Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Vampire Gods …

April 19, 2014

There’s a fairly common atheist argument that goes like this: You don’t believe that things like leprechauns, unicorns, vampires or werewolves exist (presumably because you consider them to be extraordinary and don’t have sufficient evidence to believe that they exist) and in fact believe that they don’t exist. But, then, God is extraordinary and you don’t have any better evidence to believe in God than you do in those things. So why do you believe God exists?

The problem with this is that they misunderstand why most people don’t believe in things like vampires. They always present it as being the result of some kind of intellectual examination of the evidence, but almost no one — not even those rationalist (whatever they mean by rationalist) atheists — actually do that. Why, then, do I and most people not only not believe that vampires exist, but in fact believe that vampires don’t exist?

Because we inherit the societal belief that vampires are fictional and don’t exist.

Everything we learn about vampires includes the fact that they are fictional. Movies and books present them as real … in a fictional world. Our enjoyment of those books and movies comes from us immersing ourselves in that fictional world … and then returning to a world where believing they exist is at best an aftereffect from a great and frightening work. Anyone who maintains belief in the idea that vampires exist is ridiculed and then likely “treated”, because according to society those things simply don’t exist, and you’re stupid to think they do exist. Thus, we inherit a strong, cultural belief in their non-existence, and that’s why we come to believe that they don’t exist.

God is, in general, the inverse. Most societies believe overwhelmingly in some sort of God, even those that claim to be non-religious. We are taught that God exists by society, and so we accept that belief in the same way that we accept the belief that vampires don’t exist. Thus, if we are justified in believing that vampires don’t exist, then we are justified, in general, in believing that God exists, because they are justified by the same method.

Thus, the atheist argument proves the inverse: that if you think you’re justified in believing that vampires don’t exist, why don’t you think that that justifications applies to believing that God does exist? I mean, it’s a bad argument, but why don’t atheists use their bad argument the way it actually works when it comes to God and the justification for the various beliefs? Likely, it’s because of a great failing in common discourse: no one knows what knowledge or justification or even beliefs mean anymore, because they won’t look at philosophical epistemology but also won’t take the time to build a consistent epistemology of their own.

And that’s sad.

Intellectual Flag on the Play on Jerry Coyne …

April 19, 2014

Jerry Coyne has been reading David Bentley Hart’s book “The Experience of God”. He now says he’s finished it, but it’s debatable whether or not he’s actually ever reviewed it; he clearly doesn’t think much of it ( as I predicted would be the case ) but it’s hard to say whether he’s done any actual review of it yet, because besides one post for certain and maybe another one buried somewhere, he hasn’t talked about the book itself on its own; he’s slipped little shots into other posts talking about other people.

But he just kinda added one today where he replies to an unnamed and unlinked theologian, who is clearly not me:

A riled-up theologian, whom I shall neither name or link to, has written a diatribe about my remarks on David Bentley Hart’s book: The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. This theologian says that I’ve completely misunderstood the book, which was, as Hart claimed, to distill the essence of God from all faiths, and not to give evidence for that God. The captious theologian says that Hart spends only a very small portion of his book giving evidence for God.

That’s bogus.

So, for some reason, Coyne doesn’t want to link the post or even name the author, so that we can go and read the actual “diatribe” to make sure of two things:

1) That he says what Coyne says he says.
2) That he didn’t anticipate Coyne’s arguments and demonstrate that, yes, Hart really did only spend a small portion of the book giving evidence for God.

This is the intellectual flag on the play. If you are going to criticize someone’s arguments, you never, ever, ever, ever set it up so that people cannot easily go and make certain that people can read the other side, and make sure they know what the other person is indeed saying or trying to argue. I’ve seen this intellectual sin frequently from a lot of posters, often “justified” by a claim that they don’t want to give them hits from their (presumably) much more popular blogs/sites. At which point, the obvious answer is that if you cared that much about that you shouldn’t talk about them at all. There is absolutely no reason not to link and name anyone that you are talking about, and especially those that you are criticizing unless you are afraid that if you linked to their posts people actually reading them would see that they’re right and you’re wrong. And no one supposedly dedicated to reason and intellect should ever fear that.

For the record, I think the post Coyne’s referring to is by Matt Briggs, and the link to the article is here.

Now, if you read my review, you’ll note that my complaint with the book was that it didn’t spend enough time advancing evidence for the existence of God or showing how you can get to a specific God from his general view of God, but instead focused more on attacking naturalism. When Coyne was simply saying that Hart did indeed advance at least some evidence for the existence of God, there wasn’t any serious quarrel there. But in this post he says this:

Most of the book is in fact devoted to adducing such evidence, which resides in the existence of consciousness, rationality, mathematics, our search for truth, our love of beauty, and the Fact that There is Something Instead of Nothing. And when he’s not adducing this “proof”, Hart’s making fun of those who claim that these phenomena can be based on naturalism. But none of them, argue Hart, can be explained by science, ergo God. (We never learn how Hart concludes “Ergo Jesus and my own Eastern Orthodox Faith.”)

To claim that most of the book is adducing evidence for God seems quite false to me, unless you consider trying to disprove naturalism as adducing evidence for the existence of God. Which, of course, it isn’t; proving that option A isn’t true isn’t a way to prove that option B is true, unless those are the only two options … and all atheists should be quite familiar with arguments that say that even if naturalism is false, that wouldn’t mean God in any way. Hart, at best, says that a naturalistic explanation won’t work, and if a naturalistic claim won’t work, then we certainly can’t rule out God on the basis that God is supernatural and we need a natural explanation. But there is indeed very little time spent on evidence for the existence of God, and Briggs is quite right to point out that Hart’s main goal does seem to be to outline what God means to the classical theist, as opposed to the modern view of God. The main reason for this is to note that objections to the modern conception of God are not objections to the classical view of theism … and since most of Coyne’s commenters, at least, are raising objections that the classical theist God isn’t vulnerable to that would seem to be a worthy ambition.

