Archive for May, 2012

“Doctor Co-oyne, You’ve Done it Again!”

May 31, 2012

So, Jerry Coyne has returned to the “scientism” debate, replying to comments by Philip Kitcher about Coyne’s comments. One of the very first things Kitcher says is that he isn’t trying to defend religion as a way of knowing, and yet Coyne spends much time talking about religion and thus not addressing Kitcher. Thus, he reminds me of Durkon in this “Order of the Stick” comic: “I jes hate them religions so” …

Anyway, what he does yet again is argue about how the humanities don’t really produce “knowledge” in the scientific sense based on a proposition that … could only be known in the humanities sense and not the scientific sense:

In the opening example of his TNR essay, Philip uses the bombing of Dresden as an example of how the humanities (moral philosophy) lead to some kind of “knowledge.” But, I submit, realizing that bombing Dresden was immoral is not knowledge in any scientific sense (or even the car-mechanic sense), but a subjective judgment. Sam Harris nonwithstanding, I don’t think there’s any such thing as an objective morality: there are only things that conform to a morality that rests on subjective values (in Sam’s case, it is good to maximize well being). So no, it was not objectively immoral to bomb Dresden: it was immoral if you accept the premise—as nearly all of us do—that it is usually wrong to inflict unnecessary death and injury on innocent civilians in wartime (there is still the question of the inevitable and unplanned collateral damage that occurs in any war).

He bases his rejection of the bombing of Dresden being something that we “know” is morally wrong based on his rejection of moral objectivism. He thinks that all morality is subjective. But, does he know that? If he knows it, then how did he come to know it? Surely it was through philosophical work on morality, or at least considerations that would look a lot like it. But that would be the sort of thing that he claims doesn’t produce “knowledge”, and so he couldn’t know it. Alternatively, he could reject that he “knows” that, but only believes it or thinks it plausible. But if he doesn’t “know” that to be the case, it seems to be a fairly weak basis for his claim that Kitcher’s claim is not getting us an objective truth, or fact, and therefore that it isn’t getting us knowledge. And this is putting aside the discussion of whether we can have subjective knowledge.

So, again, Positivist Petard: your proposition that moral philosophy does not produce “knowledge” relies on a proposition that if it can be known at all can only be known through moral philosophy, so you can’t know that proposition and so you can’t know that moral philosophy does not produce “knowledge”.

Coyne also makes a distinction between types of “knowledge” in a few places:

But, I submit, realizing that bombing Dresden was immoral is not knowledge in any scientific sense …

Morality is not the same thing as the knowledge that science produces …

This is in response to Kitcher’s comments about the humanities giving us conceptual knowledge, which Coyne doesn’t really think is knowledge:

But so what? Those ruminations must still be tested by empirical observation, reason, and experiment. “Concept formation” is not a way of knowing, but a way of stimulating the confection of hypotheses. Those hypotheses become knowledge only when one applies the methods of science or secular reason.

So, yes, Coyne is exactly right that conceptual knowledge is not really the sort of knowledge that science — narrowly construed — provides, and iti s indeed true that that sort of knowledge only does stimulate the confection of hypotheses for science narrowly defined. So, yes, it can indeed be said that humanities like philosophy produce a different type of knowledge than science does, where philosophy produces conceptual knowledge and science produces what we can call “instantial knowledge”, knowledge about the specific instances of concepts in this world. But both of these are still knowledge. There is absolutely no reason to claim that conceptual knowledge is not, in fact, knowledge. It’s not scientific knowledge, but it’s still knowledge. Which leads to Coyne’s problems with the term scientism:

I’d prefer to see the word “scientism” quietly shelved, replaced by more specific charges like “scientists sometimes overreach themselves” or “scientists denigrate the value of literature.” Those, at least, are charges that can be documented and discussed using evidence. The general charge of “scientism,” slippery of definition, can’t be. And worst of all, that charge is leveled most often by religious people, whose own methods of knowing are wholly incapable of conveying truth. But that is my issue, not Philip’s.

Well, I defined the types of scientism here, in my series on Scientism. I don’t think these are in any way “slippery”, and none of these are the charges Coyne says are the charges he’d prefer. And as I don’t consider religion a way of knowing, it’s clearly a non-religious exception. And yet we can see that Coyne’s “This is not scientific knowledge” fits my definition of scientism:

2) Narrow Scientism

Narrow Scientism consists of narrowing the areas of interest or subject matters so that science is the only one that matters. It can appear even with broader definitions of science, though, so don’t think it just applies to the very narrow definitions.

1) Arguing that the only areas of fields other than science that are interesting are those that are interesting to science. So, arguing that only ethics or some parts of logic are interesting from philosophy or that only those parts of mathematics that help model the world in science — generally the more narrow forms, of course — are examples of this. Also trying to justify the use or invention of mathematics solely on the fact that it might benefit science in the future would count. The problem with this is that while that is indeed what might interest scientists about that field, it’s not going to be what interests the people in that field, nor should it be. The fields themselves get to decide what is or isn’t of interest to them, and science is free to help itself to what of that interests it. And if science would like the other fields to focus on something specific that interests them, they could always ask politely and in general the other fields will be happy to oblige.

