Before we get to the matter of our metaphysical frameworks/narratives not being “science” or “fact” let’s start here and here where we are told our brains are not computers and that the mind will remain a mystery to science. And, I agree with both. As in my previous post, so much is about “seeing” and perceiving (reading) and how we see and understand is always constrained to an extent by the metaphors we choose to be the prisms, through which we see. These can either hinder or open up what it is possible for us to “see”. The philosophical narrative frameworks we all inhabit consist of metaphors that shape the way we “see” and “perceive” reality—in fact, help us see what is “real”. If we are aware of this, great. If not, then we tend towards the fundamentalist sensibility, which assumes there is a one-to-one correlation between facts (information) and our conclusions regarding those facts as if any meaning was plain, literal, or obvious (which is how fundamentalists read their sacred writings). The fundamentalist sensibility is to think there is no interpretive nature to their “reading” of reality, to the use of metaphor; they actually think there is a straight line between their “reading” (whether sacred writings or empirical scientific information) and their pronouncements regarding meaning, even the assertion there is none, or the assertion we cannot know if there is any.
In the first link, the writer notes the inherent problems associated with thinking or “seeing” our brains as computers. And, of course, given the ubiquitous nature of computers and their deep relation to our lives, it is a ready-made and easily grasped metaphor. It is very easy to think our brains are like computers. But, they are not. The writer tells us:
“But here is what we are not born with: information, data, rules, software, knowledge, lexicons, representations, algorithms, programs, models, memories, images, processors, subroutines, encoders, decoders, symbols, or buffers – design elements that allow digital computers to behave somewhat intelligently. Not only are we not born with such things, we also don’t develop them – ever.
We don’t store words or the rules that tell us how to manipulate them. We don’t create representations of visual stimuli, store them in a short-term memory buffer, and then transfer the representation into a long-term memory device. We don’t retrieve information or images or words from memory registers. Computers do all of these things, but organisms do not...
Forgive me for this introduction to computing, but I need to be clear: computers really do operate on symbolic representations of the world. They really store and retrieve. They really process. They really have physical memories. They really are guided in everything they do, without exception, by algorithms.
Humans, on the other hand, do not – never did, never will.”
There is something about consciousness that doesn’t seem to change, that doesn’t develop like our physical bodies do. Instead, it seems we simply become more aware as our physical bodies develop. Our minds open up so to speak (or, unfortunately, sometimes not!) as we interact and experience other people and our world in general. But it is not as if our consciousness is like something that starts empty and fills up with information. It is more like our consciousness is already full (perhaps as large as the universe, or existence itself, perhaps even eternity) but our experiences and interactions are small. How interesting though that what our minds can conceive and produce (computers/software) we then imagine is what we ourselves are doing too when we think and use our brains, the key word here being “imagine”.
I would like to believe that any reflective soul of even a slight rationality, of some experience of life, of some education, knows they are nothing at all like a computer. We get anxious, we fear, we love, we cry, we get angry, we desire, we often are confused, we don’t make sense, we do make sense, we are contrary, we hope, we experience joy, sadness, and grief. We are nostalgic and melancholy. We are capable of great acts of sacrifice and kindness toward others and also of great cruelty. We build orphanages, but also death camps. We communicate silently with each other in a glance, nod, or tip of the head. We speak (which is itself a mystery) and sing songs; we write great pieces of literature, poems, and music. We laugh, we make jokes, and we use satire. We are capable of recognizing beauty. We are intuitive. We can reason. We can feel ashamed and embarrassed. We philosophize and theologize. We grow and change (we hope!). Our opinions change and not always simply because of new information, but because of experience and our rubbing up against life. We even become different sorts of people than we were at one time. We have “conversions”. We are great mysteries, indeed (See Shakespeare). There is an infinite difference between us and computers. The idea our brains/minds are like computers or operate like them, in any way at all is nothing more than magical thinking, a grand superstition, to be generous.
The greater point here is that the metaphor “computer” doesn’t mean we have derived this term from “science” or that science demands we use that metaphor. It derives from a philosophical view—one that reduces mind to matter, or that sees the mind as the brain and the brain as machine like.
And that our brains/minds are not like computers leads us to the second link. Because they are not like any machine, or like anything we can reduce to the purely physical, they will remain a mystery as far as science is concerned. Our conscious selves remain outside the bounds of science as far as science being able to explain such in purely physical terms, although there will be much science can do (and has done) as far as doing what it does best: Give us information regarding the physical aspects of the brain.
