Contra Ignosticism

For every phenomenon of nature, there is a perfectly natural explanation. Such is the credo of naturalism. In practice, it has worked out amazingly well, so far. This should not surprise us. In a causally coherent and ordered world, it could not be otherwise, for in such a world (as in no other state of affairs) every event would be neatly and completely tied to its antecedents and successors by definite and orderly causal relations. And this would be so, whether or not the causal relations were intelligible to its denizens, or even apprehensible. In other words, it would be so, even if there were nothing in the universe more intelligent than amoebae. If the world were not coherent, and therefore, in principle, completely intelligible, then we – i.e., members of the world – could not understand any bit of it. For, if things were not integrated with each other in an orderly way, then the world would not really hang together – it wouldn’t be a world at all, properly speaking. It would be nothing but a jumble of unrelated events, a Humean chaos.

Many people have quite naturally concluded that the causal integrity of the world precludes the operation therein of causes exogenous thereto. This is the second sentence of the naturalist credo: there are no causes exogenous to our world, and no things exogenous to it, either.

But it won’t do. For, there is no perfectly natural explanation of the natural phenomenon that there is a perfectly natural explanation of every phenomenon of nature. Nature can’t explain the fact that there is a Nature of Nature.

The naturalist could retort that, it being the nature of worlds per se, properly speaking, to cohere completely, and thus to be exhaustively intelligible, there is no other way that we could exist, than as members of such a world. We do exist, so that’s the nature of our milieu. It’s a brute fact, and not only does it not require explanation, but – as a brute, and unintelligible fact – no explanation of it is even possible.

Now there is a sense in which that argument is extremely compelling, because it is obviously true – indeed, tautologically true. It can’t be turtles all the way down, because in that case there could be no ultimate basis of explanation, or therefore any such thing, really, as explanation. So at some point you are going to work your way down to the sea bed where the bottom turtle is resting. And that sea bed, whatever it is – together, by extension, with all the turtles – is in the final analysis a brute fact. What is, is.

But there is another sense in which that argument is profoundly wrong-headed. What is certainly is, to be sure. But if that’s all that we can really say about it, then *that’s all we can really say about it.* Notice that the “it” in that last sentence refers to *everything whatsoever;* so that the only thing we can say about anything whatsoever is, that it is what it is. This doctrine is the zero of knowledge. It is the philosophy that Nature has no Nature.

We need a name for this school of thought that accurately conveys its central tenet. “Naturalism” does not work. It cheats; it obscures its central tenet that existence is fundamentally unintelligible. “Ignosticism” might work: the doctrine of our total and absolutely invincible ignorance.

Clearly, ignosticism won’t cut it as a philosophy. To found thought, science, policy, planning, behavior, we need more than, “whatever.” What we want – what, in fact, we *absolutely must have* – is a doctrine that tells us what is necessarily true, so that we can then see how what is contingently true has arisen from it, intelligibly. What we want, to found our intellection, and ergo our lives, is something that could not possibly be otherwise.

As thoroughly contingent, Nature herself can provide us no such thing.

So, there must be something outside Nature, that founds and orders her, providing the coherence and intelligibility we see pervades her on every side.

Naturalism, then, can’t be true. This, not just because we have a practical requirement for something less stupid, but because if naturalism is true – if, that is, ignosticism is true – then naturalism and ignosticism are among all the other things, whatsoever, that we cannot know are true, or false, or even thinkable.

What does it mean to say that something is unthinkable? It means that you can construct a sentence that expresses the proposition, but you can’t *mean* it, can’t intend that anyone should take it as true, because strictly speaking it is either meaningless or self-refuting.

Ignosticism is not even thinkable. You can string the words of its central doctrine together, you can say, “We can’t really know anything,” but you can’t mean it.

Ignosticists, then, are all liars. And deep down, they cannot but know it, because you can’t even begin to run a life without asserting by your every act that the world is indeed intelligible. Perhaps that accounts for the endemic irony of this ignorant age – and the anger or despair, which set in when an ironic ignosticist runs out of patience and good humour.

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Post Scriptum: Wow. Remind me never to coin a word again without first googling it. It turns out that ignosticism is a putatively serious school of thought that argues that the concept of God is incoherent. I’m using it for a school of thought that cannot but conclude that existence is unintelligible. If the concept of God is incoherent, then existence is definitely unintelligible, no matter how orderly and rational it might seem to us. So, inadvertently, I used the term correctly, I suppose.

