Archive for the ‘Theism’ Category

Heaven and Hell …

September 21, 2018

So, over at Cross Examined, Bob Seidensticker is talking about a specific thought experiment and one Christian’s answer to it that purportedly links to ideas of God’s marvelous plan. Let me quote the thought experiment first:

If you [a Christian] found yourself on Judgement Day standing next to an unbeliever you cared for and liked and Jesus offered to either annihilate you both or send you to heaven and your friend to hell for eternity, which would you choose and why?

Greg Koukl, the person the thought experiment was originally addressed to, took the second option, based on that being what God does and assuming that God’s judgement in the matter as right. Seidensticker, unsurprisingly, strongly disagrees that that’s the right answer to the question:

So we’re supposed to accept an insane interpretation of justice—infinite punishment in hell for finite crimes here on earth—and just assume that God must have good reasons? This does nothing to justify the Christian position and would be satisfying only to Christians (and maybe only some of those).

This question is like God’s demand that Abraham sacrifice Isaac—it looked like an obedience test, but it was actually a morality test. The correct response for Abraham was: “No, of course I won’t sacrifice Isaac.” And this wasn’t presumptuous of Abraham.

So the underlying presumption here is that this isn’t — or couldn’t — really a test of obedience, but is instead to be thought of as a test of the person’s morality, which means that the Koukl and anyone else taking it would have to give what Seidensticker thinks is the right answer to the question, and choose annihilation for both of them in the original example and refuse to sacrifice Isaac in the second one or else they fail it. This despite the fact that the right answer to the second one was not what Seidensticker says it is, and so what he’d be doing there is taking it out of the realm of Chrisitanity and into the realm of philosophy, which is where I like to play. So let’s do that, then.

What you have to realize about both of these thought experiments is that in order for them to work in any way we have to presume that the people making the decision know that God exists, know that God is asking them to do that, and know that God knows what is or isn’t moral infallibly. Whether God knows this because what is or isn’t moral is something that is knowable and God knows everything — which is my interpretation — or because what is or isn’t moral is determined by the rules of morality that God attached to the universe in the same way that He attached the rules of physics to this universe, God out of anyone knows what is or isn’t moral. And so we can see that, in these cases, God, the person who knows what is or isn’t moral, is telling us to take an action that clashes with our moral intuitions. But if we believe that God knows that is or isn’t moral and believe that God’s system or judgements are moral, then what we end up with is a situation where our judgement of what is moral clashes with that of God’s, where we know that God is at least capable of judging morality infallibly but where we know that we, on the other hand, can get moral judgements wrong. Thus, for us we’re actually in the situation of having objective proof that an action is morally right, but having our internal moral judgements and intuitions clash with it. By any reasonable epistemology, we are in a situation where we know what is moral based on objective evidence and argumentation but recoil from it on the basis of an emotion or intuitive assessment of what “seems right” to us.

To me, no one can be considered a moral person if they refuse to accept the action that they know is moral because it clashes with their emotional assessments of what they feel or want to feel is moral. This test, then, tests for the ability to sacrifice your own personal preferences to objective morality, and so in both cases you should go with what God — who is, you must remember, the only entity in the picture who infallibly knows what is or isn’t moral — says you should do, or with what God judges is right or wrong. Thus, accepting God’s judgement on whether Isaac needs to be sacrificed or whether your friend should go to Hell is the only rational choice you can make if you are actually concerned about being a moral person. The only way the atheist can dodge this outcome is to deny that objective morality exists … but then they can’t make a claim that the decision that someone makes on that decision is immoral, which destroys Seidensticker’s entire argument here.

Since Man was supposedly created in God’s image (or the gods’ image), Man’s understanding of morality should be in sync with God’s, and the natural instinct of revulsion against killing one’s own son should be reliable.

Further to that, Seidensticker here is clearly assuming that all of our natural instincts are moral ones in the sense that they even aim at moral ends or decisions, and in the sense that even the ones that do are always correct in their moral assessments. This is obviously false on all counts. First, we have all sorts of natural instincts that are at best amoral, like that for food or water. We can definitely acquire food in instinctive ways that nevertheless we’d at least consider not fully moral. Second, we know that even those natural instincts that seem to be related to moral decisions quite often get them wrong, like when we fall into in-group and out-group thinking. And even if we can consider that the instinct to not kill one’s child is in itself generally reliably moral, anyone with any moral system more complicated than “Just go with your feelings” can easily find cases where the revulsion against killing one’s child ends up not being the ideal moral choice. Imagine a scenario — slightly modified from a “love test” in Space 1999 — where you have 10 people in one airlock and your child in another, with air slowly leaking from both of them, but where the air pressure in one airlock keeps the other one from opening and letting out those who are inside, but where you have access to a button that can vacate all of the air in one airlock, killing the person inside that airlock but allowing everyone else to go free. Taking the most popular professed morality of atheists — Utilitarianism — killing your child to save the others is the unequivocally moral decision despite that natural instinct to not kill them, and most other moral systems will at least say that it isn’t the fact that it’s your child that makes the action morally wrong. So appealing to that natural instinct as some kind of proof of the immorality of the action itself doesn’t work — since it can be wrong — and certainly doesn’t work when the other option is being advocated by the only being in existence that will never be wrong in its moral assessment.

Now apply that attitude to this question of annihilation vs. heaven for you and hell for your friend. Any mentally healthy person would be horrified at the idea of anyone, let alone a friend, being tormented forever and would immediately choose the alternative. Besides, this hypothetical assumes that “God’s system” has suddenly become flexible, so that your choosing is allowed, and your God-given sense of morality would be an appropriate response.

This, however, relies on that assumption that whether they go to Hell or not is indeed entirely your choice, which means that God has not yet judged them, or at least wouldn’t judge them as worthy of Hell if you didn’t make that choice for them. That, I think, is the driving force behind the horror, which is the idea that your choice and your choice to go to Heaven is made on the back of them being damned to Hell. But that’s not how the Christian is going to look at it here. The Christian is going to look at it as it being the case that God judged them worthy of going to Hell, but is giving you the option to spare them that at the cost of your own reward. Except that in that case what the Christian will believe is that they, in fact, deserve to go to Hell, since God has perfect knowledge and perfect morality and so would always give out perfect justice. This is in fact Koukl’s reply when asked if he’d be able to be happy knowing that his friend was in Hell:

Yeah, that’d be a shame if someone else’s anguish rained on his enjoyment of heaven. He explained that when we get heavenly enlightenment, we will understand that “God’s judgments are just.”

First, this response from Seidensticker reveals that he’s not really all that comfortable dealing with the philosophical implications of these experiments, because the issue here is not over whether Koukl might feel bad, but about whether the concept of Heaven of Hell produces a contradiction: Heaven is supposed to be us having perfect joy, but how can we have perfect joy knowing that people we love are in Hell? And Koukl’s answer here is that once we enter Heaven, we’ll come to understand why that action was deserved and so was just, and so won’t feel bad about it anymore. We may still regret that they are in Hell, but we will know that they deserved it, and so there won’t be any contradiction here.

Now, of course, the typical atheist response is that there is nothing that can deserve an eternal torment in the flames of Hell, which of course immediately runs up against the “God is perfectly moral and perfectly knowledgeable and so perfectly just” reply. But, on top of that, I think that questions like that reveal that perhaps we shouldn’t be taking the “Hell is eternal flame and brimstone” idea literally, but rather as an analogy. Hell is likely far more complicated than that (presuming it exists) and so is instead of being an obvious torment a more subtle one. If it isn’t easy to see at first blush what would be so bad about Hell, it would be perfectly reasonable for Jesus to use an analogy of extreme torment to get across how bad it ends up so that we aren’t misled by thoughts that it doesn’t sound that bad. For me, I’m rather partial to the concept in the fictional series “Heroes in Hell”, where those who were ambitious in life are all sent to live out their lives, but they still desire power and to be ambitious but the extreme competition for power and the rules of Hell itself mean that they can never really achieve their ambitions. Even Satan can’t do that, because while he rules in Hell it’s a rule that he constantly has to defend from those as ambitious as he is who, ultimately, all want his power. This is a Hell that, at first blush, doesn’t sound that bad until you realize just how terrible an eternity of that would be. It even gives a place for non-believers — it’s not that bad for them, but can never be Heaven — and can provide an epiphany for people to ultimately redeem themselves. Sure, it’s a conceptualization that isn’t explicitly stated anywhere, but a system like that makes sense and is one where we can see why Jesus might have simply said “It’s a lake of fire” instead of trying to explain why such a Hell would actually be terrible enough that people should avoid it.

But the point here is that if God is indeed perfectly moral and just — as He must be for this thought experiment to work — then we would come to understand in Heaven that God’s judgement was indeed perfectly just, and so will come to understand that they deserve it … even if we don’t do so now.

Yet again, I’m not sure how humans can be so radically out of sync with God’s “morality” when we were supposedly created in his image. You’re an enlightened being in heaven (presumably greatly elevated from your flawed, limited human shell on earth) and you know about the billions in torment and you’ll be okay with it??

But our understanding of morality is flawed. Inside Christianity, we are all sinners. That we can’t conceive right now how that makes sense is not in any way an argument when we’re going up against an actual judgement from an actual God who is perfectly moral and just. Given the scenarios, there is no rational way to deny that God’s judgement would be right without denying that God — or, at least, the God we’re talking about — doesn’t exist in that scenario which invalidates the scenario. Seidensticker is allowing his emotions to do the work here instead of the facts and arguments integral to and that are the consequences of the scenario that he is inviting us to consider.

“We [in heaven] will rejoice in the good,” Koukl tells us, but what kind of Bizarro World are we talking about, when Christian belief obliges them to label as “good” a punishment system that makes the 11 million deaths in the Holocaust look like a church picnic? It’s pretty much the most inhumane situation conceivable, and it’s held up as a divine good.

The issue is that those 11 million deaths in the Holocaust were clearly unjust and undeserved. But by definition being sent to Hell is deserved if a God as He is believed to be actually exists. So they aren’t comparable.

And Christians wonder why atheists are occasionally peeved at Christian dogma.

Wait … there are times when atheist aren’t peeved at Christian dogma [grin]?

Let’s reconsider this claim that forgiveness is available, because it’s not available to me. Who can believe the unbelievable? I need evidence, and Christianity has pretty much none. The Christian can demonstrate to us how this is supposed to work by believing in leprechauns. When they show me that believing in the unbelievable is possible, then we can move on to the question of whether it’s a smart thing to do.

