Jeff Lowder, “The VICTIMs of Christian Apologetics”

I’ve been taking a break from blogging lately, in order to focus on my dissertation work, but a recent counter-apologetics video was posted that is worth mention. I have been co-authoring a critical review of apologists Norman Geisler and Frank Turek’s I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, with Jeff Lowder, founder of the Internet Infidels and blogger at the Secular Outpost.

Both Geisler and Turek repeat the slogan “the atheist must borrow X from theism” (e.g., logic, morality, agency, mathematics, etc.) in a dozen of variations, all making assertions about metaphysical issues that allegedly cannot be explained under the hypothesis of naturalism, and require the existence of God. Of course, actual naturalist philosophers, such as Jack Ritche in Understanding Naturalism, have also thought about such things, and written philosophical resources extensively discussing issues of physicalism, logic, and value. But what is nice is that Lowder provides a detailed, point-by-point refutation against arguments of this sort in a two and half hour video, based on slides he used to prepare for a public debate with Turek.

A lot of the things that Lowder discusses have overlap with my metaphysics series–“Thinking about the ‘Metaphysics’ in Metaphysical Naturalism”–here on Civitas Humana, where I have discussed issues of cosmology, agency, and value from a secular and naturalistic point of view. Lowder’s video supplements this material quite nicely, so check it out (and take notes)!

-Matthew Ferguson

Thomas Aquinas on Divine Simplicity and Richard Dawkins’ Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit

I have been discussing the theology of Thomas Aquinas in recent posts on this blog, including an extensive rebuttal to Aquinas’ Five Ways of proving God’s existence in this previous essay. The Five Ways belong to question 2 of the first part of Summa Theologica, and in this post I am going to discuss the content under question 3. In question 3, Aquinas writes about the theological attribute of divine simplicity. The discussion there is relevant to an argument that atheist Richard Dawkins made about a decade ago in The God Delusion, termed the Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit.

Boeing 747

Dawkins’ argument is a play on the notion of a “tornado sweeping through a junkyard to assemble a Boeing 747,” which is used by creationists to mischaracterize the probability of abiogenesis and evolution. Allegedly, the odds of complex life emerging by chance should be as rare as a tornado passing through a junkyard and assembling a Boeing 747. Dawkins’ response, however, is to turn this argument on its head. If life is too complex to have emerged by chance, then what are the odds that a complex deity, with all of the intelligence needed to design life, would just happen to exist by chance as the uncaused creator of the universe, in order to create life? Dawkins argues that the unexplained complexity of this designer poses a greater question than the problem that it seeks to solve. Rather, God is the Ultimate Boeing 747, in that the odds of such a being just happening to exist is much improbable than the more simple explanations of abiogenesis and evolution.

This argument did not jive well with many theologians, however, and both Alvin Plantinga (response here) and William Lane Craig (response here) wrote a rebuttal to it. In their responses both Plantinga and Craig appeal to Aquinas’ conception of divine simplicity to argue that Dawkins does not have a correct understanding of theology. Below is my response to their counter-arguments, and why I do not think that they have correctly characterized the complexity described by the Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit.

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A Minimalist Definition of Naturalism

I have been away from blogging here on Civitas Humana for a while, due to being busy with graduate work as part of my Ph.D. program. Thankfully, I passed my dissertation prospectus and advanced to Ph.D. candidacy last quarter, and so now I can dedicate more time to research and blogging.

I am going to start posting again here on Civ by beginning with a relatively short discussion of my definition of metaphysical naturalism. I have discussed some of the conceptual and ontological ways of defining both the “natural” and the “supernatural” in a couple of my previous essays on this blog (see here and here). In those essays I discuss criteria such as physicalism, reductionism, uniformity, and teleology. I think that all of these criteria are useful for articulating some of the ways that we differentiate the natural from the supernatural, but recently I have started to think that an even more minimal definition of naturalism is sufficient to deny one particular supernatural concept, namely the existence of God.


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Are All Norms Moral Norms?

For the next part of my blog series, “Thinking about the ‘Metaphysics’ in Metaphysical Naturalism,” I am going to discuss metaphysical naturalism’s implications for ethics and moral imperatives. Before that, however, I am also going to discuss the meaning of normative statements and whether all normative claims are specifically “moral” normative claims.

boromir-is-oughtA normative statement is a claim that expresses value, preference, or obligation. Words like “should” and “ought,” or “good” and “bad,” or even “beautiful” and “ugly” are not merely factual descriptions of the world, but also include underlying judgements. It can be a factual statement that a piece of art consists of certain colors, shapes, and patterns, for example, but that is not the same thing as saying whether a piece of art is pleasant to look at or beautiful. Normative statements investigate different properties pertaining to objects and behavior. Their underlying meaning is not merely descriptive, but also preferential. This distinction is often termed the “is-ought problem.”

