Saturday, October 7, 2017

Albrecht Moritz: Theistic Scientist

Victor Reppert cited an article by Albrecht Moritz, called "Naturalism is true": A self-contradictory statement that is a variant of Alvin Plantinga' Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.  It makes the claim that rational thought can't be produced from natural processes (and specifically evolution) alone.  I would probably dismiss this article as yet another scientifically ignorant theistic argument, not worthy of the time it would take me to make a refutation.  But Albrecht Moritz is a scientist, and he believes in evolution.  As he says:
Let me be clear from the onset towards those who believe this turns into yet another anti-evolution argument: I fully subscribe to the science of evolution and reject the idea of biological so-called Intelligent Design. I even have written a review article on the origin of life by natural causes - Moritz
Moritz works in micro-biology, and his paper in TalkOrigins provides support for a scientific view of abiogenesis.  This doesn't seem like your standard theistic rejection of science in favor of superstitious beliefs.  I was intrigued.  So I decided to look at this article more closely.

Moritz makes it clear from the outset that he believes that thought is non-physical.  This is based on the conflict between determinism and "freedom of thought".  Like most theists, he simply assumes that rational thought requires non-determinism.  He provides no basis for this presumption, but simply assumes it to be true.  Under naturalism, rational thought
never violates the physical laws by which these basic components operate. Such a violation would have to occur if free thought could be the result of purely physical processes
Apparently, he equates rational thinking with "free thought".  But why can't rational thought be deterministic?  Moritz doesn't say.  He doesn't offer any evidence whatsoever.  He simply asserts it.  This is just a theistic presumption on his part, and not supported by any valid logic, much less an argument based in science.

He then follows the path of Plantinga, stating that "evolution selects only for physical adaptation and behavior, not for correctness of beliefs".  And like Plantinga, he reveals a shallow understanding of what evolutionary processes really do.  It isn't a question of what evolution "selects for", as if evolution was some kind of agent that has a goal it is striving to reach.  In the case of humans, evolution has produced generally enhanced level of cognitive function that results in an improved cognitive model of reality (as compared to other animals).  And that correlates with true beliefs.  It doesn't imply that all of our beliefs are true, but it means that the reliability of our rational thinking is good enough to provide an advantage in survival.  But rather than taking a realistic view of how evolution works, he takes an all-or-nothing approach.  Either our beliefs are reliably true, or they aren't.
When evolutionary scientists claim that religion was selected for its behavioral survival advantage, they in fact concede, if they adhere to a naturalistic worldview, that evolution can indirectly select for an allegedly false belief. So there is no use in saying that, in terms of frameworks of beliefs, evolution probably has endowed us with a reliable ability to see that naturalism ... is true
But this is a surprising thing for any scientist to say.  It is denial of science itself.  The fundamental aspect of science that distinguishes it from other ways of gaining knowledge about the world is that it relies on testing and verification.  Why are most scientists naturalists?  Because there's no objective evidence that would indicate otherwise, and all the scientific testing of naturalistic theories so far has served to confirm a naturalist view.  Sure, religion has its origins in evolution, and from the perspective of a naturalist, it is indeed a false belief.  But any scientist should be well aware that we have a way improving the reliability of our beliefs - namely scientific verification.  And science gives us very good reason to think that naturalism is true.  So why wouldn't a scientist like Moritz see that? Instead, his argument completely ignores the role of science in enhancing the reliability of our beliefs, and turns to pure (non-physical) abstract reasoning as the only possible source of reliable beliefs.
Rather, when the issues are thoroughly studied and well thought through, it is a matter of careful weighing of (giving weight to) and interpreting abstract and rather complex evidence and arguments pro and con, and this goes far beyond basic circuitry that might have been induced by evolution for its survival value. ... If you accept naturalism, yet this acceptance is solely dependent on firing of neurons over which you have no control (under determinism), then it is not possible for you to know if your brain is right and naturalism is true. Thus under naturalism the claim that naturalism is true becomes incoherent and self-contradictory. Naturalism defeats itself.
So human cognition is "far beyond basic circuitry that might have been induced by evolution"?  On what basis does Moritz make such a claim?  Evidently, he hasn't studied neuroscience, and has no idea what a naturally evolved brain is capable of.  Our brains have the capacity for a certain level of rational thought, and he doesn't offer any reason beyond his theistic presuppositions to think otherwise.  Surprisingly, Moritz tries to use Einstein's relativity theory as an example of the non-physical nature of abstract thinking:
it is exemplified in a particularly impressive manner in Einstein’s famous theory of general relativity. When Einstein published it, he knew that it had to be right if his premises were right, even though it was counterintuitive, unrelated to prior human experience, and would radically change our views of the physical world. Obviously, we also know that observation confirmed the theory.
It's true that relativity was counterintuitive, but that doesn't mean that it wasn't based on empirical observation, like any other scientific theory.  What makes it counterintuitive is not that it is the result of pure abstract reasoning, but that it relies on observations that (due to advancements in science) go beyond ordinary human experience.  For one thing in particular, we were able to determine empirically that the speed of light is independent of one's frame of reference.  That's not intuitive, but it is what we observe.  Einstein’s "abstract" reasoning followed directly from those observations.  And he didn't know he was correct until his theory was verified through scientific processes.  Moritz even touches on scientific verification in this example, but misses the point that this verification is how we know our theories are true.

