Friday, July 25, 2014

Semantics and the mind

Last week I posted an article devoted to articulating the famous Argument from Reason (AfR). This argument attempts (and succeeds, in my opinion) to demonstrate that if naturalism were true, then there would be no such thing as reason. The AfR goes about demonstrating this by first highlighting the nature of reasoning. Reasoning, according to David Bentley Hart, is “to proceed from one premise or proposition or concept to another, in order ideally to arrive at some conclusion, and in a coherent sequence whose connections are determined by the semantic content of each of the steps taken”. The AfR then contrasts this account of reasoning with “reasoning” on a naturalistic worldview. See, for the naturalist all that exists are material processes governed by the laws of physics. But, this means that the cause of “reasoning,” on naturalism, is not semantics and meaning, but only electrochemical properties in the brain—there’s more subtlety to the argument than this, this is simply a quick summarization. Thus, it is argued, there would be no such thing as reason on a naturalistic worldview.

After articulating this argument on the aforementioned post, a frequent and attentive commenter named Ray posted some of his objections in the comment section. One of these objections I found to be quite substantive, and thus I felt the need to write a post addressing it.

His objection was that the AfR makes a hidden assumption that needs to be supported. The AfR contrasts semantics and meaning (the basis of reasoning) with purely material processes, and it claims that the former constitutes reasoning and the latter does not. However, the naturalist believes that semantics and meaning themselves are also the result of purely material processes, and therefore the proponent of AfR is creating a false dichotomy. He makes it seem as if the naturalist must choose between a rational cause—grounded in meaning and semantics—or a non-rational one—both choices leading to a rejection of naturalism. However, if meaning and semantics are themselves the result of material processes then there is no such choice for the naturalist—that is, there is no choice between a process grounded in non-material causes and material causes, since on naturalism all causes are ultimately material in nature. Thus stated, the proponent of AfR needs to demonstrate that semantics and meaning are not reducible to material causes before the AfR can be valid.

I do believe that this is a good and valid objection to the AfR. So let us see if semantics can indeed be reduced to the material. Let’s begin with an example. Take the symbol “2”. What does it stand for? Well, it stands for the concept of “two”, derived from set theory to represent the set containing two elements (II). But, it’s important to point out that the symbol “2” does not contain this meaning intrinsically. If that were true, then the symbol “2” would necessarily have to have represented the concept “two”. But the symbol “2” is completely arbitrary. In fact, it’s quite possible that we humans could have designated “2” to represent the number “five” instead, or it could have represented the concept of “love,” as opposed to a heart, if we so chose to embed it with that meaning.

Another way to demonstrate this is by imagining a primitive tribe that actually does take the symbol “2” to mean “love”. Now, if this were a true state of affairs then we could ask the question, “What does ‘2’ mean?” And the answer would be that it depends. To us it means “two” and to the tribe it means “love”. All this means that the symbol “2” by itself is intrinsically nothing but a meaningless squiggle. Its meaning is only grounded in minds who impart meaning to it. And what’s crucial here is that we can say the same regarding any symbol.

Hence, symbols can only exhibit derived meaning, and thus their semantic value is of a secondary, and borrowed order. But, symbols are the only type of meaning that we’ve seen material things exhibit, and therefore our conclusions regarding the secondary semantic nature of symbols applies to the physical as well. Thus stated, we arrive at the following conclusions regarding the physical. First, the physical and material can only gain meaning from a mind. (This of course demonstrates that naturalism cannot account for the semantic content of the mental, because meaning already presupposes the mental, and it cannot therefore account for it without arguing in a circle.) Second, meaning is not intrinsic to the physical, but is only derived, or borrowed.

I maintain that all this suffices to show that the skeptic’s challenge has been met. It has been demonstrated that semantics and meaning cannot be reduced to the material. Therefore, since semantics cannot be reduced to the material, then the contrast between rational and non-rational causes that the AfR promulgates is valid. Thus stated, the AfR stands and refutes naturalism.

Moreover, even if the above demonstrations didn’t lend validation to the AfR, they would still land a fatal blow to any naturalist theory of mind. For, to reiterate, if the phenomena of the mental cannot be reduced to the material, then naturalism is in jeopardy. And I maintain that we have done just such a thing by demonstrating that semantics cannot be found in the material, but must be predicated of the mental alone. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

The argument from reason

Let us examine the following familiar syllogism: 1) All men are mortal, 2) Socrates is a man, 3) Therefore, Socrates is mortal. This syllogism is logically sound, and it can be reasonably seen why the conclusion follows from the premises. But, how exactly is it the case that we reasonably deduce the conclusion? Well, it’s the case because we understand the semantics behind every proposition in the syllogism. That is, we clearly comprehend what 1) and 2) mean, and we logically deduce the third proposition (the conclusion) based on the meaning of the preceding premises. This is the process of reasoning, namely, making deductions based on the semantic content of previous concepts, propositions or ideas. Thus stated, our deduction from 1) and 2) to 3) is based on meaning, semantics, and reason.

