Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

It’s in …

July 16, 2014

So, Amazon is telling me that my copy of “God in the Age of Science? A Critique of Religious Reason.” is waiting for me at the post office, so I should get it — and start reading it — tonight. I’ll try to do my “one chapter a night” thing, although I might do a bit more than that tonight since I ought to have time. I’m considering posting thoughts on each chapter as I think of it, but I hate doing that since I think that for most works it’s important to understand the whole point before breaking it down into its parts, although for a lot of books each point is independent and so can be addressed that way. So we’ll see.

But my biggest question before starting is: is this book, how can I put this, aggressive? Coyne has a strong tendency to like and recommend books and articles that utilize snark and mockery a lot, as much if not more than they utilize arguments. The initial description didn’t sound too snarky, but is this going to be a case where Coyne’s recommendation of a good book is one that doesn’t, in fact, mock the arguments but instead focuses more on addressing them? Only time will tell.

Challenge Accepted …

July 10, 2014

There has long been a line of argumentation that many atheists like to use that relates to the traditional Courtier’s Reply, which goes something like this: you keep telling us atheists that we’re ignorant of theism and can’t dismiss it until we’ve considered all of the best arguments for theism. But what about the best arguments for atheism? Can we list off a list of books and arguments that you have to read before you can be considered credible in critcizing atheism?

Now, the theistic point isn’t usually just “You need to read all of these authors”. Most of the initial replies are people pointing out that the atheists tend to talk about particular arguments for or conceptions of God, get it completely wrong, and so really should try to understand the arguments before criticizing and, especially, before mocking the arguments. In other cases, it’s just people pushing their own preferred arguments and conceptions, because there are indeed a number of different ones. Sometimes, it’s both. But there are times when people — whom I’d tend to call “unsophisticated” — really do just toss out books and say read them. While I never approve of such things, I can approve of the underlying sentiment that makes that seem even remotely credible: in order to criticize or reject a position, you really should be well-read in not only what others say about it, but also in what those who support it say about it.

In terms of atheism, I’m doing pretty well. I’ve read Dawkins, Dennett and Harris of the Four Horsemen (I read a debate between Hitchens and someone else once which convinced me that he wasn’t worth my time), I read Kaufmann as suggested by Jerry Coyne (and wasn’t impressed, to say the least; I really should critique the religion part more directly), I’ve read Smith’s initial book, I’ve read Grayling’s take, and some others.

Now, Jerry Coyne is pushing another book:

For a good refutation of the “God off the hook” claim of Ruse, read the philosopher Herman Philipse’s God in the Age of Science? A Critique of Religious Reason. It’s the best attack on theism I know, and though it’s occasionally a hard slog, it’s well worth it. I can’t recommend it highly enough, and if a theist says he/she hasn’t read it, you can rightly say, “Well, then, you can’t bash atheism, because you haven’t dealt with Its Best Arguments.”

Well, if that’s one of the “Best Arguments” … then I shall take up the challenge and deal with it, despite the fact that it really looks like this whole challenge is one that Coyne and other atheists really don’t expect someone to accept. I’ve ordered the book and will read it when it gets in. However, from reading the description on Amazon I can already predict that it will have an uphill climb:

God in the Age of Science? is a critical examination of strategies for the philosophical defence of religious belief. The main options may be presented as the end nodes of a decision tree for religious believers. The faithful can interpret a creedal statement (e.g. “God exists”) either as a truth claim, or otherwise. If it is a truth claim, they can either be warranted to endorse it without evidence, or not. Finally, if evidence is needed, should its evidential support be assessed by the same logical criteria that we use in evaluating evidence in science, or not? Each of these options has been defended by prominent analytic philosophers of religion. In part I Herman Philipse assesses these options and argues that the most promising for believers who want to be justified in accepting their creed in our scientific age is the Bayesian cumulative case strategy developed by Richard Swinburne. Parts II and III are devoted to an in-depth analysis of this case for theism. Using a “strategy of subsidiary arguments”, Philipse concludes (1) that theism cannot be stated meaningfully; (2) that if theism were meaningful, it would have no predictive power concerning existing evidence, so that Bayesian arguments cannot get started; and (3) that if the Bayesian cumulative case strategy did work, one should conclude that atheism is more probable than theism. Philipse provides a careful, rigorous, and original critique of atheism in the world today.

