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Book Review: “The Knower and the Known” by Stephen Parrish – Part 1

kk-parrishWhat is the mind? Are humans purely physical beings? What are we to make of physicalist/materialist philosophies of the mind? Do these debates have any relevance for the existence of God?

Stephen Parrish seeks to answer these questions (and more) in his work, The Knower and the Known (hereafter KK). Perhaps most importantly, Parrish explores issues which range beyond the philosophy and mind and get at the foundations of ontology. The tome therefore provides insights not only into a wide range of topics related to philosophy of mind but also provides applications into other fields.

The work is split into two major sections. The first is an exploration of physicalist/materialist theories of mind; the second is an exploration of consciousness and how theism provides the best explanation for our phenomenal consciousness (among other things). We shall explore these in order. In this post, I shall focus upon Parrish’s critique of physicalism.


Parrish introduces the major physicalist theories related to the mind-body problem. These include reductionism, eliminativism, supervenience, and emergence. In order to make sense of the claim that the mind is a purely physical substance, it is important to come to an understanding of what it means to be “physical,” and Parrish cites numerous philosophers in order to come to a fairly simple working definition: “to be a material object (to be composed of matter) is ultimately to have certain kinds of causal power over certain areas” (69). The definition must, necessarily, be more complex. Thus, various aspects of dimension, space, and the like are explored. Then, KK provides an explanation of the standard materialist/physicalist view of reality, which is essentially that “everything that exists… can be located within space and time…” (85, Parrish’s definition cites that of C. Koons, and is also lengthier, but for the purpose of this review I have left it at this).

The nature of physicalism must also be understood in order to analyze the claims of physicalists. How is it, exactly, that the physical is to account for the mental? Parrish explores numerous ways proposed to explain physically the connection. These are centered around various proposed psycophysical laws, which hold that there are certain ways in which conscious states relate relation to other physical states. There have been many different proposals about how these laws might work.

According to the nomological theory, there is a lawlike correlation between conscious and other physical states. A nomological theorist would note the correlation between neurons firing in the brain and various mental states. The proposal would then lead to a law of correlation (and perhaps causation) for brain states b1, b2, and b3 with conscious states c1, c2, and c3. Parrish notes a number of problems with this theory, however. Most notably is the fact that there are sometimes different patterns of neurons firing for the same thought. Of course, a physicalist could counter that there are different laws for these different patterns as well. In that case, notes Parrish, “there would have to be laws to regulate the relation of every brain state with the relevant phenomenological aspect of thought to which it is correlated” (89-90). Of course, this becomes even more problematic when one considers that there is an infinite set of phenomenological aspects of our consciousness. That is, we can focus our minds around thinking of numbers and continue counting from one to a billion and beyond. For nomological theory to be correct, there must be a specific brain state for each of these thoughts (along with whatever different brain states would need to exist for the variations which can produce the same number). So there would then need to be an infinite set of laws to account for our mental life.

Yet there is another difficulty, for “since it seems possible for different types of brains to have the same conscious phenomenal thought, and every brain is constructed somewhat differently from every other brain, there would have to be even more laws that accounted for conscious items to accommodate all of the brain states of all the different brains” (90). To say that such a theory of mind begins to make a bloated metaphysics seems something of an understatement. And this is not to even begin to consider the possibility of other intelligent life in the universe, which would also need these lawlike relations for governing their conscious states.

And all of this is not to take into account the problems with explaining how and why there could be different patterns for the same thoughts not only across species but also across brains of the same species and also across individuals. A number of other possibilities are examined, including accidental correlation theory, realizability, and identity. Each of these comes with their own set of problems which Parrish elucidates (92-97).

Parrish throws the gauntlet at physicalist theories of mind in the chapter aptly titled “Judging Physicalist Theories of the Mind.” In this chapter, KK provides a thorough critique of all the major physicalist theories of mind. For the purpose of this review, I will only provide the briefest of summaries for each of these critiques. Mysterianism is essentially the notion that we cannot know how consciousness and the brain relate, but we do know that physicalism is true. The problem with this position is that such a position basically pushes the burden of proof unto other physicalist theories of mind as opposed to providing its own explanation, and the theory in fact seems to be just another form of epiphenomenalism.

Eliminativism is a simpler theory in which it is simply asserted that consciousness does not exist (133ff). Such a theory seems patently absurd on its face, yet some physicalist philosophers continue to maintain that despite any appearance to the contrary, “there are no conscious aspects, objects, properties, or events at all” (136). The difficulty with such a position is that it is “self-referentially incoherent” (137). That is, it cannot be consistently believed (whatever it means to “believe” something) that there are on mental state when, in order to have such a belief, one must have some sort of mental state. Parrish further offers a scenario to describe our world in terms of an eliminativist worldview, which would yield a kind of “zombie” world in which our fictional mental states have no relation to the world around  us (149-150).

Identity theory basically asserts that consciousness just is identical to the brain. Much work must be done to analyze this theory by noting which theory of identity one might hold to, along with how such a theory of identity might play out. KK provides just such an exploration and comes to conclude that any of these identity theories falls to a number of objections, including the arbitrariness of the connection between the physical and the [identical] consciousness (162-163). Supervenience theory, which holds that somehow the mental supervenes upon the physical, suffers from providing no actual explanation for how this should be the case and thus basically devolves into one of the other physicalist theories.

Functionalism is the theory that “the conscious mind is the brain functioning in a certain manner” (171). Again, the difficulty here is that this seems to boil down largely into a bare assertion and how closely related to (and probably reliant upon) eliminativism it is.

Higher order theories of mind posit that consciousness is something like the brain scanning itself. However, this provides no explanation for how consciousness could arise and thus is again parasitic upon other varieties of physicalism, most notably eliminativism.

Epiphenomenalism is at the core of Parrish’s critique, for throughout the work he shows in numerous ways how the other physicalist theories of mind are ultimately mysterian or epiphenomenal in nature. Epiphenomenalism is basically the view that consciousness is causally inefficacious. Thus, it is the brain which “does the work” while consciousness is some kind of byproduct of brain activity. However, such a theory does not adequately explain how consciousness may itself arise, nor does it provide any attachment for our thoughts to reality. It thus suffers again from self-referential incoherence, for our mental states have no causal attachment to our brain states or reality. They are, again, merely “epiphenomena” which somehow are generated by our brains. If our mental states happen to line up with reality, that becomes a merely happy accident, for our mental states do not control our brain states but are rather generated by them. This is not to imply that mental states must control brain states to give rise to coherency, but rather to note that unless our mental states are causal in some sense, the very process of rational thought is illusory, for our prior mental states have no connection to our past mental states other than to be generated in a certain temporal order.


We have outlined Parrish’s critique of physicalism. Next week, we shall explore his defense of dualism and his case for theism from the nature of intelligibility. However, by way of conclusions for this section, it is important to note the insights which Parrish has offered in KK. The arguments he presented seem devastating to physicalism. In particular, the fact that so physicalist theories of mind all seem to either ultimately appeal to mystery or reduce consciousness beyond causal powers undermine the physicalists’ ability to explain reality sufficiently. If a worldview cannot even account for something as basic as our thoughts, such a deficiency seems to bode ill for the rest of that view. As noted, we shall note a powerful alternative which Parrish argues for in the latter part of the book, theistic substance dualism.

