Monday, October 14, 2013

J.P. Moreland's Attack On "Scientific Atheism" Part 3

The next section of Moreland's chapter is the meat and potatoes of his argument against naturalism, which he titles, FIVE RECALCITRANT FEATURES OF THE IMAGE OF GOD. He reiterates god's attributes, and touches on the happy coincidence that they're just like the ones the "beings that are alleged to have been created to be like God" have. (p. 37) Thus, he deduces that biblical theism predicts these features and this provides confirmation for biblical theism. He attacks labels such as "emergent phenomena" that many property dualists like myself ascribe to. "How, for example," asks Moreland "could it be that they emerged in the first place?"  (p. 38)

Moreland offers his first line of evidence against naturalism and in support of "what would be predicted if biblical theism were true." (p. 38)

1. Consciousness and the mental

Moreland states that it's easier to see consciousness being created by a conscious entity, like god, rather than through natural processes. But look at nature. In nature we can see all different levels of consciousness exemplified, from complex consciousness like what we have, to simpler versions found in other mammals and birds, to highly rudimentary versions found in reptiles and amphibians - exactly what we'd expect if consciousness was something that developed and evolved over time. And if a soul is responsible for consciousness, when exactly did that come into our evolution? Consciousness didn't just "appear" overnight. It was a gradual development. And I don't know any theists who think the soul evolved in stages - it's pretty much all or nothing. But then animals should have some kind of soul because many animals are conscious too. Perhaps we got the deluxe souls and animals got the basic souls? Alas, I am not a neuroscientist, so I cannot explain consciousness to the degree that someone more qualified than me could. But I know enough about science and evolution to know that if you really consider the idea that consciousness is due to a soul, considering our evolutionary past, it opens up numerous problems. I've challenged the dualistic assumption with a list of questions here.

Moreland offers four points about mental states (p. 38):

  • There is a raw qualitative feel or a "what is it like" to have a mental state such a a pain.
  • Many mental states have intentionality---ofness or aboutness---directed toward an object (e.g. a thought about the moon).
  • Mental states are inner, private and immediate to the subject having them.
  • Mental states fail to have crucial features (e.g., spatial extension, location) that characterize physical states and, in general, cannot be described using physical language.

Neuroscientists and neurobiologists are discovering more and more exactly how our conscious states are indeed related to the physical matter in our brains, but there is still an awfully lot to learn. A mental state, like being in a state of pain, is nature's way of letting an organism know something bad is happening to it. Mirror neurons in our brains fire when we see others in pain, even when ourselves aren't, and it's one of the reasons why we're capable of being empathetic. When it comes to intentionality, thinking of objects does create certain physical brain states that correspond to the object being thought of. Researchers have recently been able to map images of what people see using fMRI scans of their brain states as they are watching a movie. Although the research is still in its infancy, we may be able in the not to distant future, to literally read one's thoughts as they're thinking or dreaming. This shows a physical correlation between neurological brain states and consciousness. So it is far from certain that mental states have no locations or spatial extension.

But Moreland quips, "The emergence of consciousness seems to be a case of getting something from nothing." (p. 38) We don't know that physio-chemical reactions cannot generate consciousness. Brains are not exactly like "other parts of organisms' bodies" as Moreland says. (p. 39) There are certain kinds of cells that exist in the brain that perform certain kinds of functioning that does not occur in the rest of the body. Like brain cells.

Next, Moreland attacks the inadequacy of evolution as an explanation of consciousness, saying, "organisms are black boxes as far as evolution is concerned." By this Moreland means to say that the internal processes of an organism that go on after receiving sensory inputs are irrelevant to its output, the process "could just as well have been done unconsciously." (p. 39) This is a decent point. If we are just atoms controlled by the laws of physics, there seems to be no need that we should be conscious of doing what we do, as opposed to just being mindless zombies doing the exact same things. It seems to me that rudimentary consciousness arose as organisms began to grow more complex and collections of cells evolved that could receive simple input from nerves and light sensitive cells so the organism could move, find food and avoid danger. Through predation, the evolutionary arms race selected for bigger, faster and more complex collections of these kinds of cells eventually evolving into brains. As the brains got more complex, so did its thinking and its consciousness, until one species got so conscious, it became meta-conscious, that is, conscious of itself.

Is the consciousness incidental to this whole process? Does it simply emerge when certain patterns of cells and nerves are arranged a certain way? It seems likely that this is the case. Non-reductive materialism or property dualism is certainly a plausible case, and recent research does seem to offer us clues that the mind is indeed fully dependent and caused by the physical brain. Plus I think there are many problems with substance dualism and free will, that I've written about in Thoughts On The Soul

One analogy given by dualists to illustrate the correlation between the soul and the body, is to imagine that the physical body is like a machine, like say a piano or a car, and the soul or mind is like the person operating it. So, they say, physical damage to the piano or car would render its operator unable to control the machine properly, but the soul would remain intact despite damage to the physical body. 
I wonder then, how can the soul be held eternally accountable for what it does, if the body it has to work with is damaged? For example, imagine you're driving a car and the brakes fail. You crash and kill someone. After an inspection of the car, you are not deemed criminally responsible because it was caused by a mechanical error and not any kind of negligence on your part. But with our souls, I'm being asked to believe that god holds them eternally responsible, even if they have a physically damaged body that they cannot control properly. It would be like holding the driver of the car criminally responsible for the car's brakes failing, even though they could do nothing about it.

How does the theist reconcile this problem with the concept of free will, moral responsibility, and mind/body substance dualism? I've challenged a few theists with this dilemma but I have not gotten many responses. But as you can see, there are significant problems one faces who resorts to dualism. And contrary to what Moreland says, conscious emergence is indeed a phenomena of the brain, albeit a non-local phenomena, in the same way that wetness emerges from collective atoms of H2O.

