Sunday, January 1, 2017

Evolutionary Absurdity Against Naturalism

Apparently, there’s a lot of popular Christian apologists who think that if evolution is real, then naturalism is not. Or something. It’s actually kind of hard to tell because the argument itself is kind of weird. But let’s see if our good friend Inspiring Philosophy can explain (link)

[00:05] “When we hear of some new attempt to explain reasoning… naturalistically, we ought to react as if we were told that someone had squared the circle.” - Peter Geach

One of the most aggravating things about apologists like Inspiring Philosophy is how they can’t go more than 10 seconds without saying something incredibly dumb. For example, take this quote here. The only logical way this statement could ever be true is if the idea of naturalism somehow contradicted the idea of reason. That literally, the very proposition “Reason is a natural phenomenon” must entail some kind of logical impossibility like married bachelors or square circles. However, that cannot possibly be the case unless the definition of reason already presupposes an inherently supernatural process. So the argument hasn’t even officially begun yet and this dumb bastard is already begging the question. He is effectively declaring, in advance, that he has categorically rejected the very possibility of a natural explanation for human reason. 

[00:14] “One of the age-old problems in philosophy is the problem of skepticism. How can we be certain what we experience and know is true and not an illusion or just a useful model? How do we know our knowledge is accurate and not a trick that external forces are making us believe?”

This is another one of those little things about religious apologists that always gets under my skin. What he’s saying here about skepticism isn’t exactly wrong per se, but it is being expressed in a lazy, incompetent way. For example, what does it mean for an experience to be true? Because last time I checked, truth was a property of propositions, not experiences. Trying to ask whether or not an experience is true is like trying to ask whether or not my music is colorful. It might loosely mean something to some people in some figurative context, but from a purely technical standpoint, it’s just meaningless gibberish. What he’s actually trying to ask is how we can be certain that our experiences are representative of a real, objective reality, as opposed to, say, some illusion like a matrix simulation. That is the fundamental problem of skepticism, and it’s a perfectly valid thing to be concerned about when studying epistemology. It’s just kind of hard to address such problems when you’re terrible at expressing them in the first place. 

[00:30] “The usual way this is addressed is through the position of epistemic particularism, which is basically the position that our knowledge is innocent until proven guilty. There is no reason to doubt our knowledge, beliefs, and intuition unless we can find an actual reason to cause us to doubt.”

See what I mean? Read that back again. There is no reason to doubt our beliefs, unless we can find an actual reason to doubt our beliefs. Thank you so much for that brilliant insight!

Vapid tautologies aside, where exactly does IP get the idea that this is the “usual” way to address the problem of skepticism? He makes it out as if philosophers everywhere are just casually ignoring the problem altogether. The reality, of course, is that nothing could be further from the truth. Ever since the days of Rene Descartes, philosophers have all had perfectly good reasons to be quite concerned about the objectivity of sense data. That’s why every philosophical reference worth its weight in salt will openly acknowledge skepticism as a very serious problem to be dealt with.

And speaking of “epistemic particularism,” I actually had to look this term up because I never even heard of it until I watched this video. It’s a really obscure term that only gets thrown around in the odd paper or two, but doesn't represent a popular view held by any significant people. Not only that, but the definition doesn't even match what IP just said. According to his very own citation:

“... epistemological particularism is the view that there are some particular items of knowledge (or justifiable belief) that one can know (justifiably believe) without knowing how one knows them.” 
- J.P. Moreland

That is not the same thing as “innocent until proven guilty.” It's as if IP is either deliberately making things up out of thin air, or he really is just that incompetent at reading comprehension. 

[00:45] “What if there was a reason that could cause us to begin to doubt our beliefs? What if our beliefs led to an internal contradiction and a self-defeating circle?” 