Parrish, of course, offers much more thorough critiques of every position listed here (along with many that were not included in this outline). The work is extremely important in not only its comprehensiveness but also its thoroughness for exploring theories of mind.

Stephen Parrish’s The Knower and the Known is a tour de force in philosophy of mind. Comprehensive in scope, thoroughly researched (and referenced), and lucid in its insight, this is a book which must be on the shelf of anyone who is remotely interested in the areas it touches.


Stephen Parrish, The Knower and the Known (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2013).



The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Abortion, fundamentalists, physicalism, and evolution: Sawyer’s “Calculating God” and some contentious issues

I have already written on Sawyer’s Calculating God and how it presents–in great detail–the teleological argument. However, Sawyer’s scope in this masterwork of science fiction was not limited merely to a discussion of heady philosophical and scientific arguments for the existence of God. Instead, he touched on a whole spectrum of controversial issues, giving answers that were often embedded into the narrative itself, and always thought-provoking.

Fundamentalism, Religion, and Abortion

Sawyer lumps fundamentalism in with the discussions about abortion. Unfortunately, fundamentalism is portrayed in the worst possible light, not unlike in the work of Ben Bova. The religious fundamentalists here are extremists bent on destroying anything that counts as evidence against their worldview. As such, they are first introduced as blowing up an abortion clinic (86-87). Frequent readers of my site know that I write often from a pro-life perspective but also that I am very much opposed to violence in this opposition. Unfortunately, such principled opposition is not portrayed as an option in Sawyer’s work.

Interestingly the discussion of abortion in the book–intentionally or not–reveals some important details about the abortion debate. The alien, Hollus, notes the irony in being “pro-life” while also killing people who perform abortions. Yet in this discussion, Hollus reveals something of note:

Hollus looked at me [Tom Jericho, the main character] for the longest time. “These–what did you call them? Fundamentalist extremists? These fundamentalist extremists believe it is wrong to kill even an unborn child?”

“Yes” [Tom responded].

It may take a moment, but think about it: Sawyer expresses incredulity at this notion through the alien Hollus, yet in what may have been a Freudian slip, calls the unborn “children.” Yes, of course I’m opposed to killing an unborn child! In fact, this dialogue reveals exactly what is at stake in the abortion debate: if the unborn is not a human person, then who cares what you do with it? But if it is, then what relevant status difference is there between a child who is located inside the mother as opposed to outside the mother? Again, I’ve written more on this issue elsewhere, but it is important to note that even in expressing incredulity about this, there is a revealing phrase: child. It is an unborn child killed in abortion.

Disturbingly, the book touches on an issue very relevant to the personhood debate: children who are screened for disabilities. In one scene, Hollus is confronted by a child with Down’s Syndrome. He notes nonchalantly that a similar disease is almost always “screened for” in the wombs of the alien mothers (115-116). Unfortunately, this exact thing is happening right now. Unborn children who are shown as having Down’s Syndrome are being aborted inside their mothers at an alarming rate. I can’t help but see this as a modern eugenics movement: killing those we deem unworthy of life for a genetic reason. The logic that this entails is even more disturbing.

Of course the same fundamentalists who bombed the abortion clinic were also out to destroy any evidence for evolution. They sought to destroy a fossil exhibit which they saw as an affront to God. Thus, I can’t help but think that the way Sawyer presents fundamentalists is a bit disingenuous. Not all fundamentalists are incapable of reason and violent. Indeed, almost no fundamentalists are like this! Thankfully, there are positive examples of religious persons in Calculating God, including Tom’s wife.

In one poignant scene, Tom–who is dying from cancer–struggles with the fact that he has been confronted with evidence for the existence of a god. He considers famous atheists who purportedly went to death, all the while denying God’s existence to the end. Yet Tom himself gets down on his knees to pray. When he does so, though, he considers the words of someone from his past: “The Lord works in mysterious ways.” He can’t help but react violently against this:

Such bull. Such unmitigated crap. I felt my stomach knotting. Cancer didn’t happen for any purpose. It tore people apart; if a god did create life, then he’s a shoddy workman, churning out flawed, self-destructing products. “God,” [he prayed] “I wish–I wish you had decided to do some things differently.” (230-231)

Interestingly, in the book, cancer turns out to actually have a purpose… in the sense of being a side-effect of something great: the ability to fuse genetic codes with other intelligently designed species. Here it seems Sawyer has employed a great deal of imaginative techno-babble to explore the notion of a physical god, but it also has hints of a greater good theodicy akin to that of Swinburne.


The discussion of physicalism in Sawyer’s work is very brief, but enlightening. There is a variety of substance dualism here in the sense of emergence. That is, in Sawyer’s fictional world, intelligence and “mind” emerges from matter once complexity reaches a certain threshold. This is similar to the theories of emergence theorists like William Hasker. I can’t help but find this a bit strange. The people who argue for this type of theory are frequently the same who are very hostile to the notion of anything beyond the physical realm, yet they argue that something aphysical can indeed “emerge” from matter itself. Surely this is a leap of the imagination! That matter has creative force simply because it can reach a certain level of complexity seems to me patently absurd.

Not only that, emergence suffers from a second major problem. Namely, if our “mind” is simply a product of complexity in matter, then our “intelligence” is entirely supervenient upon physical complexity. Indeed, our intelligence is a product of that complexity and therefore cannot operate independently of that matter. Therefore, it is hard to see any kind of properties that our minds would have that would be capable of maintaining free will or even rational thought on this theory. Indeed, I have trouble seeing how this theory would be any different from physicalistic monism.


The simple notion of evolution is a given in the book. No, it is not friendly to any who are unwilling to accept the notion of “macroevolution,” as the term is used in relevant literature. All the intelligent beings depicted in the book had evolved from a (potentially distinct) distant ancestor.

Darwinian evolution is simply assumed as truth in Calculating God. Or is it? The deity presented in the book is not very conducive to undirected evolution via natural selection and chance. It is portrayed as hurling asteroids at the planets where life was developing in order to press a “reset” button on the creatures that were currently dominant there. It also shown that this deity prevented other catastrophes from happening on these planets, thus interfering with natural selection. Indeed, the evolution depicted here is eerily similar to intelligent design, wherein the process is guided by a deity with a specific aim.

Indeed, one could argue that the entire book is an argument for intelligent design, albeit divorced from much of the theological framework that many of that movement’s frameworks operate within. Yet I can’t help but find this part of Sawyer’s argument (if, indeed, the intention is to make the argument that theists have it all wrong) is completely off. After all, the “god” of Sawyer’s universe is imperfect and concrete in the sense of physically existing. But this works against his concept of deity as being capable of coordinating the events it brings about. Granted, he could perhaps continue to increase the power of this deity beyond what is clearly outlined in the book, but there are hints that the deity is capable of knowing what is happening on places where it is not present, that it is capable of knowing what will happen with certain directions for evolution, and what will happen at the end of the universe. These work against the notion of God as a kind of blundering physical entity that just happens to be supremely powerful. Indeed, the god of calculating God may not be as hostile to Christianity as it initially seems. It serves as a pointer towards the true God of spacetime.


