The Argument from Tragic Moral Dilemmas

Here's another argument I'm toying with. It's a variation on the problem of evil. The basic line of thought is that there are tragic moral dilemmas in our world, i.e., contexts in which a moral agent must make a choice, but all available choices will ruin a good person -- they must choose something that is a moral abomination. The paradigm case of this sort of tragic moral dilemma is the central case in the movie, Sophie's Choice. Recall that in this case, the mother must choose which of her two children to hand over to be killed by the Nazis. If she refuses to choose, both children will die. (We can add that if she offers herself in their place, the Nazi soldier will kill all of them).  The argument can be stated simply as follows:

1. If theism is true, then there are no tragic moral dilemmas.
2. It's not the case that there are no tragic moral dilemmas.
3. Therefore, theism is false.

Premise 2 seems true. What about premise 1? Perhaps the theist could construct a theodicy or defense to undercut the premise, but what could it be? It seems that free will defenses and soul-making theodicies fall flat in such cases. What, then?

In any case, that's the basic argument. Thoughts?

The Argument from Environmental Mismatch

Here's another argument I'm toying with. The Earth is filled with harmful and lethal flora and fauna. Furthermore, such flora and fauna are often either undetectable, or look harmless upon first inspection. Theism makes this surprising, as the Earth is supposed to be our home, and not a Hunger Games scenario. By contrast, such a human-inhospitable environment is expected on the conjunction of naturalism and evolution. So if theism is true, then there appears to be a root mismatch between goal and outcome. Such an argument is conceptually distinct from arguments from evil; it's a planning or implementation problem at root, and not a moral problem.

In any case, that's the basic idea. Thoughts?

Getting Clear on One of Smith's Core Argument in Part I of Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality

(Rough Draft)

In this post, I'd like to try to get clear on the master argument of Smith's critique of naturalistic accounts of concept acquisition in Part I of Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality.  

Smith's master argument in Part I relies on his own picture of concept acquisition, correction, and application, so it's crucial to get clear on the latter first. Unfortunately, Smith's account is never explicitly laid out, relying on several illustrative examples in lieu of such. His account is thus frustratingly under-explicated. But we can extract from Smith's examples a programmatic sketch of his account of concept acquisition and application in terms of the following five phases, adding labels to each one for ease of reference:
Phase 1: Acquaintance: One becomes directly aware of the entity (for knowledge of an individual), or of a sufficiently large quantity of particular tokens of a type of entity (for knowledge of kinds of entity), in an unvarnished, pre-conceptual mode of presentation. 

Phase 2: Feature-Noticing and Labeling: One notices the features of the entity (or a series of entities, for knowledge of kinds of entity) and labels (i.e., associates a term with) them.
Phase 3: Object/Kind Recognition and Abstraction: One begins to recognize which features of the entity (or kind of entity) are individuative of it (or them) -- at least at a level sufficient for practical purposes.  
Phase 4: Comparison and Correction:  When needed, one compares the object (or tokens of the type of object) with the concept to determine if the concept needs correction. In at least some cases (esp. borderline cases/"close calls"), this process relies upon (i) a capacity to compare object to concept to determine whether they "match", which in turn relies upon (ii) the capacity for introspective awareness of one's concept and (iii) the capacity for non-conceptual awareness of one's current experience and non-conceptual recall of one's past experiences. This process is, in at least some cases, (iv) a conscious, intentional process, not sub-personal and automatic.

Phase 5: Competent Application: One is able to regularly and successfully apply the concept to the entity (or tokens of that type of entity). In at least some cases (esp. borderline cases/"close calls"), this process relies upon(i) a capacity to compare object to concept to determine whether they "match", which in turn relies upon (ii) the capacity for introspective awareness of one's concept and (iii) the capacity for non-conceptual awareness of one's current experience and non-conceptual recall of one's past experiences. This process is, in at least some cases, (iv) a conscious, intentional process, not sub-personal and automatic.
So that's Smith's account of concept formation, acquisition, and correction. With his account in mind, we can express his master argument in Part I simply, as follows:

1. All of Phases 1-5 (of Smith's account) are required for genuine concept acquisition, correction, and application as we find them in humans 
2. Naturalistic accounts don't have the materials to account for all of Phases 1-5.
3. Therefore, naturalistic accounts can't explain genuine concept acquisition, correction, and application as we find them in humans.

So that's the master argument against naturalistic concept acquisition. Why should we accept the premises? Smith's grounds for 2 consist in a critique of what he takes to be a representative sampling of the most promising naturalistic accounts of knowledge on offer. 