We already have a reason to doubt our beliefs. It’s called skepticism. You just mentioned it 30 seconds ago. This is a well-documented problem that demonstrably manifests itself in our daily lives. We dream; we hallucinate; we misremember; we experience illusions; we have limited, fallible, subjective perspective about the external, mind-independent reality. We therefore cannot “know” any of it with absolute, perfect certainty. This is a cornerstone of all modern epistemology and philosophy of science. The train has left the station centuries ago, yet IP is here pretending like it’s still just sitting there on idle. 

[01:00] “If you hold to philosophical naturalism, then that is in fact the case. Philosophical and evolutionary naturalism would be the belief that there are no supernatural entities; the natural world is all of existence, and humans came about by accident through the blind workings of matter.”

Does Inspiring Philosophy think that we’re all idiots or something? He just displayed the encyclopedia definition of naturalism on his own video and then proceeded to read out a completely different definition. That’s the second time he’s done this in less than a minute of speaking! So let’s read IP’s very own citation for him, shall we? 

Naturalism is an approach to philosophical problems that interprets them as tractable through the methods of the empirical sciences, or at least without a distinctively a priori project of theorizing. For much of the history of philosophy it has been widely held that philosophy involved a distinctive method, and could achieve knowledge distinct from that attained by the special sciences. Thus, metaphysics and epistemology have often jointly occupied a position of "first philosophy," laying the necessary grounds for the understanding of reality and the justification of knowledge claims. Naturalism rejects philosophy's claim to that special status. Whether in epistemology, ethics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, or other areas, naturalism seeks to show that philosophical problems, as traditionally conceived, are ill-formulated and can be solved or displaced by appropriately naturalistic methods. Naturalism often assigns a key role to the methods and results of the empirical sciences, and sometimes aspires to reductionism and physicalism. However, there are many versions of naturalism and some are explicitly non-scientistic. What they share is a repudiation of the view of philosophy as exclusively a priori theorizing concerned with a distinctively philosophical set of questions.

– Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

So there you have it. Naturalism is not a particular set of beliefs about the universe, but really more of a methodology for evaluating philosophical problems. More often than not, that methodology is specifically understood to follow the rules of empirical sciences, which is honestly the real target of this whole discussion anyway. Notice, however, that naturalism does not explicitly reject the existence of supernatural entities, nor does it commit you to any particular views about human development. Those are simply consequences of applied naturalism, but not central tenets of it.

It’s important to realize that anything which exists and interacts with other existing things must, by definition, have a nature---a collection of essential identifiable properties and causal relationships with respect to other things. We can formally state these properties through purely analytic methods, but any claim to their existence can only be justified through the use of empirical data. Supernatural entities, in contrast, are philosophically meaningless to even talk about. How do I identify an entity that, by definition, is “above” any need for essential properties? How do I prove that such a thing exists when, by definition, such things fail to behave in accordance with any causally predictive patterns? Naturalists don’t reject the existence of supernatural entities through some rote, a priori conviction; they reject them because the idea itself is incomprehensible! 

[01:14] “We would have evolved by accident from the lower animals by passing on traits and beliefs that help us survive.” 
No, that is NOT an intrinsic view of naturalism. That is a sloppily-worded summary of human evolutionary biology, as understood by the contingent findings of naturalistic methodologies. And even then, you still managed to get key aspects completely wrong. Beliefs are not “passed on” from one generation to the next, because beliefs are not inheritable traits. Only genes can do that.

[01:14] “Everything that makes us who we are would have come together via natural selection to aid us in surviving. However, that would include everything about us, which includes the chemistry of the brain and how it functions. The human-evolved brain would only have come about as a means to aid an organism in surviving."

Nowhere did Dennett ever imply that literally everything which makes you “you” is determined entirely by genetics and natural selection. He is just talking about the natural development of human brains and explaining how your mind is simply a product of that brain in action. However, there is also a lot to be said about the importance of environmental circumstance and personal experience as potent factors towards building a coherent sense of self-identity. It’s not just evolution and nothing else. 

[02:04] “So if naturalism is true, everything the brain does is for survival, which must necessarily include all the beliefs and thoughts it has; which would entail the fact that all the beliefs we think are true of reality were really just formed in the brain to help us survive. But consequently, this would also include the belief in naturalism. So if you believe naturalism is true, then you also have to believe you believe naturalism is true because your brain has decided this belief is beneficial for survival. Not because it is true.”

