If You Can’t Deal With Their Argument, Just Call it "Gibberish"

I have been in a several year e-mail conversation with an atheist (Burk Braun) and I suggested a book to him, which I thought explored the problems with Naturalism pretty well. He disagreed. My interlocutor posted his review of the book here.

Below is my response to that review and one can view his response (to my response) on the same site already noted. My apologies for the length of all this.

[I have placed quotation marks around the reviewer’s comments and the authors’ quotes in italics.]

“The book has only 122 pages in five chapters which introduce naturalism and then attack it in various ways. Their definition of naturalism is perfectly adequate: “… the philosophy that everything that exists is a part of nature and that there is no reality beyond or outside of nature.” The authors concentrate on one of its more immediate aspects- the mystery of consciousness, or in theistic terms, the soul. Far from exploring the current scientific status of consciousness, however, they delve right into why it might be reasonable to think we have a soul, where it is, how large it is, how it interacts with our bodies, and similar headscratchers.”

“Far from exploring?” They “delve right into…?” What? You just pointed out the book is only 122 pages—the authors spent the first half of the book exploring some of naturalism’s key proponents, specifically those of the “strict” naturalism type. So the supposed jumping right into the area you note doesn’t even happen until the middle of the book, which is obvious from the page numbers you cite. This is a rather misleading and inauspicious beginning to a “review.” This is right up there with the thinly veiled slight regarding small colleges.

Why didn’t you even address the obvious question that would arise, i.e., are you a strict naturalist? Why or why not? Do you agree with the quotes by Papineau? Dennett? Flanagan? Crick?

Here is a quote from Crick:

“The Astonishing Hypothesis is the “You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice may have phrased it: “You’re nothing but a pack of neutrons.” This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people alive today that it can be truly called astonishing.” (Pg. 22)

Do you agree? More importantly, you failed to even address the huge problems with such a view—or why you think there are no problems with such a view.
For instance, the authors write:

“Given the assault of strict naturalism on the very core of our natural view of ourselves, what is one to say about it? One argument against strict naturalism would be to maintain that the view is self-defeating: its proponents believe it is true, whereas if the view is true, then there ultimately is no such thing as believing it is true because there ultimately are no psychological events of any kind, period.” (Pg. 26)

Why didn’t you address this basic problem?

You also failed to address the problems with “causal closure.” Do you agree with the quote by Searle on page 30? It is very telling that you decided to skip the first two chapters.

“…Thus much of the book feels like a time machine, sending the reader back some 400 years to a time when scholastics racked their brains with such questions…”

Another misleading statement. Almost every person the authors quote is from the past 50 years or so. Other than a nod to Descartes, Kant, and a few others (and one almost has to acknowledge these people in this type of discussion) the people (Kim and Sosa) whose writings the authors are addressing on the pages you quote, wrote in the 2000’s and 1980’s respectively. And these questions and these areas are pursued and talked about today in the same manner the authors are also discussing.

“Hence, it does not seem the least bit implausible to say that a soul’s thinking, choosing, experiencing pain, etc., are explainable in terms of its having the power to think and choose and exercising them, and its having the capacity to experience pain and its being actualized.” (p.69).”

In response, Sosa might claim that no Cartesian who (for the reasons cited in the previous paragraph) thinks he is a nonspatial entity can reasonably believe that he causally interacts with a certain physical body, without also having a knowledge of a noncausal pairing relation in which he stands to that body and that makes it causally accessible to him. It seems to us, however, that such a claim is not more obvious than the nonobvious claim that a spatial relation is a necessary condition of causal interaction between two entities.” (p.64).

“We believe that Sosa’s account of causation is largely mistaken. Just as a spatial relation is not the individuating principle of the substantial objects that are its terms, but those objects are intrinsically individuated, so also a spatial relation is not the individuating principle of the relevant causal properties possessed by the terms of the causal relation, but these are individuated intrinsically and possessed essentially by their bearers. Given the causal ontology summarized in the previous section, a causal relation obtains or is primarily a function of the causal power and capacity of the agent and patient objects respectively.” (p.59).

