Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)


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God is a necessary precondition for reason: my second rebuttal

This is my second rebuttal in my debate with Steve Zara on the moot: The Christian God is a necessary precondition for human reason.

Continued from Steve’s first rebuttal «

I believe I should start this post with an apology. In my previous statement I addressed my audience while referring to you, Steve, in the third person. This strikes me as perhaps a little rude. As much as the audience will benefit from this debate, it is with you that I am debating. Let me then apologize and address you directly now:

I agree that the discussion has wandered somewhat. You’re correct to point out that we aren’t discussing the nature of life or the kind of existence that subjective experiences have. We shouldn’t let these things unduly distract us. Even if they are examples of notions which have been wrong in the past, it is really of little consequence—because, getting back to the point, it is simply impossible that our notion of duality be in error. The mind must be a separate thing from the brain, or our ability to reason simply falls apart. That is the first premise of my overall argument. Let me prove it by focusing, as you rightly suggest, on “what human reasoning consists of”—

The need for a non-physical mind

To look at the process and claim that it simply can’t be reasoning because it is physical is not acceptable. If a physical system is sufficiently powerful to give the appearance of reasoning, then it certainly is reasoning.

Well, the argument I am forwarding is precisely that physical processes cannot in principle constitute reasoning. Therefore, if a physical system gives the appearance of reasoning, either it is an appearance only, or something more is going on than we are able to see using only physical means. There is simply a disconnect, in impassable bridge of principle between what is needed for reasoning to be reasoning, and what is possible given a purely physical world. In other words, if reasoning were indeed a physical process only, then its very nature would not actually be what we understand reasoning to be. And if reasoning is not really reasoning, the person making the assertion has some obvious and very profound epistemic problems.

Although I’ve stated this argument informally in my opening statement, let me explicate it more formally now. The way I’d like to present it is as a demonstration of the tension between two beliefs which you hold to be simultaneously true:

  1. We draw conclusions in virtue of what their premises are about. What I mean by this is that, when we see that all men are mortal, and that Socrates is a man, what these premises are about causes us to believe the conclusion that Socrates is mortal. How they do this may not be entirely clear, but we know that the premises really do cause the conclusion in some way. I’m confident you’ll agree that this is self-evidently true. If it were not, we wouldn’t be engaged in debate right now.
  2. Human beings are purely physical creatures. What I mean by this is that there is no non-physical soul or mind or spirit—just the body itself. Everything which happens in our minds—including reasoning of any kind—is in fact completely caused by physical objects (such as neurons) with physical properties working according to physical laws.

Now, it’s my contention that these two beliefs contradict each other: such that if (I) is true then (II) is false; and conversely, if (II) is true then (I) is false. But if we conclude that (I) is false we refute ourselves, because we cannot very well draw this conclusion by virtue of any premises without that conclusion relying on its own falsehood in order to be true. So (I) must be true because it actually cannot be false. On the other hand, (II) does not have this luxury. Obviously it could be the case that human beings are not purely physical. We might find this an unreasonable or undesirable conclusion depending on our other beliefs, but it is not intrinsically absurd. It does not refute itself. Therefore, if there is a contradiction between (I) and (II) so that only one of them can be true, we are forced to conclude that it is (I), and that (II) must be false. Let me now defend my contention of this contradiction—it is based on the following assertion:

Human reasoning cannot be described in terms of physical processes: physical objects with physical properties following physical laws

We cannot say “such-and-such a neuron fires, and causes such-and-such an inference.” If we say this, we actually make reasoning impossible. Arguments about representation, such as those forwarded by Mike in the comment stream of your most recent statement, do not help here. Consider the following reductio ad absurdum of (II):

  1. Human reasoning is completely caused by physical processes (as per II).
  2. It does not make sense to say that anything physical is about something.
  3. Therefore, it does not make sense to say that human reasoning has the quality of being about something with respect to causes.
  4. But if human reasoning cannot be said to be about something with respect to causes, (I) is disproved because it could not be the case that conclusions are caused by virtue of what their premises are about. This is self-refuting. Therefore, if we do not want to discard (i), (ii) must be false, and it must be sensible to say that something physical can be about something.
  5. But it is self-evidently meaningless to say that my kettle is about my dog (or about anything for that matter); or that the law of gravity is about Saturn or anything else; or that the physical neurons firing in my brain are about Socrates. Therefore, (ii) is self-evidently true, and (i) must be false.

