Friday, December 19, 2014

The mind is what the brain does?

I recently ran across this post by neurologist Dr. Steve Novella over at his blog Neurologica. The post is basically a rebuttal to neurosurgeon Michael Egnor’s views regarding how memory is encoded in the brain; however, my agenda here is not to comment on this exchange. Rather, this current post of mine was sparked by comments made by Dr. Novella in his post regarding the nature of the mind. Here’s some of what he had to say:

As I have pointed out numerous times myself – mental phenomena are functional active things. They are based in the physical substance of the brain, but they are not just the physical substance – they are what results from the function of the physical substance. The mind is what the brain does.

I’ve heard this theory of mind put forward many times; that is, the theory that the mind just is what the brain does. Note that this is not the same as saying that the mind is identical to the brain, rather it simply says that psychological states just are the products of neurophysiological processes. This theory is simply a type of identity theory. Identity theory is a type of reductive materialism and is defined, by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, as the theory that “states and processes of the mind are identical to states and processes of the brain.” And this seems to be exactly what Dr. Novella’s position is, for he says that “mental phenomena (including memory) do not simply correlate with the firing of neurons in the brain – they are the firing of neurons in the brain.”

The first step that most materialists take towards justifying identity theory—or really any variation of a materialist philosophy of mind—is to provide evidence from neuroscience that demonstrates that the brain and mind are intimately related. And needless to say this evidence is not lacking at all. We know quite well that altering brain chemistry and brain structure can subsequently alter personality, can create a “divide” in consciousness, and can even cause individuals to fail to recognize familiar objects or even loved ones. There is no doubt that this says much about the correlation between the mind and the brain, but does is say any more than that by itself? Not really. Philosopher of mind James Madden, in his book Mind, Matter and Nature, articulates:
Has neuroscience revealed an empirical identity between psychological states and brain states? It clearly has not, nor does it seem that it ever could. What neuroscience does is to provide us with ever more precise descriptions of the goings-on in our brains that are correlated with our psychological states[…] Correlation is a far cry from identity; two phenomena can be perfectly correlated, without being identical. (p. 108)
The point then is that identity theory cannot be justified solely by the correlation between the mental and the neurological. As is commonly said, correlation does not imply causation. Now I maintain that not only can identity theory not be justified by pure findings from neuroscience, but I maintain that it is rife with ontological problems regarding actually accounting for how it is even possible that psychological states just are, and are reducible to, brain processes.

Intentionality and Necessary conditions
One of the first problems that identity theory runs into is accounting for intentionality. In philosophy of mind, intentionality refers to the ability of something to be about, or refer to, or represent something beyond itself. When I think of my wife, my thought is about, and refers to her. Now the problem here is that physical things only exhibit derived or secondary intentionality. The written word “cat” only refers to a cat if a mind so interprets it that way. It could just as easily have been the case that we endowed the word and utterance “cat” with a completely different meaning, or that another group of individuals takes the word or utterance “cat” to mean love. This means that physical symbols only have extrinsic intentionality and derive their intentionality from a mind that already exists. Now note that psychological states that exhibit intentionality do not borrow this intentionality from somewhere else. That is to say, our thoughts are not intentional because something external to us interprets them, rather they exhibit intrinsic intentionality, and thus our mental states constitute intentionality that is completely opposite the physical.

Now this posits problems for any philosophy of mind that is primarily materialistic. For how can a physical process be that which grounds intentionality if the physical first needs a mind in order to have intentionality at all? The materialist, then, needs a mind in the first place before he can start talking of intentionality being present in the physical. But the mind is the very thing the materialist is attempting to account for!

Furthermore, things get even worse for the identity theorist than this. Let us imagine a scenario where I raise my arm to a certain trajectory T1. Now let us say that I intended to raise my arm for some specific reason—perhaps to greet a co-worker. Now an identity theorist would say that my act of raising my arm can be accounted for in specifically neurophysiological events which terminated in certain muscular events which caused the raising of my arm. We can call this physical sequence that leads to the raising of my arm X1. Note that X1, by itself, is a sufficient condition for the raising of my arm to trajectory T1. So, the raising of my arm is therefore accounted for in completely materialist terms right? Not necessarily. For now imagine that instead of the physical sequence X1 causing T1, we say that this physical sequence is altered by only one neuron to cause a slightly different trajectory in my arm raising. So we can call this different physical sequence X2, and this new trajectory T2. So now we can say that X2 is a sufficient condition for the raising of my arm to trajectory T2.
But this is where we run into problems. While X1 might be sufficient for raising my arm to T1, and X2 is sufficient for raising my arm to T2, X1 and X2 are not necessary conditions for raising my arm as an intentional act. That is, in order to raise my arm as an intentional act, I do not need X1 or X2, but could have some other physical sequence obtain. But this means that no specific physical act is necessary for explaining the intentional act of raising my arm! Rather, while physical processes are sufficient for explaining my arm being raised in a certain specific manner, they are not sufficient for explaining my arm raising as an intentional act. Now note that if psychological states just are neurophysiological processes (i.e. if the mind is what the brain does), then certain physical sequences would be sufficient and necessary conditions for raising my arm intentionally. And since this is not the case then it cannot be true that our psychological states just are processes in the brain.

A second problem that confronts identity theory is that of rationality. When certain neurophysiological states in the brain are followed by other subsequent neurophysiological states, neurologists understand exactly how these states follow from one another. If S1 (a neurophysiological process) is followed by S2, which is then followed by S3, it is the electrochemical properties of the brain, ultimately grounded in physical laws, that cause this transition. Now imagine that I entertain the following line of thought: 1) John is usually late to class on Mondays, 2) It’s Monday, 3) Therefore, John will most likely be late to class. Now notice that, on identity theory, each thought (each psychological state) will correspond to a certain brain state (neurophysiological process). But this means that if identity theory is true, then the cause of me inferring 3) from 1) and 2) is simply the electrochemical properties associated with those brain states.

This obviously runs into problems. For my act of inferring 3) was due to the semantics associated with 1) and 2), and I simply saw logically that 3) follows. And, in fact, for any inference or conclusion to be considered rational, it needs to be caused by the meaning and semantics of previous thoughts, or propositions. But, again, this is not true on identity theory. On identity theory it is not the semantics of 1) and 2) that cause the mental state of 3), rather what causes 3) is simply the blind electrochemical properties of the neurophysiological state associated with 2), which was caused in the same way by 1). But this type of causation is purely blind deterministic efficient causation. That is, it is simply matter dancing to the tune of physical laws, and therefore cannot be called rational in any sense. Thus stated, on identity theory any type of “rational inference” is, upon closer inspection, only pseudo-rationality, and therefore rationality as such is only an illusion.
Note that these are not the only devastating critiques of identity theory (there are others that I've put forth here and here). But I believe they go a long way in demonstrating that this reductive materialist theory of mind—that the mind is what the brain does—is vacuous. Now let it also be noted that the arguments above are not soul-of-the-gaps arguments. That is, the arguments are not saying “this or that aspect of cognition is difficult to explain currently, so we need to posit the soul or some Cartesian substance to account for them.” Rather the above arguments are ontological and deductive. That is, they don’t argue from current scientific ignorance, but instead argue that the ontology of a materialist theory of mind cannot ever in principle solve these problems. These problems then are a sort of reductio ad absurdum of materialism, and thus findings in neuroscience are irrelevant here.

