Pedagogy of Philosophy: Critiquing Robert Stainton and Andrew Brooks’ (Argument?) against Personal Immortality

“What is decisive against Christianity is our taste, no longer our reasons.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

“Continental philosophy tends to be obscure, imprecise, and emotive”

William Lane Craig

This essay seeks to explore and explain important aspects of a responsible pedagogy of philosophy. By ‘responsible pedagogy of philosophy’, I mean a methodology of teaching philosophy which respects the respective thinkers and ideas in question, and which uses philosophy as a device for wisdom (entailing fair representation of both sides of an argument as well as knowing and citing relevant literature). In this paper, I want to elucidate and explain why teaching philosophy entails responsibilities, what those responsibilities are and why it matters. To schematize and explain my argument, I will explore the responsibility of the philosopher in teaching philosophy by sharing my intuitions regarding Robert Stainton and Andrew Brooks’ (hereafter just ‘Stainton’) Knowledge and Mind: A Philosophical Introduction (2011), a recent introductory work to epistemology and the philosophy of mind. I will focus on their section 8 “Immortality Again: Can We Look Forward to Life after Death?” (pgs. 126-133). While my analysis is limited to this section, I hope important and helpful insights are explicit through exploring pedagogical tactics and their respective implications. Having explored this section, I will conclude that a responsible pedagogy of philosophy must not begin with unjustified, ignorant and unwarranted presuppositions; if this is not the standard to which a pedagogy of philosophy is held, philosophy is apt to miss its proper object—truth.

Section 8 “Immortality Again: Can We Look Forward to Life after Death?”, begins with an important note: “We will end this chapter by considering an issue that motivates many people to care about whether the mind is or is not simply processes in matter.” (p. 126) [1]. Presumably, the theory is that the psychological question of motivations concerning the physical/non-physical status of mind leads into deeper philosophical considerations concerning whether or not it really matters. So, Stainton raises one question (8) which turns into a further question (9) to which they purport to have an answer: “(8) Can (and will) we continue to exist after the death of the body?…(9) Can (and will) I continue to exist as me after the death of my body?” (p. 126-127). The answer given to this question is as follows: “One of our two conclusions will be that there’s little evidence that the answer is ‘Yes’, little evidence for an afterlife. Our other conclusion (you might call it our big conclusion) will be that, surprisingly, having little hope of a life after the death of our body shouldn’t be very upsetting.” (p. 127). Thus, Stainton professes two conclusions, (1) there is little evidence of an afterlife and (2) no life after death isn’t upsetting. At first glance, it seems hasty to move from considerations of epistemology and philosophy of mind to questions of life after death. No doubt Stainton’s response to this would be to say that without an immaterial mind (or soul, ego or what have you), there couldn’t metaphysically possibly be an afterlife; but this is simply false. Peter van Inwagen is a Christian philosopher who believes that human beings are just material objects. The truth of van Inwagen’s view is irrelevant; the point is that not one piece of literature on Christian materialism is cited. Another interesting note would be concerning (2). It seems that even if Stainton is right, it has absolutely nothing to do with the philosophical question of the ontology of life after death. Whether or not life after death is bad, morally neutral or good, seems to be irrelevant to the ontology of life after death (which is the first, fundamental question which should be asked here). So, Stainton must provide good reasons to think life after death does not exist, and further that life after death is really not something worth having. Stainton’s first claim is a necessary condition for answering the second; even if life after death was not worth having, that does nothing to change the ontology of it.

I will now begin by making explicit the methodology of Stainton here: “Here’s the plan. We will present two different arguments, each of which tries to show that there is life after death. Neither of these arguments works very well…But things are worse than that for the afterlife proponent. For there are several compelling reasons for thinking that there is no life after death.” (p. 127). I shall now make these arguments manifest and explain why they are important to a pedagogy of philosophy. The first argument for the afterlife is as follows:

Premise 1 If life truly ends at death, then life ultimately has no meaning
Premise 2 It would be awful if life ultimately had no meaning.
Conclusion Therefore, life does not end at death.” (p. 127)

This is an immensely weak argument. Indeed, with an argument this weak it is no wonder Stainton thinks that the afterlife proponent has come to a false conclusion. But, the question arises, is this the strongest argument for the afterlife? My answer, and I suspect most philosophers—especially analytic philosophers of religion—recognize, is that this is a terrible argument for the afterlife. While Stainton shows how this argument fails (invalid, argument from hope, subject to counter-examples), he has failed to recognize that this is not a fair representation of the views of the proponents of the afterlife since he has not presented the strongest argument in favor of the afterlife (nowhere near it, in fact). In testing any theory, the goal is to answer the strongest, not weakest objections to it. To present a bad argument and pull it apart is pedagogically dangerous; the impression Stainton gives is that anyone advocating the afterlife argues along these lines (which is simply false). Having dealt with pedagogical problems here (that of representation and its importance), P1 is critiqued by Stainton too [2].

