Saturday, February 17, 2007

Exapologist's Message to Non-Theists

In the comments section of the blog "No evidence?? Really??" by Victor Reppert, Exapologist wrote the following message to non-believers:

A message to my non-theistic buddies with full sincerity and respect: prima facie, the universe is a contingent being; prima facie, the fundamental constants are fine-tuned so as to permit the emergence of life; prima facie, consciousness is not reducible to any standard account of the physical. Taken together, they can legitimately used to offer decent support to the hypothesis of theism. Maybe you could add the Moreland/Reppert argument from reason -- I don't know enough about the relevant literature to pretend to know. Against this backdrop, it makes sense to talk about the principle of credulity and religious experience. This isn't shabby inductive or abductive support for some form of theism.

I want to say up front that I do appreciate Exapologist's concern to warn non-believers from overstating their certainties. Many non-believers seem prone to affirming more than they could possibly know when it comes to considering religious defenses. However, I wanted to post some thoughts in response to his three “prima facie” points, as they are in desperate need of correction. For there are many things that we can know and affirm without the theistic believer's approval.

The first of Exapologist's points was the following:
prima facie, the universe is a contingent being;

One could accept this position only if he first accepted a host of unstated assumptions packed into his understanding of the concept of ‘universe’. For instance, that the universe is not all that there is, that it “came into existence” somehow, that maybe it “arose from chance,” that something outside it caused it to exist, or that it depends on something outside itself for its existence, etc. None of these assumptions themselves are prima facie true, and I know of no good reasons to accept any of them.

It is important, when making general statements about the universe as a whole, to clarify what we mean by the word ‘universe’. At minimum we need to know what we’re talking about. Exapologist did not do this in his brief message to his non-theistic buddies, so I will. The universe is the sum totality of everything that exists. By this definition, it includes anything and everything that exists. This is not an arbitrary definition nor a fiat stipulation, for it serves a legitimate conceptual need: we need a concept which encompasses the sum totality of all that exists. Universe is that concept. By definition, then, there could be no such thing as something that exists “outside” the universe, for this would constitute a contradiction. Also, since ‘universe’ includes everything that exists, if there are things that are necessary and there are things that are contingent, they would both exist within the universe; they would both be part of the universe.

Also, the universe is not an entity – it is not a single entity to be distinguished from other entities. To say that the universe is one entity to be distinguished from other entities would ignore the fact that there are no entities that exist “outside” the universe; there is no “outside” the universe. On the contrary, the universe is a collection of entities – the collection of all entities – not a single entity as such. So what we can be certain of, is the fact that the universe exists, and only the universe exists.

So on this definition, how could it make sense to posit something that exists outside the universe? How could we posit something that exists outside the totality of all existence? If one objects to this definition of ‘universe’, it falls upon him defend an alternative definition of ‘universe’ and also identify an alternative concept which performs the conceptual task that ‘universe’ performs as I have defined it here. If ‘universe’ does not denote the sum totality of all existence, what does it denote, why does it include some things and not others, and what concept does denote the sum totality of all that exists?

Now for those who insist that something exists beyond the universe, however they wish to define it, there’s a fundamental problem which they need to address: How could they know this? By what means of awareness would one have awareness of something that exists beyond the cosmos, for example? This is where we find theism at its murkiest, in its disguised failures to answer questions about the acquisition and validation of knowledge. This is because theism, especially Christianity, fundamentally misidentifies the nature of the human mind, selling it short on the abilities that it does have (denouncing them summarily as expressions of “autonomy”) while holding it responsible for knowing things one could never discover and validate even if they were true (resting on the notion of “revelation”).

Consider this: If someone handed you a sealed box which you never saw before, and asked you to tell him what is inside it, how would you know? The exterior of the box has no markings to indicate where it came from, to whom it is destined, or what is inside it. So how would you know until you looked inside it? In the end, you’d have to say you didn’t know. So if you cannot know what is inside a box that is two feet before your eyes without looking in it, how could you know what exists “beyond” the universe without looking “beyond” it?

