Reason and the First Person -- the key implication of real action

[Note: the contents page for this series can be found here. The previous entry, chapter 15, can be found here.

This entry starts chapter 16.]

You and I can act. I think we also react; but evidently we must presume, for the sake of our own arguments, either that we can also act or that somewhere someone else (who can judge our proclamations) can act.

This is why, for instance, we have mental competency hearings in our legal system. A person or group of people who are presumed not to be utterly and automatically reactive to environmental stimuli, sit in judgment to decide whether a given person (not themselves) is or is not utterly (or at least significantly) reacting to the environment: a decision that carries subsequent conclusions about notions such as 'ethical responsibility' (although I must defer that particular issue until Section Four). The jury may say 'This man was not responsible for his actions'; what they really mean, however, is that although the man is responsible for his actions (whatever those may be), the behaviors being judged in court were not his actions. They were the equivalent of a sneeze, even if rather more complex. This is the difference between a sick man, and a guilty man.

Or, put another way: if an atheist posted a defense of atheism on a website, and then added that the beliefs and arguments represented in his letter were purely the result of his automatic response to environmental conditioning, I do not think his defense would be considered worth listening to (assuming we believed he was serious about his explanation for his own beliefs). At best someone might charitably write in: 'Don't worry; I ran through your argument and you seem to be on target anyway'--a response which itself would only have weight for the original 'argument' as an argument, if the charitable responder was presumed or concluded to be doing something herself other than merely responding automatically to her environment.

I don't think it is possible to jump off the shadow of real action. A presumed and commonly accepted distinction between action and reaction (whatever words we use to describe the distinction) is irreducibly and irreplaceably fundamental to the acceptability of a formal argument.

But any distinction accepted as real has deductive consequences; and if this particular proposition is (as I am arguing) the Golden Presumption itself in its most basic possible form, then the deductions will be proportionately monumental.

Specifically, any attempt to propose further positions (either as hypotheses or conclusions) should be discarded if they contradict this position.

Very well then; we can act. But any variety of atheist forthwith is faced with a serious problem. Action entails addition to, instigation in, and freedom (in some fashion) from the web of reactive causation. Atheism, as a chief branch of philosophy distinctive from "not-atheism", either provides for this ability, or it does not. If it does not even in principle allow for this ability, it should be considered false and deducted from the option list.

I do not mean, 'If experiments, run under the presupposition of atheism for purpose of argument, never adequately demonstrate real action ability, then atheism should be considered false.' If I was at that stage, I would be agreeing that it is at least possible in principle for an atheistic universe to produce creatures (specifically you and me) who can act, and that now we should look to see how this might have come about.

But I haven't agreed that such a situation is even intrinsically possible yet. If it is intrinsically impossible, then consequently no experiment can ever possibly succeed in demonstrating the reverse.

Atheists really should have no problem with this principle, because they apply it all the time in regard to other questions. If, for instance, a supernatural God does not exist, then no amount of clever historical argument or hypothesis-testing could ever possibly correctly conclude that Jesus of Nazareth was supernaturally resurrected by that God. Some other explanation would have to be true; and any conclusion we reached that seemed to suggest otherwise, no matter how strong it might look, can and logically should be reliably dismissed as an error, even if the error has not yet been specifically detected.

I have not found any atheist who has any problem whatsoever applying this principle at this level; I know I certainly would apply it! But the principle itself is topic-neutral (distinctive states have consequent impossibilities and thus deductively certain consequential conclusions of one sort or other); and I am applying it here, at a very much earlier stage of argumentation than any historical question. If atheism as a general branch of philosophy is intrinsically incapable of allowing us to meet the Golden Presumption (you and I can act) then it should be discounted as a possibility. Some sort of not-atheism would be deduced to be true; and we may reliably hold to this conclusion even in the face of apparent evidence to the contrary.

[Footnote: Apparent evidence to the contrary might be intuitively gauged by us as strong enough to warrant rechecking the original logical grounding, in order to ensure a mistake had not been made in the preparatory philosophical conclusion; but apparent evidence to the contrary would not be enough by itself to legitimately overthrow the prior deducted possibility-filter.]

What does atheism entail? The Independent Fact (usually Nature--thus 'atheistic naturalism'--but it could be Supernature), the ultimate Fact upon which all other facts are based, does not act. It does not initiate events. It does not choose to do one thing, nor choose to refuse doing another.

