”If I can only be as strong as a two-month-old wolf cub, then I am a soil where moral evil will not grow.”
If it is the duty of a philosopher to challenge us to constantly reassess our conceptions of ourselves, the world and our place within it, Mark Rowlands discharges this duty admirably in The Philosopher and the Wolf. It is a deeply beautiful book, not just for the engaging, almost lyrical simplicity of Rowlands’ prose, but for the power of the ideas expressed by it. This book is confronting, humbling, profound and arrestingly honest.
As with my previous post about a book – and probably all future book-related posts – this is much less of a critical review of the book in question (I rarely feel appropriately qualified to give those kinds of commentaries) and more my own response to the ideas presented by the author. As such, it is likely that if you’ve not read the book, what follows may contain spoilers. If it encourages you to read The Philosopher and the Wolf, so much the better – if you are someone who has a yen for pondering the deeper things in life, or who simply appreciates the company of our canine brethren, you will find much to interest you in this small jewel of a book.
Because this is not simply a story about a man and a wolf – it is an examination of the lessons a man learned from his life with a wolf, and it is one that I think anyone who has ever thoughtfully shared their life with a dog will appreciate. And you may also be rather amused to discover that what seems to be every dog’s love of cheese may well have been inherited from their wolf ancestors…
It is fair to say that one of the reasons I enjoyed this book – and read it with a voraciousness that I have seldom experienced – was because it speaks to many of the ideas I have lately been turning over in my own mind, about life, about our place in the world, and about religion. Three things in particular stayed with me – Rowlands’ take on human nature, on the source and character of evil, and on the meaning of life.
Early in the book, Rowlands establishes the differences between canine and simian intelligence – the latter, he contends, is the result of our prehistoric ancestors’ ability and need to connive and deceive. What he says about us is hardly complimentary, but it makes a great deal of sense. What humans generally like to think of as our superior intelligence was bought at the cost of our honesty and loyalty. I recall once reading about why parents should actually be proud of their children’s ability to lie successfully – it involves several layers of mental abstraction, after all, and shows that the child is developing a theory of mind. You have to know what another person is thinking, what they’re aware of, in order to successfully deceive them.
So, in Rowlands’ view, the essence of human intelligence – ape intelligence – is our ability to be nasty to one another. Contrast this with our ability to love, to be altruistic, to nurture – things we like to think are defining features of humanity. They’re not – other animals do these things. They are, perhaps, more primitive elements of our nature. Only apes, it seems, have the ability to be consciously, deliberately mean. Malice aforethought, Rowlands says, is a trait peculiar to apes, and is, perhaps, actually the ultimate source of our morality:
Grounds, evidence; justification, warrant: only a truly nasty animal would have need of these concepts. The more unpleasant the animal, the more vicious it is, and the more insensitive to the possibility of conciliation, the more it has need of a sense of justice. Standing on its own, alone in all of nature, we find the ape: the only animal sufficiently unpleasant to become a moral animal.
Again, this is hardly complimentary, but it makes a lot of sense when you think about it – only a creature capable of evil has a need to guard against it.
It is our ability to create and exploit weakness in others that Rowlands sees as the basis of moral evil. Failing in our duty to protect the weak, and failure in our duty to constantly examine and evaluate our ideas are the things that lead to evil actions. I’m not sure I agree entirely with this conception of evil, and I am not as much of a consequentialist as Rowlands, but perhaps that is only because it is too damning. I can certainly see the intellectual merit in this way of addressing the subject of evil, rather than glossing it over as something that doesn’t really exist once we factor in environmental and psychological influences. I am most definitely in agreement with his condemnation of certain psychology experiments which involve essentially subjecting animals to torture in what is surely the erroneous belief that this will reveal something useful for humans. Humans are the only animals that are capable of manufacturing weakness in other creatures – not just through learned helplessness, as in the aforementioned experiments, but also through other, equally deliberate, actions. We have selectively bred docile domestic animals from their wild forebears, with the express purpose of making them more defenceless against our exploitation of them. Our abuse of domestic animals, especially in the case of factory farming, is surely an example of moral evil, based as it is upon an – I believe – false conviction that we are of singular importance, and they are expendable, that our desires matter and their lives don’t. It is our failure of duty, both moral and epistemic, that allows things like animal experimentation and factory farming to continue.
If Rowlands’ view of humanity in general seems at times disconcertingly bleak, I think there is still something to be said for an animal that can see and accept the darkness of its own nature and carry on regardless, still valuing the effort to make the best of what we have. It is in being defiant in the face of despair, Rowlands believes, that we find the real meaning of our lives – not in finite, temporal purposes, but in the moments when we are at our best, when we face up to a hopeless reality and shout, “Fuck you!”
Again, I’m not sure I wholly agree with Rowlands on this point – I felt his notion of the meaning of life was perhaps a little too narrow; I don’t think defiance in the face of despair is entirely what life is about, nor do I think hope is always the charlatan he portrays. However, I was intrigued by his discussion of why we should not seek the meaning of life in the pursuit of purpose. Once a purpose is achieved, what then? Many theistic believers contend that without a god or an afterlife, our lives are devoid of meaning and purpose. One might say that the meaning and purpose of life are to be found in the attainment of heaven in the afterlife. All well and good while it lasts, but once you attain heaven, what then? You’ve achieved your ultimate purpose – what now? What good is an eternal yet otherwise pointless existence?
So I do think Rowlands is on to something in claiming that the meaning and the true value of life is to be found in its moments, not in the achievement of any ultimate purpose – because at the end of the day, we probably don’t have any ultimate purpose. Such is the meaning of life for a wolf, or for a dog – to appreciate, even savour, each moment on its own merits, to be in each and every moment the best it can be in that moment. This is something that humans have to work hard to do, if it is even possible for us, evolved as we are to be goal-driven, future-oriented beings. We value the moments only insofar as they lead to more moments, more hours, more days, more years of striving to achieve our temporal purposes. But if we can slow down and try to appreciate even some of our moments, perhaps we might find that our existence becomes just a little more valuable. Time and death bring an end to our years, to all our goals and plans, but this does not take away the meaning of our moments, if we know how to look for it.
Above all, The Philosopher and the Wolf is a testament to the value of our relationships with other animals. It is a lesson in humility – not the kind that finds its expression in abject (and often dishonest) debasement, or in the religious notion that we have somehow ‘fallen’ from an ideal, divinely ordered state – but the kind that consists in acceptance of what we are and how we became human; acceptance of our place in the universe, not as all-conquering heroes, but as animals amongst animals, all finding our way in the same world, even if we perceive it differently. This is a homage to what we may learn from our furry cousins, if we can set aside our anthropocentric feelings of superiority and respect what they have to teach us.
I have recently finished reading Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha’s Sex At Dawn, and you should read it too – in fact, I think everybody should read it. Not just because of its extremely entertaining prose, nor indeed for the quality or originality of the authors’ research, but because it is what any good work of social scientific enquiry and cultural commentary ought to be – thought-provoking. This is a book that opens a path to enlightenment.
(If you haven’t yet read the book, do be warned – what follows may contain spoilers…)
So, in the spirit of enlightenment, I present my own commentary – this is not so much a learned review of the content of the book (since I am no anthropologist or evolutionary psychologist) as a chance to ponder some of the ideas raised therein. Whilst the authors’ gleeful iconoclasm may not be to everyone’s taste, I found it very well suited to a book that seems to preach free love and anarchism in equal measure.
If you are at all inclined towards polyamory, you’ll find Sex At Dawn very refreshing. Its central thesis is that what many take to be the natural order of human family relationships – monogamous pair-bonding in which a woman exchanges exclusive access to her body for access to a man’s protection and resources – is actually a cultural adaptation to the agricultural revolution, not an arrangement that is innate to our species. The benefits of sexual exclusivity are apparent in a world of settled living and personal property – the woman is afforded the safety and sustenance for herself and her children that the man and his property can provide, and the man can be (at least reasonably) confident that he’s ensuring the survival of his own children, not someone else’s.
Advocates of the naturalness of monogamy for humans rarely state it in such bluntly economic terms, however – unless they are called upon to explain why they think it is natural, even in the face of soaring divorce rates, countless extramarital affairs and widespread single parenthood. Supporters of monogamy are left with little choice but to hold it up as a romantic ideal, obviously difficult to achieve, but worth striving for. The contradictions of their position are obvious when you think about it – if monogamy is natural, why do so many people find it so difficult? And why is it worth striving for if it contributes to so much misery?
Well, the authors point out, it’s not natural for us, and it’s not worth tying ourselves in knots trying to squeeze into a strait-jacket that doesn’t even fit.
This understanding makes sense when you consider that for the majority of time Homo sapiens have existed, our ancestors seem to have lived in small hunter-gatherer groups who very probably had quite different social arrangements to those with which we are familiar. Modern-day foraging societies, it seems, practice what is called “fierce egalitarianism” – they share everything as a matter of course, and there’s no reason to think this doesn’t include sexual partnerships. Sexual intimacy serves to reduce aggression and conflict within the group, and bind its members together in relationships of trust and cooperation. Children are children of the tribe, not of specific pairs, and they are cared for by all the adult members of the group.
What’s more, our two closest primate relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, also demonstrate multimale-multifemale mating behaviours. It seems a little odd, then, to assume that humans would be inclined to monogamy, like the more distantly related, less social and less intelligent gibbon, which is often held up as an exemplar of the nuclear family arrangement claimed to be natural for humans.
