Friday, January 21, 2011

Prior Prejudices and the Argument from Reason

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.”

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.

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.

Comment using Facebook


When blogs were switched to https past comments no longer appear on Disqus, but can be located by toggling “Google Comments”.

Best when viewed in mobile versions

Comment With Your Choice


  1. Thank you for writing this piece. It was very interesting to me and enjoyable to read (even if I didn't comprehend much of it).

    I would have liked, however, if you had expounded more on your response to:

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

    I don't see the point of that statement at all. Does it mean that there is no possibility for certainty?

    Your final paragraph seems to echo such a conclusion -- perhaps the Argument will be at rest when you finally make a choice of philosophy (is this Existentialism)? ;)

  2. Hi Dave,

    Glad you found the piece interesting. I'll try to explain it further and answer your questions below. Perhaps I should rewrite portions of it.

    It was about prior prejudices related to the AFR. The AFR assumes that individual atoms can never become "minds" (I agree, not individually) and minds can never become logical nor rational if they are composed of atoms because individual atoms move only in relation to atomic forces on them, they are not guided by any such things as "truth." In effect the AFR excludes everything happening between the atomic realm at the bottom and the realm of brain-minds at the top. Naturalists agree that atoms do not "think" and do not move in relation to such concepts as "truth." But naturalists study the entire spectrum from atoms at the bottom to brain-minds at the top, including evolutionary history and developmental history, and human cultural history, and think that the concept and understanding of "truth" arose as a result. They also think that we can discover things aobut the cosmos not in spite of, but because the natural regularities of the cosmos and of our brains are related.

    Naturalists think the AFR a faulty argument because it excludes the middle realm from individual atoms to the human brain-mind. I am claiming that supernaturalists fail to see why the AFR is faulty because supernaturalists focus on different factors than naturalists. To a naturalist "truth" is a word humans came up with by first noting basic similarities and differences between things and trying to discover what's real, but discovering what's real is often no easy task, and humans it seems are always trying to invent the best model approximating reality, not quite the same thing as absolute truth or absolute reality.

    Personally, I think it's possible to think about several philosophical systems or models without having to commit to one or the other. There may also be systems or models lying mid-way between others. And words, as well as human knowledge, have their limitations.

    There are also supernaturalists of another sort, Christians who agree with the data that suggests the brain-mind is one thing and the mind is not supernatural, they accept that the brain and the mind are not separate substances with the mind stored in a supernatural realm. However, they believe that everyone exists in the mind of God, so everyone can be resurrected at will by God even after they are dead. It's faith.

    I personally don't claim to know much about the afterlife, or how long it lasts. Ghosthunters claim people or parts of their consciousness survive as mere phantoms of their former selves. Universalist Christians claim we will all live for eternity in bliss of some indescribably sort. Buddhists claim there is a soul that is eternal but its memories fade with age and over a period of lifetimes, and that the core of reality is an unchanging soul. To them, everything that changes can never be eternal. Atheists say when you're dead you're dead. While many Christians believe that God is going to damn great numbers of people to eternal torture or madness. But having studied the way brain-minds function and the many natural biases to which it is subject I doubt that any truly fair-minded moral Being would be damning that many people to hell, if any.

  3. Thank you for your response. It made things more clear in my mind.

    But you've also brought up what seems like a sticky problem: What is real? It seems you have to decide between "whatever I experience" and "whatever the most people agree describes what we collectively experience", or go further and have faith in an absolute reality or an absolute truth.

    In any case, I'd like to read your ideas on what a good, functional definition of reality is (not to sidetrack). Does reality require an observer?

  4. Before proceeding any further, let's see if you understand naturalism the way I do. What qualifies a view of the mind as genuinely naturalistic?
    How would you define a genuinely naturalistic view?

    In one sense, you could build the concept of God into one's concept of nature, in which case you could be a theist and a naturalist at the same time.

  5. In other words, I would like to know what naturalism excludes, and why it excludes it.

  6. Hi Dave, The question "what is real?" is what philosophers have been trying to answer since there have been philosphers.

    The question as you point out is also related to "what is real for you, me, us, every sentient species in the cosmos," or even "God."

    On the lower scale away from "God" once could also ask "what is real to the minds of worms, insects, or other animals with tiny brains, or to a hive mind of hive insects like bees or ants, etc."

    A question epistemologists ask is, "What does any of us know, and how can we be sure we know it?" There are different hypotheses concerning what is "truth" and how to best find it.

