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Richard Carrier Indef 3b

Nash on Naturalism vs. Christian Theism (1999, 2005)

Richard Carrier


[Part 3B of a larger Review of In Defense of Miracles.]


Claiming Victory After Only One Battle

Ronald Nash’s basic argument is that naturalism, which excludes miracles, is unreasonable, but Christian theism, which includes miracles, isn’t. The chapter begins by explaining why worldviews are an important consideration, and then describes Christian theism. This is useful, because he lays out in a short summary all the basic beliefs that Christians of his ilk hold to, and shows how they are all interrelated, and this is valuable information for those of us who want to understand where people like him are really coming from. But he never defends this worldview. He only explains it. Thus, he fails to show that Christian theism is reasonable (since merely being coherent is not enough), undermining the basic purpose of his essay in the context of this book.

All his arguments are devoted to proving naturalism unreasonable. He chooses this target because naturalism “creates the greatest problems for belief in miracles” (116). But myopia has set in here. The fact that naturalism is the most common opposing view that he has had to deal with, since he lives in the Western, English-speaking world, does make it important to address. But what about Taoism and Buddhism? These worldviews, especially the more careful philosophical versions, are coherent and attractive. Although they allow “miracles” in some sense, they do not allow miracles in the sense defined by Purtill, and thus these worldviews create serious challenges to Christian theism–as does Deism, which cannot be excluded simply because it has gone out of fashion. It is a mistake to suppose that by eliminating naturalism, Christian theism becomes the most attractive or plausible alternative.[1]

Nash does recognize these other views in passing, but simply dismisses them (as well as Islam) since they are not popular in Western countries and are not encountered “frequently” enough by Christians in Europe and the U.S. But so what? The majority of the people on Earth live elsewhere. And certainly there are Christian missionaries in China who have a rough time of it–yet Nash gives them no assistance. The underlying assumption here is that unpopularity in his own corner of the planet equates to universal unreasonableness, but that is hardly a valid assumption. Moreover, Nash only attacks “physicalism,” excluding all other kinds of naturalism, simply because today “physicalists control the agenda” (293). But since he must show that Christian theism is reasonable, it is not enough to attack only one live view, no matter how popular it is in his own neighborhood, since the other views may yet be more reasonable than Christian theism. He is in a sense accepting a “truth by vote” fallacy: most English speakers who reject Christian theism adopt physicalism, therefore physicalism is the best alternative. But that does not follow.[2]

Shouldn’t Nash at Least Read What Naturalists Write?

There is another fault in Nash’s approach: he never once quotes a naturalist. Whenever demonstrating some view held by naturalists, he usually quotes a Christian critic. In one case he goes outside Christian literature to quote a twenty-year-old introductory college textbook. A sensible scholar would not do this, because of the risk of building a straw man. Moreover, this makes us wonder how Nash knows what he is talking about, since he shows us no signs of having read any naturalist literature. Hence we can hardly trust that he has made a competent effort to actually refute any naturalist worldview, much less all of them.

For example, Nash quotes C.S. Lewis arguing that naturalism excludes spontaneity (120). But many physicalists hold to a realist interpretation of quantum mechanics, which makes acausal “spontaneity” a genuine possibility. Naturally, Lewis predates the growth of Quantum Mechanical worldviews in philosophical discourse, which really only got going in the 60’s and have become rather popular only in the past two decades. Thus, by not reading up on current literature, Nash’s ideas of what naturalism entails are out of date. Although I am not a QM realist myself (I am suspending judgment until scientists know more), no discussion of naturalism can be current without addressing that issue, among many others that Nash ignores.

Nash also inserts his foot in his mouth when he says “it is interesting that there is [in naturalism] an insistence on explanation for all individual entities,” but a “denial of both the necessity and the possibility of explaining the whole system in terms of something else” (122). Strange. Doesn’t Nash realize that Christian theism does exactly the same thing? After all, theists “deny…both the necessity and the possibility of explaining” God’s existence. So what’s the difference? And when we apply Occham’s razor, we find that between the two worldviews, naturalism explains all the same phenomena as Christian theism, but with fewer theoretical assumptions. Since that is the only standard for choosing between competing theories in the absence of any other deciding evidence between them, naturalism should appear the most rational choice.

