Archive for the ‘Theism’ Category

The Outsider Test: Treat Your Religion Like You Treat Others

December 16, 2014

So, in in keeping with my acceptance of the atheist challenge on sophisticated atheist philosophy, I picked up John W. Loftus’ “The Outsider Test for Faith”, as recommended by Jerry Coyne. I read it today, and plan to comment on a number of things over the next little while on it. Today, I’m going to start with Loftus’ central conceit: the idea that, at its heart, all he is doing is asking those who are religious to treat their own religion the same way they treat others.

Essentially, Loftus claims that people who are religious and who believe that there is only one True religion — theirs — reject all other religions on the basis of his view of reasonable skepticism, which I’ll get into more later. But suffice it to say that he claims that for the most part we all reject other religions because we don’t think that they have sufficient evidence for their claims and treat them generally skeptically. However, he says this in Chapter 4, on page 76 in the paperback edition:

Most believers argue that other religions are false simply because they take it for granted that theirs is the one true faith. … They do this based on their faith. Given that they believe the tenets of their faith are true, those other religions must therefore be false. … But this method is faulty to the core. It’s begging the question. It first presumes what they believe based on what they were raised to believe. When they argue in this fashion it is nothing short of special pleading on behalf of their own culturally adopted religious faith. What they need to show is that their own faith can be justified.

But on the very next page, he reiterates what the OTF (Outsider Test for Faith) is supposed to represent:

The OTF is simply a challenge to examine one’s adopted religious faith … with the same level of reasonable skepticism believers already use when examining the other religious faiths they reject.

Except, he already conceded what we all already knew: religious believers don’t examine other religious faiths with that level of skepticism. Instead, they simply note that it is not their religious belief and conflicts with their religious belief, and so it must be false. So, Loftus is definitively not simply asking religious believers to treat all religious faiths the same, including their own. He is definitively positing a specific way one ought to approach religious beliefs, even though most people don’t actually do that. This has two major consequences for him:

1) Throughout the book, Loftus defends the applicability or reasonability of the test by appealing to the idea that he is merely asking religious believers to evaluate their own religion the same way they evaluate other religions. He does this over and over and over and over. But since that isn’t what religious believers do, all of those defenses fail. Loftus may want religious believers to do that, and think it’s the only rational way to evaluate religion, but that isn’t what they’re doing now. While they aren’t treating their religion — ie what they believe — the same as new potential beliefs, the method they’re actually using simply doesn’t allow for the OTF to get off the ground, as they’d be required to treat the other religion as true to make that work. That’s actually impossible since it would require accepting multiple incompatible beliefs, so Loftus needs to first get the religious to adopt that his way of evaluating religions is the right one, and then ask them to use it to determine the reasonability of their religion. Which leads to the second consequence …

2) Because he’s now making a normative claim and not just a claim about what people are currently doing, he needs to justify that his way of viewing religions and evaluating them is the one that we ought to follow. I, personally, do see some value in not re-evaluating currently held beliefs — even those that we learned at “Mama’s knee” or, rather, culturally — without having sufficient evidence to think that the belief is wrong. This is a major epistemological difference between myself and Loftus, and one that I’ll address later. But he does need to establish this view, and he doesn’t spend a lot of time doing that, and that’s really where the battle is, and where I think a lot of the challenges that he dismisses with the constant “I’m just asking you to do what you’re already doing and have already accepted!” counters are aiming at: saying that his method doesn’t work and so no one does and no one can use it.

Now, an aside about another defense that Loftus constantly uses. One of his main goals is to solve the problem of religious diversity, and therefore to converge on the one true answer, whether that is a particular religion or no religion at all, which is the view that he at least currently favours. So he constantly demands that people who challenge his method have to come up with a method that will solve the problem of religious diversity better than his. There are a few problems with this demand. The first is that just because his method might solve the problem of religious diversity, that doesn’t actually mean that it’s the right method. We definitely are able to say that his method resolves it in an invalid way if we think that it will come to the wrong final conclusion, and if that conclusion is that there is no right answer we ought to be suspicious of how easily it snips away all competing theories; Loftus needs to be able to say that his method could get the right answer if one existed. Second, just because a method resolves the conflict more efficiently and so is better at solving that problem from that perspective does not mean that it ends up with the right answer. This follows from the first point: the method may prune away the right answer instead of just the wrong answers. Third, it is possible that there is no way to solve this problem; we may not be capable of resolving which religion is the right one, or if any religion is or can be right. So, for all of these reasons, one can indeed say that his method is wrong without providing a better alternative by some arbitrary standard, acceptable to Loftus. So this defense will not save his method if it can be shown to be problematic.

I hope to pull out a few more issues over the next little while to examine in some detail, if I don’t get distracted by shinies [grin].

Philipse on Analogy: Relying on Swinburne

December 15, 2014

I haven’t given up on this one yet, but I haven’t made too much progress on reading it since October because I read Chapter 7 and Chapter 8 … and Chapter 7 is, in my opinion, a mess. It is such a mess that I feel the need to go through it in detail instead of just pulling out a few main points and addressing them. And I just didn’t have the time or energy to do that until now.