So, what are my issues?

1) It starts from the Bayesian cumulative case strategy of Richard Swinburne, which I’m not familiar with.

2) That uses Bayesian analysis which I don’t care for.

3) If the end of his third argument is that atheism should be considered more probable than theism, then even there I don’t think that what we believe must be that which even we consider most probable, let alone what would be considered most probable by an abstract Bayesian analysis.

4) Knowledge certainly isn’t set by probabilities of any kind, so that wouldn’t get to a knowledge claim that atheism is true, and I don’t care much about atheism until they can claim to know that God doesn’t exist.

5) His second point about it not reaching the level where a Bayesian analysis can be done is underwhelming to me and only matters if I accept that the Bayesian route is the way to go, but since my epistemology is not Bayesian that’s going to be pretty hard to do.

6) So it will come down to his first point about not being able to state the proposition meaningfully … but since Christians can point at the Bible and most religions can point at their text that seems to be precisely as meaningful, at least to most people, as, say “Sherlock Holmes”, a word that we clearly know the meaning of, so he must mean something more advanced than that … but I don’t see why that would matter.

I hate starting a book thinking that I’ll hate it, because I find that starting with that attitude almost always ensures that you will, in fact, end up hating it. But I will read it and see if it can convince me.

So … challenge accepted.

God as a Gaseous Vertebrate?

June 21, 2014

A while ago, Jerry Coyne finished reading “The Experience of God” by David Bentley Hart, and made some comments on it that revealed that, yes, he didn’t really understand what a Ground of All Being actually was. I meant to respond to that as a summary, since he didn’t really post a solid review/summary, but anyone who’s been following this blog knows that I get lazy and then don’t reply. Maybe I’ll get back to it one of these days. However, , and after spending a little time listening to Christian radio compares God — either the folk God or the theological God or, well, it isn’t quite clear what — to what H.L. Mencken called “a vertebrate without substance”, which when you unpack it and unpack Coyne’s post seems to mean a God that has human traits but isn’t human, a common criticism that Coyne makes of “sophisticated theology”.

(As an aside, Coyne compliments Mencken as “…a true strident atheist, as good with mockery as was his successor Hitchens”. This leads me to ask “When did mockery become a good argument to convince rational people of your position?”)

Coyne gives this as his main example:

One show, for children, was about a girl who wanted to become a personal trainer, but had shown little talent for the job, and was frustrated because she didn’t know what to do with her life. “I want to be somebody,” she wailed. Her father, who tried to soothe her, had his own problem: he was overweight and was on a diet. Eventually he told her that God would show her the way, but it would take a while, just like the long while he’d have to wait to shed his extra pounds. Then a voice-over came on and gave the lesson: God has plans for all of us, and listens to our needs, but he will effect his plans for us in his own time. We must wait. But we should be reassured that he knows what is good for us, loves us, and will, in time, show us the way.

This God, of course, was humanoid: the emotions he evinced were love, understanding, empathy, and the desire to interfere in our lives so we could be fulfilled. And, of course, he was touted as actually listening to prayer, for the child was told to consider her options “prayerfully”.

He then compares this to Hart’s position:

Those gaseous theologians like David Bentley Hart and Karen Armstrong, of course, decry the concept of such a humanlike God. That’s not the real God, says Hart, and those atheists who argue against it are wasting their time. The real god is ineffable (though somehow Hart knows that He/She/Hir/It loves us); it is a Ground of Being.

