C.S. Lewis Pontificates about Something or Other

Victor Reppert has recently posted this quote from C.S. Lewis on his Dangerous Idea blog:
“The process whereby man has come to know the universe is from one point of view extremely complicated; from another it is alarmingly simple. We can observe a single one-way progression. At the outset the universe appears packed with will, intelligence, life, and positive qualities; every tree is a nymph and every planet a god. Man himself is akin to the gods. The advance gradually empties this rich and genial universe, first of its gods, then of its colours, smells, sounds and tastes, finally of solidity itself as solidity was originally imagined. As these items are taken from the world, they are transferred to the subjective side of the account: classified as our sensations, thoughts, images or emotions. The Subject becomes gorged, inflated, at the expense of the Object. But the matter does not rest there. The same method which has emptied the world now proceeds to empty ourselves. The masters of the method soon announce that we were just mistaken (and mistaken in much the same way) when we attributed “souls” or ‘selves” or “minds’ to human organisms, as when we attributed Dryads to the trees. Animism, apparently, begins at home. We, who have personified all other things, turn out to be ourselves mere personifications. Man is indeed akin to the gods, that is, he is no less phantasmal than they. Just as the Dryad is a “ghost,” an abbreviated symbol for certain verifiable facts about his behaviour: a symbol mistaken for a thing. And just as we have been broken of our bad habit of personifying trees, so we must now be broken of our habit of personifying men; a reform already effected in the political field. There never was a Subjective account into which we could transfer the items which the Subject had lost. There is no “consciousness” to contain, as images or private experiences, all the lost gods, colours, and concepts. Consciousness is “not the sort of noun that can be used that way.’”
This is Lewis at his most pretentious, making sweeping, grandiose, grandiloquent pronouncements about the Whole Entire History of Everything. Such declamations are full of sound and fury. Maybe they do not signify nothing, but they don’t signify much. When you deflate the Olympian bombast, what really is he saying? He seems to be bewailing the progression of thought that has led in to the shocking conviction that trees are not conscious. Yes, the terrible truth is that we modern materialists regard strings, sealing wax, cabbages, and some kings as devoid of mind. Also, we no longer believe in ghosts. Why, we even think that we are not ghosts in machines; rather, we think that we think, feel, imagine, desire, etc. with our brains. We still believe that we have souls, only we think that our souls are constituted of billions of tiny organic robots (i.e., neurons).
Lewis, however, seems to think that the inevitable result of this whole way of thinking is that we end up denying that humans are conscious, but this is clearly not the case. Pick up any recent textbook on the philosophy of mind and you will find a plethora of individuals who would describe themselves as naturalists, materialists, or physicalists, but who take consciousness for granted. Is there some inconsistency here? Is matter insufficient for consciousness? Ah, but to argue this will require very detailed and very rigorous arguments, not the sort of breezy, orotund speechifying to which Lewis is prone.
Lewis bemoans the “empty universe” we now live in, one far removed from the “rich and genial” world of our pagan ancestors, a world filled with gods, demigods, nymphs, and dryads. Let’s recall though that the animated universe was not always genial. It was a world of jolly satyrs and seductive nymphs to be sure, but it was also a world of demons, goblins, trolls, ghosts, witches, and capricious, vindictive Homeric gods. Recall that comets used to engender stark terror. These horrible harbingers blazed a warning of famine, pestilence, and war across the heavens. Now it may be a lot less romantic to think of a comet as a dirty snowball than as a supernatural portent, but it is also a lot less terrifying. Unless a comet is aimed right at you (highly unlikely) you have nothing to fear. We can enjoy the spectacle of a comet now rather than cower under our beds. The emptied universe is emptied of many superstitious terrors.
Lewis’s comments also call to mind the biblical verse about removing the beam from your own eye before removing the mote from your neighbor’s (Matthew 7:5). After all, it was Christianity that displaced the paganism of Lewis’s ancestors. True, for pagans, the sacred was everywhere. The sky, the sun, the earth, indeed every river, stream, and grove of trees was the abode of gods. Pagans are natural pantheists. For them the gods were everywhere and in everything. It was Christianity that took the sacred and put it under lock and key. Christianity removed the sacred from the world and put it far, far away and made it accessible only through the rites and rituals of the Church. Once Christians took over, freelance spirituality, like dancing naked around an image of Pan, could get you burned at the stake. Of course, Christian prelates realized that they had gone too far in depriving people of their local, nearby deities, so they ripped off the gods of paganism and turned them into saints. Freya is gone, but St. Cloaca will listen to your prayers.
Who, besides the Christian Church, is responsible for “emptying” the universe? Well, obviously, natural science has been the biggest perpetrator: Lightning is a massive discharge of static electricity, not the terrible weapon of Zeus. The sun is a massive ball of mostly hydrogen, not Helios driving his flaming chariot. Epidemic disease is caused by viruses and bacteria, not Apollo discharging his arrows of pestilence. The seasons change because the earth’s axis tilts 23 ½ degrees with respect to its plane of revolution about the sun, not because Persephone ate some pomegranate seeds in Hades. Psychosis is caused by brain malfunction, not demon possession. The diversity of organic life is due to evolution over eons, not special creation during a six day period. Hawaii’s volcanoes are caused by hotspot mantle plumes, not Madame Pele’s anger. The villager’s sudden death was due to a myocardial infarction, not a witch’s hex.
So, has natural science emptied the universe? No, on the contrary, science has filled the universe with a superabundance of wonderful things. Nothing in mythology is as bizarre as a black hole. Deinonychus was far more terrifying than the monsters and ogres of myth. The planets of our solar system offer environments far stranger than Middle Earth or Narnia. The battles of gods and giants were less fierce than the battles between pathogens and antibodies. How can we not be in awe at a universe where the number of stars exceeds the number of grains of sand in all the world’s deserts and beaches? Science does not impoverish our experience but vastly enriches it. If you would experience awe and wonder, close thy C.S. Lewis and open thy Carl Sagan.

