Reason and the First Person -- the unavoidable implications of reasoning

[Note: the contents page for this series can be found here. The previous entry, the fifth for chapter 18, can be found here.]

[This entry concludes chapter 18, "Atheism and the Justification of Non-Justification Ability". It also concludes the fictional dialogue started in chp 17.]

(Picking up from the end of the previous part...)

Chase (the atheist): ... That doesn't mean I am active!

Reed (the theist): No, not necessarily. But by denying it per hypothesis, you leave yourself no possible way to reach even merely probably reliable "perceptions of reality". Your perceptions of probability end up trapped in a formal limbo where no judgments of their relative worth--compared to other estimates of probability for instance--can be legitimately made. Those judgments which might possibly ratify the probability estimates, require active ability to exist on our part. If that ability is proposed not to exist, neither can those judgments effectively exist. Something like judgments could effectively exist; but their potential effectiveness will also be put under the same explanation which already requires the probability estimates to be potentially reliable.

Once again you have tried to justify the potential effectiveness of your mental processes, against a sceptical threat--a sceptical threat that atheism leads to as the first rational conclusion!--by presuming first that they can be effective. But if you presume that your mental processes can be effective, then it is merely redundant to try to justify later that they can be effective. You cannot legitimately prove that legitimate proofs don't have to exist.

C: All right, so... what if I have a lifetime of a million centuries behind me?

R: Well, certainly I’ve seen atheists go routes just as outré rather than decide they should believe God exists. (DNA clearly cannot have naturally evolved in the time constraints of our planet’s history, so we had to have been seeded here by aliens...)

C: One outré explanation is as good as another--by which I mean theism! You of all people can’t just hold that against me!

R: Not for being outré, I agree! But I’m glad you brought up the possibility for consideration; so, let’s consider it. It won’t matter which form of that theory you choose.

C: Well it matters to me. Notice, I didn’t say “what if I’m an alien?” I was thinking instead, what if there’s something like genetic instinct being passed along which might as well count as having a lifetime of a million centuries? Many instinctive behaviors in the animal world seem far more developed and efficient than the mentality of the animals themselves would account for (bees, to give one famous example).

R: So we, ourselves, would have instincts (kitted up non-rationally in us by purely non-rational development) of a lifetime of millions of centuries, instead of a lifetime of less than a century? We might as well just consider the million-century-old alien directly, whether that alien is supposed to be us (or you) or not. In fact, I recommend you keep the distinction for purposes of comparison. (I'll show why I recommend this in a minute.)

C: Okay then: let’s say the alien represents the theory that we have genetic ‘memory’ instincts accumulated to the point where we might as well have lived a million centuries.

R: And by contrast the human represents, let’s say, the other instincts, commensurate with a lifetime of less than a century, which you and I, the humans, both agree are not properly reflective of the levels of long-term probability assessment we would need in order to make a good intuitive and non-rational bet about evolutionary probabilities.

C: ...okay, I can see where you’re going with this. Why would there be two surviving instincts of probability association at such direct conflict with one another?

R: Unless of course I’m supposed to be destitute of the proper genetic-memory instinct and I only possess the normal human instinct, whereas you would be destitute of the normal human instinct--

C: Okay! Fine. It has to account for both our behaviors. Unless, both instincts contribute to our survival-to-breed in different ways, and so both kinds of instinct have survived: the undeveloped and the developed instinct, one of which happens to be stronger in each of us (you and me respectively).

R: Fair enough. You still might as well use the alien vs. us as the example, for sake of clarifying the distinction. If there is any distinction.

C: Well, the alien has been kitted up so that his perception of relative probability reflects the vast amounts of time we're talking about in terms of gradualistic development.

R: Is his perception merely subjective?

C: Any perception is going to be subjective. You know that.

R: But there’s a difference between it being relevantly and irrelevantly subjective, as you well know--having tried to deploy the irrelevancy against me earlier. Which I was willing to agree about. Indeed, the whole point of your distinction now is to set things up so that I have an irrelevant instinct about evolutionary super-improbabilities while you do not! So I ask again: is the alien’s perception merely subjective?

C: No, it’s relevantly subjective.

R: Why?

C: Why do I say so?