The authors go on to show how various aspects of human anatomy, in particular the genitalia, reflect the evolution of humans as promiscuous lovers. Where there is genetic competition, it takes place at a cellular level, much more so than at the macroscopic level of the whole organism. The book offers an extensive and fascinating discussion of sperm competition and shows how humans seem to be evolved for this to take place.
There is something very appealing and even comforting in the notion of the “Noble Savage” (as popularised by Rousseau) but the authors are quick to point out that there’s nothing consciously noble about the way foraging societies operate – it simply makes sense in an environment where there is limited personal property and where survival is dependent upon the strength of one’s ties to the group. As an interesting aside (although the authors don’t really get into this much) the book raises interesting questions about the evolution of morality, not just in sexual terms, but in terms of cooperation, fairness and altruism – all of these things would have their place in a tribal society, and much as many religious types like to say that morality is inserted into the human soul by some supernatural force, it seems more likely that it’s actually a pragmatic response to the circumstances of human evolution.
So, here we are, stuck in a post-agricultural world with our pre-agricultural inclinations. What are we to do about it? Sex At Dawn offers little in the way of suggestions, but it does touch on the potential for polyamorous arrangements, swinging, and generally taking a more open and accepting view of sexuality. If we can recognise that sex and love are separate but related entities, and that we need both if we are to find a measure of happiness in our lives, it’s quite likely that we can move on from the moribund social and sexual norms of the present-day Western world.
The book resonates powerfully with much of my personal experience. Sexual exclusivity has never been of paramount importance to me, nor have I ever considered sexual straying to be a deal-breaker in any relationship (though perhaps an opening for some serious discussion!) Indeed, on those occasions where a partner of mine has been involved with another person, my response has not been to feel jealous, but rather to feel conscious of an expectation that I ought to be jealous. Such is the power of social conditioning. In fact, one of the best things about Sex At Dawn is that it invites us to examine many of the social and cultural assumptions that underpin – and perhaps actually undermine – our understanding of the way things are in our world. It exposes some of the idols of our own minds.
So it is without hesitation that I recommend Sex At Dawn to anyone interested in taking a fresh look at the so-called battle of the sexes. Read it with someone you love. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. It will change your life. Well, perhaps not, but it will most certainly make you think.
I should give due warning – this is a long post.
Having been told, of late, in no uncertain terms, that my ideas regarding the nature and acquisition of knowledge – and for that matter, the nature of reality itself – are absurd, I thought it would be as well to continue clarifying my thoughts on the matter. I am, as I’ve previously indicated, an amateur philosopher at best, and there are plenty of gaps in my knowledge of philosophical works. No doubt I’ve also encountered some problems of expression, perhaps due in part to such gaps. However, I suspect that the ideas I have been endeavouring to get across are nonetheless worth pursuing, and certainly don’t deserve to be summarily dismissed because of my failures of elucidation.
The accusations of absurdity have come, invariably, from evangelical Christians, most notably of late, from Dr Reluctant. Perhaps this impression is mistaken, but it’s difficult not to suspect that, having become convinced that they have found their “theory of everything”, they are unwilling to acknowledge any challenge to it – they are inclined to minimise any problems or vagaries inherent in their “Biblical Worldview”, and inclined to overstate its explanatory power. Now, this is not an issue exclusive to religious believers – not by any means. Indeed, it’s probably something that is inherent in the functioning of the human brain – we like having answers, and when we think we’ve found them, we’ll cling to them till grim death, or, if we’re very lucky, until better answers present themselves to us in such a way as to be persuasive. This is what Francis Bacon – one of the fathers of empiricism – called “Idols of the Mind”: characteristic mental behaviours of humans that tend to hamper the pursuit of truth.
So it is with full acknowledgement of my own Idols that I launch into the following discussion. I freely admit that I find naturalistic pantheism a most congenial philosophy, one that meshes very comfortably with other ideas that I value, like empirical investigation, pragmatism and Epicurean ethics. It would be as well to bear in mind, as you read what follows, that a foundational idea of my world-picture is an open-ended approach to an understanding of nature – I am not prepared to dismiss things as being unexplainable in natural terms, simply because they have not yet been explained. Nature is as nature does, and anything that we might reasonably expect to experience, observe or explain comes under the heading of natural phenomena, since we ourselves are natural beings. On this view, it isn’t so much that I dismiss the possibility of “supernatural” phenomena, but that I find the concept of the supernatural to be largely meaningless and unnecessary. I am, perhaps, inclined to minimise such problems as may be encountered with my views, but I like to think that, given my past experiences, I am open to alternatives, provided they actually do a better job of explaining reality and making sense of my experiences than my present views.
In light of the above, I would still venture to suggest that it is not my weddedness to naturalistic pantheism that leads me to reject the Biblical Worldview (I had already rejected it years before I even acknowledged my atheism, let alone realised I was a pantheist) but that it seems to me to do a very poor job of actually making sense of experience, and provides a picture of reality that is heavily distorted by an overreliance upon – and a failure to recognise the true nature of – imaginary entities: God(s), souls, Satan, angels, heaven, hell – which leaves adherents of the Biblical Worldview attempting to explain demonstrable realities in terms of things that have thus far never been shown to exist independently of human conceptualisations.
Let’s look, for example, at Dr Reluctant’s post listing the “preconditions” for various aspects of human existence, behaviour and understanding of the world:
Logic/Reason…..precondition ……. God who is immaterial perfect rationality
Morality…………..precondition ……..God who is righteous
Truth……………….precondition ……..God who is unchanging Truth
Uniformity……….precondition ……..God who upholds regularity (providence)
Order………………..precondition ……..God who imprints His order on creation
Subject-Object….precondition ……..God creates us (body/soul), the world for us
Love………………….precondition ……..God who is Love and demonstrates it
Beauty………………precondition ……..God who is artistic & gives us aesthetic abilities
Language…………..precondition ……..God who speaks
Good………………….precondition ……..God who is perfectly Good
Evil…………………….precondition ……..God who permits declension from Himself
False Beliefs………..precondition ……..God who (for now) allows rebellion
Personality………….precondition ……..God who is Personal
Relationship………..precondition ……..God who is social
One & Many…………precondition ……..God who is both One and Many (Trinitarian)
Science………………..precondition ……..God who gives skills & conditions for analysis
History………………..precondition ……..God who created & guides with a telos in view
Number……………….precondition ……..God who is Triune and infinite
Ecology………………..precondition ……..God who gives us oversight of His creation
Salvation………………precondition ……..God who reconciles humanity in His Son
Worship………………..precondition ……..God who evokes praise in the saints
Hope……………………..precondition ……..God who raises Christ from the dead
Meaning………………..precondition ……..God who made us in His image
I may, in future, attempt to address each of these claims in detail, but for this post, a general overview will suffice. To begin with, it is by no means clear that the Christian god is actually a precondition – let alone the only one possible – for any of these things, nor is an attempt made to explain why this must be so, or why this particular god-concept works any better than other possible preconditions. It’s not obvious that the Christian god is a precondition for, say, relationships – not in the same way that it’s obvious why our evolution as social animals is a precondition for our ability to form relationships with other members of our species. It’s not clear why it’s necessary to worship the Christian god rather than any other concept of god, which would seem to be equally valid as a precondition for worship; and it’s certainly not clear why the idea of a god who made humans in his image (rather than the other way around) is somehow a precondition for – or even relevant to – the notion of “meaning”. Given the time to examine the above list, I’m sure most of you could come up with alternative and in many cases more obviously explanatory preconditions for all these items. It’s just not at all clear that the Christian god-concept is the only explanation, or even the best explanation.
Nor is it clear that we must know the preconditions of some phenomenon’s existence before said phenomenon can be intelligible to us. This is largely a case of confusing the order of being with the order of knowing, as the blogger at Principium Unitatis laid out clearly here. The order of knowing may ultimately reveal the order of being, but presuppositionalist Biblical Christians are not prepared to wait for that, nor, one is tempted to think, are they at all confident that the progress of knowledge would naturally lead to their version of god (and I can’t blame them for that – I can’t see how it would either). Instead, they endeavour to shoehorn their god in at the very beginning of the process of knowledge building, which seems to me – with my admittedly limited knowledge – to be of questionable philosophical legitimacy, and leads to the – in my opinion – absurd notion that one can know god exists without even acknowledging, even tacitly, one’s own existence as a knower.
The post quoted above is entitled ‘The Biblical God: The Precondition of Intelligibility’. It’s curious to note that if I google the words “preconditions of intelligibility”, the hits are almost invariably from evangelical Christian websites. One would think, that if determining why the world is such that we are able to make sense of it were a matter of such concern to philosophy in general as it seems to be to Christian apologists, this issue might be explicitly addressed in a broader range of online content. The very few deviations from this norm in six pages worth of hits were sites dealing with postmodernist and post-structuralist social theory, but it’s doubtful one would find any intelligibility at all there, let alone any explanation of its preconditions! So it could be fair to say – as a preliminary observation based upon this single experiment – that in an attempt to legitimise their strange beliefs, presuppositionalists have come up with a construction – the preconditions of intelligibility – that gives their religion the aura of intellectual acumen; but which, when broken down, is quite hollow at the core and apparently not of great interest to serious philosophers. This, as it happens, is a very similar tactic to that employed by postmodernist ‘intellectuals’ who like to couch their supposed ‘insights’ in impenetrable prose.