“As English and as logic, this is utter gibberish.”

If you don’t understand what is being communicated, just say so—don’t blame the authors—they are, after all, dealing with a very complex subject. If you think the areas being discussed in the above quotes could have been written better, then break it down for us in plain English and tell us where they are wrong. I do not see a single problem in the area of logic anywhere in the above quotes if understood in context. Why don’t you point the logic errors out for us?

“These arguments occupy all of chapter three and good portions of the rest of the book. Their very incoherence is a sure sign of their content- that the authors, and indeed all their predecessors in theology, have no idea how to analyze supernaturalism except through dogma.”

If the critique is one of “dogma” then the dogma of scientism should not be employed in the response. In fact, the authors in a very cogent way interacted fairly with, understood, and then challenged the proponents of naturalism. You have failed to do the same with their book.

“The authors are capable of some lucidity, however, such as in the last chapter, titled “The argument from reason”.”

What about the rest of the book? So, let me get this straight: You skip the first two chapters, fail to even deal with the one chapter where you quote the authors, and now you jump to the end of the book. This is a serious review?

“Here, they articulately set up a straw man- that naturalists do not believe in mental contents. Thus any idea that naturalists might have is self-refuting, because ideas are mental contents! It is hard to express how infantile this argument is.”

Why? How is it infantile? How can one read the quotes in the first two chapters and come away not realizing that strict naturalists do indeed believe there are no mental contents in the way the authors mean? The simple fact is that such a view is self-defeating once one begins to assert his belief in strict naturalism. You have written nothing to suggest otherwise.

“There have been precious few thinkers of any stripe who have rejected mental contents entirely.”

Not true, simply go back and read the first two chapters.

“Even B. F. Skinner, the leader of extreme 1950’s behaviorism which discounted mental events for experimental convenience, did not discount them theoretically. And contemporary neuroscience is finally gaining access to exactly the mental contents that have previously been so elusive, via fMRI scanners and the like.”

So an MRI scan will show us a choice being made (or how it’s made?), how one converts to another belief-system, or how one chooses to love an enemy (against one’s own survival)? It is at moments like this where one gets the feeling something has been missed.

“These methods continue to plumb the causal relations between our thoughts, which the authors would have us believe have no cause that can be traced in material reality. The point of naturalism with regard to consciousness is, then, not that mental contents do not exist, but that they are identical with physical events that are possible (in principle, and increasingly in practice) to observe from the outside.”

You forget that the process of choosing, of deliberating, are acts of a mental kind. I don’t think you understand what the authors are claiming. The authors are not saying that naturalists are unaware that thoughts, emotions, daydreams, fantasies, or what have you, exist in their minds. What the authors are pointing out is that according to the naturalist, in the area of the causal explanations of believing- such can never be linked to other mental events like apprehensions and other beliefs. It is a certain type of mental content/process that is being discussed here:

“In many (but not all) cases, believings (formation of beliefs) are causally explained by apprehending (being aware of) and believing mental contents such as (a) propositions and (b) the logical entailment relationships that obtain among them.” (Pg. 118)

Why didn’t you attempt to deal with their syllogism on page 119?

i. Every effect event is caused only by nonmental events (this is just a statement of the stronger principle endorsed by strict naturalism).
ii. Believing that strict naturalism is true is a mental effect event.
iii. Believing that strict naturalism is true is caused only by nonmental events.

“This last chapter begins:”

“As we explained in the introduction, our ordinary view of ourselves includes the idea that we ultimately explain our undetermined choices in terms of purposes. In other words, according to our ordinary understanding of ourselves, our choices have ultimate and irreducible teleological explanations.” (p.117)

“This is a fair synopsis of the entire book, primarily concerned as it is with consciousness, and with the naturalistic dismissal of the theory of “soul” as a putative explanation. It is a rich sentence indeed. First, note the word “irreducible”, which means not capable of being reduced or analyzed by way of the reductionist program of normal science (as well as being a faint shout-out to the intelligent design movement).”

