Monday, April 17, 2006

Reason, Faith and Truth Seeking

What is demanded of an honest truth seeker? Must he be rational? May he be a person of faith? I seek to understand these questions in this post. To answer them requires an analysis of what it means to be rational including having rational beliefs and acting rationally. Then I consider to what extent faith may be rational, and ask if it is compatible with truth seeking.

Belief is often posed as a binary option: Do you believe this claim, yes or no? That is: Are you certain the claim is true or certain it is false? But clearly these are not the only options. One can be unsure, and actually one's level of uncertainty could be anywhere in the range between certainty that it is false to certainty that it is true. Hence the question that should really be posed is: What is your level of belief in this claim?

Given then that we have belief levels about all sorts of things, how are rational beliefs distinguished from irrational ones? I assume what we mean by a rational belief is one that carefully considers all the evidence and produces an optimal prediction of the truth or falsehood of a claim given this evidence. Given uncertainties, the pridiction will be a probability (or a range of probabilities) of the truth of the claim. A useful example is that of weather prediction. One can be certain of the weather at the moment by looking outside. But it is harder to know what the weather tomorrow will be. So, for example, a rational belief might consider the season and recent weather etc. and conclude there is a 75% chance of rain tomorrow. To pose the question: do you believe it will it rain or not tomorrow creates creates a false dichotomy, as being certain it will rain or not without very strong evidence is irrational. Of course sometimes it may be difficult to determine what the evidence supports, or two people may have different sets of evidence available to them and so may rationally have two different levels of belief.

An irrational belief is one that ignores the evidence so does not optimally predict the truth or falsehood of a claim. Again this is not an all-or-nothing description. There are levels of irrationality depending on how much or little one considers the evidence.

I conclude that truth seeking is the process of building rational beliefs about the world, and includes the search for evidence as well as the analysis of it.

Now the rationality of actions, unlike beliefs, must be judged based on the goals of the individual. A rational action is one which, given the circumstances, best achieves the goals of the person. This says nothing about whether the action is good or bad, only how effective it is at achieving its goal given current knowledge, capabilities and constraints. Actions result from a complicated mix of beliefs, goals and values.

Now an interesting question is: can it be rational to be irrational? Let me put it another way: Can one rationally choose to have irrational beliefs? This is not possible for someone whose primary goal is to know the truth, and for most other cases, too, false beliefs lead to suboptimal choices and hence it is much better to have rational beliefs. But here is an example where I think irrational beliefs can lead to a better outcome and hence would be rational to hold. One can choose to believe with certainty that one's team will win the competition even though it is predicted to be an even match. Here the irrational belief in winning can help inspire one to play better and increase the chance of winning, and hence better achieves one's goal to win than would a purely factual analysis.

Now what about faith; is it rational or irrational? The first problem is that faith is a nebulous term with many meanings. Here I will consider a couple aspects of faith and their potential for being rational. Sometimes faith is considered an action. One might choose to follow Christ, or follow the church teachings. Is this rational? It depends what one's goal is in doing this. Some reasons might be: to escape persecution, to live a better or happier life, to get to heaven and avoid hell. If having faith best achieves these goals, then it is rational, if not then it is irrational (to some level).

Another aspect of faith is belief. Are the beliefs involved in faith rational in that they are most likely true given the evidence? First it is clear that the evidences for the chief faith claims are weak. This I conclude for a number of reasons including: (1) if the evidences were strong it would not be called faith (2) in general the claims aren't scientifically testable and so lack the type of evidence used by science, (3) the evidences are strongly disputed by many people, and (4) because I have looked at many of the evidences myself and concluded they are weak. However a common factor for many faiths is that, despite the evidences for their chief claims being weak, their followers are encouraged to be certain that their beliefs are true and act as if there were no chance that they could be mistaken. A host of techniques are used to build faith including encouraging active involvement in worship and prayer and bible reading and at the same time warning of the dangers of doubt and falling away. These emotional actions may sway people, but the problem is that the raw evidences are rarely critically examined and the claims evaluated on these. And having certainty despite weak evidence is a clear case of irrational belief. Hence this type of faith is irrational.

I have concluded that a truth seeker ought to seek evidences for claims and rationally assess their truth. Also, in so far as faith fosters irrational beliefs and unsupported absolute certainty, a truth seeker will be going astray by holding onto it. Faith beliefs are for those seeking other goals besides truth such as assurance and comfort. But there remain rational reasons for faith actions, such as following Christ's teachings to be a better person.


  1. "There is enough light for those whose only desire is to see but there is enough darkness for those who have a contrary disposition."

    We can see mathematics in our mind. 2+2 = 4 is Coercive. Believe like love is a decision, a choice.It is not a noun, it is a Verb.

    Miracles happen all the time. Every so often God will do something extraordinary.

    "Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean." This is how we should approach Our Lord, with this virtue of humility.

    Lord, if you do exist, reveal the Truth to me wherever that truth may lead me.

  2. I think it is crucial to distinguish humility from credulity. Relying on one's capability to critically evaluate evidence is necessary if we are to make any claims about truth. Humility lies in properly assessing the evidence and reasoning involved in our beliefs, and hence maintaining an appropriate level of confidence in our beliefs. That is, a humble person is not overly confidence or under confident. Being under confident leads to credulity, not humility.

    So I am happy to express the statement "Lord, if you do exist, reveal the Truth to me wherever that truth may lead me." But I will not be credulous; that is I will seek to evaluate whether or not the leading is true leading or simply wishful beliefs on my part or other people's part.