Here the theist will say that his god is not known by means of the senses. Well, we know this. This is essentially an admission to the fact that there is no evidence for the existence of what theists describe as their god. Theists then typically try to discredit the epistemological importance of sense experience in some way (which is their way of telling us that they believe knowledge can be held without consciousness). They then hasten to tell us that we can know their god by some alternative means, a means without any identifiable or understood method, one which they dub ‘revelation’ but which is indistinguishable from imagination. It is by turning inward, consulting internal impulses, misconstruing the mind’s own operations as evidence for supernatural things and projecting attributes that have been inflated beyond any actual measures found in nature, and casting those projections imaginatively “beyond” the universe. Well, if there is nothing “outside” the universe in the first place, then it makes no sense to speak of something that exists “beyond” the universe. So the theist can defend an alternative conception of the universe, one which allows us to assert the existence of something “beyond” it and can explain how one can “know” what exists “beyond” the universe even though we cannot know what is inside a sealed box two feet before our own eyes, then he has just accepted a stolen concept by asserting existence outside of existence, i.e., in a context which denies existence. This is absurd, but in fact it is inevitable when it comes to theism.

Exapologist’s second point was a follows:
prima facie, the fundamental constants are fine-tuned so as to permit the emergence of life;
This statement could make sense only if we assume that the requirements of life come first, and then the universe, in which those “fundamental constants” have been installed, were subsequently created, fashioned, or modified to accommodate those requirements somehow. But again this assumption commits the fallacy of the stolen concept by affirming the concept ‘life’ outside of or prior to the sum totality of existence. The universe is the sum totality of existence (see above). And even if this conception of ‘universe’ is denied (which invites its own set of problems – again see above), it commits the fallacy of the stolen concept by implicitly affirming the concept ‘life’ outside the environment in which life’s required constants obtain. If life requires certain preconditions (and this of course is true), how could the concept ‘life’ have any meaning outside a context which includes those preconditions which life requires? Blank out.

To make matters worse, we should note that theism holds that the agent which allegedly “fine-tuned” the universe to accommodate life, is itself alive. So if life requires certain preconditions (or “fundamental constants”), and those preconditions needed to be installed and “fine-tuned” by some agent which itself is said to be alive, we invite ourselves into the never-ending morass of an infinite regress: a living agent is needed to explain the fine-tuned fundamental constants of one class of living beings, and another living agent is needed to explain the fine-tuned fundamental constants of the living agent that explained the fine-tuned fundamental constants of that class of living beings, and so on ad nauseum. Since this is unsatisfying, the theist wants to arbitrarily stop the chain of inference with his god, which he can only “know” by means of imagining it. This is the essential substance of what can be appropriately called the tape-loop apologetic antics of presuppositionalism. As a debating ploy, presuppositional apologists will challenge non-believers to “account for” what they call “the immaterial,” while the apologist himself “accounts for” what he calls “the immaterial” but by pointing to something he says is “immaterial.”

The tendency among religious defenses which seek to single out life as some sort of evidence for a supernatural deity, is to treat life as if it were some kind of exception to the natural world. By smuggling such assumptions into one’s conception of the world at the beginning, he’s on the path to confirming the stolen concepts identified above. Since life is thought to be something alien to the universe, we need to posit something outside the universe to explain it (something that is itself said to be alive).

However, biology is not an exception to nature. Indeed, it is part of nature. Biological causality is a type of causation, and it has identity just as mechanical, geothermal, chemical and other forms of causation. Moreover, inherent in biological causality is an organism’s ability to adapt to the environment in which it exists, at least to a certain extent. If it does not or cannot adapt to its environment, it will need to find an environment to which it can adapt itself, or it will die. The environment does not rearrange itself to accommodate life’s requirements; organisms need to act in order to meet their own life requirements, or they stop living. None of these points in any way diminishes our curiosity of it, or renders our discoveries about how life functions insignificant or impertinent to our endeavors. They simply allow us to constrain science to the rational context it requires by slashing off arbitrary notions at their base, before they can grow like weeds and choke our reasoning.

The standard problem of theism is that, as an explanation, it simply pushes the original question back a step, but unfortunately into the fake environment of an imaginary realm. For instance, if the agent which allegedly “fine-tuned” the fundamental constants of the universe to accommodate life is itself alive, what fine-tuned the fundamental constants of supernatural reality to accommodate its life? The original question still remains unanswered, and now there’s a new question to occupy us, one that leads us to losing sight of the importance of the original issue and replacing it with nonsense that could have no value for human life. So asserting the existence of a god does not offer any bankable explanations, and it simply complicates matters all the more. Even worse, it invites arbitrary standards which could only be based in one’s imagination.

