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.