Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Argument from Predication

In his essay “Van Til and Transcendental Argument” (Revelation and Reason: New Essays in Reformed Apologetics, pp. 258-278), apologist Don Collett is at pains to defend the distinctiveness of Van Til’s “transcendental argument for the existence of God” (i.e., “TAG”). Throughout his paper, he refers to Van Til’s argument as an “argument from predication” (cf. pp. 262, 265, 266, 273, etc.). Whenever I read the phrase “argument from predication” in a presuppositionalist context, I’m extremely interested in seeing precisely what this argument looks like. What specifically are its premises, and what conclusion are those premises intended to support?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Kreeft on the Design Argument

An interesting fact about presuppositionalists is that few attempt to rely exclusively on the “transcendental argument.” Typically you may find that a presuppositionalist begins his case by using some form of “TAG,” only to digress to more traditional types of theistic defenses. Although Cornelius Van Til insisted that there was only one argument suitable to proving the existence of the Christian god, his pupil, John Frame, famously disagrees. For instance, Frame states:

I question whether the transcendental argument can function without the help of subsidiary arguments of a more traditional kind. Although I agree with Van Til’s premise that without God there is no meaning, I must grant that not everyone would immediately agree with this premise. How, then, is that premise to be proved? Is it that the meaning-laden character of creation requires a sort of designer? That is the traditional teleological argument. Is it that the meaning-structure of reality requires an efficient cause? That is the traditional cosmological argument. Is it that meaning entails values, which in turn entail a valuer? That is the traditional values argument. (Apologetics to the Glory of God, p. 71)

Frame holds that “the traditional arguments often work… because… they presuppose a Christian worldview” (Ibid, pp. 71-72) – which, by the way, can only mean that these arguments would beg the question in such a case – and also that “the transcendental argument requires supplementation by other arguments” (Ibid., p. 73).

One of the arguments which Frame indicates above is the design argument, a very common traditional theistic argument which seeks to conclude that a god exists because “design” is allegedly evident in objects not created by human beings. The existence of a “designer” – specifically a supernatural being thought to be identical to a religious believer’s object of worship – is said to explain this prevalence of design.

Popular Christian apologist Peter Kreeft has published his version of the design argument on his website. It comes from his book Fundamentals of the Faith: Essays in Christian Apologetics.

I remember this kind of argument from my pre-teen years: “You can’t have design without a designer,” I was once told. Even at that age, I was impressed by how much someone holding this view took for granted.

Kreeft outlines the basics of the argument as follows:

The argument starts with the major premise that where there is design, there must be a designer. The minor premise is the existence of design throughout the universe. The conclusion is that there must be a universal designer.

Kreeft’s rendition of the design argument is pretty standard. We find essentially the same argument on p. 95 of Geisler & Turek’s I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, where the design argument is presented as a formal syllogism:

1. Every design had a designer.
2. The universe has highly complex design.
3. Therefore, the universe had a Designer.

Now when I first read Kreeft’s assertion of “the existence of design throughout the universe,” I was reminded of how often Christian apologists make a stink whenever a non-believer makes a claim to the effect that some specific feature exists “throughout the universe.” Were I to make the kind of claim that Kreeft does on behalf of my non-Christian position, I’d expect Christians of all persuasions to raise an objection: “How could you possibly know what exists throughout the universe? You’re not omniscient! You’re not God!” Ron Rhodes, for instance, raises just this kind of objection against atheism:

Some atheists categorically state that there is no God, and all atheists, by definition, believe it. And yet, this assertion is logically indefensible. A person would have to be omniscient and omnipresent to be able to say from his own pool of knowledge that there is no God. Only someone who is capable of being in all places at the same time - with a perfect knowledge of all that is in the universe - can make such a statement based on the facts. To put it another way, a person would have to be God in order to say there is no God. (Strategies for Dialoguing with Atheists)

Of course, this kind of objection misses the point that we can know that there are no gods for the same reasons that we know there are no square circles (as I explain here). Certainly Rhodes would not require us to be omniscient in order to reject the claim that square circles can exist, would he?

But unlike the recognition that contradictions do not exist in reality, Kreeft’s claim is positive in nature, affirming that everything “throughout the universe” exhibits a certain feature, namely design. Should we flare our nostrils and shake our fists, exclaiming that he would have to be omniscient to know this, and that being non-omniscient, we have no choice but to accept this premise on faith? No, I suggest a more sober approach. Kreeft is weaving a rope. Let’s just sit back and watch him put it around his own neck.

Throughout his paper, Kreeft focuses primarily on validating his argument’s first premise (that “where there is design, there must be a designer”) without paying much mind to the argument’s more controversial minor premise (“the existence of design throughout the universe”). Thus he reasons:

Why must we believe the major premise, that all design implies a designer? Because everyone admits this principle in practice.

Okay, “everybody admits this principle in practice.” I guess Rhodes would again raise the objection that we’d need to be omniscient to know what “everyone admits… in practice.” Perhaps he would be right: after all, there are some five or six billion people in the world. How could either Kreeft or I or anyone else know what principles they all “admit… in practice”? Rhodesian protestations aside, it seems reasonable enough, but then again it is rather vague. I “admit” that my house was designed (Kreeft probably thought I’d resist this?). I “admit” that my car was designed. I “admit” that the internals of my flat screen TV were designed. Etc. And in each case, I’m happy to suppose that someone (or a group of someones) designed these things.

The premise is easy to concede in the case of man-made objects such as these. But Kreeft wants to say this about everything in the universe, particularly with respect to objects that are not man-made, which is a much taller claim.

Let’s take for example a snowflake. I remember once being told that all snowflakes are six-pointed, and also that no two snowflakes are identical. Every snowflake is unique in its specific structure. (I can hear Rhodes’ breath starting to heave.) I guess finding a seven-pointed snowflake would be like finding a four-leaf clover: Good luck! Though I am no expert on snowflake chemistry, my understanding is that snowflakes can in fact take different shapes (not necessarily six-pointed), and that this is influenced by temperature, the presence of dust particles, humidity, air currents, and other relevant factors. However, a symmetrical hexagonal shape is very common, and this I understand is due to the molecular structure of ice crystals. Under certain conditions, and barring the presence of contaminating elements, a snowflake can look as if it were designed in a Silicon Valley clean room: perfectly symmetrical, delicately ornate, intricate as the finest doily.

But if a snowflake is an example of something exhibiting “design,” then I see no reason why nature cannot be a “designer” of sorts all its own. Here nature, through the non-intentional causation of an element’s internal chemistry, can as a result produce symmetry and complexity relevantly similar to what we find in man-made objects which were designed. Could it be that some of the “design” which Kreeft and other theists want to see “throughout the universe” is really nothing more than nature left to its own devices?

I suspect that Kreeft would be dissatisfied with this conclusion. The design argument typically expects us to imagine a (one, not more than one) conscious being as the “designer” implied by the existence of anything which purportedly exhibits design, whether man-made (like a house) or naturally occurring (like a snowflake). But if that’s the case, it seems that this designer would be pretty darn busy designing all the snowflakes which are falling somewhere on the earth at any moment. And that’s a lot of snowflakes! Last December there was record-breaking snowfall in Portland, Oregon (cornuts, anyone?). It was one of those thirty-year storms, said one local (with global warming, the guy must have been crazy from the heat). I have no idea how many snowflakes fell during the occasion, but the designer must have put in a lot of overtime designing every one of those little things. Well, it’s an eternal designer, so it’s apparently got the time, and it’s an omnipotent designer, so apparently it’s up to the task. Come on, imagine with me, folks! Of course, I wonder why any conscious being would undertake such an activity, even if it could accomplish it with the snap of a finger. (Oh, sorry, it doesn’t have fingers?) But the question at this point would be: What would it accomplish, in the larger scheme of things, by doing all this? It seems so much like government make-work: a whole lot of effort to get nothing of any real value done. After all, those little snowflakes are going to fall to the ground, their expert design never noticed by anyone else, and then melt away into oblivion. So it all seems for naught, if this is the product of intentional design.

But Kreeft had an example of his own. Keep in mind that he’s still focusing on validating his argument’s initial premise, that “where there is design, there is a designer.” He writes:

For instance, suppose you came upon a deserted island and found "S.O.S." written in the sand on the beach. You would not think the wind or the waves had written it by mere chance but that someone had been there, someone intelligent enough to design and write the message. If you found a stone hut on the island with windows, doors, and a fireplace, you would not think a hurricane had piled up the stones that way by chance. You immediately infer a designer when you see design.

If I came upon an island which was said to be deserted and found these things, the first thing I would suppose is that the claim that the island is deserted was not true, that it may have be true at some point, but that it lacked some new information. Yes, I’d think that there was a person on the island who was responsible for these things, who “designed” them.

But so what? If we’re supposed to swallow the line about “the existence of design throughout the universe,” why does Kreeft need to add the part about “S.O.S.” being written on the sand of an island (which is said to be “deserted”) or “a stone hut… with windows, doors and a fireplace”? I’d think that, if it were true that everything “throughout the universe” exhibited design, Kreeft could easily say “suppose you came upon a deserted island,” and suggest that evidence of it having been designed were obvious right off the bat in the natural features existing on the island, without citing features which are clearly man-made. No, instead, he throws something that is obviously “designed” (the “S.O.S.” written on the sand and the stone hut) against a backdrop that we would not think of as “designed” (at least in Kreeft’s desired sense - i.e., “designed” by some intelligent being). Kreeft would look pretty silly if instead he wrote, “suppose you came upon a deserted island and found a bunch of sand, some palm trees, some of them fallen, plants growing all over the place, rocks jutting out of the soil, clouds in the sky, wind blowing around, etc.” and then proposed that “you would not think that the wind or the waves had put the island and plants and debris there by mere chance, but that someone had been there, someone intelligent enough to design the island and arrange the flowers in no discernible pattern.” In such a case, I would not assume that what we’re looking at was “designed.” That Kreeft does not frame his examples in this manner suggests that deep down, he doesn’t either. But this is what his second premise would need us to believe.

To help make his point (namely the point that objects exhibiting design imply the existence of a designer), Kreeft fashioned the following dialogue between two scientists observing a moon rocket blasting off into space. Kreeft calls one of the scientists “a believer” and the other “an unbeliever.” Here’s what he has them say to each other:

Believer scientist: "Isn't it wonderful that our rocket is going to hit the moon by chance?"

Unbeliever scientist: "What do you mean, chance? We put millions of manhours of design into that rocket."

Believer scientist: "Oh, you don't think chance is a good explanation for the rocket? Then why do you think it's a good explanation for the universe? There's much more design in a universe than in a rocket. We can design a rocket, but we couldn't design a whole universe. I wonder who can?"