No, which means, rather, they refuse a reductionism that is, indeed, not the program of “normal” science but is based upon the prior commitment philosophically to naturalism or scientism. And the notion that this is a nod to ID in some way is laughable as the authors have no dog in that fight whatsoever. It is this very reductionist mistake that Frodeman [this is a scholar who has come up in our past discussions] is trying to pull geology and the environmental sciences out of and is what Penfield is resisting in his quote on page 36.

“Claiming that something is irreducible is like claiming that something (say, evolution) is inexplicable by natural mechanisms. It is merely an argument from ignorance, since once the phenomenon IS explained and reduced by someone not overly impressed with the word “irreducible”, then suddenly it is reducible after all. This has happened with chemistry, with the vitalist theory of life, with electricity, with disease, and countless other phenomena including, famously, evolution.”

Except that it hasn’t happened as to origins, as to souls or dualism, or as to any area of life considered important to people (God’s existence, meaning, love, purpose, the good, the true, and the beautiful) and all the other areas you note have never led people to ascertain (logically anyway) that because, for instance, we now know that germs cause disease one should conclude there is no God and the material is all there is.

“Secondly, note the obeisance to “ordinary understanding”, which is often mentioned as the author’s touchstone. This is exactly what science and reason labors to improve upon. If we were to take ordinary understanding for our guide to understanding anything, be it the Earth’s movement, the sun’s power source, or the secret of heredity, we should be in a sorry and benighted state indeed.”

You are missing the authors’ greater point, which is that in this area of the mind and all those things that makes people feel they are different from a tad-pole, such as free-will, choosing, apprehending beauty, love, the good, the true, and the very sense of their difference from other biological life goes completely against a naturalist understanding of what it means to be human. You need to address why it is that our own view of ourselves is so “astonishingly” different than the philosophical explanation given by the naturalist. And remember, it is not a “scientific” explanation, but a philosophical one based upon an interpretation of the data—we need to know why it has to be interpreted your way, without citing your prior philosophical beliefs.

“Also, the randomness of the quantum world is just as random as the classical randomness of statistical mechanics, likewise ruling out a theistic thumb on the quantum scale, as briefly suggested by the authors.”

I missed this suggestion. Where was this? Are you talking about the uncertainty principle in physics?

“And, of course there is the physical evidence of complete coincidence between minds and brains- the direct effects that strokes, surgery, transcranial magnetic stimulation, and drugs have on both coincidentally. Indeed it is ironic that these authors choose to attack naturalism on this weakest of fronts, where research is rapidly closing in on detailed brain/mind mechanisms. It is a classic “god of the gaps” approach to theism that stands little chance of surviving the decade, let alone the century.”

Again you miss exactly what aspect of mental activity the authors are speaking to, which is choice, apprehending and believing based upon other beliefs. No one is suggesting that the physical and spiritual can be divided in the way you are assuming here. It appears you were looking for a ridiculous argument like, “We think the soul is located in the left quadrant of the cerebral cortex.” This would be similar to talking about God as if such a being were just a really- really powerful human-like creature (Superman) living on a planet somewhere called heaven and if we just had our telescope turned to the right place, we could see God! We see here the same comic-book understanding of the soul.

The authors readily admit that this is a mystery (dualism, whether Cartesian or Non-Cartesian), but every honest scientist admits many mysteries to this universe and especially as to humans. So what? The authors point to a dualism posited by Kant, which simply located the soul as present “as a whole in [the] body as a whole in every part of it.” (Pg. 66) So, in fact, the areas the authors chose to attack naturalism are indeed their weakest, but they are each weak—only in different ways.

