Wednesday, November 08, 2006

But Maybe

Remember when you were a kid? Remember the ultimate comeback to almost anything? "But maybe." An older brother would tell his kid, "Look, how can Santa Clause fit down that little chimney?" The reply from the five year old Santaist is expected, "But maybe he can turn really skinny when he goes down chimneys!"

The above is kind of how I feel reading this new tactic used in discussions regarding materialism."

"Interlocutor" (and I didn't mean to call him a child, I just started off the blog entry with that illustration. Far from it, I consider him respectable and intelligent) has become quite insistent with his particular approach of defending materialism against the argument that it can't account for reason, logic, knowledge, etc. He wants to argue, "But maybe a materialist could account for it." "But maybe matter's like this really unknown thing and it can, somehow, account for X, Y, Z."

I'd like to make a few comments:

1. Let's at least be honest then and admit that your materialism is held by faith. The Christian's faith has warrant to it. Where's the warrant for the faith of the materialist found?

2. The problem is that X is something that can't be accounted for given materialism. X has a quality or characteristic that renders it non-existent on physicalist assumptions. No matter how much faith you have, you can't believe that a view which, by definition, locks out certain entities, properties, etc., can allow for those things. If so, it wouldn't be materialism (or, physicalism) anymore.

3. For example, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy tells us that, "Physicalism is the thesis that everything is physical, or as contemporary philosophers sometimes put it, that everything supervenes on the physical" (source). Now, if the above things I mentioned are not physical, or do not supervene on the physical, then there's no room for them amongst the metaphysical furniture in the house of physicalism. That's not by my argument, that's what the physicalist tells us.

4. Therefore if X is not something that "is physical, or as contemporary philosophers sometimes put it, that everything supervenes on the physical," then it doesn't exist. It will never exist.

5. Now, the physicalist might try to define, argue for, etc., X as something that is physical or supervenes on the physical. In this case, X loses its essential characteristics, though. So, the price they pay is too high.

6. Or, possibly the definition of physicalism will change. In that case, as Victor Reppert tells us:

"Now if someone wanted to define materialism widely enough so that something whose essence it was to perceive logical truths could be a material thing, then I guess I could even qualify as a materialist. But if we did that we would be straying big-time from our ordinary conception of “matter.” However, so long as we are not trying to call something “matter,” then it is perfectly possible for non-material things to be able to perceive logical relations as part of their essence. So God can be an essentially rational being, who knows all the logical truths in all possible worlds. Whereas we cannot say of a piece of matter that it is essentially rational without stretching the concept of matter beyond all recognition, we can say of God that God is essentially rational, and it fits perfectly with our ordinary understanding of God."

7. Furthermore, this tactic also gives a lot of breathing room to the theist. How so? In the combox of the link I posted to above, Interlocutor said this:

"Contrast this with what would be involved in "explaining" rational inference for a materialist. It would involve describing the exact processes by which rationality could (or necessarily must) supervene on the purely physical.

This would be quite the project even if materialism was the case, don't you think? In fact, isn't it reasonable to conclude that if materialism were actually the case, answering this question would be one of the most difficult undertakings imaginable and that it would not be surprising to find that humans have not yet figured out how to explain it?"

Now what I want to ask is, what would happen if the theist attempted this?

What about when Michael Martin attacks the incarnation and I respond, "well, given your arguments, which I can't answer now, we shouldn't be surprised that there isn't an answer right now. But, that doesn't mean that there isn't one, and you don't know that a theist won't answer it in the future."

Or, take some of the coherency arguments. I could respond the same.

What I would like to know is how the atheist community would view my position on theism? Could I expect to browse the infidelguy online forums and find out how respectable it is for me to hold to theism? Or, would I find them mocking me?

It just strikes me as a double standard that theists are ripped apart of they don't have answers to every question under the sun (i.e., how many angels can dance on the head of a pin), but a materialist can pull this stunt and it's considered "respectable."

At the very least, let's say I grant the materialist this out, shouldn't atheists then be a bit more lenient if a theist can't answer their questions?

Lastly, the AFR would state that given materialism, you have no reason, justification, or warrant to believe that reason, knowledge, logic, etc., can be explained given materialism. There's no basis for believing your thoughts are rational. Now, if the materialist wants to say that he thinks an answer may be found, guess what?; according to the AFR he has no reason for believing that an answer will be found. So, his belief in a future answer is still unwarranted given the AFR. Thus if he can't answer the AFR then he must admit that playing the "faith card" is an unwarranted move. Therefore to use the "faith card" he must provide an explanation right now. But this move contradicts the "faith card." Therefore, either he must admit that, currently, he's unwarranted in playing the "faith card," or he must try to give an explanation for reason and drop the "faith card" approach.


  1. "Interlocutor" (and I didn't mean to call him a child, I just started off the blog entry with that illustration. Far from it, I consider him respectable and intelligent)

    Thanks, Paul. Likewise.

    "Interlocutor" . . . has become quite insistent with his particular approach of defending materialism . . .

