"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Monday, 28 April 2014

In defense of scientific materialism

As a slight diversion from my three part critique of David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss I’d like to make a more general point about philosophical materialism and methodological naturalism and why pace Hart they are not logically absurd positions.

In the course of everyday experience our metaphysical and ontological attitudes are largely irrelevant to the point where most people never consider them at all. It is perfectly possible to be a platonic realist without considering every object we encounter in terms of its deviation from a notional ideal perfect form and I seriously doubt anybody lives their lives that way. Similarly we may be able to believe reality is an illusion but still organise our lives so that we don’t try to leave our homes via the first floor window. In general we all treat the world as though it is exactly how it appears to be; a series of causal and caused events acting upon discrete physical objects.
There are good evolutionary reasons why this purely materialist point of view is the quotidian default. At the scales in which biological life can evolve the underlying nature of things is invisible and insensible. Even at bacterial dimensions the interactions with the environment are on a molecular or, at the least, atomic level as far as its sensory capabilities are concerned and millennia of evolution has equipped us and all life to perceive reality reliably but within boundaries that are relevant to natural selection. It is in this trivial sense that Alvin Plantinga is correct to say that evolution limits our cognitive abilities although not, I suggest, to the extent that we cannot make rational sense of the material world.
It is only when we try to investigate the universe systematically that the philosophical issues become paramount. When considering what extra sensory causes lie behind the physical effects we experience the only logical course open to us is to assume that the principles of cause and effect, one material object upon another, continue to obtain even when we cannot directly observe them. To suppose otherwise offers no fruitful line of enquiry because once you allow for the answer to be in some way magical it would be impossible to design an experiment or predict an observation that would disprove it. Methodological naturalism is therefore the only coherent philosophy under which science can proceed even if the ultimate reality, whatever is holding up the last detectable turtle, is something immaterial.
Part of the problem that non-materialists (of whatever stripe) seem to have with methodological naturalism as a scientific presupposition is based, I believe, on a misunderstanding of what science claims to know. In most situations science is not claiming possession of absolute factual truths about the universe but rather a collection of well tested theories that are both explanatory and predictive of what we can expect to observe either by our evolved senses or the machinery we have invented to enhance those senses. These are conceptual models that if applied via material reality produce reliable outcomes, nothing more; they say zip about what may be the underlying cause of everything. In fact when methodological naturalism is defined it is as a working assumption, not an absolute truth, the overriding idea being that regardless of whether or not supernatural forces operate at some fundamental level the material observations would appear identical. In this scenario supernaturalism is a null hypothesis that eventually science could, in principle, falsify to everyone’s satisfaction making metaphysical naturalism (which does claim, strongly, that there are no supernatural phenomena) the most likely situation. Personally, I suspect that however far science is capable of reaching it will still be turtles all the way down for all practical purposes simply because any cause that we can ever detect or postulate must be interacting physically with some other material system we have either observed or conceived.
Even if the sophisticated theologians or the Deepak Chopras of this world are correct and the turtles swim in something divine or pantheistic it still makes no sense for us to explore the universe from any other perspective than materialism despite alleged logical inconsistencies with its metaphysics. You cannot arrive at a coherent consensus description of reality by appealing to a sensus divinatis that if it exists at all is not universally reliable and no amount of meditation or naval gazing will solve the proximal mysteries of existence even if, for some, they seem to point the way to ultimate ones: for now, and probably forever, materialism rules.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

On "The Experience of God" by David Bentley Hart: Part 2 of 3

Prompted by Jerry Coyne’s critiques of David Bentley Hart’s latest book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss I have bought my own copy as it is apparently the latest sophisticated argument for God that atheists now have to refute in order to qualify for the right to an opinion on the subject and so I have decided to post my own thoughts on this latest ‘best argument for God’.
As Hart’s sub-title implies the book is split into three divisions; Being (the existential question, essentially the cosmological argument), consciousness (or why the “hard problem” of consciousness points to God) and Bliss (The experiential evidence). I intend this to be a series of three posts addressing each in turn so today’s is Consciousness

