Archive for the ‘Theism’ Category

Summary of Sophisticated Atheology …

January 19, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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God in the Age of Science: Conclusion

January 12, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jerry Coyne Proves Science and Religion Are Not Incompatible …

January 5, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which leads to Coyne’s move against proof:

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

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

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

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

Philipse on Religious Experience

December 29, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religious Freedom and Baking Cakes …

December 8, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seidensticker has a concluding thought:

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

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

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

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

Your chance to help decide what I write about!

November 29, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philipse on Arguments from Order to Design

August 18, 2017

Chapters 13 and 14 focus on the Argument from Design and other inductive arguments respectively. But it is definitely the case that by this point Philipse isn’t really providing anything new, neither a new and fresh examination of the arguments nor a strong and specific refutation of Swinburne. As such, there’s not that much to say here. The stuff that’s new is Swinburne’s, which won’t be that impressive to anyone who isn’t already a fan of his, and the stuff that isn’t specific to Swinburne isn’t new.

So what I want to talk about briefly is, again, Philipse’s attempt to claim that global arguments from design are more promising than local arguments from design. Again, he appeals to this on the basis of avoiding the “God of the Gaps”, and thus the risk that later science will, in fact, find an explanation for the phenomena. But, again, this is ridiculous. If I could demonstrate that, say, by the best evidence we have the eye is irreducibly complex and so had to be produced deliberately by an intentional agent, it’s in no way a response to say “Well, science might find a way to explain that … sometime. In the future. So you can’t make that claim!”. In the previous chapter, Philipse insists that cosmological arguments need to be inductive arguments to the best explanation, while here he insists that for design inductive arguments to the best explanation aren’t promising because they run the risk of science refuting them at later date. One suspects that if Philipse found any inductive arguments for the cosmological argument that he couldn’t refute he’d be insisting that they fail because science might refute them later, a criteria that he pushes in Chapter 13 for a temporal design argument of Swinburne’s.

At this point, it seems clear that Philipse’s main focus — perhaps unconsciously — is to at all times place the burden of proof on the theistic argument, and thus insist that we must take any scientific explanation before we accept a theistic one. Thus, if we follow Philipse’s idea of “God in the Age of Science” we end up ceding all discussion on the matter to science. Which might not be a problem unless science is, in fact, explicitly naturalistic, as in that case science would accept any explanation — no matter how improbable — over a theistic or supernatural one. In fact, it might even accept “We don’t know yet” over a theistic or supernatural one. Philipse himself directly accepts both of these arguments at various times. Thus, to accept Philipse’s view of “the Age of Science” is to, essentially, concede that atheism and naturalism are true, not because they are specifically better evidenced, but merely because science implicitly and perhaps explicitly assumes them.

Fortunately, we don’t have to accept Philipse’s view. There are a number of philosophical, epistemological and even empirical and scientific issues with his views. And if we don’t accept them, then we don’t accept most of his arguments against the specific theistic arguments that he addresses either. Thus, without us accepting his starting points, we won’t accept where he ends here, and so all of this is just standard replies to the standard arguments.

Next time, Philipse, at the end, talks about religious experiences. It would seem like that would be something he would have addressed much earlier …

Freethought Blogs and The Orbit

August 14, 2017

So, it’s been almost a year and a half since a number of bloggers on Freethought blogs moved over to a new network, “The Orbit”. So, how are things going?

The Orbit is pretty much a ghost town. You might get a new post, on average, once every couple of days, and this has been going on for quite a while now. It’s pretty bad when an entire network of bloggers manages to produce content at about the same rate that I do. Also, most of the original bloggers from Freethought Blogs who moved rarely contribute; the most frequent contributors seem to be new bloggers or at least ones who weren’t as active on Freethought Blogs.

Freethought Blogs, on the other hand, has multiple posts from a number of bloggers every single day. Aside from the generally prolific P.Z. Myers, most of the new posts seem to be coming from new bloggers that were recruited after the split. In terms of content, it is certainly generating it at an impressive rate, especially when compared to The Orbit.

