How Should I Be A Sceptic -- theism and atheism?

[Introductory note from Jason Pratt: the previous entry in this series of posts can be found here. A continually updated table of contents for all entries so far can be found here.]

I have been arguing throughout this book that philosophical positions can be most cogently divided into two mutually exclusive categories: non-Sentient Independent Fact, or Sentient Independent Fact. I have reached this position mainly by tracing the implications of apparently competitive belief-systems (it turns out they were advocating one of these at bottom all the time), or by discovering that competitive theories end in self-contradictions.

But some people throughout human history would agree there is such a thing as the IF (or at least we must presume there is, in order to build philosophies and subsequent sciences) and that we can discover particular things about it (at least in principle); yet they would also propose that this IF is, in essence or in effect, sentient and non-sentient.

For instance, the early Stoics (dating back before the Christian--or, if you prefer, 'Common'--era) believed the rock-bottom irreducible Fact of reality possessed Reason. Because of this, they insisted that human laws should be drafted and polished to mimic as closely as possible what we could discover about this divine Reason. At the same time, these Stoics insisted that this Reason had no purposes. It was, after all, the physical element of Fire (which they thought was the basic building block of all reality--today we would think of it as ‘energy’); and Fire, while it clearly ‘behaves’ very effectively, has no purposes. They thus rejected the concept that the Ultimate would initiate its own agendas or plans within 'our' world or in our societies. In a way, this philosophy was a rejection of Greek polytheism, perhaps (curiously) by combining the characteristics of two of its ultimate aspects: Chaos and the Fates. Exactly how people got to this belief is not what I am concerned with, however. Some early Stoics proposed (in effect) that what I am calling the IF was really sentient, and really non-sentient.

This type of idea can be found in many cultures, across many eras. In the late 18th through early 20th centuries, as scientists and philosophers were hammering out the implications of biological evolutionary theory, some thinkers proposed vitalism to be true. The rudimentary non-reducible Fact of reality is (according to this proposition) the space-time system we call Nature (taken as a whole); but the basic irreducibly fundamental units of Nature are alive. Yet they are too simple to have a mind: it seemed evident at the time that minds (per se) could only be exhibited in the nervous clusters we call brains. The totality of Nature, considered as a whole (since it is not a 'brain'), must therefore also be considered mindless. Yet (said the vitalists) evolution could be explained as the striving of this mass of ultimately living matter to the intrinsic purpose of self-organization. Entropy might win out in the end, but the natural cohesion of matter (despite entropy in the meanwhile) illustrated this purposeful organization.

Against the vitalists were the mechanists who proposed that Nature as a whole was not and could not be alive, and certainly its most basic units were not alive; and without life (or even with rudimentary life), purposes did not exist at that level. Obviously the mechanists included atheistic naturalists; but (for what it is worth) they also included supernaturalistic theists of various stripes, trying to make sense of the new data.

Again, the scientific/philosophical combinations involved at this juncture are too numerous for me to try to trace (and frankly I haven't the pertinent information to do so). My point is merely that vitalism was another (yet distinct) example of a belief that what I call the IF is both sentient and non-sentient. [See first comment below for a deferred footnote here.]

'It really can think, but it really has no purposes and does not initiate action.' 'It really cannot think, but it really has purposes and does initiate action.' I think either version of this concept is necessarily self-contradictory at the primary level; and anything built on this concept will either carry that self-contradiction at its core, or else emphasize (perhaps accidentally) one side at the expense of the other--thus ceasing for all practical purposes to be that sort of belief.

Where self-contradictions are maintained throughout more complicated expressions of the concept, I can literally have no good reason to accept the proposition and so no good reason to accept anything developed afterwards on those grounds: the self-contradiction itself ensures (as I illustrated earlier) that there are no grounds. Advocates of this type of notion might be saying true things about reality when they get to their more complicated proposals; but they would be saying those true things despite their initial position, and this would tell me that if they do happen to be matching reality, then there should be another way to get there.

Furthermore, an attempt to begin in flagrant contradiction must (as a practical matter) collapse into either one proposition or another, in order to maintain some kind of cogency (so far as I have examined SIF and n-SIF propositions). The Middle and Late Stoics, for instance, focused increasingly on the practical application, at both the individual and state level, of the ethics derived from the ultimate Reason. Eventually, some Late Stoics began to express their views in language that hinted an approach to--or maybe even an acceptance of--the notion that the divine Reason was a purposeful, fully sentient deity; the IF was a SIF. [See second comment below for a deferred footnote here.]

This would be only another working-out of issues I have raised before (primarily why I should avoid truly contradictory claims about the IF, if I am going to bother searching for true ideas about it); except that it also has more than a passing acquaintance with some issues I will be raising later in my second section. So I will focus a little longer on these two propositions, and see what comparing and contrasting these claims can tell me about how we, as humans, perceive 'sentience'.

[Next time: trying to have and not have sentience]


Jason Pratt said…
.......[first deferred footnote here]

In fact, I am a little unsure about how accurately I have represented these belief-systems. But my point here (and even in other chapters) is not to argue that such-n-such people believe(d) this-and-that; but rather to discuss the implications of this-and-that belief, for which purpose I think such-n-such people provide good examples. If I am wrong about whether they are proper examples of the notion(s) I am discussing, the correction would merely eliminate an illustrative example; the correction would not cause direct problems for my inferences about the principles I am discussing.
Jason Pratt said…
.......[second deferred footnote here]

I am qualifying myself here, because it is highly debatable exactly what some of the Late Stoics thought about the matter. That their language began to trend this way seems indisputable, but they might have been borrowing language for convenience from truly theistic thought which was becoming increasingly more popular in the Mediterranean area during the Late Stoa period. Similarly, theists, including Christians, would also borrow language for convenience from belief-systems they did not precisely agree with. Keep in mind that theistic thought can include naturalistic theism (pantheism) as well as supernaturalistic theism.

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