In conclusion, then, we see that identity theory rests on a conflation of correlation with causation, and faces insurmountable arguments that demonstrate that the mind cannot simply be “what the mind does.”

Monday, December 15, 2014

Contra presuppositionalism, Part III: Ontology and Epistemology

This is the last post in our series on the Christian apologetic method of presuppositionalism. In this post we will be focusing on, what I take to be, one of the biggest philosophical blunders that presuppositionalists make. What follows is a quote from Cornelius Van Til, in his book The Defense of the Faith, that will help illustrate exactly the type of fallacious reasoning that is employed:
[I]t takes an ultimate cause, God, if there are to be genuine second causes. In other words, it is only on the presupposition of the truth of Christianity that science is to be explained. (p. 265)

The problem might not be apparent upon a cursory glance, but notice exactly what Van Til is saying here. First, he’s saying that God is the ultimate cause of everything that exists, and that it is only due to his existence that there are any subsequent and secondary causes or existents. Now this, for a theist like myself, is uncontroversial. But then Van Til claims that this fact allows us to presuppose the truth of Christianity, and that this act is what makes science possible. Again, a theist would most likely agree that since God exists and is the first cause, then all order and regularity—of which science is founded on--is ultimately attributable to him. But, this is not the same as saying, therefore, that we must presuppose the existence of God, much less the truth of Christianity. That is to say, to admit that God is first in ontology does not mean that God is first in epistemology—remember that a presupposition is an epistemological first principle.

The point here then is that the presuppositionalist is conflating the order of being (ontology) with the order of knowing (epistemology). The presuppositionalist is essentially saying that since God is the ground of our existence and being, then we must presuppose his existence in order to reason at all. But this is false, unless one assumes that the order of being is identical to the order of knowing. In fact, when bringing up this point to presuppositionalists in the past, some of them have claimed that perhaps, then, there is no difference between ontology and epistemology, or that ontology and epistemology are not so easily separable in our philosophies. Now, while the latter is plausible, the former is simply false. Take an example. I first had knowledge of my wife before I had knowledge of her parents, and therefore my wife is of a previous order in my knowledge than her parents. But obviously this does not entail that my wife existed before her parents! For to argue such a thing would be absurd, and it would be to conflate metaphysical domains. But notice that this is exactly what the presuppositionalist is doing, namely, equating ontology with epistemology—that is, arguing that the order of ontology determines the order of epistemology. And since presuppositionalism rests on such metaphysical confusion then we have warrant for dismissing it as an invalid method.

Now, not only does our current discussion demonstrate that presuppositionalism rests on fallacious conflations, but it turns the tables against the presuppositionalist himself. Apologist Norman Geisler articulates:

Certainly if there is a God and all truth comers from him, it follows that even the very criteria of determining truth from error will be God-given. But God is what is to be proven, and we cannot begin by assuming his existence as a fact. If we do not have any tests for truth with which we can even begin, we can never make truth claims nor can we even know something is true.

The point is that every proposition, whether presupposed or not, must be subject to justification and rational warrant to determine if it’s true. But arbitrarily assuming something to be true (i.e. God’s existence) in order to ground truth is nonsense. That is, you must first have a criteria of truth before a proposition can count as true, and, therefore,  the existence of God (as well as all other propositions) must be subject to that criteria, and thus subject to our reason. Unfortunately, this is the complete opposite of what the presuppositionalist wants. He doesn’t want God’s existence, or the Bible, subject to our rational human criteria, rather he wants our rational human criteria subject to the Bible and God. But this simply isn’t possible given the way epistemology works. As I articulated in previous posts in this series, we simply cannot begin epistemologically with God or the Bible, because adhering to the truth of God’s existence or the Bible are endeavors that require previous epistemic and ontological premises to be true, and thus it requires that the former propositions are grounded the latter. That is to say, it requires that God’s existence and the truth of the Bible rest on propositions more fundamental than themselves, and thus the existence of God and the truth of the Bible cannot constitute presuppositions.

Monday, December 1, 2014

On final causality

Aristotle famously argued that in order to exhaustively comprehend an object or substance, you need to know the four causes of it. First there is the material cause, namely that which the object is made out of. Then there is the efficient cause, which is what brings the object into being—this is the type of causation that is commonly referred to when using the word “cause”.  Next there is the formal cause, which is the form, essence, or nature that the object has. Lastly, there is the final cause, which is the end, goal or purpose that something exists for, or that something tends towards.
Now, most contemporary philosophers, and scientists for that matter, admit the reality of efficient causation as well as material causation—though, again, they wouldn’t call the latter a cause—but will not admit the reality of formal and final causes. One reason for this is that final causes are commonly tied with the word “teleology,” and this word is strictly taboo in the scientific domain.

Anyway, it is final causes that will constitute the focal point of this post, and it will be demonstrated that one cannot coherently deny the reality of said causes.

Let me begin by illuminating the nature of final causes—what they are, and are not--so as to avoid confusion. When most individuals hear of final causes and their subsequent tie-in with” teleology,” they tend to think of William Paley’s design argument. That is, they tend to think that the teleology spoken of here is analogous to the teleology imposed upon artificial machines. If artificial machines exhibit complexity coupled with purpose, then other natural objects that exhibit similar complexity must also have been extrinsically endowed with purpose—think here of Paley’s watchmaker illustration. But this is not what is meant by something having a final cause.

Rather, for something to have a final cause simply means for it to have inherent dispositions to reliably bring about a range of effects. That is to say, if an object A regularly brings about B, C or D, then generating B, C or D is the final cause of A. This is what is meant by an end or goal of an object. For example, an acorn reliably generates an oak tree, rather than, say, a weed, or a dog, and thus the oak tree is the end or goal that the acorn is directed towards—that is, the oak tree is the final cause of the acorn. (Note that “directed towards” does not entail that a cause is consciously directed toward an effect. Final causality does not mean that an object is consciously trying to reach said effect, but only that the object tends to produce certain effects reliably.)

Now, although this seems to be intuitive, final causes are nevertheless commonly seen as superfluous. Science, and physics, it is said, makes no use of attributing final causes to things, and therefore we have no reason to believe that such things exist. However, remember 1) that this is completely false, unless one assumes that only science gives us knowledge of reality; 2) the fact that final causes are not pragmatic for science is also irrelevant since final causes are an ontological reality, and thus we’re not looking for them to be pragmatic for science; 3) science does not even enlighten us regarding the intrinsic nature of substances—of which final causality would be a part—but rather only how substances tend to behave; and 4) science actually presupposes final causality, though the substantiation of this assertion will be forthcoming below.
More importantly, science does indeed affirm the reality of efficient causality, and efficient causality actually presupposes final causality. You see, science discovers regularities in nature, hence the formulation of scientific laws. Science works by discovering conditional propositions such as “if A occurs under certain conditions, then B occurs”, or that A’s tend to bring about B’s. But, as Edward Feser says, “there is no way to make sense of these regularities apart from the notion of final causation, of things being directed toward an end or goal.” That is to say, if A reliably brings about B, then producing B is the final cause of A. Now, if substances did not exhibit final causality then one effect would not follow any more than another. Remember also that science doesn’t say that A’s simply happen to be followed by B’s. Rather, it is said, A is a sufficient condition for B, and thus A is inherently directed towards generating B. Again, if there were no final causes then A would not be a sufficient condition for B. Final causality then, far from being superfluous, is a necessary condition for causal regularity.