What is rather amazing about physicist Edward Witten is that while he remains optimistic we will one day know why there is something rather than nothing, and that string theory will turn out to be correct, he doesn’t feel the same about consciousness. And thinking we will one day know the answers to those other questions, purely through science, is a tall order indeed. The fact he doesn’t feel the same about consciousness, tells us something about the unique enormity of the problem specific to that question:
“Witten is optimistic about science’s power to solve mysteries, such as why there is something rather than nothing. In a 2014 Q&A with me he said: ‘The modern scientific endeavor has been going on for hundreds of years by now, and we've gotten way farther than our predecessors probably imagined.’ He also reaffirmed his belief that string theory will turn out to be ‘right.’
But in a fascinating video interview with journalist Wim Kayzer, Witten is pessimistic about the prospects for a scientific explanation of consciousness. The chemist Ash Jogalekar, who blogs as ‘The Curious Wavefunction,’ wrote about Witten’s speech and transcribed the relevant section. (Thanks, Ash.) Here is an excerpt:
I think consciousness will remain a mystery. Yes, that’s what I tend to believe. I tend to think that the workings of the conscious brain will be elucidated to a large extent. Biologists and perhaps physicists will understand much better how the brain works. But why something that we call consciousness goes with those workings, I think that will remain mysterious. I have a much easier time imagining how we understand the Big Bang than I have imagining how we can understand consciousness...”(italics added)
Hopefully this becomes a trend that will continue where very intelligent people realize the limits of science (what rational person would even deny this, really?). Science is wonderful. Science is extremely helpful. Science is a necessary tool—a tool we cannot do without. I am a fan of science and firm supporter. And I also understand science to be in harmony with faith. The only ones who do not are those who hold to some sort of scientism/secular fundamentalism—they see faith as a rival to science—as two opposing narratives. Such is a huge misunderstanding of both science and faith. Those who see these as rivals are confusing their philosophical naturalism/scientism with “science” (see prior post and comments). I do not see science as a rival and the great majority of non-fundamentalist Christians (the vast majority of Christians) do not either. However, regardless, I do think science has its limits and is only one way of “seeing” or “reading” and understanding the world/existence. It is a very specific and narrow type of seeing/understanding and in that one sphere (materiality), it sees wonderfully. If we are trying to land on the moon, we consult science not our Bibles. But the moment we train that narrow focus on other areas of enquiry and thought, other areas of life (such as the topics discussed on this blog), we see its impotence and limitations. To think that science can comment upon or eventually explain everything to us is to misunderstand the tool one is using, and what it is for—it would be like handing a sledge hammer to someone who was trying to sew a button on their sweater. It is not that a sledge hammer isn’t a good and proper tool; it’s only that it is limited and in some circumstances not very (or at all) useful or helpful.
Finally, we should note that even though science is limited in its scope and what it can address, even though it holds no monopoly upon knowledge per se, every philosophical framework/narrative should be aware of and take into consideration the findings of science. I have referenced this link many times in the past and it is a good example of this point in the area of ethics/morality. Like most neutral academic sources, it asserts that most of the meta-ethical views (Note: philosophical views...not scientific views) are viable as far as the science goes—that there is no conflict or clash with “evolution” or science. The essay ends with:
“So all three metaethical views discussed here—expressivism, error theory and moral realism—remain on the table.”
However, only philosophical naturalists (and creationists) believe the science actually proves their philosophical view to be the true or correct one, and the only reason there is even a discussion is because philosophical naturalists believe there is a conflict or clash with science on the part of moral realists. They are in the minority however. The Stanford writer addresses a pertinent part of their objection (Italics added and I bold and underline the pertinent portions):
“Proponents of epistemic 'evolutionary debunking arguments' think it should, arguing either that evolutionary considerations support moral skepticism (Joyce 2006, 2013, Forthcoming) or that they at least undermine traditional moral realism by providing a defeater for our moral beliefs if correctness for moral beliefs is construed in a realist fashion as accurate representation of objective or independent moral truths (Street 2006, 2008). (For recent discussion of these arguments, see Copp 2008, Shafer-Landau 2012, Berker 2014, FitzPatrick 2014a,b, among many others.)
On the face of it, the mere fact that natural selection would not have 'designed' our moral faculties to track moral truths accurately (as it plausibly designed our perceptual faculties to track facts about medium sized objects in typical human environments) is not obviously problematic. There are, after all, lots of cases where we seem to be able to grasp genuine truths even though those truths play no role in the story of how our basic mental capacities evolved. We are able to grasp truths of quantum field theory or higher dimensional topology or, for that matter, philosophy (or so we are assuming in even engaging in this debate) even though those truths had nothing to do with why the basic mental capacities underlying these abilities evolved in Pleistocene hominins. Those capacities evolved in response to selection pressures in ancestral hunter-gatherer environments, and we have simply learned how to develop, train and exercise them in cultural contexts to discover truths that go far beyond any that were relevant to the evolution of those underlying capacities. Philosophers who endorse some form of moral realism have typically believed that we've done the same thing in grasping moral truths (see sections 2.4–2.5).”