But before I do that, I want to pull out one point to talk about. When Philipse talks about analogy in Chapter 7 and 8, he brings in an argument from Swinburne where Swinburne argues that if theists make too many things about God allegorical, they’ll end up saying nothing. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, and using a theist to buttress his point about how theists cannot rely on allegory doesn’t hurt him and can help; the argument can’t be dismissed as an argument that rules out all religious positions a priori, for example, if a theist thinks that they can work around it. Where Philipse fails, however, is that while he’s still in a section dealing with general religious beliefs, he ends up focusing on Swinburne’s view and how it doesn’t escape Swinburne’s own admonishment against analogy. This results in two issues. First, it leaves a lot of the general views untouched, as they don’t have the same framework as Swinburne and so might not be vulnerable to the same attacks. The biggest example of this is with the discussions of necessity in Chapter 8, where classical theism — which is probably the view most dependent on necessity — is mostly ignored in order to focus on Swinburne’s relations with Kripke and the like. As classical theists are also very likely to use analogy and argue that they still say something, this leaves a fairly popular general religious view mostly unrefuted. The second problem is one that Philipse acknowledges: if successful, he would end up refuting Swinburne’s arguments about half-way through the book, leaving little to talk about. The main issue here, however, is that he hasn’t given us Swinburne’s full argument and a full treatment of Swinburne’s full position yet, so we don’t really know how important this is to Swinburne’s view or if he can indeed really sidestep it. So we either come away convinced that Swinburne is defeated by his own argument — but note, nothing about the Bayesian reasoning that Philipse thought was so important — or wonder if Philipse isn’t just being a little cute here, trying to refute the view before talking about it, and taking valuable time away from the general question to address a point he needed or wanted to make later.

The key is whether or not refuting Swinburne on analogy is really the important counter-argument for God in the Age of Science or not. If it is, then bringing up that argument should really have been done there, as part of the overall refutation and showing how even Swinburne’s procedure doesn’t work to establish a credible theory for the existence of God. If not, then it again should have been left there as an aside, if necessary. What Philipse, in my opinion, needed to do was use Swinburne’s argument against analogy as a framework for this own arguments, and spent a lot of time arguing why you can’t use analogy to describe God in any meaningful way without arguing that Swinburne actually ends up having to use too much analogy himself. This would have allowed for a tighter focus on the general issue without cluttering it up by talking about Swinburne’s purported problems, and would have allowed more room to discuss Swinburne’s own issues later, in the full context of Swinburne’s full position. As it was, I don’t feel that, at this point, he’s addressed either side very well, and as well as he needed to.

I’ll say more about Philipse’s issues when I talk about Chapter 7 directly.

The Harms of Religion?

November 28, 2014

Stephanie Zvan over at Almost Diamonds recently wrote a post that claims to give at least an example of how even liberal religion is harmful. Her discussion of what the clearly harmful fundamentalist religions and what liberal religions have in common is this:

However, even religious sects and practices that are significantly looser in their scope can still cause damage. Even liberal sects still expect conformity to some rules. Even religious groups that focus on serving others still recognize a divine authority, even as they say that authority commands them to pro-social behavior.

As long as that authority exists, religion will continue to damage people. Yes, even liberal, non-fundamentalist religion.

So, essentially, she starts here by saying that even liberal religions have rules and have an authority, which is what makes them damaging. It’s a bit weird to talk about having rules as being a bad thing in and of itself. I’m guessing here that the main thrust of her objection is not that they have rules, and not that they have authorities, but that they have an absolute, unquestionable, divine authority that people are subject, and that even if that authority is telling them to do good things being subject to that overwhelming an authority is a bad thing.

Her main example is about religious-based counseling for mental illness, and how she thinks that religious authority could relate to that. Her first potential problem:

First off, I emphasized to my friend that, to the extent the patient had any “responsibility to get better” that responsibility was solely to the patient themself. I didn’t do this because of some notion that a patient has to want to get better in order for therapy to work but because the idea that a patient is responsible to someone else for the success of therapy can be toxic.

This is true in any therapy. The idea that someone with mental illness owes it to their family, for example, to get better can create unrealistic expectations for therapeutic outcomes. Instead of learning how to live with, manage, and work around their mental illness, someone may feel that the only successful therapy is the therapy that puts everything back the way it was before the onset of illness. It can induce pressure to get through therapy quickly rather than focusing on the process of therapy itself.

The idea that someone with mental illness who doesn’t get better through therapy is letting others down can also induce significant amounts of guilt. This is bad enough when the people “let down” are family or friends. When it’s God who wants to you to get better according to your therapist and your program, you’re failing at so much more if therapy doesn’t succeed. You’re failing in your duty to the divine, a divine that would not have commanded you to do the impossible.

But it seems that the toxicity of the responsibility comes from the idea that you do indeed have a duty to them to get better, and that you are letting them down if you don’t. With God, however, the idea would be that there is an entity that loves you and does love you (mostly) unconditionally. God wants you to get better, because God loves you. But I would assume that almost any religiously-based counseling program — and certainly a liberal one — won’t make it out to be a sin for you to not recover (unless your actions are a sin, of course, but even then seeking help would be seen as an unvarnished good). So without a duty to God to recover, you can indeed proceed without that sort of responsibility to recover that Zvan talks about. There is no reason to think that God doesn’t want you to be better, even if better doesn’t mean you go back to the way you were before.