Exapologist’s third point was the following:
prima facie, consciousness is not reducible to any standard account of the physical.
Why suppose that consciousness needs to be “reducible to any... account of the physical” in the first place? Consciousness is irreducible, both conceptually and metaphysically. This fact does not imply theism any more than it implies that The Wizard of Oz is true. Man is an integrated being of matter and consciousness. So are other animals. If only reptiles and fishes existed, would we need a god to “account for” these?

Consciousness is both axiomatic and natural. When asking for an explanation of consciousness, what exactly is being sought? Consciousness is its own kind of existence, just as rock salt is its own kind of existence, and the element of helium is its own kind of existence. Each has its specific identity. Consciousness is no exception to this - it has its own identity.

That consciousness is irreducible means that we can identify it without needing to come to our awareness of it by first understanding it in terms of some non-conscious components which make it up. That is, we do not need to argue for its existence, for argumentation presupposes the reality of consciousness by virtue of the fact that argumentation is a conscious activity. What it does not mean is that consciousness is by itself an entity. Consciousness is an attribute of entities, not an entity all its own. An organism’s consciousness is an integral part of the organism possessing it, and it depends on a very complex set of physiological systems which support it. So while consciousness need not reduce to the physical, it does nevertheless depend on the physical. Both rational philosophy and science concur on these points.

Meanwhile, I have seen no credible evidence which suggests that consciousness is possible without the neurophysiological processes which have been discovered and understood through scientific research. Again, we can imagine disembodied “spirits” which float around and inhabit a magic kingdom beyond the reach of our senses, but this is the stuff of fairy tales and storybooks.

When men fail to understand the nature of their own consciousness and choose not to put forth the needed effort to discover and understand their consciousness, they often resort to misusing it in their efforts to “explain” it. But again we come back to the tape-loop apologetic antics of presuppositionalism: how does positing a conscious deity “explain” man’s consciousness? How does asserting the existence of a conscious agent explain the consciousness which we possess?

It doesn’t.

by Dawson Bethrick


Malky said...

I thought that this posting was the best response I have seen on this t o date.

breakerslion said...

So did I. I also think the whole argument surrounding reducibility is peculiar at best. Whether or not a thing is reducible depends, to a greater or lesser part, on your point of view. I contend for example, that the modern Victor mouse trap is reducible to a thrown rock.

Consciousness is sensory and reflective. Higher forms of consciousness are extrapolative, and farther along that gradient one achieves hallucinatory. So far, I have never seen anyone achieve these states of being without learning, sensory organs, a physical brain, and vital support organs. Take away enough of any of these and you lose consciousness. Overwhelm the sensory organs and you lose consciousness. That would suggest to me that these are necessary components of consciousness. So much for "Spoooky Vision", Holy or otherwise.

Joshua Rasmussen said...

Your post was devoted to support the idea that exapologists prima facie support for theism is "in desperate need of correction." I'd like to defend exapologist with respect to his first prima facie data point, namely, the contingency of the universe.

First, a general point: Exapologist didn't offer any details concerning how the data points might support theism--he merely points to them. So, it seems that one could question why thinks the data points support theism. However, it's not clear why one should think his points are in need of correct, given just what you wrote.

He points to the contingency of the universe. I assume that by 'universe', he means the sum total of all material or physical things, since that is usually what is meant by 'universe' in arguments from contingency. BTW, 'Contingent' standardly means 'not necessary' in this context. Now you suggest that one could not accept the contingency of the universe without unstated assumptions. That may be correct. Usually there are background assumptions in place: e.g. it seems broadly logically possible for there to have been a different universe, or it seems possible for our universe to have had a beginning. (By contrast, it is not broadly logically necessary for a non-contingent (necessary) thing to have a beginning.) It's not at all clear from your post that none of the standard background assumptions in support of the contingency of the universe are prima facie reasonable. Of course, exapologist didn't make any of this explicit. He was merely pointing. He also did not make explicit a causal principle linking contingent things with causes that explain their existence, nor did he make explicit how theism might be a reasonable explanation of the physical universe in light of the 3 data points together. I think he was assuming that his audience would already be familiar with the usual prima facie case (as expressed by the likes of Swinburne, say). Your post doesn't interact with the standard case, so I wasn't convinced by what you said that exapologists' points were in need of correction.