About Keith Parsons
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03966414858455732474 philip m

    You misunderstand Lewis. His point is that he appreciates (or would appreciate) black holes more than you do.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Philip M,

    If Lewis means what you say, then this claim is prima facie sillier than the way I interpreted him.

    No, it certainly sounds like Lewis wants an anthropomorphic universe. Science inevitably de-personalizes nature. Gods, ghosts, and demons are evicted, and explanations in terms of impersonal laws, entities, forces, and processes are posited. For anyone who wants the universe to wear a human face, natural science will be a threat.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12763971505497961430 Jeffrey Shallit

    It's stuff like this that explains why Lewis is regarded as a 3rd rate mind by everyone except committted Christians, who think he's a 1st rate mind. But then, they seem to believe that Phillip Johnson is a deep thinker, too.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Jeffrey,

    Good one on Philip Johnson! I would only add a Nelson Muntz "Haw Haw!" Lewis, to me, is a strange case. His professional work on Medieval and Renaissance literature was highly respected. You get the impression that he was someone who could have been a first rate thinker, but all too often settled for being a third rate one. As John Beversluis shows time and again in his terrific book on Lewis, Lewis repeatedly depends on rhetorical flair (which he possessed by the ton) when careful argument was needed. To be fair, sometimes Bertrand Russell strikes me the same way,i.e., as substituting stylistic brilliance for rigorous argument. Maybe there is such a thing as being TOO clever.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11030669424412573308 Chris

    There's a certain irony in Victor's posting of this, since many Christians, including Victor on his blog, will assert Christianity as one of the primary foundations of modern science, the source of this terrible 'advance.'

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06043572594882614573 Maths Tutor Wirral

    'The masters of the method soon announce that we were just mistaken (and mistaken in much the same way) when we attributed “souls” or ‘selves” or “minds’ to human organisms, as when we attributed Dryads to the trees. Animism, apparently, begins at home.'

    Oh, so we naturalists deny that we have a mind?

    Is Lewis claiming that a 'soul' is the same thing as a 'mind'?

    Was there a word in Lewis's rantings in that screed which advanced knowledge by one iota?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06430484429517190406 Justin B.

    Good point, Chris!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11030669424412573308 Chris

    Another irony is that Christian Europeans were primarily responsible for the annihilation of those indigenous cultures (and the pagan Greeks as well) that saw the world as 'packed with will, intelligence, life, and positive qualities'.

    It just seems disingenuous to me to see modern Western men such as C.S. Lewis romanticizing a world they have never experienced or known except perhaps through intellectual study. It seems like people such as Lewis are really mourning the decline of their own worldview rather than actually wanting any sort of return to a world where 'every tree is a nymph' – they would just turn any 'nymphs' into the whores of Satan anyway.

    As for me as an atheist, I like modern life, and yet I still think trees and rivers and animals are wonderful without their having any dryads, souls, etc. Besides, we could have more of that type of world if we lived in a more ecological manner. I don't see much of our Christian culture clamoring to do anything about that.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10962948073162156902 Victor Reppert

    I am afraid you don't have Lewis right here at all. In fact, when you read him, and when I read him, it is as if we are reading the same words, but getting an entirely different message. Now I could be being exasperatingly generous, or maybe you aren't giving him a fair shake, but somehow we just aren't seeing the same things. Lewis isn't romanticizing dryads, etc. What he is doing is pointing out the problems with taking successful scientific developments and extrapolating from those to other areas of discourse where treating something else in the same way as science treated another area results in bad conclusions.

    In the case of psychology, I take it that since you and I are close to the same age, you remember what psychology departments were like in the early 1970s. They were filled with people, following B. F. Skinner, who thought to really treat human beings in a scientific manner we had to stop talking about consciousness. It's the extrapolation from previous successes in science, the idea that we can look at the trajectory of science and make confident predictions about how science is going to have to treat certain types of subject matter, that we get into trouble.

    Now the reason this is not an attack on science is because this history of science should really teach us that we can't plot the course of future scientific success. Science progresses sometimes by coming up with successful reductions, and sometimes progresses by recognizing that reductionism isn't going to work. Cognitive science, while not going anti-naturalistic, has come to reject the idea that consciousness has to be denied (although it is still very much a scientific mystery). The behaviorist hegemony which seemed to pervasive in psychology in my undergraduate days (the entire ASU philosophy department was one huge rat lab) is now considered a Dark Age.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    I have read Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” and found it eloquent in its language but mediocre in its ideas, not to mention grating in some places. For example in that book he argues that a Christian soldier may kill his enemies while also loving them, forgiving them, and wishing them well. Actually some parts were ridiculous, such as where Lewis strenuously argues that a wife should obey her husband. No matter how intelligent one is or how well one employs language it is simply impossible to make a good case for conservative Christianity, “conservative” not only in the theological but also in the social sense.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03818630173726146048 Papalinton

    Yes, C S Lewis was a bombast of wordspeak. And yes a brilliant and wonderful writer of fantasy/science fiction.

    This article, however, is a welcomed refutation to the non-substantive 'trooth'-claims of christian theism, as seen through the eyes of a jaundiced Lewis. An enjoyable and illuminating article.

    Lewis's christian perspective is indistinguishable to the perspective he provides in Narnia. Both are products of the amazingly creative and imaginative cognitive processes of the brain capable of conjuring unsurpassed imaginary and mythical realms that appear almost 'real'.