Dr Reluctant thinks that I embarrass myself with my lack of knowledge and understanding of Biblical scripture. It must be said that I am certainly not a hardcore Bible student, but I do know enough to realise that there are a great many things in the world for which the Bible is not an authoritative source of knowledge or understanding – it is a reflection of the times and beliefs of its many authors, rather than a repository of universal truth. And I can’t help but remark, as an aside, that it’s ironic, to say the least, that I should be accused of embarrassing myself by a professed believer in “Flood geology” – of which more later.
And it’s just not obvious that one would turn first to the Bible for answers to life’s big questions, or indeed any human dilemma. One would arguably be better off turning to Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, even Ursula Le Guin – indeed, any astute literary observer of the human condition. The point here is that throughout recorded human history, writers and other artists have grappled with the problems of human existence. The Bible has been absorbed by the Western literary tradition, which has subsequently progressed far beyond any insights to be found in scripture. Sure, the Bible is a valuable source of study in itself, and a working knowledge of it is very useful for understanding the various Biblically-derived metaphors used by other writers. But the Bible itself is far from transcending the times and places in which its various components were composed. Like any literary work, it can be removed from its historical context and reinterpreted to suit the tastes and needs of the age, but it should not be supposed as a matter of course (as Bible-believers often do) that the authors had any specific generation in mind at the time they were writing, any more than Shakespeare was likely to have anticipated Mel Gibson playing his Hamlet.
I’d like to explore further this notion that god – and not just any god, but the very specific Christian concept of god – is the only possible precondition for the intelligibility of the natural universe and the place of humans within it. As I said, it’s not clear why one must absolutely know the preconditions of intelligibility in order to perceive that, in fact, we can build a working understanding of the world by means of our senses and reason.
What’s more, in claiming his specific version of god as a precondition for intelligibility, the Biblical Christian™ is sneaking in another presupposition – under the radar, as it were – that is seldom if ever acknowledged as such – and that is that his own senses and reason give him privileged access to knowledge and discernment such that he is able to know the difference between true and false revelation, and the one of many possible interpretations of scripture that is absolutely correct. Consider for a moment the sheer scope of this claim – the Biblical Christian™ is claiming to possess within himself the key to all knowledge and ultimate understanding of the universe. Now, he is more likely to say that he is humbly deferring to scripture, giving god his due – but all the while he implicitly believes that he himself has the only correct understanding of scripture, that his concept of god is the one that literally exists and that he is amongst the happy few who are privileged to know this; thereby elevating himself above the vast majority of philosophers throughout history. The Biblical Christian™ might claim this is justified by the “impossibility of the contrary” – by which he means that there is no other way of understanding the world that does not collapse into absurdity. In my previous post, I argued that the core of the Biblical worldview (belief in an omnipotent supernatural entity) actually does lead to some absurd deductions, but this would probably just be waved away as my “failure” to understand scripture, or something.
So let’s examine the claim that my world-picture – that of naturalistic pantheism, based upon a primarily empiricist epistemology – reduces to absurdity. It is my understanding that the content of our reasoning must come from experience, whether that is direct, first-person experience of phenomena or tapping into the reported experience of others. Even reading someone else’s words should be counted as experience on this view, since it is an interaction between the mind and the wider world, via the senses. That this is the case seems self-evident to me.
At this point, the presuppositionalist will say, “But how do you know that your senses and reasoning are accurate and valid?” Well, we’re not born with the knowledge that they are, but let’s be honest – by the time most people would come to ask such a question, it’s a bit late to suddenly discover that actually, one’s senses are presenting entirely false information and one’s reasoning is completely topsy-turvy. We rely upon our senses and reason even without knowing, consciously, that we do. Of course we can’t rely upon either one exclusively if we are to construct any working knowledge of the world – without sensory perception, our reasoning would be empty of meaningful content, and without reason, our experience would be of a seemingly unconnected succession of events. It is the reciprocal, ongoing and potentially self-correcting interplay between reason and perception that underlies and informs our interaction with the world. From an evolutionary perspective – compatible, I should point out, with naturalistic pantheism, though not with Biblical Christianity™ – it makes sense to believe that our senses and our ability to connect our perceptions into a coherent picture of reality are at least broadly reliable. If they weren’t, how would they have aided the survival of our ancestors? Perhaps it’s their refusal to accept evolution that makes Bibilical Christians™ feel that they must rope in a supernatural explanation for the reliability of our senses and reason. But I digress.
To reiterate – sense perception and reason work in tandem to build our mental models of reality. This is obvious when you think about it. I don’t really see much point to those theories of knowledge which privilege reason over perception, or claim there’s no connection between our experiences and our thoughts. For example, it has been tried, on more than one occasion and by more than one philosopher, to “prove” the existence of god through reason alone. But this is nothing more than a thought experiment, and it has never produced results that could have any impact upon our senses, so it’s hard to see what use such results might have – except, perhaps, inducing paranoia in those who take them seriously.
Even the kind of extreme scepticism that is claimed to follow from radical empiricism is an untenable position. Whilst moderate scepticism – withholding judgement until further evidence is available – is generally considered a sane and sensible alternative to unreflective credulity, there are practical limits to such an approach. Withholding judgement because you assume all sensory evidence is inherently unreliable is unsustainable and ultimately futile – we have no other source of evidence, no other means to access information about reality. Even Hume recognised this.
Some concepts in epistemology appear to be attempts to validate what humans do instinctively anyway. I would suggest that presuppositionalism, with its claims about “preconditions of intelligibility”, falls into this category. Now, this is all very well as an intellectual exercise, but what use is it, actually? As it happens, inductive reasoning does not have the logical clout of deductive argument from established premises. Leaving aside for now the question of how such premises could be established without the aid of empirical observation, I am not certain that the presence or absence of a strictly philosophical justification makes any practical difference to the way we live our lives or construct our models of the world. People reason inductively out of habit, as Hume observed, and because there is no alternative available to us. We can’t absolutely know the future – although induction has historically proved remarkably useful and accurate in predicting future events and discoveries – and it apparently does not suit the omniscient Christian god to reveal future events to us. So, in the absence of alternatives – and the Biblical Christians™ have yet to offer any – what need have we to “justify” our use of induction?
It’s also interesting to note that Biblical Christians™, whilst claiming that their god-concept justifies belief in natural regularities, they are curiously averse to the implications of such regularities when they conflict with the contents of scripture. Take the concept of “Flood geology” as a case in point. Now, as an explanation for observed facts, Flood geology is an abject failure, for the primary reason that it raises many more questions than it is equipped to answer. Where did enough water to cover the entire globe, up to the level of the highest mountains, come from? Where did it go afterwards? And what curious magical properties did it have that enabled it to sort animals precisely into the various geological strata in which their fossils have been found, without any mixture between them? But there are other questions, ones that bear more directly on the claim that, upon God’s post-flood promise that there would always be day and night (after which he is reported to have sent a plague of darkness on the Egyptians and then made the sun stand still for Joshua, mind you) we had the basis for relying upon natural regularities. According to Flood geology, all of the natural rock formations and mountains we see today were laid down by the floodwaters. Did the flood deposit fully-formed mountains? Or did the deposits harden rapidly after being laid down by the flood? If the latter, then the process of petrification must have happened remarkably rapidly, far more rapidly than it is observed to happen today. Alternatively, if there were mountains formed after the flood, the rate of post-flood geological upheaval must have been extraordinary. It should be apparent that believers in Flood geology are essentially committing themselves to belief that natural regularities have changed over the course of the past four millennia or so. So much for their confidence in the uniformity of nature!
Ultimately, any worldview which claims to already possess all the answers without investigating the reality of nature on its own terms is vulnerable to all kinds of contradictions arising from empirical investigation. Its tactic, in response, is to resort to some combination of the following: denigrate empiricism as illogical and inherently unreliable (except when its findings can be squared with scripture); claim empiricism for their own worldview, declaring it must be “justified” by their god’s promises, even though it is our only option when it comes to obtaining information about the world outside our minds. I have sometimes seen it claimed that there are “other ways of knowing”, that are not accessed via sensory awareness, empirical investigation and reason. However, those who claim this have yet to present any item of genuine or useful knowledge that has been obtained by non-empirical means.
As I outlined in my previous post, belief in supernatural entities does affect people’s ability to think about the world in a straightforward manner. It undermines natural reason, because it offers no logical limits. It invites people to look at nature but think beyond it, to assume that someone like us had to be responsible for the things we find beautiful, useful, intelligible; and perhaps most destructive of all, to suppose that all our perceived problems and difficulties are due to our disobedience to this someone, rather than to natural circumstances of our existence – and hence we pursue “solutions” to our problems that are no such thing. Strictly speaking, faith in the supernatural may not have been one of Bacon’s Idols of the Mind, but it’s clear that it does hamper the attainment of knowledge and understanding of the real, natural world.
This is the latest in what has become a series of posts dealing with my understanding of epistemology – such as it is – and corresponding with Dr Reluctant regarding presuppositional Christian apologetics. But it’s also a little bit more than that, since herein I also want to discuss some of the ideas that have recently been coming clear to me regarding the nature of reason, and also, in light of this, why it matters very little, if at all, whether or not I adhere to – or represent in my comments – what is termed a Biblical Worldview, in its strict “Bible-believing Christian” sense.