Nash also shows a significant lack of knowledge of physics, which leads me to question whether he knows enough to really understand physicalism. For instance, he says that to physicalists “antecedent causes must either be matter or be reducible to matter,” apparently forgetting the fact that light (comprised of photons) is not matter, yet can transmit a chain of causation all the same, and if naturalists accept that (as they all do), then they can in principle accept any number of other matterless causal agencies. Such a shallow grasp of what naturalist’s actually believe, or can accept as possible, permeates Nash’s critique.

The Argument from Reason

Finally, the launching point of Nash’s direct critique is a brief defense, drawing mainly from C.S. Lewis, of the “Argument from Reason.”[3] The argument basically says that logic (human reason) cannot exist or be known without God. All such arguments stem from a complete ignorance of the scientific literature on the evolution of logical and mathematical thinking in living systems, which explains, with ample proof, how and why we think like we do, and why we are able to correct ourselves when our brain makes a mistake. Indeed, I have never seen any proponent of any form of the Argument from Reason ever cite, mention, address, or even show an awareness of this literature.[4] Nash is no exception. He thinks that a fifty-year-old Christian apologist (C.S. Lewis) can be used to the complete exclusion of all scientific literature on the subject since. It is so very typical of apologists to act as if antiquated Christian rhetoric can be substituted for solid, current, scientific research, on what is clearly a scientific question. Instead, Nash inserts long quotes of the barely-comprehensible quasi-Platonic ramblings of C.S. Lewis, ending with the conclusion that “the process of reasoning requires something that exceeds the bounds of nature, namely, the laws of logical inference” (127). But that’s not true. The principles of logical inference don’t require anything beyond the bounds of nature.

Logic is Language, Plain and Simple

Nash seems unaware of the importance of the synthetic-analytic distinction. Logic is analytical, and all analytical statements are artificial. What we call “logic” or the “rules of reason” are actually nothing more than language. If a language exists, then by definition logic exists, because without logic you can communicate nothing. It follows, then, that if you are communicating something, logic exists, for it must be inherent in the very rules which allow the communication to occur.

It works like this: the only way I can communicate to you that “my cat is white” is if you and I both agree to certain arbitrary rules, called a ‘code’, which we invent and decide to follow. This allows me to know that you will know what the sounds “my” and “cat” and “is” and “white” will stand for. They are “code words” for our experiences. I point to a white wall and you and I agree that we will call what we both see there “white,” and so on. It takes a bit more effort than that, but learning a language reduces to essentially this. Then, when I shout “white” to you, you will remember our agreement about what that would be a code for, and I will have communicated something to you. We invent these rules for this very purpose. If you and I refused to decide on any rules, or did not obey the rules we decided on, we would be unable to communicate.

All logic arises from these manmade rules. Consider the universal, fundamental principle of non-contradiction: something cannot both be and not be. For example, my cat cannot be both all white and all black. Why not? Suppose I were to tell you “my cat is all white and all black.” You would look up these words and follow the rules in our mutual codebook, but you would not be able to make this statement correspond to anything in your experience. The rules would not be able to match this code with any agreed-upon meaning. Consequently, I have communicated nothing to you. This is because “black” means, among other things, not white, as we have agreed.

Since this is all manmade you might think that all we have to do is assign a meaning to this statement, and it will then be able to communicate something. But what meaning will we assign? There’s the rub. Can we assign it a meaning that will be consistent with all our other rules? No, we cannot–because we decided beforehand that we would use the word “black” to refer to certain non-white things. Thus, the only way to create a meaning that will obey our own rules is to change the rules, and hence the meaning, of the words that conflict, but then they won’t conflict. In other words, the law of non-contradiction is simply a natural feature of any consistent set of rules. Indeed, this is a tautology: What is a consistent set of rules? A set of rules that never produces a contradiction.

