Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Metaphysics vs Science? A dialogue with The A-Unicornist

Mike D, over at The A-Unicornist, and I have been engaging in a spirited discussion regarding the validity of metaphysical reasoning, which began as a discussion regarding the validity of the Scholastic concepts of actuality and potentiality (it began in the comment section here). Upon writing my most recent response to Mike, I felt that the length, as well as the topics covered in said response, deserved a post here on my blog. That being said, I also feel that Mike is one the most well-read and intelligent skeptics here on the blogosphere, and I believe that his perspective is founded upon well-thought out arguments. Therefore, I feel that a discussion such as the following is very fruitful and illuminating discourse. 

What follows (beginning with a quote from Mike) is my response to Mike's well articulated points:

It's trivially true that metaphysics are distinct from science – that one can't justify evidentialism with evidence, and so forth. All the empirical evidence in the world can't "disprove" idealism, and so forth.
I’m not really sure why you think this is “trivially true”. Is it only trivially true that biology and physics are distinct? If one’s epistemology asserts that method (a) is the only valid method for attaining knowledge about reality, then to admit of another method (b) to justify (a) would be to pull the rug out from that epistemology. This is exactly what happens to empiricism, and evidentialism as well.  
“However, consider that any metaphysical proposition is essentially a set of assumptions about what reality is.”
Not at all. You seem to think that metaphysicians simply wake up one morning and say “I’m going to postulate a concept called causation, let’s see how far I can go with it.” Metaphysicians begin with an observation of reality, and then derive their concepts. For example, a philosopher will see a billiard smash into another and, perhaps, abstract the concept of causation. Then, the philosopher will ask questions such as the following:

(1) Is this an example of event causation, or agent causation?

(2) Is causation simply the constant conjunction of events?

(3) Is causation transitive?

(4) Can causation be defined in more simplistic concepts, or is it irreducible and primitive?
Nothing in this endeavor is pure assumption. It is an abstraction of concepts from experience, followed by an inquiry into the nature and relations of these concepts. This is not something science can do, and it’s something that science relies on itself.

“So, unless we just want to engage in endless mental masturbation, metaphysical assumptions must be consistent with reality as we actually observe it.”
Maybe, or maybe not. It is arguable that there are metaphysical propositions so certain that no amount of empirical investigation can overturn. For example, we know that mathematics is based off of set theory which is based off of experience. (Just like the questions above are based on the concept of causation which has been abstracted from experience.) Some mathematics informs us of things we can be absolutely certain about, like 1+1=2. Now, what if we experienced a phenomenon such that every time we put two sticks together a third stick would spontaneously appear beside them? Would we then need to call into question our proposition that 1+1=2, and subsequently replace it with 1+1=3? Surely not.

“What I do know is that empiricism produces models of reality that reliably comport with independently verifiable observation. To paraphrase Stephen Hawking, science wins because it works. Empirical science has given us the ability to predict and manipulate the physical world.”
First, you seem to be pitting science and metaphysics against each other—Science wins because it works?--as if they were competing for a comprehensive view of reality. Science wins at describing the physical, metaphysics wins at describing the metaphysical, and that’s all there is to it—they are, contrary to what you say, complementary. The only out here is to claim that reality cannot be described by metaphysics. But this is, once again, self-refuting. You seem to want to assert that physics gives us as best and comprehensive a view of reality as we can obtain. But, to repeat ad nauseum, once you make a claim like that, you have ventured into metaphysics and ontology, and have (1) opened the door for metaphysical inquiry, and (2) put into question the very proposition that physics is our best lens into reality.

Second, of course science has given us the ability to predict and manipulate the physical world, that’s exactly what it was designed for. It was designed for pragmatic utility. But to claim that this allows us to declare science the victor over metaphysics is only to make a category mistake. Metaphysics is not in the game of utility, it is occupied with the fundamental structure of reality, and we have seen that, on pain of logical contradiction, science cannot take us this far.