Again, if substances have final causes, this entails that these substances have certain dispositions to bring about certain effects. And this is what philosophers of science have been saying for quite some time now—that is, that substances have inherent “powers” or dispositions. Edward Feser illuminates my point:

Actual experimental practice indicates that what physicists are really looking for are the inherent powers a thing will naturally manifest when interfering conditions are removed, and the fact that a few experiments, or even a single controlled experiment, are taken to establish the results in question indicates that these powers are taken to reflect a nature that is universal to things of that type.
Again, philosopher of science Brian Ellis:

Scientists today certainly talk about inanimate things as though they believed they had such powers. Negatively charged particles have the power to attract positively charged ones. Electrostatic fields have the power to modify spectral lines. Sulfuric acid has the power to dissolve copper.

That is to say, what science is looking for is precisely what inherent dispositions or powers a substance will produce in ideal circumstances. And this presupposes that there are in fact certain dispositions inherent in these substances that tend to produce a range of effects, and thus it presupposes final causality.

Final causality, then, cannot coherently be denied. That is, unless one wants to deny efficient causation, causal regularity, and science itself. This is why Aquinas called final causes “the cause of causes.”

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Model-Dependent Realism revisited

Awhile back I wrote a post on Model-Dependent Realism—the view that we form models of the world through our sense datum, but that these models cannot be said to be real or true—attempting to demonstrate why I found it to be untenable. Mike D over at The A-unicornist—my favorite atheist blog to frequent--has since written his own post devoted to demonstrating 1) how I have supposedly misunderstood MDR and 2) how nothing I said actually refutes it. I do in fact disagree (surprise!) with Mike’s assessment of my comprehension and my arguments, and thus this post has manifest. Let’s see what Mike has to say:

MDR does not claim that models "conform to reality" at all; it summarily rejects the idea of an absolute reality to which we have unfettered access — this means we cannot, in principle, know whether a model "conforms to reality". Rather, it claims that our very concept of what reality is is contingent upon our ability to construct models and test them against observation. We assign the term "real" to concepts that allow us to successfully model and predict the world around us.

First, I never claimed that MDR stated that models conform to reality—in fact this is my point of contention with MDR! I agree that MDR states that our models are only interpretive structures, so to speak.

Yet this is, as I demonstrated in the first post, where MDR runs into problems. For unless one is a solipsist then one does have to admit of an objective reality (for even the sense datum that help form our models must come from somewhere outside of ourselves); and sure enough this is what Mike does: “Of course most philosophers and scientists (including Hawking) operate on the provisional, inductively-derived assumption that an absolute reality does exist.” So, since an objective reality must exist, yet on MDR we cannot have direct access to this reality, then the only warranted claim MDR can make is that we simply cannot determine which model conforms to reality—not that no models conform to reality, or that conformation with reality is meaningless. For if objective reality exists, then certain things can be predicated of it, and certain things cannot. But for MDR to state that nothing at all can conform to reality, or that talk of models conforming to reality is meaningless, is to refute oneself, since this assertion itself is a claim about the nature of reality. And this is one fact that Mike never addressed. The point is that MDR essentially claims the following: No model or theory is real, except, you know, the theory of MDR.

Mike continues:

Steven has fundamentally misunderstood what MDR means in saying that no model can be said to be more 'real' than any other; it is simply saying that different 'frames of reference', such as the neural and cognitive models of the mind, overlap and converge to form our picture of reality, even though they may in some ways be semantically or theoretically incompatible (that is, no one frame of reference can fully explain all phenomena).

On the contrary, I maintain that Mike has misunderstood MDR here. For when Hawking was discussing his theory that one model cannot be more real than another, he uses a very specific and revealing example—namely, that of creationism and the Big Bang theory. Examine this quote straight from the horse’s mouth: “this model—the big bang theory—is more useful than [creationism]. Still, neither model can be said to be more real than the other.” Did you catch that? The big bang cannot be said to be more real than creationism! Herein lies the absurdity of MDR. Again, remember that Hawking is not claiming that we can’t determine which theory accurately conforms to reality, rather neither theory conforms to reality at all, since conformity with reality is meaningless.

To demonstrate the absurdity of this line of thought in my first post, I contrasted, as an example, two theories (“models”) of reality: realism and solipsism. I argued that on MDR “neither is true.” Here’s what Mike said regarding my illustration:

MDR would say that both classical realism and solipsism (specifically, ontological solipsism) make fundamentally untenable assumptions. We do not have unfettered access to an ultimate absolute reality, and we have ample reason to assume, based on evidence arrived at through induction, that a reality external to our minds does in fact exist. MDR does not summarily declare either position false, as Steven asserts; rather, neither can be said to be true or false.

Mike has misunderstood me. I never said that on MDR both theories must be false, rather I said neither is true. And this is exactly what Mike is saying here. So Mike and I are in agreement here, he just didn’t know it. So to return to my intended point, on MDR neither realism nor solipsism is true, or false. In fact, such talk is, on MDR, superfluous. But this, again, is where the absurdity lies. For either a reality exists apart from subjective observers, or it doesn’t. This pure logic: either A or not-A. What we cannot say is “neither.”

To press this point further, let’s imagine two exclusive theories (different than the ones utilized above): Either you (the reader) exist, or you do not. It seems purely common sense to say that only one of these can be true and one at least must be true—the law of non-contradiction necessitates this. But on MDR we cannot say this, rather we must say neither is true or false—talk of truth is meaningless here. Yeah…good luck with that. If this is not enough to demonstrate the nonsense and absurdity of MDR then I do not know what is.

But the point can be pressed even further than this. For the main point of Mike’s post is an attempt to demonstrate that I have misunderstood MDR, and that my attacks against it are invalid. But wait. How, on MDR can Mike say that any “model” one espouses, whether mine or anyone else’s, is incorrect? He can’t. Remember Hawking: “it is pointless to ask whether a model is real[.]” Talk of real, unreal, true, or false, is meaningless here. So, why then is Mike so determined to show that my own model is wrong? Is he perhaps convinced that his model is correct, and that therefore it accurately describes an actual state of affairs? Of course he is. And thus, although he claims to adhere to MDR, his actions betray his beliefs.
Mike then wraps up his post by stating the “most important point” of MDR:

MDR renders meaningless the distinction between "reality accessible to us" and "reality in itself". Of course most philosophers and scientists (including Hawking) operate on the provisional, inductively-derived assumption that an absolute reality does exist. But we do not have an unfettered, privileged access to such a reality in which one level of explanation (or one 'frame of reference') successfully describes all phenomena.

