Wednesday, November 01, 2023

Anderson’s Anti-Epistemological Argument Against Naturalism

Recently Christian apologist James Anderson recently published An Epistemological Argument Against Naturalism. Readers are encouraged to take a look for themselves.

There is much that I could provide in response to what Anderson presents there, but along with some comments about Anderson’s overall approach to the matter, I’m going to confine my present objections to two primary areas. In my estimate, the objections I will present below are sufficient to refute this argument beyond recovery. (Mind you, in doing so, I am not attempting to defend “Naturalism” as a worldview, for no version of Naturalism that I have looked at addresses the fundamental philosophical needs which Objectivism addresses.)

If, after reading through what I have to say here, readers still have further questions on Anderson’s argument, feel free to post a comment. Reader feedback is always welcome.

Anderson’s argument consists of the following:
P1: If Naturalism is true, then all factual knowledge (i.e., knowledge of facts) is acquired empirically. 
P2: Knowledge of necessary facts cannot be acquired empirically. 
P3: We have some knowledge of necessary facts. 
C: Therefore, Naturalism is not true.
Anderson provides some definitions, which will help us interact with his argument’s premises.

By “Naturalism,” Anderson means “the ontological thesis that only natural things exist.” (By contrast, Objectivism recognizes the distinction between the metaphysical and the man-made (see here) – i.e., those things which exist naturally as opposed to those things which human beings can fashion from things which exist naturally. So a clarifying modification would be: only natural and man-made things exist.)

By “empirically” Anderson means “by way of sense experience or observation” – which can only mean awareness “by means of our sensory organs.”

Roundabout Apologetics

Before I delve into what I consider to be fatal vulnerabilities of Anderson’s argument, I just want to a few higher-level comments about Anderson’s paper, beginning with the apparent purpose behind this argument and the argument itself as a vehicle for achieving that purpose. If one’s purpose is to disprove “the ontological thesis that only natural things exist,” I’d think that the surest and most efficient way to do this would be to produce evidence of existing things that are not natural (or man-made). But I don’t see that Anderson has done this. Rather, it seems to be another example of roundabout apologetics that we see so routinely from presuppositionalists. For example, they apparently think they can prove their god’s existence by finding some fault with “the atheist worldview” (cf. the notion of “the impossibility of the contrary”). Or they apparently think that Christianity can “account for” the preconditions of inductive inference by showing that common secular theories fail to justify “the inductive principle.” And here, apparently “the ontological thesis that only natural things exist” is shown to be untrue because “knowledge of necessary facts cannot be acquired empirically.”

These “indirect” approaches to apologetics (which bear striking similarities to: “you’re wrong, therefore I’m right”) may serve as an opportunity for academic show-boating, but they invite the temptation to mischaracterize alternative positions (apologists have great difficulty resisting this temptation), and their effect – perhaps even their very purpose – is to distract audiences from what should be playing a starring role in their presentations: if the apologist has actual proof that his god really does exist, what exactly is his proof? We know that the conclusion should be “Therefore, God exists.” But what premises soundly support this conclusion? We are not provided this; rather, we are provided endless rabbit holes which divert our attention beyond distant peripheries into matters that will simply gum us up in side debates as well as a charade of table-turning aimed at putting non-believers on the defensive. At some point, we should realize that the apologist has no actual argument proving the existence of his god. In the final analysis, it’s all sleight of hand.

Of course, we might ask: what would be an alternative to something natural? To exist is to be something, to have a nature, to have identity. This is the case whether it’s a naturally occurring phenomenon or something man-made. There is no such thing as an existent that has no nature. But what alternative to natural things would there be if not supposed existents lacking a nature, lacking an identity? Is our epistemology consistent with the Law if Identity throughout, or do we pretend that some things are exempt from having an identity? To object to the view that “only natural things exist,” then, is to grant validity, however tacitly, to the notion that things can exist without identity. But this is a contradiction in terms at the most fundamental metaphysical level – the level of existence itself.

Again, there are many notions in Anderson’s paper which can – and should - be challenged, such as the rationalism-empiricism dichotomy, the necessary-contingent dichotomy, the imaginative notion of “possible worlds,” the notion of “exist[ing] spatiotemporally,” the notion of “a priori factual knowledge,” etc., all of which weigh down Anderson’s philosophical plights and hide from audiences the fact that his overall worldview has no objective starting point, no grasp of the issue of metaphysical primacy, no understanding of the nature of concepts. Consequently, it is not an epistemological argument that Anderson presents, but in fact an anti-epistemological argument taking for granted a whole host of invalid and false ideas.

