Thursday, May 25, 2006

Doubting naturalism

There’s an interesting piece by Anthony Matteo at Science and Spirit, “Reasonable Doubt”, which raises objections to naturalism on grounds which will be familiar to those who know Alvin Plantinga’s work. Among them are 1) an evolutionary-adaptive account of human reasoning is insufficient to ground the reliability of our theorizing about the world, and 2) naturalistic explanations can’t secure the causal efficacy of consciousness (mental causation) upon which having true beliefs supposedly depends. These considerations suggest that on a naturalistic account of ourselves we can’t trust our own reasoning. Since naturalism fails us, we have to assume some sort of supernatural basis to account for our capacities for reliable knowledge: “deeper ordering principles in nature that have to be added to the explanatory mix to account for their emergence” and those ordering principles might be conferred on nature by a “Cosmic Mind.” In less a theistic but equally dualist vein, Matteo concludes that “the emergence of consciousness and rationality require a more expansive metaphysical vision in which the mental dimension is in some way a fundamental feature of the nature of things, not simply an epiphenomenal derivative of the physical.”

A few comments, for those with the time and inclination:

Matteo worries that a strictly physical, causal story of the brain as being sufficient for rationality somehow undercuts the idea that we can have true conscious beliefs. But I don’t think this necessarily follows. Why can’t true beliefs, occurently experienced as the conclusion of conscious deliberative processes, supervene on deterministic physical processes going on in the brain? Seeing exactly how the correspondence is established is of course a fascinating problem, but there’s no a priori reason to suppose this can’t be solved. That there is such correspondence means we can see how the capacity to form true conscious beliefs was subject to selection pressure: selection operated on their neural correlates. Our beliefs “hook on to external reality” because our brains were selected to reliably track our environments. Whether a purely physicalist account (no spooky stuff, but taking advantage of all explanatory levels) renders consciousness causally epiphenomenal, as Matteo worries it might, is a separate question, ultimately to be decided by arriving at the best explanation of our cognitive capacities.

Matteo also conflates the “hard problem” of explaining conscious phenomenal qualities (qualia) with the problem of being rational, which again is quite a separate matter. After all, we’ve built at least the beginnings of a proto-rationality (having goals, following logical rules, and sensitivity to contingencies) into our computers, which we assume don’t have qualia (yet). And regarding the hard problem, Matteo’s far too pessimistic, quoting Jerry Fodor that “Nobody has the slightest idea how anything material could be [phenomenally] conscious” and Ned Block: “In the case of [phenomenal] consciousness we have nothing—zilch—worthy of being called a research program, nor are there any substantive proposals about how to go about starting one.” Fodor was writing in 1992, and since then there’ve been significant advances both in clarifying what we mean by phenomenal consciousness as an explanatory target, and in adducing full blown, empirically grounded theories (e.g., Thomas Metzinger’s Being No One). So I think Block is simply wrong about research programs.

Regarding our cognitive capacities, Matteo writes:

“If they are of a nonpurposeful origin, have we good grounds for assuming their reliability? If we could provide a nonpurposeful explanation of a contrivance such as William Paley’s famous watch, would we then go on to contend that it was nonetheless a reliable time-telling device?”

Well, how do we determine reliability in the first place? In this example, it gets determined independently of the watch’s origins, namely by how well it tells time. Do criteria for reliability require anything more than the consistent corroboration of predictions? If so, what are these? And if we want to invoke teleology we can always think of our cognitive capacities as having a purpose from evolution’s “point of view,” namely winning the game of survival. Reliable cognition at higher and higher levels of abstraction quite obviously results from the “arms race” generated by natural selection.

Near the end of his piece, Matteo writes:

“The theistic argument of Lewis and Plantinga does not seek to overcome some self-induced Cartesian brand of global skepticism, but to provide a more adequate basis for our inevitable reliance on the fundamental validity of our cognitive capacities. It seeks via “inference to the best explanation” to move beyond mere pragmatism.”

The difficulty, of course, is that there is no explanation forthcoming of how the god of the theistic argument sees to it that our cognitive capacities are reliable and that our beliefs are true. Any purported gaps in naturalistic explanations have to be filled explicitly by supernaturalistic explanations if they are to have any appeal to inquiring minds. Generally, supernatural accounts can’t meet the basic requirements of explanatory transparency since they leave god and his workings a mystery. Naturalists are happy to admit gaps in our understanding, but don’t paper them over with possibly comforting pseudo-explanations.


Blogger The Sanity Inspector said...

I've never been happy with god-of-the-gaps explanations. But, I am one of those quite content to live while holding contradictory worldviews in suspension, and tension. Makes for interesting sparks, sometimes...

Jun 3, 2006, 5:12:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Clark said...

Ok, but when push comes to shove, my guess is you'll take explanatory transparency over hand-waving, even if that leaves some things unexplained.

Jun 3, 2006, 7:42:00 PM  

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