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Liberal Naturalism and Theistic Arguments from Consciousness

Hi gang,

I'm pretty busy at the moment, so in lieu of a new post, here's an old (2007) post I've been thinking about lately and have been meaning to revise.

Now play nice and stay out of the liquor cabinet while I'm away.

-EA

*ROUGH DRAFT*

A number of contemporary Christian philosophers think there's a good argument for God in the phenomenon of consciousness, including Richard Swinburne, Robert M. Adams, J.P. Moreland, and Victor Reppert. There are at least two forms of the argument.

The first argument postulates God as the best explanation of the mere existence of consciousness. This argument has various forms: some are Cartesian conceivability arguments for substance dualism, where the theist then posits God as the best explanation of the existence of souls. But more modest versions refrain from inferences to substance dualism and just focus on the fact that consciousness is extremely difficult to make sense of if the natural world is all there is. For consciousness has properties (esp. phenomenal states) that don't seem reducible to the properties of physical objects. Therefore, since consciousness can't be accounted for purely in terms of the contents of the physical world, it must have a cause in terms of something beyond it, and the best candidate for such a cause is a god. Call this the Soul-Stuff Argument.

The second argument postulates God's activity as the best explanation for why our conscious states are correlated in a law-like way with certain brain states. The idea is that it's at least initially puzzling why one set of brain states actualizes experiences of, say, the color red, rather than some other set of brain states. For if the natural world is all there is, then the conscious states about the color red are identical to or otherwise reducible to physical states in the brain. But if so, then there should be no mystery regarding such correlations. For when it comes to every other scientific phenomenon in the natural world, once one discovers the underlying physical basis of the phenomenon, there is no residual mystery as to why that physical state gives rise to this phenomenon. So, for example, once you learn the scientific account of heat as molecular motion, it's no longer mysterious how heat, as opposed to cold, is caused by molecular motion. But things are different with respect to our experience of red and the other phenomenal states. For even after learning the scientific account about c-fibers firing in the brain, the mystery as to why that brain state gives rise to this experience of red remains. Therefore, if the law-like correlation between brain states and conscious states is to have a satisfactory explanation, it must be in terms of something beyond the naturalist's ontology. And as it turns out, God is the best explanation. The idea is that the only plausible way to account for contingent yet law-like correlations is via appeal to the intentional activity of a person. But since the law-like correlations are laws of nature, the appropriate sort of person posited is a god. Call this the Correlation Argument.

In effect, both arguments have the following five-step strategy. In Step One, they assert that the kinds of entities in the naturalist's ontology are limited to those describable in the language of chemistry and physics. In Step Two, they assert that if naturalism is true, then the relevant phenomena must be explained in terms of just those entities. In Step Three, they argue that certain phenomena (e.g., the existence of consciousness, and the correlation between certain conscious states and certain brain states) can't be explained in terms of just those entities alone. In Step Four, they assert that theism is the most plausible view with an ontology that's adequate to explain those phenomena. And in Step Five, they infer that theism is true (or probably true).

I think such theistic arguments from consciousness -- viz., the Soul-Stuff Argument and the Correlation Argument -- are both flawed, and that the flaw in each occurs at Step One, i.e., the assertion that the kinds of entities in the naturalist's ontology are limited to those describable in the language of chemistry and physics. This is because there is no good reason why the naturalist must accept the minimalist ontology foisted upon him by the theist. And if not, then the options for the naturalist aren't limited to

(i) Shoehorn all phenomena into a limited ontology of fundamental entities described by chemistry and physics.

or

(ii) Postulate a theistic ontology of souls (including a god).

For there is an epistemically possible third option, viz.,

(iii) postulate a version of naturalism with a more robust supervenience base.

Let me elaborate on this reply.