Mike, again, seems to miss the blatant contradictory nature of MDR here. He, and Hawking, claim that we do not have a model-independent concept of reality, and that we can only find utility in models, not truth or reality in them. But this itself is a claim about the nature of reality. Just ask the question “Is it really the case that we have no model-independent picture of reality?” The answer will commit one to make an objective claim about reality. You see, MDR attempts to bypass the metaphysical debate about the nature of reality—it’s trying to say that the whole debate itself is superfluous and meaningless. But by doing this MDR is throwing itself into the debate, whether one likes it or not!

Hitherto I don’t believe Mike has accomplished what he set out to do. First, He didn’t really show that I misunderstood MDR. In fact he seems to have misunderstood me, and at times our understanding was exactly the same, even though he failed to recognize such. Second, Mike has failed to salvage, in my opinion, any remains of a coherent and respectable theory in MDR. It remains an incoherent, absurd, and self-refuting philosophic position. As Hume would say, let us commit it to the flames.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Materialism, the intellect, and abstractions

Much of contemporary neuroscience, psychology and philosophy of mind take it for granted that the human intellect is wholly reducible to the material—namely, the brain. Neurologists have figured out that damage to certain parts of the brain can change a person’s personality, memory, and emotions.  And although neuroscience has much more progress to make, scientists are quite confident that the future of neuroscience will yield answers to our remaining queries. Yet I maintain that neuroscience will never in principle be able to account for many aspects of the human intellect, and it is one such aspect that I will be highlighting here: that of abstraction and the nature of abstractions.
Let me begin my point with an example. Let’s imagine that someone draws a circle on a chalkboard. Now I’ve seen a circle many times in my life before, and from the moment I first saw one I abstracted the concept of a circle from it, as we all did. And it is from our concepts of a circle that we constructed the definition of a circle. So, what is the definition of a circle? Well a circle is (in Euclidean Geometry) the set of points that are equidistant from a single point, i.e. the center. The question I would then pose is the following: does the circle that was drawn on the chalkboard satisfy the definition of a circle? The answer is not straightforward. For while we would indeed call the object on the chalkboard a “circle,” it does not actually satisfy the definition and concept of a circle. Why is this? Well, physical circles are never drawn with perfect curves—hence all points on a circle will not be exactly the same distance from the center--and therefore they will only ever be an imperfect or approximate participant in the definition of a circle.

Moreover, how do we know the figure on the chalkboard is meant to represent a circle, and not a hole, or a hoop? We cannot know until we ask the drawer of the circle, because only his concept of what he meant to draw is determinate. But even if the drawer did indeed mean to draw a circle, anyone could still mistake it for a hoop or a hole. Contrarily, my concept of a circle will always be a concept of a circle, and cannot be mistaken for the concept of a hole. 
Now, what does all this have to do with the human intellect? Well, the point is this. My concept of a circle is determinate, exact, and perfect, yet physical circles will only ever be indeterminate, approximate and imperfect.  So why is it that my abstractions and concepts of circles are the complete opposite of physical circles themselves? For if my thoughts and abstractions are simply material and physical processes, then why is their nature contrary to the physical and material? Could it be that abstractions and thoughts are not physical and material processes?

What we’ve discovered above applies to almost any physical or material representation or symbol. As philosopher Edward Feser notes in his book Aquinas:  material symbols and representations are inherently always to some extent vague, ambiguous, or otherwise inexact, susceptible of various alternate interpretations. (Another good example that demonstrates this point is that if one were to draw a one-thousand sided regular polygon (a chiliagon) and a one-thousand-and-one sided regular polygon, then we could not visually tell the difference between the two. Yet we can surely tell the difference between the two conceptually.)
Now, since the nature of the intellect is in complete opposition to the nature of the material, then we should be able to say that the former is not a process of the latter. That is, the human intellect is not the result of material processes like the brain. Thus, since materialism fails, in principle, to account for the nature of abstraction and the nature of the human intellect—the one thing we know best through introspection—we can safely regard it as inadequate.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Contra presuppositionalism Part II: Can scripture be presupposed?

We’re continuing our series surveying presuppositionalism and its pitfalls (part I here).  We’re now going to take a look at a central assertion of Christian presuppositionalism; namely, the claim that the Bible itself can be presupposed as true:
It is the actual existence of the God of Christian theism and the infallible authority of the Scripture which speaks to sinners of this God that must be taken as the presupposition of the intelligibility of any fact in the world. (Van Til p. 139)

Scripture presents itself as being the only light in terms of which the truth about facts and their relations can be discovered. ( Ibid.p. 130)

[T]he believer must defend God’s word as the ultimate starting point, the unquestionable authority, the self-attesting foundation of all thought and commitment. (Bahnsen p. 74)

The presuppositionalist claim here seems quite clear. The Christian scriptures (i.e., the word of God) must be taken as the foundation and starting point of our reasoning. That is to say, the Bible must be presupposed in order for any facts to be made intelligible. Hence, no valid conclusions or inferences can be made without utilizing scripture as our epistemological foundation.

Immediately we run into problems when this line of reasoning is promulgated. First, what constitutes scripture is not at all self-evident. In fact, some different Christian denominations have different canons and therefore different scriptures. (e.g., The Catholic canon is larger, and hence different, than the protestant canon.) The relevance that this has for presuppositionalism is that determining the constitution of scripture is itself an inference. Now, a conclusion or inference necessarily is justified by prior premises or propositions. Thus, how can scripture be a presupposition—that is, a foundation of thought—if it relies on prior premises to justify it? Obviously it can’t. The nature of a presupposition is that it comes first and foremost at the beginning of our epistemology. A presupposition ultimately provides justification for every other subsequent inference. So, scripture cannot even possibly be presupposed since scripture itself relies on premises that precede it in order to justify its constitution.

Second, if facts can only be made intelligible by making scripture a presupposition, then it necessarily follows that any inferences or conclusions reached without this presupposition are unintelligible. But again, the constitution of scripture can only be reached through prior premises and inferences. And obviously these prior premises did not have scripture as a presupposition, since they precede and lead up to the conclusion of what constitutes scripture. Now, since these premises did not presuppose scripture, then any conclusions they reach are unintelligible—by the presuppositionalist’s own claim. Hence, the conclusion of what constitutes scripture must be itself unintelligible . Subsequently, if presuppositionalism were true then the conclusion of what constitutes scripture would be unintelligible and therefore scripture itself would be unintelligible; and thus we could never presuppose it.
What we’ve witnessed here is that once again the presuppositionalist does not understand the nature of epistemology. The very thing they want to presuppose cannot in fact be presupposed, since it already relies on prior premises for its justification. And since this betrays the nature of presuppositions themselves then the presuppositionalist only pulls the rug out from underneath them.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Contra Presuppositionalism Part I: The nature of presuppositions

Over the past few years I’ve become quite interested in the Christian apologetic method of Presuppositionalism--simply for the reason that its stance and method are so extreme and counter-intuitive.  Presuppositionalism has been around for a few decades, and emerged from protestant Reformed theology due to the thought of Christian apologist Cornelius Van Til. Though many Christians are enamored with such an apologetic method for defending the faith, I find it to be riddled with philosophical errors and inconsistencies. And due to the abundance of errors, I have found the need to write a series of articles articulating such. If you are unfamiliar with presuppositionalism, this series of posts should illuminate this philosophy, along with its pitfalls.

