How Should I Be A Sceptic -- a first consideration of Independence

[Introductory note from Jason Pratt: the previous entry in this series of posts can be found here. The first entry can be found here.]

In the previous chapter (i.e. the previous few journal entries), I brought to the forefront a term I have already begun to use here and there in this book: the IF, the Independent-or-Interdependent Fact. Now I will discuss this concept directly, not only because I will be using it with increasing frequency as I continue, but because I think its existence must be accepted to avoid nonsensical positions. [Footnote: the acronym for Independent or Interdependent Fact happens to be the English word 'if'; but this is only coincidental.]

I have just finished explaining why I reject the position that God must be an abstract generality (and thus can have no particular aspects, even in principle, to be discovered). My reply was that in my experience the abstract describes the real (or, more accurately, we use 'the abstract' to describe the real) as opposed to being the real; and that consequently the abstract cannot be the foundation or ground for other realities.

I used observations of Nature to bolster this point. Nature apparently exists in an actual fashion; or, if it does not 'actually' exist, then we can know nothing including that Nature does not exist in that fashion. I did not mean by this that the material of Nature must be such that we can describe it with ultimate and total accuracy--evidently we cannot in fact do so. Our inability to completely describe the 'physical' in terms of the 'physical' may simply be a practical manifestation of what amounts to our attempt at a circular proposition: we may be reaching the level where Nature simply 'is' and so our categories of description based on what Nature does as a complex must necessarily break down when we try to cogently describe what Nature does at its most particular.

This is not quite a contradiction in terms; rather, it would be a contradiction in terms if we could accurately describe the ultimate particular physical units in terms of their group behaviors. If Nature is the only level of reality, then we could expect it to repel our probing (as composite entities ourselves) in this fashion.

Some people conclude that because the data we find fits this hypothesis (as far as I have carried it, anyway), the hypothesis must be true: Nature is the Independent Fact (or IF) of reality. In one sense, everything depends upon it and it depends upon nothing; yet, because Nature (on this hypothesis) is the only level of reality, then Nature essentially means 'everything' in total, and so strictly speaking there is nothing 'to depend upon' it. Nature (in total) might therefore also be usefully described as the Interdependent Fact.

Either way, it would be the most complicated, minutely articulated, particular Thing; and 'everything else' would only be parts of it, considered to be 'dependent' or 'separate' from Nature (where Nature is proposed to be a one-system total of everything) only for convenience of discussion.

What I am describing here is philosophical naturalism, as distinct from philosophical supernaturalism. It need not be equal to atheism, although (as it happens) most atheists are also naturalists in this sense: one and only one level of reality exists, and it is the system we call Nature.

The natural system itself, then, is one candidate for an IF. As I noted above, some people would argue that because (or if) our data fits this hypothesis, then Nature must be the IF. But this is not a deductive argument; it is inductive. Even if it is successful (and I will have much more to say about naturalism later), it only establishes a viable contender. It does not necessarily exclude other hypotheses from being true--thus the conclusion of 'must' would, for this specific argument, be unwarranted.

On the other hand, if the exclusive alternative--commonly presented as 'God', although properly it would be 'Supernature' (which could itself be atheistic)--must be a generality or pure abstraction; and if (as I have argued in the previous chapter) such a view is tantamount either to a denial of Supernature's existence or at best to an ungrounded assertion with no attendant strength; then a successful inductive naturalistic argument of this sort would be part of an exclusively naturalistic conclusion: not because the positive (though inductive) naturalism argument excludes the Supernature hypothesis, but because (given Supernature must be a pure abstraction) the Supernature hypothesis excludes itself from contention.

This would be a reasonable, and even reliable, conclusion--I can easily imagine myself accepting it--given that Supernature (be it God or otherwise) must be a generality about which nothing in particular can be true. After such a conclusion, any co-presented inductive conclusion to naturalism would be virtually incidental. [Footnote: Essentially, in this case Supernature would be deductively removed from contention by the combination of its proposed characteristics ('Supernature must be general' and 'generalities are not actuals'). Any inductive argument in favor of naturalism would be purely secondary.]

But as I have argued in the previous chapter, we quite literally have no reason to presuppose that God (or even an atheistic Supernature) must be only a generality; and I cannot think of valid arguments to that conclusion. Rather, I think the situation is reversed: if God (or rather a Supernature of whatever kind) does not exist, then it would be true to say that this Supernature is only, at best, an abstract principle; but if Supernature does exist, as the IF, then that Supernature, as the IF, must be the most detailed, real, actual, 'concrete' entity in existence. If everything derives its existence from an ultimately most-real Fact, then that Fact is still the most particularly detailed Thing that exists--whether the Fact is sentient or not.

In a way, this is a restatement of a (generalized) variant of what is known as ‘the Ontological Argument'. A person proposing this argument, in theistic apologetics traditionally, attempts to infer that if anything really exists, then either God must exist, or at least we have good inductive reason to believe God exists.

All positive apologetics may thus be considered variants of the Ontological Argument: if A really exists, then we may infer the existence of B. Variants would occur by being more particular about A and its characteristics. So, for example, a popular theistic variant would be the philosophical Cosmological Argument: if Nature exists, then we have reason to believe God exists. The Kalam CosA focuses this to a scientific inference from the characteristics of the universe, such that if the universe does not eternally exist, then we have reason to believe God exists.

However, I am not talking right now about inferences from the existence and characteristics of anything other than “existence” itself--thus, this would be considered a broadly ontological argument.

But, neither do I take this argument so far as to infer that God (per se) exists; or even that supernaturalism is true! I think the Ontological Argument (along with many of its ‘cosmological’ variants) has only a limited use, one which works just as well for the atheist or positive pantheist: if anything real exists, then whatever the foundational Fact is that cannot be 'gotten behind' and upon which 'anything' and 'everything' (even itself) depends, the Fact must itself be ultimately real and ultimately complex. In whatever sense it is possible to say that 'derivative entities' 'really' exist, they must by necessity be less 'complete' or less 'detailed', or even (in a sense) less 'real', than the IF.

As I have said, though, this does not mean the IF must be sentient, or even supernaturalistic. The ontological arguments I have seen, including many cosmological arguments, have only reached such a supernaturally theistic 'conclusion' either by a flat (and unjustified) leap, or by applying to other argument far more particular than the Ontological (or even Cosmological) Argument itself.

But why does there have to be a stopping point at all? Why must there be an IF (whether it is sentient or non-sentient, supernatural or natural)? We are talking about something that is, for all practical purposes at the very least, infinite; correct? So why can there not be grounds stretching on forever with no end, no Final Fact? Why can there not be an infinite regression?

[Next time: in question of infinite regression]


Jason Pratt said…
Back when I first posted this chapter, I hadn't realized that without dropping in a comment I wouldn't be registered in the blogger system for comment alerts--despite being the author of the post!

So, here's the registration. {wry g}


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