    But then he, Lewis, was really in his element, having cut his teeth in the imaginary world genre with his earlier book Narnia, having developed writing skills that he was able to bring to bear on his next book on mythology, 'Mere Christianity'.

    Both are from the same stable of human ingenuity and creativity.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11030669424412573308 Chris

    Re: Victor's comment above.

    None of what you say can be inferred just from that paragraph alone, since the context you explain here wasn't provided (and the context in this case is everything). But now that you have explained it, it obviously makes much more sense.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Victor,
    With all due respect (and I think quite a bit is due), in the quoted passage from Lewis, does he or does he not describe the old god-filled pagan universe as “rich and genial” and does he not also speak of our current universe as “empty?” If he does not mean this, he really should not say it. No, I do not think that I am maliciously misreading Lewis by saying that he had a bad case of nostalgia for the pre-scientific view of the universe. Hell, I sometimes (often) feel such wistfulness myself. One thing I definitely have in common with Lewis is that he was a die-hard Wagnerite. His account of his discovery of Wagner—being engulfed in “sheer northerness”—was my experience exactly. In my not-so-humble opinion Der Ring des Nibelungen is the greatest artistic work created by anyone anywhere ever. I love to sink into Wagner’s world of gods, heroes, dragons, Rhinemaidens, and dwarfs. However as Wagner himself indicates with the cataclysmic ending of Gӧtterdämmerung, that universe is gone forever.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Victor,

    That cognitive scientists, and others who study mind and brain, can do so with the methods, techniques, heuristics, and assumptions of natural science—while not denying consciousness—is my point precisely. The supposedly ineluctable progression from denying dryads to denying consciousness that Lewis decries is illusory, a fake fear he drums up for his own purposes. What spelled the doom of behaviorism were the philosophical and scientific criticisms of other naturalists, like Noam Chomsky. The gist of many of these criticisms was not that behaviorism was inappropriately scientific but that it was not scientific enough, i.e., it could not do what good science is supposed to do:

    “…Chomsky demonstrates the problems a Skinnerian behaviorist account has in framing any general laws, and in so predicting what anyone will say…Chomsky’s point was that neither Skinner nor anyone else will get very far in framing general laws about, or in trying to predict…what a person will say, without taking into account such things as the observer’s interests, beliefs, and present intentions (William Lyons, Matters of the Mind, p.77)."

    As for predicting the future course of science, no, we cannot predict the specific discoveries, but we can safely predict some things about the heuristics, values, assumptions, etc. that will guide future science. Future science will be naturalistic. There will be no going back to ghosts, gods, or souls. As far as science is concerned, these are as dead as the pagan deities. Alvin Plantinga thinks that there can be an “Augustinian” science that defers to what Christians “know” is true. The kindest thing I can say about this notion is: Crap. There can no more be an “Augustinian” science than there can be a National Socialist science, a Marxist-Leninist science, or a gender feminist science.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10962948073162156902 Victor Reppert

    I think the idea of what is natural and what is supernatural is is much harder to draw in a sharp and well-defined manner as you suppose. I prefer the distinction between mentalistic and non-mentalistic explanations myself, and I have some arguments to the effect that we will never be able to explain the mind in non-mentalistic terms. Whether that means that what we end up with will be called "souls" or "gods" is going to depend on how you define these terms. Even the claim "God, if he exists, is a supernatural being" does not strike me as analytically true.

    So I would resist even your guarantees concerning the future of science.

    When you have people staying on the "naturalistic" reservation by saying that the mind is profoundly mysterious, that tells me that what science does with all of this in the future is pretty much up for grabs.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10962948073162156902 Victor Reppert

    The fact is that the scientists of Lewis's time were denying consciousness. They were making precisely those extrapolations that Lewis found problematic. And today we have eliminative materialists. I do not think that Lewis was tilting at a straw man, and it is anachronistic to use more recent developments to show that he was.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    'The fact is that the scientists of Lewis's time were denying consciousness.'

    I am always being told that Christianity led to science, and that scientists are believers.

    Now I find that Christianity was not the foundation for modern science, which rejects the Christian world-view, and that most scientists are non-believers.

    You learn something every day.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10962948073162156902 Victor Reppert

    Not all scientists, of course. But behavioristic psychologists certainly were.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03818630173726146048 Papalinton

    "Not all scientists, of course. But behavioristic psychologists certainly were."

    Redefining a moving target while on the go.
    I don't know about learning something everyday. rather that 'redefining' in an instant is de rigeur for theology.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10962948073162156902 Victor Reppert

    Good heavens. I am just clarifying what I meant, eliminating what is no doubt an understandable misunderstanding. Actually if you read That Hideous Strength you find an atheist chemist making the case against the tendencies that Lewis was criticizing in The Abolition of Man. But if you are really concerned about scoring a debating point here, I guess you can be my guest.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10962948073162156902 Victor Reppert

    Keith: The fact that people have recognized the value not denying consciousness in the course of a naturalistic understanding of mind and cognition doesn't mean that they can do so without introducing and unstable incoherence into the whole thing. It may turn out that the behaviorists and the eliminativists are the really consistent naturalists, while the more consciousness-friendly people think that they are being consistent naturalism, but in fact there lurks an inconsistency.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Victor,

    Honestly, I do not know what to make of your suggestion that souls and gods might turn out to be natural entities. “Natural” and “supernatural” are flexible terms, but I fear that if we stretch language that far it will break. Are you suggesting that gods and souls might turn out to be constituted of energy or matter and are thus denizens of the space/time universe and, ipso facto, subject to the laws of nature? I earnestly desire not to make a straw man of you (or Lewis for that matter), so I just have to say that I do not follow you here.