It doesn’t seem like The Orbit has been a very successful network. Sure, many of the bloggers there have moved onto or are promoting things like their Patreon account instead, but again there’s really not much content there, and certainly not much when compared to what the new bloggers on Freethought Blogs generate for it. I’m not sure what the hit ratio is — which generates revenue — but I can’t imagine that The Orbit is even close to what Freethought Blogs produces, given the disparity in regularly updated content. I’m not certain what those who founded The Orbit wanted to achieve with it, but it doesn’t look like it has managed it. In fact, one could speculate that Freethought Blogs wanted to replace the content they had lost when Ed Brayton and Ophelia Benson left, and that those who moved to The Orbit were ones who didn’t fit into that or who didn’t like the new recruitment drive for some reason.

Anyway, it’s just something that I’ve been musing about as I read both networks, since I definitely like reading things that I don’t agree with, for various reasons.

Philipse on Cosmological Arguments

August 11, 2017

So, in Chapter 12 Philipse examines Cosmological Arguments in an attempt to show that they aren’t going to work. He differentiates between two main types of cosmological arguments: deductive ones like the classic “First Cause” arguments, or inductive ones to the best explanation. As it turns out, Swinburne also prefers the latter sorts of arguments, so Philipse is going to start by attempting to show that deductive arguments aren’t as promising as inductive ones so that he can spend the bulk of the chapter focusing on inductive arguments and thus also on Swinburne’s arguments and explanations. This will work as long as you end up agreeing with him that deductive arguments aren’t promising avenues to take. If you don’t accept that, then the complicated arguments Swinburne advances will seem like nothing more than a waste of time when simpler and as if not more promising arguments are available.

The problem is that the meat of Philipse’s arguments against deductive arguments are nothing more than taking the two most popular deductive arguments and attempting to show that they don’t work. Sure, he brings in Swinburne’s argument that deductive cosmological arguments aren’t sound, but he — rightly — points out that it’s not easy to argue that without examining the specific arguments themselves. But Philipse then goes on to insist that the literature has done that for pretty much all of those specific cases and decides to demonstrate that by picking two examples and showing that they are not sound and so can be dismissed. Of course, this would in no way demonstrate that all possible deductive arguments are not sound, so it doesn’t even defend against the specific counter that Philipse himself raised. He could have made a decent argument if he had tried to show that having a universal premise would risk them not being sound or would at least lead us to think that establishing universal premises was too difficult a task to be considered reasonable, but he doesn’t even do that. So even if we accept that he’s right about the two arguments he addresses, we have no reason to think that deductive cosmological arguments are just a dead end.

And when it comes to the two arguments that Philipse tries to address, I find that I have to express my deepest gratitude to him, because his attempts to refute them have led me to come to the realization of why they, in fact, actually seem to work. Whether or not I can get to God from those two arguments, when it comes to establishing some kind of First Cause or First Element the arguments seem conclusive. Thus, instead of making me doubt their validity, he’s only made me even more certain that the arguments are right. That’s … probably not what he was going for.

Let me start with the first argument, which is essentially the argument from contingent causes, and I’ll quote his presentation of it here:

1. A contingent entity exists (that is, and entity of which we can suppose without contradiction that it does not exist), or a contingent event occurs.
2. Each contingent entity or event has a sufficient cause.
3. Contingent entities or events alone cannot constitute, ultimately, a sufficient cause for the existence of a contingent entity or the occurrence of a contingent event.
4. Therefore, at least one necessary entity or event exists (that is, an entity or event of which we cannot suppose without contradiction that it does not exist or occur). And because it exists necessarily, it does not stand in need of an explanation.[pg 223]

While I wouldn’t normally quote the counter argument when quoting from a book — as it’s usually not worth the effort to do so when a summary will do just as well and usually be clearer — here I have to quote what he’s saying so that everyone can check to see if my interpretation of it is correct:

