Thursday, June 13, 2013

Virtual Beers with Counter Apologist - Randal Rauser (6/13/2013)

Virtual Beers with Counter Apologist is where I have a conversation (not a debate!) with other people involved in the debate over god's existence online.

This session was with Christian apologist and theologian Randal Rauser and we covered a lot of topics from Metaphysics to Morality and had what I think was a great conversation.  Many thanks for Randal for participating!

This is my first attempt at doing this, and I didn't know how to use Google Hangout's On Air, so instead of swapping between Randal and me talking, the video turned out to only show Randal. My sincere apologies to Randal, I thought it was showing the full screen view that I saw on the controls.

So much for all my cool gestures and the visual cues from my side of the discussion. :(

I'd also like to note that I was sharing my thoughts on what will go into a series on the Moral argument, but it's still in development, so if you've got criticisms on what I said (or good feedback!) please let me know!


  1. This is a nice discussion. I haven't watched the whole thing yet, but a few thoughts:
    (1) On the topic of the appeal to mystery:
    It is useful to distinguish types of mystery. Some things are mysteries in the sense that we don't currently understand them or know how to account for them. So, prior to the germ theory of disease, infection was this kind of mystery. Other cases of so-called mystery are what you might call ultimate mysteries; things which we cannot hope to ever understand.

    So we have ultimate mysteries, mysteries that are beyond are ability to ever resolve, on the one hand and, on the other, what I like to call Scooby-Doo mysteries, things that we currently don't know how to account for but that we can solve, eventually; if we work hard enough and have enough Scooby snacks to keep our investigative minds going, we'll find the answer.

    I think that when some theists say that the Trinity is a mystery, the are using the term in the ultimate sense. It's not that it is a problem that one day we will solve, it is just something that we do not and cannot understand. Contrast this with what materialists say about the mind: It is currently a mystery, but we have confidence that someday we will understand it.

    I think that the appeal to mystery is only problematic when the mystery is thought to be ultimate. Perhaps there are ultimate mysteries (I think that there are), but when explanations are wanted, we should avoid playing the ultimate mystery card just to save our preferred metaphysical theory.

    (2) On the Frank Jackson style argument against mind-brain identity:
    Randal repeats Jackson's brilliant argument: I can know everything about the physical state and still not know what the mental state is like.

    This argument, though brilliant, begs the question. Mind-Brain identity theorists say that mental states are physical states. If the qualitative character (the what-it-is-like-ness) of pain, e.g., is a mental state (and it is, obviously), then, if mind-brain identity is true, this qualitative feature is a physical property of the brain state. So, someone who knows "everything" about the physical brain state but does not know what it is like to have the mental state, does not really know everything about the physical brain state.

    In other words, if the taste of peppermint really is physical (which is what mind-brain identity says), then someone who has never had the experience of tasting peppermint does not know everything physical about the brain state. He doesn't know what it is like to taste peppermint, which, according to the reductive thesis, is a physical state of the brain.

    As I said, I haven't watched the entire video yet, so I apologize if my comments are redundant because you addressed my points.

    Thanks for doing this. I enjoyed hearing the two of you discuss these issues.

    1. I'd like to pick your brain on the consciousness bit.

      It seems that Randal's objection is similar to the thought experiment of "Mary's Room". But just thinking about it, if the experience of "seeing red" (or tasting peppermint) is equivalent to some neurons traveling through a part of the brain in a specific way, then I have no reason whatsoever to think that knowing that and actually having the neuron's go through that part of the brain should be considered equivalent.

      A real test of this would be to say, have the neuron's do the same kind of thing as they would if say, the optic nerves were stimulated by the red wavelength of light, or that taste bud receptors were given peppermint, without having the real "experience" happen, and then ask the person (if that were even possible) what they experienced.

      Even then, I'm almost sure a dualist could find a way to respond such that their theory wouldn't be falsified.

    2. "if the experience of "seeing red" (or tasting peppermint) is equivalent to some neurons traveling through a part of the brain in a specific way, then I have no reason whatsoever to think that knowing that and actually having the neuron's go through that part of the brain should be considered equivalent."

      I think I follow you, but I am not sure. I agree that the fact (assuming it is one) that qualia are identical to neurobiological states does not entail that knowing about the neurobiological state that is the quale of peppermint automatically gives you the quale of peppermint. In just the same way knowing that water is H2O does not give you water.

      It seems to me that someone could know all of the physical facts about water and still not have a clear colorless tasteless (or rather water-tasting liquid, water is not tasteless) liquid. This is obvious. So why is it problematic that someone could know all of the physical facts about the taste of peppermint and yet not have the taste?

      If that is what you are saying, I definitely agree. The description of the facts is one thing (and these are linguistic phenomena; really just a set of sentences describing reality) and the physical phenomenon is something else. However I would want to insist that in order to completely understand any physical description requires some experience with the phenomena described. Understanding a physical description of the brain requires some experience with brains or at least with bodies and organs more generally. So, any physical description of a qualitative state will only be fully comprehended by someone who has directly experienced the state.

