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Posted by on Feb 17, 2014 in Agnosticism, Apologetics, Consciousness, Featured, Philosophy | 22 comments

Randal Rauser has a pop at me

A few weeks back, theologian, author and blogger Randal Rauser had a pop at me. We have previously had a few cross-posts and whatnot, and even debated on US radio/Reasonable Doubts podcast on the subject of the Nativity, which can be found here. Luke, a theist who regularly comments here,, also comments at Rauser’s blog, and I got into a revived debate about libertarian free will and the Kalam. Below is Randal’s post, in green, and I will comment interlinearly in grey.

Time and again I have encountered the inexplicably dull lack of awareness that so-called “skeptical free thinkers” have about their own double standards. As a case in point consider this comment posted just today in the thread to my article “The kalam cosmological argument and libertarian free will“. The comment comes from blogger Jonathan MS Pearce and it is meant to provide a rebuttal to the philosophical appeal to agent causation:

Wow. This is one ad hominem style personal attack. Good, rational way to start.

As Dennett has just said:

“Some have gone so far as to posit an otherwise unknown (and almost entirely unanalyzable) phenomenon called agent causation, in which free choices are caused somehow by an agent, but not by any event in the agent’s history. One exponent of this position, Roderick Chisholm, candidly acknowledged that on this view every free choice is “a little miracle”—which makes it clear enough why this is a school of thought endorsed primarily by deeply religious philosophers and shunned by almost everyone else.”

That says it all for me!

I will begin by saying some words about the quote itself. Next, I’ll make some observations about Jonathan’s use of the quote.

Analyzing Dennett’s Quote

It is important that we have this picture in perspective. Dennett is an important philosopher. But he is also militantly anti-religious and obsessively reductionist in philosophical orientation. Philosophy is a continuum running from austere reductionism (e.g. all that exists are atoms and the void) to a rich anti-reductionism (e.g. the world consists of minds and bodies, irreducible moral and aesthetic facts, socially constructed objects, etc.). Dennett simply denies as non-philosophical any positions that offer a richer anti-reductionism than he is willing to stomach.

This appears akin to me slamming Randal for using a Christian philosopher in defence of his position. “Philosophy is a continuum running from austere atheism (e.g. all that exists are atoms and the void) to a rich anti-atheism (e.g. the world consists of minds and bodies, irreducible moral and aesthetic facts, socially constructed objects, etc.). Swinburne/Craig/Plantinga simply denies as non-philosophical any positions that offer a richer anti-atheism than he is willing to stomach.” Where everything there is equally as assertive and undefended.

But it isn’t enough to dismiss anti-reductionism as non-philosophical, and so Dennett goes for the ultimate label of indignation for any secular ideologue: religion. Thus, he summarily equates anti-reductionism with “deep religion”, to which the proper response is apparently “shunning”. (For further discussion see my article “Substance dualism as atheistic heresy.”)

Isn’t that revealing? Dennett undoubtedly thinks of himself as some sort of free thinker. But they way he deals with anti-reductionism in philosophy is by labelling and shunning like some old-school Anabaptist patriarch who directs the community to turn their collective back on a prodigal son.

So a freethinker cannot, by definition, hold a position? We need to define freethinker here. In fact, Randal is making wholesale claims on the term without defining it at all. It seems he thinks a freethinker should have such an open mind that all sorts of shit can get in.

Before we turn to Jonathan’s response, I’d like to make a few extra points. First, Roderick Chisholm, one of the twentieth century’s leading analytic metaphysicians, wasn’t particularly religious. But he was persuaded of the truth of substance dualism and agent causation on philosophical grounds.

I would be interested as to how he knows this. I would wager Chisholm didn’t use evidence and argument to drive this position, but desire for it to be true in order to derive such complex, rather iconoclastic thought. In fact, his thoughts on this topic were “constantly evolving” and it appears that the (as with most libertarians free willers) main reason for following this line is to satisfy ideas of moral responsibility. I have actually accused Dennett of this with his compatibilism in my Free Will? book. Moral philosophy dictates how people approach philosophy of free will. I would wager, though cannot know, that Chisholm would be persuaded on such grounds, rather than the grounds of agent causation in and of themselves, not least because those grounds are actually thoroughly shaky.

Second, Dennett’s notoriously austere and ideologically driven reductionism has earned him the criticism of many atheistic philosophers (of which the most famous is probably John Searle).

This leads into the third point: philosophy is full of atheistic anti-reductionists from Searle to Colin McGinn to Thomas Nagel to Noam Chomsky.

