Naturalism is a Strange Belief

Naturalism is a strange belief. It's one thing to hold that it might be true, and quite another to say that it's definitely true, or almost certainly true. Yet there are committed naturalists, just as there are committed Christians.

I understand there is a kind of symmetry here: naturalists think Christianity is a strange belief. On one level I have to agree: we take it as true that everything in all history turns on the life of a wandering teacher and miracle worker who lived two thousand years ago. If it weren't for a confluence of completely unique and remarkable facts about Jesus Christ, the whole idea would be quite unbelievable.

But nowhere near as much as naturalism, by which in this context I mean the idea that nothing exists in all reality but matter and energy, interacting according to necessity (what we call natural law) and chance (according to the most common interpretations of quantum theory). Now there are other varieties of naturalism that do not take this strict physicalist view and I am not speaking of them here.* To believe in naturalism requires believing in a truly preposterous menagerie of ideas that go with it.

For example, it requires believing that personality, rationality, consciousness, identity, purpose, meaning, worth, and the moral significance of life all came out of a reality that excludes every one of these.

We look back at pre-Copernican views of the cosmos, and we smile at the naïveté of thinking the earth was at the center of everything. But that error has nothing on naturalism today: for naturalism requires believing that the things that make us human are absolutely and completely different from anything that is true of anything else anywhere in all reality. We are absolutely different from everything else that exists, and markedly higher, too, for no discernible reason whatsoever.

Either that, or else naturalism takes unguided evolution to be a “reason;” but there is no reason for evolution. If unguided evolution is true, then it is an explanation, but an explanation is not always a reason, especially when it is driven entirely by randomness and chance, as evolution is: for evolution is only randomness plus natural selection; and natural selection is no creative force: it is only a conserver, never an inventor. It is the survival and reproduction of that which survives and reproduces, and the demise of that which doesn't. It is nothing else but that. To reify natural selection as some kind of creative force would be almost as misguided as to assign to it a sense of purpose.

There is no reason to randomness. Evolution could be an explanation, but it could not be a reason for anything. There is especially no reason for evolution to have made a species like ours. Humanness — that which makes us truly distinct, as already mentioned above — would be a strange thing indeed for randomness to have produced.

Either that, or else naturalism requires believing, as many naturalists say they do, that some or all of these things are not real but illusions. Our conceit of being the highest animal is, as Peter Singer puts it, a disreputable sort of “speciesism.” Consciousness is an illusion, say Paul and Patricia Churchland. Morality is a fraud perpetrated on us by evolution, says Michael Ruse. Free will is fake, says Sam Harris. Thinking doesn't exist, thinks Alex Rosenberg.

And yet Rosenberg thinks. Sam Harris chooses. Michael Ruse has moral values he upholds. The Churchlands wake up in the morning, arising to consciousness. And Singer writes his books and articles to humans as if we have a responsibility for our species and for others: he doesn't make the same demands on dolphins and chimpanzees.

Naturalism requires one to believe humans are special for no reason at all, or else to deny that we are special at all. Either option is odd. Naturalism is a strange belief. It's one thing to hold that it is possibly true (though that strains credulity beyond my personal reach). It's another thing altogether — and one can only pause to contemplate what might be the reason for it — for anyone to think it's definitely true, or almost certainly true.

*I could have used the word physicalism throughout, but I find in my reading that naturalism is the more frequently used term. And to write “strict physicalist naturalism” every time would be awkward.

Comments 77
  1. John Moore

    In order to convince a naturalist to agree with your viewpoint, you must first show that you understand the naturalist’s viewpoint. There’s no way you can offer something better, if you don’t even know what it’s better than. Please try harder to understand the naturalist’s viewpoint. Use your wisdom. Pray about it. Surely you can do better than this!

    I’m suggesting this post is one big straw man. You might argue that it’s not a straw man, etc. Well, it’s no good for you to say that – the naturalist has to say it himself. Yes, the naturalist must first admit that you understand his viewpoint, and only then do you have a chance to convince him. So your first goal should be to get the naturalist to admit that you truly understand his viewpoint.

    Christians are always telling me what atheists believe, or what naturalism is, or what evolution means. You should stop telling and start asking. And then listen. I don’t think you’ve been a good listener.

    It’s not a lost cause. You really can convert an atheist to Christianity if you do it with sincerity. Why are you trying all these rhetorical tricks? Surely you don’t want to trick someone into becoming a Christian. You want to show them the real truth of Christ, right? All these straw men just get in your way and block the light of Christ from coming into the unbeliever’s life.

  2. Tom Gilson

    Let me direct the reader to my extended discussion with Tom Clark director of the Center for Naturalism.

