Archive for the ‘Theism’ Category

Jerry Coyne’s Sense of Superiority is Tingling …

April 7, 2017

So, Jerry Coyne recently pondered the question of whether religious people are stupid (or “a bit thick”). Or, perhaps, to be totally charitable, more the question of whether someone can be religious and still be called “smart”, as that’s really the question he talks about, but his summary talks about them being in some sense stupid or a bit thick. His answer is, of course, that the religious are at least not smart, are at least partially stupid, and are a bit thick. And as you might imagine, the comments on that post are full of atheists basking in their presumed intellectual and mental superiority, talking about how flawed the reasoning of religious people is and even bringing up the old “It’s a mental illness” and “brainwashed” canards … all of which is based on, at best, them happening to get one answer — albeit potentially an important one — right. Sure, some are pointing out that everyone has potential irrational blind spots, but that hasn’t really made an impact on the atheists there.

So, why does Jerry Coyne think that theists are “a bit thick”?

And many public intellectuals—and virtually all accomplished scientists—are atheists. Why? Because there’s no credible evidence for God. It’s palpably and painfully obvious that religion is a human construct and that the tenets of different faiths are not reconcilable. The things that the faithful say they believe are simply ludicrous. I cringe, for example, when I hear a “smart” person like Rabbi Sacks or the Archbishop of Canterbury profess such stuff.

To me, this means that someone, regardless of how “smart” they seem, is at the very least irrational if they believe in God or the attendant superstitions. It is as if their brain is a jigsaw puzzle with one crucial piece missing: the piece that accepts important propositions in proportion to the evidence supporting them. And to me that kind of irrationality is a form of stupidity, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “dullness or slowness of apprehension; gross want of intelligence.” It’s not that they’re totally stupid; just partially stupid.

Hoo boy.

1) That public intellectuals and scientists — presumably, people that Coyne thinks are smart — are atheists is not evidence that therefore smart people are or tend to be atheists and that that fact is related to their intelligence. There might be something specific in the nature science that makes it so that those people tend towards atheism just from that that has no relation to the purported evidence or lack thereof. Like, I don’t know, naturalism? Coyne’s comment here is like saying that if we discovered that most computer scientists were introverts, and computer scientists are smart people, therefore extroverts aren’t or can’t be smart people. So that first sentence is at best meaningless, and at worst should lead us to wonder if the scientific worldview might be unduly biasing people against theism. So we’d need to look at the evidence.

2) That there’s “no credible evidence” is a claim Coyne needs to support, starting by pointing out what counts as “credible evidence”. And since theism just means “belief in god(s)”, he can’t appeal to the idea that it isn’t convincing to him; that would require it to be a knowledge claim, which I at least don’t make.

3) To say that it is obvious that religion is a human construct implies that he has sufficient evidence of that to demonstrate it to the point of knowledge. But since atheists have made a virtue over never having to prove that God doesn’t exist, colour me skeptical that he actually has that evidence. I certainly haven’t seen evidence that rises to that level.

4) He also — as is his wont — misses that just because it is obvious to him doesn’t mean that it is obvious to everyone. If someone merely doesn’t accept that naturalism is true then they are not going to find it “obvious” that a supernatural entity like a god can’t exist, while a naturalist will.

5) Since most religious people don’t hold that the tenets of faiths other than their own are true, that you can’t reconcile different faiths is not a problem because they aren’t trying to. They think theirs is right and the others are wrong. This might get into an argument over whether the evidence is stronger for their faith than for others, but the idea that the different faiths are reconcilable is utterly irrelevant to that claim.

6) In order to claim that theists are irrational, Coyne would have to know and examine why they maintain that belief, understand their reasons, and address their reasons. Since Coyne has both spent an entire many hours long car ride with Dan Dennett and has compatibilists like Coel constantly try to correct him about what compatibilism wrt free will means and still can’t get it right, this does not seem like something Coyne is capable of doing.

7) Coyne concludes that because theists don’t agree with him on one proposition, that they must therefore be missing the entire faculty that proportions beliefs to evidence … despite the fact that psychologically it would be more likely that in that case if Coyne is right they most likely have some sort of cognitive bias that is interfering here. This would especially be the case if, in other areas, they seem to have no problem apportioning belief to evidence … which would obviously be true for those that Coyne thinks might be smart but who have this odd attachement to religion or theism.

Look at it this way: if someone spent much of their lives worshiping Santa, elves, fairies, or even Zeus, and maintained in all seriousness that Santa delivers presents to Western children at nearly the speed of light each Christmas, you’d think they weren’t playing with a full deck. But somehow it’s okay if they do the same with Allah, Jesus, Muhammad, God, Vishnu, and the like. They can profess such stuff and still be considered “smart.”

But, again, most people don’t believe that, and their cultures consider those things to be false, and so it’s not reasonable to believe them unless you have good reason to. When your culture believes that religion is true, then it’s certainly more reasonable to believe that it is true unless you have good reason not to. Can Coyne offer good reasons not to? The idea that atheists have no burden of proof suggests “No”.

Coyne, essentially, considers theists to be in some sense stupid because we, at best, are wrong about something that Coyne thinks is obviously true. Well, then if we take any position that Coyne holds that others disagree with — free will, scientism, etc — then they would be justified in believing that about him. Thus, we can all get a nice sense of superiority from considering that everyone who does not believe precisely as we do is “a little thick” while we, of course, are not. Alternatively, we can instead consider that maybe they’re wrong, and try to find out where they went wrong, and work with that. We might discover that we are, in fact, wrong. Or they might learn that they are. Or we might discover that the answers aren’t as obvious as we thought they were. At the end, someone might well learn something.

And we obviously can’t have that, right?

Bad Defenses of Bad Atheist Arguments: “History Is Unreliable”

April 5, 2017

So, here are, finally, at the last chapter in Bannister’s book and so the last post Seidensticker will make about the book. As the posts went on, it seemed to me that Seidensticker felt more and more frustrated with Bannister’s book and that it wasn’t providing him with any real arguments to address. This is surprising since presumably before doing this he would have read most of the book to see if it was worth doing chapter by chapter. I mean, I when chapter by chapter with Philipse’s book (which I haven’t finished either commenting on or even reading yet) but there I only started it when I knew there were things that I really needed to talk about and that was one of the books that Coyne insisted all theists had to read, so there was a built in reason for me to take it somewhat seriously. Here, it really looks like Seidensticker picked up the book, thought it might say things, and then started posting on it without checking that or checking if he’d feel that each chapter needed to be looked at, and so ended up very frustrated.

On my side, I knew the posts would be bad starting it, and couldn’t read all of them to see how he’d end. My main frustration here is that Seidensticker doesn’t ever seem to actually defend the purported bad arguments … but, at least, my title is completely accurate (and that inability and/or unwillingness to defend the arguments was kinda the point of my writing these posts).

Anyway, it seems to me that the main issue here is how far one can push the line that the historical evidence we have is insufficient to claim that Christianity is true or that Jesus even existed without risking making all ancient history equally unreliable. The question, then, should turn on whether we have more evidence for other ancient historical figures or stories that we at least consider reliable enough to believe than we do for Jesus and what he did. This is, of course, only going to be a very minor part of this last post.

His complain about Islam is different: “Muslim theology is exceedingly clear that Muhammed was just an ordinary human being.” Yeah, and Mark, the first gospel, makes clear that Jesus was, too. It opens with Jesus being baptized. There’s nothing about Jesus being part of the Trinity or having existed forever. Avoid the Christian dogma, and a plain reading of Mark likewise tells of Jesus as an ordinary human being.

So, let’s go look at the opening to Mark, shall we?

1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah,[a] the Son of God,[b] 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”[c]—
3
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”[d]

4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with[e] water, but he will baptize you with[f] the Holy Spirit.”
The Baptism and Testing of Jesus

9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

So, the opening explicitly states that he was the Messiah, that John the Baptist was preparing the way for him, and that Jesus was the Son of God. I’m not sure how you get “an ordinary human being” out of that, beyond the perfectly compatible with Christian dogma interpretation that Jesus became Man, on any reading, plain or otherwise. In a post where we’re talking about history, it’s not a good idea to start by pointing to a source and badly missing what it actually said.

Bannister declares that to defeat Christianity, you must address Jesus and his claims. He ignores that Jesus didn’t make claims; the gospels say that he made claims. How reliable is that record? And if history is that big a deal, you must acknowledge that historians scrub out the supernatural. Sorry, historians aren’t your friend.

Well, how reliable is that record? If you’re defending a claim that they aren’t reliable enough, you might have wanted to start or stick to that instead of adding the sidebar of the supernatural. And if historians “scrub out” the supernatural, on what grounds do they do that? If they do it simply because it is supernatural, then historians may not be Bannister’s friend, but they would be letting philosophical views dictate their interpretations of history, which is bad for history. About the only real argument that can be made here is that historically speaking we’ve found that these supernatural elements are ones that tend to get added to these sort of stories, so we ought to be skeptical of them. Sure, but that’s a) not what Seidensticker says here and b) isn’t an answer to Bannister’s argument anyway.

Dawkins uses the game of telephone (“Chinese whispers” in British parlance) to show how the Jesus story is unreliable, but Bannister isn’t buying it. He mocks this approach:

We mustn’t think of Thucydides, or Josephus, or Tacitus, or St Luke as carefully interviewing eyewitnesses, reading sources, and weighing the evidence—goodness, no, they were ignorant ancient yokels, relying on what they half-heard, whispered into their ears, after the stories had made their way through a long line of pre-school children, high on sugar and gullibility.

Seidensticker’s initial reply?

Where do you start with someone so afraid of honest skepticism that he hides behind straw man arguments like this? Josephus said nothing about Jesus, and Tacitus wrote in the early second century. Thucydides died in about 400 BCE and so is irrelevant; presumably, Bannister uses him to say that the period produced well-respected historians. So therefore all ancient documents are reliable? Nope, that doesn’t follow.

But it does imply that you can’t merely look at assembled oral histories or ancient histories and declare them unreliable. You need to do something more than merely suggest that ancient historical works are formed by the game of telephone and so distorted so much that they are useless.

Seidensticker, shockingly, actually tries to do that:

Let’s review some of the historical weaknesses of the Jesus story that follow from Dawkins’ example of the game of telephone.

  • There were decades of oral history from event to documentation in the gospels.
  • There is a centuries-long period of Dark Ages from the New Testament originals to our best copies (more here and here). We can’t be certain what was modified during that period.
  • Much of Christianity comes from Paul, who never saw Jesus in person (more).
  • We don’t even know who wrote the gospels (more).
  • The gospel of Luke promises that the author is giving a good historical analysis, but why is that believable? You wouldn’t believe an earnest supernatural account from me, so why is it more believable if it’s clouded by the mists of time?
  • Matthew and Luke copy much of Mark, something that an eyewitness would never do.

I’m not sure how these can be said to follow from Dawkins’ assertion, as these seem to be facts that Seidensticker is mustering to show that the gospels are unreliable. But let’s take these in order:

1) Sure, but that would only mean that there’s a risk that it was overly corrupted through Chinese Whispers. And I’m not sure history says that decades of oral tradition mean that the traditions ought to be considered invalid when determining what historically happened.

2) Yes, that might cause some issues, but again I don’t think enough to invalidate them as historical sources.

3) I’m again not sure why that matters that much, since while he was getting things second-hand presumably he got enough of it from eyewitnesses (I’m not a Biblical scholar and so don’t know how much Paul interacted with the disciples).

4) If Luke says that he is going to make this a historical account, then we ought to at least consider that that is what he’s trying to do, and treat his work as such. Whether we accept what it says or not, we have to treat it like a historical account or an attempted historical account until we have real reason to think otherwise.

5) But neither of them are claiming that. Seidensticker explicitly says in the previous point that Luke is giving a historical analysis, which means that he’s going to gather up various sources — including eyewitnesses if he can get them — and use them to build his account. Matthew was one of those sources. Hardly surprising. And the only gospel that even remotely claims to be an eyewitness account is John’s. So this is an utterly irrelevant point.

So, sure, there are some issues, but they seem hardly damning, and hardly enough to get us to treat them as nothing more than “Chinese Whispers”. And in fact Seidensticker falls into the trap of assuming that these can’t be historical analyses with his fourth point, so he in fact uses the argument Bannister thinks is bad without ever defending it.

He declares that the gospels are biographies. Wrong again—they’re better described as ancient biography, which is a quite different genre. An ancient biography isn’t overly concerned about giving accurate facts but with making a point. (More: Charles Talbert, What is a Gospel? p. 93–98.)

