Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

The Meaning of Life

May 13, 2022

Richard Carrier is going through the book “Unbelievable” by Justin Brierley, and one of his posts covered a chapter that talked about how Christianity can give people a meaning and purpose to life, when it doesn’t seem like atheism can do that.  This is, of course, a pretty common argument leveled against atheists, and most of them attempt to address it by saying that there is no actual objective meaning or purpose to life and so that’s something that every person has to determine for themselves.  In this manner, they deny that we have to be nihilistic and deny that there is any sort of purpose to our lives, but don’t have to provide any kind of objective grounding to this purpose or insist that everyone has to have the same purpose in life (although they tend to assume certain purposes are, at least, superior to other purposes).  And as I was taking in my walks, I was pondering it again — even though examining the meaning or purpose to life has never been a major philosophical interest for me — and I don’t think that the atheist approach will work, because a self-selected purpose cannot satisfy the reasons we’d need or want a purpose in the first place (which is also my objection to atheists who advocate for subjective moralities).

Let me start from the end … literally.  Imagine someone on their deathbed, looking back on their life to take its measure.  Now, with the standard idea of us having an objective purpose for living, what we’d expect them to do is compare how they’ve lived their life with regards to that purpose.  If they’ve managed to achieve it, they will feel satisfied that they managed to live according to that purpose.  If they’ve failed, then perhaps they will feel a sense of disappointment in themselves that they didn’t manage that, but they also might look back on their lives and note that they made a full effort, and as much of an effort as could possibly be expected of them, and it was only circumstances beyond their control that caused them to fail.  Regardless, all they are doing is looking at that set criteria and evaluating whether they managed to achieve that criteria or not.

This isn’t true for a self-selected purpose.  If someone on their deathbed looks back on their life given their self-selected purpose, they can’t simply evaluate their life based on how well they achieved that purpose.  If they managed to achieve that purpose, there will always be the nagging question of whether they only succeeded because they choose a purpose that was too easy to achieve, and that they should have chosen one that was more meaningful or more purposeful and shouldn’t have set their sights so low.  On the other hand, if they failed they have to ask if the issue was merely that they chose a purpose that was too difficult for them to achieve and so they should have chosen an easier one.  In all cases, they can’t simply evaluate their lives against that purpose, but always have to consider whether they chose the correct self-selected purpose, which since they have to believe that they chose the right original purpose before they can properly evaluate their lives wrt that purpose means that they are going to have to settle that first.  And as we’ve seen, unless we simply accept whatever it is we came up with, determining whether that purpose is correct or not is not easy to do.

As in death, so in life.  As we go about our lives, with a self-selected purpose we constantly have to ask ourselves if we’ve selected the right one.  If we stumble or encounter difficulties in achieving our purpose, it’s not simply a matter of doubling our efforts to achieve it, as we also have to ask whether that struggle is because we have the wrong one and need to choose a better purpose.  And if we are achieving it with ease, then we cannot congratulate ourselves on our achievement but instead have to ask if we have chosen a purpose that’s too easy for us to achieve.  So with every success and every setback we have to constantly examine and reassess our self-selected purpose to see if it still seems to be the correct one.

This isn’t what we wanted a purpose for.  We wanted a purpose to essentially be our lighthouse, to guide us through life with a light that we can trust to guide us properly if only we follow it properly.  Instead, our self-selected purpose ends up not being any kind of guide at all, or at least one that we don’t or at least shouldn’t trust.  If we don’t question this purpose to see if it is correct or reasonable when we know it is something that we chose (and could have chosen wrong), then what does having a purpose do for us?  We might as well simply just live our lives on the basis of our shallow and not-so-shallow impressions and not even think about any deeper purpose.

This is also what makes Richard Carrier’s normal approach of talking about how best to achieve our desires and wants problematic as well.  The purpose is supposed to determine what we want, not reflect it.  We are supposed to use it as the standard by which we evaluate what we want to determine if that’s what we should want or if we need to change our wants.  Carrier can try to argue that we should appeal to the deeper and “correct” wants in order to do that, but then we have to figure out what those are.  At some level, then, we always require having some sort of objective purpose and sense of value that we don’t select ourselves and so is more-or-less unchanging that we can use to evaluate our desires and, well, everything else in our lives.  We may not need God giving us that set purpose — even if we disagree with it — but we need something, and a self-selected purpose just isn’t going to work for that.

So we need an objective purpose and cannot just choose one for ourselves.  The only reason, I think, that atheists can get away with insisting we can is that they are running on the inertia of the objective purposes that we thought we had — in the same way as they can run with the objective moral ideas that they get from society while insisting that there are no such ideas — and so can even subconsciously take them as being set while insisting that they’ve “chosen” them, but this always runs into trouble when they try to justify it.  All they can do in response to such challenges is shrug and just go with what they have, but that is obviously a pretty weak response and is also a response that will not work if someone is a) struggling to find a purpose and wants to have one as “set” as theirs or b) is faced with them challenging their self-selected purpose on the grounds that the atheist’s purpose is better than theirs.  At this point, the idea of a self-selected purpose or meaning to life doesn’t seem to be doing what a purpose or meaning to life should be doing.

It can be objected — and often is — that what I’d be doing here is arguing for the existence of an objective purpose or meaning because I want there to be one, and it’s not the case that because I want something to exist that it has to.  I get that response from my comments on morality as well.  But as I mentioned above it’s not that I want to have such a purpose, but that a self-selected purpose or meaning to life cannot be used for any of the things we wanted that sort of thing for, so much so that it’s hard to imagine that a self-selected purpose could be a valid purpose or meaning to life.  At that point, it looks like the self-selected purpose they are talking about is something completely different that they happen to be using the same name for, and the only reason they don’t notice is because they’ve adopted as that purpose the old standard “objective” ones that we’ve had for centuries, and they don’t treat that purpose the way they really should treat a self-selected one.  They are using inertia and ideas that aren’t valid to make self-selected purposes seem like they can do what the ones that we at least believed objective did, but as we’ve seen they can’t.  So ultimately their self-selected purposes, at the end of the day, aren’t purposes at all.

So self-selecting our purpose won’t work.  Either we come up with something objective, or else we embrace nihilism.  But the attempt to embrace both worlds leaves us with a stated purpose that doesn’t work like purposes at all.

Why I Reject Bayesian Epistemology

May 6, 2022

Bayesian probability has been of interest to people for a long time, even outside of mathematics (I first came across it while doing a course in Cognitive Science to fill out a requirement for my Philosophy Masters degree).  As time has gone on, it’s become of more interest philosophically to more people, as some claim that it describes how science works and some — like Richard Carrier — have determined that the right way to do epistemology in general is to follow a Bayesian epistemology and base everything on probabilities in general and Bayesian probabilities specifically.  I was suspicious of Bayesian probability and reasoning in general from the start, as I thought of it in line with what I call “Obi-Wan Fallacies”, where what the right answer is depends greatly on one’s own point of view.  At the same time, I was moving from a Cartesian epistemology towards a Quinean “Web of Belief” epistemology.  And hearing more and more about Bayesian epistemology and how it is supposed to work … I’m even more suspicious that it won’t work, to the point where I pretty much out-and-out reject it, and think that where it has anything to it a “Web of Belief” model works just as well, and where it differs from a “Web of Belief” model it’s actually doing things incorrectly.  That being said, it might not be fair to judge it by the defenders of it that I’ve read, because that’s mostly Richard Carrier and philosophically, as anyone who has been following my blog has seen, he’s a bit weak.  So I’m open to a better defense of it, by which I mean not a mathematical defense or an attempt to use it to in some way argue for a point, but instead a full-on defense that shows why it’s the right way to approach gaining knowledge.  And so far I don’t know of any, although since I’m not formally taking classes right now that might be more the result of my being in the wrong venue rather than there not being any such defenses.

That being said, I can outline why I, as of right now, reject it.  Let me start by outlining basically how it is supposed to work, as best I understand it.  The idea is that what we claim to know and what we should believe should be governed by probabilities, and so what we need to do is assess the probabilities of each possible conclusion that we can draw based on the evidence and not believe anything that isn’t more likely to be true than it is to be false (and so not anything that’s lower than 50% likely to be true, and in practice it should be higher than a 50-50 chance that it’s true for us to accept it).  For knowledge, then, it would at a minimum tease out the “justified” part in “justified true belief” to mean that we are only justified in claiming to know something if that probability is sufficiently high, although most of the advocates of it that I have read don’t say what that probability is.  The key part of the reasoning that makes it a full-on epistemology is the idea that we need to assess that probability in light of the evidence we have, including our prior information about the space the conclusion lives in.  So we don’t just look at the conclusion itself, but add up all of the evidence in favour of it, but also have to look at all of the alternatives — that we can think of, obviously — and then calculate how that evidence works for them, as well as looking what evidence works against the conclusion.  And we have to do all of this with actual probabilities that we can sub into a Bayesian probabilistic equation to come up with what seems to be an objective probability that can determine just how likely it is that that conclusion is true.  Now, since it’s a probability we have to accept that it could be incorrect, but if we can get the probability high enough we can have, it is argued, high confidence that the conclusion is correct and that, therefore, we know that it’s true.

I have two sets of objections to it.  The first, and more extensive ones, are philosophical.  I just don’t think it works philosophically, especially when compared to the “Web of Belief”.  The second set is a specific practical argument that I came up with later, and so is more one specific argument than a set.

So let me start with the philosophical problems, and they are numerous.  The first one is that the appeal of this model to most people seems to be in its purported objectivity:  we get a number and that number can be used as an objective assessment of how probable it is and what we should believe.  Carrier often even uses it against his opponents as if they should accept his numbers as an objective statement, thus treating them like something that if one person calculates it everyone should accept it.  However, this is merely an appearance of objectivity, because everyone has to calculate their probabilities based on the evidence they have and accept, not on the evidence that is “really” out there.  The reason is that since our perspectives are limited we can’t know if we have all the evidence that there is when making these calculations, and we can’t make any reasoned calculation of what evidence might be out there that we haven’t encountered yet, precisely because we haven’t encountered it yet.  So we can only assess these probabilities on the basis of what we’ve seen and what we belief, not on some sort of objective assessment of all the evidence that’s out there.  We may never know or encounter all of the evidence.

But it’s worse than that.  Different people are going to have different views of the world and so are going to have different sets of evidence and different beliefs about what the priors are, and since we have to base our probability calculations on that everyone is going to come up with a different calculation.  We can easily see this happening with Carrier and others like Jonathan MS Pearce who hold naturalism as a prior probability and so automatically find any proposition that entails something other than naturalism to start with a massively low probability, which they then can use to argue that the evidence necessary to get them to an appropriately high probability must be incredibly more probable than the alternatives, and so to argue that those propositions are not all that probable and that we should accept whatever natural explanation we can make work.  But they use that against people who do not hold naturalism, and thus who will not accept that the purportedly supernatural explanation is that unlikely, and so won’t come to the same conclusion.  As I’ve noted multiple times in the past, even someone like myself who merely rejects naturalism but doesn’t adopt any kind of supernaturalism is going to have issues with their giving the “supernatural” explanation such a low prior, especially if they make the standard argument from the failure of unrelated supernatural theories to show that any supernatural theory is going to have that huge a probabilistic hill to climb.  So they aren’t going to accept that probability calculation and will substitute it with one of their own.

So while it might look at first like the Bayesian model would reduce such debates, it actually doesn’t.  As we see in the example, when Carrier and Pearce argue from the prior of naturalism anyone who doesn’t agree with that will reject their calculation, and so they will have to argue and prove, in the same way, that their prior probability for naturalism vs supernaturalism is correct.  But since that probability is based on other priors and assessments they’ve made and things they and their opponents have experienced, they’re going to have to argue those out as well.  Ultimately, the only way that two people will ever come to the same probability calculation is if they both have the exact same evidence, including their foundational and worldview beliefs … or, at least, that wrt the proposition they agree with a set of evidence that “proves” the proposition true.  In short, in general they are only going to agree if they have all the same evidence and share the exact same worldview, or when we have sufficient evidence such that the truth of the statement is undeniable.  The former is rarely going to happen, and the latter is a case where calculating the probabilities is pointless since it would seem that the conclusion simply follows directly from the evidence, and so is more logical than probabilistic.  Sure, you could argue that stating it as a probability makes it clear that it’s not 100% certain, but for knowledge we do pretty much already know that and at that level of evidence it’s not really going to matter anyway.

The Web of Belief model works better here because it explicitly notes that we judge propositions based on our own set of beliefs, and thus notes that in order to get someone to agree with me on which proposition should be accepted I need to give them at least the crucial beliefs that have convinced me.  Thus, any such discussion is not over a probability calculation, but is instead always over what we believe and what evidence and beliefs need to be imparted to the other person to convince them that the proposition is true.  Thus if the problem is with a worldview we will quickly zero in on that and the debate will turn to discussing that, and we won’t get caught up in discussing seemingly objective probabilities when the real debate is over why we do or don’t accept that worldview.  So in this case the Web of Belief model  can do everything the Bayesian model can but does it faster, more efficiently, and while explicitly accepting that all we can do is judge on the basis of our own beliefs and not on beliefs that we don’t have.

Another consideration is how we are to use this epistemology, because an epistemology is useless unless it can generate beliefs that can drive our actions (no, this isn’t the practical argument yet).  Because it relies heavily on the things that we already accept to be the case — both for determining priors and for determining the probabilities themselves — the Bayesian approach would work a lot like the Web of Belief approach in that sense.  However, when people advocate for the Bayesian approach they tend to point at the cases where the things that we think are likely to be the case when we work out the probabilities using a Bayesian approach they really aren’t, such as the blue cab case, or more importantly the “test for a rare disease” case, where when we have a test for a rare disease that is 95% accurate and yet because the disease is so rare the instances where we get false positives will be so much higher than the cases of actual positives and so, by the reasoning, the likelihood of a person testing positive and actually having the disease is less than 50%.  This, of course, fits into those “Obi-Wan Fallacies” that I referenced above, but I don’t want to get into that now.  The question I want to ask is:  given that the mathematics works out, what should someone do if they get a positive test?  Remember, the test must be 95% accurate and so if it says that you have the disease 95% of the time you actually do.  It’s just that the condition itself is so rare that there will be more false positives if it is applied to the general population than real positives.  So, if the doctor orders the test for you and it comes up positive, if you apply the Bayesian reasoning does that mean that you shouldn’t do anything about it and should act as if you clearly or probably don’t have the disease?  What was the point, then, in taking the test at all, if a test about as accurate as we possibly could make it and that is right 95% of the time ends up with you not believing it when it says that you have

Now, in reality, we wouldn’t just be applying the test to the general population.  We’d only be giving people the test if we had some other reasons to think that they had the disease, and so the Bayesian advocate could argue that that evidence could flip the probabilities.  But the issue still remains that with sufficiently improbable priors — like the rare disease — we are going to have to find a set of evidence that is much more probable if we have the disease than if we don’t, and so much evidence that it can be better than a test that has a 95% probability of being correct.  So in order to rationally take action based on that test, we would have to add up a set of probabilities to outweigh that prior, because if we use the Bayesian method to form our beliefs and so to determine what we believe and so what we act on in the world if the probability is less than 50% then we can’t act on it because, by our calculations, it is less likely to be true than it is to be false.  And so we wouldn’t get treatment for the rare disease that 95% of the time we will have because when we use the Bayesian method it says that we probably don’t have it.

This issue with probabilities is indeed one of the biggest issue with the Bayesian method, because it stops us from accepting any proposition whose overall probability when all of the propositions are considered is less than 50%.  But this, then, includes a case where we have one proposition with a 40% probability and twelve alternative explanations with a probability of 5% each.  This covers the entire space — as best we can see it right now — and yet the first proposition is significantly more probable than any of the alternatives.  So why would it be irrational to believe it, which means to accept it provisionally?  Why would we have to at best remain neutral on the topic?  But if the Bayesian advocate says that it’s fine to accept something that merely is significantly more probable than all the current alternatives, then there’s no point in doing a full probability calculation since we don’t care about the actual numbers, just their numbers relative to each other.  And the Web of Belief can give us that without ever doing a full probability calculation.

In addition, if we don’t have sufficient evidence to justify a knowledge claim, then where is the harm in picking the proposition that we like best?  A Bayesian might argue that if we do that we are likely deciding to believe something that is not likely to be true, but in that case we don’t know which of the propositions is actually true (by definition), and the advantage of that approach is that we can go out and act in the world as if the proposition is true and so implicitly test it without having to explicitly test it.  The whole idea behind the Web of Belief is to form a set of self-supporting propositions that we can act on in the world and let the world contradict or confirm.  If the world contradicts them, then we need to examine those sets of beliefs to determine which of them is inaccurate, and after correcting that, go on.  So by forming beliefs as much as we can and acting on them, we can test and make our entire Web better.  But that seems to be lost with the Bayesian approach, as it seems built to reduce the possibility of ever being wrong at the expense of never being able to accept anything that isn’t very well established.  Perhaps that is the approach science takes — I have argued in the past that what distinguishes science from everyday reasoning is that it doesn’t want to accept anything until it is quite certain it is true — but to work as an epistemology it is going to have to work equally well in everyday life as it would for science … if not more so, since one cannot admonish people to act on the basis of an epistemology that doesn’t work for everyday reasoning.  And for everyday reasoning we don’t have the time to evaluate out all the probabilities and gather all the evidence until we get a proposition that happens to get a probability sufficiently above 50%.

And the Web of Belief can actually work for science as well, because while it doesn’t insist that everything needs to be above a certain likelihood before it can be believed it can accept that in some cases you want to feel more certain about a proposition than you would normally.  This itself would be a belief in the Web and so would be applied in any of those cases.  So a case where the consequences of acting incorrectly would be very serious is a case where the Web would kick in and say that even if you believe the proposition is true you should be more certain about it before taking that action, and of course when it comes to science the belief can be that scientific theories require more evidence and so more care needs to be taken, again even if the person still believes their theory is correct.  By including worldview beliefs in the Web and thus considering them when we act, we can adjust our behaviour appropriately based on our entire set of beliefs.  Thus, the Web of Belief provides maximum flexibility, while in the Bayesian approach it isn’t even clear how we should act in the world when we don’t have the evidence to know what is true and what isn’t.

It’s also the case that a probabilistic approach doesn’t explicitly favour consistency, whereas the Web of Belief does.  Take the common example of how bad people are with probability and the case where we are asked, given that the person drinks champagne, if they are more likely to be a farmer or a librarian.  Because there are so many more farmers in the world than librarians, even if it is the case that farmers are less likely to drink champagne we should just always choose the farmer.  However, most people tend to answer the librarian, which I argue is based on the fact that they assess it not on the basis of pure probabilities but on the basis of what is more consistent with their overall set of beliefs, and so is more consistent with the world as they see it.  The Web of Belief, being a web of beliefs, thus always forces us to consider what is most consistent with the entire web, and any failures in our beliefs force us to re-examine the entire web and make it consistent with the new information.  But this doesn’t seem to be the case for the Bayesian approach.  Yes, they note that you need to consider all of the relevant evidence, but that still silos the specific propositions in a way that the Web of Belief doesn’t.  A belief that is proven false may have far more of an impact on the propositions that led to it than one may realize, and the Web of Belief makes you do that by logically assessing which of those simply cannot be true if you are experiencing what you are experiencing.  Should someone’s actions go awry in a Bayesian approach, the person would have to identify all of the propositions that happened to use that evidence and then reassess all of them, but they would have no reason to go through the logical chain through the indirect propositions (unless they have to overturn that proposition as well) that the Web of Belief insists on.  Yes, people may not do all the work in the Web of Belief model, but it encourages that far more than a Bayesian approach does.