So then you might think we can escape this by “deciding” not to have a consistent set of rules. But we have already seen that we cannot communicate anything with an inconsistent set of rules–because we have to follow the rules in order to communicate, and we can’t “follow” inconsistent rules. Thus, we are stuck. Either we have contradictions, but no language, or we rule out contradictions and communicate. This is a simple fact that we observe about the universe. Now, you might say that perhaps there are things that can exist but cannot be communicated. But if they can be experienced, then they can be given a code name, and can thus be communicated to anyone who has experienced the same thing and knows the code word for it.

Perhaps you might propose instead that it is possible to have a universe where a contradiction could communicate something, where it could actually describe something that we can experience or imagine. But since we all see that we do not live in such a universe, since we cannot even imagine it, it doesn’t matter if it is possible. More sophisticated versions of either TAG or the argument from reason claim that this inability to experience or imagine a contradiction may simply be a limitation in our construction, or an error in our brain or senses. But if something can affect us in any way, it follows that we can experience it, and thus imagine it, by reference to that effect. If something existed that could never, even in principle, affect us in any way, its existence would be of no consequence to us. More importantly, no kind of sensation could ever experience that thing, because to sense something is, by definition, to be affected by it in some way. Thus it follows that even a god could not make us capable of sensing something that can never affect us. All he could do is make it affect us. Thus, the argument that we are missing some feature of reality is moot–so long as any part of reality can affect us, we can experience it.

If we should discover the ability to imagine and communicate contradictions, we would simply change the way we thought about things, just as we did when the axioms of non-Euclidean geometry were discovered. There is thus nothing that needs to be accounted for here. Logic is explained by what we observe, and it arises automatically the moment we try to create a set of rules for describing those observations. And since reason amounts to nothing more than communicating with ourselves, reason can only exist when we actually communicate something, even if only to ourselves, and such communication is only possible if we construct and use a logic.

There is something more fundamental than that, however: all language begins with discrimination between things that are the same and things that are not, and so if language exists, it follows that the universe has things that are the same and things that are not, which is the very reality that “non-contradiction” refers to. This is even more obvious in the case of inductive inference, where the entire structure of inferential arguments is justified solely and entirely by prior experience: by recalling the reliability of all prior inductive reasoning, we conclude that it works. After all, no one believes that inductive inferences are guaranteed to always work–by definition, they only suggest, they do not “prove” in the same sense deductive inferences do. But either way, why are we justified in trusting inferences? Because they work. Period. Experience completely explains logic, and completely justifies it–as well as it can ever be justified. So why must we look for some other “ground” for reason?[5]

Must an Accidental Sensory Organ be Untrustworthy?

The landing point for Nash’s critique of naturalism is another standard but lame arrow in apologetic quivers, which I shall call “the purposeless sensory organ” fallacy. Again he basically quotes another writer at length, and never addresses, or even shows any awareness of, any scientific sources. The argument, in the words of Richard Taylor (the only unaffiliated philosopher Nash ever cites, but still not a naturalist), is this:

It would be irrational for one to say both that his sensory and cognitive faculties had a natural, nonpurposeful origin and also that they reveal some truth with respect to something other than themselves, something that is not merely inferred from them….we cannot say that they are, entirely by themselves, reliable guides to any truth whatever… (129)

There are several problems with this strange argument. First, Nash gives no reason why this would be irrational except a false analogy, and thus he fails to show that this is actually irrational. In particular, his “example” is a set of stones arranged to convey a verbal message: it would be irrational to regard the message to be both accidental and true, since an accidentally arranged message would only be true by blind luck. But would it be irrational to regard the presence of a pile of stones at the base of a cliff as signifying a danger of landslides? The analogy breaks down here. The pile of rocks signifies a landslide risk not because of any design–we don’t infer the risk on the assumption that someone arranged those stones to convey to us, by a prearranged code, a landslide risk. Rather, we infer the risk from the prior observation that landslides result, without any intelligent design, in sufficiently unique patterns of debris, and thus we know that wherever those patterns happen to turn up again, we can suspect that there have been landslides there, and so there may be a risk of further landslides.

