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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Evaluating Anti-reductionism of Minds

There are two kinds of anti-reductionisms about the mind. One is methodological in which one is skeptical that a reductive theory of the mind can be produced about the mind given the limits of science. The other is metaphysical anti-reductionism which commits to mental kinds not being type-identical to the canonical language of physics. One need not commit to metaphysical anti-reductionism to be a methodological anti-reductionist, and I think we should be only methodological anti-reductionists.

Metaphysical anti-reductionism is not a tenable theory because the arguments for it are not sound enough to sufficiently demonstrate that we ought to believe that the mind is not physical. Methodological anti-reductionism is more tenable thesis given the limits of using testimony to construct either computational, causal, or neurological identities. To represent arguments for methodological anti-reductionism will be Thomas Nagel's “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?” and to represent arguments for metaphysical anti-reductionism is Frank Jackson's “Epiphenomenal Qualia.” While the arguments covered here are not nearly all of them, the arguments in both works have played a fundamental role in constructing the frame of the debate between reductionists and anti-reductionists.  

In “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?”, Nagel argues the essential part of the mind-body problem is consciousness (322). He claims that 'without consciousness the mind-body problem would be much less interesting [and] with the mind-body it seems hopeless” (322). By hopeless, Nagel is referring to the reason that reductionist theories “do not even try to explain [consciousness]” (322). He rightly claims that a complete theory of mind could not “exclude the phenomenological” and “if physicalism is to be defended, the phenomenological features must themselves be given a physical account” (323). Brian Cooney explains that, by phenomenological, Nagel means “the way that an object appears, is experienced or perceived; the way something is for a conscious subject” (323).

Early in Nagel's paper, Nagel concludes from the modal argument and the what-it-is-like-to-be argument that the subjective character of experience is not captured in any of the familiar reductive theories (323). In other words, he concludes that the subjective character cannot be analyzed in terms of functional (or intentional) states or causal roles because the physical theories are compatible with the absence of the mental (323). He also articulates the intuition, which drives this anti-reductionism, that to talk about mind objectively seems to eliminate the subjective, which was the essential feature any complete theory of mind is attempting to explain.

Later in his paper, Nagel admits to the possibility of a reduction and reveals himself to not be a metaphysical reductionist. First, he claims that the external world is the essence of the internal world, not merely a point of view of it (327). This implies that Nagel thinks that the mind depends on a real and existing world to exist. While this does not mean he is making type-identities with specific physical things, it commits him to at least a weak supervenience thesis. Second, he claims that the current concepts do not provide an account of how a reduction of the subjective to the objective may be done (327). This implies that Nagel leaves open the route that it may indeed be possible to create a physicalist theory of the subjective. This seems to contradict his earlier statement about the nature of objective explanations necessarily failing to explain the subjective, but because Nagel uses the word 'seems,' he was not absolute in that stance. Third, Nagel claims that the inadequacy of physicalist hypotheses do not justify the conclusion that physicalism is necessarily false (328). Because Nagel allows for the possibility of metaphysical reductionism but provides skeptical arguments to at least the current reductive programs, he is an example of a methodological anti-reductionism.

While I think that methodological anti-reductionism is reasonable currently, there is significant arguments against it. I can hardly cover all of them here, but I will cover the three most significant. The first is the explanatory argument. It is the strongest in my opinion and is the reason I am not a metaphysical reductionist. The explanatory argument is that there are certain questions about the nature of the mind that are sufficiently explained by an identity or functional thesis. The reason that a relationship holds between two mental states is explained by the same reason that a relationship holds between two physical states. The reason I have a mental state rather than another person is explained by the fact that the mental state has something to do with physical location of my parts which other people do not have. The reason that mental events happen simultaneously with physical states rather than after or before physical states is because they are identical with at least something about physical states.

