Archive for the ‘Theism’ Category

The Argument from Theology … again.

September 16, 2015

So, Jerry Coyne posted a post from Dilbert on free will, and again retreated to the argument that those who accept free will in any sense — be they compatibilist or libertarian — are acting like theologians, presumably in that they don’t simply accept his arguments and evidence as being compelling (which, of course, isn’t under their control if Coyne is right) and thus don’t just accept his position.

Leaving out the comic, here’s pretty much all of Coyne’s post:

Dilbert tells Dogbert that doesn’t think we have any—at least of the contracausal, “libertarian” sort.

I like the last panel, which goes along with brain-scanning experiments that give the surprising result that you can predict (with 60-70% accuracy) the results of a binary decision up to ten seconds before the person who “makes” that decision is conscious of having made it. Of course, compatibilists and libertarian free-will advocates have found reasons to dismiss these experiments as evidence for free will. This is one of many ways that such people resemble theologians (another is that they think that belief in free will—even of the compatibilist sort—is, like belief in God, essential to keep society moral and harmonious.)

So, the first point thus says that Dilbert is either a hard determinist or a compatibilist, since compatibilists reject libertarian free will. Thus, what he says in theory can apply to them as well. Of course, he then goes on to strongly imply if not outright state that compatibilists and libertarians reject the Libet experiments simply because they want to dismiss them and don’t like the results, not because there are serious problems with them. He then goes on to add in the other argument about how some might argue that people believing that we don’t have free will might have a negative outcome, in line with his other arguments about how they only reject the positions because of those consequences … the “We all know that this is true, but let’s not let the rubes know because they’ll act badly” argument. All of which many people — including his commenters — have disabused him of repeatedly.

But if we want to go down that route, Coyne’s own behaviour doesn’t flatter him. First, he talks repeatedly about the importance of accepting hard determinism because of the impact he thinks that thinking that we are morally responsible for our actions has on society, especially with regards to punishment of offenders, including but not limited to reasons for the death penalty. While others have pointed out that you don’t need to be a hard determinist to come to the same conclusions about punishment and the death penalty, the big issue here is that if Coyne doesn’t think that his strong stance on those social consequences means that we ought to say that he is only accepting it for the consequences — rather than him, you know, really thinking it true and wanting people to accept that truth because knowing that truth will happen to lead to better results — then there’s no real reason for him to claim that about compatibilists either. If we ought not examine his psychology in order to determine if free will exists or not, there is no reason for him to examine the psychology of compatibilists or libertarians either.

But, even worse for Coyne, it would be quite easy to claim that Coyne’s behaviour is like that of a lot of creationists: come up with something that they think is evidence for their case, and then when people point out that the evidence doesn’t support their position the way they think it does retreat to claiming that they are dismissing that legitimate evidence. Add in a claim that the only reason they disregard the evidence is because it actually proves their view false and they don’t want it to be false, and we can see that this is exactly what Coyne does to compatibilists.

Now, I don’t claim that Coyne really is acting like a creationist. But I do claim that these sorts of arguments are counter-productive and useless. Either the evidence supports the conclusion or it doesn’t. Coyne is either right or he isn’t. Coyne reacts rather badly to people trying to dismiss his arguments on the basis of psychology, but insists on doing it to others, and then — intentionally or no — tries to win through an argument ad hominem by saying “You’re just like those really bad people that you don’t want to be like! Stop being like that! Accept my view!”. Coyne has not established his position strongly enough to insist that everyone must accept it or they just don’t want it to be true, and so are rejecting it irrationally. Some probably are, but Coyne dismisses all who reject his idea. He doesn’t have the evidence to support that strong a claim … which is a bad thing for someone so insistent that we should follow the evidence and come to our beliefs rationally.

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

August 28, 2015

The fourth essay in “Spider-man and Philosophy” is “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility” by Adam Barkman, which examines issues around the Problem of Evil and responsibility, and even how it is that God can forgive us. Without getting into much detail, it explains reasonably how God forcing people to love Him and be friends with him and never reject him is a logical contradiction for a God that wants people to be free, and also talks about how we need forgiveness and needed Jesus’s sacrifice to wipe out the injustice that we, as fallible humans, must commit (and can never atone for), goes through the various arguments to support natural evil (including the angels and demons one, which he puts far more reasonably than most atheist criticism concedes), and describes the Thomist conception of God pretty well.

But what I want to focus on is, essentially, what’s described in the title, and the idea that with great power comes great responsibility. Barkman points out that being a superhero isn’t a great and wonderful “gift”, because it comes with a great responsibility to use that power to help others. He talks about the Widow’s Mite and points out that she was expected to give less because she had less, and that the rich people were expected to give more because they could. By the same token, Peter Parker is expected and has a responsibility to help others because he has the power to do so, and that power, in and of itself, confers the responsibility to help others. Which is all pretty reasonable except …

… why, then, doesn’t it apply to an omnipotent God? God has the power to end all suffering. Since Peter Parker is expected to intervene in the free choices of the villains and stop them from hurting people, and since that supposedly follows from his just having that power, then why isn’t God expected to save people as well? If Peter Parker is expected to save children from burning buildings because he can, then why isn’t God expected to save every child from a burning building? If you start from “With great power comes great responsibility”, you can’t even argue that God needs to allow people like Peter Parker to act justly, because God could save every child that Peter Parker doesn’t … and, by having that power, is obligated to do so.

Thus, by tying responsibility to power in the way that Barkman does, he pretty much makes the argument for the Problem of Evil, no matter how hard he tries to explain it away. He can’t use the argument of it being demons doing it of their own free will, because Peter Parker is expected to stop villains and even demons from hurting others even though it interferes with their free will. And if Peter Parker — or we — are expected to help those being tormented by natural evil because we have the power to do so then God, having that much more power, ought to be expected to do that as well. There’s no way out for God if you argue that with great power comes great responsibility to use that power to prevent suffering … because God, having the greatest power, would then have the greatest responsibility.

Freethought, freedom and blogs

August 12, 2015

So, there are a lot of things happening at the Freethought blogs network recently. Both Ed Brayton and Ophelia Benson are leaving the network. Ophelia Benson is leaving over a scrap between the bloggers on the network, where many of them called her out for being transphobic in pretty much the same way — and sometimes actually in a nicer way — than they called out people like Tim Hunt and Richard Dawkins for being misogynist, and Benson has not liked that treatment and has explicitly said that she thought that colleagues would have her back … and they didn’t. Ed Brayton is leaving because the controversy of being one of if not the most visible person on the network is getting to be too much for him, both in terms of his health and in his activist work.

People have commented in various places about what this means for the network. P.Z. Myers has decided to try to address those comments in his own inimitable way. He starts with this:

I’ve been reading the obituaries. So many people, friends and foes alike, have expressed their confidence that Freethoughtblogs is dooooooomed, because Ed Brayton has left. It’s all going to fall apart without his iron hand ruling this motley crew! Without him, no one could possibly be interested in reading anything on this network! They only ever read the old white men here anyway, so losing one is an irreparable loss!

Let me quote Jason Thibeault, the Lousy Canuck to explain what the actual concern is:

Another is that I had a few extra days’ lead time on knowing that Ed was leaving. Traffic-wise, Ed and Ophelia both are about a third of this network. Without them, it’s now PZ and The Also-Blogs, at about a 90/10 split. We’re taking a big hit traffic-wise, which results in a big hit money-wise. That big hit money-wise means the server we’re paying for is slightly overprovisioned (which means more stable, yay!) but also means a larger slice of the ad revenue and more likely to result in shortfalls (boo). Shortfalls that will probably be paid out of PZ’s pocket. Shortfalls that probably mean if anything goes sour, we’ll have lean months, maybe even where bloggers get $0 revenue, where even now we’re lucky to get double digits.

They’ve lost a third of their network traffic. One of the things that seems to appeal to both Brayton and Benson is that with their new blogs they will make more money, as Patheos pays more than FTB did and Benson is using this to launch a Patreon drive. As Thibeault notes, the bloggers stand to lose a bit of money on this, with Myers likely being the one to absorb cost overruns like Brayton did to keep things going. FTB was, by its own admission, started to provide a bigger stage to some bloggers of the appropriate stripes and to also potentially make it so that they could earn some money to help them with their causes. If the attention they end up getting is too negative — note that Brayton commented in his post that he felt that the negative attention the network got hurt his activism because some people didn’t want to work with him for reasons varying, I presume, from “We don’t like the people you’re on the network with” to “The attention means that anything we do with you ends up with complaints from others” — then they might want to leave to avoid that, and if it doesn’t pay enough anymore they may have to pursue better paying options. So losing that much traffic with a network designed to generate more traffic for everyone isn’t a good thing at all, and could indeed run the risk of killing the network.

So let’s see how Myers tries to assuage concerns that the network might be having issues:

– Ed never actually “ran” this place — no one did, or does. This is one of those pinko commie anarchies. He managed the books, arranged for the ad services, that sort of thing, but all of the blogs here are autonomous. No boss. Get it? If you’re an authoritarian, maybe not.

– The kind of minimal, managerial oversight needed to keep the lights on has fallen into the hands of the executive committee, a small subset of the people here who handle mundane issues that affect the whole network. Just to let you know how busy the executive committee is, we initially proposed to meet once a month. I don’t think we’ve met in over a year.

It’s not about control. But if you look at what Brayton did, these are things that you do, indeed, need someone to do, and that it works a lot better if you have one person doing that than a committee. About the only thing that the committee would do as well or even better is managing the bloggers: dealing with requests to remove bloggers or add new ones. But it isn’t a better way to manage the books, or to arrange for ad services. That’s better done by one person, with perhaps some oversight. So, no, it doesn’t look like that’s an effective way to replace the things that Brayton did that still need to be done, and no one should be reassured with Myers’ vague “We’ve replaced it with a committee!” response.

– The network is not a vanity project for the white men who set it up. It’s an anti-vanity project. The whole purpose of the network was to leverage our traffic into creating a space for a diverse group of bloggers. They’re still here! Ed and I could drop dead on the spot, and it’ll still keep ticking along.

– Building a diverse network also produces a robust network. There is no single point of failure. By design and by diffusing the leadership all along, there’s no way to take it out with loss of a single blogger (we’ve lost and gained bloggers all along, you know).

Yes, but FTB was started by Myers and Brayton who were, in fact, already known and relatively popular as a way to use their traffic to draw attention to those who were good bloggers but merely need more exposure. To put it in Social Justice terms, Myers and Brayton used their privilege to provide a forum for those who were disadvantaged. With two big draws leaving the network, that doesn’t work out so well. And considering that it was in-fighting that actually caused at least one of them to leave, it’s also not a given that they’ll support each other. You may indeed see posts that either directly or indirectly encourage people to not read a particular fellow blogger. Without the big draws and without them staying mostly neutral, you don’t have enough of a guaranteed push to generate views from other people. This is not a good thing, no matter how Myers spins it.

– We do have to worry about maintaining a volume of traffic to maintain ad rates. But this is a group that does not prioritize making money off their writing (although it sure would be nice…) but on maintaining independence. I’d be writing for free — I was writing for free years ago — and what money we do make is distributed among the bloggers by traffic. There is no central authority skimming off the profits.

But the easiest way to maintain your independence is … to be independent. I, for example, am completely and totally free because my blog is on my own and not part of any network. The only standards I have to follow are the basic ones from WordPress. I owe no one anything. If people like my blog and link to it, I appreciate it but have no obligation to them. If I want to criticize Crude harshly for something he said, either here or on his blog, I can do so and even if he decides to unlink my blog all that means is that I lose some traffic, and since I’m blogging for free that’s all an “Oh, well”.

Look, there’s a reason for bloggers who want to be independent to choose to join a network where, by necessity, they give up some of that independence. The only reasons I can think of to do that — money or exposure — are hurt by two of the biggest draws leaving. What stops others from leaving and perhaps going to Patheos or independent? Considering, for example, and both Miri and Ashley Miller, for example, almost certainly make more through Patreon than the ad revenue from FTB (and it’s mostly stable), and that that comes from their own work and doesn’t depend on and isn’t shared with anyone, why wouldn’t they open up their own site, run their own ads, and make money that way? What does being in the network give them? Especially if they might run afoul of their fellow network bloggers and have being in the network work against them instead of for them.

– do have one serious worry about an ongoing failure. That’s all you people who say you only came here for the PZ and Ed show. You’re doing it wrong — I’m not going to object to you reading my stuff, but the whole point of the network is to give all those other voices a platform. You should go read them.

Maybe they have, and found them wanting. Maybe they aren’t updating enough to make that worthwhile (I can attest to how much of a difference updating can make, as my traffic, miniscule though it is, halved when I went to posting three times a week from posting every day, and I’m still on pace for my best year ever). There may well be reasons why they really don’t want to read the other bloggers, even if it’s something as simple as “They all say the same things as you do, mostly, so there’s no real reason to read them.” And if the in-fighting starts up again, there may indeed be more and more issues with this.

But Myers doesn’t get what the problem actually was here, as he says:

you may have heard, Ed Brayton is leaving FtB. His health has suffered, because he is the point man here, and one of the defining features of the current atheist movement is that it is populated with assholes who hate the idea of any kind of social justice movement, so they’ve been making life hellish for a guy who has had more than enough work trying to keep the lights on and the engines running.