But you might argue, as I think Mike does, that the problem is one of semantics. Maybe we human beings have developed this concept of “aboutness” or intentionality as a way of referring in the first person to what is really just simple representation. So perhaps instead of saying that the physical processes in my brain are about Socrates, which obviously makes no sense, we should say that these brain states represent Socrates. But this gains us nothing, because physical representations must operate according to physical laws. Consider; let’s call the brain state representing “Socrates is a man” S, the state representing “all men are mortal” M, and the third state representing “Socrates is mortal” SM

  1. The physical state SM is caused purely by a conjunction of the physical states S and M acting in virtue of the physical laws which govern all three.
  2. Physical laws are inapplicable to, and indifferent about, what a brain state represents. (Even if we could tell that a certain configuration of neurons represented the proposition “Socrates is a man”, we know that physical laws have no bearing whatsoever on this proposition. They only pertain to the physical state itself—not the abstract idea it represents.)
  3. But if my belief that Socrates is mortal is caused completely by the conjunction of prior physical states in my brain, then it is not caused in any part by virtue of its premises. But we know from (I) that it is self-refuting to claim that premises have no causal role in forming conclusions.
  4. Therefore, (vi) must be false. But if (vi) is false we once find that (II) is false: it cannot be the case that human beings are purely physical creatures, because it would make human reason impossible, which is self-refuting.

Note that this is not an argument that we don’t yet know how to explain human reason in physical terms, as some people mistakenly think. It is rather an argument showing that explaining human reason in physical terms is impossible in principle. It is necessarily the case that the mind cannot be reducible to the physical brain, because the alternative ends in absurdity. What I have shown, in other words, is that mental events occur in a mental thing, which we call the mind. This is a real thing; not just an abstract thing, or what philosophers call an epiphenomenal thing. It is neither physical in nature; nor is it simply of the physical. It is something of a different, but no less real “substance” to the physical. It is a substance to which properties can be applied which cannot be used to describe physical things: such as intentionality and truth. And it is a substance to which properties cannot be applied which can be used to describe physical things: such as mass and size. Two other important things are evident from this which force us to conclude that the Christian God exists: the universality of mental principles; and the internal tension which arises from them. I’ll address each briefly.

The universality of mental principles

It is obvious from internal reflection that there are certain ways of thinking which cannot be altered, and which we can see could not be otherwise. The law of noncontradiction, for example, says that A cannot be not-A at the same time and in the same sense. We can see that this law could never be broken, and it could never be changed, because it is actually a precondition for intelligibility. To speak of it being broken is meaningless, because it is a prerequisite of speaking at all. It is not simply a case of convention, such that we generally agree that it is best that A never be not-A at the same time and in the same sense. Rather, such agreement would rely on the law already being true. Like physical laws, it is something we cannot change; a principle which does not originate in any of us, but which is imposed upon us.

It is equally obvious that the existence of these mental principles implies that some kind of mental realm exists which supersedes any and all individual minds. I have discounted already the possibility that these mental principles could have their origin in the physical world by demonstrating the bridge of principle between mental and physical things. So we must look elsewhere as we consider what this superseding mental realm is like.

Now the fact of the matter is that mental things are mind-related things; mental principles are principles which act upon minds; and minds, whatever their actual substance, are personal, intelligent, aware entities. Therefore, the nature of this superseding mental realm in which mental principles are found cannot be non-personal, non-intelligent, and non-aware. This would violate the very nature of mental things to begin with. It must be the case that the superseding mental realm is itself some kind of a mind. The difference between it and us cannot be a difference of essential nature; it must rather be more like the difference between cause and effect.

What I mean is, we experience reality as it is imposed upon us. We are contingent upon it for our existence, and we have little control over it. We are finite and limited creatures without the capacity to impose laws of the kind under consideration. But there could exist a mind which is infinite and unlimited; who, rather than having reality imposed upon it, imposes itself upon reality, being noncontingent in and of itself. Only this sort of mind could originate mental principles like the law of noncontradiction. And, given the existence—the necessary existence—of these mental principles, it in fact must be the case that such a mind exists. It is as necessary and inviolably existent as mental laws. Indeed, these mental laws would simply be a description of the way in which this mind works.

In other words, mental principles imply a mind which possesses the quality of aseity—one of the two qualities I chose as defining the Christian God in my opening statement. The second is trinity.

The internal tension of mental principles

Something that is less obvious about the mental realm is that there is a strange internal paradox present. On the basis of the fact that there are mental laws which act as unifying principles upon us all, I have argued that the mental realm is ultimately a single mind upon which everything else is contingent. The difficulty with this is that unifying principles require something to unify. But if the mental realm is ultimately contingent upon a single mind, then what is there to unify in the first place? A mind is itself already unified; it contains no parts which must in turn be unified; and neither could it, or it could not act as the origin of a unifying principle in the first place, but rather would rely on some other unifying principle first. (Memories, thoughts, and the like, it should be recognized, are reflections of a pre-existing plurality outside the mind.) But if the aseitic mind I have deduced is ultimately one, then how did plurality come about at all? How can diversity come from what is intrinsically not diverse? The problem is the converse of the question that got us to this aseitic mind in the first place: how can there be unity between things which are intrinsically diverse?