The first point of contention with presuppositionalism is its fallacious use of presuppositions—obviously the very thing this method is named after. First, it’s difficult to even track down an unambiguous definition of presupposition in the literature. Second, the definitions and uses of the word seem to contradict each other constantly. Let’s begin our substantiation of such assertions by examining the definition of presupposition given by Greg Bahnsen in Always Ready:
Eventually all argumentation terminates in some logically primitive starting point, a view or premise held as unquestionable. Apologetics traces back to such ultimate starting points or presuppositions. In the nature of the case these presuppositions are held to be self-evidencing: they are the ultimate authority in one’s viewpoint, an authority for which no greater authorization can be given. So then, all apologetic argumentation will require such a final foundation, an ultimate and self-validating presupposition or starting point for thought and commitment. (p.72)

What Bahnsen is talking about here is, basically, that one’s epistemological foundation—whatever propositions this foundation consists of—constitutes their presuppositions. For our epistemological foundations are those ultimate starting points of reasoning and knowledge. In fact, these starting points are what Scholastics refer to as First Principles—which consist of the laws of logic et. al. It is these first principles, or presuppositions, that form the basis of knowledge and reason. That is to say, we could not reason, think, or know anything without having these presuppositions as our foundation. Subsequently, any proposition, theory, or idea will, if continually pushed upon epistemologically, inevitably terminate in our presuppositions.

So, it seems that the presuppositionalist has at least defined his core term, presupposition, in a coherent and valid way that enables us to carry on with his reasoning. Well, not so fast. While the definition above seems adequate, other statements by the presuppositionalist seem to contradict said definition:
Understanding and knowledge of the truth are the promised results when man makes God’s word his presuppositional starting point for all thinking. (p. 20)

The Christian has new commitments, new presuppositions[.] (p.17)

The unbeliever must renounce his antagonistic reasoning and embrace a new system of thought; thus his presuppositional commitments must be altered. (p. 68)

Notice that in these quotes, Bahnsen is saying something quite strange. That is, he is saying that we can alter or change our presuppositions. So, remember the foundations of reason and knowledge that we discussed above? Those starting points of epistemology of which every proposition will ultimately terminate in? Those presuppositions? Yeah those, according to Bahnsen, can be changed!
Of course we need to ask ourselves whether or not any of this makes sense. That is to ask, is it actually epistemologically possible to change our ultimate foundations and starting points of knowledge and reason? Well, quite frankly, no.

First, if presuppositions are our starting points for knowledge and reason, then we cannot simply start somewhere else; these starting points cannot simply be supplanted. Why? Well, because they are the foundations of knowledge! One cannot simply knock down the foundations of one’s knowledge since said knowledge is built on those very foundations. If the foundations go then so does any epistemic proposition ever subsequently promulgated or known.

Second, remember that said foundations are presupposed. That is to say, they are epistemologically assumed or supposed at the beginning of our reasoning. That’s the entailment of the prefix pre. That being said, one cannot simply swap a presupposition with any other proposition. A presupposition can only, by definition, stay assumed beforehand. Thus stated, at no point in our reasoning, ever, can we rearrange our starting point or foundation—that’s why it’s called our starting point.
All this is to say that the presuppositionalist cannot have it both ways. If he means by presupposition, the starting point and foundation of human knowledge and reasoning, then this simply cannot be exchanged for the revelation of God—or anything else. It’s not epistemologically possible. Thus stated, we cannot arbitrarily choose to presuppose anything, much less the word of God, and therefore presuppositionalism, which states that we can and must do this, is blatantly false.


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Naturalism and falsifiability

Metaphysical naturalism is the position that the natural universe is all that exists, and a common corollary of adherence to naturalism is a subsequent adherence to physicalism—the theory that everything that exists is reducible to the material or physical. Such a metaphysical jump seems warranted: if the natural world is all that exists, and the natural world contains only the physical, then everything that exists is physical. These inferences illuminate exactly why naturalists are so enamored with science. For if all that exists is physical, and science studies the physical (empirical) world, then science surely must be the be-all and end-all road to knowledge and inquiry.

However, while the partnership of science and naturalism might seem like a match made in (non-existent) heaven, it quickly becomes riddled with problems. First, remember that science is very strictly committed to the doctrine of falsifiability. That is to say, something is considered to be a valid scientific hypothesis or theory if it could, at least in principle, be proven false. But, how does this view of falsification jive with naturalism? That is to ask, is naturalism itself falsifiable?  Well it might seem at first glance that this is indeed the case. For all one needs is evidence of the supernatural, and naturalism would subsequently be rendered invalid, right? Well, maybe not. Let’s examine a discussion between naturalist Richard Dawkins and Cardinal George Pell that illuminates where I’m going:

Moderator: What would it take [to convince you of the supernatural]?
Dawkins: I used to think that if somehow a great big giant nine-hundred foot high Jesus with a voice like Paul Robeson suddenly strode in and said “I exist, here I am.” Umm, but even that I actually sometimes wonder whether that would…

Pell: I would think you were hallucinating.
Dawkins: Exactly, I agree. I agree.

The point of this exchange is the following. Regardless of the fashion in which the supernatural (if it exists) would expose itself, such exposure could always be explained away in terms consistent with naturalism and physicalism. For instance, if Jesus or God were to appear to me, or to the whole world, this could always be waved away as a hallucination, or a prank by a higher life form in the universe. Now obviously the validity of such theories would be highly implausible, although the naturalist could claim that the opposite—that the supernatural was actually manifest—is equally implausible. Nevertheless, the point remains that naturalism is still salvageable despite apparent evidence to the contrary.
This all means one important thing: naturalism is, at least in principle, not falsifiable. I stress “in principle” because I believe that most logical people would abandon naturalism in practice were the aforementioned events to take place. However, my focal point here is principle. Now, since naturalism is unfalsifiable, then naturalism is unscientific, for remember that science only deals with the falsifiable. But this leads to a perfect irony. For if naturalism and physicalism are true then science and empirical observation are our only source of knowledge. Yet, because of such empirical considerations naturalism itself must be rejected. Thus stated, empiricism and naturalism do not pair together as well as is commonly claimed.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The subjectivity of interpretation

It should go without mention that no two individuals see the world or interpret it in exactly the same way. The lenses whereby we interpret the world around us have been molded by our own subjective experiences throughout our lives. Heck, even the same object can mean one thing to one person, and mean a completely different thing to another.
But, can this gap between interpretations can be bridged, and can we at least agree on some things? Well unfortunately it is not clear that agreement entails identical interpretation. Let’s take an example—an example I’ve utilized before—to illuminate this fact. I know more about my father than most people do, because we both spent the last years of his life together, just him and I. Now, this means that if some other gentlemen who knew my father said “John was funny,” and I agreed, then it seems obvious that we both agree on the fact that humor can be predicated of my father. Now, here it seems that our judgments are identical because we are both predicating the same thing (humor) of the same subject (my father).