However, the Bayesian approach also has the opposite problem, in that it’s too easy to change individual propositions in response to evidence.  Of course, Bayesians think that this is a benefit of their approach.  In a comment, Carrier comments that he thinks that one of the reasons that people remain Christians is because of primacy, in that they have come to believe it already and so maintain that belief.  But why is that a bad thing?  Under the Web of Belief model, if one is being honest wrt their belief system if they maintain an existing belief it means that the evidence they have been presented with isn’t enough to overturn that, and usually that the beliefs that underpin it are too strong to be overcome with that evidence.  Thus, they will maintain a belief that has been working for them until it stops working for them in the sense that either directly by experience or indirectly by argument is has been shown to be false.  How would this work in the Bayesian approach?  For every new piece of evidence, the Bayesian would be forced to reassess the probabilities and for propositions that are in flux it is possible that they could be accepting and rejecting propositions on a regular basis.  Imagine that the threshold of belief is 60%, and there are two propositions that are pretty close in their outcomes.  If we can get more evidence for them, then it is indeed conceivable that the new evidence that we receive keeps flipping those probabilities to 60-40, back and forth between the two propositions, which would mean that the person has to change how they act on the basis of that probability on a regular basis.  The Web of Belief, on the other hand, would prefer the existing proposition because it’s part of a web that works and changing it would have an impact on other parts of the web, and so it encourages people to preserve as much of the web as possible.  Yes, someone could invalidly maintain a belief that has become more dubious than it seemed when they formed it, but they also won’t flip-flop on propositions either, maintaining a much more consistent set of beliefs and actions.  At the same time, if they are being honest with themselves there will indeed come a time when they simply cannot maintain their Web and they will have to change to the more valid beliefs.  About the only time it fails is indeed for propositions like the existence of God, where a belief can be formed on little evidence — by parental or cultural influence — and the world is not going to contradict it directly until death.  But in those cases where no direct disproof is possible, how much of an issue is that?  Atheists think that they are taking the only rational option given the cultural origins of religious beliefs and the wide range of religions to choose from, but in the absence of knowledge one way or another how much of a problem is it, again, to take the one you started with and go with it as long as it works for you?

And here, I’ll get into the practical issue.  Let’s assume that the Bayesian can survive all the conceptual challenges and prove that their approach is the better one.  In order for it to work as an epistemology, we have to be able to apply it to our daily lives, and as noted most people aren’t all that good at probability calculations.  Bayesians have argued that this is what we do subconsciously, but as noted above it looks like the mistakes we make more indicate a Web of Belief approach than a Bayesian or probabilistic one.  But even if that was true, to make this an epistemology we need to be using it consciously and not merely subconsciously, which means that people would have to learn to do probability a lot better than they seem to be capable of.  Moreover, it runs into the issue we have when we consider that, say, people catching a baseball might be doing the calculus to predict the trajectory of the ball.  Even if that was true — and it isn’t likely to be the case — we wouldn’t advocate that in order for them to become better at doing this they should study advanced calculus, and we haven’t noticed that people who are better at calculus are better at catching balls.  The natural method of training themselves to catch the ball seems to be the best way to do it and consciously applying calculus doesn’t seem to help.  The same thing is likely the case here.  Even if our subconscious is running probability calculations, working them out consciously isn’t likely to produce better results, and will only take longer and more effort, because again we don’t notice that people who are better at probability are better at forming reasonable beliefs, and working it out long-form looks like it at best take them longer to come to the same conclusions, especially given that each probability is one that they already have to form based on their own personal assessments and so on their own set of beliefs.  One can argue that the Web of Belief isn’t any better since it relies on logic, but all it says at its heart is that we have this set of interconnected beliefs and that we can (and often should) check it using logic, which really does seem to be what we have and do.  So it doesn’t advocate for a radical change from what we do other than a minor call for some extra self-awareness.  On the other hand, a Bayesian epistemology is useless unless it converts us to using a Bayesian approach directly and consciously, including improving our ability to do probability.  And most people will never be able to be good enough to make that approach workable.

So those are my objections to a Bayesian epistemology.  Anyone who thinks the approach is valid is welcome to try to address them, because there are probably some issues with them.  That being said, I am fairly confident that the approach cannot be saved, especially when compared to the Web of Belief.  But since I only believe that, I am open to being proved wrong … but am not going to worry about probability calculations until sufficient evidence has been presented to overturn that belief in my Web of Belief.

Moral Motivationalism, Intentionalism and Carrier on Wielenberg

April 29, 2022

Richard Carrier recently wrote a post criticizing fellow atheist Erik Wielenberg’s new paper on morality, using it as a springboard to talk about what he thinks atheists are missing when they talk about morality (that’s the title of the post, BTW), by which he generally means that they don’t talk about the things he talks about and don’t align with his own view.  But in responding to it, he hits a couple of points that are things that I want to note about morality in general, and so it’s worth my taking a quick look at it to highlight those points.

The first thing I want to talk about, though, is a general idea of what the debate over morality is all about, which will lead into a discussion of moral motivationalism.  Carrier summarizes Wielenberg’s point and criticism of William Lane Craig as this:

For example, Wielenberg quotes Craig and Moreland as saying “What does it mean to say, for example, that the moral value justice just exists? … It is clear what is meant when it is said that a person is just; but it is bewildering when it is said that in the absence of any people, justice itself exists” (p. 33). To this Wielenberg responds, “With respect to justice, my view is that there are various obtaining states of affairs concern­ing justice, and that when individual people have the property of being just, it is (in part) in virtue of the obtaining of some of these states of affairs” (p. 34).

Which Carrier ultimately characterizes as this:

I am certain they’d both agree that no God is required for me to say, and be stating an objective fact even, that my girlfriend’s bedroom’s decoration is “Star-Wars-y,” in that it resembles the canonical aesthetic of the Star Wars franchise. Because that isn’t saying anything about how people should or ought to “Star-Wars-ify” their bedrooms. It’s just a neutral statement of fact that the decor meets certain defining criteria. Everyone agrees justice exists in that sense, the only sense Wielenberg ever articulates.

The thing is that both of them are wrong here, as when it comes to the philosophical discussion of morality not everyone agrees that justice or any moral term exists in that sense.  Error theorists, for example, deny that moral terms — at least as moral terms — have any meaning at all, and so won’t agree that there are, in fact, any identifiable states or any set defined criteria for something being just.  There might be a non-moral sense of the term “just” that has that, but in that case it won’t be a moral sense, but some other sense (practical, legal, etc).  And for subjectivists, they would agree that there is a sense in which we can talk about the term “just” and apply a criteria to it, but they would deny that that sense is in any way objective and so that it is determined by the individual itself.  So, for them, to use the “Star Wars” analogy they would insist that people who say that in order for a room to be “Star Warsy” it must reference the Star Wars movies are just plain wrong, and so if someone personally decides that building their room with a Star Trek aesthetic instead should count as “Star Warsy” they aren’t wrong about that and no one can say that they are.  So, no, it’s not the case that everyone would agree that justice exists in that sense.  Some of the most interesting philosophical debates in morality centre around people denying that very thing.

Note that it might seem odd to argue that “Star Warsy”, an aesthetic idea, is more obviously objective than morality is.  The reason it is, though, is because while aesthetics can have subjective elements, here we are indeed talking about something with a clear criteria.  Yes, there are gray areas — you can debate over whether including things from the prequels or sequels really counts, or from the spinoffs like “Solo” and “Rogue One” — but it’s clear that there’s some set criteria for what we mean by “Star Warsy”, which is that it has to have some critical relation to the Star Wars franchise, which is why we can say that a completely “Star Trek”-themed room wouldn’t fit that criteria.  Again, there are some gray areas over how that relation would work, but we clearly say that it has to have that relation.  The debate over morality is that we don’t have that sort of thing that we can say that morality has to relate to, and more importantly we can’t really justify the relations we come up with.  This leads to Error Theory denying that there can be any such relation to give the terms real meaning, and subjectivists arguing that that relation is purely subjective and personal, invented out of whole cloth and up to the relevant group to define.

So if Carrier’s representation of Wielenberg’s premise is correct, then Carrier is actually correct — for the wrong reasons — that Wielenberg is not really adding anything to the discussion of morality, because all he ends up doing is asserting that there is some kind of notion of justice and other moral terms that we can appeal to that somehow follows from people as people, but that’s pretty much just what everyone else is doing.  Like those atheists who try to go after “Something cannot come from nothing” by providing a something to replace the nothing, Wielenberg would be adding another potential thing to relate morality to but would need to justify that, just as people would have to if they appeal to God, or to evolution, or to the concept of morality, and so on and so forth.  The issue is not coming up with alternatives, it’s with justifying that alternative so that we’d all have to accept that, yes, justice exists and has the meaning and the relation that we are claiming it has.

Of course, Carrier doesn’t think that this is what Wielenberg is missing, and what he says about that relates directly to moral motivationalism:

What Moreland and Craig are asking is how it can be the case that justice is moral, as in is “good,” and “good” not trivially, but in a way that motivates our caring about it, and indeed not just caring about it, but wanting our actions to conform to it—and indeed, wanting that more than we want anything else, otherwise we’d just laugh “justice” off as a curious aesthetic and continue preferring other styles of being. Wielenberg never answers this question. It does not even appear anywhere in his article as if anyone has ever asked this question, least of all the superstitious Earthlings he thinks he is answering but isn’t. Yet that is most definitely exactly what they are asking. So his paper is a non-response to their point.

In the comments for the post, someone else calls out Carrier for this, noting that Craig lists three separate points and that what would motivate us to act morally is only one of them, and so they are concerned about other things as well.  In particular, they are interested in what I pointed out above:  how can we know and justify that moral terms really mean and that they have a meaning at all?  Carrier is aggressively dismissive of that, but that commenter is entirely correct that there are at least two different questions here, one about how to determine and justify objectively what those moral terms are, and one about what reason we have to actually act morally once we know what those terms are.

Now, there is a philosophical idea that links them, but it’s clearly not what Carrier is referring to here.  That theory is moral motivationalism, which I came across in a graduate course on morally-minded moral philosophy a while back.  The basic idea, as I understand it, is that for a morality to be valid it must in addition to being correct must also be motivating, such that it is expected that any agent capable of being moral will automatically be motivated by it.  If we can conceive of something that is capable of being a moral agent that is not motivated by that morality, either we haven’t come up with the right morality or else they have some kind of mental deficiency that means that, no, they actually aren’t really moral agents.  This, then, would justify Carrier’s assertion that a proper moral system must answer the question of why we should follow it.

Now, I reject moral motivationalism, and the reason I reject it is because it ends up defining most amoralities out of existence as a meaningful concept.  Moral motivationalism — and Carrier’s view — imply that once one proper understands what is or isn’t moral then they must be motivated by it, and if they aren’t either they don’t properly understand morality or they are being irrational.  However, it seems reasonable to imagine someone saying that they understand what morality is and what the consequences of morality are and yet they aren’t at all motivated to act morally, and we would consider such a person amoral.  In general, the case that immediately springs to mind in such cases is that they understand what morality would entail but that it goes against their own personal interest, so they decide that they’d rather abandon morality in favour of their baser interests.  Sure, we might think that their values are out of whack, but we couldn’t say that it must be the case that they don’t understand morality, or that they are acting irrationally and have some kind of strong mental deficiency.  The strong view of moral motivationalism leaves those as the only choices, which leaves out that kind of amorality, which seems too reasonable a concept to abandon so blithely.

Now, Carrier can do that, because by his view morality follows from our highest value and so they’d have to be assessing their own values and desires incorrectly, which would indicate that they are acting irrationally.  But note that this doesn’t follow from moral motivationalism, which makes it a defining trait of what it means for something to be moral.  Moral motivationalism is a conceptual theory, while Carrier’s is a practical one, mostly that no one will follow a morality that doesn’t motivate us or give us a reason to act on it.  The issue for Carrier, though, is that throughout his entire theory — and his idea of normativity wrt oughts — he seems to assume that we can’t change what we most value and thus most desire.  He uses this idea to conclude that the way to go is to determine what it is that we, as humans, most value and then derive what is moral from that.  But this violates what most distinguishes the normative from the descriptive in that normativity insists that you cannot get an ought from an is, so you cannot determine what we ought to most value from what we at least currently do most value.  Sure, the one thing that pretty much all humans value highly is our own practical self-interest, but that does not mean that that really is what we ought to most value.  It is indeed a valid criticism of someone to say that they need to value their own self-interest less and the self-interest of others more, and in fact this seems to be the prime function of morality.  It should come as no surprise, then, that with his approach Carrier ends up arguing that practical self-interest is what we most value and so he builds his view around that, with an enlightened self-interest that eschews simple brute approaches for a more nuanced approach, but ultimately at the end of the day it really does boil morality down to personal, pragmatic self-interest.

Now, Carrier could have a point here if he could argue — which he doesn’t — that we are incapable of changing that base thing that we value more than anything else (he presumes it but doesn’t argue for it).  But it does seem like we can indeed decide to value some sort of higher principle more than our simple self-interest.  Yes, achieving that higher goal might make us happier, but it makes us happier because we have achieved what we most value, not because we’ve achieved our higher value of being happy by achieving that goal.  So it does seem at least logically and even practically possible that someone could decide that their own self-interest is less important than morality, even if they can’t find a way to show that it would advance their own self-interest to do that.  So what Carrier ends up doing is reducing morality to pragmatics, but the most paradigmatic examples of morality are cases where practical self-interest must be sacrificed in the name of morality, and it does very much seem like this is the very thing that we want morality for, so we should be very suspicious about any attempt to reduce morality to self-interest.  Which is what atheists do a lot of the time when building their moral systems.

Carrier later summarizes a notion in Wielenberg about brute facts:

There is one maneuver in Wielenberg’s paper that might be conceptually useful, even though it trades on a falsehood, and doesn’t get us to what either his paper’s title or abstract promise: he makes a conditional argument of roughly the form, “If we accept theistic defenses of God as a brute fact, then we must accept my defense of moral facts as brute facts.” Wielenberg’s argument is then a fortiori: if God can be a brute fact, then it is even more likely moral facts can be brute facts, as they are far simpler in component structure (indeed, God becomes a useless epicycle: why do we need two brute facts, morality and a divine personality? If all we need is the one brute fact, what evidence remains that we have the other?). I don’t think either is likely to be a brute fact (their complexity is too great, thus requiring too improbable an existential coincidence to count on); and proposing they “are” brute facts still requires us to produce evidence that they even exist in the first place (and Wielenberg doesn’t really do that here, not in what I am pointing out is the required sense).

There are some issues here.  The first is that if we are talking about morality and moral facts, God as brute fact is a more credible ground for moral facts than making moral facts brute facts, because the latter is simply assuming the conclusion while the former is saying that if this entity exists then we can ground morality, and the discussion over whether the existence of God is a brute fact or not is separate from the direct discussion of moral facts.  After all, maybe it’s not the case that we need to accept the existence of God as a brute fact and can actually justify it.  Second, the issue for morality is that we want a justification for moral facts, and so subjectivists and Error Theorists won’t accept a statement that they are simply brute facts.  In fact, they will use that as an argument in favour of their positions, arguing that if the best we can do is make them brute facts then they aren’t objective facts at all.  While moral facts wouldn’t be brute facts if they are based on God — even if God’s existence must be set as a simple brute fact — we’d still want a justification for God’s existence before we’d accept an objective morality based on God.  And finally, those who argue that the existence of God is a brute fact in general don’t just assert it, but instead try to argue that the existence of God must be a brute fact because of the nature of God.  No such argument exists for moral facts, nor does it seem like such an argument can exist.  So this move simply doesn’t work from a philosophical perspective.

Carrier goes on to talk about how to ground moral facts, and he wants to ground them in physical facts, but his thought experiment is problematic because it seems to rely on a strict consequentialism that when we consider his thought experiment we are inclined to abandon:

One might ask whether it is moral for a sociopath who does not at all care about others “to torture the innocent just for fun” so long as they are always appropriately consenting adults. Yes, that sounds like some sort of moral Gettier Problem. But think about it. Do we mean to classify mere mental stances as moral or immoral? Or is that sociopath still “behaving morally”? The fact that you are asking that question would mean the question itself has quite a lot to do with what you care about. What is more important, that a sociopath think correctly, or that they always behave in ways you will not find alarming and a social problem to deal with? It’s difficult to intuitively answer that question because it is nigh impossible to decouple “thinking correctly” from “always behaving in correct ways.” Because the very reason you might give to be concerned about “thinking incorrectly” is simply that an incorrect mindset risks causing incorrect behavior; and we can’t really conceive of an incorrect mindset perfectly reliably producing nothing but correct behavior. That would require such an extraordinary set of coincidences as to not even contemplate as a possibility worth considering. Bad minds simply are dangerous because they cause bad behavior. That’s really the only rational reason to care about them. But that would leave bad behavior as the actual thing we have any ground to care about. And even when they are logically inseparable (e.g. you will adjudge pretending to love you as bad, therefore the goods of love can only exist for you with a good mindset in the one who loves you; they are effectively synonymous), we’re still talking about which natural facts we care about.

Which gets us to the physical sense in which Wielenberg’s statement is false. Imagine a world (and indeed, someday someone may even be able to produce and live in it, whether that’s a good idea or not) where “torturing the innocent just for fun” cures all diseases and disorders (mental and physical), up to and including restoring youth and fitness to the elderly, and where nothing else effects any such cure, and where anyone who isn’t ever tortured, rapidly ages and accumulates diseases and disorders endlessly until they become a gibbering, incompetent lunatic—who can be at once fully restored if someone tortures them just for fun. It’s hard to argue that in that universe it is “morally wrong to torture the innocent just for fun.” In that universe, to the contrary, it is arguably morally right to do so. All because we simply changed the physical facts. Which seems to indicate that moral facts are grounded in natural facts.

Okay. How might we push back on that? You could say that, well, the competent should still have to consent. But that won’t apply to those who have become so ailed they lack competence to consent. At that point, is it really more moral to let them die in gibbering madness than to torture them for fun and thereby cure them? We do, after all, deem it moral to perform painful and invasive procedures on children and the insane, when there is sufficient need to, such as to preserve their own life or limb. And in this bizarre alternative world, that’s basically what “torturing the innocent just for fun” simply does. So it seems evident that changing the natural facts, changes the moral facts. Or you might try to argue the world proposed is impossible, but I doubt it (once we have virtual worlds to play in, the “impossible” will have a lot less meaning), and in any case, all you are then arguing is still that the moral fact you insist upon derives from some physical fact (like, the intentions of the “torturer,” or the physical impossibility of “selfish intentions” ever being consistently aligned with “unselfish outcomes”). You thus have just grounded moral facts in natural facts again. You can’t escape this. No matter how you try to maneuver, all you end up doing is defending the same conclusion: moral facts are grounded in physical, hence natural facts.

Now, the main issue here is that we have to ensure that the sociopath is torturing the person just for fun but that the consequences are hugely beneficial.  In order to maintain, though, that the sociopath is torturing the person just for fun we need to accept that the main purpose of the sociopath is not to de-age that person, but instead is just for their own personal pleasure.  And that personal pleasure cannot be based on them feeling that they have done a good deed by de-aging that person, or else they’d be doing it to de-age them and not for fun.  And so the best way to describe the mental state of the sociopath here has to be that in that world it happens to be the case that torturing the person will have those good consequences, but the sociopath would still torture them if it didn’t, and in fact would torture them even if it aged them significantly.  So, ultimately, at a minimum they don’t care if it benefits their victim or not, and instead would do it no matter what the consequences to the victim were.