  3. Someone said that"Too much "light" (human knowledge) can blind us."

    God has left enough evidence for his existence in the world but who sees it?

    Only those whose internal light (human knowledge) does not blind the external light (Grace).

    No intention to offend, but believing that it is possible to attribute the perfection and the complexity of the universe to a random explosion of unintelligent matter seems quite credulous to me, to say the least.

    The perfection and complexity of the world has taken Science thousands of years of inexhaustible exploration.

    Still Science hasn't been able to figure out everything about our DNA and here we are believing in theories such as the Big-Bang which ignores and contradicts the most basic laws of logic and science.

    I don't mean to be rude but don't you think you are being overly credulous?

  4. I see no reason to rule out natural explanations for the current state of the universe. My guess is that you have not studied physical theories for the Big Bang to make an informed judgement on its viability. As for DNA, there are perfectly natural explanations for how it develops through replications and mutations etc. Why demand supernatural when the natural suffices quite adequately?


  5. I only just discovered your blog, so please forgive me for jumping in to the current discussion without having read your previous posts first.

    The idea of assigning probabilities to our beliefs is a thoroughly useful habit for everyday matters. But for metaphysical questions, I’m confused as to what the probability means. The very concept of probability is based on the observation that similar physical circumstances lead to similar outcomes. In the past, when I have seen the clouds in this configuration, rain has followed three out of four times. But consider, say, solipsism. Here is a belief system that is entirely self-consistent, and I can devise no experiment to prove it either true or false. Were I to assign it a confidence level of 0.42, surely I am not claiming that in my experience solipsism has turned out to be true 42% of the time? What I am really expressing is a measure of my own gut feeling, not some rational assessment of the likelihood of the belief given the evidence. This extends to any belief system that is inherently consistent, for example the existence of God. I can see no basis for claiming to be 37% sure of God’s presence.

    Even if I can’t assign a numeric confidence level, I can still say I believe some metaphysical proposition, or I disbelieve it, or I’m not sure. When I say I “believe” something in this context, what I mean is that I live my everyday life as if it were true. What I want to claim is that in important matters, you have a de facto belief, one way or the other. Consider, for example, the interaction between solipsism and your fabulous wife (nice picture, by the way). Rationally, you ought to bear in mind that solipsism may be correct, and your wife does not actually exist. I submit that day to day, you irrationally ignore this possibility. The reason, put simply, is that you are not an inference machine but a human being. You cannot live with contingent passion.

    Solipsism is sufficiently absurd that this may seem like nit-picking. But in purely rational terms, your belief in science is no more justifiable than solipsism. Whence your faith in modus ponens? What rational proof can you offer that your reason is sound? When it comes down to it, how many of the opinions you consider well-grounded are actually subtle social influence, masquerading as reason? Is brainwashing any less of an issue for scientific atheists than it is for the religious?

    Speaking of religion, let me propose another world view that I believe to be self-consistent. For the empiricist, ground truth comes ultimately from the senses. Your weatherman does not seriously doubt that the clouds he sees are actually there. What if there is a sense called Faith (I will capitalize it to distinguish it from your usage of faith), analogous to our senses, but perceiving metaphysical truths instead of physical. Granted, most people who speak of faith do not have this meaning in mind, and many zealots who do have this meaning in mind manifestly lack such a sense. But a theory must be judged according its best adherents, not its worst. If someone truly had such Faith, his confidence in his relationship to God would be no less robust than your confidence in the existence of your wife.

    - S

  6. "S" directed my attention to your blog. I wanted to address one matter raised in this entry and your prior one that is peripheral, but relevant.

    Let us assume that I believe position X to be true. At some point, I discover that there is insufficient evidence (through the five senses, or through other means of input into ourselves) to demonstrate that X (or, for that matter, "not X") is true. Furthermore, I discover that the proponents of X (or "not X") often make nonsensical arguments.

    What is the basis, then, for concluding that, based on the above two discoveries, my position should be that "not X" is true?

  7. YL: Let us say X is an element of a set of N mutually exclusive propositions (so that at most one element is true). If one has no reason to believe one over any other, then the best one can do is assume uniform likelihood and thus assume each one is true with probability at most 1/N. As N becomes very large, one's confidence (or probability) in X being true should become very small. That is, "not X" is probably true (and this cannot be an element since it is not mutually exclusive of other elements).

    Apply this to God, god or gods. There are a very large number of mutually exclusive propositions defining and describing God. Without additional evidence to change the likelihoods, the probability that any given descrition is true is minutely small.


  8. S:

    The assessment probabilities I am refering to are inherently conditional on certain assumptions. For example, the weatherman's prediction probability assumes that future weather patterns obey the same probability distributions as he sampled in the past. And I agree there are limits in what one can assign probabilities to; it is valid to be ignorant as to the probability of your solipsism being true (and there is no need to assess a probability as it does not affect our world anyway).

    The problem with asking for the probability that God exists is that God is a nebulous term; there are a multitude of mutually exclusive concepts as to what God is. I think what you mean is the probability that your particular concept of God is true (it does you no good is some other concept is true). Then, given no more information, the likelihood that any one concept is true is very small (see my post above to YL). So you're right that effectively I would give each of the various concepts of God close to zero probability. This is similar to using Occam's razor and disbelieving all concepts of God since none provide useful explanatory information about the universe.

    Let me assume Faith is a sense for metaphysical truths. Then perhaps we each have this sense mode. But we have no tools for working in this realm, all we have are authoritative statements made by people on what they have sensed of this realm. Thus we have no way of independently assessing truth or falsehood of the claims, or any priors on what may or may not be true. All we can do is rely on the most persuasive claims about this realm. It becomes rule by arbitrary authority -- the sort of thing we see in all kinds of religions from small cults to world-wide religions. That, I think, is a highly unattractive world to live in.

