interview with Angus Menuge. Original audio here. Transcript index here. If you enjoy transcripts, please consider supporting, which makes this possible.
BA: Hello. This is Brian Auten of Apologetics 315. Today I interview Dr. Angus Menuge, professor of philosophy at Concordia University. He is author of Agents Under Fire: Materialism and the Rationality of Science and many articles on the philosophy of mind, philosophy of science and Christian apologetics. He’s the editor of several collections of essays on C.S. Lewis, Christ in culture, and the scientific vocation.
The purpose of this interview is to find out a bit more about Dr. Menuge, his work in the area of philosophy of mind, the ontological argument from reason, and his advice for Christian apologists.
Well, thanks for taking the time to speak with me today, Angus.
AM: Thank you for having me, Brian.
BA: Well, before we get started, would you mind telling our listeners a bit more about yourself and your background, also your current work?
AM: Yeah. Well, I was born in southern England. I started philosophy at Warwick University. And then I came over to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to do my doctorate. And I specialized in the philosophy of mind. I also became an adult convert to the Christian faith. I’ve been a philosophy professor for 20 years, and philosophy of mind has continued to be an interest of mine, leading to my book, Agents Under Fire, in 2004. But I’ve also been very interested in philosophy of science, Christian apologetics and C.S. Lewis.
And right now a lot of my work in philosophy has been defending the idea of libertarian free will and developing a new version of the argument from reason, which we’ll talk about later.
BA: Very good. Well, talk first about the philosophy of mind. For those who may be unfamiliar with that field, how would you want to introduce it to them?
AM: Well, since philosophy began, people have realized that the mind Is an extraordinary thing. It seems to be the most remarkable thing about the world. It doesn’t really seem to fit. And that’s because it has powers and qualities that typical physical objects don’t have. Tables, cars, even whole galaxies don’t have these amazing qualities.
For example, subjectivity, the fact that each mind has a unique point of view, a unique way the world looks to it. There’s something it’s like to be you, something it’s like for you to feel pain or to think about a problem in calculus. And that’s completely unique to you. And yet typical physical objects can be described completely in impersonal terms from no point of view.
Another feature that’s remarkable – intentionality; that is, that we can think about objects other than ourselves. We can even think about future objects, like vacations or abstract objects like numbers, or nonexistent objects like centaurs. But physical objects don’t seem to be about anything. The states of a machine don’t refer to anything, are not about anything beyond themselves. And also how could there be a physical relation unless both terms exist in space and time? But numbers don’t exist in space and time. Abstract objects and centaurs certainly don’t. They don’t exist at all. So intentionality is another remarkable feature of the mind.
And another one is the unity of our conscious life. Our thoughts are not related to our mind in the way that the parts of a machine are related to the machine. So consider an engine, for example. The parts of an engine can be separated from the engine and they can exist just by themselves. You can even take the parts out of one engine and potentially put it into another engine.
But when you consider our thoughts, they’re tied uniquely to the thinker. So if Jennifer is thinking, “I’m in pain,” her thought, “I’m in pain,” is unique to her. And there’s no way to take that thought and put it in somebody else’s mind. It only exists within her consciousness. Now, of course, somebody else can think, “I’m in pain,” but that thought will be tied to their conscious life.
So while physical systems seem to be made of parts – you can break them up into parts, take the parts and put them into other physical systems – minds aren’t like that. They have this kind of amazing holistic unity where the only way you can know, really, what the thought is is to know whose thought it is.
So those are three of the central puzzles about the mind that philosophers of mind still wrestle with.
BA: Interestingly enough, it’s thinking about thinking.
AM: Right. C.S. Lewis said, when he talked about the rise of modern science, that the idea of nature as a machine had so preoccupied people that they hadn’t noticed the fact that they were thinking about the machine. And so as they started to suggest, well, maybe nature is all there is, the one part they had excluded was their own thinking about nature. And Lewis argued in his book Miracles that thinking seems not to fit into nature. It isn’t like any of the physical things that we actually think about.
BA: It’s certainly fascinating. But I want to narrow it down to some of the particular things you’re working on and have worked on. One of the topics that we’ll talk about relates to reason or reasoning. And so, to lay a bit of foundation, can you talk about what reason or reasoning is? What is it? What’s going on when someone reasons?
AM: Basically, reason is the power to direct our thought onto a conclusion. And there’s two kinds of reason. There’s theoretical reason, where you’re trying to figure out what to believe. So you consider some evidence and you’re trying to figure out, well, what’s the most reasonable conclusion?