Recall the different versions of naturalism discussed in a previous post. Thus, there is Conservative Naturalism, which claims that the natural world can be exhaustively defined in terms of the language of contemporary chemistry and physics (or some revised account of chemistry and physics not too dissimilar from their current construals). By contrast, Moderate Naturalism allows abstract objects to be a part of the ontology of the natural world, and Liberal Naturalism goes further by postulating non-physical properties as base-level/non-derivative features of concrete objects.

In light of this account of the varieties of naturalism, we can state the underlying dubious assumption in both the Soul-Stuff Argument and the Correlation Argument: both assume that Naturalism entails Conservative Naturalism. That is, both arguments assume that if certain aspects of consciousness can't be accounted for in terms of the language of contemporary chemistry and physics, then we need to bring in such exotica as immaterial substances -- such as souls and God.

The reason why this is a dubious assumption is because, as indicated by the varieties of naturalism listed above, Naturalism doesn't entail Conservative Naturalism. But if not, then we have more options on the table before positing God if it turns out that some aspects of consciousness can't be accounted for in terms of the world described by the language of chemistry and physics. Thus, instead of the following false dichotomy of options implied by the Arguments From Consciousness:

I. CN: the world is composed of all and only things exhaustively desribed by the language of chemistry and physics.

II. T: the world is composed of two kinds of substances: purely phsyical substances and purely immaterial substances, and these two sorts of substances are distinct entities. Furthermore, the two sorts of substances are capable of interacting with one another. In addition, there are both finite and infinite immaterial substances -- human (and perhaps animal) souls and God -- and the infinite immaterial substance created the finite immaterial substances (and perhaps the material ones, too), and created them without pre-existing materials (i.e., out of nothing).

There are really three that are relevant, viz., (I), (II), and

III. LN: the world is composed of just one kind of substance, and its essence has both physical and phenomenological or proto-phenomenal (or at least representational or proto-representational) attributes (an alternative version of LN: the one kind of substance is neither physical nor mental, but but the physical and mental are composed of it).

But if so, then before the theist can legitimately infer God and finite immaterial substances as the best explanation of consciousness, he must not only rule out CN (Conservative Naturalism), but he must also rule out LN (Liberal Naturalism). But this has yet to be done; if not, then since both versions of the Argument From Consciousness -- the Soul-Stuff Argument and the Correlation Argument -- only rule out CN (at most) before inferring T, both are undercut.

Now I know you're thinking that LN is a weird view. But the problem is that theism is at least as weird as LN. But if so, then it seems that the Arguments from Consciousness discussed here are in trouble. For it's at least not clear what grounds could be offered that would favor T over LN. For LN appears to explain consciousness at least as well as T. To see this, let's see how each of the two arguments from consciousness fare in light of replies from the standpoint of LN:

I. The LN-based reply to the Soul-Stuff Argument: LN allows that the features of experience are not reducible to the physical aspects of natural objects, yet they are nonetheless reducible to the phenomenal (or perhaps proto-phenomenal) aspects of natural objects, and the latter are just as essential and ontologically fundamental to natural objects as the physical aspects. Thus, consciousness is reducible to the basic properties of natural objects postulated by Liberal Naturalists. But if so, then the key premise of The Soul-Stuff Argument is undercut.

II. The LN-based reply to the Correlation Argument: According to some versions of LN, such as Spinoza's version -- or more recently, David Chalmers' version -- natural objects have both physical and proto-phenomenal attributes as basic, fundamental constituents of their essence. Furthermore, the proto-phenomenal attributes are inherently representational, and they accurately represent the physical attributes. Think of the fundamental stuff of the universe as Shannon information (note to Dembski fans: not necessarily complex, specified Shannon information). Now information can be expressed in physical form or phenomenal (or proto-phenomenal) form; indeed, perhaps each form is just a different side of the same coin. If so, then it's not so mysterious why certain brain states are correlated with certain phenomenal states in a law-like way. For if the latter is just a sort of "mirror" or representation of the former, then it couldn't have been otherwise than that they are correlated. And if that's right, then LN explains the correlation between the physical and the mental, in which case the key premise of The Correlation Argument is undercut.