And having that one loving figure constantly in your life can help, even as an authority figure, by giving you one entity that’s always supportive and loving pretty much no matter what you do. When you’re alone and feel unloved, and even feel unloved because of this mental illness, the structure of at least liberal religions is that God still loves you anyway. God wants you to get better, and would even want you to “Stop sinning”, but the liberal concept is that sin doesn’t make God stop loving you, and that God never rejects you no matter what you do. You can only be separated from God by rejecting him, and being in therapy with religious undertones is clearly not rejecting God. So, you always have support, which can be a good thing and something that might be hard to find outside of this sort of religious authority.

Which leads to the second point:

The other problem I cautioned my friend about was forgiveness. Yes, forgiveness. The relative going into therapy has legitimate reasons to be unhappy with the people around them. The way the world has treated them has contributed no small amount to their mental illness and to their capacity to work around that mental illness to have a productive life. Should they feel inclined toward forgiveness, they have a lot to forgive.

Now, there are good reasons they might want to reach a place where they can forgive the people who have injured them. There’s a small but respectable amount of psychology literature that suggests forgiveness can be therapeutic. Whether the effect comes from the exercise of empathy that forgiveness requires, from some kind of emotional relief due to forgiveness itself, or from some other factor isn’t clear, but the effect seems to exist.

However, while forgiveness is a good thing, pressure to forgive is not. As with pressure to “get better”, it adds stress and takes focus off therapy as a process rather than a pass/fail test. And again, this is only amplified when it’s a deity telling someone that they should forgive the person who hurt them.

Telling people that God wants them to forgive is still a strong element of even liberal, non-fundamentalist religion. The idea that God has a plan for you may entail more benevolent plans in a non-fundamentalist sect, but it still exists. Failing to live up to those plans still creates guilt at a time when the focus should be on improving life for someone with mental illness.

I find that a lot of challenges to the “forgiveness” portion of religion — especially Christianity — seem to somewhat misrepresent what forgiveness is, and reflect a modern or secular idea of forgiveness that’s a bit problematic. The general idea seems to be that you can only forgive someone if they didn’t do anything wrong in the first place and/or make amends for what they did. Without that, you can’t forgive them. What state you’re supposed to be in before that isn’t usually made clear, but based on experience seems to be that you stay in a state of anger, dislike and distrust until they do. In short, you stay hurt. What they did is then supposed to still bother you, and it isn’t resolved until they do that. Forgiveness is seen as resolving the issue, and it can only be resolved with exoneration or repentance. And if they are unwilling to do that, then they cannot be forgiven, and the issue cannot be resolved, even for you in your own mind.

Religious forgiveness, I think, is different. To forgive someone in the religious sense, you don’t need to decide that they didn’t do anything wrong. You don’t need to decide that they aren’t a bad person. You don’t need to decide that they’ve done sufficient repentance. Religious forgiveness is pretty much all about you. It isn’t something that they have to earn, but is something that you give. At the end of it all, it is you putting the issue behind you, and letting it go away. They did something bad. Accept that they did, accept that they are flawed as you are flawed — although they may be more flawed than you — and stop feeling hurt or expecting penance or plotting revenge or being angry at them or the incident. If they take your cloak, shrug and move on with your life. Don’t stay and harbour ill thoughts about them until they make amends. Don’t demand amends at all. Make forgiveness be a state of you instead of a state of the world.

In terms of mental illness, putting aside past wrongs and past issues can be key to many treatments. Forgiveness, in the religious sense, is essentially doing just that. So not only having that as a key virtue from the religious worldview, but having the example of the overarching authority figure who forgives unconditionally as long as we say “Sorry” — and even sometimes if we don’t — can strongly encourage that. And there is no reason to think that in the religious context these things can’t be processes. Liberal religions certainly don’t expect people to be perfect. And a good religious therapist that things that forgiveness is important will certainly structure it so that they highlight their own difficulties with forgiving while still holding onto the idea that forgiveness is something to strive for, because in all religions no one is perfect. Everyone’s a sinner — except maybe that guy — and so failing does not single you out as someone who is particularly bad. If you’re having a hard time forgiving someone or something, the typical religious response — especially for something really serious — is going to be “I can definitely see how that would be tough to forgive, but remember that God indeed forgives all of us no matter what we do”, providing the example to life up to while acknowledging that we aren’t expected to be able to do that all the time. It’s a lot harder for a secular approach to do that so clearly.

Zvan’s big push is that the authority turns the good idea into a demand, but that doesn’t follow from the examples she uses. Thus, it strikes me that the real issue is that she doesn’t like the authority and the idea of forgiveness found in religion. Which is indeed something that can be debated, but it doesn’t really work to try to use the examples she gives here as examples of the harms of religion without a) recognizing the benefits as well and b) ensuring that the harms she cites really do follow from the doctrines themselves in the way she describes. On deeper reflection, I don’t think they’re really there, and so are no better and no worse than an equivalent secular approach. Thus, not a harm from religion, specifically, at all.

Philipse on the Grand Strategy of Natural Theology.