The other kind of reason is practical reason. You have a certain goal or desire and you have certain beliefs about how to attain it, and then you come up with a decision. So with practical reason, the goal is action. With theoretical reason, it’s just the formation of a reasonable belief.
BA: I want to ask you about your ontological argument from reason. And you deal with this in a recent Philosophia Christi, volume 13, number 1. And you’ve also given talks on it. But one of the things that this argument works with is the philosophy of materialism. And as you’re describing the philosophy of mind, of course, one’s philosophy about the world or one’s worldview is – it seems like that’s really going to heavily influence how they’re going to reason about our thinking processes and what’s going on in the mind.
So before we talk about this argument, can you define materialism as a worldview and then describe maybe how it relates to philosophy of mind?
AM: Yeah. Materialism is basically the doctrine that the physical world is all there is. And materialists today typically define the physical world in terms of the world described by ideal complete sciences, because, of course, you know, they don’t think that our sciences are all finished and complete at this point. And that world recognizes only undirected causation; that is to say, causation that has no goals or purposes. And it only recognizes passive causation.
So, for example, if a lightning strike causes an avalanche and then the avalanche buries some skiers, the avalanche is a completely passive effect of the lightning, and the skiers being buried is a completely passive effect of the avalanche. And you can’t say that the lightning was trying to cause the avalanche or the avalanche was trying to bury the skiers. And this kind of causation is either going to be necessary - according to some law, it must happen – or it’s going to be statistical. It’s a chance event that may happen. But in either case, there are no goals or purposes.
And this, of course, creates the central mystery in the philosophy of mind, because the world described by the physical sciences doesn’t recognize goals, and yet it’s patently obvious that human beings do have goals. So, for example, there’s the skier. The avalanche is coming, and he has a goal of self-preservation. So he alters his path to try and get away from the avalanche, right? There seems to be a very obvious intuitive difference between intelligent beings, who adjust their behavior in the light of their goals, and unintelligent processes like avalanches, which simply remorselessly work to their conclusion.
And the other puzzle here is that if you’re a fully paid-up materialist, you have to say that the physical world is causally closed. What that means is that every physical event must have a physical cause. You can’t have, you know, a nonphysical cause that can somehow get into the picture. Well, then, the mystery is, how is it that we ever do anything, because we seem to - you know, in our actions, we seem to follow our desires and our beliefs. They look like they are mental causes. But according to the materialist view, there must really only be physical causes. Our brain or our nervous system must be doing it all.
And then so how do we fit our minds into the world? What difference does it make what we think, to what we do?
BA: What sort of things are excluded from the materialist worldview? You’ve mentioned a couple of things there. But just as a whole, can you kind of elaborate on that?
AM: Yeah. It doesn’t want to accept any purely mental substances, so not God, not souls, not minds conceived of as different substances than physical bodies. And it also doesn’t want to allow irreducible teleology; that is to say, goals that can’t somehow be shown to reduce to or derive from ordinary physical processes. And so on its view, everything that exists has to be located in the world described by physical sciences. And you’ve really got two choices. Either you reduce it to the physical or you eliminate it. You get rid of it.
Now, there is actually a middle position that’s quite popular, which is to say that, well, somehow these mysterious properties simply emerge or arise from the brain, and so we do get them after all.
BA: I wonder if there’s a differentiation or how it may be different to think about methodological naturalism, or naturalism versus a materialist worldview. Can you describe the difference there? Maybe one person who’s doing science would approach a subject and say, “Well, I’m not going to appeal to nonmaterial causes.” Is that what you’re saying, or are you talking about just starting with a belief, an overall foundation that says, no, these things just don’t exist? I’m just wondering how one arrives at materialism.
AM: Right. Materialism is really the belief that nothing beyond the physical exists. And it arises, the belief, usually, from the conclusion that we don’t need to appeal to anything beyond the physical world to explain anything in it; in other words, that the nonphysical strikes some people as redundant.
Now, its relation to the methodological naturalism, that says, well, in doing science, you are only supposed to consider natural causes. And so you might give an example when the neuroscientist, if they’re stimulating somebody’s neurons with electrons, they’re just going to consider that stimulation, that physical event, as the cause, and they’re not going to consider any possible mental causes. However, that doesn’t show that there are no mental causes. It could be that normally it is your thoughts which result in your actions. But it’s also possible to produce some behaviors in a purely mechanical way.