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a gift for writing dialogue as eloquent as this? Apparently in Kreeft’s view the universe is analogous to a rocket which was designed to accomplish a specific purpose. I wonder what purpose he thinks the universe was designed to accomplish. Perhaps we can imagine that it was designed to “glorify” its designer somehow?

But that’s not all. It gets better yet. Kreeft continues the scenario:

Later that day the two were strolling down a street and passed an antique store. The atheist admired a picture in the window and asked, "I wonder who painted that picture?" "No one," joked the believer; "it just happened by chance."

Boy, that believer scientist really made his point. Or did he? If ridicule and sarcasm are all that the believing scientist has for his position, it must be pretty weak indeed. After all, I’ve so far not seen any argument for the claim that “there’s much more design in a universe than in a rocket.” (Again, Rhodes must be over-boiling by now.) Does Kreeft have knowledge of this design which he thinks is in the universe? Does he have any evidence to show that the universe was designed? If so, why does he withhold it? Astronomers have been mapping the stars for millennia, and constantly they’re discovering new things. Apparently Kreeft’s got all the goods, and he’s holding out. If he feels that everyone who doesn’t suppose that the universe was designed is wrong, why doesn’t he whip it out and show everyone? Or, can he? Is it the case that he’s simply claiming that the universe is designed, but has no knowledge of what this design is? Is he just calling every discovery scientists make a product of “design” after the fact, without any objective support for such assessments? In the case of a rocket intended to shoot for the moon, we can validate the supposition that it was designed, specifically by human beings. But can we do this in the case of all the things we find on a deserted island? Kreeft hasn’t even begun to make good on this claim, which is crucial to his theistic conclusion.

Then Kreeft asks a most telling question:

Is it possible that design happens by chance without a designer?

The answer is: Of course not. We find evidence of design in the case of man-made objects. I know of no atheist who would deny this. And in the case of man-made objects, we can rationally infer a designer (or group of designers). But how does this help Kreeft’s overall argument? He still needs to validate his claim regarding “the existence of design throughout the universe.” He still needs to show that the universe as such was designed. Without validating this premise incontestably, his design argument is DOA – i.e., defeated on affirmation. Can Kreeft show that at least one object that we find in the universe which is clearly not man-made was designed? Can he show that it was designed supernaturally? If not, how does he expect to validate the more controversial premise of his argument?

Kreeft then does what theistic apologists so often do when they get desperate: he starts citing probability statistics. Kreeft writes:

There is perhaps one chance in a trillion that "S.O.S." could be written in the sand by the wind.

Kreeft does not show how he calculated these odds, but let’s suppose he’s correct. Let’s suppose it’s extremely improbable that the wind or other natural (specifically non-volitional) forces could carve “S.O.S.” into the sand on the beach. I’ve already pointed out that the claim that the island in question is deserted is probably mistaken, and that a human being is responsible for the writing we see on the beach. But if we’re compelled for some unknown reason to suppose that there are no human beings on the island, Is “one chance in a trillion” really so difficult to swallow? Pull out your wallet and open it up. If you have a government-issued bank note in there, you’re literally holding “one in a trillion” in your hot little hands. Consider all the trillions of bank notes which have been in circulation throughout the world, and out of all of them this particular one happened to find its way into your wallet. What are the odds??? Should we suppose that this as the work of a designer who intended you to have precisely that specific dollar in your hands?

Kreeft asks:

But who would use a one-in-a-trillion explanation?

If we’re still talking about the “S.O.S.” written in the sand of a beach, and the “one-in-a-trillion explanation” is the one which posits it as the result of surf and wind, I don’t see why we would need to use it. Kreeft’s illustration, however, hinges on the supposition that the island where this beach is located is “deserted.” But he does not explain how we know this, or why this could not be mistaken. After all, would we expect to see “S.O.S.” written in the sands of an island known to be populated? The “S.O.S.” could be telling us that someone has been stranded on what was thought to be a deserted island.

Kreeft then gave the following analogy:

Someone once said that if you sat a million monkeys at a million typewriters for a million years, one of them would eventually type out all of Hamlet by chance. But when we find the text of Hamlet, we don't wonder whether it came from chance and monkeys.

I too would be highly skeptical if someone claimed that Hamlet were the product of a million monkeys seated before a million typewriters for a million years (and not only because type writers have not been around for a million years). But what’s the point here? Specifically, to what is Kreeft’s scenario supposed to be analogous? Kreeft tells us with his very next question:

Why then does the atheist use that incredibly improbable explanation for the universe?

Now it is true that I am an atheist, but where have I provided an “explanation for the universe” which is at all analogous to a million monkeys sitting in front of a million typewriters for a million years putting out Hamlet? The only way in which any “explanation for the universe” could bear any resemblance to such an illustration is if it posited the universe as a product of something coming before it. But I have not posited such a view in the first place. Rather, my view is that the universe is the sum total of all that exists, that there is nothing beyond it, and that it is not the product or result of some prior activity (see for instance here). So apparently Kreeft has a different atheist in mind here, as my position makes no such claims and is thus immune to such criticisms.

Kreeft gives his own answer to his question:

Clearly, because it is his only chance of remaining an atheist.

That’s interesting. I don’t “use that incredibly improbable explanation for the universe,” but I’m still an atheist. Apparently this bothers someone like Kreeft. Ever wonder why?

Kreeft continues:

At this point we need a psychological explanation of the atheist rather than a logical explanation of the universe.

No, at this point, Kreeft needs to broaden his horizons, and maybe rummage up enough courage to start adding to his reading list. For clearly he supposes that atheists necessarily view the universe as a product or result of some prior activity, but this is simply not the case. Indeed, it is in religion where we find the view that the universe is the product of prior activity. To insist that atheism necessarily affirms that the universe is the product of prior activity, indulges in straw man tactics. If atheism were truly flawed, such fallacious tactics would not be necessary.

Kreeft then asserts:

We have a logical explanation of the universe, but the atheist does not like it. It's called God.

How does Kreeft know what someone else likes or doesn’t like? And why should it matter? Is Kreeft tacitly informing us that he holds to the view that “God did it” because he does like it? After all, in spite of what he says, Kreeft has not shown this to be “a logical explanation of the universe.” What were his premises? How did he validate them? If his argument for “God did it” is that we infer a designer when we see “S.O.S.” written in the sand of a beach, I guess there are weaker arguments, but this one is really up there.

Again, I’m still waiting for Kreeft to address his minor premise, remember that one? It asserts “the existence of design throughout the universe.” So far he’s left it on the chill. Without a defense for this premise, his argument sinks.

Instead of validating that premise, Kreeft focuses on the human brain:

There is one especially strong version of the argument from design that hits close to home because it's about the design of the very thing we use to think about design: our brains. The human brain is the most complex piece of design in the known universe. In many ways it is like a computer. Now just suppose there were a computer that was programmed only by chance. For instance, suppose you were in a plane and the public-address system announced that there was no pilot, but the plane was being flown by a computer that had been programmed by a random fall of hailstones on its keyboard or by a baseball player in spiked shoes dancing on computer cards. How much confidence would you have in that plane? But if our brain computer has no cosmic intelligence behind the heredity and environment that program it, why should we trust it when it tells us about anything, even about the brain?

Kreeft demonstrates that he cannot wean himself off his habit of arguing for his position on the basis of a false dichotomy and using it to denigrate the position he despises. This is a very common apologetic debating maneuver. For Kreeft, the brain is either the product of supernatural design, or it’s the product of “chance,” a term used more for its connotative effect than any appropriateness it might have (for in fact, it may not be appropriate at all, as I show here).

Yes, human brains are very complex, there’s no doubt about it. But it is informative to note the similarity between human brains and those of other mammals. It is also interesting to note how the “design” of the human brain and every other feature of the human organism is contained in an acid, namely DNA. The same is the case with other biological organisms. Curiously, man is not unique in this respect. Moreover, the illustrious Christian apologist Peter Pike tells us himself why DNA is Information. That is, a physical substance is information. DNA is a molecule, composed of atoms, essentially a chemical. As such, it is physical. If DNA is information, then information is physical. So the information which provides living organisms with their growth instructions is in fact a physical substance. And since DNA can be extremely complex itself, there’s no reason to suppose that it is not capable of being used by an organism’s autonomic functions as a source for instructions in the development of complex organs, like the human brain.

The engine behind all this development and replication of patterns stored in DNA is not “supernatural intelligence” or “chance,” but causality, the very factor which Kreeft’s false dichotomy seeks to squelch out of consideration, even out of existence. Biologists, who are scientists who actually study these things, have made tremendous strides in progress toward understanding how this all works. Kreeft’s argument, however, depends on all this being utterly mysterious, serving as a gap into which he can insert his “God did it” claim. Going with Kreeft’s view will not move us any closer to understanding the nature of the universe, the development of the human brain, or how our minds function. On the contrary, it will simply leave us suspended in a perpetual state of arrested darkness. All he is interested in doing is validating his belief in something which is stuck in his imagination. His design argument will not push it into existence.

Moreover, Kreeft nowhere validates the assumption, necessary for his case, that the human brain was ever “designed” by some intelligent being in the first place. And he can’t. That’s why he relies on the false dichotomy he’s deployed. Instead of validating this premise, he expects it to prevail by default by pitting it against a position which he explicitly associates with analogies and illustrations which are so miserable and degrading, that no one would want to affirm it. But this device in no way validates his preferred alternative, and when it is discovered that his dichotomy actually suppresses the proper alternative, Kreeft is exposed as a fool for his invisible magic being.

But Kreeft still has faith in the design argument. Here he unveils another of its sorry applications:

Another specially strong aspect of the design argument is the so-called anthropic principle, according to which the universe seems to have been specially designed from the beginning for human life to evolve.

Here Kreeft is simply begging the question by assuming what his argument is supposed to prove. Remember, he still hasn’t validated his minor presence, which affirms “the existence of design throughout the universe.” To say that “the universe seems to have been specially designed from the beginning for human life to evolve” is to make a highly generalized statement about all the universe, not just the small part of it which is accessible to our close inspection. How does Kreeft acquire knowledge of everything in the universe which justifies such pronouncements? Not surprisingly, he does not say. Then again, who holds that “the universe seems to have been specially designed from the beginning for human life to evolve”? So far as anyone knows, human life exists only right here on tiny insignificant little Planet Earth, not throughout the universe. And the earth certainly does not appear to have been “designed.” Go back to Kreeft’s initial desert island analogy: notice that he did not say

suppose you come to a deserted island and see palm trees, bushes, plants, fallen tree trunks, rocks, sand, hills, more rocks, sand, trees, hills, palm leaves, etc. Now wouldn’t you automatically suppose it was designed?

