Archive for the ‘Theism’ Category

The incompatibilities of life …

May 25, 2015

Jerry Coyne has written a new book, “Faith vs Fact”, which is mainly an attempt to prove his view of the incompatibility of science and religion. He did a Five Books interview with Sophie Roell, and listed five important books on the purported incompatibility. Of those five, I’ve completely read one: Breaking the Spell by Dan Dennett, which I originally wanted to do an in-depth critique of but on re-reading it decided that it was really more “Let’s start thinking of thinking about religion” than something that required more criticism. I’ve also been reading Philipse’s work, and followers of this blog will know that I, well, find it lacking. And the last one is one that Coyne himself says people criticized not just because it was harsh, but because it had errors.

So, other than Coyne’s book itself, there are two that I haven’t read, although I’ve heard about Rosenberg’s. Since it was pretty likely that I’d read Coyne’s at some point — even though from reading his site I’m pretty sure I know what he’ll say and that he’ll get a lot wrong — and so what I decided to do was further my “academic honesty” creds and take on those books, which means that I’d certainly be able to use the “You don’t read/understand Sophisticated Theology” argument without fear of the “Well, have you read the ATHEIST works?” response, as I read most of them. So I have Coyne’s, Rosenberg’s and Sagan’s books on order, and will try to finish reading or possibly re-read Philipse’s (and comment on it) over the next few months. We’ll see how that works out.

Stoicism, Martyrdom, and Euthanasia

May 18, 2015

So, in reading “Stoicism in Early Christianity”, I read an essay by Nicola Denzey called “Facing the Beast: Justin, Christian Martyrdom, and Freedom of the Will”. In it, among other things, she discusses the link between Stoic ideas of determination — ie the idea that things are determined for us by Fortuna — and the acceptance of death as an indifferent, and the Christian martyrs who bravely and even joyfully embraced their martyrdom. She comments that this follows from a thread in Seneca about it being a good thing or even necessary to be able to choose when you die, and links it to his own willingness towards his own execution. And yet, as she points out, other Stoics definitely criticized at least some aspects of the Christian martyrs:

Thus, Marcus Aurelius, himself a Stoic, heaped scorn upon Christians who sought a showy and pointless death in the amphitheater. [pg 194].

As Denzey points out, most Stoics took a strong stance against suicide, on the grounds that it was fighting against nature and fate, which Stoics ought not do. Seneca, she points out, pushed back against that, arguing that it was an expression of proper freedom. However, I think that this sort of notion runs the risk of not merely declaring that death is not a bad thing, but also insisting that death, in and of itself, can be a good, which means making death a virtue in and of itself. This, I think, is where Aurelius thinks the Christian martyrs go wrong: they have decided that dying for their God is better than living for their God. We can also, then, apply that to even the cases where Seneca points out examples of noble suicides and say that, again, they’ve decided that it is better to die than to live. On what grounds do they make that determination?

If death is to be an indifferent, then it is clear that one must never choose living over doing the virtuous and rational thing. By that, it is certainly better to at least allow yourself to die in order to avoid acting viciously. Additionally, it can be said that if the only way to stop yourself from acting viciously is to kill yourself, then you probably should, in fact, kill yourself instead of acting viciously. So, then, if someone will kill you unless you act viciously, you let them kill you, and if you will act viciously unless you kill yourself, then you kill yourself. The question, then, is what happens when, for example, all you are doing is dealing with a comparison of indifferents … which includes a number of cases where your death might be humiliating or not the sort of death you find noble.

In Stoicism, we can have an idea of “preferred indifferents”, which are things that still have no real moral value in and of themselves but that all rational people are going to prefer. Food would be one of these, as would health. It seems obvious that life is indeed going to be one of these preferred indifferents, as we don’t really lose anything important if we die, but given a choice in general we ought rationally to prefer living over dying. So, in general, the idea would be that almost no matter what else we face — starvation, pain, poor health, loneliness, etc — that we’d be acting irrational if, when staring into the face of that, we decided that we really ought to die to alleviate those conditions. They are no more inherently valuable that our life is, and so we should face those conditions as no more of a loss than losing our life would be, and as long as we live we can play out the role that fate has in store for us and, for those of us less deterministic than typical Stoics, we can work to end those conditions and get back our preferred indifferents, or even enjoy other preferred indifferents regardless. So, in general, we shouldn’t give up our lives to avoid pain or humiliation … which includes the humiliation of not dying the way we might have wanted to.

This changes, however, when our fate is sealed and we are going to die no matter what we do. When our life is forfeit regardless of our actions, then we can, indeed, decide how we want to die. In a case where there is no hope for escape, taking a less humiliating or more preferred way to die is us simply choosing our own circumstances, and so does fit the sort of freedom that Seneca would espouse: we do not choose that we will die, but we may choose how. This starts from facing it with equanimity and without fear or begging and ends with choosing, as far as we are able, the circumstances of that death: to die in a way that reflects who we really are and how much of a Stoic sage we have become. But if we might well live, and be able to live without sacrificing virtue, there would seem to be a vanishingly small number of cases where simply the loss of indifferents would make it rational for us to sacrifice our lives because that loss would be too much for us to bear. We’d seem to be treating indifferents as far more important than they really are to do so.

So here’s the link with euthanasia. Given what I’ve just said, if someone has a condition where there is no reasonable chance of them surviving it — and no, you can’t use the sophistic claim that we are all guaranteed to die sometime and so we can choose death any time we want — then they do have the freedom to choose the time, manner, and circumstances of their death. So, someone with a terminal medical condition that leaves them in great pain is equally free to choose to enjoy what little life they can or to decide that they would like to leave the party now. Stoic “good” is not a case of right actions adding up, but simply a way of living, so choosing to die does not deprive anyone of virtuous goods, and no one else can dictate what indifferents a person should pursue on the basis of the impact on them. So, it would seem, Stoic ethics supports euthanasia in cases of terminal illness. But when the illness is not terminal, then it seems to me to be very difficult to justify euthanasia, unless the illness will cause you to act viciously … which some of the mental illnesses will. Thus, Stoicism provides an easy justification of euthanasia for terminal patients, but not one for those who are simply worried about having to depend on others or about not being able to do the things that they liked.

Stoicism always contains a tension on these points because when it considers death and life to be an indifferent it becomes too easy to justify committing suicide if your life is not going the way you want it to. Thus, some Stoics rule it out while some at least partially embrace it as a freedom. Stoicism always must promote you choosing suicide over acting viciously, so a blanket condemnation of suicide simply cannot work. But if we do have a notion of rationally preferred indifferents, it’s easy to see why life and death is one of them, and then easy to argue that one should at least rarely be able to rationally choose other indifferents over life and death, which then ought to resolve the tension.

Stoicism and Christianity

May 13, 2015

For a while now, I’ve been struck by the similarity between Christian concepts and Stoic ones. To the end, I recently bought the book “Stoicism in Early Christianity”, which contains a number of essays talking about potential or even presumed direct influences that Stoicism had on early Christianity. Now, of course, it’s difficult to find these because it is believed that early Christianity was heavily influenced by Aristotle, and Aristotle and the Stoics are similar in a number of ways. However, there are a few things that are more properly Stoic than Aristotlean.

In reading the second essay “Stoicism as a Key to Pauline Ethics in Romans” by Rumar M. Thorsteinsson, it seems clear that some kind of Virtue Theory view solves the whole “worship vs works” issue in Christianity. As the essay points out — referring explicitly to Stoicism — for a Virtue Theory and particularly for a Stoic Virtue Theory worshiping and revering the true source of rationality means acting in accordance with that source and emulating it. In a Virtue Theory, if asked whether you are virtuous by following the source of all rationality or by acting how that source dictates you should act would get you nothing more than a confused look, because in a Virtue Theory the two aren’t separable. So should you worship God in order to be truly good? Yes. Or should you act good in order to be truly good? The answer is, again, yes. The two are inseparable. If you strive to become one with God, you also strive to achieve the virtue that God possesses, and thus also act in accordance with that once you possess it. The closer you get to God, the better you act. This is not a coincidence, but a necessity. So, in a Virtue Theory, the distinction between worship and works doesn’t exist.