26 thoughts on “Contra Ignosticism

  1. I’ve seen various arguments from theists on the net before, and find it extremely unconvincing. That comprehensibility of the universe is something of a mystery is widely acknowledged by naturalists. It’s two deep mysteries — the structure of the natural world, and the nature of the human mind that is able to make sense of it. There are some tantalizing ideas for how that works, but I don’t think anyone pretends to have the answer, and a subset of naturalistically inclined philosophers believe that it cannot be answered.

    From that perspective, the theist declaration that they have an answer to this mystery is a laughable con game. Here’s a quote pulled out pretty much at random from Feser’s site:

    The God of classical theism is not “a god” among others, precisely because He isn’t an instance of any kind in the first place, not even a unique instance. He is beyond any genus. He is not “a being” alongside other beings and doesn’t merely “have” or participate in existence alongside all the other things that do. …He is First Cause not in the sense of being the cause that came before the second, third, fourth, fifth, etc. causes, but rather in the sense of having primal or absolutely underived causal power whereas everything else has causal power in only a derivative and thus secondary way.

    Well, that is very special, but it is just slapping a name and a persona on the mystery, and pretending to thus have knowledge of it and (quite outrageously) pretending to speak for it. It is the theists who are the liars, because they are pretending to knowledge they don’t have. Give me honest ignorance any day.

    • Um … Your link to “a subset of naturalistically inclined philosophers [who] believe that [the question of the source of intelligibility] cannot be answered” returned “file not found.” Poetic justice?

      I’m teasing. What’s the URL?

      While I’m at it, did you have any thoughts on the arguments I presented?

      As to yours, far be it from me to suggest that God is not mysterious, but I like having a ground of intelligibility better than not, even if I don’t fully comprehend it myself. To do without one is to do without knowledge. I admire your comfort with the cognitive dissonance implicit in belief in the impossibility of knowledge, but I think it an untenable position – self-refuting.

      Theism is far more than a label slapped on a mystery. It is the product of centuries of careful thought on the question of what a successful idea of an ultimate ground would have to be like, in order for the world to be the way it is. I can appreciate that to those who have not undertaken very much thought of that type themselves, the whole discourse might seem impenetrably silly and arbitrary. It is not.

      Finally, this post is not about theism, but naturalism. I wasn’t explaining or defending theism. I was just working through some consequences of atheistic naturalism.

      • The link works for me, but here is the URL again: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-constructive_naturalism

        I don’t think theism is silly and arbitrary, although it does get impenetrable at times.

        For every phenomenon of nature, there is a perfectly natural explanation. Such is the credo of naturalism.

        This is close but not quite right, it would be more accurate to say that naturalism outlaws any supernatural explanations. (This is your second credo)

        every event would be neatly and completely tied to its antecedents and successors by definite and orderly causal relations.

        Not really, unless you consider quantum physics to not be a naturalistic theory.

        For, there is no perfectly natural explanation of the natural phenomenon that there is a perfectly natural explanation of every phenomenon of nature. Nature can’t explain the fact that there is a Nature of Nature.

        This seems to be the heart of your argument, and it is pretty much true. Science has not and perhaps cannot address these fundamental issues, which shade off into metaphysics and fundamental epistemology.

        Both science and religion define attitudes to this fundamental mystery, at their best. Science: inquisitive, rapturous, religion: worshipful.

        Theology, on the other hand, claims to deduce the nature of the mystery through logic. Smells like bs to me.

      • Ah, yes, the mysterians. It is indeed hard to argue with the notion that there may be some truths we are constitutionally incapable of understanding. Most of the conundra that the New Mysterians find so perplexing, however, disappear when you get the metaphysics right. They are incomprehensible only under a materialist metaphysic. This ought to be understood as an indication of the truth value of materialism!

        I fixed the link in your original comment.

        QM is neither naturalist nor supernaturalist. It is a scientific theory, not a metaphysical theory, like naturalism and supernaturalism.