If what I have said above is on track, then even if you grant the phenomena highlighted by the Arguments From Consciousness -- i.e., the existence of phenomenal states, and their law-like correlation with certain brain states -- these points, by themselves, don't yet provide a cogent argument to God as the best explanation of such phenomena.

Let me belabor the point a bit more. Suppose we treat the phenomena of the Arguments From Consciousness as data, and suppose we treat CN, LN and T as hypotheses proposed to explain the data. Then we have:

Data:

D: The phenomena of (i) the mere existence of consciousness, and (ii) the apparently contingent yet law-like correlation between conscious states of one type and brain states of another type.

Hypotheses:

CN: The world is composed of all and only things exhaustively desribed by the language of chemistry and physics.

LN: The world is composed of just one kind of substance, and the base properties of its essence include both physical phenomenal or proto-phenomenal (or at least representational or proto-representational) attributes (an alternative version of LN: the one kind of substance is neither physical nor mental, but but the physical and mental are composed of it).

T: the world is composed of two distinct kinds of substances: purely physical substances and purely immaterial, mental substances (conscious minds). Furthermore, among the immaterial substances, some are finite, and one is infinite and eternal. In addition, the infinite, eternal immaterial substance created all the finite immaterial substance (and perhaps all the material substances, too), and it did so without using pre-existing materials.

Now the problem is that even if you think that P(CN/D) is extremely low, you don't thereby have reason to think that P(T/D) is greater than 1/2. For since you would expect D if LN were true about just as much as you would expect D if T were true, it looks as though T and LN are roughly equally probable; that is, P(LN/D) = P(T/D). But if so, then the Arguments from Consciousness, whether taken individually or collectively, don't make theism more likely than not.

Thus, it appears that LN poses a serious problem for theistic Arguments from Consciousness. For LN explains the phenomena at issue in both formulations of the argument at least as well as T. Therefore, even if LN is weird, it's no weirder than theism, with its view of the mind as a distinct immaterial substance that interacts with the brain, and its view of a god, which is an infinite, eternal, necessarily existent immaterial substance, and which creates all finite material and immaterial substances out of nothing. Indeed, the fact that LN doesn't suffer from the interaction problem that plagues substance dualist accounts of the mind (not to mention the hypothesis that God -- an immaterial substance -- interacts with the world) seems to give it a slight advantage over theism in explaining the phenomena in question. But if so, then the arguments from consciousness don't provide sufficient reason for accepting T. Therefore, since LN stands as a live and stubborn option between CN and T, the prospects for a successful argument for God from consciousness don't look very promising.

To sum up: Arguments From Consciousness point to the existence of consciousness and/or its contingent yet law-like correlation with certain brain states as a problem for naturalists. Their strategy is to get you to accept the very minimal ontology of Conservative Naturalism, and then say that if you can't shoehorn all the data into that ontology, then the most plausible way out is to adopt theism. Many naturalists attempt to tackle the argument head-on, accepting the stringent explanatory constraints of Conservative Naturalism, but then arguing that they can explain the relevant data within such constraints. My strategy is different and less burdensome: just advert to an epistemically possible version of naturalism with a suitably robust supervenience base. For Naturalism doesn't entail Conservative Naturalism, as (e.g.) Liberal Naturalism is another relevant and epistemically possible version of Naturalism. And since it appears that Liberal Naturalism explains the data at issue in arguments from Consciousness at least as well as theism, theistic arguments from consciousness are undercut.

