Category Archives: Apologetics

Giving up the House to Live in the Shed: One Reason Why I Am not an Atheist

shack

 

Recently Debilis, who runs the blog Fide Dubitandum (which I have plugged in the past), announced that he was retiring from blogging. His reason for doing so (which you can read here) is perfectly understandable, and I wish him the best of luck going forward.

Though Debilis discussed many insightful and engaging topics on his blog there is one that has really stuck with me. Over the past year or so I’ve found myself reading blogs written by people who are passionately atheist. Some were once religious, and strongly so, and it is those individuals who give me the most pause about my own faith. I have often thought that there are few stronger arguments, at an emotional level, than the statement “I once thought just as you thought, yet here I am now and I know better.” It’s not blogs that are written by people who were once loosely or vaguely religious that bother me, but those written by individuals who held almost the same beliefs as myself, and held them with seemingly as much intelligence and passion. Strangely enough these individuals do not have to make much of an argument for me to find myself affected. I begin to wonder whether I will be where they are now someday. It makes me doubt my own faith more than most arguments. But, of course, they come bearing arguments as well. Arguments that I have answers for, but whose existence makes me wonder “Am I just fabricating justifications for my own faith?”

But when these thoughts and feelings come if I am wise I am reminded of what C. S. Lewis first taught me, before I had reason to doubt, and which Debilis has reminded me of, now in the midst of my doubt. What Debilis has reminded me of most is that atheism (specifically naturalism) raises many good questions but does not have many good answers. Most atheists are content to tear down religion and leave the debris where it lies rather than build anything of substance. Atheists often make very strong points about the problems with my own philosophy, but when I examine their philosophy it is in even worse shape. Atheists rail against the cruelty and immorality in the Old Testament, but when naturalism is examined we see that it claims that cruelty and immorality are relative concepts that have no objective value. In the morning they explain that no good god would require a sacrifice on the cross, and in the afternoon they solemnly teach that “good” is an irrational concept that only corresponds to societal behaviors which have been naturally selected as advantageous for the survival of the species. With one breath they implore us to rise up against the pastors and priests and free our minds, and with the next breath they point out that none of us are  actually free to think anything at all. Atheists complain that the house of Christ is misshapen, that the beams are rotted by hypocrisy, that the foundation is built on a primitive superstitious ground, and that the floor plan does not leave enough room for tolerance and understanding. They count the flaws in construction and maintenance and present a list of defects that can be quite compelling. But when I come to visit the house of Atheism I find that it is a rough one room shanty, it’s roof full of the holes of determinism, it’s foundation was hastily constructed in the swamp of naturalism, and that it does not have enough room for any non-relativistic morality, much less tolerance.

Debilis was always ready to listen to atheists criticize religion; but he always demanded that they produce something of substance themselves. He would ask them to put forward their own metaphysic for critique as well. Most were either unwilling or unable. “I do not need to put forward my own home to show that yours in unlivable,” they seemed to say. And yet we find that if our home is unlivable than their’s should have been condemned long ago.

 

Advertisements

Science Fiction, Naturalism, and the Singularity

singularity

I love science fiction.

Though I haven’t read all that much of it recently.

The problem, I think, is that as I have grown older I have learned too much philosophy and metaphysics to really sit down and enjoy a meaty piece of speculative fiction. To be more accurate, I’ve learned too much of the wrong philosophy. Almost every really serious and thoughtful piece of science fiction I’ve read is heavily based in a naturalistic metaphysic, which is something I reject. This difference of opinion is particularly noticeable when it comes to science fiction opposed to other genres. In many ways metaphysics and philosophy is about models of reality, and different models will predict different things about the future.

For example, your average naturalistic model says that man is a kind of very, very complicated machine. Using that aspect of the model we can predict that someday we will build machines that are as sentient as ourselves. The naturalistic model also holds that the complexity of our bodies and brains is solely based in the natural process of evolution. If this is true then we can also predict that it is very likely that someday the sentient machines that we build will be superior to ourselves. This leads us to the whole concept of the “singularity,” the point at which computers will be smarter than humans and will be capable of designing even smarter computers which design even smarter computers and so on and so on for the foreseeable future. Once this singularity has been reached almost anything will be possible.

Of course it all depends on a purely naturalistic metaphysic.

