Category Archives: Philosophy

Who Is Responsible for the Division of Israel?

In 1 Kings 12, Rehoboam foolishly decides to threaten the northern tribes rather than agree to lighten their tax burden. This leads to the division of united Israel into the northern kingdom, called Israel, and the southern kingdom, called Judah.

In verse 24, the prophet Shemaiah tells Rehoboam that the division of the kingdom is God’s doing, so don’t we have a contradiction here? Whose fault is the division? Rehoboam, who spoke foolish words, or God?

The truth is that both God and Rehoboam are responsible for the division.  There is absolutely nothing contradictory about an infinite God being in control of every little electron in the universe, but creating creatures in that same universe who have a special power of free will.  God can accomplish everything he wants to accomplish in human affairs through human free will.

While He commands volcanoes to erupt and water to flow as inanimate objects, He commands humans as free creatures.  He works in coordination with human freedom, not without it or against it.

Philosophers refer to this as primary and secondary causation.  God is the primary cause of all activity in the universe, but He uses the secondary cause of free will to accomplish his purposes with human beings.

Some say that this concept of human free will takes away from the glory of God, but claiming that God cannot create free creatures and still bring his plans to fruition is really the position that takes away from God’s glory.

#3 Post of 2015 – Why Can’t Science Explain Consciousness?

It is not uncommon these days to hear something like the following: “Science has explained just about everything else in the world, so it is inevitable that science will explain the mind and consciousness.” This kind of comment always makes me roll my eyes because the people who make this comment are making a colossal error, but an error that can be hard to see.

Philosopher Ed Feser gives a brilliant analogy that makes the error more obvious. He calls it the “lump under the rug” fallacy.

Suppose the wood floors of your house are filthy and that the dirt is pretty evenly spread throughout the house.  Suppose also that there is a rug in one of the hallways.  You thoroughly sweep out one of the bedrooms and form a nice little pile of dirt at the doorway.  It occurs to you that you could effectively “get rid” of this pile by sweeping it under the nearby rug in the hallway, so you do so.  The lump under the rug thereby formed is barely noticeable, so you are pleased.

You proceed to sweep the rest of the bedrooms, the bathroom, the kitchen, etc., and in each case you sweep the resulting piles under the same rug.  When you’re done, however, the lump under the rug has become quite large and something of an eyesore.  Someone asks you how you are going to get rid of it.  “Easy!” you answer.  “The same way I got rid of the dirt everywhere else!  After all, the ‘sweep it under the rug’ method has worked everywhere else in the house.  How could this little rug in the hallway be the one place where it wouldn’t work?  What are the odds of that?”

What is wrong with using the “sweep it under the rug” method to get rid of the dirt under the rug?

Naturally, the same method will not work in this case, and it is precisely because it worked everywhere else that it cannot work in this case.  You can get rid of dirt outside the rug by sweeping it under the rug.  You cannot get of the dirt under the rug by sweeping it under the rug.  You will only make a fool of yourself if you try, especially if you confidently insist that the method must work here because it has worked so well elsewhere.

So what does the “sweep it under the rug” method have to do with the issue of whether science will explain the mind and consciousness some day?

Now, the “Science has explained everything else, so how could the human mind be the one exception?” move is, of course, standard scientistic and materialist shtick.  But it is no less fallacious than our imagined “lump under the rug” argument.

Here’s why.  Keep in mind that Descartes, Newton, and the other founders of modern science essentially stipulated that nothing that would not fit their exclusively quantitative or “mathematicized” conception of matter would be allowed to count as part of a “scientific” explanation.  Now to common sense, the world is filled with irreducibly qualitative features — colors, sounds, odors, tastes, heat and cold — and with purposes and meanings.  None of this can be analyzed in quantitative terms.

To be sure, you can re-define color in terms of a surface’s reflection of light of certain wavelengths, sound in terms of compression waves, heat and cold in terms of molecular motion, etc.  But that doesn’t capture what common sense means by color, sound, heat, cold, etc. — the way red looks, the way an explosion sounds, the way heat feels, etc.  So, Descartes and Co. decided to treat these irreducibly qualitative features as projections of the mind.