One would expect that when somebody explicitly denies that they are making an argument from personal incredulity that the substance of what then follows would be something other. Hart does make this claim but unfortunately it is difficult to see his problem with a materialistic view of consciousness as anything but an appeal to complexity and ignorance. For Hart the subjective experience of consciousness seems way too tenuous to be pinned down to the mechanism of the brain and he simply does not believe that neuroscience will ever bridge the quantitative – qualitative gap between a firing neuron and his personal experience of a red rose.
Much of Hart’s issue is that he denies the possibility of emergence the process by which complex systems can arise from large numbers of simple interactions. In the book’s introductory section he suggests that such emergent systems are never seen although, in fact, physics recognises the phenomena at fundamental levels. A wave, for example, is an emergent structure independent of the substrate on which it travels. In a liquid it is explained by the vertical movement of molecules but is described by a mathematical function that is equally applicable to quantum mechanics, in other words a wave is qualitatively different from the components it is made from. In the same way it is reasonable to assume that consciousness could emerge from sufficient numbers of unconscious interactions in the brain or indeed any sufficiently complex information processing structure. Physicist Max Tegmark characterises consciousness as “[…] the way information feels when being processed in certain complex ways” and in Consciousness Explained philosopher Daniel Dennett suggests that it arises from the parallel and reflexive processing of information by the brain.
The jury is far from out on this and neuroscience in its infancy is still taking the commensurate baby steps towards an understanding of consciousness (and the related question of whether or not we have free will) but to suggest it is forever insoluble is premature. For Hart the ”hard problem” becomes easy as his Platonic view of the world allows for the redness of his red rose to have an ideal existence of its own as a qualia available to augment the mere physical presence of the flower and inform a metaphysical consciousness but the paucity of such a view, even if ultimately proved correct, would put an end to the adventure of research into the subject. By discounting the concept of emergence, even though it can be clearly demonstrated to occur, Hart is biasing his argument in favour of a top down teleological view of consciousness and perception that he offers the materialist no reason to accept bar allowing for the supernatural.
”What makes the question of consciousness so intractable to us today, and hence so fertile a source for confusion and dashingly delirious invention, is not so much the magnitude of the logical problem as our inflexible and imaginatively constrained loyalty to a particular ontology and a particular conception of nature. Materialism, mechanism: neither is especially hospitable to a coherent theory of mind. This being so, the wise course might be to reconsider our commitment to our metaphysics”
By this light the results of all scientific enquiry would boil down to “Goddidit!” and render further effort futile.
On the subject of free will Hart is very quick to trivialise, if not outright ridicule, the work of Benjamin Libet who was the first to conduct experiments that suggest the intention to perform an action, as measured by observing the readiness potential in the brain, precedes consciousness of the intent by some 200ms or so which implies that free will may well be illusory and that our decisions are made at an unconscious level. But his criticism is merely a restatement of his conviction that materialism is a flawed philosophy per se which to my mind is just as pre-suppositional and unnecessary as plenty of materialist philosophers would still argue for free will even if it is not the ‘magical’ free will that Hart, presumably, desires.
Using an extension of Alvin Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism Hart also asserts that it would be impossible for a purely material mind capable of abstract thought to evolve as there would be no natural selection for such an ability. However this is to ignore (as does Plantinga) the fact that features selected for one advantage can become co-opted for another. Abstract reasoning (and even a coherent sense of self) may well be the result of selection for language ability. The capacity for expressing higher order intentionality, the ability to form “what if?” scenarios to plan for imagined hazards and the sharing of strategies were once adaptive advantages that may have required a brain complex enough to accommodate abstract concepts. In short all of the qualities of mind that Hart believes are too difficult to evolve and impossible to understand via naturalism could well be spandrels, by products of features favoured by evolution for other reasons.
The least convincing contention in this chapter is the idea that pure reason is incompatible with a materialist view of consciousness. But, given that we live in a universe that, whether for magical or natural reasons, is comprehensible it would be expected that brains would evolve to comprehend it. The ability to deduce logically is merely an extension of observation and categorisation of the world we inhabit. Hart finally flogs his red rose metaphor to death at this point by suggesting the syllogism “all of the roses in my garden are red, I am observing a rose in my garden, therefore the rose I am observing is red” must require some kind of mystical preternatural knowledge of categories such a rose , red, garden etc. and awareness of categories of rose that aren’t red and plants that aren’t roses. I really hope I am not straw manning his point here (this is one of his more obtuse segments) but all of this seems either experiential (we have learned what constitutes a rose that is red) or linguistic (regardless of whether we know the objects the syntax makes sense: all of the blibblies in my wibbly are flibbly, I am observing a blibbly in my wibbly, therefor the blibbly I am observing is flibbly) and requires nothing transcendental that I can see.
As with his chapters on being Hart’s quest for the spiritual in consciousness lay less in a strong case for God and more in a weak rebuttal of naturalism which is only an irrational philosophy if you accept a priori Hart’s ontological assumptions and incredulity of emergent phenomena. Again, Hart may be correct; his is not a falsifiable assertion as we can always maintain that purely naturalist explanations for consciousness are just around the corner although an atheism of the gaps philosophy is no better than the more commonly heard theistic trope. But he still fails to provide any evidence for theistic gods worthy of petition or worship on the basis of consciousness. Perhaps he will fare better with bliss.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

