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The Road from Atheism: Dr. Edward Feser’s Conversion (Part 2 of 3)

Mind

NOTE: On Monday we shared Part 1 of Dr. Edward Feser's conversion story from atheism to theism. Today we're posting Part 2 and on Monday we'll post Part 3.

We'd also like to note that Dr. Feser's contributions at Strange Notions were originally posted on his own blog, and therefore lose some of their context when reprinted here. Dr. Feser explains why that matters.


 
Not that that led me to give up naturalism, at least not initially. A more nuanced, skeptical naturalism was my preferred approach—what else was there, right? My studies in the philosophy of mind reinforced this tendency. At first, and like so many undergraduate philosophy majors, I took the materialist line for granted. Mental activity was just brain activity. What could be more obvious? But reading John Searle’s The Rediscovery of the Mind destroyed this illusion, and convinced me that the standard materialist theories were all hopeless. That Searle was himself a naturalist no doubt made this easier to accept. Indeed, Searle became another hero of mine. He was smart, funny, gave perfectly organized public lectures on complex topics without notes, and said whatever he thought whether or not it was fashionable. And he wrote so beautifully, eschewing the needless formalisms that give a veneer of pseudo-rigor and “professionalism” to the writings of too many analytic philosophers. “That is how I want to write!” I decided.

Brilliant as he was as a critic, though, Searle’s own approach to the mind-body problem—“biological naturalism”—never convinced me. It struck me (and seemingly everyone else but Searle himself) as a riff on property dualism. But there was another major influence on my thinking in the philosophy of mind in those days, Michael Lockwood’s fascinating book Mind, Brain and the Quantum. Lockwood was also a naturalist of sorts, and yet he too was critical of some of the standard materialist moves. Most importantly, though, Lockwood’s book introduced me to Bertrand Russell’s later views on these issues, which would have a major influence on my thinking ever afterward. Russell emphasized that physics really gives us very little knowledge of the material world. In particular, it gives us knowledge of its abstract structure, of what can be captured in equations and the like. But it gives us no knowledge of the intrinsic nature of matter, of the concrete reality that fleshes out the abstract structure. Introspection, by contrast, gives us direct knowledge of our thoughts and experiences. The upshot is that it is matter, and not mind, that is the really problematic side of the mind-body problem.

This was truly revolutionary, and it reinforced the conclusion that contemporary materialism was shallow and dogmatic. And that Lockwood and Russell were themselves naturalists made it once again easy to accept the message. I got hold of whatever I could find on these neglected views of Russell’s—Russell’s The Analysis of Matterand various essays and book chapters, Lockwood’s other writings on the topic, some terrific neglected essays by Grover Maxwell, some related arguments from John Foster and Howard Robinson. David Chalmers and Galen Strawson were also starting to take an interest in Russell around that time. But once again I found myself agreeing more with the criticisms than with the positive proposals. Russell took the view that what fleshes out the structure described by physics were sense data (more or less what contemporary writers call qualia). This might seem to entail a kind of panpsychism, the view that mental properties are everywhere in nature. Russell avoided this bizarre result by arguing that sense data could exist apart from a conscious subject which was aware of them, and Lockwood took the same line. I wasn’t convinced, and one of my earliest published articles was a criticism of Lockwood’s arguments on this subject (an article to which Lockwood very graciously replied). Chalmers and Strawson, meanwhile, were flirting with the idea of just accepting the panpsychist tendency of Russell’s positive views, but that seemed crazy to me.

My preferred solution was to take the negative, critical side of the Russellian position—the view that physics gives us knowledge only of the abstract structure of matter—and push a similar line toward the mind itself. All our knowledge, both of the external world described by physics and of the internal world of conscious experience and thought, was knowledge only of structure, of the relations between elements but not of their intrinsic nature. I would discover that Rudolf Carnap had taken something in the ballpark of this position, but the main influence on my thinking here was, of all people, the economist and political philosopher F. A. Hayek. The libertarianism I was then attracted to had already led me to take an interest in Hayek. When I found out that he had written a book on the mind-body problem, and that it took a position like Russell’s only more radical, it seemed like kismet. Hayek’s The Sensory Order and some of his related essays would come to be the major influences on my positive views.

But they were inchoate, since Hayek was not a philosopher by profession. That gave me something to do. Working out Hayek’s position in a more systematic way than he had done would be the project of my doctoral dissertation, “Russell, Hayek, and the Mind-Body Problem.” (Both here and in the earlier Master’s thesis link, by the way, Google books overstates the page count. I wasn’t that long-winded!) This was, to be sure, a very eccentric topic for a dissertation. Russell’s views were marginal at the time, and are still not widely accepted. Probably very few philosophers of mind even know who Hayek is, and fewer still care. But I thought their views were both true and interesting, and that was that. (If you want advice on how to climb the career ladder in academic philosophy, I’m not the guy to ask. But you knew that already.)

Spelling out the Hayekian position in a satisfactory way was very difficult. Lockwood had presented Russell’s position as a kind of mind-brain identity theory in reverse: It’s not that the mind turns out to be the brain, but that the brain turns out to be the mind. More precisely, visual and tactile perceptions of the brain of the sort a neurosurgeon might have do not tell us what the brain is really like, but present us only with a representation of the brain. It is actually introspection of our own mental states that tells us the inner nature of the matter that makes up the brain. It seemed to me that Hayek’s position amounted to something like functionalism in reverse: It’s not that the mind turns out to be a kind of causal network of the sort that might be instantiated in the brain, or a computer, or some other material system—understood naively, i.e. taking our perceptual experience of these physical systems as accurate representations of their intrinsic nature. Rather, introspection of our mental states and their relations is actually a kind of direct awareness of the inner nature of causation itself. We shouldn’t reduce mind to causal relations; rather we should inflate our notion of causation and see in it the mental properties we know from introspection.

So I then argued, and wrote up the results both in the dissertation and in another article. But the views were weird, required a great deal of abstractive effort even to understand, and one had to care about Hayek even to try, which almost no philosophers of mind do. To be sure, Searle was interested in Hayek in a general way—when Steven Postrel and I interviewed him for Reason, and when I talked to him about Hayek on other occasions, he even expressed interest in The Sensory Order in particular—but this interest never manifested itself in his published work. Chalmers very kindly gave me lots of feedback on the Hayekian spin on Russell that I was trying to develop, and pushed me to clarify the underlying metaphysics. But his own tendency was, as I have said, to explore (at least tentatively) the panpsychist reading of Russell.

And yet my own development of Hayek might itself seem ultimately to have flirted with panpsychism. For if introspection of our mental states gives us awareness of the inner nature of causation, doesn’t that imply that causation itself—including causation in the world outside the brain—is in some sense mental? This certainly went beyond anything Hayek himself had said. In my later thinking about Hayek’s position (of which I would give a more adequate exposition in my Cambridge Companion to Hayek article on Hayek’s philosophy of mind), I would retreat from this reading and emphasize instead the idea that introspection and perception give us only representations of the inner and outer worlds, and not their intrinsic nature.