    As for whether we ultimately explain in “mentalistic” terms or not, it is not at all clear to me that we have an either/or here. If mental happenings are fully realized by physical happenings, i.e., if we think, feel, imagine, desire, etc. with our brains (as I think we do), then we have a choice, depending on our interests at the time, of how we explain those mental happenings. I can say “I concluded that the defendant was indeed guilty on the basis of the cumulative evidence against him, his clear motive, and the shakiness of his alibi” when I am discussing things in a legal or philosophical context. If I am doing neuroscience I could talk about the causal relations between evolving brain states, in particular those states that realize my reasoning about the defendant’s guilt. Why should one type of explanation preclude or take precedence over the other? Isn’t all explanation wholly context-dependent?

    Finally, might not the behaviorists or the eliminative materialists turn out to have been the consistent naturalists? No. Consciousness is as much a natural phenomenon as a hurricane. Like a hurricane, consciousness is complexly realized and difficult to model, but there is no reason whatsoever to see it as not amenable to human understanding or as inexplicable in physical terms. Behaviorism and eliminativism were, as Bertrand Russell said about positivism, ideas so bizarrely stupid that only a very educated person could ever have been made to believe them. They are monuments to the astonishing capacity of highly intelligent and educated ideologues to ignore the elephant in the room.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Hi Keith,

    A long time ago I read a book with the title “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”. The main idea was that men and women have trouble communicating with each other because they use language differently. It seems to me that the same problem exists in metaphysical discourse, and that both theists and naturalists should make a positive effort to understand how the other side uses language.

    For example, the natural-supernatural distinction makes sense on naturalism, natural being whatever is of a mechanistic nature, and super-natural or “magical” whatever is not. But on theism, all contingent existence is created, ordered, and sustained by God. Significantly, the physical phenomena the mechanistic nature of which science studies are a manifestation of God, indeed of the personal nature of God. Therefore, on theism the natural/supernatural distinction makes little sense.

    In general I see naturalists simplify language in a way that makes little sense outside of naturalism. So they speak of “evidence” as if it meant “physical evidence”, “empirically” as if it meant “scientifically observable”, “existence” as if it meant “physical existence”, “cause” as if it meant “physical cause”, “explanation” as if it meant “scientific explanation”, and indeed “science” as if it meant “physical science”. Sometimes the meaning of words is transformed beyond recognition. So, for example, there is no such thing as non-libertarian freedom, and therefore to speak of “libertarian freedom” is misleading. Similarly, to speak of the “phenomenon of consciousness” is to commit a clear category mistake, because phenomena presuppose the presence of consciousness. (If you disagree then can you point out a phenomenon that exists at the absence of consciousness?) It is not difficult to understand why naturalist find themselves committing this category mistake: Science only studies phenomena (observations of events such as the movement of the planets and the falling of apples, the movement of animals and other life-phenomena such as intelligent behavior, the evolution of the species, the evolution of weather systems including hurricanes, etc). Therefore if, as scientific naturalists have to assume, consciousness is an object of scientific investigation then consciousness too must be a phenomenon.

    It’s a mess. Unfortunately I see that theists often oblige and also use language in this naturalistic-flavored, mechanistic (and thus merely scientific-sounding way), which only worsens the potential for misunderstanding and error. It seems to me that this is what Lewis and Reppert are rightly lamenting.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Dianelos,

    Can a natural/supernatural distinction be maintained from a theistic perspective? I think so, but maybe the conversation would be facilitated if we used a vocabulary more acceptable to both sides. Victor suggests “mentalistic” or “non-mentalistic;” I would suggest “personal” or “impersonal.” If I understand Victor correctly, he thinks that, at rock bottom, we cannot explain consciousness in impersonal terms; the “symphony of neurons” simply will not do. My soul cannot be a hundred billion tiny organic robots. He thinks that at the explanatory bottom there is a fundamental conscious entity (traditionally construed as a Cartesian soul, but this seems not to be Victor’s idea). Hence, consciousness cannot reduce to, supervene upon, be realized by, be an effect of, be an epiphenomenon of, (etc., etc.) any ensemble of unconscious processes, however complex.

    If this is Victor’s claim, I find it implausible in the extreme. One sweeping generalization we may make about the history of science is that we have seen innumerable instances in which explanations in terms of impersonal entities (e.g., particles), forces, processes, fields, and so forth have displaced older accounts that invoked personal or semi-personal entities and causes (e.g., vital forces, final causes, animal spirits, chemical affinities, demons, witchcraft, gods, God) and none (repeat NONE) going the other way, despite the desperate efforts of “Intelligent design” theorists and other swimmers against the current. Nor is this surprising; accounts in terms of personal entities tend to be (a) highly intractable when we try to test them and (b) explanatorily vacuous, or, at least, far less informative than the impersonal explanations that replace them.

    Far more cogent than the lessons of history are the plain facts of neurology. We know, indisputably, that changing the brain changes consciousness profoundly. As Oliver Sacks has documented extensively in his books, the personal (everything that you are) is absolutely dependent upon the impersonal (brain structure and function). Change the latter and you change YOU. This overwhelming evidence indicates that the personal is, in every detail and down to the smallest nuance, wholly dependent on impersonal anatomy and physiology. We may not yet have an adequate explanation of HOW consciousness arises from the functioning of the brain, but THAT it does is as indisputable as any fact in science.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Ad Dianelos, continued…

