Friday, February 10, 2012

agree and disagree

I've been a faithful reader of the writings of Dr. William Vallicella for years. He and I have some fundamental disagreements, but I admire the clarity of his writing and can appreciate the reasonableness of his positions. His recent post on Daniel Dennett, anthropomorphism, and the "deformation" of the God-concept offers a good example of how I can read a "Vallicellian" essay and come away both agreeing and disagreeing with its various claims.

A bit of background: Vallicella is a theist, i.e., he believes that ultimate reality is personal. Regarding the status of human beings, he advocates a point of view that he styles ontotheological personalism. The onto- comes from the Greek on/ontos, which means "being/existence." (The terms ontology and ontological are central to most Western philosophy.) The personalism in question is, roughly, the idea that there is something about human beings that is irreducibly personal, i.e., people cannot be explained fully by scientific/empirical examination and analysis; their personhood can't be broken down into smaller parts. This personalism has its being (ontos) grounded in God (theos): hence ontotheological personalism.

This puts Vallicella in conflict with scientific atheists who believe, like philosopher Daniel Dennett, that the human mind can be explained in purely physical terms (i.e., brain activity). On his blog, Vallicella routinely critiques physicalism, the philosophy of mind that says The mind is what the brain does. Lately, he has also been writing on the spectrum of possible God-concepts, ranging from a God that is utterly physical and totally anthropomorphic to a God that is so depersonalized as to be no more than an abstract concept. Vallicella wishes to avoid these two extremes.

My own theological orientation is far different from Vallicella's. While I consider myself Christian, this is more of a sociological designation than a theological one: I've been too steeped in Asian philosophy to be a theological Christian. There's very little, in terms of Christian doctrine, that I literally believe; my own sympathies, at this point, are mostly with scientific skeptics and philosophically inclined Taoists and Buddhists; I haven't been a classical theist for a long time (I'd call myself a nontheist, i.e., someone for whom the question "Does God exist?" has no rational, discursive answer). I see reality as an intercausal being-in-process and take a very dim view of most shows of religious piety. My own philosophy of mind is probably much closer to Dennett's than it is to Vallicella's: I see the mind as something that arises from the brain; it is, in fact, utterly dependent on the brain for its existence. At the same time, I'm not so naïve as to think that the brain's activity is totally predictable: cogitation, being a supervenient phenomenon (i.e., something that arises from a lower stratum of being), follows its own rules. As author Robert Pirsig analogized it in his book Lila (I'm taking some liberties, here): it's like the difference between computer hardware and software-- each follows its own rules, but software depends on the hardware for its functioning.

With that background in place, let's turn to Vallicella's post on Dennett, anthropomorphism, and the "deformation" of the God-concept. He writes:

One of the striking features of Daniel C. Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Viking 2006) is that Dennett seems bent on having a straw man to attack. This is illustrated by his talk of the "deformation" of the concept of God: "I can think of no other concept that has undergone so dramatic a deformation." (206) He speaks of "the migration of the concept of God in the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) away from concrete anthropomorphism to ever more abstract and depersonalized concepts." (205)

Why speak of deformation rather than of reformation, transformation, or refinement?

I think Vallicella has a point, here. Atheists, especially these days as the so-called New Atheism gains in popularity, seem unable to acknowledge that modern folk might actually conceptualize ultimate reality in ways that are philosophically and morally sophisticated. This is unfortunate, because it does indeed mean the atheists are furiously attacking straw men as opposed to real targets. There can't be any real dialogue when people insist on talking past each other. I'd add that this problem isn't confined to the atheists: religious folk too often attack science before they've made the effort to understand it. One example might be the Christian fundamentalist's dismissal of evolutionary theory because "the probability that development X or Y could have occurred is infinitesimally small." This sort of argument shows great ignorance about the massive timescales on which biologists have to think when pondering the phenomenon of evolution. No legitimate scientist believes evolution is a theory: there are theories of evolution, but evolution itself is a fact. (To his credit, Vallicella has no problem with the idea that humans evolved. He's a philosophical theist, not a religious fundamentalist.)

Later on, Vallicella writes:

Dennett's view is that the "original monotheists" thought of God as a being one could literally listen to, and literally sit beside. (206) If so, the "original monotheists" thought of God as a physical being: "The Old Testament Jehovah, or Yahweh, was quite definitely a super-man (a He, not a She) who could take sides in battles, and be both jealous and wrathful." (206, emphasis in original). The suggestion here is that monotheism in its original form, prior to deformation, posited a Big Guy in the Sky, a human being Writ Large, something most definitely made in the image of man, and to that extent an anthropomorphic projection.