Of course, expologist would go on to argue that these prima facie data points are not as strong as the total evidence against theism. And he might also argue that upon closer inspection, they don't really provide much evidence at all for theism. But all that is consistent with his original points.

~An Ex-apologist Fan

Joshua Rasmussen said...

Oops: in the middle of my third paragraph, I meant to say (By contrast, it is not broadly logically possible for a non-contingent (necessary) thing to have a beginning.)

Bahnsen Burner said...

Hello Josh,

Thank you for your thoughtful response to my blog. I will have to post my response to your comments in two parts, as Blogger is now accepting only 4,096 characters per comment, which is a new limitation. My comments have exceeded this limitation, so please bear with me.

Please allow me make a few points in defense of my comments on Ex-Apologist’s claim that “prima facie the universe is a contingent being.”

First, let’s make sure we understand what this is saying. The adverb “prima facie” is commonly defined as follows:

1. True, authentic, or adequate at first sight; ostensible: prima facie credibility.
2. Evident without proof or reasoning; obvious: a prima facie violation of the treaty.

Also, to say that “the universe is a contingent being” is to say, so far as I understand it, that the universe is “a being” (singular) and also that this being is somehow dependent upon something else, something prior, e.g., “contingent upon” some factor which existed before it. In your comment you had stated that “’Contingent’ standardly means ‘not necessary’” in the context in which Ex-Apologist uses it. That’s true, but its meaning typically does not end there. “Necessary” and “contingent” are typically contrasted against one another such that things which are considered “contingent” ultimately depend upon things which are considered “necessary.” I’ve read many accounts which grant the necessary-contingent dichotomy validity, and I’m trying to think of one case which in one way or another does not have in mind the dependence of things labeled “contingent” upon things labeled “necessary,” and I cannot think of one.

So as I understand Ex-Apologist’s claim “prima facie the universe is a contingent being,” I understand him to be saying 1) the universe is a singular entity, 2) it is “contingent” upon something other than itself, and 3) that the universe is so “contingent” is obvious, i.e., apparent before any rigorous investigation into the matter. Now it may be that you have a different interpretation of Ex-Apologist’s claim, and if so you are welcome to state it. But this is essentially how I understand it, and this is what my response to Ex-Apologist took him as saying.

In my response to Ex-Apologist’s claim, I point out the importance of defining key terms. Ex-Apologist did not state for the record his definition of ‘universe’, even though what this term means is of central importance to his claim, since he’s making a general claim about the universe as a whole. I pointed out that the universe is properly defined as “the sum totality of everything that exists.” Ex-Apologist may or may not accept this definition; it is possible that he had a different meaning in mind. Also, from what I did read, it is possible that he has no firm opinion on how ‘universe’ is to be properly defined. I think it is important, and that’s why I drew attention to it.

On the definition of ‘universe’ which I proposed, it should be clear that the universe is properly conceived of as a collection of things, not as a single entity as such. This alone is, in my view, sufficient to call into question the claim that “prima facie the universe is a contingent being.” Now Ex-Apologist could accept my definition of universe as “the sum totality of everything that exists” but still endorse his claim, with a slight modification. E.g., “prima facie the universe is contingent” or “prima facie everything in the universe is contingent” or something along these lines. But this would push beyond the statement’s own claim to prima facie credibility. For if it is admitted that the universe is a collection of many things, how would one be able to make the claim confidently that all those things are “contingent”? Treating the universe as a single “being” conceals this problem – indeed, Ex-Apologist may not have considered it himself.

[continued below]

Bahnsen Burner said...

[continued from above]

Now another point which I made in response to Ex-Apologist is that the claim “prima facie, the universe is a contingent being” could only be made if one takes any number of unstated assumptions for granted (I gave a few examples). You seem to agree, but only hesitantly: “That may be correct.” But I ask, how could it be otherwise? I would wager that some of these questionable assumptions I mentioned may be taken so much for granted that it would seem obviously true that “the universe is a contingent being.” But if assumptions which steer one’s conception of the universe away from such a conclusion, then clearly such a conclusion would not be obviously true or even obviously probably true.

