Thursday, July 23, 2009

Just super! Naturalism!

[I've decided to synthesize what I feel are the best replies by me and others to some of my latest posts on natural selection {NS} and naturalism. I like to do this with comments so as to distill and refocus the discussion on a fresh footing.]

Pointing out that not all traits are truly selected for by NS is well taken. Nonetheless, teleology seeps into (or out of it, as is more likely the case) NS. By highlighting certain features as more or less relevantly selected-and-selectable, we eo ipso arrange organic capacities in a hierarchy relative to their finalized roles in the larger life of the organism (viz., organized-dynamic-being) and, via the organism, in the propagation of the species. This is but Aristotelianism redivivus. Saying that such and such a selection is "better for ____" than some other selection, or "more important to ___" than some other selection, is tantamount to saying that some things in nature indicate a graded value of finality and fittingness.

Further, there are at least three problems with a naturalist saying natural selection "tends to" select for truth. First, if natural selection is lawfully ordered towards truth-production, then it is teleological. Is understanding the proper function of your (and humans') cognitive abilities? Is grasping truth the proper end of your (and humans') mental capacities? If not, what is? If so, how devoid of finality is natural human existence? If we deny the human mind is so ordered, and that truth is just a happy coincidence of blind selection, then the original claim stands: natural selection does not select for truth.

Second, there is numerous cognitive evidence that we misperceive things all the time. (Isn't that one of the chestnut arguments against Creation, after all?) Consequently, naturalistically grounding reliable cognition is not so simple as just asserting, darn it all, we have evolved largely and consistently reliable cognitive abilities. If we're the ones doing the experiments to detect our cognitive faults, then faulty minds are trying to correct faulty minds. The kludge leading the kludge, as it were. It's certainly more reassuring to assert our cognitive apparati are by and large reliable… but it's quite circular to ground that assertion in evidence provided by the very apparati under scrutiny. Everything my cognitive abilities show me about my cognitive abilities reveals to my cognitive abilities that everything my cognitive abilities disclose are fully in accord with what I grasp of the world by way of my cognitive abilities, etc., etc. Hopefully you can see how this breathless myopia can't really get off the ground.

Third, as Alvin Plantinga has argued at length and in many ways, on the one hand, naturalism provides no reason to assume nature yields reliable cognitive apparati, but, on the other hand, the scientific arguments for naturalism are predicated on the truth of our cognitive engagement with the world. There is no obvious selection value for an organism to "grasp" the "truth" about the cosmos. Mosquitoes do just fine without all that. As Nozick, Klee, et al. have noted, there is simply no reason to believe natural selection generates minds that surpass "true enough." For instance, human beings evolved to think in Euclidean and Aristotelian terms, but obviously those cognitive impulses hardly count as proof of the truth of Euclidean or Aristotelian physics. Only if we assume, for no antecedent reason, that we can trust our cognitive heritage can we employ science as proof of the truth of our theories. Empirical underdetermination of theory makes our belief in grasping the *truth* of physical and biological law just that–– a belief. Numerous false theories can and do work. The more pragmatic science is, the less intrinsically true it is. Indeed, while Newtonian physics still "works" in pragmatic terms, we know it is untrue, on two counts: one being that its equations are idealized unlike anything we really find in nature (i.e., perfect curves, frictionless planes, infallible increments, etc.), and the second being that Newtonian mechanics were replaced by Einsteinian relativity. The fact that "science works" does not at all prove "science is the truth."

A related problem for naturalism is that of the will and choice. Even if we can rely on our cognitive equipment, we still have to decide what to do with the sensory data. Libertarianism (i.e., "free-willism") is based on the human ability to deliberate between alternatives according to rational values. Determinism can only code that claim as an organism being triggered to mobilize one course of action based entirely on external causes.

But let us suppose a determinist retorts like so:

"A determinist thinks that thoughts and beliefs are caused. So, a determinist arguing with a non-determinist in order to change his mind is entirely consistent with determinism. My words are the cause, the changes in your brain are the effect.

"What makes no sense at all is for a non-determinist to try to change my mind with an argument. If my thoughts and beliefs are not caused, but are contra-causal free floating wonder-stuff, what effect could your argument possibly have?"

Aside from the gross mishandling of technical terms and a facile disregard for the historical course of this debate, this line of defense for determinism is perilous. To wit, if reasons are just a species of causes, there is nothing that separates a rational from an irrational persuasion. Both are simply variant forms of ineluctable causation impinged upon an 'object' from without. Both are just perfectly deterministic "outcomes" that fall out, rationally or irrationally, from "antecedent conditions." As I made clear in my post a few months ago about the "neurolator", if we cannot but respond in a certain way to certain stimuli, whether they are construed as chemical injections or sound waves "in the shape of" arguments, then there is nothing irrational about responding to irrational arguments qua one more cluster of stimuli among others. Nor, however, is there anything rational about it, either. If we reduce reasons to causes, and deliberation to being-effected-by, then no argument is more rational than any other one, since, metaphysically, they are equivalent qua perfectly determined stimulus-response phenomena. Freedom of the will is rooted in our rational capacities, not in any "free-floating" straw man foisted upon the debate. It is only because certain dimensions of rationality include immaterial objects that we posit (i.e., deduce) an immaterial power in rational creatures.

