Let's talk about William Lane Craig's Reasonable Faith Podcast about my post

ICYMI: Five years ago (ish) I wrote a blog post in which I argued that William Lane Craig's argument from intentionality was.... well, to put it kindly, not a very good argument. I have no idea how that particular one - given all the posts I wrote about WL Craig - ended up being a thing in his podcast. But here we are, five years later!

At first, I thought, I don't really do this stuff anymore. Generally, I don't enjoy the old sparring-with-theists thing like I used to. I still drop comments on Randal Rauser's blog from time to time, but I consciously avoid getting sucked into protracted, fruitless debates.


Let's be honest, it's kind of cool that William Lane Craig himself took the time to comb through one of my blog posts. After all, I'm just Some Dude on the Internet, and he is a Bigtime Famous Apologist. He commands a good sized audience, and I don't think I should pass on the opportunity to reply to critiques Craig made of my own arguments.

Now, I want to say that I believe Craig raises some fair points in his defense. And I should also say that some of my condescension was indeed (as Craig notes) unwarranted. I think that when I was blogging back then, my mindset was more of catering to a predominately atheistic audience, and I didn't really pay as much mind to charity and cordiality as I should have. So let me begin by offering Dr. Craig a sincere apology for that.

Since they went line-by-line through my post, I'm going to do the same, despite being fully aware that this a notoriously ineffective way to change anyone's mind. It is, however, an effective way for me to clarify my own views. You can read a full transcript of Craig's podcast here.

So, we begin:
[The A-Unicornist] seems to think that I'm arguing that because the parts of the brain do not exhibit intentionality therefore the whole brain does not exhibit intentionality. But that's obviously no part of my argument, anymore than it would be a part of my argument to say that because every part of a chair lacks intentionality therefore the whole chair lacks intentionality, or that because every part of a stone lacks intentionality therefore the whole stone lacks intentionality. Rather, Plantinga’s point is that physical objects do not exhibit intentionality. A chair is not about something. A stone is not of something. The brain is not about something. Intentionality is a property of mental states – states of consciousness – which are aboutsomething else or of something else. So it's simply inaccurate to portray this argument as an argument from composition.
I think my charge of the fallacy of composition came from two things in Craig's statement: first, the comparison of the brain to simple objects like chairs, and secondly the description of the brain as a "gob of tissue." Craig agrees that complex objects (like a brain) can exhibit properties not present in their constituent parts, so we're at least on common ground here.

However, let's step back and examine the scientific view of the mind: conscious experience is a product of the structure and activity of the brain. We can draw a helpful semantic distinction between mind and brain, but on the scientific view, the brain produces conscious states and alterations in the brain produce reliable, predictable alterations in consciousness. This may be teetering toward a full-on debate about substance dualism, but I'll try to avoid that here by saying that scientific inquiry about the mind does not require the assumption that the "mind" is some kind of "substance" that interacts with the brain.

If Craig believes that intentionality is a property of conscious states (as I believe he does), then my argument is that brains produce conscious states and their constituent abstract properties (I would argue that those "properties" are metaphorical, but that may go beyond the scope of this post). The concept of "intentionality", if it is a property of a mental state produced by the brain, is indeed arising from a physical object.

Let me be clear that at least to the degree to which I am responding to Craig, I am not in fact arguing that brains produce "intentionality", but that brains can in principle produce intentionality because brains produce mental states.

So I think Craig has two options here, both of which I think are, in the words of Captain Holt, sub-optimal:

1. Concede a fallacy of composition, because the brain - as a complex aggregate of parts - can produce consciousness and thus intentionality, OR

2. Commit a fallacy of begging the question simply by assuming on principle that physical objects cannot exhibit intentionality because physical objects can't produce conscious states. We only need one exception, after all. I think the brain fits that description.

Let me use artificial intelligence as an analogy here. Surely we'd all agree that a single transistor cannot learn. It can't understand language or syntax, have memory, etc. etc. But an AI powered by trillions of transistors, like Google's super-creepy-but-also-awesome Language AI, does indeed exhibit those properties. And those are properties - not just the structure of language but metaphor, syntax, and memory - that we've often assumed only human "minds" could do. Granted, this is not the same thing as "intentionality", but it's an analogy - the fact that a single neuron cannot produce a mental state, or that a chair cannot produce a mental state, is not a reason to conclude that brains cannot produce mental states. If Craig rejects prima facie that brains produce mental states (and their resulting abstract properties, including intentionality), I would argue he is just assuming what he's trying to prove. Craig needs to do one better and argue that brains cannot produce mental states at all. Saying they cannot do so because they are physical objects is an assertion, not an argument.