    Finally, I don't think one should judge a theory by its best adherents. One either judges it by independently assessing its truth (or probability of truth), or one can get a qualitative "goodness" assessment by looking at its overall effects on people, both good and bad.


  9. Once again, I think we have a fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning of the word "probability." Let me point out a proof that the earth is flat. If it weren't, there would be so many possible shapes it might take, that the probability of it taking any one particular non-flat shape is virtually nil. Qed.

    If someone tells me that he has in mind some set of N mutually exclusive propositions, and he tells me nothing else about them, then I have no knowledge of their relative probabilities. To claim that they each have likelihood 1/N is to pretend I have knowledge that I do not have. It is fallacious to equate lack of information with uniform probability distribution.

    Let me continue with your definition of Faith as a "sense for metaphysical truths." This has also been called Common Sense, and I won't try here to define a distinction between the two terms. If we don't take on faith the existence of Common Sense, then any endeavor to understand anything is a non-starter. But if we do have access to this Sense, then perhaps we can gain more insight by examining the various existential possibilities, rather than assuming that none are likely enough to be worth considering.

    - S

  10. One can ask what one is measuring with probability? It could be an inherent uncertainty, such as when a radioactive atom will decay, or one could be measuring one's knowledge or ignorance of something. These may or may not be the same thing. Back to the N mutually exclusive propositions, and all one knows is that one of them is true. Then indeed the probabilty of any given one being true is 1/N given one's lack of knowledge. If one knew more about the nature of the propositions one might be able to exclude some of them and the probabilities would be different, but that's because one's knowledge is different.

    The reason your earth-flatness proof fails is that flat is just one of the many shapes. There is nothing special about being flat and it is equally unlikely.

    Here's a better information-based argument on the existence of God. Start by assuming we are completely ignorant about the existence of God and have no basis for making an assessment. At first one might say God or not God is a 50/50 choice and give each a 50% probabiity. But this is wrong because God is an empty world unless it is defined in much greater detail. Say the definition of a God requires N bits to specify. Then there are potentially 2^N Gods to choose from. Say we cannot eliminate any of them, then the probability for any one of them is 1/2^N. However, to specify no God requires only one bit so it still has a 50% probability. So if one is to maximize one's chance of being correct and one has to choose between the miriad of Gods or no God, clearly no God is the winner.

    But I agree that in many areas we do have knowledge and can eliminate many of the options. With respect to God's existence, I'm not sure we do. What we have are projections of our own humanity, but I see no reason by God should be constrained by those.

    Got to go, so I'll reply about the Faith thing next.

    BTW, I have not seen a picture of you and J in quite a while...


  11. Darn, you found me out. :-)

    The allegation in my flat-earth example is, of course, that atheism is no more special than flatness. Giving theism a higher burden of proof seems arbitrary. But maybe we should agree for now to disagree on the philosophy of statistics. I suspect that your attempt to measure the information content of God is anyway facetious.

    You mentioned earlier that the God hypothesis provides no “useful explanatory information about the universe.” Let me list the three phenomena for which I think that theism offers better explanations than its alternative.

    1. Forget about evolution, forget about the big bang. What is all this material stuff, and where did it come from? Saying that it originated in an explosion of a space-time singularity may turn out to be true, but it’s really beside the point. To borrow Hawking’s formulation, “you still have the question: why does the universe bother to exist?”

    2. What is consciousness? Surely, my own ability to reason about the phenomena that present themselves to me is the starting point for my understanding of the world. Living with it every day as we do, it’s easy to forget how wonderfully mysterious this awareness is.

    3. What is the basis of morality? It’s interesting to observe that the universal sense of morality runs so strongly in us that even the most ardent atheist, who ought to see morality as mere superstition, keeps using the language of “good” and “bad” as if it actually meant something.

    Now I am well aware that atheism offers explanations for 2 and 3. But to me, these explanations do not have the right of truth. You could say they offend against Common Sense. (I suspect we’ll have the occasion to delve into this in more detail in the future.) I find it much more rational to postulate the existence of a conscious Being who invented our consciousness, and with it the material world. This is so much simpler and more elegant a theory than atheism, and has such deep explanatory power, that I believe you have no choice but to exclude atheism by Occam’s razor.

    - S

  12. No, my analysis of the information content of the "God claim" is not facetious. My point is that the burden of proof lies on the one who wants to claim that a particular concept of God is true, as the odds are strongly against him. Those that say there is no God have a much higher prior probability in their favor.

    To respond to your points:
    1) Why does the universe bother to exist? First it is not clear to me that that is a meaningful question. One could ask: why does that grain of sand bother to sit on that other grain of sand? We would like an answer like: Someone who cares for you put it there specially for you. But likely we would have to accept that the wind blew it there. If the universe is here because it is a bubble in an infinitely existing sea of inflating universes, then that is all we can say. If you like, call that sea of inflation "God". It seems though you are demanding an anthropomorphic answer to the why question: someone with human-like goals created it. This surely does not add anything to the physical explanation and so I call it not useful.

    2) What is conciousness? I agree that is a difficult question. There are all levels of it in the animal kingdom, and in some primates is approaches human levels. I think experiments have shown great apes show greater self awareness than small children. Now surely conciousness is something physical (produced by neurons in our brains), and it seems quite reasonable that human conciousness evolved from lower forms similar to what we see in the animal kingdom. That, I think, is the simplest explanation given the data available. As humans, we like to see ourselves in the center of the universe as the pinnacle of creation, but that "common sense" notion is surely a delusion just as it is for children who think the world revolves around them.