    Since it has come up a couple of times before in our exchanges, is it proper to speak of the “phenomena” of consciousness? My dictionary defines “phenomenon” as “An occurrence, a circumstance, or a fact that is perceptible by the senses.” Note that the definition is in terms of what can be perceived not what is actually perceived. Hence, an asteroid striking the earth 4 billion years ago would be a phenomenon—it was perceivable—though nobody was around to perceive it. Note also that science does not just study phenomena, however defined, but frequently talks about entities and processes that are unobservable, not just in fact like an ancient asteroid strike, but in principle. For instance the Rayliegh scattering of photons by air molecules is in principle unobservable, but is quite well understood scientifically (explained, in fact, by Einstein). Still, though, I think you would object that consciousness is not perceptible but is the perception itself, and so it is improper to speak of it as a phenomenon. But I can observe my consciousness. I am not only aware, but I am aware that I am aware. Indeed, we can observe and describe the elements or aspects of our consciousness in considerable detail. Further, I can study consciousness from a third person perspective just as I can anything else. In fact, this is just what some neuroscientists do. I could study what is going on in your brain when you are perceiving red or mentally doing sums. In the end, whether we call consciousness a “phenomenon” or not is neither here nor there as far as I am concerned. My point is that we have every reason to see human consciousness as a set of natural events or occurrences (I think “event” and “occurrence” are neutral enough) just as amenable to scientific study as any other. Why not???

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith,

    You write: “Victor suggests “mentalistic” or “non-mentalistic;” I would suggest “personal” or “impersonal.”

    The personal/impersonal has a disadvantage though, namely that some ontologies (e.g. panpsychism) can be both naturalistic and personal. I prefer the purposeful/purposeless distinction. Purposefulness entails a person nature, which is a property of all theistic ontologies. Purposelessness entails a mechanical nature, which is a property of all naturalistic ontologies. So here we have a nice exclusive disjunction. (Incidentally the idea is not mine, but comes from a definition of naturalism suggested by a naturalistic philosopher the name of whom escapes me right now.)

    One sweeping generalization we may make about the history of science is that we have seen innumerable instances in which explanations in terms of impersonal entities (e.g., particles), forces, processes, fields, and so forth have displaced older accounts that invoked personal or semi-personal entities and causes (e.g., vital forces, final causes, animal spirits, chemical affinities, demons, witchcraft, gods, God) and none (repeat NONE) going the other way, despite the desperate efforts of “Intelligent design” theorists and other swimmers against the current.

    For the last two thousand years non-primitive theism (from Aristotle’s unmoved mover to John 1:3) has posited that God is the ultimate cause of all contingent existence and its properties, including of course of the mathematical regularities present in physical phenomena which science discovers. There is nothing in the physical sciences which in any way contradicts this position. For example, the fact that physics describes the phenomenon of lightning as an electrical discharge in the atmosphere does not in the least suggest that God is not the ultimate cause of it. (It is true that determinism would make it very hard for theism to maintain the idea that God is dynamically interacting with creation, but modern physics has for all practical purposes falsified determinism. The physical closure of the universe, as I have argued, does not contradict that theistic idea either. Nor does natural evolution. I think naturalists tend to see in the physical sciences evidence which is simply not there. I agree with Plantinga that there is only a superficial concord but in fact deep conflict between naturalism and the physical sciences, whereas there only a superficial conflict but in fact deep concord between theism and the physical sciences.)

    [continued in the next post]

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    [continued from above]

    As for ID, I find the whole project to be rather political and hypocritical not to mention a scientific failure, but the fact remains that no naturalistic scientist has even come close to demonstrating that given the initial state of the universe the probability of complex species evolving in a naturalistic fashion (i.e. purposelessly) is large or at least not low, and some theists have raised doubts that it is so. I personally believe (mainly on grounds of elegance) that this probability is not low, but the issue is very much in the air and its resolution may well prove to be scientifically intractable. And in any case, if or when it is demonstrated that this probability is not low we shall only learn that natural evolution does *not contradict* naturalism. As far as I am concerned naturalists have grossly oversold the metaphysical relevance of the fact that the species have evolved through natural evolution. I expect that naturalism will suffer a serious setback when people realize that they have been fooled by atheist scientists and philosophers who should know better.

    As for “none going the other way” I think there is a plethora of modern scientific discoveries that spell trouble for naturalism (from the apparent fine-tuning of the fundamental constants, to the difficulty of naturalistically interpreting quantum mechanics, to the deeply mathematical order present in the universe, to the computational prowess of elementary particles).

    We know, indisputably, that changing the brain changes consciousness profoundly.

    Changing the brain changes the *content* of consciousness. One should not conflate the concepts of “consciousness” (which is the ability to experience) with the concept of “experience” (which presupposes consciousness). I personally do not much care for the distinction between causality and correlation, and it seems clear to me that physical science has demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that physical processes in the brain cause our experiences. But the hard question is how come our brain is capable of experiencing in the first place. Both the baby and the drums make noise after being hit, but we know (or think we know) that there is a significant difference between the two events: In the former case a conscious subject is present and the strike causes it to experience pain, whereas in the latter case there isn’t any such subject and the strike causes no experiences. What is it in the baby’s physical arrangement that produces the conscious subject capable of experiencing? That is the question.

    And, incidentally, given the physical closure of the universe it is not strictly speaking true that physical processes *within* the brain produce experiences. When we see an apple, that experience was caused by a large number of physical events, including that of photons being reflected by the apple’s surface. A naturalist may argue that one can (in principle) artificially induce the brain to produce the same experience of “seeing an apple” without an apple being present, but then one would need some external machinery for that. One way or the other physical processes *within* the brain are not sufficient. In a very real sense the whole universe causes our experiences.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11030669424412573308 Chris

    "…no naturalistic scientist has even come close to demonstrating that given the initial state of the universe the probability of complex species evolving in a naturalistic fashion (i.e. purposelessly) is large or at least not low…"

    How exactly would anyone go about demonstrating this, either from a naturalistic or non-naturalistic point of view? How would such a demonstration set its parameters and derive its values? From comparisons with other universes? At best any such 'demonstration' (for or against) would have to rely on 'reasonable intuitions,' i.e., things that are arbitrary in the end but which seems reasonable due to person X's prior belief systems.