What one should repudiate is premise (3), since causal explanations cannot but refer to causes that exist or occur contingently. If one explains causally an event E with reference to a cause C, what one means is that, ceteris paribus, if C had not occurred, E would not have occurred either, assuming there is no causal redundancy. Hence, it is essential to the very meaning of the word ’cause’ that we can always suppose without contradiction that a cause C did not occur.[ibid]

You would think that someone who was in fact a philosopher would do two things here. First, one would assume that in examining this they would take the concept of a necessary object, put it in the place of C, and see if the statement “If C had not occurred, E would not have occurred” still makes sense or itself produces a contradiction. Philipse doesn’t seem to have done that, because it seems pretty obvious that, yes, saying that still makes sense. What it really means to be a necessary entity or event is that it is not possible for it to not have occurred. So what we would say is that C occurred and C had to occur. And because C occurred, E occurred. Now, if C hadn’t occurred, then E wouldn’t have occurred. But, of course, C did occur, because it had to occur. Why is that case that much different from the case where we observe that a contingent C happened in the past that produced an event E? Isn’t it just as contradictory to assert that if C hadn’t happened then E wouldn’t have happened? After all, C did happen, and we can’t change that now. Once C happens or exists, then E will happen. Why C happens or exists doesn’t impact that. It seems to me that Philipse has fallen into a “If humans evolved from apes, then why are there still apes?” argument. His entire argument relies on interpreting the first part of the if as being an actual statement about C, which then implies that to make the conditional work we’d have to actually assert that C might not have occurred. But we don’t need to and don’t do that. The conditional, then, does not in any way imply that it is actually physically or conceptually possible for C to not exist or have occurred, which would be the contradiction. The statement is talking about the dependency of E on C, and not making any actual conceptual statement about C itself. So this argument fails.

The second thing a philosopher ought to do here is actually attack the logic itself, and not simply look to provide a counter-argument, which is what Philipse’s argument actually does here while in the guise of refuting premise (3). The reason to do this is that we don’t want to end up in an Antinomy, where we have two sound logical arguments that lead to the opposite conclusions. Again, Philipse claims to be attacking premise (3), but what he’s really doing — by his own words — is making an argument that the concept of cause makes necessary events — at least ones that have any causal power — incoherent. But that doesn’t attack the original logic that says that you can’t stop at a contingent event, and that by definition every contingent event must have a sufficient cause explaining it. And this argument would go as follows: for an event to be contingent, it means that its existence depends on some event or cause that causes it to happen as opposed to the alternatives. This means that for any contingent event we can ask for an explanation of it, meaning that we can ask what made it so that it happened as opposed to something else (which might be nothing). Let’s call that C. Now, C can either be contingent or non-contingent. If it is contingent, then we would say that its existence depends on another event, C’. Which we could then go and examine to see if C’ is contingent or non-contingent. And so on and so forth. Thus, for any contingent event C we could never stop there, because there would always be something left that we would need to explain, which is why C itself happened, which we can only explain by appealing to another event C’. If, however, that C is non-contingent, then it needs no further explanation for its existence and so we can stop there.

You can argue that my argument depends a lot on us needing an explanation or still having something to explain, which might not be necessary (this might be an epistemological as opposed to a conceptual argument). Fair enough, but remember that Philipse wants us to do theology like science, and science can never say that if there is still something there to be explained that we can simply stop there and claim that we’ve explained enough. Science can argue that we can’t find out that explanation, but that’s definitely an epistemological as opposed to a conceptual argument, and so can’t refute the idea that what we have is a necessary entity or event C out there that stopped our chain of explanation. So Philipse would still need a conceptual argument to refute the idea that there’d still be something out there that can’t be contingent to be the explanation for the contingent entity or event we are considering.