This, for reasons I spell out in the article just referred to, offers a possible solution to the problem that qualia pose for naturalism. But because the view presupposes the notion of representation, it does not account for intentionality. Here my inclinations went in more of a “mysterian” direction. I had long been fascinated by Colin McGinn’s arguments to the effect that there was a perfectly naturalistic explanation of consciousness, but one we may be incapable in principle of understanding given the limitations on our cognitive faculties. I thought we could say more about consciousness than McGinn thought we probably could, but I also came to think that his mysterian approach was correct vis-à-vis the intentional content of our mental states. Lockwood and Hayek said things that lent plausibility to this.

I would later largely abandon the Hayekian position altogether, because it presupposes an indirect realist account of perception that I would eventually reject. (That took some time. The influence of indirect realism is clearly evident in my book Philosophy of Mind.) But I had come to some conclusions in the philosophy of mind that would persist. First, as Russell had argued, physics, which materialists take to be the gold standard of our knowledge of the material world, in fact doesn’t give us knowledge of the intrinsic nature of matter in the first place. The usual materialist theories were not even clearly thought out, much less correct. Second, a complete naturalistic explanation of intentionality is impossible.

But I was still a naturalist. It was also while still a naturalist that I first started to take a serious interest in Aristotelianism, though at the time that interest had to do with ethics rather than metaphysics. Even before I became an atheist I had been introduced to the Aristotelian idea that what is good for us is determined by our nature, and that our nature is what it is whether or not we think of it as having come from God. After becoming an atheist, then, I became drawn to ethicists like Philippa Foot, who defended a broadly Aristotelian approach to the subject from a secular point of view. Her book Virtues and Vices and Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue were the big influences on my thinking about ethical theory during my atheist years.

One consequence of this was that I always took teleology seriously, because it was so clearly evident a feature of ordinary practical reasoning. (How did I reconcile this with naturalism? I’m not sure I then saw the conflict all that clearly. But in any event I thought that teleological notions could be fitted into a naturalistic framework in the standard, broadly Darwinian way—the function of a thing is to be cashed out in terms of the reason why it was selected, etc. I only later came to see that teleology ultimately had to be a bottom level feature of the world rather than a derivative one.)

After Virtue also taught me another important lesson—that a set of concepts could become hopelessly confused and lead to paradox when yanked from the original context which gave them their intelligibility. MacIntyre argued that this is what had happened to the key concepts of modern moral theory, removed as they had been from the pre-modern framework that was their original home. I would later come to see that the same thing is true in metaphysics—that the metaphysical categories contemporary philosophers make casual use of (causation, substance, essence, mind, matter, and so forth) have been grotesquely distorted in modern philosophy, pulled as they have been from the classical (and especially Aristotelian-Scholastic) framework in which they had been so carefully refined. As I argue in The Last Superstition, many of the so-called “traditional” problems of philosophy are really just artifacts of the anti-Scholastic revolution of the moderns. They flow from highly contentious and historically contingent metaphysical assumptions, and do not reflect anything about the nature of philosophical reflection per se. And the standard moves of modern atheist argumentation typically presuppose these same assumptions. But I wouldn’t see that for years.
 
 
Originally posted at Edward Feser's blog. User with author's permission.
(Image credit: Alt Market)

Dr. Edward Feser

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Dr. Edward Feser is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Pasadena City College in Pasadena, California. He has been a Visiting Assistant Professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and a Visiting Scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of California at Santa Barbara, a master’s degree in religion from the Claremont Graduate School, and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and religious studies from the California State University at Fullerton. He is author of numerous books including The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (St. Augustines Press, 2010); Aquinas (Oneworld, 2009); and Philosophy of Mind (Oneworld, 2007). Follow Dr. Feser on his blog and his website, EdwardFeser.com.

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  • I recognize that Dr Feser is simply listing the philosophical works he has read and the conclusions he has reached. I am not clear on why this would be of relevance to a discussion between theists and atheists (much less Catholics specifically), but of course we are only at part two.

    There has been a great deal said here, but by this point Dr Feser states that his thinking did not lead him to conclude anything supernatural exists, though I suppose he takes the position at this stage that materialism is false.

    I think it needs to be pointed out that atheism requires neither materialism nor naturalism, unless you consider any supernatural, immaterial "thing" to be a god.

    At the end of the day, we could all read the texts he describes, I am sure we could all reach different conclusions, I expect philosophers do, which is why there is such a variety of position on these subjects among them.

    It would be helpful in part 3 if Dr Feser could identify what he understands a god to be, what he means when he says one exists, how he knows this to be accurate, and further, why the Catholic creed is to be preferred.

    • Danny Getchell

      I have to agree. Once you filter out the name-dropping of Dr. Feser's reading list, the content level is not high.

      These articles give the impression of John C. Wright, without the biliousness.

      • Danny Getchell

        Now the mods are not only deleting and banning, they are selectively editing posts.

        Ettinggay eriouslysay eavyhay-andedhay aroundway erehay.

        • Peter Piper

          Brandon: in the interests of transparency, please at least ensure that an extra sentence is added to the comment saying something like `[comment edited by a moderator to remove offensive content]' when an edit of this sort is done.

      • Tim Dacey

        Brian & Danny: are there no philosophers worthy of mention that have influenced your worldview? That Dr. Fesser mentioned those individuals provides the reader an idea of how his own philosophical views have been fashioned.

        • Danny Getchell

          My worldview has been influenced more by Paine and Hume than any other writers that come readily to mind.

          Unlike Feser, I see no need to line up authors on either side of the balance and weigh them carefully to see if the needle points to naturalism, or to "supernaturalism". Because as a deist follower in the steps of Paine, I am not invested in a materialist-only worldview.

          What I want to hear from Feser is not why he rejected naturalism, but why he accepted first theism, then personal theism, then Christianity, then Catholicism. I would very much like to read the authors who logically convinced him to take those steps.

        • No, not really. I would rather he tell me what he thinks a god is, what he thinks exists means, and why I should believe. As I understand it, this site is designed to further discussion on reasons for accepting or rejecting theism. All I can say in response here, "is I haven't read most of these philosophers, you have given me no reason to, and I still have little idea of why you converted back other than the argument from ignorance that naturalism hasn't been fully proven and feels unsatisfying to you."

          • Tim Dacey

            I don't think Dr. Fesser should carry the burden of explaining (in extensive detail) things that would be standard in a typical intro philosophy text (e.g., as you ask, what is God? What does it mean to exist?)

          • goldushapple

            Why don't you go to his website and ask. There are plenty of recent posts on his blog that you can part take in and ask "what is god" without derailing the thread.

            Have fun.

    • David Nickol

      It would be helpful in part 3 if Dr Feser could . . . .

      The Road From Atheism as it has appeared so far, and will conclude Monday, is one long post from Dr. Feser's own blog dated July 17, 2012, which Strange Notions is reprinting a third at a time.