Since this proves that it can be rational to infer a “message” from an accidental arrangement of things, Nash cannot say it is irrational for us to do this in the case of our sensory organs, unless he can show that our sensory organs must be like the “words” analogy rather than the “landslide debris” analogy, which he does not do. And I do not believe he can. Remember what I said about language: it is an agreement between you and me that certain things will be codes for certain other things. But what is an agreement? You decide to keep using this to mean that, and I decide to do the same. So the regularity of nature is equivalent to an agreement: nature “decides” to keep using this to mean that (by having one regularly follow the other), and we decide to adopt the same rule. And that is what an inference is. All that is needed is regularity.

Second, Nash mischaracterizes the truth about sensory organs and how we know things from them. For instance, he confuses reliability with authenticity. Even if our eyes did not give us authentic information about color (in fact, I do not believe they do), they nevertheless reliably inform us of distinctions in color, and we can accurately infer things about the world based solely on that. Likewise, the fact is that all of our senses do in fact reveal the truth about things merely by inferring data from themselves. For instance, what we call colors are only inventions of our brain. They are coded patterns which are created to represent the fact that our eye-cells are sending signals to our brain. We infer from the patterns presented by this “invented representation” certain things about the world, like the fact that our eye is being hit by photons which are most likely bouncing off our bathroom door. We do not infer this because we were pre-designed to know what photons bouncing off our bathroom door would look like. We know it only because we have seen the same effect every time we looked at our bathroom door in the past–in fact, this repeated experience is what we give the name “bathroom door,” and everything we believe about a “door” is based on all our past sensations of just such a sort. So it is not even necessary to know about cells or photons in order to trust our eyes. Our senses are only reliable because of two simple facts: first, the universe just happens to follow certain consistent behavior patterns, and second, our eyes just happen to follow certain consistent behavior patterns. And all that is needed for things to follow consistent behavior patterns is the existence of consistent behavior patterns. Once you have that, the reliability of sensory organs can be accounted for, and there is no need to appeal to an intelligent engineer.

Perhaps Nash means to argue that the existence of consistent behavior patterns in the universe requires an intelligent engineer, but that is the teleological argument, and he does not seem to be defending that here. If he can accept that naturalism can account for consistent behavior patterns (and it certainly can–there is no need for anything “transcendent” for consistent behavior to exist), then Nash must accept the fact that naturalism can account for the trustworthiness of human reason and of sensory organs. Since theists expect us to accept that God is both necessary and immutable–so that he could not “not exist” and could not be any different than he is–without a shred of proof or a single rationale, we are perfectly entitled to expect them to pay us the same courtesy, since we claim far less than this: we don’t require that the universe necessarily exist or be immutable, although we think it could be. Rather, we can accept that the universe may have had other possible forms, and might have had a less than 100% chance of existing at all. We can even accept the possibility that the universe is not perfectly regular or consistent. We are thus being far more open minded than the Christian theist, and our worldview has much more room to move than theirs.[6]

The Argument from Reason is Self-Refuting

A final problem with Nash’s approach is that it is a double-edged sword. If we must assume that God exists before we are justified in trusting reason and our senses, then how do we know God isn’t a Cartesian Demon? All our reason and senses could be deliberately designed to lead us to believe in any lie, just because God wanted it that way. Even the theist’s conviction that God is good (and therefore that God would not trick us like that) is suspect, because a Cartesian Demon would fool the theist into thinking that very thing. The entire Argument-from-Reason approach is actually identical to the argument developed in Descartes’ Meditations, which in turn comes from Augustine’s reformulation of what was actually the central argument in Plato’s justification for belief in the Timeless Forms. The circularity of this argument (“we know the truth because God lets us, and we only know this because God lets us know the truth”) has long been known, yet proponents show no signs of any prior experience with this and other challenges in the philosophical literature, which spans the whole of human literary history in the West.