The problem with the explanatory argument for reductionism is demonstrated by Nagel's modal argument. Basically, if we can conceive of a person with identical physical facts as we but lacking a mind, we have not sufficiently explained mental events with physical events. As long as the physical theories of minds are compatible with its absence, it is not really a theory of mind but merely a theory of brains or computers. The modal argument does not mean that reductionism is false, but it challenges that these theories have discovered type-identities for mental kinds in the physical. The type-identity is essential part of many reductions because type-identity is a discovery of the essence of something. If one discovers the essence of something, that holds in all possible worlds. Nagel is right that we have not reach the point in which we can say that we have discovered the nature of the phenomenological, but he leaves it open that we might develop concepts that will make a reduction possible.

The second argument for reductionism is an induction from the history of successful reductions. Scientists reduced heat to mean kinetic energy, life to biological processes, fire to combustion, etc.... The argument is that there is no reason to believe that the mind cannot be reduced in the same way. Those who conservatively hold to the old dualistic intuitions are foolishly holding to a kind of thought that has been wrong about so many things like the nature of mental illness, sleep, and learning (Churchland 132). We should therefore feel confident in our our physicalism about mental states.

The weakness with this inductive argument is that this kind of reduction is not identical to past reductions. Past reductions have always been objective-to-objective, not subjective-to-objective. While there is a phenomenological quality to heat, what we are trying to explain when reducing heat to mean kinetic energy is its objective character. This does not mean there is not an objective story that separates our brains processing of sense data from the external referrant like light frequency, but rather that the subjective character is incompatible with current physicalist reductions, as Nagel suggests.

The third argument is that qualia are not essential to mental states. Paul and Pat Churchland argue this in their response to the inverted spectrum argument in “Functionalism, Qualia, and Intentionality.” They argue that when we are talking about the mental state red, how we experience it is not essential in our description. They use a tiger for an example. While the tiger is initially discriminated by its black stripes and yellow fur, there are also albino tigers (Churchland 351). If the phenomenological character were different, the functional role would remain the same for tigers. In other words, “sameness of functional role dominates over differences in qualitative character” (Churchland 352).

This argument is sufficient to explain our mental reference but it is not enough to rid the subjective character's existence from the equation. What makes the mind interesting is not this functioning but the subjective character. Even if we could provide a complete story of the mind in terms of functioning or identities, we would leave the question of 'what are qualia.' They seem to be more than functional because, so conceived, they are only contingently connected with functional roles, hence the non-essential role they play in mental states.

What demonstrates the importance of qualia to our understanding of consciousness is contained in the What-it-is-like-to-be argument. Nagel argues that no amount of physical information about bats can enable us to imagine what it is like to be a bat. When we imagine echo-location, we are just humans imagining we are bats, not actually being bats. While this argument relies on pointing out physical differences (e.g. between bats and humans), it clearly demonstrates that there is something worth explaining (e.g. what-it-is-like-to-be) that cannot be explained physically as of yet.

Given that we are methodologically prevented from making reductions, at least currently, are we justified in being meta-physical anti-reductionists about qualia? Frank Jackson in “Epiphenomenal Qualia” thinks so. He covers many of the same arguments as Nagel, so I will not repeat those here. I will focus on his strongest and most famous argument for metaphysical anti-reductionism, the Mary argument, and the explanatory argument for epiphenomenalism, which is not explicitly in his paper.

The Mary argument hinges on Mary learning a new fact when she experiences red after knowing the complete reductionist theory. Mary is a neuroscientist in a black and white room with a black and white television (Jackson 344). She has never seen the color read. She knows all the physical facts about what happens when a person testifies experiencing red in his or her brain (Jackson 344). When she leaves the room, she experiences the color red and learns what it is like to experience red like those who testified about the experience in her books. In other words, she learned a fact about everyone who experienced red. If she knew all the physical facts but still learned a new fact, that logically entails that she learned a non-physical fact. If there are non-physical facts, physicalism is false.

