Reason and the First Person -- the cardinal difficulty of atheism

[Note: the contents page for this series can be found here. The previous entry, beginning chapter 17, can be found here.]

[This entry continues chapter 17, part 2 of 4.]

The previous entry ended with: "I will illustrate this formal problem underlying the connection between atheism and human justification attempts, by presenting an imaginary dialogue between Chase (whom I will arbitrarily assign to the atheist role) and Reed (whom I will assign as the theist, using a variation of the theistic Argument from Reason)."

(As with all my dialogues, unless I have specifically said otherwise, this one is fictional--I am arguing against myself, in both directions, as an illustration of the application of the principles I have been discussing. I will add parenthetical notes like this on occasion however.)

Reed: So, you claim that reality is, at bottom, non-rational.

Chase: Yes, I do; in the sense of being "non-sentient".

(Note: Chase is not using 'non-rational' to mean invalid. It would be silly for him to claim that reality is at bottom 'invalid'!)

R: Is your claim itself non-rational, or is it rational?

C: My claim is rational; if it was non-rational, it would not be worthy of potential trust.

(Note: Similarly, Chase is not using ‘rational’ to mean valid; so he is not instantly introducing a category error here by jumping between concepts. I will return next chapter to the question of trustworthiness in a world with only non-rational behaviors.)

R: I agree; although of course an honest mistake or a dishonest cheating is also rational.

C: I agree; those are rational behaviors. The dishonest man, such as the Christian who fudges on his history to mislead the simple and gain power over them, is still engaging in a rational action. That is why I consider such a person wicked, not merely misguided. On the other hand, if I have added up my logic incorrectly due to human error, that mistake also does not negate the rationality of my action.

(Note: Chase is committed to avoiding the externalistic fallacy: his rationality is not merely the formal validity of his thinking, and he does not claim the rationality of other people on that ground either. (His ethical judgment against this hypothetical Christian would not necessarily extend to all Christians, of course; he would think the other ones, like Reed, are making an honest mistake somewhere.))

R: I agree with your judgment of both those examples. Very well. Non-rational causes can have non-rational effects, yes?

C: Yes, that is elementary.

R: You say your mental behavior, corresponding to what you claim is a "belief" about atheism, is rational. Also, you say that this belief ultimately was produced by non-rational causation.

C: It may have its origin partly from other rational humans, like myself; we don't need God to explain it.

R: Are these rational humans the ultimate foundation of all reality?

C: No, of course not; they were produced by non-rational Nature.

(Note: Chase, like most atheists, is also a philosophical naturalist. He could be a supernaturalistic atheist, but the basic principles of this dispute would remain the same.)

R: So bringing them in only puts the question one stage further back for no gain. I grant that your rationality might be partly derived from their rationality in some fashion, but you claim that their rationality is ultimately derived from non-rationality; so whether we go the long road or the short, we're still talking about your rationality being ultimately produced by non-rational Nature.

C: I concede the point. And I see where you are going with this: if non-rational causation at least sometimes produces non-rational effects, why should I be considered correct in claiming that my own belief concerning atheism is itself rational instead of non-rational?

R: It seems to me that it is nonsensical, to claim that rationality is totally produced by non-rationality. A Christian may have a "belief" in God, but if you happened to know that her "belief" was utterly produced by her automatic reactions to her environment, you would claim her belief was non-rational.

C: This is true. But my beliefs are not utterly caused by my automatic response to my environment. I am different from her case.

R: How was your belief produced, then?

C: I drew inferences from principles, and drew further inferences from experimental data using those principles. I am a free thinker; I think for myself, and am not in thrall to the millennia of cultural pressures that promote such superstitions.

R: I think that this is entirely proper. This means you did not automatically respond to your environment, then?

C: Correct. When I was a child, I unthinkingly, automatically accepted what my family and friends in the Church told me, but not anymore.

R: So your current opinion about God was not, in fact, utterly produced by non-rational causation after all.

