Answering V.J. Torley’s questions

by Neil Rickert

Over at the Uncommon Descent blog, poster vjtorley has posed “Ten Questions for Professor Coyne.”  I am not a spokesman for Jerry Coyne, and I disagree with some of what he writes.  But I thought I would try giving my own answers to those questions.  I’m pretty sure that Jerry Coyne would disagree with me on some of the answers.

Question 1 – Is science the only road to knowledge?

I’ll note that there is some ambiguity on what is meant by “knowledge.”  For myself, I would never claim that science is the only way to all knowledge, though it is an excellent way to knowledge about the natural world.  In any case, vjtorley breaks this question into several parts.

Does science, in your opinion, presuppose the truth of certain synthetic a priori principles (as Kant would have called them), which are not merely logical or mathematical truths, but which can nevertheless be known through the study of philosophy, independently of science?

I believe that Kant was mistaken about the synthetic a priori.  There is no such thing.  Kant, in particular, wanted to include parts of mathematics, such as  geometry, in his synthetic a priori.  As I see it, geometry is inspired by experience.  However, the truths of geometry do not simply come from inspiration.  Rather, they come from the way that the discussion of geometry has been formulated.  And that makes many of the truths derivable from definitions.  That is to say, they are analytic truths, not synthetic truths.  As to the dependence on science, note that “geometry” literally means “measuring the earth,” and measuring is something that we normally consider to be part of science.

In your view, is philosophy capable, at least in principle, of reasoning from the occurrence of empirical phenomena (which are known to science) to the existence of a Being that transcends the realm of the physical – by which I mean not only the observable spatio-temporal universe, but any multiverse whose behavior is regulated by physical laws?

Experience shows us that philosophy is indeed capable of such reasoning.  However, in my experience, such reasoning is usually invalid (as often happens in arguments that purport to prove God), or is an hypothetical exploration of ideas (as in multiverse theorizing).

In your view, is philosophy capable of demonstrating, at least in principle, through a process of purely logical argumentation, that certain operations of the human mind cannot possibly be identified with, or caused by, processes occurring in the brain?


Notice the change in wording from “capable of reasoning” in the previous sub-question to “capable of demonstrating” in this sub-question.  Certainly there is such reasoning, but I find it all dubious.

Question 2 – The possibility of truths that only philosophy can demonstrate

Again, this is divided into sub-questions.

(a) Things don’t just happen “out of the blue”, without any kind of cause.

I don’t see that as any kind of truth.  Rather, I see it as a kind of methodological principle, that when something surprising happens we should investigate it.

(b) An infinite regress of explanations doesn’t explain anything.

That is perhaps a truism, but am not inclined to consider it a truth.

(c) Anything complex demands an explanation for its existence.

People make demands, not complex things.  The arrangement of sand grains in a sand dune is highly complex.  I don’t see anybody demanding an explanation for particular arrangements.

Question 3 – The laws of Nature and the existence of God

Personally, I doubt that there are such things as laws of nature.  There are, however, scientific laws, so I will presume those are what are under consideration.  Generally speaking, when we talk of laws, we expect those laws to be expressions in a language.  However, languages themselves come from humans, and expressions made in those languages are human constructs.  This is why I do not consider the scientific laws themselves to be a part of nature, though we use those laws as part of how we talk about nature.

So my question is: how would you define a law of Nature, Professor Coyne? In particular, is it a merely descriptive statement which happens to hold true at all times and places, and which also happens to be a useful generalization for explaining physical phenomena, OR is it a prescriptive statement which tells us how objects should behave?

I see scientific laws as neither descriptive nor prescriptive.  Rather, I see them as giving methodological principles.  We use scientific laws as the basis for our scientific descriptions and studies, but that does not require that the laws themselves be descriptions.  I see scientific laws as somewhat analogous to a scaffolding that a builder might erect to provide access to the builder’s structure or to the scientist’s world.

Arguments to the existence of a God, based on the existence of so-called laws of nature, strike me as absurd.

Question 4 – The problem of induction

I am a skeptic of induction.  Or, more precisely, I am skeptical of the claims often made that science depends on induction.  There is undoubtedly something right about what is sometimes called Baconian induction but the way this has been formulated by philosophy, into what we might call philosophic induction, seems to miss what was important about Bacon’s proposed methodology.

As a scientist, Professor Coyne, you believe that the laws of Nature hold true at all times and places. In particular, you believe in the validity of induction. Why?

I don’t know what are Jerry Coyne’s views on induction.  I most certainly do not see it as valid.  On the other hand, statistical inference (which is sometimes said to be an inductive method) is a valid deductive method, but it yields only probabilities rather than certain truths.  I do not see major scientific laws, such as Newton’s laws, as resulting from philosophic induction.