To begin with, I’d like to address a couple of particular comments from Dr Reluctant’s latest post, which I think are quite illuminating in terms of identifying some key differences between philosophical naturalists and religious believers. He writes,
Likewise when Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett protest against Christian ideas they falsify their worldview, which, if acted upon, would cause them to deny any necessary connection between their brainwaves and external truths. If, as both men have asserted in various ways, the mind is simply reducible to neural activity, then Christian ideas are just such a result of certain neural activity as they suppose. In which case, why argue against it? In fact, why argue for or against anything, since if this view were right no one could help having the ideas their brains have left them with, and no idea – not even the idea that the mind is reducible to firing synapses – would have any greater (or demonstrable) claim to being externally true than any other?
This is an attempt to present materialism as an incoherent position, but it’s one that relies upon misconceptions and equivocation to do so. It seems, in my experience, to be a common criticism of materialism that it cannot account for things we experience as ‘immaterial’, such as thoughts, ideas, emotions, creativity and so forth – there is fierce resistance to the notion that such things could come from ‘mere matter’ rather than some more profound human ‘essence’, normally referred to as the soul. It’s quite true that we have yet to discover any precise mechanisms by which such things emerge as properties of complex arrangements of matter and energy, such as brains; but it must be said that we are much further along the road to understanding neural processes than we are to even grasping at the straw of any definition of an immaterial soul.
The important thing to remember is that, contrary to Dr Reluctant’s claims of materialists having to deny any ‘necessary’ connection between external facts and internal mental states, there is in fact no reason to suppose that the two are disconnected – to do so implies the belief that the inner life of the mind and the external world are fundamentally different kinds of things, when in fact, on the materialist view, they are made of the same stuff, and subject to the same processes of cause and effect. There is no necessary boundary between external and internal states.
So this does not, as Dr Reluctant appears to be claiming, then mean that ideas – including Christian ideas – are things that are just so, and can’t be other than they are for any individual. It does not mean that there’s no point to argument or study, nor that one will have whatever ideas one has regardless of interaction with the external world (be that physical evidence or other people’s ideas). Dr Reluctant is here attempting to equate materialism with strict determinism, when the two are distinct concepts. As I said above, if minds are part of the physical universe, subject to the same interplay of cause and effect – as well as quantum randomness – as the rest of the physical universe, then a person’s ideas are not fixed and beyond any external alteration. A person may be mistaken, but the only way to discover this is through interaction with the world outside the mind.
It’s also interesting to note Dr Reluctant’s reference to ‘falsifying’ one’s worldview. In my previous post, I discussed what my understanding of a worldview is, and it appears that it’s quite markedly different from Dr Reluctant’s concept of worldviews and what they’re for. On my understanding, building a worldview is a process, and so if some experience occurs to falsify an aspect of one’s worldview, then one’s worldview changes accordingly. A Biblical Christian worldview can’t, apparently, be changed without becoming something other than a Biblical Christian worldview. What this means, in practice, is that the Biblical Christian must shoehorn every new fact into a pre-existing framework, even if doing so requires extensive mental gymnastics and the stretching of language and meaning to the very limits of their endurance. It turns out that it is actually the Christian, in this instance, who treats ideas as fixed, unchanging entities.
Based upon Dr Reluctant’s claims that I either do not understand or am wilfully misrepresenting Biblical Christianity, one could be forgiven for thinking that interpretation of Biblical scriptures is a matter of great importance. But in fact it matters far less than would appear from the claims of Biblical literalists. The fact that only a certain interpretation of Christianity is claimed to be correct is really neither here nor there when it comes to establishing the veracity of any Christian claim. It’s all very well to say that only a certain set of beliefs actually fit together into the jigsaw of the Biblical worldview, but the mere internal compatibility of beliefs is no indication of their correspondence to any other reality than themselves. We could spend an academic career harmonising Mallory’s and Tennyson’s accounts of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and in so doing, come up with a complete and coherent account of the legend – and we would still be no closer to establishing the actual existence of any such persons or places as are mentioned therein.
Such is the position of anyone who claims that their reality is grounded in scripture.
But the religious believer – particularly the presuppositionalist Christian apologist – has a more profound problem than this, precisely because of their belief in supernatural entities. It’s only recently that I have thought through the implications of belief in the supernatural for the exercise of reason, and they’re quite far-reaching. My own reasoning ability has been affected by my Catholic upbringing, in ways that I am still discovering. So, in the interests of clearing a few more mental cobwebs, I will now outline what I have come to see as the fatal flaw in any attempt to claim that rationality is grounded in the mind of the Christian concept of god.
One will often see it claimed that things like logic and moral goodness emanate from the ‘nature’ of god. But as I’ve asked of DAN over at Debunking Atheists (on more than one occasion, without yet receiving a satisfactory response), how does a supernatural entity have a nature? This isn’t just superficial wordplay. For something to have what we could call a nature, it must have perceptible limits – we must be able to say what it is, what it isn’t, what it can and cannot do, and we must be able to base these parameters on something external to our own thoughts, something that won’t just change whenever we change our minds. This is the foundation of the logical concept of identity. A supernatural entity is beyond natural, perceptible limits, so how does one go about defining it? What do we have other than disparate collections of imaginative literature to enable us to give gods and other supernatural entities any definition at all?
What is more – and worse in its implications for rationality – the Christian god is claimed to be, among other things, omnipotent. Now, reasoning itself is bound by natural limits. A given premise leads to some conditions, but not to others. This is how logic works – we go from one point to the next based on what is possible from each condition. Now, in a universe governed by an omnipotent entity – which is what Christians believe we live in – there are no limits on what is possible. Nothing must or should be the case, given any premises. Essentially, from a certain state of affairs, an infinity of subsequent states of affairs is possible, each one as likely as all the others to come about. What place has reason in such a universe? If anything is possible, nothing logically follows from anything else. So, far from providing any grounding for rationality, as presuppositional apologists claim, the Christian god actually undermines its entire foundation.
This post is in large part a response to Dr Reluctant‘s representation of my views regarding presuppositionalism, truth and knowledge as laid out in my previous few posts. Clearly I need to articulate my ideas more thoroughly if I am to avoid such a drubbing in the future. What follows is my attempt to do so.
I’ll start by defining the term ‘worldview’ as I intend to use it hereafter. This may be a different definition from that adopted by presuppositionalists, but this particular definition seems to have a great deal of utility and, I think, provides a satisfying explanation of what people generally mean when they talk about worldviews, if they talk about them at all.
A worldview is a conceptual tool that we construct in order to make sense of our experiences. A presupposition, then, in relation to a worldview, is a foundational belief that serves to connect and explain aspects of experience and thus build up one’s particular view of the world.
The thing is that by the time a person comes to construct a worldview – if they even think in terms of doing so – they have already had the kinds of experiences of which the worldview is required to make sense. The importance of this point should become obvious later.
To draw upon an example from my own life, my childhood worldview was built around certain undeniable things (I wouldn’t have known at the time that it was even possible to deny the claims of sensory experience) that repeatedly impressed themselves upon my senses. Some of the most prominent of these were the fact that my parents took me with them to mass, and the fact that they prayed and had religious artefacts in the house. It seemed impossible to my childhood brain – my infant meaning-making mind – that the two most important people in my world, whom I loved and looked up to and relied upon, could be wrong or mistaken in their beliefs, or would do things that had no relevance to real life. It made sense to suppose, then, that the claims of Catholic Christianity were true – that god really existed and that Jesus really was his divine son who really died to save me from my own heinous sins (the ones I had really committed, presumably, yet struggled to come up with in confession) and really rose from the dead three days later, allowing us to have chocolate and a few days off school, and sing really cool hymns in church (the Easter songs were always my favourites). A whole raft of beliefs were being repeatedly validated by my childhood experience, and the world made sense to me.
It wasn’t until my early 20s, after years of mounting cognitive dissonance caused by experiences that simply didn’t make sense in light of the claims of Christianity, that I finally abandoned my adherence to it. The cognitive dissonance has been in retreat ever since, and the Catholic worldview of my childhood has been thoroughly supplanted by one of naturalistic pantheism, which thus far has proved highly successful in making sense of life as I encounter it.
So that is my understanding of what a worldview is, and what it is for.
One charge Dr Reluctant laid at my door was essentially that of misappropriating the Cartesian cogito ergo sum as a basis for constructing my worldview – the notion that I am able to know I exist, and that I must exist in order to suppose anything further. Now, I would be the first to acknowledge that there are things in Descartes’ philosophy that I reject outright, both in principle and in practice. I don’t, for example, see that there is any use in supposing a distinction between ‘mind stuff’ and ‘body stuff’ – I am not a dualist, for the simple reason that I think dualism fails to account for and explain the integrated experience of human life as a mind dependent upon a physical body. Nor do I think it is legitimate to relegate other animals to the status of mere automata (and I am suitably horrified by the fact that live vivisections of dogs and other small mammals were carried out in Descartes’ time in an effort to ‘demonstrate’ that this was so). Such a notion is not borne out by my experience of interacting with other animals, and as an explanation, it makes absolutely no sense of the observation that my dog’s reactions to the world are far more like mine than they are like those of our robot vacuum cleaner.