2) Limiting the subject matter of knowledge to that which is directly about the empirical, experienced world that science studies. So, for example, claiming that mathematics doesn’t give knowledge because mathematical entities don’t actually exist in the world. The problem with this, of course, is that the other fields have their own subject matters, and there’s no reason to think that knowledge has to be about the world that science studies, and in fact all the evidence we have is against this.

I can only imply 2.1 from his comments about how morality can be useful, but his argument is explicitly 2.2: if it’s not empirical/testable in that way, it isn’t really knowledge because it isn’t the sort of thing that science produces. Thus, Coyne is engaging in scientism in his reply … no slipperiness involved.

Now look what you made me do …

May 30, 2012

I’m actually seriously considering taking a theology degree which would mean, specifically, dropping out of Cognitive Science to do so. This despite the fact that philosophy of religion is something like 7th on my list of philosophically interesting fields (after luge) and that I’ve never done theology before, at least not in any detail … even in my posts on this blog.


  • Cognitive science is boring me because with my philosophy and computer science degrees there’s little there that I haven’t already heard.
  • I’m also having a hard time taking Cognitive Science courses because they don’t align well with my schedule.
  • The same thing seems to apply to other degrees, like Classics or History.
  • There is a theological college fairly conveniently located, whose classes seem at least for now reasonably scheduled.
  • Every time I look at theology there’s more to it than I might have originally thought (I want to do a post soon on the Catholic doctrine of revelation).
  • I’ve suddenly become very interested in comparing Stoic philosophy and Christianity, because it seems to me that one of the main reasons I disagree so much with humanists when they go on ethically inspired rants is that they oppose ethical principles that I see in the Stoics and am quite partial to.

I’ll have to think about this a bit more, and see how it will work out. But it looks do-able, and so it’s something that might interest me … and only take about 6 years to finish. But at least I might finish it, although I’m more interested in graduate level than undergraduate, but that’s getting really complicated.

Reduced, Reused, Recycled.

May 29, 2012

The latest Not-So-Casual Commentary is up.

Those who do not study philosophy are doomed to repeat it …

May 23, 2012

Ah, Jerry Coyne is talking about scientism again, and has trotted out his standard reply:

…I still await the questions that non-empirical ways of knowing can answer about the world.

Well … that one, actually.

Let me clarify. Coyne here is clearly asking the question, as he has done more explicitly before, of if there is any knowledge or true propositions that can be reached non-empircally, or if we can ever have a non-empirical way of knowing itself. Coyne, it seems to me, thinks that you can’t, and that all knowledge is based on empirical data. Despite his qualification of not having closed his mind, he clearly thinks that it is true that all knowledge has an empirical basis or is judged or justified empirically. And if he thinks that, then we can ask him this: Can you justify the proposition “There is no non-empirical knowledge” empirically?

Now, if he can, then he would, of course, have the answer to his question, and he would no longer need to await those questions, because he would have proven — to whatever standard of “proven” he thinks gives us knowledge — that there can’t be. So if he knows that the proposition is true and can justify that empirically, it seems his best strategy would be to do just that, and settle it, instead of asking those who are skeptical of that proposition to prove him wrong.

But I suspect that he doesn’t do that because he can’t. And if he can’t prove that proposition empirically, then there are only two options, neither of which should be palatable. The first is to try to prove it true, but to do so non-empirically. This, of course, can’t actually be done, because then we’d have to have knowledge of something that we can only demonstrate non-empirically which states that you can’t actually have knowledge of anything that’s only demonstrated non-empirically. The other alternative is to say that he can’t demonstrate it true and so doesn’t know that it’s true. At which point, our reply would be that then he’s giving us no reason to accept it as true and reduce our skepticism.

Ultimately, this shows that Coyne’s proposition is what I’ll name the Postivist Petard, since catchy names seem all the rage these days. It follows on from logical positivism, which gained the honour of being the only philosophical theory that philosophy has actually claimed is completely and unredeemably false by running into this problem, which is: Declaring that X is the only way to justify knowledge claims while the proposition “X is the only way to justify knowledge claims” cannot be justified with X. If you do that, you end up with the key proposition being unjustifiable by your own favoured method, and so you would be using an unjustified and unjustifiable proposition in your argument … if anyone takes your argument seriously. Which, once you do that, no one will.

Thus, Coyne has his answer … unless he can demonstrate it empirically.

