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This is a follow-up to my last post on the question of whether there are phenomena that theism can account for but which naturalism cannot. The Cosmological Argument can be thought of as an argument not just for the existence of God, but for the claim that a theistic worldview has the resources to explain something that a naturalistic worldview cannot explain (in its simplest form, this something is the fact that there exists something rather than nothing). I don’t think this is so and I am going to try to explain why.

Here is the Kalam cosmological argument.

(1)    Everything that begins to exist has a cause.

(2)    The Universe began to exist.

(3)    The universe has a cause.

First, premise (1) is odd. Why say that everything that begins to exist has a cause, rather than everything, full stop? The answer is that the attempt to use the alternative,

(1*) Everything that exists has a cause

has an obvious and unfortunate consequence for theism: it implies that it is false. Since God is supposed to be uncaused, (1*) cannot be true (if (1*) is true, then there is no uncaused God, so theism is false). So, we get (1) as a means of avoiding begging the question against theism.

It is important to see that (1) depends upon a more general principle, the principle of sufficient reason (PSR) [I am just going to assume here that if PSR is false, then for that very reason, we should be skeptical of (1). But I would be happy to pursue this if anyone is interested]. PSR says (in one of its simpler formulations) that for everything that exists, there is a reason that it exists, in other words, there is an explanation for the existence of everything. Now, making the reasonable inference that, in the material realm, the explanation for the existence of anything will be in terms of causes, we can assume that if the PSR is true, everything that exists has a cause. But this supports (1*) doesn’t it? Well, the problem, again, is that this inference only works if we ignore the possibility that there exist non-material things. The explanation for their existence might not be in terms of causes. So we shouldn’t assume that everything that exists has a cause. However, certainly material things have causes, at least as far as we know. And, as far as we know, every material thing had a beginning. Roughly then, (there are a few other considerations that I will ignore here), that is one way of getting to (1) from the PSR.

But the PSR does imply that everything that exists has an explanation. So while it might be unreasonable to ask what the cause of God is (since, if he exists, he is immaterial, and so might not have a cause), that does not mean that it is unreasonable to ask for the explanation of God. So, if the PSR is true, then, if God exists, there is an explanation for the existence of God.

We’ve gotten a little bit side-tracked, so let’s get back to the main thread of the argument. There are actually two points to be made here. First, even if the CA is a sound argument, and even if it is true that God created the universe, none of that tells us what the explanation for the universe is. That is, saying that God did does not explain how it was done. If there is nothing more to the explanation that the claim that God did it, then what is the difference between saying that God did it and saying that it was magic?

The second point is that since the CA relies on the PSR, there is no reason to think that it is only the universe’s existence that presents a fundamental mystery that cries out for explanation. If the question is, “why is there something rather than nothing?” then theists should ask why there is a God.

So, what I am saying here is this: If the problem that theists point to is that there is no naturalistic account of the existence of the universe (or, even more broadly, why there exists something rather than nothing), then the theist does not have an answer to this problem either. The naturalist *might* always have to assume the existence of something in order to provide explanations, but so must the theist. The theist must fall back on the existence of God, something that is not explained by theism. Now, of course I am aware that theists have tried to avoid this. There is a long theological history to the claim that God contains the reason for his own existence. But, as I argued recently, that claim, even if it makes sense and it is true, does not tell what this reason is. The claim that God exists a se tells us nothing more than that there is a reason for God’s existence and that it is contained in his nature; it does not tell us what the reason is.

So, it is false that theism has an explanation for the existence of the universe. Thus, the argument that says that theism is to be preferred over atheism because the former can account for something that the latter cannot is a bad argument since the premise is false.


I’ve been reading Owen Flanagan’s new book, The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized, and I’ve come across a passage that I am afraid might be hopelessly confused. Flanagan’s overall project is to articulate a version of Buddhism that is naturalistic (i.e., consistent with what science tells us about the world), hence the subtitle. The passage in question concerns the reduction of the mental to the physical and the possibility (defended by some Buddhists) that there might be special states of consciousness that do not correlate with (and thus are not reducible to) states of the brain. Flanagan articulates two different theories about mental states that guide brain research. The first is the identity theory according to which, in Flanagan’s words, “all mental states are in fact brain states.” It is in describing the second, a view that he calls the neural correlate view (NCV), that things get a little fishy:

The second view . . . can be understood as quietistic or agnostic as far as commitment to metaphysical physicalism goes (the view that what there is, and all that there is, is “physical,” that is, matter and energy transfers). Although NCV claims that each and every mental state has certain distinctive neural correlates, it need neither endorse nor condemn the view that the subjective properties of every experience are reducible to or exhausted by the neural underpinnings of that experience. Perhaps subjectively experienced mental states have sui generis properties that are nonphysical.

Although proponents of the neural correlate view usually assume, as do proponents of the identity theory, that there will be neural property correlates for all the features of mental states as detected first-personally, the view doesn’t actually entail this. Since identity is not claimed, it is possible that mental states might be caused by or correlated with brain states, but that the neural correlates do not contain specific matches (correlates) for each and every property revealed at the mental level. (52, emphasis added)

The idea seems to be that proponents of NCV want to admit the possibility that there are at least some non-physical mental properties.  The claim that there are mental properties (or properties of mental states) that are not reducible to neural properties sounds an awful lot like property dualism. Property dualism, at least as I understand it, is the view that the mental realm (or at least part of it) is characterized by properties that are not the same as nor reducible to any physical properties. Property dualism is a rejection of the identity theory. While a property dualist will agree that all mental states are correlated with a physical state of the brain, they insist that mental states have properties that are not reducible (or identical with) physical states of the brain.