        QM does not rule out the notion that “every event [is] neatly and completely tied to its antecedents and successors by definite and orderly causal relations.” It rules out only the notion that the causal relations of an event to events in its future are determined ex ante – that is, it argues they can be determined only ex post. Under QM, you can’t definitively say that an event exists as just the sort of event that it is without taking its measure – an act which is future to the event being measured. This sounds all spooky and weird, but it’s really just a way of saying that some aspects of a thing are given by its effects on other things, a notion that goes back to Aristotle. To take a really mundane, concrete and quotidian example, you can’t say that Joe baked the cake until there is in fact a cake that Joe baked. You can’t *tell* whether there is such a cake until after there *is* such a cake.

        You write:

        Both science and religion define attitudes to this fundamental mystery, at their best. Science: inquisitive, rapturous, religion: worshipful.

        Theology, on the other hand, claims to deduce the nature of the mystery through logic.

        But theology argues ab initio that in the final analysis its products, however percipient or truthful, can be nothing but straw, compared to the One it would comprehend. Theology’s attempt to deduce the logical structure of the Logos *just is* the “inquisitive” bit of the “rapturous, worshipful” attitude of theology to the fundamental mystery.

        And some such deductions are certainly doable. We can deduce, for example, that if God exists, he exists necessarily.

      • To a.morphous.: Why is even the attempt to penetrate said mystery through the use of reason bs? And if it is to be done, would it not be better to start off with logical deduction rather than probabilistic induction, where even if one has done all the steps correctly one still does not know if his answer is right? People like Dr. Feser have given arguments, not only that God is necessary, but also that he has all the attributes commonly assigned to him, including a will. If his and others’ arguments are valid, it is kind of silly to say that they should not be believed because it is impossible to do what they just did. If their arguments are not valid then it would seem to be a better use of one’s time to point out how. Furthermore I would assert that the religious temperament at its best is also inquisitive. I cannot imagine the ideal theist saying “I know there is a god, I love god, but I want to know nothing about him or his creation.” I also get annoyed, and I am not saying that you asserted this necessarily, when atheists assert that religious sentiments are borne out of a wonder at the complexity and beauty of nature. I know of no one whose religious or spiritual beliefs are founded on or caused by such, and there have been many religions in the past founded on the opposite.

    • Herr Morphous, I find it curious when men, professing ignorance and the limits of human knowledge, get mighty sure that we cannot know something. Acknowledging ignorance is a fine, even Socratic, orientation in the quest for wisdom. Yet, stating the limits of human knowledge necessarily requires one to go beyond those limits. I do not understand how this is not apparent.

      Moreover, when Christians, Hindus, Platonists, Sufis, and such talk about the mystery of God and the limits of the human mind, they are up against (and consequently pass into) the infinite of the beyond being. When they say that merely human theoria cannot comprehend God, it is not because God is unintelligible, and it is not because they know the limits of the human mind (for then they would go beyond such limits), but they say such because they are cognizant of their ignorance. They are aware of stepping into the brilliant darkness. Their positing limits is of a Socratic type, not a dogmatic post-Kantian type.

    • I may disagree with a.morphous on many things but I have to admire this:

      “..it is just slapping a name and a persona on the mystery, and pretending to thus have knowledge of it and (quite outrageously) pretending to speak for it.”

  2. There is something I never understood about naturalism. Those who hold it are forced to argue that science is the only means of knowing something and hold the position that something can come from nothing. Yet, if something can come from nothing, then there can no explanation of many events and ultimately no explanation is needed, but science is asserted to be the way to answer the question how, just as philosophy answers the question why. If all of my previous statements are correct would that not show that science is false, in which case there would be no reason to believe that something can come from nothing, or has age blunted my already dull mind?

      • I, too, was unaware of Ignosticism as a serious school of thought. I don’t find it particularly appealing in the sense that I want to take up the study of ignosticism, but it does breathe some fresh thought into theological discussions, which tend to be either dogmatic or circular or both.

        Running together beautiful words about groundedness doesn’t necessarily give those words validity in describing things as they really are. There is something to be said for Pragmatism. Since Pragmatism is a very American school of philosophy, it is hardly surprising that it has some appeal to me, though I am not wedded to it as a school of thought.

  3. Quantum mechanical forgetfulness does undermine the tie to antecedents and successors. Aristotle didn’t anticipate that. Newton didn’t observe it because it would be hard to detect on a macroscopic scale. Schrodinger’s cat can now chase the butterfly effect if and when it is let out of its box.