The best counter-argument is that Mary is not learning a new fact but is learning her relation to others experiences. John Perry in “Time, Consciousness and the Knowledge Argument” explains with a metaphor to a map. The idea that Perry is drawing upon comes from D. H. Mellor's “McTaggart, Fixity and Coming True.” Mellor argued that since the question “What time is it now?” is a relational statement between when the statement is uttered and the event of a certain time designation like May 1984 (70). Perry takes this and with an in-between metaphor about location. He nicely demonstrates that Mary's knowledge about the relation between her experience and everyone’s experience is not a discovery of something knew about the world.

The in-between metaphor uses location. Larry has a map. He knows that Salt Lake City is west of Little America. When he sees that he is at Little America, he can use the demonstrative 'here' and say Salt Lake City is west of here” (Perry 78). Larry did not learn a new fact about geography. There is nothing new about 'here' because 'here' in this context is Little America.

The same can be said of Mary. Mary like Larry only learned that she that her brain was having a neurological process. Nothing changed about the factual nature of seeing red, but rather that Mary was now in the seeing relation to red. Since Mary is not learning a new fact, we cannot say there must be non-physical facts, so the argument fails. This does not mean necessarily there is no non-physical facts just that we cannot conclude from this argument that there are.

As for Jackson's other arguments, I have covered them already. Despite what Jackson says, the Fred argument is identical to the what-it-is-like-to-be-a-bat argument from Nagel; the only difference is that Fred sees two distinct forms of red and bats have echolocation. Just as we cannot imagine what Fred's experience is like we cannot imagine bats and our physical explorations do not give us access to it. The Modal argument also does not provide definitive answer as to the nature of the qualia. If qualia end up being type-identical with something physical, the argument is moot.

Without the Mary argument, the only thing left is to attempt to explain why it is impossible to explain qualia. The explanation an epiphenomenologist would use is not that there is a deficiency of our scientific methodology but rather that qualia are in fact not physical. This, however, falls into the trap of an argument from ignorance. 'I cannot understand through reduction; therefore, a non-reductive explanation is true.' This is a common move for arguments for other supernatural entities. Just as it is wrong to use a god-of-the-gap argument it is wrong to posit an epiphenomenal realm to explain our ignorance of the mind. What we should be is agnostic about the nature of the mind, and only methodological anti-reductionists until we find a way of knowing this part of the mind.

Works Cited:
Churchland, Pat. Churchland Paul. “Functionalism, Qualia, and Intentionality.”The Place of the Mind. ed. By Brian Cooney. Australia; Wadsworth Cengage Learning: 2000.
Churchland, Paul. “Eliminative Materialism.” The Place of the Mind. ed. By Brian Cooney. Australia; Wadsworth Cengage Learning: 2000.
Jackson, Frank. “Epiphenomenal Qualia.” The Place of the Mind. ed. By Brian Cooney. Australia; Wadsworth Cengage Learning: 2000.
Mellor, D. H. “McTaggart, Fixity, and Coming True.” Metaphysics: Classic And Contemporary Readings. ed. by Ronald C. Hoy and L. Nathan Oaklander. 2nd Edition. Australia; Thomson Wadswoth: 2005.
Nagel. Thomas. “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?” The Place of the Mind. ed. By Brian Cooney. Australia; Wadsworth Cengage Learning: 2000.
Perry, John. “Time, Consciousness and the Knowledge Argument.” Metaphysics: Classic And Contemporary Readings. ed. by Ronald C. Hoy and L. Nathan Oaklander. 2nd Edition. Australia; Thomson Wadswoth: 2005.

Friday, April 27, 2012

My meta-ethics

Good and bad are dependent on the world you live in, so I am a world context relativist, which is not all that serious, seeing that everyone to have a moral conversation with is in the same world. What kind of bodies we have, what kind of experiences we have, how social we are, how we can and cannot communicate, what we can reasonably obligate a person to do or not do, etc. All of these depend on the findings we have in investigating the world we are in and sharing experiences with others.