If you’re like myself then you do not believe that the human mind is the product of a complicated machine. Though I do not fully understand what the mind is I understand enough to have confidence that it is not merely a machine. A machine is incapable of producing free will or reason, for example, and I have far more confidence in the existence of free will and reason than I have in the statement “the mind is what the brain does.” If we take this metaphysical position as our starting point the future looks very different. Computers may increase in processing power by wide margins but they will never be capable of reason or intelligence. Though some programs may be able to mimic human behavior they will only be able to do so by following the instructions of human programmers. Computers will never reach the lowest levels of actual intelligence; much less become our intellectual superiors. They will remain what they are: powerful processing tools. The computer on your desk is the equivalent of an army of accountants working at incredible speed, able to complete complex calculations and follow the commands of the most byzantine flowcharts imaginable, with only one major difference: an army of human accountants can think, while the computer can only obey. It is imaginable that an accountant working in a sea of other accountants could have an idea about a better way to solve the problem at hand than the instructions they’ve been given. The accountant might be completely wrong, of course, but a computer can never be wrong for the same reason that a computer can never be right. It doesn’t even have the capability to make an error without a human accidentally programming that error into it. How can a computer ever become a genius if it is not even capable of becoming stupid?

The only reason to believe that a computer could ever become intelligent is if you begin with the idea that the human mind is the result of a computer. Surely computers will produce intelligence if we can only make them complicated enough! It is a statement taken on faith, and faith alone. The computers we have now are as incapable of intelligence as a pencil and a piece of paper. It is only philosophy that makes them appear to be something more.

And that’s part of the reason why I have trouble getting into hard science fiction these days. The authors take so many things for granted that I simply don’t find plausible. It’s not like a fantasy either, where you can put your preconceptions away. J.K. Rowling does not expect us to believe that there is an actual hidden society of witches and wizards living in Britain, and thus we can enjoy Harry Potter; but the writers of many science fiction works do expect us to believe that the mind is actually a computer. No wonder I find one delightful and the other slightly insufferable.

 

A Defence of Patriotism

Washington

There is a topic that I have seen inspire arguments and flamewars on the internet from time to time. Everyone who has spent time in forum or comment threads knows that some topics are sure to cause a fight. Even mentioning religion, or abortion, or politics is very likely to result in a protracted fight, though the topic I’m thinking of is not nearly so volatile: patriotism. If someone expresses their love for their country, or even pride for their state or hometown, they risk starting an internet brushfire. There are some people who consider “patriot” to be a synonym for “bigot,” and who will make a loud argument about the foolishness of having pride for any particular segment of this earth. They will point out that where we are born or raised are purely arbitrary and accidental. How then can we discriminate against other places and other peoples over an accident of birth/

Whenever I encounter someone with this attitude I typically find myself at a loss for words. No adequate response comes easily to mind because it never occurred to me that anyone would fail to understand why a man might love his home. That is strange enough in itself, but to then accuse the man of being irrational or morally deficient simply because he is proud of his home is something that seems beyond belief. Has this person never felt relief at the first sight of home after a long journey? Has he never thought that his furniture and his silverware and his pots and pans were preferable to those in other houses simply because they were his? Has he never traveled far away and been homesick?

Perhaps he has, or perhaps he hasn’t. Perhaps he would say that none of those things make a difference. He might say that pride and patriotism and rubbish. The world is so big, perhaps, that only a fool or a madman could claim that any part of it was superior to the rest. To that my only reply is that it is a noble sentiment to say that we should love the entire world, true; but it is foolishness to try to create love for places you do not know by destroying your love for the places you know best.

It brings to mind a quote I recently read by G. K. Chesterton. “Bloch, and the old prophets of pacifism by panic, preached that war would become too horrible for patriots to endure. It sounded to me like saying that an instrument of torture was being prepared by my dentist, that would finally cure me of loving my dog.” The context is a little different, but thinking of the quote made me realize why the flat rejection of all forms of patriotism or home-pride is ridiculous. I love the state of Washington, where I was born and raised, similarly to how I love my dog. I love my dog, but I don’t for a second believe that she is the finest and best canine specimen in the entire world. And if you asked me whether I thought Washington was superior to all other 50 states I would say that I couldn’t make such a judgment: after all, I haven’t been to even half of the states. If you asked me if the little valley I grew up in was the greatest valley in all existence I would have to confess my ignorance of all valleys. And if you asked me to choose the greatest and best of all countries in the world I would have to ask you what metric you were using to measure greatness. However none of that changes that fact that I love my country, I love Washington State, and I positively adore the valley I grew up in. Just as I love my dog, even though I am aware that finer examples of the breed exist in droves.