“So when I'm presented with concepts like "potentiality" and "actuality", all I have to do is ask myself why I should believe they are descriptive of a fundamental reality, and not merely abstractions ascribed to the physical world by human minds. Is there any phenomenon, such as "change", that is either better explained or necessarily explained by potentiality and actuality? No.”
Personal incredulity is not enough to argue that concepts like act/potency are superfluous. The problem is that you’re trying to find the utility in utilizing these metaphysical concepts. And you think that since you can describe causation or change without reference to these concepts then they are unnecessary. But, you’re looking at it from the wrong perspective. It is not claimed that when describing change or causation one needs to use act/potency. Rather, it is claimed that the concepts of change and causation rely on these concepts in order to be intelligible. It must be true that the intelligibility of these concepts and concepts like them, of which I mentioned earlier, will not be illuminated by scientific inquiry. Science can say things like “event (a) exhibits causation,” but it cannot answer the question of what causation would need to entail for event (a) to participate in it.

“The laws of physics govern the interaction of objects in the physical universe, and the conservation of energy eliminates the need for a supernatural force to constantly intervene in or somehow govern the changes of energy and matter.”
The simple concepts of act/potency require no prima facie need for a supernatural force. By actuality one simply means the state whereby a substance is actual or existing, and by potentiality one means the potential realizations a substance can actualize. There is no need, at this level, for talk of supernatural forces. Act/potency are pure metaphysical concepts, and if one wants to utilize them for natural theology then we can determine whether this is valid or not, but the concepts themselves don’t necessitate such an endeavor.

“Potentiality and actuality simply add nothing useful whatsoever to our understanding of reality.”
You’re only begging the question here. As articulated above, they might not be necessary for an empirical description of reality, but they are quite necessary for a metaphysical description of reality. And to claim that the latter description is invalid is (1) self-refuting and (2) question-begging.

“The only reason you seem to assume their existence as fundamentally descriptive states of being is because Aquinas' argument from motion is meaningless drivel without that assumption.”
On the contrary, act/potency are metaphysical concepts just as foundational as identity, event, substance, composition etc. To claim that I only assume their existence for my own theological agenda is simply to beg the question.

“Occam's Razor tells us not to multiply assumptions beyond necessity. And I simply see no reason whatsoever to make the assumption that potentiality and actuality add any necessary descriptive value to our understanding of reality.”
You’re once again conflating the metaphysical with the physical. I concur that metaphysical concepts might not be necessary in describing events in physics—though I might not even go that far. But metaphysical concepts operate on a different plain than physical science.

Moreover, to claim that act/potency add no value to a description of reality is already to assume that reality can only be described in empirical terms. It is to beg the question in favor of empiricism. Act/potency surely add to metaphysical descriptions, and there is no logical way to deny the validity of metaphysical descriptions.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Harry McCall responds (sort of), and profundity does not ensue

Harry McCall and I have been engaging in a back and forth regarding his thesis that the OT—yes, the entire OT--is a forged document from the late second temple period. I wrote a blog post demonstrating logically, historically, and textually why McCall’s thesis is unreasonable. McCall has claimed that he will properly deal with my arguments. In the comment section of this recent post at DC, McCall claimed the following: I'm going to post a full article here at DC tonight (It's just about finished) that takes you [sic] blog's post apart piece by piece. However, McCall never posted this article that was supposedly “about finished”, or if he did I have yet to see it materialize.
What he did do, however, was post a short rebuttal comment to an argument I promulgated over at DC in the comment section. Is this the material he claimed was going to take up a full article? I can’t say. And why McCall did not post this “response” on his own blog instead of the comment section of my blog is strange. Usually McCall parades his idiosyncratic theses around the DC pages. But, when claiming to take my arguments apart “piece by piece” he seems to not want many to see his responses. And after reading his so-called rebuttals, I can clearly see why.
So, the purpose of this post is to demonstrate why McCall’s recent answer to my arguments fall short of the mark, are predicated on more non-sequiturs, and only deal with a small fraction of my original arguments.
Let me set the stage and begin with McCall’s argument, as articulated at DC, on how to “deprogram a Christian”:
  1.  Demand textual proof that any verse of the Old Testament was written before 200 BCE. (There's 23,145 verses to prove them right or wrong.)
  2. Demand historical proof (apart from using the New Testament to prove the New Testament) that Jesus Christ existed. (Let's see absolute truth prove itself.)

As you can see, 1) is predicated on McCall’s biblical forgery thesis, and 2) is predicated on Jesus Mythicism. My response was as follows:
How to Deconvert/Deprogram a believer in the writings of Tacitus
(1) Demand textual proof that any volume of Tacitus' Annals was written before the ninth century.