However, it’s actually in the subject (my father) where we find subjectivity rearing its head. For even though the gentleman and I both have the same symbol as our subject, our interpretation of this symbol goes much farther than the simple concept we have just predicated of him and have agreed upon. Why? Because a subject, in order to be recognized by one, must already have other predications of it. To shift to another example, if I say “the pencil is sharp” I am utilizing the pencil as the subject in my proposition. But, in order to recognize the concept of “pencil” I have to already understand other things about it—namely, that it is yellow, has an eraser, is capable of writing etc.

This is why our interpretations of a symbol or concept can differ even though we have made the same judgment or predications of it, because the subjects of our predications already carry so much extra baggage with them. To return to my first example, even though the gentlemen and I can agree that John was funny, I will still have a different (and more intimate) interpretation of what the symbol “John” means than the other man.
This illumination into the subject of interpretation has significant consequences for how we communicate and understand. It means that subjectivity is present and pervasive even where the most objective of statements is made. It means that two people can never have identical interpretations about a subject even though identical judgments can be made about it. And it means that we should be quick to listen and slow to make assumptions regarding a concept or subject that one is expounding, because chances are our interpretation is very different than theirs.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Why I bother reading scripture

I am a Christian. And as a Christian it is no secret that I read the literature that grounds Christianity itself, which would be the Bible (among other things). I try to read the Bible as often as I can, sometimes with my wife, and other times by myself. However, this seems to puzzle non-believers for the very reason that I adhere to and accept most of what the scholarly consensus says about the Bible. That is, I believe certain parts of scripture to be legend, myth, fiction, and fabrication. More than this, I recognize that certain parts of scripture are barbaric, primitive, misogynist, and downright immoral. Hence, some wonder why I would waste my time with a piece of writing that should be considered nothing but the result of primitive superstition and historical fabrication. Why not pair such writings with other primitive myths like The Odyssey, and call it a day?

 I maintain that such a mindset is just as wrong-headed as the Christian fundamentalism that regards these same writings as the inerrant and infallible Word of God. It’s not as if the only two alternatives with regards to scripture are to uphold it as the inerrant Word of God, or else delegate it to the trash—and only those still stuck in such a fundamentalist mindset would think otherwise. I, and many others, can cherish the Bible without needing to view it as having been handed down by God, and I can criticize it without needing to view it as nothing but superstitious sophistry. So, let me articulate exactly why I still give the Bible the time of day.

 First, let it be known that, Bible or no Bible, I believe and hope in the existence of God. I believe in God for many different reasons, some philosophical and others not. With that in mind I believe it is man’s highest duty to submit himself to the divine; that is, to submit one’s being to the source of being; to submit one’s love to love itself. Therefore I find it quite rational to pay attention to and take note of those who have done this very thing. This includes, but is obviously not limited to, most of the tradition of Christianity and the Bible. For while I don’t agree with all that is affirmed in these traditions, such disagreement is hardly warrant for ignoring them. Thom Stark articulates my point:
[To ignore the parts we disagree with in scripture] is to hide from ourselves a potent reminder of the worst part of ourselves. Scripture is a mirror. It mirrors humanity, because it is as much the product of human beings as it is the product of the divine. When we peer into the looking glass and see the many faces of God, we see ourselves among them. The mirror reflects our doubt and our mediocrity. It mirrors our best and worst possible selves. It shows us who we can be, both good and evil, and everything in between.

Therefore, as a believer in God, I identify with those who took up the task of writing scripture. I identify with their struggle to comprehend and interpret the divine. This struggle is my own, and all of ours. The Bible is a dialogue, made up of many different perspectives and voices. There is the pessimism of Ecclesiastes, the accusations leveled against God in the book of Job, the prayers of the Psalmists, the hope of restoration in Isaiah, the selflessness of Jesus, etc. Many forget that these dialogues are some of the same dialogues that we continue to have today: Is life meaningless? What is God doing about suffering? Is there a life beyond this life? Etc.

 Now some might claim that such speculations are themselves a waste of time and subsequently meaningless. We have, they might say, no reason to believe in God or the afterlife any more than we have reason to believe in fairies, or the flying spaghetti monster. Yet, the one who claims such things is, I believe, making the same mistake that the Christian fundamentalist makes: assuming that we have certainty of such a position one way or another. I don’t believe that we have the certainty one way or another to say God does or does not exist, or that life continues after death, or that suffering is part of God’s plan. Existence is too ambiguous; life is too obscure. Now don’t get me wrong, I do believe there is positive evidence in favor of many of my beliefs, but I would not claim that this evidence is irresistibly overwhelming.

 So, for the most part, I hope in the existence of God and the afterlife etc. (Some might retort that this is simply wishful thinking. But, this might only be the case if I claimed that my hopes made it so, of which I do not claim.) Hence my hope in the aforementioned warrants interaction with the literature and traditions that also employ and discuss the same hope. That is to say, I continue to interact with scripture because the hope that resonates with me was also expounded and wrestled with in scripture. And this is why I identify with scripture, and read it.

Monday, September 8, 2014

On reductionism

All the talk on reductionism as of late has kept my mind quite occupied. So occupied, in fact, that I felt the need to devote an entire post to reductionism itself. Though reductionism does come in different forms, this post will deal with the form that claims that an object is nothing but the structure of its physical constituents. This form of reductionism is very appealing to naturalists for the following reason. If the natural world is all that exists, then objects are nothing but physical particles in different structural forms. Hence, a lump of bronze and a bronze statue consist of the same matter simply arranged differently.
The initial difficulty with this view was articulated perfectly by attentive commenter JD Walters:

[D]escribing a cat as a mere 'amalgam of physical properties' is the (metaphysical) bundle theory of particulars and has all sorts of problems, including the consequence that if even one of the cat's properties changed, even the number of hairs on its body, we would be dealing with a different cat.

Let us expound JD’s argument here. Let’s take a cat, which on reductionism is nothing but a hunk of matter arranged cat-wise. This cat, then, is defined by the structure and arrangement that the particles are exhibiting. So, now let us remove a single hair from its body. What do we now have? Well we now have a cat with a different physical arrangement than before, and thus we have a different cat altogether. Why? Because cat A (the first cat), though it looks the same as cat B (the second cat), has more physical constituents than cat B—the difference between their constituents being the particles that make up a hair—and thus has a different physical arrangement than B. Hence, since cat A’s matter has a different structure and arrangement than cat B’s matter, then cat A and cat B are not the same cat, on reductionism.

Now, this certainly seems to run counter to our common sense—though the fact that it runs counter to common sense only demonstrates that reductionism, then, runs counter to common sense. For when a cat goes for a haircut, say, we don’t really believe that the post-haircut cat is a different cat than the pre-haircut cat. But, this only means that there must be something more to a cat than its mere physical constituents.