I am reminded of a sketch from the British comedy show That Mitchell And Webb Look. The sketch featured a wedding reception where the best man gives his speech. However during the speech he does point out that the bride is most certainly not the most beautiful woman in the world, as her new husband had described, but was instead simply high-average as far as looks are concerned. As people began to boo him he started protesting that it’s the truth, and that the groom isn’t perfect either. The joke was, of course, that the best man was being totally honest and accurate, but that he was missing the point. Yes, the bride was not in fact the most beautiful woman in the world, or the smartest, or the nicest, or the hardest working: but she is still the bride. She is still loved. I love my wife, and I am proud of my wife. I am downright patriotic about my wife! If you want to say that your wife is better than mine then you’re in for a debate! To an untrained eye perhaps my wife is not as beautiful as some: but if you knew her as I do you would know that she is the most beautiful of all. In the same way, the place where I was born may seem ordinary or even ugly to an outsider, but to my own eyes there is no place I love more.

Some will respond by pointing out that our homes are completely arbitrary. It was only by chance that I was born in Washington: why should I be proud of having been born there? I agree that it was a kind of accident, in that I had no hand in it. It was also an accident of chance that led to one particular Labrador becoming my dog. Should I love her less for that? You can even argue that meeting my wife was just as much an accident: if we had gone to different schools or had different friends we never would have met. Yet I still love my wife. It may be an accident of genetics that I was born an American, but I see no reason for that to prevent me from being proud that I am one. I do not begrudge someone born and raised in China for being proud of China: there is much about China that is deserving of pride. There is much about America that is deserving of pride as well, and since I am an American I will gladly take pride in them. We must all play the cards we are dealt, after all.

Finally we must remember that love is not a zero sum game. If I love America it does not mean that I hate Canada. My love for the State of Washington does not negate any love for the city of Washington. My love for my dog does not spell hate for all other dogs. If you wish to remove a man’s patriotism then you wish to remove his love. We cannot make this world a brighter place by snuffing out candles.

Dr. Ehrman’s Improbable Objection to the Empty Tomb

tomb-2

I was wandering about the internet, as is my custom, when I suddenly came across an article on the Daily Beast titled “Do We Know if There Was Really An Empty Tomb?” by Bart Ehrman. The article began by listing the many objections apologists have towards the idea that there was no empty tomb. Ehrman even concedes that they are excellent objections. However, despite admitting that all of the alternative explanations for the empty tomb are improbable; he rejects the idea of the empty tomb all the same. Why? Well for one simple reason, as he explains below:

“But simply looking at the matter from a historical point of view, any of these views is more plausible than the claim that God raised Jesus physically from the dead. A resurrection would be a miracle and as such would defy all ‘probability.’ Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a miracle. To say that an event that defies probability is more probable than something that is simply improbable is to fly in the face of anything that involves probability.”

This passage contained so much objective wrongness in its argument that I was driven to internally rant about it for about an hour. And thus this post was born.
To be sure, the idea that a dead body could spontaneously resurrect itself is massively improbable. I agree wholeheartedly that almost any other explanation for a resurrection should be preferred over the idea that a body just happened to bring itself back to life. What is often forgotten is that God resurrecting the body is one of those preferable explanations.

Really there is no point in judging whether or not a miracle is probable until we have settled the question of whether or not God exists. If God does not exist then miracles are the most singularly improbable things imaginable. If God does exist then miracles are just as probable as any other action we can imagine an individual taking. There is a pen lying on the desk next to me. There would be very little point in me asking you “What is the probability that I will pick up that pen in the next five minutes?” The answer is that it depends on whether or not I decide to. If I decide to pick up the pen then it is an almost 100% probability that I will do so (“almost” because I may suffer a freak heart attack, or an earthquake might strike, or some similar improbable event will prevent me from doing so). If I decide to leave it alone then the probability is almost 0% that I’ll pick up the pen (though again, freak incidents could cause me to do so, such as a madman bursting in and forcing me to pick it up at gunpoint). Thus it is with the resurrection of Jesus: if God exists and chose to raise Jesus from the dead then the probability of that resurrection is 100%. If God does not exist, or exists but chose not to resurrect Jesus, then the probability of God raising Jesus from the dead is 0%. The question, naturally, is whether or not God exists, and whether he is the Christian God if he does.

