Mile-High Reviews: The Blackwell companion to Natural Theology, part 1

Ok, let’s start this new series: Mile-High Reviews! I’m often travelling and need something to do in low-cost flights, so why not review books and other slogs? I’ll start with William Lane Craig’s & J.P. Moreland’s The Blackwell companion to Natural Theology. I’m not all that competent in philosophy, so I may miss evident issues or find problems with issues treated a thousand times. That also means that whatever I do find and is solid is a bad mistake indeed.

After a rather optimistic-sounding prologue, where Craig and Moreland presented the firepower they’ll bring to bear so to speak, let’s start with The Project of Natural Theology, an article by Charles Taliaferro. I’m just competent enough in philosophy to know that I’m an almost complete beginner, so that part will be less thorough than one speaking of, say information theory, history or even biology.

Natural theology is the practice of philosophically reflecting on the existence and nature of God independent of real or apparent divine revelation or scripture. […] Natural theology is often practiced in the West and the Near East with respect to the theistic view of God, and thus the God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Now I know why Lydia McGrew made her error of defining theism as believing in the god of Judaism and Christianity if that’s her examples… Also, practising with respect to a set view of god puts the lie to natural theology’s conceit to work “independent of divine revelation or scripture” I think.

According to classical theism, there is a creator and sustainer of the cosmos who is omniscient, omnipotent, necessarily existing, nonphysical, essentially good, omnipresent, without temporal beginning or end, and everlasting or eternal. […] In the current intellectual climate, the closest competitor with theism, and the customary launching pad for antitheistic natural theology arguments, is naturalism.

Going like that from classical theism to theism without provocation does worry me that a shell game awaits ahead, but so far it’s fair.

Also, I don’t think Mr. Taliaferro can be faulted for biasing the presentation of some common, mostly naturalist, arguments against the concept of natural theology — to wit: there’s no logical space for it (i.e. it purports to present a theory of everything but both the everything in question and parts of the theory itself like transcendence are hopelessly poorly defined), it doesn’t have much if any explanatory power, it’s projects human concepts and standards like crazy on the purported gods, we don’t have any other universe to compare this one to (that’s a point made against arguments from design) and, natural theology only ever brings you to deistic gods.

Next, he states that natural theologian will have to go against physicalism to defeat naturalist arguments and states the importance of enlisting the philosophy of the mind’s help. Specifically, he would weigh on the side of consciousness and mental states being non-physical because an appeal to consciousness doesn’t work as well if consciousness is an emergent property of our very physical brains:

How certain should we be that consciousness and other mental states are in fact marginal or thoroughly physical and identical to a bodily “web of links”? I suggest in what follows that once we recognize that some conscious, purposive explanations should count as bona fide accounts of human (and perhaps other animal) lives, one may see that the theistic appeal to consciousness, and the purposive account of the cosmos itself, should be taken seriously as well.

After a description of Dennet’s work as a fight against Cartesianism, follows this interesting titbit:

Without consciousness, we should not be able even to think that someone is sane or insane, let alone Jesus. Recognition of the reality of conscious awareness is not simply an obstinate belief; the reality of consciousness seems to be a precondition of inquiry.

Fair enough, but so is movement: we wouldn’t be alive to do that contemplation without. And movement is an emerging property of the mass, charge, space-time et cætera grouping Dennet favours so I guess I have an hard time seeing what makes consciousness intrinsically different from that.

There is a powerful, enduring argument against identifying consciousness and brain activity that is very much in favor now and that highlights the limitations of physicalist treatments of consciousness. A wide range of philosophers argue that it is possible for us to have an exhaustive observation of a person’s physiology, anatomy, all outward behavior, and language use and still not know that the person is conscious.

I’m curious about that one: are they speaking of philosophical zombies? I guess I might see it if I get my hands on the citations…

The difficulty of explaining away the obstinate reality of consciousness, and the ostensible contingency of the relationship between consciousness and physical processes, should caution those who dismiss theism in light of a confident form of physicalism.

That cuts both ways though: the mental supervening on the physical, as Nagel puts it, does put on rather shaky grounds those wishing to posit unembodied consciousness as a solution to anything. Or a non-physical consciousness for that matter: why would the mental get so thoroughly influenced by the physical then? And, for that matter, where’s an example of a consciousness non supervened on the physical and how would it work?

I shall assume (provisionally) in my reply to the first argument that consciousness does indeed exist and that there are problems with explaining away what appears to be a contingent relationship between consciousness and physical states and processes.

