Mystery and Materialism
3. Mystery and Materialism
In his book God and the Reach of Reason, Erik Wielenberg attempts to respond to
Lewis’s argument from reason, using a parallel with some Christian responses to the argument from evil. In response to the argument from evil, Christian philosophers have sometimes attempted to produce theodicies which explain God’s reason for permitting various of the world’s evils. Other Christians, however, have argued that our inability to explain this, that, or the other instance of evil in suffering is not the end of the world for theists. We are, after all, human beings with limited understanding, and it would be surprising if God were to exist and we could understand God’s ways well enough to know why some particular instance of suffering was permitted. In the same way, the fact that no analysis of intentional states in physical terms need not be fatal for materialism, because it could be that our brains are simply not well-suited to understand the connections between the mental and the physical. If we can’t figure out how the mental could possibly be, in the last analysis physical, that need not be because the mental is really non-physical, it could be simply that we have trouble solving philosophical problems. The response he gives to the argument from reason is very much akin to the “mysterian” view in the philosophy of consciousness put forward by Colin McGinn.
However, several responses can be given here. In responding to the argument from evil in the terms delineated above, it does seem to me that the theist in engaging in a damage control project rather than a project that actually refutes the argument from evil. If an atheistic world-view can come up with an explanation for the suffering in the world that makes more sense than theism can possibly offer, then it seems to me that the argument from evil still counts in favor of atheism. Some theists are prepared to admit that the existence of suffering counts against theism, but just think that there is better reason to be a theist nonetheless. Of course, it would be another matter if the atheists’ explanation for suffering could be shown to be fundamentally inadequate. If that were the case, the the force of the atheistic argument could be blunted completely. On my view we have to consider the fact that on a broadly materialist world-view, the existence of qualia such as pain, as well as the existence of a moral standard by which to judge something to be evil, are both problematic, so I am not fully convinced that the argument from evil really points to an explanatory advantage for atheism. However, it may be that it does, in which case the explanatory disadvantage for theism need not be fatal.
Every time I have presented the argument from reason, I have put it forward as a factor that should count in favor of theism, but not necessarily decisively. In evaluating particular arguments, it is important not to get “tunnel vision” and think that the argument now being considered is the only consideration for or against theism. So I can easily imagine someone saying “Yes, reason is tough for atheists to explain, but theists have worse problems, so I am not going to go there.” In fact, I introduced the comparison between the argument from reason and the argument from evil in my book’s penultimate paragraph. I wrote:
However, I do contend that the arguments from reason do provide some substantial reasons for preferring theism to naturalism. The “problem of reason” is a huge problem for natuarlism, as serious or, I would say, more serious, than the problem of evil is for theists. But while theists have expended considerable effort in confronting the problem of evil, the problem of reason has not as yet been acknowledged as a serious problem for naturalism.
Now, once again, the force of the argument from reason could be blunted if it could be shown that whatever the weaknesses of the various materialistic accounts of reason, a non-naturalistic account of reason would have to be by its very nature inadequate. However, theism does offer a way whereby we can say that we need not be saddled with the problem of how reason might arise in a universe that lacked it to begin with, or how rational states can supervene on lower-level states that lack rationality entirely. If we ask “Why does reason exist at all?” the theist can answer “It is on the ground floor of reality. Its existence is more fundamental to the ultimate causes of the universe than the existence of matter itself.
Others have argued that whatever theistic explanations are always inadequate explanations, and that we are better off saying “I don’t know” than attributing anything to God. That is the force of what I call the Inadequacy Objection, and it is an argument that I will take up later in this essay.