    QM doesn’t pretend to be logically derived in a vacuum or intuitively grasped. It is a series of mathematical formulations that describes things as they really are. Its proof or grounding is in its successful explanation and prediction of otherwise inexplicable observations. That position seems to be rather strong to me.

    • Quantum forgetfulness doesn’t undermine the causal integrity of the world. All it does is defer the act of perfect integration a bit further into the future, by deferring the definitive measurement of event x that, as remembered/registered by ‘enough’ future occasions, serves to collapse the quantum superposition dispositively, and tie down the nature of x vis-à-vis the measuring event and its successors. Of course, because those successors may in turn forget the quondam measurement of x – this being how the mists of time arise to befog our memories – the ultimate character of x in relation to the whole history of things may be fully understood only at the eschaton.

      Again, there is nothing new or remarkable in this idea. Even old Sartre was reaching for it.

      • But if a particle can forget what quantum state it is in, then the causal chain can be broken. I think you are making the case for Newtonian and Calvinist determinism.

      • Well, we can’t really say that a particular event x itself forgets its quantum state. We can say only that events future to x forget its quantum state. An event can neither remember nor forget itself. Events can remember or forget, or apprehend, or measure, or feel, or prehend, or register – these words all refer to the same ontological procedure – only events other than themselves, that actually exist, and that are in their past. When we say that we feel our self, then, what is really happening is that we are feeling our self of a moment ago. We can can see that this must be the case, for only what is actual can be apprehended as actual, and the moment of apprehension is not itself actual until after it has completed its process of becoming, and is no longer apprehending anything. An act that is not yet actual cannot be apprehended at all; it is hardly surprising then that it cannot apprehend itself.

        Now, it turns out that in the process of apprehending x, subsequent occasions determine the character of x insofar as they themselves are concerned. They determine what x means to them, what role x will play in their own constitutions. And because this determination “nails down” some of the causal properties of x – namely, those properties of x that relate to its effects upon its successors – this means that the character of x in respect to its causal system as a whole is not fully determined by x itself. All that x can determine is its character in respect to its own past; it cannot determine its character in respect to the past of events in its future.

        Quantum forgetfulness, then, is forgetfulness of x by events future to x. It is tantamount to the situation that would have obtained if no events future to x had yet apprehended x. In that case, the character of x would still be indeterminate.

        How this all boils down to determinism I cannot see.

  4. There’s no sound argument for the conclusion contained in this article.

    The problem that the author runs into is the erroneous conflation of explanation and description. He writes, first:

    “So at some point you are going to work your way down to the sea bed where the bottom turtle is resting. And that sea bed, whatever it is – together, by extension, with all the turtles – is in the final analysis a brute fact. What is, is.”

    That’s certainly fair, but then he goes on to write:

    “But there is another sense in which that argument is profoundly wrong-headed. What is certainly is, to be sure. But if that’s all that we can really say about it, then *that’s all we can really say about it.*”

    Here, he commits an obvious error.

    Concluding that the “nature of nature” is brute fact may be equivalent to saying, “what is, is,” but that’s not *all* that we can say about it. Indeed, that’s merely “all we can say about it” by way of explanation.

    We can say quite a bit more about it by way of description.

    It is possible to have accurate knowledge of a thing without an explanation for why it exist. Even if the only explanation for the brute facts of nature is that they simply are, this does not go on to entail the conclusion that the author suggests–that nothing at all can be known.

    Naturalism–the idea that the nature of nature is brute, inexplicable fact–is not the doctrine of zero knowledge. Indeed, there is lots of knowledge to be had about the nature of nature. The only knowledge the naturalist commits to never having is the explanation of brute facts.

    However, the explanation of a thing is not all that can be known of a thing. A thing can be known by description even without explanation, and the naturalist does not give up this knowledge.

    The author of the article commits an obvious and juevenile error of conflation which wholly obviates the conclusion of the article and further casts serious doubt on his grasp of basic logic.

    This article gets 2 stars for prose and diction, but loses the other three for basically just being nonsense.

    I certainly hope that nobody walks away from this thinking that it is more than an amusing bed-time story.

    • It seems to me that any philosophy explaining “the inexplicable” is better than naturalism because it has better grasp of reality. Also it is reasonable to expect that some other explanations naturalism provides are incorrect if they are based on the false assumption of “inexplicability”. In that case the article has a point.