And what the writer means by “moral truths” are objective truths (as is clear from the reference to moral realism). Evolution does not pose a problem here. Nor does physics. Why? Because we are able to grasp moral truths including philosophical truths: “... (or so we are assuming in even engaging in this debate)...” thus it would be self-defeating to assert that physics somehow precluded such as it would mean the very argument one was making was precluded or a violation of physics! Notice this is an argument from logic and philosophical reasoning, apart from the science or any empirical fact or finding. And no one makes the argument (that I am aware of) that to grasp such truths, brains states are altered somehow or in some fashion. Who makes that argument? No one. How silly. If brain states are not altered in our ability to grasp philosophical truths, why would they be altered to grasp moral truths—when the very same process is in play? The fact that anyone could “hear” or think that Christian philosophers or theologians were asserting moral truths were grasped by (divine?) changes in our brain states tells us all we need to know. Someone is not listening. Someone is not hearing the other. They are like Gopnik in the last post. Moral realists do not make this argument, nor do Christian philosophers or theologians (that I am aware of anyway—if someone can show me who does—I will certainly also object). And who would ask what the “mechanism” is that allows us to grasp philosophical truths? How about being human (see Stanford link and quote again), if we want to call that a “mechanism”. The mechanism is being alive in this world, this existence, and having a human mind. Such is also what allows us to grasp moral truths. To ask for something in addition to that, means one doesn’t understand what is being asserted in the Stanford quote or what Christian philosophers or theologians believe about such things in the first place.
Another example, which I’ve taken the time to unpack in the past, is when someone tells us that miracles are inconsistent with or “clash” with science. What they are really telling us (whether they know it or not, as I think most do this from ignorance) is that miracles are inconsistent with their presupposition the universe is a causally-closed-system, which is a metaphysical view, not an empirical finding from science. As David Bentley Hart has written:
“The very notion of nature as a closed system entirely sufficient to itself is plainly one that cannot be verified, deductively or empirically, from within the system of nature. It is a metaphysical (which is to say “extra-natural”) conclusion regarding the whole of reality, which neither reason nor experience legitimately warrants.”
The assertion that such a view (a causally closed universe) is philosophical and not scientific, is so commonly known we need look no further than a basic Wikipedia reference. So they confuse such a belief with “science” and conflate the two. Unless one already has the faith-based view that God doesn’t exist, he would simply believe that science and natural laws are the best descriptions of how the physical world words, except in those cases when God acts. Say we set up an experiment for a ball to launch at a certain speed so we could then measure the distance it would travel before falling to earth. We launch our ball, and a by stander sees the ball headed toward a small child and moves to knock the ball down. We would not then throw up our arms in defeat and abandon science and a belief in its power to describe and predict the physical world. How silly. Once we allow for God’s existence, the logic is the very same. If we accept it for a human agent, we must accept the same logic for God.
As for a view that is not logical, here it is: I believe God may exist, but if such a being did exist and acted upon the physical world it would be a violation of the physical laws or it would clash with what we currently know about physics or some other branch of science. Such is simply not a logical view; it also normally entails a straw-man view of God, and question-begging (so a triple failing). If God exists, such cannot violate any physical law by definition. For God to violate a physical law would mean the physical law was somehow inviolable in and of itself, a stand-alone force, uncreated, unmovable, impervious to the very being acting upon it who created it, the being from which it exists and has its law-like power. Again, it would be like suggesting that a person could not act in the ball experiment. Well, no, if they exist, then yes, they could. This belief comes from thinking of God as Bigfoot or some other object or force in the universe, rather than the ground of all being, the very thing making the universe possible to begin with including the laws by which it operates. If one is taking the actual view of the God of Christianity, Aristotle, Moses Maimonides, Thomas Aquinas, Mulla Sadra, and even Spinoza then it is logically impossible to assert such. One cannot make this argument against, as Hart has put it, that which is the:
“...one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things.”
So this argument only works against some straw-man conception of God. It also begs the question when it asserts this God may exist, but this agent’s acting would violate physics or “clash” with what we currently know about physics/science, as this is the very thing disputed. Whether or not the clash is with science or a different philosophical framework/narrative is what’s disputed to begin with. Thus, not only is it not a logical view, it is question-begging and, in almost every case, based upon a straw-man view of God. All the way around it fails as any sort of logical response. At least the atheist is being logical knowing that only if we disallow God’s existence can we logically claim a causally closed universe with the ancillary logical implications. No such implications exist for the agnostic. Any agnostic out there worried about logic, should look first to this argument as it contains none. And by the way, it matters little if one does not like or agree with Hart’s definition of God—it is the one that needs to be addressed and not some straw-man view. And if one doesn’t understand the definition, then one needs to investigate and research it before commenting.