Um, in what sense does he mean that the belief in God or in leprechauns are “unbelievable”? Because while I don’t happen to believe in them at the moment, I don’t see any particular reason why leprechauns couldn’t exist. Other than opening up epistemological questions about whether we can really choose to believe one thing or another, the issue here is that Seidensticker is saying that in his epistemology if he doesn’t have evidence for something then he chooses not to accept or believe it. But if the belief in leprechauns was important to me and was widespread, I, at least, would be perfectly willing to grant it simple belief status if there was no real reason to think that they absolutely couldn’t exist, even if there wasn’t “evidence”, whatever that means to Seidensticker. Since Seidensticker cannot demonstrate that God cannot exist — and most atheists refuse to try to do so — or that it contradicts my belief system itself he has no real epistemic grounds for saying that it is “unbelievable”, especially since even for him it’s his epistemic system — that presumably he can change — that makes it so for him, and not necessarily so for others.

In short, no one needs to insist that they can’t believe something without “evidence”. Seidensticker chooses to do so, but that’s still a choice. It may not be the wrong choice, but whether it’s right or wrong it’s still a choice, and so forgiveness is available to him, whether he accepts it or not.

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Sexism in the Atheist Movement

March 30, 2018

So, P.Z. Myers made a post talking about the Just Us Women podcast ending. He quotes the reason for its demise as follows:

I will no longer be interviewing women who have left religion, since I cannot in good conscience refer them to the atheist community, where they could find support. … All the resources are tainted with connections to the top tier of misogynist, sexist men.

People in the comments have noted the oddity that she’s not going to interview women who have left religion because somehow doing that would mean referring them to the atheist movement, even though she doesn’t have to do that and has no reason to unless she’s still going to stay in the atheist movement, or considers herself such a tainted resource. I don’t want to talk about that oddity. I want to talk about another oddity, which comes from considering that these women have left religion, and so in general have left religions that the atheist movement considers incredibly sexist, and as sexist as something can possibly be. So, by that, these women have likely experienced the worst sexism that they possibly could have experienced. Unless the atheist movement is worse than the average religion when it comes to sexism — and I’ve argued in the past that it seems like it clearly isn’t — then surely even referring them to the current atheist movement would mean an improvement in the sexism they face from the movement that is so critical to supporting them.

Unless the atheist movement really is more sexist than religions. But that can’t be the case, can it?

When it comes to sexual harassment … maybe it is. See, one of the main differences is that the atheist movement attached itself to progressivism, and progressivism embraced the idea of “sex positivity”. Indeed, one of the main criticism the atheist movement leveled against religion was how repressed and prudish they were about sex and sexuality, particularly in women. Sex was supposed to be fun, and something that everyone should participate in, and that attempting to limit that in any way was denying people not only great experiences, but a critical part of themselves. So free sexuality was important, and all of the traditional sexual mores were done away with, with people embracing things like polyamory and casual sex so that even the idea that sex was something that was supposed to happen between people who were in a committed relationship was lost. As long as the sex was consensual, anything went.

This, of course, ended up being controversial, as it clashed with feminism. The problem was that a lot of the “anything goes” were things that feminism traditionally considered objectifying. This included all forms of sex work, leading to the characterization of some of them as SWERFs. While some denied that sex positivity and feminism weren’t at all in conflict — because of the insistence that it was all consensual — the issue remained. And it’s clear what the underlying issue was: if women were going to be having sex and being sexual, unless they were all going to be lesbians and only have sexual relations with women, that sex and those sexual things were going to be done with and for men … and at least some forms of feminism insisted that doing that would be objectifying. Yes, sex with men and doing sex shows for men could definitely be consensual and could derive from the woman’s desires, but all of that would involve doing things that feminism said men expected women to do in order to please them. Which could lead to them thinking that they were entitled to that from women. The more women who were willing to do those things for men — even for their own pleasure — the more men could justify the idea that those things were what women should do for men. The counter to that is the standard “Restricting women from pursuing what they enjoy is just as bad as what patriarchy did”, which has generally not convinced anyone on the other side.

So what we have is sex positivity which chides anyone for restricting the sexual fun that people can have or seek out, and a sex positivity that is a critical differentiating factor between atheism and religion. At that point, all of the traditional sex norms are gone, and thus all ways of enforcing those sexual norms. In traditional or religious social circles, sex is supposed to be limited to couples in a serious relationship that could lead to marriage. Yes, that wasn’t always followed, but at least if someone “took advantage” of a woman to get sex without commitment the woman could easily be consoled by saying that the man was immoral and bad, and would get sympathy from the social group for that. And someone who called that man out as a cad would be appealing to the overarching social structure, and so would at least get some consideration for saying that the person was breaking the social rules.

But that didn’t exist in the sex positive atheist movement. Casual sex — and the pursuit thereof — wasn’t a bad thing anymore. I wonder how many atheists who noticed some of the more … aggressive approaches refused to intervene not because they were intimidated by the power of the person making the approach, but because they were afraid of being called prudish or its modern equivalent of “sex negative” for interfering with two consenting adults seeking sexual pleasure.

If they couldn’t use that they were essentially being tricked by promises of a long-term relationship into having casual sex — and that therefore that they were being “used” in that way — but still felt “used” in some way, what could they appeal to? Well, the only thing left was consent. If they could claim that it wasn’t really consensual, then they could still condemn the men who took those actions without having to reject sex positivity. For example, with the Michael Shermer allegations, Smith said that he “coerced me into a position where I could not consent, and then had sex with me”, which is incredibly vague and could range from convincing her to let him tie her up to, well, what she ended up claiming, which was that he encouraged her to drink more heavily than she should and had sex with her while she was intoxicated, and presumably too intoxicated to give consent, which tied into the long-standing feminist claim that a woman who was intoxicated could not give consent. Of course, people pointed out that it didn’t seem reasonable to claim that someone else offering someone alcohol, even if they weren’t drinking that heavily themselves, was a kind of coercion that we couldn’t expect people to resist, and the debate was on. But the key was that all of this was being used to insist that she didn’t really consent, and so the sex was wrong, as that’s the only line left that she could pursue.

This led to the reinstatement of some of the old mores, as people insisted that you shouldn’t have simple casual sex with a stranger, but should have sex with someone you knew well and respected so that you could read their cues and so get affirmative consent. This, and the harassment policies, clashed with the sex positivity of people who thought that it meant that they could pursue and get guilt-free sex, and that it was all okay as long as the other person agreed. In fact, most of the clash around harassment policies was indeed about having to put restrictions on who you could pursue and when, with some of the restrictions seeming inconsistent unless you looked at it from the perspective of trying to replace the old “taking advantage of” sexual mores.

Now, which side is right or wrong is beside the point (I think both are in some ways). But the key point here is that in the “sex positive” atheist movement, women were going to get more invitations for sex, those invitations would be more direct, and a sexual atmosphere was going to be more present and more open, and there would be more pressure to be sexually open. For women who found that uncomfortable, there was no real way to deal with that. And even those women who were more comfortable with that were going to have a problem when they ended up feeling taken advantage of. So it is possible that, when it comes to sexual harassment, the atheist movement was worse than religions because it would be more open and there were no social structures in place to deal with it, and attempts to add in those structures felt like ruining all of the fun for those — men and women — who had no problem with the way it was.

Personally, I still think that the impression of egregious sexism more reflects disappointment than reality. They expected the atheist movement to be better than everything else because they came to it from certain progressive and feminist worldviews, and so expected that everyone else did, too. When they found out that they couldn’t, they felt a disappointment akin to finding out that their hero had feet of clay, except that it was the entire movement that had that and not just one or two people. Myers’ entire argument against dictionary atheists is that atheism has to imply the liberal, progressive, feminist values that he supports, even if people disagree with them. When these atheists became convinced that the atheist movement wasn’t going to adopt their entire set of values, the atheist movement itself was seen as unethical, and that caused them to abandon it … even as they ignored that the religious alternative was supposed to be worse by their own arguments.

In their disappointment, they risk abandoning burgeoning atheists to an alternative that they should find even less acceptable. That can’t be what they wanted, but it’s what they’re going to end up with.

Carrier Takes on Feser …

February 23, 2018

So, after taking on a host of Plantinga’s arguments, Richard Carrier Feser’s Five Proofs. I haven’t read the book, but I have read a number of Feser’s posts on the topic, and so I was interested in seeing what Carrier had to say about it. Of course, the problem with Carrier’s posts is that they are probably at least twice as long as necessary, which, I suppose, isn’t something that someone who calls himself “The Verbose Stoic” should comment on. However, I think it is fair to note that for the most part the posts spend far, far too much time insulting and making snarky comments about the people he’s commenting on, as it seems that he spends as much time trying to convince the reader that the people he’s commenting on are ignoramuses as he does trying to demonstrate that the arguments are wrong. As as I’ve said a number of times in the past, the problem with that sort of approach is that you had better be right, because if you are wrong then you look really, really bad.

Carrier, it seems to me, gets quite a bit wrong in this post.

I’m not going to deal with everything that was said in the post, instead hitting on a few ideas that strike my fancy. After all, I haven’t read the book and so can’t defend the full arguments. That being said, surely Carrier will hold to the basic notions of academic integrity and quote enough so that I won’t need to read it to understand what Feser is arguing, right?

Let me start with a rather odd constant gripe of Carrier’s, in that he criticizes Feser for the number of premises that he uses in his arguments:

Feser’s formalization of this argument appears around page 35. It has 49 premises. I **** you not.

I’m not sure why this should be seen as an issue. A large number of premises in an argument, especially if they are all directly outlined as such, would merely suggest a potentially complicated argument, which is certainly not something to be surprised or annoyed at. And outlining that many premises directly will make it more difficult to have hidden premises that Feser isn’t acknowledging. Does Carrier not like reading or something? Does he want his arguments as short soundbytes as opposed to full arguments? I don’t know, but it seems rather odd for Carrier to harp on the number of premises, and he does that in pretty much every point he addresses.

