Friday, June 5, 2009

Tempest in a nonspatial entity

Reply to Eric Reitan's defense of Goetz and Taliaferro

I've been honored by the attention of the author of the book "Is God a Delusion?", one of the many replies to Richard Dawkins and the new atheists. Eric Reitan is a philosopher and professor at Oklahoma State, and blogs at The piety that lies between, whose title is a reference to Plutarch, as well as to one founder of liberal theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher.

He expresses some appreciation and differences with my post on the spiritual atheist, on my post against theology, and most incisively, on my review of the book Naturalism by Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro (G&T) which defends the idea of a supernatural soul. I'll reply to his points about this book here, to bring this discussion to a higher level, as it deserves.

I'll grant that I did not fathom all the jargon swirling within this book. I quoted three instances of what I believed to be egregious nonsense, and Reitan maintains that it is just when the jargon gets thickest that the work is most lucid. Seeing as he believes the purpose of the book is to "jar academics back to work", it should to be accessible to them- not just to specialists, but especially to the naturalists who wear the supposed blinders that predispose them against supernaturalism, such as myself, for instance.

I would not represent myself as a philosopher but as an educated layperson and scientist, capable of dealing with considerable thickets of jargon. I also labor under not having the book at hand, having borrowed it from the library (but will make some use of G&T's responses online). All the same, I think I can still say that G&T were egregiously unclear in an area that is, frankly, not rocket science.

To propose supernatural entities is to free oneself from any logical bounds: whether point-like or distributed, whether intuitive or counter-intuitive, there is no restriction at all on one's theorizing in this area, other than the points at which it contacts reality- the presumed interactions that the nonspatial entity (soul) has with our brains- causal, confined to one individual, confined in time, etc. I do not think one can point to any necessary condition of G&T's supernatural model that is not necessitated by empirical facts. Logic can not create bounds in this sphere- the nonspatial entity could be any size, any where, have any properties whatsoever, as long as it does not violate the empirically evident consciousness functions.

I could just as well propose that Peter Pan pushes around the earth's tectonic plates. There is no end of jargon I could devise to "clarify" how this might take place. But without engaging in the science at the reality-based end of this interaction, (as G&T do not do in the case of neuroscience), I would have no logical bounds on my models, and would be free to write another book about how I now think it is not Peter Pan after at all, but Poseidon who is responsible.

The basic point is that there is a reason to take the naturalist position- it eschews fantasy in deference to reality. That humans (especially children) are congenitally prone to jump to conclusions (or assumptions), including the wide-open field of supernatural conclusions, is no reason to give them philosophical credence. G&T in their web responses reiterate that "This commitment drives the naturalist’s world view and leads naturalists to question and deny the reality of how things appear to ordinary human beings." As mentioned in my original review, this is no philosophical justification for their premise, despite the smoothly expressed "reality" of this ordinary view. Ordinary human beings regard the sun as travelling through the sky and species as fixed types. Ordinary understanding does need to be explained (and corrected), but it is not a source of explanation, especially when conflicting so flagrantly with other logic and observation.

So the claim of doing "metaphysics" is not helpful in freeing the philosopher from dealing with reality. Either the system proposed agrees with reality, or it is an idea untethered from it. The test is empirical (defining "truthiness", to put it in lay terms), and every empirical indication we have is that when you chop off someone's head, their mind disappears promptly as well. Ditto for countless smaller interventions by drugs, lesions, strokes, electricity, etc. that affect aspects of consciousness.

Mathematics has a similar flexibility- one can make a mathematics of any assumptions one likes, and then strive to create a self-consistent system out of it. If that system is truly self-consistent (by way of proofs, etc.), then it stands a chance of describing aspects of the real world, since the real world is by necessity self-consistent. But that alone is no guarantee, the final test still being empirical. If the assumptions one gives oneself are completely free and without bound, however, then one is quite likely to end up in a morass of meaningless, or at any rate unnecessary, jargon and tangled thought, counting angels on the head of a pin.

