Archive for August, 2012

Evolving Free Will


Usually, when arguing a point of religious philosophy, a writer will offer some premises and then argue that they support a particular conclusion. And often, especially with the theistic philosophers, the premises themselves fall apart when I look at them. So I dismiss the argument and move on.

But I have discovered something interesting while reading through offerings in the Ultimate Challenge. I’ve discovered that, even if I provisionally accept the premises, I can have fun with the argument. It doesn’t always have to go the way the original writer takes it. In keeping with my naturally inquisitive character, I thought I’d try articulating one or two of these byways.

The first was inspired by Greg Ganssle’s use of libertarian free will as “evidence” for theism over naturalism. Here is the basic structure of the argument:

Premise 1: Libertarian freedom exists.

Premise 2: Libertarian freedom is more compatible with theism than naturalism.

Conclusion: All else being equal, we should prefer theism over atheism.

Now, Premise 1 is easily dismissed as unproven. In fact, I suspect it is unprovable. So the conclusion collapses without even looking at Premise 2. But let’s see what we can do with Premise 2 anyway, shall we?

Anatomy of the premise

First, I think Premise 1 entails two further premises:

Premise 1a: There is a freedom ether – some realm or substance that can carries or bestows libertarian free will.

Premise 1b: There is some means by which a physical human being could access the freedom ether, thus becoming able to act without being fully caused to act.

If we take these as given, do we need to accept Premise 2? Well, a Christian creator god could be expected to plug humans into the freedom ether (provided it isn’t a Calvinist god). But we haven’t yet looked at what to expect from a naturalistic perspective.

So, as a naturalist, what would I expect from a universe that (1a) contained a freedom ether and (1b) had some means for humans to connect to it?

Well, it seems to me that the capacity to do an end-run around the clockwork universe would provide a selective advantage – one that would be stronger the more complex an organism’s brain is (so that it could evaluate the different options in its “choose-your-own-adventure” universe). So, if the means referred to in Premise 1b is something that could be acquired by genetic variation, we should positively expect evolution to plug humans into libertarian free will, sooner or later.

Now the whole question now looks slightly different. Given premises 1a and 1b, which seems more likely: that an all-powerful god exists that is inclined to grant its creatures libertarian free will, or that the means exist for evolution to grant humans libertarian free will?

Oh, I don’t really know which is more likely. In all this, I have been studiously ignoring the various metaphysical problems I have with the very idea of libertarian free will. But I think this line of argument casts considerable doubt on what Ganssle (and probably others) seem to think is a clear path from libertarian free will to theism.

And it was a fun thought experiment to try out.

Contending with Dawkins (2)


This is a review of the sixth essay in the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

Dawkins’s Best Argument Against God’s Existence by Gregory E. Ganssle

Didn’t we already have this? Not really. Unlike the earlier essay by Craig, Ganssle goes for a much higher-level summary of Dawkins’ argument:

  1. A universe made by God would be different from one made by only natural occurrences.
  2. Our universe fits better with a naturalistic universe than with a theistic universe.
  3. Therefore, our universe is more likely to be a naturalistic universe than a theistic universe. (p75)

Also unlike Craig, I think Ganssle manages to present the argument in a form that Dawkins would be content with. I certainly am. The idea here is to treat naturalism and theism as hypotheses that make predictions about the sort of entities and events we should observe, and compare these predictions against what we do observe.

Unfortunately, Ganssle runs off the rails pretty soon after by playing loose with the idea of “observability”.

Dawkins is disposed to think of detectability in terms of sense experience and the methods of the natural sciences. Something that is in principle subject to scientific investigation is detectable. (p77)

Yes. The methods that centuries of scientific progress have shown to be the best for teasing fact from our own bias are the best methods to use, if our goal is to form conclusions that reflect facts rather than our own biases.

For example, ethical theories can differ from each other in detectable ways. If one theory prohibits lying in every circumstance, while a second theory allows lying under specified conditions, there is a detectable difference between them. … The difference between the theories is also not due to some empirical observations. (p77)

In other words, it is not an observable difference in the sense Dawkins (and any other competent scientist) would mean – the sense that underlies the argument Ganssle so efficiently summarizes at the beginning of his essay.

Now, having excused himself from the hard work of providing real evidence within the framework of Dawkins’ argument, what does Ganssle offer in support of theism over naturalism?

  1. The universe is ordered and susceptible to rational investigation.
  2. It is a world with consciousness.
  3. It is a world with significant free agency.
  4. It is a world with objective moral obligations. (p79)

Let’s take these one at a time. I actually think they are interesting points, though I disagree with Ganssle on both their truth and their relevance to the question at hand. I am therefore indulging in a longer-than-usual post.

