Archive for the ‘Theism’ Category

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

February 22, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discussion of Objective Morality: Moral Criticism

February 17, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 15, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m seeing three categories of beliefs:

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

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

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

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

Bad Defenses of Bad Atheist Arguments: The Loch Ness Monster’s Moustache

February 8, 2017

So, Bob Seidensticker over at Cross Examined is looking at a book by Andy Bannister criticizing some atheist arguments. Seidensticker is going to try to defend the arguments against those criticisms. The problem is that his defenses, at least so far, have been … weak to say the least.

In the first post, Seidensticker characterizes the book this way:

The tone is deliberately lighthearted, often to an extreme of silliness, though it was too full of insults for me to find it amusing. I can’t in one paragraph frisk in field of lavender clover with a miniature pink rhinoceros who plays show tunes through a calliope in its horn and farts cotton-candy-scented soap bubbles but then two paragraphs later be lectured that my arguments are embarrassing, “extremely bad,” or “disastrous.” The flippant tone got old fast.

So, presumably, we can be assured that Seidensticker will not be at all flippant and will use no insults. Hey, stop laughing!

Anyway, the first argument that Bannister addresses, in the first chapter (entitled ” The Loch Ness Monster’s Moustache”) is the atheist bus sign “There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”. Since I’m interested in arguments not in personal offense, I’ll ignore the discussion of its tone, and move straight on to the actual criticisms of the argument:

Bannister next asks, “What’s the connection between the non-existence of something and any effect, emotional or otherwise?” Do you complain about unicorns or the Flying Spaghetti Monster not existing?

In a dozen places, Banister writes something like this that makes me wonder if he’s just not paying attention. No, we don’t complain about unicorns—they don’t exist, and they don’t cause problems. Christianity, on the other hand, does exist, and Christianity and Christians cause problems.

Sure, Christianity exists. What does that have to with god? In particularly with small “g” god. Sure, Seidensticker can argue that if he disproves the existence of the Christian God, then Christianity itself will collapse. Fine. Does that mean that all of Christianity’s problems will go along with it? Are the problems with Christianity caused by God? Or “god”? Seidensticker doesn’t say, and the bus ad doesn’t say, either. This becomes important later as Seidensticker tries to defend himself from the “Atheist leaders did bad things, too”:

Richard Dawkins lampooned this argument with this tweet: “Stalin, Hitler and Saddam Hussein were evil, murdering dictators. All had moustaches. Therefore moustaches are evil.”

Yes, Stalin was a bad man, but why? Was it the mustache? Was it his atheism? No, Stalin was a dictator, and dictators don’t like alternate power structures like the church. Religion was competition, so Stalin made it illegal. They didn’t do anything in the name of atheism. Lack of a god belief is no reason to order that people be killed. (I expose the Stalin argument here and here.)

So … how many of the Christian leaders that did things “in the name of God” were really dictators using religion as a power base? Marxist communism itself famously refers to religion as “the opiate of the masses”, and history has proven that dictators are willing to use religious biases to grab and maintain power. We have many, many examples of dictators using religion to justify their having power, either by declaring that it was God’s will that they have it, or by insisting that they are the defenders of the faith, or whatever. If you can’t blame atheism for Stalin’s attacking religion — which is the rather odd stance Seidensticker is defending here — then how can you blame God for those other dictators?

This gets even worse when you realize that Marxist communism was, itself, explicitly anti-religious. The reason Stalin could get away with persecuting religions was because communist doctrine allowed for it. He thus used communist doctrine, if Seidensticker’s analysis is right, to remove a personal threat. In fact, pretty much all of Stalin’s atrocities were justified by appealing to communist doctrine (and, yes, backed up by overwhelming power). Stalin, then, used communist doctrine in much the same way as people have used Christian doctrine to justify their own specific qualities. And pretty much any philosophical worldview can be so abused. Thus, there is no reason to think that people accepting “There’s probably no god” will improve anything on this score.

So let me return to earlier in the post and see what these “harms” are supposed to be:

If you’re not causing problems, that’s great, but if you’re not aware of the problems, you’re also not paying attention. Christian adults live burdened with guilt. Christian children startle awake at a noise and wonder if this is the beginning of the imminent Armageddon. Christian homosexuals deny themselves romantic relationships to satisfy an absent god. This isn’t true for all Christians, of course, but imposing a worldview burdened with Bronze Age nonsense and informed by faith rather than evidence has consequences.

So, if people reject god — or, rather, “God” — they won’t be burdened with guilt? Presumably, if atheistic views of morality are correct and atheistic morality doesn’t just devolve into “Do whatever you want”, people will still want to do things that they shouldn’t, and thus will still do things they shouldn’t, and so will feel guilt. Children, whether Christian or not, will still startle awake at noises and fear something, be it monsters under the bed or the threat of nuclear war or that Trump will take their friends away — you don’t see too many liberals blaming liberal rhetoric for that one — or, well, any number of things. There will be people who will or will at least feel like they should deny themselves romantic relationships for various reasons. So these things will still happen. All that will change are the reasons for that. Seidensticker clearly feels that appealing to a “god” is the wrong reason. Fine. But then he’s no longer talking about the belief in god or God or whatever being bad because it causes those feelings or even because those things cause guilt but instead because it is for the wrong reason. And if that’s what he and the ad want to argue, go for it. But the actual argument in the ad is that if you accept that god probably doesn’t exist, then you’ll have a much better life. And unless Seidensticker wants to argue that atheists don’t have to worry about anything, there’s no evidence for that conclusion.

