Did Hume destroy Empricism? Did Kant save science?

John McDonald, the Director of Student Ministries at Westminster Presbyterian Church, has stopped by my blog to drop a few comments. He has been seen previously at the Florida Citizens for Science blog prodding them with taunts and ill-informed criticisms of evolutionary science.

One of the interesting claims that he has been making repeatedly is that David Hume destroyed Empiricism, and that Immanuel Kant saved science from the pickle Hume put it in. This seemed rather odd, considering that Hume was himself an empiricist – he believed that knowledge derived through observation, rather than pure reason (Descartes et al.) was the way to go. Here are John’s comments on this topic on the KCS blog:

  • You should be thankful for Kant. He tried to save knowledge and science, because Hume destroyed your every hope to establish knowledge of empiricism alone.
  • How can empiricism escape the critque of Hume?
  • Epistemologically, they can’t even get off the ground and seem to avoid the word “Hume” at all costs.
  • Also, one of the greatest contributions Hume made to philosophy was destroying empiricism, the epistemological system on which your worlview rests. Hume was consistent with his empiricism, and you should be too.
    (all comments are as is.)
  • In the comments of my post on Nancy Pearcey’s recent lecture put on by his church, I challenged John to explain how Hume destroyed empiricism and Kant saved it. None of his comments on the topic ever seemed to explain Hume’s position, so my charge was that his “understanding of philosophy [on this issue] seems to be at the level of a mere powerpoint slide prepared by someone else.” Although John seemed hesitant to explain what he believes about Hume and Kant, I’m inviting him in the comments of this blog to put forward exactly how Hume destroyed knowledge derived through empiricism, and what Kant had to offer the discussion.

    Kant, by the way, had a tendency to make assumptions about things such as non-human animals being mere things, but hey, no philosopher’s perfect. Here’s a link to a lecture on Kant’s Rational Religion – it’s not what you think!

    I have a hunch what John is getting at, and the problems with it, but I’ll let him do the ‘splainin’.

    (Since this is likely to be a lengthy thing to discuss in the comment section, I can edit the formatting of your comments, John, to make it easier for everyone to read.)

    While we all wait, please help yourself to some really dumb anti-evolution propaganda pics courtesy of the WPC!

    Published by

    Karl Haro von Mogel

    Karl Haro von Mogel serves as BFI’s Director of Science and Media and as Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. He has a PhD in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from UW-Madison with a minor in Life Sciences Communication. He is currently a Postdoctoral Scholar researching citrus genetics at UC Riverside.

    24 thoughts on “Did Hume destroy Empricism? Did Kant save science?”

    1. Thank you Karl for your kind words and free AIG advertisement. Let me begin by submitting a short outline of a talk I gave at Okaloosa Walton College at a Christian Apologetics Fellowship meeting:

      The Failure of Secular Humanism
      by J.H. McDonald

      Epistemology

      The 8th worldview question that every worldview has to deal with is how do we know what we know, i.e. what is the basis of knowledge? Secular Humanism answers this question with Empiricism, i.e. all knowledge comes via the senses alone.

      There are a number of destructive conclusions that follow from such a view:

      1. The Big Picture: Consider that if everything has evolved by accidental chance events, our minds, thoughts, and laws of logic have evolved by accidental chance events. The basis of knowledge is lost, thus knowledge is lost.

      “If naturalism were true then all thoughts whatever would be wholly the result of
      irrational causes. Therefore, all thoughts would be equally worthless. Therefore,
      naturalism is worthless. If it is true, then we can know no truths. It cuts it own
      throat.” C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, p. 137

      “If the solar system was brought about by an accidental collision, then the appearance of organic life on this planet was also an accident, and the whole evolution of Man was an accident too. If so, then all our thought processes are mere accidents, the accidental by-product of the movement of atoms. And this holds for the materialists’ and astronomers’ as well as for anyone else’s. But if their thoughts, i.e., of Materialism and Astronomy are merely accidental by-products, why should we believe them to be true? I see no reason for believing that one accident should be able to give a correct account of all the other accidents.” C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, pp. 52-53

      “Contriving the theory [of naturalism] required a great deal of thought and the
      Finest scientific reasoning, only to conclude that thought and reasoning are
      meaningless. If the conclusion is correct, the theory is nonsense and no one
      need believe it. If the conclusion is false, it is just that, false; the theory is a
      again nonsense.” George Roche

      2. If we begin with sensation, all we can do is end with sensation. Hume,
      an avid empiricist himself, was right when he said that man is nothing
      but a bundle of perceptions. What is a perception or sensation anyway?
      What interprets or makes the sensation intelligible and meaningful?

      3. A tabula rasa (blank slate) cannot even begin to think. If the mind is a blank slate, as empiricist claim, there is nothing to even begin to think with, and there is nothing to organize or make sense out of sensory data. There is no a priori equipment for learning.

      4. Objective reality is lost. Sensations take place in the mind. We do not know the cause of the sensations, only that they are experienced.

