Philosophers William Lane Craig and Alexander Rosenberg recently debated everyone’s favorite question: the existence of God. You can find the video here. The entire event is close to three hours long, and so I have not yet watched the whole thing. I watched the twenty-minute opening statements, and then did a bit of random sampling from the remainder of the debate. Just in case you’re not familiar with these gentlemen, Craig is the theist and Rosenberg is the atheist.
From my perspective as an atheist, Rosenberg was pretty disappointing. Stylistically Craig was the clear winner. He is a much more polished and confident speaker. Worse, however, was that substantively Rosenberg was also not so impressive. He made some good points, and I can certainly understand his frustration at having to respond to Craig’s mostly foolish arguments, but the fact remains that his responses were frequently unconvincing, or at least needed to be expressed more clearly to be convincing. His biggest blunder was in presenting the logical argument from evil, in which it is asserted that there is a flat-out contradiction between the existence of a loving God and the existence of evil. This is as opposed to the evidential argument, which states merely that the prevalence of evil is strong evidence against God.
The problem with the logical argument is that it makes life far too easy for the theist. He only has to argue for the bare logical possibility that God has some morally adequate explanation for allowing evil, and I see no way of flatly eliminating this possibility. Indeed, this is precisely the tack Craig took. The evidential argument is much more powerful. The theist can no longer hide behind bare logical possibilities, and if the best he can do is cavil about our limited, finite human perspective then he has simply lost the debate. The theist’s only hope for defusing the argument is to provide a convincing theodicy (that is, an explanation for why God permits extravagant evil and suffering), but so far the religious community has been entirely unsuccessful in this project.
The main purpose of this post, however, is to address something Craig said early on. He claimed that he was going to present eight examples of where God’s existence “best explains the data of human experience.” The basic strategy was always the same. Point to some phenomenon that is (allegedly) difficult to explain under materialism, and then simply assert that theism can resolve the mystery. Well, I agree that there are things that are mysterious in a materialist worldview. I don’t know why there is something rather than nothing, and consciousness and free will (both of which I believe are real) are likewise hard to explain. The trouble is that I have yet to encounter a non-materialist theory that fares any better.
I am not a materialist because I thereby have a pat and ready answer to every existential mystery. Rather, I believe merely that materialism is by far the most powerful and useful worldview among the options on offer, and that where materialism runs into challenges there is nothing else that works better.
Craig proceeded to unload eight “arguments” for God’s existence. I use the sneer quotes because in most cases he was just making assertions, and not arguments. I would like to address all eight, but to keep these posts to a reasonable length I will just focus on one of his arguments here. Item five on his list involved the idea of “intentional states.” By this we mean our ability to think about things. We can form abstract representations of things in our minds, and we might wonder how this is possible. If the brain is purely physical, then how does mere matter in motion permit us to have subjective experiences or to think about particular things? Craig asserted that materialism cannot account for such things, though he never actually explained why, and then followed-up with the assertion that somehow everything makes perfect sense if we invoke God.
This all seems very strange to me. You see, if you ask me to explain intentional states, the first thing I would point out is that, so far as we know, the only things in the universe that have them are embodied brains. To judge from our epxerience, it is only physical organisms with physical brains that have intentional states. “Non-physical intentionality” might very well by a contradiction in terms for all we know.
I would then note that everything we consider central to our personality or subjective experiences, everything that makes us who we are, is intimately tied to the physical stuff of the brain. Damage the right portion of the brain, and suddenly you are a different person. So if there is a nonphysical component to the brain that contributes to our personality, then it sure seems highly subordinate to what the physical part of the brain brings to the table. Moreover, we can use fMRI technology to measure brain activity when engaged in different mental tasks. We can see that different parts of the brain light up when engaged in different activities.
I would also point out that a capacity for intentionality is something that comes in degrees. Humans have a lot of it, apes have somewhat less, dogs and cats less still, and various lower animals (pardon the expression) might have none at all. It is not all or nothing, but seems to vary based on the quantity and complexity of the physical stuff in your skull.
All of this suggests very strongly to me that intentional states are a purely physical phenomenon. Granted, I can’t give you a neuron by neuron account of what is happening. “Thinking meat” seems very strange to me. But everything we have learned from science says that that is precisely what is happening. Science has found not the slightest trace of anything non-physical going on, even though the non-physical aspects of the brain would have to interact very strongly with the physical stuff. I would close by noting that the brain is matter organized like no other matter on earth, that it is still largely mysterious, and that for obvious practical and ethical reasons it is very difficult to study living brains.
But maybe you’re not satisfied with this. It’s bothering you that even though everything we know points strongly to the idea that intentional states are purely physical, we can’t give a really good explanation of what is going on. So you go looking for something else. Fine then. Can’t stomach the idea that a physical organism can have intentional states? Then tell me how a non-physical agent can have them. How is non-physical intentionality any easier to comprehend then physical intentionality?
Simply declaring that the process is non-physical is no kind of explanation. It clarifies nothing. Yes, it’s mysterious that embodied brains can have intentional states. But it’s vastly more mysterious that a purely non-physical agent can have them. At least the materialist theory is based on things we know to exist. The non-materialist theory just invents a strange kind of agent from whole cloth, and then simply declares arbitrarily that that is the sort of thing that can have intentionality.
Now, this is the point where a theist might reply, “No, no, no. You are looking at it all wrong. God does not have intentional states. God just is pure intentionality. He just is pure consciousness. These are not things that emerge somehow from the non-physical stuff from which God is made. They are instead descriptions of what God is.”
You can certainly write those words, but it is unclear whether they mean anything. How can something just “be” pure intentionality? I literally don’t understand what you’re asking me to imagine. It sounds like word salad to me. Certainly we are now talking about something very different from what we started with. The only experience I have with intentional states comes from my observations of what creatures with embodied brains can do. That experience gives me no inkling as to what it could mean to say that something just “is” pure intentionality.
Theists do not understand intentionality any better than materialists. Intentionality is not in any way less mysterious under a theistic worldview than it is under a materialistic one. Quite the contrary, in fact. A materialist can console himself with the thought that, while “thinking meat” is hard to understand, there is copious evidence that that is what the brain is. The theist, on the other hand, while clarifying nothing at all about how humans have the capacity for intentionality, must also contend with conceptual gobbledygook, like a non-physical entity that just “is” pure intentionality.
I’ll take the smaller mystery, thanks. When theism manages to provide a helpful explanation for anything, then I will reconsider its merits.