Morality will emerge because 1) we are social beings, 2) because we are mitdasein, or beings with others in the world. For the first point, we could not be moral if was not in our biology that drives us to interact with others. The second point is that it does not make sense to have morality when you are the only being that exists. Morality goes beyond how it feels for me and goes into how our interactions affect others. Without interactions, a morality cannot emerge.

Returning to the first paragraph, the kind of morality that emerges depends completely on the qualities world we live in.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Is Voluntary Amputation Normal?

People with a form of Body Dysmorphia called Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID) who have voluntary amputations cause a dissonance with our concept of normal which we, the observers of those with BIID, use to determine what is or is not good. This results in either labeling of the condition as a mental illness or a questioning of our concept of normal. I believe that voluntary amputees deserve the second option. To demonstrate this, I am placing those who want to voluntarily amputate themselves in the gray area between transsexuals who justifiably go through Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS) and anorexics who wrongfully damage their bodies. From there, I wish to argue that an understanding of the kind of body dysmorphia voluntary amputees have is like that of transsexuals rather than like that of anorexics. This would give the basis of suggesting that this form of body dysmorphia's solution belongs to the category 'normal' where normal is to be understood as healthy, morally permissible, and not irrational. I will end by addressing some objections to the amputation procedure on healthy limbs for voluntary amputees.
There are two conditions related to Body Integrity Identity Disorder. One is Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), which Tim Bayne and Neil Levy describe well in their article Amputees By Choice: Body Integrity Identity Disorder and the Ethics of Amputation. They define BDD as the following:
Body Dysmorphic Disorder is a condition in which the individual believes, incorrectly, that a part of their body is diseased or exceedingly ugly. This belief can be a matter of intense concern for the individual, and is resistant to evidence against it. BDD appears closely akin to anorexia nervosa, in hat both appear to be monothematic delusions that sustained by misperceptions of one's body. (Baynes 75-76)
The other is Gender Identity Disorder (GID) which transsexuals have. The A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia defines GID as:
Gender identity disorder is a conflict between a person's actual physical gender and the gender that person identifies himself or herself as. For example, a person identified as a boy may actually feel and act like a girl. The person experiences significant discomfort with the biological sex they were born. (A.D.A.M.)
Both conditions can lead to current-body-averse behavior. For instance, young male transsexuals are known to self-amputate their external genitalia as a way of handling the discomfort of feeling like they are in the wrong body in regards to biological sex.
Voluntary Amputees with BIID feel that internal body image does not fit their actual body. This is different significantly different from BDD because people with BIID do not have the delusion that the undesired body part is diseased or ugly. BIID is a feeling of mismatched mind-body identity that strikingly similar to that of GID.
Mismatched body identity is not uncommon1 because the reverse of the BIID occurs with amputees often. This reversal of the condition is phantom limbs for which a person's mental image of his or her body contains a limb that they no longer have. The feeling of phantom limbs is so strong that phantom pains occur in the mind despite the nerve endings no longer being there. In the case of people with BIID, the feeling is that the healthy limb is not really part of their body. This feeling is the cementing factor that when understood as being in this relation to GID and phantom limbs, voluntary amputation become normal for people with BIID.
Normal, as I said earlier, is the concept of being healthy, morally permissible, and not irrational. Normal is often devalued as being a social construct that has caused great harm to the 'different'. Unlike those who hold this understanding of normal, I will defend it as being central to our species project towards a better understanding of health, other minds, and the world in general.
In regards to health, normal acts as a inductive conclusion that certain qualities indicate illness. The qualia valances associated with beauty and ugliness are so ingrained with our species that most humans are born with the same instinctive perception of beauty and ugliness. This helps explain why health is often associated with beauty and illness is often associated with ugliness. The grossness of sickness acts as a deterrent in our species away from things which may cause us to become ill ourselves and to take recognition of something being 'wrong' in the other we perceive.
In the case of voluntary amputees, our misunderstanding-based response is to think that the person has a self-destructive mental sickness. As with the evolution with our views on transsexuality, I believe that given the similarities, our investigation into BIID will lead to a general understanding of the normalcy of the condition. The issue concerning whether or not amputation is harm will be addressed in the next section.
The second aspect of normal is that it is morally permissible. Society, in part, makes the abnormal by both de facto and de jure attitudes towards acts, beliefs, conditions, etc. In one society, being homosexual is taboo so homosexuality appears to those in the society generally as abnormal. In another, homosexuality included into the mainstream and the fact there are homosexuals is part of the normal for those in that society.
Of course, societal consensus is not enough to establish what is actually morally permissible, but societies invested in morality ought to invest in understanding the world in which we actually live in. This is because generally taboos about things like homosexuality come with genuine beliefs about the nature of homosexuality and what kind of entities exist in this world that act as moral law-givers. If those beliefs are not true, this can and often does lead to harming people despite the good intentions of the law or taboo.
This relates to BIID in that the desire to be amputated was believed to be a psycho-sexual condition (Bayne 76). It was believed by psychologists that this desire to be an amputated was the desire to be the receivers of apotemnophilia, or the sexual attraction for amputees (Bayne 76). The taboos against deviant sexual desires and acts underlies the labeling this desire negatively, or as abnormal.
Abnormal is often associated with irrationality. For instance, if I wanted to eat it would be irrational or abnormal for me to refuse food to which I am not averse. I say normal is being not irrational because normal can be either rational or nonrational. It would be rational for me to eat when I am hungry, but my tastes and my desire to eat are nonrational. The foundational desires that I have no grounds on which to be in themselves rational. There is no reason to live but through of the desires to live or the desires which are satisfied through living. This is why euthanasia is morally permissible when all the conditions that make life of the one to be euthanized desirable are gone for both the person suffering and the invested party like dependents. This understood allows for making an extremely important distinction between illness-driven behavior like that of anorexics and justifiable behavior like that of transsexuals receiving SRS.
This understanding leads to that distinction because mental illness leads to undesirable outcomes like death. Neither the anorexic nor his or her relatives want the anorexic to die. The desire to lose weight that the anorexic has is conditioned by a false representation of reality, particularly that they are overweight. The desire would cease when their beliefs change to more healthily reflect reality. The transsexual and the voluntary amputee, all things equal, have correct beliefs about their bodies but the desire stems from their very understanding of self, which is not conditioned by false beliefs about the physical body they have.2 The truism that captures the general idea here is 'who I am is not what I am'.3
In this section, I will address three objections to voluntary amputation of healthy limbs that challenge the moral status of the very idea of voluntary amputation, BIID aside. If successful, these objections override the desire satisfaction that voluntary amputation achieves, all things equal, desires being a good enough reason to do something.

