Sunday, November 27, 2011
The Power of "How?"
As a result of a recent column by Julian Baggini (lots of links here), I find myself thinking about the power of "how?"--as in, the power to induce skepticism that lies in there being no explanation how a purported event happens.
So ... Santa Claus supposedly circles the globe on Christmas Eve and invades houses through chimneys, leaving presents for good boys and girls. I can't say how, since there are too many miles to traverse, and too many presents to bring, and the chimneys are too narrow, and some houses don't even have chimneys. Smart boys and girls will, I think, reason that absence of "how?" is evidence of absence. Santa Claus doesn't do any of these things, if he exists at all.
The same reasoning seems equally fair in the case of God creating the world by sheer fiat. "Let there be light!" he said, and thus there was light. But how? All there is to work with is the sheer content of the thought, since God is said to be immaterial. Could the sheer content cause light to exist? It seems awfully unlikely.
So: absence of a good answer to "how?" sometimes ought to induce skepticism. But now here's the tricky thing. Lacking an answer to"how?" questions shouldn't always induce skepticism. I shall now do an experiment. I will let myself have various thoughts, and see what the outcome is. The thoughts will be along these lines: "I want a cup of coffee, I believe the coffee machine is in the kitchen, I intend to get up and make coffee ..."
Tick, tick, tick.
OMG, there's now a cup of coffee in my hand!
It seems as if having a whole series of thoughts about coffee brought about the actions that brought the cup of coffee into being. Moreover, the content of the thoughts seems to have been critical. If the thoughts hadn't been about coffee, but about (say) orange juice, I would be sitting here with a glass of orange juice, not a cup of coffee. So my thoughts, in virtue of their content, had a tangible impact on the world.
Right, but how? We can tell part of the story by identifying thoughts with events in my brain. We know from massive evidence of many sorts that my thoughts are actually complicated neural events. That certainly helps us explain how the thoughts have a tangible impact on the world. You'd expect the brain to have a tangible impact--that's not mysterious. But how is it that the thoughts have a tangible impact in virtue of their content? This isn't an easy question to answer--in fact, it's so elusive there's a vast and very complex philosophical literature about it. (This, by the way, was my dissertation topic many moons ago.)
It wouldn't be the least bit silly to say we just don't know how thoughts have an impact on the world in virtue of their contents, and yet -- hark! we now get to the point! -- that shouldn't induce skepticism that they do, or at least not right away. It would be reasonable to say the fact is robust (my thoughts about coffee simply have got to be part of the reason why I am now swallowing a gulp of coffee), but the "how?" question has yet to be answered.
So ... how is it that absence of "how?" is evidence of absence, where Santa Claus and God are concerned, but not where the explanatory role of mental content is concerned? Is it that we are (some of us, anyway) already very skeptical about Santa Claus distributing presents, and God making light by thinking "let there be light!"? Is the absence of "how?" the straw that broke the camel's already over-burdened back? Or is this it? -- The underlying processes in the Santa and God cases are too wildly at odds with the way we know the world works; but the way content makes a difference in our brains is genuinely a question at the frontiers of knowledge. It could be some of each.