And finally, let me note an important point about Dennett’s “little miracle” quip. This is an empty bit of rhetoric from an ideologue, but it conceals an important fact that every philosopher from the most ideologically driven reductionist like Dennett to the richest anti-reductionist (e.g. Henri Bergson) has miracles in his philosophy. Consider, for example, the philosophy of mind. Colin McGinn’s “little miracle” may be found in his acceptance that the “soggy grey matter” of the brain somehow produces the “Technicolor phenomenology” of conscious experience. But Dennett’s “little miracle” is found in his denial that there is any such thing as the Technicolor phenomenology of conscious experience (it is that little miracle in particular which earned Dennett the derision of John Searle).

There seems to be some properly dubious equivocation on the term “miracle” here,

To sum up, we all grapple with the mystery of existence and the attempt to find the optimal scaling of reductive theory to irreducible phenomena.

It’s funny, I teach persuasive writing (in fact, I am doing so at the moment. Well, not right now.) and this seems to be a great case of stating opinion as fact. Asserting there are irreducible phenomena in seemingly absolute terms. Lightning used to be thought as the wrath of the gods and I suppose people thought that that could not be adequately reduced to component ;parts and physics. Randal is rather dogmatic for one slagging off freethinkers…

Dennett’s anti-free thought ideology which drives him to label and shuns those with whom he disagrees is the bane of open and free critical enquiry.

Analyzing Jonathan’s response

Finally, let’s turn to Jonathan who simply quotes Dennett’s anti-free thought, ideological reductionism and then blithely quips “That says it all for me!”

Let’s try to get our minds around that. Imagine a Christian philosopher who is the equivalent in the Christian community that Dennett is for atheists like Jonathan. Let’s call our ideologically driven anti-reductionist “Professor Brown”. Now imagine if a Christian had written this to Jonathan:

As Brown has just said:

“Some have gone so far as to deny the undeniable experience and immediate evidence of agent causation by denying there is any agent who causes anything (in which case who is causing the keys to depress on my keyboard?). One exponent of this position, Daniel Dennett, candidly denies that any minds acting in the world exist—which makes it clear enough why this is a school of thought endorsed primarily by deeply anti-religious philosophers and shunned by almost everyone else.”

That says it all for me!

I’m quite sure that Jonathan would be falling all over himself upon reading this mindless quotation of Professor Brown. And he should be. You can’t just label those who pursue a more rigorously reductionistic philosophy and submit them to shunning. You’ve got to consider their proposals on their independent merits.

What is sad is that so-called free thinkers like Jonathan seem blissfully unaware that the courtesy extends in the other direction as well. And as they follow lockstep behind the comments of their ideological leaders — “That says it all for me!” — they become enemies of the very free thought they proclaim with their words.

Hmm. A lot of bluster over very little. This comment on Randal’s original blog post says it all:

That certainly is a long post, for so little actually addressing the post title. As far as I can tell, the entire case is that Dennet is an “enemy” of free thought because he finds a particular school of thought to be primarily religious, and reports that it is generally shunned. Jonathan MS Pearce is an “enemy” of free speech because, when he finds someone articulating his point of view, instead of putting it in his own words, he quotes the statement and states that he agrees.

And, as usual, Rauser is dishonest: he accuses Dennet of “shunning” anyone who doesn’t agree with him, based on Dennet reporting that other people shun a particular school of thought (not the people who follow it).

Basically, at the end of a long and protracted back and forth over a long period, throwing in a supporting quote from a famous philosopher is pretty normal. It’s totally undeserving of such a rant and it certainly wasn’t my idea of a rebuttal, since I had expressed my refutation in a whole number of posts. This was just that, a supporting quote.

  • Luke Breuer

    If you don’t see “deeply religious” as a weasel term filled with negative, dismissive connotation, I think you need to readjust how you think a bit, Jonathan. Dennett was employing rhetoric, from the perspective of at least one theist—me—and probably Randal, as well.

    Before digging into some details, I will point out that you didn’t actually address the thrust of Randal’s argument: how the “As Brown has just said” bit is any worse than “As Dennett has just said”. It therefore seems a bit hypocritical to end with “A lot of bluster over very little.” If he’s doing it, so are you…

    Wow. This is one ad hominem style personal attack. Good, rational way to start.

    Do you really want to argue this? Consider, for example, Massimo Pigliucci’s On Coyne, Harris, and PZ (with thanks to Dennett). Should we dismiss Coyne, Harris, and PZ on account of their severe ad hominem attacks on Pigliucci? Or perhaps is it ok to play a little rough and tumble? I realize that it’s good to have a protocol that both people agree upon, but let me be honest: I felt a bit slighted myself by your use of that quote in response to me. But I shrugged it off (without a word) in order to attempt to pursue deeper understanding of issues.