Bannister wants to highlight the problem with the slogan by proposing this variant: “There’s probably no Loch Ness Monster, so stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Imagine telling this to someone down on his luck, someone who’s been kicked around by fate. Would he be cheered by this new knowledge?

No, because the Loch Ness Monster has zero impact in anyone’s life. Remove Nessie’s non-existent impact from someone’s life and nothing has changed. But do I really have to explain that god belief has a big impact on many people? For example, the United States has a famously secular constitution, and Christians nibble at the edges like rats looking for ways to dismantle the its separation of church and state for their benefit. See the difference?

So, even here, the slogan only works for things that are being directly caused by a belief in god. Er, God. Seriously, Seidensticker spends all of his time talking about Christianity with a slogan — and from a basis — that denies all gods. Sure, the author is Christian, but pointing out problems that some Christians have and some forms of Christianity might cause is not helping the argument. At any rate, Bannister is right that the simplistic slogan won’t do anything for the person who has been kicked around by fate. In fact, a belief in God might make their lives better because they’d be able to appeal to God’s plan and accept it as being for a greater good. Sure, that might not be true … but so might be anything that Seidensticker might do to try to make them feel better about themselves and/or stop worrying and start enjoying their life. So for a number of cases — and likely, even the majority of cases — coming to understand that there’s probably no god won’t improve anyone’s life. In fact, for most people it might not matter one way or the other.

Seidensticker again appeals to things Christians are doing here, but again a) doesn’t link that to the lives of most people and b) even worse, judges it on what he thinks is right. Why does he claim that secularism really makes most people’s lives better and the Christian attempts worse? In short, why is it that he can say that Christians playing politics is bad but secularists playing politics is good (note that the Constitution does not separate Church and State as strongly as he’d like, and many, many other countries do not have that explicit separation and are doing fine)? Oh, right, because he thinks they’re wrong. Again, it’s not the results that matter, but the reasons that matter. And, again, if that’s what he meant, he really should just come out and say it.

Which he does, kinda:

First, I hope we can agree that it’s vital for us to see reality correctly. If there isn’t a god out there, best we figure that out, come to terms with it, and shape society in accord with that knowledge.

And you’re seriously wagging your finger at us to warn that our worldview has no beneficent Sky Daddy? Yes, we know—we’re atheists! It’s not like the heavens shower us with benefits that disbelief will shut off. God already does nothing for us now—that’s the point.

First, it’s too bad the slogan doesn’t say that, because then he could use that to defend it. Second, this is in response to Bannister essentially arguing that the belief in god can make people’s lives better, too, and so the atheist claim that people’s lives will improve if they stop believing in god doesn’t seem to hold. Again, Seidensticker can lean on “But god doesn’t exist!” to justify it … but that’s not what the slogan says. You can’t make an explicit appeal to “Your life will be subjectively better if you don’t believe in god!” and then retreat to “Well, god doesn’t exist anyway!” when someone challenges the idea that it really will be subjectively better.

Bannister laments, “The atheist bus advertisement illustrates the danger not just of poor arguments, but especially of argument by sound bite.”

This is coming from a Christian? Where some think that evolution is overturned by mocking it as “from goo to you via the zoo”? Where church signs have slogans like “How will you spend eternity—Smoking or Nonsmoking?”? Where emotion is the argument, not intellect? Get your own house in order first, pal.

So, his response to Bannister saying that it’s an argument by sound byte is essentially to say “Well, maybe it is … but you’re worse!”. This fails on multiple levels. First, he never argues that it isn’t one. Second, his response implicitly agrees that it is. Third, his argument is indeed a classic argument ad hominem, as it uses the fact that Bannister is a Christian to argue that he can’t argue against argument by sound byte, when there is no reason to think that Bannister himself specifically argues that way. Fourth, he’s given no evidence that Christianity does this in general, which is what he’s using to argue against Bannister’s argument against this specific one. Fifth, you can’t use that sort of general impression to refute a specific instance anyway. And finally, but most importantly, this entire post is about defending the bus ad as an argument, but the retreat and tacit acceptance of it as an argument by sound byte makes it impossible to defend it as an argument. So, at the end, Seidensticker ends up undermining the entire point of the post. Impressive.

Draper’s Evidential Argument Against Theism From Pain and Pleasure

January 6, 2017

I came across a link to a recent paper by Jeffery Jay Lowder talking about Draper’s Evidential Argument from Pain and Pleasure, and more specifically William Lane Craig’s attempts to disprove such evidential arguments from evil in general. From the start, the paper turns out to be a really bad one because what Lowder is replying to is a set of general arguments, but Craig does not seem to address Draper’s argument specifically, and none of the objections are aimed specifically at that argument … and yet Lowder sets it all up as if that argument is the only one worth mentioning. While I only skimmed the objections and counters and there might be some cases where Draper’s argument is immune to Craig’s arguments in a way that other aren’t, it’s not particularly good to address a general criticism by appealing to a specific argument. Even if that argument does, in fact, survive the challenges, it doesn’t a) mean that most arguments do, making them still useful to make against other arguments of that type or b) that that specific argument doesn’t have specific flaws that invalidate it anyway, making it irrelevant that it survives the general objections. Lowder’s main idea seems to be that general arguments aren’t likely to work anyway:

For example, he refers to ‘the probabilistic problem of evil’ (italics mine) even though Craig knows that there are many different kinds of probabilistic (or evidential) arguments from evil. Even if he successfully identifies a flaw in one version of the evidential argument from evil, it doesn’t follow that said flaw will apply to all versions of the evidential argument from evil. Consider an analogy. There is no ‘the’ cosmological argument but instead a family of arguments known as “cosmological arguments” consisting of multiple, independent arguments, such as the kalam cosmological argument, the Leibnizian cosmological argument, and the Thomistic cosmological argument. Each of these arguments are logically independent in the sense that each argument succeeds or fails independently of the others, and the different arguments could be combined together to create a cumulative case for theism.

