Thursday, July 14, 2005

Blurbs on Books by Bloggers

I bought and read books by two philosophers whose blogs I’ve enjoyed browsing: Victor Reppert’s C.S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason, and William F. Vallicella’s A Paradigm Theory of Existence: Onto-Theology Vindicated. The two books both contain philosophical arguments which point toward theism. Otherwise they were quite different in intent and scope: Reppert’s is a short book meant to be engaging and accessible to laypeople, while Vallicella’s was a thorough and closely argued work of metaphysics/ontology.

I enjoyed Reppert’s book. C.S. Lewis is an intriguing figure and by taking some of his writings as a launching point, Reppert adds interest to the main task of the book, which is a discussion of the Argument from Reason (AfR). A brief sketch of the AfR: We form beliefs through rational inference. If materialism is true, all beliefs have non-rational root causes. Therefore no belief could be rationally inferred and materialism is false. There is a fair amount to unpack here, and Reppert analyzes a number of strands which underly the argument, and responds to some objections. He concludes there is ongoing merit to considering the argument. The book is rounded out by a discussion of the larger context of the debate between theism and naturalism.

In my opinion, the one underlying strand of the AfR which has “bite” is the argument from intentionality (especially conscious intentionality). The specific focus on reason and rational inference doesn’t add much in my view. Investigations in cognitive science and neuroscience on humans and animals seem to be slowly but steadily gaining traction on the problem of how reasoning and language can be built up from more primitive intentional interaction with the environment. What is not well explained is how conscious intentionality gets bootstrapped from components which themselves lack it.

Vallicella’s book was a challenging one for me to read, but I found it to be time very well spent. I plan to re-read parts or all of it again, and will probably post more down the road.

The goal of the book is to answer these questions: From the point of view of being a realist about the existence of concrete individuals in the world (a perspective I endorse), how can we account for this existence? What is existence, anyway?

In the primarily critical part of the book (chapters 2 through 5), Vallicella tenaciously takes apart what seems to be every alterative put forth by other philosophers past and present until one choice is left standing: Existence is the unity of an individual’s ontological constituents; further, this unity requires an external unifier. This theory is described and defended in chapters 6 & 7. Vallicella then offers as his proposal that the unifier is existence itself – the paradigm existent (introduced in the introductory chapter 1 and then discussed in the concluding chapter 8).

Because of the gaping holes in my background knowledge of the philosophical theories Vallicella takes on, I’m can’t offer any authoritative pronouncements, but I must say the clarity of the arguments and the cumulative impact of the criticism of competing ideas made for me a persuasive case that concrete individuals/facts do indeed require an external unifier of their parts.

On the other hand I found the conclusion that it is the paradigm existent that does the job comparatively less persuasive. One problem is that for some reason I am wary of the classical distinction between contingent and necessary (as I mentioned in this recent post). And when throughout the book Vallicella uses the word contingent to describe both the concrete individual and its ontological constituents, it directly leads him to a unifier which is necessary (furthermore a necessary being – and who else can that be but God?) But while conceding that the solution requires going beyond a traditionally monistic version of naturalism, couldn’t there be other ways to skin this cat? Specifically, could the parts be in a relation of interdependence with a co-evolving binding force? While I may have missed something, the only competing theory Vallicella discusses which appears to be something of this sort is Hector-Neri Castaneda’s theory of ontological operators (ch.8 section3), which I had not heard of and will need to investigate. It seems Vallicella rejects this idea because the unifier here would also be contingent, not necessary. And I guess the thought is that it is you’d still have more explaining to do because it is only the necessary which (by definition) doesn’t require further explanation.

My ideas on this are half-baked at this point, but I’m influenced by the fact that both Whitehead’s process philosophy and the recent proposal by Gregg Rosenberg go beyond physicalist-naturalism to solve the problem of actualizing/unifying individuals without invoking the paradigm existent. I have more thinking to do on this. But Bill Vallicella’s book has certainly offered plenty of food for that thought.


Alan said...

First, of all, thanks for linking to my site, even though it's been pretty slow getting off the ground.

Second, let me express my envy that you are able to afford to buy a copy of Bill V.'s book! I'm quite willing to skip a few meals in order to be able to afford a book; but the price of Paradigm Theory is into 3 figures!! That being beyond my means right now, I've been reduced to putting a hold on the book at the U. of Texas library, so I'm still waiting to get hold of it.

In one way, you and I are in a similar position: whether it be from a lack of background or lack of having read the book, anything we might say about Bill's book is so much handwaving unless we have the text in front of us. Nonetheless, a few questions jumped out at in reading your summary of the book, and you might want to think about them. You quote, or paraphrase, Bill to the effect that "existence is the unity of an individual's ontological constituents."
-- What is an "ontological constituent"?
-- What is an "individual?" (Does the term refer primarily or solely to subjects of experience, such as persons, or is the glass of beer on my desk an "individual"?)
-- What's the relationship between the answers to the above two questions; that is, why should we think that individuals have ontological constituents?

I'm sure Bill has very good answers to these questions; maybe formulating your own answers might help increase your understanding (and mine) of his viewpoint.

Steve said...

Hi Alan. If it's OK with you Alan, I'll respond in the form of a blog post shortly.
- Steve