Background on the Discussion (Skippable): What is going on?
If we wish to follow the Logos where He leads, we need to listen to critics, especially those with interesting things to say. Jeff Williams is a critic of metaphysics. A University of Chicago grad, he agreed to present his argument and I have posted it here unedited (except for some formatting and the title). As result of his rejection of metaphysics, he rejects objective moral law as an illusion.
Mr. Williams previously argued that Athens has no need of Jerusalem, which contributes nothing good to Western civilization. I responded and enjoyed the interaction immensely. Mr. Williams has taken the time to discuss Martin Heidegger, a philosopher not much in favor when I was in graduate school. I have enjoyed reading more Heidegger (alas in translation). As usual, I allowed his post to stand without comment for a time and now here is a response. Mr. Williams suggested to me that I had not gotten him right, so it seemed decent and in order to let him respond. I suggested that Mr. Williams has ended up looking for a pony, because he has found a pile of LEGO blocks shaped like a pony.
Mr. Williams finds my response lacking, so I joyfully invite you to follow the argument where it leads. In this case, it leads to a sadly dogmatic physicalism (or materialism) that sees “gaps” or problems where there are none. We also learn that having a bad history of the philosophy of science can lead to some bad conclusions. Williams has come back to straighten me out. Sadly, I am not straightened out by this response, since I do not think Mr. Williams makes arguments. On the other hand, Williams is my friend, because he is honest, forthright, well read, and unafraid to speak what he thinks is true.
This is vital to the dialectic, the very basis of our finding the Logos, the Lord Jesus. My discussion of assertions is in two parts. Here is part two.
A Preface: On Arguments: Assertions and Background Assumptions
An assertion is not an argument. If I say, “There is a God.”, then that is a statement of what I think is true. Depending on what you think of me, this may be a bit of evidence for the truth or falsity of the claim. Still no matter who you are (and I am not much), this is not much of an argument!
Mr. Williams makes a great many assertions, so many that he may forget that he is not making any arguments. An argument gives reasons, these reach conclusions. Those conclusions might lead to other arguments that eventually produce a complete view of reality. The danger is that such assertions contain unexamined assumptions that hasten an observer to conclusions, hasty conclusions.
Much of my task has been to point out those assumptions. Mr. Williams has, for example, a certain view of the past, an almost entirely false view, but one that undergirds his assertions. For Mr. Williams, Athens did not need Jerusalem, but Jerusalem (Christianity) is the only reason we care about Athens (classical philosophy) at all.
This is why Mr. Williams’ complaint misses the mark:
I trust that in the spirit of the dialectic my friend will directly and substantively address it rather than once again take us on a visit to a 19th century mathematician, time travel to a future heart transplant, back in time to Christians of the Middle ages, and then to Canton Ohio for the football hall of fame. Breathtaking to be sure but having nothing to do with the case I made.
We must follow the argument where it leads, but we must not hide the. . .football. . .or we shall accept a view of reality we find attractive, while not noticing those hidden assumptions. Writing in the twenty-first century, we are filled with the assumptions, truths, bigotries of previous times. To write about what is will mean to try, even if almost impossibly hard, to flush out all the assumptions behind our assertions.
I shan’t then be able to keep from the past, since the past made us. As a result, when Mr. Williams asserts metaphysics is dead, or science can tell us what we need to know, we must examine why anyone would think such things. Are they true? Where did the ideas originate? This is not so we can reject them for their origins, but so we can see if the original arguments that persuaded our ancestors to accept them are good and persuasive.
So often we go on thinking a thing merely because the broken, falsified arguments underneath are never examined. So it is with Heidegger’s view of the Pre-Socratic philosophers. His conclusions based on the data he had at the time were brilliant, but sadly we know more about the Pre-Socratics now. A mediocrity can rebuke a genius if the genius built his brilliance on a lie.
So it goes with much of Williams’ ideas, persuasive only if we do not ask: “Why in Heaven’s name would anyone believe such things in the first place?” His argument depends on all being stuff (matter and energy), but this is almost surely false. I am not distracting the arguments just trying to do as I was taught: getting to the bottom of it all.
No assumption must be left unexamined.