However, one attempted rebuttal that I’ve heard so far from reductionists is that the reason we still consider cat A the same as cat B is because our brains still categorize that there are defining characteristics or properties in cat B that make it the same as cat A. But this response runs into problems. First, how our brains characterize objects is superfluous to the discussion at hand. Talk about how our brains characterize objects is epistemological, as well as psychological, while talk of what actually makes an object an object in mind-independent reality is ontological. Hence the above objection is only conflating ontology with epistemology. To reiterate, when we talk of reductionism we’re talking about what makes an object that very object—i.e., what makes a cat a cat, as opposed to a frog. Thus stated, we’re interested in substances in themselves, and not how we perceive or categorize those substances.

Second, this objection, even if we ignore its metaphysical conflation, still does absolutely nothing to answer the original point. Remember that on reductionism an object is nothing but the arrangement or structure of its physical constituents. So if cat A has a different structure (even by a few particles) than Cat B, then, on reductionism, they cannot possibly be the same object. And thus it makes no difference whatsoever how we categorize said objects, because they are necessarily different objects because they have different physical constituents and structures!

Furthermore, the topic of how we categorize objects, based on an ontology of reductionism, leads to further absurdities in itself. Let us return to cat A and cat B. It is true that the difference (a hair) between A and B is miniscule when we perceive it, and therefore our visual perceptions will regard A and B as the same. But what if the difference is greater? What if cat B is also missing a leg? Can cat B be recognized as cat A? Well, not in the way the reductionist would want, since, again, cat B has different (less) physical constituents than cat A, and such constituents have a radically different arrangement than cat A as well. But suppose, contra the conclusions of reductionism, that the reductionist still wants to affirm B and A to be the same cat. Well, we can go even further. Suppose cat B is missing a tail, an eye, and an ear, in addition to its missing leg. Suppose the cat continues to deteriorate. At exactly what point is this cat B, on reductionism, no longer cat A? Notice here that the reductionist would be stuck in a dilemma, because at whatever point he identifies that the physical arrangement of cat B no longer constitutes cat A, the only argument for stopping at that specific point, consistent with reductionism, can be that cat B’s arrangement or structure is different from cat A’s—because, again,  on reductionism an object is defined as nothing but its physical constituents. Now if the reductionist wants to claim instead that cat B is different than cat A because it no longer retains the properties that make it cat-like, then the reductionist has given up reductionism. For admitting that there are properties inherent in a substance or object that make it that very substance is to give up reductionism. That is, it is to admit that there is something in a substance over and above its physical structure that makes it a certain substance.  
But we can push even further against reductionism, by returning to our original difference (one hair) between cat A and cat B. Notice that if cat B has the same structure as cat A minus one hair then cat B’s structure and arrangement is subsumed under the structure and arrangement of cat A. That is to say, cat A’s arrangement contains the arrangement of cat B. Now we can continue this process by removing two, three, and four hairs etc., to create a cat C, D, and E etc. Notice that each subsequent cat is contained in the former ones. That is to say, cat A contains all of cat B, C, D, and E etc. But this leads to something quite peculiar. Since, on reductionism, all of these cats have different structures and arrangements then they are all different cats. But this means that cat A literally contains cat B, C, D and E etc., which means that present in cat A is a multitude of other different cats at the same time in the same place! Such is the absurdity of reductionism.

Reductionism, then, turns out to not only go against common sense but, also, to lead to absurdity. Obviously, then, an object or substance cannot be nothing but its physical constituents. Thus stated, there must be something more to substances in themselves over and above their parts.


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Essentialism and reductionism

Mike D over at The Aunicornist has, once again, devoted a couple of posts to refuting the metaphysics of Thomism. Since I am myself a Thomist I felt the need to deal with such arguments and assertions. I will, for now, be dealing with this post of Mikes. So, let’s dig in.
Mike states the following:

[W]e all agree that if tomorrow all humans were wiped off the face of the Earth,cats (for example) would still be cats—that is, they would retain the amalgam of physical properties that our brains categorizeas simply “cats”, even there [sic] wouldn’t be anyone around to say, “Hey, that’s a cat!” But does it follow, then, that cats have a property of identity that makes them cats?

Here Mike demonstrates his poor understanding of Thomism by conflating identity with essence. What Mike is talking about here is essence which is just that whereby something is what it is. To grasp a thing’s essence is to grasp all the properties that are essential to that thing remaining that very thing. Or, to take Mike’s example, the essence of a cat is comprised of whatever properties a cat must have for it to remain a cat. Yet, Mike here uses the terms “the property of identity.” But, identity is not the same thing as essence. It is an essence that makes something what it is and not identity. Identity is more broad and more tautological. The property of identity simply means that something is identical to itself and is not identical to what it isn’t. A corollary of this is that all of a thing’s properties are contained in its identity. Yet this is not the same with regards to a thing’s essence.
Let’s use an example to illuminate the distinction between identity and essence. Take two chairs. Each particular chair is identical to itself and is not identical to the other chair even if they both look  exactly the same. Yet, these chairs do share the same essence in that they both provide a seat—here providing a seat is the essence of being a chair. So, two objects can share an essence without being identical. This is because identity takes all of a thing’s properties into account whereas essence only takes essential properties into account. It is essential that a chair provide a seat, but it is not essential for a chair to have four legs. Yet, when contemplating a chair’s identity it is crucial to include the property of how many legs it has—for a chair with four legs is obviously not identical to a chair with three.

All this is important because Mike, in the quote above, is again conflating identity with essence, which wouldn’t have happened if Mike adequately understood the position he’s attempting to refute. So, while none of this, so far, undermines Mike’s arguments, it does demonstrate that Mike does not understand his opponent’s positions the way he thinks he does.

Mike then illustrates his (already confused) argument with an example of a mountain:

Mountains are formed, if I remember grade school geology correctly, when massive tectonic plates press against each other, forcing the earth to slowly rise over eons. I wonder how the Thomist might think about this, then—at what point does the earth have the property of identity of a mountain, versus just being a really big hill or a giant pile of rocks?

Again, Mike should be talking about essence here, and not identity. For a mountain, or hill, at any stage in its formation will still always be identical to itself. And thus, the “property of identity” will always be present. What Mike means to argue here is that if we watched the earth slowly rising over eons then at what point could we say that the earth exhibits the essence of a mountain, as opposed to a hill? The point of this example is to demonstrate that determining the essence of something is not always so clear cut, and that such an endeavor can run into ambiguities and vagueness.

Yet, this argument doesn’t really make the case that Mike thinks it does. First, a Thomist would not claim that determining a thing’s essence is always an easy endeavor. It is in some cases very difficult to determine what the essence of something is, or how such an essence differs from the essence of another. But nothing about this difficulty demonstrates that there are no such things as essences. The real problem then deals with epistemology, and not ontology. Encountering difficulty in determining a thing’s essence is an epistemic problem, while proclaiming that things do not have an essence is an ontological problem, and Mike is conflating the two.  In order for Mike’s example to have any force he would need to demonstrate that difficulty in determining a thing’s essence entails that essences are therefore nonexistent. But Mike has not done this.