The only evident answer to this question is that the aseitic mind must be both a unity and a plurality. It must be somehow both one mind, and more than one mind. Now you might think that this is a strange way for me to prove my case: to answer a paradox with another paradox. But consider that the alternative is actually not merely paradox, but absurdity. Either the mental realm is ultimately one (in which case plurality is impossible and individual minds could not exist); or the mental realm is ultimately diverse (in which case unity is impossible and logical laws could not exist)—or it is both, in which case we resolve the absurdity at the expense of a fully explicable answer. So this is the only solution which avoids complete incoherence, and is therefore the solution we are compelled to accept. It is the only solution which could be true.

It is also a situation which, due to its very nature as paradoxical and inexplicable, is rejected by religions which nonetheless affirm the existence of an ultimate, aseitic mind. Therefore, when we see that there is just a single religion which claims this paradoxical nature of God—as a trinity of the Father, Son, and Spirit—it starts to become quite unreasonable to discount this religion as just another man-made belief system. Given the nature of this aseitic, many-in-one mind which I have deduced, it is certainly plausible that it not only created us, but has communicated facts about itself to us through interaction with its creation—facts which have been recorded in written documents and compiled into a single compendium. Therefore, in the absence of any alternative religions, in the presence of the overwhelming evidence I have presented above, and in the spirit of impartial and fair-minded investigation, it would constitute unwarranted prejudice to dismiss the trinitarian Christian God as the necessary precondition for human reason. To remind you of your own principle: if the Christian God looks like a necessary, aseitic, many-in-one mind, and walks like a necessary, aseitic, many-in-one mind, then we have a Christian duck!

Continued in Steve’s second rebuttal »

4 comments

  1. Steve Zara

    You really have no need to apologise. These discussions can seem rather formal, and I have no problem with that at all!

  2. seer

    Though Mike and I kind of got off track, I think Bnonn has brought the crux of this debate back into focus: If materialism is true then reasoning is impossible. We don’t conclude that Socrates is mortal because it logically follows from the premises, but because our neurons happen to fire that way. And that process is non-rational at it’s base. In other words we don’t come to conclusions because they are true, but because the non-rational process of firing neurons deterministically caused that conclusion or thought. The content of the premises (the thoughts that Socrates is a man, and that all men are mortal) have NO EFFECT on the conclusion. Since in the materialist model the content of these thoughts can not/do not effect the natural process.

  3. Mike

    I don’t think we got off track – because what I have shown is that exactly this line of thought is mistaken. Deeply mistaken. Furthermore, the most basic fundamental mistake (no matter the position on the body/mind problem) is to say that the content and its truth of a statement has something to do with logic.
    This is simply wrong. Logic is only about form. The content doesn’t matter at all. It simply is uniformly (according to a certain mechanism) producing the output (conclusion) from the input (premises). Whether they are true is irrelevant. What they are about is irrelevant. The mechanism (logic) simply sees to it that if the premises are true, then the conclusion is as well.

    And it is blatantly wrong to say that the informational content of the thought can have no effect in the brain – in fact that is ludicrous. The informational content is coded as signals through neural pathways – and as such determines together with the functional organisation of the neural network (which accounts for logical processing and everything else) the output.
    -Mike

  4. seer

    And it is blatantly wrong to say that the informational content of the thought can have no effect in the brain – in fact that is ludicrous. The informational content is coded as signals through neural pathways – and as such determines together with the functional organisation of the neural network (which accounts for logical processing and everything else) the output.

    Mike, am I missing something here? There is no “informational content ” in your model. Just eletro-chemical impulses. Please show me where the thought “Socrates is a man” is found in any of that. What exactly turns those coded signals into the thought “Socrates is a man.”

    Logic is only about form. The content doesn’t matter at all. It simply is uniformly (according to a certain mechanism) producing the output (conclusion) from the input (premises). Whether they are true is irrelevant. What they are about is irrelevant. The mechanism (logic) simply sees to it that if the premises are true, then the conclusion is as well.

    Then all our conclusion are based on the non-rational chemical reactions of the brain. You could never know if your conclusions were true, that anything you are suggesting right now is true. Your reasoning is at the whim of the non-rational. I can safely discount your points… Correct?

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