Like this page on Facebook: J.W. Wartick – “Always Have a Reason”

Check out my other post on this book: Aliens that believe in God: The theological speculations of Robert Sawyer’s “Calculating God”

I have discussed the use of science fiction in showing how religious persons act. Check out Religious Dialogue: A case study in science fiction with Bova and Weber.

What would it mean if we discovered life? I have reflected on the possibility: Alien Life: Theological reflections on life on other planets.

Our Spooky Universe– I make the case for the intelligent design argument for the existence of God, which is heavily used throughout Calculating God.

Check out my other looks at popular level books. (Scroll down to see more!)


Robert Sawyer, Calculating God (New York: Tor, 2000).



The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Book Review: “Material Beings” by Peter van Inwagen

Peter van Inwagen presents a discussion of composition in his work, Material Beings. His central thesis is

there are no tables or chairs or any other visible objects except living organisms (1).

This sounds odd to a great many people, and he acknowledges this. The thesis, however, solves many of the standard problems of composition. Specifically, van Inwagen seeks to answer, specifically, the special composition question: “In what circumstances is a thing a (proper) part of something?” (21). He surveys traditional answers to this question and finds them wanting. Some have argued simply that “contact” is enough to deduce when an object is composed of other objects, but van Inwagen utilizes a series of thought experiments to show this cannot be right (33ff). Specific types of physical bonding fair no better (61ff) while nihilism (there are no composite objects) and universalism (one can’t compose something, because if there are disjoint xs they compose something [74]) fall victim to a number of difficulties (72ff).

Van Inwagen therefore suggests that one way to show that things are composed is:

(there is a y such that the xs composes y) iff the activity of the xs constitutes a life (or there is only one of the xs) (82).

He goes on to define what he means by life (87ff). Against those who argue that his answer violates ordinary beliefs, van Inwagen proposes various linguistic fixes to allow for everyday language to still be “correct” without violating his suggested answer to the composition question. Thought experiments about artifacts (constructs of people/other living things) help bolster his points (124ff).

After these sections, van Inwagen turns to questions over how to identify life as well as offering attempts to deal with various dilemmas presented to materialists. This composes most of the rest of his  work, but more on that shortly.

Van Inwagen’s analysis of the problem of composition seems quite sound, and while his proposed modifications of everyday language to fit into the philosophical answer he has proposed may seem a bit odd to many, they seem to answer the charges his opponent may level against him regarding such questions. Furthermore, his proposed answer gets past the difficulties of the other answers which have been proposed. The most intuitive answer, “contact,” van Inwagen shows is at least fraught with difficulties.

That said, there are some significant problems with van Inwagan’s approach, most of which stem from those which he, being a materialist, has presented to himself and other materialists.

First, he takes life as the basic indicator for when things are composed. But van Inwagen does little to clearly define life, only briefly touching on what it means to be “alive.” Although he devotes several chapters towards various problems about life, his basis for seeing something as alive or not is fairly weak. There is significant debate in scientific literature on what it means for something to be living (or indeed if “living” is a category at all separate from “nonliving”). While one can hardly fault van Inwagen for not dealing directly with these heavy issues in biology and philosophy of science, it is hard to feel comfortable accepting his thesis without a better understanding of what he means by “life.”

Second, van Inwagen has to resort to some extremely implausible positions regarding life. The reason van Inwagen must deal with such problems, I charge, is exactly because he is a materialist. [Astute readers will note that van Inwagen is a theistic materialist, but the problems I raise here go against any materialists who wish to hold to his analysis.]

One place to identify van Inwagen’s problematic approach is in section 12. He writes, “…the fact that I am a thinking being shows that there is at least one composite material object…” (120). He continues, “What is the ground of my unity? …It seems to me to be plausible to say that what binds [the simples which compose me] together is that their activites constitute a life…” (121).

These thoughts start to reveal the serious cracks in his view. He holds that he himself is a material object, which he takes to be demonstrated by the fact that he is thinking. Yet then he argues that what binds him together is the fact that he’s alive. But this is exactly what he is seeking to demonstrate via his observation that he is thinking. But what is “he”? He is a material object. Thus, we have the argument, tied to his thesis:

1) Only those things which are living are composite objects

2) I think

3) Thinking things must be alive [implicit premise given his conclusion on p. 120]

4) Therefore, I am alive

5) Therefore, I am a composite object

Now, wholly apart from whether or not “simples” can be thinking objects, this argument seems unsound. For, on materialism, what justifies 3? Why think that whatever thinks is alive? I’ve already noted that there are philosophers of science and biologists who seem to think there isn’t such a distinction as alive/nonliving (see, for example, Iris Fry’s work, The Emergence of Life on Earth). This therefore reflects the problem I’ve noted already: without a clearer definition of “life,” it is hard to analyze van Inwagen’s thesis.

Yet one may also question the second premise. Why suppose that “I think?” Materialists cannot be substance dualists and must therefore justify personhood in purely materialistic ways. As I’ve argued elsewhere, it seems that materialists almost must deny that there are such things as subjects. Yet van Inwagen just makes the assumption that “I think.” What is “I” on his view? Finally, why think that 1 is true?

One can see the great difficulties with his position illustrated when he turns to thought experiments about when human life begins. Van Inwagen argues that we cannot be the same as the zygote which was our intial state because it splits from A into B and C, neither of which is identical to A (152ff). He argues that the zygote ceases to exist. One instantly wonders how it is that “I” am therefore the same person as I was yesterday, or years ago when all the material which composes me is different. Van Inwagen’s answer is his thesis (above) with the supposition that life actively continues itself. But then one wonders why he doesn’t consider a zygote alive, because it clearly self-organizes, continues itself, etc. In fact,  when one examines van Inwagen’s definitions of life, one sees that a zygote meets every criteria. They maintain themselves, they are individuating events, they are “jealous events,” etc. (see his brief discussion 87-90). So why suppose that the zygote isn’t alive?

Again one can observe van Inwagen’s frustrations with brain transplants (section 15). Eventually, he resorts to a mock discourse in which he uses question-and-answer format to try to deal with some extremely illogical consequences of his own naturalism (196ff).

Similar confounding issues arise with the “vagueness of composition,” unity and thought, and the identity of material objects. One can see that van Inwagen’s materialistic bias truly undermines his position in each of these problems. If one holds to substance dualism, one can easily answer any of these problems. Not only that, but his “proposed answer” makes much more sense conjoined with substance dualism, which allows one to make sense of the persistence of persons, living things, etc. without any of the counter-intuitive solutions to which van Inwagen must adhere.

Thus, it seems to me that Material Beings is an excellent book which will provoke much thought, but that its author is, unfortunately, trapped within his own materialism. If he’d think outside the [brain] box, the seemingly insurmountable problems he honestly faces find solutions.


Peter van Inwagen, Material Beings (Ithaca, NY: Cornell, 1990).



The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

If materialism, are there subjects?

In this post I seek to establish one premise: If materialism is true, there are no subjects.

There has been much extended discussion in my post on atheism’s universe, wherein (in the comments) I asserted that, on atheism, there are no subjects. It is high time I clarified my position and drew out its implications.