    This appears akin to me slamming Randal for using a Christian philosopher in defence of his position.

    Really? It seems more like Randal is explaining that Dennett lies on a bit of an extreme of the spectrum of positions held by a nontrivial number of philosophers. Those who don’t have a good survey of the various philosophical positions might not know this.

    So a freethinker cannot, by definition, hold a position?

    C’mon Jonathan, it seems like you’ve let that ad hominem affect your critical reasoning. How can you complain about ad hominems on the one hand and not see the same negative, abusive style in Dennett’s:

    One exponent of this position, Roderick Chisholm, candidly acknowledged that on this view every free choice is “a little miracle”—which makes it clear enough why this is a school of thought endorsed primarily by deeply religious philosophers and shunned by almost everyone else.”

    ? He clearly looks down contemptuously on “deeply religious philosophers”. And he is likely equivocating between the definition of ‘religious’ that is required to make his statement true, and the definition of ‘religious’ that will exist in the minds of many of his readers—unless they take the position that “militantly anti-religious and obsessively reductionist” is the only sensible one to take. This militancy seems to be its own kind of ‘deeply religious’. This is ‘religious’ fervor.

    There seems to be some properly dubious equivocation on the term “miracle” here

    Care to provide a definition that fits Dennett’s use of ‘miracle’ that is anything other than “we don’t know how this bit works yet”? We don’t know how many bits work in reality, so there needs to be a heuristic for which unknown mechanisms are allowable and which are not. Does Dennett provide such a heuristic, or is this just a culturally embedded heuristic which really ought to be doubted, skeptic-style?

    • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      Care to provide a definition that fits Dennett’s use of ‘miracle’ that is anything other than “we don’t know how this bit works yet”?

      My point exactly. Miracle as unknown mechanism as opposed to breaking natural law is not the right use for me. Quantum isn’t miracle.

      • Luke Breuer

        I’m just not sure of what you’re saying here, and I think the use of ‘natural law’ opens up a lot of questions. You might like The Computational Theory of the Laws of Nature, by the way.

        Have you read any William James? He’s opened up my eyes to two basic forms of philosophy:

             (1) rationalistic, coherent world-building
             (2) empirical, incremental world-matching

        There is a tension between these two, because (1) values coherence over matching reality, while (2) values matching reality over coherence. The use of ‘miracle’ seems to be more of a (1)-type philosophy, and I’m pretty sure that (1)-type philosophies have been quite fruitful in human endeavors, making it extremely suspect to criticize this idea of ‘miracle’ on the base that it is not fully understood: reality is not fully understood!

        It seems to me that Dennett (and you) are taking the stance that (1)-type philosophy is never good or useful; would you agree? It would certainly be a way to justify the criticism Dennett has of ‘little miracle’. I just think it’s a bad justification, based on empirical evidence of all things.

        • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

          As in coherence theories against empirico-pragmatist theories?

          • Luke Breuer

            I’m not sure if that’s an apt description, because the rationalistic theories are often fairly divorced from reality, at least in the sense that they deviate from reality in huge ways in certain regimes, kind of how F = ma deviates from reality near high gravity or relativistic speeds.

            Consider philosophy as the attempt to fit a high-dimensional manifold which we cannot measure or even detect very accurately. You have two fundamental methods: (1) fit various pieces as you encounter them and try to connect those pieces the best you can, or (2) try to fit the whole thing at once, noting that you’ll get big errors in various places, if not many places. The first is a bottom-up approach, the second, a top-down approach. Both are extremely helpful in activities such as software development, and I’m fairly sure that both are helpful in philosophy, as well.

          • Daydreamer1

            Hi Luke. I tend to try and stay out of these discussions as they seem to me to follow set pieces, like Chess. The game is played many times and each time the opponent knows the best counter move.

            Do you agree that all the systems of thought we employ in these debates have their own weaknesses? The scientific ones are pretty obvious, some assumptions have to be made from the out (like the lack of an evil demon judging experiments etc) that cannot be proven through science. Theism also features assumptions at its base.

            My feeling is that these debates often fall to their lowest level, and once you find people pointing these out then you’ve reached the bottom of the debate, which, to me, is fine.

            Every argument can ultimately be terminated at its assumptions, and reaching this point while not being able to make conclusions along the way shows that what can be honestly wrought out of the argument has been.

