Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Is the argument from reason a god of the gaps argument?

A. God of the Gaps
Another argument frequently advanced against virtually any piece of natural theology is the God of the Gaps charge. In fact, this is one of the most popular items in the atheist playbook. We know from the history of science that many things were thought in the past to require an explanation in terms of divine agency are now know to have naturalistic explanations. Rainbows, for example, were once thought to have been put in the sky as a sign, we now know that they can be naturalistically explained in terms of light refraction. Various biological systems show a harmony between means and ends which in the past was cannon fodder for the design argument, but is now explicable in terms of random variation and natural selection. So if there is something that we think cannot be explained in physical terms, just give science some time, and they’ll figure it out sooner or later.
An instance where the God of the Gaps objection appears strong is in the case of Newton’s account of the orbits of the planets. His theory would have expected the orbits to go somewhat differently from the way they go, and so he postulated God as the one who keeps the planets in line. Laplace later developed a theory that didn’t require this kind of divine tinkering, and when asked about Newton’s theistic theory he said “I have no need of that hypothesis.”
However, I am not sure that every argument that points to an explanatory difficulty for the naturalist can be effectively answered with a “God of the Gaps” charge. Consider, for example being at a dinner party with someone who is given a large amount of water and creates from it an equal volume of wine. (It tastes like really good wine, not that California cheap stuff). Can we reasonably say that this we just have a gap in our understanding. As Robert Larmer points out, our understanding of how wine is made is precisely what makes it so difficult to explain naturalistically.
What should be at issue in assessing “God of the gaps” arguments is whether they have met these conditions. Claims regarding events traditionally described as miracles and claims regarding the origin and development of life are where “God of the gaps” arguments are most commonly met. In the case of events traditionally described as miracles, it seems very evident that our increased knowledge of how natural causes operate has not made it easier, but more difficult, to explain such events naturalistically. The science underlying wine-making is considerably more advanced today than it was in first century Palestine, but our advances have made it even more difficult to explain in terms of natural causes how Jesus, without any technological aids, could, in a matter of minutes, turn water into high quality wine. Indeed, it is the difficulty of providing a naturalistic account of such events that leads many critics to deny that they ever occurred; though this looks suspiciously like begging the question in favour of naturalism. It is clear that if such events have occurred, the advance of science has made them more, rather than less, difficult to explain in terms of natural causes. Employing a “God of the gaps” argument that the occurrence of such events would constitute good evidence for supernatural intervention within the natural order seems entirely legitimate.
Perhaps even Newton has been given a bad rap, as Plantinga points out:
Newton seems ... to have suffered a bum rap. He suggested that God made periodic adjustments in the orbits of the planets; true enough. But he didn’t propose this as a reason for believing in God; it is rather that (of course) he already believed in God, and couldn’t think of any other explanation for the movements of the planets. He turned out to be wrong; he could have been right, however, and in any event he wasn’t endorsing any of the characteristic ideas of God-of-the-gaps thought (“Methodological Naturalism” Pt. II, Origins and Design, Vol. 18, No. 2, Footnote 52).
So, I would maintain that there are gaps and there are gaps. It’s not just pointing to an unsolved engineering problem in nature. First of all, the categories of the mental and the physical are logically incompatible categories. You start attributing mental properties to physics and you might end up being told that you are no longer describing the physical at all. Purpose, normativity, intentionality or about-ness, all these things are not supposed to be brought in to the physical descriptions of things, at least at the most basic level of analysis.
Let’s consider the gap between the propositional content of thought and the physical description of the brain. My claim is that no matter in how much detail you describe the physical state of the brain (and the environment), the propositional content of thought will invariably be undetermined. This isn’t my claim of C. S. Lewis’s, this argument was made by the arch-naturalist W. V. Quine. Now of course that doesn’t make it true, but nevertheless it’s not a matter of getting a physical description that will work, In my view the logico-conceptual gap is always going to be there regardless of how extensively you describe the physical. As I said earlier, bridging the chasm isn’t going to simply be a matter of exploring the territory on one side of the chasm.
Second, to a very large extent the gap between the mental and the physical was caused by science in the first place. The way one got physics going in the early days of modern science was to attribute such things as colors, tastes, smells, to the mind, while explaining the physics of it without having to consider these things. So, for example, in reducing heat to the mean kinetic energy of gases, science “siphoned off” the feeling of warmth caused by heat to the mind, and explained heat without reference to how heat feels to us. As Swinburne put it.
There is a crucial difference between these two cases. All other integrations into a super-science, or sciences dealing with entities and properties apparently qualitatively distinct, was achieved by saying that really some of the entities and properties were not as they appeared to be; by making a distinction between the underlying (not immediately observable) entities and properties and the phenomenal properties to which they give rise. Thermodynamics was conceived with the laws of temperature exchange; and temperature was supposed to be a property inherent in an object. The felt hotness of a hot body is indeed qualitatively distinct from particle velocities and collisions. The reduction was achieved by distinguishing between the underlying cause of the hotness (the motion of the molecules) and the sensations which the motion of molecules cause in observers. The former falls naturally within the scope of statistical mechanic—for molecules are particles’ the entities and properties are not of distinct kinds. But this reduction has been achieved at the price of separating off the phenomenal from its causes, and only explaining the latter. All reduction from one science to another dealing with apparently very disparate properties has been achieved by this device of denying that the apparent properties (i. e. the ‘secondary qualities” of colour, heat, sound, taste, etc.) with which one science dealt belonged to the physical world at all. It siphoned them off to the world of the mental. But then, but when you come to face the problem of the sensations themselves, you cannot do this. If you are to explain the sensations themselves, you cannot distinguish between them and their underlying causes and only explain the latter. In fact the enormous success of science in producing an integrated physico-chemistry has been achieved at the expense of separating off from the physical world colours, smells, and tastes, and regarding them as purely private sensory phenomena. The very success of science in achieving its vast integrations in physics and chemistry is the very thing which has made apparently impossible any final success in integrating the world of mind into the world of physics.
If Swinburne is correct here, the very thing that made reduction possible in many historic cases is going to make it impossible in the case of the mind and matter.
I conclude, therefore, that “God of the gaps” or even a “soul of the gaps” response to the argument from reason does not work. I am not saying that we just cannot figure out right now why the mental states involved in rational inference are really physical, I am suggesting on principled grounds that a careful reflction on the nature of mind and matter will invaribly reveal that there is a logical gap between them that in principle can’t be bridged without fudging categories.


