Sunday, March 15, 2015

Craig’s Eight Arguments for God, Part VI: “God is the best explanation of intentional states of consciousness”

We now come to the sixth installment in my series examining eight arguments for the existence of a god published by William Lane Craig in the Nov/Dec 2013 issue of Philosophy Now. The previous five installments in this series can be found here:
In the present installment, we will be looking at Craig’s defense of the claim that “God is the best explanation of intentional states of consciousness,” the fifth of his eight arguments. Craig’s previous arguments have all been shown to be utter failures. In spite of the dismal failures of Christian apologetics, Craig and other defenders of theism continue their futile efforts to argue from this world to a realm contradicting it while never coming to terms with the fact that, once we get to the conclusion of any of their arguments for the existence of a god, we still have no alternative but to imagine the god whose existence is said to be thereby proved.

But Craig thinks that his god is the “best explanation of intentional states of consciousness.” Will Craig finally be able to score a goal with this case? Let’s take a look and see.

Craig writes:
Philosophers are puzzled by states of intentionality.
Notice the signal word here: philosophers are “puzzled” over something. Any whiff of uncertainty is a clarion call for apologetic predation. Such cues will draw Christian apologists moths to a flame, for they represent an opportunity for their god-of-the-gaps gimmickry.

But let us ask: specifically which philosophers does Craig have in mind here? He does not qualify his statement and, using the plural “philosophers,” he implies an across-the-board generalization. Craig calls himself a philosopher, so perhaps he includes himself among those who are “puzzled by states of intentionality.” So it may be the case that Craig is making an autobiographical admission of sorts here.

But notice how Craig sets this up: “Intentionality is this big mysterious question mark that puzzles even the greatest minds; no one seems to have the answers to this, so it’s a big gap in our knowledge. Aha! I’ve got the answer! God did it!” Essentially, that’s all that’s going on here. But let’s take a closer look, shall we?

Craig writes:
Intentionality is the property of being about something or of something.
Typically when one speaks of “properties,” we are inclined to ask: “properties” of what? What exactly is thought to have the “properties” that Craig has in mind here? Craig kinda-sorta knows the answer here:
It signifies the object-directedness of our thoughts.
Take a look at that: intentionality “signifies the object-directedness of our thoughts.” But what are thoughts? Does Craig address this question? How would he answer it if he did address it?

Perhaps we should ask: How does the bible address this question? How does the bible define the concept ‘thought’? Or, does it define it at all? If it does not, this would mean that, for an understanding of what thoughts are, we would have to look somewhere other than the Christian bible, for it does not instruct us on such matters. Similarly for “intentionality”: what can we learn about intentionality from the bible? Craig does not provide any citations from “Scripture.” Should we be surprised?

At the very least, thoughts are a type of conscious activity (other types of conscious activity include sensation, perception, recognition, recollection, imagination, desiring, etc.). So we’re dealing with consciousness here. And what’s important to keep in mind is the fact that man’s consciousness has three distinct levels – the sensory level, the perceptual level, and the conceptual level. In this lecture excerpt Dr. Leonard Peikoff (another professional philosopher) argues that, since the time of Plato it has been commonly assumed by most philosophers that (1:05 – 1:22):
the senses are no good, but thankfully we have a faculty that’s independent of the senses, namely reason, which operates by innate ideas. And therefore reason can give us knowledge of reality, even if we can’t rely on the senses.
But in fact this assumption is gravely wrong, and the history of western civilization has suffered largely because of errors like this (as well as errors in ethics) and their destructive fallout for the rest of philosophy. Contrary to this view, which is still casually (and uncritically) accepted by leading thinkers today, the conceptual level of cognition is directly dependent on the perceptual level of awareness. A key factor that has been missing since the days of Plato is a good understanding of the nature of concepts and how we form them from perceptual input. We will not learn about concepts from the bible, nor, I predict, will we learn anything valuable about them from William Lane Craig. Sadly, many philosophical errors that plague Christian apologetics can be traced to a failure to understand the relationship between the conceptual level of awareness and perception.

