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Friday, January 21, 2011

Prior Prejudices and the Argument from Reason

Dangerous Idea

I find the argument from reason (hereafter known as the AFR) by C. S. Lewis & elaborated further by Victor Reppert to be unconvincing and inconclusive. Philosophic assertions and counter assertions consist of drawing lines where each philosopher thinks they ought to be drawn, based on a variety of factors, but neither philosopher focuses on the same factors, nor finds them equally relevant. Hence the disagreements.

For instance, naturalists concentrate on what they can discover experimentally about the nature of consciousness and cognitive processing. We are not always conscious. And most of our bodily movements, as well as our juggling of thoughts when arguing, resemble reflexes that do not require much effort once they have been repeated long enough and integrated into the brain-mind.

I have a previous piece that questions C. S. Lewisʼs AFR, and a piece that mentions Evangelical Christian philosophers who do not support brain-mind substance dualism but instead support brain-mind monism. But below I want to discuss differences of focus, prior prejudices or assertions that may explain why philosophers continue to disagree concerning the AFR.

  1. Atoms cannot think.

  2. Atoms cannot think logically nor rationally.

  3. There can be no guarantee of correspondence between what a brain made of atoms “thinks,” and the world “out there.”

Victor Reppert

Concerning 1) Atoms cannot think.

Agreed, an individual atom does not appear to be able to think. Nor has the question been answered how consciousness exists inside the conglomeration of atoms known as the human brain. Naturalists admit it is a great question, a mystery. But they also know that the brain is unlike any other organ, it is especially active, electro-chemically speaking, even magnetically speaking. Naturalists also know that the same atoms found in a rock, if arranged in a different fashion, make up a computer. So naturalists are aware that differing arrangements of atoms can produce different things. And that inspires naturalists to continue to learn more about the brain and its electro-chemical system and 100 trillion connections in an attempt to solve such a mystery. After all, if the brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldnʼt.

Naturalists point out that both the brain and the sense organs attached to it are made of atoms. And the senses take in data that is stored in the brain. We see, hear, smell, taste and touch the human-sized world around us. Atoms are at the bottom of everything we sense, but we live at the top of things and neither the bottom nor the top need be an illusion. The top is just as real, in fact itʼs more real for us than the bottom of things. The top is what we sense, what our brain-minds process, analyze, compare and interact with, and that information is stored in the brain, which remains active (waves of electrical activity passing through it) even while we are at rest or asleep. What is it doing both day and night? Presumably itʼs processing, arranging, filing things away, both cementing and loosening memories and learned behaviors, basically, recreating the world, or a facsimile of the world, inside itself, and running that facsimile in a perpetual loop subject to both external and internal feedback, a process that we are not aware of consciously.

A naturalist thinks there is enough input from the world and other people and even from inner dialogues to keep the process of “thinking” running, and leading naturally from each thought in our life to the next. So there is no separate “decision” made by us to “think,” we are continually doing it, we move from thoughts about breakfast to the meaning of life. Sometimes when weʼre in the middle of one thought, deeply concentrating up on it, another pops up or slowly intrudes that is entirely different. Itʼs a perpetual process.

When we “think,” our memories, and the discrete sights, sounds, smells that went with them, including othersʼ descriptions of their experiences in books weʼve read, all come into play. A naturalist imagines that the brainʼs electro-chemical impulses, revolving perpetually through the brainʼs different regions, pick up relevant bits from different portions, unconsciously. There are approximately 100 trillion neuronal connections with electro-chemical impulses passing through many parts of the brain at the same time. Scientists have recently detected specific points or nodes in the brain where data is more focused in its flow, like major communication hubs of the internet. Some circuits are presumably more well traveled than others — the circuits that presumably make greater sense out of the world.

Naturalists donʼt deny that the process of consciousness and thinking remains a mystery. Advances have been in the investigation of memory formation, along with advances in brain mapping that allow the study of unique fractures in consciousness that occur during seizures … showing that it may be possible to differentiate consciousness into functional components, rather than assuming it is an indivisible quality of mind. We are also learning more about the brain-mindʼs experience of emotions, and their importance (emotions have been discovered to play a crucial role in impelling concentration — people with damage to their brains that impairs their emotions no longer “want” do anything, let alone ponder long trains of thought). According to Richard Restak, neuroscience experiments have taught us more in the last decade than in the previous hundreds of years about topics like the brain and time, simultaneity, cause-effect, empathy, memory, and our mental representations of ourselves and others. Weʼre learning more about the specificity or lack thereof of the brainʼs perceptions, the manner in which it draws basic distinctions, as well as the ways a brain can be fooled, or fools itself, and what types of cognitive biases brains share.