And how do we know that these are that sort of ancient biography? Again, recall that Seidensticker points out that Luke claims to be making a detailed account. In fact, let’s look at what Luke says:

1 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled[a] among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3 With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

Luke’s point, in his own words, is to write it all down in as accurate a way as possible so that the person reading it can be certain that the things that he has been taught are actually true. Seidensticker’s weak “why should we believe him?” counter would indeed be a universal acid of history because it can arguably be said about any work, where they could be either intentionally or unintentionally shading the truth to comport with what they already believe. Sure, we could find inaccuracies and changes that cast doubt on the account, but Seidensticker has no reason to attack the intention, and that intention alone seems to put it more in the range of “history” than of “ancient biography”.

Seidensticker then does his last set of questions and answers:

Jesus really existed; don’t believe Jesus mythicists! I don’t make that argument. I don’t care whether he was a myth or not. My point is that you have no reason to accept the supernatural claims in the gospels.

And again, Seidensticker refuses to defend the actual bad argument, and instead insists that he wouldn’t make that argument. Which pretty much means that he thinks the argument is indeed a bad one. But since some atheists make that argument, all Seidensticker is doing is agree with Bannister that it is a bad argument that atheists shouldn’t make without ever saying it, meaning that people can still deny that it’s a bad argument. Which, again, is not a defense of the argument in any way.

The gospel story isn’t fiction. If it were fiction, why invent these impossible-to-follow moral rules like looking at someone with lust equals adultery? Right—I never said the gospels were fiction. (Though fiction is still probably easier to defend than the supernatural.)

Look, the book is not called “Bad Arguments Bob Seidensticker Makes”. Thus, the book is not all about you. If you don’t want to or can’t defend the arguments, then don’t try. Instead, you damn them with the faint praise of “I don’t make that argument” when you know good and well that some atheists do.

The gospels weren’t myth. Right—they closer to legend. (Jesus probably a legend here; the differences between myth and legend here.)

So you’ll accept that any atheist who says it’s a myth is wrong? That would be very charitable of you … if you, you know, actually said that.

He says that the gospels have lots of place names with details about each, which refutes their being fiction. Right—I don’t say that it’s fiction. This is the Argument from Accurate Place Names fallacy.

Um, that fallacy is very often used to defend the idea that the work can still be fiction even if it includes real places, so that’s hardly something you’d want to mention right after pretty much saying that it’s not fiction. Of course legends and even myths include real places, but the — admittedly bad — argument is that works that put an emphasis on real places ought to be taken more seriously as historically inspired than a simple work of fiction. Which isn’t true. Now, if you find too many fictional places in a work, that’s a good sign that the work is a fiction, but the opposite is not true.

He marvels at the fluency of Jesus’s rebuttals to the bad guys. The story was honed over decades—I should hope that some compelling anecdotes would come out the other end. The stories that flopped didn’t make the cut.

This is a fair point. I’d need to see the original argument — and Seidensticker is lax in quoting or even summarizing arguments — but that the answers were good doesn’t mean that they are necessarily true. Again, fictional characters can make really good arguments, too.

He appeals to the Criterion of Embarrassment (the more embarrassing a story, the likelier it’s true) and gives as an example a passage from Mark in which a man calls Jesus “good teacher.” Jesus responds, “Why do you call me good?” Yeah, that’s embarrassing, and you’ve undercut your claims of deity. And just how is this supposed to give me confidence in the supernatural parts? He notes that Jesus died when he should’ve been a conquering hero. So much for him fulfilling the prophecy of the Messiah, eh?

For the first one, that indeed doesn’t sound all that embarrassing, so I’d go after Bannister on that tack, instead of the rather ridiculous “Jesus can’t really be a deity then!” claim, which seems to me to miss the entire point of Christianity. As for the second one, fulfilling the prophecy in a unique way suggests that it wasn’t simply manipulated to get the right answers, because if it was it would have made a more direct link. Thus, this at least implies that there was or was believed to be a real person who died that way, at least necessitating a change in the interpretation of the prophecy. But, yes, it could still be a legend.

“If we were dealing with theological fiction, one would expect the edges to be straighter, the language more doctrinally polished.” More to the point, we’d expect that if we were dealing with the words of the omniscient creator of the universe. You’ve nicely shown that it doesn’t hang together and could never have been inspired by a perfect being.

But the gospels aren’t the words of the omniscient creator of the universe, as you yourself pointed out in your discussion of Luke. So they could be inspired by a real Jesus who was the Son of God in the sense that his existence triggered the accounts without it having to be the case that God wrote the words for them, as again Luke makes very clear is his intent.

He gives Lewis’s (false) trilemma—the only possible bins to put Jesus in are Liar, Lunatic, or Lord. Wrong again. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t address the obvious genre: not fiction but legend.

Fine. I’ll grant that it could be legend. Any real reason for us to accept that? I mean, we don’t have an account of King Arthur that says that this is someone roughly contemporary trying to make a good historical account, which tends to work against it being mere legend.

Anyway, that’s all I’m going to look at here. In summary of the entire series of posts, Seidensticker is generally pretty consistent in not actually defending any of the atheist arguments that he is supposed to be defending. He consistently, in fact, ends up implying that he thinks they’re bad too. That’s … not the way to defend arguments.

Bad Defenses of Bad Atheist Arguments: “Atheists Have No Use for Faith”

March 29, 2017

So, we’re at the second last chapter in Bannister’s book, and this time the the topic is faith, and whether or not atheists need it or rely on it. The underlying argument that I think Bannister is going after here — remember, I’m not reading Bannister’s book, and so have to rely on Seidensticker’s summaries of what Bannister is saying — is the idea that the only rational beliefs — religious or no — are those that conform precisely to the evidence. And, if we accept that, then there is no room for faith.

Bannister’s example this time is this:

In today’s episode, our hero is about to enjoy a quiet lunch when he spots Fred, who looks shockingly thin. When offered some lunch, Fred not only rejects the idea but knocks our hero’s sandwich onto the ground. “Haven’t you heard of the Panini poisoner of Pimlico?” Fred asks. It turns out that Fred is terrified of eating a randomly poisoned sandwich. He refuses to put his faith in the government’s health and safety agency and won’t eat anything that’s not proven safe, though he’s starving himself by playing it safe.

Seidensticker quotes Bannister’s summary later:

“Faith is the opposite of reason!” may make a great bumper sticker or tweetable moment, but when it bangs into reality—the small matter of how each and every one of us lives, every day, in the real world—it fails spectacularly. Try if you wish to live a totally faith-free existence, but that will require doing nothing, going nowhere, and trusting no one. . . . Faith is part of the bedrock of human experience and one on which we rely in a million different ways every day.

Seidensticker summarizes Bannister’s position as demanding certainty, and from the quote that does seem like a fair criticism. If we look at the example story, it seems that the person refuses to eat because they see a possibility that the food might be poisoned and that they can’t be certain that it isn’t. Thus, Bannister seems to be arguing that unless we have certainty of something, believing it to be true requires an act of faith. This does seem to be incorrect, as it is reasonable to say that if we know — or are justified in believing that we know — that something is true, then it isn’t an act of faith to act on it, and knowledge — or at least justification — doesn’t and can’t rely on certainty. And so, it seems, if Seidensticker wanted to go after Bannister here, he’d make a move along those lines: the things that atheists rely on that are not certain are, nonetheless, things we know, and so atheists don’t rely on faith.

Of course, that’s not what Seidensticker will do, or at least not to that extent. Instead of trying to defend the atheist argument, he’ll go on the offensive, trying to argue that Bannister is equivocating — and Seidensticker implies that it’s deliberate — on the meaning of the word “faith”:

Predictably, he’s determined to obfuscate the word “faith.” In fact, it can mean two different things:

  • Faith can be belief that follows from the evidence. This belief would change if presented with compelling contrary evidence, and it is often called “trust.”
  • Or, faith can be belief not held primarily because of evidence and little shaken in the face of contrary evidence; that is, belief neither supported nor undercut by evidence. “Blind faith” is in this category, though it needn’t be as extreme as that.

Acknowledging these two categories, assigning different words to them (may I suggest “trust” and “faith”?), and exploring the different areas where humans use them isn’t where apologists want to go. In my experience, they benefit from the confusion. They want to say that faith can be misused, but we’re stuck with it, which allows them to bolster the reputation of faith while it opens the door to the supernatural.

The problem with this is that, if we reference my above summary of the atheist argument, “trust” doesn’t seem to fit it very well at all. It’s hard to imagine that someone could be claimed to really trust someone if they only trusted or believed them precisely as far as the evidence they had suggested. We do seem to argue that to really trust someone means trusting them in cases where there isn’t sufficient evidence to know that they are going to or not going to do a certain thing, and in fact even when the evidence suggests that they might violate our trust. If we only trusted someone to not violate our trust when we knew that they wouldn’t or couldn’t, it wouldn’t seem like we actually trust them. You could hardly be said to trust your spouse not to cheat on you if any time there was any indication they might or even might be in a position to do so you at least no longer trusted them not to, for example. So at a minimum, even “trust” seems to involve trusting someone beyond what the evidence strictly says, a fact that Seidensticker acknowledges by having to add on “… if presented with compelling contrary evidence (emphasis added)”.

But this gives the game away, because adding that last part on gives theists a way out, by arguing that the counter evidence offered by atheists is not compelling. A good many theists make this exact claim, and I have to admit that I’m on their side; the evidence offered by atheists is not compelling. Seidensticker’s position is further undermined by his earlier entry in this series of post where he argued against atheists having the burden of proof. If atheists really had compelling counter evidence, then there would be no argument over the burden of proof; they’d be able to meet any reasonable burden of proof and so would have their conclusions proven. So on what grounds can Seidensticker claim that the typical theist is acting on what he calls “blind faith” rather than on what he calls “trust”?

The only move he can make here is to argue that all of the examples of what we’d call “trust” are cases where we are making inferences from previous evidence, and thus using induction to get knowledge. This risks turning trust into knowledge, but it isn’t even a good counter to theists, given the arguments that theists often make. Inferring a God from our observations of the world is just as much induction as what atheists would be doing, and so again he’d face the need for compelling counter evidence. The most he can do is try to argue that those who believe based only on the Bible don’t have that sort of reason … but then he’d have to get into a deep analysis of when it’s okay to believe based only on a purportedly historical document, which we’ll touch on in the last post. Suffice it to say, things aren’t as simple as Seidensticker seems to believe.

Seidensticker can also claim that theists are actually immune to counter evidence, but he’d have to establish this in principle and not just based on what evidence atheists typically try to muster against theists. For example, he can trot out the quotes that if a scientific and religious claim clashed, some theists say that they’d trust their religion over science, but this doesn’t work because a) that’s just a clash over what methods they most trust and b) most theists will actually try to reconcile the two so that they don’t have to choose between them. And, at the end of the day, Seidensticker would have to argue that theists are ignoring compelling evidence to maintain their belief, which again he has not been willing to do.

Seidensticker’s final move would be to claim that theists have far too much confidence in their belief given the evidence they have. Sure, it might be okay to believe in God based on the evidence they have, but the notion of faith is to raise their confidence in that belief to the level of knowledge, if not to the level of certainty. While atheists may still be more confident in their “trusting” beliefs than the evidence would strictly permit, they also have a lot more evidence for those beliefs. Even in cases where they might seem to be holding an irrational belief in the face of evidence, they still base it on, at least, a long-standing experience with the person and a feeling that they know them well, and in the case of science with a past history of it working out. Thus, the theistic “faith” is more problematic because that extra confidence on less evidence also makes it more resistant to change than it ought to be.

If Seidensticker had actually made that argument, he might have a point. But this is still problematic because at this point the difference is not one of kind as Seidensticker asserts, but of degree. Thus, we might very well be able to find cases where the “trust” of the atheists is just as much “faith” as that of the theists, and that possibility destroys Seidensticker’s argument. It may be the case that the theists’ faith is a problematic case of faith, a case where their faith is misplaced or misused, but that faith is still not unreasonable because it’s faith, and so Bannister’s point that atheists do rely on faith and that the fact that sometimes it’s misused or misplaced does not mean that faith is invalid holds. Thus, from there Seidensticker would have to focus on demonstrating that in that specific case faith is being misused, but not only is that not what the original atheist argument argues, but that conclusion would also go against what Seidensticker himself says in the quote above.

Bannister moves on to Christian applications of faith. He imagines falling down a cliff and reaching for a branch to save himself. “What I know [about trees] can’t save me; rather, I have to put my facts to the test and exercise my faith. Now what goes for the tree goes for everything else in life. Facts without faith are causally effete, simply trivia, mere intellectual stamp-collecting.”

Here again, the comparison fails. Botanists are in agreement on the basic facts about trees, but not even Christians agree among themselves about the basic facts about God. First let’s get a reasonably objective factual foundation for your hypothesis and then we can worry about accepting it. You haven’t gotten off the ground.