Stainton says the following about P1: “Though P1 may look plausible at first glance, in the end it’s not so obvious at all. To see this, ask yourself why exactly must life continue to exist after the death of the body if it is to have any meaning. Couldn’t life’s meaning derive from the 75-odd years that the body is alive? Or couldn’t the source of meaning be one’s fellows and one’s achievements during this life? Unless there’s a good answer to these questions, P1 is also questionable.” (p. 127). This critique is not promising. Here are two reasons why. First, the questions Stainton raises, while important, have been answered elsewhere [3]. Stainton, in citing no literature on the topic, leaves the reader without much to work with. From his analysis, one might conclude that no one has answered—or even attempted to answer—these questions. So, as Stainton says that “those who endorse life after death have the burden of proof” (p. 127), so Stainton must provide justification for any alternative theory of meaning (which he has not). His skepticism, though, against the possibility of life’s meaning being grounded in the afterlife, seems to me to be a confession of ignorance. Secondly, however, Stainton has not distinguished subjective from objective meaning, an analytic distinction which clears up much of his worries about meaning and what constitutes it.

The second argument for life after death is as follows:

Premise 1 If you cannot even imagine something, then it doesn’t really exist.
Premise 2 You cannot even imagine the death of your own mind.
Conclusion Therefore, your mind never dies.” (p. 128)

This argument, too, is terrible [4]. Stainton spends close to two pages explaining why this argument does not work; in my view, this, again, shows how important it is to make the objection against one’s own views or arguments as strong as possible. Given the weakness of this argument I will spend no time talking about it; I will merely note that it is important to represent an opponent as the opponent really is. To summarize so far: Stainton has shown weak arguments for the afterlife proponent and has thus made the elementary fallacy of straw man; the lesson to be learned here is that in teaching philosophy, one must (i) present an opponent’s arguments as strongly as possible and (ii) cite relevant literature (especially for an introductory class). Now I want to share two arguments Stainton gives in favor of there being no life after death.

Stainton gives two arguments for there being no life after death. The first is from dualism being a necessary condition for life after death and the second that no life after death is not that bad. Let us begin with the first argument. Stainton writes as follows: “some philosophers have concluded that the human mind is essentially embodied. That is, the human mind is radically unlike, say, the mind of pure intellect that some theorists would assign to God.” (p. 130). I want to make two notes here. First, the term ‘essential’ is a technical term which I want to elaborate on. In the Aristotelian sense [5], an ‘essential property’ is one such that the being in question would fail to exist in the absence of that property (whereas an accidental property is one such that the being in question can lose the property and continue to exist as essentially the same thing). So, Stainton’s claim is that the human mind, in the absence of a physical body, would fail to exist. But, is not clear nor an established fact (far from it) that the human mind is essentially embodied. There are good arguments which suggest that the human mind is not embodied, but is temporarily in conjunction with a physical body [6]. Secondly, Stainton misses the fact that although a Divine mind and a human mind are different, if a Divine Mind exists (say, God), then the human mind, in being made by God, is probably constructed so as to be temporarily in conjunction with a physical body (since God has ordained the fate of His creatures to be heaven, hell or (temporarily) purgatory—in Catholic teaching). Since Stainton takes as axiomatic “the human mind could not exist without the body” (p. 130), the rest of his argument is what follows from that (and since we have good reason to think his metaphysical axiom is false, the rest of his argument does not work) (p. 132) [7].