No, of course he didn’t say this. And it’s not because he has a better angle (for his ultimate conclusion requires that the deserted island itself was designed, along with the rest of the universe), but because he knows it wouldn’t fly. That he needs to put on his “deserted island” something which obviously bears the signature of man in order to float the idea of design, only tells me that he needs something on the island that is designed in contrast to things which obviously are not designed in order to get his argument off the ground. This move is ultimately self-defeating given the desired conclusion of his argument (which, again, would entail that the whole island itself was designed), since the “designed” part stands out so conspicuously against the background of surroundings which were not designed. Put any human artifact on the deserted island in order to argue for non-human (or “super-human”) design, and the argument draws attention to its own weakness.

Begging the question, as Kreeft does by invoking the anthropic principle, does his argument no favors, especially when he grants that human life evolved! If human life evolved, it evolved by adapting to its environment from its own resources rather than the environment having been pre-adapted to its needs.

Kreeft then gives us another of his unsupported assertions to make the opposing position seem just too improbable (a favorite tactic of his):

If the temperature of the primal fireball that resulted from the Big Bang some fifteen to twenty billion years ago, which was the beginning of our universe, had been a trillionth of a degree colder or hotter, the carbon molecule that is the foundation of all organic life could never have developed.

How does Kreeft know this? To affirm this with any credibility, he’d have to know what “the temperature of the primal fireball that resulted from the Big Bang” was, and then show that any other temperature would have had the deleterious effects he claims for it. But Kreeft provides no such support. Rather, it appears he’s just making things up as he goes to serve his own preferred position. Such practice does not recommend itself. Moreover, even if it were the case that the preconditions for the formation of the carbon molecule were in fact as delicate as Kreeft states, why suppose that it was impossible for those preconditions to come about, simply because they seem improbable? Improbable and impossible are two very different concepts. What justifies the supposition, necessary to Kreeft’s argument, that these preconditions were themselves the product of “design”? Kreeft offers nothing to validate this supposition whatsoever.

But Kreeft tries his hand at it again:

The number of possible universes is trillions of trillions; only one of them could support human life: this one.

Kreeft is trying to assert any alternative to theism out of the realm of possibility by controlling the kind of background assumptions allowed on the table. But it crumbles with the slightest of scrutiny. Who says “the number of possible universes is trillions of trillions”? Does Kreeft place possibility before actuality, such that whatever happens to be actual is just a lucky lottery winner? I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way. Possibility is an epistemological concept pertaining to assessments of knowledge claims, not a metaphysical phenomenon predating existence (as if existence were not eternal). There is only one universe, and it is what it is regardless of how puzzled someone like Kreeft may be by it. The “possible universes” which Kreeft has in mind are in fact merely imaginary, nothing more. They don’t exist, and they were not “options” participating in some giddy beauty contest before the “Big Bang.” Besides, even if one does grant legitimacy to Kreeft’s claim that “the number of possible universes is trillions of trillions,” what justifies his additional claim that “only one of them could support human life”? Why can’t a few billion of those “possible universes” out of the whole mix support human life? Kreeft indicates no reason why we should not entertain this possibility.

The reason why Kreeft affirms the notion of “possible universes” in this manner, is to make the state of affairs which actually exists seem all the more unlikely. It’s clear that he needs the actually existing state of affairs to seem extremely unlikely (“one in a trillion”), because this is vital to his implicit reasoning, which is: the more unlikely the state of affairs happens to be, the more we need to think of that state of affairs as the product of a designer. Of course, Kreeft never spells out how exactly this conclusion is supposed to follow. Instead, he relies on a series of contrived analogies involving artifacts which are obviously of human origin and thus products of design as a substitute for providing the details of this would-be inference. Of course, human artifacts, like a writing system or a house, exhibit “design,” but they do not point to a supernatural designer, which is what Kreeft needs. What Kreeft needs to show us is that things like rocks exhibit design and that they point to a supernatural designer, but he never attempts this.

After stacking the deck with his “possible universes” notion, Kreeft suggests that the actually existing universe, as an outcome of some process by which all the other “trillions and trillions” of “possible universes” were eliminated (a process about which Kreeft demonstrates no knowledge whatsoever), “sounds suspiciously like a plot.” Actually, it sounds suspiciously like Kreeft is anxious to construe the present state of affairs as just too improbable to exist without the hand of some invisible magic designer being responsible for it all. Unfortunately, Kreeft never explains how this is supposed to follow intelligibly from his scenarios of unlikelihood. His “argument” comes across as if we were supposed to conclude that a god exists due to the manufactured outrage resulting from considering any alternative to theism.

Kreeft continues:

If the cosmic rays had bombarded the primordial slime at a slightly different angle or time or intensity, the hemoglobin molecule, necessary for all warm-blooded animals, could never have evolved.

Presumably the thinking here is that the cosmic rays needed a cosmic radiologist who precisely aimed the rays at a specific angle, for a specific duration of time and at a specific intensity, otherwise “the hemoglobin molecule… could never have evolved.” The beaming of cosmic rays, on this view, was executed specifically with the evolution of hemoglobin in mind.

This line of argument commits a fundamental reversal: it implies that the cosmic rays and their angle, duration and intensity were purposed to suit the needs of hemoglobin, as if cosmic rays were pre-arranged to meet those needs. But this only begs the question, for this is precisely what Kreeft needs to prove in order to validate his claim that the universe had a designer. Could it not be the case that the nature of hemoglobin and other biological attributes evolved under certain conditions, including those pertaining to Kreeft’s cosmic rays, such that they adapted to the conditions of their environment? In spite of the fact that adaptation is a key factor in evolutionary theory, Kreeft nowhere rules this possibility out. He does not even consider it. But why not, especially given the premise of the view he needs to unseat, namely that biological organisms evolve and adapt to the conditions of their environment (or simply die out)?

Kreeft follows this up with the usual odds assessment:

The chance of this molecule's evolving is something like one in a trillion trillion.

Apparently “trillion” is the number which seems to work for Kreeft (he’s beginning to remind me of Barack Obama). But where did Kreeft get these figures? How would someone go about trying to calculate the probability of anything evolving? Kreeft clearly wants his readers to think that the formation of molecules is a crap shoot. But in fact, this is not what science tells us. “Biochemistry is not chance,” affirms the Talk Origins Archive (ed. Mark Isaak). As we saw above, biochemistry operates on the law of causality. It’s not merely a roll of the dice or a card chosen at random, as Kreeft seems to think. Moreover, Ian Musgrave, a biomedical researcher from Australia, explains that

the formation of biological polymers from monomers is a function of the laws of chemistry and biochemistry, and these are decidedly not random. (Lies, Damned Lies, Statistics, and Probability of Abiogenesis Calculations)

Also, it seems that Kreeft would have to have extremely intimate knowledge of the conditions in which such molecules did evolve, for the vast range of variables which come into play would be key to such calculation, and Kreeft provides no indication that he has such knowledge. Was he there? Does he have samples from the prebiotic earth which confirm his estimates? How could he? How could anyone? Mark Isaak explains:

A calculation of the odds of abiogenesis is worthless unless it recognizes the immense range of starting materials that the first replicator might have formed from, the probably innumerable different forms that the first replicator might have taken, and the fact that much of the construction of the replicating molecule would have been non-random to start with. (Five Major Misconceptions about Evolution)

If the earliest life forms were generated in the earth’s oceans, for example, all the oceans served as the primordial “vat” in which countless opportunities for the earliest polymers to form from monomers would have existed. So even if we accept the odds of “a trillion trillion” for a particular molecule’s formation at a particular moment in a particular place, there’s no reason to suppose that the conditions could not have allowed for this on a multiple scale – i.e., throughout a very long span of time and throughout all the oceans, thus providing “trillions” of opportunities for the needed biochemical combinations. How many molecules make up the world’s oceans? How many molecules made up the oceans of the prebiotic world? Each of those molecules is “one in a trillion trillion,” perhaps even more than this. And since “biochemistry is not chance,” but a function of causality, why should we accept Kreeft’s fantastical premises?

In fact, I question whether or not it is even sensible to speak of molecules as such evolving in the first place. I may be wrong here, but it seems that biological species are what evolve, while molecules are formed naturally in the universe by the atomic attraction of their constituents. If this is correct, then Kreeft’s conjectures about the “evolution” of molecules is even more off than I had originally supposed.

As for Kreeft’s “one in a trillion trillion,” maybe that’s earth. On a macro-scale, perhaps there are trillions of other places throughout the universe which have participated in Kreeft’s imaginary lottery, and earth was the lucky winner. So even on his terms, we need not conclude the existence of a “designer.”

Kreeft admits that

There is very good scientific evidence for the evolving, ordered appearance of species, from simple to complex.

But in spite of this admission (one which many theists outright deny), Kreeft wants to see it as “a beautiful example of design, a great clue to God.” This is to be expected from a theist: the theistic mind is accustomed to imagining an invisible magic being “back of” everything which one observes in the world. So if it is admitted that there is evidence for evolution among the biological species, a theist can still be expected to posit the guiding hand of a designer behind it all, a designer which exists only in his imagination. This can only mean that Kreeft’s overall “argument” is simply a sham. Whatever the state of affairs may be, one will always be able to imagine that a “designer” is responsible for it all.

In reacting to a non-theistic conception of evolution, Kreeft displays his ignorance quite openly:

there is no scientific proof of natural selection as the mechanism of evolution, Natural selection "explains" the emergence of higher forms without intelligent design by the survival-of-the-fittest principle. But this is sheer theory.

Kreeft is a fine one to talk. What proof has he provided for his assertion of “the existence of design throughout the universe”? He’s given none whatsoever (let alone scientific proof). In fact, it is almost as if he were unaware of the fact that one of his argument’s premises affirms “the existence of design throughout the universe.” If he thinks that alleged astronomical odds against something occurring somehow counts as evidence for the existence of a designer of the universe, this has been answered. For one, highly improbable things do in fact happen all the time (such as a unique bank note finding its way into your wallet), and for another, calculation of the odds of something occurring requires detailed information about the conditions in which that something is said to have occurred, and Kreeft has not demonstrated knowledge of such details when it comes to the origin of life on the prebiotic earth. Also, even if he had, such calculations would be moot for there’s no reason to suppose that organic molecules had only one chance to form in prebiotic earth environments.