Why? Because they think that God can love? Because they think that God can plan, or have emotions, or act in the world? The Ground of Being — as I explained in my review of Hart’s book — is not some completely amorphous, blob without properties. For the Thomists, the Ground of All Being is, indeed the Ground of All Being. It is not only the case that every being exists because it participates in the Ground of All Being, but every positive property only exists because the Ground of All Being has that property. So if we can be said to be capable of love, then the Ground of All Being must be capable of love. If we can plan, so can the Ground of All Being. If we can act in the world, then so can the Ground of All Being.

Now, getting this from Hart’s book would be tough; only by combining it with Feser’s posts and book was I able to get that. But Coyne should have been able to get the answer to this question from it:

What I want to know is this. If Hart and his ilk think that 99% of Christians have the wrong concept of God, why aren’t they trying to correct it? Why are they writing books aimed at fellow scholars instead of, say, the average Christian, or the average Christian child? Why are they wasting time bashing atheists instead of telling their coreligionists—or all religionists—the truth about God?

Now, here’s a quote where Coyne does seem to get the problem that Hart is trying to address:

I listened to two stations, and both of them constantly promoted the idea of God as a gaseous vertebrate—just like us, but more powerful.

Now, Hart was clear in his book that this was indeed the wrong way to look at God, and he in fact called out other theologians, including Plantinga and the modal logic attempts to prove the existence of God, as well as the Ontological Argument. So no one can validly complain that they aren’t trying to correct the misconception. So the only complaints would be that they may write more scholarly works than popular works, and that they take aim at atheists too much. For the former, it’s hardly a valid criticism that they’ve decided to work in intellectual circles instead of aiming at the rank and file, any more than it would be a valid criticism of, say, those studying global warming if they write more academic papers and books aimed at disagreeing scientists and don’t spend a lot of time talking to the mainstream press. For the latter, since Feser and Hart were taking on the New Atheists, who aimed at and still aim at the average person, aiming at them means aiming at a popular or average view as well, and in effect aims at two birds with one stone: taking out the rather weak counter-arguments against God — from their perspective — while clearly pointing out to religious people what the common view of God really is or really implies. Maybe Coyne’s right and they should promote the underlying theory more … but maybe the folk view isn’t as far off of their view as Coyne thinks it is.

At any rate, there is, in general, no gaseous vertebrate here, at least not from the perspective of Thomist theology. There’s nothing really wrong with what those stations said, other than the analogy risks anthropomorphizing God if taken too far and too literally. Which is a risk of any analogy. The contradiction that Coyne so relies on simply doesn’t exist.

Comment on Ryan Born’s Response to the Moral Landscape Challenge …

June 14, 2014

So, I’ve read Ryan Born’s response to the Moral Landscape Challenge, and want to comment on it a bit here. But first, it must be noted that the biggest problem with attacking Sam Harris’ views is that there really isn’t any kind of central point or analogy in it, no overall moral system that you can attack at one place and bring it down. Instead, Harris has set up multiple fronts, and seems to be willing to stake his entire claim on any one of them at any time, switching between them as necessary to avoid having to address tough arguments. Well, okay, perhaps that isn’t quite fair. Perhaps it is more reasonable to say that instead of having a system that works together to build out a fully-formed moral philosophy, Harris has instead a group of independent statements about morality that he brings together under the umbrella of “morality” but which are all, for the most part, independent. No one could refute all of them in 1000 words, and so one has to pick one to attack. But even if that attack is successful, Harris is open to saying “Well, what about this? You have to refute this to refute my view”, which he does tend to do. In preparing my response, I had at least two other main points that I could have attacked:

1) Argue against his main point by arguing that just because morality may be something that you have to be conscious to have, it doesn’t mean that morality is a property of consciousness.

2) Argue against the health analogy by pointing out that health is a state, not a normative value. You can be healthy without trying to be healthy or valuing it at all, but you can’t be moral without valuing being moral or having your actions motivated by valuing morality.

Ultimately as already seen, I went with moral disagreement. Born took on a fourth principle, that of whether you can subsume morality under science, pointing out that Harris’ basic principle that morality is about the well-being of conscious creatures is a philosophical/conceptual argument, not a scientific/empirical one.