    Sometimes my purpose is to speak to naturalists in way you’ve advised, John, but this time I was just reflecting on what I really do think naturalism entails.

    Of course if there is something here that I have misunderstood about naturalism’s entailments, then I will be glad to talk about that further.

    I will at this point, however, edit something in to the OP to clarify that there are varieties of naturalism and of naturalist thinking, and this only applies to strict physicalist naturalism. That’s a necessary correction, and I appreciate the opportunity you’ve given me to see I missed it.

  3. JAD

    Here is how The Center for Naturalism briefly defines the naturalistic worldview:

    Naturalism, in essence, is simply the idea that human beings are completely included in the natural world: there’s nothing supernatural about us. Naturalism is based on science as the best, most reliable means for discovering what exists. Science shows that each and every aspect of a human being comes from and is completely connected to the natural world, and is understandable in terms of those connections.
    http://www.centerfornaturalism.org/descriptions.htm

    There are a couple of specific claims are being made here:

    (1) “Naturalism is based on science as the best, most reliable means for discovering what exists.”

    Has this been scientifically proven or is it just an assertion?

    Why as a skeptic should I accept it if it’s just an assertion?

    Is it the only means of discovering what exists?

    (2) “Science shows that each and every aspect of a human being comes from and is completely connected to the natural world, and is understandable in terms of those connections.”

    What do they mean by “Science shows”? Has science proven “that each and every aspect of a human being comes from and is completely connected to the natural world?”

    It appears to me then that Naturalism itself is based on some assumptions which not only have not been proven by science but are not even in principle provable by science. So as an outsider and a skeptic why should I give naturalism any serious consideration at all? Why should I prefer it over other philosophical world views?

  4. Tom Gilson

    Thanks for that, JAD. Here indeed is another seriously strange belief, that “Science shows that each and every aspect of a human being comes from and is completely connected to the natural world, and is understandable in terms of those connections.”

    Science hasn’t done that. As you say, there’s no compelling reason to believe that science could do that, apart from some prior assumption that the world is made only of the sort of things that science can explain.

  5. BSquibs

    I think it is important to point out that science doesn’t deal in proofs. This is why theory X can in principle be overthrown given sufficient evidence.

  6. JAD

    @BSquibs

    True, but it does not appear that the strict physicalist naturalists got that memo. They appear to be under the illusion that not only are there scientifically proven theories but their world view has been scientifically proven as well. But then, on the other hand, they use illusion to help them explain a lot of things. Maybe this time, ironically, it explains their thinking.

  7. JAD

    Consider some of the things that at least some physicalists consider to be illusions: consciousness is an illusion, mind is an illusion, life having meaning and purpose is an illusion or objective moral values are illusions…

    Let me say a couple of things. First, if mind and thought are illusions, why should I trust the any conclusion that I reach using my mind?

    Second, if we turn the tables and start at the other extreme, and consider the idea that the external world is an illusion or a virtual reality, is that a logical possibility? If it is, how do we know that that isn’t the true state of affairs?

    In other words, beginning with open minded skepticism, why should I believe the physicalist over any other possible view of the world?

  8. SteveK

    Here’s an interesting testimony of one former atheist who concluded that atheistic naturalism is indeed the more strange belief.

    First, morality. Non-theistic morality, to my mind, tended towards two equally problematic camps: either it was subjective to the point of meaninglessness or, when followed logically, entailed intuitively repulsive outcomes, such as Sam Harris’s stance on torture. But the most appealing theories which could circumvent these problems, like virtue ethics, often did so by presupposing the existence of God. Before, with my caricatured understanding of theism, I’d considered that nonsensical. Now, with the more detailed understanding I was starting to develop, I wasn’t so sure.

    Next, metaphysics. I soon realised that relying on the New Atheists for my counter-arguments to the existence of God had been a mistake: Dawkins, for instance, gives a disingenuously cursory treatment of St Thomas Aquinas in The God Delusion, engaging only with the summary of Aquinas’s proofs in the Five Ways – and misunderstanding those summarised proofs to boot. Acquainting myself fully with Thomistic-Aristotelian ideas, I found them to be a valid explanation of the natural world, and one on which atheist philosophers had failed to make a coherent assault.

  9. BillT

    Would John Moore like to explain just what straw men Tom used. Would John Moore like to explain just what Tom doesn’t understand about naturalism. Would John Moore like to explain just how Tom hasn’t listened to what naturalists have said. Or does John Moore just like to post vague generalities and hope they pass for actual argumentation.

  10. Keith

    JAD @7:

    Why should you trust your mind’s conclusions? Because you have no alternative.

    Imagine you have a leaky bucket, but it carries some water, and over time people have figured out ways to make leaky buckets work better (maybe a friend holds her leaky bucket underneath yours and the holes don’t align so less water spills).