And elsewhere:

This is a network that happily embraces the social justice cause. We select our bloggers from people who are clearly on that side of the cultural divide, and we’re going to kick out anyone who opposes equality for all (we’ve done it once before, and we can do it again). If you do not respect people’s choices, if you try to impose negative views on people’s identities, if you will not tolerate other people’s autonomy, if you think your arbitrary definitions of the ‘right’ sexual orientation, ‘right’ skin color, ‘right’ class, ‘right’ social behavior allow you to judge others, than nope, you really don’t belong here.

On the other hand, this is a freethought network. If you look at that set of boxes and question why society is labeling one set one way and another set a different way, that is appropriate and reasonable. Questioning assumptions and criticizing labels is a good thing; we should be wondering why anyone would even want to dictate the identities of others, and it’s worthwhile to try and puzzle out what criteria others are using to make that decision.

But this latest kerfuffle isn’t from atheists who are opposed to Social Justice. It’s been between those who support Social Justice, or at least claim to. Myers has had to shut down his social threads twice in the past little while, and both times it was because his “cliquish” commentariat were treating someone he liked the same way they treat anyone he didn’t like and who he also saw as “opposes equality for all”. It is certainly the case that those going after Benson saw her as that, and there is reason to think that some of the trans philosophies espoused do that if evaluated in the light of feminist philosophy (in short, feminist philosophy rejects defining what it means to be a woman by the traditional feminine trappings of the patriarchy, but many trans women seem to, in fact, do just that, choosing to identify as a woman because they prefer those trappings to the ones traditionally assigned to men, but if that’s enough to be called a woman then a woman who rejects those trappings but who still wants to be seen as a woman is facing a potential contradiction). The issue isn’t so much with what philosophy or worldview one is fighting for, but with how one is fighting for it. There is no reason to think that with the executive committee in place the FTB bloggers are going to stop fighting with each other, and they will fight with each other over what it really means to oppose equality. It’s harder to figure that out than Myers thinks, as this latest mess demonstrates. So if the blog is going to kick people out who oppose that and make that a stated principle — as Myers just did — then they are indeed going to get calls to kick someone out who seems to some to step over that line, and there’s really no good way to say to someone who thinks that that they’re wrong (if you accept the Social Justice line that those not of a group can’t say what ought to bother that group).

But if FTB really was a Freethought blog, then what it ought to say is that, outside of incredibly egregious and obvious cases, their bloggers can say what they want. If it’s deemed anti-feminist or anti-trans or whatever, then the other bloggers and those concerned about it can then write about that too, free of interference. That their bloggers might disagree sometimes could then be seen as a positive and not a negative, especially if they all disagreed respectfully (which would be difficult for them I admit). The only rule they should have is that you don’t get to say that no one should read a fellow blogger on the network because of that (which you wouldn’t think would be that difficult a rule) and can’t call for their removal on that basis, at least not publicly. So no comments that their view means that they shouldn’t be a part of the network because they “oppose equality”.

Do I think that FTB will die? Not really. It has some momentum and so will likely keep going for a while, up until the point, at least, that Myers leaves. But Myers is clearly clueless about the problems it faces and what is, in fact, responsible for them, and that should not fill those who want the network to succeed with confidence.

Richard Carrier and Logic (And Polyamory)

July 29, 2015

So, Richard Carrier has made a long post defending his polyamory against the attacks of Christians. At one point, he says this about the Christians opposing him:

… which just demonstrates Christians don’t do logic well. (That’s why they’re Christians.)


Note to Christians: Learn how logic works. Please. By all you think is holy. Because this **** is just embarrassing you.

Now, I don’t really care about polyamory, although I think there is a good debate to be had there. Carrier’s post, however, is not a good debate on the issue, or even a start to one. Carrier commits massive failures in logic and reasoning and argumentation in his post, and yet has the gall to argue that about the Christians. Which, to be honest, might be true of at least some of his Christian opponents, but what we have here is an example of what happens when you fail to remember this key phrase:

With great snark comes great responsibility.

And by that, I don’t mean that if you have great snark you must go out and ensure that you use that snark to better mankind. I mean that the more snarky and insulting you are in your posts or arguments, the more burden you have to ensure that the same snark and insults can’t be used against you. In short, if you are going to rely heavily on snark and aggressive argumentation — like saying that your opponents don’t know logic — you had better be right. Because if you’re wrong, calling them out in any way for bad arguments will only make it worse when your opponents point out how bad your arguments are. Which is one reason why I try to be as charitable as I can when posting, because that way when I’m wrong — not if, when — then at least I don’t look like someone who was dishonest or hypocritical about it, blasting others for their sins while ignoring the worse sins _I_ committed.

So, let me go through Carrier’s post and point out all of the problems with it, which also requires me to say some things about polyamory. I will stress from the beginning that I don’t have any set opinion on the matter, but will note some issues that I can see with it, and will oppose Carrier’s idea that polyamory should be the default state of relationships. How much will simply be pointing out Carrier’s foibles and how much will be serious discussion remains to be seen; there’s a lot of both here.

To start, let me start with a preamble on what I think is Carrier’s specific case, because that must be understood or else many parts of the post and the criticisms can’t be understood. So, essentially, it seems to be this: Richard Carrier was married for a long time — approximately 20 years — to his wife. At some point in this, it came out that he had had at least one if not more affairs. At this point, it seems, Carrier came to believe that he was not cut out for monogamous marriage, and instead wanted to enter in a polygamous relationship. I believe — but am not certain — that they tried this for some time, but that essentially it wasn’t working, and so eventually they divorced after 20 years of marriage. As far as I can tell, she didn’t simply divorce him for the cheating; they tried an alternative first.

(Carrier’s description of the events is here).

So, keeping that in mind, let’s move on to the first criticism that Carrier addresses:

Commonly, of course, there were calls to pray for my ex-wife. Because she must be so downtrodden. Divorce between equals that is to the best of both is not conceivable to conservo Christians. They cannot imagine a strong financially independent woman who gets to do her own thing when she wants.

Except … look, she obviously wanted to stay married to him. If she didn’t want to be married to him, she would have divorced him when she caught him cheating. But instead she was willing to try the open marriage thing to see if she could indeed give him what he said he needed, and what he now says is just part of who he really is (I expect this will come up more later, but let’s put that aside for now). And, presumably, it didn’t work for her. Given that Carrier wasn’t willing to budge on his wanting some kind of open marriage and return to the traditional marriage model that presumably she was comfortable with, there really wasn’t any other option for her. So this isn’t a case of a strong, financially independent woman getting what she really wanted, because from this what she clearly wanted was what she had originally. Or, at least, if the main issue was the polyamory that’s how it works. So while Carrier seems to be quite happy with the arrangement — although even in his post he says that “Breakups are always hard”, she probably wouldn’t be that happy with it. Is she better off divorced from him than married to him, given the situation? Probably. But that doesn’t mean that this shouldn’t be considered a tragedy, and certainly more so from her side than from his, given where it started. She was obviously very willing to compromise to keep the relationship going, and possibly even over things that were really important to her. He was definitely unwilling to compromise on at least the one big thing that was important to him, which is the very thing that Christians say is what you need to compromise on to make a marriage work.

So, yeah, it’s perfectly understandable and reasonable to feel sorry for her in this situation, as she was kinda pushed into a situation by what Carrier felt he needed. It’s also reasonable to feel sorry for her and not for Carrier because, at the end of the day, Carrier got the sorts of relationships he wanted and she didn’t get the one she wanted: the one with him. Yes, he lost her (presumably) but he wanted more anyway; there is no evidence that she really, really wanted anything more than him.

So, given the situation, Carrier’s description here is massively misleading, and ends up being used as a cheap, almost ad hominem shot at his opponents: they can’t conceive of an independent woman being happy without her man. Except that if she thought that she’d be happier without him, she wouldn’t have tried the compromise in the first place. This is definitely a small consolation prize for her at best, and it is reasonable for people to express that.

And then:

They also think prayer can make someone they never have any contact with feel better about personally sad changes in their life. Because they believe in sorcery. And third-party mind control. These are, after all, superstitious magical thinkers who believe superbeings in outer space not only listen to them, but also cast mind-altering emotion spells on random people they don’t know.

Carrier talks about ad hominem/poisoning the well fallacies later, but how is this not that in a post where he talks about bad logic, and even directly links religious ideas to an inability to do logic? Will their prayers help her? Maybe not. The theory, of course, behind doing and saying this is two-fold:

1) That it’s a way to express that you are concerned for them.

2) That they ask God to give her the support she needs, who surely — if He exists — would be able to provide that support.

Now, Carrier doesn’t think God exists, and so doesn’t think that 2) will happen. That’s fine, but since they do there’s no failure of logic or reason on their part there. And 1) occurs regardless of whether it’s expressed through prayer or “You’re in my thoughts” (which is actually more a kind of magical thinking than religion is, if one takes it literally). All in all, all Carrier does here is essentially rant about how stupid he thinks religion is by interpreting it in such a strong way that it doesn’t resemble what the people actually think … and is irrelevant anyway, because the point he’d want to make is that both are content with the situation because they were or at least have become incompatible, so going off on prayer is, well, not relevant to that. Unless he thinks that them praying for her will suddenly make her unhappy, which can’t be the case.

So, angry, snarky, irrelevant and uncharitable rant. Good start.

There have also been a slurry of ad hominem / well-poisoning fallacies, of the general form “Carrier is polyamorous, therefore his arguments about history and theology are all bollocks,” which just demonstrates Christians don’t do logic well. (That’s why they’re Christians.)

The claims don’t actually seem to be that, though (as you can see in the defense of him by Matt Dillahunty) but rather that Carrier is motivated by this to reject Christianity, because if he decided to live by the Christian lifestyle he couldn’t do this anymore (in much the way as if he stayed married to his wife he wouldn’t be able to have this). The only time these arguments are worthwhile is when they are used to point out that the person cannot be considered to be a neutral party here, so in terms of his examination of the existence of Jesus we have to note that he isn’t unbiased and so his work should not just be taken as such a work, and so should be scrutinized to ensure that his bias didn’t creep into it. Dillahunty makes the one good point — after the accusation of “well-poisoning’, which I think generally false — that Carrier outlines his work, arguments and methodology, and so people should indeed just be scrutinizing that. Carrier … does not say that. He simply calls it “well-poisoning” and leaves it at that. And then he says:

Likewise the “this proves you are only atheists because y’all just wanna sin” argument, which is funny, because Christians frequently use that argument in defense of evil (e.g. attacking homosexuality or women’s autonomy or even the freedom of speech and conscience).

Um, and claiming that they do it “in defense of evil” isn’t well-poisoning? Look, either the argument works or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t work, point it out. Otherwise, why do you snark me (them)?

To call polyamory, which is about honesty and love and the assurance of consent, “sin” is just to expose how immoral Christianity has become as an ideology. What Christians call “sin” is all too often “being a decent, well adjusted human being minimizing harm in the world.”

Um, isn’t this what you’re supposed to demonstrate? This is way before he gets into the purportedly reasonable response, and so before he actually addresses any reasonable concerns about it. Heck, it’s before he even addresses reasonable concerns about it directly. And yet he thinks that he can claim that, hey, this thing is just really good and really great and really moral and all of these wonderful things and the people who try to use it as a “smear” against his other work — which is the most charitable interpretation of what Carrier feels the objections here are doing — is just a sign that they are really immoral, not him. Bluntly, it’s not relevant. I know that you think that Christians are terribly immoral people, Dr. Carrier, but you calling them that for the positions you don’t like isn’t any stronger an argument than when they do it to you. Simple logic, no?

I’m not going to talk about the purported bigotry Carrier goes after in point 3, because I can’t easily get access to read what the original was and, well, that there might be some bigotry is not surprising to me (although generalizing that to all Christians is a problem). But I do want to highlight this problematic passage:

Ammi also repeatedly and confusedly thinks polyamory means having “temporary sexual parterns de jour” (never mind the redundancy; he’s fond of the phrase). He didn’t get that from anything I wrote. In fact, one of the things I am enjoying now is the opposite of that: building multiple lasting relationships with my loves. And that is in fact a major credo of polyamory: having many non-temporary sexual partners. So, bigotwhocantgooglesayswhat?

Except that what traditional monogamous relationships insist on is a dedicated, lifetime commitment to your partner, not one that lasts as long as it benefits you. Carrier says later:

Similarly, because Peters is a superstitious magical thinker, he thinks contracts should be eternal—to hell with happiness (almost literally). Secular folk know better. Any contract can be dissolved. It’s not a promise “forever.” It’s a conditional arrangement: if x, then y. Which means when no longer x, no longer y.

That’s a temporary arrangement by definition. The idea seems to be that you enter into it out of convenience — ie that it works for you — and you end it when it stops being that. Marriage is not supposed to be that sort of contract. It’s supposed to be one that you don’t drop when it becomes inconvenient. For example, if Carrier, say, entered into a relationship that was primarily sexual in nature, and the person had an accident that left them scarred in a way that Carrier found unattractive, what would happen to that relationship? Under traditional monogamy, you stay married to them, because a) it’s not supposed to be primarily about sex and b) you committed to them through thick and thin. Would Carrier then abandon that person? I hope not, and I hope that he would still support that person through this troubling time … but could it still be a polyamorous relationship? Or would that person be just a friend?