This passage from Matthew has also struck me as one that fits a Stoic mindset quite well (Matthew 19):

16 Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”

17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”

18 “Which ones?” he inquired.

Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’[a] and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’[b]”

20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”

21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Many interpret this and the following passages as an insistence that people leave everything behind and follow Jesus, or else they can’t be saved. Using a Stoic interpretation, though, it is more about being willing to leave behind all indifferents in order to act virtuously. Here, we can see that the man, essentially, asks what he needs to do in order to be properly virtuous, and when he says that he follows all the rules that follow from the One, Jesus asks him to give up his indifferents. And he can’t do it. He is unable to abandon the indifferents and give them up in order to become perfectly, rationally virtuous. So, in line with Seneca, it isn’t the fact that he has wealth that’s the problem, but instead the fact that he values his wealth more than he values virtue. And while rich people don’t have to be the sort of people who value wealth ahead of virtue, rich people will tend to value wealth greatly … and so will have a very difficult time giving it up in order to act virtuously. Thus, we don’t have an issue in Christianity where we all have to give up all worldly goods in order to be virtuous, but we have to be willing to … and the best way to test whether you’re willing to give them up is, indeed, to do so.

Anyway, I hope to explore this in a bit more detail once I’ve finished that book and done some more writing and thinking on my own, hence the new tag. We’ll see if I’m more successful at that than I have been at my other projects [grin].

What Price Atonement?

April 13, 2015

It seems that I for some reason skipped the second essay in “Spider-man and Philosophy”, entitled “What Price Atonement?” by Taneli Kukkonen. Either I didn’t think it was interesting on my first read or just completely missed it and skipped over it. I’m thinking it was the latter, because on reading it the essay does have some very interesting things to say, and in particular raises an interesting theological point that I’d like to talk a bit about. So, what will happen is that I’ll do that one here, then do the regular X-Men and Philosophy essay, and then do the third Spider-man essay.

First, on to this one. The interesting theological point made is about Anselm’s view of infinite debt, which addresses our relation to Original Sin, sin, and ultimately the crucifixion. The idea is generally this: through Original Sin or through sin, we’ve accrued a debt to God that we need to repay. But repaying that debt implies that we give more to the person than we are required to in order to balance the debt we owe them. However, when it comes to God there isn’t anything that we can do that is over and above what we are required to do simply as our normal due to God. Therefore, we can never repay this debt through actions, because all we can do is give God what He is due; we cannot give Him more than His due. Thus, we have an infinite, undischargeable debt to God that we can never repay.

To use the Spider-man example, one of the main reasons Peter Parker becomes a superhero is to repay his debt to Uncle Ben. So he sets out to stop criminals to make up for not stopping the criminal who killed his uncle. But as his uncle said, with great power comes great responsibility. Since Peter Parker has great power, and the power to stop these criminals, he also has the responsibility to stop these criminals. So when he stops these criminals, he is just doing what he is already obligated to do, regardless of any debt he might owe to Uncle Ben. Thus, doing that can’t in any way free him from his debt to Uncle Ben, because he’s only doing what he is obligated to do, and to repay Uncle Ben he has to go beyond his obligations. Thus, stopping criminals will never free him from his debt to Uncle Ben.

Anselm uses this to argue for the necessity of the crucifixion. The only being who could give God more than God is due is, well, God Himself. Thus, God becomes Man in Jesus, and then sacrifices Himself to repay our debt. However, Kukkonen points out that all this does is drive us deeper in debt, because now we not only have to pay the debt of sin or Original Sin, but also our debt to Jesus for the sacrifice he made. If forgiveness is predicated on repayment, we can never repay our debt … and so can never be forgiven.

Which, I think, highlights a problem with the “restitutional” idea of forgiveness. Kukkonen notes that Kierkegaard said that doing something above and beyond the call of duty for someone and saying that you have thereby paid off your debt seems cold, like a strict balance sheet calculation. People who are properly loving shouldn’t see the world that way. When it comes to forgiveness, it also doesn’t make sense to forgive someone for or only after they manage to repay some sort of accrued debt, like someone paying off a bank loan. Forgiveness should be granted on the basis of a genuine desire to be forgiven, and a genuine understanding that they need forgiveness for what they did. If that is present, then what need for repayment is there? Someone who is genuinely loving and genuinely good and genuinely sees that what they did was wrong should just naturally want to try to make up for the harm they caused if they can. If they can’t, then that shouldn’t mean that they can’t be forgiven. If someone accidentally breaks something of mine that’s irreplaceable and had massive value to me — like my copy of Persona 3 FES — if I’m convinced that they didn’t mean it and know that what they did was wrong and genuinely want forgiveness, why shouldn’t I forgive them? It just seems petty and cruel to refuse to forgive them under those conditions just because they can’t “make it up to me”.

I think this idea carries on to Kukkonen’s discussion of obligations, and the choices that Peter Parker has to make. When he chooses to help someone, or stop a crime, he often ends up having to break certain obligations to other people, from things as simple to seeing their play to as big as not stopping them from getting beat up. Since he can’t do all of those things at once, he ends up having to choose which obligations to keep and which to break. Under the debt model of forgiveness, this means that no matter what he does in those situations, he ends up accruing a debt to someone. Thus, no matter what he does, his debt goes up and up; he always owes somebody something, and the only benefit that he gets from the choice he makes is that he accrues the lesser debt by breaking the debt than by letting someone die. But under the model I propose, this isn’t the case. Peter Parker is obligated to fulfill the responsibilities that he can fulfill, and to fulfill the greatest responsibility he has at that moment. Doing that, he doesn’t accrue any debt to anyone else. He might make people mad at him, and so have to work to get back into their good graces, or to convince them that he can be responsible, but while he may have to apologize, he doesn’t really have to repay them. If they could understand the choice that he had to make, and that his choice was in line with what was his greatest responsibility then there would be nothing to forgive. As it is, if he can convince them that he is sorry that he had to leave them in the lurch they should forgive him even if he can’t make it right.

For me, the kind of forgiveness that God gives us is not the restitutional kind of forgiveness, dependent on us doing an appropriate penance or repayment that we can make to him, but is instead a forgiveness based on how genuinely we desire it and how we understand that we do need forgiveness for what we’ve done. Any penance or act of restitution made to others is just a natural demonstration of that; if we were unwilling to do those things, then we don’t really see that what we did was wrong and thus don’t really want to be forgiven for it. Thus, when people comment about how unfair it is that some serial killer could adopt religion and be forgiven for that and thus get into heaven without doing extra penance, they misunderstand forgiveness. The whole point of penance and/or punishment is to get people to see that what they did was wrong, and neither are actually very good at doing that. If a serial killer really did come to see that what they did was wrong and genuinely wanted to make up for it, even though they couldn’t, it would be cold, cruel and heartless of God to deny them forgiveness or to punish them anyway. Sure, they can’t make up for their crimes … but as Anselm points out, neither can we. A model of forgiveness where we are forgiven not based on repaying our debts but based on us actually learning our lesson is a better model all around, I think.

Multiverses, God, Belief and Knowledge …

February 23, 2015

So, I’ve been involved in a long, long discussion over at Jason Rosenhouse’s blog, in the comments of this thread. There are two people that I’m debating with at the moment: eric — whom I’ve had a lot of similar discussions with in the past — and sean samis. Rosenhouse has a policy where comments on his posts get closed after a certain amount of time, and that thread has, in fact, hit that limit. But there are things in the last couple of comments that I want to address, so I’ve decided to try to address them here. I’ll try to leave a link there, but I know that eric knows that this blog exists.