1. Order and susceptibility to rational investigation

The first item may point to the argument from reason, that was so opaquely exposited in Reppert’s essay. In the current context, the question is: should we expect an ordered universe more if there is a god, or if there are only naturalistic laws at work? Philosophically, I think this question is tractable. Empirically, I can’t easily think of a test for it.

Interestingly, Ganssle’s discussion smuggles in two completely arbitrary assumptions that carry all of the apparent value in this argument. First, he is assuming not just any god, but a god who is rational, and desires a rational universe. Fair enough – that is the sort of theistic hypothesis he wants to pit against naturalism. But he is not making a parallel assumption for naturalism. He is not looking and noticing that naturalists tend to describe a natural universe that has orderly laws. He just says that “a naturalistic universe, however, would not have to be susceptible to rational investigation.” (p80)

So yes, if you’re pitting a theistic hypothesis that fits our universe (and that many people support) against a naturalistic hypothesis that does not fit our universe (and that virtually nobody would support), then our universe fits better with theism than with naturalism. But if you were to pit an “orderly-god” theism against a “natural-laws” naturalism (a fair comparison), then the apparent advantage here disappears.*

2. Consciousness

I had a lot of thoughts on this section when reading it. Ganssle presents two aspects of consciousness as particularly difficult to cope with naturalistically: the first-person-ness of it, and the intentionality of mental states. These are both non-starters for me. His description of the first-person problem – that I have more immediate access to my own mental states than to anyone else’s – is no more problematic for me than the fact that the domino I push falls over but the one I leave undisturbed does not: physical systems (such as the mental states embodied in our brain) react more immediately to causes adjacent to them (such as other mental states in the same brain) than to causes distant from them (such as the mental states of other brains). As for intentionality, I simply look to the causal chain of connections between the memories and mental states I experience and the physical experiences and objects they are about. To use Ganssle’s example, when I’m thinking about Niagara Falls, those thoughts are causally connected with my memories of being there, and my memories of television shows and conversations I’ve had about the falls. None of these things are problematic under naturalism.

Of course, consciousness is a philosophically thorny topic. What is it? How does it work? These are difficult questions, whatever your philosophical position. He points out, rightly, that it is difficult for naturalists to account for consciousness. He also points out, rightly, that by positing up-front the existence of a conscious creator being, theism has already accounted for a crucial step: how consciousness arises in the universe. What he seems to fail to acknowledge is that he hasn’t really freed theism from the “probability penalty” that comes with trying to deal with consciousness. He’s just put it somewhere else. Naturalism has to deal with it by finding ways for it to arise. (Hint: natural selection is very powerful in generating things that help us survive.) Theism has to deal with it by including a very complex premise up front: the “prior probability” of theism takes a severe hit by including this ill-defined and complex thing called “consciousness” in the definition of its god.

So, consciousness is a problem for theism and naturalism, and I don’t see how we can confidently say it’s worse for naturalism than for theism.

3. Significant free agency

This is a fun one. Free will is one of those issues that seem to hinge on aesthetic preferences rather than anything substantive. I have to thank Ganssle for sparking some new and tantalizing thoughts on this topic, which I’ll defer to another time to discuss. For now, let me summarize what he asserts and how he supports it. First, “A world with significant free agency fits better in a theistic universe” than a naturalistic one. Ganssle clearly means libertarian free agency here. I tend to agree: libertarian free will is less surprising under a theistic view than a naturalistic one.**

He closes this section by saying “they may be right [that there is no such thing as libertarian free will], but the case for libertarian freedom is strong enough that it lends support to the sort of argument I am presenting.” (p84) So basically, he’s saying that if libertarian freedom exists, then his argument stands; many people deny that it exists, but let’s just accept that it does so he can keep his argument. He never actually gives us a reason to believe that libertarian free will exists. Scratch this point.

4. Objective moral obligations

This is another case where his initial premise seems to be legitimate: “A world with objective moral obligations fits better with a theistic universe.” Yes it does. (He even includes a quote from an atheist philosopher agreeing that, if objective moral obligations in Ganssle’s sense existed, then they would lend support to theism.) He also asserts that “To think that objective moral obligations exist is reasonable.” To my dismay and disgust, the one comment he makes in support of this statement is that “It is enough to note that many people think there are such obligations.”

If my premise is true, then the conclusion I hope for is true. I’ll hope my premise is true, and take my conclusion as proven.

