Consider all. Test All. Hold on to the good.

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Naturalism and Scientism

Owen J. Flanagan on Desouling Persons

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There is no consensus yet about the details of the scientific image of persons. But there is broad agreement about how we must construct this detailed picture. First, we will need to demythologize persons by rooting out certain unfounded ideas from the perennial philosophy. Letting go of the belief in souls is a minimal requirement. In fact, desouling is the primary operation of the scientific image. "First surgery," we might call it. There are no such things as souls, or nonphysical minds. If such things did exist, as perennial philosophy conceives them, science would be unable to explain persons. But there aren’t, so it can. Second, we will need to think of persons as part of nature — as natural creatures completely obedient and responsive to natural law. The traditional religious view positions humans on the Great Chain of Being between animals on one side and angels and God on the other. This set of beliefs needs to be replaced. There are no angels, nor gods, and there is nothing — at least, no higher beings — for humans to be in-between. Humans don’t possess some animal parts or instincts. We are animals. A complex and unusual animal, but at the end of the day, another animal.

Atheism, Morality, and Meaning

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Despite the pluralism of contemporary American culture, the Judaeo-Christian legacy still has a great deal of influence on the popular imagination. Thus it is not surprising that in this context atheism has a slightly scandalous ring, and unbelief is often associated with the lack of morality and a meaningless existence. Distinguished philosopher and committed atheist Michael Martin sets out to refute such notions in this thorough defense of atheism as both a moral and a meaningful philosophy of life. Martin shows not only that objective morality and a purposeful life are possible without belief in God but also that the predominantly Christian worldview of American society is seriously flawed as the basis of morality and meaning. ~ Product Description

Why People Believe Weird Things

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In this age of supposed scientific enlightenment, many people still believe in mind reading, past-life regression theory, New Age hokum, and alien abduction. A no-holds-barred assault on popular superstitions and prejudices, with more than 80,000 copies in print, Why People Believe Weird Things debunks these nonsensical claims and explores the very human reasons people find otherworldly phenomena, conspiracy theories, and cults so appealing. In an entirely new chapter, "Why Smart People Believe in Weird Things," Michael Shermer takes on science luminaries like physicist Frank Tippler and others, who hide their spiritual beliefs behind the trappings of science. Shermer, science historian and true crusader, also reveals the more dangerous side of such illogical thinking, including Holocaust denial, the recovered-memory movement, the satanic ritual abuse scare, and other modern crazes. Why People Believe Strange Things is an eye-opening resource for the most gullible among us and those who want to protect them. ~ Book Description

Naturalism Defeated?

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Almost a decade ago, Alvin Plantinga articulated his bold and controversial evolutionary argument against naturalism. This intriguing line of argument raises issues of importance to epistemologists and to philosophers of mind, of religion, and of science. In this, the first book to address the ongoing debate, Plantinga presents his influential thesis and responds to critiques by distinguished philosophers from a variety of subfields. Plantinga’s argument is aimed at metaphysical naturalism or roughly the view that no supernatural beings exist. Naturalism is typically conjoined with evolution as an explanation of the existence and diversity of life. Plantinga’s claim is that one who holds to the truth of both naturalism and evolution is irrational in doing so. More specifically, because the probability that unguided evolution would have produced reliable cognitive faculties is either low or inscrutable, one who holds both naturalism and evolution acquires a "defeater" for every belief he/she holds, including the beliefs associated with naturalism and evolution. Following Plantinga’s brief summary of his thesis are eleven original pieces by his critics. The book concludes with a new essay by Plantinga in which he defends and extends his view that metaphysical naturalism is self-defeating. ~ Book Description

Hubris Goes Marching On

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The Edge, an unassuming gathering of the worlds’ “most complex and sophisticated minds…asking each other the questions they are asking themselves” kicks of the new year with: “What is your question? Why?” The answers range in quality and interest from the disingenuous and rhetorical: “Are we ever going to be humble enough to assume that we are mere animals, like crabs, penguins, and chimpanzees, and not the chosen protégés of this or that God?” to the esoteric: What is the difference between the sigmundoscope and the sigmoidoscope? A number of these intellectuals are troubled by age-old, philosophical questions like the source of evil and the nature of identity. But unfortuntely, honest bewilderment and questioning are noticeably scarce, and in their stead are pedantry, scientistic surety, and several smug, scornful dismissals of philosophical and theological approaches to the same issues. In some cases, the essays reads like satire, guilelessly betraying the inability of science on its own to answer important questions. For example, Rafael Núñez argues that finally admitting we are merely animals is a road to peace. It is a relief to learn that what I thought were hateful slurs, like “Capitalist Dog”, actually hold the seeds of reconciliation. James Gilligan’s decent essay considers the limits of science, and almost admits this problem. (2/7/02)

Charles Taliaferro on Eliminative Materialism

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Eliminative materialism is not as popular as it was some decades ago. A major problem has been the task of developing a version of eliminative materialism that is not self-refuting or self-contradictory. Some eliminativists appear to be in the unenviable position of claiming to believe that there are no beliefs. Another difficulty is the problem of being able to accommodate human reasoning. A further worry still is that eliminativism is flatly refuted by experience.