2. Free will

Moreland basically takes the popular intuition based approach many apologists and dualists take that free will is "commonsense." But it isn't that easy. It is not established that we have free will. Our brain states may indeed be fully determined by the laws of physics, and our conscious experience of our decisions and actions may simply be ourselves becoming aware of the decisions and thoughts we were determined to have. Think about it. A thought pops into your head. Did you choose to have that thought? How could you think about a thought, before having the thought? Numerous studies starting from the Libet experiments in the 1980s to a host of recent experiments using fMRI imaging shows that the conscious decision to make a choice was indicated in the brain up to 7 seconds before the test subject became aware of their decision. See here and here and here. Although the we still have a lot to discover, the science we have of the brain as to whether or not we have free will does not appear favorable to the dualist, and supports the materialist view of consciousness.

To say that our thoughts come from our souls opens up other problems for the theist. If you believe that our thoughts begin to exist and "originates with and only with the actor" as Moreland and many others believe, then you must admit that this violates the first premise of the kalam cosmological argument, that everything that begins to exist requires a cause. If our thoughts require causes, then they must have had antecedents, and that gets you to determinism. So the theist here has two options. Either everything has a cause including thoughts that originate in our brain or minds, which forces you to adopt determinism, or the first premise of the kalam cosmological argument is false.

Determinism certainly has ethical implications, and I don't swallow them very easy. I actually hate determinism, and I wish there was a good scientific defeater to it. I don't adopt determinism because I like it, but because I see no defeater to it, and so far the evidence from neuroscience (some of which I cited above) points towards monistic materialism, not dualism. The objections apologists like Craig and Moreland make are purely philosophical ones. Complaining that determinism isn't compatible with your theological worldview, is like a creationist complaining that evolution isn't compatible with their biblical literalist worldview. It's not an actual argument against evolution. So when it comes to the dualism/materialism debate, where is the scientific evidence that the atoms in our brains and bodies are violating the deterministic laws of physics every second by our souls working behind the scene?

Towards the end of this section Moreland argues that free agents are unmoved movers, just like the god of the Bible is! But he offers nothing more than a philosophical argument that determinism is incompatible with the libertarian free will required by his theological beliefs. He needs more than this. He needs more than saying it's just commonsense that we have free will. It may seem like we do, but we cannot rely on common experience and intuition to guide our worldviews. Science has shown that to be problematic. Experiments have shown that the physical traces of our decisions can be known by researchers up to several seconds before we become consciously aware of our decisions. This more adequately supports the naturalistic hypothesis that thoughts are brain phenomena that we consciously become aware of after its physical correspondence. If dualism were true, then conscious thoughts would be expected to originate in our immaterial mind/souls first and then it would affect our physical brains. Such is not the case. 


  1. Morelands 4 points about mental states show some pretty gross misunderstandings, and assume hiw conclusion (that the mental is non-physical.
    - The "what it is like" could simply be the result of being the system in question, rather than being outside of it.
    - Intentionality is a terrible thing to claim is non-physical. Computers have intentionality. The memory can be "about" something else. I don't know anyone who would claim computers are non-physical.
    - Mental states being inner, private and immediate can, like the "what it is like", be put down to being the system that is having them.
    - Mental states do have a location (in brains), and have as much spacial extension as other relational properties. The reason we have trouble describing mental states is, I think, that we are them, rather than seeing them from the outside. And just look at how much trouble we have describing quantum phenomena - that doesn't mean QM is a non-physical phenomena.

  2. This is a decent point. If we are just atoms controlled by the laws of physics, there seems to be no need that we should be conscious of doing what we do, as opposed to just being mindless zombies doing the exact same things.
    I don't think that philosophical zombies are reasonable. Sure we can imagine them, meaning they're logically possible. But I suspect in reality, if you were to have something that did the modelling that our brains do, with all the feedback etc, it would have subjective experiences.

  3. Moreland basically takes the popular intuition based approach many apologists and dualists take that free will is "commonsense."
    Libertarian or contra-causal free will is incoherent. It amounts to much the same sort of "free will" we would have if our free will was the result of random processes.
    For instance, lets say you go into a shop to get some bread. You are faced with the decision of whether to pay for or steal the bread. On compatibalism or incompatibalistic determinism, your personality, experience, and reasoning ability all contribute to your decision. All of these things result from causal processes. On a libertarian conception of free will, the decision is not dependant upon ANY of these things. It is independent of your experiences and personality. You may reason that it is better to buy rather than steal, but this result of reasoning is not taken into account by your free will. The decision is essentially random. Libertarians have come up with the concept of "Present Luck" to explain how this random decision maker just happens to choose what you have reasons to choose (through experience, personality, reasoning, etc).
    Libertarian free-will is ridiculous (even the Christian god wouldn't have it, since it could not choose contrary to its nature).

    1. I agree. And how would a libertarian soul bypass a its body's genetic predisposition for violent behavior if the body doesn't affect the soul? It's a completely incoherent concept.

  4. You should read Dennett's "Elbow Room" for a good exposition on why determinism isn't so terrible :-)

  5. It looks like Moreland doesn't even touch on the problems for dualism, like the problem of interaction, which is a problem for both substance dualism, and "Hylemorphic" dualism (ie. Thomistic dualism).

    No interaction between different substances (and it's hard to see how they could interact, and we certainly have not measured any such interaction) renders the soul an epiphenomena, causally impotent - which throws a dualistic account of agent causation out the window.



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