Believe It or Not

In the November 16, 2012 edition of the New Republic, Alvin Plantinga reviews Thomas Nagel’s book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly Wrong. It isn’t so much a review as it is an editorial on the incoherence of monist naturalism and the shining clarity of theism. I understand; I can’t pass up an opportunity to go on about pet subjects either. In the middle of his exposition, Plantinga makes a very interesting statement.

Is the idea that the world is intelligible only if there is some important property that houses, horses, hawks, and handsaws all share? What kind of property?

Second, how much plausibility is there to the claim that this sort of unity is required for intelligibility? Clearly, we cannot claim that Descartes’ dualism is literally unintelligible – after all even if you reject it, you can understand it. (How else could you reject it?)

As usual, Jaegwon Kim is way ahead of the game. He anticipated these very questions in his paper, “Lonely Souls: Causality and Substance Dualism”.

But does this conception of a person, as something made up of two radically diverse components, a body and an immaterial soul, make sense, whether the body is made up of ordinary matter or some mysterious ethereal stuff? One contention of this paper is that there is reason to think that such a conception of a person is ultimately unintelligible. My arguments will be principally based on considerations of causation – specifically, I will try to undermine the idea that immaterial souls can causally interact with material bodies, therefore forming a “union” with them. If I am right, it is an idea that we cannot make intelligible.

He is right. Even Descartes could not make sense of it in the end. The alert reader of Descartes’ works may have already suspected as much when Descartes turned his discourse from the nature of consciousness and perception to the activities of the pineal gland.

Supporters of substance dualism raise several objections to Kim’s argument. He anticipates a couple of these, the best being:

…some people say that we could simply take the concept of the mind’s “union” with the body as a primitive, and that it is simply a brute, unexplainable fact, perhaps divinely ordained, that this mind and this body are integrated into a proper union that is a person.

This is not a bad point and it is interesting for a reason beyond its specific content. The structure of the objection exemplifies the creeping realism in regard to concepts present in so many supporting arguments for substance dualism. Some concepts do seem to be basic, our ideas of color being the most famous (and least controversial) examples. However, these basic concepts can be located in context. They enter into dependency relationships with other parts of our interdependent world and that is why we ascribe some reality to them even though they defy analysis. For supernatural objects,  the method is to say what they do not depend upon. This appears to let their advocates locate supernatural concepts in context. As the negatives build up, the supernatural object appears to creep into reality. In reality, the creep represents the photo negative of the trouble with verification in logical positivism ( if you are going to say that all swans are white because all the swans we see are white you’d better have taken a look at all swans – those that are, were and will be).

Kim says it better than I ever could:

But I find such an approach unhelpful. For it seems to concede that the notion of  “union” of minds and bodies, and hence the notion of a person, are unintelligible. If God chose to unite my body with my mind, just what is it that he did? I am not asking why he chose to unite this particular mind with this particular body, or why he decided to engage in such activities as uniting minds and bodies at all, or whether he, or anyone else, could have the powers to do things like that. If God united my mind and my body, there must be a relationship R such that a mind stands in relation R to a body if and only if that mind and body constitute a unitary person. Unless we know what R is, we do not know what God did. Again, we are not asking how God managed to establish R between a mind and a body – as far as we are concerned, that can remain a mystery forever. We only want to know what God did.

Not how but what. Dr. Kim wants to know if the relationship in question is describable and thus knowable to us as we know other things. He frames his question in terms of a “pairing problem” to lay out how we think of causation. We must somehow be able to “locate” or identify events and objects in relationship to each other to establish a cause and effect relationship between them. He concludes that our understanding of causation requires some shared context. Space-time provides such a relational context for physical objects, but what of the immaterial, wholly separate divine substance? It cannot be preserved as such while functioning as a cause as we understand causes. Again, Kim says it better than I ever could:

I have tried to explore considerations that seem to show that the causal relation indeed exerts a strong, perhaps irresistible, pressure toward a degree of homogeneity over its domain, and, moreover, that the kind of homogeneity it requires probably includes, at a minimum, spatiotemporality, which arguably entails physicality. The more we think about causation, the clearer becomes our realization that the possibility of causation between distinct objects depends on a shared spacelike coordinate system in which these objects are located, a scheme that individuates objects by their “locations”. Are there such schemes other than the scheme of physical space? I don’t believe we know of any. This alone makes trouble for serious substance dualisms and dualist conceptions of personhood – unless, like Leibniz, you are prepared to give up causal relations of substances altogether. Malebranche denied causal relations between all finite substances, reserving causal powers exclusively for God, the only genuine causal agent that there is.

