Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Flew: Basic Limiting Principles

The recent passing of Anthony Flew led me to pull a book off my shelf that had sat there, unread, for some time: Atheistic Humanism. I had tried to read it some years ago, but hadn't found it compelling enough to continue. Reading it today, I still find myself wondering how someone who is saying things so obvious could become so famous. But, having experienced many Internet discussions in the meantime, some arguments seem to stand out enough to be worth repetition.

For instance: Flew (crediting a 1949 paper by C. D. Broad) calls attention to the "basic limiting principles" [which he abbreviated BLPs: I detest abbreviations, so will write it out instead]. These are more "familiar and more fundamental than any of the named laws of physics." An example (mine, not Flew's): an object, dropped from rest, falls toward the earth, not away from it. This is a matter of everyday experience, and one need not know General Relativity, or even Newton's inverse square law, to appreciate it. But here's Flew himself:

Suppose, for instance, that there has been yet another security leak in Washington.... Then everyone, or almost everyone, assumes that some hostile agent has had some form of direct or indirect sensory access to the top-secret material that is now secret no longer. It never seriously enters most people's heads that that material might have been telepathically or clairvoyantly read by an agent who at no time came within normal sensory range. That information can be acquired without the employment of the normal senses is thus precluded by a basic limiting principle.

Suppose, again, that there had actually been an explosion in the nuclear power station at Three Mile Island. No one, or almost no one, would have suggested that this might have been a case of sabotage by psychokinesis. 

Atheists (Flew notes) are often accused of naturalistic dogmatism. According to these critics, atheists choose a starting point that rules out the supernatural. Theists, being more open-minded, allow the possibility of supernatural explanation. But Flew responds:

Yet it is simply grotesque to complain, in the absence of any such decisive falsifying evidence, that these appeals to the basic limiting principles and the named laws of established physics are exercises in a priori dogmatism. For what "a priori" means is prior to and independent of experience. But in both these kinds of cases [i.e., the insider leak and the nuclear explosion quoted above] we have an enormous mass of experience supporting our present beliefs and our present incredulities.

If your car won't start, who do you take it to? The mechanic, on the assumption that there is a mechanical or electrical problem, or the priest, on the assumption that it is infested with demons and needs exorcism? Our actions prove that we - theists and atheists alike - make the naturalistic assumption all the time. It is an assumption based, not on dogma, but on a wealth of collective experience: the basic limiting principles.


  1. What is often missing from discussions about materialist vs supernatural explanations is that the idea of supernatural may be so vague as to be incoherent. This might be a fringe view but I see materialism as incorporating everything that exists -- since when new phenomena are discovered they get incorporated into the scientific materialist view even if they're not particles (eg. Maxwell's introduction of electromagnetic fields as a fundamental non-particle feature of the materialist world). So it may not even be an assumption but a necessity until such a time as someone makes a conceptual case for the supernatural.

    Paul Almond has the best version of this argument that I've seen: http://www.paul-almond.com/Supernatural.htm

  2. Yes, whenever I think about the question, "What would make me believe in the supernatural?" I end up thinking along the same lines as you. If someone had real, repeatable psychokinetic powers, you could investigate them naturalistically, and it would end up being a new realm of naturalistic science.

    I suppose if there were consistent reports of people having common experiences (visions, etc.) but WITHOUT any physical manifestation (photos and tape recordings show nothing), then you might be tempted to posit some sort of supernatural explanation. I say "consistent", because these sorts of mass hallucinations do happen, and we tend to give them a psychological explanation rather than a supernatural one - at least atheists do.

    A while back, Sean Carroll wrote a piece on Cosmic Variance in which he said (I'm paraphrasing) that if we saw unrepeatable phenomena - different things happening when the SAME conditions apply - then we could conclude that something supernatural was going on. I wrote a comment that, in that case, the supernatural had been scientifically proven, because quantum mechanics satisfies Carroll's requirements. (I don't think he ever replied to my comment.)