One of the major objections made against metaphysical naturalism is that it is unable to account for the truth of normative claims. In particular, apologetic moral arguments often levy the charge that naturalism cannot account for the truth of moral values and imperatives, and that naturalist metaphysics thus entails moral anti-realism. Whether this assertion is defensible is a question that I will investigate later in this blog series. Before that, however, I want to make some key distinctions between “moral” normative statements and other types of normative claims. In particular, a response that I often get, from both theists and atheists alike when using words like “should” and “ought,” is that such words inherently possess moral judgements. I do not think that this interpretation is correct, and accordingly, I am going to lay out certain types of normative statements below that do not necessarily relate to moral judgements, despite their normative character.

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Science, Philosophy, and Placement Problems

ACU-Ritchie-cover.inddAs I have been doing research this holiday season on naturalist metaphysics, I have been reading philosopher Jack Ritchie’s Understanding Naturalism. Ritchie, unlike myself, is a non-physicalist naturalist, but I greatly appreciate his open-minded discussion of some of the metaphysical problems posed by physicalism — such as how one can explain things like consciousness, morality, or mathematics in purely physical terms. Ritchie also proposes a number of solutions for how physicalists can respond to these problems.

One solution that Ritchie proposes for explaining apparently non-physical things— like internal subjective experiences —within a purely physical universe is not to argue that the methods of physics can conceptually explain all things, rather than that physics can causally explain all things. This proposal leads to an interesting understanding of the relationship between science and philosophy, and what Ritchie (citing Frank Jackson in From Metaphysics to Ethics) calls “placement problems.”

Ritchie (pg. 133) writes:

“Metaphysical naturalists who call themselves physicalists do not have to endorse the idea that the methods of science and those of philosophy are continuous. Philosophy finds a special role in dealing with … placement problems. Science tells us that everything is physical; the philosopher’s job, then, is to show us how the things that don’t seem physical – minds, meanings, morals – fit into the physical world. The work of placing non-physical things into the physical world is not (or at least need not be considered to be) science or like science in its methods, but a priori metaphysical work … [This] leads to the surprising conclusion that a naturalist should be committed to work that he calls conceptual analysis.”

Personally, I found this approach to be rather interesting, and it also resonated with some of my recent thinking. One thing that strikes me doing research in metaphysical naturalism is just how much of it is abstract “metaphysical” work. That would seem odd, because naturalists are normally thought to eschew metaphysics and rely solely on the methods of science. But that is not so.

A lot of scientists have been criticized for arguing that the scientific method has replaced the need for philosophy in the modern world, and that philosophy is now “dead” or “useless.” Physicist Sean Carroll, however, has criticized this attitude in his post “Physicists Should Stop Saying Silly Things about Philosophy.” Among the complaints against philosophy that Carroll discusses is the following:

  • “Philosophers care too much about deep-sounding meta-questions, instead of sticking to what can be observed and calculated.”

To which Carroll responds:

“Here we see the unfortunate consequence of a lifetime spent in an academic/educational system that is focused on taking ambitious dreams and crushing them into easily-quantified units of productive work. The idea is apparently that developing a new technique for calculating a certain wave function is an honorable enterprise worthy of support, while trying to understand what wave functions actually are and how they capture reality is a boring waste of time.”

This criticism made me think of Jack Ritchie’s analysis above. The methods of science and philosophy do not need to be continuos. Science can be our primary method for telling us what exists, but we will still need philosophy for describing what it is like. Science is empirical. Philosophy is conceptual.

That is why, here on Civitas Humana philosophy is fully embraced, even among us scientific, physicalist naturalists. We will always need philosophy to deal with the placement problems of what science discovers. Only then can we explain things like consciousness, morality, mathematics, etc. within a purely secular framework.

Cutting philosophy out of the picture will only give advantage to critics of metaphysical naturalism, who delight in posing philosophical problems. But, for the philosophically-minded naturalist, these problems can all be easily addressed. They cannot be addressed, however, if we just ignore the conceptual analysis of philosophy and only study science. So, study philosophy too! It will make you smarter and better equipped to articulate and defend the naturalist worldview!