October 29, 2014

Moving on from what we can or can’t say about the beliefs of the every day theist, Philipse in Chapter 6 describes what a natural theology is going to have to have to be credible … and implies that most of them, except perhaps Swinburne, don’t have that. He talks about three levels of generality: a) domain-specific, b) not domain-specific but not universal (eg statistics) and c) universal, meaning that it applies to all domains or all attempts to gain knowledge. He then moves on to talking about what he considers the main dilemma for natural theology: they need to have a a), a domain-specific set of methods that are justified in some way. But they don’t want to stick too close to science and other forms of scholarly work, because applying those methods to theology hasn’t worked out well for theology. However, if they don’t use those sorts of intellectually respectable methods, how will they be able to demonstrate that their methods are intellectually respectable?

The big problem is that Philipse seems to place philosophy squarely in c) and doesn’t really allow for their methods to produce a) level methods … and, in doing so, ends up limiting the intellectually respectable methods to empirical and broadly scientific ones. For the most part, he asks that the natural theologians use methods similar to those found in the sciences or in history, but not ones found in epistemology or ethics or even philosophy of mind, where empirical data is important but generally doesn’t settle anything. As such, his demand ends up being that natural theologians have to justify things scientifically or else they have to invent methods that aren’t respectable, which is a false dichotomy. It also doesn’t reflect the views of many theologians, and also the state of the field as is.

Classical theists, for example, have a full theology that cannot be evaluated empirically, or with the methods of history. But it can be evaluated with the methods of philosophy of religion, and philosophy in general. And, in fact, it has been so evaluated, for many, many, many, many years. For the most part, every religion that is strongly focused on theology has a method for looking at things, and those methods can be evaluated and justified or challenged by the philosophical field of philosophy of religion, just as philosophy of science can do that for science. Thus, how a theology validates its a) methodology if it isn’t just one of those that are commonly used is through philosophy of religion, which has been more than willing to do that for quite some time. So you have to get down to the specifics of the theology, and not just hope for something that applies to all of them.

Thus, here, Philipse ends up selecting his preferred methodologies and demanding that natural theology follow them, or else be considered not intellectually respectable. But that methodology is broadly and strongly empirical and probabilistic … and most theologies don’t accept that methodology. For good reason. Classical theists have their conceptual argument, and demonstrate the consequences of that conceptual argument, and see no need and no ability to do empirical examinations of the matter. And it does seem hard to demonstrate that an all-knowing, all-powerful, creator being exists by looking really, really hard for one. But this isn’t unique to theology, as these sorts of debates over what the right methodology is are common in ethics, epistemology, and philosophy of mind. Even given the rise of neurology, there is still much debate over whether neurology actually gets at mind or instead just studies the brain, and there are many good arguments that say that we need more than that to really get at mind. Ultimately, part of doing the philosophical work in a field is determining what your a) ought to be, and justifying that. Philipse gives a number of examples of how to validate your a) methodology, but there are more ways than that, and than the empirical.

I cannot escape the conclusion here that Philipse find Swinburne’s approach the most promising because it already uses methodologies that he considers respectable. But someone who, like me, distrusts Bayesian analyses and probabilistic justifications of beliefs is not going to feel the same way, and so his attempt to establish that something like that is needed and that Swinburne’s approach is the best one falls a bit flat.

Thus ends the first part. It’s a pretty meaty part, wading in to views and comments that are heavy and often somewhat obscure. There are definitely points in there, even points that I have criticized, that I would need to read again and gather more information on to properly understand, express, and criticize. That being said, there are fundamental disconnects between my epistemological views and Philipse’s that cannot be resolved by more understanding of what we mean, and because of that I find Philipse’s demands and little, well, overly demanding. I don’t see why I need to have the justifications and the sorts of justifications that he demands in order to have a rational belief, and even to rationally believe that my belief is rational. Philipse, it seems to me, falls into the common trap of insisting that in order for me to be rational in believing that X, I have to be able to present it that it is also rational for him to believe that X, which is an argument that I strongly deny. Indeed, his rational5 seems to encapsulate that very idea, and that was what he wanted to establish. I don’t think he did. But, at any rate, we’ll move on to the second part where he talks about theism as a theory.

Philipse on the Rationality of Beliefs

October 28, 2014

I have to admit that I found Chapter 5, where Philipse tries to outline what it would take for a belief in God to be rational, very, very confusing. I did a lot of epistemology in my day, but a lot of the distinctions he was drawing were a bit foreign to me, and so to really understand the distinctions he’s trying to make I’d probably have to go back over and read it again, and read more on the subject. That being said, one of my confusions wasn’t really due to that at all, and made me realize a major issue that’s been running through the entire debate up until now.

Philipse draws a distinction between internalist and externalist accounts of, I guess, justification. But he characterizes the externalist view as being reliablism — the idea that you are justified in believing that X if your belief that X was produced by a reliable truth-forming faculty — and contrasting it with the internalist view that justifies belief on the basis of reasons. Now, since Philipse takes the internalist view as being the most reasonable, and I’m an avowed reliablist, I wasn’t exactly going to find that view credible. But the most puzzling thing about this is that it seems to be rather self-defeating. How would we know that appealing to reasons produces true beliefs? If appealing to reasons, in any manner, is a process it has to be demonstrated to be a process that produces true beliefs, and in that sense it has to be justified by reliablism. If one rejects a reliablist justification there, it sounds like an claim that the internalist account justifies by reasons but sees no need to determine if that process of finding reasons to justify a claim produces true beliefs the majority of the time … which hardly seems like justification at all. So it doesn’t seem, to me, like you can actually divide reliablism from justification by reasons the way Philipse wants to.