How to Deconvert/Deprogram a believer in the existence in Caesar Augustus
(2) Demand historical proof (apart from using the writers that already assume Augustus existed) that Augustus existed.

This response was put forward in order to demonstrate the double standards that McCall employs in making his historical arguments against the Bible and Jesus’ existence. And it is to this response that McCall has offered his so-called rebuttal. McCall’s response begins as follows:
We know Rome existed! We don’t need either the writings of Tacitus nor Caesar Augustus to prove this. There ARE tons of archeological evidence from the time they discuss that one can see in Rome and Italy today. However, there is totally NO evidence Biblical Israel existed as described in the extensive and detailed text of the Bible.

McCall’s assertions here greatly confuse me. I never argued that Rome did not exist. McCall’s and mine discussion has no bearing on the topic of the existence of Rome. Second, neither did I ever claim that the writings of Tacitus or Augustus were necessary in order to demonstrate such a thing. So, McCall’s comments here have only caused more confusion, and have not even begun to scratch the surface of my arguments against his thesis. McCall continues with his next objection:

Neither Tacitus nor Caesar Augustus give detail word for word statements from hundreds of people over thousands of years. While Steven wants to play down the myths of Adam, Eve and the talking Snake, Steven then depends heavily on the internal Biblical chronology itself to link it to some history, but sadly for him, there is none[.]

There are many responses here. First, McCall’s objection here seems to, once again, not even pertain to the discussion. Remember that the discussion, based off of McCall’s own thesis, regards whether or not we have any reason to believe that the Hebrew Bible was forged in the second temple period. McCall’s (attempted) point in the above comment is that the Bible claims to give history over many centuries while Tacitus’ writings—I never mentioned the writings of Augustus, so I fail to see why he uses Augustus here—only claim to give historical details over a period of decades. So, what exactly does this latter point have to do with McCall’s original thesis? I profess that I have no idea. Whether the Bible was a forged document has nothing whatsoever to do with how long its purported historical recollections are. This seems to be another non-sequitur, the mark of McCall.
Second, even if McCall’s above objection was efficacious, it fails to take into account the nature of the biblical data, and draws a false parallel between the OT and the writings of historians of antiquity. For remember that the OT is an anthology, and was therefore written by dozens of authors. So, of course it makes sense that the timeline of dozens of authors stretches across centuries, while the timeline of one historian only stretches across decades. What else would we expect?
Notice that nothing McCall has objected here has even touched upon my original objections to his thesis. McCall is attempting (though not succeeding) to pick off the fleas while ignoring the dog that the fleas rest on. McCall continues:

Sadly for Steve, he’ll find totally nothing like this for the works of Tacitus or Caesar Augustus nor the total lack of evidence for a Classical archeologist digging in Rome or the Roman Empire because the Roman Empire existed (unlike the myth of the Biblical Israel).

McCall once again seems to have blatantly missed the point. The discussion is not over the existence of Rome. Rather, the discussion is regarding whether or not we are warranted in extending the existence of a writing beyond its earliest existing manuscript, and how this ties into the biblical textual evidence. Apparently McCall has amnesia and has forgotten exactly what we are discussing.
McCall articulates his third and final objection:

A major error Steve is making in his analogy is early evidence for a book (the Bible) that records 4,000 years of history before Christianity. Steve come up totally empty hand for any early Biblical text apart from the late post 200 (250?) BCE Qumran Scrolls.

Um, ok. McCall is oblivious to the fact that I have already conceded this. I agree that we have no copy of a biblical text that dates to before 250 BCE. Did you catch that? I agree. But, McCall has missed the point yet again. The debate is not regarding the date of these texts, but, rather, whether we can date the originals of these writings to before our earliest copies. The answer is  of course we can! Again, to reiterate what I already said in my last post on this subject, nearly all writings from antiquity survive on copies that date to centuries after they were written. So, to claim that we can project an earlier date for the originals of these copies from antiquity, but not for the Bible, is to enact a double standard! McCall has heard all this before, but instead of reformulating his thesis so as to avoid special pleading, he simply ignores the damaging objections to it and continues to promulgate such weak hypotheses. McCall continues:

Neither Tacitus (born 100 BCE) or Tacitus (born 56 CE) claim to record in detail direct speeches from both men, angels, demons and god, but are late down to earth documents we would expect of ancient historians of the time[.]