-Matthew Ferguson

Philosophically Defining the Supernatural

[Yesterday I presented a conference paper at the 112th Annual Meeting of the Pacific Ancient and Modern Languages Association (PAMLA). The conference theme for this year was “Familiar Spirits,” and I presented a paper titled “Philosophically Defining the Supernatural.” The topic relates to previous articles that I have written, both here in my blog series on metaphysical naturalism and in an earlier article here

This article represents my most up-to-date view on how to metaphysically define “supernatural” phenomena in opposition to “natural” phenomena. I discuss five areas of metaphysical distinction between the two: 1) physicality, 2) uniformity, 3) open vs. closed causality, 4) mental objects & properties, and 5) teleology. Below is the transcript of my paper, with images added from the slides of my attending PowerPoint presentation.]

Screenshot 2014-11-02 11.11.54

Halloween is a time of year when we celebrate the supernatural, being a holiday associated with the souls of the dead, witchcraft, and even (from certain quarters) the occult. The “supernatural” is something that is, by definition, different from ordinary “natural” phenomena. Often times we are able to distinguish between the “natural” and the “supernatural” prima facie, meaning that each can be identified at first glance. When we see an apple fall from a tree, we immediately recognize such an event to be “natural.” If, on the other hand, we were to see a ghost, magical spell, or vampire, we would not hesitate to call such phenomena “supernatural.” But what is the real difference that allows us to make such a distinction?

Whereas on the level of common sense the difference between the “natural” and the “supernatural” is often obvious, metaphysically distinguishing between the two on a philosophical level can be far more challenging. For example, if we were to see a witch cast a spell of fire, we would not hesitate to call such a superhuman ability “supernatural.” But how is this ability metaphysically different from a mutant (let’s say an X-man) who has evolved the ability to produce flames from his hands? Both would be superhuman abilities, but we would only consider the witch to be “supernatural.” Given that the two abilities would look the same, however, can we really make such a categorical distinction? Today I will discuss some of the different definitions of the “natural” and “supernatural” proposed by philosophers. My goal will be to show that there are certain attributes of “supernatural” phenomena that make them categorical different from “natural” phenomena, so that there can be a clear and meaningful metaphysical distinction between the two, justifying our use of these terms.

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Agency and Freewill in Metaphysical Naturalism

In the last two parts of my philosophy series, “Thinking about the ‘Metaphysics’ in Metaphysical Naturalism,” there was an aspect in each discussion that suggests we live in a deterministic universe.

A vs. B Theory of TimeIn my article about cosmology and time, I discussed the B-Thoery of time, which holds that all time is equally real, so that the past exists in the same moment as our present, and our present exists in the same moment as the future. This theory of time explains how our universe did not “begin” ex nihilo, but has always existed in four permanent dimensions, with time simply being the fourth dimension of space. This approach to time is useful for countering the apologetic cosmological argument, but it also leads to the conclusion that our universe is fully determined. After all, if the future already exists in the same moment as our present, then the future must already be determined.

brain-leftIn my article about human origins, I also discussed Mind-Body Physicalism, which holds that our minds are purely physical objects. As such, mental states are either identical to physical states or are supervenient upon physical states. Today we can map the human brain and even locate the very parts of the brain that control our thoughts and actions. In fact, we can even identify activity in the brain that takes place before we ourselves are aware of it. When we see a face, our brains show activity a fraction of a second before we recognize seeing a face at all. The physicality of our brains thus leads to the conclusion that they are causally determined, just like any other arrangement of matter in our universe.

If we do live in a deterministic universe, as the discussion above suggests, then it should be a slam dunk case that no Freewill exists. Right? Well, not exactly…

Although in popular culture the idea of Freewill has been inseparably associated with Indeterminism, professional philosophers do not see it that way. In fact, 55.7% of professional philosophers adhere to a view known as Compatibilism, which maintains that causal determinism is fully compatible with Freewill. In contrast, only 16.7% of philosophers agree with Incompatibilist Freewill, which maintains that Freewill must require an indetermined universe. 14.7% of philosophers identify as “other” on the question of Freewill, and 12.9% argue that there is no Freewill.

The numbers do not change drastically among philosophers who specialize in Philosophy of Cognitive Science, except that the view of Incompatibilist Freewill is even less commonly held! 52.5% of philosophers who specialize in cognitive science hold to Compatibilist Freewill (about the same percentage as the professional philosophical community as a whole), and a substantially smaller proportion — 7.4% — agrees with Incompatibilist Freewill. 14.8% of philosophers who specialize in cognitive science identify as “other” on the question of Freewill, and 25.4% argue that there is no Freewill.

Since Compatibilism is, by a large margin, the dominant view of agency and Freewill among the professional philosophical community, anyone interested in metaphysics, theism, or naturalism should take it very seriously. Compatibilism will be the view of agency and Freewill that I will defend in this metaphysics series.

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