Edward T. Babinski said...

No one is arguing that science has explained how energy and matter leads to conscious awareness.

But nature does allow us to study the brain and so we can agree that the highly complex organ known as "the brain" has far more to do with consciousness than other parts of the human body. And nature also provides examples of different brains in different bodies/organisms, brains of different sizes and types, from those in amphioxus, a very tiny vertebrate and possibly the closest living relative to all subsequent vertebrates, to the brains of chimpanzees which contain many of the same structures and much of the same DNA as human brains. Also, the fossil evidence provides us with skulls and brain case shapes of species that lived prior to human beings, species with larger brains than any gorilla or chimp living today. We can also study the behaviors of chimpanzees (though sadly we cannot study the behaviors of the early hominids which were most ape-like, nor the late upright apes which were most human-like). But nature has still provided us with lots to study.

In fact if you could substitute single DNA base pairs in the genome of a chimp you could eventually produce a human genome, and a human with a human-like mind (a brain to which you would also then have to add an education and language in order to obtain human thinking patterns and philosophical understanding, for without a human education and language and input from others sharing such cultural evolutionary things that our species acquired with difficulty and over eons, we'd still be grunting instead of speaking).

So a continuing study of nature in my opinion trumps your attempt to short circuit such studies and exclaim that brains and reasoning necessarily involve two things so radically different from one another that one of them has to be "supernatural." You don't know that.

Equally important, haven't you considered that the definition of "physicalism" that you employ in your own head whenever you discuss what is "physical" is itself a mere metaphor? It's not a "solid" definition.

