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.
Don’t Mistake My Goal: Showing that there very well might be more things in heaven and earth than are asserted in Williams’ philosophy.
Mr. Williams began our discussion by boldly asserting that there was no moral law and that metaphysics is dead. My job has been, mostly, to question those assertions. I have used several approaches: refuting the dubious, questioning the closure of questions, and presenting several alternatives that are viable.
Metaphysics is alive and well as a discipline all over the philosophical world. Thomism, a theological and philosophical approach inspired by a Medieval, is actively pursued, defended, and examined on every continent.
Williams asserts science can get the moral job done we need, looking only to evolutionary history. Sadly, he imports meaning by caps key: turning in one stroke being to Being. He finds an arc to history that fortunately for all of us turns out to be quite different from the arc of history Heidegger found. It is impossible to find a reason to prefer whatever meaning he divines from the “is” that science reports, no reason to trust his particular selection of historic trends, though comfort in the fact that he finds just about what we would hope he would find in a decent man with good education in America in the twenty-first century.
He cannot get “is” from “ought” not even with rhetorical flair.
Williams has declared settled what is surely not, but like any sufficiently broad view of reality, one can never refute Williams or for that matter other grand ideas such as idealism or dualism. A thinker can find reasons to prefer materialism/physicalism (the two terms are generally used interchangeably in philosophy) to idealism, but so can the idealist.
Williams’ ideas are also underpinned by false beliefs about the development of ideas. As we saw in earlier posts, science developed in part from philosophical ideas conceived by theist thinkers due to their theism.
Williams cannot do what he originally claims and the world of ideas is more contentious by far than he asserts, but alternative views can only suggest why he should open up and reconsider. This also is certainly true of dualism, idealism, Christian theism, or any other grand idea still being debated.
The rational are not going to be sure, the rational must live by intellectual faith. Williams has boldly gone where more than a few great-text types used to go. If this is not as common now as it used to be, this is in part because, sadly, few are educated in the languages and great texts, but also because the project depended on a view of history, science, philosophy, theology, metaphysics that was not persuasive.
Elements of his view are held by most relevant thinkers: theism is a minority position in philosophy, though one that has undergone a great revival in the late twentieth and twenty-first century. The idea that numbers do not exist takes on the default view of mathematicians, though there are a large number of critics.
My purpose in pointing to places where Williams swims against the intellectual tide was not to refute him. That is absurd. Truth is not counted. However, Williams is the one to assert without qualification. Surely, at the very least the fact that Heidegger’s philosophy and the implications for ethics from that philosophy at least suggest things are not so easy or obvious as Williams asserts.
This is not to say he must be wrong, if he is on a fringe, and he obviously has come to different moral conclusions than the fiercest critics of Nietzsche or Heidegger see in their work. Merely being in a minority, even of one, does not make Williams wrong.
Being so frequently wrong does.
We agree: minority ideas can be most excellent.
Throughout intellectual history the breakthroughs and seminal thoughts emerge from the minority, which in turn become the common majority only to be surpassed by another minority. In any age we are fortunate enough to have one or two truly great thinkers along with thousands of common thinkers of no lasting consequence who constitute the majority. In the past century the two great seminal thinkers, by general consensus of actual philosophers, have not been those that Mr. Reynolds cites, but the very unique figures of Wittgenstein and Heidegger.
Here we have a view of the history of philosophy. We have no reason given to think this is true except by definition. A “seminal” thought is one that starts a new train of thought. Obviously, the seminal thinker is a minority of one, fecund and so spreading his ideas. The spread of those ideas, however, says nothing about the truth of those ideas. A family of ideas can grow from a thinker so interesting that even his false ideas are propagated.
Everyone who studies philosophy knows Wittgenstein (early and late!) is a vital and important philosopher. He is relevant in numerous discussions. Similar things are true of Heidegger, though arguably his staying power in the realm of greats is more debatable. If someone builds his philosophy on both, they have picked very defensible starting points, but that is not what Williams asserts:
This paragraph says two things: don’t ignore minority philosophers and now all the “actual” philosophers favor “Wittgenstein and Heidegger.” I have no idea how he knows who the “actual” philosophers are other than being those who favor Wittgenstein and Heidegger!
This is gigantic claim. Since one assumes Williams himself is (with the rest of us) at best a common thinker, why would we trust his judgment about who is seminal over against other common thinkers? After all, the category “common thinker” (he has created) surely would allow for gradations. Wouldn’t Alvin Plantinga, one of the greatest living philosophers, be a better commoner than Williams or me to make this judgment?