Anyway, let me give the summary of the debate so far, which will by necessity be at least a little shaded towards my perspective of the debate. This all started from a comment by Rosenhouse that multiverses were as good an explanation for the purported fine tuning argument as God was (eric continually refers to this argument as “Goddidit”), to which I started by saying that it looked like those who supported it were doing what they accused religious people were doing: inventing or adding entities to get them out of an implication that they didn’t like. Eric then said that it wasn’t like that — or, at least, it wasn’t for him — and then we started debating whether multiverses in that sense were more reasonable. Eric insisted that multiverses followed from inflationary theory, and inflationary theory was supported scientifically, so multiverses were supported scientifically and so more rational. I pointed out that it wasn’t supported scientifically by inflationary theories because there were inflationary theories that explained the evidence equally well and didn’t imply multiverses, and that even Eternal Inflation didn’t actually entail multiverses. We chased this around a bit, and turned to a discussion of what it meant for a belief to be rational, or more rational than another, mostly I guess because I was saying that his belief in multiverses or that the belief that multiverses were the explanation for fine tuning was rational, but not the only rational option. At that point, we needed to figure out what a rational belief was. Sean samis weighed in on this issue as well.

Which bring us to where we are now. Let me start with eric’s latest comment. Before we start, let me reiterate a comment that was made earlier that sent us down a bit of a rabbit hole (comment #252). After we had been debating this for a while, in 243 I pointed out that essentially when I was defending theistic belief as rational, I was doing so as a response to a charge that people who believed in God were doing so based on a belief-forming process that they shouldn’t trust to form beliefs. This traces back through most of the discussion — and previous discussions — where eric and I disagree over whether it is rational and/or acceptable to maintain a belief that you learned from your parents/culture. I told him that if he meant “rationally” in a different way, then he needed to be clear about that. His reply in 252 was this:

VS @243 re: 1) I really don’t care for purposes of our discussion whether irrational beliefs are ‘a bad thing’ or not. I would be happy with the answer that you agree that, under standard definitions of ‘rational,’ belief in God is not rational (while under your different, broader definition, it is).

Which of course led me to believe that what he was after was STRICT rationality, that it was produced by or relies directly on reason. Which isn’t a discussion that I was interested in, as I stated, since he wouldn’t be saying that beliefs formed by that process directly were invalid or that we ought to believe one over the other, which was the heart of the debate: should we not believe that God is an explanation for fine tuning, or should we believe that multiverses are a better explanation, at least? And my frustration with most of the debate is that eric consistently seems to be conflating rational in the strict sense with rational as a way of saying that one ought not hold a belief if one wants to be considered rational, whether or not that process is strictly rational. As an example, it’s possible that beliefs formed by intuition are ones that we can and ought to hold, but that intuition is not a strictly rational process. This was the example that I did use and eric never really acknowledged, and seems to be denying that there are any, as all of this examples always take processes that are both not strictly rational and ones that we think are invalid.

I think the reason for this is that eric does think that a process not being strictly rational means that beliefs produced by it are ones that we ought not hold, or at the very least that we ought not hold beliefs produced by it if we had a strictly rational process — like science — to turn to. This is probably what we should be debating, but somehow we keep running down rabbit holes.

At any rate, I don’t really want to start with that point. I want to start with the discussion of my definition of “rational belief”, which says that it is rational to hold a belief if: 1) the belief doesn’t contradict any of your other beliefs and 2) you don’t have the evidence to know that the belief is false. Eric keeps claiming that this is overly broad and that it isn’t what people mean when they say “rational”, which the above comment outlines what is really meant by rational in multiple cases. Anyway, eric said that another commenter, Gordon, didn’t think that he knew that evolution was true — ie that he hadn’t been presented with sufficient evidence to force that conclusion — and so his belief that evolution was false was therefore rational by my definition. I said that it wasn’t because knowledge was objective and could be objectively and externally determined. Eric’s reply was:

I didn’t ask about knowledge, I asked whether Gordon’s belief is rational by your definition.

But you can’t judge the rationality of a belief by my definition without talking about knowledge. I repeatedly pointed this out to eric. The main thrust is this:

1) Knowledge trumps belief.
2) Knowledge is objective: given that we both have access to the same evidence, if you are justified in saying that you know that X then _I_ have to be equally justified. If not, then you don’t know that X.

So since eric and I both accept that we know that evolution is in general true — some details of it might not be — then we can say that Gordon ought to know that evolution is in general true as well. If Gordon wants to deny that, then he has to justify a claim that we don’t really know that evolution is true, which can be done either by pointing out that we haven’t and/or can’t present the justification to him, or pointing out that our purported justification is actually wrong or doesn’t get to the level of knowledge. Beyond that, he ought to know that it’s true.

So, no, under my view Gordon’s belief that evolution is false isn’t rational, unless he can show that we don’t, in fact, have knowledge. Thus, since eric thinks that we do, for the purposes of this discussion eric has to concede that at least in reference to that example my method and his come to the same conclusion.

Gordon thinks he has been presented with no contradictory evidence, and thus his belief passes your #2 criteria. You and I think otherwise. How do we decide whether his belief has passed your #2 criteria? Do we go by G’s assessment or our own? If his own, then doesn’t your criteria for rationality allow just about everything in the door? OTOH if we go by our assessment, can I not apply the same “not his but our” standard to Gordon’s belief in God? And your belief in God?

We apply an objective perspective, one that does not depend on what we believe or think is true but on what we know is true. So it’s not a choice between what we think versus what he thinks. If that’s all it is, then neither side has knowledge and so we do have to let everyone base it on what they think. But that’s not what we have for evolution. We have much more than that. At which point, eric cannot simply say that because we can externally judge the rationality of someone else’s belief when we have knowledge and can present the justification to them that we can do that even when we don’t have knowledge. And eric does not have knowledge for multiverses, as they are considered speculative at best … and eric does not know that God doesn’t exist.

Let me illustrate this with an example. Imagine that someone shows someone a recording of their spouse having an affair. This evidence is, in general, sufficient to justify knowledge, even though recordings can be faked. So if that person refuses to believe that their spouse is having an affair, then that belief — and even mere lack of believe — is irrational; they are refusing to accept a belief that rationally they ought to accept was produced by a belief-forming faculty that produces true beliefs. In short, they ought to know that it’s true, and so ought to believe it. Now, imagine that the person showing them the recording has always been interested in them, and has been trying to break them and their spouse up for a long time now. At this point, the idea that the recording was faked becomes much more credible, and if the recording was faked then it isn’t reliable anymore. At which point, it is possible that the person would no longer be justified in knowing that their spouse had had an affair. At which point, they’d have to believe something. But what? They could decide that despite them having an ulterior motive, that the person with the recording is still credible enough to believe. Or they could show faith in their spouse and insist that they wouldn’t commit adultery. But at this point, it’s going to come down to what the person themselves believes, about their spouse, about that person, and about a lot of things. At this point, it’s going to be very difficult to decide externally what believe they ought to hold. So as long as they aren’t holding an inconsistent set of beliefs — which includes their beliefs about how to form beliefs — they ought to be considered rational for believing either … even if the method they use is more gut feeling than a full-on reasoned out response, which would be inconclusive in this case anyway.

Now, eric goes on to reiterate his definition of “rational”:

A belief based on valid reasoning from a set of well-accepted premises or observations. Since @218.

This sounds a lot like he’s saying that the belief should be valid and sound, which is pretty close to most methods that produce knowledge. Mere belief comes into play when we have evidence for conclusion, but it is either not valid, not sound, or both. And we can see that eric’s belief in multiverses is neither valid nor sound. It does not follow validly from inflation theories because it is possible for inflationary theories to be true and for multiverses to not exist. It’s also the case that not all of the premises are well-accepted, even scientifically. So by his own definition, his belief in multiverses is not a rational belief.