      5. The individual self is lost. The mind itself cannot be experienced. No one has seen a mind thinking. All that we can be sure of is perception itself.

      6. Memory is lost. On an empirical basis it becomes impossible to certify the accuracy of memory. We cannot check a memory of a perception by a present perception. Everything is changing. What we once thought of has now changed. We cannot even be sure that what we did perceive (which is now a memory image) was accurate at the time of perception. Memory is useless.

      7. Communication is lost. Who are you communicating with? A perception? And who is communicating? A perception? And what is communicated? A perception? One must ask, why did Hume even write his books?

      8. Absolutes and universals are lost. Everything is changing. We never step in the same river twice. All is Hereclitian flux. There are of course no moral absolutes. Even science cannot be conducted, since the same experiment using the same chemicals might produce different results each time (science must assume the uniformity of nature to even conduct experiments). The universe is constantly evolving, and so are its laws.

      9. The senses are not completely reliable. They can be deceived. We cannot
      really be sure that what we are perceiving is the way things really are in reality. Nothing is seen all by itself; everything is seen in relation to other things. These relationships alter the sensation. Therefore the senses do not present us with the object’s inherent property. Of the object itself, we know nothing. Examples: we pick up a stick but find that it is a snake; a rock that takes two men to lift in the air is easily moved when submerged in water; trick mirrors, etc.

      Furthermore on this point, even in dreams, drunkenness, or insanity, the recipient of a sensation believes it to be a correct representation of an object. Later he may decide he was mistaken, but at the time he could not distinguish it from a true sensation. Is it therefore possible now to be certain of our sensations? Obviously, at any time we may be mistaken, for we do not realize we are dreaming, drunk, etc. Illusions, while they last, are as convincing as allegedly true sensations. Are we in an illusion or a dream? Based on empiricism, no one can know for sure.

      The epistemology of secular humanism thus leads to skepticism of the highest degree. Hume concluded that nothing whatever can be learned from experience or sensation. We are only a bundle of perceptions.

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    2. John,

      This is a lousy presentation. I can’t even figure out a halfway plausible way to link up the first point with empiricism; later ones are on shaky ground, if not as hopelessly confusing. I’m with the “powerpoint slide prepared by someone else” criticism.

      Karl,

      That said, Hume legitimately did highlight issues with empiricism, particularly how empirical evidence alone could ever justify inferences from one fact (or set of facts) to another. What is the purely empirical justification for inferring that, because the sun has risen every day of your life, it will rise tomorrow? Hume seemed to think that empiricism couldn’t answer that question, but empiricism was true, so we actually don’t know an awful lot of things we think we know. This is what Hume meant when he talked about “scepticism,” he didn’t mean critical thinking. At one point, he went so far as to say that his philosophy made religious dogmas as certain as the most obvious truths about our immediate environment (which is to say completely uncertain, a bit of a hollow victory for religious believers).

      That said, in other places Hume suggests that while empirical conclusions are fraught with uncertainty, they provide some basis for rational belief, making them superior to metaphysics. Whether he had a principled reason for this isn’t clear to me, though.

      None of this, mind you, does much for the credibility of Kant or creationism or any such thing. Kant is hardly the only alternative to Hume. Having a purported justification for science isn’t the same has having a justification for science that actually makes sense. Similarly, there’s no reason for atheists or defenders of mainstream science to be committed to rigid empiricism.

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    3. John,
      Hallq didn’t use ad hominem attacks. Saying that a presentation is lousy, is only saying the presentation is lousy. An ad hominem attack would go something like: John is a lousy and confusing person, therefore his presentation is lousy and confusing. And I agree with Hallq. Not only is the first presentation void of a relationship with empiricism, it does not follow that “If naturalism were true then all thoughts whatever would be wholly the result of irrational causes.” Naturalism can be nothing more than arrational. Rationality is a process or tool to understand naturalism. Also: Accidents can produce order, so it doesn’t follow that “our minds, thoughts, and laws of logic have evolved by accidental chance events.” Those things can occur within the ‘order’ that accidents can produce.

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    4. I apologize for taking so long to respond, I just went through finals and a busy weekend. Thank you John and Chris Hallquist for your comments. I will respond to John first, on a point-by-point basis. I agree with Chris that John’s presentation doesn’t logically follow, which I will demonstrate in my response.

      The 8th worldview question that every worldview has to deal with is how do we know what we know, i.e. what is the basis of knowledge? Secular Humanism answers this question with Empiricism, i.e. all knowledge comes via the senses alone.

      The way you put it, all knowledge for all people comes from the senses alone. Every theist has learned every theistic belief through their senses. If you consider emotions to be part of your senses, then even compassion and empathy, which are a basis for morality, comes from our senses. If you ‘sense’ that you’ve talked to god, that too, is part of your senses.

      There are a number of destructive conclusions that follow from such a view:

      1. The Big Picture: Consider that if everything has evolved by accidental chance events, our minds, thoughts, and laws of logic have evolved by accidental chance events. The basis of knowledge is lost, thus knowledge is lost.