      • Don’t misrepresent what you wrote, Kristor. In your article, you wrote:

        “Notice that the “it” in that last sentence refers to *everything whatsoever;* so that the only thing we can say about anything whatsoever is, that it is what it is. This doctrine is the zero of knowledge. It is the philosophy that Nature has no Nature.”

        You did in fact state that, given naturalism, the only thing we can say about nature (“everything whatsoever”) is that it is what it is. You asserted quite specifically that this is the doctrine of “zero knowledge.”

        My observation is that this is not true, and my observation is correct.

        Even if nature is built from brute, inexplicable fact, there is a lot more we can say about it. We can describe it. There is plenty of knowledge to be had.

        So, when you write,

        “But obviously we *can* say more about Nature than just, “it is what it is.” We can know things about Nature. So, therefore, *it cannot be true that the only thing we can say about Nature is that ‘it is what it is.’* Ergo, Nature must not be just a brute fact.”

        …this is simply wrong-headed. It demands the implicit assumption that the only thing which can be said about a brute fact is that “it is what it is.” But, again, this assumption is false. The only way in which our ability to talk about brute facts is limited is in that we can’t talk about their explanations. We can certainly talk about their natures and efficacy even if we cannot talk about their explanations.

        There is a great deal we can say about nature beyond that it is what it is, even if nature is brute fact.

        Your argument still relies on exactly the error of conflation I pointed out in my first post. You suggest that if we cannot say anything about something by way of explanation, we cannot say anything about it at all–and that is simply not true. In the case of brute facts, we can talk of them in terms of description even though we cannot talk about them in terms of explanation.

        Thus, the fact that “it cannot be true that the only thing we can say about Nature is that it is what it is,” does not warrant the conclusion that “Nature must not be brute fact.”

        It is not the case that, of any given brute fact, the only thing we can say is that “it is what it is.”
        We can also talk about what they are, even if we cannot talk about why.

        I didn’t “miss” the absurdity that led to your conclusion. That “absurdity” is an illusion, which you have reached by way of a rudimentary logical error–the error of conflation that I mentioned earlier.

        To put it in formal terms, this is the argument you’re offering, constructed as charitably as I can manage:

        1.) If naturalism is true, the the fundamental nature of reality is a matter of brute fact.
        2.) If a thing is a brute fact, nothing can be known about it.
        3.) Something can be known about the fundamental nature of reality.
        4.) Therefore the fundamental nature of reality is not a brute fact (from 2, 3)
        5.) Therefore naturalism is not true.

        The error, obviously, is in 2. It is not the case that if a thing is a brute fact, nothing can be known about it. It is the case that things can be known about brute facts–just not by way of explanation.

        Given that 2 is false, it follows that your argument is unsound and your conclusion is, as it stands, unwarranted. Since that’s the point of your article, we can only conclude that your article has essentially failed.

    • Mr. Edwards has not read carefully enough. He accuses me of conflating description with explanation. But the essay opens with the words:

      For every phenomenon of nature, there is a perfectly natural *explanation.* Such is the credo of naturalism.

      NB that I did not say that the credo of naturalism is that there is a perfectly natural *description* of every phenomenon. I have noted several times in other posts that science does not provide explanations, but rather careful descriptions. And this is all that science, properly speaking, tries to do: nail down how things actually work. Naturalism, however, *does* say that there is a perfectly natural explanation of Nature – or at least, that no other sorts of explanations are truly possible. Thus it is *naturalism* that conflates explanation with scientific description. Mr. Morphous is right to remind us that naturalism leaves open the possibility that some phenomena might be inexplicable; as indeed it must, for the very point of the essay was to drive home the fact that naturalism can provide no natural explanation for the explicability of Nature.

      Mr. Edwards accuses me also of saying that if we cannot explain Nature, we cannot say anything about it. But I didn’t. I said that *if* the only thing that can be said about Nature is that it just is, *then* there could be nothing else that we could say about it. And this is just obviously true: if the only thing we can say about x is y, then y is the only thing we can say about x.

      But obviously we *can* say more about Nature than just, “it is what it is.” We can know things about Nature. So, therefore, *it cannot be true that the only thing we can say about Nature is that ‘it is what it is.’* Ergo, Nature must not be just a brute fact.

      This conclusion – demonstrated by the absurdity of the alternative – was implicit in my rhetoric. I’m surprised Mr. Edwards missed it.

