The Evangelical Universalist Forum

JRP's Bite-Sized Metaphysics (Series 204)

[This is a continuation of Section Two, Reason and the First Person. An index with links to all parts of the work as they are posted can be found [url=]here.]

[This series concludes Chapter 16, “Real Action and Atheism”.]

[The previous series ended with: “If the proposition ‘reactions produce actions’ is nonsense, then either atheism is false, or we might as well treat it as false because it can never, in any legitimate way, get going even as a live proposition (much less as a possibly cogently defended one). Atheism could still be sheerly asserted; but a sheer assertion is not a reliable conclusion upon which to form a subsequent belief.”]

[Entry 1]

There are two categories of defense against this deduction that we should reject atheism being true.

da.) The proposal ‘reactions produce actions’ is not nonsensical.

db.) Defensible arguments (such as, for instance, atheism theories) can be produced purely by automatic reactions without actions.

Adherents of the first defense would proceed by one of the general following methods (with variations):

da1.) The terms ‘reaction’ and ‘action’ are proposed or demonstrated to be so vague and subjective that no distinctively useful definition of them can be formed, therefore aborting the question of whether it is nonsensical to say one comes from the other.

da2.) Reactions really exist, but actions are not distinctive from them, as they are merely our subjective perception of reactions, considered to be something ‘other than reactions’ purely for convenience in certain discussions. Therefore, it is a non sequitur to claim that ‘reactions produce actions’ is nonsensical.

da3.) Reactions don’t really exist, all events being purely action; what we call reactions are only a term of convenience for particular discussions. Therefore, it is a non sequitur to claim that ‘reactions produce actions’ is nonsensical.

da4.) Real actions and real reactions both exist; but we can successfully argue that reactive systems produce actions. Therefore, it is not functionally impossible for reactions to produce actions, thus undercutting by demonstration the grounds for my attempted deduction.

[Entry 2]

da4 will be saved for last: although the principles of my counter-rebuttal to it are simple, they are also subtle and will require some extended discussion on my part.

da3 succeeds by affirming that the IF can behave with real purposes, which is the same as affirming the truth of some type of not-atheism (perhaps pantheism); so if successfully proposed and defended, it would refute atheism rather than defend it.

da2 is essentially the same as defense b above, as it denies real actions altogether, leading to the question of whether the lack of real initiative can still result in cogent arguments. Therefore my counterdefense against it will be equivalent to my reply to defense b, to which I will return later.

da1 might seem a worthwhile tactic; but its feasibility is sharply limited by inconsistent practical application. Specifically, it would be contradictory for an atheist as ‘an atheist’ to claim that the distinction between action and reaction is only our subjective perception of an otherwise inscrutable property of reality–because the atheist as an atheist proposes that ultimate reality doesn’t instigate, doesn’t initiate, has no purposes: doesn’t act. There is no God, he will say, only a blindly automatic mechanism, which may have random events but those random events by their utter randomness are also unpurposive.

[Footnote: Random events are themselves causes of effects which, being determinately caused, are not themselves random. A lightning bolt may strike randomly, but the thunder that follows is not a random event, being determined by the actual character of the bolt and actual local atmospheric conditions. (Actually in both cases random and determinate variables play a part, but I am oversimplifying a bit for purposes of principle illustration.) I mention this to clarify that I am not trying to paint atheist philosophers as claiming [u]all events to be utterly random and unpredictable. Obviously, determination of an event doesn’t necessarily involve rational action either, as the event may be only mechanistically reactive: the atmosphere’s reaction to lightning being a pertinent example. This will be discussed in more detail later, although it has also already been discussed in much detail back in Chapter 4.]

But the moment the atheist proposes that reality doesn’t initiate events–and as an ‘atheist’ he will have to propose this or some polysyllabic variation–he has simultaneously affirmed that he understands and accepts quite robustly a necessary and real distinction between actions and reactions. If he didn’t, his own profession of ‘atheism’ would be meaningless.

[Entry 3]

The da1 defense, therefore, would not bulwark atheism if it could be successfully proposed and defended. But perhaps it would bolster some type of agnosticism.

Maybe; but the person using this defense must consider whether she actually accepts the consequences of applying this defense successfully. And I think this will always be untenable. The moment the agnostic defender attempts to employ this defense–and if she isn’t going to employ it, then there is no good reason to make it–she will be tacitly refuting herself; for she will be making a tacit but quite necessary exception of the proposal ‘reactions and actions are only subjective descriptions we perceive of events’ in favor of her own deployment of the tactic to defend against (for instance) an encroaching not-atheism.