    "…One way or the other physical processes *within* the brain are not sufficient. In a very real sense the whole universe causes our experiences."

    This seems like a mischaracterization of naturalism and something of an overstatement there at the end. I wasn't aware that naturalism suggests that we are somehow brains in a vat. It does suggest that all minds are the product of billions/millions of years with evolutionary interaction with the world, which is ongoing and incessant. The mind came to exist, so far as we know, as a result of experiential interaction with phenomena. This experience was encoded in genes, giving rise to instinct, etc. Frankly this has always seemed to me like a strong (if intuitive) argument against theism – How does an ultimate omni-mind (God) exist in the absence of an environment to evolve in? From what does it derive its knowledge and 'of' what does it know? Its own 'glory'? Its own 'self'? How did that 'self' come to be – and can there even be a self – in the absence of a social environment?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Dianelos,
    I like the “purposeful/purposeless” distinction. Thanks.

    Theism has to walk a fine line. If God is depicted as too involved with the world, directly producing natural effects like lightning or volcanoes, then theism comes into direct opposition with advancing science and has to beat a steady retreat, pausing perhaps to situate God in temporary gaps.

    On the other hand, if God is removed from the quotidian running of the world, and moved to a safe metaphysical distance—as the “first cause” or the “Unmoved Mover” say—God tends to shrink to a sort of deistic Deus Absconditus, a theoretical entity of little relevance whose absence would hardly be noticed.

    I do not think that theism has succeeded in walking that line. True, if God is removed far enough from the day-to-day workings of the world, there will be no need to fear refutation by science. However, such a removal also leaves God with precious little to do. Maybe the universe does not need a First Cause or an Unmoved Mover or maybe the universe can do those jobs for itself.

    Does the fact that causation is in some cases probabilistic leave a gap for God that cannot be closed? Does he perhaps work in the world by nudging the probabilities in the “right” direction? Here, once again, we have a hypothesis that is either falsifiable or gratuitous. True, a clever enough deity could make his interactions with the world undetectable by hiding in the stochastic gaps between probabilistic causes and their effects, but, in that case, where is the motivation to posit such a being at all? As Darwin noted, to make God’s actions undetectable renders “God did it” vacuous. Saying “God did it” just becomes a tendentious and obscurantist way of saying that whatever happened has in fact happened.

    Natural theology in all its manifold manifestations really has a pretty small bag of tricks. God is needed only if nature is somehow inadequate. Natural theologians have striven mightily to argue that nature is insufficient (e.g., brains can’t think, contingent beings must have a necessary one, life cannot have originated naturalistically, means-to-end order must have an intelligent creator, the constants need a fine-tuner, etc. etc.). The modus operandi of the natural theologian is always the same: Create a mystery where there is none and haul in the ultimate Deus ex Machina (i.e., the Deus himself) as the tailor-made solution to the ersatz problem. Pardon my ennui.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Chris,

    You write: “How exactly would anyone go about demonstrating this, either from a naturalistic or non-naturalistic point of view?

    One way would be to run a computer simulation (and use the Monte Carlo method to estimate the probability that unguided natural evolution will produce complex organisms – the way it is relatively easy to show that an unguided/mechanical process will evolve a disorderly mass of molecules in a liquid into a crystal). Perhaps such a simulation will be feasible one day. Or perhaps not. One way or the other, this matter is irrelevant for my argument. My argument is that *unless* one can demonstrate that an unguided mechanical process P will probably evolve a physical state A into state B, one is *not* justified in claiming that process P does evolve state A into state B. And if one moreover claims that it is science which says that P evolved A into B, then one is claiming a factual falsehood.

    These are not my ideas. Theistic philosopher Alvin Plantinga explains that the science of natural evolution shows that for all we know it is possible that the species have evolved through unguided natural evolution, not that it is probable that they evolved in this way, nor of course that they did evolve in this way. There is a huge epistemic distance between “X is possible” or “there is no known defeater for the belief that X” to “X is more probably true than not-X” let alone “X is a fact”. Theistic philosopher Keith Ward, based on the work of biochemist turned theologian Arthur Peacocke, goes further and succeeds in at least raising serious doubts against the probability that unguided natural evolution will produce organisms as complex as we are. The main idea is that, contrary to many peoples’ impression, natural evolution does not guarantee a continuous increase in complexity, and may indeed decrease the complexity of a biosphere. (Some time ago I’ve had an interesting discussion about this very issue, see: http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/2009/03/only-theory.html )

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    (I am reposting this, because the first intent failed to appear online)

    Chris,

    You write: “How exactly would anyone go about demonstrating this, either from a naturalistic or non-naturalistic point of view?

    One way would be to run a computer simulation (and use the Monte Carlo method to estimate the probability that unguided natural evolution will produce complex organisms – the way it is relatively easy to show that an unguided/mechanical process will evolve a disorderly mass of molecules in a liquid into a crystal). Perhaps such a simulation will be feasible one day. Or perhaps not. One way or the other, this matter is irrelevant for my argument. My argument is that *unless* one can demonstrate that an unguided mechanical process P will probably evolve a physical state A into state B, one is *not* justified in claiming that process P does evolve state A into state B. And if one moreover claims that it is science which says that P evolved A into B, then one is claiming a factual falsehood.