Dallas Willard on Methodological Naturalism

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One could retreat to a mere methodological naturalism and say that scientific method is our only hope as human beings. Whether or not we can adequately specify naturalism or know it to be true, one might say, the “scientific method” must be exclusively followed for human well-being. Naturalism would then be a humane proposal, not a philosophical claim. The proposal would be to assume in our inquiries that only the physical (or the empirical) exists and to see if inquiry based upon that assumption is not more successful in promoting human ends than any other type of inquiry.

Crispin Wright on a Rock and a Hard Place

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A central dilemma in contemporary metaphysics is to find a place for certain anthropocentric subject-matters — for instance, semantic, moral, and psychological — in a world as conceived by modern naturalism: a stance which inflates the concepts and categories deployed by (finished) physical science into a metaphysics of the kind of thing the real world essentially and exhaustively is. On one horn, if we embrace this naturalism, it seems we are committed either to reductionism: that is, to a construal of the reference of, for example, semantic, moral and psychological vocabulary as somehow being within the physical domain — or to disputing that the discourses in question involve reference to what is real at all. On the other horn, if we reject this naturalism, then we accept that there is more to the world than can be embraced within a physicalist ontology — and so take on a commitment, it can seem, to a kind of eerie supernaturalism.

Naturalism and Religion

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Nielsen (philosophy, U. of Calgary) presents a defense of naturalism as the most reasonable way to view humans place in the world. His naturalism is an atheistic and humanistic philosophy, but it is not a scientific or value-free one. He articulates a naturalistic explanation of the functions of religion and argues that truly understanding religion necessitates disbelief. He argues that a consistent atheism does not "rob life of its significance or make social and political commitment arbitrary." After explaining the theory he explains arguments for and against the theory as propounded by various other philosophers, most notably the work of Wittgenstein, which he believes to be the most serious philosophical challenge to secular naturalism. ~ Product Description

Naturalism: A Critical Analysis

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Craig and Moreland present a rigorous analysis and critique of the major varieties of contemporary philosophical naturalism and advocate that it should be abandoned in light of the serious difficulties raised against it. The contributors draw on a wide range of topics including: epistemology, philosophy of science, value theory to basic analytic ontology, philosophy of mind and agency, and natural theology. “This book provides a good introduction to work by some contemporary American theistic philosophers of religion. Moreover, it gives clear expression to the recent resurgence in polemical Christian philosophy of religion in American academic philosophy.” ~ Australian Journal of Philosophy

Richard Dawkins on Truth

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A little learning is a dangerous thing. This has never struck me as a particularly profound or wise remark, but it comes into its own when that little learning is in philosophy. A scientist who has the temerity to utter the t-word — true — is likely to encounter philosophical heckling that goes something like this: “There is no absolute truth. You are committing an act of personal faith when you claim that the scientific method, including mathematics and logic, is the privileged road to truth. Other cultures might believe that truth is to be found in a rabbit’s entrails or the ravings of a prophet atop a pole. It is only your personal faith in science that leads you to favor your brand of truth.” That strand of half-baked philosophy goes by the name of cultural relativism.

Richard Dawkins on Science vs. Relativism

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How should scientists respond to the allegation that our “faith” in logic and scientific truth is just that — faith — not “privileged” over alternative truths? An obvious response is that science gets results. As I once wrote, “Show me a cultural relativist at 30,000 feet, and I’ll show you a hypocrite… If you are flying to an international congress of anthropologists or literary critics, the reason you will probably get there — the reason you don’t plummet into a ploughed field — is that a lot of Western scientifically trained engineers have got their sums right.” Science supports its claim to truth by its spectacular ability to make matter and energy jump through hoops, and to predict what will happen and when.

Richard Dawkins on Science

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Is it just our Western scientific bias to be impressed by accurate prediction, to be impressed by the power to sling rockets around Jupiter to reach Saturn, or intercept and repair the Hubble telescope, to be impressed by logic itself? Well, let’s concede the point and think sociologically, even democratically. Suppose we agree, temporarily, to treat scientific truth as just one truth among many, and lay it alongside all the rival contenders: Trobriand truth, Kikuyu truth, Maori truth, Inuit truth, Navajo truth, Yanomamo truth, !Kung San truth, feminist truth, Islamic truth, Hindu truth. The list is endless — and thereby hangs a revealing observation. In theory, people could switch allegiance from any one “truth” to any other if they decided it had greater merit. On what basis might they do so? Why would one change from, say, Kikuyu truth to Navajo truth? Such merit-driven switches are rare — with one crucially important exception: switches to scientific truth from any of the others. Scientific truth is the only member of this endless list that evidentially convinces converts of its superiority. People are loyal to other belief systems because they were brought up that way, and they have never known anything better. When people are lucky enough to be offered the opportunity to vote with their feet, doctors prosper and shamans decline. Even those who do not, or cannot, avail themselves of a scientific education choose to benefit from technology made possible by the scientific education of others.