    3) What is the basis of morality? I think what gives us morality is our ability to empathize with others; that is, to put ourselves in their shoes when something bad happens to them. We realize that could happen to us next, and that fear drives our moral indignation. Since we all have similar physical and social needs, we all have similar moralities. It need not be something God inspired; rather it can be explained as a useful (if not necessary) attribute that evolved along with our ancestors when they became social creatures.

    To say God created conciousness or that conciousness is non-physical (in the way that everything else has natural explanations) adds a whole level of new laws to the universe. That is why "God creating it" is not a simpler or more elegant hypothesis.

  13. S:

    You hypothesize "Faith" as being an alternate sense to our usual 5 senses. By this I think you mean something akin to hearing a voice or seeing a vision but that the source of the information is not light or sound or anything physical, but something "spiritual". You add that it is governed by a form of "Common Sense". My questions are:

    1) How can you be sure this sense organ actually detects external things in the world, and isn't simply sampling subconcious thoughts in your mind? That is, while our senses are typically reliable, they can also be triggered by feedback from our own minds. For example, when we dream it seems like we see something, but these "images" are actually generated by our minds using some of our sensor processing capabilities. Presumeably we could or do dream with our other senses too. Let's call these two explanations: extra-sensory (there really is an extra sense that detects spiritual things) vs. internal feedback (the mind generating the sense perception itself). You are claiming or hypothesizing that Faith is extra-sensory, while I am skeptical and pretty sure that it is purely internal feedback. I assume we both agree that the evidence for our five senses being reliable is good (such that it is hard to be completely skeptical of them). The question, then, is how good is the evidence for Faith being an extra sense?
    Now I have observed plenty of cases of claimed extra-sensory phenomena such as prophecy and speaking in tongues. I cannot know for sure if these cases were truly extra-sensory or were simply internal feedback. However all cases seem to me to fit the internal feedback explanation; prophecies are gnerally vague enough or reasonable enough or obviously true or turn out wrong to be generated by internal feedback. The gift of "tongues" I've observed also fit that model. Of course one hears stories of fantastic things people say or do from all sorts of religions, but I suspect a combination of occasional flukes and plenty of credulous recorders. So in my mind the evidence for extra-sensory phenomena is weak. Another problem is how does the person who experiences this extra-sensory message know that it is indeed extra-sensory, or if it is just internal feedback? That seems to me a very difficult problem especially when he wants to believe it is extra-sensory. My next two questions explore this further.

    2) What do you propose the mechanism is by which information is transferred to our minds by this sense? Part of our confience in our senses is that we can investigate and understand the mechanisms by which they work. Sight, for example, works by frequency-dependent rods and cones absorbing electromagnetic radiation, filtering these and passing the reponses as electrical signals through the visual cortext to the brain. If we are absorbing spiritual or non-physical information, then somewhere there must be a transition from non-physical to physical. It is this transition that I am worried about. What sort of sensor absorbs spiritual data? If it occurs, then it calls for a significant rewriting of physics, which is a good reason to be skeptical minus strong evidence.

    3) How is truth to be determined in this alternate sense mode? With our usual senses we look for consistency across time, consistency between different sensing modes, consistency between different observers and so forth. These tests seek to approximate an objective analysis, and give us signifcant confidence in what is sensed. The extra-sensory sensing seems to me to suffer from almost complete subjectivity. I guess what is sensed is typically vague and rarely testable. In addition the use of "Common Sense" to guide this simply compounds the problem by making the sense completely untestable. This is because Common Sense is going to filter out the clearly wrong senses leaving only ones that are plausible. Common Sense could do the same filtering to internal feedback also leaving various plausible senses. How can we distinguish between extra-sensory input filtered by Common Sense or internal-feedback filtered by Common Sense? I believe we are left with the great difficulty of untestability.


  14. I haven't disappeared! I've just been busy.

    I think question (1) in your latest post hits the nail on the head. This is the crux of the Faith problem. I'm just not sure it's so different from the problem of believing our senses, or for that matter, our reason. I'm currently reading through to get my terminology straight.

    More later.

  15. Let me return for a moment to an earlier point, which I could have stated more clearly. I said that a theory should be judged by its best adherents, not its worst. If we are trying to determine the average effect that a theory has in practice on its followers, then of course, we must consider all of them. But if we are having a rational discussion about a theory, and trying to discern its validity from first principles, then we should only consider the best arguments for and against, and it doesn't matter how many weak arguments have been made. I'm sure there have been many botched attempts by students to reconstruct the proof for Gödel’s theorem. None of these weaken the correct proof.

    I agree with your observation that most claimed extra-sensory abilities turn out to be fake. And I share your conclusions that the stirrings of our own subconscious are too often mistaken for divine revelation. Detecting this delusion is made harder by the fact that our subconscious is quite sophisticated, and can often produce correct inferences where our reason cannot.

    The problem is that in rejecting fluffy-headed mainstream Christianity, we can too easily conclude that the only alternative is that other prevalent religion of our culture: scientific materialism. But this religion lies as well. It tells us that it has solved the world's mysteries, and that to believe in it requires no leap of faith, but only sound reason. Like medieval thinkers who, having disproved some pagan fallacy, concluded that therefore all the doctrines of the Church are correct, modern materialists have succeeded in creating the illusion that their faith is the one that reasonable people must accept unless they can prove otherwise. (The main difference is that the method of torture for dissidents has become milder. I would much rather have ridicule than the rack.)

