Reply to Argument IV

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In reply to the argument from uniqueness, it has been argued that contemporary astrophysics and cosmology would not be carried out if Hume's objection were taken seriously.

Big Bang cosmology seems undeterred by the fact that our universe is the only one we experience; moreover, there seems to be little worry about the scientific use of analogies or the appeal to resemblance when it comes to referring to the cosmos as a whole. Richard Swinburne counters the uniqueness objection as follows:

From time to time various writers have told us that we cannot reach any conclusions about the origin or development of the universe, since it is (whether by logic or just in fact) a unique object, the only one of its kind, and rational inquiry can only reach the conclusions about objects which belong to kinds, e.g. it can reach a conclusion about what will happen to this bit of iron, because there are other bits of iron, the behaviour of which can be studied. This objection of course has the surprising, and to most of these writers unwelcome, consequence, that physical cosmology cannot reach justified conclusions about such matters as the size, age, rate of expansion, and density of the universe as a whole (because it is a unique object); and also that physical anthropology cannot reach conclusions about the origin and development of the human race (because, as far as our knowledge goes, it is the only one of its kind). The implausibility of these consequences leads us to doubt the original objection, which is indeed totally misguided. (Swinburne 2004, p. 134)

I suggest that the most promising way to compare accounts of the cosmos is to appeal to such general criteria as explanatory scope, simplicity, compatibility with known science, support form other domains of inquiry including ethics or value theory, philosophy of mind, and so on. An analogy with assessing nonhuman animal mental life may prove helpful.

According to many philosophers, it is reasonable to believe that some nonhuman animals are conscious agents, and yet it is a commonplace observation that none of us will or can directly confirm the existence of nonhuman animal consciousness on the basis of the observation of nonhuman consciousness, anatomy, and behavior. No account of the animal brains and physiology, behavior, and language (or signals) has been accepted as definitive proof. Despite striking similarities to our own organic causes of suffering, and profound analogies with our own behavior when we are in pain, it is still possible to be a skeptic like Bob Bermond, who argues that animal emotions and behavior all occur without any conscious feeling (see Bermond 1997). Bermond reasons that in the case of humans, conscious feeling is correlated with certain brain states (a fully formed prefrontal cortex and right neocortex) not found among nonhuman animals. Because of this missing correlation and given the possibility that animals lack consciousness, we should not posit animal consciousness. In my view, this is a rationally defensible position, but in the wake of such profound analogies between human and nonhuman anatomy and behavior, it is more reasonable to believe that what appear to be symptoms of conscious suffering in great apes, chimps, dolphins, and many other animal species are the result of actual suffering. Bermond, for his part, has no positive reason for believing that conscious feeling occurs if - and only if - there is such and such brain developments. With support absent for such a strong claim, I think the reasonable stance is to accept that there is some nonhuman animal consciousness (Rollin 1990). To settle this debate (if it can be settled) would require a lengthy book of its own. Rather than establish my preferred position, my more modest point is that the debate over animal consciousness can and should take place, even though the debate would be undermined by Hume's objection about uniqueness. We are not in a position in which we can compare nonhuman animals, some of whom we know to be conscious and others not. Bernard does not recognize an uncontroversial case of nonhuman consciousness to get such a comparative study under way. But debate need not end. Which account does the best job in terms of explanatory power and what we know independently in terms of evolutionary history, and so on? A similar concern for scope and explanatory power befits the theism-naturalism debate.

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