Thursday, August 2, 2012

My Youtube PM exchange with TrenchantAtheist

I've been hard at work on my defense of atheistic moral realism against moral arguments for God. It's simply taking awhile. But here's two pieces of good news. First, my defense of moral realism will be significantly longer then my paper of the OA and will therefore be split into multiple parts. The first part will deal with moral arguments for God + Moore's open-question argument + the is/ought distinction + moral conceptual analysis + tracking of moral properties, while the subsequent posts will defend my pluralistic moral naturalism against the REAL, significant meta-ethical challenges: moral nihilism, alternative versions of moral realism, and moral non-cogntivism (none of which claim that moral realism requires God). So that should provide more content for discussion. Second, I've received permission to post another Youtube Private Message exchange. Feel free to comment and discuss.

Though I signed up for a Youtube account in 2011, I never really actively used my account until late May 2012. While on Youtube, I saw someone say something interesting and thought "oh, I wish I could comment on that." And then I remembered I have a Youtube account. So I dug up my old password and started commenting. One of my first private message exchanges was with TrenchantAtheist. Definitely check out his channel, especially if you're interested in philosophy of mind, neuroscience, and design arguments for God. He has an absolutely devastating critique of biological/physics arguments for God as the Intelligent Designer. Though I will post my own critique of design arguments, I think TrenchantAtheist's critique works just as well, if not better.

Anyway, here's the exchange:

NoctambulantJoycean, "Regarding your statments of logic", 5/10/12
I don't want to litter your page too much with my comments, so would you be alright with continuing the discussion via PMs?

First, though in our universe the way minds operate depends on physics, this need not have been the case. In "The Conscious Mind", for example, David Chalmers (I think he is an atheist) argues that mental properties are distinct from physical properties and it a just a quirk of this universe (rather than a semantic or logical truth) that the behavior of mental properties depends on the underlying physics. Further support for the autonomy of the mental from the physical comes from the coherence of idealism; it could have been the case that nothing other than mental properties could have existed. 

Second, though I agree that different minds have different conceptions of logic, I've always been skeptical about the claim that the rules of logic differ in different universes. On the subatomic level where most of the supposed paradoxes arise, our theories may simply be incomplete as opposed to things being genuinely illogical. Even if logic does break down on a subatomic scale, this does not show that this is the case at a macroscopic level. For example, people sometimes try to use quantum indeterminacies and paradoxes to give the mind free will (critiqued in "Freedom Evolves" and Chalmers' book). But logical indeterminacy at the microscopic need not have real, statistical effects at the higher levels of thought and behavior. This leads into my third point.

Third, I don't think your claim that logical rules could differ in different universe affects my claim about the logic of rationality. The general goals (G) of rationality are (in part) forming true beliefs, avoiding false beliefs, following correct inference procedures, making plans, avoiding mental paralysis, etc. The logical and causal laws of a universe (L) determine (in part) what's true in that universe, what the correct inference rules are, etc. G and L inform the specific rational principles in a universe (S). For example, "A is not A" is logical law in our universe which, given the goals of rationality, leads to a specific rational principle where we do not treat "A" as "not A" in our inferences. However, if the L were to change, this would change S but not G; G is the same across all universes because it is definitive of rationality itself. 
So is there a way to argue that different universes have genuinely different goals for rationality? If not, the theist could then argue that God is constrained by the general goals of rationality when constructing rational beings, and this does not impinge on his omnipotence (as I define it). We could then examine how well, elegantly, and efficiently God met these goals in its designs.
An unfortunate upshot of this argument is that b/c God is rational, this argument could fall to the "who designed the designer" point I mentioned in another comment. Oh well.

Hope I presented that clearly.

TrenchantAtheist, "Re: Regarding your statments of logic", 5/13/12
Hi Noctambulant,

Sorry, yeah, PMs are fine, just been very busy with work the last few days. 

I'm not familiar with Chalmers' metaphysical claims, but that book was written some time ago. Current studies and theories (namely neuroconstructivism, as proposed by Mareschal et al) suggest that higher awareness in humans can only be developed through neural integration that is instigated/guided/maintained through experience with a physical world (which to me, lessens the likelihood that a similar mind would exist without a similar body). While this doesn't technically preclude a disembodied mind from existing, I would be more inclined to believe that such a (body-less) mind would, almost by necessity, be so different from ours that it would hardly be worth comparing. 