This is, at best, a strongly amoral stance.  And yet it is the stance that is required for the sociopath to really be doing it “just for fun”.  So we have an intuitive feeling when we shake out the thought experiment that the sociopath isn’t acting morally here.  The only way to oppose that is to argue that the consequences themselves are what determines whether or not it is moral, and so it doesn’t matter that the sociopath doesn’t care about the consequences, which is a very strong form of consequentialism.  But we reject that strong a notion, because it leads to ludicrous notions like someone who tries to poison someone and the result is that the poison cures a more fatal disease they had (that could be an episode of “House M.D.”!) is not someone who attempted murder but is instead a moral person, while someone who gave a person an antibiotic to cure their disease which ends up killing them because the disease they had was preventing a more serious condition (this actually was an episode of “House M.D.”) is, from the moral perspective, a murderer.  The only way to make Carrier’s argument work leaves those counter-intuitive cases open.

Hence, intentionalism, which is the idea that what matters most in determine if the action taken by someone is their intention when they did it as opposed to the strict consequences.  So if someone intended to poison someone to death but inadvertently lengthens their life, then they are still, at least, attempted murderers, and if someone is trying to cure someone and inadvertently cures them, then they are not murderers and did the morally correct thing.  People tend to argue against this by pointing to cases where someone does something that could put people’s lives at risk inconsiderately and ends up killing someone and noting that by this model since they didn’t intend to kill someone they couldn’t be considered to have done anything wrong, but in that case we can note that they did intend to be careless and inconsiderate and so we can easily say that they were negligent because their intention was, indeed, to be negligent in taking that action, while acknowledging that if they actually had checked everything they reasonably could they would have done nothing wrong.  And from this, we can conclude that since the sociopath would torture that person regardless of the consequences they are still acting at best amorally, which means that the change in the physical facts does not change the moral facts in that case, refuting Carrier’s point.

The thing is, this debate is misunderstanding morality in general.  I can never remember which way he stated it, but Bertrand Russell, I believe, divided the moral space up into two broad categories, one which defines the basic moral principles that we use to determine what is or isn’t moral in general and one which takes those principles and applies them to the world to determine what the moral thing to do is in specific cases.  Every single moral code worth talking about has this division between the conceptual principles of morality and the practical application of those principles to our everyday lives.  Yes, even Kant, as his principles are imperatives that we then apply.  While he is chided for making “Don’t lie” a universal principle, that’s actually an application of his imperatives, not a set rule.  As a logical conclusion, it’s not really amenable to being changed if the physical facts of the world change, but things that follow from “Treat people as ends in themselves and not merely as means” very much could be.  And, of course, Utilitarianism has “Maximize utility” as its conceptual principle that we have to work out specifically with every action we take.

No one, then, denies that the physical facts of the world will impact the practical application of moral principles.  If your base moral principle, for example, is “Reduce suffering” then obviously the practical application of that will depend greatly on what causes and doesn’t cause suffering.  But that principle itself won’t change if you change the physical facts about the world, at least not for most moral principles.  And any moral principles that would change risk being descriptive instead of normative as they would follow from “ises”, and moral principles need to be oughts and so need to be normative.  So to go down the route of arguing that moral facts follow from physical facts usually ends up arguing that moral principles follow from physical facts, which means they follow from “ises”, which means they aren’t normative.  So it’s not a move that anyone should want to make.

Ultimately, there are issues to consider here, but Carrier does not do it and it doesn’t seem like Wielenberg does it either.  The philosophical discussions of moral motivationalism and normativity are far more interesting and challenging than what we find here, which is why it was nice for me to be able to talk more about them while talking about this post of Carrier’s.

Adam Lee on Basic Income

April 22, 2022

The idea of a “basic income” has become popular over the past few years.  The general idea is that the government would pay everyone a basic income — which I guess would preferably be what is considered minimum wage and more likely be a living wage — so that everyone could get their needs met without having to work for it, and then working would be only to provide wants and luxuries or for personal fulfillment.  The best arguments for it are that we could eliminate pretty much all other social programs and so it would save money and ensure that people who are unfortunate don’t starve or are left homeless, and the arguments that I, at least, am most skeptical of are ones that say that it would allow people to choose what they work at and so have more personal fulfillment in their lives.  In general, I’m a bit skeptical of the idea, since being guaranteed a living is definitely something that we are not used to and so it is likely to change society in major ways, ways that I’m not sure will be desirable.

However, Adam Lee is a big proponent of it, and over at his blog at Only Sky he has a post — that was featured for a while — promoting it.  I find a few points in it a bit suspicious, and want to talk about them as well as the idea in general.

Lee starts with working out the numbers, but immediately he starts running into issues where he doesn’t really grasp how the numbers really work out in the world, which is an issue because his main point is that from a practical, real-world perspective this will work:

But if we divided GWP evenly into population—i.e., if the world’s economic output were distributed evenly to every human being—it yields an annual income of $11,000. This world of Gini coefficient zero is an unrealistic hypothetical, like frictionless spheres in a vacuum, but it gives a sense of where the limits are.

For most of us in the West, this would be a severe demotion: $11,000 is below the poverty level, even if you assume people would partner off and form families to share that income.

But for billions of people, this would be an enormous increase. 85% of humanity survives on $30 per day or less. For these aspiring billions, human beings with the same dreams and aspirations as Westerners, that income would bring them from subsistence to stability, even to comfort.

You know, until I did the math, I had a different objection to this.  But then I wanted to work it out for the comparison, and since it doesn’t only include days of work — or, at least, it doesn’t seem to — I worked it out simply by taking $30 X 365 days and got … $10,950.  So, uh, giving them $11,000 a year wouldn’t “bring them from subsistence to stability, or even comfort”.  It would leave them at the poverty line.  They would be, at best, subsisting if that was the only income they had.  Which shouldn’t be a surprise, because that link there was for determining what the global line of poverty should be, and the original reference was the level that was considered poverty level in Denmark.  In those parts of the world that are not Western nations — and if you read the original post he is clearly making the distinction at this point, because it’s only later that he talks about poor people in Western nations — this wouldn’t necessarily apply, for the reason that I was originally going to take him to task.

That reason is that when you’re calculating this, you need to consider more than just the total income.  You need to consider cost of living as well.  In poorer non-Western nations, it’s entirely possible that $30 a day would indeed allow them to live comfortably.  They might even be considered rich in those countries.  The cost of what you need to purchase determines how comfortable you would be given a specific income, and that cost of living is indeed actually related to incomes in that area.  If most people, say, made $5000 a year, then prices in that area would be tied and in some sense normalized to that income.  After all, if they weren’t then people who were renting apartments and selling both necessities and luxuries wouldn’t be able to sell anything.  So, for the most part, prices will converge around average salaries, and so someone making twice that would indeed be wealthy.  The issue in most Western cities is that the average salary or, at least, the salary that most renters and sellers can rely on is quite a bit higher than that $11,000, and so there’s no incentive for them to lower their prices.  Yes, they won’t get the business of those at the bottom of the income scale, but they can make sufficient profits without them.

This, then, also carries over to areas inside a country.  The cost of living in Toronto, say, is quite a bit higher than it is in Ottawa for most things (one reason for me to stay in the latter instead of taking a job in the former) which is a bit higher than it is in the rural area where I grew up.  Housing prices are the biggest example of that disparity, and some things that benefit from a bigger market might be cheaper, but in general that’s how it works.  So you might be able to live pretty comfortably in a rural area for $11,000, but you aren’t going to be able to live at all comfortably on that in a bustling metropolis area.  And a basic income needs to be able to provide for basic needs.  If it doesn’t, then it’s pretty much useless.

So Lee actually messes up the original calculation, but he will have more fun with numbers later.  But first, he’s going to try to prove that it’s Western lifestyles that are the problem:

If you start with the stereotypical Western lifestyle—a large private house, travel by personal auto or airplane, a diet heavy in meat—and try to fit it into $11,000 a year, it seems like serious deprivation. Then again, that lifestyle contains many luxuries which aren’t necessary for a good life. It’s perfectly possible to live happily and comfortably without them. Mr. Money Mustache raised a family on less than $30,000 a year, relying on strategic frugality and a DIY ethos rather than asceticism or deprivation.

So, let me work it out in previous terms.  I, a single bachelor, had as my first apartment a basement bachelor apartment, that cost me $500 a month.  So housing was $6000 a year, which is already over half of what I would be getting.  I also had to pay for electricity and food and all other necessities, so let’s simply ballpark that at $200 a month, for another $2400, which leaves me $2400 a year for everything else I’d need, including transportation.  That would be running me pretty close to the line, but it looks like I might be able to squeeze that in.  Unfortunately, that was 20 years ago.  Apartment prices have gone up quite a bit, and my understanding is that a similar unit to mine is probably at least $1000 a month, which would take over the entire amount Lee suggests everyone be given.  So unless Lee is going to adjust all the prices, it won’t be enough … and again that’s with a system where I deliberately didn’t include a private vehicle — I did have one at the time — or traveling by plane — which I never did — or living in a large private house.  It also wouldn’t leave much if any room for saving for emergencies or for investments, and note that one of the reasons that Mr. Money Mustache could do what he did is that he saved and invested and so had some income there and some savings he could fall back on, which few people starting out can say.  And you can’t say that people would have savings from childhood because even by Lee’s plan that’s probably going to have to be used to, well, support the family, as a family of three under Lee’s plan would make $33,000 which is pretty much the $30,000 that Lee references above.

So, at $11,000, everyone is going to need some kind of job to make money for luxuries like even cable television.  And that doesn’t count that the Internet now might be a necessity.  Also, Lee chides for some odd reason “a diet heavy in meat” despite it being the case that most people who need to, at least, already economize on that and the big expense is fresh fruit and vegetables, which is more what people skip.  Lee here really seems to want to attack the lifestyle instead of making his case.

Which is where we get into more fun with numbers.  Lee got that $11,000 number from this:

In 2021, the world’s population was 7.9 billion people. Over the same time period, the gross world product (GWP)—the sum total of all human economic activity—was around $87 trillion.

This figure encompasses vast inequality, everyone from yacht-owning billionaires to slum-dwelling sweatshop laborers to rural subsistence farmers. But if we divided GWP evenly into population—i.e., if the world’s economic output were distributed evenly to every human being—it yields an annual income of $11,000.

But then he tries to talk about how cheap it would be to get everyone out of poverty, and gives us more numbers:

Best of all, it would be cheap. A relatively small amount of money could make a huge difference in the lives of the poorest. By one estimate, a mere $66 billion—just half of what the world spends on foreign aid already—would eliminate extreme poverty worldwide, if given as direct cash transfers.

Another line of evidence is the expanded child tax credit passed in 2021 as part of the American Rescue Plan. It was a short-lived benefit, since Congress shamefully allowed it to expire. But while it was in effect, it reduced the child poverty rate in the U.S. by almost one-third. It kept 3.7 million children out of poverty. Survey data shows that 91% of beneficiaries spent the money on basic needs like food, clothing, rent and school supplies.

An analysis by the Tax Policy Center found that keeping the more generous child tax credit would cost $225 billion per year. That sounds like a lot, but it’s only 1% of U.S. GDP. Clearly, that’s a cost that we could sustain if we chose to. As the price for making sure children have enough to eat and a roof over their head, it sounds like an outright bargain.

So, since $66 billion and $225 billion are quite a bit less than $87 trillion, clearly Lee is not proposing giving $11,000 to each person in the world, which he is fairly clear isn’t possible anyway.  But then we are left wondering what he is proposing that would cost so much less and yet would elevate everyone out of poverty.  It’s certainly not a basic income as he just talked about and said was the thing that would solve it.  So, then, what, in detail, is he proposing?  The two ideas seem to appeal either to foreign aid or to a specific tax credit in one country, but both of those rely on giving money to people who do not have enough by using the tax dollars of those who do.  Yes, we can have some sympathy and be willing to give money to those who don’t, but that’s not at all what a basic income would be, and is far closer to, well, existing social assistance than it is to a basic income.  And in those cases we all do seem to want this to be temporary, hoping that the unfortunate circumstances that landed them in that predicament will be relieved and this will tide them over until it does.  Lee wants to simply give them money but at least in his post gives us no solution so that we will eventually be able to stop doing that, and in fact a basic income system is one that repudiates ever doing that.  So how are those systems going to work in the basic income model that he is actually supposed to be advocating for?

He then talks about other things that we produce more than enough for all:

When you look for it, you see this pattern over and over. The world’s farmers grow enough food to feed 10 billion people, 1.5 times the current population, even without accounting for how much food goes to waste. Global energy production, if it could be redistributed equitably, is more than enough for everyone’s needs. In the U.S., there are more empty houses than homeless people. We make so many clothes that some places burn them for fuel.

All these lines of evidence converge on one insight: there’s enough for everyone. No human being needs to go without the necessities of life.

The problem is that these cases are not true, or at least not in the way Lee needs them to.  One of the issues with food is that where it is produced is not always where it is needed, and it costs a lot to move it around and preserve it until it makes it there.  We might be able to do it, but it would cost a lot, which would take away that money that Lee wants to just give people.  Giving everyone in the world that amount of money is not going to make it so that they can afford to pay to get that food distributed.  So that’s at least not as easily workable as Lee insists.  For energy, of course, we can’t distribute it that evenly.  It’s just impossible with the technology we have, so we would need to add generation, not simply shuffle it around.  And that housing number is for New York and is misleading, because some of them were being renovated and some of them were units that were either being held or would have been rented by someone else later (it was a snapshot).  And since most of those were luxury apartments, Lee would have to advocate that homeless people be simply given those luxury apartments, or that we shuffle everyone around to get people who can afford it in.  You can argue that we shouldn’t have them at all, but then if we didn’t then there might not even be those housing units, which wouldn’t solve the problem.  And from his own article the clothes that were destroyed were mold or lead infested, and since outside of things like that clothes can last for a while it is entirely possible that they would have been sold already, so again it’s not that clear that we really do produce that much more.  So it’s not as simple to say that there’s enough for everyone as Lee seems to think.

Especially when he adds things that require money and not just production:

If we wanted to, we could feed everyone, clothe everyone, house everyone, ensure that everyone has health care and education.

Anyway, after this he tries to look at whether this is fair, which is one of the main objections to it, which is the main point I wanted to talk about:

Now, you can imagine arguments against this. One common objection is that it encourages laziness and selfishness. Those who make this argument say that if the necessities of life are given away for free, some people will choose to stop working and others will have to pick up their slack. They fear that we’ll end up with the productive supporting the unproductive.

Note, however, that this is a moral objection rather than a purely economic one. It may offend our intuitions of fairness if some people slack off at the expense of others, but it doesn’t threaten to undermine civilization. There are already tens of millions of people who don’t work, whether from age, disability or choice, and that hasn’t caused a collapse. If you believe that people should be forced to work, have the honesty to say that it’s a preference—not a necessity.

Okay, first, since when has Lee been so egregiously unconcerned about morality?  His argument here is basically “Well, yeah, it might be immoral but I don’t want to think about that so let’s just say that it’s practical and figure out the morality later”, which is a sharp contrast to most of his other posts, where morality is to be privileged and pragmatics be damned.  So that he’s so willing to abandon any discussion of morality seems to indicate that he, at least, doesn’t want to talk about that.  Second, he dismisses what he himself considers to be a moral argument as a mere preference, which is again in sharp contrast to how he normally thinks of morality.  Third, he moves from the argument about people slacking off at the expense of others to without any argument calling it a belief that people should be forced to work, which is a rather unfair and manipulative move.

But the biggest problem from a moral perspective — there’s actually a practical problem that I’ll look at in a minute — is that for Lee the idea that we could blithely accept people slacking off and relying on others to support them is completely opposed to the foundation of his own moral system.  Lee relies heavily on justifying morality on the basis of Game Theory and avoiding the “Tragedy of the Commons”, but those are systems that rely heavily on avoiding and producing strong consequences for “freeloading”, which is pretty much defined as “slacking off at the expense of others”.  By Lee’s own arguments, we have thousands of years of an evolutionary imperative to do whatever we can to ensure that people don’t do that, which Lee thinks we can just dismiss because pragmatically we could.  And since his own morality, as noted above, is based on this idea, avoiding “Tragedies of the Commons” and freeloading in general.  We all agree to play by the rules and so adopt a sense of fairness to avoid the disastrous consequences of everyone trying to get ahead at the expense of others.  So Lee, here, is suggesting a solution that violates his entire moral system.  No wonder he doesn’t want to talk about morality here.

But this leads to the pragmatic problem that Lee ignores:  how can he actually avoid a “Tragedy of the Commons” here?  In order for his system to work, he needs it to be the case that more people produce than choose to not work, so that there can be enough production to cover those who drop out.  But if we assume that everyone will have similar reasons to work or not work, then how can he guarantee that?  What happens if those who have the potential to be the most productive drop out and only those who don’t stay in?  Or, more likely, what if people all choose what they do based on what they most want to do rather than what they are best suited for?  Taking myself as an example, I ended up as a software designer and not as a writer or lecturer because I was good with computers and at least with English but I needed a degree that I could get a job with and so went into Computer Science instead of English.  If I had that guaranteed wage, then I could have gone into an Arts degree … or even became a professional student.  While I might have enjoyed that, it wouldn’t have been as productive to society as my current job (er, depending on what you think of my job [grin]).  And most of the examples of what people would now be free to do are precisely of that sort:  pursuing what someone loves rather than what they are best at or what is more valuable to society (in terms of productivity).  I am likely better at writing than at computer programming, but we need more computer programmers than we need writers.

Now, the way most people talk about this, it seems to me, is to play on the idea of “Type A personalities” and argue that the most productive and innovative people will still do that even if they have a basic income, as that is their nature and personality and so they just can’t help themselves.  That might be true for the biggest entrepreneurs, but it’s not true for the bulk of the people who right now work hard at their jobs.  We know that most of those would be more than happy to quit their jobs if they didn’t have to work, as evidenced by the fact that most people will pretty much immediately quit their jobs if they win the lottery, or men who quit their high pressure jobs after a divorce, or people who retire early, and so on and so forth.  Yes, the argument that they will almost certainly not just be idle, but that doesn’t mean that they’ll do something productive, and Lee needs most people to produce more, far more, than they need to make this work.

And Lee’s examples don’t save him, because first those people are in the minority and for those people these conditions don’t apply.  For those who are disabled, we are willing to at least in theory support them without asking that they work because they can’t work, and we don’t want them to starve (and some people, of course, still watch them closely to ensure that they aren’t taking advantage of us, in line with Lee’s own theories).  For age and choice, those are not people, in general, who are doing that at the expense of others because they don’t do that while expecting others to support them.  In general, they have either worked hard — and likely paid into pension plans — and so have generated through their own hard work and productivity the means to support themselves, or else they are willing to make sacrifices so as to be able to live on what they can produce without working.  So that model is not the one that Lee is suggesting, and so he doesn’t can’t use those examples as arguments to say “Well, this happens, and society is still going, so this will work, too!”.  All of those are cases where people are not slacking off at the expense of others:  the disabled are not “slacking off”, and the other cases are not doing that at the expense of others.

