Tag Archives: God’s existence

Mind Over Matter

mind_over_matter_by_sarbzIn discussing Mackie’s “Miracle of Theism”, we’ve covered quite a bit about morality, and are now moving into an argument from consciousness.

This was put forward by Locke, and is essentially the idea that mind only comes from mind. If one accepts that, it appears that there must have been some first mind that is the original source of mind.

Leibnitz (of the famous cosmological argument for God’s existence) rejected this argument for what, in my opinion, are more valid reasons than why Mackie does so. That is, Leibnitz pointed out that the argument, if you follow the details, reaches the conclusion that there was always a mind, but not that there is a single, eternal mind.

This option isn’t open to Mackie who, as a materialist, can’t accept the idea that there has always been at least one mind. Instead, he asserts that mind can come from matter alone.

He does so in a fairly standard way: appealing to computer science to question the idea that all material particles can do is “knock, impel, and resist one another”. At the time of writing, it was widely believed that minds aren’t fundamentally different from computers.

But, if that makes Mackie’s (mis)use of the idea understandable, it does not excuse those who are still using it. A computer isn’t anything like a conscious mind, as it is pure supposition to think this explains consciousness.

However, Mackie also makes a much better, and much more interesting objection. He points out that anyone who believes that material substances could be conscious (that is, someone who believes that brains can think) already agrees with the basic idea that matter can give rise to consciousness.

The trouble is that it is only the materialist who believes this.

Brains don’t think; minds think. And it is only by demanding that there is nothing more to the mind that the physical processes going on in the brain that one can make this argument.

But I’ve argued (perhaps ad nauseum) that, unless we’re willing to take a broader definition of “matter” and “physical” than is allowed by science, there is more going on in the mind than just the physical. It has been demonstrated, in many ways, that the actual experiences of everyday life aren’t physical. It isn’t that they aren’t explained by science “yet”; it is that the definition of science forbids it from ever explaining those things.

Mackie knows this, and approvingly quotes this passage from Swineburne:

“Any world-view which denies the existence of experienced sensations of blueness or loudness or pain does not describe how things are–that this is so stares us in the face. Consequently ‘Some kind of dualism of entities or properties or states is inevitable.”

This seems rather obvious. So, what is Mackie’s response? He makes the fairly reasonable point that this only supports property dualism, and otherwise points out that substance dualists haven’t solved “the interaction problem”.

These are both true, but neither of them help Mackie’s case.

First is because theism doesn’t require substance dualism. Modern, atheist philosophers seem to think that this view of the mind is somehow umbilically linked to belief in God in general or Christianity in particular. In fact, Christianity got on for more than a dozen centuries without it. And, yes, it had a well-developed concept of the mind.

To the first point, property dualism isn’t a way out of this bind for the materialist. This is for the very simple reason that property dualism isn’t materialism, but a denial of it. It is the explicit statement that there is more to objects than the physical. If one is willing to concede that much, one has conceded that the entire support for modern atheism is false.

Of course, property dualism has its own problems, and the more it sorts them out, the more it starts to look like either the substance dualism that so many equate with theism or the hylemorphic dualism that Christianity embraced prior to modern philosophy.

Of course, it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that this, by itself, hasn’t proved God’s existence. I find myself in agreement with Leibnitz–that this particular argument does not do so. What is has shown, and what so many devout atheists have been banging their heads against, is that materialism is false.

And that is a point of no small concern.

What is Greatness?

GreatnessAfter (basically) endorsing Hume’s argument against belief in miracles, J. L. Mackie turns to discussion of ontological arguments for God’s existence (arguments that try to argue for God’s existence based simply on reason and the idea of God).

He opens with a couple of arguments pressed by Descartes, and rejects them. And personally, I agree. Descartes claimed that God must exist because we could not have clearly perceived the idea of the infinitely powerful unless something infinitely powerful existed. I won’t get too far into this, because I’m in complete agreement with Mackie’s objection that we never really perceive something infinitely powerful. None of us can really imagine that, and this is, I think, devastating for Descartes’ argument.

As to Anselm’s much more famous ontological argument for God’s existence, things get much more interesting.

Most people (including myself, I must say) find the argument suspicious. To say that God is defined as the greatest possible being, then to say that existing would be greater than not (and, therefore, God exists) doesn’t sit well with me personally.

