We human beings are aware of ourselves in ways that robots and computers are not, we can think in ways they cannot, and we firmly believe some things are truly right or wrong. Granted humans have evolved by natural selection, science finds it difficult to produce an explanation of these facts – how does a set of physical processes lead to such non-physical outcomes?
These matters have therefore formed the basis of arguments for the existence of God. So I am naturally interested when a non-theistic philosopher and a non-theistic blogger find there are good reasons to question the naturalistic explanations.
The philosopher and the blogger
The blogger is Travis, who, for a couple of years now, has been blogging his strong doubts about the christian faith he was raised in at A Measure of Faith. His most recent post analyses some of Nagel’s arguments.
Travis approaches this question with admirable openness and honesty, and his discussion is well worth a read. My comments are only brief summaries.
Nagel’s arguments summarised
The taste of sugar or the experience of pain are very different to the scientific explanations of the physics involved. As psychologist Susan Blackmore says: “The objective world out there, and the subjective experiences in here, seem to be totally different kinds of things. Asking how one produces the other seems to be nonsense.”
So Nagel is in good company when he argues that human consciousness cannot arise from purely physical causes. A theistic argument can be built on that conclusion.
Some forms of thought are easy to explain via evolution – obviously the ability to draw simple and correct conclusions about events going on near us (like a rustle in the grass that may be a predatory animal) would have life-saving qualities that would be favoured by natural selection. But Nagel argues that the ability to move beyond ourselves and our environment and think abstractly to determine truth is something else altogether, and “cannot be given a purely physical explanation”.
As Travis points out, this conclusion is more intuitive than rigorous, but he notes that “Nothing in random natural processes seems to work toward discerning correctness.” Again, these thoughts form the basis of the theistic argument from reason.
Value realism is the belief that moral values really exist – some things really are right or wrong (for example, does anyone think that “torturing babies for fun” could ever be anything but objectively wrong?). Nagel, like most people, intuits that value realism is true, and again argues that there is no way it could be true in a purely physical world produced by Darwinian evolution.
Theists develop these thoughts into the moral argument, famously used by CS Lewis in Mere Christianity. Travis recognises the force of this argument.
Nagel avoids the theistic conclusions
Nagel sees the strength of these anti-materialistic arguments, but doesn’t believe theism is the only, or best, conclusion. He doesn’t really know what the answer is, but speculates there must be a non-theistic, non-naturalistic, answer.
Travis draws his conclusions
Travis recognises the force of these arguments for the existence of God, but concludes they don’t work, for several reasons:
Intuition and speculation
He recognises that any discussion of these matters, by either side, requires some degree of speculation, but he believes naturalism has a better basis in the natural world. And he sees a “current” or momentum that he believes will carry the day for naturalism.
Animals have mental faculties too
Travis believes this shows that the mental cannot be quite as special as these arguments might suggest.
The mental depends on the physical
Clearly the non-physical mind cannot exist without the physical brain. So, Travis argues, the reason why we cannot explain consciousness in naturalistic terms is because the physical brain is so staggeringly complex. He argues that science has been able to find regularity in (or explanations for) most things except the most complex, so there is good reason to think it is only complexity that defeats us here.
Look at the universe
The universe as a whole doesn’t exhibit much consciousness, cognition and value, and most of it doesn’t look like it is designed for that. So it is reasonable to conclude that these are not fundamental to the universe.
What does it all mean?
It is curious that when I read Travis’ post, just taking his own words into consideration, I felt he made a stronger case for theism than for naturalism. Yet obviously he felt the opposite! Where are the fundamental differences that lead to this dichotomy?
Assumptions lead to conclusions?
I think Travis’ explanations, and indeed faith in the “naturalist program” is circular, and most of his ‘answers’ only work if we assume naturalism and reduce everything to the physical – which begs the questions we are asking.
- There is a “continuum of mental faculties in the animal kingdom” only if we assume that human consciousness, cognition or value are of the same type as animals may have.
- His belief that science will continue on a course to solve all these issues can only be true if they all can be reduced to the physical. For example, naturalism can’t explain the apparent free will and consciousness we humans possess, so naturalists often remove the problem by denying they exist and reducing our mind to the brain.
The view that the vastness and emptiness of the cosmos, and the smallness of the places where consciousness, cognition and value exist (so far we only know them to exist on earth) seems to me to be a very poor argument. The biosphere is only (in volume terms) about 1% of the earth, yet the gravity of the “unproductive” part of earth is needed to keep the atmosphere.
Likewise, the cosmologists tell us that:
- the laws and parameters of the universe must be very “finely tuned” if life is to form; and
- to have a universe that would last long enough for human life to evolve required that it be very large.
We can’t measure worth and importance by size! Our human experience of consciousness, cognition and value cry out for an explanation regardless of whether we are the only examples of it in the vast universe, or there are millions of intelligent life forms “out there”.
Get used to disappointment! 1
Many naturalist ‘explanations’ of these human attributes seem to be a mixture of faith that science will one day explain them, and a willingness to reduce and explain away anything that doesn’t fit with naturalism. They seem to be non-answers, plus reassurance that it is OK not to have answers.
It seems to me that Travis’ naturalist current doesn’t really avoid these difficulties.
So where does the ‘conflict’ really lie?
Do we each conclude what you’d expect from our assumptions? That is, if you assume naturalism must be, or is most likely to be, true, you can reduce deep human experiences to epiphenomena (secondary phenomena). And if you assume naturalism isn’t, or may not be, the whole story, then you’ll likely believe that human experience really is as it seems to be, more than naturalism can explain.
On this matter, the scientific and philosophical establishment seems to have a naturalistic bias. (Read anything written by a neuroscientist and you’ll likely find naturalism assumed without this being stated explicitly.) While I accept the true science of the brain, this bias makes it difficult to accept without question naturalistic scientists’ pronouncements on these metaphysical matters.
The fact that a non-theist such as Nagel can be so sceptical of the naturalistic explanations (and he is not the only one) means he is one who has escaped his assumptions to some degree. That makes him well worth listening to.
Is the human mind evidence of God?
I personally feel that naturalism doesn’t provide a satisfactory explanation for consciousness, cognition and value, and so theism is the only real explanation we have. And it leads to a ‘higher’ view of humanity than if we reduce mind to brain and explain away consciousness, cognition and value – and recent history suggests we need this ‘higher’ view! If the evidence changes as the science develops, then we can by all means reconsider, but right now, that’s seems to me to be the best answer.
Worth a read
I have only briefly touched on the points Travis has made, both for and against his view. If you are interested, check it out further at A Measure of Faith.
Note 1: There is a Princess Bride quote for most occasions! 🙂