But let’s get into the arguments. The first one is at least one version of the “Unmoved Mover” argument, and the first thing Carrier does is to make a move that I’ve seen before — and probably talked about — and is, well, a pretty bad one, as he tries to demonstrate that a real nothing will invariably produce a something (as usual, Carrier italicizes too much for me to go back and fill it all in, but go look at his post to see his emphasis):

But what happens when you take away everything except that which is demonstrably logically necessary? Not what we “conjecture” or “wish” were logically necessary; no, we don’t get to cheat. No circular arguments. Only what we can actually formally prove is logically necessary. And that means, prove now, not at some hypothetical future time. We don’t get to “conjecture” or “wish” into existence some new logical necessity we have yet to really prove is such. Well. What happens is, we get a nothing-state that logically necessarily becomes a multiverse that will contain a universe that looks just like ours. To a probability infinitesimally near 100%. See Ex Nihilo Onus Merdae Fit.

A quick and dirty way to phrase that argument is: if nothing exists, then by definition no rules exist limiting what will happen to it; if no rules exist limiting what it will happen to it, it is equally likely it will become one of infinitely many arrays of things (including remaining nothing, which is just one of infinitely many other things no rule exists to prevent happening); if we select at random from the infinitely many arrays of things it can become (including the array that is an empty set, i.e. continuing to be nothing), the probability is infinitesimally near 100% the array chosen at random will be a vast multiverse whose probability of including a universe like ours is infinitesimally near 100%. Because there are infinitely more ways to get one of those at random, than to get, for example, the one single outcome of remaining nothing. There is no way to avoid this. Unless you insert some law, power, rule, or force that would stop it, or change the outcome to something not decided at random. But once you do that, you are no longer talking about nothing. You have added something. Which you have no reason to add. Other than your human desire that it be there. Which is not a compelling argument for it being there.

This is, to me, an argument that is so bad that it’s hard to know how to attack it. This is not a case where it seems like there’s something wrong with it but I can’t say what, like is often said about the Ontological Argument, but instead that there are so many things wrong with it that it’s hard to know where to start to express that clearly. Well, let’s start with this: the reason that an absolute nothing can’t produce anything is not because of some rule that says that it can’t happen, but because it lacks specific powers, namely all causitive and creative powers. There are no movers in absolute nothing, and no potential movers, and so no potential movement (referring back to the “Unmoved Mover” discussion mentioned above, which relates more to causes in general in today’s terms than mere movement in space). No potential movement, no possible way to change. Thus, nothing can ever change and so nothing will ever happen to it. Thus, no random events that will eventually likely produce a multiverse.

Carrier is going to try to argue that we still need a rule to say that, and so a rule has to exist, and so I wouldn’t be talking about nothing. I think he explicitly says that in the linked post in the quote above, that you have to have rules of logic to say that and rules of logic are things. But, the rules of logic don’t work that way. It is not the case that if I try to create something in this world that it is logically impossible to create, I can get part way through the process but at the point where the logical impossibility would kick in the law of non-contradiction intervenes and causes the attempt to fail. I just could never do it. For Carrier’s argument to work, the laws of logic would have to be things that have causal powers. And at least in how we use them they, in general, aren’t things that have causal power in and of themselves. We use them to, essentially, describe what is true and what is false about a given situation and set of entities. In the absolute nothing, there is nothing to describe. Whether we can say the laws of logic “exist” or not is tricky and plays terribly with our intuitions, but it is definitely true that there is nothing and no relations to describe, so their application to the absolute nothing would be meaningless. And so we’d return to the basic presumption we’d need for something to be considered an absolute nothing: there is nothing there that has causal powers, and no laws or relations and nothing to have relations with anything else there (because there’s nothing there). And if nothing has any causal power or any potential for change, then nothing can change. If Carrier wants to argue that we’d still have to have laws of logic and so wouldn’t have nothing, that’s fine, but even if we remove them we’d still have to maintain there there is no causation and so no possibility of change … and we’d have to doubt that any kind of absolute nothing of the sort Carrier describes — and uses to build out his multiverse theory — could ever work because the only reason we insist that the laws of logic exist in Feser’s absolute nothing is because we know about them and can apply them there. Carrier would need an absolute nothing where we couldn’t say anything about it … even that anything can happen in it and does happen in it at random, which is what he needs to make his case.

Carrier seems to miss the key point here: the absolute nothing has nothing that has any casual powers, and so nothing can happen in it. In order to get something from that nothing, he has to find something that has causal powers that exists in it, and there can’t be any such thing. And if he tries to invoke causation from outside of it — by claiming that there is another universe that triggers us to arise from “nothing”, for example — then we don’t have absolute nothing because that thing outside of that nothing exists and is not nothing. Feser doesn’t have that problem for God because he explicitly denies that we started from nothing. Carrier, on the other hand, is trying to start from nothing, and that causes him all sorts of problems.

Carrier tries to call out one of Feser’s premises as being a false dichotomy, but does so in a way that’s … suspicious, to say the the least:

Most of them are uncontroversial on some interpretation of the words he employs (that doesn’t mean they are credible on his chosen interpretation of those words, but I’ll charitably ignore that here), except one, Premise 41, where his whole argument breaks down and bites the dust: “the forms or patterns manifest in all the things [the substrate] causes…can exist either in the concrete way in which they exist in individual particular things, or in the abstract way in which they exist in the thoughts of an intellect.” This is a false dichotomy, otherwise known as a bifurcation fallacy. It’s simply not true that those are the only two options. And BTW, this Premise, is the same key premise (hereafter always hidden) in all five of his arguments. We can thus refute all of them, by simply refuting this single premise (more on that later).

So let’s do that.

Ironically, a third option that in fact I’m quite certain is actually true, is the very option described by Aristotle himself. Aristotle took Plato to task for the mistake Feser is making, pointing out that it is not necessary that potential patterns actually exist in some concrete or mental form. They only have to potentially exist. Hence Aristotle said of Plato’s “world of forms” what Laplace said to Napoleon of God: “Sir, I have no need of that hypothesis.” Potential things are by definition not actual. So obviously we don’t need them to be actualized to exist. That’s a self-contradictory request. It’s thus self-contradictory of Feser to insist that potential things must be “actualized” somewhere (a mind; concrete things). Obviously there is no logical sense in which they must be actualized in that way.

Aristotle argued that potentials exist inherently in everything, without anything further needing to be the case. A cube contains the potential to be a sphere (by physical transformation); but not as if that potential is some sort of magical fluid contained physically inside the cube. It’s simply a logically necessary property of any material that it can be reshaped; if it can have shape, it can have any shape. Period. It is logically necessarily always the case.

So, Richard Carrier found an argument in Aristotle that Feser, who primarily works in Aristotlean and Thomist philosophy, missed, and seemingly is obvious as it seems to be a major argument that Aristotle made against Platonic Forms. Um, yes, that’s entirely credible and I immediately grant that. Or, rather, not. If the argument is as obvious as Carrier makes it sound, then I certainly would expect Feser to have caught it. You can argue that this is an Argument from Authority, but I have to ask you what seems more reasonable: that Feser, a trained philosopher who specializes to a great degree on Aristotle missed such an obvious counter, or that Carrier, who is primarily a historian and is an amateur philosopher, missed something in Feser’s argument that would show why Aristotle’s counter doesn’t apply to his argument. And Carrier only provides a small snippet of Feser’s overall argument here, so I can’t even check to see what Feser might have said to dodge this counter … although one obvious immediate and likely idea is that the forms and patterns Feser talks about are not Platonic Forms, and Aristotle’s alternative only applies to Plato’s Forms. But that’s as far as I can get without reading Feser’s book or without Carrier quoting the context more and outlining the details of the argument. Without that, however, I’m not going to accept that Feser missed something so obvious just on Carrer’s say-so.

Carrier next tries to address the ultimate substratum, and then to propose an alternative to Feser’s ultimate substratum — space/time — without having the need for it to be intelligent and conscious:

So Feser is just arguing space-time is God. Mindless, valueless, merely physical space-time. That’s just atheism.

What this means is that Feser’s entire book is about a single maneuver: trying to dodge that outcome by trying to bootstrap space-time into being an intelligent consciousness. But that’s where his argument becomes 100% bullshit. In no way does the substrate having these other properties entail it’s “intelligent.” Intelligence is only a potential thing space-time can manifest, being an organized complexity; and being an organized complexity, it cannot be a property inherent in space-time itself, which is simple and uniform. Nor would it be “omniscient,” knowledge being another organized complexity, and thus only something that space-time can be organized to manifest, not a thing space-time itself is. All possible knowledge and all possible intellection is inherent in space-time as a potential, but that is not what we mean by knowledge and intelligence. Potentially knowing everything, is not the same as actually knowing everything. A clump of goo is potentially intelligent. Organize it into a functioning brain, and it will be actually intelligent. They are not the same thing. And “we” are indeed a way the universe becomes conscious of itself; but that does not make the universe a god. Not by any definition pertinent to anyone, least of all Feser.

Now, I do know quite a bit about the ultimate substratum, having talked about it before on a number of occasions. I’m pretty sure that Carrier doesn’t think such a thing is actually necessary, but is going along with it for the sake of argument. Fine, but if he does that then he needs to accept the reasons that Feser feels we need an ultimate substratum, and the reason he says we need it is because no property at this level can be actualized unless that property is actualized in the ultimate substratum. And so if it can’t be actualized at this level because it doesn’t exist in the ultimate substratum, then we can’t have it as a potential at this level either. Thus, a brain could have no potential for intelligence and so we could never have actualized intelligence in a functioning brain, no matter how we organized it. Thus, no inherent potential for intellection without it being actually actualized in space-time, thus making space-time intelligent. And if he has to add in all of those mental properties, then he ends up pretty much with a god.

That’s one of the most common mistakes people make in dealing with these sorts of arguments. Carrier presumes that Feser is starting from God and going from there to say what properties the ultimate substratum has to have, which is why he thinks he can get away with simply inventing something else that has those properties. But that’s not Feser’s argument. Feser is looking at what properties are actualized at this level and from there arguing to what properties the ultimate substratum has to have, and then saying that pretty much seems to be God. And if Carrier can in any way break the argument that the substratum doesn’t have to actualize the properties of this level, then he doesn’t need the space-time alternative to test, as he would have dealt the argument itself a major blow. So space-time does not do as much work as Carrier thinks it does. Which is a problem because he relies on that to do much of the work in the remaining points as well.