On Tricky Me, Mr. Williams Issues a Blast, but Trickiness Requires a Mind :
Mom, nearly perfect, once suggested to me that in a debate, one should keep calm. If one became. . .hot. . .either a great evil had been done or the shaft had gone home.
Williams seems exercised, but we are friends, so I cannot have been wicked. He suggests:
I know my good friend Dr. Reynolds well, or at least well enough to know how when he’s flailing in debate his custom is to resort to the tricks of the apologist trade: red herrings, strawmen and sweeping statements rather than address the argument being made.
Let me be very serious for a moment: this would be very bad. Those I love who taught me would be ashamed if I were to just wish to win. My Mom thought a desire merely to win an argument wicked if the truth got lost. I take this seriously and I hope this is not true.
Yet I wonder about this. Suppose for a moment, that all of it is true. I am at a loss how, with his view of reality Williams can believe it. Oddly, nothing is easier for a Christian, or at least for me, than to know that one is often an ass. So a view of reality that does not allow Mr. Williams to find me an ass, or at least tricksy, is a very bad world view indeed.
Yet this a problem Mr. Williams has.
Mr. Williams is a physicalist. He thinks everything, all there is, is stuff: a giant heap o’ matter. Let us grant this assumption for a moment. The atoms are not tricksy. The molecules are not tricksy. Where can we find the origins of my tricksy behavior when all we have is matter and energy being regular as nature is regular?
Pile up all the stuff you can find and not one puckish moment will result. It’s hard to get something out something else entirely. A view of reality that cannot account for my failure, obvious to all, is not much of a world view. Never charge a man for a problem that cannot exist in your view of reality.
An Aside: On Interpreting Texts- The Just Can Read by Reasonable Faith (Skip this Aside if You Hurried)
Interesting people will often throw out quips as interesting as the central point. Mr Williams is a bit puckish:
This is most excellent as a bit of humor. We need only read Mr. Williams to know that his (Twitter) claim to a University of Chicago degree seems likely (and good for University of Chicago to have such alum)! This credential is not, in the slightest, incompatible with a further claim he makes to be a biker who lives under bridges.
(Yes, I know he presents me as a product of the University of Chicago, but I point out he has never presented the slightest bit of evidence to back that up.)
Am I sure Williams went to Chicago? I am not. Do I assume he did? Given his care in his earliest piece that is very dependent on Heidegger, I do.
Do I think he lives under bridges with his bike?
I have known others as clever with similar lifestyles in my life, but I doubt he does.
He speaks (always) like a Chicago graduate, a very particular patois. When he writes about the bike and the bridge, he is much more puckish. I assume then that he has a bike, a Chicago degree, and was a wag in his day.
Why pause over this trivia?
This shows something about the nature of texts and reading. I have only read Williams. I have never met him and he is hard to Google. (This is the curse of a common name.) I love reading him.
Think about this.
We can know people through text and make reasonable conclusions about them. They may be wrong, but over time we get good enough to make decent guesses. Williams’ tone makes it more likely than not he is a Chicago grad. The same banter, and facts about the culture, make it more likely than not he does not live under a bridge.
We can make reasonable conclusions
Reality Contains Objective Morality: Williams Sums His Case, Such as His Case Is
Williams does all of us a favor by summing his case:
We should first revisit why our friend is flailing here. The issue is my contention that there is no objective morality, which I approached from two angles:
We have already seen that given his physicalism, all is stuff, there is no good reason to think I should be able to “flail,” Where does this mental mistake originate? How does a pile of matter produce a flailing mind? However, once more to Williams’ assertions:
1. the overcoming of metaphysics eliminates gods and any supposed related objective truths or laws;
Metaphysics has not been overcome. Philosophers, in world class journals, keep doing metaphysics. Perhaps Williams is right, but very fine programs all over the world, some almost void of religion, would reject this assumption. We will soon see why Williams misses this vibrant, publishing, community.
2. the evolutionary history of sensibilities that promote cooperation, such as empathy fairness and love, and their reflection in the refinement of what we consider moral over the past few millennia.
Let’s assume Williams science is perfect, his history sound, and his description of the origin of what we “consider moral” just so. That does nothing for our understanding of what we should do. He has (presumably perfectly) stated what is true, but that does nothing to help quell doubts the moment we think, God helps us, should we accept this “refinement.”