McCall is, again, missing the point completely. First, the topic of the writings that we’re discussing is irrelevant. What is relevant is when we can date these texts. Just because the Bible claims to report speeches from angles, demons, and God says nothing at all about when we can date the writings of said texts. McCall has formed another non-sequitur.
Second, and more importantly, there are many writings from reliable historians in antiquity that can be put in a similar genre as some of the writings of the Hebrew Bible. Let us take Tacitus, since we have already been using him as our prime example. Tacitus recorded that Roman emperor Vespasian miraculously healed a blind man and a lame man. That is, Tacitus recorded a miracle! A miracle, you know, like the kind found in the…the Bible.

Let us look at another example from the great historian Herodotus. Herodotus records that a horse gave birth to a rabbit. He also records a supposed fulfilled prophecy from the God Apollo. He also records that a Persian magi cast a spell to stop the Persian War on the fourth day. Herodotus even records that the Temple of Delphi miraculously defended itself with lightning bolts and rock avalanches! After reading these accounts one might label Herodotus as a dubious historian. On the contrary, he has been dubbed the “Father of History” and is regarded as, arguably, the greatest historian in antiquity.

All this is to demonstrate that there are indeed miraculous accounts in other writings from antiquity that can be paralleled with biblical accounts. So, McCall cannot claim that the miraculous nature of the Hebrew Bible allows us to discount an early date for its composition—a blatant non-sequitur—unless he is willing to do the same for other writings from antiquity. But, so far, we have seen that he is not, for then his illogic would be explicitly manifest.
McCall then ends his comment by listing a number of textual documents that demonstrate that other ancient nations existed in antiquity. However, seeing as how I have not called into question the existence of these nations, I fail to see McCall’s logical punch-line. To reiterate ad nauseum, the discussion is about the warrant one has for dating a writing earlier than its oldest manuscript; and a list of other nation’s textual writings adds nothing to my objections to McCall’s thesis.
In short, McCall’s thesis remains predicated on illogic, double standards, and a blatant ignorance of the actual textual evidence. I have demonstrated this before, and McCall’s most recent answer is drowned in more of the same—double standards and non-sequiturs. But, as I said, this seems to be the mark of McCall.

Who are we to judge the Word of God?

As a Christian who does not hold to inerrancy, I come across a fair amount of negativity from fellow believers concerning my theological convictions. Some have even gone so far as to label me a heretic, or deny that I am indeed a fellow brother in Christ. However, despite some of the fierce attacks wielded towards my beliefs, I do, in fact, many times see where my fellow Christian interlocutor is coming from; and no more so than when they bring forward the present charge: if you are a non-inerrantist then you, by definition, find some error in the bible; therefore you discard what you find to be falsehood in scripture. By doing so you are putting yourself “over” scripture, and therefore God himself. Hence, you are raising your autonomous authority above God’s!

Now, let me admit that I do in fact understand what the inerrantist’s concern is here; and it is, indeed, a very serious accusation—one that should not be taken trivially. Who has the right to raise their authority above that of God? Is God one such that his truth is contingent on the whims of fallen humanity? Surely such a position would be the epitome of a sin against our creator!

Yet I maintain that to submit such a charge is only a wild mischaracterization on the part of the inerrantist.

First, the inerrantist seems to be forgetting a crucial aspect of the non-inerrantist position: we don’t believe the bible is authored by God in any direct sense. That is to say, we don’t believe that the human authors were only puppets or instrumental mediums that perfectly transmitted the “word” of God. This is, obviously, what constitutes the very rejection of inerrancy. So, since we don’t view the bible as authored by God then the whole charge losses tenability. How are we putting ourselves above God if God didn’t author the text to begin with? It would surely be foolish to think our authority supersedes God’s; yet if the bible is not inerrant then no such thought need cross our minds.

Second, I claim that even if the bible were inerrant, the above argument would still constitute a non-sequitur. The reason for this is that no one can avoid putting themselves “over” the text. Written mediums are of the very nature that the reader must exercise his authority over the text in order to interpret and decipher it; and the bible being a written medium necessitates that we do the same regarding it. So even if the bible were inerrant, God would have known that the transmission of his message was being filtered through a channel that necessitates using our own judgment.

However, this isn’t exactly what the inerranist is getting at. It’s not the act of interpreting that troubles him; rather, it’s the act of deciding, using our own arbitrary authority, which parts are valid and which parts contain falsehood.