Similarly, there is no ‘the’ evidential argument from evil but instead a family of arguments known as “evidential arguments from evil,” consisting of multiple, independent arguments, such as pain and pleasure, flourishing and languishing,[4] virtue and vice,[5] triumph and tragedy,[6] autonomy and heteronomy,[7] divine silence in the face of tragedies,[8] social evil,[9] and the failure of theodicies.[10] Each of these arguments are logically independent in the sense that each argument succeeds or fails independently of the others, and the different arguments could be combined together to create a cumulative case against theism.

The problem is that anything that could be called a “family’ of arguments is not, in fact, logically independent so that they all succeed or fail independently of the others. All of them start from a common premise or set of premises and shake out their argument in different ways. This means that while there may be cases where an argument against one or a set of them doesn’t apply to the others, it will always be possible to come up with arguments that undercut the majority of them, due to that shared, common base. Moreover, there is no reason to think that the arguments are complementary and together form an argument. They may well just be different variations on the same theme, and so if you can undercut the theme you can undercut all of them. Thus, it is problematic to focus on one specific argument and use it to reply to a general assault, as that one might be “eccentric” wrt that specific objection but that most of the arguments in that family will indeed face significant issues from the criticism. And, of course, if the one argument happens to be the only one to survive the general objections but won’t work for other reasons, that doesn’t in any way save the family of arguments.

And it’s that last part that I want to focus on, rather than on Craig’s objections and Lowder’s objections to the objections. It’s risky to try to address what seem to be obvious objections to Draper’s argument only from a summary given by someone else, but I’m not writing a formal paper and since Lowder seems to think that Draper’s argument is a good one I can be assured that he will present it reasonably fairly and, if he presents it unfairly, will do so in a light that is more favourable to the argument rather than less. I couldn’t do this if Craig was summarizing it and would have to look it up myself, but with Lowder I can assume that if my assessment is wrong it’s either because he left out some specific detail. I don’t have to worry that he presented the argument in a more dubious form than Draper did.

So let’s look at the argument, as summarized by Lowder:

1.1 Observation 1: Moral Agents Experiencing Biologically Useful Pain and Pleasure

Suppose you are a teenager sleeping in a hotel that has caught on fire. The hotel is old and doesn’t have any smoke alarms. The fire gets closer and closer to you until you are actually in pain from the smoke and the intense heat. Your pain wakes you up in time to escape, so you go on to survive and start a family in your twenties. In this case your pain was biologically useful because it contributed to the biological “goal” of survival. The naturalistic explanation for the unfolding of this scenario is obvious. If human beings are the products of evolution by natural selection, we would expect physical pain and pleasure to motivate human behavior in ways that aid survival and reproduction.

1.2 Observation 2: Sentient Beings Experiencing Biologically Useful Pain and Pleasure

Most human beings are what philosophers call moral agents, people who can be held responsible for their actions and the consequences of their actions. But some human beings (such as young children and humans with certain mental disabilities), as well as nonhuman sentient animals (such as primates and dolphins), are moral patients—sentient beings who can be harmed from their own point of view, but are not responsible for their actions.

On naturalism, among biological sentient beings we would expect both moral patients and moral agents to experience biologically useful pain and pleasure. For biological moral patients (such as nonhuman primates and dolphins) are biologically similar to biological moral agents (such as human beings). On theism, however, we would predict that biological moral patients do not suffer the same kind of pain as biological moral agents. Such pain plays no known moral role in the lives of the biological moral patients who experience it. For example, such pain isn’t necessary for free will, doesn’t seem to influence moral patients to freely choose right actions over wrong ones, doesn’t enable moral patients to acquire moral virtue, and doesn’t usually increase their knowledge of God. Indeed, as if to underscore the point, theists typically emphasize that concepts like moral freedom, moral obligation, moral virtue, and salvation do not even apply to nonhuman animals, and thus do not apply to the majority of moral patients.

1.3 Observation 3: Sentient Beings Experiencing Pain and Pleasure Not Known to be Useful

But not all physical pain and pleasure is biologically useful. For example, consider an animal trapped in a forest fire that suffers horrific pain as it slowly burns to death.[11] On the one hand, this kind of pain is biologically appropriate: it is biologically useful in general that animals feel pain when they come in contact with fire. But, on the other hand, this specific instance of pain is not biologically useful because it does not contribute to the biological goals of survival or reproduction.

On naturalism, this is just what we would expect. If naturalism is true, all animals are the byproducts of unguided evolution by natural selection, which is both indifferent to suffering and incapable of fine-tuning animals to prevent such pain. Thus, the kind of pain and pleasure that we actually find is what we would expect if naturalism were true.

But if theism were true, God could “fine tune” animals so that they only experience physical pain and pleasure when it is morally necessary. So theism leads us to expect that pain and pleasure are fundamentally moral phenomena that just happen to be connected to the biological goals of survival and reproduction. That’s a huge coincidence that naturalism doesn’t need.