    So let's combine your point 2 (how does the spiritual interface with the brain) and my point 2 (what is consciousness). As far as I'm concerned, both of these are corollaries of the mind/body problem, for which I personally find even immaterialism a more palatable solution than materialism. Let me try to outline my main objection.

    “Preserve the appearances,” Aristotle tells us. In other words, when setting out to find a theory to explain some phenomenon, be careful not to end up with an explanation that obliterates the very phenomenon you are trying to explain. Plenty of philosophers have violated this rule, and reached absurd conclusions. Parmenides “solved” the mysteries of motion by declaring that it was impossible, and we only imagined it.

    My starting point in trying to understand the world is that I am a conscious rational entity, capable of reaching valid conclusions. Cogito ergo sum. I receive a constant stream of phenomena through my senses, and I perceive in them some patterns, which I would like to understand more fully. So I deduce the laws of physics, and find that I can use them to make automobiles, lunar rockets, and sliced bread. Now I turn my attention to my own brain, in whose existence I believe because of my surely rational deductions. And lo and behold, I find nothing more than the physical interactions of certain molecules, and poof, the “I” that was doing all the perceiving and deducing doesn’t actually exist. What reason do I have then to believe that my reason actually means anything? Could it not be that the validity of my logic is an illusion, just like the imperatives of morality, and my mystical experience of God? The solipsist concludes that only I exist, and I imagine matter. The materialist concludes that only matter exists, and it imagines I.

    I can’t resist inserting one block quote, from the web site I mentioned in my last post. In discussing William James, Eugene Taylor writes:

    < quote >
    The psychologist's ploy was to claim that good science was positivistic; that is, it sought no metaphysical or supernatural explanations for physical phenomena, but presumed that everything we needed to know was knowable through the intellect and the senses. James had even written his Principles from this standpoint, but the evidence from experimental psychopathology about the emotions and subconscious states had forced him to rethink the problem. In the mid-1890s he first enunciated his view that the agenda to separate positivistic science from metaphysics should be abandoned, since no scientific theory was free of metaphysics. Positivism, for instance, was, itself, based on a metaphysics of physicalism; that is, a set of preconceived assumptions about how the physical world can be studied.
    < /quote >

    There’s more to be said, but let me stop here and catch my breath.

    - S

  16. S:

    On the issue of whether one should judge a theory based on its adherents. We agree it depends what one wants to judge, for example, "What are the effects of the theory?" vs. "is the theory true?" We're both much more interested in the latter question. For that, it is not the best adherents one uses, but the best reasons or arguments for it that one uses. What rankles me is the common Christian approach of claiming: because we're happy and joyful and good, that is strong evidence that our message is true. What is false is that they miss that there are many other reasons why they may be happy, joyful and good.

    As for scientific materialism or what I prefer to simply call Naturalism, a nice reference is at Wikipidia: Naturalism. Christians love to attack "scientific materialism" as it is a nebulous enough term for them to ascribe all kinds of unpleasant meanings to. Calling it religious is a marvelous sleight of hand as it manages to completely muddy the issues. I'll not defend naturalism here, but I do ask that it not be called religious.

    On to the topic of conciousness. You write:
    My starting point in trying to understand the world is that I am a conscious rational entity, capable of reaching valid conclusions.
    In contrast, my starting point is that I am a organism that senses and processes data from the world around me. Only a very minute portion of my processing is logical/rational in the way you mean, as most of it is lower-level senses that are automatically operated on by various entities in my body. Sense data come through many means and are processed and abstracted to a variety of levels depending on the needs. This, I think, is what conciousness is. For example on the lower level, a sensor determines "the oxygen level in the blood is low" and this affects how much the heart and lungs operate. A somewhat higher level sensation is that "I am hungry" and this must be formed by a whole combination of lower level sensations. Then there are higher level sensations and concepts that require more abstract reasoning and putting together more lower-level sensations/concepts: "that thing is a human", "there is a human in the room", "I am a human" and so forth.

    I am sure we could agree on a set of lower level sensations/concepts that are purely natural. But I think it is quite reasonable to assume the higher-level sensations/concepts are built from a toolbox of the lower-level sensations/concepts. If so then indeed they are purely natural too. So I don't see what the philosophical problem is, and why naturalism isn't the natural understanding of our minds.

    I'm not sure that I care for some of the extremes of positivism, but I haven't studied the field much. In any case it is not fair to brand naturalists as complete positivists. I do admire the writings of Karl Popper a lot, and think he has a well reasoned approach in his book "Conjectures and Refutations". It is interesting (from the Wikipidia page above) that he is critical of naturalism as an inductive approach. I think I'll read some more about that.


  17. Another issue you brought up is: "What reason do I have then to believe that my reason actually means anything?" I agree that one cannot prove that our sensations/conceptions (including reasoning) have any direct relationship to the external world (this, I think, is what you mean by "mean something"). However as long as one steps beyond the position that the world is all in one's own imagination, then there are good reasons for believing that our reason, sensations and conceptions have meaning.

    Our survival in the world is directly dependent on our sensations reliably representing the world. If the eye-sight of our species were not reliable, we would be supplanted (in evolutionary time) by another species that could see to avoid predators etc. If we could not reason which way to run from predators we would go extinct pretty quickly too. It is this strong link between the external world and our sensation/conception capabilities, forced on us by competition to survive, that maintains meaning of our reason and senses.