So, as far as I can see it, Bannister’s point here is that nothing that he knows about trees will let him know that grabbing that branch while he’s falling will save him. The branch might not be strong enough. He might be falling too quickly for the branch to hold. The branch might have been weakened by something. So what Bannister suggests is that we need to act on our beliefs — ie “exercise our faith” — and then see what happens. To me, this is the heart of what a reasonable “everyday reasoning” implies: form beliefs, act in the world as if they are true, and if contradictions occur adjust accordingly. And such an approach seems to be the best we can do; for everyday reasoning and thus the majority of our beliefs, we don’t have the time and resources to test them out entirely before acting on them, and acting on them is usually pretty good at weeding out the ones that are false. I don’t think this requires faith, though, because obviously we want to act on our beliefs in accordance with the confidence we have in them and the potential consequences of being wrong. If there’s an action that I’m not certain of and that the consequences of my being wrong mean my death, I think the only rational move would be to go and check first. But in Bannister’s example we don’t have the time to check and the consequences of being wrong aren’t any worse than the consequences of not trying, so we just go ahead and act. Seems reasonable and not really faith to me.

But note Seidensticker’s reply, or rather non-reply. He argues that Christians don’t agree on all of the facts about God. So? I see Bannister as advocating that each Christian act on their specific beliefs and see if it works out. Seidensticker would be insisting that Christians have to test out all of these beliefs and settle on the “right” facts before acting on it. Seidensticker also ignores Bannister’s point that none of those biological facts can justify the action here, beyond that sometimes branches are strong enough to save someone falling off a cliff. So, sure, we call agree on those facts, but those facts aren’t going to justify the action that we’d be taking there. This, then, is a complete non-sequitor, and nothing more than Seidensticker trotting out his own favourite canard out. But again it doesn’t do anything to defend the original contention, or to refute Bannister’s argument here.

Seidensticker has two sets of questions and italicized answers here, but I’m going to skip the first set and focus on the second. Here is the preamble:

Bannister proposes that we consider different factors to see if they argue for God, against God, or neither. He gets us started with a few examples.

From this, it’s clear that Bannister is going to try to argue that at least some of the examples that are purported to argue against God at least don’t do so strongly, and by implication we can argue that they won’t provide compelling evidence against the existence of God, which would then mean that we might have “trust” and not “faith”. Remember that.

Evolution. He uses the Hypothetical God Fallacy (let’s assume God first and select facts to support this conclusion) to say that this fits in the Neither bin. Who’s to say that God couldn’t use evolution? Nope: evolution doesn’t prove God, but it explains a tough puzzle, why life is the way it is. This is a vote against God.

Well, putting aside the fact that we still have puzzles … why does this still count as a vote against God, just because it solves — in Seidensticker’s mind — the “puzzle” better? Again, the counter is that God could very well choose to use evolution to achieve his goals. If this is not inconsistent with God, then evolution does not provide compelling counter evidence against the existence of God. At least, accepting that God could have done that and remained consistent with our idea of God weakens that potential counter argument, and Seidensticker never actually addresses that counter argument. This is putting aside the fact that I’ve already addressed the Hypothetical God Fallacy and found it wanting. For evolution to count as a vote against God, it has to be the case that us having evolved is some kind of contradiction — even of expectations — of our idea of God. To assess this, we have to ask the question “If God existed, what would human development look like?”. If evolution is consistent with that, then Seidensticker has no point … which is probably why he wants to avoid allowing theists to ask that question despite the atheist argument depending on doing that first.

Evil. He concedes that this may be a vote against God, though he falls back on the “How can an atheist say anything is objectively wrong?” fallacy. Atheists don’t make that claim. Atheists are waiting impatiently for evidence that objective morality exists.

Okay, first, there are some atheists who make that claim like, for example, Sam Harris, mentioned earlier in the post. Second, and more damningly, if objective morality doesn’t exist, then how do you get the “Problem of Evil” off the ground? Even the weaker versions of the Problem still rely on the purported contradiction being a good and moral God allowing so much suffering to exist in the world when God could clearly stop it. This also relies on us judging God by our moral standards and claiming that we understand morality well-enough to know that God ought to be morally obliged to do so. If morality is not objective and is instead subjective, then a) our moral standards can’t be directly applied to God and b) we have no case to make any claim about moral standards at all. The best the atheist could do, then, is say that they wouldn’t like a God whose moral position would allow that much suffering, which is hardly a contradiction or any evidence that God didn’t exist. So Seidensticker’s reply that atheists don’t believe in objective morality or that anything is objectively wrong actually makes the entire “Problem of Evil” meaningless and irrelevant. That’s hardly the way to defend it as being a “vote against God”, which from the first point we are led to believe was Seidensticker’s goal here in addressing the examples.

Reason. How can there be reason without God?? This is a vote for God. Nope. Reason is an emergent phenomenon. If you’re saying that science has unanswered questions about human consciousness works, that’s true, but Christianity doesn’t win by default. Christianity has never answered any scientific question, so there’s no reason to imagine it will this time. This topic is related to Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, to which I respond here.

I’m … not sure how this is a response here. At best, Seidensticker provides an alternative explanation that is compatible with naturalism, but simply saying “It’s emergent” is not a proof of that, and the link to the argument against Plantinga — which I’ve provided here for convenience — is simply the old argument that natural selection would weed out such beliefs. So at best Seidensticker argues this to a neutral position, which sure is not what he wants to do. And as he provides no proof or evidence for this position and seems instead to be relying on the old canard about Christianity not providing scientific answers, I suspect that he does that because he doesn’t actually have an argument for that, and likely has no idea what it would mean for a phenomenon to be emergent … or what the consequences of reason being one would be.

Next time is the final post, talking about history in general.

Bad Defenses of Bad Atheist Arguments: “Atheists Don’t Need God for Meaningful Lives”

March 22, 2017

So, the next chapter in Bannister’s book that Seidensticker is going to look at revolve around meaning. Seidensticker starts with an argument that should be familiar to us:

Why is this hard? I say that my life has meaning, and that’s it. That’s not a grand platform, but it’s all I’ve got. And it’s all I need. I make no claim for absolute or objective meaning, just my own meaning. Like so many before him, Bannister seems to think that the only meaning is an objective meaning. For this, I point him to the definition of “meaning” in a dictionary.

Again, just like when he talked about morality Seidensticker doesn’t give the dictionary definition that he thinks makes his case, or demonstrates that it does make his case. And here it is even harder for him to argue that meaning can’t be absolute or objective, and so here he almost fudges on the question by implying the minimum argument he can make: meaning doesn’t have to be absolute or objective. The problem is that, at a minimum, this is what would be up for debate here. If Seidensticker means to argue that thinking that meaning is objective and absolute is wrong, he needs to provide evidence and argue for that to demonstrate that Bannister is wrong. If he merely wants to claim that it might be possible to have meaning that isn’t absolute and objective and that therefore Bannister is wrong to assume that it must be objective and absolute, then the immediate response has to be “So what?”. It in no way addresses Bannister’s contention that we can’t have meaning — or, at least, that atheists assuming we can have meaning — without God to say that maybe he’s wrong in thinking that we need an absolute and objective meaning. He might be wrong. And so might atheists. Why should anyone think that the atheist move to personal meaning works at all?

Seidensticker next tries to address this example from Bannister:

In today’s opening episode, our hero dreams that he’s wandering through a penguin colony. He muses that penguins have meaningless lives, but one penguin speaks up and says that, on the contrary, his life has plenty of meaning. He makes his own meaning. And then he gets eaten by a sea lion.

So, let me shake out what I think this example is aiming for. The penguin can insist that he makes his own meaning, but having that sort of meaning has to, in fact, link to goals and purposes and things to achieve in accordance with that meaning. But this assumes that what one chooses for that meaning can lead to goals that are in principle achievable. It would be a very odd meaning of life that sets goals and purposes that the person cannot, in fact, achieve. But it is clear that the penguin’s meaning of life didn’t include getting eaten at that time, and getting eaten meant that any goals or purposes would now never be achieved. Thus, the penguin would not have fulfilled the meaning of his life. And this is because the universe does not care at all about those personal meanings, and so will provide no help in achieving them. Thus, at a minimum, the meaning of our lives is greatly constrained by the universe and what we can do in it. Which also means that our self-selected “meaning” may well have to change repeatedly as we discover that whatever that self-selected meaning is is just not achievable by us in this universe.

But if we have a meaning determined for us by the force that created the universe, then these problems go away. The universe will be set-up for us to achieve the purposes implied by that meaning, and all we have to do is figure out how to actually do it. And if the penguin gets eaten, then that action itself would be to further the purpose of the existence of that penguin, and so fulfills the meaning of that penguin’s life rather than frustrates it. This, then, would be very comforting, as we’d have a set meaning — in Bannister’s case, it’s “Find out the purpose God intends for us” — that would never change, and that the universe and pretty much every action we take and every thing that happens to us works to fulfill.

If Seidensticker was paying attention, he’d see the flaw in this idea of meaning: it proves too much. What reason do we have to actively pursue the purposes and goals that follow from our idea of meaning? Surely even refusing to do certain actions fits into that purpose? Yes, we have free will, but surely God won’t let us simply frustrate his overall Grand Design (which has to be the case if bad things happening to us are to have a purpose). So, then, how do we determine what negative actions are punishments aimed at guiding us back to the right path and which ones are God’s purpose working through us? So Bannister would be stuck between things being so determined by God’s Plan that we need do nothing, and us being able to frustrate God’s Plan but us not being able to understand something so complex in order to be able to figure out what to do.

And from this we can get the mirroring problems with each side. Bannister gives us a set purpose supported by the universe, at the cost of that purpose being too large for us to actually interact with. Seidensticker’s personal view of meaning is understandable, but is so personal that we might find ourselves changing it constantly. Both run into the issue that their views, to work, can’t follow from our personal worldviews: Bannister’s has to come from what God wants, and if Seidensticker’s follows from our worldview we’d be stuck if our personal circumstances and our worldview produces a meaning that cannot be achieved, as the only way to resolve the issue would be to change our worldviews. But surely our meaning of life has to be tied to our personal worldviews in some way. If it isn’t, again for Bannister we wonder how that can be my meaning, and for Seidensticker it becomes simply random selection, and so doesn’t have the importance required to satisfy a desire for a meaningful life.

Unlike morality, I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about the meaning of life. However, let me take a stab at a non-God and arguably non-objective meaning of life. I propose that the meaning of life for a human being is to live the best possible life you can, where the best possible life is determined by your worldview. This allows us to change our approaches and even let the universe cause us to fail without having to change our meaning. To return to the example, our penguin certainly didn’t expect to get eaten at that point, but they still would have achieved the meaning of their life: to life as good as life as possible. Getting eaten at that point doesn’t change that; it’s just what happened, but the assessment of whether the penguin achieved the meaning of his life is judged by what happened up to the point where it died.

Sure, there are problems with this idea, but it’s at least a credible example of a meaning that can work. Let’s look at Seidensticker’s direct response to this:

Next, he considers the fate of the penguin—eaten just as he was pontificating about the meaning he had for his life.

Yeah. Shit happens. It could’ve been our hero who got eaten instead. What’s your point?

Yeah … that’s not a reply, and there’s clearly more of a point there than Seidensticker recognizes.

And another familiar argument:

For one of his “problems,” he contrasts meaning in a book, where we can ask the author to resolve differences in interpretation, with an authorless universe where we’re on our own for finding meaning. “Claiming that we have found the meaning is utter nonsense.”

Right—that’s not my claim. But Bannister is living in a glass house. He does claim to know the meaning of life, but his source is the Bible, a book for which there is no the meaning because Christians themselves can’t interpret it unambiguously.

Just because people don’t at least currently agree on the answer doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Morever, it should be clear from the quote that Bannister’s reply to this will be “Which is why we need to ask the author … in this case, God”. Seidensticker will of course make great hay over us not really having a way to ask the author about that since the author — God — doesn’t really answer directly and stays hidden, but this attack on the Bible is completely and totally misplaced and completely misses the point.

I’ll skip the rest of Seidensticker’s ranty replies, as he continually refuses to give any notion of meaning and just rants about how Bannister is wrong. Let me address, then, the cases Bannister gives where he says that if you put your idea of meaning in God, you have a better idea of meaning. The first one:

<blockquote>Who am I? You aren’t an accident but were fashioned by God. I was fashioned by God to burn forever in hell? That’s what your book says is the fate of most of us. Jesus said, “Small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:14). Thanks, God.

Objection! Non-responsive! This has nothing to do with meaning. If your meaning is to end up in Hell, then it is. But the quote and the implication is that we have a choice in that, and Bannister would argue that we need to live up to the purpose God has for us if we want to avoid that, which gets back to the free will issue raised above. This is taking a shot at Christianity, not at the idea that putting meaning into God doesn’t make for a more overall satisfying idea of meaning.

Do I matter? “God was willing to pay an incredible price for each one of us.” An incredible price? Nonsense. Jesus popped back into existence a day and a half after “dying.” The sacrifice narrative is incoherent and embarrassing (more here and here).