But there are a number of problems here:

1) Why is it presumed that pain and pleasure are fundamentally moral phenomena? This presumes that the main purpose of pain and pleasure is, in fact, for moral reasons, or for moral guidance. This then seems to presume that what makes something moral or immoral is the amount of pain and pleasure it causes. This works for a vaguely Utilitarian view of morality, but it doesn’t work for one that is: Kantian, Stoic or, most importantly here, a Divine Command Theory. In fact, it is only hedonistic moral philosophies that would consider pain and pleasure to have that special moral status, and the majority of theistic moral theories aren’t hedonistic. Given this, there is no reason for a theistic view to accept that pain and pleasure have a special moral status.

2) This then leads to the counter that pain and pleasure in fact do have a primary purpose, which is that they are biologically useful. They are biologically useful in both moral agents and moral patients, and they should be understood as primarily aimed at providing that. In fact, from the theistic perspective it’s fairly clear that pain and pleasure can often interfere with proper moral reasoning, an idea that is common in non-hedonistic philosophies and, in fact, even in hedonistic ones. The pain and pleasure that someone feels is good to guide them to specific non-moral wants, but that specific person being in — or contemplating — great pain or pleasure can encourage them to act in immoral ways, either by treating others as means and not also as ends (Kant), to prefer vices or indifferents to virtues (Stoics), ignoring God’s commands (DCT) or even to causing more overall pain than other actions would have (Utilitarianism). From this, we ought to conclude that, in general, pain and pleasure have no special status.

3) We might still wish to conclude that there would be special “pains” and “pleasures” that moral agents would experience and moral patients would not. But we have a word for such things: conscience. Particularly, guilt when we do something immoral and the sort of satisfaction we get from helping others and doing what is moral. And moral agents — humans, in particular — seem to at least have a more developed conscience than non-human animals do, even if they can be seen to have these inner feelings at all. Sure, many animals often look “guilty”, but that in and of itself wouldn’t prove that they really were or that they really understand what that means and can tie it to moral reasoning. So it seems that focusing on pain and pleasure ignores the actual morally relevant emotions and feelings that would be relevant to the discussion.

So, after working through all this, we can see what is doing all of the work: the idea of biologically appropriate pain, which is pain that would be biologically useful, except in this particular case there is nothing that can be done about it, so it is not useful. Draper’s argument stands entirely on the idea that God could eliminate that pain, and if He doesn’t, then that’s a reason — or at least makes it less probable — that God exists. In short, under a naturalistic or at least indifferent worldview we would see that creatures would experience pain even when it had no use whatsoever, but in a theistic worldview creatures ought not experience pain unnecessarily, when it serves no purpose.

This, however, also suffers from some issues. First, it again presumes that pain and pleasure have a special moral status. But there are a number of moral theories that deny this. For example, under Stoicism pain and pleasure are themselves indifferents, and the agent ought not consider them necessarily bad or good. Thus, it is not unreasonable that if God needed to, say, cause pain in me in order to promote the development of someone else that wouldn’t be immoral or even wrong. For example, imagine that I am working with someone on a project, and that person needs to improve their self-reliance. As long as I am working with them, they won’t do that, and my own personality is such that if I am able to work on it, I will. So an outside force decides to give me a week long flu that keeps me away from work and forces them to do the job themselves without relying on me, which gives them self-reliance at the cost of my feeling miserable for a week. This is probably acceptable under Stoicism and, if the long-term benefits of that person learning self-reliance outweigh my being miserable for a week, would work even for Utilitarianism. (Kantians would disapprove because I was used as a means and not as an end in myself). So it isn’t clear that we can look at pain that the moral patient can’t avoid and say that therefore that pain had no purpose.

And note that my view is taking the strong position here, and claiming that causing such pain wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. All God would be accused of doing here is allowing that pain in those cases.

From this, we see that we actually have to establish that, in fact, God doesn’t fine tune the pain of moral patients so that when it serves no purpose to anyone the moral patient doesn’t feel it. From this, we have to find a case where we a) know that the moral patient feels pain and b) it has no impact on any other creature that they felt pain. But the only cases where that would hold are cases where no other creature can possibly know that the moral patient felt pain, as in any case where any creature knows that the moral patient felt pain that stimulus can, in fact, impact behaviour, either biologically — an animal knows that that moral patient is in pain and so knows to avoid that area or that thing — or morally. In the last case, it would be the idea that knowing that the creature was in pain there might encourage people to act in certain ways towards that creature, or develop new ideas, or sympathy, or whatever. Again, under non-hedonistic philosophies, this isn’t as important, but it becomes difficult to say that even then it would have no use, and they are not required to show that it has more use than otherwise. And even Utilitarian views would allow it if it had more use. And, strangely enough, even Kantians could accept it because there is no requirement in Kant to treat moral patients as ends in themselves, only moral agents.

So the only case where a moral patient could be feeling pain that had no use is by definition a case where we cannot know whether or not they are feeling pain. At this point, Draper’s Evidential Argument fails because it, well, can’t provide any evidence for itself.

As summarized by Lowder, Draper’s Evidential Argument From Pain and Pleasure fails on two counts. First, the primary difference between the theistic and indifferent worldview — that pain and pleasure should have mostly a biological purpose on the latter but more than that on the former — fails for most moral theories and particularly for theistic theories of the sort Lowder and Draper are attacking. And second the main pillar of the argument — purposeless suffering — also fails for many moral theories and truly purposeless suffering cannot be tested for by definition. Thus, most theisms seem to have little to fear from that specific Argument From Evil.