What Dennett is implying is that the original monotheistic conception of God had a definite content, but that this conception was deformed and rendered abstract to the point of being emptied of all content. Dennett is of course assuming that the only way the concept of God could have content is for it to have a materialistic, anthropomorphic content. Thus it is not possible on Dennett's scheme to interpret the anthropomorphic language of the Old Testament in a figurative way as pointing to a purely spiritual reality which, as purely spiritual, is neither physical nor human. Dennett thereby simply begs the question against every sophisticated version of theism.

Dennett seems in effect to be confronting the theist with a dilemma. Either your God is nothing but an anthropomorphic projection or it is is so devoid of recognizable attributes as to be meaningless. Either way, your God does not exist. Surely there is no Big Guy in the Sky, and if your God is just some Higher Power, some unknowable X, about which nothing can be said, then what exactly are you affirming when you affirm that this X exists? Theism is either the crude positing of something as unbelievable as Santa Claus or Wonder Woman, or else it says nothing at all.

Either crude anthropomorphism or utter vacuity. Compare the extremes of the spectrum of positions I set forth in Anthropomorphism in Religion.

Here, too, I agree with Vallicella's analysis of Dennett. This is indeed a popular form of attack on theism. Dennett might be accused, here, of committing the fallacy of the excluded middle: he's offering two stark alternatives on the (false) assumption that no middle-ground option is available.

Thus far, I've been in agreement with Vallicella, not because I'm a theist as he is, but because his accusations against Dennett strike me as reasonable. Dennett could have strengthened his own arguments by targeting a more philosophically sophisticated concept of God. Attacking the God of scriptural literalists is far too easy. (Dennett might shoot back that the world is full of scriptural literalists, which would be a fair point!) But Vallicella also makes some claims with which I disagree. To wit:

Dennett's Dilemma -- to give it a name -- is quite reasonable if you grant him his underlying naturalistic and scientistic (not scientific) assumptions, namely, that there is exactly one world, the physical world, and that (future if not contemporary) natural science provides the only knowledge of it. On these assumptions, there simply is nothing that is not physical in nature. Therefore, if God exists, then God is physical in nature. But since no enlightened person can believe that a physical God exists, the only option a sophisticated theist can have is to so sophisticate and refine his conception of God as to drain it of all meaning. And thus, to fill out Dennett's line of thought in my own way, one ends up with pablum such as Tillich's talk of God as one "ultimate concern." If God is identified as the object of one's ultimate concern, then of course God, strictly speaking, does not exist. Dennett and I will surely agree on this point.

But why should we accept naturalism and scientism? It is unfortunately necessary to repeat that naturalism and scientism are not scientific but philosophical doctrines with all the rights, privileges, and liabilities pertaining thereunto. Among these liabilities, of course, is a lack of empirical verifiability. Naturalism and scientism cannot be supported scientifically. For example, we know vastly more than Descartes (1596-1650) did about the brain, but we are no closer than he was to a solution of the mind-body problem. Neuroscience will undoubtedly teach us more and more about the brain, but it takes a breathtaking lack of philosophical sophistication — or else ideologically induced blindness — to think that knowing more and more about the physical properties of a lump of matter will teach us anything about consciousness, the unity of consciousness, self-consciousness, intentionality, and the rest.

This is where Vallicella and I part ways. First, I find his dismissal of Tillich's theology to be overly hasty. Tillich was, in my opinion, saying something quite meaningful in defining God as "ultimate concern." The phrase was never intended to mean, the way his detractors argued, that "If golf is my ultimate concern, because I think about it all the time, then golf is effectively my God." The word "ultimate," as used by Tillich, still refers to that which lies at the utterest edge of reality. Golf, while entertaining, doesn't fit that criterion. The term "concern," too, was well chosen, for this is what human beings, at their best, are supposed to embody: concern for others, for the world, for all of existence. Concern involves an outward turn-- what theologian John Hick might call a shift from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness. Ultimate concern, then, is concern about the ultimate. How is this so different from what other philosophers and mystics have said and written?

I also disagree completely with Vallicella's characterization of neuroscience. For him, neuroscience will never "teach us anything about consciousness." The reality, though, is that neuroscientific theories are paving the way for us to make machines-- robots-- whose behaviors are becoming increasingly complex. If one definition of "intelligence" is "problem-solving ability," then by that standard we have been building increasingly intelligent machines for years. Soon, intelligence will come to mean more than the ability to win at chess or participate in a Jeopardy! competition: it will mean the advent of machines that react without confusion in fluid social or physical situations. While true machine consciousness is probably a long way off, I don't see its realization as an impossible goal. Intelligence isn't consciousness, but it's a vital component of consciousness. One day, a machine is going to stare at us with the same speculative curiosity we train on it.