    I don't know that I would consider myself as "defending" physicalism. There are some pretty good arguments for dualism, and I'm not ruling out the possibility that God/Allah/Vishnu/[insert other deity] did not impose X,Y,Z on the universe.

    My concern is that it is crucial to Victor's argument (as I understand it--and in all honesty, I probably don't understand it at all) to make the claim that "physicalism is not the case."

    I agree with you that it would be a poor materialist, indeed, who "defended" materialism/physicalism by using what I've said as an "argument." It would truly be analogous to your Santa Clause analogy [though, I'm not convinced that the theist can't be accused of something similar].

    My point is that arguing that "physicalism/materialism is not the case" is part of the AFR. In order to demonstrate that physicalism is not the case (a positive claim), the AFR proponent must eliminate it from possibility (or, at least, show it to be highly improbable).

    But assume that materialism IS the case (and, again, I'm not suggesting it is). If materialism were the case, it is also possible (probable, even) that at any given stage of our intellectual development, we would either (a) not know enough about the nature of matter and/or (b) not know enough about supervenience to explain how "X, Y, Z" supervene on matter.

    Since, then, it is possible and probable that we would not know these things, the AFR would not be able to demonstrate that materialism/physicalism is not (or is probably not) the case. This, however, seems necessary for the AFR.

    I have one other problem with AFR (at least, as I poorly understand it) that I will address below. First, I want to address some of what you said about physicalism, because I think I finally see why we seem to be talking past each other.

    I think the definition you quoted from the Stanford EoP is a good one. Again, it reads, "Physicalism is the thesis that everything is physical, or as contemporary philosophers sometimes put it, that everything supervenes on the physical."

    I want to highlight the last part of the definition, because I think that is where our misunderstanding lies. It reads, "everything supervenes on the physical."

    Laws of logic (if, in fact, they are "laws" and holism is wrong as well as dilatheism, etc.) are not physical. I think we can all agree (and those that disagree don't really seem to understand what is going on). The question, then, is can they "supervene" on the physical. That, I think, is an open question and I have no idea how to answer it (and I don't think I've read anyone who does have a satisfactory answer). It is because it is "open" that I am objecting to the AFR. It is also because it is "open" that I am not attempting to defend materialism. The answer might really be that laws of logic CAN'T supervene on matter and that the materialist project is sunk (and there are even other problems that materialism faces that haven't been mentioned).

    But maybe the problem is in understanding supervenience. Imagine this weird old painter sitting behind a canvas. He starts smearing paint around until he is satisfied. Now, what do we have? Well, physically, we have a canvas and paint (each containing other material properties). But we also have something else that is not canvas and paint. We have this brunette with a weird, half-smile who we call "Mona Lisa." So, now, there is something that is NOT physical. What "arises" from the physical paint and canvas is a non-physical, immaterial image that conveys a sadness and mystery.

    Or to use an altered version of David Lewis' dot-matrix printer example:

    Imagine that I have a dot-matrix printer (some of your younger readers are going to wonder what I'm talking about). I put a stream of paper into the printer and hit print. What comes out is paper with ink dots on it. That is the physical account of it. Now, imagine that I hang this over the sofa of my living room. My wife walks in, looks at it, and says, "Oh, [interlocutor], how sweet! I love you too!"

    She is not responding to something physical (i.e. dots on a page), but rather something immaterial (i.e. the words that I have typed, "Happy Anniversary, Babe. I love you."). The immaterial "sentiment" supervenes on the purely physical.

    So, of course, we can agree that laws of logic aren't physical. What I don't know (and what I'm not sure can be ruled out) is if laws of logic CAN SUPERVENE on the physical. This, I think, is the open question. Is there something about matter that causes laws of logic to "arise" from it just as the image of Mona Lisa arose from paint and canvas?

    Again, though, this is a crappy defense of materialism if someone truly believes that physicalism is the case. If a materialist used what I said above as a DEFENSE of materialism, it would be a poor defense indeed. Perhaps, they could list the merits of materialism in other areas and then say what I've said above as to what they would need to see in order to be convinced that materialsim is the case.

    I will gladly leave defending materialism to the materialists, though. I'm only interested in how well the AFR establishes its case that materialism is not the case.

    Lastly, I want to say that it still seems to me that there is a disparity in the "explanations" asked for in the AFR. Steve says that I have made a mistake in interpreting the AFR. He, no doubt, knows a lot more about it than I do, but I can't shake the feeling that Victor was saying that the materialist must explain exactly how the rational supervenes on the physical (i.e. the processes by which it does) and that the theist only has to explain that a God is responsible.

    Again, I trust Steve's knowledge of the AFR a lot more than my own, but just from the little that I read on Victor's blog, I think I correctly interpreted him, and I think my complaint is valid within that context (though, apparently not in the overall context of which Steve knows a lot more).

    I've used more time than I have on this.


  2. Interlocuter,

    Well put. I, too, am not overcommitted to physicalism. I tend to find it convincing and attractive for various reasons.