BA: What about free will? We’ve talked – you’ve talked just about how you were doing some work with that. Seeing that many materialists would deny libertarian free will, what options do they have to account for what we would at least perceive as free will?
AM: Yeah. And as you say, many, because there are a few, like John Searle, hoping that they can somehow claim that libertarian free will emerges. But it’s difficult to see how you can say that, because libertarian free will has active power to change the physical world, and that looks like it’s going to violate the causal closure of the physical. So the vast majority of materialists don’t accept libertarian free will, precisely for that reason.
And so they’ve got two options. One is to actually deny that free will exists. There’s a book by Daniel Wagner called The Illusion of Conscious Will. And he makes the case that when we think we’re making a decision that affects our actions, actually all that’s happening is that we’re previewing a behavior which our brain causes. So, in fact, all our behavior is completely machine-like. Our conscious thoughts have got nothing to do with that behavior. So some people deny free will altogether.
The other popular option is some version of compatibilism, which says that you can rescue a weaker idea of free will which is alleged to be compatible with determinism. So the idea there is that, well, your will is free if it’s caused in the right way. Everything is always caused. But as long as your decisions are the appropriate result of the agent’s reasons, then we’ll call it a free decision. And they usually give examples like, well, you know, the cocaine addict, where it’s actually the chemical addiction that’s driving their behavior. They don’t have free will. But a normal person whose brain is sensitive to reason, so that, for example, you know, they can see that the cocaine is killing them and they decide not to take it, that person, we can say, has free will because their brain is sensitive to rational causes. That’s the idea.
BA: Well, here’s kind of a related question, piggybacking on what you’re describing there. How do materialists view reason or reasoning, as we talked about just a moment ago? How do they describe what’s going on when someone is thinking?
AM: Yeah. For them, it’s a matter, again, of the brain being sensitive to reason. Reasoning is basically where the evidence is having effect on the brain, which then leads to a conclusion. And so long as that’s happening, they will say, well, there’s reasoning going on, and therefore that reasoning is perfectly compatible with the ordinary kind of causation that you see when, you know, something causes an avalanche or something like that. It doesn’t require any special powers.
AM: That, of course, is the view which I think is mistaken.
BA: Well, we’ve talked about some of the terms that we’ll be using when we talk about what you’ve been working on, which is the ontological argument from reason. Now, the first – there are various arguments from reason, sort of a family of arguments. And some people might be familiar with one form of the argument, which can be called the epistemological argument for reason. And this basically is saying that, granted materialism, we can’t reasonably believe materialism is true. So just talking about that one, is that sort of like what Alvin Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism is about?
AM: Yeah, that is one version of the argument, and - although there was an earlier version due to chapter 3 of C.S. Lewis’s Miracles, where he talks about the cardinal difficulty of naturalism. And the history of that argument is well treated by Victor Reppert’s book, C.S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea. Basically, the epistemological argument says that if our faculties are simply the result of undirected causes, then they can’t be relied on to find truth.
A very simple version of the argument is this, that if our thoughts are the result of random motions of atoms in our brain, then we can’t trust our own thoughts, because those thoughts are simply the result of undirected causes. But reasoning in its essence is a directed activity. In other words, when you’re reasoning, you are trying to find the right conclusion in accordance with logic. But the kind of causes you see operating in nature are not trying to find anything, and they’re certainly not sensitive to logical principles.
So the idea of that argument is that the materialist account of the mind makes it impossible to trust that our mind is capable of directing itself by logic.
BA: Back to the word epistemological, you can’t really know – you can’t really trust your own reason if you hold to materialism.
AM: Right. And they have tried to respond to this argument in two main ways. One is to say that, well, maybe rational minds can appear as the result of natural selection. And the other one is to say that maybe our logical abilities are derived from learning. But there are good responses to both of these. In the case of natural selection, all that cares about is that our body produces responses that enable us to survive and reproduce. But as Lewis and Plantinga both point out, all, therefore, that matters is that our bodies move away from lions and toward food and things like that. It doesn’t actually matter what we believe. You can believe that lions are shrubberies, as long as your body keeps away from them. You can believe anything you want about the world, as long as your behavior, in fact, will lead to you surviving. And as a result, it looks as if there’s no reason why we should expect that our beliefs provide a reliable picture of the world, not even most of the time.