But this made me realize an underlying issue with the entire exercise: there are two questions to be asked here. The first is “Is a person’s religious belief rational?”. The second is “Does that person reasonably believe that their religious belief is rational?”. I don’t want to claim that Philipse thinks that these are the same question, because there are a number of indications — including the internalist/externalist distinctions that he makes in this chapter — that he does. He just seems to think that the first question is meaningless if the person can’t answer the second question. But this gets into first and second order knowledge.

The idea is basically this: if I have a belief that is a justified true belief, then I know that proposition is true. So, in terms of first-order knowledge, the statement “I know that X” is true; I really do know that X is true. Now, the second-order knowledge statement is “I know that I know that X”, which would mean that I have a justified true belief that my belief that X is a justified true belief. Now, in this case it seems quite clear that I could merely believe that I know that X, and so have first-order knowledge but not have second-order knowledge. But this wouldn’t mean that I would no longer have that first-order knowledge, or even that my belief that I have first-order knowledge was irrational. It seems, then, that I could know that X without being able to justify, at least to the level of knowledge, that I really do know that.

Now Philipse, I imagine, will reply that what I’m saying is the externalist view, and he thinks the externalist view isn’t a good one. He’d try to assert, I think, that you can’t credibly claim to know something unless you can justify that you know it, but as seen above that gets into at least a claim that you have to have a justified belief that you know or are rational in believing that you know or rationally believe that X. The problem with this though is that you start getting into third and fourth and higher degrees of knowledge. Sticking with knowledge for a moment, if in order to know that X I have to know that I know that X, then in order to know that I know that X I have to know that I know that I know that X, and in order to know that I know that I know that X I have to know that I know that I know … well, you should be getting the idea by now. So insisting that one must know that they know something — ie be able to justify it to that level — before being rational in making that claim simply isn’t workable; it simply is not possible for us to parse out all the orders of knowledge that we’d need to be able to make that claim, and if Philipse decides to arbitrarily stop at second order knowledge then we can ask why we shouldn’t just stop at first order knowledge and call it a day.

It seems to me here that Philipse’s main concern isn’t so much about justifying the belief to yourself, but about justifying it to others. In short, it seems to me that in order to consider a belief in God rational, it has to be the case that the person has to be able to answer the question “Why is it that you think your belief in God is rational?”. But that’s a question that I answer from other people, not from myself. Thus, at this point, Philipse’s argument seems to work more as a demand from those who don’t believe in God to demonstrate that their belief is rational, and thus to justify the rationality of their belief to others. Sure, Philipse can justify it as a claim that you can’t consider a belief rational unless you yourself know why it is rational, but this is certainly not an uncontroversial claim for a number of reasons.

First, we can return to Plantinga. If Plantinga says that someone’s belief in God is rational because they do have a properly functioning sensus divintatis, and that therefore their belief was produced by a reliable truth-forming faculty, then it is just true that they know that God exists … even if they can’t prove that. And thus any evidence from people who come to different conclusions is meaningless; one is right, one is wrong, but we know not which one. If someone accepts this, then any demand Philipse would make for them to justify their belief is nothing more than a demand from someone else to prove to them that their belief is true or justified … and under the Reformed Objection that’s not acceptable. Their belief is factual or it is not, and they don’t know which yet. But it is the belief they have, and that someone else doesn’t share it is no reason for them to reject the belief they have.

Second, we can take someone who accepts the Web of Belief. The answer is almost the same: this is the belief I have. It fits in my Web of Belief without contradictions, and when I act on it no new contradictions appear. So, why should I consider it irrational if I can’t point to some kind of sufficient justification for its rationality? Being in the Web and causing no contradictions is enough to get basic rationality. So simply because someone demands a justification doesn’t mean that not being able to provide a justification means that the belief is irrational. At best, it demonstrates that I don’t know it true.

So, in both cases, I think the reply to Philipse is that unless he can demonstrate that the belief is irrational, it’s fine for me to consider it rational as long as it passes some basic tests for rationality, and that doesn’t mean Philipse evaluating the purported reasons against some standard that he himself sets. He can try to demand sufficient reasons for natural theology, because natural theology and theology in general should be about providing those sorts of reasons. But simple, every day belief need not be, as Plantinga and the Web of Belief demonstrate.

Phillipse on the Reformed Objection

October 23, 2014

So, a while ago I took up the challenge of reading Phillipse’s “God in the Age of Science?”. It didn’t go that well. What happened is that I was going along fine, things were going well … and then I hit the section on Plantinga (Chapters 3 and 4). And I wanted to say stuff about it. And, as is usual for me, I just never got around to writing that post. Now, I could have just gone ahead and kept reading, but I had also noticed that when I did that I, in general, never went back to write up those little things that I wanted to talk about. So I decided to wait. And I waited … and waited … and waited.

So, here’s the post. I’ve decided not to go back and re-read the chapters in detail, so this is mostly from memory with some spot checking, so I might be misremembering or misinterpreting him. But I don’t think it matters much for what I have to say anyway.

