Monday, March 31, 2008

The "more"

Consider such pairs of terms as:

  • good — holy
  • impressive — awe-full
  • immoral — sinful
  • promise — vow
  • puzzle — mystery
  • fearsome — spooky
The second term in each pair implies something of the first. In fact, in many (though not all—the last pair is a clear exception) cases, the second term implies the first in a superlative way. However, there is something "more" to the second of each of these terms, something qualitatively different. Moreover, these pairs are analogous to each other—there is an analogy between the "more" in each case.

Thesis: None of the second terms in the above list would have application if naturalism were true. Something might still seem mysterious, but in fact it would be just be very puzzling. It might still appear that a graveyard is spooky, but in fact it is at most fearsome, and if so, only accidentally (e.g., if there is a vicious dog there).

So if naturalism were true, our experience of the "more" in the second term of each pair will always be mistaken. But that would be really puzzling—how could there be an experience type that is always mistaken? So if the thesis is true, then we have good reason to think naturalism false.

I am not here offering an argument for the thesis—I am here just presenting it as something that seems very clear to me.


Anonymous said...

Hi Alex, are you defining "naturalism" here in a way that's opposed to "supernaturalism"? (On our ordinary understanding of supernaturalism, that is.) It seems that it might be possible to make a slightly stronger claim with regard to a large class of "naturalistic" theories in philosophy, viz. that if those theories are true, then it is hard to see how something can even be "categorically good", let alone holy. (cf. Wittgenstein's _Lecture on Ethics_)

larryniven said...

Well, okay, "holy" would perhaps be a bad example for this, because it refers exclusively to supernatural facts (e.g., to simplify things probably too much, whether or not God likes something). So I think that should be excluded from the list, as it happens definitionally and needn't rely on this intuition. About the intuition itself, though, I'm wondering in what sense you think "mysterious" fails to hold in a naturalistic world? I obviously have a different intuition here, but I've been trying to come up with a definition of (e.g.) "mysterious" that would fit, and I can't. Again, you could maybe say that mysterious := inexplicable by appeal to nature, but then there's no need for an intuition (and also I think that's a silly definition).

In short, I guess, even though you said you didn't have an argument, I want an argument? Sorry.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I probably was opposing naturalism to supernaturalism. In any case, if supernaturalism is true, naturalism is false, and my intuition is that supernaturalism of some sort is implied by the applicability of the second terms in each pair.


There is a somewhat debased sense of "mysterious" in which it just means "very puzzling" or "unknown". That is not the sense I have in mind.

I am not sure we can define the terms on the right (just as until recently--and perhaps even now--we couldn't define what the property of sweetness was). But we know how something that is mysterious, awe-full, sinful or spooky would feel (just as we know how something that is sweet would taste). One could try to define the terms by means of the feeling: x is awe-full iff x is such that it is appropriate to feel x as awe-full. I am inclined to think that such an attempt at definition is mistaken, but it is probably going to be extensionally right.

larryniven said...

I wonder if this isn't the problem I'm running into (I mean, besides the relative vagueness of this whole enterprise): why shouldn't a certain class of feelings be wrong, on naturalism? You claim that'd be puzzling, but actually, it wouldn't be - there's been a great deal of research done on ways in which being systematically deceived in manners such as this would actually be evolutionarily beneficial, etc. So, on naturalism, it seems like it isn't puzzling at all to say that an experience type could always be mistaken. I note also that your intuition about these phrases probably falls under the type of experience that, on naturalism, can just flat-out be wrong. So, then, naturalism doesn't really yield this puzzle at all, right? But then, if you deny naturalism from the start (either to justify your intuition or the existence of "truly" spooky experiences), you don't need this argument.

Unless there's a reason, on naturalism, why all experience types should be reliable?

Alexander R Pruss said...


Most naturalistic accounts of the intentionality of experiences are at least somewhat causal in nature, with the experience getting its content from that which causes it. I think these accounts will have a lot of trouble with an experience-type that is always mistaken. For an experience to be mistaken, it has to have intentional content. But if it is always wrong, then it can't be getting that content from its cause.

Maybe, though, the naturalist will deny that these feelings and experiences have any additional content.

larryniven said...

"if it is always wrong, then it can't be getting that content from its cause."