      That we can know about Nature – that we can have scientific descriptions of her regularities – indicates that there are such regularities, that there is an Order of Nature. If we ask why there is an Order of Nature, the naturalist replies, “there is no answer to that question; Nature just is what it is.” But this is to say that there is nothing that constrains Nature to the Order that we find pervades her, so that Nature might have turned out totally disordered, and indeed, that her Order might at any moment fly apart into utter chaos. Notice that in that case, what we call the Order of Nature must be nothing more than a completely adventitious state of affairs. It might then *appear* to have a rhyme and reason, to be a cosmos – an ordered host – but this would be only an appearance, not the reality.

      Democritus, one of the first naturalists, had enough courage in his convictions to insist that the Order we see in the world is in reality nothing more than random, utterly chaotic collisions. His modern heirs want to have it both ways: they want to say that the universe is, not random, but a true cosmos; and they want to say that there is no reason why it should not be otherwise.

  5. This is in reply to Michael Edwards’ comment here:

    Your accusation that I have somehow misrepresented what I had written is, not just false, but silly. In fact, I simply *reiterated* what I had written. In the article, I wrote:

    What is certainly is, to be sure. But if that’s all that we can really say about it, then *that’s all we can really say about it.*

    In my comment that you say misrepresents that statement, I wrote:

    I said that *if* the only thing that can be said about Nature is that it just is, *then* there could be nothing else that we could say about it. And this is just obviously true: if the only thing we can say about x is y, then y is the only thing we can say about x.

    So far from being a misrepresentation, this was, as must be apparent to any fair reading, a faithful restatement of what I had written. I can only conclude that you are reading me tendentiously, looking for tricks of words to defeat my argument, and finding such tricks even where they clearly do not exist.

    I doubt then that anything I might now say could allay your conviction that the argument I have presented is just bogus, but here goes.

    To begin with, you have quoted me out of context. The relevant quote, in full, and providing the context necessary to a correct interpretation of the bit you have quoted, is:

    What is certainly is, to be sure. But if that’s all that we can really say about it, then *that’s all we can really say about it.* Notice that the “it” in that last sentence refers to *everything whatsoever;* so that the only thing we can say about anything whatsoever is, that it is what it is. This doctrine is the zero of knowledge. It is the philosophy that Nature has no Nature.

    You go on to state, correctly, that we can indeed say more about things than that they are what they are. I agree! But you go further. You say:

    There is a great deal we can say about nature beyond that it is what it is, even if nature is brute fact.

    But this is precisely what I would call into question – not that we can say a great deal about nature, understand, for of course we can indeed do so; but that we can say a great deal about nature *even if it is at bottom nothing but a brute fact.* Almost the whole point of the original post was that if Nature is fundamentally a brute fact, then we really *can’t* know anything about it, except that it is a brute fact – and that even our descriptive knowledge of Nature – it if really is knowledge, properly speaking – depends upon and derives from the fundamental intelligibility of things.

    Naturalists are trying to have their cake and eat it too: they are trying to say both that at bottom, Nature makes no sense, and that nevertheless we can make sense of it. I can see how they arrive at that position, for given that understanding is one of our most common experiences, the notion that understanding per se is impossible is simply incredible. The naturalist says, “well, I understand this and I understand that, so clearly understanding is possible.” Correct! But then when it comes to the very basis of all his understandings, their foundation, that which ultimately grounds their intelligibility, he says, “well, but we *can’t* understand that: it’s just a brute fact, and as such is unintelligible.” But notice, now, what that means. It means that however much we may *think* we understand Nature, when it comes down to brass tacks, the whole shebang is *fundamentally unintelligible.* And if something is fundamentally intelligible, then it is just unintelligible, through and through, despite our experiences of understanding it.

    The fundamental unintelligibility of Nature would fatally vitiate all our understandings. And not just our explanations: if you can’t understand a thing, at all, then in the final analysis, you can’t even describe it. All you can do is indicate it, pointing to this or that phenomenon without drawing any inferences at all about what type of thing it is, what category of things it belongs to, how such things typically behave, what their constituents or factors or products might be, how those factors or constituents or products are related to it in orderly and predictable (and even, mirabile dictu, mathematically formalizable) fashion, and so forth. As I said:

    That we can know about Nature – that we can have scientific descriptions of her regularities – indicates that there are such regularities, that there is an Order of Nature. If we ask why there is an Order of Nature, the naturalist replies, “there is no answer to that question; Nature just is what it is.” But this is to say that there is nothing that constrains Nature to the Order that we find pervades her, so that Nature might have turned out totally disordered, and indeed, that her Order might at any moment fly apart into utter chaos. Notice that in that case, what we call the Order of Nature must be nothing more than a completely adventitious state of affairs. It might then *appear* to have a rhyme and reason, to be a cosmos – an ordered host – but this would be only an appearance, not the reality.