  18. Just a couple of quick comments.

    I did use the term "scientific materialism," but please believe that I did not intend it as a dysphemism, and I meant no offense. To use the language of the Wikipedia entry, what I meant by the term is ontological naturalism, with an emphasis on the demonstrable successes of science.

    I hope you do not count me among those nasty people who would accuse you of being religious. I don't really care about the semantics of the R-word. What I do claim is something slightly subtler, namely that the ontological (though not necessarily the methodological) naturalist has unverifiable metaphysical axioms just like anyone else. Whether we attribute belief in these axioms to faith or Faith or common sense is probably just a matter of semantics. In the end, we all feel that we have some innate way of judging between the metaphysical alternatives.

    I have been meaning for some time to find out more about Popper. I'll add him to my reading list as well.

    - S

  19. I have a long thought process buzzing around in my head, and I hope I can get it all out in a linear fashion without being too confusing.

    Let me get one definition out of the way first. Normally, I would use the word “materialism” for the ontological position that only matter exists. Now I’m afraid this might sound derogatory, perhaps partly by the pun on the word “materialism” meaning obsession with material possessions. I’m inclined to use the term “ontological naturalism” instead, but that’s quite a mouthful. So in the rest of this post, I’ll just say “naturalism,” and trust that all you Christian methodological naturalists out there will find it in your hearts to forgive me for this usage, if only because you have been commanded to.

    The first point I’ll try to make is that the idea that our reasoning might not “mean anything” is, logically speaking, not at all unreasonable. At the same time, I want to back away from any earlier statements of mine that may have sounded overly rationalistic (cogito ergo sum and all). I agree that most of our conscious experience is not deductive. But the deductive part is interesting because it is the basis for our understanding of the physical world around us.

    I will start with a detour into the moral world of the naturalist. (If I misrepresent your moral philosophy, do please correct me.) To the naturalist, morals are not supernaturally grounded, but are the product of evolution in our instincts. The human race as a whole benefits from the fact that each member instinctually wants to help the others. In addition, we instinctually want to enforce morality on those around us, for the same evolutionary reason.

    There are many other examples of desires that evolution has produced in me, for example the desire to ingest sweet food. Very often, with full understanding of the evolutionary purpose of my instinct, I choose to act against an impulse, in order to fulfill some more important goal. For example, I may forgo that second scoop of ice cream because I don’t want to get too fat. We regard this kind of mastery over our instincts as a beneficial ability. Now let’s say I decide that in the interest of my goal of acquiring wealth, I will put aside my instinctual desire to preserve life, and rob and kill someone in a dark alley. The naturalist is cornered into saying that these two things are equivalent. But he doesn’t really believe it.

    Or consider the Third Reich. The naturalist may say that it gives him feelings of displeasure to hear how many people were killed, and feelings of pleasure to hear that Hitler lost the war. But he is limited to his subjective response. He cannot say with integrity that any act was right or wrong in any metaphysical sense.

    The thorough naturalist is not terribly bothered by the fact that in both of these cases, his feelings tell him that there is some absolute moral standard. After all, his feelings are the product of evolution, and he understands why they are there. He is aware that he lives his life as a de facto dualist, but in his mind he knows that objective morality is an illusion even if he cannot escape it.

    Now let’s turn back to the question of whether our deductions “mean anything.” We certainly have the feeling that they do, and we feel that this is borne out in practice. But we also have the experience of dreams, in which we often have the feeling of drawing brilliant and incontrovertible conclusions, only to find when we awake that they were insane ravings. Could it not be that all of our reasoning is insane? That the illusion of things making sense is similar to the illusion of morality, compelling and inescapable, yet wrong? Of course, if this were true, then the whole edifice crumbles, and with it the evolutionary explanation of why reason must correspond to the physical world.

    In order for the naturalist to get off the ground, then, he needs at least these three axioms:
    1) The material world exists.
    2) Nothing non-material exists (or if it does, it does not interact with the material world, and so is unknowable).
    3) My reasoning is valid (in principle).

    The problem with these axioms is the epistemological question. Where could knowledge of these axioms possibly come from?

    My current position is to take a different set of axioms. By the way, my position is constantly shifting, so don’t hold me to these tomorrow. :-)
    1) The world of mind exists. (I’m happy to call this the spiritual world, but I’m not automatically willing to inherit all the connotations that religions may impose on the phrase.)
    2) On some questions, my mind is capable of discerning sense from nonsense.
    By axiom (2), I’m willing to posit some additional theses:
    3) My reasoning is valid (in principle).
    4) Morality is not just subjective.

    Note that axiom (2) lays the basis for my knowledge of these axioms. This is less circular than it may sound. I’m not saying that axiom (2) proves the truth of the axioms, but that if we assume this axiom, then it explains how I could come to a knowledge of them.

    Whether or not the material world exists I view as a matter of semantics. If way say “it exists,” it is in a different sense than that the world of mind exists. If we say “it doesn’t exist,” we still presumably agree that all of us minds have a certain coherence in the phenomena we experience, so at least some organizing principle exists. I can’t see a pragmatic difference between the two statements.

  20. What reason do I have then to believe that my reason actually means anything?

    - All you seem to have is lots of confusion disguised as wisdom.

    Could it not be that the validity of my logic is an illusion...

    - With all due respect, you would have to be insane for this to be true.

    Just like the imperatives of morality, and my mystical experience of God?

    - Objective Morality needs to be viewed in the light of True Freedom. True Freedom is not doing whatever we want whenever we want to,but being free to choose to do the right things always.

    And your mystical experiences of love are equivalent to your mystical experiences of God because God and love are One and the same.

