Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Atheists call for "National Day of Reason."

In response to the recent federal court decision that ruled that the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional, a atheist group is calling for a "National Day of Reason." But why? According to a story on
“The National Day of Reason includes all Americans and calls attention to a value that’s essential to effective democracy,” said David Niose, president of the American Humanist Association. 
Also scheduled to be held on the first Thursday in May, the National Day of Reason is a day in which events are held across the United States in order to commemorate reason.
But what precisely is "reason"? It seems to at least be a norm that we ought to follow when exercising our mental powers. As Mr. Niose writes, it is "essential to effective democracy." Thus, it is not a physical law, like gravity, since following norms requires judgment, and judgment is a power that the will may or may not exercise. Gravity just happens; it is not "right" or "wrong" or "irrational." Such a judgment relies on laws of logic and inference, which are not material things, like stones, buildings, and squirrels. So, when I say that my reasons for believing X are A, B & C, the relationship between my reasons and my beliefs are not like the relationship between the stone and the squirrel, e.g., the stone is to the right of the squirrel. Thus, the relationship between my reasons and my beliefs, the "aboutness" of the first to the second, is not a matter of physical things being next to each other. The relationship is logical and not spatial. But these atheists are materialists who believe that there are no immaterial realities. Although some of them believe that our thoughts may be immaterial properties, these thoughts depend on physical states, and thus are subject to physical and chemical laws that lack the mental power of judgment.

But it gets worse. For example, materialist Steven
 Pinker writes that all our faculties, including the cognitive faculties by which we reason, arrived in their present state as a result of blind non-rational forces combined with natural selection and/or perhaps other material causes.[1] In that case, what grounds would provide warrant for Pinker to claim that his exercise of his cognitive faculties including his reason is functioning properly? Alvin Plantinga has raised a similar question in what he calls an evolutionary argument against naturalism.[2] I will briefly summarize Platinga’s argument while applying it to Pinker’s case.

Here’s the problem for Pinker: If he provides reasons for his belief that his cognitive faculties are functioning properly he must rely on those very
cognitive faculties in order to arrive at those reasons. However, Pinker tells us that all our cognitive faculties, including his, arrived in their present state as a result of blind non-rational forces combined with natural selection and/or perhaps other material causes. But, as Plantinga points out, “[e]volution is interested, not in true belief, but in survival or fitness.” Thus, “[i]t is. . . unlikely that our cognitive faculties have the production of true belief as a proximate or any other function, and the probability of our faculties’ being reliable (given naturalistic evolution) would be fairly low.”[3] Thus, “any argument” Pinker “offers” for the reliability of his cognitive faculties “is in this context delicately circular or question-begging.”[4] Although it is not formally circular in the sense that the conclusion appears in the argument’s premises, it is, writes Plantinga, “pragmatically circular in that it purports to give a reason for trusting our cognitive faculties, but is itself trustworthy only if those faculties (at least the ones involved in its production) are indeed trustworthy.” Thus, Pinker or your garden-variety evolutionary naturalist [5] “subtly assumes the very proposition” he “proposes to argue for.” In other words, “[o]nce I come to doubt the reliability of my cognitive faculties, I can’t properly try to allay that doubt by producing an argument; for in doing so I rely on the very faculties I am doubting.”[6]

Conclusion: it seems as though the atheists advancing a "National Day of Reason" can not account for reason. Not very reasonable, is it?

[1] Writes Pinker: 
Our organs of computation are a product of natural selection. The biologist Richard Dawkins called natural selection the Blind Watchmaker; in the case of the mind, we can call it the Blind Programmer. Our mental programs work as well as they do because they were shaped by selection to allow our ancestors to master rocks, tools, plants, animals, and each other, ultimate in the service of survival and reproduction.
Natural selection is not the cause of evolutionary change. Organisms also change over the eons because of statistical accidents in who lives and who dies, environmental catastrophes that wipe out whole familes of creatures, and the unavoidable by-products of changes that are the product of selection. But natural selection is the only evolutionary force that acts like an engineer, “designing” organs that accomplish improbable adaptive outcomes (a point that has been made forcefully by the biologist George Williams and by Dawkins) (Steven Pinker, How The Mind Works [New York: W. W Norton 1997], 36)

[2]Alvin Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 216-237.

[3]Ibid., 219. Philosopher Anthony O’Hear makes a similar observation:
In the Darwinian view, even our reason is simply an instrument of survival. It was not given to us to unearth the ultimate truth about things but simply to find our way around the savannah well enough to survive and reproduce. That we have a disinterested power to seek and the ability to find the truth for its own sake is as much of an illusion as our faith that our moral sense is truly altruistic and other-regarding. It may, be like our moral faith, a useful illusion, for purposes of survival and reproduction, in that having the illusion may encourage us to uncover facts that aid survival. But it is an illusion none the less, foisted on us by our genes, that we are really engineered by nature to discover ultimate, universally valid truth. Neither our sense nor evolution in general provides any guarantee that what our investigations reveal is the real truth, as opposed to a set of notions useful for a time in the struggle for existence, which of course, leaves a question over the Darwinian notion itself that we are basically survival machines. Is that real truth or merely a notion useful in the struggle for survival? The Darwinian account, seeing our knowledge, as everything else about us, in terms simply of selective advantage, gives us no hope for deciding.  (Anthony O’Hare, After Progress: Finding the Old Way Forward [London: Bloomsbury, 1999], 68)

[4]Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function, 234.

[5] I say “evolutionary naturalism” to distinguish it from theistic evolution or other understandings of evolution that are non-naturalist.  Because it is often mistakenly assumed that evolution is in-principle inconsistent with final or formal causes, many people, including some Christians, have come to believe that evolution per se is a defeater to the belief that the universe is designed.  I address this error in Francis J. Beckwith, “How to Be An Intelligent Design Advocate,” University of St. Thomas Journal of Law & Public Policy 4.1 (2010). See also Etienne Gilson, From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again: A Journey in Final Causality, Species, and Evolution, trans. John Lyon (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984) and Francis S. Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: The Free Press, 2006)

[6]Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function, 234.. Plantinga suggests that the idea of properly functioning cognitive faculties makes the most sense if they were designed by a being for that purpose. That is, “naturalistic epistemology flourishes best in the garden of supernaturalistic metaphysics. Naturalistic epistemology conjoined with naturalistic metaphysics leads via evolution to skepticism or to violation of canons of rationality; conjoined with theism it does not. The naturalistic epistemologist should therefore prefer theism to metaphysical naturalism.” (Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function, 237). For a response to Plantinga’s case, see Branden Fitelson and Elliot Sober, “Plantinga’s Probability Arguments Against Evolutionary Naturalism,” in Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics: Philosophical, Theological, and Scientific Perspectives, ed. Robert T. Pennock (Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 2001). 
     In addition to Plantinga’s work, see William Hasker, The Emergent Self (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999); Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro, Naturalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 25-96; Richard Swinburne, The Evolution of the Soul, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei, especially 41-103; J. P. Moreland, Consciousness and the Existence of God: A Theistic Argument (New York: Routledge, 2009); J. P. Moreland, “The Argument from Consciousness,” in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, eds. William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland (Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 282-343; Victor Reppert, “The Argument from Reason,” in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, 344-390; Keith Yandell, “A Defense of Dualism,” Faith and Philosophy 12 (October 1995):  548-66; Charles Taliaferro, “Animals, Brains, and Spirits,” Faith and Philosophy 12 (October 1995):  567-81; Ric Machuga, In Defense of the Soul: What It Means to Be Human (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2002)


Athos said...

Wait. Wait. Didn't Robespierre already try this? THAT turned out well...

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