This point is well received, but I still believe the inerrantist is accusing the non-inerrantist of something he himself cannot escape. While it might seem as if only the non-inerrantist is utilizing his arbitrary judgment –by deciding what he will or won’t accept in scripture as valid—I maintain that the inerrantists (and everyone for that matter) do the same. For a judgment is both positive and negative—that is to say, the inerrantist is still utilizing his own arbitrary judgment by affirming the whole of scripture—especially since the determination of what constitutes scripture is itself a judgment--as valid. It is not only the one who denies aspects of scripture that is putting his authority in place to judge said scripture. For the proposition “scripture is wholly true” is still a conclusion reached through an individual’s logical inference; and as such it constitutes a judgment predicated on the authority of what the inerrantist views as valid or reasonable.

Thus, it seems that, inerrantist or not, we are in the same boat here and the argument above loses weight unless the inerrantist is prepared to predicate it of himself. We were all meant to judge scripture; without the judgment of scripture there would, consequently, be no scripture.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Is the brain a computer? Part III

Let us return to our investigation of the theory of computationalism. I feel that our next topic of contention is best introduced by returning to naturalist Richard Carrier’s quote regarding the success of computationalism: “there is nothing a brain does that a mindless machine like a computer can’t do even today, in fact or in principle, except engage in the very process of recognizing itself.” Carrier’s assertion is well received. There are many things human beings can do that (seemingly) computers are also capable of (e.g., playing chess, carrying on a conversation etc.).

However, the question is immediately raised regarding whether or not computers actually carry out processes, or whether they in principle ever could, in the same manner a human brain does. Does a computer really “play” chess or does it just seem to? Does a computer carry on a conversation or does it just seem to? (Does anybody really believe they are having a conversation with Siri on their iphones?) The foremost defender of the view that a computer does not function similarly to human cognition is the naturalist philosopher John Searle. His thought experiment that attempts to demonstrate this assertion is known as the Chinese Room Argument.

For those unfamiliar with the Chinese Room Argument, it goes something like this. Imagine a unilingual English speaking man in a locked room. The room has a small “in” slot and “out” slot. Through this “in” slot is slipped Chinese symbols. The man in the room has a rulebook that tells him, in English, which Chinese symbols to send through the “out” slot based on the symbols received. The rulebook does not tell him the meaning of the symbols; it only tells him that if he receives a symbol that looks like “such and such”, he should respond with the different symbol “such and such”. To native Chinese speakers it would seem that the man inside the room speaks and understands Chinese.  But, obviously, the man speaks no Chinese whatsoever.

So what exactly does the Chinese Room demonstrate about the nature of digital computers? Well, in the thought experiment the man is doing exactly what a computer does—though admittedly to a much more simplistic degree—namely, manipulating symbols in adherence with an algorithm in which only syntax is emphasized. But the man in the Chinese Room does not understand the semantics behind the symbols he is manipulating; similarly, if a computer is simply programmed to manipulate symbols based on pure syntax then how can a computer be said to understand the meaning behind said symbols? We have once again run into a problem of semantics—something that humans intrinsically possess and produce, but that computers do not. Edward Feser summarizes the consequences: running a program, of whatever level of complexity, cannot suffice for understanding or intelligence; for if it did suffice, then [the man in the Chinese Room] would, simply by virtue of “running” the Chinese language program, have understood the language.

So, once again, we see that digital computers constitute a difference in kind from the human brain. A computer runs syntactically defined programs and algorithms, yet does not develop any type of semantic understanding of the symbols it’s manipulating. In contrast, the human mind can run syntactically defined programs and algorithms, yet it maintains, throughout, a complete semantic comprehension—and much of this semantic comprehension is antecedent to any syntactical manipulation!

Let us return to Carrier’s comment above regarding the “abilities” of computers. While a computer can run programs that simulate and mimic human behavior, this does not mean that the ontology behind the computer is the same as a human brain. A computer can simulate the moves in a game of chess, but it is not “playing” in any relevant sense of the word. A computer can simulate a conversation with a person, but it is not really “conversing” in any relevant sense of the word. A computer doesn’t understand what a pawn does, nor does it understand what a person is saying to it. It is only programed to give a certain range (sometimes thousands) of syntactical outputs based on a certain range of syntactical inputs. This is not intelligence; it is a pure mechanical process of manipulation.