And the same problem arises when you might think that, well, perhaps we get logic from experience. But past experience will only give us associations. So you touched the red stove and your hand was burned, and so you associate those two. But that psychological association is not a logical connection. The prankster then paints the ring on the stove red and now you don’t want to touch it because you’ve come to associate red and burn. But, in fact, it wouldn’t burn you.
And the problem is that in logic we appreciate that there are necessary connections. We see that a conclusion must be solved. So if A equals B and B equals C, it must be that A equals C, must always. It’s eternally true. It’s true in every possible world, not just in this world. But the resources of the naturalist are only this world and our contingent associations with it; in other words, what our ancestors did in the case of natural selection or what we’ve done in our own life in the case of the learning theory. And all that will ever show is that certain things tend to happen. It will never show that they must happen. And yet in logic it seems we access the realm where we can see that things are necessarily true. And so Lewis argues that that shows that the human mind is capable of transcending the contingent world of space and time, the world that the naturalist says is all that there is.
BA: Couldn’t the naturalist just respond with something along the lines of, “Well, it would seem like materialism and a random process wouldn’t give us truth, but, look, we’re able to see things that are true and discern what’s true and false. Therefore, yeah, materialism and randomness can give us that.”
AM: Yeah. I mean, the problem is that they’re simply begging the question. The issue here is what’s the best explanation. No one’s denying that everybody, including the materialist, can think. Okay, so the argument is not the materialist can’t think and that’s the problem. We’re assuming that we can think. Everybody assumes they can reason. After all, the materialist gives arguments and so does the non-materialist. The issue at hand is which worldview is the best explanation of our ability to reason. And on naturalism, the probability that our reason is reliable is much lower than it is on some competitive worldviews; theism, notably. And so that’s the issue.
When you start comparing materialism with rival worldviews, since it’s not the only game in town – there are alternatives – it doesn’t fare very well against the competition. So they’re not entitled to just simply assume that, well, reason is somehow tied up with materialism, and therefore you can’t separate the two. The issue is, of the various worldviews, which gives the best account of the reliability of reason?
BA: You know, it seems to me that methodological naturalism, it almost tricks people into thinking that they have to be a naturalist. But it doesn’t justify their worldview as a naturalist, you know.
AM: Yeah. What it does, as John Calvert has shown in his work – he’s a colleague of mine – is it screens out all the evidence that could be used to support other worldviews, because if you say you can only ever accept natural causes as explanations of anything that you observe, you never actually do that comparison of other possible explanations, because the other explanations simply are not allowed. So it rigs the contest and it makes people think that, well, of course, all of the evidence overwhelmingly supports naturalism. If we opened it up and simply said, “Well, what is the best explanation of all reasonable competing explanations?” we would see that some of that evidence doesn’t really support naturalism at all. It’s better accounted for by a rival view such as intelligent design.
BA: Okay. So if we can’t trust our reason, a materialist view of the world, what sort of implications does that have for the materialist? I mean, does this tend to frighten them?
AM: Oh, well, they’re probably not going to be frightened by it, because they have come to identify rationality with materialism. But objectively, they should be worried, because it’s a catastrophe. Any worldview that implies that you cannot trust your reason has just undermined its own mind. There can be no sound basis for accepting that worldview. And so really it’s kind of a catastrophe. After all, they make their case to everyone on the basis of science and their own reason. They’re always arguing this is the modern, enlightened, rational way to look at the world. And yet if their underlying worldview discredits reason, it will also discredit our reliance on science, and indeed discredit their own arguments.
BA: You mentioned how different worldviews have to give an account for what we observe, and then you kind of judge between them to see which gives a better account; in this case, an accounting for reason. So talk about how theism or Christian theism would fare as far as this part of it goes. Can we trust our reason? Describe that.
AM: Yeah. C.S. Lewis says in Miracles, for the theist, reason is older than nature, because it’s always existed in the mind of God. So the theist does not have to offer an account of how reason evolved or emerged or somehow arose from these material processes. It’s already been here. And so if we have creatures who are made in the image of God, they’re like God in certain respects, and God can reason and God exemplifies reason, well, then, creatures, like Him, can be expected, obviously not to the same extent – okay, we have our flaws and we’re finite – but it’s to be expected that we will be able to reason to some degree.