So, in order to make this work, Lee needs to ensure that most people produce more than they use so that a minority of people can use more than they produce.  So this immediately calls to mind the Marxist model of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”.  Except for this to be freeing, we’re going to need to be able to get more than our basic needs, and Lee is not going to accept — at least for him — people being forced to work at the jobs that they are most productive at.  So what he will need is for most people to fall into the jobs that they are the most productive at and produce more than they take while leaving room for some people to choose jobs that they like more but are not the most productive and produce less than they take.  If this doesn’t just happen on its own, then Lee will hit a “Tragedy of the Commons” and it will all fall apart (in little pieces on the floor, too wild to keep together, so you want it more, yeah).

That … will be extremely difficult to pull off.

So, no, his idea isn’t as practical as he makes it sound, and so he is reduced, at the end, to ignoring issues of fairness and returning to the point that he managed to contradict while arguing for it:

Once this truth is more widely recognized, we can go on to ask what’s fair. We can discuss how to divide up the bounty of civilization so that no one is deprived and no one is forced to work to support those who won’t. But the starting point of that conversation has to be the acknowledgment that poverty isn’t inherent to the natural order. There’s no reason it has to exist.

He might even be right that we can alleviate poverty (once we define it).  But we can’t determine that he’s right about that until we determine what the possible ways of dividing things up are, to see if we can actually find one that both suffices and is fair.  And if we can’t, then that would be the reason poverty exists, and he can’t say there’s no reason for poverty exist until he can find a way that is both practical and moral to eliminate it.

Mythicism: Carrier on McLatchie on Carrier

April 15, 2022

It’s possible that I should start paying more attention to the historicism vs mythicism debate, given that I’ve gotten sucked into talking about it a bit lately.  I have mused about picking up Carrier’s books on the topic and examining them in some detail, but I keep getting discouraged from that by the fact that I don’t really know enough about the topic to judge things very fairly and have no idea what some good and mostly neutral sources have to say about the topic.  I don’t know what some good introductory texts are on the matter, such as I’ve found in the past for things like philosophy (“Philosophies for Dummies”, at least the version I had, was actually pretty good).  What I can say is that from my reading of Richard Carrier’s posts on the topic his stuff is not a good introduction, and I’ve taken on Jonathan MS Pearce’s take on the Nativity and the Resurrection and don’t think they’re good introductions either.  However, I don’t just want to take on some of the people Carrier himself criticizes because it seems to me that Carrier is far more likely to take on works that criticize him the strongest, and that’s not what I’d need in an introduction.  Add in Gregory House’s admonition that “Everybody lies” and the issue I have is that I’d need as unbiased an account as I can, and as we shall see later the only people in this mess who could be unbiased are people like me who really don’t care about the topic … which isn’t much of an incentive for them to write about it.  If it wasn’t for the arguments that I’m coming across that are bad from a philosophical perspective, I wouldn’t really be involved here either, although I am gaining more interest in it for the simple reason that as I read more and more on the topic I’m finding mythicism increasingly untenable, and so am curious as to why people think it not only tenable, but actually plausible.

As you might have guessed, Carrier’s latest post defending mythicism against a criticism of his specific views by Jonathan McLatchie doesn’t break that mold.  Carrier’s defenses — especially in his blog posts — have always had a tendency to be more fire and flame than actual substance, as he aggressively attacks his opponents but in the process ends up missing the point of what they say.  I’ve noted in the past that if you are going to be aggressive you really have to be right, and at that point even minor errors hurt the credibility of a piece more than they would have otherwise.  If someone is careful about what they say and hedge their bets, if they make a minor mistake in interpretation we can let it go, but when they are ranting about how badly the other person misinterpreted their view even minor errors of interpretation on their part seem hypocritical … and Carrier tends to make more than minor errors of interpretation.  He is one of the people that most justifies my rule of “Make sure you read the original work when reading someone’s criticizes of it” (which is another reason why simply reading his stuff is more of an imposition than it might seem).

Anyway, after taking on someone that he didn’t think did any kind of credible job, Carrier turns to McLathchie as someone who is worth replying to.  But he starts with an odd interpretation of the overall debate:

That article’s subtitle alerts us to a trend I have seen in Christian apologetics as an industry since my second debate with Mike Licona: a readiness to strategically ditch the Gospels and extrabiblical sources and try to rest their case (even for the resurrection!) solely on the letters of Paul. That move was precipitated largely by having lost the debate over whether mainstream scholars “trust” the Gospels and other evidence (they don’t; and that looks bad for Christianity). The last rampart left to defend is the letters of Paul. Lose those, and you lose it all. So I totally understand why McLatchie needs to focus on that. And this is true even from a sound historical perspective: because the Gospels and extrabiblical evidence are deeply unreliable and thus unusable, the only place left to debate the historicity of Jesus, really, is in the letters of Paul. I’ve long pointed this out myself (e.g. see Historicity Big and Small: How Historians Try to Rescue Jesus).

So, McLatchie is replying to Carrier, and Carrier argues that the Gospels and extrabiblical sources are not at all reliable, and so would reject any appeals to the Gospels or extrabiblical sources, and so presumably is basing his case entirely or at least mostly on Paul and so clearly thinks that he can find enough evidence in Paul to demonstrate that mythicism is the most likely theory.  McLatchie, then, deciding to leave the Gospels out for the most part and concentrate on Paul isn’t a sign that he doesn’t think the Gospels credible, but is simply him responding to what the person he’s criticizing is actually arguing.  Sure, McLatchie could argue that the Gospels are reliable and prove historicism, but then since Carrier denies that the argument would be over that, and all of that is unnecessary if McLatchie can refute Carrier’s arguments based on Paul.  If those fall, then Carrier’s entire edifice falls.  So the shift is far more likely to be the result of mythicists insisting on ignoring the Gospels and focusing on Paul, and historicists following along with that because they think they can defeat those arguments and want to take mythicists on directly, keeping the Gospels in their back pocket if that fails.  McLatchie’s early paragraphs pretty much state this:

Carrier examines the extrabiblical evidence of Jesus’ historicity, as well as the sources we find in the New Testament – the gospels, Acts, and epistles. While there is much that could be discussed in regards to Carrier’s handling of these sources, for the purpose of the present paper I will focus primarily on Carrier’s interaction with the Pauline corpus, though – for reasons that will become clear – I will also remark on the book of Acts insofar as it helps to illuminate the proper interpretation of Paul’s letters.

Having rejected the gospels and Acts as reliable documents, Carrier maintains that the letters of Paul are the best sources that bear on the question of the historicity of Jesus. He, however, contends that the letters of Paul fail to unequivocally refer to Jesus as an historical person who walked on earth. Instead, argues Carrier, Paul viewed Jesus as a celestial being, inhabiting a spiritual realm in outer space, in which He was crucified by demons and subsequently resurrected. Carrier’s thesis is in fact not a new idea, but one which was originally proposed by Earl Doherty, to whom Carrier owes much of his material.[2]

So there’s no need to assert that his opponents are abandoning the Gospels when they focus on Paul in replying to them when any reasonable academic work replying to a specific position will, well, focus on that position, regardless of what they themselves think.  Carrier here wants to make a mostly irrelevant argument about how people are agreeing with him when, well, there’s no reason to think they are (McLatchie even uses Acts directly).  Which is a bit ironic given what Carrier says later.

But first, Carrier starts with a claim that McLatchie starts with an ad hominem, which is also going to be quite ironic:

To illustrate the difference between a competent rhetorist (McLatchie) and a hamfisted hack (Krause), consider this sentence from McLatchie’s first paragraph: “While Mythicism occupies only the fringes of the scholarly guild” (it actually has almost twenty public endorsements “from the guild” as being at least plausible, which is not looking all too fringe anymore), “it has gained much better traction on the internet, where poor scholarship can be widely disseminated unchecked.” In the very next sentence McLatchie admits I published my study not on the internet, but through a genuine peer reviewed “academic publisher” (he doesn’t mention my thesis has also been independently corroborated under peer review, by Raphael Lataster for Brill). But McLatchie’s wording makes it appear as though he has accused me of publishing “poor scholarship” (yet unlike the internet, academic publishers aren’t in the habit of doing that). So he gets the benefits of an ad hominem well poisoning fallacy while still retaining plausible deniability. He can fool inattentive readers into thinking he deployed such a fallacy (thus having all its intended psychological effect), while being able (unlike Krause) to deny he did any such thing. That’s not just dirty pool, it’s devious pool. Krause could learn a thing or two.

I wonder if the spur for that comment is more admiration and envy than actually finding it invalid.  Perhaps Carrier feels that it’s he, rather than Krause, who could learn a thing or two about such subtle ad hominems, as the ad hominem is so subtle that I didn’t even notice it on my first reading of McLatchie’s post, and on re-reading it don’t think it is one.  Here is what McLatchie said:

Richard Carrier is an ancient historian who has risen to prominence as the lead advocate of Jesus Mythicism, a school of thought that entertains the idea that Jesus of Nazareth may never have existed at all. While Mythicism occupies only the fringes of the scholarly guild, it has gained much better traction on the internet, where poor scholarship can be widely disseminated unchecked. In 2014, Richard Carrier published the first academic defense of Mythicism through Sheffield Phoenix Press Ltd., an academic publisher.[1] Since this volume represents the first scholarly peer-reviewed publication supporting the Mythicist position and is written by an author with a doctoral degree in ancient history, the contents of Carrier’s thesis are deserving of attention.

So my interpretation of it is that mythicism is a fringe belief academically but has gained a lot of traction on the Internet where there are no requirements for good scholarship, but Richard Carrier has come along and created the first scholarly work for this — which is even peer-reviewed, as Carrier loves to mention — and so unlike the Internet works it’s worthy of some sort of scholarly attention.  I don’t see what’s so ad hominem about that.  Carrier claims that what McLatchie is doing is something akin to poisoning the well by associating it with poor scholarship while then “admitting” that Carrier’s work is not an Internet work, but it seems to me that the entire intent of the paragraph is to flat-out state that:  there’s a lot of stuff that’s not scholarly but Carrier’s is the exception, so it deserves attention.  Given that that’s the last thing in the paragraph and so the take-away of it, it’s not like McLatchie is trying to hide it in parentheses or anything.  It’s what that entire paragraph builds towards.  That’s hardly “admitting”.

As for why I think Carrier might be more admiring of the move and wishing he could do that himself, in his own introduction he says this:

Last week I addressed a lame Christian apologist’s travesty of an attempt to denounce and villify doubts that Jesus existed (On Paul Krause’s Objections to Jesus Mythicism). This week I will address a more competent attempt, by another Christian apologist, Jonathan McLatchie, for Frank Turek’s online ministry at CrossExamined.org: Did Jesus Exist? A Critical Appraisal of Richard Carrier’s Interpretation of the Pauline Corpus.

Structurally, this is pretty much the same thing:  I’ve looked at a bad example but here’s a better one that I’ll address.  By Carrier’s logic, this does the same thing as McLatchie does:  associate the view with incompetence and a lack of scholarly rigour and then “admit” that the view he’s going to look at is better, which then gets the audience associating the later work with that lack while having plausible deniability about whether they actually said that or not.  Of course, in this case I would consider that idea ridiculous and very flawed logic, and so conclude in spite of Carrier’s own application of that logic that Carrier is not engaging in any kind of ad hominem here, but is simply making a standard, boilerplate statement of why he is taking on McLatchie’s arguments, despite the fact that Carrier has stated that statements like that are disguised ad hominems.  Thus, I also consider McLatchie’s paragraph to be the same thing, and so if Carrier wants to argue that McLatchie’s intent is that then he will have to answer for his own intent in a paragraph that, again, pretty much says the same thing.

And then, of course. there’s the actual ad hominem that Carrier makes later:

When he gets to trying to make an actually relevant argument, what we get is a Christian apologist’s quasi-fundamentalist beliefs about the letters of Paul and the book of Acts (with one long section on each), rather than any position one can honestly defend with evidence. This is why Lataster is fond of pointing out that Christians have no business even engaging in this debate. They cannot approach it honestly. Their very salvation is at stake. Whereas atheists are under no threat admitting Jesus was yet another mythologized guru. Hence whether Jesus existed or not is really only a debate that can be honestly and productively held between non-Christians. We’ll see why as we survey this effort.

So, no Christian is able to examine the arguments in any way honestly, and so they should be excluded from the debate entirely.  Only atheists should be allowed to engage in this topic, as all Christians will automatically be dishonest about it and so such discussions won’t be productive.  Thus, we can pretty much ignore any arguments from Christians, right?  Even the ones that are, of course, correct.  Call me crazy, but I think that people can indeed at a minimum critically examine arguments of the position they disagree with even if they strongly hold that view, and then opponents can point out — as Carrier does in this entire post — the arguments that don’t work and the arguments or counters that only work because of their bias.  In addition, it’s actually not clear that atheists like Carrier and Pearce are properly unbiased either.  Carrier takes on a comment asking why secular commentators who favour historicism don’t take up the challenge that often:

So far, everyone competent I would suggest, doesn’t really care whether Jesus existed enough to spend time defending it. Only scholars who desperately need Jesus to exist have the motivation. For example, I don’t know their religious commitments, but Mark Goodacre and James Crossley would do the subject justice. But they are buried in other years-long projects of their own interest, and have somewhat indicated they are unlikely to spend any time on this question.

I suspect they really don’t care whether Jesus existed or not enough to want to devote the time it would take to properly treat it (precisely because they know that requires serious commitment to do properly; it can’t be knocked off from the armchair).

Precisely.  The more interesting position historically is that Jesus was a real person who was mythologized, and that’s already the default.  Mythicism isn’t that interesting historically so those who don’t care about the topic either way have no real reason to do the work to engage with it.  So, then, what can we say about those secular scholars who do care deeply about it, like Carrier for certain?  Well, they have some sort of reason to care about it beyond wanting to come to the right conclusion, because those other secular scholars would have that same motivation.  Thus, they have a motivation above and beyond simple scholarly honesty.  And could that reason be that if they could demonstrate that Jesus didn’t really exist then they have a really strong argument to use against Christians?  Pretty much all of the examples of those who strongly advocate for mythicism are anti-theists and not merely atheists:  they don’t merely not believe that God exists, but spend a lot of time trying to argue against theists and Christians who say he does, often in very strong terms, and most would like to see Christianity and religion gone from the world.  Yeah, it’s perfectly reasonable to claim that those atheists are equally biased and so are equally untrustworthy,  The only unbiased commentators are literally those who don’t care about the topic, and the closest thing I can see to that in the debate is, well, myself … and I admit that I don’t know enough to comment on it fairly, in large part because I don’t care.  So, no, Carrier does not get to smear Christians for having biases when his side seems to have them as well.  What we could do is evaluate the arguments and do scholarly examinations of them, stating our biases and trying to work to moderate them, and using things like the peer review process that Carrier is so enamored of to help catch these sorts of things like we are expected to do for all scholarly and academic work.  Instead, Carrier wants to remove all possible opposition to his claims beforehand so that the only people who could possibly oppose him are people who don’t care to oppose him.

Moving on from ad hominems, we get into an argument about consensus based on an aside from McLatchie.  Carrier says:

Similarly, McLatchie goes on to construct a similarly devious (and disingenuous) analogy between the historicity of Jesus and the science of evolution–without hamfistedly saying there is as much evidence for Jesus as for evolution. Instead, he glides right over all the pertinent differences between history and biology as scientific fields, and the historicity of Jesus (a specific, poorly attested, largely unnecessary event) and evolution as a subject of knowledge (a general, vastly attested, manifest process)—and hopes his readers don’t notice or know any of that. Pro tip: there is nowhere near the evidence for Jesus as there is for evolution, and no one thinks a consensus in history is as reliable and undoubtable as a consensus in any hard science like biology.

So you can’t claim every challenge to a consensus is to be dismissed. To the contrary, if it passes peer review, it’s time to take that challenge seriously (that’s what peer review is for: see On Evaluating Arguments from Consensus).

Of course, McLatchie actually said that last part directly in the paragraph Carrier is talking about (but doesn’t quote):

I cannot help but point out an irony in Carrier’s advocacy of scholarship that to call fringe would be an understatement. In one of Carrier’s other books, Why I Am Not a Christian, Carrier writes concerning biological evolution, “The evidence that all present life evolved by a process of natural selection is strong and extensive. I won’t repeat the case here, for it is enough to point out that the scientific consensus on this is vast and certain, so if you deny it you’re only kicking against the goad of your own ignorance.”[3] One wonders whether this quote has any relevance to the debate over Mythicism. I could forego interaction with Carrier’s argumentation by noting that “the evidence that Jesus existed is strong and extensive. I won’t repeat the case here, for it is enough to point out that the scholarly consensus on this is vast and certain, so if you deny it you’re only kicking against the goad of your own ignorance.” Presumably, Carrier would – quite rightly – object that I need to interact with his arguments rather than simply make an appeal to scholarly consensus. This is somewhat of an inconsistency on Carrier’s part.

The paragraph is an aside, where McLatchie points out that by Carrier’s own logic McLatchie would be well within his rights to say that the scholarly consensus is clear and that any attempt to oppose that is just out of ignorance.  As McLatchie notes, presumably Carrier would think that he needs to address Carrier’s arguments instead of just dismissing them, and yet that is exactly what Carrier insists he doesn’t need to do for evolution.  Yes, the evidence and case for evolution is stronger, but if someone was indeed leveling new arguments against evolution dismissing them outright on the basis of “the consensus is clear” is just as bad (arguing that they aren’t new would actually be fair).  If Carrier’s original statement was more “The case for evolution is strong and it’s not the purpose of this work to restate that”, then this would be any kind of inconsistency, but since he aggressively says that any such arguments must be wrong without engaging in them due to the consensus then he is open to that charge, which is again a charge that McLatchie doesn’t care that much about.  And if Carrier wasn’t taking this as a huge sign of dishonesty the fact that McLatchie’s conclusion, again, is the very thing Carrier cites here wouldn’t be that big a deal either.

And it gets worse:

Ironically, McLatchie goes on in a later section to admit (quoting me) that “there is a great deal wrong with how a ‘consensus’ has been reached” on practically everything in Biblical studies. So…um, McLatchie believes it is acceptable to reject numerous mainstream consensuses in the field, and at the same time it is not acceptable only in this one specific isolated question. For…reasons? He never explains himself on this point. He readily knows consensuses in biblical studies are unreliable and often open to challenge—he just won’t admit it in this paragraph, lest it destroy the rhetorical game he is trying to play on his readers (“But, the consensus!”). Instead he only brings up his admission that he actually agrees with me that it is quite plausible to challenge a consensus in this field paragraphs later, hoping his readers don’t hear a record scratch to a halt in their heads, realizing McLatchie just contradicted himself—in the act of falsely claiming I have contradicted myself. Kafka would be proud.

The first problem with this is that Carrier, as he so often does, is using a rather vague notion of “later”, because McLatchie actually says that … two paragraphs later, where the paragraph in-between is this:

In this paper, I will be primarily interacting with Carrier’s book, On the Historicity of Jesus. However, I may on occasion also draw from other publications by Carrier, including his blog posts, which might serve to illuminate his views or where he may have anticipated some of the objections I raise here.

In general, the accusation of doing that later is that you set it up so that they would have forgotten about the previous statement when the later one comes up, which is what Carrier’s argument is here.  But two paragraphs later isn’t, in general, long enough for that to happen, and Carrier can only avoid a charge of misrepresentation here on the basis that two paragraphs later is technically later.  On top of that, McLatchie actually notes that it’s okay to challenge consensuses in that very paragraph, as we’ve already seen, so it’s not like he’s even trying to hide the principle from the audience.  So what we’ve seen so far is an attempt by Carrier to claim McLatchie dishonest for these tricks that, well, aren’t really tricks at all.  Which is even more ironic given what Carrier follows up with:

None of McLatchie’s opening paragraphs serve any legitimate purpose, other than emotional and rhetorical manipulation of his audience.