What about premise 1: Why should we accept it? That is, why think all five of Smith's phases are required for genuine concept formation, correction, and application? Smith doesn't say much about Phases 2 and 3, but I find them relatively plausible. Furthermore, we've already seen Smith's rationale for Phase 1 in our discussion of ch. 1., viz. that without direct awareness of the external referents of perception, one falls prey to radical skepticism about perceptual knowledge, as one can never be sure that one's internal representations of them are caused by them and accurately represent them.[1] 

What about Phases 4 and 5? Recall that Smith thinks both phases require three capacities:
(i) a capacity to compare object to concept to determine whether they "match".
 which in turn relies upon 
(ii) the capacity for introspective awareness of one's concept.
(iii) the capacity for non-conceptual awareness of one's current experiences and non-conceptual recall of one's past experiences. 
Finally, Smith thinks that 
(iv) this process is, in at least some cases, a conscious, intentional process, not sub-personal and automatic.
I'm inclined to agree with Smith that (iv) is prima facie plausible. But why are we supposed to think (i)-(iii) are required? We'll go into these in some detail in a future post, but for now I want to note that Smith's core rationale is that otherwise we can't be sure if our concepts are accurate. Thus, the same assumption is at the heart of Smith's objections to naturalistic accounts of both percepts and concepts: knowledge of external referents is impossible if an intermediary stands between mind and world -- sense data in the case of perceptions of the world, and concepts in the case of conceptualizations of the world. In short, Smith's core assumption is that naked, unmediated access to the world and our experience of it are required for knowledge.

Our reconstruction of Smith's master argument in Part I reveals three core issues to explore in evaluating it: one for premise 1 and two for premise 2:

Re: premise 1: (a) Are all five of Smith's phases of concept acquisition required? In particular, does concept acquisition regarding the external world require unmediated, unconceptualized access to both it and our introspective states?

Re: premise 2: (b) Are the naturalistic accounts of knowledge Smith criticizes representative? (c) If they are representative, are his criticisms successful?

That's it for now. Next time, I'll explore question (a).
[1] We discussed the merits (or lack thereof) of Smith's response to the epistemic externalist's reply on this score in the post on ch. 1.

CfP Announcement: Explaining and Explaining Away in Science and Religion

CFP: Explaining and Explaining Away in Science and Religion

Submission deadline: November 7, 2014

Conference date(s):
January 8, 2015 - January 9, 2015

Conference Venue:
University of Ulster 
Belfast, United Kingdom

Topic areas

Belfast, 8-9 January, 2015

In discussions about the relationship between science and religion, it is sometimes argued that scientific explanations remove or undermine the need for religious explanations. Although such explanations might be logically compatible, the claim is that there is no need for two explanations when one will do. Given Occam's razor and the success of science, it is claimed that religious explanations are no longer needed for features of the world around us. Is this correct? Has science 'explained away' the need for religion? This conference will address this issue by exploring topics such as:

• what are the similarities and differences between scientific and religious explanations?
• can science explain away religious beliefs?
• can religious explanations complement scientific explanations?
• case studies from the history of science and religion on the above themes

The conference will be of interest to philosophers, scientists, theologians and historians of science. Keynote speakers include:

Revd. Dr. Rodney Holder (Cambridge)
Prof. David N. Livingstone (QUB)
Prof. Roger Trigg (Oxford)

Call for Papers
Contributed papers are invited on the topics identified above (or related topics relevant to the conference theme). An extended abstract of no more than 1000 words should be submitted to Dr Shuwei Chen ( by Friday 7 November and decisions will be made by 21 November. We will be approaching a publisher about the possibility of publishing a volume based on papers presented at the conference.

Funding is available to support travel and accommodation expenses for speakers.

This conference is part of a two year project on 'Explaining and Explaining Away' at the University of Ulster which is funded by the John Templeton Foundation. Details of the project can be found at:


Bogardus Blogging on His Paper, The Problem of Contingency for Religious Belief"

...over at The Philosopher's Cocoon.

Quote for the Day

Craig’s example of the stranded astronaut . . . admits of a similar reply. Contemplating the predicament of a man who has nothing but a rock to sit on and must endure his solitude for all eternity does indeed come close to contemplating something meaningless. But this is simply the result of the fact that, by completely isolating the man, the example surreptitiously removes the vast majority of human goods from his life. Let the man be on the Earth, not on an asteroid lost in space. Instead of being alone, let him be surrounded by family, friends, and opportunities for growth and understanding. Let him live a human life with access to the full range of human goods. Suddenly, it is no longer obvious that his life would be meaningless. If it were a finite life, it would still contain many important goods capable of carving a niche for meaningfulness in the face of any suffering the man may endure along the way. And if he inadvertently drank the potion for immortality, as in the example Craig cites, the man would not sink into despair as long as, for example, the people who are important to him drank the potion too, and they could all reasonably expect to continue to enjoy the moral and intellectual goods that are available to them now. An infinitely extended human life endowed with goods of the moral sort is in fact the model for theistic conceptions of the afterlife. So, with the appropriate modifications, the example of the man inadvertently drinking the potion for immortality does not lead to the conclusion that life, even if infinite, is meaningless without God. Rather, the modified example reveals that worthwhile relationships, understanding, and love are the ultimate sources of meaning for a human life. By themselves, without any need for a God to exist, they give our lives their significance and value, so much so that even theists craft their idea of eternal beatitude from the idea of a life where the supply of these goods never ends.

-Di Muzio, Gianluca. "Theism and the Meaning of Life", Ars Disputandi 6:1 (2006), pp. 138-139.

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

(Caveat emptor: I don't think I've got Smith's arguments quite right in this draft. 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 by arguing 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 "transparent", in the sense that when one introspects on one's experiences, one finds one's attention directed back to objects and properties 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.

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.

Resto QuiƱones's New Argument Against Perfect Being Theism

Resto QuiƱones, Jashiel. " Incompatible And Incomparable Perfections: A New Argument Against Perfect Being Theism ", International...