      One has to wonder, after reading the entire piece, whether the Catholic Church means, when it says the existence of God can be known by reason alone, that what Dr. Feser describes is the way to go about it. Feser does not lay out an exact chronology, but it seems he was not a theist when he received his PhD in philosophy in 1999. I don't think Paul was thinking of graduate school when he said in Romans 1:19: "For what can be known about God is evident to them, because God made it evident to them."

      I am not quite sure what we are to make of Dr. Feser's odyssey. Are all atheists supposed to read everything he read to arrive at a conclusion, or are they supposed to assume they would conclude what he concluded if they read Searle, Lockwood, Russell, Maxwell, foster, Robinson, Chalmers, Strawson, Carnap Hayek, Postrel, McGuinn, MacIntyre, Foot, etc., etc., etc?

      • Kevin Aldrich

        I don't think Paul was thinking of graduate school when he said in
        Romans 1:19: "For what can be known about God is evident to them,
        because God made it evident to them."

        I completely agree, David. I think what Paul (at least partly) had in mind applies to people *at their level*, whatever their level is.

        In other words, it is the sense that we and the world had to come from some cause outside the world, and so, greater than the world. I think this insight applies as much to cosmologists at their level as to a seven-year-old.

        It is why people like Hawking and Krauss want us to believe the universe could produce itself from "nothing," while obscuring the fact that by nothing they mean something already in existence.

        • David Nickol

          I completely agree, David. I think what Paul (at least partly) had in mind applies to people *at their level*, whatever their level is.

          Does this imply it is easier for, say, a plumber to arrive at the conclusion that there is a God than for a philosopher or a theoretical physicist? There would be something odd about that. Does Hell have a disproportionate number of the intelligent and/or well educated?

          Also, what about the "gift of faith"? Maybe this is not fair, because maybe Feser has separated his intellectual journey from his more private, inner feelings. But my understanding is that human belief and faith allegedly involve an interaction between the human and God. Feser seems to be telling us how he figured it out all by himself, without God reaching out to draw Feser to Himself.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I'd say it is just as easy or hard, whether one is a plumber or intellectual. It depends on the person's dispositions. (I can understand that many atheists and agnostics would vehemently object to this.)

            I think you are confusing two things. You don't necessarily need faith to believe that God exists. Faith refers to (1) assent to Divine Revelation and (2) trust in God's goodness

          • David Nickol

            I think you are confusing two things. You don't necessarily need faith to believe that God exists.

            No, I wrote about five messages in the past couple of weeks pointing out that Catholics made a distinction between belief and faith. I was trying to debunk the idea that atheists who believe scientific investigation is the route to truth put their "faith" in the principle of induction, the belief that reality is comprehensible, and all the other assumptions that are necessary to have confidence in the scientific method. While it is true that if you interrogate a scientist about what he or she believes about the nature of reality, you will find that every scientist has a philosophical or metaphysical position. However, this is not to say that a materialist scientist "has faith," particularly in the Catholic sense of the word. For Catholics, faith is a supernatural gift granted and sustained by God. It is not the same as the philosophical or metaphysical position a materialist scientist has (whether he or she knows it or not) that underpins confidence in the scientific method. It is simply not true that everyone has faith (especially in the Catholic sense), and it is just a matter of what the person has faith in.

            However, belief at least logically precedes faith. You can't have faith, in the Catholic sense, without believing there is a God. And my understanding is that faith is a gift given to everyone, so it would be odd for God to offer the gift of faith but for people to be unable to accept it because they do not believe.

            And interesting question is whether one can have faith, lose it, and get it back again. Feser was apparently raised Catholic and became an atheist in college. Once you have faith, how do you lose it? People may experience profound shifts in what they believe over the course of a lifetime (e.g., Ronald Reagan or Fr. Richard Neuhaus). But it seems to me if faith is a supernatural gift and a supernatural ability, it is different to lose it than to switch political parties.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            > Faith is a gift given to everyone?

            Are you saying that is a Catholic doctrine?

          • David Nickol

            Are you saying that is a Catholic doctrine?

            Yes, I believe so. At least faith is a gift offered to everyone, and I do not really see a difference between offered and given in this context. If God wants everyone to be saved, he must offer the gift of faith to everyone, because without faith, no one is saved. Even the "anonymous Christian" has faith (without knowing it).

          • Tim Dacey

            That is a good (religious) epistemological issue that you raise, i.e., how does one acquire knowledge of God. Is it via 'Knowledge by Description' like in Roman Catholic Scholasticism or is 'Knowledge by Acquaintance' like in Eastern (Orthodox) Christian Mysticism (e.g., Theosis). I think those who familiarize themselves with authentic Christian teaching will readily recognize the latter as being the primary source of knowledge of God while the former as being secondary.

      • So I have read ahead. His entire piece amounts to this in my view, I used to believe in god, then i read some philosophy that showed be a god was unreasonable. Then I read more philosophy, lots more, which led me to conclude a world view that excludes the supernatural is not completely explained by science or philosophy, so I believed in god again.

        • David Nickol

          I have just begun a book on materialism (pro and con, from what I have read so far), and one of the knotty problems seems to be coming up with a definition that separates what is material from what is not (if the latter exists). In other words, for those who insist that only matter exists, and everything that exists is made of matter, how do they define matter?

          Of course, this seems to be a problem with just about every concept in philosophy. Precise definitions are hard to come by, and proving the most "obvious" assumptions (e.g., inductive reasoning yields truth) may be impossible. I do remember a number of students in one of my first philosophy classes in college asking in the most exasperate tones, "WHAT . . . IS . . . THE . . . POINT?" I laughed up my sleeve at them, partly because I enjoyed the class and did well in it. But I am not sure how much stock anyone should put in a philosophical "proof" that there isn't a God or there is. It does not seem to me that there is much of anything in philosophy that is built on a rock-solid foundation.

          If I am recalling it correctly, Steven Pinker said philosophy (which he was not knocking) was a matter of applying the mental tools we use to solve soluble problems to problems that are not soluble, not necessarily because there are no answers, but because evolution didn't design our minds for them.

          • Tim Dacey

            Re: "..for those who insist that only matter exists, and everything that exists is made of matter, how do they define matter?

            My answer (If I were a materialist): Materialism is an archaic philosophical term that we should give up in favor the newer term 'physicalism'. Both are roughly the same view but it makes more sense to say that everything is the result of physical processes than everything is made of matter.

          • I think this kind of deductive philosophy is fun, but in terms of world view it is not terribly important. For example, while I may consider myself a materialist, I am not one of "those who insist that only matter exists", there could be something else, depending how you define things. I guess this is more of a naturalism issue. I think the best way of thinking is to accept there is a cosmos, I define this as all that exists under any definition. We seem to observe things and call this matter/energy. There may be other aspects of the cosmos that are unobservable and truly weird, some of which can be hinted at through observation of matter/energy, some maybe not. Call these other aspects immaterial or supernatural, fine. If you are a Star Trek fan it is like asking is "Q" a god or an alien? Is he using immaterial supernatural forces or material natural forces that are incomprehensible or just unknown to us? What difference does it make if Q were to say "mumble fantastically nice things about me or I will annihilate you from every plane of existence at an undertermined time in the future!"

