How Should I Be A Sceptic -- theism or 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.

In my previous entry, I introduced two different examples of attempts to propose that the ultimate reality is both atheistic and theistic. (Not to be confused with ontological dualisms which would propose two ultimate realities with one being sentient and the other non-sentient. This concept was covered in previous entries, though it'll be discussed again in later entries where applicable.)]

On one side we have this concept: the IF is a Mind, but it has no plans and does not initiate events.

On the other side, we have this: the IF is not a Mind, but it has plans (or 'purposes') and initiates events (or 'strives').

What do these propositions offer?

The first one may seem to offer an explanation for the apparent intelligibility of the universe: the universe is not completely arbitrary, and there are notions we can discover about it which we can trust to a very large degree (maybe absolutely) to be true statements of the way reality really is.

These notions could be called static, or even objective, truths, although (like a mountain that isn't going anywhere) these truths would reflect different aspects under different conditions. Two oranges and two tomatoes will always take up four spaces in your box--unless you cut the oranges into sections, after which they are arguably no longer 'two oranges'. And the observations we make about things like this, give us data from which to infer reliable truths.

It would be easy to slur 'intelligible' into 'intelligent'; it would, in fact, be one variation of the famous (or infamous) Argument from Design. [Footnote: it would also, I think, be another variation of the externalistic fallacy: just because an entity behaves intelligibly, does not mean the entity is itself intelligent.] But I don't think the Stoics did this, necessarily. I think they looked around at their lives and their world, and concluded that the entities capable of the best efficiency were capable of reasoning. Greek thinkers were very concerned with 'efficient causes', and the Stoics were no exception; thus the final (and most 'effective') efficient cause must (they decided) be capable of Reason. The 'highest' thing they (and we) meet in our world is reasoning ability; thus Reason must in some way be a function of the highest thing. [Footnote: this would be one variant of the Argument from Reason, though not one of the variants I myself employ.]

Yet the Stoics do not seem to have been proposing an entity that could give commands or introduce effects into the natural order in any fashion; they had already had quite enough of that, thank you very much, from Greek polytheism.

At any rate, I can see that if I accepted the first variation of 'sentient and non-sentient', I might have some reassurance that reality was, at bottom, at least somewhat similar to myself--and a Stoic was very properly concerned with reaching his or her full potential, which involved interfacing most efficiently with reality (which naturally would be feasible if ultimate reality shares some key characteristics with us). At the same time, I wouldn't need to worry about this Mind personally bothering me--it has no purposes, no plans, no personality. It doesn't initiate action. It isn't going to send a priest to my door asking for contributions to the temple, or for my sons in a war--or for my soul's allegiance. I can pay attention to it as a Mind when I want to, and when I feel like it; it is convenient to me. (Time to suggest new laws at the public forum? Well, let's think about how this divine Mind would try to order things if it was faced with our particular situation, and if it had intentions.)

The second proposition offers me a very similar package, despite the switch in characteristics. Instead of the cold, unfeeling mechanism of Darwin and his ilk, Nature must be alive--like me! [Footnote: remember that insofar as natural mechanism goes, the supernatural theists would also usually be included with the "ilk" of Darwin...] Nature is 'up to something', and for all I know it could be something good--if not for me, well, then for my descendants, because self-ordering is in Nature's character, so to speak. (Or, well, somewhere in Nature's character anyway, mumble mumble entropy mumble...) I am alive; it is alive. It and I are not so different. I can look back in all sorts of history, and see Nature providing just the right events at just the right times to bring about--me! At the same time, I needn't worry about Nature bothering me--it has purposes and initiates action, but it has no personality. The kind of actions it initiates are, well, really beneath my notice; too simple and basic to bother me. It isn't going to send a priest to my door asking for contributions to the local parish, or for my sons in a crusade--or for my soul's allegiance. I can pay attention to it as a Life when I want to, and when I feel like it; it is convenient to me. (Look at the past, this is the way history is going; and that means this is the way Life itself, the irreducible Fact of the universe, is striving to go. It is mankind's destiny to be part of the plan I am advocating.)