      2 + 2 = 4 for evolved minds as well as designed minds. Logic describes how things work, and in a rational universe it doesn’t matter how a mind came about – matter still operates in the way that it does. It is not true that our thoughts evolved in the same sense that our bodies have evolved, although it is true that the bodies that contain those thoughts have evolved. This doesn’t eliminate the basis of knowledge any more than upgrading your computer eliminates the information in your files. (Unless you forgot to back them up!)

      “If naturalism were true then all thoughts whatever would be wholly the result of
      irrational causes. Therefore, all thoughts would be equally worthless. Therefore,
      naturalism is worthless. If it is true, then we can know no truths. It cuts it own
      throat.” C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, p. 137

      Irrational causes? As I said above, reality has a way of operating, a logic to it. Atoms combine in particular proportions to form particular compounds, planets orbit in precessing ellipses, and even the tiniest bacterium is dependent upon the way that these natural laws interact. C.S. Lewis is trying to say that if the Universe Itself didn’t come about for any ultimate Reason, then it’s all a waste. But keep in mind, he is making a value judgement of our thoughts, not a statement of fact.

      “If the solar system was brought about by an accidental collision, then the appearance of organic life on this planet was also an accident, and the whole evolution of Man was an accident too. If so, then all our thought processes are mere accidents, the accidental by-product of the movement of atoms. And this holds for the materialists’ and astronomers’ as well as for anyone else’s. But if their thoughts, i.e., of Materialism and Astronomy are merely accidental by-products, why should we believe them to be true? I see no reason for believing that one accident should be able to give a correct account of all the other accidents.” C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, pp. 52-53

      I’m sorry, but C.S. Lewis is making a really infantile argument here. What is is not dependent upon what is intended by anyone. So the position of the Earth in the cosmos that allows it to sustain the kind of life we are familiar with (and us I might add), is dependent upon myriad factors and variables, which would be unlikely to favorably coincide for any given planet. That being said, this has no bearing on whether or not any intelligent living organisms that may arise on such a planet can be able to figure out these facts about the universe they live in. The same goes for any unplanned pregnancy – which is about 50% of pregnancies in California the last I checked. Because the existance of these people were dependent upon “accidents,” does it mean that they can’t ever know that they were unplanned? C.S. Lewis is trying for an argument based on irony – who would expect that an accidental byproduct the result of another accident could comprehend the first accident?

      “Contriving the theory [of naturalism] required a great deal of thought and the
      Finest scientific reasoning, only to conclude that thought and reasoning are
      meaningless. If the conclusion is correct, the theory is nonsense and no one
      need believe it. If the conclusion is false, it is just that, false; the theory is a
      again nonsense.” George Roche

      Scientific reasoning hasn’t concluded that thought and reasoning are meaningless. Meaning is derived from patterns in matter and relations between patterns. For example, the “meaning” of a strand of DNA depends on the transcriptional and translational machinery that turn it into a protein, if at all. The “meaning” of that protein depends upon the cellular context it is produced in. The same protein in different plant cell contexts can give rise to petals or anthers in a flower, for example.

      2. If we begin with sensation, all we can do is end with sensation. Hume,
      an avid empiricist himself, was right when he said that man is nothing
      but a bundle of perceptions. What is a perception or sensation anyway?
      What interprets or makes the sensation intelligible and meaningful?

      I find it interesting that you said, clearly, that Hume was “right,” not that he was “right according to his philosophy.” Anyway, it is a valid question to ask – what interprets of makes the sensation intelligible and meaningful. I would say that our brains/minds interpret the sensations, that is both literally obvious, and makes sense philosophically. There are several different interpretations of Hume’s statement about being a “bundle of perceptions,” different groups interpret his statement in different ways – and I disagree with it in part. We’re not just perceptions – we are living, thinking organisms, bundles of cells plus perceptions.

      3. A tabula rasa (blank slate) cannot even begin to think. If the mind is a blank slate, as empiricist claim, there is nothing to even begin to think with, and there is nothing to organize or make sense out of sensory data. There is no a priori equipment for learning.

      I think you are equivocating two different kinds of blank slates. The blank slate people talk about when it comes to a new mind, refers to the absence of learned behaviors. For example, a child born into a racist family is a blank slate with respect to racism, but a 10-year old in the same family is likely to have learned those behaviors and beliefs and so would not be a blank slate. The kind of blank slate you are talking about, however, is saying that there is no structure to the brain at all. “Nothing to even begin to think with” is simply false. Yes there are systems that organize and make sense out of sensory data early in a human being’s life, before any learned behaviors. We’re not literally a flat slab of unmarked stone. This is a silly argument based on false premises.

      4. Objective reality is lost. Sensations take place in the mind. We do not know the cause of the sensations, only that they are experienced.

