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The Argument From Intentionality

June 03, 2019     Time: 16:55
The Argument From Intentionality


Atheist blogger 'The A-Unicornist" says this is one of the worst arguments for Theism he's ever heard! Does he understand the argument?

KEVIN HARRIS: Bill, the name of this blogger is The A-Unicornist. What does that say?

DR. CRAIG: He must not believe in unicorns, I suppose.

KEVIN HARRIS: I guess that is what he’s trying to say. The byline of his blog is “Science, reason, culture, and unicorns.” He takes on your argument from intentionality.[1] Apparently, he saw your debate . . . yes, he did, in fact. He said,

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.

If you would like to read your opening statement here.

DR. CRAIG: OK. Here’s what I said,

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 brain is not about or of something else. Only mental states or states of consciousness are about other things. As a materialist, Dr. Rosenberg 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, intentional states of consciousness would not exist.

2. But intentional states of consciousness do exist!

3. Therefore, God exists.

I want to say that this argument is borrowed from one of the greatest living philosophers in our day, Alvin Plantinga, who wrote an article called Against Materialism in which he argues precisely that states of intentionality require that there be mental substances like the mind or the soul and uses precisely this point that no physical object exhibits intentionality and therefore materialism must be false.

KEVIN HARRIS: You know, it's been a while since I heard that debate. I've watched it a couple of times. Do you remember off the top of your head Rosenberg's rebuttal to this? A response?

DR. CRAIG: My recollection is that he didn't respond to the argument. 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.

KEVIN HARRIS: Well, Mr. Unicorn Man here takes you to task. He says, “Craig's most obvious gaffe is a fallacy of composition.”

DR. CRAIG: Let's explain to our listeners exactly what the fallacy of composition is. The fallacy of composition is an informal logical fallacy of thinking that because the parts of a thing have a certain property therefore the whole thing has that same property. So, for example, if someone were to reason because every tiny part of an elephant is light in weight therefore the whole elephant is light in weight, he would be guilty of the fallacy of composition thinking that the whole has the property of its individual parts. So the claim on the part here of A-Unicornist is that somehow the argument that I give is committing this fallacy of inferring that because the parts lack a certain property therefore the whole lacks that property.

KEVIN HARRIS: You've given examples of exceptions to the fallacy composition, and that is if every shingle on the roof is red then the roof is red.

DR. CRAIG: Yes, it's not always the case that the whole lacks the property of its parts. In some cases, the whole might indeed exhibit that same property, and the example you give of the red shingles and the red roof would be a good one. But you cannot simply infer that because the parts have a property therefore the whole also has that property.

KEVIN HARRIS: This is what he says,

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.

DR. CRAIG: Of course, it can. He 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 about something else or of something else. So it's simply inaccurate to portray this argument as an argument from composition.

KEVIN HARRIS: He continues,

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.

DR. CRAIG: Well, again, this condescension is unmerited because the argument is not based upon composition. Rather, it's based upon our experience of physical objects and our experience of mental states and seeing that physical objects are not about things or of things.


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

DR. CRAIG: Let me say something about that. The first premise was “If God did not exist, intentional states of consciousness would not exist.” Why did I employ this argument in the debate with Alex Rosenberg? It's precisely because this is what Rosenberg believes. In each case, I would take the key premise from Rosenberg's own book on atheism and then show how that serves in a good argument for the existence of God. So it's not simply a bald assertion; rather, this is offered in a debate context where my opponent argues that if atheism is true then there are no intentional states of consciousness because he recognizes that in the absence of God there are just physical material objects and that these don't exhibit intentionality. So the A-Unicornist fails to realize that this is a premise that is not under dispute in the debate; it's one on which Rosenberg and I agree.

KEVIN HARRIS: He finishes up that paragraph saying,

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.

DR. CRAIG: And that's not what's going on here. 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.

KEVIN HARRIS: Continuing, “Craig's claim that theism entails intentionality is not an explanation, but just another assertion.”

DR. CRAIG: Now, notice that I don't say that theism entails intentionality; though I think that it does because if God exists, God thinks about things and so obviously intentionality would be entailed by theism. But that's not the point here. The point rather is that 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.

KEVIN HARRIS: Continuing, he says,

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?

DR. CRAIG: Let's stop there. How could it not have intentional states? If an infinite mind exists, or if God exists, he would have intentional states about himself, about the world. I think here the question would be how could it fail to have intentional states?

KEVIN HARRIS: Then he goes off on another question. He says, “And how can a disembodied mind exist?”

DR. CRAIG: That’s a separate issue. If he wants to raise that then he's free to do so and can argue that the idea of an unembodied consciousness or mind is impossible. But I'd like to see the argument. That's an argument for another day.


And doesn't Craig always argue that actual infinites are impossible... which would render an "infinite mind" nothing more than an abstraction?

DR. CRAIG: That's a non sequitur. When I argue against the existence of actual infinities, I'm talking about quantitative infinities, that is to say, a collection that contains an actually infinite number of definite and discrete elements like an infinite set of numbers. But when one talks about God and his infinity, one is speaking of infinity in a qualitative sense. One means that God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, eternal, perfectly good, and these aren't quantitative concepts. So it's simply inapplicable.

KEVIN HARRIS: He wraps up his essay saying,

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!"

DR. CRAIG: That just is a misrepresentation. The argument is, as Rosenberg and I agree, if God does not exist then intentional states of consciousness would not exist. The second premise is “but intentional states of consciousness do exist.” 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. I'm thinking about Rosenberg's argument, for example, and therefore it follows logically that therefore God exists. So there's nothing magical about this. It's saying that given the truth of those two premises the existence of God follows as a logical implication.

KEVIN HARRIS: OK. He says one more thing.

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?

DR. CRAIG: I'm not clear that I'm saying that life requires supernatural intervention. What I'm saying is that the existence of intentional states of consciousness fit better into a theistic worldview than they do into a naturalistic worldview. That seems to me to be quite evident. On naturalism, there shouldn't be (or can’t be) any intentional states at all, but on theism – theism, as I say, entails there are intentional states because God is a mental entity and therefore it is just no problem to say that there could also be finite entities. How these are created or came to be is not germane to the argument. That is a further question that theists are open to explore.[2]


[2]           Total Running Time: 16:55 (Copyright © 2019 William Lane Craig)