As for mental properties being different from physical properties, I have to say I'm not convinced. I'm not even sure what benefit there is to be had in drawing such a distinction in the first place; if anything, it would prevent us from seeking or finding any concordance between them in nature. I would initially suspect that Chalmers' interest in dividing the two is rooted in a pessimism towards us ever understanding human consciousness... but then again, we already know that we'll never understand quantum physics and yet we aren't similarly driven to make philosophical distinctions that preclude us from reconciling any physical data that we encounter (to the contrary, physicists are just as motivated as ever to look for a Theory of Everything). As a result, I am inclined to believe that Chalmers is the victim of the human ego, trying to find justification for our unique advancement in the world. Or maybe I'm way off base. I'd have to read more of his material.

I don't think there's a difference between mental properties and physical properties, I just don't think we're currently prepared for (or capable of) understanding what we'll find out about ourselves. I agree with Patricia Churchland that, in order for us to make any significant advancement in understanding the human mind, we'll likely have to abandon our "pop psychology" terminology wholesale (towards Eliminative Materialism)

I agree with your second point, however, we were talking about other universes and your examples only dealt with this one. Consideration for any other kind of universe would be by speculation only, and for us to validate our logical laws by assuming to know the consequences of other universal configurations by applying our own logical laws would be circular (by extension, we can't even be sure that logical circularity or logical inconsistency is a "bad" thing in these other hypothetical universes). Perhaps it would sound reasonable to assume that "most" other universes would behave like ours... but there isn't any actual basis for such a belief. 

But even hypothetically - What if Star Trek was right and time could flow backwards with a mere "temporal rift"? What would that mean for laws concerning cause and effect? What would happen if you crossed from one side to the other? I wouldn't even begin to know how to answer those questions.

"Is there a way to argue that different universes have genuinely different goals for rationality?"

Well rationality isn't a property of a universe, it's a concept that we devised. In evolutionary terms, humans survived in part because we're intelligent, and our intelligence is largely the result of (relatively) successful pattern-recognition algorithms in different parts of the cortex (some are in the "logical" or prefrontal areas, and many are actually in the lymbic/emotional regions). The brain is chemically responsive to pattern recognition, to the extent that we are happy when a pattern is perceived - this forms the basis of our love of music (the ability to predict the next beat) as well as our joy of learning (or, more accurately, the "joy of the feeling of learning", which is to say we can find ourselves in agreement with nonsense that merely sounds good, e.g. political conspiracy theories). 

The only problem for humans is that evolution only drove us to be good enough at pattern recognition to be successful survivors, not infallible philosophers (in the case of political conspiracy theories, the prefrontal cortex is usually used to rationalize incoming data rather than to export rational thoughts). Even with the goal G, we aren't particularly good at adhering to it, and our (relative) adherence is only the product of the accident of our neurobiology (mutations after mutations after mutations, with natural selection only picking from the result). As indicated in the previous paragraph, we're actually what I would call "emotionological", meaning that forming "rational" beliefs depends on using different parts of the brain at different times and we only retrospectively determine which one is "right" based on convention.

If anything would drive another species in another universe to be "rational", it would only be to the extent that evolution deemed necessary...which isn't much. Add to that the potential for a universe with a (slightly) different set of physical laws, and evolution could drive "rationality" in a whole different direction (best suited for survival in that universe, and possibly in a direction that is hazardous towards human neurobiology).

But if we're talking about a hypothetical, disembodied mind's conception of rationality, I'd have to stop and investigate first. Without a separate lymbic system and/or prefontal cortical areas to refer to, I wouldn't know what to expect from a spirit or deity (could we even expect a consistent personality?)

Regardless, I find that there are only two possibilities with respect to God and logic:
1) God is constrained to logic
2) God is not constrained to logic

In the former, the theist has rendered God superfluous as an explanation for anything/everything. If we are obligated to ask "Where does everything come from?" (and God is supposed to be the answer), then we are similarly obligated to ask the same of logic (where God cannot be the answer, due to answer #1.). If "God" cannot be the answer to where logic came from, then the theist has already shown that something can exist in reality without reason or basis, which is precisely what they were arguing *against* when they resorted to "God" as an answer to why there's "something" rather than "nothing".

In the latter, they've undone every explanation that could be made for their deity's behaviors and decisions, rendering their whole religion invalid. If, however, they believe in a "higher power" and refuse to speculate any further on its intentions, motives, or actions since the universe began (i.e. they don't have a religion to go along with their theism)... then they're my favorite kind of theist, because I consider that to be the only supportable theistic position.

And same here, hope I presented my arguments clearly

[name deleted]

NoctambulantJoycean, "Re: Regarding your statments of logic", 5/13/12
Hello TrenchantAtheist.

Thanks for the well-thought out response. I think the easiest way for me to respond would be to go paragraph by paragraph, explaining where I agree and disagree.