And interestingly by his definition conclusions based on cultural beliefs are rational. Their premises are well-accepted in society, by definition. So if someone makes a valid argument using them, then that belief is rational. And yet, eric’s big complaint is that cultural beliefs are not rational.

Now I don’t want to rely on the “well-accepted” line. There has to be room for people to reasonably believe things even though most people don’t agree. That’s the only way we can progress from wrong, but accepted ideas to right ones, from the ideas that everyone knows are true but that aren’t to the ideas that are in fact true. But if this conversation is going to go anywhere, eric needs to be clear and detailed about what he means, and not just quote a context-less dictionary definition and assume that his beliefs meet it and others don’t.

Eric believes that multiverses exist. He does not know it, even by his own definition. It does not follow directly from inflationary theories and he doesn’t have well-accepted premises to justify it. The key point of the whole debate was why his mere belief is better than the theistic mere belief, and he hasn’t shown it except as an implied “It’s scientific, so better”. But that in and of itself needs to be justified, and there is no reason to accept any scientific explanation over non-scientific explanations just because the former are scientific, since scientific beliefs are wrong all the time. I allow him to be rational in his belief while not accepting that it is the only rational belief to hold. Eric either needs to do the same or demonstrate rationality to some degree, which is what we’ve been missing in this debate.

On to sean samis. The debate between us has been more directly over whether a belief is reasonable/acceptable or not. I just want to touch on a couple of issues. From 275:

IMHO, determining whether a belief is “rational” is all about the process and the premises leading to the conclusion upon which the belief is based. The sloppier the process or the less certain the premises, the less certain the conclusion.

To my mind, saying that “belief in X is not rational” MEANS “Your belief in X was not produced by a rational process.”

I think this highlights the conflation that’s going on here. He talks a lot about the process being sloppy and the conclusion being less certain because of it, but then simply subs in “rational process” without clarifying whether he means “sloppy” — read: unreliable — or strictly rational, which is made clearer with his next statement:

VS, maybe I’m missing something but the difference you are trying to explain seems too much like hair-splitting. What is the difference between “STRICT rationality” and … whatever the alternative is? It seems the difference between someone adding numbers up in their head and someone else showing their work.

Strict rationality means that you’re just talking about whether the process relies on reason or not, as outlined above, and not judging from that whether or not the belief is reasonable to believe or that you ought to believe it. In short, when talking about strict rationality, you accept that there may be valid belief-forming process that don’t rely on reason, like perhaps intuition or emotion, even if you don’t think it’s true. As I said, unless you do try to make the link from strictly rational to what people ought to believe, rational in that sense just isn’t interesting.

And we talked a bit about proving negatives, and he replies to me in 279:

So, what you ask eric to do; to prove a negative is impossible. Science NEVER disproves explanations except in very narrow situations. Virtually every time, all science can do is say “there’s no evidence that X is true” or “the evidence does not support X”. This is why the burden falls to the proponent of the theory to prove it, or explain how it could still be true in spite of the lack of supporting evidence.

Despite my being accused of demanding certainty by eric, sean samis seems to be doing that here: saying that he can’t prove a negative because he can’t do it with certainty. But that’s not what I mean, at least, by that. I mean if you can demonstrate it to the level of knowledge. Thus, if there are alternative explanations and you hold that one of them is false, if when asked to justify that you say that you can’t prove a negative it really does sound like you’re saying that you can’t prove that your preferred alternative is true to the level of knowledge, because if you can know that one of your alternatives is true then you can know that the other alternatives are false. If we know, to take one of his examples, that the Earth is spherical, then we know that it isn’t flat, or square, or whatever.

The same thing, then, applies to the fine tuning argument. If we discovered that there were multiverses, and that the cosmological constants of the existing multiverses seems distributed in accordance with the probabilities, then we’d know that the explanation for the cosmological constant doesn’t require intelligent agency and that, therefore, it was produced by a random and natural process. This would then mean that we’d know that it wasn’t set by an intelligent creator, and so know that it wasn’t set by God. This, then, is proving a negative … at least in that part. It doesn’t require certainty or anything beyond what science already does as it produces knowledge. To do otherwise would mean that science doesn’t produce knowledge … and no one wants that.

A Non-Religious Meaningful Lent …

February 18, 2015

So, today is the start of Lent in at least the Catholic calendar. I don’t particularly participate in Lent, for a couple of reasons. The first and most trivial one is that I’m in general non-ritualistic, which means that I don’t consider participating in the specific rituals to be the be-all-and-end-all of religious practice. It’s more about the principles and how you act in your every day life that matters to me. And, as a philosopher, I am always willing to debate and consider and argue over just what is required in your every day life, which makes me rather odd indeed when it comes to religion.

But the second one is that one of the biggest components of Lent — giving something up — doesn’t work for me, because there isn’t really anything for me to give up. I could give up playing video games, except that I’ve probably played games for something like 8 hours throughout the entire month of January. I could give up board games, but I’ve already set out games twice in two weeks and then never played them. I could give up reading fiction, but even that is something that I don’t do that often anymore, and is a far better way to spend my free time than the alternatives. I could give up TV, but on weekdays I’m only watching about an hour anyway and could easily give that up, and while weekends would be more difficult it wouldn’t be something that I’d miss that much. I could give up buying lunch, but I’m only buying lunch now because I have to due to my schedule; if I could avoid it, I would.

So, essentially, for me almost everything in my life is done because it is convenient at the time — making it easy to give up — or else because I need to do things that way at that time to make my life work at all. So there’s nothing trivial to give up as proof of my willingness to put aside my wants in service to a greater ideal, which is what I think the main point of that part of Lent is. So while I think that it is good for people to prove to themselves that they can indeed sacrifice their wants for the greater good, it’s not something I can do.

Anyone who is not religious who criticizes Lent, in my opinion, cannot do so on the basis that it is a bad thing to sacrifice your wants for the greater good, as that is a pretty basic principle that any morality ought to contain. All they can do, in my opinion, is criticize the purported end or greater good being espoused, that of, say, worshiping God. But if they could find a suitable cause, they really ought to feel that they would do that, and I would say that regular practice at doing just that is something that everyone ought to try. For me, it’s just nice that my job lets me get in regular practice at denying myself wants like “free time” in order to fulfill my commitments to my work [grin].

But I was musing about addiction today, and thought of another reason why even those who are secular might want to insert a little Lent into their lives. While some things can actually in and of themselves create a physical addiction — the body gets used to it and physically demands it if it isn’t there — pretty much anything can be what I’ll call mentally addictive, which means that you enjoy it so much that you do it a disproportionate amount of the time, and even choose it consistently when you know that you shouldn’t. The easiest way to know that you aren’t mentally addicted to something is to try to go without it for some time. If you can, then you’re fine, but if you can’t, then you have a problem. As a small example, if someone asks you what you’d do if you couldn’t play video games for a month, and you have no idea, it’s probably a good time to see what other things you might want to do in your spare time, because you clearly have put too much emphasis on that one thing.

So a Lent-style focus on giving something up for a number of weeks is a good way to help everyone assess their own lifestyle and see a) if they can go without some things in it and b) see what life is like without those things. This is good for your character and your self-awareness, religious or not. So should anyone laugh at you for giving things up, just remember that giving things up isn’t bad, and that someone who finds the idea of deliberately depriving themselves of pleasure laughable is missing a glorious opportunity to find out about themselves and the world.

Compassion, Morality, Feminism and Natural Family Planning

January 25, 2015

Libby Anne over at “Love, Joy, Feminism” has made a post on the recent comments by Pope Francis in the Philippines about Natural Family Planning and contraception. Essentially, the Pope commented that a woman who had had seven C-section births who was pregnant for an eighth time was acting irresponsibly, and should use the approved methods of contraception, namely Natural Family Planning. People considered that statement compassionate, and Libby Anne’s main point in the post is that it wasn’t.