My point is that the increasing complexity of machine behaviors is the result of scientific theories that are grounded in a naturalistic (or, more precisely, physicalist) philosophy of mind. If mind is indeed utterly dependent on matter, as I believe it is, then we will one day be able to arrange matter in such a way as to form minds. This won't convince the diehard substance dualists,* of course; they'll go on believing that mind is somehow independent of matter without ever being able to explain how a particular mind is connected to a particular body. Unfortunately, their philosophy of mind can promise no progress: you can't strive to create artificial intelligence if you believe it's inherently unachievable.

As I wrote in Water from a Skull, the problem for people in Vallicella's camp is that they are participating in willful ignorance about the nature of mind. They spend their time critiquing the constructive efforts being made by scientists, while offering no new insights of their own. Their stance is little more than a case against physicalism; there's no real case for substance dualism. In fact, for their stance to hold water, they have to deny that mind, consciousness, has a knowable nature. The so-called "zombie" problem in philosophy of mind makes this clear.

Imagine a being that looks and acts perfectly human, yet has no actual consciousness-- no real feelings, no true sense of selfhood, nothing that comes with possessing an ego. It might cry, but that act is merely an observable behavior, indicating nothing about the being's inner reality. It might laugh at jokes, but that's also no indication that it's experiencing the humor behind the joke. That hypothetical being is called a zombie by philosophers, and there's a big debate over whether zombies can possibly exist. The TV series Battlestar Galactica (and, before it, the movie Blade Runner) dealt with the zombie problem. Are the Cylons, who were created by humans and who look and act just like them, actual persons? Or are they "toasters"-- lifeless robots that merely simulate humans? The TV show ends up promoting the idea that Cylons are people, too: they have thoughts, feelings, inner lives. They're capable of love and hate; they have dreams and ambitions.

Let's snap back to our own reality. Imagine an AI (artificial intelligence) expert talking with a substance dualist about the possibility of creating Cylon-like artificial life. "All you'll end up creating is a zombie!" declares the substance dualist. "It won't have sentience! No feelings, no real self-awareness, no interiority!" "And you know this how?" asks the AI expert. "Can we ever design a test to detect consciousness?" "No!" blusters the dualist. You see, the substance dualist is trying argue two things at once: (1) that we'll never know whether we've created a true machine consciousness, and (2) that whatever we create will be a zombie. Obviously, these two prongs are contradictory, but let's concentrate on the first prong.

Dualists can't argue that "we'll never know whether the being's really conscious" unless they're convinced that the nature of mind is essentially unknowable, i.e., that we'll always be ignorant about mind. If you want to make a test to determine whether someone has a disease, you have to know the markers for the disease in question: you have to know something about the disease's nature. The more you know, the more accurate the test. By the same token, if you want to know whether something has a mind, you have to know something about the nature of consciousness. It's a lame cop-out to argue that we can never know what mind is, but that's basically what substance dualists have been doing for years, and it's the only argument they've got. All the other arguments they make against physicalism are in support of this basic thesis.

Vallicella's positions are always well thought-out and reasonable, but there are some areas in which he and I are doomed, I think, to eternal disagreement. Philosophy of mind is one of those areas; theism is another. He thinks the physicalists are blinded by their scientistic ideology; physicalists see him (and substance dualists in general) as deliberately ignoring the evidence of science. I'm willing to grant that the mind remains a mystery, but I believe the mystery isn't indissoluble.

It's possible to respect people with whom one disagrees, and even to learn from them. To any students who might have taken the time to read this meditation: I hope you find yourselves challenged and invigorated by the different points of view that you'll run across in your high school and college readings. I hope you encounter thinkers who make you angry, who challenge your assumptions, who shock you into looking at the world from a different perspective. I hope you enrich your own lives by incorporating those perspectives into your own. Life is all about growth and constructive change, but sometimes the best change involves the tearing-down of old mental paradigms so that new, more robust paradigms can replace them. I hope your perspective matures as you wrestle with various authors, and that you never dismiss the entirety of a thinker's argument simply because you dislike parts of it. A mature viewpoint involves an appreciation of the world's complexity. Beware black-and-white solutions to complicated problems.

As process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said: "Seek simplicity, and distrust it."

*Substance dualism, a perspective most famously laid out by philosopher René Descartes (he of cogito ergo sum fame), is the belief that mind and matter are substantially different from each other. Thoughts are mental phenomena, not physical. Substance dualists come in different shapes and sizes; many of them would argue that there is some sort of mind-brain connection, but even the dualists who acknowledge this connection would say that there remains a fundamental difference between, as Descartes called them, res cogitans (mental phenomena) and res extensa (physical phenomena). Vallicella has never overtly called himself a substance dualist, but he repeatedly expresses sympathy with their point of view.


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