So yes, IP really believes that, according to naturalism, everything about your mind is the product of pure, natural selection alone. There is no room for personal experience or environmental conditions, and everything must unilaterally facilitate survival, or else.

First off, nothing about philosophical naturalism requires you to hold any position for or against evolution. It is only by applying the naturalistic methods of science that one arrives at the strong indication of an evolutionary history behind human development. Since that development already encompasses everything from basic morphology to fundamental biochemistry, why not also include cognitive capacity as well? We know that physical brains are specifically responsible for our memory, sense processing, behavioral responses, and language, so why not also our faculties for higher reasoning? Nothing about this presumption is inherently troubling, unless one has already decided, in advance, that human reason is literally the product of magic---as if no natural process whatsoever is remotely capable of producing a reliable cognitive faculty.

Secondly, not everything the brain does has to be for survival. Survival alone does not guarantee reproductive success, nor does every waking moment of our life have to be consumed by this goal. All that evolution fundamentally requires is for the brain to at least do something, eventually, which contributes more to overall reproductive fitness than could otherwise be achieved without it. You could spend hours of your day, every day, doing nothing but pick your nose and scratch your ass, and natural selection won’t necessarily care. All that it requires is for you to do something else with the remainder of your time that promotes fitness.

Thirdly, Inspiring Philosophy seems to be hopelessly confused about the distinction between a process and the product. The mind not just some collection of stored memories and beliefs, nor does it randomly poke blindly at arbitrary philosophical perspectives. Rather, the mind a very complex, interrelated set of processes. Individual beliefs are the result of those processes acting on sensory data as perceived naturally through the environment. Natural selection cannot select for individual beliefs in any direct sense, but can only select for processes that are more or less capable of producing “good” beliefs out of the information they’re given.

Remember that if what you believe about the world is true, then in principle, you ought to be able to use that belief to make testable empirical predictions---what consequences tend to follow specific actions under specific conditions? Likewise, by contrapositive, if the predictions of your beliefs fail to produce the expected outcomes, then by definition, such beliefs have to be false. That is the pragmatic, scientific measure for truth itself, which is perfectly consistent with naturalistic philosophy. We may therefore presume, as a matter of rote definition, the existence of a very profound connection between true beliefs and overall reproductive fitness. Natural selection does, in fact, highly favor the development of cognitive faculties that are perfectly capable of producing lots of true beliefs.

Notice that the process doesn’t even have to be perfect, either. All that it needs to do is eventually compile enough true beliefs about the world so as to facilitate good decision-making throughout one’s life. At the same time, it must also reject enough false beliefs so as to avoid any catastrophic blunders. If mistakes are made, however, then oh well. All natural selection can do is maybe come up with something better through the next iteration. Either way, it is still perfectly reasonable to expect a natural process to be generally reliable overall, despite also being fallible.

[02:35] “Thus as Alvin Plantinga identifies...”

Seriously? Alvin Plantinga!? The very same Alvin Plantinga who once argued, “It is entirely right, rational, reasonable, and proper to believe in God without any evidence or argument at all.” Are you sure you want to hang your philosophical hat on this guy's arguments?

[02:36] “Philosophical naturalism falls into a self-defeating circle where your belief, naturalism is true, must entail you are a product of evolutionary naturalism alone, and therefore all your beliefs are programmed into you to help you survive, including your belief, naturalism is true.” 

Let’s just assume for a moment that this train of logic is perfectly valid. However, I’m going to replace naturalism with monistic idealism, because that’s IP’s favorite little worldview: 

Your belief, that monistic idealism is true, must entail you are the product of a mentally forged reality contained within the mind of God, and therefore all your beliefs are programmed into you by God, including the belief that monistic idealism is true. 

Oh my goodness! It’s a circle! Therefore, by IP’s very own logic, we have just debunked his favorite pet theology.