            Tackling creationism is easy since you’ve got claim vs claim and they are often objective and measurable, unless they collapse and fall back to their base assumptions, i.e. God put all the fossils there to confuse us, or God created the universe 6000 years ago to look old.

            These to me are the two sides to philosophy, where it is useful and where it stalemates.

            I think it is OK to admit a philosophical stalemate, since it reveals where both sides have terminated without resolution. So when either side has to point out that the other is using reductionist or non-reductionist arguments I go ‘well, doh’ and accept that the debate has ended at its roots. I feel it is important to do this since philosophy as a subject so easily hits the roots of a subject, those base assumptions. If it descends to the point where all people are doing is pointing out what assumptions they feel are reasonable – and especially where they feel they don’t have to justify it because justifying it is just another assumption – thats the point for tea or beer.

            I have been firmly criticised in debates for wanting something to actually talk about. The weakness of that, and the reason I am wrong, is apparently that I am assuming that the way to settle debates is to have something to talk about. This assumption is where I go wrong and renders me incapable of understanding the reasons for making decisions that do not feature something to talk about.

          • Luke Breuer

            Hi Luke. I tend to try and stay out of these discussions as they seem to me to follow set pieces, like Chess. The game is played many times and each time the opponent knows the best counter move.

            One way to solve this is to understand the game so well that you can reach new board states, or finally discover that there are no satisfying board states and switch to a new paradigm. This, however, requires a lot of time, effort, sucking it up when you feel insulted, etc. It requires you to really, truly try to take a stroll in the other person’s shoes, if not run a marathon. Few people are willing to do this. Many people think they can get the result without paying the requisite cost. There is no free lunch.

            Do you agree that all the systems of thought we employ in these debates have their own weaknesses?

            Yes. I prefer measuring the weaknesses empirically and teleologically (does my way better help me increasingly understand reality than yours?), rather than dogmatically or by insisting upon zero contradictions in current models. Imagine if it had always and forever been punishable by death to think about photons as waves and particles.

            Consider the following:

            As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. (Rom 14:1-4)

            You will perhaps need to trust me as to the intensity of the debate over whether to eat kosher. And yet Paul is saying that differences are ok. Quarreling about them endlessly is not ok. Continuing:

            One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. (Rom 14:5-6)

            We get a second explosive topic: how to observe that all-important Sabbath—or not to observe it? Seriously, Paul? Actually, yes. And what does Paul say? Everything think identically? No! Each ought to be fully convinced in his own mind. It’s almost as if Paul wants each person to think rigorously, even if that means different foundational assumptions. :-)

          • Daydreamer1

            Hi Luke,

            One way to solve this is to understand the game so well that you can reach new board states, or finally discover that there are no satisfying board states and switch to a new paradigm

            It requires you to really, truly try to take a stroll in the other person’s shoes

            Does that solve it though? Sure, it may remove prior ignorance, but actually solve?? Adoption of new paradigms is done on what basis? I would of course like to choose evidence, but what should I say if presented with the axiom that evidence is ‘just my personal philosophy’? Since what I refer to here is the stalemate when both sides are reduced to their base assumptions and there is no way to choose between them any ‘switch to a new paradigm’ is just personal choice.

            As for taking a stroll in the others shoes again I interpret that as more making choices like other people, not about basal uncertainness in arguments being reached.

            Yes. I prefer measuring the weaknesses empirically and teleologically

            That is my point though. That is where you stake your flag and many will just come along and say you have to make assumptions to do that, like everyone else, and that you’re ‘just doing it empirically and theologically’. Perhaps if you weren’t so teleological or empirical you would see other possibilities. All I mean to say is that it gets quite boring when they do that.

            I like those interpretations of Paul. I wouldn’t see the dangerous bit to be people thinking differently about things, I would see it either in how we treat each other afterwards, or, if it was that type of thing, the consequences of it. Linking it to powerful emotions means also teaching people responsibility, otherwise it can lead to expressions of our darkest corners.

          • Luke Breuer

            FYI it’s <blockquote>, not <quote>.

            Does that solve it though? Sure, it may remove prior ignorance, but actually solve?

            It is often said that having a gay friend helps one realize that they aren’t evil and that you can live with them, even with different sexual orientations. You don’t have to change your orientation to stop thinking terrible thoughts in his direction. So I think the word ‘solve’ really is apt. I have no need for everyone to adopt the same metaphysics/epistemology. I am staunchly against ‘metaphysical tyranny’.

            As for taking a stroll in the others shoes again I interpret that as more making choices like other people, not about basal uncertainness in arguments being reached.