To sum up the naturalistsʼ position (I hope fairly), it seems to them that “we” donʼt move thoughts around in our heads. The perpetual movement of thoughts inside the brain-mind system is what constitutes “us.” Another way of putting it is that we donʼt have thoughts, nor do thoughts have us, instead we are thinking and consciousness personified. We are the process, the process is us.

To help me envision thinking as a natural process I sometimes toy with a particular analogy, that of the brain-mind sorting out discrete bits of data into broader patterns in a manner akin to a Pachinko gaming machine, but I only use the analogy in the broadest sense and this is not meant to explain how thoughts are stored in matter but merely to illustrate the way a simple arrangement of balls, pins and gravity leads to different patterns. Below is an image of such a machine:


Metal balls descend from the top of the machine and the balls bounce left or right after striking each pin on the way down. Sometimes a ball will bounce left and then right alternately all the way down to the bottom, winding up directly beneath the place from which it first entered the Pachinko maze. At other times a ball can wind up far from where it first entered, by bouncing right, right, right, or, left, left, left. When many balls are released a pattern emerges at the bottom in which some balls can be piled in a tall vertical stack, with less tall stacks to the right or left and no balls in other places. But eventually all the balls exit the maze in different patterns each time one plays the game. The analogy Iʼm drawing is with a process of “settling over a complex terrain.” The brainʼs structure with its 100 trillion inter-neural connections, is a complex terrain, one that started to form with oneʼs earliest experiences. In fact the brain of a baby begins with far more neurons than it will require to function later in life, and it soon begins to loose them at a high rate as the baby starts to make sense of the world. Some neurons are used more than others, oneʼs that make sense of the world via continual feedback from the world. The neurons that are not used to make sense of the world begin to wither away. If this did not happen, then we wouldnʼt have trains of thought, weʼd have too many junctions for our electro-chemical impulses to keep crossing over in too many directions, and weʼd never make sense of anything. It seems that spaces need to develop, separate trackways form, so only with the death of vast numbers of neurons will the most well used tracks appear so the baby begins to make increasing sense out of the world. At least thatʼs one theory Iʼve heard that explains the large numbers of neurons lost by children after birth. After that process of “whittling down neurons” one is left with a complex terrain that more closely fits reality, the world. The brainʼs electro-chemical impulses might be considered “the balls” bouncing round that complex terrain at the speed of electricity, and settling out into different patterns based on the complexity of the terrain.

A pertinent quotation before I end comment 1):

I have a problem with the “C” word (i.e. consciousness), because no-one ever defines what it means. Those who do define it do so using other pieces of undefined terminology, and when you ask for definitions you find that they are circular. We all have a personal experience of something that we have agreed to call “consciousness”, but this gives us only the illusion that we know what we are talking about.

My own (unoriginal) view is that “consciousness” is an emergent property of a large network of interacting neurons. The network observes itself, because each part of the network interacts with other parts of the network, so the various parts of the network create a “virtual reality” for each other. It is not a big leap to then see how the experience that we call “consciousness” is one and the same as this “virtual reality.” Also, the network is coupled to its external sensors (e.g. eyes, ears, etc), so the networkʼs “virtual reality” is steered around by external inputs.

A corollary is that lots of different types of network can have “consciousness.” (Steve)

Concerning 2) Atoms cannot think logically nor rationally.

True, individually and on a purely atomic level, atoms show no evidence of doing so. A naturalist might add that the only atoms in the cosmos that we know for certain can employ abstract logic and reasoning are those found in the human brain. But those are atoms working in unison, arranged in an order that is indebted to an evolutionary progression of species over time, and which also depend on the cerebral development and sensory input a human baby processes on its way toward adulthood, a baby that must also be raised by other humans. (Without being around humans that speak a language and who themselves are embedded in a culture with a long history of acquiring knowledge that baby might not even learn how to speak, let alone be able to employ abstract logic and reasoning, i.e., if raised instead by dogs, it would probably bark.)

Second, what are logic and reason? Are they things or processes? I suspect that language fools us into thinking that all nouns are objects of some sort, because by naming something we make it appear more static. Writing down words in a book indeed makes them appear more solid and static, but such words mean nothing unless humans are actively processing them, thinking about what they are reading with their mind, making the information in the book come alive.

