January 11, 2007

Logic, damned logic, and Joe Carter

In a piece over at his blog: "the evangelical outpost," Joe Carter proposes to demonstrate that materialism, as a philosophy, is a logical quagmire. This is worth taking a look at, if only because it results in such a uniquely daffy argument. But before I step into it with him I want to point to a “meta” sort of mistake he makes, the likes of which is nearly ubiquitous in these kinds of arguments.

Carter is arguing that materialism is philosophically flawed, and by extension that some sort of non-materialist, extra-naturalist philosophy is more intellectually tenable (he is a fundamentalist Christian, I believe). Consider the very foundational parameters of this position for a moment. Let’s examine the inherent proposition: that we can, by use of logical extrapolation, determine the truth or falsity of a particular perspective [which perspective only accepts as evidence that which can be observed or measured in some fashion, e.g., the natural universe], as opposed to the counter-perspective [which cannot be established by any empirical measure (no this is not a strawman, it is a recognition that for an argument to be persuasive it must present evidence acceptable to those one hopes to persuade)].

In other words, his argument is that logic can demonstrate the factuality of that which is empirically not demonstrable.

Are we not justified in observing that no matter the logical hoops our erstwhile non-materialist philosopher jumps through the fact of a universe wherein we have no evidence for magic (supernaturalism) trumps rhetoric, however earnestly attempted?

Put more simply - feel free to attempt to demonstrate logically that materialism is a failed concept, then let’s both walk outside and deal with the real world, where materialism is the only (successful) game in town. In the final analysis what is important is, well…analysis. If you aint got the evidence, you aint got the goods.

This (intentionally?) overlooked meta-perspective looms over many - especially creationist - philosophical arguments. Think about all those probability calculations which purport to show that some facet of evolution could not have happened naturally. We can argue the details of flagella and biochemistry from here until Tuesday (or even Last Thursday) but the overarching point remains: flagella and biochemistry are demonstrable facts of the natural universe, leaving complaints about probability nothing more than fluffy suggestions that “it,” whichever “it” (biological structure, function, etc.) is currently popular, had to have been magically begotten.

Yes, discussion of the empirical details is important, as it’s often the misunderstanding of these details that some of the less scrupulous theists use to grease the wheels of grassroots religious influence. But let’s not forget, and in fact maybe try to emphasize, the big picture. That’s where these arguments are shown to be little more than logical or semantic conceits.

But I digress. Back to Carter’s blog.

After a brief opening intended to demonstrate that “While we may be at a loss to explain how certain events occur, we can certainly rule out any explanations that are logically impossible” he moves on to his discussion of materialism.
"Most atheists and other advocates of philosophical naturalism also believe in materialism, the idea that everything that actually exists is material or physical. This view forms one of the cornerstone presuppositions in their worldview. The problem is that by clinging to this belief they must also accept other beliefs that can be proven to be logically impossible.

Let's start by examining how such a view affects what philosophers call 'doxastic states' - states of the mind that are either beliefs or are similar to beliefs (i.e., thoughts, judgments, opinions, desires, wishes, fears). If materialism is true then all doxastic states are (a) illusions, (b) physical states, or (c) emergent properties of physical states.


The second position is the one that is most commonly espoused by materialists."
I don’t know that it's true that materialists prefer (b) more commonly than (c), but it doesn’t matter, because Carter proceeds to conflate the positions below.
"Physical states (i.e., within an entity though not necessarily in the brain) produce a doxastic state with a special causal or functional role. Under this view, known as non-reductive physicalism, functional properties cannot be reduced to physical properties, but that all causality is still, nevertheless, physical.

Jaegwon Kim has shown how one can be either a physicalist, or non-reductive, but not both by using a simple diagram:

M causes M*
P causes P*

In this diagram, a single mental event M is seen as causing another mental event M*. This mental event is physically realized (for example in a brain state) by a physical event P, which causes P* i.e. the physical realization of M* . Kim's argument against the existence of mental causation is that the top layer does no real work. P can cause P* all by itself, with no help from M, and there is no coherent way in which M can cause M* without P's help, or without causing P*. Thus it seems that physical causality is all we've got, and mental descriptions are somewhere between "being shallow and being outright falsehoods."
This is close to being word salad. To the degree that it has any meaning it is helplessly distorted by a pre-commitment to dualism. There is no separation between a mental state and its physical realization. There is no need to discover any connection between Kim’s Ms and Ps, nor is there any reason to expect that P should need help from M because P and M are synonymous.

Carter realizes this and gets down to his real purpose: promulgation of the “no free-will” and “atheism is amoral” canards.
"The only other option for the materialist is reductionism, which says that physical events are identical with mental events. This leads us to two equally strange conclusions. If doxastic states are nothing more than physical states then they are controlled by natural laws. All behavior would therefore be caused and bounded by the laws relating to chemistry and physics. Not only would we not possess free will, we could not claim to control our behavior at all."
Indeed this is a strange conclusion. Let’s take a step back as we did at the beginning and look at the bigger picture. Does it really matter to our Newtonian reality whether we can characterize the molecular level as being deterministic? Does it feel to you as if you have free will? Could you choose to stop reading right now? Could I choose to end this piece and stop writing right now?