The most interesting thing is that what Phillipse relies on against Plantinga is essentially a variation of the geography argument: you could think that you have a sensus divinitatis and feel justified in that claim, except that there are other people who have come to a different conclusion than you have, which means that it isn’t justified. This is an interesting tack to take because as we’ve already seen Plantinga has already taken on that argument and found it wanting. So it’s interesting that Phillipse is relying on an argument against Plantinga that Plantinga has already dealt with … and doesn’t seem to have addressed that point. And he points out that he ran his chapter by Plantinga, and yet still didn’t feel the need to address that argument. What gives?

Well, it turns out that the argument doesn’t depend on any kind of Geography Argument at all, but is instead an argument that if two people claim to be using the same method and come to different conclusions, then at least one of those people are wrong. So if A uses their sensus divinitatis to conclude that the Christian God exists, and if B uses their capacity to come to the conclusion that the Hindu god exists, then we have an issue, as both are using the same method here; you can’t appeal to the method itself to settle the tie. So, then, we need some kind of external justification to claim that A’s capacity is working and is correct, or vice versa. And it doesn’t look like we can get that without having some kind of rational argumentation, or a rational natural theology. And Phillipse’s whole point here is that you can’t use this sort of argument to do an end run around needing a rational natural theology.

Now, as one of my initial objections stated, this might work against a knowledge claim, insisting that theists can’t use this to claim that they know God exists. This doesn’t work at all against someone who merely wants to feel that their belief is rational. Because while Phillipse talks a lot about how you have no reason to choose your conclusions over those of theirs, that only matters if you are making a universal knowledge claim. If you are just trying to decide what to believe, you have every reason to trust your conclusion more: it’s your conclusion. If you read the Bible and just feel that a certain conclusion is true, then the fact that someone else tells you that they get the opposite reading isn’t going to and ought not sway you from your conclusion. It may cast doubt on your conclusion, but it doesn’t prove their conclusion either. And there’s no real reason to force yourself to a neutral stance just because someone else comes to the opposite conclusion. So this doesn’t impact theists who aren’t making knowledge claims at all.

And the discussions of how the sensus divinitatis might be like sense perception or memory are more revealing. Phillipse tries to argue that perceptions contain a link to truth and to truth making that this capacity couldn’t have. But we all know that the truth of sense perceptions is not exactly justified itself. So, if we imagine that the sensus divinitatis works like sense perception, that means that when someone reads the Bible or sees that wonderful natural sight the truth of God’s existence seems to come onto them full blown. It just seems obvious to them that God exists and has certain properties. And if that’s the case, then we have to ask ourselves: what would we think if we saw something, and someone standing beside us said that they saw something different? In general, if I see something, I am justified in claiming to know that I see that, and from there am justified in saying that the thing exists and exists as I saw it. If someone else says that they saw something different, but we can’t check it in any other way, am I no longer justified in claiming to know that that thing exists? Are they? Sure, at least one of us is wrong, but all that means is that we are wrong about our knowledge claim, not that we aren’t justified in claiming knowledge. Unless you insist that knowledge requires certainty and that you can’t claim to know something unless you are certain that you are correct that you know it, which pretty much everyone rejects.

Now, it can be argued that with sense perceptions we have a way of testing our conclusions and settling which of us is right, which can’t be done with the sensus divinitatis. The problem is that we don’t really have that for sense impressions; every test we could do to test our sense perceptions requires us to assume that our sense perceptions are correct in the first place, which then is assuming what we were trying to prove. The sensus divinitatis has a different problem; we could use our sense perceptions to test it, but it doesn’t really make claims that are amenable to testing by sense perception. So it looks like, in that sense, we have a similar problem for both, for different reasons.

The key might be in what Phillipse specifically says:

…what is present in perception and triggers these basic beliefs is not identical with their truth-makers. … these Christians are reading the Bible; they are not reading God.

This sounds like a claim that when we see the world, we see the world, but that’s not the case for the sensus divinitatis; when we read the Bible, we don’t experience God. But that there’s really a world to see is in fact the challenge for sense perception, and the claim listed above is that it might just spring on us as a fully-formed conclusion that God exists from reading the Bible. So that doesn’t seem like a promising line of argumentation. However, what I think he might be getting at here is that the reason we trust our sense experiences is because they, in and of themselves, present the idea of an external world to us and their conclusions are indistinguishable from that — ie the instant we have a sense experience we believe that they are telling us about an external world, no matter what experience we have — it seems that in general when reading the Bible we wouldn’t come to the conclusion that God exists except for the fact that the Bible itself tells us that explicitly. We don’t read the Bible and think “Ah, God!” as an inherent part of the reading, but instead read the Bible telling us that God exists and that triggers our belief that God exists. So, in this case, the idea is not spawned in us by the Bible simply by experiencing the Bible, but is instead spawned in us by the Bible telling us and arguing for the conclusion. Thus, we always have to doubt our experience, and wonder if we would have the same experience without the argument. This isn’t true for sense experience, which is why that can be a basic belief and the sensus divinitatis can’t be.

How far this gets Phillipse is unclear. He might have good cause to make against using this sort of revelation as a knowledge claim, but that won’t impact belief. And the parallels with sense perception are a lot closer than he seems to admit. But from here we move on to more natural theology, and then into the bulk of his argument.

How NOT to do critical thinking …

September 16, 2014

So, the whole mess that started over three years ago with Elevatorgate and that led to discussions of harassment policies, and to Atheism+, and to not Atheism+ and all sorts of other things … hasn’t died yet. The latest big issue is over something that Sam Harris said that people had a problem with, as it might have implied that women weren’t as good at critical thinking as men. Sam Harris tried to clarify it, and a number of people, including P.Z. Myers have taken it on.