As a a philosopher, the philosophers I have met have thought many people were important or seminal to present philosophical projects. Plato is only one example of a philosopher who both helped spur the scientific revolution (Kepler) and many modern philosophers. Is he uncommon? Doesn’t this history of thought suggest that schools of thought can often advance over time by building often brilliantly on original insights? Perhaps Williams’ account of the history of ideas assumes what it sets out to prove: privileging conflict of ideas over continuity of ideas and cooperation over time by thinkers.
Both happen, not just one. Seminal thinkers create alternative views, enriched by their followers. Sometimes these alternative ideas are so innovative that competing ideas evolve to take the insights into account as pagan new-Platonism did when confronted with the Christian Trinity. Once a Nietzsche speaks, he must be taken into account, even if to reject his insights as unhelpful.
See the breathtaking boldness of assertion without the slightest evidence, or even a mere link:
Continental philosophy might appear to be of minor significance among those ensconced in a few analytic or apologist philosophy departments in America and some schools in the UK, but not for the rest of the world. It is the tradition from Kant via Nietzsche and Heidegger; the French tradition via Deleuze, Lacan, and Foucault; as well as the single figure of the later Wittgenstein that influences most intellectual activity among philosophers and those involved in artistic endeavors in the West.
Williams presents no evidence for any of these claims, not even a link. Why bother to refute them? Many, if not most, of the top ranked Philosophy programs in the world have excellent philosophers that would disagree with Williams. Look for yourself.
I have cited a few in the past, but since Williams keeps asserting “most intellectual activity” and “artistic endeavors” are influenced by “Continental” philosophy, he should at least present some evidence. I am particularly eager to see a definition of “artistic endeavors in the West” such that he can count them, catalog their inspiration, and prove his point. To pick one alternative source for art inspiration, it is at least plausible that Williams would discover pervasive Christian influence in much “artistic endeavors.” Surely the filmmaker Tarkovsky might begin our count! Yet there is no use making a list, because no matter how long it becomes, how deeply Christian some of the influences are on the art, Williams will just dismiss any number of counter-examples for his unfounded assertions.
If we examine his history of ideas, we will find that Williams often reflects a consensus view that no longer exists in scholarship. Even with so seemingly securely secular thinker as Kant, recent scholarship has questioned the old mid-twentieth century consensus of Kant’s hostility to religion. A more complex or at least less settled picture of Kant and religion is emerging with further scholarship:
Kant has long been seen as hostile to religion. Many of his contemporaries, ranging from his students to the Prussian authorities, saw his Critical project as inimical to traditional Christianity. The impression of Kant as a fundamentally secular philosopher became even more deeply entrenched through the twentieth century, though this is belied by a closer inspection of his writings both before and after the publication of his Critique of Pure Reason (1781), i.e., what are commonly referred to as his “pre-Critical” and “Critical” periods.
I am not trying to settle this contentious issue only to note that Williams has assumed that a mid-twentieth century consensus is settled truth about Kant. It is not. Again, I recognize that any source (however credible) I have used could also be matched with another that will disagree on important points, but it was Williams who began this discussion by asserting a view of metaphysics and morality where the only absolute he supported was in the manner he expressed his views.
I am taking the time to show Williams does not know what he claims, not building a complete case for the alternatives. After all, if Williams is not refuted, the task has already been shown to be impossible! Why waste the time? As we have seen, nothing could be further from the truth.
He said metaphysics was dead and builds his view on it. I have pointed out excellent programs and journals that still do metaphysics and now he just asserts that most do not. On what evidence? How did he count?
After all, metaphysics, even Christian metaphysics, is found, taught, and defended in more than the Anglosphere. For example, there is not a continent where philosophy is taught where Thomism is not discussed. Journal articles in many languages discuss the metaphysics of Thomas and there are various schools of thought that have developed from those ideas. Thomism contributed to the rise of scientific methods and the scientific revolution and continues to work with and interact with mainstream science.
Simultaneously, Williams uses the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to show that some of his views may be in the majority in philosophy. Just so! Some are.
I have never claimed otherwise.
Nobody would deny that most philosophers are not Christian theists, though a respectable number of very good philosophers are. That is not the issue. My argument is not that one cannot be a respectable atheist or materialist, but that Williams’ case that one cannot be a respectable theist or non-materialist is wrong.
He says metaphysics is intellectually dead in the West. I show that many are still doing metaphysics and he dismisses them as “not actual” philosophers. He has enclosed himself in bubble. Meanwhile, any philosopher gladly would concede the importance of Wittgenstein and Heidegger. Williams makes the greater claim they are seminal and that some “post-modern” tradition is the lifeblood of present Western “artistic endeavors.”
He has given us no evidence of this whatsoever. What artists? Where? Which fields?