  1. When we contemplate whether or not being amputate someone, we always desire not to amputate because amputation should only be done as a necessary evil to save someone's life. Losing a limb, in other words, is a serious harm, and even if a person wants to lose a limb, it is wrong to seriously harm someone even if they want us to.
The understanding that amputation is necessarily harmful is such a strong intuition that it characterizes our medical practice, which avoids amputation unless risk is high enough to the person's life, as this objection alludes. If amputation was a serious harm necessarily, then even a person with BIID would not justifiably be able to get a voluntary amputation. This intuition that amputation is necessarily harmful is false.
Harm must be put into context with human experience and threat to self because we are after all trying to have a moral landscape that reflects the world we live in. Those without experience of BIID would induce from their limited understanding of human desires that it is universally undesirable to be an amputee. This is an easy move because there are so few with BIID, so an ethicist can feel comfortable with the informal sampling of human population she has in her life of moral science.
A thought experiment might help here. It is a common assumption that the default is not to amputate, but this would be assuming that a neutral body would be harmed by amputation. A doctor is deciding on a procedure to take on a patient. This patient is, however, completely neutral, meaning he has neither any aversions nor any attractions. The doctor could cut of the patients arm, and the patient would not care. Nothing the doctor can change the patient's true condition which is neutrality. If the doctor were to cure this neutrality, perhaps by reading him Albert Camus's Myth of Sisyphus, the doctor cannot assume that the patient will necessarily not have right arm aversion.
In other words, it is not because amputation is universally harmful, but only in the experience of the majority who do not have BIID is it wrong to amputate because they do not desire as a block to live a life as amputees. Because harm must be understood in terms of how people experience world, being an experience itself, and because amputation is not universally a harmful experience, amputation cannot be as a rule be necessarily harmful, despite that being usually the case.4
  1. Humans seek to reach certain ends like living independently. Amputations decrease the utility of the body which a person uses to achieve ends. A person who voluntarily amputates when confronted with something they could have only done with the limb he had amputated will feel regret. Since the loss of utility is great when one is amputated, voluntary amputation of healthy limbs cannot be justified.
This regret is a serious problem which is the purpose psychological exams of those with BIID and GID have before their life-changing surgeries. Like male-to-female-to-male transsexuals, there is the risk that someone who voluntarily amputates will find him- or herself desiring to reverse the procedure. Despite this serious risk, the risk is justifiable.
Every time a human makes a decision, some utility is expended, and regret over what could have been is made possible. This is the human condition to always be under the threat of regret. The psychological exams before the voluntary amputation are necessary to reduce this risk to a reasonable level.

