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.


One Response to “Contending with reason”

  1. Contending with Christianity’s Critics « Friendly Humanist Says:

    […] Confronting Naturalism: The Argument from Reason, by Victor […]

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