This comes out even when presuming to speak on behalf of Naturalism, Anderson writes:
the only way for factual knowledge (i.e., knowledge of how things are in the external world) to get into the brain is by way of physical sensory organs, or, more loosely, physical ‘input devices’.
No doubt there are people who think this, but in fact the senses do not give us awareness of knowledge as if knowledge is this thing floating in the air or hiding under rocks. Our senses give us awareness of entities which exist independently of the processes by which we are aware of them, and knowledge is the product of a process performed by the mind which we call abstraction, i.e., concept-formation. The mind plays an active role in developing knowledge – it does not just passively absorb knowledge from the world, nor does knowledge seep into the mind through the senses, like a leaking sludge or body fluid. The theistic view isn’t any better off, for it holds that the human mind passively absorbs ‘revelations’ from otherworldly sources which we can access only by means of imagination. Any view which effectively denies the active nature of human cognition in discovering, forming and validating knowledge as a product of volitional engagement with the objects of awareness is short-changing man’s mind and mutilating the conceptual level of human awareness beyond all recognition. Such views do not qualify as genuine epistemology.

Objection 1:

My first objection really has to do with what Anderson’s own argument actually concedes. What Anderson does not argue is that conscious activity as such is incompatible with the view that “only natural things exist.” Fundamentally, he grants that sense experience and observation – even factual knowledge as such (at least in terms of “how things are”) – are compatible with “the ontological thesis that only natural things exist.” This is a self-detonating concession, for if it is granted that conscious activity of any kind is compatible with the view that “only natural things exist,” then that should be sufficient to suppose that other kinds of conscious activity are also compatible with the view that “only natural things exist.” Anderson nowhere argues that only certain kinds of conscious activity are compatible with “the ontological thesis that only natural things exist” while others are not. By granting that the natural structures of human physiology support conscious activity (which he does by allowing sense perception and observation to be available on the Naturalist view), he thereby concedes that conscious activity as such is not incompatible with “the ontological thesis that only natural things exist.”

Objectivism observes that we find three levels of consciousness in nature: the level of sensational level, the perceptual level, and the conceptual level. Ayn Rand presents these distinctions as follows:
Man’s consciousness shares with animals the first two stages of its development: sensations and perceptions; but it is the third state, conceptions, that makes him man. Sensations are integrated into perceptions automatically, by the brain of a man or of an animal. But to integrate perceptions into conceptions by a process of abstraction, is a feat that man alone has the power to perform—and he has to perform it by choice. (For the New Intellectual, p. 11)
By conceding that human beings (even on the “Naturalist” premise) are capable of sense perception and observation, Anderson is admitting that the two levels or stages of conscious activity which man shares with other animals are in fact compatible with Naturalism so defined. And he provides no argument against the third level of consciousness, that of conceptions, being compatible with “the ontological thesis that only natural things exist.” The very terms of Anderson’s argument grant that conscious activity as such is still possible given the view that “only natural things exist.” Thus, if conscious activity is possible, then conscious activity is possible – i.e., A = A. Human beings, being themselves “natural things,” are conscious organisms capable of forming concepts, including concepts like ‘necessary’ and ‘facts’. Nothing otherworldly or “supernatural” is needed here. The ability to form concepts from perceptual input is a natural ability, just as volition (i.e., the ability to select between alternatives) is also a natural attribute of human consciousness. Given that human beings can form concepts from perceptual input, our conscious activity is not confined to the immediate awareness of concretes; we are not stranded at the level of sense perception. We have the ability to form concepts, and this ability is in no way in conflict with the view that “only natural things exist” (allowing of course for man-made things, which are fashioned from natural things).

We can therefore observe that the human mind, given its natural endowments, is capable of identifying the material provided by the senses in conceptual form. This is possible through a process of abstraction. Children start to do this almost universally from a young age. The concepts which the human mind form can in tern be integrated into statements denoting things we observe in the world around us. We build our knowledge upwards, from the basis of perception, which is the mind’s firsthand contact with reality. For example, we can form the concepts ‘tree’, ‘height’, ‘tall’, etc., and observe “this tree is taller than that tree.” We call these propositions truths, which means the human mind – again, given its natural endowments – is capable of perceiving things and formulating true statements about those things. This puts knowledge of facts within reach of the human mind, since knowledge is conceptual in nature.