      Neo asks: “What is the Matrix?” How can we know that we’re not a brain sitting in a vat somewhere with electrodes attached to it? How can we know that we’re not components of a computer simulation and don’t “really” exist? These are philosophical questions independent of evolution, humanism, theism and atheism. If you believe that you cannot know whether or not reality exists, then you are likely a Solipsist. There are very few true solipsists in the world because sooner or later, they realize that the continued existence of their mind is intimately dependent upon those influences outside the mind such as food, water, etc. How can we know we’re not bodies floating in a goop run by The Machine World? Perhaps we can’t in any 100% mathematical-proof-sense, just as we can’t know that the universe didn’t pop into existence 5 minutes ago with the illusion of history. But in every practical sense, things operate as if the reality we experience is truly real, and it is incumbent upon us to treat it as real until we find out otherwise.

      5. The individual self is lost. The mind itself cannot be experienced. No one has seen a mind thinking. All that we can be sure of is perception itself.

      No one has seen a “soul” either. Actually, let me correct you. We’ve seen people thinking – in fMRI machines. The picture of a brain at the top of my site is in fact my own brain taken from inside such a machine. They were studying how my brain processes sensory information and selective memory retention, and in a crude sense, they were studying my mind. (I have a few pictures that include my brain storing memories.) It should be possible, eventually, to pick apart many of our mental functions and map them more closely to functions in our neurons, no one has ever offered up a convincing reason as to why this could not be possible.

      6. Memory is lost. On an empirical basis it becomes impossible to certify the accuracy of memory. We cannot check a memory of a perception by a present perception. Everything is changing. What we once thought of has now changed. We cannot even be sure that what we did perceive (which is now a memory image) was accurate at the time of perception. Memory is useless.

      Memory is stored in neurons. If those neurons are destroyed, the memory is indeed lost. But your argument here is very confused. “Everything is changing” – what does that even mean in this context? Anyway, I fail to see how this has anything to do with what we’re talking about, and this doesn’t logically follow even from your incorrect premises.

      7. Communication is lost. Who are you communicating with? A perception? And who is communicating? A perception? And what is communicated? A perception? One must ask, why did Hume even write his books?

      As far as I know, Hume was not a Solipsist.

      8. Absolutes and universals are lost. Everything is changing. We never step in the same river twice. All is Hereclitian flux. There are of course no moral absolutes. Even science cannot be conducted, since the same experiment using the same chemicals might produce different results each time (science must assume the uniformity of nature to even conduct experiments). The universe is constantly evolving, and so are its laws.

      Universals went out long ago, it was an antiquated way of describing what today we call properties. A “river” is an identity placed on a moving body of water, the course of which is always changing, yes. But this doesn’t mean that the properties of water molecules are changing, nor the gravitational constant that causes them to flow downhill, and the molecular attractions that keep them together and help them to erode the land. The laws of the Universe are NOT constantly evolving, and to derive that from Hume or any other empiricist is flat-out wrong. Our understanding of the laws of the universe is what is constantly evolving, not the laws themselves.

      9. The senses are not completely reliable. They can be deceived. We cannot really be sure that what we are perceiving is the way things really are in reality. Nothing is seen all by itself; everything is seen in relation to other things. These relationships alter the sensation. Therefore the senses do not present us with the object’s inherent property. Of the object itself, we know nothing. Examples: we pick up a stick but find that it is a snake; a rock that takes two men to lift in the air is easily moved when submerged in water; trick mirrors, etc.

      No, senses do not present us with an object’s inherent property, but this is not a problem for empiricism, per se. For instance, when we see a red ball, what we are perceiving is a pattern of electromagnetic waves that have struck our eyes in a particular pattern. The ball itself does not have a property of being ‘red’ – that color exists in our brains alone. Instead, we know that the ball absorbs and reflects certain wavelengths of light, corresponding to the part of the light spectrum that we perceive as ‘red’. In a blue light, the ball will appear black, thus changing the perception, but the properties of the ball do not change under those circumstances. The same goes for the rock, trick mirrors, optical illusions, etc. Knowing that our senses can be deceived instead helps us to recognize that there is the possibility, given new information (like changing the lighting situation), that we could discover that things are not always what they seem.

      Furthermore on this point, even in dreams, drunkenness, or insanity, the recipient of a sensation believes it to be a correct representation of an object. Later he may decide he was mistaken, but at the time he could not distinguish it from a true sensation. Is it therefore possible now to be certain of our sensations? Obviously, at any time we may be mistaken, for we do not realize we are dreaming, drunk, etc. Illusions, while they last, are as convincing as allegedly true sensations. Are we in an illusion or a dream? Based on empiricism, no one can know for sure.

      What is the Matrix? I don’t think you can prove from your standpoint, without involving several new assumptions, that you’re not a brain living in a vat either.

      The epistemology of secular humanism thus leads to skepticism of the highest degree. Hume concluded that nothing whatever can be learned from experience or sensation. We are only a bundle of perceptions.

      OK, now I’m going to have to ask you to provide a quote of Hume concluding exactly that. He considered himself a “mitigated sceptic.”

