Thursday, September 20, 2007

A Critique of Craig on Middle Knowledge

Here's a link to a recent critique of William Lane Craig's defense of Molinism, a theory of divine providence that claims to reconcile unconditional (i.e., libertarian) human freedom with meticulous providence (the notion that God has sovereignly decreed everything that happens) by attributing to God "middle knowledge". Middle knowledge is said to be infallible, comprehensive knowledge of what any possible creature placed in any possible free choice situation would do, and this knowledge is supposed to be had by God prior to his creative decree.

This critique is pretty good, in my opinion, though there are a few technical points I could pick on. But time is precious so I'll simply note that the critique comes from a broadly Calvinist perspective and that the author unwarrantedly (IMHO) dismisses open theism (my position) as "obviously mistaken".

Monday, September 10, 2007

Rationality and the Meaning of Life

Regarding the meaning of life, Bertrand Russell famously had this to say in "A Free Man's Worship":
Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins--all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built.
In short, life, the universe, and everything are ultimately and objectively pointless and the only thing left for us to do is face up to that fact with unyielding courage.

Now, I categorically reject Russell's vision of the cosmos - "science" has not established as much as Russell thinks it has. Chiefly, though, I want to call attention to a certain inconsistency in his outlook. The inconsistency lies in the fact that Russell wants to affirm both the meaningless of life and a sort of normative rationality:
  • "our ideals henceforward must find a home" [presumably this is a rational "must"]
  • "no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand" [because a philosophy that rejected them would be irrational]
  • "only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built." [the foundation is "firm" and yields "safety" because it is rational]
My question to Russell is this: If human life is objectively meaningless, then why is there any rational obligation to care about rationality? Why should being "rational" count for anything? Russell may pat himself on the back for being intellectually courageous in the face of the bitter truth, but if he's right then there's really no point to being intellectually courageous. Indeed, that notion only has meaning in light of the idea that the world that Russell claims has been disclosed by "science" is not the whole story. "Courage", for example, implies hope that one's cause is not utterly lost and faith that one's cause is just and that it really matters.

If we propose to take rationality and truth seriously, as genuine, intrinsic goods to be sought after and cherished with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, then - if we are consistent - we will acknowledge a worldview in which it makes sense to take rationality and truth as genuine, intrinsic goods. If the world, and individual human life in particular, is not intrinsically meaningful, intrinsically valuable, then it doesn't really matter in any objective sense whether you or I are rational, courageous, virtuous, or what have you.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Some Reflections on Truth and Assertion

According to the 'redundancy' theory of truth, "p is true" has the same content as "p". The predicate "is true" adds nothing and so is eliminable salva significatione (without change of meaning). It seems to me that this position is deeply, though instructively, mistaken.

The basic mistake of the redundancy theory, as I see it, is to confuse "p" with the assertion of "p". To distinguish these symbolically, I'll use "p!" to stand for the assertion of "p". To see that these are distinct contrast the question "Is p true?" with the judgment "p is true". The former does not assert "p" but the latter does and can therefore be identified with "p!":
"p is true" = "p!"
It is by conflating "p" with "p!" that the redundancy theorist gets his result:
"p is true" = "p!"
"p" = "p!"
Therefore, "p is true" = "p".
But once we distinguish between the question and the judgment, the fallacy becomes clear. The question "Is p true?" does not assert "p" but leaves its truth value problematic. Let's represent this with "p?" Clearly the "p" in "p?" is the same as the one in "p!" Hence, "p" by itself cannot be equivalent in meaning to "p!", and with that the redundancy theory of truth fails.

What then does it mean for "p" to be true? We can answer this by looking at the relation of the question "Is p true?" to the judgment "p is true." Clearly the latter is an answer to the question: "Is p true?" Yes, "p is true." The judgment doesn't make "p" true or constitute the truth of "p". Rather, it follows upon a recognition of the fact that "p" was true all along.