Now, Coyne can try to escape the burden of proof here by arguing that he doesn’t think that he knows that proposition, but instead merely thinks it plausible and that we all either should or generally do also find it plausible. Well, first, philosophy itself long ago found that proposition quite implausible, which is why logical positivism was defeated in the first place. Second, the proposition seems implausible the instant we recognize why Coyne’s response is to ask for an answer. We can’t go out and look at all of the propositions we’ve currently come to know and see that they have all come to us through empirical observation, because that would lead us to the inductive fallacy. Thus, we can’t just look at what we have, and so Coyne is forced to ask for a counter-example. But doing that insists that the proposition is the default and only works in that case. But we have no reason to think that it should be the default, particularly given the fields — philosophy and mathematics, specifically — that say that empirical justification is not required for their propositions. Coyne, then, would have to deny that they produce knowledge or prove that all of their questions are justified empirically. The former runs him right back into a question that likely cannot be settled empirically, while the latter is difficult and still wouldn’t justify his claim. So, while he may indeed be able to do it, we seem quite justified in being skeptical that it will succeed, and so are justified in claiming his proposition implausible. And then we’re right back to Coyne having to justify the proposition, which is what this was supposed to free him from.

Another error that Coyne always makes is to demand that we demonstrate non-empirical ways of knowing. This seems to conflate being empirical in any sense with being the same way of knowing, or as Coyne puts it “… observation and reason”. The problem is that this can be denied: you can have empirical and rational methodologies that nevertheless are not the same way of knowing, and I argue that science indeed allows for this.

To prove this, I use Larry Moran’s definition of science, that claims that it is rational, empirical, and skeptical. I also then contrast it with everyday reasoning, which I concede is empirical and rational, but which is not skeptical. In our everyday reasoning, we do not withhold belief or knowledge claims until we have a massive preponderance of evidence, but instead simply accept the proposition that best “fits” as our working theory. Thus, everyday reasoning and science cannot be the same way of knowing, because science is skeptical and everyday reasoning is not. Coyne could deny this by arguing that skepticism is not a key part of science, but I doubt he would like that very much, so Moran’s definition seems safe. There could be arguments mustered to claim that everyday reasoning is in fact skeptical, but it would be hard for me to see what definition of “skeptical” could allow that.

So, then, let us turn to religion/theology. These, then, could be empirical and rational, and yet not be skeptical, and so would be ways of knowing that use empiricism and reason and yet are still not science. Now, the Argument from Design is primarily empirical. The Ontological Argument is primarily rational. The Cosmological Argument is both. Putting aside claims that the arguments are wrong, this would demonstrate that religion/theology uses both empiricism and reason in its arguments, and so is as empirical and rational in principle, as a “way of knowing” as science is. So, is it skeptical? Well, clearly any way of knowing that includes faith is not skeptical, by definition. Thus, like everyday reasoning, religion/theology can be both empirical and rational and yet be a different way of knowing to science … which shouldn’t surprise anyone, since it got its start from everyday reasoning.

Ultimately, the issue of scientism here and in general is in finding a way to exclude religion/theology while still including things like everyday reasoning, philosophy and mathematics. If you make your definition of science too broad, then it will end up making religion/theology science … which is not what incompatiblists like Coyne want. But if you make it too narrow, then things that we really do think are ways of knowing suddenly aren’t, and it seems only because you want to get religion/theology out of the “way of knowing” business. But if good religion/theology can be empirical and rational, then how can you include what includes those without including religion/theology as well? And if you want to include philosophy and mathematics, how do you do that without at least allowing for a way of knowing that at least some of the time doesn’t rely on empirical data?

Thus, hoisted by your own petard. The Positivist Petard, to be precise.

Winning the battle and losing the war …

May 23, 2012

So, P.Z. Myers is really annoyed. Okay, that’s not new. And he’s really annoyed about an argument that some theists use against atheism. Okay, again, not new. But what is at least partially new is that this argument is about morality, and the morality of Myers, and a stab at stating clearly an objective, secular morality, in response to a demand for it. And when he actually spells it out … well, let’s not spoil the surprise.

Anyway, Myers says in this post:

There is a common line of attack Christians use in debates with atheists, and I genuinely detest it. It’s to ask the question, “where do your morals come from?” I detest it because it is not a sincere question at all — they don’t care about your answer, they’re just trying to get you to say that you do not accept the authority of a deity, so that they can then declare that you are an evil person because you do not derive your morals from the same source they do, and therefore you are amoral. It is, of course, false to declare that someone with a different morality than yours is amoral, but that doesn’t stop those sleazebags.

Well, first, I, personally, when I ask that question am, in fact, genuinely interested in the answer, because one of the main issues with many atheists is that they reject at least potentially the common source of morality — religion — and yet claim to not only be moral, but also to be more moral than those who do follow religion. Which leads to the second point, which is that people like Myers aren’t exactly hesitant to declare people who have a different morality from them immoral or amoral, so this complaint isn’t fair at all, and is in fact hypocritical. After all, has Myers ever hesitated to call out those who think that you should not allow an abortion even when both will die horrible and evil, despite the fact that the judgement is simply based on a different morality? One that Myers dislikes, of course, but still just a different one.

(Which I always find interesting, because the Catholic morality in those cases is closer to the Stoic/Kantian moralities I favour than the Utilitarian inspired, at least, consequentialist views that people like Sam Harris espouse, and so I actually find those more reasonable than those of many of the New Atheists, even if I disagree with the specifics).

