Monday, August 27, 2012


David Chalmers is one of the most prominent of the contemporary philosophers of mind and is noted for his rejection of the materialist view that all that's needed to understand what goes on when we think and experience sensation is better knowledge of how the brain works.

Chalmers holds that materialism does not, and cannot, explain the fundamental phenomena of consciousness. To explain that we need to posit the existence of something other than the matter that comprises our bodies and brains.

In this interview he explains that consciousness is not something that can be accounted for in terms of Darwinian evolution since there was no pressing need for it. We could have much more easily evolved to be like computer-driven robots or zombies - creatures able to perform all the tasks that humans perform but without having any awareness of our own selves and without experiencing sensations at all.

That consciousness somehow exists seems completely gratuitous and absolutely marvelous.

From Catholicism to Atheism and Back Again

Philosopher Edward Feser, an authority on the thought of Thomas Aquinas, discusses his journey from Catholicism to atheism and back again in an essay at his blog. It's a little long and it helps if the reader has some familiarity with several key figures in philosophy, but his story's interesting in any case.

Feser begins it this way:
As most of my readers probably know, I was an atheist for about a decade -- roughly the 1990s, give or take. Occasionally I am asked how I came to reject atheism. I briefly addressed this in The Last Superstition. A longer answer, which I offer here, requires an account of the atheism I came to reject.

I was brought up Catholic, but lost whatever I had of the Faith by the time I was about 13 or 14. Hearing, from a non-Catholic relative, some of the stock anti-Catholic arguments for the first time -- “That isn’t in the Bible!”, “This came from paganism!”, “Here’s what they did to people in the Middle Ages!”, etc. -- I was mesmerized, and convinced, seemingly for good. Sola scriptura-based arguments are extremely impressive, until you come to realize that their basic premise -- sola scriptura itself -- has absolutely nothing to be said for it.

Unfortunately it takes some people, like my younger self, a long time to see that. Such arguments can survive even the complete loss of religious belief, the anti-Catholic ghost that carries on beyond the death of the Protestant body, haunting the atheist who finds himself sounding like Martin Luther when debating his papist friends.

But I was still a theist for a time, though that wouldn’t survive my undergrad years. Kierkegaard was my first real philosophical passion, and his individualistic brand of religiosity greatly appealed to me. But the individualistic irreligion of Nietzsche would come to appeal to me more, and for a time he was my hero, with Walter Kaufmann a close second. (I still confess an affection for Kaufmann. Nietzsche, not so much.)

Analytic philosophy would, before long, bring my youthful atheism down to earth. For the young Nietzschean the loss of religion is a grand, civilizational crisis, and calls for an equally grand response on the part of a grand individual like himself. For the skeptical analytic philosopher it’s just a matter of rejecting some bad arguments, something one does quickly and early in one’s philosophical education before getting on to the really interesting stuff. And that became my “settled” atheist position while in grad school.

Atheism was like belief in a spherical earth -- something everyone in possession of the relevant facts knows to be true, and therefore not worth getting too worked up over or devoting too much philosophical attention to.

But it takes some reading and thinking to get to that point.
It also takes some additional reading and thinking to see the poverty of that point. I'm reminded of Bacon's dictum that "A little philosophy inclineth a man toward atheism, but depth in philosophy turneth him toward God."