This being the case I am greatly dismayed when I see individuals dismiss any and all historical evidence that seems to indicate that Jesus was resurrected out of hand because they believe that “Any explanation is more probable than a resurrection actually occurring.” This assumes that God does not exist: and how can we determine the probability of the existence of God? Probabilities are only useful for events that occur in patterns or with defined odds. There are no odds on whether God exists, and God is not an event that occurs in patterns. Better to be honest instead and say that “I believe that it is more probable that very improbable things (such as mass hallucinations, for instance) actually occurred then that God might exist and be active in our world.” At this point we can have a real conversation about why you believe God’s existence is so improbable, and why I believe otherwise. But no more of this nonsense of defining miracles as the most improbable thing imaginable and then crowing that you win the fight be default. I might as well define miracles as the most probable thing imaginable and leave it at that: it does as much good for the discussion.

But wait, you might say. Even Christians agree that miracles are something out of the ordinary and unusual. Surely if you asked most educated Christians about whether an event is likely to be a miracle (say, for instance, the image of Jesus appearing on some toast) they are likely to agree that a natural explanation is more likely. This is true, but it misses the point. I believe that it is extremely improbable that a piece of toast emblazoned with Jesus’s image is a miracle not because miracles are by definition improbable but because I think it’s highly improbable that God would decide to put his mark a random piece of burnt bread. Similarly, if I found a piece of toast that looked uncannily like my cousin Haley I would think it improbable that she deliberately messed with the wiring of my toaster and think it far more probable that it was a simple chance occurrence.

When an event occurs that has many possible natural explanations the probability that it was a miracle seems lower, such as my example with toast. Just the other day I was run off the road by a careless driver. I slammed on my brakes, steered out of the way as best I could, and ended by fishtailing out of control until I came to a stop. Somehow, though I had lost all control over the vehicle by the end, I had managed to weave between two signs and come to a stop inches from a steel fence pole. As I got back on the road and continued on my way (the car that caused the incident had sped away without a moment’s hesitation) I thanked God that I was unharmed. I began to wonder: could this have been a miracle? Could God’s hand or an angel’s wings have brought my car to a stop just in time? I considered the possibility. I have no doubt that God is capable of intervening in such a fashion, but I also know that good people get in bad car accidents every day, accidents that God could have prevented. I also know that it is very possible that I avoided danger by purely natural means: my own quick reflexes and pure luck. With that being the case I am very hesitant to ascribe my good fortune as a miracle. It seems possible, but not necessarily probable.

The resurrection is another story altogether. There are not many plausible natural explanations for a crucified man who was stabbed with a spear, proclaimed dead, embalmed, and left in a tomb for three days suddenly showing up and walking around again. If the thing happened at all then it is certainly a far more probable candidate for a miracle than my own traffic incident, and exponentially more probable than Jesus shaped toast. The question then becomes “Did this thing happen?” This is an important question to ask, and I’ll happily discuss it with anyone. Just remember not to dismiss the possibility of miraculous resurrection out of hand due to “probability.”

The Argument From Reason: Something Has to Go

William_of_Ockham

So far we’ve seen that materialism necessitates determinism, and that determinism necessitates that reason is an illusion. Thus, if reason exists as something more than an illusion then determinism is not true: and if determinism is not true then materialism must be false as well. This brings us to the next part of the argument from reason:

                3. Reasoning is not an illusion.

I don’t think this is a terribly controversial stance to hold. The evidence for the existence of reason is everywhere. We reason about things, and those reasoning processes seem to match up with external reality. When Einstein reasoned that, against all common sense and the prevailing scientific theories of the time, time was relative he did so through a long process of reasoning. In the years since we’ve made observations that prove that his theory was accurate. If reasoning is an illusion then how does it give us such accurate and often non-intuitive knowledge about reality? C.S. Lewis once remarked that believing that our scientific knowledge is the result of a chain reaction of atoms instead of reasoning is like expecting a jug of milk that is thrown against the floor to produce a spill that creates a working map of London. If reason was merely an illusion then we would expect it to have similar odds of being correct as a flipped coin; yet, in our actual experience we find that people who reason through problems have a far greater ability to predict actual reality than a coin. If you disagree, then I would simply ask you why we would need to waste so much time educating and training scientists when we could have done just as well by asking random questions and flipping a coin to decide the result.

On a more fundamental level reason is something that we directly experience. We reason through things every day, whether it’s trying to figure out the best way get around road construction or simply trying to figure out the culprit was while watching a crime procedural on TV. Reasoning is such an immediate and undeniable observation that it would require some pretty striking evidence for us to believe that it is actually an illusion. It seems presumptive to abandon reason, which we have direct evidence of, in favor of keeping a belief in materialism, whose truth cannot be directly observed.