Be that as it may, I have no qualms about accepting the cogito as a useful and indeed necessary foundation for proceeding to worldview construction. I am indebted to Godlessons for a clear and concise explanation of why this is so. Unless we suppose that we exist, in some sense, there is really nothing more that we can claim. It seems necessary to accept our own existence as axiomatic, for if we deny it, we are caught in the absurd notion that there’s no-one there to do the denying. What’s more, if in an argument you open the way for denial of your existence, it’s quite a trivial matter for your opponent to accept the denial and dismiss all subsequent discourse with you as a figment of his imagination. Regardless of the sense in which the self exists – whether one understands it as a centre of experience, a subject of a life, a figment of a divine imagination (though presumably one with the capacity to eat, shit, sleep, sweat, shag, bleed, and function in all the ways we habitually associate with living animals) or as the Cartesian thinking agent, acceptance of the self as an extant entity seems essential before any progress can be made.
From here, I now address the accusation that I did not explain how one gets from the existence of the self to the existence of anything else. Strange though it may seem to have to explain such a natural and obvious assumption as that of the existence of a real world, I shall endeavour to do so in order to appease those for whom the only options are extreme scepticism or the Christian god. If we conceive of the self as a centre of experience, what is there to be experienced by the self? It could be nothing. It could be aspects of an elaborate computer simulation. It could be a real, extant, physical world. I’m sure there are other possibilities, but these will suffice for the time being. I think it’s quite easy to discount the ‘nothing’. There are things that impose upon my self that are not part of my self. My senses detect things that are not accounted for by any conscious act of will on my part. And these things have effects upon my senses that I cannot manipulate by simply considering the possibility that it could be otherwise. If I put my hand into a fire, thinking that the fire is not really there, or all in my head, will not stop my hand from burning. If I break a limb, I cannot undo the damage by thinking it never really happened. If I am diagnosed with cancer, imagining that there is no tumour in my body will not give me any comfort or be any use in treating the disease. So, having discounted the ‘nothing’, I am left with the possibility of elaborate simulation or material reality. Given the current state of human knowledge, it seems that either of these possibilities will suffice to explain our experiences. It may be that at some point we will discover a form of experience that is left unaccounted for by one or even both of these scenarios, at which point we will be required to revise our thinking accordingly. Personally, I find that employing the principle of parsimony makes material reality a simpler explanation than a computer simulation, although others may disagree. In any case, I don’t see that assuming one or the other will have any substantial effect upon my behaviour – it is enough that my experiences seem to me to be of a real world, whether I want them to be or not.
Given this, it seems idle to deny that we are beings of physical substance, subject to the imposition of other entities that exist independently of us. Discounting the impact on the self of what seem to be real, visceral, messy, physical experiences does not appear to gain us any ground in the project of constructing understanding and meaning. Am I justified in believing that I have a real physical existence within a real physical world? I am if it makes sense of my experiences, and in this such a belief is manifestly successful. It serves to explain a plethora of observations, encounters, feelings and actions that are, I think, less adequately explained by alternative constructions. If I deny my existence, there is no-one to have experiences and construct worldviews; if I am not a centre of experience, or if there is nothing to experience, then there is nothing from which I can construct worldviews.
But what about so-called ‘immaterial’ entities? At this point it becomes necessary to ask what is meant by an immaterial entity, and the answer usually turns out to be things like minds, thoughts, emotions, concepts and abstractions – all of which, so far as can be established, exist upon substrata of physical matter and energy. Our experiential awareness of these things leads some people to suppose that it is possible for a being of pure immateriality to exist, and this is what god is often claimed to be. Indeed, the belief that god is immaterial certainly goes a long way towards explaining why we have no physical evidence for its existence. But that’s really where it stops. If the immateriality is granted, what more then can be established about the nature of god, if indeed such a nebulous being can even be said to have anything as defined and delimited as a ‘nature’?
Godlessons writes, with admirable clarity and simplicity,
God, on the other hand, is not physical. He is immaterial. His thought processes happen in nothing. No movement takes place, because there is nothing to move. No reactions take place because there is nothing to react. He can’t speak because speech needs vibration, and there is nothing to vibrate. Material things are also necessary for space to exist, otherwise there is nothing to measure the distance between. This means God would have to exist in not merely an infinitely small area, he must exist in no area, and at no place. Another word for no place is nowhere. Another way of saying something takes up no area is to say that it is nothing or nonexistent. This means God is nothing or nonexistent and nowhere.
Even if we allow for the possibility that a being of pure immateriality could have existence, that is not an end to the problems of Christian presuppositionalism. Assuming a god exists in its own right, it is part of the category of things that are not one’s self, and is therefore subject to detection by the centre of experience that is the self, and is furthermore something that must be accounted for and made sense of by one’s worldview. Indeed, because the existence of the Christian god, and the implications thereof, are highly incompatible with many other seemingly real things – actions that we classify as evil, natural events that cause immense suffering, evidence for evolution, the apparent necessity of a functioning brain to the existence of a mind, and the obvious impotence and imperceptibility of ‘immaterial’ entities – the only way to maintain belief that this god-concept represents an actual, extant entity is to deny a sizeable chunk of everything else we experience as real. As such, I would say that god, far from being a presupposition or an axiom or a necessary condition for anything, is merely an extraneous supposition, at best surplus to requirements, at worst downright counterproductive if our aim is to make sense of our experiences.
Despite all this, it is still claimed that god must exist in order for the world to have any order or ‘meaning’. I was accused of misrepresenting Hume regarding the idea that the universe – matter and energy – may contain the principles of its order within itself. It is true that Hume put those words into the mouth of Philo in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, but the point of bringing up this notion in the first place is to demonstrate that it is not necessary to posit a god just because we observe what we think of as order within the world. It is quite clear that matter and energy are capable of self-organisation. Anyone who has studied chemistry is aware of this. Creationists tend to deny the possibility of self-organisation after a certain level of complexity is reached – especially those who misappropriate information theory in an effort to ‘show’ that highly complex self-replicating molecules such as DNA could not have come from mere natural processes. They can admit that things like crystals and snowflakes and limestone formations in caves could have self-organised, but when it comes to living things, there’s a lot of hand-waving and exclamations of “that just couldn’t have happened with us!” Seems to me like they’re trying to shut the gate after the horse has bolted. In any case, it is enough for undermining the claim of a god’s necessity to introduce the possibility that certain things, like living organisms, could happen without one – and this is what Hume was doing in the Dialogues.
It is claimed that god allows us to make sense of the world, by having made the world according to principles that we can comprehend. It is likewise claimed that belief in god is what gives life meaning. This seems to be separating two related processes by which we operate as humans. We can make sense of the world because we evolved to be able to make sense of it. Meaning is not something that exists in nature, but something we construct from it. A mind is an evolved tool for constructing worldviews, for building meaning from sensory experience, for connecting observations into coherent, holistic pictures of the world. Meaning does not precede the fact of our existence as meaning-makers.
It seems to be a criticism levelled by presuppositionalists that an atheistic worldview cannot ‘justify’ holding any beliefs, cannot ‘prove’ anything and cannot lead to absolute truth. I would be inclined to agree, but then I don’t think that these things are required of a worldview. Its job is to make sense of experience. To do this, it must be flexible, able to admit of error and be subjected to revision, as mine was. It is claimed as a strength of the Christian presuppositionalist worldview that it is correct and provides the only valid accounting for our experience of life in the world. But this claim depends for its truth upon the real existence of the Christian god as something other than a concept in the minds of believers, and as I have demonstrated, this proposition is highly questionable. What is more, an insistence upon correctness and a refusal to acknowledge alternatives is not a strength but a weakness – a worldview that relies upon ancient texts and the otherwise undemonstrable existence of an immaterial god in order to construct meaning and make sense of experience is in danger of calcifying into immobility and irrelevance.
In this second part of my post, I shall respond to a few specific claims from Dr Reluctant, and endeavour to elucidate what he thinks should be impossible absent belief in Biblical revelation – a workable epistemology.
Unless the Bible’s testimony is believed, all claims of truth hang in mid-air.
It is the case that the knowledge claims we make are in general tentative, subject to revision in light of new evidence. It is even possible to make a knowledge claim – a statement of observed facts – without necessarily knowing why we have observed those particular facts. Knowledge, as I indicated in part 1 of my response, is, I think, best described as a relationship of trust and familiarity between the knower and that which is known. If I were to claim – to use a very simple example – that the chair on which I am sitting is able to bear my weight, I claim this on the basis of my continued experience of sitting on the chair and not falling through it. From this, I can then infer that my friend, being about my size and weight, could sit on my chair and not fall through it. In every relevant sense here, I can then assure my friend that I know the chair will bear her weight.
A presupper would claim that this relationship between knower and that which is known ought to be refracted through the prism of Biblical revelation.
If, like you, one rejects the Bible’s authority, then another ultimate standard (which likewise cannot be judged by subordinate standards) must be in operation. The other standard must then provide a view of reality which comports with what is actually the case.
This seems to me to be taking a step backward. Reality is the standard, and how close we get to understanding and describing reality is measured by the correspondence of our truth claims to what actually exists, according to our experience of the world.
Allow me to explain further. Truth is a measure of the correspondence of a statement to perceived reality. Our window to reality is experience. When I make a truth claim or a knowledge claim, what I am effectively saying is that any other person, faced with the same set of circumstances as myself, will have the same – or as near it as matters – experience as I have had. Thus, to continue my earlier example, if I were to say, “This chair is sound,” what I am effectively saying is that the chair will safely bear the weight of any person of similar dimensions to myself.
