Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Some thoughts about 'atheism', 'theism' and 'agnosticism'

It is common for people to describe themselves in relation to the question of the existence of God as 'atheist', 'theist' or 'agnostic'. Even before we get into the interminable debate as to whether there really is such a thing as God, I think there are a few things to be clarified in terms of how these labels are used. The following points are criticisms of what I take to be common assumptions concerning the use of the terms 'atheist', 'theist' and 'agnostic'.

It is popular among self-confessed atheists to define atheism as ‘lack of belief in anything supernatural.’ This is handy for the atheist, since in the famous debate over where the burden of proof lies, it is a common argument to claim that the burden does not lie with the atheist, who has a mere lack of belief in God; rather, the burden is on the theist to give evidence for his / her positive assertion that there is a God. However, ‘lack of belief in God’ is a very bad definition of atheism, since it is true of rocks, camels and Christmas trees, which lack all beliefs, including about God. It would be an abuse of the word ‘atheism’ to refer to a rock as an atheist, so this definition clearly will not suffice. It is also insufficient for distinguishing atheists from agnostics, who also lack belief in God. Though it may suit the atheist in debate to characterize his / her position in terms of lack of belief, rather than a positive belief of the same type as theism, it is very hard to accurately do so. 'A belief that there is no God', which sounds more traditional, also sounds like a more accurate definition of 'atheism'.

There are so many uses of the word ‘God’ that the term is practically ambiguous. Restricting ‘theism’ to ‘Christian monotheism’ as is commonly done is too restrictive, since there exists monotheisms in many other cultures. The scale of religious conviction is a continuum, with very weak theisms positing the existence of a creating and sustaining ‘mother nature’ type force, and very strong theisms positing the existence of a single, powerful divine mind. Perhaps we might define theism as ‘belief in a creator and sustainer of the universe.’ However, this is too loose: belief in a scientific law (common to theists and non-theists alike) might well be held to fall under this definition. Should we then include creative intelligence in the definition of theism? No, since ‘intelligence’ is also ambiguous, and there are many theists who do not think of God as a giant, powerful disembodied mind (quite a crude conception), but something more abstract. 

Agnosticism, taken as an ‘I don’t know’ position, is commonly criticized as being too weak, a kind of cowardly middle-man position held by the person who lacks the conviction to commit to either atheism or theism. However, the strength of an intellectual position should not be judged on the content of the belief itself, but on the amount of assessment, deliberation and criticism that has been invested in that position, and the strength to which the belief is held. Therefore, one can be a very strong agnostic if, after deliberating long and hard and weighing up the evidence, one decides that we don’t know / can’t know enough to assent to God’s existence or reject God’s existence. It's clear that agnosticism can be as firm a positive belief about the world as atheism or theism. At the very least, an agnostic must have considered the question of God's existence, if only for a second.

'I don't care'
It is also widely held that ‘atheism’, ‘agnosticism’ and ‘theism’ (or ‘religious belief’ for the purposes of this point) exhaust the possibilities concerning intellectual attitudes about God. The question ‘are you atheist, theist or agnostic?’ implies that one must fit somewhere here, perhaps on a continuum between strong atheist and strong theist. Richard Dawkins, in 'The God Delusion', introduces a similar 7-point scale. However, this is simply false, since the three categories are not exhaustive. This is because, as argued above, agnosticism is a positive belief about the world, the agnostic having actively concluded that, based on the evidence, we simply don’t (or can’t) know if God exists or not, based on at least a shred of consideration of the question. Agnosticism does not, therefore, cover the sizeable group of people who haven’t for a minute considered the question of God at all: ‘I don’t know’ is not the same as ‘I don’t care.’ He / she who has not to any extent considered God’s existence will have no belief about God’s existence, and will have come to no conclusions; therefore, to label such a person ‘agnostic’, as is popular, would be false. This person has not joined the debate; therefore such labeling is not justified. Rather than create a new term for people who have never considered God’s existence (such as ‘I-don’t-care-ists’ or some more catchy name), it is more sensible, I think, to consider such people as located outside the continuum from atheist to theist. Therefore, the three categories ‘atheist’, ‘agnostic’ and ‘theist’ are not exhaustive, and should not be used as if they are: they describe only a sub-set of human beings.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Colin McGinn on the limits of explanation

