, however, solely a defense of the soul. It also touches on other highlights of theism, such as morals and straight theology, mentioning Richard Dawkins prominently as it goes along. Usually, the arguments arrive at their end by bare assertion, reminiscent of tracts by the Watchtower society:

"Second, what of Russell's claim that it is ridiculous to believe that the well-being or good of human beings could be the purpose for which God creates our world? We find nothing silly in the least about this idea. ... In the Christian Scriptures one finds writers like Saint Paul noting that the entire creation figuratively longs eagerly for the perfect happiness of human beings so that it too will be liberated from its decay and corruption." (p.101)

"Anselm of Canterbury and Ralph Cudworth (to pick two remote and otherwise quite different figures) held that god's cognition of the world and all its aspects did not require bodily organs." (p.112)

How this relates to reason or argument is not clear. But it is interesting to note what the authors make of the problem of morals and evil, which they take to be another Achilles' heel of naturalism.

"These values are surely shared by theists and naturalists, but in broad or strict naturalism it is not clear how one can establish normative values on the basis of processes that are ultimately thoroughly unconscious, nonnormative, and contingent in nature." (p.95)

"After science, we still need help deciding what to value; what is right and wrong, good and evil, how to behave as we cope. The end of life still lies in its meaning, the domain of religion and ethics." (p.92, quote from Rolston)

Why do values need to be normative at all? Theists desire normative values and authoritative meaning. They are uncomfortable with a world where meaning is up for grabs and morals a matter of reason (which is to say, a world where humans are free) (see articles by Jonathan Haidt). Their leaders want to preserve their franchise as authorities over both morals and meaning, as certified by special relations with the divine. But as pointed out by many, including a recent book by Susan Neiman (Moral clarity), it has been hundreds of years since intellectuals took such certification seriously. The history of human morals, both religious and otherwise, follows the same difficult path from the base and primitive to whatever heights of general concern and compassion that we currently espouse. This progress is testimony to human self-knowledge, imagination, and reason, which are the true ingredients of morals as we decide what would make a better world out of the one we have at hand. Religious thinkers and prophets have often advanced this work of imagining a better world, and we should be generous enough to credit their personal inspiration and dedication rather than the unnameable, unknowable, and incomprehensible phantasms whom they claim to front (by way of serious misunderstandings of their own psyches, incidentally).

Lastly, the cosmological argument is trotted out for sake of completeness:

"If naturalism accounts for events within the cosmos but cannot account for the cosmos itself, why not consider a worldview that explains the structure and being of the cosmos itself in a singular teleological reality?" (p.85)

Why not indeed? Because the proper reply to ignorance is knowledge, not fantasy. We deserve explanations that illuminate rather than enshroud in deeper obfuscation. After being led astray by intuition so many times, one would think that humanity has learned to demand higher standards for answers, especially to the "big questions".

For such a short book, "Naturalism" packs a truly awe-inspiring collection of incomprehensible, tortured, and just plain bad arguments. It is testament indeed to the power of naturalism to get such an inchoate response touted as a devastating critique.


  1. Thanks Burk. For an equally critical review of Goetz and Taliaferro's book, plus a four part exchange with them, see Keep up the good work!


    Tom Clark
    Center for Naturalism

  2. Great job. I was so desperate to write my essay and with your help I've finally managed.