Summing up

Ganssle’s bits of evidence are every bit as flimsy as his setup led me to expect. He begins by excusing himself from looking for real (ie, observable, empirical) evidence. Then he leads us through four arguments, all leaning on wishful thinking in various ways. He concludes by reassuring his readers that Dawkins’ best argument “does not deliver”.

Ganssle fails utterly to provide actual evidence for his conclusion, and so leaves the field to actual scientists, who have documented a whole lot of evidence that is less surprising under a naturalistic hypothesis than under a theistic one. Dawkins, for all his lack of philosophical ambition and subtlety, carries the day.


* I had another thought about the argument from reason, which I won’t elaborate on here. It boils down to this: exactly how ordered is the universe, and how ordered would you expect it to be under the appropriate theistic and naturalistic hypotheses? After all, there certainly seems to be a fair amount of chaos in the universe, from quantum uncertainty to the apparent intractibility of many psychological and sociological phenomena.

** Well, one flavour of theism anyway. I have a Calvinist friend who might disagree. But I would guess that most modern, Western theists would be libertarians, so we’ll let this one pass. But note that this is yet another subtle narrowing of the theism hypothesis, rendering it just that bit more unlikely to begin with.

Running for mental health


No, this isn’t a post about some new research linking exercise to psychological well-being.

I’ve entered a run – I’ll be doing my first official run (after about a year of very moderate casual running). I’ll run 10 kilometers (about 6 miles). And I’m doing it for Schizophrenia. It’s the annual Open Minds Walk and Run, put on by the Schizophrenia Society of Alberta.

It’s a first for me in a couple of ways. First, it’ll be the first time I’ve run as part of an official event. Second, it’ll be the first time I’ve tried sponsored fundraising since 30-Hour Famine back in high school.

So I’ve set myself a couple of goals. First, I hope to complete the run in under 50 minutes. I’ve only run 10 km once before. Well, 9.77 km. I did it in 58 minutes 20 seconds. I think with a little training, I can meet that goal.

Second, I hope to raise $400 for schizophrenia research and outreach. If you’re interested in helping me meet that second goal, please go here to learn more. If you’d like to help me meet the first goal, perhaps you could come cheer me on. It’s in Edmonton (map on the site just linked), on September 22.

This has been an unpaid advertisement on behalf of the Schizophrenia Society of Alberta. We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog-reading …

Contending with evolutionary naturalism


This is a review of the fifth essay in the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

The Moral Poverty of Evolutionary Naturalism by Mark D. Linville

The point of this essay is clear: evolutionary naturalism (that is, belief in evolution without belief in god) undermines belief in moral truth. (For important subtleties that this summary overlooks, check out the essay yourself.)

Linville does a competent job of arguing that, under the theory of evolution, the human moral sense doesn’t seem to connect causally with any moral order that exists fundamental to the structure of the universe. In other words, evolution undermines the warrant for belief in transcendent moral absolutes.

Here’s the argument in brief: if we evolved, then evolution had just as much chance to shape our moral intuitions as it did to shape our bodies in order to help us survive; therefore, our values have been shaped by our evolutionary history. So we cannot use our moral intuitions as guides to find some moral reality that might underlie reality.

He is basically pointing out the is/ought dilemma: that moral facts cannot be derived from physical facts. David Hume is most famous for identifying this dilemma. Linville’s formulation can be summed up as follows:

Theory X (evolution) describes how we came to have the moral values/beliefs we have. However, as a statement of physical facts, it cannot be used to justify claims about moral obligation.

Now, Linville’s alternative is of course theistic: if our moral sense was given to us by a god, then our values and beliefs are causally connected with that god’s values and beliefs. Therefore, if such a god exists and gave us our moral sense, we have good reason to trust our intuition that transcendent moral absolutes exist, and we can know about them.

Let me sum up this argument in another way – see if you can spot the problem I spotted:

Theory Y (theistic creation) describes how we came to have the moral values/beliefs we have. Therefore, it can be used to ground claims about moral obligation.

If you don’t see the problem, let me spell it out: “God did it” buys you no more in terms of moral absolutes than does “evolution did it”. You must insert, either explicitly or implicitly, some further ethical premises. For example, I suspect Linville’s hidden premise here is “God has reliable access to moral absolutes (part of his nature, seen by his omniscience, whatever), and would wish to share those moral absolutes with us by printing them on our moral sense.” For him, and many theists, this may be obvious enough to leave out. For me, it’s a huge bundle of claims that I have absolutely no reason to swallow – from the existence of a creator god to its moral perfection to its intentions regarding the rest of us.

But that’s not all.