Finally, we must remember that the only reason we might come to doubt that our reasoning is real is because we have reasoned that if materialism is true then it must be so. The only way to get to the statement “reason is an illusion” is by using reason. But if reasoning is an illusion then it is ridiculous to imagine that our reasoning about materialism is accurate. Arguing that reason isn’t real is to argue against trusting arguments. By destroying reason materialism cuts off the branch that it is sitting on. It is an attempt to make a proof that there are no proofs, which is self-contradictory madness.

Surely any line of reasoning that would lead us to disbelieve in reasoning itself must be abandoned as futile. If reasoning is not real then the materialist has no advantage over the theist. He cannot say “Look, it’s irrational to believe in a god,” as the theist would merely reply “If materialism is true than it’s just as irrational to believe there isn’t one.” Of course the theist needn’t merely say that; for the theist has no trouble believing that reasoning actually exists. The theist believes that the foundation of all reality is not non-rational matter and energy, but rather a supreme rationality, a great mind that has produced all other minds. The theist thus has no trouble believing that abstract reasoning can discover truth; the materialist, on the other hand, must hold that reasoning is merely a convincing illusion.

Thus we come to the end of the first section of the argument from reason. If materialism is true then determinism must be true as well. If determinism is true then reason must be an illusion. Since reason is not an illusion, we know that determinism is not true. If determinism is not true then materialism is false as well. There is at least one thing that exists apart from combinations of matter and energy: the mind.

As for why we should believe that God is the best explanation for the mind, I’ll get to that in my next post.

The Argument From Reason: Inductive Reasoning, Determinism, and You

Paris_2010_-_Le_Penseur

Let’s begin with a quick lesson on the two primary types of reasoning: deductive and inductive.

Deductive reasoning is about starting with premises and following those premises to a conclusion. As long as the premises are true, and the logic is sound, then the conclusion must be true as well. Perhaps the most well-known example of a deductive proof is as follows:

  1. All men are mortal.
  2. Socrates is a man.
  3. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

As long as premises 1 and 2 are true then 3 is logically true as well. You might have noticed that I started this series with what amounts to a long deductive proof. What sets deductive reasoning apart from inductive reasoning is that the deductive reasoning gives us conclusions which must necessarily be true, while inductive proofs give us conclusions that are only probably true.

Inductive reasoning works by taking certain facts, which we will here call grounds, and from them reasoning to probable conclusions. To better understand this let’s look at a hypothetical process of inductive reasoning. Let’s say I come home expecting to eat some leftover pad Thai that I put in the fridge last night. When I get to the fridge I find that the pad Thai is gone, and that the little blue Tupperware container it was in is now in the dishwasher. These are my grounds: the pad Thai is gone, the container it was in is in the dishwasher. From those grounds I can reason that something disposed of my pad Thai There are other grounds too: I know that animals don’t put containers away, so it must have been a human. I know that the apartment has been locked all day, so it was probably my wife who got rid of the pad Thai. I know that my wife does not typically throw away food that isn’t spoiled, so I can reason that she probably ate the pad Thai. Different grounds will lead to different conclusions: for example, I know that my wife doesn’t like my pad Thai so it seems unlikely that she would have eaten it. From there I might reason that my wife may have had a friend over and she might have offered them the pad Thai, or perhaps it was another family member. Now it is certainly possible that someone else might have eaten the pad Thai, but reason tells me that that is unlikely. Why? Because I have other grounds as well to consider, such as the fact that burglars don’t typically break into houses for the purpose of stealing leftovers, and probably wouldn’t put the container away if they did. From all this I conclude that a friend or family member ate my pad Thai.

To recap, deductive reasoning starts with base principles and comes to a sure conclusion. Inductive reasoning starts with grounds and ends with probable conclusions. Inductive reasoning cannot tell us what certainly is, but only what is probable (in the example above it is certainly possible that the family cat found a way to open the fridge, dispose of the pad Thai, and knock the container into the dishwasher, but it is very improbable that it did so). Most scientific theories come from acts of inductive reasoning, and we use inductive reasoning often in our everyday lives. This is because the premises of a deductive argument are usually up for debate, and can often only be reached by inductive means. Arguably the only deductive argument that begins with premises that aren’t reached through induction is “I think, therefore I am.” With all that in mind we must recognize the importance of inductive reasoning. Without inductive reasoning there is no science, very little philosophy, no industry, no agriculture, and no civilization as we know it.