Let me quote the second argument:

1. This event in the universe is fully or partially caused by earlier events. The same holds for other events. They are caused by causal chains going backwards in time.
2. Infinite causal regresses are impossible.
3. Therefore, there must have been a first cause of each causal chain.[ibid]

Philipse uses the standard reply of appealing to Cantorian Set Theory to demonstrate that we can, indeed, have an infinite causal regress. The problem is that the classic examples use there are things like the set of all integers, the set of all positive integers, and so on and so forth. The problem is that these causal sets are not like those, but are more like the Fibonacci sequence, where the existence of any element in the set is determined by earlier elements in the set, except for the initial terms, which have to be stipulated by definition. So, to weaken Philipse’s logic, what he’d have to show is that dependent sets can be infinite in the same way as, say, the set of all integers. If they can’t, then you can’t use Cantorian Set Theory against the argument.

So, having weakened the argument, let me again provide a positive argument for why that isn’t the case. In generating the set of all integers, I can generate a number at random and see if it belongs to the set and add it if it ought to be in the set (and isn’t already there). So I could generate the set, then, by randomly generating 100, 350, 2, 19 and so on and doing so until I have the entire set. Sure, it’s not physically possible for me to do that, but it’s conceptually possible for me to do that. Thus, I can generate any element of the set at any time and be able to determine if that element should be in the set and, in fact, even add it to the set.

Can I do that for a simple dependent set, where, say nm is determined by nm-1 + 1, where n is a positive integer? So I generate 56. Is 56 in the set? Well, in order to determine that, I’d have to know what its m would be if it was in the set, so that I can determine if nm-1+1 = 56. So that means that there needs to be at least one other element in the set before I can determine if this element is in the set. And since that applies to every element in the set, I can’t add any element to the set until I know that another element is in the set. Except for n0, the initial term. If I stipulate that n0 is 55, then 56 is clearly in the set. But if I stipulate that n0 is 233, then it clearly isn’t in the set. Thus, no element can be added to the set until I add an element that is not dependent on any other elements in the set to the set.

And it turns out that for any dependent sets that we come across, we always specify by definition some elements that exist in the set but that aren’t dependent on any other elements in the set. And as soon as we do that, we can then generate the rest of the elements that exist in that set, by proceeding from those initial elements to the next elements down the line. So we cannot proceed infinitely past that starting point and maintain a sensible set that actually contains elements.

Since causal regressions, by (1) are dependent sets, the same thing applies to them. No element can be said to be in that causal regression unless we can specify an initial term that kicks this all off. Sure, if we see a dependent causal regression we can identify it as such and trace it backwards in time, but mathematically we’d have to expect there to be an initial term that is not dependent on any other elements in the set. Thus, mathematically it really does look like the argument holds.

There might be places where I go wrong with these arguments, but the important point is that Philipse has certainly not established that even these two deductive arguments are not fruitful, let alone that no deductive arguments are not fruitful. And since he hasn’t established that, I see no reason to follow him and Swinburne down the complicated rabbit hole of inductive arguments to the best explanation. Which makes the rest of the chapter irrelevant, and so I’m not going to bother addressing it.

Next up: Design arguments.

Philipse on the Probability of Theism

July 21, 2017

So, in Chapter 11, Philipse starts talking about whether or not theism is probable, and what it might mean to determine that. However, what we see here — and have already been seeing in previous chapters — is an odd sort of issue based on the fact that Philipse himself both seems to want to go after theism in general but focus on Swinburne specifically. Thus, Philipse ends up focusing very much on Swinburne’s specific views while still talking about what theists would do or problems they would have in general. It seems that Philipse wants to focus on Swinburne at least in part because Swinburne accepts some of the issues Philipse has with theism and so at least in general more directly addresses those concerns. In fact, we see on a number of occasions Philipse using Swinburne to argue for Philipse’s main points. The problem with this approach is that Swinburne’s view isn’t that of all or potentially even most theists, and so if someone isn’t convinced by Philipse’s arguments they aren’t likely to be convinced by Swinburne’s either, and also won’t find the discussions of the specific solutions Swinburne advances and the problems Philipse has with them all that interesting. Yes, there are solutions and issues with them, but those solutions are addressing problems that many theists think are only issues if you buy somewhat dubious premises and propose a rather odd solution to those problems. This makes chapters that claim to make general points but that focus on Swinburne specifically seem somewhat irrelevant.