Anyway, Myers actually outlines his four rules — really considerations — for his objective humanist morality:

1. Interest. Am I even interested in carrying out a particular action? There’s a wide range of possible actions I can take at all times, and all of them have consequences. In this realm of possibilities, most options never come up: I have never been in situation where I desire or am compelled to torture a toddler, nor can I imagine a likely scenario for such an activity. It is a non-decision; my default choice is to not torture, and the only time the choice comes up is in bizarre abstract questions by not-very-bright philosophers.

2. Consent. If I’m contemplating an action, I’d next consider whether all participants agree to engage in the action. If it isn’t consensual, it probably isn’t a good idea.

Where does this value come from? Not gods, but self-interest. I do not want things done to me against my will, so I participate in a social contract that requires me to respect others’ autonomy as well. I also find a non-coercive, cooperative culture to better facilitate human flourishing.

3. Harm. I avoid behaviors that cause harm to others.

Again, this is not done because an authority told me to do no harm, but is derived from self-interest and empathy. I do not want to be harmed, so I should not harm others. And because I, like most human beings, have empathy, seeing harm done to others causes me genuine distress.

4. Stigma. This should be the least of my four reasons, but face it, sometimes we are constrained by convention. There are activities we all are interested in doing, that do no harm and may be done with consenting partners, but we keep them private or restrain ourselves to some degree because law or fashion demand it.

These are human and social constraints, not at all divine, and are also not universal or absolute — they can and do change over time. And sometimes, when cultural biases cause harm, I think we have a moral obligation to change the culture.

Here, then, is where he wins the battle — by being able to provide an answer to the question — and loses the war. Sure, here are his rules for morality, and so now we can see precisely how an atheist can, in fact, have a morality and at least potentially an objective one without God. Fair enough. The problem? It’s an Egoist morality. All of his rules are based on self-interest, either explicitly or implicitly.

1 is easy: his first consideration is what he wants to do. So, his first filtering criteria is if he wants to do it. Well, that’s not very interesting morally; where morality gets interesting is those cases where you would, for example — and using Myers’ example, no less — want to kill that toddler … or, alternatively, not want to kill that toddler even if it is your duty to do so. Which is why, in fact, those “not-very-bright philosophers” skip the “I don’t want to” parts in their thought experiments by giving you a reason to want to do it, or think it your duty to do it. It’s not an interesting question to ask if you ought to kill a random toddler on the street … but is an interesting question to ask if you should kill that baby that is the reincarnation of an all-powerful being who previously had killed many people and could and has threatened to destroy the entire universe, while it is currently vulnerable and this will be the only chance to end that threat (Marvel Comics, Secret Wars II, Issue #9. Most of the heroes won’t, but the Molecule Man decides to. A fascinating thought experiment). So, by giving you a reason to want to do something that you might not otherwise want to do, your morality can be tested to see what it really entails.

So, 1 is clearly self-interest.

2 doesn’t have to be self-interest, but Myers of course says that he bases it on self-interest, and so thus his rule 2 is justifed by self-interest.

3 is the same, except that he slips empathy in there. Of course, not doing something because it would make you feel bad is in and of itself self-interest, and morally one can argue that the truly moral person will do the right thing even if it would make them feel bad. Again, the Molecule Man didn’t like killing the baby, but he thought it was the only thing to do. In Secret Wars I, Reed Richards thinks that the right thing to do would be to let Galactus eat Battleworld, defeat his enemies, and get his wish granted: the freedom from his hunger that drives him to destroy entire planets and civilizations. Sacrificing himself and the lives of all the other heroes isn’t something that he likes to do, but he does it anyway. Later, Colossus votes with the group to attack Doom even though he clearly doesn’t want to and it makes him feel bad risking the woman he now loves for it. So empathy’s not relevant morally — at least in terms of “it makes me feel bad if I do it” — and it’s still self-interest.

So, 2 and 3 are also clearly self-interest for Myers.

This leaves 4, which is the social aspect. Myers doesn’t say explicitly, but it seems clear that implicitly he does it because it benefits him to do so or, at least, that he would be punished if he didn’t follow the social conventions. So this is self-interest as well.

Thus, Myers’ objective humanist morality is based entirely on self-interest. Which means that it is a selfish morality, where each person’s moral decisions are based entirely on calculations of their own benefit. Which should imply, then, that if there is any case where Myers can preserve his self-interest by breaking one of these rules, he logically ought to do so, since it is only self-interest that justifies his following these rules in the first place.

I have argued before that a lot of the New Atheist moral justifications implied a selfish morality, but I never expected one to just come out and say it so baldly. And thus, instead of asking where Myers’ morality comes from, we can know say that it is in fact a totally selfish morality, and one where they only do good things because it benefits them and not because it is right or, in fact, even good for the most people.

This does not seem like an improvement to me. If theists can claim that without God all you have are selfish and self-interested and self-centred moralities, where what is right is based only on what benefits you, then they can claim that the only moralities that can accommodate true altruism and true self-sacrifice are religious ones, grounded in God. At that point, Myers’ objective morality hardly seems like an acceptable morality at all, since most people reject the Egoist moralities of Hobbes and Rand. Thus, atheists who follow this are no longer amoral in the sense that they lack a proper moral code to follow, but are immoral in that they follow a dangerous and rejected morality based entirely on selfishness, even while they pretend to be noble and good.