Moritz also tries to debunk the notion that a computer can exhibit rational thought, by which I presume he means performing a logical process.  I don't think anyone believes that with our present state of technology computers can "think" in a way that is equivalent to humans.  But they can perform logical functions, such as multiplication.  But Moritz seems to think that this would be impossible without a human instructing them how to do it.
The functioning of computers is dependent on human rationality – even if they are induced to 'learn' and in the process to create output 'on their own' – since they are programmed by humans according to the rules of logic and reason that these apply. Instead of being programmed to calculate 9 x 7 = 63, a computer could just as easily be programmed to calculate 9 x 7 = 126, also obeying the laws of physics. It would not know the difference.
Again, he doesn't understand how computers work.  Nobody ever programs a computer with instructions on how to multiply numbers unless they want to bypass the circuitry that does that.  They may tell it what numbers to multiply, but the operation of multiplication is a purely physical process, performed by circuit elements that never need instructions on how to operate (or even by a mechanical calculator).  Logic is inherent in the physical operation of the electronic devices the computer is built from.  As a scientist, Moritz should know this, or at least be able to find out whether his concept of how computers work is realistic, before he tries to tell us how they are programmed.

He ends with:
In conclusion, none of the arguments against the essential connection between rationality and genuine freedom in rational judgment are valid. The human mind must have a component that is not subject to physical determinism, i.e. it must have an immaterial component. This indicates that the philosophical and religious notion of a 'rational soul' is correct.
That's funny, because he only makes an assertion.  He never makes any chain of logical statements that concludes with "therefore, rational thought is non-deterministic", nor can he offer any empirical evidence to support his assertion.  To merely assert that rational thought must be non-physical because nature can't do that is not a valid argument.  The conception of rational thought that Moritz has is based on his theistic beliefs, and it is decidedly unscientific.  It is based on presumption without evidence.  The presumption that rational thought is non-physical has no support whatsoever in science.  As someone who works as a scientist, he ignores the vast body of scientific knowledge that would refute his religious belief.  He may be competent in his own field of scientific investigation (and he does support the scientific view in that field - that life arises naturally), but that scientific view doesn't extend outside his own field.  He seems to be oblivious to any broader range of scientific understanding (especially cognitive sciences), and lacking the curiosity to investigate.  More importantly, he gives no credence to the value of science itself as an epistemological tool.

While looking at other writings of Moritz, I came across another article that purports to answer the question How can a scientist believe in God?  It contains some equally bad arguments that I intend to say more about, but I'll save that for later.


  1. So, somehow this soul thingy is needed to do multiplication? Then why do we have to spend so much time and effort to learn the process? Why do we need to memorize the multiplication table when this immaterial s-factor could just slip us the numbers? Exactly what does it bring to the party?

    1. That's a good point I never really considered. They say the soul needs to learn lessons on earth before becoming qualified to spend eternity with God. But they also say that the soul's understanding of logic comes from God's intellect. Why should we have to learn it? Maybe by learning how to multiply, we are teaching God how to impart his intellect to us.

  2. Could a cmpt be programmed, using non numerical symbolics, to figure out its own arithmetic tables?

    That's an interesting question....& it seems to me like it could.....

    1. Sure, you can program a computer to mimic a human process of doing logical or arithmetic operations, if you want. That may be less accurate than a direct hardware implementation. The brain uses a neural network to simulate logical functions with something less than a perfect degree of accuracy. You could build a degree of inaccuracy into the computer algorithm, if you want. Then, you'd have a computer model of the brain, which is itself an imperfect model of pure physical logical functions.

    2. Well, that's problematic, if I understand the concept....but maybe I don' what more exactly do you mean by "pure physical logical functions "?

    3. I mean that logic is physical. It is something that nature exhibits all the time in the function of many things, without any designer or programmer. What makes people think that logic must be abstract and purely mental? It is hubris to say that because I can think about logic, that logic itself must be the product a purely mental (and even non-physical) process.

    4. In fact, Aristotle developed 'logic' in terms of containers. If object 'a' is inside container X and container X is inside container Y then 'a' is inside container Y. It is the power of logic that it is the abstraction of how our day to day world operates.

    5. I think it's more complex than that: nature is partly regular, partly not, ie partly indeterminable and chaotic. We tend, out of our own self-interest, to notice regularities more than irregularities because they serve us - eg "the herd of prey animals almost always goes to the watering hole at sundown, so the clan should hunt there then."

      However, that doesn't mean the "essence" of things is regular and logical fact, we might be missing something by focusing on the physicist I quoted on another thread said, a lot of 20th century science was about how unintelligible the universe was turning out to be, how things didnt seem to "add up." Eg, the heavy use of paraconsistent logics in AI research, & groups of physicists who are rejecting modus ponens to model QM behaviours with much simpler equations, so on.....

    6. So, if we can REJECT or MODIFY logics to create better models, doesn't that imply we CAN think about them?

      There might be an uber-logic (or a meta-logic) to things, like you suggested, perhaps kinda like what I invoked above by factoring in some aspects of human psychology and motivation, but if we can't examine it, as you say, why even call it a "logic"

    7. Our normal sense of logic is derived from our experience of nature. Human experience corresponds to the (shall we say) Newtonian scale - not the relativistic and not the quantum. As long as we limit discussion to things in that realm, then that system of logic holds well, and nature is indeed very regular in its behavior. But as you note, nature is broader than normal human experience. It may make perfect sense to talk about alternate systems of logic when working within an extended realm of reality. But it should also be noted that logical consistency is maintained only within a particular system - not across multiple logical systems.

    8. But, then again, the reality is that EVERYTHING is really a quantum phenomena, That problem - eg - isn't an isolated "realm", which may open a million cans of worms for your view.....but there's too much to be said here about these really complicated issues on which my expertise is fairly limited, so I'll wait til you give your full critique of Moritz's God-scientist piece, skep, and likely respond then... ;-)

  3. I don't take Al Moritz seriously. He was a semi regular contributor on Commonsenseatheism back in the day, but he seemed more capable of making bare assertions to back up his beliefs than he was making arguments.