As for Kreeft’s claim that “there is no scientific proof of natural selection as the mechanism of evolution,” this is so incorrect that one can be forgiven for counting it as a sheer fabrication on Kreeft’s part. There is an abundance of evidence proving natural selection as the evolutionary mechanism, but creation-theists typically suppress this evidence in favor of their religious faith commitments. Isaak points out that

Biologists define evolution as a change in the gene pool of a population over time. One example is insects developing a resistance to pesticides over the period of a few years. Even most Creationists recognize that evolution at this level is a fact… The origin of new species by evolution has also been observed, both in the laboratory and in the wild… Even without these direct observations, it would be wrong to say that evolution hasn't been observed. Evidence isn't limited to seeing something happen before your eyes. Evolution makes predictions about what we would expect to see in the fossil record, comparative anatomy, genetic sequences, geographical distribution of species, etc., and these predictions have been verified many times over. The number of observations supporting evolution is overwhelming… What hasn't been observed is one animal abruptly changing into a radically different one, such as a frog changing into a cow. This is not a problem for evolution because evolution doesn't propose occurrences even remotely like that. In fact, if we ever observed a frog turn into a cow, it would be very strong evidence against evolution. (Five Major Misconceptions About Evolution)

For support, Isaak cites an article by J.R. Weinberg, V.R. Starczak, and D. Jorg titled “Evidence for rapid speciation following a founder event in the laboratory," published in Evolution 46, pp. 1214-1220. He also provides a link to Joseph Boxhorn’s Observed Instances of Speciation, which details some examples.

Isaak also answers Kreeft’s claim that natural selection is merely a theory:

Calling the theory of evolution "only a theory" is, strictly speaking, true, but the idea it tries to convey is completely wrong. The argument rests on a confusion between what "theory" means in informal usage and in a scientific context. A theory, in the scientific sense, is "a coherent group of general propositions used as principles of explanation for a class of phenomena" [Random House American College Dictionary]. The term does not imply tentativeness or lack of certainty. Generally speaking, scientific theories differ from scientific laws only in that laws can be expressed more tersely. Being a theory implies self-consistency, agreement with observations, and usefulness. (Creationism fails to be a theory mainly because of the last point; it makes few or no specific claims about what we would expect to find, so it can't be used for anything. When it does make falsifiable predictions, they prove to be false.) (Five Major Misconceptions About Evolution)

I don’t suppose Kreeft would claim that gravity is merely a theory, would he? If not, why does he do so in the case of natural selection? Is Kreeft in the habit of special pleading his case?

Kreeft then asks the following question:

There is no evidence that abstract, theoretical thinking or altruistic love make it easier for man to survive. How did they evolve then?

This is confusion. As pointed out above, the theory of evolution is intended to explain changes in the gene pool of a population over time, not the development of “abstract, theoretical thinking” or so-called “altruistic love” (as if altruism were premised on or compatible with love). These topics are properly addressed in the field known as philosophy.

Of course, why suppose that there is no evidence suggesting that the conceptual level of cognition (“abstract, theoretical thinking”) aids human survival? Given man’s ability to form concepts, he can generalize from specific instances and identify causal connections. This allows him, for instance, to forecast seasonal change and prepare for colder months. Without this preparation, made possible by his ability to conceptualize, the chances that he will not survive the next snowstorm would increase. Man’s conceptual cognition enables him to identify goals explicitly, fashion tools which help him achieve those goals, and build structures which make the achievement of those goals all the more likely. The evolutionary advantage of the conceptual level of cognition is inestimable. But Kreeft seems oblivious to all this. On his worldview, man’s use of his mind is geared exclusively to calculating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

As for so-called “altruistic love,” I agree that such a notion provides no value for man. Indeed, it leads to man’s destruction rather than to survival. Consider Christianity: it is through “altruistic love” that Jesus, the perfect man, sacrificed himself for the sake of imperfect people. Altruism seeks the sacrifice of value for the sake of lesser values or non-values. Altruism is the engine by which an entire nation of individuals will enslave itself to the insanity of a dictator, inspiring the collective to throw itself on its own sword as the dictator calls the shots from elegantly furnished offices far from the front lines.

Kreeft then indicates the infinite regress implicit in the design argument:

Furthermore, could the design that obviously now exists in man and in the human brain come from something with less or no design? Such an explanation violates the principle of causality, which states that you can't get more in the effect than you had in the cause. If there is intelligence in the effect (man), there must be intelligence in the cause.

This only suggests that whatever allegedly designed man and the human brain, must itself have been designed. If man must be the product of a designer because intelligence must be the result of design, then the intelligence which authored that design must itself be the result of design, and so on. Did Kreeft intend to suggest this? I highly doubt it. But if intelligence as such requires a designer, then Kreeft's designing god, if it has any intelligence, must itself be the product of a prior designer. But when does it stop? Kreeft's own presmise here requires that it can never stop, ad infinitum. What rational satisfaction does this promise?

Kreeft then interjects:

But a universe ruled by blind chance has no intelligence.

The universe is merely the sum of everything which exists. It is not a distinct entity unto its own. It certainly is not an entity possessing consciousness. Since consciousness is a precondition of intelligence, objecting that the universe has no intelligence misses the point of the concept. The concept ‘universe’ satisfies a legitimate conceptual need by including everything which exists (both known and unknown) into a single cognitive unit. It is a mistake to condemn the sum of everything which exists for not possessing intelligence.

Does this therefore mean, as Kreeft apparently wants us to think, that the universe is therefore “ruled by blind chance”? Not at all. As I pointed out above, I’ve already dealt with this faith-based error (see here). On a rational understanding of reality, the alternative to intelligence is not “chance,” but some other type of causation. When wind blows a pile of leaves into the street, is this “intelligence”? I know of no reason to suppose that it is; wind is not an intelligent organism. Is it therefore “chance”? Of course not: the wind did the causing. According to John Frame’s A Van Til Glossary, the concept ‘chance’ denotes “events that occur without cause or reason.” Since the wind blowing is the cause of the leaves’ scattering, this could not be an example of “chance”. But don’t worry: you can point this simple truth out to theistic apologists until you’re blue in the face, but they will continue to repeat this error as if it were unchallengeable. What defenders of the design argument seem to forget is quite simply what an intelligent being does do with fallen leaves: he rakes them into a pile and disposes of them. Were it the case that the north wind would do this for us!

Assuming the validity of the easily refuted dichotomy between “intelligence” and “chance,” Kreeft draws the following conclusion:

Therefore there must be a cause for human intelligence that transcends the universe: a mind behind the physical universe.

Let’s arrange Kreeft’s argument into a rough syllogistic outline so that we have a clear understanding of his premises and the logical consequence of his desired conclusion:

Premise 1: Man and the human brain must be products of design. (Kreeft holds that the principle of causality requires that “if there is intelligence in the effect (man), there must be intelligence in the cause.”)

Premise 2: The universe has no intelligence and is capable only of “blind chance” without a designer.

Therefore, the universe could not have designed man and his brain, rather “there must be a cause for human intelligence that transcends the universe: a mind behind the physical universe.”

Many would no doubt be persuaded by such an argument. But of course persuasion is distinct from rational proof, and many are philosophically predisposed to accepting an argument’s conclusion because they agree with it or want it to be true, regardless of the truth value (or lack thereof) of the argument’s premises. Indeed, the argument trades implicitly on the acceptance of the primacy of consciousness, specifically in the underlying assumption that existence finds its source in a form or act of consciousness. On a more immediate level, the argument arbitrarily denies the basic law of causality which, contrary to Kreeft’s claim above, tells us that the actions of an entity depend on its nature. Since it is in the nature of biological organisms to act, change is an integral part of their nature, and change occurs not only in the course of an organism’s existence (such as when it moves and acts), but also on the genetic level, as when it procreates by combining its DNA with another individual’s of the same species. Given this fact, the general truth of natural selection is self-validating, since it necessarily involves “a change in the gene pool of a population over time,” and this change in the gene pool is guaranteed by the very nature of biological reproduction.

Moreover, I do not think that rational scientists hold that the universe “designed” man, as if the universe were an intelligent entity. In this sense Kreeft seems to be battling a straw man here. If man and his brain evolved from more primitive precursors, and this evolution occurred in accordance to biological causality, not according to the invention of some inscrutable being allegedly existing beyond the universe. Indeed, if the universe is the sum totality of everything which exists, there is no “beyond the universe” to speak of.

It is also important to keep in mind that man’s physical composition is not alien to the universe in which he finds himself. His body is made up of elements which are found right here on earth. Why then should we suppose that the causation behind man’s evolution “transcends the universe”?

Kreeft then notes the following parenthetically:

(Most great scientists have believed in such a mind, by the way, even those who did not accept any revealed religion.)

This may be true, since most people in general have been raised in one religion or another, even if they later abandoned it. But this does not constitute an argument for any particular religious viewpoint, nor does it validate theism as such. The individuals which Kreeft has in mind most likely believed in a god before they made the choice to pursue an education and career in science in the first place. So they brought their god-belief with them into their chosen field of study, even if only latently. Science certainly will not lead a thinker to belief in a god. An individual may think that science led him to such belief if he converted to theism after becoming a scientist. But if he found his way to theism through arguments like Kreeft’s, then clearly science is not what took him there.

Kreeft then offers the following slanted concession:

How much does this argument prove? Not all that the Christian means by God, of course—no argument can do that. But it proves a pretty thick slice of God: some designing intelligence great enough to account for all the design in the universe and the human mind. If that's not God, what is it? Steven Spielberg?”

Actually, I was thinking more along the lines of a cartoonist. Kreeft himself would probably bristle at this, in spite of theism’s worldview implications. Incidentally, it is essentially the very shortcoming which Kreeft admits of his argument that encourages presuppositionalism’s disdain for “classical” apologetics. Contrary to what Kreeft states here, presuppositionalists hold that a transcendental argument, informed with biblical assumptions of course, can in fact prove the entirety of the Christian god. The fact that such an operation is viciously circular is both denied and embraced by champions of this school of apologetics.

One of the chief deficiencies with defenses of the design argument like the one which Kreeft offers, is not only their failure to validate the claim that design is evident throughout the universe, but also the failure to identify the alternative to design. If everything exhibits design, what would a lack of design look like? If mud splatter on the quarter panel of a Suburu Outback after an afternoon of off-roading exhibits “design,” then it would belong in the same category as the most majestic and advanced man-made structures, such as Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge, which would only serve in denigrating the achievement represented in the latter. Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge did not result from careening a vehicle through unfinished terrain. In spite of this, it seems that Kreeft’s conclusion would require that such mud splatter actually does exhibit design, yet he never produces a defense for such a position. On the other hand, if it is conceded that mud splatter does not exhibit design, then the premise that design is exhibited throughout the universe is undermined. This, in addition to the fact that Kreeft does not defend this premise (even though it is crucial to his desired conclusion), can only mean that Kreeft’s argument suffers from an internal fatal weakness.

by Dawson Bethrick

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Bolt on Evidence and the Need to Take a Claim Seriously

As with many Christian apologists, Chris Bolt exhibits a special knack for embarrassing himself. He recently took a comment of mine and has attempted to interact with it in a blog of his own. The results are, well, rather dismal.

The statement of mine which Bolt has seized upon is the following:

If there is no evidence for a proposition, there is no need to take it seriously.

Since context is important, I will repeat my above quote with its original surrounding statements (see my 11 Oct. comment here):

Justin stated: “There is absolutely no evidence that he universe will start acting chaotic the next second…”

Chris: “This is irrelevant to the problem, though I think Dawson would disagree with me in this.”