      This is difficult stuff to talk about and I am not sure that I am making sense.

    3. It is tough stuff, but man do I appreciate the thoughts.

      You did catch what I intended to mean, though I think I'd add a few bits to this:

      "So, any physical description of a qualitative state will only be fully comprehended by someone who has directly experienced the state."

      I initially agreed with you here, but I've chewed on this for a while through the day and I think this is wrong.

      The problem here is that it assumes some basic normative property in terms of how things are accounted for in our minds. The problem here is that we all don't really "know" what it's like for someone else to see a color or taste something. This last bit is subjective to the core. We can know that to taste something is to have neurons fire in a certain part of the brain, but we don't know if one persons subjective response to that stimuli is going to be the same.

      The issues here are the color blind, tone deaf, or even those who have different tolerances for spice levels in food. I think that a physicalist style account for the mind best explains these phenomenons and that they are a pretty decent problem for any dualist (ie. if qualia existed, then it's clearly not objectively the same between all people and we don't need more than the colorblind to show this).

      The main thought I have here is that unlike a regular computer, our brains are analog computers, things will not always respond in exactly the same way every time. The best we can get from analog processors is something that is within a similar range, but it won't ever be 'exact'. Further that similar range bit only works so long as the analog processor is functioning "normally" or within optimal parameters, so as things degrade over time, so does the subjective experience of any given input.

    4. My view on Mary's Room is that I would eliminate it.

      I think it is spurious at best!

    5. Jonathan,
      I am more than sympathetic. I don't think that it is a sound argument. But I think it is a wonderful argument. One of the best arguments to come out of late twentieth century philosophy of mind. And it has been amazingly fruitful in the kinds of research and thought that it has provoked. So, I teach this argument every chance that I get because, despite being unsound, it is so damn good.

  2. On the metaethical stuff and the moral argument:

    I think that you allowed Randal to sidetrack the discussion a bit. What I heard was CA trying to articulate a non-theistic moral theory and then Randal playing the role of the critic. But this is not how the debate about the validity of the moral argument should run. (Debating the virtues of various moral theories is a fine debate to have, I don't want to deny that. But it is a diversion from the question of whether the moral argument for the existence of God is a good argument.)

    So, to undermine the moral argument, atheists do not have to develop their own moral theory to replace the theistic theory. Rather, atheists need only undermine the important premise of the moral argument: that theism can account for objective morality but atheism cannot. This premise is best undermined by attacking the first conjunct (that theism can account for objective morality). So, the focus should be on the theistic account; the atheist should explain why traditional theistic accounts of morality (whether it is divine command theory or natural law theory) do not work. Once it is shown that these theistic accounts of morality are bad, then we can see that, as far as accounting for objective morality goes, theism and atheism are on equal footing. Neither has an advantage over the other.

    Randal pointed out many important features of objective morality that are difficult to account for (that it involves performing actions just because they are the right thing to do, not out of self interest, for example), but he gave no reason to think that theism accounts for these important features better than any atheistic account. In the context of evaluating the moral argument, why should the atheist expend effort answering these difficult questions when the theist has not successfully answered them? By all means, let's deal with the problems. But, in the context of the moral argument, let's understand that theism does not do a good job of accounting for them.

    1. Thanks for the substantive comments Jason, it's appreciated, especially for the additional info on the various topics.

      I agree completely about the way the moral argument is to be countered, my main goal in the upcoming series for it is to point out that atheists can account for an objective morality at least as well as theists/Christians. From my reading and thinking on the subject the same problems apply equally to the theist, such as when Randal asks "why should I value that?" the exact same question is asked to him on his account of "the good". Towards the end I was able to make that point with speciesism, but in general I didn't want to be very adversarial (and I'm sure there were areas Randal could have pounced equally).

      So while I agree with what you're saying, I was actually quite very happy to have Randal play the critic to what I was trying to articulate. I generally want to have my ideas beat up, it really helps me think better I find. Randal certainly is no slouch there and gave me a lot to chew on for potential objections so I'm pretty grateful.

      Still, I think you've got the main track of what happens when the moral argument is done between an apologist and an atheist. The atheist is stuck trying to give an account for an objective morality, which even the theist can't really do without falling into the same kinds of pitfalls/questions. That is the ultimate point to "counter" the moral argument I think.

    2. The only thing I would add is this: atheists can account for objective morality at least as well as theists can because theistic accounts fail.

      I don't want to add to your extensive reading list, but there is a paper that I quite like on this topic at internet infidels:

      The author is a pretty cool guy. (I won't be offended if you disagree or even if you don't read it).

    3. Wow, that paper hit most of the points I was hoping to address.

    4. Well, that's good. I am glad it was helpful. Thanks for reading it. I look forward to your video.