    The orange sphere you apprehend before you might then appear to you to be a basketball, but it would be an unjustified inference, were you to assert that it is in fact a basketball – or a sphere, or orange, for even these basic attributions would depend upon a whole library of prior assumptions about, e.g., the nature and behavior of light and opaque objects, the causal solidarity and regularity of the world, the reliability of that regularity, and so forth. If there is no Order of Nature, then none of those thousands of unnoticed inferences, which we take for granted as the very basis of all thought, are any good.

    If you cannot hope to explain Nature, then, the very most you can know about your experiences is that you are experiencing them. You can certainly know some things about your experience, of course, and say those things: you can know and say that there is a phantasm of a sphere as an aspect of your experience, and further that there is a phantasm of orange. Beyond such statements, you cannot justifiably go – you cannot, for example, infer or assert that the phantasm of orange and the phantasm of sphericity are somehow related to each other, except insofar as they both appear before you; and nor therefore, likewise, can you say that the thing before you really is either orange or spherical – for your basic doctrine is that your phantasms are not intelligible, and you can’t really understand them at all, can’t correlate them intelligently.

    This ground has all been thoroughly covered by Hume and al-Ghazali.

    We find then that our ineluctable experiences of understanding Nature, of finding the world intelligible, so that we can describe our phantasms and, in principle, explain them, are either illusions, or else, if they are veridical – if they are what they seem to be – they contradict the notion that Nature is fundamentally unintelligible. We won’t get very far with the notion that all our experiences of understanding are illusory; for one thing, it refutes itself. So the only alternative left to us is that the proposition that Nature is fundamentally unintelligible is contradicted by the fact that in practice we find that it actually is intelligible.

    I would put the argument in formal terms as follows:

    1. If naturalism is true, Nature is a brute fact.
    2. Brute facts are unintelligible.
    3. Nature is intelligible.
    4. Nature is not a brute fact.
    5. Naturalism is false.

    • I could respond in greater detail, but its not really necessary. The slight revision you offer for the formal formulation of your argument does not salvage it

      P2 is false.

      It is not the case that brute facts are unintelligible.

      It is the case that brute facts are inexplicable, but that is clearly not the same thing.

      You’re still suffering from the same basic error of conflation that I pointed out in the beginning, and your argument is still unsound as a result.

      • You can *say* that you understand a fact that you can nowise explain. You can *say* that you understand something that you say cannot be understood. What you can *not* do is say such a thing, and *also* insist that you are talking meaningfully.

        Say per contra that we recast the argument in the terms you prefer. Let’s abandon all talk of intelligibility, understanding, description, and so forth, and focus just on explicability. The argument then would run as follows:

        1. If naturalism is true, Nature is a brute fact.
        2. Brute facts are inexplicable.
        3. Nature is explicable.
        4. Nature is not a brute fact.
        5. Naturalism is false.

        You have said that P2 is true. Is P3 false?

        Say that, for the sake of discussion, we agree with you that it is; say that Nature cannot anywise be explained or accounted for. It just is. It could have been any number of other ways, perhaps; there is no telling, one way or the other. It might at any moment go any number of ways other than those to which we have so far been accustomed. Gravity – or at any rate, what we have been used to indicating by the word “gravity,” if such a thing there really is – might up and vanish, for example. Or space. Again, there is no telling, one way or another.

        What about the past? Is it really past, or does it just appear to have passed? It is a brute fact that it appears to have passed; beyond that, we cannot say, one way or another.

        Is this really an epistemology that you feel comfortable espousing?

        I sometimes wonder if it might be a general rule that false epistemologies all reduce in the end to solipsism.

      • Kristor, this:

        You can *say* that you understand a fact that you can nowise explain. You can *say* that you understand something that you say cannot be understood. What you can *not* do is say such a thing, and *also* insist that you are talking meaningfully.