Here, in this chapter, I want to ignore all of the points about Ultimate Explanations and Swinburne’s specific use of that and the problems of it. I’m not convinced that even empirically any of this matters, especially considering that I rejected the need for “immunization” of theistic belief last time. I’m also not convinced that the right way to determine which is the more reasonable theory is by using probability — I’m inclined towards Quine’s “Web of Belief” model and so think general fit is better — and am certainly not convinced that Bayesian approaches are the right ones. So most of the chapter is predicated on my accepting premises that I don’t accept, and so the specific arguments aren’t that interesting. Thus, I’m going to focus somewhat briefly on two specific points. The first is a discussion over how probable a belief must be before we are justified in accepting or believing it, and the second is a discussion over the empirical background, which is about as close as Philipse gets to actually arguing for the theistic belief being improbable.

So, let’s start with the first point. Philipse talks constantly about “religious belief” in that section, and talks about “justified” in that context. When he talks about how philosophers view “justified”, and particularly when he talks about it having to be “highly probable”, he ends up shifting definitions here, talking about justified as it is used in “justified true belief” … which is to say, in terms of knowledge. But all we’re talking about here is which theory is to be preferred given the evidence we currently have. That’s probably not a knowledge claim. Sure, if we want to claim that we know God exists based on that reasoning, we’d want a very high probability, but to merely say that it is the most probable given what we know at the moment should only require it to be more probable than all of the competing theories … and Swinburne wanting it to have a higher probability than 1/2 guarantees that. So unless Philipse wants to demand that before we can reasonably think that a theory is the best candidate we have to know that it is the true one, or else wants to insist that one cannot reasonably believe that the best candidate we have is true, he’s just confused here about what belief and justification for belief has to be, conflating belief and knowledge.

Now, the next issue is when Philipse discusses the “empirical background knowledge”, which is critical for a Bayesian analysis and, it seems to me, provides the best reasons to think that Bayesian analysis is less than useful. While Philipse points out that some Bayesians think that the analysis can be subjective, in order to work as an argument against anyone else the probability of a theory given the empirical background knowledge has to be objective enough that your opponent can’t just reject your probability and blunt your argument. Thus, it can’t depend on things that you believe but that others might not. So let’s look at a couple of possible arguments that might make theism improbable based on the empirical background knowledge.

I’ll start with Philipse’s. His main argument is that God, as defined, is a personal being with consciousness, but he argues that “… all empirical investigations suggest that mental phenomena cannot exist without neural substrata.”[pg 205] In short, his big argument here is that you can’t be conscious unless you have neurons and thus are physical, and God is a non-physical spirit. Philipse has ridden this rather dubious argument for the entire book, and it’s still dubious here. First, if we are talking about an “ultimate” consciousness, then if it exists it would have to be able to compute without any limits. But any physical implementation of consciousness would have limits. Thus, an ultimate consciousness would have to be non-physical to avoid physical limits. Philipse could reply, then, that this would mean that an ultimate consciousness is impossible, but then he’d need far more evidence than “So far, all the conscious things that we’ve found are physical!” to demonstrate that. Second, AI is not going to have a neural substratum and we think that it is at least possible that we could get a conscious AI, and there is no empirical evidence that it can’t and at least some empirical evidence that it might be able to from AI implementations. So we have good reasons to find this purported piece of empirical background knowledge a bit dubious.