Me: “Yes, I do disagree. Knowledge (objective knowledge, that is) is built on factual evidence, not on hypotheses which are arbitrary in nature (rightly understood – see OPAR pp. 163-171). If there is no evidence for a proposition, there is no need to take it seriously. If someone tells you that he has a dragon living in his garage but can produce no evidence for it, there’s no need to take that claim seriously. Feel free to disagree, Chris.”

I’m guessing that by posting an entire blog devoted to grappling with this one statement (and an example) which I made in a comment of one of my own blogs, Chris Bolt is expressing disagreement with some or all of what I had stated above.

In the leading statement, Justin Hall points out to Bolt essentially what I had stated: On the Objectivist view, if a proposition has no evidential support for it, there is no need to take it seriously. Of course, a skeptic (someone whom Bolt says we “must” take seriously) may come along and claim that our projections of future happenings are inherently unreliable because the universe could suddenly start behaving chaotically in the next moment. Justin’s point was that, if there is no evidence to support the supposition that the universe could start behaving chaotically in the next moment, it is not worth our attention. It is clear that Bolt does not think one should require evidence to take such proposals seriously. That may “work” in his faith-based epistemology, but Objectivism has more important tasks for its theory of knowledge.

To inform my point, I cited the fact that objective knowledge is built on factual evidence rather than on arbitrary hypotheses. In addition to this, I gave a reference which further expands on what I mean here. I also gave an example to illustrate my point.

In his blog, Bolt seems anxious to discredit the principle which I stated, but has a very hard time doing so. A noteworthy deficiency in his analysis is its glaring ignorance of the content of the source which I cited to back up my position. It is clear from what Bolt has written, both here and elsewhere, that he has no informed understanding of the Objectivist position to which I alluded. He has attempted to interact with my position without knowing “the fullness thereof.”

In challenging my statement, Bolt raised four concerns, beginning with the following:

First, there needs to be a definition of “evidence”. Different people consider different things to constitute evidence. One needs to know what type of evidence one must require in order to take a proposition seriously.

Peikoff provides a definition of ‘evidence’ in the source which I cited in my comment (OPAR). Had Bolt taken the time to familiarize himself with the Objectivist position before attempting to defeat it, he might have seen that his first concern has already been addressed in the literature.

Next,Bolt states:

Second, there needs to be evidence provided for this proposition itself. Since the proposition is not self-evident, and since no other evidence for accepting the proposition is provided with the proposition, then there is no reason to take it seriously according to the proposition itself.

Same problem here. The evidence for the position is the Objectivist analysis of knowledge, beginning with the primacy of existence, and including the objective theory of concepts. This is why I pointed out to Bolt that knowledge, on the objective conception of it, is built on factual evidence as opposed to arbitrary hypotheses. Again, this concern has already been addressed in the literature, and Bolt would have known this if he were familiar with his subject matter.

Bolt’s next concern is:

Third, it is not clear what is meant by “no evidence”. An individual having no evidence for a proposition is a very different matter from there being no evidence at all to be had by anyone at anytime for a proposition. An individual may have no evidence for a proposition and hence not take it seriously when there is in actuality evidence for the proposition to be taken seriously. There may actually be no evidence at all for a proposition, but how a limited subject would come to know this might become a problem depending upon the proposition.

It’s curious to me that Bolt does not understand the phrase “no evidence.” “No evidence” means “no evidence.” I see no reason to make this more difficult. My statement was not “if a person has difficulty producing evidence for his claim, then there is no need to take it seriously,” or “if there is in actuality evidence for a proposition but an individual may not have it, there’s no need to take it seriously.” As I said, “no evidence” means “no evidence.” Bolt seems to be having trouble dealing with the principle which I stated on its own terms.

Last, Bolt writes:

Fourth, if there is evidence for a proposition then one presumably needs to take it seriously. It would need to be explained why anyone would “need” to do so, however, and this without appealing to other evidenced propositions lest an infinite regress be the result.

My statement does not affirm – nor is it intended to imply – the view that one does in fact need to take a proposition seriously if it has evidence for it. This would be determined by one’s hierarchy of values. Observing that claims of a certain type (e.g., those lacking evidential support) do not impute a need to take them seriously, does not entail that claims of any other type (e.g., those which do have evidential support) do impute such a need. It may be the case that the proposition in question does in fact have evidential support for it (such as which team won last night’s pennant game), and yet represents no impact on one’s values to begin with (since he couldn’t care less about sports scores). No one “needs” to do anything but die, and this comes naturally. The activities which we undertake in life, are undertaken by choice. Whether it’s going off to work, conversing with a friend, buying groceries, putting the car into park, looking at the calendar, calling a loved one, or writing a blog entry, each of these things we do by choice. This is all explained in the source which I have cited in my comment. So again, Bolt’s concern has already been answered in the literature, he’s simply unfamiliar with it.

Next Bolt focused on the example which I gave to illustrate my point:

If someone tells you that he has a dragon living in his garage but can produce no evidence for it, there’s no need to take that claim seriously.

In response to this, Bolt writes:

Unless the term refers to varanus komodoensis or some of its relatives that may share the label, dragons are known to be mythical creatures and therefore would not be found living in garages. This is the real reason someone might not take the claim in question seriously. There are problems with the statement quoted above even if we substitute a non-mythical entity into it. Consider, “If someone tells you that he has a llama kushing in his garage but can produce no evidence for it, there’s no need to take that claim seriously.” Is this statement true?

Not at all. Just because an individual cannot produce evidence for some claim does not mean that the claim is false, nor does it mean that there is no evidence for the claim. It may be that the claim is true and that there is evidence for accepting the claim but the individual making the claim cannot produce said evidence. It has been said, “A lack of evidence is not evidence of lack”. There is no reason to not take such a claim about a llama kushing in a garage seriously, even when the individual making the claim produces no evidence for it. Please note that taking a claim seriously and accepting the claim as true are two different things.

Bolt does bring up a good point here. Essentially, he asks: to what specifically does the claimant refer by his use of the word “dragon”? This of course would need to be sorted out if one does choose to undertake the project of investigating his claim. He could refer to a Komodo dragon, as Bolt suggests, or to a mythical beast mentioned in a storybook. He could even be referring to his mother-in-law, or perhaps a nasty tenant. But in either case, if we go to his garage and find no evidence of the “dragon” he claims is living there, and he can produce no evidence to support it, why would anyone still need to take it seriously?

Bolt apparently thinks we do need to take it seriously, though it is unclear why he thinks this, as this is the point he is trying to make in regard to the claim that “he has a llama kushing in his garage.” Now of course, llamas do exist, and if I understand what “kushing” is supposed to mean, I suppose this is an action possible for llamas to perform. Even given these premises, it is unclear why anyone would consequently have a need to take this claim seriously. But supposing we do choose to investigate it, but when we go to this fellow’s garage we find no evidence of a llama, and he is unable to produce evidence for any llama, why suppose anyone has a need to take his claim that he has a llama in his garage seriously any further? Bolt does not explain this.

Bolt states that simply because the claimant is unable to produce evidence for his claim, this does not mean that there is no evidence for it. That’s fine. But of course, I did not argue this. Bolt draws from this scenario that “there is no reason not to take such a claim about a llama kushing in a garage seriously,” but this too is not what I argued. I specifically stated that there’s no need to take such a claim seriously. A person may have no need to take a claim seriously, but still think of reasons for deciding to take it seriously. For instance, perhaps you’ve always wanted to see a llama kushing. One may see this as sufficient reason to pursue the claim further. Other reasons could be conceived as well. But what I have stated does not rule out such possibilities. Indeed, he may have evidence that there is a llama kushing in his garage, but this in itself is insufficient to imply that we have a need to take it seriously. Bolt fails to demonstrate any need to take such claims seriously, thus my statement remains intact.

Then Bolt quoted another statement of mine:

To affirm a possibility, one needs at least some evidence to support it, and no evidence against it.

Apparently he finds this highly summarized view of possibility deficient, for he states:

What was stated previously regarding propositions might be applied now to alleged possibilities. An individual having no evidence for an alleged possibility is a very different matter from there being no evidence at all to be had by anyone at anytime for an alleged possibility. An individual may have no evidence for an alleged possibility and hence not take it seriously when there is in actuality evidence for the alleged possibility to be taken seriously. There may actually be no evidence at all for an alleged possibility, but then how a limited subject would come to know this might become a problem depending upon the alleged possibility.

It’s important to keep in mind here that my point is intended to be taken in regard to first-person epistemology, not third-person narrative mode, a perspective which many philosophers seem to have a hard time shaking. If an individual has no evidence at all to support an alleged possibility, on what epistemological grounds does he then decide to take that alleged possibility seriously? Bolt cites none at all, let alone compelling grounds. So what is Bolt’s point here?

Is the individual expected to say to himself, “I know that I have no evidence to support this alleged possibility, but there may be evidence that I’m not aware of, so I should take it seriously anyway”? Wouldn’t he need at least some evidence for the supposition that there may be evidence that he’s not aware of? Or is his ignorance itself supposed to be taken as sufficient evidence? Wouldn’t this lead down to an argument from ignorance? Is the individual not allowed to go on the facts that he has discovered and validated?

Now it should also be borne in mind that the principles which I have affirmed in no way prohibit an individual from expanding his knowledge as he makes discovery of new facts. Context is vital here. For it is within the context of the knowledge which we have already validated that we integrate newly discovered facts.

Also, it seems that Bolt has missed the second half of the principle which I stated, namely “and no evidence against it.” If someone is told that something is possible, and he is given no evidence to support it, knows of no evidence which supports it, and in fact has evidence against it, then he is right to reject it. But perhaps Bolt doesn’t like this either. That’s too bad. For him.

Take for example the claim that the Christian god exists. What Christians proffer as evidence to support the claim that it exists continually turns out under examination not merely to be insufficient, but often to be contrived, misconstrued, or simply empty. Meanwhile, there is ample evidence against the alleged truth of god-belief claims (such as the primacy of existence). Given this context, one is more than justified in rejecting the Christian’s god-belief claims. This entails the fact that one can only accept god-belief claims by ignoring, or in fact denying, the over-arching context which the primacy of existence provides for knowledge in the first place, since the primacy of existence is axiomatic, undeniable, and inescapable. The theist himself assumes its truth, while his theism denies its truth.