I’m going to skip the second argument as it mostly repeats the comments from the first argument, while focusing on “holding things together” which I can’t be bothered to get into, especially with Carrier’s sparse quotes on what Feser is actually arguing. I’ll also skip the third argument because that relies on Carrier’s odd idea of universals, which I’d rather get into when I talk about morality (which I still hope to do at some point). So now I’ll start talking about essences:

Even from a formal standpoint, this one is just a terrible mess. His syllogism has a ton of boner mistakes in it; for example, Feser’s Premise 2 (around page 128), asserts that “If [the distinction between an entity’s essence and its existence] were not a real distinction…then we could know whether or not a thing exists simply by knowing its essence.” Um. Yeah. That’s how we know dragons and unicorns don’t exist, and lions and tigers do. Because it would be impossible to know the complete essence of, say, a unicorn, and not notice that among its properties is the feature of “being fictional.”

Earlier, Carrier dismisses the idea of essences actually existing, which is not something that I’ll challenge here, especially since, again, due to a dearth of context I’m not sure how Feser is using “essence” here. But I will say that in this counter Carrier confuses essence as thing vs essence as set of essential properties that a thing must have. From later:

A fully informed account of an entity’s essence would include when it exists or didn’t. It is essential to Hitler, for example, that he did not live in the 21st century. It is essential to Yoda, for example, that no one could ever have spoken to him—other than in fiction or pretense. You could not fully understand what “Hitler” or “Yoda” were if you weren’t informed of these facts. And just excluding that one piece of information, literally the most important one, from what you will arbitrarily classify as “an essence,” is just a semantic game. And semantic games can’t get you to any grand realizations in metaphysics.

Feser actually burns a few pages arguing he is not engaging in this confusion. But alas, his protests make no logical sense. He insists if you mistakenly think lions are fictional monsters, “you have not misconceived what it is to be a lion.” Um. Yes. You have. You’ve totally misconceived what it is to be a lion. Only if you arbitrarily demarcate how you’d test whether a lion existed, with the outcome of that test—as if somehow the latter was not an attribute of the lion—can you get to Feser’s ridiculous premise. But that’s completely arbitrary. Why are we demarcating away that single property of lions as no longer essential to being a lion? Just because I know how to detect a dragon if one existed, does not mean I am necessarily fully informed as to what it is to be a dragon. If, unbeknownst to me, dragons exist, then I am simply misinformed about dragons.

In order to test whether dragons or unicorns exist, the first thing we need is a set of properties that would allow us to determine whether something is or is not a dragon or a unicorn. Ideally, we’d want the ideal set of properties that identify a dragon and only a dragon, the set that all dragons have in their entirety and nothing else does. Thus, we’d want to understand what it would mean to be a dragon completely and totally. If Carrier is right here, then that understanding would have to include whether or not it exists, as that’s part of the full understanding of what a dragon is. But then Feser’s counter comes into play: if we knew what its essence was, then we would always know whether or not it exists, and we can add on then that testing for it would be pointless. So if we need to test to see if it exists, then we have to test before we understand what its essential properties are, and if we wait to test it until we know what its essential properties are, then testing it is pointless. All of this points to the idea that whether or not something exists is not an essential property of the thing. And this is particularly true in this case, since what we are asking if the set of dragons or the set of unicorns is non-empty, and so we certainly need to know what would define that set before we can ask if it has any members.

Ironically, Carrier’s own space-time hypothesis works against him here, as it implies this:

Spacetime can be completely empty. And still have the potential to form up into matter, and thence a tree. In fact, it’s statistically inevitable that every bit of spacetime there is, will. Someday. It’s a Boltzmann necessity.

Essentially, the idea is that since space-time can and does change at random, eventually some part of space-time will form a complete brain without a body. Carrier seems to extend that to everything here, as that is the implication that allows for Boltzmann Brains. But then this means that at some point in time in the universe that a dragon will exist, or a unicorn will exist, for at least a brief period of time. And if that’s the case, then it could in fact be that way right now. Add in parallel evolution on the infinite number of planets that exist in the universe and the chances of a dragon or a unicorn existing somewhere in the universe are pretty good, much better than the 0% that Carrier needs to make his point here. And while with Hitler or Yoda he could avoid this by talking about a specific case, here he can’t, because we aren’t talking about specific dragons or unicorns, but instead about instantiations of the overall category, and so if any dragon or unicorn exists anywhere that would, according to Carrier, change its essential nature.

On top of all of that, this works out badly with the potential/actual model that Carrier is supposedly sticking to for the sake of argument here, because if you change the essential properties of an object then it by definition is a different object. Thus, an object that comes into existence does not merely actualize its potential, but instead changes into a completely different object. That’s not how I see actualization of a potential, even that of coming into existence, to work, and so that his move here makes that model problematic suggests that, again, he’d have to abandon that model for his argument, which would be far more serious an issue.

The last argument relies on the space-time alternative that I’ve already shown problematic, so this is a good place to stop.

I’m not saying that Feser’s arguments work; in general, I don’t buy those sorts of arguments myself. I’m not saying that Carrier hasn’t found problems with Feser’s arguments; the context is so vague that I’m not really sure what Feser’s argument really is most of the time. What I’m saying here is that a lot of the key arguments Carrier relies on are … not good, to say the least, and are not good in ways that really, really bug me. Hence, the post pointing out those not good arguments and showing why they are not good.

Jerry Coyne on Incompatibility and NOMA …

January 26, 2018

Recently, Jerry Coyne came across a post talking about how science and religion were not incompatible, and of course had to respond to it (given his views on determinism, he could do nothing else). Generally, having free will, I likely would have chosen not to respond to Coyne’s post, but in reading it one thing became clear: Coyne’s post and arguments, in general, don’t really do anything against typical NOMA or differing domain arguments, except for one that he rides continually but which doesn’t get him as far as he’d like. Anyway, the original post is by Ethan Siegel, and Coyne starts off his criticism of it this way:

1.) Many religious people are interested in science and support scientific research. That’s true; I have no quarrel with this. But that doesn’t address my own argument, made in Faith Versus Fact, that the grounds for incompatibility have nothing to do with whether scientists can be religious and religious people can be fans of science. This kind of cognitive bifurcation just shows that people can accept two incompatible ways of judging what is “true” at the same time.

But if they are, in general, trying to find out true statements about different domains, then they aren’t holding two incompatible ways of judging what is “true” at the same time … or, at least, aren’t doing so in the way Coyne needs them to in order to get to an important incompatibility. All they’d be doing is saying that for some questions, science is the approach to use, and for others, some kind of faith-based or theological approach is the one to use. I myself insist that there are times when one should use folk reasoning, or philosophy, or science based on what questions one is trying to answer, or perhaps it might be better to say based on what “truth” you are trying to find. That does not, in my view, make them clearly incompatible.

And when Coyne points out how Ken Miller acts, we can see this distinction:

The incompatibility can be seen with a religious scientist like Ken Miller, a pious Catholic. In the lab he acts like an atheist, never considering the supernatural and accepting only as true what can be tested scientifically. But when he steps into his church he immediately believes in things like the Resurrection and transubstantiation—things that are not only unevidenced, but disbelieved by other faiths and, frankly, ridiculous for a grown man to believe. Accepting truths about the cosmos using two different methods demonstrates the incompatibility between science and religion.

Except it doesn’t. Miller clearly thinks that for the things he does in the lab, science is the right approach, and the supernatural doesn’t play a part, but thinks that when it comes to theological questions that’s not the right approach to use. And if science is presumptively naturalistic and religion inherently supernaturalist, then that’s clearly the right way to go; it is not reasonable to use a method that presumes that a conclusion is false if you want to find out if it might be true. So Miller uses different methods for different domains, and can argue that that isn’t an important incompatibility because we need to use different methods for those domains. So Coyne is going to have to argue that they aren’t different domains at all. And he returns to his usual argument:

Religion and science both make claims about what’s true in our Universe. Theologians and believers, when being honest (almost an oxymoron), will admit that, yes, their religious beliefs are underlain by claims about reality, and if those claims be not true, then religion be not true.

As I commented last time, while there may be certain claims about reality that have to be true or else the religion be not true, that doesn’t apply to every fact in existence, nor are all of the claims that they are based on amenable to scientific study. In the linked post, I both pointed out that Catholicism explicitly builds into its theology that scientific facts trump even the pronouncements of the Pope, and created a religious or theological viewpoint that was distinctly religious and yet could not interestingly conflict with science. All that is left is Coyne’s general argument that at least some — if not most — religions are wrong and so are directly incompatible with science. But as I pointed out throughout my discussions of Faith vs Fact, that’s not an interesting incompatibility. Every scientific theory that has turned out to be wrong would be just as incompatible with science methodologically as those failed religions were, if we can only rely on them being wrong and being proven wrong by science to make that claim.

Coyne adds another argument:

My further argument:

  1. Science has a way to find out what is true, or at least to arrive at better and better approximations of what is true, while religion has no way to do that.
  2. The result is that different religions make conflicting claims about reality (e.g., “Was Jesus the divine son of God?”) that cannot be resolved.
  3. Religion has also made false claims about reality (e.g., creationism, the Exodus, etc.) that science can correct, while religion has no way to correct science.
  4. Therefore, religion is incompatible with science because it uses a different methodology to adjudicate truth, and because the outcomes of that methodology (what religion deems “true”) cannot be verified.

This, however, is not an argument, at least as presented. Putting aside the number of unproven assertions here, the conclusion does not follow from the premises. Well, okay, you can get from the first one to the two of them having different methodologies, but no one is going to worry about them using different methodologies if the one religion uses can’t arrive at truths. The third premise here contradicts the second, as it demonstrates that at least some of its claims can be verified, if verified means that we can go out and independently determine if they are true or false (which is usually what we’d mean in discussions of methodology or epistemology). If Coyne just means that its outcomes are proven false, then this is just as “religions get things wrong” argument, which again can’t show any interesting incompatibility. And he would need to establish that there is no way for religion to get better approximations of what is true, even if they turn to philosophy to do so. He talks about how science has made progress while religion hasn’t in a much longer timeframe, but this argument also applies to philosophy, and can be answered by pointing out that religious questions are often more fundamental and harder to solve with simple appeals to empirical data than the ones that science typically answers. So this one isn’t an argument, contradicts itself, and would still rely on an assumption that Coyne has not proven. I think it is safe to deny that it’s an argument at all.

He later uses the same graph again from Pew, showing that the majority of people say that religion and science conflict, but that the majority of people don’t think that their religion conflicts with science. That Coyne still thinks this supports his point is mindboggling. People ought to know far better about how their religion conflicts with science than about how other religions conflict with science, especially with people like Coyne — whom Siegal is opposing here — constantly going on about it. That most of them don’t see a conflict between science and their own religion but do between science and other religions is better evidence that Siegal is right about the harm people like Coyne are doing that evidence that there is an inherent, meaningful incompatibility between science and religion.