Um, willingly dying and suffering just to redeem us, I think, counts as “an incredible price”, even if he only stayed dead for a day and a half — and, if Christianity is right, any similar sacrifice we might make might mean that we don’t stay dead any longer. Again, the idea is indeed that if Christianity is right God cares about us, and so we matter. Seidensticker needs to demonstrate that he can find a meaning that everyone will accept that also means that we matter. He doesn’t even try.

Why am I here? Our purpose “is to know God and enjoy him forever.” Seriously? Yeah, that’s a purpose that will put a spring in my step. Not to help other people, not to make the world a better place, not to eliminate smallpox, but to enjoy God, who won’t get off the couch to make his mere existence obvious.

It’s a set purpose that can be true. What do you have to offer? Why should anyone accept a purpose of helping other people or making the world a better place? And under your view, how are we to come to the conclusion of what our purpose should be?

Can I make a difference? We can be part of God’s greater purpose. That atheism thing is sounding better all the time. Instead of brainlessly showing up to get an assignment from the foreman, we’re on our own. We are empowered to find our purpose rather than have it forced upon us. Yes, that can be daunting. Yes, we might get halfway through life and realize that we’d squandered much of it. But the upsides are so much greater because there’s a downside. Because we can screw up, it makes the successes that much more significant. And we have ourselves to congratulate for our success.

In order to find a purpose, there has to be one to find, which makes it objective: the idea is that there has to be at least a right answer for us. And why should we admit that we’ve squandered our life, instead of simply redefining our purpose to match what we did do, if meaning is to be left up to us? Seidensticker, as usual, contradicts himself by assuming there is a right answer and that we can’t come to any conclusion we want while insisting that meaning is left entirely up to us and isn’t objective. It is at least very difficult to find a way to make those two views consistent with each other.

Seidensticker then turns to the question of nihilism:

Of course not. Citing his oft-mentioned but ill-supported claim that the only meaning is objective meaning, he calls atheism, not cake, but “the soggy digestive biscuit of grim nihilistic despair.”

Wrong again. You can try to find someone to impose this on, but that’s not me. Ah, well—so much for the possibility of evidence

But perhaps Seidensticker only avoids that by deluding himself about what atheism implies about meaning. He certainly has given us no real reason and no real method to determine meaning for ourselves, so we have to wonder if he has really achieved meaning at all.

Again, as we saw last time, Seidensticker’s defense of the arguments is simply to say that the arguments are right and Bannister is wrong, with lots of shots at Bannister tossed in. That is not the way to defend arguments, especially if you want to insist that your ideas are true and reflect reality and are evidence-based, as Seidensticker does. So, another case where Seidensticker doesn’t even defend the arguments he is purportedly defending.

Bad Defenses of Bad Atheist Arguments: “Morality Doesn’t Come From God”

March 15, 2017

So, the next chapter in Bannister’s book that Seidensticker examines focuses on the question of morality. Now, we’ve we’ve already discussed Seidensticker’s view of morality, which is that morality is not objective. As we’ve also seen, I disagree and think that morality is objective, but as someone more philosophically minded I don’t think that it needs to be grounded in God, and that one of the many objective moralities that do not directly invoke or need to be directly grounded in religion would work fine. I really wish that more atheists would take that approach instead of, like Seidensticker, rushing to ground morality in subjective preference, since that always leads them to rather odd arguments. And this post is no exception.

So let’s start. Bannister’s first argument is essentially that atheists can’t just go ahead and re-define morality to be whatever they want it to be in order to allow room for morality to not require God. Seidensticker replies in a way that has been common for him:

I agree that changing definitions to suit your whim is a bad idea, but Bannister might want to get his own house in order first. “Faith” is an important concept that has two incompatible definitions, and many Christians switch between them as convenient to make their argument (more here). Another slippery area for many Christians is morality. They imagine that any moral statement must be a claim to objective morality, even though that’s not how morality is defined (more here).

By, of course, not defending the atheist use or redefinition, but by instead conceding that it is — or, rather, there, would be a bad argument — but trying to argue that Christians have similar problems with another concept, which here is “Faith”. That’s not a defense of the atheist use of morality. And when Seidensticker turns to morality, he still doesn’t defend the atheist tactic that Bannister is talking about, but instead argues that Christians are invalidly defining moral statements as objective, despite that not being how morality is defined. So, not only does he not defend the atheist argument, he actually makes a very controversial statement. How in the world does he justify claiming that morality is not objective? Certainly moral philosophy — the field that is best suited for settling such questions — sees morality being objective as a very live option. Also, most people do think that morality is at least in some sense objective, or at least act like it. You might think that the “here” would indicate a post or link that would prove it … but you can go and read that link yourself. It doesn’t. It’s just more of Seidensticker’s assertions that it is and he even tells the person he’s replying to — Frank Turek, there — to look morality up in the dictionary and doesn’t provide a link to the dictionary definition that he’s using to come to his conclusion. And since this chapter is about debating over what morality means or requires, using that as an example of Christian confusion is him putting the cart well before the horse here. Suffice it to say, we need to settle if morality can be objective and if the atheist move to define — or re-define — morality to not be objective and/or not require a God can work before he tries to use it to excuse atheist slipperiness on the basis of Christian slipperiness … and if he could do that, then he wouldn’t need to defend potential atheist slipperiness because they wouldn’t be doing anything slippery at all. So this response is utterly irrelevant to the discussion at hand.

Bannister demands, “Who gets to define what the words ‘good’ and ‘evil’ mean?”

Uh . . . humans? The definitions are in the dictionary. But if he’s asking how we put moral actions into the Good bin or the Evil bin, we do it with the imperfect sense of right and wrong that we got from evolution and society (more here and here).

And whom is to say that the dictionary definitions are correct? How do we know what morality really is? And how do we know that our imperfect sense of right and wrong works, especially if we disagree? If Seidensticker has a dictionary definition of morality that he likes, then he can link to the dictionary and show that his evolutionary/societal theory fits and is the only theory that does fit that definition, and also rules out morality being objective. The reason he never does this, I suspect, is because he knows that the dictionary definition, in fact, does no such thing.

He notes that as long as two people with very different views on things “can agree not to try to suggest that the other one is wrong, everybody can get along famously.”

But of course, we often correct each other’s morality. We talk it over. We debate. We argue. Can he have never seen how humans try to resolve disagreements? It’s not always pretty, and minds often don’t change. But no supernatural is required to explain morality, as he wants to imagine.

But here’s the problem: if someone suggests that my view of morality is wrong, then they need to demonstrate it. But to demonstrate it, they need to assume that there is a right answer, and that my view is not tracking it properly. Then we can walk through the steps and the arguments and both come to the conclusion, hopefully, of what the right answer is. If Seidensticker wants to deny that there just is a right answer, then when we disagree I don’t even need to engage him, any more than I need to engage him if he claims the obviously ridiculous claim that the Persona series is not the best video game series ever or that kale actually tastes good. So the dilemma is this: if you make morality subjective, then moral disagreement is pointless, and if you want meaningful moral disagreement, you need to make morality objective.

Bannister makes clear our error:

Quite frankly, my first reaction, when I meet anybody who tells me that they sincerely believe that we decide what is ‘good’ and ‘evil’ based on our preferences or our feelings is to lean over and steal something from them. When they protest (“Give me back my seal-skin gloves!”), I simply say, innocently and sweetly: ‘But I thought you said “good” and “evil” were just questions of personal preference. Well, my preference is that I’m smitten with your mittens.’ That usually changes the conversation quite rapidly.

Does he really want to steal my stuff? If that doesn’t fit with my plans, then I have society and the law to back me up. Theft where I come from is illegal. But if he’s just making a point, what’s the point? That people can steal things? Yes, they can—is that a revelation? We live in an imperfect society with many moral disagreements. If harm is involved, that’s usually central to society’s resolution of the problem.

Maybe he’s saying that his stealing something will snap me out of my simplistic reverie and return me to the real world. But what insights does he imagine he’s given me—that people don’t like being stolen from? That we share morals? We already know that. None of this argues for objective morality.

Here’s what I’m sure Bannister is getting at: if I steal something from that person, they are likely to protest on the basis that what I’m doing is not just illegal, but is in fact immoral. In short, they want to argue that stealing that is morally wrong. But Bannister’s reply is that while that person might indeed feel that that is morally wrong, if morality is just a matter of personal preference or feeling that if by their own personal preferences stealing that thing from them is not immoral — because, in this case, their personal morality is based solely upon their own wants — then it isn’t in fact immoral to the person who has just stolen their mittens. At that point, the original person can no longer argue on the basis of morality, but has to argue on the basis of other things, like the law. Which, you’ll note is precisely what Seidensticker does here: he drops any argument about morality, and instead retreats to the law to try to convince Bannister not to steal the mittens. At which point, it seems that morality isn’t going to play a large role in stopping someone from, say, stealing from you or, in fact, doing anything that you don’t want them to do because you think it is immoral. Which, again, seems to make morality and moral judgements rather meaningless.

Next, Bannister moves on to fret if might makes right.

Yeah—sometimes it does. The Allies defeated Germany, so guess whose laws were used during the Nuremburg Trials. A German concentration camp commandant might have honestly thought that he was carrying out a noble mission, that he was right. However, the Allies disagreed, and since they won the war, they decide the standard of “right” used in the court.

Here’s the obvious and immediate counter to this argument: if the Germans had won WWII, they would have tried the Allies as war criminals, and since they had the might then they would have set the standards of right. So, then, not handing over Jews to be sent to the concentration camps would have been immoral. And, in fact, it was right for that concentration camp commandant to kill all of those people because at the time the Germans in fact had the might to do so. Thus, any action taken by the group that has the power is automatically right — or, as Seidensticker says later, as close to right as we can get — because it is backed by might. Seidensticker commits the common fallacy of taking the morality that we have now, using that as the basis for his argument, and ignoring that his argument makes the things that he considers utterly immoral equally justified. He can argue that he agrees with that assessment, but it really kills his example here when we can point out that it equally justifies the Holocaust as it does punishing those who participated in the Holocaust.

Seidensticker eventually tries to deal with some challenges Bannister raises towards, presumably, the end of the chapter:

Challenge 1: If we go back to the 1950s and tell people that in 2017 we’re largely pleased that same-sex marriage is finally legal, most people would be horrified. Now imagine that the tables are turned so that we are the horrified, regressive people compared to people in society fifty or a hundred years in our future. What society declares as “good” changes with time.

Response: Obviously. Morality changes, and each society thinks that it has things largely figured out, though there are moral dissidents in each society, some longing for the morality of the Good Old Days and some pushing new attitudes that will gradually become accepted.

This causes no problem for my position, but I’m not the one who needs to justify the Bronze Age morality in the Old Testament.

So, let’s examine Seidensticker’s position here. What is Seidensticker going to argue here? That we would be right to be horrified at the perceived “immorality” of that future society? Then those in the 1950s are equally right to be horrified at our immorality for accepting same-sex marriage. Or is he — as his response actually implies — going to claim that their morality is right and that we were wrong, but misled? Then he seems to be arguing that there is some kind of criteria for determining what is moral beyond just what the person thinks is moral. And what if the future society is one that finds same-sex marriage or abortion immoral? Is Seidensticker going to insist that they’re wrong? Then again he’d be pushing for some kind of objective morality, some set of really right and wrong answers. Or is he going to call it immoral, but only on the basis of his own personal subjective assessment? Then the person from the 1950s can do the same thing.

So Seidensticker misses the point of the example, as it seems that with the challenge Seidensticker is forced to either accept that the person in the 1950s did not hold an actual immoral view or insist that there is a right answer and one or both sides of the example are wrong about what is really moral, making morality objective.

Challenge 2: Without God, you can (1) let everyone decide good and evil for themselves. Or (2) the state decides, but then might makes right. With (1) morality is impossible, and with (2) morality is meaningless. In both cases, you have no absolute authority with which to overrule another person or state. But there is a solution: “If goodness were something bigger than us, something outside us. Only then could ethics, morality, and law actually work.”

Response: You know what it’s like to tell a joke and have it fall flat? That’s like Bannister’s Hail Mary suggestion that ethics, morality, and law might actually work if God were behind it. He supports this claim with nothing. He imagines that God is the authority that will resolve moral dilemmas, but how is that possible when you can find Christians today on every side of every moral issue?

Seidensticker here makes the common atheist mistake of claiming that just because there is disagreement over the right answer that there therefore must not be a right answer. Bannister’s argument here is that with God there is a right answer to all moral dilemma, given by a being with the proper authority to set that right answer, God. Given that, to figure out what the right answer is we just need to figure out what God really wants (which may not be simple). However, Seidensticker’s reply in no way addresses that. He dismisses Bannister’s solution, but never addresses Bannister’s actual challenge, which is how you can’t use either of those two options to make a morality that works. So, Seidensticker, despite defending both propositions, doesn’t reference how Bannister is wrong about his actual challenge in responding here, but instead focuses on saying that he doesn’t think that Bannister’s answer works and doesn’t even actually make a valid argument against it. Huh.