Bolt then produced a hypothetical example of someone considering the claim that the earth is not flat presumably without the benefit, for example, of modern technology (such as trans-oceanic seafaring, space travel, and the like):

Consider the Objectivist man living long ago who observed the flatness of Earth about him. When presented with the alleged possibility that Earth is not flat, no evidence was found to support it. His observations of the flatness of Earth about him were taken to be evidence against the alleged possibility that Earth is not flat. He therefore could not affirm even the possibility that Earth is not flat. Rather, he exclaimed, “On my worldview, I work from the evidence, not from hypothetical ‘possibilities’ which are essentially no different from fantasies posing as considerations which need to be taken seriously”. The man never came into contact with what he would consider evidence to support the position that Earth is other than flat and thus could not affirm the possibility that Earth is not flat. He even thought he had good evidence against the possibility. His conclusion was that it is impossible that Earth is not flat. Perhaps the man was mistaken due to the Objectivist view of possibility he adhered to, or perhaps it is impossible that Earth is other than flat. The latter conclusion is false and the former is true. The man was mistaken due to the Objectivist view of possibility. The view is seriously flawed.

I highly doubt that the would-be “Objectivist man living long ago” would, as a matter of default, simply assume that the earth is flat. He would require evidence for this position just as much as he would need evidence for any other position on the matter. For instance, in his experience of the earth, he may see primarily mountainous regions. I myself grew up surrounded by mountains and hills; this landscape in no way suggested to me that the earth is “flat.”

In the present case which Bolt asks us to consider, it must be noted that, in order to make an evaluation of the would-be Objectivist’s reasoning concerning the claim that the earth is flat or possibly flat, we would need to know what specifically he was told. The claim that the earth is not flat does not exclusively entail the understanding that the earth is spherical, for instance. One could deny the earth’s flatness, but affirm that it has the shape of an undulating wave, that it is curvedly polyhedral, or that it has the shape of a turtle’s shell (I’m reminded of The Portable Presuppositionalist, p. 134.n15). Again, context is vital here. When this individual was “presented with the alleged possibility that Earth is not flat,” what specifically was the alternative indicated? Why wasn’t evidence provided in support of it? What indicators accompanied the claim that the earth is not flat? The scenario which Bolt presents here tends to require us to consider knowledge claims in a sterile environment, when in fact we each bring an enormous context to the knowledge claims we are asked to consider. I’d think even a presuppositionalist could appreciate this.

If Bolt is supposing that there was no evidence available to the peoples of the past to support the inference that the earth is in fact spherical, he’s wrong. Aristotle cited ample observational evidence – for instance, the visibility of certain constellations given one’s latitude on the earth’s surface, the shadow cast by the earth on the moon during an eclipse – that the earth is in fact spherical. (As a side note, Rand herself would probably argue that the Objectivist of the “long ago” past was Aristotle, as her philosophy is predominantly influenced by Aristotle.) Subsequent observations added to this body of evidence. Ironically, for instance, it’s where the earth is “flattest” – such as on the surface of lake or sea – that its curvature is most apparent. Ships on the horizon, for instance, appear to displace significantly more water (i.e., sit lower in the water) than they are known to.

It should also be pointed out that the earth as a whole is not perceivable in its entirety to anyone standing on its surface. So an individual cannot reasonably be expected to know automatically things about its overall shape – whether flat or spherical or something else – that would be confirmable only from such a vantage. In biblical times, for instance, it was generally assumed that the earth was in fact a flat surface resting on pillars. In Isaiah 40:22, for instance, we read of what the author calls “the circle of the earth.” Curiously, many Christian apologists cite this verse as evidence that its authors were aware of the fact that the earth is actually spherical in shape. But a circle is not a sphere. A circle, like a disc, is flat, not spherical.

In his conclusion, Bolt states the following:

In any event, given Dawson’s rule, “If there is no evidence for a proposition, there is no need to take it seriously” there is no reason to take his statement “To affirm a possibility, one needs at least some evidence to support it, and no evidence against it” seriously. It may be that it should not even be considered possibly true.

The evidence which I offer for the truth of my statements includes (but is not limited to) the following:

(a) the axioms, especially the axiom of consciousness (consciousness is consciousness of something),

(b) the primacy of existence (existence exists independent of consciousness),

(c) the integration of (a) and (b) – i.e., the implications which the primacy of existence have in regard to knowledge, e.g., the task of consciousness is to perceive and identify its objects, not create them or dictate what their identity should be, etc., and

(d) the fact that concepts are ultimately formed on the basis of perceptual input.

Epistemologically, the only position open to us given these premises is that knowledge (which for man is conceptual in nature) ultimately requires the basis of perceptual input, i.e., evidence collected from reality which we observe and from which we form our initial concepts. Bolt is welcome to deny any of these points (a) through (d). But what would he offer in their place? Would he deny the truth of the axiom of consciousness? That would be directly self-defeating. Would he deny the truth of the primacy of existence? He would be making use of the principle while denying it. Would he argue that we should not integrate the axiom of consciousness with the principle of the primacy of existence? He would be arbitrarily putting up walls of separation between principles whose truths are self-evident. Would he deny the fact that man’s knowledge is conceptual in nature? He would need to do this without using concepts. Would he try to argue that concepts are not ultimately formed on the basis of perceptual input? He would be admitting that, on his worldview, concepts have no objective basis. For that matter, where does he get a theory of concepts? Or does he even have one? Etc.

These problems are just the tip of the iceberg if he wants to dispute my position.

By Dawson Bethrick

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Chris Bolt on Hume and Induction

Presuppositionalist Chris Bolt has raised some more questions about induction in his recent comments to this blog of mine.

Chris Bolt writes:

One would presumably think that if Hume is outdated and his problem easily dealt with it would not require so much writing to provide an answer to my questions.

Actually, what takes a lot of time and energy, two commodities which are in short supply for me presently, is undoing Hume’s many errors. Or, does Bolt think that Hume made no errors? Does Bolt believe that Hume’s analysis of induction is free of any error? Does Bolt think that Hume’s argument about induction is sound? If Bolt thinks this, then he would require much schooling to understand where Hume went wrong than I have time for. Then again, why would this be my responsibility?

But I’m hoping to provide some pointers here for Bolt, though I’m supposing much of it will go over his head given his unfamiliarity with Objectivism.

Bolt writes:

Recall from what Dawson has written that I am still awaiting a response from him. What he has provided thus far does not suffice. His comments indicate that he has more to say in order to try and answer my questions.

Yes, I have oodles to say about induction. But much of it has already been stated in other sources. I have already referred my readers to David Kelley’s treatment of the topic (for instance, see here). Kelley addresses the matter directly, and points out several of Hume’s errors in framing the matter. I would also recommend Ayn Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, which develops her theory of concepts. The importance of a good understanding of concepts cannot be over-emphasized, since induction is a conceptual process. You won’t learn this fact from the bible, though. Nor will you learn it from Greg Bahnsen.

Unfortunately, the lack of a conceptual understanding of induction does not stop presuppositionalists from promoting Hume’s problem of induction as a topic of debate with non-Christians. They apparently think not only that Hume’s conception of the problem needs to be addressed on Hume’s terms (which assumes that Hume’s analysis of induction is faultless), but also that belief in the Christian god somehow overcomes the problem. The operative implication of the inductive version of TAG (the “transcendental argument for the existence of ‘God’”) goes essentially as follows: if non-Christians can produce no satisfactory answer to Hume (again, taking the validity of Hume’s analysis of induction for granted), then Christianity is vindicated. Why? Because only a supernatural being such as the Christian god can guarantee the uniformity of nature.

As Brian Knapp writes:

In the nature of the case, the answer to the question of why it is reasonable to assume nature is and will continue to be uniform must originate from outside nature itself; that is, outside of man and his experiences. Any answer that originates from within nature will always ultimately be justified through the use of induction, as for any solution to apply to the unexperienced realm requires applying a conclusion drawn from experience to that which has not yet been experienced. (“Induction and the Unbeliever,” The Portable Presuppositionalist, p. 131)

The first thing I notice about this analysis of induction and its justification, is that it does not benefit from an informed understanding of the conceptual nature of induction itself. One of the points which Kelley makes in his interaction with Hume is that "inductive generalization is not the only way to extract information from the senses" (Universals and Induction). In fact, inductive generalization is not even the primary means by which we gather information of reality through the senses. On the contrary, we form our initial concepts on the basis of immediate perceptual input. The profound implications which this process has for expanding our knowledge beyond that which we perceive in the immediate moment is completely overlooked by the type of analysis which Knapp presents in his paper. Indeed, we would not even be able to perform inductive inferences without first having formed concepts in the manner which the objective theory of concepts explicates.

My view is not only that thinkers need to make a more critical examination of Hume’s conception of induction, but also that we should recognize the inductive implications which concept-formation provides even before our very first inductive inference. I don't know why this should be so controversial, unless someone is trying to hide something.

This approach seems completely foreign to the presuppositionalist mindset, as if it had never been considered. Apologist James Anderson, for instance, has written an essay titled Secular Responses to the Problem of Induction. In this essay, Anderson reviews several of the more popular attempts to address the problem of induction, including those endorsed by Frederick Will, Max Black, Karl Popper, Hans Reichenbach, et al. Curiously, Anderson does not consider Kelley’s response to Hume. Indeed, I don’t think it would serve Anderson’s ends very well if he had. What is common to all the attempted answers to the problem of induction which Anderson does survey, is the fact that none of them points out that Hume’s analysis of induction is faulty. Additionally, none of those attempted solutions addresses induction’s nature as a conceptual process. When I pointed out to Anderson that

I'm always surprised, when reading a paper that attempts to deal with induction, that there is no discussion of concepts, the nature of their forming, or their relationship to inductive generalization, as if these issues did not matter

Anderson’s telling response was:

Well, it's not immediately obvious to me how the nature of concept formation bears either on the description of the problem of induction or on the development of cogent solutions.

I call this admission “telling” because it really tells us all we need to know. The problem here is not that Hume’s analysis of induction is faultless, but that many thinkers (perhaps most?) fail to understand induction as an extension of the process of abstraction, i.e., of concept-formation. Anderson’s own conclusion, based on his survey of a select sampling of attempts to solve the problem of induction, is that

it is evident that there presently exists no satisfactory solution to the problem of induction from a secular perspective. (Secular Responses to the Problem of Induction)

I find this deliciously ironic, for it is itself an example of a hasty generalization, i.e., a faulty inductive conclusion.

In short, the solution to the problem of induction involves two fundamental tasks: first, correcting the errors in Hume’s understanding of induction (Hume did not understand induction as a conceptual process; neither do presuppositionalists); and second, recognizing how Rand’s theory of concept-formation provides the working model of inductive generalization (as well as answers many of the misconceptions which attend the conventional understanding of the problem of induction, such as when Hume’s analysis of inductive reasoning is taken for granted).

But in my opinion, Bolt is not anywhere near ready for any of this, as his own worldview has burdened his mind with much unnecessary baggage. For instance, he seems not to have understood one of the points which Justin Hall proffered in his own 29 Sept. comment:

A things identity in totality really does not change, for that very identity includes all the ways in which it can change, and if it changes in a way not included in our identity of it, well we expand and improve of conceptualization of its identity.