Also, this causes issues overall for Carrier, because to make this argument he has to accept implicitly that temporary sexual partners is inferior, and maybe even immoral. But what reason does he have for making that divide, so that he can say that polyamory is about the somehow superior non-temporary ones as a “major credo? Who is he to say what polyamory is? Who is he to define what relationships count and what don’t? How is he not being just as closed-minded and bigoted by his own standards here?

Later, it turns out that he’ll end up denying that temporary relationships are bad. Kinda. But we’ll get into that later.

I’ll skip 4 and 5 because they are utterly irrelevant to the main issue of polyamory and criticisms of it. Whether that’s the fault of his critics, of Carrier, or of both is something I’ll let you decide.

The sixth point is where he finally gets into the criticism that he considers the most thoughtful, this one by Nick Peters. So let’s see how Carrier responds to a thoughtful response. It doesn’t start well:

Nick Peters, son-in-law of renowned Christian apologist Mike Licona, blogs at Deeper Waters. He reacted. Not surprisingly, as Licona and I have debated twice, hung out a few times, and communicate occasionally. Maybe that Kevin Bacon number was too small not to try and intervene before the floods of relationship chaos spread too far to crush Christian control.

Peters also fell for the lies and bubble of ******** promulgated by the Slymepit trolls Yeti and Shermertron. But I already covered that. Note this means Christians don’t know who the fringe atheist wingnuts are. But we can just laugh at that. And return to his more serious article…

Amusingly, Peters begins the substantive part of Along Came Poly with, “prominent internet blogger Richard Carrier, who seems to be the answer to all conservative NT scholarship in the eyes of internet atheists everywhere, wrote a post about” coming out poly. So, a well published Ph.D. in ancient history from Columbia University with numerous peer reviewed books and articles in major journals and presses is just an internet blogger. Whom Christians are evidently annoyed everyone keeps citing and quoting at them online. Okay.

So, informative point about the relationship between Peters and Carrier, with a potshot about “crush Christian control” (ie poisoning the well). Then a shot about Peters’ view about a completely unrelated topic (and remember, Carrier already thinks that his post is “thoughtful” on polyamory, so there’s no need for him to point out other points he’s made that Carrier will not reply to here) and that then goes on to generalize about Christians in a way that is clearly meant to imply that they are not able to properly read and discern arguments. Finally, a gripe about being described as a prominent internet blogger instead of being given his purportedly full props … in a post that doesn’t talk about history at all. As Carrier said, okay.

Let’s get into something that’s actually substantial. Please?

He then quotes a good definition of polyamory from a legit organization, and responds immediately with, “Now if you want to say as I seem to take it that this entails a desire to have sex with many people other than one’s own spouse, then I will tell you that there are many many people who I think are really polyamorous. Namely, every male on the planet, including myself.”

He missed the egalitarian part (um, your wife or girlfriend also gets to do this…and nearly as many women as men want to, BTW; and many men actually aren’t interested, either—and not just asexuals, who are in fact a thing; plus, not all of us poly folk are married, but conservo Christians balk at sex without marriage anyway, so maybe unmarried free lovers aren’t readily conceivable to them). He also missed the loving or caring about your partners part (sex isn’t just ****ing; compassionate persons regard their sexual partners as friends…and as people…and have room to be in love with more than one of them). And the honesty and negotiating what you want part (this is with the consent and approval of all involved, not on the sly or against their wishes).

First, he starts from the fact that Peters describes it from the male perspective as evidence that he doesn’t get that it’s egalitarian, when all that is is evidence that, well, he talked about it from the male perspective. It’s certainly not a criticism of his point that women get to do it, too, since that isn’t Peters’ claim (ie he’s not calling it “sexist” because it gives freedom to men that it denies to women). So that’s another pot-shot at the purported sexism of Christianity … a point that he will rely on again and again in his post, and one that’s completely irrelevant. He also tries to work around a claim that it’s just about sex … by arguing that sex is really all about love and more than just sex, but if that’s the definition he’s using then Peters’ claim there is right, but Carrier would be arguing that Peters shouldn’t think it bad then … but Peters is defending traditional monogamy and so is definitely going to think that being in love with multiple people and having sex with all of them is a bad thing, too, and for the same reason: that it’s you refusing to commit wholely to one of them. So that doesn’t work as a defense against Peters. And, again, there’s nothing in what Peters says there to indicate that he thinks that polyamory involves not being open about it; Peters likely thinks that being open about it is better than not being open about it — ie cheating — but that doesn’t mean that it’s moral or right.

So, the first salvo … misses.

So, does that describe “every male on the planet”? Nope. If only it did. The world would be a far better place. But if you obsess over just the sex part and miss all the rest, you won’t even be able to start getting why the world would be better if all of it were poly. By which I mean, all accepting poly as the baseline, and monogamy or celibacy as the rare personal choices that just suit certain people and not most of people.

This, then, is a very strong case to make. Carrier sets himself up here to defend a stronger claim than “Polyamory works for some people and so they should be allowed to do it without shame!”, but instead that we should start from polyamory, as that will somehow make the world a better place. Except that he cites the three major ethical considerations that polyamory entails, and then argues that most men don’t think that way. Are they suddenly going to start when we push monogamy out of its current position as the default? Carrier cannot assume that monogamy itself doesn’t allow for equality, caring about sexual partners, and honesty, and so monogamy can have all of those as well. Starting from the polyamorous default won’t make people any better, and so all you’ll end up with are the same morons with a different way of being a moron.

And it’s still not an objection to Peters because Peters does not oppose polyamory on those grounds. He opposes them on the grounds, essentially, that you can’t have your cake and eat it, too, and that’s what polyamory wants. Carrier does disagree with that, but hasn’t even started to address it.

People should get to negotiate the relationships they want. Period. Autonomy demands no less. There is no basis, rational or scientific, for forcing on anyone a given model of monogamy. And certainly none for stigmatizing, slut shaming, belittling, or treating with bias and bigotry anyone who chooses not to use that outdated and limiting model of relationshipping. Trying to culturally manipulate people into following and norming that model is just one more way Christianity ****s up people’s lives.

But as with taking away abortion rights, women’s rights, gay rights, free speech rights, denigrating or punishing alternative sexuality, warmongering, pushing for theocracy and forcing religion on people, feigning or even denigrating actual concern for the welfare of the poor rather than preferencing the rich, bigotry against immigrants and anyone who looks even remotely maybe Muslim, and dozens of other ways Christians in actual practice fuck up the world in the name of Christ, it’s vitally necessary to defend the obsolete and damaging institution of socially compelled monogamy. So Peters has to. He has no choice.

Most of this is a rant at Christianity with no bearing on the topic. The only part that isn’t is the point at the top about people getting to negotiate the relationships they want. Fair enough, I suppose. But if you didn’t want to have a monogamous relationship, you can already do that: just don’t get married. And it isn’t clear that those sorts of relationships aren’t inferior to monogamous ones for most people. That’s what he’s supposed to be trying to establish, remember?

As one Christian apologetics clearinghouse says (see CARM on Polyamory), poly is just “another form of wife-swapping” (except that it often doesn’t involve married people, often not even at all, and not all marriages include wives, but whatever). “So,” they ask, “how is this ‘ethical nonmonogamy’?” After all, “adding the word ‘ethical’ to something doesn’t make it so.” Although adding honest and consensual and respectful does. And guess what? That’s the ethical part. So when CARM asks “Why not have such things as ethical adultery, ethical bank robbing, or ethical embezzling?” they obviously don’t know what polyamory is. Or why it is called ethical non-monogamy.

Except, as pointed out above, to be honest and consensual and respectful is not something limited to polyamory. So here all he’s doing is essentially pulling a “No True Scotsman” argument; any polyamory that is “bad” is not really polyamory, but abusive monogamous relationships are, of course, still monogamous relationships (and evidence that monogamy is bad; we’ll see that in his discussions on divorce). If you do polyamory unethically, then it isn’t polyamory. You’re doing something else. What, we don’t know, but it isn’t polyamory.

Or we could take the reasonable tack here and say that whether or not polyamory is ethical depends on how ethical the people practicing it are. Of course, that’s not a defense against those who say that polyamory itself is unethical … which is what he’s supposed to be demonstrating here. Oops.

So, “the necessary consequence is the attack and breakdown of the family” (read: it will end women’s subordination to men) and “an increase of immorality in subsequent areas” (the reader has to fill in the blanks here, because they can’t come up with anything), “and ultimately the demise of society itself.” Somehow. How? I don’t know. Neither do they. It just must, I guess. They are right that “moral integrity is the glue that holds society together” and that “without it, we can have no society.” They just don’t seem to have any clue what morality is. Honesty, compassion, respect, and reasonableness don’t seem to be moral virtues in their scheme of things. Just what objects you ****.

Leaving aside comparisons to other sexual practices, here Carrier is, well, still not responding to the point. You don’t have to be polyamorous to be honest, have compassion, respect, and reasonable, and there’s no evidence that it even helps. One can find those things morally virtuous and still say that polyamory isn’t. This is absolutely non-responsive, especially since it isn’t at all clear that Peters is even making these points (Peters talks about it damaging marriages, but uses Carrier’s as an example of that, which is a fair point). Carrier here is certainly not addressing Peters, and it’s even unclear that he’s addressing any Christian position on this … and for a post that in the title claims that’s what he’s doing, that’s pretty bad.

Thus, sexual desire has to be bad. It therefore, as Peters says, requires “self-control” to deny yourself what is obviously a natural and normal inborn desire. Because, for some unintelligible reason, “sex is meant to be between two people who make a covenant together,” even though, if that were the case, we would have been designed to only sexually desire our covenented partner. That we were built to desire many partners, as even he admits, seems to falsify his entire thesis.

Peters doesn’t say anything about sexual desire being bad. And his point about “design” can be refuted with the sweet tooth, which proves that something that works “in the wild” is not necessarily good in this society (which, bluntly, is his entire point about how monogamy is outdated). To be sexually attracted to a wide range of people is a good thing when you need to pair up to reproduce. It’s a detriment when you’re in a relationship that is committed and monogamous. But we can indeed resist our temptation to have sex with everyone we’re attracted to, just like we can resist eating sugar constantly. Peters says that, essentially, it’s natural to have those desires but that you shouldn’t move from having them to insisting that you should give into them. Carrier disagrees. Presumably at some point he’ll actually try to argue for why he disagrees.

Let me skip the digression on Biblical Studies, because it’s not relevant and is mostly just an attempt to show that the Bible supports polyamory with copious “You’re superstitious!” points tossed in, and move on.

Next Peters then lays out a standard sexist case for monogamy: polyamory is “going to a woman and saying ‘You’re not enough for me. I need more than you’,” and “That hits at the core of a woman’s identity very often.” Except when it doesn’t. Because just as often it’s the other way around: a woman going to a man and saying the same thing. Does that “hit to the core of a man’s identity?” Not evidently according to Peters, since he thinks all men want many partners. Yet these same men have to want to be the only one a woman desires? Nick Peters, meet sexism. Also, meet pseudoscience. Our identity should not be based on totally possessing another human being.

Realize that the only evidence of sexism here is that Peters talks from the male perspective and not the female or a neutral one. That’s it. And Carrier’s comment that just as often it’s the woman doing that in no way defends him from the point that it is devastating, at least to someone who is in a monogamous relationship, like Carrier was with his wife. Which, uh, happens to be the point Peters was making, and the example he was referencing. Oops. I mean, how does Carrier think his wife felt when he said that his cheating wasn’t just a failure of character on his part, but was an expression of who he really was and that it indicated that he needed something that he simply couldn’t get from her? That she turned cartwheels? Remember, they entered into a relationship where they promised that they would be dedicated to each other and would only need each other. That’s what a monogamous relationship is. How could she not take that as a sign that there was something wrong with her? Anyone, man or woman, would feel that way. So the sexism point fails.

What we’re going to need to see is what Carrier or people in polyamorous relationships are actually missing. Carrier needs it to be more than simply sex, but something more fundamental, something emotional. But if he does manage to establish that, then your one true partner not being able to satisfy that has to be problematic. Ultimately, Carrier is going to have to reject that line. Can he? We’ll find out.

Quite a lot of women want multiple partners. Quite a lot of men do. So why can’t they get together and negotiate what works for them? Indeed, shouldn’t those very people do exactly that, and not remain attached unfairly to monogamous partners? Ineed, if monogamy is the woman’s thing, and not her man’s thing, or vice versa, doesn’t that entail they shouldn’t be married? Relationships must be based on mutual consent and compatibility, not sex slavery. Right?

Peters’ point, essentially, is that most people would, ideally, want to be able to have their cake and eat it too, to have the sort of commitment that you get in monogamy while being able to have sex or relationships with other people. The question is if you can actually have that, and have that ethically. The question is if most people need that. The question is if polyamory is an unsatisfying compromise for most people instead of being able to have your cake and eat it, too. None of which Carrier has addressed.