There are two main issues with her post. The first is that her assessment of how compassionate the Pope is being there is based on an assessment of morality that isn’t the one the Pope is using, and one cannot claim that someone isn’t being compassionate when they only advocate for the options that they consider moral. You have to settle the moral questions first, and insisting on claiming that they are not compassionate is an appeal to emotion, not an appeal to reason. The second is that the assessment here clashes with a feminist interpretation of sex … at least, of sex positivity in feminism and of how they treat rape and male sexual desire.

Let’s start with the first issue, but the two will intertwine a bit. The underlying philosophical basis of Catholic morality on this issue is that you ought not do things that interrupt the natural order. Artificial birth control methods do this, but NFP doesn’t, mostly I’d guess because it uses the natural powers of humans — planning and will power — to avoid pregnancy. We are all able to decide to have or not have sex; we are not slaves to our sex drives. So, under Catholic moral philosophy, artificial contraception is immoral, and NFP is not, and so the compassionate option for someone for whom pregnancy is an issue is for them to practice morally acceptable forms of contraception. Libby Anne clearly does not share that morality, but how does she object to the Pope’s views?

You know what’s interesting? Of all methods of birth control, it is NFP that is most difficult to use. NFP also only works with complete cooperation of the male partner, which prevents a woman from making independent decisions about her own reproduction.

Not only is NFP difficult to learn and use, it also doesn’t work for everyone.

The most interesting one from here is the idea that artificial forms of contraception can be used by women unilaterally, but NFP requires both partners to agree and participate. What’s interesting about it is that sex is, in general, supposed to be something between two consenting adults, as is reproduction. To object to NFP because it requires two partners in a marriage to agree to how to avoid pregnancies and when they have sex seems like a rather odd claim for a feminist to make … or, rather, it would be an odd claim if it wasn’t insisting on giving control over all of this to the woman, as she literally says that the problem with NFP is that is doesn’t let her make independent decisions about her own reproduction. Sure, there might be a case for this in single, sexually active women, but since Catholic doctrine also discourages sex outside of marriage in the context of this debate Libby Anne is arguing for a woman to be able to make independent decisions over reproduction — ie having children — in a marriage. If the two of them can’t agree, allowing the woman to unilaterally make the decision on that is not in any way going to improve the marriage … and is not a good example of what a marriage should be.

Beyond that, the other two arguments here are ones that don’t carry any weight against a moral argument. If the Catholics are right about morality, then the only moral option being harder isn’t anything you can fault them for; we all should expect to have to avoid the easy but immoral solutions. And to say that some people won’t be able to follow NFP is essentially to say that people will be incapable of following the moral option. Since ought implies can, if true this would be an objection … but all of Libby Anne’s examples are of people who simply didn’t or weren’t capable of taking the care needed to maintain, one presumes, a certain level of sexual activity while ensuring that they didn’t have that while the woman was ovulating. But unless NFP is excessively onerous — and that Libby Anne was able to follow it suggests that while it may be tough, it isn’t impossible — asking people to take that sort of care is what we’d expect from asking them to do the moral and avoid the immoral.

So without settling the morality issue, these objections hold no water. As we’ve seen so many times before, if she can prove that the Catholic moral view is incorrect, that NFP is more difficult or that some have a hard time following it is only relevant as a practical consideration. There’d be no major conflict there. However, if she can’t, then saying that NFP is harder and maybe too hard from some to follow easily in no way impacts an argument that says that it must be what you do because all other options are immoral.

We can put this into sharper focus by looking in more detail at why some people can’t follow it:

Indeed, the years I spent using NFP wreaked havoc on my sex life.

She also quotes someone frustrated with NFP that says similar things:

And there’s only so much abstinence that can reasonably be expected of a couple not in a Josephine marriage. Seven, eight months last time? I lost count. How long this time? A year, two? And how do we deal with the incredible strain that so much abstinence places on our marriage? The frustrated desires, the feelings of rejection, the guilt, the anger, the loneliness?

So, one of the main arguments on why it’s hard to follow — beyond it requiring a lot of calculation to work — is about its impact on the sex life of the participants … in general, that people can’t have sex whenever they want (this is the only benefit to one’s sex life that artificial contraception has over NFP or any abstinence-based model). This is where the contradiction with feminist attitudes towards sex comes in, because in any discussion of sex from rape to simply commenting on men who aren’t having success getting sex, the feminist attitude is that if men can’t get sex in a manner consistent with feminist principles and morality then they should abstain, and that that sort of abstinence should not bother them. Certainly, it ought not overcome a moral reason to not pursue sex in that manner — again, ranging from rape cases to simply sexist ways of pursuing sex. The underlying principle is that sex is not so important as to trump morality, and that we can indeed live and even live reasonable lives without it. Which holds right up until the point where someone is advocating that someone abstain from sex in a case where they don’t think it immoral to engage in sex there. Then, it’s one of the worst and most damaging things that anyone can do.

This highlights how the debate is moral, and not over compassion. Feminists do not think that they are not acting compassionately when they tell men that if they can’t pursue sex morally they ought not pursue sex, even doing so harshly (eg pretty much anything Amanda Marcotte says on the subject), whether or not they agree that doing so is immoral or not. Sure, we have very good reason to say that rape is immoral and one ought to abstain from sex if the only option for getting it would be to rape someone, but when we get into, say, criticizing PUAs the objections are that it is more sexist and objectifying than that it is forcing someone into it, which one could argue is not a moral problem, or at least not a moral problem that justifies forcing someone to abstain from sex rather than follow them. But insisting that that is bad and is a problem is not see as not being compassionate to feminists … but it is when the Catholic Church applies their morality and asks for abstinence.

People will protest that the difference is that the feminist moral judgements here are about what you can do to others, and about causing at least potential harm to others, and the Catholic moral judgements only impact the couple, and that moral judgements don’t apply to yourself; one cannot do anything immoral if it only impacts yourself. However, this isn’t a universally proven moral principle; there are many moral systems that do think that you can act immoral towards yourself, and so it would still apply. So again this comes down to a moral assumption that isn’t proven, and the objection is simply that they are acting badly because of their views, which implies that their views are wrong but uses emotional language, arguments and practical arguments to avoid having to address the moral differences in any way beyond a very shallow assessment, like when Libby Anne asks this:

I have to wonder, why is NFP the only method God allows? I know the justification is that artificial birth control negates the procreative purpose of sex, but doesn’t using NFP to prevent pregnancy do that as well?

As I said above, the difference is that it does so by blocking the natural process, not by a human simply using their existing natural faculties. I’m not certain that this is the justification, as I am not a Catholic theologian … but this is an answer that I came up with in about 5 seconds knowing only a bit about it and about Aristotle. If she really had to wonder that, surely she could find ways to try to figure out what the difference is. But she doesn’t try because, presumably, she doesn’t care to. She is confident in her view of morality, one that is based on Utilitarian views, feminist principles and an idea that morality only applies to relations between people. None of these are uncontroversial morally, so she can’t simply state that the Pope isn’t compassionate simply because he only recommends things based on the morality that he thinks is correct, any more than we can claim that she isn’t compassionate because she only recommends things based on the morality that she thinks is correct. Someone following their genuinely held moral principles is not a bad person simply because you don’t agree with those principles. And we should ensure that our rhetoric does not imply that, and certainly that it does not imply that because that’s what might win you the argument.

Loftus: Criticizing the Outsider Test (Part 2)

January 22, 2015

So the first principle of informed skepticism — which, we must remember, is supposed to be attitude that drives us as we perform the Outsider Test — is this:

[I]t assumes that one’s own religious belief has the burden of proof

Which, if we take it precisely literally, is simply another example where Loftus explicitly asks that we not treat our own religious beliefs the way we treat other religious beliefs. So I think the best way to interpret this is that we treat all religious claims as if they have an equal burden of proof, meaning that if you claim that one religious belief has insufficient evidence to meet the burden of proof, then you cannot accept any other religion that does not have more evidence and that does not meet that burden of proof.