No, this way to win the battle loses atheists the war. I think Myers should go back to the drawing board.

Freedom of Religion and the Secular State: Summary

May 22, 2012

So, finally, my overall thoughts on the book.

The starting point is an interesting one, but also one that I think most people can accept. After reading the book, I was discussing the “keep the peace and provide security” aspect of it with a co-worker who denied that that was what society and government was for, and yet I was eventally able to convince him that that is at least part of it by pointing out that while he thought he might be able to protect himself fully from all challenges, it would result in his living a life that he didn’t want to live. Thus, he wanted to be able to leave himself so vulnerable, and that was what the state provided. I also think that the only religious people who would deny this are those who absolutely want a theocracy; for everyone else, this seems reasonable.

But the main issue, again, is that moving from that reasonable starting point to his conclusion is not as easy a move, and everything depends on it. Thus, when he talks about the principles by which the State should be organized and particularly how religion and the law should interact, his arguments don’t really seem convincing … and, in fact, it looks like his starting point might justify the opposite conclusion. So definitely more work needs to be done on that before I, at least, will be convinced.

Unlike some other authors, Blackford does address opposing positions frequently, and seems to be presenting them fairly (although I cannot say for certain since I’m not familiar with the opposing viewpoints). This is nice and also helps to clarify what his position is.

Overall, the book is a good start, but is really only a start to the debate. It doesn’t even come close to ending it.

So why doesn’t he just take up philosophy?

May 21, 2012

For the most part in this series, I’m going to use the title of the essay in the book itself, but I couldn’t resist changing the title for this one, and you’ll see why in the minute.

The first essay in “Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy” is by Kate Rufa and is entitled “A Sherlockian Scandal in Philosophy”. After revealing her major crush on the good detective, the essay basically associates Holmes with the Spinozan ideal man, and argues that Holmes indeed meets the criteria for that except for one trait: his morphine and cocaine use.

Now, I’ve never studied Spinoza myself. I did talk with some students who were taking a class on Spinoza, and so in noting my own Stoic leanings they seemed to suggest that Spinoza was heavily influenced by the Stoics. So, perhaps, I should pick him up someday. Certainly Rufa’s comments about his dispassionate and logical approach fit well with the Stoics. To that end, I’d like to examine Holmes’ addition in light of Stoic principles, and argue that they do a better job of criticizing it than Spinoza would.

As is revealed in the essay, Holmes uses the drugs when times are slow, as a way to keep his mental faculties moving. Basically, if his mind is not challenged he becomes bored, and artificial stimulants can move him out of that for a time. Watson, of course, criticizes him for it because he knows the harm they can do.

Rufa uses Spinoza to address both parts. According to her, Spinoza argues that the ultimate goal is actualization, which can only come about through detailed logical and cognitive work. Holmes, then, is striving to stay in that fully actualized state as much as possible, and so uses the stimulants to stay there when the world itself does not provide it. However, Rufa also points out that existence is one of the highest principles according to Spinoza, and so that Holmes shortens his existence to stay in that state of actualization is irrational.

The Stoics would likely not object, at least, to the actualization argument, although they probably won’t demand it as much as Spinoza does. However, they will disagree with the existence principle. If your existence leads to irrationality — and here in Spinoza that would be slipping out of that fully actualized state — then your existence must give way. So, then, Holmes shortening his existence to stay in an actualized state is not, in fact, irrational … as long as shortening his existence is indeed the rational response.

And here’s where the title comes into play, because it seems that taking the artificial stimulants is not the rational response. What is the rational response is to take up other issues and other problems when his detective work doesn’t give him the problems he needs. Why, then, doesn’t he take up philosophy. Surely the philosophical problems of ethics or epistemology or other fields are challenging enough to provide him with plenty to think about in his lean times. And since they have been talked about over thousands of years, it isn’t like they’re pressing either, so it’s perfectly reasonable for him to treat it as a hobby. Or, heck, he could even do science, as at the time — and even today — there were more than sufficient problems to keep him and his investigative nature occupied. Philosophy requires less materials, but science sticks to his empirical strengths.

Thus, if Holmes wants to keep his mind occupied and thus stay in that state of actualization, there are plenty of alternatives for him. If his issue was that he needed drugs to calm his mind and his thoughts to avoid burning out, that would be another story. But since he’s looking for problems to at least examine, there are many problems for him to examine. He should never need artificial stimulation to stimulate his mind. And thus, his use of it is irrational.

So, again, why doesn’t Holmes just take up philosophy?

Freedom of Religion and the Secular State: Religious Accommodation

May 21, 2012

I don’t think it’s much if any exaggeration to say that the most important issue when discussing freedom of religion and the secular state is what happens when the secular laws and the religious laws clash. This is where the rubber meets the road, and where we really see what it means to have a secular state. So, this is the part of Blackford’s book that I was most interested in.