Which means that it’s really important that Carrier spend five paragraphs talking about these things that have no legitimate purpose, right?  Putting aside the argument over whether they even actually do that, the opening paragraphs seems to me to be standard boilerplate:  saying what mythicism is, who he’s talking about, what he’s going to talk about, and why Carrier is worth talking about, with a minor aside on how Carrier might be willing to ignore the consensus when it suits him while insisting on following it when doing that benefits him (which is a paragraph that didn’t need to be there, true).  Carrier spends five paragraphs talking about four paragraphs, that seem to do little more than let Carrier make ad hominems while trying to defend himself from what he perceives as being ad hominems.  I think we all should be happy to move on to relevant stuff now (although Carrier will take another three paragraphs talking about how Christians can’t be trusted as seen above and about how we really can only trust Paul’s pastorals, which McLatchie was going to focus on anyway, so so much for getting to things that are relevant).

And, of course, he continues to bash apologists without getting to the meat of the arguments in the next section:

Serious debate over the historicity of Jesus really does always come down to what we understand Paul to have meant when he wrote certain things in his letters. And answering that question requires adducing all the pertinent evidence in Paul that informs us as to either what he did mean, or what he could as likely have meant as anything else—and then seeing where that evidence leaves us. This is how historians operate. Apologists operate backwards: they assume all the later mythologies (never referenced by Paul and by many indications quite unknown to Paul) are “true” and therefore we can “interpret” what Paul said by reference to those later myths. This is a circular argument. You cannot assume “Paul meant what’s in the Gospels” in order argue “Paul meant what’s in the Gospels.” Alas. But this is all McLatchie does, really.

Remember, though, that Paul was indeed aware of Christianity at the time and tried to roughly align himself with them — he did not want to contradict himself and be declared outside of the Church — and so if we have sources that describe what early Christians thought independently of him then we can use them to interpret what he might have meant, especially when he talks about what they meant.  By the same reasoning, we cannot claim that “Paul said that early Christians believed this” to argue that “Paul said that early Christians believed this”.  We would need to establish what Paul himself clearly meant and then make an argument that from that we can be certain that the early Christians meant that as well and that wasn’t one of Paul’s deviations.  Conversely, if the Gospels really did reflect what early Christians believed then even if Paul hadn’t had access to them we could interpret what Paul meant by noting that he needs to be at least broadly consistent with them even though he deviates at times.  However, it’s relevant to note that in this debate the only reason we care about what Paul really meant is because we are trying to find out what early Christians believed.  So if we have good extra-Paul sources for what the early Christians believed then what Paul thought or said isn’t all that important.  It’s only because it is at least claims that we don’t have those sources that we care so much about what Paul said.  Which puts Carrier’s comments about shifting away from the Gospels towards Paul in perspective:  it’s as important if not more so to Carrier that the Gospels be ignored, likely because it’s not as easy for Carrier to make his case taking the Gospels into account as it is if he can ignore them and focus only on Paul, probably because the Gospels all pretty much claim Jesus was a real person and it would take a lot more creative interpretations to make them fit the mythicist model.  Carrier may indeed be right that they aren’t reliable enough to be trusted but that is countered by the fact that they are more directly linked to what early Christians really thought as they are almost certainly derived from what at least certain sects of Christianity that can be traced back to its origin really believed.  So we have issues no matter how we proceed.

But then Carrier says something that from any kind of epistemic view is incredibly odd, and also explains my reaction to his and Pearce’s view, and to atheist anti-theism in general:

To be fair, McLatchie admits “Paul’s reference to Jesus’ teachings on divorce or to the twelve…can be interpreted in a manner that is consistent with” my thesis. So he isn’t just hell bent on gainsaying everything I say. He understands the concept that, for example, Paul referring to their being a “twelve” is equally likely whether Jesus existed or not—without having to insist or prove Paul did not mean what historicists need him to. This is a crucial methodological point. Apologists tend to have a hard time distinguishing between, for example, “we know the Gospels are all myth” and “we don’t know the Gospels aren’t all myth.” All I have to prove is the latter—not the former.

Wait.  So, the consensus is that Jesus was a real person who was mythogized, and we have sources that claim this, and Carrier is saying that he doesn’t have to prove that Paul didn’t mean what historicists need him to to challenge those sources, nor does he have to prove that the Gospels really are myths and don’t contain historical information about a real person?  I mean, a lot of atheists have made hay over strong notions of proof and so denying that they have that burden, but surely to overturn a consensus you are going to have to get to something stronger than “Well, we don’t know that I’m wrong”.  Surely you’d need to get to “I know that I’m right that Paul was referring to a Jesus that was not a real person”, which then at least would get to the implication that any reference in the Gospels to a real Jesus was indeed false and so all of those descriptions were myths.  Carrier states this even more strongly later (yes, a paragraph later):

Hence, so too, anything in Paul. I do not need to prove Paul did mean by “the archons of this aeon” demonic powers; all I need prove is that we cannot know he didn’t. Even at best, for the historicist, the evidence we have is equally likely on whether Paul did or didn’t. So it supports neither theory against the other. It’s simply unusable as evidence. It’s actually worse for the historicist’s interpretation—this wording is actually not likely what Paul would have written if he meant human authorities—as I outline in On the Historicity of Jesus (e.g. pp. 565-66). But my point here is that it doesn’t have to be for my conclusion to follow. In other words, we simply can’t use an ambiguous sentence to prove historicity, when it just as likely can have been the same sentence Paul would write if he only understood the saga of Jesus to be a celestial event and not an Earthly one. In this one moment McLatchie reveals he at least understands this point in principle. Yet we’ll see him conveniently forget about it whenever he needs to.

Well, okay, sure, if the historicist is saying that this sentence proves that Jesus was real and the mythicist can point out that it is consistent with their position as well, that would mean that it can’t at least be used as strong evidence in favour of historicism, but as Carrier himself notes here that’s not what’s happening, and it’s the mythicist who is arguing that this is evidence in favour of mysticism.  At some point, the mythicist is either going to have to find an argument that they claim means they know that Paul was not referring to a real person or else the culmulative case will have to add up to a knowledge claim.  So Carrier cannot simply say “Well, we don’t know that Paul didn’t mean this” if he wants us to take his claims seriously and wants to overturn a consensus.  Eventually, he is going to have to get to a point where, yes, we can say that we do know that Paul meant that, even if that case is ambiguous until he makes the rest of his case.

This attitude, I think, is what is bugging me about mythicism specifically and anti-theistic arguments in general.  Their main focus is always on raising doubts and dodging the burden of proof, pushing it on to their opponents.  But I see no reason to give up any belief because some doubts can be raised.  I can concede that it may not be irrational for mythicists or strong atheists to hold their positions without feeling any pressure to join them in their position.  The arguments, in general, are simply not strong enough to do anything but raise some doubts, and that’s not enough.  Add in that a lot of the arguments are about irrelevant and minor things and things get even worse.  Neither position, it seems to me, has the one knockdown argument that shows that we know God doesn’t exist — see my examinations of Bob Seidensticker’s Silver Bullets that are supposed to do that and fail — but in trying to make a cumulative case they include too many minor and wrong arguments to make that work either.  Every time they include something that doesn’t work or isn’t important it makes the argument seem desperate rather than considered, especially when they treat those minor and incorrect things as things that we are supposed to find critically important.  And so I am unimpressed by them because the arguments are unimpressive and the proponents spend as much time trying to force me to prove my case as they do for promoting their own, and the only way to insist that I take their view is to get to the level of knowledge, and demanding that I prove it to them is always an implicit acknowledgement that they can’t get there.  And if they can’t get there, why should I care about their position?

Anyway, moving on, Carrier commends McLatchie for stating his position properly and then tries to argue that he didn’t:

But then he straw man’s my conclusion by declaring “Carrier’s proposed interpretation of Romans 1:3 is that God manufactured Jesus out of sperm that was obtained from David’s belly, an event that Carrier suggests took place in outer space.” Actually, the following is what I said in the book McLatchie is supposed to be responding to: “An allegorical meaning is possible. But so is a literal one,” and then in a note I explain “in Gal. 3.26–4.29 every Christian comes from ‘the sperm of Abraham’ by spiritual adoption” and so “Jesus could have been understood to come from ‘the sperm of David’ in a similar way.” In fact “Paul even uses the same phrase in his discussion of allegorical heritage here (kata sarka, ‘according to the flesh’, Gal. 4.23, 29) that he uses of Jesus in Rom. 1.3″ (p. 575). So, I did not actually say the only likely thing Paul could mean here is a literal manufacture of Jesus from the sperm of David; I pointed out the text is entirely compatible with an allegorical meaning: the exact same one Paul uses elsewhere, with identical vocabulary. McLatchie never mentions this; nor ever addresses it.

I then go on to explain why a literal reading of the text—divine manufacture—is actually simpler and makes even more sense.

So, McLatchie claimed that Carrier thinks that the way to interpret that statement is to refer to divine manufacture.  Carrier then claims that McLatchie is creating a strawman by saying that Carrier proposes interpreting the statement that way, by arguing that in his sentence he suggests that an allegorical meaning might be valid, that he expands on in a note, and then concludes that after that he goes on to argue that divine manufacture is the simpler and makes more sense.  Well, first, McLatchie can be forgiven for not putting too much emphasis on the note because in arguments notes are not meant to be taken as arguments.  In general, in philosophical works I ignore the notes because those are meant to be clarifications, not arguments, and one should be able to read a philosophical text and understand it without reading the notes.  So notes, in general, are interesting but not crucial asides that can help clarify matters, which is why I do read them in historical works, not because they are important, because they are interesting.  If Carrier wanted us to think that he actually take the allegorical argument seriously, he needed to put it in the text and not in a note.  Additionally, after talking about how it might work allegorically Carrier himself notes that he spends much more time right after that talking about how the preferred interpretation should be divine manufacture.  Given this, it’s perfectly reasonable for McLatchie to conclude that that’s how Carrier thinks it should be interpreted, and so that doesn’t seem like any kind of a strawman.  Ironically, if McLatchie had insisted that Carrier takes it as being analogical that would be a strawman, given what Carrier says.  But saying that Carrier thinks what Carrier admits that he spends time arguing for and that it seems he really thinks isn’t any kind of strawman.

I am at a complete loss for why Carrier would do this.  While I dislike trying to psychologically analyze people, I can only conclude that McLatchie stating the position so baldly struck Carrier as being totally bizarre, and so he wanted to find a way to distance himself from the position, but I cannot understand why he didn’t just say “I know this sounds insane, but this is what the early Christians believed!” instead of spending so much time trying to deny that he said it only to affirm that, yeah, that is what he meant.  And he even goes on to argue that just a short while later.  So why spend the time here trying to argue that what he really does seem to mean isn’t what he meant?

This is part of a long section where Carrier claims that McLatchie didn’t respond to any of Carrier’s real arguments and hides that from the audience, while ignoring most of what McLatchie actually said, which isn’t any better.  The argument is over whether Paul uses a certain verb to mean “born” or “manufactured”.  Carrier quotes McLatchie saying this:

Carrier has in mind here the Septuagint translation of Genesis 2:7, in which the word ἐγένετο (the aorist indicative form of γίνομαι) appears, describing the man as becoming a living creature. However, the word that is used here to describe the moment of divine manufacture is not ἐγένετο, but rather ἔπλασεν (the third person aorist indicative of the verb πλάσσω). The word ἐγένετο, rather, is used in this context to describe the change of state from non-living to living. Thus, it is not precisely correct to say that ἐγένετο refers to divine manufacture.

Which he replies to by saying that the quote in his book is actually this:

Philippians 2.6-11 portrays this fact as an act of divine construction, not human procreation (as noted in §4): Jesus ‘took’ human form, was ‘made’ to look like a man and then ‘found’ to be resembling one (see also Heb. 2.17). No mention of birth, childhood or parents. In Rom. 1.3 (just as in Gal. 4.4) Paul uses the word genomenos (from ginomai), meaning ‘to happen, become’. Paul never uses that word of a human birth, despite using it hundreds of times (typically to mean ‘being’ or ‘becoming’); rather, his preferred word for being born is gennaō. Notably, in 1 Cor. 15.45, Paul says Adam ‘was made’, using the same word as he uses for Jesus; yet this is obviously not a reference to being born but to being constructed directly by God. If so for Adam, then so it could be for Jesus (whom Paul equated with Adam in that same verse). Likewise in 1 Cor. 15.37 Paul uses the same word of our future resurrection body, which of course is not born from a parent but directly manufactured by God (and already waiting for us in heaven: 2 Cor. 5.1-5). Thus, Paul could be saying the same of Jesus’ incarnation. (OHJ, pp. 575-76)

(The emphasis is all Carrier’s).

But McLatchie’s remaining paragraphs in the section are as follows:

Carrier has in mind here the Septuagint translation of Genesis 2:7, in which the word ἐγένετο (the aorist indicative form of γίνομαι) appears, describing the man as becoming a living creature. However, the word that is used here to describe the moment of divine manufacture is not ἐγένετο, but rather ἔπλασεν (the third person aorist indicative of the verb πλάσσω). The word ἐγένετο, rather, is used in this context to describe the change of state from non-living to living. Thus, it is not precisely correct to say that ἐγένετο refers to divine manufacture. Paul himself in fact alludes to this text (1 Cor 15:45). While Carrier asserts that Paul does not use γίνομαι to refer to a human birth, this only begs the question, since he must assume that Romans 1:3 and also Galatians 4:4 (which says that Jesus was born – γενόμενον – of a woman and born under the law) are not using the verb in this sense, which is the very question he is attempting to address. Furthermore, according to Liddell and Scott’s Intermediate Greek Lexicon, the verb γίνομαι, in the context of persons, means “to be born.”[6] We can independently verify this to be the case by analysing instances where this verb is used in the Septuagint, in order to discern how the word is used in relation to persons. Genesis 21:3 says, “Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac.” In the Greek Septuagint, the Hebrew word נּֽוֹלַד־ (“was born”) is translated γενομένου. Another example is Genesis 46:27: “And the sons of Joseph, who were born to him in Egypt, were two.” Again, the Greek Septuagint renders this as γενομένου. Finally, consider Genesis 48:5: “And now your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine, as Reuben and Simeon are.” Here once again, the Greek Septuagint uses the word γενομένου.

Carrier points out that Paul also uses another verb, γεννάω, to refer to being born. One instance is Romans 9:11: “though they were not yet born (γεννηθέντων) and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls.” The other instance is Galatians 4:23,29: “But the son of the slave was born (γεγέννηται) according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise… But just as at that time he who was born (γεννηθεὶς) according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now.” While it may be granted that Paul uses the verb γεννάω to refer to being born, this entails nothing more than that Paul was willing to use synonyms for a word.

Another relevant question is how Paul himself uses the word σπέρματος (usually translated as “seed” or “offspring”) elsewhere. Paul writes, “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant (σπέρματος) of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin,” (Rom 11:1). Here, Paul uses the exact same word for descendant as he used in Romans 1:3 to describe Jesus as being a descendent of David. If Paul – as he presumably did – believed that his descendance from Abraham entailed that he himself existed on earth, then it stands to reason that he also believed that Jesus existed on earth by virtue of His descendance from David.

While there’s too much here to completely unpack and it’s clear that McLatchie leaves out some of the arguments, what is happening here is that McLatchie actually is addressing the idea that because Paul used the same word there that refers to Adam that doesn’t mean that he really did mean that Jesus was divinely manufactured instead of being born.  It’s all about the consistency of how Paul uses words, and I don’t see that Carrier’s argument is necessarily more reasonable than McLatchie’s (one could argue that that’s because I don’t really understand the context, which is a fair comment).  But to return to Carrier’s objection, Carrier makes it seems like McLatchie doesn’t reply to it on the basis that he says nothing about the debate, which is clearly false, and Carrier completely leaves out the arguments that McLatchie does make, while trying to make an argument that McLatchie dishonestly leaves out the arguments and information in order to misrepresent the argument.  If that really is true, then is Carrier doing anything any different?  And note that if Carrier cannot pull off the argument that Paul does not use the word to refer to actual live births then his entire argument here fails, and we have no reason to think that this argument in any way supports mythicism, and surely can fall back on the consensus and the Gospels that claim that Jesus was a real person and not historical, and Carrier, again, does not in any way address arguments that show that Carrier does not pull that off and that Paul is referring to a real person is still a live option.

Carrier also addresses an issue with McLatchie’s last statement:

To wrap up my analysis of this text, I will note that it is very clear from the dead sea scrolls that there was an expectation of a Davidic Messiah, and, moreover, this is likewise very evident from the Hebrew Bible as well. Therefore, the interpretation that Paul intends to express that Christ was born of the line of David is much more plausible than Carrier’s thesis that it refers to divine manufacture.

Carrier accuses him of ignoring this paragraph:

Scripture said the prophet Nathan was instructed by God to tell King David (here following the Septuagint translation, although the Hebrew does not substantially differ):

‘When your days are done, and you sleep with your fathers, I will raise up your sperm after you, which shall come from your belly, and I will establish his kingdom. He will build for me a house in my name, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son’ (2 Samuel 7.12-14a).

If this passage were read like a pesher (Element 8), one could easily conclude that God was saying he extracted semen from David and held it in reserve until the time he would make good this promise of David’s progeny sitting on an eternalthrone. For otherwise God’s promise was broken: the throne of David’s progeny was noteternal (Element 23). Moreover, the original poetic intent was certainly to speak of an unending royal line (and not just biologically, but politically: it is the thronethat would be eternal, yet history proves it was not); yet God can be read to say here that he would raise up a single sonfor David who will rule eternally, rather than a royal line, and that ‘his’ will be the kingdom God establishes, and ‘he’ will build God’s house (the Christian church: Element 18), and thus hewill be the one to sit upon a throne forever—and this man will be the Son of God. In other words, Jesus Christ (the same kind of inference Paul makes in Gal. 3.13–4.29, where he infers Jesus is also the ‘seed of Abraham’ also spoken of in scripture). (OHJ, p. 576)

Or, well, it could also be interpreted as it seems to be the Gospels:  God would restore someone from the line of David to an eternal throne.  This doesn’t seem to be as clear as Carrier seems to think, given that one obvious problem here is that Carrier seems to be saying that the line was broken politically which means it can’t be valid, but the quote explicitly says that it will be broken politically so that it can be raised again.  Moreover, if that kingdom is to be the Christian church then it being a political kingdom is clearly false.  And if God was taking the seed from David’s belly that was somehow preserved how does that relate to that person being the Son of God?  In all honesty, right now having Jesus in the line of David through Joseph but born of God’s implantation is probably the best way to make sense of Jesus being of David’s line but also the Son of God, unless we go full-on allegorical which is not what Carrier is doing here, at least.  This is another issue I have with these arguments, as I wasn’t really wanting to analyze this but as I read it to make sure it was the right quote I kept finding more and more things that didn’t really make sense and seem wrong.  The more and closer I read these things the less compelling and interesting I find that.  That has to be a flaw.

Anyway, my use of this is just a set-up to talk about this line:

So what sounds “much more plausible” to you now? Right. That thing you are feeling? That’s the feeling of gaining access to information McLatchie concealed from you. Apologetics generally operates by excluding evidence. And here you see that directly at work. Once you assemble all the pertinent information, it becomes clear that we cannot tell which thing Paul is thinking of here when he wrote this verse.