    The argument that it is "attractive" to me simply because it does away with God(s) is a silly one. I can believe in the Deist's God, who could, indeed, instantiate laws of logic (somehow), without it affecting me in the slightest. I simply have not yet been convinced that this God is a necessary entity.

    Paul, I understand your material here, but Interlocuter made a point that has been underscored elsewhere -- where is the positive argument put forth that physicalism cannot account for the laws of logic?

    Carrier has responded to this claim in two different sections of his response to Reppert:
    1) AfPR
    2) ontology of logic

    I want to quote a section from (1):

    Missing all this, Reppert goes on to declare that "if one accepts the laws of logic, as one must if one claims to have rationally inferred one belief from another" (emphasis added) "then one must accept some nonphysical, nonspatial and nontemporal reality" rather like Plato suggested (81). Note how close Reppert is to getting it—but just when you think he has it, he puts the cart before the horse, then observes that the whole caboose won't go, and from that concludes it can't go, without some wizard to cast a spell to levitate the cart so it can drag the horse along where it needs to go. If you think that is a silly way to respond to an inverted horse-and-cart, then you will agree Reppert's approach to logical laws is silly, too. The reason one must accept the laws of logic to rationally infer anything is the very same reason one must accept the laws of aerodynamics to fly. Surely Reppert would not conclude that we need some sort of supernatural powers and beings to explain why we need to follow the laws of aerodynamics to fly. The reason we need them is that it is physically impossible to fly any other way, and the only way flight is physically possible is exactly the way described by those laws. All you need for that to be true is a physical universe that is a certain way. Of Plato's hypothesis we have no need.

    Yet one could just as easily say that the laws of aerodynamics are "nonphysical, nonspatial and nontemporal." Or rather, one can just as wrongly say so. For the laws of aerodynamics do not exist but for the physical objects and relations that physically interact as they do. Thus, there is no sense in which the behavior of physical objects, or their existence, or their interaction or relation, is "nonphysical." The same goes for space and time: without space and time, there would be no aerodynamics, and yet we can use the laws of aerodynamics to describe possible flying machines that never have and never will exist. For the laws of aerodynamics apply to (they describe) all physical worlds that are relevantly similar (i.e. that have the same physical attributes that entail, and are entailed by, those laws), including worlds that have flying machines in them that do not exist in this (we suppose actual) world. The same is true of logic, though even fewer physical attributes are necessary for them (e.g. the mere physical fact of the existence of distinctions and causal and ontological consistency is sufficient to establish the law of non-contradiction—see below, as well as my later discussion of the Ontology of Logic).

    Something that I have not been able to think through clearly enough, but have this nagging intuition about, is in the fact that we know that matter occupies a particular spatio-temporal location, and cannot occupy two at the same time, and thus has a foundation for particularism.

    This also seems to me to give the basis for identity, non-contradiction, and the excluded middle. It seems intuitive, but I do not know how to argue it.

    Our physical laws and our logical laws seem to supervene on one another, and I just don't know how that would work, or which is "primary". The fact that we can find particulars, which have identities, is completely dependent upon the properties of those particulars -- that they are unique in their spatio-temporal location and [ergo] properties.

    Does anyone else see what I'm saying? Perhaps some physicalist philosopher or another has put this into much better terms and articulated it beautifully.

    I think that the laws of physics are necessary for the laws of logic in our universe. If matter could occupy two spatio-temporal locations, how could identity, non-contradiction, and excluded middle apply? As soon as "A" is identified, "B" and "A" could become inextricable and enmeshed physically -- rendering particular identification impossible.

    Does this make any sense?

  3. Interlocutor, you make a good point about supervenience. It goes back to Aristotle's point that there are different ways of "being" and using words referring to being. There are lots of things that "exist" or have "reality" which are not easy to categorize. Even some properties of matter are not "material" in the sense that they are not actually material objects. Motion, for example, which is a property of physical objects, clearly exists in some fashion. It supervenes on matter, but motion is not itself a material object. The same can be said of occupying a certain portion of space, or being bigger or smaller than another object, or having a certain charge, or even having mass, shape and size. The list could be expanded, but the point is that all of these are real, all are material properties, but they are not in and of themselves material objects. They are not physical in the narrowest sense.

    What about more abstract things like laws of logic? Physicalism does seem to have a problem accounting for the necessity of the laws of logic, but as for their immateriality, I don't think theism or any worldview which posits the existence of spirits is in any better position. The reason is that things like laws can't be neatly categorized as "spirits" or souls either. The same is true for all the properties of matter which I mentioned before. They may not be material objects, but they are certainly not immaterial objects either. Whatever these things are, they are not objects in any normal sense of the word.

    This is the problem with arguments like the TAG and TANG. They seem to be rather simple, but when you actually investigate the issues involved you see that they are difficult problems of metaphysics and ontology which neither theism nor naturalism have solved. If you want to make the case for or against either worldview, I think you have to wage the battle on more traditional grounds.