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The Argument From Reason: Something Has to Go

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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

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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

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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.