Again, determinists might claim it is all of a piece for them to employ reasons to convince their opponents… but what if they don't want to? A puff of mustard gas in his face will make my determinist interlocutor do and say all kinds of interesting things, but I have no rational grounds for responding to any of it as a rational basis for action, even though all of the photons and sound waves from his gyrating and howling perfectly impinge on me as deterministic influences. If the next day he feels much better and wants me to see a matinee with him, on what rational grounds ought I heed these new stimuli of his as rationally motivating compared to his stimuli the day before? After all, it might just be the residual mustard gas talking. If by their own admission have no choice in the matter, what enables determinists to deliberate between a range of reasons and options, including the choice to defend determinism or not? A determinist may say he cannot but defend his view, but a non-determinist can just as easily shrug his arguments off by saying, in that case, she cannot but disbelieve them. Neither one of them is being irrational–– since neither is being rational. But at least the libertarian knows she is just playing with the determinist; the determinist doesn't realize he's playing with himself. To put it a bit poetically, the difference between determinism and libertarianism is analogous to the difference between "cannot" and "can not" or "cannot but" and "can not, but…." Insofar as these are meaningfully distinct forms of deliberation and action, and insofar as all have a place in libertarianism but not in determinism, libertarianism maps onto the actual world of lived human existence much better than its rival.

Finally, let us consider naturalism from an ethical perspective. I side with Crude in his dispute with unBeguiled, agreeing that unBe's simultaneous denial that there is something called "THE best thing to do" (i.e., objective morality) and insistence that there is no "BEST thing to do", is basically incoherent. Drawing on B. Lonergan and H. Meynell, I like to describe such cases as unBe's as performatively incoherent, or retorsively self-destructive.

To face moral truth, one need not simply imaginatively suspend his belief in naturalism. Rather, he needs to drop that belief altogether, for two reasons. First, the incoherence of monism itself undermines naturalism as a species of monism. Second, the naturalist needs to face the Sisyphusean performative absurdity of this debate as long as he pushes for naturalism.

In the first case, I take monism to be incoherent simply because it removes the tools we need to mount a defense of it, namely, actual distinctions. If everything really is water, then how could we (being water ourselves) possibly grab two distinct 'pieces' of water and compare them against a distinct non-watery background in order to assert that these two distinct pieces of _____ are water? If the space between them as we observe them is water, we ourselves as observers are water, the background against which we view them is water, and so on, then how could we possibly distinguish anything in the water-world from anything else? A monist may try to blunt the force of this critique by imagining (as unBe did in the comment box) a handful of coins and saying the different kinds of coins are all still just coins, and therefore, by analogy, the different kinds of objects in nature are all still just nature. But notice what the monist has done: he asked me (not a heap of coins) to consider a handful of coins in your hand (not a heap of coins) with enough space (not more coins) between them to distinguish them. In other words, he inadvertently (and illegitimately) used a pluralistic ontology to establish a monist ontology. Otherwise the monist just ends up sayin, "coinscoinscoins, coinscoinscoins, etc." The only way we can specify this or that patch of spacetime is "a handful of coins," is by acknowledging that not every patch is "a handful of coins." Are you a handful of coins as you ponder your own handful of coins? Does your handful of coins behold itself? And if so, against what background? An infinite sea of handfuls of coins? You can't even say anything about the specific contents of the handful of coins–– pennies, nickels, dimes–– without once more pluralizing your ontology.

The upshot is this: Only because nature is radically and actually distinct from God is there any metaphysical grounds for distinguishing the myriad contents of nature. As Jacques Maritain puts it on page ix in his masterwork, The Degrees of Knowledge (Fr. Distinguir pour unir), "Every attempt at metaphysical synthesis, especially when it deals with the complex riches of knowledge and of the mind, must distinguish in order to unite." In theism, everything is from God, but not all things are God. All beings participate in God's Being per se, but not everything "be's" in the same way. Existence is not a univocal concept in theism, though it must be in monism. As James Chastek put it so well [I can't find the post so I'm paraphrasing], "We tend to think of existence as univocal, like a light switch being on or off, but Thomism sees existence as analogical, graded, like a dimmer switch."

In any case, the second reason one should drop naturalism, namely, that a moralizing naturalist is seeking a standard for moral discourse while at the same time renouncing the supremacy of standards over human interactions themselves. To quote Crude:

"You don't need my agreement to build a meta-ethic. Hell, you don't need other people at all. You don't even need to make it consistent. Just build it, declare yourself done when it pleases you, and you've succeeded, or at least as close as you can get to "success" in naturalism. You'll have made a meta-ethical system that's just as objectively "good" as any other system proposed. Not bad for what could be five minutes' work.