Craig continues,
Rosenberg didn't engage very much with the arguments that I gave against his naturalism. So I think this largely went unrefuted. But in the published version of the book, in his final response, as I recollect, he admits this is one of the most difficult problems for atheism and naturalism: how in the world you can account for states of intentionality on an atheistic worldview.
I didn't watch the full debate between the two of them. I generally disdain the debate format anyway, and Rosenberg, it was widely agreed, wasn't able to match Craig's finely-honed rhetorical skills. But let's also remember that Craig produced no fewer than eight arguments in this debate. If Craig wants a debate about something as complex as intentional states of consciousness and the reductive view of consciousness, I think it'd be better to confine the debate to that topic - cuz that's a big one. I don't think it's reasonable to expect Rosenberg to conjure up thorough rebuttals to that and seven other arguments while also establishing his own positions given the time constraints of a two-hour debate (of which he only has half that time to produce all of those arguments). I have to say, Craig does this often in debates: volley a large number of arguments toward his opponents to which they cannot reasonably respond with any degree of thoroughness due to time constraints, then act as though that's a mark in favor of his own arguments. To me this is disingenuous, and just reiterates my view that debates are generally a waste of time unless the topic can be tightly constrained.

But in any case I think Craig is incorrect here in characterizing Rosenberg. I don't know much about Rosenberg's position so I won't presume to speak for him, but most naturalists of whom I am aware, such as Sean Carroll, believe that the concept of "intentionality" is a fundamentally misguided way of framing consciousness and mental states. In other words, we don't think it's a problem to be solved. We think theists are asking the wrong question. Given what I know about Rosenberg's reductionism, it's worth revisiting what Craig argued at the debate itself:
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.
This is echoed in a statement he makes in the podcast:
My naturalist opponent himself claims that on atheism there are no intentional states. Remember, that's why he says, I never think about anything; I don't think we really think about anything. He doesn't think that his book that he wrote is really about anything.
With (again) the massive caveat that I do not know Rosenberg's position, I'm confident to conjecture that, like many naturalists, Rosenberg may simply believe that our descriptions of mental states are primarily metaphorical. The fact that Craig perceives his thoughts to be about something doesn't itself entail that "intentionality" exists - only that the perception of intentionality exists. I'm guessing that Rosenberg would argue that what Craig describes as "intentionality" is better explained by an entirely different semantic structure. This is precisely what Sean Carroll did in his own discussions of intentionality and its related concepts, such as this post and this post.

In other words, Craig is not being charitable to his interlocutors by insisting they explain "intentionality" on his terms. His interlocutors reject his framing of the question and the concept. Regular readers of this blog know I'm a big fan of George Lakoff, and he argues that many philosophical puzzles of antiquity would not exist today had those philosophers had the empirical understanding of the mind to which we are privy today. To modern naturalists, the aim isn't always to "solve" ancient philosophical problems, but rather to look at the underlying assumptions and ascertain whether philosophers were asking the right questions. I think that most naturalists would argue that Plantinga (from whom Craig is borrowing this argument) framed the question incorrectly.

Let's move on to how this ties into questions about God's existence. Because remember, Craig is arguing that intentional states can only exist if God does, and since they do, so must God. Maybe I'm misreading something here, but there seems to be some fairly egregious circular reasoning happening here:
[If] God doesn't exist then there are no intentional states. But if God does exist then, as I say, you have a mind already exhibiting states of intentionality and therefore it would not be inappropriate for there to be finite minds as well that exhibit intentionality. So finite minds with intentional states of consciousness fit comfortably into a theistic worldview, but they fit very poorly into a naturalistic worldview as Rosenberg recognized.
Let me reiterate that every time Craig says something like "as Rosenberg recognized," he's giving the misleading impression that Rosenberg agrees with Craig that this is a problem that naturalism needs to solve. But again, I think Rosenberg (like other naturalists including Sean Carroll and myself) would argue that Craig is framing the question incorrectly and making unfounded assumptions about the nature of consciousness. We don't necessarily have to solve the question of intentionality on Craig's terms; we can explore whether Craig's conceptualization is empirically responsible and worth addressing at all.

But, as I was saying, circular reasoning. In the debate with Rosenberg, Craig claims that "God is the best explanation for intentional states." But he is arguing here that he believes intentional states exist because God exists. Minutes later in the podcast, he argues it the other way, saying "I'm thinking about Rosenberg's argument, for example, and therefore it follows logically that therefore God exists.Let's be clear: if Craig wants to argue that intentional states demonstrate the existence of God, he has to 1) show that intentional states are in fact literal things, and 2) that they could not be a property of conscious states produced by the brain. He hasn't done either of those things.

The only argument that Craig has provided for the existence of intentional states are his own perception of them. Indeed, per the quote above from the debate, he expressed incredulity at the idea that his thoughts aren't actually intentional: "Obviously I am thinking about Dr. Rosenberg's argument." He expresses this same incredulity in the podcast: "That's where Rosenberg and I differ, and it seems to me that his position is absurd because clearly intentional states of consciousness do exist."  This is misguided. A reductive view of the mind would not rule out the perception of intentionality, but rather rule out the idea that there is some literal, ontic quality to it.

There are some tertiary things touched on that I don't think are really topical (and in fairness, I had some pretty broad brushstrokes in my original post five years ago), so I'll leave them be for now. But those are my thoughts on Craig's reply.


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