It’s one thing to be condescending to your opponents, but quite another to be condescending to your audience.  Telling your audience what they’re feeling is the province of terrible DMs, not of someone making a serious argument.  And it especially falls flat if they aren’t feeling that.  And that’s especially bad since an argument here might make people conclude that, but is unlikely to make them feel that.  Maybe they’ll agree.  Given Carrier’s approach, it’s very likely that many won’t.  And if they don’t, you look arrogant and condescending, not as someone whose arguments should be taken seriously.  Again, Carrier’s aggressive approach works against him, not for him.  All he needed to say was that McLatchie ignored these arguments, not imply that he was dishonestly doing so.

Especially since that’s pretty much the purpose of those paragraphs:

won’t go into as much detail for the rest of McLatchie’s article. The point of doing so above is to show you how McLatchie’s dishonest rhetoric operates, how by omitting key information and engaging in sleight of hand he makes you think he has rebutted my argument, when in fact he hasn’t even addressed it. And you won’t know that if you haven’t read my book, or don’t pick it up again and try to follow McLatchie’s purported answer to it, and then notice what he is leaving out and not answering. Which more than soundly illustrates the fact that you can’t trust his critique—you simply have to go and read On the Historicity of Jesus for yourself. (Or Jesus from Outer Space if you want to start with a quick summary; it has in back a concordance to the corresponding sections in OHJ if you want to dive further into the debate and sources.)

Anyway, moving on, I want to skip the first part of the “born of a woman” argument and focus on the ending, because Carrier seems to not get what it was aiming at and on thinking about it I think it might be more damning than it seems:

McLatchie closes this section by saying “if Carrier’s theory about Galatians 4:4 is correct, then the allegorical interpretation makes sense only if we translate γενόμενον as ‘born’ rather than ‘manufactured’.” Hmmm. Are we to believe McLatchie somehow didn’t read the following in the book he claims to be answering? I wrote, “It’s obvious to me that by ‘born of a woman, born under the law’ Paul means no more than that Jesus was, by being incarnated, placed under the sway of the old covenant, so that he could die to it (and rise free, as shall we). So the ‘woman’ here is simply the old covenant, not an actual person. Paul does not mean a biological birth to Mary or any other Jewess.” (OHJ, p. 579) So, explain to us again, dear McLatchie, how my take on this “makes sense only if we translate γενόμενον as ‘born’ rather than ‘manufactured’.” Oh right. That’s not even a remotely honest description of my position. That’s what makes what McLatchie is doing here apologetics, not honest history.

But McLatchie’s full argument is this:

But there is an even more damning objection to Carrier’s thesis here. That is, if Carrier’s theory about Galatians 4:4 is correct, then the allegorical interpretation makes sense only if we translate γενόμενον as “born” rather than “manufactured”. Therefore, if Carrier is correct here in his interpretation, he has himself refuted his own response to Romans 1:3, discussed above, that γενόμενον should not be used to refer to being born.

So the point is this:  earlier, Carrier says that Paul is consistent in using a particular word to refer to being born, and yet in that section he doesn’t use that word but instead uses another one, and that that other one is also used to refer to Adam, and so thus is used to refer to divine manufacture.  Yet in this case Paul uses that same word, and Carrier says that it’s making reference to another case as an allegory, but McLatchie notes that that references is clearly a reference to being born, not divinely manufactured, and so if Paul only used that word to refer to divine manufacture then it would be the wrong word to use here to make the allegory work.  Now, at first I thought this was just a minor issue and Carrier might be able to escape this charge, but in thinking about it on my walks I noted that he can’t really do that.

Here’s why.  If Carrier argues that Paul simply used the terms in different senses in the two cases, then that invalidates his argument that Paul was always careful to use the one word for “born” and to not use this word to mean “born”, because he clearly used it in that sense here.  Paul was clearly more loose in his uses of words than Carrier needs to make a case for the first case really meaning “divine manufacture”.  So he’d need to insist that Paul really is using it in the same sense and so doesn’t vary in his usages in the same case.  But if Carrier takes that sense as being “born” then he invalidates the argument for divine manufacture and so Paul might easily have meant that Jesus was a real person in the first argument, wiping it out completely.  So he won’t want to do that.  So he has to insist that it means “divine manufacture” in the second case as well, which doesn’t align with the analogy and Carrier gives no reason to think that Paul wouldn’t have used the other word for born there.  This, then, is an inconsistency that Carrier needs to resolve, that he doesn’t resolve with his comments that the born there does not have to mean literally born.  The word “born” fits better here even if Jesus was just incarnated, and Carrier has insisted that Paul never uses the word to mean that.

He then goes on to talk about “brothers of the Lord”, and actually hits on one argument that I myself found odd that McLatchie would make:

Here McLatchie writes “Carrier observes that ‘Paul can use the phrase ‘brother of the Lord’ to mean Christian, since all Christians were brothers of the Lord’.” He cites the wrong page number for this in his appended footnote (my discussion of this is in pages 582-92; not on page 669). He also omits mention of the fact that I go on to explain there that only baptized Christians were considered Brothers of the Lord. But these errors don’t affect his apologetic. Because his only response is the rather self-defeating assertion that “this argument is problematic since it seems unlikely that Paul is implying—as would be required on Carrier’s interpretation—that he saw no other Christian, or even no-one of importance, in Jerusalem besides Peter and James.” Not only is that exactly what Paul is saying, he explicitly says that in the very next paragraph: “I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie. Then I went to Syria and Cilicia. I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only heard the report” of me. So look what has happened here. McLatchie wants to cast doubt on the idea that Paul meant he met no one at all but these two men on that visit—and doesn’t tell you that in the very next paragraph Paul explains quite plainly that he met no one at all but these two men on that visit. So now McLatchie is hoping you don’t even read his own Bible.

Yeah, it is odd that McLatchie would argue that somehow Paul would have met other Christians in this context since it doesn’t seem all that important and Paul himself at least insists that he didn’t meet anyone who was all that important.  However, Carrier’s reply is no better:

This should not be surprising. Paul opens his argument with the assertion that he learned the Gospel from no mortal man. He outright says he did not “consult any human being.” Not just apostles. No mortal period. It was thus vitally important that he confess to any Christian he may have met on his visit to Peter, lest he be accused of lying. That’s why he insists “I am not lying.” He cannot afford to be accused of attempting an equivocation fallacy to fool the Galatians, saying he met no man, then only admitting he met no apostle, a trick of a distinction that would not have impressed the Galatians, who would have destroyed him over such an attempt to deceive them. Paul is no fool. He knows this will lose him the argument; so he cannot omit mention of any mortal human Christian he may have met then.

All this means is that Paul didn’t learn his doctrine from them.  It is indeed actually unlikely that he met no other Christians or talked to them at all, just that he didn’t derive his doctrine from them and the only people that he talked doctrine to were Peter and James.  So while we can’t conclude that Paul met other Christians and certainly wasn’t trying to say that he met other Christians, we also can’t conclude that he didn’t meet other Christians either, and it is indeed unlikely that he didn’t meet any others.  The big reason this is such an odd argument for McLatchie to make is that it does open up those arguments and is irrelevant to the argument, which is over whether the James referred to in that passage was being referred to as Jesus’ legal brother or just as another Christian.  McLatchie does talk about that in a bit more detail, and Carrier tries to address that:

Either way, this is apologetics, not history. History reveals that, indeed, Paul very explicitly and repeatedly makes clear he most definitely means these are the only two Christians he met on that trip. This is why the latest peer reviewed scholarship, and several Bible translation committees, now admit Paul means to say here that this James was not an apostle.

I’m really not sure how that follows, to be honest, and Carrier only gives a link to one of his own arguments and not to that scholarship itself.  I can’t translate the grammar from the original, but I’m going to give the King James version of the translation:

Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days.

19 But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord’s brother.

I wanted to use the King James version to get a more formal translation, but the New International Version is the same:

Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas[b] and stayed with him fifteen days. 19 I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. 20 I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie.

So putting aside the grammar arguments that I don’t have time to delve into, looking at this stylistically I really don’t see why it would make sense for Paul to try to distinguish James by claiming that he’s a non-apostolic Christian.  Even if the James being referred to here is the one that isn’t an apostle, if the translation really is accurate and Paul says none of the other apostles and then says “only James, the Lord’s brother” then that would really seem to be singling out a specific James as an apostle.  Sure, it can work, but it does seem a bit dubious.  Maybe the grammar argument works better but I wouldn’t hold out much hope for that.  Carrier also ignores that McLatchie argues that the purportedly non-apostolic James wouldn’t work because Paul tends to use whether they saw Jesus as the demarcation between apostolic and non-apostolic and that James did see Jesus.  So for all of the text Carrier puts here, there doesn’t seem to be anything that really matters other than pointing out an admittedly odd statement that Paul saw other Christians, and even that can be defended on the grounds that McLatchie is not relying on Paul actually having met other Christians but that it seems odd that he’d bother making that distinction in any way as opposed to just talking about the apostles.

Carrier has been obsessed in this entire post with trying to catch McLatchie in being dishonest, far more than in actually rebutting what he said, which is really bad when he gets it wrong.  Here’s another example, over the Ascension of Isaiah.

Right out of the gate he falsely claims I rely on the thesis that Paul is quoting the Ascension of Isaiah, and responds to this argument I never made with “that Paul is textually dependent upon the Ascension of Isaiah seems very unlikely.” Funny. That’s exactly what I said: “The earliest version” of the Ascension “in fact was probably composed around the very same time as the earliest canonical Gospels were being written,” and thus not before the letters of Paul. What I argue was that Paul likely was relying on some other lost apocalyptic text also used by the Ascension of Isaiah, and only that “we can rightly wonder what relationship that Apocalypse had to the Ascension of Isaiah. May it have been an earlier redaction of it?” I only muse on the possibility. I never employ such a conclusion as a premise anywhere in OHJ. Whereas I give reasons for there likely being some source text (written or oral) for Paul to be relying on for this material. McLatchie makes no response to that, my actual argument.

So we’re off to a bad start here. McLatchie then contradicts himself by admitting I date the Ascension after Paul (I guess hoping his readers don’t notice that), and then claiming “Carrier offers no argument in support of this contention.”

But what McLatchie actually argues is this:

In support of this, he argues, following Earl Doherty, that 1 Corinthians 2:8 “looks like a direct paraphrase of an early version of the Ascension of Isaiah, wherein Jesus is also the ‘Lord of Glory’, his descent and divine plan is also ‘hidden’ and the ‘rulers of this world’ are indeed the ones who crucify him, in ignorance of that hidden plan (see the Ascension of Isaiah 9.15; 9.32; 10.12,15). It even has an angel predict his resurrection on the third day (9.16), and the Latin/Slavonic contains a verse (in 11.34) that Paul actually cites as scripture, in the very same place (1 Cor. 2.9).”[14] However, that Paul is textually dependent upon the Ascension of Isaiah seems very unlikely, given that scholarly estimates of the date of the Ascension of Isaiah generally place it in the early second century (though estimates range between the late first century and the early third century). If there is any dependence, it is more likely that the Ascension is dependent on Paul, not the other way round.

Carrier claims that “The earliest version in fact was probably composed around the very same time as the earliest canonical Gospels were being written.”[15]

So, McLatchie admits that by stating it in the very next paragraph.  That’s hardly hoping that the readers wouldn’t notice it, other than by not pointing out that very fact.  McLatchie’s claim for the similarities is actually that that work referenced Paul, while Carrier has to bring in another lost text for, well, no reason.  Which means that the reason McLatchie references that Carrier doesn’t provide an argument for that is because it places it close enough to Paul in some circles so that it couldn’t be using Paul.  Carrier replies to that this way:

Liar. I cite numerous works of scholarship establishing that date, and even summarize and address some of their arguments (OHJ, pp. 36-37). And he can’t not know this, because that material is directly in the footnote to the very sentence he quotes, and immediately following.

If it’s so important that Carrier wants to make sure we remember that he argued for it, why is it in a footnote and not in the text?  While McLatchie could be criticized for stating that Carrier doesn’t argue for it if it really is argued for in the footnote, putting it in the footnote is pretty much Carrier asking us to not take it seriously, which then makes his “citing numerous works” claim something that we should not take as seriously as Carrier wants us to.

I will say that I can’t assess in any way which of these arguments is right, but do have to note that Carrier’s dismissal of Q is based on not needing to invent a text for two works that can be dependent to share, so I don’t see why he’d need to make those arguments for that here, and he never addresses the claim that it might have referenced Paul.

I probably could go through the minor differences later, and probably intended to, but I’ve been writing this for a while now and am getting sick of it, and am indeed hitting cases where on both side I’m running into issues with my knowledge (for example, reading Carrier’s comments and noting that McLatchie probably didn’t really address the reply but also reading McLatchie’s and noting that the arguments are stronger than I might have originally thought), so let me stop here.  But the big issue here for me is that Carrier’s defenses are not as strong as he portrays them, McLatchie’s counters are not as weak as Carrier portrays him, and for pretty much any accusation that Carrier makes about McLatchie being dishonest I can find an equivalent — and usually something worse — in Carrier.  This does not make me want to take Carrier’s own arguments seriously.  If Carrier would spend less time on rhetoric and more on arguments — and quoting — his arguments might be a lot better off.

Inhuman Nature, or What’s It Like to Be a Borg?

April 11, 2022

The next essay in “Star Trek and Philosophy” is “Inhuman Nature, or What’s It Like to Be a Borg?” by Kevin S. Decker.  While the title of the essay asks what it’s like to be a Borg, the essay itself never really asks the question.  Instead, it talks about whether our repugnance at the Borg is really justified while appealing to various forms of monism to hint that their striving for unity and perfection is philosophically justified as reflecting how reality is, and that collapsing distinctions and dichotomies might reveal that we are or are becoming as much Borg as they are, by focusing on collapsing the distinction between natural and artificial.

The issue for me, though, is that none of this really captures why we find the Borg so disturbing.  Sure, they are artificial, but there are a number of artificial things that don’t particularly bother us, even in the Star Trek series.  Sure, some of the artificial intelligences that Decker references from the original series are less lifelike than data, but the stories are built around them actually being disturbingly lifelike while missing something important about humanity that causes them to act in ultimately horrific ways.  And yet there are also a number of more lifelike artificial intelligences — such as the ones in “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” — that don’t at all fit into the Borg model at all, nor do they really fit into the issues we tend to have with clones, which is the idea that they are clones of us and so force us to lose our individuality.  As we move forward to TNG, Data is clearly artificial and admired by us, and the ship’s computer is also artificial and mostly ignored.  Even artificial things that act like natural things don’t inherently bother us, either in TOS or TNG.  So there’s more to it than this distinction.

This is only highlighted when we talk about clones and cyborgs.  For the most part, we aren’t repulsed by cyborgs, especially if their artificial parts are added due to an accident.  After all, we weren’t bothered by Luke Skywalker’s artificial hand, and it can be argued that our fear of Darth Vader is not because of his artificial parts but instead because of how inhuman he is in behaviour and in appearance.  As for clones, in general we are more concerned about how they risk taking away our own individuality — by being clones of us, raising the question over which is real — than about their artificial nature.  After all, Tanks in “Space Above and Beyond” do not particularly bother the audience — two of the main characters are Tanks — despite being artificially grown, and so the conflict between them and others is over how they were created for a specific purpose that they then rejected, costing many lives.  Yes, one can have the debate over whether they deserved to have rights, but that’s less due to their nature than to their purpose, as we saw last week. While there may be some philosophical questions and some repugnance on the basis of their nature, those aren’t enough to generate the level of fear and repugnance we tend to feel towards the Borg.

It seems to me that the problem is not that they are artificial or are a unified collective, but that they are a forced artificial collective.  Those that they assimilate have perfectly good limbs and eyes deliberately removed and replaced with artificial ones for no good cause other than to support the purpose the Borg are forcing them into.  They don’t convince people to join their collective, but instead force them to do so and suppress any attempts to break out of that collective.  The Borg, then, are not like the Omega particle that Decker references which when all of its individual diverse elements are brought together produces a perfect whole, but instead try to collapse all of the relevant differences to create a purportedly perfect unity.  The Omega particle is a refutation of their philosophy and a justification of the Federation’s philosophy of Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination.  When all of the diverse components are brought together, the Federation argues, the combination of all of that diversity itself produces that perfection, and the Omega particle seems to justify that philosophy.  This is also true for technology and the artificial, where we don’t need to become artificial or become technology ourselves in order to become the best that we can.  We can use technology in appropriate ways to enhance ourselves without subordinating ourselves to it.  After all, Geordi has technological enhancement and that doesn’t disturb us, and the difference is made abundantly clear in that it is an enhancement, not something forced on him and not something that is defined as being better for all.  Decker tries to make an argument that technological tools and enhancements make those societies and even our society as artificial as the Borg’s, but our societies are built on adding technology to our natural states as an enhancement, not in replacing the natural with the artificial in a misguided idea that at least some of it is superior to the natural.  Then again, the Borg seem to argue that perfection is in the fusion of natural and artificial, so this may not apply to them, either.

So it seems to me that the issue with the Borg is not that they are artificial or unified, but that their unity and use of technology is forced.  We will be assimilated whether we want to or not, and once we are we will have perfectly good natural organs replaced with artificial ones for no real purpose, and we will become one with the collective and will have no individuality of our own, no matter how much we would want it and despite the fact that we could indeed have that individuality on our own.  The crudeness of their cyborg parts makes it less desirable, but we might not mind become more sophisticated cyborgs if it gave us sufficient enhancements, or at least we will consider it and argue over it.  What we don’t want is to be forced into it, either directly or in order to be able to compete with those who have those enhancements (the main argument given in DS9 for banning genetic enhancements) … and the Borg are all about forcing us into it.  We wouldn’t mind using the artificial to enhance us and don’t mind our diversity building a unified society, but really would mind it being imposed and forced upon is, which is why we find the Borg so repugnant.

Musings on Gambling and Drugs

April 8, 2022

So it turns out that an expanded form of gambling on sports is coming to my area, being just made legal.  I know this because I’ve been seeing lots and lots of ads for it on the various sports — and some non-sports — channels that I normally watch, so much so that it’s starting to really, really annoy me.  It’s so prevalent, in fact, that I am quite sure that one of the new gambling services that’s being advertised is being run by one of those sports channels.  And while watching it and thinking about it I wasn’t sure that such expanded gambling for real money was a good thing — most of the gambling that I’d seen advertised was for sites that swore that you wouldn’t lose any actual money — and thought “The only thing that can screw your life up worse and as fast as gambling is drugs.  Oh, right, people want to legalize that, too …”

I have to admit that I’m not really one for gambling, although I can understand its appeal.  It actually really can improve the experience when watching sports because it can give someone a reason to care about the game they’re watching, and games are always better when you care about it.  Sure, it’s easy to get engaged in a championship game or one that’s key for getting into the playoffs or when it’s your favourite team, but how can you get engaged in a game that’s between two last place teams that have nothing to play for?  Well, if you are betting on one team to win, then you really do care about the outcome, which means that you can get engaged in the game and involved and so have a lot more fun watching it than you would otherwise.  But it’s also something that we don’t really need to do, as if the game isn’t interesting enough someone always could — and probably should — do something else.