It takes a human to recognize what makes sense and what doesnʼt. Humans generalized and eventually summarized what they discovered and named it, “the laws of logic.” But humans didnʼt stop there, Aristotleʼs basic rules are no longer all there is to logic. Today thereʼs fascinating discussions concerning the nature of logic, non-classical logic, logical pluralism, paradoxes, vagueness, contradiction, questions concerning liars and heaps, new essays on the a priori, the origins of reason, the origins of objectivity, epistemological problems of knowing, empty names, shadows, holes, the law of noncontradiction, transconsistency, as well as discussions of learning, development and conceptual changes. Click on the words highlighted in this sentence for book lists concerning such topics as the philosophy of logic, philosophy of language, philosophy of mathematics, and philosophy of mind.

How mysterious is it for a brain-mind to come up with something that it calls “logical distinctions?” Is it a mystery that some things resemble (or donʼt resemble) other things? “A equals A,” “A does not equal B,” “A is greater or lesser than B,” and so forth. Such recognitions, illustrated symbolically, are so basic that even the simplest and earliest of electronic computers was capable of running symbolic logic equations. In contrast note that computer programmers have had a devil of a time trying to develop a computer that can sense, recognize and react to similarities and differences in their immediate environment. Animals do far better than computers in the latter respect. Even amoeba can detect, pursue and trap prey, all without a brain. Above the level of amoeba thereʼs the worm Caenorhabditis elegans with only 302 neurons in its brain by which is it able to sense its surroundings and react to them. Join together 100 billion neurons with 100 trillion connections between them and you have a human brain, capable of much, much more.

The human brain can think symbolically, but of course if it couldnʼt we wouldnʼt have language in the first place, let alone logic and math. But logic is self-referential and axiomatic, starting with “A=A” just as math begins with “1=1.” Reality is trickier. And one must experiment, question and juggle ideas to test how they match up, and continue to experiment to discover more. Itʼs an ongoing process, but so is all thought.

Also, apparently due to natural limitations of mind and language, no one system can categorize and catalog all of nature. Librarians recognize such a difficulty whenever someone writes a book that crosses genres or crosses scientific disciplines, or when geographical boarders and names of countries change, along with the many different languages with words unique to them, not to mention the subtle way words may change their common usages or meanings over time. Psychology is like that too, attempting to define peopleʼs behavior patterns using a limited number of terms, but peopleʼs dispositions and motivations lie along a spectrum, making strict categorizations of each personʼs “psychology,” difficult to say the least.

Anyone can form their own system of categorization, but all system require perpetual tweaking, from the Dewey Decimal System of organizing books in a library — to the Library of Congress System — to Googleʼs system of ranking links via algorithms that seek hub sites that link to other hub sites with a similar focus, and comparing number of “hits” at each hub for different words — which provides an analogy for how a neural network functions, and as google continues to refine its algorithms based on the worldʼs search patterns, until perhaps the worldʼs search patterns can provide a simulation of the brainʼs own patterns, I say perhaps.

Some categorization systems are more comprehensive and capable of absorbing new categorizes as they arise or change, while others grown more unwieldy over time as categories continue to multiply and change.

What about the vagueness inherent in words themselves, the fuzziness? Take the word “heap.” If you start with a tiny particle of something, and add another, then another, exactly at what point do all the particles become a heap? At what exact point does a chairʼs width make it no longer a chair but a couch? Or think of the many things upon which one might sit upright, called “chairs,” everything from the standard four legged chair to an amorphous bean bag. There is no divine “chair” in some world of Platonic absolutes. Speaking of fuzziness, if we had the technical ability to replace individual base pairs in the DNA of a chimpanzee, making each of its genes more closely resemble those in the DNA of a human being, after which replacement of which DNA base pair could you now declare the chimpanzee to be a human being? What if one reversed such an experiment, changing a human being into a chimpanzee one DNA based pair at a time?

Lastly, what about mathematical equations? Are they more mysterious than language or logic? Or can they also be understood as human made models of reality as in the previous cases? An analogy may help us decide. Letʼs picture nature as consisting of squiggly lines. We want to understand those lines better. A scientist can not concentrate on all of reality with all its squiggly lines at once. So he concentrates on one squiggly line at a time, tying to isolate that squiggle and then tries to devise a mathematical model that approximates the movement of that line, hoping that such an equation continues to prove useful when he widens the picture in both time and space and reintroduces more of natureʼs other squiggly lines back into the picture, some of which may influence the movement of the original line in ways he canʼt predict. In other words, mathematics is like building models that mimic things we see. But models are not reality in themselves, nor are words equal to things. Nor are maps equal to the territory. Models, words, maps are approximations, the best we have to work with. For a recent book the delves into such questions see, Why Beliefs Matter: Reflections on the Nature of Science by E. Brian Davies, and also this list of books on the history and philosophy of mathematics.