Jargon aside, I think the first quote I pointed to from the book remains indefensible:
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).
Reitan calls the thinking behind this "neo-Aristotelian" and a "'causal ontology' that depends on a metaphysics of 'substances' with powers that derive from their 'natures'--thematically attuned to an older scholastic metaphysics". Why don't we use Aristotelian assumptions and scholastic metaphysics in modern thought outside of theology? Because they are completely vacuous. Why were the scholastics barren in their natural philosophy over hundreds of years? Because these assumptions don't productively work for anything having to do with outer reality, however closely they may cleave to psychological reality.

The basic point is that one can not just grant oneself assumptions. One has to examine, test, and judge one's assumptions at the deepest possible level. The naturalist shies from accepting a premise that is not reality-based and logic-based. The supernaturalist accepts "common understanding", causal open-ness, non-necessity of evidence, god, and other positions as starting points, each of which is philosophically impeachable. While this may count as just another pair of interpretive glasses in Reitan's book, there seems little reason to go down that path if the glasses are known to be mirrors instead of lenses. Putting on questionable or extravagant assumptions may be appropriate when exploring and teaching philosophical history, but it is no way to do philosophy.

For example, basic thermodynamics necessitates causal closure. The first law of thermodynamics about the conservation of energy is not just an assumption about reality, it is an observation that energy, in the forms of mass, energy, and information, can not be created from nothing and is interconvertable. There are no exceptions in the form of perpetual motion machines, etc. drawing data, energy, mass, etc. from outside reality (possibly excepting the origin of the universe itself, about which we are as yet profoundly ignorant). Thus to breezily propose causal open-ness and souls as supernatural entities that interact with brains, tell us what to do, etc. flies in the face of the most basic bedrock of physics, both theoretical and observed. The naturalist presupposition in this instance is not an option on the metaphysical smorgasbord, but a rather hard-won piece of empirical data.

Let me turn to some more specific notes Reitan provides on G&T:

For example, it is argued (by Sosa and others) that in order for A to causally influence B, A must first stand in a NONcausal relation with B that explains how and why A affects B as it does rather than something else (or nothing at all).
My understanding of this was that the non-causal relation was perhaps a term for a conceptual relation- one in our heads by which we make sense of the two entities in some narrative or model about their relationship which is causal in the real world. I may very well be wrong about this ... hard to tell. But it seems axiomatic that if there is a causal relation to physical objects, it should be empirically detectable, and that this would be the locus of investigation and controversy, not the armchair science that G&T offer. To reiterate, as far as the non-spatial, supernatural sphere of speculation goes, there are no intrinsic limits- the relations of A and B have no possible bounds or preconditions, interacting magically as far as we know.

[PS- After posting, I realized that I had mistaken this argument. Put concretely, two gears need to be physically close (noncausal relation) before they can induce movement in each other (causal relation). For the case of a nonspatial entity with no physical properties, one would be using purely fictive resources to describe these relations, especially if one failed to even attempt to account concretely for how the brain physically receives the signal. One might just as well resort to Star Trek tech-talk and claim that the soul and body interact over subspace (noncausal relation) by exchanging tachion pulses (causal relation).]

The passages you call gibberish all have the following in common: they presuppose their alternative metaphysical assumptions, in terms of causal powers rooted in a thing's nature. These alternative assumptions are in an important sense at odds with the assumptions that shape contemporary naturalism, assumptions which seek to understand things not in terms of a 'nature' conceived in Aristotelian terms (invoking the idea that a thing is a combination of FORM and MATTER, and that the nature of a thing is given by its FORM), but in terms of the interaction and organization of constituent physical parts--that is, reductionistically and spatio-temporally.
Right- I recognize that, but as above, it is worthwhile to analyze these assumptions at point blank, however deep and "embedded" they may be. Is thermodynamics correct? That is what naturalists assume, based not on scripture or common understanding, but on empiricism. Conversely, do we have reliable access to supernatural phenomena of any kind, or to things called "forms"? Not outside of our intuition, (aka "common understanding"), whose defects and predilections are all too obvious to the student of art, psychology, and comparative religion. Indeed the naturalistic world view and scientific method were primarily a psychological achievement, withdrawing the many projections elaborated in theology and prior philosophy and substituting for them critique by experiment and reason.