Obviously there’s something terribly wrong here. Starting with the most glaring problem, it seems that IP utterly fails to grasp the difference between circular reasoning and basic, internal consistency. Because yes, if you hold to a belief in naturalism, even as IP defines it, then it stands to reason that purely natural forces are capable of bringing about human cognitive faculties. If those faculties are inherently reliable at producing true beliefs over time, then it would obviously have to follow that human beings might someday come to the true conclusion that naturalism is, itself, true.

That’s not a “self-defeating circle,” you moron. That’s called "self-consistency." It’s a good thing.

But of course, it gets worse than that. Starting with the very first premise, IP gives the proposition “I believe naturalism is true.” Yet as we already discovered using his very own encyclopedic citation, naturalism is not a specific belief about anything, but rather a formal statement of methodology. To say that you are a naturalist simply means that you probably tend to evaluate synthetic propositions through the methods of empirical science, rather than any sort of na├»ve a priori system of armchair philosophy. It says nothing about the ultimate nature of reality itself, but only commits you to a specific methodology when investigating claims about reality. The very proposition “I believe naturalism is true” has never once been uttered by an actual naturalist because it’s technically not even a coherent thing to say out loud. The correct phrasing would be more like “I choose to evaluate truth claims through the methods of naturalistic science.”

But hey, let’s ignore that problem, too, and just assume IP’s definition anyway. Naturalism is the view that there are no supernatural entities and that evolution is responsible for literally everything about us. Please do tell me, how exactly does IP imagine people came to this conclusion in the first place? Because as far as I can tell, he seems to think all naturalists around the world just assumed their position outright as some kind of rote, axiomatic fiat---as if there were no external justification for that view, whatsoever. Yet rather than point out the obvious case of question-begging that would entail, he instead leads us on some convoluted train of logic that no one has ever argued in the history of science: naturalism is true because “all my beliefs are programmed into me to help me survive,” which is only true because “I am a product of evolutionary naturalism alone,” which in turn is true because “naturalism is true.”

Remember that the reason why naturalists reject supernatural entities is because the very idea is fundamentally meaningless to talk about. How do you prove the existence of an entity that, by definition, has no properties and no empirical manifestations? So obviously the justification for naturalism is not “because nature programmed me to believe in naturalism,” nor is it a position that we just presume outright for no apparent reason. The train of logic is not a closed circle, but in fact contains perfectly reasonable justification wholly independent of the claims being presented here. 

[02:55] “Several experts have identified this consequence. Philosopher Richard Rorty says.”

Oh look. An appeal to authority. How cute.

[03:12] “J. M. Smith never understood why organisms have feelings.”

Oh look. Another appeal to authority. And this one is a bald-faced argument from ignorance. It's like a two-for-one fallacy! Some random guy you’ve never heard of doesn’t understand feelings, so therefore all biology is completely incapable of explaining them. Is that how this works?

[03:34] “Even the great Charles Darwin worried, with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy?”

This is the third brainless appeal to authority that IP has made in barely 30 seconds. All it shows it that, apparently, Charles Darwin didn’t have the best handle on philosophy mind or philosophy of pragmatism. And why would he? William James didn’t formally introduce pragmatism to the world until 1898---17 years after this letter was written! So who cares? What is this supposed to prove?

[03:50] “Why would it not be most beneficial for survival to have an accurate and true description of reality? Surely an organism who has trustworthy cognitive faculties and knowing what is true, would be the most optimal way to survive. Therefore evolution would select faculties that are designed to know truth.”

This is the point where it really became painfully obvious to me that Inspiring Philosophy has no functional understanding of basic epistemology. So before anything about this argument can continue, we need to clear up a few misconceptions.