The redness we see in a “Stop” sign, as common sense understands redness, does not actually exist in the sign itself but only as the quale of our conscious visual experience of the sign; the heat we attribute to the bathwater, as common sense understands heat, does not exist in the water itself but only in the “raw feel” that the high mean molecular kinetic energy of the water causes us to experience; meanings and purposes do not exist in external material objects but only in our minds, and we project these onto the world; and so forth.  Objectively there are only colorless, odorless, soundless, tasteless, meaningless particles in fields of force.

In short, the scientific method “explains everything else” in the world in something like the way the “sweep it under the rug” method gets rid of dirt — by taking the irreducibly qualitative and teleological features of the world, which don’t fit the quantitative methods of science, and sweeping them under the rug of the mind.  And just as the literal “sweep it under the rug” method generates under the rug a bigger and bigger pile of dirt which cannot in principle be gotten rid of using the “sweep it under the rug” method, so too does modern science’s method of treating irreducibly qualitative, semantic, and teleological features as mere projections of the mind generate in the mind a bigger and bigger “pile” of features which cannot be explained using the same method.

And there you have it. The very way science does its work is to exclude the qualitative features of reality as experienced by human consciousness. To lump the phenomena of consciousness in with the phenomena of gravity, cellular division, and star formation, is to try to get rid of the dirt under the rug by sweeping the dirt under the rug! It won’t work, ever.

How Is Science Like Checkers?

Philosopher Ed Feser recently introduced another useful analogy to explain why scientism, the idea that the scientific method is the only way to gain true knowledge of reality, is false. Feser writes:

Think of it this way: you can’t find out why checkers boards exist by looking at the rules of checkers themselves, which concern only what goes on within the game. The rules tell you how each piece moves, how the game is won, and so forth. But why are the pieces governed by these rules, specifically, rather than others? Why do any checkers boards exist at all in the first place? No scrutiny of the rules can answer those questions. It is impossible to answer them, or indeed even to understand the questions, unless you take a vantage point from outside the game and its rules.

How does checkers compare to science?

Similarly, what science uncovers are, in effect, the “rules” that govern the “game” that is the natural world. Its domain of study is what is internal to the natural order of things. It presupposes that there is such an order, just as the rules of checkers presuppose that there are such things as checkers boards and game pieces. For that very reason, though, science has nothing to say about why there is any natural order or laws in the first place, any more than the rules of checkers tell you why there are any checkers boards or checkers rules in the first place.

If science cannot, in principle, answer these questions, how do we answer questions about why there is any natural order or laws in the first place?

To answer those questions, or even to understand them properly, you must take an intellectual vantage point from outside the world and its laws, and thus outside of science. You need to look to philosophical argument, which goes deeper than anything mere physics can uncover.


What Is a Game?

Ludwig Wittgenstein famously argued that there are no such things as essences. He claimed that when we group things together into classes, we are doing so because there are “family resemblances” among the objects of the class. The objects grouped together do not share a common essence. They merely share some similar characteristics.

His most famous example is of the word “game.” Wittgenstein argued that there is no common definition or essence of what a game is.  It is just a word that groups some things together in a class that have “family resemblances” to each other. If we can’t find an essence for a word we use so frequently as game, then surely essences don’t exist. We think we know what a game is, but we really don’t. It’s that way with all words that name objects in the world, argues Wittgenstein.

It surely is hard to define what a game is, but is it true that nobody has ever been able to give a definition of the word game? Is there no essence to games?

David Oderberg, in his book Real Essentialism, cites the philosopher Jesper Juul as arguing that there is an essence to games. Juul offers the following definition:

Jesper Juul, for one, has argued with some persuasiveness that games do indeed have an essence, and that the essence is given by six features: (1) rules; (2) a variable, quantifiable outcome; (3) a value assigned to possible outcomes; (4) player effort; (5) attachment by the player to the outcome; (6) negotiable consequences.

Oderberg notes, “One interesting feature of Juul’s definition is that he seeks to capture our intuitive understanding of what a game is, comparing it to a number of previous definitions found in the literature.”

Oderberg continues:

[T]he ‘variable, quantifiable outcome’ in feature (2) does not require that a game have an outcome that is numerically measurable, only that it be clear, unambiguous, and such that, at the very least, one can in principle say that it has been achieved or not achieved (the quantification here can be thought of as binary – achieve (1) or not achieve (0)).