Review of “Unapologetic”

December 2, 2016

So, I recently received and read John W. Loftus’ “Unapologetic”, which attempts to show that either Philosophy of Religion has to radically change or — and this mostly seems to be his preference — has to fade away completely. Early in the book, Loftus says that he doesn’t think that arguments are going to convince anyone anyway, and it seems that, in this book, he carries that forward by refusing to actually make arguments. The book takes a very aggressive and arrogant tone — like that of Jerry Coyne, P.Z. Myers, and Richard Carrier, all of whom he cites at various times in the work — but the risk with that sort of tone is that you had better be right. He isn’t right enough to get away with summarizing his arguments with a “Period.” or “End of Story.” as if no one could ever question him.

He also seems to fundamentally misunderstand what philosophy actually is. I don’t mean that he conflates philosophy of religion and theology — although he does, especially when he talks about himself as an expert in philosophy of religion because he’s done theology, although the two are not the same thing — but instead that he suggests approaches that are fundamentally non- and even anti-philosophical as if they are what philosophy ought to be doing. I plan on going through the chapters and picking out a few important points later, and so the details of that will come when I do that (stay tuned!).

But let me outline the two main arguments he gives for philosophy of religion being no longer relevant and not something that ought to be taught in any academic setting:

1) Philosophy of Religion focuses too much on Christianity and Western Religions, and not enough on other religions, even dead ones. It also focuses too much on the Western Analytic tradition. In short, it’s too parochial.

2) There is little reason to think that philosophy can advance or should have a discipline that starts from something that doesn’t exist. He uses the comparison of fairies and Superman here, to wonder why we study God and not, say, Superman philosophically.

Well, okay, the main thrust of his argument is that faith is terrible and shouldn’t be allowed in any academic setting which he repeats and assert over and over and over again, as just when he said it, that’s when he’d say it (how’s that again?). But I’ll deal with that one later. Let me, then, just focus on these two.

1) This is, in fact, a common criticism of philosophy in general, that Western philosophy focus too much on the analytic tradition — as opposed to the continental tradition that he references as a reason consider philosophy of religion too parochial — and too much on Western philosophy while ignoring Eastern philosophy. So, he’s criticizing Philosophy of Religion specifically for failings shared by all of philosophy. Unless he’s also anti-philosophical — and he claims not to be — this isn’t an argument against philosophy of religion.

2) I’d like to draw his attention to “Philosophy in Popular Culture”, which is indeed examining concepts like Superman to see what interesting philosophical ideas can be raised from them. I believe that it’s not even just in popular bookstores near you anymore, but that there are specialized courses in universities using it. The main reason philosophy of religion is more prominent is because it’s an issue that more people care about and religion, in all of its forms, raises far more interesting philosophical issues than, say, fairies do. And, yes, this might even apply to “dead” religions, which might at least rise to the level of Superman and, more importantly, Batman in terms of philosophical interest. So we already would do that if they were interesting. If he thinks they are, then he can feel free to argue for their inclusion. And if he thinks that philosophy of religion is not interesting, he can argue for that, too, and we might see some of that in my later assessments (stay tuned!). But just because something doesn’t exist doesn’t mean that it’s not interesting philosophically.

I find myself utterly unconvinced by “Unapologetic”, and Philosophy of Religion is something like seventh on my list of philosophical interests (after luge!). Loftus’ views of what we should do in philosophy classes seems anti-philosophical to me, and he far too often relies on repeating his conclusions — often conclusions from elsewhere — rather than arguing for any conclusion that he wants us to accept. I can’t recommend this as a book for anyone other than people who already agree with Loftus to read, which makes it a bad book in a philosophical context. But hopefully more of that will come through in the more detailed analysis.

Is an Evil God as Plausible as a Good God?

October 19, 2016

Jerry Coyne has made a post linking to a video by Stephen Law that argues that the standard free will defense for God allowing us to act in evil ways would also work to justify an evil God. He posits that there might be an evil God who wants us to suffer and that might be the God who created everything. He then notes that the first counter to that would be that we’d imagine that the world would contain a lot more suffering than it actually does if that way the case, at which point he uses the “free will” defense to say that just as we can posit that a good God allows us to choose evil as an unfortunate but necessary consequence of us having free will, the evil God can allow us to choose good as an unfortunate but necessary consequence of us having free will. Thus, the free will defense allows us to justify both an evil and a good God, and so cannot be used to choose between them.

The first issue here is that it ignores the idea that allowing humans to have free will is, in fact, good in and of itself. If it is better for humans to have free will than it is for us to be nothing more than the willing puppets of God with the illusion of actually making free choices, then we can easily see why a good God would allow us to have free will and even why a good God would accept us acting evil out of that free will, but it’s difficult to see why an evil God would give us that great good in the service of willing evil acts. So, if we stick strictly to good and evil here, a good God would give us free will because giving us free will is in and of itself good, but it seems inconsistent for an evil God to give us such a great good. To oppose this, you either need to show that free will is not a good, or that it facilitates in some way some great evil. Both of those would be daunting tasks, to say the least.