"So what you're asking me here isn't to give you something "better" in an objective sense. Insofar as you embrace naturalism, you rule that out to begin with. You can't be asking me to get you to renounce naturalism - that would be a completely different ballgame than discussing ethics. What you can be asking me to do is persuade you about subjective standards using subjective criteria. But why in the world would I want to? Under naturalism, you may as well be asking me to persuade you that vanilla tastes better than chocolate."

Is courtesy, for example, really a natural norm that must (or perhaps just 'ought') govern every intersubjective discourse? Says who? Your little discourse over there? Is parsimony really a natural standard by which we must (or ought) judge all intersubjective claims? Who says so? That little discourse-clique over yonder? And so on. Even if we could settle on one moral discourse as "the best for us to adopt," we would eo ipso negate intersubjective autonomy by basing our choice of intersubjective norms on some reified "best way," and thus find ourselves back in the objectivist camp.

At one point, unBe said, "On naturalism, I think that 'objective' morality in a strict sense is unintelligible. But . . . a robust secular ethic can be constructed. We can figure out how best to behave. We can figure out what we ought to do."

The obvious, and perhaps by now predictable, rejoinder is to ask on what grounds 'ought' we, rather than simply do we, as a matter of custom and conditioning, construct an ethical system at all, much less a robust one? Naturalistic evolution can account for why we have certain moral impulses and aversions, but it cannot assess whether we ought have them and, ultimately, what we ought do with them; it can only sketch what we have done and might do with them.

Having said all that, I suggest that the objective-subjective distinction (ach, zat vord again!) is highly ambiguous in trinitarian Christian orthodoxy (TCO), precisely because TCO posits intersubjective communion as the eternally objective basis for all things! Objective morality just means the intersubjective concerns that "umbrella" the common, fundamental experience of human beings. TCO actually results in an apophatic morality, since every moral "system" must be relativized against the transcendent, objective "backdrop" of God Himself. There is, thus, not only room for a kind of pluralist ethics in TCO, but also a basis for pluralistic ethics. No moral "system" is 'perfect' since only God is perfect. But insofar as our moral aims are aimed at God in His self-revelation in Christ, our moral systems are perfected. This is but the act-potency distinction (!) applied to ethics. It is also why God is not properly called a "moral being," but is instead perfectly free being-in-communion.

The oft-repeated claim that, even if there is some objective moral standard, we cannot know it, works just as well against science. Indeed, there is a long philosophical pedigree for citing ultimate uncertainty as evidence against truth claims. What such an ultimate skepticism is to morality, however, antirealism is to the objectivity of science. Even if there is an independently existent world of theoretical entities, antirealists argue, we could never know it for sure; therefore, there are effectively no independently existent theoretical realities. For pragmatists and instrumentalists, science, like morality, is purely a contingent intersubjective discourse, one of man's many finite (or infinite) games. The ultimate skeptic seems to be looking for some meta-standard by which we could assess objective moral claims as, perhaps, objectively objective (!), but doing so not only begs the question against moral truth qua that very standard in the first place, but also confuses "objective" with "ultimate." In a realist philosophy, morality is objective in the same way science is: both seek to discover, engage, and be-informed-by genuine fixtures of the world. Moral truth, like certain thereotical entities, are "shot from" (ob-jectus) reality to us "below" them (sub-jectus, under-standing). Grasping objective moral and scientific truth does not mean grasping ultimate or total moral and scientific knowledge, since, obviously, new data can disconfirm a current scientific theory, new facts can dissolve past moral issues. A better, broader–– that is, more objective–– theory can 'sublimate' a lesser one, in the sense of negating it by integrating its truth in a higher schema of reality; the truth of the inferior model remains objectively intact, but only as far as reality shows it extends.

Interestingly, in the same way that religion is accused of fostering (or feeding on) confirmation bias (i.e., religionists are predisposed to remember "when faith works" but downplay or block out when it fails), much of science merits the same criticism. If you compare the hours and hours and hours of effort put into science with the minute, incremental gains it makes (compared, again, to the countless failed experiments and totally erroneous hypotheses), it becomes evident that science itself is vaunted only for when it works. Scientific failures and fraud are just as much a part of the scientific enterprise as its breakthroughs and victories. As for the rejoinder, "Yeah, but when science works, it really works," or, "Yeah, but science works over and over again in many people's lives," this is no more compelling than saying, "When miracles happen, they really happen," or, "Faith works in people's lives over and over again in countless situations." Using a microwave is a humdrum benefit of science, but then again, finding the strength to forgive our enemies, love our spouses better, etc., are also daily, humdrum benefits of religious faith.


UnBeguiled said...

I have been praying that your posts would become shorter.

I know it irritates you when I pick out one bit to wrestle with.

IMO, shorter posts would mean more readers. Consider it.

Anonymous said...

A passing thought from a philosopher:

Your argument against monism assumes that the one substance must be fundamentally homogeneous. This is false.

Parmenides and Melissus argued that monism demands fundamental homogeneity ("nothing can be distinct from itself"), but other monists argued that substance monism can be upheld taking into account individuation (aka the One and the Many problem), such as Spinoza, Lucretius, et al..

I suggest you thoroughly read the SEP article on monism to help you refine and assess your claims.