  1. The good life is a project of growth. We extend our lives, strengthen our bodies, and rid ourselves from disease. Just like it is irrational to not to be death-averse, it is irrational to weaken the body when the virtuous goal is to be a greater being. In other words, the virtuous person ought to overcome the desire to amputate in order to continue on the path of self-betterment.
I am most sympathetic to this objection. Though the utility argument could have been construed this way, this transhumanist argument hits the nail on the head. The best counter I can provide is that better can be achieved without ones limbs. It takes a certain creativity to imagine what it is like to be without ones limbs. Just like those who are blind whose hearing becomes stronger to compensate, without limbs a new strength can be sought.
Anyways, this new strength has been sought ever since people started dedicating themselves to academics. The body became a tool to carry the head to classes. We have constantly replaced the body with intellectual pursuits which in many ways made us more powerful than our bodies could have ever been. Since the body is merely a tool to achieve these goals of virtues, new better tools can replace the body's traditional purpose, making the body only important in-so-far as having a long, comfortable, mentally aware life is concerned. The car is faster than any person who has ever lived; the computer is faster than any brain that ever existed. Those with amputations can live virtuous lives in this day and age precisely because the body with which people are born is becoming less and less essential to achieving virtue.

While this does not cover all the objections, this outlines how something seemingly abnormal like voluntary amputations may in fact be normal after investigation. Any objection to the risk of amputations will have to refer to the way the world is because risk is not an a priori concept. Any declaration of wrongness must avoid merely projecting ones own feelings onto people who do not have them. Even if BIID ends up being an illness rather that should be cured by treatment of the mind rather than treatment of the body, amputees can live fulfilling lives more and more, making the moral consequences of amputating someone who should not have been amputated less and less.

Works Cited:
Bayne, Tim. Levy, Neil. “Amputees By Choice: Body Integrity Identity Disorder and the Ethics of Amputation.” Journal of Applied Philosophy. Vol. 1, No. 1, 2005. Society of Applied Philosophy. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford: 2005.
A.D.A.M. Gender Identity Disorder. U.S. National Library of Medicine. A.D.A.M., Inc. 2012. Date Accesses: April 18, 2012. < >
1Being common is closely associated with our concept of 'normal', which I will flesh out in the next section.
2This is only part of the story of distinguish the irrational from the not irrational. There are distinctions like that for fear-desires. What makes a fear-desire irrational (phobias) rather than nonrational might require more nuance than the story of rationality that I am providing here because fear-desires can run very deep yet retain a semblance of irrationality.
3I only sort of believe this. I would say that you are still a what but you can change what you are and remain you because identity is a set of whats and these whats do not necessarily essentialize everything about ones body. I avoid the debate around identity here and simply go with something I merely admit as a truism.
4It might be helpful here that I am not saying just any perception of the world overrules whether or not something is harmful. For instance, a person might perceive, incorrectly, that water is harmful. With the understanding that the person's fear stems from instincts that tends towards survival, it would doing the person a favor to help them over their life-threatening fear. Again, I am going to avoid addressing phobias directly in the body of this paper because of the problems they provide for the story of desire-based ethics I am pushing here.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