C: Exactly; as I already said, not thirty seconds ago, my beliefs are not utterly caused by my automatic response to my environment. Unlike the theist of your example, or when I was a child; I am now a free thinker who thinks for myself, and I reject theism as a result of my own competent, responsible and rational inference that theism is either certainly or most probably not true.

R: For what it is worth, I suspect that as a child you in fact drew quite a few inferences, to reach your belief in God. Specifically, you inferred that certain people could be considered trustworthy; and you inferred that if they told you something (God exists and has certain characteristics, the Bible has such-n-such level of reliability), you could therefore trust what they told you on that subject as on others. You may have decided later that they were honestly mistaken after all; or you may have decided later that they were being dishonest after all, either on this topic or generally on other topics, and so could not be relied on to provide you truthful answers to such important questions. These things happen; but I seriously doubt that you unthinkingly automatically accepted what they told you across the board. You do yourself, and children in general, a great disservice by describing such a reactive behavior as being distinctively childlike. Meanwhile, have you decided whether your rationality, including your rational belief in favor of atheism, comes from ultimately non-rational causes, or not? Because it seems like you are saying they do, when you want to claim atheism to be true; and also like you are saying they don't, when you want me to take your beliefs about atheism seriously.

C: Just because my inferential ability was produced by an ultimately non-rational cause, doesn't mean my arguments are thereby non-rational.

R: In the same vein, just because your arms were produced by non-rational causes, does not mean every behavior they exhibit is non-rational.

C: Quite so.

R: Similarly, just because your mouth and vocal cords were produced by non-rational causes, does not mean every sound you utter is non-rational.

C: Correct.

R: Do you understand that I have altered your proposal slightly to avoid a nonsense statement on your part? Your arms and your mouth are not your ability to move your arms and to speak. This ability to 'infer', which you mention, is really an abstract way of describing the behavior of actual materials in your body, brain-matter presumably being chief among them.

C: So what?

R: Are your arguments actually produced by your inferential ability?

C: Yes, of course.

R: So are you claiming an abstract description produces an actual event?

C: No!

R: Then what is your "inferential ability", if it is not an abstract description of an actual behavior set?

C: Okay, fine; but what it describes is what produces my arguments.

R: What does it describe?

C: The movement of certain electrical impulses across certain neural structures in my brain.

R: So would you say that this explanation, in principle, effectively and sufficiently describes your thinking behavior without having to bring in anything other than non-purposive Nature?

C: Correct. There is no need to bring a purposeful God into it, supernatural or otherwise.

R: So these movements in your brain, corresponding to your beliefs about atheism, are completely non-purposive?

C: No, I am causing them.

R: They aren't merely an automatic, non-purposive knee-jerk reaction to your environment, then?

C: No, not hardly! I have said this already.

R: So they are something other than non-purposive Nature. I thought you said we didn't have to bring in anything other than non-purposive Nature. Here it is!

C: I didn't "bring it in"; non-purposive Nature produced it.

R: I see. Is this a usual result of the effects of non-purposive Nature?

C: It is, under the type of conditions inside my head.

R: What makes these effects of non-purposive Nature something other than merely more non-purposive behaviors?

C: We don't know yet.

R: So you are simply sheerly asserting that these particular results of non-purposive, non-rational Nature are rational and purposive?

C: No--I am only saying that we haven't exactly figured out why it should be different this time.

R: But you apparently already have some clue as to the principles involved. If you didn't, there would be nothing to distinguish your proposition from a sheer ungrounded assertion--essentially a flat wish.

C: It is not a mere ungrounded assertion! We have some clues here and there; enough that we can be sufficiently confident that we are on the right track.

R: Why should I agree that your evaluation of those clues is rational?

C: What?! That's rather rude!

Next up: the teeth of the sceptical threat


Jason Pratt said…
Registering for comment tracking.
Hi Jason, Does anyone know what a thought is? Or what a concept is? Or what "reasoning" is? And if we don't know what THOSE things are, then why do you presume that atheism faces any difficulties at all? Let's say neither atheism nor theism face any difficulties at all in that arena. Not at present, since we don't know what thoughts, concepts, and reasoning are. We know them by results. We make decisions, invent things, etc.