Second, Mike’s argument actually makes the case for Thomistic essentialism, and not against. By picking a vague case of determining essence, Mike is implicitly conceding that there are cases that are not vague. In fact, most cases are not vague. One could easily identify the essence of the brain, the heart, water, human rationality etc. The fact is that we can find an abundance of easily identifiable essences all around us. So why should we call essentialism into question because of a few exceptional cases that run into obscurity, instead of affirming essentialism due to the abundance of its applicability? There is no reason. The fact is that we wouldn’t even be able to recognize vague instances of identifying essence if we didn’t already have clear and precise examples.
Mike then articulates one of his central arguments:

Thomists take things like identity, essence, nature, 'prime matter' and potentiality to be literally real properties of the external world, independently of human minds. But at every turn, we can see that we have no reason whatsoever to think that any of these 'metaphysical' properties are anything more than conceptual constructs. There's no reason for us to think that the concept of "cat" is anything more than a useful categorization of our brains for a particular arrangement of matter; we have no reason to think that there exists any such a thing as the identity, essence, or nature of a cat independently of our minds.
Mike is making the argument that our metaphysical concepts are mind-dependent, and that they are simply constructs of our brain that help us order and identify the world we experience. There is no essence of a cat independently of our minds. The essence of a cat is simply something that our brains have constructed in order to arrange the matter that makes up a cat.
While this viewpoint might seem parsimonious, it is rife with problems. First, the world is exactly the way we would expect if there were in fact actual essences and identities of things. One example of this is unity. Let’s illustrate. If I consider all four of my dogs—my Chihuahua, Dachshund, Beagle and Blue Heeler—I can see that all of them share the same essence of “dogness” even though they are not identical. And in that sense they share in a unity between them. They are all individual particulars yet they are in fact related to one another. They are related to one another in a way that they are not related to a cup, a tree, or a lamp. But if Mike is correct, and dogs share no “essence” and we simply construct such things in our brain, then why is it the case that we attribute a shared essence to all these dogs? The only way one can answer this is to say that these dogs, in mind-independent reality, exhibit similar characteristics and have similar properties that allow us to group them into these related “kinds”. But then this simply makes the case for the Thomist! For this is what the Thomist has been arguing all along. For dogs can only be grouped into a specific kind because they have certain dispositions and properties that make them dogs, as opposed to, say, frogs. And it is these dispositions and properties that constitute an essence. So, the fact that the world contains a multitude of particulars yet many of these particulars are unified only makes sense on essentialism.

Second, Mike seems to forget that our concepts are always derived from reality itself. He is so smitten with Model-Dependent Realism and Embodied Realism that he seems to think that our brains literally make this stuff  (like essences) up. (A common example he uses is the way our brain “creates” color. But this is false. Our brains don’t create color. They simply perceive the raw materials of sense datum in a certain way so as to “see’ color. But everything that causes us to see color (e.g. wavelengths and photons ) already exists in the world. So color does exist, it simply exists virtually instead of formally. All this is to say that we perceive color because color exists virtually in reality, and is not a simple construct of our brain. ) But if our concepts are abstracted from reality then this simply isn’t the case. To use an example, I can tell the difference between an apple and an orange. Why? Is it simply because my brain arranges the matter into two different categories? Or is it because there is a real difference between the properties and dispositions of an apple and an orange and my mind is abstracting those differences? Obviously it must be the latter. But if this is true, then there must be something about an apple that makes it different than an orange. And we know this to be true because my understanding of the essence of an orange is different from the essence of an apple. But these essences weren’t simply constructed by my brain, rather they are rooted in the properties of the objects themselves in mind-independent reality.

Mike then states the following:
[W]e can reject the Thomistic metaphysical gobbledygook on the principle of parsimony — the notion that cats have a distinct, non-physical property of 'catness' (their 'essence'), for example, is completely superfluous to our understanding and description of what a cat is. We can have a fully accurate, useful description of the animal simply by recognizing it as an amalgam of physical properties which our brains categorize in a particular way, and nothing more. There is no need to postulate any extra non-physical or 'metaphysical' properties to understand what a cat is, why it behaves as it does, or what it evolved from. Since the assumption of the existence of such things is not essential to our description or understanding of cats, we can discard it. We don't even have to demonstrate its falsity — i.e., somehow 'disprove' the existence of those metaphysical properties — we can simply discard them as superfluous and thus meaningless.
A few responses here. First, nobody has argued that postulating things like essences and identities are pragmatic. So why would Mike be looking for pragmatism here? Why? Because Mike has an empiricist presupposition, and anything that is not scientifically observable, predictable, and measurable is, to him, not pragmatic and therefore “superfluous.” But in order for Mike’s position to be vindicated, he would need to demonstrate that science is the only path to knowledge. But Mike knows that this is self-undermining. So why, then, should we believe that metaphysical concepts like essence and identity can be thrown out simply because science has no use of them? The answer is that there is no reason.

 Moreover, let it not be forgotten that science is only interested in the quantitative aspects of the world and not the qualitative. Yet, metaphysical concepts like identity and essence are not quantitative, and therefore the fact that they might not be pragmatic in scientific investigation is completely irrelevant, since science isn’t looking for them to begin with!
Second, Mike’s argument above implicitly affirms reductionism. That is, Mike believes that any entity or object is nothing more than an amalgam of its physical parts and components. But reductionism runs into problems. For example, if water is nothing but hydrogen and oxygen composed together, then water should not have any dispositions and properties different from its constituents. But surely water does have properties that differ from hydrogen and oxygen. So then water cannot be nothing more than its physical parts. At this point one might say that we should expect water to have different properties than its parts alone, because water isn’t simply hydrogen and oxygen, but hydrogen and oxygen bonded together. So of course hydrogen and oxygen bonded together will behave different than hydrogen and oxygen by themselves. But this is exactly the anti-reductionist’s point. If water behaves differently than its constituents, then there is something about water as a substance in itself that amounts to more than its parts. Thus stated, if a substance has properties that its physical parts do not have by themselves, then there is something over and above these parts alone that make up the dispositions of said substance, and therefore a substance cannot be said to be nothing but an amalgam of its parts.

Hence we see that Mike D has failed to make his case. First, he has shown that he doesn’t even correctly comprehend the position he is arguing against. He constantly rebukes those who recommend Scholastic literature to him, yet he’s shown that his research into this very area is minimal and is lacking. So why not at least buy a book that gives a formal defense of such a position? That would be my recommendation. Second, he has tried to demonstrate why metaphysical concepts like essence and identity are meaningless and superfluous, yet his arguments are rife with problems. Third, he’s attempted to affirm metaphysical theories like reductionism which, when considered, only lead back to the very metaphysical concepts he was attempting to overthrow. I maintain, then, that nowhere have we seen good reason to overthrow Scholastic metaphysics, let alone metaphysics themselves.