Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Natural Minds

There’s something puzzling about ontological/a priori style arguments for us now. How do they work? For centuries, the prospect of proving God’s existence through some conceptual, a priori means seemed like an obvious, fruitful route. Like a proof in logic or mathematics, the presumption was that merely through understanding the concepts involved and unpacking their implications it could be discovered that God couldn’t not exist. God’s existence, it was thought, is a necessity—a deep structural feature of God and reality. He could no more fail to exist than 2 + 2 could fail to equal 4.

More generally, how do a priori proofs work? If a necessary truth can be revealed merely by my thinking about it, what are the implications for the relationship of our intellects to the reality that our concepts will reveal? Here’s one of the oldest and most profound epistemological problems considered by philosophers. The mind and its concepts are altogether different sorts of entities than the external reality that they are purported to be about. So how is that that intellect can come to have knowledge—know the truth—about that which lies outside the mind? What is the relationship between these two realms that allows for them to be bridged by knowledge? How is it that the containers that our minds happen to employ happen to line up with external objects and give us real access to them? For centuries the answer, which starts with Plato, was that the only real world is the one of concepts, universals, necessities, and logical truths. The material world is a fleeting, illusory realm. That is to say that insofar as knowledge is possible at all, we have it because the material world conforms our concepts, categories, and philosophical proofs. Mind is the ultimate arbitrator of knowledge, so the world conforms to mind.

With this sort of strong intellectual slant, the notion of proving God’s existence through an a priori proof like the ontological argument was obvious and natural. Our powers of reason are able to penetrate through to the real world when we employ them the right way, so if there is a God, we can come to know him by analyzing the concepts of him.

Questions still plague the intellectual approach to knowledge: how is it that the mind came to have this capacity to escape its confines and access the real world? How can we know that it can know? Why does it have powers that reveal truth instead of deception and mistake?

The embarassing and circular answer most often given is God. He endowed us with a set of cognitive capacities that allign with and grasp the real world. We can know that our faculties are calibrated to reality because God designed them. Of course the circular argument is that the alleged knowledge of God’s existence is a product of these faculties through the ontological argument. So we know that God exists by employing our intellectual powers, and we know that our intellectual powers are trustworthy because God makes them so.

There are other problems with the approach besides the circle. To modern ears, this sort of highly metaphysical and armchair approach to knowledge sounds alien. What’s happened in the last 200 years or so with the expansion of naturalism is that we’ve realized that this classic picture of the relationship of the mind to world has got it all upside down. Nature doesn’t conform to mind, mind conforms to nature. Humans, including their cognitive powers, are the products of the natural world, natural processes, natural (practical) necessities. Our intellectual faculties evolved, like everything else in us, through a process of natural selection. Competition for scarce resources in challenging environments slowly chiseled away the less adaptive biological features from the more adaptive ones. The long, circuitous process leaves us with a mishmash of kludged together features that were good enough at surviving to keep us alive long enough to reproduce. The human brain is not endowed with its cognitive powers by any intentional, thoughtful planning. In our case, as genetic variations occurred, those individuals whose neural capacities made it possible for them to better solve the basic problems of survival: locomotion, problem solving, anticipating the future, planning, and reacting were favored.
Given that our minds are the product of this sort of process, it would be remarkable and bizarre that something like an ontological argument succeeded. (Keep in mind that the philosophical consensus for decades has been that the ontological argument does not work.) In that case, our capacity to have knowledge of God would be a strange anomaly. We would be organisms composed of a varied set of just-good-enough capacities for the practical challenges of fighting, fleeing, feeding, and reproducing, and these capacities arose from thelong, convoluted, and blind process of evolution, yet somehow we have this magical, unerring ability to transcend ourselves and the conditions that produced us and go to heaven with our thoughts.

Perhaps we do have this anomalous intellectual capacity and the nature-makes-the-mind model is wrong. But if someone thinks that a priori proofs really do give us the long sought after certainty of God’s existence in the old school sense of certainty, then it is incumbent upon them to explain just how it is that animals that are produced by natural selection came to have the power to acquire this sort of knowledge. How is it that organisms that are built primarily for foraging nuts and berries came by their magical transcendent knowledge? For a reasonable person who understands the nature of scientific inquiry, there are no serious grounds to doubt that we evolved and that our cognitive faculties are the product of natural selection. So if we can also know God with these minds, how did we come to have that extraordinary ability? The answer is that we don’t have such an ability. A priori proofs don’t give us that sort of access to some deep structure of reality. They help us build more articulated models of reality that predict more and incorporate more of our observations—but the empirical world is always the yardstick that the model must conform to. Rather than giving us a medieval style proof that God is real, what the ontological argument does is open a window on the concepts and logical principles upon which it is built. It is more revealing about the creatures that thought it up than the magical being it is alleged to prove.


Unknown said...

Prof. Matt McCormick,

The laws of the universe are formulated in Mathematics. Mathematic maps Logic. The following proof uses formal logic.

See: (see the left menu)
It proofs the existence of a Creator and His purpose of humankind.

Anders Branderud

M. Tully said...


Is it a philosopher thing that philosophers never want to state the obvious? I actually think, it's a teacher's thing. Good teacher's always try to impart critical thinking. Well, alright you being a professional are probably obligated to do so. Me, being an amateur, will just say it straight out.

Can anyone demonstrate knowledge, a priori or otherwise, without a material brain?

No...good, then we don't have any liars hanging out here.

We learn how the universe works by using our material brains. We have have found after tens of thousands of years that our first impressions can be right or wrong and the only way to have confidence in them is by testing them against controlled observations.

The fact that we must use controlled observations to confirm our intuitions or else there is high probability of erroneous predictions proves that our brains can and do make mistakes.