Richard Carrier, in a recent post addressing Swinburne and another Bayesian theist, brought in another argument:

If we count up all the things in history we at some point couldn’t explain, or thought was explained by magic or ghosts, and then securely found out what the actual cause was (so that it is now approximately a universally accepted fact of science or history), how many of those things turned out to be magic or ghosts? If the answer is zero (and it is…and anyone who denies that, is literally insane), and the number of those things is in the millions (which have reached that degree of investigation, so that it is now a known fact of the world what causes them; not just a belief or speculation), then the prior probability the next thing you ask the cause of will have been caused by magic or ghosts is logically necessarily millions to one against. And if the number of such things is in the billions, it’s billions to one against; if in the billions of trillions, then billions of trillions to one against. There is no rational escape from this consequence.

Well, there is indeed one: call it what it is, the inductive fallacy. This is essentially like saying that you’ve examined millions and millions of swans and so if someone says they’ve seen a black swan the empirical background knowledge makes that radically improbable. The problem here is not so much in saying that it is reasonable to believe that there are no black swans given what we’ve empirically examined, but is instead in choosing to use that as an argument that black swans don’t exist when someone gives you a reason to think that they might. The same thing applies here: if we think that in this specific case that a supernatural explanation makes the most sense for other reasons, saying that we’ve never had one of those doesn’t impact that assessment because it doesn’t — and can’t — address the reasons we had for preferring the supernatural explanation.

But the point here is not to refute these two arguments, or even to say that it is unreasonably for them to hold them (although I think that these particular arguments are so bad that it is indeed unreasonable to hold them). What is important is that these are justifications for very important premises that will greatly impact the prior probability Philipse and Carrier assign to the theistic hypothesis … and are premises that someone might, at least, reasonably not accept. No one need accept Philipse’s idea that mental activity must have a neural substrata or Carrier’s idea that the success or failure of previous supernatural explanations are relevant to this one. And as soon as someone does that, the whole Bayesian analysis — at least, one using priors, and it seems like there is little reason to use Bayesian reasoning if you don’t include priors — goes out the window. All I have to do is say “I don’t think this piece of empirical background knowledge is true” or “I don’t think this piece of empirical background knowledge is relevant” and the whole analysis collapses. Thus, the empirical background knowledge, well, has to be knowledge for it to work here: things known to be true and known to be true by all parties. And the implications have to strongly follow. This is, in fact, a pretty difficult thing to achieve, and neither Philipse nor Carrier achieve it.

Now, the thing is that it’s reasonable — or at least, not unreasonable — for Philipse and Carrier to hold their beliefs. Philipse is a physicalist and denies the existence of immaterial things, and Carrier is a naturalist who denies the existence of the supernatural. As beliefs, they certainly have sufficient reason to believe those things. But others have sufficient reasons to believe otherwise, or at least to withhold judgement on those propositions. And as soon as they do, the priors falter and their arguments for why theism is improbable evaporate.

This result is consistent with my general view on belief, which is that we assess the “likelihood” of a proposition or theory being true based on how well it aligns with our current “Web of Belief” (which includes but is not limited to what we know). If someone is a naturalist, any supernatural explanation will seem incredibly unlikely. If someone is not, then that it is supernatural might count in its favour, or at least will be neutral. And I will argue that this is perfectly reasonable. Moreover, it’s all we can do. Any objective Bayesian reasoning will try to make the assessment give an initial assessment that is the only reasonable one to accept and then move by objective steps to new probabilities as new evidence is introduced, but to do so it can’t rely on anything that we don’t solidly know and so can’t account for differing beliefs. Either we can’t believe what we don’t know — which is wildly impractical — or it will splinter into subjective Bayesian as soon as there’s a belief that is in dispute that at least one party thinks is relevant. And subjective Bayesianism is nothing more than a mathematical complication of what we’d do naturally anyway, as the number it comes up with is meaningless without the context that spawned it.

This, then, is the issue with arguing that theism is “improbable”. You need an objective standard for that to have meaning, but that standard has to be based on subjective beliefs. In general, the insistence of probabilities strikes me as a way to claim objectivity while hiding the subjective premises that underlie the assessment … which explains why these arguments always devolve to arguing over those specific premises in the end.

Next up, cosmological arguments.