Hence Wittgenstein’s examples of patience and of a child throwing a ball against a wall, even if they do not involve winning and losing or competition, fall within Juul’s definition. So does his other example of ring-a-ring-a-roses, where the outcome is precisely falling down on the word ‘down!’ So would rope-skipping as typically played by children, where a child either hands over to another the first time she misses the rope or does so after enough misses; in any case, simply staying clear of the rope is a variable, quantifiable outcome. A boxer’s rope-skipping as part of his training is, on the other hand, not a game. Nor is finger-painting or (usually) playing with dolls – a child can play with dolls without playing a game with them.

Oderberg discusses other aspects of Juul’s definition of games, but his main point is that Wittgenstein was far too hasty to claim that there is no essence to games. The bottom line for me is that anyone who claims that there is no such thing as essences has their work cut out for them. The fact that someone was able to offer a persuasive definition for game is bad news for the anti-essentialist, because finding the essence of a game is extremely difficult. If we can find an essence in this difficult case, then we can surely find essences in other easier cases. If we can do that, then there is strong reason to believe that essences exist.

What Is Real Essentialism?

David Oderberg, in his book Real Essentialism (Routledge Studies in Contemporary Philosophy, Vol. 11), describes the metaphysical system that derives from Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and their students. This system is the closest thing to explaining our common sense knowledge of the world around us that I have ever seen. It is sometimes called classical Christian metaphysics or Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics.

If it embodies the best common sense, then why write about it? Everybody should be agreed! It turns out that every one of its tenets has been and continues to be attacked by philosophers who propose competing metaphysical systems. As you read through the presuppositions for real essentialism below, keep in mind that every point is disputed by somebody in the academic, philosophical world.

Oderberg offers five presuppositions for real essentialism:

First, there is a real world , by which I mean a world that is wholly objective. . . . Of course there are many dimensions of contrast for the term ‘real’ – real v. fictional, real v. artefactual, real v. imaginary and the like – and the essentialist incorporates all of these distinctions into his ontology. But the overall position he holds is that there is a real world, and that the things in it are all real in the sense that they are beings of one kind or another and their being is not a matter of opinion or conjecture.

Secondly, the reference to being indicates that the real essentialist starts from the classic Aristotelian position that metaphysics is the study of being qua being: being in all its manifestations and varieties, classified according to a suite of concepts and categories that derive from the Aristotelian tradition. . . . Real essentialism takes nature seriously, and whilst it may countenance the existence of the immaterial – as I think it should – it does not reduce or refer nature as it is in concrete physical reality to a realm of the immaterial that is supposed to be its ultimate ontological ground.

Essences are real, they encompass all kinds of being and, thirdly, they are knowable. The essentialist is committed to the view that the human mind can come to know the essence of things. Knowledge of the truth just is the conformity of the mind to the way things are, and so knowledge of essence is the conformity of the mind to the natures of things. The knowledge is frequently only partial and incomplete, but it is no part of the real essentialist worldview that humans can always achieve complete, adequate knowledge of the essences of things. This not a counsel of despair but an encouragement to the increase and improvement of knowledge.

Fourthly, real essentialism holds that knowledge of essence is captured by means of real definition. As Fine puts it, ‘[ j]ust as we may define a word, or say what it means, so we may define an object, or say what it is’ (Fine 1994a: 2). The prejudice against real definition is a deeply held one, going back to the roots of empiricism. Yet it is hard to see why the concept is unacceptable. Indeed, since defining a word is best seen as giving the essence of a kind of object (the meaning), the opponent of real definition who at least concedes that we can define words has already conceded the principle that one can define objects of a certain kind; if that kind, why not others ? . . . To define something just means, literally, to set forth its limits in such a way that one can distinguish it from all other things of a different kind. . . . Putting the point again in Aristotelian terminology . . . , to give the definition of something it to say what it is, to give the ti esti or to ti e-n einai of the object. Put simply, the real essentialist position is that it is possible to say correctly what things are.

Fifthly, the real essentialist holds that the world is orderly and hence that things are classifiable, a point heavily emphasized, and rightly so, by Ellis. Describing the world accurately requires one to be able to classify the things within it into kinds of being. This does not depend on there being multiple examples of any particular kind, for even if each thing that existed were the only one of its kind it would still be classifiable as a member of some kind or other. . . .  The real essentialist, however, is concerned primarily with classification not according to some real dimension or other, but according to what objects are in their entirety. This is given by the form of the object as a whole, and this too is multiply instantiable.