    What I’m hearing you say is “I have no choice but to use this leaky bucket, so by fiat I’m declaring my bucket doesn’t leak.”

    We don’t know the external world is not an illusion or a virtual reality.

    Why should you believe the physicalist over any other possible view of the world? Because the physicalist has managed to describe an apparently shared, repeatable experience, which none of our other approaches have done.

    Or, as Dawkins rather famously put it: It works.

    My position on religion and the value of human experience as evidence would be different if religious people were to describe their religious experiences or their gods in any common, consistent way. That religious adherents have sharply different, culturally biased, experiences of religion is not a point in religion’s favor.

    Steve K. @8:

    Megan Hodder’s article made me cry a little.

    Sam Harris may be right or wrong — that’s not the point — but to flatly state “I don’t like the conclusions to which this argument leads, therefore I decided the argument is flawed”, well, I just don’t know where to go with that.

    Clearly, she’s decided her bucket doesn’t leak.

  11. Melissa

    Keith,

    Why should you believe the physicalist over any other possible view of the world? Because the physicalist has managed to describe an apparently shared, repeatable experience, which none of our other approaches have done.

    It’s managed to describe a select portion of our experience. It “works” for a select potion of our experience. It declares that much of our shared experience is illusion purely because it doesn’t fit into that worldview. All I can say is that you have a vastly lower expectation for what makes a reasonable belief.

    Also if you want to make an argument against Christianity on the basis of cultural bias you will have to show how the atheist materialists worldview is not similarly culturally biased. Good luck with that.

  12. Tom Gilson

    At the risk of redundancy with Melissa’s response:

    Why should you believe the physicalist over any other possible view of the world? Because the physicalist has managed to describe an apparently shared, repeatable experience, which none of our other approaches have done.

    An apparently shared, repeatable experience? Mescaline can do that! Is that what you meant?

    And what about all the shared experiences physicalism can’t “describe:” the experience of red, for example. (I don’t mean a description of the electromagnetic waves associated with red.) What about thinking? Has physicalism described that? What about feeling love? Physicalism has identified some hormones and neurotransmitters associated with the feeling, but the feeling itself? Nope. What about modus ponens? Can physicalism describe what makes it logically useful? What about explanation? Can physicalism explain explanation?

    What about description? Can physicalism even explain the very thing you said it could accomplish there in that assertion? Can it explain just how it is that the use of verbal and mathematical language can cause two people to have a somewhat veridical sense of what some external thing actually is like—with its properties, the qualia associated with it, its relations (logical, physical, temporal, etc.) with other objects and with ourselves?

    If you think you have anything here like an argument for the comprehensive adequacy of physicalism, then I would be most intrigued to hear it!

  13. Tom Gilson

    You also say,

    That religious adherents have sharply different, culturally biased, experiences of religion is not a point in religion’s favor.

    Strongly agree. I don’t think anyone should believe in religion. I don’t think anyone does.

  14. Tom Gilson

    Further on this:

    Also if you want to make an argument against Christianity on the basis of cultural bias you will have to show how the atheist materialists worldview is not similarly culturally biased.

    You might also consider how Christianity has found a home in pretty much every cultural setting in the world, to one extent or another Although of course it cannot agree with all cultures’ views of God, what is ultimately real, the condition of man, etc., still persons from almost every cultural background have found its teachings amenable to them as persons, and superior to their own cultures’ explanations. It is the world’s most widely distributed belief system. The vast majority of Christians live in Asia, Africa, and South America. (Were you aware of that?)

  15. BillT

    “Because the physicalist has managed to describe an apparently shared, repeatable experience, which none of our other approaches have done.”

    Care to elaborate? Just what does this “…shared, repeatable experience…” consist of. I somehow think it doesn’t include much of what I believe our shared experience includes. Beauty, love, truth, friendship, good, evil, morality, consciousness, reason, life, existence. Just how has the physicalist explained these things?

    (P.S. Tom asked this better in #12, but feel free to answer anyway)

  16. bigbird

    BillT: Would John Moore like to explain just what straw men Tom used, etc.

    I concur. John, if you think Tom fails to appreciate your viewpoint, please explain it to us in detail. We would like to hear it.

  17. Keith

    Melissa @11:

    Disagreeing with the description is different than saying no description exists. Physicalism has managed to describe almost all of our experience (where unexplained phenomena remains is generally not in anything that reasonably affects our experience as humans; for example quantum mechanics is vanishingly unlikely to affect anything at our scale).

    Physicalism doesn’t declare much of our shared experience to be illusory because it doesn’t fit into a particular worldview, it declares it illusory because there is no evidence the experience is anything other than illusory.