Experience is the only means we have of establishing whether or not our truth and knowledge claims reflect reality as it is. The majority of people act this way – in situations that matter to them, they will withhold judgement until they feel confident that their experience, or that of others whom they trust, has given them the information they need. The use of experience to verify what we think to be the case cannot be subordinated to any other method, because experience is the only way we can interact with the world. The humanist maxim, “man is the measure of all things” is not, as may appear to some, an arrogant assertion of superiority over god (many of the early humanists were devout Christians), but an honest acknowledgement that human experience is really all we have to ground any claim of knowledge.
This is not, of course, to say that even if a majority of people believe a claim to be true, that this claim is therefore true – not all the people who choose to believe it will have had the relevant experience to make a judgement. Nor is it to say that because I have personally had a particular experience, that this will automatically be true for all people or reflect a broader pattern of reality. My experience may have been a once-off, or perhaps coloured by unusual circumstances. But the only way I could discover this is through further experience.
To put it simply, the Bible fails the test of experience. Not only are things described in the Bible manifestly absent from real life – resurrection, believers moving mountains, God presenting his back to witnesses – but it also has nothing to say about many of the things we presently experience as real in our daily lives. What’s more, we have ample experience that weighs against the strength of the Bible’s claim to be divine revelation. Inventing and telling stories is one of the most common human propensities. There is nothing in the Bible that substantially distinguishes it from the mythology and folklore of any other culture.
In short, if one agrees with the Scriptural view of God, man and the world, one has at hand the answers to the Big Questions: why am I here? What is life about? Why is there something rather than nothing? Is there any meaning to life? Where am I going? Even, why is there evil in the world and will it always be this way?
As I remarked in a comment on Dr Reluctant’s post, the Biblical paradigm supplies a version of the answers to life’s big questions, but these answers are no more concrete (one I’ve heard often goes something like, “God has a plan for my life, although I don’t know precisely what it is…but he has a plan!”) than answers that may be discerned through other means or other philosophies. As well, the claimed solidity of the Biblical worldview is, I think, fatally undermined by the fact that it raises more questions than it answers.
Amongst the more intractable of these are, What kind of god would create beings with innate curiosity and then punish them for using it? According to Bible believers, the ‘Fall’ is responsible for ushering in all the various evils of the world. But if god is meant to be all-powerful and all-knowing as well as all good, the problem of evil ought to be of pressing concern to those who believe in such a being. Greg Bahnsen, a prominent presuppositional apologist, tried to sweep away the problem by claiming that god has a “morally sufficient reason” for allowing evil – though what that reason could possibly be, neither god nor Bahnsen make any attempt to elucidate.
The usual Christian gambit when dealing with the problem of evil is to blame humans for exercising their free will to reject god. But this notion is highly problematic in itself. If god created humans with a flawed nature, in full knowledge of the consequences and despite presumably having all the options available to an omnipotent being, then god is responsible for everything that happens as a result of his creations acting according to the nature with which they were endowed. But if, on the other hand, god created humans to be good – since, according to many believers, god cannot act against his own nature by producing flawed creations – and they defied him of their own volition, does it not strike you as decidedly odd that a being supposedly constrained by its own nature should create beings that were unconstrained by theirs? Would that not mean that the first humans were, in a sense, more powerful than god?
Does the universe “contain the principles of its [own] order”? Are you asserting that the universe is ultimately rational, then?
It seems that here you are conflating reason with what we reason about. The fact that we are able to make sense of the world in which we live is a product of our direct relationship with it. It strikes me as all backwards to claim that because we can approach an understanding of the universe, the universe must have been made to align with our reason. Say rather that it is our reason that was born and grew up in this universe, and that it is our response, as natural beings, to the way we perceive nature – including ourselves – behaving. We don’t always get it right, of course; human reason, like many natural systems, is an ongoing process of trial and error. In any case, it is not at all clear to me that there is any use in proposing that reality should be radically different to what we find through our sensory perception. If, as I suppose as a naturalist, we are products of natural processes, it seems extremely odd that these would ultimately produce beings fundamentally unlike and incompatible with the world of which we are a part.
The Bible teaches an antithesis between believing and unbelieving worldviews, so I am not concerned with what non-Christians think about this approach. If they can produce the necessary preconditions for understanding their unbelieving assertions, let them do it. They haven’t done it yet.
Insofar as they think that any other preconditions are necessary beyond an extant reality and the means to perceive it, neither have the presuppers. They simply assert, on the basis of some very dubious evidence, that their god exists and is the necessary precondition, somehow, for reason, logic and knowledge. So far, none have demonstrated that the god of the Bible has any existence other than as an imaginative construct, although to be fair, they do occasionally borrow from an evidentialist worldview and claim that everything that exists is evidence for their god! This is why, in order to preserve their claims of certain knowledge and their assertions that theirs is the only valid worldview, presuppers tend to hold themselves aloof from engagement in argument, beyond their insistence that it is their opponents who need to come up with the goods.
I don’t deny that I too have presuppositions. What I do claim is that my essential presupposition is the same one that Bible believers must have before they can claim that such a thing as a Bible even exists for them to believe in – this is the assumption that I am part of a real world that exists and with which I can interact in real, consequential ways. This presupposition is borne out by experiences dating all the way back to the time before I was even aware of my own existence. The exercise of human reason requires no further presuppositions – everything else follows from this. Essentially, the presuppositionalist Christian is in the same position as I am, although he refuses to acknowledge it.
The simplicity of the naturalist’s worldview is to draw conclusions on the basis of evidence, not to assume that ultimate conclusions have been preordained and to interpret the world to fit those conclusions – even if this means denying aspects of reality that impress themselves upon our senses. Perhaps the presupper will deny that the naturalist approach could lead to truth. But the truth of any proposition is to be found by experience, not by reference to ancient stories. We might not, by such means, approach what a presupper would consider absolute truth – only practical truth, to be sure; it’s doubtful whether we would have any use for absolute truth, even if we could know we had discovered it.
Before I continue with my response to Dr Reluctant’s presuppositionalism post, I thought it would be as well to address a few issues that offer potential for misunderstanding – lay all my cards on the table, as it were – and also respond to some comments generated both here and at Dr Reluctant’s blog since my previous post.
In this and in my upcoming post, it may be noted that I make much use of pragmatism and empiricism. My suspicion – yet to be confirmed, of course – is that philosophical purists and presuppositionalists alike will pounce on this and claim that I am just cherry-picking from philosophies that appeal to me…and perhaps I am. But the question must then be asked – why do they appeal? On consideration, I would say that they seem to me to reflect what the vast majority of humans naturally do – they base their knowledge and understanding upon experience, and they interpret their experiences such that they arrive at what might be termed functional knowledge – knowledge that enables them to move and act within the world. These philosophies also seem to me to be comfortably compatible with naturalistic pantheism.
So that’s basically the backdrop against which I’ll be addressing the various issues of epistemology raised in this discussion. With that in mind, I now turn to a few specific points raised by Dr Reluctant.
As you may have seen in the comments on my previous post, the claim was made that Roman Catholics are not ‘real’ Christians. I dare say that many Catholics would be quite happy to return the compliment and say that protestant evangelicals are not real Christians, but that’s really neither here nor there. Whenever there is rivalry between ideologies, it’s a safe bet that the “no true Scotsman” gambit will eventually be made. But if we’re seeking clarity in debate, it’s best to define terms simply and precisely. As I said in a comment on my previous post, from an outsider’s perspective, anyone who believes in the divinity of Jesus Christ may accurately be called a Christian, regardless of what else they believe. If you need to heap more complications on top of this basic belief in order to exclude those who don’t hold precisely the same beliefs, and to distance yourself from possible avenues of critique, that strikes me as somewhat of a problem – it certainly smacks of obscurantism.
What follows is my rather lengthy response to a comment from Dr Reluctant, included here to save clogging the comments section on his recent post.
Here you advocate the correspondence theory of truth. That’s all well and good, except I cannot see how you arrive at it through the epistemological channels available to your pantheistic naturalism.
Because it’s the only workable choice available. Experience is our window to reality, and if our communication is to be meaningful, it must describe reality as it is experienced. Naturalism supports the notion that we must have means of relating to and interacting with the rest of the natural world, and that it is by such means that we likewise gain a store of knowledge.
Now if you are “not sure what you mean by something ‘having to be the case’ if our truth claims are to make sense” I seriously question your comprehension of presuppositional apologetics.
For truth claims to make sense, they must be accessible via experience. Many of the truth claims of presuppositionalism are not, unless by experience one means all and only the experience of a literal reading of the Bible. Your assertion was that truth claims must correspond to reality in order to make sense, and I would not argue with that statement, because what is a truth claim other than a statement that corresponds to what is actually the case? My argument is with the implication that we must have a guide to ‘truth’ that supersedes our natural means to access it – that there must be truth that exists in complete defiance of lived experience.
This impression is heightened by my reading of your false description of it on your blog.
What is false about my description? I speak as I find, and what I find is that presuppositionalists use their reading of the bible to mediate their experience of reality. This is from an outsider’s perspective, and again I would say that if it is necessary to complicate the definition of presuppositionalism – or ‘true Christianity’ as you would have it – in order for an outsider to understand exactly what it is, then perhaps it is the case that presuppositionalists are actually attempting to deflect scrutiny rather than clarify their position.
