The Argument from Reason and the God of the Gaps
Dr. Reppert, I am an ex-philosophy of religion student of yours (~1994) at GCC. We had some interesting conversations. You might remember me (Walter Brown) as the son of Walter Brown (Jr., I'm the 3rd) - the creationist. Anyway, I read your Argument from Reason paper. I didn’t understand it all, but I don't see why "Reason" is so mysterious. It is a function, among many, that brains (minds), do. As stomachs digest, complex nervous systems reason. You could make the Argument from Digestion could'nt you? Functions of the brain are the way they are because they are selected for in natural selection - reason is good for an organisms (in our linage) survival/differential reproduction. Therefore, higher organisms seem to have this ability to a greater and greater degree as their brains-to-body ratios increase (in our linage brain size evolution went up, and brain functions , reason being one among many, increased). All mammals have it. What's the mystery? Thx, Walter Brown
At 5:10 AM, Anonymous said…
Dr. Reppert, On more reflection and reading I'm thinking the mystery is - when does nonthinking (nonrational) neurons/synapses/neural transmitters become thinking (rational)thoughts/rational inferences/cognition? And that this undiscovered link is an opening for a supernatural causation? We are just starting to really study the brain, give us several centuries before we give up on naturalistic explanations. Haven’t naturalistic explanations always been shown to be more accurate than supernaturalist ones in the fullness of time and study?
At 5:22 AM, Anonymous said…
Dr. Reppert, this seems similar to the undiscovered link between when nonlife became life. There are those that posit that this is a place for a supernatural causation. They say nonlife can not cause life. They think nature obeys words and our meanings of them. There is so much gray between meanings/words and so many new emergent properties with increasing complexity... Thx, WB
Walter: I am glad to hear from you after all this time. You were the evolutionist son of the creationist WBII. I’ve mentioned you to a few evolutionists who were have tangled with your dad and they were very interested. One of them wanted to get in touch with you, as I recall. You went to the Craig-Dietz debate and brought a tape back, in which Dietz sparked an otherwise dismal performance by referring to Darwin’s theory of evolution as the “greatest story ever told.” I remember you wrote a paper defending your own agnosticism with the argument from evil. If you read through the archives of Dangerous Idea you will find lots of discussion on these topics. Just type the words “problem of evil” or “evolution” into the search box and you’ll get plenty of hits.
You may have surmised that the paper I put on the web was only the beginning. I did that in 1998. Since then I have written a book on the subject, entitled “C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea,” (Inter-Varsity, 2003), and was involved in exchanges on the argument with naturalists like Jim Lippard, Keith Parsons, and Theodore Drange in the journals Philo and Philosophia Christi. There was also a voluminous online attack on my book written by Richard Carrier, to which I have written responses on my blogs.
I suppose that the development of the brain might be the basis for arguments on behalf of intelligent design (what your dad would call creationism for cowards), saying that the human brain is a classic example of what IDers call irreducible complexity. And as such, you ask, isn’t the argument vulnerable to a “god-of-the-gaps” objection. The idea behind the god-of-the-gaps objection is that if it turns out that there is a gap in our ability to understand something naturalistically, we ought not to regard it as a refutation of our naturalism, but rather we should give naturalistic explanation a wide berth to discover what the natural causes are and give up on that only as a last resort.
This is a fair concern with arguments of this sort, though it is a kind of argument that cuts against the argument from evil against theism as well as against design arguments for God. Our knowledge of God’s will and plans is even more limited than our scientific knowledge of nature, so of course if theism is true we ought to expect gaps in our understanding of why, for example, God permits Tay-Sachs disease. At one point on this blog I was bold enough to say the religious skeptic can’t use both the argument from evil and the god-of-the-gaps objection against design argument; you have to pick one or the other. But the GGO is often advanced against my versions of the argument from reason.
An instance where the God of the Gaps objection appears strong is in the case of Newton’s account of the orbits of the planets. His theory would have expected the orbits to go somewhat differently from the way they go, and so he postulated God as the one who keeps the planets in line. Laplace later developed a theory that didn’t require this kind of divine tinkering, and when asked about Newton’s theistic theory he said “I have no need of that hypothesis.”
But I’m not sure that the argument from reason can be undermined in the same way. It’s not just pointing to an unsolved engineering problem in nature. First of all, the categories of the mental and the physical are logically incompatible categories. You start attributing mental properties to physics and you might end up being told that you are no longer describing the physical at all. Purpose, normativity, intentionality or about-ness, all these things are not supposed to be brought in to the physical descriptions of things, at least at the most basic level of analysis.
Let’s consider the gap between the propositional content of thought and the physical description of the brain. My claim is that no matter in how much detail you describe the physical state of the brain (and the environment), the propositional content of thought will invariably be undetermined. This isn’t my claim of C. S. Lewis’s, this argument was made by the arch-naturalist W. V. Quine. Now of course that doesn’t make it true, but nevertheless it’s not a matter of getting a physical description that will work, I’m saying the logico-conceptual gap is always going to be there regardless of how extensively you describe the physical. As I once said, “Bridging the chasm isn’t going to simply be a matter of exploring the territory on one side of the chasm.”
Second, to a very large extent the gap between the mental and the physical was caused by science in the first place. The way one got physics going in the early days of modern science was to attribute such things as colors, tastes, smells, to the mind, while explaining the physics of it without those things. See these entries giving arguments by Swinburne and Feser on this type of argument:
If these arguments are correct, then instead of expecting out naturalistic modes of explanation to keep working when we start to explain the mind, we should rather expect them to break down. Materialistic science began by passing features of the world to the mind in order to avoid explaining certain features of the physical world. If it wants to explain the mind in terms of matter, where is it going to send those mental properties?
Second, science has, so far as I can tell, made no real progress on explaining the existence of consciousness other “mental” features of reality. We have discovered correlations between mental and physical states, but correlations do not prove identity. Attempts to reduce the mental to the physical have so far not been successful, and on my view they are invariable doomed to explaining the mental by explaining it away.
Finally, when we use the term “supernatural” we need to be clear on what we mean. I don’t like to use the word (though C. S. Lewis did) but if I did I would just say that in the last analysis we are going to have to give some “mind-first” explanations for why, for example, some states of mind are about other things. It seems to me that you can accept the force of the argument from reason and become an Absolute Idealist instead of a theist. That’s exactly what C. S. Lewis did, at least at first.
Don't hesitate to e-mail me. I would love to know how you're doing.