    But for now just note that we still haven't even crawled off the cradle planet.

    But keep asking questions.

    As to having faith in an absolute reality, one may ask how asbolute, and how real? By which I mean, we have the words, "absolute" and "real," but how do we know such words, except in the sense that some things appear more "real" and more "absolute" to us than other things. But we also know we've been wrong before about things we've claimed to "know" were "real."

    At any rate, knowing what I currently know, I am certain that threats of eternal punishment for people who don't beliveve the right religious creed makes very little sense, i.e., not if God knows humanity's in-built biases and even a bias toward certainty, and also knows the circumstances of living on this planet of the apes, a planet of limited lifetimes, limited time for study, limited knowledge, miscommunications, as well as suffering for no apparent reason.

    Also, threats of hell have traditionally been used to threaten people with differing religious beliefs, one denomination or sect against another, one divine biblical or Koranic interpretation versus another. Threats of hell make a mockery of the very search for knowledge, and instead serve to frighten people into splitting with others and fear leaving their particular religion, denomination, sect or fold.

    The philosopher Victor Reppert, proponent of the Argument from Reason, of course cannot abandon threats of hell because "Jesus said it, I believe it." But Jesus lived during an age of apocalyptic religious ideas, including threats of hell. But Victor might retort that biblical writings are beyond question, and true for all time. Fine, if you believe it. I don't. I'm not sure even Vic believes it. And I certaily don't believe in any God that believes such a thing, on par with believing in a God of jealousy, wrath, rage, of eternal magnitude who probably couldn't design a slippery little quanta of energy without growing somewhat perturbed and blowing things to smithereens and having to start over again and again.

  7. Victor, Thanks for contributing.
    You asked:

    "What qualifies a view of the mind as genuinely naturalistic? How would you define a genuinely naturalistic view? What does naturalism exclude, and why does it exclude it?"

    In effect you want to know what "naturalism" is or what I think of it. But my argument concerning prejudcies doesn't appear to me to rely on attempting to nail down broad philosophical categories. In fact I mentioned how flexible world views are. That's why I spoke about different focuses and different prejudices.

    The word "naturalism" only appears in the title of a paper I cited that someone composed in response to something Plantinga wrote.

    I only spoke about "nature" not naturalism. I mentioned for the sake of an analogy that "nature" appeared to consist of squiggly lines.

    But I'll go further, let me say that based on what I've read, "nature" appears to consist of whatever scientists have currently discovered about everything from the "trails that sub-atomic particles leave behind when smashed together"--to the ways galaxies behave, and the electro-magnetic spectrum of known energies plus gravity. That's what scientists currently claim to know about "nature" with some confidence. So call me a pragmatist, a questioner. And I think most of humanity would be better off if we acknowledged our questions and lack of knowledge in areas where we obviously do lack knowledge. Even those of us who are certain we've seen or heard divine beings or ghosts or had NDEs should note that such stories and experiences are not the norm. So we need not go about damning to hell those who have not had such experiences, or even promoting fear of eternal hell, which makes little sense to me. (See my above response to Dave in which I mention hell.)

    Speaking of studying "nature" . . . The human brain is currently being investigated on ever finer levels via more refined instruments, along with complexity theory and other theories being applied to such research, as well as the conscious mind being investigated via cognitive science experiments that discover the biases and behavior patterns we share.

    You also asserted, "You could build the concept of God into one's concept of nature, in which case you could be a theist and a naturalist at the same time."

    You mean a theistic evolutionist? Yes, certainly. You could even be a Christian theistic evoluionist. Though the latter involves interpretating divine written revelation and its narrative about God in light of Greek philosophical ideas about an infinite Being, and that's guarrenteed to keep one busy.
    There are a number of different Christian theologies and philosophies out there that each attempt to do so each in their own way. And there's always the questions provoked by the hiddennes of God, the problem of pain, uncertainty, miscommunication, and misinterpretations.

    Let alone the question of how we all "fell" in some eternally obnoxious way via "our father Adam" (a society of upright hominids).

  8. I like epistemology.

    You say: "But we also know we've been wrong before about things we've claimed to 'know' were 'real.'"

    But in this case, I don't think anything experienced is unreal -- it's just not as absolutely real.