If you bring this latter metaphysic TO G&T's arguments, you are not merely begging the question but wearing a set of interpretive lenses which make it impossible to understand WHAT they are saying (and hence impossible to even begin the process of adequately assessing it).
I would be happy to grant that given all their assumptions, they make perfect, if extremely convoluted, sense. What their argument boils down to is that, given the assumption that we have souls and that super-nature exists, then we have souls with indeterminate properties and naturalism begins to look pretty silly. The argument is not at all whether their conclusions follow from their assumptions, but whether their assumptions make any sense, by the metric I hope we all share, which is congruence with reality, critically considered.

Here is a quote from web responses by G&T:
"We respectfully beg to differ. We never said that we posit the existence of the soul to fill an explanatory gap. Rather, we argued that there must be an explanatory gap in the physical world, given the existence of the soul and its choices to act. We are first convinced that the soul exists and makes libertarian choices for purposes and then go on to explain to our readers that the soul’s existence and causal activity implies that there must be a gap in the physical explanatory story."

I think it is pretty clear that they are going about this backwards. It is no surprise that if you posit souls, then the regular order of natural explanation leaves something to be desired. It is they who are not examining their assumptions, other than to lamely claim that they are following "common understandings".

The inescapable premise, it seems to me, is that science cannot discern whether there is more to reality than science can discern.

So, if we want to figure out what overarching metaphysics we should adopt, we need other considerations besides the scientific facts.
Here I have to disagree. The statement implies that reality can be defined in a way that exceeds "facts". But what would that difference be? G&T try to treat our common intuitions as facts of the highest order, from which we can conclude the existence of super-nature. But what of all the other facts that belie that same conclusion? Isn't this simply the privileging of one set of selected observations over a much more rigorous set of observations, based on their intimacy and affect?

In my view, their achievement lies in something else: reminding us that there is a research program here, and that a comprehensive worldview should be assessed not merely in terms of its 'fit' with science but with the totality of human experience, including the experience of ourselves as agents who act for reasons.
Indeed, this is where a truly scientific research program on human reasoning and volition will tell a great deal. My take on that research is that the intuitive ideas we have about will and authorship are being (or have already been) replaced by a paradigm that will explain them in a productive fashion- not explaining them away, but giving concrete accounts of their origin, mechanism, and role without impairing their subjective enjoyment. Thus one more long-cherished intuitive idea will go the way of so many before.

With that, I'll finish and return to the original topic of love and agree that the mystical religious experience generates in us love for the world, which is now so desperately needed. We needn't ask whether it loves us back- it might have a hard time doing so at this moment of ecological peril. In that respect the atheist may even agree with the doctrine of original sin- regarded as a perpetual duty we as conscious beings have to safeguard the unconscious source of our being from harm- especially including that harm caused by our own existence. Our consciousness is also our main hope, however- an expensive, hard-fought, rare, and precious achievement which may yet be of greater benefit to ourselves and our fellow creatures.


  1. "not explaining them away, but giving concrete accounts of their origin, mechanism, and role without impairing their subjective enjoyment."

    Good point. Cries of "reductionism!" are not the result of observation, but of the attitude of the offended. Observation reduces nothing. In the same vein, however, a scientist might maintain the same approach to religion as they would to humor, art, sports or sex. Giving ever more detailed descriptions of their mechanism and role, "without impairing their subjective enjoyment."

    I tend to agree with you regarding naturalism. Logic is wholly contingent on the inter-connectedness of all things (naturalism).