Materialism and Atheism

My argument is based upon a materialist or physicalist view of reality [I use the terms ‘materialism’ and ‘physicalism’ interchangeably here–I realize they are sometimes used to delineate differences between hard and soft materialists, but for the sake of this post one may assume that any time I mention “physicalism” I mean materialism at large]. I am asserting that: if physicalism is true, there are no such things as “subjects.” I’ve briefly argued elsewhere (see the post linked above) that the only consistent atheism is materialistic. For atheists who are not materialists, I leave it to them to show that their view consistently allows for immaterial entities.

The Nature of a “Subject”

One constant objection to my position is that I never defined what I meant by “subject.” One reason I did not seek to define the term is because  I did not want the debate to boil down into a semantic war over the meaning of subject. There are some features of “subjects” which most parties agree upon, but how to lay out those features is hotly debated. Further, I did not wish to beg the question against the materialist by defining a subject in such a way that no materialist ontology could even attempt to approach it (suppose I defined a “subject” as a “wholly mental feature of reality which acts as the center of consciousness”; in such a case, I’ve added nothing to the discussion because I’ve excluded materialism from the debate without argument).

There is no easy way to define what is meant by “a subject.” I will seek now to define it as broadly as possible, so as to avoid any questions begged.

A Subject: 

  1. Is the referent of the term, “I”
  2. Endures from moment-to-moment as one being. A subject would be the same subject at T2 as it was at T1.
  3. Accounts for any mental states–whether they are actually aphysical or physical.

Hopefully these terms are agreeable to both sides. I’m sure people on either side will want to flesh out the notion of “subject” more, but it seems to me that these points can be acknowledged by all. The first point seems to be fairly clearly true. It is “I” who experience x and not someone else. The second point is necessary for subjects because otherwise “I” would be a different “I” from T1 to T2, and in fact not be the same being at all. The third point, likewise, seems fairly obvious, because it seems mental life is what comprises a subject to begin with. Whether the image in my mind of a cat is a purely physical phenomenon or not, any theory of the mind must take it into account.

Materialism Fails to Account for One and Many

On materialism, what is it that is the referent of the term “I”? Is it my brain (only)? Is it my body? What am “I”? I will here offer a brief argument that no materialist account can take seriously the notion that “I” am distinct from other entities. It is, basically, an offshoot of the “one and the many” problem in philosophy.

Materialism holds that all which exists is matter. Thus, “I” am composed of matter. The problem is distinguishing between everything else and me, for ultimately “I” am just a rearrangement of matter. Suppose that all matter is referred to as (M), and I am referred to by (I). Ultimately, on materialism, (I) is reducible to (M), which is really just all real being on materialism. Why suppose there are separate entities, (I) and (I2) and (I3) when all are, ultimately, (M)? It is much simpler to just suppose that (M) is all and that (I), (I2), and (I3) are (M) in rearranged forms.

Now I don’t suppose for a moment this isn’t highly contentious. Some will come along and say that their own experience is enough to confirm that they are a different being from every other. But why suppose this? Ultimately, that conscious experience is reducible to the brain, which is reducible to matter, which is everything. On materialism, there really is just one “thing”: the material universe as a whole. The “parts” of this “thing” are ultimately reducible to smaller and smaller particles which comprise all the “things” themselves. Ultimately, all is matter, merely arranged in different ways at different times. I’m not suggesting that matter is some kind of single entity. It is particulate. But matter is also one kind of thing. Ultimately, on materialism, all things are just this kind of thing: material. The only way to differentiate between them is by time and place, but even then every individual thing is itself composed of particles of matter. All things are reducible to the same thing.

What can save materialists from this? Materialists would have to embrace a robust metaphysics in order to supply a way out for the problem of “the one and the many.” Yet it seems to me that no materialist can take seriously a robust metaphysics, because they would then have to posit distinctions between entities that are aphysical. Positing such entities or properties would be decidedly contrary to materialism. For example, one solution is that entities are distinct in that all share being itself, but they also have essences which distinguish them from other things (see Clarke, 72ff, cited below). For a materialist to embrace this, they would have to hold that each individual person has an immaterial essence which is such that it makes it distinct from other entities. But of course, that would fly in the face of materialism. It seems to me, therefore, that materialism has no way to answer the problem of “the one and the many.”

Materialism Fails to Provide Enduring Identity

On what basis can a materialist affirm that I, J.W., am the same subject now as I was 20 years ago? All my matter has been replaced. There is no material component of me which is the same as it was back then. Yet my experience tells me that I am the same subject.

How can materialists account for this?

One possibility is that they can simply point out that I am numerically identical to my past self. Although the individual pieces of matter which comprise me are not the same as they were 20 years ago, they were replaced only in portions, during which my body endured as a totality.

The difficulty with this scenario is that it only serves to underscore the problems with materialism. Imagine a mad scientist, who, over the course of a day, cuts my brain into 24 pieces. Each hour, he removes one piece of my brain and places it into another body, which has no brain. He simultaneously replaces the piece of brain with an exact molecular copy. After the day, there is a body which has my brain in it, and my body, which has a copy of my brain in it. Which is me? And, if that question can be answered on materialism (which I doubt), when did my body/brain cease being me and transfer to the other body/brain?

Materialism simply cannot answer these questions. The worldview is baffled by them. Yet in order for something to be a subject, it must endure through time. On materialism, I have not endured through time at all. My entire being–from my fingers to the hairs on my head to my brain–is material, and has been replaced by new material. Where am “I”?

Materialism Cannot Account for Mental States

There are at least five features of mental states which materialism cannot take into account. They are:

  • The feeling of “‘what-it-is-like’ to have a mental state such as a pain”
  • Intentionality
  • Inner, private, and immediate access to the subject
  • Subjective ontology which is irreducible to the third person
  • They lack spatial extension, location, etc. (Adapted from Moreland, 20, cited below)

While delving into these in great detail is beyond the reach of this post, I have already addressed a few of them in my post arguing for Substance Dualism against Monism. It seems that, on materialism, one must embrace supervenience and epiphenominalism in order to preserve mental states. Consider the following:

When I experience thought A’, it is because of a prior brain state, A. My mental states are either identical to, or supervenient upon, the physical state of my brain. The problem with this is that it relegates mental states to epiphenomenalism… This is because the mental state is entirely dependent upon (or identical to) the brain state. On physicalism, a mental state does not occur without a brain state occurring prior to, or in conjunction with, it.

…If it is always the case that Brain state A=> Mental state A’, then Brain state A causes whatever actions we take, for the brain state entails the mental state, which itself is identical to or supervenient upon the brain state to exist. But then, if we cut mental state A’ out of the equation, we would still have Brain state A and the action. Thus, consciousness is entirely superfluous. (Wartick,

Reflection upon the supervenience of the mental on the physical leads materialist philosopher Jaegwon Kim to writes:

To think that one can be a serious physicalist and at the same time enjoy the company of things and phenomena that are nonphysical [by this he is referring to consciousness, the causal powers of thought, etc.], I believe, is an idle dream. (Kim, 120, cited below)


Objection 1: One of the most common objections I have encountered when I reason in this fashion is the common sense objection: “I think, therefore I am a subject!” or, as one commented on another post, “I’m an [atheist]. I have meaning. It’s possible.”