Comments

Thomas Reid said…
ex,
Any thoughts on why most naturalists take the head-on approach? Some intuitive sense that the expanded ontology is evidence for God?
Thanks for the thoughtful post.
exapologist said…
Hi Thomas,

I've blogged about this issue before, but I'm still not sure what the motivation might be. I haven't done a poll or anything, but I suspect that one main reason why many naturalists opt for Conservative Naturalism over Moderate or Liberal Naturalism is the desire for an ontology that can be understood solely through ordinary observation and the sciences. For my part, though, I don't see why we should expect this on any version of naturalism; if there are no gods who created the world with an aim of human intelligibility, then why should we expect the world to be intelligible through-and-through via humanly-accessible methods of gathering information?

In any case, that's my guess. I've also posted a few times on the issue of whether Moderate and Liberal Naturalisms are less a priori plausible than Conservative Naturalism. At least so far, the answer seems to me to be 'no'. What do you think?

Best,
EA
smaitzen said…
Ex writes, "if there are no gods who created the world with an aim of human intelligibility, then why should we expect the world to be intelligible through-and-through via humanly accessible methods of gathering information?" I would turn that question on its head: If there are gods who created the world with the aim of human intelligibility, then why should we expect the world to be intelligible through-and-through via humanly accessible methods of gathering information?

What I mean is this: If gods are required to make the world humanly intelligible, or are even the best explanation for why the world is humanly intelligible, then the world isn't humanly intelligible through-and-through via humanly accessible methods of gathering information, since some magic trick by gods is required, or best explains, that intelligibility. Only if there are no godly magic tricks can we hope to understand the world through-and-through via our decidedly non-magical methods. (Indeed, "intelligible through-and-though by human beings" implies "in no way tricked up by magic," and I'd say you can even remove the qualifier "by human beings" in that sentence.)

Contrary to what supernaturalists often imply, gods rule out the through-and-through human intelligibility of the world unless those gods are superfluous.
Thomas Reid said…
EA,
I tend to agree with you about the naturalist's motivation - I speculate that it's driven by epistemology mainly.
If you are asking what I think is the most plausible version of naturalism if God doesn't exist, I'd have to give it more thought. Typically I've only encountered what you referred to as Conservative and Moderate Naturalism.
Reuben said…
Due to your apparent business I do not expect a long or timely response. But I'll remark anyway.

I've read your posts on moderate/liberal naturalism with respect to the problem of universals, and how apologists view the problem as indicative of theism. In Moreland's book, as you know, he attacks Armstrong for holding an Aristotelian "in re realism" that denies the existence of abstract objects. He takes this to violate Grossman's so-called "axiom of localization," since Armstrong seems to require universals to be multiply located, but he is a materialist/physicalist.

So I have two questions. First, do you see any way of affirming universals without abstract objects, like Armstrong, or know of any compelling accounts of this might be accomplished? Armstrong makes a sort of response in some places, but never very clearly or thoroughly that I know of.

Second, suppose we advocate moderate/liberal naturalism, some kind of neutral monism or whatever in order to be avoid nominalism and be realists about abstract objects. Are there any contemporary philosophers/published works that you can point me to that are advocating this position, specifically with reference to universals, and if not, moderate/liberal naturalism more generally? I cannot find anyone really defending it.

Thanks for your help.
I'd like to share two observations.

First, it seems that there is a variety of naturalist which has not been mentioned, and which I think is perhaps the most popular kind: those who believe that the natural world is that which is open to scientific discovery. Such naturalists are not conservative--they do not require that we stay close to our current best theories. But they do require that we regard as "natural" that which can be described and explained with scientific methods. (I'll pass over the question of what should be considered a scientific method for now.) I suspect this variety of naturalism is more popular than Conservative Naturalism.

My second observation concerns the question, "why should we expect the world to be intelligible through-and-through via humanly-accessible methods of gathering information?"

That question unfairly presupposes that scientific methodology is in some way limited by physiology. Scientific methods and theories do not seem to be generally limited by any human particulars. I would question any definition of science which limited it to what was discernible through any specific set of methods. Scientific methods are continually developing, and "humanly accessible" does not seem to be a well-defined concept.

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