Craig himself demonstrates just how deeply confused he is on the nature of consciousness in this excerpt from one of his own discussions. Here he addresses a question about challenges to free will from experiments in neuroscience (0:14 – 3:22):
Questioner: “What do you think about psychological – I’ll add neurological – experiments which bring free will into doubt?”  
Craig: “I don’t think that they are convincing. One of the most famous of these would be the experiments by Benjamin Libet, where he asked patients to press a button. And what he discovered is that the neuro-signals in the brain to move the hand to press the button actually occurred a fraction of a second before the agent was aware of making the choice to push the button. And um, some – although not Libet himself – but some others tried to interpret this as evidence against free will, that it was the motor functions in the brain that caused the hand to push the button, and this was actually prior to the conscious decision. But as some other philosophers have pointed out, because of the finite velocity at which neuro-signals travel through the brain along our nerves, it’s no surprise at all that there would be a time delay between the decision of the soul or the mind and to do something, and the consciousness in mental awareness of that state, because the consciousness of that state arises through brain states, and these take a finite velocity for the nerve signals to transmit. So in fact these experiments are exactly what a dualist-interactionist would expect to happen, namely the soul would make a free decision, and then a split second later the brain state which brings this decision to consciousness would occur. And then after that the muscular contractions would take place and the hand would move. So in fact this wouldn’t do anything to eliminate freedom of the will. At the most what these experiments would show is that there are correlations between brain states and mental states. But that doesn’t mean there are no mental states, or that mental states have no causal connection or impact on brain states. Um, and indeed the argument that I gave from intentionality I think shows that there have to be these mental states, and they are the properties of a self, a soul, a mind. Otherwise, you have no intentionality because the brain is just a glob of tissue, and a glob of tissue is not about something or of something. And so to have intentionality you’ve got to have a mind that is distinct from the brain even if it uses the brain as an instrument for thought.”
Now, this is quite a spectacle indeed. Craig is seriously winging it here, and it couldn’t be more obvious that he’s doing his best to respond in a manner that expressly allows him to make room for his theism and its associated notions, specifically the Christian-mystical notion of a “soul.” That he even mentions “what a dualist-interactionist would expect to happen” only goes to show how brash he can be. Does anyone actually believe that theistic views of consciousness could produce testable results that are predictable in some way? It’s easy to come along after the fact and say, “See! That’s what we’d expect if our position were true!” But let’s see Craig present any distinctively Christian predictions about free will, the soul, the nature of consciousness and their interaction with “brain states” that we could test.

First of all, at the very outset Craig has complicated matters well beyond necessity. He acknowledges the existence of a brain, which he characterizes as “just a glob of tissue.” If it were so insignificant, why not cut it out, like a tumor or a ruptured appendix? Is the heart also “just a glob of tissue”? How about the stomach, the lungs, sense organs and the such? Craig’s nonchalance about such vital organs is indeed alarming; it makes me wonder what actual basis his worldview could possibly have against killing “globs of tissue”? After all, can “globs of tissue” value anything on Craig’s worldview? Could they possibly have value to anything other than other “globs of tissue”? Craig’s efforts to harmonize scientific studies with his theism are tantamount to a wrecking ball to human understanding.

Next, Craig distinguishes between consciousness on the one hand, and one’s “soul.” Is one’s soul not conscious? Is one’s consciousness independent of one’s soul? The brain is clearly physical – “glob of tissue” or not. But how does a “soul” interact with “a glob of tissue” such that it can alert one’s consciousness that a choice has been made? Craig ends up with more parts to deal with than the experiment itself started out with! And this is what we get from “a professional philosopher”? What background does he have in neuroscience anyway?

Regarding the experiment that Craig describes (assuming it’s an accurate description as far as it goes), I don’t see how anyone seriously interested in the matter in question could put much stock in the results that Craig reports. For one, pushing a button is a very common action in our technologically advanced lives; such an action has most likely been highly automatized in most adults’ repertoire of daily actions. The very suggestion of “push a button” likely results in a reflex at this point in our advanced culture. Why not try something that truly requires volitional initiation, such as flipping oneself over in a kayak (a “self-rescue” technique), listing the ingredients in one’s favorite omelet, ordering an overseas airline ticket, or negotiating a merger between two regional trucking companies? Such actions require undiluted volition and cannot be the result of an automatized habit.