On "The Experience of God" by David Bentley Hart: Part 1 of 3

Prompted by Jerry Coyne’s critiques of David Bentley Hart’s latest book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss I have bought my own copy as it is apparently the latest sophisticated argument for God that atheists now have to refute in order to qualify for the right to an opinion on the subject.

As others have pointed out it seems unfair that for theists to criticise scientific rebuttals of religion they rarely see the need to actually understand the science but for an atheist to criticise religion requires an encyclopaedic knowledge of two millennia of theology. But what the hell! I quite like acquiring knowledge for its own sake and have a fair grasp of both theology and science so I have decided to post my own thoughts on this latest ‘best argument for God’.
As Hart’s sub-title implies the book is split into three divisions; Being (the existential question, essentially the cosmological argument), consciousness (or why the “hard problem” of consciousness points to God) and Bliss (The experiential evidence). I intend this to be a series of three posts addressing each in turn starting with Being

In one respect the disappointment of this part of the book is that it really offers nothing new. Hart’s argument is essentially a re-hash of Paul Tillich’s “ground of being” concept where God is defined as that upon which all else is contingent, although I think Hart’s explanation and derivation is much more cogently explained than many with less resort to post-modernist language and obfuscation (I do mean less by the way, not none: there is still plenty of semi-digestible word salad in this book). He begins by asserting that materialism is a self-limiting philosophy that science uses necessarily to render the observable universe available for comprehension while ignoring the philosophical dilemma of why anything requiring investigation exists at all. The logical consequence of this is that everything is seen as a sequence of causes and effects leading to infinite regressions if you try to contemplate the “first cause” of anything. He extends the argument to say that explanations relying on mathematical imperatives fail the same test as they must also be contingent on something absolute as would an infinite multiverse or any appeal to the anthropic principle to explain why the universe is as we find it.
Hart goes on to explain that his refined cosmological argument requires an eternal infinite indivisible prime cause that doesn’t initiate creation at a specific point or occupy Einsteinian space-time in any way. Meaning it can’t be observed because science only looks inside the system and ignores external supernatural explanations (which is a general claim I have addressed before).
My problem with all of this really boils down to “so what”? Apart from the fact that such arguments have been made for centuries even if such a ground of being does exist (and I am prepared to concede that it might, or even logically must) why call this thing God? In fact why call it anything at all if it is essentially beyond our capacity to observe and the universe cannot possibly look other than it does either with or without it?
My favourite sound-bite response to the question “why is there something instead of nothing?” is to suggest that there is only one way for there to be nothing yet an almost infinite number of ways for there to be something so the balance of probability is massively in favour of something. I’ve always considered this to be a trivial thought but Hart does take the time to argue against it by saying that an “empty universe” is merely a logical possibility and not a logical necessity in the way that his prime cause of being is and anyway there may be many logically possible empty universes: but this wrong. While there may be many logically possible empty universes there really can only be one way for there to be nothing (whatever that means) even assuming it is logically possible at all. It may be that something is the default due to the logical impossibility of nothing.
It is unsatisfying (even for a materialist) to say it’s “turtles all the way down” but this doesn’t mean that any ground of being ,even if metaphysical, must possess divinity or intent and even less that it has specific opinions on the dietary and sexual habits of humans, which leads me to this final observation…
In a substantial diversion from the initial theme of “being” Hart makes the point that the God he is attempting to describe and justify is not a small ‘g’ god or the demiurge of the Old Testament who created a universe from pre-existing chaos but one that’s very much the ex-nihilo be-all and end-all of existence. But, given that he is explicitly aiming this book at atheists he appears to have missed the memo that for the most part it is only the existence of the demiurges that we are denying. After all it is these theistic gods that are supposed to answer prayers and wreak punishments with careless abandon on human kind. These are the gods for which not only is there no evidence but substantial evidence against even though these are also the gods that, despite Hart’s conviction, most na├»ve believers look to for moral guidance and salvation. Hart, at least in part one of this book, is flirting with something very close to pantheism which really does not square with his professed Eastern Orthodox Christianity and he fails to make the qualitative leap between god in the abstract and a God we should care about.