Just as the advocates of verification are plagued by the mere possibility of a black swan, substance dualism is in trouble not if the substances in question must interact across all their properties, but across any of their properties. Then they share a property, enter into a dependency relation and, by our lights become a system, a unity. The point is that this is just how we understand ordinary objects, including ourselves. Philosophers like  Dr. Kim are interested in establishing whether or not substance dualism is a fruitful philosophical enterprise. He wants to know if we can give a coherent, comprehensive account of human experience from a substance dualist standpoint. We cannot. It is a philosophical dead-end.

At this stage, if it is fair to ask what it is that god does it is also fair to ask what the philosophers do. Why bother with an account such as the one Kim seeks? Plantinga asks as much:

And third, suppose we concede that the world is genuinely intelligible only if it displays this sort of monistic unity: why should we think that the world really does display such a unity? We might hope that the world would display such unity, but is there any reason to think the world will cooperate? Suppose intelligibility requires that kind of unity: why should we think our world is intelligible in that sense? Is it reasonable to say to a theist, “Well, if theism were true, there would be two quite different sorts of things: God on the one hand, and the creatures he has created on the other. But that cannot really be true: for if it were, the world would not display the sort of unity required for intelligibility”? Won’t the theist be quite properly content to forgo that sort of intelligibility?

A reasonable position – depending on what one thinks the philosophers are about. I think they do two things at two levels. One thing and its level are more apparent: they tell stories that help us remember what we are about when we act, like every story every person has ever told. Like all utilitarian explanations, though, this explanation at this level begs the question of what their activity depends upon, of where it is located in context. On this second, murky level, what they do is genetic expression, by biological analogy and by the plain abstract meaning of those two words. At neither level is Plantinga’s conclusion satisfying. Satisfaction itself is antithetical to the entire project at any level.

But which dominates, the storyteller’s end or the thinker’s means? If it is the means, is it the only means? These are questions which Nietzsche asked. He concluded that philosophy was a means to an end – the definitive occupation of essential self-expression active at the murky level, which he termed “will to power” – and he concluded that it was but one of several means to that end. These conclusions lead him to a rather severe and chaotic viewpoint, but one that accommodates substance dualism as a potentially fruitful religious means rather than a philosophical one.

Is Malebranche’s concept any less wild? If we cannot know a separate substance as we know the familiar one, how could we, how must we, know it, if it were truly “there”?

I did not derive it from the senses, it did not at any time come to me unexpectedly, as normally happens with the ideas of sensible objects when those objects affect (or seem to affect) the external sense-organs; and it is not my own invention, for I can neither add anything to it nor subtract anything from it. So it can only be innate in me, just as the idea of myself is.  – Descartes, 3rd Meditation.

I’d quibble with the last bit, but overall it turns out Descartes was doing pretty well just up to the point he decided to bring in the pineal gland.

For since he does not, as it were, produce himself or derive his concept of himself a priori but only empirically, it is natural that he obtains his knowledge of himself through inner sense and consequently only through the appearance of  his nature and the way in which his own consciousness is affected. But beyond the characteristic of his own subject which is compounded of these mere appearances, he necessarily assumes something else as its basis, namely, his ego as it is in itself. Thus in respect to mere perception and receptivity to sensations, he must count himself as belonging to the world of sense; but in respect to that which may be pure activity in himself (i.e. in respect to that which reaches consciousness directly and not by affecting the senses) he must reckon himself as belonging to the intellectual world. But he has no further knowledge of that world. – Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, 3rd Section.

The knowledge of a separate substance could only be a direct knowledge. It must be a thing out of context, unextended. . Anything we can know about it is thus available only through “revelation”, “faith”, “intuition” – whatever you want to call pure, non-contingent experience, if such a thing exists, and so, as Kant says, our awareness of the other stuff’s existence must be the full extent of what we know about it. I don’t think we have a claim to such knowledge, but the reality of it does not matter for me or for those who believe they  experience god’s presence. Real or not, as far as the pursuit of such a thing as a means goes, it works as well for all those snake handlers, dervishes and Zen practitioners. They all have it right,too. You can organize the world around the idea of such a thing, but you can’t understand the thing itself by the organization of the world. Because one can’t “make sense” of such knowledge, the outlook of those who pursue it must be personal and self-effacing in the most cruel sense.  People who pursue it as a means must become either madmen or overmen, like Fred said. There are simply no other choices. This is the proper end of substance dualism; as a means.