Also, this part caught my attention: “the neuro-signals in the brain to move the hand to press the button actually occurred a fraction of a second before the agent was aware of making the choice to push the button.” So how would those conducting the experiments which Craig describes know when the subjects made a conscious choice? How does one measures this? I thought they were testing whether or not choice-making were possible in the first place. Do the patients participating in the test wave a banner or something when they’re making a choice? How does one measure a choice made by a mind? Is there some physical function which signals that a choice has been made and which can be measured by some kind of device? That would seem to address several questions at once!

The question I have at this point is whether or not those who were conducting the experiments took into consideration the fact that the subconscious responds far more quickly than our consciously directed processes. Emotions, for example, are – as Rand put it – “lightning quick” responses that take place even before we’re aware of them. Craig mentions a number of things – from consciousness to “brain states,” from the “soul” to the brain being “just a glob of tissue,” but he nowhere takes into consideration the functions of the subconscious.

Moreover, if the experiments can tell scientists when a choice is made, how could anyone come along and conclude from their results that making a choice is not possible? After all, isn’t the view that volition is a myth equivalent to the view that human beings cannot make choices to begin with? But according to what’s been described here, it’s assumed that the subjects did in fact make a choice; the issue here seems to be the timing of the choice: did the choice come before or after the action it supposedly motivated? I smell a stolen concept here. But it slips right past Craig, a highly praised “professional philosopher.”

Lastly, what exactly is Craig describing when it comes to man’s consciousness? He’s got so many things to juggle here – “brain states,” a “soul,” a “mind” (which is distinct or equivalent to a “soul”?), consciousness, awareness, “motor functions,” globs of tissue, muscular contractions, “mental states,” etc. It’s hard to keep track of all the different things we need to keep track of here. But Craig offers no principles on how to integrate all of these into something coherent and uniform. Craig is happy to have the body operate prior to the guiding input of volition, only to add that this is what he would “expect” if… if what exactly? If the “soul” had free will but the body and consciousness did not? On the view that Craig provides here, one’s consciousness is completely inert and irrelevant; the “soul” makes a decision and motivates the body, and after this one’s consciousness learns of the decision and apparently says, “Okay, that’s what we’re doing.” I can only suppose that Craig is a very poor listener of his own pronouncements.

Now the primitives who wrote the bible had no philosophical understanding of the nature of consciousness, and we can know this by observing how they treated conscious activity, such as when they ascribe powers to consciousness that consciousness does not actually have. Notions such as prayer, miracles, creation ex nihilo, divine commandments, faith, omniscience, infallible judgment, etc., are all giveaways that the ancients did not have an objective understanding of the nature of consciousness.

When we get to rational philosophy, however, we do at last find an objective understanding of consciousness. Consciousness is a biological function belonging to some classes of organisms, including of course human beings. The axiom of consciousness tells us that consciousness is always consciousness of something. Whether the conscious activity in question is sensing, perceiving, recognizing, recalling, thinking, etc., there is always an object involved. In this respect, thinking is no different from perceiving and sensing, for in each case, some object or group of objects is under consideration. Rational philosophy explicitly points this out. Where does the bible point it out? It doesn’t.

So I suppose, then, that for a person who ascribes to an irrational worldview (i.e., one which does not affirm the axiom of consciousness and which ignores or denies the fundamental nature of consciousness, such as Christianity and its secular variants), intentionality would be quite a puzzling phenomenon. But if one recognizes the fact that consciousness is by its very nature consciousness of something as a fundamental truth, it’s hard to understand why this should cause a thinker problems.

Let’s see how this fundamental truth can be used to answer Craig’s argument. Craig offered some examples:
For example, I can think about my summer vacation, or I can think of my wife.
In other words, thinking requires an object. So does sensing, so does perceiving, and so does every type of conscious activity. This is a basic fact about consciousness as such.

Craig asserts:
No physical object has intentionality in this sense. A chair or a stone or a glob of tissue like the brain is not about or of something else.
What about road signs? If I see a road sign that says “Disneyland 3 miles,” isn’t this a physical object that has “aboutness”? Isn’t the sign about something other than itself?