He also says this before presenting that graph:

If science and religion are compatible, why, at least in countries where we have data, are scientists so much less religious than the general public? It could be that nonbelievers are more attracted to science, or that science actually makes people less religious, or (most likely) a combination of these factors. Either way, this shows some conflict between science and faith.

But not that that conflict is inherently there or even that scientists are necessarily right to think it is. And that’s what Coyne is supposed to be doing, not grasping at some kind of nebulous conflict that, in the end, might just boil down to Coyne — and others — thinking that religions are wrong.

Summary of Sophisticated Atheology …

January 19, 2018

So, after finishing Philipse’s book, I have now read all of the books that Jerry Coyne challenged theists to read, as well as his own book and a few others. What is my overall impression, then, of the atheist arguments and positions, as expressed in the works that Jerry Coyne believes make the most convincing and strongest arguments?

All of them depend greatly on accepting a specific worldview. If you don’t accept that worldview, you’ll find the argument weak at best and ridiculous at worst.

Note that the worldview here isn’t specifically atheistic. This isn’t a clash between theistic and atheistic worldviews. But in general the atheists accept strong naturalistic/materialistic worldviews, and the consequences of those worldviews mean that there is no room for any kind of supernatural or immaterial entity to exist, and that includes gods. So, then, the consequences is that gods cannot exist. But if anyone even accepts the possibility that supernatural or immaterial entities could exist then this presumption is broken, and most of the arguments evaporate. This necessitates attempts to restore that foundation, most of which rely on some way on inductive arguments … which can’t be used to establish that something simply cannot exist. Thus, they appeal to the success of naturalistic approaches — for example — to argue for methodological naturalism, and from there to establish that foundation. But methodological naturalism does not justify ontological naturalism, and ontological naturalism is required to establish that one ought not consider the possibility that supernatural or immaterial exist, and again as soon as one does their arguments no longer have support. In the end, unless you accept their axioms you will not accept their conclusions, and it is far too easy to point out the lack of support their axioms have.

Also, it is indeed the case that in general they are philosophically uninformed. The one who is actually a philosopher — Philipse — makes critical mistakes in understanding philosophical fields, and while one cannot expect a philosopher to be equally well-versed in all of the various fields of philosophy one would expect him to do the work in understanding fields he explicitly references, like he does when he dismisses functionalism without thought despite it being well-developed, popular, and yet contradicting his own position. One would also not expect him to dismiss the common tools of conceptual analysis as he does with thought experiments. Kaufmann misunderstands analytic vs post-modern philosophy, Coyne refuses to use philosophical concepts and definitions and instead prefers the dictionary, and Rosenberg, in my view, greatly misunderstands most of the philosophical debates he wanders into. Not understanding philosophy is fine, but wandering into philosophical debates and misunderstanding them while, in general, smugly declaring science superior to philosophy is not. Moreover, by ignoring them they end up with arguments that are weak and easy to dismiss if one does not accept their worldview underpinnings, resulting in issues like the one outlined above.

In summary, the works ought not convince anyone that God does not exist who isn’t already convinced of that or predisposed to be convinced of that. As that’s not their intention, nor was that the intention of Coyne’s challenge, I think it safe to say that they have failed.

God in the Age of Science: Conclusion

January 12, 2018

Most of the conclusion to the book is Philipse summarizing all of the chapters and what it said, and so isn’t all that interesting to examine. However, at the very end, he sets out the three things he thinks he has shown, so let me go through them to see if he has, indeed, really done that:

1. Theism is not a meaningful theory. So we should become particular semantic atheists.

Since theists can point to, in general, the thing that they are talking about when they talk about a god, that we can’t make a sufficiently specific or meaningful full testable-by-science theory out of it doesn’t justify any kind of atheism. All that means is that we need to do more work to make some kind of scientific theory out of it or concede that maybe a scientific approach isn’t the right one here. This conclusion is only strengthened by the fact that those things are important to many people, and have a great impact on how they live. Given that, it’s not reasonable to declare that those things that they can clearly reference in a way that we can understand what they are talking about can’t exist or, at least, that we ought act as if they don’t exist because the theory is deemed insufficient. There are a number of things and phenomena — quantum mechanics being a good example — that we don’t have strong theories for and yet we have no trouble saying that they exist and that our job is to create proper and meaningful, testable and test theories for them. Philipse might counter that we know that quantum entities exist and don’t know that for gods, but he would still run afoul of the fact that we can’t dismiss their existence until we have a sufficient theory to be able to claim that we know they don’t exist. So either we know they don’t exist or we need to work out a better theory to allow us to know whether or not they exist.

In summary, theists can always reference gods in such a way that we can know what they are talking about when they talk about their god, and so if we don’t have a sufficient theory to assess the existence of their gods then the problem is that we need to create a better theory. And if we can claim to know that their gods don’t exist, then we have a sufficiently meaningful theory to make the semantic argument moot. Thus, we should never adopt a particular semantic atheist position.

2. If we assume for the sake of argument that theism is a meaningful theory, it has no predictive power with regard to any existing evidence. Because the truth of theism is improbable given the scientific background knowledge concerning the dependence of mental life on brain processes, we should become strong particular atheists with regard to theism.

Demanding predictive power requires us to hold theistic propositions being very strongly scientific, which most theists won’t accept and which Philipse does not sufficient justify. On top of that, that scientific background knowledge is no such thing, as we have no reason to think that any possible mental life must depend on there being a physical brain, and it is trivial to posit concepts of mental lives without brains like ours or physical brains at all. This reduces Philipse’s argument to, at best, a prime example of the inductive fallacy: I’ve never seen something with a mental life that didn’t have a brain. That is not sufficient evidence to justify, in any way, a claim that we ought not think that something without a brain could not have a mental life, and without that the improbability argument fails.

In summary, Philipse would need to give a reason why a mental life requires a physical brain — or physicality — based on more than that the examples we have observed all involve brains, and he fails to do so in this book. Since it is trivial to conceive of things that have mental lives without a physical body, that the concept itself does not require dependence on a brain provides good reason to reject an unsubstantiated claim of knowledge that mental lives require a physical brain.

3. If we assume for the sake of argument that theism not only is meaningful but also has predictive power, we should become strong particular atheists, because the empirical arguments against theism outweigh the arguments that support it, and theism is improbable on our background knowledge.

If this conclusion is true, then not only is the first one meaningless — why be particular semantic atheists when we have sufficient evidence to just be strong particular atheists — but it is also false, since we’d have to be able to provide a sufficiently meaningful theory of that theism to be able to provide empirical arguments for or against it. Moreover, this one depends on us accepting 2) — that the background knowledge makes it improbable — which means that we can’t be accepting it for the sake of argument, as he implies here. And, of course, a lot of his empirical evidence isn’t sufficient to demonstrate that case anyway, at least in my view.

In summary, this one eliminates the first conclusion and assumes the second one works, and in my view he hasn’t provide sufficient empirical arguments to justify the conclusion that he wants us to accept anyway.

This book was disappointing. Other than some small sections and the constant reference to background knowledge, he didn’t really make any Bayesian arguments, which is what the book promised. He also relies far too much on the presumption of materialism, and does a poor job of addressing objections to that view. This also holds for his insistence that we need to have an empirical/scientific theory or argument in the first place, as without that principle much of his book is overturned and there are good reasons to think that a scientific approach isn’t appropriate here, or at least isn’t the only option.

At the end of the day, Philipse sets out assumptions that he agrees with and bases his arguments on them, but those assumptions or not as safe, accepted or justified as he needs them to be. If you accept his scientific, naturalistic and materialistic worldview, then you’ll agree with him, but if you even merely doubt one of those assumptions, the entire book crumbles and Philipse does an inadequate job of buttressing those assumptions to remove any reasonable doubt. That he then proceeds as if his foundations are completely secure only makes the book worse, as any doubt carries forward and undermines every argument that depends on it. For a book aimed at or touted to be more philosophical, it makes a number of philosophical mistakes and provides a poor philosophical basis for the scientific approach he insists we need to take. This book, ultimately, cannot convince anyone who knows the philosophical background to the debates, because the assumptions he makes have specific counters that he fails to adequately address.

Jerry Coyne Proves Science and Religion Are Not Incompatible …

January 5, 2018

So, for the longest time, Jerry Coyne has been trying to demonstrate that science and religion are incompatible in a strong sense, where if a thing is scientific and a thing is religious then those things are incompatible by definition. He’s not trying to argue that some religions are factually incorrect, or that those religions were proven incorrect by advances in science. He’s unwilling to accept that any religion worth calling such could be compatible with science and scientific facts, and ultimately that no one can build a worldview that respects both science and religion without building in that incompatibility, and so no one who accepts science can be religious without cognitive dissonance. My constant criticism of his view is that he constantly tries to establish that science and religion are incompatible by proving specific religions incorrect, which is not enough to demonstrate any kind of interesting philosophical incompatibility; if a religion is proven factually incorrect, then the members of that religion perhaps should abandon it, but that doesn’t mean that they must give up the idea of a god or accept naturalism.

In a recent post, Coyne again argues for incompatibility, while examining a post defending the Templeton Foundation. I’ll pretty much ignore all of that discussion, and focus in on how Coyne inadvertently proves that there can be no inherent incompatibility between science and religion.

The big point wants to go after is Gould’s idea that science and religion deal with separate areas of inquiry and so cannot interestingly conflict. As usual, Coyne insists that religions make factual claims, and so science and religion cannot be completely distinct. He lists a few of the factual claims that he thinks science has proven incorrect, and then says this:

So while we can’t have a constructive dialogue, we can have a “destructive monologue”: science can tell religionists that what they believe is wrong, but the other side has no such ability.

But, presumably, science can also tell religion that those factual claims that they believe are correct, no? Thus, science could also help to justify religions, and verify that their facts are true and correct, thus improving our confidence in that religion and, possibly, even spawning converts. Coyne doesn’t think this is true for any religion — or at least any current one — but if this is possible — and it is — then science will not necessarily be destructive of religion, and might even help build it. Coyne doesn’t think that any religion is true, but this counter would, in fact, be him saying that he thinks all religions are false. He may even be right. He may even be right that science has proven that. But that wouldn’t make science and religion incompatible, but would merely make all religions wrong.

