No End In Sight

In a recent post at his Maverick Philosopher website, Bill Vallicella responds to the following brief remark by philosopher Jim Ryan:

The reason I’m an atheist is straightforward. The proposition that there is a god is as unlikely as ghosts, Martians amongst us, and reincarnation. There isn’t the slightest evidence for these hypotheses which fly in the face of so much else that we know to be true. So I believe all of them to be false.

I agree with most of what Ryan says here, but consider Bill to be as nimble and astute a theist as one is likely to find, so I was interested to see how he would reply.

In response to Ryan’s comment that the “God hypothesis” contradicts things that we know to be true, Bill writes:

I would be interested in hearing from Jim which propositions he thinks we know to be true that entail the nonexistence of God. Could it be the proposition that everything that exists is a material thing? This proposition does entail the nonexistence of God, but we don’t know it to be true. And if one simply assumes it to be true, then one quite blatantly begs the question against the theist.

To explain this a bit further, let us adopt a definition of naturalism. I submit that D. M. Armstrong’s definition is quite serviceable and captures what many nowadays mean by the term:

“It is the contention that the world, the totality of entities, is nothing more than the spacetime system. . . . The positive part of the thesis, that the spacetime system exists, is perhaps not very controversial . . . . The negative thesis, that the spacetime system is all there is, is more controversial.” (A World of States of Affairs, p. 5)

If we accept Armstrong’s definition — and I see no reason not to accept it — and if naturalism so defined is true, then the following do not, and presumably cannot, exist: God as classically conceived, disembodied minds/souls, unexemplified universals, and a whole range of objects variously characterizable as ideal, Platonic, or abstract, including Fregean propositions, Fregean senses in general, numbers, irreducible mathematical sets, and the like. In sum, naturalism is the thesis that reality is exhausted by the space-time system.

Well, that seems like a perfectly fine definition to me, and I am equally comfortable with the conclusions Bill draws: I don’t think any of the things he mentions do in fact exist, except as human concepts.

Now I hope it is obvious that naturalism as defined is not a proposition of natural science. Nor is it a presupposition of natural science. Natural science studies the spacetime system and what it contains. It does not and cannot study anything outside this system, if there is anything outside it. Nor can natural science pronounce upon the question of whether or not the whole of reality is exhausted by the spacetime system. Of course, there is nothing to stop a physicist or a chemist or a biologist from waxing philosophical and declaring his allegiance to the metaphysical doctrine of naturalism. But he makes a grotesque mistake if he thinks that the results of natural-scientific work entail the truth of naturalism. They neither entail it not entail its negation.

So I am quite puzzled by Ryan’s claim that the existence of God is contradicted by much of what we know to be true. I would like him to produce just one proposition that we know to be true that entails the nonexistence of God. The plain truth of the matter, as it seems to me, is that nothing we know to be true rules out the existence of God. I cheerfully concede that nothing we know to be true rules it in either. Pace the doctor angelicus, one cannot rigorously prove the existence of God. One can argue for the existence of God, but not prove the existence of God.

Again, little to argue with here, and Bill quite rightly admits that you can’t prove the existence or nonexistence of God.

This is not to say, however, that the claims of the world’s religions (and, for that matter, of the dualistic philosophy that Bill espouses) don’t climb over the fence into the scientific “magisterium”. Such trespasses abound, and nonbelievers find them not so easily forgivable: Lazarus and Jesus were raised from the dead. Mary conceived Jesus while a virgin. Jesus walked on water, raised the dead himself, and turned water into wine. The physical body is animated by an immaterial soul, which enters the human zygote at the moment of conception. The immaterial soul causes the body’s physical acts. There is a place where our consciousness goes after we die.

The truth or falsity of these claims are legitimate scientific questions, even if it is difficult to see how we might answer them. The miracles attributed to Jesus directly contradict our understanding of how the natural world works, and the notion that our physical acts are the effect of an immaterial cause is very clearly an assertion about workings of the natural world (and this, at least, is one that we may be in a position to put to the test before long).

Regarding evidence for God, Bill writes:

Ryan also claims that there is no evidence for the God hypothesis. This strikes me as just plain false. There are all kinds of evidence. That it is not the sort of evidence Ryan and fellow atheists would accept does not show that it is not evidence. People have religious and mystical experiences of many different kinds. There is the ‘bite of conscience’ that intimates a Reality transcendent of the spacetime world. Some experiences of beauty intimate the same. There are the dozens and dozens of arguments for the existence of God.

The atheist will of course discount all of this. But so what? I will patiently discount all his discountings and show in great detail how none of them are compelling. I will show how he fails to account for obvious facts (consciousness, self-consciouness, conscience, intentionality, purposiveness, etc.) if he assumes that all that exists is in the spacetime world.

Well, he is right here also: I do discount all of this. Mystical experiences can be brought about pharmaceutically, or by stimulation of parts of the temporal lobe; and certainly your mystical experience offers me no evidence of God. The “bite of conscience” is easily explicable without resorting to supernatural explanations, and the same can be said for intentionality†† and purposiveness. We still have work to do in understanding consciousness, admittedly. But the point is that the fact that there are things we still don’t understand is not evidence of the existence of God. This is the classic “God of the Gaps” argument, and it is utterly unconvincing.

It is fascinating, if one simply is not drawn to belief in God, to see the lengths to which believers will go. To those of us not under the spell, it really is hard to imagine how anyone else could be; to us it seems exactly on a par with belief in Zeus, or in Ymir the Frost Giant. But the fact that men as brilliant as Bill actually do believe makes it quite clear that there will simply never be an end to this standoff: religious beliefs, particularly of this degree of sophistication, are simply irrefutable (which is no accident). Those who must believe will do so; to paraphrase Luther, “they can do no other”.

Bill’s post is well worth reading — his ongoing defense of theism and dualism is as good as it gets — and there is a lively discussion underway in the comments thread. Go and have a look.

  1. In the comments thread, Bill suggests, as he has before, that atheists are incapable of spiritual or mystical experiences: “I would suggest that a reason atheists do not understand theism is that they simply don’t have these sorts of experiences. Nothing in their experience points beyond the human horizon. The notion that there could be something utterly transcendent of matter, man, and his machinations is foreign to them.” This is not the case, as I have argued here.
  2. †† See here.


  1. Jack says

    I avoid discussing religion, except on the rare occasion. Reading through this post, and Bill’s, I felt compelled to write the following few paragraphs. But first I would like to ask you a question on intentionality from a discussion you had on Bill’s blog back in 2005 (sorry!):

    As for derived intentionality: Bill once rejected Dennet’s ascriptionist thesis that all intentionality is derived intentionality on the grounds that it entails an infinite regress of ascribed intentional states. Bill used the example of a computer playing chess and Bill ascribing intentional states to the computer, but who is ascribing intentional states to Bill? The gist of the argument is that Bill ascribing an intentional state to the computer is himself entering into an intentional state which is either ascribed or original. My question, probably naive is this: can such a regress be mitigated, if in fact not halted, by self-referential ascription? That is, in Bill’s example, Bill is ascribing an intentional state to Bill who is ascribing an intentional state to the computer? Probably naive, but I’m just beginning to tackle this question.

    And my comment on religion:

    I am a good materialist, but am pressed by certain experiences to abandon that position in some instances. So, a statement on religion and belief:

    The only religious propositions that warrant my unconditionally belief are ones which I do not know (in the formal philosophical sense). That is, the only religious propositions that warrant my unconditional belief are those which make no claims subject to empirical verification and are not self-contradictory.

    Any religious claim subject to empirical verification can only be accepted provisionally (and thus not unconditionally). An assumption in my attitude toward religion is that no set of religious beliefs can be true and self-contradictory, and that no religious belief subject to empirical claim can be true if it is robustly contradicted by empirical fact. Implicit in this assertion is the assertion that the objects of religious propositions (for example on the nature of God) cannot transcend these standards of rationality: for example, that God cannot exist if the existence of God entails a contradiction. However, one might feel compelled to consider that to assert the rule of Godly non-contradiction is to assert that God is limited by the need for consistency, and thus that God’s transcendence or omnipotence and omniscience are nothing of the kind. Therefore, if God is transcendent, omnipotent, and omniscient, and entails a contradiction, then God transcends the contradictions God entails. But if there exists such a God then I must believe everything, and nothing at all. Instead, I will merely accept as true no religious propositions that are contrary to the evidence or entail logical contradictions.

    However, the paucity of religious claims that are not thus eliminated from one’s consideration leaves one with little religion to believe in. 1) All true religious claims that are subject to empirical verification can then be described in the language of empirical science. 2) All true religious claims not subject to empirical verification are either logical truths or transcendent truths. 3) If they are logical truths then they may be discussed in the manner of all logical discourse. 4)Those truths that remain are those transcendent axiomatic truths which cannot be known, only believed. (knowledge is more than mere true belief after all) Moreover, such truths have have no material consequence at all.

    I might be wrong.

    Posted November 11, 2008 at 3:45 am | Permalink
  2. Jack says

    Apologies. I should not have written:

    The only religious propositions that warrant my unconditionally belief are ones which I do not know (in the formal philosophical sense). That is, the only religious propositions that warrant my unconditional belief are those which make no claims subject to empirical verification and are not self-contradictory.

    Instead I should have written: The only religious propositions that warrant my unconditional belief are those which are either 1) logical truths or 2) truths that are neither logical truths nor empirical, but transcendental.

    However, I retract most of what I wrote. Funny that. My point was that that truth of religion (or God) which can be explained by science is merely materialist, that any truth of religion (or God) explained by logic, is merely logic, and that whatever truths are left over cannot be proved and have no material consequence.

    Posted November 11, 2008 at 4:14 am | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Hi Jack,

    Thanks for your comments. I’ll have to return to this in a day or so, as I am terribly busy at work today.

    Posted November 11, 2008 at 10:07 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Hi Jack,

    One of the unfortunate aspects of this medium is that in all likelihood very few people will read comments that are left so long after the fact (over a year gone by, in this case).

    I think Bill is deeply confused about Dennett’s views of intentionality. Dennett coined the phrase “intentional stance” to describe an ascriptional posture toward things in the world, but ascription is not necessary for intentionality; my thoughts about this or that need no ascription in order to be “about” their referent. I think that a quite unproblematic evolutionary story can be told about how “aboutness” has arisen in the world; indeed I have made the case myself many times in these pages. Intentionality is a feature of designed things, and living things are designed things. Consciousness — mental aboutness — is only one of the intentional features of the world.

    These views got me shown the door at Bill’s a while back, though we still correspond briefly on occasion (and I have popped by his site again a few times more recently). Bill is a remarkable thinker, and a good writer, and it is fascinating to me that such a well-assembled and well-cultivated mind can see things so very differently.

    I quite agree with your remarks about religion. Either religious beliefs pick out some actual state of affairs in the world — in which case they fall within the scope of empirical inquiry — or they don’t, in which case they are utterly inconsequential.

    Thanks for coming round. Have you commented here before?

    Posted November 13, 2008 at 10:24 pm | Permalink
  5. Jack says

    Hey thanks for your reply. No I have not commented here before. By the way, I’m a Computer Science Master’s student working on my thesis. I’m doing some stuff with Jon Barwise’s logic of distributed systems. Or trying to anyway.

    Dennett gives as an example of unproblematic ascriptional (or derived) intentionality in his two-bitser vending achine. In the U.S. the two-bitser seems to be making an error by accepting Panamanian coins, but when the vending machine is in Panama and used for that purpose, the situation is switched around. I agree that this is an unproblematic example of ascriptional intentionality. The two-bitser being in the state Q at some time t is “about” US quarters, or Panamanian quarters, in an ascriptional way. Whether a particular state corresponds to a mistake depends on how it is being used. But…

    However, we can easily define a class of object, let’s call it R, whose members include both U.S. quarters and Panamanian quarters (and perhaps other coins as well), much in the same way dogs and cats both fall into the class pet, or into the class mammal. We might then say that if the two-bitser goes into the state Q, Q says that R, i.e. Q is about R. But what if we found another object o which is not a member of R but brings the two-bitser into the same state Q? Let us then define another class U as the class of all objects that bring the two-bitser into the state Q, i.e. the sensor component of the vending machine is a kind of procedure for deciding whether something belongs to U. In this case, couldn’t we say that Q is intrinsically about U?

    Then intrinsic intentionality permits no error. If s being of type S tells us that r is of type R, and s is of type S, then r is of type R. This is clearly not the case when Q is interpreted as meaning U.S. quarters, for example. Error seems to always be in relation to some intentional stance.

    Is this picture without merit?

    Posted November 14, 2008 at 12:56 pm | Permalink
  6. Jack says

    I would probably benefit from more reading. I’ve only read the one (famous) chapter of Dennett’s book the Intentional Stance. I probably should re-read that too.

    It seems to me that evolution is just a process (a kind of sorting process) that happens to certain kinds of physical systems, but the regularities of which permit our having teleological stances toward these regularities, e.g. we can state that a frog’s visual-motor system is designed “for” catching flies because in some way the fact that the frog’s visual-motor system permits the catching of flies induces a feedback loop which successively refines its properties with respect to the goal of catching flies.

    But frogs can make mistakes in the same way that the two-bitser made mistakes. The refinement in the frog’s fly-detecting mechanism induced by the evolutionary process is then, under the view of intrinsic intentionality I proposed earlier, the refinement of the intrinsic class U (the class of things bringing the frog into the state Q). The “usefulness” of Q is its propensity to catch flies in the environments frogs tend to find themselves in. Therefore U will tend to be refined such that type I and type II errors are minimized under some set of constraints. Actually, frogs might want to err on the side of false positives. Anyway, under this view, intentionality is not brought about by evolution, merely adjusted. Instead, intentionality would be about some kind of information theoretic structures (such as the infomorphism).

    But I’m probably way off.

    Posted November 14, 2008 at 1:28 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Jack, I see little to disagree with in your remarks, other than that I think there is little to be gained by focusing on derived versus intrinsic intentionality in the first place. Evolution drives a design process that results in things that are “about” other things; by stepping back and taking an intentional stance toward them we can see where mistakes can occur, as in the case of the frog that zaps a thrown pebble. Our own thoughts — the “mental” phenomena that are not, as some would say, the only genuine examples of intentionality, but merely a subset — are no more “about” their referents than the frog’s weaponized tongue is “about” the fly. (Or about the pebble, for that matter; we often make the same sort of errors by imagining the referents of our mental states to be something other than what they actually are.)

    Posted November 14, 2008 at 2:07 pm | Permalink
  8. Jack says

    Hi, Sorry I haven’t responded sooner. I’ve been pretty busy for the last week, not to mention being down with a nasty cold. Thank you for taking the time to respond to my comments and questions. I’ll keep thinking about it.

    kind regards,


    Posted November 21, 2008 at 10:29 pm | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says

    You are most welcome, Jack. Thank you for reading and commenting.

    Posted November 21, 2008 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

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