Challenge 3: Sam Harris wants to use science to find morality. “I do give Harris credit for at least realizing something that many other atheist writers have failed to grasp—that atheism has a major problem when it comes to the question of goodness.”

Response: Atheism says nothing about goodness. That’s not a problem, just like it’s not a problem in chemistry or geology. It’s not supposed to—atheism is simply a lack of belief in god(s).

But atheism — as many atheists continually argue — has a moral consequence: much of the morality our society has accepted has been at least grounded in religious mores, and the religious mores of the society. So, if you give up religion, you give up that basis as well. Many atheists argue that most moral decisions are actually not religious anyway as, at best, religion is used as a post-hoc justification of our own moral intuitions. Fine, but then atheists still need to find a justification to replace what religion was doing, or else admit that their moral principles are not justified. Also, since Seidensticker earlier chided Bannister for having to justify Bronze Age morality, presumably if we abandon the religious basis then much of those moral principles ought to fade away as well, which requires an argument. So either there are moral consequences to becoming an atheist or else all of those atheists just miraculously had the right morality despite one of the main things that taught them what is or isn’t moral being a Bronze Age morality and presumably wrong about a number of things. Either way, Seidensticker’s answer simply dodges the question of what the impact of atheism on ideas of goodness is.

Bad Defenses of Bad Atheist Arguments: “Science Can Explain Everything”

March 8, 2017

Seidensticker splits this chapter into two separate parts. I’m not really sure why, since Seidensticker’s posts tend to be rather short and so he really should be able to cover it all off in one, but whatever. I’m going to deal with both parts in this one post, though, because I have no desire to use this to pad out my number of posts for this month, and it’s best to discuss the whole issue in the same context anyway.

So, starting in part 1:

To attempt to tie this to reality, Bannister quotes Nobel Prize winner Harry Kroto, “Science is the only philosophical construct we have to determine truth with any degree of reliability.” But just two sentences later, Bannister bungles that into, “Science can answer any and all questions.” Yes, that is quoted accurately. And no, that’s not even close to what the scientist said.

In previous chapter critiques, I’ve defended the atheist argument against Bannister’s attacks. But I don’t defend this argument because no one makes it. No one makes it, that is, except theists who seem to be drawn to strawman arguments like flies to garbage.

Seidensticker makes a big deal out of Bannister not paraphrasing Kroto properly … but never actually goes and tells us what Kroto really means. This is really, really bad because I’m not sure why Bannister’s paraphrase is that bad. My interpretation of that statement is that it is saying that science is the only reliable method for getting truth. This implies that science not only can but should be used to answer any question that we can get a truth value for. If there are questions that we can get true answers for that are not answerable by science, then Kroto would have to be implying that only unreliable methods could get at that truth. But as we’ve seen to be reliable a method has to produce true beliefs more often than not, and so an unreliable method would at best be a coin flip as to whether it produced a true belief or a false one. Given that, we can’t — no pun intended — rely on an unreliable method, and so couldn’t answer those questions with any degree of reliability or confidence in the answer … at which point we might as well say we didn’t answer it at all.

Thus it seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable paraphrase — given the implications — to say that science can answer any question that we can reasonably answer, because there is no other way to answer any questions. From that, Bannister’s paraphrase is only oversimplified in the sense that it arguably includes questions that simply cannot be answered. Fine, but that would only be a serious problem if Bannister was going to go after atheists for claiming to be able to answer unanswerable questions. And as far as I can tell from the posts, Bannister doesn’t do that at all. So, then, where has Bannister gone so wrong? He seems pretty close to me, except for the “any and all” possibly including ones that can’t be answered. And of course Seidensticker won’t say what he thinks the statement means, and so I’m in the dark.

Fortunately, it would only be a problem if Seidensticker would directly try to defend the purported atheist argument, and as we’ve already seen he has a strong tendency not to, so let’s move on:

Bannister challenges us: “What is the value of a human life?” How would atheists answer this with science alone? A chemist might tally the value of the salvageable chemicals inside a human body. An economist could look at the net contribution to the economy of each person. But surely humans have an intrinsic value that science can’t tell you.

We all know how a human life can be given a financial value when you look at how life insurance works. Or we can weigh the cost of an improvement in food or road safety, for example, against the number of lives it will save. This computation isn’t horrifying; it’s something we’re familiar with.

Um, I dare Seidensticker to go up to someone whose loved one has just died, ask about the life insurance amount, and then when told what it is say “Well, that sounds like a reasonable assessment of the value of their life” and see what reaction he gets. I doubt he’ll get a reaction that concludes that he has actually indeed said something about the actual value of that person’s life because that’s not how life insurance works. Life insurance is insurance about the event itself, and so provides for certain things if that occurs depending on how much you want to pay. You can take out a life insurance policy with the sole intention of covering funeral costs, or with lost income for a certain number of years, or whatever. The intention is not to pay you what the person’s life is actually valued at. He’d have a better case if he had used the idea of court settlements for wrongful death … but again those lean towards monetary replacement, compensation for emotional distress, and punitive damages, meaning that they are indeed never asking “Well, what is the value of that person’s life?”. So this first example is completely off the mark.

For the second one, it’s about pragmatics: what is it worth to the organization — often a government — to prevent that amount of loss of life? Morally, it is an entirely reasonable argument to say that saving even one life, if you can, is priceless; you should do it no matter what it costs. The question here is purely pragmatic: how much is it worth to us? But again this is not the organization tallying up what those lives are really valued at; if they looked at it that way, as if they were really humans, then a lot of their decisions would not be so, let’s say, cavalier. In fact, one of the criticisms of that approach is that it unreasonably reduces humans to numbers and refuses to consider their “real” value. So, again, this isn’t going to support a contention that what we are going there is answered the question of what the value of a human life is.

But Bannister probably wants a more intangible or intuitive approach. He’d probably say that we all feel that one human life is worth more than one animal life. Or do we? When Harambe, a lowland gorilla (which, as a species, is critically endangered), was killed in 2016 to protect a four-year-old boy who had fallen into his zoo enclosure, many criticized the zoo for its actions, and the boy’s mother received torrents of online outrage for her supposed negligence.

I believe that the criticism of the zoo was that they could have taken some other action so that both the child and the gorilla could have lived, or even built their enclosure so that this couldn’t have happened. And the criticism of the mother is more than if she had been paying attention, that tragedy would not have occurred. I don’t think there are all that many people insisting that the gorilla’s life had more value than that of the child’s, or even that they had equal value. At any rate, this is actually an odd example because in the case where a human was going to kill a child we would think it reasonable to kill the human to save the child, so killing the gorilla isn’t even a case where we would only do it because we don’t value the gorilla’s life as much as we do the human’s. A better example would be how we consider there to be a moral debate over killing animals for food but don’t even consider it moral to raise and kill humans for food, but even that has moral confounds. So again I’m not sure how Seidensticker thinks he can answer the question “What is the value of a human life?” with this example, let alone do that scientifically.

Another example is Peter Singer’s drowning child experiment: you pass a pond with a child drowning. There are no difficulties stopping you from wading out and rescuing the child except that you would ruin your $500 shoes. Would that stop you? Of course not—anyone would sacrifice an expensive pair of shoes to save a child’s life. But that means that saving a life is worth $500 to you. Now suppose a nonprofit organization that provides bed nets to protect children from malaria-carrying mosquitoes (or some similar project) shows you how a $500 donation would save one life or more. Most people would discard this appeal after a few seconds’ consideration, including those who would have sacrificed their shoes.

The issue here is that this trips over “special burden”, as in the drowning child case we are the only one who can save them while we aren’t the only ones who can provide those bed nets. Also, he ignores the fact that Singer uses this argument to show that we should feel as morally obligated to give that $500, which completely undercuts his case if Singer is correct. So again we aren’t calculating the value of a human life here, which is what Seidensticker is, well, supposed to be answering.

Admittedly, he admits that it’s a detour:

That was a detour, but I think it was relevant to Bannister’s challenge that we find the value of human life without appealing to something outside science. My point is first that we can indeed put a crass monetary value on human life. We do it all the time. And second, Bannister’s unstated supernatural valuation of human life is probably a cheery declaration that God made Man the pinnacle of his creation, QED, and yet it’s more complicated than that.

Well, for the first, as demonstrated above, we actually don’t put a crass monetary value on life. And second, if Bannister is right then it isn’t more complicated than that; we know precisely what value we ought to put on a human life even if some don’t agree. So, no, it wasn’t relevant.

Let me now directly respond to his challenge. Our moral programming tells us (in general) to value human life over other kinds of life. Why is this? It’s a product of our evolutionary path, which is explained by science. When legislators evaluate a proposed improvement to a dangerous intersection, they uncover and follow evidence and test hypotheses to make their decisions—and that’s the scientific method. What’s unexplained?

Well, is that valuation of human life over other kinds of life like the sweet tooth, at one time valid but now outdated and actually detrimental? Should we value non-human animals more than we do? Should we agree with Singer and insist that we ought to equally value the lives of those we’d save with that bed net? How does Seidensticker propose to answer these questions with science? The short answer is that he won’t, because he thinks that there are no objective answers to these questions. Which would suggest to me that these fall into those questions that can’t be answered because there are true answers to the questions, would then would mean that these are questions that science can’t answer. Which also happens to be the one thing that he could reasonably say Bannister misleadingly includes with his paraphrase of “Science can answer any and all questions”.

The sad thing here is that Seidensticker’s “detour” raises all sorts of questions that Seidensticker doesn’t answer and that philosophers haven’t answered, and yet at the end here he seems to think that those questions either are or at least can be answered by science without ever showing how, even in a link to another post where he tried to do that. In short, he asks us what’s unexplained after demonstrating in his detour all of the things that his theory can’t or hasn’t explained.

Bannister reminds me of the child who mindlessly asks “Why?” in response to every statement. He asks, “Why is the pursuit of knowledge a good thing?” and “Why is it wrong [for a scientist] to lie about [experimental] results?”

Well, little Andy, lying slows down knowledge finding, and knowledge is good because sometimes we can use it to improve life—eliminate a disease or improve food production, for example. Why is that good, you ask? Because we seek happier, healthier lives—that’s just how we’re programmed. “Good” in this case is defined by our programming, put there by evolution. There’s no need to appeal to the supernatural to explain this.

If a scientist can lie and get away with it, and thus improve their own life, then why isn’t that “Good”? After all, it seems like our programming maximizes the happiness in our lives, not the lives of others. After all, one answer to Singer’s moral discussion is that we feel the obligation to save the drowning child because of the direct emotional trigger, which we don’t feel for distant events. “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic”, as Stalin purportedly said. This does seem to be part of our programming, but does that automatically make it right? Certainly we have lots of arguments that say that it isn’t right. How does Seidensticker propose to answer this using science without merely concluding that “If our evolutionary programming says it, it’s right” … which is contradicted by the sweet tooth, which is now maladaptive?

Anyway, on to part 2:

Bannister tells us that science is a great tool, but it’s only a tool. You can’t paint a portrait with a shovel—each tool has limitations. “We need more tools in our philosophical toolkit than just science if we’re going to answer all the wonderfully rich and varied questions that are out there to be explored.”

What do you have in mind? Of course I agree that physics, chemistry, and geology have limits, but show me a discipline that gives us reliable new information (say, philosophy recommending ethical standards for a new technology or economists understanding how people respond to incentives) that doesn’t use evidence and hypothesis testing—that is, scientific thinking.

Well, what do you mean by “evidence and hypothesis testing”? Because the traditional definitions of that in science — empirical observation and specific experimentation against empirical observation — aren’t used in philosophy, at least not that directly. Nor are they used in anything primarily conceptual. Nor are they used in anything inherently subjective. All Seidensticker does here is commit the typical scientistic mistake of absorbing everything into science through redefinition and then asking “What’s left?”. If your definition means that philosophy — which spawned science — is really science, you’ve probably done something wrong.

To support his position, he quotes geneticist Richard Lewontin who states that scientists “have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. . . . Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”

Seidensticker thinks that this isn’t fair criticism if we include more of the comment, which he proceeds to do:

. . . we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.

Seidensticker’s interpretation of that:

Lewontin wasn’t saying that we must conclude beforehand that the supernatural isn’t possible but rather that using science with a God option is like blowing up a balloon with a hole in it. You can’t get anywhere since everything must have a God caveat. It’s “F = ma, God willing” or “PV = nRT, if it pleases God.” When you make a measurement in a world where God messes with reality (that is, you “allow a Divine Foot in the door”), what part of that measurement is the result of scientific laws and what part was added by some godly hanky panky?