So in attempting to demonstrate the factual inaccuracies of religion as proven by science, Coyne inadvertently allows us to see that science need not be inherently destructive of religion, and clearly wouldn’t be destructive of any religion that happened to be true. Thus, the conversation might end up being one way — as Coyne is attempting to demonstrate — but that doesn’t mean that it has to be based around science disproving religion. And if science can prove a religion’s factual claims, that’s a conversation that is by definition the opposite of destructive. And if science and religion can have a dialogue that isn’t destructive, but could in fact be called constructive, then science and religion cannot be interestingly incompatible.

This leads us to discussions of what religions can be seen as, and if we could have not only a science that supports the facts of a religion — and potentially even proves that God exists — but also a religion that is supported by and respects science. The thing is, while I disagree with the idea that religion doesn’t involve any factual claims at all, religion is better understood as a worldview, and worldviews have a different approach to facts than science — as a way of knowing — does. While science and all ways of knowing try to establish factual claims, worldviews don’t. They are based on some factual claims, and they often have factual implications, but for the most part they are less concerned about establishing facts and more concerned about establishing normative claims, and primarily the one about how one ought to live one’s life. So while most worldviews will have a position on how someone ought to go about finding out factual claims, the number of factual claims that really matter to a worldview are decidedly small: only the critical ones that the worldview is based on, and the ones that follow as implications of it that, if they weren’t true, would mean the worldview could not be true.

So, then, imagine that I create a religious worldview. Let me call it VS-Catholicism. It holds basically all the same views as Catholicism, except that it insists that it must accept any scientific fact, and adjust theologically accordingly. To be fair, this is pretty much in line with actual Catholicism, as there is no ex cathedra claim that can be made about something that is a matter of fact. Thus, no article of faith can depend on the truth of a factual belief that science could have refuted, as that factual belief itself cannot be an ex cathedra statement. So, Coyne’s attempt to argue that the Pope has said that Adam and Eve have to literally be our direct and sole ancestors doesn’t even seem to work for Catholicism, as if that is really a factual claim then if science has refuted it then Catholicism itself would have to adjust that factual belief. However, Coyne could use that to claim that the belief is, in fact, a core Catholic belief, and so if science refutes it then Catholicism is, itself, refuted.

Hence, VS-Catholicism. VS-Catholicism denies that Adam and Eve need to literally be our ancestors, or that the story must be literally true and not a metaphor. Thus, given that, VS-Catholicism would simply adjust its theology, either to make the story true in another sense — like them being the first to gain souls, for example, which was also done by Catholicism — or arguing that the story is a metaphor, which I’ve defended before. Coyne can argue that this would destroy the need for Jesus to sacrifice himself for our sins, but there are two problems with that. The first is that in the post I linked I actually defend that, meaning that I already have an answer for that. The second — and more important one — is that Coyne could not be using science to make that argument. He’d have to be doing philosophy/theology … and pretty sophisticated theology at that. If Coyne has to move from the realm of science to the realm of theology to claim that my attempt to reconcile VS-Catholicism to science won’t work, then the issue will be with the theology, not the science. And so there is no reason to claim that science and religion are inherently incompatible. I might be wrong that my VS-Catholicism worldview can be made compatible with science in that way, but it is possible that it could work … and the problem would be with my specific theology, not with the scientific facts, or with anything that science, in and of itself, is telling me.

Now, Coyne could counter that if I build a religious worldview that is infinitely malleable, then yes, I could remain consistent with science. But in order for it to be a distinct worldview, surely there have to be some things that it thinks true and that cannot be changed. For example, for it to count as a religious worldview surely it has to think that some kind of god exists as some point, surely. And all of those could be — and Coyne tends to think already has been — refuted by science.

So I’ll give him one: the Resurrection. If Jesus was never killed and resurrected, then VS-Catholicism is false. This is convenient, because Coyne talks about that in his post:

If you don’t like those, how about the Bible?

If Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your Faith is also vain. —1 Corinthians 15:14

You can hardly call yourself a Christian if you don’t think Jesus was the son of God, part man and part divine, and died and was resurrected to expiate our sins.

But … this is one that Coyne never actually says that science has disproved. So while Coyne lists it as a factual belief for Christians, he never demonstrates that science has yet proven it false. And while a number of atheists have argued on a number of occasions that science has — arguing, for example, that science has shown that no one can rise from the dead — science hasn’t actually done that because its claims don’t allow for that kind of justification. In short, science has yet to prove that to be the case.

Which leads to Coyne’s move against proof:

First of all, “proof” is not required for a theory to have credibility; the concept of “proof” is alien to science.

This is a common atheist move: arguing that science does not provide “proof”. In my experience, the initial thrust from this came from theistic arguments that demanded that atheists prove their claims, and then insisting that any doubt at all meant that their “proofs” were insufficient, and so the atheists couldn’t really “know” that their claim is true. Thus, there was a pushback against the idea that knowledge required logical certainty, and so we could “know” things that were absolutely certain. This, in and of itself, isn’t an unreasonable position — and epistemology came to that conclusion quite a while ago — but it often gets used against demands for proof that are clearly nothing than the standard colloquial “Give me sufficient evidence to show that your theory is true”, which means give me enough justification so that I can claim to know — by the “justified true belief” definition — that it is true. Since Coyne claims that science is a “way of knowing”, science definitely has to be able to provide that sort of “proof” for its theories to have credibility. If he can’t and wants to claim that science doesn’t do that, then there are no scientific facts that any worldview, religious or otherwise, needs to consider.

And worldviews, for their fundamental beliefs, might want a stronger level of proof than is commonly accepted for scientific facts. As I talked about recently, science actually gets a lot of individual scientific facts wrong, at least at first. Sure, we can argue that it eventually gets to the facts, but it does a lot of readjusting along the way. Changing fundamental beliefs for a worldview, however, at a minimum requires a massive reworking of the worldview and might even force people to abandon the worldview. So for those sorts of factual beliefs, the worldview is going to want to have really, really strong evidence that the factual belief is wrong before it accepts it. Given that, it’s perfectly reasonable for religious worldviews to, at a minimum, be skeptical of what are the current scientific beliefs until they are established to the point where the likelihood of them changing is exceptionally low. This is particularly true is accepting that scientific belief would cause the collapse of the worldview. Thus, it is certainly reasonable for worldviews to not accept the scientific consensus if all we have is, in fact, the scientific consensus. The empirical observations themselves must be sufficiently strong and free from potential confounds before the worldview need accept it. In short, worldviews should not accept scientific challenges to their fundamental beliefs until they are forced to by the evidence; scientists simply saying that this is currently the best theory should not be sufficient to overturn the fundamental beliefs of a worldview.

Given all of this, not only are science and religion not inherently incompatible, much of the time religion and science actually interact in the right ways. Sure, there are religions can are probably at the “forced to accept that a fundamental belief is false” stage who aren’t acknowledging it, but then there are scientific claims that are not strong enough to justify abandoning those fundamental beliefs that some claim religions should just accept. The science vs religion debate should be seen as the debate between a worldview and a way of knowing, and while the two are not entirely distinct they aren’t the same either. I think that understanding this would do a great deal to help settle the question of whether or not science and religion are incompatible.

Philipse on Religious Experience

December 29, 2017

So, Chapter 15 examines religious experiences. Or, as it turns out, it doesn’t, because Swinburne, according to Philipse, uses the argument from religious experiences in a specific way for a specific purpose, and Philipse follows along with him here, and the result is that both of them are going to try very, very hard to avoid talking about specific religious experiences or their properties and instead focus on generalities. Suffice it to say that that isn’t going to work out very well for either of them.

Swinburne, according to Philipse, is attempting to use religious experiences to shift the burden of proof from theists to atheists. He does so by trying to appeal to two fundamental principles of rationality: the Principle of Credulity that says that we should trust that our sense experiences are giving us an accurate perception if we don’t have a defeater for that, and the Principle of Testimony that says that we should trust the reports of other people unless we have a defeater for that notion. Swinburne, then, will use that to argue that religious experiences — even rather vague ones — are experiences of the same sort and so should get the benefit of that trust unless the atheist can come up with a defeater, while Philipse will counter with the argument that religious experiences — particularly due to the nature of God — are too dissimilar from normal sense experiences for the principle to apply to them.

The problem is that both, in my view, miss what those fundamental principles do. The reason we hold these — as Philipse himself notes that Swinburne notes — is that without them we can’t have any basis for any knowledge at all. All of our possible knowledge is filtered through sense perception, and any possible way to have that verified independently relies on the testimony of others claiming to have had the same experiences as we had. So we cannot doubt in general our sense experiences or others reports, because if we do that we give up the very means we could use to verify them. Thus, we must start from a default of trusting them and only challenge them when we have a reason not to trust them.

The problem is that while we don’t distrust them in general, that doesn’t mean that we can’t or ought not distrust them in specific cases, or even that we don’t need to justify the beliefs and knowledge we claim given them. We can only extend this trust to things that follow uncontroversially from the sense experience itself. Swinburne attempts to put the experience and the interpretations of that experience into the experience itself — using the example of seeing a ship and having the interpretation that it is a Russian ship — but Philipse is right to point out that without some sort of defined traits that we could appeal to that interpretation won’t work; it has to be the case that someone could justify that that was a Russian ship by appealing to the qualities of the experience before we would accept that the experience really, in and of itself, is sufficient justification for it being a Russian ship. And yet, Philipse spends very little time in the chapter discussing what kind of experience or experiences might be considered experiences that would indicate a God. Instead, he spends most of his time trying to argue that religious experiences are so different from regular experiences that the Principle of Credulity simply cannot apply to them, and thus shift the burden of proof back to the theist. This is consistent with his general strategy throughout the entire book: shift the burden of proof to the theist, while at the same time arguing that no such proof is possible. Given his characterization of their necessary properties, it is difficult to see how we could have an experience of God that would count for him, and since he earlier eliminates logical arguments for the existence of God there doesn’t seem to be anything left. But it’s not a good argument to say that we should not believe that God exists because there is no way for us to know whether or not God exists.