Blackford’s take on this is essentially this: The agreement between the secular state and religions is that the secular state handles the worldly and the religions handle the otherworldly. Thus, the secular state must legislate only on the consideration of worldly concerns. Thus, the laws they institute reflect and promote those worldly concerns, and must be applied to provide those worldly concerns. Thus, if they infringe on religious practice since they are not aimed at restricting religious practice they must still be considered worldly, and thus perfectly within the purview of the secular state to make regardless of the religious implications. Thus, religions must demonstrate a reason sufficient to the concerns of the secular state in order to get themselves exempted from it, which means that they must provide an overwhelming secular reason for the exemption. Thus, in general, religions must follow the secular laws unless they can give an exceptionally strong secular reason for doing so.

In a sense, for Blackford this isn’t as problematic as it might sound, because based on his very liberal and individualistic philosophical commitments he expects the State to stay out of a lot of things that might cause problems with religious practice. For example, he talks about an exemption for drug use not being required because the State shouldn’t be restricting that choice as well. However, those that are not so strongly liberal or individualistic will find that this is, in fact, quite a difference from how existing liberal democracies generally work. Is it justified?

Recall the starting point: to keep the peace, the State gives otherworldly concerns over to religions, while it restricts itself to the worldly. It seems to me that any time a secular law restricts religious practice, the State is thus breaking that agreement. Blackford, of course, agrees that doing it intentionally is clearly unacceptable — you can’t make a religious practice illegal because you want to kill that religion — but I would argue that doing it blindly out of a deliberate ignorance of religious practice is just as bad, if not worse. At least in the former case one can see where the opposition is and fight it as a clearly invalid encroachment on freedom of religion, but the blind impositions run the risk of simply running roughshod over religions without ever having any idea what it is actually doing, eliminating some otherworldly options without ever realizing that that is what one is doing. And if one eventually appeals back to the original starting point to say that completely eliminating a religion violates the initial agreement, it ultimately becomes quite reasonable to say that the agreement was violating long before that point.

So I take the exact opposite position to Blackford’s: religions must be accommodated and given exemptions from secular impacts unless there is a strong secular reason to include them in the law.

Let’s see how this could shake out in practice, using Locke’s cattle example that Blackford relies on:

1) If the religious practice does not fit the reasoning for why the law needs to be enacted in the first place, the religious practice must be exempt from it. So, if a law was raised against eating beef due to, say, concerns about obesity, but the slaughter of cattle in the religious practice isn’t for consumption, then the religious practice must be exempt. A better example might be serving communion wine to minors. Many jurisdictions have this as a law, but this is to avoid the perils of underage heavy drinking; the small amount in the religious ceremony has no risk of that, and so should be exempt.

2) If the secular reason for the law is not strong enough to overcome freedom of religion, then the religious practice must be exempted from the law. Thus, if the state enacted a ban on cattle slaughter to allow for there to be more to be exported in order to increase the GNP and thus slightly improve the economy, it would seem that this is insufficient a reason to interfere with religious practice. Thus, the religious practice should be exempted.

3) If the religious practice fits the purpose of the law, and the reason for the law is strong enough to overcome religious freedom, then the religious practice should not be exempted. A case might be made, for example, that if a slaughter and ban was put in place to combat mad cow disease, which has a great impact on the health of others, then the religious exemption should not be allowed. In general, once the impacts of the exemption greatly affect too many people not of that religion it is a prime candidate to be a law where no exemptions.

Blackford asks for a strong secular reason before religious practices are granted exemptions for laws. I submit that they have one by default: the very principles that Blackford uses to justify the separation of Church and State in the first place. Thus, in order to apply laws that restrict religious practice the State must provide a reason at least equal to that one, or else the religious practices must be granted exemptions … or else we don’t really have a separation of Church and State at all.

Blackford does take a stab at this by arguing that exempting religions can increase discord and resentment, which is not likely to increase the peace. This is a weak argument because it can be seen that doing anything that someone doesn’t like is likely to cause resentment and discord. The real key, as we saw in the post on morality, is to identify what the reason is for the exceptions and exemptions and differences, and so for the State to be able to appeal to a sufficiently strong worldly reason for doing what it is doing. For the religious exemptions, it has it by appealing to the whole reason there was this separation in the first place. This, then, should be all the convincing people need to accept it, and if they don’t then it isn’t a rational, secularly valid resentment … unless they can muster an argument of similar strength.

Ultimately, I argue that by the principles that lead us to leave worldly things to the State and otherworldly things to religion, it must be presumed that religious practices are exempted from secular laws, and that the State must give an overwhelming secular reason to overturn that presumption. The State, then, cannot simply argue that they want to include religious practices in the law, but that they must include religious practices in that law. Blackford’s proposal, to me, violates the basic principles he uses to justify the separation of Church and State, and so risks destroying it altogether. If the State is willing to interfere blindly in otherworldly affairs, then the Church must get involved in the State to ensure that its interference is at least not blind. Thus, if we want to preserve the separation of Church and State, the State must be very careful when and how it interferes with the Church and thus the Church must be very careful in when and how it interferes with the State.