    I agree that threats of eternal punishment don't make sense, but I think Hell is probably real. I think if it can be real, it is. Hell, however, is likely quite flimsy and far from absolute reality -- more of a bad dream, self-inflicted, rather than divine judgement. In the very least, my imagining of Hell must register somehow in the firing of neurons and the such, and in that way, is made real, but, again, very far from an absolute reality.

    I apologize if I'm being too fancifully imaginative -- and I admit, I like to believe what I believe simply because I like it. But I do like to reason as well.

    I think naturalists are right -- but you can reduce a masterpiece painting into paint, pigments, elements, atoms -- with perfect exactness. Knowing the most intimate details, however, doesn't help much toward a holistic description of the Art.

  9. VIC: "I would like to know what naturalism excludes, and why it excludes it."

    ED's response: I noticed you had nothing to add to my response, but let me add a further response to your question above, namely this, your question is prejudging the argument--you are assuming that we CAN know what nature can or can't do, and so you are assuming we can conclude that matter and mind have so little to do with each other that your "argument from reason" is assured of an answer before it even begins. (And without any experimental investigation, now or forevermore.)

    That's why I discussed prior prejudices in my blog piece, and that's why it's been apparent to me since the first time I looked at Lewis's argument and your own version that you fail to see them as prior prejudices at all, but simply assume from your initial definition of nature (and what nature can or can't do) that your argument is true.

    You use the words "mind" and "matter" and already I can tell that in your brain-mind the two are irreconcilable. That is a prior prejudice. They are both words, symbolic words, and words, like symbols, like models, are not things, not reality.

    Language has limitations inherent in language itself, and it is not language by itself that allows us to be aware of those limitations, it is the world around us and our awareness of it that allows us to recognize the limitations inherent in language.

    In my blog I presented the "modeling" idea, that the brain-mind functions by producing models of what it perceives, including the model it builds inside itself of the cosmos, a model that we each build individually, based on our upbringing and what little knowledge we acquire in our finite lifetimes. But models are not the same as what they are attempting to model, including language, maps, mathematics and logic. All of those things involve processes and recognitions that appear to be more basic, i.e., prior to counting to one or two, prior to math, prior to the use of symmbols like A and B in logic. Trying to decipher the environment is what's tricky. (Any computer can solve symbolic logic equations, since they are axiomatic, but recognizing nature, focusing on similarities and differences, experimenting, learning via feedback and experience about one's environment and saving such information and continuing to mold that information into a working model inside our brain-minds, that's what's tricky and prior to the development of both language and logic.) We also make yes or not decisions, as well as maybes, based on what we know about the environment as part of the modeling process, functioning in a way that's analogous to trial and error. There does not appear to be something supernatural that is needed for such a process to occur, even in animal brains without the benefits of language or logic. I also explained that logicizing is a process and writing it down does not prove it is a noun, because the process must be actualized and processed in an active mind to function, and based on prior basic recognitions.

    (response to Vic)

    As for language it is a tool to understanding the world around us and communicating what we think we understand, and as a phenomenon it is both species dependent and culturally dependent. Only humans have language, though many other species get along relatively well without it. And even humans cannot decipher any ancient writing they choose without some prior knowledge of cultural similarities and a language somehow linked to the one that one is trying to decipher.

    What it boils down to is you prejudging along the lines of

    1) We can't understand anything without language, only language can understand language. So the only way we can even know that language is fooling us is via language. And I would reply that our process of knowing the world, of being aware, is more basic than language, language is a tool, a model. And that's how we can discover when language is fooling us, and that maps are not territories, words are not things, and models are not reality.

    2) You also presume that logical inferences are more basic than natural perceptions about things being alike or not. I suspect the latter is nearer the truth and more properly basic.
    Language and logic both appear to be models based on prior perceptions, and based on processes going on constantly inside the brain-mind. We are a languag-cizing and Logi-cizing species is nearer the truth than thinking in terms of langauge and logic purely as nouns, inert things.

    Maybe that's the trouble with your views of "mind" and "matter" as well. The process of matter-energy flowing throughout the brain might better be called, "mentalizing." So rather than speaking of the difference between "mind" and matter," as nouns, think of the sameness between the verbs "mentalizing," and "matter-energy" in flux.

    Your argument, the AFR, appears to be based on prior prejudices and simply begins and ends in the same place once you get someone to accept your prior prejudices.

    So it fails to convince a "naturalist" of anything, nothing at all.