This, to me, is a relatively weak counter. The first reason is that Harris’ main point ends up being essentially this: Given that morality is in at least some way critically defined by or related to the well-being of conscious beings, and given that all properties of conscious beings as conscious beings are explained by their brain, and given that explaining the brain is something that can be done scientifically, then morality is in some way critically defined by or explained by science. Born’s response that the first “given” isn’t scientific doesn’t actually touch this part of the point, and so has to aim at another angle, that the initial given is itself not scientific and needs justification from something other than science.

This leads to the second reason, which is that Harris doesn’t seem to care whether that initial given is scientific or not. First, as we’ve seen when he discusses scientism, Harris will quickly argue that saying that something must be proven philosophically and not scientifically is defining science too narrowly. So if philosophy becomes science, then that given is still justified scientifically. Yes, this isn’t a very good point, because it ends up taking the only really novel thing Harris says — although not new, since naturalization of philosophical claims has been done for at least half a century — and makes it meaningless, because it would still allow for the normal armchair philosophizing about morality to proceed and might change those discussions not one bit, leaving Harris’ view saying nothing new while attempting to imply that it does. Second, Harris has been consistent in maintaining that he doesn’t really need to actually justify the idea that morality is about maximizing well-being; all of his defenses of that, even in his latest response, end up being that he can’t see any other basis for morality and essentially challenging all comers to prove something else is right or better or else he must be right. His health and logic examples always boil down to saying “Well, we just take this as a given and we have to take these things as a given so why not take my initial given as a given?”. So given that he doesn’t seem to care about justifying that initial given, it seems unlikely that he’ll care whether that non-justification is done scientifically or not, even in the narrow or broad sense of the term “science”.

That was why I chose the specific approach I did, aiming it more at Harris himself and what you’d have to do to convince him than in creating a full, formal philosophical argument. The aim was to force Harris to take a question that he’d be sure that there was an actual, objective answer to, but demonstrate that he couldn’t do it without defining and justifying at least some sort of view of well-being, while demonstrating that no physical facts nor facts about the brain would be able to answer that question. Essentially, the only thing critical to all conceptions of his view is that initial given of morality essentially being the well-being of conscious creatures, and destroying that would destroy his view.

What Sam Harris Gets Wrong.

June 11, 2014

Now that the winning essay in Sam Harris’ “Moral Landscape Challenge” has been posted, and wasn’t mine, it’s time for me to post the essay I submitted. I hope to talk about the winning essay and Harris’ response more over the next few days. Anyway, here’s mine:

Sam Harris’ view of the proper morality is essentially that what is moral is what best promotes the well-being of conscious creatures. This is, in and of itself, fairly controversial, but Harris makes a few moves to sidestep some of the more obvious challenges. The first comes from a mostly off-hand comment that most if not all of the rival conceptions of morality also boil down to some form of well-being. The second is that there is room for multiple plateaus of well-being, so that we don’t all have to have the same exact idea of well-being to act morally, which is what allows for those widely differing views of well-being to all grasp at the same idea. However, if Harris is going to have a morality that can properly be called objective, there are going to have to be at least SOME outcomes that are going to be considered moral or immoral regardless of the personal preferences of the individual or culture, or else he’ll have a relativistic moral view. For example, it’s clear that he’ll consider murder and theft as being universally opposed to well-being, even if killing and seizure of property won’t always be. I propose here that we consider this question that we seem to intuitively think has a universal answer and see if a) all ideas of well-being will answer it the same way and b) if they don’t, if we can answer it by appealing to some kind of physical fact. The question is: is it morally permissible for a parent to steal bread to feed their starving children?

Under a loose Utilitarianism, barring a massive cost to the person who owns the bread, the answer is a resounding “Yes”. After all, it seems clear that more suffering will arise from those children starving and possibly starving to death than from the shopkeeper losing one loaf of bread. On the other hand, the Stoics will answer with a resounding “No”. This is because for them Virtue is what provides the most well-being for people, and pleasure, pain and even lives are indifferents, only to be preserved if it doesn’t interfere with acting virtuously. Without settling the dispute of ideas of well-being here — which would require far more than appealing to conscious creatures — it looks like we have a nasty clash between two at least potentially proper ideas of well-being. And note that neither of them disagree with all of the obvious physical facts here; it’s just the idea of what counts as well-being that’s at stake here.