You gave as an example one probable background assumption: “it seems broadly logically possible for there to have been a different universe, or it seems possible for our universe to have had a beginning.” I don’t think either of these claims is true. I don’t at all think that “it seems broadly logically possible for there to have been a different universe,” a claim which seems simply to restate the view that “the universe is contingent.” Since I recognize the metaphysical primacy of existence, I take the universe as an absolute, not as a contingent collection. In tandem with this, I do not think the concept ‘possibility’ is a metaphysical concept, but an epistemological concept, specifically one having to do with assessing claims made about things which exist. You see, in my view, possibility does not precede existence; existence is a precondition for assessing any statement as possibly true or not possibly true. I readily grant that I am in the minority on this, which does not bother me at all. Most thinkers (especially theists) tend to treat “possibility” as some kind of meta-criterion (cf. “possible worlds”), while the universe which “just happens to exist” (as some have put it) is merely an actual expression of just one of the available possibilities. I reject this view since it implicitly grants metaphysical primacy to consciousness, a fallacy which invalidates itself. Moreover, while it may be the case that one can imagine the universe existing differently than it does (e.g., that Jupiter revolves around Mercury, that the Pacific Ocean is smaller than the Atlantic Ocean, that some human beings breathe water, and that Thomas Edison died of an illness when he was four years old, etc.), it does not follow from these imaginary alternatives that they are in fact possible. On premises which my worldview makes very explicit, “possible” is not synonymous with “able to imagine” and vice versa.

[continued below]

Bahnsen Burner said...

[continued from above]

Thus, if the supporting claim “it seems broadly logically possible for there to have been a different universe” is not accepted, then a statement resting on that claim as its premise that “the universe is a contingent being” would certainly not be prima facie true.

Similarly in regard to the claim that “it seems possible for our universe to have had a beginning”: on what basis would this “seem possible”? Is this alleged possibility also “prima facie” the case? I certainly do not think so. I don’t think the universe had a beginning (see for instance my blog Basic Contra-Theism), and I know of no good reasons to suppose it could have. Again, what one means by “universe” is of utmost importance here. You had suggested that Ex-Apologist may have assumed it to mean “the sum total of all material or physical things,” and based this suggestion on common usage in arguments from contingency. I have no doubt that you’re probably right about this. But that is not a definition which I would affirm (see above). Why would one define ‘universe’ in such a manner? By specifying that the universe is “the sum total of all material or physical things,” such a definition would suggest that there may be things which exist but which are not part of the universe, e.g., things which are neither “material” nor “physical.” But if such things in fact do exist, why exclude them from the range of units subsumed by the concept ‘universe’? It’s certainly not prima facie true, so far as I can tell, that, should one grant the existence of things which are not properly categorized as either material or physical, that they should not also be included in ‘universe’. This qualification seems entirely arbitrary to me, and you’ll not find it in my proposed definition of ‘universe’. Take for example consciousness. Thinkers typically view conscious as something other than material or physical. But human beings and many other biological organisms possess consciousness. If consciousness is not physical, then according to the definition of ‘universe’ which you proposed, no biological organism’s consciousness is part of the universe, since the universe by definition is restricted only to things that are material or physical. But at the same time, biological organisms, which are composed of matter, would be part of the universe. Biological organisms would, then, apparently exist partly in, and partly outside the universe. Now this is a consequence, a bad one I think, of defining ‘universe’ in such an arbitrary manner. But it does not seem to occur to many thinkers who think the concept ‘universe’ is best so defined.

So, in sum, not only do I dispute the view that “prima facie, the universe is a contingent being,” I reject the view that the universe is “contingent” to begin with. Besides, I reject the necessary-contingent dichotomy to begin with. For details as to why, you may want to start with Leonard Peikoff’s essay “The Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy” in Ayn Rand’s book, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.

I hope you find these comments helpful. If you have any further questions, please feel free to post them.


Joshua Rasmussen said...

Dear Dawson,

Thanks for those detailed and helpful clarifications. Much turns on what EA really meant by 'contingent', 'universe', and what his "background assumptions/perspective" might have been. But I certainly agree that there are definitions and background assumptions on which "prima facie contingency of the universe" is not a data point in favor of theism. More can be said about all of this. But I'm content to leave it at that. :)