Or take seeing. I’m guessing that Craig would agree that eyeballs, optic nerves and their interaction with the brain are physical in nature. And yet, seeing always involves an object. Similarly with other modes of perception: when I touch something, I am touching something; when I taste something, I am tasting something; when I hear, I am hearing something. In each case an object is involved. That’s the essence of the “aboutness” that Craig has in mind here. What exactly is the mystery? And what argument does Craig produce to support his claim that “no physical object has intentionality in this sense”? He gives examples of things that do not, but I have given examples of things that do. So now what?

The problem for Craig is that he simply asserts this without providing any kind of argument. Even worse, he does not explore the matter in terms of the nature of consciousness as such. And given the blanket negative nature of his affirmation, it bestows upon him an onus to prove a negative.

Some thinkers suggest that consciousness really is physical in some way, but that we do not experience consciousness as a physical object. And in fact, when we’re thinking, there are neurons firing in the brain which makes this possible, but we do not experience our thoughts as neurons firing in our brain. We experience them as our own thinking. Thus it can be argued that it is a non sequitur to suppose that because we do not experience consciousness as a physical object that it therefore cannot be physical in nature. Physicalists who argue essentially this do have some firepower to work with on this, noting the physical nature of perception (which is consciousness), the electro-chemical activity of the brain and nervous system associated with emotions, memory, imagination, thinking, etc. Of course, they do not say that when one pulls out a chunk of brain tissue, that this brain tissue has “object-relatedness” in the sense that Craig has in mind. But this objection is naively superficial and misses the core points which physicalists have on behalf of their position. I’m not a physicalist myself (I simply don’t have the scientific knowledge to endorse or refute their position, and I doubt Craig has either this or the character to deal with the issue honestly), but as a non-scientist I can see right off the bat that there are some strong premises to their position.

At this point a fundamental fact must be emphasized before we lose sight of it, namely the fact that all types of conscious activity are types of action. Thinking, sensing, perceiving, remembering, hearing, touching, emoting, wishing, imagining, etc., are all actions by their very nature. A chunk of brain tissue is not an action – it’s just a chunk of tissue. Action is something that things do; a man can swim, but his swimming itself is not a physical object distinct from the man who does the swimming. Similarly with consciousness: thinking is an action; a man can think, but his thinking is not a physical object distinct from the man who is doing the thinking. Since it is consciousness qua activity which has an object, we should not expect inactive chunks of matter as such to have “aboutness.”

Craig writes:
Only mental states or states of consciousness are about other things.
What exactly is a “mental state” or a “state of consciousness”? Are these distinct from the activity of consciousness, or one and the same? Craig needs to explain this, but he doesn’t. In fact, the fact that consciousness is a type of action may be an uncomfortable fact for Craig’s position. Actions need doers, and in the case of a person who is thinking, the doer would be the person who is doing the thinking. Is Craig not a physical entity? Does he not have flesh and bones and blood coursing through his veins?

Let us ask: Can there be such a thing as a “state of consciousness” apart from the sensory organs, nervous system and central brain that makes consciousness possible in the first place? I would argue a resounding No! here. But we can of course expect Craig to assume as much, but what argument could he give, and what testable evidence could he cite in support of such a contention? Craig is taking an awful lot for granted here on behalf of his position that he never argues for.

Craig writes:
In The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions (2011), the materialist Alex Rosenberg recognizes this fact, and concludes that for atheists, there really are no intentional states. Rosenberg boldly claims that we never really think about anything.
I have not read anything by Rosenberg, so I do not know what he argues, or why. I notice that Craig does not quote any statements by Rosenberg, but he is happy to attribute a defined position to him. This may or may not be accurate, but I am entirely hesitant to take Craig’s word for it especially given his misrepresentation of Borde, Guth and Vilenkin’s position.

Be that as it may, let’s suppose that Rosenberg does hold the view Craig attributes to him here. So what? Rosenberg does not speak for all non-Christians any more than John Shelby Spong speaks for all Christians. It’s no secret that the category ‘atheist’ represents a hugely diverse, mixed bag. Theists will always go after low-hanging fruit figuring that, if the debunk one atheist, they’ve debunked them all. Of course, it would be very naïve to suppose this, but it’s evident in the actions of many apologists.

