Friday, September 19, 2014

On Ch.2 of Smith's Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality

(Very) rough draft. Further revisions to come.

In Chapter 2 of Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality, Smith continues his critique of naturalistic accounts of our knowledge of the external world. As with chapter 1, the primary topic of ch. 2 is naturalistic accounts of perceptual knowledge, and of direct realist accounts in particular.  Here, however, his focus shifts from Armstrong’s theory to those of DretskeTye, and Lycan.

All three accounts are similar to Armstrong's in at least two ways: (i) they reject sense-data theories and embrace a form of direct realism (indeed, like Armstrong, they reject "internal" phenomenal qualia in general. More on this below), and (ii) they see perceptual knowledge as reliably caused true belief that arises in virtue of the senses. They all thus likewise hold to some form of epistemic externalism about perceptual knowledge.

Although the accounts share the above similarities with Armstrong's account in terms of their epistemic externalism and the rejection of sense-data, they also go beyond it. Recall from our discussion of ch. 1 that Smith ended his critique of Armstrong's theory of perceptual knowledge that it wasn't clear how his account, or indeed any naturalistic account, could explain the intentionality of mental states. The three authors above attempt to shore up this problem by offering accounts of intentionality of representational properties in terms of causal co-variation and proper function. So, for example, when functioning properly under normal conditions, thermometer readings co-vary with temperature, and scale readings co-vary with the weights of objects on the scale. Because of this, thermometer readings reliably represent temperatures, and scales reliably represent the weights of objects. In a similar way, sensations reliably represent the external environment when functioning properly under normal conditions.

They also go beyond Armstrong by trying to do justice to the phenomenal character of conscious experience -- i.e., to phenomenal qualia. But since they share Armstrong's materialism, they reject traditional internalist accounts of qualia, offering externalist accounts instead. According to such accounts, the qualities of experience are located in the world, not the mind.[1] Here I'll follow Schwitzgebel in citing a particularly vivid passage from Gilbert Harman on a related point to get a flavor for this sort of view:
When Eloise sees a tree before her, the colors she experiences are all experienced as features of the tree and its surroundings. None of them are experienced as intrinsic features of her experience. Nor does she experience any features of anything as intrinsic features of her experiences. And that is true of you too. There is nothing special about Eloise's visual experience. When you see a tree, you do not experience any features as intrinsic features of your experience. Look at a tree and try to turn your attention to intrinsic features of your visual experience. I predict you will find that the only features there to turn your attention to will be features of the presented tree.[2] 
There is thus no real problem of phenomenal qualia for thoroughgoing materialists, according to Dretske, Tye. and Lycan.

There is too much to cover in chapter 2 in one post, so I'll have to return to it with at least one more (and perhaps several). However, I'd like to discuss at least one criticism before I close. One of Smith's first substantive criticisms of their accounts of perception is that they don't really deliver on their promise of being versions of genuine direct realism, and thus fail to show how naturalism can give us direct perceptual knowledge of the material world. His criticism has two steps. In the first, he argues that all three of their accounts get the phenomenology of perceptual experience wrong. So, for example, he argues that the accounts of Dretske and Tye entail that we can only experience a portion of an object's properties, in which case they entail that we can't experience objects as wholes. I find this line of reasoning puzzling: I don't think I've ever experienced all the properties of a single object (how could I see all sides of the surface of a three-dimensional object at once -- including the sides not present to me?) -- let alone the underlying substratum that bears its properties (if such there be).  But that doesn't prevent me from conceptualizing the objects I perceive as wholes, and having an underlying bearer. But it's not clear why this ability is somehow problematic for the sorts of accounts at issue. Unfortunately, Smith doesn't elaborate further on the matter.