Philosophical world views are models as well, not reality. Thereʼs always some way for a philosopher to add qualifications and hypothetical explanations and maintain their world view in the face of questions. And we each have our own estimates of the worth of othersʼ ideas and experiences, based on our own, along with whatever world view weʼve relied most heavily on in the past that made the most sense to us and which our brain-mind stubbornly maintains rather than switching world views every week. The fact that philosophical world views are all models also reminds me of the words of E. M. Cioran:

The great philosophical systems are actually no more than brilliant tautologies. What advantage is it to know that the nature of being consists in the “will to live,” in the “idea,” or in the whim of God or of Chemistry? A mere proliferation of words, subtle displacements of meanings. “What is” loathes the verbal embrace, and our inmost experience reveals to us nothing beyond the privileged and inexpressible moment. (E. M. Cioran, “Farewell to Philosophy” in A Short History of Decay)

Further reading: “Theismʼs Pyrrhic Victory” in The Southern Journal of Philosophy 40 : 4 (2002) by Paul Jude Naquin, Louisiana State Univ. Naquinʼs paper addresses Plantingaʼs evolutionary argument against naturalism in Warrant and Proper Function. “The goal of this essay is to show that traditional theism suffers from a malady similar to the one that Plantinga claims to find in metaphysical naturalism.”

Comment on 3) There can be no guarantee of correspondence between what a brain made of atoms “thinks,” and the world “out there.”

Well, “guarantees” are difficult to come by in any field of purely philosophical investigation. Joseph Campbell expressed the natural relationship between the human mind and the cosmos in this manner:

We are children of this planet … we have come forth from it. We are its eyes and mind, its seeing and its thinking. And the earth, together with its sun … came forth from a nebula; and that nebula, in turn, from space. No wonder then, if its laws and ours are the same.

Another interesting fellow, Robert Anton Wilson, put things this way:

I donʼt believe anything, but I have many suspicions. I strongly suspect that a world “external to,” or at least independent of, my senses exists in some sense. I also suspect that this world shows signs of intelligent design, and I suspect that such intelligence acts via feedback from all parts to all parts and without centralized sovereignty, like Internet; and that it does not function hierarchically, in the style an Oriental despotism, an American corporation or Christian theology. I somewhat suspect that Theism and Atheism both fail to account for such decentralized intelligence, rich in circular-causal feedback. I more-than-half suspect that all “good” writing, or all prose and poetry that one wants to read more than once, proceeds from a kind of “alteration in consciousness,” i.e., a kind of controlled schizophrenia. [Donʼt become alarmed — I think good acting comes from the same place.] I sometimes suspect that what Blake called Poetic Imagination expresses this exact thought in the language of his age, and that visits by “angels” and “gods” states it an even more archaic argot. These suspicions have grown over 72 years, but as a rather slow and stupid fellow I do not have the chutzpah to proclaim any of them as certitudes. Give me another 72 years and maybe Iʼll arrive at firmer conclusions.

Consider this essay my own personal experiment in philosophy, subject to revision of course.

It is truly extravagant to define God, angels, and minds…when we do not know why we move our arms at will. Doubt is not a very agreeable state, but certainty is a ridiculous one. (Voltaire)

I wonder how will people react if it should be proven that the brain-mind is a sort of “machine?” Some will be crestfallen, exclaiming “Weʼre only machines! Woe is us!” But others may react differently, exclaiming, “Fascinating! I never knew machines could do that!”

— (E.T.B., paraphrasing Raymond Smullyan)

On the Mindʼs Imperfections and Other Tell Tale Signs that Thinking is a Function of the Natural World as Illustrated by Excerpts from the Works of Logan Pearsall Smith.

Logan Pearsall Smith

Self Analysis

Arenʼt they odd, the thoughts that float through oneʼs mind for no reason? But why not be frank? I suppose the best of us are shocked at times by the things we find ourselves thinking.


But how is one to keep free from those mental microbes that worm-eat peopleʼs brains—those Theories and Diets and Enthusiasms and infectious Doctrines that we catch from what seem the most innocuous contacts? People go about laden with germs; they breath creeds and convictions on you as soon as they open their mouths. Books and newspapers are simply creeping with them—the monthly Reviews seem to have room for little else. Wherewithal then shall a young man cleanse his way; how shall he keep his mind immune to Theosophical speculations, and novel schemes of Salvation? Can he ever be sure that he wonʼt be suddenly struck down by the fever of Funeral or of Spelling Reform, or take to his bed with a new Sex Theory?