Probably because he thinks it more important to make sterling points like this one:

Of course in all this I’m only speaking within the context of heterosexuality. Because I know Peters would not recognize the existence of loving sexual relationships between women and women, or men and men, polyamorous or monogamous. And bisexuality? That would probably blow a spring out of his head.

Which is, of course, utterly irrelevant to the debate, but is a nice ad hominem here.

Peters then goes on about monogamy being hard. Note: if you think “relationships are hard,” you are doing them wrong.

Parenting is hard. Coping with debt is hard. Being stuck in a job you hate is hard. Relationships should actually in fact be the one thing that isn’t hard. Does anyone say “gosh, friendship is hard”? No. Ask yourself why. Because if you are a mature person, adding sex to a friendship shouldn’t suddenly add a ton of hardship. It shouldn’t add even an ounce. So why do people like Peters think “marriage is hard”? What on earth are they doing wrong?

Well, you could start to look for an answer by looking at how Peters said monogamy is hard:

This is monogamous marriage? Is it hard work. You absolutely bet it is. It’s one of the greatest lessons in self-sacrifice you learn. It is indeed about dying to yourself and learning to live a life where you actually have to realize what it’s like to not only put one person’s good above your own, but you have to learn what it is to do so with one who is so radically different from you, and even if you marry someone very similar to you, their being of the opposite sex makes them really much more different than you realize.

Yes. It is hard work, but it is also worth it.

Essentially, it’s the idea that you have to put your wants aside in order to give them what they need. In fact, the idea of love is that you are willing to sacrifice your needs to give them their needs. And they are willing to do the same for you. If these relationships are ever easy, it’s because the two people are so focused on helping each other that both always get what they need. That’s not how Carrier is describing it. That also doesn’t seem to be how Carrier handled his own marriage, where she was willing to compromise to give him what he said he needed and there is no evidence that Carrier compromised in any way. She was fully within her rights to divorce him after she caught him cheating on her, and his response was to accept that but to point out that essentially that sort of relationship didn’t work for him. Her response to that was to try an open marriage as a compromise position to see if that worked. I don’t know what the ultimate reason for the break-up was, but given what Carrier talks about it’s hard to see how an open marriage didn’t give him everything he needed, or what kind of “compromise” he had to make in that arrangement. So, ultimately, she was willing to sacrifice and compromise for his happiness, and in general he was insisting — and still insists — that the relationships have to be organized to maximize his happiness.

Now, I’m just a poor bachelor (nearing the point of being a confirmed bachelor) who in some sense wants to know what love is (but I don’t want Carrier to show me), but Carrier’s view ain’t love to me. If you really love someone, you shouldn’t be looking at the relationship to see if it maximizes your own happiness, and entering into other arrangements to meet other purportedly unfulfilled needs (especially the “needs” that you knew you’d have to give up when you entered the relationship). Love is supposed to be selfless, not selfish, where once you fall in love with someone a major if not the major component of your happiness is supposed to be their happiness. This means that you have to give up things that you like in order to make them happier. And they do the same for you. “The Gift of the Magi” poignantly illustrates this attitude:

Mr. James Dillingham (“Young Jim”) and his wife, Della, are a couple living in a modest apartment. They have only two possessions between them in which they take pride: Della’s beautiful long, flowing hair, almost to her knees, and Jim’s shiny gold watch, which had belonged to his father and grandfather.

Della then admits to Jim that she sold her hair to buy him his present. Jim gives Della her present – an assortment of expensive hair accessories (referred to as “The Combs”), useless now that her hair is short. Della then shows Jim the chain she bought for him, to which Jim says he sold his watch to get the money to buy her combs. Although Jim and Della are now left with gifts that neither one can use, they realize how far they are willing to go to show their love for each other, and how priceless their love really is.

Each of them were willing to give up that which was most precious to them for the happiness of their partner, and while ironically in doing so ended up not actually achieving that with their gifts, in the end that’s exactly what they did, by demonstrating precisely how much they loved the other and proving that their love was worth more than those possessions. Carrier’s view of polyamory seems to flout that, as it seems to be about ensuring that all of your needs are met. Yes, the other person is looking out for that as well, but that hardly seems to be the sort of attitude that leads to the kind of true, selfless love that monogamy advocates and strives for … and leads to issues with negotiation.

Carrier is big on saying that everyone should be able to negotiate what relationships they have, in the name of “freedom”. But what he misses is that the sort of negotiation he wants is vulnerable to differences in bargaining position and power. For example, most of the major criticisms of Carrier are because it started from him actually cheating on his wife, but as a man it is generally assumed that being able to have sex with a lot of different women is inherently desirable for him; wanting that is generally seen as being immature for men. But for women, it’s different. For women, being married is important socially. So there are social factors that make this something that it is easier for men to pursue than for women to pursue. This is not to say that women don’t want to do it, just that it’s harder for them. Thus it’s easier for him to hold out to get that sort of open or polyamorous relationship than it is for a woman; she has to face social criticism to a level that he doesn’t, and so can be talked into dropping the requirement in the face of that.

Which also leads to the issue that given the sorts of negotiations that Carrier favours, the person with the stronger bargaining position is the person who loves the other person less, because they’re more willing to walk away from the relationship if the other person doesn’t agree to the requirements. This risks exploitative relationships where one person doesn’t really care about the other, but the other is madly in love with them, and so the first person gets everything they want and the other person allows it because they love them so much that they are willing to give up everything just to make them happy. Yes, this happens in monogamous relationships as well, but at least in those cases we’d see the first person as being selfish and exploitative. Since Carrier’s view about polyamory is about satisfying your own needs, it’s too easy under that model to argue that the first person gets what they want and the second person is getting what they want, so there’s nothing wrong with it. But consciously or no, it is exploitative in this case. In a monogamous relationship, we’d at least be able to say that the first person isn’t living up to the assumed agreement, that they ought to love, honour and cherish their partner as much as their partner loves, honours and cherishes them. In polyamory, all you have to manage expectations is the negotiation.

Additionally, you have a stronger bargaining position of you can position your “demands” as needs or as part of your identity, or at the very least if they are seen or are more important to you than their demands are to them. Take Carrier’s own comments that he “needed” to be able to have sex with multiple partners and that polyamory was who he really was. In that context, if his wife was just uncomfortable with the idea of an open marriage, then surely it would be seen as selfish for her to deny him that, and as Carrier goes on and on about in his post it might even have been bigoted of her to try to do so, as she would be attacking his identity. Given that, she’s in the tough situation of having to oppose his needs with her wants.

So any unequal position is problematic for polyamory, especially given that emotions are involved. The person who makes out the best in polyamory is the person who doesn’t really have any strong emotional attachment to the issue, and can let pragmatics decide what relationships to pursue and what terms they accept. Anyone else risks accepting an unequal arrangement and ending up at least not ideally situated, if not downright miserable. And given Carrier’s stated attitude, being shamed for being miserable as if they were just “doing polyamory wrong” as opposed to really being in a bad position.

Now, Carrier can reply that these sorts of things don’t happen in polyamory. However, it seems that that was exactly what happened between him and his ex-wife: she loved him more than he loved her because she was willing to give up more than he was, and he was able to frame his conditions as needs and as part of his identity while she likely wasn’t. Carrier can protest that I’m ignoring the “honest” part of the definition of polyamory, but I reply that the parties can be arguing in good faith and not consciously trying to exploit their relative power and this can still happen. The issue is not really with one person being honest or not, but is about the idea that the primary focus your side in these negotiations is your own ideal happiness, without overly much concern for the happiness of the other person. You should look after your own happiness, they should look after theirs, and all should work out, right? Well, wrong.

This leads to Carrier’s comments on friendship not being hard. Friendship can be hard, for the same reasons. The closer the friendship is, the more things you have to do that you don’t really want to do because your friend needs you to. The old joke of “Friends help you move; real friends help you move bodies” demonstrates this pretty well, even if it’d have to be a really close friend for you to help them hide the evidence of a crime. The closer you are to someone, the more things you ought to be willing to do that you don’t want to do to help them out. Romantic love is supposed to be the pinnacle of “closeness”, meaning that there should be a lot of things that you are willing to do that you’d rather not to preserve the relationship. Carrier, by his own admission, wasn’t willing to give up having sex with multiple partners for his relationship. It’s hard not to see that as self-centered and selfish, if not a sign that he, at least, didn’t really feel that sort of love for his wife. I would not want to be in any kind of a relationship with someone practicing Carrier’s idea of polyamory because I wouldn’t feel able to rely on that person when the chips were down and I needed them to do something for me that they didn’t want to do, as I couldn’t know at what point they’d just jettison the relationship as not making them happy anymore.

The sad irony is that Peters tries to use “people … did monogamy for centuries and found … it seems to work pretty well” as an argument in favor of it, knowing full well that that is false: cheating has been universal and rampant throughout all those centuries. As has marital misery, so common in fact it became a universal trope. Evidently, people can’t do monogamy.

So … is Carrier suggesting here that most parties in monogamous relationships cheat most of the time, and that most of them are completely and totally miserable in a monogamous marriage? Cheating happens, sure, but it’s not “rampant”, or at least not in a sense that would prove that it didn’t work. And the universal trope of marital misery is about the loss of freedom in marriage, which can be tough, but most people seem to think that overall that’s worth it. Most people who are married do not seem to live in abject misery. They seem to love their partners and are happy to be with them. Sure, some of them may stray on occasion but that’s rightly seen as a flaw and a weakness in them that they need to overcome, not as evidence that that whole marriage thing is just crap, in the same way that if people lose their temper with their kids on occasion it’s not seen as proof that this whole parenting thing is just crap.

Peters does make a strange foray into why you should put up with the things you don’t like about a spouse, although that can’t have anything to do with the case he is talking about. We didn’t divorce because my wife was too keen on collecting cats and I kept stealing the covers. We divorced each other because, given the reality (and not the lie) of who we are, we couldn’t be as happy together as apart. This wasn’t about minor annoyances of living together. This was about the fundamentals of our happiness.

Let us recall what was fundamental to Richard Carrier’s happiness and to him as a person: the ability to have sex with multiple partners. This seems to be a pretty shallow thing to base one’s happiness on, as most people don’t have that as being that fundamental to their happiness. To put it another way, it can be seem as being fundamental to my happiness to be able to play RPGs on a semi-regular basis. But if I was married and found that because she didn’t like video games or needed my help with things I wasn’t able to do that, to declare that as “fundamental to my happiness” and then divorce her because of that would seem shallow. I’d be told to “work it out”, and if we couldn’t it would seem like I considered video games more important then her.

Thus, Richard Carrier here is explicitly saying that he considered sex with multiple partners more important than his relationship with his wife. It’s really hard to see how he could be said to love her if that was true.

Peters doesn’t get that, because he thinks divorce should only be allowed in cases of adultery or abuse. Everyone else should just put up with being miserable and “make it work,” when in fact they both could be not miserable with someone else. So Peters’ recommendation is fundamentally irrational. And fundamentally destructive of human happiness on a wide social scale.

But … if you really do actually love someone, wouldn’t you be miserable without them? I have a hard time seeing any notion of love where you could say that you’d be miserable with them and happy without them. The typical romantic notion of choosing to live without the one you love is if you think that they would be happier with someone else, even though you will be miserable without them. Carrier here implies that he was miserable with her and happy without and with someone — or rather, somemultiples — else. At which point, I’d have to ask on what grounds he thinks that he actually loved her when they split.

Similarly, because Peters is a superstitious magical thinker, he thinks contracts should be eternal—to hell with happiness (almost literally). Secular folk know better. Any contract can be dissolved. It’s not a promise “forever.” It’s a conditional arrangement: if x, then y. Which means when no longer x, no longer y. Divorce is fundamentally built into the state contract for marriage. When you vow to marry someone, and sign on the dotted line, you are vowing also to allow them to divorce you whenever they want. That’s the law. The law Christians fought so damned hard in defense of just to prevent gay people from joining in. If Christians don’t like that unilateral divorce is also being promised to in secular marriage contracts, they shouldn’t be getting state marriage licenses.

Well, except that isn’t the condition of marriage, the x, nothing more than “I truly and deeply love you”? If you love them, what reason can you have for getting a divorce? The arguments for abuse and adultery are, in fact, arguments that show that they don’t really love you anymore, if they ever did. So in that case, you violate the contract. In what case can the two people really, truly love each other but still think a divorce is the best option? Only those little things that Peters says we need to work through. Are there cases where people are indeed so incompatible that they are better off separate than together even though they deeply love each other? Perhaps … but that reason isn’t usually “I want to have sex with people who are not you”.

But this indicates the flaw in the deeply contractual view of polyamory that Carrier has. Sure, we enter into business arrangements because they benefit us in some way, but even then we aren’t allowed to just drop the contract because it stops benefiting us as much. There are two main reasons for this. First, the ability to break a promise or drop a contract when it stops benefiting us would invalidate the notion of contracts and promises in the first place. We’re willing to put in effort that doesn’t benefit us up front only because we can see that over the long term because of the contract or promise we’ll get a return on that investment. If people can break contracts and promises as soon as it stops benefiting them, we can’t rely on that and so there’s no reason to ever enter into those. If someone can get a divorce for whatever reason they want at any time, what reason do I have for ever getting married, especially if a divorce would cost me? The other reason is more about respect for others, where if you break a contract that they were relying on unilaterally then you leave them in the lurch, unprepared and potentially in a very bad position. This also applies to marriage. So, no, you shouldn’t be able to get a divorce for whatever reason you want whenever you want, even if that’s what the law says. You should indeed try to work it out first, and perhaps even not get a divorce if it’s something trivial and shallow.