        …is vapid nonsense. The entailment you suggest between understanding and explanation simply has no basis in reality–not in language, not in practice, and not in theory.

        People meaningfully claim to understand things they cannot explain all the time.

        But, on to the reformulation of your argument. Now you have for P3,

        Nature is explicable.

        …and you pose the question,

        You have said that P2 is true. Is P3 false?

        In response, I would say that yes–it certainly seems to be.

        You go on to write:

        Say that, for the sake of discussion, we agree with you that it is; say that Nature cannot anywise be explained or accounted for. It just is. It could have been any number of other ways, perhaps; there is no telling, one way or the other. It might at any moment go any number of ways other than those to which we have so far been accustomed.

        Fair enough, so far, but when you extrapolate that into this:

        Gravity – or at any rate, what we have been used to indicating by the word “gravity,” if such a thing there really is – might up and vanish, for example. Or space. Again, there is no telling, one way or another.

        …you appear to be making another error.

        To be clear, if all you are saying is that “it’s possible that gravity could just ‘up and vanish,'” then sure. That’s true.

        So what?

        If what you’re saying is “we have no basis for the expectation that gravity will refrain from ‘up and vanishing,'” then that’s a fairly substantial error, which is actually illustrative in the present context.

        Again, knowing why something exists is not the same as knowing what its characteristics are. Gravity has been quite consistent within the scope of human experience. Evidence suggests that it has been quite consistent for quite a bit longer than that.

        What we do understand about gravity (and we do have some understanding of gravity) includes that it has been essentially constant for the better part of 14 billion years, which constitutes a very good reason to expect that it will not just spontaneously “up and vanish.”

        As it happens, yes. This is an epistemology I would be comfortable espousing. Certainly, if the best you can come up with is “doesn’t this make you a litle uncomfortable,” then you have utterly failed to demonstrate any fatal flaw in naturalism.

        For what it’s worth, though, I’m not a naturalist.

        The objection you’ve offered to naturalism here, though, is nonsense–and your suggestion that naturalism reduces to solipsism is patently false–it is false by definition.

        Again, as I said originally, this article does not contain any sound argument for your conclusion. Your subsequent posts have illustrated this as well as I could have hoped, and though I doubt you’ll have the integrity to amend or remove this fallacy-riddled fiction from your site, I’ll at least be happy knowing that I’ve done my part to show it for what it is–as I said originally, an amusing story, but little more.

      • You have utterly missed the point, again. You say:

        People meaningfully claim to understand things they cannot explain all the time.

        They do indeed. The question is not whether they do so, or whether they are correct in doing so – I think they often are – but whether they can be really correct in so doing, if it is true that in the final analysis things just cannot be explained, or therefore understood, even in principle. In other words, can we truly understand something even a little bit – granting of course that we may never in practice understand anything completely, all the way down – if the Principle of Sufficient Reason is false? For, let us be clear, the assertion that reality is at bottom just a brute fact, that has no reason, is just a different way of saying that things happen, or don’t happen, for no reason at all – so that, e.g., however reasonable it might seem to rely upon the continuation of such things as gravity, and no matter how many reasonable-sounding reasons we might adduce for such a reliance, in reality, there being no reason for things, there can be no such reasons, and reliance upon gravity cannot therefore be truly reasonable.

        Can we understand anything, even a little bit, if the Principle of Sufficient Reason is false?

        You say that the answer is yes: that true understanding is possible even if things are happening for no reason at all. I say it is no: that, if the Principle of Sufficient Reason anywhere fails, then whether it seems that way to us or not, reason herself everywhere fails.

        When I ask rhetorically whether you can feel quite comfortable with your position on this question, I do not mean thereby to propose any argument. It’s just an honest question. We had an interlocutor here at the Orthosphere who insisted that the Law of Noncontradiction is false; I felt the same sort of incredulous amazement at that position that I do at yours.

        I’m not sure how to bridge the gap in understanding that yawns between us. Perhaps it suffices for me to indicate its vast abyssal depth.

  6. The fact that science concerns itself with natural explanations of natural phenomena is a methodological prescription and not itself a natural phenomenon. Claiming to know that all natural phenomena have natural explanations elevates a rule of procedure to the level of omniscience—the statement itself is too grand to admit verification, it can be at most a hypothesis—but even so explanations of natural phenomena are not themselves natural phenomena.

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