by Ronald Scott Smith. Posted with permission.
At the “Reason Rally” in Washington, secular, atheistic people gathered
in support of “reason” over [mere] “faith” of religious people. Not so
hidden in the background was the
widely-held cultural mindset that science uses reason and uniquely gives
us knowledge of truth (the facts). But religion gives us just personal
opinions and preferences, not knowledge. This bifurcation often is
called the “fact-value split.”
This science is naturalistic;
only what is scientifically knowable (i.e., by the five senses) is real.
In principle, such things as God, souls, and mental states (i.e.,
non-physical things like thoughts, beliefs, and experiences) cannot be
known to be real. Or, simplifying, they don’t exist. Yet, we can test
natural, physical stuff scientifically, so that is what is believed to
be real. That view of reality is the philosophy undergirding atheistic
evolution by natural selection (NS) – naturalism. There’s only the
physical universe, without anything non-physical.
many believed there were non-physical essential natures that separated
living things into kinds. Afterwards, biological classification is
understood as one interconnected “tree of life” - all living things
share a common ancestor.
Now, how do we know what’s true on
this view? Consider Daniel Dennett, a leading philosopher,
neuroscientist, and New Atheist, who takes evolution by NS very
seriously. For him, NS is blind – without any goal planning, thinking
about some desired outcome, believing something, or trying to make
something happen. And since non-physical mental states aren’t real, the
qualities they would have, e.g., their representing something (their
being of or about something) also would not be real. There are only
brain states, physical patterns, and behavior we take (interpret) to be
Dennett realizes that if there were real,
intrinsic (something that’s so due to what kind of thing it is),
essential natures, there could be a “deeper” fact (beyond just behavior)
of what our thoughts (or beliefs, experiences) are really about. Just
due to what those mental states would be essentially, they really could
be of their objects, and not something else.
evolution by NS denies any such essences, Dennett says we only interpret
the behavior of people (and sophisticated computers and robots) as
being “about” their objects. But that’s all we have to go on – just our
interpretations, which we attribute to a person. Based on someone’s
behaviors, we interpret them to mean the person is thinking “about”
something (e.g., an errand to Lowe’s), but that’s just how we talk. In
reality, there isn’t any real “aboutness” to us.
could be other interpretations too. Maybe the thought is “of” something
else (e.g., a movie on HBO). But, there’s no fact of the matter we can
appeal to, to settle the issue. Dennett admits for that to be so, there
would have to be an essence to the thought’s being of something, so that
it really is about the errand, not the movie.
essences, we’re left only with interpretations; but, of what?
Apparently, another interpretation; but if we keep pressing that
question, we’re left just with interpretations of interpretations, etc.,
without any way to get started and experience something as it is,
simply because no mental state is really about anything.
same problem applies to our own mental life. Any mental state doesn’t
have an essence to be about anything in particular. If they cannot
really be about something, then how would we ever know how things really
Fortunately, that’s not how we experience life. Our mental states seem to have three essential features:
1. They’re “particularized.” My thought about tonight’s dinner, or my
experience of drinking a Starbuck's chocolate smoothie, is not generic
or unspecified. Each is about something particular.
2. These mental
states must be about something. It doesn’t seem we could have one that
lacks this quality. (Try having a thought that isn’t about anything!)
3. That “ofness” seems to be intrinsic, or essential, to each mental
state. My thought about last night’s dinner could not be about anything
else and still be the thought it is. I could observe the price of gas at
the Exxon station, but that experience couldn’t have been of my dinner.
How do we best explain these three apparently essential features of
mental states? Dennett realizes that if mental states had essential
natures, they really could be of their intended objects, so we could
If athesitic evolution by NS were true, we’d be in a
beginningless series of interpretations, without any knowledge. Yet, we
know many things. So, naturalism & NS are false - non-physical
essences exist. But, what’s their explanation? Being non-physical, it
can’t be evolution. So, maybe we have souls that use them. It seems
likely their best explanation is there’s a Creator after all. Now that’s
more reasonable to believe.