And also this reason is reflected not just in our mind but also in nature. And since it comes from the same source, namely God’s mind, it gives us confidence that human beings will be able to discover the laws of nature. There’s kind of a common language that’s been written in our mind and written in nature. And that’s what the early scientists believed. Johannes Kepler and Galileo talked about nature being a book written in the language of mathematics. And Kepler believed that what he was doing was reading God’s providential plan. He thought that there was a thing called a natural light, which was that aspect of reason that had been given to man so that we could discern what was going on in the natural world. So there’s all kinds of resources for encouraging science and encouraging the belief that we can find out truth using our reason.
BA: We’ve kind of reached the point now where we can talk about the ontological argument from reason. And this one basically says, granted materialism, there cannot be such a thing as reasoning. So explain first why this is called the ontological argument from reason, as maybe some listeners may think you’re somehow talking about Anselm or something.
AM: Yeah. Ontology is just that branch of philosophy concerned with being, what kind of beings exist. And in general, an ontological argument in philosophy is one that tells us what kinds of being would need to exist in order to explain something, okay. And so in this particular case, it’s what does the mind have to be like in order to give an adequate account of human reasoning. What kind of powers or resources does a mind have to have if we’re going to be able to reason? And so it’s going to attempt to show that materialism simply doesn’t have those resources, and therefore cannot account of reasoning.
BA: Can you kind of present it with its premises, and maybe we’ll unpack some of them as we go?
AM: Yeah. Probably the easiest way is to first consider a very simple argument; so Lewis’s favorite, A equals B, B equals C, so A equals C. Okay, what was required to go through that very simple act of reasoning? Well, a couple of things seem required. There needs to be a conscious unity at a particular time of the information in the premises. Okay, the mind has to grasp both A equals B and B equals C, okay, because otherwise, if you have A equals B simply in one part of the brain and B equals C in another part of the brain, right, there’s no basis to draw any conclusion. Thus two pieces of information need to be held together in the mind together at one time, okay.
But secondly, in order to credit somebody with reasoning, it needs to be that that unity is maintained over time, so the next moment somebody concludes that A equals C. Well, it needs to be the same individual who believed A equals B and B equals C who draws that conclusion, because otherwise it will be like one individual believing the premises and another one believing the conclusion. That’s not an act of reasoning. It needs to be one individual who combines both the reasons at a time and then draws that conclusion over time.
And this is a real problem for materialism, because when we look simply at the brain, what we see is a highly parallel system that is processing all kinds of signals, but we don’t see any supervisory unity or self. And, in fact, Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennett like to say that the unified self is a fiction. They say it’s only an illusion that there’s a president in the Oval Office of the brain. Dennett talks about there being these multiple drafts or multiple causal trains. They’re all going through the brain, but there’s no one particular place where they all have to deposit their freight.
So they’re getting rid of the idea of a central supervisory self. But in the process, it seems that reasoning simply falls apart, okay, because the information is distributed in one place and another place. We don’t see how there can be a mind which unifies the premises. And furthermore, we don’t see how there can be anything which draws the conclusion over time, because again, just looking at the brain, we see a system which is in constant flux. When you look at the brain scans, there’s this constant change, okay. There’s nothing that you can pinpoint as an enduring self which is carrying out the act of reasoning.
BA: Well, what sort of objections have you encountered when you’re presenting this argument? What do you think are the most common ones?
AM: Well, of course, a lot of people don’t like the idea that the mind is a substance. They think, “Oh, dear, back to Descartes, and how can we really believe in souls or the mind anymore? Haven’t we moved on from there?” And so they tend to dismiss it, you know, because they think that, well – they raise the standard arguments. How could something so different from the body affect the body, right? If there’s the mind, then how does it interact with the physical world?
I think that’s odd, the prevalence of that objection, because David Hume taught us a long time ago that you can never deduce the effect from the cause. There doesn’t have to be a logical connection between cause and effect, even in the case of physical causes. There’s nothing about the motion of one billiard ball which in any way logically implies a motion on behalf of the second billiard ball which it hits. That was one of his famous examples.
So the whole idea that effects have to be like their causes, I think, is a poor argument. But that is a very common objection is the idea that this kind of harks back to an older folk psychology that we can’t take seriously anymore in a world of neuroscience and brain scans and so on.
BA: You mentioned, again, how different worldviews have to account for reasoning. So how does theism fare in accounting for reason in this case?
AM: Well, you can see that God Himself is a unified spiritual being, right. So sometimes I find it odd there’s a minority of Christians who call themselves Christian physicalists, and they take the position that even a Christian can actually deny the existence of the soul, which is rather hard to square with some obvious passages in Scripture.