Linville frames his arguments regarding evolution in light of atheism. Unfortunately for him, they work just as well under any view that accepts the vast evidence for evolution – whether that view includes a god or not. If we evolved, then evolution will have tinkered with our moral intuitions (ie, built them from scratch). The only way that belief in a god can get you around this is if you assume that your god directly intervened in the construction of your moral intuitions. Neither Linville nor the whole army of Intelligent-Design creationists have offered good evidence to suggest we should accept this.

Oh, Linville and his coreligionists are free to believe that it happened. And, once you take on that belief, the rest may follow. But given the evidence before us, all we know is that evolution happened, and it almost certainly acted to shape our moral intuitions. So we are left with no reason to think our moral intuitions track any transcendent moral absolutes.

At bottom, I think the disagreement I have with Linville is over the value of these transcendent moral absolutes. He seems to think that without them we’re wallowing in a sea of wishy-washy relativism. Certainly, many religious people I have encountered in person and online seem to think this way.

I think that human nature is stable enough. Even if our morality is only reliable relative to the current state of most humans’ moral instincts, we have enough to go ahead with. I acknowledge that I do not have a watertight moral theory that can oblige everyone to follow my pragmatic moral rules. But then, neither does Linville. The weakness of my moral stance is that it is relative. The weakness of his is that it is built on wishful thinking.

Which do you prefer?

Contending with a trick of the brain


This is a review of the fourth essay in the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

Belief in God: A Trick of our Brain? by Michael J. Murray

This essay gives a pretty good account of why we should expect god-belief even in a naturalistic universe. It draws on psychology, evolution, etc. There are well-evidenced biases that suggest the common human intuition that gods exist is unwarranted. That is, a similar intuition could be expected whether or not any god actually exists. After a clear exposition of these biases, complete with a presentation of their epistemological implications, Murray closes with a casual reference to the cosmological argument, and so ends by asserting theism.

This left-field ending reminds me of the closing of Ecclesiastes. (Though in this case I’m less inclined to blame the editors.) My wife, Deena, doesn’t share my sense of the disjunction here, and I recognize that not everyone feels the end of Ecclesiastes is out of place.

Whatever one’s aesthetic take on the final argument, it seems to me to tacitly acknowledge one thing. All the psychological predispositions discussed in the first part of the essay do not provide good evidence for the existence of a god. If they did, the author would have said so rather than reaching out to cosmology to salvage his preferred belief system.

Oh well. At least the biases toward god-belief have been given a mostly unpolluted airing. Baby steps, right?

Contending with reason


This is a review of the third essay in the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

The Argument from Reason by Victor Reppert

This is a closely-argued essay which was difficult to follow. Reppert draws on several philosophical terms and concepts that are unfamiliar to me, without explaining them. I will react to what I do understand.

The conceptual setup is intriguing: he points out that there are two types of worldview we can consider: mentalistic and non-mentalistic. Under a mentalistic worldview, mental entities (such as human minds) are considered basic, and other entities (such as trees, rocks, planets, etc) must be explained in terms of mental entities. Under a non-mentalistic worldview, non-mental entities are basic (be they atoms, quarks, superstrings, whatever), and all entities (trees, rocks, minds) must be explained in terms of those basic elements.

This setup is quite interesting, because it taps one of the key differences between naturalistic and theistic pictures of the universe. I am even inclined to let the fundamental either-or fallacy slide. Is “mental vs non-mental” a meaningful division? I would say that, under evolution, there is a very gradual slope of distinctions between things that are clearly non-mental (for example, the behaviour of single-celled bacteria) and things that are clearly mental (human behaviour, and that of some other complex organisms).

At one point, Reppert seems to betray a misunderstanding of the point of science:

Nor could one argue that one should be supremely confident that use of the scientific method will result in an accurate understanding of reality. (p 32)

Who ever claimed this for science? Science is not about establishing absolute certainty; it is about finding the most probable answers, having acknowledged the limits of our unaided senses and intuitions. It is about trying to overcome those limits as far as we can, while realizing that those attempts are constrained by our human nature too. This point is, so far as I can tell, tangential to his main argument. But it still bugs me. Scientists are not trying to claim absolute knowledge. That’s what relgious dogmas are for.

I’m afraid I can’t give a judgment beyond this. There are points where Reppert seems to be confusing personal with metaphysical certainty: he can’t see how we could explain somthing naturalistically, therefore we fundamentally cannot do it. (For example, in the section titled Irreducibility of propositional content). But I can’t say. Sorry I can’t give you more – perhaps a philosopher familiar with the essay could wade in here?

Note this response to the idea of ontologically fundamental mental states, by Eliezar Yudkowski.

Another side of the argument from reason is given in the last essay of this section, which I’ll write about soon.