How does Coyne try to demonstrate that Hart is spending most of his time adducing evidence for God? He, uh, quotes one page. Out of 300. Supposedly, he’s trying to demonstrate that Hart’s really trying to argue that Bliss, Consciousness and Being are not only evidence for God, but that God is identical to them, which somehow leads to pantheism (see the third part of my review; it doesn’t). Except that even in that quote, Hart is not arguing that that’s the case, but is essentially describing that as the case. That’s not adducing evidence for God. As Coyne’s commenters — and Coyne himself — will gleefully point out. It’s not exactly consistent to refuse to accept Hart’s and Briggs’ insistence that Hart isn’t trying to provide evidence for God’s existence by pointing out things that one can indeed logically argue don’t actually provide evidence for God, because they aren’t good arguments — or, rather, they aren’t arguments at all. You can’t on the one hand deny their claim that they aren’t trying to argue for God’s existence and insist that they are while on the other hand saying that these are invalid arguments. If they weren’t trying to make arguments for the existence of God, the claims being invalid or just assertions or assumptions or definitions is only to be expected, and isn’t a criticism of them. Or, to put it better, when someone says that they aren’t making arguments for the existence of God you don’t get to point to bad arguments to prove that they are; they likely know that they’re not good arguments, which is why they aren’t trying to make arguments using them.

Is Briggs clear in demonstrating that Hart wasn’t really adducing evidence? I invite you to determine that yourself. Which you can do because I included the link to his post, and you can also check to see if I’m interpreting Coyne and his commenters right by looking at the links I provided to Coyne’s posts. Coyne didn’t see fit to do that for Briggs, which is, to my mind, one of the most intellectually dishonest and uncharitable things you can do. I was already immediately clicking on any post Coyne cited just to make sure that he was interpreting them correctly and reasonably; leaving them out is not likely to make me think that process less reasonable. In fact, quite the inverse, as the only reason to do that is because you don’t want people to read what they said, but if that’s the case there seems no reason for you to comment on them at all … unless you know you’re getting them wrong. I don’t think Coyne is indeed really thinking that, leaving his leaving out the link utterly unreasonable.

The “Best” Defense …

April 8, 2014

Cuttlefish has recently put up a post titled In Defense Of The “Village Atheist”. The post is ostensibly a defense of “village atheists” as talked about in this post by Randal Rauser. The problem is that it doesn’t seem to actually criticize what it says in any way, and seems to be equivocating on the term “village atheist” in its own criticisms. Now, to start, we need to see how Rauser is using the term “village atheist”, because he is using it in a slightly different way than the norm but is actually very clear about it:

First, a word on terminology. So far as I can see, the term “village atheist” was first popularized in the 19th century to refer to an atheistic individual within a religious community who vocally (and provocatively) expresses his/her dissent from the religious consensus of the community. For example, G.K. Chesterton identified Thomas Hardy as a village atheist (see Kevin Taylor, Hans Urs Von Balthasar and the Question of Tragedy in the Novels of Thomas Hardy, p. 168).

However, in more recent literature the meaning of the term has evolved to identify a type of popular atheism that is often brash in presentation and lacks critical nuance. (In other words, minority status within a wider religious community is no longer essential to the term.) One sees this use in Peter van Inwagen, The Problem of Evil, p. 178 when Inwagen juxtaposes the unlettered popular opinions of the “village atheist” over against the more sophisticated opinions of the “atheist”. In this article I will be using the term “village atheist” in the broad sense used by Inwagen.

So, Rauser makes it clear that while the original term referred to an atheist who merely was vocal about their atheism, the sort he’s talking about here is the sort of “village atheism” that Inwagen talks about. He points out clearly that by this, the “village” descriptor doesn’t require someone to be a minority anymore, which immediately means that it could apply to Christians as well who are brash but also lacking in critical nuance. From this, Rauser says repeatedly that, yes, you can have “village Christians” as well.

Which then makes Cuttlefish’s defense seem rather odd, even putting aside the fact that it doesn’t seem like a defense at all. After noting that he couldn’t find terms for “village Christian” on Google — which makes sense since as Rauser notes the “village atheist” usage is new — he says this:

And that’s because “the village X” is a designated minority role. It’s a way of othering, of dismissing with a label, of designating someone to be both part of the village and apart from the village.

Well, sure, in the original usage, but Rauser is, again, very clear that that isn’t the usage he’s using. He’s using it in a sense that applies beyond minority status. Did Cuttlefish simply not read the parentheses, or even that section where Rauser talks about specifically how he’s using it? Because by that usage, this comment doesn’t apply.

He then talks about “village Christians”, and walks into the equivocation:

We have village atheists because we have people who are eager to speak up, but not terribly well versed in the topic they are speaking of. We have a great many more Christians who are eager to speak up, but not terribly well versed in the topic they are speaking on (we don’t have to look far). These are not “village Christians”, though–they are wholeheartedly welcomed members of the community. They are the village. It is not the fact that someone doesn’t have all the facts that makes them the “village atheist”; it is the fact that they are the atheist.