Perhaps we can appeal to psychology, to what most people think is the case. Intuitively, most people side with the Utilitarians, but there is a group of people who don’t: autistics [see http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/fearlessly-amoral-psychopaths-autistics-and-learning-with-emotion/ for details]. They tend to side with saying that it isn’t right for the parent to steal the bread, at least in part because they think the rules should not be broken. But, we can reply, they clearly have abnormal brain function, and so we can limit ourselves to those who have a properly functioning brain. Well, the problem is that while their brain does not function like everyone else’s, that doesn’t mean that their brain is functioning immorally, or is incapable of morality. Unlike psychopaths, autistics, in general, act properly morally and could certainly be seen as grasping for one of the plateaus that Harris allows for. That they have a different opinion on this topic doesn’t mean that they’re wrong; their “abnormal” brain function might even make them BETTER at answering these sorts of moral decisions than those with more “normal” brains. In order to settle that question, we’d have to know, independently of simply looking at the brain, which view of well-being is in the right or which is in the wrong. Otherwise, we’d have to allow that there is no objective answer to this question, but if we cannot answer this question it seems difficult to see what use such an “objective” morality would be as an objective morality.

The physical facts are not in dispute. The differences in brains are not in dispute. Everyone pretty much agrees with all of the facts in this case, but there is still radical disagreement. What, then, is in dispute? What well-being really means, of course, and what it implies about what you should value. Harris introduces the Moral Landscape to allow for variance in how well-being is defined, so that he doesn’t have to insist on one very specific idea of well-being that almost everyone will disagree with at some point or another. People have to be free to tailor their lives to what they themselves want and value to some extent. However, this notion cannot be stretched to cover the gaps we see here between the Utilitarians, Stoics, autistics, and so on. And yet, surely it should. Harris presents no reason to think that the Stoics or the autistics are simply wrong, but the difference is so vast and the question so important that we cannot simply allow everyone to come to their own conclusions and still have anything that looks like an objective morality.

Once one knows all of the relevant facts about a situation, and the relevant physical facts, and the facts about the brain, it is clear that there can still be major disagreements about moral decisions. These disagreements might also be about questions that cannot be left open to interpretation; they cannot be left as a plateau in the moral landscape. From this, if Harris wishes to have an objective morality, he needs a way to settle the differing ideas of well-being to come up with one overarching one … and that is what philosophy has been trying to do, empirically and conceptually, for thousands of years. Harris’ position, then, ends up not solving the problem, but instead walking itself right back into the problem of value and what it means to be truly moral.

They count only blue cabs …

May 21, 2014

When I was finishing up my Master’s Degree in Philosophy, I sat in on a tutorial with a few Cognitive Science students on Mind. We all had to give individual presentations, and one woman talked about Bayesian reasoning and about the taxicab problem. I found the example massively counter-intuitive, and ended up arguing in E-mail about this with a couple of students over it until everyone got sick of it. This impacted me in two ways:

1) It led to me having a great distrust of Bayesian probability.
2) It confirmed for me something that I had already held to be true about the “Gambler’s Fallacy”, which is that I classify these as “Obi-Wan Fallacies”: what action you should take/what you should believe depends greatly on your point of view.

I was thinking about this again yesterday while hanging around the university waiting for the Alumni office to open, and came to a conclusion about what exactly was wrong with the taxicab problem and why it didn’t work. And then while searching for a good summary of the taxicab problem I found this paper from 1999 that sums that up precisely. Before I summarize it, let me summarize the problem, taken from the appropriate sections here:

In another study done by Tversky and Kahneman, subjects were given the following problem:

“A cab was involved in a hit and run accident at night. Two cab companies, the Green and the Blue, operate in the city. 85% of the cabs in the city are Green and 15% are Blue.