But one response to that is to say that any Christian is already a dualist; that is to say, somebody who recognizes that you can have purely spiritual beings. After all, God is a purely spiritual being. He’s able to think. He’s able to reason. He doesn’t have to have a physical apparatus to do it. So we have a paradigm case of a being who can reason, who is a spiritual being. He has no difficulty unifying his thoughts at a time and over time and of doing reasoning.
So it makes sense on the theistic view that if God made us to be reasoners, He would make us like Him in this respect and that He would give us the equipment, as it were, to reason. So if we need some special equipment to reason, it’s not surprising that we can have it if, in fact, it seems that God has that kind of equipment.
BA: One of the things you’ve mentioned in your essay on this subject is that more is required than just bare theism. And I wonder if you could kind of unpack that in accounting for what we observe about our own thinking and our own reason.
AM: Yeah. I mean, you could certainly have a God that just created a lot of physical objects and made those objects subject to his reason but didn’t give any reason to any of his creatures. Reasoning, it seems to me, is misunderstood. People talk about it as a process that goes on. But if that’s all you mean by reasoning, you’d have to conclude that the pocket calculator reasons. Now, the calculator has been designed so it operates in accordance with reasoning, in this case arithmetic. But nobody thinks that the calculator is reasoning for itself. So you have to have a rich enough picture of God that He creates creatures like Him who are actually capable of their own reasoning. And that means giving us something which materialism doesn’t want to allow, namely active power.
Active power means that we can actually change the physical world from what it would be like without our thinking, okay. And according to the materialist, everything that happens is the passive result of prior causes. But it seems to me, to account for reasoning, we have to have active power. And interestingly enough, John Searle, who is a naturalistic philosopher, has come around to this view, because he says that you need to have some way of distinguishing compulsive reasoning, the paranoiac who, no matter what data you present, will always think that you’re out to do him harm. Even if you’re nice to him, he’ll still think, “Oh, no, you’re just trying to lull me into a false sense of security.” You give him cupcakes; he’ll think they’re poison, and so on.
That kind of compulsive reasoning around the same track doesn’t seem to be what normal reasoners do, where they consider many options. And their reasons don’t compel a conclusion. Sometimes you consider several different options and you end up vetoing all of them. Sometimes you have reasons in favor of half a dozen different models of car and you end up siding with only some of those reasons and ignoring the other ones.
The self seems to have that amazing ability to actively select some reasons and reject others and act on those. And so Searle concludes that we really do need the idea of a self that has some kind of active power. Yeah, so you need more than bare theism, because God could simply make creatures who act in accordance with reason without giving the gift of reason. It seems to me that that is a central part of the image of God. So Tolkien, for example, talked about our sub-creative powers. We can’t create from nothing, but we can rearrange the elements of creation to make new things.
That assumes that we are like God in that we have the active power to change this world. We’re not just intermediaries. Okay, so something happens in the world. It makes us do something, like one domino hits another, and that one moves, right. Given all this input in the world still, we can exert an active and positive influence. That idea, it seems to me, is closely tied with the idea that man is made in the image of God. And so you need a rich theism, a Judeo-Christian theism, that tells you more about what human beings are like.
BA: So when we put these two arguments together, when we talked about the epistemological and the ontological arguments from reason, what conclusions do you see that we can draw from both of these together?
AM: Well, basically that naturalism can’t commend itself to us on the basis of reason, because if it’s true, firstly, we can’t trust our reason. That’s the epistemological argument. And secondly, we don’t have the right kind of mind to reason. We don’t really have the equipment to make reasoning a possibility for us. So when naturalists like to proclaim that their worldview simply is reason, I think we can kind of burst their bubble and say, no, actually, your worldview is too small to accommodate the ability of humans to reason.
BA: Well, let’s talk about how both these arguments may be used in the apologetic enterprise. And I’m thinking of ways it can be used in a practical conversational way that one might actually use either of these arguments from reason. Someone might hear of everything you’ve said just now and be, like, “Wow, that’s fascinating; I never thought of that,” and then have no clue on how, you know, they can actually present that in a concise way and have it be a good argument.
AM: Right. Well, I think it has some real value in dealing with the new atheists. The new atheists like to set up the debate this way. They pit irrational faith against reason and assume that their materialistic, scientific view has a monopoly on reason. What we need to do is to step back and ask, why should we trust our reason? In other words, yes, the materialist can reason and so can we. Okay, that’s not the issue. Why can we trust reason?