There is much more to say on this topic, of course, but this I think suffices for now to get the discussion off the ground. I will make one more post summarizing my overall thoughts on the book, to bookend the discussion.

Freedom of Religion and the Secular State: Morality

May 20, 2012

In Chapter 5, Blackford argues against using religious-based morality to determine or influence secular laws, but it seems to me that he goes further. He actually ends up arguing that a secular state has no reason to make laws on the basis of morality at all. Instead, we can use principles that are “political” and not, therefore, explicitly moral. The problem here is with what he suggests we can replace them with:

… the harm principle, principles relating to such matters as free speech, reproductive liberty, and sexual privacy are always available to be raised in political debate [pg 84]

Well, excluding the harm principle, those last three really do seem like moral principles to me. What, then, is the harm principle? Well, it’s John Stuart Mill’s main principle:

… only the prevention of harm to others can justify the exercise of power over an individual in a civilized community [pg 71].

Again, this sounds an awful lot like a moral principle to me. Even his starting point could be accused of being a moral principle or position; there’s a reason that the Hobbesian Social Contract at least used to be taught in introductory ethics classes. The Locke that Blackford is using would likely be in there as well if not for the fact that Locke is far better known for other things. So it’s starting to look at lot like Blackford is defining the moral principles that he happens to agree with as being “political”, and thus acceptable, while rejecting the ones he doesn’t agree with as being an imposition of morality, aided by the fact that his preferred principles are liberal and so allow for more freedom of choice and so seem, at least, like less of an imposition.

While he might be able to claim, reasonably, that religious moralities can’t be the basis for laws — in the sense that you cannot say “The Bible says” or “The Quran says” or “Vishnu says” as the sole or main justification for a law — in order to preserve the separation of Church and State that is a reasonable argument, it seems unlikely that he could say the same about Stoic or Kantian moral principles, for example. But both of these are not likely to take the same view as the principles Blackford cites. Thus, his only hope is to justify it from the starting point of the State that he uses from the beginning, and thus can distinguish them. But since liberalism and individualism does not follow naturally from that starting point, he will have to argue for it.

To his credit, Blackford does indeed try to argue for it, but it is a fairly weak argument. He tries, essentially, to argue that his starting point leads to secularism — which is a fairly credible argument — and then from there that secularism leads to liberalism. The main weakness here is that he spends a lot of time talking about religious moralities, and not about other alternatives, and about communitarian or conservative viewpoints that might disagree. It is not hard to imagine, for example, a communitarian society railing against a lot of the individual freedoms that Blackford uses as his main principles, arguing that having a set of common values — especially including moral values — is key to maintaining a stable society. Thus, from that viewpoint, the State imposing moral values is key to stability, and not detrimental to it.

Blackford does take that notion on, arguing essentially that while our armchair notions that so liberal a society might be unstable, history has shown that societies with such mindsets have been stable, and so reality has trumped our philosophy. There are two problems with this argument. The first is that it isn’t indicative; communitarian societies with a common set of values, including moral values, have also proven stable, and likely more stable than others, as long as the promoted values and the values of the people agree. The second is that even in those countries the State legislates morality. Take any nation with anti-discrimination laws — the hallmark, it seems to me, of modern liberal societies — and tell me that that isn’t, in fact, legislating morality. All societies then, it seems to me, do in fact create laws that are based on morals. The successful, stable societies simply make their laws based on the moral values that the people actually have. Thus, societies that are liberal make liberal laws; societies that are conservative make conservative laws. Societies that are individualistic make individualistic laws; societies that are communitarian make communitarian laws. As long as the laws match what the people think is moral, there is no issue with legislating on the basis of morality … and, in fact, it seems that most people expect it.

So, as long as the State makes laws that reflect the moral values of the people, the society will remain stable. The State can, however, make laws that may influence the moral values of the people, as long as that is not their purpose. They can, instead, make laws out of an overwhelming secular need that happen to impact or go against the common moral values. For example, in WWII Allied nations quite quickly mobilized women and put them to work in the factories, freeing up more men to act as troops while maintaining their industries. Germany, on the other hand, was slow to mobilize women due to the “traditional values” stance of the Nazi Party, which put Germany at a production disadvantage. It can easily be argued, I think, that that did quite a bit to foster equality movements for women. In the Civil War, again the North mobilized black forces into their army, which the South could not do. Many black troops thought that this would be an excellent way for them to earn their rights, even the vote, despite the fact that racism was still alive and well in the North. So, while in both cases the actions went against the established moral values of the society, it was accepted due to there being an overwhelming secular need — generally, preservation of the State — to do so. Seen that way, it fostered less objections and resentment, and once the genie was let out of the bottle it would not be so contained again.

In some sense, the battle over same-sex marriage can be seen as reflecting both sides of this. Some of the animus towards same-sex marriage from people who are not homophobic is due to a seeming disconnect between the values of the society and the values that the government and courts are trying to promote. It seems like too much of an imposition, and running roughshod over society to promote the values that the government and the courts have, but that the people do not. The only recourse is to appeal to what is indeed presumed to be a shared value, which is the liberal one of anti-discrimination and the pursuit of happiness. But on any case where that argument does not take root, all that is left is a government seemingly imposing values for no good secular reason, and that sort of thing always leads to instability and resentment.