If the brain (and the complex web of energy and memories and inter-relationships it contains) is anything, it is so complex that it is beyond our ability to grasp it's workings simply and easily, because if we could, then we would be so simple we couldn't come up with such questions in the first place. That's about all that philosophy qua philosophy can say about the matter.

And speaking of matter, it's arrangement is crucial. Mere sand and minerals on a beach mixed with electrical energy, if arranged into a computer with its silicon chips (made from minerals also found in sand) can be made into something that is quite different from mere sand. And add in some sensing devices like a camera lens and a computer chip for mental imagery recognition, and perhaps moving wheels on such a computer and it could react to objects in its environment, tell rain from non-rain, and even get out of the rain, acting quite logically. If such can be done with simple silicon chips and matter in nature, then what might not be possible via billions of years of evolution of living reproducing organisms? Might not human brains and consciousness be natural then?

*(This is of course a separate question to the one of whether or not a Designer set the entire evolving cosmos up and running "in the beginning.")

Vic, really, get the metaphor of "physicalism" as billiard balls out of your head already. It's an insufficient metaphor for all the things in the natural world that exist and interact each bringing to light new things at different levels--from atoms to molecules to electro-chemical reactions and ever upward toward whole organs like brains and the differing consciousnesses of various types in organisms with simpler brains to more complex ones over time.

Personally, I'd LOVE to be a dualist, and be able to provide proof like you try to do that human consciousness was separate from the brain and also not subject to the natural world's decay and death I see all around me in all things that live. But philosophical "proofs" strike me as some of the least satisfying when it comes to such questions.

Return to the paragraph above what I wrote concerning "all that philosophy qua philosophy can say about the matter."

Hans said...

'All reduction from one science to another dealing with apparently very disparate properties has been achieved by this device of denying that the apparent properties (i. e. the ‘secondary qualities” of colour, heat, sound, taste, etc.) with which one science dealt belonged to the physical world at all. '


Reductionism means that 'heat' is not part of the physical world?

Hans said...

'Consider, for example being at a dinner party with someone who is given a large amount of water and creates from it an equal volume of wine.'

Once again, really good evidence for theists is only a fantasy thought experiment - not something which ever really happens.

Naturalism would be disproved if somebody had supernatural powers.

But the example of water turning into wine shows that nobody has ever had supernatural powers.

The supernatural has never been seen to happen.

Nullasalus said...

Maybe everyone else is reading a different entry, but I don't see where Vic here argued that nature hasn't provided us with lots of study, or even that Vic has necessarily advanced a substance dualist argument when it comes to consciousness.

In fact, if I'm reading right, it sounds like Vic's making a pretty common argument - talking about the inability of reductionist materialism to account for qualia. This isn't some exclusively theist/Christian concept or argument, unless you want to count John Searle, David Chalmers, and others as engaging in apologetics. The answer could be to engage emergent physicalism, property dualism, substance dualism, panpsychism, or otherwise. If you believe Chalmers and others, it doesn't even mean these things cannot be scientifically studied. It just means that reductionist materialism will be considered inadequate (And of course, there are philosophers who disagree with the idea of Qualia.)

Pretty tame stuff, says this theist.

Tom Freeman said...

Swinburne’s view that reductive explanation in science proceeds by “saying that really some of the entities and properties were not as they appeared to be; by making a distinction between the underlying (not immediately observable) entities and properties and the phenomenal properties to which they give rise” is wrong.

Reduction works (very roughly speaking) by fitting together higher-level properties with lower-level ones that causally co-vary, and explaining the former in terms of the latter. There’s nothing to say that the former must be phenomenal and the latter not. Nor is there any suggestion that the former have to be “not as they appeared to be”. Consider a theory that explains properties of atoms in terms of properties of protons, neutron and electrons.

Given that his understanding of reductive explanation is false, it doesn’t then follow that such an explanation of mental phenomena is impossible (although I don’t have one of those on me).

Blue Devil Knight said...

Freeman nailed it.