      Your presentation, although it alluded to a few interesting philosophical issues that are great fun to talk about, didn’t even address the main point at all. I don’t think you understand your statement about Hume “destroying science,” because you didn’t really address it, but spun off into tangents about empiricism concluding that the laws of nature are constantly changing. I really don’t know where you got that from. In any case, you didn’t talk about the Hume-Kant issue at all.

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    5. Chris Hallquist is right. Hume questioned inductive reasoning, asking the question, how can we justify induction? The answer that induction seems to work whenever we try it, is itself an induction. So Hume argued that the justification for induction is circular. That’s not the end of the argument over induction, because there have been several responses to it, besides Kant. I was hoping not to give it away so quickly, so I could see how long it would take John to talk about this part.

      Having a purported justification for science isn’t the same has having a justification for science that actually makes sense.

      Quite right! Indeed, some of the most consistent philosophies in this world are also the most insane. That’s because they’re too simple, but by being consistent, they lead to absurdities. Nancy Pearcey has one such absurdity which I will reveal later.

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    6. John, not only have I provided space for you to lay out your argument, but I have also taken the time to point out its flaws. You must have put quite a bit of time into your presentation, I wish you had the inclination to defend your position.

      Listen to yourself – Empiricism cannot provide knowledge. Evidence cannot provide knowledge. Observation cannot provide knowledge. Studying reality cannot provide knowledge. Science cannot provide knowledge. What, then, is knowledge derived from? You haven’t even begun to provide an alternative.

      It’s not just the nonreligious who believe that empiricism can provide knowledge, a huge body of religious thinkers and theologians believe that empiricism is a valid means of exploring the natural world.

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    7. Karl:
      Your presentation here definitely makes my presentation VERY lousy. So John, did I just commit an ad hominem against myself?

      I know that the above statement is somewhat infantile, but John’s incorrect use of the term ‘ad hominem’ with regard to Hallq’s response, is a giant red flag to me. A red flag that tells me that John might not ever respond to you and Hallq’s post with any attempt at defending his own presentation.

      So John, please defend yourself and point out where Karl is wrong. And remember a statement like, “Forgive me for disturbing your peaceful slumber and intruding into this dream you have written above. Truly, a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” is not a defense of your presentation.

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    8. The problem is that not everyone who says they are empiricists are truly empiricists. They use borrowed capital from rationalism to get reason and a touch of Kant to get some mental forms going like space and time. Then they claim they are empiricists. This is what I believe most if not all of you have done, if not consciously, then certainly unconsciously.

      Let’s discuss this point – the inability of empiricism ALONE to establish reason. If all knowledge were to come via the senses, reason itself could not be established. How could you empirically verify that something cannot be and not be at the same time and in the same way? Or, how could you empirically verify that every effect has a cause? How could you empirically verify that universally 2+2=4? Tomorrow it might be 5, and somewhere else in the universe 3. In fact, how can empiricism ALONE establish any universal truth?

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    9. First, you need to shed the connotations involved in the term ‘accident.’ This is often taken to mean, as an accident, that it should not have happened, which is not what is meant by it. The science on the subject doesn’t say that it could not have been planned, however, there is no evidence to that effect and the view that there was no planning is fully consistent with our understanding of the origins of the solar system, and of life.

      Additionally, many religious people have come to believe that the universe was created in such a way to make habitable areas possible, and even the evolution of life. I encourage you to check out Ken Miller at Brown University. I have interviewed him a couple times on my radio show, check the Mindcast Guests link at the top.

      That being said, it’s time to bury Lewis’s argument. In this case, Lewis is setting up a straw man argument so he can knock it down. Evolution is often misrepresented as being ‘mere chance’ or contingency, when that is one component of the process. The other major component is regularity, or natural law. Natural law creates order, for instance, in the sorting of particles of different sizes on a beach, the leveling of a surface of mud, and when it dries, the pattern of regular hexagons in the cracked mud. There are a great many forces in the natural world that can create order. In the biological realm, the interactions of molecules provide one source of order (like molecules lining up to form cellular membranes), and natural selection provides another kind of order, weeding out what doesn’t work and leaving what does.

      Evolution may sound like every thing’s up in the air, but it isn’t. The randomness of mutations and other contingent events does not change the fact that what survives has to actually function in concordance with natural law, and that’s one place where the truth comes into play.

      If you fall off a tall cliff, are you likely to get hurt, to die? Do seeds grow to produce the same kind of plant that they came from, which you could use as a source of food? Does barbecued meat taste good? If you’ve answered yes to all of these (don’t lie, vegetarians, you know it tastes good), then you already agree that natural selection is capable of selecting for intelligent organisms that have the ability to determine whether or not a proposition in their minds is true or false. Material reality decides whether or not you live or die, and so, for conscious organisms there is a benefit to being able to structuring your information in terms of true and false, which is constantly checked by experience.

      Hume even supported this, suggesting that even philosophers that deny the basis for empiricism will get hungry and realize that they have to eat or they will get weak and die. He suggested that our very nature compels us to make inductions based upon experience, whether or not you can formally justify induction independent of experience itself.