Now, this is not some “back door” trying to skirt around the thrust of Anderson’s argument. On the contrary, my objection here uncovers a glaring deficiency in the overall strategy of his argument by observing that its own terms make enough of a concession to admit its own defeat. The vulnerability here cannot be solved for by re-arranging certain assumptions already present in Anderson’s argument; rather, it stems from epistemological deficiencies which are a direct result of a failure of Anderson’s worldview to provide a good understanding of how concepts are formed from our perception of the world. It would have been more profitable for Anderson simply to announce, “we do have knowledge of all kinds of facts, but my worldview does not equip me to explain this.” Of course, it would not follow from this admission, which is very much in order given the tortured logic he has presented to the world, that his worldview is the only one which can “account for” the “necessary preconditions” of knowledge. Rather, it would be a sober starting point for some actual learning.

Of course, it may be that “Naturalism” as a philosophy includes other stipulations not considered here which in fact make it incompatible with the human capacity to form concepts. For example, the report among committed Naturalists may be that they accept the Empiricist horn of the Rationalist-Empiricist dichotomy and thus have no philosophical room for abstractions to begin with. However, the idea that “only natural things exist” by itself is not sufficient to create such an incompatibility (even Anderson apparently finds no tension between this aspect of “Naturalism” and sense perception – which is a type of conscious activity). But if Naturalism does in fact entail such stipulations, so much the worse for Naturalism. If Naturalism rejects the conceptual level of consciousness, then Naturalism should be rejected. However, Anderson does not raise this objection against Naturalism explicitly. His argument is not:
P1’: If Naturalism were true, then human beings would not be capable of forming concepts from perceptual input. 
P2’: Human beings can and do form concepts from perceptual input. 
C’: Therefore, Naturalism is not true.
If Anderson instead argued that the implications of Naturalism (given its pronouncements which make it incompatible with the fact that human beings form concepts from perceptual input) make it untrue because those pronouncements are in fact in fundamental tension with the fact that human beings form concepts from perceptual input, we might find something of lasting value in his paper. But then he would have to draw a similar conclusion about Christianity as well, since Christianity has no theory of concepts at all (along with numerous other epistemological deficiencies – e.g., contrary to Proverbs 1:7, knowledge does not begin with an emotion).

Objection 2:

The other objection I wanted to raise here can be fleshed out with a quick review of Anderson’s examples of “necessary facts.” They are as follows:
- “No physical object is entirely red and entirely green at the same time. 
- “No water molecule contains a carbon atom. 
- “If there’s one stone in the bucket, and I add another stone, there will be two stones in the bucket. 
- “It is morally wrong to torture infants for fun.
There are two points to be made here, neither of which bode well for Anderson’s argument.

The first is that each of these propositions is composed of concepts. That should not be a controversial point, but it is sufficient to tell us that we cannot treat either of these propositions as irreducible primaries. It should be obvious that we would have to grasp the meaning of these statements before we could accept them as true. However, in order to grasp the meaning of these propositions, we would first need to have grasped the meaning of the constituent concepts informing these propositions denoting “necessary facts.” There is an order to understanding because knowledge has a hierarchical structure: we need to understand why 2+2=4 long before we’ll be able to tackle differential calculus. As pointed out above, we build our knowledge upwards, from the raw material provided by the senses to ever-higher abstractions. Leonard Peikoff illustrates this principle as follows:
Human knowledge is not like a village of squat bungalows, with every room huddling down against the earth’s surface. Rather, it is like a city of towering skyscrapers, with the uppermost story of each building resting on the lower ones, and they on the still lower, until one reaches the foundation, where the builder started. The foundation supports the whole structure by virtue of being in contact with solid ground. (Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 130.)
The “knowledge of necessary facts” which Anderson’s examples represent are in fact dependent on more fundamental knowledge, knowledge which is based on perceptual input, even if the propositions in question do not identify facts which are themselves directly available to sense perception and observation (i.e., they must be inferred ultimately from facts which are directly available to sense perception and observation). That’s the beauty of concepts: they allow the mind to expand its awareness beyond the level of perceptions. (Further reading recommendation here: Leonard Peikoff’s essay “The Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy” in Ayn Rand’s book Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology; I recommend this because it’s clear that Anderson’s case assumes the truth of this entire category of false ideas; in How We Know (p. 182) Binswanger puts it aptly: “The basic error behind the analytic-synthetic dichotomy is a wrong view of what a concept is.”)