The first part does indeed relate to how Rauser is using the term. But when he goes to deny that you can have “village Christians”, he ignores that those are the traits that Rauser is using to define “village atheist” and “village Christian”, and instead says that those Christians that fit Rauser’s definition aren’t really “village Christians” because of the original meaning of the term, despite the fact that Rauser is abundantly clear that he’s using the more recent meaning and is actually using that definition completely consistently throughout the entire post.

This is why I wonder where the actual “defense” of the “village atheist” is here. The only way he could be defending the “village atheist” is by claiming that “village atheist” doesn’t actually mean what Rauser says it is, and so “village atheists” aren’t really atheists that are eager to speak up but aren’t terribly well versed in the topic they are speaking of, but instead apply broadly to any atheist that is eager to speak up, or that even speaks up at all. But while Cuttlefish might be correct that that is the normal or common meaning of the term, that’s clearly not how Rauser means it. Cuttlefish, then, is defending a “village atheist” that Rauser is not attacking.

Now, a counter might be that this is a problem with Rauser, in that he’s using the term wrong or is wrong to “broaden” it as he claims it does (I think he narrows it myself, but that’s neither here nor there). The first problem with that counter is that Rauser himself is consistent; he is not equivocating on the term in any way that I can see. But, one can protest, that at least _I_ call broadening the term “science” — ie using a non-standard definition of science in arguments — as being a form of scientism, and have called Jerry Coyne out on using his uncommon definition of “science” in an argument. The difference, though, is that in the cases of scientism generally I accuse them or broadening or narrrowing the definition to suit their argument — which is equivocation — or in the case of Coyne taking someone’s point where they are using the common definition of science, taking that out and using the less common definition of science, and then using that to argue that their point is wrong because by the less common definition of science the point doesn’t hold — ignoring that they weren’t using that definition and so the point attacked is not their point. Here, it is Cuttlefish who is translating the word to a definition that Rauser is not using to make his point and then declaring the point invalid; Rauser himself is clear and consistent in his usage. Thus, in the other examples, the person I am criticizing is equivocating, while in this case Rauser isn’t equivocating but Cuttlefish is. So there doesn’t seem to be a problem with Rauser here … or, at least, not one that Cuttlefish has pointed out yet.

In summary, Rauser is using a non-standard definition of “village atheist” but is clear that he is doing so and consistent in that, even down to saying that by that definition you can indeed definitely have “village Christians”, even though he implies that the common or original definition of the term doesn’t allow for that. Cuttlefish, on the other hand, ignores that completely to attack Rauser using a definition that Rauser is not actually using, and that Cuttlefish seems to acknowledge and them move away from. As a defense of “village atheist”, it either defends the wrong target or isn’t a defense at all.

On Analogies

April 7, 2014

One comment at P.Z. Myers’ post on the Colbert thing hits my annoyance over how some people treat and argue against analogies. Here’s the comment from Kichae almost in full:

One of the things that has gone completely ignored in almost everything I’ve read on this is that racism has context, and the context of anti-Asian racism is different from the context of anti-Black racism is different from anti-Native American racism. It’s all racism, but the historical context can vary wildly depending on against whom someone is being racist against. Yes, there are many, many simularities, and the underlying goal is to dehumanize entire groups of people in order to justify the continued poor treatment of them by the socially dominant culture, but there are devils in those details.

In North America, anti-Black racism carries the context of having been used to justify slavery. Anti-Asian racism comes with the baggage of having been used to justify internment camps and their “expendability” as general labourors during the American and Canadian expansion west. Anti-Indian racism has been used to justify colonialism and the continued colonization of Indian territories.

By equating anti-Asian racism with anti-Indian racism, Colbert and his staff effectively equated the contexts of anti-Asian racism and anti-Indian racism, and they’re no more equivalent than the contexts of anti-Black racism and anti-Arab racism.

I can’t, and won’t even bother to pretend to try, to speak for the first peoples of the US, but here in Canada one of the larger goals of our First Nations is, and has been for a long time now, cultural and legal quasi-independence. They’re looking to be respected, but they’re not necessarily looking for seamless social inclusion. They want their rights, and their lands, and their cultures back. They’re a colonized people with others from all over the world squatting on their lands, and they want that fact recognized. You can’t say the same thing about people of Asian descent in North America, or people of European or African descent. Canada’s indigenous population isn’t just looking for equal footing and equal opportunity. It’s also looking to have its legal autonomy recognized, and having their lands recognized as states-within-a-state.

If any of that is true for the US’s indigenous populations, all of that is being completely washed over.

The complaint here seems to be that if Colbert and his staff are using that as some kind of analogy — and in the satire case they are highlighting the absurdity but are indeed claiming doing that is analogous to what Snyder did — then they are making the two cases equivalent, which can only mean the same in every way that’s important. But there are important or meaningful differences between the two cases. Therefore, the analogy is a bad one and they shouldn’t have done that, and specifically here it is bad because it washes over important things that need to be addressed at some point.

This is the style of arguing against analogy that is becoming more and more common in Internet discussions, and is an incredibly bad way of doing it: find one difference, point out that difference, and declare victory over the analogy. Except that it doesn’t work that way. No one thinks that when you make an analogy or an argument by analogy that you are claiming that all aspects are the same, or even all meaningful ones. What you are saying is that wrt the specific issue you are talking about, the two cases are similar enough that you can apply a conclusion from one to the other, meaning that if, say, you’d consider the name in one case incredibly stupid, you should consider it incredibly stupid as well. Thus, in order to make an appropriate argument against the analogy by appealing to a difference, you have to show why those differences matter to the topic under discussion, and not just leave it as a difference or point out that it would matter when you were talking about something that you … aren’t talking about right now.