Another straw-man view of God trotted out in this argument is that, well, but if God can just, every now and then, capriciously intervene in the physical world, how can we trust the consistency of physical laws and the scientific method? Well, because God is not capricious or random or out of control in any imaginable fashion. God only acts for a reason and a reason always consistent with the nature and character of God as demonstrated in the life of Christ and the Christian narrative. So this straw-man objection is easily addressed. Like the agent acting in the ball example—he acted because he saw the ball was going to hit a child—God is not capricious or random. God is not a mindless tornado or earthquake or some trickster god.
And if one’s only objection is, yes, but it would still mean a miracle would clash with what we presently know about physics and science, one is not listening. The only thing it would mean is that there would be a clash with philosophical naturalism or the belief in a causally closed universe. Or, read post again. And if someone wants to show us how a causally closed universe is a recognized scientific fact, proven, widely accepted, and not a metaphysical belief—please do. Good luck with that. If one cannot however, then they need to give up this clear confusion of a metaphysical belief with “science” or “fact”.
Bottom line: the belief God may exist (agnosticism), but that this being acting within creation would violate some physical law or clash with our current view of science is illogical and inconsistent with the premise: “God may exist”. If God does exist, then logically miracles cannot be a violation of a physical law. Such would make the physical law greater than God and apart from God in some way that violates the very definition and understanding of “God” as given by Hart or classically understood. We can only violate a law when we ourselves are under the law—meaning the law has power over us. God, by definition, is under no such law. Further, if God does exist, then the universe is not a causally closed system, thus, logically, our view would be that physical laws are not violated and our current view of science remains consistent because such laws operate and predict consistently, except in those cases where God might act. This is not ad hoc, but a logical conclusion based upon the premise.
Thus, one cannot have it both ways. One cannot claim agnosticism, but then assert the world is such that we can know nothing of this being and characterizes this being’s (we can know nothing about!) acting in the world as a violation of some sort. These philosophical pre-set boundaries, these philosophical presuppositions regarding what this being (if such exists) can and cannot do are metaphysical faith claims, not science. To claim one is agnostic regarding God’s existence, but then basically assert, for all practical purposes, an atheistic universe is, in my view, not only illogical but disingenuous. Is one afraid to simply assert he is an atheist? Is it a pointless hedging of bets? What exactly is the point of asserting agnosticism but then outlining a (philosophical) view where God may as well not exist, because we could never know if such a being did exist (which is only because of the presuppositions I’ve adopted by faith) and if this being ever acted it would be a problem for science (and not really “science”, but his own world-view/philosophical framework)? I love it, an agnosticism that keeps all the doors closed (but claims they really shut themselves or that science proves they are closed) just in case there really is something out there! This may be agnosticism as neurosis or simply fear. It is certainly not logic. Further, if one is truly an atheist, or comes to the exact same conclusions they do in these areas, reasons the same way, then stand-up and be counted man. Otherwise, I think one is being disingenuous.
The greater point is that what is discussed here are the philosophical views (not scientific) that articulate what they think the findings of science, whether biological evolution (or physics) mean as to questions of ethics specifically (in the Stanford link), but in other places it could be life after death, consciousness, or other such questions. What we see here is that the science neither proves nor disproves any of the major philosophical views in these areas—that is not its job—such is outside its pay-grade. In general however, what we see is that philosophical naturalists confuse their philosophy with “science” or conflate it with “science”. It is however no more “science” than the creationist’s views are “science” or any other type of fundamentalism.
Does every legitimate and serious philosophical framework/narrative consider the best science in a holistic way as it reasons out and unpacks its conclusions? Of course. But there is a huge (understatement!) difference between taking into consideration the best science and mistaking one’s philosophical views for “science”. Nor does it mean science proves their philosophical conclusions. When people tell us the “science” proves their philosophical views in matters of God’s existence or non-existence, morality, souls, life-after-death, and all such similar areas, they are just like the fundamentalists who tell us the Bible proves their positions/views too. What they are really telling us is that their “reading”, their interpretation, is the only authoritative one. This is the fundamentalist sensibility. Whether “science” or the Bible, these people need to quit hitting us over the head with either.
PS: I will only respond to comments that include, in quotes, that which they are referring to from the post. And any general comments must still refer to a general idea or point noted somewhere in the post they can at least refer to. We are going to discuss this post, not some other point or topic. Thank you.