No? So, for instance, if I take a pair of loaded dice and show them to a kid under the pretense that they're normal dice, those loaded dice wouldn't be responsible for the mistaken content of that child's resulting belief that (say) snake eyes are a disproportionately likely result?

Alexander R Pruss said...

My argument was too compressed. Sorry. Let's go by analogy. Consider the hypothesis that all one's apparent experiences of shapes were caused by things that have no shape (e.g., immaterial objects). On a causal theory of content this hypothesis is impossible, because there wouldn't be any source for the "of shape" content of these experiences. So, if none of one's experiences were caused by a thing with shape, then none of one's experiences could have of-shape intentionality. By contraposition, if one has an experience with an of-shape intentionality, then some such experience--not necessarily this one--was caused by something that has a shape.

larryniven said...

Okay, so lemme see if I have this right. On this view, there has to be subsections of physics that cover both the strictly deterministic and the probabilistic, because both of these have been theories of how physics work. But, if the universe were either entirely deterministic or entirely probabilistic, on this argument, we could not possibly have come across the other view? Or is physics a disanalogy?

Alexander R Pruss said...

We can construct new concepts as combinations of old ones (think of the stuff Hume talks about). We can probably get the concept of indeterministic causation from the concept of deterministic causation by subtracting the determination condition. We might be able to get the concept of deterministic causation from the concept of indeterministic causation by ratcheting up the probabilities to 1, or else by adding a necessity claim (and we might have some sources for necessity claims). No problem there.

But in the case of the concepts with the "more", the "more" is an additional element, one which it is hard to come up with a story about the source of the intentionality of, unless at least one of the paired concepts is such that the right-hand-side concept has application. So the conclusion of the argument isn't that, say, there is something holy. Rather, it's that there is something holy, or spooky, or awe-full, or something else of that sort.

larryniven said...

Right - I suppose that's why I'm concerned about the vagueness. "More" here could mean lots of different stuff. Could an experience of morality, which is "more" than just the sum of non-moral facts, suffice? How about logic or math, which are "more" than we experience directly? Etc. I'm asking these rhetorically - I don't really expect you to answer them here, it's just not the right forum - but at least you should understand why I don't feel like this is too serious of a threat to naturalism.

Alexander R Pruss said...

You want me to tell you more about the ineffable. I sympathize. :-)

My intuition is that in all these cases, the "more" is of the same sort--that there is a distinct kind of "more" here--a supernaturalist addition. The only way I can really explain this "more" is by giving examples...

who was it who said...

That such an experience type should always be mistaken is hardly peculiar. Think of the hormones and such that make it so that one's beloved seems so special (at least on the naturalistic view). There is nothing out there (apart from the social structures and human genes, nothing so special and glowy) but the normal person, the "more" is in one's head. Similarly with feelings for one's parents, or for one's family or tribal group of neighbours; and similarly (on the naturalistic view) for national and religious feelings, which may well spill over into ordinary objects (in so far as graveyards are ordinary) on a personal level. All terribly mundane, sadly.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I actually think there is something objectively special that love lets one see. I think love opens one's eyes to see the person clothed with the dignity and beauty of being in the image of God (though one might not conceptualize it quite in this way).

Now, granted, everybody has this quality. But we do not perceive it in everybody. CS Lewis talks of how Eros makes it easy to fulfill the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself--in the case of one neighbor (the hard thing then is to do it with all the others, too). Likewise, Eros makes one see the beloved as a wonderful and irreplaceable person--which everybody is, and which is how we should ideally see everyone.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Another response. Suppose that I am wrong that everybody has that objective specialness, that wondrous uniqueness. I think it's still not implausible that some people have it. And that's all I need--that some of the experiences are veridical. (I don't even need the claim that everybody has some veridical experiences of the given type, just that somebody does. For we can inherit intentionality from others.) Who said...

I agree with you about Eros, but the naturalist is not worried by such experience types being always mistaken, having a relatively detailed account of how they can be, and why they should be; so it seems to me that you also need a superior account of why we should not expect there to be any experience types that were always mistaken (superior in what way I'm not sure; maybe philosophically would do, but I doubt there is such a thing, from what I've seen of the philosophy of language).

Alexander R Pruss said...

What the naturalist doesn't have, however, is an account of the intentionality of these experience types, except via some kind of a causal account that in this case would require some of the "more" experiences to be veridical.