I agree with the thrust of paragraph 1; higher awareness in our universe depends on interactions with an external physical world. However, I don't think that, "a (body-less) mind would... be so different from ours that it would hardly be worth comparing." Again, pure idealism (where only mental properties exist) is false, but it could have been true; if it was true, our awareness would have developed without needing an external physical world. Similarly, "brain in the vat" scenarios show that changes in our consciousness could (logically speaking) have been caused by a myriad of different things. For example, let's say Bob's awareness developed in our world, while Jim's awareness developed in a non-physical world where God provided all the inputs necessary for Jim's awareness to develop. I think Bob could understand what Jim is experiencing and thinking and vice versa, even though one mind is disembodied and the other is not. What matters (for understanding) are the mental states (beliefs, "qualia", emotions, etc.), not their causes or external interactions.

Your points in paragraph 2 and 3 apply to most dualists I've encountered; dualism becomes a cloak for ignorance. However, Chalmers is different. In both "The Conscious Mind" and the book that follows, he shows the contributions dualism could make. First, physics characterizes only the extrinsic relationships between things like electrons, protons, etc., while remaining silent on their intrinsic nature. A coherent theory of non-physical properties could fill that gap. Second, he is willing to accept that certain physical states necessarily lead to certain phenomenal states (so the connection between the 2 should be investigated, not ignored); however, he thinks the connection is not one of identity. Third, he isn't pessimistic about our understanding human consciousness. He is just pessimistic about materialism being true. And this pessimism is based not on confusion, but on persuasive arguments against materialism, along with the failure of materialists to provide an adequate theory of consciousness. He explicitly contrasts this with our situation in quantum mechanics. Finally, I'm not really a fan of eliminativism unless the discourse in question commits deep errors, as opposed to relatively minor errors that can be revised (which is [arguably] the case for moral terms and intentional terms). And as Dennett argues in "The Intentional stance," we should also keep some pop psychology around, given its usefulness in predicting behavior.

Paragraphs 4 and 5 are spot on. I am deeply suspicious of modal and linguistic intuitions. Unfortunately, many theistic philosophers are not. I just tried to present the strongest case I could from their theistic perspective. I still think that (certain) logical rules apply in all possible universes, though of course I can't provide an argument for that which does not rely on logic and my error-prone reasoning. And (if I was a theist) I certainly would not be confident enough in those intuitions to use them in an argument for God. They would however, serve as a useful defense; if neither party show their modal intuitions have stronger support than the opposition, it's a stalemate (Plantinga, for example, takes this tact in his modal ontological argument)

However, my skepticism about semantic intuitions only goes so far. I do think we can figure the meanings of words through a combination of a posteriori investigations (such as the surveys performed by Stich, Cohen, and others; misguidedly criticized in "The rise and fall of experimental philosophy") and a priori analysis (done by countless philosophers). I am just skeptical when people dogmatically accept a given semantic intuition because it feels plausible or certain, without providing evidence for it or defending it against critics. This is relevant to your discussion of "rationality" in paragraphs 7-9. There are at least two separate issues here: A1) the definition or meaning of "rationality" and A2) what the term actually refers to in the world. For example, a Christian might think "the old Testament God's love" implies compassion, benevolence, etc, when the term actually refers to something which is often brutal, cruel, etc. They know what the term means, but now how it's actualized in the world. Both my discussion of semantic intuitions here and my discussion of rationality in my previous post dealt with A1, while paragraphs 7-9 of your post dealt with A2. This implies that rationality can be both a concept we construct and a property of the world (contra paragraph 7, sentence 1). The concept can be perfectly or imperfect actualized in the world. We have a conception of rationality that our real-world rationality simply fails to live up to; this does not show that our conception of rationality is incorrect, as long as we perform careful a priori and a posteriori investigation. This addresses paragraph 10's criticism, since we have the tools to determine the goals of rationality (G), even if specific rules of rationality (S) differ in each world.

In regards to A2, I agree with the spirit of your thesis, though my position is slightly more moderate. Moral reasoning, for example, is a clear case in which it's emotion that's driving the supposed "reasoning." But we must not take this too far, lest we fall prey to Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism. If we did not have sufficient reasons to think evolved human cognition is at least somewhat reliable, why trust any of our thinking? Anyway, we do have reason to think that evolution will favor organisms that correctly model the world over those that grossly mismodel it (see "Evolutionary approaches to epistemic justification" and Stephens' "When is it selectively advantageous to..."). And again, the logical and causal laws (L) in a given universe will (in part) determine what's true, what the correct inferences are, etc. but they don't affect G for the reasons I mentioned in the previous paragraph and my previous post. G will probably include accurate modeling of the world (though one needs to substantiate this point via the methods I mentioned before) and should remain the same across all universe. So its not implausible that evolution could favor organisms that develop true (or "closer to the truth") beliefs over ones that form false beliefs, even in other universes.