My claim to refute such universal and immodest opining is more limited and modest.
I merely claim, based on chronology, that one cannot escape the influence of the Greek and Christian philosophers. They are our parents. I have also shown that their work has continued and has modern disciples in every field of thought. I have given examples. I have not and do not deny an important role to the philosophers Williams cites or to “post-modernism.”
I have given ongoing problems for materialism/physicalism that have caused a revived interest in dualism and materialism. My goal was to show that Williams is too certain, not that I am as certain as Williams. One does not have to lack confidence to lack bombastic certitude.
Williams Does More Asserting, but Misunderstands Idealism
Williams rightly points out that most philosophers today do not believe in souls, many do. As we both agree, minority opinions are sometimes correct. Williams began this discussion saying his was the only sensible view. As I have said several times, one can go his way, but one need not do so.
Of course, souls are not the same as minds. Here is his out of context quotation from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
“Most philosophers nowadays repudiate souls, but the problem of mental causation has not gone away.”
The very article shows the repudiation of soul (by most) has not caused the problem of mental causation to vanish! In fact, despite the immediate assumption (based on a naive history of the philosophy of science) that materialism was the best choice, new materialism/physicalism has turned out to generate similar problems. From the article, Willaims quotes:
Recent philosophical work on mental properties has revealed that matters are not so simple, however. Mental properties are alleged to have, not just one, but up to four features that make their efficacy philosophically puzzling, no less problematic than mind–body interaction is for the Cartesian dualist.
Indeed different physicalist approaches have been suggested, but none have won widespread acceptance, because none can even explain mental experiences, the qualia of our lives. As a result, there has been a recovery of interest in dualism.Of course, one way to get around the problems of both materialism and physicalism is idealism. Somehow Williams confuses problems with substance dualism with problems for Berkeley’s idealism:
Without the soul, the Christian interpretation of dualism collapses and our dear old friend, Bishop Berkeley, gets carted off to the looney bin.
This is very wrong. Problems with dualism are one reason to become an idealist!
Like materialism, idealism posits a singular way of explaining the world. Idealism does not have a mind-body problem, because all is mind. Metaphysical idealism (at least in one form) makes ideas in mind basic. Berkeley’s idealism posits one substance: the ideal in the mind of God. Science would not be impacted and, in fact, such puzzles as why mathematics “works” in science would have easier solutions.
I am not an idealist, though open to idealism. What we can see is that the failure of substance dualism does nothing to tell us if idealism is worth considering.
Williams Asserts Some More, but a Bit Less Carefully
I had suggested that contemporary history of philosophy of science did not support Mr. Williams and cited a standard text published in twelve languages from Oxford University Press. I pointed to one of the greatest mathematicians of history, Frege, and his basic arguments for the existence of numbers which are considered seminal to continued discussions in philosophy of mathematics.
Williams reduces this to an appeal to authority:
Dr. Reynolds merely cites prior authors and a somewhat imaginary history of philosophy of science.
He says this about Frege when it comes to his arguments about numbers:
He names a couple of minor authors and even appeals to Frege – a 19th century mathematician who knew no more about epistemology and ontology than a biochemist knows about metaphor.
Leave aside that Frege died in 1925 (after Heidegger got his doctorate), published during the twentieth century, and whose ideas deeply influenced present discussions in epistemology and ontology. Ignore that biochemists universally use metaphor in teaching and thinking about biochemistry.
There are surely major thinkers and philosophers who do not think numbers exist, but to pretend that Frege’s arguments have been “refuted” or aren’t of continued philosophical interest is false.
Perhaps all those still debating Frege’s ideas also don’t count as interesting philosophers.
Breaking Down a Bad Comparison by Williams
Williams does not like the fact that serious philosophers still defend substance dualism. He rightly and uncontroversially points out most philosophers reject substance dualism. However, he ignores the fact that substance dualism has made a mild mainstream academic comeback, because materialist/physicalist alternatives have serious problems. Also, some of the original reasons for rejecting substance dualism (mind/body problems) have received interesting responses. He says:
The real question is why we should accept such a notion of dualism at all. Mr. Reynolds merely gives us a suggestion that we must because it seems to be the case, although it doesn’t seem so to me, or to most philosophers if we are to believe the SEP. I would also point out that a flat earth and a geocentric cosmos seemed once to be the case too.
This is pretty bad as responses go. Why accept dualism? Philosophers have shown that earlier reasons for rejecting dualism, even Cartesian dualism, are not persuasive. Often in philosophy, ideas are rejected for a time (go to minority status!), but then given relative failure or stagnation in the dominant view are re-examined. One reason not to dismiss dualism is the alternatives have developed problems at least as severe and dualism lacks problems like explaining (explaining away?) consciousness.