However, as I’ve already discussed, talking about “good” and “evil” is almost always too vague. We need to work out what we mean by “good” and “evil” to really work this out. Even Law assumes that his evil God really wants to increase our suffering. So let’s compare, then, a moral God who wants us to act morally to a sadistic God who wants us to suffer. Since being moral requires us to have free will and the free will to choose to act morally — an argument that Coyne, at least, can’t oppose since he thinks that if we don’t have free will then the concept of morality is meaningless — we have a good reason for a moral God to want to give us free will. This doesn’t seem to work for the sadistic God. After all, if the sadistic God really wanted us to suffer, he could just turn us into self-aware puppets with a strong innate moral fiber, with the ability to understand that what we are doing is wrong, but being unable to stop ourselves from doing it. This world is not like that. Additionally, if we are given the free will to stop hurting each other, then we might, in fact, all just go ahead and do that, leaving a world with a lot less suffering. This doesn’t in any way promote the sadistic God’s plans. One might argue that allowing us to act immorally might mean that all of us might choose to always act immorally and so contradict the moral God’s plans just as much, but it is clear that the moral God needs to risk that in order for us to act morally at all. The sadistic God does not need to give us free will in order to make us suffer.

But wait, I can hear some of you cry! Aren’t you pulling a bait and switch here? Why are you comparing a moral God to a sadistic God? Why aren’t you comparing a moral God to an immoral God, a God who wants us all to act immorally all the time? After all, the immoral God requires us to have free will just as much as the moral God does. So, let’s take a look at that case.

In order to assess this, we first need to decide what it means to act morally. Let’s first consider the case where what it means to act morally is to act according to what God says is moral. In this case, then, moral God wants us to act according to the moral rules that he has defined, while immoral God wants us to violate those rules, well, pretty much all of the time. At this point, immoral God seems to be drifting towards “insane God”, setting up rules that he deliberately doesn’t want us to follow. The best we could say about this is that it might be a God that is encouraging us to think for ourselves … but since that might mean that we act according to the rules or not according to the rules as we see fit we no longer have an “immoral” God, but instead a God that allows us to make our own choices, and thus a “free will” God. But a free will God has little reason to make moral rules in the first place. Thus, an immoral God under this model seems rather implausible, as either it has to be advocating against follow its own rules, or ends up as a God that doesn’t really want us to act immorally at all.

Next, let’s look at moral relativism. Here, the moral God would want us to act according to and consistently with our own ideas of morality, while the immoral God would want us to, in fact, act against those assessments. But giving us the ability to assess the situation morally flies in the face of that. Why care about morality at all if we aren’t supposed to follow it? It’s difficult to imagine a reason why an immoral God would, again, want us to have any moral capabilities at all in that case. So we’d have to retreat to God wants us to suffer or God wants us to make choices. Either way, the immoral God seems out of the picture.

Finally, let’s look at there being an objective morality that is independent of what God thinks is moral (ie it’s not just defined by what God says is moral). A moral God would want us to follow it, while an immoral God would want us to violate it. But we have to ask why, in fact, each of them would want us to do that. A moral God can appeal to either the idea that as moral agents — created as such by God — it is our natural duty to try to act morally, or the idea that it is better for us to act morally. The immoral God can’t appeal to the idea that it is our duty to act immorally if we are created as moral agents, and if we are not created as moral agents we are amoral, not immoral. Again, in that case it would be better if they hadn’t created us as moral agents at all, and if immoral God doesn’t create us as moral agents, then it doesn’t need to care about morality — or free will — at all. However, immoral God can appeal to the idea that it is better for us to reject that objective morality and so that’s why we should act immorally, as well as why we should have an idea of what is moral, so that we know what to avoid. But then we can sub back into the original question and note that that’s not an evil God anymore. On that argument, both moral and immoral God are advocating that we do what it is in our own best interest, which is, therefore, a good God. Their disagreement would be over whether being moral is good or whether being moral is bad for us. And most of us, by default, are going to side with being moral being good.

Thus, Law’s argument doesn’t work. Evil or immoral Gods tend to either not care about being moral or end up being good Gods of some sort anyway, and always end up being less plausible than good Gods. This does not mean that we have good Gods and don’t have evil Gods, it just means that this little quirk on the Problem of Evil doesn’t work to establish the point Law is trying to make here.

Philipse on Personal Identity

September 2, 2016

Yes, it’s been over a year since I last talked about “God in the Age of Science”, but I haven’t forgotten about it. So here I’ll talk about the last section in Chapter 7, which is the one on personal identity. It’s also the one where Philipse’s two main arguments really made me wonder if he was, in fact, even a philosopher.

Philipse is trying to address an argument by Swinburne here — again, although it won’t be all that problematic until the next chapter — that argues against the empirical/naturalistic idea of determining personal identity, presumably because after all of Philipse’s previous arguments about bodies it would seem to leave God out, or at least mean that we could only talk about the personal identity of God by analogy, which Swinburne is loathe to do. So Swinburne, according to Philipse, tries to dodge that problem by arguing for Cartesian Dualism, and at least against the empirical idea. Swinburne’s argument is essentially this:

1) If the empirical account — which Philipse favours — is true, then there are going to be cases where there is no right answer to the question of whether a person P1 is is the same person as another person P2.

2) But there is always a right answer to these questions even if we might not always be able to actual know or determine what that right answer is.

Therefore, the empirical account is wrong.

Philipse accepts 1), and so will try to challenge 2), and in fact — continuing his habit of making arrogantly grandiose claims — will insist that it is false. This means that he will have to deal with the thought experiments about brain transplants that Swinburne uses to try to demonstrate the issues. Unfortunately, here is where he introduces a pair of not only really bad arguments, but ones that are arguably anti-philosophical as well:

An account of a concept should give us an illuminating overview of the various uses of the relevant term in the language. However, our language is not made for a fanciful science fiction world, but for the real world in which we are living.