Now, I understand what Hall is trying to say here. But I don’t expect Bolt to get it. Not now anyway. Bolt’s own reaction to Hall’s statement confirms that he does not understand how this factors into a proper understanding of induction.

But when it comes to a proper understanding of induction, where would Bolt go to find this? To the bible?

Please, this is a serious matter.

It would seem that a presuppositionalist – i.e., someone who feigns to be concerned about “presuppositions” – would have more appreciation for the foundations of inductive reasoning than Bolt displays. That is why I asked him to make it clear whether or not he disputes the truth of the Objectivist axioms.

Specifically, this is what I asked Bolt in my 17 Sept. comment:

In the meantime, I wanted to ask you if you dispute the truth of the Objectivist axioms. They are the following:

1. The axiom of existence: This is the axiom which states “existence exists.” It is the explicit recognition that something exists, that there is a reality.

2. The axiom of consciousness: This is the axiom which states “consciousness is conscious of something.” It is the recognition that, to be conscious of the fact that things exist (the axiom of existence), one must be conscious.

3. The axiom of identity: This is the axiom which states “to exist is to be something” (as opposed to “nothing”). This is the recognition that a thing which exists is itself, that to exist is to have a nature, an identity, that A = A.

4. The primacy of existence: This is the recognition that “existence exists independent of consciousness,” i.e., that the nature of an entity is what it is independent of the activity of consciousness.

If you dispute the truth of any of these axioms, it is important for your understanding that you make your contentions known before going any further. If your own understanding of the Objectivist position is not important to you, then I would ask that you make this clear.

In response to this, Bolt writes (6 Oct.):

As for the so called “Objectivist axioms”; it is necessary for Dawson to show in a much more specific manner how they are at all relevant to the discussion. So far he has been unable to do so. I find the axioms to be incoherent. It may be that I just do not know enough about them. In either case I rightfully have difficulty accepting them.

Notice that, on the one hand, Bolt says that he “find[s] the axioms to be incoherent” (though he does not say why), but on the other hand says that I am “unable” to show how they relate to the topic under consideration. This latter judgment is quite hasty. As I indicated in my 17 Sept. comment, I have been quite busy over the past few weeks. That Bolt does not practice even a little charity here suggests that pursuing the matter with him will probably be fruitless for both of us.

The reason why I asked Bolt whether or not he disputes the truth of the Objectivist axioms, was not specifically to draw out their implications for inductive reasoning per se, but to make it clear where he stands. If he denies the truth of the Objectivist axioms outright, then I want to know this before wasting any more time trying to educate him on the topic of induction. As for their relevance to induction, this should not be difficult to see. Induction is a mental process about objects of one’s awareness. As such, induction presupposes the truth of the axioms; it presupposes the fact that there is a reality (the axiom of existence), that the one performing inductive inferences is in fact aware of objects (the axiom of consciousness), and that the objects of one’s awareness have a specific nature (the axiom of identity). Induction also presupposes a relationship between consciousness and its objects, which is identified by the primacy of existence. If Bolt thinks that these axioms are not true, and/or fails to recognize their fundamental importance to inductive reasoning, then I would wager that he is in sore need of substantial remedial tutoring before he would be in any position to understand, let alone appreciate, the Objectivist analysis of induction and its answer to Hume. Indeed, that Bolt needs all this spelled out to him explicitly, only proves my suspicion that he is simply not ready for a crash course on the Objectivist analysis of induction, that in fact he should start with the basics, beginning with a primer in the axioms.

In the same breath, Bolt acknowledges that he may simply not understand the axioms and their relation to induction sufficiently. If that’s the case, then indeed he requires much schooling on the matter, and I do not know why this is my responsibility, especially if he insists on being unteachable on the matter. For all I know, it may be the case that he does not even recognize the fact that he assumes the truth of the Objectivist axioms every time he thinks, speaks and acts. Helping him understand this would be first-order business, long before we ever get to the conceptual mechanics of induction.

Bolt continues:

For example if “existence exists” is “something exists; there is a reality” then I do not understand why the tenet would be expressed in such vague language.

Right after I have explained what “existence exists” means (see above), Bolt announces that he thinks its language is vague. How is the explicit recognition that existence exists, that there is a reality, vague? Bolt tells us about himself here, and says nothing about the axiom itself. Does the concept ‘existence’ have meaning in Bolt’s view? Either it does, or it does not. To what does the concept ‘existence’ refer in Bolt’s view? What does he think it denotes? Does it refer to something that exists, or to something that does not exist?

The language here is not vague. The axiom ‘existence exists’ identifies a fundamental truth using a single concept. If the axiom used more than one concept, we would be left asking: which is more fundamental? Rand avoided this by stating her irreducible primary as a single-concept axiom. In Objectivism, the concept ‘existence’ is a collective noun denoting everything that exists, which has existed, and which will exist.

It is wholly important that we not miss out on the purpose which the Objectivist axioms fulfill. They explicitly identify a relationship which is fundamental to all knowledge, as Porter explains:

Axiomatic concepts [‘existence’, ‘consciousness’, ‘identity’] are metaphysical concepts, identifying the fundamental distinction and relation between consciousness and existence, between the knower and the known, between epistemology and ontology. (Ayn Rand’s Theory of Knowledge, p. 223)

Those who do not want these relationships explicitly identified and understood, would do well to avoid Objectivism at all costs. But why would anyone not want to identify and understand these relationships? What is it that they want to protect? What are they trying to hide? Philosophies other than Objectivism have succeeded very well in keeping the nature of the relationship between consciousness and its objects out of mind and out of sight.

It hasn’t been explicitly articulated, so philosophers feel no discomfort in straddling it. (Porter, Ayn Rand’s Theory of Knowledge, p. 199)

I wholly agree with Porter, especially when he states:

I think the primacy of existence is the most important issue in philosophy. I think it’s the real axiom of Objectivism. (Ibid., p. 198)

What is Bolt’s position on the primacy of existence? I asked, but he resists stating it for the record. Apparently Bolt has adopted the policy of "don't ask, don't tell." If so, why?

In mulling over the meaning of the axiom of existence, Bolt himself acknowledges its truth:

Do I believe that something exists? Yes

Was that so hard?

Then he hastens to state:

God exists, for example.

Already Bolt has derailed himself by confusing what is merely imaginary with what actually exists. Indeed, just by saying “God exists,” Bolt performatively contradicts himself. He makes use of the primacy of existence while affirming a claim which denies the primacy of existence.

Bolt continues:

Do I believe that there is a reality? I suppose that would depend upon how one defines “reality”.

Conspicuously, Bolt does not tell us how he defines the concept ‘reality’. In Objectivism, reality is the realm of existence. In Christianity, however, reality is a combination of that which exists with that which the believer imagines. The earth exists, for instance, but so do supernatural beings which the believer enshrines in his imagination. Should we be surprised why Bolt does not divulge his definitions? I don’t think so.

Bolt goes on:

If “existence exists” is the same thing as “something exists” then “existence” must be “something”, but what is it and how is it known? Such vague language being utilized in the expression of an axiom makes me wary and raises suspicion that much more may be smuggled in somewhere down the line.

If Bolt were truly concerned about illicit assumptions being “smuggled in somewhere down the line,” he should see the value which Objectivism provides. As the quote from Porter above rightly indicates, keeping the proper relationship between consciousness and its objects hidden from view, is key to smuggling illicit assumptions into one’s worldview. Objectivism deters this by making the proper relationship between the known and the process of knowing, by “identifying the fundamental distinction and relation between consciousness and existence, between the knower and the known, between epistemology and ontology,” explicit. You can’t hide from it once it’s been made explicit at the foundation of one’s worldview. Indeed, why would one want to?

Hopefully my points above will put Bolt’s fears to rest.

But what about the other axioms? Bolt only kicks around on the axiom of existence. He does not indicate whether or not he disputes the truth of the axioms of consciousness, identity and the primacy of existence. Instead, he wants to discuss higher-level issues pertaining to induction. But if Bolt disputes the truth of the Objectivist axioms, it’s unlikely that he’ll understand (let alone accept) anything I have to say on induction, since the Objectivist theory of induction which I hold presupposes the truth of the Objectivist axioms. As Brian Knapp puts it:

The issue at hand is truly presuppositional in nature. (“Induction and the Unbeliever,” The Portable Presuppositionalist, p. 121)

Just what are the presuppositions which Bolt holds in regard to the relationship between consciousness and its objects? Indeed, before Bolt can understand the Objectivist theory of induction, he would not only need to recognize the truth of the Objectivist axioms, but he would also need a good understanding of the Objectivist theory of concepts. But from what I can tell, Bolt is nowhere ready for this.

In my 29 Sept. comment responding to Justin Hall, I wrote:

This 'makes sense' given their acceptance of the Humean conception of causation. I have discussed the problems with this conception of causation here.

In response to this, Bolt writes:

Have you actually read Hume? He offers something quite like what you are presenting here. I am afraid that the solution is not as easy as saying that causation in Objectivism is drastically different so as to avoid Hume’s concerns. :) I have already addressed this attempt at a way out in my questions and plan to write more on it.

Notice that Bolt does not quote Hume to show that what he offered is “something quite like” what I have presented. He simply asserts that what Hume offers is similar to what I have presented, as if it were common knowledge. It’s not. Yes, I have read Hume, many times in fact. And contrary to what Bolt says here, Hume does not offer the conception of causation which Objectivism endorses. As I have already explained, Hume’s analysis of induction assumes the “event-based” model of causation, which conceives of causation as a relationship between events which happen to follow in succession. Hume writes:

All events seem entirely loose and separate. One event follows another; but we never can observe any tie between them. They seem conjoined, but never connected. (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding)

Interestingly, it is clear from statements Bahnsen makes in his publications that he assumed the event-based theory of causation which underwrites Hume’s understanding of induction. For instance, in his book Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, Bahnsen writes:

If the mind of God does not sovereignly determine the relationship of every event to every other event according to His wise plan, then the way things are in the world and what happens there are random and indeterminate. In that case, there is no intelligible basis for holding that any experience is like any other experience, there is nothing objectively common to the two of them, and there is no causal connection between any two events – and thus they are meaningless and undescribable. (P. 110n.64)

The Objectivist conception of causation is radically different from the Humean view in that it (Objectivism) views causation as a relationship between an entity and its own actions rather than merely a relationship between “events” (however the term may be defined). The Objectivist view of causation is essentially the application of the law of identity to action (since actions exist, they have identity), and constitutes the recognition that an entity’s actions depend on its nature (hence it is a necessary relationship). This is axiomatic. It is also significant to a proper understanding of induction. And no, I never suggested that this is all there is to it, as Bolt seems to think. Objectivism does not say: “our conception of causation is different from Hume’s, and that alone solves the problem of induction.” The proper conception of causality is indeed very important to the matter, but it is not the only factor. There is also the theory of concepts. As Rand pointed out:

The process of observing the facts of reality and of integrating them into concepts is, in essence, a process of induction. (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 28)

This is why, more and more, I have come to view concept-formation as providing the working model for inductive reasoning.