Why? Science — at least with respect to natural laws — is just about finding regularities in empirical experience. Whether those regularities exist because they are the intentional laws or decisions of an all-powerful creator God or because they are merely regularities in nature shouldn’t matter; regularities are regularities. Which means that they, well, happen more often than not, and if they didn’t happen at a particular point in time we’d go and try to figure out what was different about that case. Now, for miracles people insist that they happen because God’s nature in that specific case meant that it at least was reasonable that God would intervene there. We argue like Durkon does here, that there is a purpose behind God’s intervention, and the Christian God is, in fact, not one who will get drunk and toss lightning storms randomly around the world. So the cases where we might expect God to intervene can be at least roughly figured out using the intentional stance, and they aren’t particularly common. So why would a scientist have to worry more about God breaking a regularity than they’d have to worry about there not really being any regularities in nature at all, a fact that we might discover at any time? At least with God, we’d have a way to determine when those breaks in regularity will occur.

So, then, why can we not let a Divine Foot in the door, again?

Seidensticker then attempts to discredit Bannister’s reliance on theology which Seidensticker considers unreliable … but this in no way defends the original claim, which is that science can answer all questions that can be answere. Bannister is listing things that he says science can’t answer, and Seidensticker’s reply is to demand what else could? But that does not defend the idea that science can answer them, and Seidensticker does not in fact argue that the questions are unanswerable. Thus, again, Seidensticker abandons defending the argument and instead tries to attack Bannister’s proposed alternative … but he’s supposed to be showing that the purportedly bad arguments aren’t. Arguing that they are no worse than Bannister’s arguments for arguments that Seidensticker clearly thinks are bad arguments only ends up conceding that, yes, the original atheist arguments are, indeed, bad arguments.

Seidensticker concludes with the “Hypothetical God Fallacy”:

When I read, “If there is a god,” I might as well have read, “If unicorns exist.” Unicorns don’t exist, so what follows must be hypothetical. And gods don’t exist—certainly not as far as Bannister has convinced us—so what follows can only be speculation about a world that isn’t ours and is therefore completely irrelevant to me. (More on the Hypothetical God Fallacy here.)

Seidensticker constantly demands evidence for the existence of God. But any argument from evidence is going to be “If there is an X, then we would expect to see E. We see E, so E is evidence for the existence of X”. If Seidensticker is going to eliminate hypothetical discussions of what things would be like if God existed, then he eliminates any possibility to even discuss the existence of God. This would also eliminate, for example, “The Problem of Evil”, because it says that if God exists, there shouldn’t be evil in the world. It would also eliminate the argument from “Hiddenness of God”, because that says that if God existed He’d make his presence better known. So Seidensticker would even eliminate his most prized atheist arguments with this. That’s … not a win for his side.

What Seidensticker wants to get at here are arguments where the theist assumes that God is equally likely to exist as anything else and so artificially — to Seidensticker — puts it into the discussion on an equal plane with non-God arguments. But that’s not what Bannister is doing here. He’s doing the perfectly reasonable move of an internal discussion: looking at what we might be able to do if a God like the one he posits exists really does exist. Seidensticker gives no quote from Bannister or any argument to show that this is an invalid use of the “If God exists” hypothetical, but instead only argues that he says “If God exists” and that that in and of itself is bad because the existence of God — according to Seidensticker — is so improbable or inconceivable. That’s not an argument, and I feel no need to take it at all seriously.

And so, again, Seidensticker spends a lot of time not actually demonstrating that the purportedly bad arguments aren’t, in fact, bad arguments after all. And there are a few more to go through, and, spoiler alert, it won’t get better.

Bad Defenses of Bad Atheist Arguments: “Christianity is Child Abuse”

March 1, 2017

So despite the title, Seidensticker starts with a different argument of Bannister’s:

In today’s opening episode, we find Richard Dawkins (Bannister’s favorite atheist to dislike) in the office of his literary agent. The agent reports that things aren’t selling well. What to do? Dawkins suggests The Santa Delusion.

This is a reference to Dawkins saying, “Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy are part of the charm of childhood. So is God. Some of us grow out of all three.”

Who wants to guess what Bannister thought about that? He said, “I guess a good place to begin is by illustrating what a disastrous argument this is on many levels.” So where’s the problem? “The first problem is that it’s a classic example of an ad hominem fallacy. That is when, rather than critique an argument or belief, you attack the person making it.”

Now, if I hadn’t realized it before, here is where it became clear that to really understand what Bannister was saying and what his arguments were I’d actually have to read Bannister, because Seidensticker isn’t providing sufficient quotes or information to determine that. why? Because Bannister starts here by clearly saying that the ad hominem attack is the first problem that he will address and that the argument fails on many levels, but Bannister only ever references the ad hominem argument, and nothing else. Generally, you don’t start with the strongest argument, and even if you do start with the argument that you think is the strongest that doesn’t mean that none of the other arguments work even if that first one fails. And yet Seidensticker, after explicitly quoting Bannister clearly stating that this was only one of many problems with that specific argument only addresses one of them. Did he think that we wouldn’t notice that from one of the few things that he quotes Bannister as saying? Well, maybe most people won’t really read the quotes from the primary source, but for me I was already desperate for an idea or context of what Bannister was actually saying, and so I noticed. So, then, what happened to the other arguments?

And Seidensticker doesn’t exactly do a great job of dealing with the charge of it being an ad hominem.

Yep, that’s the definition of ad hominem fallacy that I know, but Dawkins doesn’t make that fallacy. I wasted half an hour poring over the pages that precede his charge trying to see if there’s anything more offensive than Dawkins’ quote above. Nothing.

Um, except that why an ad hominem fallacy is a fallacy is not because it is insulting, or offensively so. It is when you attack the person instead of the argument. It is quite possible to commit an ad hominem fallacy by saying something that is a) true about the person you are using it against and b) something that they might even be proud of. For example, I am well known for arguing against the use of empathy in moral reasoning. Since I am also Stoic-leaning, at least, one could claim that the only reason I argue that way is because of my inherited distrust of emotion from the Stoic tradition. Thus, I only argue against empathy because I am Stoic-leaning. This would, in fact, be true, something I would admit, and I would certainly not see being called “Stoic-leaning” as an insult. But it wouldn’t in any way address any of the arguments I would be making.

So Seidensticker’s scouring of the text to see how insulting Dawkins was is utterly irrelevant here. The ad hominem, in fact, would be contained in that precise statement that Bannister referenced. So, is there an ad hominem here, where Dawkins attacks the person instead of attacking the argument?

Well, the issue here is that Dawkins is trying to attach the belief in God to immaturity, and thus argue that people who still believe in God only do so because they “haven’t grown out of it”, and so are believing childish beliefs. This would, in fact, essentially be his calling religious believers childish. That’s pretty much a shot at them as people. But if he had an argument that the belief in God really was simply a childish belief — meaning that it wasn’t true and was just one of those falsehoods that we develop as children — then that would be the only argument he would need. Thus, it adds nothing to the argument to call it — and, by extension, those who believe — childish; either he has the evidence that it is false or he doesn’t.

But this all assumes that Dawkins means it as an argument at all. Given my experience with Dawkins’ writing, it seems far more likely that he is just using it as a rhetorical potshot and not as an argument at all. But Seidensticker is supposed to be defending it as an argument. As an explicit argument, it does strike a lot closer to an ad hominem — you only believe because you haven’t grown out of that belief yet — than a real, valid argument. Seidensticker’s examinations of how offensive or insulting it is do nothing to preserve it as an argument, which is what he’s supposed to be doing here.

And he won’t actually do that, because he moves on to the next argument:

The second problem that keeps Bannister up at night is Dawkins’ concern with Christian parents. In The God Delusion (chapter 9), he says, “Horrible as sexual abuse [of children by Catholic priests in Ireland] no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place.”

Seidensticker then tries to point out that Bannister doesn’t seem to support … something, here:

Bannister overflows with ridicule—remember this is from someone who hates ad hominem arguments—but he has no studies. He has no arguments. He doesn’t even search for anecdotes of people who’d experienced harm (or good) from a Catholic upbringing.

But, wait, shouldn’t the person who has to provide the evidence be Dawkins? If Dawkins can’t provide sufficient evidence to think that this is true, then this would indeed be a Bad Atheist Argument. Bannister would not have to prove the argument false to demonstrate that it is insufficiently evidenced and so a bad argument.

And what evidence does Seidensticker claim Dawkins has?

Bannister only has time for ridicule, but Dawkins actually supports his claim with evidence. Right after we read the quote above in God Delusion, Dawkins introduces a woman who experienced trauma from both sexual abuse and her Catholic upbringing. At the age of seven, she was sexually abused by her priest, and a friend from school died. What made it worse was that the friend went to hell (so she was told) because she was a Protestant.

The plural of “anecdote” is not “data”, as many atheists continually assert. And we know that children may indeed be traumatized by a number of things. Take, for example (warning TV Tropes link) this page talking about “Nightmare Fuel” for the long-running children’s program “Sesame Street”. It is quite likely, from that, that there is someone out there who was more traumatized by “Sesame Street” than they were by sexual abuse. What would that say about “Sesame Street”?

This “evidence” gets even more odd when Seidensticker tries to clarify what Dawkins is really saying:

Let’s recall Dawkins’ quote to be clear what he’s saying. He’s not saying every child raised as a Catholic is psychologically damaged more than every child sexually abused by priests. He’s simply arguing that there is overlap.

But then finding one example of such a case is meaningless. What does it mean to say that someone was more damaged by their Catholic upbringing than by being sexually abused? Especially in light of the above example of “Sesame Street”.

Thus, for this to be an argument, Dawkins has to be trying to establish that in general a Catholic or religious upbringing is comparable in terms of psychological damage to being sexually abused. Yes, we would know that in all cases and in all individuals that won’t hold, but we’d have to expect that, in general and on average, children raised Catholic suffer comparable psychological damage to people who were sexually abused. And this is obviously false. And even if we didn’t know that, one example wouldn’t show that. So Dawkins has no evidence and no argument. Seidensticker can talk about “overlap” — whatever that is supposed to mean — but that wouldn’t even rise to the level of an argument.

Now that we know that the argument to be meaningful at all must be stronger than “Some people are psychologically damaged by Catholicism”, let’s go back and look at Seidensticker’s attempt to deal with Bannister’s analogy:

All he has is another invented story where he imagines Dawkins faced with two educational options for his daughter. One school is run by Catholic nuns and the other “by a group of sexually voracious convicted pedophiles.”

Bannister is too busy mocking to notice the irony. For this to be an analogy with Dawkins’ quote, both of Bannister’s options—sweet nuns and sexually voracious pedophiles—are within the Catholic Church. Sure, that accurately describes some of these priests; I’m just surprised that Bannister wants to put that sharp a focus on it.

No. Bannister’s argument is to give Dawkins a choice between sending his children somewhere where he knows that they will be taught Catholicism or somewhere where they will be sexually abused. If Dawkins really believed his own argument, he’d have to argue that neither choice is better than the other, as both are — presumably — incredibly bad because of the psychological damage that would be done to his children. But I think pretty much everyone would say that even though it isn’t an ideal choice choosing the Catholic upbringing would be far superior. Given that, it seems that Dawkins’ purported “argument” doesn’t work; no one actually believes it. And the “evidence” Seidensticker gives above wouldn’t be enough to prove Dawkins rational if he did claim that there was no difference between the two.

But Seidensticker also misses how one could go about testing this. If Bannister was presenting this as a way to test the theory, he’s more on track than Seidensticker is, because again the point is to measure the psychological damage caused by Catholicism and the psychological damage caused by sexual abuse and find them comparable. We wouldn’t want to study cases where the two “overlap” because the interaction between the two might have an impact, either positive or negative. We certainly wouldn’t want to limit our study to only Catholic children abused by priests because that interaction with the authority figure would certainly confound the results. And on top of all of that … that’s not what Dawkins complains about. He complains about the idea of Hell. Sure, Seidensticker can argue that we can get a direct comparison of the damage if both are in one person, but there are so many confounds that it would establish nothing … especially since it would be hard to untangle, in most cases, what damage was done by what.

And again, one example does nothing to establish anything here.

Dawkins is right that religious indoctrination is a problem. (Aside: I propose a thought experiment where religion is in the adults-only category, along with voting, driving, and smoking here. Religion must have access to immature minds to propagate and would vanish like the Shakers without them.)

However, I’ve never heard Dawkins demand that society ban religion or forbid parents from teaching their worldview to their children. Again, that’s my belief as well.

But let’s presume that the psychological damage done by raising a child Catholic really is comparable to that of sexually abusing them, which is the only interpretation of Dawkins’ statement that both a) makes sense and b) has any real meaning that anyone would care about in this debate. If that’s the case and you really think it is the case, then why wouldn’t you want to do that? Presumably, Dawkins’ and Seidensticker’s objections to child sexual abuse is not that other people get to have fun that they don’t get to have, but that it is incredibly psychologically damaging to the child. If raising them Catholic is comparably as bad, then it’s incredibly inconsistent to say that in the case of sexual abuse, we should step in and use the law to prevent it and punish those who do it, but in the case of Catholicism which, again, causes comparable damage well, then, it’s okay if they really want to and I’d rather that they not do it or wait until their adults but, hey, no big deal. Again, the reaction is not consistent with what they claim to believe or know. That doesn’t mean their argument is wrong, but it seems to cast doubt on it if they themselves don’t seem to actually believe it … especially when they have no evidence to support it.