One way to describe NCV might be as follows: NCV is metaphysically open while the identity theory is metaphysically closed. The identity theory says that the world is composed only of physical states and so it does not allow into its worldview any state or property that is not physical. NCV says that it is possible that there are non-physical mental properties; it is open to the existence of such properties but not committed to it. Another way of saying this is that NCV is the view that property dualism might be true. I’m not certain that this is how Flanagan understands NCV but, in any event, this understanding gets rather problematic given the sentence immediately following the above passage: “It is even possible on NCV that there are no neural correlates for some rare and special mental states.” (52)

Flanagan here appears to allow that NCV admits the possibility of free-floating mental states that have no brain state correlates. There are a few problems with this. First, it belies the name, neural correlate view. Second, it admits the possibility of a kind of dualism more akin to substance dualism. Property dualism insists that every mental state is correlated with a brain state, but that mental states are characterized by properties that are not physical. If there are mental states without neural correlates, this suggests that the mental is a different kind of substance. And this would imply that NCV is even more metaphysically open than indicated above: it is open to the existence not just of non-physical properties, but non-physical substance. This is something that I doubt a naturalist and materialist such as Flanagan would be happy to accept as consistent with materialism.  Finally, it directly contradicts what Flanagan says about NCV is the passage above: “NCV claims that each and every mental state has certain distinctive neural correlates.”

So there are two potential renderings of NCV: (1) There are possibly non-physical mental properties. (2) There are possibly mental states that have no brain state correlates (which implies, does it not, that there are possibly non-physical mental states?).

This might be written off as just a bit of sloppy editing were it not for the fact that Flanagan goes on to employ the mental states reading of NVC in a brief discussion of the Dalai Lama’s claim that some states of consciousness induced by Buddhist meditation are unlikely to have neural correlates. Now Flanagan does not say whether he regards NCV as a materialist theory, but he does express disdain for those that would use the metaphysical openness of NCV to promote dualism: “NCV can be used in this way to reintroduce various mental will-o’-the-wisps that will please those with dualist hopes, aspirations, or tendencies.” (52)

The Dalai Lama, apparently, is such a person. Flanagan continues, “the Dalai Lama expressed doubt that, at least in the case of states of “luminous consciousness” (on some interpretations identical to achieving nirvana in this life), any neural correlates will be found for this extraspecial type of conscious mental state.” (53) But Flanagan has no sympathy for this view and, after briefly recounting the Dalai Lama’s argument, declares the position to be inconsistent with naturalism: “This sort of expansive use of NCV is driven purely by antecedent commitment to a view that is antimaterialist, not by any features of the evidence; as such it is nonnaturalist.” (53)

Notice also that it is not NCV itself that is allegedly nonnaturalist, but the Dalai Lama’s use of it. If a view is consistent with naturalism, then how is that a particular use of the view can be nonnaturalist? It appears that what is worrisome to Flanagan is not that the Dalai Lama is committed to a view with peculiar metaphysical commitments, but that the Dalai Lama only accepts that view because it allows him to articulate and defend his own position which he has a prior commitment to. So, the Dalai Lama’s error, it seems, is that his commitment to his metaphysical view of the mind is driven not by the evidence, but by his religion. That’s a legitimate criticism, but it does not make the Dalai Lama’s view nonaturalist. It may be contrary to the methods of scientific inquiry, as believing, despite a lack of evidence, that there was an ancient alien civilization on Mars is contrary to the methods of scientific inquiry. But that a theory is believed on non-scientific grounds does not make it nonnaturalist.

But is the Dalai Lama’s position inconsistent with naturalism? I think that would be a difficult case to make. I’m reminded of Galen Strawson’s version of physicalism as defended in his “Realistic Monism: Why Physicalism Entails Panpsychism.” But let’s put that argument aside. A great deal might depend on whether the Dalai Lama understands his position as a version of substance dualism or property dualism. If he is a substance dualist, then the case that he is a nonnaturalist could potentially be stronger (but see Strawson). But if he is a property dualist, then the case will be weaker. Usually property dualists (I’m thinking of John Searle and Thomas Nagel in particular) will describe their views as non-physicalist or non-materialist; but they are also very insistent that they are completely naturalistic. Property dualists typically conceive of mental properties as distinct from physical properties and yet through and through natural.

The main problem, as far as Flanagan’s position goes, is that he does not say whether NCV is consistent with naturalism (at least not at this point of the book). He articulates two different versions of it (the first, that all mental states have neural correlates; the second, the some mental states might not have neural correlates), but he does not say whether either or both is inconsistent with naturalism. My point about the Dalai Lama’s argument is that there is no reason to ascribe nonnaturalism to him if his views are consistent with a naturalist position, even if he adopts his beliefs for non-scientific reasons.

Jason Thibodeau

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