As for his shot at Christians, note that most of them see marriage as more than simply a legal contract. The state marriage is simply the recognition of their status, but they seem themselves as married in the eyes of God more than that. That the state, then, allows unilateral, no-fault divorce doesn’t impact their actual marriages at all. And also note that just because the law allows you to do something doesn’t mean that it’s right to do that, which is the argument that Carrier is making here.

In light of this complete disregard for human happiness, typical of Christianity, it’s particularly interesting that Peters says “Divorce … becomes a way of saying ‘I can’t love you the way you are’,” confusing not having your needs met with “not loving someone.” This may be key to a really harmful notion of love infecting Christianity.

As already pointed out, the point of getting married is to say that you love them so much that you want to live with them forever. When you get a divorce, then, it has to be saying that you don’t love them that way anymore. If the reason is that they can’t “provide for your needs”, then yeah, that sounds a lot like “I can’t love you for who you are, because who you are can’t provide for my needs”. If they could change to provide your needs, then they ought to do so and then the relationship can continue. It’s only if doing is fundamentally not them — or would make them fundamentally unhappy — that divorce is the only option.

When that “need” is “I want to have sex with different people and you don’t like that”, it’s even worse. It’s putting simple hedonic pleasure over love.

Imagine Peters saying the same of a mere friend who insisted he have no other friends but only them: that you had better do what they say, and abandon all your other friends, because otherwise you don’t love them. Or imagine a brother who insisted Peters love none other of his siblings, and not even his parents, but only him. Either scenario explodes the whole idea of love he is trying to sell.

Except that this is a bad comparison. The only thing that the traditional notion of monogamy requires is that a) the marriage be the highest level of intimacy and closeness you have and b) that you don’t have sex with another partner. It’s perfectly reasonable for a friend to demand the comparative level of commitment, so that, say, you don’t blow off their birthday party to go to a hockey game even though you hate their parties and like hockey, or else claim that you aren’t really their friend. You’d better have a pretty good reason to not act like a friend should to them, and the same thing applies to a spouse. “I’d rather do X” is not a good reason, and Carrier very much bases his polyamory on “I want X”, translating it to “need” and then pushing it on others. I don’t think I’d want to be his friend with that attitude …

See, one of the big problems here is the pursuit of what I’ll call “hedonic happiness”, the idea that we should pursue happiness by appealing to simple wants and desires, generally for pleasures and pleasurable experiences. There’s nothing wrong with going for those things, but the problem is that these things are made the highest goal. If you aren’t feeling maximally happy and pleasure-filled, then you aren’t really happy, and need to fix that. On that score, I strive for contentment, not happiness, because to me true happiness is more than simply that sort of pleasure, but is about living a good life and being a good person, striving for Stoic eudaimonia. This does involve sacrificing things, but nothing that I can’t live without, and nothing that is worth pursuing in and of itself.

Richard Carrier considers having sex with multiple partners to be such a need that he can’t be happy without it. I think that he places far too much emphasis on sex, and in doing so ignores what true happiness is. Given his attitude, I have no doubt that his ex-wife is better off without him.

Just as people differ in their hobby and other interests, so people differ in their libidos and sexual interests. With every other domain, good spouses allow their partners to explore such things with others. If they aren’t into sports but you are, they let you enjoy sports with friends who share your enthusiasm. If they are into gardening and you aren’t, you let them enjoy gardening with friends who share their enthusiasm. And even when you share interests, you are still allowed to also share them with others. So why suddenly does this generosity end when it’s sex? There isn’t any valid reason.

If you treat sex as simply another kind of activity like any other, then this argument holds. But Carrier explicitly earlier didn’t. He chided Peters for thinking of sex as just sex, and not with thinking of their partner as a person. Except … that’s what this is here, and in his discussions of swinging and other things he treats sex as casual. So does he consider sex to be something like playing sports or playing board games? Do we have to think of the others as people in the same way? Then his objection to Peters about him thinking of sex too shallowly fails, as his view is at least as shallow if not more so. But the issue with sex is that it is often seen as more than that shallow sort of thing, but as an expression of intimacy. And it’s reasonable to think that the more serious a relationship is, the more “special” the intimacy is in that relationship. If Carrier was just pursuing sex without special intimacy, then it is not unreasonable to argue that it should be treated like other activities … but then Carrier can be seen as selfish and shallow for giving up love because he couldn’t get it. But if he was pursuing intimacy, then his spouse could be reasonably upset at losing the intimacy.

Which leads to another issue with polyamory: the idea that you are splitting up your resources among multiple seemingly semi-equal relationships. In a monogamous relationship, you provide the things that you can provide to your partner, and you’re there for them when they need it. And they can rely on that. Just as my friend can rely on me to not skip their birthday party to go to a hockey game, my spouse can rely on me to not skip our anniversary dinner to go to my friend’s birthday party. There’s a hierarchy here of where my time and effort goes. Even with a so-called “primary”, is that always the case? If one person really wants sex on one day and another needs emotional support, who wins? With monogamous relationships, that choice doesn’t happen, as you’re only trying to provide for the needs — at that level of the relationship — to one person, and their needs tend to take precedence over those of friends. If these are actual relationships, which get priority? How do you choose between the needs of these people? And since these relationships are built on satisfying needs, at what point does that choice mean that you aren’t actually satisfying them as you essentially agreed to do in the negotiation?

You can, of course, reintroduce hierarchies of priorities. But at this point we start to wonder what sorts of actual “relationships” Carrier actually has here. In what way, in Carrier’s mind, is a primary-secondary relationship different than having an open marriage and a friend with benefits? Even in triads, unless they are all mutually supporting what happens when the needs clash? With one person, it’s relatively easy, but with more you will get more conflicts of needs. Carrier will argue that when this happens either one of them has to give in or they can end the relationship, but this treats these relationships as things that don’t really matter. Either their needs aren’t that important so that they can at least postpone them or else the relationship isn’t that important so they can just walk away. That’s not what Carrier wants to imply, however.

Philipse on Psychological Terms

July 15, 2015

The main goal of Chapter 7 in “God in the Age of Science” is to reduce all descriptions or all possible descriptions of God to metaphors or analogies, so that Philipse can then argue that by Swinburne’s own logic that the word “God” is meaningless and so that you therefore can have no rational or scientific belief in the existence of God. What Philipse tries to go after first is the psychological terms, because most people willing to describe God as having certain psychological traits — loving, angry, etc — and so could move from there to something that works as a description. Philipse wants to undercut this move, and so wants to find a theory of psychological terms that lets him leave God out. In so doing, he talks about three main views of the semantics of psychological terms: Cartesian dualism, behaviourism, and one which he amazingly — and I think indicatively — doesn’t actually give a name but instead describes as being one that Wittgenstein developed in his later years.

Now, my first thought when I read this was: where’s the “mental states” theory of psychological terms? I’m a card-carrying dualist about mind, but I of course know that you can, indeed, have a “mental states” theory about psychological terms with being a Cartesian dualist. All you have to accept that a psychological term refers to a mental state — and not simply a set of behaviours, for example, or a state of the physical brain — and you have a mental state theory. So, for example, if you say that what it means for a person to be in pain is that they are having an actual sensation of pain, no matter how they are acting, then you’re holding a mental state theory. This could still be produced or even in some sense reduce to a physical brain state, as long as you don’t argue that the term “in pain” just means “My brain is in a certain state”. But it’s clear that Philipse is lumping the mental states theory in with Cartesian dualism, and then attempts to refute that theory by refuting Cartesian dualism, including by arguing that Cartesian dualism isn’t accepted philosophically anymore (which will be seen to be a bit ironic later on). But he notes that this theory implies that you can’t know what someone else’s mental states are except by analogy to yourself, which means that if we accept the mental states theory his whole project is scuttled. So he needs to eliminate it.

He never really refutes in detail the mental states theory that he lumps in with Cartesian dualism, but he does go after the idea that we learn or refer to the mental states of others through analogy, with six reasons packed into one small paragraph. First, he claims that we aren’t aware of drawing these conclusions by analogy, but since much of this is done subconsciously we aren’t aware of what we are really doing, and the discovery of mirror neurons actually suggests that, yes, this is exactly what we do: we predict the actions and therefore also the mental states that drive these actions by putting ourselves in their position and simulating it (see simulation theory for more details). At any rate, he has to accept that we may not have direct access to the source of these conclusions; we also don’t seem to be reasoning it out, and the best he can say on that point is that it “just happens” when we look at someone, which is compatible with all three theories. Second, he says that it would be bad because it would commit the fallacy of hasty generalization, but this is a bad argument considering that if the mental states theory is right it’s all we have, and it would work a significant amount of the time, and we do, in fact, get these associations wrong and can be fooled relatively easily. Sure, it might not be completely logically valid, but it’s not a reason to say that we don’t or shouldn’t do it. Third, he say that we seem more confident than that sort of argument should justify … as if we never, for example, hold beliefs in far more confidence than we actually have — including beliefs about what other people are feeling and thinking. Perhaps the answer is that we should be less confident in our ability to determine the internal mental states of other people. Fourth, he argues essentially that we don’t see our own bodily reactions — like facial expression — and so can’t derive the beliefs from their bodily reactions that way, which is countered by the fact that we don’t learn these things by looking at their faces and seeing that they have the same facial reaction as we do, but instead by looking at the situation and thinking about what feeling we’d have, and noting that they have a specific facial reaction. If we’re right, then we can recognize that in most of those sorts of cases that expression is there, and so that that must be how they indicate that. And, of course, this can be subconscious. Fifth, he argues that philosophers of language — but doesn’t say which ones — argue that we somehow couldn’t learn the uses of the mental terms from others if they were private, but since I can learn them from looking at my own internal reactions in similar circumstances to what others are in when they use that term, again this is not an argument. Finally, he tries to refute Cartesian dualism by saying that it makes our personal pronouns like “I” ambiguous — since it can refer to the mind, or the body, or both — but a) an argument against Cartesian dualism is not an argument against the mental states theory, which again just shows that he conflates the two and b) this is not an argument since when you are referring to the body that the mind is associated with it’s not a problem at all to use the mental identity, and even if it was problematic it wouldn’t be any kind of argument against the truth of Cartesian dualism (which Philipse admits in a footnote that again just harps on how discredited Cartesian dualism is).

So, Philipse has not, in fact, managed to demolish the mental states theory, except by invalidly conflating it with Cartesian dualism and then tossing that out with “Well, no one believes that anymore.” But he needs to demolish it, because if it’s even still in the running he runs into the issue that it posits at its heart that we can have knowledge and meaning only by analogy, and so if we accept that it could produce meaningful psychological terms his whole project is undermined. And he won’t in fact even attempt to refute that view any further, which only reveals the major weakness in his overall project: if you deny that you can’t have a theory where one can only understand components of it in some kind of analogical sense, then toss out the whole chapter. And anyone who holds that the mental states theory could provide the meaning of psychological terms is not going to accept that.

Now, of course, no one holds the logical positivist/behaviourist views anymore (this isn’t the ironic part yet, although for some reason Philipse does not harp as much on its lack of acceptance as he does for Cartesian dualism), and so I think it best to move on to Philipse’s preferred alternative, that of the later Wittgenstein. As far as I can tell from Philipse’s description … it’s about looking at the behaviour of human beings and ascribing psychological terms using that. Well, at least, that’s going to be the heart of how Philipse will use the argument. In short, Philipse claims that the terms describe “capacities, inclinations, states or occurrences to human beings“[pg 100, emphasis in original]. He argues later, though, that we can indeed assign psychological terms to animals, which we do by their behaviour. Now, I’m pretty sure that I came across this theory in philosophy at some point, but given his description I’m having a hard time seeing, well, what’s so good about it or what it actually says. As described, it sounds like a half-baked attempt to bridge the two theories above, by denying that the meaning of a psychological term is just the behaviour that it spawns, but also that you can’t really have the meaning of the term without at least including the behaviour it spawns. The best and most popular attempt to do that is functionalism, and it seems to me at least that one of the Wittgenstein’s views — he differs from his early work to his later work — is at least the precursor to functionalism (the other is credited for behaviourism). So it is possible that what Philipse is describing here is a cut-rate functionalism, though don’t quote me on that because it’s been a while since I did Wittgenstein. Also (and here is where the irony arrives), Philipse denies that this is functionalism:

Of course, one might reject the third view … But in that case, one has to argue that this can be done on the basis of yet another semantical doctrine concerning psychological or personal terms, such as functionalism, for example, and one has to show that this semantical doctrine is superior to the third view discussed below.

[pg 97, emphasis added].