            It means simulating their brains as best as you can, given the information you have. This means both thinking like them and acting like them.

            hat is where you stake your flag and many will just come along and say you have to make assumptions to do that, like everyone else, and that you’re ‘just doing it empirically and theologically’.

            I don’t see a problem, yet.

    • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      How is that quote from Dennett rhetorical in any divisive way? In the context of the essay, he is dismissing agent causation, and for good reason, as we have discussed at length before.

      “in which free choices are caused somehow by an agent, but not by any event in the agent’s history”

      Referring to it as a “little miracle” is Chisholm, not Dennett (although to find the original quote is tough – perhaps it is even Lewis). Chisholm states that the mystery of the causal aspect of agent causation is a “difficulty…that may be traced to the concept of causation generally” and “must be faced by anyone who makes use of the concept of causation at all….”

      Roderick M. Chisholm, “Human Freedom and the Self,” in Free Will, edited by Gary Watson, Oxford Readings in Philosophy (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 31

      • Luke Breuer

        How is that quote from Dennett rhetorical in any divisive way?

        “deeply religious” = huge-ass insult

        • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

          I don’t read it as that. I read it that the more religious you are, the more likely you are to support or believe in LFW. This is borne out by philpapers etc, and by anecdotal evidence. ie THE ONLY people I know who fervently defend LFW are religious (one is deistic).

          • Luke Breuer

            I would need to see it in context and understand a good bit about how Dennett uses the term ‘religious’—what connotation he often attaches to it—to know. But surely you can realize that a New Atheist using the term ‘deeply religious’ can easily lead a theist to view it as an insult?

    • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      As Harry Frankfurt himself says of Chisholm,

      “Whenever a person preforms a free action, according to Chisholm, it’s a miracle. The motion of a person’;s hand, when the person moves it, is the outcome of a series of physical causes; but some event in the series, “and presumably one of those that took place within the brain, was caused by the agent and not by other events” (18). A free agent has, therefore, “a prerogative which some would attribute only to God: each of us, when we act, is a prime mover unmoved” (23).

      Harry Frankfurt, The Importance of What We Care About: Philosophical Essays, p.23.

      Referencing Chisholm, “Freedom and Action”, 1966.

      Do you and Randal think that Dennett was making that “little miracle” quote himself?

      • Luke Breuer

        No, I don’t think either of us rejected the bare use of the term ‘miracle’. It’s more the derisive view that Dennett probably takes of miracles (which I would define as knowing the final cause better than the efficient cause; see here), as well as the obviously derisive term, ‘deeply religious’.

        It’s really a matter of where one puts the mystery in our heretofore incomplete knowledge of reality. Some feel the need to show contempt for those who don’t put the mystery in the right spot.

        • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

          But the mystery is that LFW defies logic. This is not mystery. It’s just wrong.

          • Luke Breuer

            Ok, let’s go back to something not-CFW. You made a comment a while ago about how falsification of CFW would come in some crazy form that I completely disagreed with. Shall we continue that discussion? I found it fascinating, but you apparently got too busy. I can find those comments if you’d like.

            I remind you that assuming that the most fundamental ‘stuff’ must be {laws, randomness} is not the only logical way to build a world. If we get spontaneous eruptions of local order (SELO), neither (a) laws nor (b) randomness are enough to explain them. I would just love to have you talk about what SELOs would mean, in terms of CFW. So far, I don’t recall anything particularly interesting coming out of our discussions of SELO. If you’d like though, I can review all of them before we continue this.

          • Andy_Schueler

            I remind you that assuming that the most fundamental ‘stuff’ must be {laws, randomness} is not the only logical way to build a world. If we get spontaneous eruptions of local order (SELO)

            Let me remind you that we can grant you, for the sake of the argument, that this SELO stuff and everything, literally everything else you propose is indeed real. It doesn´t change the fact that libertarianism is logically incoherent.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1026609730 Jim Balter

    a) Rauser isn’t worth the time and effort. b) Dennett is not a radical reductionist … quite the opposite. See, e.g., his “Real Patterns” and “Two Black Boxes”.

    • Luke Breuer

      Why don’t you post on Randal’s blog with some excerpts from those papers? Randal is currently the best apologist I know of who engages his readers in his blog comment sections; do you know of better Christian apologists? Otherwise, I’m going to work with what I’ve got, and happily at that!

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1026609730 Jim Balter

        See (a) above. I have no interest in debating apologetics, which is a euphemism for intellectual dishonesty.

        • Luke Breuer

          It sure is hard to argue with fundamentalists.