            For theists, however, it is vitally important that there be a sharp line whether or not we agree what and where it is between natural and supernatural, material and immaterial and so that the gods they believe in are somehow special and able to then, I guess, fill this whole in the back of their heads that keeps asking "why"?

      • DAVID

        I am not quite sure what we are to make of Dr. Feser's odyssey. Are all atheists supposed to read everything he read to arrive at a conclusion, or are they supposed to assume they would conclude what he concluded if they read Searle, Lockwood, Russell, Maxwell, foster, Robinson, Chalmers, Strawson, Carnap Hayek, Postrel, McGuinn, MacIntyre, Foot, etc., etc., etc?

        This is the odyssey of a person who specializes in a particular field. As such, it would probably be an exciting and stimulating read for anyone who has a "hound in this race."

      • The dogma is that God's existence can be known by reason alone. I've seen some Catholics argue that the dogma is true only in principle, and that no one ever has known of God's existence by reason alone. If that were true, then it would suggest Blaise Pascal had it right in writing that the proper religious role of reason was in removing obstacles to faith, rather than in generating belief.

        To that end, you see many apologists making arguments that twist themselves in conceptual knots in order to technically escape logical arguments against the teachings of the Church. In demonstrating that, e.g., God's non-existence can't be proven with certainty, are essentially operating under the correct notion that absence of proof is not proof of absence. So in the ancient way of thinking, wherein certainty was held up on high as the standard of rationality, such demonstrations should leave people rationally able to accept Church teaching.

        Of course, the modern world discovered that certainty is actually pretty useless, and that tentative conclusions based on growing piles of evidence is where all the important truths, goods, and beauties are. And critically, absence of evidence is evidence of absence, so we now have overwhelming rational reason to reject Church teaching. Few in the Church have made any serious attempt to compile the evidence that they'd need in order to address modern rational objections.

  • BrianKillian

    "The upshot is that it is matter, and not mind, that is the really problematic side of the mind-body problem."

    Exactly.

  • Kevin Aldrich

    In the area of ethics, Feser says extremely simply what I've tried to argue here about a hundred times: the Aristotelian insight that "what is good for us is determined by our nature, and that our nature is
    what it is whether or not we think of it as having come from God."

    Some atheists here have argued that there is no such thing as human nature and/or that human nature cannot tell us anything about what behavior is good or bad for us.

    At the same time, some theists have argued that people cannot have a notion of ethical good or evil apart from believing in God.

    • David Nickol

      "what is good for us is determined by our nature, and that our nature is what it is whether or not we think of it as having come from God."

      Terry Eagleton, in The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction says:

      To begin with, we can return to our earlier suggestion that the possibility of human life having a built-in meaning does not depend on a belief in some transcendent power. It may well be that the evolution of human beings was random and accidental, but it does not necessarily follow from this that they do not have a specific kind of nature. And the good life for them may well consist in realizing that nature.

      Some theists have argued here that if there is no God, the concepts of good and evil utterly vanish in every respect. If there is no God, then it is meaningless to claim anything resembling a moral distinction between helping a little old lady across the street and pushing her in front of a bus. I have reservations about the concept of natural law, but the idea of utter meaningless without God would seem (to me) to imply that what natural law proponents claim to see that would support helping the little old lady and discourage killing her must be—if there is no God—pure illusion. Otherwise their arguments would still have at least some force because they appeal to something objective (human nature) even if there is no God in which to ultimately ground them.

      • Kevin Aldrich

        Can you clarify this (I don't understand the sentence):

        "The idea of utter meaningless without God would seem (to me) to imply
        that what natural law proponents claim to see that would support helping
        the little old lady and discourage killing her must be—if there is no
        God—pure illusion."

        • David Nickol

          As I have understood them, some here have said that helping a little old lady across the street is good, and pushing her under a bus is evil. The reason this is so is that there exists objective good and evil, but objective good and evil ultimately depend on the existence of God.

          As I understand them, if there is no God, whatever rationale an atheist might give for saying it is good to help a little old lady across the street, and evil to push her under a bus, would be pointless and meaningless.

          One would think that there might be "intermediate justifications" in favor of helping a little old lady across the street and against pushing her under a bus that both atheists and theists could agree on. If morality is determined by something other than "divine command," there must be some reasonable distinction between helping a little old lady and killing her. Every society, as far as I know, has had some kind of prohibition against murder. It would seem that there must be something in the natural order (not just a command from God) that causes even nonreligious peoples to prohibit murder. There must be good reasons to argue that murder is bad for society and consequently bad for any member in a society who sees his or her own self-interest being in favor of what is good for society. So it seems reasonable to me to say that a theist and an atheist could agree, based on the concept of human nature and human flourishing, that murder is bad or evil. The difference between the atheist and the theist is that the theist will believe that human nature is God's creation, and atheists believe human nature is the result of evolution. But both recognize that given human nature, murder ought not to be permitted.

          However, some here have argued that if there is no God, the whole idea of good and evil totally collapses. They argue (as I understand them), that if there is no God, you might just as well push the old lady under the bus because the concepts of good and evil are totally without meaning. If there is no God, "Everything is permitted." If you are the little old lady, there is no argument you can make to someone who must choose whether to help you or kill you. If there is no God, "intermediate reasons" (like human flourishing and a well ordered society) are insufficient to back up arguments about good and evil.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            My personal response, following Aristotle/Feser, begins with "what is good for us is determined by our nature, and ... our nature is what it is whether or not we think of it as having come from God."

            This is why those who believe in God and those who don't can both be natural law adherents.

            However, if they think there is no God, a lot of people will do what they damn well want, regardless of whether it is good according to human nature. So not believing in God could weaken their adherence to morality. That said, a lot of people who believe in God do what they damn well want, too. I think this is the actual meaning of the proverb, "The fool says in his heart there is no God."

            I also believe that if there is no God then our moral actions in the end mean nothing, since everything will have been swept away forever. If there is no God, then both deliberate good actions and objectively evil acts can be seen as kind of giving the finger to the universe.

            However, if one believes in God and sees human nature as a creature of God, then that strengthens one's motivation to embrace it.

          • David Nickol

            I also believe that if there is no God then our moral actions in the end mean nothing, since everything will have been swept away forever.

            Something I find interesting is how little Judaism concerns itself with an afterlife, and the fact that OT Judaism seems not even to have considered it. Abraham seems to have been willing to sacrifice Isaac not for the sake of an eternal reward, but simply because God told him to. It seems to me that a tacit assumption made in the argument about goodness coming from God is that if there is no God, goodness will not be rewarded and evil will not be punished. But this did not seem to be a concern in God's covenant with the Jews.

            I think there is a powerful emotional appeal to the idea that things will all be set right in eternity, because things are not right at all now. It's particularly interesting to me that the Jews did not concern themselves with the afterlife, since I am reading ancient history at the moment and finding that so many earlier or contemporaneous civilizations did.