So, not functionalism, then … or at least not in Philipse’s mind. But the ironic part is that, well, Wittgenstein’s theory is, obviously, not new. It’s obviously rather old. And yet, the theory that is the predominant theory in cognitive science is … functionalism. It’s the theory that I learned over and over again in Philosophy of Mind and Cognitive Science courses and that was typically presented as the best theory — generally even better than the neurological theories — of mind for Cognitive Science. On the other hand … I can’t remember the Wittgenstein theory. At all. This suggests that it isn’t anywhere near as accepted as functionalism is. Philipse’s refutation of Cartesian dualism — and even behaviourism — is that they aren’t accepted, but then he turns around and ignores the far more accepted theory and insists that it somehow has to demonstrate that it is more plausible than the theory … that most philosophers don’t find as plausible as functionalism. By relying on philosophical acceptance to make his case, he ends up undercutting his own theory, because it isn’t as accepted.

And it only gets worse when you realize why he is ignoring both the mental states theory and functionalism. The reason is that both of them are, in fact, implementation independent. For mental states, if Data is really feeling pain then he feels pain, no matter whether he has a positronic brain or not (most of the objections would be that a positronic brain cannot produce pain sensations, not that it isn’t a human brain). For functionalism, if there is a structure that fills the right functional role it is pain, regardless of how that is implemented. This is problematic for Philipse because ultimately what he wants to argue is that since God doesn’t have a physical body He can’t have any psychology and ultimately can’t be a person. For the former, that will be an indirect argument, but he makes it directly for the second part (which will be covered in the next post). Only by tying his view of psychological terms to human beings specifically can he do that, and he does that with Wittgenstein’s view. Of course, that this potentially leaves out animals — see the idea of judging them by their behaviour — or AIs or even sufficiently different aliens is not something that Philipse allows himself to be concerned with … but anyone who cares about getting the concepts right is going to have to be concerned with.

Philipse points out that Swinburne argues against the Wittgenstein conception of the meaning of psychological terms, argue essentially that we can have psychological states without expressing them outwardly and that we don’t need to limit the ascription of psychological terms only to those things that express them the way we express them, so God might express them instead, for example, by “making marks in the sand”. Philipse takes on the first objection by insisting that we have to presume that an agent has expressed some behavioural signs of psychological states before we are justified in saying that in this case they still have them even though they aren’t expressing them. However, he runs into his old nemesis the mental states theory again that would argue that if someone was, for some reason, physically incapable of expressing, say, anger that wouldn’t mean that they wouldn’t feel it, just that we might not be justified in ascribing those states to that being. And Philipse, to have his argument come off, needs to establish that such a being is not possible, that you simply could not have a being that had psychological states but couldn’t express them bodily. He wants us to accept that there is no such thing, not that if there was such a thing we’d have a really hard time figuring out what psychological state it was in at the moment. So this simply won’t work; Swinburne’s argument does, in fact, demonstrate that a being can have psychological states that they do not express, and all Philipse can do here is insist that the way these things are for us — for example, that we learn to hide our emotions by learning what the normal behaviours are — is how they must be for all beings, which would be him simply assuming what he purports to demonstrate.

It is with the second argument that Philipse indirectly argues that if you don’t have a body then you can’t have psychological states, and so that implementation matters. Unfortunately, he actually tries to do that in a really, really horrid way, as he counters the “marks in the sand” argument with, essentially, “Don’t you need a body to make marks in the sand?”, which he then uses to say “So you have to do it by metaphor!” Except … this argument assumes that God cannot interact at all with the material world! If God can interact with the material world without a body, then He can make marks in the sand. And if Philipse thinks it reasonable to say that God cannot interact with the material world without a body, then Philipse would have, in fact, pretty much refuted theism. It’s no wonder that Coyne likes Philipse, when they make the same mistake: just as Coyne tries to establish that faith and science are incompatible because faith does not produce knowledge, Philipse tries to establish that God cannot have psychological states because God can’t interact at all with the physical world without a body. But if they could establish the latter, then that’s a much more serious issue for theism than the one that they are trying to justify with that claim. Which is why, then, theists won’t simply accept that. And Philipse doesn’t establish that here, and if he’d done it earlier he really should have just quit there and ended the book.

At any rate, in the next post we’ll get to the sections that had me wondering ““Look, are you REALLY a philosopher?”

I never thought he’d PROVE it …

July 10, 2015

So, I’ve commented before that reading P.Z. Myers was one of the main motivators for my policy of with pretty much any post ensuring that I read the post they are replying to before reading what they said, because with him what he said the post was saying was generally not at all what it was actually saying (with Jerry Coyne, the issue is that he interprets it in line with his viewpoint and not theirs, but at least he’s usually in the same ballpark). Myers, in relation to the recent UCL statement on the Tim Hunt, has managed to provide absolute proof that his reading comprehension is, well, less than ideal, as he first claims that the statement clearly said things it didn’t actually say and then is surprised when people point out that it didn’t actually say that. Here’s what he says the statement says:

University College London has released a plain-spoken statement, confirming that the council unanimously found his comments entirely inappropriate for an honorary professor, and they have affirmed that his position is retracted.

Let me reproduce the statement here:

UCL Council, the university’s governing body, has today reviewed all of the circumstances of the resignation of Sir Tim Hunt as an Honorary Professor of the Faculty of Life Sciences on 10 June. Having seen the relevant correspondence, including the exchange of emails between Sir Tim and UCL, the Council is satisfied that his resignation was accepted in good faith. Council unanimously supports the decision taken by UCL’s executive to accept the resignation.

The subsequent extent of media interest was unprecedented, and Council recognises the distress caused to Sir Tim and Professor Mary Collins. Council acknowledges that all parties agree that reinstatement would be inappropriate.

Council recognises that there are lessons to be learned around the communication process. Consequently it has requested that the executive undertake a review of its communications strategy.

So, first, it doesn’t say that his position was retracted. It says he resigned, which even Tim Hunt acknowledges and which was a key point in some arguments (ie that he wasn’t fired, but instead resigned). It then says that it thinks that that acceptance was done in good faith, meaning that he resigned and that at least the resignation was valid. It doesn’t actually say that, for example, Hunt wasn’t pushed into it by some members of the executive, just that, essentially, Hunt thought that resigning was the best course when he did it and the executive accepted that reasonably. It also then says that given the circumstances, the executive was right to accept his resignation. They then say that everyone — including Hunt — thinks that reinstatement would be inappropriate. They finish by saying that the communication process didn’t work out like it should.

All of this fits in with Hunt’s complaint in a later article: people told his wife that if he didn’t resign they’d turf/try to turf him, he decided for various reasons that that would be the best thing to do and to try to end it, UCL instead of doing it mostly quietly trumpeted it in the media (I believe in a way that suggested that he had been sacked), this caused Hunt and his wife great distress, and that last part probably shouldn’t have happened. But note what it didn’t say:

It didn’t say that they thought his comments were inappropriate.

It didn’t say that they thought his comments were so inappropriate that no honourary professor should utter them.

It didn’t say that his position was retracted.

In fact, even if you read in that the comments were such that the resignation was the only appropriate action, it doesn’t say that it was because of how bad the comments were, and is in fact completely compatible with the interpretation that given the backlash resignation was the only appropriate action. Which is far, far from what Myers thinks it implies.

The Siren Song of Mad Science

July 8, 2015

The fourth essay in “Supervillains and Philosophy” is “The Siren Song of Mad Science” by Kirby Arinder and Joseph Milton. This essay is a very stylistic description of a villain advocating for mad science and trying to describe and determine what one has to do or what one has to believe in order to be a mad scientist. Unfortunately, the style gets in the way of it making an actual point, as it is difficult to glean from it what point they are attempting to make. Presumably, it’s something about science and the scientific method, though, but what precise point seems to be quite obscured by the style.

That being said, I think it is mainly about the idea that science is perceived as being a valueless assessment of the data, and letting the data lead you to the right conclusion, because it and it alone will, in fact, always do so. As the authors describe this as being the main mistake that mad scientists do that makes them, in fact, mad scientists, it seems reasonable that they think this not only a bad way to go, but also that it is based on a gravely mistaken idea of science. As they point out, the data does not lead incontrovertibly to any particular conclusion. Even assessments like preferring one theory to another because it is simpler or because it is more useful to use — a common assessment people like Jerry Coyne use for mathematics and philosophy — is in fact a value judgement. They argue, I think, that if you try to pretend that there are no value judgements in science and that the data leads to the one incontrovertible solution, you’ll end up choosing based on hidden values whenever you have to decide which theory to accept in those cases where the data doesn’t, in fact, settle the question, and those values will almost always be with theory that you prefer to be correct.

It would be too much to conclude — and I think they understand this — that the data itself is totally neutral when it comes to which theories are to be preferred and which aren’t. The data will certainly prune away certain theories that simply don’t make sense given the data or evidence we have. Certainly, we can adapt theories to conform to the evidence and keep on going, but at least certain theories — ie the unadapted ones — will have to be tossed and at some point you end up having to change the theory so much that it isn’t recognizable as the same theory any more; you’re using the same name but the theory is nothing like the original theory. However, it is also clear that a lot of the settled debates in science are not, in fact, that settled, or were not that settled by the evidence, and also that most of those who insist that the evidence settles everything also smuggle in these hidden value judgements, or as I like to call them these hidden philosophical commitments. Appeals to parsimony and Occam’s Razor are, if you understand what they mean, explicit recognitions that the data and evidence isn’t settling the question, as they only apply when two or more theories, in fact, explain equally well the same data. Appeals to prediction and testability are useful only because given these things it is easier for us to demonstrate that the theory is incorrect, but that hardly means that it is more likely to be right. Appealing to the theory explaining things across a broader domain is a subset of the “utility” and/or “testability” angles, and doesn’t mean that it supports the evidence in the specific domain better than the other theories do. So, even when we look at fundamental components of the scientific method, we can see that a lot of them violate the skeptical ideal that we should apportion our beliefs based on the evidence, as the evidence is not, in fact, always so accommodating and yet science has found ways to buttress their beliefs despite the evidence not, itself, being able to justify that confidence that theory A is right and theory B is wrong.

This, I think, underlies a lot of the fights between skeptics and scientismists on the one hand and theists and philosophers on the other. Scientismists and skeptics both insist that they are following the evidence, and that we ought to follow the evidence. But they include as part of their assessment of the strength of the evidence these philosophical and methodological commitments. However, these commitments are merely their own commitments, and so no one else need accept them. Thus, these commitments need to be justified, and most of them simply cannot do it. We can see how this plays out whenever anyone does challenge them. When we see skeptics and scientismists dismissing, say, theism on the basis of the evidence, and then when pushed on the evidence appealing to naturalism or parsimony to justify it being the only rational position, at that point they have moved from basing their preference solely on the evidence to bringing in philosophical commitments. When you challenge the commitments — as I often do for both naturalism and parsimony — they often retreat to weak inductive arguments and an insistence that this is what it means to be rational, or even directly to the whole “Science works!” counter. But all of these are philosophical commitments, not arguments based on evidence. Even appealing to science’s success doesn’t work unless this is a scientific question and they themselves know how they’d test the proposition.

This also applies to appeals to science to settle philosophical questions, like “How can something come from nothing?” and “Do we have free will?”. Typically, the philosophers don’t dispute the scientific evidence. They simply dispute that it does support the contention as strongly as the scientismists think it does. That many scientismists reply with “You just don’t want to admit that we’ve solved your problem!” when the philosophers a) have already thought of that solution and b) can point out why it isn’t one can be easily explained by the scientists not understanding where the demarcation line is between direct scientific questions and questions of other fields, like every day reasoning, philosophy, mathematics, and so on, and so pushing philosophical commitments as if they are entailed by the data instead of being used to filter theories in light of inconclusive data.

In fact, if people like Jerry Coyne want a definition of scientism, that would be it: attempting to apply scientific commitments beyond the demarcation point between science and another field without demonstrating that those commitments apply to that field. And yes, we can have religionism and philosophism as well, and all are equally bad.

Review of “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality”

June 24, 2015

Jerry Coyne often demands encomiums for reading theological works. Given that, I demand many strong encomiums for reading the book he recommended, “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality” by Alex Rosenburg. This is because, unlike the books that Coyne cites, this book is, in actual fact, really, really bad. Now, I didn’t say that about Grayling’s book. Or Coyne’s book. Or pretty much any other atheist book that I’ve read. The harshest I’ve been overall is probably to Kaufmann’s book, which isn’t all that harsh at all. So when I say that the book is really bad, you have a bit of a reference point. So let me outline some of the general problems with it, and then address a number of specific concerns. Again, I’m not quoting and am running mostly on memory, so there may be some inaccuracies, but I think that overall my claims will be accurate and descriptive.

The book was incredibly frustrating to read, mostly because it never really made arguments. Instead, it asserted points with great vigour and then attempted to bludgeon the reader with those asserted points over and over again, often in lieu of actually showing how the new argument really links to the asserted points. He makes great hay over “the physical facts are fixed” even in the face of phenomena that might challenge that idea, and often tries to make those challenges go away by, again, simply saying “The physical facts are fixed!” as if that resolves the problem. There were a number of cases where I was screaming “Get to the point!” when he was going on and on and on about how the thing he was arguing was the case was the case … without showing how, indeed, we knew that. His grasp of philosophy and even of science is weak, his argument unconvincing, his prose more like a propaganda tract than an actual argument … which, given that he seems to believe that argument — as it appeals to consciousness — is, like psychotherapy, useless, might well be the point.