… it is a methodological mistake to test an analysis of an ordinary concept such as the concept of a person or the concept of knowledge by attempting to apply it to science fiction examples. … One cannot elucidate the normal concept of a word, and analyse the concept it expresses, by wondering how it we should apply it to imagined situations that never or very rarely occur, and in which the concept loses its grip.

This is, lamentably, a very common argument that many people use against the philosophical use of thought experiments: it’s not covering real situations, so any problems that it raises aren’t actually problems. However, it is odd to see a philosopher advocating that thought experiments aren’t of any use in analysing a concept. It is even odder to see a philosopher essentially arguing that the point of conceptual analysis is merely to give an overview of how people use the term. Thus, if most people think that gut feelings or faith entail knowledge, it would seem that the job of the philosopher to find out a view of the concept of knowledge where that can be true, instead of pointing out that the actual concept of knowledge, independent of the common usage, seems to leave those things out as true knowledge. So it really looks like Philipse is limiting conceptual analysis to something that we’d normally think some branch of linguistics might do, which is simply list out the common usages of a word. Surely philosophical conceptual analysis is to do more than that, and thus separating it from common usages is key to ensuring that we are not misled by errors in the common usages.

And the big effect here of those arguments is to give the impression that the main reason Philipse is trying to discredit the use of thought experiments is because the thought experiments really are a problem for his view, which is also how those arguments are commonly used in the other areas. Thus, it seems like the thought experiments raise something that even Philipse thinks is a problem for his view, and he has to retreat to “Well, these are too artificial of cases” to try to avoid those nasty consequences. But Philipse’s main view is that 2) above is false, as he strongly asserts later. Thus, if Swinburne’s thought experiments really came up with examples where the empirical approach couldn’t give an answer to the question of whether a person P1 was another person P2 or not, then there ought to be no problem for Philipse, as he is in no way committed to saying that there really must always be an answer to that question. So, if it is such a problem that he must go to great lengths to invalidate the thought experiments by, essentially, invalidating all of them, then either he is indeed committed to the claim that there must always be a right answer to such questions or, else, these specific thought experiments are cases where even the empirical approach ought to have an answer, and it doesn’t. Either way, his dodge fails, and he’ll actually have to answer the issues raised by the thought experiments.

And he uses this analysis as the entire basis for his conclusion that 2) is false, when obviously it shows no such thing. He retreats to a claim that, in fact, as merely a description of normal usage it’s fine for it to have gaps, but that doesn’t mean that, again, there are cases where even by that usage there is no right answer to the question.

The rest of the chapter are simply attempts to show that Swinburne’s Cartesian Dualism might fare no better, a step that ought to be unnecessary if he actually had proved 2) false. Even then, a dualistic approach always has an answer: P1 is P2 iff the mind in P1 ends up in P2. We might not be able to prove where the mind actually went, but that wasn’t Swinburne’s contention. Arguably, Philipse has the same options open to him for the empirical approach, but for some reason he doesn’t take them.

In Chapter 8, we’ll look at necessity again, and note that Swinburne’s problems about necessity don’t seem to be ones that would bother other theists, like the Scholastics.

Shake up at Freethought blogs

March 15, 2016

So yesterday there was a big shake up at Freethought Blogs. A number of their long-standing bloggers have moved to a new blog network called “The Orbit”, a network that describes itself thusly:

The Orbit is a diverse collective of atheist and nonreligious bloggers committed to social justice, within and outside the secular community. We provide a platform for writing, discussion, activism, collaboration, and community.

At the same time, Freethought Blogs has recruited a number of new bloggers. In his recruitment drive, Myers said that what he was looking for was this:

Our requirements are simple: we want godless Social Justice Warriors.

Now, Myers himself has been promoting the new network, and all of those who left FtB said nice and kind farewells, and many have reacted to suggestions that this split means something — such as the Friendly Atheist — with scorn and mockery. The problem is that if you look at the descriptions of their overall purpose and goals … well, they seen to be pretty much identical. The bulk of the bloggers on “The Orbit” are former FtB, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason why they couldn’t do what they want to do on “The Orbit” on FtB, even by their own words. So there must be some reason they left FtB to form this new one. Did they find that the reputation of FtB hurt them in dealing with some people or organizations, as Ed Brayton suggested when he left? Do they think they can make more money with this new network than they could on FtB, which is the other reason Brayton left? Were they unhappy with how things went when people like Ophelia Benson left? Or what is the driving force behind this?

We know that there has to be one, because they are moving from one blog network to another with very similar if not identical goals. If one blog network wanted to focus more on atheistic discussions and less on social justice, the move would make sense. Or if one wanted to include religious blogs that work for social justice and remove the atheistic/godless criteria, that would also make sense. Or if one wanted to be more open and include a wider variety of topics, or even a narrower one — including more direct science or philosophy, for example — that would make sense, too. None of that happened. So assuming that these people are all rational — which, of course, they all would want us to think they are — then there must be a reason.

I’ve read in the comments that some people are using the happy-happy-joy-joy posts to show that no such reasons exist, but it’s clear that given the criticisms of FtB from multiple corners that was the last thing they’d do. After all, at least for now they’re all on the same side of the “Deep Rifts”, and they wouldn’t give their enemies the satisfaction of seeing them split. Yet, there is at least a split here, and it seems likely that the reason for this is either something about FtB, or something about the people on FtB. But there’s no way they’ll ever tell us which.

Why Do Atheists Denigrate Philosophy?