In Response to Dr. Vijaya Rajiva's The Rig Veda and Hindu Polytheism

I was not very impressed with the article, partly because it did not address any of my concerns, being an atheist, and partly because it used some non-philosophical rhetoric. As an atheist, I do not have the one god prejudice any more than I have the prejudice for tooth fairies or transcendental sandwiches. As a philosopher, I kind of distrust any paper that uses common fallacies like appeal to tradition.

The first issue I had were the culture war sophistry for the superiority of the Hindu faith. There is significant number of examples of defining polytheism in opposition to monotheism, but these depend on appeals to common practice and other fallacies. The prejudice for many gods is just as bad as the prejudice for one god. The prejudice for the old is just as bad as the prejudice for the new. The prejudice for the wide-spread is just as bad for the prejudice for the parochial.

The other big fallacy in the first section is the reverse naturalistic fallacy. In short, this fallacy is the assumption that if there is something morally objectionable about a theory or a theory's practitioners, it is false. This is done mostly by correctly detailing an imperial expansion of the monotheistic meme around the world. The belief of your conquers is not made false just because they harm people in the name of it or change the worldwide belief economy. This is no better than those who rejected evolution by natural selection because they morally objected to survival of the fittest, which had some political edge to it because of the Social Darwinists.

The only reason why polytheism in general bothers me more than monotheism is because polytheism populates our ontology with way more entities than monotheism. I rather avoid the superstition of the demon-haunted world, not to say monotheists, especially Catholics, are any less demon-haunted by their ridiculous beliefs about saints and sin. Philosophical monotheism tends to separate the woo from the natural world and put it into some abstract eternal realm in which its causal functions are limited to causing universes. Superficially at least, I rather do science with someone who was talking about the same natural world as I was. In other words, I prefer the least spiritual outlook as opposed to Dr. Vijaya Rajiva commitment to a 'deep spirituality' because I prefer the most accurate worldview, which so happens to be a world without spirits, beyond number or otherwise.

As for the philosophical arguments, I know a few for both sides. One long lasting idea which is not directly addressed in this paper are the reasons that led to monotheism in philosophy separate from the ideas of the Abrahamic faiths. The idea of one god became popular by those who thought that perfection is complete wholeness, without limits. This wholism is the one in monotheism, and the without limits is the omnipotence, omniscience, etc. Some of the Ancient Greek thinkers thought that their polytheistic gods imperfections (being prone to fear, anger, fickleness) demonstrated that they were not really gods. Plato created developed this philosophy so that this perfection was immaterial, with the understanding that material things are imperfect because they deteriorate. Plato saw the goal of love as an aspiration for the perfect, which he called Logos, which in Christianity became the Word. (In the beginning there was the Word, and the Word was God.")

As for polytheistic arguments, the one I am most familiar with is David Hume's The Natural History of Religion (1755) and Dialogues (1776). David Hume's The Natural History of Religion has similar arguments about the tolerance and social wellness of Polytheism compared to Monotheism, so I do suggest you read it if you have not already. The Dialogues include an argument from design, if my memory serves me right, that the universe is contains a variety of design therefore there should be variety amongst the creators as well. I am not sure if this was intended as a reductio ad absurdum, but you get the point.

As for the philosophical arguments given in the essay, it is interesting to note that she admits that there is no valid evidence that monotheists have for their god. As my atheist colleagues might say, 'what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.' I would only wish that Dr. Vijaya Rajiva would apply the same skepticism to polytheistic spirits.