So, looking at the context of Colbert’s comment on Snyder, what about legal autonomy or state-within-a-state or any of that is relevant to the point that you aren’t demonstrating your sensitivity by relying on the exact stereotype that you are being called insensitive over? Surely we can agree that all we need is an insensitive or offensive caricature to make that work, right? Which the example has. So, then, why do all of those differences matter in this case?

‘Cause if we have to have the cases be exactly identical, then the only thing we could make analogies to would be the thing itself … which would make for rather useless analogies.

Colbert, Park and Perspective

April 7, 2014

So, there’s a small bit of controversy going on around Stephen Colbert and a joke he made on his show that got turned into a Tweet on the show’s Twitter account (not his) and then spawned other Tweets and accounts and all sorts of other things like that. Now, I don’t actually watch “The Colbert Report” and so didn’t see it live, and only found out about it because P.Z. Myers talked about it on his blog, and I actually want to comment on one of the comments there because it exhibits an annoying trend that happens to irritate the heck out of me, but first I want to comment on Suey Park’s campaign because I think I can say something about it.

Before I start, I watched her interview with Josh Zepp, but I also want to reference this commentary by Mundane Matt, because even though I think his analysis is a bit shallow and more mockery than actual argument, it contains the complete clip from the show so that we can get the full context of the Tweet.

Anyway, the background is this: there has been a controversy for some time over the name of the Washington Redskins. Dan Snyder, the owner, hasn’t been all that willing to change the name despite protests from various people, including some native groups. However, as you’d see in Mundane Matt’s video, Snyder decided to try to make up for that by creating a foundation called … the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation. After that, Colbert went on a tear talking about a character he had created for the show — which was, the best I can understand it, simply him in “Asian face” — that was an incredibly stereotypical and racist impression of an Asian person called Ching Chong Ding Dong. He pointed out that he had protests about that character and demonstrated with clips just why people would consider that character an offensive stereotype, and lampshaded that by saying “The point is, offensive or not — NOT!” which for a show like Colbert’s is essentially a wink at the camera to say “Yeah, it is”, and then said that to make up for it he was going to start a foundation called the Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever. The Tweet only gave that last part, prefaced by “To promote sensitivity towards Asians” or something like that (I can’t be bothered to look up the exact wording of the Tweet). And all hell broke loose.

Now, I don’t watch Colbert, but I know enough about him and his show that it’s obvious that this was, in fact, satire aimed at Snyder, taking something that everyone would see as an offensive caricature and making an obviously insane name if the foundation was actually supposed to demonstrate more concern and sensitivity towards Asian people. Even the Tweet was pretty obvious, because the name itself lampshades its own stupidity by adding on “or Whatever” at the end. So the whole message, then, is this: if you understand how it would be stupid to claim to be showing sensitivity to Asian people through a foundation that from its very name lacks sensitivity, you ought to be able to see how stupid it is to do that to Natives in Snyder’s case. And it’s hard, then, for me to see what’s wrong with that.

Now Suey Park talks a bit in the interview about that, and there are lots of comments in P.Z. Myers’ post about that. But for the most part, they all devolve into jargon and discussions of how whites shouldn’t make such comments or they need to listen more or they have privilege or … well, lots of stuff like that. But they tend to not really say — at least I don’t seem to grasp them saying — what the actual issue here is.

Now, from my reading and my thinking on the matter, I’m going to come up with a couple of possibilities that might be a problem. Yes, you can argue that this would be someone who is not Asian and is indeed white telling people what should or shouldn’t offend them, but I deny that. Instead, I counter that I’m arguing like a philosopher, trying desperately to charitably and yet rationally come up with reasons for a potentially opposing position so that I can either accept it or argue against it. Philosophical occupational hazard: if people are disagreeing on something, always assume that there are some sensible and rational points on both sides, and generate them yourself if they aren’t forthcoming. But first, I’m gonna tell you a story to start talking about perspective.

A long time ago, one of my better friends was an attractive Asian woman. At one point, I mentioned that I tended to prefer Asian women in terms of looks than some others. She replied with a statement question about a lot of the attraction for a lot of people being the impression that Asian woman were submissive and sexual. To which I replied that I certainly didn’t think that, because I didn’t want someone submissive, as since I had a fairly strong personality I’d run roughshod over any woman I was dating who couldn’t stick up for herself … and I really didn’t want that.

This did not end our friendship, likely because she believed me. But what I realized in remembering the story today is that the reason she might have brought it up was that, as an attractive Asian woman, she had indeed come across people for whom that was indeed the main attraction. This actually happened to her. There was no possible way that I, from my perspective, could know that — especially since the stereotype wasn’t one that I grew up with. But it was something she lived with, and while I didn’t get that then, it was a perspective that I could come to understand and should come to understand.

But on the flip side, if from her perspective it might even have been more likely that that was what the attraction was for me, from my perspective it made no sense. As I tend to comment when the topic comes up, I tend to prefer petite women with long, dark hair. The racial traits of Asian women fit that. If I liked blonds with large breasts, I’d probably find myself more attracted to those of Scandinavian descent. The fact that I considered Asian women preferable for dating — ie I had actual crushes on them more often than some others — was an indication of my lack of racism: their racial traits fit the traits I was looking for, and beyond that their race didn’t matter to me.

So, from her perspective, it might have looked like I was being racist, while from mine I was being the exact opposite.

This is why I hate the term “privilege” and prefer the term “perspective”. We all have a different perspective, which is informed by all sorts of things that happen to us and who we are, including but not limited to race and gender. You can’t assume that you know what things look like from the perspective of other people, even if you claim that they are the majority. Everyone has an individual perspective, coloured by various groupings but not identical to them. Thus, the right approach is to express your perspective and say that “From this angle, this is what it seems like” and be prepared to listen to their perspective and see how it looks from there. While many social justice advocates get the first part for the minority group they are trying to help, they tend to fail at the second part.

