Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Chalmers and Theology

Long-time readers of this blog know that I've written a paper and posts about David Chalmers' work, specifically driving it towards theism and then sitting back to watch the collision. It wasn't a spectacular crash, so don't go reading it expecting Michael Bay to show up.

However, now I see that Chalmers is being drawn, against his will, into another theological argument - Intelligent Design. His response is admirable, and one with which I would generally agree. Chalmers' work is about challenging materialism, for sure, but it is not about arguing for the existence or non-existence of God. If anything, Chalmers is non-theistic but to his credit is always open to the conceivable and possible. Nevertheless, if Propositions A and B are both contrary to Proposition C, there is no guarantee that A and B will agree with each other. Making that claim is poor argumentation. This is what the Intelligent Design proponents appear to have attempted, attempting to make alliances with the opponent of their opponent.

Also, I don't think that Chalmers is trying to destroy the achievements of materialism. I think that he sees it as an important step in eventually understanding consciousness and that it should be refined and developed to make a better model. That doesn't mean he wants a return to Cartesian Dualism, but to something else. It is an Hegelian negation of the negation, so to speak, and is worth pursuing. By his own account, he doesn't claim to have yet solved the hard problem, but wants to explore the possibilities so as to either eliminate them or find opportunities in them for further exploration. I think this is the right approach to research.

Lastly, from the perspective of theology and intelligent design, let me reiterate what I've written before.
It is not that the Christian philosopher is ill-equipped to tackle those problems – that has nothing to do with being a Christian – but rather the case is the opposite. Christian theology has not been excluded from metaphysics, but metaphysics has been excluded from Christian theology. There is little reason to pursue it as an explicitly Christian activity. Theology will only be distracted by it. Rather, theology is closer to its home when concerned with the consequences of the resurrection rather than any back-filled metaphysical explanation for the resurrection.
Intelligent Design is a waste of theological neurons. I estimate that more than 95% of the New Testament is about the ethics of how we live now and that the remainder is little more than speculation about the cosmos. Theologians ought to leave metaphysics to the metaphysicians (or even the physicists) and get on with the business of writing about what it means to be Christian.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Logic as a revelation

Logic is often attributed with more function that it has ever claimed. I hear, from time to time, an interlocutor claim that “Logic tells us that X is right” or “Logically, such and such is true.” The worst case of this that I experienced was when I was told, “So you’re studying theology. I’m very interested in this… I mean, logic tells us that God doesn’t exist.”

Although the primary reactions are a combination of debate and so on and so on, it was clear that by invoking logic he had attempted to take the rational high ground. In other words, by being the first person to claim that his position is the result of logic, any contrary position could not be founded on logic, and if not based on logic it could not be true. Now, in the current state of affairs, rationalism is given the highest standing as the most reliable basis on which to assert a truth. It is, however, a trick of persuasion and debate rather than an actual exercise in logic.

Logic, after all, is only really used to test propositions or to reach conclusions from propositions. For example, “The sky is dark for about half the day because the sun is located on the other side of the planet” is a proposition that logic can test. Also, “The sky is dark for about half the day because humans generally prefer to sleep at night” is another. Likewise, logic can be used to extrapolate from, “This house is made of wood, and wood is combustible” to “Fire can destroy this house” or even “If I want to protect this house I should ensure that it does not catch fire.”

The point is that without an initial proposition, logic doesn’t have a starting position and cannot then reach any conclusions. Logic, by itself, can tell us nothing.

However, what the invocation of logic does tell us is the fundamental proposition or assumption of the invoker. In the creationist argument, one person might say that, “Just look at creation! That’s enough argument to tell me that God exists.” The unspoken assumption is that only a God could create such a thing, that there is no way the universe could spontaneously come into existence. Alternatively, one might weigh in to a debate on abortion and say that, “Early term abortion is acceptable because the foetus has not yet developed a neural system.” Again, the unspoken assumption is probably that the validity of human life is based largely on the presence of a healthy neural system that can support consciousness, rather than the assumption that human life is made valid by the presence of a soul or spirit that inhabits the flesh.

Logic, by itself, tells us nothing about the claim. When invoked by a lazy debater, however, it tells us that not only is the debater lazy (or a practitioner of misdirection) but it reveals the underlying assumption on which the conclusion is based. And for that there is only one remedy, the assumption must be exposed for what it is, an unfounded assumption. It is merely an assertion, based only on the force of will of the one making the claim. An assertion is only that, an assertion of the will, and it holds weight only by conviction or violence. Logic, so very often, doesn’t tell us what we claim it does, but it reveals so very much about ourselves.

Friday, 3 October 2008

True Opinions

Pluralism is a strange beast. We cherish the co-existence of people who have beliefs contradictory to our own, who live according to those beliefs and still peacefully with other people. Two people can make opposing statements and yet preface those statements with, "I believe" and therefore the listener takes it in as an opinion or a statement of faith.

To the listener, the "I believe" is almost the same as a license to disregard the validity of anything the speaker has said. "I believe that the Greek gods are alive and active, and am going to a festival in their honour this weekend," is not heard in any persuasive sense, but is entirely interpreted so as to give context to the speaker's weekend activities. The listener can feel content in ignoring any of the content of the statement.

To the speaker, however, the "I believe" is cherished and at the core of conscious experience. As I heard someone say one day, "It's my opinion, so it is 100% true because it is my opinion. And your opinions are 100% true, because they are your opinions." Truth in this sense is determined by assertion of ownership. For as long as one claims an opinion as one's own, it is true in one's consciousness, and therefore one's universe.

All these words (believe, opinion, and so on and so on) and their secondary meaning of doubt for the listener, serve to reinforce the maxim that our experience of the world is mediated through the senses and the experiences we have had. Absolute truth (the view from nowhere) is beyond our reach, with the possible exception of mathematics ("Mathematics is ontology," said Badiou.).

And with this in mind, we return to pluralism. Absolute truth is always mediated and out of reach. The remainder is opinion and subjective experience. The reality in which we live is mediated, and although it supervenes on a universe of physical laws, it is the level of experience. It is only at this level that we can make sense to each other, even if when we listen, we find reasons to dismiss the opinions of others merely because they are opinions.