In the second step, Smith infers that "If we don't have access to objects as wholes, (but only discrete properties) as represented in experience, then we simply do not have access to objects themselves in the real, external world. Objects would seem to be best construed as constructs of concepts applied to particular physical features." (p. 47). This criticism is tied to an assumption of Smith's account of concept acquisition that we briefly discussed in the post on ch. 1 of Smith's book, viz., that if we can't be directly acquainted with objects in the external world, then we can't be sure that our concepts of them are accurate. The problem, though, is that even if we leave aside the previous worry, this claim seems to be an obvious non sequitur. For even if one isn't directly aware of an object qua whole, it doesn't follow that one can't be directly aware of the whole's properties, and it's not at all clear why the latter sort of awareness isn't sufficient to count as direct awareness of an object. As before, though, Smith doesn't elaborate further on the matter.

At the heart of Smith's worry is the idea that accounts of the sort offered by Dretske, Tye, and Lycan can't account for non-conceptual awareness of external objects. I've expressed some doubts about whether Smith has shown this in his brief remarks on the issue in his book. But here I want to say that even if Smith is right on this score, it's a shame that he neglects to interact with arguably the most important, empirically grounded account of non-conceptual awareness of objects, viz., the one rigorously laid out in Tyler Burge's masterful book, The Origins of Objectivity.[1]  Burge's account differs significantly from the accounts discussed in ch. 2, and indeed in the rest of Smith's book. Perhaps most importantly for the primary issue at hand, it offers an empirically-informed account of non-conceptual perceptual awareness. Burge's account is largely an explication of the dominant theory of perception in the mature field of perceptual psychology, leaving little to argue with on matters confirmed through experimentation. Most saliently for present purposes, there is a huge amount of data that very many creatures, whether humans or much simpler animals, come equipped with a suite of unconscious, automatic mechanisms that ground perceptual constancy, as when we track an object through a portion of space and time, despite our fluctuating and disparate experiences of it. Perceptual constancy, on this account, is the core element of perception, and it serves as the basis of non-conceptual awareness of objects in the external world. Furthermore, it's prima facie plausible that the mechanisms that underlie perceptual constancy are reliable, as it seems that they wouldn't be adaptive otherwise. Evolutionary pressures would thus seem to ensure that they are sufficiently reliable. 

That's it for now. I'll post on more of Smith's arguments in ch. 2 shortly.

[1] Burge's book came out two years before Smith's. Perhaps, though, Smith finished the book before Burge's, and it took considerable time to find a publisher and bring it to print.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

What Kind of Necessary Being Could God Be?

That's the title of Richard Swinburne's new paper (forthcoming in In Miroslaw Szatkowski (ed.), Ontological Proofs Today. Ontos Verlag). The penultimate draft can be found here.

Friday, August 22, 2014

New Issue of Philo

The issue's focus is Herman Phillipse's recent book, God in the Age of Science? A Critique of Religious Reason (Oxford UP, 2012). I'm currently unable to access the current issue page for Philo, but here's a link to their Facebook page, which shows the current contents.

UPDATE: Here's the link to the current issue. Although a bit redundant, here's the table of contents:

Guest Editor’s Preface
1.Rik Peels, A New Case for Atheism


2. Herman Philipse, A Decision Tree for Religious Believers

3. Gijsbert van den Brink, What Is Wrong with Revelation? Herman Philipse on the Priority of Natural Theology

4. Jeroen de Ridder, Mathanja Berger, Shipwrecked or Holding Water? In Defense of Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Believer

5. Rik Peels, A Bodiless Spirit? Meaningfulness, Possibility, and Probability

6. Emanuel Rutten, On Herman Philipse’s Attempt to Write Off Cosmological Arguments

7. Boudewijn de Bruin, The Epistemology of Religious Testimony

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Substantially Revised SEP Entry on Religious Diversity


New Book on Cognitive Science of Religion

Smith, Aaron CT. Thinking About Religion: Extending the Cognitive Science of Religion (Palgrave, 2014). Here's the blurb:
Thinking about Religion presents a case for an inter-disciplinary science of religion, proposing that religion operates as a kind of psychological and social placebo effect. Religious belief combines thought, feeling and experience in a way that leverages the natural tendency of the mind to latch on to socially and personally useful concepts. This effect delivers tangible benefits because religious concepts and practice feed the mind's natural drive to cling to strong beliefs. At the same time, beliefs are reinforced by favourable emotional responses. Thinking about Religion explains how these elements work together to make religious belief such a powerful placebo effect. Belief is the currency of thought, and religious belief offers a powerful return on investment. Religious activity concentrates the mind's capacity to hold ideas that effectively galvanize groups and cultivate belonging.
Further details here.