Now what is going on psychologically when we make our way, logically, through this line of reasoning? Well, we have a brain state and a mental state associated with upholding premise 1), and the same with regards to 2) and 3). The brain state is just what is happening electrochemically in my brain when I uphold a certain proposition or thought, and the mental state is the associated with the actual mental apprehension of said proposition or thought. (Note: even if one is an eliminative materialist and therefore doesn’t believe mental states exist, the distinction between brain and mental states is not crucial to my present argument, and would actually make the force of the argument stronger.) It should be obvious that brain states and mental states are different with regards to the different propositions we are upholding. That is to say, the brain state and mental state we have for 1), will be different from the brain and mental state we have for 2), and 3).

However, one immediately encounters a problem with the above promulgations if one is a naturalist. Why? Well, remember that a naturalist believes that all that exists is mindless matter, or energy, governed by the laws of physics. A corollary of this is that any thoughts (and, therefore, any mental states) are ultimately the result of physical processes swinging to the tune of physics. But, this means that the mental states associated with upholding 1), 2) and 3) are ultimately grounded in, and caused by, the electrochemical properties of brain states.  A consequence of this is that when the brain state associated with 3) succeeds 2), which succeeds 1), this succession was the result of only physical laws acting on the matter that makes up these brain states.

But, this completely conflicts with what we expounded above, namely, that is it the meaning and semantics associated with our syllogism that causes us to arrive at such a deduction. On the naturalistic account of the world, when one makes their way down the syllogism, it is not the meaning or semantics that leads one there, but, rather, purely  mindless electrochemical processes. But this means that, on naturalism, it is not reason-- making deductions based on the semantic content of previous concepts, propositions or ideas—that grounds our thinking. In fact, based on what we’ve discovered, there is no room for such a thing as reason on naturalism!

The naturalist position, then, results in a reductio ad absurdum. That is, if naturalism were true, then we could not reason, which means we could not arrive at the conclusion of naturalism, since to do so would require reasoning deductively. Naturalism, therefore, cannot possibly be true.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Meeting the Mormons

A few weeks ago I had two young Mormon boys ride up to my house—you know the picture—prepared to tell me the good news that Joseph Smith had to offer me. I’m actually quite ignorant when it comes to Mormon theology, so I felt it might be interesting to invite them in and see what they had to say. They were very friendly and inviting, and seemed to be genuine “god-fearing” individuals. We proceeded to sit down, whereby the elder began the discussion with a prayer.
After the prayer they began by asking what I knew of Mormonism, and though I knew a little, I asked them to enlighten me as best they could. The novice (unfortunately, I don’t remember his name) decided to demonstrate why and where the Mormon church came from, and began by speaking of the early Christian church. He basically stated that after the apostles were martyred, there was no longer any authoritative appointed leadership in the church. This immediately struck me as blatantly false, since he was only begging the question regarding in what fashion church leadership is constituted as authoritative or divinely appointed. (Also, I’m not sure the Catholic Church would have agreed with such a statement.) Nevertheless, I stayed silent and respectfully listened to this young gentleman—I call him young as if I’m old, heck, I’m only twenty three—finish his point. He continued by claiming that this loss of leadership in the church is what led to the current Christian denominational branching that has taken place lo these past two-thousand years.

The novice continued by telling the story of Joseph Smith. Smith apparently prayed to God and asked him which church was the One True Church. God replied that none of them were, and subsequently arranged it so that Smith could translate some ancient golden tablets—which said that Jesus apparently found it necessary to float over to the Americas and evangelize to the Native Americans--and found Mormonism— which would now be the One True Church. Such is the happy ending of the Church of Latter Day Saints.

After the novice finished with his elucidation, I had several thoughts floating in my head. I knew I could attack the historical credibility of such a story, though I know the Mormons have several “explanations” for the complete lack of historical evidence of said story. But, I decided to take a much more subtle approach. I conceded the fact that Christianity has thousands of denominations, and that this manifests problems regarding whether or not there exists a “One True Church” (I bet it’s my church!). Then I asked them a question of my own, based on pure curiosity: “Does the Church of Latter Day Saints have any denominational splits?” The novice answered (apparently the elders don’t speak as much) that there have been a few splits in the church, but that the church recognizes these as apostates. Well well well, I think my point was made right there. His central argument against the complete validity of Christianity, and for the validity of Mormonism, was that Christianity has too many denominations, and this obviously blurs the lines between what constitutes orthodoxy and heresy. But, here was Mormonism with the same problems. I mean think about it, Christianity has been around for two-thousand years, and Mormonism has only been around for a few centuries. Give them a few more hundred years and you’ll see the same thing happen, namely, dozens and dozens of Mormon denominations.