That’s the real issue here. Both Swinburne and Philipse are required to come up with a way for us to know whether or not a religious experience would count as evidence and sufficient evidence for the existence of God. If we had a definition of what that sort of experience would be, then if someone had it or had someone else claim to have it then that experience would count under the principles of Credulity and Testimony just like any other experience would, and so Philipse’s attempt to rule out religious experiences a priori fails. However, those principles do not render Swinburne immune to the question “How do you know that your experience was an experience of God rather than an experience of something else?”. Just “feeling” that is insufficient for existence claims unless Swinburne wants to liken it to something like love … except that even then we know that we can be mistaken, and since we know that we can be mistaken Swinburne would still have to have an answer to someone who asks if he could be mistaken about that interpretation, even if it seems to be happening at the same time. So, in fact, both of them need to have a criteria for what sort of experiences would count as here. The theist needs it in order to present an experience as that sort of experience. The atheist needs it in order to be able to dismiss experiences that don’t meet that standard without falling into the trap of assuming that if it is an experience that purports to be of a God then it isn’t sufficient by definition.

I don’t think we’ve had all that many religious experiences that would count as that sort of experience, and think that the ones that we might have had often occur in circumstances that might make us doubt their accuracy. But we can’t rule out that we ourselves might have an experience that would count and thus provide sufficient reason for us, at least, to believe that God exists. Swinburne tries to argue that we already have enough of them, while Philipse tries to argue that we can’t ever have one of those. Both of them are incorrect.

Religious Freedom and Baking Cakes …

December 8, 2017

So, Bob Seidensticker has made two posts talking about Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado, a court case that is going to be heard by the Supreme Court of the United States. The gist of it is that a gay couple came into a cakeshop to order a wedding cake for their wedding, and the baker refused to do so on the basis that it required them to in some way participate in or advocate for same sex marriage, which opposed their religious beliefs. This, then, was seen to violate Colorado’s anti-discrimination laws, and thus we have the court case.

Let me start by talking about what the right to freedom of religion is meant to do. While there are numerous different ways to phrase it, the basic, underlying idea is that the state cannot impose an excessive legal burden on one’s religious requirements. The reason for this is that it would effectively make it illegal for someone to practice their religion, and if the government can do that then no one has freedom of religion. While people like, say, Coel insist that this only applies to making it directly illegal, all anti-discriminatory legislation makes it clear that it doesn’t become non-discriminatory if it is unintentional. Part of the reason for that is that it is too easy to cast legislation as being universal while knowing that it will disproportionately impact a specific group. Another part is that the effects of the legislation aren’t in any way ameliorated by those effects being unintentional. At the heart of the right to freedom of religion is that I must not be required to choose between following the law and following my religious beliefs.

Of course, since we are dealing with entire societies and a host of rights, things are never that simple. We always have to balance the needs of the overall society and with the rights of others, and sometimes one right or the other has to give way. The key to this discussion — and thus is something that most people on both sides refuse to acknowledge — is that this is a clash between two rights, and even of two rights to non-discrimination: does the law’s requirement that the baker bake the cake unduly burden that baker wrt religion and thus constitutes discrimination on the basis of religion, or is the baker’s refusal to bake that cake discrimination against gay people?

Seidensticker starts by summarizing and/or commenting on the baker’s case, so I’ll start there as well, mostly by looking at his comments on the arguments.

The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is the attorney for the baker, and it characterizes the case this way:

When a cake artist declines to design a cake for a Halloween party, the world goes about its business. But if that same cake artist declines a request for a custom cake for a same-sex wedding, he is forced to defend his decision all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

You act like this is surprising. The baker breaks no law (by refusing to serve no protected class of people) when he declines to bake a Halloween cake, but he refuses to serve homosexuals, who are protected by Colorado law, when he declines their wedding cake. When he has a place of public accommodation (like a storefront) in Colorado and refuses to serve someone in a protected class, he breaks the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act.

While it’s not a strong legal or philosophical argument, the oddity here is that if the baker decided that he didn’t like those people, or thought they were ugly, or didn’t like what they were wearing, he’d have an inarguable right to refuse to bake the cake for him. However, if he decided not to bake that cake for them because of his religious beliefs, then that becomes unacceptable and has to be justified. The thing is, religious beliefs are protected, and so the law should certainly find those reasons more justifiable than the previous ones given. And yet, in this case the argument is that they don’t. Of course, the real issue here is the one that Seidensticker notes: homosexuals are also a protected group, and so you wouldn’t be allowed to discriminate against them if that was your reason. Thus, if it was any other reason that the person didn’t want to bake a case for a same sex marriage specifically because it was for a same sex marriage, it clearly wouldn’t be allowed. Thus, it is sufficient to say that we are taking the right to freedom of religion more seriously here just by being willing to ask the question if the baker’s religious beliefs here might be sufficient to allow them to discriminate in this manner.

The ADF says, “The government does not have the power to force creative professionals like Jack—or anyone for that matter—to celebrate events that violate their faith.”

You don’t want to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding? Then don’t bake wedding cakes. Problem solved—now your faith is no longer violated. But if you provide public accommodation, which in this case means declaring to the public that you will sell custom wedding cakes, you can’t discriminate against protected classes.

The argument of “If you don’t like it, then don’t provide that service at all” is a very shaky one when it comes to rights. If someone is forced to not provide a service or enter into a field of employment only because the law says that they have to do something that would violate their religious beliefs, then we really should look into this closer, because this is precisely what the right to religious freedom is supposed to prevent. Sure, required services might be justified, but you need strong reasons — and, to use Seidensticker’s terminology (from later) — strong harms to say to all members of a specific religion “If you enter X field or perform X service you will have to choose between the law and your religion”. The idea of “public accommodation” cannot be used to exclude members of a specific religion — who thus would have specific religious obligations — from the public sphere unduly. So Seidensticker cannot blithely insist that public accommodation must, by necessity and in all cases, trump religious freedom, or else he risks allowing religions to be pushed from the public sphere because of major religious obligations on their part that clash with minor freedoms on the part of other protected groups, which would violate the reason we have the right to freedom of religion.

The ADF concludes, “[Baker Jack Phillips] has taken a bold stand for his faith—and for religious freedom for all of us.”

Religious freedom for all of us? We all want to be able to discriminate based on our personal religious beliefs? Sorry, laws trump your religious preferences when they conflict.

No, they don’t. The right to religious freedom — as is true for any Constitutionally protected right — exists for the sole purpose of being able to trump laws when their effect is to violate that right. For freedom of religion, that means the right to practice one’s religion as one sees fit, and thus to fulfill all of your religious obligations and to never violate your religion’s commands. A law that makes you violate a religious command or stops you from fulfilling a religious obligation is one that the right to freedom of religion exists to overturn.

He says he would refuse to create a cake with a hateful message or one that promoted racism, but the excuse that he wants for himself would allow a lot of collateral damage. If Jack can say that his religious beliefs forbid him from making a wedding cake that supports a same-sex wedding, another Christian baker can use the same logic to refuse a cake that supports a mixed-race wedding. In fact, if you think the multi-purpose Bible can’t be used to support a case against any of the protected classes listed in that law, including Jews, Muslims, and African-Americans, you haven’t read enough of the Bible. Worse, there’s no need to invent contrary biblical arguments because the logic behind the argument is irrelevant when religious beliefs are simply whatever someone says they are.

The problem is that as soon as you have any right like the right to freedom of religion and/or have religious groups as a protected class, you have the issue of deciding both what counts as a religion and what counts and religious obligations, commitments, and practices. Unless Seidensticker wants to eliminate that entirely — like Coel does — that ship has already sailed. And as it turns out, religious beliefs, in general, are not just whatever someone says they are. For almost all religions — except exceptionally small ones — we have access to experts on what those are: the ministers themselves. Often we have explicit doctrinal statements as well. And all of this should be obvious, because all religions are certainly going to want to and actually are going to have to make it clear to their congregations what their religious practices and beliefs are so that, well, they can do them. Any religion that couldn’t state these things clearly enough to be judged in a court of law for cases like this would lose those protections, just because of the objection Seidensticker raises: the state would have no way to determine if something was a religious obligation or something invented just to allow them to perform that action. Fortunately, that isn’t the case for almost all religions.

And the key here is not to look at the Bible and see that you can justify various things, because the Bible is not what’s being protected here, nor is any specific interpretation of it being protected. No, what happens in these cases is that a person says that they are a member of an officially recognized religion and that their religion’s interpretation of whatever relevant texts and philosophies they use says that to take that action would be a violation of their religious beliefs. Then we can look at the religion and texts and interpretations in general to see if that holds water.

This brings us to the key things to argue over here. In this case, he is saying that his religious beliefs forbid him from participating in and/or advocating for same sex marriage, and that baking the cake means that he’d be participating in and/or advocating for same sex marriage. You can attack this two ways, by pointing out that his religious beliefs don’t forbid him from doing that, or that baking the cake cannot reasonably be seen as participating. Not serving same sex couples pretty much falls under the “You aren’t participating” line, but that isn’t as clear here, but in general these are thing that we can indeed judge on the basis of the logic behind the argument. Seidensticker wants to dismiss any such attempts out of hand when it comes to religion, but there isn’t a really good argument for doing so, especially since we have been doing it for hundreds of years and are required to try if we want to have any meaningful freedom of religion at all.

Note the novel part of this case. The exemption for discrimination isn’t being asked for all businesses, just those that involve “artistic expression.” Artistic expression is speech, and the first amendment protects that as well as religion.

Making a cake is artistic expression, but this claim can apply (potentially) to lots of businesses: florists, nail salons, barbers, tailors, carpenters, plumbers, or destinations for kids’ birthday parties. Maybe even guidance counselors, funeral homes, therapists, or doctors. And once the door is open a bit, other businesses that can’t claim an artistic expression exemption might push for a piece of that sweet, sweet discrimination action.

This is an argument akin to “If you allow same sex marriages, you have to allow polygamous ones as well”. First, that isn’t necessarily the case, as we can appeal back to the “participation” angle as well. To take nail salons, the reason that someone wants their nails done isn’t relevant to the service itself, and so doesn’t count as participating, nor is there likely to be anything about the nail service itself that would express a statement that might violate their religious beliefs. That may not be true of the cake, especially if they, say, want to insist on having two grooms at the top of it. Suffice it to say that we can probably distinguish the legitimate ones from the illegitimate ones, and if the case holds the legitimate ones are indeed ones where we should recognize the artistic expression angle, and the illegitimate ones are the ones where we wouldn’t.

First Amendment rights are important. When the Christian doesn’t have the right to speak freely on religion, I probably don’t, either. But religious freedom doesn’t give you the right to impose your beliefs on others.

But how is the baker, here, imposing their beliefs on others? They are refusing to do one acting that violates their own personal religious beliefs, which are protected just as much as the same sex couple’s rights are. It does seem to me that forcing someone to participate in a service or express a message that violates their religious beliefs is far more imposing beliefs than saying “You can get someone else to bake you a cake but I won’t”.