It's important to understand that any time we talk about a thing like truth, we're not talking about some intrinsic metaphysical quality of reality itself.  Technically, what we're really talking about is a property of propositions. That is to say, propositions can either be true or they can be false, but there is no such thing as raw "essence of truth" interwoven into the fabric of space and time. Speaking more formally, a truth value is classically defined as a member of a binary set that contains the elements "True" and "False.” The purpose of this set is to serve as a kind of marker for linguistic propositions in order to help us measure their epistemic "correctness." What exactly that means is open to some interpretation, but we can give it a rigorous definition through a mechanism known as a truth assignment. Speaking formally again, a truth assignment (also called a truth valuation, or an interpretation) is defined as a mapping function between the set of simple linguistic propositions and the set of binary truth values.

Pragmatic empirical rationalism, aka science, aka naturalism, is a perfectly well-defined system of truth assignment functions that suffers no problems whatsoever under the arguments presented in this video. A necessary, though not sufficient, measure of true synthetic propositions is the principle of empirical predictability. If some proposition is true, then we must be able to use that proposition to exercise decisions under the expectation of predictable empirical consequences. We therefore cannot prove any synthetic proposition true with absolute certainty, but we can at least expect certain properties from such propositions if and when we ever find them. Likewise, if some propositional framework fails to manifest itself through reliable empirical predictions, then we can confidently assert that such a framework is “false.”

While you are certainly welcome to nit-pick the details if you like, that is the broad definition of synthetic truth assignment according to most understandings of scientific naturalism. Supernaturalism, on the other hand, has no truth assignment functions to speak of and cannot even qualify as coherent. Never in the history of philosophy or science has our understanding of anything ever been improved by the presumption of supernatural entities.

[04:10] “However, Plantinga anticipates this objection and points out the probability of this would be low, or we should remain agnostic if naturalism were true.”

It’s not a matter of probability, you moron. It’s a matter of definition. A “true” synthetic proposition is philosophically measured by the capacity to logically formulate decisions under the expectation of predictable, empirical consequences. If some empirical prediction fails to produce the expected result, then by definition, that belief is now false. In what logical universe does the ability to predict and shape the fucking future have low correlation with reproductive fitness?

[04:18] “There is no necessarily equivocation between what is what is useful is what is true.”

Nobody has ever argued that usefulness is equivalent to truth; only that empirical predictability should be a necessary property of truth. Not only is this argument a complete strawman, but Inspiring Philosophy knows it is. I know he knows because I have personally explained this very same misconception to him long before the video was even made! (see comment sections here). So not only is IP just plain wrong in his explanation of basic epistemology, but he is also willfully lying about it, too.

The pragmatic, scientific perspective of truth has always been grounded on the idea that empirical predictability is a necessary, though not sufficient, measure of true synthetic propositions. You don’t have to apply every proposition towards something practical or “useful” in order to call it true. However, in order for some belief to eventually produce practical applications, then it probably needs to contain at least some reasonable approximation of the truth, doesn't it? Maybe not perfectly true or inerrant in every detail, but certainly closer to the truth than the alternative.

Tell you what. Let’s do a little thought experiment. Consider a possible world where everything I believe about the universe just so happens to be categorically false. However, every single time I make a decision based off of those beliefs, the consequences are maximally predictable and desirable for me anyway. Likewise, any time I commit a single "true" belief to action, the outcome is never predictable or desirable for me at all. I ask you, given such a world, is it even meaningful to call any of my beliefs "false?” And if so, why would I ever want to believe anything that was true? I could spend my entire life being completely wrong about absolutely everything and actually be better off for it.

So yes, we must conclude that, while not perfectly equivalent, true beliefs are necessarily correlated with usefulness and reproductive fitness, doncha think?

[04:20] “Some things can be useful while not being true. Take Ptolemaic astronomy. For centuries, this model was used to help us in navigation and star charting. It was useful, but not a true description of reality. And of course, later was replaced by a more accurate model.”

Pray tell, Mr “Inspiring” Philosophy, but how exactly would you go about disproving the geocentric model of our solar system? Do you really think that a supernatural, immaterial force is responsible for planetary motion? Did Jesus tell Copernicus in a dream that the sun was the center of the solar system? Or, just maybe, do you think that geocentric models consistently fail to make reliable, empirical predictions? You know, pragmatic, scientific naturalism?