A witness identified the cab as Blue. The court tested the reliability of the witness under the same circumstances that existed on the night of the accident and concluded that the witness correctly identified each one of the two colors 80% of the time and failed 20% of the time.

What is the probability that the cab involved in the accident was Blue rather than Green knowing that this witness identified it as Blue?”

Most subjects gave probabilities over 50%, and some gave answers over 80%. The correct answer, found using Bayes’ theorem, is lower than these estimates:

* There is a 12% chance (15% times 80%) of the witness correctly identifying a blue cab.
* There is a 17% chance (85% times 20%) of the witness incorrectly identifying a green cab as blue.
* There is therefore a 29% chance (12% plus 17%) the witness will identify the cab as blue.
* This results in a 41% chance (12% divided by 29%) that the cab identified as blue is actually blue.

No, to me, the right answer was: 80%. This is the probability that the witness identified it correctly. But, regardless, them being given as over 50% seems to indicate this reasoning: it can’t be the case that someone, under the appropriate conditions, can identify the colour of the cab reliably and yet it be someone more likely that they are identifying the colour of the cab incorrectly in this case. It’s only the Bayesian calculations that say otherwise, but then surely applying Bayes’ theorem here is the wrong way to solve this problem. At the time, I conceded that over time these numbers might work out, because the differing numbers of cabs would result in more mistakes made identifying blue cabs than green ones, but for every indiviual event it can’t work out that way. So an insurance company might want to use the Bayesian numbers, while a judge looking only at a specific case couldn’t. That, then, made it an Obi-Wan Fallacy. Even trying to run a computer model ran into issues of it depending on how you counted.

Michael Levin, in his article, sums up how I came to understand the problem yesterday, with some additional nice mathematics for people who like that sort of thing. The key part is here:

“Reliability” should be explicated so as to preserve the apparent truism that
someone equally reliable at two t asks-such as shooting for two different
regiments, o r identifying cabs o f different c olors-is equally likely to succeed
at both. This principle is violated by the “Bayesian” analysis I have criticized.
For let us assume, as does the received analysis, that Witness is precisely as
reliable about Greens as about Blues, i. e., (5) and (6). To evaluate the prob-
ability that the errant cab was Green i f Witness says it was, switch h with – h
and w with – w in (7); P (-h!-w) is then (.8 x .85) + [(.8 x .85) + .2 x .15)]
66 Michael Levin
= .95. That P (-hl-w) » P(hlw)-the cab is more likely to have been Green
i f Witness says Green than to have been Blue if Witness says Blue-shows
that, whatever we are discussing, it is not the probability that Witness is right.

What I had thought of for a long time was the idea that the Bayesian analysis couldn’t be right because the probability of it being a blue cab or a green cab had to, logically, be identical to the probability that the witness had identified the cab properly. That’s what saying that they can identify the colour of a cab reliably 80% of the time means. What I should be able to do, then, is take the final probability of the cab being blue given that the witness identified it as blue and sub it into the probability that the witness identified the colour of the cab correctly (in this case, as blue). But remember that the probability that the witness identified the colour of the cab correctly was our initial probability, which means that to do that properly you’d have to run it through the Bayesian analysis again, which would change the results, which would lead to an infinite progression until you got to 0, which can’t be what you wanted.

To work around this, you have to argue one of two things:

1) That the probability that the witness can identify the colour of the cab correctly isn’t what was measured, but is the result of the Bayesian analysis. This leads to the looping above and makes the measurement pointless and suspect.

2) That the probability that the witness identified the colour of the cab correctly is not the probability that the cab was the colour the witness identified it as. But written out like this, it seems obvious that the probability that the witness identified the colour of the cab correctly is identical to the probability was the colour they said it was. That seems to be what that means, most of the time.