While presuppositionalists try to solve the problem of induction by (a) accepting Hume’s analysis of induction and (b) pointing to an imaginary creator which somehow guarantees the uniformity of nature (which is stipulated in that imagination), Objectivism takes a radically different approach, including (a) correcting Hume’s faulty analysis of induction and (b) understanding the conceptual nature of inductive reasoning explicitly.

Hume made numerous mistakes in his epistemology. But nowhere do I see Van Til or Bahnsen pointing this out when they deploy the inductive version of TAG. On the contrary, they seem to be counting on the potential that both apologists who wield TAG and those whom such apologists seek to engage, are simply unaware of Hume’s mistakes. For instance, in his essay “Induction and the Unbeliever” (The Portable Presuppositionalist, pp. 118-142), presuppositionalist Brian Knapp makes no effort to point out Hume’s mistakes. Indeed, doing so would be counter-productive to the intended outcome of TAG, which is essentially to elicit the response: “Duh, I donno! Must be God did it!

I wrote:

Typically they believe that in order to use knowledge of the present to inform our projections of the future, we have to prove that nature is uniform. But this ignores several key facts, such as: (i) proof presupposes the uniformity of nature, and (ii) the uniformity of nature is essentially the consistent application of the axioms

Bolt responds:

Ignores? I do not think it ignores these things at all.

If the challenge is that one prove that nature is uniform (as my comment noted), then the challenge does in fact ignore the fact that proof presupposes the uniformity of nature. The uniformity of nature is not established by proof. To require a proof is to commit the fallacy of the stolen concept. But in his essay, Knapp doesn’t seem to recognize this either.

Bolt goes on to ask:

What difference does it make that the uniformity of nature must be presupposed?

The difference which this makes is the difference between knowledge and fallacy. Axiomatic truths are not truths which must be established by means of proof. It is not the case that the uniformity must merely be presupposed – certainly not for its own sake. It is a precondition of meaning. But since this is ultimately axiomatic, that is not a problem for those who are willing to govern their cognition according to the constraints delineated by the axioms.

Bolt says:

The skeptic is essentially asking, “Why presuppose it?”

The very question “Why presuppose it?” itself presupposes it. The question would not be meaningful without it. That’s all we need to point out to the skeptic. If he doesn’t like it, he can pound sand. His likes and dislikes do not alter reality. Nor do they constitute a lien on man’s cognition.

Bolt states:

It has not been shown how “consistent application of the axioms” solves the problem either, regardless of how many times Dawson repeats the “Objectivist axioms” as though they are philosophically insightful.

Nowhere did I say that the consistent application of the axioms “solves the problem [of induction],” but rather that ”the uniformity of nature is essentially the consistent application of the axioms”. Take a look at the axiom of identity. It is the recognition that to exist is to be something, to have a nature. If something exists, it is itself. As Rand rightly put it, “Existence is Identity” (Atlas Shrugged). How one could deny this truth and yet affirm the uniformity of nature is beyond me. One would need (very) good reason not to integrate new units into his knowledge according to this recognition once it’s been made explicit. The skeptic is cognitively impotent at this point, since any attempt he makes to validate the move to jettison this recognition will itself assume the truth of this recognition. So he can only commit the fallacy of the stolen concept in asking us to pursue with him his skeptical course.

I wrote:

For skeptics, ‘the future’ is merely a stand-in for ‘the unknowable’…But for rational individuals, the concepts ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’ are merely temporal designations.

Bolt responds:

The term future is not synonymous with the term unknowable

Of course it’s not. But the skeptic’s tactic is to pretend that it is, to treat it as if it were synonymous. Pointing out that it is not so synonymous effectively defuses his intended gambit.

Bolt continues:

and there is no need for a skeptic to assume that it is.

Of course he doesn’t need to. But he often does nonetheless, not because he feels a need to do so, but because he’s afraid of the consequences of not doing so. Just like presuppositionalists.

Bolt writes:

Of course “past”, “present”, and “future” are temporal designations. So what? You have not provided anything that would lead one to believe that “preconditions” must therefore be “affirmed” at these different “times”.

The concepts ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’ do all the providing themselves, since they have meaning. These are not first-level concepts. On the contrary, they are complex abstractions which rest on knowledge residing on the lower tiers of the knowledge hierarchy. This is why I raised the question, “the future of what?” The intention here is to remind us that the concept “future” does in fact have meaning, and that its meaning cannot obtain unless certain preconditions are understood to be in place. Those preconditions include, but are not limited to, the truths denoted by the axioms.

Another, very crucial point about temporal designations (as which Bolt agrees the concepts ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’ qualify), a point which most treatments of induction tend to miss, is the fact that in forming concepts of entities (and keep in mind that entities are what act), time is an omitted measurement. Moreover, so is location. This is significant.

In his essay “Induction and the Unbeliever” (in The Portable Presuppositionalist), Brian Knapp suggests that

an appeal to past experience in drawing conclusions about the future is the very definition of inductive reasoning (p. 126)

while earlier in his paper he states:

Although induction is primarily thought of in the relation of past events to future events, it is also relevant to the way in which a given event will occur in a different location. ...induction has both spatial as well as temporal applicability. (p. 122n.5)

How one conceives of induction in the first place has great significance on what problems it may pose for human cognition and how it is justified. Where for presuppositionalists like Knapp “induction is primarily thought of in the relation of past events to future events” (notice the primacy which is put on “events” here; compare with Anderson’s definition of the “inductive principle” as “the principle that future unobserved instances will resemble past observed instances”), I tend to think of induction as a process of reasoning from sample to population (which is entity-based and conceptual in nature).

While Knapp is correct to say that we make inferences about future happenings as well as about happenings in different locations, what he fails to grasp explicitly is the fact that time and place are omitted measurements. This has profound implications for induction. In fact, this is what makes such inferences possible in the first place. Specifically, the fact that a concept integrating like entities into a single unit omits (i.e., de-specifies) temporal and spatial measurements, is what makes them available to our inferences about an entity’s actions regardless of time and place. But the knowledge necessary for such inferences, i.e., the information which we need to inform such estimations, is already available to us in our formation of concepts of entities. Gotthelf summarizes as follows:

The integration distinctive of concept-formation begins with multiple perceptual grasps of a small number of individuals (for example, a child’s noticing of some tables similar to each other and different from some nearby chairs), and moves to an open-end grasp of all relevantly similar individuals, past, present and future (for example, a grasp of all tables, past, present, and future). (Ayn Rand on Concepts)

For instance, the concept ‘man’ includes every man who exists now, who has existed and who will exist, regardless of how many this might potentially be (after all, who’s keeping count?), regardless of when any of them might live, and regardless of where they might exist. The concept ‘man’ includes men who are six feet tall as well as those who are four feet tall, those who are lean and muscular as well as those who are fat and slovenly, those who are young as well as those who are old, those who are clean-shaven as well as those wearing full beard, living in this century or in the sixth century BCE, in North America or New Zealand, etc. Since we ourselves are capable of forming concepts (which are open-ended in the manner described here), we are in effect able to have at least some knowledge, however abstract, of men whom we will never personally encounter in life. For instance, we can know, just by the concept which we have formed on the basis of a relatively very small sample of men, that the men living in other parts of the earth in previous centuries were, like the ones we do know, biological organisms, that they breathe air, that they have bones, skin, organs, needs, etc. We can know these things about men whose existence we hypothesize in our projections of the future. Why? Because time is an omitted measurement. Any units not possessing these attributes could not justifiably be integrated into the concept ‘man’. In the case of such projections, induction uses the concepts which have been formed by an objective process (which Rand articulates in her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology), and essentially employs it according to its meaning. Since measurement-omission is a key aspect of the abstraction process, variations within certain ranges – ranges are defined by the units which we do encounter, but which we expand on the basis of integrating new units which we encounter after originally forming the concept – are not disallowed in our inductive projections. What is disallowed, since the process of forming concepts is objective, is context-dropping. For instance, a man which is not biological, which lives by breathing sulfuric acid, which has ten legs, an exoskeleton, etc. We can imagine such things, but such imaginations drop the context of what we learn about men in reality.

So not only do temporal designations themselves presuppose certain fundamental preconditions in order for them to have any meaning (let the skeptic affirm their meaning while denying their genetic roots), the fact that time is an omitted measurement in the formation of concepts of entities eliminates the skeptical hurdles which the Humean conception of induction arbitrarily imposes on human cognition (let the skeptic affirm that the formation of concepts does not omit measurements). The skeptic’s angle simply implodes on itself. Meanwhile, the concept ‘future’, properly understood, simply does not have the adverse significance for inductive reasoning that the skeptic assumes it has.

I wrote:

“The future,” then, refers to a continuation of the reality which exists from the present.

Bolt protests:

No Dawson. How do you know that reality will continue from the present?

I know this by my recognition of the fact that existence exists. This is absolute context, and is undefeatable. It is power.

Bolt then asks:
How do you know that it will be the same? Are you saying that reality never changes, that specifics of reality never change, or what? Be careful lest you head down the same road as Justin! :)
Regardless of what I do and do not know, some things will change, while other things will not change. The population of Tokyo will change. The height of the tree I planted in my backyard will change. The truths denoted by the axioms will not change. Whether I know this or not is no impediment to existence. Existence exists. I merely observe, identify, wonder, and enjoy. And I enjoy it all, regardless of who disapproves.

I wrote:

[The concept ‘future’] does not, therefore, refer to some alien universe whose physics constitute a reversal of those which apply in the reality which exists.

Bolt asks:

Why not?

Because its meaning has an objective basis. Let him who disputes, take up his dispute, and announce his view that concepts have no meaning. Otherwise, he would be wise to hold his tongue, and take a vow of silence. Or, he can join the Objectivists, and recognize that concepts do have meaning, and that their meaning has an objective basis. We all have this choice. What’s your choice, Bolt?

I wrote:

Presuppositionalists point to Hume as if his conclusion regarding induction were sound. But they never show that it is sound. They simply assume that it is, and with this assumption they endorse all of Hume’s relevant mistakes.

Bolt responded:

You can hand waive all day but it will not make the arguments and questions go away. [sic]

This statement very strongly suggests that Bolt does in fact think Hume’s conclusion about induction is soundly established. It is hard to make sense of his statement otherwise.

At any rate, observing that an argument is faulty, is all one needs to do to “make it go away.” If an argument is unsound, why should anyone need to pay it any mind? Unfortunately, Bolt has not shown that Hume’s argument is error-free. He can wave his hand all day, but that will not make the errors which an argument commits go away.

by Dawson Bethrick