Carol Zaleski on the Afterlife

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Although social surveys indicate that roughly 80 percent of Americans believe in life after death, it is a belief cherished against the grain of perceived official skepticism; and among academically trained religious thinkers, one finds a greater measure of skepticism than in the population at large. For many, immortality is not a matter for reasoned debate, but is simply ruled out of play, along with guardian angels and statues that weep. It is taken for granted, as if it were a premise accepted by all reasonable people, that no one seriously believes in Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory, in the life of the soul, the resurrection of the body, or the personality of God as the concrete realities they were once imagined to be.

Phillip E. Johnson on Naturalism as a Religion

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By any realistic definition naturalism is a religion, and an extremely dogmatic one. It rests on a basic conviction about ultimate reality that is held by a kind of faith, and it incorporates its own definitions of “knowledge” and “reason.” It says that knowledge comes ultimately from our senses and that the more complex forms of knowledge come from scientific investigation. By naturalistic definition there can be no such thing as knowledge of the supernatural. Statements about God are either nonrational (if frankly presented as mere subjective belief) or irrational (if they purport to make objective factual claims).

Phillip E. Johnson on the Scientific Community

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Darwinists can take in stride any debates over the particulars of their theory, however strident, so long as the underlying principle of naturalistic explanation is not threatened. That is why the blatant heresies of Stephen Jay Gould, to take one example, were cheerfully tolerated until very recently. As John Maynard Smith, the British dean of Darwinists, famously summed up the professional judgment after Gould finally pushed the envelope too far, “The evolutionary biologists with whom I have discussed [Gould’s] work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with, but as one who should not be publicly criticized because he is at least on our side against the creationists.” Gould’s anguished response went to exactly the same point: “We will not win this most important of all battles [against the creationists] if we descend to the same tactics of backbiting and anathematization that characterize our true opponents.” Everything is negotiable except the vital objective of keeping God out of objective reality. As Gould’s ally Richard Lewontin put it, “we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door…. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.” In the materialist mentality, the appearance of the Lawgiver is equated with the disappearance of the laws.

Richard Dawkins on Science and Meaning

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Accusations of barren desolation, of promoting an arid and joyless message, are frequently flung at science in general … But such very proper purging of saccharine false purpose; such laudable tough-mindedness in the debunking of cosmic sentimentality must not be confused with a loss of personal hope. Presumably there is indeed no purpose in the ultimate fate of the cosmos, but do any of us really tie our life’s hopes to the ultimate fate of the cosmos anyway? Of course we don’t; not if we’re sane. Our lives are ruled by all sorts of closer, warmer, human ambitions and perceptions. To accuse science of robbing life of the warmth that makes it worth living is so preposterously mistaken, so diametrically opposite to my own feelings and those of most working scientists, I am almost driven to the despair of which I am wrongly suspected. … The feeling of awed wonder that science can give is us one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that makes life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living it is finite.

Colin McGinn on the Emergence of Consciousness

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But in the case of consciousness the Darwinian explanation does not tell us what we need to know, for the simple reason that it is unclear how matter can be so organized as to create a conscious being. The problem is in the raw materials. It looks as if with consciousness a new kind of reality has been injected into the universe, instead of just a recombination of the old realities. Even if minds showed no hint of design, the same old problem would exist: How can mere matter originate consciousness? How did evolution convert the water of biological tissue into the wine of consciousness? Consciousness seems like a radical novelty in the universe, not prefigured by the after-effects of the Big Bang, so how did it contrive to spring into being from what preceded it.

Phillip E. Johnson on Materialism and Reason

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[T]he logic of materialist reductionism implies that science itself is the product of unreasoning material causes. No wonder the Age of Reason ends with the age of postmodernist relativism! And yet we still see the reductionists complacently describing religious belief either as a meme or as the product of a “God module” in the brain without realizing that they are sawing off the limb on which they themselves are sitting. If unthinking matter causes the thoughts the materialists don’t like, then what causes the thoughts they do like?