Let’s not forget that the primary reason why people objected to heliocentrism is precisely because it violated the supernatural presuppositions of religious dogma. It wasn’t naturalism that censored Galileo’s findings, but the immaterial, supernatural convictions of the Roman Catholic Church. How stupid do you have to be when your best example of the failures of naturalism is actually one of its greatest triumphs?

[04:36] “However, if naturalism is true, our knowledge could be analogous to Ptolemaic astronomy; simply a useful model to help us get through the world.”

Yes, a model that was only proven false through the methods of naturalistic science and which religious zealous refused to give up because of their a priori supernatural convictions!

Again, what process do you have for measuring the truth of synthetic propositions that works any better? Remember that you’re the one arguing against naturalism, here. So why don’t you show us all exactly how you propose to disprove Ptolemaic astronomy without appealing to naturalism or naturalistic methods?

[04:50] “So just because our knowledge works in practical measures, that doesn’t make it true of what reality is. Take another example: qualia; specifically color. In nature, external objects reflect EM waves, which hit the human eye to create biochemical states, which is transmitted to the brain as neural patterns in the primary visual cortex. If naturalism is true, the brain would somehow create color from this data as a useful model. The original wavelengths have no color. Color is, as John Locke states, secondary qualities, or contents of the mind. The emergent wavelengths are perceived in the eyes and created in the brain, and apart from the brain, color doesn’t exist.  So color is simply useful model created by the brain, but not actually what exists in nature.”

Where is IP even going with this? He seems to claiming that, according to naturalism, color is just a subjective sensory perception. It doesn’t “exist” in any objective sense of the word, but simply manifests as a purely mental construct.

Okay… and? Is this supposed to be controversial or upsetting in some way? That’s just basic color theory. Everyone knows that color doesn’t really exist as some intrinsic property of real objects. So where’s the beef? What’s the alternative? How exactly does the presumption of supernatural entities change any of this? Even if magic were real and God was in charge of everything, then color would still only exist as a subjective human perception.

[05:34] “And if the brain does this with color, it can equally be argued it does it with our knowledge. It is not necessarily true, but a useful model we are programmed to think is true to help us survive.”

At this point, Inspiring Philosophy just goes on to repeat himself a bunch, all while making nonsensical arguments against his made-up conception of naturalism. The whole thing can pretty much be summarized with the phrase “this person has no comprehension of basic epistemology.” He likes to drop the word “truth” everywhere, despite making no real effort to define what truth is or how we’re supposed to recognize truth when we see it. He also complains a lot that naturalism cannot provide us with absolute knowledge about objective reality, despite the fact that skepticism and fallibilism are actually fundamental principles embraced by philosophers and scientists alike. He then offers no alternative methodology that could presumably do any better, all while habitually insisting that true beliefs about objective reality cannot possibly correlate with reproductive fitness.

Just stop and ask yourself right now, why do you even bother believing anything at all? What difference does it make whether or not that information crammed in your head is true? The only meaningful explanation is so that we can eventually use that information as a guide for our actions. Decisions based on true beliefs will manifest themselves in the form of controlled, predictable experiences, while decisions based on false beliefs will eventually fail in that goal. Any beliefs that refuse to drive any actions whatsoever, even in principle, are little more than useless rhetorical gibberish. They don’t do anything, and thus make no difference if we call them true or false.

This is what makes pragmatic scientific naturalism is the ultimate measure of all philosophical truth. It's the only system with any functional relevance! If you cannot present your argument within the bounds of such a methodology, then by definition, you are not being reasonable. The moment IP rejected pragmatism, all he did was sever any philosophical connection between beliefs, actions, and consequences. It therefore makes no difference what alternative he thinks he has because the very idea of trying to think of one is tantamount to vapid sophistry. I could unilaterally concede his entire position outright and literally nothing in my life would have to change as a result. That’s how hopeless his position is. Even if he “wins,” he still loses.

Thanks for reading.