      C.S. Lewis was a smart man, smart enough that I think his misunderstanding of how science operates, and the conclusions of philosophical materialism, are likely to be deliberate misrepresentations rather than simple errors. It would seem from the quote given, that he was being more ironic than logical, and he could have answered his own question if he felt so inclined. We can check the veracity of our beliefs by comparing them to reality. That’s what science does, but at a greater precision than just ‘gee, this looks like what I thought.’ Think error bars from statistical calculations.

      Perhaps there’s a bit of borrowing from rationalism with us. For example, I disagree with the tabula rasa idea in its original sense – a totally blank slate, because we have a structure to our brains, and we have innate behaviors. As for beliefs, however, I think we do not come pre-installed with those, but we have a mechanism in place that is capable of forming them. The argument from math is somewhat compelling, however, what evidence outside experience supports the conclusions derived from mathematical calculations? The universe operates logically, there is a mathematical pattern to the ways in which matter and space-time operate, and formal math is a way of describing it. We never said we were rigid empiricists – I’d rather leave that to the philosophers to figure out for themselves, if anything I’m a pragmatist. ‘If the shit fits, wear it.’

      Arguments over rationalism vs empiricism don’t have any bearing whatsoever on whether or not evolution is true. But I can see how you might think it does. If you can deny empiricism, as you stated above, that “empiricism cannot provide knowledge,” then you can feel justified in denying any observed phenomenon based upon your own presuppositions. Grounding your beliefs in reality puts your closely cherished beliefs about the origin of humanity, the age of the Earth, and other things, on the chopping block. That, I believe, is what you don’t want to have happen. You’re worried that a flawed understanding of reality will lead you to wrongly reject certain religious beliefs, and pay for that with eternity.

      But we’re in this universe together, and understanding the age of the Earth is integral to knowing how to find oil, for example, and understanding and accepting evolution is integral to the future survival of our species, and the other creatures we value on this planet. Moreover, because evolutionary biology is so integral to the biological sciences, it is also imperative that parents bring up their kids to understand and accept it, otherwise, they’re being prematurely cut off from an expanding and fascinating field.

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    10. Karl, very well, if you are not a rigid empiricist, then most of the above will not apply to you. But even science, yes, even evolutionary science, must be based upon some epistemological system. And empiricism ALONE cannot do it. But I also find it hard for evolution with its natural selection and even natural law to produce a mind that could reflect upon itself, or possess the power of contrary choice, i.e. contrary to behavior producing chemical reactions. I do not see how we would be different from a very complex computer.

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    11. You wanted a quote from Hume:

      “Man is a reasonable being, and as such receives from science his proper food and nourishment: but so narrow are the bounds of human understanding that little satisfaction can be hoped for in this particular, either from the extent or security of his acquisitions.” Section I, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

      I will be out of town and without internet access for the weekend. I will not be able to respond until probably Tuesday. To all: Have a great Memorial Day!

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    12. John, I will answer your question about how pain could ultimately be experienced, as well as love, by posing this question, when you injure an onion, what detects that injury? How does the onion respond. What makes the onion heal the wound, and what controls its growth and development?

      The onion does.

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    13. I know this argument is dead and buried, but I’d like to throw some flowers at the corps of C.S. Lewis’ argument. So far as I know, C.S. Lewis was not a creationist, and I hope he wasn’t laying the groundwork for such ignorance. I think his quandary is a legitimate one, if ultimately a weak argument. Essentially I see it as closely paralleling arguments in Descarte. How can we know that our minds work in such a way as to understand ULTIMATE REALITY (assuming such a thing exists).

      It does not mater whether we are ‘cosmic accidents’ even to C.S. Lewis. Rather, if we are an emergent property of the universe, then he cannot see what ensures that we can understand ultimate reality. C.S. Lewis then asserts we need god to ensure that our rationality can comprehend UR.

      Lewis implicitly asks: Couldn’t evolution create some useful way of thinking that was incapable of understanding UR? The answer is of course that it can (see more or less all herps), but the ability of irrational systems to evolve does not undermine our confidence in our own rationality.

      Let us think in psudo-math for now.

      (Drawing from Douglass Hofstadter) Certain algorithms might be useful for solving some subset of problems, but does there exist an algorithm which can (in principle) solve any problem which can be solved? Let us assume (contrary to the tone of Hofstadter) that such a algorithm does in fact exist. The question becomes, is it possible that two such algorithms exist, and GIVE DIFFERENT ANSWERS FOR SOME PROBLEMS! Now, this is not a rigorous argument and I will do some hand waving here, but to me, it seems ridiculous to assume that there could be two different universal problem solvers which disagree with each other. This is similar to simply assuming the existence of ultimate reality to begin with.

      It is self evident that ultimate reality exist, if you disagree, you are simply wrong.

      It is self evident that we are rational, and we need no reason to think this.