            In any case, although the ancient Jews did seem to consider God immortal, they did not think of themselves as having immortal souls or trying to get to heaven. And yet they had a solid sense of good and evil. It seems to me if a person is "virtuous" in order to earn an eternal reward, he or she may not be so virtuous after all. It is acting in one's self-interest to gain an eternal reward and avoid eternal torture. Those who do things because the things are good and not because they expect some kind of reward (and that would include atheists) seem to me more admirable than those who are motivated by a desire to get to heaven and/or a fear of hell. This does not, of course, mean that Christians can be good only with ulterior motives.

          • Moussa Taouk

            Hi David,

            >It seems to me if a person is "virtuous" in order to earn an eternal reward, he or she may not be so virtuous after all.

            The example of the Jews is a good one. I have a couple of relevant points:
            - It's not so much about the reward or lack of reward that is the question in my mind. It's more about the standard (or perhaps authority or source of compulsion) that allows one to differentiate between good and evil. What is that standard for an atheist? I can only think it is either a) human flourishing (in which case, because we are able to "rise above" our instincts and the world around us, one might say 'to hell with human flourishing... i'll manipulate the world around me to suit me') or b) self-pleasure (in which case others can legitimately be used as a means to an end rather than an end in themselves).

            I see serious problems with both. And I can't think of any other standard or authority that would guide moral judgement.

            - If (from and atheist perspective) one is 'virtuous' in order to gain (a non-extant) eternal reward, then the atheist might conclude that that's selfish and not vituous. But as per my point above (see b) as the method for determining good-evil), if self-service or self-pleasure is what motivates us to do 'good' then I would have thought that the person's virtue is entirely legitimate. Perhaps even exemplary.

          • Danny Getchell

            Kevin,

            The question I have yet to have answered satisfactorily is this.

            Given a world in which morality does not originate in God, a world in which most people do what we call "good" but whom occasionally do "evil" and in which some do "evil" almost exclusively...

            or given a world in which morality originates in God but in which everyone has the free will to do "evil" occasionally, or in some cases, almost exclusively...

            ....how would an observer distinguish between the two?

          • Kevin Aldrich

            An observer cannot distinguish between the two scenarios because there is only this one world. The world is the way it is. Since it is the way it is, it is this way regardless of whether or not God exists.

            The difference would be in how people choose to respond if they think there is a God or is not a God.

          • David Nickol

            There is Zen saying (which I can't locate anywhere, but I don't think I am clever enough to have accidentally invented it): "If you believe, things are such as they are. If you do not believe, things are such as they are." I am not sure it is relevant here, but I have been waiting some time to use it, and I have grown impatient. :)

            But I would have to say it should make a difference if there is or is not a God, shouldn't it? Catholics believe God answers prayers, gives grace, and so on. The course of events should go differently if there is and is not a God. It seems to me if sacraments are truly efficacious, they must have detectable effects. For example, there should be some kind of detectable difference between sacramental and nonsacramental marriages, shouldn't there? Otherwise, what is the point? If Catholicism is true, then should there not be some detectable difference between people who go to Mass and communion on every Sunday and every Holy Day and those who do not? I do think conducting experiments for such things as prayer is basically silly, but if you can gather social science data for the effects of same-sex parents on children, I don't know why you can't gather the same kind of data for the children of couples who go to Mass and communion when they are supposed to.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I agree with your second paragraph, but my point is the Zen insight. Let's say I pray for ten things and get all ten of them. Fact one: I prayed for then things. Fact two: I got all ten things. Suppose that it were suddenly proven beyond any conceivable doubt that God does not exist. I still prayed and I still got.

          • Danny Getchell

            It sounds as if what you are saying is that the presence of good and evil in the world constitutes no evidence for the presence or absence of God. I agree with that.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            "It sounds as if what you are saying is that the presence of good and
            evil in the world constitutes no evidence for the presence or absence of
            God."

            I would not say that. I'm only saying that the world, as it is, is a fact.

          • Loreen Lee

            I have rethought the issue as to whether
            God is required for objectivity in moral 'issues'. Richard Rorty for instance holds the position that if we spent less time contemplating God, we would have more time and place greater emphasis on avoiding 'cruelty' in all its forms to others. What this misses is the need to ever evolve/develop - you choose the word ' towards greater clarity/objectivity/spirituality. -you choose the word-. I believe that this is the primary tenet in Catholicism, that we must ever 'change' 'repent' grow inwardly towards that absolute Being that is recognized to be God. If we do not place that as the essential 'purpose' in our lives, that inner growth, then I believe from observation and personal experience, that we do not grow in an understanding of just what can constitute cruelty, for instance, particularly when it comes in the disguise of 'being nice' in our words or actions.......Just a thought.

  • Having read that, I don't feel there was anything there that encouraged people to think anything new to them, unless they had happened to be following the exact same aesthetic+philosophical trajectory as Feser at one of his many transitions. I'm not sure many people have been there. I'll just make a meta-recommendation: Divide articles in two parts max. Second-parts-of-three don't make compelling reading anywhere. :)

    • Hey Noah - I've seen you mention "aesthetics" a few time in reference to Feser's conversion story; but aesthetics is that branch of philosophy dealing with art and the beautiful, and I don't remember any mention of those subjects here. Can you clarify what you mean by "aesthetic trajectory"?

      • I mean his aesthetics as his sense of what is beautiful and attractive or ugly and repulsive.

        I'd have just let "philosophical" sit on its own, but to be fairer to him he had been clear that he views some of his transitions as being as much or more about what was aesthetically pleasing to him at the time as about what seemed true.

        e.g. from this article:

        Searle became another hero of mine. He was smart, funny, gave perfectly organized public lectures on complex topics without notes, and said whatever he thought whether or not it was fashionable. And he wrote so beautifully, eschewing the needless formalisms that give a veneer of pseudo-rigor and “professionalism” to the writings of too many analytic philosophers.

        When I found out that he had written a book on the mind-body problem, and that it took a position like Russell’s only more radical, it seemed like kismet.

        Here my inclinations went in more of a “mysterian” direction.

        and from the previous article I'll just quote the biggie:

        you’ve fallen in love with one side of the question, the side that’s new and sexy because it’s not what you grew up believing. Zeal of the deconverted, and all that.

        • Well, let's not forget that this is a story, not an argument. This is Edward Feser telling you about Edward Feser's intellectual journey, not a critique of pure reason. I would expect a narration of your own journey to be no less colorful. These asides about influence, personality, will - his own and others - are pleasant reminders that, apart from the abstract arguments we all love to have late at night, we get out of bed in the morning as persons coping with a world. But they're ancillary to the line of thought running through the article.

          Mysterianism, though, refers to Colin McGinn's take on the hard problem of consciousness, no? Not a "deepity" on Feser's part.

          • Oh, yes, that's probably the definition of "mysterian" he intended. I was thinking the more general sense of (pertaining to) a person who believes in mysterious answers.