    I’m not arguing atheist worldviews are not biased — they certainly are. But, there is a shared, agreed-upon physicalist worldview that has little or no cultural bias. There isn’t a group of physicists that believe the sun rotates around the earth. My point was that religion has no shared, agreed-upon worldview: I can’t think of any fact all religions share, not even the fact that god exists. Can you?

  18. JAD

    David Chalmers wrote in his book, The Conscious Mind that

    “Consciousness is a surprising feature of our universe. Our grounds for belief in consciousness derive solely from our experience of it. Even if we know every last detail about the physics of the universe—the configuration, causation, and evolution among all the fields and particles in the spatial temporal manifold—that information would not lead us to postulate the existence of conscious experience. My knowledge of consciousness in the first instance comes from my own case, not from any external observation. It is my first-person experience of consciousness that forces the problem on me.” (p101,102)

    What Chalmers is describing here is a serious problem for physicalism. If conscious experiences are the result of physical processes how does it happen? Do we understand how the brain does it? Does anyone know for a fact that consciousness is completely reducible to brain activity? Have we been able to design and build a computer capable of conscious experiences? Are machines even capable of conscious experiences? If we haven’t been able to answer questions like these how then can anyone claim that consciousness is reducible to a physical process?

    A present the physicalist appears to be working off some assumptions that must be accepted by faith. Have I misunderstood Naturalism here?

    Chalmers BTW is a philosophical naturalist but not a physicalist or a reductionist.

    Keith wrote:

    Physicalism doesn’t declare much of our shared experience to be illusory because it doesn’t fit into a particular worldview, it declares it illusory because there is no evidence the experience is anything other than illusory.

    There’s a classic case of circular reasoning.

  19. Keith

    Tom @12:

    Yes, Leibniz/Nagel’s “What is it like to be a bat” question.

    Since I know you own Rosenberg’s book, I’ll just point you to Chapter 10. I find it convincing. 🙂

  20. bigbird

    But, there is a shared, agreed-upon physicalist worldview that has little or no cultural bias.

    Of course there is – by definition. If you don’t share belief in the definition, it isn’t a physicalist worldview!

    My point was that religion has no shared, agreed-upon worldview: I can’t think of any fact all religions share, not even the fact that god exists. Can you?

    “Religion” is a generic term for an extraordinary broad range of beliefs. There’s not even a shared, agreed-upon definition of “religion”. Why should all religions share any beliefs?

    Physicalism has managed to describe almost all of our experience

    Actually physicalism has managed to describe almost none of our experiences, unless you classify “our experiences are illusory” as a description.

  21. Keith

    bigbird @22:

    If religions had a connection to something “true”, wouldn’t they share that true idea? But OK, I take your point. How about Christianity?

    Wikipedia (based on the Pew Forum) claims 41,000 Christian denominations: if Christianity had a connection to something “true”, wouldn’t that doctrine be constant over time? Can we think of any doctrine Christianity has universally held? (For example, even the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity hasn’t been universally held.)

  22. SteveK

    Actually physicalism has managed to describe almost none of our experiences, unless you classify “our experiences are illusory” as a description.

    🙂

    That was good.

  23. SteveK

    Imagine you have a leaky bucket, but it carries some water, and over time people have figured out ways to make leaky buckets work better (maybe a friend holds her leaky bucket underneath yours and the holes don’t align so less water spills).

    Imagine your analogy has some relevance.

  24. bigbird

    What about modus ponens? Can physicalism describe what makes it logically useful?

    It’s interesting that not even philosophical logic can offer a convincing justification for modus ponens (see Lewis Carroll’s “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles”). Experience tells us that it just works.

  25. Melissa

    Keith,

    Physicalism doesn’t declare much of our shared experience to be illusory because it doesn’t fit into a particular worldview, it declares it illusory because there is no evidence the experience is anything other than illusory.

    There is the same amount of evidence that consciousness, free will, intentionality etc are real as there is for the existence of the external world. Also let’s just ignore the incoherence in arguing that intentionality is an illusion shall we?

    But, there is a shared, agreed-upon physicalist worldview that has little or no cultural bias.

    The only fact this statement shows is that you are completely blind to your own cultural biases.

    There isn’t a group of physicists that believe the sun rotates around the earth.

    Which is evidence of what exactly?

    Wikipedia (based on the Pew Forum) claims 41,000 Christian denominations: if Christianity had a connection to something “true”, wouldn’t that doctrine be constant over time? Can we think of any doctrine Christianity has universally held? (For example, even the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity hasn’t been universally held.)

    Let’s look at this argument for a second: If Christianity had a connection to something true then everyone, everywhere would always agree about it. By that reasoning science has no connection to something true either.

