Can it add up?

One thing I appreciate about more conservative varieties of supernatural belief is that it is, sometimes, false. Oh, ordinary religion has plenty of vagueness, indeterminacy, and various unclarities of meaning. But it also has enough anthropomorphism, allegedly historical stories, and similar linkages to ordinary cognition that, with some work, it can be patched up to achieve some form of intelligibility.

What follows is disappointing, since invariably such supernatural-claims-made-respectable turn out to be false. Wildly incongruous with modern science. Often, bronze-age superstition. Maybe even rank pseudoscience. But still, there is something good here. There is something nice and clean about falsehood.

But set that aside. Also set aside the religious thinking that is modern and sophisticated but also disconnected from any reality checks. (This gets rid of a lot of theology, but who wants to deal with anything so boring?) Maybe, after all that, there still are a few God-friendly intuitions that both have some possible connection with reality and some degree of academic respectability. Here are a few candidates:

  • Dualism, or some other kind of claim about the irreducible specialness of the mental that does not describe itself as dualism but still looks an awful lot like dualism,
  • Platonism, mathematical and otherwise, and allied with dualism or otherwise,
  • Hard moral realism, belief in objective prescriptive moral truths etc.,
  • Intelligent design-lite, in the sense of creativity ultimately not residing in a mindless physical world even though common descent is correct,
  • . . . Add your own . . .

Now, I think all such notions are mistaken. Seriously wrong. I am capable of getting more pissed off when I see Platonism among physicists than conventional religion. (Religion is a cultural thing. What’s the excuse for the more distilled bullshit you get only out of an intellectual tradition?)

But that’s a separate rant. What I don’t get is this: if I’m totally wrong (not unknown) and such notions are in some sense correct, what would it all add up to?

I understand that all this is relevant. Any one would undermine the most ambitious forms of naturalism or physicalism, which I consider the most serious threats to theism. So, just by clearing away some rivals, they could help make some version of supernatural God-belief more plausible.

But on the other hand, they add up to nothing remotely close to a supernatural God. It’s quite possible to have atheists who are dualists, or Platonists, or defenders of hard objective morality, or whatever. They are atheists with whom I have serious disagreements. But then, disagreement and disunity among nonbelievers is hardly anything new.

So again, even if some of the anti-physicalist intuitions that retain some degree of respectability were to suddenly start looking a lot more persuasive, I don’t see this as adding up to much in the way of support for God in any conventional sense.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

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

    Taner,

    Yes, I think it can add up, in the following sense: When one sees that a purely mechanistic understanding of reality cannot be right – for it can’t be the case that one does not possess freedom of will (i.e. that one couldn’t possibly have chosen differently than how one in fact did), that it can’t be the case that torturing a child for fun is wrong only because one feels this way, that it can’t be the case that a particular configuration of matter becomes conscious, etc. – then one moves in a direction that pretty naturally leads to theism. After all a reality which is at bottom not mechanistic and thus purposeless, must be a purposeful one. Purpose entails a personal source. And pondering what could possibly be the purpose of all of reality the way one experiences it, one can’t fail to notice the reality of a very good purpose indeed. Which leads to the idea that reality is grounded on the presence of a very good personal source. Which, basically, is theism.

    Anyway, in my judgment one of the most serious problems that naturalism (i.e. the mechanistic understanding of reality) suffers from, comes from modern physics. I don’t think that’s a trivial idea, or an idea entertained only by those who do not understand modern physics. The evidence is that Nobel price winning physicists have thought that this is a serious problem, and that physics professors are still writting books about it (such as Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner’s “Quantum Enigma”. The problem is not limited to QM, the apparent fine-tuning of the fundamental constants, the deeply mathematical nature of the universe, are other issues that serious people have seriously discussed). It would be informative if instead of handwaving these problems away you should write about what you think about them.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06847717704454032165 Eric Thomson

    Dianelos: I wonder what makes you say, "it can’t be the case that a particular configuration of matter becomes conscious"?

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

    Eric,

    You write: “I wonder what makes you say, "it can’t be the case that a particular configuration of matter becomes conscious"?

    The easier answer would be to point out the mind-body problem and how there isn’t even a viable basic hypothesis (never mind a theory) of how consciousness fits within a naturalistic reality. All hypotheses put forward appear to suffer from serious conceptual problems, as evidenced by the fact that naturalist philosophers do not agree on which hypothesis is viable, and by the fact that some prefer to embrace new mysterianism.