  11. Dear Ed, I found your site from a broken link on FB you did recently. I remember studying this view of the brain-mind issue and it was called "epiphenomenalism" that consciousness and thinking were an epiphenomenon of brain activity. I do consider it a serious candidate for being a valid theory of consciousness. The main thing it has in its favor is that it explains easily what "consciousness and thinking" are affected by brain damage, malnutrition, psychedelic drugs, anti-psychotic prescription drugs, and mental illnesses that can sometimes lift when brain chemistry is balanced. There is definitely a provable interdependence between brain activity and chemistry on one side and what we think and feel on the other side. The implication is that the individual consciousness vanishes when the brain is sufficiently damaged or is destroyed completely (as in a cremation). It is also interesting that an electrode stimulating an exact place in the brain can elicit a specific memory and sometimes even repeat this memory through repeated stimulation.

    I find it interesting how this parallels the views of the Buddha when he talks about the illusory nature of the self, how there is no constant abiding self, and how the experience of self arises interdependently on the five skankhas of consciousness, thought, emotion, sensation, and body. Yet the Buddha mapped something within us that was united with the "unborn, the unchanging, and the undying" that could survive the death of the body. The Buddha did define consciousness, though, and was very empirical about it, talked about how it arose when a sense object contacted a sense organ and produced a sensory experience (sense consciousness, awareness of a sense object via eye, ear, taste buds, finger touch, or nose, etc.). But he went further to define a few other layers of consciousness and felt that they could be discovered through meditation and/or introspection. The deeper layers being able to continue beyond the death of the physical body and all the levels of consciousness being interdependent upon each other in terms of how experience is processed. This larger model would be able to include both how the brain-mind is affected by physical states like drugs and brain damage on one side and could also validate paranormal experiences which something in the individual is able to access things beyond the range of the usual physical senses and out of the body type experiences. I have an article on a 12 consciousness map on both my blog and my websites. The blog is and my website is indexed partly on along with other sites. I would go into them here some, but even the summary would take a fair amount of space. Blessings, Will

  12. In your response to Vic you wrote:

    "In my blog I presented the 'modeling' idea, that the brain-mind functions by producing models of what it perceives, including the model it builds inside itself of the cosmos, a model that we each build individually, based on our upbringing and what little knowledge we acquire in our finite lifetimes. But models are not the same as what they are attempting to model, including language, maps, mathematics and logic."

    I like this paragraph.

    To me, it presents new avenues of speculation. It also reminded me of Tolkien's short story, "Leaf by Niggle", and the "Creation and Sub-Creation" philosophy.

  13. Dave, you wrote, "I think naturalists are right -- but you can reduce a masterpiece painting into paint, pigments, elements, atoms -- with perfect exactness. Knowing the most intimate details, however, doesn't help much toward a holistic description of the Art."

    But the opposite of the reductionism that you describe is emergentism. And there is nothing unnatural about the brain's evolution and the human mind's emergence as a brain-mind phenomenon via evolution. There are also general theistic philosophers as well as Christian philosophers who would agree. They are called brain-mind monists.

    See this article, w/ links

    For instance, what if mental processes are _not_ determined "wholly" by the motion of "individual atoms" in our brains? Would that leave supernaturalism as the only alternative? What if the brain's overall dynamics naturally "took control" of the motions of individual "atoms" within a larger dynamic flow? Or consider the way all the atoms in our bodies are configured very differently than those same atoms in rocks or air and water, and hence, the body's overall dynamic functioning is very different from that of inanimate matter. But that doesn't mean our livers, kidneys and hearts function "supernaturally."

    According to Roger Sperry, psychobiologist and well known philosopher of brain science, "Recall that a molecule in many respects is the master of its inner atoms and electrons. The latter are hauled and forced about in chemical interactions by the over-all configurational properties of the whole molecule. At the same time, if our given molecule is itself part of a single-celled organism such as a paramecium, it in turn is obliged, with all its parts and its partners, to follow along a trail of events in time and space determined largely by the extrinsic over-all dynamics of that paramecium. When it comes to brains, remember that the simpler electric,atomic, molecular, and cellular forces and laws, though still present and operating, have been superseded by the configurational forces of higher-level mechanisms. At the top, in the human brain, these include the powers of perception, cognition, reason, judgment, and the like, the operational, causal effects and forces of which are equally or more potent in brain dynamics than are the outclassed inner chemical forces...

    "We deal instead with a sequence of conscious or subconscious processes that have their own higher laws and dynamics...that move their neuronal details in much the way different program images on a TV receiver determine the pattern of electron flow on the screen...