Such notions are scoffed at by materialist philosophers. Paul Churchland, the famed materialist and philosopher of mind, writes:

You came to this book assuming that the basic units of human cognition are states such as thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, desires, and preferences.  That assumption is natural enough: it is built into the vocabulary of every natural language… These assumptions are central elements in our standard conception of human cognitive activity, a conception often called ‘Folk psychology’ to acknowledge if as the common property of folks generally.  Their universality notwithstanding, these bedrock assumptions are probably mistaken.

In other words, the notion that “I’m a subject! I have meaning!” is nothing more than a philosophical dinosaur, a remnant of our ‘folk psychology’ which we should cast off now that we know the truth of materialism. Those who object in such a fashion as materialists seem to be blissfully unaware that they stand aligned against the vast majority of materialistic philosophy of mind. They must justify their position, but cannot, as they arguments above have shown.

Objection 2: Neuroscience has shown that the brain is the center of consciousness. When we think things, we can observe specific areas of activity in the brain. 

This objection is clearly mistaken. The previous arguments have sought to establish the premise: On materialism, there are no subjects. I could easily grant Objection 2 without doing any damage to my arguments. Sure, when we “think thoughts” we may be able to observe effects in the brain. How does it then follow that “we” are subjects? All that this has done–assuming I grant it–is show that our consciousness is somehow related to our brains. It doesn’t demonstrate that mind is identical to brain, nor does it justify the position that “I am a subject.” In fact, it seems to undermine the notion that materialism can explain subjects, because it implies, once more, that “I” am reducible to “my brain” which is, of course, reducible to its component matter as well.

Conclusion: That There Are No Subjects on Materialism and the Implications Thereof

Any one of these problems provides insurmountable problems for materialists who believe they are, themselves, subjects. There is no way, on materialism, to distinguish the one from the many; there is no way for subjects to endure; mental states are reduced to causally inert epiphenomena; and there is no way to account for mental phenomena.

Thus, if atheism is committed to materialism, and materialism cannot account for subjects, it  follows that, without question, there is no meaning on atheism. There cannot even be subjective meaning, for to reference something as a “subject” is, itself, illusory.


Jaegwon Kim, Mind in a Physical World (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000).

J.P. Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei (London, UK: SCM Press, 2009).

Paul Churchland,The Engine of Reason, The Seat of the Soul: A Philosophical Journey into the Brain, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996).

W. Norris Clark, The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics (South Bend, IN: Notre Dame, 2001).



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Materialists: Where is hope? Look to the stars!

“[T]he Universe may harbor civilizations more intelligent than our own. Perhaps one day, through interstellar communication, some advanced civilization will help us resolve such age-old problems as war, famine, disease, overpopulation, misuse of natural resources, and human aging.”- John Oró, “Historical Understanding of Life’s Beginnings” (40, cited below).

Such is the hope of materialism. I’ve argued elsewhere that if all we are is matter, then there is no meaning. The pervasive response was that “we make our own meaning.” Leaving questions over the tenability of such a view aside, I have turned to a different, and interesting phenomenon: Where is there room for hope, within materialism? 

It didn’t take long to dig up some quotes. One of the classes I’m taking this semester is on the Origins of Life. A few books we were assigned for this class were from a materialist perspective. The quote above is from one of those books. It resonated deeply with me. Consider this: If all we are is matter, having arrived here by unguided, biochemical processes, living on a dying planet in a dying universe–where is our hope? One cannot turn to transcendence with such a worldview, but one can attempt to emulate it.

Such is the case found in materialistic literature. Such is the grand materialist hope:

We can look hopefully for our saviors from the stars. There must be more intelligent life out there, and they will usher in a new era, a near utopia wherein disease, death, war, and hunger are all eliminated. Our alien saviors will rush to our aide once they’ve found us on this dying rock, and we will worship them as we used to worship the mythic gods of old. 

But it is not just hope for the future which must guide us. Our realization that we are but one among many (and many who are probably smarter than us) must lead us to a new set of ethics. Oró writes of new ethical principles we must embrace: “Humility: The life of all cells descends from simple molecules… Hope: Someday we may communicate with more advanced civilizations… Universality: We come from stardust and to stardust we shall return… Peace: We should change our culture of war into a culture of peace” (Oró, 40-41 cited below). Humility, hope, peace, universality–these are all things Christians embrace also, but the materialist has redefined them. Our hope is not int the transcendent but in the here-and-now. Our hope, again, reaches for the stars.

But is this really a hope? We know the universe is dying. We know that, even were we to escape death, eventually the cosmic heat death of the universe would occur, and our ultimate doom is sealed. Should we hope that our alien saviors are also inter-dimensional travelers? Should we hope that they transcend space and time? I leave these questions open.

But the most interesting phenomenon in all of this is that the materialist has abandoned their presupposition. Rather than hoping for what is they hope for what we know not. They look to the stars, grasping at things unseen. Iris Fry, a professor at both Tel Aviv University and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa and author of The Emergence of Life on Earth writes honestly and lucidly of the philosophical commitments of the materialist in this sphere:

[T]he realization that many non-empirical factors are involved in determining scientific positions and in the adoption of scientific theories leads to the notion of theoretical and philosophical decision, or commitment. Research into the origin of life and the search for extraterrestrial life are a clear case in point, because here the weight of the philosophical commitment is much greater than in more conventional scientific fields. As long as no empirical evidence of life beyond Earth has been found, and as long as no scientific theory has succeeded in providing a fully convincing account of the emergence of life on Earth, the adoption of an evolutionary point of view toward the question of life’s origin and the rejection of the idea of purposeful design involve a very strong philosophical commitment. -Iris Fry (283, Cited Below)

Ultimately, I think she is quite right. There is a philosophical commitment being espoused here, not a scientific commitment. Too often, materialists forget that, but kudos to Fry for honestly admitting it while also espousing the very commitment.

Where is our hope?

The materialist answers: The stars.

Is this really rational?


John Oró “Historical Understanding of Life’s Beginnings” in Life’s Origin ed. J. William Schopf (Berkeley, CA: University of California, 2002).

Iris Fry The Emergence of Life on Earth (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers, 2000.



The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Cruel Logic: “Ideas have Consequences”

No Apologies Allowed” put a post up with a link to a YouTube video called “Cruel Logic.” In it, a serial killer debates a college professor about ethics and determinism in a materialistic universe. Check out the original post and discussion here. I recommend his site because it has tons of thought-provoking imagery and links to videos.


What do you think? Are these the implications of materialism? Are we merely matter, determined in motion and emotion?

Atheism’s Universe is Meaningless and Valueless

“‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’
says the Teacher.
‘Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.'” – Ecclesiastes 1:2

My most recent post on the problem of evil granting empirical atheism generated some thoughtful discussion. Most importantly, it lead me to the following argument:

1) On materialistic [I use materialism and physicalism interchangeably, as is common in philosophy today] atheism, all we are is matter in motion.

2) There is no objective reason to value matter moving in way A over matter moving in way B

3) Therefore, on materialistic atheism, there is no value or meaning

Premise 1 seems self-evident. Materialistic atheism, by definition, says that “everything is physical, or as contemporary philosophers sometimes put it, that everything supervenes on, or is necessitated by, the physical” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). The physical world is matter.