Lastly, Stainton ends the chapter with the following consideration: “We end by considering whether this is such an awful conclusion [that there is no life after death]. First, an obvious point: it might be boring to live forever…death sometimes ends great suffering, whether physical pain or mental depression or something else.” (p. 132) Stainton here presents an argument which is plainly ignorant of contemporary literature on this topic. For instance, in William Lane Craig’s works, he lays out the necessary and sufficient conditions for objective meaning: personal immortality and God. Stainton is correct if his argument is that without God, a long and continuous life does not constitute meaning. But, if Stainton is saying even if God existed and life was infinitely long, then he has inherently failed to interact with good reasons think that God and an infinitely long life are constitutive of objective meaning. Secondly, though, just because death ends great suffering does not mean death is good, any more than sleeping 24 hours a day is good because the troubles and anxieties of the real world are tough to deal with. Indeed, many sufferings only make sense in light of eternity and not mere death—indeed, suffering becomes a trivial, meaningless and brute fact of human existence without eternity (but, any further commentary on this lies beyond the scope of this paper and so I will not digress into it here). So, Stainton has not provided good reasons to think that eternity would be boring. Continuing, Stainton goes on to respond to the person who says that death is really bad because it is scary. He says that since “the time before birth was not awful…you should not expect the time after death to be awful” and that since death is the cessation of oneself entirely, after death is nothing and so “you cannot reasonably be afraid of nothing.” (p. 132). Even if Stainton is correct here, which I doubt, one must recognize that the question of “attitudes towards death” promotes an emotionalism which is not truth-conducive. Even if death was better than eternity, it says nothing of ontology. Indeed, if there is eternity which a loving God has constructed for His children, the probability of eternity being a wonderful place (as should be expected), is significantly high even in the face of competing reasons to think that no life after death is preferable. Put otherwise, one should think of the probability of hypotheses relative to evidence and background information (as Bayes’ probability theorem suggests), since in the dark—so to speak—it might seem that some hypothesis is correct (until more information is given). By this, I mean to say that the question “what is preferable, an afterlife or no afterlife?” becomes different based on what the truth of the matter is. If God does not exist, an afterlife would not be preferable; if God does exist, an afterlife is preferable; unless there is some defeater for thinking that God and immortality are constitutive of objective meaning, the question “If God exists, is an afterlife worth having?” seems to be a deep, metaphysical and theological question which is fairly simple—yes.

Stainton’s conclusion is that “there is insufficient evidence to justify belief in the afterlife” and therefore “we should not believe in it.” (p. 133) The problem that is manifest is plainly methodological naturalism. In doing philosophy, Stainton has presupposed the naturalism (or atheism) which begets different answers to deep, philosophical questions. In an introductory philosophy book, such as this one, the axioms which one holds ought to be made clear—or more clear—and explicit, and the opposing side should be represented fairly and as strong as possible (even if the arguments are, indeed, bad). But, in Knowledge and Mind, it is methodological naturalism borne out of ignorance which is at work. Citing literature on controversial issues is an important and necessary part of an introduction to philosophy; without it, the reader becomes trapped by the knowledge of the author. Further, though, if the student is uncritical—which an introduction to philosophy is supposed to fix—it is very likely that the conclusions of the author become the conclusions of the student (since the student is inherently—or possibly inherently—limited by the author). Further still, in order to cite the relevant literature, one must know the relevant literature. I suspect that if Stainton consulted the relevant literature (from substance dualists, Christian materialists and other analytic philosophers of religion and mind), the introductory book would be much more apt at serving as a fairly represented introduction to philosophy of mind and epistemology. Pedagogy of philosophy entails responsibilities; an honest pursuit after truth should be without bias and prejudice; most importantly, though, it should be without ignorance [8].

[1] Instead of footnoting each citation from Stainton’s text, after quoting his text I will leave just the page number (with ‘p.’ preceding it). If there is a footnote, it is (i) to make a note or (ii) to cite other literature. I will give the reference to Stainton’s work here. Robert Stainton and Andrew Brooks, Knowledge and Mind: A Philosophical Introduction (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The MIT Press, 2000). Print.
[2] For instance, see William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd edition (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books), Chapter 2 “De Homine”.
[3] See the reference from Footnote 2.
[4] Has any philosopher in the history of philosophy given this argument? I suspect not—but I am open to being mistaken here.
[5] I encourage those acquainted with Aristotle to correct me if I am wrong on my diagnosis of Aristotle’s conception of essential/accidental properties.
[6] J.P Moreland and Alvin Plantinga are, in my view, the most prominent defenders of this view. See Moreland’s Consciousness and the Existence of God (New York, NY: Routledge, 2008), Chapter 2; see also Plantinga’s essay “Against Materialism” Faith and Philosophy 23, no. 1 (2006): 3-32.
[7] Stainton does mention an argument against thinking that there is no personal continuity from before death to the afterlife (which does not rely on his previous axiom); however, I have dealt with this problem in my unpublished essay entitled “Phenomenological or Ontological Sameness over Time? A Critical Response to Natasha Germana’s “Experiencing Mortality”” found on my website: https://rashadrehmanca.wordpress.com/2016/03/31/phenomenological-or-ontological-sameness-over-time-a-critical-response-to-natasha-germanas-experiencing-mortality/. Accessed May 19th, 2016.