At any rate, it is thus unclear that the secular state leads to liberalism, or that the state has to get out of making moral laws. In fact, history seems to demonstrate that the state is expected to legislate morality. Blackford himself seems willing to legislate morality under the guise of the political. Thus, we will not escape moral laws that easily.

Freedom of Religion and the Secular State: Intro

May 18, 2012

So, this weekend, I’m finally going to try and write out my thoughts on this book. I think this will be in three parts. This one will be the introduction and a discussion of the work as a whole. The second one will talk about Blackford’s claim that his form of a secular state doesn’t get into morality, and I’ll be arguing that in the end he ends up arguing this on moral grounds and using moral presumptions. The last part will focus directly on the interactions between the secular states and religion, and will talk about Blackford’s view of religious accommodation. As you might be able to guess, this is going to be more of a commentary and less of a review, and thus I’ll be focusing on the points that I, at least, find more problematic in the book.

As an overall statement of the book, the philosophical discussion is detailed and interesting. It’s unfortunate that, in my opinion, the actual discussion of separation of Church and State is relatively weak. Blackford starts out with an interesting premise, but it seems to me that the premise itself simply cannot bear the weight of his later arguments. Thus, the later arguments seem unconvincing and, as stated, a bit weak; there seems little big reason to accept the strong claims he makes later. Note that this isn’t a criticism of the claims — although I do disagree with many of them — but more the support for those claims; from his starting point, Blackford simply can’t support his claims of how these things should interact, but it is the justifications of these claims that we really wanted. To his credit, he’s generally pretty clear about his claims and is also generally modest about his claims when necessary.

His basic premise, then, starts from Hobbes and Locke, both of which essentially argued that the role of the State was to provide peace and the good life to the citizens. As religion is potentially divisive and thus is likely to cause unrest, the State needs to decide how to react to this thing that’s crucially important in the life of its citizens. It can take sides in otherworldly matters and try to impose a religion on the citizenry, but it is supremely unqualified to do so. Alternatively, it can focus on providing worldly goods and leave the determination of otherworldly goods to religions themselves. The latter seems to provide the most peace and the best worldly ends, and so this is the one that Blackford accepts. But we can see that this is all underpinned by the idea that the State is supposed to provide peace and stability for its citizens, which is does by focusing on worldly or what we can now call “secular” matters.

This is a very interesting argument, and it seems broadly right. If the State was going to get involved in determining what was the right otherworldly belief system, it would simultaneously alienate a large number of its citizens while at the same time find itself unable to actually determine with any reasonable degree of certainty what the correct system was. While worldly matters — let’s exempt morality from this for now — are generally fairly easy to figure out, explain, and argue for, religions traditionally have never been that simple. Thus, by allowing each citizen to choose their own way of pursuing the otherworldly, and in fact insisting on it, the State thus manages to reduce potential conflicts and eliminate a potential source of resentment and unrest towards it.

This may sound like this is simply either a consequence of or a justification for a liberal, individualistic mindset, and it is clear that Blackford favours societies that are individualistic and liberal. This, however, is one of the bigger problems with the entire work, because it isn’t at all clear that the starting point of the State — preserve the peace and provide the worldly goods — justifies liberalism and individualism. It seems fairly easy to argue that in some cases conservative or communitarian principles might well produce the best and most harmonious societies. Even trying to appeal to history doesn’t really settle the matter, as societies where the individual is subordinated to the society or where change only occurs slowly and with great care seem to have had some success. Many Eastern cultures, for example, are far more communitarian than Western ones, and did seem to have significant success in creating peaceful and stable societies. And liberal and individualistic societies have their own issues and potential for clash. So, then, it isn’t clear that we can get from Blackford’s starting point to liberalism and individualism.

This wouldn’t be a problem, as Blackford is usually pretty modest about his claims and accepts that one might not be convinced to make the leap from his starting principle to liberalism and individualism. It becomes a problem, however, later when his arguments depend on accepting a liberal or individualistic mindset in order for them to be credible. At that point, we become pointedly reminded that it isn’t any sort of liberal or individualistic principle that justifies his ideas of what a State should do, or what a secular state should be, or for how the divisions break down, but his initial starting principle. And since his initial starting principle doesn’t necessarily support liberalism and individualism, it becomes abundantly clear that it doesn’t necessarily support those arguments either. Which, as stated earlier, makes his arguments weaker than they should be. After all, if his starting principle doesn’t support it, then all he has to appeal to is individualism or liberalism … but then conservatives or communitarians will simply reject that appeal. And since a great deal of religions are both conservative and communitarian, the arguments for a secular state as Blackford conceives it will be utterly unconvincing to them.

Which means that a great deal of the people he would want to reach will not be reached by his arguments.

In the next part, I will look at one of the aspects that is likely to be controversial to religious people and, additionally, many people in general: can a valid secular state impose a morality, or should it stay out of the morality business entirely?