You say, “of course our statements must correspond to reality if they are to be adjudged true, but that does not speak to what the reality in question actually is, only to our ability to discern it.” “Of course”? That sounds like you are taking it for granted!
No, only keeping to the definitions given in the correspondence theory of truth. If statements don’t correspond to reality as it is experienced, they will not be deemed true. This is very simple and obvious.
What you must do is make sense of the correspondence theory of TRUTH from your avowed standpoint – materialistic monism. How come we have the “ability to discern it” if your worldview is correct? My worldview answers that question easily. With respect, I don’t yet see how you’ve even tried to answer it.
That is because you presuppose that it is impossible for complex arrangements of matter and energy, such as brains, to have emergent properties, like thought and self-awareness – and you have no basis for this presupposition other than your weddedness to supernaturalism. To define my worldview as ‘materialist’ is also misleading, since by doing so it is no doubt your intention to accuse me of reductionism, and also point out that concepts and abstractions are immaterial, therefore materialism is by definition an insufficient position. In fact, it is my belief that energy is the fundamental ‘stuff’ of the universe – matter is energy in a different form. We don’t yet know all the possible properties and capabilities of different arrangements of matter and energy, but this is a prompt for further inquiry, not a reason to declare certain things impossible just because we have yet to fully understand them.
IF the alleged computer programmer [in the 'brain in a vat' scenario] included the Bible in his “simulated world” he would be including the only worldview that makes sense among all the other competitors. Hence, he would be the Author of that worldview = the God of Scripture. Ergo he would not be the programmer you envisage.
This only follows if you assume – as you must, from within your worldview – that the veracity of the Bible is obvious and undeniable to any and all who read it. You necessarily (from your perspective) discount the equally valid possibility that if the programmer included the Bible in the simulation for experimental purposes, or just for a laugh, he would not be the God of Scripture that you envisage, despite being the designer of the world as we know it.
Truth-claims are not to be judged by collective experience (or counting noses). In the Christian worldview “truth” is first personal, coming from the nature of the God of Truth. I confess I don’t see how your outlook can deliver up veridical truth at all.
By what means, other than personal experience, are we to approach truth? Although I would certainly agree that mass agreement does not equal truth, when one finds common ground between the experiences of many, there must be a reason for it. I doubt that your worldview exists in a vacuum – do you deny that your reading of the Bible is mediated through your own sensory experience of reading the words on the pages? Do you claim to be infallible in your interpretation, or do you compare your interpretation to other lived experience, or to other people’s interpretation? The simple fact is that you and I both seek to discover what is actually the case. Your search is delimited by what you find in the Bible, mine by the capabilities of human perception.
Your last question again demonstrates you have missed the presuppositionalist challenge. It may be summarized thus: Unless the biblical picture of God, man and the world are presupposed (either via assent or dissent) it is not possible to make final sense of anything.
You continue to assert the necessity of ‘final’ or ‘ultimate’ truth, as if this is first, possible for us to perceive, and second, somehow more important than temporal, functional truth. You presuppose that the universe must have a purpose to its existence, imposed from beyond, but you cannot demonstrate that this is the case. Furthermore, you cannot demonstrate the validity of your worldview simply by refusal to acknowledge any others. You issue a challenge, but the fact that the battle has already been joined completely escapes you.
A person who rejects the biblical worldview ought not to use elements of that worldview to prove their arguments. They should (but cannot) only use arguments which can be validated and supported by their worldview. That is what I’ve been trying to get you to see.
It is ridiculous to talk about elements of common human experience being ‘elements of the Biblical worldview’, as if the latter existed for all time, before the disparate books of the Bible were even composed. Your Biblical paradigm cannot accommodate the weight of the reality it seeks to confine within the scriptural box. Your only avenue is to deny the evidence of your senses – and those of many others – when they are found not to conform to the textbook. By contrast, a naturalistic worldview accommodates not only the stories contained in the Bible, taking into account its likely origins, but also all mythologies, all discoveries made by science, indeed all possible human endeavours, and still leaves room for more.
For a while now I have been considering writing a post about Christian presuppositional apologetics and how my encounters with it in online discussions have led me to think about my own approach to epistemology and how my personal belief system hangs together – or, perhaps, as the presuppositionalists would prefer to put it, what it hangs on.
Until very recently, I was unsure how to start such a post, and what approach to take. As it happens, Dr Reluctant gave me just the impetus I needed – by responding to a comment I left on his post about presuppositionalism with a whole new post.
I thought it only right that I should return the compliment, and also attempt to put my case in a post of my own.
“But what’s presuppositional apologetics?” you well may ask. Simply put, a Christian presuppositionalist (hereafter known as a ‘presupper’ for the sake of brevity) adopts the position that all our knowledge and understanding ultimately stems from Biblical revelation. We can be certain of the Bible’s truth as the word of god (because it says so itself) and from there, we can be confident of facts in the world because they comport with the Biblical revelation. They hold that this is so because of “the impossibility of the contrary”, of which more later. In practice – at least in my experience thus far – the presupper’s approach to any discussion with an unbeliever is to repeatedly ask them how they can know anything according to their worldview. All knowledge, all logic, the regularity we find in nature that allows us to conduct scientific investigation – all of these things, so the presupper says, depend upon their god having created the universe just so, according to his own perfect, absolute nature. What does the unbeliever have on which to base any claim of knowledge or understanding?
It’s a frustrating approach to discussion, to say the least – hence my use of the term ‘presuppositionalist stonewalling’ on Dr Reluctant’s blog – but it is a legitimate question – indeed the central question in epistemology is, “how do we know what we know?” Presuppositionalism may be thought of as response to this question, although in my view, it is really just sweeping it under the rug. Through the course of this post, I hope to show why I think so, to provide my answer to the question, and to demonstrate that the ‘contrary’ – or at least an alternative to Christian presuppositionalism – is very far from impossible.
If I were to deconstruct my worldview in the way the presuppers think I should (which, I have observed, they generally don’t do themselves) then it must begin with the axiom of my existence. My self must exist, otherwise I would not be here pondering my existence. Even if I were a brain in a vat, even if nothing I perceived outside of my self was really there, the collection of matter and energy that gives rise to my mind, my self, the entity that I call “I”, must still exist. This is Descartes’ cogito ergo sum, the basis upon which all further knowledge must, of necessity, be built – for what is knowledge, really, but a description of the relationship between the knower and that which is known? This is, I think, the first stumbling block for presuppers, whose stated aim is to remove authority from human beings and place it all in the hands and mind of their god. If we break this down in relation to the axiom of existence – “I know I exist because god, who is outside myself, but who I know exists because he told me he exists, knows I exist and told me I exist” – the convoluted nature of presuppositionalism becomes immediately apparent.
Working out from the self, the ‘knower’, the next essential step in building knowledge is for there to be something to be known. Descartes, it seems, having established the axiom of his own existence, went on to blot his copybook by claiming that the existence of god is as readily and certainly perceptible to us as the existence of our selves (although one is tempted to suggest that god must therefore exist in the same realm as the self – in the mind of the knower). In a sense, Descartes’ approach was similar to that of the presuppers, in that he believed it was through god’s revelation that we were able to know anything beyond the self.
A foundational assumption of naturalism – and naturalistic pantheism – is that there exists a real physical world that we perceive with our senses to at least a practical degree of accuracy – such that we can move within the world, interact with it and effect outcomes all in keeping with the way things are, according to our perceptions.
Presuppers suppose that this world is intelligible to us because their god made it to be so. This belief, I think, requires a bit of unpacking, because herein lies what is probably the most significant distinction between theists and atheists (I count myself as the latter with regard to any supernatural deity). The world is a qualitatively different place for me to what it is for Dr Reluctant, for Dan over at Debunking Atheists or for anyone who subscribes to belief in the God of Classical Theism, who made humans, so the story goes, in his image, and made the world we inhabit, essentially to be a proving ground for us so that we can have the chance to spend eternity with god after we die. In their world, consciousness precedes, gives rise to, and shapes all material reality.
But what if material reality gives rise to and shapes consciousness? If we arose from within the material universe, it should not come as a surprise to us that our conscious intelligence evolved to make sense of that very same universe. Perhaps we should not have expected order, patterns and regularity – the very things that make our interaction with and investigation of the world possible – but these are, in fact, what we observe, and these need not be signs of conscious intelligence or deliberate design, but simply the results of natural forces and matter behaving as they characteristically behave under local conditions. The universe, as David Hume eloquently said, can indeed “contain the principles of its order within itself”. We are a result of those same principles of order.
Dr Reluctant challenged me on this assertion of universal self-organisation, by asking if the universe ‘thinks’. A legitimate question, perhaps, to which I tentatively answer no – not if by ‘thinking’ he means any universal act of conscious cogitation. The very question itself seems to me to reflect the kind of belief I outlined above, that conscious intelligence alone can produce order and the appearance of design. However, let us consider thought for a moment. Thought requires a thinking subject and an object for the thought to be about. If you doubt that this is so, just try for a moment to think about nothing – not a void, because that is still something; try to think about no thing at all. I would suggest that the only way to do this is not to think. But of course, we do many things without thinking about doing them. Why should we not credit the universe, of which we are a part, with the same ability?
Indeed, it is precisely because I firmly believe that the universe is impersonal that I can feel confident that my senses perceive reality as it is – there is no-one trying to make me believe, for their own reasons, that things are other than what I experience.