(What the agnostic defends against, however, makes no difference; she could be defending against an encroaching not-atheism or cosmological dualism instead, for example. That she is employing agnosticism to counter a move one way or the other is the main point I’m making here.)

She will not be able to maintain that this defense is usable without simultaneously requiring (whether she mentions it or not) that her own thoughts definitely have a certain quality or characteristic pertinently related to the distinction between action and reaction.

[Entry 4]

‘Reactions into actions is nonsensical,’ I say, for example. ‘And we require actions to be real for our own arguments to have even the bare possibility of cogency. Therefore, ultimate reality–the IF–must be capable of actions, not only blindly automatic non-purposive behaviors. Therefore, God, the ultimate Act-er, exists.’ (I would rather use the word “actor”, but that word is too closely linked to a specific profession today. I will also point out that I’ve here used an oversimplified version of my argument.)

‘That argument might work,’ the agnostic may say, ‘except it depends on there being a real distinction between actions and reactions. Maybe there is, but our perception of an event as “action” or “reaction” is utterly subjective, therefore unreliable as to the actual state of the event. Therefore, we cannot be sure that any given event really contains an action or is “only” a set of reactions. Therefore, any event you propose as being necessarily an action, cannot in fact be accurately said to be “necessarily” an action; and as you require certain abilities of ours to be “necessarily” actions for your argument to work, then your argument fails because it cannot get off the ground.’

‘That looks like quite a good reply,’ I return. ‘Too bad there is evidently no way to tell whether it was produced in you by the non-rational environment around you; or whether you might have contributed something yourself, instead, such that something other than non-rational events took place in your mind as you said that. So, why should I bother to give your defense the time of day?’

‘Because…’ begins the agnostic (perhaps a little heatedly!)

‘You can stop right there,’ I interrupt. ‘Why should I accept that your explanation for your defense might itself be something other than a purely reflexive unthinking response? You yourself require that your own utterances should be accepted as being functionally distinguishable in a real and truly distinct fashion between initiation on your part and blindly non-rational responses on your part. For your own defense to have any even merely apparent success as an argument per se, you must make a tacit exception in favor of you yourself and your argumentative defense. You necessarily presume the truth of my contention, that such distinctions are real and detectable, in order to get your opposing contention off the ground.’

[Entry 5; next to last for this series]

In refuting this type of agnostic defense, I am not merely arguing that someone hasn’t lived up to her own standards. I fully agree, for instance, that procrastination is an ethically wrong behavior: a facet of gluttony. I also happen to procrastinate quite a bit. (There is a very good chance I was procrastinating from doing something else while drafting this chapter, for instance!) This doesn’t change the fact that I consider procrastination to be an ethically wrong behavior, and in my honest moments I emphasize this and ask people to realize that when I procrastinate I am misbehaving, whatever justification I may attempt to give at the time.

If my imaginary agnostic wishes, she may try the same tactic: ‘No matter what I may seem to imply on occasion, being only human; please remember that it is in fact impossible for us to distinguish and apply a true and useful distinction between action and reaction.’

Very well; but then so much for any attempt at justifying why I should pay any more attention to her defense than I would pay to a rushing brook or to the cackles of a gaggle of geese (depending on the aesthetic quality of her voice!) Whenever she attempts to employ her defense, which assigns a tacit possibility of distinctive value to it, I will remind myself that she has asked me to disregard any tacit claims of that sort which ride along with any of her propositions; because she wanted me to understand that she is only human and so often makes the mistake of assigning the possibility of definite value to her own statements!

[Entry 6; finale for this series]

In point of fact, she cannot jump off her shadow, either. Whatever she says, she will continue to require that her own utterances and mental behaviors are practically and usefully and (potentially, at least) truly capable of being graded according to the level of actions and reactions they contain, with consequent conclusions about the relevance of her remarks–including perhaps most tellingly her own practical opinion of their relevancy.

This being the case, the defense of action/reaction inscrutability can never be anything better than a daydream–once the principles of the defense are actually applied and followed through.

The refutation I have just employed may also be leveled against the fourth variety of defense ‘a’ (which general defense was ‘reactions into actions is not nonsensical’). This fourth defense (da4) attempts to conclude, via experiment or logical argument from principles, that sometimes reactions do produce actions. As my reply to this contention shall draw on points I have previously developed in this chapter, and as my reply to defense ‘b’ (‘cogent human thought can take place without any actions whatsoever’) will feature essentially the same tactic–and as this chapter has already been rather lengthy–I will continue my discussion in the next chapter.

Next up: rational action and atheism further considered