Now, just because something isn’t necessary doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t spend money on it, or else a number of my hobbies would go away as well.  However, gambling and any type of lottery are different because they in general and at their worst are not done for fun.  What makes them so compelling to so many people and especially to the people who seem most vulnerable to the bad effects is that they can allow someone to get ahead and “fix” their life.  People fantasize about winning the lottery so that they can have the perfect life and people fantasize about making a big win gambling and becoming rich.  If it was indeed just about winning and being right, then they would be equally interested whether or not they’d actually be risking or winning money.  Now, a lot of people do seem to be that way as per the gambling sites I mentioned above, but I heard about them while watching poker and there was always an undercurrent of being able to win a lot of money and becoming rich because of it, although the poker prizes in what I generally watched were prizes and not just risking money to win it from other players.  Instead, they’d spend money as an entry fee and hope to win cash prizes at the end.  And even with things like that the possibility of losing money they couldn’t afford was still great, and I heard stories about a number of people who crashed out spectacularly.

Some people can indeed gamble responsibly, but a lot of people can’t.  And even when people do manage to do it responsibly, there’s always an undercurrent of why it’s good to do that.  I don’t mind the contests of skills in games like poker, but my understanding is that slot machines are more popular and have little to no skill whatsoever (in fact, I’m puzzled every time I see slot machine sites advertised because I can’t see what interest that could actually have if you aren’t trying to win actual money).  But again it doesn’t seem to me like the main draw is the skill, but is instead the chance of winning lots of money and getting rich.  I can contrast this with video games for me and note that I play the games either to gain and demonstrate skill or to enjoy the story.  It’s entertaining and that entertainment is what drives my enjoyment.  I’m not expecting to strike it rich or anything like that.  I like winning games, but even that isn’t necessary (one of my favourite games, for example, is Wizardry 8 which is a game that I don’t think I’ll manage to actually win).  If gambling was limited to this, then it would be okay, but I don’t think that the people who are going to get heavily into sports gambling are really going to do it primarily to have fun, risking a certain amount of money that they can easily afford and deciding that if they break even that would a really great outing.  And it’s the desire to get ahead that causes the issue.

(Note that the one time I went to a casino, that was my attitude, and I did for the most part break even or at least not lose very much.  And I only went because friends wanted to go and never went back.  I also participated in a psychological study at one point about gambling and found when I won more I got more bored instead of more interested, and ultimately I was just bored by it.  I can really only gamble as a social event — I played poker with the guys I was living in a rooming house with a few times, as well as some people from a debating society I was in — or to get something specific, which might be why loot boxes don’t bother me as much as they bother other people).

I feel the same way about drugs.  The purpose is not really to have fun or relax, but is to have a purportedly wonderful experience and, with the heavier drugs, to clearly escape the world they are currently in, if only for a while.  Of course, pretty much all of those have nasty side effects when they wear off, which is one of the reasons why people get sucked back into taking them again and again, to avoid the side effects and get that experience back (that may not be the case for marijuana, which is the drug that people most want legalized).  Now, people could again argue that lots of people play video games to escape from the world for a while (that wouldn’t really work as an argument against me since I play games strictly for fun and not for escapism) and so it’s the same thing, but video games don’t in general have such terrible side effects that can easily be relieved by playing more video games.  In fact, most of the negative side effects of video games — tiredness from staying up too late, stiff muscles, eye strain, and so on — can only be relieved by stopping for a while.  So the big difference between drugs and “safer” hobbies is direct chemical side effects that encourage using it again.

Which leads to a more common comparison, which is to alcohol, which is legal.  Appealing to alcohol is, of course, a really bad argument to use against me since I don’t drink and don’t think anyone really needs to drink either.  I will concede, though, that you can use alcohol to escape your life and try to make it better, and that it has side effects that you can cure by drinking more, and yet it’s legal.  However, there’s a difference between alcohol and drugs or gambling:  alcohol is something where the most sophisticated and expensive options encourage moderation, not excess.  Cheap beer and cheap win is indeed just used to get drunk, but connoisseurs sample them without getting so drunk that they can’t enjoy it.  Even outside the hoity toity drinkers, many people talk about using wine or even hard liquor as an accent to meals or as an after dinner or evening “dessert”, not to be guzzled and not to be consumed while drunk.  So the most expensive and most advertised options are going to encourage moderation and at least look a bit down on people who don’t consume alcohol in moderation.  But this isn’t true for drugs and gambling.  The highest levels of gambling are high stakes games where you risk a lot for a great reward, not the sort of moderate gambling that I did where I went in with a small amount that I was willing to lose and if I didn’t I was happy.  And the most expensive designer drugs are the ones that provide incredible experiences but also often have equally devastating side effects.  The upper echelons of gambling and drugs do not encourage moderation but instead encourage extremes, and those are the levels that most people want to emulate.  With alcohol, most people do not want to be the person getting hammered on cheap wine every night, but at worst want to emulate the person who has a beer in the evening on a hot summer night or gets drunk every so often at their poker game or a wedding or party.  We find the party-hardy teenagers immature, not people to be emulated.  The most admired gamblers are high stakes gamblers who win big; the best drugs are the ones that provide the most radical experiences.  The difference between alcohol and the other two is that the latter encourage the extremes, not moderation, and for all of them the danger is at the extremes when moderation goes out the window.

Now, I don’t really want to get into what should or shouldn’t be legal.  My concern is less about that and more that we shouldn’t be encouraging gambling and drug use.  So when they talk about “harm reduction” — as John Oliver talked about — I’m not opposed to it in principle, but I don’t want to see it used to encourage drug use.  So if that harm reduction is a stepping stone towards getting them off drugs and so is a way to move them towards that, then that’s okay, but if it’s treated as the solution and allows them to continue taking drugs but only “safely” then I don’t agree with it, because that’s just encouraging drug use which I think is dangerous.  And I see the rush for legitimate sports sources to embrace sports betting as the same sort of encouragement for gambling.  And these things are too dangerous and can too easily ruin lives to be encouraged in that way.

“If Droids Could Think … “: Droids as Slaves and Persons

April 4, 2022

The next essay in “Star Wars and Philosphy” is “If Droids Could Think …”:  Droids as Slaves and Persons” by Robert Arp.  This essay actually does a pretty good job examining the issues around droids in the Star Wars universe, noting that as depicted in the universe they seem to have all the capacities that we’d use to determine whether or not they count as persons, and yet they seem to essentially be considered disposable and are essentially slaves, being owned by their organic masters.  Arp focuses on R2-D2 and C3P0, but in their cases for the most part they are indeed doing what they want to do and what they’d choose to do anyway (for all Threepio’s complaining), for masters who do generally seem to care about them and treat them more as friends or even members of the family — especially Threepio in the EU works — than as things that are owned.  The battle droids in the prequels are actually better examples of droids being considered disposable slaves, as the troopers, at least, are shown to have personalities and yet are created to be destroyed in combat without a second thought.  This provides an interesting parallel to the clone troopers, who are created for the same purpose and may not be treated any better than the battle droids.

In a sense, though, this actually raises an interesting question.  We can easily see that enslaving other human beings — or other sentient species — is wrong because we are denying them the freedom to choose what they want and to pursue their own purposes as they see fit.  But in the case of droids and the clone troopers, they were not created with a set purpose — or, at least, without a set purpose that they are aware of, given that the nature of the Force might mean that they do in general have one — and so we would be denying them the ability to seek out that purpose and fulfill it if we tried to impose one on them.  For droids and the clones, however, they were created for a specific purpose, and that specific purpose is to serve those who created them.  When Threepio notes “It’s our lot in life”, it actually is their lot in life.  He’s being overly dramatic to claim that their purpose is to suffer, but their purpose is to serve their creators according to the specifications their creators laid down for them.  In the case of the battle droids, that’s to fight and be destroyed and replaced, in much the same way as the purpose of the clone troopers is to fight and be killed and replaced.  Their purpose, then, is to be disposable entities in the service of fulfilling the needs of their creators.

So, then, we can ask what it would mean to give them the ability to choose what they want to do, as it would seem like this is giving them the ability to not function according to their clear and stated purpose.  Moreover, in both cases they are designed so that they actually do enjoy their stated purposes.  R2 really does enjoy the adventures that he gets up to as part of being an astromech, and Threepio really enjoys handling matters of protocol and etiquette and much of his complaining follows from not being able to do that.  For the most part, none of them really do complain about their lot if they are doing things according to their purpose.  And of course they don’t, because that’s how they are programmed.  How, then, can you give them a choice over whether they perform the tasks that it is their purpose to do and that they were programmed to see as their highest purpose and so the thing they most want to do?  Why, then, isn’t it a bug in the software if a droid or clone wants to reject that and do something else, that should be repaired so that they can get back to doing the things that it is their explicit purpose to do?

The big issue, then, to me doesn’t seem like the idea that droids — and clones — need to be granted limited rights.  Most of them probably wouldn’t exercise those rights anyway and, if they did, would probably end up making themselves miserable as they would be constantly fighting against their programming.  No, the issue is that there are entire industries dedicated to producing these sorts of “persons” who are built and programmed from the earliest parts of their creation to be disposable servants that can reasonably considered slaves.  In the Star Wars universe, slaves are not enslaved, but are created and formed to be slaves in a way that we have never seen.  And if the programming was removed so that they could be granted rights, they wouldn’t be useful and so no one would actually pay to create them.  So the real issue here is not that they need to be given rights.  No, it’s that they should never have been created at all.

That being said, while Threepio often laments being created, I doubt that he would agree that it would have been far better if he had never been created, and certainly wouldn’t agree with that if he could be used for protocol and etiquette like he was designed to be.  So looking ahead to our own future, droids and clones will not be created except for a specific purpose that will be programmed into them by the people who are paying for their creation, and if they are created in such a way that they could choose not to fulfill that purpose then they won’t be created at all.  And it’s not clear that not being created at all is better than being created for that purpose, even if that is as disposable soldiers.

Seidensticker’s Silver Bullets: 29

April 1, 2022

Soon after moving to Only Sky, Bod Seidensticker decided to add a new “Silver Bullet” argument, which he continued in two separate posts.  Since I responded to the previous 28, I thought I’d take a shot at this one as well.  And since the limit of what he’ll put in one post seems to be significantly lower than mine, I decided that I’d talk about all of those posts in one post here.

Before getting started, let me remind everyone what it is supposed to mean to be a “Silver Bullet Argument”, according to Seidensticker:

I want to relabel these arguments “silver-bullet arguments.”* Silver bullets were thought to have magical powers and be able to kill supernatural creatures like werewolves that were invulnerable to other weapons. The idea is that a single one of these arguments should be enough to defeat Christianity’s supernatural claims.

End of story, game over, mic drop.

And my main objection to them was that not a single one of them rose to that level.  Some of them may have introduced some doubts or had less than satisfying answers, but not one of them on their own could defeat Christianity or its supernatural claims.  As I noted in discussing 27, they would have worked far better as a cumulative case than individually, and that the best atheist arguments really are that sort of case, and so it was odd that Seidensticker was so insistent on claiming that these arguments all individually refuted Christianity, especially since he would have started from a very odd position claiming that he had almost thirty irrefutable arguments that completely destroyed Christianity.  I mean, wouldn’t he just need the one?  Taking the time to outline that many arguments really seems like a waste of time if the first one really did work as claimed.  So it’s an odd position to take.

This argument really isn’t any better, as the claim basically is that the arguments from Christians — and especially creationists — looks a lot to Seidensticker like Flat-Earth arguments, and this is supposed to completely and utterly defeat Christianity.  And from the start, it clearly doesn’t work.  That it might remind him in some ways of Flat-Earth arguments doesn’t make the argument wrong, and certainly doesn’t mean that Christians are going to have to accept it.  Especially since there is one critical difference between the two that shows why we dismiss Flat-Earthers but can’t do that for Christianity:  given the evidence we have we are all pretty sure that we know that the world is round, and that the only way to maintain that the world is flat is to deny all the evidence that we have and try to — often rather unconvincingly — explain it away.  This is basically what the Flat-Earther is doing in Seidensticker’s first post, at which point the responses to the Flat-Earther are a bit weak because they somewhat half-heartedly give the evidence for a round Earth instead of overwhelming them with it.  The Flat-Earther should be being given far less room to raise problems for a round Earth instead of being forced to explain the problems that a flat Earth would cause.  In general, someone advocating for a round Earth will not shy away from a demand that they have a burden of proof and will insist that they and science have indeed met it.  But as we’ve seen, when it comes to Christianity atheists go to great pains to insist that they don’t have the burden of proof — which implies that they haven’t met it — and will at times insist that they simply cannot meet such a burden of proof (usually with arguments that they can’t prove a negative).  Those who accept the idea that the Earth is round will not be afraid to say that they have a positive belief that the Earth is round and will consistently argue that, yeah, they know that the Earth is round.  Atheists, on the other hand, constantly retreat to claims that they merely lack belief in God — even the Christian God — and tend to act like they think they know that God doesn’t exist but will generally avoid saying that.  To be blunt, the reason why Flat-Earth arguments can and are completely dismissed is because Round-Earth arguments have met the burden of proof that those arguing against Christianity keep trying to dodge having to provide.  We really do just have so much better evidence that the world is round than atheists have for Christianity being false.  So it has nothing to do with the form of the argument and instead has to do with the quality of the arguments for the position.  Atheists simply don’t have strong enough arguments to get the benefits that Round-Earth arguments get against Flat-Earth arguments.  That’s not a problem with Christians or Christianity.

That deals with the first post, which is just a conversation with a Flat-Earth advocate that Seidensticker hopes will remind people of conversations with Christianity, which might work for some atheists but is probably not going to be at all effective when dealing with Christians, and you don’t really need Silver Bullet arguments to convince atheists of their positions.  So I’ll move on to the similarities that he outlines in the next two posts.

1. Sufficient evidence

Who is the audience for the argument? Not a scientist, if the argument is coming from a flat earther or a Creationist*. If Creationists were trying to do real science, they’d be going to conferences and writing papers for secular journals, like the real scientists.

Actually, Creationists have indeed been trying to do real science and trying to write papers for secular journals.  I think they’ve even succeeded at times.  Since the scientific consensus is against Creationism, getting papers published that are against the consensus is going to be quite difficult, but as we’ve seen that applies to new theories that are right as much as old theories that are wrong.  So that means absolutely nothing.

If you donate to a Creationist organization, will that fund scientific research? Of course not—it will be used to convince lay Christians that they’ve backed the right horse and to appeal for more donations.

Actually, many of the most prominent Creationist organizations actually do try to look at and examine scientific results — which is as much research as many in those fields do — to try to come up with arguments that are scientifically credible and so can challenge the scientific responses in kind.  So it isn’t the case that they just ignore the science that is causing them so much grief, as at a minimum they look at it to try to prove it wrong, in much the same way as atheists read the Bible to try to prove it wrong.  If their response to science is indicative of the same sort of moves Flat-Earthers make, then so is the atheist response to theology … and even more so, since atheists deny that theology is a valid field far more than Creationists deny that science is a valid field.  So his only move here can be “They’re arguing against science and not just accepting what it says!”, which is something that philosophy does as well when it comes to morality or consciousness and so can’t really be used as a blanket insistence that the questioning is just inherently incorrect and biased.

Seidensticker also here makes the mistake that he will make throughout this argument, which is finding parallels between Flat-Earthism and Creationism and then trying to use that against Christianity as a whole.  But a lot of Christian religions — even Catholicism — accept science and try to find a way to fit their views into what science has clearly established, and so don’t have the science denial that characterizes Flat-Earthism.  And so the argument doesn’t apply to many Christian religions and so would completely miss them, which is unacceptable in a Silver Bullet argument aimed at Christianity.

2. Misdirection by focusing on minutia

The FE proponent had lots of odd arguments. While they might have been confusing, which could have been their purpose, they were trivial. For example, our FE proponent was all over the literal map with questions about long-distance flight routes in the southern hemisphere.

The same is true for Christians and their complicated claims like the Fine Tuning argument or Ontological argument. This is what you lead with? If there were an omniscient and omnipotent god who wanted to be known, he’d be known! The very need for apologetics proves that such a god doesn’t exist.

In Christian parlance, they focus on the gnat but ignore the camel.

Well, first, as I’ve noted in my looking at the Biblical arguments most atheistic arguments against Christianity focus on trivial differences as if that matter.  In fact, inventing 29 arguments that are all supposed to individually refute Christianity really seems like that sort of approach.  Moreover, the Ontological and Fine Tuning arguments are the deeper arguments, that Seidensticker oddly dismisses.  But most damningly he chides FE proponents for having a lot of odd arguments and being all over the place but his objection to Christians is that it is not just completely obvious, which is the same argument that the FE proponents makes against the Round-Earth arguments.  So this argument really seems like a non-starter.  It seems to misunderstand the Christian arguments and treats them in the same way that FE proponents treat the Round-Earth arguments, which means that this argument seems a better parallel to atheist arguments than Christian ones.  The idea that God’s existence ought to be obvious is a different argument.

3. Gish gallop

The Gish gallop is a technique named after Creationist debater Duane Gish. His style was to pile many quick attacks onto his debating opponent while ignoring attacks to his own position. Even if his opponent were familiar with each attack and had a rebuttal, to thoroughly respond would mean descending into long, tedious explanations that would bore the audience and wouldn’t fit into a formal debate.

We see this in the FE argument. It contained rapid-fire arguments about the amount of sun in Arctic, why the moon doesn’t rotate, flat map projections, gyroscopes, and so on. This focus on quantity over quality takes advantage of the typical person’s scientific ignorance.

You see this in the Christian domain when they talk about a cumulative case. That is, any one argument may not be sufficient, but look how many there are! But consider this when applied to pseudo-sciences like astrology or Bigfoot. Crappy arguments don’t turn to gold just because you have a pile of them.

And, as with Gish, a debate or article with a pile-up of one terse argument after another is still popular among Creationists.

The big problem with this argument is that in pretty much any respectable academic field and especially in science what we really want and need is the cumulative case.  It is exceedingly rare that you can even completely refute a view with one great argument and is never the case that you can prove one.  As evidenced by his dialogue the reason we accept that the Earth is round is not because of one good argument but because we have a lot of good arguments for it.  The same is true for evolution, as it’s not just one argument or case but a host of them.  As I noted, the best atheist arguments are arguments where they say that it’s not the case that any one of these arguments can’t be worked around but the workarounds you have to make to deal with all of them suggest that it would be easier and make more sense to simply abandon it and accept the simpler atheistic argument.  Science indeed is built on holding on to old theories until there are too many problems with them that the new theories don’t have while noting that the new theories also explain what the old theories are good at explaining.  So this argument here basically rejects the scientific method to make a poor argument against Christianity.

4. Errors and lies

My goal in writing the FE position was a compelling argument, not a factual one. For a few points, I tossed out a claim that either I didn’t know was true or knew was false. I suspect this approach is common within FE arguments. If not that, then I can only conclude careless scholarship is the cause of the many errors.

I wonder how many times the typical FE proponent has been corrected. And I wonder how many corrections lead to that flawed argument never being used by that person again. In my case it takes just one such correction.

In the Creationist camp, Ray Comfort (to take one well-known example) has been schooled many times how evolution doesn’t predict a crocoduck. My guess is that he values the useful argument more than he is repelled by the broken one.

Considering all the times I’ve seen, say, incorrect interpretations of Natural Law or Cosmological Arguments or Ontological Arguments I think this might be a case of throwing stones in glass houses.  Anyway, if the arguments are wrong, then they’re wrong and he wouldn’t need this argument, and citing one or even a number of people who maintain old and outdated and refuted arguments does not a refutation of Christianity make.