More to the point, one cannot observe that “no physical object is entirely red and entirely green at the same time” without first having formed the concepts ‘physical’, ‘object’, ‘red’, ‘green’, ‘entirely’, ‘time’, ‘same’ and any other concept which the statement incorporates. And several of these concepts are in fact formed on the basis of direct perceptual input. Indeed, apart from the ability to see colors generally, concepts denoting particular colors or color categories would be meaningless. The same is the case for concepts such as ‘water’, ‘stone’, ‘bucket’, ‘infants’, and others which denote similar concretes. More advanced concepts such as ‘molecule’, ‘morally wrong’, ‘torture’, ‘fun’, etc., are abstractions which are not available to the mind prior to forming concepts of concretes (see chapter 3, “Abstraction from Abstractions,” of Ayn Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology).

Suppose I make the following statement:
“My wife just bought a new vutorisant, and it fits perfectly!”
Is this statement true or not true? If you’re left wondering, “What the hell is a ‘vutorisant’?” you’re on the right track. The truth value of the overall proposition rests on the meaning of its constituent concepts, and if the proposition includes concepts unfamiliar to us or in fact anti-concepts, the proposition as a whole cannot be accepted as a truthful one. The point here is not that Anderson would argue against this observation, but to put the spotlight where it needs to shine: on concepts, not on deliverances from some alleged omniscient source whose ordained “necessary facts” are not accessible to human observation.

So the very constituent concepts of these statements denoting “necessary facts” would not be available to the human mind without either the perceptual activity necessary to provide awareness of the kinds of concretes to which they relate, or the mental activity needed to integrate those concretes into conceptual form, including the higher-level abstractions present in these and other propositions we form on a daily basis.

If it can be the case that (a) “only natural things exist” and (b) human beings can perform conscious activity, including the formation of concepts, then why would these facts be beyond the reach of human consciousness? Blank out. Moreover, if the constituent concepts of statements denoting “necessary truths” are only available to the human mind by forming concepts from perceptual input, what is it about this category of facts in particular that makes them incompatible with “Naturalism” qua “the ontological thesis that only natural things exist”? Again, blank out.

The other objection that can be raised here is that all four of the examples of “necessary facts” which Anderson presents share something critical in common, namely: they all presuppose the truth of the axiom of existence. None of these “necessary facts” could obtain if it were not the case that existence exists. If “necessary facts” is a valid concept, then there could be no fact more “necessary” than the ultra-fundamental fact that existence exists. Yet that is the founding recognition of Objectivism. If Anderson’s examples qualify as “necessary facts,” how much more is the axiom of existence itself an even more fundamental “necessary fact”? And I know of no contradiction between recognizing the fact that existence exists on the one hand, and on the other supposing that “only natural things exist” (again, with the qualification that man-made things also exist, which are made from natural things anyway). And Anderson does not show any incompatibility between these two positions. So not only do the “necessary facts” which Anderson presents as examples for his case depend on the truth of Objectivism’s initial axiom, there’s no tension to be found between Objectivism’s initial axiom and “the ontological thesis that only natural things exist.”

The answer to Anderson’s argument, then, is a good understanding of the nature of concepts, of how we form them from perceptual input, of how concepts expand our awareness beyond the perceptual level to broader identifications encompassing entire categories of things, both natural and man-made, all without the need to pretend that imaginary agents are real things. What is certain is that supernatural entities are not necessary for human beings to discover and validate knowledge of the kinds of facts Anderson calls “necessary facts.” What we need is reason. What a novel concept!

So there you have it. Just a couple pokes, and the would-be menace of presuppositional apologetics simply evaporates into the ether.

by Dawson Bethrick


Robert Kidd said...


Very good post. My only complaint is that it was over too soon! I didn't want it to end.

I don't know if you've ever used them, but your ending comment reminds me of those cloth lantern mantles that you use with gas lights. They are so fragile they break apart if you look at them, practically.

Robert Kidd

Robert Kidd said...

Good Saturday morning, Dawson.

I found this video in the Closer To Truth series. Robert Lawrence Huhn visits with People who are supposedly experts in Epistemology and I found it interesting. What I find most interesting is the one theory of knowledge that was not explored. Why didn't he interview Harry Binswanger, I wonder, or Ankar Ghate?