So why does a certain brand of apologist continue to pursue the untenable project of substance dualism as a philosophical end? Maybe it is fear of snakes and the wild uncertainty that goes with pursuing the idea as a means, but maybe also a desire for control, for the perpetuation of religion as control. Back to Plantinga’s review:

Now you might think someone with Nagel’s views would be sympathetic to theism, the belief that there is such a person as the God of the Abrahamic religions. Materialist naturalism, says Nagel, cannot account for the appearance of life, or the variety we find in the living world, or consciousness, or cognition, or mind—but theism has no problem accounting for any of these. As for life, God himself is living, and in one way or another has created the biological life to be found on Earth (and perhaps elsewhere as well). As for the diversity of life: God has brought that about, whether through a guided process of evolution or in some other way. As for consciousness, again theism has no problem: according to theism the fundamental and basic reality is God, who is conscious. And what about the existence of creatures with cognition and reason, creatures who, like us, are capable of scientific investigation of our world? Well, according to theism, God has created us human beings in his image; part of being in the image of God (Aquinas thought it the most important part) is being able to know something about ourselves and our world and God himself, just as God does. Hence theism implies that the world is indeed intelligible to us, even if not quite intelligible in Nagel’s glorified sense. Indeed, modern empirical science was nurtured in the womb of Christian theism, which implies that there is a certain match or fit between the world and our cognitive faculties.

Abandon your exertions. Here is comfort and here are easy answers. No fasting or flagellation here, of the body or the soul. Cain made a similar mistake, didn’t he? This is the religion that Nietzsche hated. This is what killed that revelatory impulse that he saw as a manifestation of will to power. This is what his Madman meant when he said, “What are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”

But Fred was a pessimist on this account, both on the fact that he got it right about our expressive needs and on the ease with which they could be suppressed and their manifestations turned to the ends of social control and a destructive sort of self-control. Obviously, apologists feel the need to go on stabbing this particular means to our end, but I take that positively. To me it means not that the true idea is dead and some just want to make sure it doesn’t twitch and ruin the edifice they’ve built upon it, but that it is yet to be subjugated despite the wounds it has suffered.

3 thoughts on “Believe It or Not

  1. Son of Sharecroppers says:

    So much is wrong in Plantinga’s review–and in Nagel’s thinking as well.

    There is, of course, no reason for the world to be ultimately or entirely intelligible to us. From an evolutionary perspective, we can say that our intelligence serves limited aims: to ensure that we live long enough to procreate, and the more the better. If our intelligence serves us that far, it’s good enough. If we cannot, through the sheer exercise of intelligence (i.e., observation and observation-based reasoning), offer a compelling account of some phenomenon, then that tells us only that our intelligence is limited. It does not tell us that we must resort to some supernatural explanation.

    Also, let me note that Nagel (and Plantinga) are simply wrong in some of their assertions. Science (or “materialist naturalism”) has offered very powerful accounts of the appearance and diversity of life, of consciousness, and of cognition. Nagel’s and Plantinga’s ignorance of those accounts does not mean that they have not been offered.

    Further, even if we’re not currently satisfied with the scientific explanations for those issues, that does not mean that we must necessarily resort to supernaturalism. It’s absolutely fair to say, “At this time, we don’t have an adequate explanation.” That does not mean that we must throw up our hands and accept some religious explanation. We can instead continue to engage in an evidence-based mode of inquiry–one that does not multiply entities unnecessarily . . .

  2. marclebard says:

    I remember having a long winded conversation about immaterial interactions some time ago on youtube. The person I talked with tried to state that if there is not material cause, it must there for be immaterial. What I felt he failed on stating is that we can only ever posit that there is no known material cause, and as such one could not jump and say the cause must therefore be immaterial without exhausting every possibility of a material cause – something that would take a lifetime or more of knowledge and research on the material world to even make such a conclusion. If not through negation, he’d have to demonstrate by direct proof that the immaterial cause – any immaterial cause for that matter – is even possible, let alone plausible.

    Instead of going that route, though, I did try to do something similar to what Nagel seems to be saying. I demanded him to prove that such a thing like the immaterial interacting with the material is even possible, emphasizing that any interaction with the material by definition will also have a material cause not just by observation but by the very definition of interaction, which presupposes the presence of materials acting on each other.

    Needless to say my youtube comrade and I didn’t see eye to eye, haha.

    • keithnoback says:

      The epistemological problem you mention is why substance dualism has been abandoned by all but a few keeners with axes to grind. A dead end is a dead end, even if, as Plantinga maintains, there’s a house at the end of it.

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