Of course the answer is yes to both questions. For any value of “free will” that has meaning to the human condition - that being the state where our capacity, real or imagined, is indistinguishable from that of actual free will - we have to accept that humans do display this capacity. It doesn’t matter that we can observe determinism in the physics and chemistry. We operate at a dramatically larger scale, where collation and commingling of stupendously varied sets of physical and chemical influences lays the foundation from which emerges our ability to make choices. Those choices are not merely the end product of a unidirectional flow-chart of activity coming directly from deterministic molecules. They also reflect that which we have learned and internalized and sent back down the chain to eventually directly influence those molecules. We interact with that supposedly deterministic environment such that our choices play a part in building new behaviors and inspiring new choices. Thus, any complaint about having no claim to control of our behavior is sophistry built upon a misunderstanding of the scale and nature of physical determinism.
"We would be so biologically determined that we could not be considered morally responsible for our actions. Every aspect of our behavior would be nothing more than reactions to stimuli produced by our environment. Within such a context, ethics is meaningless."
This is silly. It is no less silly than the alchoholic who protests that because of a genetic predisposition to addiction he is not responsible for the choices he made in drinking and driving and ditching the Dodge. We are not slaves to our genes. We are complicated bundles of pleiotropic interactions and reticulated behavioral and physiological networks. My point above applies here as well, information about how to build a brain and process information does not flow only in one direction, with edicts being handed down by genes and carried out by the developing physiology. Our physiology is influenced by our environment as it grows, and what we become is the product of many loops of developmental interconnectedness - including our own actions and their consequences. Information flows into as well as out from our biological base.

Consequently, it makes no sense to say that we are controlled by our genes in the same way that it makes no sense to say that we are controlled by deterministic laws. Likewise, it is nonsense to suggest that within the materialist concept ethics would be meaningless.

What does makes sense is to say that if one is a materialist, one accepts that ethics are a product of our own decisions, not independently (supernaturally) given.

Carter goes on,
"As a reader once pointed out in a previous comment on this blog, we can't grind down matter and discover 'purpose.' Purpose is, after all, a mental construct. But if matter is all that exists, then all physical events as well as mental events can ultimately be traced back to matter. Doxastic states, if they are more than an illusion, must therefore be a 'property' of matter. But all the matter is of the same "stuff" whether it is the material that comprises stones and plants or the human brain.

That leads to our second conclusion. Since doxastic states are produced by matter, matter can produce doxastic states in anything (or everything). If this is true it leads to a peculiar result. Mountains can have 'beliefs', car engines can feel 'pain', and rivers can have 'memories.' In fact, since matter is all that exists, existence itself becomes a singularity. Materialism is, after all, another form of monism."
This result is indeed peculiar. But the only thing that led there was specious reasoning. It is only by the most frantic waving of hands (or the most myopic of worldviews) that one could argue “Since doxastic states are produced by matter, matter can produce doxastic states in anything” without considering for the briefest moment the fact that the particular arrangement and constitution of the matter in question might have some influence on the ability of that matter to produce a doxastic state.
"Let me restate that once more so that we are clear about what is being claimed:

1. Everything in the universe either exists or does not exist.
2. Matter is all that exists.
3. Everything that exists is made of matter;" [or “can ultimately be traced back to matter," I know Joe wouldn’t want to bias this restatement by leaving out that which he previously allowed], "anything that is not matter" [or cannot ultimately be traced back to matter] "does not exist.
4. The universe exists and does not contain any things that do not exist.
5. Since matter cannot exist and not-exist at the same time, matter is unified (matter is one).
6. Since everything in the universe has an existence and everything that exist is made of matter, the universe is one."
This (6.) is meaningless.
"7. Within the universe, no non-arbitrary distinctions can be made between things that exist."
This is wordplay.
"8. Doxatics states are physical states and physical states are composed of matter. Therefore, doxastic states are composed of (or at least properties of) matter.
9. If any part of matter can produce a doxastic state, all matter can do so. (Follows from 1, 2, and 6)."
This (9.) is casuistry.
"10. Anything that exists can produce a doxastic state."
This is, well…bullshit.
"11. All doxastic states are one.
Some of the conclusions we can draw from this are that we are unable to clearly determine whether our thoughts are being produced by our desk, our chair, our TV, or our brain. After all, they are all composed of matter and matter is one. It's weird but is it wrong?"
No. It doesn’t even rise to the level of being wrong.
(This is obviously a rough draft and I am sure that I will have to tighten the argument to make it completely valid and sound).
No comment. But thanks anyway for the straight line.

The rest is a re-restatement of the foregoing bafflegab. Joe sums up by claiming he has proved a logical contradiction of atheism and wryly observes,
And they say Christians have weird beliefs?
Let's hope he doesn’t expect this post to stand as evidence to the contrary.


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