At first blush, this does not seem unreasonable. The problem when we go deeper, though, is that we don’t really have a situation where we have some kind of set burden of proof and a clear set of evidence that either meets or fails to meet that. Science might have something like that, but philosophy raises far more skeptical doubts and everyday reasoning has so much more to consider that it can only have a rough-and-ready set of methods that produces beliefs that, generally, work out. (And one of those methods is, in fact, cultural transmission.) What we have when it comes to religion is a bunch of beliefs that as far as we can tell have some evidence and argument both for and against their truth and where that evidence is, I’d say, roughly equal: none of the remaining ones are known to be true … or known to be false. That includes the claim that no theistic God exists.

So, what we have is a belief formed by one of the mechanisms that generally works for everyday reasoning: cultural transmission. Yes, some of the beliefs that we inherit from our culture are false, but a lot of them are true or, at least, work out well enough that we need to use them to navigate our everyday lives until something better comes along. Pretty much all folk views do this, even to the point of maintaining beliefs that are at least inconsistent if not false because we don’t have a better option to get through the day. So now we turn our attention to alternative religious beliefs, and note that those who believe them got them mostly from cultural transmission like we did … and that those beliefs are no better evidenced than the ones we hold. Loftus would insist that in a case like this that we should at least abandon all religious beliefs, because none of them meet the artificial “burden of proof”. But in general, we do deal with methodologies or ways of knowing or believing, not probabilistic calculations. And so why shouldn’t we trust the transmissions of the culture that we are in and has formed the basis of so many of our beliefs? Plantinga is right here. If I trust, in general, the beliefs that I absorbed from my parents, my upbringing, and my culture, the fact that other cultures transmit different beliefs to those in them can do nothing to undercut my own confidence in my own beliefs. And if I am not confident in at least that cultural belief, then I already have reason to doubt and so have no need to consider that other cultures believe differently.

This holds at the level of everyday reasoning, the methods I use to navigate the world and that produce knowledge and beliefs, and justify each to the level where they deserve to be. Things are different at the philosophical level, and in this case at the level of philosophy of religion. There, all religious beliefs are treated equally skeptically and one cannot use a default against anyone. Sure, one can have one’s own personal preference for what will be the right answer, and work to defend it against challenges, but overall in terms of the field the one religion will not be accepted until it meets the set burden of proof that means that we know that it is the true one … and that includes us coming to know that none of them can be true. Ultimately, if we want to solve the problem of religious diversity, we don’t want to come at it at an individual level, at the level of everyday reasoning, but with the full resources of academic and intellectual reasoning … which, right now, means philosophy of religion.

And yet, so many atheists want to try to solve the problem of religious diversity by holding everyday beliefs and reasoning to academic and intellectual scrutiny … and ignoring or dismissing the work done by philosophy of religion and theology aimed precisely at that sort of scrutiny — and in answering it. They say that they want to address what the real religious believer believes and not the philosophized versions that theology and philosophy of religion produce, which is about as ridiculous as saying that we want to address the theory of evolution as understood by the common person and not by evolutionary biologists. Essentially, what they want to do is subject everyday or folk reasoning to scrutiny that it never does and is obviously not prepared for, avoid the responses of the fields that do that scrutiny and have prepared answers, and then insist that if you can’t address the challenges at that level that you must reject the beliefs as false. This seems to be a prime example of “stacking the deck”.

“The Outsider Test” is philosophy of religion. It also relies on an epistemology that applies to philosophy of religion and not to folk religion. Thus, it is at the level of philosophy of religion that this battle will be fought, and the problem of religious diversity solved. No where else.

All in Good Fun …

January 19, 2015

So, Michael Nugent has weighed in on the ability to make fun of religion. The big problem with the article is that it is very light on arguing for why this is something that we need to protect, and heavy on trying to demonstrate that the Catholic Church is doing the same thing and so are themselves insulting and ridiculing people and/or ideas. The problem is that the examples don’t work because they ignore the critical factor between criticism and ridicule, satire and mockery: the primary intent.

He sums up his view thusly:

We should not cause harm to actual people by infringing on their human rights, but we should always be able to robustly criticise and to ridicule ideas.

Presumably, this is because, as he says, you have rights but your beliefs don’t. However, this isn’t adequately fleshed out, meaning that it is reasonable to presume that his main thrust here is the standard notion of free speech: that we must be able to express ideas no matter how offensive some people find them. He does go on to defend that sort of line, by appealing to a possible societal benefit:

Pope Francis says “one cannot make fun of faith”. This is just silly. Of course we can make fun of faith. Faith is believing things disproportionately to the evidence. Religious faith is just one example of this folly. Making fun of silly beliefs is one important way of encouraging people to examine why they believe them, and of discouraging others from starting to believe them.

The reason that many religious beliefs need protection from ridicule is that they are ridiculous. If they could withstand scrutiny they would not need to be protected from mockery. Scientists don’t worry if somebody mocks the law of gravity, because they know that the law of gravity does not change based on whether people are laughing at it.

Reading in a bit, the idea here is that faith and religious beliefs are silly, or at least are of the sort that people ought not believe in them. People have to be free to criticize and to work to convince people to abandon them. Ridicule and mockery is an effective way to do that, so we must be free to ridicule and mock “silly” ideas to that end. Thus, he is tying it to purpose: the purpose is to make an intellectual case, and so the speech has value, and so must be protected.

The problem is that this would not hold for what I’d call “straight” ridicule or mockery, ridicule or mockery whose main purpose is to, well, ridicule or mock. Nugent’s argument provides comfort for people who just want to insult and offend others, by placing ridiculing people as a desirable thing in and of itself without assessing whether the purpose is to convince those who follow those beliefs to abandon them or instead simply to offend people without having anyone be able to hit back at them, or protest their being utter jerks about it, as they hide behind the intellectual claim that it is necessary criticism.

Also, this is an odd line for anyone who thinks that we should base our beliefs on logic and reason to take. If the beliefs really are silly, you shouldn’t need to mock or ridicule them in order to get people to stop believing in them and to not start believing in them. You should be able to simply point out, repeatedly, the arguments demonstrating that they are silly, and then people will just see that they are silly, and once they agree with that they’ll do that naturally. Sure, things are more complicated than that, but surely that should be the take that someone who wants us to base our beliefs on logic and reason should advocate. What they shouldn’t do is advocate that we use an explicitly emotional approach … one that will work whether or not they have sufficient arguments for their claims. Because that’s precisely the sort of approach he’s advocating here: make it so that people who believe those things are teased and mocked and ridiculed, and as people don’t like to be teased and mocked and ridiculed they’ll develop an emotional aversion to accepting those beliefs and so will abandon them or not accept them in the first place. But this is independent of the arguments given or the strength of the proposition; all you need to have this work is to have enough people on your side and willing to engage in the ridicule.

This is the difference between criticism/satire and ridicule/mockery. Any offense caused by legitimate criticism or satire is unintentional, and is not necessary to make the point. Those forms focus on doing what they can to make their intellectual points come across clearly and effectively, and any humour — either incidental or at the expense of their opponents — is done strictly to make the arguments stand out better intellectually and rationally. With ridicule and mockery, the opposite is true: the joking at the expense of the opponents is the entire point, and any intellectual arguments are incidental to that (and usually, in my opinion, only used to make the mocker feel better about doing it, by allowing them to appeal to the idea that they are mocking in the service of what is right).

Criticism needs to be protected, and we should not allow the censoring of criticism because it incidentally offends people. However, there is no need to protect speech whose main purpose is to mock and ridicule, as for that speech the main purpose is to offend and to convert through emotion. Society is not better off with that sort of “criticism”.