  26. bigbird

    Let’s look at this argument for a second: If Christianity had a connection to something true then everyone, everywhere would always agree about it. By that reasoning science has no connection to something true either.

    A better reply than the one I was composing … I’ll leave it at yours 🙂

  27. drj

    > For example, it requires believing that personality, rationality, consciousness, identity, purpose, meaning, worth, and the moral significance of life all came out of a reality that excludes every one of these.

    I don’t have to say, as a naturlist, that “reality excludes every one of these”. Reality does not exclude consciousness (or any of those other things), they are all included in reality.

    Now, I might not say consciousness (and those other things) are irreducible, but quite frankly, I’m not sure how irreducibility would make those things any less queer. Simply saying that they exist as fundamental, necessary things doesn’t remove the queerness – in fact, it may add to it.

    > Naturalism requires one to believe humans are special for no reason at all, or else to deny that we are special at all.

    Umm. no.

  28. Tom Gilson

    Keith,

    Could you point to just one place where there’s a physicalist description of qualia?

    Could you point to just one place where there’s a physicalist description of the enjoyment of music?

    Thanks.

  29. Tom Gilson

    drj,

    The brand of naturalism in which these exist as queer (you’re using Mackie’s term) irreducibles is not strict physicalist naturalism. It’s something else, maybe something like what Nagel discussed in Mind and Cosmos. So it’s not the naturalism I was speaking of in this post.

    I think your version of naturalism has some very unlikely features, of the sort that would make believing it more of a leap of faith than I’d ever be willing to take. But the key point for now is that you and I are not so much disagreeing as we are talking about two different worldviews, both with the name “naturalism,” but with different features.

  30. G. Rodrigues

    @Keith:

    I will try (when I get a few minutes more) to answer questions and take discussions further, but for people that are interested in this topic, I would recommend Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.

    See Scientia ad Absurdum.

    For a decisive, conclusive and thorough refutation (in my opinion) of eliminative materialism a la Rosenberg see Rosenberg roundup and the links therein.

  31. Keith

    Melissa @27:

    In other words, the consensus physicists share about classical physics is the same as the consensus Christians share about the doctrines of their faith? That’s a false equivalence.

    Tom @30:

    I understand the point you’re making, and Rosenberg’s response is (in my humble opinion), correct.

    In summary, physicalism entirely explains the mechanisms of qualia, and I agree that is as far as it can go.

    My questions in return:

    First, since your position requires a non-physical element of consciousness, how would you summarize the physical or non-physical evidence that such a non-physical element exists?

    Second, I would expect you to say consciousness does not require a brain, since you’ll be both conscious and “you” after brain death. If consciousness resides outside the brain, are trees conscious? Rocks? Stars? And how do we know?

    Third, consider synesthesia: some people “taste” colors or sounds, in other words, their experiences are different from normal people. Whether synesthetes are born that way or change after brain injury, we can show their brains are physically different from other people’s brains. After those people die, will their consciousness revert to being the same as everyone else’s? Or is your consciousness a copy of your brain’s state as of death?

    Tom @31:

    Yes, I do.

    G. Rodrigues @33:

    I had not seen Feser’s comments — thank you.

  32. Melissa

    Keith,

    In other words, the consensus physicists share about classical physics is the same as the consensus Christians share about the doctrines of their faith? That’s a false equivalence.

    Feel free at any time to respond to what I actually wrote.

    Second, I would expect you to say consciousness does not require a brain, since you’ll be both conscious and “you” after brain death

    You may be unaware that Christianity proposes physical resurrection as our final state after death.

  33. Keith

    Melissa @35:

    Understood and largely agreed. (I’d note a minority of Christians historically and today have argued for non-physical resurrection, both for Jesus and the saved. I’d also clarify that while there’s a body involved, it’s hard to imagine the body at resurrection having any relationship at all to the body before death: while Jesus had physical wounds and ate food after his resurrection, Paul is clear in 1 Corinthians 15 that the resurrected body isn’t the same body as before.)

    That said, I don’t see how final state can be relevant: Among many other verses, Luke 16:22 (“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side.”), 2 Corinthians 5:8 (“We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”) and Philippians 1:23 (” I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far;”), make it clear human consciousness must maintain itself separately from any body .

  34. Melissa

    Keith,

    make it clear human consciousness must maintain itself separately from any body .

    You’ll need to explain what in those verses makes it clear that consciousness must maintain itself separately from any body.

  35. Tom Gilson

    The Apostles’ Creed begins “We believe in…” and ends “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” Christians have believed in a physical, bodily resurrection from the beginning. The Jewish view of resurrection in the first century was physical, Christ’s resurrection was physical, and all the NT teaching on the future state indicates that our resurrection will be like his. More here.

  36. Keith

    Melissa, @38:

    I apologize, I should have been more clear.