They’re assuming that they’re on the high ground of reason and Christians cannot think. But we can present the argument from reason to show, given the world that they say exists, we can’t have any confidence in our ability to reason. And so we should not let them get away with using materialism as somehow identical with rationality. How can it be identical with rationality if it doesn’t, in fact, do a good job of explaining our ability to reason?
So you can ask yourself a simple question: Which worldview actually gives you the most confidence that we can find the truth in science and philosophy using our reason? Is it naturalism or theism? So we don’t have to insult them or be anti-science. We can say, “Yeah, I like science too. Let’s think together what’s necessary in order for science to proceed. Well, you have to believe that there is an orderly world out there and you have to believe that our mind is reliable enough to discover it. How likely is that to be true if materialism is true?” and then compare that to how likely is that to be true if theism is true.
So if we’re the result of atoms in the void or the blind watchmaker of natural selection, why should we think we can trust our own reasoning in science and philosophy? But if our reason reflects the same divine reason that created nature, well, then not only can we think about nature and think to logical conclusions, but we’re naturally attuned to the way the world works, making scientific discovery possible.
So those are a couple of ways that I think it’s very useful to not allow materialists to somehow claim that they have a monopoly on reason.
BA: Okay. Well, I think that’s helpful. I’m wondering how you’ve seen these arguments received by others who may disagree with you. And can you give any examples of interactions or debates that have touched on these themes?
AM: Yeah, in some debates I have raised versions of the argument from reason. It came up in my debate with the atheist P.Z. Myers and also with Frederick Edwards - at that time he was the head of the American Humanist Association – in that case mainly to show that their own materialist worldview undermines the science that they use to bash Christianity with. And the interesting thing is that they have a very hard time hearing the argument because they’ve come to identify rationality with materialism. They find it hard to conceive how materialism could actually undermine reason, because to them materialism is reason.
And so simply to develop an alternative theistic worldview and to compare materialism side by side with that really kind of wrong foots them. They haven’t spent their life thinking about that issue. They’ve spent their life thinking exclusively with a materialistic paradigm, and they think they’ve got the world taped and they’ve dismissed religious viewpoints as superstitious and irrational. And that’s what they need. They need to have the case systematically set out side by side so you can actually compare the two views.
And I’m also going to use some of this material at a panel discussion coming up at the Society of Biblical Literature. That’s going to be in San Francisco in November. It meets kind of after you’ve got the Evangelical Theological and Philosophical Society meeting. And it’s on a panel where one of the participants, Kevin Corcoran, is a defender of this Christian physicalist view that says that even Christians don’t need to accept the existence of the soul. And I’m going to be arguing against him and in favor of the soul. I think one of the arguments for the soul is that what you need, the resources that you need to explain reasoning, require a soul, okay, something which is a unified mental substance.
BA: I’m sure many people would be interested in hearing that. I’m wondering also about one of your books, which is entitled Agents Under Fire: Materialism and the Rationality of Science. What do you explore and argue in that book?
AM: That’s kind of a critique book. And I’m right now writing a more positive book, the positive case for my positions. But in the critique book, what I look at is the main division between two kinds of materialism and argue that both of them fail to account for important characteristics of the mind. And that division is sometimes called a divide between strict naturalists or strict materialists, who want to get rid of problematic areas of the mind as somehow outdated or folk psychology, okay.
A good example of that would Paul Churchland, who says that you should just eliminate the whole idea of beliefs and desires, a very radical approach. So in his view, you can just talk about events in the brain. That’s one approach. And the other approach is what sometimes is called broad materialism, where they hope that somehow they can account for these puzzling properties of the mind by locating them in the physical world, either by identifying mental qualities with the brain or the physical in some way or by saying that the mental at least depends on or emerges from the brain in some kind of way. But at least, at the end of the day, they hope that they can say that it’s natural.
And I pick on a number of properties which I believe that neither version can really do a good job of accounting for. They either deny the data or they give a very implausible account of these mental characteristics, especially subjectivity, intentionality, teleology, rationality, and the unity of conscious thought.
And I also in the book go into some detail criticizing Darwinian psychology, which is a very fashionable view right now, but I think it’s quite disastrous for human rationality.
BA: I’m also curious about how this argument from reason, how it ties into the idea of intelligent design. What relationship do you see there?