Obviously, these two ideas throw a sop to my own pride; it is (only) up to me to figure out what the Divine Nature is up to. The Divine either isn't smart enough to understand its own plans, or despite being 'rational' it doesn't have plans. It either isn't smart enough to have opinions of its own, or despite being 'rational' it cannot initiate judgments to form 'opinions' per se. The world is on automatic pilot; and the pilot is an autistic savant who happens to be pretty good at piloting! He's going to do his job, which is only worth my time noticing on the macrohistorical scale, and I'm going to do mine (vitalism). Or, he's going to do his job (except, y'know, without intentions of doing so), and I'm just along for the ride; although it makes a difference to my happiness whether I buckle-up in a first-class seat and take the ride as it comes, or pop open the hatch to crawl out on the wing (early Stoicism). Either way, the pilot isn't going to come out of the cabin and annoy me. I may have to put up with some unruly passengers, of course; but that is to be expected.

On the one hand, we have a denial of initiation ability for the IF; but it still somehow represents the necessary order of interactions between cause/effect, ground/consequent. It is unconscious, but can still produce efficient mental effects--as I can reactively answer questions under anesthesia, although I didn't choose to.

On the other hand, we have an affirmation of initiation ability, although this doesn't include the processing of efficient mental effects. Yet despite its initiation ability, it is still considered to be (quite overtly so) 'unconscious'. Thus it doesn't consciously judge--especially it doesn't judge me! The particular actions it initiates are essentially beneath my notice. For all practical purposes, it is not initiating actions at all.

An atheist, in distinctive opposition, would say: the IF does not initiate actions. It does not think. It is blind, unconscious, automatic. There is no point in saying that It has Reason if those other claims are true about It; that is just playing with words.

A theist (including, I think, some polytheists and pantheists), in distinctive opposition, would say: the IF does initiate actions. It has purposes, and plans, which It is striving to bring to fruition. It knows where it wants to go; and It knows where It wants Nature to go. And that means It knows where It wants me (and you) to go, because one way or another we are part of It. And if It has plans and purposes, then by default--by definition of what a 'plan' and a 'purpose' is--It is intentionally, actively excluding one set of potential behaviors for another set. There is no point in saying It does not have Reason if those other notions are true about It; that is just playing with words.

The n-SIF advocate (for example the naturalistic atheist) and the SIF advocate (for example a Jewish theist) both cut pretty cleanly, I think, through the contradictions of the attempt at a middle-ground. For this reason (and for some reasons involving contradictions in general, which I have already covered in previous chapters), I will eventually be required to decide, if I can, whether the IF is sentient (as an action initiator that can, among other things, actively judge the coherency of linked propositions), or non-sentient (a blind, automatic, non-purposive mechanism that initiates no actions but very effectively reacts and counterreacts).

The middle-ground pantheist (this type of middle-grounder is typically a pantheist, although not all pantheists accept this both/and proposition about the IF) may reply that she didn't literally mean the IF has Reason, or that it has 'purposes'. She was 'only' speaking metaphorically.

I note that in the way she would use this term, she means something reductive--she means the reality is less, not more, than her description implied. I also note this can only lead to a n-SIF proposition if it is followed through consistently! No one ever bothers to say they were 'only' speaking metaphorically when they denied something had active purposes or when they denied something could accurately judge abstract links of reality in what we would consider a 'cogent' manner. No one bothers to say they were 'only' speaking metaphorically when they described reality as 'blind, automatic and non-purposive'. The middle-ground proponents could turn out to be atheists (of some sort) after all; it is, at least, another example of how the attempted position collapses into one or another distinctive position when any kind of practical application is made.

On the other hand, I don't think reductionism is a very good example of what it means to speak 'metaphorically'. Although I think such reductionistic use of metaphor can represent a definite notion that its adherent is trying to get across, such a tactic can be abused to imply that whenever anyone speaks metaphorically they really mean less than they appear to be saying.

I strongly disagree with such a use, and the removal of this misconception will help some people deal with claims about 'religion'. So to the topic of metaphor I now turn.

[Next time: 'on' metaphors]


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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