So, now, let me try to put on my “other perspectives” cap and see what Park et al could be complaining about here.

The first possibility is one that follows directly from my story above: Park and others are upset because those sorts of stereotypes are stereotypes that they actually encounter in their daily lives. For them, far too many people actually think that these stereotypes are true, and thus it looks like Colbert is relying on the perceived truth of the stereotypes and caricatures to give the humour. This is somewhat consistent with Park, and is the possibility that I’m the most sympathetic to … but it does run into issues when you understand the nature and purpose of satire. The humour here relies on people not thinking that those stereotypes are true; satire generally only works when the satirizing element is something that people would find ridiculous or absurd, and in this case that means that the fictional foundation is using an offensive stereotype. While Park in her comment on satire says that if only racists will get your joke you should rethink it, the key here is that racists — meaning those who think that Asians really are like the stereotype presented — won’t get the joke. They’ll say “What’s wrong with that?” or, at best “It’s funny ’cause it’s true”. But those who don’t think the stereotype holds will actually get the joke and find it funny and, hopefully, learn something about the Snyder case, if they didn’t already agree with that. But there is a discussion to be had here on whether using a common stereotype or caricature can hurt by promoting it as true, or not, and what can be done to allow for that sort of satire while ensuring that it doesn’t end up being an argument that the stereotype is true.

The second possibility is that they understand that Colbert chose that because most people will at least accept Colbert’s version as a complete caricature … but note that in the past it wouldn’t have been. And that those sorts of caricatures caused harm to a lot of Asian people. And that Colbert, then, is using those caricatures as a joke, which means not taking their harm and their pain seriously, minimizing it in the name of humour. Of course, the rejoinder from the other side is that with satire, you aren’t laughing at the stereotyping itself, any more than anyone who read Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” could accuse him of making fun of baby eating and not taking that seriously enough. It’s missing the point of satire to claim that he’s laughing at the caricatures and the harm it causes in that case. The original Ching Chong Ding Dong case? Maybe (I haven’t really seen how he used it in detail to know). But, again, this is something that both sides can talk about … if they can do it without flinging “privilege”, “stupidity”, “political correctness” or “white liberals” into the mix.

Out of these sorts of issues, a mantra emerged: Shut up and listen, meaning “Shut up and listen to the perspective of minorities”. Then some dropped it to “Listen”. I want to change it to “Discuss”, or perhaps “Learn”; listen to others and their personal perspective, discuss that, and come to some conclusions based on that. You might learn something about perspectives that are not yours, no matter your race or gender, and that surely can only be a good thing.

The Problem of Evil: Obsolete?

March 6, 2014

So, “The Problem of Evil” is probably the single atheist/anti-theist argument that’s the most at least intuitively convincing. It’s been brought up again by Jason Rosenhouse here, and while I was pondering why I find the argument less and less probable every time I read discussions of it I suddenly had an insight: The Problem of Evil has been made obsolete in the face of advancing philosophy.

The Problem of Evil was easily justifiable when we could believe that there really existed “evil” in the world, when we thought that we could actually have evil objects in the world. Since God was responsible for creating everything that exists, that meant that if evil things existed either God was responsible for those evil things Himself or, alternatively, that something else put those evil things there and God was powerless to stop it. Neither of these outcomes preserve the tri-omni God. Sure, you could work around it by trying to argue that the existence of evil entities was somehow better, but I don’t blame atheists for finding that unconvincing.

However, the idea that there are actually evil things in the world isn’t particularly credible anymore. Sure, you could get it for things like Satan, demons, and the like, but their existence was never what people were worried about when they talked about The Problem of Evil, and those things were among the more plausible ways out of the problem in the old days (the main issue with these is explaining why God didn’t stop those entities from doing evil or putting it in the world, not with them existing). But as we moved forward and examined both The Problem of Evil and the world, the real issue isn’t about the existence of evil. We don’t think that there really does exist evil, per se, and we don’t think that The Problem of Evil is about evil in the world, but is instead about suffering. Pretty much all modern statements of The Problem of Evil and almost all modern arguments for there being “evil” in the world boil down to there being suffering in the world that it is believed that God could prevent but doesn’t. And if God could stop that suffering and yet doesn’t, then God must be at least uncaring, and likely immoral … especially since we all believe that if we could stop that suffering, we would be morally obligated to do so.

Thus, we may now rename The Problem of Evil to what it is today: The Problem of Suffering. And instead of asking “Why is there evil in the world?”, the modern problem asks “Why is there so much suffering in the world?”

The problem is that under the two main theological takes we can have with at least the Judeo-Christian God — essentially, any religion that includes Genesis — The Problem of Suffering isn’t, in fact, a problem at all.

1) We can take a Biblical perspective on God, starting from Genesis and working our way through to get a God that is supposed to care for us, and yet allows this suffering to continue. Except that if you start from Genesis, we have an explanation for all the suffering in the world, natural and otherwise: the eating of the apple. The punishment for eating the apple is to be ejected from the perfect world into a world that explicitly contains suffering and toil. And since we ended up that way because we disobeyed God, we’d still be capable of disobeying God — and therefore acting immorally — when we leave the Garden. Thus, the answer to why God allows this much suffering in the world is: Because God never promised us a suffering-free life, and in fact promised us one where we did indeed suffer.