This is where we run into a conflict with determinism. The conflict is a matter of questioning how inductive reasoning actually works. Take my example above: I would say that I came to the conclusion I did because it was the conclusion best supported by the grounds. However if determinism is true then that is not the reason I came to my conclusion; rather, I came to my conclusion because a series of cause and effect relationships in my brain were determined to result in the answer “a friend or family member ate my pad Thai.” I did not begin with a collection of evidence and reason my way to the conclusion, but was rather compelled to come to that conclusion by the laws of physics. And this undermines my conclusion. After all, one of the way’s we recognize bad reasoning from good is the extent to which we can explain someone’s conclusions with non-rational means. If a millionaire tells me that reducing taxes for the rich is the most rational thing to do, I will naturally be suspicious of his conclusion: after all, he might simply believe so because he’s rich and not because he reasoned it out properly. If a Senator makes a speech claiming that a certain oil pipeline is the most rational answer to our energy problems an opponent might try to invalidate that argument by pointing out that oil companies contributed large amounts of money towards his election. A commenter on this on blog made a similar argument against myself, essentially stating that my arguments couldn’t be trusted because I was a Christian. Now in all three of these examples the arguments made may still be valid: perhaps it is good fiscal policy to reduce taxes on the rich, or to build an oil pipeline. However if someone’s reasoning can be shown to be entirely based on non-rational causes then we can safely dismiss their conclusions.

Now if determinism is true then ultimately everything is based on non-rational cause and effect relationships. Atoms do not reason: they react, and they react in ways that are entirely predictable with sufficient knowledge. If, when I reason, the result is based not on grounds, conclusion, and logic but rather on the outcome of a complicated physical reaction then I have no reason to trust that my conclusions are accurate. If determinism is true then human reasoning has nothing to do with facts and logic and everything to do with the architecture of our brains.

Back in my series on the moral argument I mentioned a mad scientist who experimented with pills that changed people’s moral perceptions. Let’s return to this madman now. He’s just developed a new pill: this one changes the architecture of a subject’s brain so that a chemical reaction will occur that will cause the subject to believe that the moon is made of cheese. Those who take the pill soon come to believe with certainty that the moon is solid mozzarella. They know this to be true based, they believe, on solid reasoning. If you ask one of them they’ll even explain it to you: the moon is white, mozzarella is white, and if it was made of rocks then it would fall out of the sky. You might shake your head. You know that the moon isn’t made of cheese because cheese comes from milk that is tended to carefully by humans, and where in the world would you get enough milk to make the moon, and who would turn that milk into cheese? You feel certain that the moon is not made of cheese because of these grounds, and many others besides. However the mad scientist’s subjects feel just as certain as you about their own conclusion.

Now why do I bring up this crazy hypothesis? Simply to illustrate this point: if determinism is true then our own reasoning processes are exactly as valid as the test subject’s! Both (according to determinism) are the result of a series of cause and effect physical processes. Neither have anything to do with actual induction. The only difference is that the reasoning of the subject was caused primarily by the mad scientist’s pill, while your own reasoning is caused by your genetic makeup, the architecture of your brain, and ultimately the pattern that your atoms are currently in.

The Argument From Reason: Determinism and Free Will

Rubenvent

Now that we’ve gotten the connection between materialism and determinism out of the way we can move on to the next point in the argument from reason:

2. If determinism is true then the process of reasoning is an illusion.

However, looking at it now, I can see that to explain this properly it would be better to split this into three separate points, as follows:

1. If determinism is true then free will is an illusion.
2. Reason requires free will.
3. Therefore, if determinism is true then reason is an illusion.

I’ll cover part 1 of that syllogism today.

As we learned earlier, determinism states that everything exists in a cause-effect relationship in which every effect is necessary given the causes that preceded it. In other words, this world is one big chain reaction, the largest physics equation that ever existed, and there is only one possible outcome to any particular reaction within that chain. What’s important to note here is that we as individuals are a part of this chain reaction. Who we are and what we do are just as much a cause and effect reaction as a billiard ball knocking another ball into a corner pocket. If a physicist had enough information about you and the circumstances around you he could predict your every thought and action. He could tell exactly where you were going to go and what was going to happen to you long before you know yourself: indeed, with enough information the physicist could have known it thousands of years before you were born, or even from the Big Bang itself.