      In other news: I find this quote fascinating. “But I also find it hard for evolution with its natural selection and even natural law to produce a mind that could reflect upon itself, or possess the power of contrary choice, i.e. contrary to behavior producing chemical reactions. I do not see how we would be different from a very complex computer.”

      First, I don’t see how we ARE different from a very complex computer.

      But I would like to look at this “power of contrary choice.” Clearly it doesn’t exist, doesn’t need to exist, and yields no philosophical solutions for existing.

      Let us ask the question: Do we have reasons for behaving in a specific way? If I am playing you at chess, is there some reason I move my rook to king 4? (or however chessy people talk.)

      Before answering that, we have to briefly discuss what a reason is. To say that I moved a pawn for some reason implies that the elements of the explanation of pawn movement are either a necessary or sufficient condition for the movement of the pawn. Let us only consider a conditions which are both necessary and sufficient.

      Are there any necessary and sufficient conditions for our behavior? If we answer no to this question, then from an empirical perspective our behaviors would show a probability distribution, In other words, some element of our choice would be indistinguishable from random behavior. If there are necessary and sufficient conditions for behavior, then there is some state that we and the universe can be in which ALWAYS produces a specific behavior.

      So either our behavior determined, or it is random.

      I prefer to think that I have reasons for my behavior, hence that my behavior is an interaction between me (my brain and body) and the universe (everything else).

      Bah. that is a long an pointless rant where I don’t make myself clear.

      *shrug*

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    14. Larry, you must admit that as a materialist there is no way to check what your mind registers as reality against ultimate reality, because everything will be filtered and processed by the mind. You are trapped in skepticism. There is no way for you to know, ever.

      Secondly, although I respect your argument that actions have reasons behind them. But, suppose this one instance. I am starving. My body/mind says I need to eat. Yet I choose to starve/die rather than eat. How could this determination be biological? I can’t claim this argument as my own, it was already stated in the Penses by Pascal.

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    15. John, before you try to continue with the “there’s no way an empiricist can really know anything” argument, do inform us how your method of knowing is superior. I don’t think you’ve spelled that out; you have only criticized empiricism. And also in response, I’d like to add that any perception you have about ultimate reality has been filtered by your mind as well.

      As for you deciding to starve yourself, you are conflating one use of the term ‘biological’ with another (an equivocation). If by biological you mean, involving the cells, neurons, signaling pathways, etc that make up the human brain, body, etc, then what you are doing is clearly biological because it employs those entities. That’s what we’re talking about when we talk about the mind being an aspect of the brain, residing in the structure and function of our cells. Some of those cells are communicating severe hunger, yet, the patterns laid out in some of your other cells is overriding their influence, making the decision not to eat. Like if there was only enough food for one person, and your child was with you, you might likely choose to starve to save them.

      But the way you are using ‘biological’ seems to be to mean ‘in a manner consistent with surviving (and reproducing). Randomly deciding to starve yourself would of course seem to go against that goal, so I can understand your confusion with the term. But we can, which is why you could make that choice if you wanted to, for whatever reason compels you. Indeed, that is the crux of it, because choosing to starve involves a reason, a basis for that decision. I suppose you could have the wiring in your brain go haywire and make you want to stop eating, leading to starvation, but even so, that starvation is occurring due to a naturalistic cause. I think what you are trying to get at here is that something else is necessary to explain human consciousness, a supernatural entity not tied to causality, a soul. But where is the evidence for this? In principle, I see no difference between explaining the consciousness of a chimpanzee and the consciousness of a human. Are you saying that non-human animals are mere ‘computers’?

      Rhetorical Question: Do lemmings stampeding off a cliff have a biological basis for their behavior?

      Larry Boy, great comment, by the way, it made sense to me. Your last sentences reminded me of a scene in The Matrix where Neo is talking about how he wants to believe he is in control. These are heavy subjects, not easily boiled down to simple answers.

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    16. Karl, you have admitted my point that all knowledge and data is filtered/interpreted by the mind. The question is whether our minds can properly interpreted the data as it is in reality. Empiricism as adopted by Materialists cannot provide a basis for proper interpretation. I also question whether I am obligated to provide an alternative epistemology. I can do so, but my point here is not to say x is better, but rather to show the complete inability of materialistic empiricism to arrive at knowledge. Your ideas of a “mind” somewhere in the cells is amusing and more of a grasping for straws with fingers crossed than a valid and reasonable explanation. You ask for evidence for the soul, I ask for evidence for the hidden mind in the cells. Besides, what would you accept as evidence? I just gave you Pascal’s argument which you responded by positing the possibility of the mind hidden in the structure and function of cells.

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    17. John,

      You were arguing that all knowledge and data are filtered by the mind in the case of empiricism, and I was telling you that it is true for all people, regardless of their epistemology. So that wasn’t me admitting to your point, that was me telling you that your point doesn’t get you anywhere because it is true for yourself as much as it is for me. And now you claim that my point was your point?

      I also question whether I am obligated to provide an alternative epistemology.