Now, you may counter that the Genesis and Adam and Eve story conflicts with modern biology if you take it literally, and has problems for at least Christianity if taken figuratively. That’s true, but the issue of The Problem of Suffering is the least of the problems under those conditions, at least for Christians. If Christians have to drop Original Sin and thus the reason for Jesus’ death and resurrection, there’s almost certainly not enough Christianity left to worry about the disproof from unexplained suffering. So for those who start from the Bible, they have an explanation and if they have to abandon that explanation their religion would be disproven far stronger than The Problem of Suffering could ever disproof it.

2) You start start from classical/Scholastic theism, which is the one that actually justifies the tri-omni God. Except that it justifies the tri-omni God independently of the condition of this world; as seen here, they start from Ground of Being and derive their qualities from that. As long as that argument holds, The Problem of Suffering cannot get a foothold, as if God as they conceive it exists then it is tri-omni and that we think there’s too much suffering in the world just reflects our lack of understanding (and, additionally, is likely simply the result of the world not being the perfect ground of being, and so merely reflects its lack). And if you manage to demolish the Ground of Being argument, then again the classical/Scholastic model has much more serious problems to deal with than worrying about whether or not there’s too much suffering in the world.

Thus, I declare the argument obsolete. Philosophy has moved on past the simplistic “There is evil in the world” interpretation, requiring a move to a “There is too much suffering in the world” argument … but the two main theological tacks that you can take here have no problem with suffering if their fundamental assumptions are correct, and if their fundamental assumptions are incorrect then they are false regardless of whether you could make The Problem of Suffering stick.

Review of “The Experience of God” (Part 3)

February 19, 2014

Well, in this post I’m going to take a stab at explaining what the whole “Ground of Being” argument is, as best I understand it, in a way that hopefully might make it easier for others to understand. Hart and those who hold to classical theism may not thank me for this, as I am quite likely to get major portions of it wrong, but hopefully it can at least be used as a starting point for people to start thinking that, hey, maybe this thing isn’t totally insane, or that they really aren’t attacking what it claims when they attack, say, a notion of God directly causing each object to exist.

Anyway, the problem that classical theism is trying to solve is, well, the explanation of existence. Not the explanation of the existence of any particular object, although that question is related. Not even the explanation of the existence of any existent objects at all, although that’s closer. No, they want a explanation of existence itself. Or, to put it a bit facetiously, why it is that existence exists at all? Why is there existence? When we look at individual objects in the world, we can see that they exist of course, but the question still remains of why they exist. Again, not what directly caused them to exist, and so not a chain of causes back to a specific uncaused cause, but instead what explains their ability to exist and, in some sense, to not exist.

Hart points out that the argument, then, is that of all of the objects that we encounter in the universe, they are all dependent on something that underlies them to explain their actual existence. Again, not the direct cause, but the explanation of them and their existence. And that, the classical theists — and likely Aristotleans — think has to be some sort of something, a something that depends on nothing else to explain its own existence. Thus, it is the Ground of All Being, the thing we appeal to to explain why there is Being at all. Again, not beings, but Being itself.

Now, if the argument stopped at this point a very valid counter would be that that sort of thing doesn’t look a lot like any God concept. But the classical theist position points out that we can know an awful lot of things about what this Ground of Being must be like. To start with, it must be absolutely simple, meaning that it cannot be made up of parts that come together to form the whole. Why? Because if it did contain parts, then the explanation for its existence would consist, at least in part, of the parts coming together, and then you’d have to explain how each part exists, and those parts couldn’t be explained by the Ground of All Being since they, in part, explain the existence of the Ground of All Being, meaning that you hadn’t found the Ground of All Being yet. Additionally, there can be only one Ground of All Being, because if there wasn’t then you’d have two things that purport to explain all of the things that exist … including each other. So that can’t happen. Additionally, the Ground of All Being must be eternal, because if it ever ceased to exist you wouldn’t be able to explain the existence of the things that do exist, and nothing else could take its place.

Still, though, this wouldn’t look a lot like any kind of God, or at least any kind of theist God. Now, here’s where I’m speculating a bit, and here’s where it gets a little complicated, but to my mind it seems to work out like this: Just as all things that exist exist because they share in the existence of the Ground of All Being, every positive property we have we only have because we derive it in some way from the Ground of All Being. Note that here “positive” doesn’t mean “good”, but instead means that it is itself an attribute that we have, and not an attribute that we can be said to have only because we lack some positive attribute. So being able to act in the world, for example, is a positive property because it reflects an actual attribute or potential, but being unable to act in the world is not, as it is merely a lack of being able to act in the world. For every positive attribute, then, the classical theist position is that we get it from sharing in the attribute in the Ground of Being, and so the Ground of Being must have every positive property and, because we share in it to a limited degree, just as we do for existence, it must have it in as infinite proportion as it has existence.

Thus, since knowing is a positive property, the Ground of All Being must know, and know it infinitely. Thus, the Ground of All Being is omniscient. Also, since acting in the world in a positive property, the Ground of All Being must have that ability as well, and have it infinitely. Thus, the Ground of All Being is omnipotent. As intelligence is a positive property, the Ground of All Being is all-intelligent. And all-wise, and all-intentional. If the positive property exists in the world, then we know that the Ground of All Being has that property, and has it infinitely.

This, then, starts to look a lot like the theistic God. But what, then, about morality: is the Ground of All Being all-good? Well, if being moral is a positive property, then it is indeed all-good, and no empirical argument like that of the Problem of Evil can touch it because it is a logical necessity. You’d have to either deny that being good is a positive property, or deny that there exists any being in the world that can be good in even a limited way. Otherwise, the Problem of Evil reflects nothing more than our limited understanding of the good.