Phillip E. Johnson on SETI

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[I]ntelligent design theorists need to explain why the vast majority of evolutionary scientists refuse to consider evidence of intelligent design in biology, scornfully dismissing the entire concept as “religion” rather than “science.” [It] is because they identify science with naturalism, meaning that only “natural” (i.e., material or physical) forces may play a role in the history of life. Where the designer is itself some natural entity, such as a human being, evidence for design is welcome. Space aliens are also permissible entities, and so Carl Sagan’s Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) radio telescopes scan the sky for signals, which they could identify as products of intelligence by precisely the same methods which intelligent design theory applies to biology. The difference is that scientific naturalists want to find evidence for extraterrestrial life, in part because they would count it as evidence that natural laws produce life wherever favorable conditions exist and hence as clinching the case for naturalism. They don’t want to find evidence for what they think of as an “interfering” God, meaning a God who does not leave everything to law and chance. Hence they will refuse to see evidence of design that is staring them in the face until they are reassured that the designer is something whose existence they are willing to recognize.

Colin McGinn on the Grammar of Scientific Explanation

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Can we gain any deeper insight into what makes the problem of consciousness run against the grain of our thinking? Are our modes of theorizing about the world of the wrong shape to extend to the nature of the mind? I think we can discern a characteristic structure possessed by successful theories, a structure that is unsuitable for explaining consciousness. … It there a “grammar” to science that fits the physical world but becomes shaky when applied to the mental world? ¶ Perhaps the most basic aspect of thought is the operation of combination. This is the way in which we think of complex entities as resulting from the arrangement of simpler parts. There are three aspects to this basic idea: the atoms we start with, the laws we use to combine them, and the resulting complexes … I think it is clear that this mode of understanding is central to what we think of as scientific theory; our scientific faculty involves representing the world in this combinatorial style.

Consilience

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The biologist Edward O. Wilson is a rare scientist: having over a long career made signal contributions to population genetics, evolutionary biology, entomology, and ethology, he has also steeped himself in philosophy, the humanities, and the social sciences. The result of his lifelong, wide-ranging investigations is Consilience (the word means “a jumping together,” in this case of the many branches of human knowledge), a wonderfully broad study that encourages scholars to bridge the many gaps that yawn between and within the cultures of science and the arts. No such gaps should exist, Wilson maintains, for the sciences, humanities, and arts have a common goal: to give understanding a purpose, to lend to us all “a conviction, far deeper than a mere working proposition, that the world is orderly and can be explained by a small number of natural laws.” In making his synthetic argument, Wilson examines the ways (rightly and wrongly) in which science is done, puzzles over the postmodernist debates now sweeping academia, and proposes thought-provoking ideas about religion and human nature. He turns to the great evolutionary biologists and the scholars of the Enlightenment for case studies of science properly conducted, considers the life cycles of ants and mountain lions, and presses, again and again, for rigor and vigor to be brought to bear on our search for meaning. The time is right, he suggests, for us to understand more fully that quest for knowledge, for “Homo sapiens, the first truly free species, is about to decommission natural selection, the force that made us…. Soon we must look deep within ourselves and decide what we wish to become.” Wilson’s wisdom, eloquently expressed in the pages of this grand and lively summing-up, will be of much help in that search. ~ Amazon.com

Paul M. Churchland on the Brain

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Your brain is far too complex and mercurial for its behavior to be predicted in any but the broadest outlines or for any but the shortest distances in the future. Faced with the extraordinary dynamical features of a functioning brain, no device constructible in this universe could ever predict your behavior, or your thoughts, with anything more than merely statistical success. ¶ So one need not fear being reduced to a clanking robot or an empty machine. Quite to the contrary, we are now in a position to explain how our vivid sensory experience arises in the sensory cortex of our brains: how the smell of baking bread, the sound of an oboe, the taste of a peach, and the color of a sunrise are embodied in a vast chorus of neural activity. We now have the resources to explain how the motor cortex, the cerebellum, and the spinal cord conduct an orchestra of muscles to perform the cheetah’s dash, the falcon’s strike, or the ballerina’s dying swan. … On this matter of conceptual development there is especial cause for wonder. For the human brain, with a volume of roughly a quart, encompasses a space of conceptual and cognitive possibilities that is larger, by one measure at least, than the entire astronomical universe. It has this striking feature because it exploits the combinatorics of its 100 billion neurons and their 100 trillion synaptic connections with each other.

Paul M. Churchland on Looking in the Mirror

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The religious hypothesis of mind-body dualism has been in trouble with evolutionary biology, and with several other sciences as well, for more than a century. It didn’t need any special input from artificial intelligence or neuroscience to make it scientifically implausible. I bring it up here only because it is a clear example of a popular and important belief currently under siege by modern information. And because its example may be repeated. The fact is, there is a much more intriguing area of current conceptual commitment, one more likely to be affected by emerging cognitive theory in particular. It lies even closer to home and is even more widespread, if that is possible, than mind-body dualism. It is our current self-conception: our shared portrait of ourselves as self-conscious creatures with beliefs, desires, emotions, and the power of reason.