McGinn: mean but fair
There has been a widespread assumption in philosophy, and other disciplines, that the problems of the world are there waiting to be solved, and that indeed they can and will be solved by human beings. The problem of consciousness, for example: though consciousness remains mysterious from a scientific perspective, philosophers have put forward a range of views and arguments for both physicalism and dualism (see, for example, Chalmers on zombies) which seek to explain consciousness, or at least provide the basis for thinking that we could explain it. 

However, Colin McGinn, a philosopher currently at the University of Miami, thinks otherwise. McGinn has formulated ‘Transcendental Naturalism’: the view that due to our biological and evolutionary background, we are inherently limited to some extent in our cognitive abilities, and thus there will be problems (both scientific and philosophical) that we will never be able to solve or explain in our current status as human beings. To many, this view will at first sight appear extremely pessimistic, but I think it holds a lot of plausibility. 

McGinn describes conscious beings as each having a ‘cognitive space.’ This is analogous to our perceptual space, or our physical space: areas within which we can ‘move’, so to speak. Our perceptual space is our visual and auditory field, outside which we cannot see or hear anything. Our physical space is the space within which we can move, and outside of which we cannot. So too with our ‘cognitive space’ - the intellectual area within which we can think, reason, and form concepts; and outside which, we cannot reason. 

We have cognitive limitations just as
we have perceptual and spatial limitations
If we accept that we are cognitively limited in this sense (and this seems likely, since as McGinn states, ‘we are not Gods, cognitively speaking’), then we should expect that some of the problems of philosophy we will be unable to solve. McGinn most famously treats the problem of consciousness as such a problem, not unsolvable in principle, but unsolvable to us, due to its solution falling outside our cognitive space. After 2000 years of thought and experiment, the basic nature of consciousness continues to remain mysterious: it is a Hard problem with a capital H, and raises a significant explanatory gap. The natural explanation for this mystery, McGinn argues, is not that consciousness itself is inherently mysterious, or is made up of new ‘mental, non-physical stuff’, as Descartes thought. Consciousness is probably as grounded in the physical world as tables or chairs. However, its nature lies outside our cognitive space: our biologically limited concept-forming abilities do not extend to grasping it. We can no more understand consciousness than a slug can understand mathematics. 

McGinn also applies his transcendental naturalist view to other problems, such as the problem of Free Will (a response also shared with Noam Chomsky). On reflection, these conclusions may be extremely disappointing: after all, if we agree with McGinn that these problems are in principle unsolvable to us, then we must admit that they could only in principle be solved by a higher intellectual race, 1000s of years of evolution in the future. This is not a nice conclusion to draw, certainly if one is a philosopher. 

However, as is often pointed out, the unpleasant-ness of a view is not a reason not to hold it, especially if one has good philosophical reasons to hold it. And I think we do: why assume that we are intellectually so superior as to solve profound philosophical problems such as the problem of consciousness? Our powers must stop somewhere; and there is good reason to think that consciousness does indeed lie outside our cognitive space. It’s not all so bleak though; McGinn’s view does allow the physicalist/materialist a good response to the arguments for dualism drawn from the explanatory gap between the mental and the physical. The explanatory gap exists not because there is a gap in the world, between physical and mental stuff; it exists because there is a gap in our cognitive abilities to grasp the physical world, and the conscious states that arise from it.

McGinn's more substantial defence of his position as applied to consciousness can be found here, in his classic paper.

Sources: Colin McGinn, 'Can We Solve The Mind-Body Problem?' and Problems in Philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry
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