But can’t the atheist counter that the same argument for the Ground of Being’s morality can be used to establish its immorality, that it must be infinitely immoral since some of us are indeed immoral? Well, note that in order to make that argument you’d have to claim that being immoral is a positive property, and not merely a lack of some other property. And while it may seem a little odd to claim that being immoral is nothing more than a lack of morality (perhaps combined with some other property, like self-interest) it certainly seems completely and totally wrong to claim that being moral is simply a lack of being immoral. Thus, a strong case can be made that morality is the positive property, and immorality is primarily a lack of morality. And if that’s the case, then the Ground of All Being can be infinitely moral without having to be infinitely immoral as well.

So, then, this Ground of Being looks a lot like the theist God. But is this God comprehensible, or incomprehensible? Does it have anthropomorphic properties, or infinite ones beyond our comprehension? The answer, in fact, is both. Because we only have the properties we have because we share in the ones that the Ground of All Being has, there is indeed an at least conceptual link between our properties and God’s properties; they are not completely distinct from each other. So we can, at least, get some idea of what the properties of God are like by analogy to ours. However, that should not fool us into thinking that if we can just think really, really hard about our own properties, and study them really, really well, we can indeed find out what God’s properties are like. God’s are absolute and infinite, and ours are not, and ours are formed by moving us down the continuum from the infinite first to a finite and then to a flawed representation. We can discover things, again, by analogy, but we must never confuse the analogy for the reality.

This example might help, and lets me promote one of my favourite book series. In Roger Zelazny’s Amber series of novels, there is only one real world: Amber. All other worlds — including ours, where the first book starts — are mere reflections of the one true world. However, these worlds don’t look a lot like Amber, which is a more medieval, swords and sorcery kind of world while ours is, obviously, rather technological. You couldn’t look at this world and study it in detail and discover what Amber is really like, even though there is indeed a direct link between the two. You couldn’t know, for example, that gunpowder won’t work in Amber, even though it does here, just by looking at this world. And yet, there is a link, and a number of times people in the series move from our world and return to Amber by adding and removing properties until they get back to the real Amber, showing that there is a direct chain connecting us to Amber, even though our world is, at the end of the day, radically different from Amber.

I see the properties of God here as being the same thing. There is a link between our wisdom and God’s wisdom, but we can’t just look at our wisdom and round it up to get to real, infinite wisdom, just as we can’t round up the properties of our world and get back to Amber. But because our wisdom and God’s wisdom are still, in some way, conceptually wisdom, we can figure some things out looking at our world. How much we can do is a question that the philosophers would have to work out.

Note that after reading this, or even reading Hart’s book or any of the other books one the topic, you might still be unconvinced. That’s okay; I’m not really convinced either. There are at least potentially a number of lines of attack, such as questioning whether we need a thing to be the Ground of All Being or if that can be just a conceptual explanation. However, the point of writing all of this out is to hopefully explain a little better what the argument actually is and to hopefully get across the idea that while it may be wrong, it isn’t insane and, in fact, isn’t even anti-scientific or anti-empirical. As Hart says at one point, the purported physics that would refute this idea isn’t actually even addressing the same question that this is trying to solve, and so this view is, in fact, perfectly compatible with physics. It’s a different, perhaps, metaphysical view, but we really shouldn’t expect physics to say too much about metaphysics, right?

Anyway, that’s my limited understanding of “The Ground of All Being”. I’m sure I’ve gotten things wrong, but hopefully it’s close and clear enough to allow for real and meaningful discussion of the argument.

Review of “The Experience of God” (Part 2)

February 18, 2014

Okay, I kinda lied yesterday, saying that there’d be two parts, because I’m adding a third. This one is going to take on the specific comments from Coyne about how the “Ground of Being” God isn’t, in fact, the God of the Folk, the one that the ordinary person believes in, and the distinction between the Sophisticated God and the Folk God that he and other Gnu Atheists rely on so much.

If you take nothing else from this book, you should take the idea that, yes, indeed, God in all of the major traditions has never been a simple “Being”. God has indeed never been a being just like us, only better in all ways. We’ve always considered God to be something transcendental, something special, something that we can only understand through analogy to us instead of being a progression from us. We’ve never thought that if we tried really, really hard, ate all of our vegetables, and evolved in just right way that we would, one day, turn into Gods ourselves. Sure, science fiction tropes loved to hint at that, but in terms of religion we never really believed that. But in order to think about God, we had to make analogies, and so we made arguments about God and about proofs of God’s existence through an analogy to ourselves. And one of Hart’s better arguments is that a lot of arguments against and for the existence of God are arguments that take the analogy too far, and treat the analogy as the reality … in short, arguments that treat God as us, only better.

We can see this clearly in arguments like Dawkins’ “God must be more complex than we are to do what He does”. One can easily see that that sort of argument clearly relies on God being just like us, only better, and if we have to be complex to do our things, God has to be more complex than us. But that assumes that God is indeed just like us, only better. But God is completely different from us, in a very transcendent way. There are similarities by analogy, but you can’t win the argument by assuming that the analogy is the reality. And many other Gnu Atheist arguments do that as well. But Hart points out that it isn’t only atheists that do that, but also theists, and cites the Ontological Argument — rightly, in my opinion — as an argument that at least risks making the same mistake. By stripping away the transcendental portions of God, God is turned into something that is easier to relate to and to argue about … but also something that is easier to refute or to point out contradictions in. In their attempt to make God more amenable to scientific or mechanical proof, many theists seem to have made God into something like us, just another part of the world, and so something that we can indeed dismiss as easily as we’d dismiss unicorns and leprechauns. But it is certainly reasonable to note that this takes away from God what critically makes God, well, God, and so a proof or refutation of God as one of us is proving or refuting the wrong God, the sort of God that no one actually does believe in but the sort of God that we use as an analogy to try to wrap our heads around the transcendental concept that we are really talking about.