Therefore, Nash’s attempt to “refute” naturalism (much less establish Christian theism as the more reasonable worldview) is a complete failure, making this another weak link in their book’s overall argument.

Return to this review’s Table of Contents to read more detailed critiques of specific chapters in In Defense of Miracles.

[1] Nash could have accomplished his task at least if he had made a better positive case. For instance, since Islam, Judaism, and Christianity entail certain common beliefs (e.g. a single omnibenevolent, miracle-working God), one can refute all three by refuting one of their common beliefs. Thus, naturalists, by making a strong case for the lack of the supernatural and the absence of divine values in the working of the universe, effectively refute almost every competing theory, since all nonnaturalist competitors posit some view that contradicts these conclusions. In like fashion, proving the reasonableness of certain beliefs, like a physical, objective reality unconnected with human expectation or desire, is itself a refutation of all worldviews that deny this, like Buddhism. Thus, had Nash made a more positive case for Christian theism, he could have escaped the fallacy of assuming naturalism is the only reasonable competitor, simply by refuting all contrary worldviews in the very process of proving his own.

[2] Many naturalists would dispute the assumption that physicalism “rules the agenda.” Nevertheless, I myself am a physicalist, and I defend my worldview at considerable length in Richard Carrier, Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism (2005). See also Naturalism as a Worldview.

[3] A far superior version of this argument has been articulated by Victor Reppert, which I discuss and refute in Richard Carrier, Reppert’s Argument from Reason (2004). This argument is similar to, but not identical with, the Transcendental Argument for God (or TAG). Even so, Nash appears to imagine his Argument from Reason in terms that correspond to TAG. For example, he writes that naturalists are “compelled to abandon one of the cardinal presuppositions of metaphysical naturalism and to conclude that their cognitive faculties were formed as a result of the activity of some purposeful, intelligent agent” (130). As far as I see, this entails the presupposition that there are no atheists, since if I am “compelled” to recognize the existence of God before I can use reason or trust my senses, then I must presuppose the existence of God to use reason and trust my senses, and therefore if I use reason and trust my senses I cannot really be an atheist (or if I am an atheist, I am contradicting myself).

[4] As just a few examples of the kinds of works Nash could have consulted: William Calvin, How Brains Think (1996); Dietrich Dörner, The Logic of Failure (1996); Hugo Strauch, How Nature Taught Man to Know, Imagine, and Reason (1995); Valerie Walkerdine, The Mastery of Reason: Cognitive Development and the Production of Rationality (1990); etc. And more recent works include: Robert DeMoss, Brain Waves Through Time (1999); Manfred Spitzer, The Mind within the Net (2000); Lesley Rogers, Minds of Their Own (1998); etc.

[5] Although Nash does not bring it up, a common approach is to argue that abstract objects (like “yellowness” or the rules of logic) cannot be explained by naturalists. But abstractions are, like all words, merely names for shared patterns in the things we identify with our senses (including our internal senses, such as emotions). For instance, “yellowness” is the code-word for the pattern we identify as a yellow color, such that “yellowness exists” simply means that there can be patterns in our visual sensation which we call “yellow.” Likewise, “the rules of logic” are merely what we call the identifiable patterns in our sensory experience of using the code-book of a common language to match up code-sentences with catalogued experiences in our memory. The “abstraction” is itself a code-rule, and refers to a property–which is a pattern of sensory data–shared by numerous things (like yellowness–or roundness, as in my discussion of the role of “organization” in my review of Moreland).

[6] I discuss the ontology of logic (and the natural reliability of reason) in further detail in Richard Carrier, Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism (2005) and in even more extensive detail in Richard Carrier, Reppert’s Argument from Reason (2004). In the former, however, I also discuss the cosmological and teleological arguments and some of the viable explanations naturalists have for order in the cosmos.