Not only do computers not think or reason, as we have seen, in any relevant sense, but they don’t really show any signs of intelligence at all. The whole endeavor of creating Artificial Intelligence is simply nothing more than a misnomer. University of Oxford philosopher Luciano Floridi states that, “we have no intelligence whatsoever to speak in terms of AI today as you would expect it from a cognitive science perspective.” I maintain that, in principle, we never will—at least not as long as the man in the Chinese Room is only a difference in degree from computers.

In the next post we will examine the question regarding whether or not computers exhibit intentionality—obviously one of the most important features of human cognition.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Is the brain a computer? Part II

I’m continuing my series on the pitfalls and shortcomings of computationalism—the view that the mind is a kind of computer software implemented on the hardware of the brain. Last post we identified the fact that computers have no semantic significance in and of themselves, and they only receive such significance in the presence of intentional consciousness. Any analysis of the semantic content of computers can only lead right back to our minds, where we began.

Yet, this is not even the worst objection to be hurled at computationalism. I maintain that computationalism suffers from an even greater handicap than the inability to explain the mind: the denial of human rationality itself. That is to say, if the computationalist theory of the mind is correct, then there is no ontological ground for human rationality. Let me explain.

Remember, from the previous post, that computers are simply big hunks of plastic and metal with electrical currents running through them. They are by themselves devoid of any intrinsic meaning and significance. Furthermore, recall that when one types “1 + 1 =” on a computer and receives the symbol “2”, this is only because we have endowed the symbols “1”,”+”,”=” and “2” with their meaning; moreover, this program is only run correctly because computer science engineers have programmed it to do such a thing—it’s possible that we could have programmed it to yield a different answer. But this means that computers don’t really “compute” at all; it is we who compute, only utilizing the computer as a tool. But this also leads us to the conclusion that computers don’t really “think” either. At least not in any sense of what we mean by rational thought—the act or process of forming conclusions, judgments, or inferences based on previous premises or propositions.

Yet certainly computers give the illusion of thought. Computers have been designed so complex as to be capable of beating chess masters, carrying out difficult mathematical computations, and at least behaving as if they were conscious. In fact the illusion is so great that naturalist Richard Carrier states that “there is nothing a brain does that a mindless machine like a computer can’t do even today, in fact or in principle, except engage in the very process of recognizing itself”. Carrier goes so far as to claim that there is no illusion, and that computers do in fact think and reason just like humans. However, I maintain that once we shed some light on what exactly is going on when computers “think”, we will see that there is no thinking going on at all; and I believe that we need only return to an example given last post to demonstrate this.

Recall that a calculator would still yield “2” after the input “1 + 1 =” even if we changed the meaning of “2” to mean “waffle”, so that the semantic content would now be equivalent to one plus one is equal to waffle. Surely this is an incoherent logical sequence. Yet, the calculator, devoid of intrinsic meaning, is none the wiser. The change in semantic content has no effect on the operation and computation of the calculator. We could even change the meaning of “1 + 1 =” to “please display the message of waffle”, and yet the calculator would still continue to display this seemingly “logical” sequence of symbols—I owe the insight of such examples to philosopher Edward Feser, expounded in his books Philosophyof Mind and The Last Superstition.

The above example demonstrates that a calculator fails to think in any sense of the word. If we can change the semantic content of the symbols in a logical sequence such that the sequence subsequently fails to retain coherency, then any medium capable of rational thought should thereby adjust its sequence accordingly. But a computer will not do this—unless reprogrammed to account for the semantic change--because its causal efficacy is not based on semantic content; rather, its causal efficacy is based purely on electrochemical properties, governed by physical laws. The meaning of a particular state of a computer seems to play no role whatsoever in yielding any subsequent states. Therefore, the reason a computer transitions from one symbol to another has nothing to do with the meanings of said symbols; it only transitions from one symbol, or state, to another due to electrochemical properties the computer scientists have programmed it to utilize. Thus, everything that makes thought rational—the act of proceeding from one premise to another based on the semantic content of each premise in order to arrive at a logical inference coherent with each previous premise—is completely absent from the behavior of a computer.