Williams would reject this particular minority view because “flat earth and a geocentric cosmos seemed once to be the case too.” The author of the lay defense of substance dualism linked above is the recently deceased chair of the University of Delaware philosophy department, who helped bring the APA to UD is the intellectual equivalent of the flat earth advocate? Blackwell recently published a companion to substance dualism, but substance dualism has exactly the intellectual status of geocentrism.
I am not trying to prove substance dualism is true by these facts, just that a comparison to present flat earth theory or geocentrism is absurd.
Science Uses This Word, It is Like This Word!
There is an important reason that physicalism is not called materialism. The most fundamental level of existence that we yet know contains no matter at all but is pure vibration. Waves within quantum fields. It is solid matter that is the illusion we create subjectively as representations built from waves impinging on our senses. After I illustrated that in my last reply it seems somewhat disingenuous to claim I would reduce Hamlet, or any authentic poetry, to stuff. Remember the part about sympathetic vibration? I meant that literally and that is the point to address.
A small point: the terms “physicalism” and “materialism” are often used interchangeably:
For one thing, many contemporary physicalists do in fact use the word ‘materialism’ to describe their doctrine (e.g. Smart 1963). Moreover, while ‘physicalism’ is no doubt related to ‘physics’ it is also related to ‘physical object’ and this in turn is very closely connected with ‘material object’, and via that, with ‘matter.’
In this entry, I will adopt the policy of using both terms interchangeably, though I will typically refer to the thesis we will discuss as ‘physicalism’.
Since neither of us are, so far as I know, physicists, I will avoid commenting on Williams’ description of the state of physics. Even a good book like The Elegant Universe can be easy to misunderstand, so I will not try to describe the picture and how it seems incomplete in Williams, just link to a review in The Guardian.
And here we come to Williams’ serious problem. If we assume for the sake of argument his science, we can reject any reductionism. We cannot be reduced to vibrations, Hamlet cannot be reduced to vibrations. Reductionism of this sort is generally dodgy and, sadly, the expert postulating the theory specifically warns against it even for physics!
There was only one place in The Elegant Universe where I felt uncomfortable about what Greene was saying. It comes when he gets on to discussing the possibility of an ultimate ‘Theory of Everything’, and touches briefly on the issue of reductionism. He does not examine this as carefully as he might have done. He writes, for example: ‘Almost everyone agrees that finding the TOE would in no way mean that psychology, biology, geology, chemistry or even physics had been solved or in some sense subsumed.’ But why would any sensible person suppose such a thing? Any serious suggestion that Superstring theory might have such ‘greedy’ reductionist implications is likely to bring the whole programme into disrepute. If its reductionist implications are to be considered, then this should be done in a much more nuanced fashion. The philosophical implications of a theory dealing as this one does with the nature of emergent order and meaning in complex, hierarchically structured systems, should either be passed over altogether or dwelt on for longer than they are here. Greene might also have drawn attention to the limitations inherent in all of our mathematical and physical models of reality, and the need not to confuse them with reality itself.
Other than the word “vibration” and a description of physics I suspect he does not understand, what is Williams saying? He asserts that Hamlet cannot be reduced to “stuff” and then talks about these “vibrations”, but Hamlet cannot be reduced to vibrations.
I suspect Williams might claim he has something else in mind, some harmony between the vibrations from which Hamlet emerges and from which we emerge, but this too would be more misuse of science words. We must keep this warning in mind “the limitations inherent in all of our mathematical and physical models of reality and the need to confuse them with reality itself.” Surely we all have all seen the farce of folk seeing “chaos” in “chaos theory” and proclaiming all sorts of implications based on one English use of “chaos” and a highly technical scientific term. We should avert our eyes from pop ethicists who confused scientific relativity with ethical relativity.
Williams has run in where physicists and philosophers fear to tread!
The Hard Problem, not so hard?
Having summarized physics, Williams dismisses the hard problem of conciseness:
From this, Dr. Reynolds reminds us of the “hard question of consciousness”; a term coined in 1995 and a question that is somewhat less hard today than it was 25 years ago.
This is quite an assertion. Perhaps Williams could let us know his solution, as the philosopher who coined the phrase and agrees with him that it can be solved does not think we are about to do so:
My major takeaway: Although he has faith that consciousness can be scientifically solved, Chalmers doesn’t think we’re close to a final theory, and if we find such a theory, consciousness might remain as philosophically confusing as, say, quantum mechanics. In other words, Chalmers is a philosophical hybrid, who fuses optimism with mysterianism, the position that consciousness is intractable. Below are edited excerpts from our conversation.