That fact that our material brains can and do make mistakes when compared to accurate predictions proves that there is absolutely NO SUCH THING AS A PRIORI KNOWLEDGE!

2+2=4? Well, what if every single time I took two rocks and put them on the ground and then put two more rocks on the ground within a one meter radius of the first two, there were all of sudden FIVE rocks on the ground?

I'll tell you what it means. It means 2+2= flipping 5! You cannot deny the empirical data. It may be uncomfortable, you may hate the implication (I know I would), but yes then 2+2=5. And then you must readjust your other predictions based on this new data.

The fact that we all agree that 2+2=4 is not due to some a priori magical knowledge. It is, like any other theory with predictive power, based on observed facts.

The universe wasn't created for the human brain, the human brain evolved in it. If the universe had been designed for our brains, quantum mechanics and tensor calculus would be as obvious to us as finding food to survive.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks for all of the input lately, Tully. I agree with you on several points here. Our brains evolved to fit into the universe, and they are kludged together contraptions that do several things pretty well, but none of them perfectly. They do make mistakes, obviously. It doesn't follow that there is no such thing as a priori knowledge as far as I can tell. Pi is still 3.14159265. . . And that's something that can be proven a priori as much as anything can be proven. What has happened with the naturalism revolution in philosophy is that we've scaled back what we mean by a priori knowledge. It's knowledge that we can demonstrate within the confines of a conceptual/theoretical system that we have a very high degree of confidence about. But the confidence that we have in a model of the world that we've constructed is derived ultimately from observation and empirical testing. So that makes it seem like, in a very round about way, that there's no such thing as a priori knowledge.

I'm actually not averse to just denying it altogether as you are doing, but it remains useful to have the category and just be clear about what we mean by it. I've made several earlier posts about this issue. Thanks again.


M. Tully said...

Thanks Matt,

My lack of acceptance of a priori knowledge may well be (read as; is probably) based in my not having a well developed philosophical background. I would still contend that it doesn't exist (pi, by the way, is derived from a polygonic algorithm that was accepted because of empirically measured values, if I couldn't cut the predicted length of strength and get reasonably close to the circumference, pi would be something else or not exist at all if it wasn't consistently wrong) but as always, I could be wrong.

But the real reason for my tirade is having a lack of data to decide where reasonable accommodation of dissenting opinion (or unintentional ignorance) deserves respectful education and where willful ignorance and/or intentional deception should be called to the carpet.

I'm not sure where that line should be drawn. You draw it where I suspect a professional academic probably should. I draw it probably a bit to the right of where a practical consumer of knowledge probably should.

So, where are the damned educational psychologists with the data I need?

Matt McCormick said...

I think you're confusing instances of a priori knowledge in action with proving that they are true. Let me switch to the Pythagorean theorem to make the point. It's true that for every right triangle you examine, you'll find that a square plus b square will equal c squared. But that's not why we know that the Pyth. Theorem is true, those are just a few instances of it. With Euclidean geometry we can prove that for ALL right triangles including the ones we've never looked at that a square plus b squared MUST equal c squared. The hallmark of a priori knowledge in contrast to a posteriori knowledge is that it informs you of truths beyond the immediate ones of observation. Same for pi. You may see iterations of it or be able to get an approximation of it from real circles, but that's not the proof that for every circle it will have pi as a necessary part of its mathematical relationships. If we measured up a real world circle and came up with another number for pi, we could be certain that it was our real world circle (which are never very precise) that was screwed up, not pi.

I'm not sure what to say about disagreements, dissenting opinions, and respectful arguments. I can divide the comments on my posts into some categories, usually:
a) commenter doesn't get it and it completely out in left field.
b) commenter isn't really interested in discussing the issue reasonably, they'd rather bicker, show off, or be nasty.
c) commenter is unhinged and dangerous, and finds the existence of non-believers deeply troubling.
d) commenter takes the time to read and think about the post, and tries to make a constructive contribution.
e) commenter's consciousness has been completely co-opted by religious theo-babble from an early age and seems to think that quoting the Bible and preaching at me will change my mind.

Once in a while I will try to discuss things with people in a). I try not to rise to the bait with people in b) although I respond to them more than is useful, probably.
I try to ignore the c) people and hope that they don't find my home address. And I always try to interact with the d) people. I always hold out hope for the e) people, but they can be very hard to get through to. Many of them need a thorough deprogramming.

But you never know how much good a little seed of thoughtful reasoning might do with someone you talk to, even the people who you have the least optimism about.


Eric Sotnak said...

Curse this blog for getting me interested in all sorts of problems I really don't have time for.

I've been tinkering with the idea that a principled account of a priori knowledge might be defended along the lines that what we count as a priori knowledge is an artifact of certain kinds of inferential procedure. The way one goes about concluding that the Pythagorean Theorem holds for every right triangle differs significantly from the way one goes about deciding whether or not all ducks have feathers. Nevertheless, it will be through experience that one ultimately discovers in which situations which type of procedure is appropriate. Perhaps this will do justice both to my Quinean and Kantian sympathies, but I have to confess to having thought much less hard about this than would be ideal.

GeorgeRic said...

Agnostics are puzzled: Where is God? Why this confusion? But also: Why belief in the occult? How do the possessed levitate? Why are there provable 'Miracles'? Abbott, writing 'Flatland' explained contiguous geometric worlds to solve the difficulties. Now 'Techie Worlds' examines impossible concepts like trinity, resurrection, judgment, souls and more, showing they are logical and reasonable in the context of contiguous geometrical worlds. That is the way of science: to examine phenomena in the light of theory.
Neither approach can be proved or dis-proved, but the advantages of life and nature weigh towards the Christian view. 'Techie Worlds' (available from will bring Moslems and Jews to the teachings of Jesus.