Premise 2 also seems like it should need little defense, yet atheists continually come up with ideas to try to get around it. For example, one may argue that the subjective suffering of persons should matter. Yet I fail to see how this argument succeeds. Pain and suffering, on materialism, at most supervenes upon neurons firing in the brain (along with chemical reactions and other physical phenomenon). My question for the materialist is: What reason can be provided for favoring matter moving in way A (call it, the way neurons fire when someone is in a state of bliss) over matter moving in way B (neurons firing in the way which causes pain)?

One answer which may be forthcoming is that creatures and persons tend to try to get away from things which cause B. This argument fails to provide an answer to the question, because all it does is push the question back to a higher level. It would change to: Why should we favor physical observable phenomenon which don’t cause avoidance over those that do? Again, the avoidance of B would simply be matter moving in a different way. In order to make a judgment between them, one would have to reach beyond the material world and into the world of objective meaning and value; this is, necessarily, a world which is nonexistent on materialism. Even if one could provide an answer to this second question, say “We tend to not like B. Things we don’t like are bad”, then we would have a purely subjective reality. What of the serial killer who delights in torturing himself, causing things to B? What reason do we have for saying what he is doing is wrong, because, after all, he likes B?

Ultimately, on materialism, everything boils down to matter in motion. Making value judgments about matter in motion is meaningless.

But if everything is matter in motion, then there doesn’t seem to be any way to make value judgments. How does one value a rock over a stick? They’re both just stuff. But then, on materialism, people are just stuff too; albeit more complex. However, if you were to break us down into our ultimately realities, we are no different than the rock. We are matter organized in a different way. Why value us?

There is no objective reason to do so. Therefore, there is no objective meaning or value. Life is purposeless, meaningless, valueless. Atheistic materialism demands this bleak view of the universe. I’m not saying it’s a good reason to abandon that [un]belief. I’m merely saying that those who hold such a view must be consistent.

“Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.” -Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

[In the comments, I have suggested that on materialism, there is no such thing as a subject. The claim has proven highly contentious, so I have created a post to clarify my position:]

Check out my post on the Ontology of Morality: Some Problems for Humanists and their friends



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The Case for Dualism: Against Monism

Substance dualism seems to be the most reasonable position when it comes to consciousness. I’m going to be exploring the reasons for this throughout several posts.

Substance dualism is the idea that our conscious self is a combination of both a physical and non-physical reality. That is, our consciousness is not just neurons firing in the brain, but also some kind of phenomenal self, which is separate from the physical realm.

One reason for holding to substance dualism is that it avoids the problems of monistic physicalism. Physicalism argues that our conscious self is literally the brain. There is nothing but neurons firing in the brain (okay, it’s a lot more complicated than that, but the general idea is that our brain is our “self”).

Physicalism, therefore, leads to a kind of monism–everything is matter. Depending on which physicalist philosopher one prefers, this can lead to all sorts of problems. We can see this when we examine what exactly composes a “thought.” On dualism, a “thought” is a non-physical, phenomenal experience of the “self”–which is generally referred to either as “mind” or “soul.” On physicalism, a “thought” is identical with a brain state.

In other words, on Physicalism:

Brain state A => Mental state A’

Brain state B => Mental state B’

And so on.

When I experience thought A’, it is because of a prior brain state, A. My mental states are either identical to, or supervenient upon, the physical state of my brain. The problem with this is that it relegates mental states to epiphenomenalism. That is, if a mental state is wholly dependent on a brain state, the mental state is superfluous. This is because the mental state is entirely dependent upon (or identical to) the brain state. On physicalism, a mental state does not occur without a brain state occurring prior to, or in conjunction with, it.

This, in turn, leads to epiphenomenalism because the mental state is, as  I said, superfluous. If it is always the case that Brain state A=> Mental state A’, then Brain state A causes whatever actions we take, for the brain state entails the mental state, which itself is identical to or supervenient upon the brain state to exist. But then, if we cut mental state A’ out of the equation, we would still have Brain state A and the action. Thus, consciousness is entirely superfluous.

Another problem with this is that it also means consciousness doesn’t have to have any connection with the actual world. Our brain states could be causing all kinds of wild mental states which are completely unconnected to what is happening outside of our “self,” but we would never know it or act differently. I could be having the mental states of pigs flying and eating buffaloes as I write this, but it wouldn’t matter because the brain state is what is causative. The mental state is simply a byproduct of the brain state. Or, we could all be zombies, without any kind of phenomenal consciousness, and yet still be performing the same actions.

Yet another problem, on the physicalist perspective, is that there seems to be no reason for our mental states to line up with reality. Why is it that despite the fact that our brain state is causing all of our actions, or mental state seems to line up with those actions? There doesn’t seem to be any reason our mental states should line up with reality. One response could be that we have no reason to suppose they do line up with reality, but then we have no reason to trust anything we “think” and should give up whatever positions we do hold.

Of course, monistic physicalism actually argues that there is no mental state A’ generated by brain state A, but I don’t see any reason for believing this is true, for they are of two completely different kinds. One is gray mush, the other is a phenomenal image of a cat. One is composed of neurons shooting impulses to and fro, the other is the idea that “I wish I had eaten breakfast.” The law of identity states that A = A. But, according to monistic physicalism, my gray mush/neurons firing = image of cat. This is simply false.

So, I have no reason to accept physicalism on any of these formulations, and every reason to reject it. Physicalism is epiphenomenal, gives us reasons to doubt our basic intuitions, and makes any thoughts we have completely arbitrary.


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Naturalism: Self-Defeating, Unintelligible, and Ungrounded (Among Other Problems)

Naturalism is self-defeating.

Naturalism’s “Grand Story” (I’m unsure of who exactly coined this phrase) includes evolution as the means by which humanity arrived on earth. I’m not here to debate that. Rather, I think that Alvin Plantinga’s “Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism” has some fairly hefty weight (see Warrant The Current Debate and Warranted Christian Belief for this argument). The argument basically goes like this:

1) On naturalism, evolution selected for our cognitive system

2) On evolution, it is what is beneficial for survival that is selected (with some exceptions–some animals are just unlucky)

3) Therefore, our cognitive system was selected for survival

4) What is beneficial for survival is not necessarily what is true (in an objective sense)

5) Therefore, we can’t know (on naturalism) that our cognitive system is truth-seeking

6) If we can’t trust our cognitive system, but we come to the conclusion that naturalism is true, then we can’t trust this conclusion

7) Therefore, naturalism is self-defeating

Now take 4). It seems to be clearly true that evolution does not select for true belief, if it selects for beliefs at all. Take an example I stole from Plantinga earlier (here)

“Tim the Tiger lover and Suzy the Warrior.

“Tim the Tiger Lover has formed false beliefs that a) wild tigers are warm and cuddly and b) the best way to pet them is to sneak away from them silently. Suzy the Warrior has formed the beliefs that a) wild tigers are ferocious critters and b) they must be killed to insure the survival of mankind.

“Tim and Suzy are walking through the jungle one day, when they spot in the distance a tiger. Now, Tim immediately begins joyfully sneaking away, believing that he will soon be petting that warm, cuddly tiger. Suzy dashes forward to attempt to strangle the beast with her bare hands. Suzy dies, though it seems clear that her beliefs were at least partially true (wild tigers are indeed ferocious). Tim, however, succeeds in escaping and surviving, despite this not actually being his goal.