    The solipsist concludes that only I exist, and I imagine matter. The materialist concludes that only matter exists, and it imagines I.

    - It is both and at the same time. Those two phylosophical stands are nothing but extreme and extremes, as we all know, are never healthy.

  21. "Relying on one's capability to critically evaluate evidence is necessary..."

    Negative. Truth is a Divine Person, not a philosophical idea to which we arrive with the use of our human intellect. The world is full of "ideas" that lead us nowhere.

    This Divine Gift that comes down from heaven is beyond ourselves. But in spite of this, faith leaves no room for Credulity. The Gift of Understanding our FAITH is ONLY given AFTER we have RECEIVED the Gift of Faith.

    And the Gift of faith is ONLY given AFTER we HUMBLY ask for it.

    Thomas kneels down and exclaims in awe "My Lord and My God..."

    "Thomas, you have believed because you have SEEN, but Blessed are those who will believe WITHOUT having seen."


  22. Dale,

    I admit I am deeply confused. In fact, I believe my confusion has somewhat more depth than you give me credit for.

    - S

  23. S:

    I don't have a completed solution to questions of morality, but the following is what I think the most likely explanation is. I start with the assumption that my life has value and that due to my sentinence my life ought to be treated with respect both in regard to my needs and in avoidance of pain. Next I observe that other people exist with similar capabilities for conciousness and enjoyment of their lives as I have, as well as similar ability to suffer. Now if I deserve respect then for the same reasons others deserve similar respect in regard to their needs.

    It is from these considerations that we derive our morality; both in a rational sense and also in a gut-feeling sense. I conclude it is wrong to take someone else's life in the same way that it would be wrong for someone to take my life. In addition it feels wrong when someone is murdered because I can put myself in that person's situation and sense the fear of losing my life.

    So while I claim morality is not absolute, I would also add that it is not arbitrary. To a large extent it is determined by our shared characteristics as humans; our pleasures, needs and fears. While some aspects are cultural (and so shared by a small group), the basic components are shared by humanity and are derived by giving equal consideration to each person's claim to life. So indeed I can claim that actions like that of the Third Reich were wrong without recourse to absolutist morality.

    Let me now consider the claim that morality is absolute. The first issue that needs to be confronted by someone making this claim is that morality is complicated. It can depend on context, culture, technology. This is illustrated by some sample questions:
    1. Should one obey one's parent if the command is harmful... how harmful...
    2. Are there laws in one's country one should disobey? Should one always obey the authorities?
    3. How does one decide the rightness or wrongness in medical moral dilemmas with many trade-offs on who is benefited and who is harmed and uncertain knowledge, such as in various aspects of human cloning?
    My point in these questions is to show that there is a moral gray-level where people disagree on what is right and what is wrong. For me that is not surprising as I think we eventually decide as a society what the answer is, and it is possible that as society changes our answer may change as it has on various questions like the validity of human slavery. For the moral absolutist this is surely a problem; he can't accept changes in morality, and nor can he accept uncertainty as it must be right or wrong.

    Now if these questions must have absolute answers, then there must be a huge encyclopedia of rules specifying the morality of all possible events and situations. The problem is that not just the general principles must be absolute as these are insufficient, and so all questions must have an absolute answer. But the existence of such a rule-book seems pretty unlikely.

    Another requirement for absolute morality is that people need a direct way to determine what it is. But there are many moral questions for which people don't agree and claim opposing answers. Who is to arbitrate what the correct absolute answer is? No religious text is up to the job, and prayer doesn't give definative answers. So it seems to me the absolute moralist puts himself in an untenable position.

    On to the second issue of naturalism. The assumptions you state for the Naturalist are:

    1) The material world exists.
    2) Nothing non-material exists (or if it does, it does not interact with the material world, and so is unknowable).
    3) My reasoning is valid (in principle).

    Number 1 and 3 seem fine. However I don't think 2 is necessary. I think the material world is all there is for the same sort of reason I think the theory of General Relativity is a correct description of reality. It is the incredible power of a simple theory to describe reality and our inability to falsify it experimentally that makes it compelling. In a similar way Naturalism is a simple theory that has turned out the be extremely powerful in describing all kinds of phenomena that were previously thought to be the realm of the gods. There is a difference though; the General Theory of Relativity has theoretical dificulties and will likely eventually be supplanted by another theory, but I don't see any theortical difficulties with Naturalism. That is, I am not aware of any phenomena that in principle aren't explainable with naturalist assumptions. The reason for rejecting non-material explanations of things is the same reason for rejecting theories that contradict well-established physics theories. There needs to be strong evidence that naturalist explanation fails, as the naturalist explanation is surely far simpler than involking the gods or spiritual forces.

    On the topic of your axioms. Presumably axioms should be at a low enough level that they are obiously true, otherwise these is no point in rational thought; one simply makes what one wants to believe into an axiom. Your first axiom seems to fail this, although I can't say I understand what it means. Numbers 2 and 3 seems to be fine. I would agree that 4 is true (if one made it "Morality is not *purely* subjective") although I would not hold it as an axiom. My explanation above leads to conclusion.


  24. Why is this true:
    "There needs to be strong evidence that naturalist explanation fails, as the naturalist explanation is surely far simpler than involking the gods or spiritual forces."?

    In essence, why should I believe that the claim "something else does not exist" is a simpler argument than "something else does exist". One could argue that we see no evidence for the something else, therefore the "no something else" argument is more explanatory. The problem for me is that a vast majority of the world does belive that something else exists; with a significant portion thinking that they have seen evidence for that something else in the form of a miracle. The "no something else" believer will generally respond that those who believe in the miracles are not as educated as the smaller "no something else" group, and therefore interpret their observations through their "something else" assumption. But is it not possible to do the opposite as well? I think that it is unfair to lay the burden of proof solely and decicively on the "something else" group, when the "no something else" argument is held by a minority and is relatively new in the scheme of things.