[8] This philosophical and pedagogical problem of ignorance (in certain respects) is not peculiar to Stainton’s introductory work. Consider just one example from page 84 of Alexander Moseley’s A-Z of Philosophy (the first philosophy book I ever read!). In his section on ‘God’, he says the following: “Other theologians turn to logic to provide God’s existence, seeking to deploy proofs analogous to mathematical proofs that are necessarily true. St. Anselm’s famous ontological argument demands that God exists, because, since there is nothing greater can be thought of as God and since existence is a necessary condition of being perfect (i.e., non-existence would be an imperfection!), then God must exist. But the ontological argument seeks refuge in definitions rather than substantiating God’s existence…[St. Anselm’s ontological argument] is analogous to proving that the internal angles of an Euclidean (two-dimensional) triangle must add up to 180 degrees. A closed definition, no matter how complete, clever or awe-inspiring, it does not equate to an external visible entity. Further work has to be done.” (italics mine). What is revealing about this passage is Moseley’s ignorance of the work that has been done on the ontological argument. His A-Z of Philosophy was written in 2008, implying that he never read the work of Alvin Plantinga (his God, Freedom and Evil (1974), Nature of Necessity (1974) nor his God and Other Minds (1967)). Still worse, he hasn’t even consulted Robert Adams ontological argument (in The Virtue of Faith and Other Essays in Philosophical Theology, 1987) which doesn’t rely on a controversial axiom in the metaphysics of modality (axiom S5) but relies only on the Brouwer axiom. This ignorance—and indeed it is blameworthy given that these works are decades before this introductory book—is pedagogically destructive and ought to be seen as such. To be fair, though, this ignorance is not surprising in contemporary literature (i.e., ignorance of analytic philosophers to those of continentals ref. “History of philosophy” by Alex Pruss: http://alexanderpruss.blogspot.ca/2008/04/history-of-philosophy.html. Accessed July 28th, 2016). (But this one might not be a loss for the analytic side–in my view). Or perhaps even Chris Hallquist’s ignorance of the entirety and depth of Alvin Plantinga’s work. See his “Plantinga’s inexcusable faults (review of Where The Conflict Really Lies)” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/hallq/2012/06/from-the-archivesplantingas-inexcusable-faults-review-of-where-the-conflict-really-lies/. Accessed July 28th , 2016. One wants to ask the question, before writing a philosopher as “an embarrassment to philosophy”, “persistently screwed[ing] up something that academic philosophers nowadays mostly get right: understanding the science before you try to philosophize about it”, have you actually read Plantinga’s work (even Lewis’ original formulation of a rough EAAN to evaluate Plantinga’s exegesis of Lewis’ work? His corpus? One of my favorite philosophers (Patrick Sullivan) once suggested to me–in conversation–that one ought to read the entirety of an author’s corpus to avoid confusion, intellectual pride (in acting like one knows what they don’t of an author) and for genuine and authentic in-depth knowledge of that author. Another mentor to me Bryan Metcalfe suggested something relatively similar–or maybe he didn’t and just read Nietzsche’s corpus for intellectual fulfillment (regardless, I took that lesson from it). In the aforementioned Hallquist post, I so appreciate a comment that was made by “Aaron”: I read Plantiga’s book maybe a month ago and are now looking for critical reviews as I think about the issues. I have say your review really doesn’t seem to me like you have engaged with the substance of the arguments at all. I shall keep looking for other contra Plantiga articles!” It is always refreshing to see critical thinkers on such inaccurate and vociferous posts as Hallquist’s.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s