Let’s simplify further to the following five statements:

  1. There is a real world.
  2. The metaphysician should study the world as it is.
  3. Essences are real, they encompass all kinds of being, and they are knowable.
  4. It is possible to say correctly what things are.
  5. The world is orderly and the things in it are classifiable.

From these five points is where the real essentialist starts. Again, all of these statements seem blindingly obvious to me, but philosophers at universities that you are sending your kids to might disagree. All I can say is, “Beware.” Once you start denying these five points, you are on a trajectory of intellectual chaos and confusion.

What Are the Limits of Physics?

Contrary to the disciples of scientism, physics has limits. Philosopher Ed Feser gives a quick run-down which is worth passing along. Feser writes,

As I have emphasized many times, what physics gives us is a description of the mathematical structure of physical reality.  It abstracts from any aspect of reality which cannot be captured via its exclusively quantitative methods. (emphasis added)

Let’s stop here because this is important. What Feser is saying is that when the methods of physics are applied to any object, any event, any piece of the world around us, the method only addresses the parts of that object, event, or piece of the world that can be mathematically quantified. Physics ignores any parts of the world that cannot be mathematically quantified.

One reason that this is crucial to keep in mind is that from the fact that something doesn’t show up in the description physics gives us, it doesn’t follow that it isn’t there in the physical world.  This is like concluding from the fact that color doesn’t show up in a black and white pen and ink drawing of a banana that bananas must not really be yellow.

In both cases the absence is an artifact of the method employed, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the reality the method is being used to represent.  The method of representing an object using black ink on white paper will necessarily leave out color even if it is there, and the method of representing physical reality using exclusively mathematical language will necessarily leave out any aspect of physical reality which is not reducible to the quantitative, even if such aspects are there.

But maybe all of reality is just composed of mathematical structure. Feser argues that this cannot be the case, that other aspects of reality must be there.

The quantitative description physics gives us is essentially a description of mathematical structure.  But mathematical structure by itself is a mere abstraction.  It cannot be all there is, because structure presupposes something concrete which has the structure.  Indeed, physics itself tells us that the abstraction cannot be all there is, since it tells us that some abstract mathematical structures do not fit the actual, concrete material world.

For example, Einstein is commonly taken to have shown that our world is not really Euclidean.  This could only be true if there is some concrete reality that instantiates a non-Euclidean abstract structure rather than a Euclidean abstract structure.  So, physics itself implies that there must be more to the world than the abstract structure it captures in its purely mathematical description, but it does not and cannot tell us exactly what this concrete reality is like.

Physics is one tool, a powerful one certainly, in our toolbox for describing reality. But to think that it is the only tool in the toolbox is just silly.

Does This New Argument for Scientism Work?

It’s been a while since we’ve beat up scientism on the blog, so I figured we were due again. It’s an “ism” that just keeps rearing its head over and over and thus needs to be slapped around over and over. Philosopher Edward Feser, in one of his blog posts, reviews yet  another version of the argument for scientism that he then critiques. Here is the argument:

  1. The predictive power and technological applications of science are unparalleled by those of any other purported source of knowledge.
  2. So science is a reliable source of knowledge.
  3. Science has undermined beliefs derived from other purported sources of knowledge, such as common sense.
  4. So science has shown that these other purported sources of knowledge are unreliable.
  5. The range of subjects science investigates is vast.
  6. So the number of purported sources of knowledge that science has shown to be unreliable is vast.
  7. So what science reveals to us is probably all that is real.

Feser grants premise 1 and 2, but thinks that premise 3 is not sustainable (in the post he explains why). However, in order to move the critique along, he grants, for the sake of argument, premise 3, and then proceeds to look at premises 4-7.

[P]remise (3) simply doesn’t give us good reason to believe step (4).  To see why not, suppose we replace “science” with “visual experience” in these two steps of the argument.  Visual experience has of course very often undermined beliefs derived from other sources of knowledge.  For example, it often tells us that the person we thought we heard come in the room was really someone else, or that when we thought we were feeling a pillow next to us it was really a cat.