I’ll end with talking about his tangent, which is a bad argument in and of itself:

Let me take a brief tangent. Bannister insists that parents be given free rein to raise their children as they think best. Society is there as a backstop to intervene as necessary, but the benefit of the doubt for how to raise children goes to their parents.

I agree, and that’s the philosophy that must govern pregnant women considering an abortion. In the same way, they are on the front line, they best understand the issues within their lives, and they must be given free rein to decide for themselves whether an abortion is the right course. (I talk more about abortion here and here.) Bannister must be consistent—if we trust parents to do the right thing, we must similarly trust pregnant women. (Let me make clear that Bannister never mentioned abortion. I’m simply drawing a parallel that religious conservatives often miss.)

They only miss it because the parallel doesn’t exist. Seidensticker never gives what Bannister’s reasoning for giving parents free rein, but the typical one — and one that somewhat fits with Seidensticker’s response — is that since children can’t decide for themselves what’s best for them, someone has to do it for them on their behalf, and the best people to do that are their parents since, well, that’s pretty much the definition of “parent”; when we recognize the legal parents of a child (or guardian) we include in that the responsibility for acting in the best interests of the child. The alternative would be for the state to decide all of these things for all children, but there are so many of these decisions and they vary so much per child that that would be a monumental undertaking unless the state regimented and universalized the experiences of all children, which we aren’t sure is all that great for them itself. Thus, we give parents the responsibility for determining what is best for their child and then stay out of the way unless we are certain that they aren’t living up to the responsibility.

None of that applies to the abortion case, at least as Seidensticker describes it. They are thinking about their own lives, not those of others. If the foetus’ interests need to be considered, Seidensticker is not arguing for them considering it. We don’t have to leave this decision up to them because the circumstances are more limited and the views of others — medical professionals, for example — is more important and useful than that of the woman. There is no reason to argue that in that specific case the right move is to let the woman decide, unless you take a strong “individual choice” or “bodily autonomy” argument … which is what the debate is about. So that purported “parallel” isn’t one; one can easily hold it for parents and not for pregnant women wrt abortion.

So far, Seidensticker steadfastly refuses to defend these Bad Atheist Arguments as actual arguments. Let’s see if that will continue, or if he will actually defend an argument as some point in this series.

Bad Defenses of Bad Atheist Arguments: I Just Reject One More God Than You

February 22, 2017

So, in two separate posts, Seidensticker takes on Bannister’s criticism of the “I just reject one more god than you” argument. Seidensticker characterizes it thusly:

In today’s episode, Fred is furious because something destroyed his garden. He’s considering and dismissing possible culprits—from aardvarks to zebras—while our hero points out the clues for rabbits. Fred says that it’s not rabbits, either. You’ve dismissed all those other animals? Well, he just goes one animal further.

This is obviously supposed to mimic the atheist argument used by Richard Dawkins and others that the Christian rejects hundreds or thousands of gods; why not just one god further like the atheist?

Bannister generalizes the argument: never pick something out of a collection because it leaves you open to the challenge, “Hold on! You rejected all these other ones, so why not just go one further and reject them all?”

Seidensticker tries to argue that the analogies aren’t, in fact, relevant because there’s a critical difference:

It goes too far only when you force it there. Sometimes “None of the above” is an option and sometimes not. You can suggest that a Christian believe in zero gods, but you can’t tell a vegan to adopt zero dietary regimes (they have to eat something).

Let’s return to Fred’s poor garden, ravaged the previous night by some kind of animal. The constant fight of gardeners against animals that eat their crops is well understood. You know that something trashed Fred’s garden, so “this had zero causes” isn’t an option.

And we’re supposed to see this as analogous to the religion case? Compare many animals with the many religions. We know that all these animals exist. In sharp contrast, most religions must be false and they might all be. There are one or more causes of Fred’s damaged garden, while there could be zero or more gods that actually exist. “Zero” is absolutely not an answer in the garden case, while it is a very live option in the religion case.

Why is he presuming that in the examples “None of the above” isn’t a live option? After all, imagine that Fred really believes that it was an animal that trashed the garden, and the person who is arguing with him insists that it was just natural. This would be pretty much identical to Dawkins’ argument, but we can clearly see that this would fall into the exact problem Bannister criticizes: sure, “None of the above” might be a live option, but that doesn’t mean that the person argument for it can dismiss a particular competing theory just because other similar theories were discarded.

But all of this is actually irrelevant because it in no way defends the argument as an argument. If Bannister is right that the argument depends on saying that one cannot pick any one thing out of a collection without being held to have explicitly rejected all others — presumably, even if the evidence for each thing is different — then it’s an invalid and, well, rather stupid argument. However, the general approach to it as an argument is really something like this: You rejected all of those other gods because you feel that the evidence for them is insufficient, but there is no more evidence for your god than theirs, therefore for epistemic consistency you should reject your god, too. This, at least, is an argument that might work.

Unfortunately, it fails because it presumes that most people have examined the evidence for all of the other gods and on that basis alone rejected them. This is, in general, not the case for most theists. Instead, most of them have come to the belief in a particular god in some way and then reject the others because there isn’t enough evidence to overturn the belief they already have. Thus, epistemically they can accept that their belief is no more evidenced than any of the alternatives — even “None of the above” — and still maintain that they’re sticking with what they’ve got until they get sufficient evidence one way or the other without any contradiction. There is, of course, an important difference between things you already believe — and thus are integrated into your Web of Belief — and new propositions that you are considering. This argument ignores all of that to try to insist that believers be consistent with reasons that they, in fact, aren’t actually using.

Seidensticker’s arguments don’t get any better when he tries to dismiss the idea that Christianity is different and so you can’t reject it on the same standards as other religions:

All religions have the same Achilles Heel—supernatural belief. If that single foundational assumption is wrong, then they’re all wrong—all equally wrong and all in the same way. Only if the supernatural does indeed exist are the differences interesting and worth comparing. Without the supernatural, those differences are trivia, and Bannister does nothing to argue for the existence of the supernatural.

Sure, if that’s wrong, then all religions are wrong. But religious believers don’t accept that naturalistic assumption, and so don’t reject the other religions because those insist on talking about things that are “supernatural”. Seidensticker is fine to argue that for him he rejects them all on the basis of supernatural beliefs, but that doesn’t even apply to me — who merely rejects naturalism as a worldview but does not necessarily think that implies that there really supernatural things in existence — let alone to those who actively believe in the supernatural as an existent category. Again, this is not how religious believers reason about religions, so it’s not something he can use against religious believers to show that they have an inconsistency.

Finally, he takes on another of Bannister’s arguments with a comment about invented gods:

So then make up a new character and call him the Creator. Make him outside. Now Yahweh has a competitor.

You don’t like that he was just invented? All right, then revisit this character after 2000 years has passed so that the origins of this tale are clouded and it has become legend and mythology. That’s Christianity’s advantage—not that it’s correct but that it’s venerable and uncheckable.

Sure … but that advantage is significant when it comes to the argument. If I reject the Flying Spaghetti Monster because I know that it was merely invented, but don’t know that the Christian God was merely invented due to the time lapse, you can’t argue that I ought to reject the Christian God by asserting that the Christian God was invented, too. Even bringing up the possibility that the Christian God might have been invented doesn’t, in fact, make that rise to the level of knowledge, which is what I have for those other invented gods. Again, there is no reason for me to reject the Christian God — or any god that I don’t know was invented — on the basis that I know of some other gods that were explicitly invented. Yes, I know that about them. What does that have to do with the God I do believe in and don’t know was invented?

Ultimately, this argument assumes that the reason that the believer rejects the existence of the other gods is similar to the reason the atheist all of them, which is likely false. It’s a rather poor way to get theists to understand atheism, and doesn’t work as an argument, Seidensticker’s “defenses” notwithstanding.

Discussion of Objective Morality: Moral Criticism

February 17, 2017

Carrier does attempt in his post to address moral criticism. He starts by trying to go after the facts/value distinction, but I don’t want to focus on that right now. What I want to focus on first is the idea that we can criticize someone’s values:

It can be objectively true that you ought to value certain things, when your valuing other things instead is self-defeating—because valuing things causes you to pursue them, and pursuing them might undermine things you value more. You may not know or believe that you ought to value those things, yet it remains true that you should—because you just haven’t realized how your valuing other things instead leads you to destroy the things you value even more, rather than upholding them. And once you realized that, you would agree your values were wrong, even by your own standards. So that you ought to value certain things is also an objectively true fact about you. It follows from what you value most, and how your other values either serve or thwart what you value most.

So, of course, no one in the debate — at least no one informed — disputes that. Given some kind of objective or base value or desire, we can determine what desires one ought to have if one wants to achieve that, and if someone doesn’t have those values or desires we can say that they ought to have those values or desires. The problem is that we need some kind of objective value here, and particularly one that can be said to be uniquely moral. We don’t want to appeal to a non-moral value — pragmatics, for example — to justify moral values, because then we’d have the question of why it is that those non-moral values can justify a moral claim or value. Aren’t we really just valuing that non-moral value, and using morality as an instrumental value to achieve that one? What’s particularly moral, then, about doing that? Thus, it is reasonable to suggest that morality in and of itself, to be meaningful, has to be an intrinsic value, one that we value not because it will allow us to achieve something that we value more than it, but because it is desirable in and of itself for its own sake. Given Carrier’s penchant for defining morality as trying to satisfy that which we value most above all — which then has to be an intrinsic value by definition — I can argue that being properly moral is to, in fact, value the intrinsic value of being moral more than anything else. If Carrier’s definition is correct, then, that would mean that if I value that most above all then there’s a vicious and unresolvable circle: I value being moral most, which means that morality is about trying to be moral, as that’s what I value most. At that point, I’d be stuck. But it’s hard to argue that someone could value something else more than being moral and yet be a more moral person than someone who didn’t. This suggests to me that simply judging what is moral by what someone most wants — as Carrier does in the post — is not a good way to go.

But there are other issues with values in Carrier’s post. Take his example:

Suppose you prioritize making money, and do so because you value money above all else. That you should do that, and value that, can still be false. Because even if you say it, even if you believe it, it isn’t actually true about you that you value money above all else. Because that’s impossible. If you thought about it, money actually has no value to you, except in respect to what you get with it. In other words, you only value money because you value something else more. If you could get all those things, the things you actually value most, without money—or worse, if money actually caused you to lose them, and thus not gain those things—then you would no longer value money.

Carrier isn’t clear whether he means that in that specific case it would be but that it’s not impossible for anyone anywhere to have a consistent value system where they value money above all else, or that he really thinks it’s just impossible for anyone to do that, so I’m going to argue that it’s possible for someone to have that as what they value most above all else. Carrier here is arguing that money is just an instrumental value; people only value it for what it can get them, but it is possible for someone to value making money or having money above all else and not, in fact, be willing to sacrifice money to get those things, or put making money ahead of getting some of those things. Now, most people would then try to argue that they have to value some things above money — their lives, for example — because they spend money to get them. The problem is that they can reply that what they really value is making more money, and they can’t do that if they’re not alive and don’t have shelter. So they spend as little money as possible, and all of the money they spend is calculated to provide the things they need to make more money. This might even include status symbols because it is easier for them to make more money if they present an image of someone who makes and is good at making money. So it is in fact possible for them to have a consistent view where the thing they value most is money.

Now, we’d generally try to argue that they’re wrong about that. The problem is that we may not have grounds to do so. Carrier himself advocates for the idea that we can only criticize them by appealing to what they actually value:

And yet, the question of whether money gets you the things you want most, or actually in fact gets you less of those things than other approaches to them, is an empirical question that can be answered scientifically. Thus, science can in fact tell you it is empirically false that you should value money above all else. And it would do so by simply pointing you to actual empirical facts about you (and, of course, the world) that reveal the pursuit of money is harming rather than helping you gain the things you actually value. And indeed, this is often what goes on in cognitive therapy: a scientist empirically ascertains what you actually value most, and then shows you, empirically, that your priorities are undermining your own values, and helps you adjust your priorities so that they align with your actual values.

So, first, the scientific approach works by criticizing your values, and not by arguing that, for example, money is indeed something that does not have intrinsic value but instead only has instrumental value. The scientist can only argue that you don’t really value that most, not that you ought not value that the most. And Carrier carries on with this when it comes to morality:

What you actually value most at any given moment is an objective fact of the universe in exactly the same sense that your brain and its structure is an objective fact of the universe—because the one is entirely reducible to the latter without remainder. But moral facts do not follow from what you just happen to value most at any moment, because you could be wrong about what you should value at that moment. And I don’t mean wrong by some objective standard external to you. I mean wrong even by your own subjective internal standard. Because there is also an objective fact of the world about what you would value most when fully informed and reasoning without fallacy.

