08 March 2013

William Lane Craig's argument from intentionality

Here's a quote from William Lane Craig's opening statement in his debate with Alex Rosenberg. I haven't watched the debate (really, how many of his debates are worth watching anyway?), but from the buzz on the 'net I hear this is one of eight arguments Craig presented. And just... wow. This is one of the most colossally inane arguments I have ever heard:
God is the best explanation of intentional states of consciousness in the world. Philosophers are puzzled by states of intentionality. Intentionality is the property of being about something or of something. It's signifies the object directedness of our thoughts.

For example, I can think about my summer vacation or I can think of my wife. No physical object has this sort of intentionality. A chair or a stone or a glob of tissue like the one like the brain is not about or of something else. Only mental states or states of consciousness are about other things. As a materialist, Dr. Rosenberg [the interlocutor] recognizes that and so concludes that on atheism there really are no intentional states.

Dr. Rosenberg boldly claims that we never really think about anything. But this seems incredible. Obviously I am thinking about Dr. Rosenberg's argument. This seems to me to be a reductio ad absurdum of atheism. By contrast, on theism because God is a mind it's hardly surprising that there should be finite minds. Thus intentional states fit comfortably into a theistic worldview.

So we may argue:

1. If God did not exist, [then] intentional states of consciousness would not exist.
2. But intentional states of consciousness do exist!
3. Therefore, God exists.

Craig's most obvious gaffe is a fallacy of composition. He argues that mundane physical objects like chairs and stones cannot exhibit intentionality, and calls the brain a "glob of tissue". Maybe he missed every biology class ever, but the brain is a complex network of over 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses. Of course it is trivially true that a synapse cannot exhibit intentionality, but the brain is no more a synapse than it is a "glob of tissue". It is a highly complex aggregate of parts – and an aggregate of parts can exhibit properties not present in its constituents.

Whether in physics, chemistry, biology, or whatever else, we observe precisely this phenomenon. Actin and myosin cannot throw a baseball, but muscle tissue composed (in part) of actin and myosin (and connected to a brain and skeleton) certainly can. Atoms cannot make stupid arguments, but William Lane Craig, who is composed of atoms, obviously can.

But even leaving aside the glaring fallacy of composition, this is still one of the worst arguments I've ever heard any apologist make.


Craig's first premise is a bald assertion rooted in an argument from ignorance which is itself based on the above fallacy of composition. I feel that theologians resort to this tactic often – to discuss phenomena that are difficult to explain in intuitive ways, and use that as a springboard to claim that "naturalism" or "materialism" in principle cannot explain them at all. That's clearly a non sequitur.

Craig's claim that theism entails intentionality is not an explanation, but just another assertion. He didn't bother to explain how intentionality arises from theism; he just claimed it does. Even if God is "a mind", that doesn't explain how intentionality arises in humans. How can an infinite mind (inferred from his example of humans having "finite minds") have intentional states at all? And how can a disembodied mind exist? And doesn't Craig always argue that actual infinites are impossible... which would render an "infinite mind" nothing more than an abstraction?

Further, it's impossible to ascertain the probability of supernatural occurrences. Probability assessments require us to have a quantifiable range of variables; since God can contravene the laws of physics, saying that intentionality is more probable on theism than atheism (a claim he made later in the debate) is the equivalent of saying, "Naturalism cannot explain it, but theism can because it's magic!"

I tend to be puzzled by the use of this type of argument. If theists believe that God designed the universe with life in mind, why does life require supernatural intervention to produce consciousness? Why wouldn't God design the physical brain itself to be sufficient to produce conscious states?


p.s. – I haven't seen anyone else point out the fallacy of composition, but there's a very thorough and altogether excellent rebuttal of Craig's argument from Philosotroll.

p.p.s. – On reflection, I still think the ontological argument is the worst argument for God. But this is a close second.

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