So, if the brain is simply a type of computer, different in degree but not in kind, then there is no ontological foundation for human rationality. Computationalism is, in a sense, self-defeating—the computationalist upholds his theory because he believes it rational to do so, yet if computationalism is true then the brain cannot exhibit rationality; therefore, any conclusions reached through logical inference, such as computationalism, are non-rational, and are therefore unjustified.

Let it be emphasized, through a quick digression, that the above objection against computationalism is not only efficacious against computational theories of mind. Rather, I maintain, it deals a fatal blow to any naturalistic framework that attempts to ground human cognition in any purely physical, mechanical properties. Therefore, even if a naturalist is not a computationalist, he still runs into the problem of explaining rational thought in terms of non-rational causes—a difference in quality, not quantity.

In the next post we will examine John Searle’s Chinese Room Argument to demonstrate that although computers can act like a human brain, the ontology behind the former is wholly different, in kind, from the latter.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Is the brain a computer? Part I

In modern cognitive science and philosophy of mind, it has become quite reasonable to regard the human brain as analogous to, or even identical to, digital computers. This might seem quite plausible from a prima facie standpoint. Our mental states can seem to be nothing more than functional, mechanical states of cause and effect, input and output. Moreover, our minds seem to exhibit “computational” and algorithmic behavior that could be compared to highly complex digital computers. In this view, known as computationalism, the brain is simply a piece of hardware whereby the mind acts as a kind of computer software embedded on it. Naturalist Richard Carrier is one adherent of such a theory (emphasis mine): Cognitive science has established that the brain is a computer that constructs and runs virtual models.

Although computationalism is a widely held view, though not as widely held as Carrier insinuates, I maintain that it is not without major defeaters. These next few posts will deal with the—what I view to be insurmountable—problems of computationalism, and exactly how these problems will most likely not be overthrown by any potential advances in cognitive science. That is to say, the problems with computationalism are metaphysical problems and, therefore, it is argued that no findings in cognitive science will ever resolve these problems.


The first objection to computationalism is the absolute dependence of computers on intentional consciousness for their meaning. David Bentley Hart, in his book The Experience of God, explains:

A computer does not even really compute. We compute, using it as a tool. We can set a program in motion to calculate the square root of pi, but the stream of digits that will appear on the screen will have mathematical content only because of our intentions, and because we—not the computer—are running algorithms. The computer, in itself, as an object or a series of physical events, does not contain or produce any symbols at all; its operations are not determined by any semantic content but only by binary sequences that mean nothing in themselves.

What Hart is articulating is that computers are not computers at all apart from our own intentional consciousness. The number “2” that appears on a calculator only represents the mathematical concept two because we have embedded it with such meaning. That symbol on the calculator has no intrinsic meaning in and of itself. Were all humans to vanish off the face of the earth, that symbol “2” would be rendered nothing more than a meaningless pixilated squiggle.

This point is upheld even with regards to programs and algorithms run on computers. When I type in “1”, “+”, “1”, “=”, and the computer yields a symbol of “2”, one might interpret this as the computer “thinking” in some sense. For hasn’t the computer itself added one and one to yield a correct answer of two? Well, yes the computer has yielded a correct answer, but this was not done by any “thinking” on the part of the computer. For if we, instead, decided to embed the symbol “2” with the meaning “waffle” then the computer would now still be running the same mechanical program, and yet the semantics behind the program would be incoherent! The original program of adding one and one to yield two only works because we have implemented such symbols, and therefore the program itself, with the correct meanings; but, without our own intentional consciousness grounding the meaning, the program, and the computer itself, are literally meaningless. Hart articulates once more that “[s]oftware no more ‘thinks’ than a minute hand knows the time or the printed word ‘pelican’ knows what a pelican is.” A computer only computes because we give it such a value. Anything could in principle be used as a computational device.
So, what exactly is the significance of the above objection? Well, philosopher Edward Feser articulates:

If computation is observer-relative, then that means that its existence presupposes the existence of observers, and thus the existence of minds; so obviously, it cannot be appealed to in order to explain observers or minds themselves.[…][I]t is computation that must get explained in terms of the human mind, not the human mind in terms of computation.

What Feser is demonstrating is that all computation is dependent on intentional consciousness. Therefore, computationalism, which attempts to explain the mind, and therefore consciousness, cannot provide the ontological foundation for consciousness since computation of any kind already requires consciousness in order to count as computation in the first place.  Computationalism is trying to account for the thing it already presupposes! Has a journey ever seemed so wrong-headed?