Does that mean that visual experience has shown that auditory experience and tactile experience are unreliable sources of knowledge?  Of course not.  To do that, it would have to have shown that auditory experience and tactical experience are not just often wrong but wrong on a massive scale and with respect to a very wide variety of subjects.  And it has done no such thing.  But neither has science shown any such thing with respect to common sense.  Hence (3) is not a good reason to conclude to (4).

But do premises 4 and 5 support premise 6? Not really.

(4) and (5) also don’t give us good reason to believe (6).  Suppose we label the range of subjects science covers with letters, from A, B, C, D, and so on all the way to Z.  Even if science really did show that other purported sources of knowledge were unreliable with respect to domains A and B (say), it obviously wouldn’t follow that there were no reliable sources of knowledge other than science with respect to domains C through Z.

Feser, referring to his book Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction (Editiones Scholasticae), summarizes the case against scientism:

In any event, a theme that is developed at length throughout my book is that there are absolute limits in principle to the range of beliefs that science could undermine, and these are precisely the sorts of beliefs with which metaphysics is concerned.  The book aims in part to set out (some of) the notions that any possible empirical science must presuppose, and thus cannot coherently call into question.

Or put another way, science is built on a foundation of mathematics, logic, reliability of the senses, truth-telling, language, uniformity of nature, and so on. Without that foundation, science crumbles to the ground in a heap of debris.

How Do Theology and Philosophy Interact?

In my opinion, the greatest Christian thinker of all time, after the apostles died, was Thomas Aquinas. Etienne Gilson, in his work The Christian Philosophy Of St Thomas Aquinas, takes on the task of defining what distinguished theology from philosophy for Aquinas.

This issue comes up again and again when I hear cultists and even Christians claim that Christian teaching was hijacked by philosophy during the Middle Ages. We’re told that Plato and Aristotle took center stage and that biblical revelation was shoved aside.

Is it true that men like Aquinas did not take the Bible seriously, that they placed the philosophies of Plato and Arsitotle in judgment over revealed theological truths?

Gilson explains that in the case of Aquinas, nothing could be further from the truth. So how did Aquinas distinguish between theology and philosophy?

It has become customary to label “theological” any conclusion whose premises presuppose faith in a divinely revealed truth, and to label “philosophical” any conclusion whose premises are purely rational , that is, known by the light of natural reason alone. This is not the point of view stated by St. Thomas himself at the beginning of his Prologue to the Second Book of his commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. According to him, the philosopher considers the nature of things as they are in themselves, whereas the theologian considers them in their relation to God conceived as being both their origin and their end.

From this point of view, every conclusion concerning God himself, or the relations of being to God, is theological in its own right. Some of these conclusions presuppose an act of faith in the divine revelation, but some of them do not. All of them are theological; those, among them, which are purely rational, belong to theology no less than the others. The only difference is that, since these do not presuppose faith , they can be extracted from their theological context and judged, from the point of view of natural reason, as purely philosophical conclusions.

To repeat, philosophy considers the “nature of things as they are in themselves” whereas theology considers the nature of things “in their relation to God conceived as being both their origin and their end.” Thus every conclusion about God or about the world in relation to God is theological first and foremost. Any theological conclusion which does not presuppose faith (is purely rational) is also a philosophical conclusion.

Gilson explains why this distinction is important:

This is an extremely important point in that it enables us to understand how strictly metaphysical knowledge can be included within a theological structure without losing its purely philosophical nature. Everything in the Summa [Theologiae, Aquinas’s most famous work,] is theological, yet, elements of genuinely philosophical nature are part and parcel of Thomistic theology precisely because, according to St. Thomas himself, the distinction between theology and philosophy does not adequately answer the distinction between faith and reason.

Now we come to Aquinas’s concerns with mixing philosophy and theology. Gilson writes that critics of Aquinas often misunderstand what Aquinas was trying to do.

According to some of his modern interpreters, St. Thomas thought of himself as a philosopher who was not anxious to compromise the purity of his philosophy by admitting into it the slightest mixture of theology. But as a matter of fact , the real St. Thomas was afraid of doing just the reverse. In the Summa Theologiae, his problem was not how to introduce philosophy into theology without corrupting the essence of philosophy; it was rather how to introduce philosophy into theology without corrupting the essence of theology (emphasis added).