R: No, I’ll let you off on the question of mental mechanics behind why you would say so (for now). I have another point to make first: what is it about his perception that makes it relevantly subjective?

C: The fact that it corresponds better to the probabilities we’re discussing.

R: In other words, it’s only relevant externally to the alien--only relevant in regard to our external consideration of the situation. It isn’t relevant in terms of the alien’s own mental behavior. Even if he happens to be correct, we’re the ones doing the justification, the ratification, of his behavior; not the alien himself.

C: ...which is no good if our own mentality is no different in principle from the alien’s.

R: And if his perception is not merely an automatic response to his conditioning?

C: Then he could possibly give us a justifiable answer.

R: His main advantage would be that he starts with a bit of instinctive impulse which happens to incline him toward the right answer.

C: Yes.

R: But merely inclining toward the right answer does not constitute reliable judgment, does it? That is, unless we fudge by concluding in our own judgment (not the alien's) that the inclination is correct. But our rational judgment is not the alien's rationality. Which, for example, is why you were willing to distinguish the instinctive competency of the bees from the actual mental capabilities of the bees: so it doesn’t get any better whether the instinct is an imputed habit (the alien’s expectations being an inputed, unconscious, non-rational habit of a lifetime) or a genetic accumulation of the species per se.

C: ....

R: So, what if you combined both factors for the alien?--individually long life and the corporate existence of his species? (Even though that would no longer apply to us humans, with our lifetimes of less than a century.)

C: ...sigh. Yes, I understand, that wouldn’t do any good accounting for my impression or understanding of the probabilities involved (compared to your instinctive impression or otherwise.)

R: But would it even help the alien? Could the extreme age of his species contribute in principle to a development of real action ability?

C: ... Well there would be greater refinements in his responses...

R: But that isn't really the same thing as action ability, is it?

C: ... It...

R: Has the contention "actions can be produced completely by reactions" suddenly been reinstated now, merely because a longer period of physical time has passed? Does the length of time, whether individually or concerning the species, change the underlying principle involved?

C: No.

R: No. If we asserted (or otherwise decided) from the beginning that the principle was not intrinsically nonsensical, then length of time might perhaps contribute to the conditions which finally bring the fulfillment of the principle about. Do you want to try claiming again that the contention "reactions and only reactions can produce actions" is not intrinsically nonsensical?--thereby returning to the beginning of our first dialogue?

C: That does not mean God exists!

R: If our mental processes are completely non-rational, what happens to our own formally self-reflexive claims of (at least possible) reliability, which include claims that reality is one way and not another?

C: ... They fall through, and cannot be established by us personally.

R: If non-purposive automatic reactions are the fundamental base of reality--if reality, at bottom, is not purposive, not capable of choosing, not active, not rational--then our mental processes are ultimately what?

C: ... Non-rational.

R: Are your mental processes, including your belief about atheism, ultimately non-rational? Because, ironically enough, I would insist, in your favor, that your beliefs about atheism are not ultimately non-rational. Mistaken, maybe, but not--

C: That does not mean there is a God!!

R: Why not?

C: You and I might not be rational after all! You can't prove that we are!

R: True. Even so, our presumed non-rationality (setting aside for the moment the nonsensical character of the phrase "our presumed non-rationality") would not even then entail atheism, would it? Not necessarily.

C: No.

R: God might still exist; or might not exist. If we are non-rational after all, we (as ourselves) would simply lack the ability to potentially discover this fact, one way or the other--meaning atheism would never be able to get going, either--even if we nevertheless behaved in various fashions according to what a rational person would recognize as “the topic”. There would be exactly no point debating metaphysics with a Furbee, much less accepting an argument from the Furbee, even if someone programmed it to talk about metaphysics. At best I would be debating or considering the argument of the programmer at secondhand. (That would apply to you and me, too, if we were only fictional characters in a metaphysician’s literary dialogue!--no sane person would seriously debate ‘you’ or ‘me’, or even listen to ‘us’ as persons: they would be dealing with our author, pro or con.)

The starting point that avoids a deductive conclusion of "not-atheism", allows no theory, including atheism, any responsible reliability by you or I personally. Is that irresponsibility, or even denial of your own personhood (while insisting we treat you like a person during argument anyway), really a price you want to pay to avoid the conclusion that God exists?