“History” has done nothing. History is not a person. “Evolution” has done nothing, evolution grinds along without purpose by definition. Williams ignores that nature and evolution also is red in tooth and claw. Because he is a decent man, he picked good things that are and has tried to build a “should” on it all. Sadly, personal decency combined with a pile of facts does not suppress contrary facts (death of the unfit) and those with less decency who conjure different “oughts” from this pliable interpretation of “is.”
Williams badly states my case:
He wagered his response on an attempt to reclaim metaphysics, which rested solely on the claim that consciousness was non-physical. Not being able to establish that beyond “it seems so”, he was unable to honestly counter the scientific advances that point to consciousness ultimately revealing a purely physical existence.
This is simply false. I point out that ideas and numbers seem non-physical and there is no conclusive case that they are not. The hard problem of consciousness is merely another difficulty, though one all of us have experienced. There are exactly no scientific advances that point to to “consciousness ultimately revealing a purely physical existence.” There are advances in brain science, thank scientists and God who made them, but knowing all there is to know about the organ does not eliminate the organist.
Williams assumes physicalism and so sees progress, because how could he not?
When I say “Hamlet” does not seem like matter and energy, I am starting where we must. Ideas, the play, the conscience of the King, simply are nothing like a Lego outside of existing. Here is a basic problem for Mr. Williams: we can say of a physical thing that more or less (joules, wats, yards, meters) makes it more stuff. Try doing that with consciences: what is the unit of conciseness or of ideas or of numbers?
What unit would make consciousness more consciousness?
We have an idea or we do not, but we do not say that five more idea units will give us more ideas.
These metaphysical substances do not “seem” like physical things, because they are not studied, created, or measured in the same way.
On the Analytic and Continental Divide
Williams, without defining terms, introduces a divide in philosophy. He says:
But first, I mean to call attention to a rhetorical devise Dr. Reynolds often falls back on in argumentation. Here he repeatedly tries to diminish my argument by insinuating a lesser importance to continental philosophy and a more substantial pedigree for Anglo-American analytic writers and pre-Enlightenment metaphysics. I’m torn between claiming the fallacy of argumentum ad verecundiam or proudly accepting minority status. So, I’ll do both.
I do not mean to insinuate a lesser importance to continental philosophy and hope the dominance of “analytic” approaches in prestige departments in the English speaking world has not disconcerted Williams. It is a big world, after all, and most people do not speak English.
And after all, the entire distinction is too vague to be very useful and has grown more so since the 1990’s.
My case against Williams’ assertions did not depend on this division. I argue that the metaphysical, religious, and pre-Enlightenment are not dead. I did not argue, do not even think, that the “Continental” (whatever that is precisely) has no value. To the contrary, I think that it might! Husserl was on the continent and his philosophy of science inspired my friend Professor Dallas Willard to brilliance.
When I was in graduate school, there were attempts to carefully distinguish the “two approaches” in historical terms. They generally were not useful or rigorous. As a result, I could not be rejecting Williams ideas because they are in some ambiguous “wrong school,” but because I am not persuaded by his assertions. When he dismisses Thomism as a living field of study, when it is a field of study with thinkers in excellent universities all over the world (English and non-English), his only reason for doing so is that they are “common thinkers.”
To be perfectly honest, I have, in the past, used the term “analytic” to describe my own graduate education, since that was how the department was described to me. This was meant to describe an approach (high emphasis on formal logic, language, and the Anglo-American philosophical tradition) to philosophy that dominated top tier English schools. There are obviously other approaches that, for example, deemphasize logic. Such an approach is not my preference, but so it goes. After all, one can prefer an approach without disregarding another approach or thinking it has no value.
In any case, nothing in my case depends on Williams being “continental.”
Williams, by contrast, often has attacked there being any credible metaphysics or worth to pre-Enlightenment thought. I have argued this is not proven and often depends on a bad history of science and ideas. That does not imply that I think there is no value in post-Enlightenment and (whatever it is exactly) Continental thought.
Williams is wrong, but my argument for his wrongheaded assertions have not depended on where his ideas originated geographically.