For example, suppose I'm wondering about whether the proposition "There is no OJ in my fridge" is true. So long as I have serious doubts about this, I will not assert the proposition. But if I go downstairs, open the fridge, and take a look, I can observe whether the "There is no OJ in my fridge" corresponds to the facts or not. In so doing, I am discover whether the proposition is true. If an appropriate search yields no OJ, then I am in a position to assert or judge that "There is no OJ in my fridge" is true. Again, the judgment doesn't constitute the truth of the proposition. It adds nothing to the proposition's truth conditions. It simply reflects my recognition that its truth conditions are fulfilled.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Against Mind-Body Physicalism

I find the following argument persuasive:
  1. I have an intrinsically first-person awareness of myself as a self, i.e., as a center of first-person awareness.
  2. All purely physical phenomena can be wholly understood in strictly third-person terms.
  3. The self qua self (first-person qua first-person) cannot be wholly understood in non-self (third-person) terms.
  4. Therefore, I am not purely physical. (from 1-3)
Premise (1) seems to me undeniably obvious. I am aware are myself as a self. I am not merely sentient, i.e., aware of my surroundings. I am aware that I am aware of my surroundings. I am not merely conscious, I am self-conscious. And I am not only self-conscious, but I am self-consciously self-conscious. This is the point of Descartes' famous cogito argument - "I think, therefore, I am." He invites us to simply notice ourselves qua selves. When we do so, we find that the objectivity of our own existence as selves ("I am") is given in our own self-reflexive subjectivity ("I think").

Interestingly, not everyone accepts (1). David Hume famously denied that he was aware of himself as a self. He claimed that when he introspected all he observed was a fleeting "bundle of impressions". Essentially the same position is taken by Buddhists who affirm the anatta or "no-self" doctrine. According to this doctrine, if you are able to realize that you, as an abiding center of self-consciousness, do not exist, you will have achieved enlightenment and freedom from suffering. (After all, there's no one there to suffer.)

Frankly, what Hume and many Buddhists might wish to call "enlightenment", I call blindness to the obvious. The reason why Hume finds only a "bundle of impressions" is because he's a shallow phenomenologist. When he introspects he focuses on the intentional object of introspection and forgets the intending subject, the "I think" (to use Kant's phrase) that makes introspection possible in the first place. In other words, when he looks for the self he wants to get it completely "out in front" so that he can view it as an object, from a third-person perspective, as it were. But this can't be done. To try to view the self as an object is to hide from view its very character as a self.

Premise (2) seems right as well. Setting panpsychism aside as incompatible with physicalism ('panpsychism' is the idea that all things, from humans to quarks, have intrinsic, irreducible "mental" properties), it seems that all fundamental physical concepts - e.g., mass, charge, momentum, force, velocity, field, space-time, quarks, bosons, etc. - are also entirely third-person concepts. Take any purely physical object, say, a rock. Give as complete a description of the rock's intrinsic properties as you care to. There is no reason to think that we will ever have to drag in any irreducibly first-person concepts in characterizing the rock. The reason is simple: The rock isn't a 'self'; it doesn't have an 'ego' or 'I'. It seems that the same goes, mutatis mutandis, for any other purely physical system, including the human brain.

By now the rationale for (3) should also be clear. Notions like 'person' and 'self' are intrinsically first-person concepts. The only reason why I can understand what it is to be a 'self' is because I am one and because I am aware of myself as a self. It's a concept that can only be understood from the inside and not, as physicalism implies, in third-person terms.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Some of My Recent Publications

Last year I was going through a real dry spell - it seemed like I couldn't get anything published. So far this year, however, things have gone pretty well. I've had three papers accepted at three different journals:
The second one in the list was the one that really surprised me. Normal turnaround time for peer review is anywhere from 3 to 6 months. In this case, it was only 1 week!