But wait a moment. This seems to go directly against our own experiences. After all, if I go to the dry cleaners I go there because I decided to, and I could theoretically have gone a number of other places. I could have decided to go to the beach instead, or stay home and read a book, or even rob a gun store and go on a shooting spree. Now granted, I’m not going to go on a shooting spree because there are ethical and practical reasons which would make that a very bad idea. Still I feel like I could if I wanted to.

However if determinism is true then the fact is that I couldn’t do any of those things. If I go to the dry cleaners then that was the only thing I could have done. After all I am only a complicated collection of matter and energy (according to the materialist point of view) and matter and energy does not get to make choices. Matter and energy follows the laws of physics exactly. Just as a billiard ball does not get to decide which way it will be knocked by a cue stick so I do not get to decide whether I will go to the dry cleaners or not. I feel like I have free will, but that feeling is actually an illusion.

Strangely enough I’ve encountered many self-described materialists who reject this conclusion. They claim that they do have free will to make their own decisions. Many of them appear to believe this is possible because brains are terribly complicated. However no matter how complicated a brain is it is still made of matter and energy, and matter and energy do not get to decide how they will react to things. All the complexity of the brain could do is obscure this fact from us. While the neurons in my mind are reacting to the impulses the senses provide them it feels as if I’m deciding whether to do one thing or the other. However neuroscientist with a perfect understanding of how the brain works could measure each electrical impulse in my mind, calculate the results, and then know exactly what “decision” I was going to come to. Whatever I decide is an inevitable result of the chain reaction that is occurring in my brain.

If a materialist still doesn’t accept that determinism destroys the concept of free will, all I can suggest is that they do some research. A vast majority of philosophers who believe in materialism do not believe in free will. Dr. Alex Rosenberg wrote in his book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality that there is “no chance” that free will exists. Simply googling “materialism and free will” or “naturalism and free will” or even “determinism” is bound to give you some helpful links for studying the issue.

So if materialism is true, then determinism is true, and if determinism is true then free will is an illusion. What does this have to do with reason?

We’ll look at that in my next post.

The Argument from Reason: Understanding Materialism and Determinism

Billiard balls in motion at break

Let’s star by examining the very first part of my rough outline of the argument from reason from Monday’s post.

1. If materialism is true then determinism must be true.

Let’s start by defining terms. What exactly does materialism mean in this context? Materialism as used here refers to a philosophical position about the ultimate nature of reality. Essentially materialism is the idea that everything that exists consists of matter following the laws of nature. In this definition “matter” and “energy” are essentially interchangeable, especially after Einstein proved that matter and energy are simply two different forms of the same thing. Materialism is also known as naturalism, or occasionally scientism (though technically scientism more properly refers to the idea that we can only know things that are provable through the scientific method, which is a whole different barrel of fish altogether). On a practical level materialists reject the existence of the “supernatural:” no ghosts, spirits, souls, or gods are allowed (interestingly enough a materialist wouldn’t necessarily have a problem with ghosts, or even a god, as long as such entities were shown to consist of and be produced by matter and energy working through purely naturalistic processes).

The essential point for the purpose of discussing the argument from reason is the materialist’s rejection of the existence of the soul. By soul, in this particular context, I mean the idea that there is something non material about my identity, something that may have existed before I was born and may exist after my death. This sense of soul could be interchanged with the idea of “mind” as existing, in some capacity, apart from the workings of the brain. Materialism naturally rejects the idea that the human mind consists of anything other than the natural and material actions of the brain.

With materialism out of the way we can move on to the next big word: determinism.

Determinism is simply the idea that everything occurs on a cause and effect basis and that there is only one possible effect for any particular cause. This means that everything is essentially predictable and inevitable. A good example of determinism in action is a game of pool. At the beginning of a pool game the pool balls are set into a triangular formation. Then the cue ball is hit with a pool cue and sent flying at speed into the triangle, scattering the pool balls all over the table. To a casual observer this scattering seems to be essentially random, a way of setting up a unique playing field for each game. However, as a determinist would be quick to point out, the pattern that results is anything but random. If you had enough knowledge you could predict the end pattern as soon as the cue ball has been hit. If you knew exactly how much kinetic energy the ball contained after being hit, it’s velocity, the amount of energy being lost to friction with the table’s surface, the exact positions, weights, and densities of the individual pool balls, their exact shape, etc., etc., and you knew all the relevant natural laws of physics involved, you could predict exactly where each individual pool ball will end up. This is because we know that matter and energy follow strict natural laws. When a pool ball is hit with the cue ball it doesn’t get to choose how it will react to that impact; it doesn’t get to decide which direction it will go, or how hard it will hit the other pool balls around it, or where it will stop. The pool balls simply follow the laws of physics. Really the whole pool ball scenario can be reduced to a physics equation, and there is only one right answer to any particular equation. You’ll never solve that same equation twice and get two different answers.