“Thirdly, a focus on teleological explanations is another theme. The authors posit that our actions are ultimately explicable by our teleological “purposes” which are “undetermined”. This is a simple failure to grapple with the details of how minds (or other real processes) work. Ever since Freud (and many more before him) it has been known that we are not the masters of our own house. Our purposes do not spring from nowhere, but have clear antecedents in our instincts, in data arriving from our senses, and in past decisions developed for past problems. Our minds are a roiling, rich bed of causes and effects, some of which are reported into consciousness as thoughts. When making a decision, do we operate in consciousness? No- we sleep on it, or we discuss it with others, or crunch the numbers on paper, or a solution just “pops” into our heads, or any number of other forms of thinking, none of which follow the ordinary intuition of pure purposive consciousness. What cognitive scientists have painstakingly realized is that far from being the locomotive of our cogitation, consciousness is the caboose, as detailed by Daniel Wegner in “The illusion of conscious will“. Consciousness is indeed a near-magical phenomenon that creates an apparently seamless video/sensation of our subjective reality, complete with time-adjustments to appear as real-time. But it can easily be demonstrated, by sudden reflex actions, or by detailed analysis of the visual pathway, that thoughts enter consciousness after they have been generated elsewhere in the brain, without exception. That is also the lesson of brain scanning studies, where recently, researchers have been able to predict physical actions of subjects before they themselves were aware of their own decisions.”

Okay, let’s apply such a view to the process of your book review: So your review is just a non-purposeful, random, “caboose” like rambling, neither here nor there, of a person who believes that conscious will (which he would need for a review like this to even happen) is an “illusion.” Since you are not the “master of your own house” I can assume this review then is perhaps something you really don’t even believe…perhaps you wrote it in a ghost-like trance…you tried to force your fingers into typing the exact opposite, but to no avail. Now, we both know that is not what happened and yet, for you to make your case, you have to speak, act, and think as if the authors’ views are truer to reality than your own.

And you cite Freud? He is seen as an influential popular figure now (a celebrity), not in any serious scientific way. See:

“This fixation on teleology is actually another version of the argument from ignorance. One might just as well say that computers’ prodigies of computation are explained by teleological purposes. Suppose a bank is balancing its books at the end of a week, and its computers work overnight to produce the necessary reconciliation and reports. We could say, following these authors, that the computers do their work out of a “purpose” to balance the books. But that would not even be an attempt at explaining how they do so. As with computers, so with brains, and just because the details of the brain’s computations are currently not as accessible does not mean that there is no “how” to its operations (or that its purposes arise from magical exterior sources, instead of from its inputs and programs).”

Right, and I guess those computers thought/built themselves into existence, designed their own software, and operate without benefit of any outside input.

What you are forgetting is that yours is the argument from ignorance. You don’t know why or how, in a strictly natural sense, consciousness and the mind operate the way they do. You think it will be reduced to an entirely mapable physical construct one day, but until then you posit and argue from…ignorance. However the authors are suggesting that the soul is the “how” as to these dilemmas and since they do not start with your presupposition that the material is all there is- they are not making an argument from ignorance—but from experience, philosophy, theology, logic, science, and history. To admit that one possible solution is a mystery, not reducible, is not the same as arguing from ignorance. Your argument is: “I don’t know, but it has to be reducible to a physical-material cause…because…I’m committed to philosophical naturalism.” Their argument is: “We think we know—it is the classical view (a soul-we are more than physical) of such matters—and it indeed is a mystery.” So is love, evil, the good, the true, and the beautiful. So is life. So what? To recognize such is hardly to argue from ignorance. In fact, it is to argue from wisdom.

“How this relates to reason or argument is not clear. But it is interesting to note what the authors make of the problem of morals and evil, which they take to be another Achilles’ heel of naturalism.”

“These values are surely shared by theists and naturalists, but in broad or strict naturalism it is not clear how one can establish normative values on the basis of processes that are ultimately thoroughly unconscious, nonnormative, and contingent in nature.” (p.95)

“After science, we still need help deciding what to value; what is right and wrong, good and evil, how to behave as we cope. The end of life still lies in its meaning, the domain of religion and ethics.” (p.92, quote from Rolston)

“Why do values need to be normative at all?”

Yes, that is exactly what Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and serial killers asked themselves. And why do ecological values need to be normative? And why should how we treat animals be normative? Of course, you want your values to be normative, you simply can’t tell us why and when you attempt to, we learn that there really are no such things as morals or values—there are only assertions of power.