            I'm not critiquing Feser for pursuing ideas he thought were attractive. That's a perfectly sensible thing to do.

          • I think as a card-carrying Thomist he would probably take umbrage with the idea that his heart (attraction) steered his mind (ideas) and not vice-versa. Interestingly enough he ends his conversion story with a comment or two on the will. What do you think? Which leads which?

            I was just talking to Brandon the other day about this dichotomy in Catholic thought between the primacy of the will (Duns Scotus/Franciscans) and the primacy of the head (Aquinas/Dominicans). It's a fascinating and sometimes heated tug-of-war to behold.

          • Which leads which? Objectively, science is quite clear that emotions lead the intellect: people whose emotions get turned off find themselves unable to make decisions, even trivial ones. Many science educators use the analogy of the emotions (and the subconscious) as an elephant and the intellect as its mahout. The mahout trains the elephant to obey by guiding it when it's calm and steering it away from frights and temptations, but he's never really in control or really the impetus for movement. Since the mind is highly modular, I prefer the analogy of a Momma herding a gaggle of kindergarteners: retrieving them when they wander off, redirecting their attention when they are fascinated by something shiny, comforting them when they're hurt, arbitrating fights between them, and so on.

            Either way it suggests that, in order to make progress, the main task of the intellect is to train the emotions (and subconscious) well. There are lots of neat tricks science is finding lately to help our intellects do this; for an amusing example, see here, or for something more intellectual, the gummy bear studying trick. Similarly, I think it's more important to encourage virtues of rationality than to teach logic or statistical inference. The latter without the former do more harm than good!

          • Objectively, science is quite clear that emotions lead the intellect

            That's interesting! But aren't the intellectual discoveries of science, at least - including this one - free from the tyranny of the emotions? Isn't science itself dependent upon an exception to this truth? (I also think we would need to better define "lead." Does it mean that the emotions are like waves and wind which help guide the sailor of the intellect to ports of objective truth? Or does it mean the emotions determine the content of what the intellect sees, like a driver purposefully taking her car from California to Maine?)

            Also, about your other analogy. The mahout example underscores the intellect's dethroning - even though it does seem to be a "give and take" in terms of control - but a Momma has final control over a group of kindergartners! That's a very Victorian "captain of my soul" image - one that I think contravenes the original statement, that the "gaggle" of emotions leads the intellect, not the other way around.

            But allowing your original statement: would you agree then that one's decision for theism or atheism - including Feser's and your own, respectively - is ultimately an emotional matter, one that the intellect simply "rides," or, at best, "guides"?

          • But aren't the intellectual discoveries of science, at least - including this one - free from the tyranny of the emotions? Isn't science itself dependent upon an exception to this truth?

            I don't agree that there is tyranny in the fact that the impetus for our actions and decisions comes from emotions. On the contrary, I think the situation (that our emotions lead, and that we clearly still function quite well) is reason to accord our emotions (and unconscious generally) much more respect and our conscious intellects less respect. Far from needing an exception, the methods and community standards of science are essentially just a bunch of techniques for overcoming human emotional and cognitive biases.

            Emotions "lead" intellectual decisions in the sense of preceding them in time and being their impetus (i.e. like the gas in a car or the muscles of the elephant).

            If your mother can keep orderly control over a group of kindergarteners intent on running away and wreaking havoc, then she's a superhuman and not the ordinary mortal I imagined in my analogy. :)

            But allowing your original statement: would you agree then that one's decision for theism or atheism - including Feser's and your own, respectively - is ultimately an emotional matter, one that the intellect simply "rides," or, at best, "guides"?

            A good mahout trains his elephant and knows it well, and so guides it to do the work he intends. He knows it has a mind of its own and that he only guides it when it is calm, so he keeps it healthy, happy, and away from frights and temptations.

            No doubt some people's theism or atheism was a decision made by their runaway emotions with their intellect scampering behind to catch up. Some people's theism or atheism is probably guided by intellect but motivated by unsavory emotions (such as desire to maintain social status) that hinder the pursuit of truth. And certainly other people's theism or atheism is a decision motivated by rational emotions (such as the love of truth) under the guidance of their intellect. I have adequate reason to think Feser and I fall into the latter group. We reached different conclusions largely because we have very different ideas about what methods of finding truth are reliable.

            It's a valuable exercise, whenever we defend some idea, to remember the actual historical reason that we began to believe it.

          • Interesting take Noah, thanks for the thoughtful response.

          • David Nickol

            But aren't the intellectual discoveries of science, at least - including this one - free from the tyranny of the emotions?

            The New York Times has begun a new science column written by George Johnson and called Raw Data. Johnson's very first piece is a must read. Here's a taste of it, but follow this link for the whole thing.

            Since 1955, The Journal of Irreproducible Results has offered “spoofs, parodies, whimsies, burlesques, lampoons and satires” about life in the laboratory. Among its greatest hits: “Acoustic Oscillations in Jell-O, With and Without Fruit, Subjected to Varying Levels of Stress” and “Utilizing Infinite Loops to Compute an Approximate Value of Infinity.” The good-natured jibes are a backhanded celebration of science. What really goes on in the lab is, by implication, of a loftier, more serious nature.

            It has been jarring to learn in recent years that a reproducible result may actually be the rarest of birds. Replication, the ability of another lab to reproduce a finding, is the gold standard of science, reassurance that you have discovered something true. But that is getting harder all the time. With the most accessible truths already discovered, what remains are often subtle effects, some so delicate that they can be conjured up only under ideal circumstances, using highly specialized techniques.

            Fears that this is resulting in some questionable findings began to emerge in 2005, when Dr. John P. A. Ioannidis, a kind of meta-scientist who researches research, wrote a paper pointedly titled “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.” . . .

            If this holds true for scientists, with all the safeguards, it is certainly going to hold true for philosophers.

  • cminca

    I look at this list of books and influences, and a litany of changing philosophical and religious positions, and I don't see someone on a journey--I see someone who is simply convinced by the latest intellectual stimuli he encounters. In my mind, that isn't (necessarily) growth--that shows a lack of courage in your own convictions.

    I also have to say that, in my opinion, it takes an incredible amount of hubris to believe anyone is that interested in the path you took to your personal belief system. Again, IMHO, that one would think the topic requires 3 parts goes beyond hubris and really smacks of self-aggrandizement.

    Sorry--but I'm gonna be the one that says "the emperor has no clothes".

    • ccmnxc

      This was a post taken out of Feser's blog, after people had specifically asked him about his faith journey. Vogt then posted Feser's post in three parts (I don't know why), so it seems like your charge of hubris is misplaced.
      Further, what you call lack of convictions, others might call intellectual honesty (see Hilary Putnam). At the very least, I think some basic courtesy is warranted in thinking Feser simply found what he had seen more compelling than he previous beliefs w/o letting his opinions go with the wind.

      • cminca

        Then let me re-phrase.

        "To answer the request for a description of your faith journey with enough information to fill three blogs smacks of self-aggrandizement. Or an incredible lack of empathy for your listerner/reader. The hallmark of a boor."