Given that the contingent relationship seems to be in the “consciousness contingent on physical processes” direction, that’s more of a problem for those who would hold consciousness to be a non-physical entity though: for physicalists of the “consciousness exist as an emergent property of some material states and processes” bent, that contingent relationship is pretty much a gimme.

Reply to Argument I

It seems that we can conceive of the one without the other, and we currently lack an explanatory scheme to show that there is an identity between them

For the first part, so what? Human beings can conceive of Arda, Narnia, Left Behind, golem stories and Arabian Nights so that just means human beings have a vivid imagination. And besides, the contingency is currently in the wrong direction for that argument.

If we cannot rule out that consciousness with respect to human beings is something nonphysical, how can we justifiably rule out that there may be a nonphysical theistic mode of consciousness (a God who knows, acts, and so on)? If it is possible that there is a nonphysical, purposive causal agent as conceived of in theism, is there not logical space for asking the theistic cosmic question that Phillips and Kai Nielsen seek to rule out?

It’s true that one can’t, which means that Phillips and Nielsen position is too strong. However, you still are in a worse position than ufologists or inter-stellar aliens seekers: at least, they know that flying objects or life are possible according to the rules of our universe. Indeed, they have examples to point to. You can do no more than state that your position is not logically impossible, which is a very low bar to clear.

In standard forms of the cosmological argument, theists ask the question of why the contingent cosmos exists rather than not. This is not akin to asking why everything exists, assuming God (ex hypothesi) is a substantial reality or subject who would (if God exists) be referred to as one of the “things” that exists. […] Nielsen’s objection to theism similarly seems to have purchase only if by “universe” we mean “everything.” If, instead, the “universe” refers to the contingent cosmos we observe, it seems that it is perfectly sensible to ask why it exists and whether it has a sustaining, necessarily existing, conscious, nonphysical, purposive cause.

That means natural theologians are smuggling part of their argument in though. First, because the cosmos doesn’t have to be contingent: that it be is an hypothesis which would help the natural theologians’ cause a lot, but it’s not a given at all (if only because properties of a set’s elements don’t necessarily apply to said set). Second, to couch the purported cause of the observable cosmos in terms of conscious, non-physical and sustaining entity is putting the lie to natural theology’s conceit that it’s led without regard to existing revelation or scripture: leading the conclusion towards a god similar to what Christian theologians generally hypothesise is giving implicit regard to Christian revelation at the very least (a less-Christian centric description of a possible creator god is non-physical, sustaining, necessarily existing, conscious — if barely — and non purposive. Yes, I just described Azathoth).

Consider, again, Nielsen’s claim that “God exists” is akin to “procrastination drinks melancholy.” […] I suggest that the second phrase is meaningless, but the first expresses a proposition which may, in fact, be true and so ought to arouse our interest in its truth.

That’s only if you can meaningfully describe god though, which is Nielsen’s point. Because if you can’t — and I’ve never seen theists manage to — “God exists” is exactly like “Merkavreeble lives”.

Reply to Argument II

Dawkins seems to suppose that if God exists, God’s existence should be evident in gravity, electromagnetism, nuclear forces, lumps of matter, rocks, asteroids, and black holes. […] Let us now turn to Narveson’s argument. Narveson wants scientific details about how divine agency works. He compares explanations that work (water boils because of molecules in motion) with those that do not (God commanded that there be light and, lo, there was light).

Well yes, and it’s not exactly a “how divine agency works” but more “how can I know it was divine agency and not demonic agency or happenstance”. Because, at the end of the day, most theists purport that their gods act in the world: traces of that ought to be visible. Also, even putting intent in the causal chain, we at best have claims of divine intent in Narveson’s negative example. Granted, admitting Genesis is right, divine claims but some gods are notorious trolls (cf. Vishnu, Loki).

Imagine, however, that a physicalist ontology is found wanting and (as suggested earlier) that we need to be open to nonphysical states, processes, and the like. Imagine that the mental is irreducible to the physical and that we give no primary place to the natural sciences, and that we further allow that intentional explanations involving purposes are all permissible.

Apart from the last — which is an “I need that otherwise no way I’m ending with a Christian-style god”…which, granted, was to be expected — that’s a big flight of fancy here. The first three look a lot like “imagine my position’s prerequisites were true” while the fourth is “imagine we put aside the best tool for truth-seeking we have on record”. Not a very convincing argument.