So, the claim about Charlie Hebdo is that they engaged more in ridicule than in making an actual criticism, that their primary purpose was to offend rather than to make an actual argument. How true this is might be debatable, but let’s look at what Nugent thinks compares to that:

Also, I support the right of the Pope to joke about punching people who insult his mother, even though such jokes make fun of the pacifist religious beliefs of the Amish and Quakers, and even though supporters of actual violence could misinterpret the Pope’s joke as being supportive of their behaviour. It is clear that he is not actually promoting violence, and we should support his right to make fun of violence as much as we support Charlie Hebdo’s right to make fun of racism and religion.

Except that it is clear that his intent there is not to make fun of the pacifist beliefs, and in fact it is difficult to see how one could call his statement “making fun” of them at all without using a rather non-standard definition of “making fun”. All he did there was state something that in his cultural context is an acceptable phrasing, and promote something that his cultural context might accept. He doesn’t even pass judgement on their pacifist beliefs by implying in any way that people who wouldn’t do that are somehow wrong, bad or holding wrong beliefs. So all he’s done is express something in a way that aligns with his personal beliefs, without passing judgement on what those with other personal beliefs might think. This is hardly “making fun” in any real sense because in order to “make fun” of it you have to at least express the idea that what they are thinking is wrong … and he doesn’t.

This just highlights the underlying problem with this debate. Nugent presumes in all of his examples that expressing a personally deeply held belief that others might disagree with is “making fun” in the problematic way. He adds this one later:

The Catholic Church considers homosexuality to be an objective disorder because it is ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.

But, again, this is just expressing what it believes. We do indeed need protection under free speech for expressing what we believe, even if some disagree and even if some are offended by our statement. So, I will defend Nugent’s ability to express his belief that religious beliefs are “silly”, despite the fact that that does express strong judgement and does so in a way that’s so dismissive as to be absolutely offensive to anyone who holds the belief … as long as he really does think that they are so obviously silly. However, I don’t defend an argument that says that because he thinks that it is reasonable for him to simply mock and ridicule those beliefs out of people. If he wants to convince people to abandon those “silly” beliefs, let him do that by convincing them that the beliefs are silly with reason and argument, not by making them feel bad for holding beliefs that he doesn’t agree with. If he has the arguments, this should be relatively easy to do. He can use humour. He can use satire. He can be harsh. He can incidentally offend people. But he cannot set out to offend people out of their beliefs, or offend them into saying or doing something harsh that he can then use as ammunition.

Free speech protects speech that has an intellectual, artistic, or societal benefit. This is why free speech defenses of pornography make no sense because it is not speech that has any of those benefits; a better argument would be to appeal to the idea that society cannot limit someone’s pursuit of happiness unreasonably. Ridicule and mockery have no intellectual or artistic benefit, and as they can be used to promote that which is false just as easily as that which is true they don’t have any societal benefit either. And the only happiness pursued with them is the happiness that comes from making others feel bad, which a reasonable society need not defend. While there is reason to defend criticism and satire that happens to offend — because the intellectual purpose of challenging beliefs is one worth defending — ridicule and satire aim to offend … and free speech does not defend offending people as a worthy goal in and of itself.

Coyne Gets Philosophical …

January 18, 2015

While I haven’t written any discussions of Jerry Coyne for quite some time now, mostly because the things he’s been talking about haven’t been interesting to me, this week he’s managed to provide me with two posts to comment on. If he keeps this up, it will be like old times on this blog.

This time, he has decided to point out dumb philosophical errors that he says Alvin Plantinga makes. Considering that at one point I argued that he and his commenters didn’t know philosophy, and considering that his comments on free will have often made what I’d consider basic philosophical mistakes, this attempt should definitely be … interesting.

The existence and work of Plantinga is the best argument I know against teaching the philosophy of religion. Here we have a distinguished scholar of religion, one recognized for his work on philosophy alone, at least judging by the fact that he was a regional president of the American Philosophical Association. Yet Plantinga’s work on religion, though couched in academic-y prose, modular logic, and symbolic logic, is thin, tendentious, and easily refuted by anyone with two neurons to rub together.

Considering that I’ve been unimpressed with both Coyne’s and Dennett’s attempts to refute Plantinga and haven’t seen easy refutations — although I think doubts can and have been raised against Plantinga’s work — this is an example where the overuse of rhetoric can get you in trouble … because if Coyne’s attempts either before or in this post don’t work, what does that say about his neural state?

Anyway, the main argument is based on a criticism of the arguments of Philip Kitcher that Plantinga has made. Kitcher’s main argument — or, at least, the main one that Plantinga addresses — is the typical “Argument from Religious Diversity”, that Loftus also heavily relies on. Plantinga’s first reply — actually his second, since it is his refutation of the second point of variance by culture and not to the first point of a wide variety of overall views — is that Kitcher himself would hold radically different views and philosophies if he was born in a different culture, including his skeptical beliefs about religion. But just as the fact that in a different culture he would believe differently doesn’t mean that Kitcher should accept from that fact alone that his beliefs are almost certainly false. But this is what Kitcher expects religious people to accept: that merely because they would have different beliefs if they had been born and raised in a different culture doesn’t mean that they should think that their beliefs are almost certainly false … at least, not just from that fact.

Coyne’s first “obvious” purported philosophical error from Plantinga is this:

Now you don’t have to be a sophisticated thinker to see the problem with Plantinga’s “rebuttal”. Kitcher is not making a claim about reality, but raising doubts toward other people’s claims about reality. Yes, if Kitcher had been raised in Saudi Arabia, he’d likely be a Muslim and not an atheist (there’s strong artificial selection against nonbelievers on the peninsula). But there’s no parity between holding a belief because you were brainwashed by the locals, and doubting beliefs because you’re rational.

There are a number of issues here. The most obvious one is that last sentence, because it stacks the deck and assumes his conclusion: Coyne can only say that the two sets of beliefs can’t be compared because one is rational and the other is, well, not. Coyne could make a stronger case by saying that Kitcher didn’t develop his skeptical beliefs about religion that way; he formed them against cultural expectations, not due to them. This, however, wouldn’t cover all of his beliefs, which would lead to the same sort of issues. The same problem arises with the distinction between simply doubting a belief and having an actual belief … especially if Kitcher, like Loftus, really does think that religious beliefs ought to be considered almost certainly false. If you think that the claim that God exists is almost certainly false, then you really ought to believe that God does not exist, a positive and actual belief, not merely an expression of skeptical doubts. Thus, as one of the commenters pointed out, Kitcher does make a claim about reality. Even if he didn’t, to raise skeptical doubts means that Kitcher has to be relying on some kind of claim that he wants others to think true in order to make that claim, the claim that to be rational we have to consider the religious claims almost certainly false. If he wants anyone to think it true, it means that he must think it true. That means that he must believe it. And finally, none of Coyne’s arguments really demonstrate that we indeed ought to consider our religious beliefs almost certainly false because there are other cultures that believe differently, because even if his distinction between raising doubts and believing really worked, it would be trivially easy to find beliefs that did and still do have cultural variances and again conclude that those cultural variances don’t, in and of themselves, give reason to accept that beliefs that do vary are almost certainly false. So while Plantinga’s argument is not, to my mind conclusive — as it is an argument that of the sort that doesn’t refute the argument so much as force a conclusion that the opponent doesn’t want to accept — it isn’t making any basic philosophical errors … and Coyne’s first paragraph attempting to point out errors makes a number.

On to the second paragraph:

The important thing, though, is that it’s more than the diversity of conflicting arguments that shows one’s faith to be false. It’s the point that John Loftus made with his Outsider Test for Faith: the diversity of faiths, and the fact that one’s religion is almost always the dominant religion in one’s birthplace, means that one should be suspicious of the criteria used to uphold one’s faith. If you think your faith is right and other faiths are wrong, Loftus argues, then you should apply to your own beliefs the same scrutiny you apply to other peoples’. When you do that, you must perforce see that the evidence for the veracity of your beliefs is as nonexistent as is the evidence for the many religions you reject. In other words, you must reject all faith until some evidence accrues that points to one religion as being more truthful than the others. And that—not simply the diversity of faiths and their dependence on geography—is why one should reject all religions. This is the argument Kitcher is making.