“Now, on naturalism, it seems quite obvious that Tim has succeeded. He has survived, and will thus pass his genes on to the next generation. Indeed, it seems quite likely he will pass along his false beliefs as well. For let us modify the scenario only slightly and say that it was quite dark. While Suzy was being torn to bits by the tiger, Tim happened upon a tiger cub or some other beast he took to be a tiger cub. He immediately, happily danced with it and cuddled it for a while before sneaking away to go home, having quite happily reinforced his false beliefs. So Tim, with his false beliefs enforced by some data that they are in fact true (after all, he sneaked away quietly from the tiger and managed to pet tigers), also manages to survive, and therefore pass along his genes and his false beliefs” (Wartick).

To put it another way:

Take N to be metaphysical naturalism, P to be probability, R is the proposition that our cognitive facilities are reliable, and E is the proposition that our cognitive facilities have developed directly by way of the mechanisms to which contemporary evolutionary theory directs our attention.

Now P(R/N&E) seems to be low (see above). “One who accepts N… has a defeater for R. This induces a defeater, for him, for any belief produced by his cognitive facilities, including N itself; hence, ordinary naturalism is self-defeating” (Plantinga, 231).

Thus, it seems unlikely to me that naturalism can even find grounds for warranted belief on its own basis for warrant. But that’s not where the problems end. Naturalism has a major problem with consciousness.

Naturalism cannot explain consciousness.

I quote my fellow blogger, Chris Reese and outline what physicalist philosophers are saying about consciousness:

[P]hilosopher of mind . . . Ned Block . . . confesses that we have
no idea how consciousness could have emerged from nonconscious matter: “we have nothing—zilch—worthy of being called a research programme…. Researchers are stumped.”6

Berkeley’s John Searle says this is a “leading problem in the biological sciences.”7

Jaegwon Kim notes our “inability” to understand consciousness in an “essentially physical” world.8

Colin McGinn observes that consciousness seems like “a radical novelty in the universe”; 9  he wonders how our “technicolour” awareness could “arise from soggy grey matter.”10

David Papineau wonders why consciousness emerges: “to this question physicalists’ ‘theories of consciousness’ seem to provide no answer.”11

If, however, we have been made by a supremely self-aware Being, then the existence of consciousness has a plausible context.

Physicalism goes so far as to deny consciousness. I take it as self-evident that I do have consciousness. It seems entirely unintelligible to me to deny this. But then naturalists cannot even explain it. They are unable to understand it in a “physical” world. Perhaps the answer is that there is more to the world than the physical. But due to the presuppositions of the naturalist, they cannot accept this possibility.

Naturalism denies freedom of the will.

Freedom of the will is another problem for the naturalist. If all we are is, ultimately, matter in motion, then how is that we have freedom of the will? Since the big bang, matter has simply been bumping against each other in a way that was determined by the big bang. Every path is planned out by the laws of nature.

Thus, naturalism denies freedom of the will, it denies consciousness, and it refutes itself. These are but a few problems I raise against naturalism (see my other posts on the topic here and here). I thus deny naturalism its right for philosophical dominance of my (free) mind.


Plantinga, Alvin. Warranted Christian Belief. Oxford. 2000.

Wartick, J.W. “Naturalism and Groundless Truth.”


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The Ontological Consequences of Naturalism

What does naturalism entail? This is largely a discussion of the ideas contained within the book World Without Design: The Ontological Consequences of Naturalism by Michael C. Rea. An outline of his ideas comes first, followed by a look at a critique of his work.

Michael C. Rea has lofty goals for his book World Without Design: The Ontological Consequences of Naturalism. He lays them out almost immediately: to show that naturalists are 1. committed to rejecting realism about material objects (RMO), 2. are forced to reject materialism,  and 3. cannot accept the reality of other minds (ROM) (Rea, 8).

Naturalism, according to Rea, is best understood as a research program. This he defines as: “a set of methodological dispositions” (Rea, 3). He argues that research programs cannot be accepted based on evidence, but can be discarded based on evidence. “[T]here is no method-neutral basis on which to assess the decision to adopt a particular research program” (Rea, 7). He pushes for acceptance of this view of naturalism as opposed to epistemological, metaphysical, etc. naturalism. While I believe that naturalism can certainly be viewed as a research program (using his definition), I think it is unclear from his arguments as to why exactly the other views of naturalism are to be rejected. Interestingly, however, it seems that Rea’s definition of research program manages to include these various types of naturalism.

Whether or not Rea is successful in his arguments to refocus naturalism as a research program, his arguments stand, as they are directed at this kind of “naturalism-at-large.”

It is important to note that a central concept that must be understood in order to discern Rea’s argument is that he is almost certainly attacking what seems to be most naturalists views that naturalism is unapproachable. Rea’s argument for viewing naturalism as a research method becomes stronger when taking this into account–for if naturalism is accepted without justification, it fits his definition of research program. He quotes Quine (who is extremely important in many fields of philosophy [such as logic], not just naturalism): “The proper answer to questions like ‘What justifies me in believing what I learn by way of scientific method?’ is simply ‘Do not ask that question'” (Rea, 44).

I believe that this stance should be, at the very least, uncomfortable for naturalists, or at least naturalists who attack theists for similar responses as to justification for belief in God, but that’s a whole different subject. I believe that, however, both cases need at least some kind of warrant or justification.

But let’s delve into the meat of World Without Design. Rea, as was said before, argues that naturalists are forced to ontologically give up RMO, ROM, and materialism. What grounds does he have for making these claims? I was initially quite skeptical. Obviously, I have every reason to rejoice in any attempts to undermine naturalism, but to claim that naturalism cannot even justify reality about material objects is, as I said, a lofty claim.

Rea cites The Discover Problem as the main reason naturalists are forced to these consequences. The Discovery Problem is “…just the fact that intrinsic modal properties seem to be undiscoverable by the methods of the natural sciences. Modal properties are properties involving necessities or possibilities for the objects that have them” (Rea, 77). It is this Problem that Rea continues to press against naturalists, and after analyzing his exhaustive arguments, I believe he succeeds.

The problem is that science can discover, at most, extrinsic modal properties, but not those that are intrinsic. Rea frames one of the problems that follows from the Discovery Problem as follows (paraphrased): one man owes another a debt. When the one to whom the debt is owed confronts the debtor about it, he argues that he is not the same person he was when the debt was incurred, for, after all, large amounts of the molecules in his body are no longer there, or have rearranged somehow, etc. The one owed the debt promptly punches him on the nose (Rea, 79ff).

But how is it that one can prove he is the same person? What makes it so that the matter can be said to be arranged “human-wise” instead of merely “collection-wise“? The answer is modal properties. The problem, however, is that in order to successfully point to the debtor as being the same person, one must use intrinsic modal properties, which are undetectable via scientific method, and, according to naturalism, must therefore be rejected.

I can’t type out the whole book here for a number of reasons, so I’ll highlight a few arguments:

“[I]t is possible for belief in material objects to be justified only if it is possible to have at least one justified M[odal]P[roperties] belief” (Rea, 83). This is because 1. one must be able to say this is a material object, 2. that belief can only be justified by beliefs in certain properties that are essential to the object (essential in the philosophical sense), and 3. these kinds of beliefs are MP beliefs (Rea, 83-84).