    These are not my ideas. Theistic philosopher Alvin Plantinga explains that the science of natural evolution shows that for all we know it is possible that the species have evolved through unguided natural evolution, not that it is probable that they evolved in this way, nor of course that they did evolve in this way. There is a huge epistemic distance between “X is possible” or “there is no known defeater for the belief that X” to “X is more probably true than not-X” or “X is a fact”. Theistic philosopher Keith Ward, based on the work of biochemist turned theologian Arthur Peacocke, goes further and succeeds in at least raising serious doubts against the probability that unguided natural evolution will produce organisms as complex as we are. The main idea is that, contrary to many peoples’ impression, natural evolution does not guarantee a continuous increase in complexity, and may indeed decrease the complexity of a biosphere. (Some time ago I’ve had an interesting discussion about this very issue, see: http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/2009/03/only-theory.html )

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith,

    You write: “If God is depicted as too involved with the world, directly producing natural effects like lightning or volcanoes, then theism comes into direct opposition with advancing science and has to beat a steady retreat, pausing perhaps to situate God in temporary gaps.

    The classical theistic position is that God directly causes all contingent existence and its properties. So, for example, an apple falls according to the elegant description of gravitational theory because God’s will guides it in this way. Thus God is maximally involved with the world, and I don’t see where theism has had to beat a steady retreat because of the advancement of the physical sciences. Except if you mean the fact that many of the claims of scripture about physical facts when understood literally have been falsified by science (I mean claims such as that the first human was originally made from mud into which God blew life, the great flood which killed all animals except those saved in Noah’s ark, and so on). But theism, obviously, does not hinge on a literal reading of the Bible, nor indeed on considering the Bible to have a fundamentally different status than any other religiously inspired book. I find it quite obvious that if God wanted to use a particular book as an important means of revelation then God would have managed a better job – I am sure you agree. In my judgment bibliolatry is one of the most damaging things that have happened to theism, and if the advancement of the physical sciences helps people realize that there are many errors in the Bible then so much the better.

    True, a clever enough deity could make his interactions with the world undetectable by hiding in the stochastic gaps between probabilistic causes and their effects, but, in that case, where is the motivation to posit such a being at all?

    Well, God is supposed to be perfectly clever. Actually I find it is a remarkably intelligent piece of work that the physical laws should be such that the universe is causally closed and at the same time God is free to massively interact with creation (for example design us having the appropriate cognitive faculties, make the universe beautiful, perhaps interact with the life of individuals, etc). As for the motivation for positing such a being, it goes far beyond the need to explain the regularities in the physical phenomena we observe (even though some such regularities and especially the deep mathematical nature of the physical universe are hard to explain without the God hypothesis). Rather it responds to the need to explain the whole of our experience of life, with its moral, esthetic, and indeed existential dimensions – not to mention the life enriching and self transforming religions experiences.

    Natural theology in all its manifold manifestations really has a pretty small bag of tricks. God is needed only if nature is somehow inadequate. Natural theologians have striven mightily to argue that nature is insufficient (e.g., brains can’t think, contingent beings must have a necessary one, life cannot have originated naturalistically, means-to-end order must have an intelligent creator, the constants need a fine-tuner, etc. etc.).

    This does not look like a small bag, Keith. And I could add to it. And it was much smaller at the beginning of the 20th century.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Dianelos,

    With respect to your reply to Chris:

    Without realistic parameters reflecting the actual conditions of the pre-biotic earth, such a computer simulation would be “garbage in garbage out.” Creationists have long deployed pseudo-mathematical arguments in the attempt to show that abiogenesis or the evolution of complexity would be highly improbable. Yet these arguments are based upon wholly fallacious assumptions and the probabilities generated are unfailingly bogus, as Taner Edis and Jeffrey Shallit have shown in mathematical detail (see, in particular, Taner’s book Why Intelligent Design Fails).

    The arguments of Plantinga and Ward are based on little more than ignorance and wishful thinking. Evolutionists have no responsibility to show that evolution is possible or probable because they have shown that it is actual. A number of recent books have done a wonderful job of explaining the evidence for evolution. My favorite is Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish. Equally cogent is Jerry A. Coyne’s Why Evolution is True. Also excellent are Donald Prothero’s Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters, and Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth. These books leave no reasonable doubt that the diversity of life on earth was the result of a historical process of descent with modification, as Darwin called it.

    Ah, you may say, but this evidence does not show that the process was unguided; it is compatible with theistic as well as naturalistic evolution. Not so. Dawkins is particularly good here. He shows that in innumerable anatomical and physiological details, what we have makes no sense at all from an engineering perspective. If these things were designed, they were a paradigm of unintelligent design. It is not just that these “designs” would be suboptimal; they would be stupid. A watchmaker would have to be not just blind but an idiot or a lunatic. On the contrary, these features of the organic world are far more reasonably explained in terms of unguided processes that cannot create de novo, but are constrained to work by altering structures and functions that are already present. Darwin himself details case after case of organic features that make no sense on a design hypothesis but are expected on a hypothesis of natural selection. So, evolution is real, and all of the evidence is that it is unguided. What more is there to prove?

    If someone insists that, nonetheless, the process was guided, then (a) as Darwin noted, it is not clear how such an assertion is to avoid vacuity. Where is the evidence that it was guided? It just does not exist. To say that it was guided in a way that looks wholly unguided is to utter total nonsense. (b) How does this guidance take place? Was it the sort of “creation on the installment plan” proposed by Asa Gray? (c) The burden of proof should be entirely on the person who makes the “guidance” claim.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10962948073162156902 Victor Reppert
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith,

    You write: “Without realistic parameters reflecting the actual conditions of the pre-biotic earth, such a computer simulation would be “garbage in garbage out.”

    I agree. The simulation required is probably far beyond our scientific and technological capabilities today, and the task may turn out to be intractable. But scientists and engineers have surprised us in the past, so who knows one day we may be able to compute the probability that unguided natural evolution will produce our level of biological complexity. My bet is that this probability is not small, which means that natural evolution does not contradict naturalism.