I want to focus on Myers’ discussion of Harris’ comment and response, because I think it highlights a number of problems with the critical thinking skills of these people who claim to value critical thinking above all. For anyone curious, I’m going to give Harris a bit of a free pass on that because despite the fact that I think he’s not all that great at reasoning, in this case it was an off-the-cuff response and his reply, while a bit huffy, didn’t seem to be overreaching that much.

So, Myers’ first shot is about the title of Harris post, which was “I’m not the sexist pig you’re looking for”. Myers’ reply:

Wrong. Right from the title, he gets it all wrong. Here’s how he could easily defuse the whole situation: acknowledge that what he said was wrong, and move on. “I spoke off the cuff, and I said things that were invalid and perpetuate the problem of sexism in atheism. I apologize, and will try to do better.” Over. No problem. We’d all be able to move on, and would appreciate that he’s trying.

This is a depressingly common statement. Essentially, it boils down to this: in a situation where people think that something you said is wrong, and are angrily denouncing you as a terrible person or as having some kind of deep personal flaw for saying it, the right thing for you to do is simply say “You’re right, I’m wrong, and I’m sorry” … even if you don’t think what you said was wrong. No, the right way to respond to people who you think are saying things that are wrong or that are interpreting you wrong and unfairly is to simply agree that they’re right, apologize, and leave your own opinions buried deep inside your mind where no one will ever have to see those ugly, ugly things again … even if you’re convinced that they’re true.

Okay, okay, this is definitely a bit of hyperbole … but only to the extent that I’d be ascribing a conscious intent to them. Arguments like this only work when a) you’re right and b) you’ve demonstrated to that person that you’re right. Once you’ve both agreed that, yes, you were right and they were wrong, then the right response is for the person to admit that they’re wrong and apologize. But before that, there is no reason for them to so meekly accept your position. This goes doubly is they think you’ve misrepresented their position, as their first duty is to say “Okay, that’s not how I meant it” and correct it. They might, if they are being excessively polite, apologize for being unclear, but that’s as far as it goes.

And no, simply angrily asserting that you’re right and posting some links isn’t demonstrating that they’re wrong.

The current fad of unconsciously building “Because I’m right” into your suggestions of what people should and shouldn’t do is a source of great annoyance to me …

Anyway, moving on. In a response to part of Harris’ post saying that he wasn’t talking about all atheists, just the active ones, Myers replies:

Yes, we know. We’re not idiots. We understood exactly what you said, which is that actively engaged atheists are men, because reasons. That’s actually the question…why do you think that is so?

Um, Dr. Myers? Greta Christina — you know her right? She blogs at your network? — accused him of doing just that:

Sam Harris is just factually wrong. Globally, there is no gender split in atheism. Globally, women and men are religious, not religious, and convinced atheists at about the same rate. In fact, globally, women are slightly more likely to be atheists than men (although that difference is small, probably too small to be significant).

It’s a really bad move to so dismissively argue that he didn’t need to clarify a point because everyone knew what he was talking about when it was a point that people had claimed he was just factually wrong about and called him out angrily over. Just an FYI.

Now, I don’t like to break up paragraphs too much when quoting, because context is actually pretty important to understanding what people are saying, but this next part just screams for doing that to really get the full impact of the issue:

Why? Why do you assume that “nurturing” is feminine? It often is …

Translation: Why do you assume that “nurturing” is feminine? You’re right that it is, but why would you argue that?

If nurturing is indeed generally associated with femininity, which it often is, and if you accept that it often is, then what’s the problem here? You look like you’re demanding proof of a point that both of you accept, for the most part.

Now, being completely fair, Myers does have another objection:

…because of early culturization and because of widespread assumptions about the nature of women, but you yourself asserted that these differences were intrinsic — “that critical posture that is to some degree intrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women” — rather than perhaps some phenomenon of social conditioning that might be corrected by men being perhaps a little less belittling.

So, the underlying complaint is not about saying that women tend towards nurturing as opposed to more aggressive postures, but instead assuming that it is innate. Okay, but there are two problems with this as a criticism of Harris:

1) He concedes that in his reply (in one of the earlier points:

3. My work is often perceived (I believe unfairly) as unpleasantly critical, angry, divisive, etc. The work of other vocal atheists (male and female) has a similar reputation. I believe that in general, men are more attracted to this style of communication than women are. Which is not to say there aren’t millions of acerbic women out there, and many for whom Hitchens at his most cutting was a favorite source of entertainment. But just as we can say that men are generally taller than women, without denying that some women are taller than most men, there are psychological differences between men and women which, considered in the aggregate, might explain why “angry atheism” attracts more of the former. Some of these differences are innate; some are surely the product of culture.

So, sure, it might be cultural, according to Harris, and/or partly biological, according to Harris. Who can say?

2) Whether biological or cultural, that doesn’t invalidate it as an explanation for why you don’t see as many active female atheists as active male atheists. As long as women are drawn to a less aggressive approach and atheist conferences have that more aggressive approach, less of them are going to find it appealing. Thus, the question for Myers et al is “Is this true? And if it is, how can we change it without losing the aggressive approach that we all personally — male and female — love so much?”

