Saturday, March 24, 2007

Loyal Rue: The Nature of Religion

Loyal Rue, the second presenter in Session 6 of “Beyond Belief 2006” , is professor of Religion and Philosophy at Luther College. He came to the conference to talk about the nature of religion.

Religion, he tells us, is a story that is meant to unite two separate fields on inquiry. It is meant to tell us how the world is, and to tell us what is important. More importantly, it unites these two fields of inquiry in a single author – a God who is both the ultimate explanation of everything that exists and the ultimate justification for everything that has value.

All religious traditions are narrative traditions. They have at the core, way down deep, a myth, a story . . . The central story really brings together and integrates two different kinds of ideas. Every religious tradition has cosmological ideas – that is, ideas about how things are ultimately in the world. And every religion has moral ideas – that is, ideas about which things matter ultimately for human fulfillment . . . Ideas about how things are are brought together and con – fused with ideas about what things matter.

Rue’s use of the term ‘con-fused’ here takes some explanation. He means to say that ideas about what things are and ideas about what things matter are fused together in an all-encompassing integrated myth or story.

Of course, the pun here is not intentional, because Rue also asserts the claim that there is a sharp distinction between fact and value – that mixing the two commits the so-called ‘naturalistic fallacy’.

This Beyond Belief conference was an excellent project that brought people together from a host of different disciplines to share their research with people from other disciplines. It would have been great if the philosophy of mind professionals would have gone up to any moral philosopher or philosopher of religion, and anybody else who mentioned as if to endorse ‘The Naturalistic Fallacy’, slapped them hard across the face, and shouted, “Snap out of it!”

I hold that values are facts about relationships between states of affairs and desires. The claims that I make are fully wrapped in this ‘naturalistic fallacy’ such that, if this is in fact a fallacy, you can quit reading this blog and go on to somebody who is saying something sensible. However, this ‘naturalistic fallacy’ does not concern me.

Philosophers of mind killed this ‘naturalistic fallacy’ idea long ago.

Let me explain how this fallacy is used in ethics. Then, I will draw a parallel to it in the philosophy of mind. Then, I will explain the death-dealing blow that philosophers of mind have delivered to this argument. Then, I will argue that its ghost needs to be exercise from all other branches of philosophy as well.

The Naturalistic Fallacy comes from G.E. Moore. Moore argued that it is impossible to reduce moral properties to natural properties. To prove this, he employs ‘the open question argument’. He points out that it if anybody ever attempts to make the claim that ‘good’ is ‘naturalistic property N’, that it will always be reasonable to ask, “X is N, but is it really good?” The mere fact that this is a reasonable question shows that it is impossible to equate being N with being good. That is to say, it is impossible to reduce ‘good’ to any natural property.

Now, let’s apply this to the philosophy of mind.

One could argue that it is impossible to reduce a mental state to a brain state. That is to say, it is senseless to argue that we can study mental states by studying the brain. We can defend this claim by employing ‘the open question argument’. If anybody ever attempts to make the claim that ‘mental state M’ is ‘brain state B’, that it will always be reasonable to ask, “X is brain state B, but is it really mental state M?” The mere fact that this is a reasonable question shows that it is impossible to equate being mental state M with brain state B. That is to say, it is impossible to reduce mental state M to any natural property.

If somebody ever tries that argument in the philosophy of mind, their PhD is revoked and they are sent back to the graduate school for a remedial education in logic.

So, what do philosophers of mind say against this type of argument?

First, there is a plausibility issue. “We seem to have two ideas here that have come into conflict. The first is this naturalistic fallacy of yours. However, if we accept this naturalistic fallacy, then we are going to have to accept mind/body dualism. However, mind/body dualism has so many problems with it, that it is almost certainly false. Before we can even begin to give any credence to mind/body dualism, somebody needs to give us a theory of what mind is, how it can be distinct and separate from body, how we can know about it, and how it interacts with body. If I were a gambling man, and I was forced to bet on which would happen first – for somebody to come up with a theory of mind distinct from body that actually makes sense, or for somebody to find a problem with this ‘naturalistic fallacy’ of yours, I’m going to bet that the naturalistic fallacy will fail long before mind/body dualism has any hope of succeeding.”

Second, philosophers of mind have identified the fatal flaw with the ‘naturalistic fallacy’. It refers to the fact that some terms are ‘referentially opaque’. They refer to what the agent thinks about an object, but tell us nothing about the object itself. The ‘open question’ argument is referentially opaque. It tells us nothing about ‘good’ or ‘mental state M’. It only tells us what people think about ‘good’ or ‘mental state M’.

Of course, people are not accustomed to referring to any given brain state as a mental state. We have not known enough about brains for people to be able to do this. As we learn more, it will become more and more possible to either identify brain states that correspond to mental states. We may not be totally successful. Some mental states may not correspond to any brain state. Some mental states may not correspond to reality at all. However, the conclusion to draw here is not that mental states are something distinct and separate from brain states or some other aspect of physical reality. The conclusion to draw is that they never existed, and it is time to eliminate them from our real-world descriptions.

The way to tell if a brain state corresponds to a mental state is not to determine if we have a priori knowledge of the relationship. It is to say, “Here, if we look at mental state M, we see that it is related to A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. If we look at brain state B, we see that it has all of these same relationships to A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. From this, I conclude that mental state M is brain state B.”

The ‘naturalistic fallacy’ argument is an instance of a person saying, “Hold on a minute. One of the things that is true of mental state M is that I am accustomed to thinking of it as mental state M. However, I am not accustomed to thinking of brains state B as mental state M. This is one thing that is true of M that is not true of B. Therefore, they are not the same thing. In fact, this is true of every single brain state you can ever name that you say is equivalent to some mental state. It will always be the case that I am accustomed to thinking of that mental state as a mental state, and never be the case that I am accustomed to thinking of that brain state as a mental state. So, it is a ‘naturalistic fallacy’ to ever try to reduce a mental state to a brain state.”

The answer to this argument is, “Your habits of thinking about mental state M or brain state B in particular ways is not a property of M or of B. They are properties of you. If you should die, you shall cease to think of M or B in any way at all. Yet, neither M nor B will change as a result of your death, because none of the properties of M or B will change.”

This is where the term ‘referentially opaque’ comes in. Claims about how a person thinks of something are ‘referentially opaque’. They do not ‘shine through’ to the object one is talking about. They stop at the person who is doing the thinking.

So, the same can be said about attempts to reduce ‘good’ to some naturalistic property. We look at ‘good’ and discover that it has all of these associations with A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. In this case, our relationships concern concepts such as “excuse”, “mens rea”, “’ought’ implies ‘can’”, “the role of praise and condemnation”, “three categories of moral action – prohibition, permission, and obligation”, “negligence”, and “the ‘illness/evil’ distinction”. You find a naturalistic property that can accommodate all of these relationships.

When somebody comes along shouting “naturalistic fallacy”, I simply shout back, ‘referrential opacity’ and continue.

Rue went on to provide some other interesting comments about the function of religion and how religion maintains itself. Many of these claims do not depend on his acceptance of such a thing as a ‘naturalistic fallacy’. As a result, the rest of his presentation remains useful and relevant, even without the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ error.

But it is an error.



Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I've been meaning to comment for a while, Mr. Fyfe, but felt embarrassed that "Yeah, yeah! Hell yeah!" didn't add much to the conversation.

It is, however, all that I've got.

Excellent blog, and in particular, an excellent post.