  25. PH:

    That is an interesting point. I'm planning a new post with some thoughts on that topic shortly.


  26. I know you’re not claiming that your explanation of morality is fully baked yet, but I don’t believe you’ll ever be able to find a reductionist derivation that works. (Eccles’s phrase “promissory materialism” comes to mind: we don’t have an explanation yet, but some day we’ll have one that’s so good that we won’t need to refer to the supernatural.)

    My main objection is right at your starting point. You assume that your life has “value.” What does that mean? It’s not that I’m disagreeing that your life has value, far from it, but you’re allowing yourself a little sleight of hand here. If you start out with materialism, you don’t get to use words like “value,” except perhaps as a metaphor when you have actually a reductionist definition in mind. The only working definition I can think of (let me know if you have a better one) is that the idea of your continued life and pleasure produces in your brain sensations of which you approve. In other words, evolution has equipped you with a natural urge to maintain the matter that composes your body in such a way that you can further the interests of your genetic material. We may couch this in more poetic terms in day to day conversation, but the terms are just shorthand for this underlying reality.

    Your next step is to project this “value” to other people. Now if value meant something objective, something outside myself, something spiritual as it were, then it would be perfectly sensible to conclude that I should respect others’ lives as having value. But as far as I can tell, the only thing you can mean is that other people also have a desire to continue their life. In other words, their life has value for them. But why should it therefore have value for me?

    - S

  27. As for the other points in your post, Daniel, I think there might be a red herring or two.

    To begin with, I’m not sure it’s clear what you mean by “absolute” morality. Some people use this phrase to denote an objective, universally binding morality, as opposed to a subjective preference of other people’s behavior. But it seems that you mean a morality that provides a clearly discernable right-or-wrong judgment for every question we could ask, perhaps even regardless of context. This latter definition is a straw man; I don’t know anyone who believes it, and if there are people who do, I would prefer to continue not knowing them.

    At the risk of belaboring the point, let me point out that the two definitions of “absolute” are quite orthogonal. I’m sure there are standard philosophical terms for the two, but I’m too lazy to look them up, so I’m going to invent my own. Let me call the former “objective,” and the latter “complete” morality. One can imagine a complete morality that is not objective: I classify every action as right or wrong, but this distinction is just in my head. Personally, I think of morality as objective but not complete: I know that concentration camps were inherently wrong and their perpetrators culpable. But I’m not sure about human cloning.

    It’s interesting to note that the same distinction applies to models of the material world. You believe in a system of physics that is objective but not complete. An object that exists for you also exists for me. If we’re both looking at it and I claim not to see it, you will conclude either that I am lying, or that one of us has a problem in his visual system. It will not cross your mind that perhaps its existence is subjective. On the other hand, there are plenty of objects whose existence you are in no position to assert or deny. For some of them, you could with some effort determine whether they exist, and for some, you will never find out. But this does not in any way discredit your understanding of an objective material world. So yes, there is in fact a “huge encyclopedia” of physical truths and falsehoods.

    Now about axiom systems. Demanding that an axiom should be “obviously true” seems a recipe for acrimony. It’s obvious to me that my mind exists, and is not reducible to matter. It’s obvious to you that the material world exists. We can spend our time arguing which is more obvious, but it will get us nowhere. Better to admit that we must start from some set of unprovables, and go on from there.

    The question then is, what is the set of theorems that arises from each set of axioms, and does this set of theorems seem like a good fit for the world as I experience it? Our intellect is the right guide for deducing the theorems implied by the axioms. But to determine whether the theorems seem right, or “ring true” as PH would say, we must appeal also to our feelings, and through them, we hope, to a deeper sense of Truth.

    - S

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  29. S:

    That's fine, you can support an objective but incomplete absolute morality. You've still got some big problems. Where is this objective encycopedia that defines the rightness or wrongness of all covered actions? How can you know if an action is listed in it (assuming it is incomplete)? How are people going to agree on what it says? Can morality change over time? Presumeably not, but then how do you deal with the pretty horrific actions of the Hebrews in Canaan? (See my post: Is God Good?) Does morality not apply to them or God?

    On the question of axioms, I think the right thing is to sort out the axioms first or else we'll never find if the system contains an error. I don't see how you can say: "It’s obvious to me that my mind exists, and is not reducible to matter." I'll grant you your mind, but you don't know how it works so saying it can't be reduced to matter is a highly dangerous axiom. That is something I believe you need to argue for, not merely assume. Are snail minds made from matter? What about cats, dolphins, apes? Or is it our sense of moral indignation that implies our minds can't be made of pure matter? Why is that?


  30. S:

    In reply to your previous post. I think you have got yourself in trouble if you don't accept life can have value on its own. What does value mean in normal usage? A house has value because we are willing to pay money or effort for it. Evidence that my life has value is that I am willing to go to great effort to maintain it. The problem is that if you don't accept this life has value on its own, then adding the supernatural won't solve this. You're simply shifting the question out of our world into another, and the other world will have the same problem you've created. What gives the supernatural any value?

    It is true that there is a problem of why one should respect other people's value in their lives. But this is true irrespective of the supernatural or spiritual. Why should one respect whatever the supernatural values? I think this respect is a societally chosen value. This is reinforced by reciprocity as those who don't respect others' value are not respected by others.