Now if I can just manage to land one or two more publications in the next couple months I may stand a good chance of getting a tenure-track position. We'll see.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

On Evolution and Ambiguity

A few months back during one of the presidential primary debates someone asked the nominees "Do you believe in evolution?" Some answered 'yes' and some answered 'no', but frankly, both answers are misguided. The problem is that the term 'evolution' is multiply ambiguous, a fact which has resulted in massive amounts of confusion in discussions of Darwinism, creationism, and intelligent design.

Here are a few of the more common usages of the term 'evolution':
  1. Change in gene frequencies over time within a breeding population.
  2. The efficacy of 'natural selection' - the differential influence of environmental stresses on reproductive rates - to effect evolution in the sense of (1).
  3. Common descent - the idea that all organisms that have ever lived on Earth are part of a common 'family tree'.
  4. The sufficiency of random genetic variation (mutation, recombination, etc.) plus natural selection (construed broadly to include things like 'sexual selection') to account for the diversification of life on Earth.
  5. (3) + (4).
  6. Naturalistic 'abiogenesis' (origin of life) + (3).
  7. (4) + (6).
This list is not exhaustive. I have arranged them in order from less controversial to more controversial.

(2), I take it, includes (1). (3), I take it, includes both (1) and (2). (4) includes (1) and (2) but not necessarily (3) - it allows for the possibility of there being multiple, independent 'family trees'. (5) includes (1-4). (6) includes (1-3), but not necessarily (4). (7) includes all of (1-6).

Now, of these possible ways of construing 'evolution', only (1) and (2) are completely uncontroversial. No one, not even the much-pilloried young-earth creationists, dispute them. And there's a very good reason for this consensus: We can and do observe these things happening in real-time. Finch-beak variations and bacterial drug resistance are examples.

(3) is supported by some impressive evidence - the fossil record, DNA comparisons, homology, and such. Put it all together and the case for common descent may be strong enough to constitute a preponderance of evidence. Whether that is so or not, I don't think that it has been established beyond a reasonable doubt. One of my reasons is this: Common descent is a very strong claim - it says that all organisms that have ever lived on Earth (let's set the issue of ET's aside) are related. If it said "most" or "many" instead of "all" that would be another thing. Another reason for doubt has to do with the seemingly abrupt appearance of some of the major taxonomic categories (phyla, kingdoms, classes, etc.) in the fossil record.

Compared with (3), which has considerable support, (4) and (6) (and by extension (5) and (7)) have very little actual support.

(4) runs into a problem that has been acknowledged by Richard Dawkins and developed by Michael Behe. The problem is that many biological systems, especially at the molecular level, give strong appearance of being irreducibly complex. Of course, this fact doesn't prove that (4) is false. Critics of Behe have appealed to devices like 'exaptation' to argue that systems like the bacterial flagellum that appear to be irreducibly complex might have arisen in step-wise fashion by the co-option of simpler components that were previous performing some function other than what they do in the flagellum. But this response is rather lame. It is quite a large step from showing that something might possibly have happened, to showing that it did happen, or that it is at all plausible to believe that it did happen.

Similarly, (6) remains highly speculative. There are a lot of very interesting proposals on the table (see, e.g., here), but all of the naturalistic proposals on the table face significant, seemingly insurmountable problems. And none, so far as I am aware, addresses the origin of biological information. Maybe future research will solve the problems. But, then again, maybe it won't. We have no advance guarantee from the cosmos that the origin of life does in fact have a naturalistic explanation. It seems to me that any confidence that (6) is correct must stem not from actual data, but from an a priori commitment to the idea that the actual explanation must be a naturalistic one.

So, do I believe in evolution? Well, that depends on what one means by 'evolution'. I'm very confident in (1) and (2). I'm open to (3), but am not sold on it. As for (4) and (6), I'm pretty sure they are false.

I think my judgments on these points are fairly objective and informed, though I admit that I'm just a layman in this area. But regardless of whether I'm right about (4) and (6), I think any fair-minded person should agree that they are far more dubious than (1) and (2) and that it is possible for intelligent and informed persons to entertain reasonable doubt about them.