But to see this, let me go through some of the more problematic “arguments” he makes (roughly one per chapter) to see how they fail miserably.

From the start, he tries to set up what will be a major theme of the book: humans are conditioned to prefer stories to things that have real “meaning” (I have to put that in quotes, at least once, since Rosenberg at least arguably doesn’t really believe in meaning), but science can only be expressed in things that aren’t stories, like mathematical equations. The equations have real meaning, he says, but the stories don’t, and yet we are primed by nature to prefer the stories, not the equations. Except that he misses the point of what the “stories” that we prefer are. They are descriptions of how the phenomena impacts our every day lives, the things we go through every day and, in fact, the very world we live in. To anyone who doesn’t already know what the equation means, tossing the equation at them is useless. The scientists already know or can derive what the equation means, meaning what impact it has on a relevant domain — their other equations, their theories, their other experiments — but of course the average, every day person can’t. So they want to know what it means to them. And to its credit, science has very often been able to provide that, which is responsible for science’s great successes. Rosenberg wants to get rid of all that … for some reason. Well, it seems, for the reason that stories rely on our own experiences and he definitely distrusts our own experiences … despite the fact that you can’t even do science without, at some point, relying on your own experiences.

The big scientific principle that Rosenburg uses to underlie his ideas is the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Everything he talks about comes back to that law. And I do mean everything. This, of course, rather quickly gets ridiculous, because he tries to force things into a literal link with the Second Law, instead of using it either as an underlying principle or as an associative descriptive metaphor. This comes to the fore early when he tries to use it to “explain” evolution. He spends a lot of time waxing eloquently about how things like crystals form and how that strictly follows the Second Law, and then seems to argue that evolutionary interactions are molecular interactions and molecular interactions work the same way, which is fair enough, but then seems to conclude that therefore the evolutionary process is therefore the exact same process. And I don’t mean in the sense that Dawkins concluded that multiverses would be a case of natural selection — as roughly the same kind of explanatory process, but obviously not the same kind of process — and not in the sense that evolutionary processes are therefore bound by the Second Law and cannot violate it — which no one would deny — but instead that you can, somehow, literally talk about evolutionary processes in the exact same way as you talk about crystal formation, citing the Second Law, and not getting away at all from “atoms joining together” and it will make sense. At least, that’s how I took it … and it’s ridiculous to think of it that way. While you can compare them at a broad level — that structures form at random and the stable ones “survive” to move on and grow larger and larger — with evolution you end up with interactions that can only be understood at the organism level, and the interactions with the environment go far beyond “heat it up and things react faster”. But those interactions are all he talks about in that chapter, and pretty much all he says about evolution, which is not going to help him when he tries to show that those sort of Second Law dynamics are the only way we can get life.

The big thrust of that argument is that the Second Law moves us from order to disorder, and life is ordered. But we can get order, even without an external force intervening — he repeats the explanation for why we can have evolved order on Earth of “we use the energy input of the Sun to do it” earlier — but it’s just improbable. Perhaps wildly so. But if it happens, then we get life, and then we get all that comes with that. So the only way that we can get that naturally is by a random “lucking out”. Well, sure, except that he has to concede that an external force could do it. So, he’s left with it’s either complete blind random chance … or God. Sure, he claims that no intelligent external force would do it that way because it’s so “inefficient”, but all that means is that it’s hard and takes a lot of energy and effort … and if a God wanted people to know that He created them without telling them, doing something very, very hard would be the way to go.

On morality, Rosenberg’s claims for why there can be no such thing as morality are very, very weak. He completely misses the idea of normativity that is inherent to morality and for the most part simply dismisses morality completely without any real argument. When he does try to argue for it, he ends up appealing to the Nihilism that he thinks is entailed by Scientism that he thinks is entailed by science instead of something that someone who think that, say, morality is a conceptual truth could find in any way convincing. He tries to sidestep the idea that being moral nihilists means accepting that anything goes by pointing out that we all have a core morality built into us by evolution that gives us strong moral reactions and emotions, reactions and emotions that we pretty much have to follow, so we’ll generally act reasonably anyway … except for all the people who don’t, of course. The problem is that this argument is pretty much based on the idea that these things are so strongly wired into at least most people that we just naturally will follow them, at all times, and will never and never be able to change or even eliminate them. Except that we know that we can do just that. He uses an example of intense jealousy as an evolved moral emotion … ignoring that most people who feel it are, in fact, able to suppress of even eliminate that emotion, and most people think that we ought to. Rage to the point of violence when someone offends you is also a natural emotion, but we’ve both developed ways to control it and insisted that one ought only engage in it on very rare occasions. Given that we can control our emotions — which includes our moral ones — then it is a reasonable question to ask which of those I ought to keep and which I ought to eliminate. Which means that if it makes sense for me to eliminate the emotion against hurting children, then I ought to do that. So, even given Rosenberg’s “core morality”, there is still good reason to examine morality, see what it is for, and then align my core morality with what best suits that purpose. In short, normative concerns. Only if I cannot change my emotions does this fail, and all of our experience suggests that we can do just that.

Of course, Rosenberg denies that we can do that, by denying that our experiences are telling us anything at all useful, particularly ones that deal with introspection on our mental processes and states. One has to wonder at what point he considers sense impressions accurate, since they are conscious impressions and so, at least to him, can’t actually drive our behaviour, which ought to be embarrassing for him since they are our only access to an external world at all. Anyway, he uses the Libet experiments and blindsight experiment to show that our introspections about the mind works are just plain wrong. The interesting thing here is that there’s an actual interesting challenge brought up by these experiments, but you wouldn’t know it by reading what Rosenburg says, as he expresses the argument here incredibly badly. Anyway, the interesting argument is this: we tend to think that our conscious experiences are causing certain behaviours, but the experiments are showing that in at least some we can get the same behaviours without, it seems, them being caused by the conscious experience (this is the important point in the blindsight experiments). But if this is the case, how do we know that our conscious experiences ever cause any behaviour? Rosenburg focuses in on the neurological side and showing that tweaking things in the brain can predict or cause things, but never really, as far as I can tell, pushes that line. Now, the short reply to this is that none of the experiments address things that are, in fact, paradigmatically conscious. Facial recognition is known to be an automatic process, and pointing to an object of a certain colour is something that we, for example, never really “think” about, and randomly choosing when to press a button seems to be something that you’d leave to a random number generator, like a sleep(random 10) command in a computer program. I’ll talk more about this problem in another post, but suffice it to say that the interesting parts of the argument are not in Rosenburg, and Rosenburg’s arguments are not interesting.

Rosenburg’s attempts to deal with meaning and aboutness are muddled and self-contradicting. He focuses in on the brain, and insists that there can be no actual link between things in the brain to things in the world, so no aboutness, so no meaning. At this point, he’s conceded the big point that non-materialists want conceded: that the physical brain can’t capture aboutness, but then simply tries to argue that since, of course, that’s all it is, that therefore aboutness can’t happen, there’s no such thing as meaning, and ultimately ends up having to adopt a very strong Skinnerian behaviourism to explain how we go about our daily lives, which then makes it ironic that he cites Chomsky’s theory of language in defense of this since Chomsky’s theory is widely held to have refuted Skinner since language can’t be formed that way. Oops. But Rosenburg gives us no other way to go than this view that is generally considered to be totally false. Oops again. He ends up accepting the argument that most of his fellow materialists rightly think is a bad thing to accept if one wants materialism to be true, is left with no way to argue against the anti-materialist arguments and claimed consequences other than by simply asserting that there is no such thing — he even argues at one point that some of the issues around identity and the like are problems for science, but not for Scientism, which is like saying that it’s a problem for the underlying theory, but not for the things that depend on their truth on that underlying theory being true — and then walks himself into absurdities trying to show what it means to accept those things as not existing. In short, he tries to take the things that people say would demonstrate that we need something non-physical to support them and eliminate them, and when he can’t simply asserts that everything is physical and we’ll figure it all out someday. That’s hardly an argument that anyone should support.

Ultimately, Rosenburg has to dismiss any attempts to interpret the internal mental states of people and predict their behaviour on the basis of that, because of the rather ridiculous claim that there are no such things (or, at least, that they aren’t causally efficacious). This means that he has to deride folk psychology, psychotherapy and history as being absolutely useless and mostly wrong. But folk psychology is, in fact, the most effective method we have for predicting the actions of other people in our every day lives. We use it many, many times a day, every day, and it generally works, and when it doesn’t work it is quick to point out that, hey, something’s wrong here and so you’d better go figure out more about the other person. It boggles my mind that Rosenburg could seriously express the idea that folk psychology is just terrible at figuring out psychology at that level because not only is it wildly successful, it’s also not going to be replaced by “look inside the brain and see what’s happening”. When it comes to history, Rosenburg seems to be insisting that it is pointless because there aren’t enough patterns in human behaviour to allow it to say anything useful … while insisting earlier that we all have evolved traits that are roughly common even between cultures that produce a “core morality”, and that clashes tend to be over facts, not over core moral claims. So … wouldn’t that be a pattern? But the attack on psychotherapy is the worst. He insists that the only way to fix mental problems is going to be various drugs, because if I recall correctly psychotherapy, at best, identifies and treats the symptoms, not the cause (which to him is the brain state). Except that since our only access to the outside world is through seeing and hearing and the like, even if his theory is true we would generally develop those mental problems by what we “see” and “hear”, which means that the cause of those neural patterns is, in fact, the external forces that impinge on our “minds”. So, if you take a drug to simply reset the neurons and then go back out and have those same “experiences” again … your neurons will revert back to the problem state. You will, ironically, have treated the symptoms and not the cause. Psychotherapy, then, both accepts that talking and experiencing is what caused the problem in the first place, and tries to fix the problem by trying to change how one reacts to those things, which addresses the cause and not merely the symptoms. In short, if you can get into it by experiences, you can get out of it by experiences. The only reason for Rosenburg to hold this is to hold his view that internal experiences do nothing, but the whole rest of the work is forced to deny that, so his argument fails.

It is, as I said, a very bad book. The philosophy is weak and inconsistent, the arguments generally poor, and the writing style more that of a propaganda piece than of a philosophical argument, which I suppose is consistent given his views of their efficacy. Out of all of the books I’ve read so far, this is the only one that I recommend everyone stay far, far away from.

Ways of Knowing

June 17, 2015

One of Coyne’s big pushes in “Faith vs Fact” is the idea that science, broadly construed, is the only “Way of Knowing”. The problem, however, is that in order to justify that he needs to, well, define what it means to know in such a way that that can work. As with most of the terms in his book, Coyne eschews the actual fields that study it and work with it, and instead runs to the dictionary to yank his definition out of that, tweaking it with some supplemental material to allow him to make his point. The failings of that approach are on full display when he talks about “Ways of Knowing”, because he essentially defines knowledge in such a way that science is the only thing that could produce knowledge, because he limits the domain of “true” to the “empirical” world, and denies that, in general, to mathematical truths and philosophical truths. Unfortunately, Coyne needs at least the latter to be true in at least a meaningful sense in order for his points to work out, because if I can say that his definitions of knowledge and truth are not, well, true and therefore ignore them, and if Coyne cannot say that he “knows” that those definitions are correct, then anyone who wants to deny that science is the only way of knowing can, in fact, simply dismiss his claims and insist that, by their definition, faith still counts as a way of knowing. The fact that his definitions are, in fact, fairly self-serving only heightens the temptation to simply dismiss what he’s saying as an attempt to win the debate by definition, not by evidence or argument.

And the sad thing is that if he was a little more open to philosophy, he could have avoided all of these issues, because the field of philosophy that studies knowledge — epistemology — has already provided a pretty decent rough-and-ready definition of knowledge that he could have used: knowledge is justified true belief. To remind you of the details of that:

S knows that p iff:

S believes that p.
S’s belief that p is justified.
p is true.

Now, there are potential issues with all of these — as philosophy is well-known for generating problems for any theory that it comes across [grin] — but for the most part this works. It seems a contradiction to say that you know something to be true but don’t believe it to be true. It also seems a contradiction to say that you know something to be true that isn’t actually true, no matter how strong the purported justification is. And the difference between simply believing something to be true and knowing it to be true seems to be tied to how strong a justification you have for thinking that it is true, and is something that Coyne himself it seems definitely wants to accept (because that’s how he tries to eliminate “faith” as a way of knowing). So the only thing to clarify here is what it means for something to be true, as Coyne definitely tries to limit it to statements of “fact” about the empirical world, while philosophers and mathematicians, at least, will want to extend it to include their fields. In general, though, the way I define truth is this: the statement accurately describes what is the case in a particular domain. So empirical truths describe the way things are in the empirical world. Mathematical truths describe what implications and statements are correct given a certain mathematical system. And most importantly, philosophical truths describe what is true about a set of concepts or philosophical positions, such as, well, what the definition of “knowledge” must be conceptually. This, then, allows Coyne — even if he rejects the standard definition of knowledge — to be able to point to a definition of knowledge that is “true”, and therefore can be justified to be true, and therefore is one that people cannot simply dismiss … which his view actually doesn’t, as “truthiness” is not a property of the empirical world.