    The Bible documents death followed by an immediate presence in heaven or hell, and physical bodies are not resurrected until Jesus returns.

  37. Tom Gilson

    There are many who believe in an incorporeal intermediate state. Is there a problem with that, Keith? I don’t know what it would be. God’s mind is unembodied. If you assume an unembodied mind is impossible then you’re assuming theism is false, which is a rather question-begging thing to suppose.

  38. Keith

    Tom @39:

    Yes, that’s why I agreed with Melissa — a non-physical resurrection has always been the minority view.

    One thing I found while squirreling around — physical resurrection is no longer a popular view. Ross Douthat says “only 26 percent of Christians believe that they will have bodies in the next life”.

  39. Keith

    Tom @41:

    I’m not assuming a disembodied mind is impossible (well, I am, but I understand you’re not).

    Part of my point in @34 is to ask what it means to accept the existence of an incorporeal state of “you”.

  40. BSquibs

    only 26 percent of Christians believe that they will have bodies in the next life

    I’m not really sure what your point is, Keith. All you have demonstrated is that 26% of a certain sample set have arguably imbibed something of Platonism without really realising it.

  41. Keith

    BSquibs @44:

    No point — I should have made that clear — I just thought it interesting.

    With respect to Platonism, read the article, Douthat contemplates reasons.

  42. Melissa

    Keith,

    With respect to Douthat, “Scientific” materialism does exclude certain aspects of reality, the assumptions embedded in that worldview make much of human experience strange, and many people, to accommodate what they know to be true about the human experience (that we really do have thoughts, that our thoughts really are about something, subjective experience, free will etc) try to tack on to that the supernatural to explain those things. What they really should do is reexamine the underlying assumptions and realise that the model of physical reality that is studied by physics is an abstraction, a useful abstraction but not a complete picture of reality nonetheless.

  43. Melissa

    Keith,

    The Bible documents death followed by an immediate presence in heaven or hell, and physical bodies are not resurrected until Jesus returns.

    No one knows in what sense the intermediate state could be called “me”. Now, to get back to the topic, how is that relevant to the obvious inadequacies of physicalism to describe reality as we experience it? Also you still haven’t offered any reasons for believing intentionality, free will etc don’t really exist that do not boil down to a statement that “they just don’t fit in my worldview.”

  44. BSquibs

    Again Keith, I’m not sure what your point is. I wasn’t stating that Platonism was the only influence. Just like I’m not denying that Gnosticism in it’s many flavours has had a major impact on how some people came to understand the beliefs of the earliest followers of Christ. You might find Surprised by Hope by Tom Wright to be an interesting read

  45. bigbird

    Keith – Ross Douthat says “only 26 percent of Christians believe that they will have bodies in the next life”.

    I thought I’d check out this claim. It appears to be incorrect. Your own source says “only 26 percent of Americans think that they’ll have bodies in heaven, according to a 1997 Time/CNN poll”. Americans are not all Christians.

    A more recent poll is described here. It says “half of all people who have attended church recently said they believe they will experience a physical resurrection someday, while only a quarter of those who have not publicly worshipped recently said the same. Fifty-nine percent of people who profess a “born again” faith, one of the hallmarks of evangelical Protestantism, said they believe in personal resurrection, the highest level of belief among any group in the poll.”

  46. Keith

    Melissa @47:

    When you say: ‘no one knows in what sense the intermediate state could be called “me”’, I have to push back a little.

    We do know a fair amount. As a single example, consider Luke 16: we know the “me” is feeling pain, is asking for water, and can recognize and communicate with other people he knew before death. That’s a pretty well-defined physical “me”, there’s nothing ethereal about it.

  47. Tom Gilson

    Expositors are cautious about deriving too many details from parables. I’d like to say we know a lot from that story, but it’s not clear what genre it fits into, and so it’s not clear how much of it is intended as instruction on the way things really are.

    Still there is a definite continuity of identity in the intermediate state; otherwise I’m sure Jesus would never have said to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

  48. Keith

    bigbird @49:

    Yes, you’re right.

    I noticed that discrepancy myself which is why I (carefully!) copied exactly what Ross Douthat reported in his article instead of what was said in the source article to which he linked.

    Douthat is a pretty careful author and I tend to trust what he writes. My expectation is he went back to the original poll for his paraphrase (but obviously I can’t state that as fact, and I was unable to find that data myself).

    Thank you for the correction and updated numbers, regardless.

  49. Keith

    Melissa @46, @47:

    Obviously, I would disagree “the model of physical reality that is studied by physics is … not a complete picture of reality”.

    When you say there are things about your intuitions that you “know to be true”, you lose me: our intuitions, and often our shared intutions, are often utterly, demonstrably wrong… why would this particular set of intuitions be assumed to be correct?