Not only the hostility of the “Biblicists” of his time warned him of the problem , but he was himself quite as much aware of it as they were. And the more freely he made use of philosophy, the more was he aware of the problem. As he himself understands it, theology must be conceived as a science of Revelation. Its source is the word of God. Its basis is faith in the truth of this word. . . . For theologians who were not in the least worried about philosophy, no problem actually arose. Persuaded that they should add nothing human to the bare deposit of revelation, they could rest assured that they were respecting the integrity and the unity of the Sacred Science. They proceeded from faith to faith, by faith.

For St. Thomas Aquinas the problem was rather different. It was a question of how to integrate philosophy into sacred science, not only without allowing either the one or the other to suffer essentially thereby, but to the greater benefit of both. In order to achieve this result, he had to integrate a science of reason with a science of revelation without corrupting at the same time both the purity of reason and the purity of revelation.

Thus Aquinas was eminently aware of the dangers of mixing theology and philosophy. Rather than placing philosophy above theology, he did just the opposite.  One can argue about how successful he was, but there can be no argument that Aquinas allowed philosophical considerations to knowingly trump revealed biblical truth.

Can Atheists Avoid a Cause of the Universe?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

That is exactly what Sean Carroll attempted to do in his recent debate with William Lane Craig. Here is what Carroll said:

Why should we expect that there are causes or explanations or a reason why in the universe in which we live? It’s because the physical world inside of which we’re embedded has two important features.

There are unbreakable patterns, laws of physics — things don’t just happen, they obey the laws — and there is an arrow of time stretching from the past to the future. The entropy was lower in the past and increases towards the future. Therefore, when you find some event or state of affairs B today, we can very often trace it back in time to one or a couple of possible predecessor events that we therefore call the cause of that, which leads to B according to the laws of physics.

But crucially, both of these features of the universe that allow us to speak the language of causes and effects are completely absent when we talk about the universe as a whole.  We don’t think that our universe is part of a bigger ensemble that obeys laws.  Even if it’s part of the multiverse, the multiverse is not part of a bigger ensemble that obeys laws.  Therefore, nothing gives us the right to demand some kind of external cause.

If Carroll’s argument works, then atheists have discovered a clever way to avoid any form of the cosmological argument for God’s existence. But does his argument really work? According to philosopher Ed Feser (in this blog post), it does not, at least not if Carroll is arguing against classical Christian theology.

Feser takes up Carroll’s argument:

Now in fact it is Carroll who has said absolutely nothing to establish his right to dismiss the demand for a cause as confidently as he does. For he has simply begged all the important questions and completely missed the point of the main traditional classical theistic arguments . . . .

One problem here is that, like so many physicists, Carroll has taken what is really just one species of causation (the sort which involves a causal relation between temporally separated events) and identified it with causation as such. But in fact, the Aristotelian argues, event causation is not only not the only kind of causation but is parasitic on substance causation.

Feser continues:

But put that aside, because the deeper problem is that Carroll supposes that causation is to be explained in terms of laws of nature, whereas the Aristotelian view is that this has things precisely backwards. Since a “law of nature” is just a shorthand description of the ways a thing will operate — that is to say, what sorts of effects it will tend to have — given its nature or substantial form, in fact the notion of “laws of nature” metaphysically presupposes causation.

So what does causation look like if it is not essentially about tracing a series of events backwards in time?

On the Aristotelian-Scholastic analysis, questions about causation are raised wherever we have potentialities that need actualization, or a thing’s being metaphysically composite and thus in need of a principle that accounts for the composition of its parts, or there being a distinction in a thing between its essence or nature on the one and its existence on the other, or a thing’s being contingent.

The universe, however physics and scientific cosmology end up describing it — even if it turned out to be a universe without a temporal beginning, even if it is a four-dimensional block universe, even if Hawking’s closed universe model turned out to be correct, even if we should really think in terms of a multiverse rather than a single universe — will, the Aristotelian argues, necessarily exhibit just these features (potentialities needing actualization, composition, contingency, etc.). And thus it will, as a matter of metaphysical necessity, require a cause outside it.

Thus the universe requires a cause outside it. As Feser explains, only that

which is pure actuality devoid of potentiality, only what is utterly simple or non-composite, only something whose essence or nature just is existence itself, only what is therefore in no way contingent but utterly necessary — only that, the classical theist maintains, could in principle be the ultimate terminus of explanation, whatever the specific scientific details turn out to be.