But the Biblical god, as described in scripture and as conceived by believers, is a conscious, self-aware being with his (of course it is male) own will, desire and passions. This is the being they believe made and maintains the world. It does not seem to me that such a being would guarantee order and regularity, nor that it could be implicitly trusted to reveal truth. How would mere mortals, limited, temporal beings such as ourselves, be in any position to know that this god was not deceiving us for reasons of his own?
Some presuppers already claim that their god has a morally sufficient reason for allowing (even causing, if we take the omnipotence and omniscience factors seriously) catastrophic suffering – and, as described in the Bible, ordering acts of genocide – so why would they then suppose that such a god would never have a morally sufficient reason for providing false revelation?
To my mind, at least, an indifferent material universe that behaves in consistent ways because it is its nature to do so is far more trustworthy than the capricious personal god of Biblical testimony. The universe simply is, without plans or purpose, without intention, without any reason other than just to be, and we are a part of its being. It is because I believe this that I think there is a profound and moving truth expressed in the marvellously poetic idea, famously put forth by Christian humanist Pierre Teihlard de Chardin (though weighted somewhat differently as I here apply it), that in giving rise to conscious beings, the universe has become aware of itself.
This is turning out to be a rather more epic post than I had anticipated. I shall leave off here for now and follow up with a post addressing some more specifics of Dr Reluctant’s response.
Not long after I wrote my Natural Wonder post, I had what a religious person might think of as a divine revelation. I am, and have been for a long time – though without fully realising it – a pantheist.
This is not the first of what might be called my religious awakenings. The first was some dozen years ago when, in the middle of a Catholic mass, I realised with sudden clarity that I could no longer accept Christianity.
That marked the beginning of many years of exploration that went through deism, to agnosticism, to atheism – and now to pantheism, which in its modern form, is an entirely different way of understanding life, the universe and everything to that offered by any of the traditional religious faiths.
Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, notoriously described pantheism as “sexed-up atheism“, and in the sense of naturalistic pantheism, that seems to me to be pretty close to the truth. The defining belief of pantheism is that god is all that is – the universe – and the defining assumption of the monistic naturalist (which is what many atheists seem to be these days) is that all that exists is the natural universe. These assumptions make quite cosy bedfellows.
It’s the “sexed-up” part that gives naturalistic pantheism the essence of a religious belief, something that atheism, by itself, cannot have.
Traditional religionists have been known to complain that it is misguided to worship nature – nature is impersonal, and cares not for our individual or even collective wellbeing. Nature, they would say, is not a proper object of devotion.
Certainly it would be futile to engage in anything as contrived as prayer or organised worship when communing with nature. But what about the feelings of gratitude and belonging that are supposed to accompany the practice of religion? Are these to be considered absent from pantheism because its conception of the divine is impersonal?
This reminds me of Richard Dawkins’ comments at the 2010 Global Atheist Convention, in which he remarked that it seems to be a human characteristic to feel gratitude and need to express it. It is a mind-bogglingly amazing thing that we, as individuals, exist, and of course we should be grateful for this fact. But the universe has no need for our gratitude, certainly not that kind of gratitude which is so frequently expressed in the form of hymns and prayers in traditional religions. But there are other ways of expressing gratitude for what we have. Surely, being grateful for one’s life implies that we will enjoy it, and make it the best life we can – along the way, helping others to do the same.
As for a sense of belonging, pantheism has that covered, in a way that no traditional monotheistic religion ever can, at least in my opinion. To my way of thinking, supernatural religions have, at their core, a desire to escape the reality of our natural existence. Even pagan, nature-worshipping religions seem to insist that there is more to reality than what we experience – that the natural world must be somehow supernaturally ‘ensouled’ in order to truly have life.
But whence this desire to look beyond what we find in nature in the quest for purpose and meaning? Is it not arrogant of us to so summarily discard what we know – and everything we have yet to discover – in favour of a fancy that there should be ‘more’?
Humans often express a desire to feel that we are part of something larger than ourselves. But in a very real and immediate sense, we already are. Ultimately, we are made of the very stuff of the universe itself, and the more scientific study reveals of nature, the more profound and deep our connectedness seems.
We humans are a meddlesome bunch. Our evolved brains have found innumerable ways to alter what would otherwise have been the course that natural processes tend to take.
Of course this observation bears an element of absurdity, simply because the human tendency to interfere with our environment is in itself entirely natural – what else could it be? As such, I’m always interested to note that many ethical arguments are based around notions of what is ‘natural’ for humans to do. Not only is this the essence of the naturalistic fallacy, but it also ignores the fact that humans are natural meddlers.
One particular ethical issue that has recently loomed large in my mind is that of reproduction and its attendant behaviours and beliefs. Humans, like all living things today, exist because our ancestors had offspring. The reductionist devil on my shoulder occasionally tells me that the whole point of living is to propagate more life, and even those who take a more philosophical and spiritual approach will often say that life is incomplete without passing one’s genes to the next generation.
Needless to say, the decision to step off the evolutionary treadmill and withhold any genetic contribution to the next generation is one that I cannot take lightly – and also one that I most likely could not make at all were it not for the fact that humans are such compulsive meddlers. It is, of course, one of the great ironies of evolution that it has produced us, the one and only species on earth with the capacity to consciously manipulate our reproductive processes.
But as with so many other things, the fact that we can do this only goes so far when it comes to the question of whether we should.
My angst over this issue is compounded by the fact that I was raised as a Catholic, and the Catholic teaching on sex is very much that it must only be done within marriage and always with reproduction in mind – although it’s okay if you just happen to enjoy yourself in the act of baby-making.
The church’s one concession to the notion of intelligent interference in the reproductive process is NFP – Natural (there’s that word again) Family Planning. Essentially this means that if you don’t want to make a baby at any given time, you abstain from sex during the woman’s fertile days. Interestingly, this is taken to be qualitatively different from the use of artificial contraceptives, because the church teaches that every sexual act must be “open to life”. Presumably this means that God can elect to create a baby even when the couple doesn’t want one, even if their sexual intercourse takes place during a non-fertile time…but not, it appears, if you actively put something in his way. This puts me in mind of Bertrand Russell’s comments regarding medieval nuns who bathed in their underclothes in order to thwart the gaze of God, who could apparently see through convent walls but not through linen.
So, with all this paranoia about sex pervading my childhood brain, is it any wonder that I still occasionally question whether I have any right to enjoy sex with my husband when we have no intention of having children? According to Catholic theology, we have a “contraceptive mentality” and are only using each other for our selfish pleasures, our couplings no “better” than mutual masturbation. Sex, so says the catechism, must be potentially procreative if it is to be at all unitive.
With all due respect to church fathers, this is utter bollocks. Such a teaching could only come from those for whom sexuality is something to be feared rather than enjoyed, those who either have little or no experience of sex, or who themselves use it as a means of selfish gratification, regarding their partner as an object rather than a person. What’s more, I really fail to see how valuing one’s partner primarily as a potential parent is any less objectifying than valuing them as a source of pleasure – it still treats the person as a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves, perhaps even more so. Some might argue that in order to value the whole person, one must take parenthood potential into account – something that my husband and I have indeed done, and consequently we both respect each other’s wishes with regard to our reproductive capacity.
So much for the religiously imparted notions that for me, as an unbeliever, carry little if any objective moral weight. What of the fact that human sexuality is thought to have evolved primarily as a means for creating tight social bonds which in turn were a means of assuring the survival of offspring who were vulnerable for an extended period? The fact that so much of what allows us to enjoy life is a result of adaptations to ensure continued reproduction? Isn’t it disrespectful to my ancestors to enjoy the benefits of my evolved human nature without passing it on to subsequent generations? Shouldn’t there be some kind of trade-off?
It’s a superficially convincing argument, but with a little unpacking, it degenerates into arrant nonsense. In the first place, evolution, as a mindless natural process, imposes no moral rules by which we ought to live. As it is, I represent merely one tiny branch of my ancestors’ progeny, and my decision as to whether or not to procreate is hardly going to halt the development of the human race. Given present conditions, with the human population of the world approaching 7 billion, there is a very good case to be made that choosing not to reproduce might actually benefit the species – to say nothing of any moral obligations we may have to other life on our planet.
But what about sex? Am I not just trying to get something for nothing by enjoying the evolved benefits of human sexuality without continuing the process by which it came about? And even if I am, why should this be cause for concern? Personally, I have found that embracing my sexuality has made me a more balanced, caring and less judgemental person, so it could also be argued that I am simply endeavouring to become the best person I feel I can be – and giving pleasure to others in the process, so the benefit is hardly one-sided. Evolution imparts no moral obligations, only innate proclivities – proclivities I did not choose, but which there is demonstrable harm either in repressing or overindulging. The Epicurean in me seeks a pleasantly balanced life, and sex is just one part of that.
Perhaps, as many would suggest, in foregoing procreation I am denying myself a wonderful experience. That may well be the case, and I don’t presume to judge those who want to have children – that is for them to decide. I cannot find it in myself to regret that I don’t yet have children and probably never will have them – much as I find it difficult to regret never having performed life-saving heart surgery, also undoubtedly a wonderful experience. If I am to have regrets, it is better that they fall solely upon me – it would be much worse to regret having children.
There are of course many other angles and aspects to the debate over whether one ought or ought not to have children, but ultimately, all these considerations lead me back to the simple fact that I have never felt any desire to have children of my own. If that is as natural, in its way, as anything else about me, is it really something I should ignore or attempt to override?