Such cause and effect relationships have been proven definitively when it comes to interactions of matter and energy. Matter and energy don’t get choices and their reactions can be mathematically modeled and predicted. Now, remember, a materialist believes that nothing exists besides matter, energy, and the reactions between the two. So now we have two ideas: the first is that matter and energy always follow the laws of physics in strict “cause/effect” relationships that can be modeled and predicted. The second idea is that nothing exists besides matter and energy. If both of these ideas are true then it naturally follows that everything that exists can be modeled and predicted. Everything is one giant chain reaction, like a pool table the size of the universe with pool balls crashing into each other at the speed of light and bouncing all over the place. It may seem random, and to an observer who doesn’t have all the information it is essentially unpredictable: but, if you did have enough knowledge you could predict exactly what will happen, what is happening, and what happened in the past all the way down the chain of cause and effect to the very beginning, and back around again to the very end. This is what we call determinism when it comes to the field of philosophy: everything can be predicted and everything is part of an inevitable series of cause and effect.

This is what I mean when I say “If materialism is true then determinism must be true.” Now what does that have to do with reason?

We’ll discuss that in detail in my next post.

 

 

 

The Argument From Reason: Getting Started

Things went so well with my short series on the moral argument that I knew I’d have to dive into my favorite argument of all: the argument from reason. However the argument from reason is a difficult one to convey, and I’ve seen well intentioned people absolutely butcher it while trying share it with skeptics. So I thought I would start with a simple and very rough outline of what the argument from reason is before diving into the specifics in other posts. I’m going to take this one nice, slow, and careful.
The argument from reason is, very, very roughly, as follows:
1. If materialism is true then determinism must be true.

2. If determinism is true then the process of reasoning is an illusion.

3. Reasoning is not an illusion.

4. Therefore, materialism is false.
This initial rough argument only takes us as far as rejecting materialism, in much the same way that the moral argument does (note: the primary point of debate here is number 2, though I’ve seen people argue against 1 and 3 on occasion). However there is a second part to the argument from reason:

 

1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.

2. At some point my mind began to exist.

3. If reasoning is not an illusion then the mind was not wholly caused by naturalistic processes.

4. Therefore an eternal and non-naturalistic cause must have been ultimately responsible for the existence of my mind.

 

Again, this is a very rough outline. There are many points along the way where a reasonable person might disagree: therefore I’d ask that you save any particular objections you may have to the arguments as written until I put up posts that go through these points step by step. Unless, of course, you simply disagree that I have basic argument outlined correctly, in which case feel free to comment with your critiques.
I’m looking forward to diving into this in detail over the next few weeks! I hope you’ll join me.

The Moral Argument: Wrapping Up

The last few posts have been really neat: it’s been a pleasure to write them and I’ve been happy with all the discussions they spawned in the comments. I’m hoping next week to start a series on my favorite argument for God’s existence, the argument from reason. Or maybe I’ll take a break from arguing for a few days and post about something else. Either way, we’ve just had a good run of posts and I’d like to take a moment to wrap things up.

The moral argument, at its core, is not what I’d call a “compelling” argument. By that I mean it does not necessarily force anyone to believe in God. Some arguments are compelling: for example, the classic “All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.” As long as you agree with the premises the conclusion can’t be denied. But you can agree with the premises of the moral argument without being forced to accept the God conclusion. There are several other conclusions you can come to: the first and most obvious is nihilism. If someone finds that they would rather believe that moral truth is an illusion than a facet of reality there isn’t too much I can say (as far as logical arguments go) to change their minds.  

certainly the moral argument does not necessitate the existence of the Christian God. One can agree that moral truths exist while being a deist, or a member of a different religion, or simply a Platonist. Still, I did lay out the reasons why I think the Christian God works particularly well when explaining moral truth.

And I’d like to think that even among my critics I’ve shown pretty well why simply saying “morality is a result of evolution” is not a good response as far as the moral argument is concerned.

So I’d like to end by simply asking that we all reflect on what we believe about morality, and what that means for our daily lives. Are we behaving in a way that is contrary to what we believe? Are we comfortable with where our beliefs lead us?  As it stands I believe that moral truth does exist. If you disagree with me, fine. But no more hanging around in the middle. Find out what you do believe, and why, and what you should do about it now that you know.