In the end, Carroll has simply not addressed the arguments from classical Christian theology and philosophy. He has not, therefore, successfully avoided the need for the universe to have a cause.

Are We Just Meat Robots?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

I have an interest in psychology and behavioral economics research. That’s why I write posts on books like Predictably Irrational and Thinking, Fast and Slow. But as I read these kinds of books, I am always keeping an eye on the big question.

Will the author say that human beings are completely irrational in our  thoughts and behavior, completely rational in our thoughts and behavior, or a combination of the two? By rational I mean the use of reason, evidence, and logic to draw true conclusions about reality.

There are atheist thinkers such as Alex Rosenberg who argue that humans are completely irrational, that we are meat robots whose thoughts and behavior are 100% determined by physics. Physics knows nothing of reason, evidence, and logic. Rosenberg says that once you take science seriously, there is no other possible conclusion.

The problem with Rosenberg’s position is that it is hopelessly self-contradictory. He is saying, in essence, “I know rationally that nobody knows anything rationally.” If he knows that rationally, then his statement is false. If he doesn’t know anything rationally, then his statement is irrational and can be safely ignored.

In the world of psychological and economics literature, though, I see flirtation with Rosenberg’s position. Let’s look at two examples.

Michael Sliwinski, an entrepreneur and creator of the software application Nozbe, said this about the latest online magazine  issue of Productivity:

Reading this issue provoked deep reflection within myself, and I hope it will do the same for you, too. Practically every article shows the well-known and scientifically proved (but often forgotten) fact that psychological mechanisms—usually unconscious—rule the human world.

Sliwinski says it is a fact that “psychological mechanisms—usually unconscious—rule the human world.” Is he taking Rosenberg’s position? Probably not, but he’s leaning in that direction. If he said that only psychological mechanisms rule the human world, his position would be self-contradictory as well. There is enough ambiguity to avoid the charge of Rosenberg-ism.

Dan Ariely concludes his book Predictably Irrational:

IF I WERE to distill one main lesson from the research described in this book, it is that we are pawns in a game whose forces we largely fail to comprehend. We usually think of ourselves as sitting in the driver’s seat, with ultimate control over the decisions we make and the direction our life takes; but, alas, this perception has more to do with our desires— with how we want to view ourselves— than with reality.

Let’s stop here. Ariely is skating on the edge of self-contradiction. He says that we are pawns without ultimate control over our decisions. But clearly Ariely believes that he was not a pawn when he wrote this sentence or the rest of his book. He believes that he did have control over the decisions he made to write about predictable irrationality, did he not? If he was able to pull this off, then why can’t we?

He continues:

The point is that our visual and decision environments are filtered to us courtesy of our eyes, our ears, our senses of smell and touch, and the master of it all, our brain. By the time we comprehend and digest information, it is not necessarily a true reflection of reality. Instead, it is our representation of reality, and this is the input we base our decisions on. In essence we are limited to the tools nature has given us, and the natural way in which we make decisions is limited by the quality and accuracy of these tools.

Ariely almost goes Rosenberg on us again. He says that when we comprehend and digest information, “it is our representation of reality” and not “necessarily a true reflection of reality.” If he is saying that every time we digest information, we are not getting at true reality, then how is it that Ariely has managed to bypass this problem and get at true reality?

It is helpful to re-write his statement in the following way: “By digesting information, I have arrived at the true reality that nobody who digests information can arrive at true reality.” If his statement is true, then it is false, unless he doesn’t want to include himself in the population of all human beings.

In closing, consider the following:

  • If we are irrational meat robots, then we can’t know rationally that we are meat robots.
  • If unconscious psychological mechanisms control our every thought, then we can’t consciously (or rationally) think that unconscious psychological mechanisms control our every thought.
  • If we have no control over our decisions, then we can’t control the decision to think that we have no control over our decisions.
  • If we can’t comprehend true reality, then we can’t comprehend that true reality is incomprehensible.

Rosenberg self-contradiction syndrome is always lurking. We have to be careful not to stretch the findings of psychology and behavioral economics beyond where they should go. If you ever want to make any claim about reality that you think is true, then you cannot hold that we are merely meat robots. That, my friend, is a flagrant contradiction.