    "And the molecules of higher living things are... flown... galloped... swung... propelled... mostly by specific holistic, and also mental properties--aims, wants, needs--possessed by the organisms in question. Once evolved, the higher laws and forces exert a downward control over the lower.

    "This does not mean these (higher forces) are supernatural. Those who conceived of vital forces in supernatural terms were just as wrong as those who denied the existence of such forces. In any living of nonliving thing, the spacing and timing of the material elements of which it is composed make all the difference in determining what a thing is.

    "As an example, take a population of copper molecules. You can shape them into a sphere, a pyramid, a long wire, a statue, whatever. All these very different things still reduce to the same material elements, the same identical population of copper molecules. Science has specific laws for the molecules by no such laws for all the differential spacing and timing factors, the nonmaterial pattern or form factors that are crucial in determining what things are and what laws they obey. These nonmaterial space-time components tend to be thrown out and lost in the reduction process as science aims toward ever more elementary levels of explanation."

    One might add that taking simple elements found in rocks and arranging them into just the right configurations can lead to the production of not just another rock, but a computer (perhaps even a "quantum computer" one day).

    Hence, Sperry's naturalism does not appear to pose any "cardinal difficulties" for itself.

    Marvin Minsky, one of the pioneers of computer science, notes in a similar vein, "Even if we understood how each of our billions of brain cells work separately, this would not tell us how the brain works as an agency. The 'laws of thought' depend not only upon the properties of those brain cells, but also on how they are connected. And these connections are established not by the basic, 'general' laws of physics, but by the particular arrangements of the millions of bits of information in our inherited genes. To be sure, 'general' laws apply to everything. But, for that very reason, they can rarely explain anything in particular...

    "It is not a matter of _different_ laws, but of _additional_ kinds of theories and principles that operate at higher levels of organization... Each higher level of description must _add_ to our knowledge about lower levels, rather than replace it."

    And contrary to Lewis' claim that "[Naturalism] leaves no room for the acts of knowing or insight on which the whole value of our thinking depends," cognitive scientists have clearly demonstrated the validity of positing a level of mental representation. They study "perceptual apparatus, mechanisms of learning, problem solving, classification, memory, and rationality... The conjecture about the various vehicles of knowledge: what is a form, an image, a concept, a word; and how do these 'modes of representation' relate to one another... They reflect on language, noting the power and traps entailed in the use of words... Proceeding well beyond armchair speculation, cognitive scientists are fully wedded to the use of empirical methods for testing their theories and hypotheses... Their guiding questions are not just a rehash of the Greek philosophical agenda: new disciplines have arisen; and new questions, like the potential of man-made devices to think, stimulate research.

    "Given the most optimistic scenario for the future of cognitive science, we still cannot reasonably expect an explanation of mind which lays to rest all extant scientific and epistemological problems. Still, I believe that distinct progress has been made on the age-old issues that exercised... Plato, Descartes, Kant, and Darwin." After all, "If the brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn't."

  15. Nice reply :) It's interesting, though I admit I may not have followed your meaning perfectly.

    "But the opposite of the reductionism that you describe is emergentism. And there is nothing unnatural about the brain's evolution and the human mind's emergence as a brain-mind phenomenon via evolution."

    Certainly. Nothing happens that isn't natural to the system in which in manifests, or that can't eventually be explained by natural law. Every painting evolved quite as naturally as did the artist painting it. This is _how_, but it doesn't answer anything else.

    You could assert that there is nothing else to answer, and that's a perfectly reasonable response. I simply _like_ to think otherwise.

    The universe created itself. Its existence is self-sufficient -- I still don't get how that happens. Where do you go from nothing to something, and then something that becomes increasingly complex, with emergent properties, until ... what? A big crunch? All just because?

  16. Hi Dave, I agree one can continue to ask questions. I do myself, which is why I have never called myself an atheist, or a theist. I tend to view the questions as remaining no matter what philosophical or religious labels one gives one's self. And I recognize there's more than one idea of "God" or "Force" found in various philosophies and religions.

    I'm not sure we can assume that atheists say everything came from absolutely nothing. Is absolute nothingness even possible? Who knows? I also tend to doubt that absolute randomness is possible. what could keep something absolutely random, never ever repeating various processes or signatures throughout eternity?

    About the emergence of life and its goals, for most species the goal appears to be simply to live, a goal that we know is thwarted by nature since all living things die, including mass extinction events in the past.