Myers goes on:

What you did was clearly place the blame for the situation on the essential natures of women, rather than recognizing that it’s a consequence of the social environment…in which, perhaps, the existence of male leaders who are dismissive of the capability of most women to contribute leads to more women feeling less interested in contributing. Perhaps the fault lies in people like you, rather than in the women who are reduced by your attitude?

Now, above Myers was talking about enculturation from childhood … which is obviously not something that Harris himself is going to have or have had a major influence on. Here, it looks like he’s talking about the culture or social environment of the conferences, and not in the “We’re not nurturing” way and more the “Women can’t contribute” way … which Harris never asserted and, in fact, again, denied:

Nothing in my remarks was meant to suggest that women can’t think as critically as men or that they are more likely to be taken in by bad ideas. Again, I was talking about a fondness for a perceived style of religion bashing with which I and other vocal atheists are often associated.

If Myers had simply repeated the ideas of ways to make conferences more welcoming to women, that would have been a far better approach than this seeming criticism that missed the mark entirely. The only way this can be even a reasonable criticism is if it is based on an argument that the more aggressive style is the only way to contribute, which Harris never says and Myers ought not believe.

I could continue on through the comments about “My best friend is X”, but they again aren’t much of an argument, so I won’t bother. Suffice it to say that if you want to actually address and refute what Harris said … you really ought to deal with what he actually said, with arguments and evidence … especially if you want to claim to respect “critical thinking”.

God in the Age of Science, Part 1

July 26, 2014

So, I did receive “God in the Age of Science?” on July 16th, and immediately read four chapters. And then got busy and didn’t read any more since then. But I’d like to comment briefly on my very first impressions of the book and on the first couple of chapters or so. I have a more detailed commentary planned for chapters 3 and 4 … whenever I get around to it [grin].

First, on tone, the tone isn’t particularly aggressive, which is a plus, in my opinion, for a book like this. A few stylistic notes: he doesn’t seem, at least not yet, to have Prinz’s obsession with presenting all of the counter-arguments in as detailed and precise a manner as possible, although he does indeed address counter-arguments, which is nice. The second is that he seems to be fond of Derek Parfit’s style — which, to be fair, is fairly popular in philosophy in general — of stating what he sees as the obvious conclusion to an argument as if it was, well, obvious, except Philipse does it through rhetorical questions while Parfit uses out-and-out statements. Unfortunately, both of them have a tendency to do it without giving any further explanation and in cases where the conclusion is not or at least may not yet be clear, which always chafes me a bit. Philipse’s approach is a bit less annoying, leaving you wanting more rather than automatically wanting to challenge him, but still it would be better if these things were presented as the results of full arguments rather than as asides.

But that’s not all that important. The big goal in the first section is to demonstrate that you can’t have or rely on revealed knowledge or, perhaps, revelation in general to justify a belief in God, but instead even for revelation will have to rely on either empirical evidence or reasoning to justify your case, or else you’ll be irrational. This last part is actually pretty controversial, because it risk conflating rational belief and being justified in claiming to know something, and a lot of the arguments particularly against reformed revelation (in Chapters 3 and 4) do rely on that. But remember that theism is a belief in the existence of one or more theistic gods, not necessarily a knowledge claim. As someone who doesn’t make the knowledge claim, it’s going to be easy to say “Can we believe that rationally, though?” as a response to most of this. More on that when I look at chapters 3 and 4 specifically.

The biggest flaw in the first two chapters, though, is probably in his discussions of contradictions in the Bible and how they can’t be resolved through revelation, which for him seems to be “Reading the Bible and thinking really hard about it, which may include noting the contradictions and resolving them through the text”. While few people will deny that there are some at least difficult things to resolve in the Bible, for this point to work they have to be virtually impossible to resolve, and his examples aren’t that hard to resolve. For example, he cites a contradiction between Jesus and Paul over whether works or following the Laws are what is required to get to heaven, and notes that this one is unresolvable. Except it’s very easy to resolve for most Christians: if there’s a contradiction between something that Paul said and something that Jesus himself said, you go with Jesus, and Paul either got it wrong or should be taken another way. Philipse could have found a similar contradiction between the purported words of Jesus himself, but I suspect that those would be easier to reconcile on interpretation. Now, for Philipse’s point disowning Paul’s revelations might support not trusting revelation since there are times when it gets things wrong, and you don’t really know when it’s getting things wrong or not, but that isn’t the tack he’s taking in those chapters, and thus it’s about the contradictions being unresolvable … but he leaves himself open to the counter of “Says who?”.

If he took revelation as a method that had to reveal itself directly to the person in full form, then he’d have a point. But as soon as he allows for reflection, any philosopher should know that there are many, many ways to resolve seeming contradictions in a work (seeing how that’s done for, say, Kant, for example), and so his comment that taking a revelatory approach to the Bible leads to unresolvable contradictions is weaker than it needs to be to make his point. And if he takes that approach as requiring reason and so doing natural theology, then he seems to contradict his original discussions and, in fact, the reformed approach to revelation that he discusses in chapters 3 and 4 as if it really could save revelation. So contradictions, though a popular argument, don’t seem to support his case as well as he’d like them to. But this shouldn’t be a big issue for his overall thesis, and so probably isn’t worth worrying about.

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.


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