So, as Levin says:

What we are discussing, when Bayes’s Theorem comes into play, is the
cab’s likely color when we do n ot know the probability that a cab is the color
Witness says it is. Background infonnation, including base rates, then be-
comes pertinent. I f most cabs are Green, the cab Witness saw very likely was
Green, all else equal. I f in addition most o f the time Witness will say a cab is
Green when i t is, a nd say i t is Blue when i t is, the cab he saw is almost certain
to have been Green i fhe says G reen-but less certain to have been Blue i fhe
says Blue. Many situations, like this one, involve an indicator o f unknown
trustworthiness. We know the odds that a subject with clogged arteries will
feel fatigue, and the odds that a subject with nonnal arteries will feel fatigue.
What we would like to know is the specificity o f fatigue, the probability that
someone feeling fatigue has clogged arteries. In such cases we should not say
we know how well fatigue predicts clogged arteries. Did we know that, fur-
ther infonnation would be superfluous. Indeed, knowing an idicator’s trust-
worthiness and what the received analysis calls “trustworthiness” would us to
solve for the base rate.

You don’t and can’t use Bayesian analysis when one of the probabilities you are using in and of itself determines what the final probability is. That’s precisely the mistake that’s being made here. So if you are going to use Bayesian analysis, you need to be very careful to ensure that you don’t fall into this trap. If you do, you will end up with very counter-intuitive results that look right mathematically but fail logically. Which explains my problem with it, since I’m far stronger logically than mathematically, and so insisted that the logic couldn’t be violated even though the mathematics said it could.

A fangirl by any other name …

May 1, 2014

So, there have been a lot of controversies in the geek/nerd/whatever-we’re-calling-it-these-days sphere, over what seems to be the most popular topic in most areas lately: sexism. It seems that some T-shirt company made a set of shirts that read as follows:

Shirt 1 – “I like fangirls like I like my coffee. I HATE coffee”.
Shirt 2 – “I like fanboys like I like my coffee. I HATE coffee”.

Cue angry denunciations of the first shirt, mostly for being sexist and discouraging women from being geeks and tying it all back to the old “fake geek girl controversy”. The company responded to the comments with a post on their Facebook page, saying this:

So, we’ve apparently received some bad word on our fan girl shirt, with accusations of sexism being thrown at us from a certain few bloggers…

…who have completely ignored our other variant shirt on display or didn’t even bother to ask our take on it.

Apparently it’s only sexism if it is insulting to one gender. Woo double standards. …

Anyways, the fangirl/fanboy shirts can best be explained like this: fangirls/boys =/= fans. Fans are people who like and genuinely respect a fandom, and it’s creators. Fangirls/boys are like those who have an unhealthy obsession who make us all collectively cringe in pain at what they do to the things we love.

No one should ever defend these kinds of people. Seriously, they make the rest of us look bad.

Before I get into the blog posts, if you read the comments one of the objections to this is that while they have a fanboy shirt, fanboy does mean what the sort of obsessive fan that they talk about here, but fangirl just means any girl who is a fan, and so it’s a problem. Well, let’s make sure that it does, shall we:

From dictionary.reference.com (note that the entry I’m using here is one that combines fanboy and fangirl into one entry):

a person obsessed with an element of video or electronic culture, such as a game, sci-fi movie, comic or animé, music, etc; a person obsessed with any other single subject or hobby

From Oxford American English:

• informal • derogatory An obsessive female fan (usually of movies, comic books, or science fiction).

And from Oxford World English:

A female fan, especially one who is obsessive about comics, film, music, or science fiction

Only the last definition even hints at it applying to all female fans, and still makes it clear that in general it’s meant to apply to obsessive ones. And before anyone uses that to support the claim of a difference between the terms “fanboy” and “fangirl”, here’s the Oxford World English definition of fanboy:

A male fan, especially one who is obsessive about comics, music, film, or science fiction.

So, no, if the fangirl T-shirt is a problem, then so is the fanboy T-shirt, at least in terms of terminology. They mean the same thing.