    (I said all living things die, but I should add the caveat that asexually reproducing single-celled organisms split into two, so at least one of the two halves of some of the earliest such organisms has continued to survive to this very day *smile* --death came with certainty only with the advent of multi-cellular organisms that began reproducing via sexual reproduction).

    I am uncertain whether there is one strict meaning to everyone's life. For instance, there are multiple paths people follow even in the religious world. Paths of political and humanitarian service to others, paths of scholarly study and debate, paths of meditation and mystical prayer. You can find those paths in different orders of Catholicism. But the secular world features a variety of paths as well. The main thing to my mind is that one ought to treat others as one wishes to be treated, which is a pretty good rule, it doesn't mention God, and though Jesus said it, that doesn't mean it proves the truth of Christianity. It's pretty basic knowledge that any member of a social species could benefit from.

  17. You say: "-death came with certainty only with the advent of multi-cellular organisms that began reproducing via sexual reproduction)."

    Even this isn't strictly true: check out Turritopsis nutricula.

    I agree with what you say, though. When you say, "I am uncertain whether there is one strict meaning to everyone's life" I'll add that I feel like there is not one strict meaning. There are as many meanings as there are individuals.

    I agree with the Golden Rule, too -- but then you have to consider how you might treat a violent sociopath. There are those individuals who, whether universally right or wrong, behave in ways directly in opposition to your moral compass.

    There's a great deal of thought to be given to how you, on your own path, respond when that path bumps you up -- or at the extreme -- crashes you into someone on a different path. This is where personal philosophy is perhaps most strongly tested, and also developed.

  18. I agree totally!

    When being attacked by a psychopath, what is one to do? Would Jesus or Gandhi have suggested using passive resistance? Or not?

    I suspect that most people like being liked more than they like keeping other people's heads in freezers. But aside from that I fully admit some people see things in reverse. That's also probably why laws were invented and why police departments are needed.

    I'm not advocating on my blog how to deal with psychopaths. I'm assuming it's possible for people to share ideas with one another. That's what blogs are for. If I was commanding forces during a period of armed conflict, I wouldn't simply be blogging about it. I'd be commanding, making split second decisions.

    And yes, we each develop our own personal ways of dealing with life's vicissitudes. Sometimes it's by sitting there immobile with confusion or fear. Or lashing out, or fighting back. Or comforting the people who are suffering something similar, which may help us remain sane, but feeling helpful.


Christian Apologetics (56) intelligent design (48) Favorite Quotations/Aphorisms (28) the canonical Gospels (26) C. S. Lewis (23) questions (21) creationism (20) inspiration (19) resurrection (19) ethics (17) fine-tuning (17) morality (16) Christianity & violence (15) biblical studies (11) hell (11) atheism (10) evolution (10) Bible (9) Christian history (9) brain-mind (9) Catholicism (8) New Testament (8) problem of evil (8) Young-Earth Creationism (7) miracles (7) Augustine (6) Christian emperors (6) The Damned Say The Damnedest Things (6) Victor Reppert (6) charity (6) human evolution (6) Christianity (5) Discovery Institute (5) Evangelicalism (5) Genesis 1 (5) Randal Rauser (5) cosmology (5) deconversion (5) heaven (5) jesus (5) prophecy (5) Gospel of John (4) N.T. Wright (4) Stephen C. Meyer (4) William Lane Craig (4) depression (4) monotheism (4) soteriology (4) Adam and Eve (3) Ancient Near East (3) Calvin (3) Cambrian explosion (3) Exodus (3) Jesus' birth infancy stories (3) Moses (3) Slavery (3) agnosticism (3) church history (3) ex-fundamentalists (3) flat earth (3) flood geology (3) geocentrism (3) history of science (3) human giants (3) secularism (3) Answers in Genesis (2) Aquinas (2) Civil War (2) Constantine (2) Famous Exchanges (2) Golden Rule (2) Satan (2) The Book of Acts (2) addictions (2) born again (2) coelacanth (2) demons (2) divination (2) exaggeration (2) exorcisms (2) living fossil (2) philosophy of mathematics (2) providence (2) second law of thermodynamics (2) Darwin (1) Darwinism (1) Eden (1) Evolving Out of Eden (1) Universalism (1) abiogenesis (1) abominable fancy (1) abortion (1) argument from reason (1) chess (1) raising of many saints (1) shroud of turin (1)