  50. Tom Gilson

    Because they include the very intuitions that are necessary for scientists to do science: that there is continuity of identity, that there is rationality, that ethics are real and purposive, that rationality is real, that intentionality in the technical/philosophical (“aboutness”) sense is real, that consciousness is real; all of these are part of doing science. Could science do away with them? Hardly.

    Just because some intuitions can be shown wrong does not extrapolate to demonstrating that all are wrong. The very act of extrapolation requires the use of some of these intuitions: that memory is reliable, for example, in addition to the above.

    The real question you should be asking is a much more refined, and frankly more scientific and knowledgeable one:

    Some intuitions are demonstrably unreliable. Some intuitions have never been demonstrated to be that way. Is (are) there some systematic difference(s) between the two sets of intuitions?

    If you can answer that in the negative, then you might have a basis for proceeding to, “then all intuitions might be unreliable.” But if you there are any systematic differences between the two sets of intuitions, then you can’t assume that what’s true in one set is true in the other set.

    Now you’ve got some work to do. What do you think about those systematic differences? Do they exist, or not? I think they definitely do exist.

  51. Melissa

    Keith,

    We do know a fair amount. As a single example, consider Luke 16: we know the “me” is feeling pain, is asking for water, and can recognize and communicate with other people he knew before death. That’s a pretty well-defined physical “me”, there’s nothing ethereal about it.

    And I’m going to push back and say you need to do a lot more work before concluding that this is an historical story and not a parable …

    and how is this relevant to your skepticism about human beings having an immaterial aspect?

  52. Keith

    Tom @54:

    At least some of the examples you list are questionable.

    For example, “consciousness is real”… would you argue someone who no longer believed their intuition that consciousness was real, they would no longer be able to do science? If not, that intuition is not required for science.

    If you believe your memory is reliable, you’re simply wrong, there’s no other way to say it. (The best example is the fact that every time you remember something, you alter the memory.)

    I’d be interested in more comment on the intuitions you note which have never been show to be unreliable, I think you’re heading in an interesting direction. What intuitions are you thinking about (*ahem*) there?

  53. Keith

    Melissa @55:

    It may be only a parable, Tom made the same caution.

    But there are many more examples (Paul isn’t saying he “desires to be with Christ” knowing it won’t be “Paul” with Christ, it will be something else), and Tom pointed out another good example of Jesus on the cross. I think it would be difficult to argue for something other than “you” after death. (And putting something other than “you” into hell after death makes no sense.)

    This has nothing to do with my skepticism about human beings having an immaterial aspect.

    This was in response to your comments in @35 and @38, arguing that “you” appear between death and the physical resurrection, and consciousness can therefore be separated from your body.

  54. Tom Gilson

    There’s reliable, and there’s reliable.

    I’ve scrolled down the page to where I cannot see what you wrote, but I do remember that you wrote something about the unreliability of memory. I remember that you have some doubts about the truth of Christianity.

    A scientist who studies memory must be able to remember reliably that she is studying memory. But there is no scientific test for the reliability of memory; it is an assumption of science, not a result.

    Can a scientist who no longer believed his consciousness was real still do science? Sure! What does that have to to do with the topic at hand, though?

    You’ve switched the subject, you see. It’s not about whether someone believes consciousness is an illusion. It’s about whether it’s actually possible coherently to believe it, and to live accordingly. A scientist who thought consciousness was an illusion would have an incoherent and impossible belief; he would be living according to the truth, not the impossible belief; and because he was living according to the truth instead of the impossible belief, he could still do science.

  55. Keith

    Tom @58:

    “There is no scientific test for the reliability of memory”? Umm, really? Are you sticking with that answer?

    I’m still interested in the intuitions that are demonstrably reliable vs. those that are not, I hope you’ll come back to that.

    When you say what does that have to do with the topic at hand, I’m quoting you: “… that consciousness is real; all of these are part of doing science. Could science do away with them? Hardly.”

    Based on that, I’m asking: if I no longer believe in consciousness can I still do science (and you answered “yes”), which means science can do away with that intuition.

    (Sorry, I’m obviously missing something you’re saying…)

    I have to think about the impossibility of living an incoherent/impossible belief and being forced by nature to unconsciously live something else.

    Tom @59:

    If you’re willing, let’s explore that a bit. I’ve three questions in @34.

  56. Tom Gilson

    Of course I’m sticking with that answer. There are scientific tests for the reliability of memory that assume the reliability of memory, but none that do not make that assumption.

    Look at it this way: memory could be perfectly reliable (it’s not), imperfectly reliable, or perfectly unreliable (with zero veridicality). We have to assume that the zero answer is false. We have to assume that there is some accuracy to memory. We have to assume, for example, that the world wasn’t created five minutes ago, with all of us having intace yet false memories of what preceded that. Otherwise we couldn’t do science.