Ah, an appeal to Loftus. I’ve already talked about how Loftus’ view of how we treat religions like ours doesn’t, in fact, reflect how we actually treat other religions. We do not, generally, reject them because we subject them to a scrutiny that we won’t subject our own beliefs to, but instead because we already believe something that is incompatible with them. Whether this is rational or not is an open and complicated question, but it means that there is no reason for people to necessarily reject faith outright, or reject their faith until there is “evidence” for one over another. That’s an epistemological claim, requiring a set and strong idea of rationality, knowledge, belief, and the differences and similarities between them.

Essentially, Coyne here rejects Kitcher’s argument outright, insisting that it is all about evidence and that the religions do not have sufficient evidence to pass that marker. But it adds nothing to the argument to point out that there are other religions, and that if you grew up somewhere else you’d believe in a different religion. At best, that says that you got the belief from your culture and not from examining the evidence … but then as already pointed out all that means is that you don’t reject other religions on the basis of examining the evidence either, because you don’t examine evidence to reject a belief that conflicts with something you strongly believe. So what Coyne wants to argue here, really, is the old claim that there is insufficient belief to justify a belief in any particular religion. If there was, then it wouldn’t matter how many other religions there were or how many people believed in them; the justification itself would carry you through. This counter has been a staple of Plantinga’s rebuttals to the argument from religious diversity, and it works: if we have sufficient evidence, then competing religions are irrelevant as I would still be justified based on the evidence, and if we don’t then again it doesn’t matter if there are competing religions because we remain unjustified without considering them.

At best, this sort of analysis reduces the argument from religious diversity to not an argument, but instead a rhetorical trick or, perhaps, a thought experiment. If you consider that you’d be just as certain of a contradictory belief in another time and place, you have to ask what it is that makes you so certain now. For many theists, that will be faith. But no theist need accept that faith is an invalid methodology for accepting strong or even strong religious beliefs, and Plantinga tends to accept that you can hold as a basic belief things that he doesn’t accept. His argument defends his holding his own religious beliefs as basic; he does not argue against other people holding their religious beliefs as basic when he argues against the problem of religious diversity. So as a thought experiment, it might lead people to conclude that they have insufficient evidence for their own religious beliefs and that faith is invalid … but it doesn’t prove it.

The problem is that a lot of the philosophy limned above does not make empirical claims about reality. Existentialism, for instance, is a worldview, not a claim about what is real. Likewise for many ethical systems, like utilitarianism or Rawls’s ideal contractarianism. You can’t say that they can be dismissed simply because some conflict with others, for evidence cannot be brought to bear on the issues. And those philosophical positions that do make such claims (i.e., naturalism), should be subject to evidential scrutiny; and if they fail, they should either be shelved or considered unverified.

This is a rather bizarre counter-argument, because what it implies is that philosophical beliefs like the right ethical code or correct worldview don’t, in fact, have to be true because they can’t be proven empirically. First, many would disagree about that. Second, many would argue that the belief in God can’t be proven empirically because it also doesn’t make those sorts of strong claims — or, at least, not ones that we can justify that way — and so we could accept it just as well as we accept those. Third, these beliefs have a major impact on our actions and behaviours, and how we live our lives. To imply that it doesn’t matter if they are true is to essentially concede that we can live our lives based on ideas that we don’t know to be true. Since this would clearly conflict with any sort of rationalist stance, we need these beliefs to be justified as well, just as much if not more than strict scientific claims, even if we have to demonstrate it differently.

But the big issue here is that this is a response to Kitcher’s first point, that the diversity of religious beliefs means that we should consider them almost certainly false. The Utilitarian need not think that their ethical view is almost certainly false just because there are a number of deontological and Virtue theories that radically differ from it, or even because there are a number of differing Utilitarian views. If their view is justified, then they can believe it no matter how many other views are out there or even accepted, and if it isn’t it doesn’t become even less justified because there are other candidates.

In short, we want and need these philosophical beliefs to be true, which means we need to justify them, and the variety of philosophical beliefs is no justification for considering any of those to be almost certainly false. That’s the point that Plantinga is making … and it does stand. We need something more than Kitcher’s main arguments to conclude that.

He moves on to go after the sensus divinitatis again:

It seems. . . it seems. . . it seems. It seems, therefore it is. Is that rational? I don’t think so. For one’s desire to believe in God, which comes from brainwashing by others when one is young, doesn’t count as evidence. Those religious feelings aren’t independent, as Plantinga seems to think, of one’s desires.

Except, that’s not really what it is. Plantinga is clear in the review that he doesn’t think that the sensus divinitatis should be used as evidence that God exists:

But here, I think, he is seriously misconstruing Calvin and those who follow him. It isn’t that those who think there is a sensus divinitatis appeal to this sensus as evidence for their belief in God. It isn’t as if such people, if asked why they believe in God, if asked for evidence for their belief, will say, “Well, there is this sensus divinitatis, and it tells me that there is such a person.” Not at all. It is rather that the supporters of the sensus find themselves with belief in God; they note that the same or something similar holds for much of the rest of humanity; so they conclude that there is a faculty or process that produces this belief. Of course they think this belief on their part and the parts of these others is true; and since they do think this belief is true, they call this process a “sensus”, thus analogizing it to sense perception.

In short, people just come to believe it, just as they come to believe that there is an external world from their sense perceptions. No amount of skeptical challenge — and there is actually quite a bit — can dislodge this belief and our sense that that belief is justified. Hume rather famously formed all sorts of skeptical doubts and then discovered that when he went out into the world and acted in it he could not maintain those doubts. Bertrand Russell also noted that while the justifications for the accuracy of our sense data were not only not there but that we had good reasons — scientific reasons — to think them inaccurate we still had to assume they were to get any sort of reasoning and knowledge off the ground. In general, if a belief springs to our minds fully-formed and persists, then we might be able to be justified in thinking that it is true without evidence demonstrating it false, or it leading to a contradiction … and for sense data, perhaps even then. So if one raises doubts against the theist’s belief in God and yet, despite those doubts, they still feel that it must be true, then perhaps that it like sense data … a basic belief that we cannot justify but that we can’t doubt.

The issue here is that a basic belief and a belief formed from one’s culture will appear the same. All cultural beliefs are formed from cultural exposure — either explicit or implicit — and not from reasoned belief or deliberate learning. So they are just accepted by us. How can we tell that they are not mere cultural beliefs, and are instead properly basic? My view can accept cultural beliefs having some justification, but Plantinga’s basic belief approach can’t … not if he wants to use the comparison to sense data. Even here, though, he can argue that our sense data are impacted by culture as well, since even if our conclusions from sense data haven’t been proven to be influenced by cultural, we know that top-down processing is and that at least part of our sense data is done by top-down processing … meaning that our beliefs from sense data may be culturally impacted as well. Though that’s a pretty shaky argument.

And what, for crying out loud, are the “epistemic rights” that Plantinga touts? The right to believe whatever nonsense you want? Fine, let people so believe. But that doesn’t mean that those beliefs are rational, or should be respected by those of us who feel that strong beliefs should be supported by strong evidence.

If Coyne and others feel that strong beliefs should be supported by strong evidence, should they believe it and still call themselves rational? Is it just a feeling, or can they prove it?

To answer this, we need to answer what it means for a belief to be justified. There are a lot of issues around this view, tying in ideas about knowledge, belief, if you can believe rationally without having to know things, and all sorts of other considerations. Kitcher and Loftus and Coyne don’t seem to consider that, but simply assert it, and so can’t answer those questions.


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