And this from someone who agrees with Williams that there is a scientific “solution!” Needless to say, even a quick search shows that scholars continue to work on the problem.
Meanwhile Williams asserts:
And even at its most difficult, it was far less intractable as the interaction/causality problem inherent in dualism – a problem that remains as stubborn today as it was for Descartes.
We have already seen, and linked, to the fact that materialist/physicalist accounts lead to problems like those faced by dualists in terms of causality. We have also seen that some philosophers are suggesting, peer review publishing, solutions to interaction/causality in dualism. None of this touches the possibility of idealism as an alternative.
But the important realization here is that while I claim no certainty about the eventual answer to the hard question of consciousness, I do have a reasonable belief based on concrete relevant progress in physics and neuroscience of the past 25 years. Conversely, I have no compelling reason at all to accept dualism, nor has my good friend attempted to present one.
The progress in “neuroscience” is factored into Chalmers’ evaluation. That materialism/physicalism will solve the problem assumes that consciousness must be material, because materialism is the preferred worldview. We have already seen that qualia are not a great deal like the sorts of things that science has explained in the past, so merely pointing to those successes (We got to the moon! We understand planetary motion!) requires more similarity than consciousness and the other “problems” possess. This is why even some atheists view consciousness as an important challenge.
On the Bible: a Bad Counter-Argument
The Bible is collection of sixty-six books written by people, I think with divine cooperation, to reveal God to humankind. There are many genre, cultures, and time periods involved. Williams, however, is sure the Bible (as a whole) cannot be a moral guide:
If I might commit a slight act of plagiarism, once one adopts a metaphysical point of view, there is a dangerous temptation to apply to the physical world the freedom of imaginary metaphysical thinking. Here Dr. Reynolds simply wishes away the factual contradictions between the abhorrent laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy and what we find moral today. He has no other choice because if the Bible really did present an objective law, an immutable law sourced outside of man, then he would either have to proclaim all our moral progress to instead be degenerate, or he would have to admit that the Bible, at least, does not present objective morality. Instead his last sentence concedes refinement over time but appeals to an objective law he failed to establish.
Williams is arguing against the possibility that the Bible (or parts of it) contain objective law. I need not even show objective law exists to show Williams’ argument fails. Williams asserts our morality has changed over time and that things made “lawful” in parts of the Bible are not now “not lawful.” We feel abhorrence for what we once felt good about. As a result, either our feelings are wrong now or the Bible does not present objective morality.
This is a bad argument, because if there was objective morality, then there exists a possibility that Williams has not suggested. These early Bible books (and Williams provides no specific cases, no cultural context) might contain in the whole of their moral systems the closest wholistic system to objective morality expressible in the language and concepts of the time.
”Refinement over time” is not happening to the objective moral law, but to us: our ability to understand and live it. The earlier systems could be designed to prepare us for better systems as happens in all education.
Williams then oddly asserts I have “appealed” to an objective moral law I “failed to establish.”
I need not “establish” the objective moral law as it is an assumption in Williams’ argument. Williams’ case against the Bible depends on the Bible failing to live up to the objective moral law if it existed. Williams’ argument against the Bible suggests what the Bible should be like, if the objective moral law existed. Accepting his assumptions, there is an alternative explanation to his about why the Bible is as it is and so his dilemma fails.
Williams is Better than His Philosophy
Williams asserts without evidence:
There is a discernable moral arc that bends toward tolerance, respect of individuality and cooperation.
No evidence is provided for this ability to look at how nature behaves and see these behaviors. Other followers of Heidegger drew other more violent lessons. Williams continues:
We have innate evolutionary sensibilities, such as empathy, love and fairness, that form the basis for what we think of as morality which we have refined over time and presumably will continue to refine.
Williams does not define “we.” Williams ignores other “innate” sensibilities (individual survival) that “we” also consider moral that are in conflict with his favored list. How will our “innate” sensibilities choose? What if “we” simply challenge choices given to us by purposeless evolution? Even if there is some purpose, if we import the caps key and say Being is guiding “us” toward . . .
Why listen to Being once we can challenge Being? Is this because we cannot? But I am! Is this because we should not? But are our “innate evolutionary sensibilities” just our “innate evolutionary sensibilities?” Why prefer those to alternatives the human mind can create and so make a new path? That something is innate to me explains why I have it, not what I should do with it. For that, Williams smuggles in some metaphysical assumptions (about metaphysics) for no good reason.
I have not argued for the truth of any alternative view, only that this particular secularist vision is a failure.
Williams concludes with a slogan:
On this, we agree.