So you cannot say that thoughts, concepts and reasoning have been proven to be "unnatural."

Let me put it this way, the evolution of behaviors of animals from single celled organisms to organisms with brains, till you reach organisms with a large complex cortex like elephants, dolphins and primates, is a worthy study. J.D. Walters of Cadre has studied the matter. He's of the opinion that naturalistic explanations are not failures, and mind-brain monism (instead of dualism) is not a bad theory at all.

I'd like to add that amoeba can discern, pursue, and trap prey. So we know that a single cell organism can do all that, without complex sense organs or a brain.

Our own brains consist of billions (hundreds of billions?) of cells and a trillion (or more?) synaptic connections, and are linked to complex sense organs that form a continual feedback loop between environment and organism. Neither are our brains functioning solely on the level of atoms. Our sense organs allow massive flows of information to enter our brains, they are sensing incredibly massive accumulations of data and relaying that to the brain-mind. So huge chunks of environmental data are what our brain-minds are ingesting, analyzing, reacting to, and analyzing how we interact with our environment and how it interacts with us, back and forth, which provides more feedback to the system. Babies learn via this feedback, and their brains are whittling down neuronal connections (probably the less used ones) until some "sense" is finally made out of the world. Until they can tell things like the different between raining and not raining. Animals brain-minds learn that difference as well. And recognizing such yes/no differences is the way toward eventually recognizing that A is not non-A, simple logic.

See also my online piece, C. S. Lewis and The Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism
Also, have you read much about split-brain experiments? Fascinating, and provocative in my opinion, since the silent half of the brain can answer questions by pointing, sometimes even speaking yes or no, sometimes speaking more. Flashing images can get registered only on one brain half, allowing both halves to operate alone on different questions and simultaneously answer them regarding what was just shown to only one half of the brain. The talking half of the brain even tends to fabricate explanations for things the other half of the brain makes the body do.
Metacrock said…
so you don't know what thinking is but you know atheism is real good at it?

I think we do know what concepts are and what thinking is, but atheists don't know.
Metacrock said…
can you say "cheical determinism?" Free will rules out determinism.
Jason Pratt said…
Ed: {{And if we don't know what THOSE things are, then why do you presume that atheism faces any difficulties at all?}}

I'm not presuming it. I arrived at that difficulty. Big difference.

Thank you for commenting on an entry and a series you clearly haven't read, though! {g}

(Also for forgetting every other time we've spoken on this topic over the past ten years.)

Meta: {{so you don't know what thinking is but you know atheism is real good at it?}}

Yep, Ed has been saying that for years. {g} He's a miracle that way.

Jason Pratt said…
Meanwhile, Ed's defense against the theistic implications here, is categorically similar to what I called (db) back a few entries ago; which, as those who have bothered to read the series will already be well aware (unlike Ed), I haven't addressed yet, choosing to focus first on varieties of (da).

"Chase" will be shifting over to a (db) defense in the next chapter, once this one is done with; and I'll be talking about it more formally after that as well. Many of the principles were already covered (without pressing the implications toward theism) waaaaay back in Chapter 4, however.

Ed's other line of defense against the theistic implication, which is to attempt agnosticism about practical meaning, has also been discussed pretty thoroughly in prior entries, as anyone who has bothered to read them should already remember.

As for my supposed ignorance of biological evolutionary theory, Ed has conveniently forgotten what he ought to have remembered from numerous examples over the years, namely that I am quite friendly to b.e.t. (just as my teacher Lewis was--as well as practically all my other Christian teachers growing up--so that shouldn't be surprising.)

That doesn't mean I don't know anything about its serious problems, too; but I am pretty sure that nowhere in all 700+ pages of SttH do I bother to mention its numerous technical problems--including in the next chapter, where I would be most likely to do so if I was going to. Picking at the current paradigm of neo-Darwinian gradualism just isn't a big priority for me.

(Obviously I'm going to highlight formal problems of appealing to evolutionary development as a way of either justifying our justification ability, or--more pertinently for next chapter--justifying why we don't have to have a real justification ability. But that's a metaphysical critique, not a critique of the biology.)


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