In talking about science, it seems to me that Coyne does at least roughly align with Larry Moran’s definition of science, in that he seems to regard science as being critically involving rational thought, skepticism and empirical evidence. I’ve talked about that before, and pointed out how that leads me to say that there are three different ways of knowing: science, everyday reasoning, and philosophy. Everyday reasoning, it seems to me, rejects skepticism, but also produces the vast majority of the knowledge that we rely on, well, every day. Philosophy rejects empiricism, although unlike in the linked article I now actually believe that philosophy is, in fact, even more skeptical than science is.

Which is a good place to talk about skepticism, since in order to demonstrate that everyday reasoning is not skeptical we need to know what it means. Many assert that skepticism is critically about tailoring your beliefs to the evidence, but this is, I think, problematic because it essentially defines the skeptical approach as reasonable and then argues that it is the only reasonable one you could have. People relying on faith, for example, could easily insist that they do tailor the confidence of their beliefs to the evidence, but that the skeptic simply denies that the evidence exists, which leads to a massive morass that we probably didn’t want to jump into simply by defining a term. So I prefer this, and relate it to belief itself, directly: a skeptical approach says “Do not believe without good reason”, while a non-skeptical approach says “Believe unless you have good reason not to”. Now, neither approach means that you accept things that are “unevidenced”, or that have no evidence in their favour. And both, in some way, insist in appropriate evidence for the beliefs, especially if they want to make a knowledge claim out of it. So opposing a non-skeptical approach that way won’t work.

Let me use everyday reasoning, which I think is a non-skeptical approach, to show how this works in practice. To form a belief, in everyday reasoning we first have some kind of initial “evidence” for that proposition. We see something. Someone tells us something. We conclude something from what we already “know”. We get a belief from the culture. Whatever. At that point, we check that against our Web of Belief, against the things that we already believe or know to be true, and if there’s no contradiction we accept it. Contrast this with science, which wouldn’t stop there, but would instead definitely try to directly test it before accepting it, and would do so in ways that would try to prove it wrong. Everyday reasoning doesn’t try to prove things wrong, but instead adopts them, acts on them, and lets reality disprove it if it can.

When I say that everyday reasoning is non-skeptical, then, this is what I mean: everyday reasoning will not doubt — and therefore will not explicitly test — a proposition unless it has reason to. It does not reject skepticism outright, but instead instead rejects skepticism as a primary criterion for truth and, most explicitly, as a starting point for forming true beliefs.

The same applies to philosophy’s rejection of empiricism. It’s not that philosophy says that empirical data can’t produce knowledge, because philosophy concedes that it can and often does. And it’s not even that philosophy says a priori that empirical data can’t be used to settle traditionally “philosophical” problems, because the history of naturalized philosophy and empirically-minded moral philosophy belies that as well. No, philosophy rejects the idea that empirical data is required in order to know anything — even about the empirical world — because it can think of at least possible propositions that could be true and yet where empirical data is useless for determining its truth value, and of cases where even purely rational proofs could indeed prove truths about things that are typically considered empirical. This is why I say that philosophy is even more skeptical than science is, because while science accepts certain preconceptions built around the idea that there is a certain method that one ought to use when examining the empirical world, philosophy rejects even that: in a philosophical argument, it is quite reasonable to demand that someone demonstrate why they think their approach can actually get them to the right answer. Imagine someone in a scientific context demanding that the scientist show that the use of scientific method is actually reasonable in this case! But in philosophy, you can demand that the person justify their use of rational conceptual analysis here instead of science, and vice versa.

So, to me, there are three different ways of knowing: everyday reasoning, science, and philosophy. (Whether mathematics is another way of knowing or just a special case of philosophy is not a discussion that I want to go into today). But it can be asked, especially given science’s record, what we need the other two for? Science gives us truths and is very good at it, so why use the other two at all?

Everyday reasoning, because it is less skeptical than science, is wrong more of the time (although it is also self-correcting). But its big benefit — and why it is non-skeptical — is that it is fast. For any proposition that both everyday reasoning and science come to the same conclusion on, science will take a lot longer to get there because it will have to run far more tests to come to that conclusion. This means that if we need to act on that proposition in the world, we will have to wait far longer for science to tell us which way we should act towards it: as if it is true, or if it is false. But we generate a massive number of beliefs, and act on a massive number of beliefs every day. We just don’t have the time or resources to test every belief skeptically, nor do we have the time to wait for science to tell us what we should or shouldn’t do. If when I have a cold I eat chicken soup and feel better, I certainly feel justified in continuing to do that — and so making a claim that I know that chicken soup makes me feel better — without waiting for science to demonstrate that it really can … whether I’m actually right about that or not. If science, on testing it, finds reason to think that that is not true, then I have reason to doubt and adjust accordingly. But I don’t have to wait until it does to decide whether that belief is justified or not, and so to act on it or not in the world … which, since I don’t have the time to do that, is a very good thing.

As for philosophy, the biggest benefit of it are what we might call “meta” analyses: examining whether what a method entails and whether or not it works to achieve its goal. This is why we have so many “Philosophy of …” fields, as philosophy looks at the field from the outside, without using its own methods to study itself (which, even if it can be done, must be considered suspect from the start). In this way, it also challenges presumptions, which can reveal flaws and also that a field is rejecting a finding only because of presumptions and preconceptions that it need not make. And, currently, it’s also the go-to field for any propositions that might not be empirical, as science can’t address it. So, the normative claims of morality or even of epistemology. Again, philosophy does not presume these to be non-empirical or beyond the reach of science, but instead argues for it … and challenges that conclusion itself.

In short, we definitely seem to have three methodologies that are fundamentally different and yet all produce justifications for propositions that we definitely want to consider “true” in a strong sense. They are not all science, nor can they all be science without losing what makes science good at what it does. Thus, there are definitely more ways of knowing than just science. Note that I personally don’t think that faith is a way of knowing because I don’t see how it provides any justification for a proposition; it seems to be about coming to believe a proposition with a greater confidence than the evidence supports, not about providing a justification of that move. So we agree on that, at least that far. But to deny that there are any other ways of knowing is, to my mind, going way too far.

Review of Varieties of Scientific Experience

June 15, 2015

So, another of the books that Jerry Coyne recommends reading — and so that one should read if one wants to understand the atheistic position — is done. I finished Carl Sagan’s “Varieties of Scientific Experience”, and didn’t find it particularly enlightening. It’s not really fair to criticize it for not saying anything new, because these are a set of lectures first given in 1985, so at the time some of the things said might well have been. That being said, a lot of them weren’t even new then, and that doesn’t mean that people haven’t said the same things better, with more nuance, and with a better appreciation for the responses than you’ll find in this book. Also, it’s not really fair to criticize it for not being a deep examination of the issues, because as a set of lectures it has a limited time frame to work with and so won’t be able to examine things as deeply. But, again, that doesn’t mean that others haven’t done deeper examinations that are more worth reading that this is. In terms of style, Sagan is not particularly snarky towards religion but at times drifts into it, which are probably Coyne’s favourite parts, as Coyne seems to really appreciate snarky, sarcastic attitudes and arguments. So, it was a fairly neutral read; I wasn’t taken to new heights by the scientific wonders he talked about, nor did I find the book either particularly challenging to my beliefs nor particularly egregiously wrong. However, there are a few points that I want to highlight.

In the Q&A, there is one question about the burden of proof. The questioner says that he thinks that the person who says that God does not exist has an equal burden of proof to the person who say that God does exist. Sagan falls back on the old line that the person making the contention has the burden of proof, but tries to defend it by saying that we can’t do otherwise, else someone could toss out a number of contentions and, essentially, leave the opponents with the burden of proof. This then ties in to his overall contention about the person in that position having to provide sufficient evidence. But the key is that if the person making the contention doesn’t provide sufficient evidence, that does not mean that the opposing viewpoint is justified. In this case, just because I cannot provide sufficient evidence that God exists does not mean that, therefore, the proposition “God does not exist” is justified, or that someone saying that has no burden of proof. All that it means when sufficient evidence cannot be provided is that the contention isn’t proven, so all you are strongly justified in saying is “I don’t believe you”. But just because you may be justified in lacking belief does not mean that you are justified in believing in lack … and if we’re going to talk about belief, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t justified — in the sense of being reasonable — in believing.

This, I think, carries on to the chapter where Sagan looks at the actual theology. In that chapter, he constantly brings up theological arguments, finds faults in them, and then declares that they are unconvincing … and does nothing else. Yet he brings up the Problem of Evil as a problem for theism … despite the fact that there are as good reasons to doubt its truth as there are for most of the theological arguments, and so good reasons to theists to find it unconvincing. This should lead to a stalemate; no good arguments for or against. But it doesn’t seem that Sagan thinks of it that way, probably because he thinks that the theist has all of the burden of proof. However, atheists who want to claim that God does not exist or even that theism is not reasonable/rational share the burden of proof to demonstrate that. It’s no wonder that theists often find the atheist arguments shallow and naive when they start from the position that all they have to do is find a flaw, any flaw, in the argument, and then they can declare victory. In short, they hold that all they need to do is show how the argument might be wrong, or as Sagan does that there might be a natural or scientific explanation that he personally finds credible, and the theist is refuted. Simply showing that the theist might be wrong only forces you back to the stalemate, unless you show an argument that supports the contention that God doesn’t exist beyond that.

This carries over to what probably should have been the most interesting and useful part of the series, but which was sadly addressed far too briefly: what Sagan thinks skepticism entails. But even here, Sagan shows his own failings at skepticism, and the tendency for science to declare old answers irrational and unscientific even if they were as valid scientifically as the theories that replaced them. His big example is of the purported discovery of the canals on Mars, and he essentially says that the people who thought that they were there as opposed to those who thought that it was just a trick of the human eye were letting their desire for a particular answer cloud their judgement because they wanted there to be alien life on Mars … in the same chapter where he points out that many people, for religious reasons, wouldn’t want there to exist life on other planets in an era at least as religious as the one we have now, if not likely far more so. So, then, why doesn’t he also charge those arguing against the canals with also potentially acting on personal bias? The biggest bias one could charge the scientists who accepted the canal theory with is the bias of wanting to discover something scientifically revolutionary … and if that bias is as strong as Sagan suggests, then this puts any revolutionary scientific discovery under suspicion.

But it isn’t clear that the people who thought that there really were canals on Mars were preferring the theory that was less scientifically supported. I’m not an expert on the history of that discovery, but from what Sagan says they saw canals that were too long and straight to be natural, and thus concluded that they were made by intelligent life. The counter was that maybe it was an artifact of the human eye or of the equipment or of something else. But the scientists pointed out that this was seen by many scientists in different areas independently, and so wasn’t likely to be simple human error. Thus, their only counter was that there was some fundamental flaw in the sensory organs or in the telescopes used to look at Mars, but their only reason for asserting that was, essentially, that they didn’t like the results they were seeing. It is not a good idea to undercut the accuracy of the very things required to get any data at all just because you don’t like what they’re telling you, and it looks like the opposition was doing exactly that. Sure, the theory ended up being wrong and ended up being due to other factors, but at the time it doesn’t seem like it was an unreasonable theory … and might have even been the one that was the best supported. That it ended up being wrong doesn’t mean that it was unreasonable or an example of science done badly.

I find that this is common with scientists and scientific theories: the desire to ditch theories that today look ridiculous and insist that they weren’t really scientific theories, while accepting conceptual and common sense arguments that happened to be right as properly scientific, as long as one adjusts the meaning of the word “science” accordingly. Democritus’ atomic theory — one of Sagan’s favourites — is a prime example of the latter. Democritus and his mentor did not have any real empirical evidence for atoms, just equally philosophical speculations … and yet their results are considered “scientific” because they happened to be right. Plato and Aristotle appealed as much to the empirical as they did, and yet are claimed to not be doing science at all. For the former, the dismissal of phlogiston and caloric shows how scientists, typically, want to deny that those were even scientific theories, at least in my experience … and yet they were, at the time, just as valid scientific theories as the ones that eventually won out. They just happened to be wrong, but that doesn’t make them unscientific.

Which reveals, I think, an underlying and unspoken foundational principle of science: the desire to be right. Sure, when pressed scientismists will accept that science has been wrong, but then immediately jump to a defense that science, at least, finds out its own errors, unlike theology or philosophy … who, in fact, often do find out their own errors. The only errors that science finds out for them are the ones based on clashes with empirical fact … and since that’s all science does, it had better be the one finding those most of the time. At any rate, if science cannot dismiss an error as not being “truly” scientific, it consoles itself with saying that its method finds the truth anyway, so it is, in fact, right … and scientism is based on science taking the right answers and right methods and claiming that that was part of science all along.

At any rate, I can’t really recommend this book, because again I’m not sure what audience would appreciate it. Anyone who is already interested in the topic will probably already know everything Sagan is saying, and someone unfamiliar with the debates won’t find enough depth in the discussion to really learn anything. The discussions around science are probably the most interesting, but he neither prompts me to share in his wonder of the natural world nor talks about science itself in detail enough for me to take a philosophical approach to it. It is, however, a most inoffensive book, so you won’t toss it against the wall too often, and it’s a relatively easy read, so you could do worse than read it.


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