After making this point I asked them how the unique truth of Mormonism can be validated by the disparity of Christianity churches, when Mormonism is already showing signs of the same. They quickly changed their tune, by then claiming that their leaders are divinely appointed. Well, if you say so! They seemed oblivious to the fact that the same argument could be promulgated by the Catholics regarding the Pope. I asked how I could know that their leaders are divinely inspired, as opposed to, say, my own pastor. They answered that the preaching of their leaders registers with their spirit and that’s how they know. Well…alright. I’m sure the reader can predict what my response was. The discussion ended with them handing me a Book of Mormon (yay!) and suggesting a few passages to read. “Just read it, pray, and let the Spirit lead you” they said, to which I replied “you got it!”

Needless to say, the discussion went just as I had expected. There were objective claims made in order to validate Mormonism, but when these claims were shown to be empty, they resorted to the old “let God lead you there” line. And obviously God has not done so. (Although The Mormon Agnostic might have a better ring to it!)


Saturday, July 5, 2014

Brute facts and naturalism

Many naturalists are naturalists for the very reason that they believe that talk of God or the supernatural is superfluous. That is, it is seen by them to be unnecessary to posit anything ontologically “outside” the universe. To ask for more and more explanations on top of the material universe is to upset the principle of parsimony. “Why can’t the universe simply be, with no rhyme or reason?” the naturalist wonders.

The nature of this position is that the naturalist is basically calling the universe a brute fact. A brute fact is simply something that admits of no explanation. To ask the “why” question of a brute fact is to receive the answer “it just is that way, for no reason”. Now, this is obviously not a satisfying answer, but whether or not a position is satisfying says nothing regarding its validity. So, the question should be posed regarding whether or not admission of a brute fact is logically valid. My position: it is not.

To illuminate my position, let us take us detour aimed at an explanation of, well, explanation. To ask for an explanation of something is to ask for a reason whereby that thing becomes intelligible. Let me utilize an example from mathematics to illustrate my point. (Warning: nerdy math terms ahead.) In Calculus there is a concept known as a derivative. A derivative basically tells you the rate of change at the exact moment of a function, it’s also known as the instantaneous rate of change. Now, in order to understand instantaneous rate of change, one first needs to understand the average rate of change, because instantaneous rate of change is just the limit, at a specific point, of the average rate of change. But, in order to comprehend the average rate of change, one first needs to understand rate of change itself, also known as slope (remember slope from algebra?). (Ok, the mathematical nerdage is over, go take a walk, or something, and come back.) All this is to say that the concept of a derivative is explained by average rate of change, which is explained by slope. This means that a derivative is made intelligible by average rate of change, which is made intelligible by slope.

This leads us to the conclusion that explanation is somewhat of a transitive relation. That is, if A explains B, and B explains C, then A in turn explains C. This means that the explanation of C is ultimately dependent on A. To return to our math example, this means that the concept of a derivative is ultimately dependent on the concept of slope. This is all to say that explanation, and intelligibility, is imparted by higher members of an explanatory series to the lower members. A imparts explanation and intelligibility to B, and B imparts it to C. So notice that if A does not impart explanation to B, then B has no explanation to impart to C. Taking derivatives into account, if slope is unintelligible, then it has no explanation to give to derivatives, and derivatives would likewise be unintelligible.

So, how does this all affect the position of admitting of brute facts? Well, it means, quite frankly, that brute facts are impossible. Remember that a brute fact admits of no explanation; that is, there is no reason whereby its existence becomes intelligible. But, this means that it has no explanation to give, or impart, which means that it cannot be a participant in an explanatory chain, and certainly cannot be the first member in an explanatory chain. Yet this is exactly what the naturalist wants, namely, explanation to terminate in the brute fact of the existence of the universe. But we’ve seen that this is exactly what cannot be done. That is to say, explanation cannot terminate in the universe, as a brute fact.

Moreover, we can demonstrate this in another facet. If explanation is imparted in an explanatory chain, then we can formulate the following proposition: If (x) is intelligible, then the explanatory chain leading down to (x) contains no brute facts. Why can we say this? Because if (x) is intelligible, then it has a reason whereby it is rendered intelligible—otherwise it is unintelligible. And since explanation and intelligibility are imparted, we can say that for (x) to be intelligible, every member in the explanatory chain leading down to (x) must also be intelligible—again, otherwise intelligibility is not imparted at some point in the chain—and therefore every member is not a brute fact.

So, remember that explanation, for the naturalist, terminates in the universe. That is, all explanations end up leading to the existence of the universe, which admits of no explanation and is a brute fact. But this would mean, per the contrapositive of our above proposition, that if the universe were a brute fact, then any explanation that ultimately ends in the universe—you know, everything contained in the universe, e.g., matter, energy, stars, planets etc.—would be unintelligible. However, these things inside the universe are intelligible, and since they are intelligible, we can assuredly say that the universe is not a brute fact