The cosmological argument is weird because it feeds off a locally believed notion of the supreme cause that is particular to ancient India. That is that the supreme cause is beyond number. The argument that is presented in the text uses a reductio ad absurdum in order to attempt to demonstrate that the supreme cause must be beyond number because then 'number would be the cause'. In a sense, this is a gross misinterpretation of the monotheistic position. If oneness is understood as an aspect of perfection, it is perfection that is the cause not number. Wholeness (or oneness) is seen as essential to perfection in the theological and philosophical development of monotheism, and this is a gross misunderstanding of the term.

Beyond the objection from the way abstract concepts play in these a priori arguments, I reject the idea that there is a supreme cause anyways because there is no evidence that there is one and no logical need for one either. Speculation about how many metaphysical sandwiches exist outside our universe is just as fruitless an exercise of reason as positing entities and properties of those entities outside our universe. Most of this is because we do not know if what kind of causes cause universes or if universes are caused at all, so it is all speculation. This does not mean we cannot believe in theoretical entities beyond our direct observation, but the process of getting to those entities according to the most widely accepted epistemologies in post-analytic philosophy is too deep to discuss in this paper.

Monday, April 2, 2012

In Response to Michael Antony's Where's The Evidence?

I am Eric, the philosophy major people in main chat might have told you about. I read the article and have an opinion. Before that opinion, there are two things to point out: 
1) "Michael Antony is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Haifa, Israel. He is writing a book on how to approach the question of whether there is a divine reality, and what it might be like." This tells us where he is coming from. 

2) The use of the term New Atheist to label this generation of atheism is pejorative and often used to say that we are less rational and sophisticated than some Old Atheism. 

Responding to his some of his arguments: 
1) He believes from the common understanding (our understanding excluded) that agnosticism and atheism are mutually exclusive. The general response you might get from the atheist community is: Agnosticism deals with knowledge, and Atheism with belief, so you can be an agnostic atheist or an agnostic theist. 

I for one am fine with the falliblist version of Gnostic Atheism. I could logically be wrong, but I am justified in thinking I am right, and I call this knowledge still. This is why I can say I know you exist, even though I might be a brain in a vat being fed a simulation. I just does not make sense to let these extreme cases infringe on the practical pursuit of knowledge. 

Dr. Antony is right about one thing, atheists do need a reason to say god does not exist if they are talking about a positive belief what kind of world they live in. This is the same for why we might believe that there is only natural phenomena. One reason to reject god is that what makes an extraordinary claim extraordinary is that it is probably not true (does not fit with what we know to occur), especially given the strength of naturalism. 

2. For some philosophers like Karl Popper, science was only proving negatives. You would construct a hypothesis, and you pragmatically believed it was true until it failed a prediction, and there you would refine your hypothesis. Most scientists and philosophers are realists unlike Popper about our theories, meaning they think they are true, or at least approximately true. 

[I am skipping to 5 for the sake of brevity and not repeating  myself.]

5. While normally Dr. Antony would be right that any claim about the world would require evidence, even one about the non-existence of something, the issue in regards to the atheism debate is very different. When you already have a lot of background theory (naturalism in particular), atheism fits with our best understanding of the world in science more than theism does. We can make lots of predictions about the universe by ignoring god in our theories. This is why the burden is on theists in this case. 

These are five arguments that clarify and reinforce my position against the existence of a god. One can use the Russell's Teapot to demonstrate the problem of absence of evidence. I do not know with certainty that there is not a teapot in Saturn's rings, but I am very much justified in thinking there's not one. Another disproof of god is to ask which god. Since there are infinite number of possible gods, there is a certain incredulity of someone who says atheism versus my conception of god. Thirdly, there is the greater strength that the more conservative position holds. One person says there is an intangible, invisible dragon in their garage. Without evidence, we have good reason to believe it is true, the chances of it being false are high. Finally, there is the issue of most believed gods are falsifiable. If you say something about the world in regards to your gods interaction with it, then there should be evidence for it. When there is absence of evidence when you expect evidence, you are justified in rejecting the belief.