So, yes, Hart is right that Gnu Atheists are going after the sort of God that no one actually believes in, and is right to note that they aren’t alone, and that many good philosophers and theologians are also talking about the sort of God that no one actually believes in. We mistake the analogy for the reality, and that confuses us. We may not need to go right back to the God of classical theism, but we do need to recall that God is transcendental, and is not just us, only better.

Review of “The Experience of God” (Part 1)

February 17, 2014

So, I finished reading David Bentley Hart’s “The Experience of God”. It took me a little longer than it did to read “Why Evolution is True”, mostly because the chapters have more pages — even though a lot of that seems to be due to the spacing — and so if I wanted to read one chapter in an evening I had to plan more time to get through the extra pages. Anyway, I want to review the book in two parts, where the first is an actual review of the book itself, while the second is my humble attempt to clarify the “Ground of All Being” argument, as I understand it. And since this was spawned from Jerry Coyne’s comments on the book, I’d like to start by making reference to him specifically …

Jerry Coyne will not like this book. He will, of course, should he actually read and comment on it, mock it, and if he does comment on it I will be very interested to see if his mockery actually hits the points in the book or just ends up as general mockery. There are two big problems with the book:

1) The book is dense. Really dense. As someone who has read around the various issues and even read Aquinas, I had a hard time following the arguments and discussion at times. Someone who has less of that background will be completely lost, particularly if they aren’t familiar with philosophical arguments. This denseness also makes it seem rambly at times, where you aren’t really sure where the comment is going. This isn’t helped by Hart at times pointing out how he was drifting at times, but at least he cops to it.

2) Too little time is spent on his own arguments, as opposed to time spent attacking naturalism. The book spends most of its time attacking naturalism, and the attacks on naturalism are, in my view, fairly reasonable and do raise problems for naturalists and materialists to solve. However, in a book like this much more time should be spent arguing for and supporting his own position instead of attacking the alternatives. At this stage, you aren’t going to convince people of your view simply by pointing out the problems in the opposing viewpoint and saying that yours is the only viewpoint left standing; all that will do is get people thinking about the problems your viewpoint might have.

Ultimately, because of this, I can’t really recommend this to anyone except those who are deeply philosophically inclined. If you want an introduction to the “Ground of Being” God and the arguments for it, pick up Feser’s “Aquinas”, which I recall as being much better written. At the end of either of these books, you won’t be convinced, but hopefully, if read carefully, you’ll have a better understanding of the argument and how it works, and what it really says.

The Big Problem with Morality Based on Evolution …

February 11, 2014

I’ve been working my way through David Bentley Hart’s book “The Experience of God”, and while I’ll review it later, one point he raised in it summed up my problems with the claim that we have a morality because we evolved a morality, and why I accuse those who claim to derive morality that way of, in fact, basing their morality on their own personal self-interest, which isn’t right. While he said a lot more about it, it comes down to this: if the explanation for our moral sensibilities are that they evolved because they benefited the species, then our moral sensibilities have no authority on us. Simply put, if our moral sensibilities have evolved, then we have no reason to actually follow them if we can choose otherwise.

This is actually pretty obvious, and to deny this is to commit the naturalistic fallacy. Just because something evolved and was beneficial in doing so doesn’t in any way mean that it still is, in fact, beneficial. After all, take the oft-cited — by Dennett at least — example of our sweet tooth. It was beneficial, but now isn’t as beneficial anymore … and, in fact, is actually more often detrimental to us. So we should train ourselves to ignore our sweet tooth. But then it is quite possible that we really should train ourselves to ignore our moral leanings as well; maybe being moral had a benefit once, but maybe ignoring morality works better now.

But it gets worse. In the above paragraph, we were judging how useful the sweet tooth is or how useful morality is by personal benefit (even if for morality you’d generally count the individual benefits of living in a moral society as well). This is the obvious line to take if you follow from an evolutionary explanation, because that’s the reason we have them according to evolution. But note that it doesn’t follow that because we do have moral faculties that evolved that we ought to justify the authority of morality by that standard. All evolution says is that we have these faculties. In order to move to evaluating whether or not we should act morally on the basis of personal self-interest, you have to add the argument that this is how we ought to evaluate moralities and moral faculties, right down to the usefulness of moral faculties and whether we should be moral at all. This is why, for example, it can be rightly claimed that evolution does not support eugenics; while evolution describes the process, you need to make that normative link to saying that we ought to try to emulate evolution in dealing with people. The same thing applies here: if you want to justify us using our moral faculties or that our moral faculties are giving us the right moral answers using the fact that they have evolved, you have to add to the fact that they evolved for our personal benefit that it is moral and proper to act according to our personal benefit, and to judge morality accordingly. And that is Egoism, no matter how enlightened you try to make it.

Thus, evolutionary arguments for morality can only end in one of two places. Either you end up with an evolved faculty that we have to wonder about just as we wonder about our sweet tooth, and thus a faculty that we have no necessary reason to follow, or else you base it on what evolution did to produce that faculty and end up arguing normatively that what we ought to consider moral is that which most benefits us personally. Anything else moves quite beyond evolution and our evolved faculties, and leaves us evaluating our moral faculties on a basis that is neither demanded by evolution, nor is the basis evolution itself used to produce those faculties.


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