And that’s the key and why I said above that most people on both sides don’t really get the debate. The religious side tends to argue on the basis that they have a right to their religious beliefs and ignores that there is another right on the other side to consider. But as seen here the secularists like Seidensticker tend to ignore that people have a right to their religious beliefs and that other people and the law have no right to insist that they act against their religious beliefs. When we get a clash like this, we need to consider the rights of both sides and determine what action to take, or even if there is a compromise position. This is what most of the debate is studiously ignoring.

In his second post, Seidensticker summarizes the FFRF response. The first point:

The freedom of thought and belief—freedom of conscience—is absolute. But the freedom to act on religious beliefs in every circumstance of one’s life is not absolute, and religious conduct can and must be burdened by civil laws, especially those that protect the rights of others.

Yes, it is not absolute. But that doesn’t mean that it can be burdened by civil laws willy-nilly. The state must have a compelling, neutral argument for why it needs that law and why it needs to extend it to those religious practices. If it can achieve its end without burdening religious conduct, the right says that they must do so. When it comes to a clash of rights, then we must consider which violation of rights is the more severe, and choose the option that violates the rights the least severely. The right to freedom of religion ends at the rights of other citizens … but so does the right to non-discrimination or, indeed, any other right.

The baker claims that both Hobby Lobby and Masterpiece Cakeshop are closely held family businesses, so the conclusion in the Hobby Lobby case—that this kind of business can itself hold a religious belief that would exempt it from regulations—applies to Masterpiece Cakeshop as well.

The FFRF brief rejects this claim. The Hobby Lobby case was interpreting the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a federal statute, and didn’t touch on First Amendment claims. Since the opposite is true in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case—it relies on a First Amendment claim and isn’t affected by RFRA—Hobby Lobby is no precedent.

This part seems aimed to show that the religious beliefs of the baker are relevant to the service provided, and is not an argument that the two should be considered the same and so if Hobby Lobby won then the baker here should win as well. It just establishes that his connection to his business is direct enough that his beliefs are relevant to what services he provides.

What’s the difference between racial discrimination based on religious beliefs and racial discrimination not based on religious beliefs? There’s no way to distinguish them. Said another way, imagine discrimination that is falsely claimed to be based on religious belief. How could anyone reliably detect the lie?

To make such a claim, you must be able to identify what religion you are and what obligations you have because of that religion clearly enough to evaluate whether the action really would violate your religious beliefs. Once you do so, any lie could be detected reliably enough.

The baker attempts to make a distinction between refusing to sell a wedding cake that celebrates a gay wedding and refusing to sell a wedding cake to gay people. The only people having gay weddings are gay people, and you can’t discriminate against the wedding without discriminating against the people.

It is possible for someone who is not gay to be purchasing the cake for that wedding. Presumably, the baker here wouldn’t sell it to that person either, so it really is that the cake is for a specific event, and not just that the customer is gay. So, yes, you can indeed distinguish between participating in an event and selling to a specific person. That the couple is gay only comes into play here because of the fact that the event itself ties into homosexuality, but it’s not a case of people vs event here. The event is specifically homosexual and so using that reason triggers that protected group, but it’s not the people in general that we are concerned about here, but the event itself.

Bob Jones Sr., televangelist and founder of his self-named university, infamously preached in his 1960 Easter sermon, “If you are against segregation and against racial separation, then you are against God.”

The university forbade mixed-race marriages, flouting a 1970 IRS (Internal Revenue Service) regulation that prohibited tax-exempt status for private schools with racially discriminatory policies, and the IRS revoked their tax-exempt status (ah, for the good old days!). The 1983 SCOTUS decision supported the IRS and concluded, “Governmental interest substantially outweighs whatever burden denial of tax benefits places on petitioners’ exercise of their religious beliefs.”

Which to me sounds like a specific argument that in this case losing their tax-exempt status was not a sufficient burden to their university when balanced against the need for the government to not be funding racially discriminatory practices. Here, this isn’t a clear. The harm done to a same sex couple for having to get their cake somewhere else is pretty negligible, and from the societal view not forcing people to express messages that oppose their religious beliefs seems stronger than having same sex couples mildly disadvantaged in service of that.

Seidensticker has a concluding thought:

There’s an implied asymmetry in the baker’s favor. Religious views are considered fundamental, an important part of someone’s makeup. Those views are fixed, and it’d be much easier for the customer to take his request down the street to another baker than insist that the baker compromise his religious views.

But let’s question that. Instead of the customer going down the street to another baker, why can’t the baker go down the street to another church? Christians change congregations by the thousands every day. There’s nothing inherently wrong about same-sex weddings within Christianity. The baker can drop his bias and still be a Christian.

Yes, let’s say that if the baker doesn’t want to have the law burden his religious beliefs, he really ought to just change religions. Avoiding that is the entire purpose the right to freedom of religion exists. The law cannot make some religions legally superior to others. That violates both freedom of religion and the establishment clause. And Seidensticker cannot be so obtuse as to not understand that different sects of Christianity count as different religions. Forced conversion to more state-friendly religions on pain of legal punishment is not something that you can support and still claim to have anything like freedom of religion.

Philosophically, we definitely have to consider this case as one where allowing the baker to refuse might be reasonable. The key is over whether or not it counts as participation or as expressing that view. However, neither side really seems to want to debate that, and instead wants to insist that their right trumps the rights of the other side. I wonder why that is …

Your chance to help decide what I write about!

November 29, 2017

So, I’ve been running with the three updates a week schedule for quite a while now, and it seems to be working out pretty well. It even managed to survive my incredible busy time without all that much of a hitch. In doing this I’ve also started to figure out what things work, what things don’t and how things can work out better in my schedule, which then might start to make the blog more predictable consistent in how things work and what sort of content you might see here. In short, there are certain types of content that work pretty well whether I’m busy or not, and that are also things that I like talking about and am going to do some things with anyway, so I might as well talk about them.

The key is that what works best for the blog are things that I can watch, read or do at any time and then comment on later without having to refer back to the original source material that much. If I can do that, then it really makes my blog writing more flexible and so gives me things that can be done in a relative hurry if I’m busy but that I can do in free time if I’m not busy. TV shows are the ideal for this, and books are probably the worst (since to comment on arguments fairly I generally want to quote from them). But since a lot of these things are things that I haven’t focused on or that are suddenly fitting into my schedule better than they did before, I’m also a bit short of things that fit into those categories and so need to find some new sources for those sorts of posts.

Here is your chance to guide me towards new things to try in those areas.

So, one thing that I’ve found myself lately is watching Extra Credits youtube videos and commenting on them (which in their case means “Disagreeing with them”). In fact, I’m planning on commenting on another couple of them in the near future. But other than SF Debris, I don’t really watch a lot of youtube videos, especially when it comes to gaming. And about the only other commentator on games that I read consistently is Shamus Young, and I’m thinking about digging through his old columns — which he is planning on revisting himself, making this so much easier — to find some other things to talk about. But what other video game commentators do you guys like to watch or read who might have things to say that I might find interesting and want to talk about? While ones that I would probably disagree with are in some sense good — because it’s always pretty easy to write posts disagreeing with people (Hi, Extra Credits!) — I’m also open to people who just say things that might bring up interesting, tangentially related ideas for me to talk about (Hi, Shamus!).

A couple of caveats, though: for youtube videos, the videos can’t be longer, on average, than a half-hour, and can’t be Let’s Plays. Text reviewers are not only excluded from those restrictions, they’ll get precedence because it’s easier for me to read them anywhere and quote them if I want to talk about what they’re saying.

Another thing that I’ve recently started doing more frequently is commenting on TV shows that I’m watching in general, which you saw with Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Transformers, and most recently Cheers. I’m currently watching Frasier, and will talk about it as things go along, and I still have a show like Wings waiting when this is done. But since I don’t watch a lot of TV in general, I don’t have much of an idea of what shows might be worth watching, and for my purposes — see the upcoming caveats — don’t want to risk trying something out that I don’t think will be good.

Right now, there are a number of caveats. First, for at least the next year it looks like half-hour shows are what I’ll be watching, and that’s all that I could do for the blog because it would take me too long to watch hourly shows to be useful for generating content on the blog. However, that isn’t limited to sitcoms, as it can fit into anything that is half-hour in length and sounds interesting, like cartoons (for example). Second, these have to be completed series, and it has to be the case that I can get the entire series for a reasonable price. Ideally, if I can order them all on amazon.ca, that would be wonderful. EDIT: I’ll pretty much be buying DVDs, so if it’s not out on DVD the chances of my watching it are slim to none. Third, they can’t be too long; the eleven seasons of Frasier and Cheers are probably about the limit, although that’s more number of episodes rather than number of seasons.

As an example, I’m right now looking to see if I can get Hot in Cleveland — which I’ve talked about before — and maybe, now that its run is done, 2 Broke Girls if I can get the seasons for a reasonable price. Big Bang Theory is out because it is still running and is too long anyway, as is something like The Simpsons for the same reason.

I’m also interested in getting suggestions for books to read and talk about. I do want to keep reading and writing about deeper and more serious topics like that, even though it takes me a while to get around to commenting on them (I have finished reading Philipse’s book, for example, but still have to finish writing posts about it), and I’m a bit out of the loop on what the most recent or, for some genres, even what the popular books and topics are. So I’d be looking for suggestions in the genres of theology, philosophy, and history primarily. I’ll also consider requests for TPB comic editions (but, at least for now, not Alt-Hero).

Now, just because something isn’t listed here doesn’t mean that I won’t be writing about it. For example, I still intend to write about video games, but that will still be limited to the ones I play, and I won’t be soliciting ones to consider as something new so I can talk about it on the blog. And I’ll talk about music and my own eccentricities and do song parodies and talk about computers and write philosophical posts regardless. It’s just that these are categories that it is both relatively easy for me to write about and that I’m fairly uninformed about what’s out there that I might want to get into and write about, which is why I’m asking for suggestions here.

Also note that this isn’t like Chuck’s requests. I don’t put these on a list and promise to have them completed at some time in the near future. I’ll do them if I feel like it and get time and can get them without breaking the bank. I’ll try to respond to all comments as to whether there’s even a chance of it and I’ll try to put something up for things that I’ve bought and so plan to get to at some point, but any suggestion you make here is a suggestion that I’ll consider but may not do, even if I think it’s a good one.