    I was really hoping you’d do the work on the systematic differences between known unreliable intuitions and other intuitions that are not known to be unreliable. You’re the one making the claim that we can extrapolate from one to the other. It’s responsibility to support it, not mine.

    You misread what I said if you think science can do away with the intuition of consciousness. It could (on paper) do away with belief in that intuition, but the intuition will remain regardless of any disbelief in it. It cannot be done away with. And those who do away with the belief on paper still believe when they wake up in the morning that they are awake.

  57. Tom Gilson

    First, since your position requires a non-physical element of consciousness, how would you summarize the physical or non-physical evidence that such a non-physical element exists?

    I wouldn’t try. There’s too much there. But I guess the short version would be this: consciousness exists; physicalism doesn’t explain it; therefore there is something else involved in consciousness.

    I don’t think trees and rocks are conscious. I do know God is. That’s sufficient, isn’t it?

    I don’t understand your third question in #34.

  58. Melissa

    Keith,

    This was in response to your comments in @35 and @38, arguing that “you” appear between death and the physical resurrection, and consciousness can therefore be separated from your body.

    ??? I wasn’t aware that’s what I was arguing. I think you are conflating various concepts, including identity, the soul and consciousness.

    On the topic of questions left unanswered. I’m still waiting for your non-question begging evidence that intentionality doesn’t exist. If possible also presented in a coherent manner.

  59. drj

    The brand of naturalism in which these exist as queer (you’re using Mackie’s term) irreducibles is not strict physicalist naturalism. It’s something else, maybe something like what Nagel discussed in Mind and Cosmos. So it’s not the naturalism I was speaking of in this post.

    Tom,

    I was saying that I DON’T claim that those things are irreducible….

  60. Tom Gilson

    Sorry, I didn’t get that. Would you mind re-stating what you were trying to say, since obviously I misunderstood it the first time, and it’s still not quite clear to me. Thanks.

  61. JAD

    Notice that so far Keith has not given us any reason to believe in a physicalist world view other than it’s a belief– his belief. He has given us no scientific reasons nor any metaphysical reasons for believing it’s, more probable than not, true. What he has given us instead is a lot of fallacious reasoning. For example, besides some obvious question begging he has introduced non sequitur arguments about the truth or falsity of certain Christian beliefs. But how does the truth or falsity about Christian beliefs in immortality or the “soul” prove that physicalism is “true”? Can you prove physicalism to be true? If it’s scientifically based (as naturalists claim) shouldn’t you be able to cite some positive evidence that supports your position?

  62. Tom Gilson

    Here’s the typical reasoning. (Keith, I am not ascribing this to you. I’m just saying it’s typical.)

    1. There is no reliable knowledge except scientific knowledge.
    2. Science detects and/or is able to describe no non-physical reality.
    3. Therefore there is no reliable knowledge of any non-physical reality.

    Does this happen to sum up your thinking, Keith?

  63. JAD

    Let’s compare two world views:

    A. Stephan Hawking’s scientific-naturalistic world view:

    “The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies. We are so insignificant that I can’t believe the whole universe exists for our benefit. That would be like saying that you would disappear if I closed my eyes.”

    STEPHEN HAWKING, Reality on the Rocks: Beyond Our Ken, 1995

    B. The Judeo-Christian worldview:

    3 When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;

    4 What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

    5 For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour. (Psalm 8:3-5)

    Which presents a better, more appealing, view of man?

    Which is true? How do we know?

    If A is true, is it really worth knowing?

  64. Ben

    I have to disagree that there is no reliable knowledge other than scientific knowledge. In fact I think man relies too much on what he thinks he can observe. Too much emphasis on human reasoning. Science still can’t answer the big questions: Who am I? What am I? Why am I? Why do I have a brain nearly identical to some animals and yet I have intellect? These things require more than physical evidence to answer. If a man cannot create something greater than himself then how can he come from absolutely nothing? Especially when science has proven that there was a time when matter did not exist?

  65. Chris

    If A is true, is it really worth knowing?

    —————————-

    Yes, beacuse it likely is reality.

  66. BillT

    “Yes, beacuse it likely is reality.”

    Care to enlighten us as to just how likely it’s reality and how you know that?

  67. BillT

    drj,

    I’m not the one who endorsed “A” or asked anyone else to. I just asked a question.

  68. Pingback: Naturalism is a Strange Belief | Time For Discernment

  69. drj

    BillT,

    Oops, I just looked and realized it was JAD who brought up the two worldview options, not you.

    My reply was really aimed at that post. Sorry for the confusion.

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