Now, some have commented that they aren’t really taking exception with the sexism, but with the shirt implying things about how people ought to be fans. The problem is that the terms fanboy/fangirl are usually given to people who … try to tell people how to be fans of a work. Most commonly, what made the terms derogatory is that it refers to people who jump into any conversation about a work and rant about what people should like about a work, insisting that it’s the best thing ever and no one should ever find any flaws or problems with it and that no one should ever, God forbid, not like the work. That’s just inconceivable for the stereotypical fanboy/fangirl. These are the people who give the hobby a bad name. not those who are saying that that sort of obsession isn’t a good thing. So those complaining that this is telling people how to be fans of a genre or work should be the ones who hate fanboys/fangirls the most.

But, aside from that, the sexism really is the big complaint here, and the comments on the Facebook page that it seems that trying to apply a criticism to women seem to be valid. Aside from most of the comments on that page, we have this article from Rebecca Pahle. She starts off in the title talking about “Fake Geek Crap”, which is odd since no one has or does claim that fanboys/fangirls are fake geeks. They can be legitimate geeks. They’re just bad ones. To make that accusation is like saying that alcoholics are fake drinkers; yes, they are still drinkers, and are just too much so. The same can be said for fanboys/fangirls; they’re still fans, but take it too far.

Now, she does manage to stay somewhat focused on telling fans how to like a work, but she does link it to sexism directly here:

…that rightfully got a lot of people ticked off because of the way it perpetuates the toxic “there’s only one right way to be a fan of something” attitude that’s long infected geek culture and often manifests specifically in a way that’s intended to push girls out of geek spaces.

This would seem to imply that there’s an implication here that’s worse for women, and note that her update to the shirt to a more accurate version replaces “hate” with “scared of” which is a common complaint aimed at supposedly sexist geeks who don’t want women to get into the hobby because they’re scared of them. But at least she does say multiple times that it’s about not telling fans how to like a work, which is better than the original post by Greg Rucka, whose title starts by linking it to gatekeeping of women in geek culture and spends most of the post talking about the trials of his daughter and ends with this:

And some asshole thinks selling a shirt that, essentially, says, GURLS STAY OUT is funny. He’s talking to my wife. He’s talking to my daughter. He’s talking to my friends. He’s talking to my fans. He’s talking to some of the best writers in the industry, some of the most gifted artists, some of the most talented creators in the arts.

GURLS STAY OUT. Heh heh heh.

Since Pahle references Rucka’s article to claim that the creators of the T-shirt ignored the main issue of telling people how to be fans, one would assume she’d, well, read the article. And anyone who read that article would certainly forgive them for thinking that the main issue was sexism, not “telling people how to be fans”. In that sense, it almost sounds like “moving the goalposts” is in play here: once the “fanboy” T-shirt was “revealed”, sexism wasn’t as easy a case anymore, so it switches to the real issue being about telling people how to be fans. Again, this wouldn’t be an issue if Pahle hadn’t referenced Rucka’s post, which is clearly more about sexism than about telling people how to be fans.

The facts of the matter are this:

It isn’t sexist to use the term “fangirl” to describe an overly obsessive female fan, particularly one who is annoyingly vocal about that obsession in a way that implies that if you don’t like what she likes, then there’s something wrong with you or you aren’t really a fan or you don’t know what you’re talking about. It is less sexist to do that than to try to lump all of those fans — male and female — into the term “fanboy” which, as anyone who knows anything about feminism knows, normalizes the male and so is incredibly sexist. While it many be debatable, a good case can be made that overly obsessive fans of any gender are a problem for the geek community, precisely because they end up telling people how to enjoy the works or the genres that they refer to, and that is indeed bad for the community (the objections on that point are valid, as far as they go). In the Facebook quote, could the creators of the T-shirt be doing that (some earlier comment/version of the post might have made reference to hetalia shippers and something else, but it’s not there now)? Maybe, and for that they’d deserve criticism. The shirts, however, don’t actually say things like that , and so to harp on that would be nothing more than a distraction from the issues around the shirts, which started the mess in the first place.

There’s nothing wrong with the shirts, as far as I can see. And if people disagree then they can … post comments here (no swearing, please) telling me why I’m wrong.

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.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 36 other followers