In the next post in this series it will be demonstrated that computationalism fails to account for human reason itself.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Presuppositionalism and metaphysical conflation

Presuppositionalism is a Christian apologetic method that seems to be invading Christian theology as of late; ever since presuppositionalism was first promulgated by Cornelius Van Til it has been gaining more and more adherents. This, I believe, is to be expected, because presuppositionalism seems prima facie plausible and even intellectually appealing. Yet, after a closer glance towards the philosophical underpinnings of presuppositionalism, I maintain that it can be demonstrated to rest on egregious conflations and misunderstandings. It is one—there are many more—of these conflations that will occupy our attention at the present moment.

Let us begin with a quick formulation of presuppositionalism. Presuppositionalism is a method whereby one defends the Christian worldview, yet it attempts to complete this journey through a peculiar path. Presuppositionalism disagrees with all other methods of rational inquiry by beginning epistemologically with God, and scripture, whereas all other methods begin with man as their reference point. Presuppositionalism claims that every man adheres to an ultimate authority, and that the ultimate authority must be God and the Bible, as opposed to human autonomy. Moreover, since this authority is ultimate, it must be the light that illuminates all the facts we interpret. It must be the presupposition under which we bring our thoughts into conformity; that is, it must be the ultimate foundation that supports all our inferences. In his Defense of the Faith, Cornelius Van Til, the father of presuppositionalism, states the following:

It is the actual existence of the God of Christian theism and the infallible authority of Scripture which speaks to sinners of this God that must be taken as the presupposition of the intelligibility of any fact in the world.

A presupposition, as formulated in this context, is analogous to that of an axiom or a postulate. If something is presupposed then it is something which does not need justification, which is self-evident, and which provides the foundation for subsequent inferences—i.e. all premises can be traced back to this presupposition. Therefore, the presuppositionalist maintains that God and scripture must be one’s presupposition, and that this presupposition does not need justification, is self-evident, and provides the foundation for all rational inquiry. But, how does one arrive at such a thesis as claiming that God and scripture can be assumed as such a presupposition? Van Til articulates:

As Christians we hold that determinate human experience could work to no end, could work in accordance with no plan, and could not even get under way, if it were not for the existence of the absolute will of God. It is on this ground then that we hold to the absolute will of God as the presupposition of the will of man.

My interest is only to show that it 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.

Van Til is claiming that if Christianity is true, then the whole of human experience depends ontologically on God. Therefore, our being depends on God’s being, and thus God’s consciousness must be presupposed in every instance of our consciousness.

Yet, this is where presuppositionalists have made a huge error. While the above formulations by Van Til seem appealing, to Christians, they, nevertheless, rest on a fallacious bait-and-switch whereby ontology is conflated with epistemology. That is, Van Til makes a claim regarding our existence being somehow dependent upon (or beginning with) God and then infers that our epistemology must also be dependent upon (and begin with) God. But, there is no reason to believe that the origin of being is equivalent to the origin of knowledge. Now, I as a Christian believe in God and, therefore, believe that our being is grounded in and finds its origination in God. But, this does not mean that our knowledge, therefore, must also begin with God. As R.C. Sproul says, “The order of being is not equivalent to the order of knowledge.” For example, our being is in some (secondary) sense caused by and begins with our parents, but it does not follow that our knowledge is also caused by and begins with our parents.

Furthermore, not only is the presuppositionalist’s jump from ontology to epistemology unwarranted, but, even if the jump were warranted, it seems to betray the nature of epistemology itself. For, in order for one to gain knowledge, they must begin with themselves—that is, with their own consciousness as their starting point (hence, Descartes cogito ergo sum). But, if we must begin with ourselves as the epistemological starting point, then how can we, as the presuppositionalist asserts, begin with God? Moreover, how is it even possible to begin outside of ourselves epistemologically? Surely such a venture is incoherent. Yet, this is what must take place if God and scripture are to be presupposed. Thus, it seems that presuppositionalists have simply misunderstood the nature of epistemology.

What we have witnessed is that the foundational claim of presuppositionalism—that God and scripture must be presupposed—rests on a conflation of ontology and epistemology, as well as a simple misunderstanding of the nature of how we acquire knowledge in the first place. A method that misconstrues so many fundamental aspects of philosophy should, obviously, not be adhered to.