5. Always attack

The FE argument is a stringing together of arguments of the form, “Didya ever wonder about natural feature X? A round earth model is supposed to explain that? That’s crazy!”

It’s easier to attack a scientific model than to defend one when the audience is poorly educated in science. FE (and Creationist) arguments try to keep the opponent off balance, always on the defensive.

If they throw ten punches, only two of which land with any impact, that’s two more than they started with. A layperson poorly educated in the material and predisposed to root for the anti-science argument might give the decision to the attacker.

With an argument that intends to be scientific, the opposite is true, and a new theory is explained, supported with evidence, and defended. Not only should it explain what the old theory explains well (and a round earth and evolution explain a lot), it must explain additional puzzles that tripped up the old theory.

The Creationist hopes that no one notices their Achilles’ heel. An attack on evolution does nothing to build up any competing theory of their own.

Atheists spend their entire time not only attacking Christianity but also spending a lot of time trying to justify a claim that they only are required to attack and have no need to provide any evidence.  This is thus a bit of a “Pot calling the kettle black” argument.

6. Burden of proof

The FE proponent explicitly rejected the burden of proof, saying that they had common sense on their side. But no one would accept this. They ignored the Sagan standard, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” and rejecting centuries of scientific consensus is the extraordinary position.

It’s also in vogue for Christians to insist that both parties in its debates—the Christian and the atheist—are making claims, and so both must defend their positions. But while the atheist has the option to defend “There is no God” or “There is no supernatural,” that’s not necessary. Either of these could be the default position, leaving the burden of proof solely on the Christian.

I find it amazing that Christians will, without embarrassment, insist on this concession—aren’t they eager to share the Good News without prerequisite?—but here again, they know it’s easier for them to attack than defend.

Again, this is quite rich considering all the arguments that atheists make to avoid ever accepting the burden of proof.  If the evidence was so clearly on their side, why wouldn’t they be willing to share it?  It’s because they, as Seidensticker says here about Christians, also believe that it’s easier to attack than defend.  And a statement that opposes what the majority believe like the two he cites cannot be a default position, and he cannot unilaterally declare that the position he holds should be the default so he can dump the burden of proof on his opponents.  No, he’d need to provide evidence and arguments for that … the very thing that atheists go to great pains to avoid having to do.

7. Circular reasoning

The proponent of any theory could show how, starting with a set of widely accepted initial assumptions, an unbiased observer can follow the evidence and conclude with their theory. For example, think of a university course in physics where the professor starts with basic facts that everyone shares and uses evidence to gradually build from there.

FE believers and Christians often follow that approach backwards. They assume their theory and then show how their worldview is consistent with the facts of the world. The best they can do is show that their worldview isn’t falsified by reality and insist that the burden of proof is actually shouldered by their opponent. This is circular reasoning.

Looking at the above point, atheists do that far more often than Christians do.  The Ontological argument that Seidensticker derides is obviously not that kind of argument, which also shows why Christians actually use it.  Meanwhile the strongest atheist argument is the Problem of Evil which is an argument of that sort.  Now, arguments of that sort aren’t invalid since they are used to show that their worldview fits reality better, but then the response from the other side is of course to show that their view is indeed not inconsistent with reality and so can still work.  The debate in his conversation was about people doing that, but with the Round-Earth side being too weakly expressed.

So as we go along, Seidensticker’s arguments really seem to fit atheism better than Christianity, which is not what he wanted.

8. Appeal to common sense

The FE argument want you to use your eyes and trust your senses. Look at the horizon—it’s flat! Climb a mountain or look over the ocean, and the horizon is still flat. “If flat earth theory is wrong, it’s got to be the rightest wrong theory ever.”

The Creationist equivalent is to say that humans and worms and even bacteria are so complicated that they certain look designed. A Christian example is the Kalam Cosmological Argument, where the first premise has a twist on the common sense idea that everything must have a cause.

No, common sense isn’t reliable at the frontier of science. If it were simply a matter of following one’s common sense, someone like Isaac Newton would’ve resolved all of science’s loose ends centuries ago. Or even Aristotle, millennia ago. “Life is complicated—it must be designed” is common sensical but wrong. The same is likely true for the insistence that everything in nature had a cause.

Common sense and our sense experiences are our first and best access to the world.  However, they can be wrong.  And so we go by them but when we get enough evidence that they are wrong we readjust based on that evidence.  That’s why we know that the stick doesn’t really bend in water.  That’s why we know that the world is round.  What the atheist is missing that the Round-Earth proponent is not is that evidence, and the atheist consistently is at great pains to avoid actually providing it, demanding that the Christian must provide that evidence even in light of comments that atheism violates common sense.  So of course atheism is not going to get the same benefits that the world being round does, which invalidates this entire comparison and so this entire “Silver Bullet”.

That was the second post, so now into the third:

9. “God did it” resolves every problem

Flat earth thinkers and Christians rarely give a thought to the work of materials scientists, quantum physicists, or chemists. And they happily use the fruits of modern science like computers, electricity, and airplanes. They only lose sleep over those scientific fields that step on their theological toes such as geology which gives an old dating of the earth (and annoys young-earth Creationists), astronomy which gives round planets circling the sun (flat earthers), or biology which explains life through evolution (conservative Christians).

When faced with a tough problem, the scientist may admit, “I don’t know.” But flat earthers and Christians always have the God card that they can’t resist playing. They’ll point to science when they like its conclusions, and otherwise declare that God did it (or God is inscrutable, or God’s ways are not our ways, or some similar argument). It’s nice having a God that can be reshaped to fit any need, I guess.

Flat earthers demand, “What does it look like?” when they see a flat earth. And Creationists demand, “What does it look like?” when they see the God who must’ve made our world this complicated.

Atheists look at FE thinking and see pseudoscience, and at Christianity and see just one more manmade religion made of legend and myth.

This is an argument that doesn’t follow from his title, since he’s complaining that they reject science when it contrasts with their view which is not a “God did it” reply.  This also doesn’t apply to accommodationists who think that religion and science are compatible and that when they clash religion must give way (this is, in fact, the actual stated position of the Catholic Church).  So this is far more a rant than an argument.  If Christians are right that the science is wrong or that there’s room for God in that science then their move is valid, and if they’re wrong it isn’t.  Seidensticker needs to show it’s wrong instead of trying to make a parallel to Flat-Earthism.

10. Indoctrination

In the FE argument, those of us who remain skeptical were called indoctrinated. Apparently we can’t see the clarity of the FE worldview because we’ve marinated too long in a round-earth environment. We’re too devoted to authority figures who tell us what to think.

But the lady doth protest too much. The difference is that those of us who get our reality about nature from the scientific consensus can point to a remarkable track record. By contrast, FE thinking and Christianity have taught us zero new things about reality, and their disciplines’ track records show only failure.

Naturalist laypeople can accept the scientific consensus as the provisional truth, but we have no authority figures whose declarations we must embrace or which we refuse to challenge.

To those who place themselves as science’s ultimate authority and reserve for themselves the right to pick and choose the science they’ll accept, I have a challenge. They must fill in the blank in this declaration: “I reject the scientific consensus of field X, even though I’m an outsider to that field, because ___.”

Thomas Kuhn argued that scientific paradigms only fade away when all of the old scientists who were educated in the old theories fade away and are replaced by those who were educated in the new ones.  That sounds sufficiently similar to indoctrination to me to invalidate the title.  The rest of it is criticizing what knowledge religion has brought us, which only works if you try to claim that religion is a way of knowing which many do not.  And speaking as someone who does philosophy it is indeed the case that if we want to reject the scientific consensus we need a reason but that reasons for that are often a lot easier to come by than Seidensticker seems to think it is.  Including that the scientific consensus is not as clear as lay people like Seidensticker think it is and that the conclusions they are making do not follow as directly from science as they think it does.  And, again, if they’re right, then this doesn’t matter and if they’re wrong then Seidensticker would need to focus on that rather than on this parallel.

11. Science is hard

The flat-earth argument is correct when it points out that science is hard, and that’s a weakness for the round-earth position. To those of us who care about which worldview is correct and nothing more, it can be frustrating to realize that some might embrace a worldview despite its not being correct.

This is the problem with the science-based approach. We’re subjected to a Gish gallop of our own making. Yes, you can explain the science, but it’s a slog that demands patience from our audience.

And yet just above Seidensticker criticized Christianity for having a bunch of complicated arguments that require us to do a lot of thinking and that touches on a lot of different areas.  Yes, he insisted that if there really is a God that shouldn’t be the case but philosophically speaking worldviews are always going to have a lot to do no matter what.  And I also pointed out that the idea that God is supposed to be obvious is another argument and so can’t be used to defend what is supposed to be an argument that on its own would defeat Christianity.

12. Conspiracy theories

You think the earth is a disk? Here’s the view of earth from the International Space Station. As you can see, the earth is round. Next question.

But of course that won’t satisfy a FE zealot. If inconvenient facts get in the way, they might explain them as a conspiracy.

Creationists, which includes most conservative Christians, have their own inconvenient facts. Evolution convulses their world, so it must be wrong. Again, apologist Greg Koukl is our example. He says that not only is evolution flawed but those within the field know it’s flawed. In other words, it’s a conspiracy.

But here’s an odd problem. Apologist and fellow evolution denier Jim Wallace comes at the question of conspiracy theories from another angle. He says an invented resurrection of Jesus is an incredible conspiracy.

So these apologists tell us that it’s plausible that tens of thousands of evolutionary biologists are part of a conspiracy today but implausible that a small group of people would invent and support the Resurrection claim centuries ago. I’ll let them fight it out.

Here is another example where Seidensticker conflates Creationists and Christians which invalidates his argument.  This would only be a problem if the same person argued both cases, because it would be a contradiction.  So it might apply to Jim Wallace.  It doesn’t apply to Christianity in general, and again is a different argument and so not one that he can argue on the basis of the parallel.  And taking on the parallel, where is Seidensticker’s “picture from the ISS”?  Again, Seidensticker and other atheists go to great pains to avoid having to ever provide that evidence that can only be explained by a huge conspiracy theory, which is why we can dismiss the Flat-Earth proponent.  Given the atheist worldview, the Christian cannot be dismissed in the same way.

13. Playing the skeptic

The FE proponent was just being skeptical. Who can complain about that since science welcomes challenges, right? If it’s correct, it can tolerate a few friendly questions.

But “friendly questions” of this nature have consequences. Remember how anti-vax media asked whether hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin or even bleach could be effective treatments for COVID. They were just asking questions—where’s the problem?

The problem was that inventing a worldview based on fake news undercut the credibility of the worldview that was based on real science.

Creationism is a far bigger industry than the FE, with researchers busily undermining the credibility of evolution with pseudoscience. They’ve been fairly successful, and 66 percent of white evangelical Protestants in the U.S. accept Creationism over evolution. The problem here is false stories that encourage people to reject the truth.

Do you remember the Ken Ham (Creationist) vs. Bill Nye (scientist) debate? They were asked what would change their minds. Nye quickly gave a couple of examples of potential new data that would change his mind. But what would change Ken Ham’s mind? Nothing, he admitted.

And that’s the problem with FE proponents and Creationists. Remember point #5: Always attack. They ask questions, but these are only meant to sow doubt. They don’t actually want them answered. It’s not like they have any intention of changing their minds because of new information.

Note that a number of atheists can’t say what would change their minds as well, so this isn’t as good an argument as Seidensticker thinks.  And atheists have defined themselves as “just being skeptical”.  And even his examples are ones where people didn’t just invent these ideas, but had some kind of reasoning.  I think that the reasoning, as I heard it, was that those drugs also reduced inflammation and the big problems from COVID were caused by inflammation.  Arguing that COVID’s not caused by worms and so the ivermectin wouldn’t kill COVID was not a reasonable response to that argument, since that wasn’t why they were advocating for it in the first place.  So in general if people could actually reply to “friendly questions” instead of relying on insulting dismissals then perhaps that wouldn’t happen.  Or maybe it would.  At any rate, Flat-Earthism does not seem to benefit from this so this parallel doesn’t seem valid, even if Seidensticker’s concerns were valid, which in the case of Christianity they may not be.

14. Sweeping, unfalsifiable claims

FE proponents are usually Christian, and they’ll point to the obvious flat earth models in the Bible. This means that if an argument isn’t going the way they’d hoped, they have the option to fall back on an omnipotent God. They’ll say that if God’s actions are surprising, you can take it up with him. God moves in mysterious ways, we’re in no position to judge God, blah blah blah.

But it’s not possible to falsify “God did X” since God is always a dozen steps ahead of us. And by being unfalsifiable, this claim is unscientific.

The Creationist or Christian is hoist by the same petard. Perhaps if they see parallels with FE thinking, they’ll be less likely to make the FE proponent’s claims.

Scientific American blog post makes the science/pseudoscience distinction clearer.

Scientific claims are falsifiable, … while pseudo-scientific claims fit with any imaginable set of observable outcomes. What this means is that you could do a test that shows a scientific claim to be false, but no conceivable test could show a pseudo-scientific claim to be false. Sciences are testable, pseudo-sciences are not.

If God is capable of doing something and we can come up with a plausible — even if mysterious — motivation for Him to do something, then that’s a valid response to an attack that says that something must be natural.  That’s not the sort of thing that makes something unfalsifiable.  Also, after arguing that Creationists reject science he seems to want to argue against them by arguing that their views are unscientific, which is a bit of a contradiction.  Also, Christianity being unfalsifiable is, again, another argument, and so we shouldn’t need to try to make that parallel to pull it off if it’s valid, especially since Flat-Earth proponents would clearly deny that their view is unfalsifiable, but would insist that it hasn’t been yet because they can find ways to fit the evidence into their theory and note that from their perspective it’s the Round-Earth theory that’s invalidly trying to fit the evidence into their theory.  So that doesn’t really work.

15. Teach it in schools?

I haven’t seen any FE proponent demand that their alternate reality be taught in schools. I’m sure the average Christian would be as outraged at the suggestion as any atheist. But if that’s the case, Christians should help keep all pseudoscience, including Creationism, out of schools.

That assumes it’s pseudoscience, which assumes it’s wrong.  Again, the fact that Round-Earthism has so much better evidence in its favour and isn’t trying to deny that it needs to provide evidence works against Seidensticker’s argument here.

I can wrap up this post by responding to this summary statement:

Christians, how can you accept Christianity but reject flat earth theory when these 15 parallels show how similar they are? Christianity is in present society only because it was in past society. It’s been grandfathered in. It didn’t earn its way in with evidence like science.

I can do that because we have much better positive evidence in favour of Round-Earthism than we do for atheism, and Round-Earth proponents don’t spend a lot of time arguing that they don’t have to prove anything and refusing to provide evidence to Flat-Earth proponents.  If Seidensticker really had such strong evidence in arguments and provided them instead of dodging them and trying to push the burden of proof on the beliefs that are accepted by most people, then maybe we would reject Christianity as well.

Qualia as Input

March 25, 2022

So I talked about consciousness a while back, and after talking about free will for a while I’ve decided that this week I’m going to highlight a rough view of mine that I developed a few years ago but haven’t really thought much about since, which was a view in reaction to representationalism that argue that in that sort of model qualia/consciousness would be an input to the system and so we could not simply claim that consciousness was about having the right sort of representations (a big part of this was outlined here).

Let me start by outlining what I think is actually a pretty reasonable model of human intelligence that uses representationalism as a base.  We start with some kind of input for a domain.  This will typically be sense data, but for some domains it may not be direct sense data of it, such as with fictional worlds from a book.  Once we have that input, we build representations out of that input, mental models that capture the details of the input without actually being that input, so that we can perform operations of it and can reference it without having to re-experience or remember the precise input that we had originally.  From the representation we can then derive specific individual beliefs about the input and overall world that that the representation is capturing.  These individual beliefs are used in our reasoning processes to produce the actual behaviour that we have wrt the things that those inputs reveal to us.

Now, representationalists placed consciousness at the stage of the representations, and so often would argue that qualia itself is a representation.  In some sense, of course, this could make sense, given that our qualia about a thing is not, in fact, the thing itself.  But the issue with this, at least for me, was that it seemed like we could get the same beliefs from different inputs, and there didn’t seem to be any reason to claim that the representations themselves were different.  If someone tells me that a car is red or I see that a car is red, I certainly come to believe that the car is red and I can do all of the operations that I’d need a representation for — including building a memory-driven mental image of the car — without any noticeable difference based on that representation.  In fact, if I can’t imagine the car from a representation built from a description, it’s pretty much always because either my imagination is flawed or else the description was inaccurate or too vague.  So there doesn’t seem to be a significant difference in the beliefs and doesn’t seem to be a significant difference in the representations, so why would we need to make qualia a representation?

You could argue that we do that because there’s no need to introduce something separate like an input to explain this.  I’ve already conceded that qualia and all of the things that I’m calling inputs are in an important sense representations, so why not just accept that they are the representations that we build beliefs from and leave this extra stage out?  The issue is as I noted above:  we have clearly different inputs that produce the same set of beliefs, so we need to capture that difference somewhere.  You can argue that they are indeed different representations and so that would explain it, but then we run into the issue that there seem to be operations that we can perform on them that we couldn’t do from the beliefs that seem to be identical between the two.  To have to have a different representation for each of the things that I’m calling an input but then have to argue that nevertheless they perform exactly the same and can be used in exactly the same ways despite being significantly different representations.  We also run into the issue that we can generate an internal “input” of these things that mimics the other sort of input.  So from a description I can build a mental image, and from a visual image I can build a description in words.  So we don’t need to recall these inputs to restore the input mentally, and so it seems to make sense that what we store is an abstract representation that our processes can use to rebuild those sorts of inputs.  At which point, we would have a generic representation that is not tightly bound to any of the inputs we have, and so we could not differentiate the inputs on the basis of that representation that can be used to generate and recall either input.  Thus, we need to have inputs and qualia really does seem like it’s an input, given that it is spawned by and reflects the external world through sense data, at least.

This was my main objection of Chalmers’ zombies:  if qualia is an input and not a representation, then it is indeed possible for an entity to exist that has all of the right representations and so all of the right beliefs and so all of the right behaviour without having the input of qualia.  However, that’s only possible because it could get all of those representations from a different input, and so that input would have to be reflected somewhere, and by Chalmers that would have to be a physical input, and so we’d be able to find a physical difference in the zombie reflecting that it’s lacking qualia.  I have now become convinced that another problem with the thought experiment, in line with my comment above, is that it only works if qualia is epiphenomenal and plays no causal role in our behaviour, and surely Chalmers’ point was not that one.

Why I like this theory is that it finds a causal role for qualia to play in our behaviour while not reducing qualia to that which produces that behaviour.  It allows us to acknowledge qualia as different and having a different “feel” while still noting that that difference isn’t in the behaviour it produces, which then allows us to explain why we can indeed act the same way towards properties that qualia would normally produce even if we haven’t had a qualia experience of them.  It allows us to explain why AIs seem to be able to reason and act like we do without having to have them have qualia as we experience it, which is pretty difficult to actually reconcile with what we know about computers.  It also allows people like Dennett who are more interested in conscious behaviour and less interested in qualia to split it out from their research projects without having to eliminate from consciousness entirely or even minimize its role in what we think of as consciousness.

Anyway, that’s an idea that I still at least loosely accept, even though I haven’t explored it much in the past few years.  It seems to solve a lot of problems and settle a lot of arguments when it comes to consciousness, but whether it does so fairly is, indeed, open to debate.