As a specific example, consider Newton’s law of gravity.  And in particular, consider the kind of observation from which it might have been inductively derived, if philosophic induction were used.  The first actual observation that seems to be of the right kind, would have been that by Henry Cavendish, made about 100 after Newton had given us his law.  The relation between scientific laws and empirical data are far more complex than the inductionists would have us believe.

Question 5 – Miracles and the laws of Nature

I’ll just make a quick comment here.

Miracles seem to be quite common.  However, when carefully investigated, they usually have mundane explanations.  There was a recent example of a miracle that turned out to be due to a leaking sewer.  The trouble with the Biblical accounts of miracles, is that there was no careful investigation.  We cannot rule out that there may have been mundane explanations.

It is easy enough to come up with miracles, either with creative fiction writing, or by jumping to unwarranted conclusions and failing to carefully investigate.

Question 6 – The possibility of reasoning to a supernatural Being


Professor Coyne, you may have heard that the cosmologist Alexander Vilenkin of Tufts University in Boston has recently argued that not only the observable universe, but the entire multiverse, must have had a beginning.

Such arguments always seem foolish.  For one thing, our concept of time is a concept that derives from our experience within our universe, and our ideas that things have a beginning come from that concept.  I cannot find any basis for assuming our concept of time to be a universal concept that applies to all universes and applies outside of universes.

Question 7 – The nature of mind and the concept of truth

This is an area where I have very unconventional views, as might be suggested by the name of this blog.  It is one of my pet peeves, that philosophy had done a poor job of analyzing truth, yet has made it a core concept of traditional philosophy.  I have elsewhere indicated that I am a behaviorist, so I tend to look at truth in terms of the ways people behave as they attempt to make assessments of truth.

You’re also a materialist. That is, you equate each and every mental act – including the act of forming an abstract concept – with some physical process.

Personally, I am not a materialist, and I don’t attempt to equate every mental act with a physical process.  If anything, I tend to be skeptical that “mental act” is an appropriate name for anything.

Another puzzle facing materialists is intentionality.

As a behaviorist, I don’t see a problem with intentionality.  The main tradition of philosophy is what we might call propositionalism – the attempt to explain everything in terms of propositions.  Intentionality is, primarily, a problem for propositionalists.  I’m not sure that it can be said to be a problem for materialists, however, given that many materialists deny that it is a problem.

Thoughts have meaning and semantic content, in their own right.

I actually doubt that there are such things as thoughts.  We certainly engage in thinking as a behavior.  However, I am skeptical that we can analyze thinking into actions taken on objects.  People who use “thoughts” as a noun seem to take thoughts to be linguistic expressions.  My own experience is that my thinking is not a purely linguistic activity, though it might involve some private use of linguistic expression.  I tend to think of the usage of “thoughts” as metaphoric.

In any case, it is the people that have meanings, not the linguistic expressions that we might take to be thoughts.

Physical processes, by contrast, don’t possess meaning or semantic content in their own right.

Hmm, why not?  Normally, we use “possess” only when discussing persons or other cognitive agents.  And a simple physical process is not a person.  However, why could not some processes have some sort of simple precursor of meaning?

Question 8 – The nature of morality and the source of our moral code

I don’t want to say much about morality, except that it seems to me that a lot of nonsense is said by all sides on this topic.  When people talk of objective morality, I wonder what that could possibly mean.  Perhaps it only means that we discuss moral rules as if those were objects.  I fail to see how it could mean more than that.

Discussions of morality are often filled with equivocation, with making special exceptions.  I am skeptical that it is possible to encode morality into any system of rules, unless those are vague and ambiguous rules.

Question 9 – God and the problem of suffering

I don’t have much to say here, either.

…, and you argue that a benevolent, omnipotent Deity wouldn’t have designed the natural world in this way.

Personally, I have avoided that kind of argument.  It is not at all clear that we can reach conclusions on what a putative omnipotent Deity would or would not do.  In any case, the discussion is far too hypothetical.

Question 10 – Determinism and Insanity

I’ll cut this one short, too.  I have never been persuaded that we live in a deterministic universe.  I am quite doubtful that we could ever give a non hand-waving definition of determinism.

Whether or not our world is deterministic seems beyond any possibility of scientific investigation.  The world does not have the appearance one would expect if there were a rigid determinism.  Yet, I cannot rule out that this might be a rigidly deterministic world, where it is determined in such a way that I am unable to see evidence of that determinism.

A final note

The issues that vjrorley raises appear to come from looking at everything from a propositionalist point of view.  Much of traditional philosophy, including philosophy of science and philosophy of mind, is from a propositionalist perspective.  Gilbert Ryle saw this in his critique of dualistic thinking, and instead favored a more behaviorist way of looking at things.

As a behaviorist, rather than a propositionalist, the problems that vjtorley sees are not problems that show up in my way of looking at things.  Moreover, as I see it, science is best understood as behaviorist, and is frequently misunderstood by thinking of it as propositionalist.

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