    But the more direct answer I’d like to give is this: First, thanks to physics, we already know a mountain about matter. We know about the precise properties of matter from about the smallest and simplest to about the largest and most complex scales. And nowhere in that mountain of physical knowledge is there the slightest inkling that particular configurations of matter become conscious. Secondly, it seems there is no objective observation which requires the consciousness hypothesis. Vis-à-vis the physical sciences the consciousness hypothesis appears to be exactly as superfluous as the God hypothesis, (and arguably more superfluous still). In conclusion: From all we know about matter the idea that particular configurations of matter become conscious is as preposterous as it gets.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06847717704454032165 Eric Thomson

    Focusing on physics, you said:
    "And nowhere in that mountain of physical knowledge is there the slightest inkling that particular configurations of matter become conscious."

    Neuropsychology gives much more than the 'slightest inkling'. It gives an avalanche of data that is very hard to account for in any other way.

    Then:
    "there is no objective observation which requires the consciousness hypothesis"

    What about subliminal priming, binocular rivalry, sleep vs wake. There is much more of course. It seems an extremely fruitful hypothesis that the neuronal structures unerlying these processes reveal some of the signatures of conscious versus unconscious neuronal processes.

    Not sure what is superfluous or preposterous there, maybe there are data or ideas with which I am so far unfamiliar…I'm always on the lookout for new arguments/data, but it seems you have overstated the case against neuronal theories of consciousness.

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

    Eric,

    You write: “Neuropsychology gives much more than the 'slightest inkling'. It gives an avalanche of data that is very hard to account for in any other way.

    Neuropsychology starts by assuming that the brain is capable of conscious experience, so you are begging the question. The question is what in the mountain of physical knowledge we have thanks to the physical sciences gives the slightest inkling that particular configurations of matter may become capable of conscious experience. I say nothing does, and I notice you are not pointing out anything that does.

    To my claim that “there is no objective observation which requires the consciousness hypothesis” you respond “What about subliminal priming, binocular rivalry, sleep vs wake.

    My PC has sleep and wake states, but this does not evidence that it is capable of conscious experience, don’t you agree?

    As for binocular rivalry: Suppose an experiment should demonstrate that when different images are projected to a cockroach’s (compound) eyes, its brain focuses on only one image in a random fashion. Do you think that result would evidence that cockroaches are conscious beings? Or consider this example: There are 3D cameras with two lenses. If such a camera would malfunction and record only one or the other image in a randomly alternating fashion – would that make that camera capable of having visual experiences?

    As for subliminal priming, I think that’s the worse example of all, because it explicitly assumes the presence of consciousness in order to point out the effect of the subconscious. If anything, subliminal priming demonstrates that behavior that people assumed would require conscious awareness may well not require it.

    Not sure what is superfluous or preposterous there, maybe there are data or ideas with which I am so far unfamiliar…I'm always on the lookout for new arguments/data, but it seems you have overstated the case against neuronal theories of consciousness.

    What neuronal theories of consciousness? The only thing I see are neuronal theories of behavior. To me it looks like you have been taking in by what one may call “Dennett’s trick”. Daniel Dennett often mentions a lot of interesting facts as if he is preparing for a knock-down argument, which never comes. Or, one may call this the “Naked Emperor syndrome”, i.e. people one knows excitedly behaving as if there is lots of evidence there, so much so that one does not actually look to see that evidence.

    Here is the reason why I feel so confident that no objective observation requires the consciousness hypothesis: If a material system can become conscious then we may all live within a computer simulation, which entails that nothing we observe requires the consciousness hypothesis. Indeed, if we live in a computer simulation then all knowledge about our brains discovered (or to be discovered) by the physical sciences remains true, but our brains do *not* produce our consciousness. Therefore, if a material system can become conscious then, no matter how closely we look, we won’t find evidence that our brains produce our consciousness.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06847717704454032165 Eric Thomson

    That was anticlimactic.

    Ver word: 'facting'…awesome.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09708981993708509662 Robert Oerter

    See also the discussion of anti-reductionism going on at Cosmic Variance:

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2011/04/21/avignon-day-3-reductionism/

    But there is a sense in which I think your conclusion is slightly incorrect. One of the strongest arguments in favor of atheism, IMO, is that non-physical things simply don't exist – at least not in any way that can have a causal effect on the physical universe. That means the theist has a very large burden to overcome in claiming that God is a non-physical being that can affect the physical world.

    If you could prove the opposite, then you would, very slightly, reduce that burden for the theist.


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