Reply to Argument III

Thought (whether human or divine) would not be small in physical size because nonphysical and divine thought (if classical theism is true) would be neither “weak” nor “bounded.” Cosmic theistic explanations would be in the form of appealing to the limitless knowledge and unsurpassable power of God. It may be that in constructing a theistic metaphysic, we employ the concepts of intentionality and consciousness that are used to describe our contingent and limited life, but in theism the concepts of intentionality and consciousness are then conceived in terms of a noncontingent, limitless, powerful, intentional, conscious Creator.

That’s a nice comeback, but that’s not one open to natural theologians at the outset: they’re supposed to work “independent of divine revelation or scripture”. That means, if they want to use the attributes of a Christian concept of the divine that they have to show first that’s it’s the applicable concept. Otherwise, they’re doing fanfic world-building.

Then he goes after Rundle’s critique — for which, really, “not enough data” is the only answer I feel confident in giving — but I find funny that he chides Rundle for professing bafflement over theistic claims when his defence against Nielsen boils down to wistful thinking, which is pretty much the pendant of that tactic. Or better yet, when he does the same re. Rundle a few lines after:

Rundle shapes his objection against a proposal that psychokinesis could provide a model for thinking of divine agency. […] This is puzzling.

Reply to Argument IV

From time to time various writers have told us that we cannot reach any conclusions about the origin or development of the universe, since it is (whether by logic or just in fact) a unique object, the only one of its kind, and rational inquiry can only reach the conclusions about objects which belong to kinds, e.g. it can reach a conclusion about what will happen to this bit of iron, because there are other bits of iron, the behaviour of which can be studied. This objection of course has the surprising, and to most of these writers unwelcome, consequence, that physical cosmology cannot reach justified conclusions about such matters as the size, age, rate of expansion, and density of the universe as a whole (because it is a unique object); and also that physical anthropology cannot reach conclusions about the origin and development of the human race (because, as far as our knowledge goes, it is the only one of its kind). The implausibility of these consequences leads us to doubt the original objection, which is indeed totally misguided.

What Swinburne — and Taliaferro by citing it in support — would have us forget, given that he told us earlier, is that the counter from uniqueness is tailor-made against the argument from design. To wit, the universe was designed because it looks as if it was designed [by human-like intelligences] so it was designed by someone and that someone is god. Cut off the argument from uniqueness (i.e. you have no other god-designed things on hand, how do you know how would it go around designing things?), and you get a god whose mind has human-like limitations — given that you can extrapolate its designs from ours — which sinks your defence against argument III.

I suggest that the most promising way to compare accounts of the cosmos is to appeal to such general criteria as explanatory scope, simplicity, compatibility with known science, support form other domains of inquiry including ethics or value theory, philosophy of mind, and so on. An analogy with assessing nonhuman animal mental life may prove helpful.

Looks like someone’s trying to smuggle some parts of his argument by the backdoor again: even if a god existed and were responsible for creating the universe, you would expect the laws of the universe and the ethical principles set down by man to have some alignment if said deity cares about human ethics or lack thereof. And, for example, Azathoth doesn’t give a shit about them. If the creation of the universe has a mindless source, you ought not to expect ethics or philosophy of the mind to be of any help.

Reply to Argument V

In pursuing a philosophy of God, I suggest philosophers of all stripes should pursue natural theology and follow the arguments wherever they lead.

After you. You can begin by stopping to try to smuggle YHWH ex hypothesi.

Then we get some general thoughts.

It is certainly right that simply having a greater number of arguments for one position (theism) rather than another (pantheism) is not, ipso facto, an advantage. The larger number of arguments may raise a larger number of good objections. But what Oppy’s analysis may lead us to miss is that independent lines of reasoning can increase the bona fide cogency of their mutual conclusion. So if religious experience gives one some reason to embrace pantheism and an argument from simplicity gives one reason to embrace pantheism, then pantheism is better supported than if one only had one such argument. This is not a matter of a mere disjunction but a case of one argument supporting the other.

I think you’re missing a bit Oppy’s point here…it’s, in convoluted language because whyever not, to make sure both arguments are sound.

It may be that we are at a point where the evidential basis for theism and pantheism is on a par, but we would also be in a position (ceterus paribus) where there is more reason to question the sufficiency of secular naturalism. Both the nontheistic and theistic arguments would function as providing independent reasons for seeking a nonnaturalist account of the cosmos.

That does require that they don’t undercut one another though. Because if the pantheist argument weakens the part of the theist argument treating secular naturalism and vice versa, you’re no better off in your quest to knock secular naturalism out of the race.

Well, it was a bit stream-of-consciousness, for which I ask for your forgiveness. Next time, I’ll see some Leibnizian cosmological arguments.