        "To alter one's position once, and to even further amend it, might be considered intellectual honesty. To alter it numerous times seems to indicate one lacks the courage of ones own positions."

        Another point--if you think Dr. Feser is entitled to "some basic courtesy" I think that shows you haven't read much of Dr. Feser's work. If he wanted to be entitled to courtesy he needs to extend some.

        Finally--might I suggest that courtesy would dictate that you use the gentlemen's title? Especially since "Dr. Feser" is how he styles himself.

  • What I find most fascinating about this portion of Feser's conversion story is that we see three noted atheists and naturalists - Bertrand Russell, John Searle, Michael Lockwood - poking holes in Feser's materialism through an open and honest inquiry into the mind (with the background pressure of his earlier discovery mounting - Part 1's realization that "existing naturalistic accounts of language and meaning were no good"). As we'll see, those holes would later turn into bigger leaks, and the folding of Feser's materialism would eventually lead to the whole edifice of his commitment to naturalism tumbling down.

    Surely we can all agree on one thing: it's a delicious irony that, in a way, we have Bertrand Russell to blame for Feser's Catholicism!

    • David Nickol

      Surely we can all agree on one thing . . . .

      Ever the optimist! :P

      . . . . it's a delicious irony that, in a way, we have Bertrand Russell to blame for Feser's Catholicism!

      Actually, Feser doesn't tell us why he became a Catholic. He even says,

      In particular, it would take an essay of its own to explain why I returned to the Catholic Church, specifically, as I would by the end of 2001.

      Whether it should or not, it seems a more compelling story when an atheist converts to Catholicism than when a theist does. But it seems to me that Feser is a Catholic who spent some time as an atheist and then returned to Catholicism. That is a bit less compelling.

      • Susan

        |

        In particular, it would take an essay of its own to explain why I returned to the Catholic Church, specifically, as I would by the end of 2001.

        As Feser isn't shy about writing essays, shouldn't he have written that essay? If he has, shouldn't we be discussing that?

        (in a two segment maximum)?

      • Hey David - But isn't it a common atheist argument that your religion is contingent on the "accident" of your birth - the particular nation, culture, and family into which you're thrown? Shortly after Feser hit the age of reason he fled the Catholic faith. What sense does it make to say he was a "Catholic" in any meaningful sense prior to age 13 if his religion was this gigantic accident imposed from without, something he shook off as quickly as humanly possible?

        Besides, his atheism hardly seems to be the passionate, rebellious dalliance with Nietzsche one summer you make it sound! He didn't just "spend some time as an atheist" like someone decides to take up jogging. In Part 1 we see that this was the cool, firm concrete backdrop of his formative years, not only as a person but as a thinker - a fact, he remembers, as solid and uncontroversial as a spherical earth.

        In terms of compelling stories of atheists (who weren't cradle Catholics) who later converted to Catholicism, I have some favorites: Dorothy Day, Walker Percy, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Jacques Maritain, Edith Stein. In fact, Leah Libresco, Jennifer Fulwiler, and Devin Rose, all of whom write here at SN, were raised atheists.

        Personally, I think the story of anyone undergoing a dramatic religious change - in whatever direction, whatever the reason - is worth writing and thinking about. It's the "slow drift" that bores me. But that's just me!

        • David Nickol

          But isn't it a common atheist argument that your religion is contingent on the "accident" of your birth - the particular nation, culture, and family into which you're thrown?

          I don't think it is a specifically atheist observation that people in Catholic environments who are raised Catholic tend very strongly to be (and remain) Catholics, people in Muslim environments who are raised Muslims tend very strongly to be (and remain) Muslims, and so on. Recently there was a discussion of the Catholic concept of faith, and I quoted this from the Catechism:

          Faith is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by him. "Before this faith can be exercised, man must have the grace of God to move and assist him; he must have the interior helps of the Holy Spirit, who moves the heart and converts it to God, who opens the eyes of the mind and 'makes it easy for all to accept and believe the truth.'"

          I am reading some ancient history currently, and what strikes me is that from the earliest written history right down to the present day, people of all religions have had something I would say is indistinguishable in form (though not in content!) to what Catholics call faith. It is difficult to credit Catholics with a supernatural act (believing in the "Catholic" God), made possible only because God enables it, when worshipers of Marduk, Isis, Brahma, Allah, have believed in their Gods just as strongly and devoutly as Catholics. Is devout belief in any religion enabled by God?

          What sense does it make to say he was a "Catholic" in any meaningful sense prior to age 13 if his religion was this gigantic accident imposed from without, something he shook off as quickly as humanly possible?

          The implication seems to be that a Catholic prior to age 13 is not really a Catholic, or can only be known to have been a Catholic retrospectively, if he or she has continued to be a Catholic. I don't know what Feser's upbringing was like, but I know from my own experience what a powerful influence a Catholic upbringing can have. There is a Jesuit saying, "Give me a child for the first seven years, and I'll give you the man." Lenin said, "Give me four years to teach the children and the seed I have sown will never be uprooted." On this, the Jesuits, Lenin, and I are all in agreement! Of course, in the case of Feser, knowing nothing at all about his upbringing, I am merely speculating. But I think, to use his own words, it seems to me he didn't convert from atheism to Catholicism but "returned to the Catholic Church." He doesn't tell us, but I am betting he didn't make an in-depth study of all possible religions a theist might consider and, by coincidence, decide that Catholicism was the right one.

          Personally, I think the story of anyone undergoing a dramatic religious change - in whatever direction, whatever the reason - is worth writing and thinking about.

          I think Feser's story appeals to you because (I take it) you are very well versed in philosophy and can see his progression from one idea to the next, while for most of us his account is a list of names and titles. Of the people you named, I would be much more interested in Edith Stein and Dorothy Day (and in fact I have ordered a biography of Stein and Dorothy Day's autobiography from Amazon just now). From the little I know of Dorothy Day, I am rather amazed at her popularity among certain Catholics, since I can imagine only a very few American Catholics agreeing with her extreme pacifism. I have run across a quote that I cannot now track down in which she says it would be better for the United States to cease to exist than for it to enter into war.

          • Thanks David for the thoughtful response. Edith Stein is a personal hero of mine; I recommend the bio by Waltraud Herbstrith and the film "The Seventh Chamber." And just a side note (or perhaps shameless plug): Dorothy Day is actually one of the figures featured in Brandon's forthcoming book "Saints and Social Justice."

    • Danny Getchell

      What we have here is two dense and prolix articles explaining how Feser gradually became less than completely convinced that naturalism is an entirely adequate worldview.

      There are billions in the world today who share that position, but are distinctly non-Catholic.

      What made Feser turn to Catholicism rather than Mormonism, Shinto or Bah'a'i? That's what inquiring skeptical minds really want to know. And if it's because he was originally raised Catholic, I trust he will be honest in telling us so.