    Evolutionists have no responsibility to show that evolution is possible or probable because they have shown that it is actual.

    Agreed. Science has shown beyond reasonable doubt that the species including ourselves are the product of natural evolution.

    Ah, you may say, but this evidence does not show that the process was unguided; it is compatible with theistic as well as naturalistic evolution. Not so. Dawkins is particularly good here. He shows that in innumerable anatomical and physiological details, what we have makes no sense at all from an engineering perspective.

    I haven’t read “The Greatest Show on Earth” and wonder if I should, as I completely agree that natural evolution, or descent with modification, is a fact. (I was lucky enough to pick by chance Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene” in my early 20s, and found it mind opening.) That many anatomical and physiological details make no sense from an engineering perspective is a philosophical, not a scientific argument, and I know that Dawkins’ philosophical thought is too mediocre for me to learn something from. What interests me are arguments for and against unguided evolution. Please observe that guided evolution cannot possibly contradict actual or future science, because if the universe is such that unguided evolution will probably produce our kind of complexity so too, obviously, can guided evolution. So the only question is whether unguided evolution fits the bill. Do you know any book or paper by a good naturalist philosopher that discusses this issue?

    If these things were designed, they were a paradigm of unintelligent design.

    Well, one can’t judge the intelligence of a design without knowing the designer’s purpose. So, for example, the primary purpose of the design of the F-117 stealth fighter was to build an airplane that is invisible to radar. Imagine now somebody arguing thus: The F-117 is so inefficient aerodynamically (not to mention ugly) that no intelligent airplane designer would ever produce such a design.

    So what can we reasonably say about God’s design purposes? Given God’s attributes we may reasonably conclude that efficiency is not one of God’s design criteria. Efficiency is required only by designers whose power or resources are limited. Thus any argument from the universe’s inefficiency fail to make a case against God’s being the designer.

    Secondly, there is this hugely conspicuous fact about the universe, namely that it is causally closed in the physical. Indeed, it seems very probable that one does not need the God hypothesis to explain any physical phenomenon, and that can’t be a coincidence but must be what God intended. But if the historical fact of natural evolution is such that a designer had to guide it, then that physical closure would be violated. If one of God’s purposes was to design a causally closed universe (as is plausible to assume), and if it is at all possible to design a process of evolution of the species which does not break that physical closure, then God has certainly used such a process. [continued bellow]

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    [continued from above] Therefore the details we find which do not look intelligently designed do not evidence that the universe is not intelligently designed, given the assumption that one of God’s purposes is to design a causally closed universe. (An implication of the above theistic syllogism is that the probability that unguided evolution will produce our kind of complexity is not small, contrary to what ID theorists believe and try to prove.)

    The science of natural evolution (which must be distinguished from the naturalistic interpretation of it) has successfully shown that if something looks designed it does not mean that there is a designer. But the converse also obtains: If something looks not designed it does not mean that there is no designer.

    Where is the evidence that it was guided? It just does not exist.

    Two things:

    Let’s call p(UNE) the probability that the universe is such that unguided natural evolution will produce our level of complexity. The value of p(UNE) is well defined and exists. If it turns that it is very small then that would be evidence for guided natural evolution. So the evidence *may* exist, but we haven’t found it yet. As I explained above, I suspect on theistic grounds that p(UNE) is not very small and thus that this evidence does not exist. But perhaps I am wrong and it does. Neither I nor you know for sure.

    Suppose now that the evidence does not exist, i.e. that p(UNE) is not very small. This says nothing about whether natural evolution has in fact been guided by God or not. That’s why I say that the best a naturalist can hope for is that science should one day prove that p(UNE) is not very small, thus proving that the fact of natural evolution does not falsify naturalism.

    To say that it was guided in a way that looks wholly unguided is to utter total nonsense.

    The falling of an apple according to the beautiful mathematical description of gravitational theory looks wholly unguided but is, on theism, guided by God’s will. I am not sure why you think that such a belief is nonsense. At a minimum it avoids many of the conceptual problems that plague naturalism, including, say, how to interpret quantum mechanics, or how elementary particles without access to any computing machinery manage to display such a computationally complex behavior.

    How does this guidance take place?

    As per quantum mechanics we know that the state of the universe can evolve stochastically in many different directions. Consider all possible universes which can evolve from the initial state of the universe without breaking its causal closure. Further assume the best case for naturalism (and also the most elegant case for theism) namely that p(UNE) is not small. Then there is huge number of universes that can evolve in which we, as designed by God, exist, and in which the causal closure of the universe (including the process of natural evolution) is not violated. God would then guide the process of natural evolution by instantiating into reality the evolution of one of these possible universes. – I hope I am explaining this idea well; please let me know if you see some problem with it.

    The burden of proof should be entirely on the person who makes the “guidance” claim.

    True, and I hope I have carried that burden by showing how God can guide the evolution of the species according to His/Her design without breaking the physical closure of the universe or in any way contradicting scientific knowledge. On the other hand I notice that those, like Dawkins or Dennett, who claim that natural evolution is unguided have not carried their burden of proof.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Victor and Dianelos,

    Thanks much for your extensive and thoughtful responses. I do appreciate the time and effort you put into our discussions. My polemical fervor will have to be directed elsewhere for the next few days. I and a colleague are replying in print to an op/ed written in the Houston Chronicle by a member of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a far-right pressure group that is conducting a vendetta against higher education in Texas. They claim that academic research is generally worthless. Their argument? Common people do not understand it. Really. I am not making this up. Anyway, this stuff will be occupying me for the next couple of days. Maybe I can get back to the more serious discussion with you later in the week.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Hi Keith,

    Good luck with your project. Perhaps you can suggest that next time he needs specialized medical treatment based on research which the common people do not understand he should refuse it for being worthless.

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