      Yes, you do. You are engaging in an entirely negative form of argumentation. Arguing against one form of epistemology is not an argument in favor of another. For example, the issue of all knowledge being filtered by the mind is true for me and for you. If you don’t include your own epistemology in the equation then you can conveniently overlook how your arguments undermine your own theory of knowledge. If, for example, you are right that all knowledge being filtered by the mind completely undermines materialism (which I disagree with), it also undermines anything else you can come up with in its stead.

      I don’t believe that the mind is “hidden” somewhere within the cells, I believe that the mind is a function OF certain collections of cells. The first line of evidence that I can give you are the many other non-human animal species on this planet. From our closest relatives (yes, we are related to them by descent) the chimpanzees and bonobos, to more distant relatives such as birds, slugs, and cephalopods. We’re all made up of essentially the same neurons, (a lot of neuroscience is done in slugs) but structured very differently. Chimpanzees, Bonobos, Gorillas, our closest relatives, show the same kinds of humanlike mental characteristics, but not to the degree that humans possess. Does Koko the Gorilla have to have a soul in order to paint pictures, feel pain and cry, or care for a kitten as a pet? All these things which you might bring up as requiring a metaphysical soul to explain, are present in many non-human animals, which I can reasonably guess you do not, as a fundamentalist Christian, believe have souls. So you already believe that such an entity is not necessary to explain their behavior, and their thought processes. The personality exhibited merely by my pet cat is evidence enough that the primitive “soul” explanation doesn’t cut it. It was a useful metaphor in its own day.

      The second line of evidence I can give you off the top of my head is brain damage. Some people have brain abnormalities, others receive injuries, that shut off one or more functions of the brain. Emotions, pain, face recognition, social behavior, higher thinking, memory, tastes, smells, hearing, and sight, can all be knocked out by damaging part of the brain. We have mapped many functions of the mind to those different areas of the brain as a result, and we already know much about what parts of the brain are involved in personality. (See Cerebral Cortex) We know that if you remove these parts, you render people as little more than autonomous vegetables. Cell by cell, you can destroy the very basis of personality in human beings, which is a strong argument that those cells are the basis of personality. There’s no all-of-a-sudden disappearance of the mind like the body just got cut off from it’s ethernet jack to the soul, it is a gradual process which is consistent with functional explanations for the mind. I’m not a neuroscientist, I’m a plant geneticist, but I have taken some courses on this subject and read a pile of papers on the topic. If you want to find out more all you need to do is look. I bet Katharine could help you at Missives from the Frontal Lobe.

      One thing that is good to remember, when you are arguing about the function of the brain and the mind, is to try out your arguments against a computer. Do your arguments make any sense if you make them against someone trying to explain to you how a computer works?

      Your ideas of a “program” somewhere in the circuits is amusing and more of a grasping for straws with fingers crossed than a valid and reasonable explanation.

      What would I accept as evidence of a soul? The is an interesting question because no one has ever been able to define what it is in the first place in a manner that is coherent and can be put to the test. The only thing that has been attempted, like you are trying to do with empiricism, is poke holes in other explanations for the mind and attempt to claim victory. Anywhere where we don’t know how the brain or mind does this or that, must be where the soul steps in. (More negative argumentation employing a logical fallacy – the excluded middle) Since the soul is supposed to be supernatural, then you must have a constant break in causality – if this could be demonstrated then you would have a pretty good argument. To say “I don’t know what causes X” is not a break in causality – it is a break in your knowledge of causality. Find me your uncaused causes, after you coherently define the soul.

      But this only works if you consider the soul to be supernatural. Many people who believe in souls do not consider them to be supernatural, so you are left with having to find the way it communicates with the soul entity. In this case, the ‘soul’ could be studied scientifically, whereas in the former case it would not be.

      Good luck on your search for knowledge, just remember that everything you think has been filtered by your mind – just try not to filter out the facts to reach your predetermined beliefs as you go.

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    18. Karl,

      Just because I can show your position to be contradictory and futile does not obligate me to discuss the true position. You are making a jump which you cannot demonstrate by reason. I can simply demolish your position and leave it for what it is, a heap of crap. My real objective is to show the complete inability of materialistic epistemology to arrive at knowledge. I am not criticizing one epistemology in order to promote another, I’m simply calling materialistic epistemology on the table and showing it cannot be true. Other positions may be valid, but one thing is for sure, materialistic epistemology fails.

      You assume that I do not believe other creatures besides humans have souls. Your assumption is wrong.

      I argue that starving one’s self is a break in biological causation. Nothing in the biological body demands starvation. Sir John Eccles has also done remarkable research into the mind-body relationship. His research shows there is a distinction between the two, and this is on scientific grounds, not theological.

      Finally, my own epistemology can account for the filtering which the mind imposes on data. Your material epistemology cannot. Again, the point is that your epistemology fails on its own. Whether my epistemology is right or wrong is irrelevant. The question is whether materialistic epistemology could possibly yield knowledge and the answer is of course, no.

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