There are a number of ways naturalists have tried to get around this problem, but ultimately they can, at most, only grant extrinsic modal properties. In order to grant intrinsic modal values, on naturalism, “(a) we must observe it, (b) we posit its existence to explain our observations, or (c)we discover that our theorizing is simplified or otherwise significantly pragmatically enhanced by supposing that it exists” (Rea, 104). But modal properties are not observable, so only (b) or (c) are possibilities.

The possible solution (b) generally points to tying modal properties in with Proper Function. Proper Function is, generally, the belief that certain things that occupy a certain region have an objective function that they are supposed to perform. But even granting that empirical techniques can somehow claim this about anything, Proper Function can only grant extrinsic modal properties (such as saying that cat-arranged things have the proper function of “operating” as cats). The problem remains.

Solution (c) presents a pragmatic argument. Now setting aside some of the blatant flaws with pragmatism in general (i.e. the absurdity that, on pragmatism, it follows that if there are no people, there is no truth), this pragmatic consideration within naturalism doesn’t help in discovering intrinsic modal properties as it is completely unclear as to what pragmatic value there is in considering intrinsic modal properties on naturalism. Not only that, but Rea presents another valuable argument: “If, for example, it cannot be a truth that a thing x has a property p unless it is somehow useful or convenient for human beings to believe that x has p, then it is hard to see how x could have p in a world that does not include human beings.” [As I mentioned.] “So pragmatic theories of truth seem to imply (perhaps absurdly) that every property is extrinsic [ed: in that properties are assigned pragmatically]. hence, they also imply that modal and sortal properties are extrinsic. Thus they are incompatible with R[eality about]M[aterial]O[bjects]” (Rea, 146).

The Discovery Problem thus eliminates the possible of RMO, ROM, and materialism from the naturalist ontology. But these are things that naturalists will be extremely reluctant to eliminate. Rea follows with a discussion of intuitionism–which is another way naturalists might salvage RMO from the implications of naturalism, but the problem with intuitionism is that it is a version of idealism which eliminates RMO to begin with. I’m not going to go into the details of Rea’s argument here, as to do so would take quite a bit of extra space and I don’t think it is all that relevant to the current discussion.

I find Rea’s method quite sound, and his reasoning is certainly solid. Whether or not his book is successful (as I think it is), it certainly is thought-provoking. I expect many a naturalist will be forced to reconsider his or her position and attempt many a rejoinder to the arguments contained in World Without Design. One such rejoinder will be discussed next.

A critique of Rea’s work can be found here. The author (Troy Cross) was quite fair in his evaluation of Rea’s work, but I think the conclusions he drew weren’t quite spot on. For example:

“Rea’s ‘charitable’ proposal on naturalism’s behalf [that of it being a research program], by contrast, is to be avoided at all costs… Rea’s argument is not of the form: there are material objects, therefore, naturalism is false.”

But it is in Cross’ accusing Rea of being unnecessarily “charitable” that he seems to ignore one of the central arguments of the first chapters, which is an argument against naturalism as Cross seems to want to take it [though as I discussed above I am not entirely sure of its success]. Not only that, but while he states specifically what Rea’s argument is not (and I agree with him), he seems to ignore that if Rea has succeeded in his actual argument, then while naturalism may not be untrue or false on an epistemological level, naturalists are forced into some uncomfortable positions. In fact, I don’t really think that Rea is anywhere trying to prove naturalism is false, but only that naturalism forces us to give up much on an ontological level and that some of these beliefs seem basic to naturalism itself. It is in this way that many of Cross’s critiques fail. He seems to miss the general point of Rea’s book, which may perhaps be summed up in Rea’s own words:

“I think it is important to acknowledge that the theses I have said naturalists must give up are theses that many philosophers, naturalists in particular, will be very reluctant to give up.”


“We are told that if only we look in the right places we will find everything we want: realism about material objects, realism about other minds, materialism for those who want it, and much more. But when all the shells have been turned over, we find that we have been duped, and nothing is there.” (Rea, 170)

Further, Cross makes a rather bold statement by asserting, “Perception is a science-approved basic source of justification, and on a suitably robust notion, perception delivers real material objects, not merely sense data or mind-dependent objects.” Despite these claims, he offers no evidence to support it. It seems he missed the section on pragmatism, or at least chose to ignore it. In what way does naturalism, with its “science-approved” methodology somehow grant itself the assumption that perception is not mind based? How does his claim rule out idealism? He truly fails in this regard, and he falls victim to his own presuppositions.

Naturalists cannot seem to view their own worldview objectively at all (see Quine’s quote, above). Material objects are simply assumed based on perception and it is similarly assumed that materialism is true. And then it follows from these two assumptions that the mind is at the least supervenient on the physical. But this is nothing other than a circular argument. If any one of these three assumptions fails, then the circle is broken. And I don’t see any reason that all of these assumptions won’t fail. Not only that, but a circular argument is  a simple logical fallacy.

What grounds do naturalists have to accept such a statement as Cross makes? The assumption that perception somehow proves material objects flies in the face of competing metaphysical approaches such as idealism and certainly begs the question against them. And because of this, such a statement is, if not false, at least lacking any kind of epistemic value. It’s nothing but an assumption with no grounds (other than perhaps pragmatism) for accepting it. And if one would like to argue for such a view on pragmatic grounds, the arguments presented by Rea against pragmatism apply.

Naturalists seem to make these kinds of statements all the time. Whatever they say they simply grant because of either pragmatic concerns or some kind of circular argument. There is no reason to accept either of these reasons.

So Cross seems to miss the mark in a number of ways. He is attempting to argue against a point Rea didn’t make. When he argues that Rea fails to give epistemic reasons that naturalism is false, he is arguing against a straw man. Rea isn’t trying to do so to begin with. Rather, he is arguing that if naturalism is true, it forces those who want to accept it to give up many of the things that they may wish to take as truths–those things shown above, namely, ROM, RMO, and materialism. Not only that, but Cross fails to make any kind of argument for a naturalism that escapes Rea’s casting of it as a “research program.” Cross instead states “[Rea] succeeds in aiding and motivating the construction of naturalistic theories.” The problem is that the construction of those theories hasn’t happened. The current naturalism is fully subject to the arguments presented in World Without Design, and the consequences of naturalism are hard to swallow.

I should note, in closing, that the arguments I make above against Cross (particularly my statement that he is making assumptions and/or begging the question for naturalism) might be leveled against my own view of theism. It should be noted, however, that Rea himself addresses these issues briefly. But there are other reasons that such accusations don’t have merit, for theism doesn’t presuppose such things as dualism. There is a huge amount of literature dedicated to the mind-body problem that is readily accessible. Further, claims that God is the basis for intrinsic modal properties and/or intrinsic human worth have also been addressed in many formats by theists. Certainly, theists may make claims that grant certain underlying beliefs, but those beliefs themselves are building blocks that theists at least have arguments that at the least warrant, if not justify those beliefs (I can once again refer to dualism as a prime example). Naturalists have no such warrant. It is simply assumed that scientism or empiricism is the correct method (or argued on the basis of pragmatism), and that somehow this serves as a defeater for idealism, various theistic views, or other explanatory positions. But, as can be seen in Rea’s book and our brief discussion, these claims only lead us to a rejection of those things which naturalists hold most dear: material objects and materialism itself.


The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author.

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