    • fredx2

      What I find interesting is that Feser, presumably, would have defended his position before reading Russell, Searle ,and Lockwood, and would have insisted that his worldview was based on rigorous thought and evidence and the scientific method and was therefore correct.
      But then, he reads a few other authors who have other ideas and his worldview is completely changed.
      Which leads you to believe that his original position was not all that well thought out. He just thought it was.
      Which seems to be the position of a lot of atheists. They think they have thought everything through and have reason on their side,when they really don't.
      That is why Feser's listing of his development is important. He is showing how an intellectual process can produce seemingly concrete results - for a time, until you get more information, more data, and a different view of things. Then everything changes.
      And that, in a nutshell is how atheists become Christians. They continue gathering information, they live longer and have more life experiences, and they realize their "system" for figuriing everything out is flawed.
      In a sense, they use science to self-correct themselves into belief.

      • David Nickol

        And that, in a nutshell is how atheists become Christians.

        Do you mean to imply that if atheists cut their studies short, they will remain atheists, but if the continue to study long enough, they will become Christians?

    • I simply do not see an edifice of naturalism. Sure, it is hubris to suggest a definition of natural and say nothing other than this can exist. Maybe some of the philosophers say this and they can enjoy debating their deductive proof in possible worlds.

      But in the context of a discussion on theism, the position theists need to combat is "we agree a natural world exists, but I see no reason to accept that anything supernatural exists". Apologists need to start providing evidence for this claimed supernature rather than pointing to qualia and saying it is not material or natural. While such experiences may not be material, there is no reason to call them supernatural in the sense of theism.

  • vito

    This is unreadable. Why is the author listing all those names and books? Are we to read all of this? Or is he trying just to impress us? Is this a kind of argument, "I've read all this clever stuff, so I know better then you"? I have neither the intention, nor the time to read all of that. Even if I had the time, there's much better stuff to read on my shelves and much better ways to spend my time. Just providing lists of authors and titles is not an argument that can convince anyone of anything.

  • Odell Terrell

    What did the Dr. mean by inner and outer worlds?? When he claims introspection is only a representation of inner and outer worlds. Trying to analyze this in laymen terms so I can better understand this article.

    I also read in a book that has confounded me for some time. Maybe someone can help me here "For example, how can the thought, 'my thought is simply a firing of neurons, nothing more,' itself be a firing if neurons? Logically, the person thinking is (so to speak) standing apart from his neurons and thinking about them."

    So cant the standing apart thinking of this thought be a firing of neurons??

    It trys to clarify next by saying "Similarly a strict determinist cannot rationally say, 'my every thought is determined by an outside force.' If this is true, how would the person ever have become aware that his thought was determined? The fact that humans are self-aware shows that humans have the freedom to stand apart from themselves and consider the causes that influence, but do not fully determine their beliefs and behaviors."

    • David Nickol

      My question would be why—if our thoughts are nonphysical and take place in a spiritual soul—do we need a brain? Why does too much alcohol interfere with thinking? Why does general anesthesia stop thought altogether? Several months ago I had a medical procedure under anesthesia. (It was propofol, the drug Michael Jackson's doctor gave him to make him "sleep." One second the doctor was injecting the drug, and the next second I was waking up in the recovery room. It appeared no time had elapsed.) Why do our souls stop working thinking general anesthesia if we continue to be aware after we die (when the soul allegedly leaves the body)? Why can instruments detect different kinds of brain activity when we think in certain ways?

      It may be difficult to explain how something made of matter can experience consciousness, but positing the existence of a soul doesn't explain consciousness. Positing a spiritual soul as the entity that experiences consciousness is basically saying that consciousness is a miracle. We know that dolphins, cats, dogs, elephants, and so on do something that is at least like thinking. So it is not difficult (for me, at least) to believe that a purely physical brain can do something like thinking. But we have no experience at all of a nonphysical entity and how it can be conscious. In fact, we have no experience at all of nonphysical entities FULL STOP.

      There seem to me additional problems (although I can't believe I am the first one to think of them). Souls, for example, being nonphysical, have no dimension and no spatial location. Probably many of us (especially if we watched tv shows like Touched by an Angel) think of our souls as translucent images of ourselves that get up and walk toward the light when we die, hopefully ending up in heaven and meeting up with long-lost love ones. But souls have neither dimension nor location. Souls don't look like translucent people, because they don't look like anything at all. And they are not inside our bodies.

      I think one of the reasons why some people find it relatively easy to believe in God, in angels, and in souls is that they rely on mental images. I confess that I do. If you say to me, "Imagine an angel," I don't say, "Well, I can't really, because angels are pure spirits who have no dimensions and no location." I simply conjure up a mental image of an angel as a human being, or a humanoid form with wings, or some such thing. So in dealing with spiritual things like souls, we make them comprehensible by thinking of physical things. We then don't worry about things like, "Where is my soul?" or, "How can something with no physical existence or location think?" or, "What is the storage mechanism that allows an angel or a soul to retain memories?"

      I think this also applies to the philosophical concept of nothing. I am guessing that the people who maintain that God created the universe from nothing have mental pictures not only of "nothing," but of what things were like before the creation of the universe. It is impossible to make sense of a time when there really was nothing, because (or so it seems to me) nothing can only be understood in the context of something. (This is not to say that God did not create the universe from nothing. Rather it is to say that it is impossible to actually think about it in any significant way.)

      As for neurons firing, if (or when) thinking is explained in detail, it will be more than just "neurons firing." And without making too close an analogy with computers, we certainly are seeing computers doing things (like playing chess, and translating from one language to another) that it was claimed they would never do.

  • David Nickol

    I do wonder why those who believe in the God of philosophers (and I include Catholics) need to make a distinction between the material and the spiritual (or the supernatural and the natural) at all. The belief is that God created all things from nothing and keeps them in existence. That would imply that everything "natural" is really supernatural—created from nothing, and existing only because God, from microsecond to microsecond (to borrow a phrase from Forbidden Planet) is sustaining it. (That is to say, it is contingent.) Angels and men are supernatural and natural, respectively, but they were both created by God and are both contingent. So the difference between the supernatural and the natural is not that one was not created and the other was. In addition, it is believed that human beings have a supernatural soul, and that not only faith, but abstract thought is a function of the supernatural part of human beings.

    It seems like material and spiritual, or natural and supernatural, are almost arbitrary categories. If God created everything from nothing and keeps it in existence, then it does not seem at all crazy to think of whatever is created as something (in some sense at least) in the mind of God. And certainly if God stops "thinking" of something, it ceases to exist.

    If God can make men as material-spiritual hybrids, I don't see how a sharp distinction can be made between the material and the spiritual, and I don't see why they must be thought of as two different categories. And besides, who is to say God can't bring into existence something physical, like a brain, that can have something nonphysical ( like thoughts)? God can do anything, and if he wants "material" things to have "spiritual" emergent properties, then who are philosophers to day God is incapable of accomplishing such a thing.

    I wouldn't be surprised if somebody has thought up all of the above before and others have demolished it as total nonsense. But it makes sens to me at the moment. :-)