March 11, 2016

So, in response to the latest case of a scientist talking smack about philosophy — in this case, Bill Nye — P.Z. Myers and others are trying to defend why these people are willing to spout off like that wrt philosophy. Myers focuses on atheists:

It’s because so many smart people are idiots about psychology. I deal with a lot of atheists, and one of the many flaws in that group that have been coming to the fore lately is the obliviousness they have to their own motivations.

So, despite the fact that Myers is a biologist and not a psychologist, he’s going to feel free to opine about what their motivations really are. How do you get that much irony into a short paragraph?

Anyway, he opines this:

Atheists are all about the scienceyness. Good people are rational, objective, and unemotional, which whether they are aware of it or not, is a value judgment built on emotion. There is a lot of self-esteem-building going on, centered around who is smarter than who, who can build the most logical argument, and who is best at being aloofly superior. It’s all very annoying.

But, unfortunately for the atheists, philosophers tend to be better at the logical argument dealio than most of them are.

Um, except that the main objection of scientists and scientific atheists to philosophy has always been that their arguments don’t work, and don’t apply to the real world. Thus, the main counter is that philosophers only do logical argument, not empirical investigation. That might be a reaction to being outargued, but that’s hardly likely.

The other psychological gambit I’ve been seeing a great deal of is the herd mentality. Big name nerd disses philosophy; then swarms of followers agree, “Philosophy is a joke!”, and they all laugh and slap each others’ backs and cheer on more jeering at the stupid discipline.

This assumes that there wasn’t already an attitude that philosophy is a joke rampant in scientific and atheistic communities, which is, in fact, absolutely false. It isn’t a big name expressing their opinion and everyone following along, but the big name expressing an opinion that is common and getting the chorus back for doing it.

It’s especially irritating when groups of atheists fall into this trap, because their usual mantra is “show me the evidence,” and most of the ones playing this game have never studied philosophy at all.

So, if you read Myers’ article … where is the evidence, there, for his conclusions about their motivations?

Anyway, I’m going to tell you why atheists in general and even why scientists disparage philosophy. For atheists, it all starts from theology.

What we’ve seen in the atheistic movement is a general disparagement of theology, and that disparagement has taken on a particular form: theology is derided, mostly, for ignoring science and reality and empirical data in making its conclusions. These are the main objections to arguments like the Ontological Argument and the Cosmological Argument, and any number of theological claims. The problem is that these are, in fact, philosophical arguments, and the dismissal of those arguments has been that they simply can’t work to prove the existence of God, and just aren’t the right sort of arguments to generate any kind of truth. In order to find out truths, you have to use empirical methods, and the king of empirical methods is, in fact, science.

Myers’ “Courtier’s Reply” itself only adds to this problem, as when people are told that they need to read the relevant philosophy and theology to understand what the argument really is, they can invoke the “Courtier’s Reply” to, essentially, insist that they don’t need to read that sort of arguing to know what the obvious answers are. But for the Ontological Argument, a philosopher as august — and empirical — as Bertrand Russell said that it clearly isn’t obvious what’s wrong with the argument (even as he was convinced there was). So atheists were taught and taught methods to simply ignore philosophical arguments like the Ontological Argument, and to dismiss them without consideration. But since philosophy will, of course, not support that move, it would get involved and show that there’s more to the argument that a shallow examination will reveal. And so atheists will start to regard philosophy with suspicion, as an enabler of theology.

This only, then, gets worse when scientists and atheistic scientists start wading into areas that were traditionally philosophical. As they focus on empirical and scientific answers to these questions, they get philosophers pointing out that those answers don’t work, and are often far too shallow. And then, like Krauss, they get upset at philosophy, and insist that their empirical and scientific examinations are right. This leads them to insist that empirical methods are the only ones that can lead to truth, and that the problem with philosophy is that they don’t use empirical methods. They also see what they see as quibbling over definitions, and thus say that philosophers are only good at arguing because they play word and semantic games, not because they find truth. They also find the fact that good philosophers are well aware of the weaknesses of most philosophical positions and are comfortable with the fact that we, at least currently, don’t have proven answers for most of the important questions disturbing, because their justification for the effectiveness of science is that it has come up with great and testable answers. Philosophy hasn’t. How can it be a great system for generating truths if it hasn’t come up with some answers?

Thus, they suggest that philosophy needs to be more empirical. That philosophy constantly resists this for some of its biggest questions is taken as a sign that it is anti-empirical and anti-science. The problem is that philosophy doesn’t reject empirical and scientific answers a priori. Most atheistic critics of philosophy ignore the long standing naturalistic movement in philosophy, of which Dan Dennett is a member (and is one of the few philosophers they tend to like). The problem with these answers is not that they aren’t properly “philosophical”, but instead that they don’t work. And the reasons that they don’t work have been documented in philosophy for a long, long time now.

Ultimately, at the end of the day, scientists and particularly atheistic scientists fall into scientism because science answers the questions that they really want answered and gives shallow answers to the important philosophical questions that they want answered. Given that, they don’t understand and don’t see the need for a particularly philosophical approach, and feel that the philosophical approach provides cover for bad arguments and bad ideas, and at best only introduces doubt into the picture for a lot of other questions. Science’s approach works, and they can’t see how philosophy’s works, so what good is philosophy? No good, they conclude.

It comes down to them not understanding the field and the scope of the questions that philosophy is chasing, mixed in with being stuck in a mindset where the philosophical approach is foreign to them. Add in that philosophy often tells them that they ought not be so fast in rejecting conclusions that they think obvious and that it casts doubt on their most successful epistemic approaches, and they end up simply dismissing it as being out of touch. And thus, end up dismissing it entirely.