For example, a fully informed and rational observer would have to agree that the moral facts that are true for you really are the moral facts that are true for you, even if they aren’t the moral facts that are true for them. In other words, the observer would have no basis for criticizing your morality based on what was true for them, as long as you were following the morality that was indeed true for you. But they could criticize your morality based on what’s true for you. And that is indeed where most people go wrong—for instance, they might fully agree the Golden Rule is true, then invent a moral system that routinely violates it (like condemning abortion or homosexuality). Even if the Golden Rule were only true for you, an outside observer (like some sociopathic space alien who had no reason to value the Golden Rule) could still validly criticize your condemnation of homosexuality as violating your own objectively true moral values.

And that’s how all actual moral criticism operates. We always criticize either of those two things: we either argue that a moral agent has the wrong idea about what the consequences of an action are (“permitting homosexuality will destroy society”), which is a straightforward matter of fact accessed empirically, or we argue that a moral agent is acting against their own values (“the Golden Rule entails treating homosexuals the same as heterosexuals”).

But this is not, in general, what moral criticism is about. We generally don’t start by appealing to their values and limiting it to what’s true for their internal moral viewpoint, but instead by appealing to what we presume are the moral absolutes. It’s only when we discover that they don’t hold those moral absolutes and are going to stick to them that we fall back on things like pragmatism and appeal to the beliefs and values that they clearly have to try to get them to stop doing the things that we think are immoral. But we wouldn’t normally conclude that if they accept this reasoning that that makes them a moral person. If someone wanted to kill someone for fun, for example, and they dismissed any suggestion that killing someone for fun is immoral, but were convinced that if they do that they’ll go to jail which would be bad for them, we wouldn’t conclude that they are now moral paragons or even made a moral choice there. We’d still consider them to have a badly flawed sense of morality that we’re trying to work around to avoid people getting hurt by it. As in this Order of the Stick comic, where Belkar saves Hinjo’s life because he isn’t sure that he can get his Mark of Justice removed without Hinjo, and the Mark of Justice stops him from killing other people. The second shoulder devil even comments that saving one life is a small price to pay for a lifetime of unfettered killing. No one would conclude that Belkar’s choice was, in fact, moral … and, in fact, the title of the strip is “Amoral Dilemma”. But Carrier’s view of what moral criticism is really about seems to argue that that’s really what we’d conclude.

And we can see why. Belkar’s moral system is roughly consistent — especially since he subordinates killing others to keeping himself alive — and yet is totally heinous. Arguably, it’s more consistent than the heroes in the strip because he just likes killing, whether they are evil or not, but the other heroes think it more justified to kill evil people than good people. There is no way to argue Belkar out of his heinous viewpoints by arguing that they are inconsistent, since they aren’t. Belkar can only be controlled by appealing to those heinously immoral viewpoints … and Carrier’s view insists that that is all we do and can ever do.

There’s a second issue, which is that proving an inconsistency may, in fact, not get you the results you wanted. Take the “Golden Rule” example. Let’s imagine that someone considers, say, abortion immoral and yet is convinced by Carrier that doing so is inconsistent with the Golden Rule, which they hold as their standard for morality. Clearly, Carrier wants them to thus re-evaluate their view on abortion and conclude that it therefore isn’t immoral. Unfortunately, there’s another option: they could decide that this therefore means that the Golden Rule does not reflect what is properly moral and abandon it in favour of a moral system that does consider abortion immoral. Without an objective standard, there’s nothing for Carrier to appeal to to stop them from doing that, which is where the worries about people simply making up what is moral come from.

So, without an objective standard, we can’t call Belkar evil and we can’t stop someone from abandoning the Golden Rule to preserve their idea that abortion is morally wrong. If this is all moral criticism is, then it hardly seems worth doing, as we have no way to justify the stronger criticisms that we want to make and really need to make at times. Carrier here seems to be making the mistake that so many make by arguing that morals are relative and yet subconsciously assuming that people will roughly hold the moral values that they think are the right or reasonable ones regardless, and from there assuming that they will be able to criticize people in some way — here, Carrier seems to want to be able to call them “irrational” for holding inconsistent beliefs — if they disagree with them. But there is no reason to think that Carrier’s views are more consistent than anyone else’s, and it might even be the case that people who disagree with him have a more consistent position than he does. This would leave him floundering to justify the moral facts that he wants them to accept, rendering either his own views as flawed if not more so than theirs or making moral criticism as pointless as criticizing someone for preferring rock to jazz. It does not seem reasonable to conclude that someone who, say, wants to kill people has just as valid a position as anyone else as long they are consistent and rational about killing other people, but that is where subjectivism and relativism — and the rejection of objective morality — always lead.

Bad Defenses of Bad Atheist Arguments: Atheism Isn’t a Claim

February 15, 2017

So, the next set of arguments that Seidensticker takes up revolve around the idea that atheism isn’t a claim, and that theists therefore have the burden of proof. He points out what he claims is an asymmetry in the arguments that Bannister misses:

But I shouldn’t have to since I’m not making the extraordinary claim—that’s the asymmetry that Bannister ignores. In the case of an extraordinary claim (and “There is a god” is certainly one), the default position is the denial of that claim: “There is a god” vs. “there isn’t.”

The first thing to talk about here is to ask if it’s really the case that “There exists a god” counts as an “extraordinary” claim. The big problem with the whole “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” sound byte is that how reasonable that proposition is depends on what you mean by extraordinary, and potentially on avoiding equivocation between the two uses of the word. So, in order to conclude that “There exists a god” is an extraordinary claim, we need to understand in what sense “extraordinary” is used here, and once we do that we’ll be able to note if that sort of extraordinary is one that we should care about.

Now, let me start not by really examining possibilities for what “extraordinary” might mean, but instead by talking about the specific belief in god itself. The vast majority of people believe that some kind of god exists; atheism is, in fact, a minority position. If we wanted to consider naturalism itself, the percentage of people believing some sort of supernatural proposition — including ghosts, ancestor spirits, astrology, reincarnation, and so on — is even higher. So let me ask this: is it really reasonable to say that a belief that most people hold is in fact the extraordinary one, and that the belief that most people don’t believe is the one that is “mundane”, as Seidensticker puts it later? By the common meaning of the terms “extraordinary” and “mundane”, the belief that a god exists and the belief that at least one supernatural proposition is true are, in fact, mundane; they are common beliefs and ones that most people hold. So from the start we have reason to suspect that Seidensticker is using a very specific and specialized definition of “extraordinary” here to make his case.

Typically, atheists try to define “extraordinary” as “violating the laws of nature”. But from the above comment we can see that most people hold that natural laws can be violated by supernatural things and processes, and that at least one of those things does, in fact, exist. Thus, the atheist appealing to naturalism here is them appealing to what they are supposed to establish. If I’m not a naturalist — and, again, most people aren’t naturalists — why should I accept that a claim being supernatural in and of itself makes it extraordinary? It is unreasonable for atheists to appeal to a definition of “extraordinary” that requires me to accept a position they hold and I don’t.

Now, a lot of atheists will turn to science to help them out here, as science is naturalistic and discovers the natural laws, and so anything that violates — or seems to violate — current scientific knowledge would count as “extraordinary”. While this does fit well into our general trust of science, the problem with this approach is that the conclusions of science are not accepted because they are therefore not extraordinary. We trust scientific conclusions because we believe that science, in general, can and will provide the extraordinary evidence for any claim it accepts. Thus, if someone wants to challenge a scientific consensus, one would generally not try to demonstrate that the claim is extraordinary in and of itself, but simply go right for the jugular and claim that the evidence is, itself, not extraordinary enough to justify the proposition. So there is no reason to think that just because a proposition violates scientific consensus that it is therefore “extraordinary”, and that certainly applies even more so to science’s naturalistic assumption, which it doesn’t have extraordinary evidence for since all it can say is that so far it can explain things without appealing to supernatural explanations, which is both the inductive fallacy and runs into the issue that being able to find a naturalistic explanation does not in and of itself mean that the naturalistic explanation is the best one.

The final way I’ll consider here is to define it as not being part of common experience. Most people don’t experience gods, miracles or other supernatural things every day, so that would make them “extraordinary”. The problem is that we consider a number of uncommon experiences perfectly mundane all the time. So it’s not that we don’t experience it commonly that matters, but how much it clashes with what we currently believe that matters … which, then, cycles back to the original point that since most people believe some sort of supernatural proposition, most people won’t consider a proposition extraordinary just because it is supernatural.

So, with “extraordinary claim” at least weakened, there’s another issue with Seidensticker’s claim here: why is the default denial? As Seidensticker himself puts it, the idea is that if the theist can’t prove their claim, then the default reasonable position is “There are no gods”. Essentially, Seidensticker here presumes that we can only have two states wrt beliefs, either believing the proposition true or believing it false, and if we can’t prove it sufficiently true then we have to accept that it is false. But there’s another option here, which is the “mere lack of belief” that atheists often use as the basis for claiming that they don’t have the burden of proof. In short, instead of saying that I think the proposition is true or that the proposition is false, I instead say that I have no idea and no opinion on it, and instead of treating the proposition as true or false I treat it as irrelevant: I have no idea whether or not it’s true, so I don’t act as if it is true or false. Thus, if I believe it true I act as if it is true, if I believe it false I act as if it is false, and if I simply lack belief I remove it from consideration and act according to the other beliefs that I have. Seidensticker rather pointedly ignores this possibility, despite it being the main justification for the claim that atheists don’t have the burden of proof.

And we can see what this insistence that denial is the default gets Seidensticker when he asks why Bannister cares so much:

And why is the Christian making a big deal about this? He’s characterizing the burden of proof as a burden. If he demands reciprocity before he will make his case, he’s missing an opportunity. Does he want me to earn the right to hear the Good News? Why not say that he will gladly make his case and simply hope that the atheist follows his lead?

I think it’s because his defense of Christianity is weak, and he wants to improve his overall argument by having something to attack as well.

First, the same charge could be made of Seidensticker as well, especially since he claims to follow the evidence. If he does, then presumably he has sufficient evidence for his belief that gods don’t exist. So why, then, is he defending the atheist not having the burden of proof? Surely any evidence-based atheist has more than enough evidence to meet any reasonable burden of proof, so then why do they avoid trying to meet it? Maybe they know that their evidence for atheism is weak, and they want to avoid ever having to give it.

What we can see is that this argument over the burden of proof is to avoid falling into the atheist trap. If we look at what Seidensticker is advocating, he’s holding an actual positive belief — there are no gods — and is insisting that if someone wants to challenge that they must prove him wrong. In short, they must prove that a god exists, and if they can’t, then the default position is Seidensticker’s. So the game is rigged in Seidensticker’s favour: if the theist can’t prove their case to Seidensticker’s satisfaction then Seidensticker wins, and the theist might have to accept that believe that that god doesn’t exist is the most reasonable and rational decision. This works well for atheists because it is much easier to argue against a proposition than in favour of one, and so Seidensticker takes a position where only overwhelming evidence will leave him without the ability to at least cast reasonable doubt on the position and thus win. And the atheist will never have to actually support their position or give any evidence.

Now, let’s look at Bannister’s view of active and passive beliefs. Seidensticker characterizes it this way:

I’m seeing three categories of beliefs:

A, beliefs that are true (Sweden exists)
B, beliefs that are false (Atlantis exists)
C, things you could have a belief about but don’t (Bannister’s example: whether there are hippos in the bathroom).

He wants to call A an active belief, ignore B and hope no one asks him about it, and call C a passive belief. I want to focus instead on A (true beliefs) and B (false beliefs) and ignore C, since we’re both in agreement that no one cares about C.

We’re talking about the burden of proof here. Talking about false beliefs seems irrelevant since a) the point of the discussion is to establish whether or not the beliefs are true and b) no one has the burden of proof for a belief that they believe is false. So an atheist who thinks that the belief “God exists” is false doesn’t have a burden of proof to prove that God exists. They can have a burden of proof for the belief that they think is true, which is “God does not exist”. Only the person who lacks belief, who is in category C, has no burden of proof, because you could believe it true or false, but you don’t believe either. This is the category that Seidensticker claims no one cares about. He might be right, but that’s the only category of even atheists that have no actual burden of proof.

I’m going to skip the “worldview/religion” debate because atheism is clearly an explicitly religious opinion and worldviews need justifications as well, so settling the debate over the specifics isn’t going to matter much. The heart of this post is that it is a bad argument to say that atheists aren’t making a claim if they are, in fact, making a claim, and a number of them — Seidensticker included — do make claims. The attempts to avoid that always end up self-serving for the atheists, giving them a way out that they refuse to allow for theists or anyone who disagrees with them. It does seem odd that a group that so insists on evidence-based reasoning is trying so hard to avoid having to ever give evidence for their claims.