‘I must really improve my mind,’ I tell myself, and once more begin to patch and repair that crazy structure. So I toil and toil on at the vain task of edification, though the wind tears off the tiles, the floors give way, the ceilings fall, strange birds build untidy nests in the rafters, and owls hoot and laugh in the tumbling chimneys.

Smithʼs remarks on Edification remind me of this quotation from a young and up and coming philosopher:

“I will begin with two ordinary cases of weakness of will. First, a case of akrasia (the state of acting against oneʼs better judgment) at bedtime. I am watching television and I realize that it is 2 a.m. I am tired, and I know that I really should go to bed. Tomorrow morning the Formal Epistemology Workshop begins, and I would like to attend as much of it as possible so I can learn something about formal epistemology. But the witty dialogue of the Buffy rerun and the winsome smile of the redheaded supporting actress have their grip, and even as I tell myself that I really should go to sleep, I stay where I am and keep watching television for another hour.” — Neil Sinhababu, “The Humean Theory of Motivation Reformulated and Defended,” Philosophical Review 118.4 (2009), pp. 498-99)

The Goat

In the midst of my anecdote a sudden misgiving chilled me—had I told about this Goat before? And then as I talked there gaped upon me—abyss opening beneath abyss—a darker speculation: when goats are mentioned, do I automatically and always tell this story about the Goat at Portsmouth?


These exquisite and absurd fancies of mine—little curiosities, and greedinesses, and impulses to kiss and touch and snatch, and all the vanities and artless desires that nest and sing in my heart like birds in a bush—all these, we are now told, are an inheritance from our prehuman past, and were hatched long ago in very ancient swamps and forests. But what of that? I like to share in the dumb delights of birds and animals, to feel my life drawing its sap from roots deep in the soil of Nature. I am proud of those bright-eyed, furry, four-footed or scaly progenitors, and not at all ashamed of my cousins, the Apes and Peacocks and streaked Tigers.


‘But when you are as old as I am!’ I said to the young lady.

‘But I donʼt know how old you are,’ the young lady answered almost archly. We were getting on quite nice.

‘Oh, Iʼm endlessly old; my memory goes back almost for ever. I come out of the Middle Ages. I am the primitive savage we are all descended from; I believe in Devil-worship and the power of the Stars; I dance under the new Moon, naked and tattooed and holy. I am a Cave-dweller, a contemporary of Mastodons and Mammoths; I am Pleistocene and Eolithic, and full of the lusts and terrors of the great pre-glacial forests. But thatʼs nothing; I am millions of years older; I am an arboreal Ape, and aged Baboon, with all its instincts; I am a pre-simian quadruped, I have great claws, eyes that see in the dark, and a long prehensile tail.’

‘Good gracious!’ said the terrified young lady. Then she turned away and talked in a hushed voice with her other neighbor.


When, now then then, on a calm night I look up at the Stars, I reflect on the wonders of Creation, the unimportance of this Plant, and the possible existence of other worlds like ours. Sometimes the self-poised and passionless shining of those serene orbs is what I think of; sometimes Kantʼs phrase comes into my mind about the majesty of the Starry Heavens and the Moral Law; or I remember Xenophanes gazing up at the broad firmament, and crying, ‘The All is One!’ and thus, in that sublime assertion, enunciating for the first time the great doctrine of the Unity of Being.

But these thoughts are not my thoughts; they eddy though my mind like scraps of old paper, or withered leaves in the wind. What I really feel is the survival of a much more primitive mood—a view of the world that dates from before the invention of language. It has never been put into literature; no poet has sung of it, no historian of human thought has so much as alluded to it; astronomers in their glazed observatories, with their eyes glued to the ends of telescopes, seem to have had no notion of it.

But sometimes, far off at night, I have heard a dog howling at the Moon.


But oh, those heavenly moments when I feel this three-dimensional universe too narrow to contain my Attributes; when a sense of the divine Ipseity invades me; when I know that my voice is the voice of Truth, and my umbrella Godʼs umbrella!

Last Words

I got up with Stoic fortitude of mind in the cold this morning: but afterwards, in my hot bath, I joined the school of Epicurus. I was a Materialist at breakfast; after that an Idealist; and as I smoked my first cigarette I transcendentally turned the world to vapor. But when I began to read The Times I had no doubt of an externally existing world.

So all the morning and all the afternoon opinions kept flowing into and out of my mind; till by the time the enormous day was over, it had been filled by most of the widely-known Theories of Existence, and emptied of them.

This long speculation of life, this syllogizing that always goes on inside me, this running over and over of hypothesis and surmise and supposition—one day this infinite Argument will have ended, the debate will be for ever over, I shall have come to an indisputable conclusion, and my brain will be at rest.

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