I wholeheartedly agree with paragraphs 11-13. The only honest way for the theist to get out of this is to deny that that logic is some "separate thing" whose origin needs explaining, i.e. nominalism. So if there were no things like minds, physical objects, etc. logic would not be remain as something whose origin needed explaining (I think this is what WLC does). So the theist could still have their "something from nothing" point. But the problem is just pushed up one level: God had no choice about whether logic applied to God's nature, so its not really omnipotent. So your argument still goes through.

Hearing your ideas really helped me clear up my own thinking.

Thanks for discussing,

NoctambulantJoycean, "Re: Regarding your statments of logic", 5/13/12
Quick clarification. I don't hold that in every universe evolution will favor true believing organisms over those that belief falsely. I just claim that we have reason to think that's true given certain conditions (of which the conditions of our universe are a subset).

TrenchantAtheist, "Re: Regarding your statments of logic", 5/19/12
Thank you for your perspective, I'd be interested to hear more about Chalmers' arguments against materialism. I'm still (personally) unconvinced, though, that there's any "gap" to be filled concerning the intrinsic/extrinsic nature of the universe. This reminds me of a theological debate between Alister McGrath and Peter Atkins in which McGrath claimed that science could never answer questions of "why". Atkins countered by saying that it could - he said that all meaningful "why" questions can be (and are) consistently broken down into their more-useful "how" sub-components (i.e. why do things fall down? => how does gravity work?), and that science can address what's left (e.g. "why are we here?) by simply pointing out that they are pointless questions (the natural and expected mis-firing of a pattern-seeking cortex that instinctively attempts to fit all phenomena into terms that it can handle). Similarly, I suspect that it isn't materialism's shortcomings that we need to fix but our own.

I should also point out that, while Chalmers is correct in arguing that materialists own the burden of proof as far as proposing that materialism is "correct"... it is also true that materialists are not required to provide an adequate theory of consciousness in order to preclude serious consideration of rival theories. That is to say that dualism is not a default to materialism, and voicing legitimate skepticism toward one theory is not equivalent to providing evidence for any specific alternative - but I'm sure you're already well aware of that so I won't make a strong point of it.

As far as the distinction between A1 and A2, I disagree. All definitions are generally presumed to be "correct" when written in an 'authoritative' document such as a dictionary, but ultimately this is simply for our own convenience and written definitions are actually just the result of both formal and informal agreements between people (agreements which are dependent upon their respective points of view, whether they account for any historical record or not). As a result, definitions change over time, and even if we feel justified in calling someone "wrong" when they refer to God's "love", it's entirely a matter of perspective (regardless of how unpopular one side is). Likewise, we can ultimately define "rationality" however we want and make arguments about the degree to which it is or isn't actualized in the world, but none of this points to an external standard that we humans can be "wrong" about - it's still our standard. And the only real 'tools' we have for determining either A1 or A2 are personal sentiment, a posteriori investigations, and the derivatives of a posteriori investigations (aka logical intuition).

(I generally take issue with the use of the term "a priori" because it's generally used to support and perpetuate scientifically-incorrect assumptions about how the mind works. At best the term is not useful, and at worst it is misleading to the point of diminishing the quality of philosophical discussion)

Interesting conversation, though. Thanks again for the dialog, and I'm glad you've enjoyed it as well.

[name deleted]

NoctambulantJoycean, "Re: Regarding your statments of logic", 5/19/12
Hello TrenchantAtheist.

Chalmers' central argument is that phenomenal properties (M) do not logically supervene on physical properties (P). Basically, M terms and P terms do not mean the same thing (you probably doubt this, given your feeling about the a priori.), which implies that M are not P (i.e there is a metaphysical distinction between the two). There are numerous criticisms to this argument, so my brief summary can't cover everything. Chalmers thinks M and P are logically distinct for a number of reasons. First, P deal with structure and function while the M do not. Second, it's conceivable that one could know all the M facts without knowing the P facts (F. Jackson's knowledge argument). Finally, Chalmers uses 2D semantics to defend his move from the failure of logical supervenience to a metaphysical distinction (a nice summary of which is given in the video "The 2D Argument Against Non-Materialism").

Anyway, we've both had a chance to explain and clarify our positions. I have a few more things I want to say about the rest of your post, but I don't want to eat up too much of your time (or inbox!). If you want to continue the discussion, feel free to send a reply. If not, thank you for the meaningful discussion


[name deleted]

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