Let’s start with the good news: The God Debates maintains a civil tone amid the often shrill abuse of the real-world God debates. Nothing like the late Christopher Hitchen’s somewhat hysterical contention that teaching children religion is equivalent to child-abuse; no suggestion of Harris’s ominously totalitarian claim that even tolerating religious belief and freedom is intolerable; none of Dawkins’ withering scorn for philosophical texts and arguments he obviously hasn’t read and just as obviously doesn’t understand; and no sign of Dennett’s insulting references to atheists as “brights” (which, by implication, relegates Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Whitehead and Goedel — among others — to the “dims”).
With The God Debates, a new tone emerges, and for this we are grateful. This book sets a better example for atheist-believer discussions — civil and courteous. Yet, for the most part, tone is often as far as it goes, for welcome as it is, Shook’s civil tone does not improve the quality of his arguments. Though he tries to embed his contentions in a typology of religious and secular beliefs and, thereby, tries to give them an aura of scientific objectivity and rigor, all too often he gives straw-man representations of religious and philosophical viewpoints opposed to his.
To be more precise, he generally presents religious and theist philosophical arguments in their weakest and even silliest forms and then puts on a show of refuting them. This is good strategy for scoring easy — and cheap — points in a high school debate, but it is a poor way to discover truth. To actually find truth, it is necessary to analyze the strongest arguments from both sides.
If Shook has found these straw-man arguments somewhere, he should reference them to demonstrate that reasonable philosophers and/or theologians have actually advanced the theist arguments as he presents them. I doubt he will be able to do that. In my opinion, he has made up his semi-syllogisms as examples of how he believes certain theist arguments run. If his belief is sincere, then obviously he does not understand many of these arguments. If his belief is insincere, then he is presenting straw-man parodies and — to that extent — is deceiving his readers.
Here is an example of Shook’s method at work, found in premises #7 and #8 in his list of same:
- We couldn’t enjoy experiencing the world without consciousness.
- God would want us to experience the world.
Conclusion: God must exist to have endowed our brains with consciousness.(1)
Shook’s tactics are pretty obvious. First, he de-contextualizes the theist argument, stripping it of vital background information; then, he introduces premises irrelevant to proving that God must exist as the origin of consciousness; finally, he leads to a non-sequitur conclusion. The above premises are irrelevant because they are about the alleged wishes of God, and the alleged necessity of consciousness for enjoyment. Interesting topics, to be sure, but there is no logically necessary connection to God’s existence — even as the origin of consciousness.
As presented by Shook, the theist argument is silly. The problem is, that’s not how the theist argument actually works.
The context is the difficulties of explaining consciousness in strictly physical terms — a debate very much alive in our day.(2) The notion that mind-consciousness is identical to brain is far from settled. Moreover, as as Wittgenstein pointed out decades ago, a computer is not conscious in the way people are. It does not reflect, ponder, reconsider, regret, hope, care, question and hypothesize — all of which are aspects of human consciousness or mind. A computer will not even do an analogue of weeping if I type in, “Dear Computer, although we’ve been intimately connected for six years, I’m going to terminate you and our relationship one minute from now.” The computer doesn’t have a mind-consciousness to know what that means and will go on functioning just as before — not because it doesn’t care but because it is incapable of doing anything else. It doesn’t even ‘not-care.’
The habit of ascribing consciousness to computers is just a scientific misapplication of a literary technique called personification. Personification is not intended to be taken literally — and one would expect scientists and philosophers to know better.
Let’s look closer. The meaning of the ‘break-up’ message to my computer is not in the physical blips on the screen; no amount of scientific analysis of those blips will even begin to hint at the existence of any meaning. However, say those words to your spouse and you’ll get a different response because he or she knows what they mean — and will react accordingly. Your spouse has a mind-consciousness capable of comprehending a non-physical meaning. This mind-consciousness must be non-physical because if it were not, we would be back at the ‘electronic blip problem.’ The brain, after all, is only a ‘meat-computer’ using electro-chemical blips that are also inherently devoid of meaning.
To cut to the chase: if the twin problems of mind-consciousness and meaning lack — even in principle — a physical explanation, then it is not inherently illogical to propose a non-physical entity as the origin of a non-physical phenomenon. Since physical nature cannot explain it, then perforce we must seek a non-physical origin. Eventually, this leads us to God as the origin of consciousness. The problem cannot be solved by simply more scientific, i.e. physicalist research. Put in this context, the theist’s proposition is eminently reasonable.
Once we have established a non-physical origin for consciousness, we can then go on to talk about different concepts of that non-physical entity (that some call ‘God’) and its alleged wishes for humankind. We can also go on to consider why it might make consciousness necessary to enjoy the world or if God wishes us to enjoy it. But for now, it suffices to note that Shook shoe-horns these topics into his faux syllogism to set it up as a straw-man or parody.
Next time: Shook on pseudo-cosmology— is God the necessary condition for the Universe?
=================== References ==================
1 John R Shook, The God Debates, p. 88.
2 See the latest issue of Philosophy Now, Nov-Dec. 2011.The theme is “Brains and Minds.”