AM: Well, I mean, the idea of an intelligent cause is the idea of a cause which is not simply passively compelled. It has its own goals. So there’s a very strong link. If you believe that human beings have this active power to choose and to direct their behavior that’s not just passively compelled by their genes and circumstances, well, that’s the same thing that you need in order to design anything, right.
So, for example, if you think of the processes going on in nature around Shakespeare or whoever it was, now that this is being debated again – whoever wrote the plays, okay – none of those natural processes, chemical physical processes, was going to write those plays. It seems that it was Shakespeare’s genius to find these particular sentences and to compose this particular masterpiece. It wasn’t the product of these undirected forces at all. It was his creative genius, which requires an active power.
Well, intelligent design is saying, interestingly enough, we find things like that in nature that obviously were not the result of human intelligence, okay. In fact, they seem to be the result of a higher intelligence, so the massive amount of information in any cell, this vast collection of protein machines and the way that they interact, or the fine-tuning argument, right, the fine-tuning of the whole universe to make intelligent life possible.
All of these things seem beyond the capacity for undirected causes to produce. There they are. We didn’t do them. It doesn’t look like other life forms did them. They seem to point to some higher intelligent designer.
BA: Well, very good. Now I want to shift gears as we start to wrap up here. A while back I interviewed Dr. John Warwick Montgomery, and he spoke about his International Academy of Apologetics, Evangelism and Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. And I know that you’ve been involved with that. So I thought as long as I’ve got you on here, I might as well ask you to describe your experience with it and if you wanted to recommend it to others.
AM: Yeah, it’s a marvelous experience. It’s two weeks in Strasbourg, a cultural capital of Europe, doing intensive study on apologetics, all the major areas of apologetics, including scientific and medical and the case for the Bible and the resurrection, philosophical apologetics; all sorts of topics are treated at an advanced level by the professors in residence. I attended it twice as a student. I presented a thesis then. In fact, that went on to become my book, Agents Under Fire. And I’ve also taught there twice as an instructor.
The camaraderie is great because you get to interact with lots of people interested in apologetics from different countries. And you tend to make good friendships there. So that’s wonderful just from the point of view of Christian fellowship. You can take it for credit if you need to. You can go more than once and present a thesis. I think it’s a wonderful opportunity. And it sure doesn’t hurt that you can also get some of the finest food in Europe and beautiful architecture, countryside. Lots of special outings and trips are thrown in. It’s a wonderful experience. And, in fact, I’ve got here the website is www.ApologeticsAcademy.eu for next July’s program. And I believe there still are some slots if people want to sign up for that.
BA: All right. Well, I hope that they do. And I’ll make sure to link to it on the blog post.
Finally, Angus, as we wrap up, you’re speaking to an audience of a lot of Christian apologists and those interested in becoming better Christian ambassadors. What’s your advice for those learning apologetics and really wanting to pursue it further?
AM: Well, from the point of view of reading, I strongly recommend that journal Philosophia Christi. It’s kind of unique to have a philosophy journal that has a strong accent on apologetics. At a more popular level, there’s a wonderful publication called Christian Research Journal, where all of the articles are apologetics type pieces which respond to current issues as they arise. So it’s very up to the minute.
I also recommend the work of people like Paul Copan, William Lane Craig, Craig Evans, Gary Habermas, John Warwick Montgomery, J.P. Moreland, Craig Parton. And there’s a fine British apologist called Peter Williams. Lots of these people you can find out information about at the Evangelical Philosophical Society website. And they – every time they have their annual meeting – this year it’s in San Francisco – they have an apologetics conference at the site. And this year it’s going to be held at Berkeley, California. Those are great opportunities. And they also – after the events, they have podcasts of everything from all the presentations. So if somebody can’t make it, they can benefit from those.
I also strongly recommend an online ministry that my former student, Tony Horvath, does. It’s called Athanatos Christian Ministries. It’s at AthanatosMinistries.org. And he’s been hosting online apologetics conferences, has lots of apologetics resources that are free.
Again, I strongly recommend the international academy. And if people get really serious, there’s this wonderful master’s program in Christian apologetics that you can take at Biola University. And that really is a center of excellence in Christian apologetics. And if someone gets, you know, to the point “I’d really like to feel I’m trained,” I think that’s where you want to go.
BA: Well, very good. That’s great advice. Angus, it’s been a real fascinating interview. I’m sure our listeners will love it. And I want to thank you for taking the time to speak with me today.
AM: Oh, Brian, thank you so much for having me on the show. Thank you.
Wednesday, January 15, 2014
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