    However, as a "religion-friendly" naturalist, I would ask a scientist - Is it possible to fully measure the lake while we're swimming in it?

  2. "Is it possible to fully measure the lake while we're swimming in it?"

    Yes, it is, if one asks one's friendly surveyor to do so. Scientists do not as a rule study their own brains, but those of others, and coming up with a description of how consciousness works is going to rely on this approach too, for all the millennia spent in introspection. What it will mean to describe the subjective experience in such terms is not clear yet, but in the case of the sun circling the earth, the experience remains the same- we only have a new (larger) conceptual frame by which to intellectually interpret it.

  3. I'm not so sure I agree, but I think it's a worthy goal.

    We are a part of the universe. Even the act of observation becomes a player in affecting outcomes.

    Once again, it is a worthy goal that we should strive for, but I think there will always be room for intuitive searching and introspection in the pursuit of knowledge.

  4. I should add that "intuitive searching" is dangerous when it seeks to supersede observation. But respect for observation does not mean that intuitive searching should be done away with. How would a scientist find the motivation to formulate a hypothesis without it?

  5. Hi, Steven- I agree completely. I have the deepest respect for meditation, art, introspection, psychology .. the study of man. And creativity is critical to all science too, as you. say. Introspection tells us what it is like to be us in all its subjective richness and diversity, yet it does not tell us what the mechanism behind that being is- it simply can't.

    For one thing, our design is strongly outer-directed. We have great sense organs for sight, smell, etc, but poor ones for internal states. For all the complexity of our construction and workings, hunger amounts to the vaguest sensation- it is never going to tell us how the stomach works. All the introspection in the world won't tell us how the brain works either. It just isn't built that way.

    So cultivated consciousness comes in two quite complementary forms- the didactic, intellectual consciousness of how the world works and our place in it, complemented by subjective consciousness of the range of human experience, of empathy for others and spirituality, of how to get along with one's own unconscious, however it works. Both are deeply valuable and valid in their appropriate ways.

    Perhaps this is an alternate formulation of the "overlapping magisteria" idea in a way makes a little more sense to me than Gould's original one, returning to a basic subjective/objective distinction.

  6. Woops- make that "non-overlapping"!

  7. Excellent! I agree completely. 3rd person (objective) and 1st person(subjective) experience can complement each other and keep each other in check. Balance.

    I use 1st and 3rd person because I feel that they don't have the connotation that "subjective" and "objective" have - namely that they are possible states to completely achieve. The terminology I prefer implies (to me at least) that one is just taking precedence, not that the other is completely absent.

    And please understand that my feeling that complete 3rd person mastery of the universe is impossible, because we are 1st person players, is not a critique of 3rd person study. Heck no. We need 3rd person, critical thinking desperately.

    One reason I invoke the term "god" is because of the 1st person side of things. After a "deep" experience, or meditation or whatnot, I feel the term "god" more rightly describes the experience because of the personal sense of the word.

    Stepping back from the word "god" to me is casting my 1st person experience into a 3rd person light. That's not to say everyone needs "god". What is IS. But how do I describe the warm, overflowing feelings? The hope and feeling that all will be well? A 3rd person discussion is totally fine with me (serotonin, neurology, psychology, etc.), but it doesn't negate the 1st person experience (god).

    Dropping "god" for me is kind of like trying to score with your wife by discussing the mating habits of humans from the perspective of an evolutionary biologist. It might work in the classroom, but not in the bedroom!

  8. "So cultivated consciousness comes in two quite complementary forms- the didactic, intellectual consciousness of how the world works and our place in it, complemented by subjective consciousness of the range of human experience, of empathy for others and spirituality, of how to get along with one's own unconscious, however it works. Both are deeply valuable and valid in their appropriate ways."

    Have you read "The Universe in a Single Atom" by the Dalai Lama? This is quite similar to his thesis.

  9. My thoughts in response to this post are now on my blog. Since I don't know how to create a link when writing a comment on another blog, I will simply offer the url: