Sunday, September 11, 2011

Scientism: Modern Pagan Religion

Traditional religions were holistic, uniting normative and empirical speculations in a mytho-poetic vision of the world. Eastern religious philosophies are still holistic, whereas dualism dominates in the West, and not just because of Descartes’ attempt to reconcile the scientific picture of nature with the intuitive picture of ourselves. Monotheism itself has contributed to Western dualism. By centralizing divine power and elevating God above all conceivable forms, the monotheist effectively kicks God out of the rationally explainable domain, which is the domain of nature or the cosmos, the order of which corresponds to our conceptual grid. The supreme form of rational understanding is the modern scientific kind, but precisely because science is supremely impersonal and objective, its methods don’t provide direct answers to normative or subjective questions.

But ethical and aesthetic values, intuitions, and the subjective appearances of things have been central to the human experience. And so rather than giving them up, despite the lack of forthcoming answers to those questions from science, which reigns supreme only in a limited field of inquiry, religious people externalized those ghostly intangibles along with God. God is supposed to sustain everything, and while scientists have discovered more and more of how the physical world sustains itself, dualistic monotheism saves the subjective, intuitive, value-laden, faith-based appearance of the world, by locating this in the deity’s supernatural domain and in the earthly fragments of that domain, in our so-called immaterial spirits. After all, according to monotheists, God originated our moral perspective, by inspiring prophets to gain insights into divine commandments, and we’re able to think in terms of what ought to be done, instead of slavishly following natural law, because our immaterial spirits are supernaturally free.

Skeptics would contend, though, that the true originators of official moral laws were the human rulers who codified our instinctive sentiments, to hold social groups together, maintaining their elevated position in the pecking order by attributing society’s laws to gods who are just grandiose versions of those human rulers. Far from being supernaturally free, we’re just social animals who are subject to natural control systems, such as the system of monotheism. And of course, the more scientists have been able to explain empirical facts without appealing to God or to the supernatural, the more theism has declined in most informed parts of the world. Many early Western scientists inhabited the halfway house of deism, and most educated people currently living in relatively wealthy countries in Europe and Asia are nontheistic in both word and deed. Even in the US, which is an exception to that rule, nontheism has grown more popular due to the so-called New Atheist movement.

Such is a common way of contrasting traditional Western monotheism with modern secularism. But I want to consider another interpretation, according to which nontheistic naturalism has itself developed into a religion that can be called scientism. Narrowly speaking, scientism is the belief that scientific knowledge is the only kind of knowledge, that if a question can’t be answered using scientific methods, the question is meaningless or otherwise illegitimate. In this respect, scientism is just radical empiricism, or positivism, deriving from the Vienna Circle, Wittgenstein, and David Hume. While positivism has since been mostly rejected in academic philosophy, for being self-refuting and for ignoring studies of how the sciences are actually practiced, most analytic philosophers still subscribe to naturalism. Naturalists assume that even if some legitimate questions can’t be identified with scientific ones, everything that exists depends on things that are scientifically explainable.

That's how scientism has played out in rarified academic circles and it's the meaning I've had in mind in these blog rants, such as when I referred to "scientistic liberals," in Liberalism. But there's also a more popular form of scientism, which has to do with the way technoscientific progress has shaped the capitalistic social order. The main social effects of that progress are anti-philosophical pragmatism and the ideology of materialistic consumerism. In this broader sense of the centrality of science, scientism serves as a religion that we dare not name.

The Capitalistic Reduction of People to Machines


As I point out in Theism, traditional religions have insiders and outsiders, mystics and literalists. Mystics are supposed to have direct, rationally incomprehensible experience of transcendent reality, and for the most part the price of that experience is ascetic withdrawal from secular life. Literalists have no such mystical experience, and their adherence to secular conventions and their submergence in what mystics call the world of illusions (maya, samsara, etc) bring them suffering. In the purportedly secular West, there are also insiders and outsiders: the wealthy or well-connected oligarchs and the poor, weak, misinformed masses of consumers. Whereas the nonrational component of theistic religion is the mode of access to allegedly supernatural reality (faith, intuition, mystical experience), what’s nonrational about scientism, despite the paradigmatic rationality of science itself, is the behaviour of people who have been systematically reduced to machines.

To spell this out, consider that in the British Industrial Revolution, labourers--including children--were dehumanized and treated as mechanical components of a system managed for the owner’s profit. Frederick Taylor streamlined the process, creating the influential field of scientific management, which again turns employees into functional parts of a system while the managers seek ways to cut costs and maximize profits. The goal was simply for businesses to run as efficiently as possible, and since a machine is better at following orders than a human, human labourers compete in the marketplace by becoming more like machines. These workers need to slavishly follow the corporation’s rules, ignoring any compunctions they might have about the dehumanizing effects of a capitalistic economy, and they must work longer hours for as little pay as possible, often with no union to represent their interests. In short, business became operationalized, which is to say that sociopathic theories of exploiting a labour force for maximal profit were applied within corporations, forcing the workers literally to play the role of machines. While on the job, a worker in a systematically managed business environment must perform a certain function, just as a component of a machine has its function as dictated by the machine’s design.

Beginning with Edward Bernays’ work on how the human unconscious can be exploited for government purposes or for profit, by propaganda that links the propagandist’s esoteric objective with the fulfillment of the consumer’s craving, the dehumanization within corporations was extended to people’s private lives in their capitalistic role as consumers. Prior to public relations and the near-perfection of mass propaganda through television, people could leave their offices and resume their personal activities that they defined for themselves. But because human greed is a bottomless pit, the corporate techniques of converting a person into a functional component of an artificial construct had to be extended to those personal activities. Now there is, in theory, no time at which a participant in a capitalistic economy is off the job, since as soon as a person stops being an employee, she becomes a potential consumer and the scope of consumable goods is as wide as the scope of what can be attached to our unconscious desires. Thus, instead of selling only those products that people objectively need, businesses learned to manufacture conscious desires along with their products, by associating the use of the product with the fulfillment of an unconscious wish. And while this science of mass market propaganda hasn’t yet been perfected--after all, a consumer can still watch an ad on TV and choose not to buy the product--the effect of watching so many ads from such a young age is that a person comes to accept the principles of a consumer culture, which are that our ultimate goal in life is to be happy and that this goal is achieved mainly by consuming material products.

The Nonrationality of Consumerism


So to return to the comparison with theistic religion, while the nonrationality of theism is due to its attempt to address normative questions head-on, by nonrational means, the nonrationality of exoteric scientism is a consequence of its reduction of people to machines, by way of indirectly addressing normative questions. What I mean is that scientism is minimally an anti-philosophical philosophy. Scientism’s exoteric message is that there is no progress outside of science, technology, and the free market, and that philosophy and religion are therefore illegitimate in secular society. But scientism’s esoteric agenda is that of erecting, roughly speaking, what Lewis Mumford calls the megamachine and what I’ve been calling in these blog rants an oligarchy, a social order run by a minority that holds ultimate political power over the majority.

How is the stealth oligarchy achieved? By presupposing answers to normative questions, which is to say a philosophy of life, and by turning society into a machine and assigning it the function of applying those answers. The unspoken philosophy of life in a stealth oligarchy like the US is that we’re all mere social animals, not godlike creatures capable of heroically confronting our dire existential predicament of being alienated from nature by our consciousness and reason (see Happiness). Moreover, the ultimate meaning of life for mere social animals depends on our position in the natural dominance hierarchy: the aggressive sociopaths who dominate in the social order earn the right to behave as gods, exercising power over the masses, while those in lower positions ought to be content to live as sheep, preoccupied by consuming as much grass as possible to inflate the minority’s profits (see Conservatism and Oligarchy.) The masses are meant to be happy in a degraded sense, feeling base, ephemeral pleasures that are constantly being undermined due to our existential predicament, while the oligarchs are meant to rule and to enjoy the subtler pleasure of schadenfreude. The meaning of life is thus a nonsexual analogue of the sadomasochistic power dynamic.

With everyone instinctively playing this sadomasochistic game, a capitalistic economy forms to exploit those instincts, and in the vicious competition that sacrifices the weak on the altar of wild, cosmic creativity, the most vicious rise to positions of power. Further corrupted by the hunt for that power, the American oligarchs self-destructively consolidate their control by busting unions and taking control of the government, the economic regulators, the medical establishment (through pharmaceutical and insurance companies), the educational system (by turning universities into businesses to pump out drones, forcing skeptical liberal arts departments to shut down for lack of profit), the legal establishment (by supplying an endless stream of prisons for profit), and the military (by selling arms all round the world, including to potential enemies, and by facilitating wars with mercenaries and cleanup services). By deregulating as much of society as possible, the oligarchs thus forestall democratic challenges to their dominance.

Meanwhile, those who are ruled in such a society are misled into thinking that the ability to vote in a duopoly gives the voters ultimate political power, and that the freedom to choose between a host of fabricated goods is the long sought-after secret of happiness. The consumer is as confused as the literalistic theist, but for a different reason. Theism combines intuitions and speculations to form a holistic, all-encompassing worldview, but the literalist mistakes this worldview for something like an objective, rationally justified theory. The consumer is proud of her secularism and of her hard work, producing tangible results in a capitalistic economy, not playing idly with philosophical ideas or introspection. She’s a pragmatist, not an ideologue, but unbeknownst to her, pragmatism is, at a minimum, a philosophy or rather an ideology in the Marxist sense, meaning a set of ideas that rationalizes an economic order which serves the interests mainly of a small minority of the population. Pragmatism is an excuse to act like a machine, to work hard and to be contented with the consumption of mass-produced items.

And so this kind of secularism is a stunted way of life, leaving the handling of normative questions to the oligarchs who most shape American culture with their billions spent on political, corporate, and Hollywood messages over the decades. Instinctively, the oligarchs understand that the ultimate good in life must be just what a capitalistic economy can deliver: shallow, fleeting moments of security and pleasure for drudges and automatons, where these moments are surrounded by anxieties about blowback from the oligarchy’s concomitant military occupations abroad, and by suspicions that materialistic happy-talk whitewashes our dark existential situation. Another wondrous coincidence: that which can fulfill the scientistic meaning of life is just what empowers the oligarchs to consolidate their control, namely the free market economy that efficiently rewards the vices that take the oligarchs to the top of the pecking order. 

Why Call Modern Worship of Nature “Scientism”?


You might still be wondering what exactly makes consumerism and pragmatism scientistic, or science-centered. After all, one reason Americans are so pragmatic is, as Weber showed, that Protestantism had the unintended consequence that people worked extra hard to prove they were elected by God to enter heaven when they died. But what enabled Protestants to imagine they could read God’s mind is that their Christian religion had been thoroughly secularized for centuries, being a Frankensteinian patchwork of Jewish and Pagan elements. (See Theism.)

No, the underlying factor seems to be that the US was established to empower capitalists, or so-called “special interests,” meaning wealthy and well-connected individuals who fill the power vacuum left behind by the constitutionally divided and conquered government. And capitalism in turn empowers technoscience, which drives innovation and economic growth with scientific discoveries and their applications. The chief connection between modern science and capitalism is mass production, the ability of machines to supply an abundance of products. Science thus indirectly provides the opportunity for immense profit, and whereas in earlier centuries only the aristocracy could take advantage of scientific advances, in the modern world the individual won the right to own the fruits of his or her labour. The abundant supply of sellable products requires an equal amount of demand, which in turn requires capitalistic propaganda, the manufacturing of the consumer’s desires by advertising. The machines, of course, are made possible by advances in scientific understanding, just as effective advertising is the result of advances in the soft sciences, particularly psychology. Lacking the naivety of aristocrats or dictators who deem themselves untouchable and who rely on tradition and counter-productive military oppression to pacify the masses of have-nots, modern titans of industry seek to protect their wealth under the cover of democracy, and as I’ve said, these conflicting interests gave birth to the stealth oligarchy. Like liberals inspired by the furious pace of technoscientific advances, these modern oligarchs use democracy as an instrument, albeit merely for their own progress.

Mesmerized by technoscientific progress, liberals used to trust that there are objective solutions to questions even of social progress, and so they re-engineered the American economy, adding regulations to prevent the catastrophic busts that attended the booms. (See Liberalism.) This fostered a pragmatic, can-do culture, reinforced by the academy’s positivistic and behaviouristic hyping of science and by optimistic science fiction, which celebrated the American military’s clean-up job in WWII and the establishment of something like an American empire. On top of these science-driven causes of consumerism, there was the cultural influence simply of all the technological innovation in the twentieth century, of the frantic pace of technological progress which forced people to keep up or lose their jobs to the machines. They say that if you can’t beat them, you should join them, which is just what workers and consumers do in capitalistic stealth oligarchies: we pass ourselves off as machines so our meddlesome human qualities might go unnoticed. One such quality is our potential awareness that not only is materialistic pleasure not genuinely fulfilling, but there’s a higher, ethical ideal to confront the fact that our happiness is existentially absurd--even if this means sacrificing the possibility of contentment.

So the reason I speak broadly--and somewhat idiosyncratically--of scientism, of a science-centered modern worldview, is that science directly or indirectly causes all the cultural elements that add up to the naturalist’s religion, including technology, capitalism, stealth oligarchy, advertising, consumerism, and pragmatic hostility towards philosophy.

Case Study: Televised US Political “Debates”


An egregious example of that hostility towards philosophy in secular culture, and especially in the US, is that which passes for public political debate. As has been pointed out by many political commentators, television has been mostly detrimental to political discourse. In particular, the first televised debate, between Kennedy and Nixon, showed politicians that on TV image matters more than substance. Nixon sweated and looked less heroic than Kennedy; therefore, Kennedy “won” the debate. That’s what people remember about that debate, not any engagement with ideas. And in his debate with Clinton and Ross Perot, Bush Sr. looked at his watch, revealing his boredom with a question about how the recession affected him. Such issues of personality and of superficial appearances are magnified by the medium of television, and so successful politicians have to project politically correct images. Most of the time, no questioner on television will try to look beyond the fa├žade, because watching TV isn’t like reading a book and TV excels at presenting disjointed representations rather than a logical, coherent model of reality.

For those reasons alone, we should expect that the quality of political debates would decline, but the collapse of American journalism is also to blame. Once upon a time, people trusted journalists, such as Walter Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow, believing that they were tough, independent, and looking out for the citizen’s interests, speaking truth to power. Then it became clear that journalism is a business, not a vocation, as more and more news agencies were bought up by fewer and fewer megacorporations. As is evident from a comparison of any American full-time TV news outlet with BBC, for example, American journalists caved to pressures from their electronic medium and corporate managers. Their overriding goal now is to maximize profit for those managers, and that goal can be achieved on TV only by churning out infotainment rather than investigative reporting. News anchors, analysts and pundits therefore put themselves in direct competition with real entertainers, like Jon Stewart or Bill Maher, a competition in which the journalists must sacrifice their intellectual integrity to perform as clowns. As a result, they’ve lost not just their credibility with the viewer, but their leverage on politicians to appear on their programs and submit to the inquisitions they deserve as elected officials. Journalists now need access to politicians more than politicians need to be seen on TV, and so the confrontations between them occur on the politicians’ terms.

Thus, during political campaigns, American politicians engage in numerous televised political “debates” which are not debates at all. A debate requires an interrogation of each opponent, so that the viewer can judge which side has the better arguments on each point that arises in the interaction, and also a deeper concern about ideas than about image or personal advantage, on the part of each speaker. The debaters must be intellectuals in that they must engage with each other’s arguments, trusting that the truth emerges from a Platonic form of dialogue.

None of this happens in televised American political “debates.” In the first place, the ego-tripping journalist replaces the moderator, and instead of merely enforcing the debate’s rules and time limits, the journalist proceeds to ask each “debater” a question, to which the politician gives his or her canned one minute response. The journalist then either moves on to the next question or reframes the first speaker’s answer so that if the second speaker chooses to recite a talking point about it, he or she can at least have the cover of engaging only with the know-nothing journalist. Thus, the interaction between politician and journalist replaces that between politicians, and instead of a debate what we’re shown is just an interview, or a press conference. That’s what politicians prefer; they don’t want to rationally engage with each other’s ideas in a public format, whether because they privately agree on the narrow set of issues that arises for a politician in a stealth oligarchy or because they know that on TV, rational political dialogue actually tarnishes the politician’s image. Viewers expect TV to supply them with entertaining images, like those seen in jumbles of advertisements. They don’t want to attempt to follow complex lines of reasoning while staring at a TV screen, knowing that music and ads will break in at any moment and that it’s harder to go back and forth to check the inferences on TV than it is to track the inferences written on a book’s pages.

So the televised political “debate” in the US has become a complete farce. The problems aren’t just that politicians spin the issues, don’t answer the questions, and anyway are given only seconds to answer since the viewer’s attention span is short and time must be reserved for commercials. To be sure, these factors contribute to the miserable state of affairs. But the primary absurdity is very simply that what the journalists and politicians routinely call a debate isn’t close to being a debate. No political debate has actually been seen on American television in at least several campaign cycles. The closest thing to one recently was the vice presidential debate between Cheney and Joe Lieberman, but of course the civility of their discussion was due to their agreement on most issues. 

The lack of actual public debate between American politicians is absurd for three reasons. First, what are actually just journalistic interviews of politicians are nevertheless always called “debates” by all parties responsible for them. Second, the viewer needn’t be fooled by that misnomer, despite all the false populism and anti-intellectualism in American political culture. This is because most Americans are still familiar with the essence of debate, having viewed dozens of movies featuring the Hollywood stereotype of the courtroom drama, in which a witness is vigorously questioned and cross-examined, yielding the truth in the end. Third, Americans are free to compare their laughable televised "debates" with the much more mature and potentially interactive Canadian ones. The format of televised Canadian political debates isn't as infantile as that of American ones, largely because Canadian journalists who serve as moderators aren't as rich or successful as their American counterparts, and so their egos aren't the size of planets. The Canadian moderators therefore tend to do what obviously should be done and simply get out of the way and let the politicians interact. Unfortunately, the Canadian debaters are uninspiring, because even the conservative Canadian politicians are effectively postmodern liberals, or cynical nihilistic pragmatists, lacking vision, values, or trust that we can improve our civilization so that it resembles something other than a concrete jungle. These debaters, therefore, tend to forgo the opportunity of actually interacting with each other's ideas, to help the voter decide which side can make the better case; instead, the politicians recite talking points, dodge questions, take cheap shots, run out the clock, and so on and so forth.

Here, then, the unintended consequences of television on American politics are the polarization of the citizenry and the infantilization of their discourse. Lacking evidence of rational dialogue between their leaders, American citizens vent their frustration by heading towards the opposite extreme when conversing with each other, resorting to hyperpartisan shout-fests. Demagogues rush to harness the chaos much as militant Islamists exploit the disorder in failed states. Like the medieval peasants who learned the purpose of their society by gazing at the Church’s stained-glass windows, most Americans learn from TV rather than books, and what they learn is that rational political dialogue, which is rumoured to take place at the UN, is cowardly and idle. Again, courtroom dramas provide an opposing stereotype, but the prevailing view seems to be the anti-intellectual one. As Obama has continued rather than “changed” most of Bush’s foreign and economic policies, despite the optimistic rationalism of Obama's campaign speeches, his administration has effectively reinforced the American prejudice against reason in politics.

Americans tend now to be pragmatists who worship strength. But the American citizenry is weakened by its internal divisions and thus the citizens can take no pride in themselves, despite the fact that, theoretically at least, the majority of them indirectly rule as rational, autonomous and informed citizens. Instead, the majority doesn’t actually hold ultimate political power, nor is the majority fit to do so. The citizens’ democratic control was hampered from the outset by their country’s founders who created three separate, equal, and thus hamstrung branches of government. Just as the medieval Church benefited from the masses’ inability to speak Latin, which gave the Church absolute control over the Bible’s interpretation, American oligarchs benefit from a divided, confused, and frustrated populace. These weaknesses restrict the masses to the lower levels of the natural dominance hierarchy, ensuring and even justifying the dominators’ power over them.

Scientism’s Re-enchantment of Nature


The upshot is that American secular society is split into esoteric and exoteric groups, both of which are as opposed to reason as are the insiders (mystics) and outsiders (literalists) of theistic religion. Granted, that similarity isn’t sufficient to make scientism a religion. What we find, though, is that a technoscientific stealth oligarchy like the US caters to religious impulses not with mere lip service to its own theology--although it surely does that too--but by consummating Christianity’s naturalization of monotheism. Christianity reduced God to a mortal man, the esoteric (Gnostic) meaning of which is the Eastern idea that human nature is fully divine and that divinity begins and ends with sentient, intelligent life. Moreover, the theistic God’s presumed interventions in nature have been thoroughly demystified by science, although scientists have also shown that nature is much weirder and scarier than any anthropomorphic projection of ourselves. But we understand now why it rains, why the earth periodically shakes, and how diseases generally work.

What’s seldom said, though, is that this disenchantment is coupled with a secular re-enchantment of nature, as human beings actually replace God in the myths that explain the new wonders for which we alone are responsible. Human monarchs have always been the models for the tyrannical god in heaven, just as their feats of social and architectural engineering have always been the sources for the myth that the universe was intelligently created. The difference is that in the Western imagination, today’s oligarchs and scientific wonderworkers have replaced their supernatural counterparts, because the re-enchantment has been preceded by such a thorough disenchantment by Christianity, the Scientific Revolution, and Enlightenment philosophy.

Thus, when corporations build shopping complexes with wall-to-wall products, the experience of consuming them is the only feeling of being in heaven that consumers know, deep down, they can ever enjoy, and when money separates the haves from the have-nots, that is the only divine judgment left that divides the wheat from the chaff, the blessed from the damned. When oligarchs now live in obscene splendour, sitting on golden toilets and moving from one monstrous mansion to another, those living, breathing humans are the demigods, the angels or demons who stand above human law, whereas hitherto people could have clung to the delusion that the myths spoke only of supernatural beings quite removed from our earthly home. When natural selection churns out biological designs and rewards and punishes economies, that is the divine creative force, perhaps the very same one, at a microcosmic scale, that shapes our whole universe as it mindlessly evolves within the multiverse. And when physicists speak in an arcane mathematical tongue, they are literally wizards whose elite knowledge makes possible the actual wonders of modern engineering, wonders that are subjectively as magical to the layperson as any “miracle” of nature must have seemed to the ancient theist.

These are the great ironies of secularism. First, by demolishing the rational basis for theism, technoscience, capitalism, and stealth oligarchy add new dress to the primitive social divisions that served theists as exemplars in the first place, re-creating an ignorant mass of people (workers and consumers) over which a minority of superior beings (oligarchs) has sovereign control. The masses are even designed, after a fashion, by the oligarchs who dictate the acceptable social functions, effectively training people to behave like machines. (See Political Correctness.) Second, those three allegedly secular forces now stand in for what traditionally were conceived of as supernatural ones. After all, theism has always been a coded way of speaking exclusively about nature and human beings, and now that, in the modern world, theistic religion has been intellectually discredited, secularists are free to openly worship the natural powers that in ancient times were mistaken for transcendent ones. 

Scientism in the wider sense is this religion that re-enchants nature--including an elite minority of human beings--by undermining dualistic theism, which diverted attention to what were mistaken to be denizens of an otherworldly realm. Dualism was a relatively clumsy but necessary scheme for monarchs to preserve their power: the ancients were much more ignorant of the workings of nonliving things than they were of themselves, and so they anthropomorphized the causes of natural events. But since those all-powerful persons (gods, angels, demons, fairies) were evidently hidden from view, ancient theists assumed they inhabited a secret, far-removed world. And to secure his right to dominate, the human ruler had to assure the masses that he had the allegiance of those hidden beings. In the modern world, however, when we perhaps know even more about nonliving things than we do about ourselves, there’s no need for the inference that natural events have supernatural causes. We’ve looked under the bed and found no monster. But when we nevertheless behave as monstrously as any imaginary boogeyman, we come to fear ourselves as much as any child was ever terrified to look under the bed. And when power and knowledge are still so unevenly distributed, the internet notwithstanding, theistic myths apply to so-called secular societies--except that the myths openly refer to earthly beings and events.

Clarifications


My point isn’t just that this re-enchantment is a hidden message of secular society. No, the point is that the behaviour of most so-called secularists is best explained by saying that they’re members of a peculiar religion that goes by other names. Naturalistic humanists worship usefulness and efficiency (machines), money and power (oligarchs and cosmic creativity, which in microcosmic terms is the evolutionary force of a minimally-regulated market), cognitive mastery and miracles (modern science and engineering). We secularists won’t speak of ourselves in religious terms, since we’re under the impression that all religions are classically theistic and we foreswear any theistic belief in the supernatural. But so-called secular culture isn’t a hyper-rational alternative to faith-based religion. As social animals, members of a pseudodemocratic, capitalistic society tend to be mostly nonrational, which in our case means deluded, confused, and frustrated. We literally buy into hedonistic and dehumanizing myths that crop up around a stealth oligarchy to keep the money flowing mostly to the top through self-destructive consumption. We’re often aware of our society’s grotesqueness, but we trust in the superiority of our way of life, just as members of one monotheistic religion may be aware of other such religions and can only rationalize their leap of faith.

Nor am I saying just that scientism, including pragmatism and consumerism, is an ideology in a Marxist sense--unless “ideology” is effectively given the same meaning as “religion.” Scientism is at least an ideology in the Marxist sense, but so too is traditional theology. Some belief systems tend to serve economic interests, but that’s not what makes them religious. Am I, then, overstretching “religion” so that the word loses its meaning? Not if by “religion” we mean a set of delusions that binds a social group together, by sidestepping our existential predicament and rationalizing the absurdity of the rituals that are caused by those delusions. Admittedly, that’s a pejorative, only slightly facetious definition, but it covers the traditional religions as well as scientism. For this definition to be meaningful, however, there must be a set of ideas that falls outside its scope. If even naturalistic pragmatists and hedonic consumers are religious, who isn’t? My answer: at a minimum, the mystics whose enlightenment is the esoteric purpose of the traditional religions that outsiders grasp to reconcile their inferior lifestyle with that mystical ideal, and the ascetic, artistic loners who are alienated from materialistic culture. Religions are methods of mass hallucination, so naturally those who--for one reason or another--are antisocial don’t practice religion.

99 comments:

  1. I get alienated by the verb rationalize. Like the mockery of "sophists" and "pedants" it seems rooted in sarcasm of what when we look at the etymology, should be positive terms.

    Is there an alternative? Perhaps manufacturing falsehoods we call facts to support a conclusion we desire as opposed to seeking facts first no matter what conclusion they lead to?

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    1. One alternative to scientism is Nietzschean or Socratic self-awareness, which requires great humility and courage: we should appreciate that we're animals with an obsession for figuring things out, which empowers but also endangers us. Religious impulses are probably hard-wired in the brain, since religion is so universal in our societies. For that reason, a science-centered culture is bound to have religious or idolatrous tendencies. Secularists should own up to the religious aspect of scientism and create what Joseph Campbell called a myth for our times, an awe-inspiring religion that isn't just an anachronistic hang-over like Christianity or Islam, but one that admirably responds to the postmodern world and in particular to our current knowledge of our grim existential predicament. (In my view, an inchoate form of just a myth is found at the end of Olaf Stapledon's book Last and First Men.) Alternatively, a secularist can frown on the delusions that are bound to crop up in such a religion and withdraw from society, living as a bitter ascetic.

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  2. Translated into Greek (link). BTW, I also incorporated the comment as the article's final paragraph.

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    1. Thanks, as always, Evan. You might be interested in my recent post on technoscience and the fact-value dichotomy, which follows up on this larger sense of scientism and on "Existential Cosmicism and Technology."

      This article on Scientism was an early one and it might work better without its section on US political debates.

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  3. Benjamin,
    Saw Evan's translation. Hope you don't mind me commenting on an older post.

    I'd be curious to hear you thoughts on the relevance of rationality on a naturalist understanding of the world. If we take naturalism to entail that there are fundamental laws/regularities governing the behavior of fundamental stuff, and that these laws and stuff are not "concerned" with human existence, so to speak, why should think that any given causal history/mechanism (e.g. ours) is more reliable than any other in bringing about things like true belief or well-being (if there is such a thing)? In other words, why think that rationality is something we can do?

    If we can get past the idea that we can know things or "discover" the nature of the world, is there anything unreasonable (i.e. that goes against some justification, versus merely lacking justification) about promoting any given socio-political arrangement? If knowing the world just isn't something we can do, why think that some things are better/worse?

    I'm not sure that the point of your post was to make a moral/evaluative claim concerning current Western society, but if it is, or if this is your motivation, I'd be curious to hear your thoughts.

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    1. I welcome comments on any of my posts. I receive an email whenever someone replies, so I don't have to manually keep track of even my old articles.

      It looks like you're bringing up the presuppositionalist argument against naturalism. In Christian apologetics, this is the idea that non-Christian presuppositions self-destruct, leaving Christianity as the winning worldview by default.

      If we're talking about natural laws, the notion that these laws "govern" natural processes is a vestige of theism and deism, since it mixes up descriptions and prescriptions. At best, this is a misleading metaphor. The laws themselves are human artifacts. What you're talking about are the regularities or other patterns in the natural order of things. In philosophy these are sometimes called nomic relations. And your question is whether we can trust human reason, given that these patterns are indifferent towards us.

      The naturalistic response that I've heard is just to appeal to natural selection. We can trust our reason because creatures whose thinking sends them off on wild goose chases will die off before they can reproduce. Natural selection is a process that emerges from lower-level physical patterns. But the problem remains that surely reason didn't evolve to give us knowledge of the whole universe. So why should we trust our far-flung cogitations? The main response here, I think, would be to appeal to methodological naturalism, that is, to a pragmatic trust in scientific methods. They've worked so far even if they're not supported directly by natural selection, so why fix what isn't broken?

      Nevertheless, I share some of the pessimism, which is why I'm interested in exploring the mysterian, cosmicist idea that we should expect our rational powers to be limited compared to what there is to know. This gap then has religious importance.

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  4. Thanks for the reply. These sorts of concerns aren't limited to Christian apologetics, and even if it were, the argument is what matters, not who's it is. This sort of thing is in modern and post-modern thought. And the Christian argument is going to be something like, Christianity is the only option, *if* you want to hold on to rationality. But Christianity isn't the only option. Nihilism is another.

    I'm not sure that natural selection would get us to true beliefs. Why not just say that natural selection gives us survival-conducive beliefs? There's no logical connection between survival and truth (it's logically possible that true beliefs be non-survival conducive and false beliefs be survival conducive), so I don't see how natural selection gets us beyond animal to rational. If we had some independent reason to think that wild goose chases weren't survival conduce, that would be one thing, but naturalism doesn't have that sort of thing built in, so it's silent there.

    Along the same lines, I don't see how that doesn't amount to special pleading. Natural selection has selected for all sorts of belief-forming methods or mechanisms. It's selected for the belief forming methods/mechanisms just as much as the atheists.

    With regards to pragmatic concerns, it's not clear that this will get us to true beliefs. Pragmatic could also be false. But more basically, why should we think that we have any access to what is and isn't pragmatic? It's not clear why our belief-forming mechanisms should be reliable with respect to what human practices in fact do and don't satisfy pragmatic considerations.

    Why not just accept that rationality is not something we can believe in (for any good reason)? We can still go about our lives and do what we will, but why believe that discovery ever is identifiable as such?

    This is interesting, but I'd also be interested to know if you think there is a moral/evaluative issue with regards to societal arrangements, or if it's more of a personal preference thing.

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    1. The point about natural selection is that if you think something is a rock but it's really a predator who eats you, you're not going to live very long, so the detectors inherited by creatures who live long enough to reproduce will tend to give the creatures an accurate sense of what's going on, which helps explain how they're able to live long enough in the first place.

      Still, you're right that an ability to discover ultimate Truth wouldn't be a direct result of natural selection, since all that matters biologically is that we're able somehow to successfully get around in an environment so that we can reproduce. Thus, our senses are selected, as are the parts of our brain that process sensory information. But science and philosophy are cultural byproducts of those more primitive and less idealistic abilities.

      If your point about special pleading is that we have no reason to trust that the theory of natural selection is true in the first place, then the kind of skepticism on the table is self-defeating solipsism. But if you mean just that natural selection can produce a belief-forming mechanism that misinforms the organism, I'd say again that this would be true only up to a point. Organisms that tend to survive needn't care about ultimate truth, but they must be able to usefully categorize things to successfully get around in an environment; that is, those categories must actually work rather than just be hypothetical. In the same way, science actually works as shown by the technological applications of its theories.

      Regarding pragmatism, there's belief and then there's perception. In both cases we're dealing with models/simplifications of reality. One test of a model's truth and reliability is to see how well the model performs when put to use. If you believe you can fly by flapping your wings, you can test that model by jumping out a window. If North Korea believes it can beat the US military, it can try, but there do seem to be patterns in the way reality rewards and punishes models and theories, and that's why we have the idea of a real world in the first place.

      The reason I believe there's a difference between rationality and irrationality is that that distinction can easily be put to work in categorizing things. There are rational people and there are also irrational ones. Their behaviours differ. For example, there are mentally ill people who are mostly removed from society and who have very strange beliefs. And there was a recent poll of Americans about which conspiracy theories they believe, including the belief that Saddam caused 911 or that Obama is the antichrist. There are rules of reasoning that are codified in logic and critical thinking textbooks, and some people regularly violate those rules.

      I'm not sure, though, whether you're playing devil's advocate here or you're arguing this point as a step towards some conclusion you want to reach. Of course, if you have a larger argument in mind, you'd be acting more or less rationally, contrary to the point you're wanting to make.

      I think morality and personal preference both shape our social arrangements. Morality probably reduces to personal preference, though.

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    2. For one, I’d like to see if we can get to nihilism. You seem to hold to something else, and I’m trying to see if the arguments you are offering will stand up to some criticisms I have.

      I don’t deny that *if* the world is the way we tend to believe it is (i.e. rocks and walls and predators, and human action influenced by belief), then having correct beliefs would be survival conducive. No problem there.

      But natural selection doesn’t require us to believe that human beliefs are true. Natural selection could be true and all human beliefs be false. Natural selection just entails, more or less, that our beliefs are survival conducive. I don’t see any reason for thinking that the only way a belief that a predator is going to eat me can be survival conducive is for it to be a true belief. The belief would be survival conducive so long as the belief is such that it plays a role in some process that tends to enhance my survival. There’s no reason such a belief couldn’t combine with whatever mechanisms are responsible for real survival, and the belief still be false.

      Similarly with categorizing and theorizing: there’s no reason why these activities couldn’t be survival conducive without being totally unreflective of reality. Natural selection doesn’t entail anything about the connection of belief to action. It is silent on the relation of the two (with the exception of survival conductivity), so why think that categorizing/theorizing/believing gets us to survive *in the way* we think it does? There’s plenty of logical room for different ways of belief hooking up to survival, and natural selection just entails the survival. Useful categorization, for example, needn’t mean correct categorization.

      Regarding perception: 1) we have beliefs about perception, so it seems like everything above is applicable concerning beliefs, 2) even if we want to talk about perception and *not* beliefs about perception, it seems like everything still holds, mutatis mutandis: natural selection would just entail that perception is survival conducive, but it’s silent on *how* it is conducive. There’s plenty of logical room for perception being utterly false and yet survival conducive.

      As for testing models’ performance: what would we test them with? How would I check the output of a model reliably, in order to know that the model gave me what I wanted? Do we have some belief forming mechanism that isn’t subject to the concerns above? *If* the above are viable objections, then I don’t see how there’s a pragmatic solution that just doesn’t assume that the objections aren’t really objections. But if we can do that, then why do we even need the pragmatism? And why wouldn’t it be special pleading to choose pragmatism at that point?

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  5. Yes, natural selection has to do with the survival of species, so can you explain how a species that produces only false beliefs could survive just as easily as a species that produces mostly true ones (at least with regard to its immediate environment?

    You keep saying there's "logical room" for natural selection to be true and for our beliefs to be false. Of course, natural selection is one such belief, so that general point is self-contradictory. But even if we focus on perceptual beliefs, natural selection is a scientific matter so we're dealing with probabilities, not logical necessities. Just because we can *imagine* a possible world in which a species survives with only false beliefs doesn't mean this species could likely be produced by natural selection. Biologists will say that naturally selected belief-forming mechanisms *probably* produce true rather than false beliefs about the species' native environment.

    Our models can be tested by the scientific methods. Specifically, models about how species evolve by natural selection are often tested by computer simulations.

    Now, I'm not sure why you'd doubt the reliability of our beliefs, but grant that the theory of natural selection is well-established. Likewise, do you deny that scientific methods lead us closer to the truth than do pseudosciences or religious dogmas? I'm also not sure of the connection between nihilism and skepticism about all truth claims. I'd have thought nihilism might follow precisely from some interpretation of the truth of philosophical naturalism. Nihilism is about the lack of confidence in any values, and we might lack that confidence if we agreed with the scientific picture of human nature. For example, this is how Nietzsche explained the source of modern nihilism.

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    1. How might a species that produces only false beliefs survive as easily as one that produces true beliefs? Here's an example: imagine a species whose beliefs are relevant to survival, only insofar as they are beliefs. In other words, the content is irrelevant. For example, imagine that having beliefs plays a causal role in the production of some chemical necessary for survival. The content of the belief is irrelevant to the production of the chemical. For such a species, true/false doesn't seem relevant to survival, so survival doesn't seem indicative of true or false.

      Accepting natural selection doesn't require us to believe that beliefs are causally relevant to human behavior in any particular way, and similarly it doesn't require us to believe that the truth or falsity of beliefs is relevant in any particular way. And I don’t see why it would make a difference to my argument if the beliefs were about one's environment or anything else. Do you think one who accepts fundamental physics and natural selection also has to believe that human beliefs are relevant in some *particular* way?

      And just because natural selection has given us such mechanisms that we do believe that our beliefs (or our beliefs' truth/falsity) are causally relevant doesn't indicate that our beliefs in fact are causally relevant.

      I’m not 100% clear on your point about natural selection being a belief. Couldn’t we say that natural selection isn't a belief, it's a (description/theory of) how change occurs? My point about logical space is that if something (call it X) is not inconsistent with natural selection being the mechanism of change that we think it is, then without some reason to believe that X is or is not the case, then we're just special pleading in choosing to believe or not believe.

      I'm not saying it's likely or unlikely that natural selection produced false beliefs. I'm saying we have no reason to believe one way or the other.

      I'm confused by your comment about the scientific method. Do humans have reliable mechanisms for accessing/properly using the results of the scientific method? I grant that our interaction with the scientific method, being selected for by natural selection, is survival-conducive, but again, if we have no reason to believe that survival gets us to truth, we should be satisfied with what we can get and not worry about the rest.

      I don't deny that humans have plenty of beliefs about computers and the scientific method and what’s true and false, etc. If you have some reason to think the belief-forming mechanisms that produced these beliefs is reliable, that’s what I’m trying to understand. But as I see it, nothing about natural selection and fundamental physics entails true-conducive belief-forming mechanisms. Of course, the conjunction of these two doesn’t entail belief-forming mechanisms that tend to yield false beliefs either. But that’s just the point, we don’t believe in a world where it makes any sense to expect true beliefs from our belief-forming mechanisms, and that’s because it doesn’t make sense to expect anything in particular, except for survival. That’s why it’s special pleading to say, well *my* belief-forming mechanisms are the ones that produce true beliefs.

      I’m not saying we should be skeptics, because I’m not saying we should refrain from believing such-and-such. I’m saying we shouldn’t talk like we have *reasons* to believe anything is true or false. I don’t see why epistemological nihilism isn’t the most consistent position. You ask about certain things leading us to the truth – what reason could I possibly have for thinking any particular belief-forming mechanism in fact leads me to the truth?

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    2. I think there's a problem with your example of a naturally selected creature whose beliefs are irrelevant to its survival. The question is how this creature could survive without having any information about its environment, that is, without having at least rudimentary beliefs. Maybe a belief could be accidentally beneficial, as you say, but if the creature doesn't use the belief's content, this isn't a belief (or mental representation) for the creature, and so far the creature isn't using any information about its environment. Maybe this creature just reacts to stimuli, but then it will need reliable senses that cause the creature to behave in different ways depending on the stimuli. Creatures that perceive food as predators and predators as food won't survive long; they'll mix up crucial parts of their environment and will tend not to reproduce or be naturally selected.

      So again, I think natural selection is the reason you're looking for to be confident in our beliefs at least regarding our local environment. The reason the environment is important is that our naturally selected belief-forming mechanisms are adapted only to the environment in which we evolved. We've gone way beyond that environment, so natural selection doesn't guarantee our philosophical or cosmological beliefs. Still, we seem to have discovered logic, rules of critical thinking, and scientific methods of hypothesis-testing that make some of those additional beliefs reliable.

      You say "we shouldn’t talk like we have *reasons* to believe anything is true or false." But do you have a reason for saying this? If so, aren't you contradicting yourself by trusting in some belief-forming mechanism that supports this epistemological nihilism? Again, I'm not sure "nihilism" is the right word here, since nihilism is about values whereas you're talking about skepticism regarding facts (true and false). In logic, a statement has a "truth value" but this is a non-normative sense of "value."

      You ask if we "have reliable mechanisms for accessing/properly using the results of the scientific method." The scientific methods *are* those reliable mechanisms. Scientists have used those methods for several centuries now, by repeatedly and publicly testing their hypotheses, and their theories have been technologically applied. So if you're doubting science, you're doubting induction. Now, David Hume famously doubted induction, so you can always bring up his problem of induction if you want to be skeptical about science.

      I think you're saying your position is that we should believe without thinking our beliefs are rational. This might be a kind of fideism, according to which beliefs can be based on faith rather than reason. Anyway, the question for you is why we should trust our beliefs if we don't think reason can make them reliable. Is it just an arbitrary choice to have faith in one belief rather than another? I actually agree that with regard to certain philosophical beliefs, at least, aesthetic taste takes over and we're kidding ourselves if we think those beliefs that serve as our myths are rationally well-justified.

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    3. I don’t see why an organism has to have information about its environment in order to survive. There are plenty of organisms that we believe survive without information or beliefs. I’m not saying beliefs might be “accidentally” beneficial, but rather that their being beneficial doesn’t entail some particular way of being beneficial (for example the way we tend to believe they are).

      Can you explain why the particular content of belief has to be relevant? How do we go from A) organisms have beliefs with content, to B) some content is survival conducive and some content isn’t?

      I grant that we can imagine situations where content would be relevant, but we can just as easily imagine situations in which it’s not irrelevant. And since we don’t believe that fundamental physics entails anything about human beliefs or belief content whatsoever, I don’t see how you can conclude that true belief is any more survival-conducive than false belief. Natural selection and physics don’t entail facts about our environment that would in turn entail the particular relevance of true beliefs.

      You wrote: “if the creature doesn't use the belief's content, this isn't a belief (or mental representation) for the creature, and so far the creature isn't using any information about its environment.”

      Why isn’t that a belief? And if that’s your understanding of belief, then it’s a legitimate question to ask if we have *that* sort of mental state, i.e. mental states that we use to navigate the world. Just because we believe that our beliefs are relevant in a certain way doesn’t mean that they are relevant in that way, so the question hasn’t changed if we mean something technical by belief: what warrants us in thinking we have such and such mental state with such and such function?

      Regarding the scientific method, are you saying that we access the results of the scientific method by the scientific method itself? I think the standard thought would be that it’s more like this – we form beliefs about the scientific method and its results just like everything else: we form perceptual beliefs (e.g. I see the blip on the screen) and then make inferences (e.g. there’s a blip on the screen, so the sensor detected something). But it’s these very belief-forming mechanisms, i.e. perceptual and inferential, that are on the table. Why think that these belief-forming mechanisms are reliable?

      I’m not saying that we should anything in particular, just that epistemological nihilism seems like the consistent position. If we believe that our beliefs are justified, then we’re being inconsistent.

      As for reason, is this something that natural selection has produced in us, or is this something external to us? Presumably it’s the first, so that just takes us back to the question at issue.

      As for why we believe even if we don’t think we have reasons – I took it that our beliefs were the products of antecedent states of the world, ultimately explainable in terms of fundamental physics and natural selection. If that’s the case, I don’t know what to say other than that’s why we believe, even when we don’t also believe that our belief is capable of being justified.

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    4. I'm pretty sure all organisms need information about their environment to survive, even if it's just sensory information so they know food is nearby. This includes single-cell organisms, insects, and so on. Not all organisms have mental representations or beliefs, but they must at least have some ability to react appropriately to stimuli; otherwise, they won't be naturally selected, meaning that they won't survive long enough to reproduce. They'll be shut off from the world and will be entirely at the mercy of what's around them. If you check out this link, you'll see that response to stimuli is part of the biological definition of "life":

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life#Biology

      A belief's content is relevant, because if the content means nothing to the organism, the mental state isn't acting like a belief. A belief is a mental representation that has causal power based on a semantic relation. It's not a matter of merely *imagining* "situations where content would be relevant," so that it's logically possible. That's how most minds actually work in nature. They have internal states that either indicate external states (stimulus and response) or that likewise carry meaning but are more independent of their environment, as in humans and maybe higher primates and dolphins.

      You ask how we know we have beliefs in this semantic sense. You can check via introspection and then you can doubt the validity of your inner senses, but that would be solipsistic, self-defeating doubt. You say epistemological nihilism is the "consistent position," but consistent with what? With the evidence? No, your inner evidence should show you that you can call up thoughts that are about things other than what's in your immediate environment. You can sit in a room and think about elephants. That mental state carries meaning about elephants.

      Moreover, as Daniel Dennett says, we can predict creatures' behaviour by positing such mental states. For example, a cheetah may wait while it's hunting its prey, because it's motivated by a desire to bring about a future state (killing and eating its prey). An animal isn't just a simple robot, because it has something like a computer in its head that performs computations on symbols.

      There are levels of reason. At one level it's produced by natural selection. But some traits are tied to the genes only by a long leash, giving the host organism some freedom to experiment with the trait. Thus, we've used our basic reason to invent things like science and higher culture.

      Maybe one day all of psychology, including the concept of beliefs, will be reducible to physics and biology, but that's not yet the case. Psychological categories and theories are needed to explain certain patterns in nature, such as the behaviour of sentient creatures. At the very least, psychology provides a more useful explanation than the more general sciences.

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    5. I'm not saying that organisms don't react to their environment and thereby survive. But just because an organism survives and has beliefs, that doesn't entail that the content of the beliefs is what is relevant to survival. There are organisms that react to stimuli and that don't have beliefs. Something is responsible for that reaction, and it's not clear why it couldn't be the case as well with believing organisms. Something could have beliefs and respond to stimuli in a way that didn't depend on the truth/falsity of the beliefs.

      Nor am I saying that beliefs don't have content, which it seems like you're arguing against. If you have an argument that the content of belief must be relevant to survival, then I'd like to know it. Or in other words, if it's impossible to have beliefs with content not relevant to survival, please explain.

      Your point, then, about introspection isn't on target. I'm not denying that we have beliefs, nor that they are "about" things represented as being outside ourselves. But merely having a belief, perhaps accompanied by some sort of phenomenology, isn't justification for thinking the belief is true.

      I'm saying that epistemological nihilism is consistent with the way we believe the world is. We think there are fundamental regularities/laws that govern or describe the way things operate. We don't think these regularities/laws are concerned or oriented towards anything in particular, let alone the human condition or true human beliefs. Therefore, we shouldn't expect that when beliefs do arise, that they have some particular character.

      Of course, we can beg the question and say that our beliefs and belief-forming mechanisms are good and true. But then so can the nut-job next door. His beliefs are formed by the same laws/regularities, just as our evaluative beliefs about his beliefs are.

      We might also deny that the world operates according to regularities/laws, but then forget explanation.

      So when you say things like we predict creatures' behavior, and we engage in useful explanation, and we develop categories and theories, are these all activities that arise from processes that aren't oriented towards the truth of the results? Or when you say that "That's how most minds actually work in nature" - is this belief the result of interactions that aren't oriented towards anything, or that are oriented towards something like truth? I understand that human belief-forming mechanisms often produce this belief, but I deny that having a belief is evidence for it's truth. I've been assuming that you don't believe that the world is oriented towards goals (truth, human happiness, etc.).

      It seems most consistent with our beliefs about the metaphysics of the world to accept that we just don't believe in the kind of world where it makes any *sense* to believe any of our beliefs are true. That doesn't mean we can't believe that they're true. And if you belief in determinism, it seems like an idle question anyway. You believe because you have to believe, for the same reason your heart beats or you make any of the decisions you do.

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    6. Ah, I think I understand a little more now where you're coming from. Your "epistemic nihilism" is tapping into cosmicism, and your point is that it would be foolhardy to trust an anthropocentric interpretation of our mental states, such as the folk psychological interpretation that credits the best of our beliefs with truth, given that nature is impersonal and probably involved in an alien process beyond our wildest imaginings, in which process we play only a small part. Is this what you're assuming?

      If so, I agree but I'd distinguish between esoteric and exoteric interpretations of what's going on. We can say for pragmatic reasons that beliefs are true or false, because we're usually stuck with an exoteric appreciation of where we stand in nature, given our incomplete esoteric picture. In other words, beliefs seem to be true or false, and some theories seem to better correspond to reality than others. But as to what's really going on with our beliefs and theories, from nature's impersonal "perspective," you're right that that esoteric, mystical story might not resort to such flattering, semantic notions.

      I've tried to sketch this mystical picture here. For example, I talk about technoscience as a process of nature's complexification and transformation of impersonal facts into values, or into an aesthetically superior level of reality that matches up with our ideals. Also, I talk about cosmic evolution as the decay of God's undying corpse.

      Briefly, regarding beliefs and natural selection, I think the idea would be that although creatures can indeed survive by reacting to stimuli without the benefit of beliefs (autonomous mental representations), there's a niche for the higher, more self-controlling form of creature. To confirm this, all you have to do is note how we've taken over the planet and we don't merely react to stimuli: we think first and then act based on our mental models of our environment; we have the gift of forethought.

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    7. I’m not familiar with cosmicism, so I won’t comment on whether my point taps into that. The point is simply that the processes responsible for our beliefs are not oriented towards anything, let alone true beliefs. So for any belief, we can say, “I hold this belief, and I also believe that it is the result of processes that are not oriented towards truth,” or, equivalently, “I hold this belief, and I also believe that it is the result of processes that are just as much oriented towards truth as the belief in the opposite.”

      I’m not 100% sure what you mean about esoteric/exoteric interpretations. However, what I just said above doesn’t seem to have appeal to anything esoteric. We believe that the fundamental constituents of the world operate according to laws/regularities that aren’t oriented towards any particular end. Is there something esoteric here? And even if there is, it would just show that the “esoteric” constrains what we can consistently claim.

      As for beliefs and natural selection, the question isn’t whether beliefs could be advantageous. Because we already believe, as I said above, that the fundamental constituents of the world operate according to laws/regularities that aren’t oriented towards any particular end (and so not towards truth), what we would need is for natural selection to entail certain things about beliefs that happen to be produced by the fundamental laws/regularities. I think it’s clear that natural selection doesn’t entail anything special about beliefs, though that doesn’t preclude it being the case that true beliefs would be advantageous. The point is, we have no reason to think that such a case is the actual case, unless we are to resort to special pleading.

      And special pleading comes in because anyone can say, well natural selection favors true beliefs, and I have beliefs produced by mechanisms selected for by natural selection, so my beliefs are more likely true than not.

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    8. Well, that was my best shot at restating your position in a way I can agree with. But when you say, 'So for any belief, we can say, "I hold this belief, and I also believe that it is the result of processes that are not oriented towards truth,"' you're implying that this meta-belief, about the fact that the belief-forming mechanisms aren't geared towards making the beliefs true, isn't itself likely true. Thus, you're exposing yourself to the charge that your position is self-defeating. Because now it seems there's no reason to believe that your criticism of those mechanisms is true. That is, you're defending a kind of skepticism about the mechanisms that form our beliefs (and this would have to include institutional mechanisms like the scientific method that justifies belief in natural selection), but to be consistent you can't say that your meta-belief in that very skepticism is more likely true than false. So your skepticism seems to undermine itself, leaving your opponent with little to do.

      If you allow reasons or evidence to count in favour of your skepticism, you open the door for those same procedures to be used to justify all sorts of non-skeptical beliefs. But if you don't even try to rationally justify your skepticism, what reason does a rational person have to agree with it? Even an internal criticism, or reductio ad absurdum argument, follows logical procedures which can be used to support all sorts of non-skeptical arguments.

      If I were you, I'd look into my formulation of your position or at least steer clear of the most extreme kind of skepticism.

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    9. First, I haven't said anything about likelihood of beliefs being true or false. All I've argued is that given what we believe about the world, we have no reason to believe any of our beliefs are true. They might all be true, but the point is we have no reason to think any of them are true.

      Second, I'm not sure I understand your point about self-defeating. If a starting point in one's position entails that one cannot have reason to trust one's belief-forming mechanisms, then that's just a consequence of holding that position. That doesn't mean that the argument is bad, i.e. the argument from the starting point to the "unintended" consequences.

      For example, imagine a person in our world, who believes that all his beliefs are formed in him by an evil demon. More specifically, this person believes that his beliefs are all formed in him by processes selected by an evil demon that loves false beliefs. Could it possibly make sense for this person to trust his belief forming mechanisms? It seems like he has two options, give up his prior belief that his beliefs are formed by an evil demon, or live with the consequences. But the argument that he shouldn't trust his beliefs strikes me as obvious.

      Similarly, we believe certain things about the world. Given our specific background beliefs, it just doesn't make sense, as I've argued, to non-special-pleadingly hold that our beliefs are the results of trustworthy belief-forming mechanisms. Just because our beliefs about the world prevent us from having knowledge doesn't mean that the argument from the starting point to the consequences is false. We're not going to give up our beliefs about the world, so we just have to live with the consequences.

      In other words, I'm not sure how my argument undermines itself, any more than an argument about some third-party who believes his beliefs are formed by an evil demon undermines itself. The argument doesn't seem bad, it's just that the consequences for those of us who believe in such-and-such a world are unpalatable. But so what? Do we give up on a view of the world if it doesn't include a benevolent god and heaven and things like these? Sometimes the world just sucks, and we just have to live with it.

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    10. So your argument is meant to be internal to philosophical naturalism, then? You're arguing that *if* someone believes in that philosophy, then that person has no reason to trust any of her beliefs. You're not affirming that philosophy, but are merely pointing to a link between the reductive view of human nature and the lack of a reason to trust our beliefs. But even this internal argument presupposes logic and causality, right? So your agnosticism is limited. I'm still trying to get a sense of the scope of the skepticism you're arguing for.

      Take the person who thinks his beliefs are caused by an evil demon. Does that person have reason to doubt *all* of his beliefs, including the meta-belief that his beliefs are caused by an evil demon? Once he's forced to accept one belief, though, the camel's nose is under the tent, as it were, and lots of other beliefs will follow. That was Descartes's point about skepticism.

      Again, when you say a naturalist has no reason to trust any of her beliefs, I'm sure the naturalist will respond by giving you at least two reasons: natural selection and the history of modern science. So those are two sorts of reasons, biological and social/institutional. The first reason supports our basic pattern recognition abilities, the second our probabilistic forms of reasoning.

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    11. Overall, my argument is one concerning consistency.

      Taking the example of the person who believes their beliefs are caused by mechanisms selected by a false-belief-loving demon: if that person wants to be consistent, then he should accept that he has no reason to think any of his beliefs are true. Is there a problem with that, i.e., that so long as he holds his belief about the evil demon, he can't consistently think he has good reason to think any of his beliefs are true? How could he consistently say, I trust my belief-forming mechanisms, which are the product of a falsity-loving being?

      This isn’t to say that he can’t hold whatever beliefs he has. Just like us, he has no choice in the matter. He believes what he believes for reasons that originate outside himself, just as we do. It’s not like “reasonable” people believe things in one way and “unreasonable” in another way, with regards to responsibility. Beliefs of both groups are the products of processes that originate outside them.

      The point there is that inconsistency isn’t necessarily followed by extreme skepticism. In some people, inconsistent beliefs are formed and retained, in others not. That’s just the way things turn out.

      As for the argument concerning metaphysical naturalism, I’m not sure that my argument has to be taken as being “internal” in the sense that you’re using the term. Let’s say I’m not arguing hypothetically. I say: “I believe that the world is ‘governed’ by physical laws/regularities that aren’t oriented towards truth. I believe that my beliefs are the products of these laws/regularities, just like everything else in the world. Therefore, I have no reason to think that any of my beliefs are true.”

      I don’t see how this position is attackable as a “non-internal argument.” Like the evil-demon-believer, I either have to 1)give up my beliefs about how the world is, 2)give up concern with logical consistency, 3)give up the argument from the way the world is to the way my beliefs are, or 4)accept that the world is not a place where knowledge exists, despite popular claims to the contrary.

      Unless we want to countenance that metaphysical naturalism is false, going route 1 is not an option. Unless we want to give up logical argument, 2 is not an option. I think the argument is pretty straight forward (and pretty well mirrored by the evil-demon example), so 3 seems solid. Option 4 seems like the one to go with. There’re are plenty of things in the world that don’t have knowledge, why should we be any different? Because for so long we thought we did, because we have beliefs, because it would be unbearable if we didn’t?

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    12. As for what the naturalist would say: first, being a naturalist doesn’t require believing that there are reasons to trust that one’s beliefs are true. One can believe that the world is governed by such-and-such laws/regularities and simultaneously believe that one can’t have a *reason* to think the belief is true.

      But as for what a naturalist might say, let me start by putting what I would call the misuse of natural selection into a general form. It will help in explaining why I think the reasons you’ve suggested amount to special pleading.

      Form:
      Premise 1: the world is [the way my beliefs reflect it to be].
      Premise 2: natural selection produces beliefs that are survival-conducive.
      Premise 3: if the world is [the way my beliefs reflect it to be], then my beliefs about what harm me wouldn’t be survival-conducive if they were false.
      /.: 4 (from 1 and 3) my beliefs about what harm me wouldn’t be survival-conducive if they were false.
      /.: 5(from 2 and 4): My beliefs about what would harm me aren’t false.

      This seems like the form of the argument. The reason I put “the way my beliefs reflect [the world] to be” in brackets is because in actual arguments the brackets would be filled in with content, e.g. the world is one where … followed by some description.

      I think Premise 1 (and similarly the antecedent of Premise 3) aren’t typically given as such, but certainly the world must be the way one believes it to be in order for beliefs about what would be harmful actually be useful. In any case, I would suspect that denying this would undercut any argument itself from survival value of beliefs to truth of beliefs.

      I think actual arguments that have this form are, absent other considerations, instances of special pleading, because 1)filling in the premises with *any* content will get us a valid argument and 2)nature is responsible for *everyone’s* belief forming mechanisms – producing Premise 1 for every instance of the argument.

      For example, imagine a tribal person who believes that his beliefs are the product of natural selection, and that therefore his beliefs about survival must be true. One of his other beliefs is that if he doesn’t sacrifice to the gods weekly, he will be killed. When he reflects on his beliefs, he reasons then that his belief about weekly sacrifice must be true, because beliefs concerning survival must be true.

      This tribal person also reasons that this belief about survival, along with many other similar beliefs, was instilled in him by his father, who in turn learned from his father, and so on. He therefore reasons that the successes of his tribal tradition also speak to the truth-conduciveness of the tradition.

      Because the beliefs of both the tribal person and ourselves are produced by one and the same nature and natural processes, which are not oriented towards truth by assumption, privileging the beliefs formed in my brain over the beliefs formed in someone else’s brain is special pleading.

      Sorry for the length.

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    13. I think you're saying, then, that we have no reason to believe any of our beliefs is true because the fundamental beliefs we're merely *caused* to have, such as the belief that an evil demon is feeding us our beliefs or the belief that everything is natural and governed by laws, implies that none of our beliefs is trustworthy. Is that right? So we have no reason to believe everything is natural or that we evolved by natural selection, or that logic or technology works better than fallacies or quackery, or anything else.

      This will get you out of the inconsistency objection, if you say that our initial beliefs that cast doubt on all our beliefs is merely caused (forced on us) rather than justified. But then your view is open to another objection. Trustworthiness or reliability is inductive; it's based on past experience, which is a causal matter and thus one you'd be granting. And experience tells us that logic and technology, for example, work better than fallacies or pseudoscience. That is, logic and technology put us in touch with the facts, indicating that the world works in one way rather than another. That's why we trust naturalism.

      Now, before modern science, people trusted in supernaturalism (theism, etc), because they didn't have much of an alternative. Their worldview was unfalsifiable, because they could tailor it suit every circumstance. But they couldn't apply that worldview to predict the future or to build things that took advantage of those reliable predictions. They thought that God punishes people because they're sinful, but they couldn't explain why some people suffer while others are happy, because they couldn't predict who will suffer and who won't. Their theory lacked the power of modern technoscience. That's a major reason why people trust naturalism, because it works, and reliability is based on past experience.

      So do you deny the evidence that comes from experience of modern technoscience or of reason vs illogical thought patterns (e.g. Sherlock Holmes-style reasoning vs fallacious appeal to popularity)? The evidence is perceptual, like the fundamental beliefs that we're caused to have by the outside world. The modern experience of technoscience's success surely gives us a reason to trust scientific theories and methods of explanation, no?

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  6. Before responding, I wanted to ask if you might lay out your argument in a more formal form. I have suggested that there are four options: 1)give up my beliefs about how the world is (i.e. metaphysical naturalism), 2)give up concern with logical consistency, 3)give up the argument from the way the world is to the way my beliefs are, or 4)accept that the world is not a place where knowledge exists, despite popular claims to the contrary. Let’s take 1 and 2 off the table no questions asked. I’ve offered an argument with some formalization for why the argument referred to in 3 is a good argument. Could you lay out with some formalization an argument for why either a) there is some other option not listed or b) there is an argument against mine (either directly countering mine or simply supporting the claim that processes not oriented towards truth can non-special-pleadingly be trusted)?

    As to your first point, no, I’m not saying that beliefs being caused takes away the possibility of there being a reason to believe them. When I have focused on beliefs being caused and in that sense “out of our control”, the point is simply that *why* someone believes what they believe in the end is an idle question. The beliefs are the product of a long causal history, and some long causal histories include periods of inconsistent belief or unpleasant belief or pleasing belief, etc. But to ask how someone could believe something inconsistent or unpleasant, etc. is an idle question. They believe because they have to, just like everything else about them and the rest of the world.

    I’m not clear on what you’re referring to when you refer to an “inconsistency objection” in your second paragraph. It’s not inconsistent for one to believe p and at the same time believe he has no *reason* to believe p (call this belief q), especially when he provides to an interlocutor who thinks there can be reasons for belief, an argument that would support belief in q.

    I’m curious how one who believes his epistemic access to the world is mediated by processes that he has no reason to think are oriented towards truth would go about testing these very processes. It seems like there would be some bootstrapping going on, but the argument I’ve been making is stronger--- Induction might make sense when we have reliable means by which to gather data. But the naturalist believes his access to the world is mediated by processes that are the result of processes not oriented toward truth. The consistent naturalist believes that no inductive inferences are reasonable, because all data is provided by sources (perceptual-belief-forming mechanisms, inference-forming mechanisms, etc.) that he has no reason to think would give him true data, given their provenance.

    Can one test the success of modern science by means not produced by processes not oriented towards truth? Is what we call reasoning not a mental process resulting from processes not oriented towards truth? Are our beliefs about evidence not the product of processes not oriented towards truth? I don’t see why we should think we can test the predictions or products of modern science or our perceptual systems or anything else. We just don’t believe in that sort of world, and so be it.

    I treat reasoning and modern science like good sources for belief. The question at hand, though, is if it makes sense to think that the beliefs are true. Alternatively, the question is whether I can consistently believe that the processes responsible for my beliefs are not oriented towards truth and still believe that reasoning and modern science are good sources for belief. I’ve argued no.

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    1. I don’t think your argument about natural selection and special pleading works, because biologists will talk about biological functions and malfunctions. Genes produce all belief-forming mechanisms, but nature selects for only the functional ones.

      Also, I’m not clear on what you mean by “natural processes aren’t *oriented* towards truth.” Are you saying only that nature doesn’t *intend* for people to succeed by having reliable beliefs (because there’s no mind behind nature’s constructive processes)? This wouldn’t get you far, because even undead nature can produce a great many things that reliably conform to certain patterns. For example, nature created all the stars that reliably shine for a very long time. Did nature have to be “oriented” towards that end? No, but it happened mindlessly nevertheless. So why couldn’t creatures evolve that get by by mentally representing their world, that is, by having beliefs that reliably match up with at least the most important, immediate facts in their environment? Why can’t the correspondence relation between creatures and their immediate environment count as just one more natural regularity, produced by undead processes that aren’t oriented towards anything but that act as though they were, since they in fact build all sorts of complex patterns?

      Regarding your fourth option, I’m not sure how we can “accept” that the world is a place where there’s no knowledge without *knowing* as much. We’ve established that the world can cause us to believe something, but if the belief is innate, instinctive, or inescapable, we’ll usually say we know it to be true, even if the belief is highly subjective. So we’ll say that if we can’t trust the way beliefs are formed, that lack of good evidence causes us to doubt all our beliefs, but then we’ll add that we therefore know that all other beliefs are false. We’ll still be left with that one piece of negative knowledge. If we don’t claim to know that all beliefs are dubious, but we must accept this as fact, that means we’re not even agnostic about it. So what would it mean to accept some belief without believing that the belief counts as knowledge?

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    2. I’m not sure what you think is wrong with my argument regarding special pleading. The argument doesn’t deny that nature selects for functional ones. I offered a form and suggested that it applies to all accounts using natural selection to justify themselves. What I may not have said or said clearly is that special pleading is supposed to follow because whatever the content of the first premise may be of one’s natural selection argument, the support for the premise will rely on natural selection. And natural selection is just what *every* natural selection argument can rely on. So, the first premise will always either amount to special pleading or at least entail that the argument as a whole amounts to special pleading.

      Could you address the argument with a little more detail. I think it’s pretty solid, and I’m not sure how you’re comment even addresses it, though it would certainly be related in someway to the issue as a whole.

      As for orientation towards truth, all I mean is that since we *don’t* think the processes are oriented towards truth, we would need some other reason to think that they do get us truth. Hence the relevance of natural selection arguments (which of course I think fail as special pleading). So, the issue isn’t that non-oriented processes couldn’t get us truth, but that we don’t have any reason to think that they do.

      To use your star example: if we couldn’t see stars, and someone said that the processes of the universe had led to the existence of stars, it seems to me that without some independent reason to think that stars existed, the belief that they did exist would be without justification. Do you think this line of thought is wrong? In the case of truth, it’s not something that we can just “see”, and even if we could in the way that we think we see stars and chairs and people, why would we think that the non-oriented processes of the universe led to us having reliable truth-seeing capacities?

      To repeat, the question isn’t whether regularities or correspondences are possible. Rather, the point is, given what we believe about the fundamental workings of the universe, namely that they aren’t oriented towards anything, we shouldn’t expect anything in particular from them without independent reason.

      As for your concerns about there being no knowledge (or at least something claimed as knowledge), whatsoever, not even one negative piece: first, one needn’t believe that all his beliefs are false. If I don’t have a reason for thinking something is true, that doesn’t mean that I think it’s false. I don’t have a reason to think that there is a person in my office right now, but I also don’t have a reason to think that there isn’t a person in my office right now.

      In any case, I don’t think that’s really the issue anyway. Do you think it’s incoherent for someone to say - “I believe p, but I don’t know why, or I don’t know if I should, or I don’t know if I have a good reason for believing it”? These may not be desirable states, but I don’t think they are incoherent. Surely someone could say, my beliefs are the outputs of non-truth-oriented processes, I don’t have a reason to trust my beliefs, I don’t have a reason to think any of my beliefs are true, but I still believe them, I just can’t get rid of them as hard as I try.

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    3. I think there's some confusion about your formal argument. First of all, it's invalid as it stands, as far as I can tell. How does 5 follow from 2 and 4? But the bigger problem is that I don't think you're trying to demonstrate a case of special pleading; rather, your conclusion seems to be that the appeal to natural selection begs the question, that the biologist would be contradicting her presupposition of methodological naturalism, which philosophy should assume that our beliefs aren't "oriented towards the truth."

      Are we clear what special pleading is? It's the assumption that something's an exception to a rule, without giving good reasons for that assumption. So what's the rule to which the appeal to natural selection is supposed to be an exception? Biologists assume naturalism only for pragmatic reasons (they assume methodological naturalism, not the metaphysical kind).

      You still haven't clarified what you mean by "oriented towards truth." What I'm trying to figure out is whether you're using "oriented" as a synonym for "intended." You keep using that word "oriented" and I think a definition's in order, because if all you mean is that nature doesn't intelligently/intentionally design creatures with veridical mental representations, I think you'd be begging the question, since we surely have good reason to think that nature mindlessly produces all kinds of order.

      Again, we naturalists have scientific reasons to think that nature mindlessly builds stars, so why shouldn't we think that nature mindlessly (via natural selection) builds creatures who mentally represent their environment? We see stars that shine and stars that go out (turning into black holes). Likewise, we see beliefs that can be practically applied and others that put the believer at odds with the facts. Instead of special pleading, natural selection is a scientific, evidence-based extension of the naturalistic worldview.

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    4. The connection between five and two might need some tightening, but the idea is this:

      In order for natural selection to be a reason to trust our beliefs, the argument must be something like: if our beliefs were false, they wouldn't be survival conducive. But, natural selection provides us with beliefs that are survival conducive, so our beliefs must be true.

      So let me reformulate the form I think applies to all natural selection arguments (i.e. the ones that, e.g., the tribal human-sacrificer could make and the supposed naturalist):

      Premise 1: the world is [the way my beliefs reflect it to be].
      Premise 2: natural selection produces beliefs that are survival-conducive (and not detrimental).
      Premise 3: if the world is [the way my beliefs reflect it to be], then my beliefs about something or other wouldn’t be survival-conducive (or would be detrimental) if they were false.
      /.: 4 (from 1 and 3) my beliefs about something or other wouldn’t be survival-conducive (or would be detrimental) if they were false.
      /.: 5(from 2 and 4): My beliefs about something or other aren’t false.

      My argument isn't that appealing to natural selection is special pleading. My argument is an argument to show that everyone can appeal to natural selection in exactly the same way (because everyone's belief-forming mechanisms are the product of natural selection). The special pleading is in premise 1: the world is [the way my beliefs reflect it to be].

      Any support that anyone gives for that premise in their own natural selection argument will have the same weight, since all access to what the world is like *for anyone* is through processes formed through fundamental non-truth oriented processes and the same natural selection.

      So what would be anyone's argument that their natural-selection-produced beliefs are better than someone else's natural-selection-beliefs? That's why it's special pleading to give weight to the first premise of X's NS argument over Y's NS argument.

      By oriented towards the truth I mean something like, has as a goal or purpose or end or function the development of true beliefs. One might say that a calculator is has as a function producing correct representations of mathematical facts. We don't think anything like that is true of the fundamental processes of the world. And like I said, the question isn't whether or not nature *can* produce truth or any other sort of particular thing. I have no problem stipulating that it can. It's not a matter of possibility.

      I'm sorry, I just don't understand. By what do you access whatever it is that you might make scientific or other claims about? If your beliefs are ultimately formed by the same fundamental processes and natural selection as the next guy, and as the guy who thinks that he'll die if he doesn't sacrifice to the gods, why is it we should privilege yours (or mine or anyone's) beliefs over anyone else's?

      You say "we surely have good reason" or "we naturalists have scientific reasons" or "we see...". If all these supposed reasons are the products of the same processes that produce belief in necessary sacrifice to gods, why isn't this special pleading, unless we want to say that the sacrificer also has reasons?

      It seems to me that given what we believe about the world, we would be consistent to admit that we don't have any reason to think any of our beliefs are true. But to just say, we have reasons because we have done x y or z is not to deal with the argument. That's precisely what's in dispute, so without some argument, we're not even dealing with what we should be.

      I think what it comes down to is the special pleading case I'm making. I don't think you've shown any irreparable weakness, and I'm curious if there are any (so I can try and rework it).

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    5. I think a biologist would say your argument about natural selection leaves out the part about functions. The genes may produce all our primitive belief-forming mechanisms, but that doesn't mean everyone can appeal to natural selection to show that their perceptual beliefs are accurate, since first we'd have to establish that their mechanisms are working according to their biological functions. If their mechanisms are malfunctioning, the past environment wouldn't have selected for those instances of the type in question, since if previous replicators had produced only such malfunctioning instances, those members of the species wouldn't have successfully reproduced and thus there would have been no present instances of that type of mechanism.

      It's important to distinguish between the different ways of justifying beliefs. As I said before, I don't think natural selection directly justifies all our beliefs. Certainly, it wouldn't justify the tribal person's beliefs, since the kind of reasoning that's genetically determined (and thus liable to be naturally selected) is actually riddled with fallacies. (That's the kind of reasoning that manipulative corporate or political ads exploit, for example.) The better kinds of reasoning are like music or other aspects of culture: they had to be invented or discovered as byproducts of innate mechanisms. There's a history of logic, going back to Aristotle and running through the Middle Ages up to the present time. Now we have a number of systems of logic for different types of reasoning, including probabilistic logic and Bayesian reasoning, which are very important to science.

      Crucially, scientific methods of inquiry aren't justified directly by natural selection, so they independently make some beliefs more reasonable than others. The astronomical belief about the stars and the biological belief about natural selection itself are scientifically tested. True, those beliefs depend on observations and thus on our perceptual mechanisms which had better be functioning properly and thus as naturally selected. Otherwise, the scientists' data would be all wrong and their theories would be like castles built on sand.

      If by "oriented towards truth" you mean intelligently driven towards that intended end, I don't see the relevance of that point, since theism isn't necessary for veridical representations. I don't think you're entirely clear, though, on what you mean here, since "goal," "purpose," "end," and "function" aren't synonymous. In particular, "function" can be given an atheistic reasoning, as it should be in biology.

      [continued below]

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    6. So if you tell an astronomer that we don't know there are stars that shine in the sky for a very long time, he'll say, "Yes we do know this. Natural selection explains why we can trust our functional observations, including our extended technological ones via our satellites and space telescopes, and scientific hypothesis-testing justifies the theory about what stars are and how they work. It doesn't matter that our senses aren't intelligently designed: we intelligently design our scientific theories and that intelligence produces the theory of natural selection which explains why we should trust our functional sensory beliefs. Those beliefs supply us with the empirical data which our intelligence then explains by scientific methods. Those methods give us the best, most useful explanations of the stars and of biological design. Scientific explanations are better than pseudoscientific ones, for example, according to rational values, such as the value of simplicity and of reliability in predicting the future which can be technologically applied."

      There's a pragmatic aspect of science, including in the assumption of methodological naturalism, which is to say that scientists trust what's most useful. Scientific theories are more useful than pseudoscientific ones. For example, New Age myths would fail scientific testing as would many beliefs in paranormal phenomena. The scientific theory of the stars is more reliable than the astrological one. We're faced with many different explanations and arguments and we need some way of classifying them. Throwing up our hands and saying that we have equally no reason to trust any of them would be just a case of not paying enough attention to the details. There are patterns in how some types of explanations succeed while others fail. All of that is explained by philosophical naturalism, natural selection, scientific methods, and so on.

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    7. Regarding your first point, there are two things to be said.

      First, what will count as malfunctioning or functioning will depend on what is the content of Premise 1 for any given argument. If the world is the way our perceptual beliefs would have it be and our behavior is related to our perceptual beliefs as we tend to think it is, then certain belief-producing mechanisms will be properly functioning when they form beliefs that are in line with the content of Premise 1. But that’s just the point: Premise 1 is the driver of any such natural selection argument, so it will determine what is proper functioning and not. If one takes the world to be one where daily sacrifice is required because otherwise a god will destroy the crops, beliefs formed to the contrary will be the products of belief–producing mechanisms that have malfunctioned. It would be an instance of malfunctioning because such beliefs couldn’t be survival-conducive, given a certain connection between beliefs and behavior. So, again, all arguments of this sort amount to special pleading.

      Second, you seem to be privileging perceptual beliefs, but the whole problem is applicable to every sort of belief or belief-forming mechanism. If someone questions belief-producing mechanism x, comparing its output to the output of belief-producing mechanism y is only helpful if we don’t have the same problem with y as we have with x. But there’s nothing special about perceptual belief-producing mechanisms. They are the product of the fundamental processes of the universe as much as anything else.

      Related to this point: do you think scientific beliefs are an exception, or are *all* beliefs the product of fundamentally non-truth oriented processes and natural selection? Do you think beliefs about what is pragmatic or useful are an exception? Do we have some special way of accessing these states of the world versus other states of the world? You seem to be privileging certain sorts of belief (“scientific”, perceptual), and I’m curious if there is some justification for this.

      We can reframe the special pleading argument thus: every time I say we have no reason to expect truth from our belief forming mechanisms, you (seem to) tend to say that there are scientific reasons or pragmatic reasons. Unless you can explain why we have reason to expect truth from the belief-producing mechanisms that are responsible for scientific or pragmatic beliefs, then you’re either begging the question or special pleading. Either you’re just assuming that we do have trustworthy belief-producing mechanisms, or you’re privileging one belief-producing mechanism over others without explanation.

      With regards to “oriented towards truth” – take it just about however you like – goal, end, purpose, function, (intelligent) design. We don’t think that any of these apply to the fundamental processes of nature. The point is simply that our beliefs about the fundamental processes themselves don’t provide us with a reason for expecting any particular result.

      It may be worth noting, though, that the special pleading argument doesn’t rely on the “oriented towards truth” issue. This is clear when one considers that it figures nowhere in the argument as I’ve laid it out more formally. Let’s imagine that one believed the fundamental processes of the universe *were* oriented towards truth, or even intelligently designed. The special pleading argument would still hold: on what basis would we be able to say that my belief-producing mechanisms are the ones that actually get to truth, but not someone else’s?

      In effect, this is what the special-pleading argument I’ve suggested already gets at, since the argument form that I’ve criticized treats natural selection as, in a way, aimed at truth (via a link between truth and survival). If we were to get rid of that element, it’s not clear how an argument from natural selection would even be supposed to support the reliability of belief-producing mechanisms.

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    8. The point about biological functions is that your formal argument assumes at best a highly simplified version of natural selection, since your argument is that natural selection makes our beliefs true, whereas evolutionary biology allows for the possibility that some of our relevant (perceptual) beliefs are false (if they're formed by malfunctioning cognitive hardware).

      Now when you talk about my privileging of perceptual beliefs and about "fundamental processes," you seem to be assuming reductionism. You're saying that the fundamental (i.e. physical) processes in nature are such that we have no reason to trust any of the mechanisms that are ultimately caused by those processes. But to make this argument work, you'd have to show that the special scientific theories go by the wayside and we can just leap to physics to understand what's going on at the biological or psychological levels. To justify that, you'd need to be able to reduce the higher level theories to physics. You can't do that. Therefore, the character of the fundamental processes is irrelevant.

      Yes, metaphysical naturalists think that physical processes (atoms, etc) are the ultimate causes of complex patterns, but those causal connections are highly indirect. That's why we have the higher level theories, such as natural selection.

      The scientific methods of forming beliefs are exceptional because they occur at the social and psychological levels, which don't reduce even to biological processes, let alone physical ones. That's why I say that if we're talking about belief-forming mechanisms explained by natural selection, we're talking only about primitive, genetically-determined, perceptual beliefs. As for cosmology and the theory of natural selection itself, we need to talk about an even higher level of explanation, since we have to assume the social institution of science to understand how those beliefs arise. If we assumed only the fundamental processes of quantum mechanics and so on, we'd be entirely in the dark as to how scientific beliefs arise, since we wouldn't have even the relevant concepts to work with.

      I'm not sure now your skepticism is even falsifiable since you seem to say that even if we assumed theism, your special pleading argument would go through. So what *would* count as a fundamental reason to trust our belief-forming mechanisms? Indeed, as Descartes said, if we think there's a mind behind everything, we can become paranoid and doubt that that mind has our best interests at heart. Maybe God's a deceitful demon, in which case skepticism might be rational on a theistic basis. But if we assume naturalism, that kind of skepticism goes out the window since nature is what it is, having no ability to hide itself with cunning misrepresentations.

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    9. I don’t see how my argument assumes almost anything about natural selection, except that there is some connection between survival and true beliefs. If there’s not that connection, then I don’t see how anyone could argue from natural selection to true belief. Can you pinpoint where the problem is? Which premise of the model I’ve given isn’t accurate and why?

      Furthermore, I doubt that the fact that some of our “relevant (perceptual) beliefs” might be false touches my argument, since the point is that given someone’s background beliefs about the world (i.e. their Premise 1), what constitutes malfunctioning will be different from people with other background beliefs (i.e. different Premise 1’s).

      As to reductionism, I don’t understand how my claim that you are privileging perceptual beliefs has anything to do with reductionism.

      Additionally, I’m not sure what sort of reductionism you are denying. Do you deny that the fundamental constituents and processes of the universe determine all states of the world? While we may not be able to generally engage in thought at this level (or to use your words, “leap to physics to understand what's going on” at higher levels), the fact that we can’t understand actual events at this level doesn’t prevent us from understanding *that* physics is responsible. I don’t understand the point of “indirectness”. Sure, we can’t trace out on anything like a regular basis causal chains, but that’s just a point about our epistemic abilities, and that’s not obviously relevant to my argument. If the sort of reductionism you have in mind, then, is “epistemic” reductionism, I don’t see how that touches my argument.

      But if what you have in mind is something like causal reductionism, do you think there is something other than fundamental physics causally responsible for the workings of the world? If so, does it transcend the laws of nature? Certainly not. So even if causal reductionism is false, it doesn’t seem like that is really central to my argument.

      Furthermore, let’s say that you’re right about reductionism of a causal sort. At the very least, my argument stands in a weaker form: if causal reductionism is true, then knowledge is not possible.

      I don’t think I’ve made any particular claims about theism. What I said was that teleology itself still leaves us with special pleading: if everyone’s beliefs are the result of processes oriented towards truth, on what basis could I claim that mine were true and others’ not?

      Why do you say that, “nature is what it is, having no ability to hide itself with cunning misrepresentations.” First, I don’t see how this isn’t implicitly begging the question. If you have some reason for thinking that nature, in producing your beliefs about science and your environment etc is doing so reliably, what’s the reason. And don’t you think that nature, being responsible for everyone’s beliefs, has ever “deceived” anyone? Nature, in just about anyone’s opinion, will have deceived the greater part of mankind for the greater part of history. Sure, nature doesn’t act, it’s not intentional, but that’s not the point.

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    10. (continued)

      You ask: “what *would* count as a fundamental reason to trust our belief-forming mechanisms?”

      Here’s what I think the problem comes down to: our beliefs are formed by processes that are not up to us, and which are not oriented to truth. Because all our belief forming processes are causally circumscribed by nature, including our reflective capacities, we cannot rule out natural “interference”. If nature were “benevolent” or cared about truth, so to speak, it might be different, but that’s certainly not the case.

      A reason, then, to trust our belief-forming mechanisms would be a (positive) examination of them that was not causally circumscribed by nature. If we could examine our beliefs and the mechanisms that form them and their interaction with nature, we might be able to trust them. But this would be to reject metaphysical naturalism and accept metaphysical supernaturalism, so it’s not an option. Nothing transcends nature.

      (So, with respect to falsifiability, which I’m not sure is the right issue, I’d be interested in seeing an argument that there are no logical possibilities in which special pleading can be avoided)

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    11. Based on your explanation of what would count as a reason to trust our beliefs, your argument sounds like basic modern skepticism. Since we're separate from the rest of the world and we can't get outside our heads, we can't confirm the connection between us and the world. Therefore, we can never know that we're not brains in vats, for example.

      But I've noticed that you state your conclusion in two different ways. Sometimes you say that we should be agnostic, that we can't know whether any of our beliefs is true or false. But you also conclude by saying that knowledge is impossible. When you say that knowledge is impossible, it sounds like you're saying your skeptical argument entitles you to imply that you *know* that we don't know anything. That would be self-contradictory and it would contradict the first formulation of your conclusion.

      So if it's a matter of not being able to live up to Descartes' mathematical standards of proof (i.e. the logical possibility will always remain that our beliefs don't match up to the facts and we'll never be certain one way or the other), the main naturalistic answer is that we have to live with that mere possibility, but we can be comforted in the world of probabilities.

      So deduction doesn't tell us what the world is like. Instead, our knowledge is probabilistic. We have what logicians call abduction, the appeal to the best explanation. I've given you the naturalistic explanation of why we usually can trust our beliefs (why they're reliable even if not necessarily true in all possible worlds, given that natural selection allows for malfunctions, and so on). Even if the universe isn't intentionally oriented towards building us or isn't intelligently designed to do so, the evidence of our observations suggests that nature has built itself by various orderly processes. Thus, nature's built the stars, this planet and all living things. Physics, chemistry, biology, and psychology add up to the naturalist's explanation of why some of our beliefs are reliable, such as our beliefs in those very scientific theories.

      Your skepticism amounts to saying that we don't know for certain that any of our beliefs is true, since we can't perform a supernatural check on the connection between us and the world. But naturalists can still say that according to the logic of abduction, they've got the best explanation of the evidence. What's your alternative explanation? That we're brains in vats? That all is chaos? That species just happen to survive even though they don't perceive the outside world? That science isn't really better than pseudoscience or crackpot mischief? That technology doesn't really work as predicted by scientific theories? You'll need an alternative explanation to go up against all of science if you're going to carry the day on the field of probabilistic explanations.

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    12. I said that if atheism is true, nature doesn't deceive anyone, and my meaning was just the plain one: you need a mind if you're going to have deception. So parts of nature may still be hidden from us, but if we're clever enough to find them, nature won't intelligently plot and scheme to change itself so we're still left in the dark. This is merely a consequence of the difference between atheism and theism.

      Yes, epistemic and metaphysical reductionism are different. But the epistemic gap may be so wide that for pragmatic reasons we might as well posit emergent properties that separate the levels of nature. As I understand it, explaining everything in the universe purely from physics would require a computer bigger than the universe. It becomes infeasible even if it were metaphysically possible, so we might as well divide the universe into metaphysical levels.

      I don't see why you're so carried away by your numbered premises. They don't stand by themselves, since that's just one subargument within your total argument. My point about biological functions goes to other parts of your total argument, which your subargument may presuppose.

      Anyway, I still don't see how your argument points to special pleading. What would count as a malfunction wouldn't depend on a person's background beliefs, such as their metaphysical ones; instead, the biological theory of natural selection would decide which perceptual beliefs are reliable and which mechanisms function properly (function would depend on the best explanation of how an apparent design in biology could have evolved). Are you saying that people with different background beliefs would have different interpretations of the theory?

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    13. As to your first point: no, the point is that since we are *never* separate from the world, i.e. since we are always causally circumscribed by nature, we are never able to tell if nature is reliable in producing our beliefs. Nature is involved at every step, and we don’t believe that nature is concerned with truth, though it might happen to result in truth. So, everything might actually be as we our perceptual beliefs would have it be, we just have no reason to think that this is the case.

      Of course, do I *know* this? Do I have a *reason* to think the belief is true? No. There aren’t reasons to think any beliefs are true, given what we believe about nature and our relation to it (i.e. non-teleologically oriented and our full causal circumscription by it). My beliefs and this very argument are the product of processes not oriented towards truth (even if the processes forming this belief /argument are aimed at survival, which would seem odd), and so I have no reason to think they are true any more than any other belief that nature may have produced in me.

      Of course, it’s not a mark against my argument that I don’t think I have reasons to think my beliefs are true. That would be ad hominem.

      As for probabilities, this just appears to be another instance of what I have already addressed: if you have some putatively reliable way of forming beliefs about probabilities (or about conclusions to draw from experiments or studies, etc.), how does this belief-formation not fall prey to my argument?

      Similarly with your reference to “evidence”: what makes you think you have any evidence? Thinking you have evidence from observation would require thinking that your observational mechanisms are reliable. If your observational mechanisms aren’t subject to the argument I’ve given, please give an argument why that is.

      Your requiring of a best explanation amounts to begging the question, because it assumes that we’re the sort of thing that can explain. If explanation has anything to do with having reasons for believing that something is true, then to require explanation is to require something that my argument shows is simply impossible.

      If, on the other hand, explanation doesn’t involve having reasons for thinking any given position is true or not, then I’m happy just saying that science is the best explanation. Of course, we have no reason for thinking it is, but we still believe it. And that’s because, just like everyone and everything else, we believe what nature has us believe.


      As for your distinction between theism and atheism, one I don’t think it works the way your taking it to work, though this isn’t really relevant to my argument any way. If atheism rules out minds, does it rule out humans having minds? And if minds are required for deception, does atheism rule out human deception? But like I said, this isn’t relevant to my argument. Like I mentioned above in my first point of response: the issue is that nature is involved at every step of our belief formation, including reflection. Given our beliefs about nature, we have no antecedent reason to trust that it is reliable.

      I understand what you’re saying about epistemic reductionism, but then my point stands that reductionism does not at all affect my argument. Just because we don’t *use* fundamental physics to do practical explanatory work doesn’t change the fact that we think fundamental physics is causally responsible for everything that is caused. And if fundamental physics isn’t teleologically oriented, that’s all my argument needs.

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    14. (cont)

      I don’t think I’m carried away by my model, but if you think there’s a problem with the model, that’s what I’d like to see. The model is detailed, and in the past you have attacked specific elements, so if there are problems it would be helpful in responding to your arguments if you were more specific.

      Your point about biological functions doesn’t affect other parts of my argument if my natural selection model can accommodate your thought. I’ve argued that my model does accommodate your thought, so please show me where I’m wrong.

      Premise 1 of the model isn’t just about metaphysical background beliefs, and so what counts as malfunction does depend on a person’s background belief. For example, imagine a person in whom nature forms the belief that human sacrifice is required to appease wolves. This person trusts the belief as being the product of non-deceptive nature. As a result, he argues, in line why the argument model that I’ve given, that natural selection could not select for belief-forming mechanisms that produced contrary beliefs (because how, given wolf-appeasement by sacrifice, could disbelief in wolf-appeasement by sacrifice be survival-conducive?).

      When people say that he’s ignoring the evidence of perception, the obvious response is that there is no antecedent reason to privilege perceptual belief-forming mechanisms over the belief-forming mechanisms that produced the wolf-appeasement belief.

      And so again, this is why special pleading is an issue: given certain background beliefs, natural selection can be marshaled for any belief-producing mechanism.

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    15. We're approaching the point where we're starting to repeat ourselves, I think. My main problem with your argument is that I still don't think it's internally coherent. The logic you use to support your skeptical argument can be used to rationally justify all sorts of other beliefs, so your argument bites the hand that feeds it, as it were.

      This becomes clear when you say, "Do I have a *reason* to think the belief is true? No. There aren’t reasons to think any beliefs are true, given what we believe about nature and our relation to it."

      That last statement is actually self-contradictory. The key word is "given," when you say "given what we believe..." There you're talking about a logical relationship between statements. You're saying that skepticism logically follows from philosophical naturalism. But you're also saying that your skepticism isn't based on reasons. Well, logical relationships between statements *are* reasons. So either your argument is logical or not. You seemed to give a lot of weight to your careful formulation of your special pleading argument. But the more logical your argument is, the more credit you're giving to the general use of logic, and that undermines skepticism since now we can use those same logical procedures to guide our thinking on lots of other matters.

      Now, your argument might be internal to naturalism, meaning that you only want to use naturalism's weapons against it, so that you're using logic just to undermine any faith in logic. That is, you might be attempting a deconstruction of naturalism. This is how the theistic version of this presuppositionalism works, I think. The idea is that if you assume naturalism, that very worldview collapses under its weight. So you'd have to show that logic undermines itself somehow. But if that were so, your skepticism argument would seem to collapse as well.

      Another general problem I have is with the non sequitur of saying that because nature isn't "concerned with" or "oriented towards" producing true beliefs, therefore we can't trust our beliefs. I know that's not your full argument, but I just don't see how this premise helps you. You seem to be presupposing that theism would be a more commonsensical way of explaining the reliability of our belief-forming mechanisms. Anyway, you take the relevance of this point, about whether nature intelligently designs us, to be obvious, but it's far from obvious to me or to naturalists, I'd think. Like I said, why couldn't nature mindlessly build creatures that represent their environments to survive, thus at least sometimes producing beliefs that correspond to facts? Granted, for thousands of years this was deemed implausible unless God's aid were invoked, but that was before Darwin.

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    16. I think you're arguing ad hominem, not about internal coherence. One can argue logically, while at the same time accepting that logical argument is just another product of nature. Why should we think that one way of thinking is better than another, when all forms of thinking are just the product of the same nature? Isn't this a (simple) way of putting the special-pleading argument? But just because one may not take logical argument to be something special (because logic is just another product of nature) doesn't mean that one can be logically consistent in denying my argument. What I believe *about my argument* doesn't affect the logical coherence of my argument. So you're arguing ad hominem, because your criticism turns on facts about the arguer. In other words, I may not be giving credit to logic, but my argument is fully logical. To discredit my argument because *I personally* am not giving credit to logic (because it's just another product of nature), is to reason ad hominem. Arguments stand on their own, regardless of who gives them (so long as none of the premises concern the person giving them).

      Sometimes people seem to think that logic is this immaterial thing, that is eveywhere present, and that if we have the right beliefs and think the right thoughts we can access it and it will give us truth. But this is clearly a god substitute and has no place in a naturalist view of the world.

      I don't know why you think my argument can support all sorts of beliefs. The conclusion it has is that we have no reason to believe any particular belief is true. If you think it supports any other conclusion, please explain.

      I don't see how my argument is an argument against naturalism. It's an argument to a consistent form of naturalism, one that doesn't include special pleading and/or begging the question.

      Again, you are misunderstanding the purpose of noting that nature isn't oriented towards producing true beliefs. I am not saying that this rules out nature mindlessly doing anything, so a fortiori I'm not saying that it rules out nature forming true beliefs in humans or survival-conducive beliefs in humans. I think I've already granted that it is a possibility that nature form true beliefs in belief-holding things. It's not a matter of possibility, but of reasons to think it is the case.

      The point of noting that nature isn't oriented towards producing true beliefs is simply to rule out an antecedent reason we might have for believing that nature reliably forms beliefs in us. I think my argument goes through without the premise, as indicated by my claiming that special pleading stands even with teleology.

      I don't know why you think invoking God makes any difference, because you still seem to think the issue is one of possibility. But I deny this. The issue is one of having a reason to think that true beliefs are the case, not of whether or not they're possible. You asked and I suggested a way that we might have a reason to believe that our beliefs are reliably formed, which while it may require a God, surely wasn't so simple as God takes care of it.

      Additionally, simply adding teleology won't help because the special pleading issue would still be in play. If everyone's beliefs are formed by the same truth-oriented mechanisms, why should I think mine are true versus another's?

      Regardless, though, these aren't options for us, so there's not much point in going over it. The point stands that nature is responsible for all our beliefs, so we can never form beliefs about nature free of "interference". Nothing about our beliefs concerning nature allows us to non-special-pleadingly support our belief-forming mechanisms, so we have no reason to trust our beliefs. And notice that here we make no reference to truth-orientation.

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    17. I feel like your objections are the same ones you've been having, and I don't see what you think is wrong with my responses. Could you address my responses to your objections?

      At least some of my responses/positions, in list form:

      1) You are actually arguing ad hominem when you say that you're arguing about the logical coherence of my argument.
      2) My argument doesn't require non-truth-orientation; special pleading would still be a problem.
      3) My argument isn't an argument against naturalism - just towards a more consistent naturalism.
      4) We're never free of interference and can't support our own belief-forming mechanisms non-special-pleadingly.

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    18. There's no ad hominem here. The objection is that your level of skepticism is internally inconsistent. You say we have no reason to trust our beliefs, since we allegedly engage in special pleading. But to show that, you go ahead and argue, appealing to logic (rules of reasoning) and citing fallacies like special pleading and ad hominem. You're trusting in logic, but your skepticism deprives you of any reason for doing so. Thus, your skepticism eats its own tail. You can't defend your skepticism with arguments while also saying we have no reason to think any of our beliefs is true, including the belief that some ways of reasoning are better than others. You're helping yourself to logic even while your skepticism denies others the same privilege. If anything, this might be special pleading.

      Maybe your argument doesn't depend on the orientation-to-truth point, but that point was suspicious nonetheless, and you repeated it many times. Anyway, if we set it aside, I still don't think there's any special pleading here on my part. You summarize your point well when you say, "Nothing about our beliefs concerning nature allows us to non-special-pleadingly support our belief-forming mechanisms, so we have no reason to trust our beliefs." So you're saying that we all have the same natural belief-forming mechanisms and yet we maintain that some of our beliefs are true while others are false. How are we supposed to decide which is which without arbitrariness (special pleading), since none of us can get outside of nature and reason supernaturally (i.e. without presupposing the natural mechanisms that create our beliefs)?

      I just don't think there's a big problem here, because even though we can only reason naturally while in nature, we observe different patterns in the contexts in which our belief-forming mechanisms work, and we can simply appeal to the best explanation of those patterns. So if two people see lights in the clouds and one person says it's a plane while the other says it's not a plane but it's maybe an alien spaceship, one of the beliefs must be false (they're mutually exclusive, although the lights could be neither a plane nor a spaceship). We've got to pick which one.

      This is the pragmatic side of epistemology. Some beliefs are simply better than others in helping us cope with the world. The beliefs are all made naturally, but there's still much variety in the way beliefs are formed. For example, people's different life experiences, personality, cognitive skills, and so on come into play here, producing a variety of competing beliefs. Even when beliefs aren't mutually exclusive, there are still epistemic or aesthetic standards that help us pick between the beliefs in a responsible way. Just because we can't prove the superiority of any belief in a supernatural fashion, doesn't mean all epistemic standards are equal. This speaks to a sort of postmodern fetish for equality.

      You say you want a consistent naturalism, but again that means you're assuming formal logic (consistency). Logic gives us reasons to favour some beliefs and to junk others, since the rules of logic let us test arguments for validity (well-formedness). This goes to the question of extreme skepticism's internal coherence.

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    19. I understand that you are apparently objecting that there is some internal inconsistency, but in fact you are arguing ad hominem, and you haven't responded to my justification for this claim. We can see in your most recent response that your argument depends on facts about the arguer, and so this is ad hominem, when you say that "[I'm] trusting in logic". Me trusting or not trusting in logic is no premise of my argument, so why is this relevant?

      More generally, though, as I've said, an argument can be logically consistent without the arguer thinking that logical consistency has any necessary or known connection to truth.

      Take an analogous example: someone can move around chess pieces in ways that the rules of chess allows, but that doesn't mean that that person has to have some particular attitude about those rules or his moving of the pieces. And at the same time, how can one criticize this person with regards to the game? --"You don't respect the rules." --"Perhaps not, but I follow them."

      I'm not helping myself to logic, because I'm not claiming that logical consistency or logical implication gives us any reason to believe anything. What I've said can follow logical rules without me believing that this following of rules holds some particular significance.

      I've shown that our naturalism is incompatible with believing in reasons, and that includes reasons that one might think arise from material processes like logical thought. Logical thought falls within the scope of my special pleading argument as much as anything else.


      As for orientation-to-truth: I'm not sure what you find suspicious, but your finding it so isn't a mark against it without some argument. As I've stated, the point is to rule out an antecedent reason we might have to trust certain belief-forming mechanisms. Orientation-to-truth would be a reason to trust, but we don't have that, so that's not a reason we can appeal to. I don't know what's suspect about that or what you would disagree with.


      Your response to the special pleading argument is one you've given before, perhaps in other contexts, and which I have responded to. You write that "we observe different patterns in the contexts in which our belief-forming mechanisms work, and we can simply appeal to the best explanation of those patterns."

      How can it be a response to a charge of special pleading to appeal to one of the very belief-forming mechanisms that the special pleading argument is addressed to? That's just special pleading.

      If perceptual-belielf-forming mechanisms and wolf-appeasement-by-sacrifice-belief-forming mechanisms are both the product of nature, it's special pleading to say that we can trust the former belief-forming mechanisms on account of our observing patterns and reasoning to the best explanation. It's special pleading because in so doing we are privileging those very mechanisms in taking them to provide true beliefs (i.e. to result in veridical observation).

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    20. (cont)
      And appeals to pragmatic considerations only work once we get past special pleading. Pragmatic considerations require some information about the epistemic or environmental situation, and if we can't non-special-pleadingly decide which belief-forming mechanisms reliably tell us about our epistemic or environmental situation, pragmatic considerations are not something we can know about to take into account. We can't talk about "coping with the world well" until we have some non-special-pleading way to make claims about how we are coping in the first place. One belief-forming mechanism will say x about how one is coping, another not-x. So special pleading needs to be taken care of first before pragmatic considerations can be in play.

      As for epistemic/aesthetic standards and a "postmodern fetish for equality": the latter point seems to be ad hominem, and the former point seems to be irrelevant for defeating the argument. Sure, I'll grant that there are epistemic and even aesthetic standards. But that doesn't get us anywhere in determining if they're met or not by any particular belief-forming mechanism. If we could tell if the output of some belief-forming mechanism met epistemic standards, then there would be no issue at all: we'd have access to the reliability or lack there of. But since such "telling" is causally circumscribed by the laws of nature, we have the same problem in forming beliefs (i.e. telling) about meeting standards.

      What do you mean when you say I'm "assuming formal logic"? My argument conforms to the rules of logic, apart from my beliefs about whether or not there's any further signficance to that fact. I needn't "assume" logic as some special feature, say, of belief-forming mechanisms or beliefs. In fact, to do so would be to engage in special pleading as I've been arguing: why should *this* belief-forming mechanism, i.e. logical thought, be truth-conducive instead of any other? Why should we believe that logic lets us "test arguments" for anything related to truth, when we could (and many do) believe that some other belief-forming mechanism is better for testing for truth? Of course, just because one maintains that logic doesn't give reasons isn't grounds for criticizing logical points he might make: again, that's ad hominem. Arguments stand on their own.

      It seems like you're treating logic as if it were something special. Why is this?

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    21. You're not clear on the meaning of "ad hominem" or "special pleading." My point about logic is that your argument infers skepticism from naturalism and that that argument uses logic. Regardless of whether you agree that logic supports certain beliefs with reasons, that's what logic does. Indeed, your argument implies that naturalists ought to believe that skepticism/agnosticism is true, which is to say that we have no reason to believe anything one way or the other. But you err in formulating a logical argument to establish an antirational conclusion. Unless you have a kind of Buddhist story about how we should throw away the ladder of logic/reason once we realize that logic destroys itself, your argument strikes me as incoherent. Your argument uses reason-producing methods to undermine those methods.

      You're confusing special pleading with circular reasoning (begging the question). Special pleading is when you say X is an exception to a rule, *without explaining why the rule doesn't apply to X.* It's OK to have a double standard or to discriminate between X and Y as long as you show that there are relevant differences between the two. That's easily done in the case of abduction (appeal to the best explanation) vs the wolf-appeasement magic. The latter is an unfalsifiable pseudoscience which won't prove as useful as scientific reasoning.

      When you say "It's special pleading because in so doing [i.e. in appealing to science] we are privileging those very mechanisms in taking them to provide true beliefs," you're talking about circular reasoning, not special pleading. Anyway, it's neither question-begging nor special pleading, since science has independent, pragmatic justification and there are plenty of reasons to prefer science to magic. Granted, no belief-forming mechanism can be justified supernaturally, given naturalism, but that still leaves us with the ability to compare contenders according to various epistemic criteria. Believers in magic will likely have different criteria/interests than naturalists, and that takes us to a cultural, meta-debate. This was Richard Rorty's point, for example.

      If I were you, I'd try formulating your argument in very simplistic terms, as though you were talking to a child. If your argument is solid, it doesn't need to be expressed in sophisticated language. Just tell how we get from the naturalistic worldview to agnosticism, without any jargon. What's the nub of your argument and why are scientists making a terrible mistake in trusting their methods of reasoning?

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    22. I don’t understand your request that I formulate an argument “as though [I] were talking to a child”. I think we’re both capable of understanding philosophical discussion and of clarifying our meaning if any misunderstandings arise.

      Here’s an argument based on van Inwagen’s consequence argument, adapting material from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/incompatibilism-arguments/#ChoConArg

      The following symbols and abbreviations will be used in the formal argument:

      ‘L’ is an abbreviation for a sentence expressing a conjunction of all the laws of nature;
      ‘H’ is a sentence expressing a true proposition about the total state of the world at some time in the distant past before any agents existed;
      ‘□’ is ‘it is logically necessary that’;
      ‘Np’ abbreviates ‘p and no one has, or ever had, any choice about whether p’;
      ‘P’ is a dummy for which we may substitute any sentence which expresses a true proposition;
      ‘B’ is a dummy for which we may substitute any sentence which expresses a true proposition about a belief;

      The following rules will be used:

      Rule Alpha: From □p, we may infer Np.
      Rule Beta: From Np and N(p is responsible for q), we may infer Nq.

      1. □((H & L) responsible for P) --Definition of naturalism
      2. □((H & L) responsible for B) --Any true proposition about a belief will be a true proposition simpliciter.
      3. N((H & L) responsible for B) --from 2, by rule Alpha
      4. N(H & L) --premise, fixity of past and laws of nature
      5. NB --from 3, 4, by rule Beta

      This proves that no belief of anyone’s is up to anyone. This covers *all* beliefs, because all beliefs are the product of past states of the world in conjunction with the laws of nature. This means that, in this respect, all beliefs are on a par. No beliefs come from non-natural sources, but rather all come from the same source: the laws of nature and past states of the world, none of which are up to us.

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    23. (cont)
      Given that all beliefs come from the same source, how might anyone even try and justify some particular belief over another(’s)? Every belief formed about any other belief will also be a product of the same source and subject to the same problem: no believer controls nature or has some privileged position to judge from.

      It is special pleading to privilege certain beliefs coming from the same source, but not other beliefs. Why is this special pleading? Because there's no reason to privilege any given belief over another. To allow one thing in one case but to deny it in a relevantly similar case is special pleading. “X is acceptable here, but X is not acceptable there, though there’s no relevant difference between here and there” is special pleading.

      So you mention epistemic standards and pragmatic considerations and scientific reasoning. Are any of your beliefs about these things formed by something other than nature? If you believed in a soul or something like that I might understand your position, but we can’t believe in something like that, so I don't see how your beliefs about any of these things like epistemic standards or pragmatic considerations is relevant to overcoming the argument. What’s special about these beliefs, what’s unique about them that isn’t applicable to all beliefs?

      And even if in trying to justify certain beliefs there’s circular reasoning of the sort you suggest, there's still special pleading. There's still special pleading because circular reasoning can be used given all sorts of starting beliefs, and so it's special pleading to say “I can use circular reasoning but you can’t”.

      What’s special about beliefs about science? Aren’t they produced by the same nature that produces beliefs about everything? What makes these special such that we can (circularly) reason from them, but not from other beliefs?

      As for the point about your arguing ad hominem, it seems like you are now putting your point a little differently. So long as your point has nothing to do with me, the arguer, such as my beliefs about logic, then I’ll grant that you’re not arguing ad hominem. But if some premise of your counter-replies has anything to do with me, then I maintain that to do so is to argue ad hominem.

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    24. (cont)
      However, I think you’re mistaken in your point about incoherence. There’s nothing incoherent about an argument that establishes an “antirational” conclusion. Take the following example:

      Imagine an organism in whom nature produces two beliefs: “P”, and “If P, then logic is false”. Nature then produces a third belief, “Logic is false”. If we wish to view this formation of beliefs as an instance of logical reasoning, I don’t see how we can fault the reasoning: it’s a clear application of modus ponens. Do you think there’s something incoherent in an organism like this? And can it possibly be the reasoning that’s incoherent, when it’s just modus ponens?

      Returning to the example I made a few weeks ago: imagine an organism in whom nature produces the belief that all beliefs are the product of a true-belief-hating demon (or make it a true-belief-hating scientist if you like). What sort of beliefs about its own beliefs could nature produce in this organism, such that we wouldn’t fault the organism for bad reasoning? If the further belief was formed that “the content of my beliefs is likely true”, could that be reasonable?

      So, with regards to everything I’ve said, the question is: going from step to step, are any of the rules of logic violated? If not, what do you mean when you say it’s incoherent? Where’s the problem if it all conforms to the rules of logic?

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  7. Let me put in story form:

    Three brothers sitting in a circle are limited in their beliefs to what they read on cards handed to them by their mother. If Mom hands Jimmy a card that says “The sky is blue”, Jimmy believes the sky is blue. If Sammy gets a card that says “Mom is great”, he believes Mom is great. Mom is generous with the cards, and she passes out a great number of them to her boys.

    As it turns out, some of the cards are about beliefs and cards. Billy gets a card that says, “Jimmy gets bad cards”. When Jimmy objects, Mom hands Billy another card that says “Jimmy’s cards are bad because experiments have proven their content wrong by showing XYZ.” Jimmy is insistent that his beliefs are true, and Mom gives him another card reading, “Billy is wrong because experiments can’t prove anything”.

    Sammy believes Mom is great, and he has a card which reads, “Mom provides all the cards, and there’s no way to get a card about anything that isn’t ultimately from Mom herself.” As the arguing between Jimmy and Billy starts heating up, Mom starts dumping cards in Sammy’s lap. A couple of them read: “Mom is responsible for both Jimmy’s and Billy’s beliefs” and “Neither Billy nor Jimmy can form beliefs about their own or the other’s cards that Mom isn’t ultimately responsible for”.

    Jimmy and Billy have almost come to blows by the time Sammy gets to the bottom of the pile of cards that have accumulated around him. The second to last card reads, “Collect all of the cards around you and from your brothers.” Sammy has been raised to do everything Mom instructs him to do, so he collects all the cards. The last card reads, “You have all the cards Mom has ever given to anyone. Pick the true ones.”
    -------------------

    No masterpiece, but it’s sufficiently clear to ask the question: would any method for picking cards make sense versus any other method? Sammy gets all his beliefs, actual and “optional”, from Mom. So on what basis would he trust some over others? Are any beliefs he might have about his method options not subject to the same question?

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    1. As pointed out in the Stanford article, van Inwagen conceded over a decade ago that that argument for incompatibilism is invalid. In reasoning, Occam's Razor is important, which means that the simplest argument is usually the best. That's why I suggested that you try to express your argument in very simple terms. A simple formulation strips away the sophisticated and extraneous verbiage which is likely to be controversial. When the essence of an argument is laid bare, it's easier to tell what the problems might be with it.

      Notice that van Inwagen does this too, since he says his logical arguments are versions of the same basic argument, which is, "If determinism is true, then our acts are the consequence of laws of nature and events in the remote past. But it's not up to us what went on before we were born, and neither is it up to us what the laws of nature are. Therefore, the consequences of these things (including our present acts) are not up to us."

      This simplistic formulation lets us decide at a glance what we should think of it, and the problem I see with it is in the first statement, which defines determinism. First of all, it's a category error to say our actions are effects of laws of nature, since laws are statements we write down to explain natural regularities. In any case, the relevant laws of nature in the special sciences, that explain our mental and social patterns in detail are ceteris paribus, meaning that there's no actual ironclad connection between the broad patterns and each person's choices. Just because certain broad patterns would obtain were the system isolated and everything outside the system held "equal," doesn't mean that those patterns are represented in every microcosm, such as each person's life.

      Also, it's not the case that our actions are effects only of events in the distant past. Our brain and our senses act as barriers separating us from the rest of the world. That's what gives us some top-down control over ourselves. So many of our actions are caused only by local events in our brain, not ultimately by events in the distant past.

      The correct definition of "determinism" is that every event has a cause. If we have freewill, it can still be the case that every event has a cause, as long as those causes end in brain events. Yes, you could trace the causes back in time to see how our brains are formed by prior, impersonal causes, but that biological story is irrelevant to the freewill debate, since freewill occurs at the psychological and moral levels of explanation which apply only when the brain barrier is formed. Once the brain is fully operational, a new, personal level of explanation emerges, and there's no reductive account yet of how all the personal characteristics are caused by chemicals or some other lower-level phenomena.

      Anyway, quantum mechanics refutes determinism (in physics there are events that have no causes), so we needn't worry about whether every event has a cause in the determinist's mechanistic, necessitarian sense. Incidentally, like Plantinga, van Inwagen is one of the most annoying philosophers currently alive. These are Christians who pretend they give a damn about critical thinking, by camouflaging their faith-based wishes in all the currently fashionable logical trappings. Once you know these folks are Christians, however, you know you're guaranteed to find flaws in their arguments, regardless of the superficial rigour displayed by their sophisticated formulations.

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    2. Regarding special pleading, you say "Every belief formed about any other belief will also be a product of the same source and subject to the same problem: no believer controls nature or has some privileged position to judge from."

      Here's a parody of your argument: “All Western movies come from the same source (Hollywood). Therefore, there's no rational basis for favouring one movie over another.” The problem here is that the source in question is only the ultimate source, but there's plenty of room for discrimination by taking into account the proximal, more local or mediate sources. In the case of movies, we can take into account the differences between the studios, directors, writers, or actors. And in the case of beliefs, again beliefs come from different places in nature, because nature is a very big place with lots of variety in it. For example, our belief-forming mechanisms can be functioning or malfunctioning or the beliefs can derive from a culture that champions reason, like the culture of the ancient Greeks, or from a nonrationalist culture.

      So the problem with your argument here is that beliefs don't simply come from the same source. They come from the same ultimate source, but not from the same intermediary. This is the same problem with van Inwagen's definition of "determinism." He misses the trees by focusing too much on the forest.

      Modern science is not produced in the same way as the superstition about obtaining sacrifices for wolves (or whatever the story was). Science is a heroic revolt *against* our innate belief-forming mechanisms. Whereas we're prone to subjective biases, scientists bypass those mechanisms by subjecting hypotheses to public tests. So again, the sweeping statement that all beliefs have the same ultimate origin is just irrelevant. It's like saying I should treat all movies equally because they're all made on Earth. There are levels of patterns, you see. There are patterns within patterns. You can focus on whole forests or you can look at things in more detail, like the branches on individual trees.

      Regarding incoherence, your argument is like the Liar's Paradox. If I say "P and if P, then logic shouldn't be used," this statement is incoherent, because the stated reason to believe the statement makes use of logic. The statement takes away with one hand what it gives with the other. If your skepticism argument uses logic, you have no right to tell people they shouldn't trust *their* logical beliefs. If you say your use of logic is special, you may be the one engaging in special pleading. Logic can be used to support many beliefs, not just the belief that skepticism follows from naturalism.

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    3. Your Hollywood example illustrates an important point, which I would sum up thus: you're implicitly assuming a transcendental viewpoint.

      In terms of your example, here's how we could make it fit the way things actually are: if the only way we could learn about Hollywood movies was by watching Hollywood movies about Hollywood movies. All our beliefs about Hollywood movies would come from the same source, namely Hollywood.

      Thinking that we can discriminate between them on the basis of director, studio, quality, etc., only makes sense if we think we have access to this information that isn't via Hollywood movies themselves.

      Imagine two people disagree about the quality of a movie "X". Hollywood sends the first guy one movie about X, the second guy a different movie about X. Movie #1 says such-and-such about the studio, quality, director, etc., and movie #2 the opposite.

      How wouldn't it be special pleading for either of the guys to argue on the basis of the movie they watched for the quality or lack there of of X?

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    4. As for your response regarding incoherence, I don't think you understood my example.

      Nature forms two beliefs in an organism, the first is a proposition, which may be logically simple or not, call it P. The second belief is a conditional, "If P, then logic is false."

      Then nature forms a third belief, "Logic is false."

      First, there's no "stated reason", though I don't see why it would matter if nature formed a fourth belief, "Modus ponens justifies this belief" or "Oh, look, I could apply modus ponens. What the heck let's do it."

      In forming the first three beliefs in the organism, nature produces three logically consistent beliefs. So if there's something wrong, it's not with logical consistency.

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    5. You failed to respond to my argument, which doesn't even mention determinism. I said that my argument was based on van Inwagen's, not that it was van Inwagen's. And the fact that van Inwagen gives up on a different argument than mine is irrelevant to the validity of my argument.

      Likewise, your comments about determinism are irrelevant to the conversation at hand. If you think they are relevant, please explain why. I don't rely on determinism (a view about necessitation), so I'm glad to grant that it's false.

      But let me get clear on what you think is responsible for the way things are, or in other words what you think naturalism is.

      Do you think the laws of nature didn't exist before humans began writing (or otherwise recording)?

      I've asked you this before, and I don't remember if you answered: Do you deny that fundamental physics describes the workings of the world, regardless of our ability to *use* fundamental physics to describe any given event? In other words, are there events in the world, which fundamental physics isn't responsible for?

      I'm not sure that this stuff about fundamental physics is necessary to my point anyway, though, because it's still the case that there is one nature and it's responsible for whatever there is, regardless of whether it has causally distinct psychological or biological levels. If science or logical reasoning were sime sort of skyhook by which we could transcend nature and thereby differentiate good parts and bad parts, that'd be great, but all revolts against nature by definition fail.

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    6. Distinguishing between things in nature isn’t the same as presupposing a transcendental viewpoint. The problem I see now with your special pleading argument is that you assume all our beliefs come from exactly the same source, so that our judgments of which belief is best are arbitrary. But notice that even if we got all our info about movies just from watching other Hollywood movies (as opposed to meeting the filmmakers personally or reading articles about them), it’s not the case that all our knowledge of movies would come from exactly the same source, namely Hollywood. Hollywood is an abstraction or it’s a part of LA. My knowledge of movies might come from my having watched different movies than the ones you’ve watched, so our judgments of movies would have different foundations after all. Just because the movies were all made in the same huge place doesn’t mean the movies are all the same. The different filmmakers make for unique links in the chains that lead to our respective judgments about movies.

      It’s the same with the abstraction of nature. Just because all our attempts at knowing things take place within the same natural universe doesn’t mean our knowledge claims are all arbitrary, because those claims don’t reduce to that underlying fact that they occur within the same universe. You couldn’t even begin to perform that reduction, to start from the premise that something called Nature exists and then to infer all the links in the chain that cause someone’s knowledge claim. It’s not even just an epistemic matter, because Nature is just an abstraction.

      Remember that special pleading is about holding X as an exception to a rule Y, without explaining why the exception is justified. But you’re not talking about a rule. You’re saying that all our beliefs occur in the same huge *place,* called Nature, as if that were relevant to the epistemic discourse. So here’s another attempt at parody. Suppose that two people grow up in the same room, although they have different experiences there, and then years later they watch a movie and differ in their opinion about the movie’s quality. Are their judgments arbitrary just because of the sameness of their origin? How is their initial location relevant to whether their judgments of the movie are equally rational or tasteful?

      What you’re actually presupposing, I think, is that because we’re all natural beings (we exist in nature), we’re all clones! You see, if we were identical in all relevant respects, then perhaps differences in our judgments *would* be arbitrary. Or to change the example, if two computers were programmed the same way, but one malfunctions, we wouldn’t pay much attention to that malfunction. We’d chalk it up to a fluke in the causal chain. But what you’re forgetting is that nature is a very big place with lots of variety in it. So even if twins were brought up in the very same house, that wouldn’t mean the twins are identical in all relevant respects. Like I said, they’d have different experiences within that house. Indeed, even if they were confined to a closet in their formative years, they’d experience that closet differently, because no two things can occupy the exact same spot. They’d perceive the closet from different angles, and so they’d grow up with slightly different characters. Therefore, their judgments wouldn’t reduce to the sameness of their origin and so the differences between their judgments wouldn’t be arbitrary.

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    7. Again, regarding incoherence, your skepticism amounts to the Liar’s Paradox. Your argument uses logic and logic gives reasons in support of beliefs. Yet your argument concludes that we have no reasons in support of our beliefs. Given your conclusion, we shouldn’t trust the logic of your argument, in which case we shouldn’t trust your conclusion after all. But if instead we trust your logic and deny your conclusion, by using logic to support beliefs in other contexts, we’ll be led to skepticism eventually, given that your logical argument is sound. Either way, your argument is incoherent, just like the Liar’s statement.

      I’m not going to examine a complicated argument that’s based on an invalid one. Are you sure you didn’t import the assumption that makes van Inwagen’s argument invalid?

      There’s a difference between laws and the nomic relations to which they refer. Laws are products of minds, whereas nomic relations/regularities can preexist minds.

      As for reduction and physics, yes I think physics describes/explains every event in its own terms, but that’s not to say that those terms capture all the properties of each event. Physics is like a pair of glasses that lets us see all events, but those glasses are tinted, say, blue. If we put on the glasses of biology or psychology, we suddenly see some of those same events but in a new light, because those other glasses have different tints. Some patterns pass us by when we speak in the language of physics, because although physics is universal physics isn’t perfectly comprehensive. Not every meaningful statement can be formulated using the syntax and vocabulary of physics. That’s why we have the special sciences.

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    8. Regarding supposed incoherence: where do I claim that logic gives reasons in supporting beliefs? Yes, it would be inconsistent to hold that 1)logical reasoning provides reasons, 2)that we engage in logical reasoning, and at the same time 3)that we have no reasons for our beliefs. But I don't claim that my argument provides a reason to believe anything. If someone reading the argument believes that logic provides reasons, then *they* have the problem, because my argument is logically consistent and has as a conclusion that we have no reason to believe that logical reasoning provides reasons.

      Let me put the question to you, again in terms of the above example:

      Nature forms two beliefs in an organism, the first is a proposition, which may be logically simple or not, call it P. The second belief is a conditional, "If P, then logic is false."

      Question: what would be the logical thing for this organism to do? Or what belief would nature form in this organism in order for the organism's beliefs to be logical? Is there any *reasonable* option for the organism here?

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    9. As for my argument based on van Inwagen's, first, it's not complicated. It has what, 5 or 6 steps total, with a couple of additional rules. That's not a complicated argument. Second, if the problematic part of van Inwagen's argument is determinism, and my argument doesn't include determinism, I don't see why you would think I import a bad assumption.

      But regardless, it boils down to the fact that no beliefs are formed by anything other than nature. If you deny that, then there's not much more to say.

      I don't see the value in replacing English with Greek. So you agree that there are nomic relations/regularities. That's fine, but if I say laws of nature, that's what I'm referring to, not something that failed to be before humans and language.

      As for fundamental, I thought we went over this more or less when we talked about reductionism. If you had a problem with what I said earlier, maybe I missed it. If physics sufficiently describes causal pathways, that's good enough. Though like I said, I don't think it really matters if we accept layers of causal pathways, unreducable at least some to others. How does that change anything?

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    10. Look, I don't even need to assume that all beliefs come from the same source:

      Sources: A, B, C, D

      I want to form true beliefs, so I want to figure out what source reliably provides beliefs.

      No matter what I do, any belief that I form about the possible sources will be from one of those sources, so in judging any source I never actually improve my epistemic situation: I'm still confronted beliefs that are on a par, given that I had no antecedent reasons to trust any particular source.

      In more detail:

      I know that A produces A1, A2, A3, and A4. B produces B1, B2, B3, and B4. And so on.

      So at this point I have no reason to trust any of the sources (i.e. no antecedent reason), and I want to figure out what to do. What I need to do is figure out if A1, A2, A3 and A4 are more true than B1, B2, B3, and B4, and so on.

      But in forming any beliefs about this, I just end up adding to the list of beliefs, and that's because all beliefs come from some source. If I form a belief about the truth of some belief, and this belief about a belief is from source A, then my situation is this, I know that A produces A1, A2, A3, A4, and A5, B produces B1, B2, B3, and B4, and so on. I haven't improved my position at all.

      And then maybe a belief forms from source B, but then we just add another belief to our list, and that goes on for as many sources as we might wish to countenance.

      So no, my special pleading argument doesn't require anything about there being only source. Perhaps I said that previously, but then we can take this as a strengthening of the argument by getting rid of that assumption.

      One might object that it's still the case that there's only one source of beliefs here, namely the set of all the sources or something like that. If that's the case, I don't know what *wouldn't* be a situation in where there was only one source of beliefs.

      I suggest that the source of the special pleading has to do with fully being in the same causal nexus as what is supposed to be examined, *not* with there being one source.

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    11. So, to refocus the Hollywood movie example to better mirror our example: it would be like the only way to form beliefs about the reliability of movies as a source of beliefs was to believe what movies said about the reliability of movies. Granted, different people watch different movies, but that doesn't make the problem better or worse, and it doesn't matter if all the movies come from the same place or not.

      If there was some antecedent reason to believe that some movies came from a reliable source, that could perhaps be useful, but once other's share that source and disagree, it strikes me as inconsistent to maintain both the belief that those movies are from a reliable source and that people disagreeing formed their beliefs from that source. So any such antecedent reason won't be helpful.

      To refocus your two-people-in-a-room example: two people have different experiences in the same room, but the only way they form beliefs about those experiences is by individually watching movies made for each that tell them what they should believe. Later they both watch a movie about their joint experiences and differ in opinion. In order to convince each other, they play their older movies to each other. I agree, their initial location seems irrelevant, but I don't see how that helps their situation.

      To refocus your computer example: imagine two computers were programmed in the same way, and the two have different output given the same input. The only way we form beliefs is by accepting as true the output of the two computers. How would we decide which computer was accurate?

      Or, imagine two computers were programmed in the same way, and the two have different output given different input. The only way we form beliefs is by accepting as true the output of the two computers. How would we decide which computer was accurate?

      Or, imagine two computers were programmed in different ways, and the two have different output given different input. The only way we form beliefs is by accepting as true the output of the two computers. How would we decide which computer was accurate?

      I don't see how this is at all related to clones or being identical in any respects, except for everyone being fully located in a causal nexus along with the putative objects of inquiry.

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    12. You say your logical argument doesn't provide a reason to believe anything. So why do you formulate the argument, then? Moreover, how do you define "argument"? What's the difference between an argument and any old set of statements? The conventional answer is that an argument consists of premises which give reasons to believe the conclusion, and logic is the system of rules for reasoning well. You'll need alternative definitions to avoid the incoherence charge.

      Your point about logic being "false" doesn't make much sense, since logic consists more of rules than of empirical statements. But if someone were logically convinced that logic were useless, he'd be in a bind, since he'd see both the value of logic (it shows him something interesting about logic, namely that it's useless or "false") and the futility of logic. It would be just like looking at the Liar's sentence.

      My problem with van Inwagen's argument was determinism, but that's not why van Inwagen came to believe his argument is invalid. Read further in that article to see the faulty assumption in his argument.

      You say all beliefs are formed "by nature," but I think this is like killing an ant by dropping a planet on it. "Nature" refers to the order in the entire universe, so although all beliefs are formed within nature, it's just much to general to say that nature forms beliefs. The universe naturally forms galaxies and black holes and living things and everything else, but the universe obviously makes use of different processes to produce different kinds of things. So that's when we have to resort to biology or psychology to explain more specifically how beliefs arise, and that's when naturalists turn to natural selection and so on. So we're back at the distinction between functional and malfunctioning mechanisms.

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    13. Your argument about the sources of beliefs implies that the only way for our beliefs to have differential epistemic values is if we were omniscient, because as long as our knowledge is limited, we lack antecedent reasons to trust the link in the chain at which our knowledge stops. Your skepticism is similar to Descartes's, and the main response to Descartes is that he raised the bar too high when he assumed that all knowledge should be like mathematics. Once we deal with probabilities rather than certainties, we can appeal to the best explanation, which favours naturalism over agnosticism. Naturalism is more useful to us since it explains more and is better tested than skeptical agnosticism.

      The fact is that someone with limited knowledge will interpret beliefs differently, so they won't all seem the same and she won't have to resort to special pleading to explain why she favours some beliefs rather than others. Instead, she'll appeal to logic, to her epistemic standards, to her subjective judgment of the best explanation, to her cultural taste, to her personal choice, and so on. Those aren't fallacious ways of choosing the best beliefs. Instead, they're the best means that limited, fallible creatures like us have.

      As for the Hollywood, closet, and computers arguments, again we'd rely on our limited understanding of relevant differences between things, to judge which is best. If two computers seemed identical in all relevant respects, but they spit out different outputs, we might indeed have no reason to favour one over the other. The difference would be anomalous and we'd have no good explanation of which computer is following its program and which is malfunctioning. Often we lack enough information to satisfactorily explain what's going on. For example, we may not understand which properties are relevant causes of some event.

      But instead of a reason for across-the-board agnosticism here, I see only the pretty obvious point that our knowledge is always limited and therefore our judgments are fallible. That doesn't mean that our epistemic judgments are arbitrary or that special pleading is always involved. No, we judge beliefs differentially, based on our limited background knowledge.

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  8. Why I formulate an "argument" has nothing to do with whether or not it conforms to logical rules, so I don't see how we're not straying into an ad hominem. What does the origin of the argument have to do with its validity? If a theist accuses an atheist of arguing for atheism because they're angry at God, how would we judge the theist? What does the motivation have to do with the argument?

    I would agree with your definition of an argument, and counter that this is just another way of reframing the entire issue: because naturalism is true, there are no successful arguments, because we have no reason to believe that any particular belief or position is true. So, no, I don't need alternative definitions, as if redefining can solve real problems.

    I'm not sure if you answered my question: if someone believes premises which logically imply that logical reasoning does not provide reasons, what is that person to do? What are his options, and which should he choose?

    Every step of what I've said can conform to logical "rules", so the question is what should someone do who believes naturalism and believes that logic provides reasons. I've suggested giving up the latter belief; that allows a consistent naturalism.

    As for van Inwagen, the fact that he came to believe that his argument was faulty isn't obviously relevant to my different argument. If you think there's something wrong with any of the seven parts of what I put forth, please say which.

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  9. How do you get from knowlege being limited, to "lack[ing] antecedent reasons to trust the link in the chain at which our knowledge stops?" And how do you get from that to "the only way for our beliefs to have differential epstemic values is if we were omniscient"?

    And I'm saying that knowledge is impossible because we have no reason to trust our beliefs, and that includes not having any antecedent reasons. Please demonstrate that I'm requiring omniscience for knowledge to be possible. I'm not clear on this.


    I don't see how my position is at all like Descartes', but I'm not sure how probabilities help at all anyway. Are we justified in any beliefs about probabilities? It just begs the question at issue to appeal to probabilities. Is testing possible, i.e. can we have reason to believe that some theories get at the way the world really is? It just begs the question at issue to appeal to testing. Can we have reasons for thinking certain explanations are best? To appeal to an ability to determine what are good and bad explanations just begs the question at issue.

    The argument I've presented demonstrates that there's no non-special-pleading way to justify beliefs or belief-forming mechanism and still be a consistent naturalist. So to appeal without argument to some belief or belief-forming mechanism is not going to do it.

    You write, "The fact is that someone with limited knowledge will interpret beliefs differently, so they won't all seem the same and she won't have to resort to special pleading to explain why she favours some beliefs rather than others."

    Are you assuming that people have knowledge, or do you have some demonstration? Because I've provided an argument that knowledge is incompatible with naturalism (and hence the idea of knowledge and reasons should be rejected), so to simply assume that there is knowledge and then proceed to answer me is to beg the question.

    But the question isn't whether or not beliefs *seem* different to a person, but is there any reason to think that they *are* different, i.e. that some really are justified and others (perhaps not held) not justified. I grant that people do believe that some of their beliefs are justified and that other (perhaps only considered) beliefs are not justified. I also grant that one might "appeal to logic, to her epistemic standards, to her subjective judgment of the best explanation, to her cultural taste, to her personal choice, and so on". But the question isn't whether or not people believe that some beliefs are justified, but whether or not they are.

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  11. (cont)

    I don't think you appreciate your modified examples. It seems that instead you are assuming that there is some transcendant something or other that can examine the situation.

    What do you mean to say "we'd rely on our limited understanding of relevant differences between things, to judge which is best"? I take it that in discussing whether or not knowledge or understanding is possible, we can't just assume that we have understanding to start with. Similarly, you end with a reference to "limited background knowledge". I've demonstrated that knowledge is incompatible with naturalism, so I don't see how you can counter an argument that attempts to justify the existence of knowledge amount to special pleading, by appealing to "limited background knowledge". Why isn't that begging the question?

    The reason I say that it seems you are assuming some transcendental position is because I can't see how else to understand your claim that "we'd rely..." In the examples the beliefs are formed by Hollywood movies, by the computers, etc. There's no relying on anything else; the beliefs are formed by any number of mechanisms, and there's nothing else. There's no evaluative position over the beliefs. There's belief formation, and sometimes there's belief formation about beliefs, but there's not some thing above all the belief formation that evaluates or judges.

    The examples are meant to mirror our actual situation, so in the Hollywood example, all beliefs are formed by Hollywood movies. Not *on the basis of* movies, but directly by the movies: if a movie presents some other movie as good, the organism believes that that movie is good, if a movie presents Hollywood movies as reliable, then the believer believes that Hollywood movies are reliable.

    But based on what you said, it's as if there's something external to this belief-formation process that gets to compare and contrast, distinguish and discern. What would this be?

    And note, it won't do any good to multiply sources. Let's imagine that all beliefs are formed by Hollywood movies and Bollywood movies, or by Hollywood movies and biology textbooks, or by Hollywood movies and some mechanism that produces perceptual beliefs. It's still not clear what would make any belief more justified than any other. Of course, what we do believe is that the beliefs formed by the biology textbook and the mechanism producing perceptual beliefs would be true beliefs, but the question isn't which beliefs we think will be correct, but whether or not there's a reason for someone in that situation to think so.

    We can even add a mechanism that produces beliefs about best explanations, or about natural selection, or about cause and effect. How would adding mechanisms to produce beliefs about these things help? What would make beliefs formed by any mechanism more justified than some other?

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  12. (cont)
    You write, "we have to resort to biology or psychology to explain more specifically how beliefs arise, and that's when naturalists turn to natural selection and so on. So we're back at the distinction between functional and malfunctioning mechanisms."

    Do you mean to say that we do resort to biology or psychology and natural selection and functioning/malfunctioning, or do you mean to say that we have *reason* to think that so doing will provide us with truth?

    If you mean the former, I agree. This is what we do, but I've demonstrated that we don't have reason to think that in so doing we arrive at truth. Maybe we do get to truth, maybe we don't. But we don't have any reason to believe either way.

    If you mean the latter, what's the argument? I've addressed natural selection and malfunctioning: these can be marshalled to support all sorts of conclusions, depending on what beliefs or belief forming mechanisms define one's starting point. For example, if one's starting point is that perceptual beliefs are reliably formed, appeals to natural selection and (mal)functioning will result in conclusions very different from one whose starting point is that perceptual beliefs are not reliably formed. And naturalism doesn't pick between either of those: naturalism doesn't entail that there be perceptual beliefs reliably formed, nor does it entail that there not be perceptual beliefs reliably formed.


    Another way of showing that you're trying to make natural selection do too much is by considering what we already believe about it: It leaves a lot of garbage. So, given that we believe natural selection leaves a lot of garbage, why should we believe that true-belief-formation is survival-conducive, versus just superfluous? Trees get by without beliefs, so we don't think that survival and true-belief-forming mechanisms go hand in hand.

    To say that false beliefs would be detrimental is to ultimately beg the question. You gave an argument of the sort I have in mind on April 5: "if you think something is a rock but it's really a predator who eats you, you're not going to live very long, so the detectors inherited by creatures who live long enough to reproduce will tend to give the creatures an accurate sense of what's going on, which helps explain how they're able to live long enough in the first place."

    This sort of argument begs the question, because it relies on the implicit assumption that there are in fact situations where it's true 1) that there is a predator, and 2) that if you think the predator is a rock it will eat you. And the only way we could justify at least (1) is to appeal to perceptual beliefs and therefore rely on mechanisms that produce perceptual beliefs. So we can't appeal to natural selection to support perceptual beliefs, when those very beliefs are necessary to make an argument from natural selection work.

    And this fits into the special-pleading point I've made, because we can substitute some other starting belief or belief-forming mechanism for the perceptual belief in the example. This substitute could then figure into appeals to natural selection to support some other belief or belief-forming mechanism.

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  13. Sorry for intervening in this long discussion but maybe a new perspective might be helpful :-)

    ATest, your position is similar to Descartes insofar as you both say that knowledge is impossible. Knowledge is usually defined to be justified, true, believe and the justification is where your critique on knowledge is oriented. Descartes says because everything can be doubted, nothing is justified (disregarding his conclusions in the latter meditations). You come to this concusion by saying that every believe is formed by the same process (or believe-forming mechanism), so it would be special pleading to say that some believes are justified, when in fact every believe is equal. Am I understanding you correctly?

    I don't really se how the believe-forming mechanism is relevant in this discussion about knowledge and truth because any mechanism can flawed. It can sometimes lead to true believes and sometimes to false believes and we might never know. The only way to see such a mechanism as reliable is by assuming that it *only* leads to either true or false believes. So you need it to be always right or always wrong, otherwise how else could it be a factor when there is doubt?

    I'm not sure if it was mentioned before but what do you make of mathematics and logic. Am I not justified in believing that '1+1=2' is true? And what about 'A ipmlies A', how can this be wrong if it is true by definition? Isn't the opposite being impossible reasons enough?

    What is your definition of 'X is justiefied'? You say it is an empty definition because nothing falls under it so I quite curious how it looks like.

    Another point I have has already been adressed before in a way. Isn't your position self-defeating? You are arguing for naturalism which is based on perception but you try to get rid of everything else by saying perceptual believes aren't reliable. Doesn't it come down to speacial pleading to favour naturalism?

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    1. dietl,

      First, and as you allude to, Descartes doesn't ultimately reject there being knowledge, so my position can't be significantly similar to Descartes'. Furthermore and more to your point, my "method" isn't at all like Descartes' method: I don't rely on "certainty" or "doubt" or the lack thereof at all. I simply say - here's what we believe about the world, and that means we can't be consistent and still believe in knowledge. I don't say "because everything can be doubted, nothing is justified."

      Second, I don't say that every belief is formed by the same process, but rather every belief is formed by some process or other, none of which we have any way of examining. See some of the analogies I've given or modified, perhaps, to understand what I mean. It's special pleading to appeal to beliefs from any belief-forming mechanism(s) over any other, when the reliability of all belief-forming mechanisms is equally inaccessible.

      Third, I'm not sure I understand your point about mechanisms and their being flawed or not. If we have no antecedent reason to think any given belief-forming mechanism even just *usually* produces true beliefs, and we in principle cannot examine belief-forming mechanisms from a position that is not subject to the same concern, would that be good or bad for knowledge?

      I think what you're getting at is related to the point I've made previously concerning antecedent reasons: even if we did have reason to believe that a belief-forming mechanism was reliable, as such belief-forming mechanisms produce contradictory beliefs (either in the same person or others), it's not clear how we wouldn't reject the antecedent reasons themselves or end up special pleading.

      Fourth: I believe mathematics and I believe logic, in the sense that I believe their conclusions. I don't believe that you or I have any *reason* to believe their conclusions. "Nature" (which we can just take as shorthand for "non-truth-oriented processes") produces our mathematical/logical beliefs, as well as our beliefs about our mathematical/logical beliefs, and there's no "me" or "you" over these processes to determine if they're working right, so to speak.

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    2. (cont)
      As for 1+1=2 and "A implies A": if your beliefs about their being true by definition are produced by nature, then according to what I've said, no you don't have a *reason* to think they're true. They may be true by definition, but that doesn't mean you have a reason to believe that they're true by definition. Plenty of things can be true, and yet one might fail to have a reason to believe so (e.g. there are X number of hairs on your head - some number is right, and I could believe that number, but I wouldn't have any reason).

      It may be that it is impossible for "A implies A" or 1+1=2 to be false. I'd say I believe that, but that doesn't mean that one has a reason to believe so. I could have in my pocket some long set of premises and a conclusion, which in fact follows from the premises. Just because those premises do imply that conclusion, that doesn't mean that someone who hasn't even seen them has a reason to believe that they do.

      Fifth: I *don't* say that justification has an empty definition, if I understand your meaning. I'm not sure what the problem is with a word that has nothing corresponding to it in the world. We understand what "unicorn" means, or god, or God, or phlogiston, or geocentrism. I don't mean to use "justification" in any special way, so I'm happy to entertain any possible senses you wish to use the word with.

      Lastly, why do you say my position is self-defeating? It's a consistent form of naturalism, so I don't know how it's self-defeating. (Note: I don't say that perceptual beliefs aren't reliably formed - I say we have no reason to believe one way or the other). If I'm right that my naturalism is consistent and Ben's isn't, then how isn't *his* position self-defeating?

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  14. " They may be true by definition, but that doesn't mean you have a reason to believe that they're true by definition."

    The first example deals with perception:
    Let's say (1a) I have certain perceptions and those perceptions are red. (1b) So a sentence is formed in my mind: (2)'I see something red.'

    My reasons for believing (2) are the facts (1a) and (1b). You might ask for reasons to believe in (1a) and (1b) but I don't think that this makes much sense because these things must be taken as a given.

    "It may be that it is impossible for "A implies A" or 1+1=2 to be false. I'd say I believe that, but that doesn't mean that one has a reason to believe so."

    I'm starting to wonder what exactly you mean with 'having a reason' but I would say that my reason to believe that these sentences are true is that I can't think of a fact that could make this sentence wrong. So the limits of what I can think of define what counts as my reasons.

    Regarding your fifth point, I didn't say that there was any problem with your definition. To put it in a formal way I would define it like this:
    X is justified iff
    (1) there is a person a who believes X,
    (2) a believes or assumes Y1,Y2,...Yn,
    (3) Y1,Y2,...Yn are believes or assumptions that support X.

    We need (1) because justification only makes sense for people. (2) and (3) make clear that a justification is always dependent on a context or a worldview. So I would conclude that instead of saying 'X is justified' you need to say more correctly 'X is justiefied for a in his worldview'. This relativises justifictions as they need to be, because they don't represent facts in this world.

    As for your last point, naturalism is only consistent if it plays by the rules of logic. Because that's what consistent means. Maybe I misunderstood your position, but if somehow you conclude that logic is wrong then your position is self-defeating and contradictory. But I'm still not totally sure that that is what you are aiming for.

    Btw, thanks for the fast reply.

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    1. dietl,

      I aim to please.

      I can ask what reason do we have to think the belief that "I have certain perceptions and those perceptions are red" is ever true, given that this belief is produced by belief-forming processes the reliability of which is inaccessable, and as such are on a par with all belief-forming mechanisms. What do you mean when you say they must be taken as a given?

      However, I needn't even need to ask this. I can simply extend the problem of belief-forming mechanisms to perception-forming mechanisms. Why think perception-forming mechanisms form perceptions that are of whatever sort would be necessary for providing reasons? Perception-forming mechanisms may produce perceptions that play a causal role in survival, but that doesn't mean that they play a role in leading to true beliefs. And what about emotion-forming mechanisms, do these provide reasons? Or "religious-experience"-forming mechanisms?

      As for your claim that "[your] reason to believe that these sentences are true is that [you] can't think of a fact that could make this sentence wrong. So the limits of what [you] can think of define what counts as [your] reasons." --- I don't see why cognitive limitations should constitute reasons. And furthermore, the reliability of the mechanisms responsible for what you do and don't think of with respect what could make a claim false is inaccessible. Why should I think that my inability to think of something is at all indicative of the truth of a claim?

      As for your definition of justification, I'm more or less ok with it as far as it goes. But if you think it causes any problems for my account, please tell me. I can't see that you're doing more than suggesting I tighten up my language.

      As for consistency: a position can be consistent and yet deny that logical reasoning provides any reason to believe conclusions reached thereby. See, for example, the situation I put to Ben:

      Imagine a person who believes the proposition P, and the proposition (P implies logical reasoning doesn't provide any reason to believe conclusions reached thereby) (material conditional). If a further belief is formed, in conformity with modus ponens, that logical reasoning doesn't provide..., this person has formed consistent beliefs.

      So, if my position is anything like this, in arguing that naturalism and having reasons are inconsistent, by rejecting the latter I can have a form of consistent naturalism. There's no contradiction there, but if you think there is, just give the two contradictory claims that I hold.

      As for self-defeating, maybe you can explain what you think it means for a consistent position to be self-defeating. How can consistent naturalism be worse than inconsistent naturalism?

      If you think the belief-forming mechanism of logical reasoning somehow has an elevated status above other belief-forming mechanisms, please explain.

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  15. In moment you have a red perception it is trivially true that 'You have red perceptions.' In contrast it wouldn't be true to say 'I see a red flower' because this assumes that there exists a red flower. The second sentence isn't reliable because the red flower might be an illusion. So you can doubt that what you see is true but you can't doubt that you see something.

    "And what about emotion-forming mechanisms, do these provide reasons? Or "religious-experience"-forming mechanisms?"

    By my definition of 'reason', yes and yes. Emotions can give you reasons for doing or believing something. The same goes for religious experiences and also cognitive limitations. It seems to me that we don't have the same understanding of 'reason'. Just as with my definition for 'justification' with the following I'm not trying to show any problems but to make things clear, for I think "tightening up" languages is very helpful for such discussions. So how do I define 'reasons'?

    X is a reason iff
    (1) there is a person a who believes Y and
    (2) X supports Y.

    So what does it mean for X to support Y (here I'm only speaking of supporting claims)?

    X supports Y iff
    (1) there is a person a who believes Y and
    (2) believing X strengthens a in his/her believe of Y.

    You can add this to the definition above. I could have made it only one definition, but this gives a better line of reasoning.

    I'm sure that this is not what you have in mind when you say 'reason' but let's put it into practice anyway to make clear how I use the term:
    Let's say there is a person named Bob. Bob believes that there is a supernatual being that created the whole universe including himself. But in Bob's bleak worldview this being is evil and cruel. Bob wanders around in his little world and sees a lot of suffering, so a second believe is formed in his mind: 'There is a lot of suffering.' This believe strengthens (and thereby is a reason for) his view that the creator of his universe is evil.

    You see it fits quite well together. Maybe what you have in mind is having a "good reason". Something that leads to certain knowledge or truth. This leads me to two questions: (a) What can reasonably* be doubted? For if something can't be doubted there need to be good reasons for it; (b) What does it mean for a believe to be true?

    As for (a), you could proceed in the same way as Descartes and doubt anything you can. There are (at least) two categories of things that can't be doubted in my view and these are: (a) Tautologies and (b) perceptions themself as I've mentioned above, not to confuse with the interpretation of those perceptions.
    As for perceptions, they are all we have. Every believe and every worldview anyone has ever had must be either be consistent with her/his perceptions or he/she is irrational (not to say crazy). You can be as nihilistic as you can get but there will still be the fact that there is something that calls her-/himself "I" and this I sees, feels, smells, hears and/or tastes something.

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  16. (cont) :-)
    The impossibility of doubting tautologies can be easier or harder to explain. The easy way is this: Can it rain and not rain (at the same time at the same place)? In more general terms. Is it possible for A and non-A to be true at the same time? Most people would say no. A very persistent nihilist might say yes, maybe there is a way but we just can't think of it with our limited mind and maybe one day logic will be proven wrong when indeed it will be raining and not raining.
    So let's get to the harder explaination, which goes in a quite different direction. Before I've given you some definitions of how I use words. These definitions are sentences which may be appropriate/inappropriate or useful/useless but never true or false. By saying you approve of a definition a person expresses the will to use a word in a certain way. But this has nothing to do with any facts. With this in mind it is possible to create new languages. You can even invent rules for these languages, a syntax and a semantic and neither can be said to be true or false because all you did was playing a game with symbols. So within this new language you could categorise the sentences you formed in true and false sentences by whatever rules you see fitting. Those sentences will therefore be true *in your language*. And that's how tautologies are true within the system of logic and how they can't be doubted in the same way as perceptual believes.


    You write: "So, if my position is anything like this, in arguing that naturalism and having reasons are inconsistent,..."

    I think it would be helpful to say what you mean with 'reasons' before continuing with arguing about your position for I don't see how reasons (by my definition) and naturalism are inconsistent.

    "As for self-defeating, maybe you can explain what you think it means for a consistent position to be self-defeating. How can consistent naturalism be worse than inconsistent naturalism?"

    My point about self-defeating was that I thought/think(?) your position is inconsistent. I don't think a position can be consistent and self-defeating at the same time.

    "If you think the belief-forming mechanism of logical reasoning somehow has an elevated status above other belief-forming mechanisms, please explain."

    I believe from my ramblings above it is clear to see what I think of logic but I think elevated still is the wrong word. It is in no way better than any other belief-forming mechanism. As you say, they are all on par, which doesn't mean that they aren't different. They are all special in their own way but the contend is where they differ. The belief-forming mechanisms that deal with decision-making in our lives are oriented towards survival. Our aesthetic believes come from our emotions, our scientific believes are based on our perceptions and logic deals with necessities and possibilities. Don't confuse 'on par' with 'identical'.

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    1. I don't understand why you're talking about doubt. It's not clear how doubt is relevant, but regardless, why is it that doubt about sensation couldn't be produced in an organism along with a sensation? Like I said, though, I don't know what talk of doubt has to do with the conversation.

      Am I right in thinking that you understand reasons to be something that make a person more confident? Something perhaps that reduces doubt? This seems to be what you mean by the word, which isn't really close to the convential usage, which is more what I'm working with. For example, if a person knew that donkeys couldn't fly, that would be a reason to believe that John the Donkey can't fly. Even if one fails to be confident based on what he knows, in this case it would still be a reason.

      So, what do I mean when I say we don't have reasons to think our beliefs our true: simply that nothing from our point of view can be taken as an indication that any belief is true.

      As for a belief being true, I don't have anything special in mind. If you think it makes a difference, say so.

      If you believe that all every belief that might be produced in an organism is on par in terms of there being any indication that it is true, then we're agreed.

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  17. I don't see how your example doesn't fit my definition. The believe that donkeys can't fly reduces the doubt that John the Donkey can't fly. In fact it would contradicting to believe that (1) all donkeys can't fly but (2) John the Donkey (who is also a donkey) can. (1) and (2) can't be true at the same time and a person who understands both sentences and believes them to be true would have cognitive dissonance.

    What would you change in my definition of 'reason' so that it more closely resembles what you mean with it?

    You write: "...nothing from our point of view can be taken as an indication that any belief is true."

    If you look at history you will see that human beings are great at inventing reasons. In fact anything *can* be taken as an indication that any believe is true. I'm speaking of confirmation bias and other related effects. The question must be what is a *justified* indication that any believe is true? This might be a matter of taste. For example I could say that my perceptions justify the believe that there is something other than me that causes these perception. Or if I'm a sceptical person I could say that only if a believe follows logically from an indication that believe is justified. But if one lets nothing count as a justified believe, not even logical truths, then I would have to say this one is irrational or doesn't know what he/she is talking about.

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    1. The point of my example was to try and show what I mean by the word "reason". It may be that with your usage of "reason", the person in the example has a reason, but that's besides the point. You and I are talking about different things when we use the word "reason". I'm not talking about something that increases confidence or doubt. Doubt and confidence are not integral parts of my account.

      If "reason" is understood as I'm using it, and it is something that indicates the truth or likelihood of truth of a proposition or something like that, then I don't see how someone can invent that. I have no problem accepting that someone might take something as a reason or indication of truth, but that doesn't mean that everything one takes to be an indication of truth really is. That's what this whole issue is concerning, in a way: we think we can take things as indications, but we can't.

      You write: "if one lets nothing count as a justified believe, not even logical truths, then I would have to say this one is irrational or doesn't know what he/she is talking about."

      How would you support this claim? If one's position implies that there are no justified beliefs, it would be logically consistent to believe that there are no justified beliefs. And as I've more or less said to both you and Ben, one can say things in conformity with logic while also believing that there are no justified beliefs, so I don't see why irrationality is an appropriate charge. As for not knowing what I'm talking about, is that just a way of saying I'm wrong, or is this a substantive point?

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  18. My understanding of reasons isn'T inconsistent with naturalism. You say yours is. How so? I looked at your arguments but I don'T really get how they achieve what you are proposing.

    What counts as real indications and what doesn't? What is the difference?

    "How would you support this claim?"

    I support this claim by the priciples of logic. If it leads to a contadiction to assume that a certain claim is wrong, then in my view one is justified to say that that claim is true.

    This wasn't meant as a charge against you and with not knowing what one is talking about I only meant not knowing what the words mean and not understanding the context. This has nothing to do with right or wrong.

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    1. First, my argument concerns there being anything we can take as an indication of the truth of our beliefs. That's along the lines of what I mean when I use the word "reason". If you mean something else, then when you use the word you're talking about something different. Similarly, if your understanding of reasons isn't inconsistent with naturalism, great, but that's not what the conversation has been about.

      I think we can agree that substantive disagreements are not solved by using words in different ways. A theist can't prove his position by deciding to understand "God" to mean "my left shoe" or "the universe itself". Of course, he could make an argument given those (sitpulated) meanings, but then he would have changed the subject from the original disagreement about the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, etc...

      Once again, the argument goes something like this: we don't have access to the reliability of our belief-forming mechanisms. More broadly, we don't have access the reliability with respect to any product of any ___-forming mechanisms. Therefore, all beliefs are epistemically on a par, and since we have no antecedent reason to think that our belief-forming mechanisms are reliable, all beliefs are on a par in there being no indication that they are true. There is nothing transcending the belief-forming mechanisms to evaluate them.

      You ask what count as real indications and what don't. I can give you some examples, but I don't know that that will help you if you don't already have a sense of what an indication is. A real indication: smoke is an indication of fire. A not real indication: smoke is an indication of chairs.

      You haven't explained how you support the claim that "if one lets nothing count as a justified believe, not even logical truths, then I would have to say this one is irrational or doesn't know what he/she is talking about."

      You say, implicitly, that letting nothing count as a justified belief leads to a contradiction. What contradiction arises from the claim that there are no justified beliefs? And if naturalism entails that there are no justified beliefs, including the belief that logical reasoning provides reasons, where does that leave us?

      As for what words mean, I would want a demonstration that the denial of the existence of justified beliefs indicates one doesn't know what the words mean. Here's a little thought experiment: if a person believes that his beliefs about logical truths are formed by unreliable processes, should he believe that he is justified in believing P (where P is in fact some logical truth)?

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  19. I really don't see how you reach your conclusions. How does 'all beliefs are epistemically on a par' follow from 'we don't have access to the reliability of our belief-forming mechanisms'? How does 'all beliefs are on a par in there being no indication that they are true' follow from 'we have no antecedent reason to think that our belief-forming mechanisms are reliable'?
    In my view a believe-forming mechanism is irrelevant for the epistemic status of a believe, which was something I said in my first post here.

    I understand your example like this: evertime there is fire, there is also smoke. So A is an indication of B if B implies A? Is that right? Because this connection is a logical connection.

    Okay, I give you a bit more detailed explaination. In my last post I said how logical truths are justified in my view. If someone denies that the impossibility of a claim to be false is a sufficient justification, then there are two possible exlainations for this: (a) he/she doesn't know what I mean with those words (maybe 'doesn't know what he/she is talking about' were the wrong words for this), therefore we are not talking about the same thing; or (b) she/he knows what the words mean but doesn't care about believing contradictory things.

    THe contradiction that arises is the following:
    Definition:
    1. If it is impossible for A to be false, then A is justified.(This trivially true exept you are having a very weird definition of justification)
    2. It is impossible for A to be false. (A being a tautology, this also must be true)
    3. A is justified. (from (1) and (2))

    Let's assume nothing is justified. This lead to 'A is not justified'. Making a modus tollens with (1) leads to: It is possible for a tautology to be false, which is a contradiction.

    "if a person believes that his beliefs about logical truths are formed by unreliable processes, should he believe that he is justified in believing P (where P is in fact some logical truth)?"

    As said before, the processes by which a believe come to being is irrelevant. P can be justified even if it is formed by unreliable processes just like a conclusion can be true with wrong premises.

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    1. How is the impossibility of falsity *justification*? If someone believes I'm a liar, and I tell them a tautology, I don't think they're justified in believing the tautology on the basis of my testimony. And I don't see why the belief is justified if it's formed on the basis of nothing at all. If someone were to recognize that something was a tautology, then yes, they would be justified in believing that it was true, but they're not justified just because it is a tautology. How is logical impossibility anything like justification if the fact of something's logical necessity/impossibility is not accessible to someone?

      However, I don't think this all makes such a difference anyway. Let's say that tautological beliefs are justified. It's still the case that our beliefs about which statements are tautologies are produced by mechanisms we have no reason to trust. So we have no reason to believe that any of our beliefs are tautological. In general I'm not denying that our beliefs are true, nor am I denying that any of our beliefs are tautological, we just have no reason to believe that they are.

      If you don't think how a belief is formed is at all relevant to whether or not we should trust it, then I don't know what to say. If someone comes and says "I read in my horoscope that [insert some long complicated tautology] and that [insert some true historical fact]", is a person justified in believing those things? I think the answer is no.

      I don't think you quite understood my example about indications of truth. It's not about a logical connection. Smoke doesn't always accompany fire, nor does fire always accompany smoke, but seeing smoke is a reason to think there is a fire.

      Regarding your first question: all beliefs are epistemically on par given that they are formed by mechanisms whose reliability is inaccessible, because given that we have no reason to think that any belief was formed by a reliable mechanism, we have no reason to believe that any belief is true.

      Regarding your second question, you slightly misunderstood my point, which builds off the first that I just clarified regarding all beliefs on a par. The second point supports or perhaps is necessary for the first: we have no antecedent reason to trust any belief-forming mechanism, so (as above) having no access to the reliability, all beliefs are on a par.

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  20. So if you believe someone is a liar you automatically believe that what he says is wrong? Why can't a liar not sometimes say the truth. Is a liar someone who only says false things?

    There are methods for finding out if something is a tautology, even a very complex one. But why mention complex ones? What about easy tautologies like 'A implies A'. I could draw a truth table for it.

    How can seeing smoke be a reason to think that there is fire and the impossibility of a believe to be wrong not be a reason to believe it. The former is a quite loose connection while the latter is the strongest there is. The stronger connection should make for a better reason than the weaker one, don't you think?

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    1. You write: "So if you believe someone is a liar you automatically believe that what he says is wrong? Why can't a liar not sometimes say the truth. Is a liar someone who only says false things?"

      How is this relevant to what I said? No, I don't believe the opposite of what people I believe are liars say. I withhold judgment.

      You ask why I mention complex tautologies. The point is to offer counterexamples to your claim that if a claim can't be false, then it's justified. Well, complicated tautologies can't be false, but if a liar tells me that P is true, where P is a complicated tautology, I'm *not* justified in believing P. Similarly if someone tells me that their horoscope told them that P is true.

      Why would methods for finding out if something is a tautology matter, if the very fact that something is a tautology is sufficient for justification, as you say?

      Perhaps the disagreement can be removed if we can take into account a distinction between 1) there being a reason, and 2) a person having a reason. So something being a tautology is a reason, but a person doesn't necessarily have that reason, say if they read that the statement was true in their horoscope.

      Your final paragraph can be approached with this distinction in mind. *Seeing* smoke is having a reason, just like *seeing* that something is a tautology is having a reason. But that there is smoke doesn't mean I have a reason to believe there is fire, no more than a statement's being a tautology means I have a reason to believe it. Imagine that there's smoke in some woods in Alaska right now at point XYZ. Is someone in Alabama who has had no contact, direct or indirect, with the smoke justified in believing that there's fire at XYZ?

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    2. I agree with your last two paragraphs. I don't believe reasons exist independent from people. A person might not know that P can't be false, which means she would have no reason to believe P.

      So with the methods a person can find out if something is a tautology and therefore justified, which would provide this person with a reason to believe it.

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    3. Ok, so now the issue is whether or not someone can "find out if something is a tautology". My argument is that, like all claims of understanding, finding out, knowing, determining, etc., this claim is false. Why? Because any belief about whether or not P is a tautology, or whether or not some method has shown that P is a tautology, will be formed my a belief-forming mechanism the reliability of which is inaccessible and which we have no antecedent reason to trust. So, we have no more reason to think that our beliefs about tautologies are true than any other belief.

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  21. Sorry, I hope you don't take this personal, but in my view this is nonsense.

    What do you mean, when you say that the reliability is inaccessible? Do you mean that we don't fully understand this believe-forming mechanism? Is it possible that one day we might figure it out or is this impossible?

    What about computers? Don't you think it would be possible to make a computer programm that is truth-oriented? Is there a reason not to trust a fully understood automatic process?

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    1. dietl,
      No offense taken.

      When I say that the reliability of our belief-forming mechanisms is inaccessible, I mean that we have no way of checking their reliability.

      Of course, I grant that we have beliefs about the reliability of our belief-forming mechanisms. What I deny is that we have any reason for these (or any) beliefs, as the reliability of the mechanisms responsible for even *these* beliefs is inaccessible. Our beliefs about our reliability are on no better ground than the "lower-level" beliefs whose reliability we might wish to know about.

      So, we might actually have correct beliefs about our reliability. We might in the future come to have correct beliefs about our reliability. But in principle, given how our beliefs come about, we are unable to have a reason to think they are correct.

      As for your questions about computers, I'm not sure what the relevance is. No, because naturalism is true, there is no teleology, by definition. A computer could be reliable in producing beliefs, though, and perhaps that's what you were wondering about.

      But here is where the distinction made earlier between there *being* a reason and an organism *having* a reason is perhaps relevant. If a belief-forming mechanism is reliable, that might *be* a reason to believe the outputs of such a mechanism. But since we don't have access to the reliability, i.e. we have no way of determining whether or not a belief-forming mechanism is or isn't reliable, we don't *have* a reason.

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  22. Okay, I tried hard to understand your position, but I think I can't. We have very different views on what counts as reliable, on the implications of naturalism and on logic to name a few things. Let's leave it at that. It was nonetheless interesting to dicuss with you, so thank you for your time.

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    1. Ok. I doubt we disagree on what counts as reliable. What usually gets it right sounds about right.

      In any case, thanks for jumping in and adding to the discussion.

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  23. aTest,

    I think you could get around the circularity objections if you were clear that your argument is an internal criticism of naturalism, indeed a reductio ad absurdum argument. You might be trying to show that naturalism’s assumptions, not necessarily yours, lead to a contradiction, and so naturalism would be untenable. But this isn’t exactly how you’ve framed your argument; instead, you’ve been concluding that the naturalist should be agnostic or skeptical of the idea that any belief is more rational than any other one. If the naturalist accepts logic, though, and naturalism is shown to be self-contradictory, because naturalism says we should be rational and you then show that rationality self-destructs, the proper thing to do is to give up naturalism.

    Again, I’m not going through your van Inwagen-based argument if there’s a good chance yours inherits the same flaw. I don’t know who technically has the burden of proof here, but because I don’t understand exactly how the flaw in his argument works, I’m not going to invest the time researching this. It’s your argument and I’m just alerting you that there’s a likelihood your argument is flawed in the same way, since you grant you modeled your argument on his.

    Regarding omniscience and the antecedent reasons, your argument is that all beliefs come from some source and that because our knowledge stops at that source (we lack antecedent reasons), we never have a reason to fully trust our beliefs. So suppose we tried to learn more about the source of a belief, thus increasing our knowledge of where the belief comes from. Since our knowledge would still be limited (we’re not omniscient), you could then reiterate your argument and point out that now the belief would have an enlarged source, as it were, given our increased knowledge, but we’d still lack antecedent reasons to trust that earlier source in the causal chain that leads to the belief. Thus, you’re arguing in effect that because we don’t know everything (all the links in the causal chain), we don’t know anything. Like Descartes, you set the bar for knowledge too high to be practical. That’s what a naturalist would tell you.

    I see your distinction between seeming to have knowledge and actually having some. The difference would depend on the epistemic criteria that rationally justify the belief, given that knowledge is, at a minimum, justified true belief. And the point is that your criteria are set too high, like Descartes’s. For a belief to be justified in your sense, given your argument about the sources of beliefs, the believer would have to understand the entire causal chain that brought her belief into being. Otherwise, as soon as her understanding stops at some source of the belief, the skeptic can say she can’t yet trust that source and thus the belief, because she lacks an external vantage point to confirm that her belief was caused in a satisfactory way. You’re asking for a perspective so external that it encompasses the universe. You think no belief is justified within nature unless we confirm that nature can produce a rational belief, by stepping outside nature and confirming the belief in a supernatural fashion. This is what Descartes is supposed to have done by resting beliefs on transcendent reason and God.

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    1. I still don’t see the force of your objection against natural selection as the basis of reliable perception. Of course natural selection entails that normal perception is reliable. Otherwise, species wouldn’t evolve by natural selection; they’d tend to die before passing the genes on to the next generation, because reliable perception is much more advantageous in the wild than the unreliable, misleading kind.

      If by “garbage” you mean body parts that have no function, I agree that there may be byproducts of functional traits, or what Gould called spandrels. But the sense organs and the brain aren’t spandrels. How do we know that? Because there’s a good biological theory of how they evolved by natural selection. Honestly, I think you’re tilting at windmills on this one.

      You say this evolutionary argument for perception’s reliability is circular, since it presupposes observation (the reliability of perception). Technically, you’re right, but we’ve already covered this. Science is methodologically naturalistic, meaning that scientists accept observation, reason, and so on on a pragmatic basis. Their ultimate justification, then, is the appeal to the best explanation (abduction), given certain epistemic and aesthetic values. The scientific picture of the world is better (more useful) than any alternative, including the skeptic’s according to which no one really knows anything and all beliefs are as good as any other ones.

      I’m not sure this has come out yet, but I’d like to be clear. Are you challenging naturalism, because you prefer theistic supernaturalism? Or are you yourself a naturalist and you just don’t think many people understand the implications of those assumptions?

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    2. Benjamin,

      I’m not entirely sure what you’re referring to by “circularity objections”. I don’t think you’ve claimed that there’s a circularity to what I’ve written before, so I don’t know if this is a new objection or something you’ve mentioned already. I take it that you’re referring to, and perhaps simply meant to write, your previous inconsistency objection.

      In response: I’m not critiquing naturalism. I’m critiquing the conjunction of naturalism with certain other additional propositions. So no, I’m not showing that naturalism leads to any contradiction. I have shown, though, that naturalism in conjunction with the proposition that there are reasons to think any particular belief is true, leads to a contradiction, namely *there are reasons to think any particular belief is true* and *it’s not the case that there are reasons to think an particular belief is true*. But that’s not a problem for naturalism on its own, which is why I’ve said in the past that what I’m arguing for is a *consistent* naturalism.

      So let me rephrase an earlier question: if naturalism&P implies a contradiction, but naturalism&~P doesn’t imply a contradiction, what’s the thing to do?

      But I’m not sure you are using the word naturalism to mean quite the same think I mean by it, so let me clarify (perhaps unnecessarily): by naturalism I mean the thesis that the only things that exist are natural. Obviously this isn’t very enlightening if someone’s unclear on what “natural” means, but my point is to clarify that this is all I use the word for. So, naturalism doesn’t “sa[y] we should be rational”, for example. Naturalism is a claim about what exists, and perhaps it entails things about rationality or what have you, but these sorts of entailment claims would require demonstration. Of course, if by rational you mean something like conform to the rules of modern logic, both of us presumably are being rational and we needn’t think that I’m suggesting irrationality.

      As for your van Inwagen point, I’m not sure if you have an objection to my argument. If what you’ve said amounts to the mere possibility that my argument shares something in common with his argument which he rejected at some point, that doesn’t seem like an objection. If you have some reason to think mine “inherits the same flaw”, please tell. Furthermore, if the problem your referring to is agglomeration, do you think none of the fixes in the Stanford article offered take care of it? I’m not telling you to go read the article, but I don’t see how what you have is anything close to an objection. If Aristotle had an argument of the form P, P->Q, therefore Q, and I have an argument of the same form, is my argument bad if Aristotle’s happens to bad? Without something more than maybe my argument falls prey to the same thing van Inwagen’s falls prey, I don’t see what the problem is. And again, my argument amounts to like 7 lines. If a critique of someone else’s argument helps in a critique of mine, great, but a 7-liner is manageable on its own in articulating objections. Anyway, it's not clear how important this 7-liner was for me anyway. If you think you harm my overall argument in anyway by questioning it, please say how.

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    3. (cont)
      Regarding your objection that I’m requiring omniscience:

      First, you’re slightly mischaracterizing my position. My position is that because all beliefs come from sources which we can have no reason to believe are reliable, we have no reason to trust any of our beliefs. You characterize my position as including our knowledge stopping at the source, but I don’t know where this knowledge arises which ends at the source. I agree that we have beliefs, and in addition we even have beliefs that go *past* the source. I believe that my belief-forming mechanisms are reliable, and furthermore I believe they’re reliable because of the way I think they produce beliefs. I think my perceptual-belief belief-forming mechanisms are reliable because of what I believe about light and eyes etc. I just deny that I have any *reason* to think any of these beliefs are true.

      It sounds like, again, you’re assuming a transcendent position, when you write “suppose we tried to learn more about the source of a belief, thus increasing our knowledge of where the belief comes from.” By this did you mean something *other* than, suppose another belief is formed in an organism by some belief-forming mechanism? If you did mean something else, what did you mean?

      And if you didn’t mean something other than this, I don’t see how this really has to do with omniscience. Because every belief is subject to the objection I’m raising, namely being the product of a source whose reliability is inaccessible, the problem isn’t some lack of omniscience, but the lack of *any* knowledge that could get us going. If we had any reason to trust the sources of our belief, that would be helpful, but we don’t have *any*.

      And so similarly I think your emphasis on antecedent reasons is misplaced. We have no reasons primarily because the reliability of all belief-forming mechanisms is inaccessible.

      Let’s say I granted (for the sake of argument) that the causal chains relevant for belief-production are one link long. My argument would still go through: we have no reason to think the sources of our beliefs are reliable, so we have no reason to think any of our beliefs (including beliefs about causal chains resulting in beliefs) are true.

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    4. (cont)

      As for setting the bar too high, I suppose that’s true by definition if we’re talking about the bar for knowledge. But that’s hardly an objection, otherwise every argument could be objected to: “your argument would make it the case that my position is false, so your argument is setting the bar too high, so your argument is flawed.” And as for practicality, I’m not sure I see how my position is impractical. I deny knowledge, and yet I have all the same scientific and other beliefs as the next guy. I don’t commit suicide or go around murdering people just because I don’t think knowledge exists. Is your objection kind of like the objection, “Why don’t atheists go around raping people”? If so, I’m not sure this is a good objection.

      As for my criteria being like Descartes’: I think that if I have no reason to trust a source, then I have no reason to think that beliefs coming from the source are true. Descartes’ criterion had something to do with indubitability, if I’m not mistaken. What’s the connection? Do you think that in the absence of any reason to trust a belief-source, it’s acceptable to trust it? If I’ve set the bar too high, please explain, in terms of the bar as I’ve set it.

      Additionally, I think you’re misconstruing what I’m doing when you write: “You’re asking for a perspective so external that it encompasses the universe. You think no belief is justified within nature unless we confirm that nature can produce a rational belief, by stepping outside nature and confirming the belief in a supernatural fashion. This is what Descartes is supposed to have done by resting beliefs on transcendent reason and God.”

      I’m not asking for anything, I’m just saying that we can’t get at the reliability, and so we have no reason. It may be that to get at the reliability certain things would have to be the case which in fact are not the case, but it’s hardly an objection to my position to say that I’m “requiring” stuff that’s false or impossible, and therefore something’s wrong with my argument. That’s like objection to an argument that angels don’t exist (but that maybe they could if there were a god), by saying that so-and-so is requiring the existence of a god, but that’s raising the bar too high. J.L. Mackie argues against the existence of objective moral values, but he “concede[s] that if the requisite theological doctrine could be defended, a kind of objective ethical prescriptivity could be thus introduced.” Is he “requiring” the existence of a god in order for there to be morality? No, he argues against its existence, and then notes that other systems, which he thinks can’t be defended, could perhaps provide the necessary basis. But *that’s* hardly a starting point for an objection to Mackie.

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    5. (cont)
      Regarding what you wrote about natural selection, you’re not responding to what I’ve written. I’ve written that there’s a circularity to the sort of argument from natural selection that you’re trying to make, and that this circularity can be employed in ways that doesn’t support the belief-forming mechanisms you wish to single out as reliable.

      You say that “we’ve covered this”, and then reference science’s being methodologically naturalistic. Let me ask for a clarification: are you simply describing science here, or are you saying that we have a reason to think that science gets it right? I believe that science proceeds in the way you say it does. The beliefs I hold about scientific matters are the beliefs that science is said to support. But the issue at hand isn’t what we believe, but whether or not there’s *reason to think* what we believe is true.

      If all you’re doing is describing science, then, you’re not addressing the issue at hand. Sure, scientists believe that observational-belief belief-forming mechanisms are reliable. Do they have a reason for so thinking? Sure, they think the processes responsible for inferences they make are reliable. Do they have a reason for thinking so? If, rather, you are saying that we have reason to think science gets it right (and not merely that we do think science gets it right, which I grant), what’s the reason? Are scientists’ beliefs produced by sources the reliability of which we have some special access too? Are the belief-forming mechanisms responsible for our scientific beliefs special, and if so how?

      I have already responded to your appeals to “best explanation”, if you think my responses fail, please say how. If our beliefs *about* what best explains something or other are formed by belief-forming mechanisms the reliability of which is inaccessible, how is an appeal to best explanation supposed to help?

      I’ve also responded to supposed pragmatic considerations in the past. If you think there is a problem with my responses, please say what this problem is. Are beliefs about what is useful or helpful formed by belief-forming mechanisms the reliability of which is accessible or not? Are the belief-forming mechanisms responsible for beliefs *about* what is useful or helpful different in this regard in comparison to the belief-forming mechanisms responsible for any other beliefs? And furthermore, as I mentioned only just earlier, I don’t see how my position is impractical. I don’t believe that all beliefs are as useful as any other. I can do everything you can, but be consistent at the same time.

      Just intuitively, is it any surprise that nature might produce in me all the same sorts of beliefs it produces in you about science and how to do and make and produce things, but just not give me the belief that we have reason to think these beliefs are true?

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    6. (cont)

      Let me generalize:
      My objection is, again, that all beliefs come from sources which we can have no reason to believe are reliable, and we have no reason to trust any of our beliefs. If someone thinks trusting beliefs from sources the reliability of which is inaccessible is ok, then either they will special plead for their own beliefs/belief-sources, or they will accept it’s ok to trust any belief.

      If I’m putting forward an objection that applies to *all* beliefs, how are you going to respond by offering another belief?

      It’s like if someone was challenged on something like the parting of the Red Sea, and then appealed to some passage in a different book of the Bible to support the belief that the Red Sea was parted. If the Bible as a whole is being questioned, you can’t simply appeal to passages to support other passages.

      Similarly, if my objection is a principled objection that applies to all beliefs, how can appealing to one belief to support another work?

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    7. I think I'm going to have to give you the last word on this, aTest. We've gone over your argument in some detail now and my goal wasn't to show that the case you make against naturalism fails, but to show you some criticisms a naturalist would likely make. I've done that, although clearly you still don't believe those criticisms count for much. I still recommend that you think more about the possible weaknesses of your skepticism/agnosticism. Indeed, that's the Socratic spirit. We should all be humble enough to try to continually improve our arguments by thinking of possible objections to them.

      One other thought, though. In your most recent formulations, you talk a lot about the need for "trust" in our beliefs. You say we have no reason to trust them, because their source isn't reliable. I don't know that rationality need be a matter of trust. If a belief is irrational, that means it doesn't live up to certain epistemic criteria. Maybe it violates a rule of logic or some fallacy has been committed. If so, the belief isn't as good as some other belief. And that's where irrationality ends. There's a category error of saying we also need to trust our beliefs. When we say our car or our computer is trusty or reliable, we're engaging in some anthropomorphism. It's people who are trusty, not things. Things are what they are according to natural laws.

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    8. I'm sorry to hear this, but it's been going for a while now.

      I am certainly open to criticism and looking for ways to modify my argument. And while I don't think any of the points you've made demonstrate flaws in what I've said, I have responded to your points because that's part of the process of improvement. I'm sorry to hear that you won't be responding to the points I most recently made.

      As for your last point, which you haven't made before, I'm willing to grant that my language was sloppy. But I think it can be reworked pretty straightforwardly to avoid what you take to be a problem. Instead of "trusting our beliefs", read "think our beliefs are correct." Of course, in having a belief, we are "thinking our belief is correct", but the point is that there's no *reason* to think any belief is correct. And that's compatible with thinking a belief is true. So, the epistemic criteria being violated in every case of belief would be something like, "If, as far as you know, the reliability of one source may be equal to the reliability of another, you may not make truth claims about the products of one but not about the other," and "If you have no reason to think a belief-source is reliable, you are not rational in believing according to that source."

      Lastly, I would note that I have no argued against naturalism. I've argued against certain a certain position that takes naturalism as one of its parts, akin to a position of naturalism + heaven.

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    9. Thanks for the hospitality and good conversation.

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