Craig writes:
But this seems incredible.
Okay, so a particular position “seems incredible” to William Lane Craig. That’s fine. And yet, Craig is a high-profile performance debater who campaigns for belief in things that seem even worse than merely incredible. For example, consider the notion of a form of consciousness which can zap physical objects into existence ex nihilo by sheer force of will, essentially by wishing them into existence. This idea is literally incredible, and given what I know about consciousness, it is clear that those who propose such an idea (without ever trying to vindicate the notion that consciousness could ever do something like this), do so at the expense of reference to facts. They have no facts to back up such a notion. Facts are data that we discover by looking outward at the world. And yet, when we look outward at the world, we find no instances of consciousness zapping physical objects into existence ex nihilo; we find no instances of consciousness wishing physical objects into being; we find no instances of conscious activity altering the nature of physical objects. Indeed, in order to accept such a notion as Craig repeatedly trumps for, one would have to ignore what he discovers about consciousness by looking outward in preference for subjective notions which he generates in his mind by looking inward, such as into the contents of his emotions, wishing, imagination, etc.

Craig continues:
Obviously, I am thinking about Rosenberg’s argument – and so are you! This seems to me to be a reductio ad absurdum of his atheism.
Actually, Craig’s counterpoint does not serve as a reductio ad absurdum of Rosenberg’s or anyone’s atheism in the slightest. Craig is far too hasty here. All that Craig’s point does is bring the view on intentionality which he attributes to Rosenberg into question. That’s two different things. Rosenberg could be wrong about intentionality and yet still be right not to believe in invisible magic beings. Craig has not shown otherwise. Instead, Craig is more concerned about protecting his theism than he is about establishing a stronger understanding on these and related matters.

Craig then writes:
By contrast, for theists, because God is a mind, it’s hardly surprising that there should be other, finite minds, with intentional states. Thus intentional states fit comfortably into a theistic worldview.
Here Craig gives away the fact that he’s more concerned about maintaining a comfort level than about conforming to facts. And again, notice how he treats his theism as though it prevailed by default: he does not produce any actual arguments here on behalf of his theistic solution to intentionality, which in fact is just another expression of tape-loop apologetics: “intentionality” can be explained by appealing to something which (allegedly) has “intentionality.” There’s no explanation here at all. He’s just managed, in his characteristically pedantic style, to move the problem back one step without increasing our understanding of anything that is actually real in our lives.

Craig thus summarizes his fifth argument:
1. If God did not exist, intentional states of consciousness would not exist.
Not if we have the axiom of consciousness. Since consciousness by its very nature – meaning all forms of consciousness given their nature as forms of consciousness – requires an object, there really is no mystery here to begin with. Consciousness, we must keep in mind, is a biological function; it is not some otherworldly phenomenon that is alien to the universe in which we live. Human beings are not the only organisms that possess consciousness. Even if a frog perceives a fly, its consciousness has an object. It is this requirement for an object that is inherent in all conscious processes that accounts for “intentionality.”
2. But intentional states of consciousness do exist.
What makes intentional states of consciousness so mysterious for Craig is the fact that he does not understand the conceptual level of consciousness, nor does he understand its relationship to the perceptual level of consciousness. Like sensations and percepts, concepts also have objects, and must have objects. Even place-holder concepts like ‘nothing’ have objects in the sense that they denote a state of affairs in contrast to other states of affairs. Moreover, concepts are ultimately based on perceptual input, which means that the very process by which we form concepts involve objects from their very inception. Again, there is no mystery here.
3. Therefore, God exists.
Because Christianity, as a worldview, keeps the conceptual level of our consciousness shrouded in mystery, Craig seeks to exploit this unnecessary and self-inflicted mysteriousness for his apologetic ends. The whole argument again reduces to another god-of-the-gaps appeal to ignorance, which he hopes his audiences fall for hook, line and sinker. Craig may be a “professional philosopher,” but there’s not a shred of honesty in his tactics.

So the argument from intentionality is clearly sunk. That’s zero for five. But there are still three more arguments left. Craig still has a chance to make a case for his theism that sticks. Can he do it? At this point the odds are turning against him. But it’s not over yet.

by Dawson Bethrick

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March 17, 2015 7:09 AM  

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