Vol. 6 of Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion... due to come out next February. Here's the table of contents:

1: Alexander Arnold: Knowledge First and Ockhamism
2: Michael Bergmann: Religious Disagreement and Rational Demotion
3: Gregory W. Dawes: The Act of Faith: Aquinas and the Moderns
4: Laura W. Ekstrom: Religion on the Cheap
5: Gregory Fowler: Simplicity or Priority?
6: John Heil: Cartesian Transubstantiation
7: Jonathan D. Jacobs: The Ineffable, Inconceivable, and Incomprehensible God: Fundamentality and Apophatic Theology
8: Bruce Langtry: Rightmaking and Wrongmaking Properties, Evil, and Theism
9: R. Zachary Manis: The Doxastic Problem of Hell
10: Richard Swinburne: Could God be a Necessary Being?
11: N. N. Trakakis: The Ecclesiological Problem of Evil
12: Christina van Dyke: Aquinas's Shiny Happy People: Perfect Happiness and the Limits of Human Nature

Further details here.

Philosophical Disquisitions: The Journal Club ♯2 - Karlsen on God and the Benef...

Philosophical Disquisitions: The Journal Club ♯2 - Karlsen on God and the Benef...: Welcome to this, the second edition of the Philosophical Disquisitions Journal Club. The goal of the journal club is to encourage peopl...

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Review of Models of God and Alternative Ultimate Realities

Kelly James Clark reviews the book for NDPR.

Review of Smith's Book to Resume Shortly

Hi gang,

Sorry for pausing the chapter-by-chapter blogging on Smith's Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality, but several things I need to attend to have gotten in the way (not the least of which is prepping my classes for the upcoming semester). I'll resume shortly.


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Announcement: Special One-Day Conference on the Philosophy of Richard Swinburne

The Philosophy of Richard Swinburne

September 12, 2015

Oriel College, Oxford University
Oxford, United Kingdom

Keynote speakers:
Richard Swinburne, Oxford University


The Philosophy of Richard Swinburne

to be held in Oriel College, University of Oxford, on Saturday 12th September, 2015, from 9:00 a.m. until 9.45 p.m.

The main speakers will be Christoph Jaeger (Innsbruck), Brian Leftow (Oxford), Cyrille Michon (Nantes), Howard Robinson (Central European University), and Mark Wynn (Leeds). Richard Swinburne will offer replies.

In addition to the papers given by these speakers on aspects of Richard’s Philosophy, there will be a series of presentations throughout the day on the use of Richard’s Philosophy in teaching the Philosophy of Religion to A-level students.

The conference has been timed to follow on directly from the usual biennial BSPR conference, at which Richard himself will be presenting a paper of his own, and it is planned that there will be a combined booking form. Further details of both then will be circulated in due course. The secretary of the BSPR is Victoria Harrison (


Saturday, August 09, 2014

Fantastic New Paper on Skeptical Theism

Matthew A. Benton, John Hawthorne & Yoaav Isaacss. "Evil and Evidence", Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion (forthcoming)

Here's the abstract: 
The problem of evil is the most prominent argument against the existence of God. Skeptical theists contend that it is not a good argument. Their reasons for this contention vary widely, involving such notions as CORNEA, epistemic appearances, 'gratuitous' evils, 'levering' evidence, and the representativeness of goods. We aim to clarify some confusions about these notions, and also to offer a few new responses to the problem of evil.
Required reading.