The IF may feature random events, such as quantum fluctuations; but then again, it is difficult to say whether these events are truly random or whether they are merely permanently incalculable to us. Either way, if you ask an atheist, "Do these fluctuations mean there is an acting, thinking Ultimate Fact after all?", he will (as an 'atheist') still say "No." The fluctuations may be random, but there is still no active initiative involved. Nothing is being 'chosen' (except in a merely convenient descriptive sense). No actions are being taken.

So, even if quantum behavior might require abandoning naturalistic atheism for a technically supernaturalistic atheism--such fluctuations may be evidence of a Supernature--this by itself will not entail the falsification of atheism. Whatever 'level' of reality the fluctuations come from, as long as they are considered to be ultimately random, then precisely because they are considered to be ultimately 'random' they cannot cogently be proposed to be exhibitions of real purpose, initiation, choice, action. If they were, they would not be 'random'; they would be intentional. (Rigidly determinate results can, of course, be another type of 'opposite' to random results; and yet also not be intentive.) Leaning over a craps table to turn a rolled pair of dice so that two sixes are showing, may be probabilistically indescribable; but it is not, technically speaking, a necessarily random behavior. (Unless it is true that all behaviors are necessarily random and so non-intentional. But presuming this would void the Golden Presumption again; and certainly it cannot be intentionally argued that all behaviors are non-intentional, whether randomly or determinately so!)

If atheism is true, then the IF is utterly reactive as a system. But if arguments to atheism (or to any other notion) are to be considered even potentially reliable, then the arguers (or the judgers of the argument) must be capable (as I shall demonstrate presently) of at least some action. For us to be able to act in an atheistic reality, reactions must be capable of producing actions.

But if it is nonsensical to propose that reactions can produce actions, then one of two conclusions will follow:

A.) None of us can actually act;


B.) The IF is itself capable of actions.

If A. is true, then the accuracy of what we call our 'arguments' is indefinitely mooted in a limbo; which incidentally includes any argument in favor of atheism itself. Granted, this limbo would also incidentally include any argument against atheism; but if atheism entails a consequence (our inability to do anything other than automatically, blindly, necessarily respond to our environment) which prevents any argument (including atheism) from getting off the ground as a real argument (not just something that looks like an argument), then there is no point--it would literally be impossible--for us to 'accept' atheism as being even possibly true.

Notice that I am not saying 'Atheism must therefore be false if none of us can act'. Atheism might still be true if we cannot really act. But we would never be able to cogently propose or defend it; the quality of all of our apparent behaviors in that category would be an illusion, just as it sometimes seems that genetic proteins are actively 'choosing' to do one thing or another, although virtually all of us agree that they aren't doing this.

Passive agnosticism may at first glance seem to be the best alternative under this proposed condition--except, of course, that even 'passive agnosticism' would not be rationally defensible under such a scheme, due to the simple fact that without the ability to act there can be no such thing as a rational defense for any proposition. (If I cannot act, then 'I' cannot be defending a proposition at all. If no action capability exists at all, then no human at all--including you, my reader--can be defending any proposition at all.) Therefore I would be unable to rationally accept passive agnosticism to be the 'best' option. My beliefs would only be a reflection of my environment, possibly true, possibly false, and with no way to adequately analyze their accuracy, because any attempt at analysis (by anyone, not just me) would contain the same inherent defect: the 'attempt at analysis' would itself be one more automatically blind knee-jerk response to my environment, whether it happened to 'feel' that way to me or not.

Option B, on the other hand, would entail the falsification of atheism altogether: some type of not-atheism would be true. We would be concluding that the Independent Fact can itself act, initiate, with true purpose, not merely behave unpurposively.

If the proposition 'reactions produce actions' is nonsense, then either atheism is false, or we might as well treat it as false because it can never, in any legitimate way, get going even as a live proposition (much less as a possibly cogently defended one). Atheism could still be sheerly asserted; but a sheer assertion is not a reliable conclusion upon which to form a subsequent belief. (Atheism can certainly be presumed for sake of argument; but unlike the GP, it is not a necessary presumption for every argument. Neither atheism nor any other notion presumptively granted for argument (including the GP) can be deductively concluded by any argument requiring that notion, except in a trivially meaningless circular fashion.)

Two categories of defense may be attempted against this deduction.

Next up: considering those categories of defense.


Jason Pratt said…
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