It's 26 minutes long but I just scrolled through until I saw a different expert and stopped to listen which shortened it considerably.

Robert Kidd

James P. Caputo said...

Hi Dawson,

The beauty of your critique is that its fundamental in nature. Unlike midstream opining, one can’t fake primary philosophy. For who can credibly argue that assumptions, biases, assertions, beliefs, etc., are fundamentals - once it’s brought to his attention that all the foregoing are comprised of concepts? Once it’s established that these concepts are informed by the perception of empirical data, who then can credibly use the products derived from perception to argue against the validity of perception? Or once it’s established that knowledge is hierarchical - that you cant learn the number 7 until you first learn the preceding 6 numbers - who then can credibly smuggle in higher order knowledge in the service of undermining ideas upon which they logically depend?

Your critique deracinates Anderson’s argument, demonstrates its invalidity from the gate. And as you rightly note, much more could have been said. But it wasn’t necessary given what you did choose to address.

Is there anyway you can inform Anderson of your work?

Bahnsen Burner said...

Thanks for the link, Robert. I watched the first seven or so minutes. Here are some notes I took:

Robert Audi: “knowledge is belief connected with the fact known in the right way.”

For one, if this is a definition, it makes the mistake of using the term being defined (or a direct relation) in its own definition. Here the definition of ‘knowledge’ includes the term ‘known’, which is a verbal constructed from the same root from which ‘knowledge’ is formed. I would inquire as to how a defensive analysis of this definition avoids an infinite regress. Needs improvement.

What I find more objectionable here, however, is the idea that knowledge is a species of ‘belief’. On the contrary, beliefs are not possible without the possession of at least some knowledge. If I ‘believe’ the tree in my backyard is a sycamore, I would have to know what a tree is, that the thing in my backyard is in fact a tree (and not, say, a coral reef or steam shovel), and of sycamores (about which in fact I know very little).

A bit later Audi states: “I’m taking knowledge to be constituted by belief. Knowledge is always of truths or realities; belief is not. And one of our problems is to decide when we merely believe and when we know.”

So here Audi confirms the view that knowledge is a species of belief, or at any rate that it is informed by beliefs. I’m struggling, however, to think of a belief that does not rest on at least some knowledge. And if beliefs rest on at least some knowledge, then I continue to come back to the view that possession of at least some knowledge is a precondition for even a very basic belief – whether it’s “I believe it’s Tuesday” or “I believe we got that fan at Walmart.” ‘Belief’ in my view is the degree of confidence one has in some proposal or consideration.

Audi also subscribes to the a priori/a posteriori dichotomy, which Objectivism rejects. And yet the example he gives of a priori knowledge in the case of ethical principles, namely the reason not to cause others pain, he traces right back to experience (and along the way he makes a couple references to agreement with others as though it has epistemological significance):

“Everybody agrees that if you’re in pain, you’ve got a reason to change things, to get rid of the pain. And it doesn’t take much to get people to agree that one you see that others are like you, you’ll see that there’s a reason not to cause them pain as well.”

Seems like the knowledge here is quite dependent on experience.

Then Robert Lawrence Kuhn comes in with his narration: “Okay, let’s see if I’m getting this. Epistemology is the theory of knowledge. Knowledge is deep truth. Belief is opinion. Justified belief means we have good reason to believe what we do, even if the belief is wrong. But even justified true belief may not be the deep truth of knowledge. I like the distinctions. They make me think critically about what I think I know or believe. But pursuing knowledge and belief seems a slippery slope to skepticism. I find myself starting to doubt everything.”

As my brother would say, this is scary for days!


Bahnsen Burner said...

Thanks for the kind comments, James. I think “smuggle” is a very apt term here. Apologists often charge non-Christians of “borrowing” from the Christian worldview. By contrast, it seems that they’re always getting caught shoplifting.

To your question: I know that in the past Anderson’s attention has been drawn to my interactions with his work. On the occasions I’m aware of, he was rather dismissive (see for example here). A few years ago I posted numerous entries interacting with one of his books (see here) and to my knowledge he’s never even acknowledged it. That’s fine. I don’t really expect him to.

But as an educator, Anderson must have some students out there. Perhaps occasionally one lurks my blog? If so, maybe one of them would like to post some thoughts in reaction to what I have presented here on my blog.