What is interesting is how we each go about rejecting the argument. Mackie denies that existing would make a thing greater than not existing, which is fine insofar as that goes, but he never gives a reason for this denial. He admits that it is a cogent thought that existence is what philosophers call a “great-making property”, but simply denies that this thought is true.

I’ve always felt that I have a good reason to question this premise. That is “greatness” assumes a standard of good and bad, against which we might measure the object in question. And, personally, I don’t see how we can have a standard by which we presume to measure God–much less worked it out well enough to know what it is–until we’ve already settled the question of God’s existence.

The trouble with this is that it leads us right into the moral argument for God’s existence. Anyone pressing this objection to Anselm has basically three options: 1) Defend nihilism, 2) Defend a secular case for objective values that can avoid this argument from greatness, or 3) Accept theism.

The third isn’t problem for me, of course, but those arguing against the conclusion of theism have two very difficult choices, and I worry that this is part of the reason why Mackie doesn’t offer his reason for rejecting the idea that existence is a great-making property.

To me (and even to Mackie), Anselm could retort that we can know that existence constitutes a great-making property even before understanding the ultimate source of greatness. That would be harder to refute, and I’m not concerned to do so here.

I do find this argument suspicious, but less so than Mackie’s dismissal without offering a standard by which he does so. If he can’t offer a clear alternative of what constitutes greatness (even if that is nihilism), then he can’t claim to have done away with theism.

And that is a major issue that continues to come up (and will continue to come up later in the book). It isn’t enough to simply cast doubt on a proof. One must offer a basis on which one believes the premises that support the counter argument (that is, an alternative view). But this is something that atheists, in my experience, notoriously avoid doing.

From here, Mackie turns to Plantinga’s ontological argument. We’ll discuss that next.

New Atheism’s New Position?

changed-mindThere seems to have been a clear reduction in the severity of the New Atheist position. Not that I miss them, but I’ve wondered what happened to the bold, sweeping, unqualified claims about the unparalleled evils of religion. Whatever happened to the smug comments about how every person of any intelligence rejects God? They can be found, for sure, but do seem to be a quickly dying fad.

I’ve been told that all the earlier statements to these effects were never really meant to communicate this attitude, that theists have grossly exaggerated what the New Atheists have been claiming. If so, I can only reply that it was easy to do, given the words that were being used.

But, I’ve noticed that this seems to fit the group’s pattern of refusing to make or support claims. It almost seems to be a defining characteristic of the New Atheists that they can be counted on to deny making a claim rather than defend a position.

I’ve been told that Hitchens’ comments about Stalin were never meant to imply that his movement was religious, that Dawkins’ statements about the God of the Bible were not meant to refer to the God believed in by all Christians, but only some, and that Harris’ statements that it is sometimes ethical to kill people for their beliefs is not connected to his suggestion that the United States drop nuclear bombs on Muslim nations.

Obviously, I find these claims dubious, but that is not the point. Rather, I wonder what is left of the New Atheist platform when all these retractions (or, if you’d prefer, “clarifications”) are made. It seems to me that they are not making any of the claims that got them attention in the first place.

Instead, their position seems to be this:
1. They don’t believe in God, but wouldn’t say that he doesn’t exist
2. They don’t claim that society would be better if it were filled with atheists, but simply that religion can’t automatically be assumed to aid society.
3. They don’t claim that religious people are statistically any more violent than atheists.
4. They don’t claim that belief in God requires rejection of evolution.

So far, this hasn’t quite blown my socks off. After all the bombast, all the screaming, billboards, sacrilegious comments, mockery, and moral posturing, is this what we are left with? It really doesn’t seem any stronger a position than would be taken by the agnostics of a generation ago. In fact, if one removed “don’t believe in God” from the first item, this could describe my own position.

I’m not sure that there’s ever been a more horribly disappointing platform than this. I appreciate that these people are trying to be more reasonable, and try to be grateful for the change, but the degree of self-righteousness I’ve seen over a set of ideas which haven’t held up even to simple challenges leads me to wonder why these people are still passionate about atheism at all. Yes, the question of God is a live one, but it seems clear that this group can offer nothing in support of their philosophical assumptions at all like the evidence it insists of others.

Isn’t that, itself, a reason for them to seriously reconsider their basic position?