C: Maybe.

R: I see. Let me present another interesting irony (as you may consider it). You are probably aware that the Big Three Theisms usually claim that hell exists.

C: Yes! And it's an abominable, intolerable--!

R: And you are probably aware that certain theologians, especially on the Christian side (although not necessarily limited to them--that's just the side I am most familiar with), have for millennia claimed, from metaphysical reasoning and from analysis of what they believe to be revealed testimony, that hell is, at the very least, the state a creature is in when it attempts to cut itself off as far as possible from God.

C: That doesn’t make it any less abominable.

R: Actually, I agree! But, does the following description sound vaguely familiar to you?

A man would prefer to commit cognitive suicide, insofar as he can, rather than deal with God's existence as "God".

What state, at the traditional least, is that man, himself, voluntarily choosing to enter?

[Next up: the deductive argument from formal reasoning, restated]


Jason Pratt said…
Registering for comment tracking.
Brad Haggard said…
Jason, how often do you have this type of conversation with naturalists/atheists?
Brad Haggard said…
Well, and how does it usually go?
Jason Pratt said…
I wrote this material originally after several in-depth conversations with atheist apologists and might-as-well-be-atheists (among them Keith Parsons and Richard Carrier, back in the days before internet blogging); although I've expanded out "Chase's" side of things since then along lines I thought might be better defenses. (One of those two gentlemen--Richard if I recall correctly, though KP had some things similarly to say along this line--directly told me while trying to defend human rationality that the first thinking human was taught to think by his parents. I thought in Chase's favor he ought to know better than to do that. {g})

They tend to shift back and forth, if they aren't careful, between holding strongly to human rationality (KP is, or was back then, a strong proponent of non-eliminative materialism for example, and was better about holding to this than some people I've spoken with) and denying it when those implications look too problematic. That can get kind of notorious. {wry g} You saw Ed Babinski's comment several entries back, right? People like him and J'oftus are quite happy to call human rationality into insoluable question, so long as they're doing so against religious belief, but they still expect people to take them seriously as rational thinkers on various topics.

(When I deployed this line of argument in favor both of theism and in favor of John Loftus's own rationality, back in this post several years ago, John's reply amounted to... well, the comments and links there tell the story amusingly enough, both here and at John's own site. I hadn't even heard of John back when I first wrote this book, btw.)

What usually happens is (1) they don't understand the critique I'm making (and I would add CSLewis as well), mistaking it for being another version of the AfR; (2) they agree with one side of the critique but can't see why the other side applies just as well (you can watch this happening in the literature, too, between non-reductivists like, for example, KP and eliminativists like, for example, Dennett--sometimes--and the Churchlands); (3) they jump back and forth quickly between the categories (Richard Carrier used to do this a lot, back in the day), dodging one or the other side of the critique; (4) and/or they do bizarre non sequitur things (like J'oftus in the link above). Sometimes they'll engage in a tu quoque attempt (which is certainly reasonable and even proper to try, as I'll talk about a couple of entries from now); sometimes they'll retort that even if this is the case it doesn't remotely prove Christianity to be true so it's of no concern to them (occasionally treating me like I jumped all the way there from this myself). The fact that the terms 'rational', 'non-rational' and 'irrational' have several different meanings all in vogue in the field, leads to severe problems, too; among other things, defenders against the argument can make category jumps between the various meanings (KP and RC both used to do that a lot) in order to answer parts of the argument one way and other parts another way. It's a defense based on category errors, but habitual usage in the field makes it difficult not to do that. (I didn't want Chase's defenses to depend on that, though, so I eliminated that as a problem from the outset.)

The more competent, sober and responsible ones, however, will usually reply along the lines of (1) or (2). After I spell out the argument more directly in the next couple of entries, I'm thinking of adding a briefer version I wrote several years ago which puts the argument in terms of why each type of atheist clearly sees the serious problems with the other type.

Jason Pratt said…
A blogger who calls himself "Doctor Logic" is currently discussing this argument, pretty reasonably, here in the comments on a post at Victor Reppert's DangIdea journal. I haven't read his two most recent replies (which need not necessarily be directed at me; there are at least two other conversations going on there, too), but so far he's been an especially clear mix of (1) and (2).


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