“Theists desire normative values and authoritative meaning. They are uncomfortable with a world where meaning is up for grabs and morals a matter of reason (which is to say, a world where humans are free)”

Yes, we hate when a person like Hitler sees that meaning and morals are “up for grabs.” Why? Oh, I don’t know…because he might grab about Six Million Jews by the neck. Is that reasonable? It seems to me it would be your view of morality and meaning that is unreasonable because it completely destroys the ability to reason about such things.

“…which are the true ingredients of morals as we decide what would make a better world out of the one we have at hand.”

Wait a minute- you act as if you know what “better” is. How can you given your premises? To be consistent with and logical to your world-view, the world just “is” there can be no “better” or “worse.”

As noted by Fagerstrom: “Darwinism does not provide us with values about whether [a particular state of affairs] is a better or worse state of affairs. Period!” (Pg. 91)
One might respond that Naturalism is different than Darwinism. However that will not do. They both lead to a world where “better or worse” are meaningless. And if one responds, “Well, Darwinism or Naturalism might not provide values, but we can from our own imaginations,” he still has not told us why the values produced by the imaginations of the Nazis could not or should not be normative. Why should we resist those values? In fact, he has removed any way for us to talk about what “normative” would even mean.

“Lastly, the cosmological argument is trotted out for sake of completeness:”

“If naturalism accounts for events within the cosmos but cannot account for the cosmos itself, why not consider a worldview that explains the structure and being of the cosmos itself in a singular teleological reality?” (p.85)

“Why not indeed? Because the proper reply to ignorance is knowledge, not fantasy.”

A great question begging response, but unfortunately, not an argument.

What a disappointing review. You failed to grapple with this book in any significant way. Unlike the authors who addressed naturalism in a charitable, fair, and professional way, you chose the exact opposite route in your review. Very bad form.

What the authors were discussing in their book and the entire conversation around these things require, at a minimum, some background, some presumed familiarity with the philosophical, historical, theoretical, and scientific context to the areas under discussion. Most of us simply need to read more, take some classes, get out and talk to more people who differ and have different perspectives. But the greater issue is one of sensibility. Our wills, our emotions, our choices, our loves are involved in these matters. There is a mystery as to why one person might see a man smile as his son scores a touchdown and reflect, “There must be causal electrical pulses going from eye to brain to facial muscles happening” and a different person reflecting that, “The father sees perhaps himself again, or maybe what he wanted to be, in his son now, and he loves him so.” In other words, what do we believe is really happening at such a moment and what can it be reduced to? It is here, in the area of sensibility, aesthetics, and beauty where we see the greatest difference between the two of us (and Christians and Naturalists as a whole) and for which there is no quick or obvious remedy.

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4 Responses to If You Can’t Deal With Their Argument, Just Call it "Gibberish"

  1. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Darrell-Perhaps you could explain what the authors meant by:<>“Hence, it does not seem the least bit implausible to say that a soul’s thinking, choosing, experiencing pain, etc., are explainable in terms of its having the power to think and choose and exercising them, and its having the capacity to experience pain and its being actualized.”<>


  2. Darrell says:

    Well first, I’m curious. Does the question mean that one of the quotes you were critical of as far as its logic, you didn’t even understand to begin with? Second, after dismissing the book as “tedious, incoherent, and laughable” are we to believe you are really interested in what the authors meant all of a sudden? To the point, what do you mean “explain” what the authors meant? I think they “meant” what they wrote. Do you have a specific question?


  3. Burk Braun says:

    What gibberish means is senseless, which is what I believe this sentence is. However, I could be wrong, and since my basic quest is for knowledge and truth, I would hate to have missed something meaningful here. Your argument implies that I did. I am assuming that the authors wrote not only for theists who regularly presuppose what they think they are proving, but also for those whose standards are those of argument generally- reason and evidence. This sentence was structured as if it presented an explanation, but fails to do so, by any logic I know of.


  4. Darrell says:

    Hi, Burk-I could devote an entire post to the problems with this statement and the mistaken assumptions revealed by it (such as theists presuppose what they are trying to prove while naturalists are simply using “evidence” and “reason). Hopefully I have addressed this for you elsewhere. Again, I would point out that the sentence you question begins with a “hence” so it might be helpful if you re-read what precedes their conclusion.


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